Author Topic: Chapter 52  (Read 1432 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 52
« on: April 11, 2022, 11:39:50 PM »
Chapter 52

Arico hadn’t waited. As soon as they’d packed up the parchments from the other room and set the fire to burn this place down, he’d insisted that they jump out as soon as possible. Nemith and the others had grabbed his arm, and he’d hastened back to the Enclave. He was sure to take Codi along, but he left the two clerks outside on the surface before calling the threads. If he was right, they had no time for prisoners.

As usual, they stepped out of the threads in complete darkness. Arico could hear Nemith head forward, and open the door blocking the passage. Or try to, anyway. “It’s stuck!” He grunted from up ahead. He strained at it audibly, and then let go with a gasp. “I can’t move it!”

“Here, grab my arm again. We’ll try another passage.”

Nemith fumbled around a bit trying to find him, but when he did they were gone again. Arico tried the nearest passage to the west, only to find that he couldn’t even enter this one at all! Rocks had been piled right up to the edge of the threads, and the air was thick with dust.

Back in the threads, Arico turned to the others. “Neither of those passages was on the map they made. They must have sealed them off after. We have to take a more direct approach. We’ll go to the main gate, at the entrance to the keep.”

Nemith and the others looked at each other in surprise. “But we’ll be completely exposed! If anyone’s watching, they’ll see us!”

“If the Enclave is under attack, then diplomacy is already out the window, Nemith,” Arico said, trying to keep his voice calm despite his rising impatience and worry. “Under the circumstances, we don’t have any other choice. They’ve already killed Alzhi,” he said, trying not to think about how it had happened. “I’m not going to let them kill any more of our friends, not if there’s a chance I can stop it!” One by one, they nodded their assent, and Arico navigated them up towards the surface.

This was a rarity—entering the Enclave in the open, under the sky. Sure it was still nighttime, but there was moonlight and the stars were just now starting to peek out from behind the cloud cover. Arico took a quick look through the window in the threads when they arrived. The great gate was shut. There were also what looked like bloodstains on one of the handles. Grimacing, he stepped out of the threads with the rest behind him.

They were only a few spans from the gate itself. Distant shouts and the ringing of steel on steel could be heard up ahead from the other side of the wall. The others loaded their weapons quietly and spread out a bit. Nemith strained against the gate, but it had apparently been barred from the inside.

“They must have taken the entrance at the same time as they sealed the passages. That way they could close the gate and keep any reinforcements out!” He said grimly as he looked up. “The wall is too far from the threads to navigate over. We’d break our legs trying to jump down on top of it.”

Arico opened his mouth to respond, but then shut it. He’d caught a flicker of movement off to the south, just at the corner of the wall. He gave a hand signal to the others—or tried to, anyway. They got the message all the same, and all but one focused on that area. Taen kept watch in the other direction—with Codi slumped on the ground next to him—to keep them from being flanked.

Arico wasn’t sure exactly what tipped him off, in hindsight. Perhaps it was the heavy breaths he heard just before the shadow at the edge of the wall moved. Regardless, it was enough. “Hold your fire!” He exclaimed quickly, and the others did so with military discipline.

Apparently Sabra had been almost as sure they were his enemies. He’d just started to charge around the wall’s corner with a menacing growl, but then came to a stop just as fast. Relief spread over his mangled face and he lowered his massive sword. “Little man! Sabra is glad to see you.” He gestured up at the wall. “Sabra was out for a walk in the night, but the gate was closed when Sabra got back. There’s fighting inside, but Sabra can’t quite climb up to see over!”

“It’s all right, Sabra,” Arico said with the same relief. “Come on to the gate. I’ll get us through.” He led them back to the entrance, and then paused. “Nemith, could you help me take off my swordhand? This’ll be easier without it.”

Nemith looked a little awkward, but helped him unlock and remove his right prosthesis. Arico turned back to the wall, and concentrated. “Stay to the side, everyone. If you’re behind me, you’re in danger.” They all spread out on either side.

