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I walk, with my cowl and hood up, in manacles behind Zhjiin and Vijital. Niesha and Retz walk behind me and Knel behind them, cloaked in an invisibility illusion everyone knows will break once she crosses the threshold of Solis Umbra. Dol'tar leads in front of Zhjiin while the two other guards, exhili brother and sister Morzin and Pulzia with shaved heads and scarred faces, bring up the rear. Zhjiin holds my staff with one hand and with the other hand the end of the chain to my shackles, cackling to his own jokes as he pulls me through the streets of the Capital. I worry Zhjiin is drawing too much attention to us, especially around the city guards stationed at checkpoints and patrolling the streets. But the patrolling guards only glance our way and see Dol'tar and the two other guards, and, I hope, assume them to be escorting a prisoner or slave. No one stops us until we reach the gate of the outer fortress wall, which is guarded by two royal guards wielding halberds.
“Halt!” one of the towering sentries commands. “State your purpose.”
“I bring a gift for Kira’thaz,” Zhjiin explains, yanking on the chain and forcing me to stumble closer to him.
Then, Zhjiin lowers my mask slightly, and Vijital lifts two fingers and whispers “Lu’ruvu.” A spark of white light appeared on her fingertips, and the light shed pierces through the illusion disguising me. I feel the shadow ensconcing me retreat briefly until Vijital lowers her hand.
After a few moments, the stunned guard replies, “Wait here.”
“I can always take him elsewhere,” Zhjiin drawls as the guard turns to leave. “I’m sure anyone would be willing to pay three arms and two legs in gold to get Xanenax’s pet.”
“This one belonged to Xanenax?” the guard asks Dol'tar, who nods gravely.
“Was trained by him,” Zhjiin elaborates. “And apparently is quite a promising specimen.”
“How did you acquire him, then?” the guard demands.
“Took him while Xanenax wasn’t looking,” Zhjiin replies beaming. “Not hard to steal from someone who isn’t there. This idiot,” Zhjiin emphasizes his insult with a slap upside my head which makes my eyes water, “was in a brothel, of all places.”
The guard mulls over Zhjiin’s words before looking at his companion. “You will follow me,” the guard instructs. “Your companions can wait out here.”
“No,” Vijital states plainly. “You expect us to wait out here while this asshole makes off with the entire reward? Do you think we’re as stupid as you?”
I can hear the demon grind its teeth inside its helmet. “I. Said. Wait. Here.”
Vijital walks up to Zhjiin and snatches the chain away from his grip, causing me to fall to the ground.
“All of us, or none of us,” Vijital growls at the guard. “That’s final.”
The guard snarls as he towers over Vijital, “I could just kill you where you stand and take the human for myself.”
“Go ahead and try it,” Vijital chimes back, her impressive height dampening the demon’s intimidation. “There are four of us and two of you. At the very least, it’s pretty likely the human will escape, and then, Kira’thaz will have your head for failing to deliver. All because you were so scared that you couldn’t let us into a fortress guarded by an entire army.”
The demon roars in Vijital’s face, causing her hair to fly back, but Vijital looks at him with impatient disinterest.
“Are you done?” she asks.
The demon grinds his fangs and turns around. “Open the gate!”
Immediately, the massive stone doors begin to open.
Then, the guard turns back to Vijital. “Next time I see you-”
“You couldn’t handle me, big boy,” Vijital interrupts, walking past the guard and pulling on my chain as I stagger to my feet. “But you are more than welcome to kill yourself in the attempt.”
I have a hard time sharing my companions’ nonchalance as we enter the courtyard. Demons in uniform armaments are stationed throughout the bailey. Four of them immediately detach from their posts and begin escorting us to the inner gates. Despite my overwhelming emotions, I try not to think too hard about the fathoms by which I have underestimated the implausibility of our mission. As we approach, I sense a presence emanating from the fortress akin to what I had felt coming from my staff and from the land back at Xanenax’s fortress. The sensation makes me feel I am being watched.
Dol'tar nods to the royal guards at the inner gate as he approaches. They nod back to him from beneath their helmets and step aside as the gates open. Breathing in deeply, I step over the threshold and prepare myself to fight, taking a moment to connect to the Ferro Stone.
A few seconds later, I feel something like a small gust of wind behind me and turn around just in time to see Knel’s camouflage disperse. She jumps into the air, drawing two katanas made of red-black metal, tell-tale of Niesha’s magick, and quickly slices into the visors of the two gate guards’ helmets, immediately killing them. She catches them both as they fall to prevent any sound.
The escort attempts to respond but is similarly dispatched. Vijital freezes two of the demons’ heads with ice magick as Dol'tar, Morzin, and Pulzia help dispatch the guards. Niesha gestures at my shackles, unlocking them, and Zhjiin tosses me my staff.