Chapter 1-6 | Chapter 7-11 | Chapter 12-14 | Chapter 15-17 | Chapter 18-22
Ezra's map was spread out on the table. Next to it was a duplicate that Terry had marked with the various living quarters, weapon holds and booby-trapped passages that she was aware of. Unfortunately, there were several branches of tunnels that, while marked on the map, Terry had never seen; she could provide little information about them. Determined to help as much as possible, Terry searched her memory for every scrap of relevant information.
"So all three of these passages lead into Chaos?" asked Chris as he pointed to the three north most tunnels.
"Yes, but they go through the Plaza before connecting with the tunnels that empty into the Empire" explained Terry.
"Why are you so worried about the tunnels?" asked Sheehan. "We need to focus on the demon army. Let the Imperial Reserves deal with the Black Churchers."
"No, if the Churchers know we're on to them," his eyes flicked over Nathan and Josiah, "and they probably do, then we need to assume they'll act now, before the Imperial Reserves have time to mobilize a large force against them."
"Then we should attack them now!" countered Sheehan, pounding his fist against the table. Disdain filled his voice as he added, "They're only Churchers."
"Only Churchers," began Chris in a deceptively quiet voice, "have not only planned but also executed numerous tasks all designed to give access of our realm to demon hordes. Only Churchers massed a coven of unprecedented numbers without raising any suspicions. Only Churchers carved out a demon highway right beneath our feet," Chris pointed to the passage that ran under Corners, "And not one of us noticed a thing. If we don't stop underestimating the Black Church we're going to find ourselves overrun by Chaos."
"You think they can bring down the Wall?" asked Fergus. The black haired Dwarf had been quiet up until now, smoking his pipe and listening to the others. Instead of answering him Chris looked to Josiah.
"What I gathered from Marquay was that they only planned to tear a rift large enough to march the demon army through the Plaza entrances." explained Josiah.
"I know a bit about Wall magic," spoke up one of the Riders. "The second a rift is created the Wall Warders in the City of Sorcerers will be alerted."
"Yes," agreed Josiah, "Those same Warders will cast a detection spell to find the location of the rift. Once they have pinpointed it to be some hundred feet," Josiah looked to Terry for conformation.
"One hundred and nine feet," clarified Terry.
"One hundred and nine feet below the surface," continued Josiah. "They will likely down grade the priority of its repair. After all, there aren't any known demon tribes that burrow that deep. I'm not saying that it will be ignored, just that it won't be attended to as quickly as, say, a surface rift. By the time the City of Sorcerers realizes that the rift isn't a natural occurrence Marquay will have used his magic to support the hole making it much harder to close."
"Why not contact the City of Sorcerers so that they can strengthen the Ward Wall before the attack?" asked a lithe doe-faced Rider.
This time it was JD that responded, "Mr. Chris and I tried to update the capital about the Black Church involvement a couple of hours ago. The only ones we could reach were Kasha, Purgatory and the Valiant Lancers. They were all having the same communication problems that we are."
"Marquay probably had this planned all along," speculated Josiah. "A communications blackout will make it that much harder for the Empire to respond. And it likely won't be noticed for several more hours." All were aware that few people used communication crystals in the wee hours before dawn. Josiah believed that Marquay had probably preformed the rituals for the communication spell months ago. Marquay had no doubt marked the area he wished to be separated from the rest of the Empire and then left the spell dormant. There it had waited until the moment Marquay chose to activate it.
"The only people we can count on to help us with this fight are the men and women in this room and the Valiant Lancers," said Chris. His words had a sobering effect on the crowd.
JD glanced over the faces of those in the room and was surprised to find one face that despite its Chaos Fire didn't belong. "Riordan!" Terry stiffened in recognition. JD was on his feet and aiming his crossbow before a plan had formed within his mind. Unfortunately, Riordan seemed to have equally attuned reflexes. He dodged behind one of the Riders and tried to escape out the door. "Dang it! Somebody stop him!" shouted JD as he pulled up his crossbow and tried to give chase. Several Riders made grabs at the man, but he seemed to dance easily past their fingertips. JD was less than half way across the room, but Riordan was already stepping out the door. Riordan disappeared through the entrance only to reappear seconds later as he flew backwards into the saloon. After landing in a stunned heap on the floor he was easily restrained by Buck and another Rider.
"Did someone shout for a hand with that fellow?" asked a lanky, leather clad Rider.
"Yes, thanks," JD pulled out a pair of shackles as he approached the traitor. "Riordan, I'm arresting you for treason."
Terry watched the capture with a combination of awe and relief. Riordan was the one who had so sweetly charmed his way into Terry's trust. Offering free food, shelter, and a home that Olivia would be safe in. He spoke of a commune, of which he was a member, where everyone was appreciated for who they were, not the rank badges they wore. Riordan assured her that her locksmith talent would be both valued and respected. All the while, a voice in Terry's mind whispered 'you never get something for nothing'. But Terry allowed her desire to provide for Olivia to overrule any misgivings. When she later confronted Riordan about the true nature of her cavern home and new employers Riordan had laughed quite mockingly. He had then pointed out that if Terry were foolish enough to go to the authorities, she would not be well received. After all, to admit membership in the Church of Chaos Encroaching was to accept a death sentence. To give aid or comfort, which Terry had done however unknowingly, was mandatory jail time. Olivia would be sent to an orphanage and forced to bare the stigma of a traitor's child. So Terry had kept quiet, every day her horror mounting as she learned more of the Black Church's plans. By the time Ezra approached her, Terry was willing to accept going to jail as long as the Black Church was stopped. Her only request of Ezra was that he would see to it that Olivia be cared for if she was sent to jail. Ezra's assurance that he would made Terry feel as though she had finally woken from the nightmare Riordan had imprisoned her in.
JD, meanwhile, started to search the prisoner and with Buck's help, relieved him of his weapons and a communication crystal. "You won't be using this to update your Black Church friends." JD pocketed the crystal before securing the leg shackles.
"He might not be updating, but I've got a bit of Black Church information that I'd like to share," drawled the newcomer.
"I'd certainly like to hear any intelligence you can give," said Chris, stepping forward. "I'm Christopher and this is Constable JD. What can you tell us?"
"My name's Vin. I take it from the size of this pow-wow that you've already spread the word about the demon alliance?" Chris nodded in confirmation. "Well, I was able to sneak up real close to their base of operations, the Glass Cliffs. I'd put their numbers at about 2000 Storm demons, another 1000 Hobs." Vin's words brought more than one curse of dismay. "There were Flame demons, but I only ever saw a dozen or so. And, it looked like they were working out some alliance with the Vipers before I left. I can't give you any numbers for them." Chaos Riders shifted nervously as Vin continued. "But I'll be honest with you. The demon war host didn't scare me half as bad as the magic lessons."
"Magic lessons?" asked Josiah.
"I saw two Black Churchers and several demon mages giving magic lessons to each other. The Churchers were learning Chaos magic and the demons were learning Imperial magic." Even as he spoke, Vin had to suppress a shudder.
"That's sure to destabilize the spells woven into the Ward Wall. Especially if both forms of magic are directed at the same location at the same time," speculated Josiah, as much to himself as to the others filling the saloon. "There's no way of telling to what degree. It would depend on the abilities of the mages involved, the type of rituals Marquay has prepared. There are just too many variables."
"Could you counter their magic?" asked Vin. It seemed to Vin that the demon army could eventually be dealt with as long as the Alliance mages were stopped from carrying out their magical attack.
Surveying the saloon, Josiah located only two mages besides Nathan and himself, and despite their apparent willingness to help neither one was above rank 2 in their mage craft. From Terry's descriptions, he knew that Marquay had four Black Church mages at his disposal as well as the several demon sorcerers that Vin had mentioned. The mage force gathered here simply couldn't hope to counter Marquay's. "Do you know how many mages are riding with the Valiant Lancers?" Josiah asked Chris.
"Lachlan said he had a dozen magic users with him. They're due to arrive near dawn." The sky outside had yet to show even a hint of morning. But Chris knew that their best chance for success included waiting until reinforcements arrived. The delay was frustrating but inevitable.
Riordan, who had been forgotten by most, suddenly burst into hysterical laughter.
