AoM Chpt 27: Xanthe

The stairs out of the innkeeper’s office led down fifty feet in a natural cavern, which then turned horizontal. Davron went ahead, with Karsk just behind. Megaera hung back to keep them both in view.

Glow grubs hung at intervals along the tunnel and also in open side chambers filled with casks, boxes, sacks of grain, and cured meats. They passed two of these, when an orc emerged from another just ahead, carrying a ham. Surprise struck its porcine face. After a wincing glance at Karsk, he bowed to Davron, held up the meat, and growled, “For the kitchens,” and then rushed by them, head down, back up the tunnel.

A further fifty yards brought them to more stairs down. At the bottom, they encountered a large, ironbound oak door. Davron mechanically fished a key from an apron pocket, opened the lock, and pushed the door open. Cool, damp air met them, but no light. Megaera’s darksight slowly described the lines of another tunnel. In the distance, she could hear the ponderous gurgle of deep, slow-moving water.

They moved slower in the dark because of Davron, who shuffled along, hands outstretched to either side. The vampire had no difficulty. Another thirty yards brought them to a locked door inset on the lefthand wall. Ahead, the water sounded close. Davron turned and faced the door as if he could see it, but made no move to open it. “What’s wrong?” she asked Karsk aloud. “Does he need light?”

“My ring,” Davron said in a hollow voice.

Megaera stepped up between him and Karsk and put both hands on the door. Blue light flared from the sapphire ring on her left middle finger, and the door swung inward. A stench of blood and feces stung her nostrils. She pulled out Bugclaw and stepped inside.

The center of the room was dominated by a massive, thick-topped wooden table, which held sinister-looking implements. On closer appraisal, Megaera saw them to be common tools: a claw hammer, a short saw, chisels, an awl, and something that looked like protective eye lenses set in a band of leather. A chain hoist hung from the ceiling. To the left, several crates were piled. In the far right corner stood some sort of sarcophagus propped upright against the wall and beyond that, an iron cage.

Megaera eased around the table. In the back of the cage huddled a yellow-haired girl of maybe seven years, a filthy cloak wrapped tight around her and clutched up to the bottom of her eyes, which stared fearfully into the blind dark. She whimpered at Megaera’s approach.

“Who’s there?” said a man’s parched, gravelly voice. The head of the sarcophagus swiveled toward her, and Megaera started in surprise. “I warn you. Don’t harm her!” Evidently meant as some hideous torture, the vessel was socketed to a kind of helmet that had fine vertical grills over eyes and mouth.

“I’m here to save her,” Megaera answered.

“Save?” The man sounded incredulous.

“Yes, I’ve been sent by one of the Powers. I command a vampire, and it has enslaved the innkeeper. Both are with me.” She bent to the cage and said softly to the girl, “Close your eyes, child. I’m going to summon a bright light.”

As the white globe flared in her grip, shadows leapt up, the sarcophagus casting a long, slanting one that hovered like a specter, and Megaera caught the wet gleam of eyes far within the headpiece. She turned to the girl, who squinted, pupils leaping down to points.

“Don’t be afraid. My name is Megaera. What is yours?”

“Xanthe.” The girl looked past Megaera, and her eyes went wide.

“Don’t be afraid,” Megaera repeated. “I control them both. They cannot harm you. Do you have a family?” The girl nodded, her breath quick and thready, working high in her chest. “I will see you safely back to them.” Megaera then turned to the innkeeper. “Give me the key to this cage, you abominable slug.”

Blank-faced, Davron drew out a smaller key from his apron pocket and handed it over. Just as Megaera fitted the key to the lock, the man over in the sarcophagus said, “Annabis?”

“Not me,” Megaera said. “I am her enemy.”

“I thought you might be one of her guises. She captured me, had me brought here up the underground river.”

Megaera opened the lock to the girl’s cage, threw the door wide, and beckoned to the girl, who shook her head. “Come, child. We haven’t much time.”

“Lim!” the girl cried. “Keep them away.”

“Quiet, Xanthe,” the man rasped, and then said to Megaera, “If you could release me, I may help. She and I have talked long here in the dark. I believe we have each other’s trust.”

Grateful, Megaera nodded. “Karsk, have the innkeeper release the man.”

In a hopeless flat voice, Davron said, “He was brought to me in that condition. It was sealed by magic, and I am told that if it is breached, it will incinerate him.”

The man in the sarcophagus said quietly, “Is this true?” When no answer was forthcoming, he continued, “Even if it is, I beg you to make the attempt. You cannot leave me behind. I have powers Annabis hopes to control, information she hopes to gain.”

Megaera tried to ignore him and think. She herself had just been saved from fire. She said, “Would the ring protect him?”

