Lonely Pride

by Cynus

Chapter 15

Kirra and Bradeth materialized over the buried piece of leather near the entrance to The Shade. As soon as the teleportation was complete, Kirra backed away from the Elrok, growling in annoyance and clutching at his bleeding ear.

"Really?" He spat in annoyance. "Did you have to bite me there?"

Before Bradeth could answer, a deeper voice than hers rumbled across the rocks in the Elrok tongue. "Bradeth, who is that?"

Bradeth and Kirra spun together to face Gobrak, who stood with his bow in hand, an arrow nocked and ready to raise as he eyed Kirra suspiciously. "Gobrak, how nice of you to greet us so early. I expected to have to go into The Shade to find you," Bradeth said with an annoyed grunt. "Are you well?"

"Not at all," Gobrak said, stepping to the side and nodding behind him. Hubbrak stood there, the least fearsome Elrok Kirra had ever seen. He avoided the gazes of the other two, his posture shrunken as he toed the dirt. "As our young friend will tell you in a moment," Gobrak continued, then returned his gaze to Kirra, "when we are alone."

Although Kirra could not understand the words, he felt the intensity of Gobrak's gaze and realized the older Elrok didn't trust him. Standing tall, Kirra met Gobrak's gaze and refused to back down from that glare. He was guessing here, but from observing Bradeth he believed showing weakness would only encourage Gobrak to disrespect him.

"Fletcher, please allow me to speak," Hubbrak said, stepping forward but still refusing to meet anyone's gaze.

Gobrak put a hand in front of Hubbrak and said, "This is Elrok business, Hubbrak. We will wait until this human . . ." he eyed Kirra skeptically, then, seemingly for the first time, noticed the slight points on Kirra's ears and said, "this Gor-touched human has given us some privacy."

Kirra recognized the word 'Gor'—the only word he recognized at all—and assumed Gobrak had made some bigoted remark about his heritage. Eyes flashing, he opened his mouth to challenge Gobrak, but Bradeth placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and stopped him. "Kirra is a brother now, as we have fought beside each other against death itself, and you and I will speak the common tongue for his benefit when possible," she said in the common human tongue, smiling warmly at Kirra before returning her attention to the two Elroks in front of her. "Hubbrak need not speak the human tongue. I will not insist he speak in a language he does not speak well, but I will translate for Kirra."

"Your brother?" Gobrak said in perfect common, eyeing Kirra with renewed respect. He bowed his head humbly and finally pulled the arrow from his bow. With a polite smile, he addressed Kirra directly and said, "Very well then. I accept your claim to kinship." He then turned to Hubbrak again and ordered in Elrok, "Hubbrak, speak."

"What's going on?" Kirra asked even as the young Elrok opened his mouth. Hubbrak paused and glanced at Gobrak uncertainly.

"Give me a moment and I will explain everything to you," Bradeth replied. "I don't know the details yet."

Hubbrak proceeded to tell Bradeth of the situation in The Shade, and relay Kubriss' message from King Maxthane. Bradeth's eyes widened at the mention of a false King Salidar, but she made no move to explain any of the story to Kirra until Hubbrak had finished.

As the Elroks deliberated, Kirra's ears twitched violently. He thought it was the residual effects of the teleportation, but it was far worse this time than before. Time and time again, his eyes were drawn toward the horizon, toward Pentalus, not the teleportation circle. Something was happening there. Something momentous.

By the time Bradeth was ready to translate to Kirra, he was nearly mad from the twitching, and wanted to cover his ears to get them to stop. He almost didn't hear Bradeth when she said, "King Maxthane has been temporarily removed from power and is being kept prisoner. Salidar has returned."

"Salidar is dead," Kirra said distractedly. "Maxthane saw the body, was there when it happened."

"It is not the real Salidar," Bradeth added with a nod to Gobrak. "Someone is impersonating him. But the Shadow King has requested our help."

