King of the Land of the Sun: Part Eight
The fortress ahead of them was larger than Altador had anticipated – a sprawling ruin of dark stone stacked into hole-riddled walls and crumbling towers. But despite the Vaeolus nests that Altador could see and the vines that grew up the walls, Altador could still see the majesty inherent in the old place – and the tyranny as well.
But there were also more prosaic things that brought the ruined grandeur back down to earth. A clothesline with some stockings, two shirts, a skirt, and a pair of long johns hanging from it. Three tents. A wagon piled high with boxes and sacks. The still-smoldering remains of a campfire, with a cauldron and several bowls left in the grass by its side.
Kelland said in disgust, "Sweet Fyora! They couldn't have made this look more like a smugglers' den if they tried!"
Jerdana held her hands out toward the ruined fortress – the air around her shone faintly. Jazan's way of sensing power wasn't quite as dramatic, but he stood very still and his eyes, which were focused on something far away or perhaps within, were red as blood. Jerdana broke the spell and nodded first. "It's in there. There's a lot of dark magic – active and strong. Jazan and I will have a fight on our hands."
Torakor asked, "Do they actually have a mage, or just a bunch of nasty artifacts they don't know how to use?"
Jazan said, "The whole point of making an artifact is to be able to use it without needing to invest much power of your own. You need a little magic of your own, but any hedgewitch could do it. Jerdana, I'm going to need to start getting that shield ready now."
She nodded. "I'll start feeding you power."
Altador knew that, in that state, they'd both only be half-aware of what was actually going on around them. He said, "Kelland, Torakor, our first priority is to keep the mages safe. Without them scrambling the magic Masila and whoever else is on her side have planned..."
Kelland cut him off with his typical cheerful lack of respect for authority. "We'll all be sooty smears in the grass. Yeah, we know."
It actually cheered Altador. If Kelland had been scared enough to be respectful, then Altador would have had cause to be seriously worried. As it was, he knew this was dangerous, but his sense of duty and the song of the chase were able to quash any fear or uncertainty that might have done him ill.
Kelland went ahead to scout – there were no visible sentries, but Kelland, as the smallest, was most likely to be able to spot any concealed ones without being seen in return. Jerdana and Jazan had to prepare themselves for the conflict ahead – they had no magic to spare anymore on another fading spell.
The wait was long and tense, but at least they were under the shade of the trees. No one stirred in the camp – wherever Ringal and Mim had gone was probably within the fortress itself. Altador thought it likely that anyone outside was sleeping soundly in the tents. Smugglers tended to work by night and rest by day.
Just as Melanthe had done. But now was not the time to think of Melanthe – the wounds left by her fall and her treachery were painful, still, and they would be a deadly distraction if Altador allowed them to be.
He breathed and loosened his muscles – all of which were horrendously sore from being flung through the air and into a wall the previous afternoon – as he waited. If he needed to, he could spring to his feet, sword drawn, in a matter of seconds.
Torakor was already twitching restlessly. Jazan snapped at him, "Be still, will you? You're like a child!"
Torakor's lip curled, showing his mouth full of sharp teeth. "Do your magic, desert king, and leave me alone."
Jazan's clenched teeth weren't as impressive as Torakor's, but that feeling of a barely-restrained blaze with him at the center intensified. Before he could say anything, Altador cut him off. "No fighting. Not now. We'll draw attention. And Torakor, it would be better if you were as still as possible."
Torakor nodded. "Yes, sir. You are the king I follow."
Jazan made a low noise that was not quite a growl, but he also didn't say anything, so Altador was forced to keep silent and merely hope that the other king's temper wouldn't show itself at the worst possible moment.
Finally, Kelland came creeping back. "Four guards, all playing a game of Cheat!. It's for stakes – they aren't paying attention to anything else. Some sleepers in the tents. But I didn't see many others around. Plenty of gear, though. I'd bet that there are a lot of enforcers out smuggling and causing trouble in the city. But no sign of anyone else around the perimeter. I'd say we're clear to move in. Jerdana, are the reinforcements coming?"
She had been crouching perfectly still, eyes lost somewhere in her magic. But she nodded. "It'll be a third of an hour at least before they start arriving, though."
Torakor growled, "Let's go already! Before she starts bringing down lighting or some other magic nastiness."
