Thanos was perched on a hard chair in Amorda’s library, lost in study, poring over the elven transcription of some barely comprehensible gibberish in an old orcish religious manual. They were marginal notes that had been made by a priest of Morga who had tried to penetrate the Labyrinth more than eight centuries earlier, and, after a spectacular failure, had barely escaped with his life. One of the inscriptions looked familiar, more like a drawing than a series of letters, and he had spent the better part of an hour trying to puzzle it out…when he was roused from his reverie by a mild clearing of someone’s throat.
Nettled at the interruption, he glanced over his shoulder. Two women, Ara and Kalena, stood in the doorway. With an effort, he erased his frown, replaced it with a pleasant smile, and bowed from the waist. “Ladies.”
“General,” Ara replied, smiling. Kalena merely favoured him with a curt nod.
He put his hands to the small of his back, stretched, and winced at the loud popping noise that issued from his spine. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
Before the golden-haired woman could speak, Kalena said brusquely, “Don’t mind me. I’m here as a construction consultant.” She nodded at the tall, gnarled staff that lay propped against another chair. “Are you comfortable with that?”
“More or less,” the warcaster replied. “And again, I thank you for the loan of it.”
“Just try to bring it back intact,” she snorted. Without further ceremony, she trotted over to a corner of the room between the enormous fireplace and the door to master suite, lifted the skirts of her gown, knelt, and began tracing complex designs on the floorboards with what looked to be a piece of chalk.
Thanos glanced at Ara, eyebrows raised.
“She is nervous,” the dragon murmured under her – his – breath. “It makes her grouchy.”
“I don’t know what she’s got to be nervous about,” the warcaster grumped. “She’s not the one sticking her head into a pit full of traps.”
“Kaltas ordered her to keep you safe,” Ara shrugged, “and she is worried that she is not doing all that she can to do as he asked. His good opinion is more important to her than her life.”
“She can come along with us if she likes,” Thanos replied. “I’m sure a diviner would come in handy.”
“I am not convinced of that. And she is not an adventurer,” the dragon said gravely. “She is a scholar. There is a difference, you know.”
“Believe me, I know. I know that better than anyone.” He frowned and glanced back at the Hîarsk woman scribbling in the corner. “What’s she doing over there, anyway?”
“Casting a spell,” Ara replied. She grinned suddenly. “You do not recognize it?”
He squinted. “Looks like some kind of magic circle.”
“That is just the threshold. She is marking out the entrance to an extra-dimensional refuge.”
“Ah,” he nodded. “Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion.”
“Not quite,” the dragon corrected. “Freste’s Fabulous Fortress.”
Thanos blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Freste’s Fabulous Fortress,” Ara repeated. “Surely you have heard of Freste Algoraz?”
“Remind me to show you our summer house sometime,” the warcaster said without a hint of expression.
She looked at him oddly. “Well, the Fortress is much like the Mansion,” she said slowly. “Although it is not quite as big or as elaborate, so it is a little easier to cast. This means that Kalena will be able to extend the duration of the effect. It will last a good deal longer than the Mansion would.”
“That’s good,” Thanos said, pleased. “How long?”
“Excellent.” He squinted again. “Is that the focus?”
Ara glanced over at the wizard. “Yes. That is another advantage. It is a little barred gate of bronze and iron. It only cost a few argentae to have it made. There is no need for silver spoons and ivory doors and what-not. Of course,” she shrugged, “it is not like money was an issue.”
“I shouldn’t think so,” Thanos grunted. “Well, I hope it works.”
“It ought to. The Shield Other spell does not function inter-dimensionally,” Ara frowned. “And in any case, Kalena spoke with Kalestayne at length prior to making the suggestion. I would not presume to question his judgement in matters arcane.”
“Normally, I wouldn’t either,” Thanos grunted. “But thanks to those damnable rings, it’s our hostess’ life that’s at stake. And I still think we’re missing a bet. I’ve been on the receiving end of several disjunctions, and I think that might be the way to go. If Breygon and Amorda are looking for a permanent solution, that is, instead of just a temporary one.”
“You may raise it with them, or with Kalena if you like,” the dragon shrugged. “That spell is so far beyond my meagre skills that I could not begin to evaluate its likely efficacy.”
“Maybe after we get back,” the warcaster sighed. “Look, do you have a moment?”
“Come here, then,” he said, tapping the inscription that had been baffling him. “Please. There’s a symbol here that’s been giving me fits. Can you read orcish?”
