dragon challenge header

not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

Low Fiends in High Places

by Ninjetti

"This? Is totally insane," Josef declared for the third time in half an hour. Lansten rolled his eyes, but decided his friend was showing restraint if he was managing to complain only once every ten minutes.

"Really, Lans, it is!" Josef insisted, peering nervously from side to side to be sure no one was about to come upon them. Lansten sighed. Josef’s restraint was waning, which was swiftly going to cause Lansten’s patience to do the same if the others didn’t show soon.

“No, Jo, this is not insane. It is dangerous, admittedly, but it is a reasonable course of action, not to mention the only one available to us,” Lansten murmured back in his low voice, knowing its rumble would not carry far. He was a clergy member of the Church of Lumm the Brightmother, but Lansten was not a priest, nor a monk. He was a monster-slayer, trained in both combat and stealth to hunt the Children of Oomna, Lumm’s evil twin, goddess of the night and the mother of monsters. That training enabled him to wait significantly more patiently than his warrior friend, but even a monster-slayer’s patience had its limits. “Now be still before you draw any guards to us,” Lansten finished softly.

The two of them were crouched in a corner of the castle’s courtyard, huddled in the deepest shadows cast by the sun setting behind the courtyard’s wall. Lansten had chosen the spot carefully, knowing that the setting sun would be shining in the eyes of any guard or member of the palace staff who might happen to look in their direction. They were waiting for their companions to gain them surreptitious entrance into the castle, but the sun would soon slip behind the courtyard wall entirely. The last breath of the day would be that much darker, of course, but Lansten wasn’t sure the shadow they were in would be deep enough to hide them without the distraction of the setting sun in a would-be viewer’s eyes. Especially if said viewer had a torch or lantern or Josef didn’t keep still.

“Lans, we’re trying to sneak into the Royal Palace! To assassinate a high-ranking member of the King’s staff! This is completely insane!!” Josef hissed as Lansten watched the wall’s shadow creep farther away, touching a small rock in the courtyard Lansten had been marking its pace with. “I’m not drunk enough for this...” Josef finished darkly, restraining himself once more and holding still just before Lansten turned to admonish him.

“You’re half-dwarven, Jo, you don’t get that drunk,” Lansten remarked off-handedly, surveying the courtyard briefly before looking for another feature of the ground to pace the setting of the sun by.

“..All the more reason I shouldn’t be doing this...” Josef muttered, shaking his head.

Josef stilled the movement of his bearded head in mid-shake, reaching out to grasp Lansten’s upper arm where the younger man was crouched before him. Lansten’s pale green gaze snapped up to see what was wrong, noting the direction Josef was looking and turning just enough to see for himself.

“That door just opened...” Josef murmured when Lansten was looking the correct direction, even more quietly than he had been speaking previously. Lansten nodded; he had a keen eye for details and had spotted the door at the other end of the courtyard wall, ajar just a crack. Lansten frowned at it; there was no good reason for a door to be unlatched without being opened, unless the person unlatching it...

Lansten grinned, and Josef breathed a sigh of relief when the door opened a crack, just far enough for Justin to put his youthful face to it, squinting into the shadowed corner until he was sure he had found Lansten and Josef. The young bard leaned out of his doorway slightly, peering to be sure they were in the clear, then beckoned for his friends to join him.

The crouched companions slipped from their corner of the courtyard, following the shadowed wall and ducking into the doorway as Justin moved back. Lansten wore the dark leather armor of his branch of the Church of Lumm’s profession, well oiled and soundless as he dashed silently across the edge of the courtyard. Josef was wearing non-descript clothing of deep, neutral colors, a dark sweater over his chainmail shirt hiding the glitter of its well-maintained rings and smothering their jingle. The layers added to his already impressive size, the bulky sweater magnifying his half-dwarven frame, but he moved with a grace that belied the look of him. Josef had inherited his human father’s height, but he had also inherited the man’s love of performance, learning to dance and move his body from the time he could walk. Josef made no more noise crossing the courtyard than Lansten did.

“That took long enough,” Lansten commented softly to the bard as Justin eased the door shut again behind them. A look of concentration held the youth’s face as he made sure the door was latched just as it had been, then amusement crossed his features as Justin flashed his friends both a grin and a wink.

“Beg pardon, Sirs, your humble entertainer’s arrival was delayed by a guard or three he encountered en route,” Justin replied with a smirk, smug satisfaction radiating from his face as he lead the way down the corridor.

“What happened to the guards?” Lansten asked as they slipped around a corner, the rhythmic sound of more guards’ footsteps entering the corridor they had just departed coming from behind them.

“I don’t see any entertainer who qualifies as ‘humble’,” Josef teased quietly. Justin shot him a glare over Lansten’s shoulder but grinned in acknowledgement of the verbal hit.

“Oh, I charmed them, naturally. A brief sonnet kept them entertained, or at least distracted until JC waved something pungent from that bag of his under one of their noses, and Christof knocked the other two’s heads together.” Justin flashed another grin at them over his shoulder before leaning past the next corner, peering briefly before signaling with one hand and proceeding.

“Well, the heavens forfend you actually get on a roll and start truly performing. Give new meaning to ‘bringing the house down,’ wouldn’t you?” Lansten replied, smugly. Justin gave Lansten an annoyed frown, mostly because he was unable to deny that the halls of a palace he was not supposed to be in were hardly an appropriate place for a performance. The golden youth’s heavy-lidded expression cleared as a thought struck him, and he grinned back at Lansten as they took another turn.

“Actually, that is the established meaning of the term, isn’t it, Josef?” Justin asked as two shadows moved away from the wall and joined their group, revealing themselves to be Christof and JC.

“It is,” Josef nodded back with a smile, his normal good humor restored by their gaining entrance to the palace undiscovered and rejoining their friends. He reached one hand out to shake Christof’s while enveloping JC in a one-armed embrace with the other. Both their friends were half-elvish, pale of skin but unalike in every other way. Christof had inherited his human mother’s shorter height and stockier frame, whereas JC had the tall, slender build commonly associated with both elves and wizards, which he also was. Josef could pick both of them up in an embrace at once and normally would have done so, but skulking through the palace on an assassination mission was hardly normal, even for Lansten.

JC’s pale blue eyes nearly disappeared behind his crinkling lids as he grinned to see his companions once more, their keen glitter just barely shining from above his sculpted elvish cheekbones. Christof’s dark eyes were also alight with joy to see his friends, glad they had gotten this far undiscovered. His rounder, more human face was warm with affection even as he kept his slightly pointed ears cocked to listen for approaching trouble.

Christof gave a silent nod that the coast was clear and lead the group down another hall, deeper into the servants’ portion of the palace. Lansten noted with amused interest how Christof could be two almost completely different people, capable of stillness and silence when he was performing a job, qualities which were entirely beyond his ability outside a professional setting. It was a pity Christof was a professional thief, but he was good enough at what he did to selectively choose his targets, stealing only from those who could afford it and had proven themselves undeserving of such good fortune in the first place. Christof referred to himself, both mockingly and with pride, as “a freelance wealth redistribution specialist.”

Their resident rogue lead the group through a few more turns, ducking down a side passage and dashing down it to get around the next corner and out of sight before a group of servants came upon them. The half-elvish thief continued down that passage, following it farther and grinning to himself when it connected with his planned route again farther along. He bounced twice, silently, grinning back at his friends and resembling his ordinary self with pride in his accomplishment, then settled back into the cool mask of his professional persona as he watched the hallway. After a moment Christof nodded, then signaled for the rest of them to follow, quickly and silently. He lead them in a dash down the hallway, reaching into his vest for his picks as he approached a door, unlocking and opening it even as Lansten brought up the rear.

