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“All right. Caine, heal who you can,” Ruda said, breaking the stunned silence. “Arquin, help him.”
“Yes, I know you suck at it, which is why you’re following his lead. Juniper…do something about that.” She pointed at the huddled form of Milady, turning to her next targets as Toby and Gabriel headed toward the nearest source of pained groans. “Locke, Fross, I need intel. Check at the doors and windows, see what you can see without getting lost in that mess. And that leaves…”
She abruptly bounded onto the crate serving as steps to the improvised dais and from there to the platform itself, prompting a startled squeal from the man now lying flat upon it with his arms over his head.
Ruda bent to seize him by the collar and dragged him bodily to his knees, idly resting the tip of her rapier against the crates in conspicuous view.
“Hi there,” she said with a grin that was far too broad to be sincere. “While my friends try to salvage what they can of your friends, I’m gonna need you to tell me where your other friends toddled off to.”
The man stared up at her, mouth moving convulsively for a moment until he closed it to swallow.
“The ones with the metal appendages,” she prompted, deliberately flexing her wrist and scraping the tip of her sword along the wood near him. “I’m sure you must’ve noticed them.”
“I…” He swallowed again before continuing hoarsely, staring at a point past her shoulder. “I was… They helped me, don’t you see? I was nothing, but they taught me…”
“They picked up a loser at his low point, yes, I understand how religions work.” Ruda gave him a firm shake. “Where are the metal people?”
“My boat sank,” he said mechanically, “my son ran away to Tiraas, I had nothing…”
“HEY.” She hiked him up higher till his face was inches from hers, and his attention focused back on her. “I am not your fucking biographer. Where the fuck did your leaders go? Spit it out!”
This was fortuitously punctuated by a shriek from behind her as Toby set someone’s dislocated shoulder. The flash of golden healing light which followed only served to cast her face in ominous shadow.
Ruda’s prisoner drew a shuddering breath, but then his eyes seemed to come more into focus and he made a small shift which might have been a squaring of the shoulders had he been held in a less awkward position.
“I…can’t,” he said more quietly. “Do what you want. I have many weaknesses, but I’m no traitor.”
“Well, I respect that,” she replied, drawing back her sword arm to lift its tip till it rested against his thigh. “But it makes this really fuckin’ hard, so—”
“Hey!” Principia slipped back in from the side door through which she had departed, leaving it to bang in the wind behind her. “We’re about a block from the palace. It’s hard to hear clearly in this storm but I’m pretty sure the Rock is under attack.”
“It’s bad, Ruda!” Fross chimed, zooming in from one of the upper windows. “She’s right, the castle’s under seige—and I think for the second time! There’s Rust cultists with metal pieces holding the ramparts and someone else is attacking the south gate, I didn’t get a good look at who or what, but somebody is channeling lightning bolts at the Rust on the battlements!”
Ruda drew in a hissing breath through her teeth, then abruptly dropped the cultist. “Congrats, you are now redundant, have a nice life. We’ve gotta move, people. What’s our situation?”
“There’s…not a lot of these people I can still do anything for,” Toby reported somberly. “The good news is nobody who survived had any immediately life-threatening damage, but some of these lightning burns are going to require more complicated treatment than—”
“That’s their problem, then. There’s a hospital four streets away; if you’ve done the triage, we’re done here. Juniper? Is she going to be any use at all?”
“I…have no idea what’s wrong,” Juniper said helplessly, straightening up. She had been kneeling next to Milady, trying to get a response, but the woman had fallen into repetitive rocking and a haunted stare into space. “I can’t find any injury or curse or anything and all the magic in her makes it hard to sniff out… I mean, she smells kinda like me. She’s just gone completely bonkers, it looks like.”
“Battle shock,” Principia said curtly, striding over and squatting on her heels to peer at Milady. The woman in black didn’t seem to notice. “She just slaughtered a room full of people, after all; nobody normal can go through something like that without some kind of reaction. More to the point, the only humans I’ve seen move that way are Butlers. You can’t lose a fight, can you?”
