Barsoom Tales I - COMPLETE

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Aubrey's disappearance happened during an adventure that we've skipped over. There'll be a reference to it in the next section. Never fear, you didn't miss a thing.

And I have never fathered a stewardess.
 

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Desdichado

Adventurer
My daughter was a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader once. Of course, we did that after moving to Michigan. It served two purposes -- 1) proclaimed our undying allegiance to the Great Republic of Texas, regardless of our actual current location, and 2) Halloween in Michigan required her to wear a white turtleneck underneath it. :)
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Arrafin scribbled madly as Kalibar spoke.

"The human mind has powers undreamed of by most. Sadly, for the majority of us, if we do not receive training to develop these abilities at a very young age, the mind grows resistant and unable to manifest these powers.

"For some, however, the power lurks so strongly within them that even without training, it begins to manifest. Such are you, Elena. Within your mind this power lives, radiant enough that I could perceive it before you were even aware of its existence.

"I can draw this power forth, Elena de los Santos, if you wish."

Elena looked over at Arrafin. The Naridic girl's normally wide eyes seemed to fill half her face. She nodded, curls shaking. Elena scowled and turned back to the old man.

"Alright. Is it going to hurt?"

"Hold still."

Arrafin forgot to write as she watched the frail old man reach out and grasp Elena's face in a gnarled hand. He smiled and exhaled slowly. Elena's eyes fluttered and she sagged, groaning quietly. Startled, Arrafin moved to help her friend, but Nitara's strong hand on her shoulder restrained her.

"She'll be fine."

She stared in confusion and growing wonder as a fine tracery of dark lines worked themselves into Elena's face, like a striking, but barely visible tattoo of some abstract design. Elena's eyes popped open and she sat up, staring around her in confusion.

"That's the weirdest thing I've ever seen."

*****

Breakfast at the River Inn was a wholesome affair of eggs whipped and fried with spicy sausage, fresh peppers, sliced cabbage and sharp winter onions, served with an almost-frozen mix of wine and fruit. Philip came downstairs with his mouth watering, to find the two girls eating quietly.

"Where's Nevid?"

They both shrugged.

"What's the plan?"

Another shrug.

"Are we going to the palace?"

Elena did not look up as she spoke.

"Don't know."

Philip stood for a second, unhappy with the lack of information but too confused by the attitude of his friends to figure out how to proceed, then shrugged and sat down. Women had largely been a source of confusion in Philip's life, anyway, so that Elena and Arrafin were behaving in some incomprehensible manner only reaffirmed his notions.

He signalled for food and got down to business.

Arrafin looked up, glanced quickly at Philip and then studied Elena's face. The lines that had formed there last night were just barely visible, surrounding the Saijadani woman's eyes in a delicate filigree of curls and swoops. Elena met her eyes and they stared at each other for a second. Arrafin was burning with questions, but last night Elena had refused to talk about what had happened, and now, in front of Philip, she just couldn't bring herself to mention it. She took a deep breath and smiled, then turned to Philip.

"It's too bad we don't have Aubrey with us. This would be right up his alley, don't you think?"

Philip nodded and wiped at his chin. Elena scowled.

"I guess Isabella had more important things for him to do."

Philip shrugged.

"I get the impression she was more worried about those Kishaks in Highpass than her note let on. I hope he's okay. They find out he's spying, he's not going to last long. There's probably Nevakada agents all over that town."

All three of them suppressed a shudder at the mention of the Kishak secret service.

"So? There's probably Nevakada here, too. One of us is probably a Nevakada agent."

The three friends looked up to find Nevid standing at the head of the table, studying them curiously. Elena stood up to glare at him.

"How can you say that? You think I'm a Nevakada agent? To hell with you."

Nevid swallowed and backed away from Elena, who was substantially taller than he and clearly outweighed him by a significant amount.

"I'm not saying that. Just, I mean, you never know, right? That's all. I'm not saying you're a, you know, that we shouldn't..."

Arrafin rolled her eyes.

"Sit down, Nevid. Elena won't hurt you."

Elena raised her eyebrows in silent query but sat down again, still glowering at Nevid, who managed to get himself into a seat without shaking too much. He leaned forward and spoke quietly.

"The del Orofin have rented a house here in town. Collette is staying there along with Juan Antonio del Orofin, the family representative here. He's the one negotiating the deal with the King."

Philip clenched his fists at the name "del Orofin".

"Who's this Juan Antonio?"

"He's the son of Pilar del Orofin, one of the senior family members. Kind of young to be handling something this important -- I bet Pilar is grooming him for future leadership. Supposed to be good with a rapier, at least he's killed a few folks in duels back in Cadencia."

Philip sneered and put a hand on the hilt of his father's sword. He spoke quietly.

"There must be a copy of the agreement there. I say we break in, search the place, steal the document and get out of town before anyone even knows we're here."

"What about Boyce? He's expecting to show us around the palace."

Elena smiled.

"Assuming he wasn't feeding us a complete pack of lies. I wouldn't trust that man any farther than I could throw him. What?"

The last question was directed at Arrafin, who was regarding Elena with a skeptical expression. She hurriedly looked down at the tabletop.

"Nothing, nothing."

Elena scowled around at the others.

"It's not like I have some crush on him. Sure, he's handsome enough, but I'm not some silly girl losing her head over the first guy to wink at her. I'm NOT falling for with Boyce. As if."

Boyce coughed from behind her.

"I won't say I'm not disappointed."

*****

"That's Roanna, Captain of the Palace Guard. Hey, Ro, whaddya know?"

Boyce waved at the tall woman in her gleaming armour, who smiled back and shook out her hair. Elena's scowl deepened. She still hadn't looked at Arrafin since they'd left the River Inn.

The palace gleamed with polished marble, brass and dark teak. Everywhere the clank of armour and the tramp of booted feet. Every belt supported either a big battlefield sword or, sometimes, a massive double-headed axe. Even the Chancellor looked ready to take on half the Kishak army.

Philip sighed. The people of the Gap were mad, always ready to go to war over the slightest provocation -- with each other. He could understand cutting down Kishaks anywhere they stood, but fighting each other seemed the height of idiocy.

Nevid's mind was racing. Boyce really WAS connected to King Percival. He certainly had full access to the palace, where everyone seemed to treat him like a well-loved little brother, indulgent of his lackadasical attitude and cheery nonchalance. And he seemed to trust Nevid and the others absolutely -- he was blithely showing them around the palace without the slightest hint of concern.

He dropped back to whisper to Philip.

"You know, it might be easier to break in here and steal the document. There must be a copy here as well."

