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The Kandric Saga

Chapter 32

By Kyle Aarons

 

 

Disclaimer:

This is a story contains descriptions of physical love and sex between adults and minors. If such things offend you, then do not read it. If you are younger than the age your area´s government judges to be acceptable, you probably will read it, but be aware I have told you that it is a no no…

If the idea of this does not sit well with you but you read anyway, I do not want to hear complaints, because this means you wanted to read the my story. Furthermore, it means you really find the idea of an adult, youth sexual relationship interesting and would follow through with your hidden desires if it were not earmarked as unacceptable by "Big Brother´s" standards. If this is the case deal with it!

 

(story)

 

 

King Wyhrem, Prince Klandon, Count Salostar, Baron Greyhammer, Sardan, Sagell, Aster, Bayne, Benam, Quavis, Cresh, Dabaff, Gomriss, Pocet, Captain of the Guard, Molic, Olinday.

 

With the latest Dragon Death, and how close it was, most in the old keep outside of Rolling Dale felt it. It stopped the group and caused them to head back out into the storm to look. However, they were delayed since Aster was once again overcome as a surge of power found him. In fact, Aster would have surely fallen had King Wyhrem not moved up and held the boy up. This didn't prevent Wyhrem from heading back topside, all but carrying Aster.

 

From up on the wall, the eyes of all turned to the south while Stealth slid over to a corner and spit several times as the death of Prince Weraweld permeated the inside of its mouth, "Another... Very powerful... Close to the power of the first... No question another Great, this one White, and near, very, very near!" It hissed between spits.

 

Aster saw spots and felt as if he was on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. Not even realizing who was holding him up and managed to speak. "It died trying to hold its breath... Looking up at a group including a redheaded Halfelf wearing black armor... I... I can't contain the power... I am going to be sick!"

 

King Wyhrem picked Aster up and held him so he could puke over the wall, all the while patting the boy between his shoulder blades. "Take it easy and let it out, I have you." He then looked over at Baron Greyhammer, "Dragon magic has hit my son hard in the past. If you would, go below and check on Prince Bayne for me!"

 

Greyhammer didn't hesitate; he hustled down the stairs. As the baron disappeared from sight, Wyhrem pointed at Sardan's water skin, even as he held Aster protectively while the boy leaned over the wall and puked. "I felt the magic seek him out in a way I have never felt or even heard of before. I have also heard from my close confidant and former whipping boy, Glaster, of his love of a redheaded Halfelf. I find it difficult to believe there can be more than one..."

 

"The boy's name is Kandric, my King." Sardan responded.

 

"Prince Aster and Prince Bayne's half-brother, Premier Kandric," Count Salostar interjected while staring out into the storm with his hand on his blade, half expecting a Dragon to appear out of nowhere, "your whipping boy did indeed mentor him. The Premier is also the real reason we are here, King Wyhrem."

 

"He can go by whatever title he wishes and I will honor it, good Count. However, I would like to know why he is killing a Dragon in what must be my lands?"

 

"As soon as we locate him, King Wyhrem, we will enquire. However, I did not think White Dragonkind were this far south, so a better question might be why he killed a White Dragon in your lands?"

 

Quavis looked over at the adults and spoke up, simply not being able to keep his thoughts to himself, "Does it really matter? Shouldn't we just be happy it's dead and we don't have to fight it?"

 

Wyhrem shot Quavis a momentary glare which quickly faded into a smirk, "Sardan, get this boy a Watch pin with all due haste along with some better equipment! Such level-headed thinking is what we need more of!"

 

"Noted and fully agree with you, my King," Sagell snickered. "I will send for a magical long weapon, some armor, and a Watch pin to be brought with the next round of reinforcements! Quavis, other than daggers, do you have a preferred weapon?"

 

"I haven't had much practice, but I like flails..."

 

"Then you we will get you one and give you full training on it," King Wyhrem stated while sending a commanding look at Sagell.

 

"We will find him a good one, my King. However, the real problem is, this Premier Kandric is extremely close, which means it is looking more and more like Rolling Dale is some kind of focal point. Are you sure you wish to be this close, my King? It may be in your better interest to back off some distance..."

 

"You very well may be right, Sagell," Wyhrem responded with a shake of his head. "Conversely, as we just discussed, the people of my kingdom are out in this disarray, and I will not sit at a safe distance while men, women and children suffer under this growing threat." He then forced a grin, "Besides, how could I back off when this redheaded boy of what is becoming legendary proportions is certainly headed this direction? I do not know about the rest of you, but I have to admit I want to meet this child face to face!"

 

Aster groaned as he spit out the last of what he had disgorged down the outside wall, "I want to meet him for sure... But I don't know if I am going to hug him or punch him when I finally see him..."

 

King Wyhrem chuckled as he tilted Aster's head back and poured some water out of Sardan's skin into the boy's mouth. He allowed the boy in his arms to spit, then gave him another swig before speaking, "Aster... Prince Aster, should you decide on the punch, kindly let me know, so I can back off and watch from a safe distance. For punching someone with multiple Great Dragon kills, including King Blathamort, is simply something I wish to watch. However, doing so at a distance seems like a wise course of action as well."

 

At this Benam spoke up, "I'll be with the King!"

 

Wyhrem moved over and ruffled Benam's snow-coated hair even as he set Aster down, while keeping a protective arm around the overwhelmed boy, "Sagell, make it two Watch pins and extra equipment for this one as well. We cannot possibly allow Quavis into the Watch without bringing in his best friend. Now, let us get out of this storm, warm up, and get some food in us. For unless I miss my guess, Prince Aster, here, is going to be hungry once the magic flowing around him settles and I need to check on my new son."

 

King Wyhrem quickly made his way over to Bayne, who had his head down on the ancient stone main table while Greyhammer gently patted him on the back, "Son?"

 

The boy groaned, "Baddest one yet, me father... Him kill... White one this time."

 

Wyhrem moved up and kissed Bayne on the top of his head, "As soon as you feel better, I would like for you to work on your speech more with the good baron here, as long as he is willing."

 

"I will give him all the lessons you desire me to give him, King Wyhrem."

 

"Thank you. If there is any compensation you feel is justified, you have but to ask."

 

"Allowing me to make up for my people's lack of follow-through with this fine young man is all the remuneration I could ever ask for."

 

Wyhrem gave a nod of acceptance, kissed Bayne again, and pointed to Quavis and Benam, "Boys, I believe it would be in all three of your better interests if you would spend some time with each other." He followed this up with a nod at Sardan, expecting he would see to his wishes.

 

Wyhrem then looked down at Aster, "Young Prince, if you would lead me to my younger son so we can attempt to figure out with certainty which one you rescued?"

 

"Of course, King, but can you not call me prince?"

 

"But you are..."

 

Aster shook his head, "First I heard of it was at the square in Rolling Dale... well actually while forging items, but that was during a dream of sorts. One way or the other, I am Aster. I'm no prince and if by blood I have such a title, I don't want nothing to do with it."

 

"Prince Aster, it is your birthright. How could you not want what is rightfully yours?"

 

"King, I don't want to say bad things about royalty, but I am no more royal than any kid in the Junsac orphanage I spent so many years with, all the years I can remember before moving into the forge full time. My Animal guild, and other pins, show who I am and what I should be known for. I am a Metalworker, Healthman, and Watch member. I want or need nothing more... Well, I mean, I want to meet all my brothers and sisters, but I'm a forge worker and work with animal health, as well as all intelligent beings, all of which I am much better at and care more about than a royal title unknown to me."

 

"While this is commendable, Prince, you are deserving of your birthright."

 

"King, did I really deserve some kind of royal birthed title? If so, then why not find me until now? I mean, if it was important for me to be royalty... Um, if this was the case someone would have or should have come looking for me well before now. I'm an orphan, and there is a pride I have in gaining what I have as an orphan."

 

"But you are not an orphan, my Prince," Salostar spoke up.

 

"Count, I am. Even if I wasn't supposed to be, I am known by everyone, even the highest members of the Watch, as an orphan. Even Master Lannet begrudgingly admitted I was one when he offered his home to me."

 

Salostar looked down with a mystified expression, "You refused such an offer?"

 

"I did!" Aster all but shouted, "Look, look at me. I am not helpless, and even though I hated the orphanage, those in it are my real family. Without them I wouldn't have survived the first winter in Junsac. I do not bow out on family, which is what I would have done if I had left my orphan brothers and sisters. However, since Master Lannet started training me and tried to open his home to me, I gave him a counteroffer. Instead of take in one, I asked him to help the others who could be trained to get trained and I would work hard to find my own way! I did, again with Master Lannet's help, but I still did it.

 

"Now I like dealing with the common folk as one of them, and I'm sure you can tell, I'm not really the fancy dressing or speaking kind a kid. Besides, I don't want others looking up at me because of who my mom or dad happens to be, when neither cared enough to come find me. If someone does see me as needing respect, it should be because I healed them, their animal, or made them something in the forge with better than expected results!"

 

Aster lips then twisted into a smirk, "Or even put on a good show in the Junsac arena..."

 

Wyhrem let out a long breath and looked back to Sagell, "Is he always this stubborn?"

 

"Oh, my King, you have no idea..."

 

Wyhrem made a snorting sound even as he grinned, "I am beginning to..." With a shake of his head, he moved toward the sounds of children playing. As he walked up to what had once been a study in the old keep, he could see the side of what was certainly one of his twin boys. He stopped and took in the scene. There was a large fire in the fireplace, keeping the room warm, almost too warm after having been out in the raging storm above. He held up his hand to prevent anyone with him from speaking as he watched one of his sons playing with twin boys very close to his own age. Both the twins wore leather slave collars, but otherwise they showed no signs of being treated like slaves. Instead, both had on nice nightshirts and were sharing a bowl of toasted pine nuts with his son.

 

Wyhrem leaned against the doorframe and smiled as his son patted one of the twin slaves who bounced a small wooden ball off the stone floor and into a wooden mug.

 

The other slave boy attempted the same feat, but the wooden ball bounced against the front of the mug. "Nice try, Olinday," the young prince stated, then made a couple of practice motions before sending another wooden ball at the distant cup.

 

The ball hit the rim, but rolled off to the side. The prince snapped his fingers in frustration, even as the boy who had just missed spoke up, "Super close, Zoldon. You are getting way better."

 

"Long way to go. I still have not made one."

 

The other slave boy shrugged, "You will. Go ahead and take another turn."

 

"No, I do not want to cheat."

 

The other slave spoke up, "Come on, Zoldon, just consider it changing the order. Beside, you almost had it and I want to see you put your next one in!"

 

The prince took a long breath even as he nodded. Once again he gave a couple of practice flips with his wrist, then bounced the next wooden ball off the stone floor. This time the ball hit the lip, but instead of falling off the edge, it rolled down and into the mug.

 

Both the other boys pumped their fists and spoke in unison, "First one, Zoldon! Way to go!"

 

The prince's smile was huge as he reached out and put his arms around the two slaves, not caring in the slightest they were wearing collars. "This is a real hard, yet fun, game. Thank you for showing it to me!"

 

King Wyhrem cleared his throat, letting the three boys know there was someone behind them.

 

All three spun at the sound, but the two slaves reacted in a rather surprising way. Both pulled sect weapons from under their nightshirts and moved to put themselves between the prince and the door.

 

The moment this happened, Aster clapped his hands hard from behind Wyhrem, "Olinday, Molic! Stand down and kneel for our king!"

 

Both boys' eyes went wide and set their weapons down at their sides, then went into deep bows and stayed down with both hands flat on the floor well away from their weapons. At the same time, they shifted their legs back so their knees were almost even with the back of their hands and both put heads down to where their fairly long hair hung over their faces and touched the stone.

 

Behind the twins, the prince looked up with a hint of recognition in his eyes, but dropped down after just a few moments. Unlike the boys in front of him, his bow was perfect and showed untold hours of tutorage. It was also abundantly clear to all those looking on, the prince had to fight not to look up, but didn't.

 

Behind Wyhrem, Sardan spoke with some trepidation, "Our apologies, King Wyhrem. Aster made it abundantly clear to both slave boys; they are to protect their free friend with their lives once we realized who we found ourselves protecting. You son has thus far refused to let any of us call him prince. I do not think he believes he is one..."

 

King Wyhrem ignored Sardan and Aster. Instead he stepped up close to the three boys and said nothing for several seconds wondering if any of the three would flinch. None did, even though keeping a royal bow for any length of time was less than pleasant and the knees of the two slaves were pressed hard into a rough stone floor and their back were arched in what had to have been a very uncomfortable position. Finally he moved up and knelt with an approving smile. "Exceedingly well done, boys. And slaves, your reactions, putting yourself in front of your free friend, tells me where your true loyalties lie. For being ordered to defend can be done with a great deal less zeal than the two of you displayed. You may both recover weapons and, while I expect you to stay down, you may get more comfortable. You duty remains first and foremost to your friend. Defend him at all times. For now, both of you stay your tongues. I will talk with the two of you in good time."

 

Molic and Olinday quickly and soundlessly did as instructed, first sliding their knees back, then securing weapons with one hand while the other stayed flat on the floor. They also pulled their heads up some but remained looking at the floor.

 

Wyhrem stood and sidestepped the two slaves. He moved up to his son and looked down, carefully examining the child. He stood over him for another full minute, watching for any sign the child simply couldn't hold the bow. When noting happened, he reached down and pulled his son up off the ground and quickly wrapped his arms around him. "Klandon, I can never forgive myself for allowing what was done to you."

 

The boy looked up in confusion, but said nothing. His rigidness didn't go unnoticed by anyone looking on.

 

Wyhrem kept the boy tight in his arms as he turned, "There is no question in my mind this is Klandon, not Zoldon."

 

"My King," Sagall stated after a few uncomfortable moments of silence, "how can you be so certain?"

 

"In truth, it is simple, and fills me with even more self-loathing for having not seen the switch. For, since coming back from the Isles with my son, his whipping boy, Yarnay, was punished more for inaccurate bows and my son's inability to hold one properly than any other infraction. It became such a problem, we ceased giving Yarnay punishments for it and accepted the fever my son had been taken with had done some kind of damage to him to where he could no longer give a proper high royal bow. I even sent him to Master Channelers and Shamen in attempt to heal him, all to no effect. We worked with him on a similar bow, a standard noble one, which he was able to get down, barely. Even then he could not hold it for very long. Klandon, on the other hand, was able to give a full royal bow from the time he was old enough to attend royal functions. More than one noble commented to his mother and me on Klandon's exquisite bows. What you just saw was the bow of Klandon, the real Prince Klandon."

 

Klandon finally spoke, "I am really a prince?"

 

Wyhrem pulled the boy into him so tightly it had to be someone painful for the perplexed child, "Not just a prince, you are my son. You are Prince Klandon, and so help me, those who took you from me and harmed you, will die agonizingly slowly while regretting what was done to you!"

 

Wyhrem loosened his grip slightly and kissed his son on top of his head, "Son, before you ask too many questions, I have one extremely important one for you. The two slave boys I saw you playing with, do you like them as much as it appeared?"

 

Klandon looked up, still very much confused, but nodded, "King, they are the only two friends I can remember. They are my best friends."

 

Wyhrem gave his son another near crushing hug then released his grasp, but still kept his arm over his son's shoulders. He moved up to the two boys, lifted them by the backs of their nightshirts and put them down on their feet. He looked down at the two boys while using his hand to lift their chins so he was looking them square in the eyes. "You are friends and guardians of my son, Prince Klandon. Your days of looking down in the presence of anyone are at an end!"

 

He then turned to focus on Aster, "Never once have I used my authority to relieve someone of rightfully owned property with no crime being committed, young man, but there is a first for everything. For as of this moment, these two are no longer slaves. Instead they are royal guards in training and protectors and friends of my son, Prince Klandon. I will pay you in either slaves, coin, or both in the amount of triple their value, which I will command a slave trainer to appraise as to their worth, not as children, but as adults."

 

He then looked over at his captain of the guard, "These two are to get the best gear you can find, and they are to be forged the highest quality equipment my kingdom can produce. New items will be made and forged as they grow, and you are to see to it they get the best instruction on weapons, defense, and fighting we can offer. Now remove their collars, for no son of mine will have best friends who are slaves!"

 

Off to the side, Aster took another deep breath still trying to fully recover from the latest burst of magic. However, he managed to speak with total sincerity in his voice, "I am happy for all three, King Wyhrem."

 

*******

 

Conner, Sharris, Nake (HE 14), Tobash (HE 15) Zestolg, Ambrasia, Sarryel, Pontarious, Frenna, Dostem, Gagan, Other Thunder Rapids Crew + {Gilew Human HE 12, Munder Silver-Dragonling HE 11, Quelrik Human HE 10, Vaskar Human HE 14, Gil-Drak Wolfling HE 13}

 

Captain Pontarious turned to look to the south even as Gagan rushed over to Conner who dropped to a knee and gripped at his stomach.

 

Pontarious jerked his head back to look at Conner, "Son, you OK?"

 

Conner rocked forward a couple of times in Gagan's arms as if he was going to throw up, but after the fifth attempt he let out a massive, several-second-long belch followed by a sigh of relief. Still he stayed down, "My half-brother just doesn't know when to stop. Another Dragon just died looking helplessly at him, only this time it was close, as within a day walk of here give or take. And by the gods, this one gave a powerful release of magic and death. I can't fully control the flows of magic around me, so if I need to cast you all best back way off!"

 

Pontarious moved to the passage going down, dropping a potion as he did so. It broke on the bottom step and lit up the lower chamber with flickering light, much like a torch would put out. "Nothing coming from down there, but with the mess I made, I don't recommend anyone going down to take a listen."

 

Gilew shook his head even as he moved over to Conner's side, "The chances of them risking anyone else after we stopped Ta-tara is slim. For as best as we know, Ta-tara was Gambra's number two. If you really did take out her lead Dark Mystic like it sounds, then her operations are effectively crippled!"

 

"Gilew you are only partially correct," Conner managed to speak as he got a hand from Gagan to stand. "Crippled is an understatement. Not just here, either, but pretty much realm wide. Gambra has one of two choices. One is to come out swinging. The other is to retreat and regroup. My bet is we hurt her operations too bad for her to back off, though. If she falls back now she is admitting defeat and may open herself up for one of her underlings to make a play at supplanting her as Dark Mage and Wraith king or queen. Since this is something totally untenable to her, my bet is she strikes out with everything she has. It will take time for word of this defeat to reach her, and an hour or two before she realizes Ta-Tara has fallen. This gives us a narrow window I think we should use."

 

Pontarious twirled his mustache for a couple of seconds. When Conner remained silent his right eyebrow arched up, "Conner, the floor is still yours. If you have a plan, do us all a favor and don't keep us waiting!"

 

Conner winced then looked over with a cringe, "Oh, um sorry, I am having to fight this latest magic unleashing... I started to see spots... and yeah, you all may want to back off. I just ripped a hellacious fart..."

 

Gagan shrugged, "Conner we are used to dealing with things like the good captain making a giant skunk's musk worse, a fart is... Oh, geesh, kid, that does rank right up there, and I mean rank in more ways than one! But we live on a Mystic's barge, so we've all smelled way worse!"

 

Seeing Pontarious send a sharp glare at Gagan, Conner chuckled, lifted his leg and shot another long and this time audible discharge in Gagan's direction. Gagan let out an 'ewww' and plugged his nose while a few crew member snickered while backing off. Conner forced a grin while using a wall to prevent himself from falling. Even as overwhelmed as he was, he managed to look at Gagan, "Um, didn't want you to think I was holding back..." He smirked at the double flip-off before he returned to the important topic at hand. "Anyway, I strongly recommend we grab what we want from here, set this place ablaze, and relocate. This way, she will have to search us out and may leave her flanks open to either one of the other groups or better yet, my lord."

 

Gilew looked over at Conner with confusion, "And go where? Our lord told us to stay within the city and do as much damage as we can..."

 

Pontarious interrupted, "Boys I am way more concerned about what to do with the nine Dark Mystic apprentices we found. I sure don't want to release them, and they will slow us down, if or when we abandon this inn."

 

"We should have sent them back with the others like you first suggested, Captain," Gagan stated.

 

Conner shook his head, "We had our hands full with those they had taken prisoner. Plus, we really don't want Dark Arts agents on the Thunder Rapids unless we can really watch them. It is better for the innocent to be safe than those nine. Maybe it is time to question them and find out if they have done enough to justify killing them... But, um, someone is going to have to help me, cause I'm not real sure I can walk... at least not for a few minutes."

 

Pontarious eyed Conner "Son, you need to calm and think this through. Besides, I can't let you murder them..."

 

"Murder is unjust, eliminating them for Dark Mystic crimes, real ones, ain't," Conner countered. "Remember, the only reason they weren't killed during the assault was we took them fast. We don't even know if they were some of those tossing Brain Borers and Ghoul Makers at us."

 

Dostem looked over while nodding, "Remember, Capt'n da First Mate and Zestolg had ta bite inta them nasty tentacles of them Ghoul making nasties, er we would a lost two more."

 

"And we would have had to kill them before they fully became Ghouls, or they would have been doomed to live like the pieces of undead now feeding on Ta-Tara." Conner reminded Pontarious.

"If you captured Dark Mystics, why are they still alive, Conner?" Munder demanded to know.

 

Conner turned to face those from Lord Anarton's farm, while putting his back to the wall for support before more could be said, "Because they are all kids like us, and we all know the way Gambra and her agents work. Our lord took us in only because we refused their advances at great risk to ourselves. The vast majority are not as strong as we are. Many join to get trained only after exhausting other options. Others are brought in through deception. Still others join because of threats, thinking by agreeing they are protecting friends and family from Gambra or others like her. We all know better, but others don't see the truth until it is too late. Others never see it. Can you really see justice in killing those who have been tricked into it, or brought in, then found themselves trapped into either becoming weavers of the Dark Arts or used for practice by those who were? I can't.

 

"Until I find out if they have crossed the line from learning about the Dark Arts into actually using what they have been taught against another living thing, I see no crime befitting execution. If you do, now is the time to tell me and the rest of the crew of the Thunder Rapids why the scales need to evened out by their deaths."

 

Gilew took a deep breath, "I reluctantly tend to agree with you, Conner. Until the line between knowing Dark Arts and using Dark Arts has been crossed, there is no real crime. After all, every one of us have been tutored in the ways of the Dark Arts so we can better combat those who use it. We also all know the history of our lord. He didn't cross the final line, and we are all very lucky he survived to take us in."

 

Gil-Drak let out a long breath, "As usual, Conner sees further past the teachings of our lord than most of us ever will. While I still find it hard to know a Dark Mystic apprentice may not deserve to pass on by my hand when I have access to him or her, I can't find any fault in Conner's thinking."

 

Vaskar looked over, "You know, we might be able to use them as bait..."

 

At this Conner rubbed his chin in thought for a few seconds, "If any are valuable to Gambra, it could work."

 

Pontarious frowned deeply, "Boys, I really don't like where this conversation is going..."

 

Conner turned, "Captain, one thing I can guarantee you is Gambra has scouts watching this building. I can secretly put a spell on one of the apprentices, a mark only I can see and feel... It will tell me where he or she is, much like a Mage knows where his or her book is even if it is stolen. This will allow us to follow from a safe distance. The apprentice will tell what happened and force Gambra's hand."

 

Gil-Drak looked over at Gilew, "Well, if she is going to come out swinging as Conner suggested, it may leave her base of operation open for attack. While we were told we couldn't go there on our own, Conner is with us, so maybe we could hit wherever they take the apprentice for questioning. While they run to help there and another group hits here, we could just hang out close to the Gloom Fire and see if there is an opening created when she hears this place is in flames and her Mystic and Ta-Tara down and possibly dead."

 

Conner shot Gil-Drak an evil looking grin, "Hey, is this your plan or mine?"

 

"Depends..." the Wolfling's nose scrunched up. "If it is yours, I will not get in trouble for doing it. If it is mine, I'll find myself back in the dog house again for suggesting we hit the only place we were told to stay clear of."

 

"We can't let a wolf spend too much time in a dog house," Vaskar quipped, "so it must be Conner's plan."

 

"Oh, it is all Conner's plan no matter's whose mouth it came out of!" Gilew declared. "For if it is anyone else's, I'll get twice the blame for going through with it since I am team leader!"

 

Munder nodded, "And we all get in trouble for letting it happen. No way, not again, not on purpossssse!"

 

Pontarious eyed the kids, "I gather this lord of yours is not exactly forgiving when you go against what he tells you?"

 

Vaskar shook his head wildly, "Forgiving only happens after we wish we were dead! He has non-Dark Mage spells capable of scaring demon lords, and he's not afraid to use them!"

 

"On his students?"

 

Conner nodded, "Captain, our lord's punishments for not following his decrees are enough to cause most of us to piss ourselves over the hint of him thinking we may have disobeyed, then should his wrath focus in on us, the retribution he unleashes reminds us what a Dark Wraith victim tastes. Once his spells are done with us, it only gets worse for a week or two before forgiveness even becomes an option."

 

Pontarious looked at each child then back to Conner, "But they will not get into trouble if you take them to this Mystic shop?"

 

Gilew responded, "No, sir. Our lord's command was very clear; none of us are to go near enough to the Gloom Fire to even see it from rooftops unless he or Conner is with us and orders us to do so. Conner is his number two here, and other than one thing, all of us will do whatever Conner commands unless it is directly countermanded by our lord."

 

Gagan spoke up, "What can't Conner order you all to do?"

 

Gil-Drak responded, "As Gilew just said, there is only one thing, but Conner would never do it, so it doesn't matter."

 

Seeing Pontarious looking at Gil-Drak, Conner held up a hand, "Guys, they all know I am a Wraith, and you are with me. There is no reason to hide anything from the crew of the Thunder Rapids." He then turned to Pontarious, "Captain, the only thing I cannot command them to do is hold onto someone's life force too long or play with it. To do so would be a death sentence, one I would carry out on any who so much as suggest any within my order do so. I would execute them without any hesitation or remorse."

 

"But they are your friends..."

 

"Should any truly want to play with the life of another, he is not a friend or comrade. Instead he is a foe who needs to be extinguished." Gilew stated for Conner.

 

Pontarious nodded in understanding but didn't look in the least bit happy. "While I am pleased to hear you speak with such disdain over those Wraiths who play with life enough to make undead, I still must say I don't like what I am hearing. Conner you have been given all but unlimited authority over these kids. It is way too close to the power a master has over a slave..."

 

Gil-Drak shrugged, "Should he wish to treat us such, it is our duty to allow it. Our lord would do worse to us if we refused. But none of us here are even slightly concerned. Conner would never do so unless it was as a ploy to strike at our enemies."

 

Gagan scratched his chin, "A ploy... Captain... Conner.... As long as the apprentice things works and we find some other base... I have an idea..."

 

Even as all eyes turned to look at Gagan, Pontarious cringed, "Gagan, if you end up getting us killed, I am going to kick your ass for the rest of our afterlives!"

 

*********

 

Yarnay (9yo Druid Gem Worker Channeler: Tallis- Klandon's WB), Sibler (9yo Mystic Sailor- Mindmaster Lylan's WB), Kaznal (9yo Warrior Adept Outdoorsman Channeler: Avgon Mylan's WB), Tazen (14yo Swordsman Healthman), Dario (13 yo Warrior Adept Leatherworker Gem Worker), Alkoris (13 HAE Halfelf Warrior Adept Lockmaster Outdoorsman), Tyndall (15yo Mage Woodworker Outdoorsman);

 

Alkoris stood at the top of the steps, used the keys to unlock the door then paused. "Taz, there are four of those sashes down there, we might as well take them!"

 

Tazen gave a nod even as he hustled back to the four dead guards and removed the red sashes. As he pulled them off, he noted all four had silver rings with a small grayish gemstone. With a shrug, he pocketed them then jogged back up the steps. He handed the sashes to the three younger boys, and after a few seconds of debate, and getting a nod from Alkoris, handed the last one over to Tyndall.

 

Tyndall frowned at this, but before he could say anything Dario spoke up, "Look, you are our best spell-thrower."

 

"But I am the oldest..."

 

"And from what we've seen the worst straight-out combatant of the rest of us," Tazen stated with a bit of disgust in his voice. Seeing the kid wince at the tone and the words he fought to soften his voice, "Look, Ty, if we don't have to protect you as much, we can focus on fighting more. So if handing you one of the red cloths stops something from attacking you, then great. Besides, once we find more, we'll all put 'em on."

 

Tyndall noted he had been given the one with the most blood on it, but also noted the blood was all but unnoticeable on the dark red cloth. After a few seconds, he slipped it over his shoulder.

 

Dario moved back and adjusted it so the older teen had good access to his hip sword. He then took a few seconds to adjust the young Mage's Rolling Dale School of Arms leather armor and pack. This included sliding the belt off center so the dagger on the other hip was easier to grab and made sure the boot knife was as hidden as possible under the leather armor britches which was a bit short on the legs, but otherwise pretty good fitting. The fact it had come off a kid over two years younger said more than words could. Tyndall was flatly scrawny for a kid closing on the age of ascension.

 

However, in Dario's mind, the kid was a Mage, so strength, stamina, and fight prowess was not nearly as important for him as it was for a Warrior Adept or Swordsman. Besides, even as he adjusted the pack so it was properly sitting on Tyndall's shoulders, Dario had to admit, the kid was likable and the unlocking spell was really impressive.

 

Dario turned back only to get an approving nod from both Tazen and Alkoris.

 

Tazen quickly turned his attention to Sibler, "We are going to go off of what you seemed to pull out of the guy's thoughts or whatever you mind-talkers call it. So do you know where to go?"

 

"Just the basics... Um, there are steps the other side of the door, they go up to another door... the spiky key unlocks it, and it is trapped with a poison if you use the wrong key or try to pick it... The passage goes left and right; to the left is the double doors. Um, the way to the stairs is the other direction from the double doors.

 

"To the left is a door where the prisons are... There is a spike trap in the ceiling, so stay on the lighter colored stones until you are five meters down... There is a turnoff to the left with a door at the end, then I lost it... Um, so I know where the stairs, double doors, and heavy door to the prisoner area are, but not really much else. I saw a quick painting in my head of the room the other side of left turn in the prison area, but he was thinking really bad things, so I lost it or whatever... It was kind of scary..."

 

Alkoris patted Sibler on the shoulder, "You know way more than the rest of us, and don't worry about not getting more, little guy. Whoever wants to hurt you will have to get to me first. But before we go poking around, I want you to take us to the stairs."

 

"But..."

 

"Sib," Tazen took over with a stern sounding voice, "we all need to know the way out, so if you really know where it is, you lead all of us there first! Once you show us, then we will try get the commander whatever information we can. But the second it starts looking iffy, we are leaving with or without finding out more, so we need to know where those stairs are. Keep in mind, the commander told me I was in charge of you all, so you do what I tell you, or so help me I'll beat your ass. I'll also tell the commander once we find him!"

 

Kaznal looked over, "Tazen, if I mess up, how about you just beat me twice, as hard as you want, and forget to tell the commander?"

 

"Or even three times..." Yarnay added with only a half-joking tone.

 

Dario shot Tazen a raised eyebrow, "Geesh, who do you work for, a freakin' troll?"

 

"I would prefer a troll over being on the bad end of our commander," Sibler stated while keeping both hands up. He then looked over, "Tazen, I will do what you tell me, just make sure you tell me if I am getting close to you telling him about me being bad!"

 

"It's the last thing I want to do, Sib, so lead us to the stairs first, then if I say it is time to go, you don't argue. Got it?"

 

"Oh, yeah," Sibler nodded almost wildly.

 

Alkoris slowly shook his head, "I don't even know the guy, but after seeing the looks on these three, do me a favor Taz. If you are going to tell on me, give me a chance to make it up to you first."

 

Tazen chuckled, "You know me too well. Anything I could tell on you about, you know something I've done I really don't want the commander knowing about." He then focused on the others, "So guys, stick close and if we have to take someone out, we do it quick and stash the body. If they have a red shoulder cloth thing, we'll take it until all of us have one. Keep weapons sheathed but be ready for anything."

 

Alkoris agreed with a quick nod. He then took one last look to make sure the others were ready before he pushed the heavy bronze-bound door open. Steps led up to another door, just like Sibler had predicted. He couldn't help but pat the boy on the shoulder again before heading up. He held up the key ring, pointed to the key with a series of spikes on the spine and held it up.

 

Sibler nodded, "Turn it to the left, if you turn it the other way the poison spines with still pop out of the plate with the pull handle."

 

To be on the safe side, Alkoris put the flat of his dagger blade between his hand and the pull handle plate. He then turned the key, heard the tumblers click, and with a deep breath pulled on the ring. As the pull ring went up, he spotted a thin wire leading into the bronze plate on the door, but it slid without tripping anything. "Definitely trapped, great work little guy!"

 

Sibler managed a weak smile, "Knowing is pretty nice, but I... It made my head feel funny. I do not think I like it."

 

"Well, I do. And it might have just saved my life, so you did good." Alkoris stated as he pulled the door open. Once again, whatever vision Sibler had, proved correct. Beyond the door was a two meter wide passage to the left and right. Instead of hooded lanterns lighting the passage, there were open oil lamps held on wall hooks about every ten meters. The light movement of air caused some of the flames to flicker, but it was not enough to keep the air totally fresh. This left the whole passage smelling lightly of oil smoke, and there were dim areas between the lanterns, but it was still enough light to use normal vision. There were some muted sounds of a hammer hitting metal, but otherwise the area was still.

 

Alkoris couldn't help but keep his voice at a low whisper, "Little guy, go slow, but not too slow. Just take us to the stairs. If you run across anyone, pretend like you are supposed to be here. Once we know where the stairs are we'll poke around a bit."

 

Sibler gave a nervous nod as he stepped out into the passage. He turned to the left and moved down just enough to leave room in the passage for everyone to join him, then turned to the right at the next branch. As he did so, he pointed toward a set of heavy-looking bronze doors with an engraved insignia on each.

 

The second Alkoris saw them he cringed and stepped back to Dario and Tazen while motioning the others to continue to follow Sibler. Once they had moved just far enough away to be out of earshot to a whisper, Alkoris pointed to the doors, "The doors... They have the same symbols as the two flags in front of the Gloom Fire Mystic Shop!"

 

Tazen moved up, took a closer look, and noticeably shuddered. He said nothing as he nodded. He then hustled to catch up to the others. Just seeing the markings made him want to leave the place faster. The very thought of being someplace associated with the Gloom Fire and or Master Tregasel was almost enough for him to decide to abandon the scouting mission. However, he had been given a tremendous boost of power, and he didn't want the gods to take it back. With a shake of his head, and moving his hand closer to the magical blade on his hip, he glanced down an offshoot passage to the left. Like the others it was lit, but one of the lanterns in the middle of the hall was flickering badly, like it was running low on oil. This made the middle part of the passage very gloomy.

 

Seeing Sibler take the next turn to the left, he shrugged and followed. Within a just a couple of minutes he found Sibler standing in front of a wooden door with two thin bronze bands.

 

Sibler waited for everyone then spoke softly, "The stairs up are in the room just the other side of this door, but there are voices..." He let his words drift off as he pointed to the door.

 

Alkoris slid past everyone and put his ear to the door. After nearly a minute, he turned and spoke in a very hushed tone, "I don't know the language, but I'm pretty sure I hear at least four voices and the clink of coins. What do you want to do, Taz?"

 

"The last thing we want is to have to fight our way out if we are already running, so..." he patted the magical blade.

 

Dario let out a sigh as he looked over to Sibler, "What's up the steps?"

 

"I do not know... Um, there is a door on the far side of the room and the room is triangle-shaped, though..."

 

Alkoris gave a little short, "This is almost as good as knowing the place..." He then shot Tyndall a smirk, "So, you say you are good at distractions?"

 

Tyndall let out a long breath and his shoulders slumped, "Yeah... It's one of the few things I am good at."

 

Tazen had to fight to not slap either the older teen or his own forehead. He had never dealt with someone who seemed to always look down on himself before. It was actually pretty annoying. "Do your thing, but if the other door is open, try to get close to it. As soon as the fighting starts, close it."

 

"OK, what else do you want me to do?"

"Just do your best to hold their attention as long as possible and let us do our thing. But make sure none of them escape through the door. One of us will try to get to it fast, but you need to hold it until Alk, Dar or me can get over to it.

 

"Sib, Kaz, and Yar, I don't want you on the front lines, but if you see an opening, feel free to take it. You three need to close the door and prevent anyone from escaping, though. Once the alarm sounds any scouting is done.

 

"Alk, we want to do this fast, so use your Lockmaster skills. Direct me to the hardest target and you take the next hardest. We'll try to open a path so Dar can get to the other door and help hold it."

 

"Solid plan," Dario whispered. "Ty, sounds like you're up."

 

Tyndall took a resigned breath, moved up to the door, pulled it open just wide enough so he could slide through, then closed it to where it was barely cracked open. Alkoris peeked in high, while Tazen took a knee and surveyed the room from low. Both had hands on weapons.

 

Tyndall didn't say a word as he entered. A quick glance left him a bit confused over what was going on. Along one wall were two boys and one girl, all humans, all about ten or eleven years old. They were tied with their arms high above their heads. Ropes hung down from rusty iron rings well above their heads. These were tied to the ropes around their wrists. This kept them standing on tiptoes. Broken glass under their left feet caused their left toes to ooze blood. All three were wearing only loincloths, while gags prevented them from doing more than making muffled sounds. All three were crying and shaking their heads.

 

Next to the three was a boy of about twelve wearing a Mystic cloak over leather armor. A red sash hung over the cloak. On the boy's right hip was a light mace. On the other a hip sword. Finally he had a dagger in a sheath on his right boot. He looked up and shrugged as he spotted Tyndall's red sash.

 

Across the room, Tyndall noted four Goblings, a Halforc female adult, and Human female of about fourteen. All were around a table with scores of copper and tin coins on it along with nine time glasses. In front of seven of the time glasses was a silver ring. All had sand running down them. Three were small and quickly emptying. Three were slightly bigger and had quite a bit of sand left. The last three were just getting started and would take quite some time for the tops to empty.

 

The Halforc changed from Orcish to Northman and spoke as Tyndall moved deeper into the room, "You wants ta place bet? We jus' got goin!"

 

Tyndall moved up to the table, as if he was interested. As he got close, he purposefully tripped over the chair with the teen girl. As he fell, he reached out and knocked the table over, while putting all his weight into pinning the girl.

 

Those at the table jumped up. Two of the Goblings fell over chairs while the girl was knocked flat with Tyndall all but lying on top of her.

 

"Now!" Alkoris shouted as he pulled open the door and charged. He angled right at the Mystic kid, "Taz, take the Halforc! Dar, far door!"

 

The young Mystic was taken totally off guard. His hand didn't even get to a weapon before Alkoris' flail caught him in the gut. He doubled over, dropping to his knees as he did so.

 

Alkoris didn't show any remorse. He slammed his flail down over the kid's back knocking him flat. He then stomped down with everything he had on the back of the kid's head, driving the face down hard onto the stone floor. This broke facial bones, while dislocating the jaw and shattering a few teeth.

 

Dario sprinted across the room, but took an opening on one of the Goblings who was looking down at Tyndall with a great deal of anger.

 

The door flying open didn't even get its attention until it found an axe buried into its stomach. It fell with a stunned expression and a silent scream on its lips.

 

Dario left the axe in the Gobling. Instead of worrying about it, he pulled the Silver Steel one and put his back to the far door.

 

Tazen already guessed who Alkoris would send him after, so he moved straight at the Halforc even as it kicked the table out of the way and drew a bronze short sword. What he wasn't even slightly expecting was for the Halforc to grab and shove the remaining standing Gobling at him.

 

Seeing the Gobling already had a dagger out, Tazen didn't have much choice but to deal with the threat. He shoved the magical blade into its chest, mortally injuring it, but in doing so, fell back with the impaled Gobling laying on top of him.

 

The three whipping boys quickly moved into the room and closed the door behind them. While Kaznal put his back to the door and pulled his light mace, Sibler and Yarnay pulled daggers and threw them at the Halforc.

 

The Halforc deflected one with a small buckler on its forearm guard, and turned to the side avoiding a direct impact from the second, but it still nicked her enough to leave a bloody stripe on her left hip. It grunted, but didn't even slow. It came straight at Tazen.

 

Alkoris pulled up his right hand, formed it into a cup shape and thrust it forward. A screeching sound slammed into the Halforc causing it to take a step back and shake its head.

 

This gave Tazen just enough time to shove the dying Gobling off and roll back toward the door. However, he still paid for it, as one of the knocked over Goblings managed to stick his thigh with a dagger. Luckily the tip was the only thing to get past the chain armor, but it still left him with a painful and bleeding stab wound.

 

He snarled, yanked a throwing axe off the side of his pack, and threw it down at the Gobling with everything he had, figuring he couldn't miss since it was still down and he was all but right over it. He was not mistaken. The axe's blade slammed into the smaller creature's shoulder, ripping right through the sash and the leather armor as if it wasn't even there.

 

The Gobling let out a screech of agony while reaching for the axe.

 

Tazen had to duck under a decent swing from the Halforc while he pulled his light flail. He came up in a fighting stance exchanging glares with the taller, but not particularly sturdy looking opponent. Seeing it purposefully flash a Primary step 1 Swordsman Guild pin, Tazen let out a snort and tapped his own Primary step 1 pin on his belt.

 

This only caused the Halforc to frown and flip him off.

 

Tazen grinned and stuck out his tongue.

 

Alkoris double-checked the boy in the Mystic robe was indeed out by kicking him hard in the side of the head. Satisfied, he moved up on the final uninjured Gobling, while also checking on Tyndall.

 

Tyndall had the upper hand from the start because he was literally lying on top of the girl and he was just a smidge taller and heavier. This allowed him to hit her with a couple of wild but effective punches.

 

Out of desperation, the girl first bit his hand, then spoke a single arcane word and spit, hitting Tyndall in the cheek with a sharp shard of frozen spit.

 

Tyndall rubbed the bloody spot with his shoulder, even as he spoke a couple of arcane words of his own. He then shoved his finger into the girl's ear and let loose a Frost Learned Autospell.

 

The girl cried out and gripped at her ear as her eardrum froze.

 

Tyndall wiped at the tiny trickle of blood on his cheek again and sucked on his bit hand for a moment. He looked down angrily, stuck his finger in the girl's other ear and duplicated what he just did. He was rewarded with another shriek while the girl knocked his hand out of the way and covered up her other ear. With both hands now covering her ears, she was all but unprotected so he pulled his dagger and shoved it into her stomach before rolling off, pulling the girl's book satchel off her as he did so.

