Defensive salvos from the towers began raggedly. Along with Jeneyeru’s fleet of shadows, the lowering storm turned day into night. The clouds lit up and the rain glowed with the light of the magical bursts, scattered widely at first in the panic of so many enemy vessels. However, as La Danse Calinda closed in, she was soon rocked by wide-area spell blasts. Someone was beginning to coordinate things down there.
The first two landing parties dropped in turn at Lafitte’s orders as the airship circled the castle complex. The Ereonis brothers watched as the Calinda’s first team of swordsmen landed on the main gate and immediately engaged the enemy, and the next team made up mostly of sappers landed on a large section of roof where they split and ran for the doors into the building to plant their destructive devices. The brothers, all commanders in their own rights, smiled at the smooth, disciplined action.
“Right then,” said Peino, “our turn.”
The Calinda passed over the back courtyard on her final descent. Lafitte, with his usual encouraging bravado, was the first over the rail, followed swiftly by Jeneyeru and the six fighters selected by Peino in the Calinda’s distinctive, flowing, red shirts, shouting their enthusiasm. Ruili, Lotye O’Tulvar and Ionas Farseer went next, and Peino brought up the rear after making sure no one was shooting at them.
They let themselves fall fast and disengaged the ropes equally fast as the ship passed overhead. A few of them got dragged but only a little. All in all a perfect landing.
They were in the kitchen yard, up to their ankles in mud churned to liquid by the storm. Bedraggled chickens fluttered in a panic in one corner, and in another, the rain exposed the mottled backs of pigs in a pen. Yellowish light shone from small windows. A flash of lightning revealed a wooden gate in the castle wall, barred with a heavy beam.
With a wave of his arm, Peino gathered the group’s attention. He slapped two Calinda-men on the shoulder.
“You and you, unlock that gate for our allies and return. The rest–” He pointed left and right to the covered walkway surrounding the yard, indicating they should fan out on either side of a closed door, behind which warm light glowed. As the group spread, he patted Lotye O’Tulvar on the shoulder. He had noticed her whipping up her courage with cheers alongside Lafitte’s fighters and could see on her face even in the gloom the wide-eyed tension of a new, young deckhand seeing battle for the first time. Yet she had not hesitated to jump with the others.
Jeneyeru had noticed as well, and he took her arm and positioned her behind him as they approached the door from two sides. Simple examination proved it was closed but not locked. On a count of three nods, Ruili yanked it open and the team rushed in, led by Peino who shouted:
“Halt and stand where you are!”
They found themselves confronted by the stunned stares of cooks and sculleries. They had entered the kitchen, a long room lined with fires and ovens, with two rows of oaken tables down the center. Meats, fowls and baskets of produce and provisions hung from the ceiling, along with racks of pots, pans, hooks, ladles, knives and so forth. A haze of smoke filled the upper atmosphere of the room, but it was far weaker than the kitchen of such a large school should have been. No delicious aromas warmed the invaders. Most of the hearths were cold, the staff present were barely enough to run a moderate tavern, and they all appeared pale and shaken as they retreated up against the walls before the incoming warriors. The dull thuds of fighting could be heard through the thick stone walls.
Jeneyeru stepped forward in his black garb, the long coat flowing about him. He raised the Staff of Ghosts.
“Yield,” he said, “and you will not be harmed.”
“M-Master…Nightwise?” a voice stammered after a moment. An elderly Gnomish man cautiously emerged from among the others. He wore the apron and clogs of a cook, the spoon of his office tucked into his belt. He squinted up at the Selkie, twice as tall as he.
“It is you, is it not? Oh, I thought my heart would stop and that I was seeing things, but it is you and your illustrious brothers besides. Do you remember me, milord? I am Brend Boyra. I was Spice Master in your first year of Potions and Brews. Oh, thank the gods, we are saved!”
Jeneyeru smiled at the old man, politely avoiding saying whether he remembered him or not. In this instance, it was enough to be remembered.
“What has happened here, Master Brend?” he said. “Why are there so few of you?”
“Treachery, Master Nightwise,” said the old Gnome. “It was Master Bloodlance who turned on us. I don’t know how it came about, but they say those accursed cards corrupted him from his path. He stole them and used them to bring down the Council. I-I don’t know much more than that.” The old man seemed to sag suddenly from his initial excitement. His hands shaking, another cook helped him to a chair. “I only know that I’ve seen such terrible things as may never permit me another night’s peaceful sleep.” The room shook with a huge impact. “Oh! What was that?”
Jeneyeru knelt on one knee and placed a calming hand on the Spice Master’s shoulder. “It is the sound of help having arrived at last. What has become of the Masters, the students and staff?”
