He looked a lot worse than when he'd left; the former thief had been hounded by monsters and had had to fight for his life more than once. He didn't have Jian's skill, or even Lan's, so he'd had to learn on the fly as fast as he could. Mostly, he'd just taken to his heels and run.
He dropped to his knees before his master - half in homage, and half because he didn't have the energy to make his report standing up. He reached into his travel bag, and pulled out the object he had procured - holding it out at arm's length in both hands, head bowed as though it were an offering.
"Lord Leonhart," he said deferentially, "I have obtained that which you sent me for."
"Is that so," said the Lion calmly. "And how do you know? Can you sense the power of Sorceresses now?"
Dorin gulped nervously. The tone in the Lion's voice was not dissimilar to the low growl of a true lion - the quiet warning that you are walking on thin ice.
"No, lord," he stammered. "But the Sorceress made an entire house, and most of the things in it. I found her old dwelling, and as far as I could tell little or nothing was taken from it. The things in the house where I found her - she must have made them with her magic, sir."
Leonhart nodded slowly, and rose from his seat. "An acceptable assumption," he said. "But I see that you are wounded. Go and find Cori, Dorin. He will tend to your wounds." He reached out as Dorin rose, and took the object from him. As the Squire wobbled his way out of the room, Leonhart turned the item over and over in his hands.
He could feel the tingle of magic in it - the trace of aura. Dorin had done well; the item was indeed a Sorceress' token. He took it back to his desk, still turning it over and over in his hands, feeling the faint tingle in his fingertips. It was, of course, beautiful. It was formed not by any craftsman's skill from base materials, but a thing made from nothingness fully formed. A silver oil lamp, small enough to carry around comfortably.
So much power, in such an innocuous thing.
Carolin was doing much better now. The bond with Jian had many subtle side effects, and one of them was to eliminate the cycle of headaches and mental fog that she'd been going through. The bond required magic to work as it should, and used Carolin as its battery - preventing her from ever being 'overcharged', the headache state that had set the cycle off. She could still land in a 'fog' state if she overexerted herself, though. They found this out very quickly.
She was back in her jungle-hunter leathers again, and she'd found her miniatures and her weapons. Jian was never less than
scrupulously polite - more so since he'd recited that oath - but she could feel the worry and urgency in him as they made sure there were no made things out on the lawn.
That was when he'd found the tracks - booted feet, from the house to the jungle. Booted feet smaller than his own, but there was no way the tracks could be Carolin's. At that point, his worry had shifted to open fear - but they still had to destroy the house. There was a chance the intruder hadn't taken anything, and if that were the case then he would be back. It would be over for certain if the house were still here when he did.
Once they'd verified that there were no made things outside the house, Jian - still only in his crimson silk pants, as there was nothing for him to replace his lost tunic with - knelt facing the house. Looking up at Carolin, he said, "This isn't going to be fun, my lady. For either of us, really - but it's the only way to access this part of your power. Stand behind me, if you will, and put your hands on my shoulders. You have to pour the power into me, and then I can use it to destroy the things you've made. I'm not a Sorceress - I can't create the power in myself, or hold the power I'm given, so you don't need to worry about that. All I can do is shape your magic to create an effect as it flows through me. Remember that, please. If you need to, and you can touch me, you can cast your spells through me. It's sometimes a very useful trick, because men aren't expected to have magic."
Carolin only nodded - she was currently acutely aware of the danger she'd put herself in, all unwitting. If Jian could help her undo it, she was quite willing to do whatever was needed - though she still felt a bit uncomfortable knowing that he was now her Knight. She pulled off her green leather gloves and put them in her pockets - she'd need them later, when they started running. Then she put her hands on Jian's bare shoulders, closed her eyes, and poured her magic into him. She felt him stiffen under her hands...and then...
For Jian, the world was aflame. Sorceress' magic, poured into him pure, with no shaping intent riding its current. No will to heal, no will to harm, no will to create. Only power, pure and strong and burning him from the inside out. No wonder Knights undertook this task only with reluctance - no wonder that they chose to discourage Sorceresses from creating Tokens in the first place. He could not hold the power as it flowed into him - to even attempt it might cause him to burst into flames like a rising phoenix. Even the slowing of it as he shaped its final form burned him horribly.
