Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Chapter Twenty-four: Burning Bright(Part One)

"Hey!" Ardyn cried, pounding on the cellar door. Soap howled behind her, and she screamed as dust and rubble fell from overhead. The cellar glowed with orange light as flames licked down through the ceiling. "Help! Kacey! Brigid! Dad! Someone!"

Soap howled again, and the sound grated on Ardyn's frayed nerves. She glanced around at the rows and rows of bottles, but she didn't see anything she could use to open the door. The bar was too heavy.

"It's going to come right," she promised Soap, trying to soothe herself too. "It'll come right! We just have to stay calm and-"

Stone fell. She screamed again, and Soap bounded between her and the refuse, snarling and barking. Ardyn gritted her teeth.

"Help us!" she shrieked, banging on the door as the fire rose.


"Where's Ardyn?" Corlane demanded, as he reached the gangplank onto Buried Treasure. "Is she with you, lad?"

"I thought she was with you!" Angus protested. "She didn't come with me-"

"She's back at the house!" Corlane cried. "Soap too! I'm going-"

"No!" Kacey shoved him. "I'm a witch, I can protect myself better than you can. And if we both go, we have to worry about each other too!"

"Kacey, you're the Laird-" Brigid started.

"She's my daughter!" Corlane thundered.

"It's suicide!" Angus cried, tearing at his hair.

"Stay!" And then Kacey jumped the rail, ignoring the gangplank altogether. Neither her uncle nor her maid could catch her, and she hit the dock running.

"Kacey!" they cried, but she didn't pause. Her cousin appeared in her head, surrounded by the flames, and all her pain and exhaustion was immediately meaningless. She bolted up the road as fast as any horse, shield on her arm, snarling curses as she thought of what she'd do to whoever had ordered this strike.

"Over here!" a man warned, before Kacey hit him like a wrecking ball. He flew right into the flames, and his three mates lasted as many seconds as her shield flashed in and out like a pendulum. They crashed at her feet, and within fifteen seconds of the man's shout, Kacey was off again at a dead run.

There was too much fire at the door. She diverted her path, and the dining room window loomed. She held up her shield, bounding off of Theron's unconscious body and right through the flames, crashing down in the dining room, the shield clearing her path.

"Ardyn!" she cried. "Soap!"

The man who responded was neither of them, as masonry shifted and somewhere, an entire room seemed to collapse. Kacey slugged him, and he fell to the hot floor.

"My cousin!" She grabbed his throat and pinned him. "Where?"

"The Messiah-"

She jammed her knee into his chest, and snarled as something cracked. "I'm not playing games, Johnny! My cousin!"

"Someone's screaming in the cellars," he managed. "Door's barred."

"Bastard." Kacey lifted him and pitched him out the window. "And don't you come back, now!"

She ran. Kacey ran through the flames, detouring around the parlor when rubble blocked her way. She slid under a fallen beam wreathed in fire, then vaulted over another one. She tore past the armory's open door, and straight toward the cellar.

"It's probably Midnight," one of the men there told his four mates, as Kacey rounded the bend. "She burns, and that's that-"

"She won't burn," his friend said. "She's too good for that. We have to check the body-"

"Out of my way, skinny!" Kacey hurled a chair that had belonged to her grandmother straight into the man's back. He flew down the stairs and hit the door with a thud that could probably have been heard in the attic.

Knives flashed out. Kacey didn't have space to use her shield, and she didn't want to risk losing Kjetil's blade in the flames. Her hands came up.

Wham! That was the second man's face, as she put it into the wall. She wove around a series of strikes from the others, before taking her victim and hurling him as a living projectile. He absorbed several stabs and slices before his friends could stop themselves, and he dropped to his knees, screaming and clutching his wounds.

Kacey used his shoulders as a springboard, and she vaulted onto the next one. He crashed on his back from her weight, and she claimed his knife, battering his head with the hilt twice until he lay still.

Two remained, and they approached nervously. Kacey's eyes flicked from them to the cellar door, and the unconscious first man.

She heard banging and screaming. That was Ardyn's voice.

Her push-kick flung one backward, and the other lashed out. Kacey cried out as he laid open her leg, and she tasted ash in the air. Smoke rose through the hallway as she grappled with her foe, and both of them started coughing. It was all over his face, and, she suspected, hers too.

