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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 18: A New Commission

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

At precisely one hour past noon of the twenty-first of Arini, the four freeblades of Cora’s company assembled on the front portico of the Lord’s Castle, waiting to be allowed in. Cora held the summons—now a sad, wrinkled slip of paper—tightly in her hand. She had worried over that simple letter for three days and was no closer to knowing its meaning.

Ordin leaned against a support column and folded his arms. “This is stupid.”

“You don’t think they forgot we were coming, do you?” Cora wondered aloud. “They threw the doors wide for us last time we were here.”

Driven by boredom, Elric began throwing rocks from the landscaped shrubbery onto the paved lane.

“Elric!” Cora hissed. “Quit that!”

“Ain’t nuttin’ but a rock.”

“Look, I don’t know yet whether you’re even supposed to be here, but I promise if you break out a window, I’ll be the first to send you home.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The front doors of the castle shuddered and groaned as they slowly swung inward. Cora recalled their last visit to this castle and the sheer excitement of those days; that is, until Cuauhtérroc heaved that spear at the Amurraks. On their first visit, the castle seemed bustling with life and was filled with possibility. Now, the doors led into dark, hollow chambers and halls absent of cheer. The castle was cold and dead to her.

Cora held out her rumpled summons to Belvedere, the lord-in-waiting. “We have an appointment with the Council at one o’clock. We were waiting at the front door on time, but no one would open to us.”

“Follow me,” the chief servant said. “But the wolf stays outside.” With a quick turn and a snap of the heels of his boots, he strode down a tapestry-lined hallway to the left. They had no choice but to trot off after him, leaving Shinnick on the castle portico.

Near the end of the hallway, Belvedere stopped and turned to his right. Grabbing a pair of brass door handles, he twisted them sharply and threw the doors outward. With another snap of his heels, he stood upright against one of the doors and extended a white-gloved hand into the room. “This way.”

Cora thanked him as she walked past, but Belvedere held up his hand to Elric. “Stay in the hall until I know whether you are admitted.”

With a sag of his shoulders, Elric shuffled off to the nearest chair in the hall and flopped down.

Cora paused before walking in. Are we friend or foe here? There was no clue in the butler’s impassive face, and as Ordin brushed past her, his course whisper echoed her thoughts. “Stupid butler thinks he’s better than us.”

Inside the meeting room, maps and oil paintings of battle scenes covered the walls. One stood out in particular—a continental map showing the little-known lands west of Arelatha, lands beyond the Dragoncrests. Drawn without color and unlabeled, it only hinted at the borders of nations, coasts, and rivers. A hand-written note in the midst of the expanse indicated one theory about these lands: “Vashan.”

Most of the other maps along the walls were considerably more local, streets maps of the various districts of Westmeade.

“We have some fine cartographers in our employ, Miss O’Banion,” said the deep voice of Chancellor Prisido. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, indeed,” Cora replied as she traced a finger along a mountain range. She turned sharply on the Chancellor, her voice more cutting than needed. “Why are we here?”

Prisido remained unfazed, professionally above the impertinent question. “Many have dreamed of visiting the lands beyond the Dragoncrests. Fully three-fourths of all peoples in Arelatha can trace their lineage to those lands. But it is a goal seldom realized, for nobody wants to cross those mountains.”

“It’s a treacherous journey, to be sure.” Cora made every effort not to glare at the Chancellor, who seemed entirely uninterested in her question. But of course he is unflappable. I’ll get nowhere trying to pressure him. “Chancellor Prisido,” she said with proper deference, “there is a fourth member in my company: Elric Reichtoven. His name was not on the invitation, but I wonder if it would be acceptable if he were present in this meeting.”

Prisido nodded.

“Thank you,” Cora said and quickly dashed to the door to beckoned Elric.

“All right,” Prisido called out after everyone had settled into a chair, “let’s get down to business. Lady Gable and Doc Pinehurst are out on missions, Calloway is tied up with a large shipment of goods, and Hunt is preparing patrols of Wilder Tower. We currently have a quorum, and so this meeting will be entered into the records of minutes. Now, I know Lady Tarnistorel and Lord Sebastian have a border dispute to settle shortly, so…I’d like to make this as brief as possible. You are here because we have a proposition for you.”

