tagSci-Fi & FantasySarlene's Touch Ch. 44

Sarlene's Touch Ch. 44

byFuinimel©

Lady Tarissa bit back the angry words she had been planning when she saw the desperate look on Almandar's face. She had specifically told him to be quick when he went to talk to the bard, Yarai, and yet he had, in fact, been some hours, leaving her on her own back at the villa waiting for him. She could guess what he had been doing; she wasn't that naïve. Yet it looked as if something really had him worried, and her recriminations could wait. No matter his peccadilloes, he was an experienced adventurer, and he wouldn't look quite so rushed without good reason.

"What is it?" she asked curtly, instead of delivering her rebuke.

"It's tonight!" said the magician, somewhat breathlessly, "and the sun is almost set now! That's when they're starting it!"

"Explain," she snapped, "what have you learned?"

He visibly steadied himself, clearly flushed from having run most of the way here from... well half-way across town, presumably. "There's a ceremony that somebody has to conduct to summon this thing called 'the Presence'... I'm still not clear what it is, but it's something very powerful and demonic. It's been here since before the city even existed, and tonight, somebody is planning to summon it. It will give them power over demons, or something... Hell on Earth quite literally, or something much like it."

"Where is this ceremony? Who's behind it?"

"That I don't know," he admitted, "but I think if we can get back into those tunnels, we can stop it from down there. That's where the ceremony was conducted last time. If they're not actually down there this time -- and from what we saw, there's no easy way in -- there's at least something they need to make the connection. If we can break that, we can stop them, no matter who they are. At least I hope so... where are the others?"

With that, she did snap at him, "because you took so long getting back, I sent them off to follow up a lead that Vardala found. They're trying to find out what they can about somebody called Amloth. She seems to be behind this, or at least involved with it somehow. I stayed behind to wait for you... and now you're telling me we've got what... until sunset?"

"A little longer than that, actually. I don't know if you follow the timing of astronomical phenomena..."

"Not especially, no. It didn't seem a high priority."

"Well, there's a lunar eclipse tonight. A double one, and that's what they need to do the ceremony. It's a little after dark... but still not long."

"Then we're getting tooled up now. Quickly! We need to find the others."

She half-ran up the stairs, Almandar following her, before they headed into their separate rooms. She hadn't expected they would have quite so little time, and wished now that she had thought to be already wearing her armour. As it was, the paladin had to strip off her dress, and didn't even bother changing her expensive underwear for something more practical before starting to pull on her suit of heavy plate.

It seemed to take forever to do up all the straps, something she normally didn't notice, But she had to check everything properly, or it was worse than useless. At last it was done, and she buckled on her sword before rummaging through her cupboard for holy water and anything else that might come in handy. She cursed Almandar under her breath, knowing that if he hadn't been delayed by the obvious, they would have had that much further warning. And the others might still have been here.

At last she was done, and headed back into the lobby of the villa to find Almandar already waiting for her. Well, he didn't wear armour, so it would hardly have taken him as long to get prepared.

"Have you got those vials you acquired from the druid?" she asked him.

"Ready to use," he confirmed, "look, I'm sorry about..."

"That can wait until later," she told him, "right now, we need to stop this ceremony, and that means finding the others. Let's go."

Tarissa had to deliberately slow her pace once she had left the villa. It wasn't possible to run in full plate armour, and even walking briskly would tire her out, and she knew she would soon need her full reserves. She intentionally calmed her mind of her frustration, especially as she saw the sun now dipping below the horizon, and both moons rising, almost directly opposite.

One rim of the minor moon touched the disc of the major, and she supposed it would soon slide behind it. From the little she understood of eclipses, that was presumably how this one would happen; a shadow would fall across the major moon while the minor was behind it, and therefore in, more or less, the same position. She couldn't tell when that would happen, but if Almandar said it was tonight, she had no difficulty believing him.

The problem was, she did not exactly where the others were. They had gone to see what they could find out about this Lady Amloth, the necromancer or demonologist of some kind whose name had cropped up in Vardala's investigations. Her public face was that of a merchant, so they had gone first to the market, but what they had done after that she couldn't possibly know. It depended on what they had found out.

