sundiver: (SF- Lady With Parrot)
[personal profile] sundiver
Got to write Crunch some more. He makes my OCD twitch. I think I managed to keep him down to just a couple pronouns. (Some things just really require an it. There's no avoiding it, alas.) It's difficult balancing 'really dumb' with 'oddly insightful'. (Still haven't decided what to do about George though...)

The script for section 4 finished still looks like NaNo length, alas. Finales have this tendency.
Last updated 12/10/11


Previous

“Are you lost?” Odette asked. “You have that look about you.”

Odette had not planned on actually leaving the guest room they had not actually been told to stay in, but Athena and Carmen had argued in favor of leaving. The women were probably feeling just as hemmed in by the walls as Snow would have been. Athena had barely moved from the window the entire time they had remained in the room. She could understand the wood-speaker’s pain. She kept reaching out for Mantha, only to find a hole where his warm presence had once been.

Given time, though, Athena could reunite with the gray wolf. Mantha was gone forever.

When they left was really of little import, as there had only been fifteen minutes left on Ailith’s deadline. Carmen could easily track Tae down- the woman’s metal boots left unique imprints. Provided they ever managed to make it outside of the labyrinth of a building this place was.

“We're lost,” Athena said forlornly. “I've seen this wall hanging before.”

“I know precisely where we are,” Carmen disagreed. The woodswoman’s sense of direction was uncanny, but Odette rather doubted knowing the direction of true north was helpful inside a building with lots of halls with locked doors. And stairwells.

“Somewhere inside the inquisitorial building?”

“Yes, Athena, somewhere inside the benighted inquisitors’ wing,” Carmen said scathingly.

“No need to snap,” Odette scolded. “Hopefully they will have signs posted somewhere nearby to point us to an exit.” They had yet to pass any of these helpful signs, but she held out hope.

“And not just 'west',” Athena muttered.

There was shouting from behind one of the doors. She was having trouble judging distances of noises- everything seemed to be louder, and she could hear things from much further away than she used to be able to. She focused her attention on it as she trailed after Carmen in an absented-minded manner.

“I don’t care where it was found, Jaxon, I want to know what it was doing out of the catacombs at all!” He had a deep baritone. Judging by the volume of his speech, he also had something of an inferiority complex. The louder one shouted at a subordinate, the more one felt incapable of normal exchanges with people. Or so it went in her experience.

“Finding out how it got stolen could be related to the dead man we found it on. He was a thief, sir, is it so unlikely that he took it from here himself? I think I should head back out to see if his confederates have anything to say about the jobs he’s undertaken of late. He might have bragged about pulling one over on you.” She recognized his voice immediately. Teilomere had taken great pains both times they had met to return his voice to the same pleasant tenor. She wondered if it was natural or something he had decided to use as a form of identification, since he seemed to shift his shape frequently.

“Do whatever you want. You always do anyway. Just find who took it, who’s touched it, and who’s seen it. There’s no telling what the cursed thing did to them.” The man sounded tired.

Carmen’s head tilted, catching the murmur of voices as they grew closer to the room the men were in. She stopped in the intersection of two corridors, head swiveling back and forth as she tried to figure out where the voices were coming from. Odette waited beside her, wishing her senses weren’t so overloaded that she could try to do the same thing. It would take weeks before she could sort through the amount of data with any accuracy. She had better appreciation for the way Petra was able to process the information she picked up. Odette just hoped she would not gain the same verbosity the little elf had when it came to relaying it. One would think the girl had gills to allow such run-on sentences.

“And the murderer, sir?”

“If you come across him, report him to the guard. But he’s not the main focus of the investigation, so don’t waste too much time looking for him.”

“Of course, sir.” She imagined his teeth were grinding, his voice was so flat.

A door down one of the side corridors creaked open and a young man in a pale blue tunic swept out. His free hand was balled up into a fist, but he shut the door quietly behind him, his temper firmly in check.

He looked up at them before they could move out of sight.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” he asked, his eyes wide with surprise.

“We are trying not to be here,” Carmen said. “’Tis not working so well. Where might the exit from this building be?” She did not seem to recognize his voice. Was it a subtle thing that only Odette could hear?

“Duck,” he said dryly, “the guardsmen have orders to move you to the holding cells. You think I’m going to impede them?”

They did not have time for play acting. Odette spoke. “Lorist, please.”

Athena laughed softly, understanding who it was they had bumped into. Carmen pinched the bridge of her nose.

His eyebrows shot up. “You- no, of course, I always forget, that’s why I stick to the human lands- sorry, babbling. Sorceress, I can try, but you’re further from leaving than where you started.”

Athena glared at Carmen, who shrugged sheepishly. “We were nearest the east gate when we came in. I thought-”

“They like building mazes,” the man said. “I can lead you out, but if the guardsmen show up, you’re on your own. I can’t get anything done if I get into trouble as well.”

“Thank you,” Odette said.

He gave her a pitying look. “Fey don’t accept gratitude that way, my lady. You ought to remove those words from your vocabulary. Returned favors, not words, are thanks.”

“But you have said-”

“You did a favor for someone I could not help. I gave you the words because they were given to me by those who expected them, and returned you that favor in the information I gained from the abbey. You’ll note I did not thank you for the rescue.”

Odette tried to wrap her head around what he was trying to explain. He had spoken words of gratitude for the soul shards Tae had saved because they were originally human and wanted them? She shook her head, clearing her thoughts. Now was not the time to try to understand fey logic, no matter that it was supposedly hers as well.

“You can argue about the rules the ley energies place upon your kind later,” Athena said quietly. “’Twas you who warned us to be away from here ere the guards sought us out.”

“A point well made. It’s back the way you just came from,” he said as he brushed past them, taking the lead through the maze of corridors they had been floundering through, no matter Carmen’s insistence on knowing where they were.

Odette politely refrained from telling the woodswoman ‘I told you so,’ though it was a near thing. Carmen sighed, her mind following the same line of thought.

---

Brilliant blue light blazed throughout the room as the diviner collapsed to the stone ground. The banishment spell swept towards Petra, and she doubled over as if she had been punched in the gut. The light cut off and the room temperature dropped back down to manageable levels. The ground at Petra’s feet was melted. She usually had a much firmer grip on her temper and the fire energies she could manipulate. Tae wondered if it was Petra’s temper that had caused it, or that of her passenger.

Her boots were smoking a bit as well. Crunch, at least, had had the common sense to dance away when the ground beneath him had started to boil. His bare feet, callused though they were, were not up to the heat that rush of rage had released.

