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  1. #121
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    Spoiler: Secrets - Volume 5 


    Part 5 - The Leveler


    A hot, midday wind was sweeping ripples across the brittle grass as Apprentice and Blademaiden stepped out of midair and collapsed, panting, amid the scrub. Down the mountain slope was the city, grey and frowning, seemingly untroubled by the chaos they had just unleashed in the heart of it. When the two mages had vanished from the market square there had been screaming and death; out here, there was only the wind, moaning across the mountainside.

    Blademaiden was first to push herself shakily up onto her hands. She coughed and spat into the grass. “Fucking city.”

    The Apprentice cuffed blood from his nose. The second teleportation coupled with the brief but savage rune battle had left his fingers trembling, and his head searing with bright streaks of pain.

    I am not here. the Wanderer had said to him. You do not see me. She had asked for his help, to let them escape. To betray the Leveler just like Illusion had. Something he could never do.

    Could he?

    “Any sign of the others?” he coughed. He tried to look around their designated meeting place, but his eyes were still swimming with painful flashes.

    “No.” Blademaiden responded, “Nowhere.”

    No sooner had she said it however, then Redmoor appeared before them in a sudden swirl of red. The man spasmed and nearly fell to one knee, the rune-inflicted tics wrenching at his face more than normal.

    “Redmoor.” the Apprentice mumbled.

    “Apprentice.” Redmoor craned his neck hard to one side and then the other, which seemed to still the worst of his spasms. “I guess your friend Wanderer did us a service by getting rid of the turncoat.”

    Apprentice thought of Davin, disappearing beneath a press of seething Risemen. He had neither liked nor trusted the Lightman mercenary, but he still remembered the screams, and Redmoor’s flippant comment angered him.

    “You’re bleeding.” Redmoor remarked.

    Apprentice cuffed at his nose once again. He looked the red-robed mage up and down.

    “Did you bother to fight?” he challenged. “You’re not even scratched.”

    Redmoor gave him a twitching sneer of a smile. “The Shattered Gods love me, baby boy.”

    “Call me that again and you’ll find them turning from you.” Apprentice warned through gritted teeth.

    “I was fighting,” Redmoor said calmly. “With the other turncoat. Unfortunately when I cornered her she turned out to be mist and shadow.”

    The Apprentice struggled to his feet, snarling. “Illusion has a mirror rune! If you spent just an hour talking to any of us you’d know that, you arrogant piece of shit!”

    He began to walk, even though each step drove a knife through the inside of his skull, and stalked away through the gorse and ferns that cloaked the mountainside. He had gone a good hundred metres before he realised that Blademaiden was walking alongside him. The older woman’s face was neutral, her deep brown eyes impassive.

    “I’ve often wondered why he joined us,” she said as they paced. “What he wants.”

    Apart from a good slap, you mean? “He wants runes.” Apprentice growled. “That’s all he cares about - no liberation, no higher cause, just fucking power.”

    Blademaiden was silent.

    “So why do we fight alongside a monster?” Apprentice suddenly blurted.

    Blademaiden looked at him stonily. “Because I gave my word.”

    By the time they returned to the meeting point, the Leveler and Hole had reappeared. The Hole was laid out on the ground, in obvious pain, while Leveler pressed a spread hand to her forehead, a soft glow bleeding out between her fingers.

    “My lady.” the Apprentice said hurriedly, dropping to one knee beside them. The Hole had fallen into sleep, her starlit hair matted and dishevelled. The Leveler turned towards her two returning acolytes, and the Apprentice almost recoiled.

    The Leveler’s robe was spattered with blood, and it was not her own. It formed dark outlines to her fingernails, though she had done her best to wipe it away. She had missed a spot at the corner of her mouth. The Apprentice tried not to let his eyes linger on it, but she caught him anyway, and brushed the clot of red away with her thumb. Her expression was ice hard, with balefire glinting in her blue eyes.

    “So.” the Leveler rasped thickly. “They got away.”

    “We…” the Apprentice found himself stumbling for words. “I’m sorry, my lady. We did everything we could.”

    “I know you did.” the Leveler said stonily, no warmth in her words. She exhaled a leonine growl. “But they still have the Book.”

    “Can they read it?” the Apprentice ventured. “Without the Teacher?”

