They returned back downstairs, sneaking through the hidden passage, and returning to the staff area. Stathis took a deep breath, glad of air not polluted by blood and death. Fortunately, the staff were all busy working, not bothering to spare any time for anyone else, even though Parth and Hakara looked mildly out of place, Parth now fully material, her ability presumably expired or something
‘Parth, can you do that ghost-walk thing again, and get out of here?’
Parth shook her head. ‘Need rest.’
‘Great. Any invisibility spells or anything, Hakara?’
‘Sorry, Miss Stathis. That is not an illusion spell I have learnt. What was that creature? It looked like…’
‘We’ll talk about that later, once we’re out of here. We’ll have to try and look normal, and just walk out. Just look relaxed. Hakara, breath, relax, and it’ll be fine.’ Hakara looked tenser than she had even than when fighting the banshee, clutching at her robes. Stathis had barely seen whatever that thing had been, but it hadn’t looked nice. Stathis gently touched her on the shoulder. ‘Just relax, no-one is going to start a fight here.’
There was the sound of steel clashing from outside, followed by cries. ‘OK, that’s probably just some nobles duelling or something. It’ll make it easier to sneak out without being noticed.’ The sounds of fighting got louder. ‘OK, that’s definitely not a duel. Everyone, be careful. Parth, hang back and look after Hakara. If we get split up, we’ll meet back at the brothel. Brina, you ready?’
They stepped outside, Stathis wishing she had a weapon, although hopefully that thing would be pinned for a while. A dome of darkness lay in front of them, a robed figure running past, face covered by a featureless mask. A group of guards ran past, their attempt at a formation shattered as a masked figure leapt into the meadow, punching and kicking out, smashing against armour and sending the group into disarray. There was a whole group of them, making a dash for a hole that had been blasted through a wall, the guards too disorganised to do anything, or caught up in combat.
Stathis busied herself with the closest attacker, thrusting out with the cane as Brina stabbed with one of her needles, sticking it into the meat of their arm. They immediately started to retreat, Brina starting to follow before stopping, moving back towards Stathis.
Dalin was fighting, blade flashing, keeping the enemies back. He saw Stathis, but with the attackers around, was unable to move without exposing those he was protecting - behind him cowered various nobles, all looking terrified. The chilling, crushing cold of the darkness she could sense contrasted with the ethereal burning heat of the chamber above, but it was still a fierce, implacable evil, threatening to destroy or corrupt everything it touched. That wizard or priest or whatever must be around somewhere, no doubt responsible for conjuring up that darkness. A noble charged out and attacked her, obviously mistaking her for a cultist. She spun and parried, punching him across the jaw and knocking him to the ground.
Parth was giving Hakara a boost over the wall, before managing to scrabble up herself and dropping from sight. The attackers seemed to have done whatever they had come for,
‘Brina, time to go, it’s too dangerous to stick around here.’
‘You don’t need to tell me twice!’ She bolted for the wall, managing an impressively high jump despite her short size, hauling herself onto the wall, turning and gesturing at Stathis. A cultist ran towards her, until she threw her cane at them, giving enough of an opening to punch them in the face, then running, scrabbling for the wall, Brina grabbing at her and helping her over the rest of the way. Fortunately, it was a low drop on the other side, giving them an easy escape.
The chaos was keeping everyone else preoccupied, as they found a quiet alleyway to recover in. Hakara immediately slumped against a wall, panting with exhaustion.
‘OK, that’s definitely creepy ‘n evil, right? That thing was, Gods, what the hell was it? Looked like it had no skin! And pretty pissed as well.’
Hakara was panting still. ‘Even necromancers rarely indulge in such monstrosities, most at least keep their skeletons clean.’
‘You musta known some tidy corpse-botherers! That thing was freaky as hell though. So, now what? Stathis, you doin’ OK? You’re bleedin’ quite a bit.’
