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Master of the Cauldron: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 27, 2004 02:17 EDT



    Garric was deaf and frozen in a world of purple light. He couldn't swing his sword or blink, and his heart had stopped beating. He was fully aware of what was happening in the vault. Not happy about it, but aware.

    The creatures crawling through the crack in the rock looked as though a child had tried to mold men out of clay. They were hideous, maggot-pale travesties. As many had three limbs or six as had four. Some were headless, their eyes and mouth gaping from their chest; one hopped on a single leg and held an edged stone paddle in its single hand. Yet clearly, and most horrible of all, they'd been meant to be human.

    The Countess backed toward the opposite wall of the vault, wearing a stupefied expression. Even though Balila wasn't a wizard herself, she'd been enough involved in the spell that it'd numbed her to events in the waking world. She seemed only partially aware of her surroundings.

    A troupe of not-men rose from the crack the way spring sap bubbles from a cut in a mapletree's bark and shambled toward Balila. Their weapons were mostly of stone or bronze, but one carried what looked like the tusk of a monster in each of its four hands.

    Garric thought of the passage Liane had showed him just that morning: a thousand years ago the wizard Dromillac had trapped invaders under Erdin. Like the People who attacked Valles, the race that the chronicler called pirates hadn't been quite human.

    After a thousand years in darkness, their descendents were very much less human than the originals had been.

    The thing that gripped Dipsas' ankle had one arm and no neck. Instead of legs it crawled on a nest of squirming tentacles. It grinned at the wizard, ignoring her wild struggles. She was probably part of the reason the monsters had broken free of the underworld, but she obviously hadn't known everything that her incantations were doing.

    Because Garric couldn't hear, he could only guess that when Dipsas pointed her athame at the creature holding her she was screaming a spell. If soit failed on the not-man.

    A creature with the head and torso of a handsome man minced toward Dipsas on the legs of a deformed goat. It held a copper trident with a short staff.

    Six not-men advanced on the Countess. Her bird opened its great beak; its tongue trilled a cry that Garric couldn't hear. It raised its crest, flapped its stubby wings, and lashed out with its right foot.

    The bird's three claws were blunt, meant for running instead of gripping prey the way a hawk does, but its leg was immensely strong. The blow disemboweled a not-man and flung its two-headed corpse across the chamber.

    The remaining five creatures converged, swinging their weapons. The bird grabbed a not-man in its hooked beak and shook violently, tearing an arm off before dropping the body and seizing another.

    A blow from the bird's wings had batted a not-man to the floor, but it gripped the bird's legs with bonelessly flexible arms. The bird stamped twice, ripping the creature open with its dew-claws, but other not-men struck from left and right with stone clubs. The bird's skull was large to give the beak muscles leverage, but the bones were still bird bones, lighter than a mammal's of similar size. The clubs smashed it like an egg.

    The bird leaped into the air, bouncing off the high stone ceiling. It fell on its back, flailing its four limbs, but somehow got its legs under it again and ran across the chamber. The bird's wild career knocked down several not-men before it slammed into the wall not far from Garric. Its wings and legs gave one more spastic twitch; then the corpse fell, limp and bloodless.

    Garric didn't know whether the spell that paralyzed him had also affected his companions. His body blocked the opening to the vault. Attaper hadn't or couldn't move him out of the way--otherwise he would've.

    Three not-men advanced toward Garric, but for the moment no more rose up through the crack. The right half of the vault's floor lurched, then dropped out of sight, carrying with it the cherub shrieking on his frame of poles. A horde of white monsters, no longer constrained by the narrow passage, filled the darkness beneath. They began climbing.

    The pair of not-men who'd killed the bird now closed on the Countess herself. Her eyes were unfocused, but her lips moved in prayer.

    Both not-men struck Balila in the face. She fell forward, leaving a smear of blood on the rock behind her. A greater pool flooded out to soak her blood hair.

    Dipsas used her athame to stab the creature holding her. Its broad mouth continued to giggle. The goat-legged not-man jabbed its trident into the wizard's throat and twisted. She thrashed in a gout of blood, then went limp. Her corpse continued to dangle from the trident's barbed points.

    Garric could move again.

