sundiver: (SF- Lady With Parrot)
[personal profile] sundiver
So google docs isn't the only thing that hates lengthy word counts. I had forgotten LJ had a cut off. So continuing the first story arc...

Updated 12/06/11 Now with additional scene!


Previous

Night had fallen an hour prior, and they had gathered together once again in the house they had claimed for their work. Odette sat with Edric quietly discussing their plans, pointing out different rooms that still needed to be prepared. Mantha supervised from his normal perch on Odette's shoulder. The small candle on the table they stood over was the only light in the house. The lamps had been extinguished to keep from drawing the attention of the trolls now roaming Khoresbar’s streets. Tae had coaxed Athena into helping her prepare more of the flammable pots while they waited for the traffic outside to die down and Petra was prodding the ropes inside the pitch barrels, checking on how well the soak was going. Carmen handed her a towel as she finished up.

“That doesn’t speed up the process, you know,” she told the girl.

Petra set to scrubbing down her arms and hands, trying to get the oily substance off. “The rope on top needed to be squished down. They’ve soaked up so much that the level has dropped.”

“We should be about set to start again,” Edric said. He turned to the half-elves in the dark kitchen. “How goes things with you ladies?”

“We’re just about out of pots,” Athena said.

“There looks to be plenty for what rooms there are left to do,” Tae added. “Unless you run into something unusual.”

“The only unusual thing would be the central chamber of worship,” Odette said. “It is a large room, but there do not seem to be many columns holding up the ceiling. Once the ceiling there falls, the rest is all but guaranteed to collapse as well. Getting it to do so is another story entirely.”

“Have we given the trolls enough time to clear out of the temple?” Athena asked.

“There’s also the chance they haven’t all left the building,” Petra added. Her arms were a spotty black, but no longer dripping pitch onto the floor.

“It is a chance we must take,” Odette replied. “They started waking before night fell, and we will need to rest between now and our final actions in the morning. That means getting the rest of the fire pots into the temple as early as we can get away with.”

“So grab your yokes and line up on that side of the door,” Tae said cheekily. “Athena gets first dibs because she helped.”

“I asked if you wanted help,” Petra complained, following Carmen into the kitchen. Carmen dodged easily around the snoozing wolf lying against the wall. There was a soft yelp of pain as Petra stepped on Snow’s tail and the redhead scrambled further into the kitchen. Carmen chuckled softly.

“Did that nasty elf step on you, dearest?” Athena asked, kneeling down before the unhappy wolf.

“It’s dark!” Petra said.

“He’s white,” Tae said flatly.

The wolf grumbled to himself, but settled back down under Athena’s hands.

“You did that on purpose.”

Carmen grinned. “For cert I did not. Often do you say that you have good vision.”

“I said nothing about night vision. And it’s practically pitch black where he’s taken shelter.”

“Quit playing around in there,” Odette called. “Some of us would like to get to sleep after a week of folding land.”

“Sorry, Odette,” they all chimed in together.

“Honestly, they are like children,” she complained to Edric. He gave her an uneasy smile, unsure if he wanted to be included in their banter.

Once they had their burdens settled, Carmen cracked the front door open to peek out. While it was a few days shy of the new moon, the darkened city made the sky look even brighter. She couldn’t see any movement on the street. “Looks clear,” she said, stepping out, Athena and Petra behind her.

“Are you going to spell us invisible again?” Athena asked softly as they walked slowly towards the entrance they had been using. There was a nearer one, but Odette thought that using the same entrance each time would make it easier for them to remember their routes.

Petra shook her head. “Not yet. It’s a complicated spell, I can’t really cast it that often. You’ll just have to be very careful right now.”

Athena sighed softly. “I expected as much.”

“Quiet,” Carmen said sharply. “I’d rather not have any trolls wonder what the noise is and come to investigate.”

She couldn’t say she was really surprised when they rounded the corner and one stood a short distance away, looking directly towards them.

“Oops,” Petra said from somewhere around her elbow as the troll started loping its way towards them. “Probably best to head back so nobody else decides to crash the party.”

“Anyone else not want to fight holding onto these things?” Carmen asked as they did an about face and scrambled back the way they came. She looked back to double check it had followed them instead of going for help.

It had obviously decided three small girls were too tasty to be shared and was loping in its awkward fashion after them.

“You’re the only one with a weapon,” Athena said. “Discounting Petra’s boot knife.”

“The only way it would notice would be if I hit its eye,” Petra said, bending forward to come out from under the yoke to carry it in front of her. “And that would just annoy it. I have a better idea.” She dropped the yoke, catching it deftly on one foot and gently set it down. She cartwheeled backwards, twisting catlike mid-air to land facing the troll and started sprinting forward.

Carmen cursed softly, and hurriedly dropped her yoke into Athena’s hands for her to either hold onto or set more carefully on the ground than Carmen had time for. She drew one of the bastard swords she had slung across her back and chased after the speedy redhead. Petra had already shot past the troll, who now stood halted, twisting its head backwards to her, and then forwards back to where Athena and Carmen were.

It finally decided Petra was the easier target- likely because she was closer; it couldn’t have much fear of Carmen’s sword. She knew from personal experience that trolls had to take a serious beating before they really started feeling pain. It started shuffling towards her while Carmen raced to catch up. Petra stood with her arms crossed, idly scratching at her pitch-splattered sleeves.

Carmen thought she knew what the clever redhead was up to. It would take careful timing and a little bit of luck on placement, though. She slowed her run down, reaching her left hand down to grasp onto the sword hilt as well.