"What the hell do you think you're laughing at you crazy, Chaos demon wanna-be?" Buck gave the prisoner several good shakes to punctuate the question.
"You fools think you can stop Marquay. Stop Chaos! There isn't a move you can make that he won't uncover. The 'Vainglorious' Lancers will never reach Corners. And that spy who slithered his way into our stronghold is even now begging Marquay for mercy. By this time tomorrow..."
"Argh!!!" The enraged war cry gave Buck just enough warning to release Riordan and pull JD to a safe distance. Josiah never even slowed his charge as he grabbed the Black Churcher by his shirt and slammed him into the wall with enough force that all could hear the accompanying crack of at least three ribs. Still not satisfied, Josiah slammed him again, demanding, "What happened to my boy?"
"Boy? You mean the spy?" Riordan queried in a choked gasp. "He was caught red-handed in Marquay's chambers. Something about destroying a blood sacrifice. Marquay was going to interrogate him then give him to the demons to play with." Riordan's hope that a swift answer might spare him more suffering was shattered when he saw Josiah pull back his fist for a potentially lethal blow.
"Wait!" shouted Larabee.
Josiah hesitated, but the rage swelling within him demanded that he act now and avenge Ezra. "Give me one good reason why I should let him take even one more breath!" demanded the Sunbird priest.
Chris moved to within inches of Riordan, grabbing his chin so that the man was forced to look at him. "You said the 'Lancers will never reach Corners'. What did you mean?"
Riordan shook his head as if to deny the words he had already spoken. "Nothing! You'll get nothing out of me!" His words might have carried a bit more force if he hadn't already been shaking uncontrollably. Riordan had thought that Josiah's brutal care was terrifying, but being forced to match stares with Christopher's Chaotic, opal eyes was threatening to annihilate what little sanity he had left. Then suddenly those eyes changed. The milky Chaos Fire retreated leaving behind two irises of searing green rage. The smile that joined them brought to mind a rabid beast hungrily anticipating its chance to spread some misery. It seemed to him that Christopher's face had somehow become the personification of both wrath and despair. By the time the opal veil fell back over Chris's eyes, Riordan was sobbing like a child. "The bridge, Shannon's Crossing, it's rigged to collapse when too many horses cross it. That's all I know. Please, just get away from me!" Riordan was now twisting franticly to escape Chris despite the pain each movement brought to his ribs. Deciding to be merciful, Josiah sent Riordan into the realm of the dreaming with a single punch. Seconds later his body was tossed aside in a discarded heap.
"Looks like the old 'Larabee glare' can still work its magic, Pard," commented Buck as he drew closer to his friend.
Chris heard Buck's playful tease but didn't bother to respond. Pulling the amethyst crystal out of his pocket Chris tripled tapped and impatiently waited for its answering glow.
"Lachlan here," came the clipped reply.
"I wanted to give you a heads up," warned Larabee. "The Black Churchers may have rigged the Shannon's Crossing Bridge to collapse. We don't know if they have any other surprises planned."
"Understood." There was a collection of murmurs as Lachlan consulted those he was riding with. A moment later he said, "My scouts are going to check out the bridge now. If you're right we'll be forced to detour through Tullia pass. Which will add at least an hour and a half to our travel time. How bad are things by you?"
"We're holding steady right now, but the Churchers know we're on to them. They may have moved up their plans. If any of our mage Riders sense the ritual is starting... Well, we'll have to attack then whether you're here or not." It was all about time. If the Black Churchers could begin their ritual before the Chaos Riders could be reinforced then they were much more likely to achieve a victory.
"I'll do my best to make sure it doesn't come to that. We'll get there as soon as we can," assured the now familiar voice.
"I'll look to see you in a few hours then. Christopher out." Chris usually would have taken a moment to re-examine the newest developments, just to make sure he hadn't missed any angles. But the actions of the young constable drew his attention. "What are you doing, Kid?"
"You heard him," said JD as he slung his bow then gathered his cloak. "Marquay's got Ezra. I'm going to get him out. I'm not going to abandon Ezra!"
Josiah's deep voiced added, "and you not going to be going alone."
"If Marquay's interrogation technique is anything like ours, Ezra is going to need a bit of healing," said Nathan, gathering his own things to assist.
Chris couldn't help but notice that all three men were operating more on emotion than logic. Nathan owed this Ezra a life debt, JD seem to think he was the spy's backup, and Josiah was clearly letting their past relationship dictate his actions. He respected and even shared the belief that it was necessary to assist a fellow warrior, but they were walking into the lion's den right at dinnertime, and it didn't seem to be occurring to any of them. Someone had to be the voice of reason. Chris noticed that every person in the room was waiting on his response. Why were people always expecting him to take on the role of leader? "You don't even know if Ezra's still alive. The Black Churchers will be wary, expecting an attack. You could be risking your lives for nothing."
"They may be expecting an attack but they won't worry much over a couple of workers helping out in the tunnels," countered JD
"Especially once I change into less conspicuous clothes," put in Josiah as he removed his Sunbird Armor and bright red uniform. It was amazing how different the man looked in his drab brown shirt.
"Nathan should probably wait for us to bring Ezra out," conceded JD. "He's a little too recognizable as a Chaos Rider. Ezra gave me a couple of passwords. They should get us past any guards." Looking up at Josiah he asked, "will you be able to find your way back to where you were held prisoner?"
"I will be the shepherd who always finds the lost lamb," assured Josiah. JD stared at Josiah for a second, wondering if he meant 'Yes, I know the way' or 'Don't worry, I can wing it.' But, since JD planned on finding Ezra even if he had to search every room in that maze, it probably didn't matter.
"What if he's hurt real bad," tossed out Buck. "How are you going to carry him out without raising suspicion?"
"What if Marquay has already killed him?" asked Chris. He didn't want any of these men to throw their lives away in a futile quest.
Josiah looked ready to turn his anger on Chris but Nathan stepped between them saying, "You know he's right, Josiah. Before we go we should see if Sheehan can divine Ezra's condition." When Josiah backed down, Nathan turned hopeful eyes to the Elf warrior.
Like Nathan and his 'gift' for healing, Sheehan came by his clairvoyance naturally. Though he had had some magical training he generally considered himself a warrior. Yet while he didn't rely on his magical talent neither did he ignore it. "It's never easy divining an unknown person. It would help if I had something that was his . . . some hair or clothing, and the more recent the better."
"The map!" cried Terry. "Here, Ezra made this map." She had turned a somewhat sickly shade of green when Riordan had bragged about Ezra's capture. Terry wanted desperately to help the man who had become both her hero and her friend.
Sheehan took the marked-up leather. He was immediately bombarded with images of dirt walls, fugitive explorations and painstaking analysis. Realizing he was absorbing the sensations and emotions Ezra had felt when making the map, Sheehan pushed past them, trying to get beyond the map, while maintaining his link to the spy. Unfortunately, waking through another's spirit trail was seldom easy. Sheehan traced the path around frustration with his work, to happiness at helping friends, children, and then the serious nature of his mission. Purifying a challis. Hide! An ancient wand? Marquay's taunting face. Question . . . pain . . . more questions. Too much pain. A final release? No, falling rocks. Snarling demonic canine features.
As the impressions drifted away Sheehan found himself the recipient of several expectant stares. "He's alive but not for much longer."
"What did you see?" asked JD.
"He's definitely being tortured. I got the impression that Marquay wants some bit of information from Ezra and your friend is unwilling to share it. There was also a wand. It looked bronze, about a foot in length, with a plum sized ruby at its top. Something about the wand terrified Ezra, but I can't . . . " Sheehan struggled to recapture the fading impressions.
"Was it a focus Marquay created for his spells?" asked Josiah.
"No, not something Marquay made. It's old. Very, very old," explained Sheehan.
"Then it must be something he found in Chaos," guessed Nathan. "It's not uncommon to find artifacts in Chaos, and such an ancient magical artifact could give him a definite edge against an Imperial mage."
Satisfied that the others recognized the danger of the wand, Sheehan continued to relate the images. "I saw Ezra moving, and what I think was a cave collapse. I also saw a Storm demon who was a little too close for comfort," he ended his narrative, hoping that he hadn't misinterpreted the vision.
