Seventy-six trombones led the big parade. Well, not literally, but the thirty liveried musicians, blowing fanfares from long brass horns, came as close to fitting the song as could reasonably be expected. Immediately behind them rode another musician, this one bearing a massive white horn that appeared to be made from the tusk of an elephant, but he merely rested the instrument across his saddle and made no move to play it.
Following the silent horn-bearer there came the two kings and their éminence grise
. Amalrus of Ophir, tall and slim, clad in gilded mail and riding a palomino stallion; Strabonus of Koth, shorter but broader of build, in jet-black plate armor and on an equally black horse; and the wizard Tsotha-lanti in a chariot.
Tara studied all three men intently. There was no danger of her scrutiny drawing attention; the whole point of the grand exit was so that all of the townspeople could watch and cheer for their king. The cheering seemed to be pretty desultory, and the crowd wasn’t all that big, but then there’d been another parade the previous day and maybe they were all cheered out. One man, a big muscular guy who was obviously some kind of warrior, was cheering like he really meant it and was pumping his fist in the air enthusiastically. Tara glanced briefly in his direction, the man’s exuberance drawing her attention, but then turned back to the parade.
She didn’t learn much from looking at the two kings. They were, she guessed, simply wealthy and powerful men who were greedy for yet more wealth and power. Or they feared losing what they already had; from their perspective finding out that the military super-power next door was now ruled by a ‘savage barbarian’ couldn’t have been good news. Not that a pre-emptive strike, set up through treachery, was the best way of dealing with it but Tara could at least see their point of view.
The wizard was… something else. He rode standing up in a two-wheeled chariot, which seemed anachronistic to Tara considering the medieval-style knights in plate armor, but then this wasn’t the Earth with which she was familiar. Anyway, Tsotha-lanti was in plain view and Tara could study him in detail. His head was totally bald, he didn’t have visible eyebrows, and Tara didn’t think he even had eyelashes. She’d be prepared to bet that he had no body hair whatsoever although, thankfully, his silk robes made confirmation of that guess impossible. His teeth, briefly visible as he gave a command to his charioteer, seemed to be pointed. She picked up vibes from him that, back in Sunnydale, she would have interpreted as ‘demon’. And not a harmless one like Clem; the pointed teeth were the only similarity. This guy was Bad with a capital B.
And then his chariot had passed by and was replaced by ranks of mounted knights. Tara watched them with only mild interest. They didn’t look much different from the way knights looked in old movies on TV. She was reminded of the Knights of Byzantium. She hadn’t been in her right mind at the time of the confrontation with the Knights, of course, but what she remembered of them matched these guys, to a large extent, except that she didn’t remember the Key-obsessed versions being as heavily armored as those in the army of Koth.
Roshan was paying more attention; in fact she seemed to be counting the knights, Tara thought, although she was trying to be unobtrusive about it. Tara couldn’t think why; yes, the information might be valuable military intelligence to the Aquilonians, but Roshan would have no opportunity to pass that information on. Roshan had described herself to Tara, at their first meeting, as a ‘scout’ but Tara guessed that what she had really meant was ‘spy’. Perhaps the information-gathering was simply habit? This wasn’t the time or place to question Roshan about it.
And then the parade had passed, moving on out through the city gates, and the crowd began to thin.
“Approximately seven hundred and fifty,” Roshan said, keeping her voice low. “The King’s Guard numbers one thousand, at full strength, but they took casualties at the plain of Shamu. The missing two hundred and fifty will be the injured and the dead. That means the whole regiment has gone; only the normal guard will be present in the royal castle.”
Ah. That explained Roshan’s counting. Tara restricted herself to replying with a simple “I see.”
“Let us move on,” Roshan continued. “A meal, I think, and then we might go and take a look at the castle.”
As they began to walk away they were approached by the big man who had been applauding the kings more enthusiastically than anyone else. Three smaller men trailed behind him, leather-clad thugs with long knives at their belts, their manner distinctly reminiscent of jackals following a lion. The leader was over six feet tall, broad in the shoulder, with a thick waist and legs like tree-trunks. His head was shaven and his upper lip was adorned with a mustache that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a walrus. Instead of tusks, however, he was armed with a large scimitar belted high at his left hip. A hauberk of steel rings sewn onto leather, worn over a wide-sleeved white shirt, protected his barrel of a chest and his bulging stomach.
“Greetings, fair maidens,” he hailed them, gazing at Tara and Roshan with an expression on his face that, like his mustache, wouldn’t have been out of place on a walrus; a bull walrus in the mating season. “It is a glorious day, is it not? A time to celebrate. Come, maidens, and drink a cup of wine with me.”
“I think not,” Roshan replied. “It is not our custom to drink with strangers.”
“Then let us not be strangers,” the man replied. “I am Olgerd Vladislav, a captain of mercenaries, and these are my men. And you are…?”
“I am Roshan, daughter of Vahauka, of Yarmouk,” Roshan answered, “and this is Tara MacLay of Brythunia. I thank you for your invitation but we must be going.”
