sundiver: (SF- Lady With Parrot)
[personal profile] sundiver
First arc. But feel free to call me on any mistakes still left, I am totally okay with someone else's proofing. Provided all of your sentences use 'bless your heart.'

Updated 12/06/11

Previous

Part 1: Giants in the Earth

“Courier duty is even more boring than I thought it would be,” Petra announced with a yawn. “Why did those priests of Jadus hire us to deliver these letters if nothing interesting is going to happen on the journey? A real courier would’ve been faster and cheaper.”

The quintet of women were en route from Khorevail, the capital of Sundabar, to Khoresbar, a small city on the far eastern border of the country whose major claim to fame was it was once the capital of a far larger ancient empire. Sundabar and vast Telubra to its north and east were the only countries to lie entirely within the old empire’s borders, but its ruins dotted most of the Caldonian continent.

“Our destination is likely to be just as dull,” Odette said dryly. “I think the Jadens were worried about something and thought it better to be safe than sorry. Their mesagiers may be able to get across the country in two days, but they carry nothing with which to defend themselves from danger. We are more prepared should anything interesting happen.”

“Interesting? Bah. All of Sundabar be a bore,” said Carmen from her place at the front. She had forgotten one of their first run-ins upon crossing the Sundabar-Valencia border was an abbey committing blood sacrifices. She probably thought it had been on the Valencian side. Free-roaming woodsfolk placed little import on man-made boundary lines. Carmen had a better sense of them than the others Tae had met, since she did not travel with other woodsfolk, but Caldonia was a foreign place for all of them, and the different nations did not interest her enough to remember them. “There be no festivals or strife here. Not even a single blessed brigand to hunt down. We learned that on the walk across it to Khorevail. ‘Tis no vitality to the place.”

“No life, indeed,” Athena agreed. The wood-speaker had been ill at ease since the events in the abbey, always surreptitiously eying the members of the Jaden clergy they met, wondering when the next one would suddenly snap at them.

Tae had not been able to ease her cousin’s fears as well as she would have liked, being of a similar mind herself. As often as they used to take jobs to clear out desecrated temples, they had never before run into crazed priests of a goodly god that could still practice the gifts of their faith. It bothered her more than she cared to admit, and Athena had picked up on it. The others were no more distant with the Jadens than they were with other clergyfolk- Odette friendly and welcoming, Carmen disinterested and short-spoken, and Petra suspicious and a little combative.

Petra, a follower of the Court’s trickster god, thought very little of believers in militant gods, especially those that spoke only to their clergy as Jadus did. Having true faith, she said, should allow one to get the occasional boon from their god. Else why bother to pray to them? Tae felt the thought was highly unorthodox, perhaps even a little heretical, but Elisar Ibryiil attracted that sort of wild thinker to his small train of jackdaws that passed for followers.

“There was that large earthquake a few weeks ago,” Odette pointed out in a thoughtful tone. “Based on the complaints in the last town, Sundabar is not known for them.”

“Perhaps they have succeeded in irritating one of the earth spirits,” Tae added.

“Probably not something we should joke about,” Carmen said. “Most of the earth spirits don’t have a sense of humor, and the ones that do only like their own.”

“Here’s another question for you,” said Petra. “Why do we never buy horses?”

“I’m the only one of us that knows how to ride,” Athena replied. “Also, Snow scares horses.” The large pale-furred gray wolf trotting along at her side butted his head against her leg, recognizing his name. “And we aren’t making bad time. Not with Odette folding the land for us.”

“Which is the main reason why no one has bothered us,” said the sorceress, pushing her dark locks back out of her face. She was looking haggard after several days of travel. All of the women were used to long walks; they had to be, after trekking from one side of this continent to the other. Even before coming to Caldonia, they had never been ones for idleness. However, Odette was currently spending extra energy folding the ground underneath them to pull them closer to their destination.

Mantha, her long-legged burrowing owl, had been carefully transferred to Tae’s armored shoulders after his long talons had drawn blood one too many times. Her steps were too uneven for him to balance well and he occasionally hooted his disapproval for the whole matter from his new metal perch. Tae’s sensitive ears were just as put out about the situation as the owl was. He usually flew for these long walks between jobs, but their current method of travel would have left him days behind.

“When each step we take takes us several kilometres, it is difficult for anyone to get close enough to try to rob us.”

“I rather like it,” Tae said. “It is very peaceful. The Telubrin roads are anything but safe. This is almost a holiday, except for poor Odette. You cannot say you miss wildlife interrupting our sleep.”

“That snake only joined you in your sleep roll for ‘twas cold,” Carmen said grouchily, staring straight ahead at the long road they followed. “’Twasn’t even poisonous. But you be right. ‘Tis a nice break from running for our lives from irate kobolds.”

Tae only wished that last part was hyperbole. That had been an unpleasant experience, for all that Carmen and Crunch had enjoyed themselves greatly.

“It won’t last,” Petra said pessimistically.

----

Khoresbar, former seat of the Allekhor Empire, was described in texts as a beautifully vibrant city rich in culture, history, and life. Locals and travelers through the area knew better. The buildings still stood tall and mostly unweathered, a testament to the ancient builders, but many stood vacant and in need of repairs. The city had slowly been drying up from the migration of its people west to seaside Khorevail, with its fertile lands and busy port. The land around Khoresbar, farmed for centuries, grew little beyond the hardiest of grain grasses, and food from across the nearby borders of Telubra was even more dry and tasteless than that which the people of Khoresbar managed to grow for themselves. The civil war raging inside the Telubrin borders did not allow for much surplus, either. And so Khoresbar slowly faded, only the most stubborn staying.

When they approached the walls of Khoresbar, though, the women found the gates flung down outside, crumpled and gouged. There was no movement inside, nor sounds of life.

“What could have happened?” Tae said as they approached the open entrance slowly.

“The priests of Jadus could not have expected this.” Odette prodded her staff into one of the mangled doors, Mantha giving a chirp of indignation at the movement. Carmen had stitched one of her leather scraps into Odette’s gown for the owl to grip onto after Tae started complaining about the bruises left by him nipping her ear. The little creature had tired of being away from his mistress and had finally found a way to show his displeasure. Tae was just as relieved to see him go as Odette was to have him back. “Surely there are still people here. Thousands live here, and while my folding spell skips kilometres, we would have still have seen any evacuees in passing.”