 

Alkoris was about to swing on the Gobling, but Yarnay beat him to it. Yarnay noticed the Gobling had lost its dagger when it tipped over the chair and it didn't have another weapon on it. This left him one-on-one with an unarmed opponent who was almost the same height and weight he was. It tried to grab for a chair, but as it reached out, Yarnay slashed down on the Gobling's wrist with his short sword. This opened up a nasty blood-flowing gash so deep bones could be seen.

 

The Gobling howled in pain as it gripped at the life-threatening injury.

 

Since it was totally defenseless, Yarnay couldn't bring himself to kill it, so he backhanded it in the face with the pummel of the blade. Finally, as the Gobling staggered back totally stunned and faltering, he stepped forward and punched it in the temple with the blade tightly clenched in his hand. He started to take a knee so he could hit it a third time, but noticed it was out cold, with its tongue hanging out of its mouth and a rapidly expanding pool of blood forming around the horribly wounded wrist.

 

Dario spoke from the far door, "Nice!"

 

Alkoris nodded in total agreement, even as he moved up to help Tazen with the Halforc. However, he only made it a couple of steps before the Halforc's back arched and it tried to grab at something in its back.

 

Tazen didn't see the reason, but was only too happy to take a shot at a wide open target. He slammed his flail into the woman's exposed throat, causing her to topple back grabbing at her neck while making a sound very close to a lightly croaking frog. Tazen wasn't nearly as forgiving as Yarnay. He moved up on the defenseless woman and brought his flail down over the top of her skull, splitting it open.

 

Sibler stood from behind the knocked over table holding a light crossbow in his hands. He turned away from the gruesome sight with a 'yewwww' sound.

 

Dario looked over, "Where'd ya find a crossbow?"

 

Sibler pointed to the corner, next to where the Halforc had originally been seated while holding up a quarrel of fourteen bolts, "She left it over there, loaded, so..."

 

Alkoris moved up on the dead Halforc and used his foot to roll it onto its side. Just below the left shoulder blade was a deeply embedded bolt. "Good shooting!"

 

Sibler pulled the string back and with a great deal of effort reloaded, "I really like crossbows... Can I keep it?"

 

"I'd be kind of pissed off if you didn't!" Tazen stated without any hesitation as he moved up to the girl hanging on the wall, pulled his dagger, and sliced down on the gag.

 

The girl didn't even try to get a full breath out. Instead she started begging, "Take it out, take it out, take it out..."

 

Tazen cocked his head to the side in confusion even as Dario carefully pulled open the door he had moved to guard.

 

Alkoris looked over and used his own dagger to remove the gag on the boy closest to him, "Take what out?"

 

"Da worm thing!" the boy cried out the moment he could, "It hurts!"

 

Dario noticed a small room with another door on the far side. It was empty and unlit save for the light coming in from the torches in the room he was in. He looked back, "Worm thing?"

 

The boy jerked hard, "On me side! On me side!"

 

Alkoris frowned deeply as he stepped closer. It took only a couple of seconds to spot a tiny bulge moving just under the skin on the boy's left side. Even as he pulled out his dagger and lightly poked at the moving spot he spoke with a great deal of concern, "What in the Nine Hells is this, Taz!"

 

"Get it out! Please! It hurts!"

 

"Taz, this is way more you than me!"

 

Tazen started looking over the girl and noticed a small moving bump emerging from under the helpless girl's loincloth. Even as he pulled out his Healthman kit, he looked over to Yarnay, "Check the other boy!"

 

Yarnay stepped up, and looked for a few seconds, "Found one! It is almost to his armpit!"

 

"Screw this!" Alkoris stated even as he moved his dagger down on the submerged moving blob.

 

"Don't stab it!" Tazen ordered as he carefully cut the girl's skin all the way around the unknown thing. "It might be like a Slime Leach! If you stab it, it might bleed inside him. If it as at all like a Slime Leach, it could poison him if it bleeds while still in him. Dig your blade under it and dig it out without cutting it!"

 

Yarnay pulled his dagger and faltered, "Um..."

 

Dario moved up, "I'll do it! Where is it?"

 

Yarnay pointed, cut the boy's gag off and quickly turned away as Dario made a quick cut, flipped the skin back and slid the tip of the dagger under the small, blood covered, grayish-yellow slug-like thing with four small sharp-looking antennas.

 

Seeing it try to slide back off and use the antennas to pull itself back into the twisting and bawling boy, Dario pulled his other dagger, cut the flesh right in front of the antennas and flipped it off onto the floor. He pointed to Kaznal, "Grab one of those torches and burn it or something!"

 

Kaznal didn't hesitate to do as he was told. All the kids let out a relieved sigh as the nasty slug shriveled up and started to burn with the first touch of the torch.

 

Seeing this, Alkoris quickly did the same thing, followed by a much cleaner and less deep cut and removal with Healthman tools by Tazen.

 

Kaznal was only too happy to burn the last two.

 

Alkoris moved back up to the boy who told him about the disgusting things, "Are there any more in you?"

 

The boy shook his head while still crying, but did manage to speak, "No... no... just one... them... them monsters was makin' bets on the first a us ta have it get into a ear..."

 

"Where'd it come from?" Tyndall timidly asked even as Tazen stopped the others from cutting the three kids down.

 

Tazen held up his hands and spoke firmly. "Leave 'em up till I tell you! I want to make sure they don't have any more. Get the glass out from under their feet, but they stay right where they are at until I check 'em!"

 

Tazen checked over the girl from head to toe, then moved to the others. Still he didn't let them get cut down as he decided to go so far as to remove all their loin cloths and spin them looking for any other signs of more of the gross slugs.

 

The boy Alkoris cut the thing out of seemed to be the only one able to speak. He focused on Tyndall since he was the oldest and it was obvious the teen really wanted to cut the ropes holding his hands above his head. "The worm things was in the glass holders... The potion thrower had 'em... they was in the holders in him robe... him put the glass holders under our toes... Him tell us it eat us... Eat me head on inside... Us try not to step on the glass, but me couldn't hold meself up no longer. It break and it eat inta me toe and moved up... Let me down, me do whats ya want! Jus let me down..."

 

Tazen moved over to the boy, "Not until I make sure there aren't any more in you and I bandage the spots where they went in and came out."

 

"Ain't no more, just one, it hurt real bad. Me know if me had more in me..."

 

Tazen pulled a few splinters of glass out of the boy's foot while speaking. "I want to make sure there ain't none of them things left to lay no eggs and make more or nothing. I'm also going to stick some Healthman herb in ya to so the bleeding stops. The Star Leaf will heal it faster while the Fire Root stops any puss from getting started inside you. It's gunna burn for a few minutes. Until I'm done I ain't about to let ya down, sorry." As he dug through his pouch, he continued to talk. "While I check him over, the rest of you clean this mess up the best you can."

 

Dario pointed to the door he had guarded, "Empty room with a door on the far side. Opens in, so we can block it."

 

Alkoris grabbed a red sash off a Gobling and started to drag it over to the empty room, "And if you don't have a red shoulder thing grab one. If anyone comes in, act like we are supposed to be here."

 

******

Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Lacate, Zeltoss and a whole lot of other folks:

 

Kandric stood out in the driving snow just outside a hastily erected, yet extremely nice, tent just into the wood line uphill from the lake encasing the White Dragon prince.

 

Next to him the Silver Warrior Dragon, San’i-sar protectively kept watch over him. Seeing the youngster's hands continually clench into fists, then unclench, the Dragon decided to attempt to get the boy out of the driving storm. It already guessed it would be hard to talk some reason into the boy, but it was his duty to try. He spoke in Dragon, knowing the boy would be able to understand and he would not accidently slur words with his long teeth and forked tongue in a different language. "Premier, as soon as your army's scouts locate the White Dragon encampment, I am sure you will be notified. Standing out here is doing nothing for anyone other than making you cold and those under you nervous."

 

Kandric looked back and up, "I have a magical ward against Syria's wrath, and I believe the Gifting of Prince Weraweld included a large amount of cold resistance as well, for I feel no ill effects from this storm whatsoever. However, I thank you for your concern. And while I deeply appreciate your protection, I really do not feel it is needed."

 

"Needed, my Premier, no. Required, yes, beyond any shadow of a doubt. And while I am more than content to stand here next to you until we both grow old, I feel it is my duty to request you join your young knighted compatriots in getting some deep rest."

 

"If what I was told is correct San'i-sar, at least one, probably more, of my students are being held by the White Dragons. Between this storm and the type of cold I felt radiating off Prince Weraweld, they must be in agony, freezing to death."

"Premier, unless they want to kill those they capture, they will provide enough shelter and warmth to where they do not freeze. While it will certainly not be comfortable, the White Dragons understand how to handle those who feel the bite of frost on their hides or skin. They will be tended to and sheltered."

 

"You sound very certain, San'i-sar."

 

"There is no certainty, Premier. All I can inform you of is what I know and have heard, which is substantial. The Silver Dragon Homeland has millennia of experience combating the White Dragons. Because of this, I can inform you, just as we do, the White Dragons have plenty of experience dealing with warm loving races. Also, as I am doing now, White Dragons can greatly temper the radiation of cold. In addition to this, they vigorously raid the lands close to them for treasure and other plunder, often including slaves. A frozen slave, or ransomable captive, does them no good. I assure you, they know how to handle such captives."

 

"Sitting in a warm tent still feels very wrong to me, San'i-sar."

 

"Premier, you being well rested for the attack will do your students far more than if you enter the combat with little to no sleep. Besides, if you really are not feeling this wicked weather, this whole process of standing out here to feel some of what you are afraid your students may be dealing with is rather pointless."

 

Kandric let out a sigh of frustration since he could find no counterpoint, "You are correct, but getting sleep will be impossible..."

 

"Premier, if you really wish decent rest, may I recommend you drop your magical defiance and allow me, or another Mage, to cast a Slumber on you?"

 

The continued talk of sleep caused Kandric to yawn. This, in turn, caused him to note the faintest hint of a smirk on the Warrior Dragon.

 

Kandric let out a breath while letting his shoulders sag in self-admitted defeat, "Very well. Every point you make is valid and I know it, even though I do not want to admit it. You and my teacher, Master Shaman Glaster have much in common when it comes to your ability to debate and challenge others. I am certain the two of you could hold hours of enjoyable conversation capable of making me look foolish while also boring me to death.

 

"In addition, I get the feeling Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia do not want me poking my head into whatever meeting they need to have with my teacher, Monarch, General Vondum and the others who have assembled. Thus, to make everyone happy and better prepare me to fight, I will allow you to Slumber me and send word to them I am sleeping. However, I will allow you to do so only under the condition you promise wake me at the first word of the camp being located."

 

San'i-sar gave Kandric a bow, "Premier, if we are to engage White Dragon forces, I assure you with every drop of cold blood running through my core, you will be the first I wake. For to enter combat without the slayer of Prince Weraweld at the very front of our lines would be beyond foolish."

 

Kandric let out a little snort, "I got lucky, nothing more."

 

"One victory, against a Great Dragon, is more luck than most beings will see in their combined lifetimes, Premier. Twice would be exhausting the luck of both this world and most of the Spirit Realms. There is simply not enough luck in existence to take the lives of three Greats, let alone three royal Greats. With a the addition of the True; Rovnar himself must know of you by name and may even see a rival."

 

At this Kandric tossed his arms up in surrender, not wanting to further debate the matter. Instead, he shook his head, "I doubt I even rate the only non-Mythlet or Mythling to make godhood a passing glance, San'i-sar, nor do I ever need my name mentioned as a rival of any god. Somehow, I highly doubt Rovnar would need to have someone put himself to bed, either. However, thank you for the over lofty compliment." Before the Dragon could responded. Kandric entered the tent, laid his head down on the bed the Alphar and Garm somehow managed transport and set up for him. He then glanced at the dragon eye peering into the tent and motioned for San'i-sar to cast while dropping his magical defiance to let the full effects of the spell hit him. Even then, he felt the Dragon needing to add more Force into the spell before he fell sound asleep.

 

Word of Kandric finally bedding down reached the command tent within minutes. Once it was confirmed he was indeed sleeping, Glaster was called in.

 

Glaster entered the tent with Chark'ash by his side and gave a deep royal bow, giving the boy a light elbow to do the same. He found the jab was not needed, since the boy was already on his way down before he even touched the young Drow prince's flesh.

 

While most stared or even glared at the young Drow, Duke Mathard quickly motioned for the man to stand while speaking, "Master Shaman, am told you are royalty by your own hand. I also fully understand you feel you need to protect your young Drow student. I formally welcome him into this tent and even the meeting."

 

Glaster spoke while still staying low, "Good Duke, I lost my lands to the Warlords of Morden. My guild ranking is above my landless lord title and even if I still held my lands I would be at best a count. You are, and always will be, above my stature and caste."

 

"Nonsense," Princess Syrissia stated forcefully. "You are, by right of being our Premier's instructor, an equal in this circle. In addition, I believe I speak for both myself, Duke Mathard and others here when I say you will have at the very least the full support of both the Alphar and Garm nations in retaking your lands once this... situation... is behind us."

 

Duke Mathard gave a single deep nod, akin to a bow of respect, "Indeed you do speak for me, Princess, and you speak well. So please, Master Shaman, raise and join us as equals. To this end, young Drow, you may also raise. Should you feel the need to speak, I only ask you do so with something you truly feel will be helpful and you do so with whatever your best speech is. Also, I commend you for an extremely good bow."

 

A Silver Dragonling sent by Prince Millen as an envoy quickly spoke up, but proved he was extremely adept with speaking Northman as none of its words slurred. "Master Shaman, with the death of Prince Weraweld by the hand of our Premier, tutored by you, our homeland owes you a huge debt of gratitude. We will throw additional troops in to the endeavor while helping our new Red allies to claim the lands our Premier has offered them. Your Drow student is also welcome into the Silver Dragon Homeland with open arms, as are any of his family or friends."

 

The Red Dragonling Pangam gave deep nod, akin to a bow. "While we need to regain a homeland, we will find enough to prove we fully sssssupport the overall alliance. I hereby pledge the Red Dragon Homeland will help to break the backssss of thosssse holding your landssss. In addition, your Drow apprentice will find fully honorable treatment from all Red Dragonkind."

 

Monarch's left lower tusk moved upwards making it look like the Illorc was almost smiling, "With a treaty between me and Prince Bandurlok in place, I will also add in serious forces. I never liked the Warlords of Morden much anyway. As a being normally seen as a monster, I assure you, your young Drow will be treated as an equal when in the boundaries of my lands and by any Illorc who does not want me to fold and twist them into interesting shapes."

 

"Thanks to our Premier, the threats to tribal lands of the Pantherlings above the Silver Spine are greatly reduced." Wek chimed in. "This will allow us to mobilize warrior expeditions to aid the Red Dragons to claim a new homeland and still provide aid to you as well, Master Shaman."

 

Wek turned directly to Chark'ash, "And you, young Drow, are always more than welcome in our lands and I formally extend a paw to any you speak for. My kind look at the being, not the skin."

 

A Hawkling envoy cocked its head to the side, "If we can deal with the immediate threat, I am certain the Hawkling council will allocate significant troops to ensure the warlords of the southern seas forget they even knew of your former island landholds. In addition, I can assure you with the combination of the homelands assembled here, we will be able to expand said holding to where you are much more than a count. I feel I must also insist we show you proper deference, since word came to us of you no longer being a Master. So guild rated or not, you are, by your hand.. now hands, Lord Glaster."

 

The Hawkling didn't show nearly as much in the ways of pleasantries toward Chark'ash, however. "While I accept the Drow boy, he may find the Hawklings less than... agreeable... to his unescorted presence. The Drow Wars took the lives of many royal households and resentment within remaining royalty still runs deeper than it probably should."

 

"While the Black Dragon Empire is embroiled in a deep civil war," Bandurlok's envoy, the Black Dragonling Golhaod spoke, "the damage already done to the army of Prince Basssssork will allow Prince Bandurlok to sssscrounge aid for both the Red offensive and the retaking of your lands, Lord Glasssster. For the boy, Drow are openly welcome in our Homeland. The Black Dragon Homeland remainsssss alone in keeping large quantity of Drow in our military. He will have nothing to fear from Black Dragonkind."

 

Although Glaster refused to see himself as equal to such high nobles and the representatives of others, he accepted them at their word. For to not do so would be to eliminate the best chance he had of freeing his people from the barbarity of the Warlords' boots crushing their bodies, hopes, and dreams. He was also surprised to find such minimal resistance to bringing Chark'ash with him, but for the boy's protection, he felt he had no choice.

 

It was also abundantly clear by the reaction to not only himself, but their overall acceptance of Chark'ash, combined with there being so many royal members of different races, his beloved student had made a total mess of things. For his own wellbeing he had to be diplomatic as possible, so he could do what he could not only for Kandric, but himself. For he figured no one could garner this many races under one banner without stepping on some very big and powerful toes.

 

A few hours later Glaster found himself sitting on a fine cushioned chair while his eyes told of both his disbelief and horror as he realized his precious student had done way more than simply stepping on a toe or ten. The backdrop would have been beyond believable save for the beings telling him of Kandric's true heritage and deeds. The last bit of information was the final straw. It hit him like a warclub. So stunningly hard did the information strike him, it was difficult to even find his voice, "Princess Syrissia, Duke Mathard... other assembled nobles and powerful house counsel... Am I really hearing you all correctly? Frexla, not one of her minions, but the Cunt of Flames herself came, in full flesh, back into our realm and has taken Prince Darmoth and Prince Rathiter?"

 

Princess Syrissia cocked her head to the side, "Cunt of Flames... Huh, there is a new one to me...Crude, but somehow very fitting. I shall have to remember to use it in the Alphar Court just to see the reactions."

 

While Glaster's eyes went wide with near panic, Duke Mathard busted up in deep laughter, "Oh, my good Princess, if you decide to do so, I beg of you to please invite me so I may bear witness. However, I must request a spell of silence be draped over my mouth so I do not make a total ass of myself!"

 

Monarch couldn't help but chuckle even as he reached over and patted Glaster on the shoulder, "I can see where Premier Kandric gets much of his... contemptuous diplomatic tact from. I am liking you more by the minute Lord Glaster."

 

Pangam snickered hard enough to cause some sparks to erupt from around his lips, "Very well said, Lord Monarch. I must concur with your obssssservation. However, we need to complete a plan to inform our Premier in a manner to... contain not only the anger, but power within, to a pragmatic level of ruin."

 

While it took many a few seconds to absorb the words, Vondum looked over with a high level of respect, "Sir Pangam, not only do I suddenly understand why our Premier holds you in such high regards, I also can see the two of us becoming friends. The question remains, who should tell him?"

 

As this was said all eyes fell on Glaster. Noting he was being seen as the authority figure behind the boy, he shook his head. "Esteemed members of royalty and proxy leaders of your kingdoms and empires, your gaze is on a person who all but abandoned the boy... Premier..." Glaster cringed at the momentary slip of court decorum and proper title, but forced himself to slow down and focus not so much on the problem of Frexla, but the youngster who would somehow need to control a rage that could unleash a calamity on the scale of the Mythling Wars, if not greater.

 

Glaster ran his hand down his face, "The problem with pinning your optimism on me, is to truly not understand my relationship with the Premier. He did not enter into an agreement to become my apprentice or student with total freedom of choice." Seeing several eyes go wide, Glaster nodded, "Yes, I coerced him to a great degree in the beginning. Over time the arrangement became much more, but the initial agreement was struck under a certain amount of..." Glaster paused as he tried to find a word which would not get his throat slit.

 

"Duress?" Princess Syrissia offered up.

 

Glaster let out a long, uneasy, breath, "As descriptive a declaration as any, Princess."

 

Princess Syrissia shrugged and spoke, "Lord Glaster, no matter how you acquired his apprenticeship, you obviously put your heart and treasure into his training. Furthermore, you took in and provided said training to someone who could not have been seen as anything other than a member of the lowest caste of any realm. Whatever form of payment you demanded out of our Premier was clearly paid back many fold by you. In addition, witnessing the reunion between our Premier and yourself shows he has no overt and little, if any, lingering resentment over his handling.

 

"Given what and who Premier Kandric has become, I would happily direct my own child into your arms, with no restrictions, for half the instruction you provided our Premier. It would do him some good to meet and have to get to know a Drow as well, since he has never been given the chance. Truth be told, I have not either, so even being in the presence of your very well-behaved student is a bit of an educational honor for me." Her total support of Glaster surprised many and astonished others. However, it had the effect of instantly quashing any anger or resentment toward the man.

 

"Thank you Princess," Glaster stated while doing his best not to sound relieved. "However, in addition to the circumstances surrounding his full apprenticeship to me, my tutelage of him was geared toward forcing him to accept the consequences of his verbal declarations as well as his actions. My teaching style is, and has always been, to make students take responsibility for both words and deeds while facing the world with head held high. When taking instruction from me, there were punishments for disobedience. When on his own, however, he learned quickly not to look toward me for aid. As an example, the first time he decided he wanted to track bandits into the swamps, I told him there would be consequences for doing so. He wanted to do so anyway, so I let him. When we caught up, I backed off, put my back to a tree and observed silently.

 

"When he became angry after having to fight them all on his own, I reinforced my primary rule, take accountability for the consequences of actions. He wanted to track and capture or kill them for reward, not me. He wanted to show off, not me. He wanted to prove he was a Primary Echelon Shaman, Outdoorsman, and skilled enough to take the fight to some not particularly bright, but dangerous, ruffians, not me. I already knew all of those things and told him there was no good reason to brag to others or boast to himself. Thus, the fight and the after-effects were on his shoulders, not mine.

 

"After his victory, which even I must admit was more impressive than I expected, he had to carry the heads and all the gear he wanted. It was his decision, and therefore he needed to deal with all aspects, including the taking of bounty. He lugged it all, close to double his weight, over the course of three days, through the swamp and to Paws, since there was no way I was going to be let him get seen in or around Slome with a tenth of what he ended up carrying.

 

"My only action was to heal his injuries, but not until he had to deal with them for a decent span. Even then, the healing was by no means free. I charged him three-fifths of the reward and another fifth to turn the heads in on his behalf, because no one would have believed he had taken them, let alone in a fair fight."

 

"I feel I must interject, here." Monarch stated with a smirk. "The fight between him and whatever bandits he fell could not have been a fair one. The bandits were way out of their league. I also must confess I was about to inquire as the Premier's age at the time of this first mission, but to do so would be pointless. By the time I first laid eyes on him, I saw a skinny, bordering on dainty, child. Had he not been standing next to our General Vondum as a free and well-armed and armored child, I would have never given him a second glance. However, he was with our general and I foolishly probed; only to find a power level well above anything I could have expected. Thus, I am sure he was nothing more than a tyke in the eyes of most the day he eliminated the bandits of which you speak, Lord Glaster."

 

"Still is a child," Wek stated with a roll of his eyes. "I mean, seriously, if the Premier or any of his knighted friends walked through a gate, any gate, one of us were guarding, wearing commoner clothing, what would any of us think if we did not know him?"

 

The Silver Dragonling shrugged, "Other than to make certain they could pay the gate tax, and probably to check for lice in a nicer ssssettlement, none."

 

At this Pangam snickered again, "About what I thought the day he appeared riding a Warssssteed toward a line of attackersss attempting to capture the caravan the two Frexla-taken Princessss were in... Even armed and in very high quality armor, I believe it was along the linessss of... um... an utter wasssste of cute, vulnerable, and probably valuable flessssh. I believe I referred to him to my compatriotssss in thosssse exact termssss... Well, I did until he road through those who opposssed him with a ssssavagery I will never forget. Our problem becomessss I highly doubt he will back down from Frexla any more than he did the prior time Princesssss Rathiter and Darmoth were in peril."

 

"I do not believe he will either," Glaster stated. "Should I be the one to try to tell him not to, I truly do not see him taking it in the way most of you are hoping. In fact, after all the years I have spent telling him to own up to the consequences of his actions, he will likely laugh at me and throw those words back in my face. The problem is, once he does so, I am no longer in a position to punish him and he knows it. Should I try to threaten him, it will be idle at best, and infuriating to him at worst."

 

Golhaod rubbed his claws along the long blade at his hip even as he joined in the conversation, "If you are not the one to break the information to him, will he pay attention if you try to calm him?"

 

"I believe there is a much better chance than if I am the one to tell him of Frexla's incursion. However, once again I feel there is a better than even chance of him telling me he made the mess and he needs to clean it up. If he takes such a mindset, I will be useless to you all. In my opinion, it is best to see if he will come to me for counsel, for if he does, then I will hold a decent amount of sway."

 

After several seconds of uneasy silence, Wek spoke up, "General Vondum, you were his commander at the time we first saw you at the hot springs..."

 

"Ah yes, when he dropped three trees like they were mere twigs, shortly after you all insulted him, if I remember correctly," Vondum snorted.

 

The muscles on Wek's neck fanned out as he cringed at not only the looks he was getting, but the memory of watching the spinning snow blades slice through trees many times bigger around than he was. "Yes, General, and a reason we will have little to no sway in this. Our first interaction was memorable in all the wrong ways. He knows I already mistook him for an innocent, vulnerable youngster in your control. Something I should not have done to any good looking free boy in your company. But what is done is done. At least we reversed out initial mistake by working him through the Gate Stone activation."

 

Vondum grinned, showing no shame in body posture or words. "A good recovery, but I agree. Your first interaction with Premier Kandric will still, unfortunately, be forever remembered by him. As far as a boy being in or under my control, he never gave me reason to impose myself on him. However, for those who do not know or understand, it might be best for me to state this clearly. My craving for boy flesh to share my bed is well known above the Silver Spine, as is how I treat those not strong enough to become men." He then hardened as he stared right into Wek's eyes and added, "Since you obviously knew this about me, you should have never underestimated him."

 

Wek refused to flinch, "Indeed, and it was something discussed beforehand, but only in passing. However... much like many here, I let appearance cloud my judgment. But I would like to get back to the problem at hand. You were his commander. Will he not listen to you?"

 

"Possibly," Vondum sighed, "but while there is some trust and even respect, I had almost nothing to do with bringing him in as a Black Rapids' Scout. His actions all but forced my hand. The whole reason we met was I was careless enough to leave a trail for..." he glanced at Bandurlok's representative, his former instructor, smirked and resumed speaking, "I guess the best word to use would be raiders... Yes, I allowed raiders to find my primary forward scouting base. Without our cute, yet cunning and deadly little Premier, I may not have held said base. He then defended it a second time from the Ice Hellions and the Ice Demon, an event I didn't fully understand the ramifications of until recently. Regardless, the result was my men demanded we offer him a position within the Black Rapids' military and most of what he was wearing when you first saw him was made by my men, without really bothering to ask me.

 

"However, I had the advantage of seeing him best a caster and a Swordsman even as I was fighting to save said base, so I had no misgivings about his level of... ability might be the best word. What I have seen leads me to believe I really am not the right person to open the conversation about the princes or Frexla. Instead, it would probably be better served for me to step in, forcefully if needed, to try to calm him if he takes the news as we all expect."

 

"Forcefully?" Syrissia asked with look of disbelief. "Good General, we really need you and your knowledge of Dragons for upcoming battles."

 

Seeing Vondum shrug, the Hawkling tossed up its arms, "There are at least a dozen real Dragons in this camp, why not just have one of them inform the Premier?"

 

Pangam grunted, "Massster Kentra, and High Priesssst of Avgon, you cannot expect any Dragonkind to have a longing to confront and probably anger Premier Kandric. You need go no further than to walk down to the ice of what had been a lake, now a solid block of ice from bank to bank, ssssurface to bottom. Allow the glow to guide you and look downward. You will behold the ice-locked head and body of Prince Weraweld, the White Dragon'ssss best fighter and who most Dragonkind imagine wassss Crown Prince. The body can be found, backlit by magic covered hornssss. Take in such a wonder to discover with zero ambiguity why no Dragonkind, anywhere, would be prepared to take the lead on informing Premier Kandric of Frexla taking Prince Darmoth and Prince Rathiter."

 

Golhaod gestured toward Pangam, "Well declared Emissssssary Pangam. The Premier, up to now, hassss inveterated a near unfathomable, god-like, ability to ignore normal fear Dragonkind garner by reputation, size or lethalnesssss. Even more frightening, he impartssss the confidence to comradessss. No, Masssster Kentra, there is no Dragon going to take a lead role. In actuality, there be no Dragonkind I know of dim-witted enough to be within gazing range of the Premier, and killer of my former king, when he be told of Frexla's encroachment in our realm and procurement of the princesssss.

 

"On the other hand, Massster Kentra, you are a lead Channeler of Avgon. You have colossal respect by right of title and position with the order of Avgon. Why not delegate the matter for you to handle?"

 

The Hawkling Channeler's feathers ruffled some as his eyes moved around the tent. "I do not know, nor have yet met, the young Premier. This does not mean I am shirking my duties to Avgon or the mortal realm as a whole. If the consensus is it is best for me to do so, I will.

 

"However, I have no familiarity with him and he has no reason to see me as anything more than a Master guild ranked Warrior Adept and Avgon Channeler. I do not even know if he worships Avgon and if he does, to what extent. The feelings I get from my connection with the Spirits of Avgon suggest he has much closer ties to Syria and Vindayin than Avgon."

 

Glaster jumped back into the conversation, "Master Kentra, while you are partially correct, Premier Kandric really loves the night. To this end, he has always been awed by the night sky. Therefore, while he worships Vindayin and to a lesser extent Syria as part of daily life, he is a frequent visitor of the temples of Quati and has dropped offering in my presence a few times to Lunara. His Dagger Boar knife handle is carved by his own hand to where when he grasps it he is holding the insignia of Quati, God of the night sky."

 

Glaster couldn't help but smile at the expressions of bewilderment on the faces of many within the tent. Quati was not one an Elf-blooded being normally worshiped, nor was he a god of the Outdoorsman, Shaman, or Ruinseekers go to for normal worshiping. "Once again, my teaching style is all about self-responsibility. While I have never been one to do more than pay Quati passing gratitude, who Premier Kandric chose to worship was left to him... I can also assure you he has been to temples or shrines of every god. However, he is not, and never will be one to speak highly of Jolan, and while he has said a few kind words about Crytrall over the finding of fresh drinkable water, the chances of him giving an offering at one of her shrines is exceedingly slim.

 

"When it comes to Avgon, I can tell you little. He never showed an interest. Because of this, other than me demanding he spend a trio of days in a Avgon Shrine outside of Scorpion Falls so he could at least understand the basic tenants of the faith, I do not believe he has done more with Avgon worshipers. For the record, I had him do the same for all gods as part of his Ruinseeker training...Regardless, I do not believe he has an interest in the God of Air."

 

Glaster smiled at the memory, "However, he did kill his first four undead there, so the trip was not a waste."

 

"At least you allowed him to learn something about Avgon," Kentra sighed at the news Kandric probably didn't see much in the god Kentra faithfully served from boyhood. "There must be someone the Premier trusts enough to handle the news of his prince blooded brothers having been kidnapped by Frexla without an unreasonable amount of anger. He may be a Premier, but he is still a boy. What about his mother?"

 

Coughs, snorts, snickers, and outright groans cascaded around the tent as this idea elicited negative responses from those who had even passing knowledge of Kaylaria. Seeing confusion in the Hawkling's eyes, Duke Mathard spoke, "Master Kentra, there are a multitude of reasons Princess Kaylaria is not here, and will never be part of this discussion. Her skills as a mother are... lacking... and to say such is probably being kind." He turned to look at Princess Syrissia to make sure he had not gone too far.

 

Instead of being angry with Mathard, Syrissia simply nodded. "While I have never met Princess Kaylaria, what Duke Mathard stated gives our Premier's mother more credit than I feel she is due. Honestly, from what I have learned, we would have better luck with Frexla coming back to tell Premier Kandric while spitting in his face. While he cares for his mother... probably... the attachment, if it exists at all, ends there. He has done more to take care of his siblings than his mother for quite some time now and he sees her unwillingness to not use her skills to better himself and his siblings as absurd and foolish. My view is considerably worse. Princess Kaylaria will be offered a construction of a temple and a huge boost of prestige to be a royal breeder of a superior bloodline for the Alphar. She will not, under any circumstances, raise those she breeds for us, however."

 

The Blue Dragonling envoy turned his attention to Syrissia, "Princesss, does the Alphar hold no influence over the Premier? He is of your blood..."

 

"Master Veltam, you are only partially correct. He has our blood yes," Syrissia exhaled. "The problem is he is neither Alphar in mind or heart. This is once again an area of total failure by his mother. However, there is no question he finds extreme pride at having made his way from nothing to what he is now. In truth, as much as it pains me to admit this, he is a Premier because he had no help from the Alphar. Because of this, any sway we should have, is worse than useless. Any attempt to pander to him about his bloodline would undoubtedly end up further inflaming his anger and be totally counterproductive."

 

Mathard shook his head, "By treaty it was the responsibility of the Garm to look after his mother. Once Premier Kandric was born, it was our duty to guide and aid him as well. With the exception of Prince Aster, we utterly failed in our duty, and the Garm who took Prince Aster under his wing, took a path of giving Aster all the freedom needed to have similar attitudes as Premier Kandric, so even where we did something it was not within our sworn duty."

 

The Silver Dragon Court envoy made a bit of a snarling sound to cause enough of a sonic vibration to cause crystal glasses and decanters to vibrate, "If our Premier cannot be influenced by noble blooded heritage, why not turn to the other half, the commoner blood within him?"

 

Glaster focused on the Silver Dragonling, "Your thoughts are good ones, Lord Pylithium. Unfortunately, as best I can surmise, his Human side was buried in a mining accident just outside of Junsac. He begged me to take him to the site of the mine on our last visit down there, when he earned his Secondary Echelon pins. It was one of the few times I saw him cry... His memories of his Human father, along with siblings I was not able to locate for him, are still there and it is clear he misses his father more than anything I have ever found. Now if we could find his brother, Conner, there is a Elvin... Alphar... brother he was clearly very fond of. The two would be very close to the same age since Premier Kandric ages as a Halfelf."

 

"But it is already slowing," Mathard interjected. "Premier Kandric will end up about a human equivalent year behind Prince Conner and just slightly more when it comes to Prince Aster and Prince Bayne. Nonetheless, I find this news very interesting. For this is the first time I have heard of a strong attachment to any family. It is good to hear there is some, even if it is from a standpoint of sorrow."

 

"Oh, I bore first-hand observer to family attachment," Pangam chimed in, "the way he charged into battle when Prince Rathiter and Prince Darmoth were in danger clearly exhibitsss a family loyalty. But if he rememberssss Prince Conner, we need to procure the young prince and bring him here to determine if he can have the needed calming effect."

 

Monarch's jaw wiggled back and forth a few times before speaking. "While I know this is a bit farfetched, what about this?" He paused to make sure he had everyone's attention before continuing. "We could tell Prince Conner of Frexla's transgressions and have him ask Premier Kandric for assistance..."

 

Duke Mathard let out a sigh, "While information is still sketchy, it is my understanding Prince Aster is in or near Rolling Dale. Last word we had on Prince Conner, however, was just before he separated from Prince Aster. He stayed aboard a barge called the Thunder Rapids with its crew while Prince Aster headed overland. My understanding was the barge was headed down to Everone."

 

Glaster quickly verified, "Prince Aster made it out of Rolling Dale with me. He was with a Junsac Barony Watch team which included the Hawkling, Sardan. They broke off shortly after eliminating bandits chasing my caravan. If you think it would be helpful, I may be able to contact Sardan, but the magical disturbances my... our... Premier has unleashed may prevent it. The problem is, I doubt there are any ties, other than blood, between Prince Aster and Premier Kandric."

 

Chark'ash said something softly while procuring himself some meat and cheese off the central table.

 

While the barely audible muttering was all but drowned out, Wek looked over, "Something to say young Drow?"

 

Chark'ash instantly put what he was selecting on a small plate, set it on the table, and took a knee in a deep bow of respect and subjugation, "My sincere apologies, Teacher and Emissary Wek, I did not intend for my utterances to be heard."

 

Mathard couldn't help but blink even as he stood and moved over to Chark'ash. "Extremely elegant speech and astonishingly proper decorum in your current surrounding, child."

 

He knelt in front of the boy. As he saw the youngster tighten and tremble slightly, Mathard lifted his chin, and gave him a warm smile. "Please do not be afraid. Stand and tell me your name."

 

With a cringe he stood and glanced over at Glaster.

 

"Do not look to me, Chark," Glaster snapped. "Your upbringing is better than to turn away from one of higher stature than your current overseer."

 

Chark'ash turned back to Mathard, "Duke and Lord of Winter Creek, I am referred to by Chark by most over me including my current commander. My disturbance of this meeting is to my great shame. Please forgive me."

 

Wek shot the boy a toothy grin, "There is nothing to be ashamed of, Chark. You have never been around Pantherlings or our keen ears before. Your utterance had to have been of a pitch you had no expectation of being overheard. Up to this point, you have been in this tent and shown amazing restraint and patience for a child of your age."

 

"Indeed you have," Mathard concurred. "However, you did say something, and I wish to hear it."

 

Chark'ash noticeably cringed while his shoulders dropped, "Lord of Winter Creek, it was really nothing worthy of your time, nor of any other esteemed member of this delegation. I feel it would needlessly distract from encouraging this Premier to not do anything so foolish as to invite another open war between the Mythlings and Mythlets."

 

Syrissia's eyebrows shot up, "Not only does he have a royal court worthy speech pattern, good manners, and understanding of titles, the young Drow also listens and knows history. Very impressive. Now, however, you have the ears of all of us, and I find myself as interested in what was said, regardless of your desire to be heard. So knock off with the court inspired subtlety crap and spill it already!"

 

The princess's words caused several eyes to go wide at her sudden lack of etiquette, but it had the desired outcome, as Chark'ash took a step back and spoke without holding back, "I stated there was another tie between the two princes, they shared Lord Glaster's bed!"

 

While many gasped and a few grabbed for wine glasses, Vondum moved up and lightly punched Glaster in the shoulder, "Two princes, I am impressed Lord Glaster. You have an impeccable appreciation for, and ability to procure, high stature boy flesh!"

 

Chark just couldn't stop himself at this point, figuring he would be punished in ways he could not even contemplate in his worst nightmares for letting the information out for the world to know. "Two princes? No, three, soon to be four... at least...."

 

At this all eyes turned back to Chark'ash. It was Monarch who first found his voice, "Soon to be four? As in you?"

 

Chark'ash quickly covered for his mistake, at least in part. "No Lord Monarch, I am not to be his fourth. Lord Glaster has had three princes and there is another in waiting to share his bed." Chark'ash lowered his head and shook it, "I assure you the third and soon to be fourth were not subjugated, harmed or tricked into being bedded."

 

"So you are certain they were not forced?" Mathard demanded to know.

 

"I am beyond confident of this, Lord of Winter Creek. Was there some subtle coercion, possibly. Force or other threats, no not by any stretch of any law I am aware of. In actuality, between the available options, both took the reasonable course of action in submitting to my lord's.... requests. One was placed in a situation where he ended up under the full control of Lord Glaster by right of debt and the other contracted to my current lord for the finalization of training with full knowledge, possibly after the fact, of what side duties would be, will soon be, required. Once again I fully apologize for being a major interruption and diversion from such an essential conference..."

 

Matharad's hard demeanor eased considerably, but he stayed focused on Chark'ash. "And the possible act of coercion?"

 

"While there, it cannot be construed by anyone as more than bargaining from a position of strength and power. From what I have seen and learned already, in the short time since he gained my services, negotiation is something Lord Glaster, as a trade caravan master, is phenomenal at. My current commander has an incredible gift of finding the weakness and desires in others to gain every advantage. I firmly believe he could find a way sell seawater to a ship captain lost at sea and make the man smile as he hands over a pouch of coin."

 

"The profit taxes Lord Glaster pays when his caravan departs Black Rapids says this young Drow can't be far from the truth." Vondum snickered. "If a prince, any prince, is procured for bedding as part of a legitimate business deal, there can be no crime, at least in Black Rapids."

 

"No crime anywhere." Syrissia stated. "In fact, if you really have the skills I am hearing about, Lord Glaster, and are willing to willing to teach them. I take my earlier words and transform them into a serious concession, for I have a prince in need of a someone to squire for, nowhere as beautiful as our Premier, but certainly trainable. If part of the price he and I have to pay to get him trained in the realms outside our lands in all aspects of what he will be facing as we reenter the larger world, I have a fifth prince for your list of conquests."

 

As the tent fell totally silent and all eyes turned to her, she shrugged, "Considering, at some point I am going to have to make the offer for our Premier to come to my palace, and by doing so I will be inviting a Halforc into my home as an honored guest, the subsequent shock of me allowing the bedding of my son as part of his squire-ship will be less than nothing within the Alphar courts."

 

At this Mathard reluctantly nodded, "Princess Syrissia, while I cringe at your offer, you are correct. Allowing Sir Seldnat in and opening up a honored guest room in the inner walls of palaces within Garm lands will send more than a few upper and even mid-level royalty to want to hide under their beds and conceal their valuables. It will be somewhat entertaining to observe the resulting firestorm of decorum breaches and how the Garm court will deal with any grievances."

 

"The same will happen within Alphar lands," Syrissia smirked. "The fallout will be phenomenally enjoyable to monitor. By the time my son even enters into the conversation, it will be so minor as to not even be heard by the royal court, should anyone wish to imply wrongdoing on my part. I assure you it will not happen, however. Having Lord Glaster as my son's mentor will never be challenged."

 

At this Vondum's new squire took a knee, "Princess, General Vondum, to move back onto the real problem, if I may interject?"

 

Getting an elegant hand gesture from Syrissia followed by a nod from Vondum, Cam'ris spoke while keeping his head down, "Nobles, lords, and emissaries, I am just guessing, but I am starting to think there is a large difference between Alphar lands and customs and elsewhere. In Alphar lands, and traditions, who agrees to take a child as a squire is extremely important. While I have no idea how much this applies to high royalty, I know it does to some extent. Because of this, much like myself accepting the offer of General Vondum to squire for him with no protections in place, there is a level of prestige the prince would gain at procuring the squire duties to the Mentor of Premier Kandric. It will overshadow all. Also, much like myself, and I know I should not even mention who I am when talking about a prince, but, I know of no other way. Um, the world I am about to enter is totally foreign to me, and I can guess even more so to an Alphar prince. To work in the greater realms outside our lands, we will need instructors from here. Having to pay a price of body or treasure will save lives of untold numbers of Alphar youth.

 

"As an example, one of the pouches of coin given to me by General Vondum, so I may have some local-style coin to spend, had bronze and tin crudely rounded and stamped coins. Until shortly before I entered this tent I had no clue anyone would find a piece of tin or bronze worth anything except as spare globs of castoff metal from inside a forge."

