The following is not the finalised edition. It hasn’t been formally edited and will likely contain errors. Let me know if you spot any!
Kettna stood before the gates to Calimska and an uncertain future. With Qarim at her side, she had felt invincible. The Elder dragon had given the sorceress a way back to her magic when it was fading and now he was gone. Few understood the terror of losing magic, for they’d never found it. Never felt it’s power. Never blissed in creation or swam in chaos. Common folk sang of magic in the stars but they’d never hear the symphony of the heavens playing upon the weave. Losing magic was worse than a slow death. With Qarim gone, Kettna felt the creeping death return. The bloodstone sword was her only lifeline.
Kettna was alone and tasked with an impossible quest. Elrin and Minni could hardly be called allies; less so friends. She barely knew them and by all accounts neither could be trusted. Not long ago she had trusted Elrin, but that was different. He was different. The man who stood before her now was not the innocent messenger she’d first met. Once his eyes were soft and eager, now they were troubled. His body was chiseled by dangers fit to make her head rush. And the rogue? She was a wild card before and now even more so. It was as if the demons inside the Reik had stained her skin for all to see. The woman was a liability.
How could Kettna secure all the bloodstone armies without Elrin and Minni starting a guild war along the way? The Guildmaster had to be brought to justice, but Uindarrg was the greater threat right now. Kettna remembered her nightmare vision of Elrin standing over the Guildmaster with his dagger drenched in blood. She remembered the red dragon descending upon a defenceless Calimska. The Golden Shield was all that kept the evil at bay. She would not let the Guildmaster be harmed by vigilante revenge. No. Against her impulse to make him pay for his part in the death of Rix, she had to seek his help.
Of all the people in Calimska, the Guildmaster would understand the importance of saving the Order of Calim. He was once the Archmagus. The Order was his family too. Together they could harness the power of the bloodstone armies and defeat Uindarrg. Kettna’s parents would be safe. Calimska would be safe.
There was only one way forward and it didn’t involve the clandestine plans of Elrin and Minni.
“Don’t look so glum, Inspector.” Minni slapped Kettna’s back. “I know a way we can sneak in. One of my … associates reckons smugglers use an old sewer tunnel that opens beneath the lake. I could swim down and check it out first. Then—”
“No.” Kettna held up her hand. “You’ve done quite enough. I have a superior plan.”
The sorceress placed her mind into the weave while tracing a finger lightly over the bloodstone in the hilt of the sword. She just wanted a touch a magic. A little taste. The bloodstone obliged and Tetula’s voice entered Kettna’s mind like chilled honey.
Do not be shamed, my dear. Let the magic become you.
That was fine with Kettna. She brought a spell of Barber’s Binding to mind and while her tattooed hand glimmered with flecks of silver light, she plucked two long anise-brown hairs from her scalp. Infused with white light, they began to writhe and dance like a pair of silken snakes. A word of arcane power then a chain of hand signs completed the enchantment. The wriggling hairs leaped onto Elrin and Minni, crawling over them and sliding down their arms. They spun and looped, tangling their wrists together.
“What in the hells?” Minni struggled against her bindings and they tightened. “I thought we were working together!”
“We are,” said Kettna, surprised at how easily she spun a lie. “Just play along. Qarim kept us hidden in a magic shroud, but everyone can see us now he’s gone.” Kettna nodded to the increasing number of guards that peered through the machicolations and arrow-loops on the wall. Even behind the safety of the golden shield the guards had been notably absent from view when the dragons exchanged pleasantries on their doorstep.
“Sure beats swimming in a sewer,” said Elrin, warily eying the battlements. “But will the guards buy it?”
“I know they will.” Kettna feigned confidence. “I’m their darling Inspector, aren’t I. The Guildmaster proclaimed I was the people’s hero. Remember?”
The more Kettna furnished her deception the more guilt she felt. It was better for everyone this way. These two were dangerous. Both had killed city guards before. And who knew what dangerous plot they’d pursue to get what they wanted? Minni was a rebel after all. She’d steal the bloodstone armies for her cause the first chance she got. A blink of the eye and all the hells would be marching at her beck and call. Elrin certainly did. He was positively smitten by the rogue’s crude charms.
