Chapters 41 – 51

Chapters 41 – 51

41   Mage’s Pride

Continued from Parts 31- 40

Tarleen led Jonneran all the way back to the chamber’s entry portal and with a gentle tug upon his shoulder turned him to face down the tunnel, so that their whispered words would be carried away from Honour and Matthias. She drew in a deep breath but Jonneran would not wait for her to gather her thoughts.

“You don’t need to come to his rescue,” said the mage. “I will not risk giving us away to the monsters above. No, but have no doubt, every insult is recorded and I will have my reckoning.” His lips were pursed, his eyes slitted and his hard drawn features left her in no doubt he meant every word; meant them as truly as prayers. She swallowed and began to carefully pick her words.

“I see your commitment,” she said. “Of course I don’t like it, but that’s because of the Warlock’s role in our rescue. Even without what is to come, I owe him a great debt. Nonetheless, you and I…we…we must speak on another matter.”

Jonneran’s face softened for a moment as he contemplated the priestess’ comments. Behind them came the shuffle and clatter of Honour and Matthias sorting through the other pieces of equipment on the causeway stones. Mage and priestess ignored them.

“What I have to say may…probably, sound strange,” Tarleen whispered urgently. “But I beg you, let me finish. I promise, it will be the most important thing I say while we are down here; for you, at least.”

“For me?”

“Yes, for you. Cyriss has given me a private message, for you personally.”

“A message?” asked Jonneran. “Why?” Tarleen feared that his agnostic sensibilities would be offended by a religious intervention in his life, but from his expression it seemed that the idea had some appeal.

“My mistress’ plans are her own; I won’t speak on them except with her instruction.”

Jonneran sniffed at Tarleen’s expression of spiritual devotion and for a moment his usual contemptuous nature reasserted itself. Frightened of losing her chance to give her message its greatest impact, she charged ahead.

“Jonneran of the Fraternal Order, Cyriss, Mistress of the Gears bids me speak these words to you. Cyriss calls you now to leave your Order and enter her service. She knows what it would mean for you to quit the Fraternal Order and does not ask lightly. Initially there would be shame and dishonour for you, but she promises to raise you high in her service and to make a place for you greater than the Order will ever allow you. As a devout gearmage you will find honour.”

Even as she spoke Tarleen could see Jonneran’s face harden with growing contempt. She began to rush, hurrying to deliver every word of the message before he rejected the offer outright, as she had always feared he would.

“With this offer I am bound to deliver a warning as well. If you refuse my mistress’ offer she bids me tell you that you will never leave this place alive.”

Jonneran finally scoffed out loud. “Make up your mind,” he hissed. “Either woo me with promises or threaten me! Both is just overkill!”

“I make no threats,” Tarleen insisted, her voice still a whisper. “Cyriss has foreseen your death here in this place and she would save you from its grasp. Moreover, she sees an accursed place in death for you here. If you do not take her offer your regrets will be unending.”

“Oh enough!” Jonneran said in a loud tone, turning from Tarleen and striding back to the others. “I am a man of learning, a Mage of the Order, not some simpleton peasant to be cowed by the dire prognostications of the priesthood. If I was given to intellectual cowardice I would have already sworn to the church. I am not afraid of the bogeyman!”

“You must listen,” Tarleen begged, pursuing him and clasping him by the sleeve of his robe. “The mistress has shown me what will happen! You must relent!” Jonneran whirled on her in fury.

“What?” he demanded. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed the other two, standing now and close by. “Is it him? Do you think I’m afraid of his skills? When we leave this hole we will finally see who is the better at the art! It will not be he!”

Honour and Matthias watched warily, unsure whether to intervene in the increasingly loud argument. Jonneran’s tense stance spoke of imminent violence, but Tarleen remained supplicant.

“None of us will strike a blow against you, Jon, I swear it! We will not need to!”

“Oh, indeed? Will your goddess do it herself?”

“No…I…”

“She seems in a hurry to bestow blessings upon her slatterns,” Jonneran ranted, snatching his arm back from Tarleen’s grasp. “But for an honourable man, committed to his art and his Order, for me she has only dire promises and seductions to treachery! No wonder my ex-fiance has been so eager to find you priestess; it is plain you are every bit the clergy of a slut that she is!” He turned to face Matthias and Honour, daring them to defend Tarleen’s reputation. Honour seemed ready to strike him, but Matthias only shook his head. “None of you is fit to spit on!”

He pressed past them along the causeway to the opening in the chamber’s opposite wall. Matthias put his hand on Honour’s arm to keep her from striking Jonneran as he passed. Then they both looked to Tarleen. Thin tears trailed upon her cheeks.

“What is it, Tar?” asked Honour. The priestess shook her head.

“There isn’t much time,” she said. “Things will move quickly now.”

“What things?”

“Forces bound together like a vast clockwork mechanism have been gathering their tensions for too long. The time has come for the switch to be thrown and the mechanism to move.” Tarleen paused and turned to Matthias. “There are only a few moments before your brethren begin their assault.”

Honour turned to face the Warlock.

“Your brethren?” she asked. “The Nine Dragons?” He nodded.

“This is the moment they have waited for, to walk again the path they will only ever walk twice.”

“What will happen?”

“Death,” Matthias answered simply and his eyes fell to the stones at his feet. “Death like a rage to shake the earth.” His tone made Honour shiver. Tarleen pushed at her armoured shoulder, pointing along the causeway.

“Quickly,” said the priestess. “We must not lose sight of him. The next chamber holds the key to everything.” With Tryptich’s trotting claws striking sparks behind her, Tarleen rushed after Jonneran’s striding form, already receeding into the shadows ahead. Honour and Matthias gathered up the spoils from the storehouse and rushed to catch up. The galvanite sentinel stood still and was left behind. As Tarleen reached the other end of the causeway, the conjured lamplight faded from the ceiling fixtures one by one, until the chamber was once again dark, save for the dim blue luminescence of the galvanite’s electrical form.

Part 42   Death in Mighty Array

Beyond the treasure chamber the causeway opened into a wide, vaulted gallery. The ceiling was carved from the rock with flaring buttress pieces that resembled the fingers of bats’ wings. They rose up one wall in bundled pillars, flaring out until they arced twenty-five feet above the floor, then falling to enshrine a series of alcoves that opened at regular intervals along the left hand wall. The gallery had no native lighting, but from each alcove a dim violet luminescence stained the stony darkness.

Jonneran’s furious steps carried him forward to the light of the alcove. He turned to look and the sight within brought him up short. It was only moments before the others reached him as he stared dumbfounded at the contents of the first alcove.

“What is it?” asked Honour as she reached him. When she saw for herself she could not stifle a gasp. Inside the confined space stood a figure that might have been mistaken at a distance for a partially armoured giant or even an incomplete steam warjack. Up close however its baroque design, festooned with barbs, spikes and graven skulls, the night black metal construct was unmistakable, even though none of the companions had ever heard more than stories of such a thing before.

“Deathjack!” whispered Honour in horror. In many ways the vile machine was not so different from any steam jack. A metal frame had been constructed to resemble the skeleton of a man, fifteen feet in height. Pistons, gears and cables served as the mechanical flesh of the creature and over this was fitted its armoured skin. Steamjacks and warjacks were powered by steam, their boilers burning coal as fuel. The deathjack’s power derived from living creatures, necromantically consuming life forces in its soul furnace. Inside the alcove the deathjack was inert and plainly incomplete, lacking arms. No sign of power pulsed in the bulbous black metal furnace on the construct’s back. The purple glow which barely lit the alcove came from glass and metal cables that emerged from the wall and hooked to the structure at several points. The eldritch power from the vile globe at the heart of the cephalyx’ complex pulsed through the cables like lifeblood. Either the monstrous ‘jack was under construction or else receiving maintenance.

Matthias Warlock slipped quietly along the gallery to the next alcove. When he reached it he clicked his teeth in disapproval.

“Well,” he said. “There is a word I never thought I would say.”

“What?” asked Honour, starting towards.

“Deathjacks,” said Matthias, emphasizing the final sound.

“Deathjacks?”

The others rushed up to his position at the second alcove. No soldier could serve long upon the battlefields of the Iron Kingdoms before they heard the stories of the deathjack. Its monstrous need for fuel driving it to assault frontier settlements, slaughtering all the inhabitants. Tales told of whole regiments destroyed when sent to stop its rampages; soldiers left only as tattered husks drained of life; warjacks torn to scrap metal by taloned gauntlets as large as the body of a man. The stories varied according to the skill or imagination of the teller, but one thing remained constant across them all; there was only one deathjack!

“There’s only one!” said Jonneran as he looked in disbelief at the contents of the second alcove. As with the first, the construct within was incomplete, but it too drew power from the cephalyx systems.

“I always thought there was only one,” said Tarleen. Honour and Matthias nodded.

“Seems we were mistaken,” said the gunmage. He moved onto the third alcove. Looking in he nodded. “Quite mistaken.”

“Another one?” Honour rushed up to see for herself. Matthias looked down the gallery, quietly counting the number of alcoves as far as he could.

“Another twelve, I think. I can’t see any further than that.”

“Fourteen?”

“At least. Thankfully none seems…active.I don’t think we would last long if they were.”

For a moment they stood side by side, staring into the shadows and contemplating their discovery. Tarleen came up beside Honour and Tryptich’s footfalls grated over the stones.

“So this is where it…they…come from?” said Honour. “Why? What are they making them for? What is their purpose?”

“We can’t assume these are the same as the one from the stories,” said Matthias. Something toward the end of the gallery caught his attention and while he continued to listen to his comrades, he carefully watched the other end.

“What you say is true,” Tarleen agreed. “But the one we know may have come from this workshop.”

“Why would they release it? Or does it follow some obscure mission that noone in the Kingdoms has yet divined?”

“The finest mages of the Order have studied the deathjack tales,” said Jonneran. “They have determined that it is an Orgoth creation, older than the occupation.” Honour cocked an eyebrow.

“So what about these?”

