They say the world used to have only one moon.
I wonder if this is true, or whether it is just another of the old wives’ tales they tell you, one of the many myths which surround the past. I shake my head, staring into the night. It does not matter, I realize. It’s irrelevant. What matters is now. What matters is tonight, under the twin luminaries of Vox and Nox—the voice and the night. The sky appears angry.
I feel the grit beneath my boots and smell the urban stench that forever billows up from the undercity. I feel my perspiration as it clings to the heavy cloth of my garments and threatens to sting my eyes with salt. I feel the stagnancy of the air, so calm, so balmy; it is almost like oil, slicking all beneath the celestial sphere, which glows with a wan blue light almost as bright as the moons.
I draw one last breath. The time is now. It can be no other.
The first man goes down quiet, just a dull wet thud. No one notices.
The second man sees me. Recognition dawns upon his face. The briefest moment of knowing, and yet he will wear that expression into eternity. He is dead before he can even scream, before he can cry out for his gods, or against them, to rail against his fate. He is dead before he can warn his fellows, who still pace the grounds, who wear ruts into the ancient flagstones that betray their paths.
Two sentries remain.
My heart is a hammer stamping out the seconds in my ears. I grip the hilt of my sword and I swear to myself. I swear. And they fall.
The next man is dead before his face breaks upon the ground. But the last is alert, more so than these oblivious dolts who would not have caught a vagrant sneaking into their demesne. He goes for his blade, but that is all. He dies with honor, with his hand firmly gripping a weapon, even if it does remain in its scabbard. His head tumbles from his shoulders to roll into the gutter.
I open the gates and step forth.
With a gauntleted hand I signal the waiting soldiers. They creep forth from the shadows, pale and resplendent in their armor. Once they see I have won they rush past in rust-colored livery. It is almost purple in this light. Their armor clanks as they pass. The rest is up to them. My part has been played.
Once they are well within the gates I take care that I am not observed. I glance suspiciously over my shoulder before I withdraw my magic amulet, which governs the doors. I step into the passage and seal it shut behind me. The tunnels are long and dark as sleep, yet they are safe. None know them but me. So I sheathe my sword and make my way in blindness. I consider producing the witchlight from the folds of my cloak, but I refrain. It’s okay, for I have memorized the way. It isn’t far.
I come to the proper hatch and I open it with caution, peering about to make sure no one has seen. I have had enough killing for one night.
All is clear. I emerge, sealing the passage behind me. I must always seal it, lest another might discover the way. The way is my edge. And a sword is only as valuable as its edge.
I am in a great hall. Columns climb into the gloom of a great, vaulted ceiling high above. Pilasters stand like stone ribs against the wall. All is distorted by writhing shadow. I walk into this grand chamber and notice the row of barred windows high up the far wall. Lightning flickers there. Perhaps the gods are angry. I would not know; I do not speak with them.
Each flash throws bars of purple light upon the columns, for the windows are glazed with a roseate hue. It is by this intermittent radiance that I navigate, until I reach the chamber’s end. There Gustabbian Ward sits alone at his desk. It is a lonely escritoire, with a single candle placed upon it to banish the darkness in fits of quivering light.
For a few moments I watch my friend from the privacy of the relative gloom, outside the narrow circle of light offered by his candle. He writes upon a long scroll, occasionally dipping the point of his quill into a jar of ink. Every so often he sprinkles sand upon his work. I decide to interrupt him.
I call his name and he looks up, startled. “Who’s there?” he calls, groping for a dagger that rests upon his desk.
“It is done,” I tell him.
“How did you get in here?”
“I have my methods. You know that, Gus. That is why you hire me, is it not?”
Gustabbian neglects to answer. “My men have entered the demesne?”
“Yes. They are there now. I had no need to wait, did I? I have no interest vested in their success.”
Gustabbian pauses for several moments, not moving, not speaking. He is occupied with thought. Then he moves as if to stand, but stops himself, saying, “Why do you not step forward, into the light?”
It is a suggestion.
As he speaks another charge of lightning throws a bright velvet cast upon the cavernous room, lining my helmet with vivid color. He sees this. His eyes play over the dusky impression of the colossal column against which I stand. “Why don’t you come out?” he says.
“Very well,” I say, stepping into the candlelight. “Where is my pay?”
“I may have another job for you.” Gustabbian rises to his feet, gripping his quill pen with a firm but delicate grip. He peers within the shade of my helmet, where he knows my eyes to be, though they are veiled in darkness to be revealed only in the lightning flashes. I prefer to keep it that way.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Oh, pretty much along the usual lines for you, Castor.”
“Well, now.” He spreads his arms wide in a gesture of inclusion. “I would prefer some guarantee, my friend, before I put forward such elements as are vital to my plans.”
“You have been in this basement too long, Gus. I will offer no guarantee. Tell me the job and I will consider it, or simply pay me and I will leave.”
“You know I am hesitant in my dealings with Heretics.”
“I know you are hesitant in your dealings with those you do not control.”
“Is pay not a form of control?”
“It’s not if I do not accept the job.”
For several minutes we stand in silence, merely watching the interplay of lightning and burning tallow upon the curved faces of the columns, upon the chairs which are arranged like emaciated shadows crouching before the Drighten’s desk. Gustabbian lifts the flaming candle from the desktop and moves to a tall candelabrum, which he lights. The orange circle of firelight expands immediately in diameter, so that the wall behind him is shown in sharp relief along with the tapestries that drape it. The light plays upon the contours of my helm and the curving ram-like horns that are mounted there. A tusk-like extension protrudes from the jaw area, casting a dark bar across my face where the light has otherwise intruded upon the open visor.
“Your aspect is hardly less daunting in the light,” Gustabbian grumbles.
“My ‘aspect’ is of little consequence at the moment.”
“Oh, is it not? When I do business, Castor, I prefer to look my associate in the eyes. I prefer to see their faces, for much is written there. A man’s mark on parchment may not be of more consequence than a stray look or an errant press of the lips. A mien can tell you much that one would not disclose in words.”
“Perhaps,” I concede. “Nevertheless, you know what I am about.”
“Aye, and that is what worries me, Castor. I would rather give no more information on this matter than is necessary to do the work. If you have no desire to commit to the work then all information is not necessary.”
“I understand your dilemma. I will not commit to a task I know nothing about. I cannot promise that I will commit to a task I do know something about, either. All I can say is, “I may be interested, depending on what it is.”
“Yes, thank you, Castor. That is quite helpful. Perhaps now I should disclose to you all of my plans? We both know you are a dealer in more than death, even if that is ever the outcome of your enterprise.” Gustabbian chuckled softly. “It would behoove you to accept a special offer on my account.”
“Would it,” I say, dryly.
“Indeed, it would. I believe it may interest you, that I have considered an invitation.”
He hesitates for effect. I press him. “Yes?”
“I would like to invite you to join this House.”
Fascinating. “I will have to consider it. Regardless, the last job has already been completed. I have delivered to your men the western gate of Harkweal. You owe me payment.”
“Aye, that may be so. Oh, I do not doubt your word, once it has been given, Castor. I believe you that the deed is done. Still, I thought you might be more excited by the prospect of permanent employment. It is a means to escape your peculiar stigma, Castor. Who else would—who else has—extended you such a generous proposal?”
