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Tide of Darkness, Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

For a moment, no-one said anything.

Brianna broke the silence. "Well?" she asked. "Are we going in or not? Not that I'm saying this is a good idea, mind, but if we're actually going through with this clueless scheme, let's get it done."

Gwydion was still staring at the doorway, still half-expecting something to leap out at them. It had opened by itself; such things did not happen on his homeworld.

He took a breath. "Yes," he said, steeling himself. "Let's get it done."

Sword out, he advanced warily into the darkness, Brianna just behind him and Tap bringing up the rear.

The entrance chamber was an oval room, with a high domed ceiling. The floor was marble, and inlaid with a curious geometrical design which might have represented a star sign. Spaced evenly around the edge of the oval floor were smooth marble pillars, stretching up to where they supported the dome. There were four arched halls spaced in between the pillars, each leading off into stygian darkness. A layer of dust lay over everything, disturbed in places where people had passed.

"It's dark in here," remarked Tap.

It was true; there were no windows here, and the only illumination was the grey light which filtered in from the doorway behind them.

"He's right," said Brianna. "We should light a torch."

Gwydion glanced back at her. "You... you don't happen to have one, do you?"

"Why would I have... You mean you don't have one?"

He winced at her tone. "I didn't know we'd need one. Tap?"

The boy gave a shrug. "Tap has no light," he said

Brianna gave them both a withering look. "Wonderful. A fine lot of adventurers we make. Well, what are we supposed to do, then? Stumble around in the dark?"

Gwydion eyed at the darkened hallways regretfully. "I suppose we'd better go back and get something," he said, turning back. "What the...!"

With a booming crash, the door behind them swung closed, and suddenly they were engulfed in darkness.

"Bloody jinxing boiling hell!" snarled Brianna from somewhere to his left.

"The door closed," said Gwydion, his voice tense. Maybe it had been the wind... maybe.

"I know the door closed, you leatherheaded clueless moron!"

"It's dark," said Tap again, his voice coming from in front of Gwydion.

"Brilliant observation," said Brianna, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "And here I am, trapped in the dark with two barmies who couldn't find their way out of a paper bag!"

"Let's not panic," said Gwydion, feeling his way forward blindly. The door couldn't be more than a few paces from where he was standing. "The wind must have caught it. I'll find the handle and open it from-"

He gave a grunt as he struck the door. "I've found it," he said, running his free hand along its surface, searching for a latch, handle, or doorknob...

"Well?" asked Brianna after a moment.

Gwydion's hands encountered nothing other than the smooth cold surface of the massive iron portal. "There's no handle," he said at last.

"Oh this just gets better and better," said Brianna. "I must be out of my skull, letting a bloody clueless paladin-" Suddenly she gave a small cry of surprise. When she spoke again, her voice was tinged with fear. "Gwydion, tell me that was you."

"Me what?" asked Gwydion, his grip tightening on tylith-senshai. "I haven't moved."

"Tap?" asked Brianna.

"Tap hasn't moved either," said Tap, his voice coming from a different direction. "Tap is thinking we are no longer alone."

There was a faint, raspy growling noise and Brianna screamed. With a grunt, her cry was cut short and there were sounds of struggle.

"Brianna!" Gwydion called, stepping in the direction he thought the struggling sounds were coming from. "Where are you?" He held tylith-senshai to the side; the weapon was useless to him in the dark. He knew a dozen different fighting techniques for fighting blind, had in fact trained under three separate instructors in fighting in enclosed, darkened spaces, but none of his training did him any good. Striking out with the sword he was just as likely to hit Brianna or Tap as any enemy.

Brianna gave another muffled cry.

"I'm coming!" he shouted, then went sprawling as he tripped over something hard and rigid... and moving.

He turned his fall into a roll, coming smoothly back to his feet, whirling.

Light! If he only had light!

No sooner had the thought passed through his mind than tylith-senshai's blade sprang to light. It was a pale blue iridescent light, the color of the moon when half-waxed, but it bathed the chamber in soft illumination.

A few feet in front of him Brianna struggled with some... thing. It was roughly man-like in size and shape, but possessed a red, hairless head shaped like some nightmare version of a swine. Its eyes were midnight pools of black and two small curved horns sprouted from the top of its head. Likewise, two yellowed tusks curved down from beneath its long, piglike snout. It had skin like melted wax. Its hideously deformed hands were locked on Brianna's throat.

