copyright 2013

Melody Daggerhart

All rights reserved.

Chapter 27: Element of Surprise

Up a ladder through a sewer grate hidden between bushes and thick roots, Aija and her elven cohorts emerged into Thálynessa's Dark Market District.

Trizryn held a finger to his lips to remind Aija to keep silent, then let his pale-skinned illusion slip away. Looking to Shei, he pointed to the back of his hand.

The bard nodded in understanding and doused the will-o-wisps with a gesture that looked more like he was catching a couple of fireflies. Cupping Aija's face in his hands, he silently reworked the amount of light in the illusion she wore until her alabaster skin darkened to absolute pitch. Then, he darkened his own skin and hair in a similar fashion.

There were now three dark elves, instead of one, and that seemed to amuse the true dark elf among them. But even then his humor seemed strained by the task ahead of them.

Shei lifted the ends of Trizryn's long white hair in his dark fingers, but the latter shook his head and tucked all stray locks within his black hood. The three of them were now almost indistinguishable from the night.

The streets were deserted because of the late hour, but many lights remained in the dwellings within the trunks and boughs of the towering trees. Trizryn scanned the web-like network of bridges overhead and indicated the bard should use that route to reach the stables. Shei gave the bow and quiver back to him and headed up the stairs that spiraled around another tree leading to a second level.

"Will he be alright without weapons?" she whispered, worried about Shei going off on his own like that.

"He's got his sword, his magic, and a way with words. That's usually all he needs. Stay here for a minute." Darkness upon darkness, Trizryn crept toward the Twin Stags cellar.

Still and silent, Aija watched as he tested the door. It must have been locked from within because, after a few seconds, he crept around the base of the ancient tree to evaluate the situation at the front.

As she continued to wait, she stared at her ink-black hands. Wearing magic felt like wearing a paper-thin electro-magnetic field, and she was afraid she would punch through it at any minute. It wasn't uncomfortable, just … strange.

When Trizryn returned from his survey of the tavern grounds, he crouched beside her and kept his voice low. "The common room looks deserted, so if K'tía and Róbynn are being held here, they're in one of the closed-off rooms. The problem is finding out which one."

"I could take one level and you could take another."

"I don't want you going in. You're not ready for this, Aija." He looked at the tavern. "I'm not even sure I am."

Aija was surprised at his rare slip of confidence, but she understood his hesitation. His summoner was probably in there, and the last time he ran into her, she betrayed and almost killed him. This time, the lives of his sister and friends were at stake. "Blind the guards long enough to search the place."

"That would alert them to my presence before luring them away from any hostages." The elf turned his luminescent gaze back to her. "Still got that disk?"

"Mh." She nodded.

"I'm going to start at the top and work my way down. The disk should keep the front door clear for my exit. Once I'm inside, press the button, cast it through the broken window at the front, then meet me back here." He dug into the pack on her back and removed a small case. "If anyone sees you, run and hide. Don't try to fight unless you have no other choice." With that final warning, Trizryn slipped away from her and stole through the shadows toward the tavern once more.

Aija found the silver disk and drew her knees to her chin. Sitting in that tense, hunched position, she could just make out the thief's silhouette as he scaled the spiral stairs molded around the tree. She winced as he hooked an arm under the rail, wedged one leg behind a post, and slid beneath it. From there, he leaned down over the ledge to see into one of the small, round windows. It was a precarious position, but somehow he still managed to open the window.

She continued to watch, holding her breath as he inched closer to the edge. But then he grasped the window sill, flipped over, and pulled himself inside. The ease with which he performed the break-in left her relieved and disturbed. When he boasted earlier about being a good thief … he wasn't lying.

Steeling her courage, Aija crept toward the front of the tavern's trunk, careful to stay in the shadows as he had. Rising on her toes just enough to reach the broken window, she could see the common room was still deserted—an eery contrast to how lively it was when she last saw it.

Following his instructions, she pushed the button in the center of the disk and tossed it through the broken pane. She expected to hear an explosion from the elven grenade, then realized her dangerous proximity. I should probably run!

Chastising herself for having no experience with things like this, Aija started to bolt. Instead, an unidentifiable sound wooshed through the room, and she dropped to her knees and covered her head.

The guards at the front threw open the doors and ran inside, cursing. Something crashed to the floor, then a loud roar shook the entire establishment.

What in the world did Trizryn pack into that disk? Grasping the window sill, she looked inside again.

