And back to the greatest of our heroes...
Poplock scuttled nimbly down the narrow shaft – well, narrow for the big lumbering types, actually quite roomy for me – and headed for the grille.
Something – his long-honed sense of self-preservation combined with a little prickling of his skin – warned him, and he pulled up short. He narrowed his golden eyes, squinting at the area of the ventilation duct just in front of the grille.
Oh, now that could have been painful. Barely visible even to his dark-adapted eyes, tiny symbols were scribed all around the perimeter of the duct. In fact, Poplock realized they were only perceptible because dust had gathered just slightly differently in the miniscule depressions left when they were first scribed; whoever had done it had carefully wiped away all of the original marks as soon as the enchantment had taken hold.
Even more cautious than I thought. Not many people bother securing things this small. Generally, the major worry was either people entering through the existing doors or windows, by brute force (through walls, floors, and so on), or by magic such as a ghosting spell, teleportation, that sort of thing. A few shells of shielding that negated untuned and unbound magic and you were safe from the vast majority of attempts. Truth be told, most people didn't even go that far. It wasn't worth the effort for ordinary things.
And to go to these lengths – after everything I've already gotten through – well, they've got something pretty extraordinary to hide.
It had been a long and varied road leading him here. After he'd escaped the collapsed underground lair of Voorith's servants, he'd gone home for a little while, but it was, well, boring, and he had a bad feeling about the whole thing. Those nasties had been there a long time and he still didn't know what they were after, or why they had gotten so much weaponry together. No one in the village seemed willing to do anything, either. For the first time, he really understood the Latecomers' attitude towards his people; they just wanted to soak there in the mud, waiting for some other adventurers – Child of Odin, Artan, Human, whatever – to come by and take care of it.
"But I just don't think we can wait," he'd said to Barkboat. "That demon, he's already working again, I'll bet you a goldbeetle on it."
"It may be, it may not." The priest had bobbed back and forth. "But Blackwart tells us that those who feel the land beneath our feet are the ones to hop forward. The land chafes your feet, Poplock, not ours."
So he'd set out on his search. The problem was, he didn't know what he was searching for. The mazolishta was behind all of it… well, no, someone else was, Voorith had basically said it was someone else's plan. The first group had spent… years? Ten years? More? Poplock had no idea, but it had been a long time they'd been building that complex, slowly bringing in their resources, finally setting up the summoning to bring Voorith through himself. After Poplock had gotten in the way, they wouldn't give up – but they'd be about ten times more careful. He wouldn't be just wandering into their next fortress.
He needed to have more resources than small size and a little sword. He needed knowledge. He needed to find allies, eventually, and get the word to the right people. He figured Zarathanton would be the place he could do all of that. The stuff he'd dragged out of the ruins might be worth something if he could get it there.
He'd heard the big city was off to the south, so that was the way he'd headed – down through the Evermist and then through what was supposed to be a small section of the Forest Sea.
Of course, "small" was relative, and "south" was sort of a fuzzy concept. He didn't know how long it might have taken him to find his way there if it hadn't been for that magician with the funny hat who'd helped him along the way.
The problem then turned out to be … getting people to listen to him. He'd been used to it from his people, but somehow he'd thought it would be different in the city.
Yet… as time went on, he realized this might be his best weapon. Voorith knew his name, but couldn't find the little Toad himself. Others didn't even notice him, and if they did, they thought he was harmless. A lot of them thought he was a dumb Toad – most of his people were more than twenty pounds, some over a hundred and fifty and four feet from nose to rump.
So use that.
And he had. He listened where people gathered. Eating and living wasn't a problem in the Great First City – bugs of all sizes, shapes, and tastes were to be found everywhere – so he could stay for days in or near the same place, unnoticed, unremarked.
And he'd learned.
Which brings me to here. He slowly sidled up to the very edge of the spelled area. Symbolist did these. Not simple runes.
He reached into the little pack and pulled out a notebook. "Hmm… nope, not fire… fire would be a bad idea, wooden building… lightning… no… Water? That would be silly. Air would be… but no, the sequence is just wrong. Earth… nope. Okay, no elemental… wait." There was of course the final element, but almost no one used that, except…
And there it was, the Sauran symbol of life – which also was the symbol of the first of Dragons. But it was reversed, the lightning-bolt center merely an empty outline, the surrounding sunburst instead a notched circle.
Life-draining. Soul-suckers, necromancers. Eew. This isn't a defense nice people use at all. Definitely on the track of something that's bad.
He could try to go around. Or leave and do some more research; after all, finding this much told him that whoever or whatever was here was the kind of person he was looking for. But he'd been looking for… A long time. He wasn't sure how long, but it was pretty long, a couple of years? More? Old Voory wasn't going to be just sitting on his pincers much longer. And going around didn't make much sense, now that he thought about it; if they were making security this nasty, he'd have better odds arguing an Armorfang out of lunch than of finding an unsecured route in.
