Shadow Dagger Ch. 20byaustin_erotica©
With no further delay, after 1 year, 3 months, and 15 days, I present to you, the finale of Shadow Dagger.
"Something's wrong," Ashford whispered, as he peered around the corner of the hallway. "We're almost back to the entrance and we haven't seen anybody. Where are the servants? Where's that guide that led us here? Where are the guards?"
"I don't know," Jon replied. He turned the corner and continued walking toward the entrance. He, too, sensed something amiss. He had a bad feeling that they were about to find out.
They turned the corner of another hallway and finally spied the entrance doors. "Thank the God," Ashford breathed.
Jon held out his hand to stop Ashford. "Be careful," he whispered. "Be ready to use your magic at a moment's notice."
Ashford nodded and they continued toward the doors. Jon held his hand over his eyes as they emerged into the baking sunlight.
They walked straight into complete and utter chaos.
Screams of pain and rage sounded through the city as warriors swarmed everyone Jon could see. He prepared to take hold of his magic but they didn't seem to be in danger yet.
"My God," Ashford whispered, as he took in the sight that greeted him.
Across the street, Jon saw two warriors grab what looked to be a normal citizen of Oasis by the arms. A third warrior plunged his sword straight through the man's chest. The warriors tossed the body aside and ran down another fleeing citizen.
Jon turned toward the voice. One of his new lieutenants was struggling through a mass of people to get to him. He casually swatted aside a sword and plunged his own sword in and out of the warrior's neck. He ran up the stairs to the palace and stopped before Jon.
"What is this?" Jon demanded.
"Chieftain, when you went inside the tribesman of the Cheetah started attacking! And what's more, they had Magi with them!" The man's eyes were wide with fear and shock. The fact that it was on the face of a Raves warrior was very unsettling.
Jon rubbed his chin. "What's your name again?"
"Telez," the man panted. He looked around at the carnage in the city and shook his head. "I can't believe it. I can't..."
"The goddess was a Magi," Jon told him, struck by a sudden moment of inspiration. The situation around him had provided him the perfect cover story. "So are several of her people. The Cheetah wasn't the only tribe to attack, were they?"
Telez's mouth gaped in shock to hear that his goddess was a Magi. Then his eyes narrowed in anger and he spat to the side. "No, Chieftain. After the Cheetah starting attacking, members of each tribe join them. We were almost overrun at the start by the sudden appearance of Magi in our midst."
"Yes, Chieftain." Telez grimaced and spat to the side again. "I'm not so proud to admit we would have been quickly put down if the Cheetah's own tribesman didn't turn against them."
That opened Jon's eyes in surprise. "The tribesman who stared at us blankly when we walked in?"
Telez nodded. "They ran into their houses when the fighting started. It wasn't until just a few minutes ago that they poured out of their houses, wielding weapons and screaming like demons. I still can't believe what I saw."
"A few minutes ago," Ashford whispered by Jon's ear. "Just when the goddess died."
Jon nodded. "What's our situation, Telez?"
"We just about have them put down, Chieftain. They're falling back to the base of the cliff."
Jon gestured to the bodies on the ground nearby. "Some of those bodies look like the tribesman you described as helping us out."
Telez shifted uncomfortably. He glanced up at Jon's face and looked away quickly. "The men may have gotten carried with the purge," Telez admitted.
Jon took a step toward him. He kept his voice cool and under control. "I hope the men will soon come to their senses," Jon said quietly.
Telez nodded quickly. "Yes, Chieftain." He turned to leave but Jon grabbed his arm.
"The Magi have infiltrated Raves in preparation for this moment," Jon said. He let his anger enter his voice. "They used me as a pawn to unite the tribesman so they could all be slaughtered at once."
"They infiltrated us?" Telez repeated, shaking his head. "Why?"
Just then, a group of warriors broke off from the fighting and charged up the stairs toward them. One man in front had silver eyes. He raised his hand and started weaving his fingers in the air.
Jon had no choice but to embrace his magic. If anybody saw him, he would just have to fight his way out of the city. Luckily, he was spared that as a sword suddenly burst out of the man's chest.
Jon saw more of his lieutenants swarm around the attacking group. They quickly put down every warrior among them.
"Chieftain!" Several of them waived their swords in the air and roared their defiance.
"Gather all the lieutenants," Jon ordered Telez. "Have them grab their horses and all of their supplies. And give the command to stop killing the tribesman."
