Contagion

Part 2
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The rattikin knew the underbelly of the town far better than its ‘official’ inhabitants for the hidden entrance to the castle was exactly as they had described. Although they had sealed up their passages, the elderly rattikin Hetik had revealed there was one more way in through the deepest, oldest part of the keep which they kept locked with a heavy metal door the humans had put there for reasons lost to time. Trembling with fear their guide, the hapless Itti had pointed them up a winding tunnel – the last part of the subterranean journey to the castle – and then fled back into the labyrinthine passageways to the relative safety of their enclave, locking the rusted metal door behind him. The passage turned out to be a natural channel in the rock carved over the millennia by a trickle of water and in recent centuries artificially widened at some point to create a drainage tunnel from the castle’s lower levels. Then, as is often the way with things that do their jobs quietly and reliably, its existence had been forgotten. Its walls had grown thick with slippery algal growth, thriving in the black dampness and upon what must have been a nutrient-rich watercourse.

The climb was shallow but treacherous thanks to the slime and Soul had to abandon her light spell to use both hands to grasp the slick rock. It was pitch black and progress was slow as they had to feel around for hand and foot-holds. Now and again one or the other would slip. In the silence broken only by the trickling water the sound of their sliding was thunderous to their ears and they'd freeze, fearful that whatever lurked above in the accursed keep might hear and come for them. After a while they began to notice the darkness was no longer absolute – a very faint phosphorescence flowed in the water, leached from some unknown source above.

An increase in the intensity of this gentle glow heralded the end of the climb. The passage closed and they were forced to crawl through the sudden narrows. It ended in a low, rough-hewn arch beyond which the greenish phosphorescence seemed bright as day in comparison to their heretofore dim path. The broken teeth of what was once a grating jutted out from the stone arch.

Soul stopped and eyed the remains of the grating despondently, “A rattikin might get through ok but we’re too big! We’ll end up with instant tetanus if we try crawling over here.” She whispered. Then remembering Shade wasn’t capable of catching infections corrected herself, “Well I will, anyway.”

Shade was quiet a moment, thinking about this then whispered back, “What’s beyond?”

Crawling right up to the arch Soul peered through, “It’s some kind of cellar. There’s this glowy stuff clustered round a pool – looks like the water pops up as a natural spring in here. Ew! It’s fungus – the room’s totally full of it!” The smell of its musty contents was almost overpowering and made Soul burst out coughing.

“Really? What d’they look like?”

“Is that important?” Soul asked. Getting no immediate answer she shrugged to herself and peered at them again, “Fungus-y, like eating mushrooms with upside-down heads and dark green splodges. Happy?”

“Uh huh. Those’re celephae. They were fashionable a century or so ago ‘cos they were thought to be an aphrodisiac and people, well those who could afford a deep, dark cellar with the right conditions, used to grow them. It turned out they drove you mad and gave certain important body parts necrosis after a few too many doses so they kinda went out of fashion.”

“And?”

“Well if there’s a room full of them then most likely it’s been abandoned for years! No one would have gone in here for fear of the side effects.”

“Right.” Soul looked dubiously at the jagged grating again and then even more distrustfully at the fungal crop beyond, “And we’ll be okay will we?”

“Sure. I have studied some alchemy, love! Trust me, the only way we could harm ourselves in there’d be by eating the celephae or rolling naked through them for a few hours!” He paused, briefly enjoying the idea of ‘rolling naked’ somewhere with Meccha but reminded himself this wasn’t the time, “Let’s back up to where it’s wider – then I can go ahead and take care of those bars.”

In the meantime Soul had been poking at the gratings and discovered they were so rusted and ancient that they all but disintegrated at her touch. “No need, hon’,” she smiled and thrust her arm forward, sweeping it from side to side. Knowing the cellar was abandoned she did not worry too much about the noise as she used her metal bracer to bash out the remains of the bars. Within moments the way was clear and she squirmed through the gap. Once free she stood and stretched out, her muscles a little stiff from the cold, cramped conditions of their climb, enjoying the relative spatial freedom of the cellar.

