The plan to enter the Sh'vrie Vault by the underground passage had seemed like a good one. The fact that the Sh'vrie also knew about the supposedly secret way had not been taken into account though, and the two of them had been lucky to escape with their lives. If they had escaped. Civilisation lay a tantalising league away - as unobtainable as the moon under present conditions.
Silvidrana blamed their situation on their youth and inexperience. She also blamed it on Kesh, her magician companion; the Gods of the Althor, for ignoring her when she's spent an entire night in vigil and fifty gold to their church; the Legion Patrol at Kal Resh, who wouldn't venture out from their walled city to rescue anyone unless well bribed first. She blamed the Sh'vrie for taking things too seriously (including their rites of execution, notoriously slow and agonising) and the decidedly underhanded way in which they had seeded the secret way with spell-trapped gems. She did not blame herself: anyone could have picked one of those things up: how was she to know it would alert the entire Sh'vrie clan?
Kesh paused momentarily to loose another prismatic ray at their pursuers. One of the front runners yelled and clutched his leg where the beam had scorched it. It didn't stop him but he did begin to limp and was soon overtaken by those behind him.
"Can't you just fireball the whole damned bunch?" Silvidrana screamed. Her legs felt like lead and her lungs hurt from panting. She was wearing scale armour and the weight was telling on her, fit as she was.
Kesh cast an apologetic look at her. Though unencumbered by her ornate outfit, he lacked her strength and stamina, and was as winded as she. "I can't kill them," he said. "They'd think we were thieves."
"They do think we're thieves," she shot back. "And they're not going to waste any time looking for the truth when they catch us, which they will do long before we're in sight of Kal Resh!"
"I only wanted to read the inscription on the Vault walls!" he protested. He stumbled on a low root, flailed wildly and recovered his balance sufficiently to stumble on. "Our intentions were pure!"
"The Sh'vrie don't let any outsiders view their innermost sanctum," Silvidrana hissed. "I knew we should have brought horses."
It was a fact that all their pursuers were on foot. The Sh'vrie held that any race (humans for example) that took advantage of another (horses, let's say) to augment their strength, was intrinsically weak and unworthy of respect. Consequently, a trained, healthy Sh'vrie warrior could run all day and night without pausing for rest, even carrying his K'chan, the ugly five foot swords they handled like daggers.
Silvidrana paused long enough to extract her last knife from its sheath on her left boot. An invisible flick of her wrist and a warrior sixty yards away dropped soundlessly with the blade protruding from the back of his neck. Two of the runners behind him tripped on the body and went sprawling, swiftly trampled by those behind: the Sh'vrie had no time for clumsy fools.
"Can you do anything?" she gasped. The gap between them and their pursuers was closing frighteningly fast. If the Sh'vrie caught them, the fight would be short. Kesh had a knife and was not proficient in fighting with it: nor was his magic likely to be of use in close quarters, relying as it did on intricate hand-gestures and spoken invocations. She still had her sword and she was good with it, but in open country against an overwhelming foe each of whom was at least her equal, any fight would be a token protest. She wondered if she had the strength of will to fall on her own sword: it would be preferable to being caught. She'd heard the Sh'vrie cut captives' hands and feet off to prevent them escaping. Which was a mild discomfort next to what was rumoured to happen in the feared Sn'rik'koth'lach: the ceremony of execution.
Kesh fumbled at his belt pouch. He actually slowed to a walk to peer at a scrap of parchment. "Renkoth's Ritual of Disruptive Translation?" he murmured. "No. That takes an hour to set up, and isn't very reliable."
"Run, you fool!" Silvidrana screamed, grabbing him by his wrist. Renkoth's instructions spun away into a nearby bush. Kesh looked back in anguish even as he stumbled after his companion. "That cost me six month's apprenticeship to Vrarn the Unwashed!" he protested.