“No,” she replied, frowning down at the book he had been reading.
He sighed heavily, disappointed.
“But that is not orcish,” she continued, smiling narrowly and tapping the symbol that had stymied him. “It is harkittu.”
“Hah! I knew it!” he crowed. In the corner, Kalena looked up, annoyed, and put a finger to her lips. He nodded apologetically. Turning back to Ara, he whispered, “What does it say?”
“It is an amalgam of concepts, a gestalt, like all harkittu symbols,” the dragon replied. “But it is badly drawn. Whoever prepared this text did not understand what he was seeing, and merely copied the lines, as one would copy a picture.”
“No surprise there,” the warcaster grunted. “It was an orc. A priest of Morga.”
“Ah. Yes," she grinned, "we generally do not teach harkittu to servants of the Uruqua. And I doubt my...my evil cousins have either the inclination or the patience to do so.” She traced out the curves and sprawled lines. “This is ‘great seal’, and this double-gravure means ‘danger of dissolution and eternal torment’. If it has been accurately rendered.”
“I'd guess it was, seeing as how the artist was drawing for his life, as it were,” Thanos sighed. He tapped another odd part of the drawing. “And that’s the symbol for Miros. I recognized that one, at least. Anything else?”
She nodded, frowning. “Do you see these two embedded hooks? It is difficult to be certain, because a terminal crochet is missing. If the crochet were present and pointed upwards, they would mean ‘Be certain of a true accounting’; but if it pointed downwards, they would mean, ‘Ensure you do not err in the tale’.”
“Those are sort the same,” Thanos objected.
“The difference is indeed subtle,” Ara allowed. “But then, all textual variations are subtle in harkittu.”
He scratched his head. “Well, I suppose that helps. So taken altogether, it would mean that, at the great seal of Miros, we must be certain of a true accounting – or not to err in the tale – lest we suffer dissolution and eternal torment. Would that be an accurate interpretation?”
“More or less. It would help to see the original figure.”
“No doubt I will,” he growled. “My thanks.”
“I am always glad to help you,” she said placidly.
Something in the dragon’s tone made him wince. He turned back to stare at her. “So. Kalena came to make sure I knew how to use her staff, and also to cast that spell for Amorda. What’re you doing here?”
“I wanted to wish you luck in your venture,” she smiled. “I thought it might help. Luck is the special gift of the kulta, or so it is said.” She patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. “So…good luck.”
He sniffed, unconvinced. “Not much reason to trudge half a mile through the snow.”
Ara frowned and flushed simultaneously. “Do you now object to my presence? Have I done aught to offend or dismay you?”
“Not at all,” the warcaster said evenly. “I was just wondering why you bothered. I’m sure, as the Queen’s prima, you must have other duties.”
“Not at the moment,” the dragon shrugged, still looking put out at his manner. “Things are mad at the palace. The crown prince is trying to deal with the catastrophe at Anamblor, and there is the matter of Kaltas’ army down south. And there has been another proclamation from Eldarcanum that has much distressed him. But he does not have much to do with the ancillulae, so with the Queen away, I have –”
“Hang on,” Thanos interrupted, holding up a finger. “What was that? A proclamation from Eldarcanum?”
Ara nodded. “That is the other reason I came. To see whether you had heard about it.”
“We hadn’t,” the warcaster replied. “What does it say?”
Wordlessly, the dragon-woman reached beneath her cloak and held out a tightly-rolled parchment tube. “I made you a copy.”
Thanos took it with a bow. “Again, my thanks.”
“You are most welcome,” she murmured.
He unrolled the parchment. The lettering was slanted, obviously written in haste, but clear. “ ‘My esteemed cousin’,” he read, then stopped and glanced up at her. “ ‘Cousin’?”
“It was addressed to Landioryn,” Ara replied.
“Of course. ‘Your mother, the usurper and murderer of my betrayed sire’,” he continued, “ ‘has fled, taking with her the indelible taint of her many crimes. This clears my path to my rightful destiny. Know that I bear you, and her other right-born offspring, no ill will. All that you need do is acknowledge my precedence and cede to me the Throne, and there will be peace in all the realm’.
“Decent of her,” he snorted.
“Read on,” Ara prompted, looking worried.
“ ‘In earnest of my good will’,” Thanos read, “ ‘and that you may know the verity and honour of my pledge, I offer you the’…”
His voice broke off in an astonished gasp. He looked up at her, aghast. “This can’t be real!”
