Aram had sent a carrier pigeon warning Krista that Ashima had put a price on their heads, but his note was written so hastily it contained little more. As soon as they were past the soldiers Ralt had slain with his fireball, Storm sent Lorelei running to the stables to get her pegasus and fetch the High Priest.
The rest of them fell to, shoring up the defenses of the estate. When a man from the city guard showed up to survey the dead, all of them were safely behind the heavy stone walls surrounding the house and adjoining property.
The man stared at the burned bodies then at their armored ranks. He cautiously raised gauntleted hands and backed away from them. He was careful not to reach for his weapons.
The flap of mighty wings caught Storm’s attention and he turned from the street to examine the night sky. The moon was still low in the sky but by it’s light he saw Lorelei on her pegasus, Aram peering over her shoulder at the house below.
He nodded to himself. Good. Now maybe they could find out what was going on. He gathered up Durin and Ralt with his eyes and hurried into the house to Sodan’s old library to wait for the Lorelei and the priest.
They arrived just after he did.
Aram held up his hands as soon as he saw him. “I know! I know what you’re going to ask but give me a moment,” he pleaded. “I’ve never been on a pegasus before and I’m still shaking.” He closed his eyes and shuddered. “I thought for sure I was gong to fall off.”
Storm gritted his teeth and turned away before his temper got the best of him. It wasn’t Aram’s fault he was scared of flying.
Behind him, he heard Ralt offering the priest a drink. Aram accepted and he heard the clinking of glass.
“My love, do you want something to drink too?” Lorelei asked gently, touching his shoulder lightly.
He heaved a sigh then turned around and forced himself to smile. “Thanks, babe. I’ll have . . .” he paused then indicated Aram with his eyes, “whatever he’s having.”
She gave him a light kiss then hurried away.
He sat down in one of the chairs, staring moodily at the fire, his thoughts growing steadily darker. It seemed pretty obvious it was the Temple of Ashima who’d put the bounty on their heads. What wasn’t so obvious was why, and why the men from the other Temples were opposing them.
Lorelei curled up next to him with a glass in either hand. She gave one to him and took a sip of hers. “I think Aram is ready,” she whispered to him.
He looked up. The High Priest seemed to have recovered from his fright and was regarding him gravely.
“It was Ashima himself who put the bounty on your heads,” he announced abruptly.
Thomas and Krista came in just in time to hear it. “What?” she exclaimed. “A god put a bounty on our heads?”
Aram shook his head. “Not yours. Or mine, either.” He nodded at the Storm, Lorelei, Ralt, and Durin by turn. “Just them.”
Durin heaved a deep sigh. “Ye better better tell us all ye know, laddie.” Concern was etched on his features. Aram recounted the pillar of fire descending on the Temple of Ashima. “It’s how the gods announce themselves,” he said.
“Pillars of fire and columns of smoke,” Storm muttered.
Storm waved him off. “Long story.” He sat up on the edge of his seat. “What else?”
“We heard Ashima’s voice inside his temple but we couldn’t understand what was said,” Aram replied heavily. “We had to wait until he left and his priests started coming out.” He shifted in his seat. “By then we had the gates closed and barred. They didn’t like it but it was already too late.” He took a swig of his drink. “They demanded, demanded, mind you, that we hand you four over to them. They said Ashima had put a bounty of 1000 gold pieces on each of your heads, dead or alive. Preferably dead.”
“A thousand!” Shock ran around the room.
Storm had once calculated 100 gold pieces would let him live in style for two-and-a-half years. Ten times that much was a king’s ransom!
“Each,” Aram emphasized heavily.
“Why?!” Ralt demanded.
Aram shook his head. “I don’t know, but it gets better.” He paused. “Or worse, depending on your point of view.”
He hurried on before any of them could interrupt. “Soldiers from Adrammelech’s temple came running out screaming that they were traitors, that the four of you belonged to him now.”
“I never belonged to him!” Lorelei hissed in anger. “Storm is my husband!”
Aram held up a hand. “I got the feeling this was something different.”
“I don’t care what it was! I don’t belong to him, now or ever!” She sprang to her feet, hurling her half-empty glass across the room. It shattered against the wall.
Ralt was on his feet with her. “Whoa! Take it easy! We still need to learn more abou . . .”
“I am not his!!” she screamed with murder in her eyes. “Never!”
Ralt’s face contorted with sudden fury of his own and he slammed the butt of his staff on the floor. A deafening crack of thunder rocked the whole house. There were screams in the distance as the building shook. “Silence!” His voice was so loud it hurt. For an instance he was wreathed in darkness and lightning, his features fey and terrible.
Then it faded and he was just Ralt again.
Everyone in the room was staring at him in shock and fear, their ears ringing. Krista’s face was white as a sheet.
Ralt looked hard at Lorelei. “I know you don’t belong to Adrammelech. You’ve made that pretty clear. As Storm would say, I get it.” It drew a tremulous smile from her. “But screaming and ranting and raving won’t get us anywhere.”
Storm was bemused by Ralt’s little display. He’d seen him do it once before during their battle through the mountains to fight Niran. But this time Storm still had his magical Sight turned on. He’d had it activated since the beginning of their running fight through the city but hadn’t gotten around to turning it back off again. With his Sight activated, he could tell that Ralt had used some sort of temporary illusion spell to make himself seem more than he was. It was a neat trick. Maybe he should have his friend teach it to him. He remembered some times when it would have come in handy.