"Tough!" snapped Silvidrana. And to think she'd been so taken with this vapid young fool when she'd met him in that tavern two days ago. Of course, she hadn't intended to go adventuring with him at the time. She'd been taken in by raven dark hair framing that pale, delicate face. Slim and graceful, he'd seemed just too cute to pass and he'd cut quite an image in those beautifully tailored black riding leathers he wore, tight enough to hint at the attractive body within. She'd spied the deck of Timecast cards in his pouch and asked him to read them for her and then taken shameless advantage when the card she picked from the spread had been the Alliance card. That and half a glass of Firewine had been enough to convince him that they were destined to join forces and that this favourable union should preferably be put to the test in her room as soon as possible. Much to her surprise, she wasn't his first, and much to her pleasure he'd been an accomplished lover, despite his callow look. She'd been foolish enough to think his confidence in bed extended to his competence as a field-adventurer. When he'd told her about the secret way in the Sh'vrie Vault, it had sounded like a plan worth exploiting, and the potential rewards he offered to freely share with her had been very inviting.
"Probably just as well," panted Kesh, jerking her back to the present. "Renkoth's Translator has been known to lose critical body parts in transition."
"What else have you got?" begged Silvidrana. "Any war magic?"
"Only Krebin's Instantaneous Pavilion of Pleasures," Kesh responded breathlessly. "It kind of conjures a big tent full of earthly delights for opposing generals to settle their differences…."
"That's got to be worth a try…"
It wasn't a bad effort. The Sh'vrie were too dedicated to be distracted by the open-fronted tent staffed by semi-naked women bearing exotic drinks and food. Nevertheless, it appeared directly in the path of the main body of pursuers and Kesh and Silvidrana were able to add a good hundred yards to their lead in the confusion. Probably an extra day to their suffering when they were caught too, Kesh mused. His throat ached from his gasping breaths, and his thighs were agony - not so great an agony though that he was tempted to stop. He knew as well as Silvidrana what would befall them if they were captured. Perhaps better. He knew of the Sh'vrie magic that kept a victim of the Sn'rik'koth'lach alive and conscious until only bones remained.
For his part, he couldn't believe his luck when a silver-armour-clad vision with long blond hair and alabaster skin had first of all shown a serious interest in his Timecast deck (when practically everyone these days laughed at them as a quaint superstition) but she then interpreted the cards herself and foretold their alliance before he could even suggest it. He closed his eyes to remember the sight of her gorgeous body as he had later seen it in her room: full, firm breasts, long legs and slender waist; almond eyes and sensuous, hungry lips full of kisses…. He tripped over a root and fell full length in an icy puddle, which returned him abruptly to reality.
What could he do? Any salvation would have to come from him: only magic could rescue them. His powers were sadly depleted: stun cantrips and fire threads were all very well, but they were never intended to halt a horde of thirty or more. Well, okay then. If he couldn't deal with the pursuers, perhaps he could work some kind of escape? There was Questor's Ethereal Courier? No, that required the feathers of a griffin, which he was fresh out of. Maybe Uleyli's Pedestrian Accelerator? But no, without suitable counterspells, running a dozen leagues in a second could have serious drawbacks. Hitting a wall for example. There was Shepley's Handy Vanishment, which he'd seen demonstrated, but he had his suspicions that this spell was a con: he'd never seen anything rendered invisible this way actually reappear, and the spell components were remarkably similar to those usually associated with disintegration spells.
Silvidrana clutched her hand to her abdomen: a stitch was beginning to develop. They'd held their lead thanks to the terrain: outcrops of rock and impenetrable gorse offered some cover and slowed the pursuit. Both of them were tiring fast though and before long they would fall from sheer exhaustion. "Can't you summon two horses for us?" she begged, shrugging out of her cuirass and abandoning its unwelcome weight.
Kesh concentrated, sending his mind out into the surrounding area. "There aren't any to summon," he protested. "And before you ask, I can't create one. And I can't hide us, or make us faster, or give us wings."
"What can you do?" she screamed at him. "Do you know anything useful?"
His tunic caught on a bramble and spun him round in a circle, slamming him into Silvidrana's chest. Under different circumstances it could have been an enjoyable experience, especially now she had shed her armour (and her cuirass had really earned the term breast plate). Winded, the two stood facing one another, too tired to recover their ragged flight.
