Dark Bargain

1. Vann’ti Marshakr (Sinkerton)
(episodes 1-4)
2. Starhaven
(episode 5)
3. Waneford
(episode 6)
4. Azimut Tower
(episode 7)
5. Orrery Hill
(episode 8)
6. Strongmaw Fortress
(episode 8)
7. The Watchtower
(episodes 8-10)
8. Ambergate
(episode 11+18)
9. Copperton
(episode 11)
10. Ban’Daryan Hebath (the Moving city)
(episodes 11-13
11. Kruesol
(episodes 14-17)

Characters’ hometowns:
A. Torrax E Lok Turan
B. Matajam E Lepas Huru forest
C. Lunara E Orrery Hill
D. Zuva’Sai E Sinkerton
E. Jonai E Ambergate
F. Drenosh E Kruesol
G. Venia E Blightwood
H. Garuk E Yaskow
K. Xir E Nniq

1. A City Underwater

Shantor Three-Birds pressed her horned head against the diving bell window. A shoal of colorful fish swam past dragging a million tiny bubbles with them.
As the visibility got better, she saw the tall towers of Sinkerton on all sides of the bell. They had been built by the Ancients long ago, but now housed a mostly underwater korallian city. This is where Bule’Sai had summoned her to discuss important matters.
The other passengers in the diving bell were all foreigners like her: a tall agurian of black stone, and a four-armed pattangan couple from the northern rainforests. Only the attendant was a korallian, her face covered in flabby tentacles, a numb expression in her yellow eyes.
Having traveled Agemonia for years, she was used to such exotic people. In fact, she was now more accustomed to them than the company of other ignisaurs. The sun-worshiping imperialist ignisaurs rarely left their home island except to conquer other nations, which was one of the many reasons Shantor was glad to be rid of them.
The diving bell dove past more and more houses, banks, factories, farms, warehouses, signs of industry of all kinds. Then it slowed and came to rest with a jolt at the station platform.
“We have reached Sinkerton Proper,” said the bell attendant mechanically in her ridiculous burgundy uniform. “When exiting the bell, the Vertical Transport Company recommends you wear a breathing device, which can be bought or rented at the station shop. Enjoy your stay in our city.”
The pattangan couple quickly took out their expensive helmets and tried to fit their dorsal fins into them. Shantor concentrated her magical energies to create a bubble of breathable air around her head. The basalt man simply stood at the door. This confused Shantor for a second, but then she remembered agurians do not need to breathe.
She stepped into the bustling diving bell station where cargo was being loaded and unloaded by korallian stevedores and porters.
She walked out of the station yard and into the street. With most korallians preferring swimming to walking, the streets felt quite empty. The barnacle-covered buildings had two entrances: the original one at street level, and a newer one, higher up, used almost exclusively by korallians.
She had grown up in the twice-damned ignisaur city of Kruesol by the sea, but was not a very good swimmer. The magic that made her able to walk by resisting buoyancy made swimming increasingly difficult.
She walked the Sinkerton streets, admiring the business that happened above her head.
Korallian society was intensely driven by the pursuit of property, which was obvious in the street-level signs aimed at tourists, advertising traditional seafood restaurants, lodgings, souvenirs, and cheap loans.
She bought a waterproof map from a hotel, and tried to find her way to Bule’Sai, the man who had invited her here. Walking underwater was exhausting, and her robes were wet and heavy.
Suddenly she felt a nasty twinge, like an evil energy leaking from the Breach. Was this why she was called here? She half ran, half swam towards the source of the unpleasant feeling. As she approached, she heard cries and the sounds of battle, carried clearly by the water.
There was a dark stream flowing through the water from around a corner up ahead. Blood! She quickened her pace, and as she reached the intersection she could see several twisted Aox demons which had somehow arrived from the Breach. They had two legs, but pincers instead of arms, and useless bat wings on their backs. She saw the demons rip apart a young korallian fisherman. A group of soldiers from Trident, Sinkerton’s private military, had arrived with their signature three-headed spears, but were impotent against such powerful opponents. The demons tore limbs off the Tridents, as civilians swam away in panic. A cloud of purple blood spread in all directions.
She had hoped things would be better in Sinkerton, but clearly this manifestation plagued every corner of Agemonia. What had caused it, she did not yet know, but perhaps Bule’Sai had some ideas. However, now she had to face its direct consequences with the demons swimming towards her.
Shantor Three-Birds realized some of her magic might not work underwater, especially her fire magic. She got as close to the clawed monsters as she dared. She was not much of a fighter, but she was likely the only one who could do anything to stop them.

2. Two Keepers of the Breach

Shantor Three-Birds concentrated her magical energies to cast a beam of light from one of the claws in her right hand. It was like a ray of sunshine, which pierced the water between the demons and the korallian civilians. Then, in the water between them, it gained another dimension, growing into a wall of light. The demons tried to swim through it, but were repulsed. It was as if they were in a diving bell, looking out at the korallians.
The wall of light would not hold the bat-winged monsters forever, but maybe long enough for the civilians to escape. The demons turned their hideous faces towards her and started swim-flying in her direction, their snake-like tails twisting and turning.
She started looking for a way out. The creatures were almost upon her, their huge pincers snapping aggressively. She tried creating another wall of light in front of her, but she could only direct the beam in one direction. The demons were too close and got around it easily.
As a slimy tail twirled around her leg, she felt a powerful current push her from behind. The current swept the Aox demons away from her, along with the smaller fish and corals. A violent whirlpool trapped the demons and snapped their joints as they spun into its center.
Having regained her composure, she turned around to see an elderly korallian man dressed in very fine clothing. They had not met for decades, but she immediately recognized Bule’Sai.
“May you work hard,” the old man said.
“What? Oh. Hello,” she replied, the meaning of the korallian phrase coming back to her.
“Let us depart before the blood in the water draws in the larger predators,” the old man said. “The maelstrom will hold the demons until they are eaten.”
“Is there a portal to the Breach here?” asked Shantor, following the old man who humored her by walking along at street level. “Why? I mean, how? What are the demons trying to achieve?”
“They are trying to destroy us, of course. The Keepers of the Breach are the only thing which stands between Aox demons and Agemonia,” replied Bule’Sai, as he guided her to his luxurious apartment. It was decorated with moonsilver and luminescent corals and had servants to cater to his every whim. The man himself was dressed in fine quothian silk complete with mother of pearl buttons. Shantor had grown up in a noble family in Kruesol, but felt ashamed of her own worn-out traveling clothes.
The servants offered them starfishes. Shantor did not know what to do with hers, but Bule’Sai lifted his between his face tentacles and started sucking. The disgusting noise was enough to make Shantor’s stomach turn, and she put her starfish down on an antique table next to some strange and undoubtedly valuable items.
“I’ve called you here to Vann’ti Marshakr precisely because the Aox demons are arriving in Agemonia from the Breach. You must have seen that the defense mechanisms created by the Ancients are powering up. You know what that means for the Keepers of the Breach.”
“It is a call to action for us.”
“Precisely. I must leave my comfortable abode to light the beacons in Copperton, Glow Reef, and the Azimut Tower. And I know I will not be compensated for it,” the old korallian said with a tinge of annoyance. “You must return to Kruesol to retrieve the key to Skyrender Tower in Runedale. After you have lit that beacon, join me at the watchtower. Amon Pennark has summoned a general council of the Keepers to discuss this threat.”
“No, forget it,” Shantor said. “I will gladly do my part, but I will never return to Kruesol.”
“Oh, you want to haggle, is that it? Unfortunately for you, I’m a master negotiator. That’s the only way to run a successful fish food business. Perhaps I can sweeten the deal for you. Look at these mementos and choose any one of them as payment.”
“Sun’s fire! I’m not haggling,” Shantor said, insulted. “I will never go back to Kruesol.”
“Sure,” the old korallian said with a wink. “Call it a gift, then.”
Against her better nature, Shantor’s eye was drawn to the strange objects on the table.There was an oyster of charming that would make her arguments irresistible when digested. And a vespir figurine that could temporarily turn into a flying mount.
And a magical cube…

3. A Message from Home

A shoal of fish swam past as Shantor Three-Birds walked on the sea bottom, Bule’Sai’s cube of banishment in her wet bag. It would help her against demons, should she encounter them again. The old korallian was displeased at her unwillingness to return to Kruesol. If only he had asked for anything else!
The meager sunlight that penetrated the waters to light Sinkerton had long since died, and instead the city was lit by luminescent corals and kelp. She took in the gorgeous city as she made her way to the Foreigners’ Hotel. The whole building existed inside an air bubble, allowing her to breathe normally. In the lobby, she recognized the tall black agurian from the diving bell journey, along what must have been diplomats, spies, assassins of the Shroud, explorers, and merchants.
They were huddled together over imported Benemite wine, which was a welcome change to the constant taste of seawater. She approached the group, and the agurian pulled her up a chair.
“Grandmothers only know why the mushroom forests are spreading faster and faster these days,” croaked a feathered silk merchant with the head of a black bird. “Heartwood itself will be in trouble soon.”
“Aye,” agreed a long-tailed nihteegri cosmographer. “Many a road in Benem are now endangered. And not just because of the fungi and the bladethorns, but by Heaven all-seeing, there’s demons, too.”
A four-armed pattangan traveler nodded, her dorsal fins flapping. “The demons make the honey-wine of life sour for the jungle clans, too. I thank my totems the city of my clan is built on the back of giant lizards and can move away from such peril.”
“I for one am not afraid of demons,” said Mixxo, the black basalt agurian.
“Some of us are more mortal than others,” said the nihteegri wryly, and this got a chuckle out of everyone.
“Fair enough,” agreed Mixxo, “but I feel there is something beautiful in a fight against such overwhelming odds. To know you will lose, but still keep fighting the good fight, to be forever remembered! Hope even in the midst of hopelessness!”
“Alright, alright…”
Shantor kept silent, but this got her thinking. As a Keeper of the Breach, it was her duty to fight the demons. Perhaps there would be something else for her to do apart from returning home.
Her train of thought was broken when something in her bag started to shake. Was it the magical cube Bule’Sai had given her? No, it was another magic item, a small metal box which she always kept with her.
She bid the others good night, and retired to her room to open the box. Inside she found, as expected, a new letter from her mother Dravesh Three-Birds. She did not relish these communiques, but had not thrown the box out, either.
It was the same stuff as before: “You must return to Kruesol and take over the family business. You must abandon your foolish crusade, since family outweighs ideology.”
Shantor held the letter in her hand and channeled the pyromantic energies inside her. The piece of papyrus burst into flames and incinerated.
This reminder of why she did not want to return to Kruesol could not have come at a worse time. She sat down on the bed, needing some time to think about her future. Perhaps everything would make more sense in the morning.
Just as Shantor was about to lie down, there was a knock on the door. It was the hotel clerk with a middle-aged korallian woman.
“I’m sorry,” the clerk said, “she insisted it was urgent.”
The other korallian stepped in, and shyly addressed Shantor. “May you work hard. You saved me and my family earlier, when those creatures attacked us. Thank you. I thought you might want to know about your friend Bule’Sai…”
Shantor stood up again. “Sun’s fire! Is he alright?”
“Please, I don’t know. But I saw more of those winged parasites swimming into his house.”
Shantor ran through the water as fast as she could, which was not very fast at all, but eventually got to the fancy part of town where Bule’Sai lived. The door to the building was open and she could feel the presence of evil Aox energies nearby.
She climbed and swam up the stairs to Bule’Sai’s apartment, seeing the waters darkened by korallian blood. One of the old man’s servants floated in a purple cloud in the hallway, butchered.
A horrible sight awaited her in the old man’s drawing room. A gargantuan demon, commanding a horde of smaller ones, had killed or wounded all of Bule’Sai’s servants, and destroyed his collection of magical artifacts.
The korallian Keeper himself was wrestling with the demons over a runic plate, a stone tablet which he had called a key to the beacons.
The demons had not yet noticed Shantor when she heard Bule’Sai’s voice inside her head. “Do not worry about me. Take the key. You must complete my mission. This is the very purpose of the Keepers of the Breach.”
As the giant demon noticed Shantor it spoke with a voice like rusty nails on a chalkboard. “We have come for you, Keepers. We have come for the key. Give it to us, and we will kill you fast, and leave. Refuse, and we will destroy this whole city!”
This was no random attack, Shantor understood, but part of some larger plan, an attempt to prevent the Keepers from stopping the demons.
The demon grabbed the stone tablet from Bule’Sai’s grasp, sending the smaller monsters against the old korallian.
“Save the key,” she heard Bule’Sai speak again in her mind.

4. To the Surface

The Aox demons roared. Bule’Sai’s underwater home was dark with the blood of his dead servants and the demons he had killed. The old korallian himself was about to be crushed to death by the colossal demon’s tentacles. His powers spent, he tried handing the runic plate to Shantor Three-Birds.
“Save the key and leave me,” he croaked.­
“By the Burning Sun,” Shantor bellowed in her air bubble, “I will abandon neither you nor the mission.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out the magical cube of banishment Bule’Sai had given her that same day. It felt warm to the touch. “Let’s just hope it works,” she thought to herself as she pressed a button on the cube.
She had already learned that throwing things underwater was difficult, so she tried to push the cube telekinetically through the water. Holding off the demons while keeping up her air bubble and her weight, she was unable to overcome the water resistance, and saw the cube stop in front of her. Fortunately Bule’Sai had enough strength to create a current which drew the activated artifact straight to the demons.
It was a strange sight, like watching a tornado that left most things unaffected. The demons were drawn into the dark whirlpool and one by one the smaller demons were sucked into the darkness and disappeared.
Shantor could sense them being sent back to the Breach.
The large demon, which still held Bule’Sai, resisted. It grabbed the old man even tighter, trying to either stop itself from being sucked in or drag him in with it. Was it too big to be pulled in? Shantor did not know.
She had to fight it somehow but was not sure how well her magic worked underwater. She had mostly used her powers for creating the air bubble that allowed her to breathe. Then she had an idea!
She concentrated on the demon and created another, larger bubble for it! Big enough to surround it entirely.
Taken by surprise, the demon was caught in the bubble which immediately started to rise towards the ceiling. The demon let go of Bule’Sai as it now struggled against the buoyancy lifting it up, and the cube pulling it in. Which power would be greater was not something Shantor wanted to wait around to find out.
“Let’s go,” she told Bule’Sai. “Can you swim?”
The korallian Keeper, still hanging on to the runic plate, nodded, and looked around his demolished apartment with a forlorn face. He silently picked up what few items were left unbroken.
As they were about to leave, Bule’Sai turned solemnly to the floating corpses of his dead servants. “You gave your head and heart to the Creators. You worked hard and always knew your place. May Bekora help you fare better in the next life.” Then he turned to Shantor. “Their souls are taken care of. I am ready.”
“What about their bodies?” asked Shantor.
“Fish food,” replied Bule’Sai bluntly.
Shantor pursed her lips, and helped the old man escape his home. The demon was still trapped in the air bubble, struggling against the cube of banishment. “I will break free, and I will come for you!” it shrieked.
“We’ll be ready,” Shantor replied, and left.
Shantor and Bule’Sai picked up Shantor’s belongings from the hotel, and patched the korallian’s wounds. As they got to the diving bell station, the first rays of the sun were already illuminating the waters.
“I told you to leave me,” Bule’Sai said quietly as the bell was rising up. Breathing air through his lungs was clearly a little difficult for him after relying only on his gills for so long.
“There are not many Keepers of the Breach in this world,” said Shantor, “and looks like you never took an apprentice.”
“I did, but they all left me. Said they would rather work hard and succeed than dedicate their life to saving the world.”
“How very korallian of them.”
Bule’Sai smiled bitterly.
“What about you?” he asked. “Do you have an apprentice?”
“I’m too young for that,” Shantor said, but the truth was more complicated than that.
“This life is dangerous, and about to get even more so. It is something you should consider,” advised Bule’Sai.
“I told you, I’m…” began Shantor.
“…not going back to Kruesol. But there are ignisaurs in other places, no?”
Shantor only shrugged at that. It was the tradition of the Keepers of the Breach to choose an apprentice from amongst their own people, so that there would always be eight apprentices, each from different peoples. Clearly, they had both failed at this part of the tradition. But during her training she had been shown a vision where she did have apprentices, students from different peoples, so she trusted they would one day present themselves.
“Now that we have the key,” Bule’Sai tapped the runic plate, “we must use it to retrieve an orb of power. We will take it to the watchtower, where we will meet with the other Keepers. Amon Pennark will bring another orb, and Nnin the Enigmatic the third. Together we can activate the beacon at the watchtower.”
“Where do we get the orb?” asked Shantor as the diving bell rose further up, through a swarm of jellyfish, painted orange by the rising sun.
“Ah, that is the question,” Bule’Sai replied. “This key fits in three locks. One of them is in Copperton.”
“The capital of the Amethyst Order. A very cosmopolitan city, we would blend right in.”
“You have been there?”
“Once, yes. Where are the other two?”
“Glow Reef, not that far from here. We can go part of the way by ship. Dangerous but beautiful, it has grown around a titanic magical sphere, built by the Ancients. And the third is Azimut Tower. You have heard of it, I think?”
“It used to house The Council of Eight, but I heard it is now completely abandoned.”
“The warlocks left Azimut Tower a century ago, it is true. The fungal infestation was too difficult to deal with, apparently. But parts of the building should still stand.”
“The tower and Copperton are a long way away, and I travel on foot. How would we get to these far off places?”
“Patience, my friend,” Bule’Sai smiled mysteriously.
The bell broke through the surface. Flying lizards screeched, the waters washed down from the bell, and Shantor was happy to breathe fresh air again.
They left the upper diving bell station and walked along the pier towards dry land. Parts of Sinkerton existed above the surface, and this is where warehouses, stables, and foreigners’ quarters were. Bule’Sai took them to the most expensive looking stable, presented his identification to the korallian attendant, and proceeded to a private stall.
There Shantor witnessed the strangest vehicle she had ever seen. It was a lavishly decorated covered wagon with mechanical wings neatly folded on the roof.
“Meet Birdie,” the old man said.
The dry korallian workers, or smacks, as Bule’Sai called them, were already hitching a big hairy togrel to the winged wagon.
They placed their bags into Birdie, and climbed up onto the driver’s bench, where Bule’Sai handed the reins to Shantor. The smacks opened the stall doors, revealing the coastal roads leading away from Sinkerton.
“Where to?” asked Shantor.
“You tell me,” replied Bule’Sai.

