Adil wasn't quite naked. Hanging around his neck on a well-worn leather thong was a strange circular pendant.
Once Arrafin recovered from her fright, and heard her friends stampeding downstairs to see what had happened, she smiled.
"Adil. You're... not dead."
He scowled and hissed at her, "That's not funny."
Arrafin's big eyes blinked and, stung by Adil's sudden scorn, she turned to Isaac and dabbed at the wounded man's forehead with a damp cloth. The others piled into the room and stopped in confusion at the sight of the old man they'd assumed had just died a horrible death.
"Hey. Didn't you just... die?"
Etienne pointed at Adil, confusion transforming into fear across his face. He turned to Elena and Nevid.
"Let's get him some pants first."
"Awake! The gates of Tabbadur have opened! Awake!"
"Okay, I'm starting wish he'd stayed dead."
"We need to get off this rock. We need to go now. There's a rowboat, let's go."
"We can't move Isaac."
"Leave him here. Pirate John'll take care of him."
"The ninefold stars have fallen! Tabbadur is open! Awake!"
"We've almost got those stairs cleared. Let's see what's up there. Maybe something up there can help."
"That's a lot of poop."
Elena stood at the head of the newly-cleared stairwell and surveyed the top of the rocky island. Obviously a massive rookery for hundreds of dactyls, leathery wings swooped and zoomed overhead and croaking voices called out in endless imprecations. The top of the island was flat, except for a couple of projections here and there. All of which were so thoroughly covered in dactyl droppings so as to be nothing more than vague shapes, devoid of any detail.
"Wow. It's a temple."
Elena turned to frown at Arrafin. The girl HAD suffered a pretty severe shock, seeing Adil show up like that. No explanation as to how he'd survived the toothy monsters in the grotto, either, although the staggering number of scars on his body had gotten everyone's imaginations working overtime. Isaac continued to hover on the verge of death. And now Arrafin had gone insane.
Elena's frown deepened as Arrafin's spindly form plunged into the ankle-deep guano, staggering across to one of the larger lumps that rose from the surface of the island. This was a vaguely rectangular shape, about five feet in cross-section and thirty feet long. Elena followed her friend, and as they came up, Nevid and Etienne and Adil all followed.
To Elena's disgust, Arrafin started brushing away the thick deposits all over the shape, which she saw now was tapered towards one end.
"It's an obelisk. A fallen obelisk."
"What's an obelisk?"
"A tomb marker. At least, that's what they're used for... in the Narid."
"We are five hundred miles from the Narid. Across the Inner Sea."
"Yeah. Weird. And look, writing!"
Arrafin brushed more frantically at the stone, uncovering chipped letters. She traced them with her slender fingers, mouthing the words, frowning in concentration.
They all stood silently for a second, but Etienne couldn't take it for long.
"What does it say?"
Arrafin's voice came out quiet, but somehow penetrated the endless shrieks and cries of the dactyls swarming overhead.
"Step into Fate's whirlwind, and she will smile upon you. Walk boldy into the jaws of the banth to learn from yesterday and to shape tomorrow. When Tabbadur is opened, the nine-fold stars will fall from the sky to signal Her return. When wheel meets wheel, the past becomes clear and the future opens."
Elena scowled, "'She?' Does that ring any bells?"
Arrafin shook her head. "I don't know... It... Something to do with... Suelekar Ben Azan."
Something twitched in her bag and she jumped, startled.
"The nine-fold stars have fallen! Awake! Awake!"
"Catch him, Etienne!"
Adil sprinted for the edge of the island, and although the half-Kishak charged after him, the old man had too great a head start and disappeared over the edge. Etienne skidded to a stop and peered over.
The old man's body cracked against rocks far, far below, and a wave came up and he disappeared. Etienne cursed and looked around.
Not far off another set of cliffs rose up out of the water, these ones topped with thick forest, vines and roots reaching out over the edge to twine into the rock.
Arrafin dumped her papers out of her bag, along with a pistol she'd picked up along the way and never loaded, an untouched jar of makeup (gift from Bel), a dozen or so quills and two jars of ink, pencils, three rolled-up maps and a sketch she'd purchased in Highpass, the Blood Council dagger they'd found in the tomb in Chimney and the skull that had been downstairs. She frowned and picked up the skull.
It was no longer made of bone -- it appeared to be formed of marble. Pure white, heavy and thick, as though someone had actually carved it. All the holes had filled up except the one at the base of the skull, so that it formed a sort of bowl or drinking vessel.
She knew what to do. She knew just what to do.
Arrafin shoved everything back into her bag, heedless of any order or organization, and without a word, raced back to the stairs and down.
Nevid and Elena looked at each other in confusion.
"Who's Suelekar Ben Azan?"
Arrafin flew down the steps and rushed over to where Isaac lay, his breathing laboured and his face ashen. She dropped her bag and found a wineskin nearby. Tilting up the skin, she poured some wine into the basin formed by the upside-down skull, and then raised the skull to Isaac's lips.
"Have a drink, Isaac. Come on, it'll help you feel better. I know it."
He didn't respond.
"You told me we could do all the investigating I wanted after the pirates were taken care of, remember? You have to drink this so I can investigate. Drink it. You have to drink it."
At last his lips parted and Arrafin tilted the skull, trying to carefully pour a trickle of wine down his throat.
Isaac coughed and his eyes opened.
"Oh. That feels... unusual."
The others came rushing downstairs for the second time, only to see an amazed Isaac stand up, poking at the hole in his shirt with a finger. He looked down at Arrafin.
"What did you do to me?"
She shook her head.
"Not me. That was Suelekar Ben Azan, first king of the Narid. I think this is his skull. I think this island is his tomb."
Elena sat down on a splintered crate.
"Do you know what Tabbadur is?"
"No. I've heard the name, I think. It's got something to do with Suelekar Ben Azan -- he built it, I think. Whatever it is."
Arrafin shook her fists in frustration.
"I need a library! A university, where I can research this stuff."
"Pavairelle has a great University."
Isaac turned to Etienne.
"How are we going to get to Pavairelle, Kishak? In a rowboat?"
"We can walk. Look," he cleared out some space around himself, grabbed a piece of charcoal and drew a horizontal line, "this is the north coast of the Inner Sea, right? Saijadan is over here, on the right, the Gap is here in the middle, and over here, on the left," he marked a dot on the left end of the line, "is Pavairelle."