By now it was easy enough to pull on the threads, but it still required concentration. He ran the offensive quote over in his head again, as if he needed any excuse to be angry about this. The threads responded, flowing through him from behind, and he pushed them right into the gate. Not at the handles themselves, but to the side. Even with Sabra pushing, there would be no way to open the gates without making a significant amount of noise. This way was quieter, if more permanent.

As if his arm and stump were some kind of white-hot metal rod, he cut his way through the wood and stone and began… ‘drawing’ a hole of sorts. In a second he stopped and began cutting even wider. The hole would have to be big enough to accommodate Sabra as well.

Just as he finished, a large section of wall started to fall inward, but the others were ready. Sabra grabbed it on one side and Nemith on the other, to keep it from falling with a loud clang. Fortunately cutting stone and steel with the threads wasn’t the same as burning it away—they could grip the edges safely without their hands being seared.

They quietly lowered the gate fragment to the ground, and they were in. Nemith led the way with Sabra right behind him, while Taen stayed behind with Arico. Codi stayed as well. He was still trembling and whimpering from his injuries, but at least he was mostly quiet.

There were a pair of guards—Ascendants by their armor and hair—at the tunnel entrance. They were looking down into the keep though, and were caught unawares. Sabra dealt with them in his usual lethal manner, and Arico was in no position to hold him back. With Ascendants invading the keep itself, Sabra was out for blood. Arico doubted anything short of force could stop him from killing his enemies, and right now they simply didn’t have the force it would take. If they even wanted to, he reflected to himself grimly.

At least the entrance was clear now. “Nemith and I will take the lead,” Arico said quickly as he shouldered his way to the front. “We’re the most recognizable humans in the Enclave, so we’re the least likely to get shot by the dwarves. Sabra, you’re behind us. Taen, you stay on the surface with Codi. If we’re not back shortly, or there’s any sign of trouble, take him to the Hideaway and wait for others to show up.” They all nodded, some looking angry and others nervous. For a moment, Arico realized that he was fully back. Hands or no, he was their commander and they trusted him. He allowed himself a tiny smile as he stepped into the tunnel with Nemith. Just as they stepped inside though, a massive, concussive sound rumbled up from beneath them. At the same time the earth itself bucked like an angry horse!

They all lost their footing, even Sabra. This wasn’t like the quake that had signaled Jaas’ arrival into the city at all. That one had been mild in comparison, even if it had lasted much longer.

Dust began billowing up from the passage ahead of them. Even as Nemith and Arico stood up again, there was a crumbling noise from the staircase at the end of the passage, and suddenly it dropped away! Flagstones and dirt fell after it, and they both scrambled backwards to avoid falling in as well. Sabra grabbed them both by their tunics and hauled them out of the tunnel to safety, but even after leaving the passage, they had to move back still further as more ground fell away. Before long the entire passageway had been… consumed.

Dust was everywhere. Arico covered his nose and mouth as best he could, and the others pulled their tunics up over their faces to breathe. Despite the dust cloud rising up from the gaping hole ahead of them, Arico could see enough to know that there was nothing left. The entire keep had fallen down into the hole. If anyone had survived the explosions down there, the collapsing debris would have finished them off. He and Nemith looked at each other grimly.

“What in the Many just happened?” Sabra exclaimed, coughing afterwards. They backed off into the keep’s entryway a little more, to what felt like steadier ground.

“It’s the Hauld’s failsafe,” Arico said, hearing how dead his voice sounded. It was over now. They’d failed.

“Alzhi, Arico and I were the only humans he told about it,” Nemith continued for him in the same tone as he surveyed the damage. “In case the keep was ever invaded and taken over. The Hauld had barrels full of sparkpowder set up at several places throughout the structure, and fuses connecting them. If the worst should happen, all it would take is one spark to light the fuses, and the whole place would be…” he gestured into the barely-visible pit. “Well, this.”

Arico just stared for a few moments more. One of the reasons the keep was so massive—that it extended so far underground—was because it was home to every single dwarf in the Enclave. The dwarves all spread out through the Enclave’s various patches every morning to conduct their daily business, but this late at night, every dwarf would have been at home, asleep. The Hauld. Chanul. Otrul. Marik. Tor. Pelavo. So, so many others. His friends—his family, all buried in an instant.

