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  • Andrew M. Trauger

Ch. 19: What Lies Beneath

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

Cuauhtérroc led the freeblades down the chiseled stone steps, his torch casting long shadows behind him. But Ordin paused at the top inside the closet. “Somethin’ ain’t right,” he said, squinting into the darkness below.

Cora stopped and looked back up the stairs at him. “What do you mean?”

Ordin folded his arms and scowled. His eyes shifted left and right as if scanning for danger.

“Hang on, Cuauhtie,” Cora said as she went back up to the closet. “Is it being underground? The Roark?”

Elric came up behind her. “The Roark? You seen the Roark?”

Ordin nodded. “Yeah…but, something ain’t right.” He grinned, slowly but steadily, perhaps the first true smile of his life. “Or…maybe something ain’t wrong.”

He scratched Shinnick’s ears and breathed a contented sigh. “I’ll be fine, Cora. Things are different now. I’ve been purged of that fear.”

A peal of thunder booming overhead made Elric duck and look warily about him, despite being beneath the surface.

“I bet you got jolted pretty good up there,” Ordin said with a chuckle. “You know, people don’t normally survive direct hits from the sky. I did, but that’s because I got some rinkin “purpose” hangin’ over me.”

Elric brightened considerably. “Well, mebbe there’s a purpose fer me, too! Mebbe me an’ you’s connected!”

All vestiges of Ordin’s smile vanished. “Don’t jump to conclusions.”

As they descended, the sounds of Wilder District and the thunderstorm above faded until there nothing but footsteps shuffling against stone. The stairs leveled out and opened into a rectangular room with side passages to the left and right. Across the room was a wide set of stairs that continued further down. A single torch burned in a wall sconce of iron scrollwork, poorly illuminating an intricate tile fresco wrapping around the perimeter of the room.

“Somebody ees down here,” Cuauhtérroc said, and Ordin nodded.

Despite the ominous declaration, Cora moved in closer to the wall and marveled at the artisan skill required to capture so much beauty in something as mundane as ceramic tile. Other than a few randomly missing tiles and one section of wall suffering from a minor collapse, the entire mural was intact. Running the perimeter was the story of Westmeade’s early days as an outpost tower to several incursions with dragon-bloods from the Maz Nabor. Clearly these underground passages had been an important place at one point in time. Perhaps they still were.

Elric stared at the wide staircase delving deeper underground, inching ever closer as he fidgeted with the pommel of his sword. Matching suits of armor flanked the stairs, each with gauntleted hands folded over the crossbars of their greatswords, the points of which stuck into the pedestals between their iron-shod feet. A dull brown rust coated both armor and sword, as if they had stood there untouched for decades.

Shinnick edged forward to Elric’s side, his hair bristling as he growled at the armor statues.

“Easy,” Ordin said in calming tones. “There’s nobody inside ‘em.”

Cora peeled her eyes away from the fresco, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand. “The town guards battled an animated suit of armor. You don’t suppose…”

Elric nodded. “I bet they’re guardin’ somethin’ right nice down there.”

“Probably so,” Cora said, “but all the same, I’m not keen on fighting an empty suit of armor. It’s a little creepy.”

“Well, I’ll be sure an’ not touch ‘em, then.” Elric stepped toward the top of the stairs. “I’ll jis take me a peek—”

With a screech of tortured steel, the suits of armor spun their greatswords overhead.

“Elric!” Cora and Ordin shouted.

“Erik Rikeoven!” yelled the savage.

The twin greatswords sliced down across the open archway above the stairs, stopping before clanging onto the stone floor.

Elric scampered back, lost his footing as his socks slipped on the stones, and fell on his bottom. He crab-walked backward until his head banged against Cuauhtérroc’s leg and the savage scooped him up and set him on his feet.

Silence settled over the room as the freeblades stood with weapons drawn and muscles tensed, but the suits of armor remained on their pedestals. After a minute of standoff, they raised their swords again, spun them around and set the points once more between their feet.

Elric removed his helmet and wiped his brow. “Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit, I ‘bout choked on my spit. We gotta go down there!”