"How much time do we have?" JD questioned again.
"Clairvoyant visions don't come with a time stamp, Kid." Sheehan shifted his gaze to Larabee. "But I got the feeling that he wouldn't survive to see reinforcements."
"Then Josiah and I have to leave now. We sneak in dressed as workers, grab Ezra, and sneak back out." JD was pleased that his words sounded so confident. Now if only he could get his stomach to stop the summersaults.
"No," said Chris, though his tone was one of consideration not command.
Buck recognized the look on his friend's face and asked, "What are you thinking, Pard?"
"I'm thinking that if we want to save Ezra, we need to do what Marquay expects," replied Chris.
"You mean some of us make a big fuss by one of the tunnels. Draw the attention so Josiah and the kid can get Ezra out with no one the wiser." Chris's grin told Buck that he had once again read his friend correctly.
"How many of us will you need for this diversion?" asked Vin. After all of the sneaking and hiding of the last couple of days he rather liked the idea of a straight-on confrontation.
"I think six of us should be enough. After all we don't want to start a full battle. This will be just a surgical hit and retreat." Chris's eyes met first Josiah, then JD, Nathan, Buck and finally the newcomer, Vin. He silent gaze made it clear who he expected those six to be.
"And what will we be doing while you're off on your rescue mission?" asked Sheehan. Vin wasn't the only Rider who wanted to see some action.
"Scouting out the thirty or so exits to the maze," replied Chris. "We need them identified. They'll be our last line of defense if all else fails."
"And those of us less adept at scouting," put in Fergus, "will rendezvous with the Lancers when they arrive." Larabee nodded agreement.
"Miss Teresa," said JD hesitantly, "I think that now might be a good time for you to head back to your daughter. You have told us all that you could, now its time to let us do our jobs. In fact, I think that Inez and Blossom should go with you." Before Inez could protest leaving her saloon, JD rushed on. "Maybe I'm being over cautious, but I'm afraid that if things don't work out Ms. Nettie will be left without anyone to help her protect the children."
Inez's eyes softened immediately. "Of course we will help Miss Nettie protect the little ones."
While JD spoke with the ladies, Josiah talked to the remaining mages about what sort of magical signals might prelude the Ward Wall attack. Buck and Vin readied several mounts and Nathan gathered his medical supplies. Larabee, after some consideration, pulled the communication crystal out of his pocket and handed it to the Dwarf, Fergus. "This will give you a way to pass information on to Lachlan if you're able to learn anything more from Riordan." Larabee motioned towards the still unconscious Black Church fanatic. The rescue party mounted their horses and with a simple, "Let's ride," from Larabee they melted into the night.
Nathan took the lead because he both was familiar with the route and had the added advantage of night vision provided by his Chaos eyes. They were close to the same tunnel they and the children had escaped from just hours before.
"Hold up, Nathan," said Vin. "Let's get one more look at the map before we move in." Everyone gathered around JD who had become the map's custodian. JD unrolled the map and immediately wished he had a light. The faint glow of predawn wasn't enough to make the drawings anything more than faint scribbles and blobs. Fortunately the others, except Josiah, had no such problem with their Chaos eyes.
"This is the area where Josiah and I were held," said Nathan. "We came through this section to pick up the children before exiting over here." Nathan carefully traced their route for the others. "Josiah, how long should we wait after you go in before starting our little distraction?"
"Give JD and I about 3 minutes," suggested Josiah. "Unless, of course, you hear a thunder bolt. Then you should come running." He figured it would be the most effective way to signal the others if they were discovered. Not to mention all the damage it could do to their enemies.
"You'll want to avoid these tunnels as much as possible," added Buck, pointing to the booby-trapped sections. "Don't forget Sheehan saw a cave collapse."
"A cave-in could just as easily be used to trap you in as keep us out," commented Vin. "Do we know what's down this corridor?" he asked.
"Which corridor?" asked JD.
Realizing JD's normal eyes couldn't see the map in the dim light Vin tried to clarify his question. "The lone corridor east of the Plaza that runs northeast between the mage alcove and the tunnel with the prison room."
"Ms. Terry said she never went down that tunnel, but it might be . . . Ezra said he thought the head mage had another way of traveling to Chaos. I mean besides the three northern tunnels. He said that the coven leader would often disappear for hours sometimes even days, then return suddenly, reappearing with items that could only be found in Chaos."
"It's going in the right direction," agreed Vin. "It don't look like Ezra had a chance to scout the whole passage, but if Marquay has a bolt hole this is the likeliest spot. You should keep it in mind if you get cut off from your exit." Josiah nodded sagely, quite willing to accept the advice. JD however turned a bit green at the thought of voluntarily retreating into Chaos. He took a steadying breath, determined not to let Ezra or the others down.
"I think Buck should go with the two of you," said Chris. "He's not easily recognized as a Chaos Rider and you could probably use another set of eyes."
"Are you trying to keep all of the action to yourself?" demanded Buck in protest. But he quieted at the intense look in Larabee's eyes. It told Buck that his old friend and leader was following one of his 'hunches'. And Buck had ridden with Chris for too long not to trust him. "Well, I guess someone has to keep an eye on the kid while Josiah rescues his friend." JD tensed but refused to respond to the taunt, much to Buck's disappointment.
JD handed the map to Chris. The three men moved to the barely visible hole in the rocks. Chris, Nathan and Vin waited anxiously for thunderbolts or any other sounds of alarm, but their ears found only silence. At the three-minute mark, the remaining Riders rose.
"Time to go join the party," quipped Vin as he readied his bow. Returning Vin's comment with a wicked grin, Chris unsheathed his sword and marched forward in search of prey.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
It is better to stay unconscious. Ezra wasn't entirely sure why it was better, but his instincts all screamed that the waking world was something best avoided. Unfortunately Ezra's mind was the sort that was forever intrigued by puzzles, and right now it had a bundle of rather unpleasant puzzles to sort through. Why was he so cold and achy? What were those strange garbled words that he kept hearing? And why did the thought of opening his eyes cause a shiver of fear to run down his spine?
"Wake up, Infiltrator!" The demand was accompanied by a sharp jab to Ezra's kidneys. The pain quickly erased Ezra's earlier drowsy feelings, but did little to clear his confusion. He tried to curl away from the pain but not one of his limbs seemed willing to respond.
" . . . way . . . bring him around," spoke one of the voices. The malicious laughter that followed did not bode well for Ezra.
Ezra felt the whisper of cloth brush his face. He jerked away reflexively but the fabric was already being pulled taunt around his head. His neck ached as his head was forced back viciously. Ezra pushed aside his confused thoughts as understanding his situation took a back seat to escaping it. Frustration overwhelmed him when he realized that the burning in his wrists and ankles meant that he was bound, and bound tightly. His attempts to pull his head away from the hood that covered it were even less successful. His torturers arched his neck so far back that Ezra was certain it would snap any second.
"Thirsty, Infiltrator?" The sneer in Ezra's ear was only slightly muffled by the cloth between them. Instinct caused him to draw in a deep breath of air. It was an action he was thankful for when an icy liquid soaked the fabric covering his face. Ezra held his breath but it couldn't stop the liquid from seeping into his nose and ears. He felt more water flow over his face even as his lungs were bursting with the need to release the gases that filled them.
"No wonder it ain't working. He's holding his breath, the cheating bastard!" This exclamation was accompanied by a brutal punch to the gut. The blow knocked the air out of Ezra leaving him gasping futilely though a saturated cloth. More water was poured over him, trickling unchecked down his windpipe. Ezra bucked violently hoping to dislodge his tormentors, but his movements seemed to have little effect. Panic set in as every attempt to breathe caused more water to drip into his lungs. All other pains receded to the need for air.
Suddenly the cloth was gone. Ezra's lungs struggled to expel water and breathe at the same time. He coughed and gasped in turns as his body tried to make up for its deprivation. His eyes were open but things were still a blur. Precious seconds ticked away as he tried to focus his eyes and assess just how bad his situation was.
"It's good to see you back with us," spoke the cultured tones that Ezra recognized as Marquay. His face appeared before Ezra, flanked by several others. "I wasn't sure you would be. Lesser men and women have died under the same spell. It's a shame that such a worthy survivor would ally himself to the Empire."