With all the uncertainty, and the growing urgency of the situation, the paladin's face was set in a grim mask of determination. She used her mental disciplines, honed over years, first as a squire, then as an adventurer, to clear her mind, ignoring concerns she could do nothing about to focus on what really mattered.

Somebody screamed.

A woman, close by, a genuine shriek of pure terror. Tarissa turned, Almandar immediately behind her, to see somebody running from an alleyway, eyes wide and horrified. The alleyway itself was cast into shadow, although the sky still had some glow to it, and it was obvious that there was somebody else there, staggering... no, shambling... out of the gloom. The figure stepped into the better lighting of the street and the paladin instinctively drew her sword from its scabbard.

The man before her was dead. Or, more precisely, undead. His skin was sallow and grey, eyes filmy, jaw slack, a smell of decay on his body, clothes ragged and dirty. He moaned, faintly, and continued to shamble forward, head turning to regard the two adventurers, sensing closer prey than the fleeing woman.

The paladin's sword slashed into the creature's leg, knocking it to the ground before the second strike smashed its ribcage, destroying its ability to move. There was a stench, a familiar one to the adventurer, as the animating force left the thing and it stopped twitching. There was no blood, of course; there never was, for nothing flowed through the veins of such undead.

"Where the hell did that come from?" asked Almandar, like her, experienced in seeing such things, but not here.

"It can't be a coincidence," she said, "I wonder... there's another one!"

This one took only a single blow, lopping its head from its shoulders. Zombies were not particularly difficult to kill, by the standards of such things, not least because they were slow moving, and their sinews no longer held them so firmly together as they had in life. But what grave had been opened to get these things out, and by whom?

"They said Amloth might be a necromancer," she said, "evidently she is, or at least knows one. But how many more has she summoned?"

"But why set them loose in the city?" asked Almandar, glancing back at the moons, still both full, "the ceremony won't have started yet."

"Protecting something? A distraction? Perhaps they don't want to be interrupted, or perhaps it's just paving the way for what's to come?"

"We seriously need to find the others."

She nodded, and they headed, as quickly as they could, in the direction of the market.

A man came running down the street towards them, face flushed, evidently frightened. There were two more behind him, both coming from the square.

"Monsters!" he shouted, "Undead!"

They didn't need the warning. There were obviously going to be more of the things about. Were they everywhere, or just towards the centre of the city? Lady Tarissa knew she was far from the only paladin in Haredil, and hoped that the warriors and clerics of Pardror had already been alerted. They should be able to deal with an infestation of undead, if anyone could. Although it rather depended how many there were. In all honesty, yes, there were other paladins, but few with her experience.

Nonetheless, when they reached the market, it was evident they were not the only living things there. A knot of undead -- two more of the zombies, and a hunched grey-skinned thing she recognised as a ghoul -- were surrounding somebody slashing about themselves with a sword. Another was already down, lying on the floor at his feet.

She could use the power of her god to drive them away, radiating a holy aura that undead could not resist, but what good would that do? They would simply run away into the city and cause more havoc among the innocent. She leapt into the fray, sword slicing into dead flesh.

Between the two of them, it was not long before all three undead were scattered on the ground. She looked up, and only then recognised who she has just assisted.

Tarissa's face broke into a grin, "Larimor!"

"My lady Tarissa," the other paladin said, evidently relieved, "thank the gods you are here. These things just came out of nowhere. If I had not been here, there would have been deaths. Even then, I fear, with three against one..."

Larimor was about her own age, perhaps a little younger, a full knight of Pardror, but without her adventuring experience. She knew he was a capable swordsman, although, today, he was out of his armour, evidently just finishing up some shopping, or other mundane task. Her eyes flicked over him, evaluating that he did not seem to be injured, even as she also -- with a twinge of guilt -- drunk in his broad shoulders and trim hips.

But such thoughts were inappropriate for a paladin, and doubly so now.

"There are more of them," she said, "we just saw two, and I believe they cannot be alone."

"But how? Where are they coming from?"

