Joris dropped to his knees and pressed his fingers to Hexla’s wrist, frowning. Then he nodded, smiling in relief. “She’s alive.”
Talan also knelt on the floor, clenching and unclenching his hands as though he was uncertain what to do with them. “Why isn’t she moving?”
“I’m not sure,” Joris said. “It could be magic; let me try dispelling it.” The cleric waved his hands through the air and Hexla suddenly gasped for air. “Some variation of the spell the Shadowknave was using, I think.”
Talan leaped to his feet, startling Joris and bumping into Sheen. Talan turned to apologize and Sheen got a look at his expression: worried, hesitant, embarrassed. “I’ll just . . . look around, shall I?” Sheen said awkwardly.
Hexla sat up slowly, then noticed Talan standing over her. She blanched and flung up an arm. “No! Get away from me, impostor!”
Talan reached a hand toward her, then dropped it helplessly. “Hexla, it’s me . . . you have to believe me. See? Here’s Joris, and Sheen, and Haden . . . and Ari, look, she wouldn’t be here if I were a fake.” Ari whuffed
“Clearly she is mad and will have to be put down,” Mal said coldly. “It’s the humane thing to do.”
“MAL!” Haden groaned, hauling the elf backwards out of Hexla’s line of vision. Mal stared at him, confused. Talan shot Joris a look of appeal.
“He’s right!” the cleric said hurriedly. He pointed up the hall towards Baltazo’s corpse, sprawled inelegantly in a pool of blood. “That’s the imposter. He can’t hurt you any more. He won’t hurt anyone any more, Talan saw to that.”
“What about the other one, Gyderic?” Hexla asked quietly. “Did you get him too?” Talan shook his head and Hexla sighed. “I didn’t see him, anyway, just Baltazo muttering about him and someone called Cerellis . . .”
“Cerellis and Gyderic?” Haden asked instantly. “What could Gyderic want with my father? What would that accomplish?”
Sheen paled. “Haden, we’d better go back to Honorgard NOW.”
“Sheen’s right,” Talan said. “Anything to do with Gyderic can’t be good.”
Haden shrugged. “We should probably make sure Hexla is squared away, first. Come on, Talan, pick her up and let’s get out of here.”
Talan extended his arms stiffly towards Hexla, who levered herself upright and hugged him. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry . . .”
“I’m the one who’s sorry, I should have been there to protect you,” Talan said. “Do you think you could walk, or I . . .um . . . maybe . . . could carry you?”
Hexla sniffed and wiped tears off her face. “I think I can manage, but thank you.” Talan brushed her hair away from her face and kissed her forehead.
“Okay, but I’ll be right here.”
Sheen made an impatient noise, grabbed the front of Haden’s armor shirt and began dragging him bodily towards the exit. “Come on. You may not be worried, but I know what Gyderic is capable of better than anyone. Whatever it is, it’ll be terrible.”
“Okay, okay!” Haden grumbled, struggling to stay on his feet. “I’m coming!”
Talan looked down at Hexla, his expression troubled. “Maybe I should take you someplace safe and then go meet up with them.”
“I feel safest with you,” Hexla averred.
“Talan, just come with us before she chokes me to death!” Haden declared.
Talan shook his head. “All right, let’s go.”
It was very dark outside, near anti-peak, so they took the most direct route through the Great Bazaar, walking quickly instead of taking a cab. Sheen kept stepping up the pace until she was nearly jogging, staring into every alley and cul-de-sac as though she expected an enemy. Haden tried to keep up simply to calm her agitation, but it didn’t seem to help. The heavy brass gate of Honorgard was firmly closed, which was to be expected, but there was also no sign of a gate guard, which was not. Haden stuck his head through the bars.
“Halla?” he said, his eyes piercing the dark to reveal a pair of legs extending from beneath a bush next to the wall. “Uh-oh,” the bard whispered, real fear clenching his throat. He looked at Sheen. “I think something’s happened to Halla.”
