Sin - By Firebrand, Chapters 14 & 15, Fantasy

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Sin - By Firebrand, Chapters 14 & 15, Fantasy

Post  Firebrand on Fri May 18, 2012 3:15 pm

Chapter 14

Pain surged through Sin’s muscles as he tried to rise. He collapsed back onto his stomach, gasping. Two dark shapes lay beside him. With a groan, Sin tried to heave himself up again. He noted that the sky was brightening with the gray of dawn. Sin hoped that they had been unconscious for only a few hours, not a full day.

Damin growled something incomprehensible, and Sin helped him up. Sheltered in the crook of his arm was a small bundle of silver fur. Chifumi blinked sleepily up at them. “Are we safe now? Are the bad men gone?”

“Safe is a relative term,” Sin replied with a sigh. “We’re out of the lion’s den, but we lost Lisana. We don’t know where we are, or where we’re going.”

Damin checked Anjaru’s pulse. “He’s alive, but exhausted. It’s sluggish, too. He’s fighting the poison, but he needs rest. Sin, are you hurt in any way?”

“Just a few bruises. Anjaru carried us down slowly. What about you?”

“Much the same. Now… what is this place?”

Sin looked around. Anjaru had landed them in a sheltered ditch in the middle of the wide plains north of the Capitol. They were hidden from view, and they would see anyone’s approach long before they themselves were spotted. Golden grass waved in the wind all around. Birds circled above. Sin couldn’t tell if they were predators searching for prey, or crows waiting for them to die.

“Wherever it is, we need to get out fast. Lisana and the demons have all our supplies. Without water, we won’t last very long.”

Damin nodded. He slung Anjaru over his shoulder. “We’ll have to take the chance of walking through the grass. We may be spotted, but anything is better than starving to death.”

They crossed the plain, the waist high grass parting before them. Chifumi sat atop Sin’s head, standing as straight as she could, trying to pick out anything from the rolling landscape. They kept the looming shadow Capitol on their left, so that they constantly headed east towards the North Road.

After walking for about two hours, Sin’s hand went to his throat. “Lisana is that way!” He set off at a run.

Damin hurried to catch up. “How do you know?”

“I don’t! Something just tells me that she is!”

***

Kelrick rubbed dust out of his eyes, his fingers tracing the designs of his tattoos. Thalia sat in front of him on the black mare. If they weren’t all so exhausted, they could be making better time if they went on foot. The horses were tired after their flight the night before.

Lisana was bent over her saddle on Dusty’s back, her hair obscuring her face. “Mistress Lisana?” Kelrick whispered. “Should we stop and rest?”

The sorceress shook her head. “No. Damin told us to keep going. The Capitol might catch up to us.”

“Lisana, pardon me for speaking plainly, but we’re miles from the Capitol. With our head start, we can afford to let the horses rest for a few hours! If we don’t, they’ll die soon!”

Lisana seemed to realize the animal’s plight for the first time. “All… All right. There’s a hill over there. We can rest behind it.”

The pulled the horses in, and dismounted. Lisana fell to the ground, massaging her saddle-sore legs. Thalia had fallen asleep sometime around dawn, so Kelrick laid her out on the soft earth. He sat down opposite Lisana.

“Mistress? I have a question. What you did last night… what was that?”

Lisana looked at him. “The thing with the ice and the fire? Oh, hell if I know, Kelrick! I reached out to the magic like Harrison told me to all my life, and I touched the essence of the two of you… I think. Then, the words came to my mind, and I said them.”

Kelrick gasped. “It was a verse spell! Lisana, do you remember the words?”

“Well, yeah. Blistering wind, scorching fire, two opposing…”

“No, don’t say it now! Just remember those words!”

“Why?”

Kelrick sighed. “Because some sorcerers spend their entire lives searching for spells like that. They’re different for everyone. It happens when a sorcerer finds a truly great power in the world around them and compounds it with the power inside them. Even if another sorcerer were to say the exact same words as you, nothing would happen. That spell is uniquely yours.”

Lisana blinked. “Really? But… I used your power, and Thalia’s. So… what does that mean?”

“I can’t say I know for sure, Mistress.”

The sorceress leaned forward. “Kelrick… your tattoos…”

Kelrick raised a hand to his face. His father had etched them there, to help him focus on the powers he controlled. “What about them?”

Lisana gasped. “I usually don’t pay them any mind. They’re just a part of who you are, like Anjaru and his cape. But… Kelrick, they’re glowing!”

“What?!”

“Yes, yes, look! I have a hand mirror in here somewhere!” Lisana dug through one of Dusty’s saddlebags and procured a small circular mirror of polished bronze.

