Thursday, February 22, 2018

Chapter Nineteen: Breakout(Part Two)



 "Well," Angus observed, staring with awe at the conflagration to the south. "I think we found Kacey."

"You think she set everything on fire?" Ardyn asked, since she couldn't really quibble with the idea herself. She flicked the reins, and her horse started forward, pacing Angus'. Behind them, their two spare mounts followed.

"I wouldn't be surprised. Who else would?" Angus shook his head. "Now, I just wonder why? What'd this place do to get in her bad graces this badly?"

"We can't make snap judgments like that," Ardyn protested. "We've got to get closer and find out the truth of what's-"

"Are you mad?" The woman materialized from the gloom ahead, running full-pelt away from the fire. "Turn around! Take me with you!"

"What're you on about?" Angus demanded. "What happened here?"

"You've got to turn around! They'll kill you!" The runner skidded to a halt, though she didn't look like she wanted to. "They're called the Guiding Light, and they're insane!"

"We're looking for a woman," Ardyn said. "Blue eyes, red hair, carrying a shield-"

"She told me to run!" She had the look of a drifter, Ardyn supposed: tattered clothes, grimy face, constant fidgeting. "She got me out and told me to leave-"

"She's in there?" Angus asked. "She's with these Guiding Light people?"

"She's fighting them!" the drifter cried. "She saved my life, took out the Owner like that-"

"Owner?" Ardyn blinked. "What kind of a name-"

"-you've got to run or they'll catch you, too!" She glanced over her shoulder nervously. "You, sir, they'll kill, but you..." She stared at Ardyn. "You'll wish they killed you. They'll give you to him."

"No one's touching her," Angus growled, and that sent a warm tingle up Ardyn's spine. "And no one's touching Kacey either. I made a promise."

"Here." Ardyn reached down, and she undid the lead to one of their spare horses. "He's got some food and water on him, but not a lot. Take care of him, you hear me?"

"You're too kind!" Her eyes burned with gratitude. "I owe you for this-"

"Go!" Ardyn waved, and the drifter needed no further urging. She scaled the horse's back quickly and smoothly, and then turned him around. Off she went into the darkness, bent almost double over his mane.

"Right," Angus said, and Ardyn inhaled as he drew the longsword from his side. "Stay here. I'm going to meet these Guiding Light people-"

"I'm coming too." She spurred her horse toward the fires. "No buts, Angus."

"Ardyn-"

"I'm not sitting here and fretting and knitting," she growled. "We're going together. You can argue and lose or accept it, but it's mutiny either way, captain."

"Woman!" Angus' heart wasn't in the cry, but Ardyn rather thought she heard a hint of gratitude.

Friends stuck together.

***

"Hello, Jason," Kacey said. She approached the man, free fist clenched, glancing at his sword, his single-shot pistol, and the knives in his boots. "Remember me?"

Green eyes burned in the dark. "I've never regretted a turn of fate that cost me a mark more than I do right now. You should know that. I'd be a much happier man if your father had been too slow to save your life."

"Well, up yours," Kacey growled. "I have a score to settle."

"Happily." Jason's gaze flicked toward the flames as another explosion rocked the night, and a chorus of screaming and meaty thuds. "But not tonight."

"Oh, yes, tonight-" Kacey broke off as Jason stepped back. "Where are you - hey!" She shrieked as he turned his back on her and bolted for the river. "Bleeding coward!" Then her feet were moving, and she tore after him.

Snow crunched underfoot. She paused twice: once to kick a fallen spear out of her way, and again when one of Jason's minions loomed ahead. The murderer waved his underling toward Kacey with a cry of "kill her!" and she slung her shield on the fly. Of course, she missed, the tool burying itself in the dirt.

That didn't save the poor man from a push-kick that put him into a tree. Kacey reclaimed her shield with a scowl, delaying to punch the man as she went just to make sure he didn't come after her. Then it was back to running, chased by the sounds of devastation.

Kacey never quite lost sight of Jason. He vaulted the river's edge, dropping eight feet to roll on snow-coated ice that cracked dangerously under his weight. He raced for the far bank a half-mile away, without reaching for his weapons.

