A Rose In The Wind: A Saga of the Halmae -- Updated June 19, 2014 - Page 12




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  1. #111
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    4x03

    The group watched Corani in stunned silence as she stood over the executed derro prisoner. Then Mena turned to the dwarf. "Blood has been shed," she said. "Let us see that it was not shed in vain."

    Arden looked away, only to see the dead dwarves. Between that sight and the summary execution of the prisoner, she felt unbalanced, like the ground under her feet had shifted.

    Savina was looking at the dead dwarves, too. "We must bury them," she said softly. "Arden, help me."

    They all helped, finishing the task Corani had started: gathering the dwarven bodies together and piling rocks over them into a low cairn. When they had finished their work, they formed a rough circle around the pile of stones, awaiting – with unspoken agreement – what came next. Mena alone walked quietly away, taking up a position at the edge of the clearing.

    Arden looked at Kormick.

    Everyone looked at Kormick.

    "Justicar," said Savina, gently urging.

    "Yes, Blessed Daughter? What can I do for you?"

    "The funeral prayers . . . ?"

    "Me? Oh, no no no, dear girl, I wouldn't know what to say. Surely you, as a priestess – "

    "But you serve Kettenek."

    Kormick looked at Savina blankly.

    "The god of the dead?" Tavi prompted.

    "—What? I mean, right. The god of the dead. Of course he is." Kormick dug around in his pack and produced a small, shiny Kettenite holy text that looked suspiciously pristine. He began to flip through it, muttering chapter headings to himself.

    Arden wasn't sure whether she felt more like laughing or weeping. Alleged the Just strikes again, she thought, but she couldn't help rooting for him.

    "You see, in Dar Und, we don't have a lot of funerals per se," Kormick muttered, still flipping pages. "Unmarked graves are more popular – ah ha, here we are. Basic funerary rites. Ho-kay, we begin: 'Earth Father, Ground of Being, Heart of Stone . . . '"

    Savina translated his words into Dwarven for Corani. She was probably glossing over the rough parts and adding in a few soothing phrases of her own, Arden guessed, because Corani didn't look offended despite Alleged's halting, unconvincing delivery. The instant the Justicar snapped the book shut with a sigh of relief, however, Corani turned to Savina.

    “Now I must save my family from their captors. I would value your aid if you would give it. If not, I understand, and will go alone.”

    Arden eyed Corani, each hand resting on the handle of an axe, her pregnant – very pregnant – belly protruding before her. The dwarf could hardly walk, let alone fight. If the freepeople won't help her . . . . The thought unbalanced Arden again. Semi-consciously, her hand gripped the cuff on her other wrist, running her thumb over the metal.

    But Mena did not hesitate. “Of course we will help you,” she said.

    Twiggy and Kormick made short work of discovering the trail left by the derro party who had attacked Corani's family. The group set off as fast as Corani could walk.

    As they hiked, and lost the trail, and found it again, the freepeople conversed.

    Mena told Twiggy, "I know you were uncomfortable with killing the prisoner, but it was necessary to allow Corani to focus."

    "I understand,” said Twiggy. “But you know me: I need to know the reasons for things.” She paused. "And I know we have to help these people, not least because Corani’s husband might know the way to the Spring. But . . . that means we might have to kill more derro, doesn’t it.”

    "Innocent lives are at stake," said Mena.

    "Of course. But attacking things in their own home, even to help others – is that right?"

    "Yes," said Kormick flatly.

    Twiggy hesitated. Then she asked, "Exactly what are the qualifications for becoming a Justicar in Dar Und?"

    "Wanting to be," answered Kormick. Arden stifled a laugh. Then he grew more expansive. "Actually, I stalked them," he said. "I sat outside the Temple for weeks. I made sure they knew that I wouldn't leave until they let me in. After they accepted me, I began learning all those skills that one needs to know as a servant of Kettenek: justice . . . smiting . . . bribery . . . planting evidence . . . "

    "So," said Twiggy, "when you say that it's all right for us to attack the derro in their own home, is that your official legal opinion, or your Undian – "

    "Corani has accepted our assistance," said Mena. "We are therefore obliged to help her combat this great evil. If we must combat it with a lesser evil, so be it."

