The Bracelet of Amithor was a crude iron thing, absurdly plain. A small ring of heavy, roughly formed links, it looked more like an ugly trinket of some superstitious orc tribe than a talisman of power.
Gwydion hardly glanced at it. His angry gaze rested instead on the robed man. “Let her go,” he said again, less loudly, but his words carried. There was a quiet fierceness behind them, and he still held tylith-senshai unsheathed, the blade flaring with power.
The keeper of Time wore an unreadable expression, and the golden giant still held Brianna fast.
“You have met my conditions, paladin,” said the Keeper. “I have given my word. Do you think I would break it?”
“Absolutely,” said Gwydion.
A long moment passed, and then something akin to amusement flickered across the robed man’s face. “At last, some measure of wisdom. True enough, I have broken my word as many times I have kept it. For as there is deception in truth, so is there truth in deception, and I have turned both tools to my use, when it suited my purpose.”
He glanced over to the golden giant. “Now, the question is: should I keep my word? Does it suit my purpose? Your enemies are not my allies; it is not in my interest to aid them by spiting you. Yet by the same token, those who oppose you are not my enemies; should I permit you to leave with the Bracelet of Amithor, I would earn their enmity. Perhaps the Bracelet might even fall into their hands, and never be returned to me. Should I take that gamble?”
“The Bracelet leaves with me, whatever you choose,” said Gwydion angrily.
“And yet,” mused the Keeper, as if he had not spoken, “and yet… I have the oath of a paladin, should I keep my promise. That is not a tangible asset, but it is a valuable thing. Should you succeed in your quest…”
He fell silent a moment, considering, then abruptly made his decision. He gestured once, and the golden giant immediately released its hold on Brianna, bending at the hips and gently setting her down.
“Piking rilmani,” she muttered angrily the moment her mouth was uncovered. “And you… take your hands off me, you great metal oaf!” She was wriggling pulling herself away from the giant’s grip even before it had set her down, and the moment she was free she turned and kicked it in the shin.
The golden giant ignored her, simply standing back up impassively and falling into unnatural stillness again.
“I release the Bracelet into your care, paladin,” said the robed man, turning away. “But have a care; it is not your possession, and you are bound by your word to return it. Too, you will also present me your sword when your quest is fulfilled. Do not think to cross me, paladin. It would go better for you to end in a kocrachon pain-cell than to break your oath to me.”
And with that he was gone, disappearing out of sight beyond the opening. The golden giant still waited there, and Brianna as well, shooting angry glances at the great statue-like creature.
Gwydion stood atop the waterfall still, gazing down, frowning. He still half expected the Keeper to return, to reverse his decision, or to send another of his mechanical monsters to destroy him.
“Well?” Brianna said at last. “Are you hurt? I see blood on you, but you stand tall.” She was trying to sound annoyed, but Gwydion could hear concern in her voice.
Gwydion shook his head. “I am… bruised, but only that. The spider-thing wounded me, but I am alive.”
“Then come down from there and let’s leave this cursed place.”
He sighed. “Coming.”
He considered climbing down the rough rock wall, slick with the water pouring down it, but didn’t immediately see an easy way.
He sighed again, then tucked the Amulet into this belt and leaped out into the pool.
It was an ungainly jump, not a graceful dive, but the water was deep and cold, and he felt strangely stronger now, even wearied from his battle.
He swam the distance to where Brianna stood, finding his footing as the bottom became shallow again. This whole time he had eyed the golden giant suspiciously, half-afraid it would attack him as he neared, but it stood silent and still, like some great unmoving statue.
“Thought you were in the dead-book for certain, cutter,” said Brianna as he waded forward. “Don’t frighten me like that again… Oh! You’re injured!”
Gwydion glanced down. He was covered with cuts and scrapes everywhere, it seemed, but it was his abdomen she was staring at. He glanced down at it. There was more than just blood there; where the spider had pierced him ragged bits of torn flesh and innards still clung to the skin. He wiped them away, revealing the healed skin beneath and the new-formed scar.
He was touched by the note of concern in her voice, and the way she suddenly rushed forward, crouching at the water’s edge. “Don’t worry,” he said, “It isn’t… it isn’t as bad as it looks.” He reached into his belt and retrieved the Bracelet. “Here,” he said, handing it up to her. “There’s the damned Bracelet.”
She eyed it dubiously. “This?” she asked, turning it over in her hand.
He nodded. “I hope it’s more useful than it looks.” Still keeping one eye on the golden giant, he pulled himself up out of the water. Brianna helped him up, then handed him his shirt.
The golden giant still stood impassive, unmoving, so Gwydion took it and threw it on. “Let’s go.” He took one of his boots and pulled it on, at the same time looking for the Keeper of Time in the room beyond. The throne stood empty, and though he peered into the darkened corners, he saw no sign of the robed man. “Where’d he go?”