After a quick glance to where Ailith had fallen, Tae rushed over to Petra. The priestess might have a headache when she woke up, but there was no telling what her friend would be going through after getting hit with a banishment spell. Isis had been channeled through her priestess and severing such a link was an easy matter, provided Tae felt up to the consequences. Petra, on the other hand, had some minute, but steadily growing, portion of a god sitting directly in her head. There was no link between mortal and divine realms to banish it home. Isis was still in the divine realm; the Chained God sitting behind Petra's eyes was tied directly to the mortal.

The elf had her hands buried in her hair, clasping her head tightly.

“Ten points for quick thinking,” she said as Tae tilted her head back to peer into her eyes. The blue that had overtaken them was gone, and they were the same brilliant green they had always been. Her irises were more dilated than Tae would have liked. Possibly it was from the pain. She hoped. “But less fifty for not using common sense.” She let out a soft shuddering breath as Tae placed her fingers over her temple and let a slow trickle of magic course into her. Tae did not feel any resistance to the healing energy, so she could only assume Petra’s unwanted passenger had retreated further into the recesses to lick its wounds from the blow. “I don’t mean to complain,” she said in a quiet voice, “but that could’ve ended a lot worse than with a migraine on my part and a sprained ankle on hers.”

“It took care of both the major problems,” Tae said primly, her voice surprisingly steady. Her pulse was still racing like mad, though. The sheer nerve of what she had done. Possibly she had not been thinking. “On the other hand, I am not looking forward to any further conversations with Isis’ followers. It never would have worked if Ailith had summoned her, but I was betting that the goddess was stepping on her priestess’ toes there.”

At the time, the only chance she saw was Petra’s words that Ailith had brought Tae here against the wishes of her goddess- or at least without her permission. It had implied a crisis in faith for the diviner, and there had been no signs of the priestess calling upon her goddess to argue against Petra’s angry allegations.

So much could have gone wrong in that moment. Petra could have been wrong- that Ailith had brought Tae to see Crunch at Isis’ orders and Tae would not have been able to banish the goddess’ presence back to her own plane of existence- or Petra’s temper could have finished blowing and filled the room with fire and lightning as her hitchhiker helped her destroy another prison. Banishment had been the only thing she could think of that could cut the whole thing off.

“Care to explain to us mere mortals what that tantrum was about?” Tae asked, moving her attention to Crunch’s wrists. “I could not follow all of that, and I know Crunch would not have understood a word.”

“Crunch understand shouting,” the half-orc said as he allowed Tae to flip his palms to face upward.

“Tone of voice does not count.” His injuries were not severe, but would be weeks in growing back all the layers of skin the manacles had worn away over his lengthy stay.

“Where do I begin?” Petra asked as she struggled out of the long robe she wore. The high-necked sleeveless shift she wore underneath provided little protection from the chill of the room and goose bumps dotted her freckled arms. The splint on her left arm looked roughed up from her skid across the floor, but still in serviceable condition.

“At the beginning, of course. With Crunch.” She let energy trickle out of her fingertips, slowly knitting skin together. The half-orc’s fingers twitched at the sensation, but she was an old hand at dealing with his instinctive reactions to magic cast upon him. She simply had to go slowly and gently. Or else he would lash out the same way he had done when Ailith had used magic to wake him up. Of course, her armor would soften a blow far better than the Selene's linen robes had.

“He’s pretty near the end, actually,” Petra said as she folded her robe up into the short style she usually wore it in. “But I can tell you why they wanted him. It’s obvious once you know what to look for. And have enough of an outsider’s perspective to not have any preconception about the information.”

“Petra should skip boring part,” Crunch complained.

“Who’s telling the story here?” Petra asked.

“What story? You have not started yet, you braggart.”

“You’re no fun. So,” she dragged the syllable. Crunch made to move a hand from Tae’s grip to prod the elf.

“Petra,” Tae said in annoyance, keeping hold of Crunch’s hands. He did not try very hard to break free.

The redhead grinned brightly at Tae from where she sat. Tae frowned. Her eyes were still far too dilated. The pain might be keeping her from maintaining a good train of thought.

“As I was going to say, the story starts with the end of the Allekhor Empire. Their control of the Hekatonkheires made it possible for them to conquer most of the continent. And then something happened to cause them to be sealed away. That’s common knowledge around these parts, with some varying details. Valencia’s record was a bit closer to the truth than the one here in Sundabar.”

“You digress,” Tae interrupted. As interesting as the trivia Petra found could be, they did not really have the time for anything but the basics. Once she was done inspecting Crunch’s injuries, and then Ailith’s, they would have to leave. Being cornered in a room with only one exit was not safe.

“Sorry, the number of conflicting stories I now have stuck in my head is kind of distracting,” Petra replied. Tae closed her eyes, silently willing her to get on with it. “The Jadens somehow got aspirations of empire-building again into their heads and must have wanted something symbolic from the previous empire. Some stupidly clever person must have found a record of where one had been imprisoned. And then the problem of finding a way to interact with it came up. How they figured out controlled madness was apparently the key, I don’t know. Probably from the frothing mess the Hekatonkheir left of the person trying to control it.”

Tae was not certain she had understood that. Or believed it. “They just kept sacrificing people to it until they found something that worked?” Life was too precious to waste on such outlandish conjectures.

Petra shrugged, pulling a small sewing kit out to fix the robe. The tear-away stitches needed to be replaced before she could put the robe back on. This would likely be their only chance for a short break, and even now they were pushing things. The silent alarms were still blinking out of the corner of Tae’s eye, and more would likely go off when Crunch left the room. “Just my guess, going by what happened at Folken Abbey. The man they were trying to bring to life, Rægenhere, he’s from the empire’s time. They probably picked him because they’ve got his remains stashed around here somewhere. Unimportant.” She waved her hand, the needle and thread in it flicking. “Prophet was the title given to the people who dealt with the Hekatonkheires.”

“Because prophets speak for the gods,” Tae mused.

“Probably,” Petra agreed.

“Ghost in box maybe piece of god. But not bossy enough to be all of god,” Crunch added.

One knew who was a god because they were bossier than everyone else. What a strange place was the world Crunch lived in.

Petra’s eyes had that gleam of ‘about to get side tracked by other, more fascinating things’ so Tae spoke up before she could.

“Why would they choose to try to resurrect someone so long since dead? He would have spun about the Wheel for several lifetimes, so it is doubtful he would even remember the information they wanted.”

