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Escape: Chapter 2


The world seemed to freeze for Rose as the ashen man drew his sword, his dispassionate glare leveled her way. For a moment, she was lost as her world seemed to crumble around her. For a moment, she despaired, unable to reconcile these impossible events. For only a moment she wanted to give up.

That moment was over very quickly.

Just as the ashen man moved toward her, she flung a globe of darkness that engulfed his head. The magic was brief, and would only last a second, but that was all she needed. The corner nearest the door was the furthest from a light source, and was steeped in shadow. The perfect gateway.

She ran into the darkness, further than the walls should have allowed her to advance. She turned back, just in time to see the ashen man searching the corner in confusion. She grinned. No one could replicate what she just did, stepping into a shadow and treading wholly into a place between the plane of shadow and the material plane, referred to as Step, the darkness behind all matter. Oh, there were those who could use the Step to travel quickly between two shadows, however they could only tread it for a few seconds before they were rejected and forced back into the material plane. A shadow dragon could use the Step to hide for hours before they were pushed out.

She had no intention of staying so long. She looked around through the liquid darkness, searching for other shadows, windows into the world she could reenter from. She planned to alert the council to Halvek’s crimes, but she could only do that if there was no panic now, no misunderstandings.

She chose one in the main hall not far from where she entered, and was about to leave the Step when a glimmer of movement caught her eyes. She glanced briefly in its direction, then stared in horror.

The ashen man walked the Step! Her shadows were no longer safe! She made for the exit, but saw him turn to face her just as she left the darkness. Her sanctuary crumbling around her, she ran from the shadows, drawing bemused stares from those she passed only minutes earlier. She ran to the entrance platform, frantically waving her hand over the sensor to activate it. She let out a sigh of relief as it lifted back up toward the ceiling, practically collapsing on the landing. What was she to do now?

Its sudden halt about halfway to the brought her back to attention. She whipped her gaze around to see what was wrong, and noticed a white robed figure at the far end of the hall, a hand extended and his wicked eyes glaring at her, a devious smile on his lips.

“Members of the Trust,” Halvek shouted into the chamber. “Second Shadowmage Rose has assassinated the High Shadowmage Anatair! Capture her at once!”

Rose could feel the arcane energy in the room swell, and weapons were brought to bear all around her. Something inside of her snapped, and the need for survival swelled inside her. She had to escape, no matter the cost.

Arrows were loosed in her direction, but a veil of shimmering darkness made her location suddenly vague. No arrow hit its mark, and she had but a breath to make her next move before the magical assault coming her way was upon her.

She forced her will into the shadows around the whole room, and in moments the floor and walls slithered with smoky scaled vipers, lashing out at anyone she recognized with magical talent. The screams and uproar of surprise was almost delicious to her.

The ashen man, seemingly unfazed by her superior display of magic, was next to her in a heartbeat, his viciously curved blade gleaming in the weirdly twisted light of the room. With only a syllable, she entered his thoughts and forced him to miss, but he was strangely resistant to her enchantments. At the last moment, she tried to roll with his strike, falling off the platform. The next thing she knew was a searing pain and a curious emptiness where here magical reserves used to be.

She didn’t know how, and at this point she didn’t care. With everyone else struggling to be free of her shadow magic, she had no problem using the shadows to catch her fall, diving into the Step once more. The ashen man was not far behind, she could feel him mere feet behind her.

But in this liquid darkness, where she had visited since she was old enough to walk, she had the advantage. Twisting and sliding through the viscous twilight, her form made incredible headway in the Step, and she could feel him falling behind her. But he stayed on her trail, no matter the distance she put between them, and he was still moving almost as fast as she was. She guessed that somehow he could track her in there, far better than he could outside. A new plan was called for.

