The Siren: Part 3
Idina saw the look on my face and her eyes flared in fury. Without looking, she reached up and back, and stopped the club dead with one hand. She ripped the club from Kuno’s hand as she spun around and grabbed him by the shirtfront, lifting him off the ground effortlessly.
“You dare strike one of the Host?” Idina thundered, sounding as though her voice had become a brassy chorus.
Kuno gaped, his feet dangling inches off the ground.
“Idina!” I snapped. “Put Kuno down. He made a mistake. He has learned his lesson.”
Idina turned her head to look at me, her eyes were glowing with a blue, white light.
“Stay out of this, half-breed. It is between this mortal and I.”
Well this was all going downhill fast. Bracing myself, I drew one of my long knives.
“Put him down Idina, or I’ll make you put him down.”
“You would place yourself between me and this mortal?” Idina seemed genuinely curious.
“I would.” I growled.
Idina nodded sharply. “Good.”
She slowly lowered Kuno down and pushed him gently away. He stumbled backwards and was grabbed by Luther. Idina relaxed and the light behind her eyes dimmed and vanished.
Roland pushed Luther aside and strode towards me, his face twisted in anger.
“Marek, she attacked one of mine, in my domain!”
I held up a hand, as I slid my long knife back into its sheath. “To be fair Roland, Kuno attacked her first, without provocation, and she didn’t harm him.”
“By the Gods Marek! I can’t have a Warlock in my domain, I won’t!”
“By my counting Roland, you now have two, with one offering to remove the other.”
Roland kicked a broken piece of crate in frustration and turned to Luther and Kuno.
“You two, piss off, and keep your mouths shut. Not one word, got it?”
The two men nodded, and Luther dragged Kuno back into the smugglers’ lair.
Roland waited until they’d left and turned back to me, but before he could speak, Idina stepped forward.
“I apologise.” She said quietly. “Aavan is quick to take offence, and even quicker to anger. No harm or insult was intended.”
“Yes, well.” Roland replied, awkwardly. “you’ve certainly made things difficult.”
“He can’t let you pass through, on your own now.” I explained, carefully. “nor can he be seen to be helping you. The most he can do is allow you to be guided through by me. You’ll never be welcome on your own here, and if found, you’ll be attacked. The smugglers must protect their territory, any sign of weakness could invite challenge.”
“Right on all counts.” Roland confirmed.
“You realise that an attack on me is an attack on Aavan. He would not take kindly to that.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Roland replied, his voice hard. “We defend what is ours.”
“But it won’t come to that.” I cut in quickly. “We go in, get Kai’s family, deal with the Warlock – “
“Siren.” Idina corrected.
“Siren, and get out.” I finished.
“That’s good enough for me.” Roland announced. “Marek, you can, of course, pass through, I’ll have Luther guide you to where we last had men disappear. Idina, we’ll be watching for you. Your face is known to us now.”
Idina sighed and nodded.
I understood some of what she had to be feeling. Warlocks were rarely welcomed anywhere. From what I knew, they tended to lead a wandering existence, only settling in places for short periods of time before moving on again. Apparently though, there were a great many things I didn’t know about them.
Roland gestured to me and I nodded back.
“Wait here.” I told Idina firmly. “Roland has something else for me.”
“I’ll try not to cause any more trouble.” Idina replied, a small smile on her lips.
I smiled back at her and crossed the room to the smuggler.
“You have something for me?” I prompted.
“Kai might have mentioned that I had someone followed for him.”
I nodded. “He did. Said he went into the castle.”
“Yeah. What I didn’t tell Kai was that I already had someone working in the castle. With the description the boy gave me, I was able to find out who the man is.”
“Who was he?”
Roland shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. What matters is who he works for.”
“Alright, who does he work for?”
“The Queen’s brother? What does he want with me?”
“I’ve no idea, but you might want to consider leaving Proteshi for a while. I could try to find out more for you.”
“And in exchange?”
“I have an associate in Hien who needs some protection.” Roland informed me, quietly, eyeing Idina over my shoulder.
“Another smuggler I suppose.”
“Right. I owe him several favours and he’s calling them in. I’ll pay you back by finding out why Aradus wants you dead.”