With some difficulty Shade crawled through after her, the spikes of his shoulder guards proved too broad for the gap and he had to take them off to fit through. Once up and armoured again he inspected the mouldering wood of the locked door. He could easily have reduced it to splinters with a single kick but thought it wiser to keep their entry into the castle low-key so with care he picked the mechanism. It was a simple design and he sprung it easily. Apparently no one had thought the drainage channel a security risk.

The door opened into a blackness Soul’s vision could not penetrate after the fungal glow. Shade informed her it was a corridor that curved away in both directions, “Which way?” he mused.

“I don’t know. I suppose one is as good as the oth- wait!” Soul stopped herself and stepped further into the passage, “Am I imagining things or is there a slight draught?”

Barely discernable as the ancient breath of a tomb, a very faint draught drifted from the left. There was no hint of fresh air to it but at least it gave them a direction.

Soul began the incantation for an illumination spell, but Shade interrupted her, “In this darkness? Why not do a song and a dance to announce our presence in style?”

Though his tone was not unkind, she still mock-pouted at him, knowing he could see. “Have it your way then, sir sarcasm.” she took his arm for him to lead the way.

The passage was not long and they found a staircase at its end. Its shallow steps, carved out of the hill’s natural stone, were dusty but rattikin-sized footprints going in both directions showed they had not gone completely unused. These were not fresh and not knowing the rate of accumulation of dust it was hard to tell when another being had last passed here, save it must have been months, perhaps winters ago at least.

At the top of the staircase was another locked door. The low glow of lamplight shone beneath it and the two listened intently for signs of life beyond. After a few minutes of silence they decided it was safe to proceed. The door itself was sturdier this time but the lock was again simple. Soul had often meant to ask her partner to teach her how to pick locks too but something always held her back. She didn’t like to think of herself as the jealous type but for some reason she did not much like to be reminded of Shade’s mercenary days, back when he cleaved to the arms of another lover, the werecat known as Panther. The remembrance of the last time their paths had crossed, Panther’s lascivious smile cast at Shade and the sly look in her eyes had made her blood boil, bringing the monstrous wolf within Soul almost to attack. Even now months later and half a continent away she caught a growl begin to rumble at the back of her throat.

“What’s wrong?” Shade paused in the act of opening the door, thinking she’d sensed something.”

She flustered only momentarily, “Nothing! Um... Do you smell something?” It was just meant as a diversion but as Shade stopped and sniffed she realised there was indeed an unknown scent in the air. An animal smell but not one she or Shade could recognise. As they slipped out into this new deserted corridor and silently closed the door behind them, the draft from the way to the left wafted the odour to them much more strongly. They froze as some sixth sense warned them the unmistakably bestial odour was of no prey animal. An underlying scent of the rotted flesh of its meals confirmed this. The manticore! They chose to begin their investigation by heading in the opposite direction.

The dank cellars at their point of entry soon gave way to slightly less dank servants’ quarters though these lay strangely as silent as the rest of the town. There were definite signs of activity that increased as they moved up one level then another but the unswept, dirty floors and state of disrepair implied it was not business as usual here.

Although they had not yet seen their foe both Shade and Soul were on edge and moved with the utmost stealth, blades drawn they kept to the shadows away from the dim pools of torchlight. At length they reached a flight of stairs that spiralled out of sight. Some niggling sensation at the back of his mind made Shade extra cautious. Silently indicating to Soul to wait where she was, he started alone up the stairs, his bare feet making no sound and the incantation ready to invoke the magical flame held within his sword blade on his lips. Ears strained he heard a slight shuffling noise and froze. After a pause the sound came again then again, something was coming down the stairs!

Shade desperately motioned to Soul to find somewhere to hide.

“Where?” She mouthed back. The corridor was long and featureless save for the lanterns and occasional doorway, the closest of which she’d slipped back to but it was locked.

“Shit!” Shade hissed, watching as she tried the next door. The footsteps were getting too close, “Stay right back. If it’s one of those plague-bearers then run; you can’t risk breathing its spores! I’ll deal with it.” He added knowing from her expression she was about to protest. After a brief hesitation Soul backed away, wrapping her dark green cloak about her to blend as best as possible into the shadows. Figuring the only place for an ambush would be at the turn of the staircase, Shade flattened himself against the pillar wall of the centre of the spiral.

