The Fire & Ice Chronicles - THE COLOUR OF AMBER, part 1
Deep in the gloom of the corridors of Marblehead, stronghold of the forces of the Opposition, a curious rat barely had time to register the brief flash of light in the distance before the crossbow bolt, with pinpoint precision, impaled it on the wall.
"HA! Did you see that? Right between the eyes!" the guard cackled, watching with relish the creature's final twitches, and savouring the moment as though his triumph were the whole event that his life had been built towards. A veteran of many hours of mindless drudgery, he had long since resigned himself to the fact he would never achieve a rank of any real importance, and took whatever minor personal satisfactions that were on offer where he found them. Even his uniform had been allowed to degenerate over the years, as though he wore it more out of habit than for any real practical purpose.
"I do wish you wouldn't do that," his partner sighed, barely giving the rodent's corpse a glance before returning his gaze to the corridor stretching off before him. He was significantly younger than his comrade, with the faintest smell of armour polish wafting from his breastplate. The sort of person who would do everything asked of him without a second thought, no matter how unimportant, in the misguided hope that he would finally be noticed and given something worthwhile to do.
"Oh come on, that was top marksmanship! Don't make out like you ain't impressed."
"Yes," sniffed the younger man, "I'm sure your prowess as a rat-catcher will soon be revered throughout the land. In the meantime, can you keep quiet and do your job?"
"All right, all right," conceded the scruffy guardsman, and returned to his sentry position leaning against the leftmost side of the brightly-polished stonework "It's a stupid job anyways. Nobody comes down here, least no one important-like. I wouldn't put it past them to forget we even exist."
"That's not true,' denied the young guard, his tone turning defensive with such suddenness that his older companion was quick to wonder whom he was trying to convince, 'our Lord himself told me that the work we did was critical to the continued smooth running of the palace-"
"And you believe all that, do you? No, don't say a thing, of course you do." The older guard let out the sigh of a man surrounded by people much younger than himself. "Gods, I don't know where the Opposition find pillocks like you. I'll wager you anything you like that if a dungeoneer happened to walk down that corridor right now, you wouldn't think twice before pointing him in the direction of whatever he was looting!"
"Now see here..." the young guard began, but stopped in mid-sentence. His expression of anger swiftly turned into an unsettled frown. Briefly ignoring the look his partner was giving him, he leaned past his gaze and into the distance along the corridor.
"What? What are you doing?" asked the older guard.
"You didn't hear something just now?" asked the younger, a nervy tremor in his voice.
"Only you about to launch into what I'm sure would have been an inspiring panegyric on what a vital role you-"
"Shut up and listen for a moment!" the younger man growled, beckoning him quiet with a wave of his hand. "I'm telling you I heard something," he added, but his tone lacked conviction, as though he did not want to sound too sure for fear of later embarrassment.
"And I'm telling you it's your imagination playing tricks on you!" the other guard grumbled. "Probably another rodent." The older one toyed with his crossbow again, clearly enjoying the prospect of an extra opportunity to show off his marksmanship.
His younger companion's eyes lingered on the crossroads meanwhile, as though he was daring them to reveal whatever it was he felt they were concealing. Finally, his suspicion gave away to embarrassment, and he returned his sword to its sheath.
"Yeah, you're right," he conceded, hoping his nervousness had not cost him any personal dignity. He broke into a grin. "I mean, it's not like any servants of the Powers-That-Be are going to try and break in, is it?"
"True enough,' agreed a voice said from the shadows behind them. "However, that doesn't mean that others won't."
The two guards had next-to-no-time to react. The one on the left just had enough time to turn round before the throwing knife pierced his neck. He opened his mouth but only a gurgling noise escaped his lips before he crashed to the floor in a heap, blood pouring from his mouth and forming a puddle on the flagstones.
The other guard made to call out but a pair of hands clamped around his throat from behind, constricting it like the leg of a rabbit caught in a metal trap. The guard dropped his sword and tried to wriggle loose from the hold, but his attacker effortlessly pulled him back and at the same time brought his knee up into the guard's spine. There was a sickening crack as his spine snapped and the guard's unconscious form dropped to the floor, ebbing toward his former associate in death.