"Yes, Chieftain," Telez answered. He jumped down the stairs and ran toward the group waiving their swords.
"What are you planning?" Ashford asked, stepping up next to Jon.
"We need to get to Astuari as quickly as possible," Jon replied. He motioned Ashford to follow him. He hurried down the steps and sidestepped the bodies littering the street. "I'm taking my lieutenants with me. Five hundred warriors will come in handy."
"That's going to take a while," Ashford said. "We can't use magic to speed up the horses. Not even you could maintain that spell for long."
Jon stopped walking and turned toward Ashford. "That's why I need you to go ahead of us."
Ashford sighed. "I thought you were going to say that. Jon, we both know it's you that needs to go. I'm nowhere near as powerful as you. You won't make it in time with your lieutenants following."
Jon reached out and gripped Ashford's shoulder. "The men would never follow you, Ashford. I have to lead them. I will push the horses as hard as I can. I will make it on time."
Ashford finally nodded and then smiled. "Is there any message in particular you want me to deliver when I make it back?"
Jon took his hand off Ashford's shoulder and looked away. The square around the palace was now eerily quiet. He could hear the sound of battle growing more distant.
"Just make sure Sophina knows what Reynar is planning to do," Jon said quietly. "Hopefully, everything has gone smooth on her end. She should be waiting with Peron's mercenaries. And if Evelyn gives birth before I make it back, make sure she knows what she has to do."
Ashford stepped close to Jon and gripped his shoulder in turn. "Is there anything else you want me to relay?"
Jon turned to look at Ashford's face. He smiled. "That's none of your business."
Ashford chuckled. "Have it your way."
"You're my friend," Jon said suddenly, before Ashford turned away. "I don't know if you know that or not. But you have become one of the first true friends I have had in many years."
Ashford blinked several times before turning his head. "And you're my friend," he said, gruffly. "For someone who has lost all of his friends recently..."
"Say no more," Jon said. He grabbed Ashford's hand and squeezed. "The God be with you, Ashford."
"And you, Jon."
Ashford squeezed Jon's shoulder one last time and walked away. He stopped suddenly and turned to look back at Jon. "Don't tell Istas I left until long after I'm gone, okay?"
Jon struggled not to grin. "Sure," he said. He wasn't quite able to hold back the laugher in his voice.
Ashford mumbled under his breath and began walking away. Telez and the other lieutenants were riding toward them, leading Jon and Ashford's horses.
Jon would have given anything at that moment to know for certain that he would see Ashford again.
Evelyn sat quietly by the window in her bedroom and stared wistfully at the lazy blue sky. She wished she could be outside enjoying the beautiful weather. She patted her bulging stomach and sighed.
In less than a month's time, I went from barely a bump to a full blown pregnancy. What is this child?
Evelyn shook her head. Nothing made sense anymore. She had barely started getting use to the idea that she was pregnant before swelling up over the past few weeks. The child seemed to be in an awful hurry to leave her womb.
Something's coming, Evelyn thought worriedly. Somehow, her child could sense it. She couldn't deny it anymore; her unborn child was aware of the outside world. It frightened her like nothing else ever had.
And I can't even properly use magic anymore! This pregnancy has made that all but impossible. What am I to do if I'm attacked?
A knock sounded lightly on the door. Evelyn was grateful to pull her attention away from her constant worries. "Yes?"
"It's Eve, Your Grace."
"Come in," Evelyn said excitedly. She had almost forgotten the assignment she had given her new handmaiden.
Eve stepped slowly into the room. She shut the door quietly behind her and dropped a quick curtsy. "Do you have a moment, Your Grace?" she asked shyly.
Evelyn waved her over. "Of course, child! Please, have a seat."
Eve approached warily and slowly sat down on the edge of her chair. She clasped her hands together on the table and looked up reverently at Evelyn. "I've done as Your Grace requested."
Evelyn leaned forward eagerly. "What did you find out?"
Eve opened her mouth and then hesitated. "Your Grace, I...I don't understand why you wanted me to spy on your husband's activities. Surely, you could have asked the King himself?"
"The King thinks I'm too delicate right now to burden with any information," Evelyn said quickly. The lie came easily to her. "I'm not as weak as that, am I Eve?"
Eve's eyes widened in surprise. "Of course not, Your Grace! Your Grace is the strongest and most capable woman Astuari has ever known!"
Evelyn blushed slightly at the compliment. "Please, Eve, when we're alone call me Evelyn. 'Your Grace' is too much of a mouthful."
