Chief Om’ponole took a different approach to security than Vandro. There was a walled and fortified section of his grounds near the center, but it was surrounded by several acres of decorative garden, open on all sides to the streets which bordered it. Not that the estate was undefended; guards in ceremonial Onkawi armor patrolled the outer boundary, as well as the paths that meandered within. Their armor appeared to be silk and painted wicker, of all the ridiculous things, but the modern battlestaves they carried were not the least bit ceremonial.
Once onto the grounds, though, there was ample cover for intruders. Shook figured that amid that riot of flowering shrubs and fruit trees, he could have found a safe route to the palace even without the benefit of Kamari’s directions and map detailing the safest path to avoid the patrols. He wondered how often local street urchins snuck onto the palace grounds to steal low-hanging pomegranates and oranges.
Not that this particular neighborhood probably housed any urchins. He and Saduko had been forced to find a vantage point over a block from Om’ponole’s grounds, due to the prevalence among his neighbors for similarly open-planned estates. Aside from the lack of cover, people loitering suspiciously in a neighborhood this ritzy would have been intercepted by police within minutes, if not by private guards. Police would be better; they answered to the regional governor, who answered to the Tiraan Empire. House guards of aristocratic families this far from the capital had a tendency to make annoying people vanish.
The only cover they had found was a delivery wagon parked against the outer wall of an estate one lot distant from their target. A faint trickle of glittering dust seeped continually from one of its axles, blowing away in the light breeze as it fell, indicating a failed wheel enchantment; they were lucky this had happened so late in the day. Even among the wealthy classes who doubtless resented such a common sight parked among them, the relaxed attitude of the Onkawi meant the wagon was likely to stay here until regular business hours rolled around again and somebody could be summoned to fix it.
Saduko was fiddling with what looked to Shook like an extravagant timepiece, something like a pocket watch with a tiny hourglass attached, the latter filled with purplish enchanting dust rather than sand. He didn’t lean over her shoulder to watch her manipulate the device; he wouldn’t have understood anything he saw, and she had made it plain she did not enjoy his proximity. While he might otherwise have resented being thus rebuffed, he found Saduko admirably well-behaved for a woman. That was to say, polite and quiet. Between Kheshiri and Vandro’s groupies, he didn’t feel an urgent need to get laid; he could deal with her frigidity. Besides, after having led the way through Onkawa’s darkening streets as a good enforcer should, it was pleasant to be positioned to have a view of her cute little butt. She favored snug trousers.
“All is in order,” she said quietly, flipping shut the lid on the watch-like portion of her device and slipping it into a pocket. “The frequencies match Kamari’s intel; I can get us past the wards unnoticed.”
“What matters is the guards’ timing, then,” he said, stepping up to stand beside her. “Ready for that?”
“Of course.” She produced a tiny, spiky piece of brass with a small blue gem inset. “Your finger, please.”
He offered it silently and didn’t so much as wince when she pricked his fingertip with one of the gadget’s points, nor when the resulting droplet of his blood was sucked into the gem in the center. She transferred it to her other hand, where it joined a second identical object, no doubt primed with her own blood.
Shook offered her his arm; face impassive, she slipped her free hand through it. He led her out into the street and they set off toward the Om’ponole estate at a leisurely pace, just a couple of foreigners out for an evening stroll.
He kept his eyes on the roving guards, watching their progress, counting steps and seconds. “Match my pace and follow my lead,” he murmured. “I have the pattern down; I’ll get us to the insertion point at the blind spot. Be ready with your stuff.”
“I know my role,” she said calmly. Any of his fellow Guild operatives, especially one who didn’t like him, would have been snippy about it. She was just calm. He made a mental note to see about acquiring a Sifanese ladyfriend if he ever had to get rid of Kheshiri; they apparently raised them wonderfully respectful over there. Hopefully they weren’t all as flat in the chest as Saduko.
He saw one of the passing guards notice them, and gave no sign of it, bending his head toward his companion and putting on a fake smile. She kept her own eyes demurely downcast, and after a suspicious but cursory glance, the guard went about his route without giving them further attention.