    The Blademaiden pressed her full lips together into a severe line. “We had all better pray not.”

    The Leveler said nothing. The Apprentice had never seen her so angry - she was predatory; cold; seething. The fingers of her right hand were flexing open and closed, as if searching for someone’s throat to wrap around.

    “I think I know where they’re going.” she rumbled softly. “When Hole recovers, I’m sending her back to our home city. I want every watchman on alert. We’ll flush them out, and then we’ll hunt them down.”

    She shot them a gaze that was more challenging than trusting.

    “Are you with me?”

    The Apprentice wanted to respond with an emphatic yes. But he also wanted to urge his lady to go back to the city of Light, to secure what they had already won, before it slipped through their fingers and led to more blood and death. While he vacillated, Blademaiden spoke up before him.

    “I’d be your shadow, my lady.” she affirmed with a stiff nod.

    The Leveler smiled, but it was a dagger smile.

    “Then darken heel and let’s get to work.”

    * * * * * *

    They had rejoined the River and struck out north, where they began to encounter farms and villages again; modest structures of sun-baked brick, with dusty tracks that wove between them like spiderwebs, catching every building. In some of the settlements the villagers still worked, chattering away to each other in trilling Ash - as if the Valley was still at peace. In other places however, whole villages stood abandoned, their fields wilted and colonised by weeds. Some of the buildings had been burned into roofless, black skeletons. The Leveler’s conquest was evident, even though they had seen no sign of pursuit from their nemesis since escaping the Risen city.

    Wraith was boiling them a pot of immature rice. Over the past few days they had been able to trade for food at some of the villages they passed through, but those supplies were running low, and they had been reduced to scavenging through a fire-gutted farm and its untended rice paddies. Ambassador was drifting aimlessly among the stalks, knee-deep in the waterlogged field. Insects buzzed, and a raptor circled lazily overhead, but other than that they might have been alone in the whole world.

    Illusion paused to look west, where the sunset had turned the sky pink and the clouds to molten gold. It was too beautiful a scene for such a sombre moment. She tore her eyes away from it, and refocused on the lines she was tracing through the mud at the edge of the field. She dug her finger back into the silty clay and traced another spiked glyph.

    “And that’s a ‘g’.” she said to Wanderer.

    Dirt covered fingertips drifted over the letter. Tracing it slowly as she sounded out the letter like a child would. She was glad the others were busy, if they were all watching her...she wouldn’t do this. The Wanderer was doing this with one task in mind. Once she knew vague letters, she could spell something. Something important.

    When she felt happy about it again, the Wanderer let her hand move to her small dirt workspace. The letters were crude, small pauses were clear. Illusions letters were clean, they had neat swoops and it took no effort at all. The Wanderer’s looked like Illusion’s...if Illusion was drunk and wearing heavy set gloves. The final small swoop, she did with her tongue between her teeth. There was a small pause and then a deep breath left her nose. The Wanderer glanced at Ilusion and for a brief moment, she looked young. She looked like a young girl trying to please their teacher. Desperate to do right.


    Illusion looked down at the shaky lettering.

    “Agrona.” she read, and her freckled face creased in a smile. “My name was the first thing I learned to write too.”

    She sat back with a sigh.

    “My father made me burn the parchment afterwards. Names are dangerous, he said.”

    The wanderer flinched gently when she heard her name. She hadn’t heard it in so long. She was not gifted the luxury of her true name in her time in the mines and after she left, she refused to tell anyone it. Her eyes dragged over the swoop of the G again before she let her gaze move to Illusion. “Names are very dangerous. Giving someone your name shows trust….and foolishness.”

    Illusion chuckled as she looked down at the scratches in the dirt. “You must trust me, then.”

    A single eyebrow was raised and the Wanderer let out a small hum. “Perhaps. It is difficult to know who to trust in this world.” Her attention returned to the letters before her. “I am glad that I have someone to watch my back. We will need that in the journey to come.”

    Illusion folded her arms across her knees and rested her chin on them, her auburn hair falling to either side of her face. “I can understand that. I trusted the wrong people for a long time.”

    She sighed and looked again towards the distant mountains. As the sun dipped the moons were becoming visible - the bone-white curve of the Elder Brother shone in the sky, like a tusk made of light, while the Younger Brother was half hidden by a band of cloud.

