MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I have resisted the calls of many in the Arcanum to install a standing army within the Citadel. I fear such an army could too easily be misused for political purposes.
—Sister Marie Elizabeth, first provost of the Arcanum
The wyvern-drawn prison carriage transported Stephano de Guichen and Rodrigo de Villeneuve to a makeshift wharf located only God and the Arcanum knew where. The terrain was isolated, rockbound. A yacht painted black and marked with the symbol of the Arcanum was the only boat docked at the wharf. The rain had let up and now the sun shone through gray, trailing mists. The time must be somewhere near midafternoon. Only about an hour had passed since Stephano and his friend were accosted by the monks of Saint Klee, placed under arrest, and carried off in chains.
The carriage landed. The monks ordered Stephano and Rodrigo, both still in chains, to descend, then escorted them to the black yacht.
They had been charged with heresy. They would be taken to the dungeons at the Citadel, the home of the Arcanum, the priests who enforced Church laws. The Citadel was a fortress located on a mountain surrounded by the waters of an inland sea. If anyone had escaped from the Citadel's dungeons, they had not lived to tell the tale.
Two monks sat in the driver's box of the yacht. One was the driver, operating the helm and handling the two wyverns. The other rode along as guard.
"We're dangerous criminals," Stephano remarked bitterly to Rodrigo.
His friend said nothing, might not have even heard him. Stephano regarded him with concern. Rodrigo walked with his head bowed, seemingly oblivious to what was going on around him. He wasn't even watching where he was going. He stumbled blindly over the uneven ground.
"We'll prove our innocence, Rigo," Stephano said to him.
Rodrigo bleakly shook his head. He knew as well as Stephano that those who went into the dungeons of the Citadel never came out.
The monk who had accompanied Stephano and Rodrigo ordered them into the yacht. The entrance was located behind the driver, which meant they had to climb up on the box to make their way inside.
The driver stood to allow them to pass. Stephano hoisted himself up on the box—not easy to do with his hands shackled. Rodrigo followed more slowly, missed his step and nearly fell. The monk caught him and assisted him through the door. Once his prisoners were safely inside, the monk entered and shut and locked the door behind him.
Stephano had been in Father Jacob's black yacht. It was luxurious, homey with a table, comfortable chairs, and beds. The interior of this yacht was bare, stripped down. The only furnishings were benches that had been built into the bulwarks, a table—bolted to the deck—a chair and several storage lockers. The portholes were covered by iron bars. This yacht was designed for prisoner transport.
The driver shouted at the wyverns, and the black yacht lifted smoothly into the air.
"If you give me your word as gentlemen that you will not cause trouble, I will remove the manacles," said the monk.
Rodrigo held out his hands. Stephano was about to tell the monk to go to hell.
Rodrigo, seeing Stephano's obdurate expression, said, "Don't be a fool. Look at your wrists."
Stephano looked down. His wrists were cut and rubbed raw from the manacles. And he had to admit he felt helpless without the use of his hands.
"You have my word," he muttered dourly.
A blue spark sizzled from the monk's fingers, and the lock on the manacles clicked. The manacles popped open and fell to the floor. The monk did the same for Rodrigo, then pointed to the benches, silently indicating they were to sit there.
Stephano sat down and rubbed his wrists. Rodrigo eased himself down on the bench and lay motionless, staring up at the ceiling. He was deathly pale. Stephano rested his hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Everything's going to be all right, Rigo. These charges that we conspired with Father Jacob and Sir Ander are ludicrous. There's been some sort of mistake. We're innocent."
Stephano spoke loudly, aiming his words at the monk, who had taken a seat facing his prisoners in the yacht's only chair.
Rodrigo closed his eyes.
Stephano sat forward and continued his argument.