Gwydion didn't pause to ponder the wonder of the sword's magic; he used it. He bounded forward, striking down in a killing blow designed to take the thing's head off at the spine.

The tip of the sword met the back of the creatures neck and there was a blinding flare of light, accompanied by a piglike shriek which faded instantly to nothing.

Spots danced in Gwydion's vision. The creature was gone, consumed in a moment by tylith-senshai.

The hilt thrummed in his hands, and the blade seemed to flare more brightly. He glanced around uncertainly, looking for any sign of the piglike creature. He had witnessed the awesome power of tylith-senshai before, but still...

Brianna drew ragged breaths into her lungs, and coughed. "Paladin," she said, taking he hand he offered and hauling herself to a sitting position between coughs. "If your little toy could make light... why... in the name of Gehenna... didn't you use it before?"

"I didn't know it could do that," Gwydion admitted. The blade was still glowing softly, even though there was no sign of the creature. "I'm still not certain how I... why it... why it lighted. What was that thing? Did it hurt you?"

"Guardian daemon," she said, pulling herself to her feet and pushing him away. "I'm fine, just give me a minute."

Tap was staring at the glowing sword. "Powerful sword," he said, a note of respect in his voice.

"Guardian what?" asked Gwydion.

"Daemon," rasped Brianna. "And a weak one, at that. Not 'demon', so don't start jumping to conclusions; I can see your clueless mind working. Wizards summon them and set them to guard things - treasure, powerful items... doors, I guess. Some berks say they're some lower form of yugoloth; I don't see it that way myself. Yugoloths don't claim 'em, leastways."

"Yugoloth?" asked Gwydion.

She shook her head. "Never mind. It's gone. And we're still trapped. So now that we've got a light, why don't we try and figure a way out of here."

Gwydion nodded, turning back to the door, holding up the sword so he could see. As he had thought, there was no handle or latch. Worse, the edges were fit so snugly to the frame that it almost seemed as if they had melted to it. Gwydion ran his fingers along the seam, vainly searching for a crack wide enough to give some purchase. There was none.

"Well, I don't see a way to open it," he said, looking back at them. "Looks like we go on, and hope to find another way out."

Brianna considered this. "Right," she said. "Which way?"

Gwydion looked at the four darkened halls. There was nothing to recommend one of them over the others that he could see. "I guess... I guess this one," he said, starting toward the one on the far right. He remembered reading somewhere that the way to defeat a maze was to always turn to the right.

"Your path of choice is not too wise," piped up Tap brightly, "for you have failed to use your eyes."

Gwydion stared at him. "What?" he asked.

Tap pointed to the floor. "See?" he said, pointing. "Dust."

For a moment Gwydion didn't understand the boy's riddle. Then he saw it. Where they stood the dust was disturbed, in some places rubbed away completely from the struggle with the guardian daemon. Yet everywhere else it lay thick and heavy.

Tap pointed to the hall he had been about to enter. "See?" The dust there was undisturbed. "The minders."

Gwydion nodded his understanding. The guards they had seen entering and leaving the building could not have come this way.

"Here," said the boy, pointing to the second hall to the left. "Here is their trail." The dust there had been disturbed, and recently. Gwydion saw the clear outlines of footprints both going and coming.

"Right," he said with a nod. "Good work, Tap. Let's go."

He led the way, sword held up so that light spilled into the hall before him. Tap followed closely on his heels and Brianna brought up the rear, grumbling, but taking care to keep within the small circle of light the sword provided.

The hall they entered, while not so high as the the chamber they left, was nonetheless tall, having a high arched ceiling equal in height to the iron portal through which they had entered. The walls were a featureless white, and the the hall curved slightly to the right, so that they were unable to see more than twenty paces ahead. It might have Gwydion's imagination, but it seemed that there was a slight downward tilt to the floor, so that it seemd they descended as they went forward.

It continued like that for some time, until he was certain that they must be spiraling downwards. Then it the curve gave way to a long straight hall. Lining the walls on either side at even ten foot intervals were open doorways, each of which led to darkness.

Gwydion halted. He had been keeping one eye on the trail in the dust at his feet, and he was now glad he'd done so.

"What's wrong?" asked Brianna, her voice hardly a whisper.

Gwydion pointed to the floor. "The tracks move to the right side, and stay close to the wall," he said. "We'd better do the same. Could be some sort of trap - a pit or something worse."

