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2010-07-22 - 3:50 p.m.

The air was crisp as it crawled through the overcrowded capital city of Dulce Mado from the busting harbor below. The city so packed with travelers from the surrounding towns and districts even required a temporary outer city to be placed to allow for the abundant wave of visitors. They had been gathering for over a week, but the largest group of them coming four days prior, to gather for the end of the year celebration of Preetsa. Now as the four day event was heading into its final night the entire city buzzed with excitement while tens of thousands gathered for the finale of the celebration. This tradition was designed to close out the old year and welcome the new.
High above the harbor where the air had lost its ocean smell, the royal gardens wrapped delicately around the open air amphitheater of the royal grounds. This amphitheater was not as congested as the many smaller public amphitheaters and temporary dais that had been placed in town for the festival. However the highest of the noble families and local, as well as visiting dignitaries had found invitations here and it was as full as it had ever been. Devri Delan looked casually from her spiced fruit wine to the massive cream and burgundy curtains that lined the pavilion. Amongst them large sconces had been filled with dried flowers and soaked oils, and incense to further mask the scent of the harbor. Their height blocked the normally endless view of the city and the ocean below, but this only seemed to enhance rather than hinder the beauty of the royal gardens. This illusion of confinement allowed all attention to fall undistracted onto the stage area. Devri noticed for the first time the heat of the flames coming from the large bronze bowels that had been placed every fifteen feet and surrounded by rugs, pillows and low tables. This gave a new rush of excitement to Devri, for that meant the air was getting cooler, and soon Preetsa would be coming to a close.
Devri had loved the holiday and the celebration ever since coming to Dulce Mado as a child, but she had no passion for the nobles which surrounded her in the gardens, nor this political way of life she had led for as long as she could remember. It bored her greatly. She could not remember the last time she had left the royal grounds for that matter, and it frustrated her that she had climbed so through the royal families, with relative ease. This frustrated her, because even though she hated it, that meant she was very good at politics. She came by it honestly, her parents were very high political leaders, and her uncle Ezra had taught her very well even after their death. Her seat was around the fire six places off center from the Kings own seat. Families that had lived and worked in Dulce Mado from its conception as a capital of this district weren�t this well loved and trusted. She couldn�t help feeling a little proud of that fact.
This pride lasted until the deep chortle from across the fire brought her thoughts back to reality. The large Joffery Hungrenn must have finished his painfully long story on last week�s hunt. He finished almost every story with that chortle, which allowed Devri very easily to ignore most of the story and comment only as he finished. For this she was grateful. �My lord Hungrenn, your depiction is overly generous with detail. You have a remarkable gift for storytelling.� She lied. This unfortunately fueled his ego just enough for him to start up with yet another. His words never reached her ears before she tuned him out yet again. Devri�s eyes met briefly with those of Joffery�s mistress. Both girls shared a glance that spoke out their shared misery, and the immediate apology that the other had to share in it. Each of them giggled behind their wine glasses, but Joffery didn�t notice.
A small gong chimed into the night and hush fell immediately through the crowd, even Joffery broke off and turned his bulk toward the center table where the king sat. Servants of the royal house appeared immediately and began to carry off the main course and the larger dishes. Soon the larger tables were cleared and replaced with small personal sized trays with fruits and cakes. Spiced wines were replaced with sweet wines and liquors. Finally Devri started to get excited! Soon the final Preetsa dance would start. A short ball in which all the guests were participate in, leading up to a traditional performance where the king would scare off a symbolic character of death from the city gates. Devri was most excited to see the traditional performance. Her best friend was the featured dancer this year. She would be doing a dance that symbolized the transitions of age and motherhood. Devri had only seen her practicing a few times, but Cevan was absolutely a beautiful dancer.
While the servants had been setting up the deserts, others had brought forth tall colored lanterns, and thin sheets of cloth. Devri reached around to her mask, and placed it. It was a not so simple swan of cream and white, mostly silk, linen, and a few sections of actual feathers. This theme continued down into her gown, including elongated sleeves with feathers and streamers. The neck line was low in Devri�s mind, but as she once again glanced at Joffery�s mistress, Devri realized she was much less concerned as the women�s vine and flowered blossom themed gown showed significant bosom as well as neck. Dulce Mado was a much warmer climate than what Devri had been born, and though she lived here most of her life she was still so surprised at the sack of clothing many of the people wore. There must be thirty or more large dances like this one going on throughout the city, let alone all the smaller ones taking place in the inns, and private parties. And throughout them all Devri pondered if she could even find enough material to make ten good ball gowns. She smiled again; she was in fact having fun, despite the game of politics.
