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Chapter 27

I Remember Being A First-Level Girl, Like It Was Yesterday



Breaking into Slade’s hideout had gone more smoothly than Thalia expected. Sashami and Alderon had easily dispatched the guards at the entrance to the underground complex, with a little help from Berryn’s hold person spell, and it didn’t take them long to find the stairs down to the lower level. Unfortunately, the way was blocked by a heavy steel door, and for the first time, with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, it occurred to Thalia that there weren’t any thieves in the Silver Bullets. Like any young noblewoman, of course, she knew how to use a credit card to pop the tongue of a doorknob; but this door seemed to be deadbolted, and there wasn’t much a credit card could do about that.

Alderon sighed, coming to the same conclusion. “Does anyone have knock?”

“That’s a mage spell, Alderon,” said Berryn.

“All I have is magic missile,” said Thalia.

Everyone looked at Justin. “Well, there’s more than one way to open a door,” the older hero finally said. “Do either of you know heat and chill metal, maybe?”

“I do,” Chloe offered.

“Well,” said Justin, “if you heat the lock and then chill it, it’ll probably crack.”

Chloe blinked. Thalia was just more impressed by Justin every time he opened his mouth. In her crushier moments he reminded her of a young Maxwell Silverhammer, using his might and magic together to spread good across the land; but the spells she’d seen him casting were magician’s spells, and this insight about the creative use of faith magic was just remarkably clever regardless of his cuteness factor. “I--I guess it might,” Chloe was saying, slowly. “I never thought of that... let me give it a try.”

“I hope it’s not trapped,” commented Sashami.

“Maybe the rest of you should stay back.”

Skitch’s Wayward Mom



“Emmeline? Oh, my, yes, I remember her... such a sweet girl. Got herself in trouble, though, and died in giving birth. The father? Goodness, I couldn’t begin to speculate.”

“Could’ve been... Bobby Ross, I guess... weren’t they sweet for a while, Suzy?”

“It was some elf, I heard. Old Maggie raisin’ the baby for a while. Scrawny little thing.”

“Weren’t me. I hadn’t seen her in months. Did you ask Red Tucker? Cause she was always down at the pub, that Emmeline. Probably did half his customers.”

“I coulda swore it was Jimmy the blacksmith, but they said it was a half-breed when it was born, so I s’pose not.”

“You say this was in... April?”

“Did you talk to the mayor yet? Cause his sons used to go out with her a lot.”

“Sure, me and her were friends. Who was she seeing then? God, I don’t remember.”

“Could’ve been the Denver Broncos...”

“My mother was a slut,” Skitch admitted sadly, kicking a pebble down the sidewalk in defeat. “I don’t think she even knew who got her pregnant.”

Khyrisse flinched despite herself, but no one was looking at her. “That’s why I’m the detective, kid, and you’re getting C’s in some Diarian boarding school,” Rani said coolly. “Her father beat her for having a half-breed baby while she was still pregnant with you. She had to have known who the father was; they don’t have fetal scans out here.”

“So...” Valende said slowly. “So her father knew who it was... but her mother didn’t?”

“I don’t know if she gave either of them a name.” She snapped her casebook shut. “She might have. I’m not a telepath. Or she might have just told them it was that elven guy that was in town last April and daddy blew a gasket. But she knew who our boy was, all right.”

“So where does that leave us?” Skitch said, uncertain whether to be discouraged or not.

“With a couple options.” Rani shoved her notebook in her jeans pocket. “There’s no way he owned a place here. If Maggie had met him I would have picked up an impression. And given her father’s attitude, I doubt Emmeline was bringing him to her house. That leaves them meeting in a motel for their trysts, most likely. Town this size won’t have more than two or three, and I doubt a lot of elves come through. I could probably get an impression from the lobby if they were there.”

A Conference of Villains



“Huh,” said Berryn, blinking down the stairs through the newly open door. “That worked!”

“I guess I can help the group even if I am crippled,” said Chloe.