Ara nodded soberly. “I assure you, it is quite genuine. I spoke to Andrasatnor, who verified the authenticity of the original at the Grand Duke’s behest. The letter is real.”
The warcaster ground his teeth. “Would she…can she do this? They’re second cousins, for Vara’s sake!”
“Of course she can,” the dragon shrugged. “Because she declines to acknowledge the Queen’s suzerainty, the Duchess Æloeschyan is de facto head of her House, and may dispose of her subjects – including her own flesh and blood – as she sees fit.
“As for the matter of consanguinity, I believe that there is ample precedent for that among the Duodeci,” she continued. “Even unto the origins of their kind. As I am sure you will recall, Tîor’s son, Xîardath the Usurper, mated with his own aunt, Dîorwine.”
“Yes, and that worked out just wonderfully,” Thanos snarled. “That pairing gave us Bîardath Ill-Born, the Sorcerer-King!”
“I merely said that it was a precedent,” the dragon shrugged. “I did not say that it was an especially reassuring one.”
“And Landioryn’s actually considering this…this abomination?” Thanos exclaimed.
“I do not know. But in his mother’s absence, he will have to consider all possible options, will he not?”
“Gods!” The warcaster stared down at the parchment in his shaking hands. “Have you…ah, have you told Breygon about this? Or Amorda?”
Ara shook her head. “I have not seen them yet. Why?”
Thanos ground his teeth and forced a rictus of a smile. “Because I want to be there when he finds out just how depraved his new family really is.”
Valaista tip-toed out into the gently falling snow, stepping carefully on the slick stones. The morning’s melt had refrozen, leaving patches of ice here and there on the marble. She’d already slipped and fallen a number of times, earning purpling bruises on knees and buttocks. Taken together with the aches and pains she’d endured under Karrick’s pugilistic instruction, they made her feel as if she’d fallen from a horse, and she found herself walking gingerly, like an invalid.
Unlike her master and his companions, she was actually looking forward to entering the Labyrinth, if only because it would take her back underground where she belonged. She had grown accustomed over the past few months to the vast, unnerving expanse of the open sky, but she still was not fond of the variety of things that fell from it. Rain was unpleasant, snow a misery; but the driving sleet that had passed through Starmeadow that morning had been the worst of all. Iron dragons were creatures of spark and flame; they did not revel in ice and snow. The lady of the house had thoughtfully loaned her a mantle of exquisite brown and silver fur, but inside it, she couldn’t stop shivering. She longed for caves and caverns again, like a starving man longs for a dry crust of bread.
She peered through the swirling flurries. Her eyes, preternaturally acute, missed nothing. The individual garden plots, some of which had shown bare earth only a few hours earlier, were buried under mounds of snow again, and the trees wore thick shrouds of white – almost as if Amorda had loaned them fur coats, too. The only exception was a small grove near the back wall, where the limbs of the trees were bare except for the first hints of green. She recognized Kakall and his new suite of followers, the oaks that Tua had awakened before departing on the afternoon mist. Their branches were waving gently, and not with the breeze.
Valaista had been as surprised as all the rest when the diminutive fellow had revealed himself as a priest of the White Fire. She hadn’t had a great deal of contact with the wilder elf, and didn’t think she’d miss him; but she knew that he'd been a fixture at Domus Casia, and that his absence would be sorely felt by its mistress, among others.
After a moment’s scrutiny of the garden, she frowned. Her quarry was nowhere to be seen. “Master Joraz?” she called uncertainly.
Valaista looked up. High above the rooftops, floating motionless in the falling snow, the monk sat like a statue, supported by the empty air, his legs crossed comfortably and a serenely content expression on his face.
“Care to join me?” he asked with a grin.
“I do not know the spells to fly, or even to levitate,” she grimaced, squinting into the falling flakes.
“You could change, and fly up yourself,” he suggested.
“This cloak is the only thing keeping me from freezing to death,” she exclaimed through chattering teeth. “If I change, it will no longer fit.”
The monk laughed easily. Without apparent effort, he stepped down out of the air, drifting gently to the ground along with a flurry of snow, and landing no more heavily than one of the flakes.
Valaista stared at him. There was no snow in his hair, or on the increasingly dishevelled clothing he wore. His cheeks were not even flushed.
He frowned at her. “What happened to your eye?”
