The Shadow King's palatial complex spread out beneath Bradeth as she clung to the cavern wall. The climb had been simple, though she would have preferred a different approach. Usually teleportation could get her anywhere she wished, but not this time.
Parril had arrived from Port Salmus shortly before she embarked on this mission, bringing the leather teleportation mat as well, but that wasn't the problem. No matter how she scouted the complex, there was no good place to set up the mat that would put her into a good position to approach Maxthane's hiding spot.
So Bradeth kept both teleportation circles with her and let Parril fly unencumbered through The Shade. At least then, while Bradeth was on the wall she had another pair of eyes to watch her back. Another pair of eyes to make sure the guards down below didn't look up and see the Elrok moving slowly across the stone.
She sighed, pausing for a moment as she considered how much more distance she needed to cover. The window Maxthane had pointed out to her was only another fifty feet away, but this was not the easiest wall to climb. Bradeth had to take her time finding handholds and footholds big enough to accommodate her. She'd had to go around sections of wall, at times, because they were too smooth. Despite how close the hiding place was now, it could take her another hour to reach it if she had to backtrack.
Not for the first time, she considered using magic to reach her destination. She could easily inscribe the necessary runes with one free hand. With that, she could create steps in the wall that would allow her to reach the window with ease. But to create so many steps all at once would be loud. One small shift of the stone might go unnoticed, but a hundred subtle shifts at once would sound like a landslide.
Gritting her teeth, she resumed her sideways climb. She would use magic if she had to escape quickly, but not until then. Stealth was more important than her impatience, a challenge she had often struggled with during her years in training. Gobrak had often chastised her for it.
It was one of many reasons the Shaman Council had assigned him to this mission along with her. He could keep her in check in ways others could not. She hated him for it sometimes, but she was often forced to admit—never publicly—that he was right to urge caution. He had trained her to be a warrior, to reach the pinnacle of Elrok achievement. Not everyone could be a Fletcher. Patience was required in both making the bow and arrow and using them.
She was a warrior, not a mage. She had to remember that, otherwise she would come to use magic to solve all her problems. Like the foolish Gor often did, or the even more foolish Neredos. Magic could never replace wisdom, and many fools had died thinking it would always save them.
Those thoughts spurred Bradeth onward, as she crossed the remaining distance to the window. She found the hidden alcove easily, her eyes as accustomed to the darkness as all Elroks. Eyeing the runework, she couldn't help but give a nod of grudging respect to Maxthane. The runes themselves were sloppy, but they had been drawn in haste. That made the whole alcove all the more impressive. It took tremendous will to manifest magic through a rune improperly or poorly drawn, and Maxthane had done it all under extreme duress.
But Bradeth was under no such time constraint. Firming up her hold with one hand and her feet, she released with the opposite hand and dug into her belt pouch, withdrawing a small piece of chalk. She expertly sketched several runes meant for breaking spells on the surface of the stone, then placed her hand against them and focused. The stone parted and revealed the satchel Maxthane had placed there.
Bradeth quickly took the satchel and slid it over her shoulder, then began her climb back the way she'd come. There were several moments when she again considered resorting to magic, but she moved on without it and eventually arrived at the ledge where she'd begun, far from the Shadow King's complex.
From there she deftly made her way back to the small tunnel where she would meet the Elrok reinforcements. They would arrive shortly, if they had kept to the grueling travel schedule they were expected to maintain. The non-Elrok residents of The Shade either didn't know about this particular tunnel or avoided it. It had many chasms and arduous ascents, but the Elrok skill in traversing stone made it manageable.
When she arrived, the Elroks were nowhere to be seen. Realizing that she had made better time than they, Bradeth sat down to rest. Her general impatience settled in almost immediately, and she attempted to meditate to clear her mind. She stopped after only a few minutes, unable to fully realize the mental stillness she sought.
