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(Chapter 7)

They only rode the horses until they were out of sight from any human eye and then set the animals free. They left the saddles and tacks on the ground for whoever next passed that part of the open plains. The link they'd broken some time ago, both to Glaw's relief and disappointment. It was with some trepidation that Glaw took a hold of Lykos' shoulders, but thankfully his body proved too tired to do anything embarrassing at their close proximity.

<Are you sure you're strong enough for this?> Glaw asked as they made ready to jump, doing his best not to feel awkward; they were speaking face-to-face, practically nose-to-nose.

The small smile Lykos gave him was all cheer. <I could run all the way back on the clouds should I need to!>

It felt odd not to be able to sense the emotions and thoughts that went along with the words, but on the other hand, it felt good to not have to have the thoughts of two people whirling around in his mind anymore. His own were distracting and confusing enough as it was. <Right.>

The tug he felt as gravity let go of them had him gasping for breath and clinging to Lykos. He closed his eyes, but they didn't stay closed for long. With steady hands around his waist and a good grip on Lykos' shoulders, the flight-jumping was more thrilling than frightening.

Each leap brought them flying through the air for three to five hundred meters.  At least hat was the distances Glaw had managed to measure on their way to Trade. It was trickier out here, with only distant hills to judge their travel by. Whatever their speed or the ground they covered, each jump made his heart soar. He watched the grass rush past them and laughed with delight.

The sky had begun to darken when they finally caught sight of the forest. The looming trees were such a welcome sight that Glaw was caught between smiling and crying. Besides a few more leaves near the tops having shifted from green to red and yellow, the gigantic plants looked as steady as ever, though far more friendly than the first time he'd seen them.

Instead of landing on the ground below the trees, Lykos touched down on one of the higher branches. He didn't let go of Glaw until he'd found his balance against the trunk. Glaw did his best not to look down. It would be typical if he lost his footing then and there, so far away from Palace and kilometers upon kilometers north of Outer Camps. If the Emperor could have reached him for an attack - which Lykos had reassured him was impossible as the curse had to be initiated at close proximity, by the Emperor or one of his aids - he probably would have made him slip and fall. Speaking of which...

<Do you think we should do that again?> Glaw asked, his nails digging into the bark of the trunk. The branch under his feet felt steady and wide enough, but it was much rounder and softer than the walkways he was used to and it swayed. Not much, just enough to be felt, but for Glaw that was still plenty.

Lykos, whose calm, content expression Glaw suspected masked an urge to run around and scream with joy, turned around to face Glaw fully and lifted an eyebrow. <Do what?>

<The thought sharing.> Glaw held up his hands in a half-shrug, unsure of how to continue. <I know you said distance is of import, but...> He trailed off and raised his eyes from where they'd been resting - somewhere at the level of Lykos' waist - to meet Lykos' questioning gaze. <I just really don't trust the magic of my people right now. Maybe my leaders did something to me to counter the distance problem when they did this.> He touched the scars on his neck, let his fingers trace them in an absentminded fashion. He was beginning to see the bigger picture and it was making his hair stand on end.

Lykos stood like a statue, framed by the fading rays of the setting sun. <When did that happen?>

<I was...I don't remember how old I was. A small child, barely out of diapers.> He'd never learned the last word the demon tongue during his service in the military, but with hours, possibly days spent sharing Lykos' thoughts, it wasn't hard to call it to mind. Rather odd, since they hadn't exactly talked about raising children while fleeing. <It must have been orders from very high up. I had no parents or guardians other than the military. I...I always thought it was a madman who got at me and my sister. That the military rescued us. But instead it was some sort of plan to make me a spy. No wonder they kept it a secret.>

<What good would cutting open your neck do?> Lykos sounded both confused and on the cusp of realization. Glaw almost laughed, but he didn't feel amused.

<It makes sense, sort of.> Without hesitation, Glaw gestured at Lykos' demon marks, stopping just short of touching them. <Yours look better.>

Lykos averted his eyes as if the sight of the scars disturbed him. That shouldn't have stung as badly as it did, but Glaw chose to soldier on. <My sister used to tease me,> he said, leaning his head back to look at the mass of leaves and branches above. <My scars have always been more sensitive than hers. I don't even think she's felt her neck since they cut it open. Me, I couldn't stop whining and crying the first days after the surgery and since then they've been sort of tender. I got used to it, but...>

<I->

Whatever Lykos had meant to add to the conversation-turned-monologue, it was lost to the shock of sudden noise. It sounded like a twisted wolf howl, coming from somewhere up above them. Moments later an answering, fainter howl came from somewhere deep within the forest. Glaw stumbled and grabbed onto the bark as well as he could, while Lykos crouched down and put his hands on the branch they were standing on as if making ready to reshape it into a weapon. There was another noise, much closer and softer.

<Are you sniffing the air?> Glaw asked, trying to keep his tone to a whisper and failing miserably.

He got no answer. Lykos moved a little further towards the curtain of leaves that shielded them from view and called: <Guards?>

<Close enough!> The voice was familiar and full of relief, along with exhaustion and rage. A heady mixture that Glaw wanted nothing to do with.

Lykos immediately straightened up from his crouching position, like a misbehaving dog hearing its master's voice; alert and eager to move toward the source of the words, but unsure of his welcome. He looked back at Glaw, his lips pressed into a thin line.

<I don't think dragging me along would be a good idea,> Glaw said, sinking down to sit on the branch. His knees were shaking too badly for him to feel safe standing up. The ground was still a long way away.

The look Lykos gave him was that of a man ready to plunge into waters that could hold either pearls or sharks. <Sister! I have the ambassador with me. You must not hurt him,> he called, the words rushing out of him like leaves caught by the streams of a river. <We've both been victims of the blood curse. I will open to you and explain everything! There...there is no trap this time, I assure you!>

Lykos’ eyes flashed blue for a second. Glaw held his breath. He could hear his heart beating and little else. Lykos had frozen in place, head tilted as if he was listening to something. Glaw had no idea how long they waited, him hugging his knees to his chest and Lykos unmoving.

<She's told us to meet her and Myrrine on the ground,> Lykos said, starting Glaw into digging his nails into his knees. <Hold on to me.>

They were standing on the grass before Glaw had time to blink. On instinct he let his gaze follow Lykos' upwards. It wasn't hard to spot the other two demons, even though they were much higher up than Lykos and he had been. They were far too big to be birds.

<They made that noise?> Glaw said as the patches of sky where there were no stars grew closer, covering more of the starlight.

Lykos nodded, the frames of his glasses angled so that Glaw couldn't make out the look in his eyes. <It's an emergency signal. They were calling for aid.>

There was a soft rustle of grass when the two demons collapsed on the ground as if their knees couldn't carry their weight another step.

Myrrine was the first to sit up, panting like a racehorse. The grin on her face was less the cheerful one Glaw had gotten used to and more the frozen grimace of a naked skull. She kept glancing at Bernike as if worried she'd stop breathing. <Here we've run around looking for you two everywhere and then you're here. Should just have waited here, shouldn't we?>

<We?> Lykos said, taking an unsteady step towards the two of them. <Who are we?>

<Thais, Vita, Nikon, Aelius, Cato, Aculeo> Bernike said, her voice a faint murmur. She was lying on her back, all limbs trembling. Her eyes moved left and right, searching for something. They finally came to a rest when they found Glaw's face. <We were cornered by your leader's head guard.>

Glaw's mouth fell open like the drawbridge at high noon. "The Field Marshal?! The Field Marshal <attacked you?>

A weak nod from Bernike was his only answer.