"Well," said Philip, "At least at the del Orofin house the guards aren't already on a first-name basis with us."

"Juan Antonio! Let me introduce you to my friends."

Both Nevid and Philip froze as Boyce waved over a tall, hook-nosed individual in the red and yellow of the del Orofin. The newcomer looked over the little group with evident disdain.

"This is Elena de los Santos, Arrafin al-Fasir beni Hassan, Nevid of the del Maraviez and Philip di Guzma."

His eyes widened as Philip's name was given and he stared at the burly Saijadani, clearly thinking with furious speed. He came to some decision and smiled, then sneered.

"del Maraviez lapdogs. Go back to Isabella and tell her her meddling will do no good here."

Boyce looked back and forth between Juan Antonio and his friends.

"We'll just be moving along, then. Sorry to bother you, Senor del Orofin."

As they walked off, Arrafin turned to Philip.

"Do you know him?"

"No. Why?"

"Well I can't imagine somebody would hate you that much unless they knew you."

Arrafin frowned.

"I didn't quite mean that the way it sounded."

"It's okay. No, I've never met him before."

"He sure seemed to know your name."

"Yes. He sure did."

Philip bit his lip.

"I shouldn't have come. I'm endangering the mission."
 


barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
"Explain to me once more how this seemed like a good idea."

Philip shifted uncomfortably on the sofa, his roughly stubbled face out of sorts with the refined interior of the del Orofin sitting room.

"Well, we're in, aren't we? And we didn't have to kill anybody, did we?"

The big Saijadani turned to glare at Elena.

"And what do we say when that door opens up and that bitch Collette walks in?"

They were seated (except for Nevid, who was standing) in the sitting room of the del Orofin house, waiting for Collette de Maynard to be announced. Philip tried again to recall how they'd come up with this plan. It was hard. They'd gone out drinking with Boyce last night at his favourite pub, The Dog's Breakfast, and well, of course they had to prove to a bunch of Gap yahoos that Saijadani were smarter, more morally upright and generally better-favoured by the winds of fortune -- which meant they of course had to drink more than their hosts.

Their hosts, thought Philip grumpily, who were probably still sleeping in this morning hour, while here he and his friends were, preparing to trade wits with the woman who'd so badly out-maneuvered them in their last encounter.

Let Nevid talk. Philip kept reminding himself of that. Let Nevid do the talking.

Risking a glance at the younger man, Philip noticed that Nevid had turned a rather interesting shade of pale green and was staring in a fixed sort of way at the windowsill. He recalled that of all of them, it had been Nevid who became the most vociferous in ordering more bottles of whatever it was they were drinking. And he had a vague recollection of CARRYING Nevid back to the River Inn. A recollection that involved watching Boyce and Elena stumble along, arms around each others' waists...

Philip scowled.

"Let's just leave. I have a very bad feeling about this."

Arrafin rolled her eyes.

"And tell them what? You already gave them your name."

She frowned at the door.

"I wonder what's taking her so long? Is she usually this slow? Or is this a Saijadani custom? Oh, but she's from the Gap, isn't she? On the other hand, this is a Saijadani house..."

The Naridic girl's voice trailed off as she got lost in contemplating the interactions of social niceties.

Elena ignored Philip and the others. She stared at the floorboards, trying to understand what had happened inside her mind since Kalibar had "awakened" her.

It was like discovering new muscles she'd never known she had. Muscles she could flex, and push, and relax. She couldn't say exactly HOW she made them work, but she could feel them responding to her commands. It was very strange, and more than a little bit intimidating.

She looked up as the door flew open.

Juan Antonio's gaze circled the room and settled on Philip. He smiled, a cold, vicious smile that made Elena want to punch him in the face. She got to her feet along with everyone else.

He wore a waistcoat of dark red velvet, yellow silk at his throat and fine leather leggings over his polished boots. His hair oiled back over his ears, making his face appear even more pointed and predatory than it already did. At his belt hung a slim rapier with a jeweled hilt. He rested his left hand on it.

"Collette sends her regards. She seems to think you mean trouble for us. Not that we're worried. Cringing little mutts like you aren't likely to interfere in matters requiring subtlety and intelligence."

Elena yawned.

"Let me know when you're done with lame insults, grease monkey."

Anger flashed in Juan Antonio's eyes. He whirled on Philip.

"Here to avenge your father's death? Think you had us fooled? Bah! We've been on to you for ages, del Valencia. How pathetic, your clumsy disguise. No doubt Philip died in a cave-in and you thought to run like the coward you are."

Arrafin, Elena and Nevid all frowned and turned to Philip. Arrafin began to speak.

"del Valencia? Isn't your name di Guz--"

"Your friend is not Philip di Guzma. Philip was an employee of THIS house. Your friend is Isaac del Valencia, the murderer of Philip di Guzma and son of a confessed traitor to Saijadan."

Philip's voice (or, more accurately if less familiarly, Isaac's voice) rattled in a low growl.

"You lie."

Juan Antonio barked a laugh.

"Do you want to hear how he begged for his life on the scaffold? How he cried like a frightened child?"

He paused and drew in a breath, savouring the moment.

"Or would you rather hear how your mother begged?"

Isaac's hand (or, less accurately if more familiarly, Philip's hand) gripped the hilt of his old-fashioned field sword.

"Don't you say a word about my mother."

"She didn't beg for her life, of course. She just begged.... for more."

Arrafin's eyes grew so wide they seemed to overlap.

"Don't you--"

"I wouldn't call her skilled, unfortunately, but she was... enthusiastic."

"Don't..."

"I don't blame you for your many failings, Isaac. After all, you are the son of a cowardly traitor..."

"Don't..."

"...and a whore."

The big sword hissed out of Isaac's sheath. Juan Antonio laughed and stepped back.

"You wish to play? Very well, young man. I am happy to accomodate you. But perhaps outside? I don't want to get your filthy coward's blood all over my fine furnishings."

Isaac could only growl, and began to follow Juan Antonio as their host left the room. Coming to a stop as Elena slammed the door shut in his face.

"Don't do this, Philip."

"Isaac. My name is Isaac."

"I don't care. Don't do this. He's too confident. He's going to kill you."

"My name is Isaac del Valencia. His family destroyed mine. They killed my father and they took my mother and they took our lands and they threw me into prison and they sent a man to kill me. I am the last del Valencia and I am going to kill him or put an end to this now."

Isaac tore open the door and stormed out. The other three all stared at each other, then raced to follow him.