He looked around to make sure his audience was following him.
"We're somewhere right around here," Etienne indicated a point just below the line, to the left of mid-way across, "And we're only a little ways from the coast. You can see it from up top. We can row over there, climb up the cliff, and walk along the coast to Pavairelle."
"Climb up the cliff?"
"Walk to Pavairelle? What are we going to eat? More importantly, what's going to eat us? The Gap woods are crawling with raptors. We won't get ten steps."
Isaac drew a long breath.
"I feel a lot better. Does anyone else find that really strange?"
At the top of cliff, Elena and Isaac pulled on the rope. They didn't exactly strain; dangling from the other end of the rope was Arrafin, who weighed considerably less than the gear either Saijadani carried around with them. For her part, the Naridic girl was loudly complaining that she didn't have access to her notebooks and thus wouldn't be able to make any observations on the different strata of bird nests on the cliff face.
Etienne and Nevid studied the forest. Back on the island, Etienne had been cocky and confident, unconcerned about Elena's "We'll be eaten by raptors" worries. But here, staring into the thick vegetation, distant cries and growls and unfamiliar plants on all sides, he suddenly felt a stab of panic. Etienne had lived his entire life in the streets and alleys of Pavairelle, greatest city of Barsoom. His idea of foraging for food consisted of inspecting the midden heaps behind restaurants.
Nevid was no less worried than the half-Kishak. Tramping through mile after mile of predator-filled forest filled him with complete terror. He was still reeling from the discovery that the skull they'd found would knit wounds together. Nobody else seemed at all concerned but Nevid was certain that skull held some sort of demonic power that would draw from them a terrible price. He would have nothing to do with it.
At last Arrafin reached the top and Isaac easily hefted her up onto the forest floor.
She stared at the tree trunks, vines, ferns and dripping leaves.
It started to rain. Again.
"Are there beaches in Pavairelle?"
Trying to force their way through the tangled vegetation quickly proved pointless, and so they tramped along the cliff top, negotiating the narrow path of clear land between dizzying drop-off and impassable plant life. To their right the Inner Sea, grey and tossed with whitecaps, stretched out under equally grey, heavy-hanging clouds that kept up an unending drizzle.
The raindrops were large and soft and warm and all of the travellers were soon soaked to the bone, their boots sinking ankle-deep in the mud. They clung to tree branches to avoid slipping and tumbling off the cliff, making their way along the coast in unsteady progression.
Night came with no sign of predators or any other wildlife, and Isaac and Elena managed to hack out a small camp and construct a lean-to. Arrafin, looking even skinnier than usual now that she was drenched to the bone, was too exhausted to protest when they gave her the one cot they'd managed to construct. The others wrapped themselves in dripping blankets and huddled on the forest floor, trying to ignore rivers of mud and painfully-twisted roots sticking into their backs.
Etienne curled in on himself, wishing fervently he'd never left Pavairelle, and vowing to never set foot outside the city walls again.
"Who would build a wall here?"
The group piled up behind Etienne as the half-Kishak stared down at a small rise in the mud before him. Low stones lay set there, and rose up into the forest to form what was clearly an ancient wall, now crumbling and overgrown, but still standing higher than a man.
Etienne sighted up the top of the wall and nodded.
"We can walk along the top. It's wide enough."
Isaac raised an eyebrow.
"Why would we want to? I have trouble believing this will lead us to Pavairelle."
"Don't you want to find out what this is? Aren't you curious?"
Nevid, Elena and Isaac exchanged a look.
"We've been pretty well trained to control our curiousity, you might say."
Arrafin clambered up onto the wall and casually strolled up the broken stones to the top.
"It curves up ahead. Interesting."
The Naridic girl disappeared into the forest, picking her way along the top of the wall. After a second, the rest of the group plunged after her.
The wall did indeed curve. At first they found themselves heading directly away from the cliff-edge, but as they pushed their way past more creeping vines and ducked past more overhanging branches (Isaac growing ever more annoyed with Etienne's acrobatic leaps and rolls over obstacles), the wall began to curve to their left, seeming to turn in on itself. A feeling of faint unease crawled over them all, as if this were the site of some unspeakable atrocity.
They caught up with Arrafin where she crouched, peering over the "inside" edge of the wall, down at a cleared patch of forest floor. A massive tree had fallen, leaving a gap in the close vegetation of the forest.
No more than ten or fifteen feet away stood another wall, exactly the same as the one they stood on, the two forming a curving sort of hallway through the forest. Between the two the forest lay open, revealing a floor of close-set blocks.
Etienne shrugged and leapt down, turn a somersault on the way. Issac glowered and simply jumped the eight feet straight down, ignoring the younger man and turning to help Arrafin, who insisted on inspecting the blocks.
"What on earth could this be? It's not Kishak, but look, these patterns in the rock -- do you think...?" The Naridic girl pulled out a sheaf of notepaper and, hunching over to protect the sheets from the rain, began tracing out the barely-visible patterns of etching in the stone blocks. Isaac obliging pulled aside leaves and creepers for her.
Etienne watched Arrafin's investigation for a second or two and then, bored, looked around the fallen tree.
Underneath he noticed something. The half-Kishak crouched to get a better look.
What looked like a small box lay wedged beneath the tree trunk. Etienne knelt and reached out with his right hand. He could just reach it, but it was heavier than he'd expected and didn't move when he tugged at it. He repositioned himself for a stronger grip.
Isaac noticed his scrabbling around.
"Etienne, what are you doing?"
"Just trying to reach... this... got it!"
Etienne got his hand positioned around the corner of the box and tugged. To his surprise, although the box moved, it did not come forward but instead pivoted around some hidden hinge.
It was not a box. It was a switch. Releasing a massive trap door and dumping Isaac and Arrafin into blackness below.
There was a cry of shock, a single impact as Isaac crashed into a pile of soft dirt, a squeak as Arrafin landed on Isaac and a sudden silence.
"Kishak, I'm going to make you sorry."
"What's down there?
Isaac growled. "Can't tell. It's dark."
Arrafin piped up, "I think I can hear screaming."
Elena and Nevid looked at each other and scrambled down to stand next to Etienne at the edge of the pit. They peered down into the darkness.
And then backed away as a torrent of shrieks erupted out of the pit, terror-filled and desperate, the screams of doomed men, cut off with terrible finality.