"Oi!" She hurled her shield on the move again, and this time she got results. The metal disc hit Jason between the shoulders, and he went down. Kacey mimicked his dive, and she too slid across the ice, teeth set as she heard the cracking. She made it to her fallen shield as Jason got to his feet, mere yards away.

Out came his pistol. Kacey's breath caught as for the second time in her life, Jason brought a gun to bear on her...but this time, she had a defense. Her foot went up and down, and her shield flew up to chest-level as Jason fired.

Clang! The bullet went somewhere, of course, but Kacey's shield scattered too, several feet behind her. She didn't bother reclaiming it, just lunging at Jason as he drew his daggers.

"All right, MacTavish," he growled. Her fists flew, and he blocked with his forearms. She overextended and he slashed like lightning, carving open the back of her hand. Kacey retreated, and he struck up a fighting stance. "Put up more of a fight than your father."

She set her teeth. The ice cracked below her as she stepped to the left, and then below Jason as he too moved. Neither blinked.

Kacey kicked. Jason whirled out of the way, flipping one knife before throwing the other. The redhead snarled as it drove into her bicep, and she ripped it out without a care. Her next kick hit air too, only for Jason to use his remaining blade to slice her foot.

"Ow!" Kacey slid backward on the ice, curling her fingers as she sewed a Thread of Health onto her arm. Green flashed from her nails. The big man chuckled deep in his throat as he tossed his knife.

"Come on, Kacey," he encouraged. "Show me how to fight like a girl."

"You!" She lunged. Her fist nearly kissed his nose as he pirouetted away, but she caught his knife wrist as he came back around, the tip of the blade an inch from her throat. "Down!" She flipped him over onto the ice, and a spider-web of cracks exploded around her feet. His blade flew as he threw the weapon rather than yield it.

She cried out as he shoved her ankle. The ice betrayed her, and she crashed on her face, swearing. Jason drew his sword, still on his back, and rolled her way without hesitation. Kacey blocked his first strike, but his second was a kick to her hip that sent her sliding.

She growled as she got her feet under her, finally. By the time she was on one knee, Jason was up, and he started for her, sword in both hands.

Kacey drew Kjetil's knife.

They met in a storm of flying sparks and ringing metal. Kacey found herself on the defensive as Jason's longer weapon let him choose where to strike, and she had to cede ground from overheads and horizontal strikes that would have laid her open. His size became a factor, and she set her teeth as she realized how heroic of a challenge pressing an offensive through his guard would be, as he spun through form and form. Her knife wasn't nearly the armor she needed.

Then he stumbled on the ice, and Kacey saw her chance. She lunged, free hand catching his upraised wrists. One of her arms versus both of his was a slightly worse than fair challenge, but she didn't have to hold him very long. Her other hand flipped the knife around, and-

The noise was...soft. It was a meaty squish, and for some reason the only thing Kacey could think of was a watermelon being carved open. She felt a sudden shake of resistance, jerking all the way from her fingertips to her shoulders and down to her toes, as two hundred pounds of weight drove her backward.

The man dropped his knife, choking as blood leaked from his mouth...and dripped from where Kacey's claymore was embedded in his chest up to the hilt.

She saw blood on her bridal gloves. Kacey's throat went dry.

She choked.

Jason's free fist caught her cheek, and she tumbled. Kjetil's knife skittered across the ice, and Kacey gasped as she came to a stop by her father's shield.

It should be different, she told herself as Jason loomed before her. The redhead hissed and grabbed the shield, hurling herself to her feet. This is the man who killed your father! He deserves murder! Why hesitate? His life doesn't matter!

"You," Jason started-

Thud. That was the sound of someone else landing on the ice.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Chapter Nineteen: Breakout(Part One)



"Please," Kirsten Marriot begged. "Look, I left Nurem because of things like this-"

"No one cares about you, drifter," her interrogator growled. The man stood, a dark smile on his face, and Kirsten flinched, leaning back against the wall of her cell. "You've seen Midnight in action, haven't you?"

"It...it was one time...I was locked in a box, so I didn't see-"

"Give me a good reason not to hand you over to the Owner," the man ordered, and Kirsten shook her head, blonde tresses spilling.

"Please...no..."

"Give me something to justify it, and I'll tell him where to shove his Blonde-Bride-One nonsense," the man promised. "A weakness. Something we can use to kill Midnight."