<Where are the others?> If Glaw hadn't come to know Lykos so well, he wouldn't have noticed the rising panic that tinted his tone of voice.

<Gone.> Bernike's voice was a choked-off sob. She squeezed her eyes shut. <They're all gone.>

Lykos fell to his knees. <No.> The word was little more than a whisper.

<It's true,> Myrrine said. <All of them gone, one way or another.>

Glaw shook his head and took a step forward, out from behind the kneeling Lykos. Nothing made any sense. He'd be damned before he sat back and started sobbing due to this half-told tale. For all he knew it was nothing more than the delirious ravings of two wounded soldiers. There was no blood to be seen, but neither of them had made any attempt to stand up and Bernike was still lying flat on her back, breath coming in shallow pants and brow covered with sweat.

<What happened?> he asked since none of the other three seemed willing to continue the conversation.

Myrrine met his questioning gaze with a dark glare, but he got the feeling her anger wasn't directed at him. <We were betrayed.>

<What?! By who?>

<Your sister's mate,> Myrrine said, some color returning to her cheeks in a flush of pure rage, <and Nikon, the cursed sky-chaser! He drained that poor fool Aelius like a glass of wine and then fled before the battle could even begin.>

<My sister's what?> Glaw said, feeling the ground beginning to shift under his feet. <But my sister isn't married. Or...?> He shook his head, trying to clear away the new wave of doubt and confusion. <Rhian. You must mean Rhian. But how do you know my sister likes her? How do you even know I have a sister?!>

<Because we've had the pleasure of making her acquaintance,> Myrrine spat, fighting her way into a sitting position. <No offense boy, but she needs to learn how to pick better friends.>

<She was with you?> Dylis had come looking for him. Dylis was- <What happened to her?!>

<Captured.> Bernike's said. Her eyes were blank. <Taken by that grinning beast, along with Aelius, Vita and my sister.> She drew in a breath that could have been a sob. <They're lost.>

<So you're just going to leave them?> Glaw asked, feeling all blood rush from his head and into his legs and feet. He wanted to run, but he had no idea where to.

Myrrine lifted one hand and hit Bernike over the head, making all of them start. <Quit your whining, it's undignified!> she said as Bernike turned to look at her with an expression of pure shock. <Of course we're not leaving them anywhere! We're just here to take a breather and get some help.>

Glaw flinched as she got to her feet; two meters tall and all muscle, tense and ready for battle. Combined with the humorless grin on her face, he doubted anyone would have dared challenge her or even have the guts to speak to her without impressive backup.

<Thais managed to send us a warning, right as they were ambushed. We tried to go help them, but there were so many cursed shells it felt like I'd gotten my jugular torn.> Myrrine shook her head, the brown curls on top of it even more of a mess than usual. <Retreating for help was the wisest decision or we'd all have been captured.> The last was said with a glare in Bernike's direction.

Silence. Then: <You are right.> Bernike sat up, faltered and was helped to her feet by Myrrine and Lykos both. <We can't linger here too long though or the trail will go cold. When the others get here, we'll go back.>

<Are you sure you'll manage, sister?> Lykos asked, his tone subdued. His hands were on her shoulders, steadying her. <You're feverish and->

<I'll be fine,> Bernike said, shrugging off his hands. She took a few swaying steps but managed to remain upright without assistance. <My strength is already returning. I just need to catch my breath.>

Lykos backed away and bowed his head. <As you wish, sister.> Glaw couldn't quite see his face, but the parts he caught glimpses of were the perfect picture of guilt and grief.

<What's that you got there?> Myrrine had grabbed Lykos' wrist before she'd finished asking the question, pulling it up to her eye level. Lykos had to stand on the tips of his toes or have his shoulder dislocated.

<A gift,> he answered and glared at the bracelet as if it were a viper waiting to strike him, <from the leader of the People by the Sea. It allows me to walk safely on the other side of the border.> If bitterness had been a sound it would have been Lykos' voice at that moment.

<Thought it looked familiar,> Myrrine said and let go of him. <Thais pulled one off a Captured One a few days ago. You should have seen her!> The momentarily proud grin faded into a thin, bitter one. <Typical that we find a working one when all the spell-weavers that could try and make them are locked away spirits know where on the other side of the border.>

<At least we have one advantage,> Bernike said. <If there is some luck on our side, we'll be able to track them, easily.>

At Glaw's questioning look, Myrrine said: <Aelius. You drain one of our kind to the last drops of our magic, that person will stick out like a sour note in a choir-song. Hard to describe to someone who doesn't have all their ears, or never had them in your case, but it's like a loud shriek that'll keep you awake for days.> She shuddered theatrically.

<Do you remember the story I told you?>

Glaw started and turned to look at Lykos, as did Bernike and Myrrine. Lykos ignored the other two, keeping his attention on Glaw. <Do you?>

Nervously Glaw gave a slow nod. Lykos glanced at Myrrine, who merely gestured for him to get on with it. He nodded.

<Do you remember what happened near the end?>

<Y-yes.>

Lykos took off his glasses and turned them over in the palm of his hand as if he was looking for spots on the lenses. <The cry we're referring to is like a warning signal, just as instinctive as the..."counter- draining", for lack of better word. The current theory is that in the old days, before we as a people learned to speak, it warned prospecting pack leaders away from kin too weak to be bonded with.>

<Oh.>

Myrrine's massive form suddenly walked into Glaw's line of sight, hiding most of Lykos behind her. <What tales have you been telling our dear ambassador, my friend?>

There was no hesitation on Lykos' part. <You know which one.>

Another one of those howl-noises broke the ensuing silence. They all whirled around to look for its source among the trees and spotted Cato and Aculeo, rapidly approaching among the tree trunks.

<Where's the rest?> Bernike asked as they came into earshot of normal conversation.

<No one else is coming,> Aculeo said with a tone so calm it could have sounded indifferent if it wasn't for the fire burning in his eyes. He was carrying his spear and a bag, while Cato was equipped with a belt of thick metal arrows and a bag of his own. <The People by the Sea's soldiers attacked in great waves at dawn. There are no guards to spare but us.>

Bernike clenched her jaw and tugged at the bands of her wrist-knives before giving a curt nod. <That will have to do.>

Myrrine's reaction to the news was to slap Cato on the back. The demon in question, who'd been staring at Glaw unblinkingly, almost fell. <It'll better than do!> she said with false cheer. <With you two by our side, rested and armed, the Captured Ones and that mad caelum won't stand a chance.>

<I wish I shared your optimism,> Aculeo said and gave her a blank stare, while putting a calming hand on Cato's shoulder.