Cora raised an eyebrow. A proposition?

The High Ruler took up a sheet of vellum and began to read:

“Given the current probationary status of the freeblade company under the leadership of Cora O’Banion of Lorenvale, it requires a special dispensation of mercy from the High Council to allow said company to venture beyond the bounds of their probation. Given recent developments in the case for which said company has been duly tried and convicted, there has arisen the immediate need for supporting intervention. Therefore, by the authority vested in me as Lord of Westmeade and by the majority vote of a quorum of aldermen on this Council, I hereby bestow upon the freeblade company of Cora O’Banion the challenge of solving the four-year mystery of Wilder Tower, regarding numerous alleged sightings and reports of various activities in and around said tower, and the alleged return from the grave of August Blanchard, long dead these four years, buried and mourned by this very Council; which mystery has plagued the fair City of Westmeade, placing the competency of the High Council in question at the Honorable Chamber, convening at Cer Cannaid, Duchy of Alikon; and which has riddled the countryside with any number of rumors, true and untrue, making said City a byword in other lands.”

Buried beneath all that verbiage, they were being granted clearance to investigate Wilder Tower. Cora’s jaw dropped.

She quickly scanned the faces of her comrades: Elric’s attention had wandered to a painting on the wall opposite him; Cuauhtérroc was struggling with every fiber to understand; and Ordin—well, she knew what Ordin was thinking behind that scowl of his. Government writings really are the worst at testing the limits of language. This was going to be hers to interpret to them.

Prisido took a long draught from his water glass and continued. “Given that the company in Cora O’Banion’s employ is presently confined within the walls of the City of Westmeade for the period of one year from the date of conviction, the quest granted to said company is hereby limited by and restricted to the boundaries of the City of Westmeade.

“Given that Wilder Tower is property owned by the City of Westmeade and the Duchy of Alikon and is for the common use and enjoyment of all the peoples of said Duchy and travelers from other lands, Cora’s company shall refrain from engaging in any action directly or potentially damaging or destructive of said property, else be in violation of their probation and placed under the stiffest penalty allowed by law.

“Each acceptor of this quest shall be paid the sum of one hundred stallions upon satisfactory completion. In return, the High Council of the City of Westmeade hereby demands an accounting of all activities regarding said quest of Wilder Tower on the last day of every week. Such accounting shall be given in person to the High Council in its Ruling Chamber during the tenth hour of the day required. Each member of said company shall be present unless unavoidably detained. Should said day and time of accounting pass without proper representation, Cora’s company shall be deemed in breach of said quest, shall be sought after by others as are available, and shall be considered in low regard by this High Council, with all penalties properly appertaining thereunto.

“All items encountered during said quest are deemed the property of Westmeade and potential evidence in the ongoing inquiry. All such items shall be confiscated by this High Council to be stored or disseminated under its own guidance. All persons of interest encountered shall be detained for further questioning. The freeblade company under Cora’s leadership shall be permitted to take such actions as are necessary to establish validity, to secure premises and evidence, and to protect both the property and reputation of Westmeade and this Council.”

Chancellor Prisido laid aside the top sheet of vellum with gratefulness and took another long drink from his water glass. “Any questions?” he asked.

Elric raised his hand, but Cora shook her head vigorously at him. To her relief, he returned his hand to his lap. “Carry on, my lord,” she said politely.

Prisido nodded and took up the second sheet. “By signing this release form, you are acknowledging that this High Council is not under obligation to grant said quest, nor is this High Council bound to maintain the privileges associated with said quest, and is at liberty to stop said quest at any time with or without prior notice, with or without reason. Further, by signing this release form, you are absolving this High Council of any liability for dangers of any kind upon your lives or properties, and with full capacity of understanding, you do freely accept said quest in its entirety. The eyes of the Maker are upon you.”

