They chose to take their honeymoon in a part of the game that neither had ever seen before, in fact in a part that may well not have existed, but which came highly recommended by the gods, although Smallparakeet and Ronin weren't sure which of them had done the recommending. S'Keral, Someone had said, you'll need a boat or seashell ring to get there, just stay in the Inn at night, okay? Smallparakeet had shivered at first, remembering her encounter with the pirates, but at length was persuaded to make the journey.

S'Keral was a city of many adjectives: tall towers, elegant architecture, sparkling fountains, silver trees. The Inn was small, but the host suitably unctuous to the couple, assuring them of clean towels, quick room service, free laundry, and cable tv in every room. In fact, the Innkeeper seemed a little too friendly and overeager in finding out why they were there, how long they had been married, and on and on, but at length he showed them to their room, which overlooked a courtyard and the fountain which shimmered there, white marble holding green rushes and gold fish.

"Do bar the windows at night," the Innkeeper said. "The night air is, well shall we say, unhealthy? In fact let me do it for you."

He moved toward the window, but Ronin yos' Phelum unceremoniously threw his backpack on the bed, grabbed the man by the shoulders, twirled him around while placing a generous tip in his hand and shoved him out the door, closed it, locked it, and grinned evilly at his bride.

She grinned back. She was, if anything, overfond of her charming and flirtatious anti-paladin, and the fact of their marriage delighted her. Their courtship had been full of interruptions, conducted as it had been in the branches of Arachnos, on the streets of Ofcol, and deep in the hobgoblin mines. The thought of a space of time, uninterrupted by people asking to group, or wanting to know what the stats were on a sceptre of might, or whether they could borrow a yellow potion, a space of time in which she could molest her new husband as thoroughly as she wanted to, pleased her immensely.

Ronin took her in his arms and she snuggled close. They kissed hard for several long minutes before he began nibbling on her neck. She smiled and began to unbuckle his chainmail.

"I just want you to know," she said, as his lips moved along her collarbone. "that I intend to stretch this process out until you are half out of your mind with lust."

"Really?" he said. "And are you planning on joining me in this state of half-mindedness?" He began to pull the laces of her jerkin loose. She could see the room filling with the light of the setting sun, a warm and roseate light which matched her mood.

"Already most of the way there," she said, drawing his cowl off. She ran her fingers through his hair and tugged gently on the warrior's braid, pulling his face back up to hers. She kissed his lips, gently nibbling on the lower one, and then slipped away.

"Wine?" she said, laughing at him. "Came with the room."

He sighed and fell backwards onto the bed. "Sure, love. Pour me a glass. I'll just be over here removing my clothes."

"Wine first," she said, removing the cork with an adroit twist. "Or are you in a particular hurry?"

"Oh, no," he said. "By all means, wine. Perhaps you'd like to order room service as well? Or go shopping, do some sightseeing?"

"Don't sulk, it's unbecoming," she said. She brought him the glass and he set it on the nightstand, grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her onto the feather bed with him, managing to pin her down beneath him.

"That's better," he said in a satisfied tone as she smiled up at him. "Now, where was I?"

He carefully removed the mithril sleeves, the girth, the bracelets, and the spiked collar, while she tickled him in a vain attempt to get loose.

"Muuucccchhh better," he murmured. He returned his attention to her neck, and then let his lips wander up to the tip of her ear, taking the lobe in his teeth and flicking his tongue back and forth across it. She closed her eyes.

"That seemed to quiet you down," he said. He removed the jerkin and began to work his way downward. "Hmmm, what if I do this?"

"Might rile me up again," she purred.

From the darkened window, there came the sound of flapping wings.

"What the hell?" He rolled over and grabbed his dagger while Smallparakeet scrambled to her feet, just in time to avoid the first swoop of the creature that had entered.

"Unhealthy isn't the word for this night air," she muttered. "It's downright ugly."

She kicked the creature out of the air, and directly to Ronin's waiting knife. Their blood ran cold as they heard its deathcry.

"Some sort of demon," he said, examining the corpse. "Came in through the window." The body was humanoid, with sallow skin and immense leathery wings. The mouth, drawn open in the rictus of death, showed wickedly long fangs, each tipped with a drop of pale liquid, and the wide eyes had clovered, goatlike pupils.

"The Innkeeper did tell us to bar it," she said. She moved to the window and gasped as she glanced out. "Come take a look."

By night, the city's aspect was far different. Worms of pale fire ran along the tall towers, crawling with unearthly energies. Demons like the one they had just killed flapped overhead and the trees swayed without wind, branches reaching out as though to snag the unwary. In the middle of the town, the tallest tower glowed with a hideous green light.

"Hmm," Smallparakeet said. "Nice place for a honeymoon."