She threw him into one wall, then the other. He wavered, and her knee crushed his manhood while he was distracted. He let out a high-pitched cry before she drove his head into the floor.

"Ah!" She screamed as something drove into her back. Kacey stumbled forward, then spun, taking the blade with her and right out of the remaining man's hand. His grin of triumph became something else as her fist came up.


Kacey pulled the knife out, gasping for breath. She twisted her hand, and though it was hard, she just barely managed to get her palm onto the injury. She sewed, and she gasped as a Thread of Health attached itself to her. The redhead leaned on the wall, coughing as the smoke rose around her. If it was this bad up here, what was it like in the cellar?

"Come on," she whispered, stumbling down the steps. "Come on, now."

She screamed with exertion as she lifted the bar. She didn't bother just setting it upright, rather hurling it at the groaning Guiding Light refuse behind her. A chorus of cries and howls were the reward for that, and Kacey turned for the door almost before they stopped. She kicked it open, and flinched as a blast of hot air hit her like a slap.

"Ardyn! Soap!" she cried, descending into an orange-glowing maelstrom of heat and Hell.

"Kacey?" the voice was weak. The redhead turned, and she swore. She jumped from the stairs, and she landed before the blonde and their dog, leaning against the open side of the stairway. Ardyn's eyes were distant, her face covered in soot.

"I'm here," the redhead told her. She looked down at Soap, then grit her teeth and sewed. Green flashed, and the animal jumped. He whined, but meandered to his paws.

"I can't...think..." Ardyn mumbled. "My head..."

"Why did you come down here?" Kacey demanded. She raised her hand, and blue flashed as she touched her fingers to Ardyn's forehead. The blonde gasped, stiffening with a Thread of Clarity sewed to her.

"Feed...to feed Marona," she said. "I'm sorry, Kacey. I let her out. And she-"

"She didn't burn the place." Kacey threw Ardyn's arm over her shoulders. "Come on, cousin. We're leaving."

"I can barely stand," Ardyn protested. "Kacey, you have to go-"

"Shut it." Kacey gently kicked Soap's rear. "Up the stairs, there you go. We're getting out. There's a way."

They stumbled out of the cellar, Kacey grunting with effort as Ardyn hung from her shoulders. Soap stumbled ahead of them, and now that he was on ground level, his nose took over. Kacey followed dutifully as the dog bounded through fire, hoping his instincts were better than hers.

"There we go!" she cried, as Soap paused before the back door. He pawed at it, whimpering wildly. Kacey approached, wincing as more rubble collapsed on all sides, and more heat blasted her with fury.

Ardyn hung limply from her shoulders.

"Hang in there, cousin," Kacey pleaded. "Hang in there. Let me get you outside, and you can breathe clean air. I can heal you..."

She had to put her down against the wall to work the door. Soap licked Ardyn's face, and what scared Kacey the most was that the blonde barely twitched in response.

"Come on," she said as the door finally swung open. She grabbed Ardyn, hauling her into the night. "Come on, Ardyn! Get your feet under you, damn it!"

No response. Kacey swore as she made it down the stairs, Soap barking up a storm at her side. She lay Ardyn in the grass, and Kacey felt her chest.

It wasn't rising.

"No!" She bared her teeth, curling her fingers as she threw her shield aside. "Not like that!" She shoved down on Ardyn's stomach, and green flashed. "Not like Dad!" She pushed again, and in addition to the compression, more emerald light spiraled in the air as Kacey sewed like never before in her life.

Ardyn coughed. She twitched, and Kacey repeated her spell for the third time, emboldened. The blonde's coughing redoubled, and she managed to roll over of her own accord. Kacey winced as she vomited in the grass, once, then twice, shoulders quaking.

"I've got you," Kacey said. "I've got you, Ardyn. You're going to be fine-"

Light flashed on three sides. Kacey covered her face with an arm, staring into the brightness.

Dozens of men ringed them, arquebuses and crossbows leveled. The lights came from taller ones in white robes, emanating the glow from their hands. Kacey's heart sank as her count hit forty and kept going.

"Oh, aren't you sweet?" Theron asked, nursing his head one-handed while he held out his wand with the other. "You brought a friend."

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Chapter Twenty-three: Black Thunder(Part Two)

"They've lit the Estate on fire," Kacey said. "We have to go. Now." She inhaled the scent of smoke. "Angus' ship is in the harbor."