5. The Road to the Azimut Tower

The surface parts of Sinkerton are a busy meeting point of shipping routes, overland and underwater traffic, and the airship route to the north. Carts, wagons, ships, boats, rickshaws, diving bells, and ophira butterflies carrying messages are constantly coming and going, especially in the harbor area.
Shantor Three-Birds drove Bule’Sai’s wagon, Birdie, to the floating airship station which looked like a leaf bobbing on water. There they purchased a ticket to Starhaven, the capital of the Republic of Benem. Bule’Sai haggled with the Amethyst Order clerk and managed to get a reduced price, but would not reveal to Shantor whether he had used the magic powers of a Keeper or simply his famous powers of negotiation.
Almost all of the recently developed agura-powered airships, big and small, were traveling the same route, which was good enough for them. From Starhaven they would take the monorail east, and then follow the road to the far reaches of Durgane Province where they would try to find Azimut Tower.
The airship was large enough for cargo. Amongst all the crates of fresh fish, mussels, dried fish, and tentacles, there was room for Birdie and the togrel that drew it. Feeding the togrel on the cargo deck, Shantor recognized Mixxo, the basalt agurian she had met in the hotel in Sinkerton. He was now wearing a cape of silk.
“May you be remembered,” Mixxo said by way of greeting.
“Sun be ever warm for you,” she replied. “May I ask what you’re transporting?”
“I have several rolls of the finest quothian silk. I sold some of them in Sinkerton, and am taking these to Waneford.”
“Usually it is quothians who sell their silk,” Shantor smiled.
“This is true,” agreed the agurian, “but I find myself inexplicably drawn to the soft, exquisite fabric.”
“They are fine, indeed,” Shantor agreed, and bid the stone man farewell.
She spent most of the journey with Bule’Sai, looking down on the putrid Tarmyre marshland and the tall mountains of the Sigodrin Peaks. At dusk they approached the Strait of Garth separating the Korallian Sea to the east from the Sea of Shimmers to the west. On both sides of the channel spread Starhaven, capital of the Republic of Benem.
Most of the passengers were either korallians or Benemite nihteegri with their long tails and sharp fangs, looking up at the sky instead of down at the land. Some of them wore emblems of noble houses, cosmographers’ robes, or the purple-and-gray uniform of the Amethyst Order. For the nihteegri this was a ride home.
“Next stop Starhaven,” bellowed a voice from the speaking horns as the Amethyst Order airship began its descent towards the multi-layered sprawling Benemite city built atop of the ruins of an even older city of the Ancients. “Transfer here for the ships or the Bluefire. Stay onboard if you’re continuing on to Ambergate or Mossport.”
As Bule’Sai left for the station, Shantor helped the togrel draw Birdie out of the cargo deck. She mentioned to the agurian that since they were going in the same direction, they might as well travel together, and he could use the wagon to carry his silks.
“I thank you, Shantor Three-Birds, and gladly accept,” said Mixxo, bowing rigidly. They hauled the rolls of silk onto Birdie, and guided the togrel out of the airship.
The station was a multi-storied building close to the Celestial Bridge which united two continents. It was full of travelers of all peoples, from pattangan porters to korallian pirates, from nihteegri prostitutes to quothian cutpurses. There was even an ignisaur soldier wearing the colors of some Benemite house, but Shantor thought it best to avoid the gaze of her countrymen.
They were currently on the roof of the building, and had to descend several stories to catch the Bluefire.
Just then a cry rang out, “There he is! Stop the thief!” Suddenly Benemite guards were running towards Mixxo. They were followed by a tattooed pattangan who held knives in two of his hands and a drawn hunting bow with the other two.
“What is wrong, Suamahes?” asked Mixxo, “I thought we were partners.”
“As did I, Mixxo, as did I,” replied the pattangan with a snarl. “But I have now seen into your very soul and I know your stone heart is rotten and your rocky liver is full of deceit.”
“Hang on, I’m sure we can sort this out,” Shantor said, half to Mixxo and Suamahes, and half to the guards who were closing in on them.
“Shantor! Look who I found!” It was Bule’Sai, approaching them with a quothian crone, her feathers molting, her beak worn and scratched. “It’s my old friend Ahkka from when I was first trained.”
The old quothian did not greet them, but instead cawed, “Suamahes! Where is my silk? Apprehend that man!”
“Now hold on just a minute, it’s my silk,” said Mixxo. “Who on Agemonia are you?”
“I’m the one who made the silk,” replied Ahkka.
“It’s my silk!” yelled the pattangan.
“By Heaven All-Seeing,” said one of the guards. “We will not name this star. Please, tell us who is the rightful owner of the silk, lest we arrest the lot of you.”
“Perhaps I could pay a fine and we could continue on our way,” said Bule’Sai slyly.
“Mister, you are a foreigner, but I trust you would not try to bribe an officer of the Republic.”
“Of course not,” Bule’Sai retreated.
“Alright,” said Shantor to the old quothian. “Tell me. Why should the silk be yours?”
The crone looked at her with large eyes the color of clouds. “The silk was made in Heartwood by my offspring, and I was to transport it to Waneford. I don’t trust those Amethyst Order caravans. On my way there this man,” she pointed at Suahames the pattangan, “ambushed us, killed my guards, and stole the silk.”
“Now you,” Shantor turned to Suamahes. “Talk.”
“I understand we pattangans are often overlooked in Benem and Heartwood since they only see the poorest among us, but I represent my clan and have purchased this silk legally.” He then put one knife away and showed documents which looked authentic enough to Shantor. “My people are taken advantage of by the Amethyst Order, so I must do what I can to help them. Today, I’m in the fabric trade. If there’s buyers in Waneford, I guess I should take the silk there.”
“And you, Mixxo?”
“I purchased the silk from Suamahes before coming to Sinkerton,” said the agurian.
“They were not his to sell!” exclaimed the old quothian, but Shantor shushed her silent.
“Nevertheless, I did so in good faith. I paid a low price, yes, but that is hardly my fault. I sold some of them in Sinkerton, and am willing to share part of my profits with you both, but will not part with the rest of the silk.”
All of the stories sounded credible enough, but since Shantor would be sharing her journey with the owner of the silk, she could not help but ponder who would be the most interesting traveling companion.

6. The Fungal Forest

“You will regret this, ignisaur,” hissed Suamahes the pattangan. He dared not attack Shantor right there, perhaps because the Benemite guards were still present. “Wherever you go, I will be there, lurking in the shadows, waiting for a chance to take payment for what was taken from me.” Then he made some four-handed gestures none of the others recognized, and ran off.
The tall black stone creature bowed. “I accept your decision, Shantor Three-Birds, faulty as it is, and will return to the Lightbearers. But I will keep this robe, for I admire the way in which it glimmers in the sun.”
“The robe’s mine, but take it,” croaked Ahkka, clearly happy at the outcome. Shantor had judged her as the owner of the silk, and would share her journey with the old quothian.
Ahkka and Bule’Sai walked along as Shantor led the togrel and Birdie to the Bluefire station. The monorail ran from west to east through much of Southern Benem. It was built by the Ancients long ago, with technology long since forgotten.
Shantor took the beast and the wagon to the stock car, and then joined her aged companions in first class. Soon the Bluefire was speeding past fields, rivers, and small forests, marked here and there by the poisonous mauve fungus that was polluting Agemonia.
“I have done much business with the Wrathclaws in Waneford,” said Ahkka to them both. “They’re the Benemite house that rules that part of the Republic. Like us quothians, they understand the women must rule, and magic should not be taught to men.” With that she sneaked a mischievous look at Bule’Sai. “So beware, old friend.”
Bule’Sai smiled complacently. “Oh, I’m not afraid. You larva peoples have never been able to concentrate on the true goal of us being here on Agemonia, the pursuit of prosperity.”
They kept exchanging good-natured banter, happy to recollect old times.
The Bluefire stopped at Waneford where they got out before the monorail continued to its final destination in Fort Reezil.
The town was surrounded by the fungi, gardeners clearing them away in the outskirts before they could bloom. The circular center plaza was dominated by the biggest agura crystal Shantor had ever seen, growing from the ground like a statue of some dead general. It pulsated with an azure light and was carved full of age-old runes.
“How do they sleep at night?” Shantor wondered out loud.
“Poorly,” replied Ahkka. “But if you get accustomed to the light, it will make you stronger. Or so the locals say.”
Shantor and Bule’Sai helped Ahkka conduct her silk trade, and at lunch she agreed to continue with them to Azimut Tower.
Shantor was getting the togrel ready when Ahkka clumsily climbed onto the driver’s bench.
“What do you call the togrel?” she asked Bule’Sai.
“It’s a beast of burden,” the old korallian replied. “Should it have a name?”
“All creatures should have names,” Ahkka said in return. “Except men, of course.”
“Of course.”
They drove out of town towards the east, on a path surrounded by fungi and forest, but mostly fungi. The small mushrooms were purple and the size of Shantor’s head while the big ones were taller than houses, glowing, and ready to burst with spores.
Near Waneford there were gardeners clearing the roads, and guards protecting them from the dangers of the forest, but as they drove further, there were fewer and fewer of them, and more and more of the mushrooms.
As they had made camp for the night and Bule’Sai was preparing supper by the campfire, Shantor’s small chest of relocation started vibrating. She opened the magical box to find another letter from her mother Dravesh. She read the letter, crumpled it up, and threw it into the fire.
“What was that all about, girl?” asked the old quothian.
“Nothing. Just a letter from Kruesol, that’s all.”
“You will not answer it?”
“I have had that conversation too many times already.” She hesitated, weighing in her mind how much Ahkka knew about the Keepers. But as Bule’Sai’s old friend, she probably knew something. “My mother never approved of me becoming a Keeper of the Breach. She wanted me to follow in the family business. She never believed demons would return to Agemonia.”
“She might have been mistaken, but the bond between mother and daughter is the most sacred there is. She is a direct line to your grandmothers, from whom you inherit your very soul.”
Shantor did not share the quothians beliefs and only shrugged, staring into the flames.
“What will happen to the business?” interjected Bule’Sai.
“I don’t know. It might go to ruin, but Agemonia will be saved.”
“You’re throwing money away!”
“You korallians don’t even have families,” Shantor quipped.
“No, but we recognize a good business opportunity when we see one.”
Ahkka changed the topic to other matters, telling stories of the Wrathclaw witches and how they harvest the mushrooms for blood crystal. This sounded like demon worship to the Keepers, but she convinced them she knew demonology and this was not it.
The forest was crawling with ustrig, skitterers, and creatures even more hideous, but the protective magics of the three of them were enough to give them a peaceful night’s rest in their tents.
At dawn Shantor brushed the togrel, harnessed it again, and they were ready to continue. The fungal forest was now very hard to penetrate, and many a time Shantor had to burn the mushrooms with magical fire to be able to pass.
After a few hours they could see the roof of Azimut Tower beyond a wall of mushroom and mycelium, breathing pungent-smelling spore clouds.
“The tower was built by the Council of Eight centuries ago, but abandoned ten years back because of the fungi,” said Bule’Sai. “Underneath it is an older complex built by the Ancients which is where we are headed. That is where we will find the Orb of Power.”
“And how will we get there?” asked Ahkka.
“There is a mechanism here that can open the gate. Somewhere.”
To even find the gate they had to spend many hours clearing the fungal growths with every magical means they could come up with. Sometimes an axe and a shovel were still the most useful.
Occasionally they could see a fire-breathing ustrig snail in the distance, slowly circling around them. It made the togrel nervous, but they were too far away to be of any real danger.
“Here!” said Shantor finally. She had uncovered an old gate of white marble that would lead them to the tower. “But I cannot see the machinery. It’s a magicanism?”
“Of course. It is inside the gate,” said Bule’Sai. “But the yard is likely filled with ustrig, as well. We must somehow get the command to the device inside.”
“I will go,” said Shantor.
“Ustrig are no picnic, even for one of our skills. I cannot heal the wounds they might inflict. We can levitate your chest of relocation there, and fix it to send the magic word.”
“You foolish man,” said Ahkka angrily. “That would destroy the box and her only way of contacting her family! I will go. I still have a few tricks up my feathers.”
“No offense, you old crone, but I would not wish to see you die.”
The togrel yowled in fear, and Shantor realized the ustrig of the forest had gotten closer. They did not have much time.

