Part 19: Only a minor set-back

Interalia opened the door to the kitchen, looking for Quartermaster. She found him in the larder, counting bags of grain. He looked at her, and started to grin. Interalia’s hair was down, her clothes were creased, hastily put on without bothering with the last few buttons, and there was a big, big grin on her face. It told anyone with eyes exactly what she’d been doing.

“Engine parts have arrived, Big Q! Need a few heavies to carry it down the stairs.”

“Ah, yes,” said Quartermaster. “Young Nix Steambender has arrived, has he? Did you make him feel welcome? Has he got a place to sleep yet?”

“Piss off,” said Interalia, happily. “I’m not done with him yet.”

“Light be praised for over-engineered cupboard doors,” said Quartermaster. “I’ll get a few guys in. How big is it?”

“Oh hur hur,” said Interalia.

“Mind out of the moat please. I meant the engine parts. How many, and how heavy do you want ’em?”

“Bout six, the bigger the better. Looks like Mr. Steambender wants to flood the whole castle.”

Quartermaster walked into the kitchen. “And why not? In-door moats are all the rage these days. High time we had one. Just one thing I’d like to know. Is this hellish contraption going to blow up and send us all the way to the moon?”

“I’ll ask Nix. He’s cute when he’s angry.”

X

“Aww Boss Man, not again! I haven’t found anything useful there. No sodding mages, no nothing. And they’ve become a lot more careful with what they leave lying about. Traps all over the place.”

“I thought you liked the challenge,” said Gerrig. “And I really don’t trust them. They’re up to something.”

“So what am I looking for, exactly?”

“Well, anything suspicious, really.”

“I saw lots of Orcs with swords last week. They suspicious enough?”

Gerrig frowned. “Do I really have to tell you your job, or are you just being tiresome?”

“Yes,” said Interalia.

Neither of those are good, you know. Get out there and report anything you find.”

X

“Out to bother the greens again?” Nix was sitting at one of the tables in the dining hall, figuring out how much pipe he’d need between the cellar and the kitchen.

“Yes, damn it.” Interalia sneered. “I could draw a map of the place out of my head by now.”

“You’re not losing your nerve, are you? After that last run.”

“Ye gods, no. It’s almost funny, the way they try to keep me out with Orcs sitting on all the entrances I never even thought of using.”

“Hey, want some company? Dad won’t be here till late this afternoon, and I like to see you in action.”

“Heh. I know.”

“I could watch your backside for you.”

Interalia snorted. “Are you ever going to get over it?”

“Never,” said Nix. “You have unwisely inflamed my sex’al ardour, Madam. You’ve made your bed, and now you have to lie in it.”

Interalia rolled her eyes, and heaved a deep sigh.

“Oh, do that again,” said Nix.

Interalia slapped him.


Selena woke up. As hangovers went, it wasn’t a bad one, but she was definitely a bit below par. Someone was banging on the door to Ariciel’s place. Lirael had given her the key so the girls could have a place of their own. Sandra had politely declined, so Selena and Hieronimo had the place to themselves. Joseph, of course, wasn’t anywhere near the place. Damn.

“Come on! Time to go shopping.”

“Lirael! Wait! Not dressed yet!” Selena opened the door and let Lirael in.

“Very efficient. First thing you’re going to do where we’re going is take your clothes off, so you may as well not bother getting dressed. Come on. Are you coming, Hieronimo?”

Hieronimo opened her mouth, but Selena grabbed her by the scruff of her neck.

“Of course she is!”

“I’m not a dress girl. They won’t have anything in me size anyway.”

“That’s what you think,” said Lirael. “We’ve got everything from Gnome to Draenei. We get all sorts here.”

They followed Lirael to a place she knew in the Trader’s District. She pointed.

“Somebody planted a great big tree right across the pond from me. They’re persuading it to hollow out, so they want to turn it into a dwelling of some sort. Nobody asked me, typical. It’s blocking my view.”

Hieronimo stared. “Persuading a tree to hollow out? How do ye do that?”

“See those wisps floating there? They can shape trees, hollow them out without harming them, or change the shape of the wood, like they did at the bank. That can take up to four hundred years for a large dwelling. But this is not a normal tree. It’s a limetree of Cenarius. It’ll grow to full size in a week, but won’t last more than, oh, twenty years. Only slightly better than a tent, really. They are the trees we plant in places that have been ravaged by war, or fierce forest fires. Just to keep the soil from blowing away.”

“Four hundred years?” Selena put her fingers to her lips, as though she was smoking a roll-up, and sucked her teeth. “Not before the next millennium, Squire.”

Hieronimo chuckled. “By the Titans, and we think Gnomes are bad.”

