After untold millennia of life, it is not often I am shaken. After knowing me but a handful of kilorevs, the child reached out, grabbed my heart and showed it to me. I will never underestimate him again.
-- Quasar Lathaan Diliaysus, Prime Tarkath, 1st Sabre Legion
The devastation of the party chamber looked and felt familiar to Bannor. Friends bleeding and broken, the air tainted with the smell of burned flesh and hair, the drained feeling of fear unraveling in his stomach. The conflict had followed him to Malan. Only now, the opponents were bigger, more vicious, and more organized. The only thing that saved them was that hugely powerful allies had been on hand to fend off the assault.
The multi-tiered hall with its beautiful stone, crystal and glasswork had become a blood-splashed scene of carnage. Smoke still rose from corpses, and bits of cloth and tapestry smoldered from contact with battle magic. The hard granite floor was scored, pitted, and blackened from powerful hits and the crushing strength of those who had done battle. Despite the grisly display, even the youngest of the four to five score party-goers were reacting more with agitation than horror. The Felspar and Frielos families did not like having their fun disturbed.
Bannor pulled at his perspiration-slick silk tunic and scrubbed his hands through his hair. What a mess. The King and Queen, along with Baron and Baroness looked like they had run through a briar patch, cut, scratched, and bruised with their fine clothes in tatters. Few of Loric's family, or the many friends that had been with them escaped injury.
"I am terribly sorry, Ri," Loric said to Wren's mother. The gray-haired warrior looked a wreck, his scratched muscular torso showing through rips in his fine silk tunic. "That fellow was taking everything I had to just to tie him up. Li just jumped in there--" He shook his head. "I couldn't pull my strike."
Bannor held up a hand. "She's okay. I can feel her. Her life is strong."
Ziedra floated down from where she was surveying the room. The dark-haired savant of magic was one of the few that showed little effects of the battle, though her shiny dress was dotted with enemy blood."If Wren was enhanced the way I was," Ziedra added. "It would take a lot to seriously hurt her."
Loric let out a breath slowly. "I was striking to slay an elder..."
"Did it occur to you that we needed that commander for questioning?" Aarlen said with a scowl.
Loric rubbed the back of his head. "Protectorate business wasn't exactly at the forefront of my thinking at that moment. I was trying to avoid getting killed."
"I--want--my children back," Euriel said stomping her foot hard enough to rattle the floor. "Bannor you said you could track them... can you or can't you?"
"They're really far away," he answered. He narrowed his eyes, casting his nola power toward that distant location through his link to Eternity. "It is someplace--" He frowned. "Strange. A place of metal. So huge..."
"I know where they are," Eclipse said, rubbing the white crescent tattoo on his gold face. "She took them back to her estate on Homeworld."
<How do you know?> Dulcere asked.
Eclipse sighed. Bannor could feel the male Kriar's discomfort. "We were mates for fifty millennia." He touched the jewel glowing near his collarbone. "She does not hide herself from me."
"And you can sense them there?" Dulcere said to Bannor.
He looked around and shrugged. "I sense that maybe she didn't want to cut them off." He probed that far away place. "There is great energy in that place, I sense she could have sealed it, but chose not to."
"Bait," Aarlen murmured. "It's not us she wants to follow. The Baronians..."
One of the other Kriar, a slender elfin-looking female with floor-length hair frowned. Gown swishing around her body she shifted forward and touched Dulcere on the arm. It was then that Bannor recognized the similarity between the two females. That must be Dulcere's mother. She spoke in clear concise common language. "Can she really mean to do that Varkath Shargris?" she asked. "Lead enemy combatants back to Homeworld?"
Eclipse bowed his head. "I cannot say her intentions, Vatraena. We have been--separated--since the timequake incident. For a while, she thought me dead..."
"As did we all," the Vatraena interrupted. The female moved forward to stand beside Dulcere. She dipped her head to the group, glowing blue eyes heavy lidded. "Apologies to those who do not know me. I am Marna Solaris, Kriar Vatraena and," She put a hand on Dulcere's shoulder. "Dulcere's dam." She looked around. "If Quasar is on Homeworld, and I believe Eclipse, you will need my assistance."
