Belya and Alak were earnestly persuading the young man they'd cornered over in one of the bar's shadows that the flute Alak held was indeed magic, and hence worth ten times the normal price. Nervously, his pale blue eyes flickered back and forth between the pair's smiling faces, hope and suspicion warring in his expression.
The trick to being a gypsy, or at least as far as she could tell, Alkyone thought as she watched them, was to always act as though you knew something no one else knew. An attitude of mystery and knowingness which accounted for the fact that although most of the population of Kharza held the gypsies to be conniving murderers and thieves, they were simultaneously fascinated by them.
The young man began to count out coins and Alkyone leaned her face on her hand in order to hide a smile. Belya glanced back at her, sensing her amusement, and sent a half wink winging her way. Alak presented the slender bone flute to the buyer with a flourish and a bow, and the pair made their way back to Alkyone's table, slipping into the seats on either side of her.
"Alak, did you make enough money on that to buy our favorite gorgio an ale?" Belya asked.
Alak spun a coin on the surface of the table. "I thought it was her turn to buy," he said, giving Alkyone a sly grin. Beneath shaggy black curls, his blue eyes danced. He was, Alkyone had always thought, one of the prettiest men she'd ever met. Belya, on the other hand, was lean and narrow-eyed and completely bald, as well as walking with the slight bowlegged roll of a man who'd spent most of his life riding. His unprepossessing appearance belied his actual status as the Mahadra, chief leader of all the gypsy tribes.
"I am but a penniless mage, forced to rely on the graciousness of the elements to survive from day to day," she said. "Alas, had I the coin, I would no doubt shower it on both of you fine men."
Belya grinned. "Well said. We'll make a gypsy of you yet."
She laughed into her tankard. Belya signalled to the barmaid, who made her way through the crowd and insisted on seeing the color of his coin before she brought the requested ale. Even Alak's charm failed to thaw her frosty demeanor as she took the money.
"What's up with that one?" Alak asked, sighing as the maid vanished back into the crowd of patrons.
"Blame that on Coni," Alkyone said. "I saw him chatting her up a week or so ago, and then leaving early in the morning with a most tremendous smile."
"Aiiiee," Belya said. "That man's determined to leave half-gypsy brats scattered across the face of the world."
Alkyone twitched a narrow shoulder in a half shrug. "So, what brings the Mahadra himself up to buy a witch drinks?"
Belya gave her an annoyed look. "Couldn't I just have come up to see an old friend, who's done the tribes any number of favors in the past?"
Alkyone sipped her ale and rolled the liquid in her mouth consideringly. At length, she said, "Well, I suppose anything's possible. However, it seems unlikely." She looked over at Alak, who was still watching the barmaid. "Now, Alak here might have come up to talk of magic, since he follows my path. But you, Belya? Have you decided to come courting me, perhaps?"
A tinge of red flushed the gypsy's sundarkened cheeks. "Someday, Alkyone, you'll push me too far and I'll have to show you what a gypsy lover is like." He gave her a long lingering look, lids half closed as his bloodshot eyes swept over her form, and she blushed in return. She took a hasty swallow of ale.
"At any rate," she said. "You can spend all day beating around the bush, my friend, or you can stop wasting time and come straight to the point."
Belya gave her a small nod. "Very well. You've done us favors in the past, and we were hoping you would do another one."
He steepled his long fingers in front of himself, looking down. The dim light of the lanterns suspended from the ceiling cast the features of his lean face into sharp relief. "It's a simple matter, really."
"So simple you need me for it."
"Well, you have a certain knack for getting into odd places, Alk, you know. You would have made a magnificent burglar."
"Instead I make a magnificent windwitch. Your point?"
Belya sighed. "One of our little ones has gotten himself into an odd place. And needs to be brought out again."
"What odd place?"
"You know that deserted tower in the Tablelands?" Alak asked.
"Near the Shield Wall?"
Belya shook his head. "Much further in."
Alkyone settled back into her seat. "The one built of black stone, with big jaggedy looking teeth set all over it?"
"That's the one."
"I always heard it was full of demons. Never looked in it as a result. I don't like demons."
"Hear that? Our bold windwitch was afraid to go in," Alak said to Belya.
Alkyone refused to rise to the bait. "There's some distance between caution and fear."
