In which Ewan is over-confident
The darkness pressed in upon them like a fetid blanket after the heat of the day. At least they were less conspicuous than if the skies were clear, for the moon was not long past the full. The dark side of the moon, Ewan thought, a little uneasily.
His plan was to take the guardian unawares and neutralize it with one of his more potent darts. Such was his consummate skill at this task that he did not anticipate any serious problems, such as peeping round the corner and finding himself eyeball to eyeball with the creature's navel - which was a pity
The guardian gave a mighty bellow and swung a taloned fist. It blasted through the space the nightranger's head had occupied an instant before. A virtuoso combination of somersaults, flic-flacs and a final dazzling salto should have put a considerable distance between Ewan and his prey or assailant.
It might also have disoriented it enough to gain a tempo. Thus, it was disconcerting to find the creature little more than a sword's length away and closing fast. Ewan rolled between the guardian's bowed legs pulling out a heavy-bladed knife as he went. The creature pivoted swiftly to face him. He thrust the knife deep into its side as it turned. Its momentum wrenched the knife from Ewan's grip. The guardian clawed at the knife. It bellowed more in anger than pain. First blood to the good guys then.
No way would one cinquedea dispatch it though. Ewan danced back drawing his sword and a main-gauche. Stoddard, entranced by the scintillating gymnastic display, pulled himself together. Taking a firm grip on his sister's hatchet, he tried to work his way behind the guardian.
It was too quick and too canny for him. A smart side-swipe, which failed to connect fully, sent him flying. He crashed into the door of the long-departed Mistress Molly, Merkin Maker to the Gentry. With a groan, he and the decaying wood crumpled into an untidy heap in the doorway. It was enough of a distraction.
Ewan struck a nifty flèche to a hamstring. The creature crashed to the ground. A shaft of moonlight shone fleetingly through a gap in the cloud and glinted on an angry red gemstone on one of the guardian's claws. It was struggling to operate the device.
"The ring! " Ewan shouted in alarm.
He threw himself at the monster knocking it sprawling in the dust. It was down, but far from out. A blow to the ribs winded the nightranger. His sword flew out of his hand. As he gasped for breath he realized that he was lying across the guardian's forearm, pinning it to the ground.
Frantically, he tried to sever the ring-bearing finger with the main gauche shouting the while for Stoddard. The guardian struggled to claw the half-elf off its arm. Ewan's voice finally penetrated the mists of unconsciousness in his henchman's brain. Groggily, Stoddard staggered to his feet trying to recollect what was going on.
"The ring, man! The ring!" Ewan cried in despair.
The monster was thrashing wildly. Its talons bit through the leather pauldron of his borrowed uniform and into his shoulder.
Gathering his scattered wits, Stoddard retrieved the hatchet. He rejoined the fray as the guardian hurled Ewan aside. For an instant, the creature paused for breath. It was enough.
Spurred on by fear that he'd get no other chance, Stoddard threw all his strength into the one blow. A deep-throated scream pierced the night. The arm was severed at the wrist and pumping blood - or ichor? With a snarl, the guardian reached out for the gem with its other hand. Stoddard then discovered the purpose of one of Ewan's gadgets.
A chain snaked through the air. It wrapped itself around the arm. The claws at its end bit into the creature's scaly flesh. The nightranger hauled on the ring at the chains' other end. He was dragged along the ground as the guardian scrambled to retrieve its severed hand. It glared at Stoddard in a way that turned his blood to ice.
With an effort the man shook off the effects of the gaze and managed to kick away the dismembered hand. As he did so, he felt the scrape of claws on his boot. Hastily, he jumped aside. Again the baleful eyes of the guardian caught his own.
He shivered, mesmerized by that glare. The hideous vision of a double row of needle-sharp teeth, glittering in the pale light, closed in towards his thigh. He longed to turn and flee, but his legs refused to obey him.
Not so his arms. He brought down the hatchet with all the adrenalized might of terror - and passed out.
Ewan, having abandoned his adapted kusarifundo, regained his feet. He watched the hatchet bury itself in the guardian's massive skull, intersecting an eye socket. A second later, a star-shaped shuriken embedded itself in the guardian's remaining eye.