“I am not certain. They were imprisoned in the dungeons, but what has become of them since, I know not. We have not been cooking enough to feed all of them, that I know. They took away even the regular kitchen staff. These people are villagers lured up the mountain on a pretext of work, but they have been held prisoner here ever since. I myself was ordered to mind them, under threat of my own students and assistants being murdered if I did not comply, as well as these poor folk.” Brend Boyra shook his head, on the verge of tears. “Ah, they wish to eat, so they must have cooks. I suppose they thought an old Spice Master would be little threat to them, and they were right. How the weight of all these lives on my shoulders bears down upon me.”
“If your duty is to vouchsafe these lives, you may still fulfill it,” said Peino. “The outer gate across the yard is open. Leave now, all of you, as silently as you can while the traitors are occupied with fighting. If you happen to meet a force of bandits on the way, direct them to this gate.”
“Go swiftly,” said Jeneyeru.
The workers needed no further urging.
“Beware, noble lords,” Brend Boyra said. “Master Bloodlance has set traps throughout the castle, and filled it with bandits and ruffians in his service. May Scatha and Myrrdin bless your powers and Great Macha grant you victory.”
Then he took the arm of a young cook and hurried out as fast as his bent legs allowed. Ruili locked the kitchen door after them.
“Who is this Bloodlance?” asked Peino.
“Annig Bloodlance Lamila of the House of Lam. I don’t know him personally, though I have read several of his monographs,” said Jeneyeru. “He rose to the rank of Guild Master only a few years ago. A dark elf out of Belenosia, I believe. He is a Master of Blood and Bone, a great surgeon by all accounts, a teacher in the School of Healing.”
“Blood Master, eh?” said Ruili. “No wonder he went for the Blood Arcana.”
Jeneyeru had become grim. “I don’t like going up against one such as he. Blood and bone work is powerful and dangerous magic. For such a one to forsake the ethics of his art…” The wizard sighed heavily.
“Blood and bone work” referred to that specialty of healing magic that manipulated living bodies through blood or bone. Applied in accordance with the teachings of Dian Cecht, the god of medicine, healing, and the natural sciences, it could purify infections, set broken bones, correct deformities, and heal all manner of degenerative conditions. Used unethically, it could inflict unimaginable pain and commit unspeakable atrocities. Of all the magic arts, it was arguably the most tightly controlled by law, regulated beyond even the reach of the Guild itself.
“There’s nothing for it now, I’m afraid,” Jeneyeru said. “We must be aggressive in defending ourselves, that’s all. Now, gather round and pay close heed.” He pointed towards tall double doors on the other end of the kitchen. “Yonder lies the dining hall and beyond that, one of the main corridors to the rest of the castle. From this point, maps will not serve us, as the arrangement of the School of Magic is subject to frequent alterations. Follow the directory signs you will find throughout the buildings, as they are enchanted to be continuously up to date, regardless of how chaotic the experiments of the teachers and students may be.
“Remember your teams. Captain Lafitte, you are with me, as is my brother Ruili. Mistress Lotye, Mr. Farseer, you are with my brother Peino. You gentlemen in red, three of you with each group, if you please. Lotye, your ring, please.”
Jeneyeru touched the two Eye of the Dreamer rings to each other and murmured a short spell. The cat’s-eye topaz gems shimmered and blinked. He gave one of the rings back to Lotye.
“To see what the other team is doing, lay your hand over the ring and speak the words ‘Merr. kerr.’* Then look at the gem. To signal the other team that you need help, say ‘Merr. kre.’* and tap the gem. It will cause a light to flash from the other ring. Now, let us go.”
Together, the group hurried quietly through the long dining hall. They cautiously peeked out into the corridor that extended left and right and found it empty from one corner turn to another.
“Fair winds, brothers and friends,” said Peino.
“And following seas,” Jeneyeru and Ruili answered together.
The teams split up, one left and one right. Elsewhere in the castle complex, Lafitte’s diversionary parties were carrying out mischief devised by Larman Ogges. The long hallway echoed with violent shouts and the stomping boots of fighters running to and fro.
The Ereonis brothers and their companions had a short list of objectives to accomplish under the cover of this chaos. In whatever order they may occur, they were to: (1) Find and release the Masters, students and staff of the Guild who were being held captive. (2) Locate and secure the Guild’s dragon summoning device. (3) Find and, if possible, secure the remaining Daemon Arcana cards. And (4) capture Annig Bloodlance.
The curving corridor led them out of sight of each other. At the far end of each wing, each team saw an ornate door closed before them. They each ran towards the doors. Each one bore a directory sign.
The door Peino’s team reached was labeled “To: Potions Laboratories, Library and points beyond to the Great Hall.”
The door Jeneyeru’s team reached was labeled “To: Staff Offices and Student Quarters.”
*Jeneyeru is giving Lotye the abbreviated versions of the spells in Atultaec, which is standard procedure, as the language is too powerful to be spoken outside of spellcasting. As one with a little training in Atultaec (abbr. Atul), Lotye will know that “Merr. Kerr” = “Merrur kerrur,” and “Merr. kre.” = “Merrur krema.”