"The rightful king," Gobrak added firmly. "I have looked Maxthane in the eye and know him to be an honest man. If he says Salidar is an imposter, then I believe it to be true."

"I have business with Maxthane, as it is," Bradeth said, glancing at Kirra worriedly. She could see the tension in him, the way his eyes kept darting in the direction of Pentalus. With the boulders in their way, it was difficult to see more than a hint of buildings in the clouds bearing the Everbright City aloft, but Kirra kept staring at them as if the whole city was on fire. "What are you planning to do, Gobrak?"

"Before leaving Maxthane, I promised I would bring him more Elroks to train in his guard," Gobrak said, following Bradeth's gaze to Kirra and frowning. "I have already contacted Shaman Ulath through the stone. He will be sending two dozen unnamed from the Kobar Falls."

"Give me a moment, Gobrak," Bradeth said, raising her hand and reaching out to Kirra. As soon as she laid a hand on him, he jumped backward, eyes anxious.

He took a deep, composing breath and said, "I'm sorry. I should have been listening, but something strong and magical is happening in Pentalus or the Everbright City right now. I don't know what it is, but it's making my whole body tingle."

Bradeth frowned and glanced in the indicated direction. "You have the Gor gift for sensing residues? That's a rare talent."

"I assumed all Gor had it," Kirra said cautiously. "But everyone in my family had it. At least they were always used for that purpose."

"It is genetic, so I'm not surprised," Gobrak offered. "That is a useful talent to have. Do you have any idea what might be triggering it?"

"No, but it's powerful," Kirra said with a grimace. "More powerful than when the demons were released."

Bradeth shook her head and said, "Whatever it is, we will have to deal with one thing at a time. I don't know if you understood anything I said earlier, so let me recap for you. Kirra, King Maxthane is in trouble. It seems an imposter has taken hold wearing Salidar's face."

Kirra's eyes widened in shock, but a single whispered word escaped his lips. "Fasha."

"Fasha? Salidar's assassin?" Gobrak asked in confusion.

"Yes. I have faced him twice, and both times he showed evidence of shifting abilities. I'm certain it's him," Kirra said. "We will want to use fire if we have to face him directly. He's a demon, I'm certain of it."

"You have faced demons?" Gobrak asked incredulously.

"We did in Port Salmus," Bradeth replied casually. "We slew a demon together, an Aika."

Gobrak nodded appraisingly, eyeing Kirra with renewed respect. "Impressive."

"I have faced them as a bonded pair before as well, and killed its mate in Pentalus," Kirra said offhandedly, letting the distant magic pull his attention again.

Gobrak chuckled softly. "Then you are an honorable one indeed."

"I know where the Chief of Lions is," Bradeth said, abruptly shifting the focus of the conversation.

"Where?" Gobrak asked with surprise. "Did he escape you again?"

Bradeth sighed and said, "No, he is imprisoned in the Pillar of Ibrix. He was fighting the demon when Neredos resealed the pillar. I could try to figure out the ritual to free him on my own, but I believe the thulu'Khant's resources would help, since they've already figured out how to open the pillars."

"Then as soon as reinforcements arrive, we will move to help King Maxthane," Gobrak replied with a firm nod. "For both his sake, and ours."

"We could try to enlist the Knights," Kirra offered. He didn't know why he said it. No, on second thought, he knew. He wanted an opportunity to see what was happening, to feel the magic in that city. Magic had never been an important part of his life before, but now . . . whatever this was, it pulled at him, made him want to be a part of it.

"As if they would help us," Gobrak said with a derisive snort. "The Everbright City does not fight side by side with Elroks for any reason, even if it is against a common enemy. In this case, it isn't even an enemy we face, but a friend turned against itself."

"He has a point," Bradeth said.

Kirra sighed and returned his full focus to the conversation. He would visit Pentalus when he could, and discover the source of the magic there, but he had promised Bradeth his assistance. Helping Maxthane would have to come first. "Then we enlist others in The Shade," he said with less reluctance than he felt.