<Are we leaving right away?> Glaw eyed Myrrine and Bernike's shaking hands skeptically. <If I were you, I'd sit down for a bit before trying to run through the air again.>

<'We'? Why should we drag you along?> Bernike asked, one eyebrow raised, the other lowered into a scowl. <You're useless in a fight and you can't even get there on your own. My brother might be free of you right now, and you might even be on our side, but you've betrayed us before. What good are you to us?>

<You have no knowledge of the cities you're going to or my people,> Glaw said, holding his chin high and meeting her gaze without flinching. All he could think of was Dylis (and Thais, and even Aelius - Vita too, a little) locked away in a cell or bleeding to death on the walkways of Trade. <My sister is held captive, maybe dead. The leader of my people has used me ill and will likely do worse soon, to people other than me. I won't sit idly by and wait for that to sort itself out on its own. Lykos can carry me without trouble. He has a bracelet.>

Maybe it was a trick of the light, but it looked like Bernike's gaze softened. She gave him a slow nod. <Fine.>

Cato had lost interest in glaring at Myrrine - who'd been his next victim after Glaw, probably due to the back-slap - and had begun to unpack the bag he'd been carrying. Aculeo was doing the same with his own bag, placing bundles of gray cloth, tied together with a leather string, on the ground before them. They smelled like freshly baked bread and salt.

<Ah, good!> Myrrine said and grabbed one of them, ripping its string in two with one pull. <Can't run off right away without some food in our bellies.>

<Food?> Glaw asked, frowning.

<Food!> Myrrine answered and threw him one of the bundles. <What else would we eat? Silly boy. And while we eat, you can explain why you and Lykos went gallivanting off over the border. Right as all the food stores caught fire too!>

Swallowing forcefully, Glaw untied the knot of the bundle. He tried to catch Lykos' eye but was steadfastly avoided.

This was not going to be a pleasant conversation.

****

The scene before her made Dylis sick to her stomach. Thais lay huddled over Vita, shielding her from the guards with her own body (and most likely doing her best to heal the gaping hole in her chest,) while Aelius stood perfectly still, his eyes staring at nothing, his face blank.

Around them, the library lay in ruins. Shelves had overturned and spilled their books and scriptures everywhere, like the entrails of gutted fish. There were pools and specks of blood everywhere and most of the tables were broken, having been used as barricades by the soldiers or as weapons by the demons.

In contrast the walls and windows had been left stainless. Dylis had taken advantage of a break in the guards' ranks and tried to smash one of the windows, only to get knocked off her feet by a flash of unnatural pain. That was her last memory before the here and now, and the hopelessness of it all made her guts churn.

The Field Marshal was talking again, circling the room like he were the ringmaster of a circus. He brought a hand up to wave in front of Aelius' eyes and his shoulders shook with laughter when the demon didn't as much as blink in response.

Then he moved on, barely glancing at Vita and Thais, and came to a halt in front of Dylis. She glared at him and let her rage prevent her legs from shaking. She did her best not to flinch as he opened a small pouch that hung from his belt, dipped the fingers of his right hand inside and then stroked what had colored his fingertips over her scars. It felt thick and slippery like butter and it burned like fire.

"Can you hear me?"

Dylis' knees buckled. It wasn't quite like she remembered being able to hear. There weren't sounds as much as thoughts, misshapen and twisted to loop around out of her head and back in again through her ears. Each noise burned like a hot coal.

The Field Marshal kept smiling. "There, that's better. I hate talking when not everyone can listen, it's just bad manners. We can't be rude now, can we? And we can't have you making trouble either." He stepped back and surveyed the rest of the room, letting out a huff of breath as if the sight of the destruction annoyed him. "I'll have to send someone along to take care of this."

Through the tears of pain that welled up in her eyes Dylis caught sight of Thais' face. The demon looked ready to cry herself, her hands still on Vita's red-stained belly. Dylis tried to push herself off the floor, to free her hands to sign, but the daggers of pain that every creaking floorboard and cough sent down her neck made that impossible.

"Bring them upstairs."

Dylis didn't bother fighting the hands that forced her to her feet. She shuffled along best she could, stumbling more than once on the steps leading to the upper floor.

Slowly the searing pain of the spell faded to a dull ache and her other senses got back their view of the world. She'd never been in the upstairs part of the library - it was reserved for spell-weavers and law students only - so she was surprised to spot something that looked familiar, other than rows upon rows of books. Someone had drawn a big red circle on the floor. The paint was far from fresh, but it didn't look to have been worn by time and boots; new and yet not new. She recalled quite clearly what it was. It had been Rhian's favorite subject to lecture about.

The thought of Rhian brought a pang of grief.

The Field Marshal ascended the stairs last when the rest of the soldiers had formed a human barrier around the floor circle, leaving only the stairs free. Aelius was walking behind him, unchained and unguarded, eyes as blank as a corpse's.

Pain had never been a good way to cow Dylis. 'You!' she signed, fighting the men who had pinned her arms to her sides. She didn't dare to think what the sound of her own voice would feel like, when that of a person meters away from her made her want to vomit and scream. 'You are Rhian's mentor.'

The Field Marshal looked up from where he'd begun to trace his fingers along the red border of the circle. Besides Dylis, Vita and Thais, Aelius and him were the only ones standing inside it. "Your little crush. Yes, I have been mentoring her from quite some time. Such a shame you didn't join her."

'Join her?' Dylis signed, tearing her arms free from the soldiers. At a one-shoulder shrug from the Field Marshal, the two soldiers stepped back and didn't attempt to recapture her. The way she swayed on her feet probably wasn't overly threatening. 'Why would I do anything that would benefit you and that liesmith of a man we call Emperor?'

A whisper of outrage went through the rows of soldiers, stinging her ears and turning her stomach, but she held her ground. 'You gave the order that lost me my hearing. Your soldiers left me to die outside Outer Camps and the demons patched me up. You are holding my brother prisoner. What reason could I possibly have to side with you instead of them?'

The Field Marshal got up and brushed off his hands. His smile had faded, replaced by a look of stern reprimand. "When you became a soldier, you accepted to follow the rules and orders of the Imperial Military. The Emperor's orders, my orders. Is this not correct?"

Dylis curled her hands into fists. Old mantras from her first weeks of training surfaced in her mind, looping on repeat like a scratched record. A soldier obeys. A soldier submits to the wisdom of the Emperor. A soldier obeys. She pushed them aside with the thought of Glaw, locked up somewhere beyond her reach. 'The military is supposed to care for its soldiers. You cut us up as children. You sent my brother alone into danger, just like you've sent countless people to feed your hungry curse. He was lucky the demons rescued him before-'

The Field Marshal's cold laughter rang through her head like ice water and needles. "Rescued him? How little you know, girl. Your brother was never in any danger. As for the others..." A look that could be described as pained rushed across his face, quickly followed by stern conviction. "In war, sacrifices must be made. Once this is over we will openly honor all those who paid with their lives so that the demons could be kept at bay."

'A sacrifice is made willingly,' Dylis signed. 'Cutting down soldiers from behind is no better than murder.'

"Those are concerns you'll have to take up with the Emperor," the Field Marshal said, his smile turning wicked. "You'll get to see him quite soon."

"Found it, sir!" A soldier came running up the stairs, waving a large scroll of parchment. All the other soldiers immediately stood at attention.

The Field Marshal gave him an approving look and smiled as he was given the scroll. "Thank you, Carwyn. We're ready to leave."

Like one man the soldiers took a step forward, into the circle. Two of them grabbed Dylis and the world outside the circle melted away, shifted and turned itself into another room. Dylis fought the urge to vomit and tugged at the soldiers' grip on her arms. They didn't budge.