This last was in a lower tone, directed at Milady. She made no reply except to squeeze her eyes shut and begin whispering frantic apologies to no one.
“Excuse me, what?” Ruda exclaimed.
“I think she’s got a fairy curse of some kind,” Principia said, still studying Milady. “It’d explain why she smells like dryads. I knew a guy once who had something similar; he was cursed never to lose a battle.”
“How is that a curse?” Gabriel asked.
“Boy, look at this, and look at that.” Principia pointed first at Milady and then at a stretch of the floor upon which seven dead people were strewn in a mixed swamp of their own blood. “Imagine being forced to retaliate with all your full lethality whenever anybody came at you, and having no control over it. What a nightmare.”
“Well, we’ll have to leave her, then,” Ruda stated, heading toward the front door.
“We can’t do that,” Toby retorted. “Especially not here! She’s helpless, and surrounded by—”
“Aside from being the Princess here,” Principia interrupted, standing, “Punaji is right. She’s a liability. She has been a liability from the beginning, the whole time she was accompanying us into unknown danger with this hanging over her and no word of warning. Bitch could’ve had the effect triggered by anything and slaughtered half of us before we knew what was happening. Leave her, we’ve gotta move.”
“Nobody is not worth helping,” Toby said stubbornly.
“Caine, either come help save my family or fuck off. I don’t have time for this.” Ruda hauled open one of the big front doors, grabbed her hat as a gust of wind immediately tried to rip it away, and stalked out into the storm without another backward look. Principia went right on her heels, and Fross darted after them, Juniper following more slowly and with several uncertain glances back at Milady.
“You can’t tell me this is right,” Toby said, turning to Gabriel. “She just saved our—”
“Toby, you were there. She started that fight, because of that…whatever it was that went off, which she never warned us about. Locke has a point, that’s murderously irresponsible at best. It could’ve killed us all down there; it’s actually a miracle it didn’t.” He glanced down at Milady, then shook his head and turned resolutely toward the door. “No, it isn’t right. It’s not. Sifa’s going to stay and watch over her, but that’s all I can spare. Sometimes you have to choose who to save, Toby. I’m choosing Ruda’s family.”
He rested a hand on Toby’s shoulder for a moment, glanced a last time down at the huddled woman, then turned and followed the others out into the storm.
Toby was the last to go, but go he did.
The group had only been out of sight for a minute, and the surviving Rust were starting to creep toward Milady, when a new figure appeared in the door, sending them fleeing toward the side entrance with a chorus of screams.
The sylph paced across the warehouse with his peculiar gait that was both a stork’s prancing and a snake’s slither, and slowly coiled his long shape around her, huge talons squelching softly in the drying blood underfoot. She didn’t respond.
“Poor, stubborn little hero,” Aradeus murmured, arching a wing protectively over her. “Mmm. You smell of pain buried not deep enough, and good advice not obeyed. You should have gone to see the healer. Always go to see the healer. Well.” He subtly tightened around her, disturbing her balance; she slumped against his silvery body, and he rested his chin atop her head. “Mmm. Great adventures will unfold tonight, but there is no evil to destroy, so I will not fight. I will observe. This is as good a place as any other, hmmm? We will watch this storm pass together.”
The gatehouse’s tiny side door was thick enough to constitute a fortress wall on its own, aside from being the narrowest door she had ever seen. Its odd proportions made it interesting to slip through and get it shut behind her against the howling storm without attracting attention. Tallie paused just inside, letting the water stream off her (it wouldn’t give her away since the whole hallway was likewise wet) and listening.
A faint rustle sounded from the room to her right, but apart from that, nothing. Once she was fairly sure no one had heard, she crept forward.