    He stepped into the trio of not-men, finishing the stroke he'd started a lifetime ago by beheading the creature on his right. The blade carried on to bury itself in the lower spine of the not-man in the center. The creatures' bodies were as solid as those of humans. Garric had struck with the rage that'd bubbled while he was helpless.

    He stepped back and to his right, pulling hard to drag his steel from the not-man's bone. Attaper lunged past, thrusting through the mouth of the third creature before its copper mace hit Garric. The weapon flew from its fingers and rang musically from the wall.

    "Back to the surface!" Garric said. "We can't hold them long, there's too many tunnels. Back to the surface and we'll bring the army over from Volita!"

    Two Blood Eagles shoved through the opening. One had a javelin and both had shields.

    "Retreat!" Garric said. He backed out of the vault as the next wave of white not-men met the soldiers. Several monsters went down in the first flurry, but a stone club dented one man's helmet. "Back to the surface!"

    Garric wasn't worried about staying here to prove his courage. Somebody had to take command against the danger, and he was the only one who really understood what was happening.

    The remainder of the vault's floor fell inward, exposing a pit that seethed with monsters the way maggots squirm in rotting liver. They climbed upward, holding weapons in their hands; those that had hands.

    In the midst of them, sitting on a litter made of human bones, was a gray, wizened figure. Though it was nude, Garric couldn't guess at its sex. It was chanting words of power and beating time with a tourmaline athame: the wizard who'd led the invasion a thousand years before had been trapped in the earth with his creations. He was returning with their descendents.

    "To the surface!" Garric bellowed. Liane's hand was on his shoulder, tugging him back. "To the surface fast!"

    Or may the Lady save us, for we'll never be able to save ourselves in this warren of darkness.



    Davus reached down with his right hand. Ilna took it and let him swing her onto the cliff's edge. He was, as she'd expected, extremely strong.

    "Bring me the jewel!" Arrea cried. "The jewel is mine as the whole world will be mine!"

    "Master Chalcus," Davus said, "she's returned safely. You can turn now while I watch our front--"

    Chalcus turned and caught Ilna in his arms. His face was as set in lines as hard as a sea-washed crag.

    "--if you choose," Davus concluded, by now laughing.

    "I never doubted you'd succeed," Chalcus said. His hands were locked on her waist. He wasn't squeezing her, but Ilna doubted she could've pried his fingers apart if she'd tried. "Never in my life did I doubt that, dear one. But I'm glad you're back."

    "Yes," said Ilna. "So am I."

    Though when I looked over my shoulder at the bird, she added silently, I certainly doubted.

    Perhaps thinking the same thing, Chalcus leaned over the edge of the cliff. Ilna looked down also, aware of the sailor's grip. She was less likely to fall than if she'd been tied to a tree with an anchor cable.

    The great bird floated upside down in the sea; its belly was a sulfurous yellow. Fish were nosing into the corpse. Some of them had worked through the feathers, because blood was beginning to cloud the pastel sea.

    "The jewel!" Arrea shrieked. "The jewel!"

    Chalcus turned with a fey smile. Davus had looped the sash back about his waist. The men's eyes met as Ilna glanced between them.

    "That was a fine shot you made this day," Chalcus said. "And never a better time to have made it, I think. Call on me if you've a wish, and you'll have it if it's in my power to grant."

    "And a considerable power that is," said Davus with a nod. "But first things first, and your Lady Merota is first. Mistress, if you'll give me the jewel?"

    Ilna lifted the gleaming stone from her tunic. It was bubble-light in her hands, but when Davus took it from her she felt a great weight pass from her soul.

    "The jewel!" Arrea said. Her eyes glinted brighter than sunlight filtered into the shadowed alcove could account. She began to chant under her breath, mouthing a spell.

    Davus walked toward the half-blocked entrance, holding the jewel out in his left hand. "The jewel in exchange for our passage, Arrea," he said in a hard, distant voice. "That is the bargain I offer you. Come out and take the jewel."

    "Give me the jewel now!" Arrea said. "I'll blast the flesh from your bones, I'll fill your marrow with liquid fire!"

    "You may do all those things," said Davus, halting a double-pace from the low wall and the woman behind it. Ilna and Chalcus were to his right and left.