7. The Orb of Power

An enormous ustrig snail blew fire towards Bule’Sai’s togrel. Shantor ran to release the poor creature from its harness. She was not afraid of fire.
Meanwhile, Bule’Sai fiddled with Shantor’s chest of relocation for a while, adding some sort of psionic fingerprint to it.
“There,” he said, the contraption now sparkling with magic. “I have created a magicanism that can operate the other magicanism inside. Let’s just hope it has enough power.”
He threw it over the white stone gate, but nothing happened.
“You broke it,” Ahkka croaked.
“No, it is working,” Bule’Sai said, unconvincingly. “Give it time.”
“We don’t have time,” Shantor yelled.
Several more ustrig had appeared, crawling towards Birdie, the togrel, and them. Neither Shantor nor Bule’Sai had ever dealt with them before, but fortunately Ahkka knew what to do.
“Shantor Three-Birds, do you see that little spring? Take the togrel there. And you, Old Fishy, prepare to do your thing.”
Not having any better ideas, Shantor did as suggested, calming the togrel as best she could. The puddle of bog water did not seem particularly safe from the ustrig. The snails were approaching, their rancid fire close enough to singe the togrel’s fur. Shantor prepared to fight them with her own fire.
“Bule’Sai, do the thing!” ordered Ahkka.
“What thing?” he asked, confused.
“The water thing.”
“Oh, that thing!”
Bule’Sai pointed his webbed fingers towards the spring, and the water started bubbling and spurting. Suddenly it was gushing out like a geyser, flowing in all directions.
As the water hit the ustrig, their fire died out, and they screamed silently. Soon a nasty smell filled the air.
“The water burns them,” Shantor realized.
“Of course,” Ahkka said.
“And you knew hydromancy comes easy to korallians.”
“As does pyromancy to you ignisaurs.”
“What about your people?” Shantor asked Ahkka, leading the togrel towards the gate. “Do you quothians have a -mancy you prefer?”
Ahkka looked at Shantor mysteriously. “It is not wise to ask questions if one is not prepared for the answers.”
Just then there was an audible click, a whir, and a sizzle from behind the walls, and then the low rumble of the stone gate opening.
“It worked!” Shantor said surprised.
“Of course it did,” Bule’Sai replied.
They walked into the yard surrounding the Tower of Azimut and saw the charred magic chest on the ground, smoking.
“You will never see another letter from home,” remarked Ahkka.
“Good,” said Shantor.
Bule’Sai spoke a passphrase to the tower door, which swung open and let them in. A cloud of spores burst out. After the air cleared, they saw the corridors were completely infested by the fungi.
They left the togrel outside in relative safety and entered the tower. The air was so heavy with spores that little blood colored speckles stuck to their skin and cut them like knives. Full of small painful cuts, they burned and hacked their way in through the fungus, penetrating deeper into the corridors that had once housed the Council of Eight.
“Once upon a time the Council of Eight controlled most of the trade in Agemonia,” said Bule’Sai, “much like the Amethyst Order does now.”
“They are still a revered order of warlocks,” added Ahkka. “Custodians of wisdom otherwise long forgotten, their libraries full of secrets from the time of the Grandmothers.”
“So this tower was a library and a trading post?” asked Shantor. “A strange location for a marketplace.”
“No,” admitted Bule’Sai, pulling open a small door almost entirely covered in mycelium. “The Azimut Tower serves another purpose. They built it here not out of business interests, but to study and protect that which lies underneath.”
“The complex you mentioned? What is it?”
The old korallian did not reply. Instead, he stepped into a small room and pointed downward.
Shantor and Ahkka followed him. Bule’Sai took an agura crystal from the folds of his robes and placed it in an opening in the wall. The door closed behind them, and the room started to fall. It fell slowly, as if controlled by some hidden magicanism, but the queasy sensation in Shantor’s belly was disquieting. Soon the fall stopped and the doors opened.
Shantor saw a marble hallway in a completely different architectural style than the rest of the building. It reminded her of the Bluefire or some of the buildings in Sinkerton built by the Ancients. The fungi were nowhere to be seen, and the air was breathable although musty.
“I sense we are not wanted here,” hissed Ahkka.
“Nonsense,” replied Bule’Sai. “We are expected. Most of us, at any rate.”
Shantor felt welcome, like arriving home after having been gone a long time. Or, in her case, completely unlike arriving at home. But there was a warmness here, and a pleasant spirit that seemed to fill the hall.
There were several doorways along the marbled hall leading to corridors or to other rooms. They followed Bule’Sai into one of the rooms and then down a twisting corridor into a maze-like construction. Eventually they reached a door with a pedestal next to it. There was no handle or lock on the door.
Bule’Sai took the runic plate they had rescued from the demons and placed it on the pedestal. The runes lit up, commanding an unseen magicanism to open the door. Before them was a large hemispherical chamber.
“Behold the Vault of the Ancients!” proclaimed Bule’Sai.
“I don’t like it,” Ahkka said. “I will remain here.”
The two Keepers of the Breach moved on. On the far side of the room was a giant stone head, perhaps depicting an agurian. In the center was a round altar on which lay a magical sphere. Purple, blue, and pink smoky shapes swirled within the sphere. It was the Orb of Power that they were seeking!
As Bule’Sai and Shantor approached the orb, a blue light appeared in the eyes of the stone head and its mouth opened.
Its voice boomed in the chamber. “The fate of the world lies in your hands. Aox has taken the Breach as its own, and would do the same to Agemonia. Your path is far from easy. Betrayal, death, demons, and worse lie ahead. Should you fail to carry the light into darkness, you must find others to take your place. So many lights have already been extinguished. Take the Orb, seal off Aox, and purify the Breach.
“The voice of aiun,” Shantor whispered. She had encountered a stone head like this only once before, during her training.
“Quick, grab the Orb,” Bule’Sai replied.
As Shantor touched the Orb, she heard the voice echo in her head.
“You have come. What boon would you ask for?”
Swirling around her she sensed the possibility to gain the power to heal wounds, the power to channel aiun energy into an attack, and an ethereal power to make friends and allies. Which one would be of most use?

8. The Keepers United

Sitting on the Bluefire, Shantor Three-Birds kept the Orb of Power in her hands, hidden by a scarf, thinking of all that had happened. Aiun had spoken to her, given her the Orb, and blessed her with a permanent magical tattoo on her palm that would help her make new friends.
After that, exiting the tower and escaping the cursed forest had been like a dream. They had boarded the monorail and were now on their way west to meet with the other Keepers of the Breach. This was the first such meeting in Shantor’s time, and even Bule’Sai only had faint memories of the previous one.
After Waneford and Starhaven, the Bluefire stopped at Orrery Hill, a town built around a great observatory. The train went right through a tunnel in the hill, and then turned southwest towards its final destination at Strongmaw Fortress on the coast.
They got off the monorail and again harnessed the togrel to Birdie, the winged wagon. They drove the whole day south following the rocky coastline. Bule’Sai said the wagon could fly, but that he did not want to waste his one remaining agura crystal.
Bule’Sai and Ahkka kept dozing off after all the excitement, so Shantor held the reins. As the sun was setting over the sea on her right, she saw their destination: a grand bastion of Ancient architecture levitating over the rocks. It was like a flying castle and radiated a beneficent energy. This was a good place.
On the ground around the flying watchtower was a large camp with tents, animals, and peoples of various kinds. Some were huddled over fires, others were fishing or engaged in intense conversation. These must be the Keepers of the Breach and their retinue. A ship was anchored in the sea nearby.
She found a clearing for Birdie and a meadow for the togrel. A nihteegri shepherd boy was already watching over a couple of togrel steeds and agreed to watch over this one as well. There was also a large, saddled pterosaur flying over the meadow.
When they arrived at the tent village, the three of them got themselves something to eat from a young quothian girl.
“Who are you, girl?” asked Ahkka suspiciously.
“I am here with my great-grandmother,” she said, as if this explained everything. Ahkka nodded as if it did.
“And where is she?”
The girl, not yet fully grown, pointed at an old quothian, closer to the watchtower. Ahkka eyed her suspiciously. The great-grandmother noticed them and started approaching.
“She is a renegade, a traitor to Heartwood,” whispered Ahkka to Shantor.
“Ula,” yelled Bule’Sai suddenly, and waved at the strange quothian. She waved back, calling Bule’Sai by his name.
“How many old quothian women do you know?” Shantor asked bemused.
“Not nearly enough,” replied Bule’Sai as he went to greet Ula, whom he introduced as a quothian Keeper of the Breach. The girl was her apprentice.
“This is a fine business for foreigners, but you should know better,” Ahkka said to Ula. It was hard to tell which one was older.
“You have no business here,” Ula replied to Ahkka, equally displeased at seeing her. “This meeting is for Keepers of the Breach only.”
“Perhaps she is my apprentice,” Bule’Sai said.
“She is not korallian.”
“She isn’t?” Bule’Sai feigned surprise. “My mistake, must be Shantor’s, then.”
“Prospective apprentice,” Shantor said, apologetically.
The five of them walked towards the watchtower entrance. An entryway of sorts had been built out of large rocks and wooden beams that ended in a bridge leading to the lowest level of the fortress.
The bridge wobbled a bit, but once they were inside the watchtower, everything felt steady and solid. The architecture of the Ancients was smooth and elegant, much like in the vault beneath Azimut Tower.
After several corridors, staircases and hallways, they arrived at a large hall in the center of the fortress. There was a strange, faint feeling emanating from the Orb in her hands, but Shantor could not quite figure out what it was.
Standing in front of them were two tall boryot, with sharp antlers and teeth, their strong muscles not really concealed by their grizzled brown fur. Both were armored and armed, and looked at them with contempt, their many tattoos glowing with a faint azure light.
“Ignisaurs and korallians,” the older man growled.
“Stand aside,” said Bule’Sai, “we have just as much cause to be here, as you do.”
The boryot Keeper and his apprentice let them pass, but kept glaring at them the whole time. Most boryot had ideological differences with korallians, but that could perhaps have been overlooked. That Shantor’s compatriots had conquered, destroyed and subjugated much of their lands, could not.
Most of the other Keepers of the Breach were already present, all dressed in the traditional white-and-gold and wearing a blue cape. There was a small bug-eyed philosopher carrying another Orb of Power and sitting on the shoulders of a huge arcane golem, clearly Nnin the Enigmatic. A beautiful pattangan lady immediately came over to greet Ula. Standing in the corner, immobile as a statue, was an agurian completely covered in runic carvings. And there was an eager young nihteegri maiden who was introduced as Amon Pennark’s apprentice.
The whole chamber was filled with excited chatter, as the Keepers exchanged news from their homelands and talked about the spreading fungal infestation and cataclysms. Some had known Shantor’s predecessor, and were saddened to learn she had passed away a decade earlier.
The pattangan Keeper unashamedly flirted with Shantor. She even asked her to join her in the pattangan city of Ban’Daryan Hebath after the gathering.
Meanwhile, the boryot avoided contact with either her or Bule’Sai.
Bule’Sai told Shantor the agurian was one of the founding members of the Keepers, never dying nor aging, just gathering more runes. As such, he had no need for an apprentice, either. He kept saying the citizens of Lok Turan must be told about whatever is decided here.
Finally, the chatter ended as Amon Pennark arrived. He was a nihteegri Keeper, an older nobleman with a beautiful mane of yellow hair, a silky tail, and warm eyes. He shook hands and exchanged jokes, as he approached a podium at the center of the chamber.
“My fellow Keepers of the Breach,” he said with a melodic voice, “for centuries, our order has remained hidden in the shadows, its secrets passed on from teacher to apprentice. We have been waiting for the moment to gather the Orbs of Power and light the beacons around Agemonia. With Aox disturbing the Breach, that hour is now upon us.”
There was an excited murmur, but Shantor felt her orb radiate a desperate warning. The Aox was already here, among them. Amon Pennark must be warned! And Bule’Sai! And Ula! She looked around her. What if one of the Keepers or their companions was the danger? Could there be an impostor? Her eyes turned towards the boryot keeper who was focused on Amon Pennark. Could he be a traitor?
Speeches were made and a vote was held, but it all flew by Shantor as the sense of alarm grew stronger and stronger. The Keepers decided the watchtower’s beacon would be lit. Shantor, Nnin the Enigmatic, and Amon himself had brought an Orb of Power, and they would walk with the others to the roof of the watchtower where the beacon stood.
As they ascended the long and winding stairs, the Orb was almost screaming. Something evil was about to happen any moment. Did Nnin and Amon Pennark feel it too? It was impossible to tell.
Then she realized something: Ahkka had not been able to approach the vault in Azimut Tower, but seemed to have no trouble now. That, if anything, was worrisome.
She whispered to Bule’Sai who nodded and promised to immediately speak to Amon Pennark.
But would that be enough? Who else could she count on if things went bad? The agurian as old as time was one of the original Keepers so he could not be deceitful. The beautiful pattangan and the old quothian also seemed very trustworthy. The boryot did not, but perhaps she could use her boon to convince him to assist her. Who should she trust?