    “It makes it easier...after everything that’s happened. Knowing that even if I end up like Solar or Raven, and no-one even remembers that I existed...at least this time I picked the right side.”

    “Trusting the wrong people is just a fact of life. It’s a hurdle everyone must cross and it makes you stronger.” The wanderer could tell the woman had raised her head but she didn’t copy her. She used to welcome the night sky with open arms. It gave her more places to hide, a way to escape. No longer did she feel that she couldn’t sleep safely. She had rested herself in the groups presence and she had never truly felt like that before.

    “You will not end up like those who have passed. You will see this to the end. You will get vengeance for your mother. I will make sure of it.” It was a small gesture but it meant a lot coming from the Wanderer. She would not let this woman fall like the others had. Illusion had so much faith in the Wanderer, she had not experienced this for a long time. She could not fail her.


    Illusion took Wanderer’s mud-stained hands in her own and squeezed them. “Thank you, Agrona.” She looked towards the campfire where Wraith sat backlit by the flames, and stood up, smiling. “Coming for dinner?”

    The Wanderer gifted the woman a small real smile. She let the woman take her hands and squeeze them gently. “You’re welcome, Sage.” Small flecks of sand drifted off the woman when she stood and the Wanderer nodded. Her fingers reached out for a long flat stone that she promptly pushed into her pocket. It took only a few seconds and she followed the other woman back to the campfire.

    Wraith had already divided the thin rice soup into their three worn clay bowls, and was now kneeling beside them with his head bowed, praying to the shattered gods in his native Rise. Though the two women didn’t know most of the words, they caught the names of their friends Solar, Archer and Raven...and then the name Weaver as well.

    “Her too?” Illusion asked, frowning as she sat down.

    The Wraith paused in his prayer and opened his eyes. “In death, all sins are forgiven. I pray for the better paths that they might have taken.”
    Last edited by Azazeal849; Today at 07:23 PM.
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  2. #122
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    “It’s changed.” Wraith observed as they looked down.

    “Yes.” Illusion agreed. “It has.”

    A bank of thunderheads had rolled in unexpectedly from the sea, cloaking the City of Ash under a snarling and thunder-bruised sky. The cloud front was already trailing misty bands of rain as it climbed the mountains, and the rain was washing down to swell the headwaters of the River and soak the city clinging to its banks. The dormant volcano that gave the city its name loomed behind, a truncated spire among the other peaks, with its arms enfolding the fertile ash plain.

    The plain was a semi-ordered scatter of villages with crop fields spiralling out from each, connected by a web of roads that funnelled back to the city. The city itself started in the River valley and crept upward towards the shoulders of the mountains; rising in distinct tiers with the affluent districts clustered around the River and the more ramshackle areas relegated to the stony slopes above. People were working in the fields and going to and fro about the mine entrances above the slum districts, but from a distance the scars of war were still obvious. Some of the villages were blackened skeletons, leaving deserted islands of weeds and burned-black crops amongst the still-tended farms. Scaffolding had been erected around the city’s southern gate, but beyond it there was a traceable path of ruined and damaged buildings scarring the rich districts by the riverfront.

    “Well there’s the library.” Illusion pointed. Around a wide muster square in the southern quarter were stepped stone platforms, raising up the great quartz and marble buildings that sat atop them - the council chamber, the palace of justice, the great library. The Wanderer knew them by sight; by design the symbols of the Old Masters’ power were visible from almost anywhere in the city. The Leveler’s revolution had left the buildings mostly intact.

    “The question is,” Illusion went on, folding her arms and tugging at her necklace, “How do we get in? After the Risen City, I bet the Leveler has told everyone who we are and what we look like.”

    “Swim up River.” the Ambassador suggested. It was the first thing the Mer had said that day, and her voice was distant and cold. She had been that way since her battle with the Hole.

    “Find one of the old mine entrances?” the Immortal offered instead, frowning down at the Ash city from atop Wraith’s horse. “Work our way through the tunnels, and then down through the shanties.”

    “That’s crazy.” Illusion scoffed. “All the former slaves will know every secret way we could take.”