Boredom threatened to overtake her, and in desperation she invaded Maxthane's privacy, opening the satchel and searching the contents. Her heart nearly stopped as her eyes settled on the grimoire, recognizable immediately from legends she'd learned as a child. Ghayle, the Gor Queen, had reportedly written this book, though not by her own hand.
She drew the book from the satchel and began to read. Her command of ancient Gor was unmatched among her peers. She had taken to the study like a wolf to the hunt, covering every avenue to make sure nothing escaped her. Now she feasted from Ghayle's grimoire with a ravenous hunger, studying every spell, every scrap of history.
Until one. One which changed everything. One which made her body tremble and her heart pound mercilessly in her chest. Her pulse raced so loudly that she almost didn't hear the approach of her people as they rounded a bend in the corridor to meet her.
Before any of them could offer a word of greeting, she met their leader with a stony gaze and said, "Follow me. There is work to be done.
"What is that thing?" Kirra asked, looking from the base of the pillar rising next to them to the shore of the island. The large metal being with its mangled leg seemed to be watching them, its single, eye-like light in its face glowing a menacing red.
When they'd arrived on the shore of the island, Maxthane had made sure to move his group to the pillar as quickly as possible, knowing that the golem would be waiting for them. The bodies of the boatmen who had brought him here the time before still lay across the shore, decomposing where they'd died.
He wondered what it would take to destroy the machine in order to reclaim the bodies. These were his people, and they had families as surely as any other resident of The Shade did. Those families deserved some measure of closure, didn't they? Or, Maxthane realized, perhaps the nature of The Shade came with certain expectations. Life here was dangerous, and sometimes people died without answers.
"Grim called it a golem. From my understanding, the golems are ancient machines used as weapons or servants by powerful mages," Maxthane said quietly. "It cannot reach us here."
"That's comforting," Kirra said, his eyes never leaving the golem. "It makes my skin crawl."
The three Inkblades Madame Godani had sent with them all nodded in agreement. Lorran was the only one who spoke, glancing at Kirra before returning his attention to the golem. "Considering the bodies we passed on the way up, I don't blame you."
"They were the crew who brought us here before," Maxthane said. "They didn't deserve what happened to them."
"Us?" Kirra asked.
"Grim, Dogo, and the gladiators were with me," Maxthane said.
Kirra nodded in understanding. "I still haven't met either of them, though I've heard some wonderful things about both."
"Both are good men," Gobrak offered from his perch above them. He'd climbed the stone staircase a ways and had his bow at the ready, eyeing the golem warily. Maxthane didn't detect any fear, only readiness. "Though I know much more about Grimfaeth than Dogo," Gobrak added after a moment.
"Both were gladiators in my father's arena," Maxthane said. "Dogo kept the gladiators organized and made them work together for their common benefit. Grim assisted him, offering guidance and healing to the injured."
"And Grim saved Styx's life. That puts him in a good place in my mind," Kirra added with a grin.
"Agreed," Maxthane said. He looked up at Gobrak, latching on to the name 'Grimfaeth'. It was the second time he had heard the Elrok use the strange variation, and he wanted to know why. "What do you know of Grim, Gobrak?"
"He is our Chief," Gobrak replied.
"What!?" Maxthane asked, his surprise echoed in the expressions of the others.
"You didn't know?" Gobrak asked. "With how much you've spoken with Kubriss . . ."
"No, I had no idea," Maxthane said. "Our command of each other's languages has never been good enough for her to communicate something so complex."
"How did a Fedain become an Elrok chief?" Kirra asked.
"Not just a chief, but the Chief," Gobrak clarified. "He is chief of the Clan of Lions, the clan which united all clans under Telzath, Chief of Lions." When he saw that his explanation had done nothing to lessen the confusion of the others, he added, "Grim was Telzath's husband, and at Telzath's death he became Chief. He will remain our leader until his death or abdication."
"Telzath . . . he died, what, seven years ago?" Maxthane asked.
"Yes," Gobrak replied. "And Grimfaeth abandoned the Elroks soon after."