A blur at first, the new room proved to be smaller than the upper floor of the library when it came into focus. The circle was just as big, with space for all the soldiers, but it barely fit in the room. In four places it touched where the stony, blank walls met the floor. If the door at the far side of the room opened inwards, they'd have trouble getting out.

"Bring the prisoners!" the Field Marshal ordered and pushed the door open, quickly followed by Aelius and two rows of soldiers. Three guards tugged a disoriented Thais off of Vita, whom a bull of a soldier threw over one shoulder. Dylis found herself dragged along at the end of the row, marched between her two guards.

Two corridors with blue carpets later, an impressive pair of doors towered before them. The Field Marshal pushed them open without help and strode into the gigantic round hall beyond as if he didn't have a care in the world. The rows of soldiers followed him inside.

It was impossible not to recognize the Emperor's Hall once you saw it. The decorations alone were legends, brought from all corners of the world. The three thrones were a dead giveaway. Two of them were currently occupied, the one in the middle and the one on the right. Though the thrones were elevated Dylis only caught glimpses of them, having a sea of helmets and heads blocking her line of sight. She could, however, make an educated guess as to their occupants.

The two rows of soldiers split and took up posts by the walls, joining their fellow guards. On the blue carpet remained only the Field Marshal, Vita, Thais, Dylis and the soldiers leading them towards the thrones. Dylis thought of taking the chance to stomp on someone's toes - she'd put people in a healer bed before with less - and try for the exit. A quick count of how many guards were armed with pistols killed that idea before it had fully formed. Instead, she followed where her guards led, meek as a lamb, biding her time.

She was pushed down on her knees before the Emperor and the Adviser, along with Thais. Vita was unceremoniously thrown to the floor next to her. Dylis fought the urge to elbow one of her guards in the groin out of pure frustration and helpless rage. A hand at the back of her neck forced her to bow.

"Done hunting rabbits?" the Field Marshal asked. Dylis could see his boots and cloak, and little else.

He got no answer. Instead, a deep voice said: "You have done well, my friends. Please return to your posts."

The hand at the back of her head disappeared. The echo of footsteps moving away from her burned her ears in a way the marching soldiers' steps hadn't. Baring her teeth in a snarl, she looked up and glared at the finely dressed man looming above her.

"My poor, misguided child." The Emperor's eyes were kind, but it was the kindness a good butcher showed an animal that had been brought in for slaughter.

I'm going to die, Dylis thought to herself, a strange calm settling over her mind, and this is the man who'll kill me. She glared and rubbed at her wrists. There would be bruises after the guards' fingers, but that was the least of her worries.

"Leave us."

The sound of footsteps just slow enough to not be running filled the room and had Dylis shielding her ears. It did no good. Once the noise had died down she looked around the room and found that only a handful of guards had remained. She didn't know if she should feel insulted or relieved.

The Emperor took his seat, a majestic figure in all his robes and gold, framed by the massive throne. "Rise, Corporal Nevett."

"Hardly a corporal anymore," the Field Marshal cut in before Dylis could decide if she should obey or not. "I didn't think you'd let traitors keep their titles."

"I don't, as you well know," the Emperor replied without taking his eyes from Dylis, "but we let them keep their dignity."

'I am no traitor.' Dylis got to her feet, flexing the muscles in her legs to forcefully keep them from shaking. 'You are. You lead the military to send soldiers to be slaughtered in the woods, to feed that curse of yours. I am no traitor for acting against that.'

The Emperor didn't as much as flinch at this. "We don't reward those willing to fight at the front line with death. Only those who fall in battle, as soldiers sadly do, aid the border curse. You were merely punished for disobeying. Your little rescue mission threatened to destroy one of the most important attacks against the demons made in centuries!" He shook his head, as if with pity. "You would have had your brother back safe and sound, and richly rewarded if you'd only trusted in those above you."

'I'll believe that when I see it,' Dylis signed. It was her turn to smile now, though hers was humorless and bitter. 'You should have a talk with the brigadier running Outer Camps. I'm sure I wasn't the only corporal who got stabbed in the back this week.'

This time she seemed to have hit a nerve. It was faint, but she'd seen the spark of doubt light in too many eyes - usually located in the face of a person she'd been interrogating - to not recognize it.

"Serious accusations," the Emperor said and covered his mouth with one hand in a thoughtful gesture. "I will send soldiers to investigate. If what you've said proves to be true, you will be rewarded for your good services."

He has got to be kidding me, Dylis thought, scowling to prevent her eyes from widening in surprise.

The Field Marshal gestured at two of the soldiers. They left their post by the far wall and hurried out through the large double doors at the end of the blue carpet. Who knew, perhaps they actually were being sent to check up on Outer Camps?

"You are a righteous person, Dylis Nevett," the Emperor said once the two soldiers were out of view. "Your brother's impression of you was not false. Fear not. No more lives will have to be lost at Outer Camps once our final strategy bears fruit and I shall not punish you too harshly for letting your sisterly emotions lead you astray." He put a hand on her arm and smiled kindly. "I fear I must banish you, for the safety of the Empire, but I shall make sure you get a fine ship and plenty of precious wares to help you settle across the ocean, start a new life. And I'll make sure your brother gets to say goodbye to you."

Dylis choked back a gasp. She dared a glance over at Thais, who was curled up on the floor, shaking like a leaf. Their eyes met for a second. Dylis gave her a curt nod and squared her shoulders. 'Are our brothers here?'

The change in the Emperor's attitude was immediate. He scowled and leaned forward as if seeking to pierce her soul with his eyes. For all she knew, he could do that. "Poor choice of words, Corporal," he said. "Do not lower yourself to speak of them as your equal or you will come to regret it."

'You're already banishing me,' Dylis signed, her back straight though her hands trembled. 'Am I to be the first criminal to be put to death in our beloved Empire's history?'

The Emperor's eyes narrowed into thin slits. "The retribution you should fear is not from me, foolish child," he said and sent a glare Thais' way. "You are far too young to remember. All but the three of us are." He gave the Field Marshal and the Adviser an acknowledging nod. Dylis blinked. The hearing spell must have influenced her other senses as well because the Adviser's jewelry seemed to shimmer. "What those monsters did to good people like our citizens is best left unsaid, but well remembered by us who lead."

Outwardly, Dylis kept still and defiant. Inside her, a fire was burning, consuming her reasoning and calm. Clever rule that, she thought, clinging to her rage like a lifeline. Why don't we make that a new law? Slaughter all the relatives of murderers and rapists, in case it's in their blood. Wouldn't that make for calmer streets?

"You're not being very subtle, you know," the Field Marshal said, his lips drawn into a taunting smirk. "I'd advise against trying anything. You're facing the three most powerful spell-weavers in the Empire, my dear. None but our bodyguards can touch us and any attack you make will only strike back at you, ten times worse."

Dylis pretended to ignore him but memorized his words. Thais' shaking had lessened, but she stayed curled up on the floor. Dylis wasn't sure, and she wasn't about to look in case that drew unwanted attention, but she suspected Vita was getting more of the spell-weaver's energy. If she's not dead already. The hole in her chest had been significant.

'Where is G-L-A-W?' She wasn't foolish enough to draw more of the Emperor's ire, not with three squad mates at stake.

