One-by-one the torches on the walls ignite as the party nears them. The two mages take turns repairing any damage they see. When they finally reach the top level, Anarchaia oohs at the marble sculpture atop the stairs leading down into a dungeon-esque hallway. “No one told me this place was so artsy.”
“Actually, I have,” Khadgar says in a defeated tone. “Many times.” He lifts a candle that’s fallen from the chandelier above and it replaces itself within its slot.
“Most likely to not pay attention in class.” Koltira points at Anarchaia.
Without looking up from his notebook, Taveth also swings his arm around to point at the mage.
Anarchaia whirls around, a hand on her chest, and gasps. “I didn’t realize this was a performance assessment trip! I’ll have you know I pass all my tests with flying colors!”
“All but the one that matters most,” Khadgar says as he passes, messing her hair and leaving her to right her tresses again. He leads them through a damp corridor lined with stone. A wail echoes down from the upper floors, followed by others. “Banshees, I imagine.”
Taveth makes a face. “There were banshees guarding the Tidestone fragments. Ali actually offered me up to one. Said I needed to learn to defend myself.” He scoffs and shakes his head.
Koltira raises an eyebrow and looks the narrow man over. “I’m not surprised, but I also can’t imagine why she’d think you could fight back, even if you tried.”
Anarchaia furrows her brow at him. “At the risk of sounding rude, that’s terrible. Do you have any combat training at all? You could have been killed…”
“How is that rude? My cousin was always less than careful with me, why should now be any different? And no, I have no combat training. However, I can slip into places most with brawn cannot.” Taveth gives Koltira a sly look.
“Did she save you from it?” the death knight asks.
“No, Grimory did.”
“Most people don’t like listening to their family be scrutinized.” She turns when Khadgar hums a laugh at the sound of Grimory’s name. “Why is that funny?”
The man shrugs a shoulder. “Not funny, per se. I’m just amazed there’s evidence that he cares more for someone than himself.”
Anarchaia furrows her brow again. “I don’t get why everyone holds so much disdain for him. He’s really a nice guy…”
Taveth blushes. “He is. He just gives into his pleasures a lot more than he should.”
Koltira smirks and gives Anarchaia a look.
Anarchaia gives Koltira a sad smile and leans up to whisper in his ear. “The poor fool.”
Khadgar makes a face that borders between disgust and discomfort, his lower eyelids raising. “That’s an understatement.” He pushes open the heavy wooden door at the top of the steps and ushers the others through.
Taveth steps to the side and waits for the other two to go, giving them a small smile. “How does it feel being back here after so long?” he asks Khadgar.
He hesitates. “Alien,” he says in response. “I was here around a year ago, but it wasn’t this, ehm, infested.”
Anarchaia presses her shoulder against Taveth’s. “So. what else about Grim do you like?”
Taveth jumps in surprise and clears his throat. “Um, heh, I-I don’t know. A few things.” He eyes Koltira and says to her, “What else do you like about him?”
She straightens and narrows her only visible eye. “Not much. Why do you ask?”
Taveth gives her a look. “You asked first.”
Koltira holds back a chuckle as he follows behind.
She purses her lips at Koltira then back to Taveth. “I did.” She grins. “So you answer first.”
Taveth’s ears pink at the tips. “He’s really kind, if you know how to read him right.” His mind drifts to the demon hunter’s reaction to being freed from Spinewing’s control. “He’s a lot more… I’m not sure fragile is the word, but it’s close… More than you’ve seen.”
Koltira laughs outright. “Oh, and you’ve seen it?”
The high elf begins to think of a lie, then changes his mind. “I have.”
Anarchaia lifts her eyebrows and swings around to walk backward in front of Taveth. “I hope you didn’t expect to say something like that without an explanation,” she says with a coy smile.
He raises an eyebrow as he stops to sketch the view over the balcony. “Of course I didn’t. That’s how conversations work. One makes a comment and the other provides a response, back and forth until the conversation is through.”
Anarchaia again narrows her eyes. “Been spending a lot of alone time with him, have you? You have gossip and I’m a female. It’s kind of a rule that you tell me.”
Khadgar rolls his eyes at the childish behavior and leaves the two there by the railing. He makes his way up a short ramp to another large wooden door and pulls it open to reveal a twisting and battered spire leading upward. The shrieks from the spirits grow louder as though they sense the group’s approach.
“I don’t have gossip, just a few things I picked up. Your master is leaving us.” He picks up his pace to catch up to the Archmage.
Koltira pulls Anarchaia to the side and lets Taveth get ahead before he leans closer to speak. “You’re probably going to have to get it out of him another way. He likes Grim, he’s not going to give it up easily.”
“It’s a shame Taveth’s not as easy as he, then.” She taps her chin and follows the other two at a reasonable distance. She smirks. “I could do to him what I did to you.” She sweeps her foot over the tattered edge of a carpet and the threads pull themselves back to together.
“Seduce me?” he says with a chuckle. “I mean, I don’t know. But if you really want to try, I won’t stop you.”
“Not seduce,” she mutters, arms folded. “Just…manipulate.” She pauses. “Does that make me a bad person?”
He cocks an eyebrow. “You manipulated me?”
She frowns. “You don’t seem to see it that way. Why do you think I’ve apologized so many times? You wouldn’t have it…”
“That isn’t how I meant it…” He rubs his palms down his face. “Is it really worth the information he doesn’t actually want to share?”
Anarchaia gives him a playful smirk. “Isn’t that the best kind of information?”
He rolls his eyes. “Well, then, if you insist.” He motions at the back of Taveth as the elf walks and writes at the same time.
