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Chapter 1: Betrayal
Grimm Afelnor, Mage Questor of the Seventh Rank, called the Dragonblaster, waited in the woods beside Merrydeath Road, deep in worry.
At the tender age of seven, soon after being sent to the forbidding Arnor House to be trained in the ways of magic, Grimm learned that his blacksmith grandfather, Loras, had once been a powerful Mage Questor, too, but he had been stripped of his powers. He was exiled from the Guild of Magic-users, Sorcerers and Thaumaturges four decades before, for the attempted murder of the ailing Prelate Geral.
He thought he had come to terms with his grandfather's disgrace; however, recent information he had obtained indicated that Loras had been betrayed by one close to him in the Guild. Grimm now burned with desire to exonerate his grandfather in addition to proving his own worth as a mage.
Another worry was his current Quest to destroy the influence of the powerful witch, Prioress Lizaveta. After she had attempted to seduce Dominie Horin, the ruler of the Guild, by her magic, Grimm had felt overjoyed at persuading Horin to give him command of the Quest, instead of to his rival, the overbearing, sarcastic Questor Guy--Lizaveta's embittered grandson. However, the enterprise's beguiling glamour soon faded, after desperate struggles in the town of Yoren and the bizarre dream-city of Brianston. Victory over Brianston's dragon-god, Gruon, came only at great cost: the swordsman, Harvel, was dead; the half-elven thief, Crest, had quit the party in grief for his fallen friend; and the giant albino, Tordun, had been all but blinded by the dragon's fiery demise.
Before destroying Yoren's Mansion House, Grimm learned thatLizaveta's magic was behind Loras' sudden downfall, reinforcing his determination. His grandfather was no traitor, and Grimm would do anything to prove that.
His paramount concern was for his lover, Drexelica. He had already transgressed the Guild's strict rules of celibacy by coupling with her, but he wanted far more than a casual, furtive relationship. However, to declare his love for her might see him stripped of his rank and condemned to menial service in Arnor House for an unspecified period. Added to this, he knew that Drexelica had gone missing, and he believed she was in Lizaveta's clutches; this gave him additional determination to attack as soon as possible.
Although he was a mighty Guild Questor, Grimm was still only an eighteen-year-old youth, and his worries weighed as heavy on him as it would on any adolescent.
Grimm started from his morose reverie as he heard a faint rustle from the bushes behind him. Straining his ears, he heard the unmistakable crunch of a human footstep on fallen leaves.
He jumped to his feet and shouted, "Who goes there? Show yourself!"
His two Technology-wielding soldiers, General Quelgrum and Sergeant Erik, ran towards him from the camp-fire, their metal weapons at the ready as a small, dishevelled, dirty figure burst from the undergrowth, straight into the Questor's arms.
"Grimm! It is you!" The shabby creature sobbed into his right shoulder and Grimm's heart leapt in his chest.
"Drex! Thank the Names! I was so worried about you!"
"I escaped," the girl said, her voice steadying. "It was horrible! Prioress Lizaveta's witch-nuns kidnapped me from Crar. They beat me and tormented me, but I wouldn't submit."
"It's good to see you alive, Miss Drexelica," Quelgrum said, "but I'm a little surprised that they were so lax in their attentions they let you escape--"
"Are you implying something, General?" Grimm interrupted, feeling a hot rush of blood flooding into his face.
"Of course not, Lord Baron. I just thought it a little odd."
Drex disengaged herself from the mage and confronted the warrior. "I grew up in a tough town, General. I learned to defend myself at a very young age. I tried to fight them, but it got me nowhere. After a while, I pretended they'd broken me. I acted all demure and submissive, the way they wanted, 'til I found a way out. That's all."
Quelgrum's brow furrowed, and Drex's face contorted into an expression of rage. "If you really want to know, I was trained by an utter cow called Sister Melana. She took her eyes off me for a moment while she ate. I punched her in the back of her neck. She fell to the ground, and I brained her with her plate. She stopped moving. I hope I killed the little slut. I kept to the shadows 'til I found my way down to the coal store. There was nobody there--there almost never is--and I escaped through the delivery chute."
The intensity of her scowl stunned Grimm, and he felt his heart swelling with pride at his beloved's fortitude and resourcefulness. "You see, General? There's no conspiracy here. This is Drex, for goodness' sake!"
Guy Great Flame sauntered into view, twirling his Mage Staff in the manor of a bandmaster. "Hullo!" he said, his mouth crinkling in a half-smile. "What do we have here, a drowned rat? Be careful you don't catch anything off it!"
