Kethys looked behind herself with mild regret – Karakani’Karpultarn was an odd place, but it had been profitable. But it had been getting too bright lately, too many people wise to their tricks, and it was past time to go and find some shade to hide in. Seeing Semari again had been a nice bonus, although the bunch she hung out with had been strange – both the leader and the wizard had had something strange about them, odd sensation making her intuition twitch.
She turned back to check everyone was still together, as they tracked through the outskirts of the city as fast as they could, packs stuffed full of everything they could carry, money and what few sentimental items were too important to leave.
Hadric was managing to keep up, despite his evident tiredness and injuries. He caught her looking at him and glanced back towards the city before speaking.
‘You think Semari’ll be all right? That was a pretty big blast you had set up.’
Kethys shrugged. ‘It won’t blow ‘till they all leave, and Semari’s a survivor, she’ll all right. Not like you to be worried though – she make your heart beat faster?’
He grimaced. ‘Yeah, ‘cos she zapped me with lightning. Nice of her to be so friendly, but I’ve never had that happen before! Bit surprising when you’re kissing, and suddenly ka-zap!’
‘Yeah, she’s an odd one.’
A blast of flame shot upwards, a second or two before the sound carried through the air, smoke already making a dark pillar, and they were just about close enough to see some figures moving rapidly towards the docks.
‘Looks like they all woke up OK. They should have enough money to get a ferryman, at least if they don’t mind listening to one for hours.’
Hadric squinted, trying to make out the figures moving through the street. ‘What d’ya make of the gang she’s running with these days? Seem pretty weird to me.’
Kethys brushed her hair back as she corrected him. ‘Adventurers, not a gang. Although it tends to come down to breaking into places and stealing stuff, either way. That Parth seems OK, at least for a wood elf. Less of a prick than most of her kin, can hold her booze, didn’t try to kill me. The Iristari one worries me, her mother’s been up to something for years, and no-one quite knows what. Got allies all over the place, fingers in every pie, there’s no way she’d let a daughter be a sellsword without it serving some cause. All nice and friendly about it of course, ‘mutual aid’ and ‘working together in harmony’ and all that, but an angel’s just a legbreaker with wings and a shiny sword, I’d rather trust the Durathi clan than her, at least they’re honest! That Carissia’s more dangerous than any monster, for all she smiles and charms her way around, she’ll blast someone into the next world without even thinking about it.’
Hadric spoke. ‘Stathis seemed pretty straight-up though, and pretty willing to help us break into a place. That Janaxia’s a piece though.’ He whistled appreciatively. ‘If that’s what wizards look like, I’m going to the Academy!’
‘At least get the taste of Semari off your lips, boy! And it’ll be your soul in the fire, when some pretty young thing decides you’ll make a nice snack for something from the Abyss. Whatever she is, she’s no wizard, although she can fake it a bit. You see that crown thing? That’s not wizard magic, that’s like dark priest stuff, just with less of the evil chanting and robes and stuff. Reminds of where I grew up, and that’s not a good thing. You see someone do magic like that, you smile, nod and slip a dose of heartbane root into their drink, soon as you can. Think I heard rumours about someone like that a while back, some mess with the snake twins.’
‘You mean Anef and Asai? What are they up to these days?’
‘Foot in the light, foot in the dark, some cover business giving them shade to do what they want to do. Making pretty good skim off it, so I hear. But they got burnt a while back, pretty bad. Never got the details, but something went wrong, they’re still recovering, some mess with the Uth Tremari clan, and that goddam witch they’ve got leading them. Nasty piece of work, all told! Anyway, you get to ask Semari how she’s doing? Aside from getting zapped and being dumb enough to drink the black water.’
Hadric went silent.
‘You spent all that time making out?’ She reached out, ruffling his hair. ‘Well, she always had a flame for you, nice to see you kids still getting on, while getting it on.’
He stepped back, brushing her hand off. ‘Hey, you were going to leave her on the streets!’
‘I had enough kids to look after without taking on another one, especially one that was glowing! If it wasn’t for you, I guess she’d probably be dead now, so I guess that’s a good turn repaid. Not that any of you brats appreciate it, always giving me lip!’ She shook her fist in mock indignation, before quickly checking again that no-one else had been left behind.
‘Well, thanks, “mom”. You’ve raised a gang of thieves and rogues.’
‘A damn good gang of thieves and rogues, if you please. How many others do you know that have raided the skinshifters? Might not be healthy to advertise, but it’s a pretty damn good showing for a bunch of slum kids! Now, mind your manners, we’re almost there and they don’t take kindly to kids mouthing off.’
There were in one of the countless tunnels leading away from the city. The stone had been cut away, someone in the clothes of a quarryman coming over to see them. Kethys waved at him. ‘We’re here to see your boss. And don’t give me any of that “but we’re just simple diggers” crap. At least do some actual work, get some dust over yourself if want to pretend to be doing an honest job. Don’t worry about showing me the way, I’ll see myself in.’