Kelrick peered at his reflection. Lisana was right! The little dark tattoos around his eyes were indeed glowing with a faint red light! “Do you think it’s because of your verse spell? Because you used my power?” The Hellhound was getting excited now.

“Probably! Do you think something’s happened to Thalia? I don’t want to bother her while she’s asleep…”

“Oh, who cares? She’s a cat; they’ll sleep all day if you let them. Order her awake!”

Lisana bit her lip. “But… that’s not very nice…”

Kelrick sighed. “Well, if you won’t then I will!” He leapt up and shook the Ice Maiden’s shoulder. The demon leapt up with a feline hiss, and scratched at Kelrick’s face with her nails.

Kelrick jumped back with a laugh, dodging the sleepy blow. Then, he crowed in triumph. “What?” Thalia snapped. “What is so important that you had to wake me up?”

Lisana held out the mirror to Thalia. The Ice Maiden scowled. “Is there something on my face? Kelrick, if you did anything, by the Ice Elemental, I’ll rip your bloody throat… out…”

She stared at her reflection in awe, or rather, her reflection’s eyes. Until last night, they had been green like a cat’s. Now they were a startling electric blue. “What is the meaning of this?” she shrieked. “What did you do, Hellhound?”

Lisana stood up. “He didn’t do anything. I think I did. When I performed that spell last night, I drew upon your power, along with Kelrick’s. And I think I changed you. Kelrick’s tattoos glow now, and your eyes…”

Kelrick conjured little fires on his fingertips. “I wonder if we got any special new powers out of this. Well, either way, I’m happy with glowing tattoos.”

Thalia said nothing, still staring at her reflection, and gingerly touching the area around her eyes.

***

Sin’s endurance finally ran out. He collapsed to the ground and sank into the grass. The heady scent filled his nostrils, and he flopped onto his back. The sun was climbing to its apex, and the day was growing hot.

Damin came up behind him, and placed Anjaru on the ground. “Are you sure about this, Sin?”

“I’ve never been sure of anything. I just don’t know how I’m sure.”

Anjaru groaned. Chifumi ran to his side as the Air Master’s eyes flickered open. “Where are we? Master Sin? Are you there?”

Sin sank down next to Anjaru. “I’m right here. Are you all right?”

“I’ll be fine. Where is Mistress Lisana?”

Damin sighed. “We don’t know. We were separated last night. How much do you remember?”

Anjaru lifted a hand to the side of his head. “All of it, more or less. At least up until I redirected the North Wind. Then everything starts to blur.” He scanned the horizon. “I don’t see Castle Town. I flew further than I thought.”

Chifumi shook her head. “We’ve been running for the past few hours.”

“What? Where?”

“Sin says he knows where Lisana is.”

Anjaru glared at the young man. “How? Where is she?”

“I don’t know,” Sin cried. “I just know that she is that way!” He pointed northeast. “It’s like some force is guiding me that way, and somehow I know we’ll find Lisana if we keep going the way we have.”

Damin, who was staring at the surrounding landscape, hissed. “Everyone down! There’s something moving in the grass! Quiet!”

The three men fell flat on their stomachs, all of them reaching for their swords. Chifumi crept to Damin’s ear and murmured incredibly softly, “Did you see what it was?”

Damin lowered his voice to match. “It looked like a group of horses and riders. I couldn’t see any more past that. They were a good distance off, coming down a hill. Silence now.”

Soon, the thunder of hooves resounded in Sin’s ears. From the sound of it, the Riders were probably less than fifty feet from them. Then, it abruptly stopped, fading away to the rough breathing of horses. There were a few thuds as feet hit the ground. The grass swished as the riders drew closer.

“Damn it,” Anjaru hissed. “On three, we run.”

“They have horses,” Sin muttered back. “We’re doomed.”

“Well, there you are,” someone cried.

“Three!” Anjaru shouted, and the three men leapt up, swords flashing from their sheaths. They leveled them at a man dressed in simple leather trousers and nothing else. Strange marks decorated his bare torso, spiraling up to his face. He wore no beard, and his fair hair was tied back in a ponytail.

The man laughed, and his fellows, all dressed in a similar fashion drew closer. Three of the eight had spears strapped to their backs, but they made no move to use them.

“Who are you?” Anjaru growled.

“I think,” the man who found them chuckled, “we should be the ones asking that question. You’re the ones trespassing in our home.”

“What? I don’t see any house,” Sin blurted.

“You don’t need a house to have home,” the man replied. “Do you see the golden grasses all around you? The blue sky above? The brown earth below? As long as we have that, we are home.”