“The information for how the prophets were chosen must have been part of the records destroyed in the fall. Thus the attempt to resurrect a known prophet to question. When we accidentally foiled that, they must have turned to some other source. Perhaps they just decided to attempt a trial and error system with whatever key mechanism they’ve got. They had to have some reason for deciding Crunch could help them.”

“But why would anyone risk themselves that way?”

Petra gave her a sour look. “They’re religious sorts. Not to mention their god makes all the clerics a tiny bit crazy. They probably had volunteers.”

“I would not volunteer for such a thing for the Protector,” Tae said stoutly. “Of course, he would never ask such a thing of his priests, nor would they think of something like that either.”

“Crazy people reasonings aren’t really what you were asking about. At least, beyond where they needed Crunch.”

“Sun men made Crunch talk with ghost in box,” he said helpfully. “Box made Crunch's blood hot.”

“Box?” Petra’s eyes lit up. “Interesting. But that’s skipping ahead. We’re at the part where the Jadens are stuck with a divine creation that’s been driven mad by imprisonment.”

“Like what they did to the Chained God,” Tae noted. “I wonder why their stories changed his name to the Eater of Worlds.”

“They do seem to like their patterns. The Hekatonkheires aren’t divine like he is though, so they don’t have the same access to power he can manage. On the other hand, the Jadens obviously have something to link with them. The problem was finding someone who could use it. And with what they managed to find out, the Isadors saw an opening in their backroom fighting to swing things in their favor.”

“Backroom fighting?” Crunch repeated.

“The sun god is trying to destroy the power base of the rest of his pantheon,” Petra explained. At least she was trying to use smaller words for him to follow. “The moon goddess has been helping him so that he’ll leave her followers alone. But she has no intention of letting him and his followers go on a bloody warpath again. So, since she was wise enough in times past to spread her faith off of Caldonia to our land, she saw us. She’s probably been testing people for decades, trying to find some combination that would work.”

“You said she needed me,” Tae interrupted. She released Crunch’s wrists. “Sit down so I can do your feet. We will no doubt end up running for our lives, and you will need your ankles at their best.”

“Petra not nice for kicking feet,” the half-orc complained as he followed her direction and sat beside Petra. She stuck her tongue out at him, and returned to her stitching. Tae’s armor creaked noisily as she crouched to inspect the oozing wounds.

“Can he remove these?” she asked, one hand on the big manacles that circled his ankles.

“Oh, right, I fixed that before I went aggressively crazy. Sorry, I was too busy shouting at the goddess to tell you,” Petra apologized in a quick breathless string of words. She didn’t look up from her work. Tae thought she was trying to avoid eye contact.

“Wonderful,” Tae said flatly, moving her hands out of the way for Crunch to pull them quickly apart. He threw them against the wall they were chained to. They took a chunk of stone out of it before hitting the ground with a noisy clatter.

“To continue, Isis wasn't looking specifically for you.” Petra's voice once again took on that of an instructor trying to educate an obstinate student, all traces of her distraction by her problems gone. “She needed a follower of a sun god. A goodly one, not one poisoned like Jadus has become. You became her best bet when she saw that Crunch was a berserker. It would be simple to get you to come here. You bringing the rest of us along for the ride was icing on her metaphorical cake.”

“The Jadens needed someone controllably mad for their tests with the Hekatonkheir, right? So it does not matter who thought of the use originally, just that Isis whispered into one of her follower’s ears that Crunch would be the simplest for them to manipulate. And she must have seen that we would follow. But why a follower of a sun god?”

“To replace bad sun god,” Crunch said matter-of-factly. “Cannot kill a god, just put new god in old god’s throne.”

Tae’s fingers dug down into his skin involuntarily. He made a grumbling noise and she let go quickly. “What do you mean? You can't go around switching gods. It’s insane.”

Crunch saw things from a different perspective than most, and could often be counted on to see directly to the heart of the matter. But his simple mind could not always translate it. She hoped he was in error, misunderstanding Petra’s words and simplifying them to what he thought was the problem.

“So’s their god,” Petra said. “The Chained God’s old temples were converted for Jadus’ use after the god wars. I don’t know if it was all of them or just a few, but it was enough for the Chained God to ooze his madness into the works. Here in Khorevail it isn’t as bad, because it’s been devoted to Jadus from its start, but the reconverted one in Khoresbar was the main center for worship for centuries. Combine the madness with an already extreme god-” She shrugged. “What’s happening to their faith is a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. And for us, it will not matter. The corruption is already widespread throughout the faith. And the Isadors think they can use you to fix it somehow. And the Jadens will not be happy with us when they find us here with Crunch.” She stood and pulled the robe back on, tucking its shortened length into her pants. “Or at least the ones who knew he was here. The others will just be confused about where he came from.”

“What do they think I can do?”

“Moon girls crazy too,” was Crunch’s unhelpful contribution.

“Well, what do you expect of people involved in divine squabbles?” Petra asked snidely, pulling a green square out of one of her belt pockets. “Nesada.” The square unfolded into an oversized green shirt and she shrugged into it quickly. Tae noticed the girl had yet to repair the damage done to the sleeves in Khoresbar. “The only sane people are the average citizens avoiding the whole religious mess.”

“We should have avoided the mess as well. That whole debacle in Khoresbar never would have happened if they had not summoned-”

“That city with temple hill? Crunch tried stomping out troll caves, but too many trolls.” He withdrew his healed feet away from Tae, standing a bit slower than he should have. Weakened by poor food and lack of exercise, no doubt. Time was the only healer for that, but at least his body would not have to concentrate on healing his injuries.

“Right. That was the city you sent all the trolls panicking through.” Petra hopped easily back up to her feet. “Was that their first big test for you? There haven’t been enough signs of destruction for them to have tried anything major before.”

Crunch helped Tae up from the ground. She had forgotten how effortless he made it look. It had been over a year since the big man had been around.

“Sun men keep bringing Crunch strange box to look in. Strange ghost inside, always shouting and thrashing. Not very good at focusing rage. Crunch show ghost how,” the half-orc attempted to explain. “Ghost not good learner, so sun men let Crunch show ghost how. Say trolls need stomped out.”

“Wonderful,” Petra muttered.

“Crunch, why would you do that?” He would not know how he had done it, past what he had already explained, but he normally would not be agreeable concerning aiding kidnappers.

He shrugged. “Sun men have spell, makes Crunch’s head dizzy. Crunch agree trolls need squishing.”

“Mind control of some sort,” Petra said. “It would be simple for a cleric to impose his will upon someone as simple-minded as Crunch. Up until he started berserking.”