Nope. This was the best lead he had; at least half of the mazakh in the city had come by this building in the last half year, and most of the rest were khallit – self-imposed outcasts, choosing to live with other races in an equal relationship as opposed to the dominant stance the others took. They might follow another of the mazolishta, but I'll bet they know something about what the others are up to, even so.
Poplock took a deep breath. This could be… painful. Blackwart, keep an eye out for me, okay? I'm doing this for Pondsparkle. He had a momentary flash of homesickness, seeing the lumpy houses squatting by the shore, the glitter of the Rainbow Mountain above and the blue of water below, then shook it off.
He turned to another section of his notes and re-read them several times. Tricky. Necromantic magic is theoretically opposed to True Elemental, but I have to call all five elements in balance to neutralize it – or else just pure Spirit, but that could kill me; I'm no spirit mage. Not really much of a mage at all, more a sort of tinkerer. And the demon or necromancer who put these here is probably pretty good.
But the important point wasn't to destroy the seal – just to keep it from reacting. The symbols… I think that one means "earth" and it's combined with the boundary symbol… which could mean that it's bound to the rim of the duct.
Which would mean that all he had to do was not touch the rim. Not easy unless he could float, and he had to do that without magic – magic touching on that boundary would definitely set it off, unless it was just the right sort of neutralizing spell.
"Float without magic." He gave a wide-mouthed smile. "That works."
The little neverfull pack was the most useful – not to mention fun! – of the purchases he'd been able to make with the proceeds of his loot. Now he stuck half his body into the pack, which would have looked funny to anyone outside, as it was clear he couldn't possibly fit, let alone have anything else in there. He had to dig around by feel – ouch! Safety cork came off! – to find everything he was looking for.
A cross-shaped object with a core of screws and gears. A crossbow with clockwork. Bolts about the size of human sewing needles. And wire, a lot of wire. He carefully set the cross in the center of the duct and inserted a crank, turning it slowly and carefully, making sure the arms set firmly. He stopped turning the four-way jack once he could see the pronged metal ends had bitten deeply into the duct's sides. He kicked at it a couple of times; solid. Good. Now let's hook up the cable… good, it's on tight.
The real trick here was going to be getting the other end anchored. He would really have only one shot at this, because if he missed, something would be sure to hit the enchanted area.
He studied the grille again. Held on by screw-clips. He squinted across the room through the grille. Another one across from me… about fifteen feet. Should be solid enough.
He got out what was – for him – a very long pole with a mirror on one end of polished silver and used it to check the hallway. No one there. Good. This will make a little noise.
The bolt he selected was unusual – twice as thick as the others. He pulled on the side, causing the grapple sections to unfold, and checked the mechanism. Impact-trigger working. If I hit it right…
He hooked the cable and cranked the crossbow to maximum tension. One more check with the mirror, and then he brought the bow as close to the edge as he dared, sighted through the grille… aim… aim… relax… relax… now!
A brisk snap-twang! echoed through the shaft, followed by a faint whispering whizzing sound as the grapple-bolt streaked outward, trailing metal wire. Poplock winced as he heard and saw the impact of the bolt on the far grille, but luck was with him; the bolt was triggered but, still moving forward, flowered open just as it passed through the other grille. Immediately Poplock pulled on the line, keeping it taut, preventing even the slender strand of wire from dropping down to touch the deadly line of symbols.
Ohhhh that was close. Thank you, Blackwart and all the other gods who might be watching.
Still holding tight to the cable with both hands, he reached back with one foot and pulled it through the retaining catch until he could feel the tension on that side matching up with the tension he was keeping on the cable. Then he let go, turned around, and really pulled hard, then locked the cable down.
A slender strand of steel now stretched from his cross-shaped anchor to the grille on the far side. The practice he'd had at climbing since he was a Newleg made the next maneuver easy, swinging himself onto the wire, thick pads of feet and hands (and his light weight) preventing cuts as he walked himself, upside down, along the wire, right past the mystical barrier. He did find himself holding his breath again as he passed over it… but nothing touched him.
It only took one hand with a careful touch to slide the screw-clips sideways and pop the grille loose; it bounced slightly, held by the wire. Poplock squeezed past it, up, around, and back to the wire, then used his feet to put it back in place; if he bounced too much on his cable he might jar it loose again, but the real key was just to have it look okay.
He turned to look down, and suddenly a shrieking alarm cut through the night.
What? How did they catch me?
Just as suddenly he realized it wasn't him the alarm was for; the door at one end of the long hallway burst open, and a lone figure burst out, at least five mazakh in hot pursuit.