"These charges make no sense! The idea that either Father Jacob or Sir Ander are heretics is absurd and the notion that we conspired with them against the Church is more absurd still! Sir Ander is a Knight Protector, a man of honor, a true knight, dedicated to his faith. We met him and Father Jacob at the Abbey of Saint Agnes. They were there to investigate the murders of the nuns. When the Bottom Dwellers attacked them, their yacht was damaged and we towed them to Westfirth for repairs. That's all there was to it."
The monk remained unmoving, seemingly deaf.
"You're wasting your breath, my friend," Rodrigo said in a listless tone. "The monks of Saint Klee are the guardians of the Citadel, sent to arrest us and deliver us safely to the inquisitors. They don't care if we are guilty or innocent."
"They should care," Stephano said angrily.
Rodrigo gave a wan smile and again closed his eyes. The monk sat upright in his chair, watching Stephano and Rodrigo without appearing to watch them. Stephano had heard stories about the monks of Saint Klee, the guardians of the Citadel.
Saint Klee had been a man who taught that life was sacred and that one should subdue a foe, if possible, rather than kill him. To this end, the monks of Saint Klee had, over the centuries, developed specialized magicks designed to subdue their victims. Stephano could attest to the magic's effectiveness. His body still tingled from the spell they had cast on him, which had left him twitching and writhing on the floor.
This monk was short, lean, and spare. He wore the traditional red robes of the monks of Saint Klee. His long curly black hair was tied in a knot at the back of his head. He spoke with an Estaran accent. The other two monks in the driver's box wore the same red robes. They were both built the same—all bone and muscle and gristle. The only difference was that one had sparse graying hair and one had brown.
Stephano, feeling the need to move about, started to stand up. The monk jumped to his feet. Stephano hurriedly raised his hands to show he meant no harm.
"I gave you my word, Brother!" said Stephano, annoyed. "I just want to walk around a little, stretch my legs."
The monk considered, then nodded and settled himself again.
Stephano paced aimlessly around the yacht's only room, then walked over to look out one of the iron-barred windows. He was aware of the monk's eyes on him the entire time and he was tempted to ask if the monk thought he was going to try to rip out the bars, smash the glass, and hurl himself to his death on the ground far below.
The yacht was flying just beneath cloud level. Below, Stephano could see a walled city and outlying homes and farm fields spread over lush hillsides. A large river meandered among the hills. By the sun's location, he could tell they were sailing south. There were no other walled cities in this part of the country. The city must be Eudaine, on the banks of the river Conce.
A flash of lightning followed quickly by a crack of thunder startled him; then came a deluge. Rain poured down in a gray curtain, drumming on the roof and rolling down the windowpanes. The yacht's interior grew dark as clouds closed in.
A lamp stood on the table. The monk apparently liked to sit in the gloom, however, because he did not light it. More thunder rumbled and the yacht rocked with the gusting wind. The storm was worsening.
Rodrigo had not moved and Stephano feared he might slip into melancholia and never come out. He needed some way to distract him, rouse him from his dark thoughts. Stephano went back to sit beside him.
"Rigo, we need to talk," he said. "It's about my mother."
Rodrigo opened his eyes and sat bolt upright to stare in astonishment. The subject of Stephano's mother was forbidden by Stephano, who disliked thinking about her, much less talking about her. He was now driven by recent events to do both.
"I'm listening, but just remember, so is our friend," Rodrigo said with a glance at the monk.
Stephano gave a shrug.
"He probably knows everything anyway. D'argent showed me the will that states I am my mother's legitimate heir."
"I know," said Rodrigo. "I saw it. What about it?"
"I don't believe it. It's a fraud. To be my mother's heir, she and my father would have to have been married."
"Then that must be the case. My dear fellow, your mother's will was drawn up by lawyers, signed and attested with her signature and the signatures of witnesses. How could it be a fraud?"
"According to my grandfather, my father never saw or communicated with my mother after I was born. He never talked about her; never uttered her name."