“Nay, fair maiden, tarry awhile,” said Olgerd. “This is a great occasion and should be celebrated in suitable style. Nothing could be more suitable than to share a cup of wine with a pair of exceedingly comely wenches.”
“Thank you for the compliment, but I cannot accept your invitation,” Roshan replied. “Tell me, though, why is it such an occasion for celebration?”
“My enemy has been taken captive,” Olgerd gloated. “Conan the Cimmerian, the savage brute who stole my men out from under me and then cast me out into the desert with a broken arm, will at last pay for his misdeeds. I admit I would rather King Strabonus had sent him to the executioner’s block on the spot, rather than delaying, but my heart still rejoices to know that Conan languishes in the dungeons. No doubt Strabonus will execute him once the conquest of Aquilonia is complete.”
“No doubt,” Roshan agreed in a flat voice almost devoid of inflexion. “It will be a public spectacle, I am sure, and so you will be able to witness your enemy’s demise. May you have joy of it. Farewell.”
“Wait,” the mercenary called. “Will you not reconsider? I can be… generous with my coin.”
“We have pressing business elsewhere. I bid you farewell,” Roshan said, and turned to walk off.
“What of you, Brythunian?” asked Olgerd. “Will you drink with me?”
Tara repressed a shudder. Even if she had been straight she wouldn’t have been in the least tempted. The mercenary’s black mustache was streaked with grey; he was probably at least as old as Giles and not wearing anything like as well. His leering gaze, focused on her scantily-clad body, made her feel distinctly uncomfortable. “I must decline,” she said, trying as best she could to emulate the speech patterns of the locals. “Farewell, sir mercenary.”
“The loss is yours, Brythunian,” said Olgerd, turning his head to watch Roshan’s rear as she began to walk away, and then he spoke again in a sharper tone. “You wear a sword, girl. That is a most uncommon accoutrement for a maid in these lands.”
Roshan turned back to face him. “It is for protection in case of attack by brigands in the wilds. We cannot afford to hire an escort when we travel.”
“Oh? And can you use it?” There was amusement, perhaps mockery, in the big man’s tone.
“Well enough,” Roshan said, “but only at need. I do not brawl in the streets. Come, Tara.”
This time Olgerd allowed them to depart with no further words. Tara was sure, however, than he was watching them every step of the way and she felt her skin crawl at the thought of his lustful gaze. She didn’t look back until after they had turned a corner.
“I didn’t like that man,” Tara remarked.
“Your judgment is sound,” Roshan said. “It would not be good if he, and his jackals, came upon us in a place where there were no citizens around to see.”
Tara smiled slightly as she heard Roshan describe Olgerd’s retinue as jackals, exactly as Tara had done in her thoughts, although of course Roshan had never seen jackals on the Discovery Channel. “I think you’re right,” Tara said. She remembered reading a Science Fiction novel recently, Eric Flint’s ‘1632’, in which European mercenaries in the Thirty Years’ War had featured. Assuming the portrayal was accurate, and that mercenaries in this age were similar, they would be about the worst possible people two young women alone could encounter. “Mercenaries in my world could be very bad people.”
Roshan shook her head. “He is no mercenary,” she said. “I know of him by repute. Olgerd Vladislav is a brigand chieftain. A hetman of the Zaporoskan Kozaki, at one time, and then he led a band of Zuagir raiders until he crossed paths with Conan – to his sorrow. A meeting he has not forgotten.” She glanced around, checking that there were no bystanders within hearing range, and then continued. “If we can free Conan we must then smuggle him out of the city. I had thought that a change of clothing, and a hauberk and coif acquired from the castle’s stores, would be an adequate disguise. Few in this city can have seen him close up, only from afar during Strabonus’ triumphal procession, and if no general hue and cry was raised he could pass as our hired bodyguard. Olgerd poses a danger to that plan, for he would surely recognize Conan, and so we must take care to avoid him.”
“I’m all in favor of that,” Tara agreed, “but we don’t know where he’ll be to avoid.”
“You think I should have accepted his invitation, then?” Roshan asked, her eyebrows climbing.
Tara shuddered. “Definitely not. We’ll just have to keep our eyes open.”
“Perhaps this was a fortuitous meeting, after all,” Roshan mused, “for had he not introduced himself I would not have known him. When Conan told the story of his time with the Zuagir he described Olgerd as lean and hard, with a short black beard, and that portrayal does not tally with the man we just met. The years since, some twenty years if I recall the tale correctly, have changed him much.”
Tara remembered something Roshan had said earlier. “I thought you said you didn’t know Conan, only some people he knows?”
“I was a new initiate at the temple, thirteen years old, sitting in a corner as Conan told his tales to the High Priestess and some of the senior acolytes,” Roshan explained. “I remember him well but I would be surprised if he remembered me. I, too, have been changed by the years.”
“It happens,” Tara agreed, “although you’ve probably changed for the better and that Olgerd man… hasn’t.” ‘Time changes everyone’, she thought, and then ‘unless you’re a vampire’.