Though slow, his heart beat loud in his ears and was distracting him so with a reluctant effort he made it stop. Although he no longer needed a heartbeat or to breathe like the living, his body still continued with the remembrance of being alive – something he was glad of for it made him feel more human. Right now was not the time for that, his fighting edge lay in being one of the Undead.

The halting steps approached with painful slowness for the waiting Daemonslayers. After an eternity the stooped form of a hulking guard dressed in tattered uniform and chainmail – employed for his size by the look of it – rounded the corner and saw Soul, who had given up on trying to hide.

The Infected’s pallid eyes widened and from its blackened lips a low moan began to rise into a roar of alarm. Shade instantly lunged forward, lancing his blade upward through the thing’s chest. The momentum pushed the once-human backward up a couple of steps until it hit the curved wall at which point it finally seemed to realise what had happened. A dying sigh, strangely wistful in its tone escaped it and the body toppled forward. Caught off balance as he tried to pull free his sword, Shade was unable to escape the course of the fallen giant and both corpse and Daemonslayer went tumbling down the stairs with a scraping and thumping that thundered in their silent confines. Shade hit the floor first and rolled aside just in time to avoid providing a soft landing for the body.

Further back Soul still had her hands over her ears, her face a grimace at the dreadful din. It was apparent the pathetic heap at the foot of the stair posed no further threat and she came over to look, taking in the decrepit, mangled appearance. To think this used to be a person, she thought sadly, “Do you think anyone heard?”

“Besides the whole castle? Let’s get moving before we find out.” Shade looked around worriedly, certain the noise would have raised the alarm. In the wake of the dying echoes there was only silence.

Against their grim expectations, the racket did not bring running any more Infected and the Daemonslayers progressed unhindered through the lower castle passages, finally discovering the kitchens and a way into the upper levels. Hetik had told them the wizard’s study, where they suspected he would keep the Sphere of Binding, was behind the Great Hall adjacent to where they now were. The sickness had reached the castle long before it touched the rest of the town and the abandoned food here, some of it left half way through preparation, had long ago been reduced to mouldy dust. They crossed through to a further set of steps leading up, keeping their guard though there was still no sign of life.

Soul’s stomach grumbled unhappily; she hadn’t eaten a decent meal since the previous night (and even that had not been very good, her attempted curried rabbit having gone awry). She sighed, feeling thoroughly worried and miserable. Her shoulders slumped as the weight of the last few hours settled heavy on her mind but then Shade put a comforting arm around her, “It’s okay, Mech’. We’ll come through.”

“I know. Just it’s been a long, bad day.” She replied, feeling better knowing he was with her.

“The Great Hall’s up these steps. The mage’ll probably have some kind of guards there. Since he hasn’t sent anything after us it’s likely we’ve gone unnoticed so maybe we can get the drop on ‘em. You ready?”

Her features set; Soul raised her sword as a yes, prepared to deal with whatever waited for them atop those stairs.

To their surprise, the great hall was empty. Shade, who had gone first, gazed about suspiciously. The hall lived up to its name, though he had to admit he’d seen greater. It was a large chamber with a high peaked ceiling supported by six stone pillars laid out in rows of three. Wooden beams crossed just below ceiling level, supporting great candelabras whose light was long-extinguished. It was an interior room and between the numerous tapestries fake ‘windows’ of stained glass had been placed over alcoves in the walls behind which oil lamps flickered dimly, providing the only illumination.

“Where’re the guards?!” asked Soul in surprise as she came up behind him, “I don’t like this.”

“Me neither.” There had to be something here. Shade growled softly in the back of his throat, his nerves on edge, senses straining. He was right… suddenly he was aware they were not alone and had been aware since reaching the hall, just it had failed to register with his consciousness until now. There were two of them, one very close. His gaze tracked upward and there in the shadows upon one of the beams rested a figure. It was almost lost in the darkness but his keen vision picked it out and his stare turned to one of shock.

“What? What do you see?”

“Blackjack?” Shade was uncertain. The form was unmistakable, he could see it now, but what was he doing up there. He started to unfold his wings. Soul saw him now and stepped further into the room away from Shade for a better look. Without warning the dracosvulf suddenly dropped from the beam.