 

Chark'ash looked over, "A tin coin could buy you a sweet stick in most places... For me it would be two or even three."

 

Cam'ris frowned, "Why more for you? Um, and what is a sweet stick?"

 

"You know, a sweet stick." Getting only a blank look from Cam'ris and noting a raised eyebrow out of Princess Syrissia, Chark'ash blinked then gulped, "I am sorry. A sweet stick is usually the sap of a tree, hardened, and drizzled with another sweet substance, often a hint of honey..."

 

At this Cam'ris couldn't help but finger his pouch, "It sounds really good! I, um,would like to try one, probably a great deal more, but why would you pay more?"

 

Vondum spoke up, "The reason is he is Drow and the vast majority of merchants are less than kind to Chark's kind, Cam'ris. Of course, any merchant I see doing so to Chark, will end up paying a Healthman several thousand tin, probably several cart loads of tin, to repair what I do to him or her. However, you have both made your points very well. As for getting Cam'ris a sweet stick, I think Lord Glaster and I could give the two of you some time in a town when all this is settled, to spend some coin and get to know each other. It would do both of you some good, and I really like the way you are not showing the degree of fear from Chark as most of your kind."

 

"I see nothing to be afraid of, General. If anything, I see a possible friend who can teach me much."

 

"I would very much like to get to know an Alphar." Chark'ash stated astonishing himself almost as much as everyone else in the tent. "My people only say bad about your kind, but I see nothing to fear in you either."

 

"I feel I would learn much and if I have to defend you from stupid people, all I ask is General Vondum teach me how to fight better so I can do so properly."

 

"Excellent." Vondum stated with clear praise. "Now before we continue this meeting, do either of you have anything else to add to our dilemma with our Premier we may find as helpful?"

 

"General Vondum," Syrissia asked with astonishment and a degree of shock in her voice, "are you seriously asking a Drow and a worker caste Alphar squire boy for advice in a matter of such far reaching and with as many ramifications as this?"

 

Lord Pylithium tossed up his silver-scaled arms and hissed with enough force to crack a few crystal glasses close to him from his accidently release of some of its sonic breath attack, showing a growing level of frustration, "Good Princess, we are only a turn or two of an hourglass before the slumber spell wears off of the Premier, and I am already surprised our scouts have not returned to tell us the location of the White Dragon encampment."

 

At this Glaster tossed his leaking glass of wine off to the side, "Agreed. Time grows short, and one thing I guarantee you is this. Premier Kandric went to sleep knowing we were having a meeting we did not want him party to, and it will not be long before he asks, then demands answers as to why."

 

Duke Mathard frowned deeply before looking back and forth between the two boys, then back over to Syrissia, "Princess, while reluctant, I am forced to concur. What could possibly come out of the mouths of these two worse than some of the ideas we have thus verbalized?"

 

Monarch stood, grabbed a new glass and poured himself a healthy helping of wine, "Hearing ideas of two boys who should hate each other, but show no such desire to be anything other than friends, it is quite possible the two have more diplomacy in them than the rest of us combined, and certainly more than I ever will. So I say let them speak."

 

Syrissia looked up, "Oh, great Pelgrin, God of Warriors and Wisdom, guide the tongues of these two boys as we let them speak and open our ears to any useful ideas to spill forth."

 

Cam'ris cringed, "Nobles and emissaries, I have nothing."

 

Seeing all eyes turn to him, Chark'ash took a deep breath, exhaled, and started to shake his head. however, he simply couldn't hold his thoughts to himself, "Nobles, Lords, Emissaries, if you really want to know who has the best chance of having the Premier listen, you have all have but to ask those who know him best."

 

Mathard frowned deeply, "Young Drow, Chark, who better than the man who trained him and the man who was his commander?"

 

"With all due respect Duke and Lord of Winter Creek, you all keep saying how he trusts his knighted friends, especially this Seldnat. If they really know him the way you all have reiterated in this tent several times, and they are as respected by him, you should ask them!"

 

Syrissia started to say something only to have the words get caught in her throat. Several others started to speak as well but other than make some quick arm gestures, nothing was said. In fact the tent was dead silent for several seconds.

 

A grin spread over Glaster's mouth as he leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms over his chest, and finally broke the silence, "And there, Lords and Lady, is why he is mine."

 

While a quick vote was taken, and the idea was unanimously approved, word came from a Wolfling scout. The out of breath Outdoorsman was escorted in breathing hard, "Master Veltam..."

 

The Blue Dragonling frowned deeply, "Scout, there are high royalty here!"

 

The Wolfling took a knee, "My apologies! Princess, Duke, others, the camp has been located. Most have fled, but a decent detachment of at least four Warrior Dragons and several score of Dragonlings are still there. I was able to get close enough to hear some as their last True barked commands before taking to the air. They have orders to retrieve the glowing horns of Prince Weraweld at all costs. They also are keeping two captives with orders to deliver them to someone by the name of Gambra inside the walled settlement of Rolling Dale in hopes of forcing Premier Kandric to come after them."

 

Seeing Mathard looking her direction as Syrissia reached for her fur coat, she sighed and grabbed an insulated, reinforced leather, coat capable of being worn over her leather armor. She also grabbed a set of warm gloves offered to her by one of her guards.

 

As she double-checked to make sure she could pull her Alphar Light Sword off her hip cleanly, she shot a glance down at Chark'ash, then over to Mathard. With an annoyed shake of her head, she spoke, "Wake Premier Kandric and his knights. When you do so, tell Pike, Sir Lorthorn, Sir Zeltoss," Syrissia let out a deep sigh upon hearing Mathard clear his throat, "and yes, even Sir Seldnat... Inform them Duke Mathard and I would like a word!"

 

While the combined forces got ready, a pair of Garm guards escorted the boys into the command tent. Pike gulped and took a knee while speaking to Mathard, "We were summoned, my Duke!"

 

Lorthorn went into a basic bow, "Princess, Duke, um, other lords... um.... Kandric wants to know why you wanted us and not him."

 

Seeing the others boys at least take knees, Syrissia spoke, "Young knights of our Premier, please stand. While we do not wish to keep anything from our Premier, we have some bad news for him. But since we are about to go into combat, we also feel it is imperative he is not too distracted or angry."

 

Zeltoss looked up, "Ma'am... Princess, um Princess ma'am..."

 

Mathard chuckled, "Just princess, is fine, Sir Zeltoss."

 

Zeltoss took a couple of breaths to calm himself, "Um, Princess, do you really think any of us telling him is gunna keep him like calm or something?"

 

"No," Mathard responded. "However, we are wondering what adult or adults you all would recommend."

 

Seldnat cocked his head to the side, "Me Duke, me only sees one ta tells Kandric ta shapes up, but her no here none."

 

Seeing Princess Syrissia turn her head, grit her teeth, and cringe at the horrible language erupting out of Seldnat, Mathard reached out and patted the boy on the shoulder, "Who would this woman be?"

 

Lorthorn quickly spoke since he could see Syrissia was not the only one totally appalled by Seldnat's speech. "My Duke, Teacher Saslara did just what you seem to want someone to do before we attacked Bloody Rock. At the time she mentioned he needed to find an adult to put himself under and look to for advice. Kandric listened and spoke of a Dwarf, but I do not remember the name. But Teacher Saslara did stop a little... I guess temper tantrum would be the best words to use."

 

Mathard shook his head while focusing on Syrissia, "The Slome Swordsman Teacher, we have not yet located her, and since a necklace was found which is said to be extremely important to her, we believe she may be dead."

 

Mathard turned his attention back to the boys, "Do any of you remember the name of the Dwarf he spoke so highly about?"

 

The three knighted kids exchanged glances and one after the other shook their heads.

 

"Verbal responses should be given when being asked a question by royalty boys," Mathard spoke firmly, yet in a way telling everyone he was teaching not scolding. "Please remember to do so in the future. However, with it being unlikely we will find this Teacher, what recommendations would you make for who to tell him of the information we him to have, but do not want a..." he paused as he tried to find the right words.

 

"We are trying to avoid a volatile response," Princess Syrissia filled in.

 

"Vol'tile?" Seldnat couldn't help but ask, "Whats be vol'tile?"

 

"It means getting mad and doing something stupid, Seld," Lorthorn stated.

 

"We are not even implying our Premier would do anything stupid," Wek responded.

 

"Bull!" Seldnat snorted.

 

Hearing several gasps, Syrissia's lips twisted up, "Duke Mathard, I am starting to see some of the rudimentary charm others have noted in our knighted Halforc."

 

Mathard gave a deep gut laugh, "Rudimentary charm, I like it Princess. However we are diverging from the proper topic. Boys, if we cannot locate this Teacher Saslara, who else do you feel would be the proper being to talk to him so he has the best chance of listening?"

 

Zeltoss looked up, "Depending on the news, and I'm betting it's real bad if you all are afraid to tell him, the only one I see in this tent who may stand a chance of not having him blow something up, knock something down, or destroy something real big, is you, Duke Mathard."

 

Seldnat nodded, "Me' think Zel be right, but me bets Kandric do all three if'n it be real bad ta calls me in ta asks!"

 

Lorthorn looked up, "Princess, Duke, others, if I may?"

 

"Please young knight!" Glaster stated while eyeing Mathard with a raised eyebrow.

 

"Um, right now we have some students to rescue. You can use this as an excuse as why you aren't telling him whatever you don't seem to want to tell him, but the longer you wait the more angry he will get. So maybe it'd be best to just tell him in the middle of a fight. This way if he is going to get angry, it will be probably be directed toward the White Dragons."

 

Monarch rubbed his chin, "Use the situation for a natural outlet for his anger?"

 

Seldnat nodded, "If'n him's gunna gets mad 'cause what's me gots ta tells him, me'd want him mad at somethin' not me!"

 

Vondum spoke up, "I sure got nothing better!"

 

"It is a good plan," Glaster agreed. "It will allow him to vent in a direction where little to no long-term harm will be caused."

 

"Except for White Dragonkind," Pangam snickered. "No better place to direct rage than on one of our mutual opponentssss."

 

Mathard took a deep breath, "Very well. I assume you four can keep this to yourselves?"

 

Seldnat held up both hands, "Me ain't dumb 'nough ta gets Kandric mad at me none!"

 

The other three all pointed to Seldnat while nodding in total agreement.

 

"Very well," Syrissia stated while still fighting hard not to vomit at Seldnat's speech patterns. "Boys, get back to Premier Kandric and prepare for battle, but do us a favor and tell him to hold back so you can all see why even Dragonkind knows better than to enter the Deathland Mountains. We will find the right moment to inform him of the grave news..."

 

Lorthorn looked up with an eagerness in his eyes, "Guys, we get to see how the Garm and Alphar can really fight! Isn't it awesome?"

 

Seldnat growled as he exited the tent, "All me hears be me no gets ta gunch no big lizard again."

 

Mathard ran his hand down his face while Syrissia shook her head at the Halforc's words.

 

Syrissia turned to the guard she had borrowed the gloves from, "We need a detachment of our best White Dragon Troopers down here now!"

 

Mathard turned to one of his people, "Go with him! Order a full battalion of the White Dragon Legion to gate down here and while you do, tell someone, anyone, to see if we have found this Teacher Saslara! We have only got a few hours before our Premier needs to be told and I really do not want to be the one who tells Premier Kandric about the taken princes!"

 

******

Bloody Rock (Governor's School: Spar Human M 11 Mage/Miner) (Saslara's School: Aed F 10 Swordsman/Outdoorsman, Puck (Halfling M 9 Swordsman/Outdoorsman)

 

A boy knelt next to a small bubbling pool of water. Using the light of a glow coin he looked it over before dipping his hand in and taking a small sip. With a relieved sigh he submerged his water skin and spoke up, "Finally, low iron and it's flowing. It's drinkable!"

 

The other two kids with him quickly dipped empty water skins in the pool, pulled them out and took long drinks. Within a couple of minutes they refilled empty skins.

 

The boy who made sure it was good water spoke again as the youngest kid, a Halfling of not quite the Human equivalent age of ten, started to dump a full water skin over his head, "Puck, back off and wash where the dirty water won't flow back into the pool! This is the first good water we've found in... well, probably days, and the last thing we want is to make it nasty with our filth."

 

The third kid, a Human girl closing on her eleventh year, spoke up, "Spar's right, Puck. This be the first drink in a long time and me lips be cracked. Don't go messin' it up none!"

 

As the Halfling backed well away and found a low spot well away from the pool, the girl turned her attention to Spar, "Hey, can us use a few torches ta build a fire so we can wash and stay warm while us dry off?"

 

Spar shot a spark out of his finger, igniting a candle. Being careful not to put it out, he picked it up and held it high. He watched it flicker and wiggle while he moved around the natural cavern, "Yeah, I think we can, Aed. We have some air flow and a high ceiling, so I think a fire would be safe. But remember, the last time we made a fire, we got the attention of a couple of Goblings."

 

He then looked around, "It's been a long time since my Force replenished, so it might be a good idea to take off any clothing you want clean. I'll cast a few Cleanse Autospells on them. This way we can be washed and have clean clothing."

 

Puck, the young Halfling boy, pulled off his battered chain armor with Aed's help and quickly stripped down. He moved back over to a low spot away from the pool and dumped his water skin over his head. "How 'bout us get somethin' with better food ta come after us this time. Them Gob rations be nasty and me think them spit back inta them water skins!"

 

"Better ta eat Gob food and have somethin' ta drink then nothin'," Aed stated, then forced a grin. "And neither not much worser than Teacher Saslara's squirrel stew."

 

Puck snickered and nodded, but still pointed out the obvious, "Least us knew what kind'a meat be in Teacher's stew. Me ain't sure what this jerky be made a, and no really want'a know none."

 

Spar moved well away from the pool and pulled a torch out of a backpack that was too big for him. He used the candle to light it before blowing the candle out. "My guess is the jerky is more pepper than meat, judging on the flavor, but I'm just glad they had some dry rations. Without them, the food and water skins we pulled off the crushed guards wouldn't have been enough for all this time. If we had tried to make it last, it would have probably spoiled by now and we'd be starving."

 

"Be more good them Gobs have backpacks and some gooder small blades and junk," Puck responded. "The ones us pulled off them dead guards be way too big fer me."

 

Aed pulled up one of the captured Gobling javelins, "Junk is right. Teacher Saslara would'a never let us use this none. But yer right, this Gob pack no be made good, but be way easier to carry than the big ones us pulled off them bad guards."

 

Spar added two more torches to the already burning one to make a small fire, even as he kicked at the pack he had been wearing, "Yeah, tell me about it. This one is killing me. But guys, keep weapons with you even as you wash just in case. I'll wait to clean up till after you're both washed-up, then cast so I save magic until you are ready to guard while I wash and wait to get my Force back."

 

"Good plan," Aed noted. "I still can't believe how lucky ya be ta have one a them crushed guards ta be carryin' yer spell thrower book."

 

Spar patted his book pouch and nodded, "Lucky to be sure, and even more so to find extra loose pages in his pack. I just wish I was good enough to use the spells in it..." He sighed knowing he was close to being able to cast a real Mage book spell, but just wasn't quite there yet. Instead of dwelling on something he could do nothing about, he tried to stay positive. "I still say all three of us got lucky to not get caught in the cave-in when the big healing blasts happened. We not only got fully healed, we managed to get two glow coins, some decent gear, and escape. I just hope the others from our schools weren't crushed and got away."

Puck nodded while using his water skin, mess kit, and a big hunk of soap to get clean for the first time since well before the dual bursts of black and green energy instantly healed his broken arm, badly cut leg, and brought down tons of rocks on the guards just in front of them. The collapse even killed one of the Slome governor's spell casting teachers watching over the worst of the injured students forced to fight in the pit. As an added stroke of luck, the governor's student who had been with them was not only a spell thrower, but a Miner trainee as well. This meant the older boy was strong enough to help push some rocks around to get gear off the crushed guards while knowing which ones to move without causing others to fall. Spar was then able lead them safely down a few crumbling passages to get away from the governor and the horrible guards on the other side of the cave-in. It was almost enough for the small Halfling to think one of the gods had been watching over them.

 

The real problem had been trusting the spell caster, a governor's school student. However, all doubts had been extinguished when they stopped and made a small fire to cook some of the food they had found in one of the big packs. Two Goblings came around a corner, drawn by the flickering light. Spar's use of spells was the difference between taking them down or getting recaptured. The older boy then let Puck and Aed take all the smaller gear off the two Goblings while he dealt with a pack too big for himself. The other thing was, Spar always seemed to look at the good side of things. Even being lost in the seemingly endless caves and passages under Bloody Rock was not enough to totally sour the young spell caster's mood. The following hours and even days cemented Spar as not only a friend, but the leader of the small group.

 

For Spar's part, he had born into a wealthy merchant family, but unlike many in Slome, his father, and to a lesser extent his mother, expected him to make his own mark in the word. As his father told all seven kids in the household, "I'll give you all the tools you could ever need, but only if you provide the brains and or brawn behind them." True to the man's words, Spar had been provided with the best schooling and gear in the Slome area money could buy, but in exchange he had to apprentice himself out before his ninth year for family funds to continue to support him.

 

His older brother thought he could slide by, but discovered otherwise. On the moon following Spar's brother's ninth year, the older boy found his room emptied and the only spot for him in the house was in the servant wing, and food at the servant table was only given to him if he did servant duties. Less than a moon later his brother found a slot in the local bakery, but was only allowed back into the main house as a member of the family for special occasions. It was a life lesson he learned by proxy, but it stuck. The moon after Spar turned eight, he cast his first Autospell and was put into the governor's school to learn control. Three moons later, Spar asked his father to take him around to shops looking for apprentices or at least needing a hand, so Spar could work toward being one.

 

Having a wealthy and prestigious father, combined with his budding magical ability, helped open doors, but after a week and a score of shops, the only thing Spar found interesting was the Gem Worker shop right inside the main gate. After a long discussion, his father took him back to the shop that had an opening for a cleaning boy with the potential to work the cleaning job into an apprenticeship. However, as Spar was escorted in the small shop, he found the owner talking with two very rugged and strong looking men.

 

The pair had a couple of sacks of quartz and a large pouch of topaz. Seeing the raw crystals really piqued his interest so he moved closer. Spar watched with growing interest as the gem cutter looked over several of the stones while the men told the shop owner about a newly discovered cave they had been working, and that they expected to have more crystals in the coming weeks.

 

The bigger of the two miners glanced down as Spar edged ever closer and smiled, "You like rocks, boy?"

 

"Yes, sir. I'm trying to apprentice here."

 

"Apprentice, huh?" The man handed the boy a chunk of smoky quartz, "Ever thought about going after the raw stones like this instead of being stuck in some shop cutting and polishing them?"

 

Seeing his son's eyes light up, Spar's father stepped up, "Unless you can provide some references and are guilded..."

 

The big man extended his hand, "I'm Morge, guilded Warrior Adept and Miner." The guy nodded toward the other man, "And this is Granad, my cousin, also guilded as a Swordsman, Miner, and Argon Channeler. You can get with Channeler Mertz at the Argon Shrine for a quick reference and I'll think you will find a few of the forges know both of us pretty well."

 

Spar's father shook the man's hand and nodded as Morge pulled at the shoulder strap of his pack with his other hand, uncovering Secondary step 2 pins of the Warrior Adept and Miner guilds.

 

At the same time the shop owner spoke up, "Morge's a regular. Him and his crew work the hills just down into the pass. Normally they bring up ore, but as you can see, they are very opportunistic. They're good folk, and provide ore and stones to forges and cutters here and in four villages along the edge of the Silver Spine."

 

Spar's father rubbed his chin, "What about schooling? He will need to spend time in Slome."

 

Morge smiled even as he applied enough pressure on the handshake to get a wince out of Spar's father. He then let go and easily read a sign on the wall, showing his was at least decently literate. "If you provide your son some tomes, me and Granad can do some book teaching and we come into Slome with loads often. If you feel we ain't good enough, we can drop him off at a local school here for a few weeks at a time to catch up with what we can't teach him," Morge stated. "But being a miner means honing some inside magic, just like being a Gem Worker. I gather your boy got enough magical talent to at least Subfield guild?"

 

Spar rolled his fingers and sent up a puff of bright blue smoke, "Not just Subfield, I'm going to be a Mage!"

 

This got a raised eyebrow out Morge and caused Granad to take a great deal more interest in the lad. Morge knelt, lifted Spar's arm and squeezed the bicep. "Not bad for a boy your age, and me, Granad, and Zarga could use a good, young, willing to learn, hand or two. I can also work with you on spell control, but your pa is right, we'll have to drop you off here often for some proper Mage schooling. If you're willing to work hard, not afraid of getting dirty, and don't mind being around a bit of a rough crowd of guys and a couple of gals, I'd take you on."

 

Spar's smile told everyone he was all for it, and a quick trip to the Argon Shrine was all it took for his father to give final approval. Spar headed out three days later, with brand new traveling and mining gear made for his size, plus a few books. This includied a spell book with two pages, and an agreement for Morge to drop him off at the governor's school at least once every other moon for no less than two weeks and for a three moon stint during the winter. With a signed contract stipulating 'good care', 'proper training', and 'fair trainee wages', Spar joined the two men as they headed out into the wilderness just off the main pass.

 

Now, almost three and a half years later, Spar was one of the lead apprentices in Morge's troop, second only to his best friend Rafil, and was guilded as Training step 5 as both a Mage and Miner. His father had provided him with an extra page for his book with each step, and he had managed to pick up three others out of the pack of one of the guards. He had come very close to casting a couple of them, but just couldn't push enough Force through himself to turn the incantations into a working spell. Even the governor, who clearly didn't like him, told him a couple of weeks prior to heading out to Bloody Rock he was a moon, if not mere weeks, away from gaining the control needed.

 

Every day since, he pulled out his book and tried to cast one of his spell book spells right after his Force replenished, and each day he felt like he was getting closer, but the breakthrough just hadn't happened yet. With the betrayal of the governor's school staff and the brutality he had endured at their hands, he was even more determined to cast a real spell so he could get his revenge and maybe rescue some of those he had attended classes with.

 

However, unlike most of his fellow students, he didn't buy into the mantra of the governor's school being better or more elite than Saslara's. Spar guessed this was mostly because of working around a 'rougher' and 'less educated' group of folks. Spar didn't see the kids from Saslara's school as undeserving of being in the governor's school. He also didn't see the poor speech or minimal ability to read, like the kids he was now with, as them being stupid. All he saw were hard working kids wanting to go somewhere in life and he respected them. This allowed him to value and even admire their internal drive.

 

Off in a small nook in the large natural chamber Aed washed. To keep her mind off of being naked in front of two boys, she tried to make some small talk, "Ya think we's close ta gettin' out a here?"

 

Spar had to fight not to sound as disheartened as he felt, "I sure hope so. We haven't seen or even heard nothing in a long time, and I've tried to keep us going up as much as possible. The real problem is the goveroner took us in near the base of Bloody Rock, then took us deep. Then I took us deeper real fast after the Goblings since we heard noise above us. The healing bursts also blocked off the way I knew how to get out. But if we keep going up we've eventually got to come out someplace. Once we do, we can head down into the pass and hook up with Morge. I'm sure I can get him to take you both in, as long as you agree to work doing odd jobs around the camp. You can stay with us until we can figure out what is really going on inside Slome."

 

Puck refilled his water skin, moved back away from the pool and used it to rinse off. "Me not really think it be good to go backs to Slome none, so me'll work real hard doin' whatever yer Miner teach'r want done. But Spar, me still don't know how ya can tell us ain't goin' round and round. Ya no leave no marks 'er nothin' and all this look the same ta me!"

 

Aed snickered, "First time we've seen this pool, so us sure ain't been here before, Puck. And Spar, I'm with Puck, I'll work doin' whatever yer Mining teacher want me to do if it keep me out'a Slome and away from the gov'ner."

 

"I know you both will work and Morge will like both of you." Spar then turned his attention to Puck, "Making marks would let someone follow and find us. I am wanting out of here just as bad as you are at this point." Spar assured the small Halfling. "But don't worry. There are lots of ways to tell one area of a cave from another and being a Miner apprentice, I was taught what to look for. We haven't been in the same part of the caves in a long time now. The last time was just before we slept the third time, and this is all totally different."

 

"So us did double back at some point?" Aed asked.

 

"Yeah," Spar admitted. "I took us back to spots we had already been to when we came to the deep looking hole with heat coming up out of it in the middle of the floor and again when we started to smell smoke."

 

Aed frowned, "I get not wanting to be in the smoke. It smelled bad. But I kind of liked the heat..."

 

"Something had to be making it, though, and if we had gotten in a spot where the air was trapped it could have been real bad. We don't want to get into any dead ends and we sure don't want to be stuck in smoke, even if the air is moving." He paused to cast four Cleanse spells on the clothing. "Best I can do until I get my Force back. But until I can find and cast a real cleaning book spell, you're stuck with the bloodstains."

 

"Better than nothin, and ways gooder then tryin' ta pour skins a water over cloth and scurb with a hunk a soap. Washin' the hard way bites." Puck stated.

 

"Sure does!" Aed agreed while sniffing at the thick shirt she wore under her armor. "It's soft again and this is the best we've smelled in a real long time. Thanks Spar."

 

"As soon as I get my Force back I'll do your pants."

 

"Save some spell throwin' for yerself," Aed stated. "With a clean shirt and loincloth, I'm happy... hey, Puck, I have sew kit; let me fix the slash on your britches."

 

Puck tossed over his pants while he looked over his armor and put his fingers through a few holes, "Be more happy if'n ya had a armor kit."

 

"What about the chain shirt you took off the smaller Gobling?" Spar wondered as he took one last look around before stripping down so he could wash. "It looked like it was in pretty good shape."

 

"It's gooder, but don't cover me legs none."

 

"Lot of weight to carry if you aren't going to use it."

 

Aed spoke up, "Since you don't wear real armor as a spell thrower, you don't get it none. It's made pretty good and finding armor in our sizes is hard. Until we gets ta a town 'er Metalworker ta fix what us gots on, us needs some kind a backup. It's be same reason me keep the chain shirt off the bigger Gob."

 

Spar patted what was left of his suit of reinforced leather armor, "Even this cuts down on my spell casting ability a little, but it's better than nothing. I'm betting I would be dead without it... Probably would have died if the magic burst hadn't healed my face, arm, and hand... But for now we've got fresh water and I could use some sleep. You two OK pulling guard?"

 

Aed nodded, "Puck and me 'll stay up till the fire goes out, then us 'll each take a few hours. Maybe after us all get up and eat, you can find a way out a here."

 

Spar forced a smile even as he yawned, "I'll give it my best shot."

 

Several hours later Spar was nudged awake by Puck. The Halfling spoke tensely, "Wakes up, Spar. Us gots company comin'!"

 

Spar blinked a few times and wiped the junk out of his eyes. As he did so he could see a faint but steady glow coming from a narrow passage the opposite direction from where they had entered the chamber. The consistency of the light told him it was magical, not fire, and was way brighter than a glow coin.

 

"Is Aed awake?"

 

Puck nodded, "She be hidin' in nook she wash in with da crossbow."

 

Before Spar could do more than nod he heard a familiar voice of a girl, "I'm tired and my feet hurt again!"

 

This was followed up by an equally familiar boy's voice, "Mine too. When are we going to get out of here, Onder?"

 

A deeper male voice responded, sounding more than a little annoyed. "Kids, you know as much as I do. Beiro, here, will get us out of this maze as soon as he recognizes something... Unless you two want to go back to those two dead Dragons blocking the passage and try to crawl over them like Beiro recommended."

 

The girl responded, "I am not touching a gross, nasty, Dragon, dead or not!"

 

The boy quickly agreed, "Yeah, you are crazy if you think am I touching a Dragon. Besides, they smelled horrid and were all bloody! No way!"

 

Another voice, this one a little on the squeaky side, but still male, spoke, "Jillian, we've been down here for days. None of us smell very good and we are low on water. If this way doesn't work out, we may not have a choice."

 

The boy's voice took on an angry, haughty tone, "It is your job to get us out safe and I am not crawling over and around a dead, bloody, disgusting smelling, Dragon! It is bad luck! Just look at all the walking skeletons that came after us right after we found them!"

 

"Yeah!" the girl responded. "Just look at what happened to Lar'Lilly after she touched the green one. The skeletons with green eyes took her!"

 

Spar eyes narrowed, then spoke with a whisper, "It's Councilman Parad's kids, Jillian and Mora. They weren't with us, but two of Parad's house guards were the ones forcing us to fight each other. The Mystic who forced Rafil to fight me is the older brother of Jillian's best friend, too."

 

"No want to get caught by 'em fer sure... Them kids not in gov'nor school?"

 

Spar shook his head, "Not really. The governor goes over to their home with the Mage who was guarding us to teach them spell casting and both Mora an Jillian come over a couple of times a moon to spar with the worst of the students. My father say Parad really runs Slome, but stays on as council member, so he can call all the shots and do whatever he wants, while it looks to most like the governor is really in charge."

 

"So what's we do? They is gunna see the fire pit..."

 

"I know..."

 

Before more could be said between Puck and Spar, the conversation down the passage picked back up, "You want out," the deeper sounding voice stated. "Beiro says there is a clear way to the main shaft just past the Dragons, and there is nothing in any tomes about touching a dragon bringing bad luck. Keep in mind if we had found a way past them, the undead down here wouldn't have found us!"

 

The girl once again spoke up as the light continued to get closer and therefore started to illuminate the outer edge of the natural chamber. "Berio, again? Why we trusting a Gobling?"

 

"Cause he is the only one left who has any clue how to get us out of here, Mora. Now if you two were even half as smart as you think you are, you'll give the OK to go back and find a way past those Dragon bodies!"

 

"How dare you! It's your job to protect us and you are failing again!" The girl stated with what had to have been the stomp of a foot. "You are already in trouble for not being able to heal me and making me use my healing potion, Onder. Now you want me to tell Father you said we are stupid?!"

 

The deeper sounding voice took on an angry tone, "I never called you stupid, Mora! Nor is not my fault I couldn't heal you. I already told your father something happened to Inaxia's spirits following the death of the big storm. She isn't granting full abilities to her Channelers right now. Councilman Parad and his wife, your mother and father, knew this before they assigned me as one of your guards for the special magic lessons he managed to get you with King Blathamort's Dragonling guards!"

 

"Yes, you told him, but you let Yunlac, Lar'Lilly, and Boccad get killed and Mora get hurt," the boy fired back.

 

"Boccad killed himself with one of his stupid potions!" The deep voice countered. "It burst in his hand and killed Fungrel, himself and probably Yunlac. As far as Lar'Lilly, the two skeletons with the bright green eyes drug her away, so we don't even know if she's dead. Nor is it my fault Mora wiped out over half our group when she tried to pry open a locked door! The two of you are going to have to explain to your father why over half his best people are not coming back!" The voice seemed to harden as it added, "Now you two knock off all this whining before I try to call an Inaxia spirit to deal with both of you!" He then snarled, "Maybe if I offer one of you to her she'll grant me some Channeler powers!"

 

Puck's eyes went wide, "Them have demon priest a ice with 'em?"

 

"Sounds like it..." Spar shuddered. "I don't think we are going to have much choice. We're going to have to try to take them down. I'm not getting captured and forced to fight and stuff again, let alone have some demon Channeler of the Ice Witch get a hold of us."

 

"Ya gots yer magic back?"

 

"Yeah. I'm Force full, but both Mora and Jillian are casters, so we've got to be careful. But I've faced off against them in practice a few times. Neither are above a Training step 1 or 2 at the most and don't know how to fight very well. We take down the adults first."

 

Puck nodded, "Me'll go tell Aed, buts we gots ta kill the demon lover fast."

 

"If we can figure out which one it is, fine, but once you tell Aed, find a hiding place in a nook away from her and get ready to try to surprise them. We can stay in the dark and use their light to surprise them. We'll try to attack from three directions and hope it confuses them enough to get off a few shots before they even know where we are."

 

While Puck darted over to Aed to tell her the plan, the bickering down the cave continued, slowing the group down. Mora's voice echoed off the walls, "I need to stop! I am tired!"

 

The higher-pitched adult voice let out a long sigh, "How about we take a few, grab a bite, and talk about going back?"

 

"Go back? Go back to walking skeletons? You're nuts!" Jillian shrieked. "And what part of I am not about to touch a dead, blood-coated, Dragon did you not hear, Thorngare?"

 

A third voice, this one with very broken Northman, jumped into the conversation with a snarl, "Ya ungrate brat me sick you. Shuts mouth an no sniv'l no more er me blood you lip!"

 

"How dare you?" the boy responded with indignation.

 

There was an audible smack followed by a yelp, someone hitting the ground, and the boy shouting through tears, "You hit me!"

 

Down the cave a hint of a grin appeared on the left side of Spar's mouth, as he saw the boy stumble into his line of sight as he hit the ground. Moments later Mora appeared with an obviously magical glowing dagger in her hand, lighting up the whole group. While pulling a throwing dagger, Spar couldn't help but mutter, "About time someone smacked you, Jillian."

 

However, as a Halfling in chain armor appeared, knelt, put down his shield next to the fallen boy, and offered a hand to help him up, it gave Aed the perfect shot at a well-lit, near defenseless, target. She took it before Puck could even get to her. The crossbow bolt could not have been fired much better.

 

The shot slammed into the Halfling's face with a loud crack and popping sound. The guard's head tilted back with an agony-filled howling sound while both his hands went up to his right side of his jaw.

 

Moments later Puck jumped up and launched a sling bullet into the badly wounded guard, the metal ball hit the man's ankle with a hard thud causing him to fall on top of Jillian.

 

There was a couple of seconds of total confusion before a Halfdwarf rushed forward while shouting "Ambush! Mora, they can see us, but we can't see them! My infravision is being screwed up by a hot spot in the floor! Put out your Dagger of Light!" The man grabbed for the Halfling only to get a crossbow bolt in the gut.

 

Aed watched as the Dwarven Steel-tipped bolt ripped right into and through the man's reinforced leather armor, deeply embedding in the Halfdwarf's stomach area. However, before she could yank back on the crossbow string again, a small Gobling moved forward.

 

The Gobling shouted, "Sees more heats!" It pointed into the cavern the three students were in. "DER!" He then reached into a pouch and threw something in Puck's direction.

 

A glow coin ached through the air and clattered on the ground in the big cavern, allowing those the three students were attacking to at least see shadows of who was attacking them. This was followed by a hastily fired arrow by the Gobling. Fortunately, it slammed into the cave wall behind Aed and shattered.

 

Puck whipped another sling stone at the Halfling on top of boy, striking him in the arm, but ducked down and put his shield up as he slipped another metal bullet into his sling.

 

With damage mounting, and blood flowing down his face, the Halfling guard rolled off the kid he was paid very well to protect and started to crawl for some better cover.

 

At the same time, the Halfdwarf pulled up his crossbow and even though badly wounded, he fired a shot at Puck, only to see the bolt skip off the edge of the raised shield.

 

Behind the Halfdwarf, the young girl with them shrieked in absolute terror at seeing a bolt embedded in her personal guard's jaw and blood flowing down his side. Without really knowing where she was going, she spotted an offshoot cave and ran down it as fast as her legs would carry her.

 

The girl's brother wasn't much better. He looked terrified as he wiped at the Halfling's blood on his chest. His rapid head movements told all three kids attacking the boy's party he was in a total panic and not yet a threat. However, he did managed to pull a Dagger of Light of his own, which replaced the fading light source his sister had been providing.

 

The Halfdwarf snarled, "Jillian, twist the handle! You're giving them advantage by lighting us up!"

 

"I'm not going to stay in the dark where the skeletons can get to me!" The boy shouted back with panic in his voice.

 

Spar blinked at how chaotic the whole thing had become even as he extend his right arm, made his hand into a claw shape and straightened out his fingers. This caused a burst of frost to streak across the cavern and into the left arm of the Gobling just as it was readying another arrow to send at Aed.

 

The small but strong looking creature dropped the arrow, while spewing out a whole string of Goblin curses. Instead of trying to draw another arrow, it dropped its shortbow and yanked a pitch black colored hip sword from a sheath built into its equally black armor. It pointed the blade right at Spar.

 

"Aw crap," Spar muttered while stepping back to put as much distance as possible between the Gobling and himself, drawing a throwing dagger as he did so.

 

Aed loaded another bolt, stepped out so she could get a clear shot, and fired at the crawling Halfling. This time the bolt sunk deeply into the left leg.

 

Seeing Aed was going to focus on the Halfling, Puck turned his attention to the Halfdwarf. With the man already reeling from having a bolt sticking out of his stomach, the sling shot was almost too easy. The metal ball crashed into the man’s left leg just below the knee even as guy tried to stand. The hard shot sent him toppling to the ground. The fall further drove the bolt in as the man fell face first.

 

Puck dropped his sling and pulled a very nice Silver Steel hand axe he had found on one of the guards' bodies after the magic burst caused rocks to crush them. He stepped into the path of the onrushing Gobling who was almost the same size as Spar while raising his shield. "Spar, me see ya fights in da pit. Ya no want this one! Me'll take 'im! Finish da big Dwarf dude, den helps me!"

 

Moments later there was a loud clang as the Gobling's blade slammed into the raised shield. The bronze shield dented badly, but otherwise held up to the assault.

 

Spar almost said something, but noticed the Halfdwarf was trying to stand again with the aid of a quarterstaff. He reared back and threw the dagger in his hand while speaking more to himself than anyone else, "Now there is a close combat weapon I know how to use, and I want it!"

 

The thrown blade sliced a gash across the right side of the man's neck before clattering to the floor next to Jillian. This finally caused the councilman's son to realize he was in the middle of a fight and had to do something. Out of desperation he grabbed the dagger and threw it back, but the throw was from his back and beyond wild. The blade went well over Spar's head.

 

On the other hand it caused Spar to duck which gave Jillian enough time to jump to his feet and pull a nice Silver Steel hip sword.

 

Between Spar and Jillian, Puck winced at feeling the impact of the high quality blade against the shield, but Teacher Saslara had done much to prepare him. Instead of shaking his arm to get the stinging out, he dealt with it. Using the axe in his weapon hand, he went low. The axe glanced off a hard plate grafted into the Gobling's reinforced leather armor and skipped downward and into the ankle. In addition, the Gobling proved to be pretty good. It turned at the last moment to make what would have been a deep wound into a minor graze. The pair then exchanged near misses.

 

Aed also took a direct approach. She didn't even bother to drop her crossbow. Instead, she pulled her short sword, moved up to the struggling Halfling, and stabbed down hard.

 

The Halfling saw the girl's shadow with the blade in hand and tried to kick back. All this did was get his leg sliced by the stab attempt. Before he could fully roll and try to defend, it was too late. The youngster took another step forward and shoved the blade into his lower back. At this point the damage became too much for him. He fell unconscious while his wounds started to create a pool of blood around him.

 

At this point the Halfdwarf turned to look at Jillian with one hand clutching at the bolt in his abdomen, "They took us hard by surprise and have the upper hand. If they take you, your father will kill me even if they don't. Run, boy... run..."

 

Jillian took a step toward Spar, heard the words, and glanced over. Seeing one of his guards down, the other seriously wounded, Aed angling toward him with her sword out, Spar readying another dagger and the Gobling, who had just smacked him in the mouth, fighting for its life, the boy turned and bolted.

 

Upon seeing this the Gobling shouted out a long Gobling curse, pulled a knife and threw it at the quickly departing lad. He was rewarded with a pained cry, but it didn't slow Jillian down. If anything the departing bright light picked up speed as it faded down the winding cavern.

 

Spar growled as the boy ran, but took full advantage of the Halfdwarf turning watch the kid flee. Without any hesitation he whipped another dagger. This one went straight into the back of the man's head.

 

The Halfdwarf sagged forward while grabbing for the blade stuck in his skull. At the same time he pulled his bloody hand off the bolt in his gut and reached for an amulet under his cloak. He pulled out a silver and onyx symbol and cried out loudly, "Inaxia! Where are your Channeler Spirits? Please! Come to the aid of your loyal follower!"

 

Aed and Spar paused as they saw the bladed snowflake insignia of Inaxia in the Halfdwarf's hand. Both kids half expected the Demoness of Ice and Cold to appear and strike them or something. When nothing happened, Aed stepped up to the faltering man and shoved her short sword into his throat. "Guess the Ice Witch no be listenin' none."

 

Seeing the Halfdwarf fall and the other two kids turn their full attention towards it, the Gobling made one more desperate attempt to attack Puck only to dent the shield again. It then felt a dagger bounce off an armor plate in its chest. In addition, it had to spin to block an attack from Aed. This left its already injured ankle forward and unprotected.

 

Puck saw the opening, darted forward and sliced with his axe. Once again the Gobling proved nimble, but he still managed to graze it a second time.

 

The Gobling hissed in pain, slammed his hip sword down on Puck's battered shield and parried another attack from Aed. It then turned to see what Spar was doing, only to take a blast of frost to the side of its face from the boy's outstretched hand. This proved to be the final straw. It took several steps back, dropped its hip sword, and held up both hands.

 

Puck stepped forward with his axe ready to fall, only to hear Spar shout from behind him.

 

"Puck, stop!"

 

The young Halfling just managed to pull back on his swing, but it was close enough for the Gobling to drop to its knees and cry out in fear.

 

Puck readied another swing, "Him be with Ice priest! Him need ta die!"

 

Spar moved up to the Halfdwarf, shoved his throwing dagger in deeper just to make sure the demon Channeler was dead, then pulled it out and wiped the blood and brain matter off on the guy's cloak. "Normally I'd agree, Puck, but didn't you hear what they were talking about?"

 

Aed instantly realized what Spar was referring to. She moved up to Puck's side and put a hand on his shoulder, "Us needs this one. It know a way out." She looked down again and then back at Spar, "Plus, it be in super nice armor. Me bets it'd fit on Spar good and him need armor with no gashes."

 

Puck growled, looked up at Aed, back to Spar, then took a quick step forward. With a snarl, he shield bashed the Gobling in the face knocking it flat on its back, causing it to cry out and clutch its badly bloody and broken nose with both hands. "OK, but me no have ta like it none! Me Ma was caught in the last big storm and died a da cold!" He held up the shield like he was going to hit it again, paused, shrugged, and slammed the edge into the Gobling's face a second time, shattering some teeth and knocking it out.

 

With a truly malicious look in his eyes he glared at the fading light from the escaping boy. Even though he was the youngest and smallest, he looked over at a pretty much stunned Aed and kicked the Halfdwarf's quarterstaff up and into Spar's hands. "Jus leave me da glower coin this one threw and get them other two!"

 

Aed started to move, but was blocked by Spar's outstretched quarterstaff. "Strip him to his loin cloth and tie him up, Puck. We need to stick together."