She swam upwards, toward the surface, through the darkness in the earth, then the emptiness between the stones of the laboratory. It was dusk outside, plenty of exits. She chose one along the rooftop, the very same rooftop that she hunted down ruffians on earlier. She ran its length, looking behind mid-stride to see the ashen man leave the Step only a few yards behind her. He would catch her easily on foot, but he seemed less willing to take chances, drawing a throwing dagger as he ran.

Rose leaped over a gap between roofs, and his dagger was hurled.

A moment later, she was a dragon again, beating her wings to take her high above the city. The second she made the decision, she felt her heart grow heavy.

Now her secret was revealed. She could never, ever go back.

The ashen man watched Rose fly away, pondering this new turn of events.

“You’ve stopped,” Halvek commented telepathically.

“She’s a shadow dragon,” the man commented, the barest hint of curiosity in his voice.

Halvek’s response was delayed. “This explains much. Can you follow her?”

The ashen man turned back to the sky, an imperceptible curvature on his lips. “Yes, I can.”

Halvek seemed pleased by his words. “Then go. I’ll not suffer her alive if you can destroy her for me.”

“It shall be done,” he whispered into the wind. “Slaying this one will be worth the effort.”

He sheathed his mage-slaying sword, and starting moving across the rooftops to the edge of the city. She flew north, but if she wanted asylum, she would eventually have to move west. To Kalithos, the first of the cities the Trust would own, in some desperate attempt to clear her name. From there, she would not escape.

By some miracle or accident, Rose was not discovered leaving Talran. She landed in the barren, rocky hills that surrounded the City of Golden Nights, practically collapsing upon setting foot on the ground again. She buried her face in her paws, trying to calm down. It was there she stayed for quite some time, too emotionally drained to weep, and too tired to scream or roar. Her new life had been a beautiful second chance, an existence without fear, where she could fight for the right thing. All of it was lost now, an empty memory so near and yet so far.

She wanted to curse, to rage, to blame anyone for this pain. But she could not see how anyone else was at fault but her. All her decisions had lead to this point. She lost the one soul in the world who understood her, the only person who gave her sanctuary. Now, with the chapter of the Trust lost to the scheming Halvek, she was not even safe in the shadows of her namesake. And there was always the promise of Arithar before, but now he might never find her again.

Although …

Her eyes widened at the thought of an impossible hope. The guildmage she had visited before, Temlin, was sympathetic to Anatair’s goals within the Trust and would not suffer a fool like Halvek in charge of the Talran chapter. Temlin lived in the distant city of Kalithos, and if Arithar was near there as well…

She picked herself up from the ground, shaking away the dust that clung to her lightless scales. She could move much faster in this form, even if she couldn’t fly forever. She did as best as she could to judge the direction to Kalithos, and began walking. There were going to be many obstacles in the way, she knew, but there was hope now, and that was still more than she had two years ago.

Over the next few days she travelled, moving only at night and during times of low daylight. After the first day the hilly landscape gave way to verdant land with patches of thick forest she used to sleep during the day. Though she was not used to travel over the land, she began to relish the time she spent outside in her draconic form. It was more freeing to her now than it seemed before, and she reveled in the night sky filled with starlight. Even from the ground, the stars filled her with peace the likes of which she knew could never be real.

The forest became thicker and the path markers harder to find. She began to suspect that a direct road was not as safe as it seemed, and began to become wary during her travels, hearing a predator in every snapped twig and feeling eyes on her back where there were none. Even though she was a dragon, and a sorceress, she held the utmost respect for the feral denizens of this plane, some so fierce that she would be hard pressed to fight back. There didn’t seem to be a top to the food chain in this world; everything was hunted by something. She just hoped that every morning she found shelter before something hungry found her.

One misty predawn morning found her without a place to hide. With sunlight slowly creeping its way through the dense roof of leaves, she became desperate, moving as fast as she could through the forest in no particular direction, just looking for a place to wait out the day.

It was then she found the house.

