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Greasy was the word that sprang to mind as the three captives were prodded into the long, low room. Fatty tallow oozed miserably down the many candles around the chamber, the light they gave dimmed by its own gross fuel. The smell of a suckling pig roasting in the grate was turned from appetising to repugnant as it mingled with the heavy odour of sweat. The spluttering hiss of its fat dripping into the fire served as a backing melody to the unrestrained slurping of the man sat at a small table, already dining on another carcass. He glanced up from his intent gluttony and then lifted his thin face, juices dribbling from his chin. He wiped the sleeve of an overrobe across his narrow jaw, whose colour would have been long since unrecognisable, even in better light. Without bothering to clean his hands he ran them through his long black hair, plastering it away from the plate it had been hanging in. Then he smoothed his drooping moustaches into two shiny spikes either side of his, still chomping, mouth.
Mergen looked away, disgust evident on his face. Vitus studied the room, looking for any possible escape. There was a heavily barred window at the other end providing wholly inadequate ventilation. The only other objects in the room were a table and a bed. The bed looked almost as stained as Ofer's robe and a few boxes were stacked on the table, next to what looked like a covered bird cage. Between slurping mouthfuls Ofer indicated for their gags to be removed. Laima made use of the privilege as soon as the rag had been withdrawn.
“Loki's laugh, Ofer. Your table manners have actually gotten worse. I didn't think it was possible.”
Their captor rolled his eyes as he chomped away, unwilling to speak until he had finished masticating. Eventually the occultist swallowed with an appreciative, almost sexual, murmur. He waved for a servant to remove the dish and raised his head so that his large brown eyes looked haughtily down his sharp nose at the trio.
“Well, well, well. A band of half witted thieves. Yet wait, there is something familiar about these imbeciles. Unless my memory has deserted me, and I am certain it is as perfect as ever, before me is the great Mergen Asylin, immortal mage, wise councillor, master tactician and general prat of the first water.”
Mergen clapped sarcastically but before he could fire a rejoinder, Ofer continued.
“And also, this offensive child, it is not a child at all. This is my old companion Laima Saule, nimblest of lockpickers, drunkest of lushes and shortest of harlots. Which can only mean that this disfigured wretch here...” He narrowed his eyes and studied Vitus. After a second he nodded happily. “Yes, there you are in there. The coward. The Legionnaire with no bones. Of the three I have to say you seem to have weathered the worst, but it is undoubtedly you.”
“I told you last time we met, Ofer. If you called me that again I would teach you a lesson about Roman honour.”
“What? You still haven't come to terms with it? After all these years. You think I'm slighting your pride when really I am just speaking truth? Please, teach me your lesson if you wish.”
He sat back, his arms crossed. Vitus glowered from the seven guards crammed into the chamber to his captor.
“No?” Ofer raised his eyebrows. “Like I said, Centurion. A Coward.”
Vitus's jaw tightened. His anger surprised him, there was little that could rile him at his age, but perhaps somewhere in the cellars of his soul he suspected the maniac might be right and shame fed his fire. He knew he was no coward when it came to a fight but there were other ways a man could give in to fear. Someone who knew the path that had brought him through the ages, someone like Ofer, might think his very life was an act of cowardice.
Ofer gestured for a case to be brought forward from the table and another serving girl, almost as greasy as him, obliged. He lifted it open while the others waited pensively. From it he extracted a long needle of brass, fingering it thoughtfully as he smirked at them. Then he opened his mouth and began to pick his teeth with it. Vitus's companions tried not to let their sighs be too obvious.
“So. Tell me.” Ofer muttered between dental forays.”Where are the Elves?”
“Gone.” Mergen replied, stone faced. “Returned to the woodland realms of their homes, done with the likes of you, me and mortal man.”
Ofer plucked something out on his toothpick, examined it before wiping it on his sleeve and then pointed the instrument at Mergen.