The troll reached the redhead and she threw both hands up and forwards, clicking the fingers on both hands. Fire blazed at her fingertips, and then bloomed an angry red as the pitch she had soaked her arms in caught fire as well. The troll flinched backwards with a scared yelp, turning-

Carmen’s two-handed grip on her sword let her cut through its neck like a knife through butter. Its head went flying in the direction of the body’s spin, and it raised its hands to tap at the top of its neck in a confused manner. She let out a loud huff of air.

“I hate you so much,” she gasped at the fire-wielding elf. The troll started to shamble away from them, its arms outstretched as it searched for where its head had landed.

Petra made a motion with her hands, and the fire blazing along her arms moved upwards to coalesce into a ball at her fingertips.

“That could have gone much worse,” she replied, flicking the fireball towards the lurching troll. It jackknifed as its entire body was engulfed in flames. Carmen lifted one foot to boot it towards the stone building they stood beside. It stumbled a bit and then collapsed in a smoky heap.

Athena made her way gingerly towards them, carefully balancing the load across her shoulders with the two others that had been left with her.

“I hope they won’t miss that one,” she said, motioning with her fingers to take her burden before she dropped them.

Carmen hefted hers up easily out of the blonde’s hands. “We were coming back,” she said. “You needn’t have done that.”

Petra ducked under and caught the yoke across her shoulders and stood, lifting it out of Athena’s hands. “It won’t matter. In another twelve hours or so, they’ll all be going out that way. The unlucky ones, anyway.”

Athena took the freeing of her hands as a sign to help Carmen settle her yoke. “I take it the lucky ones are the ones that either flee outside or downwards back into the catacombs and the underground?”

“Those would be the unlucky ones, if you ask me,” Carmen said, as she finished resettling her burden. “That monster will still be down there and anything left in the city will be gotten rid of by the people who return.”

“If they do,” Petra said, turning to once again head towards the temple entrance. “This has got to be the most dismal place in Sundabar, discounting the far north where Telubra’s haunted mountains poke their way past the Sund borders.”

“What did you do to your arms?” Athena asked, noticing the girl’s scorched green sleeves. The over-sized tunic’s sleeves were pitted with holes all along her forearms, though the gray hooded shirt she wore underneath had gone untouched. Carmen wondered at that- Petra had rolled up both sets of sleeves to mess about in the pitch barrels. How had the undershirt gone untouched by the flames she had set off using the pitch on her skin?

“Trolls are scared of fire. And here was me already doused in something flammable,” she explained.

“What about your shirt?” Carmen asked, motioning with her fingers towards her sleeves.

Petra peered down. “Huh,” she said thoughtfully. “I’ll have to hem that. It doesn’t do to look like you stole your clothes out of a fire pit.”

Athena giggled. “I think she meant the one that didn’t catch fire.”

“That would be the robe I had enchanted to better blend in with the scenery. If it had caught fire I would have been very upset. Enchanted cloth is supposed to stand up to hard use.”

“Do you really think you need help with being sneaky?” Carmen asked disbelievingly.

“Well, that’s why I wear the tunic over it,” Petra pointed out. “And isn’t tucking a robe into my pants a hassle? I ended up practically folding it in half and hemming the silly thing.” She raised an arm up against the wall they stood beside and Carmen watched the gray fabric slowly darken in uneven splotches to match the stone’s discoloration. “But if it’s a really bright room, it’s just a matter of pulling off the tunic, giving a quick tug on the hem to break the stitches and pulling the hood up and presto, one practically invisible elf with no need for a spell that won’t let me use weapons.”

“And now the truth of the matter comes out,” Athena said. “Your trouble with your invisibility spell.”

Petra stuck her tongue out. “At least I have one.”

“Too bad we can’t muffle you,” Carmen said, putting a finger to her lips to quiet them. Petra cocked her head to the side, listening for what had set Carmen off.

Soft shuffling footsteps came closer. They stopped walking, staying silent and still as the troll scraped along a block away. She could hear Athena inhale sharply to hold her breath. But the footsteps turned away, and the blonde released her breath quietly.

“How abouts we hold off on the chatter until we get inside,” Carmen finally said as the footsteps faded away. “No telling if anyone else saw your fire’s light.”

“‘Tis a good idea,” Athena said faintly. “One run-in with a troll was bad enough. We might not be so lucky with the next.”

They stayed quiet for the rest of the walk.

----

The Sun’s Exultation Chamber was beautiful. It was circular in shape, its main floor half-filled with seating circling a presbytery for the Lightbringer to lead the call to worship. A large elaborate vermilion circular rug marked out the presbytery’s location inside four giant stone columns, thickly padded for the speaker to pace comfortably on. A second level of balcony seating struck out from the walls at the four cardinal points, held up by ornate marble pillars. The ceiling was dominated by a huge gilded dome centered about the presbytery, its pendentives transitioning gracefully into the four great stone piers that bore its weight. In lieu of windows, the walls were filled with floor to ceiling mosaics of the different festivals of Jadus. The jutting balconies had been adorned with a simple alternating sun and moon tile pattern to keep the viewer’s eyes from being distracted from the wall mosaics.

While most temples dedicated to Jadus were filled with windows to allow for more sunlight, the interior location of this one had left the priests at a loss for a replacement for the visual representation of their god’s holy light. A solution had been brought forth by a local glass blower at the time the priests began their occupation of the temple. Large yellow glass globes hung from every rafter, left constantly glowing by small ever-burning candles the priests had magically crafted for the job. The largest of these hung inside the great dome itself, etched with a pattern of the god’s holy symbol. With the light reflecting off the gilded dome, it was as if the sun itself had been drawn down into the temple.

