Crown Infernal


In which Valarien rings a peal over the two revellers
and Kai learns that a temple is not the best place for armed combat

Had Kai delayed his departure from the 'Serendipity' by a mere five minutes, he would have found that his rescue mission was quite unnecessary. Valarien had just come round and was in the foulest of tempers. At this point, the two miscreants put in their appearance, looking very much the worse for wear. Relief at their safe return found expression in a towering rage.

"So! You two pestilential pisspots have deigned to return, have you?" the wizard thundered. "Managed to drag your excrementally disreputable selves away from your drinking and whoring, have you? How very noble of you! How very considerate of you to let us know your whereabouts. Had a good time have you? I'm so pleased to hear it. Somehow, it makes EVERY-BUGGEREDLY-THING WORTH-FUCKING-WHILE!"

"Oh, please— don't... shout," Ewan moaned, his voice dying away to a whisper.

"Don't... shout?" Valarien bellowed, mimicking Ewan's plea. "And why not? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't turn you two degenerate fuckwits into a couple of bog-bats and hang you in the belfry - at midday! No! No! I don't want to hear your half-baked excuses. What you did was inexcusable. This is a serious mission, and you two stupid - juvenile - dickheads - with your bollocks where your brains should be - hightail it into town like it was a FUCKIN' HOLIDAY OUTING! Right now, you're about as useful as tits on a bull. The pair of you together don't amount to a fart in a thunderstorm. Don't... SHOUT?! You two disgusting - puke-ridden - ARSEHOLES deserve to be pickled in alcohol and— Oh. No. Sorry. I see you already ARE!"

Quite a crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle by now, though at a discreet distance. A wizard throwing a tantrum should not be approached too closely. As he paused for breath, he looked around the assembled onlookers.

"And where's Kai?" he asked sharply, suddenly recalling the circumstances of the warrior's departure.

"Dunno," responded Leon sulkily. " Haven't seen him since last night."


The air around the wizard audibly crackled with magical energy as small blue sparks danced around him. The crowd moved further back. Valarien fired off an even stronger stream of invective, then, recollecting himself, demanded a private room.

"Well, well, well," Vash'târik drawled, making a couple of practice swings with his heavy broadsword. "What have we here? Two old women coming after my blood?"

He gave a derisive laugh.

"Not so much of the old, young man," Désirée commanded sharply.

Vash'târik looked at her in surprise, as though it were a cockroach that had rebuked him, then he laughed again.

"And I thought he was your protector! Armed with a stick, too, I see. Oh really - this is all too easy."

Vash'târik yawned affectedly then lunged at Kai. Still struggling with his bonnet, the warrior side-stepped, cursing. Vash'târik cursed even more vehemently as he was hit in the face by a fistful of pegs hurled with some force.

In her many years of theatrical experiences, the redoubtable widow had learned to make use of anything that came to hand - and to do so with great promptness - when audiences had turned ugly. Regrettably, that had happened all too often. She was now reaping the benefits of mediocre acting performances in defensive expertise.

As Vash'târik strove to clear his vision, Désirée, equipped with scissors, snipped the tiresome ribbons. Kai withdrew the sword from its casing. This evened things up a little but the slender blade, while admirable for fending off drunken theatre-goers, was hardly a match for Vash'târik's broadsword.

He was obliged to indulge in some very fancy footwork. Vash'târik kept taunting him for running shy. It galled him intensely. He was aiming was to reach the crypt. Among the tombs, he would be at less of a disadvantage. At the moment, as Vash'târik had already observed, it really was too easy. Vash'târik was just playing with him, like a cat with a mouse.

What the cat did not see was Beauregard slipping into the temple with Kennoseigi. What the mouse did not see was the scar-faced man creeping out of the crypt, knife in hand. Each swordsman gave a satisfied smile.

Désirée, near to the crypt, saw everything and 'Scar-face' got her basket full in the face. The force to send him tumbling backwards down the steps. It distracted Vash'târik just enough for Kai to break away and sprint over to Beauregard.