It was true that no other had made such an offer. It was almost unheard of–and certainly within my lifetime–to sponsor a Heretic. “It is a most courteous offer,” I admit.
“That, I believe, is a gross understatement. Even so, it occurs to me that you may be more interested in this other contract.”
Skeptical. “I find few things more interesting than getting paid.”
Gustabbian chuckles again, more heartily this time, moving to yet another candelabrum. It is like a tree of iron, roughly head-high, each of its branches terminating in a flat disc of metal housing a tallow pillar. These Gustabbian lights, sending out yet more luminosity as if in an effort to fill the chamber. “What say you, Castor?”
I am irritated that he does not accept my statements, annoyed that he continues to press me for this action despite my demands for the pay I have already won. I answer hotly. “I have already answered you.”
Pause. “Very well.” Gustabbian motions with a curiously overblown gesture.
I hear the soldiers enter. Clink. Clink. Metal on metal, and the scrape of arms upon their scabbards. Two men. I can smell their breath wafting over my shoulders.
I place my hand upon my sword. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I do trust you, Castor, I really do. I accept your word. Your deeds, however, are another matter entirely. You are a Heretic, after all.”
Rage rushes through me like lava in my veins. It reaches my temples, threatening to surge forth in a tempest of carnage. Two soldiers. Only two?
What is he after?
I relax and my hand falls away from the hilt of my sword. I must negotiate this encounter with utmost deftness. Radiate calm, I tell myself. I am at ease, even though fury surges like a river within me, threatening to burst through, to rupture the bonds of reason. “All right,” I say, and my voice does not quaver. It is perfectly even, perfectly sedate. “Tell me your plot.”
“You will partake, then?”
My heart beats time. I can hear the breath of my prospective assailants—strained, shallow. They are serious, a real threat. I imagine I can see their faces, though they are amorphous and without character; they watch Gustabbian, awaiting the sign. Awaiting the command to plunge their blades into my back. Like cowards. They are cowards. They will not face me. Merely assert their menace in every passing instant. I can almost feel their gaze upon me, their scrutiny, watching for any swift movement. Then I almost wish I were without my helmet, for my sight is restricted; my periphery is constrained by the curving horns that shield the sides of my head and guard my vision slit. But I know I have registered movement at the verge of my awareness.
You clever bastard.
Mind. Racing. What is this? What does it mean?
I will be followed.
They shall discover my secret.
Have they already?
Perhaps this is a coup de main. A killing stoke. He has uncovered my secret, and this is his warped scheme. Is it Comeuppance? His diabolical rendition of justice? He shall kill me and bury my knowledge of what he has stolen.
Can it be? Does he truly know?
I sense my body growing rigid. But the soldiers will notice, they shall signal the assassins if I make a move. I must settle my nerves, banish this burgeoning alarm. Perhaps these waiting killers are merely insurance. Assurance. That guarantee of which he spoke so favorably I must go along with his plan, for now. “I will participate in your scheme, Drighten.”
The gesture is ever so slight. It would have gone unnoticed were I not hyper-attentive to his every motion. Every subtle twitch, each step as he paced, every flick of the eye I studied. For any of these things might be a signal to the waiting bravos. I see the gesture, and I know my would-be killers are withdrawing deeper into the lightlessness which surrounds the ring of orange glow. They are melding into the recesses. But merely to wait, to slay me once this final task is completed? As soon as I step out of line, for a certainty. And perhaps before. Perhaps as soon as I leave this room. And how many? How many are they? I know only of one, but my intuition informs me of more.
“What is the job?” I ask. My voice is placid.
Gustabbian quits pacing. He stops. And he turns to face me in the full brunt of many candles’ glow. “Then you shall join my house as well, friend Heretic?”
This rankles. I swallow. I swallow the lump in my throat. I think it might be my pride. “Aye.” It is done.
A broad, almost sadistic smile breaks upon Gustabbian’s broad, sparsely bearded face. “Good,” he declares. I can feel tension melting from the room, oozing out through the stonework. The men who stand behind me announce their relief with a slightly less inaudible exhale. I can smell the stench of it. I can almost picture their faces, broken, rotting teeth set in slightly pudgy masks. Another quick, easy-to-miss gesture from Gustabbian and I hear them take a heavy step back. “You will now how did you put it? Have a vested interest in our success.”
Or what? I wanted to say. You banish me? Bah! I can survive as an outcast, without Gustabbian’s contracts. “Alas,” I say, “What is the job?” and my voice is just as placid as before.
“Are you not glad, my friend? Are you not joyous? Overjoyed, even? You have been welcomed into my House—a house. You shall have food. Shelter. Women.”
I have food. I have shelter. I have Zora. I have all I need.
“So, come now, Castor. Rejoice!”
“Truly, I am beside myself. It must be that I simply conceal my excitement well.”
“That is ‘I simply conceal my excitement well, my liege.’ Well, you will adjust, I’m sure. You always do. After all, it has been a while, I know. A while. How long has it been, Castor? How long since you have pledged fealty?”
I have never. “It has been a long time, my liege.” I want to spit, to cleanse my mouth of the words.
Gustabbian nods, placing a bent finger to his lip as if he would bite his own hand. Meditating. “You,” he says, looking at me with a cold stare, “are like a wild dog. It will not do to train you, Castor. Not like these other curs.” He insults them to their faces. And yet they do nothing. They call it discipline. They are curs.
“No,” he continues. “You, I think, deserve a different treatment. Castor, I shall dub thee Thane. You will be not a cur but a fine hound, for a hunter you are at your core. Will you accept this charge?”
He shows some deference.
“Yes,” I say, my voice thick with mixed emotion. “This I will accept.” It is not enough to be given a place at the table. It must be a place of honor.
“Ha ha!” He relishes. “Then so I will it. You, Castor Thorne, are henceforth a Thane in the House of Ironlatch.”
“All hail Ironlatch,” chime the henchmen at my back. Finally they speak.
I groan and hope the others do not hear me over their pageantry. “All hail Ironlatch.” Again I want to spit.
“Now,” says Gustabbian. “I believe you had inquired about that job.” Yes. I did. “One thing you must understand, however.” The catch. “All jobs, from this point forward, are Ironlatch jobs. Everything you do, Castor, must be in the interest of Ironlatch. You do comprehend this, yes?”
I am not a dog. “Yes,” my voice grates.
“Good. So, I intend to move against House Fellbrook.”
Fellbrook? No wonder he needs my help. Fellbrook is the strongest House in this sector. When Fellbrook moves the lesser houses must move in unison or be quashed. My interest is piqued. “What is your plan, Gus?”
“Oh? Gus, you say? Yes, old habits. Very well,” he says dismissively. “For the time being you are granted certain allowances. At any rate, my plan, I seek to move against the great House. I desire first that you provide me, and my advisors, with any privileged information that you may have acquired in your dealings with them.”
“You would command me to break an oath,” I bark.
“Well, you are not at liberty to grant an oath against your house, are you?” Ex post facto. “So, any oaths which you might have outstanding are invalidated, are they not? I say they are, and I am your Drighten, so they must be. You are relieved of them. Proceed as though you have no bonds of any sort up to this day. Only the bonds of House Ironlatch constrain you now, Castor. Am I understood?”
I hide a sigh.
