Zeal didn't sleep, she fell unconscious. She blamed it on the forces for instilling a deep sense of security and comfort within her. Comet blamed the forces for conspiring against him and making Zeal snore like a dying horse. He was just about to jam his head under the pillow when he heard something. It was the chinking of stones ... or pieces of coal. Comet rammed both of his feet into Zeal and pushed her clean out of bed, while sending himself rolling in the opposite direction. He heard two thuds, then the rustle of silks.
"Zeal! Under the bed!" Comet grabbed the lamp, then his boots. On the sides of either boot were two imperceptible pockets containing razor sharp daggers. He hurled one dagger at the silken clad figure and it struck him, or her, in the back of the knee. Comet lunged forward with the other dagger.
"Comet! Move aside!" Zeal called from under the bed. The assassin was also armed with blades and Comet was trying to steer clear of them, and attempting to immobilise the attacker. He managed to jump to one side of the doorway. Zeal clicked her fingers and the coal man shattered into a million sharp shards. These shards shot towards the brawl at high speed. Comet flung himself to the floor and the assassin howled in agony as the shards embedded themselves into his face and eyes. Comet rolled and dodged the flailing swipes of the assassin's daggers, then the assassin veered off and made a grab for Zeal. Zeal sent a spear of ice straight through his heart.
"What ... shit!" Clash was standing at the door in his under britches. "Mother are you OK? Mother!"
"I'm fine, Clash." Zeal said from under the bed. "Comet?"
"I'm OK Zeal." Comet threw a nightdress under the bed for Zeal, and dragged on his own leggings. Clash watched in astonishment as the ice spear began to melt and its water trickled across the floor with the dead man's blood.
"He tried to kill Comet." Zeal came out and gave the assassin a bare footed kick for good measure.
"You think. Those were shot first." Comet nodded to where two darts were embedded in Zeal's pillow. "Whoever this arsehole is, he isn't one of Shadow's."
"How do you know?" Zeal asked shakily, clutching her nightdress at the neck. Comet carefully moved the assassin's blade away from his body.
"The Web use poisoned blades, just incase the cut itself isn't fatal. This one's clean." Clash plucked the darts from the pillow.
"These too, but they are barbed." He said in disgust. "Someone knew exactly where you slept and in what position."
"W ... what?" zeal said in terror.
"They didn't aim for Comet, mother, they aimed for your face. That face that snores like a pregnant camel and lets everyone know where it is." Clash explained.
"So it was The Web. It has to be, Comet! They don't know about me and you, remember. That arsehole down there thought I was alone in here." Zeal nodded.
"No he didn't. He's been in Comet's room too, I checked." Clash frowned at the dead man. "Those darts wouldn't have killed you, but they would have incapacitated you, possibly blinding you. You're both quick so the most lethal needed immobilised first. The daggers were for Comet who'd have been temporarily unarmed. He knew you wouldn't hesitate to fry him mother, law or no law. He's been told quite a bit about you." Clash wiped his hand over his shocked face. "I feel rather sick. Excuse me, will you?"
"Where are you going?" Zeal sobbed.
"The Palace. Take her downstairs, Comet." Clash stumbled his way to the guest room to dress.
Lance Baron stood infront of Clash on the Palace steps.
"You know no one's allowed in here at night, not even you Duke Dawnstar."
"I think my father would like to know that there's a dead assassin on my mother's bedroom floor. You pass on the message. Good night."
"Eh? Wait!" Lance hopped infront of Clash. "Someone tried to kill Lady Zeal?"
"You either let me in here to see my father, while you go and get that shit off my mother's floor, or I'll go and remove it and string it up above the Palace gates. I'm sure the crowds would love it." Clash snarled.
"I'll go and tell him you're here." Lance hurried up the steps.
Ten minutes later, Clash was sitting in the royal ante-room. Lore walked in and he was fully dressed, fully groomed, and badly shaken.
"What happened?" He forced a calm voice.
"He failed." Clash replied flatly. "Comet disarmed him, mother took his heart out with an ice spear."
