Dusk had settled and night was fast approaching when the trio emerged from a sewer grate near the once-popular Keg and Cot. Selgrin used to frequent the establishment some time ago. For whatever reason, it had closed, and the Council kept it for housing private guests—or in this case, a prisoner.
Sel straightened his robe, a copy of Kynar’s blue robe with embroidered stars made of yiltoline, a dogar fabric that transformed with its wearer. Both Byrtle and Raven wore plate armor resembling that of the Council’s Honor Guard, selected less for its fit than its availability.
Byrtle shifted uncomfortably in the armored costume.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Selgrin. “I guarantee if you really were in the Honor Guard, it wouldn’t fit any better. Kynar is too cheap to have something custom made.”
Byrtle gave him a grateful smile before bending to enter the inn.
Inside, things were as Selgrin remembered: a long bar with tables evenly spaced around a large fireplace. The only thing missing were the patrons.
They proceeded to a stairwell against the far wall. Its narrow width didn’t allow Byrtle to walk shoulder to shoulder with another, so he led the way. Not unexpectedly, two sentries barred their entry to the second floor. Behind them was a hallway lined with doors, and at its end was another set of stairs.
It was time to perform.
“Good evening, Master Kynar,” hailed a sentry as they neared.
Putting on his best imitation of Kynar’s why-the-heck-are-you-bothering-me face, Selgrin glared at the offending guard. Unfortunately, the look did not have the desired effect. Either he did a poor job of delivery or the guard felt encouraged without a cross word to accompany it.
The sentry chattered on. “Sir, I would like to mention the lady has been complaining about the lack of good wine. This being an inn and all—”
Byrtle placed a giant palm on the sentry’s shoulder. “Master Kynar is in a hurry today.”
The color drained from the sentry’s face. “Oh, right—right. Perhaps she will tell you herself.”
The sentries flattened themselves against the wall to allow passage.
Raven hesitated on the third step from the top of the stairs.
To anyone watching, it appeared that Raven had walked with the others down the hallway, when in fact he had never passed the sentries. It was all a matter of illusion, and illusion was simply false perception. Since the others believed Raven would continue up the stairs, it took little effort to make this their reality.
Raven wasn’t sure how or when he had honed his magical abilities. His oldest memories were mere fragments of thoughts and images: oppressive darkness, bone-rattling shrieks—which may have been his own—and him, wrapped in black, casting his ever-present shadow.
The very thought of Azren made his stomach clench in dread and his soul yearn to destroy. And so he considered it an advantage to remember just enough to keep himself focused without bringing on any sentimental longings he could ill afford. Raven’s singular ambition was to destroy Azren. It guided his every action, dictated his every thought. He took this upon himself because the Afflicted One desired the subjugation of all men, women, and children of Draza—and he had the means to achieve those aspirations.
Raven kept his eyes on the group until they disappeared up the next stairwell. Illusions had their limitations, and line of sight and distance played a part. His mirage would soon cease to exist and the ruse would be discovered, though he doubted the dogar or the magistrate’s lackey would come looking for him.
Down the stairs he went, using illusion to mask his steps. Escape was not far off. Between his Honor Guard disguise, the night sky, and his magical talents, a plan was taking form.
He caught a glint of steel as he passed the still-open sewer grate. His eyes searched the darkness finding men wearing the blues of the Alliance. He made a quick left down an alleyway, picking up the pace.
A glance back confirmed they were following him. He clanked onward hoping to lose them in a more trafficked area.
His face became lathered in sweat and he discarded his helmet mere steps from the sanctuary of a main street. They would expect him to go there. Instead, he ducked into the shadows of an overhang and spun about to face his pursuers.
There were six he could see. They saw him as well—but not in his hiding place. He had put in their minds the illusion that he was darting across the street, and they sprinted after him.
He turned toward the rustling approach of a final pursuer. Wrapped in a star-filled cloak was Kynar Berevel, not some dogar pretender.
It was too late to change Kynar’s reality. The Council Head knew what he’d seen, and he did not appear pleased. Already he was calling for his guards to return.
The weak-minded men-at-arms were of little concern. Raven drew his narrow swords.
The first guard to reach him fell with a slice to his thigh. The next was split from cheek to ear. A third stumbled backward against a weaving of blades. Raven overstepped in a bid to finish him. An axe flashed in, grating against his armor. A cut narrowly missed his neck. He felt constrained with every movement, every stroke. Whoever had thought of burdening a warrior with steel plates had never fought against multiple enemies. For that, quickness was needed.
