Merkia stared at the bodies. Two rows of corpses laying in the street, cloak-covered and waiting for the cart that would haul them off to the undertaker and their final journey. Illyra’s Supplicant stared at the bodies. Blood seeped from wounds hidden beneath sodden cloth, ran in slow courses between the cobbles to form incarnadine canals. She stared at the bodies and tried to convince herself that she had done the right thing. But she was failing.
My wayward daughter… Strasna had always been swift. In thought and word and deed she had moved fast, struck hard, and shown no hesitation. Merkia had done all that she could to slow Strasna’s swiftness, to make the woman think before she acted. But everything had been undone in a moment of that flashing fury for which her erstwhile pupil had become so infamous.
This was Strasna’s work. Hers and her companions. And mine as well. Brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers, daughters, mothers, sons. These men and women had left their barracks this morning, little suspecting that the shadow of Death was looming across their lives, closing with each heartbeat. That spectral hand had reached out and gathered them in, and it was her fault.
She felt old, looking down at the bodies. Their neat double line was a silent testament to her hubris. The Supplicant had thought that she could contain this, set Raelin and her hunters onto the trail of her banished daughter and thereby spare them both more heartache.
Perhaps she had spared herself the pain; she had saved herself the anguish of hearing the bells ring. She would not have to listen to the criers on the street corners calling the Saints to arms. There would be no need to witness the streets being searched house by house, to watch families roused in the gloaming light and questioned, to witness Strasna run down in the street like a dog. Quick and clean, the way she would have done it herself. Merkia bowed her head. The hands that had held the blades, the mouths that had chanted the spells, those had belonged to Strasna and her Blighted. But the Supplicant knew those deaths were upon her head.
Alice had almost stepped out of the alley when it caught her eye; though the smoldering embers attracted her attention, it was the charred fingers extending skyward that impelled her to approach. The mudhole had seemed pretty nasty from afar, but up close it was obvious that the pit was a deathtrap. The snared Saint had been desperate to escape, the fire pushing him to strive for a freedom that the ensorcelled earth would never allow him to reach. There were still a few brush blazes burning even now, crawling over his skin and staining it like ink on parchment.
The diminutive Saint spared a glance for what remained of the ‘mud’. Once tacky and viscous, the sludge had hardened into a spider’s web of different strands, all of which pooled together in the semisolid muck at its victim’s feet. Disgusting, but probably no longer able to trap her as it had this poor sod. Alice released the clasp on her cloak, taking the garment in hand as she started down the side of the pit.
The heavy cloth used to weave the guard’s uniforms proved to be excellent for smothering fires, at least when they were this small. Soon there were none left to fight, only a smattering of scorch marks revealing that they had ever existed at all. Alice wiped the sweat from her forehead and approached the body, settling the singed mantle around her shoulders as she fell to a crouch. No time to go and grab a rescue crew. Looks like I’ll have to pull him loose. She grunted and looped her arms around his legs, ensuring that her grasp was nice and tight before she shoved upward with all her might. At first nothing happened, but after a few seconds of solid effort, the ooze’s hold started to loosen. One moment the corpse was suspended in place, the next Alice was tossing him over her shoulder as the fingers of hardened soil snapped beneath the strain.
Breath rushed from between her lips, followed swiftly by a growl as she forced her way back up and out of the mire. This one was going to be put to rest with his brothers and sisters, and that was that.
“The flames are under control, Supplicant.” Merkia looked up, drawn out of her dreary reverie by the voice of a sooty Saint who had come to a halt just behind her. She half turned towards the man, taking in the sergeant’s emblem worked into his stained tunic and tiredly noting several holes singed into the woolen garment by cinders from the blaze. “Ma’am,” the sergeant inquired after the Supplicant made no reply to his report, “is something wrong?”
Too many things to count. But Merkia held those words inside, turning her gaze from the Saint to the charred husk of the tavern. “See that the proprietor is sent to the exchequer at the temple of Illyra.”
“Ma’am?” The sergeant was young, perhaps newly raised to his post. He asked the not-question with all the curiosity of youth, and then colored furiously when he realized just who it was he was questioning.
The Supplicant managed a wan smile, though it was not so reassuring as it might have been. “Illyra’s temple will see to restitution for the damages to the inn.” She lifted a hand and shook her head gently, forestalling another question. “See to it, sergeant. Illyra’s blessings on you.”
Thankfully the dismissal sent the man scurrying off to do his duty, leaving Merkia alone with the dead. She took one last look at the wreckage of the inn, and then turned back to the double row of corpses. The Supplicant folded her hands before herself, and then opened them in a slow and spreading gesture, holding her hands open as in offering as she began to pray.
Surprisingly, the trek grew easier as time went on. Once she left the sloping walls of the mudhole behind, Alice’s pace picked up dramatically, back straightening as she allowed her arms to support more of the corpse’s weight. Pretty heavy guy. He was probably the butt of some jokes when he was a kid. The Saint grinned through the strain, each step more sure than the last. She could do this. The rows of bodies were visible from the mouth of the alleyway; just a little bit further.