“Oh stop it. Anyway, here we are. Let me introduce you.” Lirael pointed her hand at a willowy, elegant Night-elf dressed in a purple chemise and a blue jupe.

“Me’lynn? Voici mes amies, Hieronimo and Selena. Girls? This is the woman I go to for my official function dresses.” Lirael put one hand on Hieronimo’s shoulder, one on Selena’s.

“Make them look fabulous.”

X

“I look like a brew maiden!”

Selena was sitting on a chair, next to Lirael, watching Me’lynn try out one dress after another on a grumpy Dwarf girl. Selena was wearing something rather nice, a blue dress to reflect the colour of her eyes, with yellow seams and embroidery to reflect her hair. It was also fairly low-cut, and revealed freckles between her breasts that had seldom seen the light of day.

Me’lynn shot Lirael a mildly reproachful look, as if these friends, or at least this Dwarf girl, were not of the quality of friends Lirael usually brought in.

“I think it looks very good on you, actually,” said Selena. “Shame about the face, though. Don’t you have a more cheerful one?”

Hieronimo scowled. “I’ve had more dresses on this morning than I’ve had on in me whole life. How am I going to hunt wearing this?”

Me’lynn’s face turned to stone. “Mademoiselle? You have now tried every dress in Dwarf size in my etablissement. If none of them suit your requirements, I will have to make you one specially.”

“Well, none of them have pockets. And this cloth is way to thin for a Dun Morogh winter. I’d turn into an icicle!”

Lirael quickly got to her feet and walked up to Me’lynn. She gave Me’lynn a sparkling smile.

“I think we may have to look a bit further, Me’lynn. Thank you. At least Selena looks luscious!”

Me’lynn spoke some very fast Darnassian words into Lirael’s ear, then turned to Selena with a saleswoman’s smile. She got her a few ribbons for her hair, threw in a small purse for good measure, and they left the shop.

“Well, that’s half the job done,” said Lirael. “I can take you to another shop. Less haute. More practical.”

“No, thank ye kindly,” said Hieronimo. “I’m not one for fancy dresses. Couldn’t afford it anyway.”

“Oh. Is there anything else you need? My treat.”

“Nay, Lady,” said Hieronimo. “If ye don’t mind, I’ll leave ye to it. I’ve some things to do on me own.” She looked round. “The graveyard is that way, isn’t it?”

“It is,” said Lirael, with a soft look in her eyes. “Shall we meet for lunch?”

“Aye. See ye then.”

Hieronimo waved, and walked off in the direction of Ariciel’s place. Lirael watched her go.

“Poor girl. All alone in a strange place.”

“Don’t let her hear it,” said Selena. “She’d kick you just to prove how tough she is.”

Selena and Lirael started walking, nowhere in particular, up the Warrior’s Terrace, then out on the road to Dolanaar, a small vilage to the East of Darnassus. Selena looked up at the sound of wood creaking, and saw one of the ancient tree-giants that protected Darnassus. His massive head turned in their direction.

“Hi,” said Selena.

The giant turned his head back to what he had been looking at before. If you let yourself be distracted, a rock might erode while you’re not watching.

“Are they all that chatty?”

Lirael grinned. “Come back in about a year and he’ll be ready to answer. They’re a little bit on the tardy side, unless something comes in to threaten us. Then, they’re amazingly sprightly.”

They walked on, through the archway that marked the end of Darnassus and the beginning of the forest of Teldrassil. Selena stepped on as in a dream. They had left behind the noises of the city, and stepped into a world of quiet, with only buzzing of insects, the rush of the leaves in the wind. She walked up to a tree, and put her hand on the smooth, white bark.

“Don’t go too far from the path,” said Lirael.

At that moment, the sun came out from behind a cloud, and beams of light fell from the sky. Clouds of pollen swirled in the breeze. Selena closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. She looked over her shoulder at Lirael.

“This place is beautiful,” she said. “I think this is a good place to do this.”

Selena opened her bag. From it, she took her falconer’s glove and a few pieces of liver. She pulled on the glove, then raised her arms wide, palms up. All round her, little lights glowed in the high grass, and rose up to whirl round, round, and round her. The lights flew away from her, melted together, grew. There was a loud screech, and Selena’s bird Hugin appeared in front of her. Selena braced herself, and held out her arm. Hugin flew towards her, and settled on her arm, one claw on her glove, the other on her bare shoulder. Selena’s arm trembled under the weight, and she leaned to one side. At home, she steadied her arm on her staff, but she’d left it at Ariciel’s. Selena managed to feed Hugin a few bits of liver before her arm gave way and Hugin flapped off, into a tree. She looked at her bird, eyes shining with tears.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Lirael stepped up behind her, and held her arm. A long cut was on her shoulder, where Hugin’s claw had held her. Lirael held her hand over it, concentrated, and cast a spell of healing. With the cut seen to, she put her arm round Selena and held her close.