"Right, then!" Corlane cried. "Door's this way, come on!" 

They ran, Brigid hiking up her skirts. Kacey paused to spin-kick a White Hand into one of the water closets, and Corlane to seize another by the throat and fling him into the dining table. It shattered under the man's weight.

Flames appeared, licking at the wood around them, but the fire was a light thing, not yet a roaring conflagration. More explosions wracked the house, and Kacey supposed the Guiding Light was trying to bring the rubble down around them. 

"They must want me badly," she muttered, as the trio reached the entryway. Kacey paused.

"What are you stopping for?" Brigid asked. Kacey ignored her. She ran to the nearest wall, and with her free hand she took down a portrait of her and her father.

Every birthday, she thought, looking at the number scribbled on the bottom. Her father's smile was broad, and hers as well. I wish someone had told me those were the good times before they ended.

"Right, then," Brigid said, her tone subdued. "Come on, Miss Kacey. We can't burn for a picture."
"Right." The redhead didn't drop the portrait, though, as she ran out in her uncle and maid's wake. They burst into the front yard, racing down the steps and tearing into the grass.

"Stop-" The man got no further before Kacey's shield took him out. His mates turned, and then Corlane was among them, sword and fists flashing as he battled three at once. Kacey jumped on the veranda rail, and then she jumped, driving both feet into the next man and flinging him into another. Both went down, and she rolled to her feet, seizing one of Corlane's foes and slinging him backward until he hit his head. 

"Settle down, there," a familiar voice urged, and Kacey paused to reclaim her shield - not a moment too soon. She covered her head as a blast of light and wind came her way.

"Miss me?" she asked, lowering the shield. Theron kept his wand leveled.

"You would be exquisite," he protested. "Come now, Kacey. It's one thing to like it a bit rough and a bit fun...but quite another to be this aggressive." He flicked his wand, and she deflected a surge of rocks from the ground. "I take it you like bruises, though?"

"I like giving them!" And then she charged, shield up as power filled the air. Theron's strikes deflected off the weapon, and he appeared to know it, too.

"Okay." He jumped for her, now, and his wand spun in his hand like a knife.

Crack! The sound was like thunder, and it was accompanied by a flash of white light, every time wand and shield met. Kacey's arm shuddered from the impacts, and Theron was fast, lunging for anything her defense left exposed.

"Hah!" Kacey cried, as she got a fist into his face. He spun, and then his hand flashed as he came back around. She had to duck to avoid one of the White Hands' swords, spinning through the air madly. Theron caught it by the hilt, and he rose with wand and sword alike at the ready.

Kacey drew Kjetil's knife in her off hand.

Clang! Crack! Clang-clang-crack! Blades and wand and shield met in the air, and sparks and light sprayed the grass. She cut his cheek, which made her quite cheery, but then his wand came in past her guard and poked her in the ribs.

"Shite!" She flew with a peal of thunder, flipping end over end through the air until she crashed on her back, sliding through the dirt. Somehow, she didn't lose her grip on shield or knife, and she jumped back upright despite the burning in her chest. Theron approached, waving his wand and throwing tree branches and cobblestones from the path her way.

"Come now, Kacey! I measured the dress and everything!" Theron laughed. He paused, flicking his wand, and the redhead cried out as Brigid went flying before she could get near him, a dagger in hand. She tumbled in the grass, then scrambled behind the veranda, ripping things from her pockets.

"And?" Kacey demanded, sliding to put herself between the Owner and her maid. "Not my lookout you're mad, is it?"

"Oh, it will be," Theron replied. "I wasn't going to just bury you without making it worth your while. You'd have treasured the memory in the dark."

"The only memory of you I'll ever treasure is the one I'm about to make," Kacey said, flipping her knife. "Come on, then, kitty cat."

Theron surged her way, sword leading. Kacey blocked with her elven blade, using her shield against his far deadlier weapon. The night rang with the song of war, and she took the offensive as much as she dared, lashing out with knife and shield and kicks all to mangle his shoulders and mash his knees. Every time she landed a particularly good hit, he would jump back and cry Nerien!

It didn't seem to do a great deal, Kacey mused, as his cuts merely scabbed over in flashes of white.