"Smart, cutter," said Tap. "You're learning."

Single file they continued. Gwydion halted at the first doorway, thrusting his sword in so he could see within. It was a small room with a low ceiling, ten feet by ten feet. There was a small wooden altar set on the far wall, and what looked to be the rotting remains of a matress nearby. Other than that it was barren.

"Empty," he said. "It looks like a room, except there's no door for privacy, and there's some sort of altar. What do you suppose it was for?"

"Who cares," said Brianna. "The tracks lead on. Let's get your precious Icon and get out of here."

Gwydion moved on, but halted for a moment at each of the other doorways, making certain there was nothing within. They were all identical to the first, with beds and altars in various states of decay. He wondered privately what sort of place this had been, where the halls were gigantic and the rooms were so small. A temple to some long forgotten god?

At the end of the straightaway the hall made an abrupt ninety degree turn to the left. Beyond, it narrowed in a long straightaway lined with man-sized black statues on either side. Between each statue was a polished silver mirror. And at the far end, at the most narrow part, it ended at the foot of a gigantic brass statue of something that looked like a gorilla with wings, fixed in the attitude of sitting cross-legged and staring down balefully in the direction they stood.

Gwydion had pulled up short, eyeing the row of statues warily. Most were humanoid in shape, but none looked even remotely human. They were bizarre images of twisted animals put together piecemeal. One bore a head that looked very like a sheep, with two tentacles for arms and the lower body of a crocodile. Another had two heads: a serpent and a lion, with the body of a cow standing on its hind legs, and the heads seemed to be fighting each other. Most of the body parts were recognizable as something, but that made them no less disturbing and malevolent. And there were two or three that Gwydion couldn't identify at all; oddly-shaped masses without recognizable heads or bodies.

He stared at them for a moment, almost fearing that one of them would move. He bent and checked the floor again. The tracks led right through the middle of the hall.

He stood and stepped forward, treading softly here. Tap and Brianna followed.

The mirrors between the statues reflected their images back and forth, back forth an infinite number of times. From the corner of his vision Gwydion kept seeing movement, but each time he jerked his head around in the direction of the movement he saw only the statues, sitting silent and motionless, and the infinite reflections of the mirrors. Still, he couldn't quite escape the feeling that the malevolent black eyes of the statues followed them.

Tap had clutched his tunic from behind, and was pressed right up against him, and Brianna wasn't far behind.

They reached the great brass statue at the end of the hall and halted before it, staring upwards. The winged ape seemed to stare right back at them. The tracks led straight to the knee-high marble base of the great statue.

Gwydion crouched down at the base, running his fingertips along the marble, hoping to find some lever or trapdoor. "Feels solid," he said, disappointed.

Tap darted forward. "Let Tap try," he said, running his hands along the marble edge. "Ah!" He pressed something on one of the statue's toes, and there was an audible click. "See? Tap found it."

The heavy sound of stone grating against stone came from above them, and they all glanced up. A small tremor ran through the floor beneath their feet.

"Yes," said Gwydion. "But what did you find?"

"Let's just hope the roof doesn't fall on us," said Brianna, eyeing the walls and ceiling warily. It sounded as if some ponderous and heavy stone mechanism hidden behind the walls had been engaged, and they all waited to see what the result would be.

The statue suddenly tilted towards them, falling forwards, and with a startled cry Gwydion grabbed Tap and pulled him to the side. The gigantic statue stopped short of striking the floor, instead coming to rest at a forty-five degree angle.

A breathless moment passed.

Gwydion slowly set Tap down. he moved around the statue, skirting the upturned base. Behind it had been uncovered a set of stone steps leading downwards into a dark, narrow tunnel.

"I guess we go down." He glanced back at the other two, then started down the steps.

The steps were steep and slick with moisture, a trickle of water droplets lined the walls of the little tunnel, and the unsteady footing slowed their descent. The tunnel was cramped and Both Gwydion and Brianna had to bend over at the waist to keep from clipping their heads on the low ceiling. It led straight down for some distance, then opened into a small room, about the size of one of the rooms they had passed in the hall above. Though it was small, after the cramped confines of the tunnel it felt spacious.

The chamber was empty, but there was a door to the right which led to a second, larger room, and a tiny glimmer of grey light came from that direction.

Gwydion and Brianna exchanged glances.