"Yep, that's screaming."
"Is that a door? Isaac, let go of me, I can walk. It's a door."
"Arrafin, don't open that door."
"It's quiet now."
"Don't open that door."
"I'll just have a look."
"Oh. Hello. Was that you screaming?"
Arrafin looked up at a towering black-skinned man who stared down at her with curiously soft eyes. She smiled hesitantly, and started to wave when she realised that half of his left arm was missing, several broken knife hilts protruded from his massive torso.
She recoiled straight into Isaac, who'd drawn his sword and stood staring at the immense newcomer.
Elena hissed down to Arrafin, "See what the skull thinks of him."
Arrafin nodded and fumbled in her bag, holding up the marble skull before her.
The fact that this figure was long dead and animated through tremendous sorcery became immediately obvious to her.
"You're... undead, aren't you?"
He turned to her. "I am 34th of the Scar'ith Tushan. Once I was known as Laughter of Stones. Long have I hunted the Keyad'ar who lurks within and now I close with it. You will assist me. Come. Now. Or I will smite you where you stand."
"I'm not sure I got that. What happened to the first 33?"
Isaac gripped his sword with one hand and kept Arrafin behind him with the other.
The Naridic girl had no sense. No caution. She saw something old and she wanted to look at it. She kept trying to press past Isaac and approach the terrifying apparition that led them into the caverns they'd fallen into. Her incessant questions echoed down the stone hallways where he led them.
"Are you Peranese? What are the Scar'ith Tushan? What's a Keyad'ar? How many of you are there? Can you read?"
Behind Arrafin and Isaac came Etienne, Elena and Nevid. Etienne couldn't stop staring at the big guy who'd commandeered them. He stood seven feet tall, muscles cut from what looked like solid obsidian, moving with unnerving grace and quiet. He didn't breathe. Etienne was quite sure of that -- he kept watching, waiting to see the creature's chest expand, to hear it sigh or make some unconscious noise.
Nothing. And it was wounded beyond what any man ought to be able to withstand, and yet shed no blood and seemed more or less unconcerned, even with the terrible gash in its side, the arm lopped right off and the leg that didn't flex properly. It wasn't moving too fast, but, Etienne mused, it was moving faster than he himself would be able to in similar circumstances.
Nevid kept watching behind them. They passed through what had obviously been a dining hall of some sort, tables and chairs now thrown about in wild disarray. A few Kishak bodies lay about, looking as though they had been cloven by some massive blade. Probably, he thought, stealing a glance at the huge black man's strangely curved archaic sword, THAT massive blade. He wondered if they were the previous group to have been pressed into his service
Elena noticed grimly that they appeared to be descending. The rock through which the tunnel passed dripped with moisture, slick limestone that crumbled underfoot. Somebody lived down here, for lamps burned fitfully along the walls, casting a feeble, shuddery light up and down the length of the hall.
Laughter of Stones, or 34, or whatever his name was, turned on Arrafin.
"Silence, small mortal. Enemies lie ahead."
Arrafin shut her mouth, but her eyes remained as round as ever as the big undead warrior stepped around a turn in the passage, sword held high. Isaac shook his head and yanked a pistol free with his left hand, sword clutched in his right, and with a deep breath, rounded the corner behind his spooky ally. Etienne, eager for some sort of action to distract him from his worries (and also curious to see this guy at work), rushed forward as well, leaving Elena, Nevid and Arrafin looking at each other and bracing themselves for sounds of battle.
Which sounds consisted of a sharp crack of a pistol, a curse from Isaac, and the sound of a door slamming shut.
Etienne called out, "It's safe."
Isaac grumbled, "Yeah, in that 'I've just been shot' kind of way."
Arrafin ran into the room, intending to hand the skull to Isaac, but stopped dead at the massive fresco adorning one wall.
Elena, "tsk"-ing, took the skull from Arrafin's stunned hands and knelt next to Isaac, who was bleeding from a piercing wound in his side. Nevid stayed back in the passageway. Etienne joined Arrafin in her study of the painting.
"Are those lizards or people?"
"The ones being eaten are people, I'm pretty sure. But these ones look like... lizard-people."
"They are the Keyad'ar. Long ago they nearly exterminated the human race. Thus the Three Hundred. Thus the Scar'ith Tushan. One lurks beneath us now, still unaware of my approach."
Isaac, trying to avoid not being creeped out by watching his flesh knit itself back together, jumped to his feet and gestured to either side of the chamber.
"Behind which door?"
The room was arched, and roomy enough that two people could comfortably fight a duel in it, but running two such fights side-by-side would be a little cramped. One wall peeled with the ancient fresco Arrafin continued to study, while opposite a bare wall sported only a heavy-looking wooden door. The two walls forming the other sides of the room were pierced with the opening from the passage, and a massive iron door, respectively.
The great black-skinned man pointed silently towards the wooden door. Etienne immediately moved over to the iron door and began inspecting it.
Isaac grimaced. "So those clowns who shot me are what? Its doorkeepers?"
"So maybe it DOES know we're here."
"They did not see me. Only you."
"Great. What are we, bait?"
"You understand the situation precisely. Go through the door."
"There's Kishaks with guns behind that door!"
Isaac sheathed his sword and took out both his pistols. He studied the wooden door for a second, then looked over at Elena.
"Open the door on my signal. Arrafin, get back."
Elena pushed Arrafin back to the passage where Nevid cowered, drew her own sword and took up position next to the door. Etienne left off his examination of the other door, drew his knife and stood opposite Elena. Isaac glowered at him.
"You jump in there too fast, Kishak, you'll be taking one of my bullets in your backside."
He nodded to Elena, and as she threw open the door, Isaac lunged forward, stumbling down a short flight of steps, wincing at the impact of bullets against the wall behind him. Two faces appeared around a corner and he fired both pistols, grinned as he heard an impact of lead with skull and dropped to one knee. One head reappeared, ready for him with sword drawn, charging at the Saijadani who'd just expended both his firearms.
Or at least, one barrel of each.
Two more explosions and the Kishak warrior flew backwards. Isaac's smug grin vanished as he spun to face the THIRD Kishak, this one charging at him from an unseen alcove. He dropped the guns and grabbed for his sword, cursing and stumbling backwards.