It was a narrow hall, terminating directly ahead in a stairwell that ascended to, according to Trissiny, a barracks. That would be full of Rust cultists. Though the gatehouse had a matching small door to the interior of the fortress, of course there was no convenient path from that portal to this one, which made sense defensively speaking. If anybody penetrated this entrance they would have to navigate a deliberately illogical route full of corners, stairs, and ideally soldiers, many of the halls in question lined with apertures in the ceiling and upper walls through which the Rock’s defenders could rain punishment on any intruder.
This hall had an ominous profusion of those. Hopefully the Rust hadn’t already found a use for them.
Midway down it along the right wall was a door into what Trissiny had said would be a small armory. Apparently somebody was in there, to judge by the faint scuffling she heard.
Tallie slipped up to the edge of the door, paused for a moment in thought, and then jumped. The narrowness of the hall was her ally; it gave her the perfect amount of space to brace herself across its width. Clambering up to the ceiling, she grabbed the inside of one of the dark holes meant to pour boiling oil or whatever on her, extended her body fully along the ceiling and braced her toes in another, and gingerly lowered her head to peek in through the upper edge of the doorway.
It was a cat burglar’s constant salvation: nobody ever looked up.
The armory was in pretty good order, with no signs of a struggle. That was odd, considering there were two Punaji soldiers and one half-machine man who had to have been one of these Rust characters present. One of the Punaji was bound hand and foot, lying on his side facing the door. The other lay oriented in the opposite direction, with the machine cultist kneeling between him and the entrance, apparently tying off a matching set of bindings.
Tallie hesitated, then lowered her head more fully into the room, enough to be noticeable. Sure enough, the bound soldier’s gaze shifted to her and his eyes widened.
She lowered her free hand, holding herself in place with one hand on an oil loop, one foot in another and the other braced across the hall, and held a finger to her lips. The man stared up at her, but did not otherwise react.
Two friendly soldiers present, and an enemy with his back to the door. Surely she wasn’t going to encounter any situation so fortuitous again. But how to take advantage? Tallie wasn’t a fighter even when accounting for people who weren’t partially made of metal.
Dithering nearly cost her dearly; Tallie snapped her head up at the unmistakable sound of feet running down the stairwell.
The armory had rafters across the ceiling. Trusting the architect not to have been a complete obfuscatory asshole, Tallie shifted herself forward and down at an angle, grabbing the lintel of the door frame with both hands, and swung her whole body feet-first into the room, vaulting straight upward.
Yes, rafters in the right place! She had to shift her angle of attack in mid-swing, but even so got her legs wrapped around a beam with a deftness that pleased her, then swung the rest of the way up to land atop it, out of view of both the door and the cultist below.
She could’ve made that jump by the age of eleven, but the very training that honed her body into a limber showpiece had left her with some habits the Guild had had to laboriously beat from her. Training had paid off, though, and she made her movements economical and silent. The fallen soldier’s eyes tracked her, but the cultist gave no sign he’d heard a thing.
That was all the time she had before the approaching footsteps finished approaching. Another cultist, likewise with a whole limb that looked like some crazy dwarven contraption, but this one a woman.
“Rasul!” she said breathlessly. “Are you still—what are you doing? Just drop a screambell and leave them!”
At the woman’s entrance the soldier who had noticed Tallie shifted his glare to her and did not glance upward, giving no sign of her presence. Eserites weren’t big on prayer, but she offered a silent thanks for meeting friendlies who weren’t complete and utter rubes.
“You’ve heard the sound those things make,” Rasul replied calmly, finishing binding the second soldier’s arms behind his back. “It’s painful, and you can’t tell me it won’t cause permanent damage to the ears if you just leave it on someone. We didn’t come here to be cruel.”
“Well, we don’t have time to be kind,” she snapped. “Somebody is assaulting the south gate—somebody with magic. There’s lightning bolts coming from the sky and some kind of a thing trying to ram the gate down, and the screamlances aren’t doing a thing to it. We have to hold them off until Ayuvesh can finish his work!”