    The Immortal smiled toothily. “Perhaps. But how many of them would willingly go back down there?”
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  3. #123
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    It had been a silent promise. One whispered to the skies as she scrambled free of this city. She had promised herself she would never return here. She would never step foot into that city when it was missing the only person she cared about. It was a simple promise but it clung to her bones. It pained her to even come close to the city. The power of the city echoed through the villages. When the power left, it had shattered them. They were mere flecks now on a disintegrating map.

    Thin strips of cloth had been wound around the handle of her axe. Her blood had coated it and sunk deep into the grain of the wood. The dirty cloth helped to hide the obvious murderous weapon. The library. It sat like a pristine beacon. Beside the council headquarters and the place of justice. She knew them well. Even from a distance, they were hated. They were a symbol of something she could never get. Freedom to educate herself. Freedom to speak her mind and have others listen. Freedom to have justice in this land. Every single slave that roamed the mines and fields hated those buildings. How they sat kissing the clouds.

    It was a surprise to see them intact. Surely….a woman out to bring down the slavers and everything they hold dear….would destroy the biggest symbol of their control. No slave had ever stepped foot in the library. Why would they need to? The words of the others brushed past her skull as her gaze remained on that building in the distance. “We cannot swim up the river. The current is too strong and there are many rocks hiding under the water.”

    Broken fingernails dug deep into her palm. He knew what he was saying. It was directly thrown at her. One swift movement and she was sliding off the horse. Worn sandals felt every pebble underneath her. The wanderer dragged her fingertips along the length of the horse as she moved before the others. The city looked like an empty shell of her former self. She was no longer the weak fearful woman who had fled the city.

    “None of them will enter that darkness again.” She kept her back to them as she spoke. “Even those who only experienced it for a few months...it eats at your soul.” The wanderer slowly raised her chin. There were families working on the fields in the distance. The war was clear on them. One was missing an arm and...burn marks covered the child of 10.

    It had been one silent promise. Could she break that promise to herself? Her gaze did not leave that child. Whoever was following them...would do whatever they had to get what they needed. Go through whoever they had to. Kill whoever they had to. Do whatever they had to in order to succeed. She would do the same.

    The axe was slowly slipped down into her tight grip as she turned towards the group. “I will lead you.” Her stony gaze was gifted to every single member of the group before she took in a deep breath. “You must do every single thing I tell you. I mean it.” The last instruction was thrown at the Immortal. “I do not care for your opinion or what stupid joke you want to throw at me. I will not hesitate to leave you in another fucking hole.” The threat was left hanging in the cool air as she turned to her right and started picking her way down the path. “Follow me.”


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  4. #124
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    After only a few minutes in the twisting, crook-backed tunnels, it was easy to see what Wanderer had meant. The rocky passageways were airless and pitch dark, and Wanderer’s rune-cast light threw ugly shadows across the walls. The dark mouths of branch-tunnels wriggled off to either side, some looking barely big enough to crawl through. More than one had clearly collapsed. The mountains surrounding the great volcano were rich in copper, iron and tin, and all of it had been bought with the blood of slaves like Wanderer.

    “You weren’t wrong about this place eating at your soul.” the Immortal murmured as Wanderer led them through the haunted mine-tunnels.

    The sound of rain outside was deadened to nothing, though water still found them in the silty sludge pooling around their feet. Every now and then a breath of wind blew through, like the whisper of ghosts. Sometimes the way led them back up towards the surface, only to plunge down again towards the heart of the mountain. When the patter of rain became audible once again, heralding their return to the light, even the Ambassador sighed.

    The tunnel widened steadily and then opened into a quarry of piled earth and mossy stones, standing like islands amid the wash of rainwater. Even here there was no-one - the freed slaves kept well clear of their former hell. But that did not mean they had abandoned the mines. Over the drumming of the rain they heard voices, and peeking out between the piles of rock they saw a large group of men working far off to their right.

    The air was vibrating with runesign, and as the men lifted their arms large chunks of stone excavated themselves from a former tunnel mouth, raising into the air trailing hourglass trickles of soil and ore. The mages floated the huge mounds of earth over to a quarry pit and then let them fall and smash for their comrades to sift through.

    “Big change, as Ambie would say.” Wraith said quietly. “Perhaps not all of it was bad change?”