Valaista put her fingers to her swollen right cheek, and winced. “Karrick’s elbow. We were wrestling.”
“I’m surprised he didn’t tear your head off.”
“I was in my…my natural shape,” she explained.
“Ah. So, how is he feeling?” Joraz asked politely.
“He is seeking medical attention,” Valaista smiled. “I have claws on my hindfeet. He does not.”
“I see.” After a long pause, Joraz cocked an eyebrow. “Was there something you wanted?”
The dragon-girl shook herself, blinking rapidly as if waking from a daze. “Yes. Yes, there is. I…umm…” She cleared her throat. “I wanted to ask you to teach me. To teach me how to fight.”
The monk frowned. “I thought Karrick was doing that.”
“He is. And it is helping,” she nodded. “But he suggested that I seek your aid as well. So that…so that I may learn to use my head, as well as my hand. That is how he put it.”
“A compliment,” the monk mused. “How rare!”
“Only one of us has punched his way through a demon,” she added. “Those were his words as well.”
“I’m never going to live that down, am I?” the monk chuckled weakly. “Okay. I’d be delighted to teach you whatever I can. When would you like to begin?”
“If you are free,” the girl replied seriously, “I am not busy now.”
He frowned. “We enter the Labyrinth in a few hours. Don’t you have any preparations to make?”
“My armour and weapons are ready,” she shrugged. “This seems as good a way as any to pass the time.”
“I suppose it is,” he chuckled. “Very well, lesson number one. Hit me.”
Valaista blinked. “What? Now?”
“You’re the one who wanted to start immediately,” he grinned. “So hit me. If you can.”
She glanced down at her hands, and up at him again. “How?”
“However you like.”
She blinked again. With a mental shrug, she balled up her fingers and punched him in the face.
Joraz didn’t seem to move. But her fist slid past his left ear. “Again,” he said.
She tried again. And again. And again. And again.
The fifth time, she tried kicking him. Her foot went past his hip. She felt a light touch on her knee and crashed into the snow-covered flagstones. Her breath went out in a whoosh.
Joraz bent at the waist and extended a hand. She took it. He helped her to her feet.
She was breathing heavily. So far as she could tell, he wasn’t breathing heavily. In fact, he might not have been breathing at all. “What…what are you…doing?”
“Teaching you,” he replied, smiling.
“Teaching…me…what?” she panted.
“How not to be where your opponent is striking.”
Valaista ground her teeth. “I’m not…sure I understand…the lesson.”
“Then we’ll do it more slowly,” he chuckled. “Try again, with your hand. But only half as fast as last time. And don’t watch me, watch your fist.”
She did. Focusing her attention on the back of her hand, she pushed it out slowly, aiming for his infuriating smile. To her astonishment, her arm seemed to turn in mid-flight, rolling her fist over and away. It slid past his ear again.
When her arm was at full extension, Joraz put a finger against the point of her shoulder, and pushed gently. Valaista fell over, smacking her backside into the flagstones again.
“Your balance needs work,” he remarked as he helped her up once more. “A lot of work.”
“I am hardly…in a position…to disagree,” she gasped, brushing the snowflakes from her trousers. Warmer now, she unclasped the fur cloak and laid it carefully on a snow-covered stone bench.
“Did you see what happened?” Joraz asked.
She nodded. “You weren’t where I was hitting.”
“But you did that, not me. How?”
He shrugged. “I watched your belly. Your shoulders. Where your feet were, how your head was tilted, where your hips and toes were pointing. You told me exactly where you were going to strike, so I decided not to be there. To put it simply...I was gone from the spot where your punch was going to land even before you threw it.”
She blinked. “You saw all that, and you moved? That fast?”
“It’s not like that,” he smiled. “It happens all at once. You’re moving, and I’m moving with you. We are singing a harmony. I could sing it differently, and it would be impossible for you to miss me. It’s all about being one with your foe.”
Valaista stared at him. “Can you…can you help me with balance?” she said faintly.
He nodded. “Balance is everything. Your balance told me where you were going to hit. In fact, your balance tells your opponent where you can hit, and where you can’t.” He waved a hand. “I can see empty spaces, spaces that you can’t reach, all around you. I just…step into one of them as you begin to strike. If my control over my balance exceeds yours, you simply can’t hit me. Because I can move into the places that you can’t possibly reach.
“And forgive me, my dear,” he added with a rueful grin, “but your balance is just bloody awful.”