Her thoughts strayed off on a tangent and she wondered how things were going for Spike. Was his relationship with Buffy, which hadn’t seemed to be doing either of them any good, still continuing? Tara had been concentrating almost exclusively on Willow, during her last night at Revello Drive before being transported to this world, but she had picked up an impression that Spike and Buffy had had a quarrel rather more serious than their usual fights. She wished Spike well, especially since the unarmed combat training he had given her had proved so useful, and she hoped nothing too catastrophic had happened. Idly she wondered what Spike was doing now – or, to be more accurate, what he was doing thousands of years in the future in an alternate world.- - - - -
In daylight the enormous cone of Mount Muhavura would have dominated the skyline. By night it was just an ominous black shadow, visible mainly as the absence of stars in that quadrant of the sky, but Spike couldn’t stop himself from staring at it; even when he heard the sound of footsteps, the heavy-shod footsteps of a white man, approaching.
“Spike,” said a familiar voice. “You total and absolute pillock. What the hell have you done?”
“Come to stake me, then, Rupert?” Spike asked, without turning round. “You’ve every right. Go ahead.”
Giles clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “I must confess that I would dearly like to do so but, by now, it would be pointless. If, that is, I am correct about the idiotic action that you have performed. Why the hell did you do it?”
Spike turned his head sharply. “You know? How?”
“It’s a bloody prophecy,” Giles replied. “Isn’t it always? I stumbled on it by accident when I was looking for… something else. I took the next flight to Uganda, hoping I would get here in time to stop you, but it would seem that I’m too late.”
“You wanted to stop
me from getting my soul back?” Spike’s eyes widened. “Would have thought you’d have stood up and bloody cheered – or staked me, when you found out why.”
“The thought did cross my mind,” said Giles, “but, as I said, it would be pointless now, and I suppose your intentions were good. Of course you know what they say about good intentions…”
Spike’s forehead creased deeply. “Seemed simple enough to me. Hurt the girl, had to make it right, fix it so I couldn’t hurt her again. She was always going on at me about me being a soulless monster…”
“And you thought that, if you had a soul, she’d take you back.” Giles sat down on the black volcanic soil beside Spike. “I rather doubt that will happen.”
“Realize that now,” Spike said. “Didn’t understand just how wrong it was. Things are clearer now.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy your new moral sensibilities and clarity of thought,” Giles said, “for all of the two months they’re going to last.”
“What do you mean?” Spike asked, a touch of indignation creeping into his tone. “This is permanent. Got a proper job done, went through the Trials, and had it put in by the demon-god of the Batwa people. Not a gypsy botch-up like Angel’s.”
“I’m sure it will be a great comfort to us all, as we wait for the end, to know that you went out of your way to obtain the finest possible workmanship,” Giles said.
“What do you mean, ‘wait for the end’?”
“I mean, you steaming great idiot,” said Giles, “that you have lit the fuse to the Apocalypse. Your getting your soul has triggered something that will, very probably, kill all of us.”
Spike stared at Giles, his mouth hanging open, too surprised even to speak for a long moment. Eventually he managed to close his mouth, he swallowed, and then he spoke. “Kill us all? What are you talking about?”
“It’s a prophecy,” Giles said, and he sat down on the ground beside Spike, “as usual. I stumbled upon it while I was looking for information on the Land of the Trolls. A complete red herring, as it turned out, as that’s not where Tara has gone after all, but it may have been a fortuitous error. I found a prophecy in the writings of the twelfth-century Icelandic visionary Bödvarr the One-Eyed. It’s been lying in the Watchers’ Council archives for decades, almost forgotten, regarded as meaningless – even though Bödvarr successfully predicted the Thirty Years’ War, the American Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and of Hitler, and Abba’s victory in the Eurovision Song Contest.”
Spike shook his head. “You’ll have to put it in simple terms, mate. ‘M still a bit knackered from the Trials and not firing on all cylinders. Tell me what the prophecy says – in plain English, not bloody Old Norse blank verse.”
“The Slayer line was split when Willow resurrected Buffy,” Giles said. “When either one of the two Slayers dies another Slayer will be called. That’s disrupted the balance between Good and Evil. Two Souled Vampires makes it even worse. You’ve thrown the balance totally and utterly out of whack and shattered some of the mystical wards that the Powers put in place to protect Earth. If there are still two Slayers on Midsummer’s Eve then the First Evil will arise, destroy or corrupt the Slayer line, and then lead an invincible army of demons to conquer the world.”
“Oh, shit,” Spike groaned. “Looks like we’re buggered.”
“Indeed so,” Giles confirmed. “However it is possible that the situation might not be as dire as it appears. Angel has disappeared. If he was, in fact, dead before you regained your soul then there were not two Souled Vampires after all and the First Evil will not be able to enter the world.”
“Doubt if we’re that lucky,” Spike muttered. “He’ll just have buggered off to some monastery or something, like he did last year, to brood and comb his Nancy-boy gelled hair.”
Giles raised his eyebrows. “The words ‘pot’, ‘kettle’, and ‘black’ come to mind,” he remarked. “Be that as it may, however, we have to find him. Not only will that confirm, one way or another, whether or not the Prophecy of the Four has been fulfilled but it will free up Angel’s associates to assist us in recovering our own missing person. Tara.”