Soul yelped and leapt aside as Blackjack swooped at her, "What the hells are you playing at, you-" the insult died on her lips as he landed and turned. There was a decidedly unplayful animal snarl on his face but it was his eyes that made her falter. Cataract white; just like the other Infected they had encountered. With a growl he swept one of his wings forward and Soul did not dodge in time. Luckily it didn't hit her with its potential full force but still she was sent flying to land badly winded against the nearest wall. She tried to stand up using one of the tapestries to pull on but the wooden rail to which it was attached was old and worm-eaten. With a loud crack it gave way, burying her under cumbersome yards of mildewed and dusty material.

Shade moved to help but a lighting blue blur streaked out from behind a pillar. Darkclaw caught him a vicious kick to the stomach, knocking him over but thankfully the toughness of his chimera leathers meant the wicked sickle toe claw for which the assassin was partly named had not penetrated. He would have been badly winded but Shade decided now was not the time to allow his attempts to maintain being human to limit him and leapt back to his feet, facing off against his friends. His sword had flown from his hand as he fell but he hesitated to retrieve it, not wanting to have to use it to fight here. He felt a sickening weight in his stomach as he saw the white films over their eyes; this was probably going to get nasty. However Shade saw one advantage, Darkclaw and Blackjack both moved in a cumbersome, awkward way and like the other Infected there was no sign of anything but the most basic intelligence which meant he and Soul were only up against deadly speed and brute force. Still, this was not the most ideal of prospects. With Soul vanished from sight both had focussed their attention on him so Shade backed away from where she was struggling to get free, leading them away.

With a reptilian hiss Blackjack lunged forward to attack first. Shade blocked the slashing strike of his outstretched talons then had to leap back as his long jaws snapped shut where his neck had been an instant earlier. Darkclaw was already there and using his tail swept Shade’s feet out from under him, pitching him over backward. As he fell F’lair lashed out with a front kick that landed under the assassin’s jaw, snapping his head back. Darkclaw was built for speed and agility and though he was quite tough, was no way strong enough to withstand Shade’s undead strength and staggered back, stunned. Using his momentum Shade did a full back-flip to get on his feet again, just in time to catch a wicked left hook from Blackjack across his right cheekbone which spun him back so hard he smacked into the pillar behind with enough force to momentarily lose his balance.

Soul had found her way free of the tapestry in a few heartbeats and was just in time to see Blackjack land his punch. Darkclaw was back on his feet too, “Not good, not good at all!" She panicked as she suddenly recognised the move Blackjack was about to make; sweeping forward both his wings toward F’lair, crossing them. She knew what came next: he’d cross his large sickle-like wing-claws in a decapitation move she’d seen tried and tested on previous occasions. She had to stop it! Surging forward she let loose the beast within, ignoring the familiar pain as her shape began to change concentrating instead on using the unnatural burst of speed it lent her.

Snarling, Soul caught Blackjack by the arm and with a strength she would have lacked moments earlier flung him across the room with astonishing force. Blackjack slammed heavily into the far wall but had been able to spread his wings just enough to slow and reduce the impact and was on his feet a moment later. It proved a moment too long for Soul, transformation complete, was already upon him having bounded easily across the great hall after him. With a guttural, hollow howl he turned to face the attack, lashing out with his wings again but the werewolf was too quick and ducked under the lethal sickle wingclaw as it swept past then came up and grabbed his head. Following the movement through she smacked the side of his head hard against the wall. When she let go Blackjack slumped to the floor.

Soul turned to go help Shade but a pang of worry stopped her. What if she’d used too much force? She pushed back the beast to become human once more as she knelt to check the unmoving dracosvulf. She relaxed when she saw he was breathing, unconscious. His left temple was bloody where he had struck the wall but the wound itself was already coagulating, “You’ve lived through worse, friend, though I really hope you don’t remember this when you wake up or I’ll never hear the end of it, will I?”

Just then something whirred past her head, so close it clipped some strands of hair on route to bury itself in the wall. It was one of Darkclaw’s shuriken. Shade had dodged it easily as the assassin’s abilities were greatly diminished. Soul’s earlier tapestry troubles gave her an idea and she picked the weapon out of the wall. The hand to hand fight was taking Shade and Darkclaw close to another of the wall hangings, this one much bigger than the one she’d been stuck under. Taking careful aim she threw. The shuriken sliced straight through one of the two ropes that attached the wooden rod from which this tapestry hung to the wall.