 

"But them Ice Bitch lovers gunna gets away!" Puck fumed.

 

Spar pulled out a glow coin to add to the one on the floor to replace some of the vanishing light, "Mora went down the larger passage just left of the one they came in, while Jillian went back the way they came. They are both alone with no idea how to navigate underground. They're also Human, so if they put out the magic lights they'll be as blind as we'd be..."

 

Aed moved up to the dead Halfling, pulled rope off the side of its pack and moved up to the unconscious Gobling. "Spar's right Puck. Them no gettin' too far. No other footprints down here none, neither."

 

Puck moved up to pull everything off the moaning Goblin as he nodded in understanding, "And prob'ly them no know ta cover tracks... Even with most rock us gots 'nough dirt and loose ground ta spot prints."

 

Aed nodded, "Yup. Teacher Saslara's always say the trackin' classes be needed when us no expect it none."

 

"So let them run, get tired, more scared, and lost." Spar stated with no hint of remorse. "It will make it easier to take them."

 

"Then what? Kill 'em?" Aed asked.

 

Spar shook his head, pulled a set of bronze shackles out of the Halfdwarf's pack, and held them up, "No. Between these and the set I have in the pack I kept, we chain them and take them to my mining camp..." He paused and looked over the backpack, "Hey, if you are both OK with it, I think I'll keep this pack. It's smaller and full of decent stuff..."

 

"Might as well, us'll check them other two pack and prob'y switch. Even the Gob's pack look better then what me be carryin'"

 

"Me gunna take the Halflin's pack fer sure! It be gooder one." Puck stated with certainty. "But what takin' 'em to yer camp gunna do Spar?"

 

"Not sure, but I'm not going to kill the kids of a Slome Councilman. We'll let Granad figure out what to do, He's an Argon Channeler, so he'll probably take them to Paws, Clearwater, or even Levet and turn them over to the one of the temples for having a guard who was known to them as an Inaxia Channeler. We'll take the Channeler medallion as proof, but don't touch it. It stays wrapped up and we'll hang it on a pouch around the Gobling until we catch Mora or Jillian. Then they put it around one of their necks so they can carry it. Let the temples or town guards deal with them, but I bet there will be a reward. Once word gets out, the main guild halls in Black Rapids or Silverton may even make some kind of move to rid Slome of leaders with ties to Inaxia worship."

 

Puck let out a snort, "Me bets Kandric hear and take 'em out first."

 

Spar raised a questioning eyebrow, "The redheaded swamp Halfer?"

 

Aed cringed, "Ya call him Halfer if'n ya wants, but me and Puck ain't gunna do nothin' but watch what him do to ya..."

 

"If him say it OK, me 'll least find ya a Healthman." Puck added with a smirk.

 

Spar shrugged, "I don't have anything against him. My father hired him for some odd jobs a few times over the last couple of winters, and he worked real hard for us... Father even said he was probably trainable. Mother sent Rafil out to the swamps a few times to buy fish from him, too. But Councilman Parad and the governor kind of put a stop to hiring Swamp Slum folk this winter, since food was short and it brought more lowlife beggars and squatters into town. Still my father paid the red-haired Halfer..." Seeing the look he was getting he took a breath, "OK, Halfelf... anyway, Father hired to cut some wood for us just after winter hit. Our house guards dropped him off a wagon and it only took him a couple of days to fill it, so he must have gotten some help."

 

Aed shook her head, "Us see him chop wood before we split off ta attack Bloody Rock. Me guessin' he didn't get no help none."

 

Puck quickly agreed while stripping and tying the Gobling so its hands were behind its back and held up in the small of its back by a loop around its neck. If it tried to lower its arms the rope would pull hard against the front of the neck. This would make it almost impossible for it to try to break free since doing so would all but strangle it. "No, Kandric do himself, me sure."

 

"Huh," Spar shrugged again, "I would have never guessed anyone out in the slums would have gotten any training, but you both seem pretty sure he is getting guilded."

 

Aed let out a humor filled snort, "Gettin'? Nope, him guilded."

 

"Way guilded." Puck nodded almost wildly.

 

Spar stopped digging through the Halfling's pack and looked over at the two kids from Saslara's school. "Already Primary?"

 

Aed and Puck exchanged glances, before Aed spoke up, "Um, yeah... Primary, then some..."

 

"Lots a some," Puck added.

 

"Are you trying to tell me he's Secondary, legitimately Secondary?"

 

"And some." Aed stated again.

 

"Lots a some." Puck repeated himself.

 

Spar noticeably cringed at the expressions on both kids, "Geesh, OK, then... No calling a high Secondary Swordsman a Halfer. I don't have a death wish."

 

Puck shot Spar a grin, "If him be jus a Swordsman, not be so bad."

 

"Or if him be just Secondary," Aed chimed in, as she checked the knots holding the very securely tied Gobling before tossing the armor over to Spar.

 

Spar looked at the armor, and noted a very light shimmer coming from engraved black metal plates of a metal he had never seen before. Even as he carefully ran his hand down the runes, he glanced back and forth trying to find any hint of deception, but all he got in return was firm serious gazes tinged with some fear. "By Argon's name! You are not pulling my leg, are you?"

 

"No." Aed stated while shaking her head to show how serious she was. "But him 'll prob'ly pull yer leg off and beat ya ta death with it if ya call him Halfer."

 

"Beat ya ta dead with it before ya blood ta dead, too," Puck added.

 

Spar swallowed hard, "Ok then..." He took a deep breath, "Guys, this armor is magical and I know this incantation. It is a repair spell! The blades it has are made to fit into the built-in sheaths and are made of the same strange metal and are magical too! This has to be worth a huge fortune!"

 

"It'll fit ya, and yer gunna need all a it if yer gunna call Kandric a Halfer." Aed snickered.

 

"It fit and give ya way gooder armor so gets it on. It be yers. Ya keeps the hip sword and leg dagger, too. It be part a the set." Puck quickly agreed. "Us 'll take the glowin' daggers soon as us catch them other two."

 

"Alright... As long as you are both sure..." Seeing them nod, he shrugged, and switched armor. As he put it on, it seemed a little loose, but as soon as he pulled on the last securing strap it changed to fit him perfectly. "Guys... this is some super magical stuff..."

 

Aed reached out and gave it a quick pull and raised an eyebrow, "Fit ya like it be made for ya!"

 

"I think it magically sized to me..."

 

"Good for all a us. Us no use plated leather armor none, and ya be more safer." Puck stated.

 

"Yeah," Aed smiled. "And ya looks cute in black!"

 

Spar ran his hand down his face even as his cheeks turned a little red, "Fine, I'll keep it. I like the feel and it's real light. However it sure makes me wonder how a Gobling came to have it... But since we're going over captured gear, can either of you used the Halfling's chain armor? It's real nice looking Gnome Steel."

 

Puck looked the dead guard over with clear disappointment, "Real good made... Too big fer me, but me bets it fit Aed till she gets boobs."

 

Aed rolled her eyes even as she moved over to take a closer look. "Nice. Very nice... Just a few cut links in the back and leg, Me'll take it. Spar, helps me get it off and wash the blood off." She then pointed off to the side. "Shield's small and Dwarf Steel. Ya should grab it Puck."

 

Puck hefted the shield and gave a satisfied nod and smile, "Yeah, me like it and Gob beat snot out a the one me gots now. Hey, big Dwarf's got's good Dwarf Steel bolts, Aed."

 

"Me'll be takin' them 'less ya wants the crossbow, Puck."

 

"Na, me 'll find 'em sling bullets me shot. Bows 'er still too big fer me and ya be short on bolts. But me 'll grab the string fer ya case yers break." He picked up the Goblin's shortbow, "Junk, but ya could still shoot it, Spar."

 

Spar shook his head and held up both hands, "Throwing daggers or a sling only for me, Puck. You don't want to see me with a bow in my hands... as in ever. At least I can get a sling stone close... sometimes."

 

Puck snickered, "Me'll find daggers ya toss den. Ya helps Aed into the chain armor."

 

******

Bloody Rock: Saslara, Jaya F (HE 12) Swordsman/Outdoorsman (Saslara's School), Rafil M 13 Swordsman/Miner (Governor's School)

 

A strong looking young teen squeezed through a space between a large, recently caved in, section of the ceiling and the side of the mined out passage. A few rocks fell off the side wall, but after a quick inspection of a few cracks radiating down from higher up, he ignored them. Once past, he held up a glow coin and jumped down onto a smooth floor, "Open chamber... and finally! This has got to be part of the main mine. There has to be some kind of way out through here!" He stopped short, "Um, I've got lots of bones, real old busted-up weapons, and recent bodies, none moving Teacher."

 

Teacher Saslara's voice came from behind the rocks the boy had just traversed, "You sure nothing's moving? I could have sworn we heard somethin'."

 

"Not seeing anything, Teacher."

 

"So is it safe to come through, Raf?"

 

"Yeah, as long as you keep your hands off the big hunk of rock sticking up. Pretty sure it's holding up the roof where the support timber is broke. The side has some loose rock, but you should be fine. The cracks don't go all the way to the floor. Just don't bang on anything, cause it isn't great and you'll have to really squeeze. It's a tight fit."

 

Saslara pulled off what gear she had on and tossed it to the boy. After two attempts, she pulled off her armor, stuffed it through, then managed to squirm past the narrowest part. She dropped down with her sword in her hand. The chamber she found herself in was way too big to be lit by the single glow coin, but she had gotten used to the gloom of a single glow coin in the caves and passages under Bloody Rock. She noted hundreds of crushed and old looking bones, some with rusted or rotten tattered armor still on them in spots, and over a dozen weapons in the same condition as what was left of the armor. All in all, it looked to have been a major fight, probably decades ago, if not longer. However, as she continued to look, she spotted three much more recent bodies. None moved even as Rafil walked close and looked over the clearly carved out area.

 

Satisfied there was no imminent damager, Saslara spoke up, "Come on through Jaya. Looks like we can finally scrounge up enough to get you some kind of real gear."

 

Jaya ended up getting a hand from both Saslara and Rafil since her wide Halfdwarf body wouldn't fit without some help. Her sides scraped enough to give her a bloody rash as she got pulled through, but she didn't complain. Instead she moved straight over to the nearest body. Seeing an overfull backpack, she knelt next to a dead Black Dragonling and used her shoulder to partially roll it so she could look it over, "Big weapons er missin', but lots in a stuffed pack, and a good bronze dagger, Teacher. Look like him got nasty slice in side and hit in head with mace 'er somethin'. Blood's sticky. Him no be dead long time."

 

Teacher Saslara kicked at a Hobgoblin. When it didn't move, she too knelt, "Pretty much the same here, ribs crushed with somethin' heavy and a sword or spear thrust to the face to finish him off, but somethin' took its dagger and its pouches were cut off the belt." Pulling at the straps on the backpack, she paused and reached down to the creature's left foot. Her hand came back with a steel boot knife with a glowing pearl and a strapped-on leg sheath. She slid it over to Jaya, "Somethin' looted the body fast, going for easy to grab and carry gear and valuables. They missed a gem magic knife since it was under him and behind its other leg."

 

She looked over at a boy wearing nothing but the tatters of what had been a nice chain shirt, loincloth, and some feet coverings made from pieces of leather armor she had cut off of a Gobling, "Raf, anything worth mentioning on the one over there?"

 

"Lots of stuff over here, including a bag of dried meats and nuts, Teacher Saslara," the boy from the governor's school stated with a great deal of deference and respect.

 

"Got dried food here too, probably enough for a four or five days. Let's get rid of the softer meat we have left and eat some of this. Jaya, same of the moldy bread you've been chewin' on. I don't need you two gettin' sick on me."

 

While the boy tossed some iffy smelling wild boar off to the side and tore off a hunk of dried Sword Deer with his teeth, he let out a sigh of relief. Food was becoming a major concern. The combination of finding a few days of longer lasting rations and a possible way out really lifted his spirits.

 

He also didn't look bothered at all by the fact some kind of magical blade was given to Jaya. Instead he pulled the body away from the wall. "Teacher, there's a weird Dwarf-looking guy over here. He all but had his leg removed and has some burns. Doesn't look like anyone bothered to loot him or even look him over, the pool of still wet blood around him isn't messed up with footprints or nothing, probably because he was bleeding real bad. There is spray on the wall, so he bled something awful. I have a few pouches, a pair of bronze daggers, a bronze fighting axe, and a real full pack. There's burned and dried blood on all of it, like he got hit with fire after he was done bleeding." The young Human teen stopped talking and jumped over the body, "Teacher, there's another body behind him."

 

After only a couple of seconds, Rafil spoke while kicking the second body, "Hey, Teacher! It's one of the guys who were betting on us when they made us fight down in the pits!"

 

Saslara looked up, "There were several. Which one?"

 

"The brown haired guy with the grey Mystic cloak," Rafil growled. "He is the one who made me fight Spar by threatening both of us with one of his concoctions." He kicked the body again while venting, "You bastard! You made me break my best friend's arm!"

 

Saslara spoke up, "Raf, Stop! If he's wearing a mystic cloak and if you break one of the potions..."

 

Rafil backed off and held up both hands. "Sorry Teacher."

 

"I understand yer anger Raf, but ya have to think. Also keep in mind you really didn't have no choice. With any luck all the damage you were forced to do to your friend might have healed, just like all our wounds did when the green then black magic waves knocked us down." She paused, "Did you happen to know the kid you're kicking before we all entered Bloody Rock?"

 

"Not really. I saw him hanging around Healthman Velert's shop a few times and I'm pretty sure he works in Councilman Parad's Mystic shop next door. I know he was Primary Echelon and I think he was past age of ascension, though. Spar and I got an invite to the party with almost every trainable merchant caste or above kid in Slome." Rafil gave a little snort, "But it was being held at Councilman Parad's shop, and we didn't want to go and be around Councilman Parad's kids, so Spar's dad recommended we both bowed out saying Morge was taking us out even though he wasn't."

 

"Past age of ascension or not, guilded or not, he's still a kid in my eyes. With as baby-faced as he is, I bet you have more hair on your balls than he does, and the way you've handled things tells me yers are bigger too. But anyway, what else can you tell me about him?"

 

"Not much, Teacher. I don't know his name, but he used to always hang out with Councilman Parad's second oldest, Boryill. Guess him and Boryill had a falling out right after the party, though since I haven't seen them together since. I know his younger brother, Yunlac, is a Training Echelon Mystic. This jackass often escorted Jillian and Yunlac to the school, but they never trained with us. Instead, the governor had them spar with the weakest and most junior students in the school, but never where any of us could watch. Most of us figured Councilman Parad hired him as a guard, since I almost never saw Jillian without this bastard and never without Yunlac..."

 

Jaya shook her head, "Jillian? Ain't him the brother a Mora, the rich brat spell tosser girl?"

 

"Yeah," Rafil kicked the leg of the dead Mystic just to feel a little better before he knelt to look over the body. "Jillian is a year older than Mora, but just as bad as his sister, maybe worse. They're both spoiled sewer rat turds with lots of coin and a father that makes sure they can get away with almost anything. They get the best of everything and if anyone talks bad about them the town guard seems to find out and hassle whoever they point a finger at."

 

Jaya nodded, "Mora tell guard me trip her and gots me stuck doin' alley trash cleanin' fer two day and Teacher Saslara gots a fine me had ta work off fer three more."

 

"Guards say you tripped her and a couple of other merchants backed up the claim, Jaya."

 

"Me know, but me just shove her when her try ta jump line and buy all the sweet sticks in Handerlot's bread shop!"

 

"I bet she heard you talking and wanted to get them all just so you couldn't," Rafil grumbled. "It would be just like Mora. Did you at least get the sweet sticks?"

 

"Yeah, got me three, but there be like dozen er so left. Her no need 'em all. Her lucky me no deck her!"

 

"You would have got a stint in the jail if you had, Jaya," Saslara spoke with disapproval.

 

"Goods ta know! Kandric run jail now, so next time me sees Mora, me fist gunna be upside her head!"

 

Rafil frowned, "Kandric? I know all the town council and most of the merchants, but don't know him... or is it her?"

 

"Him," Jays stated with a smile. "Most call him Redhead Swamper."

 

"The skinny halfer?"

 

"Uh huh, but halfer no be nice, and you best no be mean to him none!"

 

Rafil held up both hands at hearing such a steadfast defense of Kandric, "Hey, relax, I got nothing against him and I sure didn't mean any insult toward you Jaya. Honestly, I never thought about how the term halfer sounds to someone of two races."

 

"Me no care none. Always gettin' called it."

 

"Almost everyone says it, but I never really thought about it. I'll try not to say it anymore."

 

"Like me say, no bother me none no more, but not know if it do Kandric, so ya best watch what ya says ta him!"

 

"I'll try my best not to say it to anyone again, But I've seen the redhead swamp Halfer... um, Halfelf around several times. Spar's father hired him a few times and Spar's mother had me go out to the slums several times because the Halfelf always has fish for sale when he's around. But I've gone out there plenty and he was nowhere to be found... His little brother sold me some fish once and fresh squirrels a couple of other times, though." Rafil smiled, "Bet the little guy's got it in him to be an Outdoorsman. They seem pretty nice and the redhead speaks way better than most of those swampers, but I never got either of their names. So, um, how come you say he runs the jail?"

 

"Because he does, Raf," Saslara stated firmly. "The governor conceded it to him to run as a, um, business of sorts."

 

"Why would the governor care about a swamper kid?"

Saslara snickered, "Because Healthman Velert foolishly brought charges on Kandric for beating up who Velert assumed to be Kandric's better."

 

"I heard something about Velert getting in trouble for trying to accuse someone with a much higher guild ranking of attacking a merchant kid..." Rafil stopped short as he saw the other two nod and look at him. "But the knife fighting teacher at the governor's school said it was a major problem for the Swordsman guild because Velert accused a true Teacher, as in real Teaching Echelon of another Guild of..." Again he stopped as Saslara raised an eyebrow.

 

"No... No way! He's younger than I am!"

 

"In Human years, yes." Saslara agreed, "But what you heard from your instructor be straight fact."

 

Rafil blinked, "He's a Teacher, like a real Teaching Echelon Teacher?"

 

Saslara shrugged, "Kandric took over at my school for a time and I added his name to the wall of Teachers."

 

Rafil's forehead crinkled up, "So you say he's not a Swordsman, he has no animal, no book, no Mystic cloak... So Warrior Adept, Sorcerer, or Shaman, right?"

 

"One of those, yes," Saslara verified. "But he has requested we not say too much, and we have already told you more than he would probably like getting out."

 

"You think I'm going to spread rumor about a Teaching Echelon spellcaster?" Rafil shook his head wildly, "No chance! But if he's a Teacher, why is he living in the swamps when he could be in the high merchant section of Slome?"

 

Saslara shrugged, "Maybe he likes it outside the walls, but it's just a guess."

 

"Outdoorsman..." Rafil let out a long breath, "and training his little brother to be one... makes sense. I bet they don't go hungry out there much either. However, if he really controls the jail, I'll have to warn Spar, if he's even alive, since both of us have called him a Halfer before. The very last place I want to get sent for speaking badly of a Teacher is a place he controls!"

 

Jaya grinned, "Kandric get jail from the gov'nor so Swordsman Guild no get black eye. Now next time me sees Mora, me gives her blood lip er black eye!"

 

"She's training to be a Mage, Jaya," Rafil warned, "so be real careful." He then smiled, "But I'd pay you big time to do the same to her brother."

 

Jaya cracked her knuckles, "Me gots two fists; be happy ta bop him one er even two fer ya!"

 

Saslara ran her hand down her face, "I sense more fines and city cleaning duties in your future Jaya, and like before I ain't paying 'em. But if either be part of what happened down here, feel free to give them a big poundin'."

 

"I can only hope they were, so they get put in jail or worse." Rafil sighed as he started going over the body more carefully. "Um, I can't see how he died, but his right hand has a super bad burn, as in like to the bone. Even the edge of his Gnome Steel chain armor looks like it melted a little."

 

"Sounds like the burn alone might have been enough to kill him and dry most of the blood on the other body," Saslara stated as she finished pulling the pack off the Hobgoblin, tossed it over to the side and moved over to Rafil. "But again, careful, Raf, he's wearing a Mystic cloak and we've got no clue what kind-a mixtures be in them glass containers. One a them might a even caused the fire!"

 

"I know, Teacher, but even though he's older, he's my size and his armor looks like it's brand new, other than the edge where the metal is kind of melted." Rafil pulled at what was left of his chain shirt, breaking off a couple of badly damaged links for emphasis.

 

"If he was really above ascension age, he was scrawny. Yer big for your age, so it sure should fit. Never seen a Mystic wear this heavy of armor, let alone carry a metal shield, but I'm not about to argue," Saslara noted. "Remember to leave the guild pins on him or carry them in a pouch to be turned in."

 

"One of the first lessons given at the school was to never touch another's guild pins. They are attuned and could do bad things to me if I handle them for too long."

 

Saslara reached over and pulled at the burned strap of a book pouch. "Looks like he had a casting book, but it broke up when he died." She dug in and pulled out eight pages, one with some damage, while six others fell apart in her hands. She put the pages back with a shrug. "Let's get the robe off and roll it up. Once we get back to Slome maybe you can take it into the shop and find out what all those vials do, or sell the whole thing back to them..." She paused, "Tell you what, since I just gave Jaya some kind of magic knife, you loot this kid. Take what you want while Jaya can have first pick off the other three."

 

"Teacher, without you, I'd still be back in the pit or dead. You want to give your student first pick of everything, I'll take the scraps. The armor on this kid won't fit her Halfdwarven frame though..."

 

She ruffled the boy's hair, "Raf, you are with us and without you, all of us would've been caught quick. It was you who set the distraction and told me who to take out to get the magical weapons I did. Without these," she held up a short sword and patted a heavy flail at her side, "them Goblings may have grabbed us. Now you take anything and everything off this kid you want and keep it. If we come across anything else magical, you will have first right of refusal. Just do us all a favor and roll up the Mystic cloak and stick it in the pack the kid was carrying so nothing breaks, or leave it."

 

"I'll be careful, Teacher, and thanks. I sure don't feel I deserve anything after what the governor did to you and your students."

 

"What the governor did was not your fault, Raf. He did the same to you and several other of his students including the friend you keep talking about. Besides, without you, Jaya and I would be lost and we sure wouldn't have got this far."

 

Rafil shrugged as he carefully pulled off the cloak, "We're still lost..."

 

"Yes, but you have knowledge of mining and a plan. It also looks like you finally found us another main shaft that has to lead somewhere. Jaya and I would probably be going around in circles and not even know it."

 

Jaya let out a grunt, "Except for the bodies, me's say we is goin' in circles. The floor here look the same as the floor the last place we sleeped 'cept the bones!"

 

"This place is bigger and doesn't have all the grey rock rubble on the floor." Rafil pointed up, "The support beams down there were real old swamp oak, these are... I think Winter Elm... but anyway, they aren't the same and are newer. Someone replaced these not too long ago. Probably a good thing, too, or this whole place may have come down. Also, just look at the walls. They are red, not the grey stone like we had deeper down." He suddenly spoke up with some excitement as he dug into one of the pouches on the boy's belt, "Teacher, I got another glow coin!"

 

"It's yours, but we won't count it against your first pick on next magic," Saslara stated. "It'll be real nice to have more light on us!"

 

"Thanks... " He slid over a small quarrel of ten crossbow bolts, "The fire got the bow, but not the bolts, Teacher, you may as well take them."

 

Saslara quickly added the bolts to the nearly empty, but larger, quarrel she had strapped to her left leg.

 

"He got a super nice shield, and... curses!" The young teen tossed the dead kid's right boot off to the side, "His feet are too small!"

 

Jaya moved over to the dead Morg, "Sorry, Raf. Ya want'a try the one me's wearin'? Them be a bit tight, but this gunna fit good. Him small but gots Dwarf feet!"

 

Rafil shook his head, "No, but thanks Jaya. Your feet are more Dwarf, wide and short. I'll just stick with the wraps Teacher Saslara was able to make for me."

 

Saslara glanced over from the pack she was digging through, "I'll do a rewrap for you once you get the armor on. Jaya will help you into the armor if you need it."

 

"I will," Rafil nodded with certainty. "I'm almost Primary Echelon, but I still can't get full chain armor on without help."

 

"More than a few low Primary Echelon Swordsmen can't, Raf. It takes time and practice. Even higher echelon Swordsmen don't like to get armored up without help. It is why many rich and royal high guilded Swordsmen have a squire instead of just students. A squire has added duties to help ready the being served to enter battle, and getting armor on is a big part of a squire's duties."

 

Jaya discarded a Goblin made short sword and a pair of Gobling knives, taking the axe and a couple of daggers instead. "Me tried ta squire for a big merchant down in Silverton before me comes up ta Slome. If'n me know ta read me would'a gots it, but the lady pick a boy who did."

 

"I can help you learn if you want Jaya," Rafil stated.

 

"Ya think me smart 'nough?"

 

"I know you are," Rafil stated without any hesitation.

 

At this Saslara spoke up, "If you're willing to come over to my school, I'd give you free room, board, and some coin to teach all the others and maybe even me some too. I don't read well enough to teach my students how to do more than the very basics. Once you certify as Primary, I'd give you a bump in pay and make you an assistant."

 

"Be happy to. I sure ain't going back to the governor's school after this. I was figuring I'd have to go live full time with Morge's mining troop, but I'd prefer to have a place in Slome, at least for the winters."

 

"Morge's a good guy," Saslara stated. "I've been trying to get him to help out with my school for a couple of years, but he prefers to search and dig for riches just off the passes. What about family, though, Raf?"

 

"After Dad's venture with Morge at the Rook Rock mine ran dry on the blue ore for the Dwarves to make Blue Steel, he decided to work the mines down in Silverton; told me I could stay and he'd finish paying for my schooling or I could come with. I really liked working with Morge, and Morge told Dad he'd get me down to Silverton if I changed my mind. So now I live with Morge, or, when I'm in Slome, Spar's family. Last letter I got was just before the Gnolls closed the passes as cold weather hit, and I doubt the one I sent down got through.

 

"I don't even know if he got hired by one of the big mines like he wanted, or not. So he could be in Silverton or one of the towns just outside it. Who knows, he may have even tried to start another new claim down there. But it really doesn't matter; I really like it up here. Silverton is a rough dirty place and word has it some of the smaller mines grab kids off the streets and make them work for little to nothing. I'd prefer to stick with Morge really learning the full mining trade, like finding the signs of good places to dig out in the wild, not just how to dig and shore up existing mines."

 

"I grew up down in Silverton. It's a rough place, but the rumors of mines taking kids is greatly exaggerated. Although I am sure it happens from time to time, especially with beggars and orphans. Yer almost to Primary, so you'd find real work no problem. Still, I can see where workin' for a guy like Morge would give ya better knowledge and he can read and write real well."

 

"He's a great miner and his people are awesome," Rafil smiled. "He keeps thinking he is going to hit a mother lode of either silver or gold, like the big mines down in Silverton. Even without it, he makes real good coin since he has a couple of go-to spots for tin, copper and his main mine has lots of good iron. I know him and my dad made a butt load off the blue ore. It's the main reason Dad was able to pay Spar's family and the school so I could stay up here."

 

Jaya continued to look over to the Morg's body, joining in as the conversation between Saslara and Rafil died down. "Teach'r, the scale shirt on the ugly Dwarf gots cooked blood on it, but..."

 

"Better than what you have left, no question, and it looks like it was made good." Saslara stated without batting an eyelash. "If it fits, you'd be far better off in it."

 

"Ain't got no chest yet, so it'll fit. Wish us got a pool a water er somethin' to wash it in though."

 

"Most of it is crusted over because of heat from whatever burned the Mystic kid's hand, so smack it on a wall a few times," Saslara commanded. "Bet most of the blood will flake off. It will also be a test to make sure the leather didn't get too hot and lose strength. Once we get back to Slome we'll get it clean and sell it so you can get back into something you like better."

 

Jaya moved over to a wall with the heavy shirt and smacked it several times causing both Saslara and Rafil to put their glow coins down and ready weapons in case the noise attracted anything. After a couple of minutes to check it to make sure the leather was still good, Jaya finally pulled the shirt on and buckled it.

 

With a sigh of relief, the other two moved back to the bodies.

 

Rafil looked over the body as he continued to remove weapons, armor, and other gear, "Lots of light scars all over. I heard rumors he fought in the arena in Sage Wind, but had no idea he did it this often. No wonder he is wearing such good armor and has a shield."

 

"You'd think he'd be stronger looking, then." Saslara snorted. "But at this point it's better for us, so it don't matter. Get his gear."

 

"Oh I am!" Rafil stated even as he pulled a morningstar made of black metal off the pack of the Mystic. The second he did so, it seemed to become lighter. It also shimmered enough to have both Saslara and Jaya take notice. He dropped it and jumped back while looking at his hand. The problem was it vanished the instant he dropped it.

 

Saslara moved up to Rafil, "You OK?"

 

Rafil said nothing, instead he stared at his hand for several seconds while rocking back and forth like he was suddenly dizzy.

 

Saslara rushed over and pulled the boy's hand up, noting a weird black kite shield crest with a ruby red and obsidian black six-legged tiger-looking creature in the center. She went to touch it, only to have Rafil hold up his other hand, "Don't... Please... Um give me a few..." He suddenly turned and puked.

 

With Saslara's help Rafil went down to one knee blinking and shaking his head, "By Argon's name, I had no idea something had so much power!"

 

"Power? What power and where did the weapon go?"

 

Rafil held up his hand, "It's right here."

 

"Huh?"

 

Rafil rubbed his other hand over his long hair and let out a long breath. "It's in my hand." He stuck his weapon hand out to the side and used his middle and index finger to touch the crest. Instantly the Morningstar reappeared in his hand.

 

As Saslara jumped back and stared with wide-eyes, Rafil nodded while letting out another long breath, "Yeah. I felt like it grabbed at me, like the guild pins do when the guildhall master makes them only ours. I let it and... it become part of me." He grabbed the weapon with his other hand and held up his weapon hand. The outline of the kite shield was there, but not the tiger. He then dropped the morningstar. It fell only a short distance before vanishing. The moment it did, the tiger reappeared in the center of the crest.

 

Rafil leaned forward again, and gripped his hand into his stomach. "Not something I want to put back in me very often! That hurts bad!"

 

"OK, but can you get rid of it?"

 

"Yes, and for some reason I know how." He touched the crest again, made the weapon reappear and set it down. This time he kept his fingers out straight and the weapon stayed on the ground. He then held up his hand showing Saslara the entire crest was gone.

 

"Wow!" Jaya stated in awe.

 

Saslara looked down at the weapon, "Agreed, Jaya... But this is made of metal I have never seen before and magic beyond any I have ever been around, Raf. It could be unsafe."

 

"It is..." Rafil stated, "for undead. When I accepted it, I somehow found out what it does. It's an Undead Spectral Killer, made to harm even the most powerful undead and protect the person using it from them. It also works as a magical morningstar giving extra defense and dishing out more damage. It only fully works for Swordsmen, Shamen, or something called a Spirit Warrior or Legionnaire."

 

"And you know this how?"

 

"It like told me when I accepted it."

 

"OK..." Saslara eyed the weapon, "I want someone who really understands magic to look it over, but if you can rid yourself of it at will, then I don't think it's going to harm you... I also said you get first pick of magic, so do you want it?"

 

"Seriously?"

 

"Teacher say ya gots first pick, Raf," Jaya responded with more than a little longing.

 

"If you're sure, yeah!"

 

Saslara took a step back and pointed down, "All yours."

 

Rafil took a deep breath, moved up and wrapped his hand around the handle. He gritted his teeth then opened his hand. The weapon vanished, but once again he had to cup his hand into his gut. Even as he blinked a few tears out of his eyes, he spoke, "Oh, by the will of Argon I hope it gets easier to pull into me real quick like!"

 

Suddenly there was movement as a boy threw down a dark reddish-grey cloak that up to this point had looked like a rock against the side of the cavern and charged Rafil with a dark black hip sword out. "My brother found it, you can't have it!"

 

Saslara reacted quickly, first blocking the boy's sword with a quick pull of her own blade, then shield bashed the youngster square in the face.

 

The boy squealed in shock and pain, dropped his blade, and stumbled backwards. While backpedaling to try to stay on his feet, he took a fist to his side from Jaya, who quickly moved up and stepped on the boy's dropped blade, punched him hard enough to knock him down, and pulled her axe.

 

"Jaya, hold!" Saslara shouted as the boy went down to a knee dripping blood from his face.

 

Jaya pulled her swing so the axe whistled by, but it was still close enough to blow the kid's hair back. She took a quick step back and took a more defensive stance. At the same time she spoke with confusion, but never took her eyes off the kid, "Why, Teacher?"

 

"Because he may have information we can use to get out of here, Jaya," Rafil responded.

 

"No!" Saslara snapped. "When yer with me, or part of my school, you don't kill when someone's down, let alone a cryin' kid!" She took a few calming breaths, "But Raf, you got a point. We need to know what we're facin' and what's goin' on!"

 

Rafil moved up with a dagger in his hand, "Yunlac, I'm taking off your mystic cloak and the daggers off your belt. If you try anything..." He gave the kid a light poke into the leather armor angling between reinforcing bronze plates as a clear warning.

 

The boy put up one hand to show he got the message but kept the other over his bloody face.

 

Rafil tossed the daggers off to the side, then had to work around the boy's attempts to keep a hand up to both his mouth and nose.

 

While Saslara kept an eye on the fledgling Mystic, Jaya went over to the spot the kid had charged them from, "Gots a pack and lots a other stuff. Me's thinkin' him be one doin' most a the lootin'!"

 

Saslara moved up and double-checked the youngster for other weapons and removed both pouches before she forcefully pulled the boy's hands back from his face. After a single glance she cringed. "Both lips split wide open, yer nose is bloody, but don't think it be broke, and looks the raised design on my shield caught you in the right eye. I can see the print of the Warsteed head. Lay back and let me see what I can do."

 

Through tears, blood and snot, the boy managed to weakly shake his head, "No... green liquid vial... upper... left side of my cloak..."

 

Rafil held up the cloak, "You can't expect me to give you a potion."

 

"Please..." the boy moaned even as Saslara forced him to lay back.

 

"Hand it to me," Saslara commanded while putting a hand on the kid's chest to keep him down.

 

"All three on the top left have green liquid," Rafil stated as he carefully pulled each one up out of something in the bottom of each pocket and between padded bands securing them to the inside of the cloak.

 

The youngster tried to raise his head only to have Saslara push his forehead down again. Realizing fighting was not only useless, but also stupid, he turned his head and spit out some blood before speaking again. "They're the same... Please. I'm just going to drink it."

 

Saslara frowned deeply as she held an internal debate with herself. Finally she held up her hand, "Give me one and back way off Raf."

 

"You sure, Teacher?"

 

"No, but I'm gunna do it anyhow."

 

She took the potion and waved it across the boy's face, partially to get a reaction. All she saw was some hope, so she put the vial right up to the boy's face, "I'm going to pull the cork on this. If it does somethin' bad you gunna get it same as me."

 

"It won't, please... My face and head really hurts!"

 

Saslara let out a long breath, glanced at the nasty, muddy green substance rolling around in the vial, and pulled the little stopper. It surprised her when it came open without a popping sound, but then noted it was actually wood with a wax seal, not cork. After several seconds of nothing, she let out a sigh of relief, "So you want me to pour this into your mouth?"

 

"Yes, please!"

 

Saslara shrugged, "Raf, Jaya, if this lets him do somethin' to me..."

 

"Yunlac will look way worse than he does now, Teacher," Rafil assured Saslara.

 

"Way worser!" Jaya agreed with a growl.

 

Saslara gave the potion one last look before she used her fingers to fully open the boy's mouth so she could see it through all the blood and poured the odorless liquid in.

 

Even though the young Mystic apprentice was in a great deal of pain, it was abundantly obvious to all three looking on the taste of what had been dumped in his mouth was truly retched. His face contorted and he gagged several times.

 

"Did he just drink poison?" Rafil asked after several seconds and seeing the boy roll his head to one side stick out his tongue and gag a half dozen times.

 

Saslara had similar thoughts. To this end, she turned the boy on his side and started to stick her fingers down his throat to make him puke. However, before she got fingers past his teeth she noted a rapid decrease in blood flow from the split lips. Still holding the boy on his side, she pulled at one of the spots where teeth had deeply cut in, only to find both sides of the tear were pulling themselves together and the skin was closing.

 

Fascination took over. Saslara used her other hand to pull at an even deeper bite mark on the upper lip, and watched as it mended from the middle outward. Within five minutes the blood flow had stopped and most of the damage had disappeared save for a pink line. Saslara turned the still heaving boy and looked over his face. The steady flow of blood from his nostrils was down to a mere trickle, but the badly blacked eye looked like it was continuing to swell. However, there was no questions the potion had healed much of the damage, starting with the worst.

 

Once the youngster recovered from the dry heaves she helped him sit up, "Do you want one of the others for your eye?"

 

"Can't..." The boy managed to get out as he sucked in some deep breaths. "One a day at most..." He wiped some sweat and drying blood off his face, "Need one from a different Mystic or it might make me real sick and if it healed me at all, it wouldn't work nearly as good." He lowered his head and spit, "May I get some water please?"

 

Rafil held up a Gobling water skin and tossed it over as soon as he was certain the boy was paying attention.

Yunlac scowled at it, but said nothing instead he took a swig, swished it around in his mouth and spit it out. He then took a couple of drinks before handing it back. "Thank you..."

 

"Yer welcome," Saslara stated even as she grabbed both sides of the boy's head and really looked him over. "Ya got a hell of a shiner, but ain't seein' much else wrong..." She stood and yanked the boy up to his feet by the front of his reinforced leather armor. "Yer also polite. So tell's me boy what were ya thinkin'? There be three of us!"

 

The boy glanced over to his all but stripped dead brother and wiped some tears out of his eyes. "Boccad was going to try to buy my freedom with the morningstar..."

 

"Freedom?"

 

The boy's head dropped again. With sad shake of his head he slowly pulled up on the right sleeve of his armor. Underneath he had a locked lower armguard with a design of two daggers wrapped in chains burned into the leather between two thin Gnome Stone Steel locked bands. He held it out so it could easily be seen. "There is a small knife tucked under the metal bands. I have another on my left arm with some lock picks."

 

Saslara looked over the armband before she pulled out a very sharp slender Gnome Steel blade. She then motioned at the other arm.

 

With nothing more than a sigh, the kid extended his other hand.

 

Saslara pulled out seven odd looking small tools and slipped them into a pouch on the side of her pack. "Any other surprises?"

 

"No ma'am."

 

Rafil moved up and grabbed the still extended arm and looked over the very high quality band, "So you are a combat slave or gladiator?"

 

"Yes, bit of both."

 

Saslara scratched behind her ear, "OK, so you are owned by Councilman Parad?"

 

"He bought me and my cousin, but we were given to those we serve, just like when he bought Boccad from my mom before I was even born. I was given to Jillian. Teacher Parad holds the keys to my bands though."

 

Rafil cocked his head to the side, "If you're a Lockmaster, like the lock tools suggest, why not just pick the locks and run?"

 

"There is poison under the metal bands. If the key is not used it will stab into my arm. I would be dead within minutes." He pointed to a small keyhole with a latched sliding plate covering it. "When the keyhole plate moves, another under the armband opens. Only the right key goes around the poison holder and can get to the tumblers."

 

Saslara looked at the band, "But if you get into a fight..."

 

"It has a very strong spring and the small latch holding both upper and lower holes closed. I was very scared at first, but after six years of wearing these, only getting them off to fully bathe or when they need to get resized, I have stopped worrying about them." He then sighed, "Besides, there is nothing I can do about them and just like my brother, I am to be freed when I reach Age of Ascension as long as Jillian is Primary Echelon guilded."

 

"But your brother was going to try to buy your freedom with the morningstar?" Rafil asked.

 

Yunlac looked over at the body of his brother, "He was going to make the offer, yes. We knew it was magical, and... maybe it would have been enough for Teacher Parad to free me and find someone else for Jillian..." he wiped at his tears, "so now what?"

 

Saslara looked over at the pile of gear, then back at Yunlac, "Now, take a few minutes to say goodbye to your brother while we finish going over all the equipment down here. Once we're done, yer coming with us. We'll figure out the rest once we get out of here. Do ya know the way out?"

 

Yunlac shook his head, "No, but there be lots of skeletons and other dead walking around down here. Two big ones with glowing green eyes took my cousin and most of the bones down here are from others. I was trying to gather gear when I saw a glow and heard you all so I hid, hoping to follow you all out. We were with a Gobling who said he knew a way out beyond some Dragons. I was fighting some skeletons down the passage with Boccad and these other two, so I don't know what they were talking about. All I know is both Jillian and Mora wanted nothing to do with it. They demanded this Gobling, who knew lots about the caves in Bloody Rock, find us a different path."

 

Rafil held up the Mystic cloak he took off the Yunlac's brother, "Do you know what the potions in this thing do?"

 

"Yeah, since we both have potions out of Teacher Parad's shop and many of what we have Boccad made I know what they do. But something went wrong with one of the firebomb potions Teacher Parad made for us. It burst as he pulled it out and it didn't explode. It erupted into fire as he pulled it and cast the spark to activate it. Instead of the stopper burning, a flaming liquid ran down his hand and onto the ground. It got real hot and he fell back on me. It caused the skeletons close to us to back off, but I can still hear his screams."

 

Rafil cocked his head to the side, "How come it needed a spark spell?"

 

"Most dangerous potions don't work unless they are first activated," Yunlac explained. "If you take out one of the bigger glass tubes, second down on the right hand side from my cloak and let me use a glow coin, I can show you."

 

Saslara glanced over, "No tricks, right?"

 

"No ma'am."

 

She shrugged, "Let's see it then."

 

Rafil pulled out a larger glass vial and handed it over along with his glow coin.

 

Yunlac held it up, and put the glow coin behind it. "If you look, you can see there are two liquids in this, the top is brown, the bottom more of a amber."

 

All three of the other looked. After a few seconds Jaya spoke, "Somethin's in there keepin' 'em apart?"

 

"Yeah, and the top part is way thicker and harder to break then the bottom." Yunlac demonstrated by tapping the top on the ground, then did the same to the bottom. The top took a few hard hits and only chipped while the bottom cracked on the first hard tap. "I'll have to be real careful now, cause the lower chamber is already cracked, but..." He looked around, "You getting rid of the bronze dagger and leather sheath?"

 

Jaya nodded, "Gots it from a Gob, it be junk! Me's gunna keep a couple of the gooder daggers from up here!"

 

While clearly not happy to see those he was with, including his brother, looted, he nodded in resigned understanding, "Since you aren't going to use it, put the sheath down next to me."

