Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:45 a.m.
Huntley crawled off of Oliver, the bigger man’s knees digging painfully into Oliver’s thigh as Huntley dragged himself to the side. The single-use emergency ward Huntley had activated flickered against the dust and debris, then died.
Huntley coughed, rising to his hands and knees to turn a baleful scowl onto Oliver’s prone form. “What were you thinking, you imbecile!? You were standing there in clear view of the enemy! Did you think none of them would try to take advantage of that? You can’t expect to use the prisoners as a shield if you’re actively slaughtering them!”
Oliver groaned, feeling as if his body were a scrambled egg. He had been thinking that Elmira was crippled and dying, and that they were all being suffocated into debility. He had been thinking that the situation was desperate, and that killing the prisoners might give them some leeway. They would do too much damage if they were allowed to go free, anyway.
In a way, his plan had worked.
Oliver rolled onto his side, coughing out a fine spray of blood onto the filthy cobblestones. He stared at it in surprise for a couple of seconds, then climbed unsteadily to his feet. His battle wand was gone, and when he took a step, he stumbled and would have fallen if not for Huntley’s stabilizing grip. Long wooden splinters had impaled Oliver’s leg in several places. He reached down and tugged at the largest, but his fingers slipped off the bloody surface, and the movement sent another dizzying explosion of pain throughout his chest and back.
He straightened, fumbling for the emergency healing potion he kept within a metal-plated pocket of his jacket. The reinforced crystal of the vial was thankfully still intact. Oliver downed it in a single searing gulp, his eyes closed against the light of its glow, and Huntley surprised him by yanking a piece of wood as long and thick as his forefinger from Oliver’s leg. The rest, he left in, simply wrapping the whole mess in a large green handkerchief.
The healing potion spread its magic throughout Oliver’s chest, but, despite its potency and commensurate price, he could feel it petering out against his natural resistance before it made it much further. One of the many curses of his bloodline.
Huntley helped him to stand and move away a little, sending a spray of fire over the ground where Oliver had fallen, hot enough to render any bits of flesh or splatters of blood unusable.
Coughing again, Oliver looked out over the battlefield. While he was still insensate after the attack, someone had taken down the air witch and a couple of the others, but the remaining enemy forces hadn’t lost their determination, even though there were only a handful left. That didn’t bode well. A couple were crouched down behind liquid stone barriers, but some moved to run off to the side. They didn’t appear to be fleeing in panic.
A masked person stepped out of the darkness around the corner and shot a stunning spell at one of the withdrawing attackers, hitting them in the back and sending them into a comical, painful-looking sprawl. The masked person, whose only distinguishing feature was their chin-length blonde hair, nodded at Oliver and returned to the darkness. His first thought was that one of his people had been clever enough to disguise themselves and infiltrate the enemy, but he didn’t recognize that mask, and all of the spells that had been tossed around so casually tonight had been lethal, not safely incapacitating. It seemed the enemy had a traitor in their midst.
Oliver drew a deep breath to shout again for their people to retreat into Knave Knoll, throwing himself into a coughing fit. They needed to hurry, because he was worried about the enemy circling around to come at them from the sides, or even try to cut them off entirely. But Huntley understood this as well, and it was he who shouted the order, saving Oliver the pain.
His men moved as quickly as their battered bodies could manage, using the wagons and some hastily poured liquid stone in the gaps and even over the wood itself to create a barrier between themselves and the few remaining enemies on the main street. They used what horses still lived to carry bound prisoners like sacks of grain. As people passed over the canal bridge to the front of Knave Knoll, Oliver looked for Elmira. She had been downed by that first blow that knocked him off his feet, one of her legs shattered near the hoof, but still alive, lying on the ground beside the wagon.
At first he found only chunks of meat, wood, and broken cobblestone whose specific origin he couldn’t distinguish. There had been eight prisoners in that single wagon, and at least half of them had been caught by the witch’s vindictive final attack. Then he found Elmira’s head. It lay a few meters away from where she’d fallen, blown away from her body. He had hoped that perhaps she could still have been saved. With enough money and the right magic, even a pulverized leg was not a death sentence for an Erythrean. No such hope remained in him, and he turned away.