"Klamnet!" His sword flew, and as she ducked, his palm opened. Light flashed into her eyes, and Kacey stumbled. She cried out an instant later as something blunt hit her head. She tumbled on her side, rubbing at her eyes.

"Right, then, Kacey." He knelt over her, and her eyes fixed on his wand. "Let's-"

He broke off. Theron shivered convulsively, as if someone had just doused him in cold water, and Kacey lunged.

By chance, she caught his wand, and she ripped it from his hand, flinging it into the dark. Her shield came up next, and she distinctly saw one of his teeth fly. She kicked out his ankles, and as he came down, she rolled up, driving the tool down overtop his head with a dull bong!

"Did you get him, Miss Kacey?" Brigid asked. The redhead nodded.

"Aye." She turned to regard the maid, and her eyes flicked to the little dolls and strings Brigid was throwing back into her pockets. "Do I owe you thanks?"

"Well, your father hired a witch for a reason," she said, shrugging. "My specialty may be health and fortune, Miss Kacey, but that doesn't mean I can't throw Fell Fate on someone who's having a go at my Laird."

"Thanks." Kacey helped her up with a smile.

"It's coming down," Corlane said, glancing back at the house. Kacey turned, and only now did she realize not all of the heat in the night was from Theron's wizardry. She sucked in breath as she saw the flames spilling out of MacTavish Estate.

Be careful what you wish for, she heard in her father's voice, echoing in the stillness of her thoughts as she watched the house burn.

"Perimeter breach! Perimeter breach-"

The man's screaming stopped when Midnight's arrow punctured his throat. She ran through the back yard of the MacTavish Estate, arrows flying on the move as an entire detail of White Hand turned her way. Three fell before they'd reached her, and Midnight slid beneath a stone bench to win herself time for another shot. It was an eye shot, too, and the man collapsed with his fellows.

Whack! That was her bow, as she whirled it around, dealing blows to heads and knees and ribs and elbows all alike. Men tumbled around her in a great swarm, coming in with knives and fists and swords, repulsed each and every one. She pitched two over the cliff behind her, toward the lights of MacTavish Town and the ships at anchor.

And then there were only two left. Midnight broke one's arm in six places, leaving him a screaming, quivering wreck even before she brought her bow down on his head. The last one took a swing at her, and her response was economical and precise: a cross that flung him downward.

His face went straight through the stone bench, dust flying in all directions.

The crackling of flames filled her world, and she looked up to behold the MacTavish Estate. Midnight sighed, thinking of the art and history inside as she produced one of her grapple arrows and took aim for the harbor far below. She didn't like destruction for its own sake, and the lives of those who lived here-

She stopped. Her thoughts ground to such an abrupt halt she paused with her arrow half drawn. She released the tension in the bow, her insides curling and twisting with gnawing horror.

"Damn it," she whispered, before her off hand flew up and knocked out the man sneaking up behind her. "Oh, gods, Midnight, what have you done?"

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Chapter Twenty-three: Black Thunder(Part One)

"What was that?" Ardyn cried, as she heard the faint detonations. "What did you-"

She screamed as Midnight seized her by the hair. The Nuremite hauled her to her feet, only to yank her across the cellar and fling her again. She hit the stone floor with a cry, covering her head.

Crash! That was glass, and she looked up to see the woman shatter a bottle on a support column. Liquid drenched her, and she inhaled the cloying scent of wine.

"My armor. My weapons." Midnight advanced, and Ardyn didn't dare try and rise.

"Go on," she ordered. "I won't tell you a thing." She reached for her neck-

"A step ahead of you, I see." Midnight twirled the key on her finger. "Last chance."

"Go to hell, Mainlander," Ardyn snarled, and braced for a slash with the remnants of the bottle-

Midnight just reached up and took a lantern from where it hung. Ardyn gasped as the woman approached with it.

She inhaled the scent of wine, and felt her drenched shirt and hair.

"You can't," she started. "You won't!"

"Where?" Midnight demanded. 

Ardyn spat, and that was the wrong answer. The ravenette dropped the lantern next to her, and when Ardyn flinched, the woman lunged.

"No!" Ardyn cried, as Midnight shoved her face-first toward the flame in the lamp. "Stop!"

"You had your chance." Her voice was cold as more explosions rang overhead.

"The armory!" Ardyn finally broke, feeling the heat so close, and inhaling that evil smell. "To the right as you come up the stairs! But you'll never get that far, you stupid, ugly-"

Midnight released her. Ardyn tumbled on her back - and screamed again as the woman kicked the lamp her way.

