Tuesday, October 26, 2004


Day 34

I'd hardly closed the book after writing the last entry when Ashil and Torner knocked on the door. Memree had been drowsing on top of the bed, ready-dressed, so I strapped on my sword, gave Memree a crossbow, and we both slipped cloaks on, then headed off to the Red Sunset, to meet the others.

We were the last group to arrive. Chalker looked pale but determined, everyone else looked ready for a fight. I remember feeling glad that it wasn't my suggestion that we raid that particular house, Memree would have to keep a low profile if we found a respectable sleeping family there!

Leaving Man Coker at the tavern, we moved off. Apart from the light from behind us, the night was as black as pitch, and the house where we'd first seen young Ruby on its front porch, eating some bread, was as dark as you'd expect any house to be at such a late, or early, hour. I put my ear to the door, and was sure that I could almost hear something, perhaps a low, cadenced hum. I shivered, and moved back as Man Coker's top enforcer, Busby, moved forward. I expected him to kick the door in, or use the deadly-looking double-headed axe he was carrying, but instead he knelt down, and inserted a lock-pick into the keyhole. I heard the tumblers turn, one by one, and then he smiled at me and stood up as the door swung open soundlessly.

It is hard to describe the atmosphere there. It was quite an old house, with two stories, quite well-built but past its prime and in a part of town that had gone downhill in recent years. But it didn't feel like a living family home, it was like walking into a long-deserted cabin that had somehow retained its roof. I headed for the stairs up, followed by Torner and Chase. We checked all the bedrooms; it was easy to tell which one belonged to a ten-year-old girl, which to a nineteen-year-old young man, and which to their parents, but the beds were smooth, the rooms alarmingly tidy. There was a fourth room, but that was just being used for storage, with a couple of old saddles, bundles of linen, and a couple of large wooden chests. They were locked - I didn't want to make any noise, so decided to leave them for Chalker or Busby's expertise later.

The others had checked the downstairs rooms, which were as neat and empty as the bedrooms had been. The kitchen fireplace was cold, no cooking had been done there for days, obviously.

I walked along the short hallway, trying to hear that humming again; I put my ear to the wood panelling on one side, and was sure I could hear it, like very distant voices carried by a night wind. Chalker came up close to me, and ran a dagger down a crack between panels. It clicked on something. "A hidden door", she whispered, and, working the blade some more, managed to work its locking mechanism... it drifted open, and suddenly the humming was a low chant, and dry, warm air gusted out into our faces.

The stairs were wooden and steep and old, just what you'd expect for any old house's cellar, but there was that distant, deep chant, and a slight red illumination coming from nowhere. There were dusty barrels down there, and a heap of very old firewood next to a small pile of coal - but there was also a hole in the middle of the stone-paved floor, with a metal ladder firmly clamped in place.

I looked around our group, and decided that, for size and stealth, I was the right person to go down first, though if Chalker had been unwounded I would have gladly let her have that honour. I sheathed my sword, as I'd need both hands for the descent, and threw my cloak aside, as it was getting unpleasantly warm. "I'll tap the ladder when I'm on level ground again", I said softly. "Don't follow me until then, as I may need to climb up again rather rapidly..."

Down I went. It looked as if Man Coker had new neighbours, as this couldn't be too far away from his own more natural cave system. Luckily I didn't descend into the middle of any pentagram, but into a small circular room with a single door, which was half open. Gently flickering red light washed in from there, though the chanting had stopped now, and the silence was shocking. I used the hilt of my sword, drawn again now, to tap on the metal ladder, and almost at once I could here the gentle shuffling and breathing noises as the others began to come down. I moved over to the doorway, and looked out.

The next room was square, around twenty paces across, with two closed doors over at the far side... but in the middle, in a yellow glowing cube, four human figures were suspended, floating just off the ground, vertical, eyes open but empty. They were young Ruby, her big brother Perry, and, I assumed, their parents.

Me, Memree, Chalker, Torner, Ashil, Busby, Chase, Carter, and six more fighting men... suddenly I was none too sure that would be enough. This was something fairly big we'd stumbled across, something that had been going on for quite a while, and whatever was behind it would not be happy to have us dropping by.

Busby unlocked one of the two doors, and leapt back as a flash of green energy flared up - some sort of trap spell, but he was unscathed. The room was just storage, perhaps worth investigating later if the idea of loot overcame the possibility of more traps. I looked at the four suspended figures... used as puppets by someone or something, and then replaced here when the task was done? There were four glowing red gemstones embedded in the floor where the cube ended, probably magically generating the stasis cube. Should we smash those and free the family, and probably alert the entity in control here? Probably not, until later!

Chalker was working on the other door, which was larger, and covered in metal strips. "It doesn't want to move... there's some magical energy we need to displace..."

I motioned for her to stand clear, and gently pushed the tip of my sword into the keyhole which, I saw, was the mouth of an ornately-worked little demon. My sword had a small amount of magic of its own, so might be able to negate a simple ward-spell. There was a brief flash of yellow sparks, and my hand involuntarily jerked back, my arm briefly numb, the sword glowing red and then fading. "That should have done it", I muttered, massaging my elbow.

Chalker began picking the lock again, and we all heard the tumblers clicking back. The swordsmen were all ready now, Busby held his axe in front of him, and Memree loaded a bolt into her crossbow's groove, and wound back the mechanism. "It's cleared", Chalker whispered, wiping her forehead with her sleeve.

Ashil looked round at all of us, and smiled. "We're as ready as we'll ever be, Sera - open it!"