“Well plainly these cephalyx have uncovered the secret!”

“Plainly,” Honour replied. “What do they plan to do with them?” Matthias said something in answer to her question but Jonneran’s voice overrode him.

“How should I know? Why don’t you go and ask them?”

“Don’t be a fool!”

“It does not matter!” Matthias said again with more force. “Whether the deathjack we know comes from here; what its purpose is; why these are being built! None of it matters! We cannot leave these here. Whatever else happens, these things must be destroyed.”

“Destroyed?” asked Jonneran. Honour and Tarleen nodded.

“Imagine an army with a dozen of these at its head,” said Honour. “What force in the Kingdoms could stand against them.”

“Yes I can imagine it!” Jonneran declared with passion in his voice. “I imagine the army of Cygnar, crushing Khador and the Protectorate! With the secret of their manufacture the Fraternal Order could make Cygnar ascendant! The swan would fly over all of the Kingdoms from north to south; an empire to rival the ancient Orgoth!”

“The Church would never allow such necromancy in the service of the king!” Honour declared, aghast at Jonneran’s suggestion.

“The Church?” repeated Jonneran, his voice dripping sarcasm like serpents venom. “Who cares what they would allow? The time is long past for brainless clerics to learn their place and a power like this would be just the rod to teach it with!”

“You’re mad!”

“And you are stupid! You think some long absent god or one of his saints will rescue from all ills! You’re just another cow, blithely chewing its cud and providing milk, waiting for the day the farmer leads you to the slaughter. You follow your gods; I need no divine master to lead me by the nose.”

“How can we do it?” asked Tarleen of Matthias. Her soft voice had a strangely calming effect on Honour and Jonneran’s argument. Both antagonists blinked in surprise as they realised that the priestess did not rush to take a side in their conflict. Apparently she felt no need to defend her deity from Jonneran’s contempt.

“Alone we would not be able, I think,” said the gunmage, his eyes still focussed on the far end of the gallery. There appeared to be a figure moving in the shadows far ahead. “But we will have help from friends.”

With swift strides Na So, nun of the Nine Dragons order seemed to almost float through the purplish darkness towards them. The bald, thin boned woman carried a heavy bundle upon her back that bent her forward like a gleaning peasant returning from the fields. She arrived in front of them and lowered the bundle to the floor. Untying the corners, the bundle revealed itself to be a cloak in which the nun bore several dozen iron grenades, like large black oranges. Nestled among the explosive fruit was a sheathed longsword. Na So reached into the bundle and drew out the sword and sheath, a heavy black leather baldric hanging from the fixtures. She handed blade and belt to Matthias who received it with both hands.

“The time is come, Matthias Warlock,” she said. He nodded and turned to Honour. Drawing forth the blade he held it up in front of her face. The quillons of the cross-guard were fashioned in the sunburst design of Morrow in gilded steel. The holy symbol was repeated on the pommel ball and embossed in both sides of the blade at the shoulder.

“This is Unspoken Certainty, a holy avenger,” said Matthias, reversing the blade in his grip to offer her the hilt. “It was wielded by the knight commander of our expedition. It would be under-utilised in anyone else’s hands.” Honour smiled and took the weapon from him. Immediately she felt its power, its connection to her deity and the sanctifications laid upon it by devout members of the church. The blade responded in kind, sensing Honour’s status as a paladin of the Church. The blade flared with light like afternoon sun shining through a window. Out of respect for the weapon’s purpose, she resisted the temptation to give the blade a few practice swings. She trusted it implicitly; what in another’s hands would be no more than a well forged blade would for her be as true and sharp as any piece of metal could possibly be. It would cut so clean that if it struck at the shadows, the darkness would bleed.

Once she had received the scabbard from Matthias, she resheathed the blade and settled the baldric about her armour. The weight of it felt very satisfying. The gunmage returned her beaming smile, though he blinked in the sudden return to darkness. When his eyes had adjusted once again, his smile faded.

“You have to set the grenades near to the power lines from the cephalyx hive,” he explained. “Alone they would do little damage to these monsters, but combined with the power that flows in the cables, it should be enough. Na So will show you how. You must set the fuses so that all explosions detonate at once. We cannot risk any interruption. A single swift strike.” With a nod to the nun Na So, he turned to leave, but Honour caught him by the arm.

“Where are you going?”

“I still have one more duty to fulfil.”

“I will come with you!”

“No,” Matthias said gently. “You have to stay here, to help. When this is done, Na So will lead you to Dokor and Viridian.”

“They live?” Honour asked with a gasp. Matthias nodded and turned to go. Honour stopped him again and tears gathered in her eyes. “So I regain them just to lose you?”

“We are bound by oaths and vows, you and I,” said the gunmage and he smiled gently. “It may be that there is a place for us on the otherside of this journey through the shadows, but for now we have separate paths to walk.” Honour lowered her face for a moment then she realised something.

“You knew all along that these were here,” she said.

“The Nine Dragons told me soon after you left me at the temple.”

“Is this the path they will only walk twice?” she asked.

“A part of it.”

“You walk it with them this time?”

He nodded.

“Will it lead into the light or end in darkness?”

Matthias leaned in to her. With his gloved hands he took hold of her face and tilted it upward. The leather felt soft on her skin. He kissed her gently on the lips and she relaxed into his touch.

“You are the one with the vision, she wolf,” he whispered. “You tell me.”

43   In Darkness Completed

As Matthias and Honour said their goodbye, Tarleen turned to Jonneran.

“It’s not too late,” she whispered. “You can still be saved.” He snorted derisively. She reached out for his hand but he pulled it inside the sleeve of his robe. “I beg you to reconsider.”

“Haven’t you been listening, priestess,” he hissed at her. “I made my mind up years ago. I would have thought my words made that clear, even for one of your limited intellect.”

“My goddess is not frightened off by mere words, even yours, and in her peace I have deep wells of patience.”

Jonneran started at Tarleen’s quiet rebuke. He swallowed deeply and looked at her with a tremulous expression that undermined his usual arrogance.

“She urges me to persist,” Tarleen continued. “For your sake, not hers, nor mine.”

“Tell your goddess my mind is made up,” Jonneran whispered and a tone of desperation in his voice made it sound as though he were gasping for air. “Now leave me be!”

Tarleen nodded and turned to see Matthias Warlock walking off down the gallery in the direction from which the nun No Sa had come. Honour knelt on the stones in front of the opened cloak and examined the remaining contents. There were about sixty grenades, made of cast iron. Paying attention to the munitions for the first time, Tarleen marvelled at the little, bald woman’s apparent strength. Each explosive had to weigh at least two pounds, easily more. With near to sixty in the bundle, as well as the holy sword, the nun had been carrying the weight of a large man on her back, yet she had all but skipped down the stone passage.

“Left you again, has he?” Jonneran teased Honour about Matthias’ exit, but his voice lacked its usual edge, as though he mocked her only from habit. The paladin ignored him, focussing on dividing the explosives into groups of equal size, some for each deathjack. No Sa helped and when the cloak was empty, she picked up the first cluster of grenades. Taking them to the nearest alcove, she demonstrated how they should be placed. From around her waist, inside her robe, she drew a coil of long fuses, one for each grenade. When the first ‘jack was set, they moved back to the grenades to set the others.

“You really plan to do this?” Jonneran asked. “You truly don’t see the folly of giving up power like this?”

“Yes Jon,” Honour answered as she handed a bundle of explosives to Tarleen. The priestess headed down to another alcove, Tryptich following loyally. “Now either help or stand aside!” She stood with her own bundle of grenades and pushed past him to another alcove. Jonneran watched for a time, then dipped and picked up a cluster of explosives. He carried them close to his body, his manner almost furtive, as if he did not want the others to see him doing it, and headed to the very first alcove, closest to the treasure chamber.

By the time all of the grenades were in place they were sweating and their hands and faces were smeared with dirt and rust from the iron casings. Only No Sa remained unsullied, as if the exertion had been no more than a walk on a springtime morning. The ends of the fuses were gathered in a central point in the middle of the gallery, so that they could be lit to burn at the same rate, detonating all grenades together. Honour looked to Tarleen and No Sa, then realised Jonneran was no longer with them.

“Jonneran,” she called in a stage whisper, cautious not to make a full throated call. “Come on! We have to light it and go.”

The three women stood for a moment looking in both directions to see if the mage would appear.

“We cannot leave him!” Honour insisted. “We have to find him!” Before they could do anything more though there came the sound of heavy, metal-shod footfalls from the exit end of the gallery.

“Drudges!” Tarleen whispered. “We have to go!”

Two brass helmeted servitors began to resolve out of the far shadows, lumbering towards the group of women. No Sa surged forward with the arrow-like speed of a hummingbird and Tryptich followed at her heels, loping several steps before taking to the air, its bat-like metal wings clashing loudly in the narrow confines of the gallery. With a shrug, Honour ran after them, drawing forth Unspoken Certainty as she did.

Left alone with the fuses, Tarleen looked back down the gallery toward the treasure room and sighed. With a sad frown on her face she drew her copper coil lantern from within her robe and invoked its power. The flame sprang to dancing light, incongrously happy in its little cage. Tarleen spoke a simple evocation and the flame intensified, its yellow deepening to red and thence to bright blue, so that it soon burnt in a jet that lanced from one end of the coil like the flame of a rocket. Even in this form, the flame did her no harm. Crouching, she touched the azure lance to the ends of the fuses and they flared and sparked. Sighing once more, Tarleen stood and ran after her friends, leaving the burning fuses to do their job.

As she drew close to the two drudges No Sa’s footsteps became irregular and she almost seemed to dance towards them as she moved from one side of the narrow passage to the other, but always moving forward. Her approach confused the slow witted servitors and neither had even raised its hands when she reached them, skidding forward into the drudge on the left, her palm raised and aimed at its chest. The bony woman knocked the heavy bodied creature straight backwards so that it fell flat to the stones. Fast behind her, Tryptich barrelled into the other drudge as it turned to face No Sa. The mechagargoyle’s metal talons tore at the monster’s flesh, making deep rents, though no true blood flowed from the wounds, only a dark ichor.