    They pulled up their cloak hoods against the rain, shadowing their faces from prying eyes. Two men resting outside a mudbrick hovel looked up as they passed, but gave them no trouble.

    Down in the lower districts, the buildings became more ornate, but the atmosphere became grim. The rain had made its way down into the city now, where Ashmen went about the business of buying, selling and working in front of buildings that were nicked by blade impacts and stained by smoke and old blood. Some of the buildings were deserted. They passed a fire-gutted mansion, scrawled with venomous graffiti directed against its former occupants. SLAVER. RAPIST. MURDERER.

    In a temple courtyard, a group of men and women knelt despite the rain, praying aloud for their children to come home safe from the war. As they skirted the plaza before the justice building, Wanderer saw that the posts once used to tie up rebellious slaves were still there. A group of armed men bearing slave brands were in the plaza, escorting a shuffling line of men whose faces and wrists were unmarked. Standing by the posts, an armoured man was shouting curses and threats. He was too far away to make out the words, but at the sound of his voice Illusion stopped and went pale.

    “What?” Wraith whispered.

    “That’s my father.” Illusion’s hands balled into fists, the rain dripping from her whitened knuckles. She took a step forward, but Wraith’s hand clapped down on her shoulder.

    “Not now.” the big man cautioned. “Too many guards, and too much attention. Justice will be done...but later.”

    The rage cleared from Illusion’s eyes, and she pulled her hood lower as she turned away. “Later.” she agreed.

    The library stood alone, the great mustering plaza before its steps lying empty. At the top of the staircase of rainwashed marble was an atrium sheltered from the rain, and the great wooden doors stood open and unguarded.

    Hushed voices greeted them as they stepped inside. Candle-bright and smelling of wood and old paper, the library split off into long galleries divided by tall bookcases. Down one, a woman with a slave brand on her cheek sat at a table with a young boy. A scroll was unfolded in front of them, weighted down with candles, and the woman was pointing through the letters of the alphabet while the boy hesitantly repeated. They looked happy.

    The entrance way to each gallery was marked by a faded mosaic fresco on the floor tiles - here a sun and moon, there two soldiers with spears crossed.

    “The old man said a crab.” the Immortal reminded them, peering out from the crook of the Ambassador’s arm, beneath her cloak.

    “Not yet.” Wraith murmured. “We’re being followed.”

    Illusion, who had been watching the woman and her son, snapped round. “What?”

    “He crossed the plaza after us.” Wraith shushed her, and motioned them all to follow him. As they twisted deeper into the library, Wanderer began to hear it to - the sound of creeping footsteps against the tiles. Wraith ducked into a side room, and flattened himself against the doorframe.

    As the stranger passed through a doorway, Wraith lunged and seized him by the neck, dragging the pursuer round to slam against the wall so that his choked-off yelp left him in a winded gasp.

    “Wait!” the man rasped as Wraith’s blade hissed from beneath his cloak and found his throat. “I know who you are! I want to help!”

    “Oh?” Wraith whispered, acidly.

    “I know who you are.” the man repeated. He was middle-aged, ruddy skinned, with a neat beard that had begun to grow ragged. Beneath his sodden cloak, his neck bore no collar scars. “The usurper warned everyone about you, that you were trying to bring back the old order...are you?”

    Despite the blade to his throat, his dark eyes were hopeful. He switched from Wraith to look at Wanderer.
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  5. #125
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    It was suffocating. The darkness slithered down her throat and forced her stomach to drop to her ankles. One hand remained tight on her axe, the other was hidden in the folds of her clothes. It gripped the small pouch of runes. They were all she had. They were the only reason she entered these caves again. No one could get the better of her. No one could force her to taste blood again...if they did, they would surely regret it.

    It was strange. Seeing the old slaves use runes. They could get through things with less effort and in a fraction of the time it took by hand. She remained silent through their journey. Partly because nothing needed to be said. Partly because she didn’t need anyone recognising her. She didn’t need anyone to say her name, to remind her of her life in these caves.

    The posts still stood. Blood of hundreds of slaves had sunk into the wood grain. Screams and pleas of mercy were buried in those posts. She could not understand why they still stood. A shuffling group of weary looking men moved by. The wanderer ignored them and headed for the library. Something stopped her from entering. Countless insults and threats echoed in her mind, no slave was allowed past those doors. Now they stood, open, welcoming...welcoming her into the library. A place that was once only for a choice few.