9. The Ceremony at the Watchtower

As the Keepers ascended to the roof of the watchtower, Shantor Three-Birds whispered a warning into Ahkka’s ear.
The old quothian witch nodded. “I have sensed it too, something demonic. Is that supposed to be a part of this?”
“Most certainly not,” Shantor replied, “you better hang back.”
Shantor herself did not have that option. Instead she chose to walk close to Arax, the old agurian Keeper.
They reached the windswept top of the watchtower, a square-shaped yard decorated with meticulous stone mosaics. Shantor could smell the brisk sea air and see the pterosaur in flight. The sky was near dark and the moons were rising.
In the center of the roof was a circular dais, which the Keepers called the beacon or the portal. Its perimeter was divided symmetrically in three by pedestals, each with a spherical opening; the three receptacles for the Orbs of Power.
The eight Keepers of the Breach walked solemnly around the dais, each selecting their spot. In the place of honor stood Amon Pennark, who had convened the assembly.
The voice inside Shantor’s head was now crying in alarm, clearly emanating from the Orb she held in her claws. She realized that time was of the essence. They must activate the beacon before it is too late. She looked around her, but saw nothing suspicious anywhere on the roof. Nothing, that is, if the other Keepers were to be trusted.
She carefully chose her spot so that she could get help from Arax if need be. The large stone man was a comforting presence. Bule’Sai stood opposite her, next to Amon Pennark. Those Keepers that had apprentices had their student stand behind them. Ahkka remained by the staircase.
“The time has come,” declared Amon Pennark, seemingly unworried. He gestured toward Nnin the Enigmatic.
The xi-noq levitated forward, Orb of Power in hand. Nnin approached the receptacle, and held the green Orb in its hands. “Behold,” Nnin squeaked, “Nnin holds the Orb of Ferox.” The elements of life and nature seemed reflected in the Orb’s swirling surface as Nnin placed it in the receptacle. Green mist seemed to grab hold of the Orb and attach it firmly in place. Then a metallic hemisphere slid in place, covering the Orb entirely. The entire pedestal started to glow.
Then it was Shantor’s turn. She walked shakily to the receptacle, absolutely certain someone would attack her before she had a chance to place the Orb.
“Behold the orb of Agur,” she said, and put the azure Orb in the receptacle. As soon as the metal cover had turned to shield it, the feeling of alarm subsided.
Perhaps there was no reason to be worried, she thought as she returned to her place. Now it was just Amon and the white Orb of Aiun.
Amon Pennark approached the receptacle, his blonde mane flowing in the wind. His Orb was covered with a cloth. He held it up high with one hand, ready to tear the cloth off with the other.
His face was nervous and his eyes gleamed, as he spoke with a clear voice, “Behold! The Orb of Aox!”
He revealed a crimson orb full of malicious energy, and a ruby mist reached out for it from the receptacle.
“No!” cried Shantor.
“What are you doing?” asked Bule’Sai, and lunged toward Amon Pennark, who directed the Aox energy from the orb against the korallian Keeper. Bule’Sai let out a sad whimper as he grasped at his gills. Then he collapsed on the ground, dead, a look of agony on his face.
Shantor tried to move, but realized a great unseen power was holding her still. She could only watch as Amon Pennark placed the red orb in the receptacle. This did not light the beacon, but instead opened a portal to the Breach. The Breach they were supposed to keep in place, to keep isolated, they had instead invited into Agemonia!
The sea wind was mixed with another, a howling storm from the Breach. The portal was open, and demonic creatures stepped through as though they had been waiting on the other side. Two smaller demons appeared and made way for a much larger and more dangerous one, a lusar demon as powerful as several Keepers
Amon Pennark tried to command the lusar, but Shantor could not hear the words. She saw the crimson energy from the portal surround Amon and the lusar, tying them together and then destroying them in a grotesque and gruesome display. Their death released a powerful continuous wave of magical radiation, enough to kill almost anyone. It even reached the birds flying high in the sky above and they fell, dead.
With Amon Pennark gone, the magic holding the Keepers in place was also released. Arax was the first to move, taking a few slow steps to shield Shantor from the radiation storm. Next was the boryot Keeper, taking his long pike and impaling one of the smaller demons with deadly force.
The second smaller demon snatched up the quothian apprentice and stabbed her with its spiky tail. Her great-grandmother, Ula, had not acted in time to protect her, but now her eyes started to shine with a bright light which burnt the demon.
More demons, big and small, poured in through the portal. Shantor could now move too, and saw Ahkka escape down the stairs, as did Amon Pennark’s apprentice.
The pattangan Keeper was armed with four painted cutlasses, which she used with incredible speed and accuracy. The way she ran, jumped, cut, pierced, and hit, it was almost like watching an elaborate dance. Her demonic dancing partners all fell dead on the floor.
Nnin the Enigmatic floated towards several demons, lifted them in the air with its magic, and levitated them straight off the edge of the watchtower. Nnin’s hulking golem bashed demons left and right with its bare fists.
Meanwhile, Shantor now realized that the watchtower was moving, floating away from the shore for the first time in centuries. Arax spoke to the stone in the floor, calling spikes to pierce some of the demons, and snaring the feet of others so they could not move.
The Keepers were powerful, but more and more demons kept coming, and with them, blood crystal, fungal spores, and twisted creatures straight from feverish nightmares.
In the melee, a stealthy demon crept up behind the pattangan, about to deliver a killing blow. Ula saved her by destroying the demon with her beam of light, only to be killed herself by the sharp fangs of another demon.
Meanwhile a demonic centipede jumped at Nnin and caught the xi-noq in mid-air, crushing the small Keeper under its heavy body.
A large demon cleaved the boryot apprentice in half with its razor-sharp claw. The boryot Keeper roared in anger, and threw his pike at the demon, sending it back several feet. The boryot knelt down upon the apprentice, holding him in his hands as he died. With tears in his eyes, the huge, hairy Keeper set his gaze upon Amon Pennark’s mutated corpse, and ran at it screaming. The radiation ripped him to shreds before he was even close.
“Come,” said Arax to Shantor. “We must go.”
“Are you crazy? I’m not leaving them!” Shantor said, determined to stand with the other Keepers.
She stopped the approaching demons with a wall of light, protecting the few Keepers who still lived.
“You must,” Arax replied. He stood still, singing so low that Shantor could feel her skull vibrate. The floor beneath them turned to fine sand, and they fell through it into a small chamber. The battle raged on above them.
“The fight is lost. The Keepers are dying.”
“Then I will die with them,” Shantor said with uncharacteristic bravado.
“No,” Arax said calmly, his voice deep as a mountain chasm. “The memory of the Keepers does not die today. I will not allow it. We must remember. And we must teach. That is the way of the Keepers of the Breach.” The mantra was something Shantor had heard many times during her training.
The ceiling closed in above them, and it was suddenly very calm.
“Among all the peoples there are individuals who have heard our calling, though they do not yet know it. A pattangan, a quothian, an ignisaur, and others. They will be led by an agurian. I have seen it. We must find them. We must teach them.”
Shantor knew he was right, and forced herself to obey.
They left the room, and Arax led her through the twisting corridors into the central hall. From there they could take the stairs down to the exit.
Dozens of demons were already crawling and flying in through the hall’s windows.
“Take this,” Arax said, and pulled an agura crystal from his back. “Now go. I will stop them.”
“They’re too many!” Shantor protested.
“Go. I will stop them.”
Shantor ran to the stairs with the crystal, and turned to look behind her. She had seen the ancient geomancer mold the stone of the watchtower, but this she had not expected. He molded his own stone flesh, turning into a giant wall of stone that pushed the demons against the opposite wall and crushed them. Then the wall crumbled, and it felt like time itself had died with him.
His sacrifice would not be in vain, she swore. Nor that of Bule’Sai and the others. She would protect the wisdom of the Keepers.
She ran down the stairs and found Ahkka by the entrance, an empty doorway leading into a long drop into the sea, which flew rapidly by.
“You fools!” Ahkka croaked. “Dark is the fate of all who bargain with demons!”
Two small demons approached them, their pincers clacking. Ahkka turned at them, closed her eyes, and made a gesture in the air. Suddenly one demon attacked the other, and they wrestled and slashed at each other until both bled to death.
“Never summon a demon lest you can’t control it.”
Shantor nodded, and looked out of the door.
“We have to jump into the sea,” she said.
“After you,” replied Ahkka.
Before she could jump, a flying demon with piercing eyes filled the doorway. Its body was covered in shards of blood crystal, and before they could react, it shot several shards at them.
Ahkka was hit by one of them. It cut through her feathers, and stuck in her chest. It did not kill her, but Shantor could sense the damage to the crone’s soul.
This demon was the last obstacle
“I’m not sure if I can deal with this one,” Ahkka whispered , the strain in her voice clear.

10. Escape from the Watchtower

“I will take care of this,” said Shantor, stepping in front of Ahkka.
The demon’s body seemed to grow blood crystal like agurians grew agura crystal. It had already shot one at Ahkka, and was clearly ready to deal out more pain.
Shantor began projecting a ray of light from her claw, past the demon, and out the open doorway. The continuous beam then grew vertically, forming itself into an impenetrable wall to separate the two of them from the demon.
Before the wall was high enough, the demon managed to shoot another crystal, this time hitting Shantor’s shoulder. It was not sharp enough to rip through her like an arrow, but it was infused with Aox power. Shantor knew that this malevolent energy could permanently harm a person’s spirit.
No time to think about that now. She ripped out the blood crystal, and threw it to the ground.
Protected by the wall of light, Shantor ran to the doorway and looked down. They had gained altitude, and were much higher up than she had anticipated. With both of them already wounded, they would not survive the fall.
Ahkka crawled to the doorway, clearly in pain.
“Get ready,” she croaked to Shantor. The old quothian concentrated and pointed her feathered hand at the demon corpses in the hallway. Suddenly one of the winged demons sprung back into a state resembling life and walked clumsily towards the doorway.
The reanimated demon jumped up and grabbed Ahkka with the talons on its right claw, and Shantor with the left. The sharp nails pressed into Shantor’s scaly skin, near where the blood crystal had impaled her. She yelled in pain.
The undead demon lunged straight out of the doorway. They fell for a few terrifying seconds, before the creature spread its leathery wings.
Shantor was sure she would pass out from the pain, but managed to concentrate enough to grab hold of the demon’s leg with her own claws, easing the pressure on the wound.
The monster glided over the dark sea, the moons shining over the horizon. Every now and then the demon laboriously flapped its wings, buying them a little altitude, but overall they were in slow descent.
“We’re being pursued,” Ahkka said.
Shantor turned around, but could not see anything in the darkness. Even the floating watchtower was just a silhouette against the stars.
“I can’t see in the dark,” she said.
“More winged demons,” the old witch breathed.
“Can’t you deal with them?”
“And let go of this one?” she pointed at the lumin that carried them.
“Good point.”
Shantor was no battle sorcerer, either. Perhaps she would think of something when they got closer. Or perhaps they would kill her as they had all the other Keepers. She could vaguely hear their shrieks now. Several lumins, probably, and the big one with the crystals.
She tried conjuring another wall of light to protect them, but in the air it was all too easy for the demons to evade it. It did illuminate the demons for a brief moment, making her realize they were about to be torn to pieces.
The demons were close enough to smell now, trying to claw or cut or bite Shantor and Ahkka, or their courier. Shantor wondered if she could survive the fall, but Ahkka certainly would not. Was this the end?
Just then something attacked the largest demon in mid-air. She heard an animal cry and the sounds of brutal fighting and felt the demons’ pain. What had happened?
“It was the pterosaur,” Ahkka explained. “The pattangan Keeper’s mount. Looks like it defeated the demons and is now flying towards the watchtower.”
“Really? Do you think the pattangan is still alive to call it?”
“Grandmothers only know. But if she is as strong as her mount, I’d say she has a chance.”
Shantor could see campfires on the horizon, probably the beach near where they left Birdie and the togrel. They continued their slow descent until they finally let go of the deceased demon a few feet above the sea.
“All trips with Bule’Sai end up in water,” Ahkka said wistfully, gasping for air.
Shantor created a bubble to help Ahkka swim, and with her last strength started for the shore.
“If I die, take word to my daughter in Marrowdeep,” Ahkka said.
They were dragged ashore by the entourages of the other Keepers. They drank warm healing tea, and dried their clothes by a fire. It was hard telling everyone what had happened, but they had already grown suspicious once the watchtower had floated away and Amon Pennark’s ship had refused to take anyone else onboard when it hoisted sails.
As people were starting to retire for the night, Ahkka’s eyes spotted something in the sky.
“More demons!” she cried out. “Flying our way.”
None of the others could see in the dark, but some, like Shantor, had magical ways of confirming Ahkka’s observation. A panicked flight began, with tents being struck or abandoned, and riders mounting their steeds.
Shantor harnessed Bule’Sai’s togrel while Ahkka climbed on Birdie. The young keeper would have stayed behind to help the others escape, but she knew the demons were coming for her. She had to get out of there to protect everyone else. She drove Birdie northwards as fast as she could.
Meanwhile, Ahkka explained what was happening in the darkness. A few of the winged lumin demons had attacked the camp, but most were coming after them.
Shantor tried to make the togrel go faster, but even at its top speed on the bumpy road, it would be no match for flying demons. She pulled in the reins, preparing to make one final, brave stand against the onrushing fiends.
“What are you doing?” asked Ahkka, surprised.
“I will die fighting.”
“Don’t be a fool, girl. Are you out of agura?”
“Agura crystal. Do you have it?”
She pulled out the crystal Arox had given her.
“Good. Now lead the togrel into the wagon.”
This was not a time to ask questions, Shantor realized, and did as she was told as fast as she could. Then she climbed back on the driver’s seat with Ahkka. The demons were very close now.
The old quothian opened an unremarkable hatch in the wagon’s side and placed the agura there.
“Now push that lever.”
Birdie spread its mechanical wings and started flapping them like a bird, jumping in the air and, little by little, gaining height. The flying got faster and faster, and soon they were both high up and gaining distance from the demons. One by one the monsters tired of the chase and fell to the ground, exhausted.
“We made it!” Shantor cheered.
“Where to now?” asked Ahkka.
Shantor had no answer so she kept piloting the flying wagon in silent contemplation of all that had happened. All the Keepers had died, presumably. All but her. She would have to complete their mission alone. That alone seemed too much, even if she had known how.
Arox the agurian had been one of the original Keepers. He had recommended the underground agurian city of Lok Turan.
The pattangan keeper might still live. She had asked Shantor to visit her home town Ban’Daryan Hebath, the famous moving city built on the back of giant gunbanjar lizards.
And then there was Heartwood’s Marrowdeep, where Ahkka was from. Shantor, however, was not as keen to visit quothians who, like Ahkka, were known for their affinity for Aox magic and demons.
What on Agemonia would she do next?

11. The Moving City

The next morning, Birdie landed somewhere near the Reflection Range mountains. The ride through the clouds had been nauseating for both Shantor and Ahkka, but it was the togrel that seemed to suffer the most. It took a while for them to clean up after him and make him well enough to travel again.
While waiting for the beast to recover, they held a solemn rite for their dead friend Bule’Sai and all the Keepers who were lost. They built a small fire and said the names of all who had died.
“Korallians have no families,” said Ahkka, staring into the flames. “In all the years we knew each other, he never told me where to take his skull. Alas, we do not even have it.”
“Commemorating the dead is not their way,” said Shantor, remembering Bule’Sai’s homeland. “We ignisaurs build pyramids and necropolises where the Burning Sun prepares the bodies for the eternity. But I heard what Bule’Sai said of his dead servants.”
“What was that?”
“Fish food.”
Ahkka smiled wryly. “I think he got his wish.”
Shantor Three-Birds nodded. She was not sure whether to trust Ahkka after seeing her deal with the demons. She was not just a mere silk merchant or even a witch, she was a demonologist and an Aoxmancer. Could she be trusted? What hidden motivation did she have for taking Shantor to her native Heartwood?
No, Shantor would rather travel to the Mutelands up north, and then find either the agurian city of Lok Turan or Ban’Daryan Hebath of the pattangans. She had seen the agurian keeper destroyed, but perhaps there was still a chance the pattangan keeper, Suriyen, was still alive. In which case they could meet her in her home town.
With that, Shantor had made up her mind. They would travel to the moving city of Ban’Daryan Hebath!
They drove east for five days until they reached Ambergate, a Benemite city, from where they boarded a ship which would take them north to Copperton, the capital of the Amethyst Order. The Mutelands would not be far from there.
The sea voyage lasted a week with unusual storms blowing them in the wrong direction. The nihteegri sailors claimed the sea goddess Lanimora was angry, even though they did not believe in such things anymore. Shantor suspected all these recent natural cataclysms were somehow connected to Aox. They had to skip their planned stop at Port Moonsilver because of the weather and continue straight to the north. Eventually the rain stopped and the clouds dispersed and they could see their destination.
Copperton was a vibrant multicultural city, its bazaars full of every kind of product and entertainment one could imagine. They decided to spend a few days there stocking up on provisions, and resting.
The city was a natural harbor within a steep valley, with all the richest people living on the highest peaks, the poor at the bottom and the even poorer inside the hill in a ghetto called the Belly. Shantor and Ahkka chose a comfortable tavern half-way up by the Plaza of Lapidaries.
By the time they arrived, it was already late. A pattangan page showed them to their room. Food and baths would be available come morning. Meanwhile, the late Bule’Sai’s togrel was being taken care of at one of the stables near the harbor.
The following morning, they had breakfast in the common room, which was full of peoples of all kinds, some dressed in religious outfits, others in military uniforms of various orders, or in simple traveling clothes. The hotel manager, a stripe-tailed Benemite, was going from table to table talking to customers. Talking only to ignisaur customers, Shantor realized, and pulled her hood down to hide her face.
“Heaven protect! How is the food?” asked the hotel manager politely when he had reached their table.
“Quite nice,” said Ahkka. “Thank you. Is there more tea?”
“I will have some sent your way.” The manager looked at Shantor for a while, and then whispered. “Pardon me, but I was asked to keep an eye out for an ignisaur called Shantor Three-Birds. You wouldn’t happen to be her?”
“No,” said Shantor, changing her voice. Was the manager working for the demons and hunting the last surviving Keeper?
“May I ask who wanted you to look for this person?” croaked Ahkka curiously.
“Why, the stars only know,” the manager replied, “he never showed his face.”
“Could it have been a pattangan silk thief?”
“No, he only had two arms, I’m sure of it.”
“I see. If we see this Danzor, we will let you know.”
“Shantor,” the manager corrected before he left. “Thank you.”
“You think it was Suamahes?” Shantor quietly asked Ahkka. She had all but forgotten the silk dispute in Starhaven which had left the pattangan swearing revenge.
“Who else?”
“The demons. Shapechanged.”
“In either case, best not linger around.” Ahkka drowned her long, dented beak in the hot tea and slurped it noisily.
They cut their stay short and walked down to the misty harbor just as the sun was rising. Messenger butterflies and rickshaws pulled by flying beetles filled the morning air. Soon enough they were again driving north towards the Mutelands. The road went through what seemed like a hilly forest to Shantor, but which Ahkka called a field of trees. They were routinely cut and planted again to provide timber for Copperton. The further they traveled, the smaller the trees were, and soon they turned into shrublands. After climbing another hill, they saw an endless steppe before them: the Mutelands.
Shantor had managed to talk to some pattangans in Copperton, and knew that happily the caravan city would not be too far off at this time of year. The paved road had become more like a worn path by now, and they turned Birdie towards the grasslands in the east.
The following day they saw the first hints of Ban’Daryan Hebath; pattangan hunters flying pterosaurs could be seen against the horizon. They were hunting large birds with bow and arrow, and seemed to bring several of them down. A short while later, Shantor and Ahkka saw the smoke rising from the hearths, and the busy sounds of a city. An eerie Aox-like feeling had reached this part, too, but they could see no fungal growths or blood crystals littering the Mutelands.
After a few more hills, a magnificent sight awaited them. Giant gunbanjar lizards, as long as city streets, with houses in their backs. And not just a few gunbanjars, but dozens or even hundreds of them. All around them, thousands of smaller lizards carried a single house each, and spread out all across the valley, countless pattangans carrying their own tents. This was Ban’Daryan Hebath, the great moving city!
Guards, dressed in leather scale mail decorated with a picture of their totem animal, and riding whiptail lizards, approached them. They held the reins with one hand, a bow with two more, and a long spear in the fourth hand.
“In the name of the Painted King, identify yourself,” spoke their leader, whose dorsal fins were painted red.
“We carry a message from keeper Suriyen to the Painted King. I am Shantor Three-Birds and this is Ahkka of Heartwood.”
“Ah, yes. We have been expecting you. Right this way.”
Escorted by the guards on whiptails, they drove towards the edge of the moving city. There, they were instructed to turn around and match speed with the huge lizards. The togrel whimpered in fear for having to be so close to such huge animals, but Shantor managed to calm him down.
“Step out of the wagon,” one of the guards said.
As they did so, Ahkka whispered, “there are demons even here.”
“I have sensed it, too,” replied Shantor. “Those or some other Aox creatures.”
“No, it is demons. But I can see them nowhere.”
More guards had appeared and now they were followed by what Shantor could only assume were the shamans. They were dressed in loincloths, floral wreaths, amulets, feathers, and their dorsal fins were painted yellow. In three hands they held castanets, and a staff with feathers in the fourth.
They started clacking their castanets, and behind them appeared one more shaman, but with more feathers. He was being carried in a palanquin by four pattangan soldiers, and circled by a translucent flying lizard, a spirit of some sort.
“Behold the Shaman Prince,” bellowed the leader of the guards.
The young Shaman Prince raised his wand and spoke. “Visitors and foreigners are always welcome at Ban’Daryan Hebath. But you approach the city and the holy gunbanjars with malicious intent. Guards, seize them!”
With this one command, twenty or more bows and spears were targeted right at Shantor and Ahkka. Not understanding what they were accused of, Shantor put her hands in the air.
“Didn’t you tell me you were blessed by Aiun with the gift of diplomacy or something?” Ahkka quipped, as her feathered hands were being tied behind her back.
“Wait! This is a misunderstanding!” yelled Shantor.
“Evil magic has come to this place,” spoke the Shaman Prince. “Demons plague even the holiest of our totems. This quothian,” he pointed at Ahkka, “is an evil witch who has brought this curse upon us, and has now come to inspect her handiwork. The spirits are most angry with her! They demand we bring her to the gunbanjars alive so that they may judge her by looking into her very soul. If they eat her, her heart is rotten, her liver deceitful, and she herself is guilty.”
“It’s not true,” Shantor said. “She has been with me for weeks. She has been nowhere near this place.”
“Ignisaur!” said the Shaman Prince, “do you deny she meddles with demons?”
Shantor would have loved to say yes and defend her companion. But she was not sure herself, and Ahkka’s affinity with demons had long bothered her, but had also saved her life. But if Ahkka was guilty, why would she have agreed to come here? She must have known she would get caught.
She looked at Ahkka, who suddenly seemed very old and tired. Ahkka made eye contact with Shantor, suggesting she look behind the Shaman Prince’s retinue. Sure enough, there was someone there Shantor recognized, Suamahes, the pattangan who had felt unfairly treated in the silk business Shantor had resolved. Was all of this his doing?
“Take the witch to the holy gunbanjars to be judged!” commanded the Shaman Prince.