He would have to manage with skill, if not speed. They came at him from multiple angles.
He slid inside a stab, flicked a wrist, and then lunged, leaving one guard disappointed, another disarmed, and a third dead.
Enough with these peons.
Raven strode toward Kynar. A guard stood in his way—not for long. He was cut down, left to bleed out.
The guard he’d disarmed earlier came at him from behind, wielding a flail. Another to sacrifice himself for the many of Draza. Gutted, he spent his last moments writhing on the ground.
By the time Raven was ten strides away, two men-at-arms remained. One lay wounded behind him, and the other was begging Kynar to run as he readied a crossbow.
Five more strides, and the guard had managed to load his bolt. At this range, it would be hard to miss.
“That’s far enough,” Kynar said. “Drop your weapons.”
They think they have me.
To the guard, he made it seem as though he followed Kynar’s directive.
He gave the Council Head a final warning. “Leave me.” He pointed his blades down and changed his grip.
Kynar Berevel began to mumble, his fingers dancing.
Raven swung his arms across his body, letting a sword fly at each foe. The crossbowman fell, his stomach pierced through. Kynar may have suffered similarly if not for the wall of steel that appeared before him.
That won’t save him for long.
Raven charged forward, a stiletto in his hand. Another wall materialized, this one so near that he slammed into it. He teetered, hands to his temples. The world shook. Something solid smashed into the back of his head, bringing him to his knees. A second blow sent him to the ground.
A guard’s face looked down on him. Then Kynar added his.
Raven attempted to rise. A cold sword pommel hammered his face repeatedly until he collapsed.
Mindless simpletons. He was their only chance to see Azren destroyed. And yet they wished to take him prisoner, like he had been before, for too many years to remember. He stiffened. He would not allow that, not again. But even as he fought the pounding darkness, he could feel it winning. As it always did.
Byrtle drew in a quick breath. “Where’d he go?”
Only moments before Raven was marching along with them—and then he wasn’t. He had vanished.
“Dronilowyn’s backside!” Selgrin cursed.
Back at the Council Chamber, Raven’s magic had appeared to have been that of a metal elementalist. It had never crossed Selgrin’s mind he’d been fooled by an illusion.
Byrtle looked unsure what to do next. Selgrin shrugged and continued up the next set of stairs. In his opinion, they were better off without Raven.
In a room on the third floor, they found a woman staring out an open window. Tall and pretty in a stately way, she gave Selgrin a dour expression.
“Don’t you think it’s time you returned me home? You already know I will not marry you.”
“Your ladyship,” acknowledged Selgrin respectfully.
She stopped combing her exquisite honey-colored hair. Her brow furrowed.
“The voice,” he said apologetically. “It’s bad enough I have to look like him. The name’s Selgrin, and this is Byrtle. We’re here to break you out of this prison.”
He regretted he couldn’t show her his true form. It might make what he was about to say more convincing. But unlike others of his kind, once he dropped a specific guise, he was unable to use it again.
“I see,” Lady Abigail said, still hesitant, then returned to staring out the window. “I believe your friend has been taken.”
“The other guard. I saw the three of you come up from the sewers. At the time, I was curious why Kynar was there.”
Selgrin could barely make out the open grate in dusk’s fading light.
“What happened to him?”
“Armored men followed him. It is unlikely he got away.”
Serves him right. Still, Sel couldn’t help being bothered by the turn of events. Kynar must be watching the sewer points with some interest. Maybe he even had a man on the inside—one of Ralscap’s not-so-loyalists, no doubt—feeding him information.
“Do you always spy out the window?” he asked.
Her gown shimmered as she half turned to meet his gaze. “Do you suppose I have something better to do?”
“When you put it that way—hey, what was that?” Selgrin pointed to an area near the sewers. “I think I saw someone.”
“More guardsmen, I expect, waiting to apprehend you when you try to take me to the Undercity. That is what you intend, to rescue me from this prison and deliver me to another?”
“The better of two evils, I would say. You will be ransomed to your father rather than wasting away at this inn.”
“And you’d be the do-gooder to make this happen?”
Darn right he was. “I see where you’re going. Just because I’m a dogar doesn’t mean I’m in this for the coin. I’ve as little choice in this as you.”
Lady Abigail placidly returned to combing her long blond hair. “You are wrong in that. I have a choice.”
“So what if you do? That only makes things harder.”
She gave him a curious look. “You have an interesting point of view. Perhaps it’s why our two kinds are so different.”
Selgrin snorted. “That’s a human for you. Always looking for the differences.”
