Spacer The Fallen King 39
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    "That and the fact that he's an unmitigated prick."
    "Well, at some point at least he was a mitigated prick.
    "Does that help your decision at all?" she added to Rhonwen.
    "All right. The decision was already made, but that just seems like a horrifyingly bad idea." She retained the village tendency toward understatement. "Oh dear. This is going to involve assaulting the castle?"
    "Oh yes, definitely. Storming the gates and everything," Meara told her cheerfully.
    "Well, we don't really need to storm the gates," I said. Something of a pity, really....
    "Charging the forces of darkness?"
    "Yes, that's why we came to you first. Because in spite of the fact that I've poking at him and tyring to encourage him to mutiny in disloyalty, we thought we'd actually clear it with his warchief first."
    "Yeah, well, that's a good idea. Not that I could possibly stop him," she growled.
    "Yes, but would you really want to?"
    "Well, no. We can do this tomorrow," she decided.
    "Excellent. Let's see if we survive the night," Meara said.
    In fact, nothing at all happened that night, and the only reason anyone lost any sleep was nerves. I was, needless to say, very excited. Meara conducted a full-fledged ritual before we set out, and everyone got ready. Rhonwen was interested in the hammer; Artos stuck to his oaken club. The warband marched along behind us, resplendent in their barbaric finery, bronze armor gleaming in the sun.
    We set up ladders and climbed over the gate, then unbarred it to clear our line of retreat in case it was necessary. Meara cast "Strength of the Righteous" on those who were going to be working on the door.
    Artos and Rhonwen each took a side. The hammer scorched the wood where it fell. On her second stroke she missed a bit and hit the stone instead: it melted. Artos took one swing with the small oak tree he was calling a club and brought down the door on that side in one stroke.
    Of course it was dark inside. Llweder reached into his satchel and pulled out some sunrise. The things waiting to attack us were somewhat surprised. The great hall was one big, empty room that appeared to take up the entire building. Damn, I thought. This place is going to take a lot of work before it's livable.
    "Unfurl the banner," Meara suggested, eyeing the things that were coming at us. There were five of them, momentarily blinded by Llweder's sun. They were vaguely humanoid, except for the spikes, horns, barbs, blades, and tails.
    We did want to make a statement, and it's not as if Emer was going to get any angrier than he undoubtedly was just then. I shook out the standard and rammed the base down into the stone floor.
    We were in Powys again.
    Meara released a fireball, doing considerable damage to one of the things. Gannon lunged in with his gladius, wounding another one. I drew the molten sword and took a devastating chunk out of the floor, missing my target completely. Claws screeched off my armor in return. The one Gannon faced swiped viciously at the air. The one Meara had fireballed snarled as she dodged its rush. Most of the warband had taken to their heels, but Artos had pinned one of the remaining creatures while Gaenor and Rhonwen pounded on it.
    Gannon's blade bit home again. Meara drew her dagger and opened a vicious wound on the still-smoking demon. Thorns streamed from Llweder's hands toward the one creature that had been unengaged until then, doing no apparent damage. Gannon continued taking pieces from his opponent, which was definitely getting the worst of the battle. I successfully struck my target this time, intrigued by the way the sword left scorch marks wherever it passed, and entirely unaware that to outside eyes I looked as if I too had been coated in molten steel. Meara missed her stroke. Llweder tried the thorns again. No good.
    Gannon's creature finally got its balance back and rushed, knocking him over as its claws ripped into his flesh. The one fighting the three villagers actually picked Artos up—it was the only way to get him off of it—but didn't help itself in doing so, as Gaenor's spear drove into its chest and the hammer fell on what would have been a kidney if it was human. Meara's dagger landed again, drawing something not unlike blood. Gannon got back to his feet.
    Loathe though I am to record this fact, I dropped my sword. I can only hope that everyone else was too busy to notice. Meara cast Flame Coat on herself. Llweder went back into the satchel and pulled out some north wind. Chill air blasted the vast room, sending the creature facing him staggering backwards toward the wall. Gannon's lunge missed. There were a few moments of dodging and missing on the part of all involved in the battle. Artos and Co. finished theirs off. Gannon drew blood—or something, the color was off—with his next cut.
    I retrieved my sword. Meara, now covered in flame from head to foot, slashed in with her dagger again. We were definitely taking a toll on the creatures, but the battle wore on slowly. Gannon took another swing and drew a little more not-blood, and I managed not to disgrace myself this time. Llweder's, which had staggered against the wind far enough to scratch him, was blown back against almost immediately. Artos, Rhonwen, and Gaenor, turned their attention to that one as the least injured of our opponents.
    Gannon's gladius clove through the creature's skull. Two down. Meara's flaming dagger finished off a third. While the three villagers worked over the one he had been facing, Llweder Thorn Darted it again, getting through this time. Gannon ran over to try to help me out but missed his stroke. Meara joined us, dealing it a vicious wound.
    The one on the other side of the room expired under the enthusiastic attention of Rhonwen, her husband, and their able friend, and the one we had surrounded appeared to impale itself on Gannon's blade.
    Meara walked around setting the bodies on fire.
    Now that we had a chance to catch our breath, we looked around and noted the room's emptiness. The throne had been removed, presumably to make room for the new one, and there was a staircase leading down. Nothing else. The place gave us all the creeps; even the least magical of us had the distinct sense that horrors had been wrought in that room.
    Before we went down, we opened some of the windows. The shutters were wizard locked, but that just meant we had to knock them out of the wall completely. For the first time in fifty years, sunlight fell on the old stone, dispelling some of the evil there (or so we hoped).
    I went first, anxious to redeem myself after that moment of clumsiness earlier. Gannon followed, alert for traps, but noticed nothing suspicious. It was just a set of stairs. They didn't even go down very far. There were, of course, thirteen steps.
    We were in another very large room. Pillars lined the walls. There were a number of altars, none of them to anything pleasant—even in Powys, these things were not so much frowned upon as lit on fire at every opportunity. At the end of the room before us stood a large casket, upright.
    The druid and priestess noted that what we were seeing was not merely evil, it was also unnatural, thereby offending both religions. Llweder found a sprig of his solstice mistletoe and began sprinkling whiskey around. Meara rummaged in her satchel and began the chant to lay the dead to rest.
    I saw motion from the corner of my eye, whipped around and cut a crow in half, sending centipede and scorpion bits flying in all directions. "Yah!"
    Llweder and Meara continued their vital desecration/consecration activities, he with his mistletoe, she with angelica, fighting the evil imbedded in that room as darkness began seeping out from the casket. Llweder pulled out some more of the sunrise to combat it.
    The casket began to open. As it did so and the bony robed figure of Emer began to step out, Artos slammed the lid shut again. Everyone else hesitated. The casket reopened, slowly. Emer stepped out unhindered this time, but before anything else could happen his crown and ring shattered, as the standard upstairs exerted its power.

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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al