12. The Emissary

The pattangan guards dragged poor Ahkka to the gunbanjars at the behest of the Shaman Prince. If the giant lizards ate her, that would be a sure sign of her guilt. The beasts looked hungry enough to Shantor.
“Tie her down and let the holy gunbanjars look into her soul!” yelled the Shaman Prince.
All attempts at resolving the situation had gone awry, but Shantor could not let Ahkka be executed for crimes she was innocent of. Not after all the times Ahkka had saved her.
“Wait!” cried Shantor to the Shaman Prince. She showed him the Aiun imprint on her palm, the Boon of Allies. Shantor could feel Aiun energy dissipating from her hand as the Shaman Prince looked at the boon. When she drew her hand back, the palm was bare.
The Shaman Prince drew breath and assessed the situation.
“Shaman Prince,” spoke Shantor, “I believe you will find us useful allies in helping you drive out the demons that plague your city. Both Ahkka and myself have fought demons many times, and survived to tell the tale.”
The Shaman Prince looked at her with an expression that was hard to read.
“Please! We have come all this way to help you.”
The Shaman Prince raised all four hands in the air. “Halt!” he yelled to the guards. “Bring the quothian to me.”
The guards seemed suspicious but did as they were bid.
“I have seen into the very soul of the ignisaur Shantor, and I believe her heart is noble and her liver is truthful. She has brought the quothian here to help us and we have been led astray by the silk merchant Suamahes. Release Ahkka and capture Suamahes!”
The guards looked at each other, not knowing what to do. They cast confused glances at their leader who was riding a whiptail lizard. The leader spoke politely to the Shaman Prince.
“Your Eminence, perhaps you could explain to us your sudden change of position?”
“You are a Chief of Guards, I need not explain myself to you,” said the Shaman Prince. “Do as you are told.”
The Chief of Guards nodded and then whispered something to one of the guards who left. He commanded some of the guards to capture Suamahes and others to untie Ahkka.
“Where would you like to stay?” inquired the Shaman Prince of Shantor, politely. “In the foreigners’ caravan? Or in the temple guest howdah? Or perhaps I should take you to meet my father, the Painted King?”
“The foreigners’ caravan will be fine, thank you,” replied Shantor.
The Shaman Prince clapped his hands, and an acolyte took their togrel’s reins and led them deeper into the moving city. And the city was moving. In fact, it had never stopped.
The giant gunbanjars were slow and strong, carrying a thick shell on top of which the pattangans had built luxurious houses. When they had been arrested, the gunbanjars had still been some way off, but now they were going past them on both sides. The ground shook a little every time the gargantuan reptiles took a step, and their dragging tail raised a small dust cloud behind them.
The gunbanjars paid them little mind, just enough to lazily divert their direction to narrowly avoid a collision. The pattangans were completely unfazed by this, and seemed to sense no danger, but to Shantor and Ahkka it was disquieting at first.
The Shaman Prince personally showed them around the great moving city of Ban’Daryan Hebath. The princes, the nobility, and the rich lived on the howdahs which the hundred or so gunbanjars carried. The howdahs were dwellings and terraces built on the backs of the great beasts and secured with harnesses. All around them were smaller lizards which carried individual howdahs for artisans and merchants and the various chiefs, such as chief of totems, chief of guards, and chief of archers. And then there were countless people on foot or in small wagons. The moving city toured the edge of the Mutelands, like it had for centuries or even longer, the path and pace set by the gunbanjars annual migration. Each night they would stop at a watering hole, oasis, pasture, or simply empty steppe.
At the back of Ban’Daryan Hebath was the foreigners’ caravan, where merchants, diplomats, spies, thieves, entertainers, prostitutes, preachers, and explorers of all peoples tried to keep pace with the city.
Simply walking through the city, both Ahkka and Shantor sensed something evil emanating from one of the oldest and biggest gunbanjars. An Aox power was at work there. Neither of them wanted to speak of it in the presence of the Shaman Prince, but they shared a look which was enough to tell them the other had noticed it too.
They had planned to freshen up before dealing with the demonic infestation, but then a rider approached them, another guard on a whiptail.
“Shaman Prince! The foreigners have been summoned.”
“By the Warrior Princess?”
“No, by the Diplomat Princess,” the guard said with respect.
This cannot be good, thought Shantor. But there was no way out of it.
“Don’t worry,” said the Shaman Prince. “My sister just wants to say hello.”
“You have a big family,” said Ahkka, smiling slyly.
“Yes, we have a Hunter Prince, a Merchant Princess, a Gunbanjar Prince… You name it, I have a sibling for it.”
They were taken to one of the gunbanjars with a lavish house on its back. A rope ladder was rolled down, and the guard indicated they should climb it. This was no problem for Shantor, but Ahkka was so frail and worn from travel that she had to be pulled up in a basket. The Shaman Prince and the guard arrived last.
The floor rocked a little as if on a boat, but they managed to walk through an antechamber and then up some stairs to the Diplomat Princess’s palace where one of the Shaman Prince’s sisters was waiting for them.
“Rarely do we get such distinguished guests from Heartwood and Kruesol,” said the Diplomat Princess, who was dressed in an expensive but fairly generic robe, an attire she might have worn in Benem or even Sinkerton drawing little attention. “Yet your arrival is not entirely unexpected, Shantor Three-Birds.”
At this, another ignisaur stepped out from behind a curtain. He was a middle-aged soldier, clad in a nondescript traveling cloak, but showing a gilded insignia of the House of Three-Birds in the palm of his hand.
“Venerate the Sun! I have found you at last!” said the ignisaur. “I am Vushan, an emissary of your house.”
Shantor was taken aback. After destroying the messaging box she thought she would never have to receive messages from home again, let alone return to Kruesol. But instead of accepting the situation, her mother had sent people to find her.
“Was it you who was asking for me in Copperton?” she asked.
The man nodded. “I have traveled all the way from Kruesol to ask for your help. Your mother told me you have sworn to protect Kruesol and the whole Megeian Empire from demons of the Aox, but now your very family is being threatened by them. They need your help.”
Shantor did not know what to say. As a Keeper it was her duty to fight demons everywhere, but as an ignisaur Keeper she was expected to protect the Megeian Empire most of all. A task she had failed at the moment she left home. But now, as far as she knew, she was the only Keeper alive. Surely she could not favor Megeia! And she did not look forward to seeing her mother again.
“Sister,” said the Shaman Prince, “the ignisaur Shantor cannot leave us so soon. You know our city is also cursed by the demons, and she has promised to help us.”
“The Megeian Empire has always been kind to the gunbanjar clan and the moving city,” replied the Diplomat Princess. “We owe them this favor. Every year they send exotic gifts to the Painted King, and I myself have studied diplomacy in Kruesol and learned from the best ignisaur diplomats.”
That is like learning from the best korallian woodsmen, thought Shantor, but remained silent.
“Are you ready to leave immediately?” asked Vushan.
“Wait a minute! I am not my mother’s to command,” said Shantor indignantly. “I am here at my own behest, and will leave when I deem it proper.”
Vushan took a step back and bowed to Shantor, who was still a member of the house he was sworn to.
The Shaman Prince and the Diplomat Princess discussed soundlessly by making hand gestures. They were too strange for Shantor to understand and too rapid for her to follow.
The Diplomat Princess spoke. “Before they can leave, the ignisaur Shantor and her quothian companion must present themselves in front of the Painted King, and announce the solution to our demonic pestilence.”
It was unclear to Shantor whether they were prisoners or simply being held to their promise.
“My most sincere thanks for your help,” said the Shaman Prince. “What do you need to banish the demons?”
Shantor looked at Ahkka. The old quothian had a quizzical expression.
“If we are to help,” said Ahkka, “we must have complete freedom of the city, and total immunity from prosecution.”
The Shaman Prince looked at the Diplomat Princess, and said, “We would need the Judge Prince for that!”
“Then get him.”
Eventually the Judge Prince granted them freedom and immunity, and Ahkka and Shantor were free to start their investigations. They were closely followed by Vushan, the Shaman Prince, and a plethora of lesser shamans.
They walked back and forth across the city, trying to get a sense of all the places the demons could be found. The fiends were nowhere to be seen, but at particular times their presence could be sensed.
One day when they were alone, Vushan whispered to Shantor. “I have reached an agreement with the Travel Prince. He will allow us to use the teleporter if we choose to escape. But it has to be tonight.”
That evening, before going to sleep in Birdie, Shantor and Ahkka talked with each other, and agreed. One of the larger lizards had been infested by the demons. They dwelled inside the gunbanjar and lived off its innards.
“Occasionally they may leave it, but always return,” croaked Ahkka.
“But how?”
“I will leave that to your imagination.”
“Then what shall we tell the pattangans? We can’t very well ask them to put their holy beast to death.”
“For this sickness that is the only medicine,” said Ahkka.
The next morning they would be presented before the Painted King. Shantor was unsure of how he would take this medicine. Perhaps they could come up with a way to quell the demons for a day or two, and be allowed to leave before the pattangans notice anything?
One way or the other, they would need to leave the moving city.