The five-headed, serpentine beast that previously guarded the halls of Absin'navad now stood snapping and snarling at the guards in the center of the common room, and it was no longer transparent. The hydra had knocked the candelier to the floor. Its tail swept broken furniture across the room.

Two elven guards tried to defend themselves against it. More guards hidden in the cellar and back chambers came running to see what the commotion was. But as they rushed forward to rid themselves of the threat, the hydra made short work of anyone who came close.

Watching it feed made Aija's stomach turn, but she had to admit she was impressed with the thief's little surprise.

It wasn't long before Trizryn appeared from around the curve of the upstairs hall. He did something to the door of the room near the upstairs landing, but when he threw it open and didn't find what he was seeking, he pocketed his tools and half-slid, half-rolled over the balcony. Dropping to the floor with the ease of a cat, he ignored the chaos around him and ran to the tavern's kitchen. That room yielded no hostages either, but it attracted the attention of the city guards chasing him.

Trizryn thrust out a hand to project some kind of force into the front man's chest, flinging him across the room into the bar before he could get near enough to fight. Then the dark elf ran past the beast to the front door to be sure the escape path was clear.

As Aija continued to watch the horror unfold, an elf clad in black-leather armor ran out of Róbynn's room, slid beneath the hydra, and slammed a hand down on the disk that summoned the beast. The hydra looked beneath its talons and gave one final multifaceted roar before it was banished. Simultaneously, the hydra slayer drew a dagger with a jagged blade and was back on his feet, running after the thief.

"Trizryn! Behind you!" Something sharp bit into Aija's hand, and she glanced down to see she'd cut herself on the window's broken glass.

The dark elf scowled at her with displeasure for still being at the window, but her warning was successful. Trizryn dodged, spun, and kicked the other elf in the face. His opponent was not only staggered, he was sent flying across the room and slammed into the bar counter.

The other elf was stunned at first, but then chuckled in a grim manner and wiped his bloodied nose. "I always hated that mental sucker punch of yours. Now you've added it to a kick. Impressive."

With emerald green eyes and feathery brown hair, he could have been attractive, but there was no tangible emotion beneath his smile. Aija knew this must be the assassin Trizryn warned her about before they left the ruins.

The other elf rose to his feet. "Long time no see, Triz. I was beginning to think Shei failed to deliver our message. But here you are, as expected. Better late than never." He looked toward the window. "And you brought a friend."

Aija shifted uncomfortably at the way the elven assassin looked at her.

"Now, what are the chances of you hooking up with another dark elf in Thálynessa? Slim to nothing, I'm guessing. So, is that her? The human you sold your freedom for?"

The assassin started toward her, but the thief positioned himself between them. "Where are K'tía and Róbynn?"

The other elf smirked at the protective move and turn of conversation. "In the cellar, of course."

Holding onto his suspicion, Trizryn cast a look of warning toward Aija. "Run," she heard him tell her before heading to the cellar.

But Aija couldn't run. She was frozen with fear of what might happen next.

The assassin looked at the bodies smeared across on the floor, glanced back to Aija with another smirk, but then gave his dagger a twirl and casually fell into step behind the thief.

))((

Alert to any movements in the dim light, Trizryn tried to count the number of heartbeats waiting for him below. Ten or less, he guessed, but how many of them were city guards? His descent into the cellar slowed to a halt when he saw someone standing at the bottom—Kassí.

"We just picked up a black-haired man with pretty green eyes. Put up quite a fight. An associate of yours, I presume?" Kassí gestured to the floor area below the stairs.

The thief's jaw clenched at the sight of Reznetha'ir's capture, but that had been part of the plan, hadn't it—to set up a decoy inside the trap? He was relieved to see K'tía and Róbynn, as well, seated on the floor against the kegs. The hostages, however, were separated around the room—bound, gagged, and heavily guarded.

"How about we make a deal," the summoner proposed. "Your surrender for their freedom—three for the price of one."

"No deal." The scent of elven blood from the battle with the hydra at the top of the stairs bothered him. It was all he could smell, even in a musky, wine cellar.

"You would let your sister and friends suffer? Then why did you even come?"

Trizryn knew this was probably his only chance to win vital information, so he pushed his hood to his shoulders and moved two steps closer. "I came to talk."

"I'm not interested in talking. You tried to kill me."

"If I had wanted to kill you, I would have. Instead, I gave you a warning."