Petra couldn’t understand why the sun-hating trolls hadn’t destroyed the room.

“Must be why the trolls sleep in all those front chambers,” Carmen said from where she stood behind Petra, Athena at her side. “Didn’t want to run the gauntlet of this every night.”

“‘’Tis a wonder of ancient design,” the other woodswoman marveled. “I feel terrible having to destroy this. It must be Jadus’ touch that keeps the trolls from defacing it. Edric’s descriptions did not do it justice.”

“A bard could not describe this beauty,” Carmen said softly. “’Tis no wonder the ‘Barens refused to abandon their city even with the drought and famine, when they had this to worship in to keep their spirits up.”

“Do you think the temple of Isis here would look like this as well?” Petra questioned, setting down her yoke.

“Isis is a goddess of simplicity,” Athena replied. “It will no doubt be as beautiful, but less splendid. But ‘tis not the time for gaping. Do your spells and let Carmen and I be off to our own duties.”

Petra murmured a short incantation, setting one hand first on Carmen, then Athena. The two disappeared. “Remember to be as quiet as possible and not to draw a weapon. Aggression will cause the spell to fall immediately.”

“So you warned us before,” came Carmen’s disembodied voice. “We still remember.” Their footsteps receded, leaving Petra alone in the great room.

Of most import was destroying the piers that bore the great dome. Hot fire alone would do little to weaken them; their gargantuan build left them virtually indestructible in the face of the elements. She got to work setting her charcoal pots in the other drop sites in the room while she considered the problem. Spells could easily break them, but that would cause the dome to crumble too quickly. It was a chain reaction of collapse they wanted.

Perhaps, she mused as she wandered through the pillars to the next site, they could start the fires first and then smash the pillars. Odette was able to teleport herself short distances, and of course had the necessary spell power for destroying the great stone columns. But Odette’s elemental magic was lightning-based, which could not set off the fires. That would be Petra’s task.

Petra liked the barely-leashed power that the difficult-to-control element of fire possessed. Getting fires started on three levels without getting herself stuck in a burning stone temple mount would be tricky, but she liked a challenge. And if she did have to leave Odette here in the center to take out the dome’s piers, the timing would be even trickier. She would have to set the fires to circle in towards Odette’s location to give the walls more time to start weakening before Odette took the columns out to get the collapse started, while still allowing Petra enough time to exit and get far enough away she wasn’t incapacitated by a flying piece of rubble.

Tricky, she decided, but do-able. She finished placing the last of the pots down and surveyed the room. The number Odette and Edric had decided upon seemed insufficient for the task, considering they hadn’t planned on destroying the piers. Edric had overestimated the damage the heat would cause them and Odette hadn’t seen their size. She would have to discuss the problem with them when she returned to the house.

There were still a few changes she would have to make to the room first. There was no telling how the trolls would react upon seeing Odette in the chamber. Best to prepare for the worst. She grinned, eying the contents of the bright room.

Desecrating temples was always fun. And she’d be half a world away by the time anyone managed to clear up enough of the rubble to see what remained. And what the other women didn't know wouldn't hurt them.

----

“As much rope as we have, ‘tis still not enough to connect them all. Some of the charcoal pots will have to be lit by hand,” Carmen said. When the exodus of trolls returned for their daily rest inside the temple, they had taken shelter in their blacked-out house, dimming all the lights and silently listening to the grumbled jostling of sleepy angry trolls as light began to work its way into the night sky. The noise had quieted down shortly before daybreak and now they were giving the trolls an hour or two to get into a deeper stage of sleep before heading back in with the rope-filled pitch barrels for the final stage of preparation.

“That is all there was,” Tae replied. “I checked every house within walking distance when I realized they were planning more walls for collapse than originally intended. I even took a page out of Petra’s book and made off with the sturdier laundry lines.”

“It’s not a serious problem. We’ll get pots in the center of the mount connected together. The ones left unconnected can be lit on the way out. I’ll get the top floor lit, since I’ll be the one actually getting the rest of them going.”

“Are you certain the smell won’t wake the trolls?” Athena asked. “Charcoal is usually used for cooking, they might think it’s time to eat.”

“They eat their meat raw, they won’t understand the smell as food,” Edric disagreed. “But they will understand it as fire. Which they are rightfully frightened by.”

“We’ll have to be quick about it, then,” Carmen said. “Get everyone inside to help lay the rope. I can light the unconnected containers on the second floor, while you three,” she looked at Tae, Athena, and Edric, “light the entrance floor on your way out. I be quicker than you and less likely to be spotted, so I should take the middle floor. Petra’s right about doing the top floor herself, she’ll need to light all three series of the rope-connected pots, so she’ll be on the top already.”

“Light the upper two from the stairwells so you will not have to outrace the fire,” Odette suggested. “Start the bottom floor from the end closest to the entrance so I will know to bring the columns down when the fire reaches the containers in the Exultation Chamber with me.”

“That will also give me the time to get out of the blast radius,” Petra said, nodding.

“Our goal is the sinking of the building, why would there be debris flung outward?” the dark-haired priest asked.

“You did see the damage your experiment did to the exterior walls of the temple at the top of this place, yes?” Tae asked. “Those pillars went everywhere.”

“Not to mention the ricochet of the lighter stuff,” Carmen added. “We don’t have the time or the training to do a tidy collapse that the dwarves would congratulate us for, so ‘tis all off-the-cuff plans that we know work on a smaller scale. Things be bound to react differently in execution, so we can only plan for the most likely results.”