"I don't know," she said, "not exactly. But I know how to stop them. We should have brought you into this days ago... but are you with us?"

"Of course! Always," he said, and she thought she saw more than comradely affection in his eyes. Unfortunately, now was hardly the time to think about what that meant.

"We're going underground. Into the sewers. Almandar, you have the dwarven map?"

"Yes, but..."

"Where's the nearest entrance?"

"What about the others? Calleslyn, Dolrim, and Vardala are out there somewhere..."

"I know, but they aren't here, and with everyone gone, we have no chance of finding out where they might be. There isn't time, and they can fend for themselves. It has to be us, and it has to be now. With luck, they'll have the same idea and join us... if not, then we'll have to end this on our own. There isn't another chance, not now!"

He nodded, knowing she was right. Larimor just looked bemused.

──◊──

"I don't think there's anything more we can do here," said Calleslyn, "we know they've gone inside, and we know who some of them are, but we aren't going to find out what they're discussing."

They were standing in a sheltered alley leading off from the red-brick plaza that surrounded the Rotunda. Having discovered where Amloth lived at the market, they had had the good fortune to find her heading off just as they arrived at her house, and had followed her here. It was a large round building, often used for public meetings, which meant that she must have considerable connections with the authorities to get to use it for the night. Evidently they had been right to keep quiet about their investigations into whatever was under the city.

Amloth had met up with some other people before going inside. Calleslyn had recognised Valmor from the Wizards' College, and Vardala identified somebody named Scaggs, but the others were a mystery. Scaggs aside, though, they all looked prosperous and could well have been wealthy merchants, guild leaders, minor nobles, or others of influence. Lady Tarissa would probably have known a number of them, but she was the only one of the adventurers who walked in anything like the right circles.

Some of them, including Amloth herself, had been bringing packages with them. One trunk had been so large that two of the men had had to unload it from a cart and drag it up the steps, but there was no way of telling what might be inside it.

But now that the group were inside the building it was not obvious what else she and the others could do. It certainly looked suspicious, particularly with what Vardala already knew about Scaggs and what she was beginning to suspect about Valmor, but thirteen people meeting at the Rotunda was hardly something you could call the city watch about.

Although one thing was odd; the thirteenth guest had crept into the Rotunda through one of its many side entrances, not greeting the others, seemingly having waited until they were all inside. That figure had been hooded and cowled, and the shadows from the setting sun were long enough to hide them, so that Calleslyn could not even tell if they were a man or a woman. Somebody clearly had not wanted to be seen.

The crowds on the street were already thinning out as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was getting late. Time, perhaps, to return to the villa, and see whether or not Almandar had come home yet. Calleslyn had a pretty good idea what he had been doing, and suspected that Tarissa would be quite annoyed about it, but it didn't affect them right now.

Dolrim nodded in reply to her statement. "You're right," he said, "let's head back."

Hardly had they stepped out into the street than there was a scream. Not from the Rotunda, but from one of the main streets that led into the plaza. She could see people running down it, towards them. Dolrim was already hefting his axe, and her own fingers were moving as she wondered what spell to cast.

"No," said Vardala, "back into the alley. This can't be a coincidence, and we don't want to be seen."

Calleslyn glanced back to the Rotunda, and dodged a tradesman running past her, eyes wide. "Get away!" he shouted at her, before pelting on down the street.

She hesitated for a moment, and then decided to follow Vardala's advice, ducking back into the shadow, hoping that nobody was watching from the Rotunda, because she would already have been seen if they were.

She was glad she had, because the next thing she saw was a horde of undead following the fleeing citizens. There had to be dozens of them, an array of different kinds, zombies, skeletons, ghouls, some once human, others former orcs, and even a few other races in the mix.

"Right now, we really need a paladin," grunted Dolrim, "we can't take on all of those alone. I've never seen so many!"

"If Amloth really is a necromancer, she's a powerful one," agreed Calleslyn, "with one hell of a supply somewhere."

"But what are they doing?" asked Vardala, "they aren't really chasing anyone."