The Emperor sighed. "Gone, I'm afraid. Led astray by the demon he'd captured. It's a dangerous business, trying to control them. Rest assured we shall not stop until we've freed him from their clutches."

Disbelief joined Dylis' rage. Glaw had-?

"Don't be hasty, Your Imperial Majesty," the Field Marshal said, walking up to claim his throne, the one on the Emperor's right-hand side. He spoke the title in a playful tone, like a parent calling a child 'my little soldier'. "I highly doubt Private Nevett got led astray by anyone. I'm very glad the Corporal's rescue plan was so delayed or I would have had even greater trouble with him. It's no wonder he was lost the moment I let go of him."

He slumped down, seating himself in a much less dignified way than the Emperor or the Adviser, and gave Dylis a wicked grin. "I don't know what they feed you in the barracks of Trade, but I've considered changing my dining habits to fit yours. Whatever they gave your brother to grow on, his mind has grown exceptionally. I could barely hold on to him and his pet, and that was with two tame demons at my service. One look at your face and it would all have been in ruins. Though you found ways to interfere without seeing him, I suspect. You broke the sculpture I'd made of his blood, didn't you?"

Dylis met his grin with a steely glare of her own, fighting to ignore Aelius kneeling between the Emperor's and the Field Marshal's thrones. 'Must be hard work, playing with people's minds, making them see the world as you wish them to,' she signed, the rising urge to punch him into a bloody pulp, consequences be damned, easing a snarl back onto her face. 'Whatever madness has you chewing this old bone of a fight with the demons poisons the Empire. You aren't worthy of leading us!'

The Emperor had that sad, pitying look in his eyes again and the Advisor, who'd been studying Thais and Vita with cool disinterested, raised an eyebrow. The Field Marshal laughed.

"So ungrateful," he said, raking his fingers through Aelius' hair as if he was petting a dog. "Here we've striven to build a peaceful land where all who do no harm can live side by side and this is the thanks we get! Straight from the mouth of one who'd be lost at the hands foreigners' madness."

Dylis' confusion must have shown on her face because he continued:

"Take your beloved librarian, for example," he said and a shape of Rhian appeared in the air before her, painted with smoke from his fingertips. "Did you know that in any other country you would have been put to death for desiring her? And she'd have had her hands cut off for spell-weaving. Don't look at me so skeptically, it's quite true. Have you ever wondered why so few sailors come into your lovely towns, despite having spent months at sea? We disgust them. Our freedom disgusts them."

'Freedom?' Dylis signed. The word seemed so unfit a match for the Field Marshal or the Imperial Military that she wanted to laugh. She wasn't that suicidal though.

"Yes," the Field Marshal said. "We can all worship whatever gods we wish to worship and love whoever we wish to love. Aren't does the fundamental parts of being human? The freedom of choice? And the safety of our cities is a living legend abroad. No poverty, no famine,  and no one is left to die alone."

Fear began to nip at the edges of Dylis' anger. Thoughts of strange lands where murder was punished by death and theft with the loss of a hand had haunted her dreams since she was a small child. As an adult, she'd come to accept them as a more barbaric form of justice, yet justice nonetheless. But to punish someone for what they did or didn't believe? For who they loved? That was unthinkable.

'Why should I take your word for it?' she signed, pushing back thoughts of banishment.

The Field Marshal rolled his eyes and pushed Aelius head aside like you would do to an aggressive puppy seeking attention; Aelius remained as unresponsive as death. "I tire of your chatter, soldier. Be quiet."

Against her will, Dylis' hands froze at her sides. The gasp this wrung from her got no chance to leave her mouth, as her jaw clenched shut, her lips pressed together as if they'd been sewn shut. She couldn't even move her legs.

"I agree, Cadfael, that was quite enough of that," the Emperor said. "Time is easily wasted, especially by the old and the angry." He turned his attention to Aelius. "I see you have a new pet. Or rather, found an old one anew."

The Field Marshal still had his grin in place. "What do you think?"

"Such a pretty little thing," the Emperor said from his seat on his golden throne. His eyes held interest, but it was the cold, calculating interest of someone appraising the worth of a new racehorse.

"Isn't it just?" the Field Marshal replied, tilting Aelius face up towards the light. Dylis had the not-so-sudden urge to smack his hand away; preferably with the sharp end of a blade. "I'd thought to claim it for myself, while the other two are gifts to the Empire. I did hang on to its blood for quite some time, after all." He brushed a finger against a ring on his left hand. It was decorated with a rusty red stone that didn't look like a ruby. "What should we name it?"

"Epiktetos?" came the Emperor's suggestion, sounding fashionably bored with life and everything in it. The Adviser said nothing.

The Field Marshal straightened up and made a show of frowning thoughtfully, chin in hand. "That name will only last so long. The irony doesn't suit either of us." He shook his head in an exaggeratedly theatrical gesture. "I was thinking more along the lines of Tryphon, or perhaps Kallis."

"The decision is yours, Cadfael. Name it as you please." The Emperor turned in his seat and let his eyes rest on Thais and Vita. "What of the others?"

"No threat either, I assure you," the Field Marshal said, waving a hand as if to emphasize the light tone of his words.

"That's what you said about the last one and not two hours later it tunneled through the floor with the new Spymaster in tow." Had Dylis been able to move enough to jump, this sudden input from the Adviser would have had her start.

The Field Marshal chuckled. "It's hardly my fault that you can't weave a proper blood curse, now is it?"

"Yours doesn't seem to be doing much better," the Emperor said and gestured at Aelius, whose skin was pale and covered with sweat. He wasn't kneeling as much as slumping on the floor, barely staying upright.

"Ah yes," the Field Marshal said with false concern in his voice, "it isn't feeling too good I'm afraid. Seren, would you do me the favor of making him a bracelet?"

The Adviser gave him a smile that Dylis couldn't interpret the meaning of. "I'm sorry, but no."

The Field Marshal's face fell. "What?"

"We're all out of flowers. I used the last of them when someone brought home a stray pet without a leash." She gave the Field Marshal a pointed look.

"...I see." The Field Marshal abandoned his relaxed seating arrangements and sat as straight-backed and stiff as the other two.

"You'll be going to the island then, I take it," the Emperor commented, looking up from a scroll of parchment he'd pulled out of his robe's left arm.

"How so?" the Field Marshal asked. All traces of mirth and self-satisfaction had left him, replaced with an alert kind of worry. Dylis couldn't decide it that pleased her or if it was a cause for concern.

The Emperor gave a laugh that was everything but kind. "Oh please Cadfael, there's no need to keep up appearances for my sake. Your new pet clearly used up all his strength fighting you. I'm impressed the link hasn't backfired on you yet." He grabbed hold of Aelius' hair and pulled his head back, putting his feverish expression on display. "Four days, five at the most. I suggest you hurry."

"As you command, Your Imperial Majesty," the Field Marshal said, already standing up. His face was a blank mask, but his eyes burned with ire.

"Take the other two with you as well. They're far too dangerous to keep inside the city and I doubt they'll last much longer." The Emperor gave Dylis a long, calculating look. "Corporal Nevett as well, I should think. Eunike will see you off."

The Field Marshal stormed out of the Hall, Aelius following him on unsteady legs. Some of the guards dragged Thais and Dylis to their feet and dragged them in the same direction, the bull-like guard from earlier having thrown Vita over his shoulder again.