Outside, a crowd was gathering. Juan Antonio had his hands in the air and was loudly declaiming to those assembled (and more arrived every second) about how he was being forced to cut down this witless young man who'd escaped from prison and was even now avoiding justice.

Philip took off his cloak and laid it by the steps. He scowled at Juan Antonio's theatrics and rolled his shoulders, shook his head from side to side as he descended to the street. He saw the tottering old butler come tottering out and pick up his cloak, then go tottering back inside just as his three friends emerged. He turned his back on them and drew his sword, swinging it through a few practice strokes as Juan Antonio continued to natter away.

The crowd had grown. Folks in Bayonne liked their duels public and with lots of fanfare, it seemed. Arrafin looked around for one of the familiar crimson robes of the Blood Council, but it seemed this duel would be fought without the sanction of the ancient order and its restrictions. She bit her lip and fretted as Juan Antonio and Philip -- or rather, Isaac -- faced one another.

Juan Antonio took his time. He pulled on his duelling gloves, light calfskin, and tugged at the silk cuffs of his shirt. Making a show of deliberation, he drew his rapier in a slow, fluid gesture and let it dangle from his hand as he studied Isaac's stance. He sneered at the heavy longsword of his opponent.

"No doubt you stole that from a museum somewhere?"

"It was my father's."

"Ah. Then it's never been used, I presume?"

"Whenever you're ready, del Orofin."

Juan Antonio bowed, smiled, and lunged.

Nevid managed to grin feebly at Elena.

"Guess we ARE going to kill somebody after all."
 
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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
From the top floor of the del Orofin house, Collette de Maynard watched in horror as Juan Antonio squared off against Isaac. del Valencia's broad shoulders and loose, unconcerned posture gave no indication of the emotion that must be surging through his body.

She cursed her host for a fool and stamped her foot in rage.

She knew she should run. There were papers everywhere, damning papers that would get the del Orofin family ejected from the Customs House if they came to light. Papers that would incriminate dozens of people across Saijadan and the Gap.

Not her, of course. Collette was far too careful to attach her name to any documents. Her anger subsided as she reminded herself. Always a plan. Always another door to slip through.

She froze, as did everyone on the street, as Juan Antonio lunged forward, blade flashing in the morning sun.

*****

Elena was so stunned she nearly forgot all about what had just happened to her last night.

Philip was not Philip.

She watched Juan Antonio prepare for the duel, unable to focus, too overcome with shock and betrayal to pay attention to what was happening right in front of her.

Philip was Isaac. Isaac?

She looked at her friend, strong, cynical, reliable Philip, and tried to imagine that he'd been lying to them all this time. It seemed impossible. She remembered screaming his name as he'd lined up Mara with that big sword, only realising that it wasn't his name after all. She'd been calling out to a total stranger, a dead man, apparently.

Isaac.

She gasped as Juan Antonio leapt forward, the ring of steel pulling her back to the present moment.

*****

Nevid's mind raced furiously, at last distracted from the state of his hangover.

del Valencia. He remembered the name, and few moments' concentration brought out the broad strokes: former noble family, reduced with the rise of the Customs House and Las Familias, entered into a trade agreement with the del Maraviez. Based in Petrahegna, on the far borders of Saijadan. Family head arrested and executed, but Nevid couldn't recall the charges. Nor could he recall any mention of a son.

He wondered if Isabella had known, and decided she must have known all along. The del Maraviez took their debts seriously, and he could well imagine Isabella deciding to look after the young del Valencia without giving away his secret. Isabella del Maraviez always played the angles very carefully, something Nevid was trying to accomplish himself.

His stomach churned and he wondered if he might not have missed a few angles last night. But at least he'd had no nightmares about Chimney. He didn't even notice Juan Antonio's lunge until he heard the clang of Isaac's defence.

*****

Arrafin tried to imagine her own father's death. She couldn't. Her mind ran from the idea.

Poor Philip. Or Isaac.

Arrafin had come to think of Philip as sort of a big brother. He was so protective, so fierce whenever danger came near, and ever since those terrible nights in Chimney when Philip's laconic courage had kept them alive, she'd always felt secure having him around.

She tried to consider if his name had anything to do with that. It didn't. She didn't care what he called himself.

She was curious about what had happened, though. Prison, traitors, all the intrigue of Saijadani politics. It must be an interesting story.

The sight of the two men squaring off drew her back to the current situation in horrified fascination. Growing up in the shadow of the University of Al-Tizim, spending all her days buried in stacks of manuscripts or in the coffee shops around the University, Arrafin had never witnessed a duel. Of course she'd seen bloodshed, far more bloodshed than she'd ever wanted to see, in Chimney, and in Highpass as well there had been some violence, but nothing like this rational preparation for butchery.

These two men, to all intents and purposes sane and intelligent men, stood facing each other, holding sharp piece of metal with which they fully intended to pierce one another's skin and organs in an effort to end the other's life. It was horrifying, as she began to think about it, and without being aware of what she was doing, Arrafin grasped Elena's arm and squeezed.

She cried out as Juan Antonio, without any warning or notice that she could see, leapt forward with his rapier.

*****

This was not Isaac's first duel. As he watched Juan Antonio prepare, he thought back to the last duel he'd engaged in.

That one, too, had involved Collette de Maynard. He wondered if that black-haired minx were watching this one as well, and grimly determined to deliver as good an account of himself this time around.

His sword was not a pretty thing, nor was it a light and agile weapon like the rapier of modern Saijadan. His opponent's weapon was dangerous, but Isaac had learned how to make his sword's greater weight work in his favour. A beat or a bind against his blade would almost never work, and his two-handed grip gave him a great deal more speed and control than most opponents expected.

He tightened his hands on the hilt as something in Juan Antonio's eyes told him the attack was coming.

There is no such thing as defence, Isaac. Only attacking. Blocking the opponent's sword is an agressive action. You must attack the incoming blade. Defeat it.

Juan Antonio was good. He was very, very good, and even as Isaac whirled his blade in a half-circle to knock aside the incoming thrust, the big Saijdani felt a first stab of worry. He backed away, licking his lips and keeping his sword loose and ready in front of him.

The del Orofin paused and smirked.

"You wish to withdraw, perhaps? You may beg. I will listen to your pleas."

The point of the rapier dropped and before he was even aware of the opening, Isaac stepped forward, his longsword blurring past as he looped it up and then down at the older man's shoulder.

Juan Antonio danced aside, sliding his fine blade in behind the path of Isaac's as it went by, and Isaac had to jump back again from the darting point.

Twice more they closed with each other, steel banging, and each time it was Isaac who leapt back, just managing to avoid his opponent's strikes.

