The Fire & Ice Chronicles - THE COLOUR OF AMBER, part 3
Jan-Jan watched the moonlight dance across the gently lapping surface of the distant ocean and sought in vain once more for a means in which her attention could be occupied.
She had exhausted the possibilities that lay within the cart hours ago. The others had insisted on packing light, taking only what they had infiltrated the palace with. Wren had even taken the unusual step of leaving behind his satchel, which deprived Jan-Jan of the opportunity to examine the unique chemicals and equipment it carried. Not that it would have maintained her interest for long. She had already memorised the words that had been carefully written upon every vial, knew the shape of every suspicious looking implement of the assassin's trade (alongside some that had been acquired through considerably more dubious channels). But she always took great satisfaction in working out the pattern of touches on the handle required to open the bag safely, a habit that simultaneously impressed and infuriated Wren to no end.
Aside from some basic provisions that the Grey Sisters had prepared for them, the only other item in the cart was Jan-Jan's own spyglass, which she had been holding tightly in her calloused hands ever since they had departed. If the worst came to pass and their maps proved to be useless, they would need the reference point of another spyglass to provide them with the means of escaping Marblehead. It was stressed to Jan-Jan that she was effectively holding their survival in her hands, a duty that, despite her attention span occasionally rivaling that of an attention deficient mayfly, she had no intention of shirking.
Despite this, inactivity did not come easily to the feral youth. She wished she could leave the confines of the cart and explore her surroundings, maybe examine the odd scuttling creatures that seemed so commonplace around this region. There was a galleon that bobbed gently in the waters beside the outer walls of the palace, on the other side of the canopy where she and the cart were concealed. An almost manic urge to stow away on board coursed through her, to hide beneath the lower decks and set sail with the galleon to destinations uknown -
No. She had to focus. She was needed here. The spyglass in her hand, that was all that mattered. She had been Given A Task, by those who trusted in her, and she was not going to fail in it.
She couldn't help but worry, though. As a concept, pessimism was not one that Jan-Jan typically entertained, due more to a casual disregard for forward thinking rather than any real sense of optimism on her part. But she had heard more than enough stories from Midnight to know of the dangers that lay within the walls of Marblehead, both to the dungeoneers that had once been guided through it and the agents of the Powers That Be who had been sent within following the events that had led to the Civil War's current incarnation. Enough for her to know there was the very real possibility that she would never see her family again.
Glancing out to sea once again, briefly calculating the trajectory of a passing gull's flight, she assured herself they were fine. In fact, she was more than happy to wager that by now the worst of what lie within Marblehead was behind them.
"Heads down, ladies and gents, lest you be parted from them!" Wren yelled as he threw himself to the ground.
Leytan immediately ducked, dodging the oncoming saw blade. He felt a sudden shift of air as the deadly shard raced past his head, several inches shy of scalping him. "Keep your eyes open and feet nimble," he said as a second deadly blade spun towards them from out of the gloom, "and we'll get through this."
"Left, LEFT!" roared Wren. The three of them flung themselves against the leftmost wall as quickly as they could, while a searing circular blade rolled past with an ominous whirring.
"GYAAAAGH!" cursed Lady Mercury, suddenly clutching what looked like the back of her neck.
"Isabel! Are you hurt?"
Lady Mercury drew her hand away. "Damn thing just lopped off a lock of my hair!"
"Be thankful it wasn't your head!" Leytan said, slightly incredulous at such an uncharacteristic outburst from her. But glancing at Lady Mercury, he couldn't help but notice that she wasn't being completely honest about her injury. A smattering of red droplets on her shoulder had already began to stain her dress.
"LOOK OUT, YOU TWO!" came the next shout from Wren.
Lady Mercury and Leytan looked up to see yet another blade bearing down on them. "We need to get the hell out of here!" Leytan said as he again dodged the deadly blade, pushing Isabel in front of him, making sure she was definitely out of harm's way this time. Wren found himself crouched where he had landed before, paralysed as another hurled past above him. He registered stains on the blade's circumference and immediately tried not to think about their origin in great detail.