"Others?" Gobrak and Bradeth asked in unison.

"I know Madame Godani, and she leads the council of Guilds," Kirra said, shrugging.

Bradeth nodded. "That is a much better idea than asking the Knights."

"Take me into The Shade, and I will get us more allies," Kirra said. He stood up and turned toward the cave entrance. "The sooner we help Maxthane, the better."

"Hubbrak!" Gobrak said, rounding on the young Elrok.

"Yes, Fletcher?" Hubbrak said sheepishly.

"You will remain here. When those from Kobar Falls arrive, you will bring them into The Shade," Gobrak said, pointing at his feet to emphasize what he meant by 'here'. "We will meet at the final rest before the great chamber."

"Are you certain about this, Kirra?" Bradeth asked.

"I am," Kirra said, nodding resolutely. "Madame Godani's adopted son is my lover. If he is there, getting allies will be easy."

"Then we will go," Gobrak announced, turning his attention from Hubbrak to them. "Bradeth or I will have to carry you part of the way. The descent is treacherous for one who does not understand stone."

"Are you ready now?" Kirra asked. "I would prefer we start our journey as soon as possible."

"I am not," Bradeth interjected before Gobrak could respond. She eyed the spot where the teleportation circle was buried and explained simply, "I need to dig first."

"Of course," Gobrak said, then turned once more to Hubbrak. "Hubbrak! Lend us assistance."

The young Elrok didn't complain at all as he set to work removing the dirt as Bradeth directed. Kirra didn't bother to, either. As much as he wanted to move on, there was work to be done first. There would be time. Styx, Maxthane, Pentalus, and the Everbright City would all be there when he was done. He was sure of it.

Maxthane looked up as the head of his four-person guard coughed again. It was fifth time in the last few minutes, and this time the guard's hand came away covered in blood. Hesitating, Maxthane considered his options, but his compassion won in the end.

"Are you feeling well?" he asked the guard.

"You are not supposed to be talking to anyone," the guard growled, but then coughed again. Another few drops of blood landed against his hand before he wiped them away against his armor.

"You're coughing up blood. Where do you live?" Maxthane asked. It seemed an unusual question even to Maxthane, but he remembered well Dogo's words of warning, as well as what the grimoire had said of the dangerous poisons found in a certain demon's blood. He had heard whispers all morning of a strange disease spreading through a sector of The Shade. Even though Krythe had managed to keep Maxthane separated from the others for a full day, there were too many ill to keep him from the knowledge.

"That is no concern of yours," the guard replied stiffly. "If Krythe heard—"

"Jund, answer his question," one of the other guards interjected. "He might be able to help."

"I'm your commander, and I will not disobey Krythe," the first guard—Jund, presumably—said with an irritated grunt.

Footsteps approached from outside the room as the second guard rolled his eyes and said, "That's ridiculous. A lot of people are sick. Maxthane is a powerful mage, regardless of his current status. If he can help, we should be letting him. Krythe would see it that way too."

Krythe walked into the room, regarding the two guards with an icy glare before settling his gaze on Maxthane. "I don't disagree with that, much as it annoys me."

"Captain!" Jund said, saluting. "My apologies, I was about to reprimand the prisoner for speaking."

"Captain?" Maxthane said, raising an eyebrow and ignoring Jund's protests. "Who promoted you?"

Krythe didn't seem bothered in the least by Maxthane's attitude and answered his question plainly. "In the absence of Captain Rega, it seemed fitting to assume the temporary title. Now, we need to talk, Maxthane."

"I hear people are sick," Maxthane said. Eyeing Jund, he added quickly, "Sick enough to warrant worry."

Krythe nodded once, his face remaining as composed as ever. "An entire quarter of The Shade has come down with symptoms. Coughing and fatigue mostly, though some are starting to worsen." His gaze slid a hair toward Jund but snapped back to Maxthane almost immediately.

"And what do you expect me to do about it?" Maxthane asked.