Damin sheathed his sword and crossed his arms. “I’ve never heard of men living on the plains…”

One of the fair-haired men, one with a spear, broke out laughing. “Men! Ha! He thinks we’re men!” This was met with general laughter, and Sin was trying to piece this together.

“So… you’re demons?”

“Give this boy a prize!”

“And you live on the plains? Without masters?” The man who found them gave Sin a look, plainly saying that this should be obvious. “So… you’re feral demons?”

“Whoa there,” one of the Plains demons said. “Just because we’re Unbonded, doesn’t make us feral!”

Anjaru lowered his voice. “Sin, Orrin was Unbonded, and he wasn’t feral. These demons seem civilized enough, nothing at all like Trolock. Do not throw that term around lightly.”

Damin glanced at the demons. “How did you find us?”

“We saw you fall out of the sky,” one of the demons explained. “You were chased by the Capitol’s magic, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right enough. So, when dawn broke, we set off to find you. Though I’ll admit, you’re nowhere near where we thought you’d be.”

“We’ve traveled all day,” Sin explained. “We’re looking for some friends of ours. We only know the direction they went, but it’s important that we find them.”

The demon that found them cocked his head to the side. “Oh really? Maybe we can help you out.”

“You’d do that?” Chifumi exclaimed from Sin’s shoulder.

“Of course, little friend. Come. Ride with us.”

It was only then that Sin realized that there were no animals anywhere near them. He looked around again, not believing his eyes. “You don’t have any horses!”

“No horses, he says!” one of the demons chuckled. “Boy, we don’t have any horses. We are horses!” He threw out his chest and shifted into a large chestnut stallion. Five other demons did likewise, while the last two jumped up onto their companion’s backs.

“Take your pick!” the demon that found them called. “They won’t throw you. Too hard!”

Sin selected a demon with a similar coloration to Dusty. He realized that the demon’s hair color was indicative of the color horse they would become. “I’ve never ridden bareback before.”

“Better learn fast!”

And then the demons were off. The horses bounded effortlessly across the grass, eating up miles. “You just tell us if we need to change our heading,” the demon called. “My name’s Navarre, by the way. What’s yours?” Navarre used only his legs to stay on his companion’s back. His hands were on his hips.

“Sin.”

“Well, that’s one of the oddest names I’ve ever heard!”

“Hey!”

“Where? I’m hungry!”

Anjaru’s demon pulled up next to Sin’s and the Air Master leaned over. “There’s a reason horses don’t talk. And there’s why.”

Sin laughed, then wrapped his arms around the demon horse’s neck. He needed work on balancing. The horse rolled his eye back and tossed his head. The demon snorted, and stabilized his gait so Sin would have an easier time.

“Thank you,” Sin murmured.

The horse snorted again in reply.

Damin and Navarre were conversing amicably about which region had the better climate, the Forest or the Plains. Navarre thrust out his chin in his best attempt to look authoritative and said in a booming, self-important voice, “Well, I’ll tell you this much! In the Plains, you have room to gallop! I bet whatever horses you breed in the Forest have never even reached their top speed!”

Damin laughed. “Navarre, You’re nothing like anyone I’ve ever met, human or demon! In fact, I’ve never even heard of demons like you! How many of your… kind, I suppose, are there?”

Navarre shrugged. “Damned if I know! There’s a few here, a few there. The plains are a big place, Damin. I don’t presume to know everything about it!” The demon turned to Sin. “Are we on track?”

Sin nodded. “I’ve got this pressure in my forehead now. I think we’re getting close.”

Anjaru scowled. “Sin, how do you have this feeling?”

“I’ve said a hundred times, I don’t know!”

“Well, do you know what any of the talismans Harrison gave you do?”

The young man shook his head. “I don’t know what any of them do, amulet or talisman. Harrison said they were supposed to be a surprise.”

Anjaru leaned over. “Well. I hypothesize that one of those talismans shows you the road to Lisana. Harrison may have anticipated you would have become separated, and used that to help you reunite. It has never needed to activate before because you’ve never been so far apart. But now…”

Sin took up the thought. “We’ve gone far enough away that the spell activated! And now I’ll know where she is!”

Damin inclined his head. “You’re as good a champion as any.”

The galloped across the plains until the sun was low in the sky. The North Road slowly came into view, and the horse demons turned onto it. They galloped faster now that the path was even and mostly flat. The dirt was kicked up in great clouds by their thundering hooves.

Up ahead, Sin saw another dust cloud. “Look! That has to be them!”

Navarre leaned forward and slapped the horse he rode. “You heard the boy! C’mon then, my friends! Let’s go!”