Honour followed the first two and arrived in time to see No Sa leap over the fallen body of one drudge to engage a third which had been following the first two at a short distance. Tryptich was biting and clawing at the second drudge, dealing grevious wounds while the servitor’s monstrous fists rang on Tryptich’s metal sides. As the first drudge attempted to rise, Honour hammered down on it with her left fist. Electric sparks flared around the Aegis Storm’s war-gauntlet as her punch landed with the force of a maul, crashing into the brass helmet and denting it, tearing it partly away from the monster’s shoulders. Before it could recover, she brought her blade up in a reverse grip and thrust it down into the monster’s chest. Unspoken Certainty did not flare with holy purpose, but did cut cleanly through the ribs. The drudge was a slave to an evil purpose, not evil in itself; pitiable rather than despicable.

All three drudges were either dead or incapacitated by the time Tarleen rushed up waving her arms. “The fuses are lit,” she called. “We must leave now!”

“Come, I will lead you to your other comrades,” said No Sa.

“Wait,” cried Honour. “Where is Jonneran? We must not leave him!” Tarleen pressed her hand against her friend’s armoured shoulder.

“He has chosen his fate,” she said, shaking her head. She pushed Honour after No Sa, who was already pressing ahead. Together they followed the nun a short distance until they came to a broad staircase that spiralled upward. Vaulting the twisting steps, the three women and Tryptich rose to a new level where a passage as wide as the gallery below ran crosswise to the lower path. No Sa turned to the left without hesitation and the others followed. They had gone no more than twenty or so paces when there was a dull thud and the passage shook violently. Dust fell from ceiling and Tarleen and Honour both fell against the walls. As they regained their feet No Sa stood calmly waiting like a nursery maid waiting for children to keep up on an outing.

“We must hurry,” she said. Honour rolled her eyes and grimaced at the woman’s unflapable calm but soon they were all running again down the dark corridors to rejoin lost comrades.

—-

Jonneran crouched in the final alcove, with five iron grenades on the ground beside him, nowhere near the alcove’s deathjack. The five fuses lay in a tangle on the floor, their ends connected to nothing. He thought he could hear a voice calling his name for a moment, but he was not sure. After a breath he heard a metallic clashing sound that he thought must be the priestess’ pet mechagargoyle and it seemed the sound was receding.

“It must be soon,” he thought to himself. His eyes went nervously upward, scanning the deathjack’s form. There was more than enough room in the alcove to accommodate both him and the construct, yet somehow its presence seemed to loom over him, threatening to crowd him out of his hiding place. It was a loathesome thing, even inert.

“But isn’t that the point?” he whispered. The thing was a weapon. It needed to be brutal, not beautiful.

In some part of himself, Jonneran knew that he was being irrational. Remaining behind in the hope of saving one of these necromantic constructs from destruction was the height of foolishness. Even if the device survived, there was a real possibility the explosives would collapse the tunnel, trapping him. If that happened though he would have to use the device to dig himself out, that was what he told himself. Whenever his rationality raised objections, his pride disarmed them. The construct was incomplete, but there was a storehouse of mechanicka close to hand. He had no notion how the device was to be completed, but he was cunning and possessed of an intellect the equal of any mortal he had ever known. It was possible the device would run amok, that if completed it would resist his control, but…

The sound of the fuses burning could be heard as the flames sputtered into the alcove. Jonneran watched the tiny fires, his gaze transfixed on the slow-moving fireflies. His hands shook and he could not calm them. His breath was shallow and his mouth dry. As the fires neared the end of the fuses every muscle in him clenched and he screwed his eyes tight. Pride and rationality were both swamped by fear as the terrifying moment stretched out like the unending horizon. He waited, not breathing, not thinking, no pulse in his veins, for the sound that would not come. Then there was the first thud, almost too quiet to be right. Before he had finished hearing that first distant peal, the thunder of dozens of grenades washed through him. His flesh shook with the force of the sound alone and he thought he would die, his life quenched by a sound. The explosion itself crashed through the alcove next and the sound became insignificant, like a young page boy sent ahead as the herald of a mighty army. The carved walls convulsed and Jonneran was flung bodily against the deathjack’s side, impaled on the construct’s barbed fixtures. His blood streamed out upon the metal; dust filled his lungs; the eldritch fire from the cephalyxs’ pipes scoured his flesh and rocks crushed his bones. Jonneran’s life was consumed in a rush of power and fury, drunk to the dregs until there was only cold, darkness and silence.

44   In the Midst of the Storm

Matthias moved quickly along barely lit corridors, following the instructions given him by Za No Den, head of the Order of Nine Dragons. He made every effort to move unseen and unheard, but time pressed on his heels and his mind was occupied with other matters. The image of Honour’s face when he kissed her filled his thoughts.

“What exactly are you doing?” he wondered as he rounded a corner and mounted another flight of stairs two at a time. There was no doubt that he and Honour wanted each other, but how had that happened? For five years he had lived reflexively, reacting to situations, never planning more than a few moments into the future; from the moment the senior clergy blamed him and excommunicated him to this day, he had known no other way.

“No,” he thought. “Not quite!” He had joined the army to find the way of the gunmage, to try to fulfil his promise to the Nine Dragons even without the backing of the Church. That had been a kind of plan, but following orders had been too easy. So…if that was the case, why did he not stay with the army?

The passageway ahead pulsed with violet light and Matthias’ footsteps slowed as he watched for enemies.

The army was not a home, not like the Order of Keepers had been. Besides, after the expedition nowhere felt safe. The whole world seemed to have changed after he escaped with the raving Marsendat on the Barracuda. Even if the Church had welcomed him back and accepted his story, something told Matthias that he would still have felt disconnected, exiled from his brothers. Some part of him had remained behind here in the pit with his comrades who had never made it out.

The Warlock reached over the collar of his coat and drew forth an amulet fashioned of gold with a sapphire mounted in the centre. The little blue gem flared with a momentary light, which felt a little cheering in the flickering eldritch radiance of the cephalyx’ arcana. He looked up and although he could not see them, he knew the monks of the Nine Dragons were waiting in the shadows to begin their final assault on the pit and its inhabitants. Matthias had been given a role in that conflict and the amulet was to protect him from the mental powers of the pit’s denizens. He turned to the right and headed to the nearest ladder up toward the centre of the pit.

Climbing hand over hand, he tried to focus on the Nine Dragons’ plan and his part in it. All of his companions depended on their success; especially Honour. He shook his head. Until recently she seemed to hate the very sight of him. Now she insisted on hugging and kissing him. And he was paying her compliments like a courting dandy.

“Magnificent?” he whispered to himself and sighed, shaking his head again. Reaching the next level, he looked in either direction around the pit wall. At each hand the way was blocked by a drudge some way around. To the right though was a wrought iron stairway that led up to intersect with a gangway that crossed the pit ten or so feet further up. As he stepped off the final rung onto the new level the drudge to his left turned and paused, the visor of its helmet looking directly at him. After the moment’s pause both drudges began to lumber purposefully toward him. A grimmace flashed over his lips; no turning back now.

With two leaping steps, Matthias threw himself towards the stairs. Vaulting the safety rail, he surged up to the next level. In spite of his hurry, by the time he gained the gangway both ends were already blocked by two other drudges that made their way to intercept him. The grated floor of the gangway shook from the weight of their footsteps. The gunmage’s gloved fingers twitched momentarily and he had to suppress the urge to draw forth his magelock’s. It was not yet time.

He looked up and swept his head back and forth searching for some way to keep going upward. The only possibility was a small platform that hung beneath yet another wrought iron gantry some distance above, but to reach it required precise timing. He rushed to the middle of the gangway and stopped, causing both drudges to pause for a moment, before lumbering towards him. The Warlock stood facing the side of the gangway, his turning his head back and forth to watch them approach.

When the moment was right he charged towards the drudge to his right, taking two steps before leaping up onto the handrail. He planted a single step on the rail before leaping straight at the drudge and planting a kick in its chest. The blow did virtually no damage to the creature’s swollen musculature, but attack had not been Matthias’ purpose. Instead he pushed off the first drudge at the second one, leaping upward and landing with both feet on the servitor’s bronze helm. Before the monster could react to the unexpected motion, the gunmage coiled like a spring and launched himself upward. At the apex of his desperate leap, he grabbed the cross girders on the underside of the platform. The ironwork groaned slightly with the impact and the hanging platform swayed. Beneath his feet the two drudges stared up at him through the inexpressive visors of their helmets.

“Not today gentlemen,” Matthias said with a wry smile. He began to work his way hand over hand to the platform’s edge and when he reached it he flipped himself up legs first. The swaying ironwork was no more than a flat disc of gratework hanging by a ladder from the gantry. Whatever the cephalyx used it for, the gunmage was only thankful it was there. He rolled over onto his back and looked up past the gantry to the massive glass orb with its fluid violet light pulsing through glass tubes like eldritch blood through arteries of a dragon or other monstrous beast. The moment reminded him of the moon coming out from the clouds in the night sky over Five Fingers and the cold feeling of a stone gargoyle under his back.

“If I did not trust you to hear me from the top of a church, I don’t know how you are going to hear me all the way down here, Morrow,” he prayed silently. As he looked up through the nests of ironworks and machinery he noticed the leather robed figure of a cephalyx descending through the air toward him. The flaring hem of its cloak made it look like a bird of prey and Matthias wondered if this was how a mouse felt under a falling eagle’s talons. “You will have to excuse me a moment Lord Morrow, pressing business.”

Matthias rolled himself over onto his knees and was standing as the cephalyx drew level with him, floating just over the edge of the platform. It stared at him disdainfully through the lenses of of its mask while two articulated prosthetic arms held poised over its shoulders, one ending in a pair of pincers, the other in a brass bladed scalpel. Standing upright under its gaze, Matthias knew he was being probed by its mental faculties, but thanks to the amulet around his neck, its presence was like a whispering voice heard from the other side of a wall. He put his hand over the tiny jewel and flexed his neck like a man contemplating the executionar’s axe. The cephalyx continued to stare, apparently perplexed by his resistance. The prosthetic pincers reached forward slowly, a gesture seeming more curious than threatening. Matthias reached out and grabbed the metal appendage violently, shaking the cephalyx.

