Rogue and Rover: Part Eight
Kanrik brought his sword up just in time to block a massive blow from the knight. Kanrik ran back several steps to get a better view of his opponent. The guardian was shaped like a Bori, several inches taller than Kanrik – who was no shrimp – and with shoulders easily twice as wide. But he was made entirely of ice! Ice that could move as fluidly as flesh, yet not shatter when it met a steel blade – whoever had created the magic in this place knew their trade.
The ice knight's armor and helmet were studded with wicked ice spikes – Kanrik noticed those very clearly as the knight swung his shield at him in an attack that would have crushed him like a Grackle Bug.
The horns of Whitestones blew outside again, declaring their presence. Kanrik shouted, "Go, Hannah! Go, go, go!"
Hannah ran, her tail streaming behind her like a banner. The knight turned toward her, but Kanrik put himself between their attacker and Hannah as she sprinted for the steps. "You're going to have to go through me first, ugly!"
He couldn't tell if the ice knight could speak, or if it could even hear. It merely charged again. That thing was strong, and yet it had the strength for attack after attack. And Kanrik doubted it would tire as easily as he would. He wasn't going to be able to win through by muscle.
Good thing he tried never to rely on muscle anyway.
He had neither strength nor endurance on his side – he had a bit of an edge with skill, but that would disappear as he tired. But he also had a fairly bright fire still blazing away. And perhaps the mages of old could make ice into a warrior that moved with the speed of a real one and wouldn't break at the first strike, but he rather doubted that anyone short of Taelia could make ice that wouldn't melt if exposed to enough fire. He sheathed his knife, grabbed a piece of wood off the firewood pile, and lit it – dried for centuries, it blazed like a torch. And when the ice warrior charged at him again, he shoved it straight at the chest as he fought off the sword and shield with the other hand. When he pushed himself away to take a breath, there was a noticeable depression in the breastplate, and water dripping onto the floor.
It had worked! But the wood had almost burned down – he threw the flaming brand at the ice warrior's head and grabbed another torch. Next target was the sword arm.
He tried it again, and the next swing at him was noticeably weaker – Kanrik could see where he'd thinned out the arm, and the features were slightly blurred where throwing almost-dead torches at the ice creature's face had melted it. Kanrik could see the sparks inside it now – the magic that animated the ice knight, trying to restore it. Kanrik didn't intend to give it that chance.
He picked up another torch, and Hannah shouted, "And when you're done, we can use him to refill our canteens!" Kanrik grinned – the ice knight turned to look at her, and Kanrik took the opportunity to put the torch to the sword arm once more, then bring his own blade down as hard as he could.
With a crack and a screech of ice, the sword arm came off and slid across the floor. Kanrik kicked it over to the edge of the campfire, where it immediately started to melt, and then ducked and dived to the side as the ice warrior immediately attacked him with the spiked shield. Figured that that would serve as a second weapon. He was running low on firewood, and he doubted that the ice warrior would stop in order to let him break up another of the old benches. He had to make every torch count
He tried to keep the fight close to the campfire – he could see that the ice warrior was starting to lose definition, could see the puddles he was leaving where he stepped, which could easily become fatal traps if the blue Gelert put a foot wrong. But the spikes of ice on his shield and armor were still too sharp for comfort – Kanrik couldn't draw this out long enough to let the campfire do its work. He had to try and do to the shield arm what he did to the sword arm.
He made himself an opening to grab another torch from the fire, and repeated the earlier attack – it was easier, now, without one arm in the way. Still, only a last-second duck saved him from getting hit in the head with the shield.
The last torch. Kanrik held it close to the ice for as long as he could, then dodged, ducked, and feinted to give himself an opening, hoping he hadn't misjudged.
He hadn't – the other arm went to join the first one.
Then the ice knight kicked him in the shin.
Kanrik bit down several oaths – it probably hadn't broken anything, but it had hurt – it would be a splendid bruise to go with the one he could feel on his back. He dodged the next kick, then shoved out at the magical guardian as hard as he could, pushing it over into the campfire, where it lay still.
From the steps, Hannah cheered. Kanrik wiped his brow – despite the cold, he was sweating from exertion and battle-nerves – and bowed to her. He walked quickly to the steps, as quickly as he could with his leg protesting each time he put his foot down. He went ahead and favored it, limping slightly – he had no one here that he was trying to impress.
Hannah asked, "Are you okay?"
He nodded. "It hurts, but it's not broken. I'll be fine. Did you have any time to look at what's ahead up there?"
She shook her head. "I was busy watching this silly Gelert nearly getting himself killed by a gigantic magical ice warrior."