Etienne launched himself from the top of the stairs head-first, both arms spread out in a perfect cross shape. He sailed down in a descending parabola, his right arm smoothly intersecting with the Kishak's throat. The charging defender's feet kept running and he lifted right up into the air as the sudden application of Etienne's weight forced the top half of him backwards. Both men hit the stone floor with a thunderous crash, but Etienne had already tucked his head in and flashed to his feet in a quick roll, shooting a manic grin at Isaac as he stood up.
They both looked down at the motionless Kishak, supine between them.
"He hit his head pretty hard."
"Sucks to be red."
Elena and Arrafin came down the stairs, followed by Laughter of Stones. Nevid peered down from the doorway. Their immense guide pointed around the corner the Kishaks had come from.
The lower caverns seemed danker, and the light less regular. Isaac led the way, having reloaded his pistols, and Etienne kept close behind him, both going up to corners, peering around, and then waving the others forward. Elena considered asking if they really needed two point guards but decided to keep her counsel to herself.
Etienne felt like he was shaking all the time. Forgotten was his earlier desire to simply return to Pavairelle; this was adventure. Thrills. The only frustration was the big Saijadani guy's insistence on staying up at the front. Etienne was sure he could move much faster and quieter without the older man tucked onto his heels.
They came to a widening in the passage a sort of natural chamber, and Etienne's keen eyes caught a faint shaft of light spilling out from an archway across the wide room. He nudged Isaac to indicate the light.
"I can see it. Keep still."
Isaac rose from where he'd been crouching and studying the floor of the room. Something seemed strange. He sniffed, noted the dry, musky smell in the air.
Too late he realised Etienne had slipped from his hiding place and rushed across the room.
He rushed forward too late, as a figure appeared in the archway and raced to where Etienne approached. There was a flash of steel and the half-Kishak youth collapsed with a gurgling cry. The figure turned to Isaac and he saw it was a woman. A Lohanese woman, her slanted eyes exotic and unreadable. She held up a hand and spoke something he couldn't understand.
A tree trunk slapped him aside and he realised that Laughter of Stones had charged past. In his wake came Elena and Arrafin, and Nevid, wide-eyed, rushing behind. Isaac got to his feet and joined in the general rush. The woman made no effort to flee, instead just standing watching her enemies charge.
Elena didn't know what she was doing. Laughter had turned to them and said, "Now. Follow me." And they did.
Only they weren't as speedy as he was. By the time he'd reached the woman and was raising his sword for a wood-splitting blow, she was only half-way across the chamber. She and Arrafin and Nevid and Isaac.
So that the gigantic snake, bigger around than she was tall, was able to surge out of a dark alcove and get in between them and Laughter. Who seemed otherwise occupied.
Arrafin screamed. Or it might have been Nevid. Elena sighed.
Giant snake. Isaac shrugged and fired both barrels of both his guns.
Which had, predictably enough, no appreciable effect. The massive reptile surged forward, muscles under its gleaming scales contracting to thrust it along. Elena managed to avoid getting side-swiped by creature, but Arrafin was not so lucky and she fell backwards with a cry as an immense coil of giant snake smacked her.
The sound of its hissing was like thunder directly overhead. Nevid's ears rang with the defeaning noise, and he backed against a rough cavern wall, hoping the creature wouldn't see him.
Somewhere on the other side of the snake their surprise ally was going toe-to-toe with some terrible monster from the beginning of time. With Etienne lying unconscious nearby. Isaac could hear shouts and a clang of steel. He swore.
The snake froze, and for a second Elena thought it would leave them alone.
It burst into a sudden whirl of coils, dust flying from the cavern floor as it looped its body around Arrafin, just trying to get up. The thin Naridic girl screamed as cool scales pressed against her on all sides and she felt her body begin to flex inwards. Her scream cut off as all the air was driven from her lungs.
Both Isaac and Elena leapt onto the snake's writhing body, chopping frantically at the gigantic reptile. A shrug of its serpentine body sent them both flying, but they scrambled back and drove their swords deep into cold flesh.
Nevid looked up, surprised to discover that the battle had rolled right past him. He now stood between the snake and the Lohanese woman fighting with Laughter of Stones. They circled one another, staring and cautious.
Something happened inside Nevid's head. Perhaps it was the terror of the massive snake, perhaps it was frustration with the unending succession of inexplicable strangeness that had surrounded him ever since leaving Fort Burnoll. Whatever it was, he'd had enough.
Nevid got to his feet. He held in front of him the wooden staff he'd rescued from the underground tomb in Chimney. Behind him Isaac and Elena were yelling to Arrafin, telling her they'd be there soon. Snake coils surged and rolled back and forth across the chamber. In front of him, a terrifying undead creature fought with a slight young woman who appeared unperturbed.
Nevid ran up and hit her in the back of head.
The only apparent effect was that she backhanded him across the face, sending him crashing to the dusty floor of the cavern. He considered his options and chose to lie there perfectly still for a while, listening to the fight between his enemy and her enemy.
Isaac and Elena both hacked at the giant snake in a frenzy of panicked desperation. The snake was almost impossible to miss and they were both strong individuals, so it didn't take long before they had inflicted serious wounds to the occupied reptile.
Arrafin kept trying to breathe in. Nothing happened. The agonizing pain in her midsection kept increasing and her vision kept darkening and as her struggles to inhale continued to accomplish nothing, her strength faded fast. She retained enough presence of mind to note that the inside of the snake's mouth was pure white, and she wondered if it wasn't perhaps related to the Solana Cottonmouth, a water snake common in southern parts of Saijadan and known for eating rats and other pests.
The pure white mouth of the snake gaped open wide and descended towards her.
Arrafin wished she could see her father and her brother once more, at least to tell them she'd found the resting place of Essermane Varag. Her father would be thrilled. She thought of calling out to Elena, to ask her to send a letter, but the last of the breath in her lungs had gone and she started to slump in the coils crushing her so gently.
Isaac saw the creature's head rise up and the mouth open, descending towards what he could see of Arrafin's hair. With a roaring curse he hurled himself onto the coils of the monster and whirled his big sword in a two-handed sideways arc. The steel sank into the open mouth, shattering needle-like teeth and sending a great cascade of blood showering down all over Arrafin.
She didn't splutter or cough. Arrafin's total lack of reaction horrified Isaac. He yelled and swung his sword again and again, driving the snake's head back.
