Sheen was roughly battered by people trying to force their way past her out the door. Joris was crushed against her left side, and Talan nearly climbed onto the table trying to get out of the press. Ari whined and crouched away from heavy boots. Growling, Sheen pulled up her claws and waved them at a few people’s faces. Instantly, a clear area formed around her and the jostling lessened. In less than a minute, they were the only occupants of the tavern. Toranna leaned over to a nearby table, grabbed an abandoned drink, and gulped it down.
“You’d think they’d have the sense to barricade themselves in the building instead of charging out where they’re certain to get into trouble.”
“You know that crowd mentality,” Talan said. “As soon as a few people act, everyone else follows.”
“One of these days someone needs to explain to these people that humans are not herd animals.”
“Says who?” Talan demanded, laughing.
“Herd animals don’t eat meat,” Sheen announced. “Right. Everybody spread out and search for an entrance to a hidden cellar.” After a minute or two of poking around, Toranna located a trap door in the kitchen underneath a few barrels. Sheen heaved the barrels out of the way and pulled the door open as quietly as possible. It squeaked a bit, but not loudly. A set of wooden stairs descended about fifteen feet into what looked like a storage room. Flameless magical torches glowed in tasteful sconces, illuminating the room.
“I hear breathing, someone’s down there,” Talan whispered.
Sheen dove down the stairs, and put her back to the wall, bracing for an attack, but nothing came. The room was full of the sort of supplies she expected to see in the basement of a tavern, apart from one detail. A long, heavy bench, about waist-high, had a man strapped to it. Sheen approached carefully. It was Haden.
“This can’t be good,” Talan said. “Joris, do you think he’s all right?”
“He doesn’t seem to be injured,” Joris said. Sheen began undoing the straps carefully, wincing at the ugly red chafe marks on Haden’s skin. His eyes opened slowly and he blinked a few times, numbly. Haden opened his mouth slowly, closed it, and looked confused.
“Are you all right?” Joris asked.
“I don’t . . . my head hurts,” Haden murmured. His voice was hoarse and weak.
“Can you sit up?” Sheen draped one of Haden’s arms over her shoulders and pulled him slowly upright.
“What happened?” Talan asked urgently.
“I don’t know,” Haden said again. “I can’t focus . . . I . . .” He looked down at Sheen and his eyes abruptly filled with tears. His body shuddered with sobs.
Joris turned away, unable to keep watching. “Bright Lady, what did they do to him?”
“Don’t . . . don’t cry . . .” Sheen said helplessly. Talan reached out and patted Haden’s back awkwardly.
“We’re here now.” Joris turned around and Talan shot him a look of pure fury.
“Right,” Joris said. “We’ll get you out of here as soon as we can.”
“Help me get up,” Haden said, and began working his legs off the bench. Sheen held onto him while he wavered on his feet, then managed to balance.
“Take it easy,” Talan said. “We’ve got time.”
Haden scrubbed at his face with his hands, then looked down at Sheen, who seemed a bit reluctant to let him go. She recoiled a little at his expression, which was oddly cold, suspicious. She released her grip and backed away a few feet, coughing and fidgeting with her cloak while she regained her composure. She examined the door on the far end of the room for something to do.
Talan tugged on Joris’ arm. “I’m not sure he’s all there. Is there any way you could check on him? Quietly.”
“I can try,” Joris said, and called on divination magic to aid him.
“We should search the rest of this place quickly and get out of here,” Sheen said, opening the door. The room beyond was living quarters, unexceptional apart from the level of wealth and comfort. A large bed occupied one side of the room, and the rest was filled with trunks, wardrobes, a vanity table with a mirror, and a thick rug muffling the floor. A familiar skull mask sat on the vanity, its mirrored surface casting infinite reflections on the silvered glass above it.
“Be careful,” Sheen murmured. “Baltazo may still be here.” Joris glanced around the room briefly, and frowned.
“Haden, I think your things are in the trunk, there,” he said. “It’s radiating magical energy . . . faintly, but it’s there.”
Haden worked his way across the room and opened the trunk gingerly, pulling out the purple crystalline sword and leaning it against the wall, then beginning to strap on his black leather armor. He grimaced as his shaking fingers fumbled at the buckles and straps, and Joris reached out to help him.