13. The Painted King

It was not the biggest or oldest gunbanjar they had seen, but it certainly bore the most luxurious ornaments. Decorated with colorful feathers the length of an arm, pearls and jewelry, the royal gunbanjar created a little tinkle with each step of its massive feet. The reptile paid Shantor no heed as she climbed the fancy rope ladders leading to the shell in its back. Where the shell was not covered with the royal palace, it had been painted silver so it reflected enough sunlight to almost blind a person.
The Palace consisted of many rooms, and was connected to nearby gunbanjars with rope bridges. Messenger butterflies fluttered hither and thither, and pattangan guards in white loincloths and paint stood at attention in the palace lobby. Carpets made of quothian silk lined the floors and a chandelier heavy with agura crystals hung from the ceiling.
With Shantor and Ahkka were the Diplomat Princess, the Shaman Prince, and several other shamans. A large ghostly four-winged lizard appeared occasionally and roosted on one of the Shaman Prince’s wrists before disappearing again a little while later.
Shantor and Ahkka were to explain to the Painted King how to purify the Moving City from her demon infestation. The pattangans would not like the answer, and Shantor and Ahkka had discussed all sorts of lies and stratagems to get them out of this predicament.
The heavy curtains separating the throne room from the lobby parted as the chief of pages called them in.
They stepped through the open curtains into a chamber filled with pungent incense, soft cushions, and plenty of guards, courtiers, princes, and princesses. A musician was playing four-handed castanets and singing. Lying on a raised bed was a fat pattangan smoking a hookah, his naked body covered in elaborate drawings. Kneeling next to him on the bed were two young pattangans who each held two paintbrushes and two inkpots, adding more and more patterns to his skin.
The chief of pages drew breath, and bellowed, “Behold, the High Chief of the Gunbanjar Clan, the Master of the Moving City, the Sovereign of Ban’Daryan Hebath, the Lord of the Mutelands, His Majesty the Painted King Sangbanjam the Fifth.”
After they had been announced with much fewer titles, Shantor and Ahkka approached the elevated bed and kneeled.
“Your majesty, I wish you good health,” Shantor began. “I only seek to protect the great Moving City.”
The Painted King removed the hookah from his mouth, and spoke lazily with a low voice. “As do I, ignisaur. Have you found a solution to the demonic plague?”
Shantor looked at Ahkka nervously. “We have, Your Majesty, but you may not like it.”
“So long as Ban’Daryan Hebath keeps moving, I am afraid of nothing.”
“That’s just it, Your Majesty. The demons have infested one of your gunbanjars and made a nest inside it. Making the animal sick and giving them a perfect hiding place.”
“What?” said the Painted King, much louder now. “The gunbanjars are holy to us! The demons would not dare!” He looked at the Shaman Prince as if asking for assurance.
“These foreigners know more about demons than anyone in our clan,” said the Shaman Prince to his father. “I have looked into their very souls and I believe their hearts are noble and their livers truthful.”
“Perhaps you have come to usurp my position,” said one of the noblemen, stepping forth. “Are you suggesting I, the Gunbanjar Prince, would not have noticed this?”
“Dear brother, I have no need to usurp you,” replied the Shaman Prince. “I am your superior.”
“How dare you? Father, are you going to let him insult me like this? And the gunbanjars?”
The Painted King made a couple of hand gestures to silence his sons. “The gunbanjars and the spirits are but two of the four hands that comprise this clan. You are both important to me and to the city.” Then he looked at Shantor. “But what can we do about this sacrilege?”
“In truth, Your Majesty, there is only one thing you can do.” Shantor hesitated a moment, then decided to speak her mind. “The infected animal must be put to death and its corpse burned.”
A shocked silence befell the court room. Even the hand gesturing ceased.
The first to speak was a noblewoman Shantor had not yet met, but who she later found out was the Warrior Princess. “Father, may I speak? Thank you. Some of my guards saw the ignisaur perform evil magic on the Shaman Prince upon arrival. Had that not happened, the quothian witch would have been taken to the gunbanjars to be judged and possibly executed. Ever since then the Shaman Prince has regarded the foreigners higher than her own clan.”
“I told you he is plotting something!” yelled the Gunbanjar Prince.
The guards stepped behind them to close their exit.
After a ferocious debate conducted half by shouting, half by hand gestures, Shantor, Ahkka, and the Shaman Prince were seized.
They would be fed to the gunbanjars at dawn. They spent the night uncomfortably in a prisoner wagon near the foreigners’ caravan. The Moving City was immobile with the gunbanjars asleep. The Shaman Prince had lost his position to a younger sibling, and was now without his wand. His spirit lizard was with them almost constantly, sometimes flying in and out of the cage to hunt for invisible prey.
“I cannot believe my siblings would plot against us,” said the Shaman Prince, still magically devoted to Shantor. “We only tried to help.”
“Can’t you ask your vespir familiar to break us out?” asked Ahkka.
“Only from the prison of our minds.”
“That’s a start.”
“And it’s a spirit guide, not a familiar.”
Shantor was at a loss. She had only tried to do her job as a Keeper of the Breach and help the pattangans. Now she had to pay the ultimate price. After her, there would be no Keepers left, and the demons would have free rein over Agemonia.
“Actually…” said the Shaman Prince suddenly. “Friend Shantor, you possess powerful Aiun magic, do you not?”
“I do,” Shantor replied.
“What if we empowered my spirit vespir with it? And then sent him to the diseased gunbanjar?”
“Your spirit animal would perish.”
“What about the demons?”
“Perhaps, if the vespir could fly inside the huge beast, but the gunbanjar would die in the implosion, as well.”
“We could try it. We would still be imprisoned, but at least it would be for something we did.”
“We got company,” croaked Ahkka. The old quothian focused her egg-white eyes on the outside. Shantor tried peering out, too. It was dark and there was movement all the time in the foreigners’ caravan with its illegal taverns, prostitutes, secret meetings, and many other goings on. She could not see anything interesting.
“It’s your ignisaur friend,” murmured Ahkka.
“Quick!” he said, suddenly appearing next to the bars. “Follow me.”
“It’s no use,” said Shantor. “This cage is sealed with so much magic all our powers combined were not enough to break it.”
Vushan produced a key. “Perhaps this will help.”
They soon ran quietly to fetch Birdie and the togrel, and then to a sleeping gunbanjar. On the shell of the huge beast there was no house, just a platform carved into its shell, and a magical gateway.
“A teleporter!” Shantor realized. That could get them out before their escape was noticed.
“How did you convince the Travel Prince?” asked the former Shaman Prince.
“Best you do not know,” replied Vushan.
A lowered drawbridge led straight to the platform, and they drove Birdie up it.
Vushan seemed to know what he was doing as he channeled the magic from the agura crystals and activated specific runes out of hundreds, creating a beautiful, luminescent pattern. A gossamer wall of bluish light suddenly appeared in the gateway and the teleporter started to hum.
“It’ll take us to Kruesol,” Vushan said, “but we must hurry. It’ll shut itself off very soon.”
“Will they know where we went?”
Then they heard the blaring of a horn being blown.
“Alert! Alert! The prisoners have escaped!”
There were torches, and running around and guards riding whiptails this way and that. They had to hurry!
“Let’s go!” said Vushan.
Shantor led Birdie and the togrel to the activated gateway.
“Goodbye, Shaman Prince,” said Shantor. “I hope you get through this.”
“Just a moment,” the pattangan said, the spirit animal now clearly visible and flying around his head. “We must destroy the demons. Charge the vespir with your magic!”
“What? We don’t have time!”
“We must try. And then we will go through the teleporter together. My prospects here do not seem that good right now.”
Ahkka had already jumped through the teleporter while Shantor was hesitating. The light suddenly flashed and just like that, Ahkka was on the other side.
“They’re at the teleporter!” yelled the guards, having seen the light.

14. Dreams of the Past

The light of the teleporter colored everything azure. The spirit lizard was perched on the Shaman Prince’s arm as Shantor imbued it with her Aiun magic.
They were standing on the back of one of the gunbanjars, while below, guards were riding towards them, yelling at them to stop.
Vushan urged them to hurry. “The teleporter will turn off any moment now.”
When Shantor was finished, the Shaman Prince sent the spirit vespir flying towards the infested gunbanjar. Before it could fly inside it, demons burst out from the gunbanjar’s side, leaving the large beast to die in pain, and attacked the vespir. The vespir’s Aiun magic destroyed most of them almost instantly, but the biggest one evaded the magic and leaped towards Shantor and her companions.
It threw a screaming bolt of black smoke at the Shaman Prince who fell from the gunbanjar’s back, hitting the ground hard. Then it reached out with its tentacle arm, and Shantor could feel an intense burning pain in her shoulder. It was the blood shard! It throbbed in misery and heartbreak and desperation and sheer mind-numbing agony.
It was too much for her to bear, even with her years of training. What happened next, she only remembered in flashes.
The pattangan guards impaled the large demon with several spears.
The spirit vespir mourned over the Shaman Prince’s corpse.
Vushan grabbed Shantor and dragged her to the teleporter.
A light flickered and a sound like an insect buzzed.
Shantor saw the teleporter chamber inside one of the pyramids in Kruesol.
Then nothing.
Shantor drifted in and out of consciousness. She could feel herself in her old bed in the pyramid she grew up in. She even saw her own room with the golden idol of the Burning Sun on the wall. And she could sense the presence of the Runedale Key nearby. No, she realized she was dreaming, but she was too powerless to wake up.
She saw herself as a child, genderless like all ignisaur children. The youngling was playing with their twin, Yanesh, when their mother, Dravesh, approached them, a looming figure dressed in gold and red. They were mostly brought up by the slaves, so seeing mother was always a scary special occasion.
“One day you two will choose to become women, and will take over the family trade,” mother said. “It is time for you to stop playing, and learn about gold.”
That was the start of their tuition. It all started with a visit to the mines where slaves dug gold. Many of them ignisaurs, but also boryot and xi-noqs, and a few others. The mines were overseen by the House of Seven-Lightnings who also transported the gold ore to the kilns.
The kilns are where mother took them next. They traveled in a lizard-pulled wagon and lived magnificently, with slaves and servants attending to their every need. The kilns were owned and run by the House of One-Flame, who in turn transported the extracted gold to their house.
The House of Three-Birds specialized in goldsmithing and the manufacture of golden masks for the priestesses of the Sun and gilded armor for the Sunshine Legion. It was this trade that mother had wanted Shantor and Yanesh to pick up after her.
Shantor writhed in her dream, the pain in her shoulder spreading like poison.
Now she saw herself and Yanesh in the Solar Temple on the day of their third skin-shedding. They approached the priest.
“Yanesh Three-Birds!” bellowed the priest, a middle-aged woman. “Under the Burning Sun, in front of your family, and in honor of the Emperor, I ask you this: Which sex have you chosen?”
“I will become a man,” said Yanesh.
There was a shocked gasp among the crowd. A man could not run the family business.
“Then shed your skin, and a man you shall be!” spoke the priest. Yanesh turned to face the family, ripped open the old skin, and stepped out, a man. Now Shantor had a brother.
“Shantor Three-Birds!” yelled the priest before asking Shantor the same question and then declaring her a woman upon her reply.
Mother was very disappointed in Yanesh, and from then on focused most of her attention on Shantor, now the only possible heir to the family business.
The dream turned to demons hunting her, killing the other Keepers of the Breach, and then back to her youth again.
She was already learning the family trade, delivering a shipment of armor to a desert garrison up north, escorted by legionaries. They made camp at the edge of the desert, and were beset by nightmares. Was this one of them? Probably.
Some of the legionaries went mad and started butchering each other in their sleep. Shantor sounded the alarm and woke everyone up. There was fighting and screaming in the dark. Why was it happening? Because of the nightmares?
Then there was a bright light, and everyone stopped. Those who had been ready to kill each other, now pulled back their weapons and dropped them on the sand. A pleasant feeling of friendship enveloped them all.
Kogan emerged from the darkness of the desert and walked slowly into their midst. He was already old, but he had the strength of spirit that was enough to calm even the most hard-headed legionary. He was dressed in simple robes and carried a large key on a chain around his neck.
“Demons dwell here in the desert,” he warned, “and they can send you mad. You best be careful.”
The old man joined them for the rest of the journey, and spent a long time talking with Shantor. He told her much about demons and the Breach, another realm that demons had already polluted with evil Aox energy. And how there are few individuals who still remember how to fight the demons, and they have passed this knowledge from teacher to student for millennia.
Kogan belonged to no great house, he was a freed slave, but in time he became Shantor’s teacher and friend, awakening the powers of Aiun inside her. He made Shantor a Keeper of the Breach.
She now saw herself in Kogan’s little hovel, studying the ways of the Keepers. She learned of evil Aox and its counterpart Aiun. She learned how to use her powers to protect others. She learned stories of Agemonia’s secret history and portents of its future.
She also learned of the key which Kogan carried with him.
“This is the Third Dawn Key,” he explained. “In the Republic of Benem there is a city called Runedale. In that city there is a tower built by the Ancients long before Runedale itself existed. Inside the tower is one of beacons which can be used to purify or empower a large part of the Breach. This is the key to that tower. There is a Keeper and a student amongst all the peoples, and each Keeper holds a key to one beacon. The day will come when you will guard this, and then pass it on to your student, until the time comes to use it.”
In the dream she saw Kogan die of old age, but in reality she had already left by then. Yanesh took the key and placed it in the secure vault inside their pyramid.
The dream shifted once more.
“No! I forbid it!” It was her mother Dravesh.
Shantor had just told her she would not continue the family trade, but would focus her life on fighting demons, instead. Furthermore, she would leave Kruesol to pursue demons wherever they may be. She had always planned to eventually return to Kogan but he had died while she was away.
“Demons are a thing of the past,” mother had said. “They are never coming back to Agemonia, let alone Kruesol. The Burning Sun protects us. Admit it! You want to abandon your mother, your House, for the sake of adventure! But what about tradition? What about business? What about family?”
Those words echoed in Shantor’s head when she woke from her feverish slumber. That was the last time her mother had spoken to her. Yanesh had given her the messaging box which she had agreed to carry with her in case there was an emergency. That is how she had learned of Kogan’s death some years ago. Of course, mother had used the box to constantly demand her return.
Well, here she was. Back in her old room. Her shoulder was bandaged, but throbbing. In her mouth there was the foul taste of Kruesol medicine. Someone was taking care of her. She carefully got up and looked around the room. It was much as she had left it. She got herself a cup of water, and soon felt dizzy again. This time she slept well and without any nightmares.
When next she awoke, her room was full of people. There was her mother, of course. Her brother had his hand on the shoulder of a young ignisaur she did not recognize. It had to be his child. There was also Vushan, some slaves, the house doctor, and behind everyone else, Ahkka.
Her mother looked at her with a face which combined concern, arrogance, resentment, and desperation. Shantor tried to think of something clever to say.
Before either of them could speak, Yanesh took her hand.
“Thank the Sun you live, sister,” he said. “Are you back for good?”
Shantor tried to answer, but her throat was too dry.
“Because we could really use someone like you right now!” Yanesh continued. “Demons have beset the city and this very pyramid! The Sunshine Legion and the imperial army are useless against them. You must have felt the nightmares, too. Oh, and this is my child, Sheinor.”
“Hello, Aunt Shantor,” said the youngling. “We have sacrificed many slaves praying for your health.”
Ignisaur sacrifice was a common practice amongst the nobility, but having been away for so long, it was one part of her culture Shantor could no longer condone.
“You need not do that any longer,” she whispered.
“Lo, she speaks!” said her mother sarcastically. She seemed old and frail now. “After leaving us in trouble, refusing to reply to my messages, destroying the messaging box, and gallivanting around the world, this is how you choose to return? Half dead and helpless. Your family has helped you, bringing you back to life. Now, will you help your family? Will you stay home? Will you finally do what you claimed you had sworn to do? Will you protect the Empire and Kruesol, and most importantly this family from demons now and for as long as you live? Will you stay?”
Some welcome, Shantor thought to herself, as she gathered the strength to answer.