“I see.” Rasul straightened, the joints in his legs—both metal starting from above the knees—clicking oddly, then again as he bowed to the two fallen soldiers. “I’m sorry about this, brothers. You should be all right here; it won’t be long.”
With no more word, he strode out after his comrade, who had already bolted back up the hallway. The man moved with amazing smoothness for somebody whose legs were clockwork.
Tallie listened for the sound of his heavy steps to recede up the stairs before dropping lightly to the floor. Whipping out her belt knife, she knelt next to the second soldier, just because his bound hands were facing her.
She took the precaution of reaching her free hand around to cover his mouth, and a good thing, too, as the sudden contact prompted a yell. The other trooper started to pull himself upright, struggling against his bonds, as Tallie approached his compatriot with a knife.
“Hush up, rubes!” she hissed. “I’m gonna cut you loose, hold still a minute.”
“Not that I’m ungrateful but who the hell are you?” the first man demanded. It was a fair enough question; she obviously wasn’t Rust, but equally obviously wasn’t military or even Punaji.
“I’m with the Thieves’ Guild,” she said quietly, sawing through the just-tied cord as rapidly as she could. “I’ve got more thieves, a Salyrite witch and the Hand of damn well Avei coming to help, but I need to get them inside before they can be much use.”
“Well, fuck me running,” the man she was untying said in amazement.
“Later, sailor,” Tallie grunted. “Business before pleasure. You guys know the layout; I need to get that gate open so my people can hit these assholes from behind. What’s—”
“Uh, first things first,” interrupted the first man she’d seen, his eyes now fixed on a spot at which men had an annoying tendency to stare. “Why’ve you got a glowing rat in your cleavage?”
“This is taking too long. Is it taking too long?” Layla altered her pacing pattern, beginning to orbit the rest of the group instead of stalking up and down in front of them. “How long does it take to break into an impregnable fortress? I should have gone with her, I can move almost as quietly… You’d know if something happened to her, right, Schwartz? You’d tell us?”
“Oy.” As she passed, Darius reached out and seized his sister by the back of her neck. “You can’t possibly think that’s helping him concentrate.”
“It’s all right,” Schwartz said without opening his eyes. “Concentration is as much emotional as intellectual. As long as you lot are squabbling, I know the world is still in order.”
Darius snorted a laugh at that, but Layla just shook him off with a glare and resumed pacing, now chewing her bottom lip.
Schwartz hadn’t bothered with any kind of ritual circle for this, though off to his right was another small improvised altar made from cobblestones pried up out of the streets themselves, this one with a handful of loose crystals of various colors on its top. He was sitting cross-legged, his spine straight and eyes closed, with elbows braced against his sides and both arms extended palm-up. His right hand appeared to be on fire; in his left rested another cobblestone which constantly trembled and twitched as if he were bouncing it, though his hand was not moving.
“Waiting is part of any heist,” Trissiny said calmly, “as well as any military campaign. This is a bit of both. Trust our friend like she does us; we all know what we’re doing.”
“If it was you in there I’d be less worried,” Layla muttered, not slowing. “Or Schwartz. The rest of us are just apprentices.”
“None of you are just anything,” Trissiny said automatically, then let out a soft sigh when Layla scowled at her. “All right, I take your point, but still. Tallie is good. We wouldn’t have let her do this if she wasn’t good enough.”
Schwartz suddenly opened his eyes, and Darius winced looking at him. Behind his spectacles, they glowed orange-red, the same shade as Meesie’s fur.
“Trouble where?” Trissiny asked, instinctively grasping her sword. “Do we need to pull her out?”
“Tallie’s okay,” the witch reported. “She’s rescued a couple of soldiers, and the Rust have been drawn off by our diversion; Meesie can’t hear any strange noise weapons nearby. The problem is at the other gate.” He suddenly grimaced and had to close his hands over the cobblestone, which was suddenly trying to jerk fully away from him. “I’m—they’ve—okay, those sound weapons aren’t bothering the elemental but it turns out they’ve got more mundane methods…”
“Stay here and be ready to help Tallie if she needs it,” Trissiny ordered the siblings, drawing her blade. “Sounds like this is my cue.”
