Into the treasury wing
Hirst waited impatiently as Cass worked on the trap, sweating slightly. It had been a good ten minutes since they had left the guards dreaming Lotus dreams. At length, Cass seemed satisfied at her attempt to disable the trigger, and began working a six-foot long spear out of its concealed slot opposite the door. They could both hear a pair of guards crossing and re-crossing beyond the door, chatting to each other each time.
Cass handed Hirst the spear and leaned close so her murmur would carry no further than his ear.
“This should lead to an outside parapet. On one end, there’s a door in to the treasury level” – Cass
“Wha…. We must have burrowed right under the keep!” – Hirst
“Glove still on? Hold this Yellow Lotus bulb, crush it into the man’s mouth and nose. He can’t help breathing it in, then he sleeps” – Cass
The plan worked as predicted for Hirst, but as he let the man drop onto the parapet and swung round, he saw that Cass’ attack had not managed to deliver the knock-out. She was riding the guard’s shoulders, body curled round him, trying to stop him shouting and get her face down onto his. Hirst fought off a feeling of vertigo – the parapet was right over the drop to the lake – and raced back past the door and grabbed the struggling pair before they fell.
Cass finally pressed her lips to the guard’s, and after struggling on for a few more seconds, he slumped.
“Sorry. Well, we should find one end of this leads to a gate, which should be shut. That’s where the guards are relieved from. The other way will be the door we want” – Cass
Hirst helped drag the man’s body back away from the gate, and the pair explored past his victim. Sure enough a less-trod few final yards led round to a recessed door, massy and well-locked.
As Hirst began probing the lock with the first of his picks, there was a snick from above, and three massive axe-blades scythed down from the overhanging embrasures! Both thieves threw themselves out of death’s way, receiving a few painful cuts.
Having bandaged themselves, and opened the treasury wing’s entrance, they pressed on.
Can you hear?
Bardic Morath and Vorel had by now detailed off separate duties and explored their prize as best they could. The doors had been closed and barred; and a suspicious, damp-smelling passage crudely closed off by propping the mantlet against it. Their activities were marked by the crossbowmen above, and Vorel had narrowly avoided being nailed to the roadway as he retrieved the ax he’d dropped by the devil-dogs.
Upstairs, seated amidst the reeking dead, Morath reloaded six crossbows. Bardic took on the heavy lifting, heaving bodies up the ladder to make a low breastwork on the roof around the trapdoor. Vorel stood to, staring out down the road one minute then pacing back to watch up the path to the temple. The way the bastion lay snug under the citadel wall, they would have to keep watch for Cass’ signal from the roof: hence the grisly barricade!
A hail came from below. Vorel peered out again. He’d heard something earlier, but assumed it was the enemy. Listening, he hurried upstairs.
“They’re calling from the lower bastion – they want to know if we’re alive” – Vorel
“Well tell them we are, and bravo the resistance, and all that” – Bardic
Answering cheers came back up the road at Vorel’s news. Their support team assured them that Reballah would be told, and that the rebels would arise.
Barely able to raise an eyebrow in response, the three heroes settled into their long vigil.
A narrow scrape
Hirst leaped back then dropped flat, flinging out a hand. His grab was good: Cass’ glove smacked into his and the elegant thief dangled desperately for a moment over a deep pit. The cover was tricked so as to snap back up, but with an athletic twist of her body Cass gained leverage, jackknifed it back open, and rolled back out beside Hirst.
He wasn’t surprised at the near-miss: he had lost count of the traps they had avoided. Nor was he surprised that Cass and he had overcome the danger. Working with her, he always felt a certainty, an inspirational feeling that odds would be overcome and the impossible was just another day’s work.
“Thanks! I think we are close. Let’s keep going! The Apples will be ours!” – Cass
Before setting foot in the next room, Hirst spotted yet another axe-blade trap. They would have to disarm this one. Boosting Cass up as high as he could, Hirst watched in admiration. Bardic would be proud of the expertise she showed, keeping a hand-jam in the blade’s slot while working on the mechanism with the other.
This proved to be the treasury room itself. A well-concealed, door-size panel in the rear wall opened to reveal two bulky chests.
Warily, they used the spear to lever the first off the floor, inspect around it, then dragged it out into the main room. But the lock itself was formidable. And trapped! The gloves they wore saved them from the contact poison, and Cass, having wiped it clear, went to work.