“Elnin, no doubt, would jump at the chance to return to their dreamworld but Hasper's parents would never accept him back and she would never desert her brother. They are about nearby somewhere I'm sure. It doesn't really matter if you tell me; I'll find them just as I found you. More important to me is that you are here at all. What are you after?”
Vitus spat the few feet to Ofer's robe, adding his own drip of fluid to the room’s already ample supply.
“Piss off slick.”
Ofer dipped a finger in the dribble of phlegm and tasted it.
“Really Vitus, in a battle of wits you truly are unarmed.”
He waved airily and a guard stepped forward to land a sharp punch to the back of Vitus's head. He went down on one knee, the sickly room spinning.
“What happened to you anyway?” Ofer continued as if they had simply paused to sip a drink. “One of Mergen's little potions was it? I do hope for your sake it isn't permanent. You know he used one on me once, made my earlobes stretch so far down I could have tied them to my nipple rings.”
“You did.” Mergen grimaced at the memory.
“Well, pinned them. Could you blame me? We were doing a lot of riding at the time, little jerks up and down.” He waved his finger over the contents of the box in the same motion, his eyes softening and a smile spreading on his thin lips. “Up and down.”
Vitus had been hit in the head a lot. Aside from possible permanent damage to his brain this wealth of experience had left him able to think, after a fashion, in the depths of concussion. He had found that if he brought his entire focus down to one or two tiny details his conscious thoughts could stay alive in that space. It afforded him no better control over his body, it was like a drunkard who has realised a universal truth but cannot speak. What it did mean was that he could prepare an action for when his limbs reconnected with his mind. Right now his entire mental space consisted of Ofer's smug grin and the fact he had an undiscovered knife in his boot.
If he had been aware of anything else he would have seen the large covered cage on the desk give an angry rattle. The only way it made itself known in his dizzy world was that half of his focus, Ofer's smile, vanished and jumped away. He tightened his sphere of thought to the knife and the room began to slow. He did not risk standing, but gently tracked across to where the lean man was pulling a tray from the bottom of the cage. His words came muffled but understandable.
“You'll love this Mergen. This is something unique. Well, maybe not unique but certainly I had never seen anything like them.”
There were hot coals in the brass tray, and Ofer dashed a splash of water from his table cup into them, causing a hissing steam to force his head back. He thrust the drawer in again, and stepped to one side theatrically. Vitus tested his fingers and found that his grip was still a little limp. Ofer's attention was fixed on Mergen, who in turn was looking with puzzlement at the huge cage. With a wiggle of his eyebrows Ofer pulled the cloth up, revealing a not a cage but a glazed box. Octagonal, with thick panes held in place by lead and brass. The steam had risen up into the device, misting the windows and obscuring whatever had made it rattle. Everyone except Vitus was intent on the giant vivarium and only Ofer failed to jump when a finger wiped a line in the thick condensation.
It was a short, pudgy, finger much like a child's and Mergen began to think that their captor’s habits had become even more depraved in the centuries since their last meeting. That was until the finger was joined by others, working together to smear symbols across the inside of the glass.
Three shapes began to resolve, the size of human babies, a resemblance that was initially reinforced by their outsized heads. It was a resemblance that fell away the clearer they became. Their naked bodies were muscular, like miniature woodsmen who spent hard days cutting tiny trees, and their faces could have killed the maternal spirit of a horny rabbit. Where their eyes should have been tight, pale skin stretched across the sockets, pierced by clusters of black crystal. The shards jutted out with no apparent pattern over a flat, turned up nose whose slit like nostrils clenched as each creature breathed. A wide slash of lipless mouth revealed neat rows of pointed teeth, black and hard like the erupting spikes from their eyes. Their chins were almost as filthy as Ofer's, ichor leaking from their grinning mouths. They worked in perfect unison, scribing different strokes of the same symbols. A message quickly appeared, but the start had already begun to mist again when they drew their hands back.