“What have you done on your travels, ma petite?”

Selena leaned her head on Lirael’s shoulder.

“I’ve learnt to hunt. I’ve learnt to fight. I’ve learnt to kill.” Her pretty face became hard. “I’ve learnt to fear. I’ve learnt to hate. And I’ve learnt to love.”

“Which of those hurts the most?”

“Love,” said Selena, without a moment’s hesitation.

“Joseph Smith,” said Lirael.

Selena only nodded. She looked at Hugin, who was preening her feathers. Why? They’re new. Created from the Light not a moment ago. Lirael put her hands on Selena’s shoulders.

“He doesn’t love you?”

“I don’t know. He keeps telling me, that he’s only doing his duty, taking care of me, but I can see in his eyes that he’s lying, or not telling the whole truth.”

“What do you think he’s keeping from you?”

“I think…” Selena took a deep breath. “I think he loves me, but won’t admit it. When we were fighting the Undead in the Wetlands…”

Lirael opened her mouth to say something, but thought better of it. She tilted her head a bit to one side.

“He saw me. And I heard him. Protect Lady Selena. And I could hear in his voice that he was afraid for me, really afraid, not just worried that his mission might fail, or that Gerrig might be angry with him.”

“What do you want from him? Really?”

“I…” Selena put her arms round Lirael. “I want to hear him say he loves me.”

Lirael took a deep breath. “Pff. You’re not asking for a lot, are you? It’s hard to get a boy to say that even if he is deliriously in love with you.”

Selena said nothing.

“Have you any idea why he might not want to admit he loves you?”

Selena shook her head, leaning against Lirael.

“He says because I’m a… a noblewoman, and he’s just a grunt. But he’s not. He’s… he is…”

Lirael put her arms round Selena, put Selena’s head on her shoulder and stroked her hair. They stood like that for a while. Then, Lirael looked into Selena’s eyes.

“Come on. Let’s go and find Hieronimo, and something to eat.”

They walked back to the city, under the arch. Selena was looking straight ahead of her, not saying anything.

“Greetings,” said the Ancient Protector. Selena laughed.

Lirael’s eyes turned towards the cemetery on their right. She touched Selena’s arm.

“You can find Saelienne’s from here can’t you? I’ll go fetch our Dwarf girl and see you there.”

X

Hieronimo was sitting on the grass, in front of a recently dug grave. Her notebook was on her knees, and her box of charcoal bits was next to her on the ground. She was working on the eyes, which she found the most difficult to get right. There was a small noise, and she looked up to see the tall, dark haired priestess Lirael standing next to her. She sat down next to her, and looked at the drawing.

“Is that him?”

“Aye,” said Hieronimo.

From the page, Berrin looked at them, dark eyes under bushy eyebrows, thick beard.

“That’s very good. You must have known him for a long time.”

“Just a few weeks,” said Hieronimo. She put her bit of charcoal in the box, and closed it. Can’t draw right with people talking to you. “He oughtn’t have died there. But they got his bear, and he got angry and jumped at them. Lightless bastards.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” said Lirael, and Hieronimo could hear that she meant it.

“I didn’t know you Elves could speak Dwarvish. Ye didn’t even get it wrong much.”

“Thank you. It wasn’t easy, but I did a part in a Dwarvish opera once.”

“Really? Why would ye want to?”

“We get sent out all over Azeroth, making friends with everyone. Music is a language that everyone understands. Happy music for a Dwarf is happy music for a Gnome, Human, Elf, Draenei. So I did the part of Brunnhilde. In full chainmail.”

Hieronimo looked Lirael over once.

“Ye must be joking! Yer way too skinny to be a proper Brunnhilde!”

Lirael raised an eyebrow, stood up, closed her eyes a moment, concentrating. Then, her voice rang out, clear as a bell, loud enough to be heard all the way up to the Warrior’s Terrace.

X

Zu neuen Thaten, theurer Helde,
wie liebt’ ich dich, liess ich dich nicht?
Ein einzich Sorgen lässt mich säumen
Dass dir zu wenig mein Werth gewann.

X

She smiled at Hieronimo. Well?

“Ye gods! That’s ancient Dwarvish. I know it because me Mum, part of Light, dragged me to every concert she could. That must’ve taken ye some time to get right.”

“Oh my goodness, yes. The Ring is fiendishly difficult. King Magni said we’d managed not to bugger it up completely. High praise indeed.”

“Ye sang that for the King?”

“Oh yes. And I had the last part.” Lirael grinned. “It ain’t over till the skinny lady sings.” She bit her lip, eyes miles away. “And I had to die very dramatically, by throwing myself on top of the male lead, and then the whole stage blew up in fire.”

