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7.

The next day is my eighteenth birthday. It’s a day I shall always remember, but it takes a while to get off the ground. My mom’s idea of giving me a birthday bash is to let me oversleep by one hour and then have two hours for lunch. A working lunch. It’s okay. Lucette’s manning the counter.

The afternoon crawls by. I move among the cauldrons, dread running through my veins with the blood. And yet I don’t actually know what the dread is about. The Circlet is just a thing to me, albeit a thing worth a lot of gold. Even there I am at a loss: is a lot the same as a hundred gold pieces? That would seem like a lot. Or ten thousand? Or a million?

The Wall. That’s in a different category. There are all kinds of magical orders. Some are dead evil, like the Dark Well, whose boss lives in a little pad called Sinafror; some are even worse, like the Burning Field and its even yet still worse offshoots, people who would consider setting fire to a homeless drunk a type of sacrament. Some are neutral-ish, like the Middle Way (of course) but also like the House of Mist or the Ice. The Valley Magic and the Ocean Deep Council are supposedly evil, but everyone thinks of them as neutral. Then there’s White Stone and Star House and Sun Cross, all so Good that regular sorcerers and necromancers are scared of them.

And then there’s the Wall. It’s had its ups and downs—famously, one of their time warriors got killed and interdicted right here in Insmoor early in the reign of Daphne I. But everything about the Wall takes place behind this, well, wall of silence. Their headquarters is deep in the Earth in the dungeons of the Scarp, which lie beneath a long-destroyed tower in the mountains east of Insmoor, and of course no one we would know has gotten far enough in Scarp to know any more than that.

And their leader is Kronah. His name is never spoken aloud, except by Professor Shmoke, who’s had drinks with him: Fiethan. I’ll write it. I’m not saying it. Let’s see: I’m scared of sorcerers. They have three-word spells. Necromancers have four, Wizards five, and then you get into some really big spells after that. You can be a Time Warrior, or a Time Technician, or a Guardian. Any of those people should scare me, an exponentially increasing level of fright. But a member of the Kronah Council, one of the only eleven people who can be members of the Kronah Council?

If they want the Lapis Circlet, my first inclination is to let them have it. If they want the Lapis Circlet, they’re the last people I want to have it.

I’m hearing the bells tolling for the third hour of the evening, and I look up and see Janet, in her (his) long black robe and hood, staring in at me from the shop window. I grab my coat and tell Lucette that I have to run a quick errand. My thinking here is that Lucette will have to stay because I left, and Mom’s in back brewing, so she has to cover the front.

“What is it?” I ask Jan when we’re a block away. It’s freaking cold and there’s not a star in the sky.

“Barb sighting,” says Jan.

“Where?”

“West gate,” says Fenric, joining us out of the black darkness. “Zelin’s there with Yanos. The three of us followed Barb there and sent me back to get you. It’s going down tonight.”

I get to experience the late night stroll through the city in Fenric’s style: staying along the walls of buildings, the shadows of trees, slipping into doorways. It doesn’t seem to matter: no one’s out. Main Street looks like you could lie down in the middle of it and take a nap. The Moon, hidden behind thick clouds, manages to spread a grey pallor across everything. It’s still, but the cold itself is making my face hurt and my toes have given up: they can’t even, they just can’t.

This being Insmoor, even Main Street has its bends and curves. We slip around a bend in the wall that must be about a hundred and sixty degree angle, and there’s the West Gate, a couple hundred feet away. We can see that the gate itself is closed. There’s no one on it or around it.

The gate structure is long tested by our annual orc wars. It’s three stories tall, rising above the wall itself, which is twenty feet tall and sixteen thick. When open, this gate is our busiest, since it faces back down the road to the rest of the Kingdom of Carleu, so it has a single wide door, then a double door, double high, then another single. They’re all secure. There’s no one going in or out or waiting to go in or out.

We hustle along a series of house fronts and then sprint across the Wall Street to the lee of the wall.

“Guard down,” says Fenric. We can see a body sprawled in the shadow of the gate. I’m mentally comparing its shape to those of Zelin or Yanos, but Fen is already hustling over.

Just inside the gate is a small plaza. A little market operates there most days, but it’s bare and empty now. A statue of the legendary Queen Daphne I stands in the middle of it, dressed inappropriately for the current weather.

