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The Kandric Saga

Chapter 33

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!

 

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Kandric Chapter 33

 

Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Zeltoss, Lacate, Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris (with Blue Streak Shocker Lizard), Duke Axegrind, Hawkling Channeler, Kyltoss, Klorna, Morwar, Mokel, Princess Syrissia, Silver Warrior Dragon San'i-sar

 

The spot where Pyrothermal fell started to churn. Shimmering tendrils of highly reflective particles launched outward from a small round spinning vortex of energy. Five struck Kandric. Four lanced into Seldnat. Three hit Zeltoss, Lorthorn, and Jamon. Two slammed into Pike, Mathard, Syrissia, Glaster, Vondum, Chark’ash, Rylan and the White Dragon. Single tendrils found others who did some damage to Pyrothermal or assisted those who did. Before these faded, several large spinning globs found Pangam, Ornam, Cam'ris, Duke Axegrind, Kyltoss, Klorna, San'i-sar, and over three score of others who held fifteen or more demon hearts. Lances of fiery energy shot up the noses of any who had between nine and fourteen hearts. This included most in Glaster’s group and several of those with Klent. While this occurred, scores of smaller sparkling darts erupted from the portal. Anyone who held between three and five demon hearts were sought out by these magical eruptions. This included Conth, Lacate, Perth, the rest of Klent’s group, except the slave, and the remainder of those who were with Klorna.

 

Ultimately, a wave of intense heat rolled out in all directions. It washed over the entire force and continued outward, melting snow for over two kilometers around the spot Pyrothermal fell.

 

All who were struck were either knocked to the ground or had to take a knee as they found Force fully replenished, power increased, wounds healed, and some knowledge imparted. The worst of the injured were overcome by the healing and fell unconscious. The wave of fire snapped the few remaining fiery doors closed. Yet the spinning portal didn’t vanish. It bubbled and churned above the badly charred stump.

 

Other than some of the dragons, Seldnat was the first to stand. He shook and pounded at the side of his head. After a deep breath and wiggling fingers in both ears he reached down to assist Kandric. “Me hearin’ thing in me head!”

 

“Me too… and ringing, but it sounds like it is trying to say something.” Kandric winced and cupped his hands over his ears. He blinked, shook his head and held up a hand as a way to tell Seldnat he needed a few more seconds. “Anyone else hearing something?”

 

Those who got the largest influx of magic all nodded. Chark looked over, “A whisper or something. I cannot make it out. I… think it is saying to take something. The ringing is bad. I wish it would stop!”

 

Kandric got up to a knee and glanced up at the portal. “Come on Frexla, either give me those you took or send more to the slaughter.”

 

“How about you give it a bit, Premier?” Vondum snarled. “While I have no problem with lining my pouches with more hearts, a break would be nice!”

 

“Indeed,” Syrissia stated firmly as she stood. “Not required, yet certainly welcomed.”

 

“I could not have said it better, Princess,” Mathard stated. “And I agree with our young Drow. I think the humming is telling us to take something. It is too high-pitched to hear properly.” He moved over and helped a couple of Glaster’s boys up. “However, let us refrain from doing anything. We have vast numbers of younger ones and a sizable number of those above age of ascension who are clearly overwhelmed. A respite in combat is certainly to all our benefits.”

 

Seldnat wiggled another finger in his ear but moved up to the stump. He stared at the Dragon, “Ya try something, me’ll break out some a yer teeth and feed ‘em to ya!”

 

The White Dragon didn’t move.

 

Seldnat moved closer, “Me think it be out…” He grinned as he poked it, “Um, like out real cold.”

 

A cascade of groans cascaded over the forest. It only caused a bigger smile out of Seldnat.

 

Seldnat edged over to where Pyrothermal shattered. His eyebrows arched as he saw items scattered around the stump. “Him leave behind much a him thing. Lots a neat stuff!” He knelt, put on gloves, and picked up a green-tinged axehammer. “And… Wow, Kandric, look at dis!”

 

Kandric eyed the spinning churning portal, glanced over at the Dragon, and stood. He sidestepped over to Seldnat. “Interesting piece. Many guards carry them down in Scorpion Falls, but I was too little to even play with wooden ones. Seemed like only the biggest and strongest carried them. So I do not know how to properly wield them. You?”

 

Lorthorn answered as Seldnat ran his gloved hand down the entire length of the weapon. “Teacher Saslara has a couple. We all had to spend some time with one of them, but only Seld showed any aptitude for it. Probably because he is one of the biggest and strongest in the school. There was talk it was going to be his next mastered weapon. But Seld, be careful. It came off a major demon!”