"Stabbing me in the back with dragon venom was a warning? Not exactly a fair fight."

"My summoner trained me to fight dirty," he answered, trying not to sneer. "I am curious about how you survived it, though."

"I could ask you the same thing."

Trizryn became tight-lipped. It wasn't prudent to let her know what was happening to him, especially when he himself couldn't understand it.

Acknowledging his refusal, Kassí continued with her charges. "Besides attempting to murder your summoner, you also stole documents from the Derra Eirlyn and brought a human spy into the realms. You destroyed the Gate of Min, which you never had permission to use in the first place. And you've broken your exile and defied your probation terms. You will answer to the Derra Eirlyn on multiple charges of high treason, Triz, or you will die here and now."

"Threatening an heir to the throne is high treason."

"You are no longer an heir."

"I wasn't talking about me."

Kassí shook her head at the accusation. "I haven't done anything to harm the Dheryl-Kana."

"I'm sure she would beg to differ." In spite of the light, his night-vision flickered and focused deep. Arteries and veins … Blood everywhere … No, not here. Not now. He tried to shake the distraction, but a burning emptiness swelled in his chest. "I had nothing to do with the destruction of Min."

"Then by all means, let's remove one offense from that exhaustive list."

"Min was malfunctioning from some kind of failure that might be affecting the other gates, too." He decided against mentioning the dragon, for fear of losing what little credibility he had at the moment. "Based on studies by a Master Sa'um Vadis-Shin, the Tamaseluf has recommended a complete shut-down to avoid a catastrophe."

Kassí's eyes narrowed. "What catastrophe?"

"I'm not sure … but your father could tell you more."

"My father?" Clearly this was not the conversational turn she expected. "My father is dead. He has nothing to do with this."

"Unless two Tamaseluf masters share that name, I have a blue-code letter to the Derra Eirlyn that says otherwise. If the chrono-dimensional engineers of the Tamaseluf cited Master Sa'um Vadis-Shin's studies as a reference, he not only worked with the gates, but the way the letter is worded, it sounds like he warned the Derra Eirlyn years ago that the gates had problems. Makes you wonder why the gates are still up and running in spite of some kind of looming disaster, doesn't it?"

It was clear that the summoner did not trust him, but it was just as clear that he had tweaked her curiosity.

"Enough!" Mahntarei spoke from the top of the stairs. "Kassí, either do your job, or step aside so I can do mine."

The thief glanced over his shoulder at the assassin. "You mean you're not here as her shield maiden?"

"Don't fuck with me when I'm holding a writ on your hide … partner," the assassin warned with a scowl.

"Sounds dangerous. One of us might get a paper cut."

"Trizryn," Kassí interrupted before their exchange became too heated. "If you want this to go well for your sister and your friends put down your weapons and submit. Resist and you put them at risk. Either way you belong to us, but you can choose to end this peacefully for their sakes."

The thief snorted at how laughable that sounded. "You're giving me a choice? There's something new. But it still sounds like a threat to the heir."

Kassí gave a subtle nod to the assassin.

Trizryn felt the assassin grab the back of his winter robe, so he immediately ducked beneath his arm. Grabbing Mahntarei's shoulder, he pitched him backwards as far as he could throw him, then dropped a nightmarish vision, thick with sticky cobwebs and giant spiders, on every mind within reach.

"Positions!" Kassí ordered a number of guards waiting in the shadows.

Trizryn leaped over the wooden rail onto the large kegs, then jumped to the floor and evaded his chaos-induced opponents to seek the glowing bodies of the three bound hostages. The innkeeper was the closest. Drawing his dagger, the dark elf slit the throat of the blinded guard between them.

The rich, iron scent of the blood spilling down his fingers made him shudder with desire, but he tried to stay focused and slipped his dagger beneath the magical cuffs next, slicing them open with one strong tug. "Cover me so I can cut everyone loose," he told Róbynn, passing him the bow and arrows … and the vial of dragon venom. "Use this, and aim for the assassin. He'll appreciate the irony."

"I can't target anything if I'm blind."

"I'll drop it in a second. Be ready." Trizryn ran to Reznetha'ir next, dodging the sweep of a long halberd and dropping to his knees. He barely had time to cut him free and place the hilt of his own sword into the camp leader's hand before the guard with the halberd made a second swipe toward them.