"So, you've been without a leader this whole time?" Kirra asked. "How have you been able to function?"
Gobrak nodded. "That is correct. The combined shamanic council has argued for years over whether we should abandon tradition and appoint a new Chief in his stead or try to find Grim and force him into the role or force his abdication."
"Which do you side with?" Maxthane asked.
Gobrak's expression grew strained. "We have not seen any sign of Grimfaeth until recently. I believed it was time to accept that he was lost to us and move on. When the shamans received a message from Kubriss, however, they sent two Fletchers to investigate claims of the Chief's appearance. Bradeth believes the Grimfaeth should be found. As Telzath's daughter, she has a particular desire to see this matter resolved."
"Interesting," Maxthane and Kirra said together.
"We learned that Grim is currently imprisoned in the Pillar of Ibrix, and Bradeth came to seek your help in freeing him," Gobrak explained.
Maxthane looked troubled by this idea, and he glanced at Kirra briefly for confirmation before turning back to Gobrak. "But that would mean freeing the demon again."
"I don't think that will be a problem if we plan to kill the demon immediately," Kirra offered. "We'll be set up to handle it. Bradeth is very good at killing demons."
Gobrak jumped in immediately to add his own opinion. "Bradeth is the most skilled Fletcher in all the tribes, despite her youth. She has worked hard to become the warrior she is, and if anyone can plan how to kill a demon, it's her."
Maxthane looked between them, trying to decide if he should take them at their word. Gobrak had proven his honor ever since Maxthane met him, and Kirra . . . it seemed to Maxthane that Kirra was more confident of his abilities than ever. He'd been resistant to change when Maxthane first met him. Resistant, but willing anyway. Somehow over the last few days, Kirra had found an inner strength that made him not only trustworthy, but attractive as well.
Attractive. The thought made Maxthane smile. He had been willing to embrace Styx's love for Kirra without hesitation, but now Maxthane couldn't deny that he felt a certain pull toward the former Knight as well. Perhaps the future didn't have to be bleak. With allies like these, he had cause to be optimistic.
"Then I will help her," he said at last. "The grimoire she is bringing me will allow me to free him."
Gobrak nodded and pointed out over the lake. "There is Parril now. We should be receiving her shortly. She'll probably teleport over, once Parril delivers the leather."
"Teleport!?" Maxthane asked with surprise.
"Oh yes . . ." Kirra said, nodding enthusiastically. "It's amazing. I've done it twice now and—"
"You've teleported!?" Maxthane interrupted.
Parril swooped in then, distracting them from the conversation. Instead of carrying the teleportation mat, Parril delivered a small roll of paper clutched in his talons. Gobrak took it and read it quickly, blinking with surprise before he glared at the owl.
"We can focus on that later, we have a problem," Gobrak said with a growl. He crumpled the paper and shook it at Parril. The owl shrieked once and took off, flying at a different angle than the one that had brought him to the island.
"What's wrong?" Maxthane asked, frowning.
"Bradeth isn't coming," Gobrak said simply. "Do you have another plan?"
"Why isn't she coming?" Kirra asked. "Did she say what she's going to do?"
Gobrak shook his head. "She didn't say. She said she has the grimoire, but she won't be coming here. She's going to Pentalus. I have a feeling she recognized what that grimoire can do."
Maxthane let the news sink in as Kirra cursed under his breath. The others continued to mutter in confusion, but to Maxthane there was only one option. He had to get that grimoire if he wanted to save his people. "We go up," he said firmly, drawing the attention of the others.
"Up?" Kirra asked skeptically, looking at the stairs rising behind them.
"There is an entrance to Pentalus above us," Maxthane said, then paused as he remembered his own ascent of the pillar some time before. The temple had a mosaic depicting demons, and Grim had spoken of it as if it held other secrets. "But before reaching that, there is a place that might hold some answers for us. I can only hope it will have the right ones."
"Lead the way, King Maxthane," Gobrak said, gesturing behind him.