    "I guess that makes sense," Twiggy conceded, but she had one more question. "Should we be letting Corani take this into her own hands? Especially when she's pregnant?"

    Mena opened her mouth to respond, but Kormick beat her to it. "If someone killed a member of my family," said the Justicar, "I would need to do what she's doing."

    Twiggy commented, "That sounds like the voice of experience."

    Kormick spoke quietly. "No matter what I had to do, no matter what insane job I had to take . . . I would not rest until I had found that person."

    His voice carried finality with it. Silence followed.

    Twilight fell, deepening to darkness.

    The thought of the dwarves, especially the children, in the hands of derro captors was haunting them all. No one suggested stopping to rest. Twiggy saw easily at night and, with Kormick's help, she continued to track the derro.

    As she followed the others in silence, Arden's arm throbbed dully where the scout had shot it that morning, and her energy, already low, waned further. She fell into a tired trance, the hours slipping past marked only by the rhythm of her feet. As midnight neared, a slaves' work-song began repeating itself endlessly in time with her steps . . .

    One day when I was young and free,
    Four spirits came to visit me:
    A flame burned down my garden gate,
    A voice of stone declared my fate,
    The flowers hung their heads and cried,
    The wind blew whispers, and I sighed--


    The trail dead-ended at a rock wall split by a crevice plunging into blackness. Arden froze, staring.

    "Ah," whispered Kormick. "This calls for someone small, sneaky, and expendable."

    Everyone looked at her, but memory had swelled up in Arden's chest until she felt she would choke. She could barely whisper, "I beg you, please, don't make me."

    She knew what was coming next. One of them would strike her and she would fall. They would kick her and repeat the order, pointing at the narrow tunnel. She would plead with them. They would kick her again and again until something cracked in her chest and in sheer terror of that grating brokenness she would creep, cringing, into the darkness.

    Instead, the Justicar gave her a mildly curious look, and then Twiggy volunteered to send her mouse to investigate.

    As the mouse held a silent conversation with his mistress and then scurried down the tunnel, Arden fought to pull herself back to the present. I'm in the Ketkath Mountains. This is a different place, a different time.

    The mouse returned, and Twiggy relayed his news: the passageway led down into the mountain before reaching a chamber where four armed derro were standing guard over three doors in the eerie light of a glowing fungus.

    "Well, this will be no problem," said Kormick, with false cheer.

    "Yeah," said Tavi, with real cheer. "We go in and display our wrath, they cower in fear, and it's all over."

    "I'm not sure I have wrath," said Savina solemnly. "But I've been told that Alirria does."

    "Trust me, look deep enough inside yourself, and you'll find your hate," said Kormick. His jovial tone faded as he spoke; his voice grew grim.

    "We should discuss tactics," Mena proposed, equally grim.

    As the conference continued, Arden began to accept, first, that their trail led into that hole. Second, that the others were going to go in. Third, that they might not force her to join them: they might give her a choice.

    And fourth, that she already knew what the right choice was.

    She laid her hand on the mule's halter and muttered something to the Blessed Daughter about tethering him nearby. She led the mule into the trees and tied him to a sturdy spruce, barely remembering to poke at the tree first to make sure it didn't poke back.

    Then she knelt down and prayed, long and hard. By the time she opened her eyes, she had been gone many minutes, and no one had come to find her. They're distracted – I could run, she thought. She smiled, nearly laughing, her amusement sincere, though as dark as the night. Gods, I could run.

    She stood, patted the mule, and walked back to the group. In the back of her mind, the song resumed keeping time with her footsteps.

    I still pray to the holy four,
    But I am young and free no more.
    Oh friend, if spirits visit, hide,
    For since that day, my hope has died.


    The group had all drawn their weapons; they were just waiting for her. "Are you all right?" whispered Savina. The compassion in the girl's voice was startling and painful, a whipstrike. "I will be," Arden muttered, looking away.