She allowed herself a little more freedom during the ball, hiding as she was behind her swan mask. The music was provided by an excellent ten piece band, that Devri was sure must have been the king�s personal favorites of the royal orchestra. They played a few slow and a few quicker pieces. When they would stop, Devri could hear music in the distance from all of the other dances that had started through the city. There was a buzz of tangible energy and excitement for the night of Preetsa. One medium paced dance in which partners switched through a circle of dancers, Devri found herself partnered with the King.
Her smile must have shifted slightly; the King leaned in to her ear.� No games tonight Lady Delan.�
�Of course your majesty.� She replied.
�I�m looking forward to your friend�s dance. From what I�ve been told she�s exceptional.� The king said with an almost hungry sound. Men were always very attracted to Cevan; there was something about her that almost sparkled.
�She�s worked very hard my lord, and hopes to honor your house with an acceptable performance. Is your majesty nervous about his own solo?� Devri allowed a little flirtatious grin to sneak out. She knew that the king simply intended to walk forward to the figure of death near the end of the dance. He chuckled anyway seeing her playful meaning.
�Well I haven�t limbered up just yet, but I�ll get by. I�ll try not to get hurt.� He laughed and she joined him. The circles changed and she moved on to her next partner. The ball continued on and Devri took a few breaks to refresh with the drinks, and nibble a little on the deserts. Overall it was a very pleasant party. Devri felt a quick flutter in her heart as six caped men, walked forward to the stage. Another small gong signaled to the dancers it was time to resume seats. Now that Devri had stopped dancing she discovered just how cool the humid coastal air had become tonight.
There was an almost eerie feel to the cold, How fitting for the celebration of the death of the old year and the birth of the new one. She drew close to the fire, the sweat beading and running like icy pools over her body. The sounds from the distant parties throughout the town hummed in the air. Excited whispers began to circulate through the crowd. The six hooded figures ad moved into various positions around the stage. Two of them carried a trunk into the center of the platform while the other four at each corner of the stage, produced sunsticks and slid them into various levels through the stage. Small mirrors through the set caught the illumination of the sunsticks and instantly the stage area began to glow.
The trunk sat for a brief moment on an empty stage, no one in the audience drew a single breath. Devri found her mouth parched from excitement, but dared not look away, even for just a moment of locating her drink. Colored glass was slid in front of some of the lights, changing the hue of glow to a blue. The lid of the trunk rattled, and pushed open. As the orchestra started into a soft and magical tune, before the entire royal garden, emerged Cevan. Devri had known Cevan for near fifteen years. She had seen her act as tough as most men, a tomboy, more comfortable in pants and using tools or weapons than most of the soldiers in all of Dulce Mado. But tonight, that would never have been guessed.
As she rose from the trunk with the grace of a soft summer breeze and moved through the positions of the dance, she embodied all that was pure innocent and beautiful. Her hair, light brown with splashes of gold throughout was drawn tight against her scalp, and then reworked around her head in ornate and intricate braids. Her long neck embellished with a simple collar white lace. As the tradition of the dance indicated, the dance would follow the progression of birth, life and death. At birth Cevan chose to depict the image with a simple laced slip. While this may have been shocking to see normally, Cevan�s athletic trim physique made this appear more beautiful than a gown of diamonds.
There was no time. Nor any means to measure it, as the audience was enthralled by the show. The orchestra had never played such haunting, pure sounds, and they were captured by Cevan as she performed on and on into the night. Slowly her moves advanced through the changing colors of lights. Her costume changing slightly into a deep forest green dress, now enveloped in a rust and auburn cape. The lights now a heavy glow of orange and yellow, depicting the autumn of the women�s life. Other performers had come and gone during the show, but while Cevan was on the stage, no eye of the crowd was off her.