"Turn off your sword," she whispered. "If there's guards ahead, the glow will give us away."

He nodded, and concentrated, willing the sword's light to fade. Nothing happened. "I don't know how," he whispered back.

"Then sheath it, leatherhead!"

Quickly he did so, and they were left in darkness, only the faint gray outline of the door ahead to guide their way.

Gwydion stole forward, but halted at the small touch of Tap's hand. "Tap is good at sneaking quietly," the boy said. "Let Tap go first; see what lies ahead."

Before he could protest, the boy had melted into the darkness again, slipping through the door. He started to follow, but Brianna caught his arm.

"Let him go."

"I can't let a boy go in my place!" said Gwydion. "These... people are dangerous!"

"He's already gone," she whispered back, "and he's less likely to be seen or heard than you are. Now be still."

He settled down to wait. It irked him, but she was probably right.

A minute passed. Two. Five.

With each passing moment Gwydion's concern grew. He tried not to think of all the things that could happen to the boy. If he was caught, he certainly wouldn't be able to put up much of a fight...

A slight touch on his arm startled him. Tap was back. The boy had returned as silently as he had departed.

Gwydion squatted down.

"Tap saw much," the boy began, before Gwydion could ask him. "Next room, empty. But guards are beyond. Tap saw them, oh yes, but they did not see Tap. Follow, Tap will lead you to a place where you may see."

"How many?" asked Gwydion. "How many guards? Was the... the dark man with them?"

"Tap saw four, but there may be more. One asleep, three awake. All human, though, Tap is sure. Man who is not a man was not there. But come and see." Tap tugged on his sleeve, then turned to the doorway.

The room beyond was empty, just as Tap had said. There was a slight rise in the floor right at the base of the door, and Gwydion nearly stumbled over it. Here the stone floor was overlaid with a layer of wooden floorboards, worn and aged. There were two narrow arrow slits in the curved wall to the right, beyond which the dark grey rain fell. It was from these that the dim light came. On the far side of the room was a half-open door, from which spilled a flickering golden light, as some sort of lantern or torch lay in the room beyond.

Tap stole forward, Gwydion right behind. The boy paused at the open door, peering beyond stealthily, then motioned the others to follow him.

He led them into a short hall. The flickering light actually came from the open door at the end of this hall. From where he stood, Gwydion could see the edge of a table beyond, as well as low flames licking at blackened wood in a grimy stone fireplace. The low murmur of men's voices drifted from that direction.

There were three other doors which opened onto this smaller hall; two to the right and one to the left. The soft sounds of someone snoring came from the darkened opening to the left.

Gwydion had expected Tap would lead them to the open door at the end of the hall, but instead the boy turned almost immediately, leading them into the first entrance to the left. It turned out to be a staircase which curved upwards. The steps were wooden and a little unsteady. Tap and Brianna made their way silently upwards, but Gwydion had to step lightly, for if he wasn't careful the steps would creak under his weight. Each time the wood groaned under foot, Tap would turn and glare at him, holding a finger up to his lips.

It was only a short flight of steps, but it seemed like an eternity, and with each creak Gwydion froze, listening intently. At the top there was a closed wooden door with a rusted lock and handle. As he watched, Tap pulled a piece of wire from a pocket somewhere and inserted it into the lock. He moved it expertly, and a moment later there was a slight click and the door opened.

Tap led the way into the room beyond, getting down on hands and knees and crawling forward on the rough wooden floor.

It was a strange room, something between and attic and a balcony. Two one side were three enormous windows, once stained glass but now so smudged with dirt and soot that it was impossible to tell what the images were, and only the tiniest glimmer of light forced its way through from outside. The ceiling looked the underside of a wooden roof, with support trestles and wood beams criss-crossing one another. The room was circular, but the floor was semicircular, with a curved railing overlooking a drop of twelve or fifteen feet down to a room below. Bright light shone from the hole, and the sullen murmur of voices wafted up.

As Gwydion eased himself up to the railing and peered between the rails to see over the edge, he caught sight of the room below. From this angle he couldn't see everything, but he saw enough to be certain it was the same room he had glimpsed from the end of the hall.

Below and to the right (from this vantage point) was the same grimy fireplace. There was a weapons rack standing to the side, with various weapons - mostly polearms, pikes, and axes - mounted there, within easy reach. A circular table lay just below with three men dressed in chain mail seated around it, each holding a hand of cards. From here, Gwydion could see little of their features other than the tops of their heads: one was bald, and two had short black hair. There was a pitcher and cups on the table, as well as a basket of bread.