“Good. Then you shall accompany me in the refectory, for tonight we feast. But first, you must pledge fealty.”
“If you so command, my liege.” Again I want to spit, but in Gustabbian’s eye.
Time sloughs away like the flesh from a dead man and I am seated atop a rostrum spanning the width of the room and a step above the rest of the floor. Our table is very long, space for maybe forty individuals. Other such tables are arranged throughout the room, which is deep and smoky. The exit is opposite us, we face it as we eat, though the other tables are set perpendicular to our own so that their occupants must turn their heads to the side as Gustabbian stands and calls for attention. His voice carries well through the deep room and a hush falls like a spring rain in the wake of his call. “We are gathered,” he announces, “in celebration of a great victory over House Harkweal. For this night we captured that house’s western gates.” He hesitates before an onslaught of applause. “This feat was accomplished through the efforts of the most recent addition to our number.” He urges me to stand and I do so with a groan. “Welcome Castor Thorne, thane of House Ironlatch!” Clapping. “Now all of you, drink, and be merry.” Cheer and approbation.
I reclaim my seat and Gustabbian sits at my right, and to the right of him is Gwayne, his top dog. I see Gwayne only in half-caught glimpses between Gustabbian’s epic bouts of engorgement. Gwayne and I have met before. He is a severe man, a natural killer and fearless combatant. His features are wide and angular, his expression grim. He eats with slow, controlled deliberation, contrasted by Gustabbian’s wonton gluttony. Gustabbian shovels mana and garden vegetables into his orifice with disregard for courtesy. He thinks this is merry.
Racks of lamb and basted fowl clutter the table before me, with yeast rolls and the mana and garden vegetables with which Gustabbian is so taken. Yet I hardly touch it. My appetite is overcast by my intuition, which once again speaks to me like an informant whispering hushed secrets beneath the steel of my helmet.
Then Gustabbian speaks to me. “You will not regret this day, Castor.”
“Aye. Rarely do I regret decisions made under duress.”
“Sarcasm is not lost on me, my friend.”
“Then I must use it more often.”
“Do not overextend yourself,” he says around a mouthful of food. Disgusting. Grease coats his jowls as he predates upon the meat lain before us. He is a carnivore, to be sure. A dangerous man. Once my friend but perhaps no longer, for I am a captive to his employ. And how many of these others feel the same, I wonder. How many would turn upon him, given the opportunity? How many begrudge him their lot?
Yet most people fear apostasy. They will not be heretics, rejecting the patron gods of their houses, rejecting the divine rule of their masters. Most people are fearful, and dwelling thus in fear they will commit any atrocity; they will turn blindly to acts of abomination undertaken by their lords. They depend upon the hierarchy for their welfare. They would sooner be slaves to their house than free outcasts. But I will not be among them. I will continue to live as I choose to live, for I am a true heretic. The gods of House Ironlatch hold no dominion over my soul.
My introspection is disrupted by Gustabbian’s clapping hands. A call to order. A call to silence. “Clear the plates. Bring forth the girls,” he commands.
Grime besmeared servants spill forth from the doorways, gathering up the scraps, the dishes, and bearing froth-capped pitchers of ale that they poured into the proffered cups of Ironlatch’s many thanes. Then the dancers come forth. Slinky. Seductive in their movements, in their very being, climbing upon the tables to entertain the warriors who froth as surely as their cups.
“You may have one of them, if you wish.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The dancers. You may have one. Oh, just for the night, of course. But you may, you may. Don’t be modest.”
Such is the drighten’s madness. All men are chattels to him. Be they thane or dancing maiden, they are but an object to be added to his hoard, a collection to be displayed in expression of his greatness. Now Gustabbian has exerted his power over me. I am become just another of his trophies, to be paraded about and exploited to the fullest extent.
“No, my liege,” I must be careful with formalities. Gustabbian must keep face in front of his minions and will take me to task for any missteps.
“No? No, you say? You do not like women?”
“I have no need of your dancers, Drighten.”
“Then you have one of your own?”
Give as little information as necessary. “I have no need.”
“Are you a heretic or a monk?”
“I thought I was a heretic no longer, if you will recall. You are my liege now, are you not?”
“Indeed so, Castor. Indeed.” He sounds amused. “I am your liege. So monk you must be,” he pronounces. “No women for you then, my celibate thane. We must get you a habit, that you might look the part.”
“If you so command.”
“I do like the sound of that!” He roars and suppresses a laugh. “And now that you mention it, monk, I shall require any and all information you may have on The Great House. For that matter, I shall require all the information you may have on all the houses.”
Defensive. Hackles rising. “I cannot do that,” I state levelly. It would destroy what might remain of my reputation after this debacle. Yet opposing him openly before his minions exposes me to strict repercussions. I must be careful.
“You can and you must for, as you put it, I am now your liege. I should hate to resume this talk in the Chambers of Truth.”
“You would torture me?” I rage. And my hand drifts unconsciously to the comforting grip of my sword.
“Ho, of course not my friend,” he flashes a smile, quick as the girls who dance on the tables. “For you will give the information freely. There shall be no need for such inconveniences. Still, I desire to communicate my seriousness in this matter.”
“If you will not torture me then you will not have my knowledge.”
“But I may have it then?”
In a level tone I say, “You misjudge me, Drighten.”
Gustabbian chuckles now, almost a cluck. “Good man, Castor. You have passed the test. This is how I know I can trust you. You are not the common mercenary. I will divulge to you my plan. Later. In my study.”
The study is an annex of the writing room, buried under the piled stone of the midcity and within ancient permacrete vaults. It is cramped but comfortable, sheltered by a labyrinthian array of bookcases laden with the timeworn tomes of some forgotten era–plenty of space for assassins to lurk. The room smells of moldering parchment, stale smoke. Buglamps glow brightly on end tables situated between padded armchairs that are arranged in the nucleus of the room. “Sit,” Gustabbian instructs me, and I do so. “Would you care for some brandy?” he says, opening up a small liquor cabinet.
“No, thank you.”
“Suit yourself.” He produces an aged bottle and a single glass, then pours himself a drink. He sips it and issues a sound of relieved satisfaction. He shifts, settling into the plush chair before speaking again. “Now that we are alone,” he begins. But are we alone? I wonder, peering about inconspicuously into the maze of book-lined shelves, trying to see through the stacks into the dusky recesses beyond. Do my assassins linger there? Do they see me? Looking into the warm glow shed by the little lamps? Do they merge darkly with the shadows, watching? Can they hear my voice drifting through the baffles of crumbling paper and dust-cloaked board? Even now are they waiting? Waiting for me to take any misstep? To make any abrupt move, or assume an aggressive posture towards he who holds the leash? Perhaps now they study the shape of my cloak as it falls over the pommel of my sword, the glint of buglight upon the sharp points of my helm. Perhaps their breath comes in slow, meditative waves as they ponder my demise. It could be they are anxious. They want me to move out of turn, to take actions against their master that they might spring forth from obscurity to sever my veins and cleave my limbs. That is what they want.
“We may discuss your mission,” Gustabbian intrudes upon my abstraction.
“Of course,” I say in a rasp.
He nods. It is a solemn motion, as if in preparation to discuss this matter he must invoke some special reverence which has been reserved for this moment. “Fellbrook has a manticore.”
