Gwydion turned to see
an attractive, slender woman with fiery red tresses and flashing emerald
eyes. She had struck a suggestive pose in the doorway, the beads
pushed to one side, and, letting her gaze run languidly up and down his
form, was giving him a frank and admiring appraisal. "Oh, what a
pretty face he has," she said as he turned. "To go with his attractive
body. You must tell me where you found him."
Gwydion flushed, a little embarassed. "Hello?" he asked. The woman was as scantily clad as any of the serving maids in the chamber below had been, dressed only in a gauzy silk shift which was cut to show as much flesh as possible, and which did little to conceal even the parts it covered. He had to force down a natural instinct to avert his eyes.
She laughed. "Look at him blush! How sweet. And he speaks too!" She considered. "Well, that's a bit of a drawback, I suppose, but his beauty makes up for a lot." She leered at Brianna. "You get all the good ones."
"He isn't mine," snapped Brianna.
"Can I have him, then?" the woman shot back, with a sultry laugh.
"Dima," said Brianna, "we're here on business."
Dima pretended to be surprised. "What, you mean you didn't just drop by to visit an old friend?" She laughed again.
"Lady Dima," put in Gwydion, trying to steer the conversation back on track. "We seek your help."
Dima laughed again. "He called me lady, did you hear that? What a respectful little duckling he is."
"We must to get to Sigil," Gwydion went on, determined not to let himself be sidetracked, "and there isn't much time."
"No time," echoed the boy from his place on the cushions. He had apparently finished his apple, though where the core had gone Gwydion could not guess.
Dima's smile melted away when she caught sight of the boy. "You!" she cried, giving a little shriek of alarm. "How did you get in here!" Without waiting for an answer, she seized a broom which had been leaning on a table nearby and began chasing him. "Out, out, little toad! I'll teach you to come worming your way in here!"
With a yelp of alarm, the boy scrambled away, deftly dodging her blows. He scampered about the room with her behind him, and scrambled behind Gwydion.
"Easy, easy," said Gwydion to the agitated woman, holding up a palm and shielding the boy. "The lad is with us. He it was who guided us to you."
The woman lowered her broom. "Then you keep sorry company indeed, my sweet chicken, if you let that wart travel with you." She shot Brianna an accusing glance. "You, at least, should have known better than to bring the little rat. As well bring me a pox!"
Brianna shrugged. "The decision was not mine," she said, nodding to Gwydion, "and besides, the boy was true to his word - he led us to you."
"He told us he was a friend of yours," said Gwydion.
"Friend?" cried the woman in disbelief, raising the broom again when the boy dared to peek out from behind Gwydion. "A pestilence! A plague! A dozen times he's showed up here, disrupting business, looking for a handout, begging, getting underfoot, and stealing everything that wasn't nailed down! Friend indeed!"
"Gently, gently," said Gwydion. "There's no cause for violence. The boy intended no harm."
The boy had ducked back behind him. "Spiteful mistress intends to end my days!"
The woman growled again, brandishing her broom, and Gwydion braced himself, half-expecting to recieve a smack in the face. "Don't tell me what he intended! He's a nuisance, and a thief besides. The little vandal is just waiting for a chance to rob me blind, and you expect me to just let him waltz into my kip and take what he likes? No, indeed."
"I'll vouch for him," offered Gwydion.
The scantily-clad woman laughed. "Vouch for him? You don't even know him! You vouch all you like, but he's not staying here."
Gwydion exchanged glances with Brianna, who shrugged indifferently. He turned back to Dima and shook his head. "He stays," he said firmly. "I will watch him myself. He will steal nothing. You have my word."
She lowered her broom and eyed him speculatively. "Here in Ribcage, we're not much on taking people at their word... but you seem to take yours pretty seriously."
"I will not break it," said Gwydion.
"Paladin," said Brianna meaningfully to Dima, nodding towards him.
Dima chewed her lip. "A paladin, is it? I've never known one of them to break his word." She considered. "You're certain? It would be far easier to sell the boy into slavery. He would fetch a good price, and I know a man who'll purchase with no questions asked."
Gwydion shook his head. "No slavers," he said flatly.