"The Empire may be a long way from perfect, but it is preferable to the insanity that you're offering," Ezra's words barely scratched past his raw throat.
"So you think it's insane to want freedom from pointless rules, elitist prejudice and stagnation? The Empire is holding us back! Our people will never become more than what they are if we don't force them beyond their sheltered existence. It is for the greater good of our race that I take the actions I do. I will not allow you to interfere with my plan. Now, you will tell me exactly what information you have passed on to your superiors or I will teach you how to redefine suffering. And, just in case you think you can lie your way past me just as you lied your way into our coven, let me assure you that Ena's communication magic will detect even the slightest hint of deception.
"If you want information, find another source," insisted Ezra. "I might not have been able to stop you, but I'll be dead before I'll help you."
"No, you'll merely wish you were dead," corrected Marquay. "Every man has his breaking point. How much agony can you withstand before you reach yours?"
Ezra's bravado slipped a notch as the implications of Marquay's works settled in. He was going to die in pain and alone, just like his father.
Marquay saw the change in Ezra's demeanor and altered his tactics. "We don't have to be enemies, Eric. You're a smart man, despite all of the brainwashing that you've received from the Imperial propaganda machine. Surely you can see that our society is trapped in stagnation. When was the last time you heard of a new medical treatment, an engineering innovation or even a new invention?" Marquay paused a moment, waiting, daring Ezra to respond. "You can't answer because there haven't been any. Look at this book I found in Chaos." Marquay held up a brightly colored volume about an inch and a half thick. "A child's encyclopedia, and in it are machines the likes of which no one has seen in 500 hundred years. Vehicles that traveled on rails covering hundreds of miles in a single day. Or boats that moved down rivers propelled by giant paddle wheels. Some would say that this was just knowledge lost to the Chaos wave, but if that is so why haven't any of these scientific wonders been recreated in the 500 years since? Before Chaos, becoming a mage was just one of many respectable careers, but once the Ward Wall pushed Chaos back mages were viewed as the saviors of humanity. They were given the status of heroes and the power to influence every aspect of Imperial life. They used that influence to control the Empire. Only the City of Sorcerers can decide who learns about magic and what they learn. They have suppressed all knowledge of what our world was like before Chaos to keep the people content with what they have. Just ask a member of the Seeker Faithhood how many times their research has been stopped on the orders of the City of Sorcerers. Their only explanations being that the Seekers were nearing forbidden knowledge. Five hundred years have passed and nothing has changed. Our people are so stifled that their minds are suffocating and they don't even realize it."
"And how will unleashing demons upon an unsuspecting populace help anyone?" demanded Ezra. It was possible that Marquay's claims were true and the Sorcerers were suppressing information for political gain, but it didn't justify wholesale slaughter.
"You're still looking at their deaths as some great evil, when it is really a harbinger of change. The weak and lazy will be swept away. Survival of the fittest will force our people to advance. Yes, it will be bloody, but what child has ever been born but through the blood and pain of its mother? Our own rebirth will be no different."
As Marquay's speech wound down there were several murmurs of agreement from his henchmen. But Ezra refused to join in. As charismatic as Marquay was, he couldn't make murder sound any better than it was. Seeing that his words were ineffective, Marquay demanded, "What have you told Christopher and his people?"
"Christopher?" Ezra was surprised to hear the highly reputed Rider's name. If Christopher was in town it was no wonder Marquay was concerned. According to bards' tales Christopher was quite skilled at out maneuvering his opponents.
"I know the Rider you freed was one of his men. And I doubt it was coincidence that led Christopher to find my demon army. I need to know exactly what you told him." When Ezra didn't respond, Marquay began twirling his wand, making the ruby at the end glow. He muttered a few words and touched the tip to Ezra's chest. Fire burned through Ezra's veins, it felt as though his blood were literally boiling. Then it was over and Marquay was speaking in his ear. "It doesn't have to be like this, Erik. Just tell me what you told Christopher and your suffering will end." At Ezra's silence Marquay applied the glowing wand again.
"I never talked to Christopher!" screamed Ezra. Immediately the pain stopped, though his abused muscles continued to quiver.
"Now I know that Christopher has already gathered a war council, so if you haven't been talking to him then you must be passing your knowledge through an intermediary. So who would that be, the boy Constable perhaps?" asked Marquay.
Ezra ground his teeth together, determined to say nothing more. Marquay had already guessed too much from a simple denial. He couldn't chance his words being used to harm others. The children, Teresa, JD and especially Josiah had put their faith in him. He had to remain silent.
"Well, is it the Constable?" Ezra's lack of response brought a scowl to Marquay's face. "I thought we had an understanding. You answer my questions and I won't torture you. Now tell me who your contact is."
Ezra tried to prepare his body for the pain he knew was coming, but it was an exercise in futility. His hoarse screams echoed through the cavern. This time it didn't end after a few seconds like it had before. Instead wave after wave of agony rolled through his body until his screams became whimpers.
Marquay finally lifted the wand thinking that his captive would now be ready to cooperate. Rushing footsteps drew his attention to the door as a boy of about ten rounded the corner and skidded to a halt. "Brawlic says the War Queen wants to speak with you," gasped the child. "He says it's about the Vipers, Sir."
"Well, it looks like you have a bit of a reprieve, Erik," said Marquay. "But just so you don't forget where we were." Marquay's wand tapped Ezra's chest eliciting a final groan. "Ena and I should be back soon," Marquay told his followers. "Don't give him any food or water. Just leave him to contemplate his situation while I'm gone." Marquay left the room then, but Ezra didn't feel any better.
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Chris, Nathan and Vin moved to meld their bodies against the wall of the dark tunnel as a couple of Churchers passed through an intersection eight feet away.
"It's really going to happen. We're going to rip a hole in the Ward wall and invite our Chaos allies in, and there ain't a thing the Empire can do to stop us," said one of the Churchers.
"Shut up!" hissed his smaller companion. "You're going to jinx us. Besides, Imperial army could attack us at any moment, and with all the noise you're making we wouldn't even hear them coming."
The truth of the Churchers statement brought a smile to Vin's lips as he continued to hide.
"It's just exciting, is all I'm saying," defended the first.
"Well, stop saying and start patrolling," reprimanded his partner. Finally their footsteps receded into silence.
With the passage clear, the three men turned through the intersection with surprising quiet. Nathan and Chris both wore some metal armor. Chris's was made of strips of metal threaded through leather. Nathan's armor was mostly leather with a few strategically placed metal studs. Vin preferred his armor to be light and flexible, so he made due with boiled leather. Of course, no armor, nor even clothing, was completely quiet. But hundreds of journeys behind enemy lines had taught them how to move with near silence.
They were a couple of minutes into the maze, but Vin urged the others on. He wanted to be well away from their starting point when they engaged the Churchers. After all, their distraction wouldn't help Ezra and the others if it blocked their escape route. Larabee pointed to a Y-intersection up ahead. Vin nodded in agreement. It was as good a place as any to make a stand. At least they would be able to keep the majority of their opponents in front of them.
Nathan was a bit nervous. Despite the many times he had been in battle he had never fought any of the human races. Of course, there had been training and the occasional challenge, but killing had always been reserved for animals and demons.
Chris was ready to wield a bit of pain and destruction. He didn't enjoy slaughter, but he figured that there were just some things that by their very nature needed killing. And Black Churchers intent on unleashing demon hordes on an unsuspecting populace definitely fell into that category.
A signal from Vin told them that others were approaching. Instead of hiding like they had before, the three men moved into a fighting stance. Two strangers came from the northeast tunnel. The two didn't notice the three Chaos riders until they were almost on top of them. The larger man lifted his sword menacingly and challenged, "I don't know you! Who are you?"
"I know who you are," countered Chris. "You're the Black Church traitor who is going to surrender or die." The swing of a blade and the crash of steel told clear enough which path he chose.
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The prison guards were debating which of the many methods of torture would work best at making the spy before them talk. A quick tap brought their attention to the door. The password "Cauldron" was enough to convince the guards to grant entrance.