“I’ll need more than that Roland. I’m doing you a favour right now by investigating your problem. On its own, that’s enough to balance you looking into Aradus.”
“Fine. I’ll pay you as well.” Roland grumbled.
“That sounds more like it.”
“After you help my associate.”
“Half before I go.”
“Done.” The smuggler agreed.
We shook hands and Roland made for the exit.
“Wait here.” The smuggler ordered. “I’ll send Luther to guide you.”
Luther took us down through the smugglers’ well used caves that made up their little empire, and then deeper, down to caves that rarely saw use. The deeper we went, the less signs of habitation we saw. Before too long we passed beyond even those little used caverns and caves. After what I felt was about a half hour we reached some unmarked point and Luther stopped.
“This is it.” He said softly. “Everyone who’s gone further than here hasn’t returned.”
“What’s it like beyond?” I asked, figuring that any children growing up among the smugglers must at one time or other have explored far beyond the inhabited areas.
“It’s been years.” Luther replied. “it drops down steeply around the next corner and narrows so that you’ll have to turn a little to pass. I don’t know how deep the caves run, but we’re at least under the river, if not beyond, here.”
“Any other ways out?”
The smuggler shook his head. “Not that I ever heard of, but these caves go on for miles.”
“I expect we’ll be back along this way so before too long. Will you be here or are you going back?”
“I’m to wait. If I see something coming back that isn’t you, or a woman and child, I’m to run like the blazes and report to Roland.” He replied with a grin.
Luther held out his hand and I grasped it firmly.
“Good luck.” He bid as I stepped away.
“You too.” I answered.
I took a breath and started walking deeper into the cave, making sure I had a firm hold on my mostly shuttered lamp. Beside me, Idina walked quietly. She hadn’t said a word since we left Roland.
“So, you’re a Warlock then.” I announced.
“Yeah.” Idina replied shortly.
“How does that work? Unlimited power for the small price of your soul?”
Idina snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. I still have my soul, and even the Gods have their limits.”
“So how then?”
“It’s more like a partnership.”
“You get power.” I observed. “but what does a daemon get?”
“The ability to move around on our plane.” Idina answered.
“Oh.” I replied. “that makes sense I guess.”
“Half-Breed?” I asked after a pause.
Idina shrugged. “Aavan doesn’t tell me everything.”
We turned around a corner and started down a rough incline. The walls began to close in around us, until I had to turn almost sideways. Idina, behind me, was small enough that she wasn’t affected, but if the walls got much narrower, she might have to push me though.
“How do you become a Warlock?” I asked, as soon as the walls started to widen again.
“Much like how you became a Mage I guess.” Idina observed. “I was born with the ability.”
“Not really a Mage.” I muttered. “Just someone who knows some tricks.”
“Tricks.” Idina snorted. “You’re one of the most dangerous assassins I’ve crossed paths with and you say you know a few tricks.”
I shrugged. “My master died before he could teach me how to be a proper Mage. He taught me enough of the basics that I get by.”
“It’s fine. It was a long time ago. You were born a Warlock. What’s that like?”
Idina shuddered. “Not particularly pleasant. I grew up hearing voices in my head.”
“That sounds spectacularly awful.” I observed.
“I was lucky. Some Warlocks go mad, some are killed by their own families, and some are thrown out to survive on their own in the wilderness. The really unlucky attract the wrong sort of attention and become Sirens.”
I held up my hand suddenly, signalling Idina to stay quiet. I could smell something on the air.
“There’s something ahead.” I whispered. “How are you in the dark?”
“I don’t need any light to see usually.” Idina replied, hesitantly. “but I can’t use my abilities, or the Siren will know I’m nearby. I want to be very close before it realises what I am.”
“So, I’m on my own until then.”
“I’m guessing that there will be some of the Sung down here with it.”
“It’s almost certain.”
“Wonderful. Any idea how many?”
Idina shook her head. “No way to be sure.”
“Wonderful. Stay here, I’m going to take a look ahead.”
I closed the shutter on my lantern, closing off its meagre light, and placed it on the ground, by the cave wall. Only Idina’s lantern gave any light now, but that wasn’t a problem for me. I slid forward into the darkness, leaving the Warlock behind.