"Homeworld?" Euriel frowned, looking up at Marna. "You mean where you healed Wren?"
Marna nodded."Another domicile near the core if I recall."
"Ri," Kalindinai said. "What is she talking about?"
"It is hard to describe," Euriel answered. "Liandra was in a bad way, Lady Solaris took us to this--" she hesitated over the word. "World.Her living spaces were the size of a hundred kingdoms strung together."
The elven matriarch raised an eyebrow. Obviously Euriel was not one to make up stories, especially at a time like this."Living spaces..." she said slowly. "The size of hundreds of kingdoms?"
Euriel nodded. "I know it's hard." She focused on Marna. "And my children are in another one of those spaces?"
"There are thousands of habitats on Homeworld where she could shelter," Marna answered."But if her intent is to trap the Baronians her own facilities make sense."
"Habitats?" Bannor wondered.
"Imagine the way-point we were on," Dulcere said. "Then imagine hundreds of thousands of them strung together. That way-point would the size be a small habitat."
"Hundreds of..." Sarai murmured.
"Thousands?" Kalindinai finished with a flabbergasted expression.
The scope was too baffling to even put into words.
King T'Evagduran and Vanidaar were also staring.
"You must be exaggerating," Sarai said eye still wide. "That would take something..."
"I assure you my daughter is not exaggerating," Marna said. "If anything that estimate is conservative. Working together, my race spent close to a hundred million season-cycles building it. The estates of some the elder families would seem like a world to your folk."
"A hundred million?" Daena breathed. She looked to Bannor. "An entire people building something for that long..."
"Building with the magic we saw on the way-point," Bannor said. "That's..." He swallowed. He had an active imagination, but simply couldn't grasp it.
"Look," Tal said. "This is no problem. Counsel Solaris, just give me permission we'll go in and retrieve them."
The Kriar woman frowned. "Lord Falor, on Homeworld the Shael Dal are guests." She emphasized the word. "No Protectorate law has been broken, so you have no authority there."
"Lady Solaris," Euriel gritted in a forced voice. "If this Quasar is luring those Baronian monsters to her, I do not want my children in the middle of that!"
The Vatraena held up a hand. "Apologies again, I simply had to make clear to Commander Falor that he will not go storming aboard Homeworld to swing his sword wherever he may. We have laws, and military people of our own."
"Isn't Quasar like one of your military leaders?" Bannor asked.
"Indeed," Marna said. "Which is why more care must be taken. Nowhere is Quasar more powerful than on Homeworld in her own demesnes."
"So, what do you propose we do?" Aarlen asked. The woman stroked her throat. "I must admit, I admire her strategy. The Baronians won't lightly approach Homeworld, but they cannot ignore the capture of a high-ranking officer. If the Baronians attack Homeworld, the council must react, they can no longer hide their heads in the sand."
Lady Solaris frowned. "Yes, this is obviously a well-considered design on Quasar's part, she was simply awaiting the proper opportunity." She drew a breath and focused on Eclipse. "Varkath Shargris, do you still serve the interests of the Kriar?"
The tall gold warrior nodded. "I do, Vatraena."
"Will you act again as an agent in service to the council and myself?"
"I will," he answered.
"Commander Falor, commander Frielos, I will give you warrants to conduct operations on Homeworld. However, you operate solely at the discretion of my daughter and Varkath Shargris." She cast her gaze to Dulcere and then raised her eyes to Eclipse. "I want Wren and Azir Kergatha back unharmed if possible. If it can be managed, I want to avoid a Kriar/Baronian war, failing that I want the scope of the conflict minimized and controlled. You have white seal authority in this matter, do you understand?"
Eclipse crossed his wrists over his chest and bowed his head. "Yes, Vatraena."
Dulcere duplicated the gesture.
"What about the rest of us?" Bannor asked. "They are our friends and family."
"We will not exclude you." She glanced around the chamber. "Quasar wants to be found, but she will not make it easy."
"Why did she take Wren and Azir?" Euriel wanted to know. "What do they have to do with this?"
"No doubt she saw as I did, the ability of this assemblage to destroy the Baronians. She cannot kill them all herself, so she baits both them and us where we have no choice but deal with the enemy."
