The Cultists Strike Back!

by Michael Bard

September, 707 CR

Yvarra had been so relieved to get off the bloody holy mountain and back into the civilization of Euper. Had been until the night back in The White Hind. She'd bolted the windows, and was fast asleep until awoken by a bell from the Sword of Songs , a slipped open window, and the hiss of a dart. It hadn't hurt much, and whatever guck had been on it had been neutralized by her Alicorn. And, the attack had been so swift she'd never seen who did it, or had a chance to react. Her thrown dagger just went out the window into the night, never to be seen again.

And it happened three more times that night.

She'd switched to a different inn, The Lame Nobleman. Only two attacks that night. Yvarra had slept till past noon as, at least, they left her alone during daylight. At least they were giving her a good stock of darts, once she cleaned the guck off of them. Not that she'd ever liked darts.

She hadn't realized what in the Nine Hells the cultists were trying, until she'd staggered down to the common room and went through three bowls of the porridge. And would have had another but they had no more. She remembered when she'd killed the first cultist, how drained she'd been. And how drained she'd felt after the darts. It seemed that the healing took energy, her own energy. And, she only had so much.

It had taken her three tries, but, finally, she'd found a vegetarian concentrated dried ration she could stomach. Something small, portable, and easy to keep to hand.

She'd left The Lame Nobleman to find the streets almost empty. It didn't take long for her ears to pick up the sounds of a festival, or celebration of some sort. It wasn't in Euper, but in the commons outside. The gates were open, there were no tolls for once, and—

The Sword of Songs donged a warning just in time for her to feel the dart thump into her thigh. She felt the warmth from her forehead as she plucked the weapon out. At least she hadn't wasted a throwing knife.

So much for resting in daylight.

She needed a plan, and she needed it yesterday. The cultists were winning, and she had no idea how to find them, or how to fight them. She needed time to think. Maybe in a crowd—

Not running, but walking briskly, she hurried through the gates and off towards the crowded commons. She could mingle, have some piece, and figure out what in Eli's name she could do!

Usually she liked festivals. Perfect grounds for some simple wealth acquisition. But now, now she was afraid to touch anything because she had no clue who was a damn cultist! Snorting, she adjusted her fedora. And she still needed to get a proper scabbard for the damn sword. Hopefully here—

The sword donged a warning.

Great, just great. At least this time there was no immediate dart. She looked around, getting a bit frantic, and then saw where the booths were, pushing her way through and blessing her height. Stopping, she stared. It was him! It was that damn monster tiger. From the keep. The lack of attacks she'd suffer on the mountain suggested that the cult wasn't there, and that suggested he was safe. And, Kelpnos be thanked, he looked to be selling weapons. She pushed her way towards him.

It wasn't far, and she watched him watching her from the counter he was behind. What was it with Metamorans and counters? What happened to the good old wagon and tent? Anyway, either he was a very poor merchant, or he'd been quite successful so far. Hopefully the later. As long as he wasn't a cultist she didn't really care.

She relaxed a bit, though she could feel her ears still flicking, and she kept sniffing at the air. They were here. And they knew that she knew. And she knew that they knew that she knew. And— She shook her head to clear it. She needed sleep.

Why was she here again? Oh right, the scabbard.

The sword plucked a note of agreement.

She stopped in front of his— stall? Counter? "Hello, sorry, busy. I need a scabbard for this. There was an accident—" She unbuckled the strap from over her shoulder and pulled the heavy thing off. "You got anything that'll do?"

He stared at her with a neutral expression. But then, did cats ever have anything else? At least his tail bent, unlike that bloody Brennar. The tiger's voice was deep and measured, full of barely restrained strength, and threat. "I might have something that would fit that weapon, but that would mean pulling apart an existing set of weapons in order to furnish you with the needed item."

She rolled her eyes. Damn smiths, always trying to raise the price. At least she only had to keep turning her head a little to see what was going on around her. "You have anything with throwing knives? I've been going through a lot recently—" If only he knew.

She watched him frown. Of course, she could hear him thinking, warriors never used throwing knives! Well, she hadn’t cared what others thought of her for a long time, and she didn't care now.

Still, he said nothing. Instead he asked, "Why are you carrying that large sword ma'am? Even I can see that you don't really know how to use it, and I have seen a lot in my life."