“Is that... Aramaic?” Mergen asked, astounded.
“Yes, it is the only language we share, although they appear to know many older tongues.” Ofer confirmed in the hungry whisper of the engrossed academic. Captivated, Mergen tried to translate, his lips sounding out translations.
“The foot...” Ofer began.
“No that's boot.” Mergen corrected.
“Boot then. The boot what? ”
“Warrior. The boot of the warrior.”
They both straightened Mergen shaking his head incredulously, but Ofer instantly turned and pointed at Vitus.
“Check his boots! At once!”
The guard who had sucker punched him kicked his supporting leg away and bent to check Vitus's sturdy, leather smith's boots. He came away with the short dagger that had been concealed there. With his final focus gone Vitus gave into the sickness of his injury and slumped onto his back.
“Nice one Mergen.” He groaned. “Great translation skills.”
“I was quite impressed too.” Mergen agreed, the sarcasm momentarily flying past. “It's been years since I spoke any Aramaic, let alone read it.” The sarcasm double backed and had another go, this time Mergen noticed the knife. “Ah. Yes. Probably would have been better to just go with the foot of the headman or whatever in retrospect.”
“You think?” Laima was scowling up at him.
Ofer chuckled and pulled his chair from his tiny eating table to the larger one, sitting next to the tank. He twisted a vent at the top and the mist began to clear as he cooed encouragement to its occupants.
Mergen strained closer, his eyes wide, twisting each way to view the tiny monsters from every angle. Ofer held his hand up to stop the guard who was about to restrain him.
“Incredible. I've never seen anything like them.”
Ofer nodded happily. “Of course not. They have rarely ever been seen by anyone, let alone captured and even more astoundingly captured together.”
“What are they? Where are they from?”
“The natives of Macedonia call them Davara. They know little more about them than their, quite justifiable, fear of them.”
Mergen nodded with enthusiasm, approaching close enough to tap on the glass with his manacled hands. One of the creatures lunged forward, mouth first, teeth gnashing useless on the glass where his finger had been. Mergen chortled as he stepped back.
“Feisty. What do they eat?”
“What don't they eat? That's part of the reason they are so feared.”
“And no doubt part of the reason you love them so much.” Vitus added from the floor. The centurion began to pull himself up to sitting. Mergen rubbed his hands and faced Ofer,
“What about the warning? How did they do that? They are, I assume, magical in some way?”
“In lots of ways. But they only come into their own intellectually when they are put together.”
Mergen slapped his hands together in excitement, his chains jangling. “A joined mind? And magical you say? This is just amazing.”
Vitus gave a hefty cough and Mergen looked down at him with childish expectation.
“Evil bastard, remember?” He pointed at Ofer. “Has us captive? Might not see the dawn and all that?”
Ofer tried to look wounded while Mergen stared back at the tank, mesmerised.
“Can you not see the unique glory of what is before you, Vitus? At least Mergen has enough sense to see the wonder of my discovery. These creatures have never before...”
Mergen lunged forward with both hands and shoved the jar hard, throwing it back and knocking its inhabitants from their feet. His sudden speed was matched by Ofer's response as the thin man dived to stop the vivarium falling. He managed to catch one side but it span out of his greasy grasp and smashed on the floor.
Laima was the first to face their shocked guards, headbutting the nearest in the groin with angry malice. He doubled over and the room seemed to take in a deep breath along with him. As he tumbled to the side merry chaos broke out.
Vitus wobbled on to his feet and lunged forward at Ofer, glancing an unsteady swipe off his cheek. It was enough to knock his horrified face away from the shattered remains of the tank. Behind them the soldiers who had been lurking nearest the door tried to push past each other only to succeed in almost shoving one of their number to the floor. Two of the seven, not suffering from the exquisite agony available only to men, opened their arms as if they intended to hug Mergen and Laima. Mergen's response was less amiable as he threw a handful of powder from a pocket in his tunic, scattering a cloud into their faces. They began to choke and splutter, clearly blinded. The remaining men had drawn short swords, but were unable to make use of them past the stumbling, poisoned pair.