"At the speed they move, what would be the point?" asked Dolrim, "besides, with that number, maybe they don't need to."

"No, Vardala's right," said the magician, "the ghouls, at least, could run if they wanted to, and ghouls are normally hungry. Whoever summoned these things has a specific plan in mind for them. We have to see what it is, if we can. I know we need Tarissa here, but she also needs to know what they're up to."

"We're too late, aren't we?" cursed Vardala, "we should have gone into the sewers, destroyed whatever was beyond that vegetable thing. We could have done it days ago, if we wanted to!"

"Not without abandoning those women to the rakshasa," Calleslyn reminded her, "we weren't to know this was going to happen tonight." A thought struck her, and she glanced up at the moons, together in the sky. "Although, of course, this isn't a normal night..."

"What do you mean?"

"Never mind that now... look, the undead, they're forming a ring around the Rotunda."

"Stopping anyone seeking refuge inside it," suggested Dolrim, "or just guarding it. They certainly aren't attacking it... the damn things are looking outwards."

"Not all of them... some of them are going on down the street. That's the way to the temple quarter, isn't it?"

"You mean they're heading towards the paladins? That doesn't make sense."

"It does if they want to keep them busy, keep them away from here. Or just wipe them out as soon as they can. If they've got more than regular magical backing, maybe they can resist the divine power there?"

"Horvan!" cried Vardala, aghast.

"Sorry?" Calleslyn was momentarily confused. What did their manservant have to do with anything?

"He's in the Temple of Felanda! If these things are going to the temple quarter, we have to protect him."

"The best way to do that is to get inside the Rotunda. If they're controlling this, perhaps we can stop them."

"No! We've got to save him!" Vardala was already running off down the alley, searching for a side street that could take her in the right direction, while avoiding the massed ranks of undead.

"Don't be stupid! Come back here! What would Tarissa say?"

"I don't care!" The gnome had already turned the corner, out of sight.

"Do we follow her?" asked Dolrim.

Calleslyn swore under her breath. What had gotten into the rogue? She was concerned too, concerned that Messandra might be in danger, somewhere else in Haredil, but she couldn't allow that to affect her now. Horvan was a dear friend of theirs, and they had all felt the shock when he had been attacked a few days ago, but their duty was here. Why couldn't Vardala see that?

"No," she said, reluctantly, shaking her head. "We have to stop this, even if we have to do it on our own. We're the only ones who know that Amloth and the others are here, and that they surely must be behind this."

"So what do we do? We can't storm that many undead, and some of the people inside aren't going to go down easily. What if they're all demonologists? Well, not all of them, but at least one looked like a competent warrior, a guardsman or something. It's not like they're all soft merchants."

"Hold on!"

"To what?"

"Me."

She wrapped her arms around Dolrim, earning a startled grunt in response. Then, with a quick spell, they were flying through the air, the dwarf gripping on quite tightly once he realised what was happening.

She flew as quickly as she could, towards one of the upper windows of the Rotunda, well over the heads of the undead. Fortunately, they didn't seem to be looking up, and the Rotunda's upper windows weren't glass, or shuttered. Moments later they were inside, and the dwarf was stumbling free of her grasp.

"Don't do that again!" he hissed.

"Quiet," she pressed her fingers to her lips, "let's see what they're doing."

They were standing in a circular corridor that ran the circumference of the upper story, open windows looking out onto the street beyond. She walked down it briskly, feeling nervous and unprotected. They hadn't expected anything like this, and she had her spells, but neither of them had the full array of magical equipment that they would have brought had they known. Which meant that they had to be very careful, especially since Dolrim's concerns about who they might be facing were entirely legitimate.

She soon found a door leading inwards, to a short corridor ending in a balcony overlooking the Rotunda's central space. She ducked to the floor, the dwarf imitating her, and crawled along on her belly until she could peer through the balustrade.

There were twelve people there, gathered in a circle, all dressed in black robes, one of them with a silver chain as well. They were hard to distinguish, but she thought she could recognise Valmor's heavy bulk, almost opposite her, on the far side of the chamber. She wondered where the thirteenth person was. Below her, perhaps?

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