“What, the good witch is missing?”
“Indeed so. She has, apparently, been transported to an alternate dimension.”
“Red fucked up another one of her spells, then?” Spike deduced.
“Not exactly,” Giles said. “I gather it was the only way Willow could prevent Tara from dying. However we are wasting time. I’ll explain further on the way back to Entebbe.” He stood up. “On your feet, Spike, we have a long journey ahead of us.”
Spike rose, dropped his cigarette butt, and stamped on it. “Probably be simpler if you just staked me,” he suggested.
“As I said, it would be pointless,” Giles said. “I would interpret the prophecy as meaning that your action in getting back your soul was equivalent to starting the count-down to Apocalypse but it’s the presence of two Slayers that is the actual, ah, bomb. Staking you wouldn’t prevent the rise of the First Evil and, for all your faults, you are rather good at fighting demons. If the worst comes to the worst we will need your help in opposing the demon invasion. First, though, we need to find Angel. Some of the more, ah, lurid treatises on vampires claim that there is a mystical link between a vampire and his Sire. Can you use anything like that to track him down?”
“That’s a load of bollocks,” Spike replied. “Bloody Anne Rice and Vampire: the Masquerade and all that crap. Anyway, Drusilla’s my Sire. Just called Angel ‘Sire’ as a sort of honorary title. Called him my Yoda, too, but that doesn’t mean he can use a light-saber. Might be able to smell him out, if I can get close enough, but that’s about it.”
“I thought as much,” Giles said. “We will, then, have to do this the hard way. Old-fashioned legwork.”- - - - -
Roshan re-locked the door leading to the cells, extracted the keys, and replaced them on their hook on the wall. She walked past the oblivious jailors, who were concentrating on a dice game, and shook her head. “Conan is not there,” she informed Tara.
Tara waited until they had left the room before replying; the ‘notice-me-not’ spell was working perfectly, and everyone they passed was ignoring them, but she didn’t see any point in pushing its limits. “So where could he be?” she wondered, once they were away from the castle’s staff. “Do you think he’s been, uh, executed?”
Roshan shook her head again. “An execution would have been a public spectacle,” she said. “To kill him in secret would be pointless. If they conquer Aquilonia, and put a puppet ruler on the throne, the populace could rise in favor of Conan if they think he still lives. No-one would revolt to restore a dead ruler. Conan lives still, that is certain, and so must be imprisoned somewhere else.”
“But where?” Tara asked. “Uh, maybe they have him up in the king’s rooms?”
“No, he will be in the wizard’s catacombs,” Roshan said, “guarded by monsters and demons.”
Tara gulped. She wasn’t one hundred per cent sure that the notice-me-not spell would be effective against magical creatures. However she wasn’t going to leave someone who was a genuine hero, according to Roshan, stranded in a monster-haunted dungeon. She summoned up her resolve. “I guess w-we’d better go down there, then,” she said. “Uh, I thought wizards lived in towers.”
“Most do, I think,” Roshan said, “but Tsotha-lanti helped King Akkutho the First to build this citadel and he dwells within it. His chambers will be high up, near the king’s, but he will have a lair down below for the summoning of monsters and the practice of alchemy. We just have to find it.”
“You’d know more about that than me,” Tara said. “I’m not used to castles.”
Roshan nodded. “I have been in several,” she agreed, “and all are similar in most ways, but none I have been in before have had a resident wizard. Let me think. Ah. If I were the wizard I would want a direct route from my room to my lair. Let us, then, seek out the wizard’s chamber as a starting point.”
“That seems logical,” Tara agreed. She followed Roshan through the castle, up the stairs, and into the corridors of the area containing the living quarters of the citadel’s most important residents. They searched the rooms, one by one, working their way along the main corridor. Twice servants walked right past them without taking any notice.
Most of the rooms were empty but a few were occupied. In one a pair of beautiful women, naked, writhed together on a large bed covered by silken sheets. Tara blushed and backed away hastily. Roshan, however, stood and watched.
“King Strabonus’ concubines, I presume,” Roshan remarked. “I wonder if they really prefer women or if they just don’t get enough attention from their Lord to keep them satisfied?” She watched them for a moment longer, a smile on her face, and she slipped her right hand under the front section of her skirt. “One of each, I think, judging by their technique,” she declared, as an ivory dildo was put to energetic use.
“Come away!” Tara hissed through clenched teeth, her face flaming crimson. “We don’t have time for you to stand here being a voyeur.”
“I suppose not,” Roshan conceded. “Oh, well, the sooner we rescue Conan, the sooner we can get back to the inn and have fun of our own.” She drew her hand out from under her skirt and left the room.
And in the next room Roshan scandalized Tara again. There was a small wooden chest in the room, made of a heavy dark wood reinforced with bands of brass, and fastened to the wall by a thick iron chain. As soon as Roshan’s gaze fell on it her eyes lit up and she made a beeline for the chest.
“I thought we were looking for Conan the Barbarian,” Tara said, a touch of acid in her voice. “I doubt if he’s in a little wooden box.”