    The Justicar caught her eye and jerked his head, indicating that she should join him.

    Arden nodded agreement. Her heart racing, she forced herself to take her place by Kormick at the front.

    The two of them led the way into the darkness.

 

  • #112
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    ø Ignore WisdomLikeSilence
    Wow. I love the song the slaves sing; very appropriate and sad. Nice work.

  • #113
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    Thanks, WisdomLikeSilence! I had way too much fun writing the song -- with help from ellinor as well as commentary from Fajitas on its theological underpinnings. Thanks to said commentary, my grasp of orthodox Halmae religion is now much stronger, which I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief about.

    (I love this game. )

  • #114
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    4x04

    Kormick crept down the tunnel, glad that his eyes were already adjusted to the darkness from the night outside. He kept one hand on the wall for guidance. The other held his crossbow. Beside him, Arden moved like a shadow, but a shadow that was breathing a little too hard, a little too fast. She was frightened. He wasn't exactly feeling relaxed, himself, but he was looking forward to unburdening his jitters against multiple derro kneecaps very, very soon.

    Faint scuffles and footsteps came from behind him, farther up the tunnel, as the rest of the group felt their way through the darkness. By the time they're close enough for the derro to hear, he hoped, the derro will be screaming too loud to notice.

    The tunnel acquired a faint green cast, and shapes began to stand out more clearly.

    He heard Arden take a final deep breath, and then silence. He wasn't sure if she'd seized control of herself and begun breathing soundlessly or if she'd stopped breathing altogether.

    Pausing in the tunnel's last pool of darkness, Kormick could see the scene just as the mouse had described. Freaky moss. Check. Four derro. Check. Four foolish, foolish derro who have not drawn their weapons and who will soon be filled with profound regret on that particular score. Checkmate.

    He raised his crossbow and saw Arden ready her sling. Her hands were shaking.

    Kormick's weren't. His crossbow bolt buried itself in one derro's shoulder and the creature yelled in surprise and pain. The others stared around in confusion, not noticing as the rock from Arden's sling flew wide and bounced off the wall.

    Red flame erupted in the center of the room, blazing out in a blinding rush before cohering into a flaming sphere. Twiggy had joined them in spectacular fashion. Kormick and Arden moved aside, staring in awe, as Twiggy took a single step into the room, concentrating fiercely on her creation. The derro – one injured, the others flabbergasted, and all squinting madly in the sudden light – dodged away as the sphere moved into position to block their retreat through the door opposite the entrance. Their movement drove them right into the arms of Mena and Tavi, who charged into the room next. Green flames licked up and down Tavi's blade as he and his tutor struck their targets.

    Kormick traded his crossbow for his warhammers, ran toward the fight, swung at an unoccupied derro – and missed. Note to self, he thought. Derro kneecaps are somewhat lower than I'm used to. But before the derro could react, Arden appeared out of nowhere and sank her dagger into its side. The derro howled in outrage. Arden wrenched the dagger out, the light from Twiggy's sphere flickering in her eyes, and Kormick felt fleetingly smug: Good. Whatever scared her so much at the entrance, I knew she was still a murderous little sneak.

    Then the derro finally drew their swords, and there was no more time for smugness.

    The two facing Tavi and Mena formed up back-to-back and began trading vicious blows with their opponents while a third – the one Kormick had initially shot – ran toward the green moss along the walls. Kormick, suspicious, followed it, dodging past the swordfight in the center of the room just as Tavi took a tremendous blow to his arm from a blade that was black with poison. Kormick felt drops of the boy's blood spatter his cheek, but Tavi’s sword flashed as he retaliated instantly, not missing a beat.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Kormick glimpsed the pregnant Corani waddle into the room with what seemed – in the midst of the whirling action – to be excruciating slowness, her battleaxes ready. Savina followed, trying in vain to stop her. For a split second, Kormick could only stare in horror at the sight – Back in that parlor, did I not predict horrible, horrible deaths? And by horrible did I not mean something exactly like a pregnant lady dwarf and a girl of impossible sweetness getting hacked to pieces by derro? – and yet he couldn't help admiring their nerve. There was no sign of Rose, sensibly waiting farther up the tunnel.