“Who? The Keeper?” She glanced back over her shoulder, then looked again. “I don’t know,” she admitted after a moment, sounding a little surprised. “He was here a moment ago…”
Gwydion shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. We’ve got what we came for.” Quickly he pulled on his other boot, still leaving tylith-senshai unsheathed and keeping an eye on the golden giant, and then stood, taking hold of Brianna’s hand and starting into the next room, heading for the exit.
The moment he stepped forward, the golden giant took a step behind him.
Startled by the sudden movement, Gwydion pulled Brianna away from it, putting himself between and lifting his sword.
But the golden giant only stood, silent and still.
Gwydion glanced around, still trying to find the robed man. He backed another step, and the giant took another step forward in turn.
“All right,” he muttered. “Looks like we’ve got an escort.”
* * *
The golden-armored giant followed them all the way back to the doors of the tower, silent the whole way and always keeping a few feet behind. When Gwydion and Brianna halted, it halted. When they moved, it moved. Gwydion kept a wary eye on it the whole way, and held tylith-senshai ready, but it neither spoke, nor attacked, nor made any untoward move.
The doors of the tower stood open, the street just beyond. The light had increased somewhat from the early morning gloom they had had when they entered, and now the street was not empty. The mid-morning traffic was not heavy, but a few pedestrians and carts passed. Most were oblivious to Gwydion and Brianna, but a few cast curious glances their way as they emerged; it was not such a common occurrence to see the doors to the Tower of Eyrie open.
Gwydion and Brianna emerged from the tower, and as they did the golden giant came to a halt, just beyond the darkness inside the tower.
The massive doors swung slowly closed, moved by some unseen power.
They paused there, on the steps, and Gwydion searched the street.
“Where is Tap?” he asked after a moment.
* * *
Tap huddled beneath the rickety wooden steps, curled into the mound of rags and trash that was piled there.
Above him he heard the slow thudding footsteps of the Harmonium guard who had chased him descending towards the bottom of the stair. The wood was old and weathered, and creaked and bent under the soldier’s weight.
The last half hour had been a blur of running, hiding, running, and hiding again. Tap hadn’t seen the gap-toothed man again, but twice he had run into the other members of the hardhead patrol, each time making a narrow escape. There were other Harmonium soldiers on the streets as well, searching for him. Those were easier to avoid, as they hadn’t laid eyes on him and were only going on a description.
Too, as the streets filled with morning traffic, it was also easier for him to give the soldiers the dodge. But hardheads or not, they were thorough, and they knew the area better than he did. As well, in his roughened and torn clothing and with his unkempt appearance, he did not blend in easily.
He had decided after leaving the bridge where he had escaped the gap-toothed man, to make a wide circle and return to the Tower of Eyrie, but that plan had not been workable.
He hadn’t counted on the hardheads being so meticulous in their search, nor had he expected so many of them. There must be thirty or more in separate patrols combing the streets for him, and there weren’t many places to hide. Each time he had tried to circle back, he’d run afoul of another patrol. He had moved cautiously and most of the time he spotted them before he was seen, but twice now he had been surprised and nearly snatched.
Abandoning the idea of making it back to the Tower of Eyrie, Tap instead decided to head for the Street of the Weirdling. There he could lay low and hopefully rejoin Gwydion and Brianna when they came to use the portal to Arborea.
But the Harmonium patrols had been herding him, slowly but surely, their dragnet search drawing closer, and he had run afoul of yet another hardhead patrol when he started for his new goal. He’d been spotted by one of the soldiers and a breathless chase had ensued.
And now he was crouched beneath the stairs, hidden in the rags and trash, and hoping that the soldier passed him by.
The soldier moved slowly, cautiously, as if scanning his surroundings. Dust danced in the air above Tap’s head, and a shadow fell down through the slits as the soldier stepped down on the stair directly above him.
Tap cursed mentally. He’d ducked beneath the stairs hoping the soldier following would pass by, but perhaps he’d been seen. Damn hardheads! he thought. He doesn’t even know why he’s chasing me, but he won’t let me go!
The moment stretched, and Tap waited. The soldier above him shifted his weight from one foot to the other, but didn’t move from the stair where he stood. Mentally Tap conjured an image of the man raising his sword, planning to plunge it down through the old wooden stair…
With one hand tightened on the haft of his dagger and the other tightly clutched on the amulet he had taken off of Gap-tooth, Tap waited tensely, trying to make mental calculations of how to respond if a sword tip came thrusting down.
“Haerold! Haerold, what are you doing down there man?” The voice came distantly from the top of the stairs.