“Crunch not mean to squish fancy sun man.”

Tae really hoped he was not talking about Khoresbar's Lightbringer. “Oh dear.”

“I'm sure he started it,” Petra reassured him. She turned to glance around the room, her eyes going out of focus as she looked at something Tae could only see out of the corner of her eye. “But we should be moving now before the other fancy sun men catch us here. The wards are still going off like mad.”

Tae moved over to inspect the unconscious priestess. “What should we do about Ailith?”

“Crunch not think moon girl going to be happy,” the half-orc said. He lifted one hand to poke at Petra. “Petra not glow again, right? Glowing never good.”

“Glowing?” Petra repeated.

Had the girl not seen it? Tae thought it possible, Petra could get very focused on one thing. And trying to shout down a goddess would require a great deal of attention, if only to avoid the smiting. But that was a discussion for a later time when they weren’t in danger of being thrown into dungeon to never see the light of day again.

“We need to get out of here,” Tae said, ignoring the digression. “As much energy as was bouncing around here a few moments ago, there are going to be many people headed this way to see what the explosion was. And we need to decide what to do with Ailith.”

“They see us carrying her away, they’re going to automatically think the worst,” Petra said.

“I do not know what she was planning, bringing me here, but something tells me it has gone more than a little awry. Will your robe disguise her from being spotted by searchers until she wakes up? It will hopefully give her time to think up her own story.”

“Because if we take her, she’ll either be considered a hostage or a fellow conspirator injured in the escape. Fair point. But no, the robe won't cover all of her, and its magic requires it to be worn, not simply tossed over something like a blanket.” She looked over to where Crunch had thrown the manacles.

“You cannot be serious,” Tae said, following her gaze.

“They don't lock anymore, but I could fake it pretty well. It will confuse them enough that they won't just assume she was a willing participant in this escapade. Cutting her off like that could leave her unconscious for hours.”

“Yes, there is a reason invocations are done so rarely.” Elisar Ibryiil had not inhabited her long enough for it to be a huge drain on her system. But then, he had had other things to shunt his energy into- Athena's working being the major one. She also would not put it past the mischievous god for him to have been the one who had left the strange spell in Petra and Odette that destroyed the temple so handily. “And hers was even more stressful, her goddess imposing herself upon her without any forewarning.”

Petra moved to stand beside her, peering down at Ailith. 'She does look a little beat up. What did she do to set Crunch off anyway?”

“He was napping. Or as close to it as he could manage in this blighted place. Ailith knelt down beside him, I do not know what for. She received a foot to the stomach for her troubles.”

“Crunch very sorry about that.” He did not look very apologetic. Considering his hosts, she could not blame him too much. “Moon girls not so bad as sun men. Sun men very bad.”

“Move her over to where you were sitting, Crunch, and we'll leave a surprise for them when they get here.”

“Do you think that wise, Petra?” Tae asked as Crunch hefted the woman into his arms.

“The only injury she'll get out of it is to her dignity. If she didn't already have a story for how she ended up down here, she shouldn't have done anything in the first place.”

Crunch set the woman down against the wall while Petra fiddled with the big manacles. “She's so tiny compared to you. I could fit both her wrists into one of these.”

“And then both of her ankles in the other?” Tae asked, amused despite herself.

“Unfortunately not. But they're at least small enough to not be able to slide over her shoes.”

Petra took Ailith's hands and fit one of the large cuffs around it. Crunch took them from her to free up both her hands to fix the hinges he had torn apart. “These won't work very well, but Ailith hopefully will be bright enough to not try very hard to get out of them. It's easier to play captive than explain how you got free so easily.”

“You would know.”

“Squeeze this a bit for me,” Petra requested, pointing out a spot where Crunch had torn the hinges apart further than Petra could fix them.

Tae winced at the squeal of metal as Crunch pinched it between two fingers. He looked to have completely crunched it closed.

Petra frowned at it. “I hope they know where the key is.”

“Sorry,” Crunch said.

“I don't care,” Petra said blithely as she quickly fastened the other cuff around Ailith's lower leg. The priestess wouldn't be able to stand- not with how short the adjoining chain was- but she would at least be able to sit comfortably. “Do it again on this one too.”

“If you are quite done ruining her evening, perhaps we could leave now?” Tae asked, trying to unfocus her eyes to better see the mystical wards around them. “The symbols in the wards have changed. I think we just ran out of time.”

Crunch eased the priestess down to lie on the floor.

“Should be good enough,” Petra said, scratching at her splint and glancing about the room. “Tae, don’t forget your sword.”

“Carmen’s sword,” she corrected. She had forgotten about it. Carmen would have been very upset with her if she had. Crunch was already moving before she even had a chance to look around to see where she had dropped it.

“Details. I thought you’d sworn off on those.”

“Carmen thought it would be good camouflage.” Crunch handed her the sword, hilt first. She accepted it from him. “My thanks for this. Carmen would have my head if I lost it.” Crunch grinned down at her.

“It was a good idea,” Petra said. “You tromping about in plate mail with a sword strapped to your back means you can pass yourself off as another woman in their ranks like Crusader Yseult. Of course, Carmen probably didn’t know the way the Protector operates with his clergy when she made her suggestion.”

Tae sheathed the sword, fingers twitching as she struggled not to lash out at Petra. Swords were a touchy subject for her, as well Petra knew. The Protector gifted his clerics with the ability to use his chosen weapon as if they were masters of it, provided they were using it for the protection of something he deemed worthy. It was a helpful crutch, but a crutch all the same. Thus the spiked chain Tae used instead, allowing her to remain her own master at all times.

Put a blade in her hand and put her in front of something to guard, and she became a drone doing her god's will, no matter her opinion on the matter. It had taken all her willpower to stay on the defensive when Crunch had attacked her. It was nice to have reassurance that the Protector approved of what Ailith was doing, but she had already killed one innocent when she was lost to the blade. She had not wanted to lose a friend to it as well.

She did not know why she thought Petra had not known about the Protector's boon. The elven girl was never happy unless she knew everything and, being fey herself, she probably learned early on how her gods worked with both their clerics and their followers. Her ability to get her mercurial god to answer a prayer was a good sign of that. Tae's invocation had merely requested aid from her god; it was Petra's soft plea for help that had drawn Elisar rather than one of the usual demigods of the Court who answered such requests.

“I dislike not being in control of myself,” Tae finally said, striding back through the entrance. “But it does have its uses.”

“Tae is berserker too?” Crunch asked as he and Petra followed her down the hall.

“I do no such thing.”