 

“Major is a vast understatement, Sir Lorthorn,” Princess Syrissia warned. “There is some speculation and considerable surviving ancient texts suggesting Pyrothermal had a chance to be a demon lord. Some scrolls say he instead became Frexla’s husband. This allowed him intermittent access to this realm without breaking the covenants between the gods and demon lords about not directly interfering with the Mortal Realm. An accord Frexla broke by taking our Premier’s brothers.”

 

“And Emroc!” Kandric snarled. “If any harm comes to him…”

 

Syrissia looked up at the portal. “Premier, it is improbable she will harm your brothers or this Emroc. Just her coming here was a huge risk. Taking mortals crossed another line. Harming them would probably be the step too far. The gods would be forced to intercede or risk loss of faith as word spreads. Frexla can ill afford to go to war with the gods unless she has full support of the other demon lords. Both the demon lords and gods need this realm, so the others are unlikely to back such a conflict. For, without mortals, neither demon lords, nor gods, have worshipers or detractors which is where a vast majority of their power comes from.”

“This is true,” a Hawkling Channeler spoke as he moved forward. “The Mortal Realm, possibly realms, also provides a conduit for them to procure spirits to populate the Outer Realms. For only within the Mortal Realms can procreation happen. And young Halforc, your young Elf compatriot speaks sound advice. The weapon in your hand came off a formidable demon from the Realm of Fire. There is a likelihood it has serious demon taint within.”

 

“Me know. Teach’r Saslara warn not ta mess with magic we not know. Not gunna let it touch me. But… Wish me know if it be safe ta keep and use.” Seldnat put the axehammer on the charred stump and carefully picked a strange mace-like weapon. The entire head was rose quartz with greenish-gray bands holding it to a handle made from the same metal. The handle itself was ornately twisted and tapered. The end held the tip of another gem, or possibly the same as the head poking out the bottom. The rose quartz head was shaped in the likeness of a reptilian head with a center horn and two smaller ones protruding from a ridge just above the eyes. The backside of the glowing crystal formed into a flat hammer. “Be on him belt, but never see nothin’ like it.” He rotated the weapon in his gloved hand.

 

“It is a scepter.” Glaster spoke up as he moved forward. Like most, he eyed the portal, and refused to walk under it but shifted to get a better look.

 

Vondum also advanced. His focus was much more on the Dragon than the portal, but he kept an eye on both. “Such a weapon was certainly a symbol of nobility, probably royalty. Very few rulers use them anymore. Black Rapids, however, is one of those few. The Gloom Scepter is an ancient symbol of rulership and is said to be a very powerful weapon. Having never seen it used in combat, I can only go on lore, but the legend behind it say it helped kill Loreweavers known as the Ice Witch Triplets. Their deaths stalled the Mythling advance, which in turn saved Black Rapids early in the Mythling Wars. The second time the city was assaulted, the defenders were ready and armed with what was taken off the Ice Triplets and their forces. The attack was crushed.”

 

Syrissia edged around the portal but relocated to get a good look. She did however poke at the Dragon. It gave no response. Cautiously satisfied, she studied the weapon. “A scepter for certain. There is no chance he would have had such a petite item made for himself. There is also nothing demonic in its crafting. It was certainly a combat capture, but from whom or what…” she shook her head. “I have never beheld such a piece.”

 

Glaster glanced both at the portal and Dragon, but finally stepped up next to Seldnat to inspect the weapon. “It looks more feminine than masculine. My bet is Pyrothermal took it off a duchess, princess, or most likely, a queen.”

 

“It look more heavy den it be.” Seldnat stated as he gave it a couple of practice swings. “Be light and gots good balance too!”

 

Zeltoss eyed the scepter. “It’s awesome…”

 

Seldnat grinned as he put it down on the stump next to the axehammer, “Be too girly fer me!”

 

“Not me.” Zeltoss stated emphatically.

 

“It be yer Elf side likin’ pretty things,” Seldnat snickered. “But yer still da best Elf friend a guy could have.”

 

Zeltoss snickered, “You’re one of the best friends I could ask for, but you know, carrying something pink might let others see more of your non-Orc side, Seld.”

 

“Er make um think me wanna be see by guy not gal. Ya does what ya wants, but girls be the way ta go!”

 

“You might find out differently if you try,” Zeltoss retorted.

