Two: Moratorium

"I can't believe this," Mercury moaned. She picked up a clump of dirt and heaved it at Lothar, who was peering through the grate they'd climbed into this antechamber through. It struck him squarely in the back of the head and splattered, spoiling the immaculate white of his hair. He sighed.

"Yes, Your Eminence?"

"We're in the sewers!"

"Not exactly. We're under the floor. That ladder over there will take us into the sewer." He pointed. "And you have no one to blame but yourself for our predicament, my Lady. If you'd just gone back into the audience chamber like I told you—"

"I'd rather take my chances with some sewer beasts," she muttered.

"I'm sure, Your Eminence." Lothar peeked up through the grate again. "All right. They're dragging someone off to the prison cells, so when the guards leave we'll . . . oh, damn . . ."

"Found you," said a guard with devilish delight, looking down at Lothar through the grate.

"Hi," said Quell as the rest of the group was escorted into his cell.

"They were going to let us go when we paid for our seats, but some guard had the brilliant idea to search our pockets, and when they emptied Strydda's . . . well . . ." Ryst smiled, seeming strangely amused by the situation. "They changed their minds."

"Apparently the solitaire ring in one of her pockets belonged to one of them," added Yanna.

"Well, that explains a lot," muttered Marron.

"Shut up," requested a guard, boxing his ears.

They were locked in and abandoned for some time, much of which was occupied by the others taking a leaf from the guards' book and searching Strydda. The only noises were occasional shouts of, "Hey, that's MINE!"

"Let go of me, you pig! You chauvinist pig!" Mercury struggled as one of the guards tried to shove her into a cell. Lothar was squabbling with the guards attempting to restrain him (considering his bulk, this was no mean feat). Mercury whipped a small dagger from her belt and pointed it toward the guard. He laughed and simply grabbed her, one hand going for her modest cleavage.

"It's been a while since there's been any girrul as pretty as you in here," he mumbled, his foul-smelling breath in her face.

Mercury twisted away and fell into the cell he'd been shoving her towards. Luckily for her, someone caught her as she fell.

The save wasn't on purpose, however. She'd knocked the poor person over, and his body had blocked her fall. His arms went around her instinctively; she ended up hugging him as well as they landed on the floor. Someone stifled a giggle.

"Wow," a man's voice said. "Quell got lucky."

"Ha, ha," sighed the boy whose arms she was presently entangled in. Mercury began to squirm. She'd rarely been held before, and she wasn't fond of it. She tried to pull her arms free, but they were pinned beneath his body.

"Please let me go," she said.

The boy glanced at her, surprised, as if he'd been oblivious to her presence in his arms. "I'm sorry, Your Eminence."

"Mercury," she snapped automatically, then, "How'd you know my title?"

"These vermin were hiding in the top balcony," spoke up the guard who'd fumbled at her breasts earlier. "Please forgive me, Your Eminence, for putting you in a cell with inhabitants such as these. I will go find you more private accommodations." There was a distinctly mocking tone in his voice.

"At least they aren't molesters," she replied, her tone implying, 'Like someone else.' "And I know perfectly well you just intend to toss me in some other cell. Don't talk down to me."

"Oh, but Your Eminence," said the guard, his voice sickly sweet and his expression smarmy, "Of course under the circumstances I could find you somewhere nicer to stay . . ." 'Like my bedroom' was implied.

"Bullshit," Mercury growled. "I'm under arrest. Why would you give me 'private accommodations under the circumstances'?"

"MY LADY!" exploded Lothar. "Such language is—"

"Oh, shut up, you," sighed another guard, clapping a hand over the warrior's mouth.

As it turned out, Mercury and Lothar were not found 'private accommodations', but instead they were installed in a cell parallel to the boy's, and Mercury sank onto her cot in despair. She'd come all this way for help and had been slapped into a room she wouldn't wish on her worst enemy.