He forced himself to concentrate. The house - the castle - must be destroyed. He set his will upon that single goal, and felt his arms raise from his sides and point themselves at his target. He willed himself to be a conduit; he would not hold the power, nor even slow it, but only shape it as it passed through his body. He willed it to be annihilation incarnate, destructive force beyond measure. There must not be a single shard of black crystal, not a single altered molecule of magic remaining.
It felt like he knelt there...forever. When the torrent of power ceased, there was no sign of the black crystal castle or anything in it. He had no energy to rejoice, however. Without the half-real pull of the power conduit, nothing held him up - and he fell bonelessly, gratefully, into the grass. Vaguely he wondered if he should have destroyed the lawn too, but decided that since it was alive, and therefore constantly changing, it wouldn't be a danger. He couldn't feel Carolin's aura in the grass.
He half-heard a thump behind him, felt a weight across his legs. Carolin, too, had been drained by the effort needed to destroy the castle. It alerted him somewhat; he was a Knight now, and had duties. He levered himself up on both hands, and managed to crawl over to his unconscious Sorceress. Slowly, watching every move to make sure his exhausted muscles did what they were told to do, he arranged her body neatly so that she wouldn't cut off her circulation as she slept off the power drain.
That duty done, he took one of her hands in his own and fell back onto the grass. He would have to hope that no monsters intruded for a while, because if they did he had no strength to defend against them. He would recover first, of course. It hadn't been his power that laid the castle waste. He had only directed the force - which had been effort enough.
Welcome to Knighthood, Jian of the Dragon, he thought to himself. Pretty different from the dream, isn't it?
Leonhart flipped through the yellowed pages of an old, old book. Dorin had made his report from his bunk, Cori fussing over him like a mother hen. It did not inspire confidence in the Lion - the signs were that the situation was growing more grave, rather than less so.
Dorin had seen the Sorceress in full finery stretched out on her lawn, watching clouds. The serene inactivity was a sign of mana poisoning - the first stage of insanity for a knightless sorceress. Too long in that stage, and she would begin killing to clear the fog; too long doing that and killing became a reflex. By that time it was usually too late to save her.
Dorin had seen Jian, battered and shirtless, lying on the lawn next to her. The center of his chest had been pale and pink, the sign of recently healed wounds. Since the pattern was a starburst, it was unlikely to have been the result of a monster's attack. No, Jian had gotten that wound from the sorceress herself. That strongly indicated that her killing had become reflex, or nearly so.
And Jian had sworn fealty - Dorin had been very definite on that point. Even after she had wounded him, he had sworn to her. He regretted that Dorin had not been close enough to overhear the conversation that had led to that. It would have made this choice much simpler.
For Jian could have sworn fealty while in full control of himself. If that were the case, the pair were no threat to anyone. Sorceresses generally didn't go in for world conquest once bonded. But Jian might not have been in control of himself, and sworn fealty while in thrall. And if that were the case, he would only heighten Carolin's insanity - magnifying her emotions and reflecting them back to her. She would be twice the danger then, for she would have Jian as an extra set of eyes and ears.
Ah, that hurt. She had chosen his best Squire, possibly by sheer luck. And he had done his level best to train Jian to be strong, to be able to resist the pull of a Sorceress' emotions and keep his head. But - to swear to a woman who would use her magic against him? It was not the choice of a sane man. Leonhart's gamble had failed - instead of driving a Knight to this Sorceress, he had driven a boy pushed too far - and that boy had become her thrall. His Jian, the Squire he had trained, was no more. There was only an echo of this new Sorceress' will.
An echo of a mad Sorceress, with broad and detailed knowledge of Knights and the weaknesses of Sorceresses. An echo who -
thanks to the Lion's own choices - probably would want to come here and kill the eleven remaining Squires...and the Knight who led them. Timber's only defense. And then...there would be nothing to stop that pair from moving on to Centra, from using their power on the Empire's strongholds. The new Empress was as yet weak, with only a few Knights to her name. A thrall-Knight with Jian's training, and a Sorceress powerful enough to take over the boy's will...the new Empress would be hard-pressed to keep her throne, and Centra would be plunged into war.
He couldn't take the risk. He couldn't just break a wizard stone on the lamp - he had no idea where the two of them were, and would have no way of taking advantage of the sorceress' temporary powerlessness.
No, he'd have to try something much more drastic - he'd have to try to make the loss permanent. And for that, he needed the
books of lore that were a Knight's second duty. The tactic hadn't been required in centuries, and had never been all that popular in the first place.