"Our kid was off exploring and lacking both caution and fear, he went in. Rumors are right, Alk. There is a demon in there, and it's got Mikka trapped in the upstairs. He can't get down past it to get out. He has food and water enough to last him a couple of days, but that's about it." Belya leaned forward with an imploring look. "I know it's a lot to ask, and all. . ."
The ale caught in her throat, making her choke. "You want me to go in, fight a demon and get him out? How do you even know he's still alive?"
The two gypsies exchanged glances. "Uh, tribal secret," Belya said quickly.
"How'd he get in, in the first place? That door's locked tight as can be."
This time it was Alak's turn to murmur. "Can't really tell you."
She looked at the two of them in disbelief. "And you expect me to help?"
It was, she repeated over and over to herself as she stood in front of the looming tower, absolutely insane. She kept saying that as she used a rock to hold down the reins of her riding lizard, who gave her an indignant stare.
"Look," she said to it, running a hand along one of its hard scaled eye ridges. "It's loose enough that if you get desperate you can take off. But for now, I'd rather not come out and find you unavailable. And Belya and Alak will be along soon enough to keep you company."
For a moment she paused, wishing she'd waited for them, instead of insisting on going ahead while they finished their business. But she doubted that she would have been able to coax more details out of them on the trip, so adamant had they been when she pressed for information. The lizard snorted and returned to lipping the scant vegetation. Tugging a clump of long grass free, it tossed its head back and chewed with a ruminative look, ignoring her.
"Right," she said, checking her pack and belt. "And in we go."
The air around the yawning doorway was unexpectedly chilly, as though the dark wood barring her entrance were emanating some malign force. Reaching in her sash, she took out a lock of hair, the fine tendrils spraying out across her extended palm. She closed her fingers over it, and with it her eyes, murmuring a spell. She felt herself slipping onto the plane of shadow, becoming tenuous as darkness and as the sensation washed over her, she stepped forward, moving through the door itself.
Inside, the tower's arched hallway was lit by gleaming gems set directly into the wall, shedding a pale light from their faceted surfaces. She gave them a speculative look. "Might want to come back with a pick sometime," she murmured to herself. The gem's cold surface burned her fingers as she reached to touch one, and she pulled them back, warned by the sting. "Or not." She glanced around. The only way was forward.
Still hovering on the shadow plane, she drifted forward as silently as a breeze. The hallway wound and snaked, the half glow of the gems casting shadows at every turn. Up ahead, a brighter light, flickering like a flame, marked a wide opening. Cautiously she eased her way to peer into it.
The chamber was wide, its white stone floor marked with inset spirals of crimson and yellow, and all around its circular walls were archways, leading into similar hallways. Directly across its width from her gaped the entrance to a stairway, but barring that path stood a small figure, moving uneasily back and forth across the doorway, snuffling and whining each time it tried to lay a long fingered hand on one of the stairs. It looked like a child from the back. Emboldened by its stature, she moved a little closer. It turned and lost all resemblence to a child as she glimpsed its gaping, long-fanged mouth, its burning eyes. Hissing, it rushed forward, just as she felt the shadow plane release her entirely.
It had always seemed to her, in previous emergencies that she seemed to think slower than most, that a fighter would have a sword drawn and half buried in their opponent's throat long before she could even blink, but this time her reflexes acted for her, and she took a hasty step sideways as the demon's claws slashed for her throat. It reached for her again as she twisted away and the white lengths of bone that served for its fingers sliced along her side. She felt her belt fall away even as she scrambled for a doorway, hitting the floor with a thump and jingle as the spell components in it fell and scattered. She pulled herself with desperate speed inside the doorway's shelter, hoping that the same magics which protected the stairway held there. For a moment she thought her guess wrong as the demon reached for her, but then her breath shuddered out in relief as it shrieked and snatched itself away from the shower of violet sparks that marked its attempt.
For several minutes, she simply sat, gasping to catch her breath, watching the demon pace just outside the entrance. Past it, she could see her belt, and just beyond it, two locks of hair entwined in a tangled disarray among a scattering of small black stones. She put her head on her knees and began to curse. Without her components, her magic was severely limited and far less potent.
She raised her head to catch a glimpse of movement on the stairs.
"Mikka?" she shouted. The demon snarled as though in answer, and beyond it she saw the pale face of the gypsy boy.
"Who?" he called, and then shrieked in fright and pulled back as the demon turned and lunged.
"Stay there!" she shouted. "I'm Alkyone, a friend. Belya sent me to come get you."
"All right," came the answering cry. Then, after a long moment, "So what do we do now?"