“I am a dragon,” she sighed. “We’re known for power, not grace.”
“That’s nonsense,” he snorted. “Power isn’t about flexibility, or how hard you can hit; it’s about poise. It's about calm, and deliberation. The serenity of the will. The domination of the mind over the material world.” He tapped her forehead. “Balance is here,” he intoned gravely. He laid his palm flat on her belly. “And it is here, in the centre. Not in your feet. And certainly not…” he wiggled his fingers “…not here.”
“If you say so,” she said, sounding dubious.
“We’d better start with balance,” Joraz said decisively. “Feet in line, and as wide apart as your shoulders. Toes forward – straight forward, please! You look like a duck.”
“One of Master Tyrellus’ sayings,” Joraz grinned. “Don’t splay your feet.”
“Hips and shoulders square to the front,” he continued. “Chin up. Now, punch!”
She punched. As her hand reached its furthest extent, he reached out with blinding speed, grasped her fist between thumb and forefinger, and held it. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Valaista teetered on her toes. “I’m about to fall over!” she exclaimed.
“Precisely. You’re over-extended.” He rotated her hand until the back of her fist faced the sky. “Knuckles flat and square; roll your punches as you snap them. Don’t push them. You’re not opening a door. And keep your shoulders square.” He grasped her shoulders and squared them up with her hips.
“And…” He put a finger on the tip of her nose, and pushed again. She nearly fell over backwards, and was forced to take a step back to remain vertical. “Bend your knees a little.”
“I know how to throw a punch!” she cried, annoyed.
“And yet here I stand,” he grinned, “lamentably un-punched.” He stepped closer to her and tapped himself on the breastbone. “Here’s your target. Try again.”
This time her knuckles thumped into his chest. “Hah!” she cried.
Her own triumphal grin vanished. “You didn’t even try to move, did you?”
“Not that time.” He squared her shoulders again. “Now, this time I want you to try two punches. Lighter, but faster.” He held his hands up, palms forward, for a target. “As fast as you can.
“And for the love of the Gods,” he added, eyeing her posture with despair, “keep your knees bent!”
Gritting her teeth as she snapped her punches, Valaista sighed to herself.
I think I’m going miss Karrick.
“What do you think?” Amorda asked.
“It’s a little Spartan,” Breygon replied, glancing around at the gleaming walls.
The elf-woman frowned. “What does that mean?”
The ranger shrugged. “You know…Spartan. Functional, I suppose. Utilitarian. Grimly efficient.”
“Ah. Yes, I have to agree,” she nodded. “I’ll be bringing some of our furniture in. Three days is a long time to spend on a rope bed with a straw tick and scratchy army blankets.”
Kalena had finished her casting, and Amorda was showing her husband the quarters she would be occupying while he was stomping about the Labyrinth, trying not to get killed. Freste’s Fabulous Fortress was not exactly uncomfortable, but it was hardly luxurious. It had nothing like the amenities of Domus Casia – but it was a pocket outside the reality of Anuru, and so would interrupt the magic of their rings. And it had the virtue of being impregnable.
Still, the place gave Breygon the megrims. It was big enough to house and feed a company of infantry, and the walls were white, smooth and featureless. It could not have been more unnatural if they’d been made of stars.
“You could’ve gone with the Mansion, you know,” Breygon sighed. “Kalena described that to me. It sounds a lot more comfortable.”
“But it only lasts a day and a half,” Amorda reminded him. She smiled wanly. “With our luck, the spell would end just as something big and nasty bit you. This will give me three days, roughly. Hopefully that will be plenty of time for you and your friends to finish your task and return.”
“We’d better be back before then,” the half-elf muttered. “I’d like to take a day or two to rest up before we have to hie off to the Council.”
She nodded, smiling. “I’m looking forward to that. I’ve seen a lot of Erutrei, but I’ve never travelled the outerverse.” She took his hand and held it gently, twining her fingers with his. “I just wish we were going alone.”
“There’ll be time for that,” he replied. “I’m still not very happy with the notion of you coming to Dracosedes, though.” He held up his hand, flicking her ring with a thumb. “Do you realize that your little gift, here, is almost designed to keep us apart?”
“What do you mean?” she asked, confused.
He cleared his throat. “A lot of the enemies we fight,” he said carefully, “use area-effect weapons. Spells, mostly, but breath-effect weapons, gaze weapons, splash weapons…things that can harm more than one target at a time.”