A paroxysm of pain, fury and fear shook the surrounding buildings. Blinded and crippled, the guardian convulsed violently in its endeavours to defend and avenge itself. Ewan recovered his long sword and renewed the attack. Hitting a vital spot while evading the thrashing limbs wasn't easy. It took several minutes and many minor wounds from strokes gone awry before he finally delivered the coup de grâce.
The nightranger leaned back against the nearest wall, breathing heavily, and wiped the sweat from his eyes. His shoulder throbbed painfully. Under the circumstances, he felt that he'd come out of it as well as he deserved. He'd become complacent and had paid the price. It could have been appallingly higher - there was a kingdom at stake
Shaking off his mood of self-deprecation, he collected the ring and went over to his doughty companion. Stoddard groaned and blinked as Ewan gently tapped his cheek. He shivered violently and grasped the nightranger's arm, a panic-stricken look in his eyes.
"Is it... h-has it... are we safe?"
"Perfectly," Ewan reassured him, "thanks to you."
The panic switched abruptly to disbelief. After a minute or two, and repeated reassurances, Stoddard pronounced himself fully recovered and ready for action once more. Belatedly, they recalled their companions outside, who must have been listening to the frightful noises of conflict within, and made haste to put their minds at rest.
The late king's concealed entrance was set in the rear wall of the premises which once belonged to Mistress Molly, Merkin Maker Extraordinary, a fact which led Kai to remark, somewhat cryptically, that he would not have thought it of his father. Leon's remark on setting foot in the alley was considerably more pithy.
"Messy!" he said, shaking his head and tutting loudly as he cast his eyes over the bloody corpse.
"Didn't go quite as intended, no," Ewan agreed ruefully.
No one had yet had the temerity to investigate the recent disturbance, so it was thought politic to conceal the body. As Leon and Stoddard dragged the evidence into Mistress Molly's shop and covered it with surplus merkins, Ewan briefly outlined past events, and presented Valarien with the ring.
"I think you'd be the best person to take charge of this," he concluded, "but have a care. It summons 'Things', or so we were told."
" 'Things' from the Hells by the look of it," Valarien frowned. "I've - um - seen one of these before. I have neither the time nor the power to spare to dispose of it the - um - manner decreed by our order. It must be made secure before we go on, however. Stand clear."
The wizard stretched out his arm with one finger extended.
"Apperrifor armen parwum inspattio."
At his finger tip, a small patch of dense blackness appeared with a faint pop.
"Inree my arnulumando," he declared, dropping the ring over the darkness.
Unused to the ways of wizards, Stoddard blinked in surprise when the ring's descent terminated in the inky macula.
" Clorday ! " Valarien commanded.
With a sharp snap and a faint swirl of sparks, the patch of blackness was no more. The wizard rubbed his hands together, evidently well pleased.
"Perfect judgement," he muttered, sotto voce. "Beat that, Zhì-Háo. "
Aloud, he continued, "Our next move must be to the - um - castle, I think. Lead on, Ewan."
Surprisingly, the parade ground was deserted save for a single sentry at the foot of the stairs. Ah well, though the night was the time for evil deeds, these were not necessarily committed in the open, and no doubt, those in possession of the city felt it was secure enough.
Ewan again took on the role of prisoner escort as the group marched swiftly across to the stairway. The sentry sprang to attention.
"Halt! Who goes there?"
"Prisoners for the Lord Abralek," Ewan responded in a dull monotone.
"Obdormeeski," replied the tall gentleman in black leather.
The sentry's eyes closed obediently and his head nodded on his chest as Ewan led his companions up the stairway. They went unhindered up to the refuge, and thence up the secret stairs. The council chamber was in darkness when they reached the door in the panelling.
All was silence.
Cautiously, the six crept out behind the shelter of the screens and paused. Still no sound.
"I think we had best begin with the dungeons," Kai whispered.
"I think that is an excellent idea," came a grating voice from the centre of the room. "Guards, seize them!"
Suddenly there light and noise aplenty as the screen was thrown down and a small army of brawny granite-faced troops set upon the intruders. There was no time for heroics, which, under the circumstances would probably have done more harm than good.
In chains, the captives were dragged before the throne and shoved roughly to the floor. The king was seated upon the throne in all his glory, flanked by the lords Abralek and Nerglath. A little further back stood a lady, heavily veiled.
"What would you have us do with these insurgents, Majesty?" asked Lord Nerglath.