"Saddle the horses and prepare the carts!" the Field Marshal yelled. "We're preparing the Cave Ship!"

****

Another cry pierced the night, leaving a soft screeching echo behind in Glaw's ears. And another, and another. All of their small party except him stood with their heads thrown back, looking like a pack of misshapen wolves as they shouted and yelled a most unnatural sound.

<This is useless,> Bernike said as soon as the final cry was over, her throat swiftly collapsing into its usual shape. <We'll soon be too weak to return home again, much less to fight. We should just->

<You should just shut your mouth and save some of that breath for yelling at Glaw's sister,> Myrrine said, ignoring the glare this interruption earned her. <You two are still up for a fight, aren't you?>

In answer, she got a stiff nod from Aculeo. Cato was again muttering to himself, staring out over the rooftops around them as if he was memorizing them all.

Glaw shifted his weight from one foot to the other, not sure if he wanted to remind them of his and Lykos presence, and nearly losing his footing on the tiled roof. Lykos caught him with a steadying hand and Glaw gave him a grateful smile before returning his attention to the stare-down that had started up between Myrrine and Bernike – again. This was the third time since they'd left the border, only a day ago. Glaw hadn't thought it was possible to travel faster than he'd done with Lykos, but apparently it was doable; if at the price of strength. He had to remember to be impressed, once Dylis and the others were safe.

<So this is your First City,> Aculeo spoke into the tense silence, sounding less than impressed.

Glaw gave a reluctant nod in answer. He'd caught himself staring at their surroundings more than once since they'd stopped to sound the emergency cry.

Unlike in the other Imperial Cities, the houses in Palace had their roofs colored by gold, which shimmered even in the spares light of the stars and the moon. Even the walkways were gilded, their railings adorned with golden patterns and small metal sculptures with eyes of sapphires and rubies; surely guarded by the very best of trapping spells.

Other than that the architecture of the houses was intricate yet tasteful, all buildings looking as new as if they'd been completed mere hours ago. The waters of the road-channels looked clean enough to drink.

And then there was the palace itself, looming over the rest of the city like a roosting owl. Its spires and towers clashed against the flat roofs of the surrounding buildings in a way that screamed of more money and power than anyone could possibly imagine.

A ripple went through the demons around him, all of them turning towards the palace like one man. Glaw felt his heart skip a beat and a cold shiver went down his spine when he saw their expressions. They were quiet as death, but the way they kept glancing at each other and pointing at the roofs and road-channels below suggested a conversation was taking place nonetheless. Something that felt like a sound just out of his reach echoed through his head; he suspected it was much louder to the demons.

<Aelius is moving,> Lykos said when Glaw managed to get his attention.<Fast. We'll need to spread out, find what boat or cart he's being transported on.>

Myrrine and Bernike stood at attention while Aculeo and Cato left the roof and darted off into the darkness.

"Let me." Glaw gestured at his own temples and tried to keep the jealousy out of his voice. Most of the exchange of information since they'd left the border had been through the mental bond the five demons had linked themselves into. It was grating on his nerves, but he'd put up with it until now. He'd been of little use until now.

<Is that such a wise idea, ambassador?> Myrrine asked, without taking her eyes off the road-channels. <Last time the two of you linked, it didn't end well.>

<Yes it did,> Lykos said, turning to glare at Bernike as if she also had commented. She probably had. <It's how we escaped captivity. I'd argue it'd actually be safer if Glaw joined our bond, as the last link in our chain. With the five of us guarding his mind the blood curse should be no threat, even if his leaders draw fresh blood from him.>

Glaw shuddered at the thought.

<Or it could snare all of us,> Bernike muttered. The way she'd placed her hands on her hips as she spoke should have made her look like a petulant child who'd been denied an extra cookie after dinner. Instead, it made her look ready to cut someone's throat. The daggers strapped to her wrists helped with that impression.

Lykos pushed his glasses further up his nose. <Do you not trust your own mind, sister?>

Glaw left them to their argument, not wanting to join Lykos down that slippery slope. He stepped closer to the edge of the roof to try and catch a glimpse of any suspicious carts or wagons coming down the walkway. The road-channels were empty at this time of night.

<There's something wrong.>

Myrrine appeared next to him, having made her way across the roof so quickly he hadn't seen her move. <What do you mean?>

Glaw pointed at a soldier strolling along the walkway two blocks away, his back to a small wooden cabin with a door that had just slid shut. <Guards don't leave their stations to civilians like that. We should go investigate.> He could still hear the faint screeching, but locating its source was hopeless.

<We're a little too busy to play guards!> Myrrine said, not unkindly.

Glaw almost stamped his foot in frustration. He hadn't done that since he was a small child. <This is important, trust me!>

Bernike walked up to them and glared down at Glaw as if every bad thing in the world was his fault. <High demands from someone who's been lying to us since the first moment we met him.>

<I told you, that wasn't my->

<There is one way to guarantee truth,> Lykos said, stepping in between Glaw and Bernike in one smooth motion.

Bernike held his gaze for about ten seconds, then whirled around and began to walk away. <We're losing time. Do as you wish.>

Taking a deep breath, mostly to hide a sigh of relief, Glaw turned to Lykos without ceremony and said: <I open to you.> The words meant little to him, yet they seemed to do something. Maybe it was instinct or maybe it was memory of their previous link, but he could feel himself reaching out and meeting Lykos halfway. Mind brushed against mind in a much gentler fashion than during his last experience.

'What did you see?' Lykos asked, his eyes on the cabin the soldier had left. He sounded more distant this time around as if speaking through a layer of cloth.

Images and feelings were hard to sort through. Glaw had no idea if Lykos received what he wanted him to see, but Lykos nodded as if in understanding. Without a word, he wrapped his arms around Glaw's waist.

They landed on the walkway with a soft thud. Glaw slipped out of Lykos grasp and sneaked up to the cabin. Like all other guard posts it was no bigger than an outhouse with a window on each side and a door that faced the walkway it was stationed along, so he had to approach it crouching low. He could feel Lykos' amusement at the sight, which did nothing to help his balance.

The cabin was empty. It didn't matter which of the windows he looked through; all he could see was a rickety chair and a burning candle left unwatched in its holder.

'Where did she go?' It was Bernike. Glaw was sure of it, though he didn't know how. Her thoughts sounded nothing like her voice, yet they seemed familiar to him. They felt just as close and yet much further away than Lykos'.

Glaw opened the door. It was hasped shut, not locked, which made breaking in child's play. 'I don't know,' he thought, unsure if Bernike would hear. 'There's really no room for more than one door and the windows can't be opened without something heavy and a lot of noise. Has to be a trapdoor somewhere.'

He let his hands trail along the walls, searching for a loose plank or an indentation. Lykos entered the cabin moments later and put a hand on his shoulder. 'No need for that.'

'Oh, right.' Glaw would have said more, but a frisson of heat and a sound like a bloodcurdling scream sent him to his knees before he could. It passed within a heartbeat. "What was that?!"

'Aelius.' Lykos knelt down by his side and put his hands on the floor. His eyes glowed blue. 'There is no metal or rock under this cabin. You were correct.'

'I'll see about that hidden-' Glaw thought, then had to resist the urge to slap himself in the face.