It was Eve's turn to blush. "If Your...you wish it, my lady."
Evelyn smiled. "Now, tell me what the King has been up to."
"Well, Your--Evelyn, sorry--the King has been meeting frequently with the Council. When he's not with them, he patrols the palace walls and speaks to the soldiers there. And when's he not there, he's usually in his study."
"That's it?" Evelyn asked, not quite able to keep the disappointment out of her voice.
Eve nodded. "Oh yes, my lady. He's a very busy man. Don't worry, though, I'm sure once the war with the Magi Victus is over he will have more time for you and the baby."
Evelyn nodded absently. She smoothed the flowing robe over her stomach. Reynar had been able to supply her with a wardrobe that carefully kept her now large bump from casual notice. Just the thought that she would have to keep up the deception for several more months wearied her.
"Did you hear anything the King said?" Evelyn asked hopefully.
But Eve shook her head. "No, my lady. I'm not allowed to be in the Council meetings or on the palace walls. The only place I heard the King speak was in his study and that was just because I brought his lunch."
"You brought his lunch?" Evelyn asked, perking up.
Eve smiled shyly. "Yes, my lady. I stopped the servant he usually has bring up the food and told him that I will take it for him. I figured Your Grace would want me to try my best to know what the King is doing."
"Very clever, Eve! What did he say?" Evelyn asked, her excitement rising once again.
"I'm sorry, my lady, but I didn't hear much," Eve said, hanging her head. "He was talking to his manservant Sereph when I walked in. I heard something about a duty he has to perform. They stopped talking when I came in."
Evelyn slumped back against her chair. She had been so sure Reynar was up to something. She knew her child was trying to tell her something; that was why she always felt uneasy around him. He was hiding something, she just knew it. At least, she thought she knew it. Maybe the unease was a side effect of this strange pregnancy.
"That's all?" Evelyn asked absently. She shook her head and sighed. Maybe the pregnancy really was getting to her. Who knew what having a child like this did to its mother. There wasn't exactly a precedent for it.
"They just watched me the whole time I laid out the food," Eve said, sounding as despondent as Evelyn. "Well, Sereph was writing away with his quill. Reynar just stood by his desk and watched me, like he was lost in thought. He just kept stroking this wooden box with his hand. It was very unsettling, my lady."
Evelyn nodded, only half-listening to the words. She blinked suddenly and looked over at Eve. "I'm sorry, what did you say about a box?"
Eve looked taken aback by Evelyn's sudden interest. "Nothing, my lady. I just got those bumps on my arms from the way he was looking at me, is all. He just stared at me and ran his hand over this box on his desk. I was happy to finally get out of there, my lady."
"I've never seen this box," Evelyn whispered. She shook her head. What was she thinking? She was looking for a mystery anywhere she could find it. There was nothing strange about a wooden box.
"Is Your--my lady, okay?" Eve asked in concern.
Evelyn brought her attention back to the present. "I'm fine, Eve. I think this baby is making me empty-headed. Can you go downstairs and prepare a good lunch? Make yourself a plate, too."
"Of course, Your Grace," Eve said, reverting back to formality. She stood up and curtsied. "Lunch will be brought up shortly."
Evelyn waited until the door was closed before heaving herself out of the seat. She wished this pregnancy really would end soon. She walked gingerly toward the door and pulled it open.
The hallway outside was deserted. Reynar tried to have guards posted by her door but Evelyn didn't want to subject the poor men to that onerous duty. As a comprise, Reynar stationed guards at the entrance to this wing of the palace and rotated them periodically, so that they wouldn't get bored.
Evelyn waddled down the hallway as fast as she could. It was good to finally get up and stretch her legs. The sudden blooming of her pregnancy had necessitated long hours spent alone in her chambers. The fewer people that saw her the better.
It took her ten minutes longer than usual to make her way to Reynar's personal study. Here, in this section of the palace, she found many guards.
"Is the King in his study?" Evelyn asked one of the guards standing by the door to Reynar's study.
"No, Your Grace. The King is currently meeting with the Council."
"I think I'm going to wait for him here," Evelyn said. She attempted to open the door but the guard stepped in front of her.
"Your Grace, the King instructed me that nobody is allowed in his study when he is not in attendance."
Evelyn arched her eyebrow and crossed her arms in front of her chest impatiently. "Do you seriously think, soldier, that the King meant me? His wife and your queen?"
