The feast wound on until the wee hours. Raucous laughter filled the hall like peals of thunder echoing between mountain peaks as the revelers drained flagons of wine and recounted tales of past valor. As the hour drew late, more and more people gathered their belongings and said goodnight. In the corner, the shepherd finished his meal, and having no tales of glorious bravery to relate, and having no one in authority who was sober enough to tell him otherwise, the self-reliant shepherd slipped towards the exit in search of a soft straw bed near the scullery in which to spend the night.
“Nimbus!” Kevin whispered urgently. “Let’s go!”
“What? Why?” Aaron babbled in confusion. The hour was late and Nimbus could not help being lulled by too much good food, good drink, and melancholy campaign songs being drunkenly sung by old veterans.
Galwynn’s interest in the shepherd led his eyes to wander towards the old man all evening. It was by pure good fortune that Kevin saw the shepherd depart. “Lieutenant,” Galwynn said in a hoarse whisper, “Duke Northstorm is more than willing to expound at length about events on Mt. Majestic to which he was not a witness. That shepherd is the only eyewitness—if you don’t count a flock of cloud-sheep, who you must admit, aren’t likely to be very talkative. I need to talk to that shepherd by himself, and this is my chance to do so. Hurry!”
Most of the remaining revelers were half asleep, or nearly so, and as a result Galwynn and Nimbus had no trouble slipping away from the hall without saying goodnights or making excuses. The two men entered a winding hall leading down to a sub-kitchen. Much of the rest of the castle was asleep too, so Nimbus didn’t speak much louder than a murmur when he told Kevin, “The herder must be just ahead.”
Nimbus was trotting at a determined but not too hurried pace, and was thus surprised to see Master Galwynn scurrying as quickly as his Landfolk legs could carry him, in order to keep up. Though Kevin was graced by the sigil of Sun-and-Moon so he could dwell in Sky, his human limbs could not convey him with as much ease and swiftness as Skyfolk in their own Domain. Nimbus was contrite that he had forgotten his advantage, but he admired the little human for trying so hard to keep up.
Castle Castellanus was as honeycombed as the most labyrinthine caverns on Land. Floors were stacked one atop another, containing great halls and small, public overlooks and private chambers, storerooms and workrooms, all connected by long corridors, wide ramps, and spiraling staircases. Galwynn and Nimbus came to a stop on an overlook to a large hall. Kevin’s face was flushed, but he did not complain as he panted, “Down below…I think…I hear voices…arguing.”
Galwynn and Nimbus peered over a balcony and saw the shepherd being accosted by two men, one of whom was tall and narrow while the other was short and wide. The assailant’s faces were masked and further obscured by the hoods of their cloaks, but they seemed young, strong, and determined to gag the old shepherd and drag him down a dark hallway.
The shepherd was old, but he had been hardened by years of working outdoors and defending his flock from packs of hungry predators. He was not about to be subdued without a fight. He was kicking, biting, and swinging his arms when a cudgel wielded by a pair of brawny hands smashed into the back of his head and drove him to the floor.
“Quick,” cried the taller assailant through his mask, “let’s get the old fool out of here before we wake the entire keep!” The other attacker would have replied, but was too stunned to speak by the sight of Lt. Nimbus, sword and dagger in either hand, leaping down from the balcony above.
Nimbus was a member of the Ethereal Legion, sworn to protect the subjects of the Sky kingdom, and did not hesitate to leap into action. Kevin looked down and saw this adventure had just taken the turn he dreaded: Swords! Fighting! And with them, a very good chance of dying!
“Help!” Kevin was surprised to hear himself cry out, at the top of his voice. “Robbers in the house! Assassins! Help, guards!” All the while Kevin raged to himself, “Cosmos, damn them! Why is the night’s watch never around when you need them?”
A howling wind rose up in the hall as Nimbus spun and whirled like a tornado, fighting two foes at once, while keeping them away from the old man who lay stunned behind him. Nimbus’s sword caught the blade of one assailant, and where the two weapons met, electric sparks spewed forth like hot work on a blacksmith’s anvil.
The three men thrust and parried with blinding speed until the hall shook with the force of their battle. Nimbus fought with the ferocity of a trained warrior and the determination of a man who had made his own way in the world. But he was only one against two, and his opponents were clearly at ease with swordplay and fighting as a team. As if with one mind, the attackers changed their tactics and edged to either side of Nimbus to outflank him.
The assailants’ goal was clear: If the Legionnaire shifted his ground enough to face both opponents, they could eventually cut him off from the shepherd and abduct the old man. If he held his ground, he could shield the herder for a while, at the risk of eventually taking a decisive blow on his blind side from one attacker or the other.
Though it was the more perilous course, Nimbus had no choice but to stand his ground, guard the shepherd, and hope Galwynn’s cries would soon bring help. At least, Aaron thought, the Master of Enlightenment had the good sense to stay out of danger.
“Nimbus!” Kevin called out in warning. “Behind you!” The lieutenant whirled just in time to parry a vicious thrust on his blind side from the taller assailant. Kevin knew only seconds had passed since Nimbus leapt into battle, but it seemed like ages.
