The interior of the Watchman’s Keep reflected its exterior; sturdy and dark with age, all the edges worn smooth from years of use. Its thick, stone walls betrayed its past as a reinforced watchtower but had also helped it survive the city’s turbulent history. When the original city wall was removed and rebuilt further out, it had become a nobleman’s home, then an upscale inn; later a casino, until it finally arrived at its present low state as a tavern and semi-brothel along the fleshpots of Blue Street. Remnants of its royal past were visible here and there; a faded tapestry, some elegant carvings on the banister on the stairs, an ancient statute tucked away in an alcove, but they were mainly sad vestiges of better days.
Storm ignored all of it, looking for Gustov. He strode up to the counter that doubled as the main bar. A barmaid who’d once been pretty wiped her hands on the front of her dingy dress. “What’ll you have?” she asked woodenly.
“I’m looking for a friend who is staying here, an archer from Zered, named Thomas Keener,” Storm said gruffly, sliding a silver coin across the polished wood. “We’re supposed to meet him here.”
The coin vanished. “He’s got a room,” the woman admitted, “but he don’t spend much time in it. He’s always out.”
Durin snorted, “And we know wot he’s doin don’t we?” He stepped on a chair, lending him enough height to look down on the barmaid. “Thomas works for me master, Sodan. He’s holding me master’s property until we arrive. Show us to his room.”
The woman took in their well-used weapons and armor. She shrugged. “Know him or not, it’s none of my business. Room 312.” She turned away.
Ralt’s staff barred her way, stopping her in mid-turn. “We’ll need the key.” His grim expression belied his soft voice. Storm smiled wolfishly at the man’s quick transformation from gentile house mouse to seasoned war-mage.
The barmaid recognized a losing hand when she saw it. She fished under the counter then produced a key attached to a black piece of leather with faded embossing on it; 312. Lorelei plucked it crisply out of her hand.
“Let’s go.” She headed for the stairs.
Storm dropped another coin on the counter. “Tell Gustov that Storm of the Bear Clan is here.” He turned and followed them upstairs.
They found the room without any trouble. It was one of the largest suites the Watchman’s Keep had. There were four separate bedrooms in it, all with large, comfortable beds, a central room with old but serviceable couches and chairs scattered about as well as a huge scarred table in the middle of the room, and a storage room nearly as large. A monstrous safe took up nearly half the space along one wall. None of the beds appeared to have been slept in. In fact, it looked as though no one was ever there.
“Wotcha bet he’s spendin’ all his time at the Wicked Mermaid?” Durin rumbled.
Ralt shook his head disdainfully. “That’s a sucker bet.”
Storm was irritated. “Then we’ll have to go get him so we can open the safe to check on Krista.”
“Whoa,” Ralt held out a restraining hand. “First let’s see if he used his ‘lucky numbers’ as the combination for the safe.” He began spinning the numbered wheel back and forth.
Durin couldn’t hold back a wide grin. “Now that’s a sucker bet.” The safe opened with a loud clack. “Told ya.”
The door was heavy and solid. They pulled it open. Inside were their bags of gold, looking somewhat depleted, along with Krista’s coffin. They flipped the latches and peered in. Her lifeless form looked unchanged from the last time they’d seen it. “As soon as we find Lamriack and he heals her, we’re done.” Storm felt the sense of satisfaction that came with the end of a long journey.
“I wonder if you could heal her?” Lorelei mused.
He was startled. “What?”
“Why not?” Lorelei pressed. “You’ve been able to heal everything else; why not her? And just think, if you could, we wouldn’t have to waste time trying to get a hold of Lamriack.”
“Ah . . .” Storm was at a loss for words. He turned helplessly to Ralt and Durin. “Well? You the ones who know her. Do you want to take a chance on it?”
They looked at each other silently.
Durin finally acquiesced. “If ye can’t heal her, at least ye can slow down the disease like ye said ye could do wit poison.” He looked to Ralt for support.
The slim wizard nodded. “I want Krista to be healed properly, but frankly, the sooner we’re out of Robling the safer I’ll feel. Sure, take a swing at it.”
Storm felt a nagging sense of unease as well. Aside from any possible problems they might have with the king, Niran was never one to give up. As long as he was alive, it was certain he’d come after them. “I’m willing to give it a try,” he decided. “What do we do?”
“We have to put Krista’s soul back in her body,” Ralt told him. “Give me her box.” Storm dug it out and passed it over. He cautiously backed away. The wizard was amused. “Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to happen.” He pressed a series of latches in an intricate combination. There was a click and the lid popped open. It was followed by a faint whoosh and that was it.
To Storm’s Sight though, there was considerably more to it. Where Fenris Fang possessed incredible amounts of raw power, Krista’s box was surrounded by the most complex weave of magic he’d ever seen. As the lid opened, it unraveled all at once, like pulling a loose thread on a crochet blanket. Every color in the rainbow and some never seen before, sparkled and flashed like a string of firecrackers, faster than he could follow. A tiny doll-like mannequin that had been wrapped in the weave like a mummy, shot up like an arrow, expanding and growing in a split second until it became a transparent, live-sized woman. The apparition spun like a top then vanished into the body in the coffin.
Krista’s body jerked, her chest heaved and she took a huge, gasping gulp of air. Sickly blotches appeared on her cheeks. Her eyelids fluttered and opened revealing blue eyes, rimmed with red. She moaned in pain, clutching her stomach. She saw Ralt and grabbed onto him for dear life. “Are we there yet?” she gasped. Her voice was hoarse and strained.
“We’re there,” he murmured softly. “Hang on, Krista, we’ve got someone here who may be able to help you faster than Lamriack.” He pulled Storm over. “This is Storm, of the Bear Clan. He’s also a Ghibbore who has healing power.”