A soft rustling heralded the arrival of the other four demons, crowding in the doorway. Lykos had managed to shape a dark, human-sized hole in the floor and the sound of rushing water could be heard from its depths. A metallic glimmer in the darkness called attention to what could have been handholds, half covered by rock.

Bernike elbowed her way up to the hole, pushing Glaw towards the door so that there would be room for her in the tiny cabin. Her eyes glowed, her jaw elongated, and her neck swelled like a bullfrog's. Glaw forced himself not to look away as the twisted creature of a woman leaned over the hole's edge and howled. The sound echoed downwards and faded away. The hole had to be at least a hundred meters deep.

'Well, it's the best bet we've got,' Myrrine thought. 'I'll-'

An answering howl, barely audible over the distant roar of water, reached them.

Everyone froze.

<That's Thais!> Lykos' wore a smile of such relief that it was infectious, chasing away Glaw's nerves like a warm summer breeze.

Bernike was already halfway down. 'Then stop gawking and start running, you idiots!'

The rest of them threw themselves into the hole, seemingly uncaring of the darkness or the vertical, smooth walls. Glaw clung to Lykos' shoulders before he could be asked to and buried his face against the other's chest. The sky was one thing, it reminded him of his pilot dreams, but going down underground...

Vertigo and wind were more palpable this time around, his clothes and hair tugged this way and that by the gales. Lykos jumped from wall to wall, slowing their descent. The trip took no more than a few seconds.

'We're down.'

Glaw uncurled his hands from Lykos' dress - shirt - clothes and blinked his eyes open. Wherever they were it was dark, but not pitch black, and damp. They were standing on a thin strip of rock, which continued alongside a wide river. The tunnel they'd entered was gigantic, wide enough to have let through a Freedom Day parade with ease and the ceiling high enough that the tunnel could have fit one of the trees from the demons' woods.

Right in front of them, there was a great wooden structure, several sizes larger than Glaw was used to seeing. Who'd build that here?

'Found this,' Myrrine thought and threw a limp form over to Aculeo. Despite the dim light that came from distant lamps somewhere higher up, Glaw recognized her as the civilian who'd entered the guard station.

He leaned down and gave her a poke. She gave a faint groan. 'She must have opened the floodgate for someone.' It wasn't hard to guess who.

Bernike leaned her head back once more and let loose another howl-like noise. It was slightly different than the ones before it, more focused and monotonous.

The answer came from somewhere to their left. Glaw found himself identifying the noise as Thais, undoubtedly through the help of overspilling memories from the others.

'If this is connected to the palace, there will be guards,' Glaw thought. The glint in Bernike's now gray eyes worried him.

Myrrine grinned, the expression having gotten back its mad cheer. She twirled her ax, making the crescent-shaped double blades glint threateningly. 'No trouble. See you at the end of the tunnel!' With that, she was off, closely followed by Bernike.

Aculeo and Cato jumped over to the other side of the river and took off at breakneck speed, leaving Lykos and Glaw alone by the floodgate. Glaw sighed. 'Should I climb onto your back this time?'

'That would make fighting easier, yes,' came Lykos almost teasing reply.

A minute later they too were off, Lykos shaping stepping stones out of the wall. Ahead of them, they could hear  screams and the clashing of metal against metal. Glaw braced himself. Whatever they would meet, he'd be ready for it.

****

Despite having spent her childhood and most of her adult life around ships and boats of all shapes and sizes, Dylis had to admit The Cave Ship was an impressive sight. It had three masts and two cargo holds, with enough room to transport an army along with the crew.

There were also plenty of man-sized wooden cages on the upper deck, which was less impressive and more enraging. Dylis was locked in one wall-to-wall with the captain's cabin. She'd been sitting there since the workers had gotten the ship ready, sometime in the afternoon the day after they'd been brought to the palace. That was a mere guess, of course. It was hard to tell exact time without a clock or the open sky to look at.

The main cave had been larger than Dylis ever had thought a cave could be. It held a lake, as well as a dry dock where the ship had been resting, the wrong side up. Hundreds of horses herded into a complicated pulley machine, large as a house, had slowly flipped it the right way around and sent it out into the lake. All under the watchful, cold eye of the Field Marshal.

He, in his turn, had been watched by one of the Emperor's bodyguards. The Field Marshal addressed the bodyguard as Eunike, though Dylis doubted that was the demon's birth name. It wore a blank wooden mask, just like the other bodyguards she'd seen. The way it hovered around the Field Marshal made its orders no secret. Its presence didn't seem to be cheering the Field Marshal out of his dark mood. He'd locked himself inside the captain's cabin the moment the floodgate to the tunnel had been opened, taking Aelius with him.

'I don't understand,' Dylis signed to Thais, who'd been locked up in a cage across from hers. Vita was across the deck, by the nearest mast, still unconscious and pale. 'Why hang on to Aelius, if it can kill him? I don't want to be giving him ideas, but you seem to be doing better. Why not just switch to you? Or make a, what did you call it, mind-chain?'

Thais shook her head and wiped unshed tears from her eyes. 'It is not that easy. What Nikon did to Aelius is...' She frowned down at her hands, her gaze distant, searching for something. 'You cannot hear it, but he is screaming. Not by his own will, for your leader's second has buried that deep, stifling it, but that can not stop instinct. Your leaders can claim our minds, but it would seem they do not have our ears.'

Dylis waved at her to try and drag Thais' attention away from her own hands. 'Less lecture, more important facts.' The way Thais flinched at that made Dylis regret her words. She refused to show that, however. By the looks of things, they'd have plenty of time to fight and apologies to each other later.

'The scream is a warning. A warning your kind cannot hear. When we are weakened, bonding with our kind is dangerous. The leader, the first link in the chain, can not let go of a weakened mind, as it clings to them, seeking energy to strengthen itself. If the leader gives in, the last chain in the link will drain them dry. Your leader's second took hold of Aelius when he was all but drained. No one can control a drained mind enough to make it link to another; it’s too far gone. He cannot form a third link in his chain unless he wishes to have another lead his mind, and that would be of little help regardless.' Thais glanced over at Vita's unmoving form, before meeting Dylis eyes.

'So the Field Marshal is trapped. I'm guessing slitting Aelius' throat just would speed up that sucking-your-soul-dry process?'

Thais leaned her forehead on the wooden bars of her cage, her expression one of sad amusement. 'Without a doubt.'

A smirk tugged at Dylis' lips. 'How big of a chance is there that Aelius manages to claim the Field Marshal's magic for his own?'

'It's not hopeless.'

Dylis gave a broken laugh. 'Good to know.'

The ship rocked. They'd come to yet another floodgate, which gently lowered them back on level with the river; a good twenty meters down if Dylis eyes weren't playing tricks on her. She caught sight of a small guard station, no more than ten soldiers in total. She saw it for a heartbeat before it rushed past them as the ship continued on its way.

'Seems a waste, having guards down here,' she signed, craning her neck to try and get a better look. The ship's railing was blocking most of her line of sight, leaving her with a view of rock and more rock, occasionally interrupted by the odd low-hanging lamp. 'A lot of people to swear to secrecy and who would be able to attack you down here?'

