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Righteous fury, p.14
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       Righteous Fury, p.14

           Markus Heitz

  Karjuna’s face appeared, looking down at them. “Demigods! Where have you got to? Hurry up!”

  Caphalor would have loved to kick his rival back down the tube, but he could see Sinthoras had anticipated that and was staying out of boot-reach. “Let’s get on.”

  They covered the remaining distance and emerged to stand in a corridor next to the obboona. The bluish light came from a luminous living moss placed behind glass at intervals. Caphalor had seen this before in the Inàste temple. This lighting technique produced no soot or fumes and the air remained fresh.

  He looked down and noticed his clothing was oil-smeared from the climb. He would have to be careful not to leave any tracks that might give them away.

  The doorway gave on to a large, low-ceilinged room where the chain ran over a pulley and then off to the right, disappearing through the wall. Caphalor assumed that it was fixed to one of the movable sections.

  “You first,” he said to Sinthoras, pointing to stairs going up. “If I slip on all this oil I wouldn’t want to drag you down with me.”

  “Don’t worry about that. I shall move out of the way quickly enough to watch you break your leg,” his rival responded. “After you, O Honor-Blessed älf.”

  They swiftly climbed the steps, stepped through a doorway and found themselves bathed in warm light.

  A high, wide corridor veered off to the right and another led to the left. The stairs carried on, ending at a door ten steps up. This part of the fourth tower was illuminated by enormous petroleum lamps hanging from long ropes, the light magnified by the use of mirrors. The lamps swayed gently, hypnotically, as if to lull any intruder.

  Caphalor could hear nothing except the sound of Karjuna’s breathing. They were alone here and safe from discovery. “Let’s find out where this gålran zhadar is,” he suggested and Sinthoras nodded in agreement. “Where will we find a slave?” he asked the obboona. “We can ask one of them—I doubt they owe much loyalty to him.”

  The obboona inclined her head and then selected the right-hand corridor. Her shoes left the same dirty marks as their own, being able to move silently was not going to keep them from discovery for long.

  Caphalor urged her to speed up: the tower’s soldiers would soon realize there were intruders on site.

  He was still surprised they had encountered no traps in that shaft. It had all been far too easy. The gålran zhadar must surely have reckoned with one of his slaves absconding and perhaps betraying the secrets of the sky fortress: something was not right.

  He and Sinthoras both picked up the sound of a melodious humming and a rhythmical clinking approaching from ahead of them.

  Caphalor pushed the flesh-stealer into a niche in the wall before going to investigate, leaving Sinthoras to guard her.

  He sought the protection of the shadows, increasing their hold on the corridor with his magic. Silently, he drew his dagger.

  A human came toward them, humming a tune. He was wearing a hooded linen jerkin and had a bunch of keys at his belt, jangling against his thigh with each stride. He was not carrying any weapons.

  The man slowed his pace and stared at the dark footprints on the floor. He looked up at the petroleum lamps with a puzzled air.

  Caphalor’s magic doused the wicks still further, sending shadows sweeping past the man on both sides and plunging him, terrified, into darkness.

  Only then did the älf slip out from his cover and stalk up to the man. “Greetings from death, human,” he whispered. “It is up to you whether death walks on by or takes you now. Do you understand?”

  Wide-eyed with fear, the man nodded.

  “We seek your master, the gålran zhadar. We want to present ourselves to him. Where will we find him?” Caphalor held his dagger pointing at the man’s eye. “I am going to permit you to speak. If it were to occur to you to shout for help it would be the last thing you ever did.” Then he withdrew some of the black fear overwhelming the man.

  The man stared at him, still rooted to the spot with fright, but then his expression changed as he saw Sinthoras and the obboona standing behind Caphalor. Fear turned to hatred.

  “You traitor!” he hissed. His teeth were rotten and his stinking breath blew toward the älf like a cloud of pestilence.

  Karjuna grinned and folded her arms. “I told you I’d be back to take my revenge.”

  Sinthoras punched her in the face so that she fell to her knees.