This was far from Shook’s first caper; he timed it precisely. Their insertion point was an arbor twined with grapevines which formed an archway leading onto a hedge-lined path; they reached it just as the guards walking to either side were out of sight behind other stands of greenery. This occurred exactly according to the schedule Kamari had provided, which meant it was part of their assigned route. The fact that the route included such a hole at the border showed what amateurs Om’ponole’s people were. This plan would never have worked on any of the nobles’ estates in Tiraas.
Saduko tossed the two little brass stars to the street as they ducked into the shade of the arbor; instantly, illusory doubles of herself and Shook were strolling on at right angles to their original path, where they would be spotted by the guards walking away from the estate and back into the warren of the city’s streets. They might cause some commotion when they abruptly vanished in ten minutes, but that shouldn’t matter. At this hour, they might not even be seen.
She slipped her hand into her pocket, fiddling with one of her enchanting tools, and nodded to him. The wards were bypassed; they were in.
The route prescribed was a winding one. After only a few feet up the paved path, they slipped through a gap in the hedge and took a circuitous course through the upward-sloping grounds, avoiding patrols of guards and making maximum use of available cover. Saduko seemed tense enough to vibrate, but in truth this was laughably easy. Shook figured he could’ve made the approach even on his own, but having memorized Kamari’s map and directions, it was a literal walk in the park.
Keeping their pace careful, it took them less than ten minutes to reach a nook at one corner of the estate’s outer wall, where a small service door was hidden from view of the streets by a stand of lemon trees. It wouldn’t do to let the commoners outside see that Om’ponole’s flawless gardens required such mundane things as gardeners and tools. That would spoil the image. They really did not take their security seriously here.
Saduko knelt beside the door, placed her hand against it and closed her eyes, concentrating. “…as indicated. It is a standard enchantment, several years out of date, in fact. Quite sturdy; there must be a potent energy source supporting this estate’s network. But not complicated. I can circumvent it.” She fell silent, but her lips continued to move rapidly.
“Don’t need your little tool for that?” Shook asked. He began to be annoyed when she didn’t immediately respond, but quashed it. She wasn’t disrespecting him; she was working. He approved of professionalism.
“The focus was necessary to thwart a ward network of the size that covered the whole estate’s perimeter,” she said finally, opening her eyes and smoothly standing up. “To deal with such a small barrier, any decent enchanter needs only her mind. I’m afraid the lock is beyond my skill, however. That is your area.”
On a whim, he reached out and turned the knob. The latch clicked and the door swung smoothly inward on silent hinges.
“Amateurs,” Shook muttered, slipping inside. Saduko followed on his heels.
It was dark within. According to the plan, Kamari would meet them here; the outside door led to a shed built into the wall, housing tools and supplies for the gardeners. It had been dim outside; the decorative little lamps adorning Om’ponole’s gardens hadn’t been enough to wreck his night vision. Still, he couldn’t make out anything beyond the shapes of heavily curtained windows and murky shadows that might have been anything. He wasn’t about to go blundering around in the darkness.
Saduko carefully pushed the door shut behind them, and they waited in silence for a few tense moments.
“He’s supposed to meet us here,” Shook breathed to himself in annoyance, then raised his voice to a hoarse stage whisper. “Kamari? It’s us.”
Light exploded in the room.
It was too much, too fast; Shook was all but blinded, throwing up a hand to shield his eyes. Even in that first instant, however, he could already see that everything had gone wrong.
Kamari knelt in the middle of the floor, right in front of them, slumped forward so that his face was hidden, his hands obviously tied behind his back. He had clearly been placed there for dramatic effect; Shook allowed himself to hope the man was a prisoner, but only for a moment. Kamari was bruised, lacerated and abraded badly in multiple places, his ripped servant’s uniform heavily stained with blood. It was no longer dripping, however.
Shook had put enough holes in enough bodies during his career to know that living ones bled when you did so.
He could spare poor Kamari no more concern, however, because they were far from alone in the room. It wasn’t a large space, but plenty big enough to contain the six guards lining the walls. Shook suddenly found himself respecting their ceremonial wicker armor a lot more, and not just because of the staves now pointed at him. They did not look pleased to make his acquaintance.
“And here you are,” said a seventh man, well-dressed enough almost to be a minor noble himself, in the colorful fashion of Onkawa, with one of those silly little flat-topped hats they liked around here. He smirked unpleasantly at Shook. “How very punctual you are! I am pleased to see that our Kamari’s directions served you well. We might have altered the guards’ patrol to let you pass, but I refrained; I wished to see whether you knew enough to truly penetrate the estate’s outer defenses. I would applaud Kamari’s diligence in this, but…well, you know.”