"Your grandfather must have been wrong. You have to face facts, my friend," said Rodrigo. "Upon your mother's death—which sad occasion we all hope will not happen for many, many years—you will become one of the wealthiest men in Rosia, maybe in all the world. The riches of the crown are said to be nothing compared to those of your mother."
Stephano brushed wealth aside. "D'argent said that he told me about my mother's will on her orders, because she fears she might not return. I am worried about her, Rigo. Seems strange to say, since I have always hated her."
"You could ask Sir Ander—" Rodrigo began.
"When we see him in prison?" Stephano said drily, forgetting that he was supposed to be keeping Rodrigo's mind off their current predicament.
Rodrigo paled a bit, but he rallied.
"What I was going to say is that once we are freed, you can ask Sir Ander if he knows anything about your parents being married. He was a good friend to both of them."
Stephano thought this over. "I think Sir Ander does know something. He tried to tell me back at the Abbey, but I wouldn't listen. I resented the fact that he was friends with my mother, and I accused him of being disloyal to my father's memory. But maybe—"
He was stopped in midsentence by the shrill shrieking of the wyverns. The next moment, a fiery blast hit the yacht, throwing Stephano and Rodrigo off the bench and dumping the monk out of his chair.
"Were we struck by lightning?" Rodrigo asked.
"Not unless lighting is green," said Stephano grimly. "That was a blast of contramagic! Keep down."
Rodrigo flattened himself on the deck.
The monk twisted catlike to his feet. He cast Stephano a warning look.
"Stay where you are, sir," the monk ordered, finally speaking. "Don't move."
The monk hurried to the window. Stephano had no need to move. Looking past the monk's shoulder, he could see armed men riding gigantic bats flying out of the rain clouds.
"Bottom Dwellers," said Stephano.
"Dear God!" Rodrigo groaned. "First we're arrested and now demons are attacking us! Could this day get any worse?"
The riders appeared to be aiming their fire at the driver. The wyverns were shrieking in terror at the sight of the giant bats, and he was having difficulty controlling them. The yacht rocked and pitched, making it hard to stand. Stephano could see at least a dozen more bats emerging from the storm clouds. He doubted if even the legendary monks of Saint Klee could fight off such numbers.
The monk remained standing in front of the window, gazing out at the bat riders, who now had the yacht surrounded. Stephano waited tensely for another attack, which likely would send the yacht plunging to the ground. But nothing happened; no more blasts.
"They are trying to force us to land," Stephano said.
"Why?" Rodrigo asked in muffled tones. He lay face down on the deck with his arms covering his head. "Why not just blow us out of the sky?"
Stephano shook his head. He spoke to the monk's back. "Do you know why, Brother?"
"They want the yacht," the monk replied. "They don't want to damage it. And they want to capture us alive."
Stephano wondered why at first and then he recalled what Father Jacob had told him, about how the demons had tortured the nuns of the Abbey of Saint Agnes before they killed them. He started to say something, glanced at Rodrigo, and was silent.
The high-pitched screams of the wyverns were growing louder and more frantic. The Bottom Dwellers, wearing demonic-looking helms, flew alongside the yacht—a strange and hideous escort. The monk walked over to a bench and reached underneath it to draw out what appeared to be an ordinary wooden walking staff. Stephano guessed it wasn't ordinary and that it wasn't a staff. The monk returned to the window.
"I can help you fight them, Brother," said Stephano. "Give me a pistol. I know you rely on your magic, but you must have weapons stored somewhere on board."
The monk made no answer.
"I gave you my word as a gentleman I won't try to escape," Stephano promised.
"Mine, too," said Rodrigo from the deck. "If you have some silk I can cover it with constructs to defend against contramagic—"
"Rigo!" Stephano said sharply. In a lower voice he added, "Don't talk about contramagic! You're in enough trouble already!"
The monk was keeping watch out the window. He smiled faintly.
"We also know how to defend against contramagic, Monsieur Rodrigo. Father Jacob warned us to be prepared."