She stared at him from beneath lowered brows. “I’m not an idiot, love.”
“Hold that thought,” he said flatly. “What would happen if we were both caught by the same breathblast? Or the same falling wall trap? Or the same burst from a fireball?”
She frowned. “I…”
“You’d take all of your damage,” he said brutally, “plus half of mine.” He snapped his fingers. “Boom. Dead. Thanks to your little prank, my darling,” he sighed, “the most dangerous place in all the universe for you to be is at my side.”
Amorda stared at her lifemate for a long moment. Then she sobbed and put her face in her hands.
Breygon put an arm around her shoulder.
“I take it back,” she mumbled after a long moment. “I am an idiot.”
“You’re not,” he said reassuringly. “But you’re also not an adventurer. You’re not used to thinking like we do.”
“I can’t go to Dracosedes with you!” she wailed. “It’d be too dangerous!”
“Absolutely. Especially,” he added, “as the rings don’t work if the bearers are in different planar realms. You’ll be much safer here while I’m facing down the mightiest dragons in the multiverse.”
Amorda shook her head, grinning weakly. “I may spend the next few days gnawing my finger off.”
“Don’t think I haven’t thought about that,” Breygon said in all seriousness. “Love, some magical items are just too dangerous to mess around with. I hope you’ve learned that by now.”
Amorda was silent for a long time. “I’m not sure I have,” she said at last. “Come on. Let’s step outside for a moment.”
Breygon blinked. “This place has an ‘outside’?”
“I meant, back to our house. The real one.”
The world seemed to wobble strangely as they stepped through the gate of the Fortress and back into the library of Domus Casia. Breygon found the effect a little nauseating, and had to swallow heavily a few times to keep his supper down. Then he noticed the plethora of odours – food, Amorda’s perfume, wood smoke – that permeated his home. The weird, surreal place he had just come from had had no smell at all.
Unnatural. “What did you mean by that?” he asked. “The magic items thing, I mean?”
Amorda looked glum. “Please make sure the doors are locked, uxor meum.”
Breygon frowned at that, but obeyed, spinning the keys in the doors that led to the garden and their private dining room. He left the doors to their bed chamber and Amorda’s boudoir alone; they locked from the other side.
When he was finished, Amorda was standing before the massive fireplace, warming her hands before the flaring logs and staring up at the recent additions above the mantelpiece. There was an odd expression on her face – half terrified, and half wistful.
Breygon joined her, doing his best not to frown. He looked up at the painting of Szyelekkan, his wife’s former consecatrix. “Feeling nostalgic?” he murmured, trying to keep his tone as neutral as possible.
“I’m not sure that’s the word,” Amorda replied. “Love…no secrets between us. Yes?”
“As I recall,” the ranger said, unable to keep the irony out of his voice, “we’ve made that pledge to each other several times. I think we need to be realistic. Let’s promise to keep the secrets to a minimum, and share everything that should be shared. Agreed?”
The elf-woman nodded, looking relieved. “Agreed. Actually, it wasn’t the painting I was looking at.” She nodded at the sword and rod he’d taken from Szyel after defeating her at the Starhall. They were suspended, crossed, over their new combined coat of arms.
“Szyel’s arms?” he asked, taken aback. “What about them?”
“Actually, just the sword,” Amorda sighed. “I’ve been feeling a little guilty about that. It shed a lot of your blood, my love.”
“And a lot of yours,” he reminded her. “As I recall, it pretty much killed you four times over.”
“Thanks to Father Shields, it didn’t kill me at all,” she corrected. “But yes, I understand your point. My point, though, is…well…that was all my fault.”
“We’ve been over this,” Breygon snorted, rolling his eyes. “I don’t blame you, love. You couldn’t have known that Szyelekkan would –”
She cut him off with a wave. “I meant, it’s my fault, because I gave her that sword in the first place.”
Breygon looked down at his wife. “What?”
Amorda nodded bleakly. “When she…when she first began living here. It was just after Jule of the year we spent together. So I gave it to her as…as amostrena. A new-year’s gift, between lovers.”
“What’d she give you?” Breygon asked, speaking the first words that occurred to him.
Wordlessly, the elf-woman held up her left hand, wiggling the ring on her middle finger with her thumb in the same gesture the ranger had used moments before. Breygon looked closely at the ring; it was a delicate, spidery thing of silver wire set with a constellation of tiny black gems. “Very nice,” he said.