The room fell silent for a moment.

“Now, if you will all sign here.” Prisido pushed the second sheet across the table with a bottle of ink and a quill.

“May we have a moment to confer?” Cora asked, and when she had received consent, she gathered her team into the hallway outside the room.

Ordin leaned against the wall with his arms folded, a scowl deeply etched into his pale forehead. “You have got to be kiddin’ me. Endanger our lives for the same folks that tried to throw us in prison, we don’t earn our freedom, and we don’t get to keep any spoils? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Wait a minute,” Elric objected. “Whaddya mean we don’t get to keep the spoils?”

“Seriously? Weren’t you listening?”

“What are your actual concerns, Ordin?” Cora asked. “We are being paid a stipend.”

“Look,” Ordin continued, “they’re usin’ us, that much is obvious.”

“How, exactly?”

“They busted us for breakin’ in the tower and burnin’ it up, and now they want to play nice and let us solve this mystery for them. We’re cheap labor for their dirty work so they keep their hands clean. Well, I don’t think so. I say we tell ‘em to shove it up their arses.”

“Ordin…” Cora began.

“Dey need our help,” Cuauhtérroc said. “I also theenk dey know more about dees tower, but dey do not know what to do. We help dem.”

“I say we walk away,” Ordin grumbled, “as in right now.”

“Calm down,” Cora said. “We’re not going to storm off. But I agree with you that their terms are lopsided and unreasonable. We should at least try to negotiate a more favorable outcome.”

Elric stroked his lengthy mustache. “Well, I thank this is a grand ol’ opportunitoi!”

The others stared at him. “Why?” Cora finally asked.

“I got the goods on Cap’n Hunt, ‘at’s why,” Elric said with a grin. “Yep, got his ol’ gunnies in a vise.”

“Elric!” Cora hissed. “Don’t be crude.”

Ordin chuckled. “So you’ve been sayin’. You think your captain is crooked.”

“He aint’ my cap’n no more, but yeah. Cap’n Hunt burnt the evidence an’ sent his men away. I reckon Baskin shoulda brought ‘at up, but he was prolly doin’ good jis to keep y’all outta prison. Ya did kindly burn the tower.”

Ordin grunted. “They can’t make us do this.”

“No one’s forcing us to take this quest, Ordin,” Cora replied. “We can sign it or not. If we don’t, we’ll be sitting in this sleepy town for the rest of the year. But I think Elric has a point: the trial was biased, and we may be able to uncover evidence of that as well as evidence of what happened to Blanchard. If we succeed here, maybe we can have our records cleared. Otherwise, we’re stuck here for a year and Elric will never get another job, I won’t get the Sword of the Coast, Cuauhtie won’t get his army, and you may never learn your purpose.” Cora sighed and tossed her arms in the air. “What else are we going to do?”

Cuauhtérroc adjusted his panther pelt. “We do dees because dees people in Wilder need us.”

“The people of Wilder hate us, Cuauhtérroc,” Ordin said.

“Dees Lady Weelkins do not hate us.”

Cora placed a hand on the doorknob, but she hesitated. “I don’t know if they’re using us or not, and I don’t know what’ll come of this, but I have a reputation to uphold, and I owe to each of you the same chance for a clean slate. If we can solve this, we’ll be local heroes. If we turn up something on the Captain, even better. I think we can make this a winning proposition. But first, we need to be better situated. We have to gain something from this, and we need that in writing. So, what’s fair?”

“We keep what we find,” Ordin quickly answered.

Cora nodded. “Certainly.”

“Ya reckon they can pay us up front?” Elric asked. “An’ more’n a hundred?”

“We can certainly ask.”

Ordin folded his arms. “They let us out of the city.”

“Agreed. Cuauhtérroc?”

The savage thought for a moment. “I need dees army to keel dees Amurraks that burn my veelage.”

“Well…” Cora said with a grimace, “that might be a hard bargain, but we can try. Anything else?”

The three men fell silent.

“I’m also going to demand that they expunge our record of all charges. So now we come to the boring part: negotiations.”