Coming to the council had been her last hope. She'd been expecting them to know what to do, how to help her prepare for the coming armageddon, and they'd tossed her into jail like so much garbage. Despite a sharp side, Mercury was essentially a sweet and gentle girl, one who had not chosen to become an invoker but had had the duty forced on her, merely because there was no one else to take up the position.

Hopeless, Mercury dropped her head into her hands and began to cry. Lothar flew to her side and tried to comfort her.

Quell watched the pair for a few moments and then turned to the others. The memory of the invoker in his arms was still strong, and thinking about it made him feel funny. Regardless of the fact that he'd just seen his nineteenth year, when it came to sex and desire he was basically clueless. His entire store of sexual knowledge came from listening to Rystrahn and Marron swap sex stories, all of which were entirely made up. Thus, he was quite naïve as to how he was feeling for the beautiful young woman in the cell across from his.

"Look, guys. We've gotta figure out a way to get outta here!"

"No shit," Yanna agreed, licking a paw. Well, in all fairness it could not be called a 'paw' since it was more like a hand. But whatever it was, she licked several out-of-place strands of fur back into alignment.

"Well, how?" Ryst inquired.

"We could pry up the floor and eat it, then dig a tunnel!" suggested Strydda.

The group sighed collectively.

"You know, that was going the right way until she said 'eat'," Marron observed.

"I know a way out," Mercury spoke up tentatively.

Everyone looked at her (including Quell, who for some reason found his eyes pulled directly to the delicately dipped neckline of Mercury's blouse) and she blushed, not comfortable with being in the spotlight. "We could go through the sewers."

"Your Eminence, why are you talking to these— these—"

"Quiet, Lothar. Maybe they can help us," Mercury soothed. Lothar looked unconvinced.

"She's got a point," Marron said thoughtfully. "We could rush the guards and bolt for the sewer grate."

Strydda stood and hopped over to the door, examined the lock. "You know, this lock looks pretty simple. Bet I could pick it."

"And instead of attacking them, Ryst could cast an illusion over us, to get us past the guards," Yanna added. Rystrahn raised an eyebrow.

"Great." Quell stood and slipped through the door as soon as Strydda had opened it enough. "Ryst, how long do your illusions usually last?"

"At full strength, maybe ten minutes. But that antimagic shit weakened me a lot. I'd say three, five minutes at the most." Rystrahn also slipped past Strydda and out of the cell. "Did you have something in mind?"

"Excuse me," broke in Mercury. "Aren't you going to let us out?"

Silence. The group looked at her, surprised.

"Why?" asked Marron.

"Because . . . because I told you the way out! And I can pay. Look!" She dug into a pocket in her skirt and drew out a handful of coins. "Help me and I'll help you!"

For a moment, no one said anything. Then Strydda, who had a penchant for ruining perfectly nice moments, mused, "Well, we ARE broke . . ."

"Four hundred in gold," demanded Marron.

"Six hundred if you'll allow us to accompany you through the sewers." Mercury was glad now that the head priestess, Mother Brianna, had stuffed her pockets with gold before allowing her to leave the temple.

"Done," Quell sighed.

Strydda picked the lock and Mercury stepped out, Lothar on her heels. "My Lady," he warned, "do not trust this pack of thieves. They will likely turn on us and—"

"We weren't planning on it, but that's starting to sound like a good idea," Yanna snarled.

"Thieves? Are you really?" Mercury inquired, obviously interested.

"Yup. Bona fide," Strydda assured her.

Quell paused to bang his head against the wall.

Rystrahn cast his illusion, obviously reluctant to include Mercury and Lothar, but he smiled almost regretfully when Mercury pressed a coin into his hand. "Well, fine. I was hoping you could handle your own illusion, but . . ." He completed his own, covering them as well, and Mercury smiled apologetically.

"I'm an invoker. No one bothered to teach me illusioncraft."

"Yeah, but you can always hope, right?"

