“Cry havoc, hateful children; pick up your spyglasses and cross the hot seas of war.”-Holdimidloth, A Guide to Feeling Normal-Holdimidloth, A Guide to Feeling Normal
It is always a good sign when you round a corner and see complete and total chaos.
To the right stretched the long corridor which connected to what he and Ktsn presently considered their quarters. To the left, an open-sky courtyard was visible on the other side of a stone palace wall, courtesy of things too narrow to be windows and too wide to be arrow slits. Straight ahead, a big clover-shaped junction gave indirect access to a few places with which he was intimately familiar and many which he was not, with the added benefit or detriment of displaying heraldry-covered tapestries so thickly that if he didn’t know beforehand, it wouldn’t even be possible to determine what material made up the walls.
Outside – streaming in through a big side entrance from a garden – and in the junction before them, guards were trying to fend off a formless tide of men.
“Oh please,” Eihks said, “you’ve got to be-”
He halted when a highly irregular buzzing sound dotted the air, which he guessed was some sort of phasic or heated-matter weapon. Impossibly fast projectiles sprayed the air outside. The people trying to forcibly enter the courtyard suddenly found themselves trying to forcibly circumvent the courtyard in the interests of success and life.
The armored figure of Sandany came barreling around a row of wooden trellis walls lousy with vines, skidding a divot in the dirt.
She had a microsecond’s hesitation, looking over the crowd of people alongside whom she’d recently fought. An arrow bounced off her armor with a crack. Amid a furor of arguing assault, she started letting loose with her pistol again, disappearing from view.
A series of rattlings distracted the pair from their distraction. Noises ahead, noises behind. All around the palace came the sound-spoor of people waking up and doing questionably moral business.
Eihks’s constituent members readied themselves as he glared on all sides, trying to judge and isolate first-priority objectives. The eyes narrowed, the mouth loosened, the fingers nimbly unlimbered and primed.
“Right. Let’s get to work.”
“They are coming in from-” Ktsn grunted, pointing across one of the connecting passages, as he stomped into a run back the way they’d come. She stopped, then grunted in a different register. Presumably, she’d also spied the enemy combatants trickling inside. They flowed down a dusty set of steps, and also out of one adjacent corridor. Their arrivals came in spurts, broken into chaotic groups roughly between three and ten. From the way they shiftily skipped and stumbled and bumped around, their cohesion had its roots in the biological imperative of herd instinct rather than military drill.
Sandany had said she wasn’t sure of how many people still aligned themselves with Rollhir’s legacy, but Eihks found himself amazed at the circus-worthy ingress.
The merging stream of variously-combat-ready entrants banged into the wall which partly enclosed Eihks’s and Ktsn’s quarters, before messily diverging at the kink in the hall’s end. Some ended up going in the direction of the king’s rooms, but far more went the opposite way. Many, nearly all, wore common city-dweller clothing and carried basic weaponry meant for kitchen and field work. In the mix were the occasional real weapon, very occasional magical water light, and extremely occasional globules of living-water.
It was somewhat ironic that one of the most powerful weapons in this people’s employ was so infrequently used. Or maybe it wasn’t ironic at all, given that an amoeba of living-water could be caught and turned against its wielder (or at least disabled) without much difficulty. Either way, it was surprising how many were visibly in the use of the rebels, and the reason might have some impact on, or root in, some sort of socioeconomic structure or substrate of which Eihks wasn’t yet aware. Ultimately, the reasons why weren’t immediately important. It meant an even poorer showing of viable tools of violence at the scene.
The karkshesh broke into that surprisingly orderly lope as she fished out her sling.
“We’ve probably got several breaches, and my guess is they’ll be counting on numbers, or other factors besides skill, to bog down the loyalist forces.”
“Where did they all come from?” Ktsn half-whispered, as though she were trying to sneak up on a band of sporadically shouting enemies. It was almost humorous when the invaders saw the two of them dashing in, and initially didn’t react despite Ktsn’s appearance or Eihks pulling blades with the intention of violence. Then two or three all panicked at the same time, and the next people down and out of the steps improved their messy jogging advances into stumbling desperate sprints.
A man tripped on a riser, and sent a few others behind him sprawling painfully over and atop his cadaverous prone form.
“A question I’ve also asked,” Eihks said, face lining with the serious interest of making this confrontation quick. “Whatever you do, I need one capable of talking coherently when we’re done. Spare candidates would be preferable, but not strictly necessary, so please don’t kill them just to get them out of the way. Their intelligence might prove vital.”
“What… KIND of person do you think…?”
Ktsn didn’t complete the thought, though he couldn’t say if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Instead, there was a sling whistle. A thumb-sized stone sighed past his flank and sank into the side of a bald man’s torso. The rock hit hard enough to turn the man so far right he was facing left. He collapsed like a tree, wide-eyed and puff-cheeked, without even trying to break his fall.
Then the parade swept up around the Rhaagmini.
The first knife stayed out front, defensively searching for incoming enemy armaments. The other waited patiently at his belt. He sifted the dross for a diamond, trying to identify someone with information and willingness to confess.