“Not now,” Cora said. “We need to see what is going on around here.”

Cuauhtérroc nodded. “Dees air smell like dead aneemals.” He turned to his left. “Come. I hear something dees way.”

Reluctantly, Elric replaced his helm and left the wide stairs behind. “We’re comin’ back, right?” he asked with a glance over his shoulder.

Cora shushed him as they entered the corridor. A low din of raspy voices echoed for a moment from somewhere down the hall. The passage angled to the left, and soon the torchlight in Cuauhtérroc’s hand became the only light they had to rely on.

Cold, dark stone pressed in on both sides as the passage ended at a thick wooden door inset into the wall. The sounds of guttural voices resonated intermittently, but it was impossible to tell their origin or their tone. Shinnick returned a wary, throaty growl of his own.

Ordin rubbed the wolf’s ears. “Only bad things live underground,” he whispered.

“What about the Dokari?” Cora whispered back.

The mystic shook his head. “Like I said…only bad things.”

“Bless yer heart,” Elric said with a wag of his head, “the Dokari ain’t real.”

Cora shushed him. “They most certainly are real.”

“What?” Elric countered. “People ‘at never see the light o’ day an’ do nuttin’ but hunt for veins o’ gold an’ motherlodes o’ gemstones? That’s the stuff of fantasy. I mighta been born at night, but it weren’t last night.”

“They’re real enough,” Ordin said. “And they’re down there for a reason. They were banished.”

Cora knew the theories and the sentiments that accompanied them. The Dokari were mythical in some respects, but tragic in many others. An entire line of people—banished or not—that forever lived beneath the surface, forming a society known as the Subterrain. If the stories could be believed.

Cuauhtérroc stopped abruptly. He held up his right hand, lifting his macana overhead to strike.

Elric slipped and stumbled, clattering his shield against the wall. “Sorry…” he whispered, “it’s hard to stop in my socks.”

“I hear dees voices,” Cuauhtérroc said, pointing to the thick wooden door inset into the stone wall. For a moment, there was silence, then a moderate burst of feral laughter resounded through the door.

Shinnick responded with bristled fur and a low growl through bared teeth.

“Who do you think is in there?” Cora asked quietly.

“Not who,” Ordin replied. “What. That’s a pack of nisser or I’m half-dragon. I can almost make out what they’re sayin’.”

Cora frowned. “You know their language? Wait…what is a nisser?”

“A nisse; a pack of nisser. And yes, I’ve learned a few languages. Some folk say the nisser harass the farmers ‘round here, and if the farmer ain’t watchin’, a nisse will steal sheep, hay, tools…even kids. Other people say nisser are part of the Great Falling Away, same thing that gave us the faeries and the rinkin Roark. But personally, I think they’re just dragon-blooded rats.”

“Rats?” Cora objected. “That’s disgusting.”

Ordin nodded. “It’s in the eyes. You’ll see.”

“So…do you think they’re linked to the mystery of Wilder Tower?”

Ordin shrugged, trying to calm Shinnick. “I doubt it. Nisser ain’t really ever linked to anythin’ but stealin’ and killin’. But maybe they know who’s runnin’ this show and maybe they’re even workin’ for him. Could be that old man’s army, I reckon.”

A second roar of laughter, heartier than the first, now erupted from within the room, followed by a high-pitched squeal of pain and another fit of hilarity. Though muffled by the thick door, a distinguishable sentence in a garbled tongue overpowered the others. Then there was silence.

“There’s trouble brewin’,” Ordin said somberly, his eyes closing in a pronounced scowl and negating all previous attempts to calm his wolf.

“Do you know dees words?” Cuauhtérroc asked.

Ordin nodded slowly. “He said ‘Place a bet on your cards or I’ll feed you to the dragon.’ Or somethin’ like that.”

Cora stared dumbfounded at the mystic. Ordin’s scowl settled on the closed door. “I don’t know which disturbs me most: that there’s a dragon down here, or that there’s a bunch of nisser playing cards down here.”