"You are the highest-ranking mage in the Shadow King's guild, no matter what has happened between you and your father," Krythe said. "I believe we may be seeing the beginning of a plague, and I don't see us getting through it with mundane means."

Maxthane saw an opportunity to gain an advantage here, but he wasn't about to give in easily. He needed to play this just right, or Krythe would get everything without Maxthane gaining any ground. "It is probably the result of what Dogo warned us about," he said thoughtfully. "Did the mages who went with him report back yet? They should have been back two days ago after we sent them with Dogo."

"I recalled them," Krythe said, then added hesitantly, "Under Salidar's orders."

"Seems like a pretty poor decision if you ask me," Maxthane said dryly.

Krythe's eyes narrowed dangerously. "We need to help our people, Maxthane."

Maxthane lifted his hands helplessly and looked around the small room. Its stark grey walls offered nothing but bleakness. "Unfortunately, I appear to be a prisoner. I'm not certain I can do anything for you right now. Send the mages back to analyze the water."

"I already have," Krythe admitted. "I believe Salidar would've done the same."

"And what have they discovered?" Maxthane asked, noting the doubts forming in Krythe's eyes.

"That there appears to be miniscule traces of a foreign compound," Krythe said. "But it is pernicious, and they have not found a way to purify the tributary. If they do not, it will eventually poison the entire Black Lake, depending on the strength of the source. The compound . . . they say it's almost as if it acts with a mind of its own. It appears to be actively swimming downstream to reach us."

Maxthane suppressed a grimace at that thought. He didn't recall that detail from the grimoire, but perhaps the author hadn't known that bit? This was a demonic poison, and it could have qualities far beyond his understanding.

But Krythe was right, the people needed Maxthane's help. "So, you want me to figure out some way to purify it?" Maxthane asked, keeping his tone composed.

"That's the idea," Krythe said.

"But I'll still be a prisoner," Maxthane stated. "I won't be able to act freely."

Krythe didn't flinch, but his eyes blazed with annoyance. "The reason for your imprisonment is still valid, isn't it?"

Maxthane matched his gaze in every way, holding it for several long seconds before he shook his head. "Then I can't help you."

"You won't save your people?" Krythe scoffed, shaking his head in disbelief.

"I cannot," Maxthane corrected. "I would need access to my grimoire, which I cannot get without putting it at risk of falling into your hands. If you had access to it, you could give it to another mage who would then free the demon wearing my father's face. I believe that would cause greater damage at this point in time."

Krythe continued to shake his head, his eyes bewildered. "You should have never been made King," he said. "Salidar would be ashamed to call you his son.

Maxthane went on as if Krythe had never spoke, glancing at Jund and the other guards briefly. "Besides, if this is the poison the grimoire spoke of, purifying the water won't do much to help. You'll need a Fedain to heal everyone. Everyone showing symptoms is likely already as good as dead, unless you can find someone to heal them. There might be a healing spell in the grimoire, but, again . . ." he shrugged and added with a sigh, "I can't risk you getting your hands on it."

"I see now that you are hopeless," Krythe said, glaring at Maxthane with disgust. "You won't help your people. You are a disgrace, Maxthane."

Maxthane snapped then, the anger he'd withheld for his captivity finally coming out. "It's you who won't help our people, Krythe. All you have to do is let me go, let me find the proof I promised you, and I will address this little problem. Let me go without a guard, let me investigate to the best of my ability, and I will do everything I can to fix this problem."

Krythe's eyes searching Maxthane's before he turned to go without another word to him. The Captain paused only once to say something quietly to Jund, but then he was gone. Maxthane wanted to groan in frustration that he'd failed to reach Krythe, but he managed to keep it contained.

Instead, he settled in for a long wait, plotting his next move. If he couldn't sow dissension in the ranks, then he would need to plan an escape. He didn't know how he would manage it, or if he even could. After all, there were standing orders to kill him if he made the attempt.