"They did warn us not to go out at night," Ronin said. "And some of those immortals get a little impish at times."

They stared out at the hellish scene for a few minutes.

"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" she asked.

He sighed. "You're thinking about going out there, aren't you?"

She nodded solemnly.

"Put your clothes on," he said. "Although I like you half-naked, I think you might fight better with some armor."

She grinned at him. "I did tell you I was going to draw the process out." And she proceeded to dress in a way that seemed particularly provocative to him, although he wasn't quite sure how she was managing to make putting clothes on, rather than off, so seductive. It might have been the amount of time she took in making sure the jerkin was laced correctly, or the delicate shiver as the cold metal of the sleeves met her skin, or the way she lifted her arms in fastening the collar.

He coughed. "Think you could take any longer, dear?" he said.

She threw him his cowl and sleeves. "Perhaps if you were dressing too, instead of just watching me?"

He blushed. "Right."

"We'll go out the window," Smallparakeet proposed. "If the city transforms at night, maybe the Innkeeper does too."

Ronin frowned. "You know I don't like heights."

"It's a ten foot drop." She grinned at him. "Want me to go first and catch you? Look, I don't want you to kill any more Innkeepers. Remember how much they added to the bill that last time in the Shire?"

He glanced over the sill with a dubious expression. Smallparakeet snuggled up behind him and nibbled on his ear.

"Sooner we're out there, the sooner we come back," she whispered to him. Her breath was warm on his neck, stirring the fine hairs there.

"Okay, here goes," he said. In one sure motion he was on the wide sill, and then it was empty as he lowered himself to the ground. Smallparakeet followed. She looked around the courtyard as they passed through it and into the street that lay beyond. Ronin blended into the shadows, spider dagger out and at the ready, but Smallparakeet, as usual, sauntered along, talking as she went. It was, Ronin reflected, an endearing trait but somewhat exasperating, especially when the situation seemed to merit being sneaky -- but then again, he'd never met a monk who was good at hiding.

"Check it out," she said. "The buildings aren't even made of the same material. Weren't they white marble this morning?"

Ronin nodded.

She tapped a nail on the green and yellow chalcedony, each huge block carved with odd and twisted runes. "Liked the marble better."

"I don't know," Ronin said. "It's the kind of decor that could grow on you after a while."

"Ugh. I keep forgetting you're inherently evil."

He smiled at her. "Well, if anyone has a detect good spell going, you're shining like a star, dearest, so let's move on before you start drawing attention."

She took a red blindfold from her pocket and fastened it across her eyes. Her form faded from view, although he could still see the vague lines of her shape in the air if he looked closely. "Better?" she said.

He nodded again, and they both scanned the ground.

"Tracks going toward the center of town," Ronin said. "Where that tower is."

"When in doubt, head for the nearest large, obviously evil, glowing thing," Smallparakeet said. "Yeah, that's what my Guildmaster always told me."

He shrugged. "Got a better idea? You're the one who wanted to come out and poke around when you could be in bed enjoying unbridled ecstasy in my arms."

"A better idea?" she mused. "Hmmmm. Duck, dear."

He did and the axe swinging through the air behind him only trimmed a lock of dark hair from the top of his head. The coil floated to the ground as he spun and stabbed upward, feeling the blade rip through too soft flesh.

His opponent was a barbarian, obviously several months dead. Phosphorescent mold clung to the remnants of a curly red beard and glimmered along the lines of rotting leather armor. But the axe sweeping back in preparation for another blow was undirtied, gleaming in the starlight.

"Zombies," Smallparakeet muttered at Ronin's back. "I hate zombies. Oh, look, there's more behind him. Joy. You know, it's the smell I don't like."

Ronin's own axe blocked the swing and his dagger flashed again while Smallparakeet somehow nimbly vaulted the zombie and landed to engage the two behind the first undead with a kick. They were smaller versions, lacking the seven foot height, but equally well-armed.

The zombie's head tumbled to the ground, its jaws agape as though croaking out some message from beyond, as Ronin's mithril axe severed it. The body remained upright for a horrifying moment, its arms waving in arcane semaphore, before the knees buckled and it toppled.

"Nice job, love," Smallparakeet said as she kicked one of her opponents in the solar plexus. "Mind taking care of one of these?"

"Looks to me as though you've got things under control," Ronin said as one zombie's head shattered like a rotten pumpkin when it met Smallparakeet's boot.

"It's not that," she said as the other's head met a similar fate. "They're just so damn messy." She took a cloth from her belt pouch and wiped an unmentionable smear from the top of one boot, started to put the cloth back, wrinkled her nose and dropped it on top of the nearest corpse.

"We have demons, we have zombies," Ronin said. "What do you think is next?"

