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A faint sound came from the other side of the room, followed by Kethry swearing in Shin'a'in.

Tarma paused in the middle of restitching her baldric and closed her eyes. She didn't have to look to know what had happened, at least in general terms. Kethry only swore in Shin'a'in when she was really frustrated.

She'd been doing that a lot since they left the Pelagirs.

"A month," Kethry said in a low, tight voice. "I haven't used magic in a month. What more does that creature want from me?"

Gritting her teeth, Tarma opened her eyes and turned to look. Where there had been a mirror on the table, now there was a puddle of water.

Under any other circumstances, she would have suggested going back to the Pelagirs. It wasn't a great plan; the odds of them finding the creature again -- when they didn't even know what it was -- or persuading it to do anything once found, were less than spectacular. Still, at least then they would be doing something.

But right now, heading for the hills meant leaving three children in the hands of a sadistic madman.

Kethry slapped her hand through the puddle, sending droplets flying, and got up to pace the room in fury. "I'm not taking the easy way out. If I had any other way to find out what's going on in Vench's fortress, I would do it! But what option do we have, other than scrying? It isn't like we can just walk up to the gate. His soldiers would fill us with arrows before we could even knock on the door."

Reluctantly, Tarma said, "We could try disguising ourselves."

Kethry's pacing stopped, and she pressed one hand to her forehead. "We're too well-known for that. No disguise in the world can change the color of my eyes, or the sound of your voice. And what am I supposed to do -- leave Need back at the inn?" Her other hand gestured at the sword where it lay sheathed on the bed.

They could do without Need, if they had to. But Kethry was right; disguises would never work. Tarma nudged Warrl with her toe. "Any suggestions, Furface?"

The kyree answered without lifting his head from his paws. There's no good solution here. You just have to decide what risks you're willing to take.

When Tarma repeated this out loud, Kethry went very still. Finally she said, "He's right. We have to try it."

At first Tarma thought she meant disguises. Then she realized her oath-sister's real intention. "No. You saw what happened to the mirror."

"Not all of my spells go wrong," Kethry said. "Because that would be too predictable. That creature told me I rely too much on magic, so it made my spells unreliable -- but that isn't the same thing as them never working. I can try an illusion."

"And what if it goes wrong?"

"Then we try something else. But let's at least try this first, before we resort to a frontal assault or something equally suicidal."

Tarma almost said that an illusion was every bit as suicidal. Except that none of the misfiring spells had done anything actively dangerous to them; the effects were just useless. And annoying.

Not me, Warrl said when Tarma thought a question at him. If something happens to the two of you, better if I'm clear of the effect. He got up and nosed at the door until Tarma opened it for him, then retreated to the safety of the hallway outside.

Tarma shut the door behind him with a feeling of dread. "All right, she'enedra," she said to Kethry. "Do your best."

Or that Pelagir creature's worst.

 

***

 

The guards on Vench's fortress weren't careless. They examined the returning soldiers closely in the pre-dawn darkness, bringing torches to make sure they recognized both men, Atren and Merick. They asked for the current pass-phrase. Only when they were certain that all was in order did they relax their vigilance and let the pair enter.

Inside the fortress, the protocols were more relaxed. Very few men were awake at this unholy hour, and those who were didn't show much desire for conversation. Apart from a handful of subdued greetings, nobody tried to talk to either of the new arrivals. It was easy for them to reach the staircase that led through the center of the keep.

With a quiet murmur to one another, the two men parted company. Atren went downward, toward the dungeons. Merick climbed the stairs to the more luxurious chambers, where Vench slept . . . and in the room next to his, Vench's most important and powerful lieutenant.

 

***

 

There were guards in the dungeons, too. Two of them, one asleep, the other poking in annoyance at the room's inadequate hearth, trying to get the wood there to burn more energetically. He barely glanced up as Atren entered. "You're back early."

A sour grunt was his only reply, as the newcomer went to the bars of one of the cages. "Let 'em out," Atren said. "Boss wants 'em upstairs."

The guard sat back on his heels, poker in hand. "For what?"

"Didn't ask. Didn't want to ask." Atren spat on the stone floor. "Something to do with the mage."