    It took a few moments but she pushed herself past the threshold. A deep breath of relief left her chest. The smallest of smiles curled onto her lips and she pushed herself further into the library. There was life everywhere they looked. A woman teaching her child, a man brushing worn fingers over the spines of books. Slaves that had never seen true writing could now hold it in their hands. She had forgotten their reason for being here. She had become so wrapped up in all the joy surrounding her where there had only been misery.

    “We’re being followed.”

    The words pierced through her happy haze and brought her back to the truth surrounding them. She had been foolish. She hadn’t been paying attention. She thought this area would be safe. Soft footsteps came closer, creeping over the tiles in a stupid attempt to follow them. She let the Wraith take control of the situation. The man was slammed against the wall with ease. It was only one man. It wasn’t a real threat, especially as it appeared he was not a mage.

    The cloak was dropped and she found herself thrown violently back in the past. His beard was neater, his skin was cleaner and his clothes were free of any dirt. Where his eyes were filled with hope, they had once been brimming with hatred. Glee had crossed his features when he tore families apart and forced cruel unnecessary punishments on young children and women. She remembered her punishment. The way it stung. The way she bled for hours after. He was no slave.

    The blade was kissing the skin of his neck. His gaze snapped to her but still he did not recognise her. “Move.” She told Wraith bluntly as she took one step forward. “I need to speak to him. Move.” It was not a request, more an order thrown at the Wraith.

    She saw the prisoner’s eyes dart around before settling on her once more. He stared for a long moment, eyes narrowing as they searched her face, her neck, her scars.

    And this time he saw.

    She could tell, from the way the trepidation in his eyes flickered into recognition, and then began to curdle back towards foreboding.

    “You?” he hissed venomously. She saw his teeth and lips move, coming together to begin forming a familiar name, a hated name. “V-”

    In the time it took his lips to curl back over his teeth, her mind had changed. Before recognition had poisoned his tongue, she was going to act differently. She wasn’t going to bring violence into this place. As that name burned on the tip of his tongue, a handful of fabric was tightly gripped in a scar ridden fist. Yanking him forward like he was nothing more than a rag toy, her nose nearly brushed his.

    “Go on.” The look in her eyes was something unlike he had seen before. It was rage...yet it was gleeful rage. She had been waiting so long to stumble across a familiar face when she held this power but her refusal to come back here had stopped that dream from becoming reality.

    “Say that name.” A gentle warmth radiated down her shoulders towards her fingertips as she lifted the man off the floor with ease. His feet barely brushing the ground. “I dare you.” The phrase held something more than just a simple set of words. It was a challenge. She was pleading with him to give her a true reason to make her dream come true. “Say it.”

    She saw his fear reflected back as her rune-cast strength thumped him back against the wall. But in a moment it had calcified back into stubborn defiance. The old masters’ sense of superiority to slaves was too deeply ingrained.

    “You’re only proving exactly why you needed to be kept in chains.” he sneered. “Vexie.”

    It was all the reason she needed. “Good. You remember.” Her grip slackened enough to drop him to his feet and her hand moved swiftly to around his throat. Dirty fingertips dug deep into the skin of his neck as she pushed him back against the wall. “Your old way is dead, Slaver.” Her eyes lit up as she spoke. “I’ll never be back in chains.” Her grip grew steadily tighter as she once again lifted him off the floor. “Just like you will never have power again. You will die...slowly...and in pain.”

    She knew her grip would eventually stop him breathing or break his neck. “I spent too many days cowering in fear.” Her fingers twitched gently as she lessened the grip on his throat. “I spent too many years thinking Slavers were all powerful gods. I know now. You are nothing more than a pitiful flea in this world. You control nothing. You are nothing.”

    Instead of letting the man die, she pulled him sharply forward and then harshly back again so his head hit the wall. As he drifted from her grip, he left a thick trail of blood down the painted tiles. The wanderer waited until he had reached the ground and then scrawled something above the blood trail in crude Ash.

    “Let us continue.” Her words soft as she turned and passed them all to head down the corridor.