“Right,” Sheen said and grabbed the brass bars. The metal began to deform as she pushed at it, almost as though it was touched by the heat of the furnace. In seconds, Sheen had cleared a hole large enough to step through, which she immediately did. Haden touched the metal a bit nervously, but it was not even faintly warm, showing no sign of what had just occurred. Haden ducked through the hole and hurried along the wall, dropping down beside the motionless body.
It was Halla, torn open by sharp claws. The blood had cooled, seeped into the ground; he might have been lying there for hours. Haden knelt on the ground for long moments, cursing in Abyssal. Then he bent and picked up the githzerai’s body, heaving it over his shoulder with a grunt of effort. He dug into a pocket and tossed Sheen the key to the front door. They slipped soundlessly into the house.
“Everyone stay together,” Sheen said quietly, looking around the silent, darkened hall. “If Gyderic is here and he manages to separate us, it could go very badly.”
“He’s here,” Haden said, his enhanced vision piercing the shadows to reveal a man standing at the end of the hall. He put Halla down carefully on a couch near the doors and drew his rapier. Talan drew sword and dagger, and Sheen flexed her hands growing dagger-like claws.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” the man said, gliding forward with only a faint susurrus of disturbed air.
“Sorry we weren’t more punctual,” Haden growled.
“Always so polite, you are. Don’t think it isn’t appreciated,” Gyderic added. “You had no trouble with Baltazo, then, I take it?”
“You worm!” Sheen snapped. “Don’t imagine that you’ll give us any more trouble than he did!”
“You are finally going to get what you deserve,” Talan added.
“Oh, you’re quite right, Talan. The Great Wheel has provided me with exactly what I want . . . and deserve. All I have to do is to take it from you. You remember how to give me what I want, don’t you, Sheen?”
Sheen’s eyes began to glow a furious green as she summoned up psionic power. “Come on, then!”
“Don’t let him provoke you,” Haden whispered.
“She’s outgrown you, Gyderic,” Talan said. “Sheen is already much more than you will ever be.”
Gyderic’s eyes flashed violet. “How DARE you, ranger! I will be first in the world to come! None of you will stand as more than ashes when the City of Mirrors rises!”
“I only speak the truth,” Talan said, taking a quick step forward. Gyderic backed away a pace, anticipating an attack. Seeing him distracted for just a moment, Sheen charged. Two massive devils, ogre-sized skeletons with papery skin stretched over their bones, erupted from the shadows, moving to intercept her, but Mal uttered an incantation that made time seem to slow. One of the fiends raked Sheen with a claw, but she was past them, bearing Gyderic to the ground and ripping a bloody chunk of flesh out of his arm and chest.
Gyderic laughed as his eyes flashed again. Talan shrank away from the crushing force of the psion’s will, fighting a terrible command. Sheen released Gyderic and started to turn, her muscles clenching as she, too, fought the command. Talan stared at her in horror, wondering who would win, as the fiends scrabbled their way across the floor toward him. Talan touched Ari’s head and both of them suddenly vanished. The fiends shrieked, denied their prey.
Haden took a deep breath. “My apologies to Shelley,” he muttered, then recited:
“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
“You . . . will . . . obey . . . me!” Gyderic snarled. Mal drew forth a strange mixture of magic and eldritch energy that engulfed one of the bone devils, making it howl. Sheen flung herself sideways and clawed at the devil, her eyes glowing hideously. Its jaws opened and engulfed her arm while the barbed stinger on its tail buried itself in her leg. Talan reappeared a few feet away and tried to help her, attacking the devil with his swords and forcing it to retreat a few steps. The ranger’s earlier wounds began to bleed again.
“This is not going well!” Joris said, dodging the other fiend and casting healing over Talan. Mal spoke words of power and the monstrosity’s eyes went suddenly blank: it staggered past Joris and slapped at the air instead. “Oh, nice one,” Joris said thankfully.
