Kreg looked over the four people in the room with him. They had lost much, all of them. Kaila had lost her mother’s sword. Keven and Marek had lost a kingdom. And Kreg? He had lost a world.
Kreg allowed himself the hint of a grin. To all appearances, Shillond had lost nothing but weight.
The High Mage of Chanakra was dead. Kreg had accomplished that, along with the destruction of the changeling armies that had conquered Aerioch and most of the rest of the known world. And in the doing he had helped King Marek, Prince Keven, Kaila, Shillond, and himself win free of the High Mage’s dungeons.
Kreg’s grin widened. While they had lost, they had gained too. Kaila had changed in the time Kreg had known her. No longer just a good-natured bruiser with a quick temper, she had revealed a keen mind that he would never have suspected when he met her. Kreg himself had become someone that his self of a year ago would never have recognized.
“You smile,” Kaila said. “I would hear cheerful thoughts.”
“I was just thinking,” Kreg said. “Five people now have to sneak back into Aerioch and raise a rebellion against the Schahi. While we can expect the death of the High Mage to cause such confusion that Chanakra won’t have much influence, these five people will have to escape the country, reach Aerioch, raise forces from somewhere with all the knights either dead, imprisoned, or enslaved, and then throw the Schahi out of Aerioch.”
Kaila seemed puzzled. “And this causes you to smile?”
“Of course,” Kreg said. “The Schahi don’t have a chance.”
In the corner, Shillond frowned.
“Shillond?” Kreg said.
“The High Mage was an idiot,” Shillond said.
“Be thankful that he was, Father,” Kaila said.
“How did an idiot best Baaltor even once?” Shillond shrugged. “How did an idiot gain the magical power to become High Mage of Chanakra? How did an idiot direct the conquest of so much of the world?”
Shillond frowned again and looked into his hands. “I fear that it was not the High Mage of Chanakra who was our true foe. He was no more than a pawn. All of this was just one more deception within the deceptions.
“I fear that our true foe, whoever it might be, somehow has won.”
Early evening of the next day, Shillond returned to the room the five shared carrying a modest basket of bread, cheese, and small flasks of wine.
“It is as we feared.” Shillond set the basket on the room’s small table. “With the death of the High Mage discovered there has been much confusion. The city has been sealed. Guards have been increased at the gates. Lesser mages assigned to those gates to watch for magic. Troops search all ships before permitting them to sail and more mages join those searches. More parties search the city for us, also accompanied by mages.”
“That’s a lot of mages,” Kreg took a small loaf of bread and a block of cheese from the basket. “From everything you’ve told me I thought there would not be many mages in all the world.” He bit into the cheese and grimaced at the sour taste.
“There were fewer than a dozen in all of Aerioch,” Marek said, taking his own portion from the basket. “From whence come these Chanakranon mages?”
“I do not know,” Shillond said.
“If gates and port be closed to us,” Kaila said, “How may we escape the city?”
“Can we scale the wall?” Keven asked. “Cut the throats of patrols and be off before anyone notes their absence?”
“And have those within the towers guarding the city wall feather us from above?” Marek shook his head. “I think not.”
“Then conceal ourselves within the city.” Keven waved toward the room’s shuttered window. “Many thieves and cutthroats abide here. Of what note are four more? Five, with Good Duke Kaila.”
“I am neither thief nor cutthroat—“ Kaila’s voice rose with each word, then she stopped and smiled. “—but I may play the part if needed.”
Shillond sighed. “I do not think so.” He opened one of the shutters on the window and peered into the alley below. “Of the five of us, King Marek does not speak the Chanakranon language and only I speak it well enough to pass for a local. And with three of us being veritable giants to the locals we would be soon noted and draw the searchers to us. And we cannot remain hidden in these rooms or again we would be noticed and found.”
He turned, leaned against the windowsill, and folded his arms. “We must escape, and soon if we are to escape at all.”
“What about that seeming spell?” Kreg asked. “It made Keven not only look like the High Mage, but sound like him. If you could change us, we could pass for natives.”
“It would make us look and sound like natives, but it would not teach Marek the language.”