  At this the man laughed with pleasure. “It doesn’t look like these people are your friends, Karjuna. Where’s that army of yours you were going to bring back?”

  Caphalor immediately let him taste terror again. The tip of his knife traveled the man’s face, leaving four painful shallow cuts round his eyes. “Watch yourself,” he threatened in a low voice. “If I don’t get an answer to my question your greasy skin will soon be hanging in strips from your ugly mug. And after that I’ll let the obboona strangle you. Is that the kind of death you had in mind?”

  The man writhed, abject with fear. “The gålran zhadar is resting. But you’ll never get near him. His guards—”

  “Where is the treasure?” Sinthoras interrupted him, earning a sharp look from Caphalor. “We seek a parchment and the crown he stole from the fflecx.”

  At this their captive looked extremely worried. “You are in the service of the alchemancers?”

  Sinthoras lowered his head and sent out webs of fear, not finely calculated as Caphalor’s had been, but like a wave crashing against a cliff. The effect on the human was remarkable: he pressed one hand against his forehead, the other against his chest, then sank to his knees gasping for air and whimpering.

  Caphalor guessed the barbarian would not be holding out for long. “So you know what we want and where we will find it,” Sinthoras murmured softly, sounding more dangerous than if he had shouted wildly. “I hold your cowardly heart and your feeble mind in the palm of my hand. Remember: one thought from me and you are dead.”

  “Round to the left!” cried the terrified man. “Tower number six!”

  Caphalor had been about to reprimand his fellow älf, but the ploy had been brilliant. Now they had their hands on a barbarian who could take them straight to where they needed to be. He looked at Karjuna and beckoned her over. “Mind he’s not tricking us.”

  The obboona bowed her head and he saw that she was disappointed. She was hurt that they did not trust her to lead them. He, on the other hand, found it incredible the creature expected them to.

  They hurried through the corridors and tubes and hallways of the sky fortress. Their captive led them at a fast pace and Karjuna nodded that he was going the right way. Occasionally they had to take a detour to avoid colliding with others.

  Caphalor suddenly asked, “You called her traitor. Wasn’t she one of the gålran zhadar’s slaves? Or did she have a more important position?”

  The man spat. “She was the supervisor of all the slaves until she robbed the master. She was due to be executed but she escaped. We thought she had jumped off the tower to avoid torture.”

  “Why didn’t you look for the body?” said Caphalor. Barbarians can be so stupid!

  Their captive didn’t answer—he pointed to a branch of the corridor and a narrower tube. “Down there. It leads to a chamber where the most important things are kept.”

  Sinthoras pushed him into the corridor tube, then nodded to the obboona. “Caphalor will go first. I’ll keep my eyes on the two of them.” He grinned. “The Honor-Blessed älf will bring us luck by going first.”

  Caphalor complied, holding his bow and arrows at the ready as he went down the corridor. As he passed the lamps he dimmed them so that he could move along in a mantle of shadow.

  After he had gone twenty-eight paces the corridor bent round and he heard the low voices of perhaps eight or nine creature of various kinds.

  He did not douse the lights completely, but peered cautiously around the corner.

  His acute hearing had not let him down: there were four humans,
one gnome, and four óarco half-breeds. They were standing in a triangle formation in front of an iron door, with the gnome at the front. His face was green with yellow marbling; either this was a whim of the gods or he was a horribly deformed fflecx.

  They wore helmets, studded leather armor, chainmail gauntlets, and protective plates covering forearms and legs. Their weapons were swords, battleaxes, and two morningstars. They were talking quietly among themselves; the topic was the construction of a seventh tower. He assumed they were all there to guard the treasure store.

  Would he be able to tackle them on his own? They were standing diagonally behind each other, ideal for an archer: he could take out three or four at a time. But they would be bound to move, thus presenting multiple targets, and they were all at different heights.

  Common sense told him to go and get Sinthoras, but his pride told him to try to manage on his own. He wanted to show his arrogant companion that he was not the only one who knew how to fight. After all, he was the one who had received the Honor-Blessing, and deservedly so. If he was quick enough he could get into the chamber and grab the items they had come for, completing the task on his own: a further humiliation for his rival.