“They’re playin’ a card game?” Elric asked. “Is it Knights? ‘Cause I can play a mean game of Kni—”

The mystic held up his hand for silence.

Cora’s mind whirled. A dragon? Down here? I’m not ready for a dragon! We’re barely ready for a roomful of nisser, but if they’ve got a dragon in there, we’re in way over our heads.

Ordin dug his elbow into Cora’s ribs. “What!” she whispered hoarsely.

“I said, ‘Are you ready?’”

“Ready for what? What are we going to do?”

“I’m gonna kill me some nisser.”

Cora’s jaw fell open slightly. “If the nisser are dragonkin, then they’re innately evil and deserving of death, but…they’re playing a card game.”

Ordin shrugged. “So?”

“So…what dragonkin would sit around playing games when there is a world to corrupt and destroy?”

“Mebbe they’re takin’ a break,” Elric offered.

Cora gave him a perplexed look. “From destroying the world? Really?”

“Look,” Ordin said, putting his hand to the door latch, “they need killin’. That’s it. It ain’t no more complicated than that.”

“I don’t know…what if they aren’t nisser at all? Maybe we should try talking to them first.”

Ordin rolled his eyes. “Fine. We’ll talk to ‘em first. So, you ready or not?” His hand was turning the latch.

The songsage nodded reluctantly and began to chant. Her words were soothing, calming her nerves. Soon she found greater clarity and focus, a mind free of distractions and fears.

Elric glanced down at his unshod feet and shrugged. He clapped a gauntlet against his helmet. “Ready.”

Cuauhtérroc’s eyes narrowed as his broad shoulders heaved with short, punctuated breaths. “We go now.”

For all their preparedness, no one was ready for the door to fly open. Ordin startled and released the handle, and Shinnick barked in surprise.

A greenish-brown creature, barely three feet tall and hardly more than skin and bone, stood in the doorway, frozen in a mixture of shock and fear. Greasy brown-black hair hung in tangled dreadlocks over bloodshot eyes, while ears tufted with short wiry hair jutted up from the sides of its skull. Its black, pointed nose dripped with mucus, and its slightly open mouth displayed several long, jagged teeth. A second later, Cora caught its scent, a raw and noxious blend of feces and wet fur.

Her chant ended as she choked.

Behind this scrawny creature, the room was still. Four more creatures of similar but much healthier stature sat around a crude plank table littered with various coins and the torn and abused remnants of a deck of playing cards. Several tankards lay strewn about, some still containing a dark liquid. Four pairs of astonished beady eyes locked onto the group standing in the doorway.

Emberek!” the creature in the doorway shouted with the tremor of fear.

“Go to the Nine Hells!” Ordin growled. He plunged his scimitar through the nisse’s ribcage and barreled past its pitiful form into the room. Shinnick followed closely on his heels, teeth bared and leaping at the nearest creature.

A pair of daggers flashed briefly before sailing across the room at Ordin, one of which jabbed into his thigh and elicited a howl. He pushed through to the card table, flipping it with a shoulder. Four frightened nisser scrambled away, tumbling over their chairs in panic.

Ordin cut them down with precision.

Elric charged in, shouldering past Cora and knocking her against the wall. “Save some fer me!” he shouted at the mystic, then cheered as a small horde of nisser rushed in from an adjacent room.

Cora regarded the scrawny nisse gasping for its last breath in the doorway near her feet. It was almost pitiful, emaciated and infested with countless diseases. She shuddered. Horrid things…obviously dragonkin.

Cuauhtérroc paused beside Cora. “Stay here,” he said. “Do not let dem leave dees room.”

Cora nodded.

“And sing dees song I like.”

Cora pulled her lute around and began to strum the chords of “Cuauhtérroc’s Song,” as she called it, singing over it an energetic melody of inspiration and fortitude in battle. The magical refrains were strength to the savage, and he relished the surge.

Cuauhtérroc crushed several nisser as his macana, fueled by the power of Cora’s music, mangled their diminutive bodies. Blood sprayed in all directions as broken forms tumbled left and right with the Audric savage standing firm in their midst.