"I...I didn't see anything, I swear-"

"Too bad." His lip curled. "You know what he does to girls like you, right, drifter? Locks you up in coffins, buries you alive after pumping you full of compulsion and preservation potions. Imagine, locked in the dark for years, under six feet of cold earth, unable to move, barely able to breathe. You'll go mad."

"I don't know anything-"

"The Owner's going to come crashing in here any minute," the man declared. "He'll barrel right on in, and that'll be the last I see of you for a good long time-"

Crash!

Kirsten screamed as something came flying through the wall to her left: a human-sized projectile that hit her interrogator dead-on. Both of them continued flying with howls, right through the next wall. Rubble fell.

After a moment, Kirsten risked a peek, and she saw her interrogator tangled up with the Owner, both of them groaning and gasping for breath as the last vestiges of consciousness left them. The blonde looked the other way, and she flinched as she saw a powerful-looking, angry-looking redhead with flames in her sapphire eyes.

"I'm...not with them," Kirsten started. The woman glared.

Then she jerked her head in summons, and gratefully, Kirsten fled to her side.
 
***

Kacey burst from Theron's lair, pack shouldered and shield on her arm. She'd made sure to palm the potions he'd laid out, though she couldn't find his wand and didn't know if, as a non-wizard, she could even use it. The little things were what really comforted her after that near-nightmare, though, and possibly the littlest and most welcome was the feeling of her boots hitting the ground again instead of bare soles.

"Stay with me," she ordered the drifter girl, as they emerged from what Kacey supposed was the Owner's little collection of chambers into a long corridor beset with side doors. "We'll break for the fence to the east-"

"They're saying she's loose in Jason's compound-"

Two armored figures burst around the corner, and Kacey swore. Her shield flashed, and she caught one on the chin. The minion collapsed in a heap, and Kirsten screamed.

"Dammit, Becky!" the speaking Whisper cried, retreating as Kacey advanced. She made it two steps before she hit a wall, and the redhead kicked her straight through it just like Theron.

"Right," Kacey said. "We need to-"

Something else exploded outside, easily as big as the last one. She swore.

"What is going on?" she demanded.

"How should I know?" Kirsten cried. "I was kidnapped and thrown in a carriage! I just wanted food! I didn't ask for Whispers raining around my ears!"

"Shut yer gob!" And then Kacey was running again, the blonde behind her. She swore as she heard bells ringing. "They've sounded the alarm!"

"We just got out-"

"They must move that fast! Maybe Theron did some spell to let 'em know." Kacey picked a turn at random, and they tore down the hallway. Without losing stride, she swung her shield, and she shattered a man's kneecap in passing. He crashed onto the floor in time for Kirsten to step on him.

"How many are there?" someone cried in the darkness. "They're pressing on the left-"

"There's only one! She's loose in the cellblock-"

"I heard she was in the armory, clear on the other side of-"

"Door!" Kacey cried, throwing herself left as she heard running feet ahead. She smashed it open with her shield arm, and then covered her head with the thing again as another door was her greeting.

"Odd, innit?" she demanded of Kirsten as she battered it down. "Who puts up a door, and then another door, just like that? Their interior designer..." She trailed off as she felt cold air, and the kiss of light rain. She ground to a halt, feet sinking into half-inch snow, feeling the breeze on her face.

But what stopped her was the fire.

"Oh, gods, someone's torched half the place," Kirsten cried. She ducked a minute later as an entire building exploded across the compound, and Kacey covered both of them with her shield.

"That must be their powder magazines," she surmised. "Whoever's doing this doesn't play by halves, do they?"

"What do we do?" Kirsten asked.

"We go that way!" Kacey waved north. "There's a town, right across the river and to the north! You can find shelter there, after you ford the ice."

"And you?" she asked, as they took off through the flaming, brimstone-charred hell the camp had become in...however long Kacey had been unconscious.

"I've got business here," she growled. "I came for a reason. You didn't. I'll draw off pursuit."

"But-" Kirsten paused as Kacey vaulted over a barrel, shield up, and came down atop one man like a hammer, pummeling him into the ground. She didn't break stride, and the blonde didn't resume her protests.