  Caphalor adjusted the quiver and drew out three arrows. He nocked one and held the other two in his mouth. This meant he would only be able to draw the bowstring back the length of the bow arm, but at this distance the shot would be powerful enough. And firing them would be quicker.

  He stepped around the corner, loosed the first arrow, took the second one out of his mouth and pulled back the string, noting with satisfaction that the four men on his left had all fallen to the ground, mortally wounded. The third arrow let him dispense with the two monsters in front, but then the remaining three guards woke out of their frozen state.

  The gnome grabbed a whistle and the two last óarco half-breeds rushed at him, brandishing raised axes.

  They could not have chosen to do anything more stupid.

  It gave Caphalor the chance to fire the next arrow into the gnome before he could utter a sound: he had just put the whistle to his lips and was drawing breath when the missile hit him. The tip of the arrow went straight through the tin whistle, crashed through his teeth and disappeared down his throat. Gurgling, he fell backward.

  Seconds before the half-breeds reached him, Caphalor sent out waves of darkness and killed the lamp, ducking out of the way of his attackers.

  He felt the draft as the axes whizzed past him, meeting air rather than flesh.

  Dropping his bow, Caphalor drew out an arrow and listened for his adversaries’ movements: he did not need to be able to see them. He leaped upward and stabbed down rapidly several times, meeting soft tissue; the resulting gurgling noise was proof that he had hit them in the throat. Warm liquid splashed against him and the first one collapsed heavily. The remaining half-breed slashed around wildly with his ax, hitting his own partner in the belly. The älf stabbed sharply with his knife and heard his victim groan as the blade clanged on his helmet.

  The sound guided Caphalor as he dealt a sweeping blow that sliced through enemy flesh. He followed through—jabbing right and left through the leather armor, tripping the beast up at the same time.

  As it fell, the half-breed tried to grab hold of his arm, but he was not that easy to catch. Caphalor nimbly avoided the hold with a shoulder turn and the clumsy fingers lost their purchase. He jammed his dagger through the guard’s neck.

  A dull thud. And then silence.

  Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, Caphalor allowed the lamps to flare up again. Tendrils of black fear dissolved into nothing. The shadows retreated. “I knew it.” It was Sinthoras coming round the bend in the corridor. “The doused lamps told me what you were up to. So our Honor-Blessed älf could not resist a fight.”

  He did not bother to answer, annoyed that his plan of entering the treasure store on his own had been foiled. He took the amazement on the faces of the obboona and their prisoner as praise enough for his feat, even if their admiration meant little to him. “Open the door,” he ordered the man, lifting a blood-smeared dagger to his face. “One of those keys of yours should fit. Let’s hope so, for your sake.”

  Their captive blanched. “No. They won’t fit. The master holds the only key.” He licked his dry lips and squinted over to Caphalor. “Please! I’m sure I can be helpful in other ways.”

  Sinthoras shook his head. “You tell us that now? You deceived us on purpose, to save your own skin.”

  The barbarian fell to his knees. “Mercy!”

  “Mercy you shall have.” Sinthoras spat the words, contempt written on his features. Caphalor could see what was coming. The slender blade of the spear pierced the man’s neck quick as a bolt of lightning and was pulled back. “You die with little pain.”

  The man fell forward to the floor without a sound. Caphalor turned him onto his back.

  Fascinated, he and Sinthoras watched the barbarian’s eyes change as life ebbed away and a milky sheen took over. This was the veil that death brought.

  Caphalor had heard many theories about why this phenomenon was to be observed in higher and lower creatures alike. It could not be taken—as humans believed—to signify the departure of the soul, because óarcos and other monsters did not possess a soul. Was death really the great equalizer? He wondered if his own pupils would one day dim like this.

  Sinthoras turned to Karjuna, his spear pointing at her belly. “You knew about the lock mechanism, flesh-stealer. You shan’t trick us again!”

  She threw herself at his feet. “I know how to open the door, demigods,” she cried out devotedly.