Elric darted erratically from one corner of the chamber to the other, skidding on his shoeless feet across the stony floor made slick with blood. In short order, it became a game—run, slide, stab. Reverse direction—run, slide, stab. And all the while showing a crazed and toothy grin like a madman.

Toward the back corner, Ordin and Shinnick were surrounded by a dozen nisser. Many of them used small crossbows that, if they had been more accurate, would have quickly made mystic and wolf a pair of bloody pincushions. Shinnick latched onto a nisse, thrashed it, and tossed it against the wall, where it writhed and shrieked in pain. Ordin cut a nisse down and grabbed the small crossbow from the creature’s hands before it fell. He raised and aimed it straight at another nisse’s forehead and squeezed the trigger. The nisse’s head snapped back as its feet left the floor, where it landed flat on its back at Ordin’s feet.

Ducking beneath the doorway to the adjacent room, a hulking brute entered the chaos, kicking aside a fallen nisser in its path. With fur the color of rotten oranges covering its body, a horned brow, reddish eyes, tusks jutting up past its cheekbones, and an undeniably evil disposition, Cora could barely make out the residual human features of its twisted form. Mismatched sections of armor hung around it like loose tiles on a roof, ready to dislodge at any moment. Dozens of tarnished rings pierced a single ear, and a brass key dangled around its neck on a leather cord. Blood dripped from its mouth and sprayed out as it shouted vitriol at the intruders.

“Look out!” Cora screamed.

Elric looked up and cursed. “Not today, you orange fuzz monster!” He changed course as quickly as his socks would allow and raced toward this new threat.

Cora changed her tune as the massive creature grabbed a chair and hurled it across the room at Cuauhtérroc. She feverishly worked the fretboard of her lute as Elric charged into the battle. But her breath caught in her throat when the brute drew a six-foot blade from a back-scabbard and cut a deadly swath around him, mowing down several unsuspecting nisser before catching Elric’s shield and sending him hurtling against a nearby wall.

Wresting resolve from fright, Cora started a fresh melody, a lilting tune into which she weaved charming lyrics focused on the dragon-blood. Her lips curled with satisfaction as the churlish creature began to shake its head defiantly, struggling against the magic of her song. Got you. It would lose a battle of minds with a songsage.

As the creature calmed to Cora’s song, Cuauhtérroc roared a mighty battle cry, filling the room with the sonorous reverberations of his fury. He reached back with his macana, death in his dark eyes.

“No!” Cora screamed, “He’s on our side! I’ve got him!”

Cuauhtérroc brought down his studded club onto the dragon-blood’s head, crushing its jaw and breaking the charm Cora had draped over its mind.

Despite having a broken jaw, the dragon-blood invoked the name of Karashakon the Red and lashed out with his mighty blade.

Cora cursed. I had him!

Elric clambered to his blood-soaked socks and shook the sense back into his head. “Imma ‘bout to jerk a knot in yer tail, ya rinkin fuzz-monster!” He grabbed his sword off the floor and stepped over a fallen nisse.

Cuauhtérroc fended off several swings, but each attack pushed him further into a corner filled with nisser cowering with fear. Though few of these trembling creatures shouted and hissed at him, Cuauhtérroc’s focus remained on the massive blade, his warrior eyes searching for a moment to strike.

A wild backswing of the dragon-blood’s heavy sword left it exposed, and Cuauhtérroc drove his macana into the creature’s ribcage with the strength of both arms. Bones cracked and lungs gave up their air. The creature tried to gasp, but its breath was lost. Its eyes widened in shock and fear.

Cuauhtérroc crushed the dragon-blood’s arms, knocking its greatsword to the floor with a loud clang.

The dragon-blood staggered now, its arms hanging useless at either side, color draining from its tortured face.

Cuauhtérroc ended its torture with a crushing blow to the head, and the orange-haired perversion crumpled to the floor.

The few remaining nisser cowered in the corner, throwing weapons down, sniveling, clawing one atop another to get away from Ordin’s blade, their black eyes wide with fear and their shrill voices squealing with desperation.