"I see." Lore sat down.
"Yes you do. You've done some despicable things in your time, father, me right there alongside you. This is an absolute low that you'll never recover from." Clash got to his feet. "I've got to live with the fact that you believed you did it for me. Good night, father."
The stress and exhaustion levels were close to breaking point the following day. A royal summons was the last thing anyone needed, but it came none the less. Queen Honor herself looked tired and fretful as she sat on her throne. She tried to keep her face expressionless as she looked at Zeal, Comet and Clash.
"What makes you think you're above the law, Zeal Dawnstar." The Queen narrowed her eyes at Zeal. "Your Tender standing there is an irrefutable testament of your first, illegal act of magic. Your own son's reports of magical icicles and flying rocks are proof of your second. Tell me why I shouldn't have you exiled."
"I saved Comet's life twice and my own once. I can't apologise for that." Zeal said calmly.
"Majesty." Clash spoke up quickly. "If that assassination attempt had succeeded then you'd have a riot on your hands. The first attack on Comet was rumoured to be the work of The Web so it would have been assumed by the people, that this second attack on Lady Zeal was from the same source. You'd have been forced to condemn this violence, Majesty. You'd have been forced to speak out against The Web. Exiling Lady Zeal would necessitate explanations. Explanations to the people, and The Web. I'm being realistic here. Any ... understandings ... we have with The Web are hanging on a very vague and fragile balance. I know I'm not the only one who can foresee disadvantages in upsetting such a balance." Clash fell silent, and that was prolonged by everyone else present.
"You are a very surprising development in all this." Queen Honor turned her dark, cold eyes on Comet. "Where in the balance are you, Comet Galeraven?"
"Wherever Lady Zeal is." Comet answered.
"And your connections with The Web?"
"I could no more answer that than you could, Majesty."
"Get out." The Queen snapped. "Keep it in mind that I do not like being backed into a corner. Get out." Clash, Comet, and Zeal gratefully took their leave.
Shadow retrieved his dagger from the throat of one of his minions, then returned to his couch. Violet looked at the floor, away from the body of her colleague.
"I will not be dictated to." He said quietly. "Nor will I be forced to explain myself to anyone, not even Queen Honor, especially over something that was not of my doing. Who ordered that assassination, Violet?"
"We're trying to find out, Shadow." Violet replied.
"How hard can it be?" Shadow screamed. "Who hates her enough to have her killed? You stupid woman, Violet! Do I have to figure everything out for you? I ordered no killing and very few others have the contacts, means, or motive. Lore Dawnstar has all three. Find him! I may have use for his disillusioned mind."
"Yes, Shadow." Violet said quickly.
"Wait." Shadow sat forward and balanced his thin chin on his fingertips. "What's the general climate out there regarding Clash Dawnstar and the Queen?"
"I'm not sure of the truth, Shadow, but it's rumoured that Clash resents the Queen for not upholding her promise to appoint him as her heir."
"And Clash is in complete alliance with his mother and that rat, Comet. I'm not pleased about that development, incidentally. I've not finished with Comet, not by a long, long way." Shadow sat and brooded for a while. "You know, I see an absurdly clear way to complete control over Entia and at the same time, ridding myself of my magical power source's main protectors. Once Clash and Comet are incarcerated, I'll have Zeal at my mercy. I'll even have Lore at my side to help me break her."
"It sounds ideal, sir." Violet said, blindly.
"I'm pleased you agreed. Cadet Adri Greenbeck refused to side with Zeal. His decision was swayed because his father is a cripple, injured out on West Ridge. Ideal indeed. Find him and apprehend his father."
"Straight away, Shadow." Violet nodded. "Anything else, sir?"
"Have I received the accounts from Ruby's hovel?"
"Yes. I believe Vittie was very thorough." Violet swallowed hard. Vittie's taste for pain was too much for even the cold hearted Violet.
Clash, Zeal, and Comet hadn't reached home when an alarm was sounded. It was a sound that was very rarely heard in Entia. A two toned trumpet fanfare that denoted a Palace emergency.