She laughed. "Squeamish?" She turned to Brianna. "He's so cute when he's outraged. Very well," she finally relented, "but only because you've got such a pretty face. And he's your responsibility. If he steals anything, you're the one who pays for it."
Gwydion nodded. "So be it."
* * *
Dima led them past
the screen of hanging beads and into the second doorway. This, Gwydion
percieved, was actually a true doorway instead of another open archway,
for after they had entered he looked back and saw that there was a heavy
wooden door on hinges which was swung fully open so that it rested against
the inside wall.
The scantily-clad woman was in a better mood now, smiling seductively at Gwydion and continually making suggestive remarks that soon had his ears reddened with embarassment, but her eyes still narrowed with displeasure when they rested on the boy. For his part, the boy pretended to ignore Dima's scowling glances, but Gwydion noticed he did not stray far from his side.
The room was more a library than anything else, the walls lined with shelves of books. There was a large oaken table in the center of the room, with more books scattered about its surface and a looming chair behind it. The chair, more than anything else, dominated the room. The seat was high, like a throne, and its back towered even higher, well above the height of a man, no doubt so that whoever sat in it could look down on those he adressed. It was constructed of some sturdy ashen-colored wood that closely resembled bone, and every inch of it, from the towering back and armrests to the squat hulking legs, was intricately carved with arcane symbols and bizarre unsettling pictures.
Before the desk were scattered a few other chairs, all solidly built and of good design, but all seemed fairly ordinary and none arrested Gwydion's attention.
There were curios and vials on the shelves as well as the book, chaotically thrust here and there were there was space, and a few strange objects hung from the ceiling by chains. Most of these last were so bizarre in shape and form that Gwydion had no guess as to what they might be or represent.
The light here was dim and uncertain, and the sole source of illumination was a gigantic red tallow candle which had burned half away. It rested on the table, standing upright in an ugly squat onyx candle-holder, and the flickering light it cast made the shadows within the room seem to move of themselves, giving Gwydion an uneasy feeling.
He approached the large table and glanced down at the tomes which were scattered across its surface. Each of them was bound in dark leather, and the symbols and writing on their covers was alien to him. He reached out to run his fingers over one of them.
"Mind what you touch, paladin," warned Dima. She smiled seductively. "Some of my toys are dangerous, and I wouldn't want anything to mar that pretty face of yours. More important," she added a moment later scowling at the boy, "mind what he touches."
Gwydion glanced over at the boy, who was sauntering casually through the room, letting his eyes wander lazily over the items on the bookshelves. If he had heard what Dima had said, he gave no sign.
He nodded to her. "I'll watch him."
She gave him a sultry smile. "And I'll watch you while you're watching him. I've no doubt mine will be the more pleasant task."
"If you're through mooning over him, can we get to business?" interjected Brianna sharply. Her tone surprised Gwydion.
Dima chuckled. "Why, Brianna dear, if I didn't know better I'd swear you were jealous."
"Not jealous," said Brianna. "Just impatient."
"Our quest is urgent," put in Gwydion. "We must get to Sigil."
Dima heaved a dramatic sigh. "Yes, so you said before. Well, to business then, though I must admit that having someone as pretty as you standing there is going to make it difficult to concentrate."
Gwydion's ears flushed. "Our task is grave," he said, trying to steer the subject away from himself, "and we must-"
"Yes, yes," said Dima, unconcerned. "I'm sure it's very important and noble, and you've got to dash off and save the multiverse. But here in Ribcage, duckling, we don't care much about nobility or saving the multiverse. Rattle off about urgent quests all you want, paladin, but money speaks louder than causes here. I'm more interested in talking about price." She smiled. "Everyone pays in Ribcage, pet, even someone with a face as lovely as yours."
Gwydion felt a lurch in his stomach. He had no money, no valuables to offer, and though Brianna might be ignorant of that fact, he was keenly aware of it. Licking his lips, he began to speak. "As to price," he started, choosing his words carefully, "I'm sure we can work something out-"
"Let me handle this, paladin," interjected Brianna quickly. She turned to Dima. "I'll bargain with you on his behalf. That is," she added, "if you don't mind."