"A dragon?" Smallparakeet said, a tinge of hope in her voice. "The only one I've ever seen is Yevaud."

Ronin cringed.

"It doesn't have to be a very big dragon," his wife said. "I'd settle for a teeny tiny one. Don't you think we could handle a little one between the two of us?"

"Small, I want you to promise me that if there's a dragon, we're leaving."

A stubborn look settled on her face and she said nothing.

"Some people," Ronin observed to the empty alley. "spend their honeymoons in Greece or some similar scenic, peaceful spot."

"You married me because I'm the kind of woman who prefers a little action," she reminded him. She pointed toward the center of town. "It looks to me like the glow is getting stronger, does it seem that way to you?"

He squinted toward the tower. "I don't think so. What makes you say that?"

"Let's go check it out."

They made their way more carefully now, ducking into the shadows when flotillas of demons wavered overhead, and scouting open spaces before they crossed them. Several times they stopped and let another little band of zombies stagger past. The undead seemed, like the pair, to be making their way towards the center of town, but it was a strange and twisty path, since the streets wound like serpents, refusing to maintain straight lines, sometimes doubling back or ending abruptly. Still, the eerie tower's light grew stronger as they neared, painting their faces with a livid hue.

"I'm starting to get a bad feeling about this," Smallparakeet muttered.

"Join the club."

"I think this next turn should get us right beside it," she observed. And although she was not quite correct, and it didn't get them right up against the tower, it did bring them to the empty square which surrounded it. They crouched in an alleyway, examining the scene intently.

"Ok, we've seen umpteen gazillion creatures coming the same way as us," Smallparakeet said. "So where are they all?"

The square was a empty vista of dark cobblestones, all touched with the luminescence emanating from the tower's wall. The buildings lining the square were windowless and doorless, pure walls of the same carved stones they had observed earlier. The tower itself was a vast and featureless monolith, with no observable entrance. High above them, a statue capped it, a multi-armed, bat-winged hulk.

"Hang on," Ronin said. "Here come some more demons."

He felt Smallparakeet move a little closer in the darkness, and he slipped an arm around her shoulders. They watched in silence as the band of creatures fluttered its way to the tower. As each came in contact with the shining green wall, it melted into the stone itself, and with each addition they could see that Smallparakeet's earlier observation had been correct -- the tower's glow deepened whenever a creature came in contact with it.

"Closer yet?" Smallparakeet murmured in Ronin's ear. "There's clouds coming towards the moon, which would give us some cover."

He nodded. "Let me go first, though. I can sneak up, but you can't."

She looked up at the tower. "Before we do anything, I want to point out something that may have an impact on our plans."

"What?"

"That statue up on top of the tower? It just looked at us."

Ronin stared upward. "Hmmm. I think you're right."

"Honey, I know I'm right," she said. "Fuck a duck. It's looking straight at us. I guess it can see invisible."

"Did you pick up that particularly charming expression in the monks' guild?"

"No, I learned it from hanging around with wicked anti-paladins," she retorted.

The statue stretched and yawned, continuing to gaze down at them.

"I think you should get behind me," Ronin said in a level tone.

"I think to hell with that," Smallparakeet said, watching as the statue extended its wings. "Dear heart, back up a couple of steps so it can't come for both of us at once."

They each took a step back and pressed themselves against the alley walls.

Ronin sheathed his dagger and readied his axe. "I'll hit high and you aim low," he said.

Smallparakeet nodded.

The statue screeched and the high-pitched sound echoed across the city, sending a shiver down the pair's respective backs.

"Doesn't sound too happy," Smallparakeet said. They heard the floomph of wings as the statue launched itself into the air. "Gee, it's a big sucker. What would you estimate the wing span at? I say twenty feet."

But before Ronin could begin to observe that she was exaggerating and that it might be closer to fifteen, there was a flurry of black wings and claws in the space between them. His axe flashed and a bright gout of blood spattered the stones at his feet. He heard a sharp crack as Smallparakeet kicked it in the ribcage, but the demon seemed unaffected. It reached for them both with elongated spidery arms, tipped with marcasite claws. It moved impossibly fast, and a swathe of brilliant pain cut across Ronin's chest as he stepped to the side. Small ducked and rolled, ending up behind the demon to aim a kick at its spine. Ronin felt a satisfying crunch of bone as the axe bit deeply into the creature's side.

Smallparakeet kicked again, but the demon evaded her with ease, then swung its arm in a backhanded blow that sent her flying across the square, straight for the tower.

"Small!" Ronin shouted, and saw his wife's startled face as her figure met the wall and melted through it, one hand raised as though in entreaty or farewell. Then he and the demon were alone in the square. A growl started deep in his chest and crawled its way up his throat as he advanced on the monster, axe ready.


© 2001 Cat Francis