King of the Land of the Sun: Part Nine
Altador couldn't strike at the heart of the fortress right away – and he had a feeling that the heart was where Masila would be. He knew of plotters and schemers, and they liked to worm their way to the heart of things. But that was where all the reinforcements would be coming from, and they would be heading straight for his beleaguered companions at the gate. Altador could best serve them by keeping out of the line of fire until it was time for his own attack – at which point the reinforcements might have arrived.
They'd have to find a way to disable that mage trap. If they couldn't get their own mages through the gates, they were in trouble. Altador shuddered at the memory of poor Jerdana curled up in a ball on the ground as he half-ran around the edge of the fortress to get out of sight. Who could do that to someone else? Altador shook his head. He knew that evil and cruelty existed. His job was to defend his people from them. But he refused to let them have any foothold in his heart, and thus they always surprised him afresh.
He couldn't help Jerdana. That was a job for a mage, not a king with a mere sensitivity to magic. If Jazan couldn't help her, perhaps one of the mages coming could, but the best that Altador could do would be to get into the fortress and let Masila know what he thought of that trap personally.
He didn't think Masila had any magic, or if she did, it was very little, or everyone would have been calling her a sorceress in addition to the Mistress of the Double-Cross. That was important. That meant that there were most likely other mages around – probably several, if they could make a mage trap strong enough to disable Jerdana and to give Jazan trouble. He'd have to move fast. It would only take one lucky shot to turn him into a Mortog.
He saw a stone stairwell up ahead in a tower – its door had long since decayed, and it looked like it connected to the main body of the fortress. He ducked inside and, as he stood still in relative safety for the moment, he shut his eyes, allowing himself to slip into the hunt. Where would he go, if he were his quarry? The center. He knew that. How to flush her out? He'd have to get closer, and then he'd be able to see. But he would focus on the hunt – the opportunities, the weak spots she left open. This place was grand, true, perfect for someone with delusions of grandeur. And the isolated location did make it a good base for smuggling activities. But it was bigger than anything Masila had ever managed – definitely bigger than a thieves' camp or a guild hall. Too many bolt-holes, too many different ways to approach – she wasn't used to being the master of a castle, but Altador was.
So he started up the steps, glad his armor was well-oiled and not prone to clanking. One thing that thieves would be alert for was any sound of approaching footsteps or metal-on-metal. For them, noticing those things was a matter of life or death. They operated by stealth. Altador would have to try and be stealthier.
So he crept along as quietly as he could. He didn't see any sentinels, but he hadn't expected to. These members of the Thieves' Guild – whether rogue or not – were trying to get profit and power. Masila would have trusted to secrecy to hide them, and the mage trap to stave off her most serious opposition. Leaving thieves around standing guard would have been a waste of resources. It was very dark – it was likely that no one at all was using this wing, since the torches were unlit and dust was thick on the ground.
He winced. Dust! He was leaving a clear trail. But trying to cover it up would be worse – a wide clear space was more likely to give someone pause than footprints, and there was no time for it anyway. There was nothing to do but keep going.
He had what he remembered of the fortress in the center of his mind, shifting and turning it like a model to try and guess his own position. He tried to loosen up – he was getting tense, and he was sore enough as it was. Thieves would be light and quick. Altador thanked Fyora that he'd spent so much time sparring against Kelland – he had an idea of what he would be facing.
When he was pretty sure that he was close to the main tower, he heard a voice up ahead – one that he recognized.
"Careful with that, you klutz! If you drop it you'll blow us all halfway to Kreludor!"
"Oh, you're whining like an old woman, Mim. The last one didn't even destroy the Hall of Heroes."
"That's because you and your helpers forgot that we were fighting mages. The servants said that the desert king got a shield up that stopped the worst of it! Now be careful where you step!"
Another one of those bombs. Altador winced.
"Here's an idea – quit whining about magic and save your breath for explaining to Her Ladyship why whoever's at the gate found us! That mage trap – which you have us to thank for, by the way – came down like a ton of bricks. All the rest of the wards we have set up are draining into it – look at all of the jewels! They're all flashing! That means it's taking every bit of power we laid out to hold this person, and they're still fighting. Whoever's out there could beat me with one hand tied behind his or her back."
"Oh, don't worry. Her Ladyship would like an explanation from each of you."
The voice was lovely, smooth and rich, but as chilling as the cold winds that blew up from the ice sheets to the south. The voice that belonged to the woman Mim stammered, "L-Lady Masila!"
The mage – another female voice, said, "Milady, I was just completing this..."
Masila's smooth voice turned into a snarl. "Instead of handling the mage throwing fireballs at the gate?"
The mage said in horror, "But the mage trap worked!"
Masila said, more controlled, "Then perhaps there's more than one mage? And perhaps you ought to be looking into that? And Mim, she's right. I would love to hear your explanation as to how people found this place."
Mim said sulkily, "You heard Jan earlier. They were combing the wood this morning. Bad luck."