“I used to wear it here,” Amorda murmured, tapping the dwarven ring that Breygon had given her.
“I understand,” the half-elf nodded. “Well…amostrena, eh? I suppose I’ll have to remember that, come next First-Day. If we’re still alive.”
Amorda clenched his hand in hers. “You’re not angry?”
Breygon barked a laugh. “I’d rather you’d given her a pillow, or maybe a feather-duster,” he replied. “But no, I’m not angry. It’s in the past, my heart.”
“A pillow wouldn’t’ve helped,” Amorda sighed. “In a way, you’re lucky I gave her a gracilensis. Even one so dangerously sharp.”
“Because if I hadn’t,” the elf-woman replied, “then on the day you duelled, she’d’ve been bearing…something else.”
“If you say so,” he shrugged. “Why’d you give her a sword anyway?”
Amorda took in a deep breath and released it, shuddering. “Do you see the three gray bricks there, on the right side of the fireplace? The ones in a rough line? They look darker than the others.”
Breygon looked. “No,” he said at last.
“They’re well hidden.” She walked him over to the stone. “Watch carefully, and remember.” One after another, she touched three of the fireplace bricks. Breygon couldn’t see any difference in colour, so he memorized their location.
As she touched the last one, there was a heavy thud behind them. He whirled.
Amorda pointed at the floor. A portion of the granite fireplace counter – a piece of black, smooth stone nearly a pace square – had risen a hand-span above the surrounding flagstones.
The ranger turned to stare at his wife.
“Our safe,” she explained. “Help me, please. The stone is counter-weighted, and I can move it by myself if I have to, but it’s still heavy.”
Breygon knelt beside the elf-woman. Both wedged their fingers under the sheet of black rock. Following Amorda’s lead, he lifted…and the stone panel rose, hinged at the far edge, until it nearly blocked the whole of the fireplace mouth.
He looked down into the hole. Beneath the stone was a flat, unmarked plane of gray metal. “Amazing,” he snorted.
Amorda smiled tightly. “Stand back.” Holding her hand over the hole, she hissed a handful of quick words in wyrmspeech.
“I didn’t get that,” Breygon said.
“I’ll teach it to you.” She clenched her fist.
The iron plate shot up out of the hole with a squeal of metal on stone. Breygon leapt backwards.
When the squealing stopped, an enormous metal box stood before the fireplace. It was as wide and deep as the hole itself, and taller than either of the elves. On the front of it was a heavy, hinged door…and a small metal dial.
Amorda bent over and fiddled with the dial. “Seventy-eight,” she said over her shoulder, “forty-one, seventy-nine.”
“The combination?” Breygon asked. “How am I supposed to remember that?”
Amorda straightened up again and grinned. She pointed at her bosom, her waist, and her hips. “In dwarven knuckle-widths, of course,” she added with a wink. “Not in inches.”
“Of course,” the ranger replied weakly.
Once the combination had been entered, the elf-woman placed her hand flat on the metal door panel. “Flesh memory,” she explained. “We’ll set yours once I’ve opened it.”
“What happens if I touch it now?” he asked.
Amorda shivered. “Don’t.”
An instant later, from deep inside the metal box, there came a half-dozen heavy thuds. Then the door swung open.
Amorda pulled it wide. Breygon’s jaw dropped.
She caught his expression and grimaced. “What? Bars are a lot more convenient than coin.”
The ranger choked a little. “How much does all that weigh?”
“Hmm?” She wasn’t staring at the gold. “Oh, those are fifty-pound bars, and there are a little over four hundred of them.” She counted the rows and columns, furrowed her brow, and said, “Ah, four hundred and twenty four. A little over a thousand-score pounds.”
Breygon did the sums in his head. “That’s over a million orries,” he said faintly.
“Yes,” Amorda nodded. “I like to keep some valuta handy. You never know when you’re going to need a lot of cash. For example, pretty soon I’m going to have to take forty or so of those up to Kalestayne. Down-payment on your bow.”
The ranger scratched his cheek. “That’s…ah, that’s a ton. Of gold.”
She nodded. “Too much even for my biggest purse. I’ll have to make two trips. The finished price will be closer to two tons, of course.”
He found himself blinking repeatedly. “I’m not used to thinking in those terms, I guess.”