"Sacred shit, what now?" Clash swore. "I'd better go back. Comet, take mother home and see she rests." Comet nodded and Clash backtracked to the Palace.
Lance Baron was there again and Clash pushed past him.
"Duke Clash! Wait!"
"You are seriously annoying me, Baron. I'm a Court Advisor and I hear a high security alarm. Go and haunt someone else." Clash snarled.
"It's your father!" Lance shouted and Clash turned round, a knot of dread forming in his stomach. "Lord Dawnstar is dead. sir." Clash spun away from Lance and ran for the ante-room.
"The Queen is on her way sir!" A Cadet tried to stop Clash but Clash threw him, and a few more soldiers aside, and pushed into the room. Lore sat at a desk, his back to the door. His arms rested on the arms of a chair, and two pools of congealed blood stained the floor beneath them.
"Lore?" The Queen stood behind Clash. "Turn round. Lore?"
"He's gone, Majesty. Come, you shouldn't ..."
"No. Gone?" Queen Honor turned her frightened, tear filled eyes towards Clash. "He can't be gone. Lore! Please turn round!" She took a few steps forward and Clash caught her and stopped her. "Lore! No! Please come back!" She cried against Clash's chest and all he could do was hold her. She had loved him after all.
Zeal received Clash's news with an expressionless face but it was clear that a multitude of emotions were bubbling under the surface.
"I'll go and lie down for a while. Excuse me." She hurried out of the room. Comet stood up to follow her but Clash stopped him.
"She needs to be alone, Comet. Let her be." Clash said.
"Yes of course. What about you? Are you OK?" Comet asked Clash.
"No not really." Clash exhaled loudly. "He felt like he'd lost everything. All he'd done for twenty years was ensure my succession to the throne. Suddenly I didn't want it and the Queen didn't want to give it."
"Blessed gods." Comet was shocked too. "I told him he'd realise what he'd lost. I never imagined he'd take his own life."
"Me either. I told him he'd hit rock bottom and he'd never recover." Clash stood up suddenly and looked out of the window at nothing.
"Do you want me to go? I'll go to my old room." Comet said tactfully.
"No. I'd prefer your company if you don't mind putting up with me." Clash tried to smile. "I can't believe he's gone. Despite a lifetime of disagreements and obsessions, he was always there. I'll miss knowing he's there, which isn't the same as missing him. The things he thought he'd lost were through his own narrow vision. His ambitions for me, his Court standing, his grandeur, the control of his life. He hadn't lost it all, Comet, because he had a woman who loved him very much, if only he's noticed."
"Er ... maybe I should go." Comet wasn't sure if he could handle hearing this right now.
"I meant Queen Honor." Clash clarified. "All my life I've seen political strategies, schemes and trade-offs. I never stopped to think that there were people under all that. Comet, mother is going to need you. You have to look after her. Don't let her blame herself for any of this."
"I'm there for her, Clash, you know I am. She'll need you too."
"She has me Comet. For now, there's a woman up at that Palace who's struggling. She doesn't need employees, Courts, Advisors and Councilors. She needs time alone for now, but she also needs to know someone's there." Clash sighed heavily.
"I understand, so will Zeal. You don't have to explain to me." Comet assured him.
"Just what I wanted to hear. Go and see her, Comet." Clash smiled and Comet went to comfort Zeal.
Lord Lore Dawnstar was interred the following morning. He was laid to rest in he royal vaults, attended by Queen Honor and Clash. Clash represented himself, and Zeal and the Queen was too exhausted to even voice an opinion on it. She watched as vault was sealed over her lover of twenty years, then she retired to the solitude of her rooms. Clash stayed for five minutes more, ensured his tears had dried, then left the Palace to return home.
"OK?" Comet asked Zeal as they sat in the study.
"I'm fine. He deserves to be there at the Palace, Comet. I'm pleased she loved him. I know that sounds odd but it isn't. He wasn't just a political arrangement after all." Zeal smiled sadly.