15. Investigations at Kruesol

Shantor sat up, the wound in her shoulder still aching. She was surrounded by her family who were all eagerly waiting to know if she would stay with them to fight against the demons and to save the family business or not.
She had left them to be a Keeper but in so doing she had neglected her own people. It was her duty to protect the Megeian Empire from demons of the Breach, and she had failed. But perhaps it was not too late.
“I will save this city from the demons or die trying,” she spoke. “But the vows I have taken prevent me from staying here. I am the only defense all of Agemonia has against the Aox.”
“Then you turn your back on your family once again,” her mother Dravesh said bitterly. She turned and marched out of the room. The family doctor, the spymaster, Vushan, and most of the others followed. Only her brother Yanesh, his child Sheinor, and Ahkka remained by her side.
“Now I understand why you’ve avoided coming home,” Ahkka croaked. “But remember, the bond between a mother and a daughter is the most sacred there is.”
“Maybe for you quothians,” Shantor said. Her mother had reacted just as she had expected.
“Don’t worry,” her brother said, “mother will get over it.”
Just then a low boom shook the pyramid and the idol of the Burning Sun fell from the wall.
“What on Agemonia was that?” asked Shantor.
“The demons have been trying to rupture the walls for days,” Yanesh explained. But he seemed worried.
“That explosion felt louder than the others,” said Ahkka.
“I better get down to the vault,” Yanesh said nervously.
Shantor got up but not without pain. “Take me with you. I need to see the Third Dawn Key is still safe.”
“It’s safe,” Yanesh said unconvincingly. “Before your mentor died, he brought it to me. He told me to place it in the vault until the day of your return.”
“That day has come. Show me.”
Yanesh helped Shantor walk as fast as she could, and all four of them started towards the staircase leading to the dungeons.
Then they felt another explosion, and could hear the rumble of a stone wall collapsing. Without exchanging a word, they started running. Shantor’s shoulder still hurt, but she refused to slow down.
They arrived at the gold-and-stone door to the vault. Inside they heard the sounds of feet, or something to that effect, flapping on the limestone floor. Shantor could sense the presence of demons close by.
Yanesh pressed his claw against the agura-powered magicanism, which glowed with a soft bluish light and then slid the door open.
The back wall of the vault had been blasted open, cruel daylight shining in through the hole. Dust and rubble was everywhere. Shantor saw several demons, some as small as ophira butterflies, some as large as togrels. They were hideous creatures with tentacles, claws, pincers, horns, wings, antlers, tails, and other protrusions in unnatural combinations. Both Yanesh and Sheinor yelped in fear.
The largest of the demons, a lusar, held the Third Dawn Key in one hand. The other arm started as a tentacle but ended up more like a spiked flail. The lusar looked at Shantor with its empty eyes, and smiled a crooked smile.
Shantor and Ahkka were prepared for this, and were about to magically attack the demons, but just before their spells hit their targets, the lusar struck the already weakened ceiling with its huge flail hand, causing it to collapse in a cloud of dust and rubble.
Shantor could feel the demons escaping with the key. After the avalanche of stone had stopped, Shantor ran through the hole into the street beyond and saw the demons fleeing in the distance.
The key the demons had stolen was the one Bule’Sai had told her to retrieve. It would open Skyrender Tower in Runedale and give her access to the beacon there. Someone was clearly in on her plan.
She could not pursue the demons in her current condition, but she would have to do everything she could to get the key back. Otherwise, all of this was for naught.
She returned to the vault where Yanesh was trying to assess the damage.
“Sheinor,” he told his child, “run upstairs and grab some of our soldiers and slaves. The soldiers must guard the vault from robbers until the slaves have carried the valuables somewhere else.”
Sheinor ran off and Yanesh turned to Shantor.
“Unfortunate and strange that this should happen now when you have finally returned, sister.”
“Strange indeed,” Ahkka muttered.
Shantor went to see the spymaster Heiakre, who had been in the employ of their House for longer than she could remember. He was an ugly old man with prominent face scales and bulging eyes, but he had a heart of gold. He had even tutored Shantor and Yanesh on foreign lands and their customs when they were young.
Now he sat in his office, conversing with Vushan, whom Shantor now realized was one of his spies.
“Young Shantor,” Heiakre said with a wide smile, “I’m glad to see you on your feet. I came to see you many times when you were recuperating. I’m a little busy, with the pyramid ruptured, but how can I help?”
“I am here to fight the demons, and I know what they are after. What can you tell me of them?”
“I have had reports from all over Agemonia. Demons are being summoned, fungal forests are spreading, and ancient devices are powering up. The runes of the gate of amber in, well, Ambergate are glowing. Many buildings on Giz, the island realm of the xi-noq, have started shining with a light that the Sun-damned bloomstalks are drawn to like an ophira to a flame. And here in Kruesol, the Pyramid of Hur-Amesh is suddenly lit like a torch, and singing a strange melody.”
“Yes,” said Shantor, “this is very much in line with what I have witnessed. The Moving City has been infiltrated by demons, and even my own order was betrayed and attacked.”
“Had this happened a year ago, we would have been burned like slaves,” said Heiakre. “The House of Eight-Songs tried to recruit the House of Four-Dawns to attack us. Fortunately I managed to talk the Four-Dawns out of it, and instead we destroyed the Eight-Songs.”
Heiakre smiled contentedly.
“Well, all but one,” Vushan interjected. “Drenosh, a scion of the house escaped. But that one is a freak, and of no threat to us.”
“Drenosh Eight-Songs refused to choose a sex, can you believe it?” Heiakre chuckled. “But no matter, they have no idea the Four-Dawns are hunting them. Anyway, that is all in the past. Now we must get rid of these demons.”
“Do you have any clues?”
“I believe the House of Five-Petals is behind this. They have never been too loyal to the Burning Sun, and I believe the Red Witch has turned to demon worship.”
Shantor knew the Red Witch as the leader of the House of Five-Petals, a notorious cannibal and conspirator, but demon worship was a new low, even for her.
After a refreshing cup of cactus wine, Shantor exited the Pyramid and looked at the tiled streets of central Kruesol. Ordinarily, this was the district for temples, pyramids, and bazaars, but now it was dominated by the Sunshine Legion and soldiers of individual noble houses, running this way and that. A dead lumin demon lay on the street, being examined by carrion eating birds.
“Aunt Shantor!” Yanesh’s youngling, Sheinor, ran towards Shantor. “There is a strange hairy animal in the stables. Is it yours?”
“Yes. It’s called a togrel. They live in Benem where it is not quite as warm as here.”
“It must be sweating! What’s it called?”
“I haven’t come up with a good name for it. What do you call a smelly, stupid creature? Come, let us investigate.”
Shantor instinctively took the young ignisaur with her to talk to the Sunshine Legion. Perhaps she could teach the child something.
They went to a young man in stained gilded armor.
“Sun be ever warm for you. What do you know about these demons?” she asked him.
“The demons,” she pointed at the corpse on the street, “where do they come from?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the legionary said. “They’re a nuisance.”
“They sure are. When they attack you, does it usually happen in the slums or in the harbor?”
“No, it’s mostly here in the center.”
“Is it this street or near the Imperial Pyramid?”
“No, it’s over there.” The legionary pointed towards the Solar Temple.
“So when she asked you where the demons come from,” Sheinor interjected, “you could have just told her they come from near the Solar Temple?”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” the man said.
Later, as they were returning to their pyramid, Sheinor said, “Aunt Shantor? I’ve come up with a name for the togrel. Legionary!”
“A perfect name for a smelly, stupid creature!” Sheinor laughed.
And so the togrel was named.
That night, Shantor and Ahkka scouted the Solar Temple under the cover of darkness. The quothian’s ability to see in the dark once again made her the perfect companion.
The nightlife was quieter than Shantor remembered, no doubt because everyone was afraid of the demons. It was so quiet that the eerie tune coming from the Pyramid of Hur-Amesh seemed to fill the night.
The Solar Temple was a dominating ziggurat covered in idols of the Burning Sun, statues of her avatars, and gargoyles warding off evil spirits. And, indeed, they could sense no evil spirits inside the Solar Temple.
“I sense demons nearby, but cannot quite place them,” said Ahkka. Shantor agreed.
Nor was there anything suspicious in the walled gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace.
Then they saw a hooded figure approach the Pyramid of Hur-Amesh, which was one of the oldest buildings of the city. There were fires burning here and there in the city, but the Pyramid of Hur-Amesh had a paler glow, almost like a lighthouse. Or a beacon.
That reminded Shantor of something her mentor Kogan had told her: This pyramid is of great significance to the Keepers since it was built by the Ancients. The key had been lost centuries ago. But what if some other Keeper had had the key all this time? After all, the Third Dawn Key was meant for a beacon in Benem, and it was the way of the Keepers to keep the keys far from the locks.
They sneaked in closer to the old pyramid, huddling in the dramatic shadows created by the glow. Another figure walked towards the doorway, and they used their combined magics to render him unconscious. After that it was easy to grab him, and remove his hood.
It was not a demon, but an ignisaur soldier carrying the insignia of the House of Five-Petals.
“This man is affected by Aox energy,” Ahkka said, “I can smell it. Does the coat of arms mean anything to you?”
“Yes, indeed. This house is known for immoral behavior. The Red Witch must be in there, summoning the demons. I bet there is a portal inside and she has somehow found a way to open it.”
“If that is true, then your key is also inside that ages-old pyramid. What do you want to do?”
Shantor was not sure. If they could lay their hands on a second robe, they could sneak in and secretly explore the place.
On the other hand, they were only two, and who knew how many Five-Petals and demons waited inside? Perhaps the smart thing to do would be to kneel in front of mother and beg her to order their soldiers in to attack.
She could also try to simply lie; get some gilded armor from home, and say she is taking it to the soldiers. With a little luck, that might be enough to get her in.
Just then, another hooded figure approached the illuminated pyramid.

16. The Pyramid of Hur-Amesh

As the Pyramid of Hur-Amesh sung its strange melody, Shantor and Ahkka quickly captured another Five-Petals soldier and put on their gilded armor and hooded crimson robes. Ahkka, much smaller and leaner than a grown ignisaur, seemed less than convincing, but they were in a hurry.
They had been hiding behind one of the gargoyles of the Solar Temple, but now walked briskly to the door to the Pyramid of Hur-Amesh. It was closed, but they had seen someone enter earlier. Now it was just a matter of getting it opened for them.
Shantor knocked.
“Yeah?” said the voice of a young ignisaur man from inside.
“It’s me,” Shantor tried, “open up.”
“Stop stalling! The Red Witch sent me, and she’s in one of her moods.”
The door opened an inch. The horned head of a Five-Petals soldier peeked out. Shantor realized he would soon discover their ruse. She grabbed the door and pulled it completely open.
“Get in,” she barked at Ahkka, and then mumbled to the soldier something about how his good work would be rewarded.
They walked down the hallway as if they were on some urgent business, which, in fact, they were. There were smaller corridors to the left and right, and then a bigger hall further on. They took one of the smaller corridors hoping to get out of sight of the guard.
The sound was louder inside the old pyramid, and here and there Shantor could recognize wall reliefs that depicted various Keeper traditions. Most of the pyramid seemed to be desolate, but they could sense the presence of demons inside and something worse. But also faint traces of Aiun energy.
After a couple of turns in the dark they figured they were not being followed and could focus on their next move.
“You keep taking me to these beacons of the Ancients,” Ahkka croaked. “I’m glad this one does not feel as foreboding as the previous ones.”
“That’s because it’s been corrupted,” Shantor said to the demonologist. Her suspicions over Ahkka had long since dwindled, but it was good to remember the old quothian was quite familiar with demons and the evil powers of Aox.
“Aunt Shantor,” someone whispered.
Shantor and Ahkka stood alert. What was that? Who was that?
“Can you see anything?” whispered Shantor.
“No, but I hear footsteps,” came the reply. “No, wait, it’s the youngling!”
“Aunt Shantor,” Sheinor said again, “I followed you!”
“You shouldn’t be here!” Shantor said angrily. “This is a very dangerous place. How did you even get in?”
“I bribed the guard,” the child replied.
“And how did you find us?”
“Spymaster Heiakre has been teaching me the art of politics. I put a tracing stone in your belt pouch.”
Shantor opened the pouch, and sure enough, besides the parchments, herbs, and other small objects, there was a hardly noticeable small gray stone. She tossed it out.
“Sheinor, we have to get you out of here,” she told the child.
“Sun’s fire to that, Aunt Shantor, I’m here to help!”
Shantor pondered this for a minute. It would be her responsibility if something happened to the child. But if they failed in their mission, all of Agemonia would be overrun by demons, and the child would face a destiny even worse. As would all children.
“Very well,” Shantor said. “But be careful.”
“Of course, Aunt Shantor.”
The three of them set out to explore the dark, ringing corridors of the pyramid with Ahkka as their guide. The quothian’s milky-white eyes helped them navigate the blackness. Every now and then they came across the flicker of torch-light, or the nasty sensation of a demon closeby, or half-heard conversations between soldiers. Something about the Lord of Keys coming soon. Must be one of the large lusar demons, thought Shantor. Yet they managed to stay hidden and penetrate their way deeper into the Pyramid of Hur-Amesh.
Only once did they encounter two soldiers, and swiftly killed them. Sheinor stole some armor and a robe for herself, joining in the deadly charade.
The walls began to change. First, they had been carved limestone like most buildings in Kruesol, with the occasional relief, stone statue, or gold idol as decoration. But once they got deeper inside, the walls became smoother and warm to the touch. Whenever they saw a glimmer of light, they could see the walls were white, or decorated with mosaics.
This is architecture of the Ancients, Shantor realized. They had to be getting close to the beacon itself. But that was not their goal, they needed the key. Shantor was fairly sure the Red Witch would have it, at least until this Lord of Keys arrived. And since the Lord of Keys was a demon he would arrive through the portal they had opened inside the beacon. This was conjecture, but it was something to go on.
They had been walking in the dark for hours and Ahkka mentioned she was getting thirsty and hungry.
“Me, too,” Shantor said. “Too bad we didn’t bring provisions.”
“I have meat and cactus wine,” said Sheinor. “Want to share?”
They stopped for a while in the dark to eat and drink.
“Why are we here?” asked Sheinor.
“I am a Keeper of the Breach,” explained Shantor. “Did your father or grandmother never explain this to you?”
“No. Only that you were the only other woman in the family and you were expected to continue the family business. Now grandmother is getting very old and cannot always get the best price for gold.”
“You know,” said Shantor, “we Keepers of the Breach are meant to have a student from amongst our own people. Would you like to be mine?”
“Thank you, Aunt Shantor, but after we defeat the demons, I’m needed here to rebuild Kruesol.”
“So you will become a man, then? A soldier?”
“No, I will become a woman.”
Ahkka cackled. “A good choice if you ask me! And I’m glad to hear someone in your family respects their mothers and grandmothers!”
They finished the rest of their meal in silence and then continued on to the center of the pyramid, Shantor directing them towards the Aiun presence.
They turned a corner and found a smooth door blocking the corridor, but through the cracks they could see a dim bluish light. In the darkness it seemed almost blindingly bright.
“I have a bad feeling about whatever is behind that door,” Ahkka said. “I won’t go any further.”
Shantor already knew her companion well enough to realize this meant Aiun was really close now. She touched the door the way Kogan had taught her and it slid open. Inside was a circular chamber dominated by a giant stone face as big as the wall, just like the one she had seen in Azimut Tower and years earlier in the Vault of Time. The light in its eyes was almost out. In front of the face was a pedestal which, no doubt, had once held an Orb of Power.
Shantor and Sheinor approached the stone face. The light in its eyes flickered and almost died, but not quite. Its stone mouth opened and its voice was loud enough to drown out the eerie melody which otherwise filled the pyramid.
“I warned you, Shantor Three-Birds,” the voice of Aiun bellowed. “I told you betrayal, death, and demons would lie ahead. Yet you still carry the light in the darkness where most other lights have been extinguished by Amon Pennark, traitor to the Keepers of the Breach. You must seal in the Aox and purify the Breach. You have failed to find others who would take your place. Hurry, for even you are not invincible. Some may be closer than you think… others you may meet in Ambergate, should you survive. Champions from all peoples of Agemonia will meet in the Shimmering Squid tavern and you have the chance to affect their destiny.”
The light in its eyes flickered and the face intermittently paused as it spoke for the last time.
“The powers of this beacon… have been corrupted, and the only boon I have for you, Shantor Three-Birds, is… already yours. Use the power of Aiun to defend others and defeat your enemies… You… must… prevail.”
Then, once again, it was just darkness and the music of the Pyramid of Hur-Amesh. Shantor pondered on these words, which reminded her of a vision she had seen in the Vault of Time during her training. The legacy of the Keepers would not die with her, for she would one day teach her secrets to others. That time was close at hand.
Shantor and Sheinor rejoined Ahkka and continued towards the center of the pyramid, where they could feel Aox was strongest. There were more regular guard patrols near the center and they had to be constantly alert to avoid being captured. Torches carried by Five-Petals soldiers painted long shadows in the corridors while small lumin demons lurked in the ceiling and staircases like gargoyles.
The corridors were not straight or angular anymore, but curving, clearly orbiting around a central chamber. This, Shantor knew, would be where the Orbs of Power would have been used to open a portal to the Breach, and where the melody and the beam of light were coming from. It was also the source of the demonic infestation that plagued the city.
They had spent a while spying on the entrance to the chamber when a grand procession arrived. Many priests and officers from the House of Five-Petals walked towards the chamber with some larger demons, and in the middle, the Red Witch herself, with the key. Shantor’s key!
It was so close but there was no way for them to reach it now. Unless they could still pass as Five-Petals soldiers. Maybe they could?
There was noise somewhere toward the outer wall, but Shantor could not tell if it was towards the entrance or exactly the opposite way. Several groups of soldiers and demons ran out from the central chamber, and Shantor saw this as their opportunity.
“Run,” she told the others.
They pretended to replace the departing soldiers in the central chamber and found shadowy places at the back.
The room had once been magnificent, and still held a foreboding charm. Completely round like a huge upside-down cup, with the lit beacon in the middle reaching up towards the sky. Just like at the Watchtower, one of the three Orbs of Power glowed with a crimson Aox light. That was what had corrupted the beacon into a portal to the Breach, where Demons were crawling or flying in from. The chamber was decorated with runes which glowed red. There were two stone faces on opposite sides of the wall, both dead and desecrated.
Near the portal, the Red Witch stood majestically, with the Third Dawn Key now in her claws.
“Soon the Lord of Keys will arrive,” she spoke victoriously. Then one of the priestesses whispered something in her ear, and she stiffened. She summoned one of the officers, whispered something to him, and he quickly ordered the soldiers to block the entrance.
“What’s going on, Aunt Shantor?” asked Sheinor quietly.
“We’ve been found out,” Shantor said, dropping her stolen robe, drawing her wand, and preparing to protect them with her magic.
The soldiers marched towards them, but hesitated. The Red Witch eyed them with disdain.
“You’re of the House of Three-Birds. Are you envious of our success with the demons? Answer me, why did you bring your quothian slave here? What were you hoping to achieve by spying on us?”
Shantor was just about to use all her powers in a desperate attempt to grab the key when there was an explosion at the entrance. Several soldiers flew backwards and were immediately sucked into the portal, crying in pain and horror.
Of all the people Shantor could have expected to walk into the chamber, her mother would have been the last. But there she was, Dravesh Three-Birds, head of her house, a powerful sorceress, followed by a platoon of their soldiers.
“Dravesh!” cried the Red Witch in surprise.
“Unhand my family,” Shantor’s mother said angrily. “And stop your dealing with demons.”
The Five-Petals soldiers and priestesses clashed with their counterparts from the House of Three-Birds. Shantor, Ahkka, and Sheinor joined the battle.
The Red Witch still held the key and Shantor made a desperate lunge for it. Demons came at her, but she kept them away with a wall of Aiun.
She managed to grab the key from the Red Witch just as the portal was blasted wide open by a ferocious Aox force. Something big and powerful emerged from the smoke surrounded in a bright crimson radiance.
Shantor realized all the fighting forces were frozen in time, even the Red Witch. Only she could move.
She was expecting the Lord of Keys to be a huge demon, but she was only half right. It had the hoof and demonic eye of a lusar demon lord, but otherwise he was a bald nihteegri… a nihteegri she knew!
“Amon Pennark,” she said as she recognized her monstrous adversary. She had thought him dead after his betrayal at the watchtower, but apparently he had survived. Mostly.
“Heaven protect,” said the former Keeper, now dripping with power.
“So you are behind the attack on Kruesol.”
“I just had to get that key,” Amon said smoothly, demons floating around him in stasis. “Very polite of you to come here to hand it to me personally.”
“I would rather die.”
“Oh, you would? But consider this. We are Keepers of the Breach, you and I. The Breach and Agemonia are but two sides of the same coin. One is inhabited by demons, the other by people like you. No need to keep them separate. By uniting these two worlds we will create a Golden Age rivaled only by the time of the Ancients. Imagine the possibilities! We would rule the demons and all the other peoples.”
As they talked Shantor thought she saw the faintest glimmer of azure light in the eye of one of the stone faces. Then it disappeared.
“By enslaving them?”
“I knew as an ignisaur you would understand. Yes, the slave peoples would be ours to command. With our combined control over Aox and Aiun, we would be invincible.”
“I refuse.”
Amon Pennark drew his sword. “Then everyone you hold dear will perish.”
As Amon lunged at her and Shantor protected herself with her magic, she could see the eyes of one of the spoiled stone faces light up. That made her remember what Aiun had told her about her powers. She could use Aiun to defeat her enemies.
She had created protective shields with Aiun energies but could she use that power as a weapon? She tried concentrating her magical energies into a bolt and managed to hit Amon Pennark in the chest.
It hurt him but he soon grinned confidently.
“Your powers have grown, but Aiun was never a match for Aox,” Amon said and cast a similar bolt of crimson energy. Shantor barely managed to block it, but then Amon pummeled her with another and then another. She was no match for his powers.
Now the eyes of both faces glowed bright, and even Amon noticed it. He took control of the Aox light from the beacon and amplified it. Shantor tried doing the same with the Aiun light, and soon the chamber was full of clashing magical energies. The Pyramid of Hur-Amesh started shaking it to its very core and the ceiling began to collapse.
Amon approached her pointing his sword at the wound the blood shard had made. “Your loved ones are as good as dead. Now, hand me the key or I will pry it from your dead claws.”
A huge stone fell on the Red Witch, crushing her completely. Amon laughed mockingly. Such was the fate of those who allied with Amon Pennark. Many more ignisaurs died under the falling rocks. Amon kept advancing.
Shantor knew her magic was weaker than his. She would never defeat him even with Aiun magic. Here and now, her light would be extinguished.
Amon walked steadily towards Shantor, and tried to grab the key.
Just then a huge piece of stone crashed to the ground between them, and Amon Pennark was momentarily taken aback.
Shantor quickly created an Aiun bubble around herself. It would protect her from the debris if not from Amon. She ran towards the exit, but stopped.
Sheinor was still in there, and so was her mother. And Ahkka. All paralyzed. Perhaps she could drag one of them to safety inside the bubble if she was quick.
The others would perish under the collapsing pyramid.
Amon had regained his composure and was once again moving towards her amidst the falling rocks.
How could she choose who would live and who would die?