"I was studying the Wild Magic," he gasped heavily. "I didn't pay much attention to the practical arts. I always thought there'd be plenty of time to acquire those."
"Well then use the Wild Magic!" Silvidrana cried. When Kesh seemed hypnotised by her heaving bosom, she clocked him round the face. "Use it!"
"But there's no controlling it!" he objected, rubbing his smarting cheek. "That's why it's called Wild. It could kill us as thoroughly as those guys will. Or it might do something even worse to us!"
"What could be worse than the Sn'rik'koth'lach? I'm willing to take the chance!"
The sound of pursuit was frighteningly close now. They staggered into a run again, but both knew the end was very near.
Kesh tried to concentrate. Dare he use the Wild Magic? It was an easy thing to do: a burst of will and a gesture, but it was so unpredictable. But like she said, was there any choice? It might save them.
"I know one spell that might do it," he ventured. "Moonwit's Chaotic Salvation. But I'm not responsible for the consequences! My tutors at Mageum College would disown me for using Wild Magic for something as trivial as saving my own life!"
"You're saving mine as well!" Silvidrana reminded him pointedly. "That justifies extreme measures any day in my book. Do it!"
Shutting out the nearing sound of running feet and guttural shouts, Kesh schooled his mind to the required Pattern, and unleashed his will, forming a small, controlled hole into the Realm of Wild Magic and sealing it again almost at once. Perhaps he could limit the effects to the minimum necessary.
Nothing happened, or so seemed to be the case. There were no wild lights or thunderous crashes. The sounds of pursuit did not abate, nor were he and Silvidrana transported to safety or concealed in a dimensional haven. And yet he could sense a powerfully localised magic effect: something had happened.
"Do something!" Silvidrana yelled hoarsely, unaware of his efforts. They rounded a large pillar of granite and skidded to a halt. They stared.
Two horses returned their gaze, apparently just as startled as they. Both were smartly caparisoned: a grey with flaxen mane and tail wore light, silver barding and had the build of a light war-horse, muscular but handsome. The black was a saddle horse, delicately built, fine as elven porcelain. His ebony coat glinted with an almost metallic sheen.
"Nicely done," admitted Silvidrana, impressed. "Very nice! I take back what I was thinking about you. Come on, let's ride!"
Kesh made no move. He was staring at the horses. He was thinking distressing things. "I think…" he began.
"It's obvious whose is whose," his companion interrupted, swiftly mounting the grey. "Good girl! Woah!" The grey shied, ears back and tail flattened. "Woah! Come on now. Kesh! They'll be on us in seconds!"
Nursing some ugly suspicions, Kesh approached the black. It was noticeably quieter than the grey, and met his worried gaze with a sympathetic look. Cautiously, he put a foot in the leather stirrup and mounted gently.
The Sh'vrie chose that moment to round the granite outcrop, and a loud outcry arose when they saw their quarry now on horseback. Silvidrana delivered a massive kick to her steed's sides, eliciting a protesting whinny, but both horses lost no time in breaking into a lurching gallop.
It wasn't good terrain for horses, with loose rocks and boggy patches, banks of thorns with two-inch spines and sudden ravines hidden by clumpy fog. The animals made the difference however, gradually widening the gap between the two adventurers and the Sh'vrie, but there were times when the terrain grew so treacherous that two legs had an advantage over four, and it was while skirting one of these that Silvidrana lost patience with her beast and gave it painful whack with the flat of her sword. The animal squealed, twisting away from the blow with a dexterity unusual in an equine. Slipping on a wet rock, it stumbled and Silvidrana overbalanced and went over its shoulder.
The fall wasn't serious, and Kesh felt she ought to have been more grateful than she appeared to miss the rock and land in the soft bog beside it. Silvidrana didn't share this opinion however, and took it out on the horse, or tried to. The animal, a mare, cannily shied away when she tried to remount. Kesh, some thirty yards ahead, told his horse to halt, and it did, lending credence to his suspicions. The grey mare, instead of running to join her companion or flat out running away, waited just outside of Silvidrana's sword range. She danced on her hooves agitatedly, evidently wary of her rider, yet unwilling to leave her. Kesh bit his lower lip and nodded to himself. "Don't hurt her!" he called. "Put your sword away!"