Juan Antonio was better than him. Isaac understood this clearly. He was going to lose this fight.

It is inevitable, my son. On day you will meet a man who is better than you. You will not be able to defeat everyone you encounter. Recognize when you are outmatched, and resolve to meet your fate with honour.

He would not back away again. Isaac raised his sword high.

*****

Collette swore as she hurriedly changed out of the formal gown she'd donned for visiting the palace and yanked on her travel clothes. However this ended she wanted out of the whole affair. She was sick of fending off Juan Antonio's clumsy embraces and negotiating around his half-witted proclamations.

And, she admitted to herself, she was of two minds about del Valencia. On the one hand, he'd killed Philip, and Collette supposed she should be expected to want revenge for that. On the other, she didn't, particularly, and she wasn't sure why that was. Except, she mused, for the fact that he seemed big, stupid and mean.

"You always did like them big, stupid and mean, de Maynard."

She grinned at the memory of Pilar del Orofin's words. The real Philip di Guzma had certainly been all those things, and Collette had certainly liked him well enough. She paused in the hurried lacing of her shirt to lean over to the window and watch the progress of the duel.

Juan Antonio seemed to have things well in hand, but Collette would never again underestimate del Valencia, not after having seen him decapitate Sebastian back in Fort Burnoll. She studied him for second, then turned back to her preparations. Even if Juan Antonio cut down the poor bastard, she was leaving.

*****

Elena watched the first moments of the duel frozen between anger and concern. She glared at Isaac as her friend narrowly avoided Juan Antonio's lightning thrusts. After a couple of close shaves, however, she calmed down a little and her glare turned into a frown of concentration.

He was better than Isaac. Elena didn't know much about swordfighting, but she knew what she was seeing and what she was seeing was one man toying with another. Her brows lowered as her anger shifted from Isaac to his opponent, and as she glared at the well-dressed del Orofin, she felt the new muscles in her mind flex eagerly.

Isaac charged, a powerful sweep of his blade, roaring inarticulately, but Juan Antonio leaned aside, tucked his blade against Isaac's, and with a quick snap jerked it from Isaac's hands.

The clanging of the heavy blade across the cobblestones froze the entire scene into immobility. She saw Juan Antonio smile and begin the final lunge that would end her friend's life, and in her mind she flexed.

She wanted to grab the bastard by the lapels of his silk shirt and shake him, scream in his face and throw him to the ground. Instead, she just sort of tapped him on his mental shoulder and cleared her imaginary throat.

Juan Antonio paused for just a second, confused. Isaac scrambled for his sword and snatched it up, but by the time he'd done so, Juan Antonio had thrown off whatever fog was clouding his mind and they faced each other again.

Juan Antonio sneered.

"Eager for more lessons, boy? You should have left the weapon on the ground."

"Not until your head is lying next to it."

Juan Antonio made no reply except to gesture with his sword.

A surge of confidence rushed into Isaac at the unexpected reprieve. He charged in again, knocking aside his opponent's blade and slashing cross-wise with a quick twist of his upper body. He felt his blade bite home and yelled even as he felt a sudden hot pain across his lower side.

They both retreated, both wounded. Isaac had suffered a slight scratch on his left side, but Juan Antonio's left arm was deeply cut. His sword had sunk to the bone, and the arm hung useless at his enemy's side.

This time Isaac was the one who sneered.

"Perhaps I'll take you apart one piece at a time."

"Even a dog can bite if its owner is careless. And I own you, boy."

All trace of amusement left Juan Antonio's face as his rapier spun and flashed in Isaac's face. Isaac fended the lunging point aside once, twice, backing away desperately as his opponent pressed forward, quick strikes coming at him. Something like a muscle cramp seized Isaac's shoulder and then again in his thigh and he realised he'd been stabbed twice, felt blood streaming down his skin, ducked wildly from another thrust that glanced off his forehead, searing a line across his scalp.

Resolve to meet your fate with honour.

Isaac spun right around, fleeing his opponent's deadly reach, and swung his heavy sword in a flat arc, just trying to drive back that relentless attack.

Elena noticed Arrafin's grip -- the girl was clinging to her for dear life, and yet she was so fragile her fingers barely seemed to press into Elena's arm. She put one hand over Arrafin's and focussed again on Juan Antonio, seeking that sensation, that idea of flexing once again, reaching out for her friend's tormentor.

Again she tapped Juan Antonio's insubstantial shoulder, and once again he paused in his attack, eyes narrowed, as though listening for something.

Isaac noticed the sudden change in the man's expression. He swung again, both hands, grunting with effort as the sword cleaved into Juan Antonio's neck, snapped the vertebrae with a distinct crack, and plowed out the other side, leaving head and torso to collapse to the cobbles just a second before he himself fell to his knees.

There was a hiss of blood spraying across the stones, followed by a quiet sigh from the crowd all around.

Nevid ran for the door of the house, darted inside and tore up the stairs.

Collette heard him coming and charged down the hall, grabbed at a set of files, and flew down the back stairs and out the back door. She ran off down the alley.

Elena and Arrafin rushed to Isaac, helping their friend stand. Arrafin did her best to ignore the twitching corpse and rapidly expanding pool of gore as Elena inspected Isaac's wounds and berated him for six kinds of idiot.

The crowd began to disperse, but departing members paused as Isaac bent down to pick up Juan Antonio's head and staggered over to the tottering old butler at the door.

"For Miss de Maynard, with the compliments of Isaac del Valencia."

He handed over the head and turned away. Nevid came out the front door and joined them.

"I've got the contract. It was lying on a desk upstairs. Collette's run off."

Isaac turned to his friends and smiled, indicated the body on the ground.

"That's one."
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
"Execution? Who said anything about execution?"

Boyce grinned and ran a hand through his hair as he tried to calm Isaac down.

"Look, all I know is the guards're coming for you lot right now. Apparently that del Orofin yahoo was a favourite of the Queen, and she's right miffed that a couple of foreigners have cut down her little buddy."

Isaac looked around at his friends, all of them seated at a trestle table in the common room of the River Inn. They'd just been congratulating each other (particularly Isaac) on the success of their mission (and Isaac's survival) when Boyce came rushing in with the news that they were all slated for immediate arrest and execution.

"But... but... it was a duel. It wasn't a murder. A duel. Damnit, he nearly had me! I made this last incredible swing, Boyce you should have seen it --"

Elena cut off Isaac's burgeoning description.

"Alright, we have to get out of town. Can we leave by the gates? How long until the guards are here?"

She frowned ferociously at Boyce.

"And why are you helping us, anyway?"

