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Chapter 10: THE RIDER
The fighting found its finish. Not all the guards were dead; some had thrown down their polearms and turned to dousing the flames, and a few had been allowed to do so. Townfolk had been slow to join the fight, and they were slow to give it up as well. But a fire in thirsty Haresh was a catastrophic thing; in time the flames became the greater foe, and townfolk and guards allied against it.
Wounded as grievously as ever she had been, Lea turned and headed to the crevice in the canyon wall that led to the Hive. Her work was not yet finished, and she might have a fight left to face. She hadn’t seen Tantaren’s guards among the fray, nor would she have expected to. Perhaps they would come between her and the Fair One.
She would have to face them alone; Xian had moved on to finish their plan and bring the Advisor to her justice.
Aradros snorted and blocked her way, pushing gently on her shoulder with his broad, soft nose. He wanted her to go to safety. His hide was lathered with sweat, and his sides heaved with effort. Blood trickled from an array of shallow cuts across his withers and rear, but a good rest and some healing salve would restore him. The magic he so disliked had kept him whole. Perhaps she would have done better to cast a hardening on herself as well, rather than a strengthening.
No. Even if she’d cast on herself the same magic she’d given Aradros, the soldier would have defeated her if she hadn’t made herself his match. Only a full shielding cast would have protected her, and that would have given her away and turned the folk against her.
As she pushed past her horse and ducked into the narrow way to the Hive, Lea considered using healing magic on the deep wound at her side. But healing was among the most taxing magic. Some castings, like glamours, used very little magic. They were simple shifts in perceptions, barely more than children’s tricks, and made no true change. Other casts, like shield or battle strength, made temporary changes of state or being and used more magic than glamours but only for a brief time. The most expensive castings were those that made permanent changes, actually shifting the state of being itself. Healing was a permanent magic. Healing a wound as deep as the one on her side would cost her dear, and probably draw from her physical strength as well.
What she did instead was dampen her pain. Standing in the dark before the stairs that would take her down to the hag’s shop and Tantaren’s lair, she sent a light casting into herself. The energy of the magic flared through her wounds, and her pain blazed hotter before it settled to glowing embers. She sighed and found the stairs.
The night was still dark, and the torches had seemingly all gone to the fight, so she listened sharply at the top of a black abyss. Hearing nothing ahead of her, she risked dropping the glamour over her eyes and bringing up her moonsight. A shimmery ghost of the dark world of the Hive emerged before her. She followed the stairs down, still listening, still hearing nothing but the dwindling clamor of Haresh after its fight.
Alone in the dark, she found her way to the ninth door and tried it—it was unlocked. Pushing in, her sword at the ready, she found an empty shop. Even the cage was empty. The Fair One was gone. Had she been too tardy in making a rescue?
The tapestry that had covered the way to Tantaren’s lair had been torn from its pegs, and the arch was exposed in its blackness. Lea paused only a heartbeat before she went to the arch and crossed through.
To the denotite-laced cave below.
The casting she made over her pain waned with each step downward; Lea didn’t expend the magic to maintain it. She gave up her moonsight as well, and went into deep darkness. By the time she reached the door glazed in denotite, her pain was in full flower, and she couldn’t hold back a groan at the hot flare through her hand when she took hold of the hasp and opened the door.
Perhaps it was fatigue and weakness. Perhaps it was that her un-augmented sight had been damaged by the blows from the soldier’s spiked gauntlet. But Lea could not at first comprehend what it was she’d walked into. She’d been stunned upon her first sight of this room, and she was stunned again, but for wholly different reasons.
A few torches guttered in the center of the room, where Tantaren had been seated. Her throne-like chair was empty. Beside that chair, the Fair One lay supine. Lea couldn’t say whether they lived or no. But scattered around the center, sprawled over the floor, were all the guards who’d held posts around the perimeter when last she was here. They were all quite obviously dead, their lifeblood congealed at their throats and around their heads, not quite dry, but neither fresh.
Was the Fair One dead as well? There was no thickening blood on or around the pale body that Lea could see. Only the center of the room, where those few torches remained in the last moments of their flame, had any light. All else was in deep shadow, but Lea heard no sound. She went forward, through darkness, toward the light. She couldn’t leave here without the Fair One unless she were sure it was too late.
A screech exploded from the shadows, resounding off the cavern walls so keenly that Lea couldn’t be sure from whence it came. Her battle senses came alive too late; as she took in the breath she needed to make a fight, a body slammed into her back, and a hot slice of pain went through her shoulder—she’d been stabbed. Lea spun and lunged, sinking her sword into the belly of the hag.
The old woman’s eyes were wide with pain, but they saw Lea’s unconcealed eyes and went sharp. “Saapian WHORE!” she coughed out as Lea put her on the ground and pulled her sword back. “I knew there was wrong about you! DEMON! DESTROYER!”
“Where is Tantaren?” Lea demanded, raising her sword in both hands. The hag’s blade was still in her back, hot and deep and sickening, and raising her arms was bitter agony, but she held true. “A true answer brings a quick death. More filth from your maw leaves you to suffer with your guts out.”
The hag laughed, and blood spilled from her lips. “You are doomed, worldbreaker. You and all your kind. The Dark Queen is gone. She’s free and you freed her! She will finish what she began!”
“Gone where?” Lea could barely keep her legs under her. In her battle-damaged state, the lacing of denotite in this deep place weakened her tenfold more than it had before. She tried to ignore the blade in her back and keep her focus on the hag, but the pain of its violation rolled through her in sickening waves. It wrapped around her heart and slowed its beat. It filled her lungs and stopped their draw.
“The blade is denotite,” she gasped, finally understanding.
The hag cackled dully. “Doomed, you are doomed.”
Lea sank her sword into the old woman’s chest, and she laughed no more.
She reached back to get the vicious blade out, but she couldn’t grasp it. Her hand would only brush feebly at the grip, and the movement itself seemed to tear her in twain.
The Fair One. She was here for the Fair One. To save they who had been tortured. She stumbled toward the center of the room and fell over the body of a guard. Landing in a pool of aging blood, Lea couldn’t get her arms to move again. They were heavy, leaden, dead, and wouldn’t move.
This is where it ends, she thought, and thought no more.
to be continued …
©2018 Susan Fanetti