“Take them to the other room,” Cora said, wincing at the harsh sound.

While Ordin and Shinnick escorted the remaining nisser into the adjoining room, Cora looked for potential clues to the mystery surrounding them. Her eyes fell upon the scattered cards, well-worn and abused. Why were a pack of nisser playing cards beneath Wilder Tower? Each card—those she could find—was stamped on the back with the name “Marley’s Tankard.” Her heart skipped a beat. That’s the place where August Blanchard was murdered!

Elric’s own searching had turned up only a medley of coins, but nothing else worth salvaging. Even the dragon-blood’s greatsword was little more than scrap. He shrugged and sat on a rickety chair to study the fresh gouge in his shield.

Cuauhtérroc nudged the orange creature at his feet. “He smell like dees sterko.”

“What’s that?” Cora asked, looking up from the cards. “Or do I really want to know?”

“Dung,” Ordin said as he and Shinnick returned, considerably bloodier than before. “And that’s puttin’ it nicely. That whole room smells of its filth.”

Cora looked over the mystic’s shoulder into the adjoining room. “Did you get anything out of the nisser?”

“They might have been slaves,” Ordin said, “but they weren’t sayin’ much.”

“Maybe I can talk to them,” Cora said, putting the tattered cards in her pack.

“I don’t think you can,” Ordin replied.

“Well, I’d have you interpret, of course.”

Ordin smirked. “No, I don’t think it’s even physically possible. Not anymore.”

A long second later, Cora understood his meaning. “That’s horrible! How could you?”

The mystic shrugged and wiped a bloody hand on his clothes. “They’re dragon-bloods. They got what they deserved.”

After they returned to the central chamber where empty suits of armor guarded the grand stairs, Cora released a long pent-up breath of relief. “That was intense. I think from now on we should be more careful. We need to plan our next move, not rush into it.”

“Well, I’m all fer goin’ downstairs,” Elric said, almost before she had finished. “That’s a big ol’ tray-sure opportunitoi if ever I saw one!” He scooped up a handful of small pebbles and began tossing them down the stairs.

“Quit it!” the songsage scolded. Then she turned to the mystic. “Did you truly need to murder them?”

Ordin frowned at her. “Murder? Is that what you think that was? We just did battle with the nisser and a foul creature that invoked Karashakon himself. So I slit a few dragon-blooded throats. Don’t tell me you’re havin’ moral qualms all of a sudden.”

Cora shifted her feet.

Ordin shook his head at her. “You might be in the wrong line of work if you wanna save a nisse’s life.”

“No,” Cora said with considerable patience. “It’s not that—”

“Well, I don’t know whatcha want me to do. They ain’t gonna fight when they’re all shakin’ in fear like that. We can’t leave ‘em and give ‘em a chance to regroup and attack us blindly.”

Cora folded her arms. “We could have talked to them.”

“And then what…?”

“I don’t know!” Cora exclaimed, tossing her arms up. “Cuauhtérroc?”

The savage startled at being suddenly brought into the argument. “We keel dem,” he said with a nod of finality. “Dey try to keel us, but we keel dem first. When jaguar warriors come into our veelage and take our food, we keel dem. We do not talk to dem and say ‘Please do not take our food.’ Dees jaguar warriors that run and hide, we also keel so dey cannot take our food tomorrow.”

Cora sighed in defeat. She regarded Ordin with caution. “Okay, but please assure me you weren’t having another ‘moment’ where your mind saw Roark in those pitiful nisser.”

“I’m good,” the mystic said with a soft nod. “Lady Tarnistorel purged that from me, and I ain’t never been so clear-headed.”

“Well, I think we ought to return to the surface.”

“No, we stay here,” Cuauhtérroc said, “and go to dees other side. Or, more nisser weel be ready for us when we come back.”

“But we just went through a massive fight,” Cora objected. “Don’t you guys need to rest and recover…or something?”

The three men shook their heads.

“Well, Elric needs new boots.”

Elric shugged. “Mebbe there’s some in the tray-sure.”