There. That was it. Leonhart grabbed a quill and a spare sheet of paper, and copied out the requirements. A vampire fang to drain the Sorceress' power, and a spider web to hold it. A steel orb to pull that power into the lamp, and a wizard stone to power the spell. He snapped the book shut, and returned it to its place on the shelf. Then he summoned Elric.
"Assemble all the Squires in the courtyard in ten minutes," he ordered. "I want everyone but Cori in full battle readiness, and that includes you. Cori is to assemble every healing item he can find or gather and hold them ready for the wounded, but I want him to hear the order as well. Now get moving."
Elric gave a rather unmanly squeak of surprise, but darted off to do the Lion's bidding. Leonhart took his time walking down to the courtyard, so that his Squires would have a chance to get ready and assemble before he arrived. When he did step into the courtyard they were there - a bit breathless, to be sure, but armed and armored according to each one's skills and specialties. Cori alone was unarmed, wearing instead the white surcoat of his healer's training.
"My Squires, you know that not long ago one of your number abandoned his training," he began. "I tell you now that he has taken league with a rogue Sorceress, one who by all reports has gone mad in her solitude. Her power must be contained before she can do the world harm, and to this end I have summoned you. Go alone or in groups as large as you need to survive, but I must have a vampire fang, a spider web, and a steel orb to perform the containment. I will leave it to you, who shall hunt what - but I must have all the items as quickly as possible. The safety of the Empire is at stake. Dismissed."
The Squires stared in amazement for a moment, but quickly got hold of themselves again and assembled into teams. They filed out of the gate in good order, dispersing to accomplish their goal. Leonhart turned to Cori, the only Squire left. "You will wait here," he said. "Not all of them are ready to face monsters, and some will surely be injured. Do your best for them."
"What if they meet up with this Sorceress, sir?" asked Cori.
Leonhart's pale eyes were lifeless as he said, "Then they are dead."
Carolin roused to find her head remarkably clear - though she still felt very drained, and not a little tired. Jian was standing nearby, his hands resting comfortably on the pommel of his longsword, the tip just lightly pressed to the ground.
"I'm glad you're all right, Lady Carolin," he said. "You've been out for a few hours now."
Carolin tucked a few stray wisps of red hair back into her braid. "What's with all the 'lady' stuff now, Jian? Did I become a queen in my sleep?"
Jian grinned, open and friendly. "Nope. But I did swear myself to your service. You're due proper courtesy - wouldn't want you to feel unduly hemmed in and all."
Carolin laughed and stood up, though she knew he must have picked that phrase up from her thoughts. "Well, given that I should be counting clouds or clutching my head and howling, I feel pretty good." She assumed a pose of exaggerated thought. "Let me guess - next order of business is to find whoever it was hiding under my window. Right?"
Jian nodded, his smile fading a bit. "Right. We can't let him get back to Leonhart - and let's hope he hasn't already. Especially if he did manage to steal something." He started, hearing something in his own words, and then his fist clenched. "Dorin - of course. He had to have sent Dorin. Milady, we are in deep trouble."
Carolin frowned. "Let me guess - another one of the Squires I never met."
"Got it in one, milady. Dorin used to be a thief before he took up Squire's training. He's one of the Lion's charity cases - a boy chosen because he needs a better road in life, that kind of thing. He's the best tracker and thief of all the Squires, and probably the only one who could've followed me here. He got close to the house, and he's too good not to have stolen something. Milady, our only hope now is to get to Leonhart before he does, or get to him before he gets back to the compound. The Lion fears you, Lady Carolin. If he gets his hands on one of your made things, he won't hesitate to use it."
"Is there nothing we can do if he gets the - whatever - before we can stop it?" asked Carolin nervously.
Jian looked down, and tried to smile but failed. "Lady...there are only two choices at that point, and from what you've shown me you wouldn't like either of them. One is to do nothing - just let the Lion pull your power away. Since your life and your power are linked, that will kill you. The other..." Jian looked away nervously, and swallowed. "The other option is to open yourself to me, completely. We'd become something new then, and instead of the object containing your power it'd actually end up containing us - until such time as whatever it is is broken. But...you'd never be completely alone again. This bond, what we have now - it's nothing compared to that. I'd know everything about you, completely and fully - and you'd know everything about me. If we're not compatible, then when the object is broken we'll separate. Probably both of us'll be crazy too, depending on how long it takes for the object to get broken. If we are compatible...well, it could still be a very long and dull life, but we'd eventually be able to leave it, if we wanted to. But, Lady, you value your independence. I'm not sure you want to make use of that option."