"Then why are they charging us with heresy?" Stephano asked angrily. "None of this makes any sense."
The monks launched their own attack. Bright, fiery red light reflected off the gray clouds, then another blast of green contramagic shook the yacht. Bats screeched; the wyverns screamed. Stephano caught a glimpse of a bat and its rider tumbling out of the sky trailing smoke.
"Please stand back, Captain," the monk ordered.
Placing himself directly in front of the iron-barred window, the monk raised the staff. The wood began to glow. A blast of red light streaked from the staff and struck the porthole. The glass exploded. The iron bars glowed red hot. The bat riders saw their danger, but it was too late to flee before the fiery wave hit them, immolating the two bats and their riders, consuming them in white flame.
"Good thing we didn't try to escape," Rodrigo remarked, shuddering.
The wind gusted, sending rain rushing through the broken window. The monk glanced over his shoulder at Stephano.
"The pistols are stored in a compartment in the bulkhead just above your head, Captain."
Stephano looked, but he could not see a compartment. The monk spoke a word and blue magical light illuminated the wall, revealing a secret cabinet.
"The pistols are loaded," the monk continued. "I will have to remove the warding constructs—"
A bat rider appeared outside the shattered window, and another bat rider swooped down beside him.
"Brother, duck!" Stephano warned.
Green fire blasted through the window. The monk cried out and reeled backward. Blood and rain streamed down his face. He staggered and Stephano caught hold of him.
"Rigo, light the lamp!" Stephano ordered, lowering the wounded monk to the deck. "Bring it over here. And keep your head down!"
Rodrigo activated the lamp's magic with a word. Crouching low, he brought the light to Stephano. Rodrigo took one look at the monk's face in the lamplight and sucked in a horrified breath.
"Oh, God!" he whispered.
One of the monk's eyes had been pierced by a large, jagged splinter of wood. The other eye was dark with blood.
"I can't see!" The monk started to lift his hands to his face.
"Lie still. Don't move," Stephano said to the monk. Taking hold of his hands, he gently lowered them. "I'll get help."
Green light flared, and Stephano could feel the yacht take another hit and make a stomach-dropping dive. Stephano and Rodrigo froze, helpless. Finally the driver managed to bring the yacht under control and they leveled out. Stephano breathed a sigh of relief.
"Rigo, stay with him. I'll go fetch the others."
Stephano started to stand up, but Rodrigo seized hold of his arm, dragging him back down.
"Look!" Rodrigo held the lamp over the monk.
A large stain, black against the red of the monk's robe, was slowly spreading over the monk's chest. Stephano tore open the monk's robes to examine the wound. The lantern wavered. The beam of light stabbed all around the yacht's interior.
"Stop shaking, Rigo. Hold the lamp steady," Stephano ordered curtly.
Rodrigo swallowed and made a valiant effort to hold still. A projectile of some sort had entered the monk's chest. The monk's head lolled, and his body went limp.
"He's dead," said Stephano, as he sat back on his heels.
The gray clouds reflected the green and red of the flaring attacks as the yacht rolled despite the driver's struggles with the wyverns. His fellow monk was still alive, still fighting. Another flash of red light accompanied by an extremely loud explosion was followed by the sound of a bat screeching in its death throes.
"They won't be able to hold them off," said Stephano. He stood up, then staggered across the deck to the cabinet, nearly falling as the yacht took another hit. "Rigo, I need those pistols. Can you see the warding constructs he was talking about?"
Rodrigo lurched toward Stephano, stumbled and crashed into him. "I can see them, but they're—"
"Good! Work your magic and get rid of them."
"I can't," said Rodrigo, keeping one arm braced against the bulkhead.
Stephano glared at him in frustration. "Damn it, Rigo, you have to!"
"You saw the kind of fancy magic these monks use!" Rodrigo protested. "It would take me a week to unravel—"
"Hush!" Stephano ordered.