The other guard shuddered. Vench's soldiers were careful not to talk about it openly, but none of them liked the mage. "Creepy" was about the best anybody could say for Vench's top lieutenant. The oldest soldiers, the ones who hadn't gone away or died, said things had taken a darker turn when the mage showed up. Vench had always been ruthless, but not like this.

Atren had always been bolder than most about showing his distaste. The other guard figured it was better to keep his head low, do what he was told, and hope the mage didn't notice him. Wasting no more time, he brought out his ring of keys and unlocked the cage.

 

***

 

There were only two doors on the uppermost landing of the staircase. Merick stood outside them, touching his fingers first to one door, then to the other. Rumor said that Vench and his mage switched chambers on an irregular basis, the better to confound would-be assassins. Anybody kicking down the door wouldn't know which one to expect on the other side: the swordsman or the sorcerer. The ensuing moment of hesitation could be fatal.

But there were ways to see through the misdirection, for someone who know how to read the signs.

Merick took a deep breath. Several minutes had passed since Atren went downstairs. Enough? Or too much? The line between the two was very narrow indeed, and choosing wrong might lead them into disaster.

He had to make a choice.

Merick opened the right-hand door and walked through.

 

***

 

The children had to be dragged from the cage, but they didn't fight. They'd been in Vench's dungeon for long enough to know that fighting only ended badly for them. Instead they huddled together in a clump and shuffled along after Atren.

A clatter of armor and blades heralded the approach of more guards, coming to relieve the pair currently on duty. They spilled off the bottom step and into the room just as "Atren" disappeared, leaving in his place a hard-faced woman in brown leather armor, her dark hair braided back from her face.

 

***

 

"Merick" didn't even make it one step across the mage's threshold before the change hit. Where there had been a young, square-jawed man, now there was a woman, golden-haired and delicate, staring about in confusion.

The same ward that protected the mage's threshold also woke her. Laurine came upright with the speed of a woman who never slept deeply, too wary of what might come for her in the night. When she saw who stood just inside her door, her angry expression took on a different cast. Anticipation, and perhaps -- just perhaps -- a touch of fear.

"Well," she said, not taking his gaze off the intruder as he rose from the bed. "I must admit, I half-expected this to happen some night. Ever since we took those children. If even half the tales of you and your companion are true, Kethry of the White Winds, you could not possibly leave such tempting bait in our hands."

Then she scowled. "Are you even paying attention to me?"

The golden-haired woman had been staring at her transformed hands in confusion and growing horror. At the other mage's words, her gaze snapped up. "Laurine," she whispered. "I'm in . . . your chamber."

Laurine's scowl deepened. "If you are attempting to seduce me, then you are doing a remarkably incompetent job of it. If you are here to kill me -- you aren't doing much better."

 

***

 

"It's her," one of the new guards said, backing up a step. "That Shin'a'in bitch -- Tarma!"

The swordswoman had slammed to a halt so fast, the children shuffling in her wake actually collided with her backside. They cringed back, expecting to be struck for their clumsiness; it took a moment to sink in that the man they'd been following had vanished. Then they clung all the more tightly to one another.

For her own part, Tarma seemed equally nonplussed. She looked wildly to the left and the right, as if hoping some other exit from the room would materialize. None obliged her: the only way out was the staircase in front of her, currently blocked by three guards. The two currently on duty were just behind her, the one who'd been asleep stumbling blindly to his feet.

Her hand dropped by reflex to her hip, to the sword that rested there. Then she hesitated.

One of the men chuckled nastily. "Going to fight your way out, Shin'a'in? There are five of us, and one of you. Not exactly odds I'd take."

 

***

 

Up in Laurine's room, a similar standoff reigned.

Vench's mage grinned mockingly at Kethry. "What -- will you not strike me down? I know the tales of that sword you wear. It makes you as skilled as that barbarian you travel with . . . but not against a woman. Me, it will not strike at all. So if you want to stop me from destroying those children, you have no choice. You must face me with your magic -- and hope you are powerful enough to defeat me."