She had moved to a back corner of the stage and begun to spin slowly, with each rotation one or two small children dressed in various white costumes came running onto the stage, and began spinning wildly with white streamers trailing them. A half dozen, then a full dozen, then more. With the streamers spinning it was hard to focus enough to count. At some point Cevan had reversed her cape, to expose a cream interior that almost entirely covered her as she retook the center of the stage. Small trimming of cloth or feathers perhaps began to sprinkle from the height of the catwalks and stage scaffolds. The lights had shifted to a blue again, and the winter scene took shape.
The streamers had calmed down as the children slowly gathered around Cevan. Her dance including them, a sweet nurturing taking place as she interacted with each child in turn. Their eyes full of life as she slowly spun or knelt. Innocence and purity once again filling the night, and from Cevan a matriarchal power. She had reached the part of the story of her winter. Her place on the spectrum of life marked by her slower but purposeful motions as she knelt down among the children surrounding her. The blue lights shifting with a sharp note of music to a vibrant red hue. From the shadows behind her and the children, the darkness moved forward into a figure. Only the slight glimmer of red bounced off the skeletal mask barely protruding from the deep black cowl that covered the figure. The contrast was intense, and captured perfectly in the high squeal of the string instruments. The perfect innocence coming to an end.
Devri found herself holding in her breath. She was in fact uncertain how long she had been doing so, but could feel her chest burning for want of air. She heard a gargled gasp in the darkness to her left, and intended to look to see who made the sound. Instead she stayed focused on the stage. From amidst the darkness of the figures cloak a strange, unnatural gleam was caught in the light. A truly horrifying image as an enormous scythe was fully uncovered behind the kneeling and peaceful Cevan, and the children. The scythe an acrobatic image of death slicing the air as the figure moved forward, slowly. Bits of the fake snow shuttering from the force of the blade. The music had built to a full crescendo.
Amidst the music Devri heard commotions through the crowd, but she was still unable to focus on anything but the scene in front of her. Her tension so tight that she found herself clapping softly as yet another figure took the stage. King Rork, His majesty, stepping into the snow filled stage to chase away the figure of death. In doing so the myth stated it would bring about a good harvest for the farmers, as the tradition of the dance suggested. However the hero had stopped, the music picked up suggesting his moment to chase away the figure of death, but instead he had frozen. The motion of the twirling blade shifting low from left to right. It was oddly beautiful as colors changed while the lights danced across it�s surface. A dark spray of red filling the air for a moment. The scythe arcing upward before shifting to come down again was no longer shiny with a metallic glow, but instead with shimmery moisture. Some of the children had begun screaming
Commotion rang out through the crowd, and from the corners of her eyes Devri saw movement, but she could only focus on the dripping wet blade. The small huddled group on the stage had begun to rise, and move but they were all tangled as they tried to evade in every direction. This instant of confusion was more than enough time for the assailant to step into position. The blade coming through for it�s second pass, low and precise through another mass of the children. Devri had not had a chance to gasp, breathe or scream. Three more tiny children dancers crumbled beneath the blade. Small flecks of blood danced through the air and out into the crowd.
Cevan had rolled with two children away from blade�s reach. Reached back for a third, but only had come up with the upper half of a child. The assailant never hesitated as it stepped onto the bodies of the fallen children to get into position of his trembling target King Rork. The scythe so moist now with blood that it rained upon the figures hood and arms as it raised for it�s third swipe. Devri became aware now of the screams around her, and of the movement of other dark clad figures. She recognized the sounds of swishing blades, and the strange moist sprats of blood throughout the crowd.
None of the nobles had a chance. They were too involved in the dance, the festivities, and the drink. No one had noticed the hooded figures entering the garden. The small force of guards that were protecting the royal city, and king had been partaking in the festivities themselves. A drunken soldier is not a danger to an attacking force that also had surprise on their side. Besides any of the nobles or even the guard that had noticed assumed the figures to be servants or members of the show. Amongst this crowd in the garden only a handful carried weapons, but with the slaughter that was taking place, it could have just as easily been none.