The step above Tap shifted as the soldier above turned. “Sir. I thought I saw the boy come down here, sir.”
“You aren’t paid to think, Haerold. Nyfold just spotted him over on Hang Way. Get up here and stop chasing phantoms.”
The soldier above immediately began climbing stairs. “Coming, sir.”
Tap waited until the footsteps had receded, and then breathed a sigh of relief. He made himself count slowly to fifty, then cautiously emerged from his hiding place.
He was standing in a little recessed alley lined on both sides by high walls. Behind him was the rickety wooden stair that climbed straight up to the street behind. But ahead was a stone archway, beyond which the darkened alley continued. It occurred to Tap that he was now on roughly the same level that the Street of the Weirdling ran, and not very far away, as the crow flew.
He took stock of himself, rubbed Gap-tooth’s amulet for luck, and struck out.
* * *
They circled the tower twice, even going so far as calling out for him, but found no sign of Tap.
“Well,” said Brianna at last, “I suppose he’s finally gone and run off. He’s a street-orphan, after all. I’m surprised he stayed with us as long as he did.”
Gwydion shook his head. “It isn’t like him. Leaving with no word.”
“You don’t even know him, really,” Brianna pointed out. “And neither do I, I suppose. We met him, what? Five days ago now? He made his kip in Ribcage. They breed ‘em tough there, and not particularly trustworthy. Probably he’s realized that he can turn a profit selling you out to your enemies, and went off to find them.” She was trying to cynical, but he heard doubt in her voice.
“You don’t really believe that.”
She shrugged. “Alright. So I don’t. But whether he’s off to sell us or whether he’s off on his own, or whether he’s fallen foul of some trouble, one thing we know: He isn’t here.”
Gwydion nodded. “He knows where we’re going, though. Maybe he’ll be waiting at the Street of the Weirdling.”
* * *
The Street of the Weirdling looked different in the full light of day than it had in the murky pre-dawn darkness. It was still dark, deep set as it was between the buildings and below the normal street level, but still there was a gray twilight that filtered down.
There were few pedestrians down on the street itself, mostly lower class citizens hurrying on their way and carefully avoiding meeting each other’s gazes, but there was a constant stream of traffic across the bridges, and the sound of clattering hooves, voices, and footsteps wafted down. Too, there were workmen working on the skeletal building – mostly a mix of dwarves and humans – and they clambered back and forth on their makeshift bridges, the clattering of hammers, saws, and other tools in steady use filtering down into the darkness.
Tap had stationed himself in an out of the way corner just down the way from the building under construction and huddled down to wait. Since his encounter at the stair he had seen nothing of the hardhead patrols, and there was a part of him that wanted to hope that he had finally shaken their pursuit. But he had reached the Street of the Weirdling nearly twenty minutes past, and with every minute that passed he felt a creeping certainty stealing over him that was only a matter of time before the hardheads arrived to check this place over.
From where he stood, well back in the shadows, Tap could see clear to the entrance of the Street, nearly thirty yards away, and in the other direction he could see the third bridge, which would – if the sorcerer Whisper was correct – serve as their portal to Arborea. It seemed likely that when Gwydion and Brianna arrived, they would come from the street entrance, but it was as well to keep the bridge itself in sight in case they chose a different way.
Snuffling noises came echoing down from a pile of garbage, and Tap watched idly as a creature that looked like a cross between a dog and a pig worried at some piece of discarded meat there.
The minutes ticked by.
A flicker of movement at the entrance of the street caught his eye. Two people approaching, the light at their back throwing them into silhouette. The boots were visible first, then as they came forward, the legs, the torsos…
A grin spread slowly over Tap’s face as he recognized them. He stepped from his place in the shadows out into the little street. “Been waiting up for you, paladin,” he said.
Gwydion halted, peering into the darkness. “Tap?”
Before Tap could respond there was a sudden blaze of light behind him, and Gwydion and Brianna flinched back from the glare. He also heard the sudden cries of alarm and distress from the workers on the constructed building.
A pillar of light had descended out of the skies of Sigil, beaming straight down through the worker’s makeshift plank-bridges and into the darkened street below.
Workmen all over the site had ceased their work and were now pointing up into the sky at something descending through the light, crying out in surprise and dismay. Tap couldn’t see what it was through the planking of the makeshift bridges, but he could plainly see that it was larger than a man, and must have had wings of some type.
There was a sudden, angry flare of light, and Tap winced, squinting into the glare. At the same instant there came a splintering crash as some power punched straight through the wooden planks, shattering them and sending the pieces flying.
Tap ducked away as splinters of wood ripped through the air like shrapnel. When he looked up, the winged being had descended through the hole ripped through the makeshift bridge, bathed in the pillar of light.