 

Seldnat snickered “Ya try me way, I try yer way.”

 

The two exchanged some playful shoves causing the adults to shake their heads and roll their eyes, yet most kept a careful eye on the portal and White Dragon.

 

Lorthorn giggled as he moved past the two. He also slid on new gloves as he moved up to a quartet of pouches, crossbow, satchel of bolts, a hide vest holding twelve throwing knives with a hole from Kandric’s Frozen Flame in the middle of it, and a pair of sheathed machete-shaped blades. “He had these smaller blades strapped to each leg and the crossbow on a shoulder strap. Surprised with all these weapons he didn’t pull one!”

 

“Probably didn’t occur to him he might need one.” Vondum responded. “A early mistake in a long list which ended him up very dead. He wanted to brag, see fear, and show his dominance over us puny mortals. All you boys should take note of how one misstep, one misread of a situation in combat, can lead down a path leading to your destruction. Such a lesson should apply to all, even a demon!”

 

From behind the group Chark’ash pointed. “He tried to grab the sandy-colored pouch after the Premier impaled him. It is why I targeted the hand instead of his head, which is where I was about to shoot him.”

 

Vondum nodded, “I noticed the same. Makes me leery of whatever is within. However, you all should all be looking more at the weird magic door and Dragon while much less on what the demon left behind.”

 

Lorthorn glanced up, “It’s not like the blazing doors all the demons came out of. This one isn’t on fire. And no heat is coming from it.”

 

“And Pyrothermal saw a boy, not the Premier we all know is in the body of said boy,” Mathard countered.

 

Lorthorn let out a long breath, grabbed both sheathed weapons, crossbow by the strap, and pouches. He backed well away from the portal and put the items down. Seldnat followed suit with the scepter, vest, and axehammer.

 

Jamon knelt next to the two machetes as Lorthorn dropped them well back from both portal and Dragon. “Kandric… these both have the sparkly handles like your sword does.”

 

Syrissia shot the portal another glance, then moved to take a look at the blades. She wiggled them back and forth in gloved hands. A few seconds later she let a whistle. “Frozen Flames! Not minor or even fundamental ones. These are major; a couple of steps down from your own blade, Premier; nonetheless extremely powerful in their own right. Both of these have additional Wellaras crests of Royal Expeditionary Guards. A crest not utilized since late into the Mythling wars… These were battle captures and certainly not tainted.” She paused as she looked at the crossbow. “As is this… A royal instructor and personal defender of someone very high, and probably young, in House Wellaras!”

 

Syrissia focused on Kandric. “At some point Pyrothermal killed elite guards and an instructor of a high royal youth within your house, Premier. With these crests and dedicated time with concentrated searching, we should be able to comb the historical scrolls and find what distant relative of yours Pyrothermal slaughtered.”

 

Mathard smirked, “My, my, Premier, you are becoming a pathway for vengeance to injustices done to your lineage!”

 

Kandric shrugged. “I am more interested in you saying there is no demon taint on those weapons. Are you certain?”

 

“There is no chance a Frozen Flame weapon can be corrupted.” Syrissia declared. “It is why the Mythlings resorted massive expenditure of resources to destroy them when found or captured. None would have attuned to any with ties to or directly from the Spirit Realms. Pyrothermal must have known this yet decided not to destroy them. He undoubtedly carried both blades and this crossbow as prestige symbols. There are probably many he dealt with who became demons or fell as demons and were banished for millennia to the lower realms by these weapons. Numerous more were certainly destroyed by them. By keeping all three with him, it undoubtedly gave him a readily identifiable heroic status. Keep in mind, the difference between hero and villain, or loyalist and traitor is in the eyes of the beholder. For those in the lower realms, seeing a Frozen Flame in the hands of a fellow demon would be seen the same as one of us walking around with…”

 

Syrissia paused and pulled out over a dozen demon hearts with one hand. “Let us start with these.” She put the stones back and eyed Kandric with a sideways cock of the head. “The real question is why? You have what is undoubtedly the greatest Frozen Flame ever made.”

 

“But those who travel with me have none.” Kandric countered. “Each of my knights could have one. If there are any others lying around, I would sure like Pike and Jamon to have one as well.”

 

Syrissia shook her head. “While hundreds, maybe thousands of minor, fundamental, major, and superior Frozen Flame weapons of all types were made, there are certainly none lying around. Surviving ones are passed down, generation to generation. Most were taken by the Mythlings, then vast energy and magic used to destroy them since Frozen Flames in the hands of the lower races can and often did kill Mythlings. As we can now testify to, some demons kept them.