Together, he and his remaining men moved over the canal, every step sending a spike of knee-trembling pain up through his leg. The front doors of Knave Knoll opened, waiting for them to reach it.
Oliver instinctively glanced back at the sound of splashing water behind them. When he saw the group arriving, shooting along the waters of the canal itself at the speed of a galloping horse, for just a moment he thought that the reinforcements he’d called for had come up with some strange and innovative new method of travel.
That moment was over faster than the blink of an eye, as he immediately realized they weren’t his reinforcements at all. They were the enemy’s.
Stopping before the bridge, a huge water elemental clambered out of the canal. Elementally imbued liquid made up the body of a great sea turtle, swirling a serene, crystalline blue with streaks of rust red concentrating around its shell.
Eight more enemies sat upon its transparent back. Its witch rode in a strange saddle at the base of its neck, while the others clung on wherever they could find a grip.
The sea turtle’s paddle-like flippers were poorly suited to walking on land, but as its human cargo hopped off, it rose into the air, floating as if it were in the water. On the mundane plane, such a stunt must take quite a lot of energy to maintain.
Oliver’s people responded quickly to the new threat, some attacking the turtle and its former riders while others hurried to move their prisoners and injured into Knave Knoll.
From the battlements above, spells rained down, and Oliver caught a glimpse of Siobhan, looking like the bright-eyed school mistress everyone had been terrified of as a child. Her grey-streaked hair was pulled back in a severe bun, her artificially blue eyes seemed to glow against the backdrop of the darkness, and her expressionless face promised punishment.
She pulled a bright green potion out of her bag, stood, and hurled it in a full body motion toward the rear of their position, where one of their enemies had been trying to circle around them.
The potion vial broke on impact, spilling across the man’s chest and activating with a screeching sizzle. The man screamed with matching shrillness as his clothes and skin melted away with a burst of steam.
The turtle turned sideways so that its shell was facing his people, swimming quickly between them and its crew. It caught the majority of their spell attacks on its rust-swirled shell, which took far less damage than it should have, only to quickly begin to repair itself.
Siobhan stood up again, hurling another of her green vials. It seemed to agitate the elemental, drawing a warbling scream from its throat. Its waters swirled more quickly, and then some green-tinged drops rained down, expelling the potion along with some of its mass. This seemed only to make it angry, however, and it swam faster through the air as the water witch glared murderously at Siobhan.
A bruise-purple spell shot toward Siobhan. Without any change in her alert, focused expression, she lazily sidestepped it, her battle wand flicking out from some hidden spot and shooting two bright red stunning spells toward the enemy who had attacked her, one just over his left shoulder, to draw his attention, and the second right behind it, aimed for the spot he stepped into as he attempted to dodge. She barely even watched to make sure the man went down.
Protected by Huntley, Oliver was one of the last to make it past Knave Knoll’s entryway. As the doors closed behind him, he caught sight of a large group of uniformed coppers arriving from the south, moving in an alert formation and armed for battle.
One of the guards by the door looked them over. “Healer Nidson is set up in the infirmary for anyone who needs help.”
Huntley turned immediately to Oliver, wearing a half-expectant, half-demanding expression. “Let’s go.”
Oliver waved him off. “I already took a healing potion. There are more important things for me to do at the moment, and people who need help more than me.” Doing his best to disguise the agony it caused, he made his way up the stairs to the office on the second floor, where the security measures were controlled, and where he hoped to find Mr. Gerard waiting with some good news.
Instead, he found that Gerard had gone out on a suicide mission, leaving one of the lower-level enforcers in charge.
Three of their five prisoner convoys, he learned, had made it to their destination without issue, but the reinforcements Oliver had called for had never arrived. Those who came from Knave Knoll to help were some of the enforcers who had been meant to escort the final convoy.
Outside, the coppers were hurriedly setting up a barricade. They had activated spotlights that shined down on the attacks, similar to what had been done to the convoy. Using a voice-amplifying artifact, one of them called for those fighting both down below and on the roof to stand down or be met with force.