“Perhaps,” Davron said, his dead tone unchanged. “But he would have to wear it. The coffin is sealed.”

Megaera walked up and inspected the face grills. They were too narrow to admit even the point of a finger. She held up the light, and got a start; one of his eyes seemed to retreat into the man’s head a moment before the eyelid came fluttering down. It had to be a trick of the shadows, she thought.

“Please, the light is too strong,” he said.

She removed it. “The innkeeper has a ring that protects against fire, but I don’t see what good we can do with it.”

“Would it work if I had it in my mouth?”

Megaera relayed the question to the innkeeper, who shrugged heavily. “But,” he said, “breaching the coffin will trigger its magic.”

“What if it is breached from within?” the man in the coffin asked.

Megaera turned to Davron, and again the innkeeper shrugged.

After a heavy silence, the man’s voice rang out of the sarcophagus. “Please, step back and do not watch me. You’ll prove your faith if you don’t.” The headpiece of the coffin swiveled to face away, and Megaera moved back. She could hear a faint rasping like a small file being worked against the metal. This went on for some time, and Megaera went to the cage. The girl was now standing, face pinched with uncertainty. “You can trust me, Xanthe.”

The girl cut her eyes toward the sarcophagus. “I want Lim.”

The filing went on for several minutes, during which Megaera tried to picture a sliver of metal clenched in the man’s teeth, his head working forward and back, but it seemed impossible. How could be doing it? Another image slipped into her mind: a tiny homunculus exiting his open mouth, holding a grill bar like a pole with one hand and sawing with the other.

At last, the filing stopped. “Okay,” the man said, “I’m almost through. I can push with my tongue now. Can you carry me out of the room? If the coffin explodes, I don’t want to harm Xanthe.”

“Don’t leave me, Lim!”

“Be still!” he replied, and Megaera said, “Karsk, carry the sarcophagus out. Davron, you go outside as well.”

The vampire picked up the vessel with some strain and carried it plodding around the table and out the open door. Megaera hung back with Xanthe a moment. “I will return. Don’t worry. Whatever happens, I will protect you with my life.”

Megaera grabbed a chisel from the workbench on her way out and used it to prop the door open so she could duck into the room if things went amiss. In the hall, Karsk laid down the sarcophagus and glided back. After pulling the ruby ring from her finger, she held it up near the grill, the light-globe low to one side. Three tiny metal slats had been filed to a hair’s breadth. “Ready?” she asked.

“Yes.” A swollen tongue, almost clublike, pressed against the little bars. They strained, and then two bars broke off. Not waiting for any mischance, Megaera pushed the ring inside with thumb and forefinger, and the man took it gently in his teeth. She stepped away. Nothing happened. “Karsk! Free this man.”

The vampire appeared suddenly. He chose a point on the coffin to grip, and metal groaned under his flexing hand. A rent appeared. He adjusted position, put both hands to it, and pulled. When the metal began to part, a sudden warmth boiled out of the sarcophagus.

“Back, back to the room!” she ordered the vampire, but left Davron to share Lim’s fate.

There was no hurry. They had leapt through the door and gone around the corner a full second before the coffin heated to a red glow. Shortly after, a white flash cracked the dark and a blast of appalling heat rushed in. Megaera heard the coffin shatter with a low boom, and a chunk whizzed in through the door, struck the hoist chain in a shower of red sparks, and landed smoking on the table. The light outside dimmed to a campfire flicker.

A thin figure staggered into the room, eyes shut, clothes smoking. He had on a sleeved wool cloak over brown leather jerkin and breeches. His weak, wattled chin, bony nose, and overbite likened him to a venerable hawk. When he fetched up against the table, he groped over it, feeling his way. Across the room, the girl cried out, “Lim, is that that you? Lim!” Megaera approached warily.

Eyes still shut, the man spat the ruby ring into one hand and continued to reach over the table with the other. “Yes, child,” he croaked, sounding terribly thirsty. “I’m unhurt. The same cannot be said of the innkeeper. Just a moment.” His hand found the leather strap with the inset lenses, and putting the ring carefully aside, he brought up the strap and tied it around his head. When he had the lenses situated, he turned and faced Megaera, who could see herself on their dark planes, holding the globe of light. “That’s better!”

“What’s the matter with your eyes?” Megaera asked. She reached across the table and plucked up the ring, wiped it on her cloak sleeve, and slipped it on her finger.

“My eyes are sensitive and look unusual. You would find them disconcerting. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Limax, Lim to my friends.” He walked past Megaera and Karsk and beckoned to Xanthe, who darted out and embraced him. “Now,” he said, “can we trust you?”

“Can we trust you, I wonder,” said Megaera. “Why were you imprisoned in that way? What does the hag fear?”