Grimm felt his dislike of the proud Questor fulminating into sheer, scarlet hatred. "Don't you dare talk about Drex like that!"
He realised his protesting squeak sounded more callow adolescent than Seventh Rank Mage, but he did not care.
Guy raised a sardonic eyebrow. "So, this is your vaunted housekeeper? I must say, Dragonblaster, I insist on a stricter dress code for the hired help in my house."
The younger mage took his own Mage Staff, Redeemer, in a two-handed grip and stepped forward, his face contorted in rage.
"Think you can handle it, youngster? If so, feel free; I'd love you to try."
Grimm felt Guy's cool, self-assured manner fanning the fires of wrath within him to such intensity that they threatened to consume him.
I'll kill him! he raged inside his mind. Guy is just a primping peacock and no true mage! I'll squash him once and for all, like the bug he is!
As the older Questor braced himself and lowered his staff, War-maker, still smirking, Grimm began to gather the golden tendrils of thaumaturgic energy into a tight, ordered knot, ready to unleash them against his hated adversary. He knew Guy must be doing the same, but he felt more than capable of overcoming the foppish mage. In the instant he drew in his breath, ready to let forth a stream of patterned power, Drex stepped between the two would-be combatants.
"What's the matter with you?" she screamed, stamping and raising a small fist to Guy's face. "Fighting like silly schoolboys; you should be ashamed of yourselves!"
Grimm felt his anger dissipate like a puff of smoke in a strong wind, and he stepped back from Guy, realising how idiotic this confrontation was.
We have a job to do, he thought. We can't afford to have stupid arguments like this; either or both of us could have been injured, incapacitated or killed!
Drexelica withdrew, frowning.
Grimm drew a deep breath. "I apologise humbly for my outburst, Brother Mage," he said at last, extending his right hand. "No, I don't want to fight you."
Guy looked at the proffered member as if he feared it might be diseased. "Thought better of it, eh? I'm not surprised you backed down."
Grimm felt blood rush anew into his face and fought to suppress his emotions.
Don't say anything to inflame the situation further, he thought, his entrails churning and his hands trembling from the effort of his inner battle. Whatever I think of him, we--I--need Guy.
"You're right, Great Flame." The words felt like ashes on his tongue. "I ... I acted rashly when I turned on you, and I've apologised for it. Please take my hand in the spirit of comradeship in which I offer it."
Guy snorted. "The spirit of cowardice sounds nearer the mark. Perhaps, instead, I should--"
Quelgrum stepped in front of the foppish mage. "Questor Guy, Lord Grimm was man enough to apologise. Are you? You seem to be going out of your way to provoke him."
"I might have known you'd side with him, Technology-lover!" Guy spat. "Take the hand of that misbegotten waif? I'd rather--"
"Oh, Questor Guy," Drex cried, her eyes moistening. "Can't you make peace with Grimm--please?"
Grimm felt entranced by his beloved's blue eyes; they seemed so large and deep that he felt as if he were about to fall into them. How could any man of flesh and blood remain unmoved by such an entreaty?
It seemed that even the sarcastic, acerbic Guy was mortal at heart. He shrugged and took Grimm's hand in his own, pumping it once before releasing it.
"I suppose I was a little hard on you, Dragonblaster," the Great Flame muttered. "Let's just get on with the damn Quest, shall we?"
The older Questor had not even used his favourite perversion of Grimm's title: 'Dragonbluster'. Grimm guessed that was the nearest thing to an apology he was ever likely to hear from Guy.
"Well met, Great Flame," he said, nodding. "There's a difficult task ahead of us, and I'd far rather we were allies than enemies."
Guy, looking a little dazed, shrugged. "I agree. Let's do it."
Quelgrum nodded. "I'll call the others. We'll be ready to move by morning."
"I don't think we should wait that long, General," Drex said, biting her lower lip. "Nobody knows I'm gone yet, but they will in a short while, when I'm missed at Evening Devotions. There's no telling what that evil bitch, Lizaveta will do then.
"I don't think I could smuggle all of you into the Priory; a small party would be better. I'll go with Grimm--he's a Questor, after all."
"What's the matter with me?" Guy's voice became a plaintive whine. "I'm the senior Questor here."
"We should stand by, at least, in case of trouble," Quelgrum declared.
"There are witch guards all around, and they know you're coming," Drex said. "Believe me, my way is better. A small group can cling to the shadows more easily than a large one. You and the other warriors should get some rest, so you can be ready in the morning."
She locked those lovely, blue eyes on the soldier's, and Grimm suffered a momentary pang of jealousy, which he soon quashed.