Then he started. Durhu! Jaas! The Fishbowl might still be intact! After all, it had been dug out well after the keep had been completed, and it had originally been nothing more than a waystation for human refugees. The Hauld had no reason to bury any sparkpowder there as well.

He glanced at Nemith again and could see he was reaching the same thought. They turned at the same time, looking back at the threads, only to see more people by the keep’s outer wall. There were seven in total, the last one just now coming through the very same gap Arico had cut. “Don’t move!” The one in the middle commanded harshly.

They were all city guards except the one who’d spoken, who was clearly an Ascendant. They all had their weapons already aimed, and Arico held out an arm to his friends, to prevent them doing the same.

For a single, crystal-clear moment, absolute silence reigned in the space between them. The billowing smoke and dust behind them kept rising, but didn’t block either side from seeing the other.

Suddenly Sabra growled at the enemies, holding his /sword in one hand and a chunk of red brick in the other. Some of the guards took a step back, but the Ascendant commander didn’t waver. He looked Arico up and down in one glance, and gave a predatory smile. “Kill them all except the cripple in the middle,” he ordered, raising his own matchlock. “Fire.”

Arico had already reached out to the threads while the man gave his instructions. He pulled on them as quickly as he could—not from directly ahead, but from a few spans to the north and to the south. Just in time, they came to the tip of his arm, forming two paper-thin vertical walls between his friends and his enemies.

The guards were well-trained. No doubt they would have killed everyone, even Sabra, with their precision shots, but their bullets simply vanished as they hit the thread-walls between both groups. They all stared, openmouthed, as their apparently bulletproof enemies were completely untouched.

Arico let go of the threads and looked around, and he could tell his feelings were mutual in his friends as well. They were all itching for a fight, but just didn’t have time for any of this. Without even thinking, he yanked the threads from directly behind the guards this time, pulling an invisible line to himself. They came at him horizontally, and then he just let them go again.

As one, all the guards collapsed. The line had cut through each of them, shoulder to shoulder—or ear to ear for some of the shorter ones—killing them instantly. As they fell, blood and brains spilled out onto the ground around them. Only the commander, who was a navigator and therefore immune to this kind of attack, was left alive.

His face went white and he scrambled backwards, tripping over the gap in the wall. As he got up again, Arico looked to his right. “Sabra.”

Grinning darkly, Sabra hefted the chunk of brick in his left hand. He threw it easily, almost nonchalantly, but with impressive accuracy. It struck the navigator in the back of his head with a sickening crunch, and he fell to the ground just shy of the threads.

Arico looked at Nemith and the others. They were all still staring at the bodies in shock, so he tapped Nemith with his left arm. “Come on. We have to get to the Fishbowl.”

Nemith snapped out of it, sort of. When Arico lifted his arms again, Nemith and the others took hold just as they’d done before. Sabra did so without hesitation, still smirking at the dead navigator, but Nemith’s expression was now more fearful than surprised.


Jaas wasn’t entirely sure what had woken her. Perhaps it was something in the air, or the unnatural silence outside, where she could usually hear crickets from outside the Fishbowl. Regardless, the hair on her arms bristled and she knew something was wrong.

After slipping out of bed and getting a quick drink of water, Jaas crossed the room and looked out the pinhole in her front door. The limited scope of view showed nothing out of the ordinary. Just the Fishbowl as normal, late at night with the stars just beginning to appear from behind the cloud cover. By request, she’d been moved to one of the top-level dwellings so that she could see the night sky more easily.

Then a figure crossed her field of vision, too quickly to be identified. And another, and another. Five figures later, they seemed to be done. Whoever they were, they were moving fast. Jaas gave it a few seconds, and then inched the door open to get a better look. It was a full group of people all right, moving up the slow incline on the inside of the Bowl, apparently heading to the surface. Strangely, not all of them were walking. Two of them were carrying someone, from the looks of it.