“This is the Chamberlain’s room, Tara,” Roshan said, not sounding even the slightest bit guilty or embarrassed. “Most of the king’s money will be in the treasury vault but the coin for small expenses will be in here.”
“The petty cash box,” Tara said.
“Indeed so,” Roshan agreed, “but the coin to buy the small things for a castle full of people will be enough to keep the two of us in comfort for months.”
“We didn’t come here to steal,” Tara reminded her. “It’s… wrong, and it’s wasting time.”
Roshan shrugged. “There is nothing wrong with stealing from the enemy,” she said, “and if you argue then it is you who wastes time.” She unclipped a small case from the side of her sword’s scabbard and opened it. “It will take only a moment to open the chest.”
Tara watched, frowning, as Roshan probed the lock with a piece of bent wire and then extracted a bronze skeleton key from the little case. She turned the key in the lock but then stepped back, drew her sword, and used the blade to flip open the chest’s lid. A metallic ‘twang’ sounded and a blade shot out of the lid right where it would have been grasped by incautious fingers.
“I thought it opened too easily,” Roshan remarked. “The proper key would have disarmed the trap. The unwary would have been pierced by what is undoubtedly an envenomed blade. Luckily I was taught by a Zamoran thief and knew what might lie in wait. And now to reap the reward.” She helped herself to several small sacks of coin from within the chest but, rather to Tara’s surprise, left some behind. “This is as much as we can conveniently carry,” Roshan explained, answering Tara’s unspoken question. “I will not allow greed to overcome common sense.” She passed one sack to Tara, who accepted it reluctantly, and stashed away the others about her person. Roshan then locked the chest, including resetting the trap, and at last left the room.
Tara fumbled with the coin sack, trying to find somewhere she could put it where it would be out of plain sight yet not thump her in some intimate part every time she moved, but it took her a long time before she found a suitable position. If only, she thought, this world had invented pockets! Or sensible bags with shoulder-straps… She went out into the corridor, still fidgeting with the coin bag, and followed Roshan into the next room.
It was the chamber of King Strabonus. That was glaringly obvious from the royal emblems emblazoned on almost every flat surface. “Well,” Tara said, looking around with her eyes wide, “if he ever gets so drunk that he wakes up not knowing who he is, he’ll soon be reminded.”
Roshan laughed. “Indeed he is fond of wine, or so I have heard, and perhaps that is the reason for this decoration. Although I think it will date from well before he became king.” She glanced around the room. “Conan is obviously not here, and neither is the passage to the wizard’s dungeons, and the valuable items would be far too recognizable to be saleable,” she said. “We should move on.”
In the next room along the corridor they saw an attractive woman, probably in her early thirties, working on a piece of embroidery. Her expression was one of extreme boredom and it made Tara think about the lack of opportunities for women, and the limited number of means of entertainment available, in this world. The peasantry would be kept occupied by hard labor, and what little free time they had could be filled by drinking and a few songs, but the nobility were probably bored out of their minds much of the time. Perhaps that boredom, rather than lust or love, was the reason why the two women they had passed earlier were going at it like gay bunnies. At least life with Roshan was unlikely to be boring… and, she had to admit, would probably include lots of doing it ‘like they do on the Discovery Channel’, even if there was no Discovery Channel to watch and it could well be centuries before anyone in this world ever saw a koala…
There was nothing of interest in the next room they came to, and the door after that was bolted from the inside and they passed it by, but the one after that was… spectacular.
The floor was made of some metallic stone that shone like silver, the walls were covered in mosaic tiles of a rich lustrous blue that had to be lapis lazuli, and the ceiling was a gilded dome. The furniture was divans swathed in silk, a low ebony table, and a tall armchair of carved ebony set with gold and gems. Tara’s first thought was that this was the king’s private conference room but a second glance revealed things that didn’t fit with that idea. A large crystal globe, mounted on a plinth set with human skulls, stood upon the ebony table. The carvings on the armchair showed, not royal emblems, but snakes and an assortment of winged creatures of demonic appearance. And a stuffed crocodile hung from the ceiling; a clear sign, if Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ books were anything to go by, that this was the room of a wizard. Unfortunately not the benign Unseen University type; Tsotha-lanti seemed to be more in the style of Lord Voldemort.
“This is the place,” said Roshan. “I would expect there to be a passage to his lair from here.” There were three archways in the wall, other than the one through which they had entered, and they checked them all out. One led to a balcony, from which they could look out over the city; darkness was falling and lantern light was beginning to shine from windows. Another doorway led to a lavishly furnished bedchamber. The third opened into a corridor that was as elaborately decorated as the chamber in which they stood. Golden censers, from which the scented smoke of incense issued, hung above a floor tiled in an elaborate mosaic pattern.
“Not quite what I expected,” Roshan said, “but there seems no other way to go.” They trod the mosaic path and found that the corridor curved around in a semi-circle. Half-way along it an archway opened onto an unlit passage. “I think this is it,” Roshan said, “but we will need lights before we go that way. Let us follow this corridor to the end first.”