Casually, he kicked Kamari’s shoulder with one sandaled foot. The lifeless servant slumped over onto his side. Mercifully, he landed in a position that still kept his face hidden from them. Saduko, pressed against the door, made a strangled noise in her throat.
“And you are?” Shook asked flatly, refusing to give this asshole the satisfaction of looking frightened.
“You have not earned my name,” the man said coldly. Some kind of higher servant, maybe a steward or personal assistant to the chieftain, likely. “Suffice it to know that you are now mine, and will remain so for the time being. Ah, yes, and our very helpful acquaintance! I apologize for this brutish reception, Saduko-san, but barbarians such as this understand no other language. Please, step this way; you are owed a great reward. My master lavishes honor upon those who serve him well.”
Saduko gasped. “What?” she squeaked, naked emotion audible in her voice for the first time since Shook had met her.
He wasn’t impressed by it. The rage that suddenly boiled up in him demanded outlet. How dare she? How fucking dare she spit on Vandro’s hospitality and his own loyalty?! Red tinged his world; he couldn’t even think beyond the overpowering need to inflict vengeance.
“You backstabbing little whore!” Shook whirled and lunged for her.
He didn’t hear the crack of lightning, but he felt it. Only for a second, though.
Mary and McGraw acted simultaneously; a rough wall of black igneous rock thrust upward between the group and the dragon, instantly reinforced by a glittering shield of pure arcane energy. Not a moment too soon; a torrent of dragonfire immediately blasted the barrier. Rock turned scarlet at the edges, beginning to drop off in globs under the onslaught. A shrill whine filled the air as the blue shield turned white and nearly opaque, flickering. McGraw gritted his teeth, clutching his staff as if he were hanging from it.
Joe could spare them no attention. More throwing knives flashed at the group, aimed at each of them; even with all his gifts, shooting them down tested his skill well beyond what he’d been prepared for. It was fortunate that he didn’t have a moment to question his capability. There was no time; there was only instinct. Angle, gravity and force told him trajectories; his hands moved on their own in minute adjustments, his mind flickering out to touch the enchantments in his wands with split-instant precision. Small knives fell harmlessly to the ground, bent and punctured by bolts of energy.
Weaver had drawn a wand from within his own coat and returned fire while Joe was still on the defensive. That put a stop to Vannae’s attack—fortunately, as Joe wasn’t at all sure how long he could have kept that up. Gifted or no, no human moved as quickly or precisely as an elf. Vannae was forced to dodge back from them, bouncing like a greased jackalope.
Joe and Weaver both pressed their attack while he was off-balance. Joe had seen elves in motion, of course, even in battle, and even before the confrontation with the White Riders in Sarasio. He had never had occasion to shoot at one, though, and was finding it a frustratingly fruitless experience.
Behind them, the dragonfire slackened off, and Joe angled his body to give himself a look at their companions without letting Vannae out of his field of view. McGraw was kneeling on the ground, panting; Billie stood beside him, laboring feverishly at a squat tube she had placed on a tripod on the rock. The stone barrier had been reinforced into a small mountain nearly as thick as it was stall, molten and still glowing at the edges, but not penetrated. Heat sufficient to melt rock should have roasted them all from sheer convection; either Mary or McGraw must have counteracted that somehow. Likely the former, given the latter’s apparent condition.
He returned his attention to the elf, trusting his companions to deal with Khadizroth. He and Weaver weren’t making any headway, however. Vannae even found time to hurl a tomahawk at them; Joe easily shot down the much larger missile.
“I thought you were some kind of crack shot,” Weaver growled.
“I am!” Joe protested. “Something’s not right. The math isn’t working!” He was beginning to grow truly alarmed; his instincts, his sense of angles and numbers, was telling him the shots he was firing should be striking flesh, no matter how the elf bounded. He had begun by aiming for arms and legs as was his usual pattern, but as Vannae continued to slip around his shots, had switched to what should have been lethal hits. It made no difference; he hit nothing but air and stone.
“The math?!” Weaver roared. “Boy, when did you find time to scarf down a glittershroom?!”