“Her god does something that scares her,” Petra explained. “And her fear of it makes it uncontrollable. She'll figure it out. She's good at that.”

“Tae always make things better,” Crunch agreed.

“That is sweet of you, Crunch, but some things are better left alone.”

“Then Tae tell Crunch all about how Tae found Crunch?” he asked hopefully.

“We do not have time for explanations just yet,” she said in apology. “Provided we can make it out of here alive, we will have to exchange stories.”

“Crunch think it take many nights,” the half-orc said. Tae laughed.

---

The corridors back out were dim and dusty. Most of the torches in the wall sconces were unlit. The few ones that did shed light held similar glass globes as the ones in Khoresbar, with small ever-burning candles flickering inside. Whoever was behind Crunch’s captivity had obviously chosen his jail cell based on the level of use- or rather disuse- the building had.

Petra led the way, her eyes better at seeing in the low light than Tae. Crunch usually took point, but he would obviously have no idea where he was going.

Tae was not certain putting Petra in front was wise. It was not that she thought the girl would get lost, or lead them into a trap. It was just that Petra never seemed to remember that the people who were with her were usually not as quick or light on their feet as her, nor as swift on the uptake for when they did happen into dangerous things.

Such as now. Tae had barely registered Petra pressing herself flat against the wall before Crunch was tugging her out of the way as well. An armored man man charged past, a war hammer high above his head. His armor was heavy plate similar to hers, but it was far simpler in design. He stumbled to a halt at the lack of resistance, the hammer burying itself into the floor with a loud thud.

“Unfortunate,” Petra said as he hefted the hammer back up and turned around to face them, the weapon already moving back for a swing. “I don’t suppose we can kill him?” She looked beseechingly at Tae, one hand dropping the rapier at her side.

“No,” Tae said shortly, ducking under the attack.

Crunch grumbled a protest of his own.

Petra cartwheeled backwards into the darkness as the man swung again, trying to force them down the hallway. His odd low two-handed grip on the weapon gave him a slow recovery time from the swing, giving Tae time to stumble backwards the way they had come. Splitting up would give him fewer targets to aim for with each swing.

They were not particularly skilled swings either. The low grip gave him poor control of his strikes, and Tae had little trouble dodging the waving hammer. She did not want to draw Carmen’s sword again, not with the way she could lose control of herself using it. And of course, trying to get it out would divert her attention from avoiding his strikes.

She hefted one armored arm to divert an overhead strike, knocking it aside. It hurt less than she had expected, but then again, she had not caught the head of the weapon, merely the long wooden shaft. His glare turned into a look of frustration as he redoubled his efforts to strike her.

As poor as his form was, he still had the muscle to do real damage should he connect in the right spot. So she focused on her awkward dance to stay out of his reach and hoped that sooner, rather than later, he would tire of his attack.

There was an odd noise from where Petra had disappeared to, and muttered cursing. She froze momentarily and squinted into the darkness, trying to see what had happened. The guard took advantage of her distraction and the hammer struck solidly into her side. She huffed in pain as she stumbled sideways from the blow.

“Hey!” Crunch shouted, jolted out of his bemused stillness. Either by the strike or her noise of pain, she was not certain. Two quick steps brought him within reach, and one big arm struck down onto the man’s less-protected elbow.

The man twisted away from the two of them, a look of surprise on his face. Had he been so focused on her that he had not seen Crunch at all?

Fast as a viper, one of Crunch’s hands shot out, capturing the man’s wrists in a tight grip. Muscles bulged through the thin shirt sleeves as he squeezed, and the man screamed as metal snapped. Blood trickled through Crunch’s hand, both his and the guard’s. Crunch’s other hand wrenched the hammer from the man’s now-loose grip. It clattered noisily to Tae’s feet.

Crunch lifted the man off the ground and shoved him into a wall, barely missing one of the darkened wall sconces. Tae could hear a low growl. The man- boy really- looked terrified.

“Hold!” an unfamiliar voiced shouted. Tae dragged her eyes away from Crunch, dread pooling low in her belly.

A priest stood further down the passageway, flanked by three guards armed with similar war hammers as the one now at her feet. Another knelt over Petra’s prone form, attempting to hold her still long enough to place a set of irons on her arms behind her back. She must have bumped right into them. Had the one not charged ahead, there was no telling what sort of harm they could have come to.

All of the guardsmen looked just as young as the one Crunch was restraining. The priest barely looked old enough to shave. What in the name of all that was bright was going on?

“I don’t ken how you got in here, nor where your great beast of a bodyguard came from,” he said in a faintly Telubrin accent, “but I’ll not have you killing a man already bested.”

There was a high yelp of pain from the guard trying to subdue Petra as she managed to kick him in a weak point of his armor. Another guardsman moved to help him, trapping her feet. She hissed in pain as the first grabbed hold of her splinted arm.

“You can come along quietly or unconscious, I care not. But you’ll go no further until you are in custody,” the priest continued doggedly, ignoring the scuffle at his feet.

“Custody?” Tae repeated. “On what grounds have you the right to detain-”

“Trespassing,” he said promptly. “And impersonating a helios.”

“I have done no such thing,” she said. “I serve the Protector and have never claimed otherwise.”

“You bear the sign of the sun,” the priest explained, motioning to the two unoccupied guards. “You claim to be a priestess and have performed miracles that only a helios should be able to do.”

Tae tried to follow the logic behind that. “Excuse me, what?”

Neither she nor Crunch would later be able to explain Crunch’s action after that. Her best guess was that he thought whatever the priest was babbling on about was bad. They needed to extend the translation spell to Crunch as well.

He might have also just gotten bored after finally getting the blood rushing back properly through his system and then having to stop mid outburst.

Crunch threw the guard down the hall at them with a loud yell. She could see the priest's eyes widen even from where she stood. He yelped and dropped to the floor. The guardsmen, loaded in heavy plate and inexperienced, were not as quick and scattered like nine pins as the flying one crashed into the two kneeling over Petra and they stumbled backwards into the other two. They clattered into a pile of waving arms and legs, cursing. Petra rolled sideways away from the ruckus, only one of her arms finagled into the heavy lock.

“Thank you, Crunch,” Tae said, striding down the hall towards the noise, Crunch a quiet angry shadow behind her. The air practically vibrated with his fierce spirit. She took comfort from it. “Although I am not certain that helped our case.”

“Sun men bad,” he explained.

Two of the guardsmen had managed to disentangle themselves from the pile by the time she reached them. They were slowly managing to break apart the other three. The priest was hovering nearby. Every time he reached a hand to help, it was accidentally hit and knocked away. He finally just scooted away and watched interestedly, occasionally turning his head to watch Tae and Crunch's approach.

