Let's look in on our smallest protagonist...
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!
Poplock seems to have gained a distorted idea of "fun".