Rodrigo froze. They could both hear the sounds of a desperate struggle right outside the door. They heard another blast, loud screams, and the shrieking of fear-crazed wyverns. And then they could feel the yacht begin to descend. No more red flares of light. The fight was apparently over.
"What's happening now?" Rodrigo whispered. "Can you tell?"
Stephano could see through the hole the tops of trees rising up to meet them.
"They're going to try to land," said Stephano.
Rodrigo gulped. "What do we do?"
"I have an idea," said Stephano, thinking as he spoke. "Block the door with that crate!"
"Is that going to stop them?" Rodrigo asked. "The crate's not very heavy."
"No, but it will slow them down."
Rodrigo dragged the crate across the deck and pushed it against the door. Stephano retrieved the lamp. Holding it, he placed himself directly in front of the gun cabinet.
"Get behind me," he ordered Rodrigo. "Out of the line of fire."
"Meaning you're going to let them shoot at you. You can't be serious!"
"Not shoot at me. Shoot at the cabinet and destroy the magic. It's the only way to break those damn constructs. When the magic is gone, you yank open the cabinet and grab two pistols. One for you and one for me."
Rodrigo blanched. "Me! You know I can't hit anything!"
"You can hardly miss at this range," said Stephano grimly. "Just make sure to point the barrel at the bat rider, not at me. Or yourself."
Rodrigo groaned. "Oh, God!"
A bat rider tried to open the door, only to find it blocked. He struck the door with something, probably his foot. The first blow shifted the crate. The second knocked the door open.
From his vantage point, Stephano could see two Bottom Dwellers in the driver's box. One was driving the yacht, trying desperately to calm the wyverns and not having much luck. The other bat rider stood warily in the doorway. He wore the demonic-looking armor and was carrying one of the short-range green fire weapons.
Stephano waved the lamp back and forth to draw the man's attention. He shouted, raised his hand as though he held a pistol, and took aim.
Startled, the Bottom Dweller shot at him.
Stephano leaped to one side. Fiery contramagic streaked past him and struck the cabinet right where he had been standing. The warding constructs flashed blue, then started to disappear as the green-glowing contramagic ate away at them.
Rodrigo desperately tried to open the cabinet. The magical constructs were broken, but he discovered a manual lock. Such locks were generally no problem for Rodrigo, who was accustomed to doing a little harmless snooping around the palace. Judging by his muttered imprecations, he was having difficulty with this one.
The Bottom Dweller drew a second weapon and aimed it at Rodrigo. Stephano flung the lamp and hit the soldier in the arm, disrupting his aim. The lamp broke, plunging the cabin into darkness
"Rigo!" Stephano called urgently.
"Got it!" Rodrigo cried.
A small sizzle of blue electricity flared around the lock, sparks flew, and he pulled open the cabinet door. Several pistols were mounted on one of the cabinet walls, along with powder flasks, and ammunition. Rodrigo took down a pistol and tossed it to Stephano, who caught it and dove for cover underneath the table. He hoped the monk had been right when he'd said the pistols were loaded.
Barely taking time to aim, Stephano pulled back the hammer of his pistol and fired, just as the bat rider fired his weapon at him.
The soldier grunted in pain and clutched his leg as green light flared, and a wave of heat washed over Stephano. The wooden tabletop went up in flames. Stephano beat a hurried retreat, crawling across the deck. He knew he had at least hit the Bottom Dweller, but unfortunately, not critically. Even as blood was running down the man's leg, he was reloading his weapon.
Rodrigo, white-faced, held a pistol in his shaking hands. "Don't make me kill you! Don't make me! Don't make me!"
The Bottom Dweller raised the weapon and aimed it.
"Rigo! Shoot!" Stephano yelled.
Rodrigo shuddered, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger.