    The sailor's hands were open, emphasizing that he wasn't holding his weapons; Ilna's fingers knotted cords within her cupped palms. Davus knew what he was doing so he was in charge, but they'd act if the situation started to spin out of control. If it wasn't already out of control....

    "You may do all those things," Davus repeated, "but you must come out from your cave and give us passage. Do you think to command me while I hold this, Arrea?"

    He tossed the shimmering jewel in the air and caught it one-handed. He was grinning.

    Arrea said nothing, but her whole form quivered. Ilna waited, her face perfectly blank. She had no idea of what was about to happen, but something--

    Davus tossed the jewel up again. Arrea crashed through the masonry wall, scattering the blocks. Her human head and torso were joined to the body of a serpent so large that it filled the tunnel beyond.

    No wonder Davus said that beheading Arrea wouldn't gain them a way into the Citadel. That mass of flesh rotting would be as complete a barrier as the rock itself.

    "Come out, Arrea, come out," Davus said cheerfully, tossing the jewel and catching it. "When you've opened us the passage, I'll give you the price you claim. As I swore."

    As Davus spoke he stepped back and toward Ilna. She scrambled away, hoping she wouldn't manage to stumble over the cliff while her attention was on the monster.

    "What is that thing, Master Davus?" said Chalcus. "What in the name of all Gods is she?"

    More loops of Arrea's massive body curled out of the cave. Her scales broke sunlight into a rainbow haze; each was as broad as a spread hand.

    "Arrea was a snake, no more than the scaly friend who keeps your hut free of rats," said Davus, continuing to sidle to his left as he tossed and caught the jewel. "But she found her place here beneath the Citadel and held it against her fellows, soaking in the power that trickled down through the passage. And in time she was not a snake but an echidna, a snake that hates humans because she wishes she were human. Yet she will give us passage."

    The creature was following him. Ilna remembered winding a wire worm out of a sore, taking it up slowly on a straw until she'd removed the worm's full length and could swab the festering wound with spirits.

    "Give me...," Arrea said, her voice an inhuman buzz like someone trying to form words with a bone rattle. Her tail squirmed clear of the tunnel mouth. She was as long as a trireme, but even so the serpent body seemed heavy. The ground shuddered as her weight slid over it. "... the jewel."

    Davus had brought them circling around to the entrance. The echidna's body lay in a great loop along the cliff edge, virtually penning Ilna and her companions against the face of the Citadel.

    "You've kept your bargain," Davus said approvingly. "And I will keep mine."

    He tossed the jewel to Arrea. She caught it with hands that seemed absurdly tiny now that the full body was visible.

    Davus gestured toward the tunnel mouth. "The two of you can start up, now," he said. "I'll stay here--"

    "I've given you passage," Arrea cried. She set the jewel on her human-looking head; it clung there, much as it had to the larva which Ilna took it from. "I gave you passage, and now I'll kill you!"

    Chalcus started forward, light trembling on his sword blade. Davus touched his arm and Ilna's both, saying, "No. Wait."

    "Aleo," Arrea chanted. "Sambethor basultha...."

    She pointed her right hand toward the humans.

    "Erchonsi!" she shouted and began to laugh.

    The jewel flashed brighter than the sun. It shivered and shrank without losing brilliance. Arrea's triumphant laughter turned to a high-pitched scream.

    "In truth, it's an object of great power just as Arrea thought," Davus said. He sounded calm but Ilna could feel his fingertips trembling on her forearm. "But it's an egg, not dead crystal. The King wears such a jewel that's been properly prepared; it gives him power like no other in this land. But using using the egg for wizardry without preparing it first--"

    The jewel had shrunk to a wire-fine glitter extending from Arrea's forehead. It vanished down the hole it'd bored into the echidna's skull.

    "--causes it to hatch."

    The serpent body gave a convulsive twitch. A loop rolled over the edge of the cliff, its weight pulling more loops after it. The whole echidna slid over with a rolling crackle and a cloud of broken rock.

    "In time," Davus said, lowering his arms, "the hatchling will grow into a creature like the one in the Citadel now. A creature like the New King."

    The echidna struck the water loop by loop, sending a long column of spray to dance above the crumbled cliff. For a long moment, Ilna could hear nothing but the waves.