The two killers now stepped out from the shadows they had been concealed in and looked at the two lifeless corpses. One of the killers was wearing thick leather gloves and the robes of an assassin. He had black hair and a goatee beard, was youthful and yet frail-looking, and there was an unmistakable fervour about him. His eyes were a most disturbing sight, red as the blood that now dripped from the mouth of the guard he had just slain with one of his throwing knifes.
The other was equally unnerving to behold. While his companion's appearance merely hinted at danger, his practically screamed it. He was dressed in black robes that gave him an air of the Grim Reaper. He too had dark black hair, but he was clean-shaven. However, the pallor of his skin was noticeably more pronounced than the other man's, and again his eyes would be disturbing for anyone who chose to look into them; one was a piercing blue. the other an emerald green.
They surveyed the scene before them. Though these two men were trained killers and two of the dungeon realm's most feared assassins and mercenaries for hire, neither of them took any joy or pleasure in the act they had just committed. They would have preferred to complete this job with out spilling any blood at all, but circumstances had dictated otherwise.
While it would have been perfectly possible for them to infiltrate the palace undetected, courtesy of their training within the assassin guild, it would not have been so easy for their associate.
Emerging from the shadows stepped a lady with long raven black hair that ran down to her shoulders. Her face had a beauty about it that was reminiscent of a porcelain doll, with bright blue eyes hinting at great power and intelligence. They almost sparkled, and yet lacked warmth to them. She was dressed in a black flowing dress that clung to her body showing off her figure.
She gazed quizzically over the two dead bodies on the floor."Are they dead?" she asked, any curiosity in her voice functional rather than emotional.
"Yes, your Ladyship. They're dead."
She sighed, not with sympathy, but with annoyance. She considered the two corpses before her to be nothing more than a practical inconvenience. "So much for the discrete approach. I was under the impression that we knew the precise times and locations of all guard postings tonight."
"It would appear, milady," responded the man with red eyes, "that our information in this regard is somewhat... obsolete. In fact, I am not sure that this corridor even appears on any of the maps we currently possess."
"At this point," the woman snapped, "I wouldn't trust that thing even if I had the cartographer standing right before me. You shouldn't put so much faith in what is on paper, Wren. I did tell you that the constant shifting of Marblehead makes any attempt at conventional mapping impossible."
"I was assured that these were the most recent plans of the layout," Wren replied, sounding mildly defensive. As one who prided himself on his meticulous planning and preparations, he was not accustomed to having of his reconnaissance work berated. He found himself awkwardly toying with the daggers in his gloved hands, trying to keep his demeanour civil.
"It's irrelevant anyway," said Leytan. "This place is like a spider's web. No matter what direction you go in, it just takes you closer to the centre. We might as well continue on our way..."
"That sounds unusually morbid of you Leytan," said the assassin, raising his eyebrows in mock concern.
"Hardly!" Leytan retorted, a little too hastily. "I simply refuse to be intimidated by one man's warped taste in architectural design."
"Sorry, squire," answered Wren, "didn't realise that haunted houses were so effective on you..."
"If you have both quite finished," interrupted Lady Mercury, "might we get what we came for and leave before we have his Lordship himself breathing down our necks?"
"Shouldn't we do something about these two first?" Leytan asked, gesturing towards the bodies of the former guardsmen.
"Leave them," Lady Mercury instructed. "They won't be missed, certainly not before we are long gone."
She stepped over the two bodies without a second glance and proceeded along the corridor, direction of preference apparently decided The two men exchanged glances, but then shrugged and set off after their aristocratic associate. In the shadows, the rats that remained twitched, eyeing the bodies of the guardsmen ravenously. They would feast well tonight, once they were sure all living humans were gone.
One week earlier...
Dawn broke lazily over the Rift of Angar, slowly driving away the dull bleakness of its jagged outcroppings. Its mountain ranges, typically a dreary myrtle, began to shine with an almost resplendent emerald hue in the newborn sunlight. In the brief window offered by the new morn, one could almost be taken in by the purity of its natural beauty.
But there was none present to witness such a sight. There was no life to be found in the Rift, save for the occasional wild animal that had strayed from its usual place of grazing, or foolhardy traveller seeking passage to the settlements beyond. It was a place of desolation, its normally wind-swept crevices the final resting place of many a slow footed adventurer who had attempted to traverse it and had instead met a decidedly painful end at the hand of the elements. Few came here, and even fewer left. All of which suited the Rift's current inhabitants quite nicely.