"We will follow you wherever you lead," came the chorus from the Inkblades, lead by Lorran.
Kirra met his eyes and shrugged. "I promised to watch your back. If this is what you want to do, I'll be there."
Maxthane nodded, turned, and ascended to the Temple of Naxthul.
Bradeth took no breaks on her ascent from The Shade. The Elroks following her were worn out from their long trek, but none of them complained about the journey itself. Their leader—a young Elrok male named Kobblith—had other matters to discuss with Bradeth than the simple concern of a long day's march.
"Fletcher, where are you leading us?" he asked when they reached the great staircase leading toward the main exit from The Shade. It was the straightest path to Pentalus, and Bradeth saw no reason to delay her journey there. Elroks were a common enough sight in The Shade, and most of the citizens would assume they were on a special mission for the thulu'Khant family.
Despite this, the group received many stares from those they passed in the great market. Bradeth ignored them all, but she could not completely ignore those who followed her.
"To Pentalus," she answered at last, barely sparing Kobblith a glance.
"Fletcher, forgive me, but . . . can we know why?" Kobblith asked, looking back at several of his companions for support. "We came to assist Fletcher Gobrak. Will we be meeting him there?"
"We have an important task to do. This day, you serve the Chief of Lions," Bradeth replied smoothly. Several of the warriors gasped at the mention of the Chief, but Bradeth ignored their surprise. They would find out the reason soon enough.
Kobblith remained silent as they ascended the steps, but Bradeth noted his increasing agitation as they neared the city. The other Elroks were worse. Even Hubbrak who followed silently behind, seemed to have forgotten his earlier faithfulness to Bradeth, as he eyed her nervously whenever he thought she wasn't looking.
But she forced all thoughts of hesitation from her mind. There was only one option here, the option she'd been searching for since Grim disappeared. She would face the Chief of Lions and make him see reason, and now she could corner him at last.
Her mind full of one possibility, she led the way to the top of The Shade, past the checkpoint without bothering to check in with the guards. They saw her and her station and moved out of the way. She was an Elrok Fletcher, and she could only be on the business of the Shadow King with so many Elroks behind her.
When she reached the alleyway leading to the streets of Pentalus, however, the tension in her followers snapped at last. She started toward the open street, intending to pause once she had a quick look around, but stopped when Kobblith stepped in front of her.
"Fletcher Bradeth, we can't go out there," he said, eyeing the busy street nervously.
Bradeth tempered her impatience as much as possible as he eyed the young warrior in front of her. "Why not?"
"The people of Pentalus—"
"You may have earned your second clan mark, but you do not outrank me," Bradeth said firmly. "We are on a mission to rescue the Chief of Lions, and there is only one way to do that. Now, I need to make this very clear. Who among you can write well?" She looked back at the group behind her, eyeing each one in turn. Eventually, three Elroks nodded in response.
She waved them all forward, ignoring Kobblith as he stood sullenly behind her. "I have some rune assignments for you. Show me your command of the rune 'Dar'." She pointed to one of the Elroks, then to the other two in turn as she went on, "You show me 'Jun'. And you, 'Lohk'."
Each one stepped forward in the order she addressed them. Using their fingers, they drew on the alley wall to demonstrate their command of the runes in question. None of them were perfect with their ability, but all three did well enough to pass her inspection.
When the last one had finished demonstrating his ability, she asked, "Do any of you know the base seventy-two runes?"
"Yes, Fletcher. I do," the first rune-inscriber said, avoiding her gaze.
"You will be my primary assistant," Bradeth said. It would have to do, even if his command of the runes wasn't what it could be. As long as Bradeth's will remained strong enough, she could use inferior runes. "You will be drawing on the opposite side of the pillar from me."
"The pillar, Fletcher?" the young Elrok said skeptically.