“He’s doing something,” Joe realized. “Magic! He’s messing with reality somehow.” Even as he said it, he realized how unlikely that was. Such alteration took enormous power, not the kind of thing even an expert shaman could do while jumping around evasively and not appearing to concentrate. Using magic to alter his perceptions, though, was extremely basic witchcraft.
“Oh, really,” Weaver said grimly, holstering his wand. “Keep him busy a bit longer.” The bard drew out his flute, raised it to his lips, and blew.
Uncomfortable as they were, Joe was suddenly very glad of his magic earplugs.
His ears told him he was hearing the sweet, high tone of a flute; all the rest of his senses suggested he was standing next to a just-rung bell the size of a haycart. The whole world seemed to vibrate, the very air resonating. He could feel the earth humming in response.
Vannae staggered, sort of. It was only a momentary lapse, and elven agility enabled him to recover immediately. It was a moment, though, and Joe brought his wands to bear again.
This time, the elf simply managed to move faster than he had expected. He only clipped Vannae on the upper arm and thigh as the elf spun out of the way. Whatever Weaver was doing had canceled out his magical advantage.
Weaver ran out of breath, though; the sound of the flute ended, and there as a second’s stillness. The elf stared at them, wide-eyed; the two adventurers stared back, panting.
A roar sounded from behind them, and something flashed blindingly blue against the darkness.
Joe chanced a glance over his shoulder, just in time to see Khadizroth’s massive form hurled bodily backward. The dragon actually flew over a hundred yards, slamming into the outer wall of the caldera and tumbling to the ground, apparently stunned.
There was a circular hole burned through the center of Mary’s rock wall, and Billie’s device was belching smoke and appeared to have spontaneously rusted to scraps.
“YEAH!” the gnome crowed, pumping a fist in the air. “Suck it, scaletail!”
Joe sensed movement and responded with a wild flurry of small energy bolts. Vannae had started to charge them, but had changed his course at Joe’s reprisal, again barely dodging. His buckskins were scorched where the Kid had grazed him, but if he was in pain, it wasn’t slowing him down. Worse, he had clearly reinstated whatever spell he was using to interfere with Joe’s aim. A further barrage of shots all went wild. Barely so, but barely was enough; he was making no progress against the elf.
“Finish him off!” McGraw rasped behind them.
“I’m out, I’ll need a bit to set up another weapon,” Billie replied, and then whatever else was said was buried under another blast from Weaver’s flute.
This time Vannae staggered much less gracefully, favoring his hit leg.
Moving faster than thought, Joe put a bolt of white light through his other knee. The elf screamed out in pain, stumbling to the ground. Two more blasts pierced each of his hands, and he collapsed to the rock floor.
Weaver’s flute trailed off and the bard gasped for breath. Behind them the others were chattering; Joe tuned them out, unwilling to take his attention off the elf again. Wounded or no, elves were slippery and quick. He approached slowly, both his weapons trained on Vannae. His opponent seemed to pose no threat, however; he lay there curled around himself, shuddering.
“Well,” said Weaver with satisfaction. “One down, just the big one to go.” He raised his wand.
“Stop!” Joe barked, stepping in front of him.
“Are you—get out of the way, kid,” Weaver snapped, trying to step around him. Joe kept moving, keeping himself positioned to ruin the bard’s line of sight without letting Vannae slip out of his peripheral vision. Even with the elf doing nothing but laying there, it was tricky.
“He’s down! You are not going to shoot a fallen, injured man who poses us no threat.”
“The only enemy who poses no threat is a dead one, and you can’t always assume that about them. Boy, I do not have time to indulge your naivete. This is real life; sometimes you have to do ugly things with far-reaching consequences. Now move it!”
He stepped forward, as if to push Joe bodily out of the way.
Joe raised his wand.
The bard stopped, staring at the tip of the weapon from inches away.
“…do you really think that’s wise, boy?” he asked quietly.
“No,” Joe replied. “I think it’s ugly, and likely to have far-reaching consequences. I surely do wish you’d left me with a better option.”
They stared each other down across the wand for a silent moment.
Then, the rush of wings, the tremendous thump of the dragon’s bulk landing on the other side of the fallen elf. Immediately forgetting Weaver, Joe whirled, aiming both wands. They were the best modern enchantment could produce, but he had no idea if they could penetrate a dragon’s hide. Billie’s peculiar weapon sure hadn’t. It seemed he was about to find out, though; there was nothing between him and the dragon but one prone elf.