"No, he wasn't." Comet said. "Captain Bane's coming up the path. I'll deal with him if you like."
"If any legalities need my attention then I'd prefer to get it done. I'll see him, Comet." Zeal sat down and Comet went to let Hunter into the house. The soldier looked very upset and distressed and Comet asked him to sit down.
"I'll go and get some tea from Delph." Comet said tactfully.
"Comet it's you I've come to see." Hunter said and Comet panicked.
"Brand! It's Brand isn't it? What have they done to him?"
"It's not Brand, Comet. It's your mother, Ruby. The shop was completely cleaned out and she's dead. I'm so sorry." Hunter said sincerely.
"Dead?" Comet blinked in shock. "Ruby's dead? I don't understand. She was killed in a robbery? I have to go."
"No Comet, stay. It's better if you stay. I have men there now." Hunter stood infront of the door. Comet closed his eyes and stumbled into a chair. It was clear that Hunter was sparing him a very unpleasant sight. "I've arranged for her to be taken, discretely, to the barracks in a casket. Under the circumstances, and with Lord Dawnstar's funeral, I didn't know what else to do. I hope I did the right thing."
"Thank you Hunter. That was very good of you." Comet was just staring at Zeal as though he didn't know what was happening.
"Hunter could you let Clash know we need him? Tell him it's urgent. Poor Clash." Zeal fretted.
"I was just about to suggest it." Hunter stood up and put his hand on Comet's shoulder. "Entia's gone mad, my friend. I'm sorry. I'll let myself out." Comet nodded and let him leave.
"Shadow." He said to Zeal. "Shadow had her killed, Zeal. She wasn't worth killing to anyone else. Brand ..."
"Yes I know." Zeal was pacing the floor. "Take me to him, Comet."
"What? No! Zeal ..."
"Comet! I'll teach him, advise him or whatever. I'll do it myself. I'll keep it contained because I won't identify any other potentials." Zeal said urgently.
"No! We'll wait for Clash. He's probably talking to Queen ..."
"Comet, no, no, no!" Zeal flung up her hands. "Nothing else will do! You told me that! I can't cure Brand but I can get him back here to Clash."
"I ... can't ..."
"He's killing your family, Comet. If you won't take me, I'll go and demand it of Tender Antal at the Infirmary." Zeal stated.
"I think not." Clash had been listening and he was far from happy. "I'm up to here with this shit. People are dying and it has to stop."
"Clash I promised you I'd never hand Zeal over." Clash said desperately.
"I know." Clash put a huge hand on Comet's shoulder. "Our first priority is to get your brother out of there. He's sick, we aren't. Shadow won't hurt mother, Comet. He needs her."
"I'll blast his nuts up his back if he tries." Zeal said fastening her cape. "Come on."
"See what I mean?" Clash said with a rueful look at his mother's back as she marched out of the house. "I'm sorry about your mother, Comet."
"A less maternal woman you will never meet, but she was still my mother. I understand what you meant about the presence being missed." Comet said. Clash nodded and they continued their journey.
Comet purposely took another maze of back streets so they wouldn't have to pass what was left of Ruby's shop.
"It's like a bloody rats' nest." Clash grumbled. "Do you know where we are? I don't."
"In here." Comet opened a metal door and they stepped into a gloomy warehouse. Moments later, Violet Veil appeared and she looked visibly shaken.
"Comet, you fool!" She hissed. "Vittie's gone to warn Shadow. You've just signed their death warrant." She nodded towards Zeal and Clash.
"Just turn a blind eye so we can pass. Shadow will never know you've seen us." Comet said to Violet.
"You're a dead man, Comet."
"Look, just go and stand over there out of the way." Zeal intervened.
"You don't have your broom." Violet sniped.
"I'm a bloody mage. Why would I need a broom? Shift your tatty arse over there before I cause it to sprout an oak tree." Zeal ushered Violet over to stand by the exit.
"You really are annoying." Violet snarled at Zeal.