For a moment she forgot about the pain. “A Ghibbore? You mean one of those natural-born wizard-hero people? I thought they were just a myth.”
Ralt smiled fondly. “No, they’re real enough. And Storm has true healing power. We’ve been through a lot getting you here and he’s had to heal all four of us at one time or another.”
Her eyes flickered around the small circle of faces. “Where’s Papa?” Ralt and Durin exchanged a sorrowful look. She became alarmed and tried to sit up. “Where is he? Where’s Papa?” A wave of pain hit her and she collapsed, panting and moaning in agony.
“Storm!” Ralt’s voice was urgent.
He nodded. Reaching out he laid one hand on her cheek and pushed. Power flowed into her. Instantly he could feel it working. A broad grin covered his face as he continued pushing. Krista’s eyes shot wide in sudden wonder at the power coursing through her. The blotches on her skin vanished, replaced by a healthy blush of youth and vigor. The ragged breathing steadied. The gauntness in her features disappeared. The redness left her eyes which sparkled with sudden energy. She smiled and sat up easily as he stepped back.
“It’s gone!” she breathed in wonder. “It’s gone! Look!” She swung her legs over the side of the coffin and bounced to her feet, her satin gown swirling around her. She locked her knees and bent over, placing her hands flat on the floor. “I haven’t been able to do that in months!” she exclaimed. She cocked her head to the side. “The ringing in my ears is gone too! The pain in my stomach . . . everything! It’s incredible!” She twirled around in glee.
Just as suddenly as her joy had erupted, it stopped. A look of concern crossed her pretty face. She fixed Ralt and Durin with a hard stare. “Where’s Papa?” she demanded. “Why isn’t he here?”
They stared shame-faced at the floor, refusing to look at her.
Her lip quivered with dawning fear. She took Ralt’s hand, pulling him to face her. “Please,” she quavered, “just tell me the truth. Where’s Papa?”
Ralt still refused to meet her eyes; his voice was sorrowful. “He didn’t make it,” he sighed.
A single sob wrenched itself from her chest. “Wh-what happened?” she asked, tears forming quietly.
He finally raised his head to meet her moist gaze. “A demon.”
She gasped in horror. “What? I . . . I thought that was just scare talk. You mean, a real demon?”
Ralt inclined his head. “We’re the only ones who survived. Well, us and Thomas; the sergeant of the guard,” he clarified. She nodded mutely. “We’re lucky to be alive. Sodan never had a chance.”
“How did it happen?” she wanted to know. “Did he suff . . . suffer?”
Ralt took her in his arms. “Stop it,” he said gently. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
Her voice quavered but her eyes never left his. “Please.”
His shoulders sagged, signaling defeat. Without going into the gruesome details he gave her the short version of their journey, Sodan’s heart problems and the fight with the demon, then quickly brought her up to speed on the rest of their adventures getting her soul box back from Niran. “. . . then Storm healed you,” he finished.
She wiped tears from her face then curtsied to Storm. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me . . . and congratulations on your handfasting,” she added to Lorelei. “May you be blessed with many children.”
Lorelei gave her a brilliant smile in return. “Thank you.”
Durin harrumphed from his post by the door. “Do’na wanna be breakin’ the mood, but someone’s comin’.” He inclined his head at the hall outside.
Storm’s sword cleared its sheath with a whisper of metal on leather as Lorelei spun around, already knocking an arrow. Ralt crouched over his staff as the doorknob rattled. From the corner of his eye Storm saw Krista with a knife in each hand, produced from some hidden nether place on her person.
A key turned in the lock and Thomas stepped into the room.
He froze at all the weapons aimed his way. “Whoa! Whoa! It’s just me!”
They relaxed, dropping their guard. Durin cuffed him sharply as he slammed the door. “I see ya been out spendin’ our gold,” he grumbled.
Thomas spotted Krista and was thunderstruck at her appearance. “Have you been ta see Lamriack already?” he gasped in surprise.
Storm shook his head with faint amusement as Ralt once again launched into an explanation of their adventures since parting with the lanky bowman. A prickling at the back of his neck led him to switch on his Sight, then exclaim over what he saw in the room. Under Thomas’ shirt, he was wearing enchanted chain mail; the sword at his side, the bow-and-arrows beside his bed also glowed with power. On the bed a wide silver belt of the kind women often wore around their waist was enchanted as were was the contents of a wooden box on the floor. Striding over he opened it to find a number of throwing knives, all bright with magic.
“What is this?” he demanded. “What’s with all this magic stuff?”
Thomas assumed a half-guilty, half-defiant stance. “I was useless as tits on a boar hog when we fought that demon,” he protested. “Couldn’t do less than nothing. I hated it. So when I got here, I looked up one of those specialty weapons shops, the ones with the sky-high prices, and spent a buncha gold getting enchanted weapons and stuff for me and Krista.” He gave her an apologetic look. “We all know how you like to play with knives, and well, with Sodan gone, and demons on the loose, and everything, and well, not knowing what’s gonna happen from, well, what’s gonna happen afterwards and, well, I just thought, uhm, well, you might . . .”
Krista rescued him from his stumbling attempts to explain. “Thank you, Thomas,” she said gently. “I’ll be glad to have them.”
Relief swept his face. He glanced at Storm for confirmation he’d done the right thing.
Storm clapped him on the back. “Well done,” he laughed. “That was wiser spending than I gave you credit for.”
“Much wiser,” Lorelei smiled wickedly.
“Well, I had a little bit of fun too,” he hedged.
Durin snorted disdainfully. “Ye don’t say? Wot a surprise!”