According to our briefings back on the Impossible, the keep walls weren’t merely stone. Behind a layer of stone lay an absolute web of iron bars, enchanted to push away any would-be climbers; rings of gold, to repel teleportation; and scattered chunks of opaline, a stone that apparently absorbs magical energy. Fortunately, the opaline is scattered, and a weak spot had been found on the outer wall where a ritual would allow us to pass through the wall, without the magical energy being drained away by the opaline and leaving us trapped inside the wall.
I had expected that Thava would be doing the ritual. She pointed out that I’d studied a great deal more about mage-craft and arcane lore than she had, and my protests that I’d been studying arcane lore about the stars, not just general arcane lore (if such a thing exists), were met with the flattest flat look imaginable. Note to self: perhaps do not get caught reading quite so often. Pantera said that she knew about plants and animals, not rocks and magic, and promptly turned into a panther, which made it difficult to argue the point. And Betty…well, no, nobody really expected Betty to do the ritual.
The ritual took all of five minutes, and worked perfectly. Thava tugged one of my braids, said, “See?” and headed through the wall. Fortunately for her, she is twice my size, and my senior, and I have a sense of self-preservation, or else I would’ve been tempted to kick her shins.
Our information had stopped at the outer keep wall. We were supposed to be following the infiltration team, after all, not leading them. Worse, the outer keep wall protected something like an entire village, rather than leading straight to the inner keep. After a moment’s conference, we split up and went to scout the area.
For the most part, the area was completely, eerily deserted. Some of the buildings were damaged, as if there’d been fighting here. We found people only in a few places. On the far side of town was a non-descript warehouse that (according to Betty) wasn’t at all non-descript on the inside: it concealed a teleportation circle, possibly how the Duchess got in. Nobody was going to get in that way now: even without the ten or twelve men guarding it, dozens of golden blades hovered in the air over the circle, ready to eviscerate anyone trying to use it. In the center was the central keep, protected by an inner wall with even better safeguards than the outer, and beyond that (in one of the useless few pieces of information we had about this area from that original briefing) a hedge labyrinth that had been created by a male dryad named Gilly Dhu. And finally, closest to our first position was a former stable, guessing by the stalls and the smell (which made Pantera, still in panther form, sneeze, and then have to hide from a confused guard). It had been turned into an impromptu jail, with about as many guards as the teleportation circle, and five times as many prisoners.
“We could free the prisoners,” Pantera suggested, when we met up again and exchanged information. She’d changed back into her usual form, but kept wrinkling her nose every so often, as if she could still smell the stable. “That would distract the Duchess’s forces – and maybe what’s-his-name, Nathan, maybe he’s there!”
“Sea gate first,” Thava said firmly. “We need back-up, and time’s short.”
She was right. But that led to the next important question: how were we supposed to get to the sea gate? We could see it, out along the sea wall, but the only way there was to walk along that sea wall, right under the sight of anyone standing guard on the lighthouse over the gate. Even if a miracle occurred, or Betty snuck like she’d never snuck before, the gravel on top of the wall grated loudly underfoot. We’d be under attack before we got even close.
“We still have another of those water-breathing rituals,” Betty said thoughtfully.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Not more water!”
“You’ll be fine,” Thava said heartlessly. “Besides, how else are we getting there? Infiltrating the Duchess’s forces and hoping they don’t figure us out even more quickly than if we just attacked?” She waited until I winced and looked down before continuing. “All in favor of going under water?”
So that was how we came to attack the sea-wall from under water. Betty swam on ahead, and came back to report that there was a ship at the dock and a patrolman nearby, a few more patrolmen on the walls, and something big and impressive up in the tower by the light-house, but they were scattered and if we were quick, we had a chance that they wouldn’t notice us until too late.
At first, we were quick enough. Betty surged up out of the water, knife in hand, and I followed with an assist by Thava. We slid the dead patrolman into the water as Thava and Pantera joined us, and headed up the walkway toward the wall. Unfortunately, as we reached the wall, our luck finally gave out. The chill that Pantera breathes on our enemies during battle only startled one of the patrolmen, rather than freezing him, and he shouted the alarm.
From there, well – battle was joined. I remember looking around for Betty, and not seeing her until suddenly the soldier I was facing collapsed to the ground, his dead face still stuck in a startled expression, and Betty grinning at me, waving a cheerful hello with her bloody dagger, before turning and vanishing into the shadows before my eyes – apparently in between making jokes about distracting the soldiers with a lap dance, she’d been mastering her new amulet and its shadow powers. I remember people boiling out of the ship, and Thava running past me back down the walkway, drawing her sword as she ran, and telling me over her shoulder, “Betty’s been hurt – heal her!” I remember Pantera leaping in the air as the fae drake lashed out at her with its tail, landing safely on all four furry feat. And I remember firing my pistol, hammer held tightly in my other hand, and praying to Moradin for healing, for holy light, for my shots to go where I aimed them already, and oh yes, for that thundercloud that the wizard (that we hadn’t known about until he followed his fae drake down) decided to sic on me, to go away. Being hit by lightning is very, very not fun. Being hit by lightning while wearing chain-mail and still dripping wet is especially not fun, even if you run away from the lightning.
I don’t remember who, exactly, turned the crank that raised the sea gate. Not me. It may have been me who set off the fireworks that let our allies know that the gate was open: I don’t remember for sure. In any case, we all sat down, and tried to avoid the ridiculously bright light right next to us as it rotated, and listened as shouts of surprise and anger came from the inner keep. They’d realized we were here. They’d be coming for us. But we had a minute to catch our breath.
[to be continued]