The demons surged onwards, and the road blurred around Sin. The demons were using some sort of magic to bend the special distance to travel faster! The chestnut stallion beneath Sin gasped with effort, but he tossed his head eagerly, as if relishing the exercise.

Then, abruptly, they stopped.

“Mistress Lisana!” Anjaru called.

The sorceress turned around in Dusty’s saddle. “Sin! Chifumi! Anjaru! Damin!” She leapt down and ran over to them. “Um, who are your friends?”

As soon as the three men dismounted, the demons in the form of horses reverted to their human shape. Navarre swept into a low bow. “The Riders of the Open Skies, at your service, milady.”

Lisana giggled. “I’m no lady, that’s the truth. But your respect is noted, good demons.” She straightened as she put on her ‘aristocrat face’. “I thank you for returning my friends to me. I trust they were no trouble?”

Navarre laughed. “Oh, nothing of the sort. Well, except that one.” He pointed at Sin. The demon lowered his voice. “I think he’s a little slow.”

“Hey!”

“Oh, Sin, don’t pick a fight with the demons who saved you.”

“I’m not slow!”

Navarre sniffed. “Well, apparently I thought wrong!” Then he laughed good-naturedly. “I hope we meet again someday, Sin and company. Fair winds to you all.”

“Wait!” Damin said as the Riders turned to leave. “What is on this road?”

“You mean you don’t know?” one of the demons laughed.

“No. We met with some… unexpected circumstances in the Capitol.”

Navarre crossed his arms and stared up the road. “Well… if you follow this road, you’ll get to the Hallowed Forest. To the east of that are Countess Mary’s holdings, and you might want to avoid those.

“Keep going north and you’ll pass Shaman’s Peak. The road will end at Essex Garrison. From there… well, there’s mountains to the north, and Dark Forest to the West.”

He turned to Damin, and reached for a pouch at his belt. “I like you, human. I’d enjoy talking with you again someday. Maybe have a few drinks. If you’re ever on the Plains again, blow this horn.” Navarre placed a hunting horn carved of bone in Damin’s hand. “Some of the Riders will come, and tell them you’re looking for Navarre.”

He turned around and called over his shoulder. “Good luck, Lisana! We’re all counting on you!” Then, he turned into a great golden mustang and charged off with the rest of his brethren.

Lisana furrowed her brow. “Now whatever could he mean by that?”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Kelrick replied. “Hey, Anjaru, guess what? My tattoos glow now!”

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Re: Sin - By Firebrand, Chapters 14 & 15, Fantasy

Post  Firebrand on Fri May 18, 2012 3:32 pm

Chapter 15

“So on top of being Crown Princess Dorothea, Thea is also a sorceress?” Damin said slowly, trying to get his facts straight. He and his group had been clear of the wall when Thea had intervened on Lisana’s behalf, and had only seen the giant wall of fire.

Thalia nodded. “Yes. And a powerful one, it seems.”

“What happens to her now?” Sin asked. “Will she have to flee the Capitol like we did?”

Anjaru shook his head. “I doubt it. Thea’s position gives her a fair amount of protection. The charges on us were largely speculation, so she cannot be convicted as an accessory to our escape, because there is no evidence of our committing the murder.”

Kelrick growled low in his throat. “But the Chancellor will find a way. Slimy bastard.”

They had traveled a full day after leaving the Plains demons behind, and were now on the cusp of what Navarre had called the Hallowed Forest. Chifumi sniffed. “The air’s different here. It’s not like the Forest back home. But it’s better than the Capitol.”

Sin had to agree. This Forest set his mind at ease, though he could tell already that it was much smaller than the one he had called home. There the trees were tall, proud, and deciduous. Oaks, rowans and redwoods had towered over the ground, and the sunlight had always left dappled shadows on the ground. The Hallowed Forest was coniferous, and the scent in the air was sharper somehow.

Instead of fallen leaves forming the forest carpet, here it was brown pine needles and soft moss. Sin stepped through the first of the trees, leading Dusty. The draft horse relaxed as they passed under the gently rustling boughs, his breath coming in more even puffs than the hurried gasping after his flight from Castle Town.

“Legend has it,” Anjaru said softly, “that the first High Court of the demons was held here, and that is why it is the Hallowed Forest. If we look carefully, we may see the ruins of old demon cities by the roadside.”

“Speaking of roadside,” Kelrick murmured. “Perhaps we should cut through the forest to the Western Road. The trees could cover us. I heard somewhere that both the North and West roads pass through this place. I mean, we do plan to go west, right?”

Damin scowled. “Kelrick, you have dwelt in the Great Forest for at least seventeen years now. You should know the dangers one faces when they leave the road.”