The Ensign’s expression fell when she caught sight of Merkia, her countenance shifting to a long-practiced grimace. It wouldn’t do to be seen smiling in such a dismal situation, particularly in front of the Supplicant. Alice wasn’t particularly happy anyway, so why not look the part? As she drew closer to the woman, it became increasingly obvious that the Supplicant was lost in her own world. Probably praying for the fallen. Something that she should do herself, come to think of it.
Ignoring the looks many of the other Saints were giving her, Alice walked right past Merkia and set the body down at the end of the topmost line. After a moment’s thought, she whipped her cloak from her shoulders and drew it over the corpse, setting her hands in her lap as she closed her eyes and murmured a familiar litany. One which all Saints were taught before they became troopers: Illyra’s Prayer for the Fallen.
Merkia’s eyes opened at the sound of someone approaching; it was a woman in the uniform of a Saint, burdened down by the weight of another corpse. The Supplicant’s hands fell to her sides and the whispered words slipped out before she could stop them. “Another body for the pile…” She looked at the Saint as the woman draped her own cloak over the fallen man and knelt beside him, murmuring familiar words. “Did you know him?”
Though the words reached her ears, Alice remained quiet after she completed her prayer, staring down at the mantle-shrouded body for another couple of moments. “No. I’d never met him before.” She started slowly. “He was one of us though. Couldn’t let him turn to ash in that hell- pit. The mud-filled ditch that one of the Quisling’s allies carved into the alley. So I pulled him out.”
She had pulled him out. And I all but pushed him in. Merkia’s gaze went to the covered body. Her voice was weary. “I knew them all. Each and every one. They were my children.” Children she had sent to their unknowing graves. “I make a poor mother.” The Supplicant glanced towards the Saint. “I thank you for this service. May I ask your name?”
Alice frowned, but rose to her feet, only to turn and bow to the Supplicant. “I am Alice, milady. Alice Lynch. A Sergeant in the Saints and Third-in-Command of Captain Magro’s squad.” She paused, grimacing once again. “And, excuse my insolence, but you don’t need to thank me for standing by my brothers in arms.”
“Captain Magro…” Merkia frowned slightly, her mind turning the name over until she found an association to attach to it. “Then it is duty well performed. But why are you here, Sergeant Lynch? Your squadron is not on the patrol rotation.”
The Saint smiled ruefully, gently shaking her head. “We weren’t, but given the current state of emergency, we were turned out hours ago to search for the traitor. I was left back at the barracks to coordinate things, but I’ve since received orders to recapture an escaped prisoner: One of the Quisling’s conspirators who might just have it out for my commander.”
“The traitor, you say.” The Supplicant looked down at the bodies. “This is the second time you have mentioned the Quisling.” Merkia’s eyes flicked back up to Alice, shrewd and piercing. “We know a group of Blighted are loose in the city, plotting some manner of evil. But what makes you so certain the Quisling has returned?” She had to ask the question, but in her heart of hearts, Merkia knew it was true. Strasna was back. There had been no word from Raelin, and it was past time when she might have reported that all was well at the Temple of Baan. Perhaps Merkia simply needed to hear it from another’s lips.
“Saints intelligence.” Alice said simply. “And assuming that I doubted that, one of my superiors is the person that interrogated the prisoner I’m after. She never outright admitted that she was working with the Quisling; in fact, she went out of her way to deny it. Far too strongly. Couple that with the presence of potent magic, which was used to teleport her somewhere in the city, and I don’t know who else we could be dealing with.” The girl set her hands against her back, meeting the woman’s steely gaze with one of her own. “I don’t like it anymore than you do, milady, but this is definitely the work of the Quisling. Treating it as anything less is a risk that I’m not willing to take.”
“As you say.” Merkia turned back towards the bodies. “It is as you say.” There could be no more hope of secrecy and deception. There had been too much death. She would do what she should have done from the start: tell the truth and do her duty to Palora. “The Owl and her Flock seek the Quisling at the Temple of Baan. If the Quisling has returned, her goal is the Spear. The Conclave must be convened. Return to your captain, Sergeant Lynch. Wake the Quartermaster, or find him. Let the Saints be roused. The Blighted skulk through the shadows. We will make these streets blaze with Baan’s light.”
Alice saluted the Supplicant, filing away everything that she’d learned; Magro and Noah would be interested in hearing a more complete brief of the situation. “Understood, milady. If I may, I suggest that you spread word that there is a powerful magic user supporting our foes. I’ve no idea who they are, but I found traces of their power in an alley to the north, where the prisoner fled, and here inside the inn. Their power isn’t Blighted, but they’re clearly supporting these dastards.” The Saint brought a hand to her mouth, flushing slightly. “If that is all, I will excuse myself, milady.”
A shiver ran through the Supplicant at Alice’s words. A powerful mage... The Saint’s warning raised the specter of a blue-eyed shadow, a sinister memory that whispered at the back of Merkia’s mind. “They will not go unwarned.” She replied, lifting a hand in benediction. “Go with the grace of Illyra, Alice Lynch. It may be that many futures turn upon this night.”