Arrafin kicked Elena as hard as she could. The Saijadani woman didn't appear to notice. Boyce plastered a big grin on his face and bowed.

"Well, you lot are old friends, aren't you? I'd hate to see you brought to a low end for something as admirable as cutting off the head of a damned foreigner. No offense. Besides," he took Elena's hand and kissed it, "How could I allow the world to be deprived of such loveliness?"

Elena's scowl dropped away entirely, replaced by astonishment as she gaped at the friendly rogue. Arrafin was delighted to see her friend blush.

Nevid shook his head and spoke quietly.

"Gates'll be closed. We need another exit. Everybody stay here. I'll be back."

The young man got to this feet and went into the kitchen. Boyce watched him go with a bit of a confused expression, then grinned once again.

"And with that, I ought to leave. Can't be found, you know, consorting with criminals."

Isaac snorted.

"Right. Not you."

Boyce bowed, grinned, winked and left. Elena turned to find Arrafin grinning at her.

"What?"

"Nothing."

"What?"

"No, no, nothing. So, Isaac, your father was executed, huh?"

*****

Nevid spoke rapidly with the innkeeper and after several nonsensical phrases were exchanged, showed to middle-aged woman a letter with Isabella's seal on it. The woman bowed immediately and led Nevid to a corner of the kitchen, pushed aside a crate of potatoes and yanked up a hidden trap door.

Nevid nodded and rushed back to his friends.

*****

"Arrafin, what is it?"

"Nothing, Elena. Look, Nevid's back."

The young Saijadani rushed up to the table and looked around at his friends.

"We can get out. Through the sewers."

Isaac scowled.

"Just wander around in the muck and hope we find an exit?"

"No, Isaac. I have directions. Isabella gave them to me before we came here, in case we got into trouble."

Elena didn't quite grab Nevid and shake him.

"Why didn't you tell us about this? You don't trust us?"

"I'm telling you now. We have to go."

"Alright, alright, you've got it all figured out. You and Isabella."

"We have to go."

"Fine. Let's get our stuff and go. But if you keep hiding stuff from us like this, Nevid..."

*****

A hundred paces through the sewers of Bayonne and Isaac was ready to take his chances up on the streets, execution or no.

Nevid kept insisting they just go straight, ignoring all turns and side passages. The walls dripped with cold muck and their footsteps echoed down the brick tunnels into darkness. Strange and alarming things skittered unseen on all sides. SOMETHING crawly and possessed of far too many legs had already dropped onto Isaac's shoulder, only to be flung to the ground and stomped into bits.

They passed a couple of ancient staircases climbing up, presumably to entrances like that they had descended from the River Inn. One was guarded, but a sharp crack over the head with the hilt of Isaac's father's sword took care of him, and the group was quickly on their way again.

"So... your father? Executed?"

Arrafin had tried a few conversational gambits but Isaac so far had resisted her probes. He did so now by simply grunting in reply. Elena took up the challenge.

"So what should we call you? Philip? Isaac? Or just, 'Hey you, the one that's been lying to us all this time'?"

Isaac grunted again.

"You're going to crack eventually, whatever your name is."

Grunt.

*****

The tunnel eventually opened onto a cave that opened onto the river, where a pair of rowboats were tethered. Isaac and Arrafin took one boat (Arrafin struggling just to lift the paddle), while Nevid and Elena took the other (Nevid not even bothering to lift the paddle).

The river flowed broad and smooth, winding its way down through the rocky, tree-covered hills of the Gap. Stands of oak sent heavy roots down the steep riverbanks, where tall grasses waved in slow celebration of the foursome's escape. Occasional herds of crested hadrosaurs teemed in the shallows, bellowing to each other and watching the rowboats drift by.

Three days passed on the river, quiet times with no sign of pursuit. Isaac remained uncommunicative, staring at the water or the passing banks. He turned over and over again the death of Juan Antonio in his mind, wondering at the lack of satisfaction in his own heart. It was over too fast, maybe. Or perhaps the lucky nature of his victory took away some of the joy he should be feeling, having begun to acquire his revenge. Strange the way Juan Antonio had just frozen like that, just at the right moment...

Arrafin caught up on her notes, elaborating extensively on the relationships of Las Familias. She knew the del Orofin Familia was bitterly opposed to the del Maraviez, and that both were among the wealthiest, the most powerful of the trading families that controlled Saijadan. Her notes included comments like, "Must get more names!" and "Ask Nevid?"

Elena studied the water and the banks with nearly as much moodiness as Isaac. The nature of her new-found powers confused her. She'd never know such things were possible, and suddenly now here she was, apparently performing miracles. Over and over again she wished they hadn't had to leave Bayonne so precipitiously, that she'd had another chance to talk to the elderly Kalibar. She tried to reach out to him in her mind, but felt nothing.

Nevid glowed with satisfaction. He had the contract, Juan Antonio's death could only complicate things even further for the del Orofin, and Collette had been foiled quite nicely. The King, lacking del Orofin funds, might have to abandon his plan of conquest. An excellent few days' work. He smiled.

*****

A single figure stood on the rocky shoal that was the mouth of the river. He was tall, slender, and pink.

Leaving their boats in the shallow water, the four struggled across the loose rocks to approach him.

He was obviously part-Kishak, but equally obviously part-not-Kishak -- instead of the Kishak deep red he seemed pale, though still with the dark hair and eyes of his Kishak heritage.

"I'm Etienne. Marques sent me to pick you up and bring you to Pavairelle."

"Marques?"

"Marques del Maraviez."

Isaac snorted, unimpressed.

"How could he have known we would be here? WE didn't even know we'd be here."

The man named Etienne shrugged.

"Marques will explain. This way."

Arrafin had already gotten out a sheet of paper with a little blank space on it.

"'Etienne' doesn't sound like a Kishak name."

"My mother was from Cour Chonfoux in the Gap. I grew up in Pavairelle."

"Ooh. What's it like?"

"Greatest city on Barsoom."

Arrafin's eyebrows rose.

"Have you been to Al-Tizim?"

"No."

"Then how do you know?"

"I know. Wait and see."

*****

"Is that a sail?"

They'd come aboard a small fishing vessel, lacking in basic amenities but apparently sea-worthy. Nevid immediately began to throw up, and was still doing so when Elena pointed out away from the coast they were following.

The captain immediately shouted something incomprehensible and their ship's sail sagged and suddenly dropped. The fishing boat slowed in the water as the other ship approached.

Arrafin caught the expression of worry in Etienne's face and turned to watch him face the captain.

"What is it?"

"Pirates."