The group pulled back together as they neared the fortress. The storm appeared to be on the wane, Naphthene’s fury ebbing off as quickly as it had come; the wind had slackened notably and the lightning was both less frequent and more distant. There was no relief from the downpour, however, and they were all drenched from the moment of stepping outside.
Fross, as usual, darted ahead, shooting around the corner that led their current street onto the open square before the Rock’s south gate. Principia was the first after her, but the rest were not far behind. They all piled to an immediate stop, though, trying to make sense of what they were seeing.
Something was trying to smash the gates like a living battering ram, a low-slung creature about the shape of a crocodile but apparently covered in a shell of stone. Or stones, more correctly, thickly clustered over it like scales. In fact, it was hard to tell details through the rain, but they appeared to be exactly the same color and texture as the cobblestone plaza over which it was charging again.
The weird creature was clearly trying to bash the gate itself in; even as they watched, it backed up and charged forward once more, its blunt head crashing against the outer gates. There was no telling how long it had been at this, but there was already a sizable splintered dent around the spot where the gates met, evidence of repeated pounding. However, the stone monster’s efforts were no longer going so smoothly.
It appeared to be trying to ignore the Rust harassing it and focus on its task, but that was clearly growing more difficult by the moment. A person sitting astride some kind of mechanical mount and carrying a long lance was hassling it relentlessly. The machine he was riding resembled an ostrich with a long tail for balance and a steering stick like an enchanted carriage’s where its head should be. It made an awful clatter as he maneuvered it one-handed, piston-legs pounding into the cobblestones and its joints clacking and emitting gouts of steam.
Its rider swooped around in a wide arc to charge at the stone beast again even as his target backed up for another run at the gate. He lowered his lance and its head sparked alight with arcs of electricity that made an uncontrolled nimbus in the rain. It impacted the side of the creature with enough force to shove it off-balance. The impact was enough to bring the mechanical running-bird up short, and the rider only kept his grip on the lance because it was attached to his metal arm.
Another Rust cultist was nearby on foot, wielding another shock lance with which he continually jabbed and bludgeoned the stone creature. Lacking the speed and weight of the birdlike mount, his blows hadn’t enough inertia to shift it, but that electrified lance head still did damage, each blow causing a spray of stone chips and sometimes dislodging an entire chunk of rock.
While they stared, another mechanical thing suddenly arrived, charging out of a side street to join the fray. This one was like a gigantic insect, six legs clattering noisily as it came. Rather than slamming into the stone beast as it first appeared to be about to do, it skidded to a stop nearby and this second Rust cultist leaped into its seat.
“Okay, these guys and their contraptions are old news,” Ruda said above the noise, “but what the fuck is that thing?”
“There’s a lot of fae magic in that,” Juniper said, squinting through the rain. “Like…it’s mostly fae magic.”
“It’s an elemental,” Principia said slowly. “A pavement elemental. Well, that’s a new one, I’ve gotta say.”
“What’s your call, Princess?” Gabriel asked, turning to Ruda. “Taking down the Rust is a safe bet, but we don’t know whose side the elemental’s on, except that they don’t like it. Is this an enemy-of-my-enemy thing, or do we come down on anyone who’s attacking the Rock?”
Ruda frowned at the scene in silence for a bare moment before responding. “Fuck it, we’ve gotta get in, and it looks like they’ve got control of the gates. My parents are in danger right now, we don’t have time to sort this out. Take down the Rust, and unless that thing attacks us help it get the gates—”
A deep, bellowing whinny cut through the storm and her orders, and yet another bulky figure came charging into the square from a side street. This one came from almost straight ahead, originating off the north side of the fortress’s corner and approaching at an angle that would barely skirt the tower and plow head-on into the melee.