Laima screamed, a sound that Vitus had only heard once or twice in their time as friends, and instead of facing his would be attackers the Roman turned to her. One of the Davara was on her head. Fists of hair pulled up like reins, immovable as she shook and slapped at it. Vitus saw another shape dart past her feet and fly at one of the men with their swords drawn. The naked demon child jumped and landed square in the man's chest, hands clawing his tabard so deep it must have caught flesh. The man would have screamed no doubt, if the tiny creature had not already sunk its razor teeth into his throat. The soldier, eyes wide, turned to his fellows for help but they just backed into a press, almost as shocked as him.
“Block the door!” Ofer screamed, but those of his troops that were not already struggling with poison or pummelled plums were transfixed by the crystal eyed imp devouring their friend, not a single drop of blood appearing from where its mouth was clamped to him.
Mergen grabbed Vitus's arm and turned him to their blocked exit.
“Get us out of here,” he hissed.
Vitus's head was still swimming but the order seemed straightforward enough so he ran full pelt at the gang of men, shoulder first. He smashed into them and heard shouts of protest as the one at the back thumped hard through the doorway and onto the ground. The soldier he had hit first was winded but the one right behind gathered himself quick enough, trying to punch around his friend's body at Vitus. The Roman pressed deep into the first, letting the blows from the second land ineffectively on his back, and began to shove. There was a bright flash, as if lightning had struck in the room behind him and then Mergen was by his side, forcing the queue of soldiers tumbling back into the inner courtyard of the keep. Laima, still swatting desperately at her Davaran riding, pushed past the tussle and began stamping and shrieking her way over the fallen man. Vitus gave a last shove and turned to see one of the red eyed victims of Mergen's dust with a sword, thrusting it at him. He twisted but the blade caught him in the side, slicing through his jerkin and carving a burning line in his ribs. The full brunt of the force, though, was taken by the unfortunate human battering ram behind him and the attacker swore as he skewered one of his own.
Before he could yank the blade free Vitus stepped forward and smashed him with all the practice a millennium of badly laid plans had given him. The accidental killer dropped like a broken puppet, his unintended victim being lowered to the rather ground more gently by the guard that had been punching Vitus's back
“Come on then.” Mergen shouted with glee, ignoring the carnage at his side and following Laima over the human doormat. Vitus took a look at Ofer who glared, bruised and furious, back.
“Coward!” Spat the mage, and Vitus flicked his thumb, too incensed to manage a verbal retort. He kicked at the clawing hand of one guard still blocking his path and followed his companions, slipping and punching across the man trying to regain his feet.
The third Davara jumped nimbly by, bouncing onto the wall at the side of the keep and running several feet along it in defiance of nature's laws. It stood clear in the middle of a small yard, it's crystal-heavy head swaying ponderously, before Vitus was even halfway free. It paused for a second to screech, a sound that reminded Vitus of a particularly irascible mother-in-law he had once had, and set off swiftly after Laima. Mergen fell forward as the last soldier lunged and got a grip on his ankle. Vitus freed him with a swift boot to the man's chin. Then it was his turn to grab the wizard by the arm, dragging him the right way.
He glanced behind them and saw the Davara that had attacked the unfortunate guard inside bouncing from man to man, sinking its obsidian fangs into each as it landed. They yelled in panic and pain, struggling to get out of its way. Despite its size the creature overtook the fleeing pair easily. Behind them Ofer was shouting from inside the chamber.
“Ring the bell you morons. Close the gates and bring them to me.”
Mergen had recovered from his trip and kept pace with Vitus as they ran through the arch that separated the inner courtyard from the hill of the motte. Laima was on the ground, surrounded by the three Davara, each salivating and swinging their head gently.
“Get these things away from me.” She shouted.