“Where are we?” Josef asked in confusion as JC used a spark of magic to light a candle he removed from under his cloak. “We’re after the High Counselor; this isn’t anywhere near his chambers, is it?”

“No, and what better way to hide his nefarious plots?” Christof asked as he crossed the room to the fireplace, examining it with curiosity. “If anyone were ever to suspect him, having condemning evidence or suggestive hidden passages or rooms in his quarters wouldn’t be the brightest of moves, would it?” the rogue continued as he prodded at the fireplace, running his palms over its stones and fingers over the mortared cracks between them.

“So... you’re looking for a secret passage to his lair here, instead?” Josef asked. Justin looked up as Christof merely nodded.

“This sitting room falls under the purview of the Counselor’s head steward,” Justin told them. JC had withdrawn his spellbook and was murmuring to himself by his candle’s light, ensuring he had the magical incantations he wanted memorized. Justin smiled to see the way his half-elvish friends worked together, JC standing so that his candle shone over the top of his book and gave Christof light to work with. Josef nodded as he realized the room made an ideal place to hide treasonous activity, and Lansten grinned to himself as he realized what had been bothering him about the scene.

“That fireplace shouldn’t be there; that’s the wrong wall to contain any ductwork,” the monster-slayer announced.

“And why in three hells do you think I’ve been going over it?” Christof asked in mock exasperation as he discovered the button hidden in the design of the torch sconce above the mantle, pushing it and twisting the sconce to release a hidden latch. The entire fireplace swung back into the wall with almost no sound whatsoever. “Well maintained,” he commented as JC put his spellbook away and hurried forward with the candle, one hand cupped to keep it from blowing out. “This sees regular use, a good sign we’re on the right track,” Christof finished as he lit a small, shielded lantern off JC’s candle, then eased it almost entirely shut, leaving only the slightest crack of light showing to guide their way.

The group made their way down the narrow passage, following a wall of the palace until they came to the corridor’s intersection, where their passage ended in a steep staircase leading down, below the ground floor.

“Hold,” Christof said quietly, raising his free hand up in a sign he meant the word as a direction, even as he handed his lantern to Josef, also meaning the word as command. Josef took the lantern, then held it as Christof opened its shield the slightest bit wider, turning Josef’s hand to direct the light at the crest of the stairs. His small form crouched over the tiny landing, leaning over it but not touching any portion of it, examining the stonework closely.

“Clever, clever,” Christof muttered to himself a moment later, reaching into his vest to withdraw a few of his thieving tools. “I thought this staircase looked too fancy for a narrow, hidden passage. They’re built as an alarm, ringing a bell or dropping a flag somewhere if anyone uses them without disarming the mechanism first,” he explained as he began probing at the seam of the topmost stair with a thin wire.

“But you can disarm it, right?” Justin asked. Lansten frowned in concern; he expected High Counselor Nacremon to be paranoid concerning his evil secrets, but he hadn’t thought the palace might have secret defenses the man could use to aid his cause. He worried what else they might encounter before they could either confront and defeat the man or discover enough evidence to prove his villainy and expose him to the King.

“Sure I can,” Christof responded instantly, flippantly. “But it may take a moment. I have to be careful not to trigger it; these mechanisms are naturally delicate, of course.”

“Of course,” Justin mimicked, rolling his eyes. He occupied himself straightening his bardic performance outfit, arranging the layers of his baggy-sleeved shirt under his jerkin, vest, and tunic. His hands automatically checked the knives hidden at his ribs and the small of his back, and the two pairs of throwing knives strapped to his forearms. Everything was already perfectly arranged, as it always was, Justin was a consummate perfectionist both in his work as a bard and his more surreptitious activities, but he had never attempted anything of this magnitude before. He was nervous, and kept his hands busy out of tension.

Josef watched Justin’s preparations idly, feeling his own tension grow. He and Justin and JC weren’t meant to do things like this; sneaking into dark places and battling evil forces were the specialties of their friends, not them, they were just helping out. Josef supposed technically Justin snuck into places all the time, or at least used the cover of being a bard to be welcomed practically anywhere. The fact he was also a gypsy just meant he snuck around most of the places he went without anyone being any the wiser, and conned his way out of trouble if he got caught. That really wasn’t the same as sneaking about forbidden areas of the Royal Palace; Josef doubted even Justin’s silver tongue could talk his way out of the trouble they’d be in if they were caught here.

The same was true of Josef himself, he was a warrior, using his half-dwarven strength and impressive size to do battle when he must. He often aided Lansten against evil creatures that needed to be put down if they ventured from the wilderness into civilization, but that wasn’t the same as sneaking into a fortress and fighting people, either, even if they were evil people. Lansten seemed reasonably certain the High Counselor was some sort of force of evil unto himself and doubtless had creatures at his disposal that would be more similar to what Josef was used to fighting, but he didn’t relish the thought of doing battle with people, especially if they were servants of the King who were only doing their jobs. A royal pardon for his actions wouldn’t mean much to Josef if he killed some innocent child’s father or some maid’s innocent husband, even if the actions proved necessary in the end. Josef was warrior enough to know he couldn’t hold back in battle, that hesitation would only cause him to fail and most likely lose his life. Those facts didn’t make him feel any better about the situation, either.

Josef blinked out of his worrisome ruminations as a gentle hand placed itself on the back of his shoulder. He turned to see JC’s palm resting comfortingly on his arm, his slender fingers squeezing slightly in acknowledgement as Josef looked, even as JC’s other hand touched the middle of Justin’s back. JC smiled reassuringly as Justin tensed at his touch, proving the youngest member of their group had needed distracting, too. Josef glanced to make sure he hadn’t accidentally repositioned the lantern, but Christof was still working diligently by its thin slice of light. Looking back, Josef saw Lansten seemed unconcerned as he kept watch; lurking in a dark passageway with who-knew-what potentially in it was nothing unusual for a professional monster slayer, Josef supposed.

Justin and Josef both breathed a sigh of relief as JC increased the pressure of his hands just slightly, wordlessly urging them to relax as he began singing an elvish harmony under his breath, the sound barely above a whisper of air passing parted lips but enough to carry the beauty of the melody to their ears. Justin was naturally inclined to music, taking his love of it to make a career as a travelling bard, and Josef had been inspired to an appreciation of theater by his actor father from a young age, music a constant presence in his family home, as it had been in JC’s.

Jeshuellescot Chasezlahczeksay had been raised among the elves, taught their culture and wisdom but never truly accepted, because of his half-human blood. His mother had been a victim of rape, caught alone by human bandits in the depths of the forest, far from the elvish borders. She had always been a recusant, a loner who spent so much time in the deep forest she was practically a hermit. One day, after JC had been born, she simply did not return to the village. In elvish society, abandoning her child was far more shameful than being a victim, something that could not truly be held against her or her son. JC was adopted by the Chasezlahczeksay family and loved by them, but never accepted by his peers because of his strange half-human looks. He excelled at music and magic, which were mostly solitary arts in elvish culture, learning to use music to express himself and magic to connect with the glory of nature all around him.

JC moved to human lands when he came of age, leaving his loving family and indifferent society behind, as most half-elves did. A large human city such as the kingdom’s capital had people of all sorts in it, keeping JC’s uniqueness from standing out any more than anyone else’s. Elvish magic was not common outside elvish society, enabling him to earn a living relatively easily, and he used his love of music and his use of it as an emotional medium to relate to others, these humans he had no real concept of.