"Then I'll give us a hand," said Carolin. Calling on her power, she cast Float and Haste on both of them. Jian grabbed her hand and ran as fast as he could, setting his course for Leonhart's compound.
Lan was the first of the Squires to return, of course. He'd gone out alone, and no one had stopped him. He bled from numerous gashes and his blade-bo was broken down the center, but he handed Leonhart the steel orb he'd gone for before he gave himself over to Cori's ministrations. It was, of course, the most difficult item to obtain - but there were slight hints of guilt in Lan's attitude, something that said he was taking Jian's defection personally.
Odd, to find Lan reacting emotionally - or at least, emotionally for Lan. Over the next few hours the others returned - all battered, all bloody, all exhausted...and all successful. Cori had his hands full, stitching wounds and applying bandages until he could brew potions enough to bring the group back up to full strength. The Lion had been firm in his order that any Squire who returned should be fully healed of any wounds as soon as possible. Cori knew better than to disobey, though the materials required to brew potions were expensive and hard to come by.
Leonhart closed the door to his study, and laid the hard-won prizes out on his desk. Next to them was a mortar and pestle he'd obtained from Cori. In the mortar he placed the fang, the web, and the stone - the wizard stone being the only item he'd already had on hand. With the full force of his regret, he pounded the items and ground them into a uniform powder.
There were no words for a containment spell. It had been designed as a last resort against corrupt Sorceresses. If a mere silence spell could negate the ritual, there was no point in doing it. Leonhart opened the oil lamp, tipped out the oil, and put the steel orb inside.
He held the mortar containing the powder over the lamp, and noticed his hand was shaking. He knew why - because no matter
what, as a result of this Jian would be forever lost. Dorin had seen him swear fealty. It might be that he would not die with the rogue Sorceress, but at the very least he would be scarred for life - even as Leonhart himself was scarred, only moreso. For once the mad rogue was dead, Jian would remember everything he'd done as her thrall with a sane man's eyes, and know that he had helped to push the world to the brink of war. Not many men had the strength to live after knowing they had become a Sorceress' slave. But it could not be helped. The risk to innocent lives if he forbore was too great.
Slowly, silent tears running unheeded and unnoticed down his cheeks, the Old Lion began sprinkling the powder on the orb and the lamp.
As he did so, the lamp began to glow.
Jian felt it almost at the same time as Carolin, the feeling of having his life pulled from his very body. Both of them stumbled in their run, tumbling painfully for a few paces along the ground before hitting a tree trunk.
Carolin backed up against it, one fist pressed to her chest and the other clutching her head. "Uuuugh," she moaned. "Jian - Jian, we're too late..." The pull at her magic, her life, was terrifying - and one of its aspects was to deny her strength to say the words of fear. It was an effort to form words at all.
She didn't need to tell him, though - he felt it too, the heavy draining pull as he dragged himself upright. "Tell me....tell me quick," he panted. "Tell me what you...want me to do." Damn you, Leonhart. Could you not have waited even one more hour? Even one?
Carolin, too, was furious - the child's fury that cries out to the universe 'It's not fair!'. They were less than an hour away from the compound, and to have this happen when they were so close - freedom no longer an option but only death or imprisonment - enraged her. At that point, she decided. Leonhart might take her freedom, but he would not take her life. She would have her revenge, someday. "I'll...take imprisonment," she gasped. "Tell me...how to do it."
"Take...my hand," he managed, and staggered over to her. Into her, really - the pull was growing heavier, weakening both of them. "Open yourself...to me and I'll...do the same. Will us...to be one."
She fumbled against him for his hand, both of them breathing heavily, faces pale, and opened her mind to him. In the next moment, she felt him open his to her.
This bond would hold, both of them quickly realized. There was trust here, and friendship, and an absolute faith that - had they been given the time - would develop into love. Jian was entranced by Carolin's steadfastness and courage. Carolin was overjoyed at Jian's faith and honesty. Their minds nestled together like pieces of a puzzle snapped into place, even as their bodies glowed and merged, changing and growing into something new. They would not go insane in Leonhart's prison. They would survive it, and one day fly free. And fly in truth; great batlike wings burst forth from the new form's back, red and black.