Isaac started loading his pistols.

Elena sighed and swore loudly.

Nevid's stomach heaved again.

Arrafin took out a short pencil.

"Pirates? How long have there been pirates around here? Have you ever met a pirate? Are they as ferocious as everyone says?"
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
And that is the end of Bayonne Opera Blues -- I meant to title every episode but you know, it was just too much trouble.

Next up, Make It There -- life in the big city proves even more dangerous than captured by pirates. Arrafin asks one question too many, Isaac gets himself into yet another duel, Elena makes a friend, Nevid finds a girlfriend and Etienne turns out to be no more completely insane than the rest of our friends...
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
I'm enjoying this Story Hour more all the time. I might actually have to go read your Season logs on your web page to find out more. :)
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Joshua Dyal said:
I'm enjoying this Story Hour more all the time. I might actually have to go read your Season logs on your web page to find out more. :)
The website logs are notoriously uninformative -- they're really just a long series of obnoxious comments about the party's foolishness, with a pretty unforgivable lack of actual information about anything that's happening.

They're meant to be more a memory jog for folks who were actually there -- "Oh, yeah... THAT insane sorcerer!" -- than to provide entertainment for those who weren't. When I started writing that log it never occurred to me that people not playing in the game would have the slightest interest in reading about it.

The dark days before ENWorld, this was.

When I started getting emails from folks I'd never met complaining that they couldn't follow the story I started to think about creating something a little more detailed.

Et voila!

(no, no relation to your aunt, JD. Unless she's French)
 

Desdichado

Adventurer
Heh, heh. Good memory. She's not, although I think her father was in the trenches in France in that thur Great War. I'm not entirely sure; he died long before I was born.
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Make It There -- Part One

All tied up, bound hand and foot, gagged, placed in a circle facing each other, Isaac, Elena, Nevid, Arrafin and Etienne pondered their situation.

Pirate John had turned out to be less blood-thirsty and more charming than anyone had expected. His ship, dwarfing their little fishing vessel, drifted alongside and aboard came swinging Pirate John -- bluff, hearty and with a twinkle in his eye. As pirates went, he was practically a good guy.

Bound and determined, however, to hold his new captives for ransom, especially when he heard they were del Maraviez employees.

"del Maraviez, eh? And just what do they pay you for, I wonder? Delivering messages, perhaps?"

He yanked the document from Nevid's belt and perused it.

"The King himself? Very nice."

With an elaborate flourish he handed back the paper.

"I'm sure the family would pay handsomely to have that returned to them in a timely fashion. No more than they would pay for your health and well-being, of course. I don't mean to imply that they would value some musty document more than your own self."

He bowed. Arrafin giggled. All of them, struck somewhat confused by their captor's courtesy, filed aboard the pirate ship and waved goodbye to the captain who'd surrendered so easily.

"The stars! The stars have fallen! The nine-fold stars have fallen!"

"That's Crazy Adil. Don't pay any attention to him."

Pirate John waved at the raving Naridic man. The other crew members grinned and seemed to treat the elderly maniac with tolerant sympathy, pushing him gently aside whenever he got in the way, and agreeably nodding to all his dire pronouncements.

"The nine-fold stars have fallen! Awake! Awake! Tabbadur has been thrown open! Awake! The stars!"

"Thanks. We'll ponder that. This way, please."

Now here they were, trapped, tied up and stuck in a sort of attic chamber on Pirate John's island. A makeshift wooden door led to the stairs down to water level, and one entire wall of the chamber was open, revealing a drop of eighty feet or so to the water. The island was peculiarly put together, with a sort of a grotto cutting through it, high enough for John's ship to berth inside, forming a natural hiding place, complete with a dock, various chambers for crew members and loot, and this upper chamber where they were currently imprisoned.

With Crazy Adil, who seemed to have attached himself to Arrafin.

"Hejan of tomorrow! Awake! The stars! The stars!"

Elena growled through her gag. "Rrrr. Rrrr. Rrrr, rrrr."

Isaac answered. "Rrrr. Rrrr."

Pirate John's ship was not in the grotto; the pirate had left immediately, promising to bring word of their ransom.

"What if the del Maraviez won't pay for us?"

John shrugged.

"Then I let you go. I'm not a savage, my dear sir. Merely an honest businessman."

He considered.

"A dishonest businessman, I suppose. Pirate, you know."

With a jaunty salute, Pirate John strode from the chamber and then his ship sailed away and here they were, watching each other try to speak through their gags. Pirate John had cleverly lashed them to each other so they were unable to reach each other's bonds and so they sat for a while, listening to the guards left downstairs sing a sea shanty.

Arrafin looked around for a pencil to jot down the words.

Nevid hoped Isabella wouldn't be too disappointed in him.

Isaac replayed the duel with Juan Antonio in his head, grim satisfaction filling him as he watched the del Orofin's head tumble to the cobblestones.

Etienne, entirely new to this group, watched his compatriots carefully. They seemed strangely non-plussed at their sudden captivity. He knew very little about them, only that they were agents of the del Maraviez, as was he himself, and that he was to bring them to Pavairelle safe and sound.

Not doing so well on that one, he mused.

Elena concentrated. She could recall the way in which she had touched Juan Antonio's mind, and it seemed to her that she ought to be able to do something similar to physical objects. She tried to focus.

Pirate John had left three candles burning up here. One was no more than a few feet away. Elena stared at it, the slick wax dripping down onto the brass holder. A small flame but probably enough. If it would just... come here.

A quiet scraping startled her. It had moved. She tried again, tentatively, groping for the "muscle" in her brain that would make the candle draw towards her. Again, the round brass plate on which the candle stood scraped across the stone towards her. And again. Elena's confidence grew as she guided the candle behind her, twisting to watch its progress. At last it sat just an inch or so away from her wrists, and she turned back to face forwards.

To confront five very cautious stares.

Elena was suddenly glad nobody could speak. She held her wrists out behind her, hoping the intense heat on her wrists meant that the candle flame was near enough to burn the rope. Wincing, gritting her teeth as the pain grew, Elena started to yank her wrists apart rhythmically, and was rewarded at last with a simple, quiet tearing sound and her hands were free.

She clawed at the gag in her mouth and tore it loose, then disentangled herself from the ropes binding her legs.

With a look round at all her friends, still bound uncomfortably, Elena stretched and yawned a deep, satisfying breath.

"THAT'S so much better, I gotta say."

She smirked at the angry glares all around and then set about untying her friends.

Queries about how she'd managed to make a candle move across the floor she handled by saying "Kalibar taught me some tricks. Path of the mother, you know." Eventually the others stopped asking and started looking around their prison.