"There's the fence!" Kacey waved as the wooden thing loomed through the dark, and the entrance she'd found her way to what felt like days earlier. Maybe it had been days.

"That's her!" one of the four guards there shouted. Kacey set her teeth as she bounded at them, leaving Kirsten to skid to a halt in her wake.

Her first strike was a spinning kick that immediately took out one of her foes. The remaining three drew swords and surged at her, and for a moment her world was wild with silver as they hacked and battered at her defense, and she parried with her shield at every corner. One finally slipped in the snow, and Kacey was able to spin around him and take out his leg. One shield blow shattered his nose, and his consciousness with it.

The remaining two hesitated, drawing back a step. Kacey used that, and she lunged at one with a snarl, sparks flying as she smashed his off wrist and then had to cover herself. The other circled behind her rather than simply charge, and Kacey felt a cold flush that had nothing to do with the snow.

Her hand flew, and she whipped out Kjetil's knife. She threw, and the second man recoiled with a cry, clutching his shoulder. Kacey turned, and her hook floored the other one. Before the final guard could finish ripping the curved blade from his shoulder, the redhead braced on a fencepost and spun, slinging her shield into the center of his chest.

"Go," Kacey ordered, as Kirsten scrambled to recover the weapon. The drifter passed it over, eyes wide.

"You'll-"

"Go!" Kacey shook her head, leaning down to scoop up the knife that had saved her life. "Now!"

Kirsten hesitated, but then she was off, tearing toward freedom. Kacey sucked in breath.

"Right, then," she murmured, wiping her blade and sheathing it. She turned back for the compound at a powerful stride, shield light on her arm. "Where are you, you murderer-"

She broke off. From the gloom ahead, a single figure materialized, hurrying toward the frozen river and away from the storm of explosions.

Jason ground to a halt when he saw her, and Kacey bared her teeth in something that wasn't a smile.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Chapter Eighteen: Beauty in Repose(Part Two)



Four men stood guard. They muttered to themselves: pithy comments about some infiltrator, and the idiot they considered responsible for letting her in. They seemed very united in their distaste for said idiot. Something about his unnatural and immoral proclivities.

Those seemed like very big words for mercenaries. The watcher elected to educate them on a few new ones.

"Hey!" the first one managed to gasp, as she descended behind him. Her weapon flashed, and so did several of his teeth as he landed in the light snow with red running from his mouth.

Pain. A nice, simple word any fool should grasp.

Crack! Crack! The next man fell with broken knees and a shattered larynx. She kicked him to be absolutely certain he was no threat.

Agony. Another good, well-rounded word.

"You-" And then the third one went down hard on top of his fellow, her fist putting him to sleep right there. That seemed like the word he should learn: sleep.

"Wait!" the last one begged, throwing himself to his knees. "I surrender-"

Crack! That was his skull, as she brought her weapon back around. He collapsed, senseless.

"Senseless," she mused aloud. "Unconsciousness?" She chewed on the thought for a minute. "I like senseless."

"Ow...my teeth..." The first one made it to his knees, holding his mouth.

Fear was the word, the watcher thought, as she loomed and he shrieked with it.

***

Kacey yanked at the bars of her cage. Theron looked down, arms crossed.

"Now, now," he said. "I'll forgive a bit of a tantrum as you learn the rules...but don't go overboard. My patience is not limitless. You've got to make a choice."

How am I supposed to tell you my choice if you've got me gagged? A very good question, in Kacey's opinion. Unfortunately, she couldn't ask it because of the very reason it was an issue.

"I'll give you a moment." He returned to her things, and she watched as he rooted through her pack. Finally, he found Brigid's book, and Frode's, and the wizard held them up. "Witchcraft? Really?" He sounded truly offended. "You don't mean to tell me you actually believe in that primitive nonsense about Threads and blood sacrifice, do you?" He rolled his eyes. "Pagan. Then again, I suppose..." He frowned. "You do have shapely ears. Are you half-elven?" He glanced at her shield and Kjetil's knife. "Yes, you're half-elven. A shield made by men and a blade made by drow: that's the kind of symbolism that appeals to your kind."

Kacey's eyes flicked back to the coffin. Her mind and heart raced as one, and she glanced around the room for anything that could be her ticket to freedom.