“I could be a mute,” Marek said. “If I do not speak, I will not need to know the language.”
Shillond shook his head. “The spell will not deceive any mage who spends the effort to look. And with mages searching for us we would again soon be revealed.”
Marek sat on the room’s single bed and leaned his head in his hands, his elbows on his knees. “Is there no hope then?”
“Children!” Kaila said sharply. “Are you all children? We have walked the width of the world, slipped within the enemy’s own stronghold. When captured, Kreg did, from within his very cell, destroy the changeling armies that had conquered Aerioch and when questioned by the High Mage did slay him with no more weapon than his hands. We then proceeded to escape from the enemy’s dungeons and win free to the city. Now…now, when beset by these… inconveniences, you give up hope? Children, I say.”
Kreg smiled and stood. “Kaila is right. We still live. We’re still free.” His eyes met hers. “Fear not for us. Fear rather for all the evil in Chanakra.”
“Well said!” Keven stood as well.
Marek straightened and nodded. “So be it. How shall we proceed?”
“We need to learn more,” Shillond said. “The seeming spell is our best chance to avoid detection for now.” He looked first at Kaila and then at Kreg. “Eyes and ears?”
Kreg nodded. “Eyes.”
Kaila laid a hand on Kreg’s shoulder. “And ears.”
Kreg and Shillond waited in an alley overlooking the docks. In the distance, sunlight glittered on the blue of the Elamak sea.
Keven, as the one who spoke the Chanakranon language best after Shillond, had accompanied Marek to inspect the gates. Kaila was prowling the depths of the city alone. Shillond’s magic had given them the seeming of random locals. He had admonished them to spare no effort in watching and to avoid mages at all costs.
The alley was little more than a crack between the adobe walls of low buildings. On one side stood a tavern, on the other a brothel. Rats scurried in the shadows picking at the garbage dumped in the alleyway. The shadows of the alley coupled with the bright sunlight shining on the docks concealed them from casual view.
“We have not had chance to talk alone since escaping the dungeons,” Shillond said. He had assured Kreg that no one was nearby. “You said that you destroyed the changeling armies but did not say how. You also said that you no longer can block spellcraft. I presume those two are connected?”
Kreg nodded. “I remembered the spell you used to challenge Baaltor. You told me that even someone not a mage can cast that spell, only that spell. I challenged Baaltor. He…made me promises—send me home, even restore Bertan to life—if I would give up on you. I refused and, well, turns out that was the challenge and I won. The prize I sought was the means to break the changeling spell. He gave me that and sufficient power to cast it…once. Once I did that, the extra power was gone, but I guess I have whatever someone gets after a first challenge with that demon. I don’t know. If I have it, I don’t know how to use it.”
“That should not be possible,” Shillond said. “Baaltor is not bested so easily as that.”
“Easy?” Kreg said. “You think that was easy? Bertan….”
“I know, Kreg,” Shillond said softly. “But compared to what Baaltor could have done…. You did not know to choose the form of the challenge so Baaltor could set the form. To choose the challenge of temptation instead of a physical contest? And offering to restore Bertan?” Shillond shook his head. “What Baaltor offers in the challenge of temptation is always something he can offer. After all, what temptation is a known lie?”
“Wait,” Kreg said. “You mean he couldn’t?”
“He could not. Once a spirit resides within the Nameless One’s halls, no force in all the world but the gods themselves can wrest it from thence.” Shillond sighed. “Still, he was right, you know. Weakened as you were, he could have bested you with ease in a contest of might and power such as those by which I face him. Beyond that, when you won, he exceeded the bare minimum required by your victory and gave you sufficient power to cast the spell? Why?”
Kreg sucked air over his teeth. “Because it’s what he wanted to happen?”
“He permitted you to win for his own ends. And if he permitted you…”
“Then maybe we’ve learned why Chanakra is so rife with mages. Perhaps instead of winning power through challenge, they simply…made a deal.”
Shillond nodded. “That could also explain—“
Kreg held up a hand. At the docks, a search party left one of the ships. As they watched, the mage heading the party stood at the dock as the gangplank slid up onto the ship and the crew pushed the ship off from the dock. Oars churned the water as the ship moved out into the harbor.