The rustling of a nearby bush stopped all conversation. Something there was too large to be a small, harmless animal. Everyone in the group went on edge, hands on their weapons.

A woman with a bow strapped to her back stumbled out of the forest. Branches and burrs clung to her blonde hair, while her clothes made of green cloth and boiled leather seemed worse for wear.

“You,” she pointed at Lisana. “You’re a sorcerer.”

Lisana held up her hands. “I don’t want any trouble. I’m not like the sorcerers from the Council!”

“I know,” the woman snapped. “That’s why I came to you! I need your magic! My brother is off taking care of Liath, so he’s no help! Come on! Only you can do it!”

“We’re kind of in a hurry…”

“Where are you going? I can take you! I know this forest! I know all the forests! Just help me, and I’ll guide you wherever you want to go!” The woman’s voice was growing shrill.

Anjaru leaned into Lisana. “Perhaps we should see what she wants. If she can do what she says she’s capable of, she might be invaluable. And her brother is fighting Liath. The enemy of my enemy…”

Lisana nodded. “All right. Take us there… uh…”

“Signe.” The woman turned and walked into the forest. “I’ll stick to paths wide enough for your horses. Let’s go.”

Signe led them through cleverly disguised game trails through the Hallowed Forest. Sin couldn’t help but feel as though they were traveling in circles, almost as though Signe was preventing anything from following them.

She brought them to a sheltered grove, where the sunlight looked dappled, coming down through the tall branches of the trees. “There. Can you do anything, sorcerer?”

She pointed to what appeared to be a group of rocks. Then, when Sin looked closer, he saw that they were not rocks, rather, they were statues, and incredibly detailed at that.

Five of them appeared to be men, and two seemed to be women. One of the men was strumming a lute, while the younger of the women seemed to watch with rapt attention. The second woman stood off to one side, hands on her hips. Two men, one lean and the other rather portly, sat on stumps nursing stone mugs.

Another man, as broad shouldered as a bear, leaned on a long staff near one of the trees, and seemed to be laughing at the last man, who was balancing on one leg. Singe looked at the balancing man and sighed. “Roy.”

Kelrick scowled. “Who would make statues way out here where no one can see them? And where did they get all the stone?”

“They’re not statues,” Signe said softly. “They’re my friends.”

Kelrick dropped his voice to speak to Anjaru. “Maybe we shouldn’t have followed her all the way out here. She’s crazy.”

“I heard that,” Signe snapped. “Well, these statues were my friends. They were a band of vigilantes that helped protect the people of the nearby villages from the Capitol. My brother and I worked with them for a time, and then we left for the Great Forest of the South. When I returned a week ago, I found them like this. My brother hasn’t had time to devise a cure, and I can’t expect a sorcerer from Castle Town to help. So I need you.”

Lisana walked slowly over to the drinking men. “So… they were turned to stone? How?”

“Mary,” Signe spat. “The Countess who controls the land just east of here. She’s a right bitch, that one. And a powerful sorcerer too. She’s the only one who could have done this. She excels in binding curses. Can you fix it?”

“I’ll need some time to figure out what I’m working with. Why don’t you all set up camp?”

As they worked, Lisana walked in slow circuits around the petrified men and women. She would occasionally reach out and touch one of them, scowl, shake her head, and continue walking. Once, she came to Anjaru, talked with him for a long time, sighed and turned away.

The sun was sinking in the sky when she came to sit next to Sin by the fire. The young sorceress shook her head. “I’m sorry. This is far too intricate and powerful for me to counter. I haven’t exactly been trained. And the spellbooks I’ve read really only deal with battle and weather spells.”

Signe swore. “Well, do you have any ideas on how a cure could be found?”

Lisana shrugged. “It looks like the curse is tied to the caster’s will. If we could remove that link, they should be freed.”

“How can I do that?”

“Well, the most common way is injuring the sorcerer so that all their focus returns to them, when they need all their magic power to heal themselves. Though killing them would have the same effect. I think. Well, it might make the curse irreversible.”

Signe stood. “All right. Thank you. I know what I have to do now.” She picked up her bow and arrows, dusted off the legs of her pants, and stood.

“Where are you going?” Sin said, leaping up after her.

“To go kill Countess Mary.”

“But Lisana said that might make the curse irreversible!”

Signe smirked. “Well, I’ll bring her to the brink of death first, then when she releases all the curses, I’ll kill her. She’s had it coming.”

Thalia stood and came to block the woman’s path. “Are you sure you can do that? Sorcerers, especially of Mary’s power, are nothing to trifle with.”

