Benecala was in the corridor near the hole he used to escape the fortress. Given the fight atop the wall, it was the only place he was reasonably sure would have no druid presence. His senses were keenly attuned to magic, but virtually any practitioner would have been able to feel the power hurling around above his head. He did something he almost never did—he ran toward the nearest stairs. The only magic he could feel as he barreled up the stairs was druid magic. For all he knew, Niccolo was dead already.
The blackrobes stood five feet apart, three spectral shapes in black, staring at a pile of rubble that was the top of the outer wall moments before. The tall one in the middle took a few steps toward the smoking rubble and stopped. He looked at the one on his right and raised an eyebrow. There was no sign of their enemy.
“He must be dead,” he said to the others. “There was nowhere for him to go.”
“Our magic is strong, united as it was.”
The tallest of the three said nothing. He pushed a corner of a shattered brick aside with his boot. “There is more to him than met the eye.” The others were looking at him. His red eyes glinted in the morning sun. “He is not of this world, and will have magic we do not know. Caution is called for.”
“I thank you for your estimation of my powers.”
The voice came from behind the tallest blackrobe. He stiffened. Without turning, he looked at his companion on his left. Their eyes met for a fraction of a second and no words were exchanged, but each knew the other’s thoughts. As one they spun and cast black destruction directly at the source of the voice.
They saw the wizard, smiling. His sword still sheathed at his side, his arms spread at his waist. Their spell blasted through him, but left him untouched. Their surprise was palpable.
He vanished. Reappeared behind their comrade on their far left. As one the two blasted—sending a tentacle of power toward the other druid, who spun neatly out of the way with a yelp that sounded like a dog bark. He spun as well, joining their blast.
The wizard vanished again.
Nick could play the game all day if he chose. He was leaning against the outer wall that ran along the right side of the square around the courtyard. It was too far from the druids to hear them speak, but their confusion was both obvious and humorous. He thought it odd that men who were capable of assuming the shapes of a variety of animals never thought of illusion. They weren’t shooting at him at all. They were shooting at a projected image. Still, it was a game with no point but putting off the inevitable. Sooner or later he would have to flee or fight. The energy the druids spent casting their spells didn’t come from them. Unlike Nick’s magic, theirs came from their god—or some other source he didn’t understand.
There was a change in the air, magic from somewhere. It coalesced near him, close enough to startle him. His hands came up and a spell formed on his lips, but he stopped both when he realized the man he was looking at—who came from nowhere, it seemed—was on his side.
He grinned. Looked, shook his head, and grinned again. “Welcome to the fun, Lord Benecala,” he said.
Benecala didn’t answer at first. He was watching the druids look at each other in confusion. “They will understand what you’re doing, you know. Very soon, I should think.”
Nick put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “They’re probably going to be mad as hell when they figure it out. I like that.”
“You would.” He grinned back at the American. The other Americans he knew would have been shocked at the sincerity in the smile. “They cannot be allowed to live.”
“My sentiments exactly.” His grin faded. He was looking over Benecala’s shoulder at the blackrobes. They were done with the illusion, apparently. All three sets of red eyes were fixed on them. None of them moved. None summoned power.
The moment lasted several seconds. The breeze blowing over the fort remained constant, and Nick remembered the extent of control over the weather the druids had. He could hear Benecala’s deep smooth breaths, and feel his own heart beating in his chest. It was hot. Sweat was beading on the back of his neck. Nick ignored it. “What are they waiting for?”
Benecala didn’t look at him. “I do not know.”
As if that was the cue rather than something else, there was movement into the courtyard. Men came from inside, a lot of men. Nick looked down. He recognized the uniforms of the Crescen army. They came in from all sides, in silence, in some sort of formation. He estimated there were sixty or seventy men in all. They were looking up at them.
“This just got interesting,” Nick breathed.
“It will get more interesting in a moment, I would wager.”
“More interesting?” He chuckled. “Do we want that?”
“I think so.”
Nick heard a screaming, whistling sound from their right, from the bay below. He felt his eyebrows rise, and shot a glance that direction. He could see a cloud of smoke from the side of the ship in view. Before he could process what it was, there was a crash of brick. The wall shook, and he almost lost his footing. “What the hell?” came out his mouth almost before he realized it.
“Cannon fire.” Benecala grinned—the ghastly one.
“They have canons?” He glared at the wizard. “Since when?”
“Since you Americans started arriving in droves.”
Before Nick could say another word...all hell broke loose.