The creature rolled over and sent the big Saijadani flying. He slammed into the cavern wall, his sword ringing against the stone. The reptile's action loosened its coils, however, and Elena yanked Arrafin free. She stood, shaking, sword in her hand, facing the wounded creature.
The snake had had enough. With another thunderous hiss it retreated back into the tunnel it had emerged from. Elena knelt next to Arrafin and brushed blood away from the girl's mouth.
"Come on, Arrafin. Come on, girl. You're okay. You'll be okay. Come on, Arrafin."
Isaac staggered over, panting, to stare wild-eyed at the limp form of his friend. Elena looked up.
"She'll be okay. But if whatsisname doesn't win THAT fight -- " she gestured to where Laughter of Stones and the Lohanese woman continued to circle near where Etienne and Nevid lay, " -- none of us are getting out of here."
It took Isaac a second, but he nodded and with a last look at Arrafin, he turned and raised his sword to approach the two remaining combatants.
Etienne woozed. He put a hand to his head and groaned. He could hear shouting and crashing and other loud noises, but he couldn't quite put together where he was or what was going on. Somebody stepped on his face and he squawked and tried to roll away, but the pressure was gone nearly as suddenly as it was applied. He opened his eyes and saw a rather pretty Lohanese woman. Etienne smiled and tried to push himself upright. The only Lohanese women he'd ever seen before were Blood Council members, but this girl was not in the trademark crimson robes. She wore some sort of dark tunic and wide trousers and held a thin, curved sword in both hands.
When he noticed the black giant squaring off against her with his strange hooked blade, Etienne recalled where he was and what was happening. He considered just lying down again and hoping it would all go away.
Then Isaac charged, bellowing as he bore down on the woman. She turned to confront him and Etienne flinched as Laughter of Stones swept up his sword in a blinding cut straight for her head. She spun to one side, threw what looked like a shower of sparks from her left hand as her right swung her sword up to knock Isaac's aside. Laughter began to burn wherever the sparks touched him and staggered back as she engaged Isaac fully, blades ringing off each other in a sudden flurry of combat. Etienne could hear the Saijadani swearing and he tried to get up.
He couldn't. Etienne frowned and looked down. Only then did he realise he was lying in a pool of his own blood and that his legs held no feeling whatsoever. There was a large knife sticking out of his right side, and now that he thought about it the pain was quite intense.
Etienne began to scream.
The sudden shrieked opened Nevid's eyes. He saw Laughter of Stones staggering, reaching for the blade he'd apparently dropped for some reason. Isaac was backpedalling away from a determined-looking young woman, whose sword blurred back and forth in rhythmic cuts that Isaac only just managed to fend off. They passed him by and, once she had her back to him, Nevid stood up again and again brained her with his staff.
This time she staggered, and with a yell Isaac lunged forward.
Nevid heard her ribcage crack. It sounded like somebody breaking a particularly fresh celery stalk. He saw the back of her tunic reach out towards him as Isaac's sword emerged from just below her shoulder blade. He was still staring as Laughter's heavy blade bit down into her skull, splitting her head open right down to her shoulders.
She dropped. A second later, so did Laughter. Elena ran past Nevid, clutching the skull in her hands as she knelt next to Etienne. She yanked the blade free and tried not to flinch as the wounds closed before her eyes. Nevid stepped back as she approached him.
"I'm not drinking from that."
"Nevid, you're hurt. It'll help you heal. Look at Etienne."
The half-Kishak stood, grinning with sudden vitality.
"I'm not drinking from that," insisted Nevid, "It's black magic. Who knows what it's doing to you?"
"Fine. But if you drop dead, I'm leaving you."
Isaac turned from the altercation and saw Arrafin getting to her feet. He ran over and then stood awkwardly, grinning.
For a second Arrafin looked around wildly, then spotted her bag full of papers and notebooks.
"Oh, yeah. Fine. What would you say was the colouration of that snake? The thicker stripes were sort of a dark green, right? With orange spots along the edge."
Arrafin turned around, grabbed her notebooks and found a pencil to start jotting down her observations. Isaac watched her for a second, then shrugged and turned back to Elena.
Who was slowly backing away from Laughter of Stones.
Who was slowly becoming surrounded by a shimmering dark radiance formed of strange, translucent tendrils that seemed to weave in and around each other, and even to pass through his massive obsidian body. As Isaac, Elena and Nevid watched, the great gouges and hacks in that body reformed, the missing arm swirled into being and their ally stood up, somehow seeming bigger and more dangerous than ever before. He looked down at the corpse of the Lohanese woman and frowned.
"It didn't change. Curious."
The observing eyes widened as he knelt before the corpse and with one quick slash of his sword, opened the torso up and began rummaging around inside.
Elena had watched no small number of slaughterings in her time and for just a second she was impressed with his efficient technique. Nevid threw up. Isaac looked over to make sure Arrafin hadn't noticed yet, and sidled over to stand between the preoccupied Naridic girl and the ongoing gruesomeness as Laughter appeared determined to inspect each glistening organ inside the splayed body cavity.
"It didn't change."
Isaac ventured a question: "I thought we were after bad lizard people things. Keyamuckies or whatever."
"This is Keyad'ar. It has taken a new form. But I expected it to return to its natural form upon death. Interesting."
Etienne returned from the archway where the woman had initially emerged from. "Hey, gold! Oh, and Arrafin, there's a book."
Laughter stood up and considered Nevid.
"You are wounded. I am sorry for that."
He put a huge black hand on Nevid's head and the cut on his face quietly sealed itself back up. Only Elena noticed a similar wound simultaneously appear on Laughter's face.
"What are you?" she asked. She swallowed as ancient eyes, somehow terribly sad and tired, turned to regard her.
"Once we were men. We loved our king, Tushan Kal Kabbar. The sacrifice was his, and still we fight our ancient war. We are the Scar'ith Tushan, the Three Hundred Forsaken. Through the centuries we have hunted the great enemy. The Keyad'ar. We are the darkness that carries through to light. We are glory out of death."
"Great enemy?" Arrafin had joined them and stared open-mouthed at the giant warrior. "But we've never heard of these... Keyad'ar... before."
"Few are left, now. And few of us remain. Still we walk the borders of the Shadow Realm and strike them down where they hide. We are the Scar'ith Tushan and we fulfill the Oath of the Forsaken."