Amorda smiled narrowly. “You’d better get used to it, my love. Our barony generates that much wealth every two months or so.” She gave his fingers a gentle squeeze. “I didn’t show you the safe to talk about gold, though.”
Breygon tore his eyes away from the piled bricks. He wasn’t overcome by avarice; as a general rule, money held no interest for him. But the enormous heap of gleaming metal was captivating nonetheless. He’d never in his life seen so much wealth packed into so small a space. “What…er, what did you want to talk about?”
“That.” She nodded at safe. To the left of the pile of gold, tucked away in the back of the safe, was a long, slender sword.
Breygon bent down and took a closer look. The blade was hidden by a scabbard of black, fine-grained leather, but he could see that it was leaf-shaped. The hilt was not reassuring; the quillions were enormous, swept like scimitar blades, and looked as if they had been sharpened; and the pommel was a leering, demonic face wearing a spiked crown.
A sudden thought struck him. Straightening up again, he glanced up at the painting of Szyelekkan, then back down at his wife. “It’s the same sword,” he said bluntly. “Isn’t it?”
Amorda nodded, looking miserable. “It’s why I gave her the gracilensis that nearly claimed your life. I didn’t want her carrying that…that thing around the capital.”
Breygon frowned. “That sounds ominous. What is it, then?”
The elf-woman gave a delicate shudder. “That was Æloeschyan’s gift to her daughter at her saltatio,” she murmured. “When Szyel passed without the walls, that was waiting for her. It’s an ancient and dreadful weapon. Szyel told me its name once: Novaculanimor.
“Of course,” she added faintly, “I already knew what it was called.”
“The ‘parer of the spirit’?” Breygon asked, puzzled.
Amorda shook her head. “In the traveling tongue, it’s called ‘Soulrazor’.”
The ranger cocked an eyebrow. “That sounds familiar.”
“It ought to,” Amorda said faintly. “Thanos would recognize it immediately. The Shadow King made it for Trishtum Vedekur, the fallen lord of the
Palatinate who commanded
the Shadow King’s armies. Vedekur held
the defences of Ensher after the Shadow King cracked the world and perished in
the fall of Yl. He fought the last
defence of Vás Valóság, the Shadow King’s fortress, against the massed armies
of Ekhan and our realm. And…and he…” her
She didn’t have to go on. “And,” Breygon said heavily, “he used it to kill King Allarýchian in personal combat. The Queen’s father.” And my great-great-grandfather, he did not say.
“Yes,” Amorda whispered.
The half-elf’s throat felt suddenly thick, and he cleared it harshly. “How did the Grim Duchess get her hands on it?”
“I’ve no idea,” the elf-woman replied, her voice unsteady. “It’s a terrible weapon, my love, boiling with necromantic power. It tears the life out of any foe it pierces. Even Szyel didn’t like carrying it, and she more or less grew up at the Priscossium.”
She shrugged. “I could see how she felt, so I gave her that sword” – she nodded at the fireplace –“and we locked this one up here.”
“And she never asked for the return of it, even after you parted ways?” Breygon asked, surprised.
He snorted. “I’m surprised her mother would be willing to give up such a potent tool.”
“Her mother might not know I still have it.”
The ranger took a deep breath. “So…why show it to me?”
Amorda hesitated. Then, with a grimace, she reached into the vault, grasped the sword by the scabbard, and held it out to him. “I want you to take it. And use it.”
His jaw dropped to his breast. “You want me,” he said, incredulous, “to use a weapon last borne by your former lover? A weapon made by one of the most terrible lords of horror and darkness the world has ever known? A weapon that…that killed my great-great-grandfather?”
“If it will save your life,” she said firmly, “then yes, I do!”
Breygon put his hands behind his back. “You just said it was ‘boiling with necromantic power’!” he exclaimed.
“It is!” she cried. “But it’s also the most potent and deadly weapon I’ve ever seen! Had Szelly used it in your duel, you’d’ve been dead before the third clash of blades!”
She held the thing out to him. Breygon stared at it like it was a poisonous snake. Or worse; a snake, however charged with venom it might be, was at least still a thing of the natural world.
To his horror, Amorda dropped to her knees before him. She held the sword up across her palms. “Take it, and use it! Love, I beg you!”
The appeal in her eyes was so potent that Breygon, all unwilling, stretched a hand out, reaching for the dreadful weapon.
“Stay alive,” Amorda added, her voice dropping to a terrified whisper, “and please, please, my dearest heart, please – come back to me!”