    Ahead of Kormick, the derro reached the moss and gave it a good, hard stomp. A bolt of lightning burst out of the moss next to the stomper, shooting across the room. It barely missed Tavi and Mena.

    Kormick strode up to the stomper, whirled the warhammer in his left hand in a flashy circle and then, with the derro distracted, swung low and fierce with the warhammer in his right. The resulting crack was music to his ears – ah, the national anthem of Dar Und. The former stomper was now favoring his knee.

    The moss along the wall erupted again from several paces farther away, the beam of electricity stabbing all the way to the opposite wall. It struck Arden a glancing blow as she dodged just slightly too late. Her body convulsed at the jolt and she staggered. Kormick guessed that the bolts were going to continue marching across the room – and possibly back again – gradually putting everyone at risk.

    The derro Arden had stabbed saw its chance and closed in on her, its poisoned sword ready. Arden, fighting off the shock she'd taken, raised her dagger and watched it come. Kormick didn't give the derro great odds against the slave, but this wasn't going to be pretty.

    Then, suddenly, a ray of holy light blazed down from overhead, encompassing the derro. It keeled over, dead. Savina stood behind it, her hands still outstretched in prayer.

    "And that," Kormick shouted to the girl, "would be Alirria's wrath!"

    Savina's eyes were very, very wide.

    Another shot of electricity from the moss lanced across the room, this time near the door where they'd entered, missing Savina by inches. Savina didn't even notice. She seemed to be in shock.

    In the room's center, green flame still rippled along Tavi’s sword as he and Mena battled the three remaining derro. But as Kormick had feared, the moss’s electrical arcs had covered the room and were now on their way back. Tavi and Mena would soon be in trouble.

    The flaming sphere slid into motion as Twiggy, a look of intense focus on her face, manuvered it delicately toward two derro. It engulfed them. One of them fell, charred and dead. The other didn't escape for long, because it staggered toward Corani. Her axe felled it with a single stroke.

    The last remaining derro, still reeling from Kormick’s hammer blow, turned and limped as fast as it could toward the door opposite the entrance. Mena, with a swing of her flail so well-practiced that it looked casual, killed it.

    In the sudden silence, the warning sound of the moss crackling carried across the room.

    "Watch out," shouted Kormick. The lightening shot forth. Tavi and Mena jumped apart as it passed between them.

    "Stay out of its range," Kormick ordered, and everyone retreated to the corners. The moss offered up one final strike, in the spot where it had first erupted, and then ceased its activity. Kormick, his eyes watering at the stench of burnt derro flesh, surveyed the room.

    Twiggy's concentration was still bent on the flaming sphere. Her brow was furrowed and her cheeks were flushed. She seemed barely aware of anything else.

    "They're dead now," Kormick told her. "One of them is in fact crispy, thanks to you. You can put away the flaming death-ball."

    "No. There . . . might be more . . . " said Twiggy, with immense effort.

    "Wise," agreed Mena, as she strode from derro to derro, making sure they were dead. Tavi still had his sword raised; both he and the hummingbird looked like they were disappointed that the fight was over.

    Corani was leaning on her ax.

    Arden was watching Savina.

    And Savina's eyes were still very, very wide. "T – Tavi?" she asked. "Do you need me to heal you?"

    "Feelin' fine," said Tavi, and he clearly meant it, despite the human and derro blood streaking his armor.

    "Do you – " Savina tried again. She stopped, and swallowed. "Tavi, what was it like the first time you killed some – somebody? A person?"

    "I haven't – yet," said Tavi. Savina wilted. Behind her, the slave opened her mouth as if to say something to her mistress, then clenched her jaw shut and looked away, rubbing her arm where the original derro scout had shot it that morning.