“That’s the fifth ship,” Kreg said. “All the same pattern.”
“No chance to slip aboard after they search.”
“Not here anyway,” Kreg said.
Kaila frowned as she lounged against the corner of a tavern. Men passing would pause to leer at her scanty attire but would scurry past on seeing her scowl. Too often of late she had worn this particular disguise and wondered what she would do if she needed to carry through on the implied promise of her clothing and pose.
So far, three men had braved her scowl. Each would wake, eventually, in the alleys to which she had taken them, stripped of coin and other trinkets they might think valuable, but alive. Each time she needed to change locations. So far, she had learned that Chanakra possessed few forces ready to search the city, but others were coming, drawn from other cities. Eventually she and her companions would no longer be able to hide within it. Shillond was right. They had to escape and soon.
There. That one. As another man, resplendent in the uniform of a high officer of the guard departed the tavern, Kaila looked up to meet his eyes and smiled. The officer—a captain, Kaila thought—met her eyes and turned toward her. As he looked at her, Kaila arched her back in a way that she knew emphasized her breasts and pulled the hem of her tunic higher.
The woman on whom Shillond had modeled the seeming had much larger breasts than her own. Through such subterfuges as this, she had learned that few men would ignore even her own modest breasts if she chose to twist just…so.
The captain made no pretense of hiding his staring now.
“Is Milord seeking company?” Kaila let her smile widen. She let her mouth open slightly, her tongue touch her upper lip, and then let her lips stretch into her most inviting smile.
The captain looked her up and down. “I’m thinking about it.”
Kaila pouted. “Well, think faster.”
Kaila made no mention of coin. Chanakranon law forbade the selling of sexual favors and the watch took that law quite seriously indeed. The law made no mention of gifts given by a pleased lover to the object of his overnight affection. And if the gift was inadequate? Why, not even a captain of the guard cared to face the wrath of the powerful, if unofficial, pimp’s guild.
The captain bowed and extended a hand. Kaila giggled, curtsied, and took it, grateful for once for the years the King and others had tried to turn her into a court lady instead of a warrior and a knight. Indeed, she hoped that her curtsey was not too polished.
She let the captain lead her where he would. Once some distance from the tavern outside which she had met him, she stumbled and bumped into him.
“I beg Milord’s pardon,” she said.
“Are you all right?”
“Milord is kind, but—“ She looked to the left, stuck her tongue in her cheek as if gnawing on it, then to the right. “—I need to get off the street.”
“Are you well?”
“Please, Milord. It will not take long.”
Now it was the captain’s turn to look both ways. He paused then pointed at the opening to a dark alleyway. “There.”
“Milord is gracious,” Kaila said. “If…if you would be so kind as to keep watch. There are cutpurses about.”
“My lady’s wish.” He waved her forward and followed her into the alleyway.
Once within the shadows, Kaila’s left hand darted out. Her fingers closed on the Captain’s throat, cutting off a cry before it escaped his lips. With inexorable strength, she drew him deeper into the alley. Once certain she was no longer visible from the street, she held him pinned against the wall.
“And now, good sir,” she said, watching as his eyes began to roll back in his head. “Let us see just what you are about.” She released the pressure on his throat and held her other hand against his mouth, not so hard as to cut off air, but enough to muffle the sound of his coughing fit.
The captain snatched at his dagger with his left hand. Before he could draw it, Kaila dropped the hand that had been covering his mouth, grasped the captain’s wrist, and twisted. She felt bones break under that grip.
“That was unkindly done, sir.” She leaned closer, her eyes less than a hand’s width from the Captain’s. “As you might surmise, I am no street wench, but a warrior and a knight. And if you wish to live out this day, you will tell me all you know of the search that proceeds in this city.”
How strange, Keven thought, to treat his own father, the King of Aerioch, as a servant.
The seeming Shillond had given Keven was that of a merchant of better than modest means. Marek’s, of a simple workingman, shorter and broader than Marek’s natural giant size. Mute, of course, given his inability to speak Chanakranon.