As they passed the torch at the top of the Bowl, Jaas finally got a good look at them, and held in a gasp of surprise. The unconscious man was Durhu! The others may have been dressed in normal brown and green like average Fishbowlers, but the way they moved was hauntingly familiar. They were soldiers, Jaas was sure of it.

The Ascendants were here.

Jaas closed the door and put her back to it, breathing heavily and trying to concentrate. There had been no alarm bell from below, so their dwarven guards were all either dead or unconscious like Durhu. If the intruders were taking him up to the surface, that meant the underground tunnels into this patch were off-limits for some reason.

Even as she came to that conclusion the ground shuddered slightly beneath her, and dust filtered down from above. Another concussive blast sounded closer nearby, and another further away. Jaas peeked outside again and sure enough, smoke and dust were rising from three equidistant tunnel entrances. They must have blasted the tunnels to make sure that no one could escape. Well, except by going up to the surface, which they were definitely guarding by now.

Her heart thumping in her chest, Jaas sprang into action. The original Jaas who’d stumbled into this city and wandered around like a child would probably have been panicking right now, but this Jaas had other options. Aside from the training the dwarves had given her, she’d also been told about emergency protocols to follow, in case of attack. For once, the dwarven paranoia concerning the Ascendants was turning out to be useful.

She hurried over to her notes and began gathering them up. They were all written in Uatoni of course, but there was no guarantee the Council wouldn’t be able to decipher them eventually. She had to get rid of them before the Ascendants up there started going door to door. They clearly weren’t here to kill everyone or they would have started shooting people already. The fact that they’d taken Durhu meant that they knew there were at least a few valuable prisoners here. Perhaps they were also after Arico… or her, Jaas realized after a moment.

At least there was a good hiding place already here in her dwelling. Chanul had showed it to her himself, but she never thought she’d have to use it. She ran over to the fireplace and hurriedly pressed the secret switch on the mantle with her elbow. She held the switch in for a few seconds, and the hearth suddenly moved backwards into the wall, revealing a stone gap underneath. Jaas stuffed all her notes in there, wincing at how she was putting them all out of order, and then quickly pressed against the switch again. A few more seconds and the fire moved back into place. The switch was perfectly hidden against the stone, and people were unlikely to search a burning fireplace, making it an almost perfect hiding spot.

Now it was her turn. Below, screams had started to echo up towards her. The other Fishbowlers were probably discovering the blocked passages right now.

By now there was shouting from down below as well. Harsh voices, no doubt Ascendants. Her gun was down in the armory below, so she grabbed a sharp knife from the kitchen and opened the front door once again. Only to find herself staring right into the eyes of a surprised-looking Ascendant who had just been reaching for the handle!

They moved at the same time. She tried to back away, and he lunged forward into the dwelling, knocking her down. The impact knocked her knife from her hand as well, but it also loosened his own gun from his grip, sending it skidding a few paces across the floor. Desperately, Jaas scrambled for it, but a heavy weight came down on her back, pinning her to the floor. The weight vanished briefly before he kicked her in the side, hard.

The pain was incredible! She wanted to scream, but was too busy gasping for air as he kicked her again and again for good measure. She curled up under the blows, trying to protect her stomach and chest.

Thankfully he tired of it quickly. He grabbed her by the shoulder and hauled her to her feet. Bending her arm painfully behind her back to keep her close, he paused for a moment. “So you’re the mighty Harbinger?” He said abrasively. “The woman who will end the whole city? You certainly don’t look like much.”

He was about the same height as her. In answer, Jaas swung her head back, right into his face. She was rewarded by hearing his nose break, probably, as he let go and she ran forward into the kitchen.

This Ascendant was well trained, though. She’d barely reached the kitchen when she was hit again in the back and bounced off the counter. In an instant he’d grabbed her again, this time by the hair right at the scalp where it hurt most. Jaas cried out in pain as he pulled her back into the living room.

“You’re lucky my orders are to take you in undamaged, bitch,” he ground out, his voice noticeably thicker and angrier. He spat blood on the ground next to them. “Otherwise I’d teach you a lesson you’d never forget!”