“And he dint mind?”

Lirael’s eyes gleamed.

“Arador? Gods no. He’s my boyfriend now.”

X

They arrived at Saelienne’s, to find Selena there talking to Arador. Lirael, without a word, sat down on his lap and touched her nose to his, looking deep into his eyes.

“Hello, my sweet,” said Arador.

“I see you found Selena. Did you order already?”

“Soup of the day. Chicken salad, grated cheese, easy on the vinaigre,” said Arador.

“Hmm. Today, you live.”

Selena poked Hieronimo. We didn’t know what you wanted, but Arador says everything is good here. Got us both the scare goats for starters and steak and potatoes after. Can’t go wrong with steak and potatoes.

Hieronimo nodded. “Find cow. Kill it. Hold it over a candle for a bit. Give it to us.”

Saelienne walked up, and put some strange utensils in front of Hieronimo and Selena. A very, very small fork and something that looked more at home in a women’s physician’s practice than on a dinner table. Selena picked it up. It was a pair of tongs, but what in Azeroth was it for? She looked at Lirael.

“It’s for the escargots. You’ll see.”

Saelienne came back with bowls of soup for the Elves, a basket of bread, and two stone dishes with a dozen holes in, just large enough to hold… Selena stared.

“Be careful, the dishes are very hot. Bon appetit.”

Hieronimo looked up at Selena.

“Scare goats?”

“Um,” said Selena.

“Those are snails!”

Lirael nodded. “Saelienne does them with garlic butter and white wine. They’re lovely.”

Hieronimo looked at Lirael. “They’re snails!”

Arador took the tongs out of Selena’s hand, and picked up the fork. He took one of the snails out of its hole, and poked into its house with the fork. He pulled out a small, black piece of, well, food, and handed the fork back to Selena. The girls stared at it.

“It looks like something I’ve pulled out of–“

“Shut up,” said Selena.

Lirael, her face purple, was looking into her soup bowl. Elves have super-human self control, so she didn’t laugh.

“Go on,” said Arador. “Try it. Saelienne will be sad if you let them go cold. They take ages to hunt.”

Selena took a deep breath, and put the mollusc into her mouth. Chewed. Swallowed.

“Ye just ate a snail!”

“It’s not bad,” said Selena.

Hieronimo stared at her dish. Hot butter bubbled, and a strong smell of garlic wafted up. Lirael leaned over, and whispered in her ear.

“Swap you a bowl of soup?”

Hieronimo looked from Lirael to Selena, who was trying to excavate another snail. Her fork slipped and she poked it in deeper, with a look of concentration on her face. Lirael pushed her bowl over, and took custody of Hieronimo’s snails. She pointed the little fork at Selena.

“Don’t forget to pick up the sauce with some bread. It’s the best bit.”


Interalia was on her knees, looking at one of the high buildings of Stonewatch Keep. Hmm, a prime target for investigation, or so my incredibly sharp Gnomish eyesight tells me. Full of interesting Orcs. Doing things, no doubt. Behaving suspiciously, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn. Nix’ suggestion, of sloping off to a nice secluded spot and investigating each other instead, was looking better and better.

“So that’s our target?” Nix looked ahead, and his shoulder brushed Interalia’s.

“That’s it. Gath’ilzogg’s palace of pleasure.”

“Sounds promising. What are we looking for?”

Interalia sneered. “Signs that they’re going to attack us.”

“Oh. Such as?”

“Bits of paper saying, ‘Tomorrow, Green Brothers, we attack! For the Horde!’ Little things like that.”

“Gosh,” said Nix. “Maps of the castle, with a red X saying ‘Attack Here’?”

“Yeah,” said Interalia. “haven’t found any yet, but maybe I just wasn’t looking hard enough.”

“Your boss is stupid,” said Nix.

“Well thanks to you he’s gonna be clean and stupid,” said Interalia. “He’s not too bad really, for a lug, but he’s got it into his head that the greens are going to be on his doorstep tomorrow. And they’re really not. The greens killed his father. Makes him jumpy.”

“Hmm. Well then, lead on.”

“Right. Stay close.”

X

The Gnomes sneaked up to the building. Two Orc guards were at the entrance, staring outside for anyone trying to storm Gath’ilzogg’s headquarters. They didn’t spot the two small shadows passing behind them, through the door. Interalia went first, up the stairs, staying close to the wall, wrapped in shadows. Nix followed. It was always nice to see a pro at work, and Interalia moved like a cat.