"Yes," Bradeth said, handing the grimoire to him. She opened it to the page with the ritual meant for dispelling the pillars of air keeping the demons imprisoned. "Here, you will use this for guidance. We will meet at the midway points where he will write 'Jun' and she will write 'Lohk'." She pointed at the other two who had demonstrated for her to make the plan clear, then turned toward Kobblith.
Before she could address him, the Elrok holding the grimoire asked with surprise, "We're going to open the pillar?"
"Yes," Bradeth said, turning back toward him, fighting to keep irritation from her voice.
"You would challenge me?" Bradeth asked, glowering at him. "The Chief of Lions is imprisoned inside and needs our help." This seemed to quiet the dissenter, though his eyes widened as he returned to studying the grimoire. Satisfied that there would be no other interruptions, she turned around again and said, "Kobblith."
"Yes, Fletcher?" Kobblith asked.
"I need you to organize a defensive plan. You may be facing Knights before we finish," Bradeth replied. "After we open the pillar you will need to fight the demon."
"We're fighting a demon!?" Kobblith said with surprise. "Fletcher, forgive me, but, this group is not very battle-experienced and—"
"Yes," Bradeth said, interrupting him. She didn't have time to waste listening to Kobblith's excuses. The demon would not be a problem if they were properly prepared. "An Ibrix. Are you familiar with the stories?"
"Avoid bodily contact, kill from a distance if possible?" Kobblith asked skeptically.
"Correct. Impact weapons work best. Smash don't slash," Bradeth replied. She looked over the Elrok warriors again and added, "I would put those with hammers and mauls on the inner line, to allow them the swiftest access to the demon. Keep those with spears on the outer line. They'll be able to face the Knights should they arrive and keep them at bay."
"Are you sure about this, Fletcher Bradeth?" Kobblith asked.
Bradeth answered immediately, her eyes narrow and face tight. "If you keep asking me that question, I will make sure you take twenty years to get your third clan mark."
"I'm sorry, Fletcher," Kobblith said, looking away in shame.
"Are you ready?" Bradeth asked, looking over the group.
"Yes, Fletcher," they responded as one, too afraid to challenge her now.
She reached into the satchel Maxthane had used to keep the grimoire and retrieved the chalk. Deftly dividing it into four pieces, she handed one to each of her three rune inscribers and kept one to herself. "We are making a direct line for the Pillar of Ibrix. We will ignore the humans and move as one unit until we arrive. You three will follow me and I will tell you where to inscribe your runes, while the rest of you will follow Kobblith's orders. Is that understood?"
The Elroks nodded in response, and Bradeth turned to the mouth of the alley. She didn't need to worry about the others falling in line behind her. They would come. Once the mission had officially begun, no Elrok questioned a Fletcher. They were hers until it was over, assuming they all lived to see that moment.
She led the way onto the busy streets of Pentalus. The cries of alarm began immediately. An Elrok was a rare sight in Pentalus at all, almost unheard of, even, and to see so many at once had the citizens scrambling to get away. Bradeth ignored them, her focus on the large grey pillar down the thoroughfare.
Calls for the city guard arose in every direction. Bradeth had little concern for the few guardsmen who could mobilize before she began her preparations. They would wait for the Knights, or until they could gather enough of their forces together to challenge fourteen Elroks carrying weapons.
She increased their pace to a sprint as the street began to clear. There was no sense in wasting valuable time, even if she likely had enough. With no one to impede them, they reached the Pillar of Ibrix quickly, at the edge of the large hole leading down into The Shade. Without even pausing to glance in the direction of the chasm, she held her arm out as Parril flew from the cavern to land on her arm.
As soon as the Elroks gathered around her, she gave her three assistants their assignments. Two took up position on opposite sides from each other, each drawing a specific rune that served as a main focal point. The third, who still held the grimoire, started near one and would work his way toward the other.
Bradeth would soon do the same, the ritual perfectly remembered in her head. Her memory had never failed her when it came to studying Gor magic, and it would not do so now. She would be able to draw her half of the runes with precision long before her assistant made it halfway through.