“Where should we meet back up?” Athena asked, getting the conversation back on track. “It has to be someplace memorable for Odette to teleport to. I doubt she will be in good shape for exercise directly after expending that much energy at once.”

“Correct,” Odette agreed. “The entrance at the city gates would work. Those doors were very memorable, and it will certainly be far enough away from the mount for us to not worry about flying debris larger than us.”

“And I can climb up the walls to the battlements to check out the results,” Carmen said. “I feel guilty about not adding the rope from my climbing gear to the barrels, but it’s too specially made to be able to just replace in the next town we go to.”

“We know, Carmen, and completely understand,” Tae said. “You need not keep apologizing for it. We would still be short rope, even with its addition.”

“Are we all packed up?” Athena asked. “There won’t be time afterwards. We want to be able to just come in and grab our things and run like mad.”

“Most everything is set,” Tae replied.

“I’ll need to cast a spell of silence on you, Tae. Your armor makes enough noise to wake the dead, never mind sleeping trolls,” Petra said.

“What about Sorceress Odette? She’ll be in the central room with the stairs downwards. Any trolls wake up to the fire, they might flee that way,” Edric pointed out.

“Yes, but she needs to be able to speak her spells. My spells aren’t such that I can shape them to let her mouth make noise while the rest of her is silent. Most of what I can cast is a balance of need versus price. If you want to be invisible, you can’t bring attention to yourself by waving a weapon around. If you don’t want anyone to hear you, you can’t choose to suddenly be heard until the spell runs down. Well, I could shut it off, but I won’t be there. And Odette probably doesn’t want to use that extra bit of energy required for overcoming it. She needs to focus everything on the piers.”

“Magic isn’t your main area of learning, is it?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I pick up enough to get by and let the real wizards worry about overcoming the checks and balances of the system.”

“Cast it on me as well,” he said. “It will give me one less thing to worry about going in there.” He looked very young and scared as he spoke. Entering a temple that was currently housing well over a hundred trolls was a bit out of his training. “Any headings I might say I can give by the waving about of my arms.”

“As you like,” Petra agreed with a grin. “Tae?”

“You know very well I am not going to refuse,” the healer replied. “I can do heavy lifting, but I am not one to do so quietly. Obviously being silenced is the only way I can help inside.”

----

Odette stood in the center of the Sun's Exultation Chamber, holding herself from pacing along the great spiral design mosaic that she stood upon. She had moved the seating pews out of the way of the door that led to the great stairwell leading downwards into the depths of the temple catacombs in hopes that when the trolls started fleeing back to the tunnels, they would move as quickly through this room as possible and not notice the single human standing in the center of all the light. If they did, hopefully the rearranged furniture should slow them down long enough for her to do something about the matter.

The interior of the building had been very chilly, Carmen had said, but the Exultation Chamber was not. Odette believed this partially caused by the candles left constantly burning in the lighted globes above her head, for when she had arrived in the room, it had been merely pleasantly cool. Now it was beginning to grow warm, a sure sign of the fires spreading throughout the floors above. Smoke had not reached this room, but she had had to leave the great entrance doors flung open to allow the pitch-soaked ropes to make their way into the room, and it was only a matter of time before the air grew thin and smoky-gray as the fires grew in size and strength.

She heard them before she saw them. A great thundering of quick footsteps echoed through the room as the long-armed wooden-looking trolls loped their way in, barking at each other as they tried to get out of the brightly-lit room as quickly as possible. They never turned their heads in her direction, but she did her best to look inconspicuous.

One veered off and headed in her direction, its eyes narrowed, barely visible under his pointed brow. It looked a great deal like a thorn bush given humanoid form. Odette thought for a second, wondering if it were true- some ancient wizard needing automatons and giving his dead garden life, but leaving it with the deep fear of fire. She shook her head, clearing the thoughts. Now was not the time to be distracted, not with a troll two and a half metres tall bulldozing its way through pews towards her.

“To be expected,” she murmured, raising an arm up, hardening the air in front of it in a spread five metres long. “Hopefully that will keep you distracted until the fire arrives here and you decide I am not as important as survival.”

As if her words were what it had been waiting for, fire came racing into the room, barely visible through the trolls streaming in through the double doors. It wound its inexorable way around the great room, into the charcoal containers lining the walls, onto former seat coverings Petra had dropped into the containers leading into the seating areas. The troll at her barrier quickly gave up as fire danced towards it from pew to pew.

“Clever Petra, to know how to make certain they stayed cut off from the center,” Odette said, watching the growing inferno. The spiral-decorated presbytery she stood in was entirely devoid of furniture or decoration, nothing for the flames to leap to. Odette was certain there used to be either a podium or an altar- or possibly both- and was just as certain Petra had made off with all of its small art pieces when she had rearranged the area for greater protection of the woman who would stand in the center of the flames.

She gave one final glance down to the spiral, confused about the huge dark purple mosaic in the golden room. There must have been a rug covering it that Petra had used to help the pews catch fire. She could not remember reading about the temple being originally dedicated to another god, but it must have been. Neither Isis nor Jadus used the spiral as a symbol.

The air was growing thick with smoke. Thoughts on the matter would have to wait until there was time to voice her concerns. She raised her eyes to the two stone piers in front of her, then lifted her arms up and brought them down in a quick slashing motion. Lightning coursed the length of them in a brilliant blaze of blue. Cracks ran down the two and there was an ominous rumbling noise as small rocks began trickling out of them. Quickly spinning to face the other two, she repeated the motion. More lightning struck downwards, summoned by her magic.