People, whether they are Gnomes, Humans, or Orcs, are creatures of habit. When they walk from one place to another, they will always take exactly the same route. You can see the bare trodden paths on lawns, where thousands of people have walked across it, all going the same way. They are, rather poetically, called desire paths. Rogues, nonconformists that they are, condition their minds always to avoid the desire paths, to avoid bumping into people. Even more usefully, when walking along their paths of desire, people’s eyes will always be looking at the same place, providing a pattern of places observed and unobserved that a Rogue can use to her advantage. Interalia had spent a lot of time hidden in these towers, and knew them all, even though the Orcs themselves were not even aware of them. Not that she actually thought about them, but her subconscious unerringly led her to the places where people’s eyes were least likely to be looking.

Interalia waved Nix into an unoccupied bedroom, normally used by one of the Orcish inspectors who visited the place now and then. It had once been the bedroom of Under-chief Gharash, the Orc responsible for the running of the Stonewatch operations. One of the Caer Bannog rogues had killed him in his sleep after the Orcs had murdered Gerrig’s father. Mizar Gath’ilzogg had been behind that murder, specifically telling Chief Gharash to have the old man stabbed in the back. A petty, vindictive order, specifically meant to stain Gharash’ honour. Gerrig’s brother Bannog, helped by his Druid love Ariciel, had very thoroughly killed Mizar Gath’ilzogg, who was then replaced by his eminently sane brother Jheren, who only shared with his brother a liking for dragon pets. The rogues had been sent packing, and Interalia had replaced them. And here she was, still in a way taking revenge for the murder of Old Bannog.

Nix put his lips to Interalia’s ear. “What are we doing here?”

“Waiting for lunch,” whispered Interalia. “They’ll all be downstairs, and we’ll have the top floor to ourselves for half an hour or so.”

She sat down on the carpet in front of the bed. Nix sat down next to her. Interalia pulled him across her lap and put her arms round him.

“Lunch is in ten minutes or so.”

“Not enough time,” said Nix, stroking Interalia’s cheek with a finger.

“Too much noise,” said Interalia, and kissed him.

X

The bell for lunch rang, and the Gnomes interrupted their in-depth discussion to listen at the door for any stragglers. There’s always one. You know how it is when you are doing evil, you don’t want to break it off in the middle of a job. When the last noises of people walking by were over, and all the Orcs were sitting down to their lunch, the flesh of they dared not guess what creature, again, they crept out of the bedroom and quietly went up the stairs. Gath’ilzogg’s workroom was at the very top. It was a fairly large room, enough to seat several dozen Orc warriors, with some sort of stage area on one end. Gath’ilzogg was sitting at a table, with his dragon pet Singe rolled up at his feet. A clerk was reading out the contents of scrolls to him, and writing up Gath’ilzogg’s responses. Gath’ilzogg looked out of the window, saw that it was high time for lunch and got up. The clerk gathered up the scrolls and books and dropped them in a box.

The desire path in Gath’ilzogg’s workroom was clear enough to see in their mind’s eyes. A nice regular curve from the middle of the room to the door on the right. However, there was a quirk here. This was the very room where Bannog had killed Mizar Gath’ilzogg. The body had been disposed of there and then, and burnt in a great pyre with all the others. Still, when the Orcs had returned, the bloodstain on the floor had been very clear. The floor had been scrubbed clean with the enthusiasm of one who knows that bad jobs hurt, but the memory lingered. For reasons of piety, superstition, or simply to avoid bad memories, Jheren Gath’ilzogg still avoided stepping on that particular piece of floor.

Interalia knew that.

Nix didn’t.

Gath’ilzogg walked to the door, then suddenly swerved as he came to the memory of the bloodstain, and Nix had a splintered second to decide: move to get out of the way, or stay still and hope.

Nix chose to move.

Gath’ilzogg heard, perhaps Nix’ breath, perhaps his footstep, and in a reflex swung out his large arm. catching Nix right in the head.

Nix went sprawling, over the floor, too flustered for a moment to move.

With a great bellow of rage, Gath’ilzogg kicked Nix where he lay, sending him into the wall. Nix hit it head first, slumped down and fell to the floor. Gath’ilzogg picked him up by one leg, punched him hard in the stomach, then carried him off, bellowing for his minions.

Interalia stared, mouth hanging open, face pale.

“Oh crap!”


Griggin Steambender’s cart came clattering over the drawbridge. Next to him in the box was his daughter Trixie, Nix’ little sister. She’d watched the whole exchange of locks, little gifts and veiled promises from the vantage point of the top bunk bed, and wanted to save Nix from making a terrible mistake. She also wanted to annoy that little Rogue tart, and her brother.

The cart came to a standstill next to Nix’ one. They turned off the strider and jumped down from the cart, looking round for someone to announce their arrival to. Behind them was the characteristic noise of a twelve-year-old Mechanostrider, tuned up to within an inch of its life, and being ridden by a suicidal psychopath. Trixie grinned as its metal claws skidded on the cobblestones in the courtyard.