“I agree with Cuauhtérroc,” Ordin said. “We probably oughtta stay down here and finish what we started. I ain’t gonna be too happy if we leave a bunch of nisser down here and they wipe us out when we come back.”

Cora glared at the trio of men. Courage and stupidity might be twin siblings in a group of freeblades, joined at the hip and inseparable in those who take up the path. And she would have to contend with that on a regular basis. With a resigned sigh, she “led” them across the main chamber, past the armor-guarded stairs, and to the corridor on the opposite side.

Slowly and quietly, they plodded along until the passage ended abruptly at a wooden door fastened with iron plates and hinges. They expected to find nisser behind this door as well, but there were no indications of the room being inhabited. They heard no laughing, no growling, no guttural voices of any kind. In all respects, this wing of the complex seemed vacant, and that set Cora’s nerves on edge as much as a throaty growl or a pair of glowing red eyes might have done. Darkness and silence could be more unnerving than the lighted path, and the unknown more fearful than obvious danger.

Ordin placed an ear to the heavy wooden door. “I got somethin’,” he whispered. “Sounds like a dyin’ cat. Maybe a rusty hinge. It’s faint.”

“Careful,” Cora said. “It’s entirely possible the whole place knows we’re here and is silently lying in wait for us.”

Ordin nodded, and with scimitar raised, he turned the latch. He gave the door an irritated glare and wriggled the latch several times. “Hmm…I reckon it’s locked.”

Elric snapped his fingers and pointed into the air. “What about ‘at key on the orange fuzz monster? Ya thank it might’n open this ‘ere door?”

“What key?” Cora asked.

“Um…that key…on the orange fuzz monster? Hangin’ ‘round his neck? On the leather cord?”

“Oh yes…that. Do you have it?”

Elric shrugged. “No. I thought we weren’t takin’ none o’ that stuff…”

Cora’s shoulders slumped as she sighed. “Come on…”

A few minutes later, they returned with the tarnished brass skeleton key, which Ordin inserted into the latch and turned with modest effort. The door shifted open, and Ordin paused as a wave of stench wafted from the inner chamber.

“By the Maker!” he exclaimed. “Why has everything down here gotta smell so putrid!”

“That’s what evil does,” Cora replied, reciting a passage from the holy scripts. “It kills, steals, and destroys. It turns beauty into horrid, clean into filth, life into death.”

Ordin uttered a quick prayer to conjure a ball of glowing light and transferred it to a loose rock. Burying his nose in the crook of his elbow, the mystic tossed the glowing rock into the room and crept carefully inward. Shinnick stayed close at his heels, a low snarl escaping past his thin black lips.

Near the lighted rock, Ordin stopped and slowly lowered his arm. “By Creation!”

As the others entered behind him, each one stopped short as they took in the scene. Cora gasped and put a hand to her mouth. A sound much like Shinnick’s growl rumbled in Cuauhtérroc’s chest.

Along one wall of the small stony room were a half-dozen rectangular cages of thick wire, the kind often used for trapping small game. But these…these housed small…

Ordin frowned. “What the rink are they?”

Three bipedal creatures languished in misery, cramped and lying in their own filth. All three looked like freakishly disfigured humans, as if their bodies had been badly merged together with that of an alligator or a salamander. Spiny ridges ran up the back of one, while the next featured mottled scales on its arms, neck, and face. Each was malnourished and covered with pustules and patches of reddish-orange fur.

From inside one of the cages, a whimper of pain weakly escaped a thin, crusty pair of lips. “Jardam…”

“Nine Hells!” Ordin spat. “This ain’t right!” The mystic knelt beside the nearest cage and tested the padlocked latch. The key retrieved from the dragon-blood was no use here, and Ordin cursed under his breath.

With her nose and mouth buried in the crook of an elbow, Cora knelt beside the mystic, her heart filling with sorrow. “These poor…people.” It was hard to describe them as such. “Who would do such a thing?”

But she already knew the answer.

Ordin stood and unleashed a string of virulent curses, and Cora could not help but recoil from the torrent of offensive words.