King T'Evagduran growled. "And what does she have against these creatures, and for that matter what is it that they are after?"
"The Baronians that attacked here tonight are after an artifact of power," Aarlen informed him. "Something of such power that we believe it may be able to reshape a cosmos."
"What?" Euriel said, eyes going wide.
"Well," Bannor said. "Maybe. I believe I've seen visions of this thing. It is the essence of creation, which can also annihilate. Its true power doesn't matter. It's what these Baronians think it's worth and what they are willing to risk to get it. Especially if there are a million of them like Koass told me."
"A--" The word seemed to stick in King T'Evagduran's throat. He brushed at his hair, gaze panning the carnage in the chamber, and the huge bodies prostrate on the stone floor. "A million of those brutes? A fraction of that number could crush every capital on Titaan."
"Good thing they aren't interested in Titaan," Euriel said.
"That's not true," Ziedra said. "Wren said something in the middle of the fight that I think is true. They were after Bannor. They want those agents back that we captured at the way-point. They may focus on getting that commander back, but they still want their spies back. At the way-point, after the four of us blew the drek out of their coven, Bannor basically introduced himself to them. They probably think he's a major player in that whole operation. I'd lay odds that they will come after him again."
"You introduced yourself?" Sarai growled, frowning at him with hands on hips.
He rolled his eyes. "Star, it wasn't like 'hello how are you', we exchanged names--it's a battlefield thing--it shows respect for the enemy."
His wife-to-be shook her head. "You gave a warmage your name? You never tell your true name to strangers! I know I've told you that before!"
"Star, that's just a myth, you can't get magicked just by saying your name..." His voice trailed off as he saw the furrowed brows and shaking heads of all the mages in the circle. "...right?"
"That's my fault," Ziedra said running a hand through her dark hair. "I should have said something. At the time, I didn't think they would come after Bannor. Since they couldn't pursue Aarlen, he's the logical choice."
Loric massaged the bridge of his nose. "This is a fine kettle. We can't just go looking for Wren. We have to protect Kul'Amaron from a possible follow-up."
Queen Kalindinai had both hands gripping her hair. "Bannor, how--" She muttered in a higher than normal pitch. "How, do you do this? It's just unfathomable--" She let out an exasperated breath.
The pain in the Queen's face made a pang in his heart. "Matradomma, honestly I had no idea--"
The Queen held up a hand. "Stop, it was a rhetorical--" She halted with wide eyes and focused on him. "I was speaking in Elvish... and you... Dykeeni? How..." She shook herself and clenched her fists. "Never mind." She looked around the circle. "What is the likelihood of those creatures returning?"
"My niece is right," Aarlen said. "They want those spies. Bannor is their only link to them. After getting their arses handed to them, they are going to take this place very seriously. They will return for paybacks if nothing else."
King T'Evagduran thumped a fist against his forehead and gritted his teeth. "This is not good. If I brought every mage and top warrior in the kingdom we do not have the power here to repel a larger group."
"I'll just leave," Bannor said. "There's no reason for them to attack here, if I'm elsewhere."
"Don't be silly," the Queen said. "Of course they will. You don't chase a lone warrior. You attack their base of operations. There's more information and resources to be gained."
Senalloy pressed her hands to her face and drew a breath. "Matradomma is correct. We showed them a lot of power, but not more than they can overcome. That was only a single platoon, with six elite. If they come back it will be with a full assault company. The same force they used to take the way-point."
"I--" the King started to say something and was interrupted as one of the elf commanders came up and whispered in his ear. "Pardon me I will rejoin you in a moment." He bowed to the circle of warriors and stepped back. He then stepped into a small circle of higher-ranking soldiers.
"How do we fight something like that!?" Sarai asked, hands knotting in the hem of her gown. "I saw that vision Ziedra showed us. Those Kriar were annihilated and their warriors are elders!"
"The Kriar don't know magic. We do," Loric said. "They got through the shields here because of the power of their mages. The enchantments of this citadel can be considerably reinforced. We can deny them teleportation the way they tried to deny us. We can also minimize their stealth and etherlock tricks."
"House Frielos has a guard contingent trained and armed to combat Baronians," Aarlen remarked. "Of course, they'd have to be stationed here."