    "Let's go," Chalcus said quietly. He started to sheathe his sword, then paused and closed his eyes. Only when he'd opened them again did he slide the blade home. He whispered, "I hate snakes."

    "Only the two of you," Davus said calmly. "I'll stay here at the tunnel mouth or another snake will take up residence. The power calls them, you see. It calls them to a treasure beyond the dreams of their scaly minds."

    "But...?" Chalcus said.

    "Go," Davus said. "Merota is your friend. And I must be here if we're to succeed."

    "All right," said Ilna. She'd picked her yarn out and replaced it in her sleeve. With her back straight and her head high, she entered the tunnel.

    She didn't know what was waiting at the top. Now that she knew what the New King had grown from, though, nothing but her sense of duty would have sent her to face it.

    Ilna smiled wryly. If she'd believed in the Great Gods, she'd have thanked them for that sense of duty.



    Sharina lay like a rolled carpet in the bottom of the boat, slowly getting her breath back. All she could see was the sky, the vessel's curved bronze sides, and the men in aboard with her.

    Her head was toward the bow. Though she heard Hani chanting words of power, she couldn't see him without twisting around uncomfortably. There was nothing about the wizard that would've justified her strain.

    The hull hummed like a taut line in a breeze. Sharina might not have noticed it through her thick sandals if she'd been standing, but lying down the vibration was more uncomfortable than the aftereffects of hitting the tree.

    The People paid her no attention. They looked out over the landscape, rarely moving even their heads and not speaking that she heard.

    The two humans who'd lifted her aboard were another matter. "Pretty little blonde thing, isn't she?" said the man with the slit nose. He giggled. "I like blondes."

    "You like anything, Wilfus," said the taller man who was missing fingers. "I've seen you, remember?"

    "Yeah?" said Wilfus, flashing suddenly hot. "Well, at least I stick to living ones, don't I? Which is more than some people can say!"

    "Ah, shut up," muttered the tall man. "I was drunk, that's all."

    Wilfus sniggered again, making his nostrils quiver oddly. "Well," he said, bending to fondle Sharina. "This one's alive, anyhow."

    Sharina thrashed at him as best she could with her ankles tied to her wrists. Wilfus' face settled into a hideous snarl. He stepped back and kicked her thigh in response. He was wearing velvet slippers, but Sharina would've preferred hobnails to the touch of Wilfus' fingers.

    Bolor was in the stern with two somewhat older men, more likely colleagues than retainers. Sharina saw him grimace. She shouted, "Is this how the bor-Warrimans treat noblewomen, then?"

    Bolor flushed. "That's enough, Wilfus!" he said.

    The taller thug turned and snarled, "You can't give us orders, Bolor! We're as good as you!"

    Bolor stepped forward. The thug tried to dodge but bumped into Wilfus. Bolor hit him in the face with his clenched fist, knocking him down. Sharina twitched her legs up so that he didn't land on her.

    Bolor smiled grimly, rubbing his knuckles with his left hand. One of his companions had drawn his sword. "Hani may need you, Mogon," Bolor said. "I don't. Next time you can try breathing through the top of your neck."

    The older man who hadn't drawn his sword hooked his thumb toward Wilfus. "You two trade places with us," he said in a gravelly voice. "Now!"

    The thugs shuffled sternward along the starboard side of the hull while Bolor and his companions moved up to port. The man with his sword in his hand watched Wilfus and Mogon closely, but Bolor and the other noble who'd spoken knelt on either side of Sharina to lift her into a sitting position.

    "I can't--" she said, but Bolor already had his dagger out. He cut the cord linking her wrists and ankles, then after a moment's hesitation freed her ankles as well. She stood up, careful because she was so stiff.

    The People appeared to take no interest. The wizard in the bow said nothing either. He may not even have noticed; the effort of keeping them airborne must take most of his energy.

    Sharina looked forward. The boat was travelling as fast as a horse could trot. Just ahead was the long, low building she'd seen as she sailed down onto the island. This side was a blank stone wall instead of a colonnade like that opening onto the lake.

    She turned to Bolor again. "Thank you for that," she said with a curt nod to the thugs glowering in the stern. Mogon was dabbing at his bleeding lips.