One last spell before leaving, she decided. The pillars would fall soon, but she had to guarantee more than just this chamber crumbled quickly. She cupped her hands together for one final summoning from the plane of lightning. Blue light shone, and her hands were forced further apart by the swirl of energies. She frowned in concentration. She could not completely exhaust her magical stores for she still needed energy to leave, but she had to put as much power into this as possible.

Over the groan of crumbling stone she could hear the howls of trolls from beneath as the great monster rose up through the catacombs, killing its way out. She had run out of time.

She flung her hands in opposite directions, forcing the lightning to arc both ways. Mosaic-decorated walls collapsed as lightning shot its way through them like a spear through fish. Further walls past those crumbled as the lightning continued its way out. There was a loud cracking noise and Odette quickly looked up. The golden globe inside the dome had broken free and was falling downwards towards her.

She brought her hands back together with a loud clap and disappeared. Glass shattered where she had stood moments before.

----

The silence was broken up by a long angry howling that Carmen expected could be heard for several kilometres. It rattled through her teeth and left the hairs on her arms standing straight up. She could hardly imagine the size of the beast a roar like that would require.

Mantha hooted softly into her ear. Odette had transferred the little owl to Tae's care while she performed her magic, but he had quickly changed to a more comfortable perch on Carmen's shoulders. He took off with a sharp shove, circling around her once before flying out of sight. It was a sure sign that Odette had arrived.

“That must be the beast,” Athena shouted up to Carmen where she stood on the city walls, above where the gates once stood.

“Selene Ailith was right to tell us to hurry,” she shouted back down. It would have been better had the Isador priestess informed them of the matter before they left, but perhaps she had worried they would not have taken the job if they had known what they were actually being hired for. They had all wondered about the exorbitant fee the Jadens had offered for the double-time courier job. Their mesagier system was almost as fast as Odette's transportation spell, and far less tiring on the specially-bred horses the couriers swapped between. Hired for their equestrian skills, not martial ones, a mesagier would have been useless against both the trolls and the beast rampaging below.

“I hate diviners,” Petra shouted back, a similar thing obviously on her mind.

“There's a debris cloud. Looks like the whole mount folds in upon itself,” she shouted down to them as she hooked herself back up into her climbing gear. It was uncomfortable, and no one had known how long it would take before they received evidence that their work had gone well. She’d rather the time spent getting in and out of it than an unknown amount of time spent stretching constantly to keep from getting pinched in uncomfortable places.

When she finished her climb down, she noticed Tae and the Jaden priest bent over Odette's fallen form, Mantha circling restlessly overhead. Athena was kneeling near them, pressing her forehead to Snow’s head in silent communion. She suppressed a twinge of envy at the woman’s easy rapport with her bondmate. The magic of the woodsfolk did not come easily to her, and Athena’s status as wood-speaker often had her feeling left behind. Her martial prowess was far greater than any of the other women’s, but the ease with which they worked with the different magical energies was often a much more visible sign of power.

“Smoke inhalation,” Petra informed her, appearing at her side. She carefully refrained from smiling as Carmen jumped in surprise. “I'm not surprised. I turned that room into a death trap.”

“I thought you had taken too long,” Carmen said, watching the healers work. “What did you do? And why? You knew Odette had to wait it out in there.”

“Precisely,” the redhead replied. “She had to wait in the center of a temple with a horde of trolls panicking her way. I wanted to make sure they left her alone.”

“And trolls fear fire more than mice fear cats and a fat man an empty cupboard,” she said, understanding. “But how did you know Odette would be able to get out in time? ‘Twill not take smoke long to overwhelm someone.”

The elf shrugged. “I didn't. But I told her she wouldn't have much time to get things done when the fires started and to prepare accordingly. It's probably the other reason behind her collapse- expending all her energy in as big a spell as she could manage because there was no time for second tries.”

“Ye could’ve got her killed,” Carmen said angrily.

“And the trolls could have killed her before she had a chance to finish the job,” Petra snapped back at her. “It was a calculated risk and it was better than leaving her completely undefended in a room full of trolls. They might hate light, but that didn't stop them from getting into the city through that chamber and I wasn't going to count on the light to keep them from seeing and attacking her.”

“Be at ease,” Athena said, coming over to them as their voices rose. “Odette will be fine. Just tired and hoarse from breathing in too much smoke. Snow will let me shape his form into something to carry her to the next town, so she need not even worry about walking.”

“Just saddle sores,” Petra said with a grin, letting the angry defensiveness dissipate. “What did you bargain with Snow to make him agree to take a non-carnivorous form?”

“A fresh boar when we reach peopled civilization,” the blonde replied. “He's tired of stringy game.”

“A good bargain all around then,” Carmen told her. Upset as she was with Petra's actions, it was not the time to be arguing.

“Don't tell him I was going to do so anyway,” Athena replied with a mischievous look. “He's looking a mite underweight.”

Odette was helped into a sitting position by Tae, the dark-haired priest of Jadus moving awkwardly away.

“Thank you,” he told her fervently, then looked around at the rest of them. “I never would have finished before that beast arrived. I never would have known about it. I know you were just hired to bring a message-”

“The amount we were paid was more in keeping with the actual job we did than the job we were hired for,” Athena said, walking over and placing a friendly hand on his shoulder, cutting off his nervous babble.

“Who built the temple?” Odette asked him in a hoarse voice as Tae helped her to her feet.