Stupid! Stupid stupid stupid! Of course a warrior would notice that kind of thing, just like she'd notice the same with knives or a sling. For a second she through of playing the arrogant noble given a toy, but the Sword of Songs was just too distinctive. When in doubt, mix the truth with the lie. "It's kind of an heirloom. It," the sword played the sound of a discordant cymbal, "— she and I are still working things out. Learning to use it is on my list when I have the time." If I survive till the new year.

She watched him cock his head and wiggle an ear as the Sword of Songs commented. "I see," he said. He placed his hand on the hilt of one of his swords.

Great. Damn finicky warriors. What had she done wrong this time?

Thank Eli he just continued. "Can I please take a closer look at your weapon so that I can get a good idea of what would fit it?"

Closer look? She clenched the hilt tightly. But then, what harm was he going to do? Especially here. She just prayed the cultists kept their distance. She could feel power here through her alicorn, hopefully the thing wasn't glowing. She needed more time! With an act of will she loosened her grip. "Sure. I do apologize for the scabbard — it was what I had or nothing."

"It's a hack job if I ever saw one."

She snorted. If only he knew.

"You must've been in a hurry when you did it." He pulled the sword from the cut off scabbard and examined it, the wax seal crumbling away. It made a low tone, like the long draw of a bow on a string.

She watched him, heart pumping, as he examined it. Her ears were flicking all over the place, and she began feeling a bit light headed as she was sucking air into her nostrils so fast. Clenching her fists, she forced herself to calm a little.

The hilt had an elegant downward pointed cross-tree on it and there were subtle engravings on both the cross-tree, the pommel, and the first two inches of the blade. Yvarra had never really taken the time to look at it. Swords were just tools. But this— When she stole stuff she looked for the ornate, the fancy, this— No runes, no heavy detail, no sculpting, no gems. Just clean smooth lines. In its own way, it was more beautiful than the gold and gem covered monstrosities she'd seen so many times.

He stepped back, and she stepped forward. Then he pulled one of his own swords from its scabbard and slid the Sword of Songs into it. It fit perfectly, and the two side thongs slipped over the cross-trees to reach their studs without a problem.

"How does this look?" he asked.

"It looks fine. Appearance isn't that big a thing compared to functionality. May I?" She reached to take it back—

"Wait a second miss! You are forgetting something. This costs money, and you did mention that you wanted throwing knives." He pulled down a baldric that contained four sheathes with throwing knives contained therein. "If you want both that will cost fifty suns."

"No I hadn't forgotten! Though I trust you, if I need this thing and my life is at stake, I have to know now how easily it draws. If you want, hold the scabbard whilst I draw my sword. Then we can talk."

He reversed the scabbard and undid the two peace thongs before pointing the hilt of her weapon towards her. He obviously had no intention of letting go of this scabbard until it was properly paid for. Merchant or warrior, she couldn't tell anymore. Not that it really mattered.

"Sorry — I've just learned the bitter hard way that looks don't mean shit when somebody's trying to run you through." She reached up, such an experience — she hadn't had to do that in a while — and the Sword of Songs easily slid out and into her grip. She slid it back in, and out and in. "Good." She nodded in satisfaction.

"Well now do want the scabbard and these four knives?" he asked her, as he did, he flipped his cloak open a little to reveal the hilt of a monstrous sword and the heart shaped ruby set into its pommel.

She looked at the knives— looked like good craftsmanship but no way to tell. And he was touchy. Better safe than sorry. "May I handle one, and do you have a target?"

He pointed to a post that he'd dug in for that very purpose. "You can throw it at that post there. I personally guarantee that they will never fail you in combat."

As if he knew! With all the gods that seemed to be crowding into her life recently, she didn't trust anything to perform as advertised anymore. She drew one of the daggers and held it by the hilt. Good grip. She balanced it vertically on her palm — easy. Good balance.

"Looks like you know your way around a throwing knife Ma'am."

Grasping it by the handle, letting the leather warm to her touch, she squinted, cocked her head, and found a knothole in the post. That'll do for a start— A swift straight movement back, snap forward, and the dagger was wobbling by its blade, centred in the knothole. "Good balance. You need a smaller target," she continued dryly.

Chuckling, he reached behind his back and whipped out another knife at the target. It stuck into the wood right beside her own weapon quivering slightly. "That's always what I tell the guys at the Deaf Mule."