“I think not,” he said and while he kept his grip on the prosthetic, drove his free fist into the cephalyx’ masked face. The leather clad figure seemed to crumple and fall, as its unconscious mind no longer controlled its levitation. Matthias let the metal slip from his grasp and the body descended into the darkness. Above and below him several cephalyx, disengaged themselves from other activities and began to float toward him. Their insidious mental voices pressed at the amulet’s wall around his mind.

“That got your attention,” he said with another, self-mocking smile and took hold of the ladder. Of all the elements of the Nine Dragons’ plan, this was the part he liked the least, since it felt like taking a stick, thrusting it into a hornet’s nest and shaking. Still…

“Consider that the safest place is always in the midst of the vortex,” Za No Den had said when he outlined the plan to the gunmage. Matthias reply had been succinct.

“You will not be the one in the vortex’ midst.”

“Then you should fear more for our safety than your own.

“Easier said than done,” the gunmage muttered at his memory of Za No’s words and he raced up the ladder as fast as he could; straight into the grip of a waiting drudge. The gauntleted hands gripped him and lifted him bodily before thrusting him down onto his knees. He gasped at the pain of the impact and managed to draw one foot up underneath himself, but the drudge’s grasp on his neck kept him pressed to the floor. He could not see or hear the cephalyx approaching, but their telepathic voices had risen to the volume of angry shouting; if they broke down the wall, Matthias had no doubt he would not survive. Then he felt a sudden vibration through the gantry floor and he knew the grenades had detonated. He smiled again; it was time.

The cephalyx voices receded somewhat as they no doubt wondered what had just happened. While they were distracted, Matthias flexed his gloved hands and activated their magical power. His twin, bonded magelock revolvers, gifts from his fallen satyxis suitor, appeared in his hands. Looking out from the barrels with his arcane vision, he sighted at the drudge that held him in place and at the nearest cephalyx, floating to his right. He fired. The sigils along the adamantine barrels glowed, imparting magickal power to the rune-carved bullets. The tiny lead balls glittered like emerald stars as they flew to their targets. The cephalyx’ robes caught fire and it fell into the darkness. The drudge did not catch fire, but it staggered backwards under the bullet’s force and it toppled off the gangway. It fell and was soon swallowed in the darkness. Matthias stood, pistols ready and above him there came a thunderous crash as two of the Nine Dragons dropped onto the glass globe. With mystic force they cracked the glass and the assault on the cephalyx hive began in earnest.

“Well Lord Morrow,” the gunmage muttered. “The rudder cable’s gone; the ship is free-wheeling; and the storm is rising. If you plan on having me wash up safe on a beach somewhere when the storm is over, I would really like to wake up lying next to that paladin of yours. I think I love her.”

45    Old Friends

Clouds of dust wafted up the passage behind them as Honour, Tarleen, Tryptich and No Sa rushed ahead of the explosion. The grenades had detonated only moments before, but already they heard the lumbering footfalls of drudges rushing to investigate. Honour led the way with Unspoken Certainty drawn; the bare glow of Tarleen’s lamp danced quicksilver gold along the holy blade’s edge. The group rounded a corner to be confronted with the silent, hovering form of a cephalyx and Certainty flared with its own holy light. Even as the monstrous figure turned its head, prosthetic limbs clicking like the song of an infernal cricket, Honour brought Unspoken Certainty down, cleaving the cephalyx through the shoulder and lodging the blade in its chest. It collapsed like a marionet with strings cut, forcing the paladin to place her boot on its corpse to extract her blade. Certainty came free with a splash of black blood, but much too little for a body so grievously wounded.

“It seems when it comes to it, there isn’t too much to them,” said Honour, uncomfortably comforted to find that the cephalyx were mortal and as vulnerable to a sword stroke as any man, if not more so.

“Only so long as you can keep their dark thoughts from your mind,” added Tarleen as a note of caution. Honour shrugged.

“As drill sergeant Derman used to say – ‘A gun is just a tool; it is a hard heart that kills!’”

“I remember.”

Stepping over the dead body the old friends followed their nun guide up a narrow stone slope that opened onto a metal gangway across the main shaft of the cephalyx coven. No Sa’s bare feet made no sound, but Honour feared her booted foot steps would be obvious to any guards. Looking up she realised her concern was unnecessary. Above them the pit was convulsed in battle. The lumbering armoured drudges charged on walkways and ledges, while silhouetted cephalyx flew with streaming leather robes looking like bat wings. Amongst them flashed other figures, small and yet somehow powerful, the Nine Dragons. The monks leapt about the pit, not flying or levitating, but heedless of the fall below them. High above the alien globe of glass was plainly shattered and the purple radiance trapped within now spilled forth in clouds like mist that rapidly dissipated. There was the sound of breaking glass and more of the magical cloud spilled out in a waterfall rush. From within the cloud a shape emerged, descending like shell fire. Honour and Tarleen jumped when the figure crashed against their walkway, crushing the metal poles of the handrail and setting the entire structure shaking. Looking closer they saw it was the body of one of the monks. He was tangled in the twisted metal like a fish in a net and wisps of the purple energy still clung to his body. Wherever the sorcerous energy touched the monk’s flesh it left pustules and scars like the work of a voracious disease. While the glowing wisps remained neither Honour nor Tarleen dared approach his body.

“Na Ten Se,” whispered No Sa and she bowed her head. The other two barely had time to bow their heads before the nun started off again, leaving the fallen body behind.

“Will you just leave him like that?” asked Tarleen in some distress. Disregard for the fallen made her uncomfortable.

“Much must yet be done,” No Sa said over her shoulder.

“Will you come back for him when this is all over?”

Sister No Sa finally paused once more in her course and gave Tarleen a gentle smile. For a moment the nun looked like nothing more than a frail, elderly woman.

“When this is over,” she said in a quiet voice. “He and I will be together, with our brethren.” Tarleen struggled to grasp her meaning, but Honour was quicker.

“Will none of you survive?”

“Only one,” No Sa said. “The one who was not with us at the beginning, but walked the path twice nonetheless. Who forsook his oath only to fulfill it.”

“Matthias? You mean Matthias?”

No Sa nodded. Honour looked up, hoping to glimpse the gunmage once more, but could not spot him in the midst of the confusion. No Sa tapped her on the breastplate of her armour.

“Come, we must hurry! There are still tasks to accomplish!”

Following the nun they rushed to the end of the gangway and into another dark tunnel. A swift succession of twists and turns left them all but disoriented, though No Sa never seemed confused or in doubt of their path. She led them to a door made of undressed stone anchored to wall by metal hinges longer than a man’s arm and no doubt weighing hundreds of pounds. Honour could barely imagine a giant opening the massive portal, but it swung on its hinges as lightly as any well balanced door. Beyond it a dim lamplight revealed a straight passage and three waiting figures; a monk, a woman and the cramped bulk of an ogrun.

“Viridian! Dokor!” Honour exclaimed, not worrying whether any enemy might hear her. She rushed to embrace her friends. Dokor winced but returned her hug with one arm. Viridian only gasped in pain. Honour looked more closely at her lifelong friend and was shocked at the scars visible upon her body and face.

“She is not long freed from the cephalyx’ artifice,” said the monk who stood with them. “She will recover.” Honour looked to his face and then back to Viridian. Looking down she noticed a pistol in the half-elf’s hand; in spite of herself, she smiled.

“Our time is short,” said No Sen Ka. Na So nodded and stood aside for her comrade to step back outside the door before giving Honour and her comrades some parting words.

“Down this tunnel is the way you must go. It leads to chambers and mines that date from the time of the occupation from the west. The cephalyx have servitors here, but they should be distracted by our assault. If you wish to find your other friend seek him amongst the servitors. Finally, you must find the brass door. Behind it is the only way off this island and back to the mainland.”

“That’s it?” Honour asked, grabbing Na So by the shoulder before the nun could slip out the door and leave them finally. “Is that all you can tell us?”

“If you needed more, more would have been provided,” said the nun. She smiled and Honour felt a closeness to Na So that she had not felt with any other counsellor or superior. For one small moment in the dark there was a patron, an older guide with deeper faith who did not lack answers and was not lost in their own selfish fears. She was an angel of revelation to Honour and it hurt to know their time together would be so brief and confused. Na So seemed to understand and to feel the moment in the same way. “Your god has not forsaken you. You have walked paths in your heart as dark as these tunnels and now you will cleave a way through to the light. Morrow heard you whimpering at the gate and when you were put out he drew the wolf pack to you, that they might raise you and be your sisters. Keep hope and keep your faith, she-wolf, for you are a mighty pleasure to your god and an instrument of his will!”

Honour felt tears run gently down her face and after she closed the door behind Na So she stood for a moment facing the door and letting the tears flow. Behind her the others kept a respectful quiet and waited. At last she turned and faced them

“This is the way we have to go,” she told them. “Let us go find Garreck and this brass door Na So spoke of.”

“What about Matthias?” asked Viridian. Her voice was a croaking whisper, as cracked and wounded as her flesh.

“He will be joining us presently!”

46   The Path Walked Only Twice

Matthias’ last bullet punched into a cephalyx’s chest as the leatherclad wraith descended upon him like a diving hawk. It fell dead to the ironwork grating and the gunmage was forced to leap backwards to avoid it. The ringing boom of the impact had not fully faded before the gangway began to shake with the rhythmic footfalls of a charging drudge; iron trusses bucked and the grating threatened to twist from the hammering steps. Struggling to keep his balance, Matthias reversed his pistols to wield them by the barrels. With no more subtlety than a maddened bull, the charging drudge lunged forward, both brass-gauntleted hands reaching out to grab. Matthias ducked sideways to his left, getting outside the drudge’s reach. With two swift, circular strikes he pistol whipped the monster, one blow landing on the creature’s elbow, the other aimed for a knee joint. The elbow strike landed true, breaking bone, but the lower hit missed its target, striking instead on the meat of the thigh. For a normal man the blow would have been agonising; the drudge never seemed to notice.