But the unexpected opportunity came less than an hour after Krythe left him. Clattering weapons rang out in the hall, and Jund quickly gave orders to the other three guards to investigate, saying he would watch Maxthane alone.

As soon as the other guards were gone, however, Jund approached Maxthane and said gruffly, "Let's go."

"Go?" Maxthane said cautiously. "Go where?"

"I'm letting you escape," Jund said, nodding toward the door and drawing his sword. Maxthane started after him, confused but unwilling to let this opportunity slide.

"Won't Krythe be—" Maxthane started as Jund paused in the doorway, looking both ways before rounding back on him.

"Krythe told me to, you idiot," Jund interrupted. "But I have to make it look like you escaped, I can't just free you. I'll escort you to the wall, and then I'll let you get away from me." He started down the hall in the opposite direction of the sound of clashing weapons, motioning for Maxthane to follow. "Krythe instigated an argument down the hall. We have to get out before the others get back."

Maxthane shook his head in bewilderment before following Jund. "Why . . ." he started to ask, but he couldn't even find the right question. Why would Krythe order Maxthane's release? Why would he do it in secret? Why would he go through this much trouble—Maxthane's thoughts stopped dead as he settled on the answer. "Because he can't make it look like he disobeyed Salidar's orders," he said, nodding as he jogged after Jund.

They reached an intersection of hallways and Jund looked both ways, catching sight of a small group of servants coming toward them. He quickly backtracked and pulled Maxthane into a storage room. "I will probably be reprimanded when your father is freed. Stripped of rank," Jund said after a moment, his eyes widening with fright. They slammed shut an instant later as a hacking cough rolled through him. When it finally subsided, he grimaced at Maxthane. "But it's better than dying of some strange disease. You won't forget I let you go, right? You'll help me, right?"

"If I can," Maxthane said, nodding resolutely. "I swear on my throne."

"You don't have one of those anymore," Jund said dryly.

"Yes, I do," Maxthane insisted. "I'll do what I can, Jund. In fact . . ." he reached out and touched some of Jund's exposed flesh. Using powers he barely understood, he delved as a Fedain, sensing as much of Jund's physical state as possible. "I can sense the illness, and I might be able to bring you some comfort, but it's beyond my abilities to heal directly," he explained after a moment.

"You can heal like a Fedain?" Jund asked with shock.

"I know a few tricks," Maxthane said, then set to work trying to repair some of the damage the illness had done to Jund's system. He tried to force the foreign bodies from his system, but they refused to listen to him. It was all he could do to address some of the muscle fatigue. "It's not enough, though. I need my grimoire."

"Tell me where it is, and I'll get it for you," Jund replied quickly. Too quickly.

Maxthane tried to keep emotion from his voce. "No thanks, I'll get it myself."

Jund's muscles tensed. "That won't work," he insisted, his sword hand twitching.

Maxthane moved forward, touching the fire salamander tattoo on his right bicep and embracing Jund. As Maxthane's body ignited in flames, the intense heat burned the guard to a crisp, and his blackened body dropped away from Maxthane in seconds.

The fire sapped some of Maxthane's strength, and he stood over Jund breathlessly, his eyes tight. "I'm sorry, Jund," he whispered. "You left me with no other choice."

He stepped out of the room and found two soldiers coming toward him. They both looked up and met his eyes, then noticed he was alone. "Kill the Prince!" One shouted. "He's trying to escape!"

This whole escape had been a set-up after all. Krythe had never ordered Jund to help Maxthane escape, just to try and get the grimoire. Maxthane had suspected it as much when Jund started to turn on him, and the presence of these two soldiers all but confirmed it for him.

"Oh Krythe, you bastard . . ." Maxthane said, then reached to his left leg to activate another tattoo. This one created a cloud of noxious spores, which he left dangling in the air as he turned the opposite direction from the soldiers. It wouldn't slow them down long, but he needed every edge he could get.