"Five blades," panted Lady Mercury as one more spun by, this time harmlessly on the opposite side at waist height. "I remember now. It always stops after five blades. We're safe. We just need to wait for the-"
Just then there was a juddering from whatever mechanism it was that operated the corridor. But instead of grinding to a halt, the conveyor now began to accelerate.
"Why?" gibbered Wren, clearly struggling to keep his faculties under control. "WHY did you have to say that?!"
"No..." Lady Mercury said, the single note of panic in her voice starting to sound more like a full concerto. 'Why is it going faster? It NEVER goes..."
As if in response to her question, the buzzing sounds began to reach new volumes. Resisting the urge to clasp his palms to his ears, Leytan watched in horror as not one but two of the deadly buzzsaws spun towards them simneltaneously, this time rising up on either side of the floor.
As though their minds were in harmony, the trio dived for the centre of the platform and grabbed each other close in a tight circle. Leytan managed to pull his leg in a split second before the blade spun past.
"We need... to leave. RIGHT NOW!" Wren panted in response to this new development. Leytan desperately scanned the horizon. There had to be a door somewhere along this corridor. There just had to...
"There!" Lady Mercury yelled as he saw the pair of rectangular outlines loom out of the darkness.
"Quickly, it may be our one chance to get out of this deathtrap!" Wren yelled and made for the doors.
"Come on, Isabel, move it!" Leytan hissed, grabbing Lady Mercury's hand and dragging her towards safety. Leytan didn't register Wren entering the door, but he couldn't see him ahead of them so he must have already escaped.
With one last joint effort the two dived for the door. They felt the rush of wind as they fell through the blackness and then -
They both landed in a tangled winded heap in another dimly light corridor. They made no effort to move, simply allowing themselves to recover from their exhaustion.
"One day, I really hope to have a sit down with that psychopathic Opposition leader," panted Lady Mercury finally. "Preferably holding some kind of sharp object."
Leytan laughed breathlessly and looked round making sure their was no immediate danger. He could see none, but something still seemed wrong. Very wrong.
But he quickly pushed this aside for the moment something else was more pressing. He reached down and lifted Lady Mercury's head up towards his and pushed aside the long hair that covered her neck.
"Hmmm... hardly the time or place my love," Lady Mercury said provocatively as Leytan tenderly moved a hand around the back of her neck and upper shoulders.
Suddenly Lady Mercury gave a sharp intake of breath. "Just lopped of more of your hair did it, Isabel?' Leytan asked drily, bringing his hand back in front of him. It had a faint coating of blood on the fingers.
"Stand up and turn around,' he commanded, getting to his feet. Lady Mercury looked up at him with a half mock frown, half smug smile on her face she slowly rose and turned her back towards Leytan.
Leytan lifted her hair up. There, just above the neck line of her dress at the top of her shoulder blades, was a gash where the blade had caught her. "Nothing too serious Leytan, I've had worse before," Lady Mercury said reassuringly. Much worse, she mused to herself.
Leytan let her hair fall back down to cover the gash and turned her to face him. "Isabel, you... I thought... you... " Leytan couldn't finish articulating his terrible thought. Instead he embraced Lady Mercury and kissed his lover, Lady Mercury responding in kind with equal passion.
Leytan broke the kiss and looked at her. "Next time, don't lie to me. I thought you were concealin something far more serious."
Lady Mercury gave Leytan a sly smile. "You weren't supposed to see...'
"Well, I did," Leytan retorted and broke away from the embrace. 'Anyway, we best get moving again.' He set off walking down the corridor.
Lady Mercury let him get two or three steps ahead and then said, "Leytan...?" Leytan turned and looked at her emquiringly.
"The care you show me... it means a great deal to me. Thank you," she finished softly.
Leytan smiled. It was very rare for Lady Mercury to allow her tender side to shine through, but it still sent a warm glow coursing through him when she did.
Suddenly, his smile faded as the realisation of what it was that had been wrong struck him like a mace to the chest.
"Wren...? Where's Wren?!"
Lady Mercury swung her head round and looked. Their eyes met, sharing the same expression of horror.