    "Those two served the Queen," said the man with his sword still out. "There's more of them that've joined us. Too many, I'd say."

    "Why did you come here, milady?" Bolor said. He looked angry and embarrassed. Sharina noticed that though he didn't say, "Your highness," he nonetheless gave her the honorific due a fellow noble.

    "I accompanied your uncle, Lord Waldron," she said. "He's hoping to talk sense into you and avoid bloodshed."

    Valgard had been as silent as the People. Now he turned his head and examined Sharina expressionlessly. He still didn't speak.

    "There won't be bloodshed," Bolor said harshly. "The people are rising to support the true King of the Isles, Valgard son of Valence. There won't be a fight because there won't be anybody standing with the usurper Garric!"

    Sharina shrugged. Bolor's very vehemence proved he knew better than that. "People like your friend Wilfus support Valgard, you mean?" she said.

    "Others as well, milady," said the man who'd ordered the thugs to the stern. His voice was calm and perhaps a little tired. "Ornifal isn't to be ruled by a usurper when there's a true prince of the royal line present."

    Bolor glanced at him and grimaced. He looked embarrassed again. Obviously he didn't know how to treat a prisoner for whom he felt more respect than he did his allies. After a moment's further hesitation he said, "Calran bor-Ranciman. And his cousin Lattus thinks it's worthwhile to watch the dirt in the stern."

    Lattus turned, sheathing his sword with a clack of cross-guard against the lip of the scabbard. "They could still bite, you know," he grumbled to Bolor.

    Sharina was frightened and her whole left side throbbed. Standing and keeping her balance was even more painful than lying in the bottom of the boat, though she knew moving was the best way to get her strength and coordination back. Similarly, she knew she was better off acting like a princess before these rebel noblemen than she would be letting them know she was hurt and afraid. So--

    "And does Valgard speak?" she said, glaring at the claimant.

    "When there's need for speech, I speak," Valgard said. He had a deep voice, well in keeping with his powerful frame, but it lacked fire. His words were a flat statement without the sneer that would've made them a gibe at Sharina's frightened talkiness....

    The boat curved around the end of the building; the plaza in front extended into the lake. The keel was over the water for a moment. Sharina looked down as a fish jumped, but the ripples of their passage kept her from seeing what had driven it into the air.

    Hani lowered his arms; the boat settled with a bell note louder than she'd expected from the keel's gentle contact with the pavement of stone blocks. The wizard turned, fatigue in every line but his eyes madly bright.

    Sharina suddenly wondered just how old Hani was. Middle-aged she'd thought when he looked down at her from the bow of the boat, but there was a hint of something as ageless as black diamonds in those glinting eyes.

    "Bring her out," Hani said. "I think she'll be useful later."

    He giggled and added, "Or at least her bones will, eh?"

    Mogon and Wilfus didn't move, but a pair of People stepped close to lift Sharina by the elbows. She backed as much as she could and said to the wizard, "Cut my hands loose and I'll get down by myself. Or are you afraid I'll wring your neck if my hands are free?"

    "You don't give orders here, girl," Hani said in a tone of tired disgust. "Set her down, I said."

    Bolor drew his dagger and sawed the cord binding Sharina's wrists. "I'll take responsibility for her," he said to Hani with a touch of challenge in his voice. "She can't run far with bruises like that."

    "Thank you, milord," Sharina said. "For acting like a gentleman."

    Though I might surprise you if I saw anyplace to run to, she thought as she swung over the side of the boat, gripping the thin bronze gunwale for support. The effort made her body flash white with pain, but she didn't let herself fall, only stumbled a little when her left foot came down. She caught herself and smiled brightly at her captors.



    "Faugh!" Hani said. Though Sharina didn't hear him give an order, the People who'd started to grip her now lifted him out of the vessel instead. The rest of the passengers disembarked also. The thugs climbed over the stern, keeping well away from Bolor and his companions.

    Though narrow, the building stretched a quarter mile in either direction from the central archway. The columns along the front were white marble but so simple they might've been turned out of wood by a journeyman cabinetmaker. They were neither fluted nor adorned with either bases or capitals.