“Oh, Chloe, of course you can!”

The young priestess accepted Thalia’s supportive hug passively. Truth was she wasn’t that distressed about her slowed state anymore; but Justin was starting to look upset at having to do so much of the planning himself, and stressing that his idea had empowered her seemed to make him feel better. Chloe didn’t want him in a bad mood for Thalia’s sake, but she also didn’t want him holding back on them and getting them all killed. She didn’t really see the problem with Justin being higher-level than the rest of the party anyway.

“Hssst!” Sashami whispered suddenly, freezing halfway down the steps and holding up one hand for silence. “Someone’s here!”

The group crept down the staircase as stealthily as they could. Luckily it was made of stone and didn’t creak. The door at the base was ajar, not enough to catch sight of the men Sashami had heard talking but enough to listen in on the conversation. “...according to plan, Lord Beliath,” said Slade’s resonant voice.

Justin’s head turned quickly, his piercing blue eyes crinkling with recognition. “Excellent,” said a second voice, one Chloe didn’t recognize. “You have done well, ‘Slade’. Now I just need you to keep her out of trouble until Jay has been replaced.”

“Hard to get into too much trouble in demonic stasis,” said the villain. “I should know. Can I use her soul to power the generator in the meantime?”

“You can do whatever pleases you as long as it does not endanger her life. If she dies here, you die with her. Am I clear?”

“Perfectly, Lord Beliath.”

Their footfalls receded to the north. Chloe waited a few moments and then peeked boldly around the doorjamb; it looked to be a control room of some sort, levers adorning the front panel, doors leading off in all directions. “Do we follow them?” Sashami whispered, her hand on her axe haft.

“I think we should concentrate on the prisoner,” Thalia said thoughtfully. “We don’t really have to kill Slade, after all... if we could find and rescue the woman, that would foil their evil plans just fine.”

“That’s a good idea,” Justin agreed. “No need to overextend ourselves.”

“Maybe there’s something in one of these file cabinets.” Alderon jiggled the handle. “Aw, man, not again.”

“I wonder if we could use the control panel up there to release the lock.” Thalia wandered up to have a look. Chloe hung back with Justin, who looked preoccupied as if he were trying to think something through. “Lord Beliath,” she said quietly, not for anyone but the caped hero to hear. “Who’s that?”

“I’m not--sure,” frowned Justin. The console lights were flickering softly as Thalia and Jason manipulated them. “I’ve heard of him before, but only indirectly... he and this Jay have connections to some, contacts of mine, but I don’t know exactly what they are. He’s a very dangerous being, that much I know. We should try to steer clear of him.”

“Hey, that’s a map,” said Alderon, pointing to a grid that had appeared on the wall screen. “Didn’t Slade say something about putting the girl in the generator? Because there’s a generator on this map.”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” grinned Thalia, pushing a few loose strands of golden hair back into her hood. “Let’s rock and roll.”

The Process of Elimination



“Nothing,” Rani sighed, withdrawing her hand from the check-in desk. “Bugger me. No elven impressions I can find at this one at all.”

“Look, are you furriners rentin’ a room or not?” demanded the innkeep.

“Kiss off or I tell your wife about the Dempsey twins, Surly.” The innkeeper colored and retreated. “This isn’t looking good. These are the only two places in town.”

“Could there have been another that has since gone out of business, perhaps?” suggested Vas.

“It’s possible, but it’s more likely they just met in Peteser City.” She sighed and raked her fingers through her glittering hair. “Elven travelers are a lot more common in the city anyway. Unfortunately, for the same reason, I’m not going to be able to isolate readings there the way I can here.”

“So I’m just screwed,” Skitch said.

“Well, not quite yet.” Rani cracked her gloved fingers. “I’ve still got one ace in the hole.”

“That would be?” Val prompted gently.

“Emmeline. She knew who this guy was, and he turned out to be pretty pivotal in her life. I could probably get a useful impression off of her.”