“What’re you doing?!” yelled Shade, wondering what was up.

“Pull it!” she yelled back. He got the clue, leapt back away from Darkclaw and heaved with all his might on the other end of the tapestry. The other rope snapped and the whole thing fell, tipping forward away from the wall and landing squarely over the unsuspecting halfbreed. Hating himself for doing something like this, Shade ascertained which end of the clumsily moving form under the hanging was the head, then knocked Darkclaw out with a single blow.

“Let’s go.” He said simply. His expression was unreadable, but Soul could tell he was clearly upset at what they’d had to do to their friends.

Shade led the way. Anger replaced his earlier caution with speed. The door at the back of the great hall was locked. With a snarl he ripped it off its hinges. Soul said nothing and followed quietly as he stalked through, waiting for him to regain his composure. It worried her to see F’lair like this, so angry he’d lose touch with his desire to remain human. He did not seem to have noticed his change in appearance, the built-up muscles, shaggy hair growing on his arms and his face becoming more feral. At the end of a short corridor an archway led into a room brimming with books, manuscripts and artefacts. It reminded her of Hetik’s study although here the items were all covered in arcane writing and magical symbols. Strange charts were pasted here and there on the walls though trying to read their writing made Soul feel strangely nauseous. There was no wizard. In fact, the layer of dust covering everything in a thin grimy blanket suggested he had not bothered with his study in weeks, perhaps longer. Strange behaviour indeed for a wizard but then Hetik had said his attention was fully absorbed by the Sphere after its discovery.

It was obvious there was no Sphere of Binding here either. “It’s not here!” yelling a dreadful curse Soul instantly wished she hadn’t heard, Shade heaved the huge desk over in a fit of pique. The terrible crashing of glass bottles and unidentified metal artefacts onto the flagstone floor made a din greater than their fight had. Soul covered her ears then smacked Shade on the back of his head as the noise faded,

“What the hells are you doing?!”

His shoulders slumped, the fury flowing out of him “Sorry. I just…”

Soul reached up and cupped her hands to his face, making him look at her, “I know. I’m worried sick about the guys too but we have to keep our heads here. If the Sphere’s not here in Pilan’s own study, where else is it going to be? Think!”

“His pet manticore… its lair’s deep in the castle so it’d make a safe place to guard something like that?” he volunteered after a while.

“That’s good enough for me!” smiled Soul. She had already surmised as much but had wanted to make Shade concentrate on something other than his anger. It seemed to work as his predatory teeth receded and his face regained its human caste as he calmed, the bright green-yellow glow of his eyes dimming once more.

They plunged back into the keep’s depths at a run, slowing at corners to ensure no more Infected had turned up but found their way clear. They slowed again as they reached the second-lowest level and paused at the door they had picked the lock on, gazing doubtfully up the corridor. “You ever fought a manticore?” Soul asked.

“Nope. Never even seen one in the flesh before. Still, how bad can it be? It’s a beast, not a daemon or some immortal… we’ll be ok. Just whatever you do don’t let it sting you. I heard they’re pretty venomous.”

“Uh huh, I’ll bear that in mind.” Soul was unenthusiastic. The trouble with manticores being so rare was there was very little on them in the bestiaries she had read and even that information was dubious in its reliability. Normally Blackjack and his ‘vast experience’ (which he could be quite annoying in reminding her about) would fill in the knowledge gaps, but they were on their own this time.

After fifty feet or so the original corridor came to end in what had once been a store room. The far wall of the room itself was gone, reduced to a pile of bricks and rubble heaped against the remaining walls. Its removal had revealed a once-secret passage which led upward at a gentle incline. That animal scent and the smell of its old meals was much, much stronger now and they wondered if the keep’s occupants had perhaps been fed to the beast, explaining its abandoned state. The breeze was stronger now too and had a hint of fresh air to it. The tunnel’s black walls were of a strange consistency, more like a volcanic lava tunnel than something made by human hand and Shade suggested it had been ‘excavated’ with magic, possibly by melting the rock stage by stage. The beginnings of stalactites clinging to the roof indicated this tunnel was centuries if not millennia old. New oil lamps attached to the walls with iron bands to light the way indicated more recent activity.