    Sharina glanced from the colonnade to the People escorting Hani. The stone pillars bore the same relation to what she'd have seen on an ordinary public building in Valles as the People did to the soldiers who might've been guarding that building.

    She kept close to Bolor and the cousins, who seemed pleased enough by her presence. The Ornifal noblemen weren't the sort to consort with brutal criminals like Wilfus and Mogon under normal circumstances, and they'd have been unusual if they'd liked being around wizards either.

    Sharina pumped her arms back and forth, hoping to work the stiffness out of them. The movement hurt as though she were splashing herself with boiling water. She was dizzy for a moment, but she had to make herself ready to run or fight when she got an opportunity.

    Hani led them into the building. Though the whole front was open for the sake of light, the interior was several steps from the surface. A central staircase dropped to levels below this one. Sharina glanced over the railing; the stairs went down farther than she could see.

    The building was filled with waist-high tanks filled with cloudy fluid. Hani raised his athame and intoned, "Maradha cerpho!" in a harsh voice. A flash of blue wizardlight flooded the tank nearest Sharina, illuminating what the thick liquid had concealed. It wasn't a man, but it was what a man might be if his flesh were being deposited from the inside out on an armature that crudely resembled a human skeleton.

    The light faded, returning the tank to white opacity. Hani swayed; one of the People reached out to support him.

    "What do you think of King Valgard's army, princess?" the wizard cackled. "He'll take Ornifal easily. By the time he's done that, there'll be an even greater force to carry his authority over all the Isles, do you see?"

    He started down the line of tanks, glancing into each one. After a few paces his body straightened, working out the fatigue induced by wizardry. The People walked with him; Bolor gestured Sharina forward and fell into step with her. Calran and Lattus were immediately behind, a barrier ahead of the two thugs.

    "You tried that in the past, wizard," Sharina said, feeling her stomach drop into a pit. There'd been tens of thousands of People when they attacked before; there'd be more this time, probably many more, or Hani wouldn't be so confident. "You failed. You'll fail again!"

    "The army that invaded in Stronghand's day had no leader, milady," Lattus said. He spoke as before, with the calm certainty of a priest reciting the ritual. His cousin Calran's expression was furious, though, and Bolor too looked as troubled as Sharina felt inside. "These men follow King Valgard. And follow us, the king's military advisors."

    "We have five thousand, maybe more, northern troops," said Calran more forcefully. "As good troops as there are in your brother's army. And the men with your brother, they'll come over to our side when they realize there's a proper king!"

    "Waldron bor-Warriman didn't foreswear his oath, Lord Calran," Sharina said. "Do you think other of your neighbors are more apt to become traitors than he is?"

    "It's not treason!" said Bolor. "Valgard's the true king."

    "And there're the troops we command!" Wilfus called from the rear of the entourage. "Nobody'll dare stand against us, and if they do they'll get treated like they deserve!"

    "Troops!" Calran muttered.

    "Valgard's their proper king, maybe," said Sharina. "Not king for a decent man like you, Bolor."

    Valgard, walking beside Hani, turned and smiled at Sharina. "I'm Bolor's king and your king too, mistress," he said mildly. "As my loyal subjects will prove."

    He was big enough to have been Stronghand's son, and he could've passed for a portrait bust of the former king; but there was no heat in him. It was like looking at an image of fire cut from red silk.

    As they walked down the line of tanks, Sharina saw that the fluid within became less cloudy, and the figures within were increasingly well-formed. Those near the end looked like men sleeping in a vat of clear water; their chests rose and fell slowly, as though they were breathing. There was a clear similarity from one figure to the next, but they weren't identical any more than Lattus and Calran were.

    Sharina stopped abruptly; Lattus bumped her and recoiled with a half-swallowed curse. She pointed to the tank and said, "I've seen him. He's real, he's not one of your monsters, Hani."

    The wizard tittered. "He's indeed mine, princess," he said. The look in his gloating, glinting eyes was as filthy Wilfus' touch had been. "And who knows? Perhaps not too long from now, one who looks exactly like you will be mine and will do my bidding."

    The figure in the tank was Memet, the soldier who'd brought Sharina word of Cashel's disappearance. He was tanned, stocky, and had curly black hair--as distinct from the People as Sharina herself was.