Kai drew Kennoseigi. He spun round in one graceful fluid movement - blocked a hefty blow from the broadsword. Being slightly older and more experienced in hand-to-hand fighting, Kai now had the advantage. He produced a virtuoso display of swordsmanship, keeping a cool head. He had a job to do, and was not going to let personal feelings interfere.

The two Fredaines watched in admiration every thrust, parry and riposte. Totally engrossed, they failed to notice a dark figure steal surreptitiously into the temple. Kai, now with his back to the doorway, also missed the new arrival.

Vash'târik was nearly spent now and bleeding from several small wounds. He looked over Kai's shoulder. Hope flickered in his eyes. Kai refused to fall for an old trick. Then Vash'târik gave a definite nod. Kai couldn't help turning his head. As he did so, a sling shot grazed his temple. It didn't connect well enough to knock him out but he was temporarily stunned.

Reeling sideways, he dropped his sword. He was vaguely aware of a shriek from Désirée and a gasped instruction from Vash'târik to watch them, presumably the Fredaines.

When the coloured lights cleared away, Kai was looking at the tip of his own sword. Its hilt was in Vash'târik's hand. Vash'târik was breathing heavily. A crazed grin was spreading across his face.

"I win," he gloated in a hoarse voice. "Now I have my revenge."

"What of my friends?" Kai demanded tersely.

"What of them? I care for nothing now I have you."

"Then let them go."

"What does it matter to you? You're never going to see them again, either way."

Vash'târik laughed as though he were drunk with the power of life or death over his enemies. His triumph was cut short. A would-be worshipper chose that moment to enter the temple. Taking in the scene before him, he let out a scandalized cry.

"Sacrilege! Call out the guards! Call out the guards!"

He ran off repeating his calls on the authorities. Vash'târik's face was black with rage.

"Damn you! Damn you to hell, Caspar!" he rasped. "You've escaped my vengeance, but at least you shall live no longer!"

Désirée screamed as Vash'târik, with a twisted look of hatred, rammed the blade up to the hilt into Kai's chest. A second later, he gave a cry of surprise and pain. He took an uncertain step backwards, clutching his own chest in puzzlement. A look of horrified disbelief crossed his face. His own blood was pumping between his fingers and splashing on to the floor in a bright red puddle.

"No!" he breathed.

Bewildered, he looked up at Kai whose face had grown dim and far away.


"Justice," Kai replied emotionlessly as Vash'târik sank to the floor in death.

Carefully he slid Kennoseigi out of his own chest, experiencing the same eerie chill as when Vojur had tested him in the stronghold of the dwarves. He was a little puzzled himself. He had thought that those who used Kennoseigi unjustly suffered no harm unless they persisted for a third time. It had not granted Vash'târik even a second chance. Why, he wondered - not that he was complaining. A voice, dry and metallic, seemed to enter his mind from another dimension.

"Those who would do evil because they are ignorant or misguided," it said, "are given the opportunity to mend their ways. Those who do evil knowingly, by design, deserve no such consideration. Here was one who did evil many times. Justice was done."

It was the first time the sword had ever communicated with him. He knew it was an enchanted weapon. Now, it seemed to be a living entity and he wondered at its powers.

Kai was jerked out of his apparent trance by Désirée and Beauregard. Having been transfixed by the strange chain of events, they had overcome their astonishment and come to see if it was really him or his wraith who stood before them. Vash'târik's minion had quietly departed, no doubt anticipating the arrival of the guard.

Reassured of Kai's continued existence, they forbore to question him further but dragged him off unceremoniously. There were the sounds of a distant clamour - distant but coming rapidly closer.

Leon and Ewan exchanged chagrined looks as they followed the landlord and the wizard to an upstairs room. The landlord was making a stammered request regarding the continued existence of his tavern - and himself - and the wizard was looking down his long nose with icy hauteur. It did not bode well.