 

Jaya dropped it then backed well off.

 

Yunlac picked up a broken piece of bone and tapped the bottom, breaking it. The liquid from the lower part of the vial dripped on the leather, but nothing happened. Seeing three frowning faces he smiled, "Now watch when I push down on the stopper."

 

As soon as his thumb pushed the stopper down, whatever was separating the two parts of the tube was forced down and broke. The liquid from the top dribbled down. As soon as it hit the other drops from the lower part of the tube, the leather started smoking and bubbling. He then dripped the last couple of drops onto another part of the sheath to show it did nothing to the leather without the other half. "See, it really isn't acid until the top and the bottom mix. Then it can be thrown and since the bottom breaks easily, it shatters and splashes acid.

 

"The Mystic cloaks are made to protect the whole vial, but each pouch is surrounded with metal and there is a cork-like bottom to hold the potion in place, then even if one half breaks from getting hit or whatever, it almost never mixes. Even if it does, there is a special potion put inside most of the pouches to stop what is being held in them from working. Take a hammer and hit the next one over in my cloak until both halves break if you don't believe me."

 

Saslara shook her head, "No need. Now sit here and recover while we see what is useful down here."

 

Several minutes later, Rafil spoke up, holding three water skins, "Teacher. Yunlac's brother had two full ones and a empty, and they ain't the nasty Gobling ones."

 

"One empty and one full on the Dwarf looking guy," Jaya stated.

 

Saslara glanced over, "Got a real big full one and a mostly empty off the Dragonling, too. The Hob had two, but both were destroyed when he got hit."

 

"We'll have to take all the good ones," Rafil warned. "Since we are seeing so much red in the walls, the water may have too much iron and other minerals in it to be really safe in this area and it will taste bad even if we do need to drink some. While this passage looks promising, I still have no clue how much longer till we find a way out of here."

 

Saslara shrugged, "Then like it or not, we lug every drop we've got here. Just make sure both of you carry it in a way you can drop it without damaging the skins, cause none of us'll be worth a crap-filled loincloth in a fight if we go into it loaded down with this much water." She then paused and looked down at Yunlac, "Grab your pack and gear, but no weapons. You can help carry some of the extra water, too." She paused and shot him a firm stare, "Unless you want us to leave you down here in the dark..."

 

"No, I'll carry whatever you want, but can I at least have a weapon? There are skeletons and other dead walkers around down here."

 

Saslara frowned, moved over to the dropped black metal sword, and picked it up and spun it. After some internal debate she held it out, "Ya promise you will not try to use this on any of us?"

 

"I promise!"

 

"Fine," she handed it over along with the blade for the armguard, but kept the lock picks. "So where did this black metal blade come from?"

 

"The same place the morningstar did, ma'am," Yunlac stated while grabbing his small pack and securing much of the extra water. "There is a room with six walls and a glowing staff in the center. All around the room was writing, but I have no idea what language. It's at the top of a passage with tunnels going down on all sides.

 

"Jillian tried to take the staff, but it only turned. I bet he wiggled it back and forth a hundred times while most of us took a break, but at some point he did something different to it and it pulled toward him like a long lever. When it did, it opened up a trap door in the floor with a stone spiral stairway. There was a massive room below it with hundreds of dead bodies, all nothing more than bone now, but several had weapons and armor made of this black metal and many others with Blue Steel. Most were already looted, but even I could tell they were a combination of Dwarf and taller skinnier beings. Whoever they were, looked to have died fighting side by side against a mix of all sorts of other beings including a large number of Dwarves. Many were nowhere near as well armed or armored, but there was way more of them.

 

"But even though most of the bodies had been looted, there was plenty to pick through. As everyone was looking over the place, I secretly changed my bronze sword for this one and was trying to slide a couple of Blue Steel daggers off another body when Mora demanded the crowbar I had on me. She pried on a solid Blue Steel door. Needless to say my bronze crowbar was no match for the door, but she wiggled it just enough to set off a trap.

 

"Gas spewed out of several holes in the walls and those close to them fell gasping while their faces turned purple. The rest of us ran. We still all got sick and when we made a place to rest, two of the guards who got out of the gas fell asleep and never woke up. It took out over half of our group, but I think the gas was lighter than air, since most of the ones left were those who were short, like Dwarves, Halflings, kids, Goblings and the like."

 

Rafil cringed, "So the upper room is full of poison air now?"

 

"Maybe," Yunlac stated. "One of the guards who died in his sleep pushed the staff back up and the hole in the floor closed, but I really don't know much more. We ran down one of the six passages to get out while some of the others ran down a different one. I don't even know if it was the same one we entered the room or a different one. They all looked the same to me."

 

"Sounds like yer just lucky to be alive," Saslara stated. "But for now yer still a slave. I'll let you stay as an armed slave, but you do what I tell ya, until we can really figure out who you belong to and if whoever it is wronged me or my students, understood?"

 

Yunlac held up both hands, and nodded, "I've been a slave for over half my life, and it's pretty much all I remember. I'll do whatever you want. Just don't leave me down here in the dark. I think two of those skeletons with green eyes my brother drove back when his hand caught on fire was after me!"

 

With the glow coins, including the one Yunlac had in his pack, and a smooth cut mineshaft, the trio made much better progress. A trio of hours of walking, Rafil suddenly stopped and closed his hand around his glow coin.

 

Seeing this, Saslara motioned for Jaya and Yunlac to take a knee and did the same to the coin in her hand. It took only a few seconds for her eyes to adjust, but when they did, she realized there was a much brighter glow coming from what looked to be a side shaft, but it was promising, since it noticeably sloped upwards. "Slave boy, stay here and keep most of your glower hidden. Raf, behind me. Jaya, move into the passage, but keep a eye on the slave."

 

Saslara moved up the passage slowly, putting her back to one wall as she did so. After a few hundred meters she heard voices but couldn't make out the language. At this point she put down her pack, water skins, and loaded her crossbow. She looked back, motioning the kids to put down traveling gear and move forward.

 

Rafil edged up the passage. After several seconds he whispered, "They're speaking Seafarer. Morge's got some Wolflings in his iron mine who all speak it. A couple of them taught me, but I can't read it."

 

"What are they saying?"

 

"Most of it is about making a governor's girl fix their wounds, but there is also talk about dead Dragons, skeletons, and clawed undead with glowing eyes, and a way out."

 

"Dead Dragons and undead with glowing eyes and claws?" Saslara hissed softly, "You sure you know how to speak what they're talking?"

 

"Yeah," Rafil forced a grin, "I'm sure. They're talking about how Councilman Parad's kids were totally freaked out about the skeletons and ran after part of the group was taken out below... I'm thinking those Yunlac talked about may be this group. Anyhow, two of them said they could have been out by now if they had just cut through dead Dragons, but now they are lost. They think they are close, since they have been here before. They know cause of the glowing staff and they made a fire pit last time, and it's the staff that opened the passage below Yunlac was telling us about. But everything else looks the same to them. They keep saying they need find the Dragon bodies again since their Miner guide chased after Parad's kids with a couple of guards when they got hit by skeletal undead a fourth time not too long ago..."

 

"OK, so when the slave boy be talkin' Dragons I be thinkin' he was talkin' about pictures 'er somethin'.... But now yer saying dead Dragons. They sure ain't talkin' about no pictures, so you do mean Dragonlings, not Dragons, right?"

 

"No Teacher, Dragons. Real ones. The guy who is doing most of the talking said something about the Dragon bodies are blocking the way out, like in the whole passage and they will have to somehow cut through them to get past. One of the women keeps saying it's where the gate is, but the word she keeps using is more like a combination of gatehouse and door. I have never heard the word used before, so I am not totally sure what she means. The context makes me think it is some kind of locked or guarded passageway. They are also worried about more skeletal and clawed undead, but they are hoping they finally destroyed them all in the last fight."

 

Rafil held up his hand as the man seemed to snap at the others, "I think they have another from my school, cause the guy just told someone the governor should have never let such a whelp into his school and he'd take whoever it is back to the pits if the bleeding on his leg doesn't stop. Whoever he's talking to isn't saying anything at all."

 

"Probably can't understand what they're saying."

 

"Maybe not, but it's weird to not hear anything from whoever they have."

 

Saslara rubbed her chin, "Ok, so we need to see if we can rescue whoever it is. It sounds like whoever it they have is a Healthman. How many Healthman students did you have in your school?"

 

"Um, four came with us; Kesha, Akantha, Eir, and Jarl."

 

The guy and one of the females got into a brief argument. Before they even finished, Rafil translated the basics, "He's saying they used up way too much Force, and they need to rest until their wounds heal some and they can cast again. The lady wants to start marking passages so they can come back to where they are at and try different passages until they find the Dragon bodies and get out."

 

"Spell throwers," Jaya muttered. "Not wanna fight them none."

 

Rafil looked over, "If they are really low on Force, it may be the best time."

 

"Agreed," Saslara stated while readying her crossbow. "If they are really hurt, and they are low on magic, it doesn't get much better. One thing is for sure, we don't want to stumble across them when they are magic full and healed up."

 

"I think there are four talking, three ladies and the man. Go after the guy, Teacher," Rafil recommended. "He seems to be in charge and is definitely one of the casters."

 

Saslara nodded and moved up the passage at a crouch. Because of a staff with a brightly glowing ball sticking up out of a pile of rocks, she was able to make out everything. One of the first she spotted was a girl wearing standard governor's school bronze chain armor shirt with several areas of damage. The girl was gagged and had her legs in chains, but her hands were currently free so she could work on an Elf's leg. The guy had his back to a wall and was pointing at the girl threateningly with a shortsword.

 

Saslara lined up for a clean shot, but just as she got into position, a mean-looking, canine-headed, creature with front cat-like claws turned to look at her and snarled. This caused heads to turn just as she fired. The movement made her miss what she was aiming for, but the bolt still sliced down the man's left cheek.

 

The guy grabbed at his face with one hand while shouting out a warning.

 

At the same time the girl working on him fell back, then rolled to get out of the line of fire.

 

Before Saslara could reload, the creature bounded down the passageway right at her while a wounded Gnoll woman stood, extended her hand and launched a small bright green burning ball at her. The ball went over her shoulder and down the passageway.

 

Saslara dropped her crossbow and pulled the magical heavy flail she had captured, but was seeing spots since the Flare spell had been so bright. Mostly because of this, she missed as she swung on the cross between a dog and a predatory cat.

 

The creature's claws raked down the side of Saslara's armor but didn't get through.

 

Behind Saslara, Rafil moved up and swung on the creature with his newly procured morningstar.

 

The head of the weapon knocked the creature off to the side, but it was far from out of the fight. It let out an angry hiss and turned to face Rafil.

 

Up the passage a burst of sand erupted from the hand of an Elvin woman who had a Bobcat by her side. The sand went right through the chain armor on Saslara's right arm and left a bloody welt on her arm.

 

Jaya moved up to the creature getting ready to slash claws at Rafil, and sliced it with her axe. Once again the creature hissed and lunged at Jaya, only to get knocked into the wall by the shield in Jaya's hand. It backed off a few steps with its tail between its legs while also shaking its head as if a little stunned by the hard impact.

 

Saslara didn't even look back. "One of you take care of whatever in the nine hells that thing is and the other move up and cover my back!" She secured her shield and strapped it back onto her arm while moving forward.

 

Jaya put herself between the creature and Rafil, "Go! Me gots this nasty thing!"

 

Rafil quickly turned to catch up to Saslara, but had to stop and sneeze suddenly. When he did so, a tremendous amount of snot blasted out of his nose, forcing him to stop and wipe his hand across his face. Coming back with the back of his hand coated in snot and some still running out of his nose he shook it, "Aw, gross!"

 

The wounded man, with one hand up to his face, managed a smirk even as he reached for a book pouch off to his side.

 

The distraction allowed another Flare to streak down and hit Rafil in the chest. The good armor prevented a solid hit, but enough got through to give him a light burn.

 

"Ahhh! I hate spell throwers!"

 

The girl who had been working on the man looked up, "Rafil!" She then lunged at the guy knocking his hand away from his spellbook pouch while also hitting him with the hardest punch she could muster.

 

The man retaliated by slicing the girl with his short sword. The girl fell back crying.

 

Saslara advanced up the passage, blocking a muddy-colored ray from the Elf with her shield as she did so. She tried to move on the man but the Human woman stepped between them. The woman's swing with a mace told Saslara she was facing a someone with a pretty low guild ranking. She easily turned to the side to dodge the very basic attack while delivering an upper cut with her heavy flail. Her Teaching Echelon skill showed as flail slammed into the handle of the mace, snapping it. The flail then continued into the woman's gut. Adding to the devastation of the hit, the momentum knocked the woman down.

 

The Gnoll shoved out its hand only to find Saslara was ready. Another bright green burning flare bounced off Saslara's shield with no effect.

 

Next to the Gnoll, the Elvin woman reached down while speaking a quintet of words. As soon as her hand touched the bobcat at her side, it vanished. At the same time the woman spoke, "Take the boy!"

 

Rafil didn't see what happened since he was focused on the man who had just cut one of his fellow students. He moved up on the Mage only to get claws raked down his weapon hand. "Yeeow!" Rafil howled as he suddenly found himself with four long bleeding claw marks across his hand. He swung his shield around but found only air. "What in the name of the gods clawed me?"

 

Saslara moved up on the fallen woman and delivered an overhand smash into the woman's raised arm. It snapped almost as cleanly as the handle of the mace had and continued down into the woman's shoulder. Blood splattered across the cavern walls as the woman crumbled into an unmoving heap.

 

The Gnoll saw this and instantly extended her hand while speaking a long magical phrase.

 

Before Saslara could turn to face the sounds, she found her feet locked into a block of ice and two more bands of thick ice secured her arms to her side. Instead of doing nothing, she dropped her flail, pulled her dagger from off her hip and rocked forward as hard as she could. The result sent her face first down onto the injured man. She adjusted the point of the dagger as she fell, driving it deep into his hip.

 

The guy screamed and tried to push the mostly immobile woman off him, but it was simply too late. The dagger was in and even as he tried to push her off he could feel the strong and determined woman twisting and digging the blade around, opening up a horrible wound. Within seconds he passed out and moments later the spellbook he had been reaching for fell apart.

 

Down the passage, Jaya once again cut into the side of the weird creature, then tossed it off to the side with her shield. This time, instead of trying to attack, it made a sad whimpering hiss and tried to lick at a bloody wound on its side.

 

Jaya showed no sorrow. She moved up and brought the axe down again. The creature screeched in pain and tried to back off, but before it could, the edge of Jaya's shield came down on its neck. It twitched a few times as it died.

 

"NO!" the Gnoll screamed and ran toward the animal only to get hit by a wild and not particularly powerful swing by Rafil. The attack was enough to cause the Gnoll woman to back off and grab at her leg, however.

 

The problem was, moments later four more long claw marks appeared as if out of nowhere on his weapon hand. He pulled his hand back and swung his shield again. The dilemma was he had no idea what was attacking him, let alone where it was. The shield missed and it opened him up to a hard jab from the Elvin woman's quarterstaff. He let out another yelp of pain and took a step back while blocking a mace swing from the Gnoll.

 

Jaya saw this and rushed forward, only to have something she couldn't see bite into the back of her leg. She slapped at the sudden pain, but like Rafil, she hit nothing. With a great deal of anger and confusion she grabbed a dagger off her side and threw it at the Gnoll who was trying to work around behind Rafil. The dagger throw wasn't great, but it did put a slice across the outer thigh.

 

The Gnoll turned its attention away from Rafil and extended its hand in Jaya's direction, but the spell failed, mostly because Yunlac had been forgotten in the confusion and used his Lockmaster skills to slide unnoticed down the side of the wall. He swung on the extended arm.

 

The Gnoll saw movement at the last second and was able to mostly pull its arm out of the way. It still ended up with a light gash across its forearm. With a snarl it lashed out at Yunlac, only to have her mace swing impact Rafil's hastily raised shield.

 

Rafil went low, taking advantage of the two raised arms. His morningstar once again hit the Gnoll's leg just as had been taught to both schools in Slome a year prior by Vondum. This time the hit wasn't a glancing one. The morningstar hit dead center in the thigh, which hyperextended the knee. The Gnoll fell howling.

 

Rafil turned his attention to the remaining woman while speaking to the boy, "Finish the Gnoll, Yun!"

 

Behind the two from the governor's school, Jaya let out a yelp followed by a few curses, "What keeps biting and clawing me?"

 

Saslara banged her side against the wall of the chamber, trying to crack the ice holding her arms to her sides, "Jaya, remember your training! Treat this as if you were blind. Corner defense and get small!"

 

The Halfdwarf looked up, only to get some bloody scratches across her face. This time she at least felt her shield connect with something solid and got a growl in return. It also gave her a chance to back up into a corner. She then dropped her axe, pulled a dagger and put the shield up to defend her left side.

 

The next time the invisible bobcat lunged it scratched her leg, but she was ready and braced. She jabbed forward with the dagger before it could back off and was rewarded with both a snarl of pain and a very bloody dagger.

 

The last woman saw this and shouted, "Slash run!" She then blocked a swing from Rafil, took a step back and cast another spell. With a deep scowl she backed off down one of the side passages.

 

Rafil moved forward to stop her from fleeing, but the effects of the Misfortune spell found him with a vengeance. He slipped on some of the blood from the newly slit throat of the Gnoll. He went down hard, falling on top of Yunlac as he did so. He also dropped his morningstar which disappeared back into his hand causing him extra pain. Finally, he hit his knee hard on the stone floor. By the time he recovered, tapped his palm so the weapon reappeared, and got to his feet with a little bit of a limp, the woman was nowhere to be seen.

 

With a shake of his head, he noticed Jaya was holding a piece of cloth over a nasty wound on Eir's side and turned his attention to Saslara. Since she was struggling to get free, he grabbed what was left of the broken mace and smashed it down on the icy bands around Saslara until they cracked enough for her to break free.

 

Saslara motioned for Rafil to guard the passage the woman fled down while taking the remnants of the mace so she could smash the ice out from around her feet. "Damn this is cold!"

 

Rafil rubbed his knee, but still managed to look over with an impish grin, "Um, Teacher, the last time I checked, it's ice. It should be."

 

Even as the other two kids started snickering, despite having some bleeding wounds, Saslara smacked her forehead, "OK, smartass, once I get out a this and put us all back together, ya have first watch."

 

Rafil wiped at the bloody claw marks on his hand, "Totally worth it Teacher, totally worth it."

 

******

 

Klent, Lidevar, Immeck, Garvol, Jory, Pulon, Lyrod, Rylop, Tayac, Gapon, Shothash, Losmock, Klent's Slave.

 

Ever since arriving at the outer perimeter of the war camp Kandric had directed them to, Klent's mind was having a hard time figuring out if he was in a dream or a nightmare. Well before his small group made it to the camp, they were stopped by a combination of heavily-armed and armored Dwarves and Elves. His first instinct had been to back away from the group, but before he could convey those orders, a band of Illorcs came out of the woods on the back right, while four Silver and four Blue Dragonlings cut off retreat to the back left.

 

At first he thought the groups would start fighting each other. However, within seconds it became obvious the only group they were seeing as hostile was his. Even as he motioned for all those he was with to drop weapons, a pair of Pantherlings came through the lines. Both wore rugged white-dyed, reinforced leather armor, white hoods, and white footwear. Both were armed with long bows over their backs and long swords at their side, with strips of white cloth tied to them. The effect was they blended into the raging snowstorm so well they were within meters before anyone in Klent's group realized they were there, and even when Rylop pointed them out, and Klent was looking right at them, they seemed almost ghost-like.

 

The group's animals were also badly spooked by the eclectic assembly surrounding them, so all had to fight to control their mounts. This further prevented any kind of organized action or defense.

 

The taller Pantherling was first to speak, "Adventurers, relax. We have no desire for conflict with you."

 

Klent turned his attention toward the figure, still mostly obscured by snow even though it was only five meters away, "To say I am relieved to hear this is an understatement."

 

The figure made a half-growling half-snorting sounding snicker before speaking, "If I was in your footwear I would have a similar feeling. Unfortunately, you have found yourself encroaching on our camp and we could not help but note you have young clearly wounded captives with you. Because of this, we require you to dismount and offer some sort of explanation of what brings you out here and what possible transgressions would require you to chain two grievously injured youngsters you travel with."

 

Klent kept his hands visible as he jumped off his mount and took a step forward so he could show himself as the leader. At the same time he motioned for others to dismount as well while pointing to Lidevar to secure his mount so it didn't bolt. "To be honest, we were directed this way with instructions to ask for an audience with a Duke Mathard."

 

"A lofty request, Human," one of the Dwarven men stated with some anger and a great deal of suspicion in his voice as he moved forward. "Who, within these savage lands, would know of Duke Mathard, let alone direct the likes of your rag-tag band to his location?"

 

Klent glanced back over his shoulder, "Rylop, would you or one of the boys who knows the young lord who sent us this way speak up, please?"

 

Getting a pat on the back from Rylop, Gapon nervously moved up next to Klent, "Mr. Dwarf, one of my teachers, Teacher Kandric, said we could seek shelter and maybe get a reward for our captives... Um truth is, we wouldn't a got them without Teacher Kandric, but he said they be ours."

 

The posture and attitude of those facing Klent changed instantly. Hands moved away from weapons and the firm stances changed to being much less aggressive. At the same time, one of the Elves moved forward, "You, boy, are one of Premier Kandric's missing students?"

 

Tayac raised an eyebrow as he spoke up, "Missing? Um, well, I kind'a am, since I have no clue where I am other than right here... So I guess while I see myself as pretty much lost, others would see me as missin'."

 

Off to the side one of the Illorcs started snickering, "Same kind-a wit me see in Premier Kandric first time him come to Lord Monarch's camp. Bet our Premier like this one! So ya be one of him students too?"

 

Gapon nodded, "Um, yea, we both be Teacher Kandric's students." He pointed back at Tayac, "Him and me."

 

Klent had to blink at the oddness of seeing an Elf turn to an Illorc and nod in a friendly way, then all of the others quickly fall in line. It was equally astonishing to note the total attitude shift, as those surrounding his group heard Gapon state he was a student of this Kandric.

 

The youngster had warned they would be approaching a camp with an strange make-up, but seeing Dwarves, Elves, Illorcs, Pantherlings, and two kinds of Dragonlings so fully cooperating, was almost beyond comprehension. However, since they clearly were all on the same side, there was no way Klent was going to be anything other than totally polite. To this end, and knowing his buddies were not anything close to diplomatic, he let talk between those encircling him die down before speaking up, "The youngster you all keep calling Premier said we could hand off a couple of his students for safekeeping and might be able to point us toward a Duke Mathard, who he thought would be interested in either paying for our captives or could point us to someone who would be involved in handing over a reward for them. As far as me and my merc band, we do not wish to be any sort of distraction or burden..."

 

"Nonsense!" the lead Dwarf boomed. "You travel with students of our Premier! Come. We have one who can verify. Once we do so, we will get you all properly taken care of!"

 

A single exchange of glances between himself, Immeck, Garvol, and Lidevar, told him his buddies had the same thoughts as Klent. None of them wanted any part of this, but at this point there was nothing to do but be escorted to wherever they were led. Klent took in a deep breath and nodded, "Very well, good Dwarf, please lead the way."

 

Even as the Elf gave them an arm gesture to accompany the large patrol of Dwarves and Elves, the white-clad Pantherlings vanished back into the blizzard. They were quickly followed by the Dragonlings and the Illorcs, all of whom seemed to melt back into the woods.

 

Klent was surprised when no one asked for his weapons, but upon cresting a small ridge, he instantly understood why. For on the only easy path down to the glows coming from scores of large fires, a trio of Warrior Dragons stood guard. Klent felt his knees lock even as he tried to tell his body to backpedal. All around him the mounts panicked and tried to run, and would have save for the fast and well-prepared actions of the escorts who grabbed and man-handled them. A few of the escorts even managed to catch the two injured students when the mounts they were on all but tried to bolt from underneath them.

 

Next to Klent, Immeck attempted to take a step back, turn and flee, but much like Klent, the man's desire to run was hindered by absolute terror. The Swordsman fell hard.

 

Directly behind Klent and Immeck, Pulon's Giant Raccoon jumped into the teen's arms, knocking the boy down, while Jory stood transfixed in shock and awe as the bright red eyes of the Red Warrior Dragon all but bored into his own. He was so stunned by the sight, a trickle of drool ran down out of the corner of his open mouth.

 

Garvol's first intuition was to grab for a weapon, put pure fear took over, so even as his hand went for his warhammer, he dropped down to a knee, turned his head and puked.

 

Lidevar fared no better. He passed out the second his eyes took in the glistening silver-tinged teeth of the Silver Warrior Dragon.

 

Rylop's instincts were slightly different. He grabbed both Losmock and Shothash and yanked them behind him before holding up both hands to show he was unarmed. He tried to say something, but the only sound to escape his throat was a half moan, half sob.

 

Gapon and Tayac glanced at each other, moved in front of Lyrod and the slave boy Klent had tasked Lyrod with keeping an eye on. The pair then glanced over the three Dragons, shook their heads, and grabbed each other's hand for support. However, Gapon managed to speak to his best friend, "We do our best to stay together, no matter what."

 

Tayac had to swallow hard a couple of times, but finally managed to respond, "Agreed." He managed to gain enough control of his own fear to add, "But I bet you have enough meat on you to make a good snack, me, not so much."

 

This caused Gapon to snort, "So you should be first, to wet one of their appetites."

 

"Gee, thanks."

 

Gapon forced the slightest of grins, "Just sayin'... But on the plus side, two of us might fill one of these up. I don't think the two a us combined would-a been more than a sweet roll fer the huge Green one back up in the Splitrock Knolls."

 

The Red Warrior Dragon snickered hard enough to temporarily warm the entire group before it turned to look at the Blue and spoke in Dragon, "Those two must know Premier Kandric. I bet they are a couple of the students he is looking for."

 

The Blue responded, "I have little doubt they are his students. The others, however, seem to be what I normally encounter when I am seen by the lower races."

 

The Silver joined the conversation while continuing to eye the whole group, "The Human who grabbed the two boys has a good heart, he at least is attempting to protect the Human youth."

 

"True," the Red answered. "However, those two cannot possibly be students of our Premier, for unless my nostrils are mistaken, at least one of them now has a wet groin cover."

 

The Blue smiled, showing many more teeth and causing several in Klent's party to start to cry as they mistook a smile for something far more sinister, "Shall we place bets on how many we can get to soil their clothing before we let them pass?"

 

The Silver started laughing, forcing most, including the Garm and Alphar escorts, to cover their ears and or fight the terrified mounts even more, as sonic waves erupted outward from its mouth, "As enjoyable as such a bet would be, I really have no desire to antagonize our Premier."

 

The Red sighed, "I concur. I would much prefer to stay on the good side of Premier Kandric. However, I find your idea to be beyond tempting and it would be so ever much enjoyable! We must find a group at some point and make such a wager."

 

The other two nodded and exchanged claw bumps before the Blue, who had the best Northman speech of the trio, leaned down and spoke to one of the Alphar, "Baron Foxhunter, what hooligan group have you found wandering our woodssss?"

 

At this Gapon gave Tayac a light shove, "Hooligan? He must be talking about you."

 

Tayac gave Gapon a punch in the shoulder, "Takes one to know one."

 

The lead Alphar looked back with a frown, but much like the Dragons, he decided it would be best to let the two who claimed to be students of Premier Kandric be uncivilized boys. "Baz'eve, the two youngsters who seem to be far less fazed to see you than the others claim to be students of Premier Kandric. The group leader asserts our Premier directed them to come to our camp and seek an audience with Duke Mathard."

 

The Blue nodded, showing no surprise at this point, "We conjectured they could be no other. Welcome travelerssss, and admired acquaintancesss of Premier Kandric. You will be well taken care of. However, we require authentication of your identity. To this end, Baron Foxhunter of the Alphar and Baronet Waraxe of the Garm will guide you to a tent where you will be allowed to warm, eat and relax. You are to remain in the tent and make no unfriendly act and draw no weapon until we verify your claim of being directed here by our Premier.

 

"Once we have determined you are who you declare to be, much greater care and freedom will be granted." It then looked directly at Gapon and Tayac, "And you two, going forward, interruption of a noble will be looked on with a high level of contempt, no matter your tie to our Premier. I expect to note much better behavior henceforth. Do you find any ambiguity in what I am informing you of?"

 

Gapon swallowed hard, "Sorry, Mr. Dragon... We'll never do it again! Um, us no knew him be a royal."

 

"Noble, not royal, but now you do. Therefore, we demand a much greater level of deference toward both of them going forward. Do not make me re-examine your behavior. If I am required to, the two of you will not find my demeanor to be forgiving again. However, I give credit to both of you. You have bravery within for a hundred of your kind, if not more."

 

Baronet Waraxe looked up and spoke, "They are certainly brave, and thank you for admonishing their behavior, Baz'eve. However partial fault lies with myself and Baron Foxhunter for not informing them of our titles. Since you have been kind enough to rectify this slight on our part, I am certain both these fine lads will be on the best behavior their upbringing allows."

 

Baz'eve gave a nod, then spoke to the whole group again, "Remain between Baron Foxhunter and Baronet Waraxe and their patrol and no harm will come to you. I do not believe I need to inform you of the fire-gale our camp will rain down on you if you do not follow my command. Um, and would you mind if we ate the lame animal within your party? It be good for nothing and we will provide a better to replace it. The three of us will make a quick snack of it while ridding the world of it."

 

Klent finally managed to find his voice, "Uhhh.... sure.... And, um, my party will be on our best behavior and follow all commands, I assure you."

 

Garm and Alphar removed the gear and saddle while two others stayed back to hold it as the three Dragons moved in. It only got off a single terrified sound before it fell silent.

 

Klent, along with those with him, quickly found himself in a tent with a fire pit in the middle and a steep roof to rid it of smoke. Hearty food was brought in and a pair of Healthmen entered to care for any and all injuries, no matter how slight. Neither argued when they were told Tarastala and Sorab were to receive no aid. Instead, they ignored the pained moans and focused on the others.

 

While they were being patched up, Baron Foxhunter and Baronet Waraxe entered the tent with a boy dressed in extremely high quality Dwarven Steel chain armor, a lightly glowing ring on his right hand, a silver head band with a shimmering gemstone helping to hold his long hair back, and an Elvin Steel shield over the back of his pack. His weapons were equally as astonishing. A Dagger of Light was in a sheath on his left boot, a light crossbow with a very nice quiver hung off his pack, a light mace with magical runes covering the head was on his left hip and a hip sword with some runes on the pummel was on his right. The youngster also had on high quality winter boots, and a finely crafted winter cloak with a hood. Even as Klent guessed the boy was royalty, Tayac and Gapon jumped up and ran to him while shouting in glee, "Bonif!"

 

Bonif embraced his fellow Swordsmen students before turning back to the two nobles, "My Lords, they be who they claim. This is Tayac and Gapon." He turned back to his two buddies, "I thought you be dead!"

 

"Would-a been," Tayac responded, "but Teacher Kandric saved us... twice."

 

"Start calling him Premier," Bonif warned. "The Dragons really ain't willin' to bend on him being called nothin' else."

 

"Then Premier he be," Gapon stated without hesitation. He then paused, and glanced back at the Alphar and Garm nobles, "Um, sorry if we ain't supposed to be talkin' with you around..."

 

Baron Foxhunter waved his hands, "It is quite alright. You saw a friend you thought may have been lost. I am quite certain Baronet Waraxe is as pleased to see you all this happy as I."

 

Baronet Waraxe gave a hard nod, "Well spoken, good Baron. However, I believe we now have our answer. Bonif, is there anyone else in this tent you personally know?"

 

"Yes," Bonif pointed over at Rylop, "he is a guardsman who went into Bloody Rock with us and is trusted by all of us, including Premier Kandric. Most of the rest I don't know." The young teen then paused and shot a frown over toward Losmock and Shothash, "Those two was part of the gov'nor's school, though."

 

At this point Gapon put his hand on Bonif's shoulder, "They was, but ain't like most a them others. They fought with us and be our friends."

 

Tayac also spoke up in their defense, "Don't group them in with the others, Bon. They helped us take down one a them Green Dragonlings and was beside us when Teach... um, Premier Kandric rescued Nylod and Padma, then let us drop Tara and Sorab." He pointed over to the two badly injured kids being ignored by the Healthmen for emphasis.

 

Nylod managed to sit up while getting some wounds touched up, "Without Shot and Los, we'd a been slave meat by now, Bon."

 

Bonif glanced over, noting his two fellow students for the first time. He moved up and knelt between Nylod and Padma, then looked back at the nobles, "These two are also fellow students of Premier Kandric. I got ta know a few good ones from the gov'nor's school, so if all four of my friends be good with 'em, I am too. But I don't know these others none."

 

Tayac quickly spoke up, "All of them be good folk, Bon. Without them, we'd all be dead. Plus, they be under contract ta take out bandits from the man who trained Teacher Kan...," noting a look from both the Garm and Alphar, he gulped, "um, I mean Premier Kandric. They have the paperwork showing it!"

 

Seeing Klent dig into his pack for the paperwork, Baronet Waraxe waved him off, "I have heard more than enough to satisfy me. There is no need to provide further proof."

 

"I concur," Baron Foxhunter responded before turning his full attention to Klent. "Unfortunately, Duke Mathard of the Garm Empire and Princess Syrissia of the Alphar Nation have other business and will not be able to meet with you. They have requested you allow us to stand in as their spokesmen."

 

Klent turned to face the two and took a knee and gave a basic court bow, clearly surprising both nobles, "It is an honor to gain audience with any noble of the Garm or Alphar, and I apologize for myself and those under me for having called you Dwarf and Elf. I fully accept you or any other intermediary from either or both of your kingdoms."

 

"Thank you for your apology and understanding," Waraxe stated. "Now other than get you properly cleaned and equipped, what can we do for you?"

 

At this Klent scowled, "Good noble, while I cannot disagree about all of us needing a good scrubbing, do you find some fault with our gear?"

 

Foxhunter answered, "To be honest, we find your equipment to be one step the wrong direction of Goblin-kind castoff scrap. We cannot possibly allow any student of our Premier, nor anyone who is a traveling companion or leader of them to be so appallingly outfitted. However, we can deal with this shortcoming in short order. So trouble yourself not of this. Instead, you had to have had heavy motivation to venture to our camp, and we are here to find out what those reasons are."

 

Klent gestured back toward Padma and Nylod, "First and foremost, we would request you take care of those two children. Neither are in any condition to travel without good care and need a place of safety to recuperate."

 

Waraxe motioned for Klent to stand even as he moved over to the two kids, "This you need not even ask. They will receive the best all the assembled nations can offer for care and protection."

 

"Indeed they will," Foxhunter confirmed. "They shall want for nothing and we will find them reunited with family or locate someone to take them in just as we did with Bonif. What of the other youngsters?"

 

"To be honest, the ones from Slome fall under Rylop, not me. But we had intention of traveling and scouting as one group for the time being. The boys seem set on coming and I have gained enough trust in them to allow it."

 

"Even the younger ones?" Waraxe asked with some surprise.

 

Seeing both nobles looking at him, Rylop reluctantly spoke up, "I think you'll find Gapon and Tayac far too stubborn ta stay when some a their buddies be still out in this storm. The other two can stay, but I have no problem with them joinin' in and lookin' for friends from their school er helpin' in bandit huntin'. If it'll make ya both feel better, I've 'nough coin ta pay for food and a few better weapons if ya have 'em ta sell. I should also try ta buy all a us more food and some warm wears..."

 

"Guardsman," Foxhunter interrupted with a hint of annoyance in his voice, "do not concern yourself with arms, traveling equipment, nourishment, or clothing for yourself or your companions. If you have no problem keeping the youth with you to further their training and they have no reservations on accompanying you, then making sure you venture forth with proper equipment becomes our concern."

 

He looked back at Bonif, then back at Rylop to better try to get his message across before turning his full attention to the kids, "Any of you from either Slome school who wish to stay here, you will find your care, mentoring, and training unparalleled. Proper outfitting will be one of our leading priorities as well."

 

Seeing all four shake their heads, he nodded in understanding, "Very well. Those who leave this camp to continue to scout for brigands and or find lost friends and students of our Premier will venture forth with everything needed to take the fight to anyone opposing you. Now, what about the other boy?"

 

Klent reached back and grabbed the kid by the back of his shirt and yanked him forward, "This little urchin is my property and I have the paperwork to prove it. He has no say."

 

Waraxe shrugged, "May I at least suggest we find him some slave bands and collar, so there is no mistaking his property status?"

 

Klent nodded and started to reach for his pouch only to get waved off, "No recompense needed. Allowing all to see his status will prevent any from speaking up should you treat him in a way someone might find otherwise objectionable. May I further recommend getting him in something to not only identify him as property, but also sturdy enough to give him protection for the times you are dealing with raiders?"

 

Klent thought it over for a few seconds before agreeing, "Nothing more than reinforced leather and no weapons. I also agree it would be beneficial for anyone looking at him to instantly be able to know of his slave caste."

 

Foxhunter patted Bonif on the shoulder, "How about you take all the youngsters over to the outfitter tents to get measurements, then get them to a bath tent to liberate them of the grunge and odor accompanying days of travel without access to clean water and soap. Once suitably cleansed, take them to our smiths so they can talk over weapons and other equipment. I leave them in your hands while we discuss what is going on with the two injured youth they are not allowing us to treat. Make sure to leave the slave boy with Leathersmith Titanfall, and explain what his owner requested."

 

Waraxe glanced over at Jory, Pulon, and Lyrod when they made no effort to stand and accompany the others, "Regardless of who you are traveling with, if you are part of this... entourage, you need to get your sizes and preferred weapons to our outfitters. I note your animal is still nervous, so feel free to take him, or her, with you.

 

"Bonif, make sure you tell the quartermasters of the status of each and have them get with Viscount Brightfire or Count Blackgranite to make sure optimal and proper items are procured for all. I am certain both will want to know current Guild ratings, so feel free to take them to our testers and get a report to ensure all are well-prepared for combating brigands and or finding more of your missing fellow students."

 

Tayac glanced back at the other teens who all looked skeptical, "You guys can trust Bonif and it sounds like we ain't wanted 'round here none."

 

With a deep breath, and noting the look in the eyes of the two nobles, Jory jerked his head, "Come on guys. If nothing else it sounds like we get to get a bath and some clean clothing and since I am bunking with Pulon, we could use both."

 

At this Tayac snickered, "I'm betting Pouncer smells better than us."

 

"I know the fur ball does," Klent stated with a grin. "So first stop is a bath, any kind of bath, for all of you. Keep in mind, there are Dragons walking around, so if you should talk of Premier Kandric, do not forget to use his title." He then focused directly on Tayac and Gapon, "I do not want a single report of any of you irritating a Dragon!"

 

Tayac put a hand on his chest and made a mock attempt to look hurt, "Who, me?"

 

"Both of you!" Klent, Rylop, Waraxe, and Foxhunter stated at almost the same time.

 

Gapon gave Tayac a shoulder bump and smiled, "Gots a rep 'round here already!"

 

Klent covered his face and let out a single, "Ugg." As soon as the kids exited the tent, he returned his focus on the two nobles, "Once again, good nobles, I apologize. While I do not know them well, they seem to be good kids, but they have no experience in a setting such as this."

 

"Bonif has the same problem," Foxhunter responded with a smile. "However, as I have taken him in as a member of my family, he will learn. If you would allow, I could place a heavily educated advanced squire with a high merchant birthing with your group to tutor them, knowing the probability Bonif will, at some point, wish to invite them into my estate."

 

Klent's upbringing in higher circles told him the suggestion was actually a lightly veiled command, so he simply gave a light bow while adding, "I will do my best to make sure Gapon and Tayac take in more than they bleed off on any such mentor, Baron."

 

Foxhunter snickered, "It would do my cousin's son a service to get a less pampered view of the world he is finding himself in and learn some of the... rougher social nuances needed for survival outside our lands, I assure you. Now, not to be overly offensive, but would you mind if we sent in a servant party to bathe you, get your sizes, and procure a list of your preferred weapons and gear before we continue this discussion?"

 

"Not at all, good Baron."

 

Waraxe looked over at the two badly battered kids, "What of those? May we at least get them unsoiled and nourished?"

 

"Cleaned, yes I will allow it. Water, yes, food, no. You may also treat anything your Healthmen find potentially life threatening, but no other care should be rendered." Seeing both men scowl, Klent added, "The reasons for this will become clear in short order."

 

Waraxe's frown deepened, "Then I request you tell us now. Your odor can wait."

 

"Very well," Klent sighed before moving to stand over the two kids. "The female claims to be Halfdrow, whose father is none other than the Governor of Slome. According to her, the man is a Drow himself, and from what I have been told by Shothash, Loshmock, and even both of these two, the governor was responsible for sending many of his students into some mines to be ambushed under his oversight. Premier Kandric feels she may have more valuable information, but has also requested she be taken up to Slome and added to his business dealings. The way he spoke made it sound like Duke Mathard would know what the young Premier wants."

 

"We both do as well." Foxhunter stated with some distaste as he moved over and looked down, "The skin is certainly dark enough, however, according to texts, her hair should be white, even as a Halfdrow."

 

Waraxe moved up, pulled a small vial out of his winter cloak, unscrewed the top and poured a couple of drops on the girl's hair. As soon as the liquid hit the hair, and ran down, every area it touched become an off-white. He looked down with a glare, "Dyed, and has been doing so for a very long time for my potion not to have taken all of it off. We will put her under heavy guard." Any sympathy he had vanished as he turned to look at the boy, "And this one?"

 

"You may want to use a dagger or something to pull his necklace out and take a look." Klent warned, "Whatever you do, do not touch it."

 

Foxhunter pulled his long blade and expertly slipped it under the chain around the boy's neck without even scratching the skin. As the pendant of a skull with a dagger sticking into the underside of the chin came into view, Waraxe pulled the pick off his weapon belt, hooked the necklace and yanked it with everything he had. the chain broke, but not before ripping skin off the back of Sorab's neck.

 

The kid let out a squeal of pain from behind the gag, but it was quickly silenced by a hard boot to his side from Foxhunter. Since he was gagged, getting air back into his lungs was exceedingly difficult. No one in the tent took any pity.

 

Instead, Waraxe fought hard not to just slam his pick into the boy. "A follower of Murderic! He gets nothing!"

 

"Not just a follower, Baronet Waraxe," Klent stated, "he is a Channeler."

 

Both nobles' heads turned back to the boy while readying weapons, but Rylop moved to stand as a buffer, "If ya kill him, we ain't gunna find who be above him!"