“Hiya, ye hoor of Silvermoon! Where’s Nix?”

Interalia stared, her lips moving in a string of silent swear-words.

“The sodding greens have him!”

Griggin walked up, frowning. “Please explain, Miss Interalia? Has Nix been taken by the Orcs? How could that have happened?”

Interalia jumped off her strider, and faced Griggin. “I was on a mission, spying on Stonewatch. He came along for company, and he got caught. I have to get him out! They’ll… they’ll…”

Interalia’s lips trembled. Griggin put his hands on her shoulders, and looked into her eyes.

We have to get him out, Miss Interalia. Do you know where he is?”

Interalia swallowed, getting a grip on herself. “Got a pretty good idea.”

“Good. Let me detach the striders, and we’ll get him out.”

Trixie came walking round the back of the cart, tightening the last strap on her plate armour. She reached into the side box and pulled out a two-handed broadsword. Most of the larger races would probably find it difficult to think of a three-foot-tall girl with pink pigtails as “A little extra muscle”. They would be surprised. What she lacked in size, she made up for in speed and sheer aggression. Griggin came walking up holding the reins of two Striders on ‘follow’.

“Miss Interalia? Are you ready to go?”

Interalia nodded, jumped into the saddle of her own strider, and they set off towards the south-east.

X

They rode three abreast, Interalia in the middle. Her mechanostrider was the oldest one. Griggin and Trixie’s striders were a lot newer, and a lot less noisy. Griggin shouted over the noise.

“Miss Interalia? Where do you think they may have taken Nix?”

Interalia swallowed. “There’s dungeons underneath the main tower.” She fell silent. She didn’t want to say more, but she was hoing to have to.

Griggin coughed. “Is that where the torture facilities are?”

Interalia nodded. “Yeah. Gods, I hope…”

“It is to be hoped he is in there,” said Griggin. “The alternative would have been immediate execution.”

Interalia’s mouth fell open, and she looked at Trixie.

“He gets like that,” said Trixie. “He’s right though. It takes two hours to get to the castle from there, and two hours to get back. Takes only ten seconds to chop his head off.”

Interalia changed gears, and kicked the gas pedal down. Ye gods, what kind of mind did it take for a father to hope that his son was being tortured? She looked at him, dressed in black robes, staff on his back, magic wand tucked in his belt, and vowed never to get him angry with her. Then, she realised that he might already be angry with her. No matter. Get Nix out. That’s what was important.

In her mind, she went over the route to the torture chamber. Neither Trixie nor Griggin could hide like Interalia could. So Orcs were going to die. It was getting dark. Good. They might be able to slip by a few guards without fighting. Down into the tower. Take out the guards there. Down the stairs, hide Trixie and Griggin while she looked for Nix. They might just pull it off.

They had to dismount about a half mile away from the Tower, to avoid being seen. They could see the tower through the leaves now and then. Once or twice, they spotted Orcs, and allowed them to pass. They came to a small cliff, and Trixie scrambled up, then reached down to pull up first Griggin, then Interalia. She looked at Trixie as she pulled her up. Nothing in her face showed any anger towards her. They ran forward again, Griggin in front this time. She looked at Trixie.

“Um. I suppose you’re right pissed off at me?”

Trixie shook her head.

Really?”

Trixie looked at her. “Really.”

“I got Nix into this pickle.”

“Did you? Dragged him over there by his hair did you?”

“Um. No.”

“Well then.”

“I shagged your brother,” said Interalia, carefully observing Trixie’s face. “That’s why he wanted to come.”

“High time someone did,” said Trixie.

“Right. Now, you’re creeping me out. Last time, I just made you think I got his clothes off and you threw a fit. Are you going to go all berserk on me when we get out or something?”

Trixie laughed. “A while back, I probably would have. But my first date with Richard was killing Warlocks in the Deeprun tram. Nix may not’ve been thinking with his head, but he came willingly. Not your fault. Also, I’ve been taking anger management classes. Means I can now save my rage for them as deserve it.”

“You’re not blaming me?”

“Why should I? You’re going to help us get him out.” Trixie gave Interalia a sidelong look. “Unless I see you slacking. Then if he dies, you die.”

“If he dies,” said Interalia, “I’ll let you.”

X

Interalia pointed forward, at one of the Orc guards, then drew her hand across her throat. Griggin nodded, pointed at Trixie. Interalia raised a hand, then reached into her pocket, pulled out a small bubble of glass and threw it. It shattered on the ground on the far side of the Orc guard, with a small ‘pop’ and a white cloud of smoke. The guard looked up, and went to investigate. Trixie sprang forward, drawing her sword, and thrust it straight through the guard’s chainmail, twisted, pulled it out. The guard slumped. Interalia and Griggin dragged the body inside while Trixie sheathed her sword.