Poplock blinked. Well, now, this will be fun!
Tobimar had no idea where he was going, and he knew that was a very, very bad thing. The mazakh had captured him with a stunning spell before he'd realized they'd gotten behind him; he'd been so focused on trying to sense what was going on inside that he'd completely failed to watch his back, and the fact he wasn't dead yet was at least half luck.
He'd actually started coming out of his daze while they were still dragging him down some corridor, but he could tell he'd missed a fair amount of time. He'd stayed limp, trying to clear his head and gather his strength as they carried him, but when they'd set him down and the order had been given (by something that wasn't a mazakh, to his surprise and confusion) to strip and bind him, he'd known he couldn't play around any longer.
Gathering the inner light Master Khoros had taught him, he'd suddenly leapt to his feet, twin swords unsheathed, and cut the lights, projecting his essence through the swords, severing the enchantment that kept the glowglobes alight, plunging the room into total darkness. The heat-sense of the mazakh, he knew, took time to awaken – like the sensitive vision of a man at night. For the next few moments, they were as blind as anyone.
Anyone except those who could see the light of life itself.
In those seconds he had cut three of his captors down, and seen something else in the back, where the voice had come from, a something that vanished impossibly, no flicker of magic, no movement, a cold and eerie entity that was there one moment and gone the next.
But he had no time to think about that; he was running out the door, the three he'd killed leaving a gap wide enough to pass through.
Terian, please! Light unto darkness!
He burst out of another door, hearing the scratching rattle of taloned feet and whisper of trailing tails giving chase. Now he was into a lighted corridor, equalizing sight again. There's a lot of them after me. Where am I? Don't know if they brought me up or down, how large this building is…
If it was the same building he'd been spying on, it was very large. If I get out of this, I'm going to re-negotiate my fee, justice or no!
A turn, an angle, through another door, no! More of them – take the door ahead, no time to turn! Sand and storm, I need Wanderer's luck now!
A long, long corridor now, lit by glowglobes at intervals and with no side doors, his echoing footsteps beind drowned out by the hissing, rattling pursuit. No help for it. I have to make a stand. At the next doorway, if there isn't a mob waiting behind it.
Tobimar bashed down on the door handle with the hilt of one sword as he reached it, hit the door hard with one shoulder, a jolt of dull pain echoing from the impact as the door flew open.
"Shiderich!" The Skysand curse meaning "die without water" was torn from him as he saw the long, triangular room before him, a room with two rows of ever-narrowing perches on either side of the central aisle – an aisle that ended at a double-fanged altar before a looming figure of a monstrous thing, part mazakh, part hideous insectoid. And rising from the perch-benches, a dozen of the snake-demons, furious at the interruption of a sacred moment.
Suddenly Tobimar could do nothing but laugh. It was a shaky laugh, filled with more fear and less clear bravado than he would have liked, but it was a laugh, not a scream, not a sob. Snakes on all sides of me. Then all that remains is to see how many I can take with me.
Too bad, Master Khoros; I guess your vision wasn't so clear this time. I'm never going to find out where pursuing justice and vengeance would have brought me… because this is as far as I go.
The worshippers were somewhat delayed; their weapons were placed in precise array at each side of the triangular temple, and the creatures scrambled to reach them. This gave Tobimar a minor inspiration; he spun around and brought both swords up and then down and across in a sweeping arc from front to back, sending a cold-iron will pulse through the blades that brought the seven mazakh chasing him up short – though, because he could not focus through their own wills, doing them no real harm – and scattered the weapons like straws in a dust-devil, breaking hilts, bending blades, and twisting gears and levers to uselessness.
As the mazakh recovered, he drew himself up straight and held the swords level and parallel as Khoros had taught him, and for a moment, looking into the eyes of the snake-things, he saw uncertainty. He forced a smile, the smile he had once seen on his mother's face when the Lord of Waters had offered to duel a troll bandit who had challenged her courage and honor, the smile which had only sharpened when the duel was accepted and when the rock-strong creature had started to realize how terribly wrong its estimation of the Lord of Waters had been.
"The Seventh Prince of Skysand greets you, and offers his blades to still your fear; or keep your fear, and your lives, if you flee." Into the words and level ice-blue gaze, he placed his living will, pressing back on their chill-hard minds with the blazing fire of his soul.
For a fleeting moment, he almost thought it would work. The three in the front wavered, hissing, and the other four stood still. But the twelve behind surged forward, and he had to focus some senses on them, and another figure – a larger mazakh, one of the Mazakhar – appeared behind the first group, screeching orders in their own tongue.