 

“We do not believe a Frozen Flame has been made since the tail end of the Mythling Wars. The art of making them was destroyed when the only successful invasion of your fortress was carried out by Murderic and his mistress Lanabodess. Lanabodess was killed, but so were the remainder of those who knew how to make Frozen Flames, as well as the vault holding the written instruction on how to forge such weapons. However, should someone discover how they were made, more could still be forged. The assault, while successful in ending the knowledge of how to enchant them, failed to damage the magical forges used in their forging. The assault was repelled then crushed by a sizable force of Drow before the doors to the actual forges could be breached.”

 

Mathard spoke. “While this is the situation now, it may not have to be going forward. For, from what I saw in your blade, the record of how to make Frozen Flames may have been enchanted within your sword.”

 

Kandric took a deep breath, “Sounds like without the Drow many of us would never have come to be. Maybe you should all think about such things before you look down on the likes of Chark.” He shot Chark’ash a smile while scores of Alphar and Garm glared.

 

Mathard and Syrissia exchanged grim looks. After getting a nod from Syrissia, Mathard cleared his throat and spoke loudly. “As much as many around us refuse to accept our Premier’s words they hold a ring of truth. Furthermore, there is no question the young Drow in our midst not only had nothing to do with the fall of the Great Iron Fortress of the Garm, he also assisted in the destruction of Pyrothermal. I say it is time to set aside our hatred, at least when it comes to the young Drow traveling in service to our Premier’s Teacher and former Master. I, for one, see nothing within the boy to dislike, let alone hate.”

 

“I fully concur,” Syrissia announced. “Young Chark was close to me much of the battle. Many of you with me, and possibly myself, came out with more demon hearts and less injury because he fought beside us. Give him the same chance you wish to be given when around those who know nothing about you.”

 

She turned to Kandric, “You are the reason Pyrothermal fell, so if you wish to award the Frozen Flames to your knights it is your right.”

 

Zeltoss shook his head as doubled-checked his gloves and lifted the scepter. “I’d much prefer this. It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen! I just wish we could find out if it is safe…”

 

Syrissia moved up, cast a spell and waved her hand over the scepter. She blinked in surprise and tried again. With confusion, she looked over at Mathard, “I get nothing. It does not even detect as magical.”

 

“Not possible!” Mathard barked. “The gem head glows of its own accord!”

 

“Indeed it does,” Syrissia grumbled. With a momentary cringe, she glared at the weapon then forced herself to look gracious. With a forced smile, she gestured with a sweep of an arm and gave a half bow to Lord Monarch. “Care to try?”

 

Monarch blinked in astonishment at being invited to do anything by anyone else in the alliance let alone the highest Alphar member of royalty on the battlefield. He gave a bow, “Good Princess, while I thank you for requesting my assistance, what Pyrothermal carried is something I have spent the last sixty plus years in search of. For, from the first time I found mention of what we see before us, it became a major focus of my studies. Without getting into the immense enchantments and history behind what they are made from, there is no spell we have capable of telling us anything about the scepter or axehammer. What the boy holds is Mythmetal. Our magic will not, cannot, tell us anything. For the enchantments infused within come from beyond the Outer Realms.”

 

“You are saying the enchantments on the scepter comes from the outer Spirit Realms?” Kandric gasped.

 

“Further, young Premier.” Monarch corrected Kandric. “And the enchantment is not on, it is deeply infused within. The same holds true for the axehammer. Both get their power from the home of the ancients, what is most often referred to as the Realm of Cataclysm.” Monarch smiled at Kandric, “Premier, go ahead, cast a basic, spirit based, magical revealing incantation on either, or both.”

 

Kandric shrugged. He spoke a couple of arcane words and extended his fingers. A cascade of green shimmers erupted from his hands. Everything magic in a cone extending fifty meters in front of him took on an eerie blueish-green glow except the axehammer and scepter.

 

“Well,” Monarch stated with wide eyes, “this is quite the display, Premier.”

 

“Indeed!” Syrissia wheezed out. “What spell is this?”

 

Kandric grinned, “Glamour Magic. A Steam Spirit taught it to me my first night I went into spell training with them.” He walked up and looked down at the scepter. “The only glow is from within the gem. Interesting.”

 

“What is more interesting to me is the ‘how’ behind the spell you cast, Premier.” Glaster stated.