For deep beneath the mountains, nestled within the intricate web of tunnels and caverns, lie the sleeping figures that the people of the Knightmare realm had come to know as Fire and Ice.
For a number of weeks now the Rift had served as their makeshift home, chosen for both its inaccessibility and the discretion it provided. Although the group in its current form had only been together for a handful of months, they were slowly building a reputation in certain circles as effective (if somewhat dysfunctional at times) mercenaries. But such a reputation had bought a growing notoriety amongst several local militias, and the events of recent weeks had resulted in the pressing need for the keeping of a low profile. Although potentially limiting the reach of those who wished to request their services by more conventional means, they were grateful for the brief period of tranquility the Rift afforded them.
But upon this new morning, their temporary respite would soon find itself at an end.
The flickering candlelight illuminated the unwashed and somewhat bedraggled features of January Lucile Mallory the 3rd, named by the group for convenience's sake as Jan-Jan. For the last six hours now she had been alternating her attention between a thick tome that lay open on the ground and a collection of obtuse and arcane looking components scattered before her, resembling the final outcome of a pooka in an alchemist's workshop. Despite the many hours of rapt concentration she had endured, she neither betrayed any trace of fatigue, nor of boredom. To call the half-feral orphan's attention span 'one track minded' was in no way either exaggeration or hyperbole.
Jan-Jan had always been regarded by the others as something of an oddity, both in terms of her mannerisms (which ranged from "engagingly eccentric" all the way through to "utterly deranged") and her almost masterful grasp of the intricacies of all things technical, especially in the field of spying magic. But despite her shortness of years and her often bewildering thought processes, she had fast become a valued asset to the group, in which she saw as her new family.
Her current focus was broken by by a sudden flickering from the corner of the grotto in which she was situated, accompanied by the screech of echoing static. She instantly disregarded any and all thoughts that were currently coursing through her mind and switched her immediate attention to the source of this new stimulus - a spy mirror, a rare two-way communications device used by those of the higher levels of magic.
"DING DONG!!! Who's there?" The girl called out in delight as the spymirror fizzed to show someone was attempting to make a connection. Leaping over to the cave wall upon which the mirror had been carefully propped up against, Jan-Jan giggled and watched as the image of a regally dressed woman appeared in the spymirror. It was Greystagg, Queen of the Witches and leader of the Grey Sisters. Jan-Jan regarded her briefly and then smiled gleefully, for some reason finding the sight of Greystagg desperately amusing.
"Hehehe... funny Grey Lady!" she cooed in delight.
"Who dares refer to one of Royal stature in such a manner?" Greystagg demanded. Slightly annoyed, she peered closer at the crouching figure she was speaking to. "Ah yes, the... urchin. Well, given your obvious lack of any solid mental faculties, your insulting remarks are beneath my ire. I wish to speak to either Leytan or Wren. Both would be preferable."
"Ley-Ley and Wren-Wren both asleep," Jan-Jan replied in her somewhat unique approach to the English language.
"Then be a dear and go wake them up, child," Greystagg commanded in a way that was meant to be gentle, and, hopefully, not condescending. "It is most urgent that I speak to them." She was trying to maintain her calm and dignified demeanour against difficult odds; Jan-Jan really was an immediately aggravating person who required a certain mindset to tolerate for extended periods of time.
"Aye-aye!" Jan-Jan said, and she bounded off on all fours - a characteristic inherited from her less-than-human upbringing - to find and awaken Leytan and Wren. She soon found Leytan, and was about to wake him when she noticed something.
"Oh! Oh! Lady Con-Con in bed with Ley-Ley. She not be pleased with Jan-Jan if she wake her."
And indeed Lady Mercury, or Lady Con-Con as Jan-Jan referred to her, was lying next to her lover, her arm draped over him. Waking Leytan would almost certainly disturb Lady Mercury and Jan-Jan was always wary of the Netherworldian sorceress and the expression on Lady Mercury's face as she lay sleeping did nothing to relax her. Lady Mercury had a half-frown, half-worried look on her face.
"Jan-Jan find Wren-Wren instead."