"Brianna," Gwydion said, drawing her aside. "I think maybe-"
"Look," hissed Brianna, "I know what I'm doing. This is what you hired me for, remember? I'm the guide; you're the Clueless. You think maybe you know something about how much planar transport should cost?"
Gwydion was forced to acknowledge his ignorance. "No, of course not. But-"
"No 'buts'." said Brianna. "Dima's a tough cookie. She drives a hard bargain. Thanks to your blurting out how 'urgent' our quest is, she knows that we're desperate. Knowing that we're caught between a rock and a hard place, do you really think she wouldn't take advantage of our position?" She shook her head. "She'd take you for everything you had. Fortunately I'm here to keep things fair. That's part of being the guide. Besides, she owes me a couple of favors. It may be that I can even get her to lower her normal rates."
"It's not that," said Gwydion.
"What, then?" asked Brianna, her voice turning sharp again. "Don't tell me you're buying her 'oh, fair Gwydion' routine, with the fluttering eyelashes and the come-hither glances." She gave him a scornful look. "It's an act, you know. I knew you were clueless, but I didn't think you'd be leatherheaded enough to fall for a pretty face."
"No, of course not," said Gwydion, surprised and a little stung at the venom in Brianna's voice. The woman acted like it was his fault that Dima was coming on to him. "Look," he started indignantly, "is it my fault that-"
"Well?" interrupted Dima from where she stood across the room. "Is the secret conference over yet? Can we get down to it?"
Brianna jerked a nod. "Coming," she said, and turned back to Gwydion. "Now listen, Clueless. Settle in here and keep an eye on the boy. I'll be back in a moment, when I'm certain I've got the best price I can." She sighed as she turned away. "Someone's got to look out for you; you sure can't do it for yourself. Outside," she said to Dima, gesturing towards the beaded doorway. "We need to discuss this in private. Besides," she added with a too-sweet smile, "I wouldn't want you distracted with our pretty paladin while we negotiated. It would be unfair to you."
Dima pouted, looking towards Gwydion. "Oh, very well then," she agreed, leading the way out. She paused once and looked back at him. "But I'll return in barely a moment, sweetling."
They were both gone before Gwydion could make a reply. He stood there for a moment, exasperated. Brianna hadn't let him get a word in edgewise, and Dima wasn't much better. Then he shook his head and turned to the boy.
"Don't touch that," he snapped, seeing the boy had removed one of the books from off the shelves and was leafing through it, admiring the pictures. "It could be dangerous, and besides, I gave my word I'd keep you away from Dima's things."
The boy grinned at him, but replaced the book. "If it will make you feel better."
"It does." Gwydion started, and looked at the boy again. The boy's patch was covering his right eye. "Wasn't your patch over your left eye before?" he asked. It seemed to him that it had been.
The boy shrugged. "Concern with eyes is not too wise. Eyes have power, despite their size." He giggled.
"More riddles," muttered Gwydion. "You seem to like them quite a bit. What was that one supposed to mean?"
The boy grinned. "Nothing valuable is ever given freely, save perhaps your own oath. It must be earned to be appreciated. Besides," he said sadly, his face growing more sober, "there is safety in words, sometimes."
Gwydion considered him for a moment. What must it have been like to grow up in this evil place? Surrounded by the threat of death, perversion, and slavery, having only himself to depend on... Perhaps the boy was slightly addled, he thought, but how would I have fared had I lived through what he surely must have? If the boy took refuge in riddles, who was Gwydion to criticize? "Indeed," he said at last. "Well, I promise to think your little riddle over. Maybe it will come to me." He looked at the boy again. "I just realized I don't know your name. I can't very well go around calling you 'hey boy', can I?"
The boy gave a bitter smile. "Names? I have a thousand. Worm, fool, idiot boy, little toad, wart, pest, thief, plague, addle-cove. Pick any that you like, or none at all."
"I would not call you by a name others have called you in insult," said Gwydion. "Have you no true name?"
The boy shrugged. "What is a name? A sound, nothing more. I need no name. I am who I am."
Gwydion thought for a moment. "On my homeworld, when I was a child, I had a friend named Tap. He was..." Gwydion smiled. "He wasn't much like you. He didn't even look anything like you, but his is an honorable name. I shall call you that, if it doesn't offend you."