“Unlike you dogar, who want to be exactly like us.”
He had to admit she had him there. If his people didn’t use their abilities to pretend they were human, there might not be so much distrust between the two races.
“You coming or not?” he asked.
She walked over to the bed and placed her hairbrush on the nightstand. “Thank you kindly for the offer, but I have decided to stay right here. At least I won’t be killed trying to escape.”
For the sake of the Elders. He couldn’t return to Ralscap without Lady Abigail, not if he and Copius were to go free. “Listen, I have a plan to get you safely to the Undercity. From there, on my word, you’ll be returned to your father.”
The promise hung between them.
“Tell me, how many humans did you kill during the Great War?”
“Not a one,” he said with both shame and relief. “I wasn’t in the war.”
She studied him before responding. “And so what is your plan?”
He laid it out as she pursed her lips in thought.
“My father would never recommend I follow a dogar.” She paused, then added, “But I think it’s time I stop waiting for him to save me.”
He grinned before realizing how disconcerting that might look coming from Kynar.
Then they waited for the deepest and darkest part of the night while sharing stories that gradually got more poignant as the hours wore on. Uncertainty and danger tended to provoke such talk. When they were ready, he handed Abigail the rope Ralscap had sent with them and proceeded to the ground floor with Byrtle.
Selgrin changed his form to resemble Lady Abigail.
“Ready?” he asked, without disguising his voice.
Byrtle nodded uncomfortably.
They left the inn, turning away from the sewer area from which they had come. They would use another grate not far from them. Selgrin heard the clank of armored men following indiscreetly. They quickened their stride without giving the appearance they were evading pursuit. The ruse would be uncovered soon enough, but not before they had given their enemies a fair amount of exercise and the real Lady Abigail a chance to make good her escape.
Two Heavies stepped out of the darkness before them. Apparently Kynar had anticipated a secondary escape route all along.
Byrtle roared and charged, slamming a giant hand into the nose of the first guard and bowling the other over with a meaty bicep.
Selgrin shuffled behind, the confines of the dress hindering his attempt to keep up, but he refused to abandon the deception. Byrtle hesitated, but Selgrin motioned him on. The grate to the Undercity lie just ahead. He broke into an awkward jog, cursing the fine dresses worn by human ladies of distinction. You wouldn’t catch a dogar woman in one of these getups, that was for sure. For once, he too was stuck on the differences between the races.
The air thickened before him and he stopped short, only narrowly avoiding a collision with the metal bars that appeared around him. Kynar sniggered as he swept past. Selgrin bit his tongue to keep himself from throwing an insult in his masculine voice.
Instead he focused on escape.
He had kept hidden the depth of his unique abilities from Ralscap, and now hoped Byrtle might likewise preserve his secret. Mentally flipping through the arsenal he had at his disposal, Selgrin came to an extraordinary animal he had discovered as a youth: the merle dirtcrawler.
He concentrated on details long committed to memory, then transformed. Thousands of hairs sprouted from his shrinking body, a thick tail bulged outward, and his arms and hands changed to paws with hooked claws. When his transformation was complete, he stood about a third of his normal size on all fours like some overgrown ferret.
His surroundings appeared to him in shades of blue, the details clear even in the darkness. But it was the sudden quiet that Selgrin noticed most; either merle dirtcrawlers were deaf, or all the hair on the sides of his head was plugging his eardrums.
He dove into the ground, digging with astounding speed and ease, but once inside the earth, he quickly became disoriented. He couldn’t tell up from down, left from right. Without a sense of direction, he was lost. Dirt collapsed all around him, threatening to suffocate him.
Be calm. This is like breathing for a merle dirtcrawler.
Closing his eyes, he let his lungs expand and contract with regularity. He could feel vibrations nearby; it must be Byrtle or the guards moving above ground.
His head broke the surface in time to see a giant blue version of Byrtle sprawl across the ground with Kynar’s men closing in. He plunged into the dirt once more, burrowing toward the skirmish. Footfalls from above reverberated through his fur, pinpointing the location of the enemy.
He emerged from the earth, clawing a boot, tearing a leg. A guard screamed and fell. Byrtle began to rise; a second guard lifted his sword to stop him. Selgrin leapt, making mincemeat of the guard’s knee before the stroke could be completed.
Byrtle surged toward the sewer grate, grabbing it with both hands. His muscles tensed, bolts threatened to snap, until more bolts appeared out of thin air, adding reinforcement. It was a battle of strength versus magic with Kynar chanting on the sidelines, his fingers playing an invisible harp.