“The mount was built by the priests of Jadus in the early days of the Allekhor Empire,” he replied, a question obvious in his voice. “Jadus was the patron of the empire just as he is for Sundabar.”

“Not the mount. The temple,” she said emphatically. “The dome in the Exultation Chamber was obviously built to be viewed from outside as well. That's why all the stairs by the entrances lead up and why only the central chamber leads down, because they built the mount around the original temple.”

Athena had removed herself from their discussion to kneel at Snow's side, kneading his fur as she slowly coaxed the change into his flesh. Carmen averted her eyes. The process was very disconcerting to watch.

“I don't know,” he said. “Not many records remain from the time of the empire. I always thought it was us who built the temple. Does it really predate the mount?”

“That purple spiral under the presbytery's rug,” Petra said, snapping her fingers. “That's what set you off!”

“It should have been gold. I might have understood silver for Isis, but neither deity has anything to do with purple.”

It will have to remain a mystery,” Edric said with a shrug. “Do you think it meaningful? Something the old ones left locked deep within the catacombs now free to make its way out into the world?”

“Nothing so dramatic,” Odette scolded. “It just seems odd, taking over someone else’s temple and then meticulously burying it under as much stone as humanly possible. And yet to leave it open for use under a different guise.”

“Maybe they just wanted to hide the evidence,” Petra said.

There was an unhappy neigh. All heads turned to where Athena stood, an unhappy gray horse shifting on his hooves beside her. The eyes were still Snow’s yellow, not the black of a true horse.

“Is that even safe?” Edric asked in a faint voice.

“Probably not for you,” Athena replied, swatting Snow’s hide as he snapped his teeth at the priest. Carmen noted the incisors were sharper than they should have been. The priest wisely scooted further away. “But Odette will be fine. Snow likes her. Or at least, is used to her and knows she isn't for the eating.”

“Your sense of humor leaves a bit to be desired, dear,” Tae said. “Quit scaring him. We need to escort him to the nearest town and it will be unpleasant if he spends the entire walk in fear of becoming the first person eaten by a horse.”

“Is it too late to say I would rather walk?” Odette asked rhetorically.

Mantha lit upon Snow's head, bending to nibble at the base of his ear. Snow shook his head and the little owl chirruped, wings spread as he tried to stay balanced. Athena set a gentling hand on Snow's head, reaching her other up to offer Mantha a less irritated perch.

“I don't really need the escort,” Edric said, his wide eyes still on the horse.

“We bring an entire city block's worth of stone down in on itself using pitch, charcoal, and lightning and this is what throws you off?” Petra remarked snidely, making a 'get on with' motion to Carmen. Odette, watching the oncoming woodswoman, quickly detached herself from Tae's arm and limped her way towards Athena and Snow the horse.

Carmen let the sorceress beat her and watched with concerned amusement as Odette leaned tiredly against the horse. Snow turned his head to snort into her hair at this liberty.

“Oh, so you'll be fine on foot then?” Carmen asked pointedly.

Tae sighed. “A stiff breeze could knock her over. Really now, Odette, what were you trying to prove there?”

Carmen hefted Odette up to climb onto Snow's back. The sorceress hitched her gown's skirt up and out of the way, and Carmen patted her trousered leg patronizingly. “Did you really think I'd throw you on sidesaddle? Someone would have to walk beside you the entire time to keep you from pitching off. 'Tis no chance any of us will forget you've trousers on as well.”

“I perhaps worried too much about Petra’s involvement in the matter,” she replied, settling herself. Snow nudged his head into Athena's side, obviously wondering if a good raw boar was really worth this bother. “And walking about in a gown is bothersome without something to keep my legs warm.”

“And it keeps eyes from seeing more than they ought,” Athena added, turning towards the blushing priest, who had watched the entire charade with confusion. “You should stick with us for the walk. Get used to having people around again. How long were you in there by yourself?”

“Only a week or so, really. Helios Bertram and I stayed after everyone else left three weeks ago. But when the dome collapsed in our test, one of the columns landed on him. He was dead before it finished hitting the ground.” Edric had hunched into himself as he spoke. “He thought I was just frightened when I told him the alchemy room wasn’t the best place to run a trial test and that we should wait outside while it steeped. The ironic thing is, the office he wanted us to wait in went untouched in the fall. Took me some time to dig out the hall to get to it, though.”

“That’s awful,” she replied.

“Why did you stay behind?” Petra asked. “It wasn’t just out of the goodness of your hearts.”

“Petra,” Carmen hissed in warning.

“No, it’s all right,” the priest said, ducking his head. “Helios Bertram and I weren’t close. He had gotten guidelines for creating Havenite liquid fire and wanted to test it on the trolls. I stayed because he needed someone to look after him and most of the priests were family men. Or else had already gone into the catacombs with the sun-knights and the Lightbringer.”

“So it was not you testing a theory that brought the upper temple down. You instead got the theory from the accident,” Odette said from her perch.

“Helios Bertram was the one who was mad about alchemy. I thought I could use his mistake to seal up our temple so people could return to their homes if they wanted.”

“I don’t think they’ll want to,” Carmen said, looking back towards the city. “Just because the boat’s no longer on fire doesn’t mean it’s not still sinking.”

“Let’s just get out of here,” Petra said, starting down the road. “The sooner we drop young Edric off in Reeds, the sooner we can just mark this whole experience down as why we should not take jobs that look too good to be true.”