A stomach-turning sight met her as she looked at Thais for an answered. Thais had thrown her head back and her throat was bulging and reshaping itself until it was twice its normal width. She unleashed a noise that shook Dylis to her core. It sounded like nothing a human should be able to hear, too low-pitched and high at the same time, all jumbled together in a nauseating mixture of vibrations and screeches.

She covered her ears and watched, forcing herself not to fold double. Thais fell quiet after a moment and sat stock still, eyes unseeing and throat still misshapen, her head cocked to the side as if she was listening for something.

Whatever it was, it was outside of the limits the Field Marshal had put on the hearing spell, for Thais' face split into a wide smile seemingly without reason. 'The others!' she signed, her hands shaking, her throat sagging inwards to retake its usual form. 'They're coming for us!'

Around them sailors were closing in, some just getting to their feet from where they'd thrown themselves to the deck at the sudden noise. They kept their distance, eying Thais with fear and disgust, and Dylis simply with fear. Five had drawn their pistols.

The door to the captain's cabin slamming open started one of soldiers so much she fired a bullet into the cabin wall. She paled to the shade of an eggshell as the Field Marshal pierced her with a glare. "Disarm her and take her below."

The crew member went without a fuss, flanked by two of her fellows. The Field Marshal watched them go, pointedly not turning to look as Eunike exited the cabin to stand next to him. Aelius was nowhere to be seen.

Another not-howl broke the ensuing silence, drowning out the splash of the water and the shuffling of boots. It echoed between the tunnel walls, giving Dylis trouble with locating its source. As Thais' eyes were brown and her face its ordinary shape, she clearly wasn't the culprit.

"Sounds like we'll have company soon." The Field Marshal's statement was quickly followed by Thais' face twisting into its beast shape and she let loose a noise that froze Dylis' blood to ice. It spoke to a primal part of her brain, told her to seek shelter, to arm herself.

The Field Marshal looked less than impressed. "Such a racket." Dylis knew the gesture he made and felt a sting of sympathy. Thais' body went rigid and her lips reshaped themselves to more human looking ones, before clamping tightly shut.

The sound of fighting, a clamor Dylis could have recognized in her sleep, despite not actually having heard it in years and years, drifted down the tunnel. It caught up with them as they turned a narrow bend in the river's course. The tallest of the masts scraped against the ceiling and the ship rocked in an alarming way.

"Incoming!" one of the crew members shouted, his voice trembling.

Dylis stood up as well as she could in her cage and grabbed a hold of the bars, almost pushing her head through them to get a better look. The water was still out of her field of vision, but that didn't matter.

From this distance, she couldn't make out who was who, but the glints of steel and the dots of glowing blue told her enough. There were five of them and only one of Eunike. Hope, fragile and weak, began to pound at the door to her mind, demanding to be let in.

The smirk on the Field Marshal's face was as smug as ever, which made the hairs at the back of Dylis' neck stand on end. If the rescue party's appearance had surprised him, his body language revealed nothing to that effect. "You know what to do."

Eunike had left the deck before the Field Marshal had finished the sentence. Seconds later, the first body hit the deck, a mere five meters from Dylis' cage.

<Myrrine!> Thais threw herself against the bars of her cage, clinging to them tightly enough to make her knuckles whiten.

The demon in question pushed herself back onto her feet and gave them a wave with her big ax. Her left cheek had the telltale signs of a beginning bruise, but she was grinning and her eyes were glowing a cheerful blue. Under her feet, the deck slowly settled back into its normal shape. <Be right with you!> she called, turning to face the men and women trying to surround her.

"Tend to the ship!" the Field Marshal called from his position by the cabin door. "Eunike will see to that one, just make sure we keep sailing."

<She will, will she?> Myrrine said, punching a too daring crew member in the gut with the hilt of her ax. The second the hilt struck home, Myrrine hissed and dropped her weapon, as if it had burned her.

"She will, with help," the Field Marshal confirmed and smirked. Dylis' eyes widened along with Myrrine's and Thais', as the downed crew member got to her feet without trouble and grinned. She stuck a hand down her shirt and pulled out an Emperor's Sign, much smaller than Dylis was used to seeing and an odd red color. "If you're clever, you won't waste your energy on those who're dead already."

Suddenly the issue of keeping the tunnel hidden from the public while still staffing it didn't seem like such a riddle.

The deck shook as the next body hit it. Cato got to his feet with ease and didn't spare the crew as much as a glance before he jumped back up into the air, using a sail for leverage. This sent the ship rocking again, the masts scraping against the walls. Dylis held on tight to her cage, refusing to be thrown off her feet. Thais wasn't so lucky and was sent tumbling backward, her head hitting the bars behind her with a sickening crack.

"Thais!" The sound, coming from her own mouth,  made it feel like she was the one who'd hit her head. It made her skull ache worse than the longest of bar nights.

<I'm fine.> Thais' voice was faint, mostly drowned out by the running steps of the crew and the shrieks and clashes from those fighting in the dark above them. She managed to sit up and pressed a hand to the back of her head. It started glowing with a faint, green light.

A piece of metal embedded itself in the deck between them with a soft 'thock', followed by another and another.

It was raining knives.

"Eunike!" the Field Marshal bellowed over the din, his eyes fixed on the tunnel's ceiling. Around him, soldiers screamed and tried to pull blades out of their arms and legs. Whatever the crew members were, they could clearly still feel pain.

This time six bodies hit the deck. Four of them Dylis knew, one was a stranger, and the last one made her heart stop. "Glaw! Glaw, don't you dare be dead!"

'I'm fine,' he signed one-handed, looking anything but. One of his arms hung at an odd angle and he could barely sit up straight. 'Wolf broke my fall.' The man - demon - he was referring to lay under him, knocked out cold.

To their left, the other four had gotten to their feet. Cato darted off into the crowd of crew members, pulling arrow-daggers and knives out of legs and shoulders, while Myrrine and Aculeo flanked Glaw and the stranger, shielding them from the Field Marshal's view.

Bernike was the only one to immediately go on the offensive. She leaped towards Thais' cage, her arms raised to strike at the wooden bar that held it shut. Eunike sprang from the shadows like a hungry puma and knocked Bernike to the ground, grabbing her arms and sending her wrist-daggers flying.

"Katars?" the Field Marshal said, having caught one of them as it came flying past his head. "Been awhile since I saw these." He stepped left, dodging an arrow-dagger thrown by Cato.

Eunike's hands glowing was the only warning before the air around her exploded. Dylis got knocked off her feet this time. She caught herself against the back of her cage with one elbow, which sent a bolt of pain rushing through her arm. The others had been thrown to the deck as well, along with most of the crew. Only the Field Marshal and Eunike remained standing.

Myrrine got to her feet again and raised her ax above her head. <Rush her!>

Eunike jumped over the side of the ship as Myrrine, Bernike, Cato, and Aculeo attacked, running at her from four sides. The moment they were out of sight the Field Marshal laughed. Dylis whirled around, jolting her aching arm, and focused her eyes on him as well as she could. The ship seemed to have gained speed in the last minutes and the wind was whipping at her eyes, blurring the faces and objects around her.

"Throw them in the brig!" the Field Marshal called, waving at the unknown demon and Glaw. "We'll be there in a second."

All Dylis heard before the world started spinning was Thais' cry of fear and grief.


(Chapter 9)

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