Vatraena Solaris nodded. "Since we are responsible for involving Bannor in this. The Kriar council will make twenty of the first Sabre legion elite available to you. Belkirin Cirrus who currently commands them is on detached duty and working with the Shael Dal. Having come from Karanganoi Homeworld from where these Baronians hail, he is extremely knowledgeable in their capabilities and tactics."
"Those are both very generous offers," The Queen said shaking her head. "The timing of this... it is so phenomenally bad."
"You're not thinking of turning their help down, Mother?" Sarai asked with wide eyes.
"This is the second attack in as many days," the Queen answered. "I can only thank Ishtar that none of the guard were killed or we'd already have suffered an almost unrecoverable blow to confidence in our leadership. As it is, even though there are already orders to keep this quiet, it will leak out. The power of these creatures was quite evident, and the fact that the members of a party repelled them balances out the fact that our security was so lax as to let them in the first place."
"Mother, no citadel on Titaan could have kept those monsters out!" Janai said. "How could this possibly reflect negatively on us?"
The Queen frowned. "If we hadn't been associating with outsiders like Bannor and Daena, it wouldn't have happened in the first place, now would it?"
Bannor felt a slam in his chest. There it was, blunt but true.
"Mother!" Sarai cried.
"Don't raise your voice to me," Kalindinai snapped. "That's the way the noble houses will see it. We, I, chose to accept Bannor into this house." She gestured around. "This is the consequence. Your Father and I have no choice but to accept any blame as a result of our choice. The result is all the houses care about. I happen to think Bannor brings a great deal to the house in terms of integrity, heart, and compassion... but I am in the minority. In order to retain the confidence of the houses, we can't have even more outsiders swarming over the citadel."
"Damn this is a thorny problem, Kal," Euriel said. "I wish we could stay and help you solve it. We have to go after Wren and Azir."
Bannor stepped over a put a hand on Euriel's shoulder. He cast his nola senses out to Wren and Azir. The connection was just strong enough for him to know they were healthy. Agitated, upset, a little scared, all to be expected if they were being held against their will. Not enough fear to suggest they were any immediate danger. "Lady Euriel, please let's see if we can't help solve the defense problem first," he said. "I can sense Wren and she's okay, she's conscious and not fearful. If you wish, I will contact Quasar directly--I doubt I can make her bring them back but I can get her attention."
"You have a way to make Quasar communicate with you?" the Vatraena asked.
"I believe so," he answered with a nod. "Let's say, I can make her not want to ignore me."
"Well, then," Euriel growled. "Leave us to that... I will give her a chance to explain herself before I knock in her teeth..."
The King stepped back into the circle. He focused on Bannor for a moment with his amber eyes. He rubbed absently at a cut on his cheek.
"If I heard right, I do not believe communicating with this creature will do any good. She will anticipate anything you have to say, threats included. Our biggest problem is as my wife said, because of limited confidence accepting outside assistance into our ranks will be committing political suicide."
Dorian raised a finger. "What about inside assistance?"
"Pardon?" the King said with a frown.
"Well," Dorian said. "Aarlen's Sen'Gen are a bit obvious. However, if we can somehow get your guard staff out of the citadel we could have some disguised stand-ins who are a little more equal to those Baronian elite..." Dorian put a hand on white-haired Desiray's shoulder. The shapely woman smiled and her body shimmered and changed. In an instant she looked like an elf with glowing green eyes and silver hair.
Kalindinai blinked. When she spoke, it was with an incredulous tone. "Shape change a whole contingent of defenders?"
Dorian shrugged. "Is that a problem?" She looked around.
Kalindinai's gaze tracked to Euriel, then to Cassandra, Loric, Ziedra, Aarlen and her daughters. "Granted, not out of the question with these resources, but..."
"If we clean out the entire guard staff that should give you some breathing space, not to mention keeping them out of harm's way."
"I'm starting to warm to the idea, Jhaann," Kalindinai said. "We know that the houses have many eyes among the guard staff. Those agents cannot report what they are not present to see. If the replacements look like the guards they replace, then any other spies on the staff might report something odd but the scale of this thing is so preposterous that I don't think the houses would dare accuse us of it."