"Imperials are attacking! They're coming this way!" warned a tunnel worker as he rushed into the temporary prison. The two guards promptly lost interest in their prisoner and moved to the hall. They had not even cleared the doorway when both were grabbed and shoved headfirst into each other. The resulting crack of skulls was plenty to disable at least one of the guards. Buck's opponent was still trying to weakly swing his short sword. So Buck swung him head first into the wood of the doorframe, then continued his abuse with a knee first to the gut and then the face, at which point the guard dropped limply to the ground. Buck dragged the body into the room and shut the door.
JD was untying the many ropes binding Ezra while Josiah was chanting a minor healing spell.
Ezra, for his part, was quite bewildered. A rescue had been so far from his thoughts that he didn't realize what was happening, "JD, were you captured?"
"No. Josiah and I came to rescue you," explained JD. "You didn't think we'd forget about you, did you?"
Instead of answering, Ezra's eyes sought out Josiah. ""Marquay has a powerful wand. It's pre-Chaos. Something he found in some ruins. It can facilitate both Imperial and Chaos magics simultaneously," rasped Ezra.
JD wasn't sure what that meant, but it was enough to cause Josiah to stutter his spell and pale a shade, so it couldn't be good.
Josiah took a moment to finish his healing spell. Ezra sighed with relief as much of the pain washed away. "Do you know where Marquay is keeping the wand?" asked Josiah.
"He has it with him now," said Ezra. Feeling at least a little stronger Ezra stood and stretched his legs. The brightly colored encyclopedia caught his eye and on impulse he tucked the tome under his arm.
Josiah toyed with the idea of going after Marquay but decided it was too risky just now. "That will have to be dealt with later. Right now we need to get you to safety."
"Here, Ezra, I thought you might want this." JD handed the spy a small crossbow with a bolt already loaded.
"The coast is clear," reported Buck from the door. "We should move now."
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When the fighting started Chris ordered Nathan to stay back. From his protected position he could watch their rear and guard against magical attacks. As the call to battle went through the cavern complex, others found their way to the fight. Vin struck down many with arrows, ensuring that Chris never had to fight more than two at a time. Many of the attackers defeated themselves trying to use bold sword strokes that simply didn't work in the cramped tunnel. On the other hand, Chris's short parries and quick thrusts had delivered numerous victories. The bodies on the floor made it that much more difficult for others to charge him.
"How long before we pull back?" asked Vin as he feathered his bow.
"A couple more minutes. They should be on their way out by now," answered Chris.
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Buck signaled for caution from the others. All three of his companions pressed their backs to the wall. JD was right behind Buck, followed by Ezra and then Josiah, who was guarding the rear. Voices could be heard from the tunnel to the right. Buck flew into motion, knocking one person to the ground at JD's feet and grabbing the other from behind. He commanded silence with a dagger to his throat. JD had already aimed his crossbow at the person on the ground when he realized it was a boy probably five years his junior.
The boy smiled when he looked past JD to Ezra. "Mr. Erik, you're okay. I'd heard they were going to . . . I mean, they said they caught you spying and . . ."
"I'm fine, Egan," assured Ezra while stepping forward to help the boy up.
As soon as Egan was standing he asked, "Are Evan and the others okay?"
Josiah answered saying, "We escorted the children to safety several hours ago."
When Buck saw the boy was friendly, he eased his grip on the child he was holding. It was an action he regretted when the boy wriggled through his arms and stepped back out of his reach.
"How can you speak to them, Egan? They're the enemy!" accused the boy.
"Because what we're doing is wrong, Kane," said Egan. "People are going to die. Thousands of people."
"You're worried about a herd of weak, pathetic sheep? I'll be glad when they die. I'll stomp on their bones and dance through their blood," declared Kane.
JD was shocked motionless by the venomous words pouring from the teenage boy's mouth. Buck sprung forward hoping to recapture and silence the child.
Kane darted just out of reach, adding, "just like I'll be happy when I see you all dead." With that he yanked on a small lever near a tunnel support and ran. The vibrating rumble had everyone stepping back in fear.
"The intersection!" Ezra pointed to the nearest location that would be safe from the partial cave collapse. The men and boy ran through trembling walls and falling rocks to their haven. For several moments all was black as dust and dirt blasted through the air, before settling. It took precious seconds for Josiah to relight the lantern. "Well, there goes our quiet escape," said Ezra in a deadpan tone.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Erik," apologized Egan.
"Nonsense, Son," said Josiah. "You aren't responsible for what that boy did."
"Agreed," seconded Ezra. "Now Egan, I want you to head toward the smithy section. Take the third tunnel and then follow every branch to the right. The tunnel isn't properly finished, but it will let out near the river which you can follow to the Wells' ranch."
"Aren't you coming?" asked Egan.
"The crawl way you'll have to pass through is too small for any of us. Now go quickly before Kane spreads word of your true allegiance. Besides, before the night is out, your brother will need your protection," urged Ezra. Egan nodded farewell and ran to his escape.
"We need to get moving ourselves. That cave-in is bound to draw a lot of attention. Chris is probably pulling the others out. Preacher, would you happen to know a spell to help us find them in this maze?" asked Buck.
"No, but apparently Nathan does. He's already thrown us a magical lifeline." Josiah knew that none of the others had enough magical talent to see the shimmering blue thread. "Follow me." Josiah readied his sword to fight their way out.
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"Do you think we've got their attention yet?" asked Vin flippantly as he shot a woman charging with an axe.
"I think we're at the top of their 'most wanted' list," agreed Chris, while he crossed swords with an Elf.
"Chris, I can feel magic building," interrupted Nathan, "I think Marquay is moving this way."
Chris nodded and swiftly executed his Elf opponent. "Let's get out of here." They had traveled only twenty feet towards the exit when a low rumble shook the cavern. "I was hoping that Sheehan was wrong about a cave-in," admitted Chris.
"They're all still alive," assured Nathan. His many Chaos journeys had put him in the habit of attaching short-term general status spells to his companions. It allowed him to detect any drastic physical changes they experienced, yet only lasted an hour or two so as not to weaken him.
"We don't know which tunnel collapsed though or how to get to them," Chris pointed out. "Nathan, do you remember the pathfinder spell you created to get us out of the Bharashadi Briar?"
Nathan nodded. "I've got it ready." He fingered his moon pendant. "But it's going to leave me drained."
"Do it," ordered Larabee.
Nathan triggered the spell, using his pendant to help power it. Even so, the energy drain was felt immediately. The pathfinder spell was much more complex than a typical locater spell. It not only guided you towards you destination but also led you around obstacles and hazards. Nathan was glad he had taken the time to prepare the spell before their mission. For several seconds he felt the magic roll out like waves. Then a single thread returned and Nathan could feel Josiah already grasping the other end of that thread. "I've got them," he murmured, "This way." Nathan started to the left, but with his third step he stumbled into the wall.
"Easy, Pard," said Vin grabbing the exhausted man's elbow. "I think you should let one of us take the lead."
"Stay between us until you regain some energy," agreed Chris.
Nathan pointed the direction they needed to go and Vin led the way.
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Josiah thought that their rescue/escape was going quite well despite the cave-in. No one was seriously injured. He could feel Nathan and the others drawing closer every second. When they had encountered the residents of the cavern complex, some had run, leaving only a few to fight, and those combatants were mostly disorganized and undisciplined. They were met with such swift brutality from Buck, Ezra and even JD that Josiah almost felt pity for them.
The clang of metal echoing through the tunnel gave the location of their allies and hurried their steps. The four rounded a corner just in time to see Larabee run a Dwarf through.
Running an examining eye over the four, especially JD and the newcomer Ezra, Chris asked, "Is anyone injured?"
"No," assured Buck. "Shoot, these Churchers might be 'demon-wanna-bes', but they don't know squat about fighting."
"Good," said Chris. "Then it's time to leave." Chris started to move to the south tunnel, but Nathan grabbed his arm.
"Marquay is waiting for us that way," Nathan warned. As the others watched, Josiah cast a quick clairvoyance spell confirming Nathan's fears.
"We can't go back that way," JD gestured over his shoulder. "The cave-in blocked our best exit."
Before anyone else could speak three Churchers voiced a shouted charge. The charge was intercepted with the steel of Buck's blade. Vin moved to cover him. JD found Buck's eager enjoyment of the battle more than a bit distracting, but the others continued their conversation as though nothing else was going on.