The reverence of the moment descends upon me as well. Indeed, it is as though the entire study, complete with its pregnant shadows, were thrown under the mortician’s pall. Breath stops in its slow, sensuous kiss of the air. Sound seems to become lodged in the throat of time. Only my heartbeat carries with it the vital immediacy of life, stamping out the long seconds in solitude. At length, Gustabbian resumes. “They have a manticore,” he repeats, as if to make sure I had appreciated the gravity of the statement. “If they have learned how to properly control it…” he lets the conclusion die in the air.
“Then you want me to stop them. Me and your warriors.”
“Your warriors, Castor. They shall be your warriors.”
“This is a grave request.”
“It’s not a request,” Gustabbian says flatly. “It is my bidding.”
“Be that as it may—“
“My arse! A manticore. Gods damn it!”
“Here and I thought I was the heretic.”
“This is no juncture for a glib tongue!” He almost spits the words.
I laugh a little. A low, grizzly laugh that almost hangs like chimes in the wind. “You fear your own doom, my friend. But Fellbrook is the greatest house hereabouts and such a move against you would surely galvanize the minor houses, unify them against such a monster.”
I smile within my helmet and I know it goes unseen. Unseen by Gustabbian. Unseen by his skulking watchers. Unseen even by the gods. It is another of my own, secret things. I smile for myself alone. For my own enjoyment. “You seek to tempt the dragon,” I say euphemistically. “You will push their hand, force them to attack you.”
He says nothing.
“That is a very dangerous approach,” I tell him, my voice now calm and severe. “You would force them to move against you, that you might rally the other houses behind your banner.”
He nods, sullen.
“How many others know of this?”
“How would I know? I was hoping you might tell me, but your oath binds your lips, it would seem.”
“I can tell you in all confidence that I have heard no such intelligence, rumor or otherwise, to that effect. I thought the manticores were extinct, the last of them destroyed generations ago.”
“And perhaps they were,” agrees Gustabbian. “Perhaps the sorcerers of Fellbrook have discovered a way of reviving them.”
“If indeed that is the case it does not bode well. Who knows how many revenants they might have uncovered. How many such creatures they may be willing to unleash.”
“They must be stopped. The biovores were purged for a reason, during the Cyborg Wars.”
“I have heard of these ‘Cyborg Wars,’” he includes the manifold volumes, the stacks and nooks with a broad spread of the arms. “Yet I know so little about them. They are only mentioned in several books I have read.”
“The whole affair is somewhat arcane,” I preface. “The chimera and biovores were forms of weapon. Beasts of war controlled by the magi of many centuries hence. There were a series of devastating wars to put a stop to that madness. The midcity hails from the labors of that period.”
“What know you of the manticore itself?”
“I know it is a fearsome monster, indeed.”
“Yes, that, to be sure. What do you know?” He fixes me with the most level, burning stare that holds a promise of threat. A menacing gaze. Tell me, I read in the lines of his face, or I will end your life now.
“I know only that it is one of the chimerae, a creature fashioned from many.”
“There is something more, something you are not telling me. My own scholars, mind you, have been able to identify the creature from accounts. You, I know, are something of a dabbler in lore. I trust you might be able to assist them with something more than merely appending a name to a description. We must learn how to kill it and we must do so before Fellbrook has a chance to strike.”
“Before Fellbrook has a chance to strike another house? You wish to goad them. To draw them into a battle with you. If you can unify the other houses behind your cause and overcome Fellbrook’s monster you will demonstrate your capability to the gentry.”
“You are the cutting intellect, Castor.”
“Aye, it’s why you need me, that and my lore. And my skill. And, most importantly, my allegiance. It is not enough for you to defeat Fellbrook with a mercenary. You need a house victory, pure and clean, to carry your publicity campaign.”
“Quite astute. You’ve figured it all out, except you still fail to tell what you know of the monster itself.”
“I have told you. It is one of the chimerae, a biovore that feeds upon the life-energy of its environs to sustain its own being. Some attribute such beasts with the destruction of the forsaken lands themselves. Beyond that, tales are vague. No one alive today has faced one. I dare say, few before have faced one and lived. But what I have found is that it is winged; that is sure. Some would say it has the aspect of a great cat, others that of a man. It has a terrible tail that stings and ensures death at a distance. I would have to do specific research on the subject.”
“Then you shall study with my advisors. I have no sorcerers in my employ; you know that. You may be the closest I can muster.”
“I will look at this with your scholars.”
“And you will fight it.”
“I will, not because it is your will but because it is my own.”
The scholars present me with many texts. We lock ourselves away in Gustabbian’s study and pore over the musty books. We scour them for mention of the monster; we scour every chronicle and beastiary, every oblique reference. Any scrap of information.
At last we uncover forgotten sketches tucked away in a mammoth volume, corroborating reports in another, and antique scrolls recounting its horror.
Most of the information is useless to us. But buried even in the most indirect references are kernels of insight. From the details of wounds inflicted by the creature we imagine how it fights. From drawings and plates we extrapolate its anatomy. From tales of daring we glean its weaknesses. And I know how to defeat it. Only I. But it shall require a certain relic. I do not tell the others. They believe it is some daemon, some supernatural creation. And mayhap it is.
I slip out.
It’s nighttime again and the moons are high, but their light hardly filters down to the midcity where I emerge. The tremendous bulk of stone, mortar and timbers looms above with an almost tangible weight. And the accreted masses of the uppercity above them, blocking out the lambent glow of the celestial sphere, encrustations grown over time. The uppercity, with its lofty emplacements and sky-gouging spires stands triumphantly over the midcity with its aged halls and stacked tiers, leftovers from the wars of our ancestors.
I have had to sneak.
Gustabbian does not trust me. Not truly. Not like he says.
No. He fears me. And that is the difference. The difference between faith and fright. He keeps me close, or tries to do so, because I represent the embodiment of his phobias. Keep your enemies closer.
I climb the aged stories; I descend the weathered thoroughfares. I maneuver through the ancient ways. Yet the undercity lies beneath and it is more ancient still.
Finally I come to my hidden passage. A mere seam among seams in the great blocks and the molded permacrete, the secret of which was lost before the oldest books were conceived of. And I must pause and peer into the night shadows, which are deep and wide this low in the city. Immense swaths of black drape the surrounds. Alcoves are clothed in dark swaths and nocturnal alleyways are lost in velvety pitch. Inscrutable.
I can only doubt that I have evaded the stalkers who would learn my secrets.
I leave the enchanted amulet concealed within the folds of my clothing.
The forlorn lands. Will they follow me thither? Few would dare. It is no place for Man.
Gustabbian will be angry. Furious. Dawn is breaking, shattering into myriad shimmering shards of color upon the celestial sphere and I have yet to even reach the limits of civilization. I will be gone for days.
Again night is falling. I have trekked all through the day as the sun shone down like a brilliant emerald lodged in the heavens. Now Vox and Nox are peeking out of the gathering folds of dusk, winking like pale sapphires in the gloaming sky. And I can see the degenerate sprawl of the forsaken lands. They await, broken and desolate, the home of renegades, outlaws, heretics. Only the most depraved and the most desperate dare to go there.
I pick through the crumbling ruins and the expanse of dust and ragged plants that grow haggard in the desert clime. Zora’s abode is not far now.