17. The Survivors

Shantor’s mother, Dravesh, and traveling companion, Ahkka, were both dear to her, but she could not let a youngling perish.
Shantor grabbed Sheinor and pulled her inside the bubble, waking her from her Aox slumber. A large stone block fell on Dravesh Three-Birds, crushing her beneath it.
“Goodbye, mother,” Shantor said with tears in her eyes, and then she turned her gaze towards Ahkka. “And to you, my friend.”
Amon hit her with a pulsating Aox bolt which shook her bubble, but did not penetrate it. The next one might.
Shantor ran towards the doorway with Sheinor. If they were fast, they just might make it out alive.
A big lugat demon, directed by Amon, blocked the exit. It blew its icy breath at Shantor who could feel the pain in her shoulder. Her bubble shield flickered for a moment, just long enough for the demon to hit her across the face with its sharp claw. Tortuous agony spread from her eye, and she could see nothing.
Young Sheinor bravely slashed at the demon with her stolen weapon, but to no avail. The bubble protected it, too. Rubble kept falling on them and Shantor could not concentrate on her magic. The demon was about to lunge at them when suddenly it stopped.
Shantor did not know why, but the demon turned and charged towards Amon Pennark, instead.
Ahkka had somehow fought herself free from the stasis, and had taken control of the lugat. When Amon Pennark realized this, he threw his sword at Ahkka’s back. The old quothian was concentrating on controlling the demon and only saw the blade when it stuck out from her stomach. She fell to the ground, dead.
This also released the lugat who again aimed its gaze at Shantor. Then the pillars holding the roof collapsed, and there was a massive cave-in. The demon and many of the others were crushed. Shantor could barely see as Amon Pennark retreated into the portal.
“As the stars are my witness, we will meet again, Shantor Three-Birds, and then you will wish you had died like all the other Keepers.” With that he was gone.
“Time to run, Aunt Shantor,” said Sheinor who dragged the half-blind Shantor out of the chamber. They stumbled as far as they could, debris and dead bodies were everywhere. Shantor held the key in one claw and Sheinor in the other, and finally managed to create the bubble again.
The melody of the pyramid had turned into a deafening noise, which drowned out even the sound of the falling stones.
Without the Aiun bubble they would have been crushed many times, but eventually they managed to crawl out. A cloud of dust obscured the Sun but the beam of light from the pyramid was visible. It grew brighter and brighter, until it almost blinded them. And then it died out. It was dark and silent.
Shantor and Sheinor limped home while legionaries, slaves, and temple servants ran towards the fallen pyramid.
Shantor spent the next few days recovering in the care of the family doctor, Dreiadan.
“You keep ending up with me,” Dreiadan told Shantor, as she carefully rubbed balm on her patient’s eye.
“Yes, thank the Sun for you,” Shantor said weakly, “How’s the eye?”
“I’m afraid it’s lost. But the wound will heal in time for the funeral.”
The Senate had ordered the legionaries and ten slaves from every house to go through the rubble and retrieve the bodies of the dead. There was to be a grand ceremony at the Solar Temple where all those who perished saving the city would be cremated together.
The demon corpses would be burned at the paupers’ necropolis.
Vushan the spy approached Shantor’s bed.
“Sheinor Three-Birds has sent me to ask for your advice,” he said. Apparently the youngling was already taking command of the house in lieu of the dead matriarch.
“What is your question?”
“Our slaves have found the body of your quothian companion. Should we burn it together with the rest?”
“No. She once told me they place the skulls of their dead in arboreal mausolea. Wrap the corpse in silk and have it sent to Heartwood. I’ll write a letter to accompany it.”
“As you wish.”
The letter was addressed to Ahkka’s daughters and granddaughters. Shantor warned them of Aox demons and told them of the great deeds Ahkka had done to protect Agemonia. She had been wary of the witch at first because of her connection to demons, but it was clear now she seeked to control them, not serve them. But perhaps not all quothians were so successful in walking that fine line.
The funeral was the grandest Shantor had ever seen. The rubble from the pyramid had been cleaned off the streets and all the braziers in the city were lit. The Solar Temple was packed with priests, pyromancers, senators, and nobles. Even the Emperor was in attendance.
There was a huge pyre in front of the Solar Temple and all the dead were placed on it. Shantor’s mother Dravesh was on a pedestal of her own so that the house could keep her ashes. And so was the Red Witch.
The High Priestess in her golden mask spoke the holy words and declared both Dravesh and the Red Witch as sacred martyrs who died protecting the city and the Empire from demons. Little did she know.
Pyromancers of both houses were asked to start the fire. Sheiash, the head pyromancer of the House of Three-Birds raised her hands towards the Burning Sun and fire erupted from her claws and flew towards the pyre. The fire sorcerer of the House of Five-Petals did the same.
After all the bodies had been cremated, Sheinor led her house into the temple. After the ceremony, they held a private wake at the family pyramid to honor the memory of all those who had died.
At the wake, Sheiash, Dreiadan, and spymaster Heiakre approached Shantor.
“Now that you are finally here, will you take your mother’s place as she wished? Will you become the new leader of this house?”
Shantor shook her head. “The house already has a leader. Look to young Sheinor, who will soon choose to become a woman. They will be a powerful matriarch and lead this house into a new era.”
They all looked at Sheinor who, despite their youth, was giving orders and counsel, and listening to the concerns of her folk. The memory of Dravesh would live on in Sheinor.
Several days later Shantor was finally well enough to travel.
She bid goodbye to her brother and Sheinor who already looked ready to shed their skin.
Shantor and Sheinor talked alone for a while, promising to help each other as needed.
Then Shantor packed the key and everything else she may need into Birdie. Sheinor patted Legionary on its muzzle and it gave a friendly grunt.
The togrel drew Birdie and Shantor to the harbor where ships of all shapes and sizes were loading or unloading their cargo. Multi-layered piers led to different decks and Shantor took one of the lower ones to deliver Birdie to the cargo hold and then Legionary to the pens.
This mercantile cog was bound for the Benemite harbor town of Ambergate where Aiun had suggested Shantor should travel next. As the ship left the harbor, she stood on the deck, watching her home city with her one good eye. The city which she had left so long ago.
Her mother had wanted Shantor to follow her as leader of the house, but Shantor had never wanted that. Sheinor would be so much better at it. Shantor’s path was elsewhere. As the last Keeper of the Breach, it now befell on her to ensure that their legacy endured.
“Grandmother never understood why you had to go. But I do,” Sheinor had told her. “This time will you stay in touch with your house?”
“I will,” Shantor had promised. “To rule one of the great houses is a heavy burden, and I will help you carry it.”
“As is protecting Agemonia from the demons of the Breach,” Sheinor had said. “I would send someone to help you in Benem. Whom would you like? Should I send Dreiadan to heal your wounds? Or Vushan to assassinate your enemies? Or Sheiash to sow holy fire wherever you go?”
She asked for Vushan whom she already knew to be a trustworthy ally. He would join her later in Benem.
As the ship hoisted sails, Shantor smiled.

18. Epilog

The air had a sweet fresh smell as if before a lightning storm. As the ship sailed past the gargantuan artifact, Shantor Three-Birds could feel the magic emanating from its lit up runes.
The half-submerged ellipse was big enough to sail through, but none dared try. Even sea birds and fish steered clear of it. This was the mysterious object which gave the city of Ambergate its name. For millennia it had lain there dormant, as if waiting for something. Or someone.
The nihteegri of old had worshiped the gate to nowhere, and associated it with their pagan goddesses. The harbor and the city had grown around it. Now, perhaps for the first time since the Ancients left, its runes had started to glow and the whole structure was vibrating with power.
In boats near the gate were nihteegri cosmographers, magi, and priests of the Fifth Eye observing it and trying to decipher the runes. Amongst them, Shantor saw a strange creature who emanated with Aiun power herself. But it was impossible to say which people the purple woman belonged to.
The Benemite harbor city was built upon many small islands connected by rivers, canals, and bridges. Most of the citizens were nihteegri, but there were plenty of korallians and pattangans as well as merchants and sailors from all over Agemonia.
The city was abuzz with talk of the glowing runes, and driving the Legionary-drawn Birdie through the narrow streets was difficult. Shantor saw the famous library of the Council of Eight, no doubt as dusty and derelict as the rest of that organization. She also saw the delicate stargazing tower of the cosmographers and the domes of Fort Haven, the castle of Ambergate’s ruling house, the Dengaults.
But Shantor had no need to see the sights as she was tasked by Aiun to go to the inn of the Shimmering Squid. She asked some street urchins for directions and then headed straight to the inn.
The inn looked cozy enough, even if there was a passed-out boryot laying by the entrance with kelp in his antlers. The Shimmering Squid was owned by a fat korallian who reminded Shantor of her lost friend and mentor Bule’Sai. He told her room prices had gone up since there were so many travelers these days. The profiteering reminded her of Bule’Sai even more.
Fortunately, the House of Three-Birds had provided her with some Megeian gold, and she was able to procure a tolerable room, some hot meals, and a place for Legionary and Birdie in the stable. The stable turned out to be an abandoned temple with a forgotten goddess painted on the wall. Clearly, Ambergaters were not too religious.
She patted good old Legionary on the snout, and told the innkeeper’s nihteegri stepdaughter to take good care of him.
Shantor opened Birdie’s freight bin and saw a pattangan totem the Shaman Prince had given her, Bule’Sai’s seashell flask, and some rolls of Ahkka’s silk. In between those and a sack of scrolls, rolled in spare clothing, was a sun-engraved runic plate she had kept hidden in her home. It had been given to her long ago by her teacher Kogan, and she knew that in Benem there was a secret vault holding an Orb of Power and she could use it there. To protect it from falling into the wrong hands, she took it with her into the inn.
Walking back over a bridge she saw a fishwife looking at the runic plate curiously. She realized it was best to keep it well hidden.
The inn was cozily decorated with a maritime theme — everything from harpoons on the wall to tentacle-shaped chandeliers. There were, indeed, quite a few residents. The innkeeper and his stepdaughter did not seem very remarkable. Slightly more, perhaps, was an elderly priest of the Fifth Eye. Did Aiun send her here to recruit him?
Shantor spent that evening sitting in the common room, posing as a silk merchant. She overheard many interesting conversations.
There was Lunara Bryndelion, a proud nihteegri noblewoman, perhaps a knight, who was poorly disguised as a commoner.
There was Zuva’Sai, a sardonic korallian telepath clearly still getting accustomed to being on dry land.
There was Venia, a ruthless young quothian carrying a skull. She traveled with Torrax, an agurian with a troubled look on his face of stone.
There was Matajam, a conflicted middle-aged Amethyst Order manager who was followed by a small animal spirit.
And there was Drenosh Eight-Songs, the vengeful ignisaur who had refused to choose a sex.
All of them had a touch of destiny about them. A scent of Aiun only a Keeper of the Breach could sense. Most of them did not know each other, and Shantor chose not to introduce herself. She was biding her time, observing, evaluating. Perhaps tomorrow. Perhaps later.
She slept well that night after some Benemite wine and raw fish korallian style. The next day she observed these curious strangers come and go, and employed street urchins and the innkeeper to find out more. Perhaps tomorrow she would confront them.
She was sitting at a table alone, waiting for her supper, when all of her senses suddenly alerted her that something was happening. Something big. Something bad.
She ran to the common room window, from which the gate of amber was visible. Lightning struck from one rune to the next until they were all sizzling with magic. Then the hole in the middle of the gate lit up with an azure light, and a metallic sound blared over the whole city. Suddenly she realized the gate was, indeed, a gate. It was a portal to the Breach!
Water started pouring in, causing waves which overturned the observing boats, and then hit the harbor, destroying piers. Soon the canals were flooding, and the waves were crashing on the walls of Fort Haven. Shantor realized her own feet were getting wet. She would have to grab the runic plate, rescue Legionary and Birdie, and leave this place!
As she was rushing towards her room, she saw her prospective pupils run down the stairs to the common room. Now, she realized. She would have to approach them now!

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