Devri was struggling, breathless from fear, her heart stuck in her throat. Her legs wobbling and unable to hold her, numbness climbing up from the ground, pulling her into it. She was going to pass out. Her eyes scrambled through the wave of death that was crashing in on all sides of them. She looked forward finding once again the lit stage. There was no more music here, but in the distant through the city parties were still going on. Unaware of the attack on the Royal House, the festival of Preetsa carried on. There were other sounds, though. Loud booms and screams. The smell was no longer sweet, and perfumed, but heavy like a growth on your tongue. Devri felt her sweet wines and pastries come into her throat, and knew her dinner would be next. She spewed violently with her eyes closed, her body doubled and twisting to her left. As her heaves stopped her horror found she had thrown up off Joffery�s massive bleeding body. His mistress trying desperately to crawl away, but the train of her mostly not there dress, caught beneath his limp body.
Devri found the lit stage again, her gaze resting on King Rork and the unusual way he looked, slightly stunned, slightly sad with the large edge of the scythe protruding from his chest. Blackness found Devri; she felt herself falling but had no way to stop it, just as she had no way of stopping the last words that filled her mind before passing out. They were King Rork�s words as they had danced. �Well I haven�t limbered up just yet, but I�ll get by. I�ll try not to get hurt.�

The entire city of Dulce Mado was under attack. The most elite of the force broke into the royal city, massacred many nobles, and assassinated the King. Most of the rest of the city was just as surprised by the attackers. A ground force rolled through the temporary city surrounding Dulce Mado with significant ease. They started fires that disrupted and destroyed much of the eastern portion of the city. In the meantime a massive group from the north and south armed with a=squads of ballista rifles swarmed into the city with force. By the time any sense of disruption was noted they had advanced too far, and had gained control of much of the city.
The most successful ploy of the attack was not the soldiers but the many months of work done by just the right level of espionage. Upon the death of the King and a large faction of the royal, and noble families, a small group of nobles that had conveniently missed the King�s Preetsa celebration that night, were able to step in and control Dulce Mado�s government, until arrangements could be made for a successor. All and all these arrangements took only a matter of days, and Dulce Mado was a fully functioning city in no time.
Soldiers were promoted and given an extra stipend for their bravery and courage in facing the horde. Businessmen were told that the repairs to the city would include grand new designs, and that all damages would be absorbed by the King. In fact it was very upsetting how quickly and quietly the whole coups took place. Some would say it was because of the superstitious belief that a death during Preetsa was bad luck. Normally the body is placed in a public area like a living scarecrow and set afire without family or friends giving grievance or normal funeral service.
Due to the large amount of dead however, it was quickly suggested the dead be placed on one of the older ships and set to voyage out of the harbor. The ship was ignited later by some of the trailing Navy who made sure there were none to interfere with the process. According to the superstition the red cloaks collected the souls of those chased from the world during Preetsa, no one wanted to face their vengeance with such an extreme number of corpses.

Cevan leapt forward when the shadows had come to life around her, when the scythe had cut through the king, when the children�.when the children. Their faces fueled her fury, though she kept control. The first two shadows that chose to close on her after the children had fallen, were completely unaware of their doom.
Silk has a subtleness of almost not being, so light and yielding�peaceful. Devri thought it was strange how strong it held, as she continued to pull and twist against the silk that was binding her wrists and ankles. Even now as her blood continued to absorb into its texture, the silk felt almost attractive. Though her sniffling and tears reminded her how deeply the welts cut into her wrists. She tried to twist around in the chair she was tied to, but could not see more than the three wooden casks that had been carried in by two Malikal guards, after she had been left here. At least she no longer had a bag covering her head. It was near impossible to breathe through the smell of dirt, and thickness of burlap. She knew there were doors around that corner. They occasionally opened to enormous mixes of echoing sounds. Sounds that came through long halls or tunnels.
Devri knew she had to stay calm and remember Cevan�s teachings. �Collect each moment, and store them for later. Joy or fear, you will find a time for them all. But now is time for diligence and calm.� Of course when Cevan had told her that, she was talking about a stupid dance. Devri�s new tears were not due to her bleeding wrists. Quietly a prayer issued from her powder-dry mouth. Devri found a whole new sense of fear. She started thinking of her closest friend Cevan. Devri had watched as a cloaked figure stepped forward and with a bolt of light Cevan and the others were struck down; as with lightning. Someone had grabbed Devri, and stuffed the bag over her head. Taking away her sight and leaving only the screams of all those people. The agonizing screams of her friend. �Oh Cevan, I can�t do this without you. Please be safe. Please be alive. May Naanu watch over you.�
A laugh from behind the casks silenced Devri. Before its echo had died a thick voice followed. �Your prayers won�t reach Naanu from here pretty, pretty. Devri�s neck strained to make out the shape of one of the Malikal guards, as he stepped around the casks. He continued with a satisfied tone, �They will only find me. But if you pray to me,� his tongue sounded like dry limbs rubbing together in a winter wind as he ran it along his lips, �I will promise you will not meet the same fate as your friends.� His laugh carried no sympathy, and his eyes had a lustful hunger, but no kindness.