Matthias wanted to keep hammering on the drudge and drive it over the catwalk’s edge, but he was wrong footed on the shifting metal floor and had to pause to regain his balance. Even as he did so the drudge turned with unexpected speed and control, swinging its uninjured arm around to slam Matthias out into open space. The gunmage ducked even lower, bending backwards at the waist. He watched the swinging arm bite air mere inches from his face, but his concentration was on his feet, feeling his left heel slip over the edge. Knowing that he could not save himself he opted to make a virtue of his failure and pushed himself off into space. As a gunmage, Matthias knew there were spells that could make a mage fall no heavier than a leaf on the breeze, or even allow them to fly, but in all his adventures he had never found anyone to teach him such a spell. Falling into space he searched beneath himself for another catwalk, a bridge, a platform or anything he might use to arrest his fall. One possibility presented itself and he stretched his hands wide, using the magic of his gloves to store his pistols away safely in an other space. Arms straining like taught cables, the gunmage reached out and knew it was fruitless. The platform he was aiming for rushed upward toward him but he would miss it by over a foot.

He was searching his mind for some hope while dark despair threatened to close around him when he was struck in the back by a heavy impact that knocked the wind from his body. He tumbled gracelessly onto the platform, falling in a flop like a discarded doll. With a heavy effort he pushed himself over onto his back and looked up into the eyes of Paramount Master Za No Sen Ka, head of the Order of the Nine Dragons. The monk’s shaved skull had a slash wound that dribbled a dark flow of blood down his face. His robe was torn in many places and he was streaked with blood and dirt. Sen Ka’s eyes were as serene as ever, but the wound and dishevelled clothing belied his peace.

“An unusual tactic, Warlock,” the monk commented. “Defeating your opponent’s attack by throwing yourself to your death.” Matthias gave a wry smile.

“Well, it sounds foolish if you say it like that, Paramount Master.”

“Yes.”

Za No Sen Ka reached out and took Matthias by the hand to help him to his feet, but the gunmage’s feet betrayed him. He flopped on his backside and waved away the helpful hand.

“A moment, please Master,” he begged, shaking his head. “I am not ready to return to the fray just yet.” The two looked up into the battle wracked shaft above them. Even as they watched an eruption of flame tore a metallic device apart and tossed three burning figures into the void to descend like falling stars to the pits depths.

“Sister Ma Sa Sen,” murmured the Paramount Master with a gentle bow to one of the falling bodies. He turned back to Matthias and his look grew stern. “We have not many more moments left, Warlock. Make ready, or you will miss yours.”

Matthias accepted the monk’s rebuke, wiping the smile from his face and giving a sober nod of the head. He pushed himself to his feet. As he did so the head of the Nine Dragons thrust a small bundle into his arms. He accepted it with a querying look on his face.

“Your bequest,” explained Sen Ka. Even more puzzled Matthias unwrapped the bundle to find that it was a set of three unbound books, each no more than thirty pages long. The wrapping itself turned out to be the monk’s sash which Matthias had worn for the five years between his first and second sojourns in the Nine Dragons’ aviary temple. He looked at the Paramount Master with the sash in one hand and the books in the other.

“What are these for?” he asked.

“They are the only treasures the Order has to bestow. By the end of this battle even the temple where we have dwelt for over a millenia will not survive,” said Sen Ka. “Take them and do with them as you will. Share the secrets with the Order of Keepers, the debtors of your first loyalty. Or else take your own students and become master to your own order. Whatever your choice, I do not doubt you will honour our memory.” The Paramount Master’s words and manner both conveyed a dismissal.

“Master, the battle yet rages,” Matthias protested.

“Not for you.”

“Do not dismiss me! I am sworn, I will not leave any behind in this hole!”

Sen Ka’s eyes fell sadly. He shook his head. “It would have been better for you if you had not so sworn. The Nine Dragons will not again walk abroad in the Kingdoms, save by the footfalls of our son.” The monk laid a hand on the gunmage’s shoulder, like a father to child. “Worse for your words is that two for whom you have sworn will not emerge from these shadows, but the darkness here will claim their immortal souls. You must go now – down that passage lays the women you will never forsake and the faithful companions you have longed for!”

Matthias looked over his shoulder to see a passage opening two levels down and some few paces from around the pit wall. When he turned back, Paramount Master Za No Sen Ka had already gone, leaping in impossibly long lopes up the damaged infrastructure of the cephalyx hive. The monk dodged to one side and Matthias was forced to recoilas well when a vast sheet of curved glass crashed down from the shattered globe from the top of the pit. Looking upward for one last time, the gunmage could only make out five of the Nine Dragon monks still fighting amongst the wreckage, while roiling clouds of purple were wrent through with crackling cascades of black and red lightning. This was the moment and the image that would never leave the Warlock, throughout the rest of his life, a picture of dark forces and dire consequences that demanded unyielding sacrifices of blood and will. Smiling with a mix of admiration and resignation, he tied the sash around his waist and pushed the books inside his coat.

—-

“Brass door, anyone?” said Honour as they groped their way along the rough stone corridor. The only light was cast from Tarleen’s conjured lamp which did not banish the darkness but only pushed it back to lurk ahead of them, limiting their vision and promising menace. “I swear if we win free I will never go underground again!”

“It certainly gives a new appreciation for the coal miners,” added Tarleen. “No wonder there are so many grieving widows among their number.”

Dokor grunted and crouched to let Viridian to rest against one wall while he tried to negotiate a narrow point in the passage. With a sigh, he shuffled forward through the narrowing then he stopped and leant against the wall himself. After days with little rest and no food, his impressive strength was spent. As the ogrun rubbed at his sore joints Honour drew up beside him and laid her hand on his.

“I am sorry to have dragged you into this,” she whispered. “You deserve better.”

“With you until the end,” said Dokor. He put his arm around his paladin companion.

“It’s my fault,” said Tarleen. “You came here for me.”

“You would have come for us,” said Honour.

“Damn straight!” whispered Viridian and Dokor nodded as well. Tryptich moved suddenly, standing like a hunting dog on point and looking into the darkness from where they had come. Resolving out of the shadow came Matthias Warlock, his face blackened by powder burns. The striking blue sash was once more around his waist, the colour seeming vibrant against the gunmetal grey of his robe. With the soot, burns and the darkness of his clothes, only the sash and his blue eyes showed any colour. With pistols in hand he looked as if he could be a pistolwraith, deadly but as lifeless as a necromancer’s thrall. As he approached he smiled though and the wry twist of his lips left no doubt, the same rouguish soul still dwelt in his battle weary form.

“So this looks like a cheery party,” he quipped. “Can anyone join or is it invitation only?”

47   Final Mercies

The others all stared at Matthias’ lame witticism for a moment, all too tired to add any other comment. Honour reacted first though, pushing herself away from the wall and into Matthias arms. Wrapping her arms around his neck she kissed him. After a moment she pulled back to look into his eyes, but did not relinquish her grip. His hands rested on her armoured hips.

“You know it wasn’t so long ago that you hated the sight of me,” said the gunmage.

“You talk too much,” said Honour and she kissed him again.

“Am I missing something?” asked Dokor, looking at the kissing couple with surprise and bewilderment.

“The world turns,” said Tarleen, smiling.

“Yeah, blink and you’ll miss it!” added Viridian, though she winced with the effort. “When you two are finished basking in the glow of true love, I want to see the actual light again!” Matthias nodded and Honour broke her embrace to point forward into the darkness.

“There is the way.”

With shuffling, weary paces they pressed forward until the tunnel emerged upon a ledge thirty feet above the floor of a large cavern. Their meagre lamp was not enough to light the space, but dotted around the cavern walls were flickering oil lamps. Moving through the dim lit shadows were humanoid figures and the light flashed off the points and edges of metal tools they carried in their hands. From every quarter the ring of tools striking stone echoed and when they peered closely, Matthias and his companions could make out tiny sparks between the lamplight.

“Miners?” asked Honour. Others shrugged. “I suppose nothing which remains should surprise anymore and yet it does.”

“What people are they?” Tarleen wondered aloud, straining to make out details. “Some are tall, others small as goblins.”

“They are probably slaves.”

“Perhaps.”

“We could take a closer look,” said Viridian, standing now by her own strength. “We’ve got to go down there anyway. There’s nowhere else to go.”

To their left the ledge descended in a shallow slope to the cavern floor. Dokor pushed past the others to lead the way down.

“There’d better be a brass door down here somewhere,” muttered Viridian.

At the cavern floor the figures moving about made no move at the group’s approach, neither hostile nor fearful. Moving carefully between the mindless miners, it was plain the laborours ignored everything around them save the rock they mined. They were of every race, just as Tarleen had observed, and everyone was misshapen in some way, with metal knobs and screws emerging like tumors through skin. All were naked and barefoot and their hands had been replaced with hooks, sickles and blades. With these prosthetics they mined the rock from the walls but were unable to carry it or move it far, so that it only fell at their feet.

“Different kinds of drudges?” asked Viridian. Tarleen shook her head.

“Not drudges; these are a different artifice entirely, from the time of the Orgoth.”

“So they don’t serve the cephalyx?”

“Oh the cephalyx could know the secret of their creation,” said Tarleen.

“I would be surprised if the coven had no knowledge of this operation underneath their feet,” added Matthias.

“But why keep them mining and not collect the ore?”

“To keep them busy?”

“Why make them if you have no use for them?” wondered Honour.

“You know if we get a chance, be sure to ask!” said Matthias. Honour rolled her eyes but then nodded her head.

“I don’t suppose it matters at this point,” she conceded. She looked about at various parts of the cavern where it seemed other passages might lead. “Well let’s pick a possibility and find a way out.”