Wren was nowhere to seen.
The decor of this place can really get you down after a while, thought Wren idly as he leaned against the corridor wall, trying to catch his breath. It's unsurprising that no one here is pleased to see us.
Although he was still rattled by his ordeal in the Corridor of Blades, truth be told the claustraphobic stone passageways were starting to knaw away at his temperament as well. The seemingly endless maze of bleak corridors almost seemed to radiate an aura of futility and despair, as though all feelings of a positive nature were being slowly drained from him. The fact that the only sounds to be heard were his own labored breathing did not help matters either. It was true that as an assassin, Wren knew more than anyone about the importance of subtlety and discretion when it came to infiltration, but in this environment such tactics seemed strangely futile.
Maybe it was the unshakable suspicion that their presence had not only been anticipated, but that even now they were being observed. Scrutinised from afar by unseen eyes...
He forced himself to dismiss this train of thought from his mind as mere paranoia. Maybe this wretched castle was starting to get to him more than he thought. Something in the back of his mind was trying to get his attention, that was certain. Something he was hearing, possibly?
His stamina regained, Wren finally took stock of his surroundings and immediately realised that he had come out at a fork in the corridor. Both led off at ninety degree angles, to his left and right. There were no indications as to which direction should be followed. They both continued along their respective paths, vanishing into the distant flickering darkness.
Unable to choose, he left it to the usual method of decision making he relied on in such circumstances. Withdrawing a faded silver coin from his tunic, he flicked it into the air and caught it expertly on the back of his hand, where it spun elegantly for several brief seconds before finally coming to rest. He examined its results, the bemused expression of King John staring up at him.
"Well, I see no reason to argue. Unless you two remember any more pearls of wisdom from those..." began Wren, but stopped abruptly as realisation slowly dawned. It wasn't what he was hearing, it was what he wasn't hearing. The sound of his own breathing.
His breathing alone.
Wren spun around, eyes suddenly darting wildly past the exit he had staggered through. The malaise that had been clouding his mind had broken in the space of a second. Had the others simply been lead off in a different direction? Had they even made it to the exits? Or were they even now dying of terrible injuries too horrible to contemplate?
He could feel himself panicking. His breathing was becoming shallower, as though someone had taken hold of his lungs and was squeezing the air from them. Realisation hit him in an instant. He was in the depths of possibly the most bleakest, dangerous place in the entire realm. And now, he was alone.
"Lose something, did we?"
Wren twisted to his right, a throwing knife suddenly appearing in his hand where half a second before there was none. He trained his eyes down the corridor attempting to locate the source of the mocking sneer. It had seemed so close, as if it had been spoken by someone standing directly next to him. But the corridor remained dark and silent, with only the gently flickering torches offering any signs of movement.
Wren gripped the dagger tightly. He knew he heard someone. The voice sounded rasping and coarse, like stone being scraped over metal. He forced himself to hold his position, the knife ready to leave his hand with one swift movement.
"Most careless of you. But then again, you never had much luck with looking after your own, did you?"
The voice now came from behind, and this time Wren did not stay his hand. The knife flew down the corridor, precisely at the height of the neck for the average man. He shut his eyes and prayed for the sound of it piercing its target, but instead was rewarded only with the clattering of the blade striking the ground some distance away.
He forced himself to stay calm, but the blood pumping rapidly through his temples betrayed his true fear. The voice was not only dripping with contempt and mockery, but it sounded familiar. Horrifically familiar.
The blow came without warning. There were no footsteps, not even any sounds of movement. But a second later, the full weight of a huge blunt object came crashing down upon Wren's shoulder blades, buckling his legs and causing him to collapse to the floor. The club was raised again, and this time Wren felt it coming. He leapt forward, rolling to narrowly avoid the second blow as the club was dashed against the flagstones, and came up facing his attacker, his twin daggers clenched in both hands.
Time seemed to stand still. He tried to convince himself that what he was seeing was a nightmare, some sick fantasy his mind was playing on him. But he knew he was lying to himself. The man standing before him was as real as the searing pain between his shoulders. And Wren watched with undisguised horror as he broke into the same mocking grin that he still saw every time he closed his eyes at night.