Rashly, Kai raised his eyes to the face of the brother whom he had not seen for nigh on a dozen years. Kieran bore a strong likeness to his father. Though hardly in his mid twenties, his face - gaunt and haggard - belonged to a man much older.
The worst thing about him was his eyes - cold, dead, unseeing eyes. They rested for a moment on Kai's face, and registered... nothing. The look sent a chill through Kai's heart. A feeling of dread took him - not for himself, but for Kieran.
"Let the Lord Abralek decide," intoned the king.
"Very well, Your Majesty. My advice is this. Do not kill them yet. We already know much about them, but they may reveal more. Let them be put to the torture. They may be scouts for the renegade wizard and his cronies. We may then use them to lure him to his doom."
"Let it be as you say, my Lord," Kieran agreed.
"Take them away," commanded Lord Abralek, "and give Mistress Caitlin six silver pieces."
"Betrayed! By my own sister!"
"It may not be as it seems," Kai said consolingly. "You know in what state we found you. If she was known to oppose the new régime - and she made no secret of it by your account - it would be bound to come to the ears of the evil lords eventually. What would be more logical than for them to make use of her?"
The discussion was taking place in one of the lower dungeons of Castle Malleckay. In another corner, Valarien was marvelling that the Dark Lords had failed to realize the identity of their captives and that Kieran should have failed to recognize his brother, since none of them were properly disguised. He magnanimously conceded that Omanisa had been right to insist on the wizard's leaving aside his robes.
Leon was saying, "This is the third cell I've visited since I joined this little escapade. It's not the company I mind, but the accommodation leaves much to be desired... "
The accommodation had to be perceived by senses other than sight, since the blackness was all pervasive. The six had been tightly bound and roughly bundled into the cell as a temporary measure until the master torturer was ready to begin his grisly business.
Disarmed, they had been subjected to a perfunctory search. Some of their personal belongings had been found and put aside for someone to go through those at leisure later. The captives were not going anywhere, after all.
Without considering his words, Leon continued.
"I know we were taken by surprise, Valarien, but couldn't you have used your magic?"
"I could have," the wizard responded repressively, " but if you gave your brain the - um - benefit of a little exercise, you might just realize why I didn't."
There was long pause, then the wizard continued.
"In the first place, we were greatly outnumbered, and had we indulged in any - um - ill-judged heroics, some of us would not be here now - likewise a fair number of Kai's subjects. They do not do what they do from choice, remember. It may also have escaped your - um - memory that it is on their account that we came here.
"In the second place, any whiff of magic would have - um - given the game away, in which case, none of us would be here now. The Lord Abralek himself was there. I know of him, and his - um - powers are probably equal to my own - possibly greater. Lord Nerglath and three others of their kind were also there. Of their powers, I know little, but combined with Lord Abralek's, they would be - um - awesome."
Leon recalled the charnel fields outside Istvan's Eyrie and blenched, wishing he'd kept his mouth shut.
"Furthermore," the wizard went on relentlessly, "had the outcome gone our way, there were seven more of the - um - enemy not present. Hearing the sounds of battle, it is quite possible - probable even - that they would have called up the - um - Hordes of Hell... "
Silence filled the blackness around them.
Anxious to lift the gloom, both physical and mental, Leon asked, "Have you still got your glowstone, Kai?"
"Yes, I've still got it," came Kai's voice from the darkness, "but I can't reach it. I'm tied too tightly."
There was a faint clank.
"Where is this stone?" Ewan's voice was very close.
"In my pouch inside my jerkin Eurgh?!"
"What's the matter?" came a chorus.
"I think our nightranger just slipped his bonds. That or the rats here are very bold."
A faint eerie glow shone from Ewan's hand and slowly grew in power until its soft radiance reached all but the furthest corners. By its light, he cut the cords that bound the true king and deftly released his manacles. Soon, all six were free.
"What now?" Ewan asked. "I've no means of opening the door. That beam's too heavy for my present resources. Valarien?"
"Hmm. I could blast the door, but it's very - um - solid and iron-bound, so it would take a lot of power. At this distance, we'd be caught in the - um - blast - plus, every guard in the place would come running. We'd do better to wait for the guards to come and fetch us, and - um - deal with them then. It's not much of an improvement as we're - um - not too well equipped and I'd rather not harm them if they've been enslaved like Stoddard and the others."
"There is another way," Omanisa said quietly.