As the adrenalin faded from her system, Stathis became aware that her hand was wet and sticky – where the shard had cut her, blood was trickling from the slice, dripping down her arm and onto the street. She focused for a moment, the wound healing to a long, ragged scratch. She flexed the hand, still sore, the wound an ugly red scratch, but at least not bleeding anymore.
‘Is everyone else uninjured? I’m guessing that thing was built from people. Explains where at least some of those that get nabbed are being taken. Good thing it dribbled first, else it would have gotten Brina.’
‘Lucky for me! I reckon that broken bit ‘o metal must be something important, you wanna get that wound looked at, case it’s all evil or somethin’. Don’t want to end up possessed or whatever, right? That didn’t like demon-y though, did it? Thought that was normally more all spikey and pentacles ‘n stuff. Although they did have those big beasties on guard.’
Everyone looked at Hakara, who was still panting in breaths, and looking a little green. ‘I didn’t recognise the creature. Demonology normally involves rather less, ah, raw materials, at least that have been stored for long. Such creatures prefer rather, um, fresher substances. And tend to devour them as well, although some are partial to the feeling of suffering first. That thing seemed far more visceral than a demon though. The guardian demons were a Nightmare and a Howlblade. Both potent, and seeing them so tightly bound means the summoner must be powerful.’
‘Hey, what about your pretty wizard? Reckon she might know anythin’ about this?’
Stathis protested. ‘She’s not “my” wizard. And she’s not normally great at knowing stuff, unless it’s about fashion. She’s a bit sick at the moment as well, so we’ll have to do this without her. Semari might be helpful, if we need someone punched, but I’ve no idea what’s going on. There’s some wizards doing creepy stuff, probably in the pay of the Duke. Then there’s that bunch with masks – who don’t seem to be on the same side as the Duke? They’re definitely evil, trust me on that. Brina, you know anything about them?’
‘Not heard about them before. I guess they coulda been hidin’ or something, I mean they do all wear masks, right? Could be anyone. Sure they’re up to no good?’
Stathis remembered the sensation of bitter, seething cold and evil. ‘Trust me on this. I can sense it.’
‘Ah, part of your special stuff? I guess if you say so, then. Are they still there?’
Stathis closed her eyes, trying to sense if anything evil were present. ‘I can’t sense anything close by. Hakara, is there anything at all you recognised about that stuff? Or how rapidly they might be doing… whatever they’re doing? Other than making whatever the hell that creature was?’
‘I don’t know. That was an advanced magical workshop, they could be working on anything in there. Um, although I’d rather not go back, please.’
The Academy must not have covered the messier parts of necromancy. Although that place had been bad – those people didn’t look as though they’d been killed prior to whatever else had been done to them.
‘OK. Brina, can you talk to Dalin, find out what happened from him? And if he’s got any leads? It looked like he was fighting the masked guys, so he’s either a double agent on their side, against them and possibly with the Duke, or actually a good guy, or something else I can’t think of. Any ideas?’
‘I’ve no idea. Although you OK? You’re looking a bit knackered.’
Stathis checked her wound from that weird lump of metal – the scratch was an angry red, still sore-feeling. ‘I think so. Just pissed off. And have no damn idea what to do next. We’re going to have to check out those wagons, aren’t we?’
‘Yeah, but you need to rest first. You look like crap. And get a sword, and your armour, if you’re spoilin’ for a fight.’ Brina took her arm, staring into her eyes. ‘I know you want to save the day ‘n everythin’, but getting beaten up by guards ain’t the way to go about it.’
‘Rest.’ Parth nodded in agreement.
‘Miss Stathis, I have to agree. Miss Parth, myself, and, uh…’ she looked at Brina blankly ‘…your friend can go and check, while you recover.’
‘You’re not going to let me do anything else, are you?’
Brina smiled. ‘No. Because your mother will kill me if you get killed! So I’m making sure you go sleep ‘n don’t do anything stupid. I’ll even sing you a lullaby if you want.’
‘Thanks for the offer, but I don’t think that’ll be needed. Fine, let’s go and I’ll rest, if it’ll shut you all up.’