A few metres before the tunnel came to an abrupt end into darkness there was a portcullis gate with a lever to operate it embedded in the wall just in front. Currently it was raised though some of the bars could be seen at the top. They appeared to be made of silver engraved with runes and both Shade and Soul eyed it very warily as they stepped hastily through then cautiously approached the end of the tunnel. It opened out into a cavern lit by a single angled shaft of moonlight that flooded in through an opening that, from the heap of trees and bits of building directly beneath it, had opened up only recently. It was certainly large enough for a manticore to get in and out. The cavern was lost in darkness but for the pool of moonlight at the centre of which, on a golden stand upon a pedestal, sat a glowing white sphere. The Sphere of Binding.

“Don’t look directly at it,” warned Shade, remembering Itti’s story.

“I’m not!” replied Soul, her eyes on the form she thought she had just seen in the shadows.

“Oh, do feel free to have a look; you’ll find it quite… captivating.” Spoke a crisp, unpleasant voice from behind the Daemonslayers. The voice spoke again, uttering the words of an arcane chant.

Shade did not even look back to see the speaker. On pure instinct he leaped forward, grabbing Soul on the way he pulled her to the ground outside the tunnel then rolled them both to the right as a fireball seared through the air above and exploded out into the cavern.

Not having looked before he leaped Shade's dive tumbled them down a staircase to the cavern floor. It was only a few metres but they landed in a heap, bruised and winded, “Where the hells did he come from?” gasped Soul, wondering how the wizard had come up so close behind without their noticing.

“Wizard, remember?” replied Shade.

“Oh, yeah right.”

Pilan appeared at the top of the stairs, his long red velvet robes billowing about him in the aftermath of his spell and a thin trail of smoke twisting from a large red stone set in a ring he wore. His silver-streaked black hair and beard placed him at around forty winters and his round, doughy face would have had a friendly appearance were it not for his cold blue eyes and cruel expression.

Soul instantly hated the arrogance she could see in him, “Hey!” she yelled angrily, “I thought you guys’re meant to be under oath to protect the Empire, not enslave its people with some freaky daemon disease!”

“The Oath of Servitude? I got a better offer.” He replied, “You don’t know what a thankless existence it is, having your Art tethered and governed by the Council, consigned on a fools errand in this run down gods-forsaken berg. However Intoth himself saw fit to bestow the Sphere of Binding and its gift of power upon me.”

“Kelar seemed pretty well off for it,” Shade muttered under his breath, remembering the filthy rich wizard of Mors in whose hidden sanctum they had discovered evidence of his corruption by the forces of darkness.

“Only because his father - windy old pig that he was - sat on the Council!” suddenly the wizard paused, a light of recognition dawning on his face, “You and that dragonkin upstairs! You’re the ones who broke into his library and wrecked his precious orrery! The Council are looking for you” he leered with a ghastly smile. At their shocked expression he ‘reassured’ them in a mocking tone, “but don’t worry, they won’t find you… there won’t be enough of your meddling beings left to find!” He flung his arms above his head and murmured words of magic to channel his power and focus it into a spell. The temperature suddenly dropped and the water vapour in the air of Soul's breath condensed. Not so for Shade though intent on his spell the wizard didn't notice this anomaly. A shining, glittering swirl of frost began to form in the space between his hands. Flecks of ice grew into wicked shards as in a matter of heartbeats the spell soared in intensity. With a sudden downward gesture Pilan hurled the ice storm spell at the Daemonslayers,

"Get behind me!" yelled Shade, motioning to Soul with has free arm for good measure as he yanked the Fireblade from its scabbard. He willed its magical flame to searing life and thrust it forward against the icy onslaught. A hastily conjured ice spell was no match for the ancient magic from which the sword was wrought. The instant its heat touched the ice storm the frost dispelled in a hissing cloud of steam. Shade feared it would not be much help if Pilan cast another fire spell at them but that suddenly became the least of his worries.