“But she’s--” Khyrisse started, then stopped.

“You don’t want to dig up my mother’s grave,” Skitch cried.

“If I may,” said Vas, holding up one hand, “you are her only child, Skitch, and it is a matter of life and death for you. Perhaps her spirit might not mind being disturbed this once?”

Valende frowned. “Little though I approve on principle, my brother does have a point... and it would be only a temporary disturbance. I could easily bless and reinter her remains.”

“This plotline sucks,” moaned Skitch, thumping his head into his hands.

Ghost Stories



“Stop being so twitchy, Sashami.” Thalia held up her torch to peer at the keypad by the door to the generator room. “We’re almost there.”

“I don’t like this,” the taller girl admitted, fluttering her fingers uneasily on the handle of her greataxe. “Being underground like this, and in the villain’s own domain... it would be too easy for us to be surrounded here, or destroyed by a trap.”

“We need a thief,” Jason agreed.

“A thief might not even help. There are legends of men lost in the old dwarven tunnels when their enemies simply sealed the doors and flooded them with water.”

“Now you’re starting to creep me out,” said Chloe, shivering. “Knock it off.”

The hatch slid open as Thalia entered the code from the console, revealing an imposing engine of black and purple stone. In front of it hovered a rose-colored crystal cocoon, and in that a young woman who appeared to be sleeping, her short hair floating around her peaceful face as if she were underwater.

“Brett?” whispered Justin Moore, like he was remembering something from a long time ago. “Brett Astra?”

The woman dreamed, and the engine churned on relentlessly.

***

“White human female, Dalencian extraction,” Rani said quietly, her eyes shut with concentration as she turned one of the long-buried bones in her ungloved hands. Val was gently rearranging the rest of the unearthed skeleton into a respectful position for reburial. Skitch looked like he was about to throw up right through the wraithform Khyrisse had taken pity and bestowed on him. “Age at TOD 23 years.”

“Twenty-three?” Khyrisse had been assuming she was a teenage mother. “And she was still living with her parents?”

Rani didn’t answer, little beads of sweat on her forehead belying the effort of digging through the impressions of a skeleton eleven years dead. “It’s not that uncommon in poor rural areas,” Val contributed. “She wasn’t married, and she wouldn’t have had the resources for her own house.”

Khyrisse didn’t understand why anyone stayed in places like Tramsen regardless of their resources, but she kept it to herself. “Got the death scene,” said Rani, her eyes fluttering beneath their lids. “Corroborates Maggie’s account. No foul play; just a bad labor, and a blizzard.”

Then a hand seized Khyrisse’s forearm from behind, spinning her to face an angry-looking Petesern farmer with a sickle in his other hand. There were others behind him, holding torches and weapons. Khyrisse jerked her head back and forth; Valende was being held by three men now, and another was pulling Rani, none too gently, from Emmeline’s remains.

“Guess old Maggie weren’t talkin’ out her ass after all,” said one of them, yanking hard on Val’s arm. “You elves really are up to no good round here.”

***

“You!” Slade shouted furiously, pointing his spiked gauntlet at the young heroes. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Thalia wasn’t sure, frankly. Disconnecting the rose crystal from the generator wasn’t hard, but there didn’t seem to be any way to open it. Berryn cast dispel magic on it, but either it wasn’t magically held or, more likely, the young priest wasn’t high level enough to counter whatever demonic magic had encased the prisoner. They’d eventually decided to just lug her out sarcophagus and all, but they were having some problems with the stairs. Thalia wished she’d memorized feather fall instead of magic missile.

“Freeing this woman from your foul clutches, knave!” cried Sashami, dropping her end of the cocoon to wield her axe. Luckily whatever stasis thingy was making the crystal hard to drag also kept it from rolling down the rest of the stairs.

“I have had enough of your interference!” thundered the bandit leader. “No more warnings... this time you die!”