“I’ve been combating magic since I was a little girl,” Signe said, pushing past the Ice Maiden. “All my arrowheads are iron, and I have an enchanted steel knife. I’ve chased feral demons out of my jurisdiction for years now. I can deal with sorcerers. I am the Forester, after all.”

Anjaru cleared his throat. “We’ll go with you. I have been fighting tyrannical sorcerers since before your grandfather was born, Signe. It’s become something of a specialty.”

Kelrick and Damin nodded, and went to stand next to the Air Master. Damin smiled. “Harrison taught me well. I can’t refuse helping a damsel in distress, whether she wants my assistance or not.” Then, he smiled. “I suppose I should be grateful. It’s how I met my wife.”

Signe blinked. “Harrison? You knew Harrison? Well, I guess you’re the best for the job then. Still…" She paused as if thinking it over, and then sighed. "All right. I’ll take you to Mary’s holdings. Once you see what we’re up against, you might change your minds.

“A lot of people have gone to take her down. No one’s ever heard from them again. Just to be Leave the horses and the monkey here. If we don’t return, the demon can take word to this wife of yours.”

Chifumi squeaked in indignation, but grudgingly remained behind when Sin gave her a piece of fruit to bride her into good behavior. “I’ll bring you back a souvenir,” he whispered.

“I don’t want to go back to Damin’s wife without Damin.”

***

After a few miles of trekking through the Hallowed Forest, they emerged onto a large grassy meadow. The moon had risen, and it shed a ghostly ethereal light on the field. Wildflowers dotted the landscape, but no people or houses could be found.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Kelrick growled. “A countess needs people to count over, right?”

Thalia sighed. “Just because they are called counts, doesn’t mean that they actually count…”

Signe turned. “There are people. Look all around you.”

“That’s what I did, crazy. Nothing.”

“Look closer.”

Lisana bent down to look at the wildflowers. “By the Light!”

“What is it?” Sin cried, running to her side.

“Look! Look at the flowers!”

In the center of the flower was a human face. The eyes were closed, and it appeared to be asleep. “Are all the flowers like this?” Sin gasped.

Signe nodded. “Most of them. Some are just that, flowers. Still, don’t pick any of them.”

Damin scanned the horizon. “Has she turned all her subjects into flowers?”

The Forester shook her head. “No. Some she made statues. Some she sealed inside trees. A few have been imprisoned in silver bells to make music for her. I know of at least two who are locked in ice deep within her castle’s dungeon. And then, some are not bound in this sense at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, she kept some in their human form. Mostly children. They wait on her and serve her and tend to her fields. Then, when they grow up and have children, she binds the parents. If a child disobeys her, she finds it’s parents and kills them.”

Sin stood up and placed a hand on his sword. “This can’t go on any longer. We’ll destroy her.”

“Just be careful,” Signe cautioned. “My brother and I tried to sneak onto Mary’s lands before. All the flowers have been charmed to alert Mary to any intruders. They don’t want to, so they sleep as long as they can. But when they’re awake…”

Lisana nodded. “Then the people we’re trying to save could very well be what destroys us.”

Anjaru flipped his cape back. “There appears to be a large tower on the horizon. Is Mary there?”

“Yes. That is her watchtower. Our destination.”

“Well then. Let us go unseat a tyrant.”

***

They crept onto the grounds of Mary’s tower by silently scaling the wall. Once they were on the other side, Signe nocked an arrow to her bow. “The gardens are full of flowers. Be very careful.”

The Forester was right. Rows of flowers stretched all the way up to the tower. There was barely enough room for the group to walk single-file between them. As they drew closer to the gates, Sin saw other examples of Mary’s horrible bindings.

Men and women were frozen in tableau on stone slabs, screaming in fear. In the sparse trees, odd bulges on the trunk showed where a person had been bound. Their faces were locked in a constant grimace of pain.

“This has to end,” Damin growled as they crossed the rickety bridge over the pale blue moat. The guardsman hissed in anger at the moon-illuminated bodies floating face up, bound into the water.

Two stone statues stood in front of the gate. They looked like guards, and had intricate detail, just like all the other statues. Lisana waved a hand in front of their empty, vacant eyes. Nothing happened.

Then, as they stepped over the threshold, the stone guardsmen crossed the spears they held , barring the entry. They stepped off their pedestals, and brandished their weapons at the group.

Almost reluctantly, they moved forward. Anjaru darted past Sin. “They seem slow. Perhaps we can bypass—”

The guard on the left shot out a stone fist as the Air Master ran by, hurling him backward onto the dirt path. Lisana ran to his side, but the demon waved her away. “I’ll be fine. Give me a few minutes. I heal quickly.”