They wended their between the strange working beings. All of the creatures faces were blank and when the light passed over their eyes there was no colour in them, only blackness. It was like walking through a crowd of living ghosts; the modified men still breathed and the sound of their breath seemed louder in the darkness because they did not talk. Their bodies stank of sweat and their breath smelt sickly, like the odour of blood.

Through the shadows a small wall section of graven metal took shape, distinctive against the rough hewn rock. Drawing closer they could see that it was carved in relief, depicting huge sailing ships crossing the ocean. When the sparse lamplight struck the metal directly it was green and grainy in texture. After a moment they realised it was brass, the metal grown so old that verdigris covered every inch, pockmarking and blurring what was once a much finer and more subtle engraving.

“I did not expect this,” Honour began but her words were cut short by a gasp from Viridian.

“Gods!” whispered the half elf. Her companions turned to see the cause of her distress. In a rough alcove barely ten paces distant a modified dwarf laboured against the rock. It was naked as the others and faced to the wall but they knew him immediately.

“Garreck?”

“What have they done to you?” whispered Matthias as he drew closer. The mining dwarf made no move to respond, but continued to hack at the rock with his tool hands. The gunmage laid his hand on the shoulder gently. It was ignored. Drawing around to look in the laborer’s face he sighed as he realised Garreck was gone, even if his body still toiled in the dark. Matthias stared at the mindless face, searching eyes and features for a sign of a lingering spirit, a remainder of the brutal gang thane who had taken up with them and been as loyal comrade as any on the journey. Soundlessly, with no outward motion or action, one pistol appeared in his hand. For a moment he lifted it but stopped when he realised there was no ammunition left. He screwed up his eyes for a moment, then leaned in close to whisper into the deaf ears.

“I am sorry that it ended like this.”

“I told him none of us would be left down here,” said Honour coming alongside. The two shared a hard pained, look.

“I have no ammunition!”

“I will do it!” Honour raised Unspoken Certainty and set it ready to strike. Even as she made to move, there was a shift in the atmosphere in the caves. Viridian and Dokor both felt the change and looked about in paranoid suspicion. Triptych too noted the change and stalked around Tarleen’s feet like the kinds of predatory animals his metal form mimicked. The blade fell on Garreck’s neck cutting through the spine; the body fell dead.

Even as Garreck’s modified body fell to the rock floor, a sound rose from the other workers, a moan, hateful and low, that began to resound through the cavern air. The sound of mining dimmed to nothing as the monstrous miners left off their labour and shuffled towards the companions, blade and pick hands raised for violence.

“That may have been a mistake,” whispered Tarleen.

“We must go, now!” said Matthias.

“Where?”

“The door!”

“How do we open it?” asked Viridian.

“We had best find out!” said Matthias. He dodged the clumsy lunge of a jagged pick-hand, siezing the attacker’s limb and breaking the elbow so that the weapon hung limp. The attacker did not even pause, but turned and slammed its other arm into the gunmage’s chest, causing him to stagger back. Honour stepped up beside him, Certainty singing a razor arc that felled the assailant.

“We can hold them for a moment,” she declared as she turned with blade ready to face another oncoming miner. “Tarleen, Viridian, find the way through!”

Heretical priestess and former whore turned to the ancient portal while behind them their comrades fought to hold off a the shambling, murderous press that came moaning from the shadows.

48   The Brass Door

“I became a brothel chattel to get away from situations like this!” Viridian thought bitterly as she rubbed her gloved hand over the door’s corroded brass surface, hoping to find a catch or lock. It took all of her will to focus on the door and not on the sounds of battle literally at her back. Every now and then she was bumped by Honour or Matthias as they fought off the wrathful, moaning constructs. Veridian knelt on fallen flakes of verdigris while above her Tarleen held the conjured copper-spring-lamp close to the door.

“Can you make out anything?” asked the priestess. From behind her there came a brilliant blue flash as a gout of lightning arced from Tryptich’s mouth and ripped its way through so many bodies, filling the air with the pungent smells of ozone and charred flesh. Veridian started at the surprising electrical attack, but Tarleen did not even seem to notice. While she was still recovering, Honour cast her a backward glance and delivered a sharp rebuke.

“We are in something of a rush, you know!” The words broke Veridian

“I’m in just as much of a hurry as you!” the half elf retorted, but Honour was already giving full attention to the conflict. Her sword glowed and her armour sparked continually as she fought. She alone was more than a match for any one of the attackers, but they came in such numbers, swarming like ants and heedless of their own safety in their desperation to kill.

“Everyone’s always in a hurry!” Veridian whispered to herself and she slid her hand along the bottom edge of the door with a professional gesture. She found nothing there. “That was Zorren’s problem. We were going well, a tight little gang. It was only a matter of time until the guild noticed us, but no; that wasn’t fast enough for Zorren! Take down someone big and we’d be made for sure! Hah!”

Her muttered monologue paused as she stood on tip toes to trace along the top of the door and then down one side. Her fingers stopped at the mid point when she felt a seam in the metal, indicating that there was another piece inserted into the door there; a lock. From inside her blouse she pulled a pair of thin pieces of iron, like short, sharp knitting needles. Rubbing away the corrosion with the heel of her left palm, she used the iron tools to trace the edges of the lock, making the joins easier to see in the engraved surface.

“Of course its not much help if your big take down is a front for some major guild players,” she resumed while using her picks to pull at various parts of the lock, looking for a keyhole. “So because of Zorren, I’m in a bordello with a new face, pleasuring jackasses. And that was alright; I was making my way. I had a respectable clientele developing; some wealthy repeat customers even. I could have been set there, but some fool thought he should cut me to make his mark on me. Hells, madame might even have kept me on as a novelty if the idiot hadn’t forced me to kill him! Can’t have a whore on the books who’s known to stick customers in their beds. I was lucky enough she kept me from the city watch. The fool’s shrill wife was calling for blood like a harridan.”

She paused once again, grunting with effort as she levered open the keyhole. The task threatened to bend the little tools out of shape and Veridian was forced to work with care to keep from ruining them.

“It probably didn’t help madame to have a murdered client upstairs. I guess I’m lucky she didn’t hand me over just to keep the peace with the magistrates! So then I’m in the temple hospital with my best friend and she comes to me at night to say her father’s not coming, there’s no more money and the sisters of the temple are going to throw us out! And what do we do, a temple maid and a street born whore? We join the army. Not the most fun I’ve ever had, marching around getting shouted at day and night, but at least we got to shoot things!”

She sighed and realised her left hand was hurting. Dark blood oozed from inside her glove, running down her forearm in a slow rivulet. She clenched her fist and the flow reduced a little. Pressing the wounded limb to her chest, she continued to work at the lock with her one good hand. With the ancient cover removed, the interior of the lock was in excellent repair, preserved over the centuries. Viridian was able to move the tumblers and teeth quickly and precisely into place.

“We were doing alright in the army too!” she went on, as though it had become important to complete her story before the door opened. “Turns out I’m one hell of a shot. Damn, another campaign season and I’d have made corporal, no word of a lie! And there were half a dozen company commanders would’ve let Honour purchase a commission if she’d only thought to ask. Once again, what happened? I came out to a rock in the middle of the open ocean so I could become a thrall to a bunch of anaemic, leather-clad mountebanks who think they’re too good to walk on the ground like the rest of us! My whole life has been one long succession of jumping into raging rivers to rescue my friends who were too stupid to swim in the shallows!”

“Viridian,” said Honour.

“I’m almost there!” Viridian snapped back, more angry at having her monologue interrupted than at being pushed to hurry.

“Viridian,” Honour said again.

“What?” Viridian whirled around in fury only to discover that the servitor creatures were all slain and the threat had abated. She had all the time in the world. In the momentary quiet the last tumbler slipped into place of its own accord and the lock opened with a loud clacking noise that reverberated through the silent cavern. Viridian hung her head with a wry smile.Tarleen bent down so that her face was level with Viridian’s.

“You jump into the river because you are a loyal friend,” said the priestess. “You could not live with yourself if you only watched while those you cared for were swept away in the current.”

“And this time,” added Matthias, offering her his hand and pulling her to her feet. “This time you have other friends waiting to pull you out of the water onto dry land.” She nodded sheepishly.

“I…ah…look, I don’t exactly mean all those things,” she apologised. “I mean, it’s…it’s something I say to myself when I need to concentrate, you know, shut out other stuff. It keeps my mind from worrying.”

“A meditation of complaint,” mused Honour, cocking one eyebrow. For a moment she seemed like a stern priestess of the faith, or even of Menoth, harsh, judgemental and disapproving. The impression shattered like broken glass though when Honour burst out laughing. The crystalline sound echoed around the cavern, causing all to smile, even Viridian. Honour quickly stifled her humour however, fearful of drawing more danger.

“The door’s open, I think,” said Viridian.

“We should go.”

“One moment,” said Dokor and he headed along the wall to where Garreck’s broken body lay fallen. He picked the corpse up and held it to his body with one arm, almost in a hug. “He was a thief and a murderer, but he deserves better than to be left here.”

The others nodded and Matthias turned to push on the door. The hinges screamed and whined like an irrevocably off-key instrument, but the heavy brass portal gradually swung wide. From the darkness of the open doorway they heard the sound of lapping water and the muted crash of distant waves.

“Any idea what we’ll find in there?” Viridian asked. Matthias shrugged his shoulders.

“A boat I hope.”

49   Ancient Promises Higher Meanings

It was a boat, a jolly-boat just large enough for the whole group and it was all the more heartbreaking for being so, because it could no longer take them anywhere. It was old but it was more than merely old; the long salt rimed wood was now no more than a cluster of splinters. Resting at the high tide mark of a shelf of rock in a sea cave, the stern of the small vessel had rotted clean away, so that the lapping water washed right in, up to the bow. Small coral grew along the inner keel. At the sight of the ancient craft, Viridian rushed forward and fell to her knees, her hands gripping hopelessly at the sides, like a beggar grasping the robe of an indifferent nobelman. The wood crumbled in her fingers and a small sound, like a strangled cry, left her lips.