"May I try a second one?" Without waiting for an answer she threw it and it thunked between the two existing daggers, quivering not at all.

"At least you have some skill with knives ma'am. That makes up for your lack of skill with that sword. Why do you carry it anyway if you can't even use it properly?"

"Like I said, she's kind of an heirloom." More nervous at the continuing lack of cultist, Yvarra looked around, licked her nose, and sniffed the air. Too damn many food odours. Some grain mush shoved its way up and she hurriedly chewed before swallowing again. "Fifty suns is enough to beggar my sick grandmother, make my poor lonely grandfather turn in his grave, and my eighteen children to die of starvation. Thirty."

"Ma'am, I make the highest quality weapons this side of the Western Sea. If you want my stuff you will have to be willing to pay my prices. But right now I can tell you that you will find no better hardware in all of the Midlands. My price stays unless you can make me a better offer."

Somebody was sure full of themselves, and no sense of humour. She'd been hoping to kill a few minutes. Crap. She had it in gold, barely, but she'd have next to no coin left. "Fine. Rules are yours. I'd offer a knife game with winner gets their way, but that's liable to take us all day. How about an equivalent gem in trade?"

She hadn't wanted to dig into them so soon, but things rarely went as planned. Reaching into the pouch, she felt around — she'd have been happier if they hadn't been cut, or she'd had been able to find somebody she trusted to recut them. She had no need to go to the keep again, and anything that kept the Sword of Songs happy, and thus kept her alive, was good in her book. She felt a smaller one, felt the facets— should be. Pulling it out she saw it was a brilliant star sapphire cut in twelve edges. Looked like it'd been pried out of a setting— what to say—? Heirloom? Bad family times? No sense showing the rest of the wealth she'd taken from the cultists.

She put it on the counter. "Here. Should more than cover it, and your transaction fee to sell it. Old family setting, ring was fake — no clue how that trick happened."

He picked up the gem and scratched at it with one of his claws before he held it up to his eye. "This is a very nice stone ma'am, but it will more than pay for what you are purchasing. Then again I do have to sell it."

"It's got bad memories. Ten gold from your end to cover the difference?"

He nodded, looking at the way she moved and her posture, her scent. Why did she always have to get the careful ones? For a long moment he just watched her, and then he pulled out five gold and dropped them on the counter. "Something isn't right about this, I can smell it. So I'm only going to give you half of what you want for it."

Damn! This was going to come back and bite her, she knew it. Be non chalant— Where was some cud when she could use the distraction? "It's not worth the memories. Five is fine."

He shook his head at Yvarra and frowned. "Now you had best be on your way ma'am before you attract too much attention. I've been around long enough to know that something isn't quite right here."

If only he knew. She could scent his suspicion, but she had a choice. Either stay and try and reduce it, but that didn’t' seem likely, or get the hell out. Of course, if the cultists did try for her here, he'd have far greater things to worry about than a bit of lost money. Of course, they'd strike by a poison dart in the eye, or a toxined sharpened coin slid against your palm. She didn't even want to think of how many times her alicorn had saved her so far.

She felt something nick her leg and felt a wash of heat pour down from her forehead.

And again.

"I'd better be going. You're going to think the wrong thing when I say this, but just forget I was ever here. Sword, scabbard and daggers please?" She slipped the dart out, wiped the poison off on her pocket, and let it slip to the ground.

Taking her purchases, she pushed her way out into the crowd, chewing on the cud that finally chose to come up.


For whatever reason, it took a good chunk of the afternoon for the cultists to find her. Yvarra had almost relaxed, especially after getting both her stomachs full of delicious apples. How could food taste so good? The only thing that was able to distract her from the wondrous taste was what appeared to be a muffin tossing game of some sort.

Yvarra shook her head. She'd never understand this place—

Just as she was turning away, the Sword of Songs gonged a warning. Without thought she dove for the ground, managing to keep her muzzle up this time to keep her Alicorn from getting stuck in the grassy dirt. Something hissed just overtop of her and thunked into—

Klepnos! Not her, somebody else!

She'd started to turn her head when there was a scream, and she watched what appeared to be a child collapsing.

Yvarra blinked.