Sheen opened the double doors at the far side of the room and peered down an unremarkable hallway to yet another set of doors. Shrugging, she trotted down the hall, hoping that the building was unoccupied. The doors at the far end of the hall opened abruptly, revealing an immense lion, easily as tall as a draft horse at the shoulder. It sprang down the hall at Sheen and she held up her hands, summoning a shield of force to protect herself.
Talan yanked his swords from their sheaths as part of the wall began to retract with a loud grating sound, revealing a small room almost entirely filled with yet another overly large lion. Toranna looked up and gasped as its jaws closed around her torso. Blood spurted, and it dropped her to the floor and sought out another victim. Talan stepped forward, swords at the ready, but Ari whined and pressed back against the side of the bed, too confused to fight. The strange, nondescript woman, Kalisa, tried to join in the battle, but her blows were useless, less than raindrops.
The lion landed on Sheen with terrible force, almost knocking her to the ground, as she ripped into its hide with the claws she called into existence.
Joris wavered in the center of the room, trying to decide who was in more immediate need of assistance. Talan was already bleeding from a couple claw wounds, while Sheen fought on doggedly with the lion’s jaws clamped around her shoulder. Then a horrifying darkness swept over him, shot through with lurid purple and green flames, and he knew he was going to die.
“Joris!” Haden yelled as the cleric collapsed to the ground with a sharp scream. Almost as quickly as he’d fallen, though, he seemed to regain his senses.
“A spell, it was a spell! Phantasmal killer! Baltazo is here!”
Talan shrieked in pain as the lion sent him sprawling onto the bed with a massive paw. Joris quickly darted forward to and cast healing magic over the ranger. Haden blinked, sure he heard a muffled cry of distress coming from under the bed. It appeared that Ari had vanished, as well.
In the hallway, Sheen’s eyes began to glow brightly as she channeled energy into her metabolism, keeping her many hideous wounds from incapacitating her. She’d torn her way through the lion’s hide, only to find a jumble of wires, gears, and steel cables where a normal creature would have muscle and bone. Sparks leapt from the holes she’d made and the lion construct moved jerkily. Something in its clockworks was fouled up. Sheen decided it was a hopeful sign as it slammed her against the wall, nearly causing her to black out.
Talan jumped back into the fray and Joris started to follow him, only to be startled when Haden’s fist contacted his jaw. “What the . . .” Joris said, staggering sideways and rubbing his face. Haden’s eyes appeared to be trying to look up his own nose.
“Bitch, where’s my money?” the bard mumbled incoherently.
“Blast, it’s another spell,” Joris grumbled, and called on the Lady to unmake it. Haden winced in pain and stared down at his bruised hand. “Trust me, you don’t want to know,” Joris explained, launching immediately into another healing spell to, somehow, keep Talan on his feet. Haden began summoning up magical energy as well.
A lightning bolt arced down the hallway behind him, missing him by a foot or so, and struck Joris in the chest. He hit the ground hard and lay still. Haden immediately reached out with his small portion of magical energy and healed the cleric’s wounds, hoping to keep him alive.
“Sheen, Talan, we need to get out of here!” Haden cried.
Sheen screamed in raged and punched forward with her claws, burying them in the “lion’s” chest. Seizing hold of the mechanism inside, she braced her feet against the wall behind her and heaved. Her muscles and bones creaked with the strain, then something gave way and she found herself holding what looked like a small engine. The rest of the machine fell to the floor, lifeless. Sheen looked down at the still-working mechanical device, recognizing Dr. Rhasmanayet’s personal sign.
In the bedroom, the other mechanical lion bore Talan to the floor and opened its jaws wide to crush the life out of him. Joris scrambled to help, but his mace was of little use against steel and clockwork. He and Kalisa stared at each other in mute futility. Haden gasped as a bolt of eldritch fire sailed past him and impacted on the lion, lifting it briefly into the air before it exploded into blazing metal shards.
An unfamiliar man stood at the entrance to the room, watching them all with enigmatic eyes. He was obviously elvish, face and ears narrower and more finely-drawn than Talan’s half-blood features. He had long black hair and wore tasteful black and silver, with a few purple accents.
“I seek one called Haden,” he said quietly, as if they were meeting quietly on a street corner where nothing notable had or would ever occur.
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
- ► 2014 (26)
- ► 2013 (84)
- ► 2012 (26)
- ► 2011 (26)
- ► 2009 (92)
- ▼ 2008 (71)
- ► 2007 (107)
- ► 2006 (177)