"Thrice-cursed flea-bitten dragon-fodder did that on purpose," hissed Silvidrana, previously golden braids now adhering wetly to her neck and shoulders. She spat on the ground, trying to clear her mouth of black marsh-mud. "Come here you little toad!"
The mare, ears back, shook her head and backed away when Silvidrana approached. She cast a worried glance in the direction from which the Sh'vrie were sure to come.
"Put the sword away!" Kesh called again. "She'll come to you if you stop threatening her!"
Finally heeding the nearing threat, Silvidrana sheathed the sword, and was a little startled when the mare immediately closed the gap between them and went down on one knee. The warrior-woman turned side-on to throw one leg over the horse's back and the mare neatly took advantage of the exposed position to nip her hard on the rump. Silvidrana screamed and tried to draw her sword again, but the mare straitened up abruptly and the weapon, fortunately for the mare, went flying. The woman had no chance to retrieve it for the mare leapt into a reckless gallop and Silvidrana, mouthing obscenities, was fully occupied just trying to stay in the saddle.
Kesh's black plunged as the mare rocketed by, then raced after her. The way led steeply up through a narrow ravine and then the walls opened up and the way opened down a steep scree slope. It was patent suicide for a horse to negotiate it at anything faster than a walk, and both animals skittered down it at a high, prancing canter, not so much keeping their footing as sustaining one long stumble. Dislodged rocks clattered down alongside them, and the two riders could only hold on and watch in horror, waiting for the inevitable disaster.
At the top of the slope, the Sh'vrie burst out of the ravine and set up a triumphant hollering. Like ants they swarmed from the narrow opening and fled light-footed down the slope, gaining with every foot.
Kesh reached for more magic and found it evading his grasp: he was too tired and the Wild Magic had temporarily burnt him out. Silvidrana desperately hunted belt and pouches for anything she could use as a weapon, but to no avail. All hope lay in their horses carrying them to safety.
And against all odds, they reached the bottom of the slope virtually unscathed. Both were scratched and bruised, and the black ran with a slight limp, but they were intact. Both animals paused and looked back as if not quite believing their luck, then the mare whinnied to her companion and the two were off again. The Sh'vrie were almost level with them but now the advantage was with the horses: a level, hard surfaced plain, and ahead the fortified walls of the city of Kal Resh. The horses began to gallop and gain. Silvidrana began to pull ahead and looked back. Kesh's horse was beginning to limp more heavily, and the black's nostrils flared redly with each breath. Like his rider, he wasn't built for stamina.
"Leave him!" Silvidrana shouted. "Mine can carry double. Yours is lame!"
The mare appeared to have her own ideas on this however and refused to return to the black. She slowed to his pace and cantered slowly, uttering strange little whinnies that sounded for all the world like encouragement. The Sh'vrie, sprinting on the level now, began to slowly gain once more: a hundred yards, then eighty, then sixty. The walls of Kal Resh were still a mile away. Forty yards. Thirty. One warrior, faster than his fellows, sprinted out ahead of the pack and closing with frightening speed. He drew his fearsome K'chan back for a blow that would surely remove the black's hind limbs with one sweep. Kesh flung one hand out though and Silvidrana saw a cloud of silver envelop the warriors head. He yelled and dropped his sword, clutching at his eyes, and the black seized the opportunity to kick him hard in the chest with both hind hooves. Silvidrana heard the ugly crunch and the warrior went down and lay still.
The attack had cost them though, and the pack was virtually on the black's heels now. Capture seemed imminent when one of the warriors dropped, screaming. Others began to fall, and Silvidrana saw arrows hissing past her and Kesh and hammering into the advancing Sh'vrie. Then a sound like thunder and the most welcome sight of a Legion cavalry troop bearing down on them.
In moments it was over. The Sh'vrie were outnumbered and prey to the Legion archers. Half their number fell in the first assault, and the remainder tried to withdraw while whooping Legionaries loosed arrow after arrow at their backs.