She turned the knob. “Let me do the talking. All agreed?”

With their agreement, Cora pulled the door open and resumed her seat. “Before we sign anything, Chancellor Prisido, we need to make some changes…”

The negotiations had been tedious and had put Elric to sleep. Ordin shuffled uncomfortably in his seat the whole time, and Cora was relieved that he never voiced his opinion on anything. When they finally had an accord, Cora had won them the right to retain anything of value that they found in Wilder Tower and the possibility of a shortened sentence upon a successful result. It had been two hours of persistent niggling over minutia, but Cora had prevailed and they left the war room tired but happy.

She admitted the concessions were small; she had no confidence that they would solve a four-year-old mystery with much of the evidence removed or burned. But maybe they could dig up something on Hunt and win a retrial. At least we have something to do.

Wilder Tower stood like a lone sentry on the low hill, wounded and charred. Yet it was still proud and strong, and the citizens of Wilder district remained comforted by its presence. On this breezy autumn morning, the tower waited for them, with front doors repaired and city guards stationed at either side.

Cora squinted into the first rays of sunlight breaking over the wall. “So, we’ve been granted some clemency; let’s not screw it up. Let’s take it slow and easy, carefully inspecting everything. I doubt we’re going to find anything useful, to tell you the truth, but surely we’re better able to ferret out some clues than those two lunks standing guard.”

“What’s clemmacy?” Elric asked.

“Clemency. It’s an official pardon or easing of a sentence, a bit of mercy from the Council.”

“Well, why didn’tcha jis say mercy, then?”

“Because clemency is the better word.”

As the bright orb of the sun began to rise above the city wall, Cora dry-rubbed her hands. “Ready?”

The pair of sentries at the tower entrance eyed the party suspiciously as they ascended the hill. Perhaps they were wary of all people, or maybe they were predisposed to mistrust Cora’s company of freeblades in particular. She frowned at them. It’s not like we’re going to burn it down again. Regardless, she put on her best face and greeted them warmly. “A good morning to you, soldiers.”

Neither of them replied, and the one on the left moved his hand a bit closer to the hilt of his short sword.

“Hiya, Rutland!” Elric called to the guard on the right.

“Reichtoven?” the guard replied. “I’d know that ‘stache anywhere!”

Elric twirled his long mustache around his finger and grinned. He extended his hand to Rutland, but the other guard, a considerably larger man, put a hand on Elric’s shoulder and pressured him to back up.

“Y’all need to move on,” he said curtly.

“Hey, Rutland and I go way back,” Elric replied. “We’re like peas and carrots.”

The large guard continued the backward pressure on Elric’s shoulder, and with his other hand he reached for his sword.

Elric brushed the guard’s arm aside. “Back off, Burleson,” he barked. “Tell ‘im, Rutland, how we known each other since we was li’l kids.”

Rutland’s silence and the slight drop of his head told Elric all he needed to know.

“Oh, so that’s how it is, huh?”

“I’m sorry, Reichtoven, really I am. But I got my orders.”

“And what orders are those?” Cora demanded. “We’re here on a commission from the High Council.”

“No one is allowed in Wilder Tower on pain of death,” Burleson recited. “Particularly y’all…by order of the Captain.”

“Cuauhtérroc,” Cora said, “reach in my pack, would you—”

Burleson eased his sword from the sheath. “Now, look here…”

Cora rolled her eyes. “Oh, for cripe’s sake. Cuauhtérroc, get the commission to show this lunk why we’re here.”

Ordin leaned over to Cora and whispered to her, “Let’s wax ‘em and be done with it.”

Cora recoiled at the suggestion. “No! No killing guardsmen, Ordin. Do you want to go to jail for the rest of your life?”

Cuauhtérroc pulled the official document from Cora’s backpack and handed it to her. “Is dees it?”

“Yes, thank you.” She pushed the release form under the guard’s helmed nose. “It’s all there.”