And again Jan-Jan bounded off, this time looking for Vyrrian Wren. Unbeknown to Jan-Jan, the reason for Lady Mercury's troubled expression was due to the dream that she was currently experiencing; it was a dream she had been having repeatedly for the past several months and its contents and apparent meaning shook her to the core. But she had not divulged any of this to her fellow group members, and so Jan-Jan was unaware as she continued her search for Wren.
"Jan-Jan found him!" the feral urchin cried in delight when she came upon Wren, who was asleep in a back corner of the cave, beneath an overhang of rock that jutted out above him.
She pawed at him with one of her hands. "Gnnngh… goats are purple," Wren mumbled, the wisdom of which doubtless made perfect sense in whatever dream-based landscape he was currently perusing, but which was completely lost on the child. She watched as he scratched his scalp in his sleep, noting that the flecks of skin on his shoulder made out two rows of three that ran across and diagionally, the same configuration as the belt and sword of the constellation Orion.
Jan-Jan had grown used to Wren's heavy sleeping by now. Flexing a finger, she jabbed it sharply into Wren's ribs. The assassin sat bolt upright in an instant, unfortunately striking his forehead against the overhang in the process.
"Awake!" Wren gibbered with an odd mixture of great sharpness and incoherence. "Alert. Coiled spring, ready to strike..." He stared ahead in unfocused bewilderment. Finally, his surroundings swam into view. "Why am I on the floor?"
"Funny Grey Witch Queen want to talk to you," giggled Jan, greatly amused by the sight.
"Jan-Jan, do you have any idea what time it is?" Wren whirred grumpily, Jan-Jan's words not really registering with him yet. "I'm tired, I haven't eaten..." He paused, rubbed the side of his head, then added wearily, "and it now feels like I’ve got a dwarf-miner loudly demanding union rights inside my skill. And you come and badger me about Witch Queens?" Before Jan-Jan could respond, Wren added, "I couldn't care less if she's a Grey Witch-Queen, A Red Witch-Queen, or a benighted Forest Opal Witch Queen." He turned away, slumped back into his prone position in the corner, and tended to the sore spot on his head sulkily.
"What Jan-Jan to say to...?" Jan-Jan tried to ask.
Wren cut her off moodily in mid-sentence. "Tell her to go away!" he snarled, having still not entirely taken in what Jan-Jan had told him.
Jan-Jan looked puzzled for a moment, then shrugged and set off back to the spymirror.
Still nursing the tender lump on the crown of his head, it took several seconds for Wren's brain to get into motion and realise what Jan-Jan had said to him. And more important perhaps, what he had said to her. His eyes snapped open.
"JAN-JAN, WAIT!" he cried and ran after her. Jan-Jan came sliding to a halt in front of the spymirror, and beamed up at the image of the Witch Queen in what she mistakenly believed to be an endearing manner.
"Wren-Wren says he doesn't-... UMMMMMPHFF!" Jan-Jan garbled as Wren's gloved hand snaked round and clamped over her mouth.
"Ah, your Highness!" Wren greeted the Witch Queen with a grin of his own that was far too broad to be trusted, "as my colleague was about to say, I don't... er... know anyone that it would be a greater pleasure to be woken by on this fine morning. What can we do for you?"
"I require your and Leytan's foraging skills, Wren," the Queen answered. "I wish to acquire possession of an object that could prove very valuable, if not essential, to the future of the Grey Sisterhood."
"What object are we talking about, your ladyship?" Wren enquired, his tone of diplomatic cheer shifting quickly to neutral inscrutability. Like Leytan, he had been taught well and was always careful about how he handled contract negotiations. Especially important, his mentor, Master Reeves, had explained to him when he was still a young trainee assassin, was to ask questions without enthusiasm, to sound cautious, and to make as big a show as possible of finding the job deeply unappealing. Getting a good deal, his Master had explained, was not just a question of not committing to the job before the full facts were made known. It was just as important not to sound as if you could have your price argued down.
"We are prepared to pay you handsomely for this service," Greystagg continued. "A most lucrative contract, but a most urgent one. May I assume you are interested?"
"You didn't answer the question," came a polite, but frosty voice from the doorway.