"Can we get out this way?" Chris directed his question to Ezra as he pointed to a Westward tunnel.
"Possibly. But we'd have to travel through several very populated caverns. I wouldn't give us good odds in either direction," he answered.
"I don't suppose taking the fight to Marquay is an option." Chris tossed this half statement, half question at Josiah. His forth-level badge marked him as the only potential rival to Marquay's abilities.
Josiah noted Nathan's tired state and shook his head. "Not by myself. Maybe not even with a dozen mages. According to Ezra, Marquay has a wand that can facilitate both Chaos and Imperial magic. I'm not even sure how to go about fighting such a powerful weapon."
"Sounds like the bolt hole might be our best option," Vin said over his shoulder. "They won't be expecting it."
Chris nodded his agreement before joining Buck to finish off the last of the three Churchers. With their tunnel section momentarily cleared of rivals Chris gestured to Vin, "Lead the way."
They hadn't gone far when Ezra spoke up, "I think I should point out that we're going deeper into the stronghold."
"Yep," agreed Vin.
"They figured we could retreat into Chaos if we got trapped in the caves," explained JD. Though try as he might, he couldn't quite keep the fear out of his voice.
"Chaos," gasped Ezra. "Are you gentlemen unaware that an entire demon army is waiting at the other end of these tunnels?"
"At the end of the three north tunnels, yes, but if the small northeast tunnel next to the mage alcove is Marquay's private highway to and from Chaos, then it's unlikely that he shared its location with any demons," Josiah tried to assure.
"But I never confirmed that tunnel went all the way to Chaos. It could be a dead end," said Ezra.
"Well, I guess we'll be confirming where it leads soon enough," pointed out Buck. They were now just a few steps from the Plaza, the natural cavern that served as a nexus to the Churchers' tunnels. The tunnel they sought was on the far side of the chamber while several dozen people milled about in between.
"We'll make a straight charge across the Plaza. Don't let anything slow you down or their numbers could overwhelm you," ordered Chris. "Nathan, I want you and Ezra to stay in the middle. Neither of you is near full strength."
"Constable, you better bring your bow up here with me," said Vin. Chris cocked an eyebrow at putting their most inexperienced fighter in the front. But Vin nodded assuring that he knew what he was doing. To JD he explained, "It's going to be up to us to clear a path for our group. So every shot is going to count." JD nodded silently, somehow managing to look pale and flushed at the same time.
"Guess that leaves us for rear guard," Buck said to Chris.
Chris nodded. Then he noticed Ezra's small, and now empty, crossbow. "Are you any good with a sword?"
"I was just recently elevated to rank 3," revealed Ezra.
Chris handed Ezra the short-sword he carried as backup to his preferred bastard-sword. With everyone properly armed he motioned to Vin, who started the charge.
The occupants of the Plaza were so surprised to have seven warriors race through their midst that the seven made it almost halfway across before they were challenged. The fanatics rushed to protect the north end of the cavern, many assuming that the Imperials were here to prevent the demon army from entering the Empire. By the time they realized the small side tunnel was the seven's true goal, Vin and JD had already secured its entrance.
"Mage!" warned Vin, firing another arrow into the northern concentration of Churchers.
Josiah saw the formation of a flaming sphere and met it with his own fireball. The colliding infernos created a shockwave that staggered most in the Plaza.
Off balance, Buck missed a critical parry. The burning sensation below his rib cage, when matched with his opponent's grin, brought Buck the realization that his life was hanging in the balance. Buck tried to drive the man back with the strength of his blows, but his movements became frustratingly sluggish. Buck found himself knocked on his ass while his opponent lifted his sword over his head for a mighty deathblow. The man suddenly jerked violently back as an arrow entered his throat. Buck looked to the arrow's origin and saw Constable Dunne readying to fire again.
Then Ezra was pulling him to his feet and leading him to their exit. "Time to leave, Gentlemen. We have overstayed our welcome."
Nathan and Chris didn't respond. Their full attention was focused on holding back the angry mob of Churchers.
"Here it goes!" shouted Josiah tossing a seemingly benign white ball into the midst of the surging crowd.
Nathan recognized both the ball and the spell it held. He grabbed Chris's shoulder and shouted, "Run!"
Josiah, meanwhile, was counting backwards, "Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one." The ball released a concentrated blast of wind that blew the mob off its feet, knocking several unconscious. The distraction gave the seven the time to move through their escape route unhampered. Vin and JD ran ahead to learn where the path they had chosen would lead. Ezra helped the still bleeding Buck along, while Chris, Josiah and Nathan cautiously back stepped as they waited for the next Churcher charge.
Passing a tunnel support, Ezra noticed a familiar lever. He stopped to examine its connections.
"What's wrong?" asked Chris.
"Pull this lever," explained Ezra, "and the roof between this support and the last will collapse."
Chris's own study of the mechanism was interrupted by the approach of more enemies. "Nathan, help Ezra get Buck further down the tunnel." Ezra looked like he wanted to argue, but after a second, went with the others.
"Why are you waiting to pull the lever?" asked Josiah.
"Because I intend to trap as many Churchers beneath the cavern roof as I can," replied Chris.
Josiah smiled and raised his voice to a resonating shout, "All I've heard in the last couple of months is how cunning and dangerous the Black Church has become. But the pathetic mass I've met today is unworthy of such respect. In fact, they're unworthy of Chaos!"
Josiah's taunt appeared successful, as Churchers rushed forward to prove just how dangerous they were. Chris waited until the leaders of the mob were just a few yards away. Then he pulled the lever and jumped back. Most Churchers had just a second or two to panic before the rocky debris smothered their last thoughts. Two unfortunate men managed to out run the cave-in only to meet their end on the edge of Chris's sword.
When the dust settled it was clear that the Churchers would not be able to reach them without first spending hours, if not days, clearing away rocks. Satisfied with their deed, Josiah and Chris moved to catch up with the others.
Chris had kept the group moving at a quick march for the last forty minutes or so. JD had just recently rejoined them to pass on that Vin had found an exit. The hazy red light at the end of the tunnel proved that they were already deep into Chaos. Chris thought they had gone perhaps three or four miles, but they wouldn't know for certain until they got a good look at the surface. Hopefully they would be far enough from the main demon camp to escape detection.
When Chris and Josiah had caught up with Buck, Ezra and Nathan, the three had been waiting just this side of the Ward Wall. It had been strangely reassuring to see the magical barrier slice through the cavern and continue on, perhaps to the depths of the world.
Buck looked pale and shaky. Nathan applied a thick bandage to Buck's sword wound even though he looked exhausted. Ezra, whose own appearance was quite haggard, clutched his book and gazed at the hypnotic flickering of light created by the Ward Wall.
Chris didn't miss the fear in Ezra's eyes that his impassive face couldn't hide. Chris accepted the fear as a good sign. The only people who went into Chaos unafraid were either stupid or suicidal. It probably didn't help that for the last several months the weapons Ezra had been relying on were charm and deception. Charm would be useless against a demon and deception was quite limited in armed combat.
Josiah, who also noticed Ezra's trepidation, rested a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Make no assumptions, and follow our lead, and you'll do just fine," said Josiah in his most encouraging tone.
Ezra shifted his gaze from the Ward Wall to Josiah. "Can you guarantee that statement?" he asked.
Josiah laughed. "There are no guarantees in Chaos," he said. Then he stepped through the Ward Wall pushing a protesting Ezra before him.
Chris waited another minute for Nathan to finish bandaging Buck, and then escorted the last of his party through.
Right now, Chris's main goal was to get his group through Chaos as quickly and safely as possible. Not an easy task when his party of seven included one injured warrior, one exhausted healer mage and two Chaos virgins.
"Damn it!" cursed Nathan. "We need to stop. Buck's opened his wound again."
"It's only bleeding a little bit," said Buck lightly.
"You've lost too much blood to let it continue at all," scolded Nathan. He pulled away the blood soaked bandage, shaking his head in dismay. "This bandage is useless as long as your movements keep reopening the wound. I need to do at least a minor healing to get the bleeding permanently stopped."
"Are you strong enough to cast another spell?" asked Chris.