“What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked. “This page ain’t been signed by the alderman of Wilder District or notarized by an official scrivener. I reckon it’s a complete forgery. Captain Hunt’s orders were clear: no one is allowed into Wilder Tower, not unless they have a notarized document signed by the alderman of Wilder District.”

There followed a brief moment of stunned silence at the particularly smug proclamation. Then Ordin exclaimed, “That has got to be the stupidest thing I’ve heard in my whole life. The alderman of Wilder is dead, you flamin’ idiot! It’s not even physically possible for him to sign it.” He turned his back on the guard and muttered imprecatory curses under his breath.

Cora placed what she hoped was a calming hand on his shoulder. But she did not feel calm. “Sir…” she said, addressing the guard with all the respect she could muster, which wasn’t much and a lot more than she thought he deserved. “You do realize that Wilder District has been without an alderman for four years, right?”

“Not my problem, Miss.”

While Ordin stormed off in a frustrated fit, Cora eyed the guards narrowly, suspecting something underhanded was at play. Getting the form notarized would be relatively easy, but the requirement of Blanchard’s signature was a convenient roadblock. “We’ll get your rinkin signature,” she seethed, “and we’ll be back!”

Turning on her heels, she called out, “Come on, guys. Let’s go.”

Elric lingered a few seconds longer, his eyes locked onto Rutland’s. “Ya know this ain’t right. Somethin’s goin’ on an’ you know it.” But Rutland made no reply.

As Cora suspected, it required little effort finding a scrivener to notarize the document; there were three such persons in Westmeade. But none would grant the needed notarization until the documents were signed by the originator, preferably in their presence. She wanted to scream with exasperation.

But she could ill afford a childish tantrum when dealing with the quagmire of municipal ordinances. Instead, leaving the others to stew in a corner booth of Crossroads Tavern, Cora called upon her contact on the Council: Artus Calloway.

“We have a problem,” she said, after being admitted into his office. The room was cluttered with crates, boxes, and lengthy items cloth-wrapped and leaning against the wall, which did nothing to hide their shapes. Calloway had received another shipment of weapons, and the hairs stood out on her arms. I’m in the midst of some hefty magic.

“Do tell,” Calloway replied. He neither looked at her or offered her a drink from the decanter half-buried in the clutter on his desk. “It must be in here somewhere,” he muttered to himself as he rifled through a stack of boxes.

Cora frowned at his back. A little courtesy goes a long way. “Well…the Council gave us a commission to investigate Wilder Tower. Officially.”


Cora’s eyes narrowed further. “But Captain Hunt told the guards not to let us in without a signed and notarized document.”

“I see…” Calloway spun and suddenly crouched behind his desk. “What the cripe happened to it?”

“By the alderman of Wilder,” Cora finished. Are you listening to me?

“Go on…”

Cora stared across the desk at the top of Calloway’s white-haired head. “So…” she said, standing to fetch herself some water from the decanter, “we decided to kill the guards and burn the rest of the tower to the ground.”

There it is!” Calloway announced, standing abruptly with a small panpipe in his hand and a relieved smile stretched across his face. “Have you ever heard one of these?”

Cora glowered and sipped her water. “Did you hear a word I said? Sir?”

“Come here and look at this. You’ll not find its equal this side of the Dragoncrests, I can promise you that.”

With a resigned huff, Cora set her glass on the desk and walked around to Calloway’s side. “What.”

The councilman pointed to a dark spot on the panpipe. “This marking right here…see that?”


“That is a bit of soot from the Scorighauts—charring, really. I think. This pipe was involved in the establishment of the Dareni Kingdom over two thousand years ago, when they first—say, do you know how to play a panpipe?”

Cora steeled herself against a wave of impatience. “You blow in it. It’s really one of the simplest instruments ever made.”

Calloway handed the panpipe to her, his blue eyes sparkling with excitement. “Give it a try. I’d like to hear it.”

Cora took the instrument and turned it around in her hands. A two-thousand-year-old set of reeds should be quite delicate, but this seems sturdy…almost like it’s brand new. She squinted and peered in closer. A tiny emblem was etched into the underside along the longest reed. “What’s this mark?” she asked, holding it out to the merchant.