“Let us just say I have a talent for escape, but unfortunately for us all right now, it does not extend to helping others. If you can deliver Xanthe from this hellish place, I will see that my patron rewards you well.”

“Your patron…” Megaera began.

Lim interrupted. “Will remain secret for now. Let us go. We may be able to leave by the river.”

Megaera nodded and commanded Karsk ahead of her into the hall, and she followed close with Lim and Xanthe. The stench of burnt, oily flesh hung thick and cloying outside the door. Megaera opened the wing of her cloak to block Xanthe’s view. A knifelike shard of metal had caught Davron between the eyes, which had been boiled gray-white by the heat and were crossed and bulging in grotesque dismay and confusion. His exposed skin was blackened and cracked and the red muscle beneath steamed.

“Come,” said Limax, and steered Xanthe around the innkeeper toward the sound of water. Karsk stopped abruptly after a few yards. Megaera raised her light. Welling up from an open space beyond the hall’s end, there was the heavy scraping of a wooden boat hull against stone, and then the shouts and clanking of armored soldiers disembarking under orders.

A man in great helm and black plate armor appeared by degrees as he climbed stairs up from the water. Two ogres, also in plate, flanked him just behind. In his grip lashed a flail nearly identical to Bugclaw, only slightly smaller.

More frustrated at the delay than intimidated, Megaera yelled, “Stop him, Karsk!”

The man came on, undaunted, as the vampire fixed him with its stare. Megaera did not stop to watch. “The other way, Limax. Hurry.”

They passed the innkeeper once more. Xanthe caught a glimpse of him, stifled an exclamation, and whimpered. Limax bore her along at a trot, holding her close with one arm. The open door and the stairs to the upper level resolved out of the dark. Megaera stopped. Her light revealed movement. Someone was coming down, untroubled by the dark. Picking her way luxuriously toward the floor was a stately woman, her long blond hair in a jeweled net, sinuous body encased in an elegant purple gown trimmed in gold with dagged sleeves. When she glanced up and saw Megaera and the others, she quickened her pace as if eager to join them. Megaera looked back, and saw the knight and Karsk both fighting with superhuman speed. The vampire seemed unable to connect a blow, yet the flail struck him repeatedly. When he paused a heartbeat to regroup, a flap of white skin hung like parchment off his cheek. “Stop, Karsk!” Megaera commanded. “Come here!”

The lady strode forward. Several armored orcs pounded down the stairs behind, and caught her up as she finally came to a stop, a dozen feet away. “What have we here?” she said. “A rescue?” A smirk played on her lips. She glanced down significantly at Bugclaw. “So, you bested Vidal, did you?” Karsk glided up beside Megaera and stood there. She turned back and saw the knight and his ogres station themselves at their backs.

“And you’ve enslaved my vampire, too. However, since I gave him to Raglar, I suppose you’ll answer to him. What is your name, dear?”

“Megaera, and I already know you.”

The woman nodded. She was exquisitely beautiful and commanding. Megaera found it difficult to summon any indignation against her. She looked to Xanthe and saw the girl staring up with a worshipful expression.

“You thought to deceive the innkeeper’s ogre, but he has been my spy here for some time.” She turned her head slightly, and as if summoned, the ogre in the samurai kimono descended the stairs into view. “Yushi saw how things were. By the way, do you know what you are doing in releasing this one?” She flicked a ringed finger toward Lim. “Not even my closest servants know what he is. He’s really quite a prize.” Reading the confusion on Megaera’s face, the woman said, “No, I see you are ignorant. Probably for the best. Anyway, I’ll take this vampire back now.”

“Karsk! Attack her!” Megaera urged, silently, but the vampire did not move. The lady had bent her attention on him, and consternation tightened her features. She held out a hand in a summoning gesture. Karsk was jerked forward, bending outward from the middle. He stopped. The lady’s eyes widened, her nostrils flared. She made a fist and tugged it upward, as if pulling on a line. Karsk held still, inches above the floor, and then disintegrated in a billow of dust.

“What have you done?” the woman growled. “That vampire was a valuable servant. Do you know how many centuries that one lived? I must take my time rewarding your insolence. Orson! Teleport this one and the man to Raglar’s dungeons.” Smiling down at Xanthe, she murmured, “I will entertain the girl.”

Just then, the ogre Yushi jerked up and began to turn. He did not complete the motion. There was a flash of amber and his head toppled off his shoulders. To either side, the stone of the hall melted away. Red-haired dwarves boiled out and engaged the confused orcs with their hammers.

“How tedious,” the woman sighed. She smiled at Megaera, and long metal fangs slid out over her lips. Splotches of dark purple bloomed all over her skin and flowed together like ink dripped on wet parchment. Xanthe shrieked and pulled away from Limax, but a dwarf emerged from the wall, caught her around the waist, and dragged her screaming back into the tunnel, which closed behind them both.