She couldn't go on like this. Sure, she enjoyed challenges, enjoyed winning her victories, enjoyed tweaking the rich and the slow. But nothing she'd ever done had hurt an innocent. Nothing! And now, now the Eli damned cult—

The boy vanished behind a crowd as she forced herself to her hoof and began to slink away. She shouldn't be here, she couldn’t be here any longer. And, as to the cult, well, fine!

If they wanted to play the game, that way, she'd play it that way. They'd taught her to kill. And, now, for the first time in her life, she wanted to kill.

Her ears flicked as the Sword of Songs played a mournful oboe note—

"He's alive!"

What? Yvarra spun around, trying to see past the crowd.

"She's just sleeping." "Stupid pranksters, playing with sleeping drugs."

Yvarra stopped, blinking.

Sleeping drugs?

How'd they know? Did it really matter? Assume that statement was true. There were people who could know. Find the dart, carefully taste what was on its tip.

But, if it was a sleeping poison, then why?

Either they had known that dart would hit an innocent. Or—

Or, they wanted her alive.

She shuddered.

Yvarra stood up straighter.

In the scheme of things, it didn't matter. The child was alive, or the adult, or whatever, and that was what counted. And yet, and yet it proved that the cult had crossed the line, and was willing to stay on the wrong side of that line.

She wouldn't be safe in crowds. She'd never be.

Her heart steeled itself with a new resolve.

They wanted death, she would give them death.

And there was one place she could start. The only place she could start.

The bathhouse. There'd been an entrance to the catacombs there. And, once she got there, got to where she knew how to move in silence, then she'd make them pay.

But, first she had to get ready. A quick preparation. She couldn't go as she was now. She couldn't go until tonight.

It wasn't hard to push her way through the crowd as it was starting to disperse. There was a tanners district, by the river. It was impossible to miss — especially with her newly enhanced nostrils. She'd pick a building at random, pay to be dyed black. Buy some clothes to wrap around her hooves for silence.

And then, tonight, tonight she'd go back to the bathhouse.

Nodding to herself, she made her way off the commons.


The dye was cold, and dark. But then it was black. Or it had better be. Yvarra kept a small stream of bubbles gurgling from her nostrils. The longer she crouched there, the darker the colouration. It was odd— normally she'd be feeling some pain in her chest after the amount of time she'd been submerged, but it was like she could stay under forever. The longer the better for the black liquid, anyway. She hadn't told the dyer, but she was holding a knife, letting it move from hand to hand, though she'd told him to leave her in her privacy. She didn't know the dyer, didn't trust him. Eli, she didn't trust anybody anymore. She'd picked this dyer at random by flipping a coin. Hopefully he'd be safe, and she'd be safe.

Yvarra wasn't taking chances anymore.

She couldn't afford to. The white had to go. Absolutely. Before she'd just worn dark clothes, blackened wax on her face and hands. Now— Now she'd do whatever she had too.

Yvarra'd known that most of her alicorn would be above the surface, but she planned to dip it later.

Still no need to breathe. Everything was odd. She'd have sworn, hell she'd have put good coin down, that she could feel air movment along her alicorn as it glistened in the air above. In fact— was that the door she heard opening? The dyer? She could see— dagger— Nine fucking hells!

Acting more on instinct than reason, she burst out of the barrel of dye and whipped the knife from between two fingers. Even as she blinked, even as the black oily dye dripped from her ears, she heard the gurgling and whimpering of pain. In the few moments it took her to clear her burning eyes, the room fell silent. The dyer was lying there in a pool of blood, a knife stuck in his throat. Or, the dyer who was male now and— Argh! She hated the damn curse!

Climbing the rest of the way out, she let the thick liquid roll off her naked body to pool beneath her hooves, mixing with the dyer's blood. It was cold, cold as ice. Cold as her blood felt now that she felt no remorse at the death. Stepping from the liquid, stepping across the body, she pushed the door he'd opened the rest of the way. It didn't matter that she was leaving a trail of black, she needed to know now.

It didn't take her long to explore the small place, sniff around the stored skins to be tanned and dyed, to find — nothing. Some coins, some fruits that must have been newly bought that she wolfed down. But— nothing! No sign of him being a cultist, no secret passage, no entrance to the catacombs—

She hadn't expected the rest, but where was the robe? If the cultists stopped kindly identifying themselves, then how would she know?

A cold chill swept through her soul. Was she going to be reduced to killing innocents now? But then, he had come after her with a knife. Even if what she'd seen, or thought she'd seen, was a trap, he'd still been holding the damn knife! And, why else would he have disturbed her?