"Tap," said the boy, rolling the word around experimentally in his mouth. "Tap. It is a bold name, yet clever too." He smiled. "Crisp, and fast and clever, with bite." He nodded excitedly. "I shall be Tap."
Gwydion nodded. "And no-one will call you any of those other names," he added. "Not while I'm around, at least."
The boy laughed. "You would protect me from scorn? Such a thing cannot be done for someone else. Shields from such are built from within." He shook his tousled head. "I do not fear jeers and insults. There are worse things than words."
"Wise words," Gwydion acknowledged. He sighed. "What will you do next? After we've left for Sigil, I mean?"
The boy shrugged. "I make out." He smiled. "Tap gets by," he said, emphasizing his new-found name.
"Oathgiver," said the boy as he turned. "Why did you not attempt to sell me into slavery?"
"I gave my word," said Gwydion simply. "And I am not fond of slavers."
"It would have covered the price of transport to Sigil, I think."
Gwydion laughed. "You talk as if you had nothing to do with the matter. I have the suspicion it would not have been easy task even had I agreed to it. The thought of chasing you around this room and trying to catch you is not one that I would relish."
The boy grinned. "You would never have caught me." His expression sobered. "But you, paladin, would never have tried - oath or no."
"There's that word again. Everyone seems to be mistaking me for one." He gave a rueful smile. "I only wish I knew whether it was good or bad that I was being compared to one."
"It is like many things," said the boy. "It is what you make of it to be."
Gwydion groaned. "Is that another riddle?"
The boy grinned. "The deepest kind." He hesitated. "You asked a moment ago where next I would go," he said at last. "Tap goes with you."
* * *
"My, my, my," murmured
Dima when she and Brianna had removed themselves. "He is a pretty
little thing, isn't he. I imagine you could lose yourself quite easily
in those blue eyes." She shook her head. "It's too bad he's
marked for death."
Brianna, on the verge of icily informing the other woman that if she wanted to be a silly fool and pant over Gwydion that was her business, but she could keep her foolish admiring comments to herself, was brought up short. "What do you mean by that?" she asked.
Dima laughed. "Oh, come now, girl. We're old friends; there are no secrets between us." She winked. "I'm in on it."
"In on what?"
"The paladin, of course. I know you were hired to betray him. The same people who hired you have been in contact with me."
Brianna closed her mouth, a vague guilty feeling stirring in the pit of her stomach. "I was hired," she said, "to go to a specific place in the Outlands and wait there three days, and I was instructed to attach myself to the first person to emerge from the portal there and guide him to Sigil. It was a perfectly legitimate, innocent job, and I'm not one to turn down honest work when its offered."
Dima smiled. "Particularily when they offer to pay as well as they did, eh?" She fixed Brianna with a sardonic eye. "Innocent? I think you knew better than that. You're forgetting some of the details. Bran Larqueth told you when he hired you that the paladin was to be kept ignorant as to who you really were and why you 'happened' to be in the right place at the right time. And you were supposed to check in with his agents every step of the way."
"So what if I was?" asked Brianna hotly. "Details. What Gwydion didn't know didn't hurt him any."
"And your checking in?" asked Dima. "Bran tells me he hasn't heard a word from you since he sent you on this errand. He's very unhappy about that."
"I've been in the Outlands until today," protested Brianna. "There was no way to make contact."
"Fair enough," admitted Dima, "but what about today? Bran has plenty of agents here in Ribcage. Surely it wouldn't have been too much trouble to let at least one of them see you. But strangely enough, none of them did. It was almost," she continued, with a crafty smile, "as if you were taking pains to avoid them." She tsked chidingly. "For someone who's being paid as much as you are for such a simple job, you haven't been doing very good work."
"There were complications," said Brianna. "It was nothing more than that. And as for Bran - a fine knight of the post he is! The cross-trader never warned me what I would be up against. He never said anything about me running into demons. But one of them tracked us down, looking for Gwydion, and tried to kill us - almost did kill me, at least! Ever since that, I've been real wary about letting Bran know exactly where we were. It occured to me that more nasty things might start showing up if I did. He'd better just be glad I'm still doing this job, and haven't walked away from it."