As the soldiers slowed with hacking coughs, Maxthane sped down the hallway and headed straight for the servants he and Jund had nearly run into. He was taking a risk that the servants hadn't been part of Krythe's plan. Even if they were, he'd rather deal with servants than any soldiers who might be waiting for him down the opposite path.

The three servants turned toward him as he approached, their eyes and mouths wide in surprise. He charged toward them, hoping they would move out of the way. The largest, a tall woman named Feriz who worked the kitchens, quickly pulled her two associates aside to let him pass. He nodded his thanks and continued onward, glad to see them resume their positions. With any luck, the soldiers pursuing him would be slowed down even more.

But as soon as he made it out into the open air of The Shade, he realized Krythe had placed even more of his loyal soldiers on watch for him. An arrow struck the wall just in front of him, and another grazed his shoulder. Crying out in pain, he jumped for the cover of the roof overhang as two bowstrings twanged again, both missiles narrowly missing his position.

He heard footsteps, then two more twangs. He expected more arrows, but instead two bodies slid from the nearby roof and dropped onto the ground. Then a third form dropped down next to him, holding a double-bowed crossbow.

Fau Shae Godani didn't look at all like she'd just run across rooftops, her hair and make-up as immaculate as ever. With a casual nod, she smirked at Maxthane and said sweetly, "Need some help, King Maxthane?"

"Madame Godani?" Maxthane asked, stunned and stepping out of cover.

"I heard you are in danger," Madame Godani replied.

"What are you doing here?"

She snorted and drew two crossbow bolts from a pouch at her belt, loading them neatly and winching back the strings. "I came to rescue you." As if to illustrate the point, she motioned for Maxthane to duck. He complied immediately and two bolts sailed over his head in quick succession.

Two grunts announced that the soldiers who'd pursued him from the halls would no longer be a problem. Maxthane glanced their way only briefly before approaching Madame Godani. She took the lead at a run, drawing him toward the outer wall.

"You came yourself?" Maxthane asked when she paused at an intersection. "Why didn't you just send others?"

"My three best operatives are all with Dogo. I brought more, but . . ." she shrugged as if it was the most natural thing in the world, "we are short staffed. You should be thanking me, you know. It's not often I use my crossbow, but I keep my skills sharp to gain an occasional favor."

Maxthane chuckled. Madame Godani was ambitious as always. "Of course. We'll talk once I have my throne back."

"That will have to wait. I haven't had time to convince the guilds to side with me, yet, but I've kept my eye on you," Madame Godani replied. "My operatives became aware of Krythe's actions and immediately reported to me. I had a suspicion you'd need my help."

"Your operatives? You have others inside my guild?" Maxthane asked, raising an eyebrow.

Madame Godani matched his incredulity. "Which guild doesn't?"

Footsteps sounded on the stone, and Maxthane spun around, ready to fight if Madame Godani didn't take out their pursuer first. As the soldier rounded the corner, Maxthane recognized him immediately. It was the guard from his escort earlier who had advised that Jund trust him, bearing a coil of rope over his shoulder.

Madame Godani addressed the soldier with a curt nod. "Lorran, how good of you to join us."

Lorran bowed low and said, "The other guards are sleeping, Madame."

"Good. We'll leave Krythe to sort out the rest, hmm?" Madame Godani said, turning her attention back to the escape.

"Of course," Lorran said, falling in beside her. Maxthane followed in bewildered silence, wondering just how many people Madame Godani had inserted into his family's employ over the years.

They reached the outer wall less than a minute later and paused for breath. Madame Godani didn't seem taxed by the run at all, and she spoke to Lorran with regal nonchalance. "Have Feriz and Galm reported back yet?"

"Feriz?" Maxthane asked breathlessly. "The cook?"

"She's still in position," Lorran confirmed, ignoring Maxthane's question. "E'en pointed the rest of poor Krythe's black-backs in the wrong direction, other than the four you took out."

"Let's get out of here then," Madame Godani said, then turned to the wall.