I closed my eyes for a moment, and with little effort, I altered their structure slightly. Opening them again and the cave around me looked very different. I was now able to see patches of heat and cold. Looking back towards Idina, I could see her outline clearly, there would be no hiding in the dark from me. Looking ahead I could see another turn in the cave and so I edged forward and peered around the corner.
The cave started to open out, around the turn, I could make out huge pillars of stone, going between ceiling and floor. Somewhere beyond I could hear water falling, a small waterfall perhaps, and just ahead, I could see one of the Sung crouched by a pillar, waiting. I probably should have asked Idina about their ability to see in the dark, but as this one had no means of creating light with it, I assumed that it could see at least as well as I could. I found a loose stone by my foot and smiled. Sometimes simple plans were best.
The Sung snapped around to peer towards where my stone had landed, and I slipped forward, grabbing its jaw in one hand, and the back of its head with my other I twisted sharply, and snapped its neck. I carefully dragged the now dead Sung back around the corner. Idina had come closer to the turn and saw what I’d done.
“That was smooth.” She whispered in admiration. “I didn’t hear a thing.”
I shrugged. “Practice. Wait here, and don’t come closer. The cave opens up around the corner and any light will be seen.”
I flashed a quick smile. “I’ll do my best.”
I slipped almost noiselessly through the huge cavern. It seemed that the Sung I’d killed had been alone, left as a sentry against anyone finding their way down from the surface. That suited me just fine. Ahead I could just about see an end to this cavern. There were several passages in the walls at the end and I hoped that it would be obvious which one I’d need to use. I stuck my head into the first opening and discovered that it ended several feet in, the roof collapsed. One down, three more to go. The next two were also dead ends. The final passage was awkward, but passable. I was forced to almost crawl through the final section but once on the other side I found a larger cave. A little further in and the cave split in two, one part going downwards and the other carrying on at more or less the same level as the one I was in. Both showed signs of use, but I could see a little light being reflected out of the upper tunnel.
I crept along the upper tunnel, careful to avoid making noise. The further I went, the more light I could see, it almost looked like daylight, which didn’t make much sense. I hadn’t been underground that long, surely.
I came to the end of the passage and found myself entering another huge cavern. Not for the first time, I wondered how these caverns came to be. I slipped behind an outcrop and took stock. The first thing that was obvious was that I’d been in these caves much longer than I’d supposed. There were several gaping vents in the roof of the cavern, which clearly went right to the surface. Daylight was filtering down through these fissures, enough to provide dim light to most of the cavern. At one side of the cavern was a raised wooden platform, on which was an elaborate chair, almost a throne. A canvas awning, supported by poles, protected the chair and the platform from the ever-present water dripping from the roof.
A man sat on that chair, wearing what looked to be expensive robes, maybe ceremonial in nature. The man himself looked to be well built and very tall. He looked like a bruiser, someone used to throwing his weight around. Several of the Sung were crouched nearby, guarding or waiting, I couldn’t tell. Presumably this was who Idina was looking for. I couldn’t see Ida or Kaja anywhere around, so I drew back out of the cavern and went to explore the lower cave.
The lower cave is not something I particularly want to remember. It smelt of terror and death and the darkness seemed much more profound than the earlier caverns. I found bones on the ground that I was certain were human, most had teeth marks on them, and not from anything as prosaic as rats. I found several rough cells towards the end of the cave, all but one of them empty. The door to the final cell was open and inside, I could see a tiny figure prone on the ground. Atop her was one of the Sung, grunting and thrusting. I gritted my teeth and ripped the creature off his victim. I crushed its throat with one hand, while I stabbed one of my long knives through the back of its head. It made a low warbling sound as it tried to suck air through its ruined throat before falling still. I slipped forward towards the tiny figure and drew close to her. I couldn’t be certain it was Kaja, somethings just didn’t display well when you’re seeing things only by the heat they generate.
I slid my hand over her mouth and put my arm around her in a single move, restraining her and preventing her from making any noise.
“Kaja?” I asked softly, my mouth beside her ear. “It’s Marek. Nod your head if you’re Kaja, I can’t see properly down here.”
I felt the girl jerk her head up and down.
“I’m here to get you home. Is your mother still alive?”
Kaja shook her head. I could feel her body shaking, either because of the cold or fear, more likely both.