"Fold," said the bald one, throwing down his hand, and he leaned back in his chair, stretching and giving a groan. His head tilted up at them but his eyes were closed. "Confound this accursed place. The dampness makes my bones itch."

"Stow it, Del," grunted one of the others. "You complain more than my aged mother. Don't get started on one of your bleeding tirades."

"All I'm saying," said the bald one, lowering his voice a little, "is that I don't like it. Sitting here all day, waiting for his say-so, doing nothing... Who is he, anyway, and what's he got us mixed up in? And that bloody tiefling, Ryde, that follows him around... Answer me this - he's got the portal that goes where he wants, why doesn't he just take the bloody thing through? It don't feel like honest work, that's all."

The man who had spoken before barked a laugh. "Here that, Bol? Del here don't think it's honest work."

The other chuckled. "That's rich, coming from a cross-trader like you, Del. You'd sell your own mother to the baatezu for flaying if someone offered you gold. When did you ever worry about 'honest work'?"

The bald man grumbled. "Right then, mock me. But don't say I didn't warn you when things start to get peery. I've got a bad feeling about this job-"

"You always say that, Del. You always say 'I've got a bad feeling about this job'. Stow it, will you? We're getting paid good jink for sitting on our arses all day, and I've no complaints, damp tower or no. You want to complain, fine - go wake up Tarsus and see whether he's in the mood to hear your scree. He's just stupid enough he might. But I'm not, hear? Now, are you in or out?"

The bald man shook his head and stood up. "Out." He stretched again, then wandered towards the fireplace stopping in front of it and apparently staring at the sack on the mantel.

"Cripes, Del," grumbled one of the men at the table. "Leave it be, will you? We're not supposed to touch it."

The bald man looked back at his compaions. "Well why not, then? Don't a man have a right to know what it is he's guarding? I just wonder - why all the secrecy."

"We're paid well to not get curious, Del," said the other man. "Leave it be."

"C'mon, you two have thought about it too, and probably Tarsus as well. What could it hurt to have a look? He'll never know; he's not even here."

"But I am," came a fourth voice, from directly below where Gwydion crouched and out of sight beneath the overhang. Perhaps there was another room below. It was a smooth, silky voice confident but with a slight lisp. The two men at the table had straightened in the chairs. Studiously they returned their attention to the cards in their hands.

The bald man backed away from the mantel. "I... I wasn't going to look, Ryde," he said, his voice taking on a whining tone. "Honest I wasn't."

"Too right you weren't," said the voice. "If you had, I'd have killed you. Clear enough?"

The bald man blushed, but nodded. "I wasn't going to touch it, though," he repeated, his voice almost petulant.

"That goes for you other leatherheads as well," said the silky voice, and the man stepped forward. Gwydion could see little other than the top of his head, but even so he could tell the man wasn't human. His skin was red and two oversized and pointed ears protruded from the silky raven hair worn loose and flowing to where it hung beneath his shoulders. His frame was slight, but he moved with a supple ease and control, and though he didn't know why, Gwydion felt sure he was an expert fighter.

The two at the table jerked nods. "Del wasn't really going to touch it," said one of them. "He didn't mean no harm; he's just a bit addle-coved, that's all. We wouldn't have let him, anyhow." The man's voice trailed off under the red-skinned man's hard stare.

Gwydion hardly noticed. His eyes were on the leather sack atop the mantel. It was about the right size and shape... and these men were guarding it. Could it be the Icon? Mentally he weighed his chances of getting it. The silky-voiced man was a trained fighter, but the others were common fighting men, not unskilled but nothing he couldn't handle, especially if he caught them off guard. And if he vaulted the railing, he would have the element of surprise...

The little flames in the fireplace suddenly flared angrily, roaring higher and higher and stretching out into the room. As Gwydion watched in disbelief, they turned dull orange, and formed a ring which widened until it was taller than a man.

The air in the center of the circle shimmered, and suddenly it wasn't the fireplace anymore, but a portal to... elsewhere. Gwydion only got the briefest glance at the terrain beyond the circle, but he got an impression of a desolate red plain, lined with bleak mountains and illuminated by a burning red sun. A cloaked man stepped through it into the room, ducking his head to avoid the flames.