 

“And if it can be mimicked by Sorcerers,” Monarch added.

 

“Um, I bet Sorcerers can do the same, they just need to change a light spell in whatever color they desire and focus the casting so it only sticks on magical items… For me, um, any Shaman, I change the words of the incantation to light magic instead of simply light. It is really quite simple, but it requires at least Secondary Echelon because you must combine the effects of light and binding it only to magic. But Lord Monarch, you are correct, my spell did nothing.”

 

Even as he spoke, Syrissia, Monarch, Glaster, and over a score of other Sorcerers and an equal number of Shaman turned different directions and cast. Within moments every magical item glowed multiple colors as over fifty casters refocused their magic and followed through with Kandric’s explanation. This created a nearly blinding prismatic effect as cones of Glamour Magic overlapped and stuck to items, armor, weapons, shields and even clothing.

 

Kandric glanced around, got vertigo, and took a knee. “OK, OK, stop! Just stop and dismiss the effect! Geesh!”

 

One after the other most items stopped glowing as casters killed the effects, but several items continued to glow. Most with only one or two colors.

 

Syrissia spoke, “Those of you who are having trouble dismissing your spells need to rethink how you are trying to do so. You cannot just snap your fingers and kill the effect. It spread out, broke apart, and what remains is now bound to the enchanted items for the duration of the spell. It does not form a continuous sheet or a singular blob of magic. Eradicate the effect by making the entire area you affected disperse or dissolve! Many of you may need to use Force until you fully understand the weavings of magic you unleashed.”

 

Kandric stayed down and pushed hands into his eyes, “While I am happy to have taught you all something… did you all have to try it at the same time?”

 

“Premier,” Glaster stated in a scolding voice, “name one time I taught you a new spell where you did not instantly attempt it.”

 

“Never, but I am a kid!”

 

“Teach a caster of any age or echelon a new spell and we all become kids,” Monarch snickered.

 

Syrissia smiled widely, “Well said, Lord Monarch!”

 

Several others chuckled.

 

Kandric clenched both fists, shook his head and bit off a response. Instead, he looked at the scepter and axehammer again then moved to the edge of the cliff and took a knee. “Zel, give me a few moments. Let me see if I can find out about those weapons. If I can verify they are safe, you can have the scepter. And Seld, same holds for the axehammer… if you want it instead of a Frozen Flame.”

 

“Oh, me want!” Seldnat answered with hope and longing.

 

Kandric grinned. “Figured, since I think you got some drool on it.”

 

This got lots of laughter from around Kandric and caused Seldnat to blush. Kandric snickered, rolled his shoulders extended his arms out to his sides and put up both hands. “OK, let us see what I can do…” He looked around and motioned for Klent and Klorna’s group to come closer. “I owe you all, so if you want to see something most will not be able to… ever… come close… Oh, and everyone do me and yourselves a favor and keep your weapons at your sides unless you are attacked. Most of the rest of you will be left outside. Keep an eye on the Dragon and shout if it wakes and tries anything or if Frexla makes another move. We should be able to hear if I do this correctly.”

 

“What are you going to do?” Glaster demanded to know.

 

“See if a friend or two will be able to provide useful information on the items Pyrothermal dropped.” Kandric stated cryptically. Before more questions could be asked, he lowered his head and spoke an exceedingly long series of arcane phrases. At the same time his hands made elaborate and painful-looking movements.

 

Glaster studied the casting as best as he could. He whispered just loud enough for Monarch, Vondum, Syrissia, and Mathard to hear. “He is summoning… but not trying to bring a spirit into our realm. He is summoning something akin to a portal, but it is… bigger, grander… deeper than I have seen or even read about.”

 

Nearly a quarter of a sandglass passed with no affect. Abruptly mist seemed to seep out of the refrozen and freshly snow-covered ground. The haze coalesced forming walls around those closest to Kandric but excluded the Dragon. However, the spinning bubbling portal above the stump stayed within the new enclosure. The air grew so thick it caused labored breathing. An outline of a huge panther with horns amalgamated out of the mist. It took a few more minutes for it to form into a nearly solid creature. When it did so, those looking on could make out it had scales instead of fur and a fin ran from the back of its head all the way down the tail. While the cat-like creature had claws, its paws were webbed. The eyes glowed a shimmering golden-green and its front feline teeth were translucent ivory in color and appeared barbed in texture. Gill flaps could be made out in the scales just behind the head.