"Welcome home, my boy," cackled Skarkill.
Leytan struggled to formulate an adequately expressive and eloquent response to this new and unwelcome development.
"Damn everything," he finally settled upon. Hardly Chaucerian in its rapier like sharpness, but it conveyed his frustration nicely.
He looked at Lady Mercury and then back down the empty passageway. "Only one thing for it. Isabel, you go on ahead and try and find the duplicator. I'll try and find Wren."
Leytan started to walk off down the corridor but Lady Mercury grabbed his shoulder. "Are you mad? And what happens if you get lost as well? It would make more sense for us to stick together."
Leytan turned around. Gently taking Lady Mercury's hand off of his shoulder, he kissed it delicately.
"Isabel, I'll be fine, I'll find Wren and catch right up with you. Besides you and I both have a spy glass and Jan-Jan's tuned them so they should operate under the Opposition's detector device. I'll use it to track you down if I do get lost.'He smiled gently 'Now go on. Signal us when you find the duplicator."
Lady Mercury looked hard at Leytan. 'Damn it all the way to hell and back again, Leytan. See what I meant about danger becoming a daily event?' Leytan didn't respond, he just softly stroked Lady Mercury's cheek and set off down the long winding passageway. Lady Mercury watched him vanish into the distant ether.
Greystagg... If your obsession with strengthening the Grey Sisterhood costs the life of either or both of them... I swear I'll make you suffer for it.
"No," breathed Wren. "This isn't right. You shouldn't be here."
"That all you got to say after all these years? Crushed I am, really."
"Shut up, shut UP!" Wren shouted, struggling to recover from the paralyzing shock that had overcome him. "This is all an illusion. Nothing more. Do you hear me?" He announced, addressing this last outburst at something he perceived to be beyond the ceiling. "I know what you're trying to do. It won't WORK!"
"You callin' me a figment of yer imagination?" the goblin master snorted, clearly unimpressed. "Maybe I should give you another whack, that might knock a bit o' sense into you, like. Hehe, luvly..."
Wren forced himself not to fall for his obvious taunts. He focused instead on the figure that stood before him, clearly enjoying the mental distress that his presence was causing him. It had been many years, but there was no mistaking that battered copper eyepatch, that fading brown tunic punctuated with fragments of worn chainmail. And that sneering, mocking grin...
"DON'T MOVE!" roared Wren as Skarkill took a firmer grip on his cudgel. "Stay exactly where I can see you, Goblin Master! You know I can cut you down in the space of a second if I so wish."
"Oh can you now?" he hooted. "Someone clearly thinks highly of himself! Always the same, you were. Never could stamp out that impetuous streak of yours. God alone knows how you ever got into that poncy guild..."
"And what about you? The last I saw of Mount Fear, that red dragon of yours had leveled it. That must have set your master ranting for months."
"Aye, that it did. Busted me other leg an' all, it did. Course, that spelt the end of me, didn't it? No use for a Goblin Master who couldn't walk. But it's amazing what a little magic can do these days, especially in the hands of a very talented sister..."
He whacked the club against his thigh sharply, resulting in a curious sound not unlike a piano string being struck underwater.
"Forgive me for not being overly impressed, but if I recall it wasn't your legs that made you such a dismal failure of a henchman," smirked Wren.
Skarkill growled. "Still the same lippy little runt. I thought I'd beaten all of that out of yer. Seems like someone needs a reminder, like..." he threatened, adjusting the grip on his weapon.
"I'm warning you! One step and you'll be dead before you hit the ground!" shouted Wren. The smirk was gone, replaced with a trembling in his hand as he tensed and untensed the grip on his weapon.
"One thing I never worked out. How did you escape Mount Fear? That luvly little binding clasp of mine should have kept you inside the lower levels-"
Skarkill promptly stopped as his gaze turned towards Wren's torn glove. In the flickering torchlight, the dull grey of its metallic contents could be clearly seen.
"So that's how you did it," Skarkill crowed. "Imagine that, a child of thirteen, doing that to himself. Why, that would be enough to send him completely mad-..."