Masila said, "I prefer to make my own luck instead of relying on that of others. Now, Shiko, get that bomb out of here, please, and take it somewhere where it will actually be of use?"
That was Altador's cue if there ever was one. One mage of moderate power, one thief apparently high in the hierarchy around here, and Masila herself – that wasn't too much to handle, and he had to stop them from using that explosive. If Jazan was throwing fireballs and trying to help Jerdana, he probably didn't have the concentration to make much of a shield. He stepped out into the large room He looked around – it was a workroom, a command center, judging from the number of papers about, and hanging on the walls or on a pedestal in the center were amulets, staffs, coronets, and other objects that gave off an aura of magic like greasy smoke. The Dark artifacts! But as he took everything in, he recited, "Masila, you and yours are engaged in illegal activity within the sovereign state of Altador. From this moment, you are in the custody of the Altadorian Guard, to be tried for your crimes. You are free to refrain from implicating yourself further, and to seek counsel to that end."
He didn't actually expect that she'd surrender to the traditional warning of the Altadorian Guard. But since she held herself a lady in the making, Altador thought that someone ought to remind her she was no better than any other criminal – and a good deal worse than quite a few.
The mage – the Kyrii woman holding the bomb – jumped back. "Sweet Fyora!" From her dark blue fur, burgundy mane, and light blue eyes, she was one of the inhabitants of Shenkuu. That left Mim as the green Buzz woman, and the green Acara, whom Altador recognized from pictures as Masila.
She was smaller than Altador had expected, with a fairly short, slender frame, and she was also prettier than he would have thought, with large eyes and an elfin chin. The mix of beauty and rage on her features struck him in that instant – it reminded him of Melanthe, when they'd found her out and confronted her.
And then the Buzz – Mim – leapt at him, spreading her wings as she brandished a sword.
Thankfully, the chamber he'd found had a low ceiling, and Mim wasn't able to get out of his reach. He batted her away – his focus was on the mage, Shiko, who was shaking and watching him wide-eyed. He had to get that bomb away from her!
Masila was already slipping away down the corridor on the other side of this room – he had to stop her as well. He had to stop all of the people in the room besides the Buzz who was trying to take his head off. He knocked her away again, this time sending her half-way out the nearest hole in the wall, and ran across the room toward the mage, diving at her and grabbing onto the bomb she was holding. She flung a shower of sparks at his face – he held up his armored forearm to shield his eyes.
And then the Buzz was on top of him, stabbing at him – his armor was good, but it wouldn't take her too long to find someplace the armor didn't cover. He twisted to fling her off, knocking his hip painfully against a stone table in the process, but the problem with flinging winged Neopians was that it didn't tend to last – and here came the mage again! But she'd left the bomb on the floor – now if only he could get to it...
"Hah! Take that!"
Altador whirled in horror. "Tristan!"
It was the errant squire indeed – the brown Draik had flown in and was already battling Mim. He turned again to see Constantine – the Christmas Lupe was charging Shiko, who looked vastly unprepared to deal with two large Lupes. Altador threw himself between her and the bomb, and the Kyrii fled the room without even looking back. As she did, Tristan forced Mim to retreat – it seemed that the two squires had indeed found time to practice their swordplay amidst running wild and causing trouble. Constantine saluted. "Reinforcements, sir! Laila, Julius, and Hestra are at the gate with the others. Well, Laila's scouting, so the reinforcements will know where to go, but you can't ask her to stay in a battlefield. She's not made for that."
"Julius and Hestra? Are you mad?" Altador asked, aghast.
Constantine shrugged. "They said they'd tell the knight-master about the incident at the Waltzing Vaeolus if we didn't let them come."
Altador didn't want to know. Instead, he looked around the room. He could feel the evil coming off the artifacts in here – and apparently the spell was tied to them that had so hurt Jerdana. And he was certain they didn't have long before the mages came back here in strength.
He looked at the bomb on the floor, its fuse trailing.
He said slowly, "Boys, this idea sounds like one that would come from you more than me. But how do you feel about blowing things up?"
Tristan grinned broadly. "Sounds perfect! What?"
Altador said, "All this. All those artifacts – those are what are holding down the wards and the mage trap here. With that bomb the mage so happily left for us."
Constantine shook his head as though he were in denial. "We're being allowed to explode something? On purpose? And we won't get in trouble?"
Tristan blew a small jet of flame. "I can light it – I can fly. You two ought to start running. Probably now."
And they did, back out the way that the two squires had come – it was closer to the outside.
But they hadn't gone far before there was a crash and a roar of flame. A second passed, and then there was another roar – more like a scream – and Altador could feel the dark power behind them rising like a tidal wave.
Constantine said, "Oh, sweet Fyora."
They both redoubled their efforts, but they hadn't gotten ten steps before the wave of force caught them up, ripped them from the ground, and threw them into the air into a hurricane of stone and flame.
To be continued...