"Perhaps you're right, lass," the General said at last. "It's a reasonable battle plan."
Grimm felt a warm rush of admiration at Drex's calm, intelligent assessment of the situation.
After all she's been through, he thought, I wouldn't have blamed her if she'd been a catatonic wreck, but her mind's still clear.
"Well, if that's settled," he said, "I'm going with Drex."
"Me, too," Guy declared. "If you remember, Dragonblaster, I have a score to settle with the old bitch, too. I can take care of myself."
"I can take care of myself, too, Great Flame," Grimm snapped, determined not to lose any ground to the pompous thaumaturge. He would rather not have Guy around at all, but, in view of his earlier effort at conciliation, he felt he could not easily deny the older mage. "Don't you worry about me; let's go."
"Be careful," Drex muttered, as she and the two mages hugged the lengthening shadows. "Lizaveta's look-outs are all around. They're called the Anointed Score, and they're the most vicious sluts around. It's best to avoid them."
The walls of the Priory loomed overhead, seeming almost to disappear into the inky evening sky. Grimm suppressed a shiver as the distant, eerie bark of a fox slashed through the air.
"Not much further now," Drex whispered, as the trio rounded the north corner of the towering edifice. "Just keep quiet, and we should be all right."
This Anointed Score can't be that good, Grimm thought. I haven't seen a single one yet. They'd have been better off forming a line in front of the Priory, if they suspected any incursion. This is just too damned--
"Here we are."
Grimm looked down at a dark, unfathomable, rectangular opening, and he felt a frisson of disquiet. Was he expected to plunge into this murky unknown, with no idea what might lie on the other side?
"I'll go first," Drex muttered. "Wait until I give you the all-clear."
Before Grimm could protest, his lover flung herself feet-first into the dark chute. Guy stepped forward, but Grimm put an admonitory hand on the older man's chest. "You heard Drex, Guy. We'll wait here."
Grimm could almost hear the upsurge of the other Questor's emotions at this affront, but he hardly cared; all he cared about was that his lover was safe.
"It's all right!"
Hearing Drex's welcome voice from inside the bowels of the Priory, Grimm felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
"There's nobody here, Grimm; come on in. The dirt won't hurt you, Guy, I promise."
Even in the dim light, Grimm saw Guy's brows lowering at this slight, and he smiled.
"You aren't scared, are you, Great Flame?"
"Not on your life, Dragonblaster. There's still time for you to back out, you know."
"Not on your life, Brother Mage. I'm going first."
Grimm squatted and launched himself down the chute, clutching Redeemer to his chest. The darkness and the brief sensation of falling awoke a primordial fear in him, and he felt relieved when he came to a sudden halt. He stood and stepped away from the chute, and his eyes could just discern Drex's shadowy figure, black against deeper black.
A faint bump greeted Guy's arrival, and Grimm, his eyes becoming accustomed to the darkness, ran to his lover, embracing her. Drex seemed a little awkward in her response to his enthusiastic embrace, but he guessed she was nervous to be back in the Priory so soon after her escape, so he released her.
"Where do we go from here, Drex?" he whispered. "Just point us in the right direction, and we'll take it from there."
"You don't get away from me that easily, Grimm Afelnor," she muttered. "There's a reckoning due, and I wouldn't miss it for the world." There was no mistaking the fervour in her lowered voice.
Speaking a little louder, she said, "Follow me."
"Do you really think this is a good idea, Drex?" Grimm laid a hand on his lover's shoulder.
Drexelica stiffened at his touch, but her voice was soft. "Don't worry about me, Grimm."
With a determined air, she strode to the inner door and opened it just a crack, allowing yellow light to spill into the dark chamber. Putting her face to the narrow opening, she nodded.
"It's all right. Nobody's there. Let's go."
"You're in charge," Grimm said, and then he frowned.
Drex is no shrinking violet, he thought. I guess that's one of the reasons I fell so in love with her; but she seems so different now, as if she's angry with me.
Oh, well; she has been through a lot...
"Come on, Grimm! Devotions can't be more than ten minutes away now. We've got to move, now!"
Grimm stepped through the narrow opening into a small, well-lit vestibule with stairs at either side. Squinting in the bright illumination, he saw Drexelica standing with her arms crossed over her chest, her lips compressed into a tight line.
Why's Drex so uneasy with me? Does she blame me for taking so long to get here?
"We don't have all day, you know, Grimm! Up here."
She started up the left-hand flight of stairs, and the two mages followed her into one narrow corridor after another. Her movements were confident and decisive; Grimm felt glad she was there to lead them through the confusing labyrinth of passageways.