A huge form erupted from the shadows with a rumbling hiss and lumbered toward them across the cavern. Fully ten foot tall at the shoulder with its even larger black and red striped wings extended threateningly the manticore was a fearsome sight to behold. Its thick fur was red like fresh blood while its wings, mane and the shiny carapace of its scorpion tail were black as sable. A drip of gleaming poison clung to its lethal sting, sparkling green as it crossed the pool of moonlight on silent padding feet. Most striking of all was the beast’s face. It was less human and more animal than the bestiaries had suggested but its countenance still bore a startling resemblance to a man’s. As it came closer they saw its blue eyes were glazed over with the familiar white of the Infected, the once glossy coat dull and matted and its charge over the uneven cavern floor was ungainly, giving the Daemonslayers plenty of time to dive out of the way.

Briefly eluded by its prey, the manticore skidded inelegantly to a halt at the cavern wall and turned to seek them. It saw Shade making a beeline for the sphere and struck with its tail. Despite its natural hunting skills being greatly dampened by the binding spell, its tail strike was still lightning quick and dangerously accurate, catching Shade across the arm as he skidded to one side, narrowly avoiding being impaled by it. He swore and put a hand to the wound, the poison was not magical and could do him no lasting damage, but where it entered his veins it caused searing agony and he cried out an animal yelp of pain. He spun on his heel and slashed the Fireblade toward its face and drove it back.

With a hollow growl it withdrew its tail to strike again but Soul ran in front of its face and cast the strongest light spell she could, her knees almost buckling with the energy that flowed out of her.

For an instant the cave was lit up, thrown into a world of brilliant white highlight and pitch black shadow, casting in stark contrast the tableau of the lycan-fay facing off against the monster.

“Stop them!” screeched Pilan, seeing Soul take advantage of the manticore’s flash-blindness and sprint for the pedestal.

The manticore lumbered forward again in Soul’s general direction. Shade ran to help her but by a combination of fortune on the monster’s part and pure bad luck on Shade’s, barrelled straight into him. The impact knocked the fighter over and the manticore slammed its right forepaw down onto his chest, breaking ribs and pinning him to the ground. His concentration lost, the Fireblade’s flame went out but still he’d kept his grip and fended off the snapping jaws, teeth gritted against the pain and crushing weight from above.

Trying hard not to look directly at her target, Soul approached the pedestal. She could hear the wizard chanting again but as she turned to face him her glance passed over the Sphere and the glance turned to a stare. It wasn’t white; it was full of dancing, beautiful, horrible colours. The rest of the world seemed to fall away leaving only the strains of writhing energy that reached to her mind, drawing her in with promises she could not later bring herself to remember, reaching with clawing tendrils into her soul…except thanks to the archdemon Saragoth her soul was bound to another body. Denied its intended target the dark power’s hold broke and she spun round in time to see the wizard cast a brilliant red lightning bolt toward her. She sidestepped and it seared through the air past her left ear to strike the top of the pedestal instead.

The Sphere of Binding shattered in an incandescent explosion of burning white light that ripped outward through the cave, hurling Soul and the wizard to the ground.

The manticore howled and reared backward from the painful, blinding light and searing energy that ripped through the air as the orb’s eldritch enchantment tore itself asunder. Suddenly free Shade scrambled away, coughing up blood from a punctured lung but he could feel his ribs already mending. Soul had been thrown several metres by the explosion and he ran to where, dazed, she was struggling to stand and helped her to her feet.

“No!” the wizard shrieked as the tiny, sparkling pieces of the Sphere rained down. He scrambled down the steps and ran to where the pedastal had been. He fell to his knees and scrabbled desperately to gather the shards together as they tinkled to the floor like so many fairy bells, “Master!” he wailed.

Soul watched the desparate man with satisfaction, then an alarm bell went off in her mind and she slowly turned to look at the manticore. She had not been impressed by the monster when it was under Pilan’s control. But now as she saw its eyes clear to a brilliant cobalt blue, glimmering with predatory intellect she started to re-evaluate that opinion.

“It is when we’re the nearest likely meal! Run!” yelled Shade, sprinting for the stairs as the beast, with a terrible roar, suddenly sprang at them. Where before its movement had been awkward and stiff like some automaton, now the manticore moved with fluid, feline grace and deadly precision.