Petra slung her bow off her back. It was primarily used to catch game to fill the stewpot, but the sharp-eyed redhead was even deadlier with it than with the rapier she favored. “There’s no such thing as coincidence. Maybe they knew the city had rolled its welcome mat up and wanted to throw some mercenaries at the problem before unleashing their sun-knights.”

“We’re more ‘kill first, ask questions later’ than Jaden sun-knights,” Carmen said skeptically, leading the way into the city. The streets were deserted, litter blowing slowly through them. The silence was stifling. Tae felt dwarfed by the tall stone buildings they passed, hollow shells of what they used to be.

Petra disappeared into one of the alleyways.

Carmen watched her go. “I doubt they sent us here with the intention to get us killed by whatever has driven the people to either hole up or flee.”

“Perhaps they did not expect this level of abandonment.”

“Odette, nobody expects this level of abandonment,” Athena said. “Mayhap the Jadens caused it.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t be talking so loud,” Petra complained, glaring at them as she rejoined them. “Empty cities are great for echoes, and if there is anybody here, I’d like to be able to hear them.”

“So where are we headed?” Athena absentmindedly shoved her wolf out of her way as the beast wound itself about her in worry.

“We are still sworn to deliver the priestess’ message,” Odette reminded her. “The temple of Jadus is on the southern wall. It is perhaps a twenty minute walk.”

“There is someone watching us from that building,” Tae said, pointing up to a moving dark curtain in a second-story window. The other women paused in their trek to peer up at the window.

“She’s not going to have any answers,” Petra dismissed. Before anybody could question her, she pointed to a sign placed in the building’s only ground level window. Even with the wooden boards behind the window, blocking the view in, the symbol was clearly visible. It was outrageously unrealistic, but also unmistakable. Tae recognized the Sheela na Gig. It was one of the old symbols of the fertility goddess. They had gone out of use even before the worship of Astarte had dwindled in favor of Isis, the more acceptable moon goddess. “Only place to see that symbol of Astarte anymore is decorating a house of pleasure. And the girls don’t get out much. Too busy making money for their Sheela, of course. The only thing she could give us is a time line, and that’s really not necessary.”

Athena looked back up to the window. “Why ever would she stay?”

“Nowhere else to go,” Carmen said. “With the brands they put on pleasure girls, even should she leave, she'd not find another profession.”

Petra tried the door. The handle turned easily, but the door didn't move. She gave the door a hard nudge with her shoulder, but it didn't move. “Odd,” she murmured. “She must have moved some furniture to block it off.”

“Perhaps everyone else has barricaded themselves away this way as well,” Carmen suggested.

Athena closed her eyes, a hard look of concentration on her face.

Petra tried another door while they waited. It swung open easily, and she disappeared into the building. Tae couldn't read the sign on the door, but the muffin drawn on the window was understandable enough.

“That worries me,” Odette said. Mantha glided on silent wings after the girl.

“Not many people left,” Athena said, opening her eyes back up. “I could not give you numbers, but I know the feel of a live city. And this place feels nothing like it.”

Petra reappeared, a handful of small apples in her arms. “Food hasn't even had time to go bad.”

They unburdened her load. It had been weeks since they had had any fresh fruit, even ones that would be as weakly flavored as these poor specimens.

Carmen sliced hers open quickly. “Whatever happened here could be no more than a week ago,” she said, poking a finger into one slice. “Any longer, and these would have some rot to them. Good thing they're hard apples, or they might already have gone bad.”

Mantha flitted out of the building, a mouse in his clutches.

“Long enough for the mice to discover free food as well,” Tae noted.

“They were more interested in the bakery counter's offerings. I took these out of the kitchen.”

“So if there is no one left in the city, what should we do?” Athena asked between bites of apple.

Odette tapped the message tube tucked into her belt. “Keep pushing on to the temple and hope it still has an occupant or two for us to deliver the messages to-”

“And then get out of here like rats off a sinking ship,” Carmen interrupted. “If we didn’t pass anyone headed back west, they must have headed east to Telubra. And nobody goes there without good reason. We went three weeks out of our way to go around it through Valencia, and we’re armed.”

“They could have headed north,” Athena disagreed. “The Telubrin lowlands are battlefields, yes, but the highlands aren’t. Not yet, at least.”

“They are not settled,” Odette disagreed. “There are barely a handful of squatters. The only difference between the lowlands and the highlands is you can reclaim your kin’s body from the battlefield. The mountains of Telubra do not release their dead.”

When they had first approached Telubra, almost a year ago, the Berungan locals had been full of stories about the spirits that haunted the ruined northern coast of their large neighbor. Even before the war had broken out, Telubra had been a strange, frightening place to outsiders. What few Berungans had money to travel, went south to lively cosmopolitan Valencia, or back east to the Free Coast if they felt adventuresome.

They had advised the women to take the south roads if they were set upon going west to far Sundabar. Worried about travel in a country currently descended into civil war, the women had heartily agreed and lost a month going around it.

“And they couldn’t have gone south, not with the Valencians still upset about their princess. Any Sund refugees would have been turned away,” Carmen said.

“If they weren’t put to the knife,” Petra added. “The ‘Vails don’t care because it’s all the way on the other side of the country, but ‘Barens would rather chance Telubrin warfare than get within any distance of a Valencian border guard. It was a Sund assassin that ended the main royal line.”

“Where do you two even get this information? It was a two month voyage to get here and I know when we left you didn’t know anything about these lands beyond that the Allekhor Empire used to be here.”

“See, Carmen, this is why we stop and eat in pubs. We’ve walked across basically all of Caldonia now, it gave us plenty of time to pick up local news. Well, that’s how I do it anyway. And you must have learned something from the tap room gossip to know the Valencian princess is dead.”

“Do not believe her, Carmen,” Odette said with a laugh. “She has been browsing other people’s correspondence this entire time. I picked up some historical records when we berthed in Biar. I offered to loan them to you. Petra is the only one who took me up on it.”