Sel tunneled toward the conjurer. Time was short, his dirtcrawler body spent. He drove his front claws down, propelling himself upward to Kynar’s inner thigh. Teeth closed over flesh, and he ground them together, eliciting a high-pitched squeal.
The distraction was all Byrtle needed to gain an edge. The bolts cracked under pressure, and he hauled the grate open and disappeared below.
Kynar’s anger was unforgiving. He yanked Selgrin free and wrung him as if he were squeezing the water from a sopping rag. Air burst from Selgrin’s lungs. His spine threatened to snap. If one were to design a torture device for merle dirtcrawlers, he thought, it would do something similar to this.
The twisting stopped but Kynar was still screaming at him. Although the words were silent to Selgrin, the tremor of their ferocity could be felt. He surrendered to the fate that awaited him: a final squeeze, a violent shake. When it was over, he was hanging upside down. In plain view, Kynar’s thumb; in retribution, he gave it a chomp.
It lacked his earlier fervor, but it gained a reaction. Kynar raised him high and spiked him to the ground.
His blue-tinted world cracked. Images dripped from its center like escaped yolk. Something cold clamped his neck and back. He was stuck, pressed to the ground. Dig down, his instincts told him, but he couldn’t—not like this. The icy grip let go, leaving his tail still held hostage, preventing the rest of him from escaping.
Air rushed around him, preceding what he imagined to be a wicked-looking axe. He propelled himself forward frenetically, desperately, certain he’d be split in two.
Pop. His behind felt as if it had been plucked from his body.
Then he realized it was only his tail. A dirtcrawler defense, of course. It must detach, given enough force.
He dove, tunneling until dirt surrounded him on all sides, and still he dug more. Soft, protective soil surrounded him, and he couldn’t imagine loving anything more than the sweet brown earth.
A pounding from above created a tidal wave of reverberations. He imagined a few more choice words being hollered. It didn’t matter. He had escaped.
After an initial wave of elation, his next thought was of Lady Abigail. He had planned to lead Kynar and his men away while she used the rope to descend and escape through the sewer from which they had come. But had it worked?
His merle dirtcrawler instincts were coming naturally to him now. He figured roughly where he was in relation to the original grate. To get there before Kynar, he would need to travel under the inn. It was only after he had begun tearing through the dirt that he realized how exhausted he was. His appendages burned as if he had run the perimeter of the city in a suit of armor. His heart felt squeezed by a fist. He had reached the furry creature’s capacities. Depleted and agonized, he couldn’t dig anymore. He couldn’t even move, not until his dirtcrawler body recovered.
Selgrin curled into a ball and waited.
His mind scurried through the rest of their escape plan and what would happen to Copius if they failed. After a count of twenty, anxiety overcame his pain. He began digging again, regulating his pace to stay below the threshold of collapse. Progress was frustratingly slow, but it was methodical. He neither stopped nor hesitated.
Finally nearing the inn, he tunneled toward the surface until he could taste fresh air. A quick swivel of the head confirmed he was alone. Lady Abigail’s room was at the end of the alley. She descended from the window unnoticed. He ducked back underground to get closer before emerging.
He spotted Lady Abigail keeping to the walls where shadows would aid in hiding her from human eyes. Though to Sel’s dirtcrawler vision, she was as plain as a sparkling blue star in the sky. He stayed aboveground, crawling on his stomach, not letting her out of his sight.
She hurried over to the sewer grate. It was just as they had left it, open with a rope ladder leading down. Selgrin made a last sweep of the area with his exquisite eyesight. He was the sole spectator.
Lady Abigail started down. She was calm and purposeful in her steps. Then suddenly she disappeared below street level all at once. Either she had fallen—or she’d been pulled from below.
Kynar’s guards. One or more could have climbed down into the sewers, providing the final spring to the Council’s trap. Even now, her capture could be ongoing, her feet and hands tied, an armed escort waiting to take her to a secret location.
Sel pushed his overused merle dirtcrawler body to a run. It contested the effort, sending needles to every joint and a sharp pain to his chest. He’d made a promise the lady would arrive safely in the Undercity. And Ralscap had promised him that Copius would be sold like a piece of property if she wasn’t. He fought through the discomfort and pain. His treasured blue vision melted. He wasn’t sure if he was even traveling in a straight line.
The ground beneath him fell away, and he tumbled painfully onto a hard surface. His eyesight had shut down. Darkness engulfed him. The hammering of his heart came to a crescendo, threatening to burst.
Selgrin lay waiting to die, too weak to lift a claw, too late to save Lady Abigail.