Ralt was still talking. “Let’s let Aram finish, then we can throw a fit if you like.” Lorelei’s eyes narrowed dangerously at the insult and suddenly Ralt wished he chosen a different word. It was too late now though, so he steeled himself and met her angry gaze firmly.
“Fine.” Her voice told them it was anything but fine. She was hurt and it showed.
Ralt hesitated, wishing he could say something to cover the sudden rift between them but nothing came to mind. He settled for simply nodding at Aram to continue. He resolved to find some way to apologize to her later.
Aram could sense the sudden tension between Ralt and Lorelei but he shrugged it off for the time being. Choosing his words carefully, he addressed himself directly to Lorelei. “The reason I think this is something different is that men from Adrammelech’s temple mentioned there was a reward of 2000 gold pieces for you – alive.”
She stared at him aghast. “What?”
Storm sat forward. “And the rest of us? What does Adrammelech want with the rest of us?”
Aram shook his head. “As far as we can tell, he doesn’t care anything about the rest of you.” He put his glass down. “One thing is clear though. Whatever agreement Ashima and Adrammelech had is long over. They’re back to being enemies and working at cross purposes to one another. Ashima wants all of you dead and Adrammelech wants Lorelei alive but doesn’t care about the rest of you.”
“Hardly any difference,” Durin harrumphed.
“It makes a difference to me!” Lorelei shot at him.
Krista saw another rift brewing and jumped in before it could escalate. “Niran wanted to use me in some magic spell or something. Is Adrammelech trying to get her for the same reason?” she asked the priest.
It caught everyone off guard and they froze, considering the implications.
Ralt shook himself like a sleeper waking from a nightmare. “If you’re right, then protecting Lorelei just became our number one mission,” he said flatly. She gave him a grateful look, but she was obviously terrified at being the focus of a god’s attention.
Storm hadn’t been sure what to think of the brewing argument between his wife and his best friend, but now he grinned inside at Ralt’s deft turn of phrase to paper it over. Hopefully, their disagreement would die aborning. It didn’t address the danger to Lorelei though. He stood up.
The priest looked at him expectantly.
“Is there any way you can find out what Adrammelech wants with my wife?”
Aram’s eyes widened in surprise. “How am I supposed to do that?”
Storm shrugged. “You’re a priest. Do some priest stuff. Pray or whatever.”
In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Ralt and Durin couldn’t help laughing. “Priest stuff?” Durin chuckled. “Ye may not be born a barbarian, but ye’ve got their mind set.”
Aram shook his head in bemusement. “Priest stuff?” He was fighting to hide his own smile. “Sure, Storm. I’ll get right on it.”
A voice from the hallway interrupted their conversation.
“I know where it is! I’ve been coming to this house longer than you’ve been alive! Now get out of my way!”
The door flew open and Gerald strode in, his staff thumping on the floor beside him. One of the serving girls fluttered helplessly behind him, wringing her hands. “I tried to stop him,” she cried desperately, “but he wouldn’t listen.”
“That’s alright, Greta,” Thomas interjected smoothly, breaking his silence. “Gerald is welcome here anytime.” He waved her to leave. “You go on now.” he said gently. “It’s okay. Go on.”
She left reluctantly, her eyes running around the room cataloging everyone who was there. It was sure to make a juicy story for the rest of the staff.
Gerald hadn’t paid any attention to Greta. He marched straight over to Lorelei. He stood over her with a sad expression. “You, dear lady,” he said abruptly, “are in the gravest danger of any person in history.”
Her breath caught in her throat at his dire tones. She straightened her back defiantly though and met his gaze. “I already know that.”
Storm nodded. “Aram here was just telling us that Adrammelech wants her so badly he’s willing to pay 2000 gold pieces for her.”
“Ha!” Gerald snorted. “I’ll bet he didn’t tell you why he wants her though, did he?”
“Ah . . .” Storm blinked. “Does that mean you know?”
“Of course it does,” Gerald replied as if speaking to a none too bright student. “His worshipers are crowing about it all over the place outside. Adrammelech wants the power the Lord of Light gave her when she was born. If he can claim that power for himself, he thinks it’ll give him the edge he needs to kill the rest of The Six and take over Gaia for himself.”
Durin’s fist slammed the table by his chair so hard it jumped off the floor. “See! It’s da same thing ‘at started da Chaos Wars! They’ve never given up hating each other. A pox on all da gods! They’re nothing but trouble!”
“The Lord of Light is different!” Aram objected strenuously.
“Dat’s wot they all say,” Durin sneered.
“Blasphemy!” Aram erupted, springing to his feet. Durin leapt up with him, Fenris Fang in hand, poised to strike the priest.
“Whoa, whoa!” Storm jumped between them, arms outstretched to stop them.
They both kept on yelling, getting louder with every passing moment, red-faced with anger. Ralt and Thomas hurried to join Storm in the middle, trying to separate the two men before they could come to blows.
Still sitting on the couch, Lorelei looked lost and alone as the argument grew louder and louder.