And all dissolved into the chaos of combat. Tobimar spun aside as the seven charged – the advantage of the doorway now a terrible vulnerability, the open space of the temple his only chance – and parried two strikes with one sword, leapt up on a prayer-perch, cut down, impact on scales going through to bone, wrenching the blade free as he jumped again over a spear-thrust. Parry! screamed the inner sense, something streaking at him from the side, his sword already coming up, the spangg! sound of a Zachass disc ricocheting from his own blade almost instantly followed by the meaty thunk and a scream from the disc ending its suddenly-deflected course in the chest of one of the attackers. They were trying to herd him, he had to get out of the corner, leap up, on this one's head, flip –
A line of fire scorched its way along his side, and Tobimar realized it wasn't just a matter of sensation – that wasn't a blade. One of the mazakh was a spellcaster – maybe a priest, even, and that would be very bad. He charged forward, channeling his will into his body, his legs, leapt over the warriors that tried to intercept him with a bound that almost cracked his head open on the wooden beams above, barely kept hold of his weapons and will as dark-blue lightning sparked around him and the scaly priest stumbled backwards, throwing up his arms; it was futile as the razor-sharp swords first took one arm and then half-severed his head. Three so far, maybe four.
Impact from the side, sensed too late to block, only roll with it a bit, come up, cut at the legs, back them up, block again, arms hurting, can't stop, turn, disarming spin, jab, he's down, another two on me, stab backwards, missed but they've moved away, jump up, by the Sand there's the statue, hope it's not Manifesting right now, land on the outstretched arm, that will make it harder on them… Oh dust and drought they've all got missiles, spears, Zachass, think some of the ones I scattered weren't broken, got to get down!
Even moving as fast as he could, Tobimar tried to block two bladed discs, only managed to get one, the other scoring a long cut down his right arm. It wasn't all that serious, but instantly the arm began to somehow simultaneously go numb and burn like icy fire. Poison!
The Inner Will could disperse a poison, even heal wounds – but if he used that much focus, they'd have him in an instant. All he could do was try to slow it a bit. And keep fighting. Swinging. Cutting.
Finally he realized there was a pause, a gap. He stared around, seeing that he must have killed eight, nine of them already… but there were at least eighteen remaining. Reinforcements.
The Mazakhar stepped slightly forward, hissing. "A good fight, boy, and brave speech. But you slow, you tire, and we are many. Nearly all in this house have come. What, then, should we fear?"
And in that moment, when he searched for some words that would mean something, another voice spoke. A voice strange and hollow, echoing around the room, seeming to come from no clear source above or below.
And the huge Mazakhar bellowed in agony, clutching futilely at its back as though something had impaled it there. The other mazakh whirled, seeking the source of that voice and that pain.
Tobimar didn't know what was going on, but he knew a chance when he saw one. He lunged forward, both swords drawn back, and with all his strength did a double cut; a second, gurgling scream and the leader went down, hands now scrabbling grotesquely at his own innards in a useless attempt to keep them where they belonged.
Now there was consternation on the reptilian faces, for as Tobimar forced all of his strength into a final whirlwind of cuts, it seemed as though some invisible force followed him, hindering every attempt to hem in the exiled Prince. A spear was levelled at his back, and the wielder suddenly pitched to the ground, clutching at an ankle that was fountaining blood. A blurred, tiny motion, impossible to follow in the shadows and deadly dance of combat, streaked away, and a moment later as Tobimar exchanged blows with a veteran warrior, scales thick and glossy with age, whose skill threatened to disarm the young man at any moment, something tiny dropped from above (or, perhaps, leaped from the floor?) and a silvery flicker of motion jabbed from one side to the other; the veteran's sword clattered unheeded to the floor as the clawed hands were clapped to the throat, impotent to stem the tide of red and the half-seen something bounded away. A murmur of uncertainty began now, and the twin swords spun and danced in lethal rhythm, weariness held at bay with sheer will and rising hope, punctuated now by a pair of chiming twangs, and two mazakh fell with steam-whistle shrieks as something entered their eyes and began to burn with white-fire agony.
That was enough; the remaining creatures fled, unwilling to face the unyielding Tobimar and whatever unknown and terrible force had allied itself with him, even here within their own temple.
In the sudden silence, Tobimar could hear his own ragged breathing, and he glanced around, feeling the poison still trying to work its way through him, dizziness warring with fear and confusion. "Wh… what are you? Where are you? Show yourself!"
"No need to shout." The voice from down near his feet was the same, but somehow less frightening, almost comical.
Nonetheless, he jumped back in startlement and looked down.
A small brown Toad – with, admittedly, a fair overlayer of red gore – looked up at him and waved. "Hello!"
And Tobimar Silverun, Seventh of Seven, Seeker of Skysand, found himself utterly without words.
I... suspect I would be, too.