I see it on the horizon. It is full night, the landscape draped in a stygian gloom. But a small light glimmers, hanging in the stagnant air from a small metal hook at the entrance to Zora’s home. It is a falling tower, a remnant of some lost age. It slouches in the gloom like some sad, forsaken thing slowly returning to the earth. There are few windows, but they are alive with light. I pass the lantern, a buglamp pulsing with ethereal luminescence, the liquid light of glowing insects.
I pound on the door with a coded rhythm so she will know it is me. Loud, dull thuds sound as the bolts are undone and the crossbar is lifted. The door slowly opens and a metallic object greets me in the small aperture as the door parts its jamb. One can never be too cautious.
“Come on,” she whispers harshly through the gap.
I step inside and she slams the door shut behind me, relocking it.
“I see you still have the carving beam.”
“Yes. It comes in handy.”
“Have you ever had to use it?”
She regards me with a level, lovely look beneath auburn curls. Her skin is a pale gray and her eyes are pools of dark mahogany. “Where have you been?”
“That’s a tale for the telling,” I say evasively.
“If you have the time to tell it then you might as well start.”
“Gustabbian wants me to fight a manticore.”
“House Fellbrook will move, if Gustabbian’s reports are to be trusted. He claims the great house has tamed the monster.”
“So, let them move,” she says, sidestepping me and setting down the small cylindrical weapon on a small table before going into the kitchen. “Are you hungry?”
“Famished. I have been travelling since last night.”
“You did not take your secret routes? They are faster.”
“I was afraid to use them. Gustabbian has a tail on me.”
“What for? I thought you are helping him.”
“He wants my secrets. I know that.”
“And you think he will leave you in peace if you aid in with the creature?”
I hesitate, digging deep within my soul to find an honest answer. “No,” I say at last. “I do not believe it will make any difference.”
“Then why do you help him? We can take out his goons right now, together.” Her voice is level, collected. I adore her.
“I help him for balance. There must be strife between the houses. There is no place for a mercenary without rivalry, after all. Fellbrook would be too powerful. With a manticore they can conquer all the lesser houses with ease unless something is done preemptively. Gustabbian is willing to do that.”
“Yes, he is,” she says, chewing on a succulent. “Because it will advance his status amongst the other houses.”
“You are right,” I confess. “Nevertheless, something must be done. A terror like the manticore cannot be allowed to be unleashed upon Asylum.”
She screws up her face, placing a hand to her chin in contemplation. “But why must it be you, Castor? I could swear you have an affair with danger. Sometimes I think you romance death more than you romance me. It is not worth the risk. What do you get out of it?”
“But at what expense.”
“He has inducted me into his house.”
“That’s even worse! What are you thinking?”
“I am thinking that Fellbrook must be stopped, and had I not agreed to join Ironlatch I would now be dead.”
“Care to explain?”
“Gustabbian surrounded me with men. I was forced to join.”
“It will destroy your reputation. You won’t be seen as impartial with such deliberate ties to a house. You will ruin us. Quit this exploit. Let Gustabbian’s goons come. We will best them.”
“The beast still needs to be stopped. Fellbrook can’t be allowed to overpower the other houses.”
“Then let Gustabbian down. Do not tie yourself so intimately to any one house. It is foolish.”
“I am afraid it is too late.”
“How so? How is it too late?”
“I have already pledged myself to Ironlatch.”
“Then un-pledge,” she insists, crossing her arms in a way that is at once wroth and seductive.
“I cannot. I have given my word.”
“You and your word,” she huffs. “Fine. But heed me. This cannot end well for us.”
I bow my head. “You may be right.”
“I know I am,” she declares, placing fists on generous hips.
I smile and remove my helmet.
“It would be easier to stay angry with you if you weren’t so handsome,” she says. Then, in a gentler tone, “You know that he is only using you, right?”
I nod my understanding. “That does not mean I won’t use him as well.”
“Oh? And how do you plan on doing that?”
“I will find a way to make use of this situation.”
“Oh, come on, Castor! That’s such malarkey. What’s your plan?”
“I think you’re missing the bigger picture.”
“There’s no way the lesser houses will not rally together, whether Gustabbian actively tries to unite them or not.”
“You’re right about that.”
“Yes; again, I know I am.”
“There is something to be said for establishing a strong rapport with the winner. Ironlatch stands to gain quite a lot of place in this gambit. It makes sense to align with Gustabbian.”
“Would you have come to that conclusion on your own, if he hadn’t forced you into it? Or are you just trying to justify your own helplessness?”
“I am never helpless, Zora.”
“Maybe not,” she puts a finger to her lips. “Still, I think if your options were more open you would view the situation differently.”
“That’s probably so; however, they are not, and one must accept the lot he is given.”
“Acceptance has never been your strong suit. There’s more to this than you are letting on.”
“Like I said, the bigger picture. If Fellbrook conquers the other houses, if empire can be established, that puts us out, cripples us. I thrive on conflict between the houses. My livelihood depends on it. We cannot allow any single power to rule.”
“I am aware of that. It is your official tie to a single house that concerns me. You might just as easily insinuate yourself into this battle without formally joining any house. What use is a freelancer who is affiliated with a single faction?”
“I do not think it will prove as much of an impediment as you seem to believe. Any time I work with any house I tie myself to it, if only temporarily. This is no less temporary. I shall make sure of that. Or perhaps I won’t. It is possible Gustabbian will gain too much in this altercation.”
“And then what will you do? Become his lap dog and leave me here to languish in the barrens?”
“It should go without saying that I would not do that.”
“It should. Yes. But…”
“But nothing. That will not happen,” I declare, stepping forward and slipping an arm about her waist to pull her close to me. I press my nose into the auburn hair that falls over her ear and say, “I swear it.”
She pulls away a bit, fixing me with an acid stare. “I’m asking you not to do this. Do not be tied to Ironlatch. It is asking for trouble. Gustabbian will know he can control you. After word gets out, other houses will not want to work with you for fear that you are in too tightly with Gus, that their dealings will make their way back to him.”
“I do not violate my code. That is well known. I have a solid reputation.”
“For now. You know this will damage it.”
“I have worried over that.”
“And for good reason!”
“If I back out now, relations with Gustabbian may be irreparably damaged.”
“Can you defeat the monster? Tell me truly.” Her pupils transfix my own as though they seek to burrow into the pith of my brain.
“Then whatever house you choose to aid shall win the day. Take what you have learned—“
“I must not.”
“If I backstab Gustabbian I’ll lose respect among the gentry; I will become as any other petty, cutthroat mercenary.”
“And if you do not?”
I say nothing, so she continues.
“And if not, you become a lackey that no one else can deposit good faith in.”
“I do no such thing. Your reputation will be ruined as surely as these forsaken lands.”
I release her and turn away. My gaze lingers over the battery of bolts, chains, pads and bars upon the door. They are brassy and clean, well-polished, reflecting the ambient light of the room with a mirror finish. They are possibly the most well-maintained objects in view. Everything else reeks of age, decay, the degradation of the forsaken lands which seems to rake all within its perimeter into its fate. Time sloughs away like flesh, I cogitate. The forsaken lands steal the time away, entire, drag the world down into the dust with it. I lower my head and set about unfastening my cloak. Zora steps in close behind me and lifts the heavy, lank thing from my shoulders. “Then what shall I do? What is your thinking?”