Valarien was seriously worried. The dried bloodstains on Leon's sleeve and boots had not been lost on him. The recollection that the gormless youth had named Caspar as the addressee of the message, plus the effect of the message on the warrior - not to mention his own jaw - conjured up a disturbing picture.

Once the landlord had bowed himself out, he demanded, and got, an unembellished account of the salient points of the escapade. Apart from interpolating questions now and again, he refrained from further comment. That they had returned to the 'Serendipity' after Kai's departure was potentially disastrous.

Leon justified the delay on the grounds that the old woman had gone into strong hysterics once she came round. In trying to calm her down, he had found himself woefully out of his depth. On the plus side, her shrieks had roused the somnolent Ewan from his stupor.

Here, there were recriminations on both sides. The nightranger criticized the barbarian for his messy despatching of Glitch - a garotte would have been much neater and cleaner - and Leon retaliated that if Ewan hadn't been quite so boozed up, he could have done the job himself to his own satisfaction. As it was, they both felt they could hardly leave the distressed old dame alone in a bedroom that looked more like an abattoir - and with only a corpse for company.

The question now was, what had happened to Kai? That he was well able to take care of himself was beyond dispute, but Fate, as Valarien had observed in the past, was a fickle companion. She had enabled Vash'târik to get his hands on Kai once before. There was also the possibility of Kai's making the supreme sacrifice for those whom he believed to be Vash'târik's captives.

Reading mortification in the wooden expressions of offending pair, Valarien felt he need say no more. For their part, his careful restraint seemed even harder to bear than his earlier diatribe. In the absence of any clues - the youth had nothing of any significance to contribute - their options seemed to be severely limited. Either they could wait and hope or they could mount some sort of a search.

It was clearly necessary to leave some one at the "Serendipity" or they could spend days following each other around the town. Ewan, being most under the weather, was the obvious choice. He was left with the strictest instructions not to indulge in any "hair of the dog".

Because Leon was unfamiliar with Harlonne, Valarien thought it best that they should stick together. As they were clearly known to Vash'târik and his cronies, the wizard clothed them both in Scipius's illusion. So it was, that a couple of nondescript workmen set off in search of their companion.

They failed to consider that Kai, too, might be in disguise and also that their disguises would be unknown to him. Hence, Fate enjoyed another good laugh up her sleeve, as the two searchers walked, all unknowing, past an old woman selling pegs...

The search was as tedious as it was unproductive. No one had heard of either Kai or Caspar, nor did their description ring any bells. Leon was tentatively suggesting a break for a light luncheon, when sounds of a distant disturbance came to their ears. They exchanged looks compounded of elation and alarm.

"It has to be - doesn't it?" asked Leon.

"No," Valarien responded carefully, "but it's - um - more than likely."

They made their way towards the hubbub and found their passage increasingly difficult as they neared its source. From the edge of the press, they saw some half dozen guardsmen, fists flying. They were subduing, for want of a better word, some dangerous ruffian. Such was the opinion of their neighbours in the crush.

The fellow had obviously gone down already under the rain of blows, but the guardsmen didn't seem to have noticed. If they had, they weren't going to let it spoil their fun. Eventually, they were satisfied that the infringer of the law was not going to give them any further trouble, and dragged him off through the crowd. Quite a number of persons followed in their train, hurling abuse at the malefactor and shouting advice and encouragement to the guards.

As the group made their way to the town gaol, the crowd parted to let them pass. This allowed the wizard with his greater height a momentary glimpse of the arrested man. His sharp intake of breath communicated eloquently to his companion that it was indeed Kai who was at the centre of the commotion. Leon, driven by guilt, strove to force his way through to the warrior. The wizard held him back. He expostulated angrily, but Valarien was unmoved.

"What - um - good do you think you're going to do on your own?" he asked, coldly.