She shakes her head. “I’d have to get him alone.” A loud shriek rings out as the two round a bend on the stairway. A banshee descends and blocks their path, the chains around her wrists and neck rattling. Another joins her; then another.
Khadgar grips his staff closely and glances over his shoulder at the three behind him. “I’d hate to steal your thunder. You seemed so eager last time, Deathweaver.”
Koltira rolls his eyes but draws his sword anyway. “I suppose an old man like you could use the help.”
Taveth backs away. The stone beneath his feet crumbles imperceptibly.
Khadgar lifts his thick eyebrows and takes a more relaxed stance. He motions to the quickly advancing banshees with his staff. “Help away, then.”
Anarchaia taps her fingers together worriedly and steps forward, only to be met with the end of Atiesh and stern blue eyes from her teacher.
“I’m sure he can handle it.”
“Oh, so that’s how it is?” Koltira leaps toward the banshees. He parries once and comes back around to swing at her. His sword passes through her flimsy form and he purses his lips.
“Oh,” Taveth says, taking another step back as he fidgets, “r-right, I forgot. We learned Banshees are immune to physical dama—” The floor slips out from under his feet and he falls down into the darkness of the tower below.
Khadgar folds his arms and watches Koltira struggle, then jumps at the sound of crumbling stone and the sound of Taveth’s fading cry as he falls. He steps to follow but his apprentice pushes past him.
“Taveth!” She cries, nearly tripping over her dress. “You help Kolt,” she barks with a pointed finger as she runs. “Taveth, I’m coming!”
Koltira stares helplessly at the hole in the floor. “He better be okay,” he warns Khadgar. He uses all of his non-physical abilities against the first banshee. She shrivels into a ball of Shadow.
Khadgar jerks his head back in Koltira’s direction, a spark in his eyes. “Are you implying anything that happens to him is my responsibility? Do you think I wanted him to come? Or you, for that matter? He knew the risks when he requested to tag along.” He squares his shoulders. “Besides. Ana is more than capable of seeing to him.”
Koltira sneers. “You think I wanted to come? I’m only here because Ana practically begged. I know how you feel about me and frankly, I don’t care.” He takes out the second banshee. “I’ll see myself out after this.”
Khadgar inhales and narrows his eyes, then again folds his arms. “And how do I feel about you?”
“You hate me because Ana spends a lot of time with me.” He focuses his attention on the banshee. Once vanquished, he sheaths Byfrost and looks Khadgar in the eye. “Maybe you just don’t like what happened with Alisbeth. But you don’t like me. And I know I’m not changing your mind.”
Khadgar tilts his head and blinks his narrowed eyes a couple times. “No. I don’t hate you. Whomever Ana chooses to keep within her company—literally or otherwise—is none of my concern. What is my concern is teaching her to a point where I feel she can flourish on her own. Her failure in her studies as of recent times is what I hate. Not you. Not that blond buffoon. Not your ichor-thirsty wife. And the only person who holds blame in this is Ana herself.”
Koltira blinks and folds his arms. “Oh.” After a long pause he says, “Sorry I called you old. Didn’t realize that was such a hot-button.”
Khadgar sighs and runs a hand over his hair. “I am old.” He glances at the piles of chains on the floor and pauses. “Well done. I’m impressed to see that you’re more than just your sword.”
Koltira chuckles. “Maybe just a little bit more.” He holds out his hand to the Archmage. “I suppose I can give Ana a few kicks in the ass for you.”
Khadgar gives an endearing smile and takes Koltira’s hand firmly in his own. “That’d be helpful. Just…don’t actually kick her.” He chuckles and sighs as he walks to the edge where Taveth had fallen and looks down. “I do hope he’s okay, though. Charming fellow, he is.”
“He is. Fragile, too. So, how did she talk you into letting him, come?”
“She didn’t,” Khadgar sighs. “His sister asked and…I feel like simply having Kalecgos restore his books wasn’t reward enough for giving me the Tidestone.”
“I heard about that trip. Not much, only that it was a success. I uhm, haven’t left Acherus since that day…until today, of course.” He looks down into the darkness. “Should we go find them?”
Khadgar shakes his head and leans against the wall. He folds his arms. “An unnecessary trip. I trust Ana.” He furrows his brow slightly. “Locked yourself away? What for, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Koltira leans against a nearby wall. “They got back and my day with Diori was over. Illusion was broken. I’m not her father, or anyone’s, for that matter. And no matter how hard I try, I’m not a part of their family, either. Grimory made sure to remind me of that.” He lets out a long breath.
Khadgar frowns and gives a sympathetic smile. “That small blond girl? I can see the resemblance. Ana’s had some choice words to say about the situation. I’m…sorry you have to deal with it.”
“So, you got any kids? Besides Ana, of course.” He gives Khadgar a sly grin.
Color fills his cheeks and he clears his throat. “No, thankfully. I wouldn’t have time for children. Heh. And yes, she’s certainly handful enough.”
The death knight nods. “It’s bullshit, but I’m sure it’s good I never had my own… I let Diori have dessert before her meal.” He laughs, realizing it’s the most absurd secret to have been keeping.
Khadgar gives another chuckle. “Truly the worst. It’s a wonder they allow you to babysit at all. I should instate a law if some sort.”
~ * ~
Anarchaia grunts as her shoulder grinds into a splintered support beam when she passes it. Dust kicks up as she runs. Her fingers tighten around the hem of her dress as she holds it up in front of herself. “Please don’t be dead,” she whines as she flies down the stairs two at a time.