"Tushan Kal Kabbar... How old are you?"
Elena watched Laughter smile and in that moment the idea that this creature had once been a human being seemed suddenly like the saddest thing she'd ever seen. Impulsively she put a hand on his arm, unable to say anything that could express what she was feeling but wanting to reach out anyway.
He paid no attention to the contact but kept his heavy gaze on Arrafin.
"It has been two thousand six hundred and seventy-six years since I drew a breath."
Nobody spoke. He turned back to Elena.
"Do not grieve, mortal. We took this upon ourselves. We took the Oath out of love and need. And once again it calls me."
More tendrils of darkness began to sweep up and around him.
"I must depart and walk the edges of Shadow. I can take you with me, if there is somewhere you wish to go."
"You know where Pavairelle is?"
Black wind howled and savaged them. Black waves crested and broke against them. Black spears stabbed through them and black flames seared their skin. At times they were overwhelmed with sensation, at times they gasped at the sudden emptiness around them. Laughter of Stones stood in their midst, unyeilding against the horrible fury around them.
And then it was gone. They stood on cobblestones, sounds of commerce and chatter on all sides. Lanterns glowed in curtained windows overhead. Etienne looked around and grinned.
"Cherrytree Alley. We're home."
Inky tendrils reached up and seemed to suck him down into the paving stones. In the distance, they could hear drunken singing. Isaac scowled.
"I want whatever they're drinking. Kishak, let's see that gold."
Collette de Maynard ran for her life. Her bootsoles skidded over rain-slick cobblestones as she careened around a corner, cursing the name of Isaac del Valencia all the way.
Why the idiot thug couldn't have left well enough alone escaped her utterly. She'd been looking at lifelong wealth, honour and security until he chopped off Juan Antonio's hot-air-filled excuse for a head. The bastard. If he'd just waited a day, the King would have signed the agreement. By the time he found out about the affair his Queen was having with Juan Antonio, the deal would already have been in place. And Collette would be on a Salejo beach, reading congratulatory letters from Pilar del Orofin. Juan Antonio's mother.
But now Pilar had turned against her.
Collette ran. Pavairelle was a big city, and she knew a lot of people here, but the del Orofin family had a long, long reach. And Pilar was plenty angry about the death of her son. If Collette hadn't read correctly the glance from Fernandez, she'd have gone straight to her room -- and been in bed when the two Kishak thugs broke in, instead of hiding on the opposite roof to see what might happen.
Paranoia. Collette cultivated it.
She raced past shuttered windows and into an alley, paused, heaving, watching carefully back the way she had come. The street glittered, empty and silent. Collette let her breathing slow down fractionally and then sprinted off again. She was sure somebody was watching her.
This wasn't the first time Collette de Maynard had needed to run for her life. She grinned to herself.
It probably wouldn't be the last.
The thin Naridic man held back his sobs as he pinned the scrap of paper with one hand, writing madly with the other.
I have only a few moments to scribble these lines, and I can only hope that the Shaeric captain of the airship will deliver them to you.
Your brother is dead. The Emir's Hejani came for his students and he was shot down in his lecture hall. They have dragged his body away, I know not why.
My dearest, sweet Arrafin, my only consolation is that you are safe. All is chaos here. The al Gebel Library is burning, I can see the flames from here. The Kishaks have taken Sirhan and everyone says they will be here in a week. The Emir has gone mad -- he sees spies everywhere, especially among the intellectuals. I am afraid that I (and your brother, and you, Arrafin) are part of that group he suspects so much.
Thanks to Mullah that your mother did not live to see this!
Do not return to Al-Tizim, child, until I write to you that it is safe. I will be staying with our old friend Sarras, at his home, for the next while. With Kateb gone I can't go home.
If anything happens to me, Sarras will let you know. He will look after you if I am no more.
Go with the wind, child. I love you.
Reyhan al Fasir beni Hassan
Still containing himself, Reyhan folded the paper and handed it to the bold Shaeric waiting. "Take this to the del Maraviez house in Pavairelle," he said, "They will find her."
Later, sounds of violence in the streets outside, huddled with his old friend, Reyhan lost his composure. The death of his son overwhelmed him. He prayed for Arrafin.
Countess del Istanzic rocked in her carriage as it spun up from the Docks to her estate in Palace District. She smiled in smug satisfaction. A deal that let her make a vast sum of money, irritate the del Maraviez, weaken King de Beliard and put the most feared mercenary company in the world in her debt was a deal to be savoured.
In a matter of days the Sunset Hope would arrive, bearing its stolen cargo of del Maraviez muskets. Once the money from the Dark Talons arrived, she could have the guns shipped to them and their mutiny against King de Beliard of the Gap. The del Maraviez robbed from. The King embarrassed and destabilized. The Dark Talons grateful to her. And thousands of florins pouring into her lap.
She leaned forward and pulled aside the curtain, watching the night-time streets rattle by. The alleys seethed with dark figures. Except for the main streets, Wharf District had become choked with Naridic refugees, fleeing the advancing Kishak armies in the deserts to the south. Bodies sleeping in doorways or camped in alleys had become commonplace. A squad of Kishak soldiers stood at a corner, kicking a ragged bunch of refugees as she watched.
If tensions continued to mount here the way they seemed to be doing everywhere else, soon Pavairelle would be seeing riots and looting. The Jeddakar's troops were getting more unpopular by the day, while Prince del Viandour's favour with the citzenry grew and grew. The Countess leaned back in her cushions and wondered how she would be able to make a profit off it all.
The emeralds would work. The very very old man smiled.
His was not a pleasant smile. Not the kindly smile of a loved grandfather. Not the confident smile of man who knows of what he speaks. Matai Shang's smile raised hairs on the backs of necks, made dogs growl and whine, and, quite possibly, curdled milk.
A child began to scream nearby.
Matai Shang sat, wizened and nearly helpless, perched amidst a great mechanical construct of legs and levers and spines, looking like a gigantic steel spider. Shang had not been able to walk unaided for centuries. His mind still burned with feverish intelligence, and he cackled as his schemes began to unfold.
The little girl's pleading rose high and then cut off. Blood sprayed. Unsightly minions grovelled and cringed. Shang ignored them.