She stared at the building from the eastern edge of the stony alcove, it sitting against the western side. It was not exactly large enough to call a mansion, but it was a very large, if rundown and weatherworn, house. It was two stories high and not nearly high as it was wide. The shutters on the windows were all closed, and it did not seem dilapidated from the outside, simply aged. A large porch, hauntingly vacant, enclosed a rather ponderous set of doors, and shapeless iron-wrought knockers hung upon them warning against intrusion through their austerity.

What bothered Rose was the garden. A strange assortment of beautiful plants, multicolored and vibrant, grew in a patch offset from the building, but clearly under its looming edifice. It was no accidental growth, and even from above she could almost smell the variety of fragrances. She wasn’t sure to its purpose, but it relayed to her a very important fact: This place was not unoccupied.

Were she not so desperate, she would have moved on. Maybe there was a room she could pay for to sleep the morning. Perhaps had only recently moved on, or were by some stroke of luck off visiting relatives. She couldn’t take the chance that there would be another place to wait out the sun. She was too easy to spot as it was.

She descended the slope on wing, gliding down to the base of the hill. The moment before she landed, she forced herself to become human, trying to lessen the noise of her landing. She succeeded in that, but forgot that hands are harder to land with than forepaws. She scraped her hands on the rough earth and dirtied her hands but did not suffer much for the miscalculation. She would have to ask Arithar how he managed subtle transformations like that.

She picked herself up off the ground and frowned at the mess she made of herself, wanting to make a good impression on whoever lived here. Then again, if she appeared to have been through a struggle, she might get some sympathy from the owner. Shrugging at her apparent fortune, she made her way over to the mansion.

The stairs to the porch squeaked with surprise at her step, making her wince a little at the loudness of the sound. Stepping quietly as she could, she walked across the porch and up to the door, placed one hand nervously on the knocker, lifting its ponderous weight and rapping it twice. The metal sounded with a sharp retort, and filled her with a curious dread, as though she had rung her own death knell.

A moment passed in silence. Rose wondered if she had done wrong; this sort of thing was new to her. Was she supposed to say something as well? Was it rude to knock again?

Just as she was thinking of leaving, the door slowly and hesitantly creaked open. Peering inside, she could see no one, but if the door was open, she would be fine to go in, wouldn’t she? Steeling herself, she entered the door, letting her eyes adjust to the comforting darkness.

Once inside, she found herself in a splendid foyer, the plaster walls grimly adorned with stern candle sconces, their wicks scorched with the memory of fire. The soft carpet felt good beneath Rose’s feet, and she was tempted to remove her shoes to feel it between her toes. An archway across from the door let her glean a view of the hall beyond, where she could see a staircase off to the side that lead up to the next level, and several pieces of comfortable furniture that designated a living area of some kind.

Taking it all in, she snapped alert as the door slammed shut behind her, casting the room into utter darkness. The candles flickered to life all around her, and a chill went up her spine as she realized just what she had gotten herself into. She became aware of heavy, deliberate footsteps, and turned around. Behind her was a frightfully tall man, dressed in simple, almost acetic clothing, one impossibly huge hand still placed on the door. All along his sleeveless arms, Rose could see stitches, and noted the disparity of coloring between sewn patches. Her stomach lurched as she realized what he was: a golem of flesh, sewn together out of the parts of other corpses.

“Welcome,” the golem rumbled, slowly and without menace. His tone was flat, and bereft of emotion, but it resonated like a huge bell. “You are not familiar. I will take you to Hollace.” He reached out for her. “You will be here for some time.”

Frozen in fear, she could do nothing as the golem’s hands came down on her shoulders … and gently removed her black cloak. The giant thing absently brushed the dirt from it with one hand and placed it on a hook in the corner he had emerged from.

Rose blinked. The golem turned back to her, its emotionless eyes almost waiting for her response.

“Thank you,” she managed to squeak out.

Much to her surprise, the golem smiled. “It is only polite.”

Was that a programmed reaction, or did she witness an actual emotional response?

“Come,” it said, stomping over to the archway, dipping its head to fit beneath the frame.