“Bugger that.” Vitus returned. “You get away from them. Just bloody run, if they shut that gate down there we're stuffed!”
“We'll never make it.” Mergen puffed, turning away to the side of the hill. “We've got to go for the storeroom. That gluttonous bastard's bound to have it done up like a fort. Come on.”
He was bounding down the grass with an almost elastic stride. Vitus followed and Laima decided to make a break for it. Instead of carving her up as she thought they would, the three creatures let her pass and skittered along behind her, staying tightly together.
From above, the alarm bell clanged and from below the once lazy courtyard came alive. The portcullis and the gates were closed in seconds and more soldiery spilt from the gatehouse and guard towers, brandishing weapons and looking about for an enemy they assumed was attacking. When they spotted the escapees they began to charge toward the base of the hill just as the keep guard, bloody but regrouped, began down it in pursuit.
They reached the door leading into the mound, to find an astonished young guardsman leaning out of it, trying to make out the source of the commotion. Mergen reached him first and the guard struggled back from the door, trying to get his pike lowered in front of him. The mage swung his manacled hand in a wild arc and cuffed the youngster with a crunching blow. He dropped the pike and curled up, swearing with such profuse expertise that Laima paused in surprise as she followed Vitus past him into the tunnel. She had little time to appreciate the display of expletive skill as the Davara leapt in unison on the prone youngster and silenced him with tiny hammering punches. Laima stumbled back into the opposite wall and one of the Davara turned its ruined crystal eyes in her direction and hissed. The other two sank their teeth into the prone sentry. That was enough for her and she sprinted down the torch lit corridor after her friends. When she caught them they were in front of a door similar to the first, Vitus kicking at it fruitlessly.
“Those things.” She gasped. “They're eating that kid.”
“Well, we're going to be their desert if we can't get through here.” Vitus replied coldly.
“Out of the way.” Laima shoved the Centurion aside to examine the door's lock. “Oh crap. This is going to take a minute.” She said as she hitched her dress up her legs.
“I doubt we have less than half that.” Mergen observed, but he and Vitus stood with their backs to her anyway, as she rummaged in her undergarments to produce several metal picks.
Twenty feet ahead of them the Davara stepped off the pile of cloth and blood that had been the door keeper. The torches on the wall quivered with a faint summer breeze that carried the iron smell of blood to the two men. Black crystal eyes reflected the dancing light as the demons wiped their dark chins and regarded the far end of the mine like shaft.
“You got any tricks that might work on those things?” Vitus asked.
“Unlikely, they barely flinched at the flash powder I used back there. I'm all out of the pepper mist too.”
“What about the real stuff?”
“I might be able to manage something, but you know I really need time for that. From the way they went through that poor bastard I don't think that is something we have much of.”
“Alright then, summon up what you can and I'll try it the old fashioned way.” Vitus stretched his neck one way and the other, then shook out his legs. He took the best stance he could given his hands were chained together and looked back at the Davara. He could have sworn they made a hissing laugh before they began sprinting up the passage. They bounced from floor to walls, crossing each other like a weaver’s shuttle. Vitus dropped his pretence of readiness and turned to Laima.
“Open the bloody door.”
“What does it look like I'm doing?” She snarled back. “Blowing a goat?”
A crash from the corridor spun him back round and he saw the creatures skid to a halt. Behind them men were pouring in through the door single file. They bunched up as they passed the mess at their feet, but the push from behind gave the leaders no choice other than to head over the wrecked corpse. The Davara bunched close together, considering the lowered pikes tramping toward them as the men spread to two abreast. Vitus raised an eyebrow at Mergen,
“The enemy of my enemy?”
The front soldiers were almost within reach of the creatures and began to jab. Instead of pulling back the Davara crept forward, waiting for the thrusts and then jumping on to the weapons themselves. They swung and bounced along the shafts and on to the two men. Even before splatters of red reared up the men were screaming, thrashing to throw off their assailants.
