In which we've already run out of proper heroic types.
Author's Note: This fic stemmed from a desire to write a better Castle of Ordeals, dabbled in the workings of the illogical Time Loop plot, and ended up taking a shot at fleshing out the game's world. I think the only point on which I contradict canon (other than my changes to the castle) is my treatment of the Orbs and their relationship to the Light Warriors. It's a relatively minor tweak that I think ties in better with the Time Loop.
By the way, everything herein is based on the original NES release, including the locations, classes, and monster names. Also note that the rating is mostly for language. There's no sex past the point of innuendo, and the violence isn't especially gory.
Yet at my back I always hear
Time's wingÃ©d chariot hurrying near.
-Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress"
The clouds were beginning to lift from the moon when Clovis slipped away from the camp and stole toward the river. Glenn peered at her through his tent flap, watching her silhouette melt from shadow to shadow until she reached the thick brush at the edge of the clearing. There she vanished, absorbed by a black tangle of trees and bracken.
Glenn sighed and let the tent flap fall. So much for the evening's entertainment, he thought. Lying back on his blanket, he crossed his arms under his head and stared up at the darkness. And so much for sleep. The nervousness that had been building inside of him for days had burst tonight into full-blown insomnia, leaving him with nothing to do but lie on his back and wait. And think. Lately, however, he hadn't been able to think about anything but that damned castle and Clovis, the latter of which he preferred but the former of which increasingly tended to dominate. He sighed again as the fleeting image of the thief began to give way to dark visions of towers and corridors.
A loud snore interrupted the process. Glenn sat up and glared at his tentmate, Dimitri, who grunted and rolled over. His dark hair settled in waves on the ground.
"Put a cork in it," Glenn said, loudly enough to startle Dimitri but quietly enough to avoid waking Maggie in the next tent.
Dimitri half-opened his eyes, not bothering to lift his head. "What do you want?" he asked, articulate despite his state of semi-consciousness. That he awoke at all attested to his edginess.
Glenn crossed his arms. "You were snoring."
"Was I, now?" Dimitri's voice was rich with condescension. "Did I wake you?"
"No," Glenn admitted. "I've been up all night. But you-"
"Then let me get back to sleep. Spellcasting takes energy." Dimitri rolled over without another glance at his bunkmate.
"So does fighting," Glenn muttered, but he knew better than to expect a response. Even if Dimitri had been willing to converse, the best he could have gotten would have been something along the lines of "And what would you know about /that/?"
I fight, he thought sullenly. Just not the way you want.
The snoring started up again a few minutes later, and this time Glenn left the tent. He considered going back for his sword but rejected the idea on the grounds that he'd find it being used as Dimitri's hat rack. Grumbling, he kicked a stone and made his way into the brush where he'd last seen Clovis.
There was a sudden flash in his peripheral vision. Turning, Glenn saw a dark arm retract up into a nearby tree, metallic object in tow. A moment later, Clovis's upper body hung upside-down in its place.
A comment about this being an unusual way to keep watch didn't make it past the idea stage.
"Hey, kid," she said, tossing her toy from one hand to the other in one of her better displays of dexterity. "What're you up to?"
"I could ask you the same thing."
Clovis smirked. "Well, what I'm doing is obvious, and I'm pretty sure what you're doing is hoping my shirt comes untucked."
Glenn's face burned. He tried several times to answer, but his tongue refused to cooperate. "Oh," he managed at last. "So what have you got in your, um, hand?"
A long grin spread over her face. "An improved sense of direction."
It took Glenn took a moment to catch her meaning. "What the hell were you thinking? Do you have any idea what she'd do if-"
"Eh, she'd have to catch me first." Looking as pleased with herself as Glenn had ever seen her, Clovis rolled the compass between her fingers and added, "I nabbed it right under her nose, too. Did you know she sleeps with the damn thing?"
She seemed ready to give a blow-by-blow description of her theft, so Glenn cut her off by asking, "What do you want with it?"
"Nothing." Clovis swung back up into the tree. "I just wanted to see if I could get it."
She's worried, too, Glenn thought, staring up at the darkness of the branches. Well, why shouldn't she be? We don't even know what we're looking for.
When he failed to respond, Clovis poked her head out of the leaves and gave him a bored look. "Guess you'd better scurry back now. Watch your feet." Then she vanished again, a near-inaudible rustling indicating that she was climbing farther up the trunk.
Glenn had spent enough time around Clovis to know a hint when he heard it. Kneeling, he felt around the base of the tree until his hands connected with something other than grass. Further investigation turned up several small items that he and Dimitri had missed recently, along with the ornate brooch that Dimitri never let out of his sight. That Clovis had managed to pilfer it was equal parts impressive and unsettling.