If they needed to go through a couple victims first, then surely these people knew the penalties for insurrection in the very resting place of royalty.
Motion slowed in his periphery. His guess was that some twenty or so people occupied the area at the far end of the stairs. Many of them stood partially arrested by the sight of a wiry-framed fellow with a look in his eye, like he’d be just as happy to lecture them on their poor moral judgment as bite massive holes in their throats. A few of them decided to turn tail and run. Of those who kept advancing, Eihks picked three candidates. It wasn’t easy to identify “this person will buckle under duress” but he gave it his very best profiling shot.
A juke perpendicular to traffic let him slide right up to the first target, and said target’s gaze seemed locked onto Eihks’s blade.
Violent voices, then violent metal, then violent flesh, then heavy breathing like evening meadow winds.
When the scene cleared, three people of interest lay or slumped or rested in shear-edged pain at the edge of the hall. Eihks hunched over a gangly youth with a broken ankle and musculature so deficient it was practically a bodily negative. He held the leaning point of a keris on the guy’s bared shoulder, tip prepared to go on a socket joint safari through his torn shirt fabric. Both the youth’s hands shrank from fighting back, probably against the eventuality that movement meant crippling an arm. Ktsn stood behind the two of them, acting as discouragement against foolhardy rushes.
“Tell me what you people are trying to do here today, and your life will have two working arms for the foreseeable future,” Eihks informed his patient.
The blade’s substance moved down about a millimeter. Enough to elicit the most minor of reactions. It would be almost impossible for the fellow to tell if the sensation was that of cold, or that of hurt, until he looked at it directly.
Even if you could no longer feel it yourself, something about the biological whimper in a sharp line across flesh was unforgettable.
The set of brown eyes trained on the other set of brown eyes didn’t blink; the set of brown eyes fixed on the blade widened and shrank ever so slightly. It was a way of letting internal debate out into the air – surely this knife-man wouldn’t… but maybe he would… but-
Metal strafed the skin just enough to leave the first tiny cut perfectly visible, then pressed itself three millimeters through dermal tissue.
The man hissed, and if not for Eihks holding a palm against his chest, the subsequent slight jostling would have caused some woeful damage.
“The next one is going to be the last, then I start on your other arm.”
No feeling permitted.
“Ho-ooooooh…” came the response. A superhuman effort of will kept the moan’s owner’s chest doing its overtaxed best. “We… needed to get to the spring. We needed to… reach… the spring.”
“Under the palace.”
The man’s eyes lacquered with conviction. His voice grew no stronger, but it became numb to the pain.
A bell rang in the back of Eihks’s head.
“He had a voice come to him on the night winds. The voice said that Dōdielnan must fall if it can’t be restored, and guided his spirit to the path of justice.”
Something brought a softness to the youth’s features. He sank into the floor just a bit, like a pricked balloon full of anesthetic.
“The only true way to make a giant fall is by destroying the heart.”
Eihks leaned over him, teeth on full non-smile display, and cracked his jaw.
“Wonderful,” he growled. “Now tell me where this heart lies, and…”
He stopped, blinked, and rose. Two things slotted together.
“The heart. The soul.”
Ktsn blinked when he turned toward her, his hands cleaning the knife and putting it away in an unmindful way.
“What are you talking about?” she asked.
“The aquifer. The water chamber is an access point to the aquifer.”
The healthier of the two other injured candidates began to make a break for it, misestimating Ktsn’s two-sided field of vision. She immediately halted the man with a hiss and a short flinch. Her pickax rested sturdily in her arms, though she didn’t seem too keen on using it to cause harm.
Eihks had noted her reluctance to actually fight off anything or anyone not actively threatening her, and thought it spoke well of her.
“The palace was built directly over an aquifer. I heard about it from the palace staff, and it was brought up a couple of times during the research into Sandany’s ritual. It’s the single largest source of water for the entire city.”
Her ears flapped a bit. Subtle bodily cues rose from the aggregate of her limbs and more surface-evident musculature. He’d learned to recognize that most of them were indicative of slight befuddlement.
“Come on, we need to get out of here; there’s going to be a disaster if this goes like how I think it might go.”
He started jogging. Until Ktsn caught up, he kept his attention down the fork in the hall that led to the king’s chambers. Several bodies lay in that direction. The only living members among them were a subset of the people he considered allies.
In the other direction, he saw nobody living aside from three distant armed figures in the royal colors, but the main hall’s floor had an absolute riot of footprints and skidding steps. Enough dirt-cast negatives to keep servants scrubbing until the next lunar phase, probably. They funneled down as a unit, a few shoe-prints bleeding off to either side as the hall shrank into the distance, particularly into the massive throne room. The overwhelming majority kept on ahead, though, until they mobbed a stairway of the sort meant to be traveled by a sommelier doing inventory of the house’s finest liqueurs.
Or someone who took care of what had to be the king’s most vitally precious resource.
It was just as he opened his mouth to begin hashing out a plan of action that the thumping of armored feet distracted them both. The owner of the feet came into view around a corner, going full tilt, holding zero reserve.
“Oh,” Eihks sighed. “I was worried about getting bored; glad to see things are going to stay exciting.”