Reznetha'ir managed to get out of the way, but Trizryn's left arm was grazed by the pike. He was obviously being mistaken for one of his nightmare's giant arachnids.

))((

Outside the tavern window, Aija heard Kassí shout and saw Mahntarei get thrown backwards from the cellar entrance. She couldn't see or hear Trizryn, but negotiations were obviously done.

Without the hydra present, the assassin would be able to catch anyone running for the exit. Knowing she was no match for him, but desperate to keep him out of the way, Aija ran through the front door into the common room as Mahntarei rolled back to his feet. Swinging her staff as hard as she could against the back of Mahntarei's head was enough to knock him half-way down the cellar steps. But when he recovered from the unexpected attack, he was quick to retaliate.

She raised her staff to block as she had been taught, but he caught it in one hand and jerked it aside while the dagger in his other hand struck her abdomen. The sting of enchanted steel burned right through her leather armor and deep into her gut, taking her by horrible surprise.

Aija stared at the elf with a mixture of anger and terror, feeling each barb from the wicked blade as he slowly removed it from the wound. She knew she wouldn't survive this now, but an assassin preoccupied with her would still be unable to interfere with Trizryn's attempt to free the others. She decided to continue to fight.

Her return strike, however, was blocked, then the assassin pushed her into the cellar. Aija's back and head hit the steps as she tumbled, but she managed to catch the rail with one hand.

She opened her eyes to discover she was in a dark pit amid sticky webs triggering the anchor line to a very large spider. Her initial response was to scream, but as the spider crept closer, she reminded herself that it probably wasn't real. It's Trizryn's magic. It has to be Trizryn's magic ...

She could hear a scuffle going on beneath the webbing and the stairs were slippery with her own blood. Pulling away from the sticky strands that ensnared her, Aija stood and raised her staff toward the darkness, determined to block the assassin's descent any way she could. Was he the spider?

"Stupid human. Magic can make you look like a dark elf, but your race is too weak and lazy to fight like one," it hissed as it came closer.

"Aija, get down!" someone shouted as the nightmare magic suddenly disappeared.

Her foot slipped on the unexpected turn, and she fell the rest of the way to the bottom of the stairs, but an arrow whistled over her head to pierce the assassin's armor.

Mahntarei broke the shaft from his chest, but the arrowhead remained buried deep in the wound.

"A gift from Trizryn!" Róbynn added. "He said you'd appreciate it!"

Furious, but apparently already feeling the poison's burn, Mahntarei whipped the arrow shaft toward the archer. "This isn't over, Trizryn Da'en! Once you're back in the dungeon, I'll feed you to the Derra Eirlyn's demons myself—piece-by-piece!" he shouted into the cellar. But with that threat, the assassin cast a teleport spell and vanished.

Róbynn came to Aija's side."I almost didn't recognize you, but I didn't know who else it could be. Are you okay?"

"I don't think so," Aija admitted, trying to pull herself up using the rail.

"Take cover," he urged.

Aija was glad to give up the fight and crawled behind some large barrels. Grunting in frustration at her pain and instability, she grimaced at the lightheaded feeling that accompanied a large loss of blood.

"Block the door! No one escapes!" Kassí barked, supervising the chaos that was visible to everyone now.

In the center of the cellar, wielding the thief's longsword, Reznetha'ir skewered and pushed back a city guard. Behind him was a barrier of root-formed spikes that he'd conjured from the ceiling and floor to protect the dark elf while he freed the last captive ... the Princess.

From where she hid, Aija could see Trizryn slice through K'tía's cuffs. Eyes wide with fear and overwhelmed with gratitude, his sister pulled the gag from her mouth and threw her arms around her brother.

With Mahntarei gone, the innkeeper punched the end of the bow into the face of an oncoming guard to shove him back, so he could dash up the stairs to his bar. But after taking the hit, the guard gave chase.

Kassí's blade ricocheted off of Reznetha'ir's block and sliced into his arm, instead. He returned the attack, but she parried and came back with a second strike in the same place as the first. Now two stripes of blood stained his sleeve.

Aija winced as Reznetha'ir gripped his forearm to quell the sting, but blood seeped between his fingers. It was clear that his hold on his weapon had been weakened.

The summoner grinned. "What's the matter, sewer rat? Holding back for my sake … or his?"

"His … definitely his," Reznetha'ir answered, cautious. "I wouldn't dream of robbing him of the chance to kill you now."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it." She smiled, then launched another attack, keeping him on the defensive between herself and two other city guards.