“She is also the only other one who reads the language here,” Tae interrupted sourly. Petra had spent the months at sea learning Allekheirn, the main language of most of Caldonia, from the sailors. With Petra’s knowledge of magical formulae and genius with tongues and Odette’s skill at casting unusual spells, they had managed to create a spell to give the other women the ability to communicate without knowing the language. Reading it had been another matter entirely. Odette had a personal spell that could translate written things for her, but her attempt at using it on Carmen had left the woodswoman light-blinded for days, though it had also left her with the uncanny ability to see in the dark. They had decided to give up on the problem rather than chance worse things happening.

“Really, Carmen, you barely know the history of your country, why are you making a fuss about not knowing information about countries half a world away? Odette and Petra keep us informed on what we need to know.”

“We’re here,” Petra said, cutting off Carmen’s reply. “And they definitely had a problem.”

The temple of Jadus in Khoresbar was the oldest one known to still stand. And probably the largest. It took up the better portion of an entire city block. It was not as grand as the main one in Khorevail, but it had the splendor of ancient days. The temple stood far above the city on a manmade hill, with long steep steps leading up to it. The building at the top was lined with beautifully carved columns. Its ornate golden roof had to be polished frequently to keep the bright sunlight reflecting off of it for passersby to see and be awed by.

At least until the latest turn of events. The ornate roof had crumbled inwards, lusterless, and the white columns lay broken and strewn about like an angry child’s forgotten toys. Cracks ran down the steps, some stones torn free and lying at its base.

“They either had a hand in it,” Petra said in a smug voice, kicking one of the broken stones down the street, “or they were the focus of it.”

Carmen made a rude noise. “Let’s just see if there’s any way in or if we can return to Khorevail with the happy news.”

“Can I stay here?” Tae asked, eying the tall staircase. She was far from sure-footed, and the lengthy climb in front of them seemed to be tempting fate. “I will just trip halfway up and end up back down here anyway.”

“I’ll stick next to you,” Carmen said, slapping a hand against Tae’s plate-clad back. “I've got a good grip and ‘twould take a serious fall for you to pull me down as well.”

Petra led the way up, bouncing nimbly between gaps in the steps, and then hopping back down to give sly pointers to her slower, clumsier companions. Carmen, usually a good climber, was hindered by her task to keep Tae from tumbling back down the steps when she placed her foot wrong. These missteps, much to both Carmen and Tae’s chagrin, were all too frequent.

“I hope there is a short cut for the way back,” Tae panted when they reached the top.

“Over the side and straight down?” Carmen asked, helping her down into a sitting position. She grinned when Tae rolled her eyes.

Odette took a seat beside her, pale and tired from the climb and the extended use of magic it had taken to arrive here so quickly. The request for speed was unnecessary in retrospect. Whatever had happened to the city, it was before Khorevail’s priests had hired them. Carmen moved to poke around the collapsed entrance way. Petra disappeared into the maze of collapsed pillars.

“It must have been a beautiful view,” Athena said from where she and her wolf stood at the edge, looking out across the city. She scratched his ears, turning her head slowly to take in a panoramic view. “But it just looks sad now.” She frowned, peering down to the street below, and backed away from the edge, her arms crossed protectively in front of her. “Lifeless.” Tae wondered what it was Athena could feel, to be shaken by it. Or maybe it was the lack of life.

Odette gave a soft sigh. “Quite true, Athena. Night will fall soon. Should we try to make our way inside now or wait until morning when we will be fresher?”

No one wanted to head back down the lengthy stairs to take shelter in one of the city buildings just to repeat the journey in the morning.

“’Twill be safer outside,” said Carmen coming back from the rubble to sit down next to Odette. “’Tis no way to tell how stable the roof is. It could shift and crush us.”

“Who is to say will be any safer out here?” Tae shot back. “We do not know what drove the people away.”

“We sit watch even when we stay in an inn, Tae. Obviously we would do so here as well,” Carmen replied, rolling her eyes. “But ‘tis something odd about what happened to the temple and I’d rather go inside with my eyes wide open than blearily shut from exhaustion.”

“A point,” Odette said. “But see if you can find a large enough overhang for us to crowd under for the night. It would be wise to stay under cover and as much out of sight as possible.”

“There’s a side entrance to the far back that looks to still be mostly clear,” said Petra as she made her way back to where the others sat. “Maybe even cleared by someone, I couldn’t tell for certain. Any decision about sleeping arrangements?”

“Outside and under cover. Just in case it rains. Or whatever happened here turns out to be a flying monster with boulders in its grasp,” Carmen told her. The redhead grinned as Odette gently swatted Carmen’s arm.

“’Tis something in the ground beneath us,” Athena said suddenly, breaking the introspective silence she had fallen into while the others argued. “I dislike the feeling it leaves me with.”

The women exchanged frowns.

“Not much we can do about it now that we’re here,” Petra said after a short silence.

----

Early in Carmen’s watch signs of life began to show in the city below. There was nothing lit within the city, but she could see large hunchbacked shadows moving in the streets in the soft light of the moon. She quietly pointed them out to Petra, who had finished her evening meditations and was flicking through a heavy spellbook while waiting for Carmen’s watch to end and hers to begin. Carmen did not think the elf was actually reading it.

“Are those what I think they are?” Petra asked, squinting. The creatures had likely been moving all night, but Carmen was the only one with the vision to see clearly in the darkness. Of late it seemed to have been sharpening even further. She wasn’t certain if she should mention it to Odette. The sorceress had been horrified at the accident that was the origin of the ability.

“Trolls? Be likely,” she replied. “Would explain somewhat why the citizens cleared out of here. I’ve not seen this many in one place before. The only reason their numbers keep in check be the clan wars, since the only thing what could kill a troll be another one.”

“There’s other ways. They’re just a lot harder,” Petra pointed out. “The wars are because the tunnels are overcrowded, though. They’ll have this whole city to spread out through.”

“How did they get here, though? They’re creatures of the underground. Or mountains, you sometimes see trolls there. This be plains land, though. 'Tis nothing larger than a hill until over the northern border into Telubra,” the woodswoman said as she squinted northwards to where mountains were barely visible low on the horizon.