As Glenn got back to his feet, he was certain that Clovis was watching him from her perch with a smug expression. She never got caught in the act, but she never worked anonymously, either. Glenn shook his head and started back to the clearing, wondering if she was also dipping into the party's funds. Hell, he mused, not for the first time, she probably stole that Orb, too.
The camp was as still as a painting when he returned. Resigning himself to an exciting night of listening to the crickets chirp, Glenn trudged toward his tent, trying halfheartedly to mask the noise of his footsteps. /She's not even pretty/, he reminded himself. But his imagination had already begun to correct that.
Glenn had almost decided insomnia wouldn't be so bad when he heard a faint noise from behind him.
Instinctively he dropped to ground. A split-second later a tiger leapt over his head, diving through the space where his chest had been, and landed with a soft thud on the grass, its tail twitching furiously. Glenn reached for his sword and swore when he remembered that he had left it in the tent.
Not that a weapon would have guaranteed a happy ending. He'd killed tigers before, but never easily and certainly never alone. As Glenn tried to remember whether this species would ignore people who played dead, he noticed that the tiger's flesh was stretched taut over its ribs.
Great. It's twice my size and starving, too. Glenn glanced at his tent, which was on the other side of the monster. The tree cover was too far away. He ran for it regardless, trying to remember if tigers could climb trees and trying not to consider whether he'd have the chance to find out.
He didn't. The tiger's weight pinned Glenn to the ground, knocking the wind out of him. Slaver dripped onto his neck.
I'm going to die and I'm going to die because I screwed up and I'm going to-
Something hot sprayed over his back. As Glenn spent a panicked moment discerning that the blood wasn't his, the tiger fell back on top of his legs, twitching wildly before it went limp. Glenn struggled out from beneath the corpse and looked up to see a massive figure looming over him, holding a gory ax.
"Maggie," he said, "you just saved my-"
"I know." Glenn couldn't tell whether she was amused or irritated. "You goddamned idiot."
Irritated, then. Wiping some of the blood off his neck, Glenn stood and tried to think of a good reason why he'd been wandering around unarmed. There wasn't one. Maggie would probably point out as much once she'd let him stew for a while.
Glenn studied her face as he waited, hoping to see a flicker of approval or humor. He found neither. Away from her crew, Maggie's expressions were generally limited to "kill" and "not kill," and the only mixture of the two came when something irked her and she couldn't behead it.
Beyond that he knew almost nothing about her. She was a pirate, and apparently a successful enough one to maintain her shipboard authority during the quest. The rest of her life was never discussed. Glenn didn't even know her age, although the lines on her face and the gray in her hair indicated that she had left youth far behind. It was also clear that Maggie's past professions had been at the very least eclectic- she was the only white mage Glenn knew of who favored edge weapons.
"You let it follow you," she said at last. "The hell were you thinking?"
About Clovis. "I wasn't thinking," Glenn replied instead, which was at least half-true.
Maggie regarded him for a moment longer, then turned to face the trees. "There's something here no one understands. Not even the dragons."
"But the remaining two Fiends are stronger," Glenn said, recalling Maggie's own admonition. "Not that we have a basis of comparison or anything, but we'd need the Dragon King's blessing to stand a chance, right?"
"That so?" There was a smirk in her tone. "Bahamut's powers are all light and smoke." She glanced down at Glenn, and he shivered at the glint of light on her eyes.
Then why /are we here?/ He bit his tongue quickly. Maggie could take a great deal in stride, but he was never quite certain where the line was. Besides, the answer was almost certainly "Because it's my ship."
"Get some sleep," Maggie advised, kneeling to clean her ax. As Glenn let himself into his tent, she added, "The thief is pushing her luck."
He almost smiled as he used Dimitri's canteen to rinse the blood out of his hair.
Clovis awoke the next morning with a lingering sense of accomplishment. Another point for me, she thought smugly, recalling how she had slipped the small compass back into Maggie's tent without a hitch. That lumbering sahag is no match for Clovis the Great. Whistling a tavern song, Clovis smoothed her ponytail and ducked out of the tent.
Dimitri was waiting for her. "She emerges at last," he said dryly, crossing his arms as she made a point of being languid. "Hurry up and take care of the tent."
"Well, look who woke up bitchy." Clovis threw a satisfied look at the expensive (Dimitri preferred "priceless") jade brooch securing his robes. Although Dimitri claimed that the design etched into it was the Leifinish word for prosperity, Clovis doubted it. He'd probably scratched the thing up himself.
Dimitri raised an eyebrow. "I was under the impression that you woke up on your own."
"Oh, the sting of your wit." Clovis knelt and began to dismantle to dismantle the tent, adding, "Sexual frustration rotting your brain?"
He ignored her. "When you're finished, perhaps you'd care to join the useful portion of the party. Try not to slow us down again." The subsequent rustle of robes indicated that he was going to brood elsewhere.