“You surprise me, Inspector.” Minni gave Kettna a sidelong grin. “Fine. I’ll play along, but you’d better loosen these soon. Once they open that gate we’ve got to shake the guards right away. You can’t trust them.”
Much to Minni’s displeasure, Elrin was enthusiastically examining the magic around his wrists. He flexed his strong arms and grinned with disbelief. “It looks so flimsy, but the strands are tough as steel. Can you show me how you did it? Not now, obviously. But one day?”
“Maybe with something less complex,” offered the sorceress, grasping Elrin’s wrist under the pretence of checking the magical binding. “I doubt you’d have the talent though.” Kettna snuck into the weave, searching for Elrin’s talent. Better to be safe than sorry. Even average people had a tickle of magic deep down, but not enough to manifest more than a sneeze should they concentrate hard enough.
As she suspected, Elrin had nothing to brag about. Nothing at all in fact, which was odd. More unusual still was the sheer extent of the absence. Intrigued, Kettna searched deeper and deeper. Surely, Elrin had a touch of magic, but there was nothing there but an unfathomable empty well. It welcomed her and enveloped her, drawing her deeper, slowing her heart beat, tightening her breath. With great effort she abandoned the search and struggled to emerge. There was no longer an up or an out and the gravity of the abyss held the sorceress fast. She would have been lost were it not for Minni’s green-eyed intervention.
The rogue knocked Kettna’s hands off Elrin’s wrist. Magical recoil jolted up Kettna’s arm and lashed her mind like a whip.
“Want to check my bonds too, Mistress Magic?” asked Minni glaring at the sorceress. “Think you’d get lost in my eyes too, hmm?”
Kettna’s cheeks flushed with heat as she stared down the rogue, mute with embarrassment and reeling from the lash to her mind.
“Thought as much.” Minni smirked, but her eyes held no humour. “Should we push on with this charade?”
“Sorry, Elrin … I …” Kettna rubbed her aching temples and tried to ignore the rogue. There was no excuse for the sorceress’s intrusion and no explanation for what she discovered.
Kettna tightened the rogue’s magic restraints, careful to avoid the woman’s intense stare but feeling it nonetheless. The last thing they needed was a fight in front of the gates.
“Are you feeling alright?” Elrin reached out to touch Kettna’s hand. He had no idea what she’d done.
The sorceress withdrew from his touch. “I have a plan. Trust me, everything will fine.” She needed to show she was in control.
Minni sneered. “The smarter the plan, the nastier the surprise. You’d better know what you’re up against, Inspector.”
“Oh, I’m certain of it,” assured Kettna, returning the rogue’s glare.
The dragon-eyed reik was nothing but trouble. There was no way Kettna would let her lead. This quest was too important and too delicate. Minni would murder her way to a solution then slip away in the night. She’d done it to Kettna before, she’d do it again. Over and again she’d said assassinating the Guildmaster was her plan. The gall of the woman.
The safest way forward was to limit the variables that would go wrong. If Kettna could get them to the Constable, they should be safe. The Guildmaster would be preoccupied with maintaining the Golden Shield, so now was the time when the Constable could establish a case. They had proof and testimony. Once Uindarrg was defeated, they could gather the guild council in secret and organise the removal of the Guildmaster without causing a civil war or letting in more dragons.
The politics of dragonkind was one thing, but Calimska wasn’t beholden to the bidding of the Dragon Choir. No matter how much she respected Qarim, Calimska was a Guildocracy. The people were not dictated to by foreign powers. The foundations of law established by Calim ensured the people had the power of government, not the dragons. Not even Daniakesh was sovereign. All were beholden to law, lest there be chaos.
Convinced she was doing the right thing, Kettna reached up her sleeve and removed a length of braided violet ribbons from a hidden fold. She linked it end to end in a circle and with a little more magic from her sword, the sorceress triggered a chain of spidery runes to engage. A silken bag of shimmering violet appeared. Much to the rogue’s protestations, Kettna removed Minni’s sword and all her daggers and dropped them inside the pocket dimension.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get them all back in time,” assured the sorceress. “But the guards won’t believe you’re my prisoner if you’re bristling with weapons.”