Behind the root-spike barrier, Trizryn cast an invisible force toward Kassí. The summoner was thrown through some stacked crates head-first, hit the wall, and fell motionless to the floor. The thief winced in pain and buried his head in the crook of his elbow for a moment, but then helped Reznetha'ir disarm and kill the remaining two guards.

As soon as the rebel camp leader was able to dispel the spiked barrier, the rogue-prince grabbed his sister's arm and urged her toward his friend. "Get her out of here."

"Who is the other dark elf hiding over there? Is that Aija?" K'tía left them to run toward the barrels. "Aija!" She knelt beside her and slipped a supporting arm around her shoulders. "Is that really you under that illusion? Are you hurt?"

Aija grimaced as blood flowed freely between her fingers where she clutched her abdomen. "It's insanely painful," she managed to say between clenched teeth. But when she looked up, she saw a guard standing over K'tía's back, ready to grab her. Crying out in surprise, Aija unceremoniously grabbed the Princess's neck, pulled her down, and rolled out of reach.

K'tía spotted her staff and grabbed it while giving an archaic command. The crystal at the top, and then the entire wooden shaft, came to life with lightning-like energy. As the priestess stood and flourished the staff before her, the spin created a shimmering globe of protection around them that pushed the threat back even further.

Reznetha'ir rushed in and used both hands to drive Trizryn's longsword between the guard's plates of armor.

When their opponent fell, K'tía slowed the staff and allowed the protective magic to disappear.

Aija was losing the battle with staying alert, but then she looked toward Trizryn, who was now fighting off the last standing guard—an elf twice his size.

The thief leaped over the guard's head. Landing in a roll, he kicked back to his feet, twisted, and stabbed at the back of the guard's neck. The other elf turned in time to avoid the lethal thrust, and the dagger struck his shoulder instead. The guard cast the dagger aside, but the nimble, unarmed, dark elf was finally cornered.

The warrior threw the lightweight thief into a wine shelf. Bottles spilled to the floor and broke open. Trizryn's not-yet-healed back took the brunt of the collision, but he rolled out of the way before the shelf crashed into the kegs stacked opposite it. The kegs then caused their own chaos as they fell and rolled, or split open. He tried to scramble away from the larger elf, but was snatched up again and slammed backwards into the wall.

Aija had a clear path to Trizryn's dagger on the floor and pondered for a second how to get it to him, so he could defend himself. But when the guard's sword flashed over the thief's head, all planning failed in favor of instinct. With her remaining strength, she tore away from K'tía, scooped up the dagger, and propelled herself onto the guard's back, plunging the blade into the side of his neck.

The blade bit deep and with sickening ease. Warmth sprayed into her face and flooded over her wrist. When the guard fell, she fell with him. Then, slowly, she pulled back to stare at her deed.

Trizryn slid to the floor and fought to catch his breath. He looked drained and feverish, but after a moment, he reclaimed his dagger from the body and sheathed it. "Go back upstairs with K'tía and Reznetha'ir."

Aija's heartbeat quickened as she stared at her bloodied hands with shock. What had she done? It was irreversible—unforgivable. "I just … killed someone."

"Go upstairs with them," the dark elf urged again.

Tears formed in Aija's eyes and immediately welled down her blood-spattered cheeks. The running, the hiding, the hunger, the fatigue … The unfamiliarity of everything … The secrets, the betrayals, the fighting … The dam finally cracked under the pressure and gave way to a flood of emotions she had fought to control. "I just killed someone!"

The thief grabbed her shoulders. "Aija, we don't have time for this!"

"Trizryn!" K'tía gathered the distraught human into her arms for consolation. "A little compassion, please? She's traumatized and seriously injured."

"Then get her out of here!"

Displeased with her brother's temperament, K'tía coaxed Aija to stand and whisked her toward the stairs, supporting her every step of the way.

Aija's body began to tremble. Her senses were becoming distant and cold, like when she fainted at the Gate of Min. Maybe this was all just a dream after all … a very long, lurid nightmare. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that Reznetha'ir trailed behind them, but behind him the dark elf stopped at one of the big kegs.

Turning the tap, Trizryn let Róbynn's potent green ale spill at his feet and run across the floor. It was an odd thing to do … such a terrible waste. But in spite of her clouded thoughts, she knew that for some reason it was also significant.