“I need you to stay quiet Kaja. I’ll get you out of here, but you must promise to stay quiet.”
She nodded her understanding and I released her. She spun around and threw her arms around me, her head pressed against my chest, sobbing silently. I put my arms around her and pulled her close for a few moments before I released her again. We needed to be gone from here.
I felt around and found what felt like rags, rough bedding probably, and draped them around her, giving her a little warmth and covering her nudity at least some bit. I picked her up and carried her in my arms, like a child. For as long as I’d known her, she’d always been petite, like her mother. I made my way as fast as I dared up through the cave, to where I could get back to Idina. It took me some time to coax Kaja through the narrow part of the tunnel, but she managed, eventually. We hadn’t yet made it back into the giant cavern, where Idina waited, when I heard a scream of anger from the caves behind. There was little sense in moving softly and carefully now. There was only one way someone could get out without going through the lit cavern. I picked Kaja up again, as soon as there was enough room in the cave to do so and began a mad dash towards Idina.
I made it about halfway across the cavern before I something slammed into my back. I stumbled forward and managed to twist so that when I fell, I was beneath Kaja. I slid along the wet cavern floor and managed to roll back to my feet, Kai’s daughter still in my arms. I took off at a run again, though not quite so fast this time, that hit had hurt, a lot.
“Idina!” I shouted. “Open that lantern!”
I suddenly jinked to one side and felt something brush past me. I kept running, trusting in my feet to keep my upright. My back was really starting to get sore now.
Ahead of me, the end of the cavern suddenly lit up as Idina pulled the shutter off the lantern. Nearly there.
I felt a presence then, almost like Idina had had earlier, except she’d felt like a hammer striking a bell, this felt similar, but greasy somehow. I couldn’t explain it any better. Before I could think anymore on it I found myself flying through the air, towards the cave wall. Just before I hit, I managed to get myself between Kaja and the wall. I hit the cavern wall hard, harder than I’d ever hit anything. Things got a little hazy. Strangely though, there was no pain. Kaja had tumbled from my arms, but it seemed that I’d managed to protect her from the worst of the impact. My mind was struggling to make sense of things. I had to move. Staying still was death. I couldn’t feel my legs.
Idina was crouched beside me, touching my shoulder. I had no idea how she’d managed to cross the distance between us so fast. It’s entirely possible that I wasn’t thinking clearly.
“Marek!” She shouted. “You need to move!”
“I’d love to.” I slurred. “but my legs aren’t working.”
Idina looked lost for words. Her mouth moved a few times but made no sound.
“It’s fine.” I reassured her. “You know what I am. I just need a few minutes and I’ll be fine.”
“You know you have an arrow sticking out of your back as well, right?”
“Uh, that’s fine too.” I slurred, testily. “Just get Kaja out of here.”
Idina turned her head slightly and her eyes turned that icy blue they had earlier.
“No time.” She replied curtly as she stood up and turned.
I looked past her and saw the tall man from the lit cavern walking towards us, his eyes glowing yellow.
Idina bellowed and charged forward, drawing her sword.
I looked to Kaja and saw her eyes wide in terror and held out a hand. She took my hand and I pulled her close, wincing as a bolt of pain lanced through my lower back.
I watched helplessly as Idina tackled a man about a foot and a half taller than her, and probably twice her weight. There was no skill in the fight, it was basic and brutal. She stabbed the man repeatedly even as he punched and kicked her. She took every hit and powered through, until her sword broke. I don’t know if the weapon had had a flaw or if the he did something to break it, but when the blade snapped, she hesitated for a fraction of a second and the man, the Siren I assumed, took a hold of her and smashed her into the cavern wall, face first.
I was starting to think clearly, the last traces of fogginess fading away. Kaja was curled up against me. I felt one of my toes twitch, which was nice. I was less enthused by my growing weariness; all the healing was starting to take its toll. Idina, in the meantime had pushed herself back off the wall, grabbed the Siren’s arm, and broken it. The Siren grunted and kicked Idina in the stomach, folding her in half. Taking her momentary distraction, the Siren tugged on his broken arm, straightening the bones inside. I had always thought myself talented when it came to healing injuries, all I needed was time and the energy to do it, but this Siren repaired a broken arm like it was nothing. I decided right there and then that if I ever had to kill a Warlock, or a Siren, I’d do it from as far away as possible.