No good. I won't be getting out of this cage until he's ready, and he's a wizard. As long as he has that wand, I can't overpower him. I've got to make my own preparations before he pulls me out.

But she had nothing save the clothes on her back. No weapon, no defense...she was even barefoot, her boots sitting with her other things on Theron's table. All she had were her hands and-

My hands!

"Are you going to make this easy?" Theron finally asked. Kacey glanced back at the coffin.

She snarled a curse his way, and gave him a gesture to match.

"A pity. I guess we'll skip dinner, then. Or, you will." Theron knelt, and he fiddled with the lock on the cage. Kacey waited for her moment, eyeing the wand in his pocket, too far for her to reach, but...

He took his wand in one hand, reaching out for a vial of potions with the other. Kacey lunged, and though Theron pulled back before she could grab him, his eyes still fixed on her fingers as she flashed Fell Fate right in front of his nose.

Kacey waited, holding her breath.

"Pathetic." Theron plucked his potion bottle from the shelf without looking, pocketing it before he rose, wand out. "I am a wizard, MacTavish: I am above your petty displays of Vod-witchery." His wand flashed, and the door opened. Kacey squealed as an invisible hand pulled her out, holding her up with her toes two feet off the ground. She squirmed in the air, but it did her as little good as it had earlier.

"Now!" Theron waved his hand, and the rather beautiful wedding gown floated up beside him like it adorned a ghost he'd beckoned. "Let's see." He ran his wand over her, and Kacey gasped as she saw a faint image of her shape appear in the air. Theron waved it behind him, and when it made contact with the dress, she watched it re-size itself, hanging from invisible strings.

"I regret that it isn't your original dress," he said. "I hear you had that burned. A pity. I love weddings. They're so romantic..." He sighed. "I'm a sap. I know. But there's nothing as gorgeous as a woman in a wedding dress, don't you think, Kacey? I certainly have always thought so."

He turned, while the dress worked, and he plucked a notepad from the table. Kacey stared at a drawing of a woman in a flowing white dress, lying with her bouquet in hand...inside an open casket. "The tragedy of a funeral, though. Nothing equals that. It's like taking two extremes! Love and death, bound together eternally. A beauty in repose is my one weakness."

Kacey howled. Theron frowned.

"What was that?" He waved his wand, and her leather gag soared away. She spat and coughed, gratefully sucking in air.

"If you think I'll play along with your little game, you're in for the shock of your life," she hissed. "You'll never get me into that dress, or that coffin-"

"I think I will." Theron's eyes became very hard. "You're not being fair, Kacey. I thought we were friends."

"Go to-"

He waved his hand, and though he didn't touch her, she felt a hot, stinging slap, like he'd sprayed her with acid. She cried out as her cheek hissed and steamed.

"Down here." And then his wand moved, and she twisted in the air until she floated on her back. She watched as Theron produced the bottle, and she clamped her mouth shut. It didn't help: he twitched his wand and her jaws pried open of their own accord. Her attempts to writhe only made her feel as if stone encased her limbs.

She choked as he poured the potion into her mouth. He dripped it in a little at a time, and every time she thought he was going to drown her with it, he relented enough for her to breathe. Not a drop spilled to the floor below her.

"I've done this before, a few times," he confessed, as the last drop went down her throat. She gasped in air, her struggles fading more and more until finally she lay still in the air, only her eyes twitching.

"That's more like it." He lowered her onto the table. He plucked a few more vials from his shelves, humming busily, and Kacey could only wait with a pounding heart.

"Sleeping...preservation...compulsion..." He set each one down by her things as he categorized it. "Once all these are in your veins, you'll be a living mannequin, Kacey: no physical needs, and an eternally-preserved beauty. You won't ever have to come out of your dress...or your coffin, or your grave. Death won't come for you. You'll be my little secret...forever." He turned. "Now. Let's get those traveling clothes off of you, and make you the bride you were always destined to be." He held out his wand as he loomed, and her breath caught as again, she could only wait, eyes fixed on the tool. "You should have agreed to dinner, Sparks. Then, we could have had a conversation about this, and you could have enjoyed your last meal...some cocktails-"

Something exploded. Something big exploded, big enough that it shook the entire room. Theron jumped, and that was the moment Kacey had been waiting for. She threw herself upright, lunging and clapping his wrist as hard as she could. She not only saw his wand flip end over end and fly into the darkness, but she felt something snap in his bones.