Good riddance. Dimitri was always at his most insufferable after the party stopped in a town, generally because they were leaving just before he could lure some vacuous teenage girl into the sack. Clovis had worked this out after trailing him in Melmond, and she'd consequently had a great deal of fun at his expense in Onrac. And she'd certainly needed some fun in Onrac, what with Maggie dangerously on edge and Glenn hiding on the ship and refusing to go into town.
Which makes /me the sanest one here. No wonder I'm nervous./ Clovis sighed and started wrapping the tent poles. In the years since her certification, she'd gotten herself into and out of trouble with guards, wizards, monsters, and the occasional mysterious dungeon, all while playing guild politics. So why was a little treasure-hunt making her jittery?
It had to be Maggie's fault. With the way that woman dominated the party, it was no wonder she could make everybody skittish. Clovis tied a final knot around the rolled tent, then stood and stretched.
Clovis spun to face the sound. "Oh," she said, relaxing the hand that sprang to her knife. "Just you."
Glenn's discomfort manifested as a blush. "I wasn't trying to sneak up on you," he said, giving her one of his more unabashedly pathetic looks. "I was just, you know..."
Clovis resisted the urge to smirk. Ah, young desperation. It's damn near flattering. Ordinarily she would have flirted with him until he squirmed, but her nagging unease was sucking the fun out of it. "Well, I see you're set."
After taking a quick glance at his armor, Glenn nodded. "Maggie says it's just through the forest."
Although Maggie carried the tent and her share of the items, Clovis still had to contend with hauling that leaden Orb through the undergrowth. It had been a mutual decision, born mostly from distrust, for each member to carry his or her own, but Clovis frequently regretted it when they spent days trudging through fields and forests. The Marsh Cave had been particularly hellish.
Not to mention unexplained. Pestering Maggie about why they were running an errand for a batty king had been fruitless, and the older woman had been equally taciturn about the monarch's subsequent transformation, attack, and messy demise. It wasn't even worth asking why Maggie knew how close they were to the castle now, or why she hadn't waited to make camp until they'd gotten there.
In the world outside of Clovis's head, Glenn was giving her a look that made him seem even younger than usual. Considering the noises that she'd heard from the camp after he'd headed back, he was probably formulating a complaint about her shortcomings as a watchman.
"Take your sword next time," she said pre-emptively, then went to retrieve her pack. Slinging it over her shoulder, she pointed to the rolled tent and cleared her throat.
An unhappy hour later, Clovis tried to convince herself that a whining Glenn was worse than a hike through the forest. It wasn't easy. The sense of impending doom grew heavier with each second, and it had reached the point that Clovis was ready to throw her entire bag of supplies at Maggie's head, consequences be damned. The rumors shouldn't bother her this much, she thought, watching the ground to avoid tripping on the excess of forest growth. And she's too sure of the area. I'd bet my ass she's been here before. Clovis kicked a rock out of her way and walked another few steps before crashing into Dimitri's back.
"Hey!" she snapped. "What the hell-" She stopped as her eyes fell upon the structure in front of her. "Oh."
Castles in general had ceased to impress Clovis, but this one scratched at something in the back of her brain. The most obvious problem was that the exterior was completely solid, without so much as a single window. She cursed under her breath. And there's no way they'll let me hold the torch this time. Bastards. No sense of humor. Scowling at the structure, Clovis noticed another irregularity: the stone walls were untouched by the vegetation around them. This created a tiny moat of dirt, and the walls above it showed no signs of erosion. Clovis raised an eyebrow and glanced at Maggie.
The older woman's face was as unreadable as always, but her eyes were unusually dark. "Leave the supplies," she said, dropping her pack near the castle's entrance. "They won't go anywhere."
As Glenn and Dimitri complied, Clovis walked over to examine the doors, which were bronze, more than twice her height, and covered almost entirely with bas-relief sculptures. Most of these appeared to be highly stylized depictions of fights between dragons and monsters, with a few hapless humans caught in the fray. Toward the center things became a little more surreal, beginning with a carving of five men whose arms appeared to be melting into bat wings. Below them was another human figure being swallowed piecemeal by a four-headed beast. Elegant draconic script snaked through the scenes, but Clovis hadn't the faintest clue what any of it meant.
She looked away from the doors and shrugged.
If an implacable force of destiny was going to insist on involving him, Dimitri felt that he was at least entitled to a competent party. He was finding it increasingly difficult to believe that the Orbs chose their bearers based on anything more than chance.
Or, he reflected, noting that Glenn appeared to be keeping the camping supplies between himself and the castle, which he was regarding with obvious dread, perhaps this is all an elaborate plot on the part of some higher power to get me killed.