"How do we . . ." Maxthane started to ask, but paused as Madame Godani squatted impossibly low, her legs bending in an unusual way. She jumped from that position, springing upward with tremendous force to the top of the wall. She landed gracefully and straightened, looking as regal as ever.

"Up here, child," Madame Godani hissed down at him. She held out her hand, catching the rope Lorran threw to her. She anchored herself to the wall and let the rope down for them to climb. Both men scrambled up the wall, Maxthane too amazed to ask more questions and Lorran apparently needing none.

They stood over The Black Lake, its dark waters as foreboding as ever. In the distance he could see the outline of the island in the center, the most feared place in The Shade. He had been there once, the last time he'd had to escape his home.

But he doubted Madame Godani had any intention of going there. Below them was a small boat, almost imperceptible were it not for the dimly-lit lantern at the bow. The wood was dark and the single man at its oars had dressed all in black.

Without another word, Madame Godani threw one end of the rope over the opposite side of the wall, dropping it toward the boat. She then motioned for Maxthane and Lorran to climb down. They did not hesitate.

As soon as the two of them were safely in the boat, Madame Godani pulled the rope up and coiled it neatly around her waist. She then stepped off the edge of the wall and floated gracefully down to the boat as if she were as light as a feather.

She saw Maxthane's look of approval and shrugged. "Did you think Styx is the first person to have a slow-fall tattoo, Maxthane?"

Maxthane nodded in understanding and said nothing. Despite the apparent ease of their escape, they were far from being out of danger. With three extra people in the boat, it rode low in the dark water. He eyed it nervously as the oarsman rowed them toward the distant Black Docks.

As soon as they arrived, there would be witnesses. They couldn't kill them all, like Madame Godani had shot the soldiers. That would cause a riot at the least, if not a total guild war. Soon Krythe would know precisely who rescued him, and Madame Godani and her guild would be in grave danger.

But certain things worked in their favor. Shortly after leaving the wall of the Shadow King's complex, Madame Godani pulled a large cloak from a box built into the boat. She handed it to Maxthane and directed him to put it on.

It wouldn't stop witnesses from guessing his identity, but it would slow the news down somewhat. It would likely be the difference between them making it to Madame Godani's guildhall or being accosted along the way.

There was also the matter of the council of guilds. Madame Godani had said she had been trying to turn them to his side. That implied they knew nearly as much as she did. If they had not tried to stop her, then perhaps the guilds would remain neutral.

That meant the only immediate threat to worry him were freelancers. Krythe would want Maxthane captured or killed at all costs, and there would be a substantial reward for anyone who managed it. He would have to be on guard against every shadow. How long would Madame Godani protect him before she conceded that her resources would not be enough?

But when they arrived at The Black Docks, no one looked at them twice. That didn't mean they didn't see, but in recognizing Madame Godani they had the good sense to stay out of it for now. Silence covered them like a protective blanket as they made their way through the streets to arrive at the Inkblades' Guildhall.

They entered through the main doors instead of the secret entrance, something normally only the guildmaster would do. Madame Godani strutted in with all the confidence of a queen, and here she had every right to that distinction. Several operatives stood at attention, and each one bowed to her as if she owned them.

All but one, a greying man with leathery skin who gave Madame Godani nothing but a perfunctory nod. He addressed in her a gravelly voice, "Madame Godani, you have visitors."

"At a time like this? Send them away at onc—" Madame Godani began, but then three forms approached from the entry hall. Two Elroks and a familiar Knight, his eyes lighting up as he saw Maxthane. "Kirra Elrhanadan," Madame Godani continued smoothly, her eyes flicking momentarily to the Elroks, "For a Knight of the Firmament, you keep some very unusual company."

"Madame Godani, I see you've already taken care of one problem I came to see you about," Kirra said, bowing in greeting to her before switching to Maxthane. "Are you well, Max?"

"I've been better, but until recently I was much worse," Maxthane said with a grimace. It quickly became a smile as he met Kirra's eyes, however.