The black bodyarmor pulsed once and burst into a hellish column of flame. Sashami, charging up the stairs, was knocked violently from her feet by the blast and skidded most of the way back down; Jason, somewhere, screamed. Then the pain hit, a few strange moments after the fireball, and Thalia doubled over with a gasp, her arm and left side burning. This is not. Good. Justin cast something, a cone of cold from the looks of it, but Slade’s armor sloughed it off like it was nothing.

“Fools!” The glowing pentagrams of the villain’s demonic summonings were starting to open on the stairs now. “You should never have come here! You are no match for the power of Slade!”

“We’re no match for the power of your fucking magic item, more like it!” yelled Alderon, frustrated. “I could kick everyone’s ass if I had invincible Doomlands armor on, too!”

Slade turned his icy, faceless gaze on the young pirate. “Yes,” he said as the demons coalesced, “but you don’t, now, do you?”

***

“Gentlemen,” Valende tried, giving the mob her most charming smile, “I assure you we can explain everyth--”

“Shut yer mouth,” one of the farmers snapped. “Ya big-bosomed tomb raiders may be popular round some parts, but not in Tramsen.”

“Where’s Marty Hu when we need him,” Rani sighed to Khyrisse, who nodded her reluctant agreement.

“OoooooOOOOOoooo!” Skitch wafted his wraithformed self dramatically over a couple of headstones. “I’m a ghost, rising from the graaaaaaave!”

It actually seemed to daunt the angry locals a little bit. Ebreth, who had been just about to backstab the one holding Khyrisse, held his fire. “A ghost?” the farmer said, stupefied. “Wh--what would a ghost be wanting here?”

“Uh... destruction?” suggested Skitch. “Blood? The blood of the living! We’re the living dead, rising from the graves to feast on the blood of your children! OoooooooOOOOOOOOOooooooo!”

Various other moans and wails started echoing across the graveyard. Vas must have cast an audible glamer or something from his perch in the tree. Ebreth shrugged and shambled out of the shadows in his best parody of a zombie, pawing at the farmer. “Living... dead...” he groaned.

The farmer let go Khyrisse’s arm like a hot iron and backpedaled across the lawn, white-faced. “Wait a minute,” said one of the mob suspiciously. “If the dead are rising from their graves, what the hell are you furriners pokin’ round in the cemet’ry for?”

“OooOOOOOOooo!” wailed Skitch. “Because they’re elven undead hunters who came here to stop us from eating the town, stupid, and now it’s too late! OOOOOOOOooooOOOOOO!”

Val broke free from the uneasy men holding her and whipped out the golden sword of Corellon, glowing in the moonless night. “Back, evil ones!” she cried. “You slay these innocents over my dead body!”

“I’m going to eat--your brain,” grunted Ebreth, shuffling towards her.

Apparently coming to the conclusion that big-bosomed undead hunters were all right with them, the mob retreated behind Valende with comic haste. “Let’s go get the clerics!” shouted one.

“Father Martin! Father Martin!”

Val gave Ebreth a very narrow look as the farmers fled, lowering her sword and putting one hand on her hip. “I’m going to eat your brain?” she said, like it was the stupidest thing she’d ever heard before.

“Hey, it worked for Kynvelyn,” he pointed out, straightening.

Rani muttered to herself and dropped back down by Emmeline’s remains. “I’m going to have to rush this,” she said. “Get that carriage ready to go, I don’t want to be here when they come back.”

Khyrisse did, trying desperately to suppress her laughter. Skitch’s own entertainment at the success of his ruse had abruptly vanished. “No!” he cried. “Wait! We have to bury my mother! You promised!”

“The clerics are coming, Skitch,” said Val, pushing the boy gently into the cabin. “They’ll do it as well as I could.”

Vas alighted on the driver’s board, peering out across the darkened grounds. “I hope this doesn’t damage Peteser’s chances of joining the Federation,” he commented.

“I wasn’t here,” Khyrisse said to him out the window. “Were you?”

“Rani?” called Val. “A little alacrity, dear?”