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  6. #126
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    Wraith looked from Wanderer walking away back to the unconscious Ashman, grunted, and hauled a scroll-stacked bookcase round to partially hide the slumped body from view.

    “That might have been too loud.” Illusion said anxiously.

    “He will be louder, when wake.” the Ambassador remarked, tapping pale blue fingers against her lips.

    “So let’s be gone by then.” Wraith ended the conversation, starting after Wanderer.

    Not once did she glance back to see if they were following her. She knew they would. The Wanderer didn’t want to hear their questions, to have sympathy drip from their tongues. She wanted silence.

    The three trotted to catch up with her, the cool stone walls echoing their footsteps back to them. The whisper and shuffle of Ashmen wandering the great building continued, seemingly undisturbed. Fingers of sunlight shafted dimly through windows to their left, carrying the sounds of pattering rain and the river running by outside.

    “You know, Wanderer,” the Immortal spoke up from within the cradle of Ambassador’s cloak. “I have to admit again that you surprise even me.”

    The shuffling of footsteps would have been the perfect companion to the silence that enveloped them. But the loaf had to speak. She didn’t turn towards him, she kept walking but let him speak his piece.

    “Like me you’re not an idiot,” the Immortal explained, “Which is good. And also like me I get the impression that you’d rather the idiots leave you alone. But then there’s all this around slaves and slavers. Between Illusion’s crusade and Wraith’s justice, you’re all fighting for some dangerously big ideas.”

    “What’s wrong with that?” Illusion challenged him.

    “I was hoping you were smarter.” Immortal said, twisting his eyebrows in the facial equivalent of a shrug. “Leveler had big ideas too, and look how that’s turned out.”

    “Big ideas are change.” the Ambassador said, quietly. “Some good, some bad.”

    “See, I prefer small, achievable things. Like getting a body back so I can piss on Leveler’s corpse. I’d be a lot less worried if Wanderer and Illusion were just out to avenge their families, without all this doing-the-right-thing baggage.”

    The Wanderer rolled her eyes before responding. “Getting your body back is very much a small achievable thing. I hope you haven’t been naive enough to not consider what your future would be if you cannot sprout limbs from that neck stub of yours.”

    The Immortal’s mouth opened and closed a few times.

    Hypothetically,” he said at last, “Hypothetically, mind you...well...well yes, that kind of immortality would fucking suck...”

    He made the admission slowly, and in a surprisingly low voice.

    “But!” he rallied. “We’ve heard the Scorpion and the Leveler’s own goons swear by her power to change form.”

    That was true, Wanderer supposed.

    “And while I’d normally consider a lot of those people morons, that’s a lot of corroborating evidence.”

    Also true.

    “I’m entirely confident that as soon as I touch the moonstone I’ll be able to get out of your hair and back to my own business...under my own power. Entirely confident.”

    And that was a lie.

    “And you?” the Immortal deflected, his tone sharp but his eyes avoiding hers.

    The Wanderer stopped, waiting for the others to slow to a stop behind her before she turned to look at him. “I am not out to avenge my family. I just want peace.” She interrupted the snarky response that would surely come. “I want to sit somewhere for longer than a few days without some twat-faced witch of an overlord thinking that I must choose a side in this pathetic war. I want to sit in silence and watch the sun come out without worrying who is following the light.”

    “That sounds nice.” Illusion opined, thoughtfully.

    The Immortal chewed the inside of his cheek. “Small, achievable.” he allowed. “Alright, you’ve restored my faith.”

    Tired green eyes dragged over the weary group before landing back on the Immortal. “If you can, and I know it is a massive ask, keep your mouth closed...at least until we get there.”

    “Crab.” the Ambassador said.

    Wraith raised an eyebrow. “What?”

    “Crab.” the mer woman said again, pointing. The next branching gallery was empty like the others, but the faded mosaic beneath the doorway showed the image of a jewel-shelled sea crab.

    “Like the Teacher said.” Illusion breathed, and then pointed. “I see it!”

    Nestled among the boxes and books stacked across the shelves was a distinctive gold leaf case, dusty with neglect. Illusion ran forward, but as she reached out for the box a flare of light filled the room, and the mage whipped her hand back as if stung.

    “Ow! Fuck!