Jaas was too terrified to move much, but he clearly hadn’t seen: while she’d been against the kitchen table, she’d been able to grab one of the other knives! She surreptitiously inched the blade up next to her wrist to hide it better. In this position, with him holding her from behind, she stood no chance of getting in a good blow with it.

“What are you afraid of?” Jaas taunted, thinking desperately. She had a plan, or the beginnings of one anyway. “Let me guess: you don’t want to tell the other Ascendants that it was a woman who broke your nose?”

His grip tightened briefly. Clearly she’d hit a nerve. “You’ve already left a bunch of bruises on me—maybe broken a rib or two. Are you too much of a coward to go any further? If you want to teach me a lesson, then teach me! Go ahead and try it!”

“You know, maybe you’re right,” he said after a moment. Growling, he turned her around, and she could see the blood on his face. She was still too close to use the knife, though. “You should learn a little humility before I take you in.”

He took a step back, still holding her by the hair with his left hand. As he raised the other in a fist, she kneed him hard in the groin. He grunted in pain and his grip on her scalp loosened briefly, just enough for her to break free. Without even thinking, she gripped the knife in both hands and jammed it as hard as she could into the side of his neck!

Blood sprayed out from the edges of the wound, and she raised an arm to cover her face. Her attacker staggered backwards with a hand to his neck, emitting a faint gurgle, and slumped against the wall. He looked up at her in shock and hatred.

Jaas had studied enough of anatomy to know that he would probably bleed to death in a few seconds. It looked like she’d cut his vocal cords as well, so he’d do it quietly. Despite being covered in blood, Jaas approached him again. Not knowing quite why, she knelt in front of him and looked him in the eyes again. “Never assume that anyone is helpless. Even a woman,” she told him in a strangely calm voice, and then reached up and pulled the knife out.

More blood spurted from his neck, and he slid to the ground with a horrible gagging noise.

Her mind was still reeling with the shock of it all, but Jaas just didn’t have any time to dwell on it. She ran into the bedroom and dressed herself quickly, in a traveler’s tunic this time. She still had a lot of blood on her skin, but most of it was obscured by the robe and hood. Jaas picked up the fallen gun, but it looked like the wadding and shot had fallen out when he’d dropped it. She scooped them up as well before heading outside. Apparently the Ascendants were splitting up on the upper and lower levels, so at least she had a few moments before someone else came here.

Some of them were probably still down on the bottom level, though. Laying down behind the bench outside her front door, Jaas tried to load the dead man’s weapon as quietly as possible. Her hands were shaking though, and still slippery with blood. Even as she tried to place the rounded bullet it slipped from her grasp, bounced off the walkway and fell down… into the Bowl below. There were screams and shouts still coming up from the lower levels.

Jaas cursed under her breath. There was more ammo in the armory down below, but it was almost certainly under Ascendant control by now. Gripping the knife, she began moving towards the top. It was possible she might be able to sneak past the Ascendants up there, if their attention was diverted. Escaping the patch was obviously out of the question, but if she could make it to the tallgrass outside the Bowl, she might be able to hide there. As long as it was dark, anyway. It didn’t look like dawn was far off.

Then a shot rang out from below. “Quiet!” A voice shouted up following it. “All of you, shut up!” A quiet fell on the whole Fishbowl, punctuated by faint sobs.

Jaas glimpsed down to the flattened base of the Bowl, which was encircled by five or six individual dwellings. The center was well-lit with four torches in corners, and she could see prisoners down there. At least a dozen Fishbowlers, surrounded by half as many armed Ascendants. She clenched her teeth when she recognized Tarith down there.

An Ascendant captain, by the pin on his tunic, was most likely the one who’d shouted. His bald head glistened with sweat in the night air, as he turned to one of his men. “Report.”

Even this far up the voices carried easily. The Fishbowl had always been very acoustic. The soldier saluted his captain. “We found the old man a few minutes ago, sir; he’s already on his way back to Sevvas patch by now. There’s no sign of the heretic or the Harbinger, though. The search is ongoing.”

The captain glanced at the prisoners on their knees. “And them?”