"On my own?" queried the barbarian in disbelief. "You mean, you won't lift a finger to help? Why don't you blast them with your magic - or something?"

"If you would give your - um - alcohol-soaked brain the benefit of a little thought, the answer might just occur to you. These people are not the - um - Saghan' îl, and while they may not lead lives of - um - total rectitude, they are not inherently evil. Why should they pay for your mistake?"

Leon's face flushed with anger, as much against himself as the wizard who was quite right, damn him. Valarien relented.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I shouldn't have - um - rubbed it in quite so hard."

"No, no, it's all true enough. I just wasn't thinking... Valarien, what are we going to do?"

"Find out what's going on - then we can decide what action to take."

Their enquiries produced the predictable confusion of alleged eyewitness accounts, hearsay, conjecture and blatant make-believe. Whichever source was credited, the outlook was not good.

The generally held view was that the sacred temple of Rosmerta, favourite deity of the good people of Harlonne, had been profaned by the bloody and brutal murder of a worshipper in the performance of his oblation, and the theft of his offering which was, naturally, of great value. Setting aside the fact of murder, sacrilege carried a mandatory sentence of death. Of course there would be a trial, and the execution would take place on the morrow - probably by public disembowelling at noon, the desecrator to be cast, while still alive, on to a burning pyre as a peace offering to the goddess.

Leon, listening aghast to a gleeful recital of his friend's probable fate, was ashen faced. A fair number of "if only"s chased each other uncomfortably around his brain as the crowd dispersed, discussing with gut-churning enthusiasm the anticipated entertainment of the following day.

Valarien, noting the sick expression on the barbarian's face, could have laughed, being confident that no gaol could hold Kai while he still had friends on the outside. Privately, he was pleased to see that Leon was learning a useful lesson and saw no reason ease his troubled mind just yet. Maintaining a grim aspect therefore, he led the way to the temple.

The body of the unknown worshipper, which had been temporarily forgotten in excitement out in the street, was currently under the surveillance of a couple of young guardsmen until such time as the next of kin could be contacted. Valarien, under the pretext of paying his last respects, noted with satisfaction that the corpse was indeed that of Vash'târik.

Keeping up his rôle as a devotee of Rosmerta, the wizard assumed an attitude of prayer. This was not entirely feigned, for he did in fact give thanks to the Good Lady for a satisfactory outcome of the meeting between Kai and Vash'târik, and prayed that She would countenance whatever actions they took to free the warrior.

Leon took his lead from Valarien. His religious observances were somewhat haphazard but he was more than happy to throw in a quick prayer for Kai's deliverance to any deity that might be listening.

Their next destination was the castle which housed the town's gaol. Valarien found a quiet alley from which to send out his eye spy, following its progress intently while Leon kept guard at the entrance. It did not take long to locate Kai. He was slumped on the floor of a small dank cell.

As the wizard watched, he began to move slowly and painfully. Although the eye spy gave visual information only and was not designed for communication, Valarien felt that he could give Kai hope. Mentally, he directed the crystal orb away from the ceiling where it was least likely to attract unwelcome notice, and sent it circling around the prisoner until it caught his attention. The wizard then set it before Kai's face and inscribed a letter "V" in the air. Kai nodded wearily and even managed to conjure up a brief smile.

Valarien was still staring in sympathetic concern at the battered face - and gingerly fingering the tender spot on his own jaw - when the warrior gave a sharp glance to the side and waved away the eye spy. Valarien hastily whisked it up to the ceiling and watched as a detachment of guards entered the cell, dragged Kai to his feet and hauled him off unceremoniously, no doubt to his "trial". The wizard reluctantly recalled the eye spy. Watching that event would achieve nothing except his own irritation.

Back at the "Serendipity", Ewan listened to their account impassively. He was still looking distinctly frayed around the edges, but otherwise seemed to have made it back to normality.

"My job," he announced tersely when Valarien had finished. "Tonight."

end of chapter

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Chapter 26