The table before lay strewn with charts and calculations, and he surveyed the work with satisfaction. The emeralds would work. His calculations were indisputable. All that remained was to build the device, test it, and then use it against she who had most unwisely rebelled against him. Scars still ached within him at the memory of her treachery, even as the image of her beauty triggered blind desire.
He would possess her again. Yuek Man Chong, the Demon Goddess, would be his once more.
Shackles rattled, iron on stone. Another child was drawn forth. The stink of blood and urine filled the air.
Matai Shang, very very old, surrounded by death and pain and foulness, began planning his victory.
Kimiko lowered her knife and pointed at Kendorik. The crowd shrieked in delight.
Kendorik, ever graceful, bowed to her and cleaned his rapier, turning his back on his gasping opponent. He joined his friends, the portly Captain Staznoyan and the towering Yshakan woman Mallitza, accepted their congratulations, and made his way off down the street. Kimiko Torokan, High Blood Sister of the Pavairelle Sanctuary, sheathed her wavy-bladed knife and watched the lithe, profoundly handsome man walk away.
Her face gave no sign of her inward appreciation of Kendorik's fine appearance. In her high-collared, shimmering kimono of blood-red silk, Kimiko had long since ceased to display any emotion whatsoever, as befit a member of the Blood Council. She watched Kendorik's unfortunate opponent sag, his breath shortening as the end of his life bore down upon him. Duelists' Street was as ever packed with shoppers, gossipers, drinkers, dancers, singers, tradesmen and waiters and at times it seemed like everyone in Pavairelle was here, wandering between stalls and sidewalk cafes, under the spreading cherry trees that shaded the long, curving boulevard.
Another victim of the handsome duelist's sword. Kimiko turned her icy gaze on the poor man's supporters, nodded to her attendants and strode away from the scene. The duel was over. The Blood Council was no longer needed here.
Etienne felt a sudden sting in his fingertip. He looked down to see a tiny needle, tip glistening, extended from the lock on the cover of the book.
Arrafin frowned as the half-Kishak collapsed. After poking him a couple of times, she looked worriedly around the room, went to the door and peered down the hall.
No one. Etienne lay motionless on the carpet. Chewing nervously on her lower lip, Arrafin made her way down the hall to where she could hear voices. The carpet under her feet grew warm as she stepped into the sunlit office where two Saijadani people were glaring at each other.
"Um. Etienne fell."
Marques and Isabella turned to look at the slight Naridic girl. Barrel-chested and dressed in Pavairelle style, with a brocade waistcoat, three-quarter cloak and soft boots with the tops turned down, Marques del Maraviez smiled warmly, lines crinkling in the corners of his eyes. Marques had come to Pavairelle twenty years previously, with the intention of simultaneously expanding the del Maraviez fortune and staying as far from Las Familias politics as possible. He had largely succeeded at both. The del Maraviez house in Pavairelle, where Arrafin now stood (and Etienne now lay), was one of the finest residences in the city, a four-story square of white marble in the Saijadani style, with an open courtyard in the center. It was also a peaceful house; the feuds and vendettas that laced the Familias in Saijadan had almost no impact on Marques here, far from the homeland.
Isabella was a different sort. Tall and thin, predatory with her dark eyes and sharp nose, Isabella del Maraviez, Marques' niece, gave very little indication of friendliness. Still in her early adulthood, Isabella had risen far in the family hierarchy, largely due to her uncanny ability to predict (and take advantage of) political shifts and trends. Her dark gown and lace collar gave her elegance but no warmth.
Marques frowned at Arrafin's words.
"Is he alright?"
"I don't know. He won't wake up. I don't think so."
Marques charged from the room and back down the hallway, shouting alternately for the doctor, his guard and Etienne. In seconds a small crowd had gathered in the library, watching the doctor attempt to revive the young man. Marques fretted. His expression cleared as Etienne groaned and the doctor rose to his feet.
"It's poison. I've administered an antidote, but he'll need bed rest for several days. How did this happen?"
Arrafin, a little intimidated by all the people around, pointed at the book. The doctor peered and nodded.
"Aha. Some sort of trap on the lock."
Marques whirled on the Naridic girl.
"What's in that book?"
"I don't know. He... Etienne was trying to open it."
One glance at the book and Marques drew his rapier, bringing the pommel down smartly on the lock. With a metallic crack the lock shattered and the book fell open.
"What the... What is that? Is that even writing?"
Arrafin studied the strange markings, her fingers drifting over the characters.
"I think it's Lohanese. I don't know for sure, though, and this, here, this looks like some kind of mathematical..."
Arrafin's voice trailed off. It WAS math. The pages were filled with formulae more complicated than anything she'd ever encountered. And Arrafin was something of an expert at math. She was better than anyone she knew, even her brother Kateb, at math. But these formulae, these calculations... they lingered just beyond her ability to understand.
Whatever this book was, nothing had ever been more important to Arrafin than to learn the secret of the mathematical truths it represented. She entirely forgot everyone else in the room, entranced by the play of familiar symbols amidst all these unknown characters. Numbers raced through complex patterns across pages and pages of dense theorems and operations.
These calculations MEANT something. Arrafin was sure of it. She had to understand this.
"Can anyone translate this?"
She was not aware of the commanding tone suddenly taking over her voice. Marques was watching the doctor and two house guards take Etienne out the door, but he turned at her question.
"Lohanese, you said? Why not take it to the Blood Council?"
Arrafin was down the hall, clutching the book to her chest and muttering to herself, before it even occcured to her to wonder if Etienne was going to be all right.
You have never met me, but I have been your protector ever since that second night you left home. The night of your wedding.
You must believe that your departure was no accident, though neither was it by anyone's particular design. You have, through no fault of your own, become a pawn in a game in which the pieces are often casually discarded. The danger to you is great, present and I can no longer protect you. Your enemies have learned of your existence from me, and their plans depend on your destruction.
The floor was wet. Elena shuffled her boots, controlling her squeamishness at the slick, oily feel of the filthy floorboards. She knocked again, more insistently this time.
Believe that I would not frighten you in this way had I any other option. There is a secret society spanning the world that has put into motion forces beyond your imagination. Once I myself was a member, but I fled their embrace the same moment you fled your wedding celebration. Now they have found me, and learned all that I know. I have escaped them again, but I do not flatter myself to think that I will be allowed to live much longer.