 

Seeing both men glare, but at least take half a step back, Klent quickly added, "Rylop is correct, Lords. Someone had to train him. From what we heard from Losmock, Shothash, and even out of the mouth of this bastard, he has been in the school for years and even helped ambush fellow students who were trying to fight back in the mines during the preplanned ambush. He went so far as to brag about it."

 

"And you are certain he is a Channeler of Murderic?"

 

"Oh yea," Immeck finally spoke up. "Him had Dagger a Murderic and made it poison by askin' fer help. Gapon snapped it with da help a Golan, then beat the puke out-a him, but all us see it." Immeck moved up and pointed down, "Him be Murderic Priest!"

 

Foxhunter stepped around Rylop, yanked off the gag taking with it a hunk of hair as he did so and snarled, "Where did you get your teaching, and who gave it to you, boy?"

 

Even though Sorab was trying to draw in air and was crying from having a large hunk of hair ripped off the back of his head, he managed to gasp out, "I'm never telling you! The great Murderi..." his words were cut off as another kick expelled all the air he had managed to take back in.

 

Waraxe stared down with pure fury, "So you admit your allegiance without shame? You are a disgrace to all races! You will tell us everything. If not now, within hours."

 

The moment Sorab shook his head and spit in Waraxe's general direction. Foxhunter grabbed a stick from off the wood pile, broke it and grabbed both sides of Sorab's mouth to force the boy to open. He continued to apply more pressure until he could shove the stick in between the boy's teeth like a horse bit, punched him in the gut to once again expel air, and pushed the stick in even deeper to where it started to draw blood on both edges of the kid's mouth. He gave it one last push even as he tied the stick in place as tightly as he could. "You will not be able to spit, nor will you be allowed to silence yourself or take your own life by biting off your tongue. Once we extract the information you either willingly or unwillingly provide, we will verify and purge Premier Kandric's lands of your demon worshiping sect. Then, and only then, will punishment for your own transgressions be determined. But you will wish death a thousand times between now and then."

 

Waraxe glanced back at the medallion of the demon lord now lying off to the side and back at Sorab. "Nor can we allow you any chance of escape." With those words he moved up, lifted his pick, turned it so the blunt end was pointed down, and brought it down on the boy's right ankle. He turned away from the thrashing and bawling child. Instead he focused on the Healthmen tending the other two children. "Get them someone to clean them, but they do not leave this tent! Send for someone to mend this demon worshiping scum's ankle in such a way he does not die from the wound I just inflicted, but also so he can never walk on it. In addition, get one of our best Channelers to procure the demon pendant and find a way to destroy it!"

 

Foxhunter started to bring his boot down on Sorab, but stopped himself, mostly because his heart saw a child and just couldn't bring himself to do what his brain tried to tell him should be done. Instead he decided to give the youngster a final warning, knowing others within the camp would be far less concerned about his age. "Keep in mind, demon lover, this is but a taste of the torment you will continue to endure until you tell us all you discerned and even have guessed at from the time you started training as a demon Channeler to now. Make it easy on yourself when next questioned and spill what you know."

 

He spun away and looked at Klent, "We will get with Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia to determine the value of the reward due you for these two. In the meantime, let us escort you to a bath tent and find you a new place to rest. This one will not be used again by anyone other than this filth," he pointed at Sorab and Tara, "until it is determined to be cleansed of the taint of Murderic, and even then, my recommendation is it be burned once we are done with the little demon loving monster within."

 

They were then taken across the camp to a tent with large kettles of water hanging over fires. Each kettle had a crank handle to allow them to easily be tipped to fill much smaller buckets. Each man was requested to walk barefoot across a large square filled with a very dense clay before being led over to the bath tent. Once there, they were asked to pick two out of over eighty servant men, women, boys and girls of several races, many with slave collars on. While Rylop and Garvol were clearly bothered by the idea of being bathed, Klent made a slashing motion before they could voice a single complaint. Both men picked nice looking women and dealt with it. The others picked those fitting their tastes with way less modesty. From there all the men found the servants to be as hands on as they desired.

 

Once clean and lightly oiled, they were offered soft, yet warm, robes and given perfectly fitting boots the quality none of them had ever seen. The problem was, they came out to the main area to find all their gear had been removed.

 

Even as they all started to voice concern, a Silver Dragonling Mage entered, "Worry not, anything you yearn to have back will be handed over without comment or complaint. Now come."

 

The moment the men exited the tent and entered the raging storm, the Dragonling cast a bubble around them so they could be escorted to a much larger tent without the snow battering into them. Once inside, they found a couple of scores of smiths of all sorts working on everything from weapons, to armor, to leather, to backpacks.

 

A single look told most of the men the vast majority of items they could see being produced were for smaller beings, and no expense was being spared. Before they could dwell on this, a well-dressed Alphar and Garm came over with a pair of youngsters. The kids, one boy and girl, sat at a small tables, unscrolled blank parchment and pulled out an ink pot and feather quill, while the well-dressed adults moved to stand by their sides.

 

The Dragonling gestured toward them. "Take your pick of one or the other. Your preference or comfort in who you talk to will not be judged. While you are here they will take calculation of body and inquire to your application of optimal equipment. Your reply to every enquiry need be well defined, for we will utilize your word to move forward. While humility may be wanted from you, doing thissss nude will allow for optimal fabrication of any garment we need make."

 

Klent glanced back at Immeck, "Well, this explains the lack of loincloths after our baths and it sure looks to me like they plan on making us new outfits."

 

Immeck nodded, "Which be why our stuff be taken. Me bets they's gunna patch it up or somethin'."

 

"What be left of my clothing would take more thread than it be worth." Rylop snorted as he glanced around. "But if they is gunna make me a new set a clothes, I sure ain't gunna argue none!" After just a few seconds he moved over to a stand, pulled the boots off and hung up the cloak they had offered him. While being naked made him a bit nervous, the temperature in the tent was pleasantly warm, and he was really hoping they were indeed going to offer him some new clothing. He quickly made his way over to the Garm with the young female note taker.

 

Klent glanced at the others. Seeing his long-time buddies were very skeptical, he shrugged, "Might as well find out what they have in mind. At worst we get back what we came here with, at best we get a set of the boots like they let us wear over here!"

 

Klent removed the boots and cloak before moving up to the Alphar.

 

The man said nothing at first. Instead he moved up with a piece of dark twine with yellow, red and orange markings on it. He held it up right at Klent's head level and called out something in Alphar. The boy quickly took pen to parchment. The man did the same for neck measurements around both biceps, calf muscles, thighs, forearms, upper and lower chest and even one going up his left leg, up to his crotch, and down his right leg. The only things said during this very in-depth measurement was for the boy to ask him to hold out his arms, change his stances, flex muscles, and other basics.

 

Once the string was set off to the side, the man pulled a rack of weapons of almost every conceivable kind over with the help of the boy. At this point the Human boy who Klent realized was wearing a slave collar, gestured to the rack, "Warrior, if you would please point out your most desirable bladed or edge weapon and your preferred smashing or blunt weapon. Please just point, do not touch."

 

Klent walked back and forth for several seconds before pointing to a flail. After several more seconds he shook his head, "I see no Panther Sect Warrior claws, so my next choice for an edged weapon would be the bastard sword one down from the end."

 

At this, the man grabbed the string and carefully measured Klent's hands. Once done he turned and spoke to the boy in Northman for the first time since they entered the tent, "Size him for both blade and flail. You have done this enough to where I should be able to take my leave for a few moments. I expect perfection and your cycles for nourishment and rest will be altered by what I find when I return."

 

Klent saw clear nervousness in the eyes of the boy, but waited until the Alphar was out of sight before he spoke, "Relax and tell me what you need me to do. I will do my best for you to get the highest grade possible."

 

The boy took a deep breath, "Thank you, Warrior. However, I am really not supposed to speak to those over me, including you, other than to ask for you to do what is needed."

 

"Then be as detailed as possible. However, may I ask how you came to be a slave here?"

 

"I am required to answer all inquiries, Warrior. However, if I may request, and I am not supposed to ask anything of anyone, but would you please tell Sir Silkweaver you wanted me to speak to you should he return while I am talking?"

 

"Of course I will."

 

"Thank you, Warrior," the boy stated as he pulled out silk gloves and took the flail off the rack. He turned the weapon so the handle was pointed at Klent, "This needs to be done right for best results. I need you to take hold, use it as if in combat and find your perfect grip. Once you do squeeze hard, but do not squeeze hard until you find what you feel is the most comfortable grip to fight with."

 

Klent took the weapon, stepped back and swung it a few times. "The handle does not feel right."

 

"It is not meant to, Warrior. If you would, please keep going until you find your perfect grip."

 

Klent moved the flail around as if attacking and defending for a couple of minutes. As he did so, he looked back over, "So tell me, how did you come to be a slave here?"

 

"My father and uncle decided to take a trade caravan into the Deathland Mountains about three years ago. We lost most of our guards but continued to push on, since my uncle was convinced there were people in need of good trade goods somewhere within the range and they would have some of the riches rumored to be there. After almost four moons, we came across a detachment of Alphar riding Warsteeds. They told us we were getting too close to their lands and ordered us to turn back. At the time we thought they were just Elves, so my father and uncle decided to try another way in. The same thing happened three more times. Finally on the fifth time of getting caught trying to enter Alphar lands, Father decided enough was enough. We turned around, but a day later we were hit by Giant men, real Giants, over four or five meters tall, wearing hides and carrying clubs made out of what had to have been trees. They smashed our wagons and took the few of us who were still alive. One of the Giants was carrying me in his hand, and I swear, his fingers wrapped all the way around me, but anyway, he carried me for a long way, like over a day and a night. I was given nothing to eat or drink, but finally we came upon a camp of several dozen more Giants including some women. I was put into a cage with a couple of others from my caravan and at least a dozen others I had never seen before. We were tossed hunks of barely cooked meat and the bottom of the cage sat over a stream so we could scoop up water on the upstream side and relieve ourselves on the downstream side.

 

"I lived in the cage what I think was about two weeks, and every few days it got more full. Finally when I started to wonder if there would be any room to move, a large number of other Giants came down with what had to be their kids. The top of the cage was opened and the kids came over one after the other and grabbed someone. Being one of the younger and smaller, I was one of the last picked. The kids then picked what was branches to me, but more like sticks to them. The kids then matched lengths of sticks. As soon as they found one with a stick the same length they were paired off. The one who grabbed me was set with one a little bigger, probably older, who grabbed a older man out of the cage.

 

"They carried us over a large hill and while most of the adult Giants found places to sit, a couple of the biggest and strongest took those who had people they grabbed out of the cage to a open pit with all sorts of bones and a few old broken rusted weapons and other junk in the bottom." The boy stopped as he noticed Klent had finally stated getting a good feel for the odd textured handle. "If you are comfortable, Warrior, keep your handhold and squeeze hard, just make sure not to change your grip."

 

Klent did as instructed, "OK, now what?"

 

The boy moved back over, and extended his hands. "Now hand me the weapon but do not release your hold until I have the business end firmly in my grasp." Seeing Klent nod, the young man took a deep breath, "When I request you to do so, let go as if you suddenly found the handle red hot, just like you want to suddenly drop it."

 

"Understood."

 

"If you would, please, let go now."

 

Klent did as instructed and watched as the lad carefully moved over to the table and unscrewed the bottom half from the rest of the shaft, carefully wrapped it in cloth, put it in a box and set it on a larger table with the measurement scroll next to it. He grabbed a new handle from directly under where the flail had been on the rack, screwed it in without touching anything but the knobbed end, and hung the flail back up. He moved down the weapon rack and pulled the bastard sword by the blade and extended the hilt for Klent to take hold of. "If you would, please do the exact same thing with this blade. We will need to do two, one for a one-handed grip and the other for two-handed."

 

Klent nodded, grabbed the weapon and took a few steps back, "Please continue. I find myself all but holding my breath waiting to find out what happened."

 

The boy gave a single nod, "I do not know how the order of who was chosen, but the Giant who took me was taken around the back side of the pit and placed behind two other sets of Giant youth. Those in front of us put a rope around those they selected and lowered them into the pit. A female Giant moved up and spoke in crude Northman, telling the two in the pit the only way out would be over the dead body of the other. At this point the Giants started howling and yelling. When the man and girl refused to fight, the two who dropped them in the pit got long branches and stated swatting at them. Finally the man had enough, grabbed the girl and snapped her neck. There was boos and hisses, but a rope was lowered and the man got pulled up and offered some meat and water. The next two were two old women. It took only a couple of swipes of the long branches for them to fight each other. I do not know what happened cause I looked away, but the Giants cheered way more.

 

"I was lowered with this old man next. The guy didn't need to be told or hit with a stick. He came right at me. I guess he thought I'd be easy to take out, just like the girl, but I was and still am a Warrior Adept Trainee. I grabbed a long broken bone with a sharp tip and shoved it into his stomach as he grabbed for me. I tried to back off as he fell to his knees but the Giant who took me hit me with a stick, so I grabbed another broken bone and shoved it in his neck. I got pulled out, was fed, basically petted until all the prisoners had done a round, then was taken by the one who grabbed me for another stick draw. To make a long story short, I killed two more that day, one an older girl and the other a man who would have easily bested me earlier in the day, but he was badly beaten and had lost fingers on his right hand from what I bet was a bite judging by the other teeth marks on his hand. The girl was no problem so I was uninjured. I let him grab me, punched his hand and as he gripped it, I shoved a stick or bone or something of the sort into his eye. We started off the day as a hundred and twenty and ended the day as thirty.

 

"All thirty of us were taken back to the camp and branded with a burning stick. The one who selected me traded me a day later for huge fur and real long and heavy spear and I was put in another cage, in another camp.

 

"The cycle repeated itself several more times, but as one of the winners of the first, I was granted a broken spear for the second. I took out three, all without weapons, and was then given a broken spear and dagger for the third one. After my fourth or fifth they let me select two weapons from a pile so by the time I got to my last one, it was able to grab a real nice dagger and light mace."

 

"Were you ever hurt?"

 

"Oh yes, Warrior, several times I got cut up pretty bad and three times I broke bones, but managed to make the third kill each time. Since I won, they had a Shaman, or Channeler, or whatever, heal me. Each time they added to my brand and I was sold by whoever picked me and I was transported to another, normally bigger camp.

 

"On my last time, for my third fight, I got dropped into the pit against what I thought was an Elf, who had obviously not been in the pit before that day. He saw me with weapons, dropped the sharp bone he planned to use and tried to run, but got hit with a stick until he finally he moved in on me with trembling legs. By then I knew what the Giants wanted, so I didn't go for a quick kill. I toyed with him, slicing him with the dagger twenty or more times, getting yells of approval and cheers for each time I drew blood." Seeing Klent stop and stare at him, the boy clarified, "The more blood I got, and the more pain I dished out, gave me better food and care, often times a good show got me time out of the cage and something other than hunks of somewhat cooked meat I had to fight over."

 

Klent shook his head in sadness even as he squeezed hard and extended the blade for the boy to grab. As soon as the boy put the first handle in a box, set a new handle and turned it back over for Klent to find a good two-handed grip, Klent secured it, backed well away and went to work yet again. However he was really wanting to hear the rest as were the others with him, "Please continue. I wish to know how this ended with you being here."

 

"And I am almost there, Warrior." The boy stated. "I eventually got him with a pretty nasty hit to his left calf. He was down and I was going for the kill. Most of the Giants stood with expectation of me delivering the kill shot when a loud cry came from above.

 

"The Giants all jumped up and scattered, and by then I knew how it worked. The dead were left in the pit to feed the rats, buzzards or other vermin, so I covered the kid with another body and put his blood all over myself. I used hand signals to try to tell the kid to stay hidden until the matches were over. Not knowing if he understood, I stayed in the middle of the pit. Quite a bit later, the one who selected me from the cage pulled me out and I got out to find at least a score of dead Giants and double or more number badly injured. Rocks and waves of arrows came down on them from up on a ridge, but I guess I was too important a prize for the Giant boy who selected me to leave me, so he looked down in the pit, called out I won and hauled me out. He then ran with me under his arm as rocks and arrows pelted those around us. Very few escaped.

 

"Two days later a large force of Griffins with Alphar riders caught up to the last of the Giants and slaughtered them, including the Giant who had been carrying me. One of the Alphar moved among the few non-Giants, saw me and drug me back to a Griffin carrying the boy I had hidden. The boy nodded and I was taken and made his servant for about a year. I was then sold to my current master since I was a fledgling Warrior Adept, Leatherworker, and Woodcarver as is he. He was ordered to gate here to keep the troops equipped, so here I am."

 

The Alphar man came through a flap and glared at the boy, "And why do I come back to hear you speaking to this warrior?"

 

"Because I demanded he do so, sir," Klent stated firmly.

 

"Very well," the man dropped the matter instantly. "I certainly hope he got you through one by now."

 

"He did and I did the single-hand and am finally feeling good about this grip."

 

"So you are ready to set it, Warrior?" the boy asked.

 

"I am." Klent gave the handle a hard squeeze and turned it back over to the young slave. Once the final handle was carefully put into a box, Klent turned to the Alphar, "Why enslave a the boy if he ended up saving an Alphar?"

 

"Mostly to appease the father of the boy he all but cut to ribbons. However, Princess Syrissia overruled the decree of Viscount Nightrose, and turned the slave status to one of indentured servitude with nothing more than slave rights. The boy will be free upon his graduation into what I understand you call Secondary Echelon. Until all this happened and the Alphar re-emerged into the greater world, he would have been required to stay within Alphar lands, Now, however, upon completion of what we call Proficient Echelon, he will be able to go and do as he pleases.

 

"If anything his value to the greater realms has increased drastically because very few within our lands know a sliver of what this Human child does of the land I am now in, and none from these lands have any knowledge of our kingdom. When he leaves his servitude, I am certain he will find offers from many houses to act as an intermediary on any number of transactions or dealings.

 

"I believe you also now know why no one knows of the Alphar Kingdom or Garm Empire. Those who try find a way into our lands discover those we keep out are powerful and deadly. Most are true monsters and deal with those who encroach on our lands for us. The few who make it to the outskirts of our lands are turned back. Eventually they fall prey to creatures we continually push out of our lands, or on very rare occasions we take one in. This gives us a way to keep up with language and some limited news from the lower races. Most great houses also send out scouts and reports are sent back. However, I still believe we are ill-prepared to enter the world outside our lands. It will be this young one and others like him, who will suddenly be of a value beyond their social castes, and may even require Garm and Alphar to institute something on lines of a diplomatic caste for them, above a high merchant, and below or even equal to a knight such as myself."

 

The Alphar moved over to the boxes holding the other handles, nodded, and glanced over at a woman hanging back next to the tent flap. "Take the scroll and this warrior over to tailors while I set another for proper outfitting."

 

The woman put the cloak over Klent's shoulders and helped in into his boots. She then led him through a back flap, and into another tent that was set so close, the entrances almost touched. For an hour he was shown several types of cloth and fabric. Even as all this was going on, a couple sets of very nice underclothing and a basic set of warm weather clothing were pulled off a rack based on measurements and quickly altered. It also finally dawned on him, as he got help fully dressing, the incredibly nice boots and cloak were his, not borrowed.

 

He was guaranteed three much nicer and more rugged sets of outer clothing would be ready within hours, then escorted to yet another tent for food and rest. Once everyone was sized, Klent and the other adults were escorted to another large tent containing a field gear storehouse none of them had ever encountered the likes of. There were packs, weapon belts, quivers, field cooking kits, water skins, rope, dry rations of over a score of blends, and just about anything else he could ever dream of buying. One look told him the quality was equal to the boots and cloak. He stood speechless for several moments.

 

A Garm Leathersmith came over and spoke, but it had to be translated to Northman by a Human female apprentice. "Warrior," the young woman spoke, "please talk to Master Smith Titanfall. I am but a translator and should be ignored. Master Titanfall welcomes you to the outfitter's room and apologizes for the rapid mobilization of so many from this war camp. Rest assured you are still safe and will be very well protected.

 

"Now, moving on to matters of getting you presentable enough to be scouts for our Premier, let us finalize your wears." She turned to Klent first. "According to the scroll you will be receiving a bastard sword and standard flail. You should take your time and select equipment you will both be comfortable in with those weapons in mind. My request is you do not get overly covetous, as we are at war, possible with Frexla herself, and gear needs to be Gate Stone transported to restock much of what you see here. However, we are custom-making clothing and gear to better suit you being a Sect Warrior. I have been able to find claws I hope you will be happy with, but we are forced to make a barb for your young Mage, and it will not be of the enchanted variety we wish to provide for his primary weapon. We will do our best to make it up to him in other equipment or spell pages."

 

Klent let out a long breath, "Master Smith, I cannot..." Not knowing what to say or how to continue, he simply stopped and stated. "Your goods are so far beyond my ability to afford, it is an embarrassment for me to even be here."

 

"Equipping a scouting party of Premier Kandric is not only my duty, but my honor. Now please, take your time, select what you would like, and let me know of what mounts you and those within your party are comfortable with, for alas, seeing the state of the animals you arrived in camp with was seriously disheartening. The Dragons even stated the one you allowed them to snack upon was somewhat stringy with age and poor diet."

 

"This does not surprise me, Master Smith. A few were captured animals we needed just to carry our equipment and captives. We lost one other, but other than Lidevar, Immeck and Garvol, here, I have limited knowledge of what the others are comfortable with riding. We all prefer Warhorses or even Warsteeds."

 

Rylop spoke up. "I've rode a Warsteed, and me knows both Tayac and Gapon know how ta ride 'em as part a Teacher Saslara's schoolin'. Not real sure, but most a the gov'nor's school know how ta ride 'em too."

 

"I will make sure the others are talked to and we find suitable mounts for all. Warsteeds are good, however, have you ever ridden a Dragon Steed?"

 

"I have," Klent responeded. "However, I doubt others in my party know anything about them. They are not easy to ride."

 

Seeing all the others shake heads, Sir Titanfall, shrugged, "No, they are not the easiest to master, but in the heavy snow they are the best we have to offer. They also do not spook just because they see a Dragon, something you will encounter more of, I am certain. I will see about getting the rest of you, along others traveling with you, basic instruction on them and we can provide training style saddles for those who show limited initial aptitude. Now, I must finish with your slave boy's armor, so he can be by your side where he belongs. Feel free to call out to me with questions or if you find something you really like, but requires modifications to best fit you."

 

Well before Klent decided what he wanted, help was provided by a another Garm under Master Smith Titanfall. Lidevar was last to decide on gear, and looked overwhelmed. "Is ya really tellin' me ya replacing me old stuff with whats me wants outta here?"

 

The woman had a hard time translating, so Klent cleaned up the speech enough for the Garm to understand what the woman was struggling to tell him, "Warrior, you and those with you cannot go out as representatives of Premier Kandric looking like you escaped from the depths of a Morg den. By taking gear out of here, you are allowing us to properly support our Premier."

 

Klent glanced back at Lidevar, "Long way of saying yes, but do all of us a big favor and don't get greedy."

 

Lidevar shook his head, "Not gunna happen none. Me feel out-a place just walkin' 'round in here!"

 

"Yea, me too."

 

By the time they were escorted to yet another tent, this one with much nicer fur floor coverings to lay their new bedrolls out on, Klent was totally overwhelmed. Each man had three sets of very nice, yet rugged traveling clothes expertly sized for comfort and combat. They all had top quality packs with gear suitable for their subfields, and several wraps of their preferred traveling rations.

 

While they were organizing what they had been given and had selected, Klent's slave boy was brought in by an Alphar lad wearing extremely nice gear, much of it gleaming on its own accord. The young Alphar looked nervous as he pushed the slave over to Klent. "Leader, Master Titanfall would like you to look over your property and let me know if I need to take him back for any changes in outfitting."

 

Klent moved up and carefully examined his slave from head to toe. The boy wore reinforced leather with adjusting straps. The way it was made would allow the boy to grow over the next couple of years and have the main portions of the armor still fit him. In addition, he had locking forearm guards with metal plates, both with expertly burned-in markings showing him to be a slave. The outfit was completed with a locking slave collar, decent boots, and a warm looking cloak. He also carried a pack that had a couple of larger cooking pans hanging off of outer straps.

 

Lidevar glanced over, "Yer toy gots some good stuff, and looks like him be ready ta cook fer us now!"

 

"Better than he deserves, but having him in armor will keep him safer for camp duties," Klent snorted. He ignored the boy. Instead he moved up to the young Alphar who brought him in, "He looks fine. Did he give you any problems?"

 

"No, Leader, he did not." The youngster handed over a set of small Dwaven Steel keys for the armbands and collar. "He said nothing, just as I was told you instructed him." The fourteen-year-old equivalent teen glanced around the tent, "Scout Leader, where do you wish me to bunk?"

 

Seeing the others turn to look at the boy, Klent cocked his head, "You are a nephew of Baron Foxhunter?"

 

"Second nephew, outside the lines of the nobles of my higher family, but yes, I am the one he told you about, Scout Leader. I can tutor in reading, writing, and even spell casting should you have any with such need. While I have not formally completed my squireship, I have passed into Proficient Echelon, barely. Because of this, and the need to give some of Premier Kandric's students some tutorage on proper protocols, Baron Foxhunter ordered my release from squire duties. This was seconded by Baronet Waraxe, thus I am unconstrained from my squire duties and I am allowed to move forth as an adult under Alphar and Garm law."

 

Klent continued to look down at the boy who was very close to Lyrod's equivalent age. "You don't look terribly happy about being here."

 

"My emotions over being here have nothing to do with anything, Scout Leader."

 

"Maybe not to those who ordered you to join us, but they do to me. So talk, and while you are at it, my name is Klent, not scout leader and I would like to know your name and more about you."

 

"I am Ulavee, Leader Klent. To most I am known as the former Shaman squire of Lieutenant Duskhunter, of the Alphar Border Scouts. I was on the scouting mission that found the enslaved indentured servant you spoke with. In addition to being a newly awarded Proficient Shaman, I am a Proficient as what those in your lands refer to as Gem Worker and Ruinseeker. As part of my squireship I have fought Harpies, Giants, Stone Lizards, Goblins, Morg, Goblings, Hobgoblins, Orcs, and a few lower types of undead."

 

"Impressive, very impressive, but you told me nothing about your feelings about joining us."

 

"Leader Klent, to be honest I am very scared. I was told there are students and acquaintances of Premier Kandric with you, and you have even met our Premier. Until days ago I knew nothing of this Premier, but now... he is a legend, a near god, if not a god! For you know and have met the killer of King Blathamort, slayer of Cyronia, demon lord second to only Inaxia within the realm of ice, assassin of a Great Green female Dragon, destroyer of a known Green True Dragon... His feats match or even surpass Rovnar! How can someone of such low stature as me, a mere merchant caste Alphar, apprenticed to a border guard lieutenant as a squire, ever properly serve someone who knows our Premier?"

 

Klent looked over at Rylop, even as the others in the tent stood with jaws hanging open, "Um, Guardsman, did you know any of this?"

 

"Um, we all hear what him said when he show up and me heard he killed a demon er two. Some a us be with him when him kill one er two more before we went inta Bloody Rock... And the Black Dragonling say him kill his king... Me guess him kill somehin' big down in Bloody Rock, but um, no..."

 

Klent blinked and looked back down at the Alphar, "You are sure about everything you just said?"

 

"Yes! This army is his. His actions forced the great Garm and Alphar nations to ally with the Silver, Blue, and even Red Dragons. Premier Kandric brought in the Illorcs. His actions have forced the Pantherlings, Black Rapids, and even the Hawklings of Falcon Loft to join, and forged a truce with half the Black Dragon Homeland, to gather the support of Prince Bandurlok under the great banner of this alliance."

 

Lidevar shrugged, "Sure explains him walkin' through them holdin da kids. But, kid, ya gots nothin to be scared of. We ain't tryin' ta pick no fight with Demons 'er Dragons. Just huntin' bandits and tryin' ta find some more kiddos lost out in this here wood."

 

Klent pointed over at Lidevar, "Exactly what Lid just said. As for where you want to bunk down, pick a spot. You're here to provide some teaching in dealing with nobles and royals, more for the kids, but all of us can benefit. At the same time, you're here to learn some of the realms outside your lands so you can take back knowledge to your peoples what to expect out here."

 

"Such is what Baron Foxhunter told me. He even handed me a couple of pouches of crude coin I have no knowledge of." For emphasis Ulavee held up two pouches, both of which looked pretty full.

 

Garvol moved up, "Spread 'em out and us can get started helpin' ya."

 

Before more could be said, a Blue Dragonling entered the tent escorting Jory, Pulon and Lyrod. All three were very clean, had received haircuts and teeth cleanings. They all wore brand new equipment, much of it identical to each other, but couldn't have looked more different than one another.

 

Jory wore no armor, but carried a very nice pack complete with a very nice Healthman kit, in addition, the outer part of the pack held a light crossbow, and a quiver of bolts attached with easy to pull straps. He had on warm clothing designed for a Sect Warrior to fight in and they were reversable, so he currently had off white, but could flip them around to have a muted black. He also carried a book pouch which held a much larger book than he had before being taken for cleaning and equipping.

 

Rounding out his new look, Jory had on a silver headband with a lightly radiant moonstone in the front center and an amulet around his neck with glowing jade spider in the middle of a web. The belt clasp holding his weapons also had a lightly shimmering onyx stone. On his right hip was a new barb with a Blue Steel tip. A Silver Steel hip sword rested on the other hip, and his right boot had Dwarven Steel Dagger of Light. Finally his left ring finger held a silver ring with a lightly glowing orange gemstone.

 

Pulon had a more combat oriented pack, but it included a duplicate of the crossbow and quarrel. He wore Dwarven Steel scale mail, and clutched an Elvin Steel round shield. For weapons, the teen carried a Blue Steel flail with runes etched on the head, a Silver Steel hip sword, and his boot held a Dwarven Steel Dagger of Light. The young Animal Adept also sported the same ring and headband as Jory. Finally, his Giant Raccoon, Pouncer, had a new collar with a glowing jade stone set into it.

 

Lyrod had the same headband, Dagger of Light, and pack with crossbow and quarrel as the other two boys, but all similarities ended there. Lyrod had on extremely nice reinforced leather armor with runes etched into the breast plates, had Blue Steel forearm guards, and wore Blue Steel spiked gauntlets with runes running down them. On the left wrist between the gauntlet and the forearm guard, he had a bracelet with a glowing stone that looked the same as Pulon's and Jory's rings. Finally, his weapon belt held a Blue Steel combat pick and a Silver Steel hip sword.

 

Seeing all the men stare at the boys, the Dragonling seemed to frown, "I detect a problem, gentlemen. I believe all three youth I am bringing back to you are quite happy with their new gear. Did we overlook an item or two?"

 

Klent had to cough to find his voice, "Not at all good Dragonling! Um, no, they look..."

 

Rylop managed to speak up, "Deadly..."

 

Lidevar moved up to Lyrod and stroked the boy's hair, causing the teen to flinch, but not pull away. Lidevar put his arm over the boy's shoulders and gripped it firmly, "Smile, boy, yer a real pretty one now..."

 

"Yea, and they all be stinkin' rich!" Garvol managed to gasp out.

 

The Dragonling glanced over at Lidevar and Lyrod, but just as quickly dismissed the overt nature of man's advances since the boy said nothing and made no attempt to pull away. Instead, he snorted, "Your younger four will be here momentarily. I hope you find all to be equipped to your liking. Your gear, particularly weaponssss, will take a few more hours."

 

Before the Dragonling left, yet another Dragonling, this one Red, entered with the younger four. All had headbands, Daggers of Light, and glowing rings. One look was all it took to see Gapon and Tayac, as actual students of Kandric, had been provided a few extras including better armor and an extra magic weapon each, but all had a primary magical weapon and looked stunning. The Red Dragonling looked straight at Rylop, "I was informed you are in command of the younger four. Look them over and let me know if we failed to provide anything."

 

Rylop blinked a few times, "Them look better equipped than most guard captains me seen! What more could ya have givin' 'em?"

 

"Not having worked with many non-Dragonkind, I cannot reply with any helpful knowledge. However, I believe they all appear well battle-ready."

 

Klent spoke up, "Very much so, and it is beyond what we feel should be..."

 

The Red Dragonling waved off the rest, "Good Leader, Premier Kandric not only killed a Great Green Female, but granted Red Dragonkind a homeland for the initial time ssssince late into the time of the Great Dragon War. I guarantee you, all of you, your equipment will be good. If you find any fault, you need but come to any Red Dragonkind, and the problem will be rectified. Now I was ordered to take you to the main tent." It gestured toward the tent flap.

 

This time they were taken to the central tent, which was guarded by large Dragons. The second Klent stepped inside, he couldn't help but blink, for this was by far the nicest and best equipped tent he had ever seen. The furnishings were more for a mansion than a tent and beings with obvious great power and wealth mulled around enjoying softly strummed harp music and fine food and drink. Other than giving Klent and those with him a raised eyebrow, the vast majority totally ignored them.

 

He quickly made his way over to the youngsters from his group, all of whom were eyeing a table heaped with extremely expensive wild meats, cheeses, wines, fruit juices, and at least a score of items Klent couldn't identify. "Boys each take a plate, put on it only what you will eat, and let one of the servers pour you a drink. Stick with what you know, because in a setting like this, discarding food because you don't like it may be frowned upon by whoever cooked it. And while I don't know the crests in here, my bet is, judging on what we saw on the lower Garm and Alphar nobles, we are among not just nobles, but real royalty."

 

He made sure all of them were looking at him as he added, "Angering a royal cook... just don't do it. If you happen to take something you detest, eat it and find something you like to get the flavor out of your mouth. Cause the very last thing I want to have to do is have to make excuses for any of you, and I can guarantee, if I have to, your next few days will be as miserable as Lidevar, Immeck, Garvol and I can make them." Klent paused, leaned close and inhaled over a large silver tray and nodded at the black lumps on it, "However, I would strongly recommend you each take a couple of those before there is none left."

 

Jory looked down at the plate and whispered, "Looks like globs of some kind of animal crap, Klent."

 

Klent glanced around nervously, then quickly let out a sigh of relief as he noticed no one was paying them any sort of attention. "Careful what you say in here Jory. If you want to talk about any of the food, do so after we are allowed out of this tent. But I'm telling you, all of you, those are... just forget about what they look like. It doesn't matter. What they are is about fifteen silver apiece and something you will never find in any sweet shop outside of the highest merchant and noble parts of the biggest cities." For emphasis he moved over to the plate, took a small wood skewer stick out of a silver bowl next to the lumps and stabbed one. He put it up to his nose, took a deep sniff, and smiled as if he was about to have sex. He then, stuck the glob in his mouth, closed his lips and pulled the stick out very slowly, as not to waste anything left on it.

 

All the kids eyed Klent for several seconds waiting for any hint of whatever he had just stuck in his mouth being nasty, but all they saw was a look of bliss. Tayac finally shrugged, stuck one with a stick and sniffed it. "Smells sweet, but... not like a sweet stick or roll."

 

Next to Tayac, Gapon also stuck one, but didn't bother to smell it. "Here goes nothin'." The second it hit his tongue, Gapon's shoulders dropped and he let out a sigh of pure pleasure, "Oh, for the love of Golan... wow..." He then had to wipe at the corner of his mouth where some of it started to dribble out as it melted. He let none go to waste, quickly pushing it back into his mouth and licking his fingertip.

 

As soon as the others each had one in his mouth, Klent snorted at the looks of joy plastered on all seven of them. "No more than two or three, boys. I mean it. The tray probably has close to a thousand silver worth of on it, and eating them all will certainly get me in more trouble and debt than I care to fathom."

 

Shothash spoke in awe as he stared at the tray while licking his lips, "What are they?"

 

A Garm youngster wearing very nice Blue Steel armor and a cloak with a royal crest on each shoulder, came up, grabbed a stick and quickly stuck two before backing off and holding them up, "These?"

 

Shothash nodded, "Uh huh, those... um, sir, lord, um..."

 

The young Garm held up the sick, "These are chocolates with whipped wildberry filling. As for who I am, I am Kyble, son of Count Iron Gauntlet. Almost all Garm and most Alphar take a more fitting name when they finally are given a royal title, and I am not even Training Echelon, let alone Proficient Echelon, so there is no need to address me as anything other than Prefect, young master, or even young lord. However, worry not what you call me, for Baronet Waraxe told me you all know our Premier, and are known by him, as in he actually knows your names!"

 

Shothash shook his head, "Me, not really. The Premier only knows me in passing, and I have talked to Premier Kandric a few times." Shothash used a hand gesture, in Tayac's and Gapon's direction, "Those two are students of the Premier, though... So, um, Prefect Kyble, um, how do they get the berry in the middle of this... this, um, treat?"

 

Kyble shrugged, "Chocolate is more than a treat and unless there is a royal banquet or something like this, it is almost never filled, so I do not know. All I can tell you is the plant used to mix with milk to make the chocolate comes from the jungle or something." His eyes glinted, "If you will tell me more of our Premier, I can get Father to give each of you a pouch with hunks of chocolate and could probably sneak a small tray of those into your tent tonight."

 

Duke Mathard overheard the comment and made his way over to the table, "Kyble, my sly little sneak, you would not be trying to bribe these boys for stories of our Premier, would you?"

 

Kyble looked up without batting an eyelash, "I most certainly am, Duke Mathard."

 

Mathard patted the boy hard on the back hard while letting out a booming laugh, "Ah, honesty is such a fine trait! After this meeting, stick with these youngsters, help them finalize getting cleaned and equipped, and I will have my chef whip up a tray for the eight of you with more of these along with some other delights for youthful tongues.

 

"In the meantime, I expect you to take advantage of being around those from outside our lands. I am sure they could teach you far more than you could teach them."

 

Mathard then looked at the boys who were all staring at him, "Technically the filled chocolates are desserts, so please save some for the others. When the time comes, Kyble will be more than happy to direct your lust-filled mouths back for more." He paused for a moment, "But I can see in your eyes a longing for more, so take another one or two each. But I expect you all to partake of some Dagger Boar, Sword Deer, Viper Bear, or other meat along with a healthy amount of roots and gravy. All of you look to be in need of a real meal, not one of nothing but sweets."

 

Klent took a knee, "Lord Duke, I will assure you, my charges will partake of a hearty meal and not over-feast on dessert."

 

"I am sure you will try young scout," Mathard snickered, "but you are looking at a man who has four boys and two girls. I have seen the looks in children exactly the same I am gazing upon in the eyes of the lads staring at my table. Their eyes, and even drool, are telling me there is a better than even chance all will be somewhat sick by first light, and I would hope you would let them be boys for a night with my eldest third nephew."

 

Klent gave a deeper drop of his head, "As you wish, lord Duke."

 

"Young scout, do not see my words as a command, and you have given and shown me more than enough deference. Please feel free to stand. From what Baron Foxhunter told me, they are part of your scouting group, and you are their commander. All I ask is you find it within to glance in a different direction once in a while and let them be boys. After all, they have a lifetime of being adults ahead of them."

 

Klent refused to look up, "I fully agree lord Duke."

 

"Good, now enjoy and do not see yourself as not belonging here. You were invited into this tent because you have knowledge of our young Premier, and may have insights we do not." He then motioned for a young Garm to came over. He took a small sack out of the lad's hand and pushed it into Klent's hands. "I have always found gemstones easier to carry than large quantity of coin; thus, inside you will find pouches of gems. The one with the red strap is yours, the green for the guardsman of Premier Kandric's home, the black for the adults and the brown for the youth. This is your payment for the two you brought into our camp."

 

The moment Duke Mathard moved past, taking a moment to get the names of everyone in Klent's group including the boys, Klent let out a giant sigh of relief. Even as he made sure everyone got one of the pouches, then verified every boy got a plate heaped with fine hearty food, the conference started. He kept everyone in his group close and whispered for them to say as little as possible and not attract attention to themselves.

 

Fortunately, a young swordsman from Klorna's group spoke up before any of those with Klent could do more than answer questions directed at them. Duke Mathard's firm handling of the young Swordsman was more than enough to make even Gapon and Tayac hold their tongues unless asked a direct query. Even then, they kept their answers short and made it clear they were in awe of Kandric, making them of limited use to what Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia seemed to be wanting.

 

On the other hand, hearing more of Kandric's history, exploits and recent victories left Klent and those with him near speechless. Hearing Frexla had come back, into the mortal realm, and seemed to be wanting a confrontation with Kandric, only added to the fear and respect they had for a boy most had only exchanged brief words with. For in their eyes, if a Demon Lord knew of Kandric by name and was either jealous, spiteful, or even fearful of him... Well, flatly speaking, this put the lad on the playing field of the gods.

 

Well before the meeting broke up because of the felt death of a Warrior Dragon, followed by the incredible explosion of power from Weraweld's death, Kyble had the kids collect a large quantity of sweets and escorted them back to one of the outfitter's tents.

 

As soon as many of the highest nobles jumped on various mounts and even Dragons, the Red Dragonling reappeared and escorted the adults back to the nice tent they had been in earlier. He then made it a point to station a pair of Warrior Dragon guards to keep them well protected so they could get a good night's rest while the boys feasted on over a thousand silver worth of fine exotic treats and talked of Kandric in a nearby, even more heavily guarded, tent.

 

As Klent finally dozed off, an image of the boy from the Ghoul Drool entered his dreams. As this happened, a voice whispered to him. "When given the chance, go see what the lower mortal realms may soon have to deal with. Take with you the stories you witness and move southeast toward Rolling Dale, but do not cross the river. Leave the walled village for those who are ready to face the horrors within. Instead, look for the ruins of the village next to the broken bridge and prepare for battle. You still have a chance to find who you long for." Quavis' smiling face became extremely vivid for a moment. As it faded, the voice resumed. "Given the chance, render aid in the in the village and take those you help to the old fortress upstream, but again do not cross the river. Now sleep, for the next couple of days will change, for better or worse, everything you know..." the voice faded as if carried off by a wind, but every word stuck in Klent's mind.

 

Before dawn, Baron Foxhunter entered the tent, "Scout Leader of our Premier, a word please."

 

Klent sat up, realized who was talking, and jumped out from his bedroll, all but tossing the slave boy off to the side as he did so. Not caring about being nude, Klent went into a bow, "Good Baron, what can I do for you?"

 

"The smiths have finalized your weapons and armor, and we have a couple of smiths standing by to make sure everything is acceptable to and for you. In addition, Duke Mathard wanted to know if you and the youth with you would like to see a combined Alphar Garm action against a White Dragon encampment?"

 

Immeck sat up, "Yer gunna be fightin' Dragons?"

 

"Yes, Warrior, we will be engaging a few White Warrior Dragons and a significant number of White Dragonlings shortly. Duke Mathard seemed to think the younger ones with you have a strong adventurous streak and may want to see elite formations of Garm and Alphar in action."