"I can do it," Nathan stated, but then added, "the spell would work best if I had 10 or 15 minutes to reinforce it with ritual."
"Shouldn't be a problem," said Vin as he stepped out of the shadows. "My initial scout puts us about three miles north, northwest of the Glass Cliffs. I saw a couple of patrols but they were scattered to the south of us. We shouldn't have too much of a problem getting past them as long as we don't head towards the Ward Wall."
"Don't head towards the . . . wait a minute. How are we suppose to get back to the Empire if we don't head for the Ward Wall?" demanded Ezra.
"We don't," said Chris, "at least not yet. The army between Ward Wall and ourselves is too big to fight our way through, and even if it wasn't we're low on firepower." Chris motioned to Vin and JD's dwindling arrow supply. "Circling around would take days we don't have. And without horses we've got no chance of outrunning them. We need to rest and re-supply."
"So where shall we be going first? The armory down the road, the stables or perhaps we can stop at the local inn. Order ourselves a hearty meal before retiring to our feather beds." No one missed the sarcasm in Ezra's tone. Ezra knew that Chaos was a wasteland. If they couldn't survive on what they carried, they simply wouldn't survive. At least that's what Ezra thought he knew.
"Funny you should mention feather beds," said Vin, "I heard there were some right comfy ones not far from here."
Ezra gaped at Vin incredulously.
Next to him, Chris grinned, "We're near Len's Sanctuary."
"I reckon so," nodded Vin, "I haven't actually been there myself, but if I've remembered the landmarks right it shouldn't be more than a 30 minute hike."
"Praise God and all her Saints!" exclaimed Buck. "We might actually make it out of this alive." Josiah chuckled at Buck's comment and even Nathan seemed relieved.
"Save your praise for when we've actually reached safety," scolded Chris. To Vin he continued, "I was there a couple of weeks ago, so I can show you exactly where the Sanctuary lies." Chris turned to Nathan and Josiah. "Nathan you've got ten minutes to finish your spell. Any longer than that and we'll be fighting off both demons and vermin that have picked up our scent. Josiah, I want you to give Ezra and JD a crash course in demon warfare. I doubt we'll be able to avoid them forever." When Chris received acknowledgements from both, he and Vin readied their weapons and moved toward the red sky of Chaos.
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When they exited the narrow cave mouth, Chris immediately recognized their location. They were about one-third of the way up the first of several dozen peaks that made up the black Storm Shadow Mountain Range; it was named so for the many generations it had marked the physical border between the ever-warring Storm and Shadow demons. Until recently the Glass Cliffs had fallen within the Shadow demon territory. But their battle months before with Valiant Lancers had decimated their numbers and the Storms had quickly taken advantage. Chris decided to take it as a good omen that there was an entire mountain between them and the Glass Cliff's demonic army.
Looking down the mountainside and across the barren plain he could easily spot the dying clumps of jungle vegetation left behind by a Chaos storm. The same storm that had uncovered the long buried haven they now sought. "Len's Sanctuary is at the end of the Chaos storm path below us. The entrance is little more than a hole in the wall at the base of the valley and consequently, hard to spot from above."
"Figured as much," nodded Vin. "Cutting across the mountainside shouldn't be to hard, but we're going to have some trouble when we reach the drop off to the valley. The fastest way would probably be to rope down to the Sanctuary. But that might be a bit much for your friend, Bucklin."
"Nathan's a better healer than he gives himself credit for," informed Chris. "Still we should get a closer look to see just how difficult the descent will be."
With a simple nod Vin lead the way across the mountainside. It wasn't easy for the two men to move both quickly and quietly over the jagged rock. The task was made more difficult by the fact the neither could simply focus on where to put their feet. Instead they maintained a vigilant search of not only their immediate surroundings but also the distant horizon. Every movement that indicated a possible demon presence was noted and shared.
Yet trailing behind Vin's stealthy steps, Chris was quickly beginning to feel as awkwardly graceless as a bull in a pottery shop. How the light-footed Elf managed to skip across the rock face without disturbing so much as pebble was a mystery. Every move Chris made seemed to lead to a small avalanche of dust. If that wasn't frustrating enough, Chris was fairly certain he was slowing the silent Elf down. Knowing that nothing was going to make him as agile as Vin, Chris did his best to mimic the other's movements and hoped they could continue to escape demon notice for a bit longer. Unfortunately, hope was a rather poor friend to depend upon in Chaos.
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"We should probably start with the Tsvortu," decided Josiah.
"The what?" asked JD
"Tsvortu," explained Ezra, "is the proper name for Storm demons."
"That's correct. Storms are strong, capable fighters. They are just as confident wielding a saber as ripping through a body with teeth or talons," Josiah began. "Now a Storm may be unlikely to out-sprint a person, but that doesn't mean they can't be quick. A common Storm ploy is to intentionally slow their initial attacks, drawing an inexperienced Rider in for the kill."
"They're tricky bitches, all right," agreed Buck. JD's ears pinked at Buck's comment. The tall rider was sitting on the ground, leaning up against the wall. Several pieces of clothing and armor had been removed to expose the wound in his side. Next to him Nathan was mumbling and gesturing as he prepared the ingredients and focused his energies on the coming spell.
Josiah grinned and continued, "The 'bitches', as Buck so eloquently put it, are the warriors of a Storm clan. So I suggest you toss aside any misgivings you may have about fighting females. Because, I assure you they won't be hesitating when they gut you."
"Ain't that the truth," Buck interrupted again. "And their bastard brothers aren't any better. Tell the cherries about them, Preacher."
"I was getting to that," insisted Josiah. "Now, the only Storm demons that can work magic are the males. Fortunately for us, male Storms are relatively rare. Their magic all revolves around warping local weather patterns. So their most common attacks take the form of lighting, strong wind or downpours. It would take several working in concert to create a larger effect such as a tornado."
"My personal preference when dealing with Storms is to wound one from a distance, whether by magic, arrow or spear. Her clan sisters will be bound to spend their energies rescuing her instead of attacking me."
"Next on our list of potential demon combatants would be the Hobmotli," said Josiah.
"The most dangerous thing about Hobs is their smell," commented Buck. "I kid you not, standing downwind of a Hob is worse than falling face first into a pile of horse manure. Freshly dropped horse manure. Then there's the, owe!" Buck had been moving his arms to add emphasis to his words. But a pull on the wrong muscle stopped both his speech and Nathan's chant.
"Buck could you please hold still for just five more minutes." Nathan gently moved Buck's arms back to his sides and then rechecked the wound to make sure it hadn't been further damaged.
"Sorry, Nathan," Buck was instantly contrite. He knew that even if the spell worked perfectly he would he stronger but Nathan would be weaker. It was a huge risk to be taking when they were stranded in Chaos. Buck silently vowed he would return the favor by protecting Nathan while the mage recovered. Once Nathan slipped back into his chant, Josiah continued his lesson.
"Hob demons are small humanoid creatures, not taller than four feet. They have four arms, several of which are usually swinging wooden clubs or spears. They lack the ability to make metal weapons, so the few swords and axes they possess are looted from the dead and generally in poor condition. Their fighting style is little more than shouting and bashing whatever gets within their reach. Easy enough to kill one-on-one, they like to travel in groups for protection. The aspect I like most about Hobs is their utter cowardice. Put up a loud intimidating front and Hobs will often break and run before the first club is swung."
"Flame demons can be tricky to deal with. They have a body that can be killed, but getting past the living fire that protects it is a challenge to say the least. A swift decapitation is usually the best method. I recommend staying out of close quarters combat. Though it never hurts to have a bit of burn lotion in your gear."
"I don't have any personal experience with Vipers, but I'm told their most dangerous ability is the speed of their strike. When Vipers strike they either spit or inject poison that, within a few minutes, paralyzes the victim. The poison wears off after four or five hours, but during that time the victim is helpless."
Ezra had listened silently, committing each new bit of information to memory; a small corner of his mind kept trying to calculate the odds of reaching the Sanctuary without battle.
