For an old fat guy, Balada could move. In an instant he was on his feet, and in another he was almost to me. He raised that thorn wood staff with his good hand, chambering a swing. I had the good sense to move, and when the staff's knotted head came down where I'd been standing, the floor shattered. There was a blinding flash and sound like a thunder-clap.

I used my palmed dagger to try and disarm him, slashing down at one fat wrist. It was no good. He'd used some kind of spell to make his skin tough. It was like trying to cut a tire.

He caught me with the back-swing of that staff. About the only thing I had going for me was that he missed me with the head, which let off another one of those lightning-charges. It went sailing across the room, scorching a wall tapestry.

I managed to wrap my arms around the staff, tangling it. At the same time, I stomped his knee.

Tough skin or no, the knees of a fat guy do a lot of heavy lifting. They don't need much encouragement to fail.

There was an audible pop, and Balada went down hard, his lower leg bending off in a direction it shouldn't. I still had a hold of his staff. I raised it up and brought it down on his forehead.

I swear to God, I was only trying to knock him senseless. I had no idea the staff would do that ball-of-lightning thing on its own.

Bottom line, there was another blinding flash, a sound like thunder, and a smell like burnt barbecue. When the smoke cleared, the front of Balada's head looked like the back of Grewaldt's.

Now that I no longer had an obese wizard trying to kill me, I had a moment to think. I needed to vacate the area ASAP. Self defense or no, the Imperials weren't likely to take the word of an outlander. Much more likely they'd chop heads first and ask questions later.

The second thing I needed to do was find Wyatt Collins before anyone else did. Balada had said it was too late for me to stop him, which told me Wyatt was already en-route to the Citadel.

Depending where they started from, I might have a chance to overtake them. But only if I moved fast.

I avoided being seen on my way out of the tower. Downstairs in the palace courtyard, I found an unattended cart belonging to one of the workmen. I quickly examined the horse. It was a big animal, a gelding, bred more for pulling than running.

But a slow horse was still going to run faster than me.

In seconds, I had the horse out of its traces. I rode him bareback out the palace's main gate. I urged him into a full gallop as soon as I was clear.

I headed for the gates of Loningel, I wondered just what I'd do if I caught up to Wyatt. The kid was wearing invincible armor, and in command of anywhere from fifty to a hundred clay golem warriors. I could try to reason with him, but if Balada had convinced him the Citadel was evil, then he might just see me as another obstacle in his way. Which meant he'd crush me like an old beer can.

I could try to hit him. I still had the old wizard's staff. But I had no idea if that lightning ball thing would affect him through his armor or not. Even if it would, he was just a kid. I couldn't justify using something like this on him.

On the other hand, he was on his way to destroy a monastery and slaughter nuns. I had to be somewhat justified in using force to stop him.

As I guided the horse onto the main drag leading to the gate, I realized I was out of time to think. Marching down the center of the road, just now crossing underneath the great arch and onto the Dragon's Bridge, were two columns of the Emperor's Own. Marching at their rear, with one clay golem serving as his personal bodyguard, was the armored figure of Wyatt Collins.

On either side of the road, the people of Loningel waved and cheered. They assumed it was just another officer bringing his troops out to practice maneuvers in the field. To them, it was practically a parade.

I urged the horse to run faster. I tried to formulate a plan. Over thee quarters of the column was through the Great Arch. On one hand, that was good. If they were bunched up on the bridge, they wouldn't be able to spread out and use their numbers on me.

On the other hand, they were each seven feet tall, three hundred pounds, and animated by magic. They didn't need numbers. Any one of them could flatten me if I got in arms' reach.

By the time I got to the arch, the entire column had gone through. Now all fifty of them were on the bridge. Wyatt was marching with his back to me, uncaring. The only thing between me and him was three hundred pounds of magically animated clay bodyguard.

My "plan" came to me a split second before I launched it.

I held the staff in one hand like a polo mallet, and hoped like hell the lightning ball was going to do its thing. I swung it in an upward arc, aiming for the cleft between the clay golem's legs.

There's a damn good reason the Emperor's Own are a force of animated clay golems. Fact is, they only ever stop for two reasons: someone dispels the magic animating them, or someone kills the officer commanding them. Short of that, you can decapitate them, stab them, smash them, or crush them, and they'll keep fighting.

The only chance you have to take one out of the fight directly is to immobilize it.

The ball of lightning on the staff's tip exploded, blowing one of the golem's legs clean off. The golem toppled sideways. The noise scared my horse out of its mind. It reared up on its hind legs and started kicking wildly.

I was ready for that, and had dropped the staff to hold on for dear life with both hands. I also did my best to guide the frantic kicking straight at Wyatt.

He'd issued a mental command for the rest of his troops to do an about face, and I'm sure he was about to order them to pull me apart like a rag doll when one of the horse's hooves connected with his chest plate.

Magic armor or no, an eight hundred pound animal kicking you is still an eight hundred pound animal kicking you. Wyatt stumbled backwards, and started to lose his balance on the edge of the Dragon Bridge.

This was my only opportunity, and I damned well knew it.

I launched into a flying tackle off the back of the horse, catching him in the same spot on his upper chest. It was just enough to send us both toppling over the side and down into the river.

I consider myself a pretty good swimmer. No doubt, so did Wyatt. But swimming in full plate armor is another beast entirely. The kid started to sink like a rock.

On one hand, I felt bad. On the other, I remembered Tara the lifeguard telling me he liked to hold little kids under water. There was a certain amount of karma involved here.

I stayed on him, the whole time concentrating on that same unsteady, wrong feeling I had at the Stocker Park public pool. I pictured everything as if if were made of balanced playing cards, ready to blow over at a moment's notice.

Soon the river bottom gave way, and a giant nothing took it place.

We kept on sinking.


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