King Jhaann rubbed his chin. "Yes, but how do we get the entire staff out? I mean if we send all of them on leave, it will definitely be a cause for concern."
"Your elite shouldn't be a problem," Senalloy told them. "They go on solo missions all the time. Send them all on missions they can't discuss with one another. It's the regulars that will be tough. Especially in the limited time we have."
"Mother, what about a plague outbreak?" Ryelle suggested. "Remember, when we had to send most of the staff home that one time? The news of that assassin has already leaked. We say that the assassin managed to spread a magical disease before she was captured. That way you can send all the non-essential regulars and elite home until the risk is abated. If you say the disease only affects elves, you can even excuse extra outsiders being on the premises in the interest of not risking elven lives."
"Whoa, that's pretty devious," Dorian lauded.
"Yes," Kalindinai responded with a frown. "It's plausible enough to work too."
"All right, I think we can work with that," King Jhaann said. "Still, we would be trusting the security of Kul'Amaron to these strangers. The Baronians are not the only threat to the citadel. Who would these stand-ins be? What assurances would we have?"
Dorian grinned, she looked down then glanced over to Senalloy. "Well, in my mind, the best way to fight a Baronian is with another Baronian. I know twelve elite who would be happy for the opportunity to get a little payback."
"Luthice and Senalloy," Aarlen said with a nod. "And the rest of the Baronian refugees working for Isis."
King T'Evagduran raised an eyebrow. "Twelve, elite elders like lady Senalloy?"
"Yes," Senalloy confirmed. "Luthice is my sister. In matters of security, she surpasses me. I believe she and I could persuade the others to participate."
"Twelve doesn't fill all the billets," Tal said. "You need, what--fifty or sixty?"
"There are fifty-six elite constantly on staff in the Kul'Amaron," the King said.
"Well, I can get some Shael Dal, to stand in," Tal offered. "Arabella, T'Gor, and Tigress--perhaps Megan and Adwena. I don't know how well they'll take to this shape changing stuff."
"We have a means to disguise our warriors to this need," Marna offered. "That would give you twenty more. I am quite confident in their trustworthiness and ability to serve the needs of your security."
"Kylie and Millicent would probably help us," Bannor added. "You could probably get enough Chosen to fill in the rest. Especially, if you ask Idun and Sif."
"If I ask Mother for assistance, she will insist on coming," Euriel said.
"Why is that a problem?" Bannor said. "There's no guarantee we'll find Quasar before the Baronians do. She'd be pretty helpful. It's her grand-daughter after all."
"I dislike asking Mother for help," Euriel growled. She shuddered and clenched her fists. "You're right though, she will be most unpleasant if I do not involve her in this."
"So," Tal said ticking off on his fingers. "A handful of Baronian elite, some Shael Dal, four squads of Kriar elite, and a bunch of Valkyrie." He shook his head. "That's one arse-kicking defense detail. They could hold off a couple companies of Baronians easy."
King Jhaann rubbed his chin, brow furrowed over his amber eyes. He glanced to his wife.
Kalindinai's face was set in a stern expression, glowing eyes narrowed in concentration. She shook her head. "I can't bring myself to worry about the politics right now. These Baronians are too dangerous. The most important thing is protecting the lives of our citizens. If the council wants to charge us, let them." She rocked her head back, then looked to the King. "It makes me uncomfortable, but in the short time we have it will give us the best chance. Bannor's idea with the Chosen is inspired. I trust Kylie and Millicent, having them as the balance of this defense force would make me feel secure indeed." She looked to Dorian. "How long to recruit these Baronians?"
"A bell or so, Matradomma," Dorian answered.
"I can have the Shael Dal here in half a bell," Tal said.
"I will call to have the Sabres mobilized," Marna said. "They can be here before the next bell."
"It shouldn't take long to get Mother here," Euriel said. "She can contact Kylie and Millicent."
"With Kalindinai's help, Cassandra and I can start working on the citadel defenses," Loric said.
"So, who's going after Wren and Azir?" Tal asked. "We need Bannor obviously. I'll bring my buddy Algernon in case we need extra tracking, my wife will be a help--she's really up on this Kriar artifice stuff. Whitey, you're in on this, right?"