"Did you say 'demon'?" asked Dima with a slight laugh.
"Fiend then," said Brianna with a glower. "I wasn't certain whether it was tanar'i or baatezu."
Dima shrugged. "Either way, you should know, just from that if nothing else, that this thing goes well beyond Bran Larqueth. Bran is just a hired hand, like you. There are some really powerful movers and shakers interested in your paladin friend. Lord Paracs, to name but one."
"Paracs?" asked Brianna in shock. "He knows about Gwydion?"
Dima nodded smugly. "And he's just working for someone higher up. I told you: this thing is big. I don't know who your clueless friend is, but he's attracted some high powered attention. He's almost too hot to touch, but," she added, grinning, "who am I to refuse found money when it's dropped into my lap?"
"What do you mean?" asked Brianna.
"I sent my manservant out the moment you arrived with him. Paracs and his men will be here in minutes. We only need to delay the pretty thing until then, and Paracs will do the rest. Whether he'll kill the paladin immediately or haul him off for torture I don't know," she added with a shrug. "I suppose it doesn't really matter."
Brianna's jaw dropped. "You're bringing Paracs here?" she asked in surprise. "But what about his long-standing warrants for your arrest?" She gestured towards the beaded doorway behind her, beyond which came the faint sounds of revelry from the gambling tables. "What about the Game?"
"All charges are dropped," said Dima with a predatory smile. "All crimes are forgiven. Paracs has offered to legalize the Game and grant me full license to operate a portal. What's more, he's offering a sizable reward if we turn over the paladin. I told you this was big," she said with a smile, misreading Brianna's expression for excitement. "Don't worry; you'll get a cut. I'm a fair-minded person, you know that."
"Now wait," said Brianna, "I was hired to bring him to Sigil. Bran never said anything about anyone taking him here in Ribcage. And no-one ever said anything about him coming to harm."
Dima snorted. "Come now, you're brighter than that. Bran's people aren't known for their charitable acts. After all the secrecy and deception, what did you think the paladin's fate would be? No, he's in the dead-book already and just doesn't know it yet. As to where it's done, what matter if it be Sigil or here? Dead is dead."
Brianna chewed her lip, her stomach roiling. "But," she said, "his quest was to take him to Sigil."
"Listen to yourself," said Dima, disgusted. "'His quest' indeed. Are you certain you haven't let his good looks get to you? You were paid to do a job. He's a mark, nothing more. I admit he's attractive, but for the amount of jink we'll make from this we can have a dozen men, just as attractive."
"Yes, of course your right," said Brianna after a moment, feeling a cold tremor in her stomach. Dima was right; she had been hired to do a job. And she knew what she must do.
"Good girl," said Dima. "Now here's what I'm thinking. Just because we're going to make a heap of money off this deal doesn't mean we can't get a little more."
"What?" asked Brianna distractedly.
"The price," smirked Dima. "He's willing to pay to get to Sigil, right? So we milk him for all he's worth. He pays for a trip he'll never make, and Paracs shows up and takes care of him, and who'll be the wiser?"
"You want to rob him," asked Brianna in disbelief, "before you betray him to his death?"
"Precisely," said Dima. "You're starting to snap out of it, I see. The trouble is we've got to do it quick - Paracs and his men will be here momentarily, and we'll have lost our chance. So how much, exactly, has the Clueless got, and how much do you think we can get from him?"
Brianna shook her head, vaguely disgusted with the notion. "I'm... not sure. I don't think he's got much. You said," she demanded firmly, changing the subject, "that we only had to delay him?"
"That's right," said Dima, anxious to get back to the discussion of money. "What of it?"
Brianna looked back through the beaded curtains towards the Game. "Deal or not, when Paracs arrives his soldiers are going to cause a commotion working their way through that group. What if Gwydion hears them coming? I've never known you not to have a back entrance." She chose her words carefully. "Are you sure that he's really trapped in there? What if he gets away?"
Dima shook her head. "That room is a total dead end. There was, of course, a back way out once, but I sealed it up when I learned that you might be coming my way."
Brianna felt hope draining from her. The options were dwindling. "How did you know I was coming?" she asked distractedly.