A thick skinned hand stretched out from atop the war hammer it had been resting on to stroke her face. A hand so massive it could hold her entire head like a citrus fruit. She pulled back so fast that she tipped, chair and all, smashing hard into the packed dirt floor. The Malikal�s laughter was enormous as it filled the cavern, each subsequent echo building more so on itself. �There, there pretty. Don�t damage yourself too much. I�ve been promised seconds after the master is through with you.� Then his tone became cold and serious. �I don�t want you to take away my pleasure, by doing my work for me.�
Devri choked in breaths of dirt as the laughter grew against the echoes so many times that it sounded as though a whole legion of Malikals were laughing. Her head spun and ached from striking it against the floor. Tears flooded into her eyes, diffusing the poor light and worsening the blur that already rested in her vision. She could barely hear her own thoughts but through the sobbing, she frantically repeated them over and over, �Diligence and calm, diligence and calm.�

Cevan ached all over. She felt welts scraping against the small clothes that she had been stripped down to upon her capture. She tried to stretch out her hands but quickly came into contact with the cold stone wall of what she knew must be a cell. She squinted through the darkness, at the broken rays of light that scattered from torches far away to her left and right. It seemed that her cell was in a narrow hallway. She felt the rough metal, along the edges and found the hinges. Too strong to break, and they seemed as though they had been reinforced recently. Her hands kept busy searching as she allowed her thoughts to run through the events that led to their capture.
Her eyes were adjusting; she thought she could make out other figures across the hall in other cells. She realized that she had no idea where Devri was. She began to shake with anger, and realized it wasn't helping her situation. She relaxed, focused, and kept thinking. There were the rangers, and then there were the soldiers, and that cloaked figure. She tried to think back to what he looked like. He had stepped forth and specified that he wanted Devri. How had he known her? Perhaps he had recognized her from the courts of Dulce Mado. That was possible she supposed. But why take her with force? Unless the rangers had intended her harm. That too, was possible. However, Cevan remained in a cell and was uncertain of far too many details. If Devri had been rescued from the cloaked man, or if Cevan had been mistaken at first, surely Devri would have come for her by now. The whole mess was rotten.
Her fingers had been digging through the bottom of the cell. A strange clay-like stone seemed to be at the base of decades of decay and fungal growth. Cevan couldn't help but become sick for a moment. She had stumbled onto a small bone; a finger or toe perhaps. She couldn�t stop the small smile from flashing across her eyes. She stopped and even held her breath, to hear well. Groans came from one of the cells somewhere across from her. Breathing sounds came from somewhere to her left, and other than that, only silence. She moved quickly and let the small bone slip into the ancient lock on the cell door. The bone cracked once but still offered enough support to hook the mechanism. Her door let out an earsplitting whine as it shattered the silence, and creaked open. The metal on metal grating made Cevan's stomach turn with nervousness. She stayed in the cell until she was sure that no one had been alarmed.
When she was certain that the hall was clear, she quickly slipped from the crack in the door. She was in her element. Her training with the monks of the Messot Hills came back to her as always. It was a subconscious effort. She noticed the cells around her were empty, but a few of the rangers had occupied every cell to the right. Feston was on his own, across from her cell and down a few to the left. She decided to see where they had all been taken before worrying about trying to get them out.

Devri let out a surprised yelp as the guard lifted her upright. The chair squeaked and cracked a little under the force with which he slammed it back onto its legs. Devri�s back throbbed with the pain brought on by the force as well. She was however the smallest bit grateful that he lifted her from her fall. Her tears were still getting the better of her. She tried to exchange anger with the fear and pain. �What am I doing here? What do you want?� She said with as much control as she could manage. There was still a bit of a quaver in her voice, and she could tell by his smile the guard had caught it.