The gun went off. Rodrigo fell over backward and the Bottom Dweller staggered as the bullet slammed into him. Stephano dashed across the deck to the cabinet and grabbed another pistol. He turned to shoot, caught a glimpse of tree limbs flashing past the window and realized that the yacht was falling much too fast. With a horrific, wood-splintering crash, the yacht slammed into the trees, flipped over on its side, and went tumbling, rolling through the branches. Tree limbs snapped and cracked.
Stephano lost his grip on the pistol and crashed into what had once been the ceiling and was now the deck. The yacht continued to fall. Rodrigo slid on his belly past Stephano. The body of the dead monk tumbled past Rodrigo. The Bottom Dweller slammed into the table, which was bolted to the deck and was the only object in the yacht that wasn't in motion. Then the terrifying plunge through the trees suddenly ended. The yacht came to a bone-jarring stop.
Stephano lay on his back, too shaken to move. Dim light filtered through the wreckage. He looked for the door and saw it hanging open above him. Through it he could see nothing but leaves and branches. The yacht shifted and shuddered and Stephano sucked in a breath, expecting another fall. The yacht was apparently only settling, for it stopped moving.
"Rigo," Stephano called softly.
"I'm here … I think…"
Stephano looked over his shoulder to see his friend lying on his belly, his arms outstretched, his feet against the blood-spattered wall.
"Are you all right?"
"I bit my lip," Rodrigo said plaintively. "And my arm hurts. What about you?"
"Bruises and cuts, nothing serious. Where are we?" Stephano asked, still whispering. "Can you see out the window?"
Rodrigo gingerly turned his head.
"I think we're on the ground. The yacht is tilted at an angle, leaning against a tree trunk."
Stephano was about to try to raise himself off the deck when he heard sounds coming from outside—a groan and someone moving about. Whoever had been flying the yacht—presumably a Bottom Dweller—was still out there.
"Lie still!" he hissed at Rodrigo.
Stephano shifted his head to locate the gun cabinet and silently swore. The pistols were there, mounted in the gun cabinet, but he couldn't reach them. The cabinet was now about twelve feet above his head.
"Odhran!" the driver—he assumed the man was the driver—called.
Stephano was startled. Gythe had claimed the Bottom Dwellers spoke to her in the language of the Trundlers, and this one had a Trundler name. He recognized it because one of Miri's innumerable cousins was called Odhran. Stephano cast a glance at the Bottom Dweller in the cabin. His body was wrapped, unmoving, around the table.
The driver called again more urgently, "Odhran, cabru le!"
Stephano knew a few words that he'd picked up from Miri. These words were among them, good words to know in any language: "I need help!"
Rodrigo's eyes were wide.
"What do we do?" he mouthed.
"Play dead," whispered Stephano.
"I can do that," Rodrigo muttered. "I'm halfway dead from fright already."
Stephano kept looking at the door, his eyes half closed, peering out through his eyelashes.
The Bottom Dweller said something else, something about his legs. Stephano wasn't sure, but he thought the man was pinned inside the driver's box. A head appeared in the open doorway. The Bottom Dweller had removed his helm and his large eyes squinted in the dim light, trying to see. When he saw the body hooked on the table legs, he groaned and shook his head.
He called Odhran's name for a third time, then muttered something and shifted his attention to Stephano and Rodrigo. Stephano closed his eyes and held his breath.
A flapping of bat wings came from outside the yacht. The Bottom Dweller drew back his head.
"Captaen! Thar anseo!"
Through the open door, Stephano could see a mounted bat rider hovering in the air above the yacht.
"There's another fiend outside," Stephano told Rodrigo softly. "Don't move!"
"Don't worry!" Rodrigo gasped.
The bat rider descended, out of Stephano's view. He could hear the man outside, talking to the driver. Stephano had trouble understanding, but he caught enough to gather that the driver was trapped inside the box and the captain was attempting to free him. The latter asked about Odhran, to which the driver said something Stephano couldn't hear due to the rustling of leaves and cracking of branches. After a lot more noise, the captain was successful in freeing his comrade, and the next thing Stephano knew, both men were peering inside the door.