Without a second thought, Soul ran after him, leaving the wizard to claw at the ground for the shattered remains of his power. Launching herself up the stairs she skidded under the portcullis just as Shade threw the lever. The chains clattered loudly as the metal bars slammed down for the last time. Shade and Soul paused briefly to turn and see as the charging manticore stopped in the centre of the chamber to tower over the hapless wizard who only now realised the danger he was in. Helpless, he turned toward the Daemonslayers, mouth open in a silent plea and reached out in a desperate gesture for help. Coldly Shade turned and walked away. After a moment’s pause, Soul did the same, wincing as the man’s dying scream was drowned out by the manticore’s triumphant snarl.

*

Back in the upper levels they found Blackjack and Darkclaw, now conscious, still in the Great Hall. They were arguing over what had happened to them, remembering nothing after the incident in the tavern.

“I guess they’re back to normal then” Soul mused.

“And apparently none the worse for wear,” Shade said, feeling a flood of relief to see their friends recovered though he wasn’t sure if he wanted to tell them where they got the cuts and bruises they were nursing.

They left the castle and stole back through the town to retrieve their mounts. The thick fog had lifted to reveal some sense of the scale of destruction the unnatural plague had brought, though the full cost would not be counted until the suns rose. Those too far gone with the sickness to recover lay dead where they had fallen when the spell was broken. Others wandered about bewildered and terrified, even more so when they saw the Daemonslayers and assassin. Any townsfolk they encountered hurried fearfully away. Their haunted, frightened eyes and hurried retreats made the companions quicken their own pace, sensing it was only a matter of time before these people started looking for someone to blame for these terrible happenings and strangers in town, particularly of races far removed from human, could make an ideal scapegoat in the irrational panic dawn and first light's revelations would bring.

"If you want to know a thankless task, try being a Daemonslayer" Shade observed his expression dour.

"Speaking of which, we have to change our route. If the Wizards High Council is looking for us then now isn't the time to chance crossing the Empire. We'll have to take the long way home." Blackjack spoke up for the first time since they'd left the castle - his mood humourless and not just due to the throbbing headache emanating from the bruising on the side of his head. The knowledge that he had been under someone else’s control stirred dark feelings and worse memories.

There was a chorus of groans and not without good reason. The quickest way back to Uth Nagor would have been to cross through the heart of the Empire, but the Daemonslayers did not make for an inconspicious group and although they could rely on a glamour to hide Blackjack and Knightmare's more 'exotic' appearances, this might not trick any magic users looking for them. Now they were going to have to take the long road south through the Renegade Kingdoms, skirt east below the southern borders of the Desert of Shifting Sand, somehow find a crossing point across the vast Wild Horse Canyon then travel up through the Greater Wilds. To avoid the lonely mountains known as the Hags, an enchanted place where the veils between the material plane and the realm of the Fay were blurred together, giving rise to fantastical tales of entire armies vanishing in a single night, they would need to divert even further east across the Misty Plains and up by the Trollfells. This would be several times the distance of their original route which had been long enough already.

"Darkclaw, no one knows you're linked to us. Take word to Barlone, tell him there's some members still alive of his extended clan here."

The assassin nodded. Alone he could easily slip into the invisible shadow-world of his clandestine profession though he felt bad about leaving his friends to such a long and doubtless dangerous journey.

A shared sense of relief flowed through the group as they passed the outer wall and headed to the derelict they had ‘borrowed’ as a stable.

Soul had been leading the way but paused and stared back, wondering how the poor survivors would ever pick up the pieces of their decimated lives. She doubted they would even understand what had happened to them. Blackjack clapped her on the shoulder as he walked past, “It’s not our problem, Meccha. They’ll get over it, humans usually do. It’s enough that you and Shade freed them – us!” he jerked a thumb at himself then at Darkclaw, “Thanks, by the way.” He added, surprisingly without the grudging tone in which he usually expressed gratitude.

“Any time,” she smiled weakly then prepared with the others to hit the road. Even though they were still muddy and exhausted, they had no desire to remain in sight of that ravaged town and hoped the dawn would find them a long way distant. Maybe tomorrow would be better.

 

Fin.

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© Isabelle L Davis.
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