"What the-" He managed not even a syllable more than that, because Kacey rolled onto her shoulders and drove both feet into his chest mid-word. He flew, hitting the far wall with a thud that didn't quite drown out the shouting and howling and explosions from outside.

"That's not possible!" Theron cried, as bottles of his potions fell around him where he sat on the floor. Kacey stood as he did, and he stuck out his good hand. His wand soared back, only for her to knock it out of the air. Again it skittered away. Theron's eyes were wide.

"You...that was twenty-five ounces..." He paled, as if he beheld some of monster from his worst nightmares. He fished the empty potion bottle from his pocket. "How are you standing? How are you so much as breathing without express permission, when your veins are full of twenty-five whole ounces of-" he glanced down "-Grandmother's Herbal Tea infused with..." he trailed off.

They stood there for a good three seconds.

"Grandmother's Herbal Tea infused with honey," he finally mumbled. "Twenty-five ounces of..." he glanced at his potions cabinet, and then at the bottles he'd set out for Kacey. "My compulsion potion. It's over there." He looked back down at the bottle. "Tea." He bit his lip. "Fell Fate."

Kacey loomed. He let out a noise somewhere between a hm and a whine.

"Well done, Kacey," he said, and there wasn't a hint of rancor in his tone. "I'm...honestly, I'm not even mad. That was amazing. Well done."

Her fist came up.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Chapter Eighteen: Beauty in Repose(Part One)



Kacey groaned. The world swam back into focus slowly. All she saw was dark, and all she felt was pain, banging around in her head like children with hammers. She cracked her eyes open, but what faint light she saw seared her eyes, and she couldn't bear to look. She lay for a while on something hard, managing only to get her hands under her while the world continued its spinning and ringing. 

Sound broke her haze. Kacey grunted at the shrieking of hinges and the clicking of a latch, but it was the incentive she needed to open her eyes and keep them that way.

"I thought you'd be out for a while yet," Theron's voice told her. She ignored him for a moment, taking in the bars around her on three sides and the solid stone wall on the other. Three sides became four when she looked up, spotting another set of steel about three feet above the slate she lay upon.

"Where am I?" she asked, and she hated herself for how much her voice wavered. She swallowed, lips and throat dry, before pushing herself into a sitting position. "What's going on?"

"You are in my care," Theron said cheerfully. "MacTavish, eh? You cheeky minx. Kacey Stewart...had me going, yes you did." He waved his finger chidingly. "Didn't you ever learn lying makes you a bad girl?"

Again Kacey ignored him. She looked outside her little cell - more of a dog cage, really, and that was probably what rankled her most - and she took in a room lit by candles and torches and the green and purple glow of cauldrons bubbling over despite no fires burning below them. Books lined shelves, and others were stacked with vials upon vials of extensively labeled chemicals, the rows forming rainbow colors in the gloom. And then there was a long table, over which Theron now stood, rather incongruously dressed in very sharp robes that, despite Kacey's daze and fear, she couldn't deny were quite smart. 

"This is remarkable." Theron plucked Kjetil's knife from the table. Kacey clutched the bars of her cage as she took in her pack, her cloak, her shield...all laid out for his examination. The wizard drew the blade, and he tested its edge. "Elven made, I think? It certainly has the crudeness of drow-work."

"Put that back," Kacey ordered. "Maybe I won't kill you with it."

"Oh! It's true what they say about redheads." He winked at her...but he did, in fact, sheathe the knife and set it down. "Fiery, every last one. Seems Victoria just makes it literal." He mused. "Then there's the roc's girlfriend..."

"Let me out of here," Kacey demanded. "Do it now, and I'll let you off with a concussion."

"I see someone's in a mood." Theron shook his head. "Now, now. If we rush it, where's the fun?"

"I'll show you fun-"

"Not yet, you won't." He scoffed. "Now, quiet, Sparks. I'm working, and you're simmering...until my pleasure." He turned back to her things, and patted at her cloak. "Definitely elven make, this. Scratchy, itchy. Not at all the kind of thing a self-respecting human weaver would be caught dead making."