Just on either side of the smaller doors, are two doors into the gate tower itself. Fenric is in one of the doors already. I’m down by the body, slapping it. “Wake up, Gurth, you dope,” I’m yelling in a whisper, while I warm up my hands by slapping him. Yes. It’s Gurth. He should be here for this.

“Daisy!” Janet hisses.

“I’ll be behind you,” I say.

“Daisy,” says Gurth, groggy, “what the hell?”

“Come on, you’re on guard duty. Guard me.”

Inside the door is a small room and a spiral staircase. We hurry up the stairs. We’re trying to be quiet—Gurth’s awake enough now to at least try, boots and all. But there’s a small echo behind us. Indeed. What the hell.

The stairs wind around tightly clockwise. The second floor has a food storage, a small barrack and an outside gallery for letting attackers know how we feel about them. The barrack is occupied by another guard felled by sleep. The sleep spell has saved the lives of many a guard and warrior.

We come out into the top floor room, which occupies that whole floor of the tower. In the middle are racks of weapons and healing supplies and some beds. On the outside of that is an open space with perhaps twenty arrow slits. In the middle are two open spiral stairs to the tower top. One more guard is on the floor by the nearer stair up. It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs.

Most of the way up the stair, Zelin and Yanos crouch. The hatch at the top is shut. They look back at us. Then Yanos pushes up the hatch and peeks out. He mutters something to the elf, and creeps up onto the roof. The rest of us advance. Fenric and Janet head for the other stair up. I join Zelin on the stairs: she’s at the top, peeking out. I mouth: Is anyone there? She nods emphatically, then holds up one finger.

“Barb,” I hear Yanos say. “What are you intending to do?”

Ag, dear,” she says. Her most effective spell. We hear him hit the stone floor.

“Crows,” Zelin whispers. I don’t know why at first. I look around. I have a funny feeling.

Xu,” I say. Reveal. Just picked that one up. And it reveals: one Lucette Barnswallow, in a dense cloud of coat with a wand sticking out.

Trt asht!” she cries. “Trt sko!” I reply. Her cold spell hits my fire spell. Perhaps a few dust mites are inconvenienced.

“Lucette, what the hell are you doing?” I ask, while we watch our opposite streams of damage fizzle together between us.

“You’re selling the Circlet, aren’t you?” she answers. “I want a piece of that. I deserve—!”

Nyk eur goth,” comes a man’s voice. “Nyk eur goth!

Lucette and I glare at each other, our spell power draining away. A man, who had flown in the downstairs door as a crow, is covering us with his wand. “Nothing from you,” he says. “I have worse than that.”

I’m remembering every feature of this man. He’s on my list, as is Lucette Barnswallow.

There’s a clunk. He says, “God damn it!” and bends over. Behind him, Gurth brings down the butt of his sword once more onto the man’s head. Janet runs over and throws her own religiously-based sleep spell on him. He sprawls to the floor and takes no more part in the action.

I creep to the top and look out. The Moon has broken free: there’s a breeze and the clouds are starting to fracture.

Barb is standing about twenty feet from where Zelin, hiding in plain sight as only an elf can, crouches on the top step of the spiral stair. I’m all in her space, just the top of my head out.

Another bird is circling. It descends and lands, and turns from crow to man. This one’s features I can’t memorize. Barb starts toward him.

“Do you have it?” the man asks.

“Of course, Orlago,” she says, producing something from her pocket and holding it high above her head. The Moon strikes it and it gleams. For just a moment Barb could be the Priestess of the Hills, except that no.

“Bring it here, child,” he actually says, “and accept your reward.”

She smiles like the dawn. Then she stumbles. There was a short sound, and now she sprawls on the roof, a green-feathered arrow in her back. The Circlet skitters across the roof.

There’s another short sound. Orlago looks down: a dagger protrudes from his belly. He gives Fenric a dirty look, but with another swish, a green arrow sprouts next to it. “Not a smart move,” he croaks out, but he manages to bring his hands together—and twist a ring and disappear.

Zelin dashes to the Circlet, sticks it in her pocket and returns. “I would suggest,” she says, “that we evacuate the scene forthwith.” And we do.

 

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