Kelrick had drawn his blade. “The only way to get by is to smash them.”

Signe cried out. “No! They’re people locked in stone! They’re forced to do this!”

“Well, sacrifices have to be made for the good of everyone!” The Hellhound ran forward, and thrust his broadsword through the chest of one of the stone men. The guard’s free hand crept up to the wound, and he closed his eyes, nodding to Kelrick.

Then, he fell to his knees, and crumbled into dust.

“They are in pain,” Thalia murmured. “By destroying them, we free them from their curse.” She turned to the remaining guard, and flicked her wrist. Gigantic icicle spears dropped onto him from above, breaking off large chunks of stone. As each bit fell away, it turned to dust.

When the guards were no more, they continued in through the castle. “We have to make haste,” Lisana cautioned. “When we destroyed the guards, I sensed a passing of magical energy. Mary knows we’re here now.”

“So we’ve lost the element of surprise,” Signe hissed. She started cursing fluently under her breath as they hurried along.

As they went, Sin saw more tableaus on the walls, people reaching out their hands beseechingly. Far in the distance, he heard what sounded like muffled crying. Likely the children Mary had enslaved.

Anjaru, now healed of his bruise, stopped at the base of a long spiral staircase. “Kelrick. Thalia. Do you sense it? The strong demon energy?”

Thalia nodded. “I do. It means we are close. Hurry now.”

They ran up the staircase, and came to a door in which a stone man and a woman held the knockers in their hands. Vines of the strange human flowers cascaded down the sides. The only difference was that these flowers were awake.

“Mistress Mary awaits you within,” a daffodil whispered. “She awaits you, trespassers.”

“Saviors!” a marigold corrected.

“Interlopers!” another flower interjected.

“Liberators!”

“Voyeurs!”

“Redeemers!”

“Oh my,” Lisana whispered. “How contrary.”

They pushed open the door slowly to find a darkened hall. A large throne hewn from wood stood at one end on a raised dais. Along the sides of the room were statues of young women, ten on each wall.

“I’ve heard rumors of this place,” Signe whispered. “Mary keeps all the prettiest maidens in her holdings here, all in a row, turned to stone. She uses their lives to fuel a preservation spell to keep her young.”

A door behind the dais swung open. “Well hello there,” a beautiful, sharp-featured woman who had just hit her middle-years crooned. She wore a long trailing dress that showcased her figure, and three small children carried its train. “Have you come to taste my hospitality?”

“No, but feel free to taste our iron!” Sin cried out. Internally, he cursed himself. Was that the best he could come up with?

Countess Mary raised an eyebrow. “Well, I’m afraid I don’t have much of an appetite at the moment. Nor was I expecting visitors. Veena, see to them, please.”

Something fell from the roof beams. Signe leapt back, and arrow ready to fly from her bow. The pile of cloth on the ground stirred, revealing a slight woman with blazing red eyes.

“Don’t look directly at them!” Lisana cried. “That’s how you’ll be bound!”

The woman’s hair was dark and matted. She staggered towards the group, beckoning with two fingers on her right hand. “Come. Mistress Mary bids it. Come.”

“No!” Sin roared. “This is wrong!” His sword came free of its scabbard with a hiss, and he charged at Veena. The demon shrieked as the iron drew closer, her hands turning into bird-like talons.

“Get it away! It burns my eyes!”

“Cut her down, Sin!” Anjaru roared. “She is not Bound! She willingly works for this monster!”

That just added fuel to the fire of Sin’s rage. The sword hacked through Veena’s shoulder, severing her arm. The demon howled in rage, and lashed out with her left hand. Sin parried this, and feinted.

Damin charged at Mary, but the sorceress beckoned with her right hand. Six stone soldiers came out from doors hidden in the wall’s paneling, and moved to stand in front of her. The children who held her train fled the room.

Veena grabbed Sin around his throat. “Gaze into my eyes, foolish one!”

Sin fought against it, but the demon’s grasp was powerful, and he found he had no choice. Suddenly, his legs grew heavy. He barely had the strength to stand. His sword fell from his grasp. His head lowered. He was tired. He was just going to rest here for a little while…

Fwap!

An iron arrow burst from Veena’s chest. Signe stood off to one side, already preparing another. She shot off several more in rapid succession. As the iron bit into Veena’s flesh, her grip on Sin lessened. The young man came to his senses, and staggered out of her grasp.

“Finish her!” Signe cried.

Sin picked up his sword, and loped off Veena’s head. The eyes smoldered for a second longer, and then dimmed, taking on the consistency of a burned-out coal. Veena, the demon who had enabled Mary to bind people to plants and stones, was dead.