The signal burns!
An hour went by, then another hour. Again, Vorel’s warning came in time. The noise of the scrabbling from behind the mantlet brought Bardic down ready to fight and Morath ready to reload crossbows. The withering fire and mighty blade the pair of devil-dogs were met with made short work of them. Without waiting to see if they would have better luck, the soldiers that had brought the beasts through from the wall passage retreated and barred the way again.
Another hour or so, and Bardic glimpsed a shower of green sparks, burning out over the plaza!
“That must be what copper flakes burn like! The signal is given! Let’s roll that balefire down and signal the rebellion!” – Bardic
The king and the priestess
The nobility, waking mazed from their excesses of the night, were stunned to find that the townsfolk had taken to the plaza en masse, demanding the king’s justice. How had they been allowed past the bastions? But so it was. Intimidated by the mass calling his name, the king made ready, and summoned his chamberlain Martain Capella to put things to order.
But this Capella could not do. He had learned of the theft of the Apples hours earlier, but had so few of his elite soldiers left to him, he was impotent to storm out – and to what end? The thieves had come and gone like wisps, leaving only drugged guards who could only recall dreams and sinuous beauties haunting those dreams with eyes that burned like amber.
And when the king at last took to the high ramparts, there was the Priestess, holding the Jade Apples aloft and calling for justice to be restored and evil counselors thrown down.
And so it was.
No parades, just pain
It took but a short time for Cass to change the jewels she and Hirst had stolen from the treasury to something a horse-coper would accept. She had all the contacts lined up: indeed, it was hard to say whether it was the chance to raid a rich treasury or steal a great treasure that had been her motivation from the start.
Morath, comfortably mending, watched Hirst and Bardic and Vorel haggling genially with the horse trainer, or whoever. As long as he could buy a good-tempered reliable and fast beast, Morath didn’t really care. Though it would be nice to get a really dark horse…
His idle musings were abruptly cut off as an explosion threw Hirst backward in flames. The body hit the ground and continued to burn. Seizing a horse-blanket apiece, Vorel and Bardic muffled the flames.
Trying to trace the source of the explosion Morath stood, peering around. An arrow sank deep into his flank! Now he knew whence the danger! Yelling warning to the others he threw himself behind a wall.
Arrows thudded into Bardic, Vorel and the horse-blanket-muffled body! Bardic also threw himself behind a wall, and having yanked the shafts out, began climbing as fast as he could. Vorel vaulted atop a saddled horse, grabbed a pole to use as a makeshift lance, and kicked it into a gallop!
Vorel had had time to learn Palena’s streets, especially around the horse-yards, and this served him in good stead. In less than a minute he was galloping the horse into the teeth of two archers’ fire, against the one on the nearest building. Leaping the horse down the last jump, Vorel speared him off his feet, crushing the man’s chest.
Bardic finished the last few feet with a rapid scramble, rolled over the house’s low parapet onto its flat roof, and kicked the archer’s feet out from under him. Surprised, the man had no defense as the Cimmerian’s mighty hands clamped on his head and shoulder. A look of recognition entered Bardic’s eye.
“Bosipher – I warned you you’d come to a bad end if you kept down that trail” – Bardic
And with a heave and jerk, the Aquilonian renegade’s neck snapped. Leaving the man’s corpse flopping behind him Bardic rolled to his feet, drew his sword and leaped easily across to the other roof, where the renegade’s co-conspirator lay, struggling to breath. For him the requiem was even briefer.
“Madruin… I warned you” – Bardic
Passing his blade through the man’s chest, Bardic ended his agony.
“So the strange substance that slew Hirst is Kothic Fire?”
So spake Bardic. Baleful lights burned in his eyes. Revenge was hard-coded into his being.
“Slightly different. An arcane substance was used, causing it to keep burning. Only a sorcerer could have produced it, and only a handful of sorcerers, all of them in Koth.”
The ancient Priestess had restored Bardic and Morath of the illness that had seemed to hang over them, and for the first time since the episode in the Pictish forest, Vorel‘s hair was dark. Her wisdom had been gained in decades of hearing of the arcane world, and they knew to heed it.
“We were traveling to Koth in any case. Now, we have a dual purpose. Buy armor, and find the wizard.”