David Cook: Uneasy Alliances

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David Cook Uneasy Alliances
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    Uneasy Alliances
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David Cook,Peter Archer

Uneasy Alliances

Chapter 1

Exposed Wounds

The water rose waist-deep in the cell. A wave formed and broke against a dank stony wall. Silver drops fell like tears from the lichen-encrusted stones. Spray filled the fetid air. From dull metal wall brackets, torches sputtered and flared, their flickering light casting eerie shadows on the dungeon walls.

The waves rolled and washed against a pair of shackles bolted against the far wall. The surface boiled and seethed, and then a struggling pair of figures erupted from its midst, limbs straining against each other.

A youth, his yellow curls dripping, wrestled with a golden paladin, the latter streaming water from every seam of his resplendent plate mail. "Calm down, Kastonoph," shouted the paladin angrily. "You're safe now."

Kastonoph stopped his struggling and went limp on his supporter's arm, rivulets of red coursing down his bare chest, spreading crimson stains on the water illuminated by the torches feeble light.

"By Tyr!" The elder man seized the youth and lifted him above the turbulent waters onto a narrow wooden shelf that ran along one wall of the prison cell. Seizing a torch from its iron bracket, he brought it closer to the youth's body. "Gods!"

The golden knight staggered at the sight of the young man's chest. It was rent by claw and tooth, scored with deep gashes, pink tendrils of muscle protruding damply in the dim light.

"I'm going to bind your wounds, Noph. This will hurt a bit." The knight tore a strip of cloth from the lad's ragged shirt.

Noph clutched at him. "Can't you heal me, Kern?"

"My power of healing is spent for today. The best I can do right now is to stop the bleeding." Impatiently Kern jerked free another fragment of cloth, folding it into a soft pad to lay against the youth's lacerated chest. As his hands touched the wound, Noph screamed, a thin, ragged cry.

Dimly, from beyond the cell walls, the paladin, intent on his errand of mercy, could barely hear the distant din of battle. Steel clashed upon steel, someone-or something — wailed in agony, and above it all echoed the rumble of a drum. Kern stopped a moment to listen.

"The fiends are coming closer," he said. His fingers strained to work faster, flying furiously, pressing, binding, seeking to stanch the life's blood that oozed from seemingly endless wounds.

With a crash, the door to the cell flew open and a trio of fighters burst through. The first was an older man, his silvered hair pulled back over his shoulders in a slick ponytail bound with a leather thong. He bore a staff, its end shod in iron. Close behind him, a young man, sword drawn, groped the air before him blindly. His companion, who held the young man's arm in one hand, a blade in the other, was more worthy of notice than any of the others in the cell. Long black hair fell thickly over her finely wrought shoulders. Her soaked linen shirt clung to soft, appealing curves.

Barely noticing Kern ministering to his patient, she spoke first to the older man. "Come on, you-what's your name? Trandon? — help me wedge this door shut."

Trandon shook his head. The blind youth pulled free from the female fighter's clutch and wandered into the interior of the cell, feeling his way along one wall.

"No. We can't shut ourselves in here." Trandon pushed a strand of hair back from his eyes. "Face it, well have to try to fight our way back down the corridor. That's the only way out of this gods-cursed labyrinth.''

The female warrior turned to Kern, seeming for the first time to notice the object of his labors. "Well, paladin. How's the patient?"

Kern barely glanced up. "Hell live if we get him out of here to someplace he can rest. The crocodile mauled him badly."

The female warrior turned again to Trandon. "See? We can't possibly get through those fiends carrying Noph. If we stay here and hold the door shut, they may pass us by."

Trandon looked admiringly at her shadow, its gentle curves wavering against the cell wall in the torchlight. "What's your name, pirate?"

The woman smiled easily at him. "Sharessa Stagwood. They call me the Shadow."

Well, then, Shadow, you're in serious danger of becoming no more than a shade. Do you want us to stay here until we drown or get torn apart by those… things? We need to keep a way open, not seal ourselves inside." He glanced swiftly around the cells. "Hey, where's Entreri?"

"I don't know, and not sure I care," growled Sharessa. "Last I saw of him was up above. He was fighting next to that big man- your friend," she said, turning to Kern. She spun back to face Trandon. "And don't you presume to dictate battle strategy to me. I've fought more men than you've white hairs on your head. I'm in charge of this party now."

Kern turned from his place near Noph and splashed over to the female pirate. Trandon moved next to the youth and took up the paladin's task of binding his wounds.

The golden knight spoke heatedly to Sharessa. "Since when are you in charge of anything? I claim leadership by virtue of my righteous service to Туг Al-"

"To the seven hells with Tyr, and you, too, paladin! I led my comrades out of the jungles around this cursed city. I fought the fiend that was stalking-"

"How dare you blaspheme, woman? On your knees and beg pardon, or-"

"The water's going down," the blind man interrupted quietly from the corner. Paladin and pirate broke off their quarrel and looked about them.

The level of water had indeed begun to fall suddenly, as if the flood had found a draining passageway elsewhere in the dungeons of the mage-king. The wavelets now lapped about their knees. Sharessa ignored the blind youth, turning her attention back to Kern.

"Come on, damn it. Artemis is gone. How do you think he'd do against a whole army of fiends?"

"Not badly, in fact," said a quiet voice behind her. An olive-skinned man stepped from the shadows near the door into the light. There were a series of scratches along one side of his face, and his doublet was scored in half a dozen places by claw and sword, but he appeared otherwise unhurt.

Shar spun about, throwing her arms about his neck. "Artemis! Thank the gods!"

The little man reached up, breaking her embrace. "You'd spend your time better guarding the door."

Her face-dark, mobile, beautiful even in this setting-froze for a moment, then went sullen. She returned her attention to the cell door, while Artemis spoke to Kern and Trandon, who had turned back to Noph. "How is he?" Artemis asked.

Trandon shrugged. "He might make it if we can find someone to heal him. We've stopped most of the bleeding, but he's lost a lot of blood."

Noph gasped for breath and struggled. Trandon clamped an arm around him. "Easy, lad. You'll tear those bandages."

Noph closed his eyes. "Shar?"

Sharessa moved next to him, keeping one eye on the door while stroking the fine down that covered one of the lad's cheeks. "Relax, Noph. You're safe now. I'm here."

"Shar, she wasn't… wasn't…" Noph's eyes opened wide and his breath came in short gasps. "I thought she was Eidola… but she turned into… teeth… claws…" Noph's voice began to shake, then faded into nothing. There was a moment of silence.

Sharessa turned to Kern. "What's he talking about? Whaf s going on?"

She spun and glared at Artemis, the man who'd led the former crew members of the Kissing Shark from the Tavern of the Masques in Thar-kaar to this dank prison cell beneath the palace of Aetheric III, mage-king, insane ruler of Doegan.

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