They looked less like an armed force and more like errant school boys. She frowned. They probably were. Petra’s small size had given them the illusion of looking like full-grown adults. This close to them, though, she could see that they were far younger than that. The priest looked to be the oldest, and he could not be much older than twenty.

“Would you like to try that again?” Tae asked, using the war hammer like a cane to lean on. The lads were off balance and she planned on taking over the conversation before they had a chance to regain their footing. “With less of the inane improvisation perhaps?”

The priest’s eyes flicked from her to the half-orc behind her. Tae silently hoped Crunch would not growl. These boys had no idea what they were stumbling into and did not need additional scares. The priest met her gaze again.

“Squire Algar asked me to come with his patrol to see why the alarm went off,” he explained, eyes downcast. His robes were the pale blue of the laity, trimmed in a different color than Edric’s had been. It was a lower rank, probably. Petra would have been able to tell her, but the little elf was busy with the heavy lock. “The buildings back here are all abandoned and, well, creepy. And their wards never trigger, not since Helios Cyneweard got agreement to change them to allow animals to come and go.”

“Nobody thought much of it going off, then?” she asked.

“There’s nothing kept back here, so we figured it was just some man-sized animal that had gotten in,” one of the guards spoke up. They seemed to have finally gotten themselves sorted out and were comparing bruises. The smallest looked like his voice had not yet dropped, and was swimming in the cuirass he wore. It was the only armor he wore; the rest of it was missing, probably from being too poor a fit. Munition armor rarely properly fit the men it was intended for, never mind half-grown boys.

“Like that wolf the woodsfolk brought with them,” another added. “And we thought it best not to send anybody by himself. So rather than draw lots about splitting up, the whole patrol went. And we dragged Helios Godwin along, since we can’t actually turn off the wards.”

“And he never puts up a fight about us bossing him around,” one muttered. She probably had not been meant to hear that.

“And then Cenhelme saw your armor and said you were that heretic Helia Wymarc was going on about and that we needed to arrest you so the Helia could chop off your head,” the smallest said. He bore a striking resemblance to the priest, she noted. They were probably siblings. “And then he went running off ahead.”

“So where in your decision making process did you come up with the idea to borrow the knights’ armor?” Petra asked from where she sat.

They attempted innocent looks, none of them managing to keep Tae’s gaze. The priest looked like he wanted to sink into the floor.

“Probably back when one of them was told to go shut the alarm off,” Tae said. “This is a perfect area for staging fights without anyone coming to investigate the noises and break them up.”

The innocent looks quickly turned into pale guilty faces. They were terrible liars. Or perhaps she had spent too much time around Petra and her juvenile antics. Elves aged so much slower than humans, their minds always learning and constantly racing ahead only to be dragged into morasses of illogical childishness by their still-juvenile bodies. Emotionally speaking, the lads were probably past Petra's constant state of seemingly impetuous behavior. They had far less of an excuse for their behavior than Petra did, and she would never let Petra get away with something like this.

“If we don’t tell anyone you were here, could you not tell Master Ecbert? He gets really upset when we try to train by ourselves,” the smallest one said, his eyes wide. Tae had seen Petra use the ‘I’m a helpless innocent child’ look too often to be fooled by it.

“Don’t be foolish,” the priest said before Tae could do more than frown at the boy. “We still need to arrest them.”

“Crunch smash tin men now?” the half-orc asked hopefully, bored by the conversation he could only follow Tae’s portion of.

“No,” Tae scolded. “They are just children.”

“No we’re not.”

“Juveniles,” Petra said. “And juvenile. Sparring with unfamiliar weapons without a trainer, or even just a proper spotter, is just the sort of foolish thing children would do.”

Tae resisted the urge to point out any similarities.

“We can still arrest you,” said the tallest of the guards. “As squires, we can do that to intruders on the ground. Except for Cenhelme. He’s still a page because he can’t pass his tests. Bet you can guess which one.”

Cenhelme turned out to be the one who had originally attacked them. He elbowed the speaker in the side.

“So what should we do about them?” one whispered to another beside him. Tae wished there had been introductions. With much of their faces hidden by their helmets, it was difficult to tell them apart except for size. And two of them were practically identical in silhouette.

“They're still intruders. They're supposed to be taken to the Inquisitors' cells in the donjon.”

“I don't think the big one would let us.”

“If we promise not to have Crunch throw you down the hall anymore, will you not make us wear the irons?” Petra asked. The grin was cheeky, but her eyes were very serious.

“Why would you agree to be arrested?” the priest asked, suspicious of her easy manner.

“We're lost. I'm pretty certain I remember the route back out of the prison,” Petra said airily.

“They're escaped prisoners! I told you!” said Cenhelme, clutching the elbow Crunch had hit.

Tae sighed and turned to the half-orc behind her. “Crunch, do not hit him anymore, please. Or the rest of them. But they will be taking us to the jail cells.”

“Crunch just there,” he said with a frown. “Crunch no want to go back.”

The boys exchanged worried looks. Even without a common language, it was easy to decipher Crunch's body language and tone of voice.

“That wasn't their prison,” Petra said, climbing up to her feet. “That was a hidey-hole the sun-priests had just for you. These fine strapping lads are part of the martial branch of the faith. It's a different matter entirely. Mostly. At least for now.” Petra stopped. She was not very reassuring.

Crunch's frown only deepened.

The alarms Crunch's release had raised might have made the priests check on the room they had been assigned. Should they find her and Petra missing-

No, they had given Ailith a time limit. Two hours had long since passed, which meant that when the priests returned to the room, it would be empty. There was no chance of the other women leaving the complex without them, but likewise there was no chance of them being able to wander around free. Should the priests be the ones to capture them, there was no telling where they would go. But if it were the guardsmen, they would be brought to the same jail cells these lads wanted to take them to.

“They might have already picked up Athena, Carmen, and Odette,” Tae said.

“Odette be there? Odette nice, always share dinner. Crunch miss Odette.”

“She'll have even more leftovers these days,” Petra said with a smirk.

Tae wondered at that for a moment, and then realized what Petra was referring to. Unless she was actively thinking about it, or had Odette within sight, Tae had difficulty remembering Odette was no longer human. It would be several weeks before she would even begin to get used to it.

How were they even going to attempt to explain that to Crunch?