Both of them were angry - angry at the injustice of Leonhart's decision, angry at the sheer unfairness of what was happening to them. In that moment of mutual openness and joining, their unity of thought strengthened and hastened the process - and it determined their shape.
A great black creature, a cross between human and dragon with the coloration of an angry demon. A long blue serpentine tail lashed around their ankles, huge red-and-black bat wings unfurling toward the sky as eyes of a solid field of glowing pale yellow-gold glared their fury. Strong fingers ended in long black claws, teeth tipped in fangs, head graced with horns. The mere sight of them would have sent all eleven remaining Squires scurrying for their bunks to hide under the blankets. The name came to them as easily as the shape; a name of fear, of anger. Diablos - the demon, the devil. Let Leonhart know at first sight of them, what they thought of his overhasty judgement.
But their joining did not halt the terrible pull of the containment spell. Even as the white glow of their new shape faded, the dragonlike humanoid fell to one knee, one black-clawed fist held to its chest as its great fanged head roared its pain. Slowly the great demon-shape grew translucent...and then it faded altogether.
The last of the powder trickled down onto the glowing lamp, but Leonhart no longer saw it. He fumbled on the desk for the lamp's lid, and screwed it into place over the steel orb. The containment of the Sorceress' magic would last as long as the lamp was not broken - the world was safe.
Leonhart rested his forehead against his crossed wrists, feeling the wetness on his cheeks that were his tears. An innocent life - perhaps two - taken for the sake of security. He had wondered before if he would have the strength to do what must be done. It seemed that the answer was yes.
At least he would never be called on to make the decision again. He'd had to watch the lamp carefully, make sure all the dust landed on either it or the orb. The glow as it contained the Sorceress' power had grown brighter and brighter as the minutes wore on, but he had not dared to look away. If the spell failed, there would be one very powerful and very angry Sorceress at his gates, and his Squires would be so much chaff in the wind. So he'd kept his eyes fixed on that little sun, and done as his duty commanded.
But he could not do any more. No trapping of Sorceresses, no training of Squires. Not from a blind Knight. It was a relief, in a way, to know that he could put aside the mantle of duty at last, be only the man who had dared to fall in love, once, with a Sorceress. The young, reckless, nameless lad that Marie had chosen and bestowed her favor on, so many years ago.
A knock on his door - he raised his head instinctively, though he saw only darkness.
"Sir?" said a voice. Elric - Cori must have finished brewing the potions, and now Elric considered himself on duty again.
"Take this lamp," said Leonhart, "and give it to Lan. Tell him to find someplace for it where it will never be disturbed, never touched. Whatever you do, don't open it - and tell Lan not to open it either."
Elric didn't move. "Sir...your face sir, it's all over blood. I'm gonna go get Cori." There was a scampering of feet, which had to be the sound of the young Squire fleeing.
Blood? Well, the light from the lamp probably hadn't been just ordinary light. Not with so much magic flying around. At least it would spare him having to tell the Squires - Cori would tend him, and confirm his blindness, and then Elric would spread the word to the others. Odd that it hadn't hurt. Bleeding wounds usually did hurt, for one reason or another.
Two people approaching. One was probably Cori, and the other Elric.
"Sir," said Cori. "Can you see me, sir?"
The healer-Squire gently washed his face with a damp cloth, swiping carefully around the eyes. "Sir, I'm afraid eye drops won't cure this one. You've practically cauterized all the nerve endings in your eyes. There's nothing I can do."
"I did not ask you to, Squire," said the Old Lion flatly. "I have done my duty. It seems that I will now have a respite from duty. I do not regret the loss."
"But sir - what of us?"
"I will arrange for you to return to Centra if you wish - all of you who wish to go. I can no longer complete your training, after all." his voice was calm, level. As if discussing the daily chore rota.
"Sir," said Cori, in acknowledgment. He finished his work in silence after that.
"Elric - take the lamp and do as I have ordered," said Leonhart after a time, guessing that the other Squire was Elric.
"He is not here, sir," came Lan's voice, instead. "He sent for me. I will make sure the lamp is not found again in this lifetime at least." There was a hint of respect in his voice - the respect of one warrior for the wounds of another. Without his eyes, Leonhart found himself listening even more carefully to slight changes in voice. He heard the lamp lifted off the desk, then one pair of booted feet leaving.
Cori finished his work and then left Leonhart alone. He stared for a long while into the empty night, wondering if losing his sight was really a fair price for what he had had to do - or whether in truth he'd gotten off lightly.