Haden skirted the edges of the fight quietly and unobtrusively, coming up behind Gyderic and delivering what would have been a textbook thrust with the rapier . . . if the psion hadn’t moved at precisely the wrong moment. Still, the blade went through the back of his hand, disrupting his attention momentarily if nothing else. It was enough for one of Mal’s sizzling energy blasts to roll past Gyderic’s psionic shield and knock the man from his feet. Gyderic struggled to raise himself on his elbows, looking up at Haden coldly.
“You can’t stop what is to come.” Haden looked at Sheen, who was under assault by the devils, yet was ignoring them now, having seen Gyderic go down.
“Stay there!” Haden said. “You’ll get yourself killed!”
“You cannot win,” Gyderic continued, red foam dripping from his mouth.
“That’s as may be,” Haden said. “But you’ll never know it.” He took the rapier in both hands and stabbed downward, leaning on the slender blade and twisting it in Gyderic’s chest. The psion choked.
“No matter what . . . she gives you . . . part of her . . . will always be . . . mine.” The last word came out as a whistling gasp and Gyderic fell back, dead. Talan lunged at the attacking fiends, chopping into black bone with Greenheart. Seeing the fight turn against them, the devils barked words of foul might and vanished, leaving behind a stench of burning brimstone.
Sheen staggered toward Haden. “He’s . . . dead?” she asked. Haden ignored her and charged across the hall, sprinting up the stairs.
“Felise?!” the bard called. Then, after a moment, “DAD?!” Sheen’s legs buckled and she sat down abruptly beside the psion’s corpse. Even dead, his expression was twisted, mocking.
“Perhaps someone should accompany Haden,” Mal intoned. “Other threats may remain.” Talan squeezed Hexla’s arm briefly and ran after the bard. He reached the top of the stairs to see Haden fling a door open, give the room a cursory glance, and hurry to the next door. At the far end of the hall, a smaller door creaked open and a pale blue face emerged.
“Felise,” Haden said. “Where’s father?”
“Oh, Master Haden!” Felise gasped. “He’s . . . he’s in his bed, I don’t know what that man did to him . . .”
“Show me,” Haden said in a tone that brooked no argument. Felise opened the doors to the master bedroom. Cerellis was lying on top of the blankets, looking very small in the vast bed. His eyes stared vacantly. Haden looked down at him for a moment or two, then turned to regard Talan and Felise. Felise cringed at the implacable expression on his face.
“Out,” Haden said softly. Felise reached for Talan’s arm from sheer reflex, and they both hurried from the room as though expecting some kind of catastrophe. The door closed behind them with no more than a soft thud.
“We should go downstairs and check on the others,” Talan said.
“Thank you for coming, sir,” Felise said.
“We could do nothing less for Haden. He is our friend,” the ranger replied, crossing the floor to where Joris was ministering to Sheen, who was bleeding heavily. She didn’t seem to notice, however, she was still staring down at Gyderic’s face. “How are you?” Talan asked Felise gently. “Can we do anything for you?”
“I’m all right, thanks. I hid as soon as the trouble started. I hated to do it, but getting myself killed wouldn’t have accomplished anything, either.”
“Yes,” Talan said, wrapping his arms around Hexla and stroking her hair gently. “You’re not a warrior.”
“Where’s Haden?” Sheen asked listlessly.
“He is upstairs,” Mal said.
Sheen shook her head. “I can’t believe he’s finally dead.”
“How do you feel?” Joris asked her tentatively.
“I’m . . . not sure. It all happened so fast. Is Cerellis all right? What’s going on?”
Felise shook her head sadly. “He is not well. His mind is . . . broken, I think. Master Haden is with him, now. I believe he wishes to be alone.”
“Oh,” Sheen said. “I guess then we just . . . wait. It’s late . . . are there guest rooms here, or something? We all need some rest.”
“Of course,” Felise said instantly. “Follow me.”
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- Cold Blood: Haden and Cerellis
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