"Yeah, go on," Kacey invited. "Keep insulting my heritage. That'll work out for you."

"Is this your coy way of asking to be gagged?" Theron inquired, and there was nothing but sadistic excitement in his eyes. "I must say, you're more playful than most. I like the playful ones. I get tired of whimpering."

Kacey glared. Theron grinned.

"Now, this-" he picked up her shield, grunted, and set it back down, massaging his arm "-is what I really find interesting." He examined it for a moment, before glancing at Kacey. "Oh, it's all right. You may speak, if you have something worth saying."

"That is my father's," Kacey growled. "Paws off."

"I think it's mine, now," Theron objected, shrugging. "Your father's been buried. Soon you will be too."

"I have no intention of dying."

"I have no intention of killing you." Theron tapped the shield. "Made of dragon-steel. That can only be worked with magic, you know, by a very skilled wizard. And..." He leaned in close to it, as if listening to the metal. "Oh! Dedicated, too. Kulkas' touch, I think."

"Dedicated?" Kacey asked, blinking.

"This shield was made by a master of magic, from very special material, and blessed by a high-ranking priest of Sora," Theron said. "It's...sort of like a Rune, you might say. You know about Runes, don't you?"

"Drop the shield." Kacey got her knees under her. "Only warning."

"Runes are marks of divine favor." Theron snapped his fingers. Kacey gasped as a leather strap flew from the gods-alone-knew-where and wrapped around her head, buckling itself in place between her teeth in a heartbeat. She pried at it, but it wouldn't yield to her fingers. Theron observed with a grin just entertained enough that she stopped struggling, unwilling to give him his sick satisfaction. That, at least, seemed to dampen his spirits, but he moved on quickly. "They enable people to call on the powers of the gods they have Runes of. The flip side is that they have to work with the god, if you understand. They're not casting the spell, they're asking the god to do it."

Kacey snarled through her gag. He nodded sagely. "I know what you're thinking. How does this pertain to my shield?" He waited as she yelled something else that the leather rendered unintelligible, and again he completely distorted its meaning. "Well, since it's been dedicated to Sora, it's like a Rune you carry on your arm: it can protect you better than anything else in this world, even against things a shield shouldn't be able to, like diseases. But only those who are in the Goddess of Protection's good graces can wield it. Only the worthy, you might say." He turned it over on the table with a grunt of heroic effort, so Kacey could see the arm straps. She watched as he attempted to fit his hand through them. He seemed to have the same problem pulling the straps up as she had undoing her gag.

"Sora's not one of mine," he admitted, leaving the shield. "Nerien, she's my patron. Health and healing and potion-making. But I also have a Klamnet Rune, for light in dark places, and one for Cariott the Storm-Bringer. At least he makes things happen!" He chuckled, but a moment later, his grin faded. "Or, I would, if Kulkas Waverider hadn't broken my staff." He sighed. "Such is life. At least my uncle gave me a wand when he put me in touch with Jason and the Guiding Light."

Kacey glowered, glancing left and right as she sought a weak point or escape route. Theron noticed, and he circled the table.

"Oh, don't be like that. I'm not going to hurt you: I promise!" He knelt before her cage, and if not for the bars, Kacey would have headbutted him. "In fact, I'll take that off, in a moment." He reached between the bars and tapped the leather in her mouth. Kacey wished she could bite. "We'll get you cleaned up, and then it's dinner, like you promised."

She growled a refusal that the gag ate up. Theron shook his head.

"Look, I like you," he said. "Much better than I like Blonde-Bride-One. Red's better. Red's exotic." He rose. "We're going to have dinner. It'll be nice. No threats, no yelling, no anger. We'll get to know each other. If you're good, I'll draw it out. We'll do dessert! And drinks after." He produced his wand, and again he flicked it.

Lanterns lit in a further area of the room Kacey hadn't seen, and she looked upon a very formally-set dining table, with all the trappings. Theron's robes matched it very well...as did the long white bridal gown hanging in the air just past it.

Kacey's breath caught as she saw what was underneath the gown.

"And if you're bad..." Theron sighed as he too regarded the coffin. "Well, you'll be good, right?"