----

Edric collapsed to the ground at Carmen's call for a halt for the day. Odette had been expecting both actions; Carmen had led them off the road some time ago, a sure sign of her looking for a campsite, and the young priest had wilted hours earlier and had been goaded on primarily by Petra’s constant chatter at his side. The young man was vain enough he did not like being outdone by a small girl at so a simple thing as walking. Especially in front of pretty women, as Petra had cuttingly pointed out in her native Kelathyl tongue when she noticed his labored breathing.

Edric, thankfully, had been too well-mannered to ask what her aside to Tae had been. Tae’s blush had given the wrong impression, no doubt why Petra had aimed it at her instead of the earthier Athena. The pretty wood-speaker was more used to male attention than her cousin and would have accepted Petra’s comment as if it were only her due. Tae, on the other hand, had formed a reply in Kelathyl, defending the uncomplaining priest. He was doing his best, after all. The alternating bilingual conversations had kept hyperactive Petra from getting too bored and starting arguments with everyone. Days when that happened always seemed twice as long as they had any right to be.

“How can you walk for this long without passing out?” Edric asked from where he lay spread eagle on his back to stare up at the darkening sky. Petra had pulled a small sling out and was slowly moving further away from them, scanning the underbrush for movement. She already had her mind on finding meat for supper.

“Don't stop moving or your muscles will cramp up,” Carmen scolded as she set her pack down.

“It takes a great deal of practice,” Athena said, shooting him a smile as she moved to Tae's side, hands reaching for the hidden straps that kept her armor together. Over the years, the women had gotten so much practice that any of them could be blindfolded and still help Tae out of her armor easily. Carmen was typically the one called on in the morning to tighten the straps, her sword-callused hands the strongest of the group. Petra had the bad habit of tickling Tae, which had caused the healer to swear off asking the redhead for help, undeniably the girl’s plan all along.

“I don't think I can get back up,” the priest said, rolling his head to watch the busy half-elves.

Carmen moved over to where he lay and reached a hand down for him to grab. “You’ll not be well pleased in the morn if you fall asleep there,” she said when he looked up at her. “You be unused to the same exercise we get.”

Odette carefully slid down from Snow’s side, a pained look on her face. Mantha chirruped in complaint before taking off, annoyed at the movement. “Riding without a saddle is very unpleasant,” she complained as she walked in a bow-legged fashion over to Tae and Athena to help with the removal of her plate mail. She would have been less sore if she had walked, but her lungs had not been in a good enough state for it. Or so Tae's argument had gone. The half-elf took her area of expertise quite seriously, so Odette had declined to make a fuss about it. If Athena felt Snow was up to the challenge, who was she to argue? Now, though, she- and, more specifically, her lower regions- had wished she had fought harder against it.

She took Tae’s gauntlets from her, freeing the half-elf up to work on the shoulder guards, and tossed them over to where Carmen’s pack lay.

“You had the blanket,” Athena said, pausing in her work to scratch a hand down Snow’s head. He had followed closely behind Odette, eager to silently ask the wood-speaker to return him to his natural form. “’Twas all we had to pass for a saddle.” She bowed her forehead to Snow’s. “Some patience please, dearest,” she murmured before returning to the breastplate’s straps.

Snow made an unhappy snorting noise, and moved to where Athena’s pack lay, sticking his nose in and snuffling about inside it. He was probably hungry. Odette was not certain how the carnivorous wolf would deal with a stomach that only required plants. He certainly had not tried to eat while they were walking.

“Do you need a hand?” Edric offered, once again on his feet. Carmen was prodding him in the back, trying to get him to stand up straighter. Edric kept inching away, trying to get away from her. Carmen was having none of that until his posture improved and was not letting him maintain any distance.

Torn between sympathy and amusement at his plight, Odette shook her head.

“We will be fine,” Tae said, her voice muffled as Athena and Odette lifted the breastplate over her head.

“Two is really as many as can help without everyone getting in each others' way,” Athena continued, taking a step back as Odette released the weight of the armor into her hold.

“It does look intangling.” he said, finally giving in and standing up straight. He moved away from Carmen and her overwhelming good intentions. She looked pleased at this minor show of a backbone and followed after Petra. He watched her progress for a moment. “Should I help with-”

“Best not,” Tae cut in, bending to work on her leg guards. “They can be very competitive over the matter of who can bring back an animal first. I would not put it past either of them to send a pellet your way to keep you from tramping about.”

“Then is there anything I can help with?” His voice crackled with frustration.

Odette sympathized with him. They had been on the road so long that everyone already knew their assigned tasks for setting up camp and did not need any help.

“You might tell us a bit about yourself,” Tae offered. She sat to struggle out of the boots while Athena piled the armor in one spot, taking care to place the pieces in the order they would go back on.

“What is there to tell?” he asked. “You already know I work with temple records, and as for my personal tale-” he shrugged. “Most Jaden laity comes from the orphanages they run. I'm no different.”

“How would we know that though?” Athena asked. “We're not from around here.”

“That explains the odd outspeech,” he said with a grin.

Athena and Tae exchanged looks.

“I think he meant accent,” Odette clarified in their native Brygean tongue, before swapping back to Allekheirn so Edric could follow the conversation. “I really should update the translation spell.”

“Well, when you use pirate’s speech for the base,” Athena trailed off with a giggle.

“I am sure they were all honest seamen.”

“Only because they were flying Biar colors,” Odette said dryly. “I would rather not think about what would have happened if they had not picked up enough passengers for the transoceanic voyage.”

“You come from so far away?”

“From Prospector’s Folly,” Odette explained. “Across the ocean and almost a hundred kilometres inland. Folly is a large city, but I doubt anyone on Caldonia has heard of it.”

“Someone has,” Athena murmured. “Else we would not be here.”