At last, the small party reached a doorway, and Drex stopped. She turned to Grimm, her whole body trembling, and the mage knew she must be fighting powerful, conflicting emotions. His heart went out to her.
Such bravery! Even after all Drex has undergone, her first thought is still for the task ahead of us.
"This is Prioress Lizaveta's private chamber," Drex whispered. "We'll catch her when she returns to put on her devotional robes."
Drex opened the door to reveal an empty room decked with glorious, tasteful brocades and tapestries.
"Come in, boys," she said. "Don't be frightened of an old lady's boudoir."
Grimm and Guy did as they were bidden.
Grimm gazed in wonder at the room's splendour; not at all what he had expected of a nun's private apartments.
"I'll wait to the right of the door, Guy," he declared. "You take the left."
Drex shook her head. "Not a good idea, Grimm; Lizaveta always sends at least two of the Score ahead of her before she enters, and they always check behind the door first. Let's hide in her inner sanctum; nobody dares enter there without her express permission." She indicated the door with a grubby hand. "In there."
Grimm's hand was on the door handle almost before his rational brain had time to react; something about Drex's tone brooked no argument, and he felt almost helpless to resist her.
Grimm's suspicious, well-trained, Questor's mind shot a hot, warning message into his consciousness: Something's wrong here. I don't like this--
This is Drex! the emotional, uncontrolled portion of his brain snapped back. I'd trust her with my life--
He spun around, startled, as he heard the door close with a bang behind him. In the doorway stood Drex, wearing a cool smile, and flanked by two grey-garbed nuns bearing staves. Behind them stood the unmistakable figure of Prioress Lizaveta, whose expression suggested a cat who had cornered a particularly tasty morsel.
Grimm felt a cold, jagged spear of horror lance through his body. His mouth moved, but he found himself incapable of speech or movement.
"Welcome to Rendale, gentlemen," the Prioress purred. "Sister Weranda played her part well, did she not?"
Guy raised War-maker and hissed. "I don't care how many ensorcelled sluts you command, old hag. Now, you're going to get what you deserve!"
"Ah, there you are, my dear bastard grandson! You didn't really think I'd let any kin of mine grow up to be a Guild Questor without taking a few precautions, did you?
Guy snarled and lowered his brows, but he stopped short of decisive action. His lips moved, but no sound emerged. Guy shut his eyes, baring his clenched teeth, and beads of sweat began to garland his face. After a few further moments, he groaned and sank to the floor, dropping War-maker and clutching his stomach.
"Oh, dear," Lizaveta said, smiling. "Dear Guy's developed a nasty tummy-ache. It's his own fault; he's such a naughty boy for trying to cast horrible spells on his devoted grandmother."
"Your little game's over, Prioress," Grimm growled, regaining his power of speech. "If we don't return to our camp by dawn, our companions will attack the Priory with all the Technological power at their disposal. It's over: your little family code-phrases won't work on me, I fancy."
He began to gather his power, intending to cast a spell of paralysis over the women.
"Ah, you are so right, dear Grimm," Lizaveta replied. "I have no direct hold on you ... yet. However, Sister Weranda, here, does, and she doesn't want you to attack me, do you, my dear?"
She's trying to confuse me, Grimm thought, trying to concentrate on his spell. However, no matter how he tried, he could not seem to focus on his magic.
"You wouldn't cast a spell on me, would you, darling?" Drexelica said, and Grimm could not resist the urge to look into those innocent eyes.
"What's the matter with you, Drex?" he gasped, abandoning the struggle to control his wayward powers. "You're a fighter--so fight her!"
"My name is Weranda, Guild scum," Drex declared. "I really can't tell what I ever saw in you. Mother Lizaveta has shown me how you tried to enslave me. All I feel now for you is utter contempt, you damned rapist!"
She spat at him, and Grimm, feeling confused and weak, shook his head in disbelief as the spittle ran down his face.
"Oh, and don't hold out too much hope for that bunch of misfits you call friends," she said. "They'll soon have their own problems to deal with. They'll be much too busy to worry about you."
Lizaveta said, "Sisters, you may begin." The two nuns stepped forward and acted in unison, slamming their staves into his stomach. As Grimm groaned and collapsed onto his knees, the true beating began, each blow causing pain beyond his imagining. He held on for as long as he could, trying to protect his head, his entrails and his manhood, but the blows came in quick succession, too quickly for him to react.
At last, a solid blow contacted his right temple and he fell into the welcoming arms of Morpheus.