The Rabbit Cooking Barbarian of Harrogath - Occhidiangela
"Hold, Kaelen, you may not enter! 'Ware the doorway, the rabbit has grown fangs!"
Drognan's voice cracked with tension, his eyes still fixed on the small humming metal pyramid shaped by Rusti's device. Minute white sparks crackled down the gray angled sides, an ominous indication of the trap's potential power. Biondi could just make out a jumble of voices out in the street, a sound that encouraged him: apparently the trappers' plan did not include a battle with their quarry. After a few minutes of consultation, Kaelen's voice burst out again.
"Drognan, I can't escort anyone to the palace if you won't open this accursed magical door of yours. If I have to break it down, I will, in the name of Lord Jehryn. So, end your little tea party in there and let's get to the palace. Lord Jehryn is not accustomed to being kept waiting." There followed more shuffling of feet as Kaelen's guards repositioned themselves, which Biondi suspected was for something more lethal than an "escort to the palace."
Biondi took the initiative, as his inner eye saw a way out.
"Kaelen," he called out in his most authoritative voice. "This is Biondi, Knight of Westmarch. I offer myself to Lord Jehryn as hostage. If you come in here, there will be yet another pile of bodies added to the charges against this Mage Slayer, and it won't be foreign mercenaries this time, but Lord Jehryn's household guard." He paused, letting that sink in. "I forgive you now for your cavalier treatment of me in the past, and offer you my word as Knight of Westmarch that I shall bargain in good faith with Lord Jehryn."
Kaelen's voice dripped with scorn in reply.
"The Winesop of Westmarch fancies himself a knight, eh? Still carrying those delusions of grandeur around with that sword you found? Still dreaming of heroics? And still thinking I am fool enough to be impressed by your pretensions?" He laughed harshly, and was joined by some of his guards. Then the timber of his voice turned nastily.
"On your knees, barfly, and crawl out the door! If I have to come in there after you, I'll have you trussed up like a hare on a spit ere this afternoon turns to evening. You will come along quietly, or at the point of a spear: you choose!" He paused, as if done, then continued.
"Bono, if you thought you'd be welcome in Lut Gholein again, you've been drinking stronger draughts than Atma's watered down wine. I assure you that Lord Jehryn will not allow the tiles of his palace floor to be dirtied by the likes of you. Now, by my count of ten, come out if you value your skin as much as you value your drink! ONE maggot egg! TWO maggot eggs!"
"Enter the bodyguard, Sir Bono." Rusti's voice sounded almost playful, if a striking panther could be called playful. Biondi glanced at his leather clad hiree and felt a knot form in the pit of his stomach.
"THREE maggot eggs! FOUR maggot eggs!"
Rusti smiled wickedly and slid across the floor to the eastern corner of the room, keeping the door on her right. Yet another metal pyramid was lobbed into the air, except this one did not fall to the floor; it arced perfectly up through the tiny window high on the southern wall, and, as Biondi watched with a sense of impending disaster, out into the street.
"FIVE maggot eggs!"
A sharp pain in his head blossomed to match the pain in his leg, an ache his exertions with Geglash had evoked. Looking into the Assassin's eyes he saw nothing but lethal intent.
"Rusti," he began heavily --
"SIX maggot eggs," came Kaelen's inexorable count.
"If we get out of this alive, I will let the second two days go. I'm not sure I can survive much more than one day of your protection."
"SEVEN maggot eggs!"
He dug the fingers of his left hand into his belt pouch and lobbed the pair of ruby earrings to her. She caught them and tucked them into her belt with the usual lightning quick movement of her hands.
"EIGHT maggot eggs!"
He looked her full in the face, seeing her acceptance of his latest offer in her tight smile, and was about to add more when the screams in the street interrupted him. The trap had gone off, apparently, and negotiation was no longer an option.
Reacting with the speed of his own thought, he dove across the room and tackled Drognan, covering him with his body as he rolled behind the desk where the sage had been sitting when they entered. He searched about for a weapon and spied Geglash's kris lying just out of arm's reach to his right. The trap had at least ended the enumeration of maggot eggs, he thought cynically to himself.