Kettna reached for Elrin’s dagger too, but it had disappeared.
“You won’t need to take mine,” said Elrin with a smile. “It knows when to stay hidden. Don’t worry. I’ll keep it under control.”
“You’d better,” warned Kettna. “There’s a dead letter on your head. Don’t give them an excuse to take your life before trial.”
The sorceress marched her prisoners up to the smaller pedestrian door of the gatehouse. It was made of sturdy timber and studded with black iron. Gold inlay crisscrossed the surface infusing the portal with deadly wards should a dragon seek an audience.
“Let us in!” shouted Kettna, tugging a thick rope that hung near beside the entry. A bell clanged inside the gatehouse and a peep hole in the door slid open.
Two wrinkled eyes scowled from within. “Not on your life!” insisted a gravely voice. “Guildmaster says no dragons.”
“Do we look like dragons?” asked Kettna.
The eyes scrunched up in Minni’s direction. “Sure as the hells got horns, that wench don’t look far off.”
Minni spat at the door, but the old guard shut the slot before the gob hit. Such reflexes must have been a boon in the gateman’s profession.
Kettna glared at Minni who shrugged her shoulders, unrepentant.
The sorceress rang the bell again and the slot cautiously opened once more.
“Bugger off with the lot of ya!” growled the gateman, his eyes bulging. “Unless you’d prefer an arrow for your trouble.”
That was an understatement. There were more than enough archers above to make pin cushions of them all.
“Don’t you know who I am?” asked the Inspector.
“I don’t give two toots who you are, missy. Spitters are non-admitters, see. I’m marking your mugs. Now, sod off and—” The gateman screwed his eyes up at Elrin then gasped. “Hold your horses now, lass. I know that one. That beard don’t fool me, neither. You’re the guard killer, ain’t ya! Dead letter’s on your noggin and I sees it first.”
“I don’t think so,” said Kettna. “Take a better look at my face to recognise it. I’m the Inspector of this city and the dead letter’s mine. I’m bringing him in and you’ll open this damn gate now! If you have a problem with that, bring your captain. Better still, summon the Constable if you doubt me. What was your name? Your uniform is ash if this gate doesn’t open.”
The slot shut while muffled argument proceeded to escalate on the other side. When the slot opened again a new pair of eyes examined Kettna and blinked in surprise, taking her in once again for good measure.
“Dammit, Bolif!” said the younger guard, slapping his colleague’s battered helm. “That’s the daughter of the Archmagus. The bloody Inspector! I swear you’re goin’ blind. Open it up now and let ‘em in before another dragon comes!”
After a generous amount of grunting and grumbling to lubricate the process, the old gateman shifted the beams and bolts that barred the side door. The magic wards upon the door remained, brimming with explosive potential, but Kettna detected an ebb in the weave within the gatehouse. The door swung open and they were hurried in to a stone corridor that smelled of sweat, leather and tobacco. Once the door slammed shut behind them, magic rushed in, sealing the gatehouse against the threat of dragons once more.
While the old gateman, Bolif, heaved the timber beams to bar the door, the younger guard looked the inspector and her prisoners over with the help of a lantern. Satisfied that Kettna was who she said she was, the guard ushered them deeper into the gatehouse corridor. Every few yards a murder hole judged them from above and the left wall was decorated with deadly sockets. Steel spikes winked at them in the lamp light, waiting to skewer any enemy stupid enough to force their way into Calimska.
Doubt stuck in Kettna’s throat and stiffened her stride, but she forced herself to keep walking. This was no place to have second thoughts, yet second thoughts came. Thirds and fourths too; as many as there were spikes. She couldn’t keep the piercing uncertainty at bay. Kettna had fled Calimska in fear of the Guildmaster and here she was, running right back. What was she thinking? This was madness, but doing anything else simply wasn’t an option. It wasn’t just her life now. It wasn’t her mother’s life or even the lives of all in Calimska. The fate of Oranica was on her shoulders. The stakes were so high, one misstep and Kettna would fail everyone.