�You�re to sit here, and wait until the master says other. And I want what any would want from a pretty.� His smile grew enormous again, as did Devri�s fear.
�Who is�� she closed her eyes to try to force the guard from her sight. �Who is your master?�
The guards smile had changed, she noticed after she opened her eyes. Although, he still held a rather confident smirk. �I don�t tell. Groduk�� he tapped his chest indicating himself in association with the name� �is good at my job. I don�t work the tunnels, I don�t work the fires. Groduk sits and watches the pretty. And when the master is done with her�� he trailed off, which in Devri�s mind was worse. She thought maybe she could at least end the suffering faster if this beast would just get mad at her. If he killed her then she wouldn�t have to worry about the torment any longer.

It was quite a mind trip. To start at point zero, working in almost complete darkness, and try to determine where you were. Cevan had padded softly in her bare feet for two flights of seemingly crescent shaped stairs, and down what had felt like another long hall of cells. The hall had no windows, and no torches lit. There were no prisoners, or if there had been, they were far too quiet. She rested now at the top of the second set of stairs. They opened into yet another hall. Yet half way down this one there was a very faint flickering light coming from an opening on the left. This hall had a few shelves, trunks, and barrels lining the walls of much larger cells. All locked from the looks, though the light was very little help. It�s just nice to be out of complete darkness, Cevan thought to herself.
She had been watching the foot that was resting on the heel of a boot, cocked slightly off to the right. It had only barely shifted twice, and seemed to not move. She hoped that meant whoever was attached to that foot, was not awake. If they were, she felt confident they wouldn�t have much time to react�she had surprise on her side. Cevan crept silently, keeping the foot in view, while she scanned every shadow, and every corner. As she got nearer she saw the light was coming from a small nearly burned out candle that rested on a table. It shone on an empty bottle of wine, two mugs, and a deck of cards. Cevan was close enough now she didn�t need to look to know there would be two guards. And by the rhythm, and depth of their breathing, that was not the only empty bottle of wine they had shared together.
Cevan made quick work of things passing through the hall without a sound, leaving the snoozing guards behind. The small window behind their alcove showed it to be night. She had been unconscious for some time it seemed. At the end of the hall she found the main room of what appeared to be a jailhouse of sorts. Here in this little check station, there were two desks near a front door, a fireplace, and two small holding cells. They were vacant of people, but held a few familiar looking weapons. Cevan had seen those in the hands of the Rangers before they were all attacked and captured.
Two sconces held lit lanterns on either side of the room. A torch near the entry was burning bright on a third. There were a few odds and ends on the shelves around the room; ropes, shackles, kerosene for the lamps and torches. But the item that caught Cevan�s eye were the ring of keys that hung from a nail on the door frame that led down the hall she had just come from. One of the keys opened the holding cell. She was upset not to see the sword she carried among these. A quick flash of anger filled her cheeks, and then she bent down. She quietly grabbed a few of the weapons. Now she thought, let�s see about rescuing the others.
Groduk had just slammed one of the crates into the wall above Devri�s head, its contents scattering across the floor in a sudden explosion of sound. His rage was so sudden, so violent that Devri immediately regretted her plan. She did not realize how easy it would be to manipulate this poor creature. His anger had started off as overt attraction for her, and she used that very quickly against him. As he turned from his toss he grabbed one of the larger trunks, and threw it off to the side. It was iron and made an impressive gong, landing on its side, the lid slowly opening. His eyes were then clear to glare directly at her. As he stepped once toward her she shifted in the chair.
She had heard Cevan speak of it �slowing the fast moments. Taking control of the small aspects that allowed chaos to overcome itself.� As Devri faced the enraged Groduk, her focus shifted onto the chair. There was creaking, cracking, wood from her fall and from when Groduk had replaced it upright. She felt the rear left leg give under her weight, and heard the stress on the rest of the wood that she was tied to. She recalled the large iron chest off to the left that now lay open. It�s few remaining cannon balls had rolled out against a small powder cask during Groduk�s temper. He was moving into his next step muscles already tensed to strike her, aiming for where she was�not where she will be. His right foot found one of the cannon balls, all of his weight now displaced. She was unsure if the cracking she was hearing was further cracking of her chair, or that of the bone in his ankle. His scream was her answer. The Malikal�s momentum took him to her right. As his ankle was snapping the ball he had stepped on carried his lower half toward the powder cask while his now flailing left arm swiped upwards and sent the torch tumbling from its sconce.