"Stay under me, sage, if you value your life," he muttered as Drognan struggled against his grasp, "Things are about to get nasty in here." Reaching out with his left foot, he pulled the kris to him by flicking his big toe in and up, sliding it across the floor and into his extended right hand. Looking up he noticed a metal chest in the northwest corner of the room and decided to risk standing up. He stood, crushing Drognan to the wall, protecting him and immobilizing him with the same movement. Rusti's voice rang out in a bright, eager challenge.
"Out of Maggot eggs already Kaelen, or out of stones?" Without waiting for a reply, she continued her taunting. "Come and get me, you gutless wonders, I'm all yours!"
Backing against the eastern wall, she raised her hands to her head and then pushed forward against the air. The door shook as a nearly invisible shock wave struck it. She repeated the action twice more, the door erupting in splinters on her last "push." Biondi grabbed the chest and tucked it under his left arm, then rolled back to the floor on top of Drognan, whose only protest was an agonized "whoof" as his breath escaped his body under the Warrior's weight.
Biondi did not get down as quickly as he would have liked.
Streaks of white hot fire scorched his back as the trap went off not three feet from him, followed by two similar lines of white fire that shot out through the door to meet the two spearmen who came charging in. Both threw their hands to their faces and screamed, falling to the floor in agony and dropping their weapons. Biondi's back was an inferno, his jaw clamping down hard to keep from crying out. He stayed down, daring not to stand and take the full force of the next white hot volley that he was sure would follow. Violent cursing out in the street was followed by the unmistakable sound of sharp steel going into flesh as Rusti finished off her first victims with two efficient slashes of her talons, and then a roar as another guard, this time charging in behind his shield, barreled through the doorway. He took the bright white blast full on the city's crest, which blackened immediately, only to fly forward as Rusti's side kick added to his momentum and sent him tumbling forward into Geglash's still unmoving body. Biondi rolled over quickly, just under the white hot burst from the trap next to him, and slammed the butt of Geglash's kris into the back of the guard's head. The man lay still.
Then the room went black.
"Let's play fox and hounds, Kaelen!" Rusti's voice seemed to come from two places at once, inside the room and out in the street. "You've called me a fox before, Jehryn's hound! Tally Ho!"
The sound of her feet going through the door perplexed Biondi, as a frontal assault against armored spearmen was not the sort of tactic he expected. Apparently, neither did Kaelen and his visually bewildered men, as another sharp cry of pain erupted when Rusti dodged through the guards near the door and sprinted away from Drognan's shop toward the eastern gate, followed a few seconds later by the trampling of booted feet in the same direction and Kaelen's enraged orders to pursue her. When the darkness cleared, Biondi stayed down on the floor.
He waited a long minute, and then slowly got up. Looking down at Drognan's disheveled form, he checked for signs of life and was relieved to find the man merely out of breath, and conscious. The smell of smoke snapped him back to reality. Drognan's table had caught fire, and the pile of parchments was just catching. Looking wildly about, he spotted a ewer in a porcelain basin and lunged across the room to it. Spinning, he threw the water at the flame and was gratified to see it extinguish in a splash, followed by a small column of smoke.
The sound of slow clapping by the doorway stopped him cold. A low feminine voice erupted in a throaty chuckle, and he turned to face the door, only to find Rusti standing under the lintel, cloaked in shadow against the slowly lengthening shadows in the street outside.
"Bravo, Warrior, bravo," came her sarcastic comment as she stalked into the room. The woman moved across the floor and sat down on Drognan's recently extinguished table, her blade talons moving soundlessly back and forth as she walked. "Seems you can walk away from this little scuffle without having killed anyone, and Rusti the Assassin is once again a Wanted Woman in Lut Gholein, for all of the wrong reasons." She paused, and Biondi noted with confusion that her fair complexion seemed darker, her leather armor less shiny than a few minutes ago when he had paid her fee, and her talons made of darker metal, somehow. Was that from a blood coating, or was it--
"Hello, Shadow," croaked Drognan. "Welcome to my humble abode. Won't you stay a while please?" He cleared his throat. "I have been seeking you for weeks, and would enjoy the pleasure of your company." The old man got up, and began picking up sopping pieces of parchment from the table, shaking his head at the damage done by a mere ewer full of water. Without missing a beat, he smiled to the woman he called Shadow and asked politely: "Would you care for some tea?"