Calloway pulled a magnifying glass from his desk drawer and hovered it over the mark. He raised an eyebrow, set the glass back into the drawer, and threw the panpipe over his shoulder. “I guess I was wrong,” he said, as he closed the drawer and flopped in his chair. “That was made in Yilasa about ten years ago. Somebody double-crossed me. I paid about…” He looked up at the ceiling, calculating. “…about two hundred times what it is worth. That’ll be the last time Sporzek sells anything. To anyone.”

He sighed and poured himself a drink. “Nasty business, that.”

“Sir?” Cora asked with concern. What exactly does he intend?

“Yes…of course. You need your documents amended with Blanchard’s signature on it. Not a problem.” He retrieved an inkwell and quill from another drawer. “Hand me the commission.”

Cora frowned at the councilman as she pulled from her pocket, with great hesitation, the Council’s document. Is he going to do what I think?

Calloway briefly scanned the paper, muttering to himself as his finger slowly slid down the page. At the bottom, he tapped it gently. “Good enough for amateurs. Chock full of holes, though. I could drive a stagecoach through it and never touch the sides.”

He dipped the quill in the ink, spread the parchment flat, and hastily scribed the signature of August Blanchard. After putting the writing tools away, he took a small crimper from the drawer and embossed the page with a notary’s seal.

“That should get you past the guards,” he said after blowing the ink dry. He handed the forged document to Cora. “Anything else you need?”

It was several moments later before Cora could respond. Her hands felt sullied by the lie they held, her fingers hot with the crime she was contemplating. “This…is this legal?”

Calloway opened a random box on his desk and inspected the burnished stone it contained. “That is the signed and notarized document you need. Nothing more. Hunt won’t give you any trouble.”

Cora nodded and slipped the commission back into her pocket.

“You owe me one,” Calloway said.

The next day, with the forged document in hand, they grabbed a quick breakfast and prepared to set out once more. Cora pondered the crime burning a hole in her pocket. But she worried more about the mood settling over the mystic. While they ate, the sky grew more ominous and gloomier. Sudden and sometimes violent storms were a frequent result of winds passing over The Deepening.

“It’s going to be a pretty big storm, isn’t it, Ordin?” she asked.

The mystic nodded.

“Can you tell how long before it hits?”

He shrugged. “If we were farther south away from the lake, I could, but that massive body of water really mucks things up. Could hit us in the next couple of minutes or pass right over us completely.” But the way Ordin sat up and paid notice at the soft rumble of distant thunder told Cora there was little chance they’d be passed over.

The first few droplets, blown in on a cooling breeze from the north, wetted their backs as the freeblades presented the signed and notarized document to a different pair of guards.

With a glance at the signature and embossed seal, they nodded to each other and unlocked the doors to Wilder Tower.

The twin doors closed behind them, leaving the sounds of Westmeade’s early bustle outside the thick stone walls. Only the growing rumble of thunder reverberating through the walls. Their voices and footsteps echoed throughout the great chamber on the ground floor, and the light from their torches danced all around the cavernous room.

“That was surprisingly easy,” Cora said. “Didn’t they think to ask how we got a dead alderman’s signature?”

“They’re guards,” Elric answered with a snort. “They ain’t paid to think.”

Ordin harrumphed as he saw the ground floor of the tower for the first time without the cover of darkness. “So…this is it? Ain’t much to see.”

“How much did Hunt’s men take when they cleaned this place out?” Cora asked Elric, noting dust lines on the shelves that showed where books had been.

He shrugged. “Purt near everthang, I reckon.”

“So, what does the Council think we’ll find?” she wondered aloud.

The stone staircase curving up the outer wall to the second floor contained a small angled door on its side. “Closet…” Ordin mumbled after he had opened the door. “And completely empty.” He swung around the banister and scaled two steps at a time with Shinnick close on his heels. “C’mon, there ain’t nothin’ here.”