Devri�s left hip, elbow and shoulder found the ground in succession, allowing her weight to continue to carry her rolling to her left. Just as Groduk�s massive body crushed the remainder of the chair she had been tied to, she rolled into the oversized trunk. Within the same second his body rolled against the lid pinning her inside, trapped between his girth and the wall. Her calm began to wear off, the slowing of the moment now returning to normal. The sudden darkness of the trunk quenched her slight moment of confidence. She felt the fear starting to build, the sound of Groduk�s scream changing back into a horrible anger. There was a loud grinding sound as the trunk was shifting. Surely he must be moving to get up�to open the lid�to�
She could not do anymore than she did. Even as the tears were still filling her eyes, she opened her mind once again to the words of her friend. �Diligence and calm�� The sound of the explosion washed everything away.

Cevan stopped. Feston and one of the other Rangers to either side of her stopped as well. Her stomach got a sick feeling in it, a feeling that something had finally gone wrong. �What is it?� whispered Feston. She replied by holding up a finger�she needed a moment to think. She had returned to the locked cells below, freed Feston and his fellow Rangers. She had given them the four swords and keys. They had searched the guardhouse further down, and discovered twenty three more prisoners.
All were townspeople; women, children, and a few men. There was also a new tunnel that had been added on the lowest level. None of the keys worked on the lock that held that door.
They had decided to free the other prisoners and sneak them all out into the night. They should have no problem with the sleeping guards. Feston and one other ranger in front with Cevan, while the others stayed on the tail end of the townsfolk. They were unsure if anything would come out of the locked doors below. Now just as they were so close to getting out��What do you see, is it the guards?� Feston asked.
Cevan replied in a quiet hush, �the guards are gone, and the candle is new.� She was sure even before she rounded the corner to see the empty alcove. The empty bottle was also missing.
�That�s great��started the ranger excitedly, but Feston cut him off.
�They�re onto us, probably went for help.� Cevan nodded as she crept toward the opening into the check station. She took in the room quickly. The guards had emptied out the remaining weapons, taken both lanterns and left the door outside open. She assumed they sent a runner in each direction for help while the others stayed behind to secure the weapons. Feston continued, �We waited too long! Maybe we can go back through the tunnel.�
�They sent runners to warn the other side of the tunnel as well as someone to stop us here.� Cevan told him. �We�re trapped either way. Besides��she continued, �they�re already here.� She crossed quickly through the room. A group of soldiers were gathering out front. She closed the door, and barred it.
�Feston?� the other ranger called out while looking from the window, �they brought ballistas!�
Feston looked through the other window. �There�s almost twenty!� He looked over to Cevan, his partner, then over to the opening that led to the cells where a few of the prisoners stood, waiting. �Four swords, no armor, and a bunch of helpless folks��he trailed off at the end. Cevan had recalled Feston and some others talking about ballistas. She believed they had been used during the attack on Dulce Mado during the Preetsa Festival.
�They�re like small cannons, right?� she asked.
�Yes.� Answered the other ranger, �and they�re getting ready to fire a volley!� He ran to upend the desk on his side of the room. Feston was doing the same. Cevan grabbed a few things off the shelves and ran into the open cell that had the weapons in it. Feston was yelling orders to his men, a few others running into the room and taking cover in the fireplace and behind the desks.
�How much time between reloads?� asked Cevan while she tore pieces of cloth from the cot�s linen.
�What?!� questioned Feston. �Maybe ten seconds. Why�?�
Cevan cut him off. �That�s when we counter.� Feston stared at her for a moment in disbelief as a voice outside could be heard shouting orders.
�You three get ready to take the door after the second volley� the orders continued. Feston started to look at Cevan in an entirely new light. He knew she was brave as she stood from the cell and started to stroll toward the desk.
�Ready?� the voice continued. It was also hard not to credit her beauty, especially there in her small clothes.