  Caphalor wiped the blood off on the dead barbarian’s clothing. He was finding the necessity of the obboona’s presence increasingly infuriating. “Get on with it,” he barked. “There’s no time to waste.”

  She went over to the door and the älfar followed her a few paces behind.

  As Karjuna manipulated patterns and jewels set in the door, a series of clicks could be heard. Her hand movements did not seem to follow any particular pattern, but suddenly the door started to open. Caphalor reckoned the steel was three hand spans thick.

  Her purpose now served, Sinthoras raised his spear to strike her down.

  “Wait,” said Caphalor softly. “Who knows what we might still need her for?”

  “After you, demigods,” Karjuna announced, bowing low and gesturing them to enter.

  “Go first,” Sinthoras growled to her, elbowing his rival aside and leaving him to bring up the rear. “You can cover our backs with your fabled archery skills, O Blessed One,” he said sarcastically. The room was lined with shelves carrying chests, boxes, and small trunks, each bearing a label in strange runes. It smelled of leather and wood, like a tack room.

  “He keeps exact records of everything,” Karjuna told them as she turned to face them, eyes sparkling. The black in her eyes had completely faded now. “Unfortunately I can’t read his language. But this one”—she pointed to a chest in the corner—“wasn’t here last time I looked.”

  Caphalor was sure she had tried to steal treasure from this hoard. He warned himself not to underestimate her, not until her death: the death he and Sinthoras were itching to bring her.

  They went over to the chest and told Karjuna to open it.

  Inside was a crown about the size of a gnome’s head. It was made of gold and varnished clumsily with thick paint; engraved silver balls topped each of the seven points and looked as if they had been stuck on as an afterthought.

  Caphalor noted the mysterious radiance. He was not able to work magic as the Inextinguishable Ones and the botoicans could, but most of the älfar were able to detect its presence. There would be a slight tingling, as if a thunderstorm were in the air, and the nearer one got, the stronger the sensation. Next to the crown he saw a rolled parchment with a broken wax seal.

  Sinthoras unrolled it. “Just some ludicrous gnome scribble,” he said after a short scan of the contents. “Probab
ly a recipe, but it makes no sense at all.”

  “Coded, maybe.” Caphalor watched the entrance. He reached out and took the scroll.

  Sinthoras bestowed a smile on Karjuna that was velvety soft and full of menace. “It’s time we expressed our thanks for your cooperation, flesh-stealer. The reward may not be in the form you might have wished, but I promise you it will be extraordinary.” The tip of his weapon hovered at the level of her heart. She took a step back, the horror on her face rendering her uglier than ever.

  “Look at this,” said Capahlor, pointing out the ink that had run on the bottom of the parchment: the writing had become illegible, but it looked to have been done on purpose.

  Sinthoras tutted impatiently. It was obvious he was savoring the prospect of killing Karjuna. “What’s that to us? Munumon wants the parchment. He never said what condition it had to be in.”

  “We need the antidote, don’t we? He won’t give it to us if the parchment’s damaged, he’ll think we did it.” This gave his companion cause for thought.

  Karjuna spoke up, pointing to the smudged writing. “I can read it.”

  “You?” Caphalor laughed at her. “You’d say anything to save your skin.”

  “No, my demigod!” As always when she addressed him directly, her voice took on a timbre implying begging, desiring, longing. “I can see the indentations made by the quill. It’s the medication I take to make my eyes look like yours. It sharpens the vision. I beseech you: let me live!”

  Sinthoras let out his breath in exasperation. “I say get rid of her.”

  “No, it won’t hurt to test her.” Caphalor looked at Karjuna. He would have loved to kill her, but perhaps his own life and the key to their whole mission was in her hands.

  Sinthoras stared at him, then said, “We’ll regret it. I feel it in my bones.” He looked around for something to stow the crown and the parchment in and located a leather bag.

  A small silver-topped vial the size of a finger caught his attention in one of the open boxes. A whitish substance was within, swishing gently against the sides of the tiny flask. The writing on the label was damaged, but he knew that one of the runes stood for “demon.” He was aware of a strong magic force emanating from it.

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