Khadizroth, however, merely stared down at him, tilting his head to one side as if puzzled.
“I am pleased to have met you, Joseph Jenkins, however briefly,” the dragon rumbled. “You evince a sense of honor I had begun to think extinct among your race.”
Slowly, very carefully, Joe lowered his weapons. If the dragon wasn’t going to attack, he wasn’t about to be the one to start the violence up again.
“I think there’s enough perfidy and virtue everywhere to satisfy anyone,” he replied. “If you’re only seein’ one or the other, maybe that says something about the company you keep.”
The dragon emitted a booming huff accompanied by a gout of black smoke; Joe whipped his weapons back up before he realized Khadizroth was laughing. “And wise, for a child.”
“Something my pa once told me,” he said tersely, forcing himself to lower his wands again.
“Indeed. I would prefer not to destroy you, Mr. Jenkins, if it can be arranged. Your society badly needs the influence of your ideas.”
“We can still come to an agreement,” Joe said. “This doesn’t have to be any uglier than it has been already.”
“Have you something to offer that you neglected to mention initially?” The dragon moved his whole head on his serpentine neck, swiveling his gaze around their group; Joe glanced back to see the others forming up beside himself and Weaver. McGraw seemed to be refreshed, likely thanks to Mary’s aid. “No? Then we remain at the same impasse. I ask that you grant me a momentary reprieve, however, to tend to my friend.”
“You’ve gotta be joking,” said Billie.
Khadizroth lowered his head to stare down at her, featureless green eyes expressionless, the expression on his scaled muzzle—if any—totally inscrutable. “I give you my word, Billie Fallowstone, I shall only move Vannae to a safe place and set a healing upon him. Then I will return, having made no further preparations to battle you, and we may resume from here.”
“What I’m having trouble with is that’d be a goddamn stupid thing for you to do,” Weaver said. “I really can’t see you as being an idiot.”
“Sometimes, Gravestone Weaver, honor must precede reason. If this is the price you demand for allowing me to tend my friend, I shall pay it.”
“We accept those terms,” said Mary.
“Wait, we what?” Billie demanded.
Khadizroth, however, nodded respectfully to her. “Thank you. I shall return anon.” With astonishing tenderness, he carefully lifted Vannae’s twitching form in his massive front claws. Then, giving a mighty pump of his wings, he was aloft, gliding swiftly out of the light of his glowing garden over the caldera’s rim.
“There’s no way he’s just tending to that elf,” Weaver exclaimed. “Gods only know what tricks you just gave him the chance to pull out!”
“He won’t,” Mary said evenly. “Khadizroth the Green prizes his honor, and his reputation for upholding it, above almost everything else. He will do exactly as he promised.”
“But that’s crazy! He’d be handing us a free chance to plan something against him!”
“Then let us by all means use that chance instead of complaining,” she replied, a bite in her tone. “I can neutralize him, but not alone. I must make my preparations. You see that spot, the small clearing between those three glowing maple trees?” She held out an arm, indicating a spot near the middle of the caldera. “He must be brought there, on the ground, stunned or momentarily incapacitated. Can the four of you do this?”
“We’ll make it happen,” McGraw promised, nodding.
There was a flutter of small wings, and the crow vanished into the surrounding darkness.
“And we’re gonna do that fucking how, precisely?” Weaver demanded.
“Language, there’s a—”
“Joe, I appreciate it, but you can give that a rest,” said Billie with a grin. “Been a long damn time since I could fairly call myself a lady.”
“What about the long shot?” Joe asked, turning to McGraw. “Your signature move, isn’t it?”
McGraw was already shaking his head. “No good, kid. There’s not room in this crater to set it up. I’d need at least three times the space to get one going strong enough to put down a dragon.”
Joe frowned. “How many gates would it take?”
“Hypothetically, then. Indulge me, please.”
McGraw snorted. “Hypothetically? Hell, I can give you precise numbers. Five jumps will magnify a standard wandshot to roughly the power of an Imperial mag cannon; one of those was once used to bring down a dragon. But, as I said, there’s no room. We could set up maybe two in here, at most.”
“Somebody wanna let the rest of us in on the joke?” Weaver asked.