And so they did, keeping as low as possible in order to not stand out too much over the tall grass. But it was no wonder the sentries were so inattentive. Aside from a few smaller Petpets, nothing stirred. There was no big game to bring a hunter hence, no fields or groves nearby that a farmer would come to tend. Solitude was as great a defense as any wall had ever been.
But that didn't stop the hairs from prickling on Altador's neck. He didn't need to be a mage to see that this had been an evil place once. Perhaps the Vaeolus no longer sensed it. Perhaps the flowers had returned. But even though the fortress had tumbled in the ages that had passed, the rocks and stones remembered, just as they had remembered Altador when the city awoke from its slumber. Altador drew his sword – Torakor and Jazan drew theirs as well. Kelland had already had a knife in each hand as he stalked ahead of them.
Jerdana whispered, "It's dark – it's so dark..." She wasn't talking about the day around them, which was still gloriously bright. She was focused on something only she could see. Altador knew that her magic was intensely empathetic, but he hadn't thought of just how much that could hinder her in a place like this. He was grateful Jazan was here – Jazan seemed better able to keep his head in the midst of their spells, and they needed that.
They were almost to the gate – or the arch where the gate would have been had it not rotted away long since – when they heard someone say, "Hey, Thom, do you hear something?"
Jazan whispered, "Fyora blast it! Take cover! Come on, Jerdana!"
Altador understood the situation at once. The mages were too occupied in plumbing the magic ahead of them and preparing counter-spells to veil them again as they had in the ravine. He looked around desperately – Kelland was burrowing himself into the tall grass, dragging Jerdana with him, and Torakor and Jazan apparently forgot their mutual dislike as they both threw themselves behind the closest berry bush – the only bush in the meadow in front of the castle's main gate.
And before he could do something else, two young Neopets – a Bori and a Grundo – came through the arch.
They froze, looking at Altador in astonishment, and he felt pity for them – they weren't any older than Tristan, Constantine, or Laila. He sheathed his sword. "If you run away from this valley now, I will not pursue you. I will bring this place down, my lads. But you needn't fall with it. You're still young. You can change the way your lives are going to turn out. You don't need to sound the alarm – Masila won't be in any condition to come find you. Leave."
They looked back and forth at each other, and then to the silent fortress behind them. A few seconds of a whispered conversation followed, and Altador held his breath.
And then the Bori ran straight past Altador and back out toward civilization. The Grundo followed, stopping only for the second necessary to give Altador a hasty bow, and they both disappeared from sight in under a minute.
Altador's companions came out from the shrubbery. Kelland said with a smile, "I'll have to track those two down later – I can always use thieves with brains."
Torakor frowned. "If there's a ring of sentries out there..."
Altador cut him off. "Then they would have caught us on the way in. They were boys, Torakor. There would have been no glory in defeating them. And now they get the chance to make something better of themselves than what they were here."
Jazan said, "We need to go. Building up power to hold ready for use is... a strain. We need to do this soon, or there's going to be a backlash. And with what Jerdana is controlling, we wouldn't like that backlash."
And so Altador took the lead through the archway. He passed through, and then Kelland, and then Torakor.
But when Jerdana walked through, she fell to her knees and screamed.
It was a horrible scream, high-pitched and pained, as Jerdana crumpled and curled up tightly on the ground, eyes tightly shut, shuddering. Jazan said in horror, "It's a mage trap! The spell was tied to the gate, to hit any mage who passed through!"
Torakor asked, "Why didn't you notice it?"
Jazan snapped back, "Well, it wouldn't be much of a mage trap if a mage could sense it from twenty feet away, now would it?"
Already Altador could hear running and shouts. He asked, "Can you help her?"
Jazan looked worried. "I can try. But I won't be able to do much else."
Altador had to make the decision quickly, for Jerdana's sake and the sake of this whole mission. He said, "Kelland, Torakor, stay to guard them! Jazan, see if you can rip apart that Fyora-forsaken trap – help her!"
Kelland asked, "But what are you going to do?" He was kneeling on the ground beside Jerdana with his knives at the ready – Torakor had cast off his cloak and had his sword and shield ready to fight. The Grarrl had pushed Jerdana outside the gate, but she still writhed and whimpered in the grip of whatever horrible spell had been cast her.
Someone was going to pay for that.
Altador looked up at the black stone fortress, which was about to come to deadly life. "I'm going to find Masila."
To be continued...