She smiled at him. "Silly, and reckless, and very, very brave." As he reached her, she gave him a brief hug, and Kanrik returned it.
Kanrik smiled back down at her and said, "Lead on, then, since you're the non-silly one of the party."
They continued up the stairway – there were several doors in the hall there, as well as a stair. Hannah said, voice echoing in the cavernous space, "The vault or treasure room will be near the top. That's farthest from the gate, and thus safest. Let's take the stair. We want to keep moving upward."
The stair was slick and icy, like the stair back at Whitestones, and there was no rail to keep them from plunging several stories back down. They went up on all fours, slowly, keeping their eyes trained on the trap door above them.
Hannah asked, "Kanrik, would you give me your sword?"
He passed it up to her – he had no idea what she wanted it for, but he trusted her. She unlatched the trap door and used the sword to lift it, keeping her head low.
A half-dozen arrows slammed into the wood. Kanrik commented, "Wise choice, there."
Hannah nodded. "But it means we're going the right way. They wouldn't have traps in the hall to the kitchens."
Kanrik nodded, and thought out loud. "People lived and worked here – but this place wasn't abandoned in a hurry. It's too orderly for that. In occupied places people have to be careful that their traps don't inconvenience the inhabitants, but it's likely that the mages and engineers here had no such qualms when they were sealing it up. We can't afford to let our guard down anywhere.
Hannah continued, following his thought as she pulled herself through the trap door, "But the parchment shows that they wanted people to be able to find Castle Astith if necessary. It's meant to be survivable if people are... oh, wow."
Kanrik pulled himself through after her, and was just as amazed.
The hall downstairs had been functional, grey and plain. A garrison. But this hall...
It was still grey – grey and white, stone and marble worked together, carved fantastically, to make a great hall that was icily beautiful. The great arches and pillars were full of the jagged forms of icicles, out of which rose the forms of armored knights of old. Even the flagstones of the floor were engraved with subtle patterns. The sides of the hearth laying cold in the center of the expanse of floor were inlaid with gems that flamed white and blue in the cold magical lights.
Hannah said, "Look at this. Even if they used magic to help with the carving, it must have taken decades."
Kanrik noticed the beauty – it was impossible not to – but he couldn't shut off a thief's eyes. "Carving like this – there was plenty of money here at Whitestones. And hopefully some remains. Look – a stair there, across the hall."
Hannah looked around. "I think we're safe in here. They wouldn't have put traps in here – this hall was the heart of the place. It would have felt wrong to them."
Kanrik cautioned, "We'll walk carefully anyway."
The next stairway was less icy, but still steep. The silence lay around them as thick as the dust as they turned upward and upward. Kanrik led the way this time, his sword out, hoping to do what Hannah had done at the trap door and trigger any defenses with enough time to get clear.
He threw a piece of stale bread through the archway at the top at Hannah's whispered recommendation – a gout of flame came out, turning it to charcoal. Kanrik winced – flame was tricky, and the charms he had were little protection against it. That was one main reason he detested the Order of the Red Erisim – those maniacs were far too fond of throwing it around. Hannah whispered, "Now another."
That piece of bread passed through without incident, and Hannah and Kanrik followed quickly.
Next was a long hallway – at Hannah's guidance, they tested each stone before trusting their weight to it. Some of them were illusions. Kanrik commented quietly, "At least this shows they've got something to protect. No one does this for a few glass rings and brass necklaces."
Hannah said, "There's one last bit of advice on here – how to actually get into the vault. It's a little cryptic – I think it's similar to the symbols on the front door. I think the idea is that you can't understand it until you're actually in front of it."
There was another staircase at the end of the hall – a long, winding one that seemed to spiral straight to Kreludor – and then they were in front of another door with a dozen wheels at different heights. Kanrik looked up at the top ones. "You'll need to stand on my shoulders to reach those. Figure out what we need to do and then we'll do it." Gold, gems, magical artifacts, artwork – there could be all of that behind these doors. Depending on how much there was, Kanrik might have to lead an expedition back here. All those magical traps had to have deep pockets behind them, after all.
Hannah nodded. "I have it. It's based off the pattern downstairs, but I have to turn those wheels. I'm ready."
Kanrik crouched, and boosted her up on his shoulders. She reached up, and warned, "Keep me steady! I don't want to know what will happen if I set these wrong!"
She set the three at the top. The next four were within Kanrik's reach, and he moved them carefully as per Hannah's instructions. She set the five that were within her own range.
The door swung open, and the light that came from within gleamed golden.
Kanrik and Hannah stepped into the majesty of Castle Astith's treasure trove together.
To be continued...