“Got it!” She scrambled up the step. “I’ve got it, I’m coming!”

Skitch turned around on the bench to watch out the back window as the Trade Carriage pulled away from his mother’s bones and the town where he was born, his eyes brimming with tears. Khyrisse, after a very long second, laid her hand gently on the boy’s shoulder, and he held on to it like he was drowning.

***

“Foolish children,” gloated Slade, backhanding Jason and his unwieldy sword down the stairs with a casual punch from his demonic gauntlet. “You will fall before the forces of evil as all naïve heroes fall.”

“Oh, shut up,” snapped Berryn, sounding more like Luthien than usual.

Thalia shot off her magic missile. To her relief, the non-elemental spell connected with the villain despite his protective armor. Unfortunately, that was her only spell, and she didn’t really know what to do next. Justin and the clerics were busy holding the two demons Slade had summoned at bay, and the bandit leader himself seemed to be having little trouble with the fighters. What could a runaway princess from Talaria of all places hope to do against an evil juggernaut in practically impenetrable full plate?

Thalia could feel the silver bullet in the pocket of her scorched dress, a hard, silent weight of duty. Probably nothing, she answered herself, straightening her shoulders with a sigh. But I’m going to have to give it a shot.

Alderon was the most experienced of the fledgling adventuring group, but he was taking a real pummeling at the steel-spiked fists of Slade, and his shortsword +1 was not proving particularly effective against a suit of Doomlands armor. He was, however, distracting the villain, and Thalia managed to slip past them without much trouble. Three steps up brought her about level with the back of Slade’s ominous helmet. Thalia took a deep breath, seized it by both black horns, and ripped it right off the villain’s head.

There was a spray of sparks and Slade turned on her, furious. His head was surprisingly small, almost like a child’s sitting on top of that seven-foot frame of black steel. “You dare!” he screamed, in a suddenly much thinner voice.

“Hey!” said Alderon, squinting at the unmasked villain. “I know you! Weren’t you a Significant?”

“No!” hollered Slade, making an angry grab for his helmet. Thalia, no slouch at keep-away after years of playing with the other court children, threw it over his reach and it bounced down the stairs.

“You were! I saw your picture in that stupid book. You’re Flintfoot, aren’t you? The halfling?”

“Signet the Significant’s squire?” Chloe said in disbelief.

“Arghhhh! Speak not that accursed name!” He jutted out his fists like he was going to explode into another fireball, but nothing happened without his helmet on.

“He must have come back to life somehow after Signet freed him from his demonic imprisonment,” Chloe surmised, “found this armor... and started a life of crime!”

“And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you lousy kids!”

“Hey,” commented one of the demons. “We’re, like, free.”

“Cool,” said the other. “I’m going to Signetland.”

“Speak not that name!”

“Me,” said the first demon, “I’m going to waste that annoying putz who summoned us here.”

“Suit yourself,” shrugged the other.

“Curses!” Flintfoot pushed his way past the Silver Bullets and down the stairs, tubby demon in pursuit. “You haven’t seen the last of me, meddlers! You will learn what it is to make an enemy of Slade!”

“Let him go,” said Chloe, catching Sashami by the arm before the battered warrior could follow them. “We’re on our last legs here as it is... and we’ve got to get this woman to safety.”

***

“So,” said Rani, leaning across Val to poke Vas hard in the shin. “Ever been to Peteser City?”

“Indeed,” said Vas, with a flourish of the reins. “Is that our next stop, mademoiselle?”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” said Rani. “Your last visit did the trick just fine.”

Vas jerked his head around at her, the spectral horses straying a bit at his inattention. “Rani,” he said, twisting in his seat to look back at the dejected boy in the Carriage, “you aren’t implying...”

“Keep your eyes on the road, Lothario. You weren’t in Dyaromn twenty-eight years ago, were you?”

“No, I most certainly was not!”

“Vastarin,” groaned Val, plunking her head down into her arms. “What am I going to do with you...!”

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