Idina pushed herself upright, gasping for breath, her face twisted in anger. The Siren smirked and clenched his right hand. Idina gasped and floated in to the air, her feet dangling. It didn’t look like she was doing it voluntarily. The Siren smirked and with a gesture, smashed Idina into the cavern wall again. Idina shrieked in fury and the Siren was enveloped in bright blue flames. He snarled and started cursing as he smashed Idina again and again into the cavern wall. I had to do something.
I glanced down at Kaja and pulled out one of my shorter knives, placing it in her hand.
“I want you to grab a lantern.” I told her, pointing to the cave that led back to the smugglers’ territory. “and I want you to run that way.
"Do you understand.”
Kaja nodded, her eyes wide with fear.
“Good girl.” I told her. “Keep going and don’t look back. Just keep going. Someone will find you and take you home.”
She stood up, shaking like a leaf and ran. I watched her go and flexed my legs. Good enough.
I leaned against the wall and pushed myself to my feet. I felt battered, ill used and exhausted. I ignored that and undid the leather strap on my wrist, the one that I kept all my poisoned needles in. Carefully, I reversed the needles, one by one, so that they were now all sticking business end out. There was enough toxin there to drop an enraged bull. It had to be enough.
The Siren was standing over Idina now. She had collapsed to the floor of the cave and the flames around the Siren had gone out. The Siren wasn’t without injury, but he had taken everything that Idina had and shrugged most of it off. I pushed myself away from the wall and noiselessly slipped towards the Siren’s back. I didn’t try anything fancy, I didn’t have the energy, I just punched the strap straight into the back of the Siren’s neck, driving the tips of the needles into its skin.
The Siren reared upright and spun around, grabbing me by the neck and lifting me off the ground. I grabbed at the man’s arms, trying to loosen his grip, while kicking him in the chest furiously.
“You’re brave.” The Siren laughed. “and stupid. Those two generally are found together. I would have thought that they would have been bred out of your species by now.”
So much for my plan then. At least Kaja got out alive. Not a bad way to finish things I supposed.
“Afraid not.” I croaked as I felt the Siren’s fingers begin to tighten.
“Tough for a mortal too, I see. I had thought you taken care of earlier. Maybe you’d like to work for me. I can offer you anything you desire. Power, women, gold. These things can all be yours.”
“Not. Interested.” I gasped.
“Pity.” The Siren replied.
I felt his arm tremble as he started to squeeze tighter. The cavern started to grow darker as I kicked his legs again and again.
I felt the ground beneath my feet and scrabbled for purchase.
I felt myself fall as the Siren let me go.
I hit the ground and lay still as my throat fought to get air to my lungs.
A moment later and I was breathing hard, my vision clearing again. I groaned and pushed myself to my knees. The Siren was glaring at me, his face black, his neck massively swollen, looking like he’d been stung by some sort of demonic wasp.
I forced myself to stand, pulled a knife, and slammed it into one of the Siren’s eyes, right into his brain. He collapsed on the ground, spasming wildly, blood and other fluids flowing from the wound.
I spat on him and stumbled over to Idina.
She was unconscious but breathing. I groaned, and nearly fell as I picked her up. Thank Equola she wasn’t very tall. I stumbled towards the end of the cavern, heading towards the Smugglers’ caves, and kept on going, leaving the Siren to die alone.
The journey back through the caves almost killed me. I’m sure of that, well, mostly sure. I stumbled off cave walls, fell to my knees several times, but I didn’t let Idina fall. I eventually found Luther, kneeling on the ground, his hands empty, and trying to look as non-threatening as was possible for someone of his build. Kaja was pressed against the cave wall, my knife in her hands, and looking as terrified as it was possible to be.
“Aratu’s blood!” Luther exclaimed as he saw us.
I touched Kaja on the shoulder. “It’s ok.” I reassured her. “he’s friendly.”
Kaja bit her lip and put the knife away as I lowered Idina to the ground. Luther eyed Kaja and gave her a wide berth as he walked over to me.
“Is she hurt badly?” He asked
“She’s alive, unconscious, but alive.”
“What do you need?”