“You don’t suppose that earthquake they were complaining about back in Ressin opened something up here? Doesn’t really explain why the temple has been destroyed, though.”

“Could still be an angry dragon armed with boulders.” She pantomimed one swooping down from above.

“We’ll find out in the morning,” Petra said, looking back down to stare at her spellbook.

----

“Trolls?” Athena repeated, scrunching up her nose. After packing up their small camp and completing their morning stretches at Carmen’s insistence, they had crowded in together to converse in low whispers, too disturbed to speak in the normal tones they had used the day before. “They’re creatures of the underground.”

“I think the earthquake broke something open,” Petra said, idly placing small rocks into a pile. She had used a broken piece of a fluted column as a miniature staircase up the pile. “There are caverns that come close to the surface, after all.”

Odette shook her head, placing a shiny rock on top of Petra’s model. “It was not just the underground breaking upwards, I think. Consider how high this temple is. The building itself is not particularly large. The true temple must be inside this man-made hill.”

Mantha chattered questioningly.

“More than likely,” Odette answered. “The more nooks and crannies the exterior of a building has, the higher the chances of birds building nests. But I doubt there are any owls.”

“I will never get used to that,” Carmen said, brushing a gloved finger softly down the owl’s back where he perched on Odette’s shoulder. It was the major difference between Athena’s bond with Snow and Odette’s bond with Mantha. As clever as Snow was, it was only what intelligence an animal might achieve. Feelings traveled across their bond easier than words. Mantha, on the other hand, understood perfectly the words people spoke, so long as Odette knew the language. Carmen had never asked if Mantha could still communicate with owls, or if that was one of the things he had lost in becoming Odette’s familiar. “Too used to woodsfolk bondmates, I guess.”

Mantha ruffled his feathers, sliding out from under her finger. He chattered into Odette’s ear again.

“Nothing underground for you to investigate either.”

“That may not be so,” Tae said. She set her fingers on the stone ground near the base of the model. “If they needed all this room, who is to say they did not go deeper as well?”

“How are they getting out onto the streets, if ‘tis not from the temple entrance up here?” Athena asked. “Is there another entrance on the ground level they’re getting through?” She took out of one the rocks on the bottom, tossing it lightly away.

“Seems likely,” answered Carmen, who had woken again before dawn, letting her watch the trolls converge back on the ground level of the temple. By the time the sun had finished rising, they had disappeared back into wherever they had come from. She hadn’t heard any noises coming from underneath them, but that could just be the several layers of stone required to hold the weight of the visible temple building.

“Should we all head down to look for it, or let Petra do the legwork since she would have been the one to find the entrance anyway?” Tae asked, eying the stairs with distaste.

Petra hopped up to her feet, giving Carmen a toothy grin as she stood as well. “Probably best to save your energy until we know for certain we can get in down there. You could check out the side entrance I saw yesterday, though. Wouldn’t hurt to look into it as well. “

“You really think we will have to climb inside this thing as well?” Athena laughed. “I suppose if we accidentally collapse the lower rooms, we’ll need an alternate exit.”

Odette tapped her chin thoughtfully, but shook her head at the looks shot her way. “Just an idea I need to mull over longer,” she said, brushing off the unspoken question. “Do try not to take too long, Petra. I have a feeling something else is at work here and that we do not have as much time as we think we do.”

“Wouldn’t be too hard, since we weren’t really discussing a time frame,” the redhead replied before heading towards the stairs, Carmen and Snow right behind her.

“They’re going to race, aren’t they?” Athena asked no one in particular, whistling at Snow for him to heel. The wolf sat obediently at the top of the steps, but gave a soft whine.

“Nonsense,” said Odette with a grin. “Carmen is far too mature for that.”

There was a loud clatter of falling stone and high laughter down from the direction the two had gone. Athena and Tae exchanged identical amused looks, but refrained from laughter.

“Why do I bother?” Odette asked the sky for answers. “That is one thing settled. Now for the side entrance Petra claimed to be here.” She swept up onto her feet, motioning for Tae and Athena to follow.

Tae led the way through the fallen columns, her heavy armor either breaking or displacing any stones that might have slowed down cloth-clad Odette and leather-clad Athena. The door they found was as drab as the gilded roof had been eye-catching.

“Probably was hidden out of the way through use of well-placed pillars,” Tae said, kicking rubble out of the way for them to be able to pull it open.

Odette shrugged. “One would hope it is not locked.”

Athena giggled. “We should have thought about that before Petra dashed off.”

“She probably already poked her nose through it last night,” Tae replied, testing the door handle. It turned freely, and she pulled the door open.

It opened to a wide dimly-lit corridor that ran back towards the front. It went only three metres before being filled in with rubble. Another door was directly in front of them, a small sun cross etched into it at eye level. Quiet noises were coming from behind it.

Athena was already in and knocking on the door before either of the other two women could tell her otherwise. The noises stopped.

“Hello?” she shouted through the door. “We’ve messages for Lightbringer Ronald from the temple in Khorevail.”

“Honestly, Athena,” Odette scolded as she and Tae joined her inside. “What do you think you are doing?”

“Either the person in there has no idea who we’re talking about or does. If they don’t, ‘tis because they should not be in there and ‘twill not answer for guilt. And if they do, they will open the door to tell us off for foolishness or the like.”

The door swung open. Tae smiled at the timing. “It’s Roland, and he’s dead, you-” the dark-haired young man broke off, staring at them. She noted he wore the pale blue robes of the laity, not the gold-on-blue of the clergy. While he was likely ordained and capable of leading worship, he could not call upon the magical gifts Jadus granted to his clergymen. “You have naught to turn over, do you? Those snobs in Khorevail only send true mesagiers. Are you looters? Are you mad?”

“Easy now,” Tae said, raising her hands. “I have no idea what the Jadens were thinking when they hired us instead of a trained courier, but we do have a message tube. Not for the Lightbringer, obviously. Though when we saw the state the city was in, we deeply considered heading back and telling them to deliver it themselves.”