With Laima clicking away behind them, Vitus and Mergen visibly began to relax as the Davara halted the progress of Ofer's forces. Then they began to look away as the carnage increased beyond anything that seemed possible from three such tiny creatures. Another few fallen bodies later and they were looking anywhere but up the tunnel.
“What the hell are we going to do if they run out fun up that end?” Vitus asked, glancing sideways at the fury of limbs and death.
“Well, I think it's fair to say that I'm not going to have much ready to stop that.” Mergen waved a hand without really examining what it was waving at.
“With any luck.” The Dwarf maid chimed up, pausing to give a last twist which forced a click from the lock. “You won't have to.”
She stood up and pushed open the second door. The sound of its hinges had the effect of a bugle call on the Davara, who instantly somersaulted away from the jumble of former humanity and began tearing towards them again.
“Go, go, go, go.” Vitus squealed as he pushed the other two ahead of him.
They were through and swinging the heavy oak shut when a tiny foot shot in the way. With the all his weight Vitus slammed the door home but instead of the crunch and howl he had expected the wood just jammed on the foot as if it were an iron wedge. A shove came from the other side and he fell back, letting the door swing inwards. The three Davara swaggered through and past them, muscular bodies dripping with sweat and gore and their wide heads swinging hypnotically. They stopped and regarded the companions, child like chests heaving with exertion.
“Maybe they're full?” Laima said after a second.
Down the corridor orders were being shouted as dead men were dragged away and fresh ones allowed in.
“Who knows?” Mergen said as Vitus scrambled up to his feet. “Close the door would you? Terrible draft.”
Vitus ran out into the corridor to grab the nearest torch, aware of a few men shouting at him. He got back to the room and swung the door again. This time closing it without any objections. A bar nearby offered an extra level of security and he placed it without hesitation. Then he swept the scene in the room. Strange contraptions meant for either pleasure or pain—or both—lined the walls with straps and chains hanging from unlikely angles. Plinths and lecterns were scattered amongst them, holding richly written books or presenting all manner artefacts. Bowls ringed with Celtic etching had dolls and cinders piled in them. Metal crosses hung inverted from a black menorah and half a dozen or so skulls, resplendent in rubies and sapphires had been tossed into a wide bucket on the floor. Several chests lay to Vitus's right and went over to them at once, trying hard to ignore the black shards of the Davara as they watched his every move. He grunted and shoved the most reassuringly heavy box until it was blocking the door.
“That should hold them for a while. It'll be tricky to swing an axe in a space like that and even Ofer doesn't keep battering rams handy.”
“What the hell is that?” Laima was pointing to the back of the room.
Vitus lifted the torch and peered at a shape which at first he thought was a person, chained to the wall. When the light showed it was not he and Laima breathed a sigh of relief. Mergen however made a sound of disgust and tutted like a school master. The straw filled mannequin that was chained to the wall had a wide smile painted on its face and a lot of extra padding in its chest.
“Less of a strongroom and more of a playroom I'm thinking.” Laima observed.
“Absolutely the right place to find the Alu though.” Was Mergen's thoughtful reply.
“Well then, before those things get peckish or Ofer knocks down that door and butchers us. Can I suggest we find the blinking card and then some way out of here please?”
Laima draped herself against one of the nearby cages, whose screwed on attachments left little doubt of its nature even if they gave no clues as to how it should be used.
“Always work, work, work with you Vitus. Are you sure there isn't a little time for some fun too?”
He fixed her with a steady gaze.
“You know there is something seriously wrong with you don't you?”
The Dwarf laughed and rolled off the cage to begin rooting in some boxes.
“I'll find something to get these manacles off. You start on that side. I bet he's got a bar in here somewhere too, so keep your eyes peeled.”
Vitus shook his head in disbelief and took up her suggestion. Mergen crouched and tried to smile winningly at the Davara.
“You should take the little one first you know. She's been marinading for years.”