“I can summon a magical light,” Tara said, “but, yes, we might as well see what’s at the end of this one.”
It was another elaborate chamber, matching the wizard’s save that the ceiling was jet black instead of gold, and Roshan clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth when she saw that a stairway led out of it on the far side. “We passed by that staircase on the way in,” she said. “We could have avoided the bedchambers altogether. Oh, well, at least I managed to acquire some coin so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.”
They retraced their steps to the dark opening and Tara cast her spell. “Aradia, hear my call,” she chanted. A tinge of doubt crossed her mind, as it occurred to her that the entity named in the spell might not exist in this reality, but she thrust the thought aside and pressed on regardless. “The way is dark. I beseech thee, bring us light.” The familiar glowing ball of light, floating in mid-air without visible support, appeared in front of her and she sighed with relief.
“Wonderful!” Roshan exclaimed.
“There’s more,” Tara said. “I didn’t do this before, because it might have attracted too much attention, but I think it’s safe to do it now. Aradia, finder of the lost, guide us to Conan the Cimmerian, King of Aquilonia, imprisoned in this place. Show us the way.”
The magical light bobbed in the air, as if nodding assent, and drifted into the dark passage at a walking place. The two girls followed.- - - - -
The glowing ball of light crossed the beach and headed out to sea. The search party reached the edge of the water, halted, and stared at the Aradia light as it flew over the waves.
Buffy’s forehead creased up. “So, Angel’s in Japan? At a Buddhist monastery, maybe?”
“Or Hawaii?” Xander suggested.
Willow shook her head. “Aradia doesn’t have anything like that kind of range,” she said. “I wouldn’t think it could detect someone more than a few miles away.”
“Santa Catalina island,” Fred said. “It’s only about twenty or thirty miles. He must be there.”
“Even twenty miles would be too far,” Willow said. “Is there anything closer?”
“Not in that direction,” Gunn stated, with the assurance of a Los Angeles native. “Angel must be on a boat.”
“Well, I’ve heard of a slow boat to China,” Xander said, “but that’s… kind of ridiculous. A sloth could get further than that in the time Deadboy’s been gone. Well, if sloths can swim, anyway.”
“They can,” Willow said. “There was a Discovery Channel show about a flooded forest in Brazil. I watched it… with… Tara…” She choked up, sniffled, and pulled out a tissue to dab at her eyes. Xander laid a hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.
Fred bit on her lower lip. “I’ll make a start on working out how to get her back tonight,” she offered. “It’s not like we can do anything more about finding Angel right now. Well, unless he’s on a boat sailing back here from Santa Catalina, or somewhere, and will be back in port soon.”
“I don’t see any boats, not in that direction anyway,” Buffy said, “and part of the whole Slayer thing is having really good eyes.”
“You know,” Xander said, “it kinda looks to me like that light thing has stopped moving. I can’t tell for sure but it looks that way. Maybe if I had some binoculars…”
“Oh, I have binoculars,” Fred said. “I like to have a gadget for every occasion.” She rummaged in her bag, produced a pair of binoculars, and handed them to Xander.
Xander put them to his eyes, fiddled with the focusing for a moment, and stared out to sea. “Well, there aren’t any boats near the light,” he stated, “but I still can’t say for sure if it’s still moving or not.”
“Let me see,” Buffy said, and took over the binoculars. She gazed through them for a minute. “It’s not moving,” she said. “I’m sure of it. No boat anywhere near. Either that Aradia thing has reached the edge of its range or Angel is under the water.”
“With his foot caught in a giant clam?” Xander suggested.
Buffy rolled her eyes. “There are no giant clams around here, Xander,” she said.
“We’ll have to get a boat,” Gunn said, “and diving gear. Although I have no clue how to use it. How about you guys?”
“Sorry, it’s not part of the Slayer package,” Buffy said. “I guess we’ll have to hire somebody. Or, Giles and Spike will be arriving at LAX in a couple of days’ time. Spike doesn’t have to breathe. Maybe he could dive down without bothering with the oxygen tanks.”
Gunn shook his head. “Isn’t Spike an old enemy of Angel?”
“Cordy told me Spike had Angel tortured,” Fred added. “Why would he help us get Angel back?”
“It’s… complicated,” Buffy said.
“Spike has issues with Angel,” Willow said, “and, right now, we have all kinds of issues with Spike. But Spike’s always been okay with Tara. If we tell him it’s to help Tara he’ll do it.”
“I’m not keen on trusting any vamp,” Gunn said, “but you know him and I don’t.”
“I don’t want to wait that long,” Fred said. “I’ll see if I can get a boat and a diver tomorrow.”
“We need a diver who won’t ask too many questions,” Gunn said. “That won’t be easy.”
Fred took hold of a strand of her hair, guided it to her mouth, and chewed on it. “I, uh, I think Wesley’s done some diving,” she said.
“English dives? You have to be joshing me,” Gunn said. “Anyway, he kind of walked out on us. I don’t know if he’d help Angel out.”