"Let me see what's down this corridor," she called. "I'll be back." She rose unsteadily to her feet, fingering the rent in her shirt at her waist, then tossed a smile Mikka's way which, she hoped, looked more confident than she felt.
"Belya al Asenn," she muttered to herself as she paced along the narrow corridor. "You're going to owe me big time for this one."
To her disappointment, the corridor led no further than a small room, again lit by gems, which was empty except for a fireplace with a few lengths of branches in it. Cautiously she felt along the walls, hoping for some sort of hidden latch or cupboard, but her search revealed nothing.
"Big time," she said again, and headed back for the doorway.
"Okay, Mikka," she called, ignoring the demon's snarls. "We take to take stock of the situation. What have you found out about the demon so far?"
His shout was considerably more cheerful. "Watch this, Alkyone." He whistled shrilly and the demon turned to face him. A length of steel appeared in the boy's hand and with one swift motion he flipped it towards the creature. The blade passed entirely through it, leaving it unscathed, and landed skidding on the floor at Alkyone's feet.
"A handy trick," she said, eying the demon. Louder, "All right. Anything else? What's upstairs?"
"There's a chamber with windows," he shouted. "You could climb through them, but the tower's too steep and tall to get down from there."
"Finally, a bit of good news," she called. "Heights are one of my specialities."
"There's something bad, though."
"When I first got here, that . . . thing couldn't get near the stairs. The more it tries, the further it can get in. It can reach up three or four steps now. And gaining more ground every time it tries."
Alkyone groaned. "Great."
"So I guess what I'm trying to say is that maybe the sooner the better."
"Yeah, yeah," she called back. She eyed the demon as she reached to pick up Mikka's blade and slip it into her boot. "So metal won't touch you, my sweet? Gimme a moment to improvise."
Back in the room with the fireplace, she grabbed some of the branches from the fireplace and used a leather bootlace to lash them together. She thumped her creation on the floor with a satisfied look before using flint and steel to set it alight. "This," she said to the air, "is a guess. Let's hope it's a good one."
The demon snarled at her approach and reached again for the doorway. She noted Mikka was right. The magic must be wearing thin, since the claws brushed well inside the archway now.
"The trick, let's see," she said aloud. "Is to get past the demon and to the stairway. Once there, we're homefree."
Mikka's voice floated from across the chamber. "The Mahadra says to tell you to be careful."
Alkyone flicked her gaze away from the demon in front of her. "Belya's with you?"
There was a long silence before Mikka spoke again. "No . . . He, um, says never mind, it's a tribal secret."
The gift of speaking mind to mind had been lost long ago, Alkyone's grandmother had always told her. Grandmother Mehibit had been a windwitch, one in a long line of such, and Alkyone had been trained to follow in her footsteps since she could barely walk. But much of the ancient magicks had been lost, despite the best efforts to keep knowledge alive. The magicks which protected this ancient tower were such knowledge, and Alkyone had agreed to the venture as much to discover what she could as out of any desire to help the tribes. A slight smile tugged at her thin lips, half pleasure of the possibility of learning a new trick, half amusement at having discovered a gypsy secret. "Tell him he owes me bigtime, Mikka," she called. "Now head as far up the stairs as you can."
She heard the scuffle of the boy's footsteps as she focused on the improvised torch, took a deep breath, and flung herself forward. Claws swept above her head as she dived and rolled, somehow managing to keep her grasp on the length of wood. The demon snarled as the wood struck it ,and Alkyone noted with satisfaction, in the only calm corner of her mind, that apparently wood, as she'd gambled, didn't pass through the way metal did. She was halfway across the chamber, desperately trying to keep the flame between herself and the creature, when her foot slipped on one of the round stones that had spilled from her belt.
The demon let out a cry of triumph, swooping towards her, its face all eyes and fanged mouth. "Back off," she muttered, her hand scooping up one of the stones as she muttered a cantrip. The stone swelled in her hand, growing weightless as its material dissipated, becoming a thick black cloud, through which she struck blindly. A howl of anger greeted her as her blow hit something solid, the impact jarring and hard. She crabscuttled backward, trying to reach the archway Mikka had been in before the cloud dispersed.
A taloned arm snaked from the blackness, grabbing for her ankle, catching hold of the laceless boot. She pulled away, leaving the leather covering behind in the demon's grasp as she gained the temporary haven of the stairs.
"This way," Mikka's voice came from above her. "Hurry!"