Wren had felt the temperature drop - as it always did when his friend and business partner entered the vicinity - long before Leytan's words had reached his ear; he turned and looked at Leytan nodding his head in greeting.
"Morning, squire, how much did you hear?"
"With you yelling Jan-Jan's name through the entire cavern system, there was very little that I could miss. I've heard banshees that would cower at the racket you make sometimes, Wren!"
Both mercenaries returned their attention to Greystagg.
"Your Highness," growled Leytan, taking the lead in the negotiations, "you have hired mercenaries quite often enough. You of all people know the realities of the industry, and the way in which we in particular conduct business. First you make clear exactly what the job involves - all the details - and then we tell you whether we are interested. Anything else would be like eating the bread before getting the butter out."
Greystagg looked at him stonily. "I believe I made clear that it is a retrieval mission."
"But not what you wish us to retrieve, nor why you and your colleagues are unable to retrieve it for yourselves, nor, most importantly, what kind of opposition we can look forward to encountering."
Queen Greystagg sighed. "We wish to take possession of a device that Lord Fear has created. Apparently it can duplicate Witch Amber, thereby creating a renewable and endless source."
"Ah," Leytan murmured, "When I said 'Opposition', I didn't realise I was being literal."
"And I suppose then that you wish two of my mercenaries to risk their lives breaking into Marblehead, do you, Greystagg?" said another voice.
Leytan and Wren looked round, then, almost subconsciously, took a slight step backwards from the spymirror. The truest master of fiendish negotiation had entered the room, Lady Constance Isabel Mercury. She was leaning against the wall of the cave, her long flowing dress as black as the shadows. She offered them no acknowledgement; she just kept her eyes locked with Greystagg's. They glinted, but it was not a warm or friendly sparkle, it was cold and serious.
Any thoughts or memories of her troubling nightmare pushed aside as she prepared to once more negotiate the price for which she, Leytan and Wren might be expected to risk their lives for.
"That would be correct, fellow sister from another realm. And may I say that I would have expected you to be more inclined to help us, given our shared history."
Mercury bristled. "Don't try and talk me round with the sentiment of fellowship, Grey. If we decide to take the job at all, the price will be set on its own terms." She folded her arms and walked forward slightly, still holding eye contact with Greystagg. "I would assume that your information about this machine of Lord Fear's is correct and that your source is reliable? Because if it isn't we can just end this discussion right now."
"I can assure you the information is correct," confirmed Greystagg firmly, "and that the source is most reliable."
"Corroboration?" demanded Lady Mercury briskly.
"It has been corroborated, yes."
"By whom?" Lady Mercury asked, getting straight to the point.
"Sister Heggatty," answered Greystagg. "She overheard Lord Fear talking about such a machine not so long ago. And this was confirmed by a report from a spy operating for the Powers-That-Be not more then a day ago."
Wren and Leytan exchanged looks of surprise that rapidly melted into suspicion.
"And how did you get access to a Powers-That-Be spy ring?" Wren asked.
"Let us just say," Greystagg answered smartly, "that walls have ears. Literally, anywhere near Dunshelm. So are the details to this job agreeable, sister from another realm?"
Mercury still looked unimpressed, but her interest was piqued. "How much?"
"Two thousand gold sovereigns was the sum I was thinking of."
Lady Mercury laughed contemptuously. "And I think you are trying to insult us. Two thousand for breaking into Marblehead? Twelve, not a penny less."
Greystagg's haughty temperament began to break through once more. "The Grey Sisters do not have that kind of wealth and you know it, Constance Mercury!" she almost screamed.
"Then I'm afraid we do not have the ability to assist you," Mercury answered, never one to be moved by the anger of others.
"Three thousand," Greystagg offered with a scowl.
Lady Mercury shook her head with a slight sniff, making a show of stubbornness, but visibly enjoying her favourite game. "With our current cash flow, Grey," she explained, "that would be insufficient. In fact, seeing how expensive remote communications can be, I think perhaps we should end this discussion now..." She reached toward the spymirror, as though shaping to break contact.
"Wait!" Greystagg snapped. She swallowed very slightly, and then upped the offer again. "You will bleed our treasury dry, but... five thousand."