"Yes I hear that a lot. Have a nice day." Zeal nudged Comet and they set off along the tunnel. The first ambush came ten feet along it. Four men appeared from the recesses in the walls. Two were armed with daggers, and two with hooked claws. Comet unleashed one of his daggers before anyone could blink, while offering the other one to Clash.
"A sword is no good in a tunnel." Comet told him.
"Keep it." Clash grabbed one of the torches from the wall and crashed into the three remaining men. He used the torch as a bludgeoning weapon, together with his huge fist. He returned with Comet's dagger, plus four more, and two claws.
"How do I do this?" Zeal asked and Comet turned round.
"Zeal! Where did you get that? Here, give it to me." He tried to take the garotte from Zeal.
"That Violet creature had it." Zeal objected and put it back in her dress pocket.
"I'll show you how to use it later." Comet grinned and was quite impressed with Zeal's affinity for thievery.
"You will not." Clash snorted. "Mother, keep it in your pocket."
"Down!" Comet shouted and flung both daggers over Clash's head. Two foreheads ended up with a dagger each. "The gate down here usually has two guards but there will probably be more now." Comet was right. There was six on the outside and at least five double rows on the inside.
"What's behind it?" Clash asked.
"Staircase to Shadow's rooms." Comet replied.
"No. They'll be below ground in the cellars."
"Mother? See what you can do here, will you?" Clash grabbed Comet and dragged him back up the tunnel. Zeal nodded and let fly with dozens and dozens of ice needles that peppered the six front guards.
"Zeal! No quakes! We're below ground!" Comet called.
"Oh bugger." Zeal hurled more ice, then a huge wave of water that took the legs from the front six, and the first two behind the gate. "This is no good! I ... Clash! Throw the torch!" Clash threw the torch and Zeal let it roll to a stop by her feet.
"Er .. Comet? Let's back up a bit further." Clash bundled Comet up the tunnel a few more feet.
"Clash! Look!" Comet poited and stared at Zeal. The flame from the torch was swirling up in a spiraling torrent towards Zeal's hands. "Fire? She can't do fire!"
"Try telling her that. Down!" Clash dropped to the floor, taking Comet with him. Zeal threw a searing arc of flame that engulfed the guards and roared up the staircase. She jolted wildly and her whole body was surrounded by a white hot glow. "Air, mother! Air!" clash shouted. The arc of flame billowed wildly as Zeal channelled Air through it. The white hot glow dimmed to a pale orange. "Let it go, mother. You're burning up." Clash crept up the tunnel and Comet just sat where he was, staring at Zeal.
"I'm sweating like a blacksmith's arse. What an icky force to channel." Zeal swore.
"Come on." Clash grabbed her, and Comet scrambled forward. Clash seized the gate bars and began tugging with all his strength. To Comet's amazement, the gate began to give and Comet helped by rattling at the gate at its hinged side. Six more men came charging down the steps, trampling over their charred colleagues. The gate came loose and Clash ran forward with it, crushing the six men behind it and Comet's daggers finished them off. Zeal tutted and put away her garotte. Web members began fleeing from alcoves, recesses and hidden rooms.
"If they don't attack, leave them. We don't have time." Comet began running up the steps, and into the circular room. The guard were decisively edgy and Shadow himself stood by the exposed window.
"You damned fool!" He screamed at Comet. He took a step backwards when Clash and Zeal ran in too.
"Brand. I only want Brand, Shadow, nothing else." Comet panted. "Let me take him."
"You pathetic little bastard!" Shadow hissed.
"Shadow!" Zeal stepped forward. "Let Brand go and I'll teach you everything I know. I'll be your wizard."
"How very spineless, Comet. How sickeningly cowardly." Shadow sneered then broke out into a hacking cough.