Stephano closed his eyes. The captain called Odhran's name again, and Stephano waited tensely for him to climb into the yacht to investigate. After several heart-pounding moments, the captain drew back from the door and said something to the driver.
Stephano recognized the word, marbh. Dead.
The captain left the doorway.
"I can't stand this. I'm going to be sick," Rodrigo murmured.
"No, you're not," Stephano whispered savagely. "They're still out there."
He waited a moment, listening. "I think they're leaving. Don't move yet."
Watching through the open door, he saw the bat rise from the ground, now carrying two riders. Stephano waited until the bat was out of sight, then drew in a breath. He didn't realize until then he had stopped breathing.
"Can I be sick now?" Rodrigo asked. He was in pitiful condition, his face smeared with soot and blood from where he'd bitten his lip, and his jaw swollen and bruised. When he moved his left arm, he winced.
Stephano could feel a large lump growing on his forehead, and realized that a painful gash across his nose was bleeding profusely.
"Wait until we get out of here," he said, as he helped Rodrigo to his feet.
Kicking aside some broken boards, they crawled out of the wreckage. Once out in the open, Rodrigo ducked behind a tree, and shortly after, Stephano heard the sound of retching.
When Rodrigo returned, pale and disheveled, he was cradling his left arm.
"Is it broken?" Stephano asked, concerned.
"I don't think so. I'm going to have an unsightly bruise," he added.
He paused a moment, clearly distraught.
"Did I kill that wretched demon, Stephano?" he asked finally. "My eyes were closed. I couldn't see."
"I don't know, Rigo," said Stephano, who was fairly certain Rodrigo's shot had by some miracle actually hit the fiend. "Everything happened at once. If you did, you saved us. He would have killed us."
"I know," Rodrigo said quietly. "But still … he was some demon mother's son."
He sighed deeply, wiped his face again and looked around. "Do you have the faintest idea where we are? All I see are trees."
"The yacht flew over the city of Eudaine not long before we were attacked," said Stephano. "We can't be far from there. We were flying south, and we can tell by the position of the sun which way is west. So if we start walking that direction—"
"Stephano, look," said Rodrigo suddenly, pointing to a tangle of green leaves and gray branches and a splash of red.
The body of the monk of Saint Klee lay in a heap a short distance from the yacht. The body must have been thrown from the yacht when it struck the trees.
"We need to do something for him. We can't leave him here. We should bury him," said Rodrigo, his voice breaking.
"We have no tools to dig a grave," said Stephano.
He walked over to the corpse. Taking off his coat, he draped it over the monk's ravaged head. "God rest your soul, Brother, and give you peace."
"Amen," Rodrigo said softly.
He slumped against the trunk of the tree. Stephano eyed his friend with concern.
"Sit down and rest. I'll search the yacht. There must be food and water on board." He glanced at Rodrigo. "We don't want to spend the night here, I'm thinking."
Rodrigo shivered. "With two dead men? God forbid. But I've thought of a problem, Stephano. We gave the monk our word of honor as gentlemen we wouldn't escape."
"I think he would release us from that promise," said Stephano. He was silent a moment, then said somberly, "We will have to go to the monks, tell them where to find his body."
"That means they'll arrest us again!" said Rodrigo. He looked back at the corpse lying beneath Stephano's coat and sighed. "You're right, of course. The poor fellow must have a proper burial. I suppose the monks will bury the demon, as well. We should leave them a note, tell them his name was Odhran. Strange that his armor didn't go up in flames, like the first demons we encountered."
"Good thing for us it didn't," said Stephano grimly. "The same happened with the Bottom Dwellers that died on Braffa. Their armor didn't destroy the bodies. I wonder why."
"Maybe because they're not taking time to add the magical constructs that caused it to catch fire," said Rodrigo, adding in thoughtful tones. "That could be significant."
"For what reason?" Stephano asked, trying to sound interested.