He grinned, the mania in his eyes clearing some. “Well, you had a run-in with them for sure. But the messages are too late. Something broke through the catacombs. They were hunting the streets at night for a week after that quake before we finally realized what was happening. The sun-knights went with Lightbringer Roland to try to seal the catacombs, but we never heard back from them. And it seems whatever they did only made it worse. Most everybody’s left by now. Khoresbar died a bit each day before this happened, but this, on top of the drought, was too much. She's a ghost town now.”

“Why did you stay here?”

He led them into the small office. Blueprints were strewn about a large table. A small bookshelf on one wall had been turned into a food storage cupboard, its shelves littered with dry goods that had long shelf lives. Tae slowly took a seat in a rickety chair, fearful it would collapse under the weight of her and her armor. Athena gracefully threw herself into other one, reaching out an arm to grab a heavy paperweight to juggle.

“To find some way to seal up the underground. The catacombs are linked to naught else of the city, so there's no chance of them to find somewhere else to climb up from. Khoresbar may no longer be the heart of an empire, but she’s still too important to allow her to just be abandoned.”

“Did you run a small test on the temple?” Odette asked, scanning the room. “The trolls could not have caused the damage here.”

“It should work. I just did not ween the central column would fall as well,” he said, defensively. “That weakened the keystone of the dome, and it all just fell in. I don’t have enough of the makings for the scale of damage that I’ll need to crumple the low tunnels. They built with arches back then, so it isn’t very hard to get them all to crumble once you’ve got a domino effect going.”

“How do you plan to manage that?” Odette asked, intrigued. “You could not burn the temple down.”

“No, there aren't enough things in here to burn before the fire would starve itself. But stone does crack under strong heat. I thought to douse the walls with vinegar to weaken them, and there’s a warehouse nearby that laid in hundreds of graves of charcoal stores. It’s the only thing I could think of that burns hot enough that I could find enough of it to be of help.” He went to the table and flipped through the large papers. “I’ve gone through their plans, for the finding of the most bolstered walls. They hold most of the load. And I spent a few days on the knocking out of keystones in some of the central rooms to help when it does fall.”

“Collapsing the mount isn’t guaranteed block up the entrance to the underground,” Athena said, wrinkling up her nose. “’Tis no way of telling if they’ll be able to dig it back open. And they will try, they need the space.”

“They’re lazy. They can dig more tunnels instead of the quelling of each other for room to breathe,” he said shortly.

“It will guarantee the tunnels get closed up,” Odette told the woodswoman as she joined the priest at the table. “If you could weaken the major keystones, then destroy the lower walls supporting the upper rooms, the entire thing would crush in on itself, just the like the roof, but on a far larger scale. It would crush some of their higher tunnels as well.”

“How could one get down to the lower levels, though?” Tae asked. “The mishap with the roof caved in all the entrances up here.”

“The temple up here is for people on pilgrimage,” he said sheepishly. “There are some ways in at the base of the mount for the locals to come in for worship. It is something of a maze if you don’t want to go up to the main worship chamber. They built in circles back then, and the sun-knights in charge of the guarding of it have only made it worse.”

“You mean to say we did not have to make that horrendous climb yesterday?” Tae asked in a flat voice.

“You wouldn’t have found anything but trolls down there. And you would have been dreadfully lost if you had gone in, the temple blueprints are in here with me. Did you really have messages to deliver? Helios Basil would have told you about the low doors.”

“We were sent with a tube for Helios Edric-” Odette started, stopping when his head snapped up from the papers he was sorting out.

“Why would the priests in Khorevail send me something?” he asked in a suspicious tone. “I’m the helpmate archivist, it should have been sent to Helios Bertram.”

“I think one of the Isadors was really the one sending the message. Selene Ailith tracked us down at the inn where we were staying the night and demanded we report to the temple of Jadus for a courier job that needed the speediest delivery. The Jadens looked to be humoring her,” Odette said, passing him a large tube from her knapsack. There was a brief flash of color from the tube, signifying delivery had been properly made.

“My sister,” he said softly, taking the tube and slowly breaking the seal. “My birth sister, I mean, not just because all the clergy of Isis and Jadus call themselves brother and sister. I’ve called her sister since I could speak. Even before the Jadens took us in.” Several papers fluttered loose. He waved Odette off when she bent to help him pick them up.

“She was apparently very worried about you,” Tae said. “And the Jadens seemed fond enough of her to pay for us to come all the way out here double-quick.”

“She gets visions. They’re right about three-fourths of the time, though they’re completely off the off mark the rest of the time,” he explained, trying to sort the papers. One had ‘Read This One First!’ scrawled across the top in large loopy letters. Tae was startled to see a folded letter labeled in the Kelathyl tongue. It was an elven language, and they had not met anyone on the continent who spoke it. “Most of the Isadors have the gift, 'tis how they know the Lady of the Silver Moon called them, but Ailith’s come true most often. They allow her small freedoms.” His voice became soft. “Like the remaining in contact with me.”

“Prophecies often change the future by their telling, and that, in turn, can make the vision false,” Tae said. “But she did not mention seeing a vision of here.”

“She never sees me,” Edric said distractedly, skimming the first page of the message. “I’m too close to her.” He looked up from the papers, his air of distraction disappearing. “Did she write these while you waited?”

“No, the tube was already sealed when Helios Cuthric handed it to me,” Odette replied.

“She lists five of you by name,” he said slowly, his eyes moving between the three women in the room with him. “And to tell you that something drives the trolls upwards, that they do not try to resettle. We only have today and tomorrow before it manages to get free.”

Odette looked over to Tae, the same worry on her face that Tae felt. It would take a horrendous beast indeed to drive the trolls out of the labyrinthine underground caverns they called home; they were fiercely territorial, preferring to kill each other to get more territory rather than move elsewhere where there would be more space. Something that would make trolls flee rather than turn and fight was not something that needed to break out onto the surface world. They needed to seal the catacombs up before it managed to escape.

Had this creature, and not the trolls, been what Athena felt the night prior?

“I think you need to compile the lower levels' map for us,” Odette said, turning back to Edric. “And we will need to get to that warehouse and get the charcoal. We will not need the vinegar for weakening, I know something better. Actually, no, I will be more help planning locations for the charcoal.” She looked over at the two half-elves. “You two need to go fish Petra and Carmen out of that troll nest. How do they get to the warehouse, Edric?”