Rose bit her lip to stop her heart from pounding, and followed him through the arch.

The stairs on her right did indeed continue up to the second floor, giving the landing an open feel. An unusually large doorway on her right led to a long dining room that lacked a table. The living area beyond the arch was extensive, taking up the entire left half of the first floor. The sprawling lounge sported several groups of odd furniture, a dozen bookshelves, and a smattering of peculiar art, from abstract sculptures to paintings of curious subjects. But while there were proportionate furnishings, there were also several chairs scattered throughout the room that were made for all manner of creatures.

Tic, tic, tic, tic.

Rose’s ponderings were interrupted by a tapping sound coming from somewhere in the room.

“Jol! What do you have here?” a feathery, female voice asked, from where, Rose couldn’t tell.

“A visitor, Miss Volika,” the golem responded, angling his head upward. “I am taking her to Hollace.”

Rose did as well, and choked back a shriek.

A woman, a female drow, actually, with the lower body of a giant spider clung to the roof high above them, over the stairs. She seemed pleased, seeing Rose, as she gracefully climbed down the wall, coming to stand with them in the landing. “Wonderful! It has been a long season with no visitors. What brings you here, child?”

Rose almost lost her nerve then and there. Somehow, she managed to answer, “Just travelling, I need a place to rest for the day.”

The spider-lady nodded, and noted her apprehension with a motherly smile. “Do not be frightened here, little one. You are among the Odd. This place is a haven for those like us, with no where else to go. There is no enmity within these walls, and though we seem strange, you will not be disturbed in your stay.”

Rose merely stood dumbstruck, amazed and relieved all at once. She was not like any drow Rose had ever met; her gentle and deliberate movements spoke volumes of difference from the typical dark elf she had known of in the Trust.

“I must attend my duties, but enjoy your stay, and may the Dancer bring you happiness.” The strange lady bowed her head, and left through the door by the stairs into the dining room.

After a moment of silence wherein Rose processed what had happened, the hulking golem named Jol plodded wordlessly up the staircase, indicating that she should follow. Rose continued up the stairway, many questions budding in her mind. Hopefully, this Hollace person would be able to answer them, or even help her somehow.

At the top of the stairs Jol waited for her, patient and expectant. Once she was at the top of the stairs, the golem treaded into the second floor’s right wing.

“That was Volika,” the golem said, without provocation. “She is a priestess of the Goddess many call the Dancer.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Rose said, more to herself than the stoic Jol.

“I thought you might be curious,” Jol returned. “Many people who meet her find that she does not conform to the expectations they have for drow females.”

Rose quietly hid her astonishment. Golems were not supposed to make assumptions, not supposed to express emotion, and definitely not supposed to know about social norms. Yet before her was an independent, learned, and reactive being where all that should exist was an automaton. Either his design was brilliant beyond all reckoning, or this creature somehow was given a soul.

There had been talk of experiments that could place an existing soul in a constructed body, but there was nothing ever recorded that worked properly. She had a little experience with manipulation of souls – the furthest she had taken her necromancy – and she knew from experience that most souls reacted poorly when introduced into something not meant to hold a soul, save for the extraordinary few that could make any vessel its home.

She was beginning to regret walking in the door. This place held many mysteries, and she did not have the time her curiosity was willing to take in order to solve them all.

They walked the rest of the hall in relative silence, the only noise being Jol’s footsteps as they echoed off the plain but elegant plaster walls. He led her to a heavy, solid door, upon which he knocked, gentler than he seemed capable of.

“Yes?” an elderly voice croaked in irritation. It was not a kind sound, and Rose felt her plea for asylum was already doomed. Whoever Hollace was, he did not care for interruptions.

“There is a visitor,” Jol said, his controlled tone only loud enough that it might be heard through the thick door.

A period of silence passed that was longer than a breath but might have been as short as eternity to Rose. The door opened with no one on the other side, and Jol motioned curtly that she should enter. Rose stepped over the threshold, and viewed the judge who could grant her shelter.