JD leaned against the cave wall on Josiah's other side, as he continued to keep his crossbow aimed towards the small rock entrance. The rampant terror that had swamped him earlier in the evening had dulled to a constant nagging anxiety; feelings the heroic stories he'd read had never talked about. Nor had they ever mentioned how horrible it felt to watch the light leave a person's eyes after you killed them. JD just kept reminding himself that fighting against evil was what he had always wanted to do.
A few feet away from them Nathan's chant had reached a crescendo. When it stopped suddenly, Ezra and JD didn't see or feel anything. But Buck took his first deep breathe in over an hour, and felt only minor discomfort in doing so. Nathan, however, looked ready topple at the slightest breeze. Josiah and Buck both reached out to steady their friend.
"How about you settle down right here for a rest, Pard," coaxed Buck.
"I'll be fine in a minute," mumbled Nathan.
"Of course you will," agreed Josiah, "but a little rest can't hurt."
When Nathan surrendered to their advice, Buck asked Josiah, "How long have Chris and Vin been gone?"
"I'd say it's been a good twenty minutes. Which means they're late and may have encountered trouble," Josiah's voice was calm despite the danger his words implied.
"Maybe," conceded Buck, "but it's just as likely that they had to detour to avoid a demon or two. What concerns me is the idea of demons deciding to block off our only exit." Buck motioned to the hole.
"And as we can't go backwards," said Josiah, "it behooves us to safeguard the path forward." Looking at Ezra and JD, Josiah instructed, "The two of you will stay here with Nathan. You may have to help Nathan when it's time to move."
"And do us both a favor, Kid," Buck pushed JD's crossbow to the side. "Make sure it's a demon you see before you let fly. I've got no desire to end up with an arrow in my ass."
"I know how to handle my bow!" insisted JD hotly.
Buck grinned at the response. It was the first bit of fire he'd seen out of the kid since before this adventure began. Moving to the cave mouth Buck had to both squat and sidestep to get out. Josiah followed suit. For several long silent moments the men in the cave waited to hear from those outside. Then there was a snarl followed by the crash of steel. JD pointed his arrow at the hole, barely resisting the temptation to fire blind. Ezra restlessly gripped the borrowed short-sword. And tried to remind himself that Josiah was quite experienced at fighting demons.
"Help me closer to the opening," called Nathan weakly.
"Mr. Nathan, you can barely stand. Fighting would be impossible," said Ezra.
"I don't need to stand to throw my daggers. Now help me closer!" Nathan insisted.
Unable to argue the man's logic, and unwilling to turn down a skilled fighter, Ezra conceded. "As you will, Mr. Nathan," he said as he moved Nathan to a spot just behind and to the side of JD. And there the three men waited for the demons to come.
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Chris threw himself to the side seconds before bright yellow flames shot forward. He swung his sword up at an angle, trying to drive the demon back and was actually more successful than he expected when he managed to sever the beast's right arm. As the blackened stump fell to the ground, the Flame demon roared, its fire extending in all directions.
Two arrows shot past Chris, burying deep within the center of the Flame's chest. "Hey, Larabee, your supposed to kill the demon," teased Vin, "not just piss it off."
The thought that it was easy for others to offer advice when they stood a safe distance from the inferno crossed Chris's mind. But he was too busy dodging the animated fire to give the thought voice. Then he saw the opening he needed. The Flame demon had over stepped on its last attack and was now off balance. Chris leapt forward, gritting his teeth against the searing pain in his right leg. With one powerful stroke of his sword the Flame demon's head flew from its body. Immediately its flames were extinguished.
Vin was soon next to Chris. "Best put lotion on that leg of yours, it should prevent the worst of the blistering. We need to move soon though. I saw two Storms and a group of Hobs headed this way."
Chris nodded as he applied the cool liquid. The two men had seen enough of the valley to know that a rope descent, while difficult, was not impossible. They were two-thirds of the way back to the cave when the lone Flame demon had attacked Chris from behind. Readjusting his clothing and tossing Vin the remainder of the lotion, Chris said, "Let's move."
They traveled much faster knowing they'd been spotted. Chris hoped that Nathan had finished the curative spell. It looked like they were going to need Buck's sword arm really soon.
Ahead of him, Vin was remembering all the reasons he preferred to travel alone in Chaos. It wasn't that he disliked the group he was with. They all seemed nice enough, and he certainly couldn't sit idle while a fellow was being tortured. But now he felt responsible for keeping everyone safe. It was an unfamiliar feeling, to spend so much concern on others. The simple, unvarnished truth was that life was easier when you didn't have to worry about anyone but yourself.
Looking across the mountainside, Vin saw two shadows detach themselves from the rocks. It was Buck and Josiah, and they were clearly trying to draw the demons attention. The two Storm demons changed course towards the cave. But the Hobs either didn't notice or decided that Chris and Vin were smaller and thus weaker opponents. From the strength of Buck's swings the man looked much better off than when they had seen him last.
Vin skidded to a halt to ready his bow before the Hobs got too close. Chris rushed past him with a determined gleam in his eye. A quick head count showed five Hobs charging at Chris. Vin shot the one in the lead. The remaining four all tried to pile onto Chris at once, as they wailed and swung their clubs. A broad swing mortally wounded two of the Hobs. But their forward momentum and the push of their companions knocked Chris onto his back. The two surviving Hobs took advantage of their new positions atop the Rider and began pounding their clubs with glee. For the first time Chris regretted the decision to leave his shield with his horse back in the Empire. Arching his back to throw off his opponents, Chris then rolled to shift their positions. But the Hobs clung to him with surprising tenacity and soon the three became a whirling, clawing mass.
Unable to make a clear shot that would assist Larabee, Vin turned his attention back to the cave. Buck and Josiah had dispatched one of the Storm demons and were now raining relentless blows on the other. But Vin noticed two more Storms that his companions hadn't seen. One was preparing to attack Buck's back while the other sought to slip into the cave unnoticed. Vin immediately launched two arrows. The first struck the demon in the shoulder and alerted Buck to its presence. The second arrow hit rock as the demon dove into the hole. Vin was forced to jump back suddenly when the melee of Hobs and Chris nearly rolled over his feet.
Chris finally kicked one of the Hobs off, sending in careening into some rocks a good eight feet away. The battered Hob started to rise but was suddenly run through, as a new combatant entered the fray. Chris ruthlessly snapped the neck of the sole surviving Hob. Rising back to his feet Chris took a quick appraisal of the new arrival. About his height, the human was much more muscular, with white hair and Chaos filled eyes. "Thanks for the assist," Chris acknowledged the fellow Rider.
"You're welcome," was his answer. "A friend is bringing spare mounts for all of your party, but we should regroup and form a defensive line until he arrives."
"Tyrchon!" gasped Vin as the stunned scout finally recognized the greatly changed appearance covering the familiar voice. "What in Chaos happened to your face?"
Tyrchon chuckled before saying, "Sanctuary first, then we'll answer questions." And with that he headed towards Buck, Josiah and the cave.
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Despite several moments of tense anticipation, moments that seemed like hours to JD, he still was unprepared when a gray furred monster dove into their midst. JD's shot went wild and to add insult to injury, he dropped his bow. Nathan's first dagger landed a hit, but it wasn't nearly enough to slow the demon down. Ezra was forced to engage the Storm while JD desperately scrambled for his bow. The cramped tunnel made the demon's size a disadvantage. But its saber was so large against Ezra's short sword that Ezra was having a hard time parrying its heavy blows. Remembering Josiah's lesson not to underestimate their agility. Ezra surged forward with a quick thrust to the chest. The blow would have dropped any human, but the demon, though dying, was not finished yet. The Storm slashed with its left claws, raking Ezra's arm and causing him to drop his sword. Ezra stumbled in retreat. Then watched as a dagger and then an arrow embedded into the demon. The creature made one last futile lurch and died.
"Many thanks, gentlemen," gasped Ezra as he picked up his sword.
"You better let me look at that arm of yours. Claw scratches infect easy," informed Nathan.
"Hold your fire!" came Buck's shout from outside. Crouching in the entrance the giant Dwarf grinned. "Everyone still alive in here?" Seeing that they were only slightly worse for the wear Buck continued. "Good news, boys, we've been reinforced and we've got mounts on the way. I think it's well past time we all flew this coop." In the silence that followed, the rumble of hoofs on stone could be heard. "Sounds like that's our ride, now."