“Right now? Food, a bed and maybe a year’s worth of sleep.” I told him. “In that order.”
“What of the family?”
“This is the daughter, Kaja. Her mother didn’t make it.”
Luther nodded. “What about the Warlock – uh, Siren.”
“Dead. Poisoned and stabbed.”
Luther looked relieved. “I’ll carry the Warlock, if you bring the girl.”
I nodded, wearily. “Give me a minute to catch my breath.”
I woke sometime later in a comfortable bed. A candle burned on the far side of the small room, providing some illumination. I stretched carefully, testing my joints one by one, seeking out any aches and pains. I’d never broken my back before, so I was being careful. Everything seemed fine though. I had no idea what time it was, whether it was day or night. I slipped out of the bed and found my clothes, and all of my assorted weapons, piled beside the small table that held the candle, a basin, and a plain ewer full of tepid water. I splashed some of the water on to my face and dressed quickly. I needed to know how things stood. Idina, unconscious as she was, and without me, was in danger from the smugglers. I didn’t think Roland would do anything, but sometimes he could be a little unpredictable, especially if he were angry.
I found Roland in the Smugglers’ communal chamber, a large cave that had been enlarged over the years. He was sitting at a table, a half-drunk bottle of wine opened beside him, with a mostly empty roughly made wine glass. He glanced up and waved me over. I took a seat beside him at the table and he slid the bottle over to me, along with another glass, a match for the one he had.
“How long was I asleep?” I asked, pouring some of the deep red, wine into my glass.
“The rest of the night, and a full day besides. We weren’t sure you were going to wake, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so battered.”
“If Idina hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have made it.” I admitted. “and you’d have a much bigger problem.”
Roland sighed. “Before you ask, she’s in another room, with the girl.”
“Are they alright?”
Roland shrugged. “Of the Warlock, I can’t say. She’s still asleep, last I heard. The girl, well, I don’t know what happened down there, but I doubt she’ll ever be right. You know she has one of your knives? Almost killed Kuno with it. A girl her age should be courting, not playing with knives.”
“You don’t want to know what was going on below. If I were you I’d seal off those caves.”
“I was thinking of using them. I don’t know why we never moved that deep.”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t. It feels, dark down there, bad. You know?”
“You might be right. I’ll see what the others say.”
I threw back the glass of wine and stood up. “Right, I’d better see to Kaja and get her back to her father. Can I leave Idina here until I come back?”
“About that.” Roland said, sounding regretful. “The tailor’s dead. While you were asleep, I sent a man to tell him we had his daughter. His throat was cut. There didn’t seem to have been much in the way of a struggle, so it’s likely that the tailor never saw it coming.”
I sat back down heavily. “Gods damn it!” I swore. “What am I going to tell Kaja.”
“The truth probably.” Roland suggested. “She’ll have to know sooner or later anyway. Maybe sooner is better.”
“She’s too young for all this.” I sighed. “If I hadn’t come back looking for Kai this might not have happened.”
“She’s old enough to have young men courting her.” The smuggler pointed out. “And she’d already been taken before you got to the tailor, so it’s not your fault. You might have even saved her life.”
“Maybe.” I grunted. “I don’t know how thankful she’ll be though. Everything is changed.”
“I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just glad that I don’t have to tell her.”
“As for you my friend, I have a ship lined up to take you to Hien.”
“When is it leaving?”
“A few days.”
“Gives me some time to rest and get a few things so. I need to replace some weapons and supplies.”
“Give me a list, I can get them for you.” Roland offered.
“It’s no problem. I’ll deduct the cost from what I’ll owe you. I’m sending the Warlock off with you as well, if she hasn’t recovered by the time you leave. I need her gone from here.”
“What about Kaja?”
Roland shrugged. “I can ask around, see if I can find her work in a tavern or something.”
“Kai owned the title to his shop. He didn’t have any other family, so it’s now Kaja’s. Maybe I could get her to sign it over to you, and you could sell it for her.”
“That might work. I know an Advocate who could make it all above board.”
“Try not to take too much of a cut. The gold might have to support her for a long time.”
“I’ll take enough to pay the Advocate and nothing more.” Roland decided.
I stood again, sighing. “I better go see her and let her know that she’s on her own now.”