“Four blocks west, two blocks north, right next to Errol’s Smithy,” he replied. “It’s locked, of course, but the door is weak.”

“That will not be a problem,” Tae said as she rose from the chair.

He took in her plate mail and the spiked chain she was unwinding from where it had wrapped around her armored legs. “So I see.”

----

“Five entrances?” Carmen repeated. “No wonder they disappeared so quickly back inside.”

“I don’t think they’re using one of them,” Petra said. “Four of them were pretty obvious. We didn’t see them yesterday because we weren’t looking for them and they were designed to blend in with the mount’s walls for aesthetic reasons. You can see that they’re proper doors, though. The other is irregularly shaped into one of the Isis panels.”

Carmen sighed. “So you want to go through that one.”

“It’s the one with the least chance of having trolls napping just beyond it.”

“We should check all of them,” she disagreed. “One of them might obviously be the right way to head down.”

“That would be the one with the most trolls,” the redhead said sarcastically. “Can we at least check mine out first? It’s the closest to where we are.” She headed towards the rear corner of the mount without waiting for an answer.

Carmen caught up with her easily. “You have, of course, already worked out the mechanism to open it.”

“Priests make terrible architects when they’re trying to hide something,” Petra said in lieu of reply, reaching a hand up to the sun carved into the lengthy sculpted panel beside them. It was a beautiful rendition of a festival of the new moon, calling on Isis to return her light to her believers. The sun- Jadus’ main symbol and not something that should have been found in a sculpture of a nocturnal scene- was sorely out of place. At Petra’s touch, the sun receded into the wall, and a section of the wall containing a trio of hooded figures swung noisily inwards.

The two cautiously poked their heads in. “’Tis something of a letdown,” the taller woman said after a bit.

It was a small room, entirely empty. There weren’t even sconces on the wall for lights.

“Probably more hidden switches,” the redhead said, kicking at the wall in frustration. “Why else would it be clear of cobwebs and dust?”

“Ah well, no time for that, on to the next,” Carmen said brightly. “Defending ourselves from trolls should brighten your day right up.”

Petra glowered at her, messing with the sun until it moved back into its original position and the wall swung closed again. “You think I can’t hear you thinking ‘I told you so.’”

“Oh I know you can,” Carmen said, leading the way to the next door. “I just don’t care.”

Neither of them was terribly surprised when the next door opened into a large ornate foyer with half a dozen trolls dozing in nests made of what had once been expensive wall hangings. Carmen closed the door quickly as one shifted with a snort, the light from the entrance falling across his closed eyes.

The other three entrances opened onto similar scenes.

“The west entrance looked to be the easiest to clear out,” Carmen said as they returned to the foot of the high steps.

Petra turned to watch two figures make their way slowly down the stairs, a lupine form leaping ahead of them. “Why did they leave Odette behind?”

“Maybe they found an office with maps for her to poke through for us. The descent into the temple will be a nuisance. All those staircases we saw went up.”

“Could be the Isis room is the entrance to the downstairs,” the redhead said, taking a seat to wait for the two on the stairs to finish their trek.

“Or it could be the lower levels are only accessible from higher up,” Carmen offered as she sat down next to her. “Better security.”

“I like my theory better,” Petra said with a haughty sniff. “I’m sure there’s something interesting in there.”

They sat silently watching the two half-elves make their way down the stairs. Athena moved with the sure-footedness of someone who clambered about boulders for fun. She walked as far away from her cousin as she could, not wanting the debris Tae sent tumbling to get in her way. Tae’s clatter echoed loudly in the silent city, a constant reminder of the trouble they had put themselves in.

“We don’t need to do this,” Petra said softly as the two neared the bottom. “It’s not our city, not our country, not even our continent- in another year we’ll be back in Folly-”

“Just because we are not responsible for the problem doesn’t mean we should not be responsible for the solution,” Carmen said stiffly. “I know you’re tired-”

“I’m not tired, I’m homesick,” Petra said scornfully. “I haven’t seen my family in ten years.”

“That be your own fault. We were only in Folly for two years before we crossed the sea to find Crunch-”

“And isn’t that going along swimmingly?” she said scathingly. “We’ve walked across the entire damn continent and the best I've managed to come up with is rumors of a ruined village in north Telubra. Because every time we get to the next place he allegedly went, he's already gone, evidently months before. And I found this latest one in Khorevail, which you know is the main reason we went along with Selene Ailith’s request that we come here.” She stopped herself from going on as Tae and Athena approached.

“There is a Jaden priest up there with plans to blow up the temple,” Tae said by way of greeting.

“Where do I sign up?” Petra grinned, no sign of her disagreement with Carmen visible. “I love desecrating temples.”

“How does he plan to do that?”

“There’s a warehouse that was stockpiling charcoal a few blocks from here near a smithy,” Athena replied. “He’s trying to get a hot enough fire to collapse the temple into the underground below.”

“Clever,” Petra said, hopping up to her feet, Carmen repeating the action. “I take it we’re playing fetch while Odette tries to figure out the best layout.”

“Exactly,” Athena said. “Three blocks west, two blocks north, right, Tae?”

“Four blocks west, dear. Yet more walking, this time with playing pack mule as well.”

“We’ll also need something to put the charcoal in. You can’t just toss it on the ground and hope for the best.”

“There’s a kitchen in every building here and no one to tell us not to take their cookware,” Carmen said. Petra grinned back at her. So rarely was she allowed to indulge in her love of pocketing every shiny thing she saw.

“We are rather pressed for time, my magpie friend,” Tae said, recognizing the mischievous smile. “The trolls are not moving through the city voluntarily. Something is driving them out. I think that is why they move through the city at night and return to their dens come morning. They do not want to surrender their territory, but they must have come to the conclusion they will have to use Khoresbar as their new nesting grounds. And the diviners of Isis wrote in the messages that whatever is driving the trolls will reach the surface two days from now unless we can block the underground back up.”

“Wonderful. Good thing we work well under pressure,” Carmen said. “Where shall we store the coal while Odette figures out the placements for bringing the mount down?”