Knowing she had some time, she turned to Kobblith to give him her final instructions. "Avoid killing if possible but do anything necessary to keep us from being interrupted. This is more important than risking war. No protests out of you, Kobblith, this will be done."
To her great relief, the warrior simply nodded and instructed the other Elroks to take up a defensive perimeter. As they situated themselves, Bradeth took a quick look around to assess the situation. Two city guardsmen were positioned at the north end of the plaza, but otherwise the area was deserted. Shouts indicated that more guardsmen had been called, but there would be time yet before a sizeable force arrived.
With a determined stride, Bradeth moved to the pillar and crouched down, putting her chalk to the cobble stones. She sketched the runes with an expert hand, moving quickly from the 'Jun' rune inscribed by one of her assistants to the 'Lohk' rune on the opposite side. She looked up only twice to see that more city guards had gathered. They were a dozen strong now, but faced with a still greater number of Elroks, they weren't about to try their luck.
She grinned at her fortune and went to help with the other side of the pillar, where she was pleasantly surprised to find that the circle was nearly complete. Several of the runes were somewhat askew, but they would do for her purposes. Starting at the 'Lohk' rune, she met her assistant a moment later and drew the last rune herself.
"The Knights are coming!" Kobblith shouted, and Bradeth looked skyward. A full two-dozen Knights had mobilized and were steadily headed their way. They would not arrive for another minute at least, which was more than enough time.
"Let them come. We are finished," Bradeth said. "Just hold the line."
Without waiting for Kobblith to respond, Bradeth closed her eyes for focus and began to chant. She put all of her will into the runes at her feet, reaching out to them with her mind as much as her words. Ancient power filled her veins, and she channeled it into the ritual before her.
The grey mists began to dissipate, as if being burned away by an intense heat. Black smoke curled up into the air, coming from some yet unseen fire hidden in the remaining fog. An unearthly cry of pain echoed from the heart of that smoke, echoing across the plaza. Every nearby soul save Bradeth recoiled from the pillar, eyeing it with great wariness.
Bradeth finished the chant and watched the pillar evaporate the rest of the way. Despite the looming threat of the Knights still charging toward them, she nodded to Kobblith who turned the warriors inward to face the coming demon. They would kill the source of that scream as soon as it came into view. Bradeth would do it herself if she could, and she moved her bow from her shoulder and quickly nocked an arrow to it.
Something heavy and metallic collided with the cobblestones, shaking the ground and ringing loudly across the plaza. The sound rang in Bradeth's ears as she pulled back her bowstring, ready for her first clear shot at the demon. The Knights arrived, but they did not head for the Elroks as they had originally intended. Instead, they circled above the evaporating pillar, waiting for the demon they would have to kill to protect their city.
Its wings came into view first, limp and falling. Then its shoulders, arms, legs, and sides. The demon lay in a crumpled heap, not moving. Bradeth kept her arrow drawn, eyeing the demon with great suspicion. Only then did she realize that the cry of pain had stopped. The ringing metal had drowned it out, but it had not returned when the echoes faded. This demon was dead.
The helmet came into view, still glowing in places from its residual heat. No head remained to fill it, only a mess of gelatinous brain and flesh, melted by some intense force. Out of the middle of that mutilated mass rose a naked Fedain, his body covered in thick, red slime. He stood tall as he turned to face the crowd of onlookers, his eyes filled with intensity.
Bradeth knew him well. She lowered her bow and replaced the arrow in her quiver. She stepped forward, across the chalk circle as she waved her Elrok forces to stand down. "I came to kill a demon today, but it seems you didn't need my help."
"Bradeth," Grim said tiredly. He met her gaze as he stood unwavering before her. "What are you doing here?"
Bradeth moved as close to him as she could, ignoring everything in the world but the two of them as she said fondly, "I came to take you home, Father. It's time for you to take my father's place."
Grim stared at her incredulously, then laughed. It was a sound far more pained than any the demon had made as it died and rang as hollow as its helmet.
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