---

The shapeshifter led them through crowded corridors, hustling them past incurious men in travel-worn work robes. They were all too involved in their duties to question someone who was obviously about his own business. Even if it was leading three foreign women through their rarely-visited halls. Their security precautions had the oddest holes in them. But then, why not let visitors roam free? Everything important was kept in out of the way places and, should anything go wrong, it was a very long way for any troublemakers to get back into Khorevail proper.

Teilomere babbled away to Odette, who was practically trotting a half-step behind him to keep up. Explanations of who people were, or whose office they had just passed, or whatever else came to the fey man's quicksilver mind. Odette nodded along interestedly at all the right places, and Athena could see some of the tension leaving her shoulders.

Athena wished for that same small portion of ease Odette was obviously getting out of the impromptu tour, but found the flow of needless information exhausting. She wished for the grounding energy of life carrying out its duties. There was a natural sense to it that the strict, controlled stone lines of the temple buildings simply did not, could not have.

As things were though, even should they step outside, she would not have felt anything of it. There was just a jagged tear and bone-deep ache where once had been her link to the magic of the natural world. Where her link with Snow had once been.

Her silence must have worried Carmen, for the taller woman suddenly linked her arm with Athena's. It was calming and reassuring as the shapeshifter's constant flow of chatter wasn't.

Carmen’s arm holding her back was all that kept her from bumping into Teilomere as he stopped inside a doorway.

“Jaxon. I should have known,” a raspy voice said from past him.

Athena craned her neck around the shapeshifter, trying to spot the speaker. It was the scarred crusader that had been with the Jaden priestess for the interviews they had had earlier in the day. There were several brigandine-clad guardsmen with him. None of them looked very pleased.

“Crusader Tunwald.” The shapeshifter sounded guilty as he greeted the man.

“I see you’ve found some friends,” the man rasped curtly. “Do they know anything about the Obsidian Knife of Starfall? I was under the impression it went missing before Selene Ailith brought them here.”

“Never heard of it,” Carmen said, dropping her arm away from Athena’s.

“Then why ever would you be with him?” The crusader did not sound as if he were actually interested in the answer.

“I thought they might like a tour,” Teilomere said. “Your guest quarters are so boring. I would know, you keep trying to lock me in them so I’ll stop bothering the record keepers.”

The crusader turned to the men with him. “Place them all under arrest,” he said flatly.

Teilomere continued to talk while the men moved forward determinedly. “Now that seems a bit excessive.”

Athena rolled her eyes, her hand already dropping to the scimitar at her side. It bumped against Tae’s spiked chain instead. How was she supposed to fight with it hindering her movements?

“Odette, the lights.” Carmen snapped, pushing past Teilomere and Odette to rush at the oncoming men. Her shadow raced out in front of her like spilled tar.

Odette clapped her hands together, and everything went black. Athena moved closer to Odette, worried that someone might manage to make their way through the magical darkness to still detain the sorceress. She could still hear Carmen moving, untroubled by the total darkness. Accidental magic had left Carmen with the uncanny ability to see even in the darkest of locations, but even before that, she had trained with her eyes blindfolded to give her excellent battlefield awareness.

Carmen was always one for conquering her fears as aggressively as possible.

Athena felt, more than heard, Teilomere move away. She wondered what the sly shapeshifter was up to. No matter how helpful he seemed to be, he still worked for the Jadens.

There was the distinctive sound of fist meeting flesh from where Carmen had bounded and a great deal of swearing as blinded men stumbled into each other, trying to find the nimble swordswoman.

Athena knew why Carmen had chosen to use her fists instead of her sword. Even should they win free of this skirmish, the guardsmen would chase after them all the quicker should the women kill any of their associates.

The hairs on her arm rose as she felt a presence moving behind her. Fingertips brushed against her arm as someone moved blindly around, undoubtedly looking for her and Odette. Before whoever it was had a chance to get a grip, she rammed her left elbow backwards.

There was a sharp exhalation of air as he bent forward at the sudden pressure, and she spun, bringing the base of her right palm sharply upward. He was taller than she had thought, and she caught the base of his throat instead of the nose that she expected. He made a sharp choking noise, trying to gulp air back into his system. She slammed her left fist down on the back of his neck. He hit the ground at her feet, panting heavily. She was already pulling a leg back to kick out at him when she heard him scuffle out of reach.

Carmen had not been the only one who had trained to spread her senses whilst blindfolded. Without her magic, Athena may have been weakened, but she was far from helpless.

There was a yelp of pain. Someone seemed to have stepped on the man she knocked down.

The sounds coming from where Carmen fought were getting louder, more irate. The guardsmen were obviously getting frustrated with their inability to properly fight back against her.

Someone else grabbed hold of her right arm. She tried jerking it out, but his grip was too tight. He tugged her towards him, spinning her so that her back was to him, and snatched her left arm up to hold with her other. She let herself drop into a dead weight, leaning as far forward as she could, trying to pull him off-balance. He stumbled, but another set of hands was already snapping a set of handcuffs on her.

“Sorry about this, wood-speaker,” someone murmured into her ear just before she was dropped forward onto the ground. She turned her head to keep from falling completely face-first into the floor.

The shapeshifter. They shouldn’t have trusted him.

She flipped herself over and kicked at where he was. He’d already retreated, but she clipped the other man. She tangled her legs up in his as best she could and swept his feet out from under him. Unfortunately, he landed still tangled up in her feet, and she felt something tear insider her ankle.

“Enough!” someone shouted. A loud clap echoed curiously through the two rooms.

The darkness disappeared, and she blinked furiously as her pupils tried to adjust.

Standing a short distance away was a dark-haired man in a white robe, a long blue stole draped around his neck. Helia Wymarc had been dressed in something very similar. He had to have been the one to dispel the magically-induced darkness. They were on the holy grounds of a sun god, after all. Even the least of his clerics would have the knowledge of the spell that brought light to otherwise dark places.

The guard tangled up in her feet clambered up, shooting her an annoyed glare. She glared right back, and then twisted her head, looking for Carmen and Odette.

Carmen stood over a rather impressive group of groaning bodies. She would not have had so easy a time without Odette’s spell of darkness, but it was a remarkable feat of battle, all the same. Beyond the bloodied lip, she looked none the worse for wear. She was panting from exertion and her eyes were bright with battle-lust. In the bright light of the priest's spell, Carmen's shadow was an almost solid presence.

Odette, on the other hand, had the crusader’s sword to her neck, her face pale and her eyes wide with alarm. The threat wasn’t so much implied as it was shouted. Had Odette attempted another spell in the darkness, he would have finished her off. Athena had never noticed his approach, but he had to have started moving even before Odette finished casting her spell.