“They’re talkin’ about dimensional amplification,” said Billie. “You pump a burst of arcane energy through a series of unstable dimensional portals. If you do it right, your shot garners up loose energy from the portals and grows more powerful with each one. Exponentially. So yeah, about five jumps’d turn a basic wandshot into fuckin’ artillery fire. Y’know how battlestaves are longer than a wand? Same basic principle. I was tryin’ ta do something similar with my gizmo that I just blew up taking down Khadizroth.”
“That sounds like half a dozen things in a race to see which can go catastrophically wrong first,” said Weaver in awe.
“Well, yeah, you may ‘ave noticed it blew up. There’s a reason Imperial mag artillery units don’t try this on battlefields.”
“You can angle the portals, though,” said Joe, making a spiral shape in the air with his fingertip. “Like a nautilus shell. Get the angles exactly right, and the portals will naturally redirect the shot. We can fit them into the crater that way.”
“Joe, that’s pure theory,” said McGraw. “What you are talking about… You’d need to set up those portals with a degree of precision that’d take a whole platoon of engineers a week and a mountain of blueprints to achieve. And that’s in a laboratory, not out here. And then you’d have to land your shot into the portal array with a precision that just ain’t humanly possible.”
“I can do both.”
They all stared at him.
“Kid, I get that you’re eager to please,” Weaver began.
“Look,” said Joe impatiently, “we don’t have time for my whole biography. Will you just trust that I’m not fool enough to risk all our lives on a boast I can’t back up? There’s a reason I’m the best wandfighter in my province.”
“Be that as it may,” said McGraw, “you aren’t a mage. You can’t conjure a dimensional portal.”
“Mm,” Billie mused, stroking her chin thoughtfully. The tufted tips of her ears twitched rapidly. “If I can supply you with portal focus stones, can you set ’em up properly?”
“It’s the angles that are the problem; the ground out here is badly uneven,” said Joe. “Can you compensate for that?”
She grinned broadly. “How about fixing ’em to tripods with adjustable legs? Then you can set ’em up to make any angle you need in three dimensions.”
“That could work,” Joe said, unable to contain his excitement.
“You’ve got equipment on hand for that?” Weaver exclaimed.
“Laddie boy, I got equipment on hand for shit you ain’t crazy enough to imagine.”
“All right,” said McGraw, thunking the butt of his staff against the ground for emphasis, “it’s a plan. Joe, are you sure you can do this? Because you are quite literally gambling our lives on it.”
“I make my living gambling; I know what it looks like.” Joe met the old man’s steely gaze, willing him to believe. “This ain’t a gamble. As long as Billie’s, uh, tripods work the way she says, it’s just math.”
McGraw drew in a deep breath and blew it out hard enough to ruffle his mustache. “All right. Billie, how much time you need to get those things ready?”
“Uh… Gimme seven minutes. No, nine, I’ll need to find a corner to tuck myself in where the dragon doesn’t fry my ass.”
“Nine minutes.” McGraw nodded. “We’ll have to distract the dragon that long; he’ll be back any second, most likely.”
“Healing spells work that fast?” Joe asked, surprised
“With something as powerful as a dragon working ’em, they do. Then Billie hands the stones off to Joe, who’ll have to place ’em around the crater properly while the rest of us distract him more. Then the moment of truth: Weaver and Billie maneuver him to the right position, I conjure the portals at the focus stones, Joe takes his shot, and Mary springs her trap.”
“We are just so indescribably boned,” Weaver said fatalistically.
“It’s a plan, though,” said McGraw, “and it beats the lack of one.” He turned to stare at the dark rim of the caldera; they all fell still, listening to the approaching sound of wingbeats. “And we are out of time.”
“Just remember, each of us has a role to play in this, so whatever you do, don’t get killed during your turn at distracting him,” said Billie. “Except Weaver, who is purely a diversion and thus expendable.”
“You can all go straight to hell,” said Weaver, incongruously sounding more cheerful than Joe had ever heard him.
Then they had no more time to talk, for the dragon had swooped down on them. The blast of his wings blew off their hats and shoved them backward as he beat down, slowing his descent, and still struck the ground with enough force to noticeably shake it.
“So,” Khadizroth rumbled. “Are you prep—”
Weaver shot him in the face.
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