Abruptly, the taller assailant attacked like a berserker, his sword and dagger interlacing in midair, weaving a pattern of flashing metal. Nimbus stepped back, sensing the other attacker was not near. Suddenly, he heard Galwynn’s voice raise an alert, but the warning came too late.
The second, shorter, attacker had taken his cudgel and thrown it beneath Nimbus’s feet. As the lieutenant backed away from the diversionary berserker attack, he tripped over the thrown club and tumbled towards the ground. Even as he fell, Nimbus blindly crossed his sword and dagger blades in defense. But his first attacker deftly sidestepped the Legionnaire’s last-ditch defense and reared back his sword for the final blow.
Now, Kevin Galwynn had a keen awareness of the more unpleasant aspects of danger, and he knew—like any sane man—he should avoid it. But his abhorrence of danger did not mean he was a coward, or that he did not recognize when action needed to be taken.
If Kevin had had time to think, he never would have behaved so impetuously. It would have taken him no more than two moments to reconsider his brashness. But in the first of those two moments, Kevin was already busy jumping over the balcony railing and landing on the back of the wider assailant. And by the time the second moment arrived, it was much too late for Kevin to change his mind.
With Galwynn’s unexpected act, fortunes in the battle reversed. The attacker that Kevin leapt upon went sailing into the taller assailant with a crashing thud. In the end, the combatants were all jumbled in a pile.
Kevin, feeling he had done his part for the defense effort (and noting that he was the only combatant armed with neither sword nor dagger), decided the wisest thing he could do now was crawl away on his hands and knees from beneath the pile and head towards safety. But his wise retreat was stymied by the squat, beefy assailant closest to him. The assailant’s thick fingers clutched and clawed in frustration at Kevin’s shoulder and the edge of his collar. “You filthy little Land worm!” cursed Kevin’s attacker.
A great wave of relief washed over Galwynn as he heard the distant voices of guards approaching. The thug clawing at his throat was too angry to hear the grunt and roar of voices demanding to know, “Who goes there? Why have you raised the alarm!?” His attacker’s only thought was to throttle the neck of the little Landsman who had saved the life of the Legionnaire and ruined their kidnapping.
The shorter ruffian’s fingers swooshed through the air seeking Kevin’s throat. Kevin recoiled, escaping his attacker’s clutches, but as he did so the assailant’s fingers caught the silver chain around Kevin’s neck. With one vicious tug, Kevin’s amulet of Sun-and-Moon was torn from him, and fell to the floor.
“The night’s watch approaches! Let’s get out of here!” exclaimed the taller assailant to his companion. The tall man had to strike the stout man across his head to get his attention away from Kevin. Seeing they were in danger of being captured by superior forces, the two kidnappers abandoned their prey, pushed Kevin and Nimbus aside, and then ran down the dark corridor that was their escape route. A whirlwind of turbulence followed them into the darkness.
“Lt. Nimbus,” cried the first night’s watchman to arrive at the scene, “are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Nimbus said, while ignoring any ministrations paid towards him. Then he instantly took command and ordered, “You, sergeant, take three men down that hall and pursue our attackers.” Nimbus pointed to the shepherd groaning on the floor, and said to a watchman with a practitioner’s badge pinned to his tunic, “You, healer, see to his hurts and then have him guarded well. He seems to be the subject of more concern than his station warrants, and I mean to know the reason why.”
“Well, Master Galwynn,” Nimbus said, turning to where he had seen Kevin last, “we seem to have done a good night’s work—” Nimbus’s words broke off in his throat with a snap as he gazed with shock at Galwynn. The Master of Enlightenment was staring in disbelief at his upturned hands. His form shimmered and grew indistinct as he sat in a heap on the stone floor—No, not on the floor, but in it.
It seemed to Aaron Nimbus, as if the stones of the castle corridor had softened to quicksand…and Master Galwynn was sinking down to his hips.
In a flash of awareness, the cause of his predicament came instantly to Kevin’s mind. “Nimbus,” he cried, “the amulet!” Kevin strained to reach across the floor to his fallen piece of jewelry, even as his body sank deeper into the flagstones.
Then Nimbus understood too. The talisman that kept Galwynn in the Sky Domain had been torn away from him in the fight, and now the magic that kept him was wearing off. It wasn’t that Kevin was solid and the ground was beneath his feet was becoming insubstantial, as Nimbus had originally thought. The castle was as solid as ever. It was Master Galwynn himself who was becoming wraithlike!
Nimbus scooped up the amulet and turned back to Kevin. Galwynn was sinking beneath the flagstones like a shipwrecked sailor sinking beneath the ocean waves. Only Galwynn’s head and right arm remained above the surface. Nimbus lunged forward, thrusting the amulet towards Galwynn’s hand—Too late! Kevin sank beneath the slat gray stones and disappeared.
Nimbus kneeled staring at the spot where Kevin had been, but was no more. Master Galwynn had been his responsibility to guide and protect. Instead, the Landsman had saved Nimbus’s life from attackers, and lost his own life in the process.