"Take off that hood." Comet help out a dagger. "Remove the hood, Shadow!" He shouted. Shadow threw a dagger of his own at Comet and Zeal deflected it with an ice bolt. The next bolt was headed straight for Shadow. Comet lunged forward and pulled Shadow to the ground, out of the path of the magic. He held Shadow's thin wrists in one hand, and pushed back the hood with the other. "No!" He recoiled as though he'd been struck. "No, no, no!" He stumbled against the raised dais. "Brand! Why?" He sobbed.
"Why, he says!" Brand pushed himself to his feet and supported himself against the wall. "Why? Why? Why? Because I deserve it, Comet!" He screamed. "Look at you! Golden boy! Comet does this, Comet does that, Comet the fearless one. Comet who breathed after sapping our mother's strength! I almost died because of you!"
"Brand, no." Comet reached out for his twin. "I'll never let you die. I don't want you to die!"
"You want to save me and be a hero." Brand sneered.
"I want you with me because I love you, Brand. You're my brother." Comet walked forward and Brand suddenly threw himself through the drapes. "Brand!" Comet caught his wrist as he toppled over the rails that surrounded a balcony. "Hold on! Don't struggle!" Comet reached over with his other hand too and Clash and Zeal both ran to help.
"Not this time, Comet. The Palace needs you." Brand swung round with his free hand and drove a slim dagger into Comet's hand. Comet shouted out in pain but still clung on. Brand viciously twisted the dagger then withdrew it.
"Brand listen to me!"
"I have. I'm tired, Comet." Brand looked at Comet, then suddenly flung the dagger, straight at Zeal. Comet spun round and Brand jerked free, plunging himself to his death. The dagger fell harmlessly to the floor and Comet slumped down against the rails. Zeal could barely see for tears and she was struggling to take in what she'd just witnessed.
"Comet? Oh my Comet I'm so sorry." Comet broke down and clung to Zeal like a babe to its mother.
"Blessed gods." Clash said in shock. "Comet I'm sorry. We have to get out of here. It's not safe." Zeal helped Comet to his feet. Comet nodded and tried to compose himself. "Good man." Clash lead the way out.
By the time they'd reached the barracks, the whole of Entia was in uproar. The Web was fleeing and Shadow was dead! The entire population was verging on hysteria.
"We have to get to the Palace." Comet said shakily. "Brand said the Palace needed us. The people will storm the place." Clash nodded and elbowed a path through the crushing crowds. The hysteria hit fever pitch when a two toned fanfare peeled across the city. Clash, Comet, and Zeal broke into a run, much hampered by the milling population. Lance Baron saw them approaching and bulldozed a pathway to the Palace.
"Inside! Quickly!" He pulled all three inside, then closed and barred the doors. "The Queen's been murdered."
"What?" Clash screamed in sheer frustration. "How? How? The place is surrounded by guards! How?"
"We're trying to find out!" Lance yelled back. "Do you think we're just standing here? The place is in turmoil. "One of my guards found her and raised the alarm."
"Where is she?" Clash asked. Lance lead them to the Queen's Inner chamber. Queen Honor of Entia was lying on her bed, in a pool of her own blood. Her throat had been punctured. Zeal swayed on the spot and turned away immediately.
"Why, Shadow, why?" Comet sighed. Clash looked quizzically at him. "Poisoned blade. The edges of the wound are blackened." Clash nodded and pulled a drape from the wall to cover the Queen's body. Comet returned to Zeal and put his arms round her.
"Tell Duke Dawnstar what you saw." Lance had a Cadet by the arm. "And if you ever try and leave my watch again without permission, I'll have you in the jail house." The cadet looked at Comet with huge frightened eyed and swallowed hard. Comet took a closer look and recognised the young Cadet. He also knew that Adri Greenbeck supported a crippled father.
"I think it's pretty obvious what he saw, Captain Baron." Comet said. "It's clearly a Web assassination, and the man who ordered it is dead himself."
"Indeed." Clash agreed. "A rebel attack that succeeded and failed at the same time."
"I have to get Lady Zeal out of here." Comet said.
"I'll arrange an escort. You'll never get through the crowds." Lance said. "Dismissed, Cadet Greenbeck, and well done."
Dawnstar Of Entia