Etienne made a quick motion and led Elena and Isaac to the back of the room. Behind some crates he'd noticed an opening. The others understood and began silently moving boxes and barrels aside. Soon they'd exposed an alcove. Within sat a sort of marble box, eight feet long and about three feet across, waist-high. Situated on top of the box a human skull grinned at them.

Even more interesting than all of that, beyond the box another opening showed a flight of stairs leading up. The three looked at each other in cautious excitement. If they could just keep everything perfectly silent.

"The stars! The nine-fold stars have fallen! Awake!"

Isaac hissed, "Arrafin! Can you shut him up!"

Arrafin shook her head, dark curls going in all directions. Adil followed her everywhere and kept shouting these crazy statements. She turned to him and spoke in Naridic.

"Hush! Stop that!"

To her surprise, the elderly man immediately closed his mouth and stood silently staring at her. She smiled and put up a hand to wave at him.

"Hi."

"I am Adil. Adil al-Mula beni Nasir."

There was a moment of silence.

Arrafin looked around at the others, but nobody had anything useful to suggest. She turned back to Adil.

"Hi Adil. How are you?"

Looking more closely at the poor man, Arrafin noticed his face was covered in an incredible network of scars. It was as though he'd been shattered and put back together somehow.

"I'm tired."

For just a second he seemed completely rational. Then he smiled at her, and turned and raced off, over the edge of the room, into the grotto. They heard him splash, and a sudden thrashing punctuated by screams. Arrafin started for the edge to look down, but Nevid grabbed her, put a finger to his lips and shook his head.

Down below they heard startled voices. Standing perfectly still, only a few feet from the lip, Arrafin heard one of the pirates clearly say, "It's only Adil, getting eaten again."
 

Avarice

First Post
barsoomcore said:
Down below they heard startled voices. Standing perfectly still, only a few feet from the lip, Arrafin heard one of the pirates clearly say, "It's only Adil, getting eaten again."

:eek: :D

Have I reminded you lately how much I love your writing? I very nearly ruined another keyboard (and a perfectly good Mountain Dew) reading this.
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Avarice said:
I very nearly ruined another keyboard (and a perfectly good Mountain Dew) reading this.
You should have seen the players' faces. Fortunately I wasn't standing right in front of anyone... ;)
 


Joshua Randall

Adventurer
Hey barsoomcore - I enjoy this story hour, but I'm having a devil of a time keeping track of all the strange family names, places, and so forth. Is there a sort of glossary somewhere that I could read?

(And if it's on a link in your .sig, would you mind posting the link here? Some of us have .sigs turned off. Thanks!)
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Hm. First off, JR, could you tell me which names are getting confusamated for you? I'm really really trying to deliver my exposition in media res, so if it's not getting through I'd like to make sure I improve that way.

But yeah, I'll add a link to the campaign website back in the initial thread post, just for you non-siggers. How's that? :D
 

Joshua Randall

Adventurer
All the family names (e.g., del Maraveiz, del Orofin). And, y'know, I even studied Spanish in high school and college, so it's not the concept of the names - it's just that without some external reference, I can't keep strait which family is the wealthy merchant family, which one is the shipbuilding family, which one is close with the royalty....

The place names. I have a very visual memory and I simply must know where things are if I am to have any hope of remembering them. Where is The Gap? Where is Saijadan? Where are the various cities that are referenced? A map would be ideal (ooh... meesa LOVE maps!), but a general description would also work. ("Cleveland, a city of the northlands, sits on the shores of a vast lake known as Erie; the river Cuyahoga bisects the city.")

Edit: of course, there is a nifty map on Barsoomcore's web site. Oops. That's what I get for going off half-cocked.

The names of some of the dinosaurs keep jarring me out of the story. I know those are a central element of your gameworld, but I need more background detail on how they fit into it. (Just like in a story set in the contemporary real world you couldn't toss off a sentence about dragons in the barn without raising people's eyebrows.)

Anyway, I don't want you to think I dislike the story - far from it. I am just frustrated by my inability to comprehend it better. (Of course it doens't help that I read it in fits and starts rather than all in one sitting.) It's probably my own denseness rather than any failing on your part that makes it hard for me to understand.
 
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barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Gotcha! Thanks -- I can address those sorts of issues in the story itself, I think.

Look for a little exposition in the next episode (but not until after the explosions).
 

barsoomcore

Unattainable Ideal
Elena whispered, "We're never going to shift all that stone. Not without making a whole lot of noise."

She regarded the half-Kishak lad standing next to her. Etienne had not revealed very much about himself since they first encountered him. She knew what he'd told them -- that he worked for Marques del Maraviez in Pavairelle. He was wiry and graceful, constantly studying everything around him as though a potential threat lurked in every corner.

He nodded at her comment, still examining the mass of stone that clogged the stairway they'd found leading up out of their prison. Behind them stood Isaac, Nevid and Arrafin, the Naridic girl still staring in a shocked fashion at the lip of the grotto.

The group gathered in a tight circle to discuss their options.

Isaac growled, "We're not sitting here waiting for that crazy pirate to get back."

Arrafin looked at him. "I like him. He's funny."

"Well, sure, we like him, but, you know, pirate? Dishonest?"

Etienne spoke up. "We have to get out of here. There's no way we're sitting around waiting. No way."

"Fine," said Elena, "Then we have to deal with guards downstairs. We don't even know how many there are."

Etienne eyed a coil of rope among the stored supplies.

"I have an idea."

*****

The halfbreed was heavier than he looked. Isaac suppressed a grunt of effort as he strained at the rope supporting Etienne. The half-Kishak hung upside down, far above the waters of the grotto, trying to keep from spinning as he slowly dropped past the rock face. Simultaneously trying not to think about the horrible growling sounds and shrieks that had come from the water after Adil splashed into it. As he approached the top of the dock cavern below, he signalled for a slower descent.

His head dropped below the level of the roof of the cavern that lay directly beneath where his fellow prisoners were assembled. He saw a broad warehouse-sort of space, littered with crates and boxes and coils of rope. Seated around a flaming brazier sat three rough-looking chaps whom he recognized as members of Pirate John's crew. A door sealed the room at either end, which was open along one long side to the grotto. Thick posts showed where the pirate's ship would normally be tied up.

Etienne studied carefully, estimating distances, and then signalled for Isaac and the others to pull him up.