“Not going for the beauty prize here,” said Interalia.

“Elegance, indeed, is not a priority,” said Griggin. “Where next?”

Interalia led the way. They had taken the back entrance, and now they were inside, there were only the prison guards to worry about. For security reasons, these were not heavily armed; whips and truncheons were their only weapons. The reason was simple. If they were overpowered, the prisoner would not have a nice weapon with which to attack other guards. They could call down their friends, though. And their friends did have rather shiny weapons.

Griggin raised a hand. “I think I am going to call in some reinforcements from the Twisting Nethers. Darva, I think. Darva goes rather well with the decor here.”

He closed his eyes, raised his hands and chanted the syllables to his dark spell of summoning. Darva the Succubus stepped from the shadows, a little smile on its face.

“It’s been a while… Master,” said Darva. Its full, sensuous lips twisted in a sneer. “Why now?”

“I foresee that I will have to kill or control some Orcs,” said Griggin. “Would that suit your mood?”

The Succubus tilted its head back, and laughed. It wasn’t a nice laugh.

Now you’re talking. Last time you just wanted me to walk round your student a few times. He’s dead, isn’t he?”

Griggin frowned. “Let us not be distracted. We need to find and rescue my son. To this end, we will first learn his whereabouts from the torturers.”

“Will they want to tell you, Master?”

“That is highly unlikely,” said Griggin.

“Oh good,” said Darva.

X

The Gnomes and their black-winged associate reached the torture chamber. Interalia peered through a slot in the door. She swallowed. Nix wasn’t there. The torturers were playing cards. Griggin looked, turned round.

“Miss Interalia, Trixie, the one on the right is yours. Dispose of him. Darva, I’d like you to seduce the one on the left.”

Interalia opened the door, slowly, and they stepped into the room without the guards noticing. Interalia shivered. One of the walls had loops set in it. Manacles were hanging from them, so prisoners could be made to see what happened to their friends. In the middle of the room was a fire grill, with chains above them to lower the victim into the flames. There were several tables and chairs with attached hand-irons and foot irons. She tried not to think of Nix strapped to one of these, screaming. And failed. Next to her, she could hear Trixie breathe in. Trixie was a pretty Gnome girl, bright large blue eyes, as quick to laugh as to ignite her temper. At this very moment, though, her eyes had lost all their sparkle and her lips were pulled back in a snarl. Her sword was in her hands, and every ounce of her attention was fixed on the Orc on the right. This was the varknaaier who’d hurt her brother. There wouldn’t be enough of him left to bury. Interalia pulled out a throwing spike, dipped it in poison and waited.

Griggin whispered a few words to Darva the Succubus, who calmly stepped forward. Its skin seemed to glow with darkness as it stepped up to the Orc on the left, kissed its fingers and blew a cloud of shadow at the Orc. The Orc opened his eyes wide, unable to do anything but look, look at this perfect creature of impeccable beauty, tears rolling down his face, drool running down his tusks. Darva walked up to him, and with one finger, pushed him. The Orc fell over onto his back like a felled tree.

Interalia’s dart hit the other Orc. With calculated malice, she’d gone for the leg. The poison she was using hurt, devouring its victim from within. The further away from the heart, or the brain, the longer it would take the Orc to die. He’d be helpless in seconds. In this case though, the Orc didn’t have to worry about hours of agony. With a fierce, shrill battle cry, Trixie leapt forward, all her reserved anger focused on the edge of her sword, bursting in one terrible explosion of force and death. She hit the Orc with a ferocious downward slash, between neck and shoulder, drawing the blade backwards for cutting action, down to the Orc’s chest. She pulled the blade out, whirled round, and for good measure slashed the Orc’s guts open, all the way from right to left. The Orc was dead before he hit the ground, playing cards still in his hand.

Griggin walked forward, cracking his knuckles.

“Well done, my children. Darva?”

Darva, who was standing a bit to one side, studying its fingernails, looked up, quasi nonchalant.

“Master?”

“Would you please wake up the Orc?”

“Oh, must I? He looks so pretty when he’s asleep. Oh well.”

Darva walked over to the Orc, and straddled his legs, unrolled its long whip, and with a crack brought it down on the Orc’s face. The Orc bucked up, but Darva didn’t budge. The long fingernails dug into the Orc’s throat, and the Succubus hissed.

“He is awake, Master.”

“Good.”

Griggin kneeled by the Orc’s head, and pushed his face towards him.

“Where is my son?”

The Orc spat out a few words in his own language, then spat in Griggin’s face. Griggin didn’t even move.