    I know what to say to a member of my crew who's just made his first hit, thought Kormick. But I'm not sure what to say to the sweetest Alirrian in all the Halmae when she's just killed her first "somebody."

    In the end, Mena walked over to Savina. "I would tell you it gets easier," she said, "but it doesn't. Nor should it. The only thing to do is know that by taking a life, you are saving others."

    Savina hesitated, then nodded. Mena rested her hand on the girl's shoulder for a moment. Then she turned to the group.

    "There are three closed doors," Mena said. "We must determine which way to go."

  • #115
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    ø Ignore Cerebral Paladin
    So, I'm curious... is Corani a normal NPC? I'm asking because she kinda has that PC sheen, although starting pregnant would certainly be unusual, and I know that at least Spyscribe joined late.
    Storyhour plugs: Aphonion Tales, a storyhour that I write (mostly) about a campaign in which I'm a player.
    The Journals of Konrad Jagger, Licensed Diabolist, a storyhour I write set in the same world as Aphonion Tales, but about different characters.
    Orichalcum's Way Cool Roman Storyhour, in which I'm a player.
    Welcome to the Halmae, a nifty storyhour about a campaign for which I occasionally Council of Evil.

    Unfortunately moribund:
    My Storyhour

  • #116
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cerebral Paladin View Post
    So, I'm curious... is Corani a normal NPC? I'm asking because she kinda has that PC sheen, although starting pregnant would certainly be unusual, and I know that at least Spyscribe joined late.
    Nope--Corani's sheen is Plot Hook sheen, not PC sheen. We're still a couple of sessions away from Spyscribe's entrance.

    By the way, for anyone curious, what you're about to see is "Rescue at Rivenroar", the first adventure in the Scales of War Adventure Path, done Halmae style...
    Welcome to the Halmae
    A Rose in the Wind
    Pimping for Justice was Just the Beginning...

  • #117
    And so it begins. Just reading that makes my stomach turn over. I. Hate. Dungeons.

  • #118
    Don't now how I missed this until now, as I read and enjoyed the other Halmae story.

    Anyway, I've read through and caught up over the last couple of days - fantastic stuff; kudos to all involved (but especially Fajitas and Iilex).

    Looking forward to more ...

  • #119
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    Thanks very much, HalfOrc HalfBiscuit! We're enjoying ourselves immensely. Credit where credit is due: the story hour is co-written, 50-50, by me and ellinor both, so I will share your kudos with her (but grudgingly, reserving a few extra secretly for me, good rogue that I am).

    Quote Originally Posted by Fajitas View Post
    By the way, for anyone curious, what you're about to see is "Rescue at Rivenroar", the first adventure in the Scales of War Adventure Path, done Halmae style...
    Since I'm new to all this, I naturally had no choice but to google what Fajitas meant by this "Rescue at Rivenroar" business. To my untrained eye, skimming the flavor text of the adventure, the best I can do is glimpse a few similarities here and there. Fajitas definitely made this his own in some creative ways.

    And then there's this: "Rescuing the prisoners amounts to a major quest, but it’s likely the PCs rescue some captives, return them to civilization, then come back for the rest" (page 6).

    Allow me to quote Kormick:

    That's adorable.

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    4x05

    "Okay," said Kormick, turning to Arden. "Time for some breaking and entering."

    "Justicar, I wouldn't know how – "

    "Slave, slave, slave. I see with the gaze of Kettenek. Do you see any point in denying to my face that you're skilled at murderous sneakiness?"

    Arden opened her mouth as if to do just that, and then apparently thought better of it. She met his gaze for a moment, then turned and stalked toward the door to the left of the entrance.

    Kormick followed her, satisfied. He still half expected her to stab him in his sleep, but otherwise, they seemed to understand each other.

    Arden laid her fingers on the door's handle and, vindicating Kormick's words, bore down with the light touch of someone with a lot of practice opening doors silently. This one was easy: it wasn't locked, and it swung open smoothly.