Aarlen nodded. "I will go, I will request that Beia, and my daughters stay here to help with the defense."
"Myself and Belkirin Dulcere will be with you," Eclipse said.
"I will be there as well," the Vatraena said.
Dulcere looked over in surprise. <Mother?>
The wispy Kriar woman smiled. "A few Baronians do not frighten me. I shall invite Dominique along. She's quite sturdy."
"Excellent," Tal said. "Almost the same as the Karanganoi exploration team. So, Ri, you and Van are going obviously."
"Obviously," Euriel answered. "And probably my mother."
"I want to go," Sarai said with a growl.
"Not a chance," Kalindinai said. "You're pregnant, and you still need those treatments."
"Allow me to go," Ziedra said. "I can hold my own."
"If my wife goes, I go," Radian said.
"I'm with you if you'll have me," Damay said.
"You might need me," Daena said. "I'll go if you want."
"I'm coming," Desiray said. "Wren is almost as much my kid as Ri's. You may need someone savvy with traps."
"That's eighteen," Tal said. "That's already a bigger team than I'd like, but we may have to split up. Everyone good with that line up?"
"Sounds like an awesome team to me," Loric remarked. "Every possible discipline and skill seems covered."
"We did plenty of damage in Gladshiem with a lot less," Bannor said. "I'm going to go get ready to go. When do we meet back here?"
"You're sure that Wren is all right?" Euriel asked him.
"Yes," he answered. "I'm not saying we should dawdle, but make every preparation we can before we go. I'm going to go make certain she and Azir are safe."
Euriel's brow furrowed. "Bannor?"
Sarai scowled at him. "All right, what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking I need to get out of these clothes and into some leathers," he answered. "So, what time?"
"Damn it, I hate hesitating so long," Euriel said. She glanced at her husband Vanidaar.
The red-haired man stared at Bannor. "You're certain they are in good health?"
"I haven't felt a change in their condition. They're frustrated, angry, concerned... I sense a little pain from Wren, but I think that's from getting hit by Loric's sword."
"All right," Vanidaar said. "A bell? Is that enough time? Where do we meet?"
"On the south steps," the King recommended.
"Got it," Bannor said. "Daena could I get you tell help me with something?"
The auburn-haired savant stared at him with glowing green eyes. "Uhhh, sure."
"Let's go. Matradomma, Dom'Ista," he bowed to the King and Queen. "My apologies for this mess, I wish there were something I could have done to prevent all this."
The King and Queen nodded to him, neither seeming to have words to answer that.
He touched Euriel on the shoulder and whispered in her ear. "I'm going to check up on Wren and Azir for you. Wish me luck."
The powerful mage looked at him with wide blue eyes. "You--of course you can--please be careful."
"I will," he nodded to her.
He stepped up to Sarai who was eying him.
"You know, I don't want you to go," she growled.
"You know I have to. Come on." He headed for the exit.
Daena followed, and an apparently curious Janai followed as well.
"Bannor, you're planning to get in trouble," Sarai said walking quickly to keep up with him as they climbed the steps and headed out into the cold night air. "I can tell from your eyes."
"Yes," he agreed. He drew a breath as they crossed the balcony and started down the ramp into the yard. "I'm going to look around ahead of the team. Just to satisfy myself."
"You want me to go with you?" Daena said.
"You mean astrally?" Sarai asked.
"Yes," he answered. "I didn't want to get Euriel's hopes up. If we can guide Wren and Azir's astral forms back, Euriel may be able to pull them back."
"Like she did with us!" Daena said, thumping him on the shoulder. "That's brilliant!"
"Yes," he said with a frown. "It's just that Quasar may have a way to block it. So, we explore first, see what we can learn."
"I thought you couldn't pass through metal," Sarai said, as her feet started clicking on the bridge that crossed into Green Run.
"Not a lot, but even a small gap is enough to slip through. We just need to try and see."
"Brother-to-be, I just hope this plan of yours doesn't make things worse," Janai said. "You and Daena are precious to me, I'd hate for you to get your taos trapped in that far off place."
"Think happy thoughts," he said. "Hopefully, we've already gotten our quota of bad luck for the scoreday..."