"ENOUGH!" bellowed Wren, both his patience and his anger finally reaching their limits. He flung his dagger at the precise moment that Skarkill leapt forward, swinging his club. Wren dodged it easily, but failed to see the goblin master's fist until it connected sharply with his jaw.
Wren staggered, his senses briefly hit for six. Although nimble and light on his feet, he was still a frail young man who had little of Leytan's high pain threshold that made him a natural hand-to-hand fighter. Before he could mount any kind of a defense, Skarkill had thrusted him painfully into the corridor wall, his fingers gripping his neck tightly.
"Word to the wise, my boy. Never throw away a weapon unless you know you can't miss. One, your target will get very annoyed, and two-"
He slowly bought Wren's dagger up to his view, the one he had cast away earlier.
"... he'll have yer weapon."
As Skarkill spoke, he spun the blade between his fingers absent mindedly, seemingly lost in thought.
"Funny, ain't it. Yer can hide behind all the fancy airs and your flashy tricks you want, but at the end of the day you're nothin' but what you always were. A damaged child who doesn't know his place. And once again, it falls to me to remind yer..."
Wren choked desperately, unable to see any way out of this. His brain sent desperate signals to his limbs, pleading with them for any sign of activity at all, but all he could muster was a weak attempt to lesson the pressure around his throat. Within seconds, he knew he would fade from consciousness. And that would be the end...
Suddenly, he felt the goblin master's grip lesson, and he collapsed to the floor in a tangled heap.
"But no. No, his Fearship has got far more planned for yous. Just remember this, my boy, no matter how many times you try to escape what you are - or where you began - yer never will."
Wren gazed up at him, struggling to form some manner of witty retort. But his usual deadpan sharpness had failed him utterly. Sliding to his feet, he took off down the corridor, refusing to look back.
"That's it! RUN! Get back to the rest of yer sorry little circus of freaks! I know what's coming to you, my boy, oh yes I do... something luvly, so it is..."
Wren scrambled along the corridor, desperate to get away from the crowing figure. For a full two minutes he ran without pause, not even turning back to see if he was being pursued. Finally he staggered to a standstill, his lungs on fire and his heart pounding deafening drumbeats between his ears. Leaning against the stones, he struggled to hold back tears.
Never again... I will never again be made to feel so helpless...
An unseen hand clasped his shoulder. He spun to face this new adversary, an uncontrollable rage overtaking him.
"Wren... it's me."
He found himself staring into the relieved face of Leytan. All the panic, all of the pent up aggression he had been building for the last twenty terrible minutes, vanished in an instant as he set eyes upon his friend once more.
"Squire... thank everything. We need to go back, he's-" he began, before the stress his lungs had endured took its toll and he collapsed over in a frenzy of coughing.
"He's what, Wren?" Leytan asked, leaning down to support him. "Gods man, you look like you've seen a-"
"Don't," he rasped. "Don't say it. Just... don't."
They stood in silence, interrupted only by the slowly diminishing ferocity of Wren's attack. Finally he forced himself to stand upright – shaken, but fit enough to stand on his own two feet once more.
"So, what happened when we-" he began, but was interrupted by a faint buzzing noise that emitted from Leytan's robes. He quickly pulled out the spy glass he had tucked inside and tapped it slightly to bring the picture into focus.
"It's Isabel. She's found the Duplicator. Come on. Sooner we get that damn thing the sooner we can vacate his Lordship's charming hospitality."
Leytan turned and headed off down the dark passageway using the spyglass like a homing beckon to track down Lady Mercury. "So, what was all that about down there? Someone from the Opposition?"
"You could say that. More like an unwelcome memory from long ago. One I had no desire to revisit."
"Oh really? What did he have to say for himself?"
Wren took a look down the dark passageway, then at his friend.
"Nothing of consequence."
The two mercenaries continued on their way, vanishing into the gloom once more. From somewhere in the darkness of the passageway there came a low bloodthirsty laugh which seemed almost to emanate from the walls themselves, punctuated by a sneering voice which spoke just one word.