The wispy shell of humanity before her was clad in robes, faded blue with a grayish white trim. A circlet of icy white held down waxy, colorless hair that rested listlessly on the creature’s shoulders. His eyes were without pigment, but a blue glare could be seen in him. Rose thought at first that he might have been the oldest human alive, but the hole in his cheek that she could see his yellowed teeth through told her part of that statement was incorrect.

He sat in a plain room, his chair in the middle angled to face the right window and the door, and bookshelves dominated the far wall, with room enough only for a smaller window above. The window on the right must have been the only window open in the house, the morning light streaming through and a slight gust tousling the gauzy white curtains. A curious planter sat at the windowsill, where several blue flowers sprouted. They resembled some of the ones that she saw in the garden outside. A table on the left was scattered with alchemical and magical items, neatly kept and much used.

“Welcome, my dear,” he said in a raspy, grandfather voice that almost made Rose drop her guard. “I am Hollace Oddsir. The House of Odd sees few visitors these days. Not many come back, I’m afraid.”

“If they leave at all,” Rose said, preparing to fight her way out.

Hollace nodded absently, and shortly thereafter caught her subtlety, a curious look on his withered face. “Oh, dear. I seem to have not made a good impression.”

“That sort of comes with lichdom, I would think,” Rose said snidely.

He made a dry sound that Rose wasn’t sure was laughter. “Is that so? I wouldn’t know.”

Rose narrowed her eyes. “Have you looked in the mirror? There’s a hole in your disguise.”

Now he gave her a smirk. “Quite clever. I’ve never heard that one before.” He grew serious. “Young lady, if I was your average lich, why on Arkyneth would I try to grow flowers?” He waved an emaciated hand over to his planter. “You must know that the presence of strong undead can wither weak plants.”

Rose considered the planter for a moment. It could be an illusion, but the breeze that wafted in carried their sweet scent, so he was either the most dedicated illusionist she had ever encountered or there was a handle on this mystery box of a house she had yet to grasp.

“I am a Baelnorn, an Oath-Lich,” he said. “At one time I was a wizard, the steward of this land, once a thriving township. I pledged my eternal loyalty to the Kingdom of Lyros, and endured a ritual that would help me keep that pledge. But time marched on, taking my liege and his heirs, and my services to the kingdom were forgotten as the City of Golden Nights arose. Now I keep my home as well as I can, and make it a home for those who are … well, Odd.”

“The House of Odd, indeed,” Rose said, now standing by the flowers. She touched them, feeling the warmth of the sun on their petals. She realized that if there was nowhere left for her to go, she might have to come back here. Nowhere else would a shadow dragon wanted by the Trust be welcome.

“I apologize, sir,” she said, turning to him once again. “I beg your forgiveness on the intrusion, but I must ask if I may stay until nighttime.”

“If I may query you in return, why only until nighttime?” He asked, standing up and walking over to her with an impossibly regal grace.

“I travel during the night,” she responded guardedly. “I don’t care for the day.”

He eyed her strangely for a moment, and she could see a wealth of emotions pass over his desiccated face. He settled on a smile, saying, “I see. Well, you’ve come to the right place. You may rest until you are ready, but I beg of you to stay longer. I would speak with you some, I have not had many travelers as of late, and I am thirsty for conversation and news.”

Rose pondered that a moment. If she was being followed, she didn’t have time to waste. But something struck her, pulling at her heart. Because she stayed such a secret at the Trust, she was left longing for simple conversation. Anatair had done what he could, but he had been very involved in his plans within the trust, and could not give her mental stimulation to satisfy on a regular basis. This wonderful dead gentleman was offering her a chance to sit and talk, and all her heart wanted to do was let her stay, just for a few hours.

“I can’t promise I’ll stay long,” she said.

He nodded. “As long as you can is long enough for me.”

This story is the property of Tyler Clapp, Author (AKA "Cael") Copyright DarkFireGraphics.com