It fizzled out.

"Clearly you're no enophile. Wine's not flammable." Midnight threw the bottle's remnants aside and ran for the stairs.

"Hey! Don't you..." Ardyn scrambled to her feet as the Nuremite tore for freedom. "You're not going anywhere! Hey!" She ran too, as best she could with her dress in the way, but she was far slower.

"Damn it!" Ardyn cried as the woman reached the door. Midnight hesitated, then flattened herself against the wall.

Soap flew, skidding to a halt at the base of the stairs. He threw himself between Ardyn and Midnight, hackles raised as he barked and growled. Ardyn sighed in relief.

That became a cry of desperation when Midnight simply closed the door. Ardyn bounded up the stairs, pounding as she heard the bar thud into place.

More explosions rang through the cellar, and dust fell.


Kacey vaulted from her father's chair as the windows blew in, and she practically tackled Brigid. She covered the maid with her body as glass flew madly, hissing as her shoulders were laid open. Brigid screamed.

"What the bloody hell is happening?" Kacey demanded. She scrambled for the mantle, and she ripped her shield down. "Where's the prisoner?"

"Go!" Brigid ordered. "I'll find Corlane-"

Kacey tore from her father's study, shield on her arm. She bolted down the corridors as the building shook with more and more successive blasts.

"Take him down!" someone cried. Kacey glanced at the rail ahead, and without hesitation she vaulted it, flying to the ground floor with her shield held high. Ahead of her she spotted a Whisper, spinning, and Kacey's shield became a battering ram as she drove into the woman with the power of gravity behind her.

"Oh, come on!" screamed one of the Whisper's companions, as she went to the ground with an audible crack! "Get your shit together, Becky!"

"Get your paws off!" Corlane's voice echoed in the halls, and Kacey watched as a man in Whisper armor flew almost over her head. Her uncle spun, fists flashing as he put down an attacker every other strike, eyes wild. "I'll take you all! Come on, then!" He ripped a sword from one underling's hand, eviscerating the next two with it. "You're little pansies, ain't you?"

"Uncle Corlane!" Kacey gave a man behind him a good whack with her shield. Spinning, she unloaded a series of kicks on the next one that drove him into the library doorjamb. Her fist finished him off. "Where are they coming from?"

"How should I know?" Corlane drove his last assailant to the ground, even as Kacey slung her shield into Camilla's head. The blonde Whisper did a full backwards flip to land splayed over Becky. "They just swarmed in like that! Are these those Guiding Light buggers-"

"Yeah," Kacey said. "Brigid's upstairs, looking for you-"

Bang! Her eyes snapped up, and she watched a hapless man tumble over the rail, crying out as his blood sprayed the stairs.

"Here, Miss Kacey," Brigid said, descending more sedately with a smoking arquebus in hand.

"They started chucking grenades," Corlane said. "Blasted the hell out of Ardyn's garden, if you don't mind the language, Kacey. Blew holes in the walls and shattered windows. They're punching in at a bunch of different places."

"We have to sweep the lower floors," Kacey said. "Brigid, you stay with Uncle Corlane. He'll keep you safe."

"Where's Ardyn?" Corlane demanded.

"I haven't seen her since Angus left," Brigid said. "Could be she walked him down there."

"She must have, or we'd have heard..." Kacey broke off, sniffing. "Uncle Corlane, Brigid? Smell that?"

"Yeah," Corlane said, a sick look in his eyes. "I do. That's ash."


"Freeze where you stand-"

Midnight vaulted at the White Hand with a cry, wrapping her legs around his head. She flipped him into the wall, spinning back to her feet with his sword in hand as his companion came at her. Metal rang on metal, sparks flew, and Midnight gave ground as steadily as she could. The man's eyes flashed.

"For the Messiah!" he cried.

Midnight caught his sword hand and rammed her appropriated blade through his chest. He looked very surprised.

"Yeah, that's what the Messiah said, when he got stabbed." She shrugged while the man choked out his last breaths. "Tell him I don't miss his ugly face one bit."

She hurried past the men for the armory. The door was open, and Midnight swept inside without a care, casually snapping the wrist of the Illuminator who tried to blind her. He fell with a howl, and she put him to sleep with a side knee.