    "We don't war on women, Hani," Bolor said harshly.

    "We war on anybody who stands in the way of our rightful king!" Mogon said sanctimoniously. "Anything less is treason to King Valgard. Isn't that right, Lord Bolor?"

    Lattus turned his head, touching his swordhilt again. "Don't push your luck, dog," he said.

    His quiet menace made Sharina think of Cashel when he was very angry. She felt a surge of desperate longing, but even the memory of Cashel's strength and steadiness calmed her. She smiled, surprising the men around her.

    When folk like Cashel or-Kenset supported the good, what chance did evil have? And others, including Sharina herself, would do what they could as well.

    "No matter," said the wizard. "No matter at all. It's time we finish the business on Ornifal and prepare the next stage."

    They'd reached the wall at the end of the building. A silver ring ten feet, two double-paces, in diameter was set in the smooth white stone. Cast into the ring's surface were same words in the curving Old Script that Sharina had read on the ring that had snatched her to this island.

    A susurrus of shuffling feet had grown louder as Sharina and her companions walked along the line of tanks. She looked behind her. A solid line of men in armor--People, man things in armor--stretched back to the stairway in the center of the building. As the People paced slowly forward, more of their sort climbed the stairs from unguessed depths and joined the end of the line.

    "Lord Bolor's army has marched toward Valles down the north road," Valgard said. "Your friend Lord Waldron is facing them just outside the city with the garrison and the troops he brought with him."

    "I don't want a battle with my uncle," Bolor said. "Besides... he's a stubborn old fool, but with him putting backbone in the Royal Army, it won't be an easy fight. That is, the usurper Garric's troops."

    "Especially with half our forces made up of cut-throats and gallows birds," Lattus said with a sour look at Wilfus and Mogon.

    Hani, holding the ring he'd retrieved from Sharina, began to chant words of power in an undertone; his copper athame beat time. The ring on the wall began to rotate, at first slowly but then with increasing speed. The wall behind it blurred into a violet haze which grew steadily fainter.

    "Not half my forces, not a tenth," said Valgard. His voice was still soulless, but it grew louder with every syllable. "And the bulk of my army will arrive behind Waldron."

    The wall within the great silver ring had vanished. Sharina looked through the shimmer into the basement of the temple from which she'd been snatched to this island. The bodies and vats had been removed, but Tenoctris stood with her fingers tented, facing Sharina. As the image sharpened, Tenoctris smiled as though she was aware what was happening.

    The wizard-made People began marching through the opening, into Sharina's world. Tenoctris sat unmoved.

    "We'd best go across ourselves," Hani said, panting hard. Now that the portal was set, it continued to spin without his chanting. "To control the dispositions, Lord Bolor. So that we don't have another failure."

    "I hope Waldron has better sense than to fight," Bolor said. "But it has to be. The kingdom and its rightful ruler leave us no choice, even if my uncle's too pigheaded to see reason."

    "And we'll kill them all!" Wilfus chortled. "Everyone who stands in our way. Everyone!"



    The shaft halted. The doors drew open onto Ronn's rooftop plaza with the same magical smoothness as they'd closed to take Cashel and others down to the lightless, haunted cellars of the city. The Heroes stepped out, and when they had Cashel followed at Mab's side.

    The many, many people gathered on the plaza gave a swelling cry. Not even Garric or Sharina could've counted so many people. The ones standing nearest the shaft saw who'd arrived, and their excitement spread around the vast space like a ripple across a pond.

    Mab raised her arms. She'd entered the shaft as an aged crone, but when Cashel glanced at her now he staggered as though a mule had kicked him unexpectedly: she looked exactly like Ilna. She had the slight, trim build; the black hair cut short; and the firm, disapproving set of the jaw. Only Mab's fingernails, dazzling with their own light in the bloody glow of sunset, were different from those of Cashel's sister.

    "Citizens of Ronn!" Mab said. From the way the crowd reacted, everybody on the plaza heard her just as they'd heard those speaking in the Assembly Hall. With different emphasis Mab went on, "Men of Ronn. Your Heroes have come to lead you. Will you follow them?"