Petra did a short drum roll on Carmen’s arm excitedly. “The Isis room! The trolls aren’t there and the briquettes or whatever will stack and it’s completely empty-”

“Where?” Athena asked. “Isis room?”

“One of the wall sculptures down here is an out-of-place night scene dedicated to Isis. ‘Tis a hidden entrance built into it that leads to an empty room. Petra’s disappointed it hadn't anything in it, but it didn’t smell of troll.”

“Or have trolls in it,” Petra added. “Good thing they’re heavy sleepers and we’re light on our toes.” She shot Tae an amused look. “Most of us, anyways.”

----

Several hours later, the hidden room was overstocked with charcoal stored in large barrels, the women were covered in dusty black powder, and Petra was grinning madly at Odette over the map the sorceress had worked out with Edric.

“It’s not enough to just have pots brimming with charcoal. Sure, they’ll burn well, but we need to set off a chain reaction, probably on several levels. So they’ll need to be vaguely connected to the next one down the line, to make sure they all get burning. Weakening stone takes a long time, and we don’t have much of that. I mean, weakening the arches by stressing their keystones is brilliant,” she told the wide-eyed priest as her fingers traced paths through the multistory building, “but we need redundancy plans.”

“What were you thinking of?” Odette asked.

“The cooperage where we helped ourselves to all those barrels,” Petra said, her eyes bright. “They’ll have pitch, and all that lovely timber pre-cut into slabs for us.”

“You want us to make some sort of ramp to lead between the sites to help carry the fire? The slabs wouldn’t be long enough.”

“Athena’s a fantastic woodshaper, and Carmen can probably do it, if pressed. Sure, it’s dead wood, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be reformed. Or, better yet, reattached,” Petra waggled her eyebrows provocatively. “The hard part will be getting it set up on different levels. I think the trolls are spreading out down there, and the more places we go, the better our chances of running into them.”

“’Tis a lot of wood,” Athena said. “I don’t know if I have the energy to shape the amount we need.”

“What about rope instead?” Edric offered. “It will soak the pitch in better and fire will spread along it faster.”

“It also has more flexibility,” Petra agreed, looking pleased. “I like you, you’re clever. I insist you stop futzing about in troll-infested cities and start doing real work, like research into why no one but Haven has figured out the recipe for liquid fire.”

“Leave him alone,” Odette scolded while the dark-haired man blushed and stammered something about returning to Khorevail for a new post. “We have better things to do than let you mock temple clergy.”

“Laity,” the young priest corrected weakly.

“They’re so useless,” Petra muttered. “They should be like Tae. All clerics should be peregrine, wandering about teaching the ideals of their patron, healing the sick, and smiting the wicked.”

The priestess dimpled at her, while simultaneously swatting her with a sheaf of papers off the desk. “To work, trickster,” she ordered. “If we use rope, what will we need?”

“Barrels of pitch for the rope to soak in while we set up the charcoal pots,” the elf replied automatically. “We should get to work on that now, they will need to sit overnight to maximize the amount of pitch they soak up. It’s probably best if we divide the chores. Tae’s too noisy to bring inside, even if I spelled her invisible. She could prepare the pots, though.”

“You, Carmen, and Athena are the quiet workers,” Odette agreed. “Give Edric and me some time to work out routes for you, while you prepare the charcoal pots and get the pitch barrels.”

“Keep an eye on the sky,” Athena said. “Trolls may be nocturnal, but they can still wake up before twilight.”

“When they start to move around, we’ll have to stop,” Carmen agreed, “but remember they leave the mount at night to prepare places for themselves in the city. 'Twill be mostly empty and we can get some work done then as well.”

“Until we’re too tired to think, anyway. Maybe for awhile. I’d rather not chance how late a diviner’s forecast of ‘soon’ runs.”

“I'll start scrounging up the rope. There's bound to be a general store within easy walking distance, and if there's not, I can steal those laundry lines,” Petra said, heading for the door. “Carmen, start hauling the pitch barrels to that house near the Isis entrance. Probably better if they aren’t left in the street for the trolls to trip over tonight,” she explained. “The rest of you are going to need to start scrounging up a goodly amount of crockery.” She looked put out about the others getting to raid strangers' kitchens instead of her.

----

“I know I said you were invisible,” Petra hissed as she bumped into Athena, who was carefully setting down an overflowing cauldron of charcoal under a defaced portrait of a former Lightbringer, “but that doesn’t mean you can make noise. It only works on their eyes, not their ears.”

“These things are heavy. I am doing the best I can,” Athena defended. “Why do you think Odette gave me all the spots nearest the entrances? I’m nowhere near as light on my toes as you or Carmen, so she didn’t want my routes leading through a lot of troll filled tunnels.”

“I hadn’t really thought about why she chose the routes she did. She’s the common sense part of the planning. Doubting her plans is like questioning which direction the sun will rise in. But, that explains the huge trek I’ve got with the smaller pots. Carmen’s got those huge cauldrons to haul about too, but she could probably cart me around without making a noise. You’re both woodsfolk, why such different skills?”

“We have discussed this before,” Athena said, giving Petra an annoyed look. “We had different training. All woodsfolk have basic martial and spiritual training. I took the path of wood-speaking. My fey heritage makes it easier to use the natural magic of the world. Carmen has no such gift to help her, so she studied the physical aspects instead.”

“So that is why you can learn healing spells from Tae and Carmen can’t.”

“Precisely,” Athena said, moving on to her next drop site, taking care to step lighter. Odette had had Athena shape some of the boards from the cooperage into yokes for hauling more containers than just the two or three the women could have carried with their hands. “Shouldn’t you be busy? We’ve still got an hour or so before the sun starts setting and the trolls start moving around.”

“Never let it be said I cannot take a hint.”

Athena just shook her head, too tired to banter.

Petra headed in the opposite direction until she reached the entrance foyer and its sleeping trolls. She skirted her way along the wall to the door. They had chosen this one as their main point of entrance because the quartet of trolls who had laid claim to the room had curled themselves up into a dog pile, blocking off one of the passageways. The other entrances had the trolls nesting more haphazardly. These here were most likely a family unit.