It made no sense! It made no— unless— something she'd heard— something when she'd been on the holy mountain— what was it—? She scratched the base of her alicorn as she chewed on the last of the melon. That mouse— she couldn't remember the name— he'd said something about her alicorn being valuable, especially in Euper.

Could that be all it was?

This was great, just great! Not only did she have the Klepnos-damned cult after her, she also had random fortune hunters out to kill her for her alicorn! Well— they wouldn't have it! She'd survived in the streets, survived adulthood and city guard and assaults and imprisonment.

She would survive this!

Spinning on a black hoof, she clicked her way back to the dye. Holding the sides of the barrel, she held her alicorn down and under. It was odd— she could feel the coldness of the dye. It felt— it felt wrong , repulsive. Still, it had to be done.

Standing up, she pulled her alicorn out of the black liquid.

Her alicorn that was white. Glimmering, shining white. She could see the last of the dye flowing off it like oil from water and pooling in a cold darkness in the fur of her muzzle.

Nine hells!

Fine!

Looking around, ignoring the cold, dead body, she saw a dirty cloth and stalked over and started wrapping it around her—

It felt wrong! A burning itching filled her, pouring down her alicorn. It grew and grew, becoming unbearable as she ripped the cloth off and threw it away. The silver-white horn glimmered between her eyes and a feeling of comfort and relief filled her.

Hmph! So much for that! She'd learned long ago not to try and changes things she had no control over.

The sun had set; she unswallowed and chewed some cud as she grabbed the cloth, and found a few more in another room. There were some things she could do something about, and high on that list was the sound her hooves would make on the wooden floor of the bathhouse.

Then she left the small shop in the blackness of the narrow streets of Euper. Her alicorn glowed gently, enough so that she could see where she was going when the towering buildings closing in the narrow muddy streets hid the shining moon far overhead.

The door hung open behind her.


Euper was quiet. She could smell unwashed forms, garbage, rotting vegetables. In the distance she could hear the crackle and boom of fireworks as they exploded above the commons. The soft rustle of the river, the honking of a few geese, a flag flapping in the wind. In the distance, a voice called out, it's meaning unintelligible. There was more than enough moonlight to see by, and when it slid behind the clouds, the soft warm glow of her alicorn sufficed.

The cold mud oozed between her hooflobes. She really should have kept the boots on, but she didn't know how much time she'd have when she got to the bathhouse. It was likely abandoned, but she didn't have any other ideas. All she could do was stay quiet, take a look, and improvise.

A lot of her life seemed to be like that these days.

She ducked into an ally as a squad of the town watch squelched by. She could hear them grumbling at not being able to go to the festival. Yvarra hoped the cultists were there. All the cultists. Then she'd have some peace and quiet for her investigations.

And if you find the passage still there, what then?

She had some provisions, her pack, her weapons, and her skill. It was a start. What else am I supposed to do?

Ask for help?

Hmph! She'd never needed help before, and she didn't need it now..

The watch passed, and she resumed her walk.


Yvarra ducked into an ally a short distance away from the bathhouse. Spitting on her hands, she eyed the worn brick wall, and swiftly climbed up it. Far easier than that wall in the keep. Damn that keep! Damn it to the Nine Hells! She was never going anywhere near the place again.

No time to think about it.

The roof was worn wooden tiles. She stayed at the peak, not so much for silence, but to ensure her weight was on a support beam. Keeping her balance was easy, and her hooves stretched and gripped the wood with surprising ease. Maybe she'd gotten something useful out of the curse after all. As she reached the edge, she crouched down, eventually laying on her chest to look over the edge at the bathhouse.

The bathhouse was a separate building. That'd seemed odd, but maybe it made it easier to hide tunnels. And strange sounds. Laying there, she watched, looking around, hoping that the moonlight washed out her alicorn from anybody looking up. Normally she wouldn't have worried — people almost never looked up — but she expected that the cultists were more used to the idea.

The bathhouse looked abandoned. The door hung open, still in the windless night. Licking her nostrils she sniffed. Mud. Fresh wood. Leather. Many animals. Had the watch investigated already? Scratching a flicking ear, she tried to remember if she'd closed the door — she'd have sworn she'd closed the door.