    The crowd breathed deeply, like a team of oxen facing an oncoming storm. One voice spoke across the plaza for all: "Lady, the Made Men are here. They're filling the plain, and soon they'll climb our walls."

    The sun was so low that only the upper rim showed where the hills to the west curved to meet the sea. There were no clouds, but the sky didn't have the crystal transparency Cashel remembered from the previous night here. The fairy lights that drifted over the crowd were scarcely bright enough to see.

    "That's why you needed leaders," Virdin said. His voice rumbled through the twilight like distant thunder. "That's why you sent for us."

    He and the other Heroes walked deliberately toward the knee-high parapet on the north side of the plaza. The spectators parted like water from the prow of a royal barge. Mab nodded agreement at Cashel's glance. Together they followed the Heroes at a respectful double-pace, close enough that the citizens returning to where they'd stood before didn't crowd them.

    The Heroes reached the parapet and stared down on the darkening plain. "It's the worst I've seen them," Hrandis said. "Worse even than the last time. My last time before now."

    "There's six of us," said one of the twins. "That's different as well."

    Dasborn touched Valeri's shoulder, moving him away, then nodded Cashel forward into the space he'd opened. "Go on, Cashel," Mab said. "You're here, so take a look."

    Cashel looked down. The sun had fully set and the sky was darker than it should've been at this hour. It was too shadowed for there to be shapes, but he could see, could feel, the movement on the plain below.

    "There'd never be a bad time to finish this," Valeri said. "It shouldn't have waited a thousand years. It won't wait any longer."

    "Tonight will finish it one way or the other," said Dasborn. "I don't suppose it really matters which, in the greater scheme of things."

    "I didn't come here to lose," Cashel said. He held his staff upright in his right hand; his thumb gently rubbed the smooth wood. He looked over his shoulder and saw Mab smiling. "Mab didn't bring me here to lose. Ma'am, what do we do next?"

    "We attack them," said Virdin. He stepped onto the parapet and turned so that he could be seen as well as heard across the vast assemblage. "We attack and finish them once and for all, just as Valeri said."

    He raised not his arm but his long, straight sword. A flicker of blue wizardlight ran up the blade.

    "Men of Ronn!" he said, silencing the whispers running like surf across the plaza. "Tonight we take back our city and gain our freedom forever! Go to your homes and arm yourself with the weapons your grandfather's grandfather left for you. In an hour, my companions and I will lead you onto the plain to sweep from the earth the monsters that claim the name of men."

    The crowd quivered but didn't move. Its collective will spoke in the voice of a young man, probably someone much like the Sons who Cashel'd led down to be changed into what the times required: "It's night. We should wait for dawn!"

    "If you wait," boomed Hrandis, "there'll never be another dawn for you and yours. The race of men will be extinguished from Ronn, and the King's minions will walk the city's halls forever!"

    There was a murmur of wordless despair. They wanted a softer choice, but all the Heroes offered them was to do or to die.

    "It isn't fair!" the voice of the crowd cried.

    Cashel sighed. He felt sorry for the citizens, but they were trying to quarrel with the universe. A shepherd learns early that wishing there wasn't a blizzard won't save your sheep if you don't get them to cover in time.

    Mab gestured before her and murmured softly. Her hands spread light across the sky. The glow was no brighter than a crescent moon, but by displacing the darkness it lifted people's spirits like a brilliant sunrise.

    "Men of Ronn!" Mab said. "Arm yourselves and follow your leaders to freedom!"

    "Freedom!" echoed the crowd's voice. This time the people were moving, dissolving down the stairs and shafts that would take the men to their weapons and the women to their homes.

    The Heroes watched with varied expressions--Virdin approving, Valeri with an angry sneer; Dasborn smiling at the wry joke in his mind. Menon and Minon looked cheerful, and squat Hrandis checked the edges of his axes. They were six different people, not one man with six faces; but they were each of them the man for this work.

    As was Cashel or-Kenset. He flexed his shoulders, waiting for the crowd to thin a little more so that he could give his quarterstaff a trial spin.

    He looked over the parapet. The plain still moved, but now that Mab's power had lit it Cashel no longer thought of waves on the Inner Sea. This white mass seethed like maggots in rotting meat.

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