“We can only ask,” Fred said. “If he won’t help, well, we’ll just find someone else. Or wait for Spike.” She took the binoculars back from Buffy and stowed them away in her bag. “We’re making progress, anyway, thanks to you,” she said to the Sunnydale contingent. “I’ll do what I can to get your Tara back. I have to modify my equations on dimensional transference to take account of what I learned about differential time flows from what happened with Connor.”
“I still can’t deal with Angel having a teenage son who was born six months ago,” Buffy said.
“Goddess, Tara might have been in Conan land for years already!” Willow exclaimed.
“The time difference could just as easily work the other way around,” Fred said. “I don’t know yet – but I’ll work it out.” She smiled, a dazzling smile that lit up her whole face and made her suddenly beautiful, and looked back out to sea. “We’ll get our lost ones back. I just know it. We’re getting close.”- - - - -
Tara grimaced as she looked down at the body on the floor; a massive black man, tall and corpulent, his fat belly laid open in a gaping wound. The pool of blood on the floor was three feet across. Beyond it was a door made of heavy steel bars, resembling the doors of cells Tara had seen in Westerns such as ‘Rio Bravo’, and beyond that grille was a dark passage with walls of crudely-finished stone. The Aradia light had floated through the gaps in the bars and now waited for the girls beyond the door.
“One of the wizard’s servants,” Roshan said, “and, by his garb and ornaments, an important one. I should be able to work out what happened here. Let me think.” She knelt down, touched her fingertips to the puddle of blood, and then wiped them on the corpse’s silken clothing. “It is still wet, and only slightly tacky. I am no great expert on how fast blood dries but I would guess it to have been spilled an hour or two ago at most.”
“The door at the top of the stairs wasn’t locked,” Tara remarked, “but this one in front of us is bolted. So it must have been someone from the palace who killed this man.”
Roshan shook her head. “No, I do not think so,” she said. “I think he was killed by a sword thrust through the bars. In fact I suspect that it was because
the door is bolted that he was killed.”
“What do you mean?”
“I would guess that Conan was being taken to some cell behind this door but freed himself on the way. He slew his guards, took a sword, and found his way back to this door. The dead man rushed to bolt it in his face, and managed it before Conan could get through, but Conan stabbed him through the bars to prevent him from raising the alarm.” Roshan worked the bolt, opened the door, and then pushed her forearm through one of the gaps between the bars until it would go no further. “See, I cannot get my arm through far enough to reach the bolt – and Conan’s arm is much thicker than mine.”
“So he’s loose but trapped in the, uh, dungeon?”
“Indeed so. No doubt he searches for another exit but it could well be that no other such exit exists. He may return here, eventually, but it would be best if we go in after him.” Roshan stared at the bolt and pursed her lips. “If one should come to this place, after we have passed the barred door, and should shoot home this bolt then it would be ill for us. My skill at picking locks is useless against a bolt that is out of reach and the bars and bolt are far too thick to be forced except by a battering ram. We would be trapped, even as is Conan, and rumor holds that Tsotha-lanti’s catacombs are haunted by demons.”
Tara went to the door, being careful not to step in the pool of blood, and examined the bolt thoroughly. She slid the bolt open, shot it home, and then opened it again. “I could work this with magic,” she assured Roshan. “We don’t need to worry about getting locked in.”
Roshan opened her eyes very wide. “You can magic even such a solid piece of cold iron?”
It was Tara’s turn to open her eyes wide. “Why not? There isn’t anything special about iron. It won’t be a problem.” She pulled the door wide open. “Aradia, finder of the lost,” she addressed the magical light once more, “guide us to Conan the Cimmerian, King of Aquilonia, by a route that avoids all perils.”
The light bobbed in the air, and seemed to rotate – it was difficult to be sure, as it had no distinguishable front or back – but made no move to resume acting as their guide.
“I fear that there is no route that avoids peril,” Roshan said. She drew her sword.
“I think you’re right,” Tara agreed, “but I’m not going to give up now. Aradia, finder of the lost, guide us, then, to Conan the Cimmerian by the least perilous route.”
The guiding light resumed its course, heading into the dark corridor beyond the steel grille, and Roshan and Tara followed close behind. They made their way through a maze of twisting passages, often by what seemed to be a very circuitous route, for what seemed like miles. After about fifteen minutes of uneventful walking they heard a sound that resembled a woman weeping.
“Another of Tsotha-lanti’s prisoners, I would guess,” Roshan said, and she veered from the path to investigate.
Tara halted and listened. Ahead of her Aradia slowed and stopped. Tara sensed something approaching, something somehow… cold, and gradually she realized that the weeping didn’t sound quite right. There was a noise that sounded like… slithering. “Watch out, Roshan!” she called. “It’s a trap!” For a brief second a thought of Admiral Ackbar, the fish-faced Rebel commander from Star Wars, flickered through her mind. Then the source of the weeping came into view and she felt a chill of horror.
The creature that appeared was utterly loathsome. In shape it resembled an upright octopus, man-high and with a head resembling that of a warty toad, but its substance was more like that of a jellyfish. Its bulging eyes slid erratically over the surface of its head and its outline wavered. It reached out for Roshan with two tentacles that stretched out to several times their original length.