According to everything the oathsisters had managed to learn, it would be an even match at best. Laurine had been thrown out of her mage school, but the reports of her since she'd joined up with Vench said she was a Journeyman with Adept potential, just like Kethry. If Keth had managed to catch her asleep, it would have been a different matter, but with the other mage awake . . .

The green eyes narrowed. One hand touched the pommel of Need briefly, then dropped. A faint smile curved Kethry's lips. "Powerful enough to defeat you? Oh, I hardly think that will be a problem. You see, you've already made a mistake."

Laurine's smile twisted. "Mistake?" she scoffed. "Nonsense. I --"

"You should have worn a shift with a higher neckline to bed," Kethry said. "One that didn't give me a clear view of that talisman around your throat."

Reflexively, Laurine clutched at the pendant. Then Kethry was advancing toward her, a disconcertingly feral expression on her face. Laurine chanted, weaving a hasty spell --

-- that melted off Kethry before it could strike home.

 

***

 

Tarma swallowed.

"Not exactly odds you'd take?" she said. Her voice wavered slightly, but strengthened as she went on. "That's because you're -- who are you?" Her lip curled. "I don't even know your name. But you know mine, don't you?"

The guards exchanged glances.

"I am Tarma shena Tale'sedrin," the swordswoman proclaimed, her tone hardening. "I survived the massacre of my entire Clan. My oath-sister and I are the heroines of a hundred songs and tales. I fought a series of single combats from dawn until dusk, and defeated everyone they threw against me. You say there are five of you?"

In one swift movement, she drew her sword and sank into a ready stance, the tip of her blade pointed directly at the eye of the one who had challenged her.

"You should have brought more."

 

***

 

The shock that rippled through the fortress wasn't an explosion. Nothing actually moved or shook -- but every person there felt it.

Footsteps clattered down the stairs not long afterward, and met footsteps clattering up. Tarma and Kethry came face-to-face at the ground floor and jerked to a halt, staring at one another.

"What --"

"Talisman. I broke it."

A nod. "We should go. Before --"

From all directions, the rising sound of shouts.

The children weren't hanging back any longer. They knew a rescue when they saw one. The two women shepherded them toward the gate, and freedom.

 

***

 

"So can you fix it?" Tarma asked, once the children had been returned to their parents and the two of them were safely back in their room at the inn.

It was beyond strange, seeing her own face take on the thoughtful cast she'd so often seen Kethry assume when she was thinking about magic. "I should be able to," Keth said. "After all, the curse is gone."

"You sure?" Tarma said dubiously. She gestured at the body she occupied -- Kethry's body. "Looks to me like it's still going strong."

Kethry studied Tarma's fingernails, the calloused palm of her hand. "I learned the lesson that creature wanted me to. It said I relied too much on magic. I'm not going to say I agree with that . . . but it turns out I can do more without magic than I thought."

Like bluffing a pack of guards with Tarma's reputation as a swordswoman, and looking credibly like she knew how to use a blade other than Need. "I guess you can't be controlled by a magic sword in a fight that many times without some of it staying in your mind."

"I've also watched you," Kethry pointed out. "Especially when you're training. Don't ask me to do more than draw the blade without dropping it and copy your stance without tripping -- but that was enough." Then she cocked her head to one side. "What about you and Laurine?"

Tarma laughed. "Stupid creature was convinced she didn't have to take Need into account, because I couldn't use it to hit her. But she didn't realize I was me, instead of you -- and that meant Need protected me from her magic. When I recognized the talisman she was wearing, I realized that was how she'd gotten so powerful, so fast. Once I broke it . . ." Tarma shrugged. "Turns out she isn't much of a mage without it."

"So you actually listen when I talk about magic," Kethry said teasingly.

"I'll very gladly listen to anything you tell me about how we can get back to where we belong. With all due respect, she'enedra, I miss my own skin."

In Tarma's head, Warrl said, You are not the only one. It is very odd, talking to you in the wrong body.

Come back to the room, Furface. Keth says it's safe now.

A hesitation. If it's all the same to you, Warrl said at last, I'll wait here until she's done.

Tarma grinned. Across from her, Kethry began to chant.