He had found a kindred spirit in Josef, a fellow half-blood who loved performance, but Josef taught JC to accept himself and grow. Josef introduced him to Christof, a fellow half-elf from the reverse side of the coin, raised as a human and used to working for every scrap of good fortune in his life. Christof had been forced to accept who he was by necessity, but it was a lesson he passed on to JC. As a gypsy, Justin was used to being considered an outsider and considered everyone else an outsider in turn, meaning he had no problem accepting anyone for who they were individually. To his way of thinking, all people were individuals, so that was the way he naturally interacted with them. Once he discovered JC’s love of music, their friendship was carved in stone. Lansten was Josef’s best friend, but as a disciple of Lumm and a monster-slayer, he merely considered people to be people, regardless of where they came from.

The group formed a harmonious unit that was greater than the sum of its parts, each of them providing strengths that covered others’ weaknesses, both in skills and in character, so that is what they did, and they did it well. Christof and Lansten could work in these conditions, and JC could accept that well enough, was now comfortable enough in his role as an outsider to be able to offer that comfort to Josef and Justin with his music. Josef felt himself relaxing properly as he harmonised along with JC’s melody under his breath, and though he couldn’t hear it, he could see Justin’s lips moving and knew he was doing the same.

“There,” Christof finally declared in satisfaction as he withdrew his probes and slipped the tools back into their places beneath his vest. “Let’s go, quietly,” he finished as he rose, taking the lantern from Josef and readjusting it almost closed once more before leading the way down the stairs.

After proceeding down the lower hallway for only a few moments, the group came to an intersection of corridors. Christof closed the lantern cautiously, but there was no light coming from any of the three directions they could proceed in.

“Which way?” Justin asked softly.

“No idea,” Christof answered in whispered frustration. “I could open the lantern and look for signs, but if there’s anyone else down here...”

“They’d see us. No,” Lansten replied, stepping up beside Christof. “Silence, all of you.”

Lansten closed his eyes, breathing deeply and opening his mind and spirit to his goddess’ input. Lumm was the Brightmother, goddess of the day and patron of humanity, but she was also the goddess of revelations, her light shining to expose the darkest secrets of her evil sister and those who worshipped her. Priests of Lumm had been known to call upon her for miracles of revelation, exposing slavery rings and other secret crimes against humanity. A much more common but lesser known miracle was the fact that many of her monster-slayers had been trained to use her gifts to them to detect evil, to aid their work. With but a moment’s meditation and prayer Lansten felt his spirit expand outward, searching for the nearest evil that needed to be opposed.

After a moment, Lansten opened his eyes and pointed, his leather-clad arm brushing Christof’s chest, informing him of the direction Lansten was pointing.

“That way, to the right,” Lansten whispered to his friends. “I felt both a mild evil, probably a corrupt guard, and something much more evil farther beyond, I believe lower than we are now.”

“How deep do you suppose the tunnels beneath the palace go?” Justin asked softly, frowning as he considered the palace’s age.

“These are highlands and the palace is ancient. There’s no telling. Be quiet; I think I heard something,” Christof answered, his voice even quieter than Lansten’s. He opened the lantern just the slightest crack and aimed the crack to one side, providing just enough light to keep them from missing a turn or stumbling over any unexpected objects in the corridor but hopefully not enough to notify anyone else in the secret hallways of their presence.

They rounded a corner and Christof shut the lantern entirely, dim light and faint voices that Christof and JC could hear with their keen elvish ears coming from another passage that merged with the one they were in a few dozen feet down. Lansten already had a large dagger in one hand and was unslinging his crossbow off his back with the other; Josef quietly drew his broadsword as Justin drew one of his knives, checking his wrist to make sure his free hand could draw a throwing blade easily. The group proceeded toward the dimly lit hallway and followed it, finding it had a door or two on both sides before rounding another corner, the light obviously coming from beyond the turn as well. The voices were now distinct, but too low for anyone other than JC or Christof to be able to hear them properly. Justin was fairly certain it was two men talking and slowly eased half his face past the corner to see.

Justin withdrew after a moment and leaned in to whisper to his friends.

“Two guards, wearing High Counselor Nacremon’s livery. JC, can your magic put them to sleep if I distract them?”

JC shook his head sadly before whispering his reply.

“No, my magics don’t work that way. You would be caught in the spell too, and when we woke you it would wake them, even if Josef were to carry you away first.”

“Are they facing the hallway? Could you sneak close enough to cast the spell without them noticing you?” Josef asked, glancing at Justin for confirmation.

“They’re professional; one’s facing this hallway, the other is facing the opposite direction,” Justin answered, shaking his head in irritation at their poor luck.

Lansten returned from his own peering past the corner’s edge.

“Justin’s right; they’re well placed. Stealthy as we are, I doubt Christof or I could approach unnoticed, much less silence them both before they could raise alarm. I don’t suppose you have a spell of invisibility or some such, do you?” he asked JC, his brows raised hopefully over his pale green eyes.

“Afraid not,” JC answered with another shake of his head. “My elvish magics are of nature, not like your human fables. I might be able to camouflage us all in the wild, but in a stone block tunnel?” He shook his head again sadly.

“Well, then I’ll have to distract them, get the one to look away from this hallway, and you lot will have to sneak up on them before they get suspicious of me,” Justin decided with a nod.

What?” Lansten asked in an incredulous, whispered hiss. “How in the heavens will you do that?

“I need to know what they’re saying, what they’re talking about,” Justin told Christof and JC. “Can you hear them?”

Christof waved Josef and Lansten back, then moved up to the corner’s edge with JC, pulling Justin along by his baggy sleeve, a finger to his lips. Both the half-elves turned to face Justin, their eyes closed and ears cocked toward the low conversation they could just hear. After a moment Christof began to speak, his voice just barely audible, JC joining in a line later. They spoke so quietly, trying to leave each other still able to hear what the other guard was saying while they spoke, that Justin turned his own head to point one ear at his friends, even though their mouths were less than two feet from him.

“‘..Most ridiculous guard duty I’ve ever been on.’”

“‘Well, it’s boring, but what guard duty isn’t? And at least it’s comfortable; we’ve chairs to sit on.’”

Christof pressed his lower teeth against his upper lip and blew a puff of air between them in imitation of the disgusted noise the guard he was mimicking made.

“‘Hah. The Counselor probably has a spell on these chairs to tell him if anyone goes to sleep on them. Heavens know I would have by now if we weren’t chatting. “Boring” is an understatement!’”

“‘Where in five hells is Travis, anyway? Shouldn’t he have been here by now? I swear, if he’s off with some harlot again...’”

“That’s good,” Justin whispered, reaching to take the lantern from Christof and opening it slightly after putting his knife away. “Give me a moment to get past the one, direct his attention from this hall. If you hear me sit, it’s safe to follow. But don’t wait too long; I expect they’ll see through my ruse in short enough order,” he finished just before he stepped around the corner.

Justin strode down the hallway as if he knew exactly where he was going. He made no effort to conceal his footsteps, moving as if he had every right to be there. He could see the guard facing him looking at his approach in surprise and hid his smile by opening the lantern and blowing it out before shutting it again.

“I swear, I always think I’m going to get lost down here,” he grumbled irritably as he walked into the doorless room where the two guards were seated. He walked around their small table, leading both guards’ gazes away from their respective hallways but almost turning the first one’s back to the hall he had come from as he set the lantern down. He took off his feather-topped felt cap and dropped it on the table, running one hand through his curls as he sat down in one of the two remaining chairs. Justin slid it a bit sideways as he scooted it in under himself, surreptitiously moving himself a touch farther from the guard on his side of the table and making it harder for the problem guard to return his attention to the hallway, unless he discounted Justin as a threat entirely.

“I suppose you fellows are bored stiff waiting down here, eh? Heavens know I certainly would be; don’t know how you stand it. But shouldn’t Travis be here? That devious lecher owes me a silver! I swear, how in five hells that bastard ever gets so many women to...”

Justin casually leaned over and hooked a finger through the fine chain around the guard’s neck as Christof wrapped an arm around the man’s throat and shoved a cloth in his face. Justin wrinkled his nose and drew back from the cloth and its reek as he snapped the chain and took the guard’s whistle before he could blow it and raise alarm, not that there was much chance of him doing so with Christof’s arm around his throat and JC’s stinking rag over his mouth and nose. Lansten had snuck up behind the other guard and wrapped his arms around the man’s head in a curious arrangement that had one hand inside his own inner elbow, that elbow’s hand over the back of the man’s head and his throat caught in the vise of Lansten’s other elbow. The man flailed a bit, his thrashings quickly growing weaker until he lay still.

“That was impressively quiet. You didn’t kill him, did you?” Josef asked from where he had watched from behind Lansten, his sword casually resting on his shoulder. JC approached and retrieved his pungent cloth from Christof, stuffing it back into a compartment in his leather bag and retrieving a dab of oily substance he poked into Christof’s hand, then smeared the remainder over his own fingers, dissipating the smell of the preparation that had knocked out the guard. Christof smeared the blob of goo over his hands as he went back the way they had come, familiar with the substances after watching JC use them on the guard they had encountered earlier.

“No, merely a sleeper hold, knocked him unconscious without risking a head wound,” Lansten explained as he withdrew five lengths of cord and two strips of cloth from his pack. He quickly tied the guards’ wrists and ankles to the backs and legs of their chairs, then gagged them with the strips of cloth. Christof ducked back into the room, smiling and slipping his picks back into their hidden pockets.

“I opened one of the doors we passed; it’s a mostly empty storeroom. We can put them in there and I can relock it; Travis won’t find them for some while unless he has the key, and that’s if he even shows up.”

Christof lead the way back as Josef picked up one of the bound guards, chair and all, and Justin and Lansten grabbed the other. JC stood quietly, waiting for them to return, his elvish senses straining to be sure neither the aforementioned Travis nor anyone nor thing else was approaching. He thought he noticed something, decided he was imagining it, then realized it wasn’t his worldly senses that had noticed the sensation.

The others returned to the guardroom to find JC reading aloud from his spellbook, albeit softly, the book lying on one of the chairs near the far doorway so JC could see it as he wove both hands through the air in complex patterns.

Knowing enough not to interfere in matters of magic, the other four stayed back and kept quiet, Lansten slipping back the way they’d come to ambush the tardy Travis if he should show. After a few moments JC stopped his incantation, lowering his hands before turning back to his spellbook and flipping more pages.

“JC? What is it?” Christof asked cautiously, quietly.

“The guard you were mimicking was almost right. There’s no spell on the chairs, but there is one on this doorway. An alarm, much like what you found on the stairs, but magical, not to mention subtle. If I hadn’t been alone in here for a moment, I doubt I would have noticed it,” the half-elvish wizard replied.

“Hells. Can you disarm it? Dispel it, whatever? Get us past it?” Christof asked worriedly.

“Dispel, no. Completely different sort of magic. Get us past it? Yes,” JC replied with a smile as he found the spell he wanted. “It will take a few moments, but probably not as long as your bypass did,” he said with a smile to Christof, then chanted softly in the elvish tongue again as he crumbled a tiny bit of something with his thumb and forefinger, drizzling the tiny particles it produced in a line across the doorway, without crossing it.

“Okay, it should only take a moment,” JC declared, turning the chair Justin had sat in around to face the warded doorway and sitting down in it, stretching his legs out to rest the backs of his heels against the floor. “Christof, bring that other chair and sit, too.”

“Um, okay...” Christof said, looking at JC in perplexity as he retrieved the last chair and placed it next to JC’s, sitting beside him.

“No, like me, with your feet out. You three, get in line, you’ll have to wait your turns.”

“JC, why are we...” Lansten cut himself off as a largish spider dropped down right before his face, lowering itself down from the ceiling to the floor on its cobweb before rushing straight for JC’s left foot. Justin made a small noise and jumped back; another spider reached the floor in front of him and headed for JC’s other foot as two others went for Christof’s.

“Man, you do not want us to let spiders crawl on our feet!” Justin protested, his voice still without volume but with great intensity.

“Of course not,” JC replied, rolling his eyes. “Just the soles of our shoes. My magic is of nature; I conjured the spiders’ spirits, asking us to give them their stealth. As long as only the soles of our shoes, that the spiders are outlining with their cobwebs, touch the floor, the warding spell won’t detect us.”

The two spiders finished their task of outlining the soles of JC’s shoes with their webs as he spoke, so he stood up, taking care to tread lightly over to the doorway, still not crossing its threshold. Josef shrugged and took JC’s place, stretching his feet out before him. The two spiders got busily to work as Christof stood and moved over to JC, Lansten quirking an eyebrow and taking his seat.

“If these spiders run up my legs, we won’t have to worry about the ward alerting the Counselor,” Justin proclaimed as he took Josef’s seat a moment later, screwing his eyes closed and not watching as the two spiders rushed his feet. “The King will hear my screech in the throne room.” Lansten rolled his eyes at Justin’s melodramatics as he got in line behind Josef, the two spiders that had outlined his boots rushing to the doorway, running up its sides and leaving trails of cobweb behind them. They crossed each other on the ceiling at the center of the doorway, then scurried back to the shadows, off about their business.

“There. A ward that detects bugs is too sensitive to be of any use, and my spell made it so the ward won’t detect past those spiders’ webs. The doorway is now clear, as long as only our web-traced feet touch the floor as we cross through the doorway. Don’t touch the doorway, and for pity’s sake don’t drop anything,” JC instructed them, then led the way into the next hallway.

“What was that you crumbled to summon the spiders?” Lansten asked, curious how JC’s magics worked.

“Dead insects, of course.”

Some while later the group discovered another meeting room, similar to the one with the false fireplace that had led them into the secret chambers in the first place. Lansten caught his breath as they looked around the room by the light of Christof’s lantern, declaring that a great evil had been present in the room, recently. He hadn’t even paused to use his monster-slayer ability; the anathema of the evil’s lingering presence was simply that strong.

“That’s... pretty bad, isn’t it? Josef asked with worry. He had never seen Lansten have such a reaction to an evil presence before.

“Jo, I’ve face Children of Oomna and vile undead that didn’t radiate evil like this. If we can find enough evidence here to convict Nacremon, we should take it and go. Facing whatever this may be directly could well be getting in over our heads,” Lansten declared, meeting each of his friends’ eyes to make clear he was deadly serious.

“Well, let’s search, then,” Justin said, and Christof nodded, opening the lantern fully and setting it on the corner of the desk.

“Wait!” JC hissed, reaching out a hand in warning. The others froze, waiting for JC to explain his alarm. “There’s... something. Get behind me, but don’t leave the room!”

The others did as the wizard asked, Justin glancing back at the door and then the rest of the room nervously. JC peered into the middle distance of the room momentarily, then cautiously raised a palm and pointed it about the room, as if he were looking with the creases of his destiny lines. Justin had seen his grandmother read enough palms to think it might be possible. JC frowned after a moment, knowing he was too close to triggering or alerting whatever magic was there, but unable to discern anything of its nature. He reached into his leather pouch with his free hand, reaching back toward Christof with his raised hand.

“Lantern,” he said simply, and Christof snatched the lantern up from where he had placed it on the desk, opening its side so JC could reach the flame. JC chanted a short elvish phrase softly, tossing a pinch of forest herbs from his pouch into the lantern’s small flame. A wisp of smoke drifted out of the lantern, a wisp that suddenly billowed into a full fledge plume of smoke, a plume that dispersed into a haze as it crossed the room and traced around one of the bookcases, forming sigils in the air around it.

JC sighed, handing the lantern back to Christof.

“What is it?” his older friend asked, looking back and forth from JC to the strange symbols the smoke had formed, symbols that were hanging motionless in the air in most un-smokelike fashion.

“Probably another secret passage. But it’s definitely mystically warded, probably with something considerably nastier than an alarm, and I don’t think my magics can get us past it,” JC explained sadly. Lansten, Josef, and Justin began examining the rest of the room now that it was safe, looking for the evidence they needed.

“Hells,” Christof muttered, raising the lantern to look at the smoke sigils and the bookcase they were protecting. Justin joined him, also not getting too close, hoping against hope he might spot something the few gypsy tricks he had learned from his mother or grandmother might prove useful in dealing with. JC’s elvish nature magics were powerful, but they weren’t particularly adept at countering human arcane magics; the spiders had been a fluke chance. Justin glanced at the books, wondering if maybe the symbols were also on the books and could perhaps have ink thrown on them or something, then blinked in surprise.

“Wait,” he said, then turned back to look at another bookcase across the room. “Why is it identical to the one over there?”

“What?” Lansten said in surprise, looking at the case Justin was pointing at before coming over to examine the one he and Christof were in front of.

“Hah. I don’t think this is a bookcase,” Lansten said with a smirk.

“No?” JC asked in confusion. “Why not?”

“Justin’s right; it’s identical to the one across the room. Also, this mark?” Lansten said, pointing out the sigil hovering directly before the supposed bookcase. “Is the symbol of Nosske, the Demon Lord of Deception. That would explain the evil I feel in this room, and strongly implies the bookcase is an image, a deception, concealing whatever is truly there.”

“Like another secret passage, leading to the Counselor’s true headquarters? Because although the King’s auditors might be interested in these books, or perhaps some historians, but I don’t think there’s anything truly illegal in here. Not significantly so, anyway,” Josef declared, pushing another drawer of the desk shut.

“Could well be. I expect I can dispel the deception, but I don’t know enough about magic to say whether that will trip whatever JC sensed,” Lansten said, lifting his holy symbol of Lumm out from beneath his shirt and drawing the amulet’s cord over his head before turning to silently ask JC’s opinion with a raised eyebrow.

“I don’t know either,” JC said worriedly, his stormy blue eyes sorrowful. “My spell lets me know there’s a powerful force here and that it’s not nature magic, elvish or otherwise, but other than that, I don’t know what it is or what it will do, how it will react to what actions.”

“But it could just be an illusion, merely powerful and evil because it is supplied by Nosske? Maybe not a ward at all?” Christof asked, tentatively hopeful.

“Maybe...” JC admitted, but he was obviously not at all convinced.

“Well, if it’s powered by Nosske, then it’s divine, not arcane, right Lansten?” Josef asked. “Perhaps your disrupting it will cause the whole spell or curse or whatever a divine ward is to fail entirely, not just the illusion.”

“Maybe,” Lansten nodded slightly, considering. “I’ve certainly never heard of arcane and divine powers being combined. I don’t think it’s even possible, and heavens know someone would have done it by now if it were. JC? Do the elves combine their natural elemental magics with Aaria’s divine power?”

JC smirked back at Lansten.

“Well, Aaria is the goddess of flora and fauna, not the elements, but no, they don’t. Any priest of Aaria could do far more with any animal spirits than my little spider spell did, but I’ve never heard of powers being combined, either.”

Lansten nodded, then frowned at the false bookcase.

“But if someone were to invoke a pact with Nosske to provide a powerful illusion, why would they make it of something that was already in the room? Wouldn’t something original make far more sense, be a greater deception?” he asked.

“Not really,” Justin answered, shaking his head. “I don’t know any gypsy magic, it’s not taught to men, but I know enough about it to know it sometimes uses illusions. My grandmama once told me it’s easier to create an illusionary duplicate of something already present if the illusion is to be kept for a long time, like disguising valuables’ hiding place or something. The glamour is less complicated, requires less magic, if it’s just acting like a ‘mirror’, reproducing an existing image instead of making something new. Plus, if it made the image of new books, what would happen if someone tried to read one of them? Part of the magic probably guides the viewer away from it, directs them to the real bookcase, maybe. We only noticed this one because JC’s spell led us to it, really.”

“If the magic is not to be taught to men, why would she tell you those details?” Lansten asked.

“So that if I ever had to search a wizard’s rooms, I’d know any duplicated objects were probably hiding the safe. I’ve just never heard of one being supplied by the Demon Lord,” Justin answered, his grin of pride in his obscure knowledge fading as he realized what they might be facing.

“That rather sounds like the supposedly impossible combination of powers we were just discussing,” Christof said with a frown.

Lansten shrugged.

“There’s no reason to think Nosske’s evocation wouldn’t use less power through duplication the same way a gypsy glamour wouldn’t. Plus, Justin has a point on viewers of the illusion attempting to interact with it. Not being a priest or cleric, I don’t know too much about miracles, but I’m sure a bit of misdirection would use less divine power than making someone think they were reading a book that wasn’t there; whether the power was heavenly or infernal makes no difference,” he theorized. “We know we’re on the right path; all we can do is proceed. I don’t like it, and I’m worried about what we may end up facing, but the fact that this illusion is demonically powered explains what I felt earlier. If Nacremon is making deals with demons we may still be in trouble, but at least it’s an explanation. Leaving and coming back later with reinforcements from the Church of Lumm isn’t an option; I’m not willing to kill those two guards, not to mention that Travis person who may show at any time. We have no way of concealing that we’ve been here; our only option is to proceed and hope we succeed in either gathering evidence or confronting Nacremon. We can only hope to avoid detection until we’re successful, not afterward, and we have to be prepared to have that hope dashed, quite possibly by my disrupting this illusion. Agreed?”

Lansten turned to meet each of his friends’ eyes, returning their nods of acknowledgement as he went.

“Being detected by clashing divine powers is one thing,” Josef said nervously as he nodded to his best friend. “I just don’t want to see you struck down by whatever else those symbols mean,” he finished, pointing at the fading smoke images surrounding the symbol of Nosske.

“Nor do I,” Lansten replied with a self-aware smirk. “I pray to Lumm I’m not. The rest of you, out of the way,” he finished as he raised his holy symbol, gesturing for his friends to stand back as he approached the bookcase.

The others gathered near the door, and Lansten glanced to be sure they were as far back as they could be before he turned to the symbol of Nosske. Josef was standing in front of the other three, ready to shield them with his burlier body or rush to Lansten’s aid as necessary. Lansten held his dangling holy symbol above the dissipating smoke forming the symbol of Nosske. Lumm’s nemesis was her twin sister Oomna, but Lumm was the head of the Council of Light, in opposition to Nosske as the head of the Council of Darkness. Her church militant did not oppose his forces nearly as much as they did Oomna’s but certainly moreso than any of the remaining members of the Dark Council.

Finishing his prayer, Lansten lowered his gleaming brass holy symbol of Lumm into the shadowy, smoky image of Nosske’s symbol.

JC’s spell was disrupted, the magical smoke dissipating back into the tiny wisp it had originally been, and that wisp was as dissipated as if it had never been ensorcelled, gone from sight and almost from smell. As the smoke symbols finished their dissipation in a rush, so too did the illusionary bookcase evaporate, revealing a sturdy door built into the wall.

“That was... slightly anticlimactic,” Justin commented, stepping forward to look at the imposing door. “You’re not cursed, are you? Not evil, eyes still green?” Lansten turned to Justin and raised a confused eyebrow. “You know, as opposed to jet black or fiery red, some demonic color,” Justin shrugged. “They’re still funny green, by the way.”

“Lumm be praised,” Lansten muttered dryly, shaking his head at Justin. He turned back to the door, closing his eyes and meditating briefly again to detect evil once more. Lansten opened his eyes and stepped back from the door with a frown, gesturing Christof to step forward and pick the lock.

“The evil I felt upon entering the room was certainly coming from Nosske’s illusion, only a lingering taint from its extended presence here remains, but there’s definitely evil beyond this door. I believe Josef is right that it will lead us to Nacremon’s true sanctum,” he explained.

“Oh, for pity’s sake, how many tumblers does this lock have?” Christof muttered as he continued probing at it with his picks. “They’re big, it would be a heavy key, makes them easier to move, but I’ve already picked five, and there’s at least one more... A-Ha!” Christof declared as he twisted the lock, then withdrew his probes. “Well, this little adventure has been mildly interesting so far, but let’s press on and see if we can find anything downright exciting, shall we?” Christof asked as he replaced his probes, then took his small lantern from JC. He turned back to the door, turning the handle and testing to be sure the hinges weren’t going to squeak; his daredevil smile flashed from above his dark goatee as he looked back at his friends over his shoulder, then yanked the door wide and dropped back to the side, drawing a knife.

After a moment, five curious faces appeared in the doorway, looking through it at the sinuous stone cavern that bore deeper into the earth beneath the Royal Palace.

“Oh...” JC began, his silver-blue eyes wide in surprise.

“..My,” Justin finished, his darker blue eyes blinking in amazement.

“Close the lantern,” Lansten warned as he pushed to the front, rearranging his holy symbol amulet once more to have it hanging atop his shirt instead of beneath it, then drew his sword. He still had his crossbow gripped in his other hand.

“This is your fault, you know,” Josef muttered to Christof as the half-elvish thief closed his lantern and followed Lansten into the tunnel.

“My fault? What do you mean?” Christof asked quietly, trying to look back at Josef past Justin and JC, even though he had just shut away their light source.

“You had to go and ask for something exciting, didn’t you?” Josef grumbled as he followed JC into the darkness.

They followed the tunnel, quickly learning to softly slide their feet along the ground’s surface so that they could follow the passage’s contours. Lansten had quietly called out a halt, then let his crossbow hang from his shoulder by its strap as he undid his sword-belt and unthreaded it from his weapon’s sheath, sliding it onto the blade before re-donning the belt. He gave word to proceed, using the leather-muffled tip of his sword to follow the tunnel’s wall.

“Blast. Christof, light, just the smallest crack,” Lansten whispered back some while later. He blinked as Christof opened the lantern the barest crack indeed, a hairline crack that merely provided a dull orange glow to Lansten’s silhouette, not enough to actually illuminate anything.

“Alright, a touch more than that. The tunnel stopped and the floor changed,” Lansten clarified. Christof widened the crack to the width of a slender blade’s thickness, keeping it pointed back into the tunnel and not shining forward to alert anyone ahead of them of their presence. Lansten crouched and examined the floor where it met the tunnel.

“I don’t like this. The floor is stone, smooth; I think it was shaped by magic,” he whispered up to his companions. JC turned his back to the wall, grabbing Justin by the shoulders and turning him as well so that JC could squeeze past him. Christof flattened himself to the side of the tunnel, still making sure to keep the light from shining out beyond it, and JC edged past him to join Lansten on the floor.

“Definitely magic,” JC confirmed, stroking his fingers over the smooth, stone surface of the floor. “Powerful, elemental magic, but wielded long, long ago. There’s no magic present here... oh dear.”

“Oh dear, what?” Lansten asked in alarm, his pale green eyes whipping up to meet JC’s fearful silvery-blue ones.

“No magic on the floor, but I recognize that as a rune,” JC explained, pointing at a marking that could only barely be seen in the center tile of the threshold between the tunnel and the stone floor. “And why put blocks in between a carved tunnel and a magically-formed floor?” JC asked rhetorically. “It had to be a ward; someone knows we’re here, where we are specifically, or perhaps some magical defense was activated.”

“Well, we weren’t blasted with lightning or anything, small blessing,” Lansten replied as he whirled to his feet, facing out into the darkness of the smooth-floored space as the others joined them, Christof remaining by the tunnel opening and keeping his crack of light shining back the way they had come.

“Oh dear,” JC said again, apologetically; Lansten ground his teeth together.

“It’s not good when you say that!” Justin hissed. “Oh Dear What?”

“I hear something,” JC replied nervously. “Something coming, sort of like footsteps, a lot of them.”

“Christof, light!” Lansten barked, stepping away from the tunnel’s entrance and straining his ears to hear whatever JC’s half-elvish senses had detected.

Christof stepped away from the tunnel and threw his little mirrored lantern open wide, shining its small light past Lansten like a torch. JC spread his arms and hands and chanted briefly, rolling his hands together in an artful flourish that released a ball of bright blue flame, which swooped up to hover a few feet above his head. JC’s fireball gave the group more light to see by, enough to see the humanoid shapes clattering toward them from both ends of the corridor.

Human skeletons, walking, some holding weapons, some still dressed in scraps of clothes, all of them grinning with the rictus of death, twin glints of unholy green light floating inside their eyesockets where pupils would have been, if they had eyes.

“Undead!” Lansten snarled in needless warning before dashing forward, swinging his sword with both hands to smack the skull off the first skeleton with the flat of his blade. “Don’t let them clutch you; they have the chill of death in their grips!” the monster-slayer yelled as he kicked the blinded skeleton away. His high kick smashed into its sternum, smashing a good number of its ribs and propelling the staggered thing into a few of its comrades.

Josef dashed forward with the hilt of his sword gripped in both hands, bellowing as he bent low and slashed with the heavy blade, cleaving between two of the foremost skeletons’ lower ribs and hipbones, severing their spines. The two skeletons clattered to the smooth floor in piles of bones, and Josef danced back out of reach from the next two, swatting away their reaching hands with his sword.

While Josef held back the skeletons from the opposite side of the corridor, Justin ran into combat alongside Lansten, diving into a somersault that carried him beneath the swing of a skeleton’s sword. The young bard popped back up to his feet and kicked the skeleton in the tailbone as hard as he could, knocking it down. Justin spun and whipped a throwing blade at another skeleton, which merely bounced off its skull, only causing it to rock slightly.

“Small blades won’t hurt them!” Lansten called out to Justin and Christof as he chopped off the forearm of a skeleton holding a rusty dagger, then whipped his weapon back to bash another skeleton behind him in the face with the pommel of his sword. “They’re more vulnerable to crushing damage!”

Justin called back in acknowledgement as he dove aside to evade the skeleton’s lunging rush, dropping into a cartwheel between two more and twisting into a roundoff and backhandspringing away from yet another, back toward Lansten. Justin reached into the satchel at his hip as he straightened, withdrawing a number of wooden juggling clubs he sometimes used to entertain. They were also perfectly balanced, and he began whipping them at the approaching skeletons, bashing their skulls and knocking them off their feet.

“Guard me a moment, and I’ll end this,” JC told Christof, then shut his eyes and began chanting, his hands and arms flowing through the air with sweeping motions. Christof swore as he considered his large dagger and other, smaller knives; he did not have Josef’s strength to chop through bone with a blade only a foot long.

“Throw me one of those!” he called to Justin, running two paces before leaping into the air in a dropkick, landing on his forearms to roll into a somersault as the skeleton went flying. Justin turned and threw one of his clubs underhand to Christof, who caught it as he rolled to his feet. He dashed past JC once more, ducking under a skeleton’s arm and smashing the club into its sternum, knocking it and its reaching arms away from JC.

Lansten began slashing at the skeletons’ lower legs and knees, knocking them down so that Justin could rush from one to the next and smash their skulls with his club. Christof kept driving the things back from JC while the wizard was preoccupied, and Josef kept his broadsword whirling about himself in a domelike shape, knocking aside any skeletal limb or torso that tried to approach him.

Justin snuck up behind the skeleton that had engaged Lansten in a swordfight, smashing its head off of its spine with a tremendous roundhouse blow from his club, which snapped off in his hand.

“Oh, hells...” Justin pouted, looking at the splintered end of his juggling club, then his eyes widened as he looked past Lansten finishing off the last of the skeletons on their side of the corridor.

“Josef, LOOK OUT!” Justin shouted, seeing that a skeleton had managed to circle behind Josef and waited until the half-dwarven warrior was swinging his sword the wrong direction before lunging in to grab both sides of his neck with its fleshless hands.

A shocked cry of pain burst from Josef’s throat as he jerked to a stop, his head thrown back in reaction and his breath puffing from his mouth in a cloud, as if he were outside in the dead of winter. The skeleton moved closer so it could bend its elbows and slide its grip to the softer front of Josef’s throat, past his corded neck muscles, and its companions moved in from the front once the warrior’s sword had stopped swinging.

Christof and Lansten cried out in protest, Lansten and Justin beginning to charge to Josef’s side as Christof smashed aside the last skeleton approaching JC.

JC opened his eyes.

His flowing movements stilled as he straightened up, his arms lowering to his sides. JC’s cloak and the baggy sleeves of his thin shirt began to flutter, in a breeze that had not been there a moment before. As he spoke rapid words in the elvish tongue, JC whirled one hand in a fluttering gesture that spiraled up to above his head as his other hand swept forward. His palm was pointed at Josef, or more specifically the skeleton holding him as JC shouted the last word of his spell.

Wind howled out from around JC’s hands, lashing across the broad corridor to strike the skeleton holding Josef, knocking it away. The hideous thing’s jawbone was hanging open as it spun up into the air, as if it were thoroughly surprised and would be shouting if only it had a throat to speak with.

The wind continued to lash out from JC, sweeping the skeleton up into the air, blowing its fellows off their footbones, but never touching Josef, who collapsed into Lansten’s grip. Christof slipped off now that JC had unleashed his spell, and Justin, deciding the battle was as good as over, began collecting his thrown clubs from his and Lansten’s end of the corridor.

JC’s wind whirled all the skeletons into the air, spinning them faster and faster in a circle at least a dozen feet across, some of the skeletons occasionally snapping a bone as they collided with one another. With a shout of triumph, JC thrust his other palm forward, the entire whirling mass of skeletons smashing into the ceiling two dozen feet down the corridor, raining back down to the oddly smooth floor in a hail of bone fragments.

The fireball continued to burn steadily over JC’s head, unperturbed by the air currents.

Soft applause reached the companions’ ears as they regrouped, Lansten’s hands rubbing briskly at the sides of Josef’s neck while he drank from a flask Justin had supplied.

“My, my, my,” a soft, patently amused voice said from behind them. “How... efficient.”

The companions spun around to see a short, overweight old man in splendid silk robes with a crystal amulet smiling at them from the doorway at the near end of the corridor, as if they were insects he found amusing. The glint in the old man’s eyes reminded Justin of how a childhood friend of his had been amused by insects- -burning ants with sunlight focused through his mother’s crystal ball.

“Loucifer Nacremon,” Lansten snarled at him through a curled lip, raising his crossbow.

The old man raised a sardonic eyebrow at the young monster-slayer, chuckling slightly.

“That’s High Counselor Nacremon to you, boy,” he said, folding his arms as he assumed a commanding posture, still not stepping forward from the doorway he was standing in.

“Not for much longer, it isn’t!” Christof’s voice called from behind his friends. Justin’s head jerked around in surprise to watch as Christof rejoined them, slipping something into Justin’s satchel before crossing to stand on the other side of JC.

“Interesting office you have back there, Loucifer,” Christof said brightly, over exaggerating his delight in the office’s interest. “I recognize a shrine to the Council of Darkness when I see one that big,” Christof drawled. “And I may not know much about magic, but some of those supplies certainly looked interesting,” he continued. “You know, if ‘interesting’ meant ‘revolting’. And the ledgers! I didn’t take the time to go through them, but I’m more than willing to bet they’re lots more interesting than the ones we found upstairs,” he finished with a smirk.

“What did you take, thief?” Loucifer snarled, glancing from Christof to Justin’s satchel before narrowing his eyes at the shorter half-elf.

“Heavens, wouldn’t you like to know?” Christof asked with mischief in his eyes as well as his voice. “Let’s just say ‘evidence’ and leave it at that.”

Loucifer frowned in displeasure, then cleared his expression and shrugged.

“Well, it seems I’m caught. I certainly can’t let you take me alive to be arrested, so I suppose I’ve no choice but to throw myself off this natural cliff, deep beneath the palace,” Loucifer said in a disinterested voice, his arms still crossed over his chest.

The portly man stepped backward through the doorway he had been standing in, and Lansten began to rush forward. He was afraid Loucifer would throw the door shut and somehow escape, but he stopped himself short as Loucifer continued to walk backward, his eyes moving from one of the friends’ faces to the next, never checking his path or the room he was crossing, never even glancing at the door he had opened.

Another step, and the silk-robed man fell from view, toppling backward out of sight.

The companions rushed forward, gasping in surprise as they entered the room and discovered the evil old man had not been lying; it was an enormous cavern, far too large to be illuminated by Christof and JC’s meager lights. The ceiling was a few dozen feet overhead, but they found themselves at the edge of a precipice, a cliff dropping dozens of feet more into the dark before them. They could not see the other side of the cavern.

“Is there something down there glittering in the light of your flame?” Christof asked JC, squinting into the darkness before them. JC chanted again, rolling his hands in more flourishes and sending a few more fireballs streaking down into the chasm. The group gasped in shock as the first hovering fireball flew to one side and revealed mounds of gold and jewels on the floor of the cavern...

...And screamed in terror as the next few bounced harmlessly off the chest of the massive black dragon that was standing up to face them, its serpentine lips drawing back to reveal razor-sharp fangs each a foot long at the very list, a snarling grin of smugly superior evil.

“JUMP!” JC screamed, charging forward and throwing himself off the edge.

“ARE YOU ALL INSANE?!?” Justin cried after them as his friends followed JC, then realized the predicament he was in as the dragon drew in a tremendous lungful of air, its fanged jaws opening wide.

Justin threw himself into a backhandspring, thrusting with his legs and then his arms to cover ten feet or more with each spring, throwing himself back through the doorway and diving to one side as the dragon’s breath blasted the rock balcony they had been standing on.

JC shouted frantically in elvish as he leaped from the edge, swirling his arms and reaching out to the massive quantity of air filling the enormous cavern, whipping it into a wind that blew up from the base of the rocky wall at the cavern’s front, catching him and his friends and allowing them to tumble painfully to the ground below, rather than crash bodily into it and kill themselves.

The dragon’s huge form turned above them, its wings flaring as its serpentine neck brought its head around to face them again, its jaws spreading wide once more.

JC continued shouting in elvish as he drew himself to his feet, pinioning his arms at the beast and lashing at its head with his winds, slamming them into its gaping mouth and blowing it off balance with the force of the winds against its wings.

“He’s a dragon!?” Christof hollered, staring up at the thing in disbelief.

“Can’t be,” Josef answered, also staring. “His family is too well-documented, had to be for him to achieve such a position; he comes from a supposedly noble house.”

“Then he’s used magic to transform himself, or made a deal with Nosske. If we can destroy his spell or altar, he’ll lose his power!” Lansten told them. “Christof, get to it!”

“Sure, pin all our hopes of survival on me...” the thief groused as he slipped into the shadows, hoping JC was keeping the dragon too distracted to keep track of him.

Figuring the roomful of magical supplies and dark worship he had been in earlier probably held whatever fueled Loucifer’s transformation, Christof made his way back to the rocky wall, now behind the dragon, and began climbing. He was hoping Justin somehow managed to survive the dragon’s blast, but he knew what he might find when he reached the top. Even if the golden youth had survived, he wouldn’t know to go back to the other room.

Josef waited to be sure JC had the dragon’s attention, sure that Lansten would have a plan momentarily that would keep it even more occupied. Then he began quietly, slowly moving toward the dragon’s feet. One of the first things he was taught about combat was that even the largest foe went down if you took out his knee. Which left him little able to defend himself, and his head and ribs easily accessible to your boots. Now, this dragon was so tall its knees were well above Josef’s head, much less its vitals or head. However, if he could sever the tendon of its ankle, that should have a similar effect, or at least make it far harder for the thing to chase them.

JC kept his winds whirling about the dragon’s head, keeping it from being able to bring its jaws to bear properly, threatening to surge through them and down its throat if it should threaten to breathe flame at them again. He kept throwing it off balance with the wind against its wings, making its superior size a drawback instead of an advantage. With the wings and head both being near the creature’s top and not requiring focus the way catching four falling bodies did, JC could direct the winds with one hand. With the other he began gesturing, starting a new elvish chant under his breath.

Lansten shoved his sword through its belt, the hilt hanging awkwardly at angle over his hip, since the scabbard was still in the hallway up above. That didn’t matter, his sword wasn’t going to do much good against a dragon, anyway. His crossbow, on the other hand...

The monster-slayer held the stock of his weapon against his shoulder, cocking his head to sight along the aiming apertures, awaiting his moment.

Justin waited until he heard the dragon’s huge form moving in the cavern beyond, not sounding like it was climbing onto the ledge. It snarled in displeasure, surely at something JC had done, so Justin risked poking his head into the doorway.

The dragon had its back to the corridor, its wings beating awkwardly as it tried to maintain its balance.

Justin reached into his satchel and retrieved his rappelling hook and silken climbing rope before quietly, oh so quietly advancing through the door, behind the dragon.

Christof had moved to one side of the dragon, finding a wall of craggy rock that would be much easier to climb. He ascended as quickly as he dared, trusting his black clothing to keep him hidden in the shadows and that the giant reptile’s attention would be focused on JC, but he took care to make no noise whatsoever. He continually checked the dragon’s position as he climbed, growing nervous as the lay of the craggy path moved closer to the dragon, and the beast shuffled nearer to him as JC’s winds kept pushing at its wings. Christof paused halfway up, staring in wonder at the dragon’s chest.

It had a little, pointy horn sticking up from the hollow of its throat, between its collarbones... ...and hanging from that horn was the crystal amulet Loucifer had been wearing.

Christof grinned.

Justin crept up to the edge of the rocky overlook, letting his climbing hook dangle from his fist by a few feet before starting to twirl it in a circle that was almost at a forty-five degree angle to the ground.

JC shouted the last word of his chant, thrusting his free hand forward, pointing at the dragon. A bolt of lightning surged from his finger, striking the dragon in its midsection, knocking the breath from its lungs and injuring it, perhaps even badly.

Lansten snapped his eyes shut as JC shouted, correctly anticipating a brilliant result, then opened them again when the flash had passed. The dragon was glaring at JC in fury, its head held motionless as it inhaled deeply despite the wind, ready to unleash its fiery fury...

The crossbow bolt pierced the dragon’s left eye.

It screamed in agony, whipping its head away from its left side, the direction that had hurt it. Justin adjusted the release of his throw, thinking back to his youth when he would charge a horse down a field or meadow bordering the forest, releasing a grapple to hook and swing into a tree. He did not swing this time, but that practice allowed him to release his hook and time his seizing of the trailing rope so that it swung into the dragon’s head, piercing its other eye.

“I WILL KILL YOU ALL!!!” the dragon screamed in fury, its wings flapping in agitation.

JC redirected his winds with both hands, whipping them against the dragon’s spread wings and pressing them back into the rock wall behind it.

Josef ran forward, discovering he had a problem. The dragon stood on its toes, like most animals; its ankle-tendons were eight feet off the ground. Now that JC had it pressed up against the wall, it was scrabbling for purchase, trying to push its way free. Josef ran up alongside one of the beast’s feet, waiting for it to lower it closer to the ground. He would strike as it shifted its weight to push off that foot, probably snapping the tendon entirely.

He raised his sword in anticipation.

Christof had a rope of his own, used to scale buildings and access less-secured upper storey windows. He had found a perch he could maintain without using his arms, and formed a large loop in his rope, twirling it with one hand around the knot, two fingers holding the loop slightly open. He spun its length over his head, then let it fly, easily hooking the loop over one of the dragon’s massive fangs. Christof shrieked as shrilly as he could, as loud as he possibly could as he leaped, his surprising voice having the intended effect of making the dragon freeze for an instant, caught by surprise. Christof reached out with his free hand as he swung by the dragon’s body, ripping the amulet from its chain as he passed and hurling it to the ground below, the crystal shattering against the stone.

“JC, WIND ME!” Christof cried as he released his rope, flying free through the air.

As JC gestured wildly and chanted again, catching Christof’s terrified, flying form in a whirlwind that deposited him sick but safe on the ground, a lurid glow enveloped the dragon’s form. It sank weakly down as its strength was drained.

Having been beneath the dragon, Josef had not seen much of what happened. The dragon lowered its foot, and he swung his sword.

In a flash of that unholy light, Loucifer regained his true form, a fat, naked old man bellowing hoarsely in pain, the head of a crossbow bolt in one eye and one prong of a collapsible climbing hook in the other.

Josef’s sword cleaved Loucifer Nacremon’s evil head from his vile body.

“Well, that’s done,” Christof said shakily as he leaned dizzily against JC, who walked him over to Josef as Lansten approached, grimacing as he picked up his bolt and looked for something to clean it on.

“Hey, where’d the dragon go? Did we win?” Justin called down from above.

JC’s braying laugh answered him, thrilled they had succeeded, had won, and lived to tell the tale.



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