Sighing, Dimitri poked at his pack with his staff. This Light Warriors nonsense was the longest bout of adventuring he had ever endured, and it was almost guaranteed to end badly- as evidenced by two years' worth of predecessors, all of whom had been found in pieces, if at all. Perhaps it was an elaborate plot to murder people chosen at random.
And "random" was certainly the word for it. Maggie was the only one of his companions who wasn't deadweight, but she was also an utter failure as a white mage and the one most likely to shake off the influence of the Orbs and murder the rest of the party in their sleep. Anyone who insisted on wearing a mage's robe over armor was insane, even if it did spare Dimitri the sight of most of her scars. Standing as she was now, staring at the castle as if she intended to challenge it to single combat, Maggie reminded him of why he didn't like dealing with warrior types, even in a professional capacity.
His spectacularly useless tentmate was not a warrior type, no matter what guild he belonged to.
Out of the corner of his eye, Dimitri saw Clovis fidgeting with her supply bag, occasionally rearranging the contents. A look through her personal items would no doubt solve the mystery of why his share of the treasure seemed slim, but that could wait until they had either saved the world or found a way out of the responsibility. Or, preferably, until the thief got herself killed and replaced by an adventurer who could contribute something to the party's survival. He'd heard good things about black belts.
But as long as the Orbs bound him to these misfits, he could at least indulge his petty side.
Tossing his hair over his shoulder, Dimitri sidled up to Clovis and smiled as she tied her sack shut. "Given the circumstances," he said, "shall I-"
"Shove that overcompensating hat up your ass?" she cut in, getting to her feet. "Go right ahead."
Dimitri feigned offense. "I was simply going to offer to walk beside you with the torch."
The world flashed dark as his hat was yanked down over his face.
"Jackass," Clovis muttered.
Dimitri used his staff to push the brim back in place and smirked. "That wasn't very professional of you."
She didn't bother replying that time, electing instead to lean against a nearby tree. Along the way she captured a long blade of grass, which she rolled between her fingers as she asked, "We ready yet?"
"As ready as we can be, I think," Glenn replied. Dimitri turned to find him still standing beside the pile of discarded camping supplies, shifting his weight from foot to foot. How the boy had gotten certified was a mystery.
Maggie said nothing as she approached the doors. Every line of her body screamed that she was on familiar ground, and it irked Dimitri that no one else seemed to have noticed. She could lead us into hell and they'd never question her.
"Don't run off," Maggie said abruptly. "There's no guarantee we'll find you."
"Wow, don't get too happy on us." Clovis's words were somewhat garbled by the blade of grass sticking out of her mouth.
Glenn looked at her in alarm. "Don't chew on that! You have no idea where it's been!"
"Growing out of the ground, I'd imagine," Dimitri offered, leaning forward on his staff. "How... cute."
Clovis spat it out and wrinkled her nose.
A thunderous creak startled the three of them into turning back to the doors. They had swung inward under Maggie's push, revealing a heavy darkness that the sunlight did not penetrate. Dimitri stared and blinked. Light reached the doors, reflected brilliantly from the bronze surface, and was devoured by the mouth of the castle. There was no gradation. No penumbrae. He rubbed his brooch and took a breath.
Glenn made a small, unhappy noise. "That's not-"
"Natural?" Dimitri suggested.
"Screw this. I'm waiting outside." Clovis spun on her heel and began rummaging for her things in the supply pile. Three stern looks later, she threw her bag back with the others, sighed, and rejoined the group, keeping the rest of the party between herself and the castle.
Maggie was silent again, her eyes narrowed to slits. The air around her seemed to crackle.
Dimitri raised an eyebrow. So, she-ogre, what happened the last time you were here?
"Maggie?" Glenn ventured. "Are you-"
"It's time." Her gaze never left the castle, from which she seemed to expecting an attack. "Bring me the crown we took from the Marsh Cave."
Neither Clovis nor Dimitri moved, so Glenn sighed and resigned himself to being the errand boy. Again. He seemed to do all the fetching on their quests. "I think it's in Maggie's sack," he said, on the off-chance that anyone cared to know. Muttering a bit to himself, Glenn dug through the canvas bag and withdrew the unadorned bit of gold that Astos had claimed so vehemently as his own.
"Here," he said, holding it out for Maggie. "But why-"
She glared at him as she took it, shutting him up in mid-sentence. Slowly she turned the crown over in her hands, inspecting it as if for the first time in ages. "Still has his blood on it," she mused, then used the highest spike to slice open her left palm. Crimson streaked over the gold.
Clovis quirked an eyebrow. "What the hell was that for?"
Maggie ignored her. As Glenn squeezed his own hand in sympathy, she painted her blood over the metal with an odd sense of deliberation. Once she seemed satisfied, she held the crown like a discus and threw it into the darkness.