It had the form of a man, but larger by far than any mortal, standing well over nine feet in height. Its only clothing was a kilt of pure white cloth and a pair of sandals. Its bare chest was well-formed, muscled and its skin was a metallic gold that seemed to radiate with an inner light, even bathed in the pillar of light through which it had descended. It wore a quiver of arrows slung across its chest, but bore no bow or other weapon. And from its back, spread to full extension, were a pair of massive wings tipped with snow-white feathers.
It was male in form, with long, silvery hair that tumbled past its shoulders, and arresting topaz eyes which burned with inner light. Its face was so perfectly formed that the only description for it was that it was unearthly in its beauty. It radiated power and majesty in nearly tangible waves.
Tap felt his knees shaking.
* * *
“-in the hells is that?” muttered Gwydion, watching the winged being descend and clutching tylith-senshai tightly. He had unsheathed the sword out of instinct, but the hilt was cold and dead in his hand, not thrumming with hidden power the way it normally did when a threat presented itself to him.
Brianna’s eyes were wide. “Death.”
The winged being came to rest a foot of the ground, standing on air. Its piercing gaze fell on Gwydion.
“Gwydion Talienvar,” it said, and its voice was like thunder, crackling with power. “I am sent by divine missive to destroy you.”
Gwydion felt an unreasoning wave of terror sweep through him at the words. His entire body went numb, like a rabbit frozen in front of a predator. His reaction was out of all proportion to the threat the winged man seemed to present, and he realized in some dim corner of his mind that it must be some enchantment the newcomer had cast upon him. But he felt waves of despair assault him, and it was all he could do not to let tylith-senshai tumble from his numbed fingers. Worse, the sword itself still had not reacted in any way. If tylith-senshai was not powerful enough to stand against the threat, how could he?
How can I possibly stand against this? he despaired silently, frozen in place.
Unhurried, the winged man held out his left hand, and a great golden bow suddenly materialized there. He reached back with his right at the same moment, taking hold of one of the arrows in the quiver.
“Run!” screamed Brianna, seizing Gwydion’s hand and dragging him out of his paralysis.
At first he didn’t understand, for she was pulling him towards the winged being rather than away, but then it dawned on him. The winged man had come down through the construction area into the street maybe forty yards off. He stood behind the third bridge. If they could reach it, and the portal there, before the winged man had a chance to slay them…
Sudden adrenaline surged through him, and he charged forward, raising his sword in defiance as he came and calling out in challenge.
If the winged being was disturbed by this sudden display of resistance, he did not show it. Calmly he fitted arrow to bowstring, and drew the bow back.
Tap felt fear coursing through him, and had no idea what Gwydion’s aim was, but a sudden pride gripped him as well, that a mere mortal would dare to charge into the jaws of death, and as the paladin came running by Tap unsheathed his dagger and brandished it high, crying out and joining the charge as well. “Hai! Haiyee!”
The winged being ignored them all. It drew careful aim on Gwydion.
Too late, thought Gwydion, and too slow. Too far away. We will not reach the portal in time. They were only just to the second bridge – the third was still some distance ahead.
“Meet your fate, mortal,” said the great winged being, and loosed his arrow.
The only warning Tap had was a sudden cold lancing through the amulet he wore, and a shifting of light. It was too late to halt his charge or warn his companions.
The air under the second bridge suddenly twisted as Gwydion sprinted beneath it.
In an instant he was gone. The winged being’s arrow sailed through the empty space where he had been and continued on over Tap’s head.
Brianna had time to mutter a short cry of distress, then the air twisted around her as well. WHOOMPH!
She was gone.
“Uh o-“ Tap started to say.
And all three were gone, vanished through an unexpected portal that had been triggered by Gap-tooth’s amulet.
* * *
One instant Gwydion was running on solid ground, watching the winged man’s arrow streak towards his face…
…The next he was flailing in mid air, tumbling downwards and trying to get his bearings.
He had only a fleeting glimpse of some wild mountainous countryside and a blue sky before he struck hard on some steeply pitched slope and went tumbling forward.
He was rolling, sliding, end over end, grasping for anything to stop his motion.
There was sparse undergrowth, mostly wiry mountain shrubs, and he snatched at them as he went tumbling by, slowing himself a little, and tucking his shoulder to protect his neck as he rolled.
Hard rocks and loose dirt shifted beneath him as he finally managed to slow himself, coming to the end of the slope, where a pitched bank of earth and stones lay. He tumbled into them painfully and at last came to rest.
Behind him he heard the cries of first Brianna and then Tap as the two came tumbling down the slope as well.
Unsteadily he lurched to his feet just in time for Brianna to come pitching forward, straight into his arms, bowling him backward onto the rocks again.