Biondi stared at the woman, and slowly realized why he saw not Rusti, but some shadowy reproduction of the Mage Slayer. The eyes that looked directly at him were not as bright. Indeed, everything about her was slightly darker: her hair, her armor, her boots, her lips. She seemed to blend into the shadows in the room's nearest corner if he did not look directly at her. Her body held the same athletic potential and latent power as Rusti's, that he could see readily enough. The relaxed pose was just a little too tense, a little too calm. He set the chest down, keeping his hand on the lid, on the table where Geglash had so recently taken his seat and simply stared at her, unsure of what to say. This was a dangerous creature. But dangerous to whom? To him?
Drognan made an annoyed gesture with his right hand. A sound in the doorway prompted Biondi to look to his right, where the pieces of the broken door slowly floating into the room, and then settled just inside the threshold. Addressing Shadow as though he had been previously introduced, his voice remained as calm as if he were talking about the weather.
"So, Shadow, how did you two get separated? Was it a Vizjeri spell, as I suspected, or is it something darker?"
Shadow gazed warily at Drognan for a moment before replying.
"It was during our battle with the Vizjeri mage who betrayed Lord Jehryn that our bond was broken. He was a tough nut to crack. Near the end of our battle, in a shower of fire and ice, he cast a Vizjeri Stone Curse on me; at least, I think that is what it was. I stood trapped like a statue while Rusti tore out his throat, since he had not quite seen her in the shadow cloak I cast." Shadow paused. "But even as he died, he laughed, blood bubbling out of his mouth, and cackled something about us sowing the seeds of our own Destruction. Then Rusti stuffed his hat into his mouth to shut him up in his death throes, then my 'statue' coating shattered. I started floating forward toward the heart of Arcane Sanctuary, unable to put my feet down. Rusty went hurrying through a red portal, expecting me to follow, and did not come back through it." She looked over at Biondi. "When I did not come through, I suspect she tried to summon another shadow warrior. Our bond is broken, somehow, and I am free to do as I please." She grinned in a frightening imitation of Rusti's own battle face. "Which, all told, has been a most liberating experience." She returned her attention to Drognan.
"What pleases me most is holding to account the fools who let that Vizjeri into Lut Gholein in the first place. The fools who tossed my Rusti out on her arse from paid for living quarters. The fools who threw her into prison for protecting her own honor. The fools who think that a lock can keep an Assassin out, or in. The fools who think that keeping Lord Jehryn's precious harem safe is more important than stamping out this wild magic that threatens to destroy our world. The Fools of Lut Gholein, Drognan, of whom you are the chief counsellor in matters arcane since that senile vagabond Cain left for points East." She stood up, her hands casually reaching down to take up her claw talons. "Those who respect us call us Mage Slayers, and those who fear and hate us call us Assassins. So, Drognan, you called Rusti a Mage Slayer." She paused, rolling her shoulders and bouncing slightly on the balls of her feet. "It matters not, since I am discovering that the only good mage is a dead mage. And you, Drognan, are a mage: part of the problem, not part of the solution."
Drognan's eye went wide in alarm. Her casual declaration of his demise unnerved him in a way that a hundred summoned demons coming through his door could not have. He looked to Biondi in a blatant appeal for intervention. Biondi replied, almost without thinking, with a poem from his childhood.
"I have a little
Shadow looked back at Biondi in irritation, a question on her face and in her voice.
"What, big man, is all that about? This is an execution, not a poetry contest: or didn't you read the program for this afternoon's show?" Shadow or not, Rusti's caustic humor was certainly part and parcel to this creature's essence. She was somewhat startled by his reply.
"You are bound to me, Shadow, by Rusty's word to watch my back for three days." He gambled that she was unaware of that contract's end. "Separated or not, you owe your life to Rusty's being among the quick -- that much I do know about Shadow Warriors. While she lives, so may you, but should she die, you shall as well. Thus you owe me her promised protection." He was fully aware of the holes in his argument, but figured that keeping her talking was the best way he could stall for time while he desperately tried out and discarded options with that kept racing through his mind.
"I owe you nothing, Warrior." Her voice cracked like a whip as she gave her his full attention, making his title sound like the direst insult. "In case you weren't listening, I am free. Either help me rid the world of this evil mage, or get out of here and be on your way. But don't stand there and try to talk me out of my life's mission -- and Rusti's." Biondi noticed Drognan's left hand creeping toward his belt, and made a bold bid to keep her attention.