The black area between the doors shuddered, and a dim, bluish light illuminated the castle's entryway. Before anyone could comment, a heavy mist flowed into the newly-lit area and began to shape itself. Someone near Glenn took in a sharp breath. As he watched, the fog developed a shape that was nearly human, yet disproportionate- the limbs were too thick, the torso too long, the head too flat. Excess mist gathered in sail-shapes at its back.
A dragon, Glenn realized. The phantom was formed too vaguely to delineate its snout or horns, but the wings were clear enough. The appearance of a tail further lent further credence to his idea.
Silently, its outline in constant flux, the mist lifted the crown in its shapeless hands and set it upon its head. A soft sigh accompanied the action. Then the mist dispersed, letting the crown clatter to the stone floor.
There was a beat before Clovis began to complain. "It's haunted, isn't it? Dammit, I hate the undead."
"Yes, we're all quite aware of that," Dimitri said dryly. "But you needn't fear the undead when there's a mage in the party."
She swept her foot into his ankles, causing him to lose his balance and nearly topple to the ground. "Sure," she drawled, smirking as he used his staff to catch himself. "Say, didn't we have to haul your half-dead ass back to Elfland after you tried to take down a gang of geists?"
"Please," Glenn interjected, hoping he didn't appear to be taking up for Dimitri, "not now. This castle's-"
"Dangerous." Maggie was now standing in the entrance, crown in hand. The blood had vanished. "Don't leave the party."
Clovis blinked innocently. "Want us to hold hands?"
Maggie ignored the question and gestured for the others to follow her into the vestibule. Once they were inside, it became clear that the eerie blue light came from the walls themselves, and it reflected with a ghostly sheen from twins rows of white pillars. A dragon-sized wooden throne sat in the far corner of the room. With a short nod, Maggie led the group in its direction.
Perspiration dripped down Glenn's forehead and traced the outline of his nose. Stay with the group, he thought as firmly as he could. There's nothing to worry about as long as-
The castle doors slammed shut as if a giant foot had kicked them in.
Glenn dove to the floor at the sound, ducking behind a column. It took him a moment to realize that he wasn't under attack, and he looked up to see Clovis and Dimitri staring at him.
"Sharp reflexes," Glenn muttered, his face burning as he stood. "If that had been a monster, you'd both be dead."
Clovis grinned. "Better watch out for those wily door-beasts."
The impatient stamp of Maggie's boot ended the discussion, and they joined her beside the throne.
It was, Glenn noted as he approached, an impressive piece of craftsmanship. Years of disuse had done nothing to detract from the throne's polished sheen, and the complex, symmetrical patterns carved into the back and arms were still clear. The yellow cushion on the seat was embroidered with the ancient crest of the dragons. Briefly Glenn wondered what could have driven them from their lair, but that way panic lay. Instead, he considered whether the throne's proximity to the ground had been to allow the aging dragon king to get himself into his seat. Rumor had it that Bahamut wasn't capable of pulling himself up anymore.
While Glenn mused over draconic ergonomics, Maggie set the crown in the center of the cushion. The blue light intensified.
"Touch it," she said when the others stared blankly at the throne. "Then don't move."
Gingerly, Glenn poked the cushion with his forefinger. In a flash he was sucked forward into a surge of light, where the air zoomed past him in pummeling waves. By the time it occurred to him to scream, the motion had abruptly ceased, and he found himself lying on his back on the floor of a narrow, blue-lit hall. At least, that's what Glenn thought it was; the light had blasted his vision.
"Hello?" Glenn called, trying to blink the dazzle from his eyes as he stood. "Is anybody-"
"We're here," Dimitri said crossly.
Glenn turned to see him and Clovis getting to their feet. Maggie was behind them, already standing and tucking the crown inside her robes. She seemed no worse for the wear, and Glenn ventured to ask the question that had been humming in his mind for days: "Maggie, have you been-"
The blue illumination flickered once and vanished, leaving them in total darkness. Glenn yelped and clung to the person nearest him.
"Let go of me," Dimitri snapped, and a sharp blow from his staff knocked Glenn to the floor. He lay there for a while to catch his breath.
A soft glow seeped into the edge of Glenn's vision. With a relieved sigh, he got up to see Maggie standing nearby, a torch blazing in her left hand. Because of the dance of light, it took Glenn a moment to realize that she was standing eerily still. Only her eyes moved, scanning the area in calculated sweeps as the muscles of her face tightened.
"Maggie?" Glenn began. "Is something-" Dimitri coughed, and realization dawned: "Where's Clovis?"
The breeze tugged at her on its way toward the sunset, as if it wanted to take her with it. She half-wished it would. Brushing the grass from her knees, she rose and resumed her journey south, crossing the elongated shadows of the trees. They reminded her of teeth, an old man's teeth with a red ball of a tongue sinking below their base.