“My thinking is that you rebel against Gustabbian. You want to give no one such control over you. Take the matter to a rival house and negotiate a deal on your own terms.”
I wait for a moment before I speak and the words roll off my tongue like mercury. “All right. I will do as you ask.”
The crash from the windows is startling. Black-clad shadows bursting forth from the shattered casements. The irony being she placed such importance upon the door while leaving the windows wide.
The first shadow rushes at me with a glint of steel. I leap back, evading the first lunge. I knock away the weapon then strike the shadow in the face. It does not go down. It hisses and spits in my face, striking me in return when I blink. Again we exchange blows. The shadow tries to grapple me, efforts to lock my arm in a bone-breaking trap. I hook a foot about its ankle and trip it. It falls to the ground and in the next instant my sword sings forth from its scabbard and the shadow is writhing, blood staining my blade.
Quickly I snatch the carving beam from the small table and I drop it into my pocket as I turn my attention to them. While one wrestles with the many locks, the other is dragging Zora to the door. A knife is held to her throat. “Come no closer,” the shadow croaks. “Or she dies. Surrender,” it says.
What are these shadows? Wraiths? Living shades that persecute Man. Or some biological nightmare revived from mist-shrouded chapter of history? “Let her go,” I demand, knowing, even as I speak that my words shall not be heeded. The shadows have no reason to listen.
“Never,” sibilates the shadow.
Defeat wafts over me like a foul odor. I throw down my sword.
The skeleton of time becomes a little more bare and I sit once again in Gustabbian’s demesne. Diabolical implements, horrid, tortuous devices filling the space with the torturer’s tools as might a blacksmith’s shop be filled with the trappings of his vocation. Dried blood stains the walls and sits in congealed pools in the corners. It glistens darkly in the pale light of a solitary candle.
I am shackled to a chair in the center of the room and the two shadowlings recede from the chamber, leaving me alone with a black-robed old man.
“Here today,” says the old man, pulling back his hood to reveal a shock of ghost-white hair and a row of gapped, rotting teeth. “Tee hee,” he cackles, “Gone tomorrow.”
I test my bonds, finding that they are well secured. The cold iron manacles weigh against my wrists, dragging at the skin. The old man’s rattle merges with that of the chains. Leisurely he strides over to a small cart with castform shelves, an artifact from eons past. From it he selects a cruel-looking instrument, a pair of something like pliers. “Do you know what we do to traitors, Thane? No? We make examples of them. Then we make eunuchs out of them. Then we make heretics out of them.”
“I am a heretic already.”
The old torturer cackles again. “You save us the trouble, yes? Yes. You save us the trouble. You will see what we do to traitors. And you will see what we do to spies. You will see, you will. You will feel what we do to traitors. You will feel what we do to spies. And you will tell us. You will tell us what we wants to hear. You will answer us.”
“I’ll tell you nothing.”
“Then you will bleed. You will cry. You will call out in our ecstasy. Our joy. But your misery. You will be miserable until you depart this plane.”
I spit at the old man. He looks furious for an instant before he regains his composure, stepping in close to loom over me, glowering, gripping the pliers threateningly with whitish knuckles. He takes my head firmly and presses the instrument into my mouth. The feeling is so chilling I can almost hear it as the pliers clamp down on one of my teeth. Then the pain hits as the tooth splinters.
Now is the time. Before I am in too much pain to act.
I grip the carving beam which I stowed in my pocket, activating its magic. The beam rips out through my clothing, slicing into the torturer’s leg. He collapses, hard. I let the beam loose again. Its searing bolt laps at the torturer’s other leg, burning his foot from his body to leave a smoldering stump. The torturer cries out in anguish, but the shadowlings do not come to his aid; they must believe it is I who screams.
With a deft flick I turn the beam to my bonds. The iron turns incandescent, then melts away in molten runnels that radiate furnace heat. It sets my clothes alight and I swiftly busy myself with smothering the flames before returning my attention to the prone torturer. “Speak only what I tell you,” I say in a sharp, incisive whisper.
He ignores my command, instead calling for help. In a trice I am up against the span of wall adjacent to the door, listening as the bar is lifted on the outside and the leaf opens with a loud creak. The first shadowling bounds inside, pivoting in midair to face me. I point the wand at it and release its power, but it fades too closely. The shadowling is too far away for the artifact to kill it. Nonetheless, the shadowlings’ black garb is singed and the wearer releases an inhuman howl of pain before pouncing upon me. I squeeze the actuator again and cut into my assailant as it strikes me. I keep the beam trained upon the shadowling and it begins to writhe and grope at its abdomen where the mystic beam burns. Its howls become frantic. It falls to the flags and squirms. Then the last shadowling leaps in over the smoking body of the first. Again I squeeze the wand, but its magic has been spent. The brilliant beam flares into existence but dies, fading out in a wink before any real damage is done. I throw down the chrome cylinder and brace for the leaping shadowling. I grasp its arms and I feel the almost preternatural strength there.
Hissing. A small roar. A snap of clamping teeth. We tumble to the floor. I catch the shadowling’s head with a well-placed elbow. In a panicked instant I roll to my feet, in the same motion, as if capturing the latent momentum in my motion I grasp my witchlight. I dig my thumb into the soft circular switch. It flashes on. A magic torch shining its rays into the shadowling’s face; and there I see the hideousness that lies within the black cowl. I see that sickly glint, that scabrous, squamous, ophidian flesh and orbs like sickle-carved amber.
In that fleeting moment of distraction I strike the creature’s foul head with the witchlight and drive a boot firmly into its chest, shoving it away from me. Hurriedly I grope for some of the torturer’s instruments, flinging the pointed objects at my opponent. But without avail, for the blades are turned aside by its scaled hide. It regains its equilibrium and pounces, but not before I grab a pronged skewer that I hold out before me. The shadowling impales itself upon the needle-sharp points. I thrust forward, backing the lepidote horror into the stone wall and forcing the skewer forward until the creature’s bones collapse under the tremendous force. It slumps, lifeless, to the floor.
Blood is pouring from my mouth. I am sick to my stomach, nauseous from all I have swallowed. My jaw is badly swollen; my entire mandible is a surging drum beating with the quickened beat of my heart. The pain nearly engulfs me, sweeps me away on waves of agony.
I gasp; I spit crimson and fragments of tooth as I walk over to the languishing torturer. “Where is Zora?” I demand. “Where was she taken?”
The torturer grins, a glister of wild madness in his eye and a peal of likewise laughter strangling his response through gritted teeth.
I have my answer, but I do not bother to thank him for directions. Quickly I dash out, into a hallway that is filled with bilious buglight. I find Zora’s cell standing ajar with a stocky figure blocking the way.
“I’m impressed,” the deep, baritone voice of Gustabbian says. “You killed three of them, dismembered your gaoler. Chained. You bested those, too.” He claps in a lackadaisical, somewhat mocking sort of way. “Resourceful monk. Some might call you blessed, if they didn’t know better. I was hoping to get some information out of you for my trouble. But no matter. You have proven yourself and earned another chance at freedom.”
“Explain,” I mumble, speaking softly around the pain.
“I have the woman, Castor.”
“Her name is Zora.”