“This was not foreseen,” said Dokor quietly. Their heads turned in every direction, seeking some other means of escape. Away to their left was the cave’s only entrance, a gap above the water’s surface of less than a yard in height and not much more wide. No waves beat through the opening, but close inspection showed that the tide flowed swiftly through the gap. At low tide the mouth would doubtless have been wide enough for the boat. Sunlight glowed like a white blaze on the surface of the water beyond the cave mouth, no more than daylight, but burning brilliant after their days underground.

“So do we swim?” asked Honour, grim faced. From her expression it was clear she was prepared to make the attempt.

“I think the tide is too swift,” said Tarleen.

“And those shapes fill me with neither hope nor confidence,” added Matthias. The others gazed into the water, following the Warlock’s line of sight. Soon enough they saw what he he had seen, dark shadows swimming swiftly through the waters of the cave.

“Well that’s just dandy,” muttered Viridian.

“There must be a way!” Honour declared. Her tone was level and the steadiness of her faith was unmistakable in both her stance and her expression. She turned to them and her dark eyes glittered like the deep water. “Morrow has not brought us this far only to abandon us!”

“No? You sure about that?” Viridian challenged her friend.

“Utterly certain!”

“Then perhaps we should best ask him,” said Matthias. Honour blinked at the simplicity of the idea. She looked up, as if turning her eyes to heaven, but seeing only the jagged roof of rock. Swallowing slightly she reached for the words to pray.

“Morrow,” she called, her voice echoed about her. “I turn to you and beseech you; aid your servant. Show us the way from here!” She lifted her hands and waited. The hopeful, doubtful, weary eyes of her comrades stayed fixed upon her, hoping for the miracle and fearing despair. Tarleen alone had her head down, quietly praying to her own god for inspiration. Tryptich moved suddenly next to her and as she looked to her companion’s care, she saw the shadows rising up from the depths of the water. She gasped aloud as they flew like arrows to the surface and burst from the water. With sprays of foam their dark and predatory forms shifted from sea creature to land born, and rushing upon the rock shelf like a surging wave, three orca men landed upon their feet before the companions. They pulled back their tooth mouth hoods to reveal shaven heads and eyes dark and dead like sharks’ eyes. Their robes hung like lank sheets of dripping seaweed. The one in the middle of the three smiled a ferocious smile; it looked as if he might want to eat them.

“Since before our ancestors could remember, we of the Orcad have kept vigil here, awaiting the day when one name would be spoken in this place,” said the middle one, apparently a leader. His two confreres now also smiled their predatory smiles. “Ages of waiting have made this place sacred, so we keep here to honour the numberless generations who came before us. Never in many lifetimes has any of the Orca men believed the promise would ever be fulfilled.”

It dawned on Matthias and Honour both that the Orca priests’ smiles did not mean bloodlust but only excitement and religious fervor. The gunmage smiled.

“Happy and eager,” Matthias whispered in Honour’s ear. “Like sharks at a carnival.”

“You are pleased that we are here, in your holy place?” asked Honour, trying not to smile at Matthias’ quiet jest.

“Truly,” smiled the lead priest, the word rushing from his lips. “The harpoon left upon the cabin wall since grandfather’s grandfather has been taken down; not this day to polish, but finally to hunt. The barb sings in his hand and the grandson’s grandson thrills to the song.”

The priest recited the words smoothly but with great enthusiasm. They were doubtless part of an ancient ritual that had suddenly taken on new life. He stared at them, eyes wide. A tense air of expectation grew as the moment of silence began to stretch. The priest looked to the face of each companion in turn, waiting for something, but none of them could think what. Finally he turned his head to regard his two fellows with doubtful eyes and Honour felt compelled to speak.

“What do you wish of us?” she asked.

“The ritual,” said the priest. “You must begin.”

“What ritual?”

“The Passage of the Twins,” the Orcaman said and his fellows nodded eagerly, as if they expected the phrase to be perfectly self-explanatory. Honour shook her head slightly.

“I do not…I am afraid I…?” Her uncertain words were brought short by Dokor.

“Did you not say that Morrow and Thamar passed this way, Warlock, on their mortal path to ascension?” rumbled the ogrum warrior. Matthias nodded. “Could they be the twins to whom he refers?” The Orcamen nodded also.

“So they passed this way and persuaded the Orca to give them passage,” said Matthias. “I suppose we must reenact their actions.”

“How can we if we do not know what they did exactly?”

“You’re the religious one,” said Viridian. “Can’t you figure it out?”

“Me? What about Tarleen?”

“I no longer follow Morrow,” said the priestess with the shake of her head. “It falls to you.” Honour’s shoulders slumped momentarily. She looked to Matthias for help.

“I guess we can play the role together,” he said. “We need a Morrow and a Thamar.”

“Well I can take Morrow’s part,” Honour began, but the Orcaman interrupted.

“No! Thamar!” he said, pointing at her with both hands. Then he turned and pointed at Matthias. “Morrow! The love he bears is strong, like the bond of the twins!”

“Love?” asked Honour. Matthias shrugged and she smiled. “Well how do we start this then?”

“What would they have said? What would Thamar have said after she had been through all that we have? She would have met the Nine Dragons and probably escaped from the cephalyx as well. What would she have said?”

Honour closed her eyes and tried to think how Thamar would have behaved. Morrow’s twin sister, she would ascend with him only to champion everything he opposed. Together they had overthrown the stranglehold of Menoth on the souls of mortals, then they had divided, Morrow to stand as a guiding light, Thamar to embrace power, darkness and evil. Honour could not imagine how she, as a paladin of the faith, could possibly perform as the Wicked Sister, Guide of the Damned.

“I am Thamar,” she whispered. “Morrow protect me, I am Thamar!” A strange flatness fell over them all, as if the air itself was held still. Every noise, the sea and tide, the drip of moisture down the rock walls, even the sounds of their breathing was muted almost to silence. Then with a suddennes Honour’s eyes flew open and they glittered with deep darkness, like polished obsidian and she gazed around her with the gaze of the wolf. Viridian gasped and Dokor swallowed, his heavy brow furrowing disconcertedly. Tarleen and Matthias looked suspicious and even the Orcamen seemed taken aback. A predator’s smile spread over her face. She stepped forward and seized the priest by his dripping robe.

“I will not die here!” she snarled.

“We need to find a way from this island,” said Matthias. His voice had a richer tone than usual.

“You are free to swim,” said the priest on the furthest left. Honour released the man in the middle and moved to the speaker.

“Swim?” she laughed with disdain. “Why don’t you swim!” Her hand wrapped about the man’s throat and she lifted him bodily in the air. There was an audible crack as his neck snapped and she flung him into the water. His body sunk like a stone.

“Honour no!” shouted Tarleen, but the words had no effect. The power of the ritual made the participants deaf to her words.

“Thamar, sister, we will win nothing by slaying them,” urged Matthias, now immersed in his role as Morrow. “We will be trapped here!” The two Orcamen snarled and their hoods seemed to merge with their heads, so that they stood now as men with heads like sea beasts, toothy maws reaching from shoulder to shoulder. They charged forward and Honour received their charge like a lover seeking welcoming an embrace. One of them bit her right arm, latching on to the armour. The second never reached his target as her gauntleted fist smashed into his face.

“I’ll knock those ugly teeth down your throat!” she laughed. “Send you back to your women like toothless crones.” Even as the monstrous Orcad on her right side sought to consume her arm, she hammered on the other with lightning flashing blows from Aegis Storm’s power. Soon enough the man was beaten bloody and collapsed to the floor. Still she hammered at him, laughing all the time.

“Enough sister! Enough!” Matthias’ voice roared like the sea and the melee foundered. With his empty hands he pushed Honour back from the two priests, forcing her against the rock wall. Her armoured arm dripped wet, as if just pulled from the ocean, but showed no signs of damage. “I will not let you kill them.”

“You are too soft brother!” Honour pushed herself up and tried to get back to fighting, but Matthias prevented her. “Get out of my way, Morrow! I’m sick of hiding and waiting for the power of enlightenment.”

“Patience Thamar. What would it be worth to ascend to Menoth’s seat only to become new tyrants! That would change nothing!”

“I would rule! That is what would change!”

“We would rule, sister. We would,” said Matthias and in his persona there seemed a pause of realisation. Those watching wondered if perhaps this was the moment, centuries previous, when Morrow first realised that his twin sister was growing irretrievably away from him. The gunmage looked over his shoulder at the Orcaman on one knee next to his fallen comrade. His transformation had passed and now he looked like a mortal man once more.

“Do you have a boat?”

“We have a boat,” answered the priest.

“Then leave it to us and flee or she will slay you all! I promise to return and give you the best I have to pay for your service.”

Honour snorted with derision, but the Orcaman man nodded and stood to drag his unconscious comrade to the water. There he let the body slip into the sea until it too disappeared. He turned to face Honour and Matthias.

“What was promised was delivered and the ritual is fulfilled,” he said enigmatically. “The grandson’s grandson has taken the payment. Thank you Morrow, for your blessing.” At last the priest took a single step and slid into the water himself. There was a shift again in the atmosphere of the cave and Honour virtually collapsed into Matthias’ arms. Her eyes were normal once again as she looked up at him and tears began to flow down her face.

“It was horrible,” she whispered and buried her head against his shoulder.

“Is that it?” asked Viridian. Hostile eyes turned on her delivering silent rebuke for her insensitivity. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, but we’re still stuck here, aren’t we?”

“The boat,” said Dokor and the others turned to look. The ancient wreck was completely renewed, the wood freshly lacquered as on the day it was first launched. It was plainly seaworthy, with no sign of coral, barnacle or any damage of the sea. It rested new and ready at the water’s edge.

“Oh, sorry,” said Viridian.