"I'm glad you're safe," Kirra said warmly. He approached Maxthane and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I was hoping Styx would be here, but I hear he ran off to fight a demon."

Maxthane sighed as he grimaced again. "Seems that's going around. Fasha has replaced Salidar."

"I helped kill a demon in Port Salmus with Bradeth here," Kirra said, nodding back to one of the Elroks.

"Bradeth?" Maxthane said, letting Kirra's gesture draw his attention. He finally took in the sight of the two Elroks. He recognized Gobrak at last, then took in the similar tattoos and appearance of Bradeth. He addressed her first. "I'm sorry, Fletcher Bradeth, isn't it? Forgive me for neglecting your title. And Fletcher Gobrak, it is good to see you again. Did you receive my message?"

Bradeth nodded but remained silent, allowing Gobrak to answer Maxthane's question. "I did. We have reinforcements coming. They should be here in a day, and then we can reclaim the compound, if needed."

"We might have to worry about repercussions before then," Madame Godani interjected. "My apologies, Fletchers, for not paying you proper respect."

As the two Elroks bowed in acceptance of Madame Godani's apology, Kirra asked, "What do you mean by repercussions?"

"Krythe will soon know I have Maxthane. He should know already if he's not a total fool," Madame Godani said dryly. "We'll have to be ready for a siege."

"No," Maxthane said.

"What?" Madame Godani replied, surprise plain on her features. She was not used to being challenged, not even by her king.

"No, I'll simply leave," Maxthane said, shaking his head. "I won't put you in further danger for helping me."

Madame Godani rolled her eyes. "Then what? You'll just end up undoing all the work I did today."

"Kirra, will you come with me and guard my back?" Maxthane asked, turning to Kirra without acknowledging Madame Godani at all.

Kirra blinked in surprise. "Of course, if that's what you want."

Maxthane nodded to confirm it was indeed what he desired, but before he could say anything, Bradeth jumped in. "I'll come too. I have business to discuss with you, King Maxthane."

"And I as well," Gobrak insisted.

"Gobrak, I have another task for you, if you are willing to assist me," Maxthane said.

Gobrak chuckled and replied, "We are allies, are we not?"

"Can you read Gor runes?"

"I can," Bradeth said immediately. "Give me the task."

Maxthane considered her for a moment. She seemed too eager to please, but . . . she was also Gobrak's companion, and had fought a demon alongside Kirra. He had no reason to distrust her, and his instincts told him that she was everything she claimed to be.

With a resolute nod, he said, "There is a window on the cavern wall overlooking the Shadow King's complex. To the right side of it, there is a sealed alcove. Inside is a satchel and a book. I need both."

"Where shall I meet you?" Bradeth asked.

"On the island in the center of the Black Lake," Maxthane replied.

Madame Godani scoffed at that. "This is madness. Stay here, we will fight for you."

"It is the only place where they will not think to look for me. Krythe does not know the secrets of the island and will fear it the same as everyone else does," Maxthane replied, shaking his head firmly. "It's safe and will keep you from harm."

"They'll come anyway," Madame Godani insisted.

"But they won't risk a guildwar over a target that isn't even here," Maxthane replied. "You can't be willing to risk everything over this. You're far too pragmatic for that."

Madame Godani's face grew stony, but her eyes betrayed her true motive as surely as her words. "Styx is involved."

Maxthane nodded in understanding, but held his ground. "Then get me to the island. Help me, but don't try to keep me safe by sacrificing yourself. You know I'm right."

Madame Godani hesitated for only a moment before turning to the room and shouting orders. "Vallun, Praeza, Lorran, you will secure a small boat and take Maxthane and his companions to the island. You will serve him as you would serve me."

"Thank you, Madame Godani," Maxthane replied as the soldiers mobilized.

"I serve The Shade, King Maxthane," Madame Godani said, meeting his gaze, "and that means I serve you. Be careful."

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