His mind was on other things, such as wandering about lost in the wilderness without food or water. He was glad to see Rodrigo thinking about something else, taking his mind off their terrifying experience. "I'm going inside the yacht to look around. Keep talking."
Stephano made his way back to the wreckage of the yacht, shifted some tree branches and climbed inside. Rodrigo's voice floated through the cracks.
"They went to great lengths to make us think they weren't human. They were fiends from hell with faces out of nightmares and bodies that were destroyed by magic fire. They wanted to demoralize, terrorize. But now they don't care. And maybe they've stopped caring because it doesn't matter anymore. The flaming corpses, the murder of the nuns, the attack on Westfirth, the destruction of the Crystal Market, the seizure of the Braffan islands and the attempt to bring down the palace—they are rushing headlong toward some dire ending."
Stephano considered this highly likely. "All the more reason I need to go ahead with my plan to take the fight to them. That assumes, of course, we're not languishing in some dungeon."
Rummaging about, he found blankets, a bag of dried sardines, complete with the heads; dried fruits that were so shriveled up he couldn't recognize them; and bread that looked as if it had been baked sometime during the Dark Ages. If this was what the monks lived on, no wonder they were so thin.
He also found a water skin filled with tepid water. He hauled his finds out of the yacht, then walked over to where Rodrigo was sitting and handed him the water skin, figuring he'd tell him about the unappetizing-looking food later.
Rodrigo took several sips of water and seemed to feel better. Some color returned to his face.
"Do you feel up to walking? We have about two hours before dark," Stephano said.
"I'm ready," said Rodrigo, rising a little unsteadily to his feet. He cast a gloomy look about. "There are certainly a lot of trees."
"I think that's why they call it a forest," said Stephano.
He and Rodrigo set off, gauging their direction by the sun that every so often would break through the clouds. Their progress was slow, for they had to make their way through the dense undergrowth, climbing over fallen logs, pushing through brush and bushes. Both of them were soon bruised, battered, and exhausted.
Stephano called a halt when they reached a small stream. Rodrigo built a fire, using his magic to light the kindling.
"Reminds me of being marooned on that damn island," he remarked.
He eyed the food with a shudder and said he wasn't hungry. Stephano persuaded him to eat something, to keep up their strength. They huddled near the fire, for as the sun went down, the night was growing cold.
"How far do you think we are from Eudaine?" Rodrigo asked. "How long will it take us to get there?"
"I don't know," said Stephano. "Several days? Maybe a week."
"What if we keep walking and walking and we never find our way out?"
"That's not going to happen," said Stephano.
Rodrigo pressed him. "You're certain?"
"Mostly certain," said Stephano with a smile.
The woods were now dark outside the circle of the firelight, filled with shadows and strange night noises. Stephano banked the fire. They wrapped themselves in the blankets and tried to burrow down among the leaves.
"Keep talking," said Rodrigo. "Whenever I close my eyes, I see that poor monk's face. What do you think our friends are doing now?"
Dag, Miri, and Gythe had been in the alley outside Stephano's house, waiting for him and Rodrigo, who had walked into their kitchen and straight into an ambush. Their friends had watched, helpless to save them, as the monks took them away.
"They will all be sitting around the kitchen table," said Stephano. "Dag will be forming schemes to break us out of the Citadel. Miri will be fuming, sweeping, cleaning like she always does when she's upset. Gythe will be trying to keep the Doctor from licking the butter and Benoit will be telling them how he could have fought off the monks single-handed if it hadn't been for his lumbago."
Stephano smiled at the thought of the crotchety old steward.
"Maybe our friends will come looking for us…," said Rodrigo with a tinge of hope in his voice.
Stephano had to squelch it.
"They won't try to find us, Rigo. Because no one knows we're lost."
Copyright © 2014 by Margaret Weis and Robert Krammes
Dragon ornament copyright © 2013 by Jeff Easley