Dima shrugged. "Easy. You need a portal to get to Sigil, and I'm the only game in town. I was more concerned you wouldn't be able to find me than that you might not come. But we're wasting time. Let's get in there and make sure we get the rest of his money." She considered. "Come to that, maybe I'll get a chance to sell that wretched boy into slavery. There's jink to be made from that as well."
"Yes," said Brianna, "let's."
She stepped through the beaded doorway, pushing them aside as she entered. Gwydion looked up from where he had been talking to the boy.
He licked his lips as he caught sight of her. "Did you come to a price?" he asked, as if expecting to hear bad news.
Brianna stared at him. Her stomach fluttered. It was decision time. "A price," she said slowly. "Yes, yes we did."
She reached over, seized the edge of the heavy wooden door, and flung it closed behind her, hearing Dima's startled yelp from the other side.
* * *
When the door slammed
shut, Dima had been coming through the doorway. The heavy door had
struck her full in the face. She rebounded off it and stumbled to
the floor. A moment later she was on her feet, blood streaming from
her nose. "Brianna!" she cried in alarm. "What are you doing!"
Enraged she began pounding on the door. "You fool! Open this
door at once!"
Within, Brianna ignored Gwydion's shocked expression as she fixed the latch. "We are betrayed!" she cried to him. "Paracs and his men will be here in minutes!"
He leaped to his feet. "What can we do?" he asked in alarm.
"Help me brace the door," she said. "Hurry!" She had been standing with her back to the door, holding it closed against Dima's pounding with her weight. There was a stout wooden beam leaning against the wall next to the door. Quickly he bounded across the room, lifted it, and fitted it into the steel hooks which jutted out on either side of the doorway. The beam fit snuggly, and a moment later he backed away. Dima's pounding continued. "Open this door! Open it, I say!"
Gwydion looked over at Brianna. "What now?" he asked.
Somewhere in the distance, muffled by the heavy wooden door, Brianna heard a woman scream. "Paracs men are here!" she cried. "We must fly!"
Gwydion looked frantically around the room, searching for an exit. "How?" he asked in dismay. "I see no exits?"
"There are none," said Brianna, springing to the desk, "unless we can create one."
She began rifling through the tomes and papers which littered its surface.
"What are you looking for?" he asked.
"The portal!" snapped Brianna. "It must be here somewhere - she wouldn't keep it far."
Gwydion glanced at the baleful throne-like chair he had regarded earlier. "Could that be it?" he ventured, pointing at it.
Brianna paused, looked around, and shook her head. "What?" she asked.
She threw him a disgusted look. "Of course not. Now don't bother me."
Gwydion was a little abashed. The massive chair had seemed so unearthly. "Well, what is it then?" he asked.
"That," said the boy dryly, "is a chair."
"Here!" cried Brianna triumphantly, lifting a circular rope-like item from the table. "I have it?"
Gwydion stared at it. "That's a portal?" he asked skeptically. It was not unlike a small necklace in form, appearing to be a simple series of two-inch long segments of cylindrical wood connected to each other by thread to form a circle.
"Yes," said Brianna, tossing it to him and racing over to the nearest bookshelf.
He caught it in some surprise. It didn't feel like anything more than a child's necklace. Was one meant to pass through the hole in the middle? Gwydion found that unlikely. He didn't think he could fit his head through, much less his whole body.
"Where is it?" Brianna muttered as she searched furiously. "Where is it?"
"Where is what?" asked Gwydion.
"The key!" she snarled. "We have to find the key to use the portal. Even a clueless should know that."
He was about to reply when there came an enormous thudding sound from the door. They all froze for a moment. Without, they could hear the sounds of men, and a second thud shook the door. The beam strained but held.
"Paracs!" cried Brianna. "They must have a battering ram!"
"That won't hold for long," said Gwydion, eyeing the steel braces, which were already begining to bend.. He turned to Brianna. "What does it look like, this key of yours? You've seen it before?"
She paused. "It's a neogi. A figurine of a neogi."
He gave her a blank look.
She sputtered in frustration, then held her hands apart. "About this big. Black. Looks like a spider on the bottom, a snake on the top. Sort of."