�Aim!� But as he leaned next to him behind the over turned desk, a look of determination on her face, and the thick smell of kerosene coming from the two bottles she held in her hands�he realized she was absolutely brilliant.
�Will you marry me?� Feston started to ask.
�Fire!� the shout was covered immediately by the rippling of explosions as the lined of soldiers kneeling down in front of the check station followed their order. Screams from the prisoners inside the guardhouse could be heard as the rounds tore through the walls, windows, and door.
Cevan blew a chunk of wood from her bangs as the voice outside commanded, �aim��
She looked playfully at Feston who was gaping at the hole where the wood chunk had come from just inches from her head, then said. �Not tonight dear, I have a headache.�
�Fire!� The guardhouse fell once more under the stress of the ballistas attack.
Without the slightest delay Cevan reacted. The explosive noise from the second volley still hung in the air. Splinters were passing through the spaces of air in the tiny check station of the guard house. Cevan vaulted the table. Her bare feet found hot shards of pointed wood and broken glass. She forced the pain away. The door was just ajar from the musket rounds that had ripped through the front of the guard house. Cevan kicked into it, sending most of the door bursting out into the darkness of the night.
In a semi-circle in front of the jail house, stood the guard. Most were in the process of reloading. A few had stepped forward, charged with the duty to investigate. These three were met with the chunks of door. Cevan�s mind was working so fast, catching each detail. Her first kerosene soaked wick found the flame of the entry torch as she passed through the door, and was in the air before the door pieces and three guards and found the ground. Her second immediately followed.
Behind the semi-circle sat a confident Captain Jordin, a more relaxed hold on his reigns. There was no need to stop his horse from bolting, now that the loud blast of the ballistas ended. This was a well trained war horse and the thick cloud of sulfur following the volleys was not enough to make the horse jumpy. This is why, as Jordin watched the three guards rolling back into the ground with the shattered door, and the image of Cevan in her small clothes tossing flaming bottles toward his men, Jordin�s slow reaction to grip his reigns would cost him. In fact the entire guard was taken for shock.
It was then that the first bottle of kerosene cracked into the head of one of the guards on the right side of the semi-circle. The contents inside spattering out and spilling down two of the guards in a hot flaming blanket. The men on each side of these two, after initially recoiling stepped in to help their comrades. But in that instant the blanket of flame found the pouches of gun powder the soldiers kept on their belts. As the first two erupted scattering flaming shrapnel into the next two, the second bottle of rum found three unlucky soldiers on the left side of the grouping. As the second explosion from the right side occurred and the soldiers were instinctively moving to the left, the second bottle proved to be unbelievably catastrophic.
Jordin had been thrown from the horse at the next three explosions. The horse wild with fear twisted and ran from the fire and screams. Jordin landed heavily on the ground, slow to turn and rise but did so just in time to see Cevan step into a group of four guards. The one in the center, the sergeant of the riflemen, must have reloaded and had just raised his ballista to fire; unaware that she was directly in front of him. She ripped the rifle from his grip, the butt of the stalk finding his chin, as effectively as a club.
The rifle spun in her grasp like a quarter staff, first to the left, then the right, those two guards falling in a heap, to join the first. The final guard had dropped his ballista and attempted to draw a blade. Cevan leaped, twisting in the air. Her foot finding the guards face. Despite the screams of his guards, and the crackling of the flames, Jordin could hear the crunch of the man�s nose as he tumbled backwards.
Cevan had been a student of warfare for most her life, and though this weapon was new and unusual to her, a quick look showed her there was a stock like that of a crossbow, and trigger as well. The guard she had disarmed was lifting the rifle as she had approached him. To Jordin�s horror she mimicked the guard. She had seen cannons, she understood the concept. Jordin gave out shuttered orders but as he rose he surveyed the street. Any of the few guards that were left alive were now kneeling in front of the group that had just broke free from the jailhouse. Fear and hatred boiled through his veins,
�I will enjoy watching you all�� Cevan assumed that he said the word �die� but the sound of the ballista firing drowned out his voice. Jordin crumpled to the ground, followed by a cheer from the prisoners. Cevan was just getting ready to turn and request that they move, when Feston spoke up from beside her.
�One of the prisoners knows a safe place at one of the churches. I think we should hurry.�
I agree� She said and turned to see the group had already started to move down one of the side streets.


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