It was your fault, she thought, stopping in one of the shadows and narrowing her eyes at its caster. Her throat grew tight, and she crossed her arms as she turned her glare to the ground. A dead cold swept over her, making the flesh of her arms prickle.
With a tiny sigh, the wind left her, as if it had been sucked into the horizon. She heard nothing but the sound of her own breath. The leaves were as still as rocks, as corpses, as the unborn.
"It wasn't my fault!" In the dead air, her voice was like a comet on a moonless night, shooting past the insensate trees to be swallowed by the distance. It changed nothing.
She took a moment to catch her breath before she began walking again, slinging her sack over her other shoulder as she did. It would be dark again soon, and she had a long way to go.
She was remarkably calm for someone who still had blood on her shirt.
Glenn was frantic now, cupping his hands around his mouth as he called. Apparently, his idea of how to find a lost comrade was to yell and run in crazy spirals around the edge of the light, and Maggie's was to trail him like an overlarge shadow. Dimitri backed up a step to remove his cloak from the path of the torch.
The thief's disappearance didn't surprise him at all. He expected her to sneak up on the group once she lost interest in hiding, and he imagined her concealed now in a dark corner, grinning broadly. They'd never hear the end of it, now that she'd managed to cause this much chaos.
NaÃ¯fs. If Clovis was going to rejoin the group, she'd do so when she damn well pleased. Dimitri had been on the receiving end of too many of her practical jokes to think otherwise, and he knew that there was nothing in Clovis's character that would require her to give up her sport just because her companions were worried.
As Glenn and Maggie continued their bizarre dance, Dimitri leaned back against the nearest wall and began to tap his staff idly against the ground. She couldn't have gone far. She wasn't terribly patient, either, so it wouldn't be long before they resumed their quest.
Picking up his tapping tempo a bit, Dimitri tried to work out what he'd do during his next brush with civilization, assuming he survived this pointless venture. Onrac had been miserable. Clearly the thief had nothing better to do with her free time than interfere with his, so if her latest stunt didn't get her killed, he'd have little to look forward to.
Perhaps he should have been more cautious in Melmond. But after learning that the innkeeper had vanished during the last year's vampire attacks, he'd been unable to resist the temptation to see if he could break the daughter's heart twice. And if she believed that Dimitri had only left to escape her father and had now come back to her...
She hadn't been quite that stupid, but the worst part was that he'd had no inkling he'd been followed until a promising conversation in Onrac had been interrupted by a perky voice saying, "C'mon, you put on a better show with the last girl. Try going a little deeper on 'captivating.'"
Dimitri's mind was meandering off in search a better response than the one he'd given on the spot when the lights flickered to life. They almost immediately went out again, for no discernable reason.
It took him a moment to realize that he no longer heard Glenn shouting. Then the torchlight approached, accompanied by a gruff command: "Stay where you are."
Dimitri's first impulse was to put a safe distance between the two of them, but he restrained himself. "If you don't mind my asking," he said, feeling as if he were trying to reason with a golem, "what's so catastrophic about those two wandering off for a bit? The thief has probably lured the boy into whatever game she's playing- not that I find her antics amusing-"
Maggie's free hand was suddenly clenching his shoulder, pinning him to the wall, and the strength of her grip surprised him; it felt as if a little more force would crack the bone. Complaining, however, did not strike him as prudent.
"Happened anyway," she murmured, her eyes gleaming in the torchlight. "Hell take it."
A wind as sharp as a whip crack extinguished the torch.
"Hell take it," Maggie said again. Her fingers dug in painfully.
Dimitri's energies were focused on holding still enough to appease her, and it took him a while to notice that the pressure on his shoulder had fallen away. Relieved, he raised a hand to touch the sore area, and it was then that he noticed the lack of the wall behind him.
It won't do any good to panic, he reminded himself, trying to stay poised despite his pounding heart and increasingly rapid breathing. The wall is still there; you must have missed it somehow. Dimitri swung his staff around him in a slow circle, hoping to find that Maggie had shifted him a few inches from where he had been standing. He touched nothing but empty air.
Panic was beginning to look like a good course of action.
Calm down, he told himself firmly. Running off in search of the wall would be foolish, but standing in utter darkness with no sound save his own breathing made it difficult to think. Dimitri tapped his staff in an agitated staccato against the floor, which at least gave him something to concentrate on.
As the emptiness pressed in on him, he realized that he had yet to call out. It isn't the same as begging, he reminded himself, but his pride still balked. The trick, then, was to sound confident. Capable. Perhaps he'd even manage to sound nonchalant, expressing an idle curiosity in the location of a companion who, presumably, had wandered off with the wall in tow. He cleared his throat.
"Hello?" he called, fighting the shiver out of his voice. "Is anyone there?" The only response was his echo, which whimpered to itself until the darkness swallowed it.