The shapeshifter was nowhere to be seen. He'd either shifted his form or escaped the fracas entirely.

“Crusader Tunwald, would you care to explain this?” the priest asked.

“Not until that other woodswoman is locked up as well,” the man rasped. “She’s already knocked out the squad I had with me.”

“And I’ll take the rest of ye on,” Carmen growled, lowering herself into a readied position. The few men who had managed to climb up to their feet gave each other haggard looks and took up similar positions. Athena had to give them points for sheer cussedness, but they all looked like a stiff breeze would knock them over.

“You’ll go quietly or I’ll kill your sorceress right now and save the master-at-arms the problem.”

There were heavy footsteps approaching them. Athena angled her head to glance backwards. More guardsmen were approaching, clad in mass-produced munition armor rather than the brigandine that the first ones wore. The man at their head wore the same type of chain shirt the crusader did, though he wore no cloak.

“Touch a hair on her head and ‘twill be the last thing you’ll ever do.”

Athena struggled into a sitting position, trying to divert the brewing fight. Carmen couldn’t fight her way through everyone here, not with the reinforcements that had taken up position behind the priest.

“Carmen, ‘tis over,” she said.

“Not until he lowers his weapon,” Carmen argued. Her voice said she would brook no disagreement.

The priest turned his head to murmur to the guardsman in the chain shirt, who had taken up position directly behind the priest's right shoulder. She wondered why she could not hear what he said. He could not have spoken that quietly, not and have the other man still hear him. The guard shrugged and approached Athena, pulling her up more gently than she expected.

After ensuring that she was well enough to stand, he took another two steps to where the crusader still stood with his sword to Odette. Odette looked unsurprisedly at him and offered him her palms face up. She had to have heard the priest’s words, so why hadn’t Athena?

The guardsman pulled a set of handcuffs off his belt and snapped them tightly around Odette’s tiny wrists. Carmen huffed in frustration, but stood up out of her battle stance. She crossed her arms and glared at the guardsmen near her, silently daring them to put the same things on her. None of them looked interested in taking her up on the matter, instead choosing to try and wake their unconscious fellows.

The crusader sheathed his sword, his face unhappy.

“Who did this?” the priest said from directly behind her. Athena jumped, surprised, and was restrained from turning around by a strong grip on the manacles locking her arms behind her back.

“I thought she was the other one,” said the guard she had tripped up. “Adelmar said he’d grab her for me while I snapped them on.”

From the sounds of things, there seemed to be something unusual about the handcuffs she had been placed in. She tried tugging her arms to one side, trying to see the cuffs. It didn’t work very well.

“Too late now,” the priest said pragmatically. “They’re keyed in to her. We’ll have to wait a day for it to reset.”

“Those cancel out magic,” Odette said weakly, paling even further.

No wonder Athena was having so much trouble with her hearing. Even with her connection to the magical world torn away, her few fey gifts had still been working. But an anti-magic spell inscribed in cold iron was meant to block interaction with the ley energies. For all intents and purposes, Athena was human until the handcuffs were removed.

“Healer Maire has determined the men you brought back were killed with lightning, sorceress,” he said flatly. “Helia Wymarc is demanding your presence. The irons are to keep you from attacking her as well.”

“You cannot put something like that on a pixie,” Athena said aghast. “Fey are magical beings. Cold iron spelled to block magic would kill her in a matter of hours.”

“You seem to be fine, half-breed,” the crusader said. His mouth was twisted up like he had bitten into something unexpectedly sour.

“Key word being half,” she snapped. “Half elf, half human. Odette is completely a pixie. 'Tis no mortal blood left in her to counteract your shielding.” She jangled the handcuffs that had been snapped onto her. They didn't feel odd, but then, with her already attempting to get used to the sensation of being without magic, it wouldn't feel odd. “These locks would cut her off from that which created her and keeps her tied to the physical world.”

“Take them to the donjon.” The crusader motioned towards the guards. One of them had already placed handcuffs on Carmen. They had, perhaps unwisely, left her arms in front of her.

“The sorceress is to go to Helia Wymarc,” the priest instructed.

“She can sign her out from the overseer's office just like the other priests do with prisoners,” the crusader said flatly. “I've already heard rumors about prisoners not being taken to the Inquisitors by the priests. I'm not taking any chances with this one.”

The priest's face turned an interesting shade of purple.

“Why don't we take this discussion somewhere more private?” The crusader started dragging the priest away, one hand clenched tightly around the smaller man's bicep. “To the donjon, Master,” he said to the guard in the chain shirt. A door slammed resoundingly shut behind the duo.

“You heard the knight,” the guard said. He had an authoritative timbre that seemed ingrained in the crusaders she had met. She thought he might be the master-at-arms the crusader had spoken of. The crusader had addressed him as Master, after all, and it had not come across as something servile. “You two, take charge of the swordswoman. My lady, if you could perhaps refrain from bashing their skulls in as well?” He looked at Carmen. She shrugged resignedly. “A verbal response please, my lady.”

“I'll not touch them,” she said curtly.

“Thank you.”

“Unless they start it.”

“By all the gods, Carmen, let them do their jobs without getting us into even more trouble,” Athena snapped. She was tired, dirty, and entirely cut off from every bit of magic she had grown up with. And she was very weary of Carmen dragging her feet about such matters when the crusader had so obviously stuck his head out to keep them from being separated even more. Internal religious politics were so overly complicated.

“You take charge of the peevish one, Squire Rodgar,” the man continued, ignoring her outburst, even as Carmen attempted to glower and scuffle her feet sheepishly all at the same time.

The guard who had claimed to place the handcuffs on her looked wild-eyed. “But Master Ecbert,” he stuttered. “She'll kick me again!”

Athena wasn't sorry for tripping him up at all.

“She probably wants to be just as far away from you as you do from her,” he said soothingly. “Now get over there before I put you on latrine duty.”

“Yessir,” the younger man said mournfully. He shuffled closer to her and Athena had a fleeting urge to bare her teeth at him.

“The rest of you help up the crusader's men. And I want a list of all of their names.” The men standing near Carmen all looked worriedly to the man. “You've all been volunteered for extra training in how to properly take down brawlers without getting in each others' way. Don't think I can't see only one of you managed to clip her.”

Carmen gave him a sharp, unfriendly smile. “That was Crusader Tunwald, actually,” she said. “I didn't spot the knife in his off-hand quite fast enough. And I'm very sorry for taking it from him to pin one of his men to the floor. I'd already used up all of mine.”

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