Mercury chose to let it go and instead looked around. She and all the others had been made to look like guards, and she smiled. Maybe she really would get out of here!

Or, more likely, not.

She was not adverse to going into the sewers. She didn't even mind walking through the muck on the floor, since she had spelled her boots to repel water. But the idea of crawling through the smaller spaces, of getting down on her stomach and lying in the sewer gunk, made her tremble in fear and revulsion.

So when this route was suggested, Mercury balked.

"I won't."

They'd reached a tunnel that would force them to do so. A pipe, perhaps two feet in diameter. Strydda, who was familiar with the sewers, kept insisting that the pipe was the only way, and Mercury kept refusing.

Glancing at the pipe and then at her guardian, Mercury realized it was doubtless Lothar would even fit. The warrior stood about 6'7", which wasn't a problem in itself, but was nearly as broad, which was. His size was one reason he'd been selected as Mercury's guardian (and things were probably similar for Marron and Ryst, she realized, since Marron wasn't much smaller); guards of the mageborn needed to be, well, big enough to shield their charges.

But despite Lothar's many talents, which included knowing fifty-nine ways to disembowel any misfortunate who dared lay a hand on Mercury, he was by no means adept at squirming through pipes, which Mercury was thankful for. This problem was her lever with the ruffians whose company she was in.

Quell sighed. He'd been afraid of this when the mage girl had asked to come with them. If she was going to be like this the whole way, she could jolly well find her own way out, money or no money. In fact, the only reason he'd gone along with the idea of her tagging along was because he felt he sort of owed her for telling them the way out. And, of course, the fact that she was so beautiful that he hated the idea of never seeing her again.

But she did have a point. Spending the next few, if they were unlucky, hours crawling through a soggy pipe was not his idea of fun. And anyway, the invoker's totie probably wouldn't even fit in the pipe.

"Strydda, are you sure there's no other way out?"

The thief furrowed her brow. "Of there is."

The group groaned collectively. "Then why the hell didn't you tell us?!" demanded Marron.

"You didn't ask." Strydda scampered down the hall— if this infernal chamber could be called a hall— whistling. "But I didn't think you guys would want to use it anyway. We'd have to pass the crorkindles."

"The what?"

"The crorkindles! Nasty lizard things with awful, sharp pointy teeth and nasty, long, razor-sharp claws. It bites like THIS!" She bent her right elbow to ninety degrees, stuck it in the crook of her arm, and slammed it down against her left forearm. Mercury flinched.

"Well, personally I'd rather bash in some lizard skulls than shimmy down a pipe," Marron said cheerfully.

There was general agreement.

"Okay then!" Strydda bounced on down the sewers.

Quell glanced at the invoker, who was hiking up her skirts to follow Strydda. She was pale, and looked as though the bouquet of the sewers might be getting to her, but he thought she'd be okay. She had that big, scowling guard to protect her. Quell wondered if he worshipped her footprints.

"Crorkindles ahead," Strydda sang.

"Don't you mean 'crocodiles'?" asked Yanna.

"Who cares? I know what they are! Whether you guys know makes no difference to me!" the thief yelled back, still bouncing happily. She hopped through the muck, disregarding the splashes she caused.

Mercury finally stopped, tired of the sludge clinging to her skirt. "Does someone have a knife?"

"Don't you?" inquired Rystrahn, who was only a bit ahead of her.

"No, I— I didn't think— I didn't expect— oh, just give me yours," she finally said, exasperated. Ryst chuckled and tossed it to her. She tried to catch it, but ended up grabbing the blade and winced as it bit into her tender flesh. Before anyone could see the cut, she switched the knife to her other hand and cut the long skirt short.

She then hurled the knife back to the mage (unconsciously aiming for his head), who caught it, laughing, and stuck it back in its sheath. Mercury's hand was beginning to bleed, and she was aware of the eyes of the men on her exposed calves. Silently she thanked herself for only cutting the voluminous robe and skirt to knee length. She used a strip of cloth from her shorn gown to bandage her hand. Thankfully the cut wasn't deep, and didn't hurt overmuch.