Leytan and Wren observed these two powerful sorceresses haggling the price for which they would be expected to risk their lives. Both knew it was futile to try and interfere or attempt to silence Lady Mercury now she had started to negotiate. Successful haggling was to her an equal pleasure to getting paid, or any pleasures of the fleshly kind.
"I know exactly the state of your treasury, Grey. Don't forget I visited your strong-room when I was last in attendance... along with certain other chambers." Lady Mercury raised one of her eyebrows suggestively, and a faint smile appeared on her lips. Leytan and Wren exchanged quizzical glances. They could sniff a slight odour of blackmail in the air.
"Six thousand," Greystagg offered, looking pale. "Times have changed since then, sister from another realm." Greystagg was making an impressive show of trying to remain aloof and not being drawn into Lady Mercury's mind games, but for all that, it was clear that she was losing the battle.
"Oh I don't think they've changed that much, Grey," Lady Mercury answered, almost purring. It was evident that she was enjoying the Witch Queen's misery. "But still, I can be generous. Make it a full seven and we have a deal."
"Agreed," Greystagg conceded, probably out of simple impatience to end the haggling.
"Oh and, err, it goes without saying that we'll take half the pay before the job," Leytan interjected, not wanting to be showed up by Lady Mercury entirely.
"That much I expected," Greystagg said. "You can collect it from our palace of Ambrohame, the day before you undertake the task."
"Oh I'm truly touched," Lady Mercury sniffed, "allowing us the privilege of a whole night of sleep before we risk our lives for you and your Sisterhood."
Greystagg looked genuinely distressed. "Please come soon. The sooner the device is in our possession the sooner steps can be made to rectify the intolerable imbalance of power between the Sisterhood and the Opposition."
Greystagg terminated the conversation and her image faded from the mirror.
"Bye-Bye!" Jan-Jan, who had been watching this scene along with Leytan and Wren, cooed merrily.
"Well, we had best get moving then," Leytan remarked. "Ambrohame is a good day's trek from here. Everyone get your equipment together and let's get going."
"Shouldn't we try contacting Mistress Midnight first?" suggested Wren, referring to the sole member of the group who was not present. Jan-Jan instantly lit up with mention of the renegade Powers That Be agent's name. "Given the magnitude of what we're going to be attempting, we may benefit from-"
"We can't," said Leytan adamantly, ignoring Jan-Jan's resulting sulk at his denial. "She's still in South Winteria, as a guest of the Crown Princess. I do not think she would appreciate having her meditations interrupted with this business. Besides, it is over a fortnight's journey from Winteria to Ambrohame. I suspect the Grey Sisters would not tolerate such a delay."
As he spoke, he noticed out of the corner of his eye that Lady Mercury was still gazing into the the spymirror. She seemed distracted by other thoughts, almost as if she was in a world of her own.
"Milady?" Wren asked her, gently touching her right arm.
"Hmmm?" Lady Mercury gave a slight start as if waking from a trance. "Oh yes, yes fine, absolutely fine." She paused, swallowed slightly, then seemed to focus her. "Well come on then. If we're going to Ambrohame we need to get packed and moving."
With that Lady Mercury quickly turned her back to Wren and set off back towards her and Leytan's area of the cave to gather her belongings.
In truth, she did not feel she could tell Wren about her dream, and that had been the cause of her strange behaviour. The memories had burst back to the forefront of her mind as soon as the distraction of haggling had passed, and although it was tempting to share… No, she could not tell him, nor Wren, nor Jan-Jan, nor Midnight... No one. To speak about the dream demanded thinking about it in great detail. And that could cause great discomfort and unease.
No, it was best she keep it to herself for the time being.
Leytan watched her go, suspicions forming in his mind. He made a mental note to press this matter once they were on their way. In the meantime, he turned to Wren.
"Best do as she says, Wren," Leytan suggested drily. "It doesn't do to keep a lady of aristocratic blood waiting." He punctuated his words with a slight grin and set off after Lady Mercury, pausing besides Jan-Jan who's head was crooked at a curious angle and staring at Wren with one eyebrow raised.
"Something wrong, young'un?" he enquired.
"Why does Wren-Wren dream of purple goats?" she said, a question that surely had never been uttered before this moment.
"Don't ask, Jan-Jan," sighed Leytan as he led her by the hand towards the cave entrance. "Don't ask. Sometimes it's best to merely wonder."