"Okay, we're about sixty feet above the water. You go over the edge here, and there's thirty feet of rock wall and then you're hanging in front of another room like this one, only bigger. There's one door pretty much right where that one is," he pointed to the door at the far end of the room, "And another one at the opposite end. There's three guys sitting around a fire, pretty much right in the middle of the room, maybe... twenty feet in from the edge."

The others tried to picture the scene in their minds.

Nevid nodded. "The doors downstairs are closed?"

"Yep."

Nevid walked over to the door and tested it. It opened, and without a word he passed through and closed it behind him. Etienne looked at the others.

"What's he doing?"

"Don't ask us. We never know what he's doing."

Arrafin had gone and collected the skull that lay on the marble slab in the alcove and stood turning it over in her hands.

"I wonder whose skull this is and why those pirates never took it?"

"We can do all the investigating we want, Arrafin," said Isaac, "After those pirates are dealt with."

The Naridic girl smiled happily. "Really?"

Elena grinned and turned to Etienne. "They got lots of supplies down there? Crates, boxes, crap like that?"

"Yeah."

"You see any gunpowder?"

*****

Once again Etienne dangled from a rope high above the glittering waters of the grotto. Both to his right and his left, sunlight streamed in through the high cave openings on either side of the island, giving rise to endless patterns of dappled reflection along all the walls of the long tunnel.

This time, he was right-side-up, and bracing himself against the cavern wall, just above the lower cavern. He took up a bunch of slack on the rope and held the coils loosely in one hand, tying a knot where he figured the right length would be. He wasn't sure what to think about these folks, but this whole trip had turned out a lot more exciting than he'd expected. The woman Elena's ability to make candlesticks walk notwithstanding, they seemed like pretty straightforward folks.

"Wait for the explosion."

He could imagine that being able to move candles around in an environment containing gunpowder could produce an explosion pretty easily. He just hoped they didn't blow the entire cavern to smithereens.

He hung there, wondering what on earth that skinny Naridic girl was doing with the rest of them.

*****

"Okay, brace yourself."

Elena peered through a knothole in the downstairs door. She could see, across a jumbled vista of disorganized supplies, the three pirates gathered around the brazier. With greater confidence than she'd had previously, she reached out and mentally gripped a flaming brand from the brass bowl.

Ignoring the startled cries of the pirates, she lifted the brand into the air and carried it to a gunpowder barrel. The effect was everything she could have hoped for.

With a thunderous roar, the room erupted in flame and smoke and flying debris. The door crashed inward, knocking Elena back against the steps, coughing. Nevid held his crossbow up, peering into the thick smoke. He could hear yelling, so the pirates hadn't been killed outright.

Up in the grotto, Etienne leapt into the billowing cloud of smoke, hoping he'd judged the distance right, gritting his teeth as he plunged downward in a swift arc.

He didn't hit the water, but the smoke was still too dense for him to see anything as the swing started up the other side, so without any real idea as to how far from the ground he was, Etienne let go.

The instant the rope went slack, Isaac hauled it in, grabbed it where the half-Kishak had tied a knot, and, to Arrafin's horror, charged straight out over the edge.

"Some half-Kishak daredevil thinks he can outdo a Saijadani..."

*****

As the cloud began to disperse, Nevid saw Isaac. He was flying.

Clinging to the rope with one hand, clamping his hat to his head with the other, still with his omnipresent cigar clenched in his teeth, the big Saijadani swooped in from the grotto and let go, sailing through the air to crash into a mass of splintered crates.

Etienne had already drawn a longknife and was circling one pirate who kept slapping at a smouldering patch on his breeches. Nevid saw another pirate getting to his feet and fired his crossbow at the man. The bolt slammed into the man's shoulder and pitched him forward onto his face.

Isaac staggered to his feet, spinning to check his surroundings, and saw a stunned-looking fellow with major burns to his face. Which probably really stung, reflected the Saijadani, after his fist connected so solidly with the poor chap's jaw. Isaac pulled out his big sword, saw the opposite door opening and charged.

Etienne feinted forward, dropped his shoulder and when the other guy slashed at him, spun back and cut in a long arc down the man's side. He shrieked and dropped his knife and the Kishak lad kicked him hard and let him fall. He whirled to see Isaac charging the far door, and saw the barrel of the firearm a second before the Saijadani did.

Isaac sat down heavily at the impact of the ball, on the ground before he really registered what had happened. He looked down just in time to see the blood from his chest wound suddenly gush out down his shirt.

"That's gonna hurt."

Nevid, at the report of the pistol, pointed his just-reloaded crossbow at the far door and released. The bolt smashed into the doorframe, but the pirate hiding there withdrew. Etienne had gotten to the wall alongside the door and stood there motionless, watching Nevid for some sign.

Isaac groaned and collapsed. Elena swore.

"We have to get out there. He's going to die. I'm going. That bastard sticks his head out again, Nevid, you shoot him."

"What?"

Elena crouched low and ran for where Isaac lay. Etienne tried to wave her back but she paid no attention. She did pay attention when Nevid yelled, "Get down!"

There was another pistol shot, followed immediately by the heavy metal twang of Nevid's crossbow. Elena fell to her hands and knees and, feeling no terrible impact, she kept going.

As soon as the gun and the crossbow went off, Etienne wrenched open the door and grabbed the weapon away from the startled pirate standing there. So startled was he that he stood perfectly still as Etienne slipped a knife up under his ribs. He groaned quietly and fell to the ground. Etienne turned and saw Elena's ashen face look up from where she knelt next to Isaac.

"He's going to die."

*****

"Isaac? Isaac, drink this, okay? Some water for you."

Arrafin tried not to look at the wound in Isaac's chest. The others were upstairs, moving aside the blocks of stone that had blocked the stairs up there. Nobody wanted to try the waters in grotto, as they had turned out to be populated with extremely agressive and toothy predators of some indistinct type. Loud grinding sounds and occasional bursts of swearing came from above as she tried to smile at Isaac's watery eyes.

"We'll get out of here soon, Isaac. Don't worry. You have to help me investigate the skull, remember? You have to help me."

She sat next to the man, his laboured breathing setting off her nerves. Awkwardly she reached out and patted his shoulder.

"So, del Valencia, huh? From Petrahegna, is that right? It must be beautiful. Of course, I've never been so, don't know, ha ha. But I read. Poetry. You know. Can you read?"

"I can read."

Isaac's lips hadn't moved. Arrafin leaned closer, frowning.

"I can read."

Isaac also couldn't speak Naridic, as far as she knew. It occured that maybe somebody else was speaking and she turned around.

Adil, dripping wet and stark naked, stood there.

*****

They'd almost gotten the last stones pulled free when they heard her screaming.
 

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