On the second floor was a pair of grand dining tables, each with ten elaborately carved high-back chairs that had once been cushioned. Between these tables was an ornate circular area rug, faded with age and use, a shadow of its former glory. And hanging from the ceiling over this rug was a chandelier that had once held nearly fifty candles. Hutches, bared of all valuable porcelain and silver, completed the suite of furniture and gave this chamber a refined, if empty, elegance. In the utter darkness and haste of their first visit, they had completely missed this.

As they scattered about the room, Elric stopped over the rug. Everyone could see the blood stains, but he pointed at them as he called out the names of the fallen: “Alain, Lawton, Strone, Zander.” He straightened into a silent salute, his fist clenched tightly against his chest, and bowed his head.

Cora placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Are you all right?”

Elric grimaced. “It musta been plumb awful fightin’ a empty suit o’ armor. I was upstairs when all this went down. I cain’t even imagine…”

Thunder rumbled in the near distance. The storm was closing in, and Ordin stiffened.

Cora looked around and shrugged. “Unless this table or that chandelier contain the answers we seek, we’re wasting our time here. Let’s move on.”

With nothing of interest on the third floor, they carefully crept up the circular iron staircase to the fourth level of Wilder Tower where Cuauhtérroc had been poisoned by a komaci bite. Cora could almost make out a gooey stain beneath the char.

“Is ‘at the spot?” Elric asked when he saw her focus drawn to an area near the stairs.

Fearsome memories rushed back as the songsage recalled the horrid banespider latching onto Cuauhtérroc and the savage falling, paralyzed by the venom and convulsing violently. She nodded as her skin crawled. I saved his life.

Water dripped through several holes in the ceiling overhead where the fire had burned through. The tower was deeply scarred and ugly. By their hands. And what they had not ruined, the city guard had finished off. Not a single item lay intact or in its proper place, and nothing of value could be seen.

In short order, Cora felt as if the tower no longer held any importance. It was eerily quiet and still except for the occasional flash of lightning through an arrow slit followed by an ever-closer peal of thunder.

The fifth floor was in even worse disarray, as all of the possessions of the man they presumed to be August Blanchard were reduced to scattered bits of rubble. Small pieces remained that gave some indication of their former use: a blackened brass clasp here, a curved fragment of glass there. All this destruction had been visited upon an individual’s home, regardless of whether or not he possessed the right to live here.

“Where’s the old man?” Ordin asked. “I thought you said he was back.”

Cora shrugged. “That was the scuttlebutt at the tavern. Not every rumor is true, of course.”

Overhead, several gaping holes let in the rain, forming puddles of muddy soot on the floor. Ordin stood to the side, looking up into a hole in the roof while droplets of a light rain wetted his face and flashes of lightning illumined his alabaster skin.

“Ain’t nuttin’ to see here,” Elric said as he began to ascend an iron ladder to a trapdoor in the roof.

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, Elric,” Cora cautioned. “I’m not sure the roof is entirely secure enough to walk on.”

“Don’t worry, Cora,” he replied as he unclasped the latch on the overhead door. “I got sure footin’.”

“It’s not that; I don’t trust that it’ll support your weight. And there’s nothing up there that we need, anyway. Now, get down from there.”

“C’mon, Cora,” he protested. “I’m jis gonna have a look-see. Ya never know till ya—”

“Get back!” Ordin yelled, his eyes wide with panic. He dashed for the ladder supporting Elric as fast as he could. Shinnick bounded away, taking cover behind the blackened remains of a workbench.

Cora felt it—a build-up of energy in the skies that had visited them once before—and the stony resolve hardening across Cuauhtérroc’s face said he felt it as well. In a split second, the feeling was gone, discharged by a blindingly bright arc of electricity that ripped through the air and lit up the ladder and spiral staircase with a shower of sparks and miniature arcs of bluish-white energy racing up and down the metal frame. The air filled with the distinct smell of ozone. And things burning.

Cora found that the concussive blast of thunder was already done by the time she had covered her ears. The floor trembled under her feet, and her sense of hearing was overwhelmed, leaving behind a pounding heart and the unmistakable tone of F-sharp ringing in her head.