"There we go," she muttered, smiling as she saw her armor. She ran to it, slipping her arms and legs in as quickly as she could.

That was when she smelled it, and Midnight sighed.

"Fire," she growled, claiming her bow. "It's always on fire, isn't it?"

She turned and ran from the armory, slipping her helmet over her head on the move, shooting a Whisper in the throat in passing before she had a chance to call out.

Midnight was loose in the MacTavish Estate.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Chapter Twenty-two: Home(Part Two)

"It's a good bow," Corlane muttered, testing the pull. "Designed for someone a wee bit shorter and not as stout as me, but a good bow nonetheless. Lots of power to it."

"She's definitely got power," Kacey agreed. "And she knows a lot more than she's letting on about the Guiding Light."

"Why didn't you press her?" Ardyn asked, sitting in the grass with her crocheting. 

"She needs time to stew. She still thinks she's getting out of there without my say-so." Kacey tossed a stick across the back yard, and Soap took off with a bark. "She's a third party, I'm sure, but I've never quite been able to believe that the enemy of my enemy is my friend because of it. It's possible that the enemy of my enemy...is also my enemy."

"Fair enough," Corlane said. "You sound like me there, Kace. Just because the blighter's standing beside you facing the same foe doesn't mean he isn't a blighter."

"I think we might get better results if we try to work with her," Ardyn protested. "I don't think she's evil. And whatever you two have to say, anyone in Jason's bad graces is someone I'd be willing to give a look."

"Maybe we can push both angles?" Angus suggested, pacing on the porch. "Kacey's the bad, Ardyn's the good."

"Just like me 'n Little John," Corlane agreed, with a thin smile.

"We need allies," Ardyn pressed. "Especially since we don't know anything at all about these people's aims. We know they're manipulating King Truman, but we don't know why. We know they killed Uncle John...but we don't know why that, either."

"She can tell us, sooner or later," Kacey said. "But I want to be sure we're being smart before we just try and negotiate with her." She watched Soap return, stick in mouth. "Leave her. A day or two without food will loosen her tongue, even if there's water in there."

"Kacey, that's cruel," Ardyn objected.

"I know," the redhead replied. "So is burying someone alive."

"She didn't try to do that-"

"Yeah, but she's holding me back from being able to take down the man who did. She's protecting him by silence." She shook her head. "That's that. I'll be cruel if I have to. In the end, it'll serve more people for the better."

"The ends don't justify the means, Kacey," Ardyn warned. She stood, and there was clear disapproval on her face. "She's not with them. I think she's a friend. You can't just...starve her into submission."

"I'm not happy about it, Ardyn, but if it's this or start breaking her bones, I think this is a cleaner, more moral solution," Kacey argued. "Ardyn, I...Ardyn!" She sighed as the blonde turned and swept back into the house, scowling. "I don't think it's that bad."

"She's got it in her head that Midnight's a friend," Angus said. "It would be like if you locked me in the cellar with no food, I suppose."

"She tried to shoot and strangle me," Kacey grumbled. "That's not friendly."

"Ardyn will come around," Corlane said. "For now, someone else wants your attention."

"What?" Kacey glanced down, then laughed as she saw Soap, sitting attentively. "All right, come here, gorgeous-" She sighed as he turned his head. "I can't throw it again if you won't let me take it..."


"Like pouring it on the ground..." Estelle sighed as she contemplated the empty spot in the wine rack. "Barbaric." She paused to make her selection. "Well, I like...no...oh, that'll do." She plucked a white from its pride of place on the bottom shelf, almost in the back. She flipped out Kacey's corkscrew.

I love these things, Estelle thought as she did away with the cork in a moment. Hesitantly, she took a sip.

"Revolting," she growled. "Terrible!" Her smile widened. "Perfect!"

Estelle vanished a moment later, retreating into the depths of her subconscious. Midnight lacked her weapons or her armor or even a knowledge of the time, but she had her greatest weapon in her skull, and nothing could take it away from her.

The stairs are open on one side, Midnight mused, as she set the wine down. Brilliant. And those lamps...

She had a plan. It was an off-the-cuff, thrown-together plan, but between a corkscrew, lanterns, and a bottle of terrible wine, freedom and information alike brushed against Midnight's fingertips.

She set to work.


"No," Angus said. He shook his head. "No, Kacey would have noticed something."