The Ascendant shrugged in response. “None of them have said anything useful. Either they don’t know anything, or they’re not talking. If you want, I can pick one and ask questions more forcefully.”

“No,” the captain said, shaking his head. “Even if they did give answers that we could trust, we don’t have time for that. Just kill them and let’s get out of here. The other group should be done with the dwarven keep by now.” He turned away, and the remaining Ascendants all aimed their weapons at the prisoners.

Time seemed to slow down as Jaas saw them take aim. A thousand options flashed through her head, each just as useless as the last!

“Stop!” Jaas shouted down at them in desperation, scrambling to her feet. In an instant at least a dozen weapons were pointed up at her instead, but mercifully none of them fired. Her heart was pounding just as fast as it had back in her dwelling, but just as before, her mind was suddenly calm. She knew what she had to do.

“I’m the Harbinger,” she called out into the night air, looking at the captain. “I’m the one you want.” The surprise on his face faded quickly, replaced with grim satisfaction. He nodded to either side of her, and she was peripherally aware of Ascendants coming at her from above and below.

There was only one move here—only one card she had left to play. Grimly, she raised the bloody knife to her own neck. “Tell them to stop, captain! Do it now, or I open my throat right here, in front of everyone.”

He didn’t look like the sharpest of men, but he clearly understood what that threat meant. Reluctantly, he raised his hand again and the soldiers stopped moving. “You’d kill yourself, just like that? For them?” He asked sardonically.

“The question you should be asking is what you will do if that happens, captain,” she said confidently.

There was comfort in knowing you had nothing left to lose. And surety, as it turned out. “How will you explain yourself to the Council,” she continued grimly, “once they find out you could have easily taken the Harbinger alive, and instead you let her die? What will they do to you as punishment?”

He grimaced. “State your terms.”

Jaas ignored him for the moment. “Tarith! Ansanah! Are you all right?”

There was some rustling among the prisoners, and then she clearly heard Tarith’s voice filter up out of them. “I’m here, Jaas. Mother’s hurt, and so are a few others.”

Jaas let out a breath of relief. At least they stood a chance now. “Listen Tarith, I want you to take your mother and the others up to the surface, you hear? You go straight to the threads and you disappear. The captain here will let you go,” she speared the bald man with a harsh look, “or he’ll have a lot of explaining to do later on.”

Tarith pushed his way out of the small group and looked up at her. “But what about you? I can’t just-”

“Do as I say, Tarith. Take care of them. It’s all on you now, you understand? Your father told you where to go if something like this happened, didn’t he?”

Tarith nodded, and let out a sniffle. “Yes, Jaas.”

“Then go,” she repeated, “and don’t look back!”

At Tarith’s urging the rest all stood up as one, still huddled together. Ansanah and another woman were apparently unconscious, and were picked up by the rest. They started to move towards the ramp up, but the guards didn’t budge. Their guns were all pointed back to the prisoners again.

Jaas locked eyes with the captain, and dug the knife a little into her neck. She could feel a line of blood trickle down into her tunic. Even now she was tempted to stab away, just to spite him. She’d been relatively unharmed during the attack, but that was because of special orders. From the injuries she could see on the women down there, the Ascendants hadn’t held back with them. Their clothing had been torn in very specific ways, and those who weren’t obviously injured were still shaking and sobbing with what had been done to them.

Jaas felt a boiling rage. The Ascendants were supposed to be professional soldiers, but these men were nothing but animals, taking what they wanted whenever they could!

For a moment she thought her enemy was going to press the issue, but perhaps her anger showed on her face. After a few seconds, his face tight with frustration, the bald man gestured again and the Ascendants lowered their weapons. One after another, the prisoners slowly climbed the ramp upwards. Jaas insisted on staying within sight of them, just high enough to see them reach the threads. Once there, Tarith reached out and vanished with the others. Jaas felt a warm moment of pride. Even at eleven, he was braver than most of the people in this wretched city. Almost before they were gone, strong arms had grabbed her hands and pulled the knife away.
« Last Edit: April 12, 2022, 01:44:31 AM by Daen »