The turtle turned toward them and spewed out a concentrated stream of water, not at any of the people, but at the liquid stone barriers they were trying to establish. The expanding potion was washed away even as it was being poured, before it could solidify, and those coppers that were clipped by the stream of water were knocked off their feet.
Knave Knoll was burnt. After the original conspicuous battle to take down the Morrows, the coppers couldn’t afford to keep letting incidents like this happen. It made them look ineffectual. With Knave Knoll’s location and purpose known, it was useless.
The coppers needed a win, and Oliver only hoped he could take advantage of that to redirect some of the following antagonism away from his people. Despite the fighting, he and Lynwood were effectively delivering over a hundred criminals to pump up the arrest numbers, and if the coppers could overcome those attacking the building, they could claim victory in a huge battle.
At least if it had to happen, it had happened here, Oliver acknowledged. Knave Knoll was located in a more industrial area, so there weren’t as many people out on the streets. There were few homes in the area, and any homeless that could have become collateral damage during the battle had the opportunity to run away. The surrounding buildings had not been the focus of any attacks, leaving the innocent mostly unscathed.
But as Oliver turned to the messages hanging from the distagram on a curling strip of paper, his attention slipped away from the fighting and any plans to manage the fallout.
The reinforcements he’d called for hadn’t come because they were needed elsewhere. At nearly the same time their convoy had been ambushed, two of their major storehouses and the Verdant Stag—their home base—had also triggered emergency alarms.
Was someone trying to loot their supplies while they were too busy elsewhere to respond?
But then, even as he watched, the distagram printed a third, simple code of letters and numbers. The alarm for the Verdant Stag’s underground vault had been triggered. The vault that so few people knew about, where he kept only the most important items. Katerin couldn’t have revealed its location, not even under torture.
This, more than anything, cemented his surety that the Architects of Khronos had been behind the attack, despite how much he’d been hoping for an alternative explanation. He knew this, because that was the same hidden, secure vault where he kept the censer they had given as a tribute to the Raven Queen, while waiting to sell it.
It was also, however, where he kept the book. The one that he’d paid well to have stolen from the University’s archaeological expedition. The real book, replaced without anyone’s knowledge with one that looked similar from another box, well before anyone had a chance to catalogue Myrddin’s journals.
It was this replacement book, of course, that Siobhan had been so unfortunate as to steal, and before the University could even discover the duplicity. Now, somehow, the spiral of events leading out from that single action had brought them here.
Oliver had to get back to the Verdant Stag.
Original Author Note: I was pretty wiped out for over a week, but I’m slowly getting back on my feet. Still low on stamina. I hate missing so much writing time like this, but I’m looking forward to jumping back into the story with the beginning of Book 4.
Thanks for all your support and kind words of encouragement. 🙂 Enjoy the chapter!
1. A little sneak peek at a couple of the short story ideas that patrons are voting on right now, chosen at random from the list of 10:
Liza’s Special Ops: After her child-soldier service in the Haze War, Liza was part of a special ops squad that carried out missions for the High Crown. This short story would show one of those missions, and likely touch on the incident that has pushed Liza to her current situation in the time of the PGTS main storyline. (And possibly show her first meeting with a child-sized Oliver.)
The Honeymoon Suite: Titus (Damien’s older brother) finds out about the “honeymoon suite” misunderstanding involving Damien, Sebastien, and the hotel clerk. He remembers that Sebastien was found with a dress in his bag during Newton’s Aberrant incident, and comes to the wrong conclusions about Sebastien’s relationship with his little brother. Later, drinking whiskey with his too-nice friend Oliver Dryden, who is once again trying to get him involved in some philanthropic endeavor or another, Titus changes the subject to Damien’s school successes, trying to pry out some information about this suspicious Sebastien. Oliver is a little tipsy, doesn’t think it through, and tries to hide their connection. Titus sees right through this and comes to his own conclusions. Obviously, Damien’s fragile heart is in danger of being broken by some untrustworthy scoundrel. POV Titus. (If I write this, it might end up becoming canonical.)
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