    Arden and Kormick slipped through into a short corridor that turned sharply several feet ahead. With a glance at Kormick for permission, Arden tiptoed forward and glanced around the corner. Then she gestured for Kormick to join her. He did, and carefully, they crept down to the next corner and peered around it. Through a doorway, two derro were rummaging in what appeared to be a storeroom.

    Kormick considered killing them. But there was another door at the far end of the storeroom, just the sort of door that reinforcements could come pouring through at any moment. He gestured to Arden to retreat.

    They returned to the entry hall. Twiggy was trembling from continuing to maintain the flaming sphere, so they wasted no time approaching the second door, to the right of the entrance. Kormick stood by as Arden laid her fingers on the handle. Almost before he'd blinked, the door had been soundlessly cracked open and Arden had vanished through it.

    Kormick slipped through the door. Arden was waiting for him on the other side.

    "No wonder you were able to escape," he whispered.

    She smiled with faint humor and held up her cuffed wrist. "I wasn't," she reminded him.

    They could see a glimmer of torchlight and hear the clamor of many voices from around a bend up ahead.

    This time, Kormick gestured Arden forward alone, and she obeyed. Soon, she vanished out of sight around the corridor. Kormick waited tensely, listening for any change in the sound of the voices.

    ###

    Arden sneaked down the shadowy corridor toward the torchlight. There was a smell in the air that had been present since they'd entered and was growing more and more overpowering with every step: a ripe, musty smell. She supposed it was a relief from the smell of burned derro flesh in the entry hall, but she hated it. It was the smell of many unwashed bodies living together underground. It wasn't so long ago that she had smelled like that.

    She edged toward a doorway that led into a larger chamber, stopping far enough back that she was still cloaked in shadows. The noise was loud now, because the chamber ahead was full of derro. They were sitting at rough tables and lounging on bunks, laughing and talking. Arden started to count them – one, two – seven – and gave up. There were a lot of them, jostling each other and miming violence. She saw no sign of the captured dwarves, just a very messy, very crowded barracks room. She turned and crept back down the corridor, collecting Kormick before sneaking back into the entrance hall and closing the door behind her.

    "There are many derro that way, gentlefolk," she said, and recounted what she'd seen. The group stirred uneasily. Then it was time to open the third door, the one opposite the entrance. Like the others, it was unlocked. Unlike the others, it didn't lead to a corridor but to a tunnel, roughly cut, descending steeply into darkness. Arden stifled a shudder.

    "If we go that way, we – we might not have to fight anyone," proposed Savina. Oh, thanks for that, Blessed Daughter, Arden thought, bracing herself for the order to explore the tunnel.

    "But if we go that way, we could be cut off by enemies behind us," answered Tavi.

    "I agree, unfortunately," said Mena. "We should deal with the derro in the barracks before going farther."

    "All right." Tavi straightened up and raised his sword eagerly. "I'll go first."

    Kormick glanced at Twiggy. "I can't believe I'm going to say this," he said, "but I suggest that the little lady-in-waiting with no prior combat experience should go first . . . with her flaming sphere of death, of course." Beads of sweat were standing out on Twiggy's forehead as she continued to maintain the sphere, but she managed a nod to show that she'd understood.

    "Very well," said Mena. "There is no use delaying."

    Arden walked back to the second door and laid her fingers on the handle, feeling the heat of Twiggy's magic at her back.

    This time, by some inexplicable malice of Sedellus, the door gave an almighty squeak as she opened it, and it must have coincided with a lull in the merrymaking of the derro, because suddenly she heard only dead silence down the corridor, followed by orders barked out in a firm voice.

    I hate this place, Arden thought.

    "Damn," said Kormick. "Hurry."

    Twiggy and Tavi pushed into the corridor, Tavi guiding Twiggy with a courtly hand on her arm as she hurried toward the torchlight.

    The others followed, leaving Rose at the entrance to the corridor.

    ###

    Tavi and Twiggy burst around the corner, and Twiggy immediately directed the flaming sphere straight into the crowd of derro. They screamed, and Tavi felt Twiggy wince beside him. Several of them dropped dead at once, burnt to a crisp.