The building was two stories, slightly higher than the one she was on now. There was a window almost opposite where she was, shuttered and closed. It wouldn't work though — no easy way to get to it without making noise. Unswallowing some cud, she chewed and thought— The roof sloped downward on either side. Leaping would be easy, but she'd slam against the wall making sure anybody inside would hear. Leaping onto the roof wouldn't be hard either, and also noisy. Maybe—

Cocking her head, she looked at the edge of the roof, the bottom of the slope. It could be doable. She could leap, grab the edge, and then swing into the opening at the side until her momentum stopped. Then go hand over hand up the slope to the window, pry it open, and get in that way. It would be a bit of a climb, but it had the advantage of a number of abort points — swing to the ground and run, drop from in front of the window to the ground and roll.

She crawled back from the edge of the roof and sat down, pulling the rags from her pack and tying them snugly around her hooves. They were not comfortable. She stood up, carefully, and almost slid off as they gave next to no traction. But, balance was one of the things she was good at, and this body seemed to have a very strong natural sense.

She walked to the edge of the roof, each hoof making a thudshush as they slipped a bit before the cloth stretched enough to provide a stable grip. At least they made almost no sound, which was the objective of the exercise. On her back, the Sword of Songs let out a nearly inaudible flute-like tweet, a warning, but Yvarra ignored it. She had no other idea what to do, and if she could find the thrice cursed entrance, maybe she could go on the offensive.

Yvarra crouched, gauging distances in the dark night. Her ears wiggling and shaping sound to give hints of what she couldn't see. She stretched her legs a bit, crouched, stretching and clenching fingers. Relaxation, that was the key. Then, hooves splaying, skittering, the cloth wrapping pinching painfully against the soft flesh between the lobes, she leapt. The sound was loud in her ears, and her heart thumped a bit faster, even though she knew it was almost silent. Just as she leapt, a tile jerked loose, skidding down and down the roof, the clinkclinkclink screaming in her ears. Stretching out her arms, she grabbed the edge of the roof, long thin fingers clenching tight as her weight swung around. Her fingers slid, but held as her ears focused on the splut of the tile into the mud deep below.

Then she swung, each swing less than the one before, hanging in the darkness, listening, hearing only the normal sounds. An owl hooted. Somebody called out the hour away on the walls.

Then she stopped.

Fingers straining, she pulled herself higher and higher up the sloped roof, her breathing easy and steady even as she hung higher and higher above the alley below. Then, glinting in the dim moonlight, she saw the window. Just a bit higher— There! She swung a bit, pulling herself higher, until her hooves scrabbled against the window sill.

Klepnos but this would have been so much easier without the cloths. She almost had it, almost— had it! Crouching down, she balanced on the ledge, pressing against one side of the shuttered window. A second to draw a thin dagger, to work it between the shutters, and pry the opposite one open. It resisted, then there was a pop and the catch gave. The shutter whipped open but she easily caught it.

Sheathing her dagger she edged along the sill, and then wiggled in through the window. Her hooves thudded on the floor, sliding a bit as the cloth pulled and stretched, and then she was in.

Grabbing the handle, she pulled the shutter shut. Her head warmed, her alicorn glowed, and she saw that the catch was unusable — one end of it was in the room somewhere. Pulling out a copper, she opened the shutter a bit, wedged the copper between the two, and worked the shutter close until it was tight. Yvarra settled her fedora securely on her head.

She was in.

The room was old, dusty. It was just a space in the attic, though finished. Dust settled from her passage, and furniture and crap were piled haphazardly around, some covered in cloth and canvas. There was no door, instead a trapdoor. She sniffed, smelled dust, dirt— something rotting overwhelming almost everything else. And— and— Licking her nostrils she inhaled, but—

The Sword of Songs gave a faint tone, a rising shrill just loud enough for her ears to hear. But, she heard nothing, saw nothing. Smelled—

Moving slowly, she walked step by step over to the trapdoor. Her entire body quivered with tension. Something—

The Sword of Songs made the sound of clanging bells and she was halfway around as the trapdoor creaked open; black cloaked figures throwing off tarpaulins and screaming as they ran towards her from all over the room.

Klepnos!