“Whoa,” Elric objected, “ya kiss yer ma with ‘at mouth?”

Ordin only glared at the young warrior with fury in his eyes. “Look at them, Elric! Get off your high horse and look at them!! These were people!”

“An’ we’re gonna save them—wait…what? Whatcha mean ‘were’?”

The mystic’s scowl intensified, and Shinnick joined him in a snarl. “They ain’t human no more…”

Elric peered in for a closer look, and his eyes bugged. “Mother of pearl,” he whispered.

Another wave of sadness washed over the songsage, and her eyes began to brim with tears. “Wha…what happened?”

“They ain’t people no more,” Ordin repeated sternly. “But they were. They’re dragon-touched now…partway human, partway dragon-blood…who knows what they’ll become.” The mystic spat on the stone floor. “I ain’t never seen the like.”

There was silence for a time, broken only by a sniff from Cora and a faint moan from the captives.

“We gotta kill ‘em all,” Ordin said at last.

Cora’s heart skipped a beat. “You mean all the nisser, right?”

“Of course, all the nisser. That part’s easy. But you ain’t gonna like me for sayin’ what we gotta do next.”

“Don’t you even think it, Ordin!” Cora’s jaw began to tremble, though she tried valiantly to steel herself.

“They’re good as dead. And you know it.”

Cora’s tears flowed now. “How could you? They’re people!”

A flash of indignation shot through Ordin’s eyes. “How could I? How could I?! Let me put two and two together for you. Them rinkin nisser have captured folks from who knows where, brought ‘em down here, and done all manner of ungodly things to ‘em. Got ‘em cooped up down here like rinkin chickens…or rats…in a prison where they get tortured every night…”

Here the mystic paused; the story sounded all too familiar. He frowned and ran a hand through his long, white hair. “No…no, that ain’t it. That’s what the Roark do. This is somethin’ else.”

He scooped up his glowing rock and started looking around the chamber. The others watched him with a mixture of dread and bewilderment. Something had diverted him, captured his imagination, driven him to search deeper.

While the mystic scoured every corner and crevice, Cora retrieved a curative elixir from her pack and tried to get one of the mongrels to drink it. The small cage held the miserable half-breed immobile, so in desperation, she poured the contents through an opening onto the wretched creature’s parched lips. It licked at the ointment with forked tongue, pulling in the dribbles over primitive fangs and spitting it back at her. Cora gasped and pulled her hand quickly away as if touching something hot.

Ordin returned to the center of the chamber, his eyes locked on the floor near his feet but a single finger pointing at the row of cages. “The nisser…they didn’t do this.” He paused, wagging his finger at the helpless captives. He was deep in thought with his other hand cradling his chin.

“We weel keel dees nisser,” Cuauhtérroc said, tapping his obsidian-studded macana in the palm of a hand.

Ordin waved him off. “Yeah, yeah…I got that. But this room…is not a torture chamber.” He swept his arm around the chamber. “Look, there ain’t no instruments of torture, no chains, no hooks, no barbed knives…” He paused again, and again he pointed down to the encaged captives. “And these…these are not prisoners.”

“What?” Cora said, sniffing and looking up at him in confusion.

Ordin released his chin and tapped a finger. “So, the Great Dragon, Vaeroloth, gave birth to the Ancient Five, right?”

Cora nodded; that was common knowledge.

He tapped a second finger. “And the Ancient Five spawned all the true dragons: hydra, drakes, and stuff like that—the dragonspawn.”

“Yes…?” Cora responded with some hesitation.

Third finger. “And then the dragonspawn starts gettin’ it on with all the Maker’s creatures, warpin’ and corruptin’ them, and that’s where we get the dragon-bloods, right?”

“This is well-known history, Ordin. What are you driving at?”

“Look, we all agree that dragon-bloods come from a tryst between some rinkin dragonspawn and one of the Maker’s creations. But how does that work?”

Cora screwed up her nose. “I don’t really want to think about that.”