Everyone whirled, even the silky-voiced man, though he was the first to speak.

"Great lord!" he said as the circle of flames closed again and returned to its normal state. "We had not expected you so soon-"

The cloaked man tugged back his hood, and Gwydion stiffened. Him! Tylith-senshai's hilt thrummed angrily beneath his palm at the man's appearance. It was the man who was not a man. Cold blue eyes stared at the men in the room, and dark blonde hair framed a face that was beyond beautiful. "Matters have changed," he said. "We may have to move the... item... prematurely."

"But why?" asked the silky voiced man. "It could be dangerous; not all the parties involved have fallen in line with the plan yet."

The cloaked man shook his head. "Events may have forced our hand. There is a possibility that it is no longer safe here."

"Not safe?" said the other. "But how? This place, it is a secret. Not even those who guard it know what it is. Who could track it here?"

"Have you forgotten the paladin, Ryde? Perhaps you underestimate the threat he poses."

"The paladin?" asked the silky-voiced man, surprise in his voice. "But surely he has been neutralized by now. Paracs-"

"Paracs is a fool," snapped the cloaked man. "The paladin managed to slip his grasp. Even now he may be in Sigil."

"If he is here, he is no threat," said the other. "I will track him down and kill him myself."

"Don't be a fool. He has already managed to destroy an underling and pass through Parac's net. The fiend payed with its life, and Paracs will pay the price of his failure in my master's torture pits. But if the paladin is here, he is a threat."

At that moment there was a grating scraping sound behind them, and grey light suddenly filtered in where they lay. Gwydion whirled... and stared.

Two of the windows were moving. As he watched, two manlike-shapes pulled themselves free of the surrounding glass, stepping down onto the floor beams. He could see what they were now - the images of knights bearing swords. Light filtered in through the holes they left behind.

Tap gave a shrill cry and rolled to the side as one of the glass-knights bounded forward, it's brittle feet making a soft chinking sound with each step. The things were faster than they looked, and the boy barely rolled clear as the knight's glass sword came down, slicing through the floorboards as if they were butter. Those swords were sharper than they looked, by far.

Gwydion heard shouts of alarm come from the room below, but there was nothing he could do about it now. He rolled to his feet, drawing tylith-senshai in the same motion. He ducked under the side-swing of the second knight, his own weapon flashing out to catch the thing in the torso.

He had expected to shatter the damned thing in pieces with the blow, but instead there was a blinding flash and the thing exploded. He ducked to the side as shards of glass flew everywhere, blinking to clear his vision and momentarily stunned. Dimly he was aware of a burning sensation on his left cheek, and he touched it. His fingers came away bloody; he must have been struck by one of the flying shards. An inch higher and he would have lost an eye.

Brianna kicked the remaining knight in the back, and it turned away from the boy and struck at her. She skipped backwards and the blow missed narrowly.

Gwydion started towards it, but at that instant a form came somersaulting over the railing, bounding up in an incredible leap from the room below.

It was the red-skinned man, and it landed catlike in front of him. "Paladin," it said, in its whispery soft voice. "Ever died before?" Face to face Gwydion saw that it had red eyes that flared and pulsed as if they were flame. It was armed with two daggers, one held loosely in either hand.

Gwydion struck, and the other man ducked, one of the daggers darting towards his torso. He sidestepped, blocking the man's second dagger with the hilt of tylith-senshai, and the two sprang apart.

The red-skinned man grinned malevolently. "You are very fast, paladin. This'll be fun."

Gwydion said nothing. Peripherally he was aware that the knight had missed Brianna again, this time scoring a deep cut in the stone wall.

The two circled each other, feinting, striking, blocking. There was the sounds of someone rushing up the stairs. If some of the men from below joined the battle, he might well be overwhelmed. The odds were shifting against them. He had to finish this man, now.

Gwydion struck out in a lightning-quick series of attacks. The other ducked, dodged, and blocked the furious blows with his daggers, but he gave ground.

"You're desperate now," he said, grinning ferally at Gwydion, and lashed out with a counterattack.

Gwydion sidestepped smoothly, then blocked a second attack, a third. The red-skinned man stepped in close, hoping to make Gwydion's weapon useless, striking with both daggers at once in a quick double attack.

Gwydion shifted, blocking both daggers at the last possible moment. The tips quivered inches from his throat as the other man pressed his attack.