The door thudded again, and the beam cracked, splintering in the middle. It still held, but it wouldn't hold for much longer. Gwydion felt his stomach lurch at the sight. "In that case, I've got good news and bad news." He unsheathed his sword and faced the door. "I know where the key is."
Brianna whirled. "Where?"
Gwydion nodded towards the door. "Out there. I saw it in the entrance chamber, on one of the low tables."
Brianna gave a little wail and sank back against the wall. "Our lives are forfeit, then," she said.
Gwydion took a hold on Tylith-senshai's hilt. "We'll won't sell them cheaply," he said grimly.
"Is this the key?" asked the boy.
They whirled. He was holding the ugly little figurine Gwydion had noted earlier. Brianna gave a gasp that was halfway between a laugh and a sob. Leaping across the room, she snatched the figurine from the boy's outstretched palm. "Give me the portal!" she said to Gwydion. "There is still hope, if I can activate it in time!"
Gwydion handed it over, still surprised. "Where did you get it?" he asked the boy.
The boy grinned. "I took it from the outer room." He winked. "You were the one who promised Tap wouldn't steal; Tap never did."
Gwydion gave a sardonic grin. "I don't think I've ever been so glad to have been made a liar."
Brianna, meanwhile, had taken hold of the necklace/portal and was searching through the wooden links furiously, as if looking for a specific one.
Another thud came from the door and Gwydion whirled. The beam had splintered almost completely through, and the door itself was showing signs of wear.
"Whatever you're going to do," said Gwydion. "I think you'd better do it fast."
"I'm going as quick as I can," she shot back. "I've only seen this done a couple of times!" She finally located the link she was looking for and held it up triumphantly. To Gwydion's amazement, when she let it go it hung there in midair, suspended by nothingness.
Brianna, however was unsurprised, and quickly she tugged at the next segment, pushing it to the side. It also hung where she left it, and in moments she had arranged the portal into a perfect circle which hung in mid-air. Astounding as this was, however, Gwydion saw that the circle itself was still far too small to fit through.
"Are we supposed to pass through it?" asked Gwydion.
"Of course," came the abrupt answer.
Before he could ask how that could be achieved, she did something with the onyx figurine, lifting it to the topmost link and passing it over it. The segments of wood in the circle began to grow, extending outwards, until the circle had widened to at least two and a half feet in diameter. The air in the center of the circle went hazy, flickering strangely as if he were watching fumes rising.
With a crash, the beam splintered away and a hole was ripped through the door.
A craggy-faced man in a black helmet stuck his face to the small hole, peering across the room at them. "They're here sir!" he cried.
"Open the door, fool!" came the immediate command.
The face disappeared, to be replaced by a gauntleted hand which reached through and began fumbling with the latch.
Gwydion hefted his sword and started forward.
"Don't be a fool!" cried Brianna, seeing his intention. "If you engage them you'll never get through!" She tossed the figurine at him and snatched the boy by the collar. "Follow us and take the key with you!"
The boy yelped in surprise as he was seized by the collar. Brianna actually lifted him from the floor as she heaved him towards the portal. With a cry, he entered the small area in the center of the circle and vanished into thin air.
Without waiting to see if Gwydion followed, she leaped into the portal herself. A heartbeat later, she was gone.
With a crash, the door flew open, and men poured into the room.
In one fluid motion Gwydion sheathed his sword, turned, and leaped for the portal.
For a moment as he passed through the world spun crazily, and he felt his stomach turn.
Then he was flying through the air somewhere else, falling heavily to a cobbled street.
To one side stood Brianna, the boy beside here. She had an anxious expression on her face. "Did you take the key with you?" she demanded.
Behind him, a circle of white light hung suspended in the air. A black gauntleted hand came through, grasping forward blindly just as the white light flickered and died.
The arm, severed at the forearm, dropped to the ground, the fingers of the hand spasming as the portal flickered out of existance.
Gwydion lurched to his knees and bent double as a wave of nausea swept over him. He was vaguely aware that he was no longer holding the onyx figurine, though whether it had flown from his grasp in that interminable time he had hung suspended between worlds within the portal or whether it had spun away from him after, when he had landed so heavily, he did not know.
A wave of dizziness passed over him, and he realized he was on the verge of passing out. He vomited noisily onto the street.