Dimitri waited a moment before cursing and knocking his staff against the floor.
It occurred to him to use his fire magic, but in that instant the walls lit up again.
Warm light flowed through the gaps in the leaves, wrapping around his skin and playing in his hair. He blinked the dream from his eyes and squinted as he smiled at the sky. It was mid-afternoon now, he guessed, but he had never been good at telling the time of day. Stretching lazily, he shifted his limbs and torso before nestling back into the cleft of the branches. The leaves above him rustled and swayed on their branches like emerald bracelets on the arms of princesses.
I'd like to meet a princess, he thought. His eyes were beginning to close again.
The sound of footsteps startled him into wakefulness. With practiced motions he drew his knees up to his chest and huddled against the bark, trying to obscure himself in the foliage. The stomping stopped at the base of the tree.
"You little shit!" A blow sent one the lower branches into spasms. "Get your ass down here and stop disgracing this institution!"
The voice continued its tirade, but he heard little of it. Hugging his knees, he shivered and closed his eyes, trying to curl himself into as small a shape as possible. If his parents hadn't said anything, would they have bothered to notice one less boy on the field? Was there something so conspicuous about him that no amount of shyness and fading could erase it? Couldn't they take out the part of him that they wanted and let the rest of him alone, leaving him to his thoughts and wishes and dreams?
At any rate, it would take them a while to climb up after him.
Clovis awoke to find herself lying prone on the floor, her cheek pressing into the stone. The hell? Groaning, she used her arms to push herself up as she took in her surroundings, which looked the same as they had before the lights had gone out. The only difference was the lack of her companions.
"Hey!" she shouted, getting to her feet. "The 'no ditching' rule applies to everyone!" When there was no answer, she drew her dagger and backed slowly into the nearest wall. Her skin prickled as it touched the phosphorescent surface.
Think, she told herself, trying to focus despite the rush of adrenaline in her blood. The lights went out, and... Nothing. Blackness. If she had moved, she didn't remember doing so. And if she hadn't moved, then the others must-
Somebody's watching me.
Clovis pressed her body against the wall and swept her gaze from side to side. Although the walls around her were uniformly luminous, the hallway tapered quickly to black at either end. She narrowed her eyes, listening for the tell-tale rustle of movement.
"Scared?" whispered a voice from beside her ear.
Clovis jumped. In the same motion she began to run, but she realized mid-stride that the voice was laughing at her. Brandishing her dagger, she turned to face it.
A lanky young man stood where she had only moments before, grinning inanely, holding one arm out to brace himself against the wall and keeping the other akimbo. He was a traveler, if the clothing was any indication. Ash-blond hair fell shaggily over his eyebrows and ears.
Her eyes took in the large silver buckle on his belt, once the mark of a member of the thieves' guild but now the badge of an amateur. Clovis smirked. "So who the hell are you?"
He seemed taken aback for a moment, then laughed and broadened his grin. "I could ask you that, as well," he said, dropping his hand from his hip. "Or we could ask each other. Who the hell are we, indeed?"
A lunatic. Wonderful. Clovis took a step backward, keeping her dagger trained on him. "Never mind, then," she said, her voice steady. "I don't care you who are. I'm leaving, and you're not going to follow me."
"Try and stop me."
"Come any closer and I'll stab you."
"Do it." His eyes shone like quicksilver as he took a deliberate step toward her.
Clovis glared at him and shifted her grip on the knife. As she did, he tilted his head sharply to the right and exposed his throat. His smile set her teeth on edge.
"Well?" he said after a moment had passed. "Weren't you going to stab me?"
"Don't tempt me." Clovis took another step away from him.
He advanced far enough to put himself back in her striking range. "Come on," he sneered, indicating his neck with a jerky motion. "You've killed a man before."
Her control snapped. Before she was even aware of it her arm had shot forward, slicing his throat with the blade.
But there was nothing. No scream, no blood, not even the vain resistance of flesh against metal. She blinked and stared at the young man, who was standing, alive and whole, where she had left him, laughing wildly, his head thrown back to reveal the lack of any injury. His eyes sparkled as he regained his composure.
"Crazy bitch." He giggled.
Clovis's gaze jumped from his throat to her dagger. The blade was clean.
With a catch in her voice she asked, "What are you?"
Dust stippled the edge of his cloak as he wandered the streets, watching the empty-eyed villagers rush about their midday business. None of them noticed him as anything more than an obstacle to dodge.
He stopped when his path brought him near the public fountain again. It's a damned inferno out here, he thought as he dipped his cupped hands into the water. It slid down his throat as if it were alive, diffusing its energy through his heat-weakened blood. After splashing a few handfuls on his face, he rose and headed back to the streets.