The dagger was in the air and then the throat of one cultist as her horn burst into eyesearing brightness that should have hurt her but didn't. The attackers staggered, blinded, and she found she'd drawn the Sword of Songs. Though she had no skill, it was the act of a butcher, not an artist, to swing its gleaming length and hack it through the chest of a woman right in front of her. Her victim's screaming changed to a gurgle as the sword got pinned between her ribs. The light of her alicorn dimmed and the cultists moved towards the sound. Daggers hissed around her, one slamming into her chest. She ripped it out, threw it at another, and drew two more and threw them at two others. Only two left. Dragging at the sword it yanked out with a wet sucking sound as the trap door slammed onto the floor raising a cloud of dust. She shoved the blade into its sheaf, the sword seeming to guide itself. A hooded head poked up and a dagger slammed into her leg. She staggered.

This wasn't gong to work. Oh, she could hold them, but for how long? Ripping the dagger out and tossing it without aim through the trapdoor she ran across the floor; closing her hand into a fist, she punched it against the one shutter, sending it flying open. Due to necessity she trusted only her memory and leapt towards where the other roof should be. It was! But, she was going to be low. Curling up into a ball, she slammed into the roof, more tiles sliding and clinking down as she staggered back onto her hooves, slid, almost lost it but the cloth caught on something, the warmth of her healing flowing through her as she panted for breath. She turned her head enough to see a crossbow poking out the window as a bolt slammed into her back sending stabs of red pain through her. Somehow choking down a scream, she ran, yanking the bolt out in a spray of blood and flesh as another hissed by her.

By the Ninth Hell, what did it take to get these bastards to stop?

Voices called behind her, and she felt the roof shudder as a weight landed on it. The moon passed out from behind a faint cloud and shimmered in a sea of silver across the roofs and the glittering Metamor River in the distance.

Where was the damn watch?

A part of her snorted — who'd have ever thought she'd wonder that?

More thuds echoed behind her, and the clatter of booted feet. There was a scream, the rattle of tile against tile, and a moment later the thud of a body in the mud below. Somebody had lost it. Damn but she should have scouted this more! Reaching the end of the roof she leapt, trusting something was on the other side, not having time to look, not knowing. She fell and fell, her heart pumping out its desperate cry before slamming into a single story roof. It cracked under her, and one hoof fell through, the snap of its bone loud in her ears. Pain filled her, but she pulled and wiggled loose as her magic healed the wound, leaving behind blood and fur.

She could feel the fatigue now. Pulling at her, tugging at her. Breath gasping through her nostrils, into and out from her lungs. A few drops of blood still spraying from the bolt.

Why were they trying to kill her now, when they'd tried to drug her before? It made no sense!

She looked, peered, saw another roof before her, far too high to reach. Turning to the right, she continued to run, hooves skidding, the cloth digging into her flesh. There was a long row, a series of buildings. Her breath was hot inside her, her heart struggling against the prison of her ribs. She needed time! There was another gap and she leapt, slamming onto a roof slightly higher. Turning her head slightly she saw that four were running behind her, more leaping to follow. She needed to hide! But—

A higher story towered above the roofs and she ran behind it, almost falling so sharp did she turn. A moment out of their sight. And— and—

And she had no choice.

She ran into the shadows, the tower hiding her form them, and them from her. Only a single room most likely, as the tower ended at an ally that passed between two buildings adjoining that with the tower. Having no choice, desperate, she grabbed a windowsill of the tower to slow her motion and then leapt into the darkness of the alley.

Silence but for her breath, her heart. Air whistling past her. Then she slammed into the wooden side of a building, slivers digging into her flesh as it tore and scrapped off. She fell, forcing herself to be silent as her entire body felt like it glowed with warmth. Then she slammed into the ground, her legs snapping, landing on her chest. The fire inside her burned, and her heart pumped frantically against what felt like her naked ribs. She forced her mind to clearness, feeling around as her alicorn remained mercifully dark, and the clouds hid the moon so that she was hidden in shadows.

There was trick — she didn't have the tools — or did she? Laying on her back, she pressed her hooves against the stonewall and begin clicking them against the stone as though she was running. She let the sound grow fainter, and fainter, even as she prayed to Kelpnos as she'd never prayed to before. Or, at least never prayed before in desperation, in need.

Voices whispered above her, too faint to be understood. She stilled, unswallowed some cud, chewed with what strength she had left, her ears swivelling, listening. Bodies clambered down the walls, splutted into the mud, and ran into the street as others leapt and ran along the other roof. Spreading, searching.

Going away.

Until there was only silence.