"You think you can best a Warrior of Westmarch, Shadow? I can kill without a weapon, with any weapon, or with my shield. I am strong, and I am experienced. Do you think you can survive a fell contest with one such as me? The Lord of Terror didn't."
He stepped to his left and adopted a fighting crouch, kris held gently in his right hand, the metal chest now gripped in his left, creating an angled approach between Shadow and her target that allowed him a chance at intercepting her should she move on him. Her surprise at his belligerence was satisfying.
"What, another fool wants to be add a notch added to my belt buckle? Last chance, Warrior, leave or risk my wrath." She stepped toward Drognan, her eyes on Biondi, cutting his angle considerably. But his intention had never been to attack her. He tossed the chest toward her and was not surprised at the lightning quick slash of her talon that knocked it away. Her attention on him had given Drognan the time he needed. His voice cracked out as he held a pear shaped amethyst in front of his face and spoke aloud.
"Stoltas ce mentisus khald gursai!"
The guttural rasp
of the ancient Vizjeri mage tongue reflected dimly off the wall to Drognan's
left. Shadow whirled and leapt as a purple glow surrounded her, her momentum
carrying her into Drognan's standing form as she froze, in the position
of a flying kick, and then slowly changed color to a dull violet-gray.
Her body knocked him backward, into the wall, and Biondi heard Drognan
gasp in pain as the sickening crack of his ribs breaking accompanied him
to the floor.
Biondi looked at Drognan, whose lips were already covered with bubbling blood. He took the old man's head and held it in his hands. Drognan struggled for breath.
"Biondi," he wheezed, "she will stay in that form until the next setting of the sun, so long as I am alive. There is a red vial over on the middle shelf on that wall," he gestured to the western wall of his shop, "that should heal some of my internal damage. Sadly, I know a mortal wound when I feel one." Biondi hurried across the shop and retrieved the vial and popped the cork, handing it to the injured old man. Drognan choked the thick red liquid down in a labored gulp. Then he resumed.
"About Azurewrath, Biondi. Baal had it, of that I am certain, but could not wield a blade forged in Heaven for Izual's hand, so he gave it to a Demon Cat serving Kaa The Ancient. Twas her pack that slaughtered Geglash's company, those many months ago. It has been a long and hard job of milking his memory for detail, since the wine clouds his wits. If you would wield Azurewrath, search in the Canyon of the Magi, in the tomb of Ancient Kaa. Defeat his guards and you shall find Azurewrath." He paused, coughing up more blood.
"The Lord of Destruction's influence is growing, Biondi. The bond between Shadow and Mage Slayer should not have been breakable, ever. Your Great Grand Uncle's Sword, Karlan Quickblade's Sword, should not have broken, ever. Your shield, the Stormshield of Tristram, should not have been battered into warped wood and metal." He raised a feeble hand as Biondi started with this revelation that Drognan knew of his battles in the North. "Cain sent me word that Larzuk cannot repair it." He shuddered as his body shook in a violent spasm. "In that small metal chest, the one you so carelessly slung at my assailant, are runes and scrolls of lore that may help Larzuk repair your sword. That is the project I was working on when you all came in. Cain and I communicate rather quickly, you see, via writing tablet." He closed his eyes as the red liquid started to take the edge off of his pain. He forced them open and continued to speak.
"Go, Biondi, get Lycander to tend me quickly, or Shadow will finish with blade what her stone form has begun. Take Fara with you back to the North. The Lord of Destruction will bring this world down if someone does not stop him. Cain thinks you may have what it takes." He began coughing on his own blood again, and could not speak.
"What of Rusti, Drognan? What of her Shadow?" In the back of his mind, a little voice told him that the fate of Rusti's shadow was more important to Rusti's life than Drognan was letting on.
Drognan replied in a weak whisper.
"You do what you must, Warrior, and leave the arcane arts to those who still use them for the Light. Rusty will be once again drawn back to Lut Gholein, since the Shadow calls her with a power that she can neither not understand, nor resist. She will return, like a rabbit to a farmer's carrot field. I will take care of her, should I survive." His eyes blazed, and he gripped Biondi's wrist with renewed vigor.
"Now go, Warrior, and do as I bid you!"
Biondi gently lowered Drognan's head to the floor, then took of like a jackrabbit, ignoring the pain in his back and his leg, his destination the market square.
To be continued. . .