“Did you understand that, Darva?”

“Yes, Master. He wishes you to have sexual intercourse with assorted farmyard animals.”

“Hold him down.”

Griggin took a breath, gathered up his magic, then cast a spell of corruption on the Orc’s flesh. The Orc’s eyes bulged, and he tried to move, but the Succubus held him easily.

“Darva? What’s the Orcish translation of ‘Where is my son?’ Ask him please.”

Somehow, Darva managed to make the Orcish language sound seductive as it bent over the Orc and asked him. The orc laughed in Griggin’s face.

“Little runt break easy. Tell us all we want. Then have more fun. Is hard, getting every scream without killing too soon.”

“Where is he?”

“He yell for his pappy. You too late.”

“Step away from him, Darva.”

“Master?”

“Do it.”

Darva laughed, stood up. Griggin held his hand over the Orc’s legs, and let rip. The Orc screamed. Griggin didn’t even blink.

“I happen to know that to wring every scream of pain from a victim takes some time. I know this because I have, unfortunately, had to do it myself. I had much better equipment than this second-rate outfit. To utterly destroy a person, body and soul, takes more than the time my son has been in your custody.” Griggin lowered his hand. “Now where is he?”

The Orc stopped screaming, breath coming in uneven gasps as he looked down, and saw only charred stumps where his legs used to be.

“Where is my son. Tell me and I’ll end it quickly.”

“Holding cell! Holding cell ten! Corridor right!”

“Thank you,” said Griggin, standing up. The Orc screamed in Orcish. Griggin looked up at Darva.

“He pleads for mercy, Master.”

“I must have heard that word somewhere, though its meaning eludes me at the moment. Trixie? Do something about the noise.”

The screaming stopped abruptly as Trixie stabbed the Orc in the chest. She pulled out an oily rag, cleaned her sword with it and sheathed it. Interalia put her hand on Trixie’s arm.

“Sis? You used to scare the shit out of me, but not anymore.” Interalia watched Griggin walk out of the door. “Now, it’s your dad.”

X

They stopped in front of holding cell ten. Griggin gathered up his magic to blast the door open, but Interalia pushed him to one side. She produced her lockpicks, and opened the door. The cell was dark, and stank of excrement, rotten flesh, pain and fear. Soft noises came from inside. As they stepped inside, a hoarse voice cried out, cracked from too much screaming.

“No! Don’t take me! I’ve told you everything!”

“Nix!” Interalia ran inside, and was on her knees. Scared to touch him, she put a hand on his arm. Nix gasped, looked at her. One of his eyes wouldn’t open. The other moved quickly from Interalia to…

“Dad?”

Griggin fell on his knees next to his son. “I’m here, Nix. Everything will be fine. We have you.”

Interalia looked over her shoulder. Trixie was standing in the doorway, afraid to come in, afraid of what she might see.

“Dad?” Nix whimpered as Griggin gently lifted him up. “Dad? I… I told them. I’m so sorry. I told them, Dad.”

“Very wise,” said Griggin. “Don’t worry, Nix. Everything will be alright. We’re taking you home. Trixie? Bandages.”

Nix sobbed, shaking. “Dad… They… they broke my hands. They broke my hands, Dad! I told them everything! And then they broke my…” Nix cried, tears rolling down his cheeks. Griggin sat next to him, holding him as gently as he could, repeating over and over again.

“It’ll be alright, Son. I’m taking you home.”


They arrived at the castle in the small hours. All their clothes and armour were spattered with blood. Getting out hadn’t been easy, but few enemies are more deadly than a master Warlock who has just lost the last drop of compassion he might once have felt for his enemies. Their path was littered with charred or dismembered bodies, or in some cases living corpses wildly staring, hearts still beating, pumping the poison round and round in their decaying bodies. Griggin had held Nix in his arms as he pushed his strider to its limits. To the North-east. To Caer Bannog. To the healers.

They woke up one of the Paladin healers. The healer, Brother Alruin, saw first the look in Griggin’s eyes, then the miserable heap of suffering that was Nix. He took Nix into his arms, and carried him to the infirmary as though he were a child, shouting at his fellow healers to come and join him. The door slammed shut behind them, and Trixie, Interalia and Griggin could do nothing more than sit outside, and wait.

“Miss Interalia?”

Interalia’s eyes turned towards Griggin, scared of what he might say.

“Thank you,” said Griggin. “Thank you for all that you have done.”

Interalia stared at her feet, hanging free as they were sitting on a Human sized bench.

“I don’t feel I deserve thanks,” she said.

Trixie’s arm was round her shoulders.

“They’re going to fix him up,” she said. “Everything will be fine.”

Interalia looked at Trixie’s face, nodded her head.

“Everything will be fine,” said Trixie.

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