So why was the curse not lifted?

“Silly!” Mary cackled as her soldiers fended off attacks from Lisana’s demons. “You think Veena was the one who kept my people contained? Ha! She merely showed me how! Everything you see is my own handiwork!”

“How can the Council let you do this?” Lisana shrieked. “Certainly, they must know!”

“Know? Of course they know! More than that, they condone it! So long as the taxes are paid, what do those buffoons in the Capitol care?”

“Well that’s enough out of you,” Signe grunted, and shot an arrow at Mary’s heart. The sorceress moved with unbelievable speed, snatched the arrow out of the air and snapped it.

Lisana drew her wand, and began drawing glyphs in the air. “Sorceress!” Mary spat, and waved her hand. More soldiers appeared, and headed right for Lisana. Sin and Signe moved to protect her.

Sin kicked over a stone man, and found that he took a long time getting to his feet. “Signe!” he cried. “Knock them over! It will buy us time!”

The Forester nodded, and slammed into one of the golems. It too fell, and struggled to rise. Within a moment, however, it was back on its feet. Signe grimaced. “I think the only way to get rid of them is to shatter them!”

“If we do that,” said Lisana, “Mary will summon more. No, just hold off the ones we have. I’m trying to get a spell ready.”

Her demons fought bitterly against Mary’s protectors, trying to reach the twisted sorceress. “Ulrick, Orgrath, dispose of them!” she finally shrieked.

Two lumpy, misshapen forms dropped from the ceiling. They stood, revealing themselves to be large, burly demons with a greenish tinge to their skin. “Mistress?” one of them said slowly.

“I said, dispose of my enemies!”

Ulrick and Orgrath plodded over to Anjaru, Kelrick, Thalia and Damin. They each grabbed two in a bear hug, and dragged them away. Though the warriors fought against the grasp, it was far to tight and secure.

“What now, Mistress?”

“Take them away, and get the other three!”

“No!” Lisana shouted, and the two rather dimwitted demons stopped dead. Then, the golden-haired sorceress brandished her wand at Mary. “Burst!”

The air around the countess exploded with concussive force, knocking the woman to the ground. Lisana traced more glyphs in lightning succession. “Pillars of fire! Spears of ice!”

A burst of freezing cold air shot at Mary, driving her back. Then, a column of fire descended on Ulrick and Orgrath. The two demons howled in fear, their simple minds perceiving the fire as a threat. They dropped their charges and ran.

Damin tossed the demons each an amulet that Harrison had given him for protection, but Anjaru whisked the fire away with a wave of his hand. He turned to Damin. “We may have need of these protective charms later.”

Mary rose to her feet with a yell. She drew her own wand, a length of polished elm. She drew a glowing sigil with a flourish, and launched a burst of lightning at Lisana.

“Shield!” Lisana cried, hastily drawing the sign. A translucent violet wall appeared in front of her, absorbing the lightning. Signe dragged Sin away to where Anjaru had taken his companions. They were sheltered in eaves around the room, out of the way of any errant bolts.

“We have to help Lisana,” Sin hissed. “Mary’s way too strong.”

“We’d only get killed if we went out there,” Damin whispered back.

“Well, the demons should do something!”

Thalia shook her head. “We cannot combine demon magic and human magic. The results could be catastrophic!”

“So we just have to sit here and do nothing?”

“Master Sin, we would just be in the way.”

Lisana and Mary launched spells back and forth, countering and blocking those of their opponents. Lisana gave up calling out her spells, instead naming them in her mind.

As she fought, the teachings of Harrison came back to her. Focus. Carefully draw each glyph. Enunciate each spell, even if it’s just in your mind.

Lisana summoned a bolt of lightning from her wand-tip. It flew at Mary, and struck before the sorceress could respond. She fell with a shriek, but immediately began chanting and waving her wand.

“Foolish travelers, you should have left when you were told, for unto me your fate is sold. Let terror chill you to the bone, as I lock you into stone!”

Lisana realized too late that this was a verse spell, and aimed not just at her, but also at all her companions. “Protect yourselves!” she cried.

Damin, Signe and the demons all sheltered behind shields drawn from amulet bracelets. Sin, however, took no such precaution. Seeing Lisana would not have time to summon up a shield of her own, he ran forward.

“Sin! Get back!” Lisana cried as she tried to hurry through a casting glyph. The beams of light that would petrify her flashed closer, and a feeble wall of indigo light flickered in front of her.

Sin ran harder, fumbling with one of the amulet bracelets. He would protect Lisana, the duty charged to him by Harrison, even if it cost him his life. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he registered clattering hooves.

And then the spell arced towards him.

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