The room beyond was twice the size of the first room, square again, and with a pentagram full of insubstantial yellow-green flame. A hooded, dark-gowned acolyte stood by each of the five star-tips, another man with his hood down was reading from a book on a lectern - Jasper! And eight shadowy, not-quite-present figures, all carrying swords, turned from watching the ritual, and rushed towards us.

It looked to me as if it would be a good idea if the men didn't complete their ritual, so I cut at the first shadow-man, and dodged round him, got to the first hooded acolyte and sliced my blade into his neck. He screamed and fell, gushing blood, and I moved on to the next point of the pentagram, where the second acolyte was only just reacting to my advance. He brought his hands up, they were crackling with energy, but while the spell built, I lunged forward, and almost delicately thrust my sword into his belly. His hands automatically went there to try to hold his guts in, and he screamed - there was a smell of burning as the spell he'd been preparing went off in a way he'd not planned. A quick glance told me that the rest of our side were fighting the shadows, and winning, but I moved on to the next acolyte, who had his hands raised above his head while he chanted - I leapt to one side as a tower of flame scorched the floor where I'd just been, I was hot but not cooked, then swept my sword round, cutting into his ribcage. He went down - it looked like a wound he might survive, but he'd not be fighting any more tonight. The fourth of the hooded men had summoned some sort of mountain lion, but it leapt high and I crouched low, then quickly pushed my blade up into the underside of the man's chin - the big cat turned, its claws ready to rake me, but as its summoner died, it vanished in a flash of pure white light. One more of the acolytes, now - he was holding a man-high black, crooked staff now, holding it in front of him vertically, and red energy pulsed up it, forming a fiery globe at the top, out of which lightning was starting to flash... until a crossbow bolt took him in the eye, when it snuffed out like a candle. I must find out if that was Memree or Chalker, I owe them one!

The shadow-men were still fighting - a couple were missing, presumably just fading away, while two of our people were wounded, and behind the active fighters. But Jasper was my target, he was still chanting - if you summon a demon, it is, apparently, not good manners to stop halfway through! He was covered in a golden glow, now... a crossbow bolt hit him on the cheek and glanced off, its tip melted. His voice soared and boomed, seemed to fill the chamber, and suddenly his incantation was over, and a figure was visible inside the pentagram, still half-obscured by the spellflame. It was twice a man's height, and had horns. The shadow-men were all down, now; some of our men looked wounded, Carter was hastily bandaging one man's leg, trying to stop heavy bleeding. Memree had moved away from the group, heading for a pile of old books over in one corner - at least it got her further away from the conjuration, I thought, but it was also further from the exit...

Jasper had a sword of dark red flame, now, and snarled at me. "Bitch! I might have known you'd come meddling!"

"So, Jasper - got that dagger back safely, have you?"

"That blasted dagger - if that bloody thief hadn't stolen it!" He whirled with unnatural speed and swept his flame sword at me, and looked astonished when my sword parried it as if it was mere steel. "We got it back, but I wanted to play games with you, use some of its power, ha, you even paid us a reward, piddling though it was!"

The spellflame inside the pentagram was slowly clearing... the figure inside had horns, definitely, and, I could just see, a tail. This was not good. My sword and Jasper's clashed again, and we were lunging and parrying like a formal duel, trying to find each other's weaknesses. I caught a glimpse of Memree, she seemed to be searching the whole room... Chalker was checking the bodies of the acolytes.

"You kill me, and nobody can control the demon", he yelled, as if him controlling a demon was something we were going to allow.

"We'll take our chances, Jasper - so, any last requests?" He lunged, I ducked, the blade of flame roared past close to my face, and I managed to bring my blade up and catch him in the arm... the flame sword came loose from his hand, and the golden glow over his body faded, and I swept my sword round as hard as I could at neck height. His head soared away, trailing blood, and his body, after a long moment, started to collapse.

Which just left the demon. Memree came up to me. "Here, I found that dagger of theirs - d'you think it's important?"

I looked at Memree and the dagger, and took it, with a grin. "We can hope so - thanks!"

I walked over to the edge of the pentagram, and looked up at the demon. How a creature that size could keep its balance on hooves, I don't know.

"Hello, grandser", I began. "I suppose you're wondering why you were called here?"

It chuckled, a rumbling that seemed to shake the floor. "Oh, I've watched Jasper and his cult, ever since they found a book I'd hoped had been permanently lost. I found their preparations intriguing, though I slowed them down a bit at the last, with inspiring that thief to steal their precious sacrificial dagger." Its voice was effortless and as smooth as honey, and filled the room.

"Can we do anything for you, grandser?"

It chuckled again. "Well, you'll hardly wish to open the pentagram, I suppose, and I have no great interest in ravaging your petty dimension. If you'd very kindly plunge that dagger into the book on that dead fool's lectern, I think we can all go home, don't you...?"

So I walked over to the lectern, ornately carved in black wood to show all manner of human suffering, and plunged the dagger down into the book, carefully trying not to look at the pages, on which words squirmed and re-formed. The book exploded into tiny scraps of paper, going off sideways rather than in my face, mainly, and the dagger itself just...crumbled away to dust. The pentagram flared again, and, with a complete absence of noise - was gone. And my legs started to go rather weak, if Memree hadn't grabbed me I think I'd have sat down rather heavily.

And that's about it... I'll attempt to tie up some loose ends in tomorrow's entry, but I'm too tired to write anything more now. You're lucky, my librarian faithful reader, I was tempted to stop for today at the bit where we opened that last door!

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