 

Baronet Waraxe entered, "Regardless, it has been requested, but not ordered, by Princess Syrissia and Duke Mathard to see you fully prepared to resume your scouting mission whenever you wish to do so. Doing so now would be advantageous to us and you would be better organized to defend yourselves either here or out with us. We are by no means reneging on our promise to protect you all. However, please consider, most of those in this camp are heading into battle, and those laden with wounded are sure to be flow back here. Because of this, we would like to finalize your outfitting, so all our smiths will be available to repair arms, armor and other equipment."

 

Klent looked up as the words of the whispering voice reentered his mind, "We will get dressed and be ready for your smiths shortly. We will accompany you so the boys can see a Dragon battle. But let me make this very clear, there isn't any way me or my group are going to jump in on anything but a Dragonling, maybe two, if really pressed!"

 

Waraxe snickered, "Nothing to be ashamed of, Scout Leader, for neither Baron Foxhunter nor myself have any such inclination to combat a Dragon unless we absolutely have to do so to try to save our own skin." He then turned, stuck his head out of the tent flap and clapped his hands loudly.

 

Seconds later a large entourage entered carrying armor, weapons, and finished clothing. It surprised all the men when each one of them was surrounded by three servants while a smith looked on. Within a couple of minutes all were fully dressed in brand new everything, while the smith assigned to each helped with small adjustments.

 

Klent, being a Sect Warrior didn't get armor like the others, instead the smith handed him several items while telling him what they did, "This necklace with the pouncing cat will provide you with some light armor protection. This ring with the tiger's eye will give you a magical shield, so wear it on your shield hand. The headband is the same as we gave all the boys, it is a helm band and will protect your head as if you had a light helm. This other ring is also the same as we have for all your other team members. It is to protect you from the cold. It will not save you from a White Dragon breath, but will reduce the damage. Finally we have a satchel of a few potions for you. The red ones are fire burst, and the blue-green ones will heal most hard hits or even broken bones, but they have limitations and never use more than one per day, preferably no more than one every other day."

 

The smith quickly moved on the weapons. "Your boot knife is a Garm made Dagger of Light. It is only gem magic and you can control the light by twisting the handle. We have found many of the lower races, um, those who don't have any kind of dark vision, really like them. Because of this, our people sell thousands a year outside our realm for a huge profit. We were able to come up with some magical Panther Sect Warrior claws off one of our students and our master smith was able to resize them to your hands. We will make the girl another set when time permits."

 

Klent slid them on and let out a light whistle as they fit to perfection and were amazingly light given the fact there were made from Blue Steel.

 

The Garm smith smiled at Klent's reaction, "I am glad you are pleased. I know out of all the work done in the forge over the last several hours the claws were the most difficult to rework and size." The Garm handed over the flail next, "Silver Steel, also with a light enchantment. Please check your grip and give it a few swings."

 

Klent accepted the weapon and backed off a couple of steps. Before he even took a swing he was astonished at how well it fit his hand. A few swings only confirmed his initial take. The grip was made for him and him alone. "This is amazing! I have never held such a comfortable weapon!"

 

The Garm said nothing, but did smile. He then reached back and held out the bastard sword. The weapon was also Silver Steel, but even though in near perfect condition, Klent could tell it had some age on it. However, his hand found the grip just as good, and when he changed over to a two-hand attack style, nothing was lost. If anything he found the double-hand grip even better. "I... the weapons with the odd handles, when the boy had me squeeze them... It allowed you to make these handles?"

 

"Remake yes," the Garm stated with a degree of pride. "Almost all weapons made in Garm and Alphar lands are made for the owner, including non-magical weapons. We did not do this for the youth traveling with you since their hands and bodies need to fully develop, but once one becomes an adult, next to all have custom-made grips. Should they still desire to carry the weapons we provided them, they need but come to our lands when they are fully developed and we will rework the handles for them."

 

Off to the side Rylop tested the grip on his new Blue Steel battleaxe, "Are ya tellin' me ya done this in one night?"

 

"The weapons were already forged, Guardsman of Premier Kandric's home. We just took the impressions off the handles you set your grip in and worked what you now carry to give you the best and most comfortable handholds we could. Each weapon required a seasoned smith and two apprentices to do the work this quickly. However, I assure you, they were checked and strength and perfection verified by one of our master smiths before we were allowed to hand them over. You have nothing to worry about."

 

"I ain't worried about 'em none. I'm just stunned ya all had this much magic around and could do this good a work so damned fast!"

 

The smith in front of Klent grinned before he nodded in the direction of the bastard sword, "Most of the enchanted arms and armor we provided your group are new, however, Duke Mathard wanted to make sure, you, as the leader, had something a little more exceptional. The blade you have dates back to a time well before you were born. The enchantment comes from the forges deep within Premier Kandric's royal line. It is a Ghosthunter. It will do damage to any undead, including Ghosts, Specters, Wraiths, Banshees and even Vampires in their diffuse forms. In addition, it will protect you from undead draining you as long as you are holding it. Just having it over your back will not give you this added benefit, it needs to be in your hand."

 

An Alphar smith gestured toward the flail in Rylop's hands, "You, Guardsman of Slome, are holding the other weapon to come directly out of our Premier's ancestral home. The flail will give an extra burst of extreme heat when you hit and expend some of your Force. We will show you how to tap into your magic and channel it properly once outside the tent. Keep in mind, this means it has limited uses a day with the extra damage, but should you encounter a White Dragonling, other cold based creatures, or undead, the damage will be greatly magnified when you utilize it. While it is not a Ghosthunter, it is quite a devastating weapon. We have provided two other Griffin Spire forged weapons to the two students of our Premier. We hope this will prove our loyalty and support to our Premier and you all as well."

Garvol looked over to the runes etched into the Silver Steel longsword he had been given, "So ya tellin' us, we all gots a magic weapon? Even the boys?"

 

The Garm smith looked almost insulted, "Of Course! We cannot allow a scouting group of our Premier to be under or ill-equipped. However, your leader, your second," the Garm nodded toward Lidevar, "the Guardsman of Premier Kandric's landholding," he gestured toward Rylop, "and our Premier's two students were given a bit more, but such is to be expected of leaders and direct associates of our Premier."

 

The Alphar smith in front of Lidevar glanced around the tent. "It looks like you are all properly operational. As part of this the crossbow bolts we provided you are lightly charmed as well. Should they break, the enchantment will be lost, but are reusable should you be able to recover them. Now, before we prepare for the coming clash with the White Dragon encampment, we need to make sure you all satisfied with your outfitting and if you would like any of the belongings you entered this camp with returned to you?"

 

While all the others shook their heads, Immeck spoke up, "Me'd kind-a like me old boot knife. It not be nothin' like any a this, but me make me first kill with it."

 

Rylop also spoke, "The dagger me had be light magic, but it's been passed own down fer longer than me know."

 

The Alphar pointed to one of the servants and gave the girl a hard nod. As the girl sprinted out, the Alphar smith spoke again, "Anyone else? If not, there is enough leather and metal there to make a few items for slaves and low servants."

 

Klent could see the others found this insulting, so he spoke up, "I think we can all agree you have provided us everything needed to take the to fight to any enemies of Premier Kandric. We therefore surrender our other used wears for you to do whatever you feel best."

 

"Very well," the Alphar smith stated. "I would recommend you allow your slave to get dressed. The blizzard has not broken and shows no sign of doing so. We can only guess Syria and the others are using this storm to show their displeasure at Frexla's encroachment into the mortal realms. Whatever the reason, the conditions are too harsh for someone without clothing to last very long. If you wish, we could keep him here under guard while you go out."

 

Klent shook his head, "No, he comes with me. I am also certain Baron Foxhunter and Baronet Waraxe are correct about the boys wanting to see the great Garm and Alphar in combat against a powerful foe, so if I may enquire, how do we get out to where this battle with take place?"

 

"We have Dragon Steeds for you all, along with saddlebags with extra food and basics. We will provide a couple of Dragons as escort and protectors for you, since both Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia want to make sure you can continue on with whatever mission our Premier assigned you. We will get you as soon as we are certain the youth are as happy with what we provided them with as you all seem to be."

 

As soon as the group left, and Immeck's and Rylop's daggers were returned to them, Lidevar glanced over at the boy, "Ya know, Klent, him have better on, then what any a us had before we gots here, right?"

 

Klent snickered as he helped the boy adjust a few straps on the new armor and made sure the armbands and collar were locked in place, "Yea, but he still looks better without anything on."

 

Garvol snickered, "Me's thinking Lid feels same 'bout Lyrod."

 

Lidevar nodded, "Yea, too bad him got to stay with them boys last night. Me's jus gettin' used to havin' someone warm to sleep with at night."

 

"I'll make sure he is back in your tent or room going forward, Lid," Klent responded. "But I'd kind of like you to find someone else, even a slave or someone you pay, so you can give the kid a break once in a while. Oh and let's make sure all of us keep our hands off Ulavee. Gorgeous or not, he's in the family line of Alphar nobles."

 

"As much as me'd like ta, me know better!" Lidevar snorted. "As for Lyrod, once him prove ta be worth half a what ya give him, before we gots all this, I'll cut him some slack."

 

"Sounds good. Now let's get ready to go see a battle."

 

"Why not jus' go and ferget about it?" Immeck stated with some trepidation.

 

Klent found it had not to argue with his buddy, and he couldn't help but notice all the others nodding heads. However, the face of Quavis flashed into his head. This allowed him to come up with a very plausible reason he wanted to watch the battle. "Cause, guys, if some of the Dragons escape, I want to know what direction not to go."

 

Rylop raised an eyebrow, "OK, yup, me say he gots us all there!"

 

Garvol let out a long breath, "Yea, and why he's the big boss!"

 

The others mulled it over for a few seconds before nodding in agreement.

 

******

 

Kandric moved into the woods flanked by multiple Warrior Dragons. To his left three, one-hundred-man formations of Garm and Alphar, led by a Garm commander spread out to envelop one flank of the camp, while a similar number of Alphar and Garm, led by an Alphar commander, did the same on the right. Directly in front of Kandric four more units of a hundred Alphar and Garm combined units hunkered down and waited. Within these formations, those about to do battle seemed to intermix randomly, yet Kandric could tell by the way they all moved it was well orchestrated and extremely precise. He was also surprised to find Duke Mathard leading one of the groups while Princess Syrissia took command of the other.

 

At first he wanted to get closer to see better, but as if the weather knew what he wanted, the snow lessened enough for him and those with him to get a good view.

 

He glanced over to look at Glaster, "What are they doing, Master?"

 

"I am your master no longer Premier. As for what they are doing, I have no idea."

 

Glaster glanced over to Vondum, "You were an officer in the Black Dragon Homeland. What is your take on this attack strategy?"

 

"To be honest, to me it looks suicidal. Carefully planned, but suicidal nonetheless. If there are really multiple White Warriors in front of them, the forward ranks of Alphar and Garm shieldmen will be wiped out with breath and phlegm balls and leave the trio of Garm carrying whatever those massive crossbow-like weapons, along with the Alphar with the strangely hooked shovel-like tools totally exposed. The Alphar bowmen are too far back for any arrow, even magical, to do much if anything to Dragon scales, let alone in wind such as this."

 

San’i-sar glanced over, "While I concur, General Vondum, I know for a fact no Dragon, even True or Great, willingly venture into the heart of the Deathland Range. Any who do, never return. Therefore, while I find the formation in front to be idiotic, my gut expectssss to behold a terror to Dragonkind unlike anything we know of."

 

Off to Kandric's right Seldnat took a knee in the deep snow and shook his head, "Me say dis be waste a time. Us should go in der and gets us some stuff ta make lizard jackets and give 'em to all our Slome school buddies them be holdin'!"

 

Ornam glanced down, "Young Halforc, refrain from calling Dragonkind lizardssss if you would. While you have proven to be a more than able friend of our Premier, and therefore a foe of Dragonkind, I am not, and never will be, a lizard."

 

"Sorry," Seldnat grumbled, but quickly added, "but me still wanna go gunch one a 'em!"

 

San’i-sar looked up and rolled his eyes. "Your lack of fear of our kind will end up getting you killed young knight."

 

"If'n me gets ta gunch one a dem who hurt Teach'r Saslara er me Slome buddies, me dyin' be worth it!"

 

Baz'eve snorted, "I fully know why Premier Kandric knighted you, young Halforc. You are definitely cut from the mold of a rare fabric even the godssss need admire. However, to want to fight a Warrior Dragon the way you do, makesss me believe you are a little... mad..."

 

"Jus' a little?" Seldnat snickered. "Me needs ta do better den!"

 

At this Zeltoss, Lorthorn, Jamon, and Pike all giggled while Lacate shook his head and kicked at the snow.

 

Kandric reached over and lightly punched Seldnat's shoulder, "You know, you helped me take down King Blathamort, the Great Green, and were key on taking out Prince Weraweld. You really do not need to actually kill one."

 

"Till me gunch one without ya, me just be helper."

 

Kandric let out a long breath, "Well, sooner or later, you will get a chance."

 

"Hopeful it be sooner!"

 

"Well," Pike spoke up with a great deal less enthusiasm than Seldnat, "I will be more than happy to help. However, next time how about I do not get tail whipped halfway across a lake?"

 

"It'd been fun if'n it no hurts so bad," Seldnat grunted out with a big grin. "First time me fly!"

 

Ornam openly laughed, "Good young knight. The next time you yearn to fly, one of our kind can take you, or, if you prefer, find you a Griffin, Great Eagle, Giant Bat, or another flying creature large enough to take you aloft."

 

"Lots less painful, but me no need wings when me and Pike got tail smacked. If'n ya can gets us ta fly without needin' no wing thing ta takes us inta the sky, it be gooder!"

 

San’i-sar covered his mouth muzzle with his left front claw and shook his head. "Young knight, I will find you a pack full of flight potionsssss rather than allow you to be nearly killed by a tail pounding again. You are too valuable to our Premier to allow you to be battered and wounded from a longing to fly at any cost."

 

"It no kill me da first time, so me bets me could do it again," Seldnat stated with a smile, knowing the comment would cause all those around him to shake their heads. He was not disappointed. However, before more could be said, Duke Mathard glanced around, verified everyone was where he wanted them and pulled up a huge conch shell and spoke into it.

 

The shell proved to be highly magical as it amplified his voice many fold, "Warriors of the White Dragon Homeland. You are ordered to surrender all captives and fully capitulate to the forces of Premier Kandric or face annihilation!"

 

Less than a minute later a pair of Warrior Dragons stepped into view even as over a score of White Dragonlings formed up in a line behind them and moved forward. A third Warrior spoke from behind the others, "How dare you puny bagssss of warm sssskin demand anything from the White Dragon Homeland?"

 

"The same bags of warm skin that destroyed your last several incursions into the heart of my lands and the Deathland Mountains to the south, Dragonette!" Mathard retorted. "However, I will not mind another Dragon Skull chair or three for my youngest children to sit on when we dine on White Dragon breast steak again."

 

Kandric raised an eyebrow as the Dragons around him leaned back and even cringed at the words. "Wow, so much for diplomacy."

 

Vondum chuckled, "Yea, pretty much bypassed all niceties. Now I know why you like him so much Premier!" Vondum then glanced over at San’i-sar, "You ready?"

 

"Always."

 

Ornam glanced over, "May I take Conth, General Vondum?"

 

"If he dies you owe me double what I was going to let you pay for him, for I have not bedded him yet, and he is not for sale until I get my fill of him!"

 

"Bargained and agreed," Ornam responded, then turned to another Black Warrior Dragon, "IF, big if, but if I and the boy fall, make it known General Vondum will obtain everything I own." It then turned to look down at Conth, "Get on future Dragon Rider. It be time for you to undergo your first Dragon Combat!"

 

Conth got an assist with Ornam using his tail and wing. The Dragon then looked at Kandric and spoke in Dragon, "Permission to leave your side, Premier?"

"Go, but remember my students are priority. If any die, let none escape and make it as painful a death as possible!"

 

Ornam gave a single nod before launching into the dark grey stormy sky.

 

Kandric glanced over at Vondum, "General, I know the last place you want to be is sitting back here and I do not really need your protection."

 

Vondum ginned widely, patted Kandric on the shoulder and jumped up onto San’i-sar with the aid of the Dragon's wing. Moments later Kandric had to turn his head to prevent getting blasted with a wave of air as the Silver Dragon jumped and flapped its wings to quickly get airborne.

 

Seeing Kandric draw his Frozen Flame blade and start walking down the hill, Glaster spoke up, "Premier, I believe you promised Duke Mathard you would stand back and watch his and Princess Syrissia's forces at work."

 

"No, Master, I told him I would stay back while they took the fight to the Whites. I said nothing about standing, nor did I promise to stay totally out of the fight. I am giving Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia rights of first engagement and will not interfere with their formations." He then shot Glaster an impish grin, "Besides, the closer I get, the better I will be able to see."

 

"Yea!" Seldnat pumped his fist. "Maybe me gets ta gunch a Dragon this way too!"

 

Glaster shook his head, "Alright, fine, but can you at least order good protection for those traveling with me along with my wagons?"

 

Kandric glanced at the other Dragons. "I am more than sure my Master and teacher will be able to protect me, so please make sure those my Master travels with, along with his goods, are protected. Also double the protection of the Drow. I still do not fully trust the Alphar when it comes to him." Getting a nod from Baz'eve, he shoved Lacate over toward the others. "You stay here as well. You just got healed and clean, which is the way I want you when I get back."

 

Slightly behind Kandric and those with him, Ulavee glanced over to those around Klent and the Dragons guarding them. "Is this not awesome? I have always wanted to see the Dragon Legions at work and now it appears we will get to see our Premier in battle as well!"

 

Jory scratched at his chin as he watched Kandric move forward followed by the kids he had been with and the Shaman who had bedded him in Rolling Dale, while the Dragons moved to carefully guards those the Shaman had been traveling with. "I'm kind of hoping we get to see the Master Shaman fight, but yea, I'd kind'a like ta see the Premier kid fight again!"

 

Below the lines of Dragonlings advanced past the Warrior Dragons and started to close on the front ranks of Garm and Alphar. Mathard spoke into the shell again, "Last chance to live to see the moon rise over this land again."

 

The furthest back Dragon snorted, "Your armor and weaponssss will decorate my home, Dwarf!"

 

Syrissia raised her hand, "He is a Garm duke, and you just ended your chance to see your home again!" An instant later she clenched her fist and made a wide arch with it over her head. Before the advancing ranks of White Dragonlings could even blink, the clouds directly above them pulsated with greenish waves of energy and dozens of bolts of lightning ripped downward.

 

At the same time the Garm shieldmen all brought up crossbows and fired. Their bolts proved to be the same as were given to the boys. Each broke into several and skewered the lead rank of Dragonlings at almost the same instant as the lighting ripped into the formation from above. Within seconds there was not a single Dragonling left standing on the front line.

 

The two lead Dragons reacted. They both took in a huge quantity of air and exhaled.

 

However, before their breaths were even out of their mouths the lines of Alphar shieldmen moved forward, slammed their large shields down in front of the exposed Garm and touched torches to the front of their shields. All the shields seemed to burst into flame.

 

The waves of arctic cold breath washed over the shields, putting a few out, but most flickered and flames quickly spread out over the shields again.

 

At this point the Dragons realized they had badly underestimated their foes. All three extended their wings and jumped to get airborne.

 

Mathard raised the shell and shouted into it, "Harpoons!"

 

With the command given, the three-man crews of Garm all reacted the exact same. One of the three tossed a spiked chain around the nearest tree while the other two dropped into the snow. The two then seemed to become one, as the stronger put his feet on the shoulders of the other. The one with his feet free raised his legs to point the massive crossbow-like contraption up, while the other used gauntleted hands and his entire body to pull the massive Dwarven Steel cable back.

 

The one with the bow part on his feet, then moved his legs, took aim, and shouted, "Fire!"

 

At this point the Garm with his feet on the shoulders of the other released the cable holding the massive spiked bolt.

 

Two score of oddly-shaped bastillia bolts, attached to a coils of chain, launched into the sky. A few bounced off scales, but the vast majority ripped into and through the extended wings of the three Dragons.

 

As soon as the huge barbed bolts punched through the White Dragons' wings, the third Garm reached over and pulled on a small trailing wire attached to the tip. Once pulled, the heads spread out forming eight, one meter long hooks that slammed into the upper parts of the wings and were buried deeper because the Dragons were all trying to gain altitude.

 

All three Dragons screamed in agony as their wings were punctured in multiple locations. Then, as they tried to pull free, they found the spiked chains leading down had dug into the trees preventing them from flapping wings. All three slammed back into the ground less than thirty seconds after trying to take to the sky.

 

At this point the Alphar with the strange hook and shovel-like spears raced forward. Each shoved his or her weapon under a large scale. The shovel end slipped under the scales and the hook set it in place. The Alphar then used the long poles for leverage and yanked back toward the Dragons' heads. Dozens of scales were ripped off each of the Dragons causing all to shriek and wail in agony.

 

With the scales removed, the Alphar abandoned their descalers and moved back behind the line of Garm shieldmen who had all dropped their crossbows and had shields ready.

 

The badly wounded and secured to trees Dragons all hacked up balls of phlegm and launched them at the fleeing Alphar. But yet again, the ranks proved to be ready. The Garm shieldmen slammed their shields together showing countless hours of practice. The edges of the shield proved to be grooved so the shields locked together into a huge and much stronger wall of Dwarven Blue Steel. The frozen balls of spit and snot slammed into the shield walls with deafening clangs. A few shields were dented and the Garm who had arms right under the point of impact felt their bones snap, but otherwise the balls shattered lacerating a few of the Alphar with bits of frozen nastiness, but killing no one.

 

Princess Syrissia extended two fingers and sent a bright yellow flair into the air.

 

With the signal given, the Alphar bowman, who everyone thought were too far back to do much to scaled Dragonlings, let alone Dragons, raised their bows. As they pulled back on their bow strings, the carved in snakes that coiled down the bows from the top and bottom, to where the heads pointed forward right above and below the arrow release point shimmered. An instant later the ruby gems in the eyes of the snake heads lit up and sent beams of light out from the bows.

 

Each of the archers moved the light beams to a spot on a Dragon where a scale had been ripped off, steadied their aim, and fired. Sixty arrows were fired and sixty slammed into the unprotected spots on the three Dragons. Each arrow then exploded in a blast of fire after it punched through the unprotected hide.

 

All three Dragons fell gravely wounded.

 

Duke Mathard made an overhead motion with his right hand even as he moved up on the closest dying Dragon and slammed his Lava Hammer down on the skull, caving it in. "Wounded fall back to the Alphar Archers and get aid! The rest of you, their front lines are shattered and the camp is open to assault! Reform and advance."

 

Baz'eve blinked a few times before swallowing a bit of bile. He then looked over to one of the Red Dragonlings helping him protect those Kandric had tasked them with and spoke in Dragon. "No way am I ever going to the Deathland Mountains!"

 

Pangam shuddered, "It is all theirs, and not a place I wish to take a vacation in, even if invited!"

 

*****


All around Klent, the kids cheered and shouted in glee and astonishment while the adults sat on their Dragon Steeds with jaws hanging open.

 

Lidevar edged his mount close to Klent while whispering, "Ya know, there ain't no way none a us are gunna tell the Alphar boy ta do nothin' after seein' this, right?"

 

Klent watched blood pour from the wounds left by the exploding arrows while shaking his head. "I'll ask Ulavee to pull his fair share, but, yeah... If he tells me no, I'm just going to walk away and pretend I never asked him. There ain't no way I am pissing off a single one of those Dragon Hunters down there, no way in this life or any other."

 

Klent did manage a slight grin as he added, "But I'm thinking we could remind the boys what they saw here whenever they start slide on any of the studies Ulavee was loaned to us to teach them."

 

"Yea," Lidevar sighed, "but if him tells me to join in, I ain't gunna argue and I can't read hardly nothin', and I know Immeck don't know nothin' about readin' and writin'."

 

Klent snorted, "Then he'll learn or risk having Ulavee tell some of his buddies down there about setting a bad example to the kids."

 

Lidevar trembled slightly, "Not gunna happen. Immeck be brave but he ain't stupid. And angerin' one of them, let alone lots a them, ain't brave, it'd be plain dumb!"

 

"Then I guess we'll all take some time around a campfire or twenty to get a bit of book learning drummed into us by a mere pup and smile about it no matter what we really think!"

 

******

 

Just down the hill, Seldnat paused and whistled at the amazing dance of death and destruction being dished out by the Alphar and Garm. He then glanced over at Kandric "OK, me's gunna gives da duke some kind'a thanks. Dis be more awesomer ta watch den me ever think... Still, be more funner ta be down there gunchin' some them 'stead a being back here watchin'."

 

Lorthorn shook his head, "Seld, say what you want, but if this does not put the fear of the Garm and Alphar into you, nothing will. I've never seen anything like this. And yea, it be pretty damned awesome." He then managed to grin, "Or as you put it, 'awesomer'!"

 

Zeltoss cringed as the exploding fire arrows blasted chunks of bloody dragon hide off the sides of the Warrior Dragons but still managed to snicker at Lorthorn's comment. "Agreed, but I can't help but feel a little sorry for them Dragons. They just got scales ripped of like we do to a fish!"

 

Pike shuddered, "The pain must be awful! But feel sorry for them, no way Zel!"

 

Jamon couldn't help but watch with morbid fascination as the last Dragon made one last attempt to lift a wing. The weight of the harpoons through the wings, coupled with the pain proved to be too much. The wing didn't even make it fully off the ground before it fell back into the snow. The Dragon lost all hope at this point. It dropped its head and allowed itself to be finished off. "I think I would have got to the same point as those Dragons if Vondum had kept the stick over my shoulders and kept me hanging on the hooks much longer."

 

Kandric reached over and put his arm over Jamon, "You made it all the way to his cabin when few others would have. You proved yourself to Vondum before I even got to the camp. I bet countless others did fold, just like Conth."

 

"Yeah, and to think I used to look up to him..."

 

"He seems to have found a measure of confidence again, so hopefully he will find a way to free himself from Vondum's grip."

 

"It'd be nice," Jamon agreed, "but I doubt I could ever be friends with him again."

 

"He may yet surprise us," Lorthorn stated while watching the last of the three Dragons die. "I saw the Black Dragon General Vondum seems to know well, talking to Conth and it seemed to want to buy Conth's freedom for some reason."

 

Kandric shrugged, "From what I heard from San'i-sar, Conth finally stood up to Vondum, but I am sure he will pay for it before our general lets anyone else have him. But enough of Conth. We really need to get down there before there is nothing left. However, there is no doubt, Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia really have made this fun to watch."

 

*****

 

Above the sudden carnage Ornam had to shake his head and dive toward the ground as he felt Conth slipping off. "Young rider, you are becoming perceptive to Dragon thought! Lock your mind and hold on before you fall!"

 

"How?" Conth moaned even as he managed to grip a couple of Ornam's larger neck spines. The short time he had spent around Ornam, and the way the Black Warrior Dragon had opened his mind to the boy, had made Conth sensitive to Dragons in a way most, even the best Mindmasters, could never understand. Unfortunately, this left his mind wide open to feel the pain, desperation, misery and helplessness of all three Dragons below.

 

Ornam steadied his flight as he felt the child on his back grab on and better secure himself. However, he could tell the youngster was close to losing his grip on his own reality, as the three Dragons below were stripped of everything they assumed, including their superiority. It was beyond what any fledgling Mindmaster should or could hope to handle on his own. "Conth, forget about what be below and pay attention to me! A Mindtalker can block a thought, feeling, or mind attack. Think of a container lid. When open, what be out, can get in. Lock it and nothing will enter. Think of your head being the container. Now think of a lid around it!"

 

Conth had to fight to get the needed mental picture, but finally he thought of a chest, his head being in it, and closed the lid. As soon as he did so, the horrors facing the Dragons below were cut off. He gasped for breath and leaned forward to rest his head on Ornam's lower neck. "Their minds... they're gone. They... they can't even form a thought..."

 

"Pretty much, and you came far too involved and could have joined them had I not helped pull you out," Ornam stated with some admonishment, but also with a tone of a teacher mentoring a prized student. "Their mindssss have been overwhelmed and trampled under a wave of dejection. They could not handle having been outmatched by who they up to now looked on with a great deal of contempt. Being at the total mercy of non-Dragonkind, combined with the dreadful wounding, broke them like you would a dead twig when getting kindling ready for a fire. It be no different than the mind of the sssslave boy Vondum be keeping where he took you and your brother. The boy be nothing but a body. The mind be held by Vondum and Vondum be the one holding the wire yoke to what be nothing but a puppet body. Had you not found within to fight, you would have been no different within a year or two."

 

Conth kept his head on Ornam savoring the strength of the beast, but forced himself to ask a question, "How do you know of all of this?"

 

Ornam glanced back. "I got much from your mind. However, I be with Vondum right after he captured the boy you think about much too often. He not be worth any thought, let alone to take time to center any concern on. The lad you dwell on wandered into our royal land and it be Vondum who captured him. The reward, in part, be the boy. The other the blade hanging over the back of Vondum and the armored forearm guard with the Jungle Raven he have on each arm."

 

"He took those instead of his brother, right?"

 

"Ah, you have pried into Vondum harder than I expected. Very well done!" Ornam snickered while clearly praising Conth, "To Vondum, the brother he came into the forge with died the day Vondum became what may be the preeminent enforcer to ever prowl our forge pit. More graduated in the time Vondum be an enforcer than any time before or after. However, Vondum felt nothing but rage upon seeing the younger brother he entered the forge with. For the boy be clean, wearing fine cloth, and without the body and power he found within during the time in our forge pit. The brother he became an enforcer to liberate from death, be nothing to him by the time Vondum got the offer to take him and free him.


"I know, for I felt identical contempt within Vondum in the way he looked at you until you finally found a backbone, albeit with a little help from me. For by the time the offer be made to take the brother he entered the forge with, he had within a hardened heart and a deep pride of having endured the Black Dragon Homeland Training Forge. Pride go deep within, for while the greater quantity folded, Vondum excelled into becoming an officer in training. To him, taking magic over blood and family be the only option. To him the alternative was not worth a moment of time. To my knowledge he never even looked back to watch the brother he entered the forge with break down and cry. If he ever harbored any regret, I have not felt it. Nor do I believe he ever tried to find the brother in an attempt to pay to free him."

 

Conth said nothing for several seconds. Instead he watched the advancing Alphar and Garm move by the three dying Dragons, each stopping to shove in a blade or slam an exposed area with a crushing style weapon. The former majestic creatures didn't even try to fight. Instead they resigned themselves to death. Before the last line of Garm and Alphar got to them, bursts of Dragon Deaths blossomed outward seconds from one another.

 

As this happened, Conth glanced down into the forest and blinked, "Ornam, am I seeing stuff, or are the trees moving down there?"

 

Ornam did a gradual turn, as his eyes picked up on what his rider had seen. It didn't take long for the Black Dragon to pick up on a large White Dragon with holes in both wings and one hanging down awkwardly. It was running up the hill away from a line of advancing Alphar and Garm, who in turn were being held back by a thin but determined line of White Dragonlings and a pair of Warrior Dragons, also with badly damaged wings. "Conth, you have very good vissssion. Now take your bow and fire down at the Dragonlingssss. The additional height will add to the power of your arrow. Now reopen your mind, for we need to enter battle asss a team!"

 

While the boy on his back readied his bow, Ornam felt the boy think of opening the chest lid he had put his head in. The moment this happened, he linked his mind with Conth's so the two became as one. Even as Conth's first arrow streaked downward burying itself into a White Dragonling's skull, Ornam did a sharp bank, lined up parallel to the line of Dragonlings and let out a stream of acidic spit. Half a dozen Dragonlings screamed as they felt their scales and skin underneath start to melt.

 

As Ornam banked back upwards, Conth used the knowledge of what Ornam was going to do, to easily stay on the Dragon's back and fire three more arrows, two of which hit and dropped Dragonlings struggling to fill in the sudden gap in their lines, while the third impaled one of the White Warrior Dragon's tongues as it opened its mouth in an attempt to breathe on Ornam even as the Dragon departed. The arrow caused it to twist violently and hiss in pain. This also resulted in wasting its breath weapon on nearby trees and a line of Alphar with flaming shields.

 

Ornam fought hard to gain altitude and angled toward Vondum, while praising Conth with mind speak, "You saved both of us from certain serious injury. Well done! You are everything I hoped you would be! We shall make a great and ferocious team." He then shouted in Dragon tongue as he struggled to catch up to Vondum, "General! White Dragon, escaping up the ridge to the northwest! Looks like its wing is broken as it is grounded! Garm and Alphar are in pursuit, but are being held up by Dragonlings and a pair of Warriors with injured wings trying to hold their encampment. Conth and I opened up a small hole, but I do not think it is enough for the Garm and Alphar to easily shatter the line."

 

"Can you go in for another pass?"

 

"I can, however, I need time to make more acid and my wings are icing up, I am barely able to stay up as it is!"

 

"Then land and clear your wings!" Vondum ordered. "San'i-sar, signal a couple of the others to get to our Premier. I would bet everything I am, he and Lord Glaster will want to stop the fleeing beast and find out what it knows! All other Dragons hit the back line of Whites and shatter it!"

 

*******

 

A Silver Dragon answered a shout from San'i-sar and dove down to Kandric's side while the Blue Dragon it had been teamed with, tucked in its wings to gain speed and break some of the ice off its body and wings. It then leveled out above the Dragonlings and let out a stream of electrical sparks. This was followed seconds later by a stream of fire from a Red Dragon and an ear-piercing wave of sonic energy from a Silver from the opposite direction. Fifteen more White Dragonlings and the Warrior with the arrow in its tongue fell before the remnants of the White Dragon forces could turn and fire up into the sky.

 

Both the Blue and Red took a few hits, but not enough to do more than force them to back off, land and get wounds tended to. The damage, however, was done. The line of White Dragonlings was breached. They had no choice but to consolidate around the surviving Warrior, giving up their flanks to the Garm and Alphar.

 

This allowed the Garm and Alphar commanders leading the forces sent to attack the back of the Dragon encampment to surround the whole group. While the fighting was fierce, the Dragonlings had nowhere to go. Minutes later Mathard and Syrissia's frontal assault merged with those pounding on what was left of a formerly large White Dragon encampment. Mathard ordered the Dragon Legions forward and they quickly dropped the last Warrior Dragon with harpooners, descalers and serpent bowmen.

 

The last Dragonlings finally tossed down weapons and brought a pair of badly battered and somewhat frostbitten kids forward.

 

Syrissia waited until the final thirteen Dragonlings were down on their knees and shackled. She glanced at the abused children and glared. She said nothing. Instead she pointed to a pair of her guards and held up a dagger. Both guards instantly understood what she wanted. They moved forward and punctured the cold breath sacks of the captive Dragonlings. Once this was done, Alphar with their fire shields still burning moved forward. At this point the Dragonlings realized the flames rippling across the front of the shields were not magical. Instead they were kept burning from reservoirs of oil stuck between the outer metal which had scores of small holes in it to allow the burning oil to drip down the entire front of the shield, and the insulated backing where arm-holding bands with some kind of non-burning padding kept the Alphar holding them from getting blistered and scorched.

 

The Dragonlings were pushed down and the fire shieldmen moved up and held their shields over the sliced-open breath sacks. Drips of burning oil fell into the open wounds while the Dragonlings screamed and pleaded. It did no good. The breath sacks were burned out of each of them to prevent them from ever having breath weapons again. Their horrible burns were then ignored. Instead, they were forced to carry gear and drag huge, hastily constructed, sleds filled with loot taken off their fallen comrades and from their camp. Those who refused or fell, found fire shields pushed up against their scales until they moved or roasted. Only nine made it to the war camp at the edge of the frozen lake.

 

At the same time Syrissia and Mathard each wrapped up one of the children in heavy blankets and ordered their best Channelers to heal them. They each carried one of the children back to the camp, refusing help from all those around them.

 

*****

 

Kandric looked up as the Silver Warrior Dragon landed next to him and spoke in Dragon, "Premier, the camp is ours. It is surrounded. However, one of the Whites has escaped and is fleeing to the northwest."

 

Kandric moved up, "Can you catch it with me on your back before it flies away?"

 

"It is grounded, Premier. The Black Dragon, Ornam, claims it is with broken wing, but he says it is large, probably a True, not a Warrior."

 

"How many can you carry?"

 

"Two on my back and while greatly slowed, two in my front claws. However, Premier, I am sure I could find another to get you, and all your knights to it before it can disappear into the storm."

 

Kandric glanced over to Glaster, "Care to join us, Master?"

 

Glaster rubbed his hands down his face. "Oh, by Hertzal's name, why me?"

 

Kandric glanced up with a gleam in his eyes, "Because you love me?"

 

Glaster looked up and shook his clenched fists while growling. He looked down, noting this only got a bigger grin out of his most beloved of boys, and light snickers out of the others around him. "Mostly because you can command me, Premier, but yes, I also must defer to a level of love I have which would make me do things more foolish than should ever be contemplated."

 

While Jamon and Pike took a Red aloft, Lorthorn and Zeltoss got help getting on the back of a Blue. Seldnat took a Black, while Glaster and Kandric jumped on the Silver.

 

It didn't take long to see the forest moving as the large White desperately tried to flee. Kandric studied the land below even as the wind and snow slashed into him. However, between the magic given him by Syria and the Gifting of Prince Weraweld, the weather had no affect on him. This allowed him to take in more than the others. He spoke in Dragon to the Silver he was on the back of, "Drop us just down from the crest of the ridge to the north, then take the other Dragons back up and force it to the top of the cliff. Use breath or magic, but stay out of range and danger. We will take it once it finds itself trapped on the top of the cliff face with no ability to fly."

 

"Premier," the Silver spoke with concern, "a cornered and desperate Dragon is not a foe you want to face."

 

"Normally no, but it is what I am about to do. It will tell me where my grandfather is and what students he took, or one of us will not make it off the cliff."

 

The four Dragons landed, let the passengers hop off, and after the non-Silvers smacked their wings to clear them of ice, took back to the sky. They took turns launching bursts of breath weapons and a few spells downward until the White Dragon turned to angle up the hill toward the cliff, roaring and cursing the four Warrior Dragons the whole time.

 

Once the Silver was certain the larger White was headed to where Kandric wanted it, it spoke to the others. "Get Duke Mathard, Princess Syrissia, Lord Monarch, and the others. Also, if one of you can find General Vondum, he and San'i-sar would be of great help should I need to engage.

 

"Let the others know what our Premier is doing and let them know he may need help. I do not know the White below, but it is at least a True, possibly even a Great, but not even close to fully grown. I will stay up here and, if needed, attempt to assist."

 

******

 

Kandric motioned for those with him to move back from the edge of the cliff and hide in the woods. The bursts of breath weapons and spells allowed him to have a good idea were the fleeing Dragon was at. This allowed him to move around behind the Dragon even as it went past.

 

Within minutes the snorting and cursing Dragon, with softer-looking scales of more vanilla or cream color than pure white, angled up the hill while sending a frozen phlegm ball upwards at the Red Dragon. All this got was a snarl from the Red and opened it up for the Blue to spray it with sparks.

 

Even though its wing was clearly broken, it managed to pull the wing up over its head to shield itself from the latest attack, but it was clear the movement of the broken wing, coupled with the spray of electrical sparks was excruciating. It let out an unearthly howl of pain as it tried to move up the hill and into the cover of trees. The problem was, it discovered the hiding place was nowhere near as good as it first looked. The trees rapidly thinned and it found itself on open ground at the top of a thirty meter cliff.

 

It turned with panic in its pure white eyes, took a couple of steps back from the edge and stopped as a Silver Dragon hissed out enough of a sonic breath to hurt its ears.

 

Kandric motioned for the others to stay down. He then moved rapidly in a crouch, angled well away from those in his group, and stood. He cleared his throat loudly as he walked out of the tree line to get the White's attention.

 

Regardless of the pain and fear of being stranded on top of a cliff without being able to fly, it snarled, "You! You killed our crown prince and my grandfather!" While its breath sack was far from full, it drew in air and let out a breath of bitterly cold air.

 

Kandric raised his Frozen Flame, pumped Force into it and smirked as the breath parted around him as if sliced in half. "At least your breath smells better than your former prince."

 

The White made a coughing sound and let out a phlegm ball, forcing Kandric to dive. The frozen ball slammed into a tree, snapping it in two, dropping the top and forcing Kandric to roll to get out of the way. Kandric couldn't help but glance back at the shattered trunk of the hundred year oak with a cringe, but quickly returned his focus to the Dragon. He spoke even as he moved behind the stump and knelt, "Oh great killer of trees, and loser of armies and battles, your mother must be so proud!"

 

The Dragon roared, ignored the pain of its tattered wings, reared back on its hind feet and lunged.

 

As soon as it did so, Kandric spoke a quick phrase while pushing a great deal of Force through himself and into the rocky ground underneath. An instant before the Dragon's head got to Kandric, a two meter thick, four meter wide, and three meter tall slab of solid stone jutted upwards around the stump of the recently shattered tree.

 

The Dragon saw the massive stone blast out of the frozen ground, but other than close its mouth and duck so its mouth didn't crash into it, there simply was not enough time to do anything else. An instant later the White Dragon's head hit the slab, snapping off both horns, knocking it senseless, pushing the entire stump, including the deep roots back a meter, and cracking the stone.

 

Kandric was pushed back on his butt. He glanced up and saw the cracks radiate down the stone with a shiver, but quickly jumped up onto the stump and leaned to the side so he could see the effects. He grinned as he saw the massive Dragon's head wobbling back and forth and the front legs folded under the body. The Dragon clearly fought to stay conscious, but after blinking a few times, its head fell on the top of the stone slab, cracking it deeper while breaking some teeth and biting its tongue badly. Its head slipped off the top of the rock and slammed into the snow with a reverberating thud. Blood trickled out of its mouth and its eyes rolled up into the back of its head.

 

Before it could recover, he hopped down and reached back into the snow until his hands found solid rock. This time he spoke another much longer phrase. At the same time, he made a clawing motion with both hands while twisting his wrists toward his chest.

 

Two claw looking spires shot upwards, one around each side of the huge creature, and closed around it with hundreds of rocky spikes pointing forward to where they dug under the edge of the stunned creature's scales. They then stopped and grew thicker and harder.

 

Kandric let out a couple of deep breaths before he forced himself to stand on rubbery legs. Once recomposed after such a massive expenditure of Force, he moved around the massive cracked stone and waited for the young unconscious Dragon to recover.

 

Off to the side, Glaster shook his head and blinked, "Premier, what spells were those?"