“May she also be with you, milady.” Alice whispered, bowing once more before she spun on her heel and departed. She carried with her a chill that had not been there when she arrived, a worry that she couldn’t quite shake. The Saint had seen the Supplicant’s reaction to her words, and that unnerved her more than anything. The woman whom had served as the steadiest of the city’s Archons, even in the wake of the Quisling’s betrayal, was afraid.
He walked, humming.
Each step was placed with poise, and the Magister almost seemed to skate over the cavern floor. He giggled like a schoolgirl, twirling as he danced into the sepulcher. The cowled figure leapt lightly, bounding agilely through the gristly piles of corpses and coming to a stop with a flourishing bow before Beauty’s throne.
Dropping to his knees, he turned and rested the side of his face against the stone seat, eyes glittering as bright as the quiescent topaz waiting so innocently there. “Hello again. Aloha, kaixo, hola, buna!” He cackled manically, spinning up to his feet and whirling in a frenetic circle. “Oh yes, hello and hello and hello again!” The Magister sobered a moment later, walking a slow counter-clockwise orbit about the throne. “So many years,” he croned. “Soooo long.”
He paused before the high seat, going down to one knee again as though to pledge fealty. “But you remember me, don’t you? Oooooh yes you do.” The Magister giggled again, rising and bowing formally. “This is the last turn, my lady. One way or another, yes, the last turn before the wheel is smashed. May I have this dance?”
There was a long and silent pause as lambent eyes watched the gemstone unblinkingly. No audible reply came to the robed man’s question, but he laughed all the same as he scooped up the stone. Turning once, twice, thrice, the Magister thrust the stone into the air and vanished in a clap of thunder that extinguished all the torches in that forsaken ossuary.
The weights thundered along their courses as Strasna turned towards the kobolds. But before she could act Hendrik slipped by her, charging into the cluster of scaled monstrosities. Axe and cutlass flashed in the dim light as the elven pirate ripped into the kobolds like a scythe through wheat. A fierce grin flashed across the exile’s face, but it faltered a moment later, and the joyous expression was replaced by one of revulsion as the hale beasts devoured their injured compatriots. Illyra might have mercy for the weak and injured, but the kobolds had none. In the space of a few moments the wounded were ripped apart and consumed, only a few bloody smears on the stone testament to the fact they had ever been in the first place.
Across the platform Jana waded in, delivering punishing blows from the bludgeon she favored and sending more of the fanged monsters back into the pit with shattered bones and crushed skulls. Her cousin’s voice rang out over the raucous clangor of the chains, and her kinswoman hurled herself towards a new pack of kobolds dropping onto the left-hand bridge.
Boyfriend? The fallen Paladin mentally shrugged off the jab. There would be more than enough time speak with Jana later, preferably when they were not about to be eaten. The weights on the right side roared up, carrying with them another load of hissing death. Kobolds leapt from the stone, landing on both the bridge to her left and the bridge directly before her. How are they so many?
“Hendrik, the left!” The outlaw did not pause to see if her directive was followed; she darted forward, bounded around the levers at the center of their island, and charged the quintet of beasts on the slender stone span linking the central platform to the island from which they had entered the Spearforge.
A stepping lunge carried her into the first kobold, arm and rapier in perfect harmony as razored steel rasped through scale and flesh. The monster spasmed; claws scrabbled at her extended arm, shredded through cloth, and gouged into leather. Strasna grimaced, twisting the blade and wrenching it back as her boot came up and delivered a solid kick that sent the mortally wounded beast bouncing into its companion. The second kobold snarled as it immediately tore into the first, oblivious to anything but its meal, even as the momentum imparted by the impact sent both creatures skidding off the span and into the chasm.
The slender swordswoman’s hand curled into a clawing gesture that enveloped the trio remaining on her bridge in a cloud of choking ash. Strasna’s blade twirled up into a ready position for another lunge, but the kobolds burst from the cloud in a growling, snarling mass. The exile cursed, bobbing left and slashing, scoring a line across one of the monster’s ribs. Sidling to her right she kicked again, clipping a kobold and sending it back down into the abyss with its fellows. The third skidded several feet down the bridge after missing its leap, pivoted, and then came slavering back at Strasna.
Her right hand snapped out like lightning, catching the leaping beast by the throat and tightening her grip. She kept up the pressure as the monstrosity thrashed, scouring bleeding furrows across her arm as it raked its way through her leather glove. Strasna snarled through the pain and clenched all the harder, feeding her fury into her grip until she felt cartilage crackle. The kobold’s silvery eyes bulged and its jaw worked in a soundless howl. The fallen Paladin lifted the flailing beast to eye level as its frenetic struggles began to slow. “Tell them,” she rasped, giving the kobold a savage shake, “tell them they will find naught but fire and death here.” The exiled turned and hurled the monster into the abyss.
She need not have bothered sending a messenger. The stones roared back up, weighted with another load of kobolds coming to receive word themselves. With a curse, the outlaw glanced back towards the Spearcase. Hendrik’s flames were guttering, but the structure itself seemed largely unharmed by the inferno. A lone kobold clawed its way onto the Spear platform. But its silvered eyes narrowed and it shied away from the dying flames with a hiss. They fear the flame.
“Hendrik!” Strasna cried out to the corsair. “More oil!”