It was a horse—an armored horse, though clearly not mechanical, and ridden by an armored figure. That was all they could perceive through the downpour, until it burst alight. Golden wings flared out from the rider, and her sword blazed with pure divine power as she leveled it at the nearest mounted cultist.
“YEEAAAAAH!” Fross screamed, shooting straight upward and erupting in a burst of silver glitter like a firework. “YOU FUCKERS ARE DONE!”
The Rock was a surpassingly resilient bastion, defensible both within and without. Punaji history being rife with coups and revolutions, those occupying its seat of power made no assumptions about their safety. Even in its deepest interior, the Rock’s corridors abounded with blind turns, choke points, doors as hard to break as the outer gates of some lesser fortresses, and more than a handful of booby traps.
It was also, of course, fully staffed both by soldiers and by civilian Punaji who not only carried weapons but didn’t need much prompting to use them. The joke on the wharves was that a Punaji scullery maid was roughly a match for a Sheng infantryman.
Unfortunately for the current royal family, all these defenses were useless against a foe who cleaved through them without even a proper fight.
What unfolded as the handful of Rust swept through the Rock could not have been called a battle. Punaji defenders were swiftly felled by sonic weapons, collapsing in pain and disorientation usually without even squeezing off a shot. The few who managed to fire on their attackers achieved nothing, wand and staff bolts sparking harmlessly against energy shields which were far more durable than the arcane charms with which they were familiar. Nor did the Rust tie down their vastly inferior numbers by trying to seize and hold any ground; they simply neutralized anyone who got in their way and swept on, making equally short work of any physical barriers in their path with blades extended from their machine arms—blades whose edges glowed as if hot, and which sliced through dense wood faster and cleaner than any saw, slowed only slightly when they encountered metal.
The Rust were clearly not here to capture the Rock. They were searching for something. As scattered and disoriented defenders slowly recovered in their passing, they quickly figured out what.
So did the King and Queen, and as such, they were not caught in any corner or defensible position, clearly having learned better from the example of what befell their troops. This communication suggested the presence of tactical scryers, but that did not matter in the end. Ayuvesh had his own means.
He had directed his people to fan through the fortress in a pincer movement as best they could given its maze of corridors, encircling the Rock and closing in. So it was that he finally snared his targets in a long hallway as they attempted to retreat, doubtless to some secret exit from the Rock itself.
Rajakhan and Anjal were accompanied only by their seneschal and two soldiers, and the latter had been neatly felled by sonic shots from the cultist who appeared at the end of the hall down which they fled. The royal couple turned to retreat while Akhatrya tried (fruitlessly) to hamper the attacker, but it was Ayuvesh himself who met them coming the other way. Through the reports of his people scattered through the fortress, he had been tracking them for some time already.
He had left one of his followers behind at the other end of the corridor to ensure they were not interrupted. Finally, he had his moment.
Both King and Queen bared steel at him, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and glaring without a hint of fear.
“Your Majesties,” he said grandly, gesticulating with his metal hand. “I will not waste our time with insincere pleasantries. My people rage unimpeded through your fortress, completely unhindered by the best you can throw against them. You know by now that your weapons will not prevail against me. I have you cornered and at my mercy. This chase, it would appear, is well and truly over.”
“Do what you came to, but spare me your juvenile gloating,” Blackbeard growled. “The Punaji will not—”
“Forgive me,” Ayuvesh said, holding up his other hand, “for interrupting what I’m sure would have been a memorable speech, but once you have learned what I came for I think you will be glad not to have wasted it upon my unworthy self.”
“Speak, then,” Anjal snapped.
“I mistrust words,” he replied with a smile. “Deeds are what matters in life. Action, and the will to take it. And so!”
He tossed aside his screamlance, to their visible surprise. Their expressions of confusion only deepened when Ayuvesh carefully knelt upon the stone floor, and raised both his hands, metal and flesh, in the air. He bowed his head to them, speaking only two more words.