Keven wondered for a moment where Kaila had gotten the coin to fund their ruse then decided he did not want to know.
The cafe sat across the square from the North Gate. The gate proper stood open but twin portcullises blocked the passage through the wall. The setting sun cast long shadows across the square, a square filled with people seeking exit from the city.
Keven took a sip of his ale and let his gaze drift over the square. A large crowd, clamored at the gate, seeking egress.
Keven nudged Marek and nodded in the direction of the gate. Spear armed soldiers barred the way as the inner portcullis rose. Keven watched as the soldiers ushered two carts, a wagon, and a half-dozen people on foot through the now open gateway. One person tried to dash through only to face a leveled spear. The man backed away.
The portcullis dropped, leaving the little party isolated within the gateway. Keven could not see, but he could imagine the arrow slots to either side and the murder holes in the roof ready at any instant to rain death on those within.
A green glow descended from the ceiling of the gateway and washed over the people within. It held for several heartbeats then faded. Keven fancied he could hear a shout within the gateway. No. He must have imagined it. How could he hear even spoken word over the clamor of the crowd?
The outer portcullis rose and the party within the gatehouse departed. Another party, from outside, entered. As Keven watched, the outer portcullis closed and the inner opened.
So, Keven thought, they were only interested in those leaving the city, not those entering. No doubt, they sought him and his companions.
Motion to his left caught Keven’s attention. He turned his head. Marek seemed different. Was he taller than a moment before? Yes. Yes, he was.
“Come,” he said, still playing his role. “We have business to be about.”
Marek cocked his head to one side, staring at Keven then his eyes grew wide. He nodded and rose.
Keven dropped some coins on the table as he stood. Marek was definitely taller, his body shaped shifted from the stocky shape of a serving man to the more defined musculature of a seasoned warrior.
The spell, Keven thought. Whatever spell had caused that green light had, weakened by distance perhaps, had started to dissolve their seemings, their magic disguises.
Ahead, Marek pushed through the crowd, forcing a passage between the people and the buildings. Keven followed in his wake. Despite their faltering seemings that changed their appearance and their voices, Marek retained his true size and strength.
Marek now stood a full head taller than the tallest other person visible, his true size. Instead of the clothes of a man serving a somewhat successful merchant, he wore a simple tunic and breeches. His hair had extended to below his shoulders, the length to which it had grown during his captivity.
Keven looked down. His own seeming was likewise gone.
“There!” The shout came from the soldiers at the gate. “Stop that man!”
In the confusion, Marek snatched a pole from an awning that shaded a shop’s entrance. He swept the tip of the pole at knee height. Keven heard the thumps as the pole struck several men who did not move back fast enough. Marek reversed the pole, bringing the opposite end back around at head height. The crowd retreated further.
For a moment, Keven hesitated. Marek’s great size marked him, but Keven’s appearance did not stand out. No one had yet noted him. If he slipped away, he could come back with the others and, what? Rescue his father? And if they decided not to capture but to kill?
He regretted that he did not have a sword as he drew the dagger from his belt.
Marek had turned, seeking to drive his way farther from the gate. Despite no longer needing to maintain their subterfuge, he still had not spoken.
A stocky tough moved into the gap between Keven and Marek’s turned back, a club upraised in his hand.
Keven struck. His dagger bit deep between the ribs of the tough. The tough stiffened and dropped the club. With a practiced twist, Keven drew the dagger free and pushed the falling body of the tough aside. The body fell to the ground, twitching. Keven sprang over it and shouted, “Run, Father!”
Marek thrust three times with the staff. Three men fell gasping to the ground, curled around their own bruised guts. Marek darted forward. Following, Keven scooped up another of the awning poles and slid his dagger back into its sheath. A staff would be a better weapon in this crowd than his dagger.
Keven kept close behind Marek, his staff striking with careful precision to keep the disorganized crowd from closing too near behind them. He spared a glance in the distance behind and saw the detail of soldiers from the gate forcing its way through the crowd.
Unshy about using their spears to speed the crowd’s separation the soldiers were gaining.
They were not going to escape.