He tried to regain some control, failing as Kethys walked past, up to a stony wall, and twisted a random-looking outcropping. The ground rumbled, as part of the stony surface slid back, revealing a hidden passage. ‘Come on, everyone inside. Don’t worry, this lot may grumble, but won’t do any more.’
She led them inside, where they were enveloped by thick, muggy warmth, hot and humid air, tinged with the scent of sulphur. A wooden door blocked their way, a large brass sun shining softly with an internal light, generating its own warm sunlight, rather than the clear, chill glow of a magelight. She pushed it open without knocking, into the central chamber.
There was a large pit in front of them, magma glowing at the bottom. Nailed to the wall by a panoply of weapons was a giant humanoid figure, head encased in a solid metal box covered with prayer scrolls, limp hands pinned to the wall by gleaming silver spikes. It was clad in ancient and battered armour, still hanging in shards from its emaciated body. Behind it were the tattered and shredded remnants of wings, held in place by more weapons, shoved through it and into the rock. Despite its maimed and mutilated appearance, a thin, wet line of blood was trickling from its wounds, making its way down the wall. A holy symbol, nailed beneath it, hissed and steamed as the blood ran over it.
A few dozen individuals were at their work, copying texts, etching magical glyphs into metal or engaged in similar arcane activity. As they entered, a few looked up, the elders gesturing to the others that they needn’t trouble themselves, recognising Kethys from past visits.
‘Yo, gramps! We’ve got some stuff you might like, if you’re willing to give us a ride out of this place!’
An old man shuffled into sight from a side chamber. ‘Gods, you again. Hasn’t anyone murdered you yet?’
‘Tried, but not managed it yet! Good to see you though. Old girl staying quiet?’
He looked up at the giant figure, speaking sombrely. ‘She stirs more often. I pray it will pass, but these are dangerous times we live in. The sleepers stir in their dreams, and the caged shake their prisons.’
Kethys rolled her eyes. ‘If that happens, I’m sure the brave heroes of the sunlit lands will rally and defend us all. But that’s for later – right now, we need to get out of here, and I’ve got a pretty little gift for you, to help speed us on our way.’ She called over one of the kids, reaching into their pack and pulling out a foot-high jade statue of a dancer, all smooth, elegant lines, its face a mask of composed grief. ‘Pretty sure it’s a Kinnovari.’ She tossed it over, the old man moving with sudden speed to pluck it from the air, handling it more carefully, as he turned it over, examining it in the light.
‘Exquisite! Yes, it is a Kinnovari. The Autumnal Petal, number 4, Tranquillity Masked by Sorrow. I thought it had been destroyed in the razing of Kilkarnak!’
‘Well, looks like your lucky day. Get us topside, it’s yours.’
He grumbled and groused as he turned the statue over, checking it for the slightest scratch or sign of damage, before agreeing. ‘Fine. Where do you need to go? I hear Redcastle is having some problems right now, seems like it might be up your alley.’
‘Light, no. I’ve heard what’s going on there, and there’s chaos, then there’s that shitshow. No, Hayden’s Keep. I’ve got some contacts there, Hasthari can probably put us up for a while.’
Without taking his eyes off the statue, the old man answered. ‘Hastheri died. About a decade ago, give or take. When was the last time you were there?’
‘Well, I’ll figure something out. Better than that mess in Redcastle, demons all up in everyone’s business.’
‘If you insist. Some of the gangs are getting quite rough, I’m given to understand, but that’s your problem. Come with me’
Kethys herded everyone through into a ritual chamber. On the wall opposite them was a well-kept suit of plate armour, gleaming and bright, a golden sunburst emblazoned on the chest. The walls were adorned with the usual runes and glyphs of a magical workshop, a large circle of worked gold on the floor. As she chivvied her charges into position, the old man gave her a warning.
‘Be careful, Lady Kethys. I know you think it done with, but there is a great darkness rising, one that I haven’t felt in many years. Even with your talents, the years to come may prove a great trial.’
She shrugged. ‘Every day’s a trial, but I’d rather take my changes in the light than down here with the amount of people I’ve pissed off. Get us sent off, and we’ll be out of your beard.’
‘At least until the next time you need a favour, hmmm?’
She looked him in the eye. ‘Way I figure it, you’re still in red for what happened at Riverfall.’ As expected, that shut him up, and he began incanting the spell, rune-circle glowing as he prepared to transport them. Despite her calm attitude, Kethys felt a spike of concern – if even the old man had felt it, then it wasn’t just her imagination, there really was a darkness walking the land, from the old times, before even her birth. And something of that scale couldn’t be outrun, couldn’t be outfought, couldn’t be tricked – the most that could be hoped for was that the storm, when it came, would be brief, and leave enough to make rebuilding possible.