A flicker in the corner of his eye caused him to turn back. On the other side of the fountain, a young woman with a flushed face was leaning over the water, breathing in the cooler air. Her honey-blond hair spilled over her shoulders in a ponytail. As he watched, she sank her forearms into the water, then brought them up with a swift motion, splashing the liquid over her face and neck. She smiled as she ran her wet fingers through her hair to smooth it.
It was then that she noticed him. Taking advantage of the moment, he bowed, adopted his most disarming facial expression, and cocked his head. Her smile faded. She gave him a quick, nervous wave before running back to whatever form of busyness the young used to fritter their lives away in this stagnant, god-forsaken village.
He watched her until she disappeared around a corner. Drawing his lips into a thin smirk, he began to walk again, letting his path curve in the direction hers had taken. Hers was a common type, sheltered and full of dreams, waiting for a white knight to tell her that she was a princess. Two weeks.
He paused midway to lean against a deserted building, feeling suddenly and terribly alone.
At first all he was aware of was that he was floating, suspended on his back in a gently undulating pool. Gradually it occurred to him that he should not have been floating, but he found it difficult to care as the flow bore him along. Or perhaps the world itself was drifting, and he would remain behind in a perfect, embryonic peace.
Armor doesn't float.
Glenn stiffened, flailed, and splashed until he found that the water was shallow. Panting and brushing his wet hair from his eyes, he stood and took in his surroundings. He appeared to be still in the castle hallway, although waist-deep water now flowed between the walls for as far as he could see. That's odd, he thought, once the initial shock had worn off. If the walls light up, why does the hall turn black like that? His next realization was that his companions were missing, followed immediately by the fact that he was naked. He made a high-pitched noise and dove so that only his head and shoulders were above the water.
"Maggie?" he called, fumbling about in the dark water in hopes of locating his equipment. "Clovis? Dimitri? Hello? Are you there?" He finally gave up and dove under with his eyes open, but he felt if he were looking through ink. The walls didn't glow beneath the water line. Cursing, Glenn surfaced and looked around again.
"Anyone?" He listened to his echo, then to sound of water dripping from his hair into the pool. He shivered and searched the bottom for a few seconds more before concluding that his armor was nowhere nearby. Sighing, Glenn slouched against the wall and tried to think.
There didn't seem to be much of a current. The motion of the water probably hadn't carried him far, but there was no telling how long he'd been unconscious. That he hadn't managed to turn face-down and drown, however, suggested that the time had been short.
Water was not high on Glenn's list of favorable things. His first major experience with it had come when he was a little boy, when he had been tossed unceremoniously into a lake and told to sink or swim. His body had chosen the former. And after he had finally been dragged to shore, drenched and shivering, coughing until his chest ached, he had been told to float on his back. He never could relax enough to manage it.
So why was I floating around naked?
Realizing that he didn't much want to know, Glenn sighed and began to walk upstream.
It was a globe of mirrors, a dragon's cataract, a burning bush, a dead man's eye. An accusation.
Breathing heavily, she stared back at it, watching it drip water and light. Prescience of this moment, a sour mixture of hope and dread, had lingered in her for so long that there was no room for shock. Instead she felt displaced, as if she were waking from a long slumber. Was it guilt, or had it passed into something as cold and firm as duty?
She had made the decision long before she drew it onboard.
Dimitri had begun to pace. The walls seemed inclined to stay lit now, but the darkness at either end of the hall discouraged him from venturing too far from his starting place. As he turned at the end of his path, he rubbed his brooch and exhaled loudly.
Which is worse, he wondered, the nagging unease or the boredom? At least panic would have been interesting.
Wondering if he was eroding the stones with his steps, Dimitri started back the way he had come. He glared at the wall in annoyance. "You might at least flicker," he remarked. When the wall did not, he settled on a new idea and readied a high-level lightning spell.
The blazing rush in his veins was dampened somewhat by the knowledge that the wall might reflect the magic and leave him singed, but he brushed the concern aside and prepared to obliterate the stone.
Dimitri frowned and tapped his staff against the wall. When fire and ice spells failed to materialize as well, he gripped his weapon until his knuckles turned white.
"What the hell is going on here?" he demanded.
Indifferent silence hung in the air. Muttering, Dimitri began to pace again in earnest, his speed rising to match his level of frustration. Whatever fear he felt faded in the glare of his anger.
Gradually, as the last of his emotion slid into irritation, Dimitri became aware of a soft buzzing in his ears. He slowed, then ceased his walk. The noise persisted, building into a sound like that of the wind whispering through panpipes. A pattern emerged. Somewhere in the overlapping susurrations, syllables came together and danced, spinning around him in a tight circle.
Voices like soft rain fell: "Did it matter?"
In the fading light it came to her, speaking through heartbeats that kept time with his departing footsteps. The world between them was colored water. "It was for you," she whispered, letting the words die away in the wind.