50   The End of the Cephalyx and Nine Dragons

“Alright, so what just happened?” asked Viridian as the jolly-boat made its way out of the cave entrance and into the afternoon light. From the moment the companions had clambered aboard, the craft had begun to move of its own accord, as if driven by unseen propellors. Now they sat enjoying the open sky, even though grey storm clouds covered it from horizon to horizon; in the prow, Honour Pendragon half lay against the side, with her head in Matthias’ lap. It appeared that some time would pass before she was fully recovered from the strange ritual just passed.

“Don’t misunderstand me,” Viridian continued. “I’m pleased to the tips of my toes that we have a boat and are leaving this damned island, but didn’t we just kill two of them? Why give us a boat?”

“A magical boat,” Dokor added, as if the observation clarified matters. For a time no one made any other effort to reply to Viridian’s musings. Instead they listened to the lapping of the water and enjoyed the feeling of having no roof of stone above them.

“I think it’s fair to take the toothed priest’s at their word,” offered Tarleen eventually.

“Orcamen,” said Matthias. He gently stroked Honour’s hair and did not smile. His eyes were full of compassion.

“Orcamen?” Tarleen repeated, accepting the correction. “Well I think we can take the Orcamen’s word that this ritual was a reenactment of a meeting they had with Morrow and Thamar on their path to ascension.”

“So Thamar killed some of them?”

“I imagine.”

“But why let yourself die for a ritual?” Viridian persisted. This was for her the heart of the matter. “I get religious faith, I’ve known you and Honour long enough to see its power and meaning, but they went to their deaths! What’s the point!”

“They may have an afterlife,” answered the Cyriss priestess. “Whatever blessing Morrow delivered through the reenactment, the payment of the ancient debt, perhaps the spirits of the Orcamen could only receive that blessing if some of them took it into the afterlife for the rest. Priests give their lives to their faith, often literally.”

“A strange faith,” said Dokor.

“Not necessarily,” Tarleen countered but when she looked to her ogrun friend she realised that they both had no real heart to debate the issue. She looked down into the boat where Garreck’s mutilated and modified body lay inert. “Does anyone know what god he swore to? I can perform the rites for him, but I would not wish to offend his spirit.”

“I doubt he held to any faith beyond the edge of a blade or the barrel of a gun,” said Matthias.

“Thamar would take him,” said Honour, her voice little more than a whisper. There was no sense of judgement or condemnation in her tone, only pity.

“Jhord with have the greater claim,” said Dokor.

“Who?”

“The Rhul honour ancestors ascendant,” Dokor explained. “They are called the Great Fathers. Jhord is the father of spies, closest I think to Three Fingers Short’s chosen profession.” The others nodded.

The little boat slid over the water heading around the island’s southernmost headland and turning east to point to the mainland. They were not far into the open ocean when two things happened at once. In the prow, Matthias Warlock looked up to see a sail away to the south. Before he could say anything a deep rumble sounded from the island behind them. The entire landmass seemed to shudder as they turned to look. Rock tumbled from the summit of the mountain, first in ones and twos like pebbles in the distance, but slowly growing to a vast landslide. Another, larger shudder shook the entire island and the crown of the mountain collapsed inward. As it did so a burst of unholy purple light erupted outward like the beam of a beacon light, rushing upward into the sky and staining the clouds for leagues in every direction.

“I think Toruk knows we were here now,” said Matthias wryly.

“I pity whoever that rain falls upon,” said Tarleen, her eyes fixed on the sky.

There was a third rumble, the loudest of all, sounding like thunder echoing across the sea. The last of the island seemed to fall in upon itself and the dire luminescence was finally cut short. A moment of quiet followed and then the sea grew suddenly still. Watching over the stern and the ruined island, Matthias swore under his breath.

“Everyone hold on!” he ordered and they all gripped the sides where they could. A vast wave, higher than a ship’s mast rushed up out of the water towards them. The jollyboat was lifted and rushed forward running on the forward slope of the water like a sled down an icy slope. Clinging white-knuckled where ever they could, sea spray beating on them like a swarm of stinging insects, the companions braced and rode the ocean. For over an hour they travelled at a speed no boat, steam or sail, could match, the roar of the water pressing in their ears and vibrating in their bones. At last the wave began to subside and they were slipped over the crest to be left behind.

“That could beat hard upon the coast,” said Tarleen. No one took issue with her observation. As the wave front disappeared to the east, the magical boat continued its journey, apparently neither damaged or confused by the wave’s passage.

“I suspect we have cut a good deal of time from our journey,” said Matthias, scanning the sea to look for some sense of bearings. “We could be as much as halfway to the mainland.”

“Halfway to safe,” muttered Viridian. She sat in the wet bottom of the boat hugging her knees and rocking slightly. The ride upon the wave had nearly unnerved her and one or two of her wounds had opened. Small streams of blood flowed down her arm mixing with the seawater to form pale red rivulets on her skin

“Halfway maybe, but not there yet,” Matthias muttered and his tone made the others look to see what he had noticed. To the south and west behind them the sail of the following ship could still be made out.

“There’s no reason to assume the ship is a danger,” Honour said. Matthias shook his head.

“I noticed the sail at the island,” he said. “I did not get a chance to say anything before the explosion and the wave.”

“Could they have ridden the wave as we did?” asked Tarleen.

“A ship that large? I wouldn’t have thought so, but then I wouldn’t have expected our boat to do it either.”

“So are they following us?” mused Honour. Tarleen seemed thoughtful as she considered the possibility, but everyone else’s face wore a dire expression. They remembered well the last time they had encountered a sailing ship that could perfom near magical maneouvres upon the ocean. Honour turned to look to the west again.

“Perhaps we will make the coast before they reach us,” she offered. The others doubted that they would, but it was worth hoping. As the magical boat made its headway, the occupants alternately watched ahead hoping to see land and watching behind, dreading the oncoming sail.

51   Back on the Mainland – Almost

Through the night the sorcerous jolly boat continued to cut its way westward across the ocean. When the sun went down the trailing ship fell from sight, but not from their thoughts. The memory of an earlier encounter upon the waves was still fresh in their minds. Honour slept fitfully, her head cradled in Matthias’ lap, while Tarleen prayed for her friend’s rest. Dokor also slept, though not well. Even by the sparse light from Tarleen’s spring he seemed only half of himself, as if the loss of his warcleaver diminished him. Worst of them all, Viridian hid herself in the shadows of the boat; if Dokor was diminished by the loss of his weapon, then Viridian was bereft without her sidearms. The darkness over the sea was cold and the sound of the lapping water muted their thoughts.

When at last the sun rose again, the mainland shore was rising out of the ocean to the east. Even as the sky began to lighten, Matthias stood and searched the sea behind them. Soon after dawn he spotted what he was looking for.

“They are still with us,” he announced. The others looked back and Honour rose to stand beside him. She clasped his hand in hers.

“Do you think it’s another pirate ship?” she asked.

“I cannot make out any detail. Dokor, your eyes are better, can you see?”

Dokor peered over the gunwale, then shook his head.

“If it is pirates then they could be out for revenge,” he said and then slumped back down into the boat.

“If they are, then perhaps I could offer myself up as appeasement,” said Matthias. “After all, I pulled the trigger.”

“I just found you again when I thought I’d lost you!” said Honour. “I’ll take the head off every satyxis on the ocean before I give you up again!” She looked at his face and suddenly saw by his smile that he had been joking. She slapped him gently on the arm.

“Ah the mating rituals of the smitten paladin,” he quipped and pulled her into his arms. Smirks and laughter broke the somber mood, inspired as much by the shocked look on Honour’s face as by the gunmage’s wit. Tarleen looked past the standing couple and over the sea to the east. She could just make out the thin thread of land, only miles away.

“With good fortune we may make landfall before they reach us,” she said. The others looked eastward as well.

“Doubtless they would pursue us ashore, at least someway,” said Dokor. “But to deal with their pursuit on land would lend us more chance of survival.”

The first hours of the morning stretched out like a drawing blade as the companions watched to the west willing the far sail to come no closer and searched to the east, willing the land to rush to them. Honour pulled her gauntlet from her left hand and placed it in Matthias’, drawing surprising strength from the simple gesture. Viridian hung herself on the bow, her arm trailing over the side, as if she meant to paddle the magical craft to greater speed.

Dokor watched the west and every now and then cast an eye down on the iron body of Tryptich, the mechagargoyle almost forgotten as it sat in the stern, as still as a statue. Tarleen noticed the ogrun’s glances.

“What is it?” she asked him.

“I am wondering if we would not make better speed if we were not carrying so much extra weight,” he replied.

“Extra weight?”

“We have a dead dwarf, an iron gargoyle and…,” he paused. “And myself. All excess weight!”

“That’s enough of that talk!” said Honour and her voice was stern with command. “That island claimed too many lives! We let it have no more!”

“Yes Dokor,” added Viridian. “The time for noble self sacrifice is past. Now’s the moment for clinging to life tooth and nail, kicking and screaming at impending doom like a newborn infant! Shove nobility!”

Dokor smiled and Viridian returned it.

“That’s not quite what I meant,” said Honour, but she smiled as well.

“About that kicking and screaming at impending doom,” said Matthias. The others looked to see that he had spotted something on the approaching shoreline. “What is that on the beach?”

“It looks like a scrambling colony of insects,” said Tarleen. The simile was known to all the companions from years of military service. It was Dokor who gave the name.

“Soldiers, deploying.”

“And am I wrong,” Matthias continued with aplomb. “Or are they dressed in green livery.”

The others peered west and the ogrun ranger nodded and grumbled.

“Greencoats.”

“Who are greencoats?” asked Tarleen. None of the others had yet had time to tell her of the group’s breakneck escape from Five Fingers. Only mere days earlier, yet for them it had been almost forgotten. It seemed the greencoats had not forgotten.

“It’s a pity Three Fingers Short isn’t here,” said Matthias, glancing down at the corpse. “He could have laid us odds on who would get us first. He always liked a good gamble.”

There was a puff of smoke on the shore followed by a muffled thud a moment later.

“Incoming fire!” shouted Honour and everyone pressed themselves down on the wood, taking cover wherever it could be found!

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