The man looked down at her and struggled to find words. "Your Grace...I..."
"That's what I thought," Evelyn said. She pushed the guard aside and opened the door. The guard didn't stop her. Smiling, Evelyn shut the door firmly.
She looked around the study to make sure that it really was deserted. The door to the dinner room where she had first feasted with Reynar was closed. Assured that she was alone, Evelyn walked carefully over to Reynar's desk.
She instantly spotted the box that Eve had referred to. It seemed to be an ordinary, if old, piece of wood. It sat innocently on the corner of the desk. Evelyn ran her hand across it and discovered the hinges on the side. She checked the other side and found the latch. Smiling to herself, Evelyn began the lift the lid.
"Your Grace, what a surprise!"
Evelyn yelped and spun around. Reynar's manservant, Sereph, closed the dinner room door and walked over to her.
Evelyn flushed guiltily when she saw Sereph's eyes flicker to the box. "Sereph, I didn't know you were here."
Sereph smiled and bowed low. "The King sent me back to fetch some documents. I took the liberty to clean up the King's breakfast while I was at it. What brings Your Grace here?"
Evelyn glanced aside and thought furiously. "I...uh...just wanted to see if my husband was here."
"Indeed," Sereph said pleasantly. His eyes flashed to the box again. "The King will be delighted to hear that. He's been most anxious to settle in with you, Your Grace."
"As have I," Evelyn said, though she was sure Sereph could hear the squeak in her voice. She decided there was no getting around what she was doing. "When I didn't see him, I thought I would wait for him here. This box caught my eye."
"Was it the gaudy ornamentation that caught your eye?" Sereph asked. For an instance, his smile seemed frozen on his face and his eyes flashed dangerously.
"N-no, of course not," Evelyn stammered. She took a step back. "It just seemed out of place."
"Ah," Sereph said. He took a step closer to Evelyn. "Curiosity got the better of you, I imagine."
"I guess so," Evelyn said. She swallowed. "Any--any idea when the King will return?"
Sereph glanced down at the box and ran his hand over the aged wood. "The King won't be back for hours," Sereph said quietly, his eyes never leaving the box.
"Well, I suppose I will return to my chambers then," Evelyn said lightly.
She turned to leave when Sereph's arm shot out and grabbed her wrist. "Surely, Your Grace would like to see what's in this box, yes?"
"Sereph!" Evelyn yelled, as she tried to pull her hand free. "You're hurting me!"
Evelyn's stomach pinched suddenly. She winced in pain as Sereph snatched his hand off of her arm with a pained yelp. "What in the nine hells was that?" he demanded.
Evelyn stumbled back and hit a chair. "I-I don't know. Please, I want to go back to my chambers."
Sereph rubbed his hand and looked at Evelyn curiously. "The time is almost here, Your Grace," he said. His voice almost sounded lustful. Then he smiled and nodded toward her stomach. "For the birth, I mean."
"Yes, I suppose," Evelyn said. She moved away from the chair and backed further away. "I will be leaving now."
"Good afternoon, Your Grace," Sereph said, his attention once again directed to the box on Reynar's desk. "I will let the King know you were looking for him."
"Thank you," Evelyn whispered. She turned and pulled open the door.
Before this afternoon, she had had her doubts. But now she knew for certain; she should have never left Sophina to join with Reynar.
Sophina knocked once and slowly pushed the door open. "Marcus?" she called again.
Silence. Sophina stepped carefully into the room and looked around. She breathed a sigh of relief when she spotted Marcus sitting in the chair by the bed. The book on the table next to him hadn't moved an inch since Sophina first brought it to him.
"Is everything alright?"
Again, only silence answered her. She didn't know if Marcus was asleep or awake. She gripped her sword tight for reassurance and advanced further into the room. She doubted her sword could stop Marcus' spells, but the familiar feel of it comforted her.
"Are you awake?" Sophina asked, trying once again to engage Marcus in conversation. The last week had been a complete failure for her. She didn't have the courage to spend any considerable amount of time trying to get Marcus to respond.
"I'll leave you alone, then," Sophina said, after several tense moments passed by. She turned to leave.
I'll try again tomorrow. We still have time.
The thought no longer comforted her. She knew their time was almost up. Evelyn could give birth any day now.
"What do you want?"
Marcus' quiet voice stopped her cold in her tracks. She gripped her sword tighter and turned back around. "I just wanted to talk."