“Exactly!” the mystic exclaimed, pointing now at Cora. “Nobody wants to think about how that happens. But I think we’re seein’ it happen. Right here.” He spread his arms wide. “This is the transformation room.”

“Then we have to save them!” Cora pleaded.

Ordin folded his arms and shook his head. “At this point, I don’t think that’s physically possible.”

“But we have to try!” she cried.

Elric slipped a hand around her arm. “Come on, Cora. They’re done for. The Great Dragon’s got ‘em. I reckon Ordin can give ‘em peace before he waxes ‘em.”

Her eyes widened with alarm. “No! You’re not doing that again.”

Ordin turned grim and reached for his scimitar. “If might be best if you walked away.”

Tears of anger began to brim. “How can you be so heartless? There must be something we can do. Can’t you pray for their healing?”

The mystic shook his head. “I ain’t that great a healer. The Grand Hierophant might could, or maybe the most powerful pontiffs at your Solariums. But not me.”

“Or maybe you just don’t want to.”

“Whoa,” Elric said, tugging afresh on Cora’s arm. “Come on, now. ‘At dog won’t hunt. Ordin’s been all sugar an’ spice this whole time, so ya might oughtta cut him some slack. ‘Sides, ain’t no use arguin’ wid a fence post.”

Cora continued to glare at the mystic.

“Cora O’Banion,” Cuauhtérroc said from the doorway. “Come. We go now.”

With great reluctance, Cora went with Cuauhtérroc and Elric back to the central chamber, where she waited alone in a corner, knees clutched to her chest as tears quietly trickled down her cheeks.

Cuauhtérroc sat on the stairs leading back up to the surface, quiet and unmoving while Elric wandered about studying the mural.

Cora sniffed, breaking several minutes of silence. “Tell me something, Elric. Are there any missing people in Westmeade? Anyone Captain Hunt couldn’t find?”

Elric rubbed his handlebar mustache. “Hmm…it ain’t ringin’ a bell.”

Cora sighed with deep sadness. “They must have been snatched from the surrounding farmlands. There’s something horrible going on—right under the city—and we just stumbled onto it. Yet, we haven’t discovered a single thing about the occupant of Wilder Tower, which was our commission. We’ve slain everything that rose up against us, so we haven’t had a chance to actually talk with any of the denizens down here.”

“And they weren’t gonna talk,” Ordin replied as he returned, looking more somber than usual. “But they’re at peace now.”

Cora cut him a sideways glance. “Hopefully, we’re not killing off all our clues.”

“Would you rather they killed us off?”

Cora huffed. “No.”

“Look. Don’t be stupid,” the mystic continued, “The nisser ain’t gonna tell us a rinkin thing about this tower or who’s livin’ in it. In fact, I don’t believe they had anything to do with that old man. I don’t reckon he even knew they were down here. I’m tellin’ you, there’s a dragonspawn here, and he’s transformin’ folks. That’s what’s goin’ on.”

“What is down dees stairs?” Cuauhtérroc asked, pointing to the grand staircase.

Ordin folded his arms. “The dragon,” he said. “That’s my guess.”

Silence washed over the room.

Elric glanced at each of his allies. “And tray-sure!” he said excitedly.

Cora stood up and folded her arms, looking crossly at the mystic. “Look,” she said, then paused, realizing she was imitating his familiar pattern. Why not? “Look,” she began again, this time with an overly severe frown, “that’s stupid! It’s not even physically possible for there to be a dragon down here. They’re huge creatures—big as a house—and would never fit in a place like this.”

“You’re mockin’ me,” Ordin said with a raised eyebrow.

“No, I’m mad at you. Mad because you slaughtered things and it doesn’t seem to bother you. Mad because we still don’t know anything about August Blanchard, and nothing is alive to tell us. Mad because…well…you’re probably right, and I don’t like the awful truth of what we have to do. And I’m mad because there might be a dragon down here and I’m scared to death. And that’s stupid because killing a dragon is what I signed up for. But what’s even more stupid is that Elric wants to face it in his stocking feet. So, I insist that we go back up and get ready. For whatever’s down there.”

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