“Well. Whatever. She is my prisoner. If you want to see her freed, then you will slay the manticore. In the name of House Ironlatch, of course.”
“Should you refuse I will not try again to torture you. I will not even have you killed. You may call me generous. You will be released, but Zora will be sacrificed on the Altar of Rosha.”
I feel my cheeks getting warm as the blood flushes upon my face and the hammer of pain increases its rhythm upon my mandible. “And if I do not?”
“If you do not refuse? You will either succeed or you will die. But if you do not succeed, Zora will be mine to do with as I please.”
“Explain,” I grumble.
“I may kill her, still. Offer her up to my god. Or I may keep her. As a slave. Maybe as a personal slave. I shall decide when, and if, the time comes. So, what do you choose, Castor?”
“I will try. I will battle the monster.” My sigh is almost audible.
“Good. Then you will still have your warriors.”
“I have conditions.”
“Oh? You? You have conditions? I don’t believe you are in any condition to—“
“If you want the beast slain, then heed me.”
“Very well. What is your condition?”
“Conditions. I must be allowed once more into the ruins, into the forsaken lands.”
“You wish to return to your woman’s hovel.”
“What for? Excuse me for being circumspect.”
“You will have to trust me in the matter.”
He laughs. “No, I think not. Given the circumstances I am sure you will understand. So either explain to me why such a jaunt is justified or leave if you want, but you know what shall befall your beloved.”
“I require a certain relic which I have stored there.”
“What do you need this relic for?”
“To defeat the manticore. If you hope for any success in the undertaking.”
“Do as you will. I have what leverage I need. I will not even send an escort. We attack tomorrow. If you do not return in time we shall enjoy the ritual after battle. What is your other condition?”
“After it is done, I must return to my independence.”
I wonder if I am followed still, with the shadowlings defeated. Is some new threat lurking beyond my sight? Some new enemy that stalks and watches and waits to report my secrets to Gustabbian? Probably. No escort? Unlikely. Just none that I am to know about.
One day. Impossible. Even with my secret ways it could not be done.
But maybe there is another, quicker way.
I seek out Gavian. He is a mancer of House Homegard. I find him in his laboratory, after gaining clearance at the gatehouse. The guards know me there, for I have long sought Gavian’s counsel.
“Greetings, old friend,” I say by way of announcement.
“Castor! What a fine surprise, indeed. How are you, my lad? To what do I owe this visit?”
“I need to ask you a favor.”
“Ah hah,” he remarks, pressing the spectacles up the bridge of his nose where they have slipped in the thin sheen of sweat that leaks from his pores. The lab is hot, with fires burning under enormous iron cauldrons. “I might have guessed as much. Hah. What can I do you for? I will help if I can.”
“I must journey to the desert. Swiftly.”
“Then go. Hurry, lad.”
“I cannot make use of my usual methods of transit,” I tell him.
“So, you need transportation, yes?”
“Yes. That is correct. I must go to the forsaken lands and return inside of two days.”
“Yes, yes, you should listen, lad. I said I would help. And you’re in luck. I have just the thing.”
The dactl is saddled.
It tosses its head as I climb upon its back. A flick of the reins and leathern wings beat at the air, lifting us into the wind. We ride the convection winds up, up and rapidly even the uppercity recedes beneath me, its spires rushing past, ultimately to dwindle below us. The sun is bright through the celestial sphere, the glow of which pales as the daylight streams down in viridian rays. We soar upon the thermals, leagues and demesnes passing beneath us until the verticality the cityscape yields to the broken waste of the forsaken lands.
At Zora’s abode I enter the basement. It is dark, musty and fortified. And therein I locate what I seek.
The flight back wracks my nerves, for I can feel the time ticking incessantly towards my future. A future in which Zora’s life depends upon my encounter with a blight that was believed to be quelled long ago. The cityscape below is a patchwork of demesnes, each with their own distinctive character. The uppermost portions reach up for the sky, reach up for me as if they seek to bar my way, to reach up like stone fingers and grasp me from the sky. But they fail and soon I have done the improbable. I have journeyed to the forsaken lands and back in a single day. Yet the dactyl tires of flight. It grows weary, even as Fellbrook Demesne grows near. A forest of vertical structures glides by below until a great shelf of masonry comes into view. It is a lofty summit, a plateau of stone and mortar presiding over the midcity like a great, artificial escarpment, and upon it the armies are placed. Am I just in time, or am I too late? I scour the ranks and files below until I spy the rusty brown banners of House Ironlatch.
Gracefully the dactyl wheels like a circling raptor in its descent, alighting before Gustabbian’s forces. Gwayne hails me and approaches at a quick pace. “Castor, by the gods, you’ve made it.”
“Yes, but just barely it seems.”
“The warriors of House Harkweal have already engaged the monster. Their units have been broken like so many stones cast into the abyss. The beast, it rains death down upon them at a distance. House Homeguard has harried the creature from afar with dactyl knights and yet it burned them from the sky with the beam of scorching light that leaps from its tail. There is no way to fight such a terror!”
I see him surveying the relic, a concave shield with immaculate mirror finish. “There is a way, and I will see to it. Gwayne, rally your warriors. Bring them to meet me at the manticore.”
“It is suicide.”
It is not, I hope. “Just do it,” I say and spur the dactyl once more into the air.
At last I see it. The manticore. Yet the dactyl is flagging. It can go no farther. In a desperate effort, as we begin to plummet towards the monster, I pull the dactyl into a mad dive. Wind whistles past my ears and whips my clothes about. They flap and beat against my sides, going fluk-fluk-fluk as we close with the horrifying creature that swats warriors as a cat might swat its prey. The dactl unleashes an eviscerating scream before it careens into the manticore.
I am tossed from the saddle. The pavement slaps me hard as I fall, but lithely I roll to my feet, shield in hand. I am winded by the fall and pain still pounds in my jaw. I can taste the blood coursing from my destroyed tooth, but it does not matter. It’s irrelevant. What matters is now.
I am on my feet and I feel the grit beneath my boots. I smell the urban stench that forever billows up from the undercity. Sweat and clothing cling to me like dew to The Sphere. I heft my shield and feel the hilt of my sword in calloused hands. I eye the beast, which glowers at me in return with malignant eyes. Its wings scatter warriors like leaves on the wind. Its fangs are like sabers and its claws are lances with which to impale its foes. Its tail is an elevated thing terminating in a cruel stinger that deals death from afar, carving a flaming path with the beam it emits. It looms over me, a great colossus of muscle and fur and armored plates. I can smell the stench of its breath, which wafts over me in warm, rank waves even at this range.
The scene that surrounds me is a hellscape. Warriors from all the lesser houses charge at the chimeric monstrosity only to be cut down by its tail at a distance, hurled into the ranks by devastating claws or gruesomely caught in mighty, fanged jaws. I merely stand, studying the creature’s movements, the almost rhythmic strokes of its tail.
I draw one last breath. I can smell death in the air. The time is now. It can be no other.