Quell, meanwhile, was sulking in the back. About as far back as he could go without getting lost, as a matter of fact. He kept his eyes on Lothar's back— and also on Mercury's legs— to make sure he wasn't being left behind. But then Mercury and Lothar rounded a corner—

"SHIT!" came a cry from up ahead. It sounded like Ryst, Quell thought as he ran, though he wasn't quite sure. It could have been Marron, though he rather suspected it was the mage. After all, he was loosest in his expletives, and—

Bam. He'd run smack into a wall, for Korangar's sake. What the hell was a wall doing in the middle of a sewer? But when he blinked and his vision had cleared, he saw nothing but air. Curiously he inched forward, and walked into the wall again. When he pushed against the mysterious block, he felt a soft resistance, but when he hurled himself against it, he saw stars.

"Don't! He's found a hole!" cried Mercury, who was standing to his left.

"What?"

"Rystrahn's found a hole, right around the bend here! If you'd kept going, you could've run into it!"

"Well, we can't. This wall's here." He knocked on the invisible wall just as Lothar came around the corner and almost walked into Quell.

Mercury touched the wall. "It's Kusara, the barrier. One of the creatures I can invoke." She smiled, and Quell couldn't help smiling back. "I didn't want you to fall into the hole, so I called her."

"Th-thanks," Quell stuttered. This girl could call up walls?! What other sorts of monsters were at her command?

Why, he wondered, didn't I think of becoming an invoker?

Mercury pulled some sort of rod from within the folds of her robe and tapped the invisible wall. There was a soft tinkle of bells— Quell noticed that there were two attached to the rod— and then Mercury charged through the barrier. Obviously it had dissipated.

Quell sighed. Having this girl around was certainly going to be very interesting . . .

"MY LADY, COME BACK!"

The big warrior ran past Quell, shoving him into the wall as he did so.

. . . And painful, he thought, rubbing his backside.

"Don't," the mage hissed, as Mercury approached the hole. "It's dangerous."

"Why?" She tried to walk up to the edge, and was stopped by Ryst's arm when he flung it out to keep her back.

"It's not a natural hole. It's a tunnel leading to the den of a tungarolen!"

Yanna, who was kneeling down and peering into the hole, screeched and jumped back. She spat on the ground, invoking the protection of one of her race's gods. "You're kidding!"

"Nope. STRYDDA!"

The thief appeared at Ryst's elbow, seemingly out of nowhere. "Yup?"

"Why didn't you mention there was a tungarolen nest down this way?" demanded Marron, who, as Rystrahn's guardian, was trying to tug him away from the hole. Ryst was resisting briskly.

"Oh," Strydda replied, brushing invisible particles of dust from her jacket. "I didn't think it mattered."

"You didn't think it mattered?!" yelled Quell, who had finally recovered from being smashed against the wall by Lothar in his hurry to catch Mercury. "Have you ever seen a tungarolen, you nut?! You're worrying about crocodiles when we have a freaking sewer dragon on our hands!"

"But crorkindles are nasty! They bite you and it hurts!"

"Yeah, well, it hurts if a tungarolen bites you too!"

"What are you mad about? The tonguish pole inn isn't here!"

"No, but the thing could be back any second!"

Strydda growled, and Quell growled back. Yanna solved the problem by pushing everyone else aside, jumping over the hole, and starting down the corridor again. When she noticed everyone staring, she turned and snapped, "Well, come on! Let's not wait for the 'tonguish pole inn' to get back! Geez!" She sprinted down the tunnel, kicking up great clods of sewer gunk.

Ryst shrugged, twisted free of Marron and leapt over the pit himself. The others found themselves obliged to follow, Marron trying to catch his charge. Needless to say, he was not succeeding.

A\N: Next chapter: we meet a sewer dragon. I can hardly contain my excitement.