Cuauhtérroc picked himself off the sooty floor, his chest now caked with blackish-gray mud. He shook his head several times and tugged at his ears.

Ordin’s face appeared gripped in pain. He clutched the bottom of the ladder with one hand and the railing around the spiral staircase with the other, forming a bridge between the two with his body. He slowly and fearfully looked up the ladder, and the eyes of his friends followed.

Still at the top of the ladder, Elric hung precariously by an armpit.

Cora covered her mouth in horrified alarm.

The fighter wagged his head and made a shuddering noise through loose lips. “What a rush!”

Cora danced with joy. “Thank the Maker you’re alive!” She turned to Ordin, who still bridged the gap between the two iron structures. “And thank you for protecting us. I don’t know what that feels like, but I—”

Ordin groaned and released his grip. “It hurts.”

“What in tarnation?” Elric said, looking down at his feet. “I cain’t climb down.”

“I weel help you,” Cuauhtérroc offered.

“No,” Elric said with a moan. “I cain’t move my feet. I thank my boots done stuck to the ladder.”

It was delicate work retrieving Elric from his perch on the ladder. A metal plate in the bottom of each boot had fused straight through the hard leather sole to the metal rungs of the ladder. After several minutes of precarious struggle, they extricated him from his boots, which they left in place, welded to the fourth rung from the top.

While they pulled him free, Cora explained to him the mystic’s story and their previous encounter with his affinity for lightning.

“Y’all mighta told me ‘bout that ‘fore I clambered up,” he said glumly.

“I theenk you steel climb dees ladder,” Cuauhtérroc said.

Elric grinned weakly. “Yeah, yer prolly right.”

They carefully escorted Elric down the height of the tower to the well where Ordin applied soothing salves and bandages to the soles of Elric’s feet and the palms of his hands.

Cuauhtérroc stood nearby, holding his torch aloft over the low pool. “Dees water is very deep,” he said.

“Before there was a city, there was this well,” Elric explained, “an’ the tower jis kinda grew up ‘round it ‘cause the men in the tower had to drink somethin’ without goin’ outside.”

Cora rolled her eyes. “Or something like that.”

After a few minutes, Elric began to limp gingerly around the large room, testing the efficacy of Ordin’s treatments. “So whatta we do now? An’ what’s Shinnick doin’? Tell me he ain’t fixin’ to do his business on the wall.”

“No,” Ordin said with an annoyed look. “I think he might have found something.” He knelt down beside his wolf. “Kio tia?

Shinnick sniffed along the base of the closet door beneath the stairs. A low growl rumbled in his throat until he wagged his head in a mighty sneeze. He pawed at the door and growled again, and Ordin reached up to pull the door open.

Shinnick leapt into the dark closet, his guttural rumbling resonating inside. Claws grated across stone as if he was trying to dig something up. He pressed his sensitive nose against the back wall, snarling with greater intensity.

Ordin whispered a pale greenish light into being and stepped into the closet. The light revealed only musty walls, rat droppings, and a faint sheen of moisture. The mystic knelt beside his wolf and laid a hand on his head. “What is it, Shinnick?”

The wolf looked up briefly, his yellow eyes scanning Ordin’s face as if providing an answer. Ordin nodded and then lied face down on the dank floor, pressing an ear to the stone.

“What’s going on?” Cora asked, peering into the closet.

Ordin ran a finger along the back wall. “Right here?” he asked.

Shinnick answered with a quick growl.

The mystic whistled softly. “By the Maker.” He jumped to his feet and traced a finger up from the floor to a point near the squat ceiling of the closet. “Well…there it is,” he said, a satisfied grin spreading across his face.

Cora frowned with confusion. “There what is?”

In response, Ordin pulled a hidden latch and threw open an angled door to reveal stone steps leading down into an underground passage.

“That,” Ordin answered. “That’s what we do now.” He scratched behind Shinnick’s ears, reached into a pocket, and gave the wolf a block of dried meat. “Good job, ol’ boy.”

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