"That's what I thought," Ardyn agreed. "But Angus...the whole ride home, I felt like someone was watching us. The whole way." She glanced out the window. "What if someone..."

"Kacey would have noticed," Angus said. "I mean, I had my moments, but...you know. Nerves, nothing else. And Marona too."

"Marona." Ardyn sighed. "I don't hold with Kacey's plan."

"I get that impression, but she's the Laird."

"Right," Ardyn said, dejectedly. "Angus, I'm scared. All this...Guiding Light nonsense..."

"It'll be fine." He put his hand on her shoulder, and Ardyn took the chance to melt into his embrace. He held her close, and she relished the comfort.

"Something happening here?"

Angus and Ardyn split in a flash. They turned as one to see Brigid with a raised eyebrow, an envelope in hand.

"Just...it was cold," Ardyn said. "Angus was warming me up a wee bit. My idea."

Brigid's eyebrow stayed up. "Is that so?"

"Yes, ma'am," Angus told her. "And, you know...I was off, seeing as it's getting dark out. Have to get back to my ship, you know. Going cruising tonight."

"Going pirating," Ardyn corrected.


"Good night, you two," Brigid said, as Angus shook his fist. Ardyn swore the maid was grinning. "Don't do anything the Laird wouldn't approve of."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Ardyn promised, as Angus left. Brigid moved on after a moment.

Ardyn opened her hand and glanced down at the cellar key she'd palmed.

"Wouldn't dream of it," she repeated. "I haven't sworn an oath to Kacey yet."


Ardyn had a moment's difficulty with the door. She had to set her tray on the stairs, then struggle and curse in a very unladylike way as she pushed at the heavy bar. She swore it weighed as much as she did, but eventually she managed to get it up. The key was next, and she pushed the door open with her foot while she claimed the tray.

"Ambassador?" she called, as she descended. She paused to shut the door behind her, slipping the key around her neck. "Lady Marona?"

The blonde paused on the last step. She didn't see the woman anywhere. "Lady Marona, I'm not here to torture you..." She held out the tray. "I brought meatloaf. I don't know what you like, ma'am, but I've got that, and some rolls...I figured you had plenty of drink down here, but I've got some clean, cold water too, if you're tired of wine." Ardyn glanced around, frowning. "Lady Marona...where are you?"

She screamed as hands caught her from behind. Ardyn flew into the remnants of the dinner she'd brought, landing on her back on the stone. A foot drove down onto her throat, pinning her.

"You're too kind," Midnight said, looming over her with cold, pitiless eyes. "I regret this necessity, Ardyn."


Kacey sat at her father's desk, scribbling on what Brigid assured her were the proper forms. She paused to work out the cramp in her wrist.

"How did Dad do it?" she asked, as she reflected on how the chair was as cold as empty as she remembered.

"He had a lot of practice," Brigid said. "But that's that. Your marriage to Angus: annulled. I don't think Dorian MacLoughlin will mind. As a Laird, your hand is far too valuable now to give away so cavalierly."

"Right," Kacey mumbled. She leaned back in her father's chair. "I want this replaced."

"Why?" Brigid asked. "It was your father's favorite."

"Yeah, and it's his," Kacey said. "It's not mine. This whole house is his." She hesitated.
"Is it wrong of me to want this house torn down, Brigid? Everywhere I go, it's my father, looking out at me like when we played hide-and-seek those years ago."

"This house is your family's house, Miss Kacey," Brigid said. "When you are Laird, you may do whatever you feel empowered to do. None save the King of Clans may tell you nay, or stand between you and your decree."

She raised an eyebrow. "You disapprove. Brigid, it's not your house."

"No," Brigid said. "But it's your father's legacy, and so are you. He'd never want this place reduced to rubble."

"I do." Kacey swallowed. "Watching it burn would be like burying him. Closure."

"Well, if that's your decision, it's hardly my place to get in your way, Laird MacTavish." She swept up the annulment forms. "I'll mail these straightaway. But before I go..."

"Brigid?" Kacey frowned. "What is it?"

"A letter for you," the maid said. "I've been meaning to give it to you since before you left."

"From?" Kacey leaned forward, just as her father had in the past-

"From Laird John, Miss Kacey."

She had...perhaps half a second to process that...before the first of the explosions shattered all the windows behind her.