An owl hooted; somebody on one of the walls called out the hour. And the clouds whispered away from the moon as it glimmered down into the alley. She fumbled in her pouch as she swallowed the cud. She stuffed her muzzle, chewing the grain frantically. Her body sucked in the energy and her heart slowed.


Three more calls from the watch as she chewed, rebuilding her strength. It was near dawn when she felt safe. Drawing the Sword of Songs she looked at it, looked at the silver moonlight glimmering along its length.

"Why? Why me?"

Nothing.

"You warned me. You did. And I, the fool, ignored it. I should be dead. Dead, or—"

But, why dead? They were using sleeping drugs. Why? The first cultist, the one in the bath, had said that The One must die! She knew he had. But—

Had they been taken off guard? Had whoever was controlling them changed their orders? Why?

Did they need her? She shuddered.

Pulling out a dry cloth from a pouch, she polished the Sword of Songs wiping the blood off its gleaming surface.

So many questions. So few answers. Nothing made sense!

And— and now she had no idea what to do.

The sword gave a low tone as she chewed cud.

The sword. It was the key, it had to be. It was the damn sword that had brought her into this.

The sword that could detect the cultists.

Detect—

Closing her eyes she swallowed the cud, feeling the cold evil of necessity curl its hands around her soul.

She couldn't keep fighting like she had been. She'd lose. Tonight had been close. Far far too close. She needed a way to get at the cult. A way they couldn't prepare for. A way that would keep her safe, that would give her time to find a way to get into the catacombs where they lurked.

And—

And a way to hurt them. To make them feel the pain she felt from every one of their blades, their bolts, as they tore into her flesh. A way to make them pay for the innocents they'd brought into this.

She sighed. There was a way—

Pushing herself to her hooves, she held the sword in both hands, in front of her, pointing down so that its blade almost dragged in the mud.

"Find some cultists for me," she whispered.


It didn't take long until the sword played a tone she recognized. It was quiet, so quiet she could barely hear it.

She was standing in the street beside a small house, more of a hovel really. Instincts made her walk into the alley beside, into the obscuring darkness. She'd seen nobody as she'd searched, heard only the expected sounds. And now—

The door from the alley was easy to find. It was easy to pick, to open. Her hooves were coated in mud, its cold wetness soaked into the cloth wrapped around them. Stepping in she moved silently, or as silently as she could. There were barely two rooms, a workroom and kitchen, both filled with refuse, the scent of boiled grain warm in her nostrils.

Her stomachs grumbled but she forced them down. Not here. Not now.

There were two doors. The one she'd come through, and one that led further in. A window looked out onto the street, the large vertical shutter closed. By the warm glow that rose from her alicorn she saw mended clothes hanging beside it. At least somebody here made a living doing simple reparis. Ears wiggling, letting scents ooze through her nostrils, she made her way across to the door.

It wasn't locked, and she pushed it open a crack as the Sword of Songs hummed inaudibly against her back. There were four figures there, all curled up on a pile of straw. Two children, one human, one a small rodent of some kind, and two adults. One a horse, the other some kind of bird.

Hardly daring to breath she made her way across to a chest in front of the bed. She could feel the sword against her spine, warning, encouraging. But, she couldn't trust it, not yet. Crouching she lifted the chest open. Just clothes, normal clothes.

Until she fished below and found a cultist's robe. And another. And a third. Two small, child sized, one adult.

Damn you Klepnos.

Children. If they even were children around here.

Damn Metamor. Damn it all. Damn the whole Kelpnos-damned place.

In silence she closed the lid and stood up. It was right that the Sword of Songs did it, but she wasn't skilled in it.

She sighed.

The Sword of Songs could find the cultists. She could prove they were cultists. And, it seemed there was only one language they understood.

Moving away from the chest holding one of the daggers she'd bought so few hours before, she slit their throats. One, two, three, four. Parents and children.

She had a method. And, eventually, she'd find another way into the underground.

But such a dirty, disgusting, necessary way to fight back.

But, what else could she do?

Wiping the dagger on the straw, she sheathed it.

A search of the building confirmed there were no hidden entrances, no passages into hidden basements or secret catacombs.

Creeping back out, closing the door behind her, she trudged through the mud in the predawn light looking for an inn in which she could sleep. Maybe—

"The Cultists Strike Back!", copyright Michael Bard