“It would have to pay very well to bring you so far,” Edric mused.

“’Tis no job that brings us here,” Athena corrected. “A friend of ours disappeared and his trail led here.”

Edric cocked his head to the side. “And he did not come here willfully?”

“He would no sooner willingly abandon us than Tae would forswear the Protector,” Odette said. “Crunch has no one but us and keeps every promise he makes. He told us to meet him by a certain day, and after the third day went by with no word from him, we went looking to see what had happened.”

“Possibly a bit too energetically,” Tae added. “I am certain the young man whose arm Carmen broke did not really mean to spike Crunch’s ale.”

“Ha,” Carmen retorted as she reappeared from the brush, a brace of rabbits hanging limply by their ears from one hand. Petra trotted along behind her, hands empty, but grinning suspiciously wide. “He’s lucky I dinna break his kneecaps as well, the scalawag. A barkeep should be trusted to not mess about with the sanctity of a man’s drink.”

“So yes, we are certain he did not come here of his own free will,” Odette said. “It is a bit difficult to make such decisions while unconscious. We could not find the ship that took him aboard, but he seemed to have escaped some time after reaching port.”

“I don’t understand why he didn’t find a ship headed back east,” Petra interrupted. “Wandering off westward was foolish, even for him.”

“He’s no sense of direction,” Athena commented. She knelt a short distance away with Snow, who was back in his proper wolf shape. Odette had picked up some understanding of lupine body language over the years she had known the wood-speaker and her companion and it was easy to see how overjoyed Snow was about the change. “Mayhap he thought he’d been transported east of where he had been.”

“’Tis possible. Or else the drugs left him too addled to note direction.”

“He also wouldn't understand a word anybody was saying,” Petra added. “There were plenty of people in Biar who spoke Brygean, but I haven't heard a word of it from the natives since we left the Free Coast.”

“A fair point,” Odette murmured. “His grasp on language confuses native speakers, never mind those who pick it up later in life. Even in Free Coast ports, he would not have found many who could truly understand him.”

“Whose turn is it for supper?” Carmen proffered the rabbits to Odette, who stood closest.

“I could take care of that,” Edric said. “So long as you not comment on the women’s work.”

The women exchanged blank looks. Odette had never heard of work determined by sex until arriving on Caldonia. It had not been truly noticeable in the Free Coast, and in Valencia both sexes were equally obsessed with frippery, but in the places they had stopped in Sundabar, there were very firm lines drawn between what men and women could and could not do.

“’Tis not women’s work,” Carmen said. She sat down, setting the rabbit carcasses down in front of her, and drew her hunting knife. Meat preparation was frequently left to her. Neither Athena nor Petra ate it, and Tae was remarkably squeamish about dissecting animals for one who so often had to sew people back up. Odette at least had being city-bred to account for not knowing how to perform the task. “’Tis work that needs must be done, no matter who does it.”

Edric did not look convinced.

“Are you going to start complaining about Carmen and me hunting for supper?” Petra asked. She was clearing brush from a relatively flat stretch of ground, setting it up for a fire pit. Mantha supervised from a nearby scrub bush, a dragonfly wing sticking incongruously from his beak.

“You’re crazy foreigners,” he said in a more serious tone than Odette would have liked. “As a member of the laity, I’m supposed to be setting an example-”

“Hogwash,” Carmen said. She punctuated her remark with a moist ripping noise, followed quickly by another. Odette hid a shudder and resolutely kept from looking that way. Edric looked a little green himself.

“Let’s agree not to discuss our opinions on your controlling god and what your elders feel you should be doing and we’ll all get along better,” Petra said. “We’re not changing faiths any time soon.”

“I fail to understand why a god with as knowledgeable a consort as Isis would create such division between the sexes as to tell them what is not allowed of them,” Odette said.

“'Tis almost as if they do not want their people to get along with each other,” Carmen said.

“Divide and conquer,” Petra murmured in Brygean, her eyes on Edric. The look in them was calculating, and Odette wondered what new puzzle the young elf was turning over in her head.

The young priest looked uncomfortable with the line of thought the conversation was heading down. The laity were probably not supposed to be the ones dealing with outspoken unbelievers and he likely would not know the arguments he was supposed to present them to swing them around to his faith.

“Let us agree not to discuss religion at all,” Tae said as she stretched her limbs. “It will make for more peaceable conversation. We have no interest in Jadus, and I am certain Edric has no interest in breaking his vows and taking a different patron. It does not matter the god to know good deeds from poor, and Edric has done better than many of his fellows at abiding by those greater rules.”

“How would we even make fun of your cooking?” Athena asked, looking up from where she had been tussling with Snow.

There was a short silence. Petra snickered. “I can’t tell if she didn’t follow the conversation or if she’s just hungry and trying to be subtle.”

“What is it you normally do for supper?”

“Stew tonight,” Petra pronounced from her finished fire pit. “The vegetables would only have gone to waste back in Khoresbar.” She started emptying one of her many belt pockets and Odette chuckled as Edric went wide-eyed at the sheer volume of food she was producing.

“She is too small to carry much,” Odette explained. “One of her first investments was a belt enchanted with pockets to hold more than they ought. The lack of a backpack also means she can scamper about quicker. I am not certain which of these was her major reasoning.”

Petra grinned at her. Odette diplomatically did not mention the other things that ended up in Petra’s fathomless pockets. It was a habit that they by turns scolded her for and let her indulge in. The items her light fingers picked up were frequently useful, and her companions had at least instilled some sense of personal property into the girl.

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