    “What is it?” Wraith asked, striding forward.

    “I don’t know.” Illusion muttered, flexing her burned hand. “Barrier magic’s not my strong point.”

    “No, it’s mine.” the Immortal said, with a hint of his usual pride. There was a pause. “And I won’t know what the hell it is either until you hold me up, Ambie.”

    The Ambassador blinked, and then hurried into the room, drawing the head out from under her cloak. The Immortal cocked an eyebrow, and Wanderer could feel runesign sizzling through the air as he regarded the innocuous golden case.

    “It’s a ward.” the Immortal surmised. “The kind mages put around their runes to keep other people from stealing their shit. In layman’s terms, it’s a phantasmagorial barrier.”

    The Ambassador tilted her head. “Phanta-what?”

    Wraith looked between them and folded his arms. “Traditionally, big words are for philosophers, not mages.”

    “Well philosophically traditions are for idiots,” the Immortal countered. “So there.” There was another, smaller flash, and the crackle of runesign vanished from the air. “There, it’s all yours. But we now have a big problem.”

    “What?” Illusion asked, her eyebrows twitching in alarm.

    “No, not what. Why. This was a ridiculously elaborate rune to cast around a random scroll. And the Leveler didn’t know we were looking for it until after we left the Risen city.”

    The Immortal huffed out a sigh.

    “Which means she’s already here, and standing right behind us.”

    “Well, you’d be right about that.” a contralto voice admitted.

    The Leveler was standing in the main gallery, framed by the door arch leading into the crab section. She stood clad in regal silks, hair pinned up, hands clasped behind her back. On her left side was Redmoor, scarlet-robed and twitching, and the Apprentice with a grim, resigned look on his young face. To her right was the Blademaiden, sabre drawn, and the Hole, starlit hair shimmering dully in the candle light.

    Illusion balled her fists. Wraith drew his paired swords with a hiss of intent.

    “I guess that means the time for sneaking around is over.” the Immortal grunted. A blaze of light rippled and spread across the entrance to the side gallery, shielding the group behind a crackling, shimmering wall. The disembodied head narrowed his eyes, features drawn down in a scowl.

    “Alright Leveler. You owe me a body. Which means you owe me a fucking moonstone.”

    The Leveler was unmoved. “I don’t owe you anything, Dara, son of Rhianne.”

    Wanderer had a split second to see the Immortal’s lips part in shock, before a far brighter spray of light overwhelmed her senses. For a moment the group’s shadows splashed giant and jagged across the walls, the Leveler and her men dire silhouettes framed in the warded archway.

    Then the light faded. The wards fizzled away into nothing. And the head in Ambassador’s hands hung unmoving, its dark eyes glazed and lifeless.

    “Your Teacher talked.” the Leveler shrugged, brushing the sleeve of her gown. She locked eyes with the remaining mages. “I’d ask who the rest of you are, but you’re going to be dead in a moment. Hand over the Book and I might let you live slightly longer.”

    Illusion sidestepped to bring herself shoulder to shoulder with Wanderer. “Never.”

    The Apprentice dropped his gaze. Redmoor smirked. The Leveler herself just exhaled down her nose, a slow breath of disappointment. “How did I know you were going to be difficult.”

    “You are like icicle, Leveler.” Ambassador said quietly, still holding on to the Immortal’s lifeless head.

    The Leveler rolled her eyes. “What, cold?”

    “No, fragile and doomed.” The Ambassador’s eyes drifted from the Leveler onto the Hole. “You play with powers you do not understand.”

    The Leveler peeled back her lips for a brief moment, baring her teeth. “You’d be surprised how often I hear that. Spare me the banter, the obvious jokes and the cliches.”

    She raised her arms, and screaming light began to build between her splayed fingers.

    “Just die.”

    Wraith glanced over at Wanderer and Illusion. “Grab the scroll!”

    Sparks flew up like a cloud of fireflies as Wraith’s swords swept outwards, trailing flame. Old, bone-dry paper caught light in an instant, and a blinding scatter of embers swirled through the air.
    Last edited by Azazeal849; Today at 07:15 PM.
    Spoiler: My RP links 

    PM me for novelised versions of any of my RPs, or ones that I have participated in. Set by the awesome Karma.


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