The cloud swirled and eddied, diminishing as the demon thrashed inside it, and Alkyone lost no time making her way up the broad stone steps.
At the head of the stairs was a small cramped room. The windows were, she noted with dismay, very narrow. She glanced over at Mikka. Despite his youth, his shoulders were far wider than hers. She might be able to wiggle through, and a spell to hold her and Mikka aloft in the air wouldn't require a component, but getting him through the window would be another story.
She squinted at him a moment, wondering. If the gypsies knew the secret of speaking mind to mind, then they must know other forgotten magicks, one of which would have been the way Mikka had entered.
"Are you a magicker, Mikka?" she demanded. "Is that how you got in?" Below, the demon howled angrily.
"I'm not supposed to say," he said. "It's another secret."
"Can you do it again, through the window?"
He didn't even bother glancing at it. "Yeah, but I'm not supposed to let you know what I can do."
Alkyone groaned. "This is no time for games. I've guessed it already, Mikka. Let's go."
He blinked. "You know?"
She nodded to reinforce the lie. "I'll go first, you follow." WIth that, she swung herself up into the window and began to squeeze herself out.
It was an exceedingly tight fit, and the amount of squirming she had to go through managed to cast a pall over her visions of a graceful, daring rescue. Still, she managed to swing herself outside and into the open air, a muttered spell supporting herself on lines of magick, though to most it would have seemed as though she was flying. It was one of the first spells she had learned, and second nature by now. She glanced down to see two figures, Belya and Alak, standing near her lizard and the thought crossed her mind that they had witnessed the undignified quality of her exit. Still, this was no time for vanity. She turned her attention back to the window.
"Come through," she called and stifled a gasp as a snake's long narrow head, followed by its body began to coil effortlessly through the narrow aperture. She was so startled she almost forgot to weave the spell to hold what she presumed was Mikka aloft but the snake's swaying gaze reminded her and she hastily muttered, calling forth more lines of force which began to carry the snake downwards towards the ground. She waited, hearing the demon's harsh cries as it pressed further and further up the stairs.
"Alk!" Belya shouted from far below.
"Can't let it escape," she took the time to shout back, gripping her length of wood tight. There was only going to be a scant moment when it would be vulnerable and she'd have to strike fast. Else the demon would pursue her and Mikka to the ends of the earth, and she didn't think it would take it long at all to find them.
She heard it snarl as the final strands of magic holding it prisoned parted, and glimpsed its movement as it came into the chamber where they had been. It only took a second to realize the window's existence and as it leapt to the sill and flung itself outward, she moved to meet it, jamming the length of wood solidly in its throat, the torch's flames dying in a final burst, dark blood splattering her, burning her as her prey thrashed. The wood dissolved as the blood covered it, and she kept pressing forward, teeth clenched against the pain. After what seemed an eternity, the demon's struggles slowed and ceased, and she reeled back, letting herself down towards the ground, leaving the splintered remains of her weapon in the demon's breast, its wizened figure slumped half in, half out of the window.
Far below, Alak was scolding Mikka in between arguing with Belya.
"She's fairly discreet, for a gorgio, Bel," she caught as she dropped into their midst.
"Discussing whether to kill me because I know too much?" she said, trying to scrub some of the blood off her hands with a fistful of sand.
"Allow me," Alak said, proferring a waterskin. He splashed it over the burns along her hands and arms, removing the kerchief around his neck in order to carefully daub away some of the mess.
Alkyone gave Mikka, who stood in his human form, a quick smile before turning to Belya. "You owe me, by the way, a new pair of boots and a lot of spell components."
"Ugh, all those little fiddly bits you carry around, like feathers and locks of hair? Actually, we were thinking one of us is going to have to either kill you or marry you at some point," Belya said disgustedly. She gave Alak a sideways glance and fluttered her eyelashes at him mockingly as Belya snorted. Alak only grinned, still wiping at her hands.
"You do know far too much, woman. How'd you guess he was a shapeshifter?"
She spread her hands in a helpless gesture. He eyed her, his indigo eyes intent.
"I don't think you did know," he said, a tinge of admiration creeping into his voice.
She shrugged again.
"But how'd you kill the demon?" he said. "Mikka told us his weapons couldn't touch it."
"That," Alkyone said, as she wiped her hands on her pants and began rummaging through her saddlebags in search of her secondbest pair of boots. "I'm afraid, is a windwitch secret."