Snow gave a soft woof of greeting as she stepped outside into the sun. Athena had ordered him to stay by the door. Petra thought it was less to do with guarding it and more to do with his cleverness at opening and closing doors. He helpfully nudged the door mostly shut behind her and she gave him a quick scratch behind his ears before dashing down the street to the house near the Isador festival wall sculpture where they had set up shop for the time being.

They had managed to drag the Jaden priest down as well, his arms filled with blueprints and blank papers for route changes. There had been major ones when they discovered the dogpiled quartet of trolls had blocked off one of the main corridors.

Petra’s last string of pot placements had consisted of her going in through the very crowded southern entrance through a series of unfortunately highly-occupied rooms to reach one of the main chambers they needed to collapse. Its only other entrance was through the blocked corridor. She’d barely been able to breathe, tiptoeing through the trolls with her heavy burden. She hoped the next route she was given wasn’t quite so stressing.

“This one will not be as complicated as the last,” Odette said in greeting as Petra entered.

She sat amidst a forest of diagrams, Mantha on the table near her, pecking at a frayed paper. Edric and Tae were set up in the kitchen area with a peddler’s assortment of kitchenware- primarily good sized pots, but there was the odd cauldron. The key component, besides being either wide or deep, was to have a handle to slide onto the yokes for transportation. Half a dozen large barrels half full of pitch had been placed near the entrance and packed with lengthy coils of rope, raising the pitch to such a level it was almost spilling over. Every window in the house had been covered by heavy dark-colored bedspreads in preparation for night. That, more than the unsteady lamplight, gave the house a gloomy feel.

“Provided there are no more surprises,” she continued, swatting the bored owl's beak, “the routes should be all set and I can join Tae and Edric in preparing the containers.” Mantha crab-walked his way away from her, closer to an inkwell. Odette lifted it out of his way. He gave her an unblinking stare, then flitted across the table to perch on the back of the other empty chair.

Petra laughed at the silent interchange.

“Edric was uncomfortable with me conversing with him about the charts,” Odette explained softly, one eye on the open doorway between the two rooms. The kitchen's occupants looked entirely focused on their work, murmuring softly to each other about the differences between the sun gods they worshiped. “I do not think there are many people with familiars in these parts. I had Mantha stay with Tae in the kitchen earlier while we worked on the maps. So now that they have traded places, he feels he must give his opinion on the work. And his opinion of Helios Edric.”

Mantha made a hacking noise.

“Should I be worried that's what he thinks of your maps?” Petra asked slyly as Odette gave the owl an unimpressed look.

“Of course not,” Odette retorted, turning her head to give the redhead the same look. “We shall need to get more charcoal barrels soon. We cannot squeeze too many in here without it becoming completely unmanageable.”

“It’s just across the street.” Petra said in a loud disbelieving voice as she dropped down beside the sorceress to peer over her new map. “Why do I get all the weird routes?”

“I am trying to avoid the rooms you mentioned having too many trolls in them to safely go through,” Odette said, returning to a normal speaking tone. “We can do the drops in those rooms tonight after the trolls have spread out, but I would rather get as much done before twilight as possible. We want to be able to just lay the rope and torch it in the morning. I wish there was a way to drive the trolls back into the underground before we bring the mount down on them.” She frowned. “It is not really their fault.”

“Trolls regenerate from practically every injury,” Petra replied, then added as an afterthought, “Barring fire. Something in their regenerative system doesn’t like fire. Maybe because it cauterizes the wound,” she trailed off, and then shook her head to clear her thoughts. “The survivors will likely dig themselves up and out into the city proper. I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”

“They could make a crusade of retaking the city from the fiendish squatters who have taken hold of it,” Edric said from his place in the kitchen. His charcoal-dusted hands were almost as dark as his hair.

“Of course, trolls are neither fiendish nor squat, but that has never stopped an artistic turn of phrase before,” Tae said. She motioned for Petra to get back to work.

Petra scooped up her route sheet and folded it up neatly to fit into one of her many pockets, and walked to the counter the healer and the priest were working on. “Load it up,” she said, leaning her yoke against the counter. “I’ve got more trolls to step on.”

“Please don’t,” Edric said with a pained look on his face as he placed the yoke on the counter. “Wake one up and the rest will wake as well. And we don’t want them to change their wonts tonight. We chance enough with the putting of all these pots against the walls.”

“Which they’ll hopefully brush off as weird human clutter,” Tae said, sliding somewhat overfilled pots onto the yoke.

“There’s only going to be time for one or two more routes,” Petra told Odette. “Athena says sunset is in just an hour or so.”

“We are getting close to completion,” Odette informed her evenly. “There are few drop sites left in troll-free areas, so I think it safe to say we have made excellent time.”

“We haven’t even approached the center of the complex. I know Athena’s routes are keeping her skirting the outsides, and I can tell even with the way mine zigzags that I’m dodging around the central corridors.”

“The closer to the center you go, the more trolls there will be. The Sun’s Exultation Chamber is the center of the entire mount and is the main room with stairs leading downwards into the true catacombs and, considering the size of the room, it will likely be overflowing with trolls. With its centralized location and seven metre ceiling, it will be the focal point for the collapse. I have been saving it for tonight’s dark hours to ensure there are as few trolls occupying it as possible. Carmen and Athena will be setting cauldrons on the opposite sides of its walls in all those centralized corridors and rooms you complained about skipping while you do the main chamber itself.”

“That does make sense.” Petra hefted the restocked yoke across her shoulders.

“Do be careful,” Tae said as the redhead headed for the door. “It will be difficult for me to fish you out of trouble without waking every troll in there.”

Next
From:
Anonymous
OpenID
Identity URL: 
User
Account name:
Password:
If you don't have an account you can create one now.
Subject:
HTML doesn't work in the subject.

Message:

If you are unable to use this captcha for any reason, please contact us by email at support@dreamwidth.org


 
Notice: This account is set to log the IP addresses of everyone who comments.
Links will be displayed as unclickable URLs to help prevent spam.

April 2012

S M T W T F S
1234567
891011121314
15 161718192021
22232425262728
2930     

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated 25 Jul 2017 12:24 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios