As plans went, it was definitely on the scant side, but Stathis had worked with less. Persuading Janaxia to take the lead had taken some doing, but then she had been shown the array of disguises the Black Wolves had available and promptly vanished into the dressing room, needing coaxing out with a bottle of wine, and a stricter set of instructions regarding suitable attire.
The doppelgangers operated out of a cluster of buildings on the edge of town, a separate walled compound. All the architecture was the same giant stone blocks, tinged a pale crimson by the light from the lighthouse, a permanent glow without any indication of day or night. The locals seemed to carry glowing stones for use when inside, rather than risk open fires and smoke.
Stathis reconnoitred the area, trying not to gawp too obviously – one main entrance, guarded by a few robed figures, bearing obvious weapons, keeping anyone from approaching too closely. A study-looking wooden door, banded with iron, was an alternative entrance, but would make a lot of noise to smash through. The walls had been patched and reinforced a few times, but without any points that looked weak enough to break through. There were only two visible guards on the walls, neither seeming to be heavily armed, or very observant.
The others had gathered in a nearby empty shell of a building, the ancient stone blackened and charred by fire. Janaxia had gotten changed, having finally been talked into something suitably bland, after an impressive array of rather more flamboyant outfits, and some grumbling about clashing earth tones. She had at least accepted sensible boots, for the inevitable point when something went wrong and they had to run.
The rest of the rogues were dressed for stealth, dull colours to help them blend in, a variety of armaments hanging from hips or carried. Kethys, now in battered, black chain mail, enchanted to be silent as she moved, slapped a hand against a wall. ‘Everybody know what they’re doing? We’ve only got one chance at this, so keep it tight and fast. In, grab, out. They’re slippery, so keep an eye on your partner, if they start acting funny, smack ‘em. Hadric, Stathis, you’re on point. Get going.’
The others nodded, and they moved into action. Hadric, now having discarded his flashy armour for duller, more practical stuff, took a seemingly empty bottle and offered it to Stathis. Accepting, she raised it to her lips, swallowing the unseen syrupy liquid inside, tasting of bone-dry dust. The world wavered for a moment, everything shimmering as the enchantment took hold, sound vanishing, like she’d sunk into water oily water. Everything looked slightly different, a thin aura of colour shimmering around each person, most showing thin auras of simple colours. Except for Janaxia, who was limned in deep black, as though coated in liquid obsidian, her own features barely visible, except for a single blood-red cut where her hair-slash was. As she moved, razor-sharp shadows trailed her actions, the darkness fading as light swept into its wake. Stathis sighed – she really should try and find a normal wizard at some point.
She put the bottle on the ground and stepped away, so that Hadric could drain the rest, his own form blurring for a moment as the magic took effect, granting him invisibility as well. He looked around, starting as he saw Janaxia, face shocked. In this state, they couldn’t speak, so Stathis just shrugged, hoping to convey that some wizards were just weird like that and not to worry about it. The rest of the group left, moving into position.
Janaxia, or at least the eldritch abomination of deepest black that she now appeared as, moved forward, Stathis and Hadric keeping close behind her. As she approached the gate, the guards (from here, what could be seen of their skin was a shifting, mercury-like surface, refracting and warping the surrounding environment) blocking her way until she presented the token and they relented, the gate opening.
They ghosted in, staying as close to Janaxia as possible without touching her. The courtyard was barren and empty, an open space with several dark entrances, and no convenient labels. At least there were no guards around to question them, as they moved inside, Janaxia moving with assurance despite having no idea where she was going.
The hallways inside the building were only two people wide, but excessively tall, the tops barely visible and hopefully not home to anything that might ambush them. A few artworks were on display, Hadric pausing by some of them, assessing them for value. Stathis gestured at him to stay close, as Janaxia tried to find her way through the building. The layout seemed unnecessarily confusing, with half-stairs, balconies and random drops between large, poorly lit chambers filled with piles of what seemed to be junk, old furniture, heaps of clothing, and other junk. The only light came from glowing stones, shedding strangely-tinted light, the place filled with shadows. Only a few chambers seemed inhabited, or even maintained, the majority simply empty, abandoned to dust and debris.
It was a relief when they managed to find the back entrance; an armoury with swords and spears strewn untidily on weapon racks, a few suits of chainmail carelessly deposited on the floor – a quick examination showed them to all be poorly maintained. Stathis saw a few shields, cheap wooden things piled up, poorly made, but still useful, as she stooped to grab one. Two guards were, inevitably, engaged in a card game, a few coppers piled up between them, bickering over some past slight.
They put their cards down and stood, moving towards Janaxia – these two weren’t wearing concealing robes, their mirrored, reflective skin making her feel queasy. From the distance and postures they took, they were probably talking, Janaxia keeping them distracted as Stathis and Hadric took up positions behind them. Janaxia swept past them, her shadow moving over the glowing rock that lit the room, suddenly throwing the place into darkness as her shadow obliterated the light for a moment. As she reached the door, the guards drew blades – with impressive speed, Janaxia spun and hurled a blast of utmost darkness, one of them getting sent flying into a weapons rack. Stathis moved, but Hadric was faster, a well-placed strike with his sheathed sword, catching his target unawares and knocking him out.
Hadric’s colours faded as he shifted from this half-realm back into the real world, then began fiddling with the lock, managing to get it open and letting the rest of the group in. It seemed safer to stay invisible, just in case, although having to duck and dodge around everyone was awkward. As they were talking, she moved next to Parth (who was glowing a pale green, buds and leaves growing and retracting from her body) and quickly wrote a note, dropping it and waiting until it was picked up.
The group fanned out, minds firmly on loot. Stathis’ main concern was finding Kamarni – while the others might be focused on wealth, they should at least try and find him before filling their pockets. She retraced her steps, coming to a junction joining a cluster of rooms that had appeared used, a metal grille locked into place and blocking further passage. The bolts had been screwed securely into the wall, deep enough that brute strength wouldn’t shift them, and the bulky lock was beyond her or Parth’s abilities.
Instead, she watched as Parth moved in close, pushing her hand against the wall. A shimmering green haze shone from her hand, coalescing into vine-like growths, shining a brilliant emerald. Then they became solid enough to affect the real world, growing from one of the holes for the supporting shafts, with sufficient force to pop it out of the wall, creating a large enough gap to squeeze through.
Inside, was a fairly comfortable room, a rug on the floor, an actual bed, a small bookshelf, enough room to move around – for a prison, it was relatively comfortable. A heavy chain had been spiked into the wall, running to a fetter locked around Kamarni’s ankle. He was sprawled across the bed, currently asleep, a goblet of wine knocked aside by his foot. For a captive, he didn’t look unduly distressed or injured. Stathis took a moment to check him over, just in case he was one of the doppelgangers. His skin flickered, rivulets of shining essence shimmering along his form.
Before Stathis could stop her, Parth had grabbed his clothing and shook him awake. He coughed and spluttered, flailing vaguely at the air, blinking uncertainly at Parth.
‘What? Who… How did you get down here!?’
Parth shrugged, turning her attention to the chain, giving it an experimental tug. Before she could test it further, there was a shout from outside, a guard having noticed and charging in. As he charged past her, Stathis took the chance to attack from behind, blade scraping against armour, as Parth drew her knives and launched her own attacks. Between the two of them, it didn’t take long to bring them down.
Stathis turned her blade on the captive. ‘Where’s the real one?’
He raised his hands in surrender. ‘I am the real one, you dolt! Get me free before more of them come!’
Stathis wasn’t subtle, a harsh golden glow blazing from her eyes. ‘Where is he?’
He spoke slowly, as though to an idiot. ‘I am him. I am Jareth Sen Kamarni, and I paid you to protect me, which you failed at. But now you are here, get me out of here.’
He spoke truth, or had some magic of his own to ward himself. From the sounds of melee nearby, they didn’t have long, so Stathis made a snap decision, and started working on the chain - it was deeply embedded into the wall, but with both Parth and herself working on it, they managed to tug it out, ignoring the disapproving glare from Kamarni.
‘Fine, we’re getting out. And then we’re going to discuss payment, as this is a lot more trouble than we expected! And you better have a damn good explanation for this!’
He nodded. ‘Yes, but…’
‘That can wait. We need to go now, before we have to fight our way out. Move!’
She passed him the rest of the chain, which he had sense enough to loop about his waist. With a moment of indecision, Stathis led them towards the sound of combat – abandoning allies, even hastily made ones, seemed a poor choice. And they could help keep an eye on Kamarni, whatever the hell he was.
They bundled into one of the abandoned rooms, a brawl flickering in the thin light, shadows swinging blades at each other before fading into the darkness. A figure leapt towards them, Stathis drawing her sword and cutting in a single motion, feeling the shock of impact as they dropped to the floor with a groan. The place was filled with enough rubbish and debris that it was a series of brief encounters rather than a single fight, every direction a potential danger. Janaxia ran towards her, a mace in hand.
‘There you are! We have to…’
Stathis lunged, piercing her through the shoulder, before smacking her in the face with the shield and knocking her over, putting the boot in a few times just to make sure. As she ran past and glanced backwards, the creature was flailing in pain, form shifting and melting – the heavy mace had been a clue, but there was the small danger it might have been the real Janaxia, inexplicably using a real weapon for once. Other attackers were harder to judge, several fights occurring between duplicates of each other, except for their weapons. Stathis avoided them, not having the knowledge to tell them apart.
She kept close to Parth and Kamarni, not wanting to have to deal with any nonsense of having to judge real from fake. They pushed through, Stathis keeping them back with sword and shield. Their injuries healed with unnatural speed, cuts fading to scratches as she watched. As they passed through, they gathered speed, fighting back towards the exit.
The guards in the armoury had managed to free themselves from their restraints, swinging for them, as a bolt of darkness came from behind, slamming one of them backwards and giving an opening for them to escape into the street, blades flashing as they fought. Even as their enemies slumped to the ground, their wounds began to heal. Stathis switched tactics, trying to knock them out with shield slams rather than cutting them down, hoping to at least knock them down and out.
As she managed to drag herself away from the mob, she saw Janaxia stare at her, energy flaring around her hand. She glanced left, seeing a duplicate of herself step out of the scrum, blade in hand, as Janaxia wavered between targets.
‘Please! You have to remember all the good times we spent together!’ The duplicate cried out, promptly getting struck down, Stathis taking the chance to run closer, dragging Kamarni behind her. They ran, ducking back through sidestreets, heading back to the miscellaneous alley they’d agree to use as a meeting point.