    "Nice. Keep it up," he told Twiggy, stepping past her as his remaining enemies pulled themselves into a ragged battle line. He strode toward them, his sword burning with green fire, and released a flame cyclone. Fire fanned out from his blade as if swept by a whirlwind and blazed among the derro. They burned. One burned to death. Now, Tavi thought, grinning with fierce satisfaction, there's my first kill, Savina.

    Mena arrived at Tavi's side as Twiggy adjusted the sphere and set two more derro ablaze. Those two attempted to stab Tavi and Mena, but missed – distracted, understandably, by being on fire. Tavi and Mena dispatched them quickly.

    Too easy, gloated Phoebe from a safe spot near the ceiling, just before another derro engaged Tavi. This creature had a little more skill with the blade, and they traded blows for a moment. Then a short sword burst out of his opponent's chest, stopping just shy of Tavi's own body and spraying a new layer of derro blood onto his armor. The derro sagged to the ground, dead, and revealed Arden behind him, grim-faced. That was it for this room; too easy indeed.

    But Tavi's flash of annoyance at Arden for stealing his next kill was forgotten as the door ahead flew open and three more derro rushed in, crossbows raised.

    Their bolts flew as one, and Mena cried out as one of them buried itself in her thigh. "It burns," she announced as she wrenched the bolt from her leg. "They're poisoned."

    Mena raised her flail, and Tavi's heart skipped a beat as his tutor staggered, unnaturally weakened. "Savina!” he yelled, “Mena is—" and Savina interrupted him, praying for Mena’s health and then, almost in the same breath, blasting one of the archers with a lance of faith.

    Arden ran past the flaming sphere and along the wall, aiming to slip in close to the archers, but they were too quick for her: one shot her at close range, the poisoned arrow burying itself between her ribs. Like Mena, Arden staggered, leaning against the wall near the room's open rear door, losing the battle against the poison. She was dangerously close to the bad guys – right where Tavi wanted to be, in fact.

    Let's make this more interesting, he thought. About time! cheered Phoebe. He muttered an incantation and stabbed his sword into the bunk beside him. A vortex appeared where the sword had hit, and in a flash he and Arden were both pulled into it, switching places. He laughed at the slave's astonishment, turned, and drove his burning blade deep into the nearest archer, killing him.

    Kormick dove in with his warhammers, swinging at both the remaining archers in quick succession. The two derro withdrew into the hallway, dropped their crossbows, and drew short swords as Tavi and Kormick's pressure forced them into close-quarters combat. One of them scored a vicious hit on the Justicar, driving his blade into Kormick's side. Kormick yelled in pain, nearly falling.

    Then Tavi glimpsed a pit in the hallway, just a few steps behind the derro. "Come on," he called. "Drive them back!"

    Corani responded to his exhortation with typical overzealousness, waddling too close to Twiggy's still-flaming sphere and burning herself. Arden, keeping her distance, whirled her sling and sent a rock flying straight through the sphere. Trailing sparks like a shooting star, it plowed into the face of one derro, who stumbled backward – farther backward – and plunged into the pit.

    Kormick, with a mighty effort, rushed the final derro. "This" – he grunted – "is justice" – and, in a single strong motion despite his bleeding side, he kicked the derro in the chest, sending him flying over the pit's edge.

    Kormick peered over the edge. Tavi joined him, but saw only darkness below. "I can't tell if they're dead," he said.

    "I – can help – " gasped Twiggy. With a final exhausted effort, she gestured the flaming sphere forward until it plummeted between Tavi and Kormick down into the pit after the two derro.

    As the sphere lit up a cavernous space, Tavi saw the second derro lying prone far below. It opened its eyes . . . just in time to be engulfed by flame. The light flared up, and then flickered out.

    Twiggy steadied herself against the passage wall and let out her breath in a long, long sigh, almost a groan, almost a wail. She slid down the wall into a lump and held her head in her hands.

    Everyone was still. The barracks were silent, filled with corpses.

    The smell of burning flesh hung heavy in the air, inescapable.

    Savina threw up.

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