“Xanthe,” Limax croaked, making an abortive lurch to follow.

Megaera didn’t wait for Annabis to complete her transformation. She struck out with Bugclaw in her practiced maneuver, encircled the hag’s neck, and jerked tight. The extruded claws sliced a deep furrow, black blood poured smoking from the wound, but even as tendons parted and wagged free, the hag flexed the remaining cords of her neck and smiled. Dread like cold water filled Megaera’s gut. Annabis’ hair had gone black and crept up behind her head to bristle like tree roots. Her jaw stretched long, and a thicket of fangs sprouted from an under-bite over her upper lip.

Megaera retrieved Bugclaw for another strike, but the hag drew herself up, nine feet tall, and raised a hand. Flames shot out in all directions, howling in the wind they made. Her entourage of orcs squealed and died around her. The dwarves turned and flipped cloaks over their backs and hunkered against the fiery onslaught. Beside her, Lim turned away, and fell to the floor with a choked cry. Megaera herself was staggered, her eyes dazzled by the glare, but the ring of fire resistance saved her once more.

As the flames subsided, she saw the hag wore a forearm bracelet like Davron’s armband. The runes on it glowed, loose ends of neck muscle stretched together and joined, and the deep, circular rent Megaera had made instantly sealed up.

An arm enfolded Megaera’s neck from behind. She was pulled to the chest of the dark knight. Megaera struck out over her shoulder with Bugclaw and sank the talons into his helm, peeling it open with a screech. The man tossed aside his own, smaller night talon, grabbed Bugclaw’s shaft, and tore the flail from her grip.

The hag raised her hand once more. A sphere of icy blue light began to form, and even as she struggled in the knight’s embrace, Megaera felt an emanation of searing cold. She had no protection this time. The blue sphere brightened, and then, abruptly, the hag’s arm disappeared, wiped away by an amber crescent. Blood poured from her shoulder. Stefan recovered from his swing and readied another.

Against the steadying lock of the knight’s arm, a weight attached to Megaera’s cloak and dragged at her feebly; she glanced down into Lim’s goggles; his face was a charred mask; his leather clothes smoked; all hair, all skin, had burned away from his scalp. On the side of his face, blisters wept where the skin remained; elsewhere, all had been seared black or peeled from pulsing red muscle. His mouth worked. She felt horrified pity, and revulsion, and wished she could kill him for mercy. Then she remembered the arm band. The knight choked her, pinned down her hand with the haft of Bugclaw, but she struggled mightily and just managed to spill the band onto the floor from her pouch. Still supporting himself on Megaera’s cloak, Lim stared at it, then let go and scrabbled after it.

Ahead the hag screamed, “Whelp! You dare…?” Beside her, a dwarf fought with the hag’s disembodied arm, which had hooked into his hauberk, fist grinding together the mail rings. A chunk of mail exploded and fragments spanged off a far wall. The strength in the severed arm was tremendous.

One-handed, the hag managed a dizzying barrage of feints and blows. But Stefan matched her superhuman speed, wielding his scythe two-handed, deflecting crushing strikes with deft torsions of wrist and body. They fought at standstill for several seconds. The knight holding Megaera shifted his weight forward, rocked back, apparently indecisive. An ogre stumbled up into view beside them, skin badly burned and still smoking. “Help the queen!” the knight commanded.

The ogre took a couple of rocking steps forward, but never reached her. The dwarf managed to hook his hammer beneath the flexing claws, and tore the hag’s arm loose with a strip of mail. Rings spilled in all directions and went rolling like little coins across the flags. The ogre turned distracted, raised a fist to strike, and the dwarf swept his hammer across its shins with two sharp cracks, followed by the ogre’s agonized howl. The hag cut her eyes toward the sound. Stefan’s scythe twirled, removing her fingers. The dwarf raised the hammer, but instead of planting it in the ogre’s gut, he turned to the hag’s arm, now clawing toward its owner. The hammer came down, struck the bracelet, and shattered it in a fountain of white sparks. “No!” the hag screamed. “Protect me, you idiots! Protect—” Stefan closed and swung.

Annabis’s head rocked for a moment, straightened, and then toppled from her body altogether. Stefan parried a final strike, and took her other arm neatly from the shoulder.

All around Megaera, the dwarves closed. The knight shifted her to the arm holding Bugclaw, and with the other, he reached down and hefted Lim by the cloak. Lim’s hands clutched Davron’s arm band, which had already begun to restore him. The knight muttered a quick, murky incantation, and the scene grew hazy. The last thing Megaera saw before they teleported away was the hag’s head, rolled on its side to face her, eyes glaring, mouth working soundlessly—to curse at her own slaves.

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