Roshan lashed out with her sword and the blade passed through both appendages – but didn’t sever them. It was as if she had struck at a stream of water. The tentacles, completely unaffected, continued on. One was aimed at her waist, the other at her sword arm, and Roshan only managed to evade them by making a frantic leap backward. Again the tentacles grabbed for her, again Roshan slashed through them without effect, but this time Roshan’s dodge was less successful. A tentacle coiled around her ankle and tugged. Roshan’s foot was jerked into the air and she staggered, flailing her arms to keep her balance, and then was pulled inexorably toward the creature. It was no longer making a sound like weeping; now a gloating laughter issued from its rubbery lips.
Tara summoned her energies, pointed her fingers at the beast, and cried out “Ignis incende!” It was a spell she’d never tried in combat before and she used it now only out of desperation. From her hand there shot forth a fiery amber streak of light. It struck the body of the demon and flames shot up from the point of impact. The fire spread, the demon’s ichor caught alight, and the creature began to shriek and thrash its tentacles wildly. Its grasp upon Roshan’s ankle relaxed and she pulled her foot free.
“You have saved me yet again,” Roshan said to Tara, as the hideous being melted like candle-wax, flames licking up from the molten mass, and fell silent and still. “My sword could not harm that eldritch creature, which must have come from the nether pits, and if not for you I would have suffered a dreadful fate.”
“You’d have brought a flaming torch with you, if I hadn’t summoned the Aradia light,” Tara pointed out. “You could have used that against the monster.”
“Be that as it may, you still saved me,” Roshan said. “You are a most puissant witch.”
Tara’s cheeks reddened slightly. “It was just a spell for lighting fires,” she said. “I’ve never used it for anything else before now. Not even against vampires.”- - - - -
Giles pulled the Land Rover to a halt at the side of the road. “We’re nearly at Entebbe, and it’s about twenty minutes to sunrise,” he said to Spike. “You’d better put on the salve now.” He handed Spike a pot about the size of a jar of Marmite.
Spike unscrewed the lid and sniffed the contents. “Are you sure this will work?”
“The Council’s records certainly say that it worked for the original owner,” Giles assured him. “Factor ten thousand sun-block for vampires, you could call it, and it should protect you quite effectively. And, before you ask, we don’t have the recipe and the original creator was staked in the Sixties. That jar is all there is.”
“The Council didn’t analyze it?”
“They weren’t exactly enthusiastic about something that would let vampires walk in the sunlight,” Giles said. “I’m surprised it was even kept, rather than destroyed, but perhaps they felt a single half-empty jar couldn’t do too much harm. It should be enough to get you back to California without burning up.”
“Hope so,” Spike grunted. “It’ll be a nice change not having to travel in a box in the cargo hold. Do I have to put it on all over? Not sure it’ll stretch that far – and you’d have to do my back.”
“The Council records indicate that it only needs to be applied to the exposed skin of the hands and face,” Giles said. “There is a mystical component that, apparently, extends the protection to the rest of the body. The application may, indeed, be purely symbolic. I’d still recommend that you be thorough about it. If you burst into flames in here then I’ll lose my car rental deposit.”- - - - -
“The notice-me-not spell will have stopped working now that I’ve cast a combat spell,” Tara said. “I won’t bother casting it again. It obviously didn’t work on that thing with the tentacles and Aradia tends to give away our presence anyway.”
Roshan nodded. “And the spell would be a hindrance when we find King Conan, for how could we talk to him if he took no notice of us? And surely we must find him before much longer. If he still lives, that is.”
“If he was dead Aradia would have reacted the same way as when I commanded that we be led by a safe route,” Tara said. “I’m sure he’s still alive.”
Roshan cocked her head to one side. “And not far off, I think, for I can hear distant voices. It may be more demons, of course, but your Aradia is leading us directly toward them.”
Tara could hear nothing but was confident Roshan was correct; the warrior maiden’s senses had already proved to be more acute than Tara’s. She listened, as they continued on behind the guiding light, and eventually she too could make out the sounds of someone talking. At first she could make out no words but then they became clear.
“My art is too frail from my long slumber to face Tsotha yet,” a male voice said. “I need time to recruit my strength and to assemble my powers. Let us go forth from these pits.”
Something metallic jingled. “The grille to the outer door is made fast by a bolt which can only be worked from the outside,” a deeper voice informed the first speaker. “Is there no other exit from these tunnels?”
“Only one which neither of us would care to use, seeing that it goes down and not up,” the first speaker replied. “But no matter. Let us see to the grille.”
Two figures stepped from a side door out into the corridor ahead of Tara and Roshan. One was tall and slender, clad in tattered rags that had perhaps once been elaborate robes, and his dark hair was a tangled unkempt mop. The other was even taller, perhaps six foot three, broad-shouldered and muscular. He wore only a loin-cloth but he held a sword in his right hand and a burning torch in his left. As soon as he spotted the two girls he whipped his sword up into a ready position.
Roshan lowered her sword and went down on one knee. “King Conan,” she said, “we have found you at last.”