I loose a fearsome battle-cry and charge ahead, pounding on the shield with the flat of my sword. I have its attention. It glowers at me still; even more intensely now, though I did not believe it possible. I am transfixed by those slitted orbs. The tail sways, slaughtering as it moves, until it is trained upon me. I raise my shield—and the beam breaks upon the reflective relic, bending back onto the creature itself. Perspiration breaks out upon my brow and I squint against the saline rivulets that moisten my face. Time seems to freeze. The carnage slows as the monster trains all its attention upon me. I carefully tilt the shield to redirect the beam, and the monster releases a deafening snarl of pain as its own weapon traces a smoldering line across its face. Farther and the beam cripples a wing. Yet the creature does not relent. Still that brilliant ray of death focuses upon my shield, which grows hot and begins to warp upon my arm. I tilt it further, until the beam intersects the manticore’s own tail. It is an abomination, but not invulnerable. The monster flails as its stinger falls, inert, severed by its own power, with a thud that is lost in the profound cry of anguish that escapes the creature’s maw. I fling away the melting relic before my arm is crippled by it. I inhale deeply, watching while the creature lashes about as might a drowning man. “Attack!” I cry, in an effort to outdo the clangor of war. I step forward, evading the wild sweeps of the manticore’s limbs and the dismembered tail as it tosses fitfully, showering gore upon the armies. I swing at the creature’s neck. I feel resistance in the blade as the impact travels through my gauntlets. Again the manticore roars, recoiling with trauma, and in that moment of chaos Gwayne appears with his warriors. With a fevered battlecry they rush at the creature. The clamor of clanking armor buffets my ears as they march past at a canter. They strike and leap upon the monster. They cling to it like so many ants to a bread crumb, stabbing and cutting even as they scale its colossal bulk.
It is a matter of seconds before a hush of awe descends over the battlefield as the enormous carcass slumps to the paving stones and conflict ceases momentarily.
After a moment of shock the lesser houses unleash a vast, collective shout of triumph. The warriors of Fellbrook are stunned and disheartened by the sudden loss. Many turn to flee. Others gape amazed and demoralized at their bested weapon. The tide has changed. Gwayne’s warriors and I cut a severe rent into the dejected enemy. Our enemies break like rock beneath the miner’s hammer.
Fellbrook is in retreat and we are marching from the great plateau with gladness in our hearts.
“Gustabbian!” I call as we return, surrounded by the minions of every lesser house. “I have done as you commanded. I have bested the manticore. It is time to return Zora and me to our freedom.”
“There you are wrong, Castor. I shall return Zora to you; but we shall see, once this war is at its end, whether you seek to leave our ranks.”
“You must honor our bargain.” I spit the words.
“And I have every intention of doing so. Just not right now. I still have uses for you, thane.”
“I am no thane, Gustabbian. I am a heretic.”
“Entertain your petty delusions all you like, Castor. But you shall remain in my employ, for the time being. Remember. I know where your precious Zora lives.”
I should have guessed. Ire rushes through me, a hot coil singing my soul. “I will not abide your treachery,” I say, taking a step forward as I draw up my shoulders in wrath.
“Gwayne! Take this malcontent into custody.” To me he says, “You shall do as you are told. Perhaps a fortnight in the dungeons will teach you some deference. ”
Gwayne breaks rank, stepping determinedly forward. “I shall not do it, Gustabbian. I followed this man into battle. He went up, bravely, against the most daunting foe this house, or any other, has ever seen. His reward for stemming the monster’s rampage shall not be shackles.”
“You, Gwayne, are in contempt. You are a traitor to your house.”
“And you are a traitor to your word,” I say.
“Arrest him!” Gustabbian points accusingly at me. “Arrest them both!”
No one of House Ironlatch moves, yet many from the other houses begin to intercede. It looks like a riot might be forming, as many small scuffles break out. But, at length it is Gwayne who speaks above the mounting ruckus. “I invoke the rite of challenge. As is my right.” A great unanimous gasp rises above the armies as men and women back away from the drighten and his challenger. “Face me, Gustabbian. And should I be defeated I shall bend to your will, no matter how debauched. But should I best you in single combat, it shall be my will that is heeded this day!”
A ring has formed around them. A storm of shouting erupts from the onlookers, chanting for the duel to commence. Yet Gustabbian blithely looks about himself and shrugs as if to say, “This is nothing. I am not perturbed in the least.” He says,“I will not fight you, Gwayne.” He steps close to his thane and looks him directly in the eye. “Have I not been a father to you? Did I not raise you both in fact and in status? Where would you be were it not for the kindness I have shown you? You would be a ragged pauper, a mere peasant. It is I you must thank for your every good fortune, for it is only by virtue of my kindness that you enjoy the life that you now live. Yet this is how you repay me. I will not stand for such a betrayal.”
Gwayne hesitates a moment before he responds in a solemn tone. “It is true. You have been as a father to me. You were, for many years. But now you are like one possessed. You have grown twisted and intoxicated with power. This display you have shown today will not be countenanced. If we are not to duel then you must abdicate.”
“I raise you up from nothing and you seek to depose me!”
“You have demonstrated that you are unfit to rule. The injustice you have displayed here today is unacceptable. Step down now or confront me in the honorable tradition.”
“No mercenary is worth an insurrection,” Gustabbian bellows. “Forget this foolish venture, Gwayne. I will release Castor from his oath, if it means so much.”
“No,” Gwayne says. “It is too late for that now. This matter is between us. Do not force me to slay you. Step down. Now.”
With a tear in his eye Gustabbian lowers his gaze. “Very well. If I have no other recourse, I must surrender the mantle of drighten to you.”
Hissing and booing at his cowardice bombards my ears. But Gustabbian would never give up so easily, would never give up his reign with so little resistance. Even if his situation were dire. Is he up to something? Is this another deception? I am attentive to his every move, his every subtle twitch. The two men step close, clasping arms in consummation of their pact. Then I see it. The dagger Gustabbian cleverly slips from his robes. In a fateful decision he raises the weapon and makes to strike. But I lunge forward, grasping his wrist.
Then I hurl him to the ground.
Gwayne takes a hurried step back. “He would have stabbed me! I am in your debt.” He looks to Gustabbian, who lies upon the flagstones. “The pact has been sealed. Thus you are drighten no longer. In recognition of all you have done for me, I will not have you executed, but for your craven attempt on my life I shall sentence you to lifelong imprisonment. Take him,” Gwayne commands the warriors of House Ironlatch. After a pause, several step forward to lead Gustabbian away in bonds. Gwayne says to me, “Thank you, Castor, for all you have done. I hate to see you leave us. I hope the two of us can move forward in good faith.”
“We’ll see. I never got paid for my last job.”
“As drighten, I will see to it that you are compensated. And then some. As for the monster it is sure we would never have defeated it without your help. For that, I extend you my everlasting gratitude. But come. We may speak of such things on the way. We must free your friend.”
Of the soldiers, some are relieved by Gustabbian’s removal. They jeer and mock him as he is ushered forth in shame. Some are shocked at his treachery; others at his cowardice. But most are indifferent. Yet all are pleased at the battle’s end, and we march to the tune of cheer.
Once we are within the demesne, the crowd begins to dissipate but, together, Gwayne and I make our way to the dungeons, with Gustabbian in tow, to a certain cell behind a door reinforced with rusted metal straps. Gwayne removes the crossbar and opens the cell. Inside is dark, inscrutable; but in a moment I see her. As she steps out of the dark confines, Gustabbian is thrust in her place and the door is shut.
“Zora,” I speak her name, and she speaks mine as I grasp her and pull her close. I say, “So, what was it you said about romance?”