Then, with a snarl, the man sprang back.

Gwydion lashed out with tylith-senshai immediately - but not at the red-skinned man. He struck the other glass night squarely in the back, shielding his eyes with one hand.

The red-skinned man had immediately leapt forward, seeing the opening Gwydion had left, striking for it.

The knight exploded.

The red-skinned man howled in agony, dancing back and clutching his right eye.

"Ryde!" the cloaked man called from below, and, cursing, the red-skinned man leaped back over the railing.

Gwydion leaped after him, but already two of the guardsmen had reached the top of the stairs.

The first one swung an axe clumsily, and Gwydion danced back. The blade of the axe buried itself in the wooden railing, and the man desperately tried to pull it free. The second guard was the bald man, and he came on grimly with a shortsword and a shield.

Down in the room below, the cloaked man had snatched the sack from the mantel, and was making furious gestures at the fireplace.

"I can take him!" snarled the red-skinned man, still clutching his eyes, blood running between his fingers. "Half a minute more and I would have had him!"

"Fool!" cried the cloaked man. "Would you risk everything for a personal vendetta? Have you forgotten the stakes?"

Already the fire was raging higher.

Gwydion parried the bald man's thrust, sending him sprawling to the side. Instantly the third guard was on him, vaulting between his companions and coming down on him with a ferocious killing blow.

Gwydion rolled backwards his boots catching the man in the abdomen and sending him flying over him. The man landed heavily on his back.

Gwydion was on his feet again instantly. The axe-wielder had torn his weapon free, and with a fierce cry swung again. Gwydion ducked under the blow, tylith-senshai licking out, and the man's battle cry turned to a short, gurgling scream. He went sprawling to the side, dead before he hit the ground.

The bald man had recovered, and came on again, more warily this time, shield held high. "I don't know who you are, berk-" he said, and Gwydion struck.

Steel rang on steel as the bald man blocked, backing off a step. Gwydion pressed the attack, striking. Again. Again. Now a high thrust. Now a low sweep.

The bald man was backpedaling wildly now, backed nearly to the stairs. He blocked Gwydion's next attack with his shield, but there was fear etched plainly on his face.

Gwydion swept a blow at the man's throat, which he clumsily blocked, and duckked low, his leg sweeping out in a low kick.

The man went tumbling backwards down the stairs with a cry. His shortsword when flying from his fingers as he tried to save himself.

Gwydion whirled to finish off the third man, expecting his attack, but Brianna was rising from his body, her dagger dark with blood.

He dashed to the railing. As he watched, the red-skinned man stepped into the flame ring. The cloaked man was already gone, and so was the leather sack.

With a cry, Gwydion vaulted over the railing, landing nimbly on the table below. He dashed towards the ring of flames which, even now, was beginning to constrict.

"No!" cried Brianna from the railing as he leaped for the closing opening.

The air in front of him shimmered; he could see the lands beyond, could see the cloaked man and the red-skinned man, turning, looking at him.

And then he struck a wall; as if the air were some unbreakable glass barrier.

There was a blue flash, like lightning, and intense heat ripped through his body, and every nerve ending screamed in agony. He screamed, his muscles contracting and spasming in terrible pain.

His body was flung away from the closing portal with terrible force. He crashed into the wall and crumpled to the ground, unable to move. Dimly he was aware of smelling smoke, and wondered if he were on fire.

Tylith-senshai lay where his spasming fingers had dropped it, several feet away.

He lay there shaking in agony, paralyzed.

For a moment he could only see blackness, and he feared he was blind. Then, slowly, vision returned, foggy and indistinct.

Brianna was leaning over him, her face etched with worry and concern. Tap stood nearby.

"...bloody leatherheaded addle-coved thing to do, Clueless! Leaping into a warded portal without a key, it's a wonder you aren't in the dead book!" She was rubbing his arms furiously. "Tap, help me. We've got to keep his circulation going."

Gwydion couldn't speak; his jaw was still locked closed. He wondered briefly about the fourth guardsmen, the man who had been snoring. He hoped that if the man came barreling in on them Brianna would be able to handle him. At the moment he was helpless as a newborn.

Sensation and control returned slowly under their rubbing; a horrible pins-and-needles kind of pain that was in escapable.

For a moment he was lost in the agony of it. Slowly he returned to his senses.

It was then that he saw the creature shuffle slowly through the open doorway behind Tap and Brianna.