The grey slowed to a weary walk, and the black limped up with her. Both horses hung their heads, walking almost close enough to touch. Silvidrana and Kesh felt hardly in better shape, drooping in the saddles.
The troop captain rode up, grinning broadly. "Good day, citizens. Aren't you lucky we happened to be out doing a little training?"
"Captain, we owe you our lives," Silvidrana responded.
"Oh, call it a round for my men and double for the officers," was the response. "We're feeling generous."
They were escorted back to the city, and Silvidrana and Kesh handed over the dozen gold pieces or so that would see the Legion troop celebrating with rather more than a single round that night. But as the Legion's mercenary tendencies were well known, and it would have gone a lot harder on them had the troop not made a complete rout of the encounter and thoroughly enjoyed themselves with a relatively defenceless foe. However feared the Sh'vrie, a man with a sword is no serious threat to an archer on horseback.
Silvidrana led her horse to the wall of a nearby building and slid down it exhaustedly. She winced as her butt touched the soil. She cast a jaundiced glance at her tired steed. "I guess I owe you my life," she told the mare, "But if you ever bite my backside again I'll hamstring you and feed you to the wolves. Clear?"
The mare whickered and plastered a slobbery kiss on the woman's forehead. Silvidrana sighed and laughed. She heaved herself to her feet again and went over to Kesh, who was running his hand down the black's near hind. The horse was favouring it, and shivered at the mage's cautious touch.
"Is it bad?" Silvidrana asked.
"Not good," Kesh said. "Fractured cannon bone, I think. There's a Healers' over there."
"Heal a horse?" Silvidrana asked, astonished. "What for? Do you know how much that'll cost? We haven't much money left and I've got armour and weapons to replace. Including a damned good sword," she hissed at the mare who snorted, unimpressed. "I'll admit they served us well, but wouldn't it be cheaper to put the poor brute down?"
"He gets healed," Kesh said tightly, "And you needn't worry about your hard earned cash. I've got enough. But I would think very seriously about having your own horse Healed too."
"Why?" Something in the young mage's tone stopped the retort that rose to her lips. "Is there something I should know here?"
Kesh looked uncomfortable. "I'll explain shortly. Come on."
The Healer was surprised at being asked to treat two horses, and looked quite approving. All Healers were dedicated to their art, and the high cost of Healing merely reflected some of the extremely expensive spell components: crushed diamond, rare herbs, oils and salves that took months to prepare. The Healer was gratified that someone would actually think of their animals instead of just themselves for once.
"Ten gold!" Silvidrana complained as they left. "Ten gold! I could have replaced all my knives for that, and probably my crossbow too! I hope you appreciate this!" She said, digging the grey mare in the ribs.
It was then that a glimmer of golden light appeared in the road between them. A crimson spark appeared at Silvidrana's feet and a drifting mote of emerald in the air beside Kesh.
"What's happening?" Silvidrana asked nervously, feeling an odd tingling in her limbs that had nothing to do with fatigue. "What are you doing?"
The horses sidled away nervously.
"It's the Wild Magic," whispered Kesh. "I thought this would happen."
"What do you mean? You used it an hour ago! To bring these horses or create them or something." More lights appeared, forming a sparkling cloud around them. The street began to look strangely distorted around them. The two humans became outlined in a glowing rainbow nimbus.
"I didn't create those horses," Kesh whispered. "Nor did I summon them."
The street seemed to be melting now, the two horses with it. The world broke into swirling fragments that whirled around them. Silvidrana closed her eyes dizzily. "What do you mean? Where did they come from? And what's happening to us? What is this! Kesh!" She screamed as her armour and clothing began to flex and writhe of its own volition. Her belt left its customary position about her waist and shimmied upward to band itself just below her breasts. Her leather jerkin split down the front and retracted into a hard, solid pad behind her shoulder-blades, almost like a…
"Kesh! No!" she screamed as it suddenly became all too clear where the two horses had come from.
Kesh, half transformed into a fine-boned, black stallion, was treated to the intriguing site of Silvidrana dressed solely in a saddle and barding and sporting a long blond tail. He wondered if now was a good time to tell her that he didn't think their miraculous rescue had any provision to change them back.