 

Kandric's smile and glee at being able to tell Glaster something the man didn't know about magic was tremendous. To Kandric, finally being able to teach Glaster was gargantuan. "A couple of variants taught to me by some Mountain Spirits, Master. Both are very similar to the claw spell you taught me after I killed those skeletons and zombies back in Scorpion Falls a few years back. Instead of using bricks and building stone, you pull the power directly from Mother Earth through the Spirit Realm of Stone, which sits between Earth, Lava, and Mud. Once you learn where it lays, it is simple to manipulate natural stone to shape and size, but it takes a great deal of Force."

 

"Well worth the expenditure!" Glaster stated in pure awe. "There is no question my young Premier, the student has bypassed his former master by a vast margin!"

 

"You always told me knowledge was where real power starts and stops, for almost everything else can be stripped away. What I learn is always there and thus learning is never a waste of anything."

 

"A lesson I am thrilled you have taken to heart, no matter how many time you had to hold up piles of my books, Premier. But why not finish the spell and drag the claws into it?"

 

"Because, just as you taught me very early on, the second I direct any part of my spell at it, its magic defiance comes into play. Magic defiance does not play a part until magic does it direct harm, and at this point, I have done nothing to activate what must be a massive pool of defiance. Besides, Master, if I kill it I may never find out where my grandfather took my students. As you told me more times than I can count or remember, a student is beholden to the teacher only so long as the teacher defends and tends to the needs his student. This beast knows where some of the students I swore to look after were taken, and my business with it will not be done until it tells me all it knows."

 

"Another couple of lessons you have learned well, and I am extremely pleased, Premier. However, you are still left with a very deadly and dangerous foe, broken wings, stone incased body, and bitten tongue or not."

 

Kandric chewed on the inside of his mouth for a few seconds before walking around to the side of the Dragon. "Hey, Zel, where is the breath sack on this one?"

 

"As long as the Gifting I was given from the Green is correct, it is down the neck between the shoulders under a patch of thicker looking scales. But if you puncture it, the air rushing out will be far colder than when you poked the White Dragonling holding Lacate."

 

Kandric nodded in understanding even as he moved up to seven thicker and larger scales under the neck. He tried pulling at one of them, but found no matter how hard he pulled they wouldn't budge. He frowned and used a hand axe off his pack to cut a branch off the fallen tree and tried to shove it under one of the scales and pull it up. All this did was cause the branch to snap.

 

With some aggravated muttering, Kandric rubbed his chin, then moved up and poked at the scales with his Frozen Flame.

 

All around him, those watching paid far more attention to the eyes and breathing of the White Dragon than Kandric, looking for any sign of it regaining consciousness. But it remained unmoving.

 

Kandric backed off with a frown, "I do not want to pump Force into my blade to heat it up, cause if I burn the sack out, it will leave it nothing left to bargain for. There has to be a way under these scales!"

 

Before he could do more than tug at one of the larger scales again, a baker's dozen of Griffins landed, all carrying Alphar being led by Princess Syrissia. She hopped off and watched the boy for several seconds before turning to Glaster, "What in the name of the gods is our Premier doing?"

 

"Trying to get under the neck scales so he can pop the breath sack, Princess." Lorthorn responded with a bemused shake of his head.

 

"And he is not freezing pulling on the scales of the Dragon?" She stated with a mixture of astonishment and frustration. "I have two types of cold protection up and being this close is truly numbing!"

 

Lorthorn shrugged, "Pretty sure Weraweld Gifted all of us, Princess. I am only a bit chilly."

 

Syrissia took a few steps back in an attempt to get out of the cold aura of the huge Dragon before she spoke up, "Premier, I have a couple of Descalers and Serpent Bowmen with me. With your permission we can finish this."

 

Kandric punched the thick scale, leaving a light mark, but doing no real damage to it before he turned away, "No magical arrows and no kill shots, Princess. Just pull back on the scales and shoot the breath sack!"

 

She glanced over at Glaster, only to see the man toss up his hands and roll his eyes. With a very visible long exhale she glanced over to a couple of those with her and jerked her head in the direction of the Dragon while replying to Kandric, "As you command, Premier."

 

Kandric backed off but held up his hands as half a dozen Dragons came in carrying several Garm in claws including Duke Mathard. "Hold up a moment Princess." He then turned to Mathard, "My Duke, can we get some of your harpooners up here with their gear?"

 

Mathard rolled his shoulder as he adjusted his armor while moving back from the intense cold of the White Dragon. "As long as our Dragon allies do not mind flying back and grabbing some, Premier." He then looked back the Blue that had just dropped him off, "Thank you for the lift, my scaled friend. However, unless the need is as great, I will stick with ground transport from here on out!"

 

The Blue snickered, "Having a Dragon claw around you a little alarming, my Duke?"

 

"I think I will stick with disconcerting, Bav'art. Regardless of the exact wording, I just do not feel this particular Garm was meant to have boots off the ground by more than a meter or two... And since I am happier in this bitter cold, than in the air, would you mind finding others to help bring up some of my harpooners?"

 

Bav'art smacked its wings on the ground and spoke while it took to the air, "And get away from the cold aura of this young, probably Great, White? No, good Duke, I would not mind at all!"

 

All those around Kandric moved back to get as far away as possible from the horribly freezing temperatures coming off the Dragon, but stayed ready, looking for any signs of it waking while Kandric directed some of the newly arriving troops.

 

After nearly an hour and only a couple of moans from the Dragon, Kandric put the final pieces of his plan into place. He first had a couple of the harpoon teams fire their weapons into the thickest trees they could get to, close to the Dragon, then used the spiked ends of the chains to wrap around the Dragon's tail. The last few links of chain were then locked together with the end spikes. These were bent by two very determined Garm Metalworkers with large hammers, which locked them into place.

 

Once this was done, two descalers combined with their hooked shovel-like tools to pull one of the thick scales back. Both poles made cracking sounds, but it was enough for a Serpent Bowman to find a good spot and launch an arrow into the slender gap. Deathly cold air whistled out between scales, froze the poles solid and forced the two Alphar descalers to be taken well back and get treatment for serious frost damage.

 

Finally, six more teams of harpooners worked their chains into the scales of the hind legs, three attached to each, and fired the harpoons into trees very close to the edge of the cliff. Kandric surveyed the work for several more minutes before he nodded in satisfaction. He then moved up to the Dragon's head and smacked the nose with his Frozen Flame blade.

 

The Dragon did nothing but moan.

 

Kandric let out a growl, "Come on, wake up!" After another hit to its snout did no good Kandric looked over to Vondum and San'i-sar. "I am more than open to suggestions General and or San'i-sar, for to say he is out cold may be too much of a pun for most, but..."

 

While several groaned, many of the younger ones who had moved up to see the Dragon from both Klent's group and Glaster's giggled.

 

Mathard couldn't help but put his head into his hand and shake his head while Princess Syrissia clenched both fists and gallantly tried to remain with little emotion on her face, but failed badly, so she quickly stopped trying.

 

Vondum let out a snort, walked up to the Dragon and surveyed the damage while gritting his teeth at the horrible chill coming off of it. "This be my first time facing Whites in combat, but I'd have to say the rock it slammed into won... As far as waking it up, I'm kind of at a loss, Premier, for normally I use water, beer, or even a stream of urine to wake up those whose faces had a close encounter with my fist. I highly doubt liquid would make it before it froze, and while I am fearful of nothing, there is no demon lord or god who could make me pull my manhood out and try to piss on this beast with the cold coming off it."

 

"Not wanting to have a frozen pole to impale Conth with, General?" San'i-sar enquired with a huge smile.

 

Vondum flipped off San'i-sar even as he quickly backed off, "Feeling is required for enjoyment, and I highly suspect I would have none, nor do I want to hear any jokes about anything breaking off me or talk about frozen nuts, for I a certain mine have pulled up as deeply as they have been since I was a babe to fight this cold..."

 

Princess Syrissia decided to jump into the exchange, "Good General," she paused and shot a glance over to Glaster, "and if I may, even our Lord Instructor of our Premier; if the two of you would give the boys a little less attention and instead focus on me, I am quite sure I could warm even the coldest manhoods within my tent."

 

Seeing both men's faces flush, the left side of her mouth twisted up into a smirk even as she lead up against a tree and shot Mathard a wink.

 

At this point, Mathard's face took on a red tinge.

 

Seldnat, glanced around, and snorted, "Ya be three fer three, Princess! Hows do me gets in on dis deal?"

 

While her eyes went wide, she recovered extremely fast, "Depends on how quickly and well you study, good knight, for my bed is only for the highest of educated."

 

Seldnat frowned, "Gessin' me be out a lucks den."

 

Zeltoss gave Seldnat a shove, "Kudos for the attempt though, Seld!"

 

Princess Syrissia glanced over, "Sir Zeltoss, if you should like some extra tutorage, I am sure I can get you up to speed with your speech and protocols far more quickly than Sir Seldnat, and my tent can be a very accommodating place to finalize your instruction." Seeing the boy swallow hard, she glanced over at the others with Kandric, "Anyone else wish to speak up?"

 

Seeing several heads shake, she smirked, "I thought not. Now, if I may, Premier?"

 

Kandric blinked a couple of times, totally astonished at the Alphar Princess being able to so effortlessly spar on such a crude level with those around her. Having gained a great deal more respect for her, he shook his head to clear the thoughts, and gestured toward the White Dragon, "I am very much open to suggestions, good Princess."

 

She raised an eyebrow at the shift in the boy's tone toward her, "If I had known me showing my warrior or sailor bar side would have gotten your approval, I would have shown it much sooner, Premier. I think I now understand why Queen Jostallis personally selected me to be Duke Mathard's Alphar counterpart... Anyway, there is another common way to wake up those who I have bitch-slapped into the next lunar cycle." She grinned almost evilly, "A strong smell often takes even the drunkest and bloody-faced warrior out of a stupor."

 

At this Vondum raised a finger and glanced over to Ornam, "Do you still..."

 

Ornam grinned widely, showing a mouthful of black teeth, "Oh, yesssss, good General!"

 

As this was said both the other Black Warrior Dragons and over a score of Black Dragonlings moved well back from Ornam.

 

Vondum chuckled, "And judging from reactions, lost none of your... potency?"

 

"Oh, General Vondum, if anything I have only become more enhanced with age."

 

Vondum even backed up a few steps as he continued to speak, "Have you happened to have eaten any fresh meat recently?"

 

"Fressssh..." the Dragon's shoulders moved up, allowing a shrugging motion, "well, I would not give it the credit of fresh. However, the mountssss the reconnoiter team of Premier Kandric entered the encampment were alive at the time of our banquet."

 

Even though well back, Jory's jaw fell open, "You ate our horses?"

 

"Not him alone," the Blue Dragon guarding Klent's group responded, "but indeed they were eaten. They were of little benefit to any other than food."

 

Jory looked down with clear sadness, "She was old, but she was a real good and sweet animal..."

 

"The flavor left in my mouth may require me to differ, young Mage."

 

Jory and Pulon both frowned at the Dragon, but neither said anything. The idea of talking back to a Dragon was simply never contemplated. Instead they both wiped at a couple of tears in their eyes as they grieved over horses they had become attached to. With a great deal of sadness, they switched focus back to Vondum and Ornam.

 

Vondum glanced over at Kandric, "Premier, what Ornam can expel was one of the reasons I remain one of the best, if not THE best, enforcer within the training forge under the Obsidian Fortress. For I kept record of output and once in a while I would take the lowest five percent, put them in a lower chamber and ask Ornam, here, to unleash."

 

"Indeed," Golhaod snorted, "it left them ailing, quivering, and unable to eat even after allowed out after cleaning their vomit from the wall and floor. I tend to recall the chamber in question held the reek for a week or more. Furthermore, it became a place to put other poor output youth, many of whom became ill within an hour. But if I remember correctly, you waited for a time duration when Tathamane be at bottom of required output before declaration of Ornam being your method of reprimand."

 

Vondum's smile verified the Black Dragonling's suspicions before he even spoke, "Tath should have never spit on me, tripped me, and laughed as I skinned my knees on the stone steps even as I realized what my desire to get trained actually entailed upon entering the forge. Had his brother, Tregasel, not failed out, he would have been a constant target of my authority over the forge apprentices for knocking my brother down and beating on him whenever he had the chance as well!"

 

Golhaod grinned, "But you got the outcome you wanted. Tathamane failed out and joined his brother, and yours, in the upper brothel."

 

"I have yet to track them down and kill them, but they are still on a list I have not crossed all the names off of. I can only hope both are still slaves and have children, preferably boys, for me to continue my wrath on."

 

Golhaod shrugged, "All you had to do be to inquire. The Black Dragon Homeland cannot allow a former forge worker to tell of our training program. Therefore we keep track of all and initially warn, then if needed, eliminate any who attempt to undermine our... program of enticement to get poor youth into training. I knew your hatred of the two youth, therefore I came with an update for you, General. I can tell you both gained freedom under dubiousssss circumsssstance and now live in Rolling Dale. Tregassssel as a Massster potion maker with a disturbing reputation, now with two free boy youth and three female. Tathamane be a highly paid mentor in the Warrior Adept field for any with limited talent, yet abundance of family coin. He produced two free female youths and three males, three of which are grown, one, a Swordssssman by the name of Vit, recently became a city guard. The other two work within the kingdom school, coaching the fledgling apprenticesss in armor and weapon handling."

 

At this, Glaster spoke up, "General, we need to speak, for I have a great deal more information and very possibly a gift for you."

 

Vondum looked over, "Then indeed we need to speak. But we digress..."

 

Golhaod cocked his head to the side, "No inquiry on your brother, General?"

 

"No!" Vondum barked almost too quickly, showing a bit of desperation not to find out more. He took in a deep uneven breath before he continued in a very angry voice, "I did what I could for Pontarious when needed, and he made his own bed... or should I say, the Black Dragon Homeland found a bed for him to serve it from. His fate is not tied to me any longer."

 

As he spoke he failed to see Syrissia, Mathard, and even Glaster look at him with wide eyes. Instead he turned his full attention to the White Dragon, "Ornam, let's see if you can wake this damned ball of frost up before we all freeze to death!"

 

Ornam jumped up on the rock and raised his tail.

 

Upon seeing this, Princess Syrissia put both hands up to her face, "General, Good Dragon, are you both seriously collaborating on using flatulence to arouse this grand, yet ill-tempered and bloodied beast out of its stupor?"

 

"We most certainly are, Princess!" Vondum declared with a leer, showing he had no desire to angle conversation any other direction on the off-chance his brother re-entered it.

 

Syrissia let out a long breath, "General, this is without any degree of dignity! I was thinking more of an amalgamation of onions, garlic, vinegar and possibly some raw valerian, all of which we have in our main camp!"

 

Off to the side, Seldnat gave a snort, "Me'd kinda like ta see da Dragon rip one on big frosty."

 

"Well make up your mind! Even with this amulet of cold protection the Alphar and Garm gave me, my tail be freezing up here!" Ornam snarled.

 

Kandric glanced over at Syrissia, "I would kind of like to see if it is as nasty as it what we have all heard."

 

"Oh, it be!" one of the Dragonlings spoke up.

 

"Indeed, it be retched!" another confirmed.

Mathard shrugged, "Premier, I am with Princess Syrissia on this. To do this would be a highly inauspicious a command from one in your position. However, this is your army."

 

Kandric's eyes glinted, "Princess, Duke, while I tend to agree with both of you, I am still a kid, and I really want to know how bad a Dragon fart can be, so... Give it your worst, Ornam!"

 

"About time," Ornam muttered while giving his butt a shake. A few seconds later a truly massive, horribly odorous, discharged blasted outward with a strange, clattered sound, as the force caused Ornam's back most scales to vibrate against each other.

 

Ornam quickly jumped down and moved close to a Red Dragon to warm, while the White Dragon's eyes popped open and it started thrashing and gasping.

 

Those downwind quickly scattered, many with watering eyes and noses. Several vomited.

 

Lorthorn, Kandric and Zeltoss all gagged while Jamon covered his mouth and nose and made several sidesteps to get further upwind. Pike lost his meal and continued to gag, but managed to wheeze, "Oh, by the gods, that is horrible even upwind!"

 

Kandric also backed off and pushed some fresh snow onto his face, "Nasty! Totally nasty!" He then managed to giggle, "But awesome!"

 

Mathard also moved back several paces while staring at Vondum, "You forced children into an enclosed room and let this happen to them? How could you?"

 

Vondum responded without any hint of remorse. "Until you see the training forges of the Black Dragon Homeland, you simply would not, could not, understand, Duke Mathard. A time or three of Ornam's stench probably freed many who would have otherwise been sent to the brothels and eventually sold off or gifted to important merchants or others the Black Dragon Homeland wished to keep happy."

 

Syrissia yanked off her Silver Fox fur scarf and tossed it into the woods, "The rest of my non-magical wears will be tossed as soon as I can find a big enough pyre to burn it all, for I will NOT take any chance of any of what just emanated from within Ornam lingering on anything I wear! There must be something dead stuck up inside your backside, Dragon!" She shook her head and pulled in some fresh air, "But alas, our Premier was right to desire a demonstration, for there is no doubt you could render a Greater Giant Kodiak Lion defenseless with such a... discharge."

 

Vondum chuckled as he turned his attention back to Ornam and spoke with a depraved grin plastered on his face, "As disgusting as ever..."

 

Ornam gave a quick bow, "Why thank you, General!"

 

Kandric continued to snicker as he moved closer to the White, as the strong wind pushed away the stench. "Ah, awake and probably smelling better..."

 

The White gagged, retched and coughed even as it struggled to break free of the stone surrounding it. When it found most movement caused the stone spikes to dig under its scales and into its hide, it let out several hisses of pain even as it continued to choke. After over a minute it craned its head around to look at Kandric and tried to let out a breath. Ice cold air whistled from under its breath sack scales and the arrow lodged within caused it to thrash in agony, which in turn caused some of the stone spikes to draw blood from under its scales. Its head hit the snow hard as it quaked in pain.

 

Kandric moved a little closer, but far enough away to dodge should it hack up a phlegm ball, "I bet a good Healthman Dragonling, or whatever, could remove the pieces of the frozen descalers under your scales and the arrow in your breath sack. While I am not certain, I can only guess the sack itself may even be able to repaired by a good enough Shaman or Channeler."

 

The Dragon glanced over and tried to do a tail whip on the boy. The moment the tail jerked, the chains anchoring it to the trees rolled around the tail causing the spikes forged into the Dwarven Steel chains to cut in. It let out deep, pain-filled roar and quickly dropped its tail.

 

Kandric glared at the Dragon, "Oh, please continue, with any luck the spikes encircling your tail will eventually cut it off. Then you can go home a hornless, semi-toothless, breathless and tailless creature to be pitied by all your kind... or mocked. Either would be fine with me. Now before I burn out your breath sack permanently, TELL ME WHERE MY STUDENTS ARE!"

 

The Dragon tried once more time to stand, but as soon as some of the stone spikes dug in to the point of drawing some blood it stopped. It closed its eyes and trembled with a combination of fear, pain and anger. However after a few seconds, it opened its eyes and stared at Kandric and spoke with a snarl, "You ought to be far more worried about your pathetic brotherssss than an insignificant apprentice, Dragon murderer!"

 

Kandric's hand closed around his Frozen Flame tightly as concern and resentment boiled up within him. When he spoke, his voice only carried a fury-filled tone even though the words were only whispered. "My Brothers?"

 

"Ah, crap..." Glaster muttered softly with a deep cringe.

 

"At least the initial rage is going to be directed at the White like the boys recommended..." Syrissia stated quietly.

 

"But then what?" Mathard responded with a great deal of anxiousness.

 

Vondum shrugged, "We can only hope he stays focused on the Dragon long enough to sooth and sate some of his sudden need for retribution."

 

Before more could said, Kandric shouted, "WHAT ABOUT MY BROTHERS?"

 

The Dragon forced a laugh, but just as quickly stopped as it caused the flattened spot on its head to throb. It closed its eyes and winced, took a few breaths as deep as possible without having the rock spines to dig in, and rested its head on the snow. "Your killing of Cyronia dethroned Inaxia from the Demon lord throne of Ice, Dragon killer... Inaxia's sister, Frexla, moved some of her Flame Spirits to Inaxia's defense, but lost a powerful underling in the mortal realms herself. According to the Ice Spirits fighting to take control of the Demon Realm of Ice, rather than abandon Inaxia, Frexla hersssself came to our realm and took two of your clan, a Rathiter and a Darmoth and two others, a Gablon and a whelp by the name of Emroc..."

 

As the last name was spoke, Kandric's demeanor grew even darker, "Emroc?" Kandric seethed, "The flaming pile of roach crap took my friend?"

 

The Dragon blinked at the sudden venomous tone over an all but unknown Human of little to no consequence, "I can only hope he be redundant to Frexla and already roasted in the Spirit Realms of Flames."

 

At the same time Glaster spoke a long Shamanistic phrase, and put a bubble of warm air around himself so he could safely move closer to the Dragon, "Gablon? The Teaching Echelon Shaman, and caravan leader, Gablon?"

 

"A caravan leader, yea, but I know nothing more of him, he be worth nothing in the eye of Frexla..."

 

"He was a former student of mine, Dragon. How do I find him?"

 

Kandric glanced up with deep fury in his eyes, "Master, if you would, please watch my body. I shall be back." Before Glaster could say anything the boy collapsed into his arms.

 

Glaster quickly carried Kandric back from the Dragon, while looking down with a mixture of anger and astonishment. "I have never seen any Shaman enter the Spirit Realms so fast!"

 

Jamon spoke up, "Get used to it Lord and Teacher of Premier Kandric. He does it this fast whenever he wants. From what I have be able to glean he goes to the Spirit Realms almost every night, sometimes several times a night, and a few times a day to speak with some of his spirit friends and learn spells."

 

Glaster blinked, "Spirits teach him spells?"

 

"All the time," Zeltoss verified. "He has even taken me a few times so I can learn Shamanistic writing and spells to use in as a Mystic."

 

Glaster looked down, "He has taken non-Shamen into the Spirit Realms and has survived to tell about it?"

 

Jamon looked up, "Lord, he took me a few times as well because I was afraid he would hurt me with a spell in his sleep. He had me talk to a couple of spirits and they showed me he was actually awake and learning spells when I thought he was casting in his sleep. One even taught me a few magic-like things Animal Adepts can do..."

 

Before more could be said the Frozen Flame disappeared off of Kandric's back. An instant later Kandric's body jerked and stood as he returned to his body. As he did so, the blade appeared in his hand with a flaming goblin-sized spirit impaled on it. The flaming creature thrashed and screeched as it was yanked out of the lands of fire and into the mortal realm.

 

Kandric yanked up on the blade with both hands, lifting the flaming beast off the ground and getting another unearthly howl. Kandric ignored the sounds, as he shouted, "Frexla! This be one of your Scorch Spirits, and it will be the first of thousands of your allies I will kill outside of its home, utterly destroying it unless you return all those you have taken, including Emroc and Gablon!"

 

Even as snow melted around Kandric, the spirit started to shake as the waves of heat rolling off it started to fade. Mathard, moved up, "Premier! You are going to bring..."

 

Before more could be said, scores of very hot shimmering portals appeared around Kandric. While most drew weapons to fight the sudden incursion of minor demons, Kandric twisted his blade and ripped it out the side of the creature he had abducted from the lands of fire. At the same time, his hand shot into the hole and yanked out a lightly glowing red carnelian gemstone out of the hole in its chest. As the glow in the middle of the gem faded, the creature let out a guttural gasp and fell into ash around Kandric.

 

Kandric quickly sliced the head off another the instant it appeared. Before it could fall back into the lands of fire, he reached into the neck and grabbed another carnelian even as he shouted, "Red Dragonkind, grab and hold some of them! I need a few alive to question! These low spirits cannot burn you! Others take out the trash! But they need a leader to enter our realm, and it is mine!"

 

Pangam was the first to react. His claws buried into the shoulder of a nasty-tempered Scorch Spirit. He then slammed it into the snow, savoring the heat rolling off of it. It tried to bite him, so he slammed his fist into its mouth, stunning it, before grabbing all four arms and pushing them high up into the spirit's back. He then sat on it while shouting, "Red Dragonkind knock some them out and pin them! Watch it though! They want to bite. Keep clear of their teeth!"

 

The nearest Red Warrior Dragon joined the fight with a twisted zeal. It first jumped on a Spark Spirit as it materialized, pinning it with its left back foot. At the same time its right front claws closed around another and its tail wrapped around a Scorch Spirit that appeared right behind Vondum and pounded it into the frozen ground over and over.

 

Other Red Dragonkind jumped in, taking Scorch, Spark, and Ember Spirits down before any could do more than appear.

 

"Those we are not holding, take their hearts before they can return to Frexla and they will be destroyed utterly!" The Hawkling Channeler of Avgon squawked loudly, even as he carved the heart out of an Ember Spirit near him with a glowing scimitar and held it over his head to show everyone. "When the glow is gone, so is the demon it gave life to!"

 

Vondum and Glaster did nothing but exchange glances before casting fire protection spells on themselves. Before most could do more than blink, both men had a pair of hearts of nearby intruding spirits.

 

Kandric gutted an Ember Spirit and yanked out its gemstone heart, even as Zeltoss smashed the head of a Spark Spirit, Pike slammed his magical pick into the gut of another, Lorthorn took all four arms off a Scorch Spirit and Seldnat extended his Staff Spear, impaled two, and shoved them into the side of the White Dragon.

 

Jamon jumped in as well. He lashed out with his whip, tripping a Spark Spirit. He then slammed the short sword Kandric had taken off the Dragonling and given him, into the demon's back and dug out the heart with his hand. Even though it burned his hand some, he grabbed the cinnabar stone and shoved it into the snow, ending the glow within quickly and destroying the spirit it had been inside of.

 

Vondum jumped over to Jamon's side, punched an Ember Spirit hard enough to knock it out, and grabbed the boy's hand. He used a healing spell on the burn while plunging in his dagger into the chest of the Ember Demon with a backhand. He then dug his blade in and popped the heart out.

 

He patted Jamon on the shoulder, "Well done, but in the future dig the heart out with a blade so you don't burn yourself. If it hurts the demon more before you end it, good!"

 

Not far from Jamon, the White Dragon yelped in pain since it had a pair of Ember Spirits and a spear pushed into its side. With a great deal of effort it sent out an extra internal burst extra of cold, freezing both spirits before they could do more than singe a few of its scales. The cold was enough to freeze the hearts as well, so they fell into nothingness but left their hearts behind signaling the total destruction of both.

 

Syrissia snarled as she tapped into her Sorcery abilities, surrounded her hand in an icy claw, and shoved her hand into a Scorch Spirit angling toward Mathard. She withdrew her hand and held up a glowing carnelian. She tossed it over to one of her guards, then backhanded a Spark Spirit, pulling out yet another glowing gemstone.

 

Mathard took a deep breath, pulled two daggers, and jammed them into both sides of the next nearest Scorch Spirit. Even as it tried to hit him with four very hot fists, he drug his blades downward, ripping it wide open. As it started to fade back to its home, the glow of the gemstone in its chest could still be seen, so Mathard reached into the gash he had made and pulled it out. He then went low on an Ember Spirit and jammed upward into what looked to be the groin area. The pitiful squeal signaled he had been correct. Noting his eyebrows had been singed, he slammed in second dagger into its chest and popped out the heart.

 

Klent's, Klorna's and Glaster's groups all entered the fray as more fire-based minor demons continued to appear. The magic weapons they had been handed, especially the cold-based longsword Gapon had been given, were more than a match for demons. At the same time Alphar, Garm, Illorcs, Pantherlings, Black Rapids Guards, Hawklings, and Dragonkind all jumped into the battle. Any thought the demons may have had about all the different races not trusting each other or not being able to work together was proven groundless, for even as several mortals fell, others pulled them back and took the fight to the spirits invading the mortal realm. Hundreds of minor demons ceased to exist as they fell from one end of the forest to the other. Newly arriving demons were slow to realize it was suicide to enter the mortal realm with such a powerful opposing force capable of permanently ending their existence leading to a couple hundred more demon hearts being removed. The assault faltered as other demons refused to jump into the fight no matter what power was commanding them to do so.

 

Suddenly a powerful wave of extreme heat blasted outward not far from Kandric. An Inferno Demon stepped out of a glowing portal and shouted "Enough!" The heat it put out forced most well back, but the Frozen Flame flared cloaking Kandric with a powerful heat protection and put up enough protection for those closest to be pulled back with serious burns, but still alive. At the same time, the trapped White Dragon screeched and pushed more cold outward trying to protect itself.

 

Kandric noted the Inferno Demon wince at the cold. A new idea came to him even as he cringed at the power of the creature facing him.

 

While the icy aura coming off the Dragon caused it serious discomfort, the Inferno Demon forced itself to stay focused on Kandric, "How dare you challenge my Mistress, little mortal?"

 

Kandric sidestepped to put the demon between the stump and himself, "Your mistress? So Frexla sends in a lackey to speak for her? You are not worth my time to talk to. Now go be a good little demonette. Go away and tell your burning pile of dug beetle waste whore of a boss to give Emroc, Gablon, and my brothers back!"

 

"Demonette?" The Inferno Demon roared in total indignation. "I am Lord Pyrothermal!"

 

Kandric had to force himself not to gulp, but it didn't really matter because all those who knew history instantly identified the name did audibly swallow hard, and almost all took a few more steps back. Those who didn't know, took cues from those who did and also backed well away.

 

The demon's eyes glinted as it noted recognition in Kandric's eyes, "Yes, puny mortal, It is I, Lord Pyrothermal, ender of the lineage of Greysac, and burner of the outer walls of Seandra!"

 

Kandric lowered his blade some while forcing air into his lungs, "Some say you failed, Pyrothermal, for a child of Greysac, badly burned, but still living, made her way to Seandra with word of your deeds and before her death gave birth to a son. The boy was last seen with Prince Xavier shortly before the walls fell in flames. However, according to the texts within Protector's Keep I was given access to, the Sand Dragons held long enough to allow some from within the great city of the Sand Dragons to escape before you, your Brown Dragon allies, and their undead armies turned the land into a desert of the dead. Among the escapees were a Drow, a disgraced and declared non-child Alphar prince, a Garm, and the grandson of Greysac, a young Highman Mage by the name of Lucas. For, unless there is a tome saying otherwise, the Great Sand Dragon Xavier, son of the King of Seandra, along with those who fled with him, was never located."

 

The demon gave a dismissive motion with its left arm, "Food for the undead, probably a skeletal Dragon by now... Along with its companions, the Garm, Alphar, Halfling, and Drow and yes, the boy, Lucas, grandson of Greysac. They were never seen again, and I looked for hundreds of years. They vanished into history, never to be heard from again!"

 

"Maybe, maybe not, but you still failed, and someone made it out of Shandra with enough information to write of its fall. It was you, along with your Brown Dragon and undead loving buddies who started the Dragon Wars! Look around Pyrothermal, for all around you are Dragonkind who hate what you did to them and their empires, including the White behind you!"

 

Pyrothermal, glanced back at the White with a glare, but the momentary distraction was all Kandric needed. He pumped extra Force through the blade to give him more protection from heat while putting a Cold Snap on his hand, but not releasing it. Instead, he lunged forward and punched Pyrothermal in the chest with everything his Ferret Sect Warrior training allowed. The cold around his hand evaporated, but protected his skin while breaking a couple of ribs in the Arch Demon. In addition, the unexpected blow staggered the Demon, knocking it back toward the stump, which ignited in roaring flames as the Mythling stumbled back into it.

 

The White Dragon bellowed in agony at the flames licking at its face and clenched it jaw while blasting out every gram of cold it could muster. The result was to snuff out the fire on the stump and even cool Pyrothermal.

 

The bitter chill caused Pyrothermal to shout out in pain as his back lost all heat and the waves of warmth around it lost a great deal of potency. It arched its back and his head tilted back to where it touched the back of his shoulders as the unnatural chill lanced into his back.

 

With Pyrothermal's whole body contorted forward and his arms out to the side, Kandric quickly brought the Frozen Flame up. With a snarl, he once again showed incredible mastery of a longsword and shoved the blade into and through the chest of the demon.

 

Before it could do more than grab at the blade sticking out of his chest, Kandric slammed his left hand into the pummel, driving the blade in all the way to the hilt, cutting off a few fingers of both hands of Pyrothermal as he did so.

 

Pyrothermal's shout was enough to ignite snow laden tree tops within fifty meters of his agonized scream. He could do nothing as he was driven through by the Frozen Flame and pushed back into the stump, which again ignited only to once again be snuffed out by the White Dragon, even as its scales around the White's face started singe and buckle from the heat.

 

The Arch Demon tried to reach out to grab at the boy pinning him to the stump with the sword sticking through him, but those watching on with wide-eyes all finally reacted. Cold based spells out of Syrissia, Glaster, Vondum, Monarch, Zeltoss, Jory, Judge Andreus, Ulavee, a multitude of Dragonkind and other spellcasters slammed into Pyrothermal. Moments later Mathard shouted out, "Gapon, finish the damned thing you are playing with and toss me your cold blade!"

 

Gapon did a backhand slash across a Spark Demon, gutting it. Next to him, Lyrod used the magical gauntlets he had been given as a primary weapon, reached into the creature's open gut, punched upwards and came out with its gemstone heart.

 

Seeing this, Gapon tossed his cold blade over to the Garm Duke.

 

Mathard stepped forward, caught the blade and pumped his own Force into the weapon all in one motion. He finished the swing by removing one of the hands reaching for Kandric with a clean and precise strike.

 

At the same time Chark'ash pulled up the bow Glaster had demanded he take, spoke a couple of arcane words, and fired an arrow. The head turned to ice as it streaked between Kandric and Mathard. It hit the other hand and pinned it to the badly charred stump.

 

As soon as Rylan saw this, he seemed to move with unnatural speed, much like he did with the Alphar inside Rolling Dale, only faster. He got to the Arch Demon just as the shaft of the arrow burst into flame, but before Pyrothermal could pull its skewered hand free. He quickly yanked the magical dagger off of Mathard's belt and drug the blade across the exposed wrist, removing the other hand. Rylan then quickly moved as if one with the wind as he replaced the dagger in Mathard's sheath and backed off before the heat of the demon could do more than blister his hand.

 

With both hands removed and its magical defiance crumbling from a continuous onslaught of cold-based spells, Pyrothermal let out a withering string of curse words as he tried to retreat back into the Realm of Fire. However, even as he started to fade from the Mortal Realm the blade in his chest flared.

 

Kandric saw the Arch Demon start to fade, "No!" he shouted even as he activated the Force stored within the necklace given to him just outside of the Swamp Slums. With a gritting of teeth, he pushed as much as he could into and through the Frozen Flame and continued to expend more.

 

The fading demon was jerked fully back into the Mortal Realm as the influx of Force from Kandric combined with the cold power of the Frozen Flame cut off his access to all fire including its home. Ice crystals spread outward from the blade, freezing Pyrothermal until after nearly two minutes there was nothing but a body of ice with a frozen scream on his lips.

 

Kandric glanced over to where the Red Dragon was continuing to pound an Ember Demon into the ground with his tail. "Bring it over here!" Kandric shouted.

 

Pangam held up a clawed hand, "No, we do not want to chance reheating Pyrothermal! Rip out the heartssss of the otherssss! Our Premier can have this one to deliver his communication." He yanked the wounded demon he had pinned up and bought him close to Kandric, but far enough away to where it could do nothing to help the frozen Arch Demon.

 

Kandric glared at the creature even as it thrashed around from having Pangam's claw buried into its shoulder. "Listen or get your heart cut out and be totally destroyed!"

 

The small demon let out a squeal of terror and stopped fighting as Monarch moved up with a dagger and stuck the tip into the chest directly over the creature's heart, while holding out seven hearts in his other hand for it to see. "You stop and listen or be my eighth!"

 

At this the fledgling demon held up all four hands and looked at Kandric with terror in its red glowing eyes.

 

"Better." Kandric stated. "Now do you understand me?"

 

It nodded, but said nothing.

 

"Good enough. If you do not do what I tell you, I will jump back into the pit of fire, find you, bring you back here, freeze you, let you thaw and freeze you again, over and over!"

 

Seeing it tremble and stare at Pyrothermal with terror etched into its features, Kandric slapped it. "Look at me, not your soon to be eliminated master! You are to go directly to Frexla and tell the boiling skank she will give me Emroc, Gablon, and my brothers back one way or the other. How many minions she loses before she figures it out is totally up to her. If any of them suffer a single burn or are in any way tortured, I guarantee this skirmish is only the beginning of her end!"

 

Kandric drug his blade across the neck of the demon and let it fade rather than take its heart so it could go back and deliver the message. He paused, reached over to his Frozen Flame and shoved a little more Force to make the blade colder just to make sure before he dropped to a knee, clearly exhausted, "Would someone shatter this monster for me, please!"

 

Seldnat shrugged, and called out, "Gets me hammer!"

 

Lorthorn started to offer up his hammer, but was stopped by Mathard, "No, boy! The last thing we want to hit this demon with is a Lava Hammer!"

 

"Aw, screw dis!" Seldnat barked. Instead of grabbing a couple of offered hammers, he moved up to Pyrothermal, reared back and slammed his head forward with everything he could muster. Pieces of the demon fell to the ground and cracks radiated downward. "Grrrrrr." Seldnat snarled and rubbed his forehead once. He repeated the head butt, but added in a jump to make sure he put everything he possibly could into the physical attack. This time the former Arch Demon from the Realm of Fire shattered.

 

The few remaining minor demons lost their power to stay within the Mortal Realm and faded, but more than a few lost their hearts before they could leave the Mortal Realm for the relative safety of the Realm of Flames.

 

Even as Kandric managed to grab the massive fire opal heart before it hit the ground, Seldnat blinked out a few tears before speaking to any and all who cared to listen, "Ya sees, it be trues! Halforcs gots hard heads, but no means me no know how ta use mine none!"

 

Many dropped their heads into their hands while Kandric snickered as he continued to toss the heart up over and over until the glow within faded and the stone cooled. With a smirk he looked down at the stone, then tossed it over to Syrissia, "Here, go get something really nice made out of it. From my studies, there is nothing better for a gem magic item than a demon heart."

 

"But Premier..." Syrissia's words faltered as she stared at an almost pineapple-sized fire opal, "The best magical items within Alphar lands come from your ancestral home and you just killed the creature this came out of! you should have something made for yourself in your home forge!"

 

"My ancestral home is Junsac. However, it matters none. I have not been as kind or polite to you as I should have been, so make yourself something nice."

 

Lorthorn glanced over and whispered softly, "You want to bed her or something?"

 

Kandric turned bright red, started to say something, then turned away. "Lorthorn!"

 

******

The gods viewing portal room: Veldora, Quati, Salem, Syria, Pelgrin, Rovnar, Vindayin, Warvon, Vaneuben, Lunara.

 

"Oh my..." Veldora spoke as she felt a disturbance between the mortal realm and the outer realms. She watched for several seconds as the assault started.

 

Salem moved up, "The flow of Magic has suddenly changed. What is..." her voice faltered as she watched Kandric rip the heart out of a minor demon, spun and behead another. "It is too soon..."

 

Pelgrin came out of a side room "Too soon for what?"

 

"To enter the mortal realm," Veldora responded. "However, it appears Kandric may have overplayed his hand."

 

Rovnar let out a snicker as he grabbed his vest with rows of glowing throwing knives and started to strap it on. "It was only a matter of time before we were needed to pull his butt out of the flame and Frexla broke the pack of the immortals and untied our hands, so let's go show the little twerp up."

 

Quati shook his head and put a firm hand on Rovnar's shoulders, "Hold, my over-eager, slippery fingered, associate. Kandric has been worshiping me for more than half his life and I have had my spirits feed me enough reports to know no matter how bad the situation, he is not going to act kindly to outside intervention, especially ours. Least you forget this whole thing started because my Star Spirits noted the immense power within the child and got me interested enough to peek in on the youngster. Without me, he would have slain Cyronia without us knowing who did it. However, we had eyes on the lad, so we knew and were able to utterly destroy all those guiding the storm before Inaxia realized she had lost her lead Arch Demon, Cyronia. Now hold your blades for a span and let us see how this plays out first."

 

Vindayin nodded in full agreement, "Every single time we have thought Kandric was doomed, he has surprised us. Should he strike another serious mortal blow to the Demon Lords, the balance of power tilts much more to us. It is becoming harder and harder for the Demon Lords to stop us from bringing in another god."

 

Syria moved up to the viewing portal as hundreds of demons poured into the mortal realm, "Indeed, and Frexla is throwing a massive amount of power into this assault. If, and yes, a very big if at this point, but if the mortals beat this back, Frexla's ability to assist Inaxia will be drastically diminished, if not ended. For if this fails, Frexla may find it hard to keep control of the lower Realm of Fire, let alone assist her sister in reconsolidating power within the demon pits of ice."

 

Vaneuben moved up and gazed down just as Pyrothermal appeared, "There is no way any mortal can face up to Pyro! We need to move!"

 

"Hold, but stay ready!" Rovnar shouted as he saw Kandric angle around Pyrothermal.

 

"Hold?" Warvon asked in disbelief. "Moments ago you were ready to jump in with both feet and our future godling is about to be roasted!"

 

"Maybe not..." Rovnar peered into the spinning portal and listened to the exchange of words. "The little brat has a plan..."

 

"A plan?" Lunara shouted. "A plan to fight Pyrothermal?"

 

"I believe so, yes..."

 

"Believe so?" Crytrall gasped, "And if he does not?"

 

"Then we go..." Rovnar grumbled, "but I have seen this exact same look in his eyes before. It is the look of a pissed-off kid who still feels like he's not respected enough. Everything about him tells me he has the upper hand for some reason... It was the same look and demenor he had when Cyronia attacked Vondum's camp, and the stare I saw when King Blathamort charged in on him and his buddies. Now wait and watch... Remember, out of all of us, I got here by my own hand, and the use of tactics most simply cannot fathom. While I cannot see what the damned, ruby-haired, Halfelf has in mind, I am certain he has something spectacular planned and Pyrothermal, like most massively powerful beings, is ignoring the warning signs and badly underestimating a foe who should at least be given some respect... And for the record, if Kandric pulls this shit off, I may even start worshiping him!"

 

Minutes later, as Seldnat head-butted a frozen Pyrothermal, the jaws of several gods dropped. At the same time Rovnar spun the portal back so all those gazing downward could see it again before he yanked off his vest and tossed it up on his armor stand over two dozen meters away, "OK, Kandric, you win. I got nothing to compare to that! Short of someone killing Frexla herself, you will have my full support into godhood, just so I don't lose worshipers to you!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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