Doubtless I shall be dead by the time you read this. I wish I could advise you better. They must destroy you to prevent the fact of your existence from coming to light. Under other circumstances I might suggest approaching the Blood Council, or simply returning home to confront the situation there, but I fear they will have already moved to block those avenues to you.
The tenement building shuddered with shrieks and cries of anger, or of hunger. Children wailed. The stairs groaned with constant traffic, hollering pedlars, women swearing, and somehow the noise made the stink even worse. Elena longed for her farm, the clear water of the brook by the barrio.
Thoughts that brought her back to where she was and why.
There is something that may help you. Your host knows of a club run by a woman from his hometown. Go there, and ask for the Mystic whom you met before. You may get some questions answered, and I hope receive some help.
I wish you good luck. I am aware of how useless that sounds.
Blood Sister Nariko Masamori
Elena cursed the Blood Council. Whoever this Sister Masamori was, she had no right meddling like this. The idea of secret societies and vast forces made her sneer. The idea that anyone could be interested in a perfectly ordinary farm girl from New Castille was one only a fool would entertain.
She knocked again and promised herself this would be the last time.
She thought of that terrible vision, or whatever it had been, of seeing herself marrying Daniel. Herself, but not her. Plain as day, standing there at the altar, and everyone clapping. Not a dream or some fevered hallucination. She had seen herself.
There had to be an explanation. If Katir Shoran had it, then Elena decided she'd wait here all day. This was the address the club owner had given her, and Katir Shoran was the name. She'd wait here all day.
She didn't have to. The door opened and a tiny lady, crinkled and stiff with age, peered up at her with alert eyes. Without speaking the Kishak lady gestured for Elena to enter.
"Sister Masamori sent you."
Elena started as the words entered her head without sound. She nodded.
"Do not speak. Those who seek you can command the senses of beasts and the memories of vermin. A mouse will not understand what you say, but it will remember the sounds and these people could withdraw the words from the animal's mind."
The apartment was much more presentable than the conditions outside had indicated. Elena sat on a threadbare but clean sofa and watched in amazement as the old lady made her way to the kitchen, only to emerge with a plate of strange, glistening items that were evidently food of some sort. With a cautious smile, Elena took one.
"Masamori saved me from the fate our enemies have planned for you. I know what happened. You discovered that you had been replaced, is it true?"
Elena could only nod. It was a kind of cookie. It was good.
"The same with me. I was taken immediately afterwards, I know not where, to a prison where other women, women of all races, were kept. The prisoners included Saijadani, Hinsuan, Lohanese, Naridic and Kishak. But the guards were all Lohanese. Masamori was one of them. They had us raped, over and over, by men, also of all nationalities. If we became pregnant they took us out, to a comfortable room, until we'd given birth. Then we were returned to the cells. To the rape."
"You understand? They were breeding us."
Elena opened her mouth and the old woman lashed out with her cane.
"Do not speak. Now they are seeking you. Sister Masamori has hidden you but she is discovered now and you are at risk. She has asked me to help and I will."
With shaky hands the old woman removed a heavy iron pendant from around her neck. Elena reached forward to take it.
"Never take this off. While you wear it, you cannot be found by sorcery."
"There's no such thing--"
Elena winced. The cane was hard and the old woman was a lot stronger than she looked.
"You have seen what you have seen and you insist there is no sorcery? You know better than that, Elena de los Santos."
Isaac had always hated formal wear. Just the idea of attending a ball was enough to make him break out in six kinds of uncomfortable sweat. But having to stand perfectly still while a bunch of strutting fools made a mockery of his appearance was something he would never have borne had it not been Isabella who'd insisted.
Though he had to admit, he was beginning to wish Marques del Maraviez was their boss. The older man seemed a sensible enough chap, and was generous enough with his brandy and cigars to earn Isaac's approval. Staying in the del Maraviez house was no great hardship.
He glared as the two bodyguards, Dominic and Vladimir, entered. Big guys, no question. And devoted to their job of protecting the man of the house, who of course followed them in.
"Isaac, you'll be the belle of the ball."
Isaac growled. Marques laughed.
"Be a good sport, son. Enjoy your youth while you have it."
The del Maraviez moved to a window and looked down at the street, smiling at Dominic as the big man moved to a flanking position. The smile remained as he pointed to the door.
"Out. All of you. No, not you, del Valencia."
When it was just Isaac and Marques, the older man sighed.
"I knew your grandfather, Isaac. We fought together against the Kishaks, with Ramon. Your grandfather, he put together the counter-espionage group, did you know that? The sneakiest, meanest, nastiest bastard I ever did meet. We were good friends."
Isaac frowned as Marques seemed to search for words.
"We fought Nevakada agents. For years. There's nothing nastier than intelligence work in wartime... "
Again the old man paused.
"They killed my son. Long ago. Now, well, Consuelo and I are too old for children now. Etienne... The boy is like a son to me, now. I..."
Isaac swallowed as Marques looked up, smiling.
"Look after him, del Valencia. I can't lose another son."
"They're insane. All of them. Completely insane."
Isabella laughed. Nevid shook his head, oblivious to the startled looks of the servants. Their cold, forbidding mistress laughing? Unheard of.
"Elena thinks she has magic powers. del Valencia wants to kill every del Orofin in the world. That Arrafin girl... she's the craziest of them all."
Nevid took a deep breath. He couldn't have Isabella thinking he was losing his mind. THEY were the crazy ones. Not him.
"I'm just not sure that being with these people is such a great idea. I don't feel like I'm contributing much to the Family."
"Listen to me very carefully, Nevid."
Isabella leaned forward and steepled her fingers, resting her elbows on the tabletop. The office seemed to grow darker, colder, as she studied the young man across the table from her.
"These people matter. They're important. Important to the Family, and important to Saijadan. I need you to stay with them. I need someone I can trust telling me what they're doing."
"But why-- "
Nevid fell silent as Isabella held up a hand. Her chair scraped on the tiles as she sat back.
"In time, Nevid. You will be a member of the Family soon. Then I can explain more. Until then, trust me."
Nevid looked up into unreadable dark eyes. He nodded.
Clean? Really? She must be a daintier feeder than I imagined...
Loved the glimpse you gave us of the BBEG, by the way, but for my money, Madame Yuek is still the spookier of the two. Something about a woman who can be giggling like a schoolgirl one moment, and tearing someone's throat out the next just creeps me out.