 

The creature walked around Kandric. This included walking out beyond the edge of the cliff but didn’t fall. Its head and eyes panned those within the foggy enclosure for a bit before its mouth twisted upward into what resembled a decadent grin. “Not bad for your first attempt at forming a pseudo-fog realm on the fringes of the Mortal Realm. Are these mortals giving you problems?”

 

“No.”

 

“No? Then why expend this kind of Force?”

 

“Your elders said if I needed your help… Well I… um, we were hoping you could provide us with some information.”

 

“Ah, and you bring your friends to me, or me to your friends. How kind of you, Kandric.” It moved around those closest to Kandric and spiraled out. It stopped in front of Seldnat. “I gather this is the Halforc you talk so highly about. Seldnat, is it?”

 

“Um, yea… um, what me call ya?”

 

“As a close acquaintance of Kandric, you can call me friend. The only one here, other than Kandric, who has a chance of properly pronouncing my name is the Pantherling.” It moved over to Wek. “It has been a considerable span since one of your kind has come to visit. Has your Shamen forgotten the power of seeking out a totem?”

 

Wek gulped, “I have no idea what you refer, Spirit.”

 

The creature sighed. “Find a young Shaman, male, strong of heart, light on fear, and robust in intellect. Send him on a spirit walk in the land of fog outside the lake of crystals. I will find one to mentor the boy in the old ways. He will need a body protector for a considerable span; moons perhaps; Therefore, the caretakers must be willing to feed, water, and care for the body, for the one you dispatch will not revert to it until education ceases. However, it will benefit the boy, your clan, and your silvery associates.”

 

The cat didn’t wait for a response. It moved up to Glaster, “You, your description given me, matches the name Glaster. Am I correct?”

 

Glaster blinked. “You are.”

 

“Good to meet you, Glaster, overseer and mentor of my friend Kandric. I have heard much about you. Kandric talks about you as if you are greater than a mere mortal. Because of this, you should also search out a totem. Thanks to Kandric, your name is well-known within the Realms of Fog, Steam, Air, Dust, and Wind. I am certain, with effort, you could find a totem within any of the five. Do so.”

 

It briefly talked to Lorthorn, Zeltoss, Jamon, Vondum, Mathard, and Syrissia, before returning to Kandric. “Ah, this is most refreshing. Lack of fear and ability to hold conversation with non-Shaman or Spirit Warrior mortals. When time permits, we must revisit. Currently, you say you need help. What assistance can I feasibly provide?”

 

“Pyrothermal dropped several items when we killed him.” Kandric answered. “Can you tell me if any or all are demon tainted and what, if anything, he carried is safe for my friends to claim as theirs?”

 

The cat let out a snort. “With Pyrothermal out of the way, the Realms of Steam, Air, and Fire are all calmer. Consequently, I will send an elder to take a look, but remember, Kandric, the elders are vulnerable in an enclosure such as this. There may also be a price attached.”

 

“I will pay and protect whoever comes with my life.”

 

“As will me!” Seldnat stated. Other voices quickly pledged the same.

 

As Chark’ash spoke, the cat angled over to him. “You… I see striking semblance to a mythic historical figure, child. Are you in the lineage of…? I shall only use a first name for I do not wish to imperil you. So let me be as discreet as possible. Are you in the line of Kardin’lok?”

 

Chark’ash gulped, “He was the founder of my house following the Five-House Treaty and the restoration of the upper desert… How…?”

 

“Your eyes… Very few have them. All, to my knowledge, within one family line. I assume you are proficient with at least one ranged weapon?”

 

“I am, multiple, however, I mastered sling first because improvised bullets are abundant in the rocky desert, while wood, especially for making arrows or bolts is not.”

 

“Interesting, and what I consider to be a wise choice given your circumstances.”

 

“Thank you, however, may I inquire as to why you asked?”

 

“Certainly. Kardin’lok was an ally of sorts. I assisted him with a Nightmare Hag plaguing his non-waking moments and he… I shall reveal this much. Kardin’lok was an early worshiper of Rovnar, not because of fast fingers, but from a demented humor few could fully understand. He crafted something for me which only one as dementedly funny as he could have come up with. The said item solved a rivalry issue between me and another when all three of us were still mortal. With one of the lineage of Kardin’lok unearthed beyond the impediments of your lands, I believe time nears for return of an item borrowed, then protectively kept by a close acquaintance. Unfortunately, while still beneficial, the most auspicious consequences will be ineffective should you return home.”

 

The cat’s eyes narrowed as it gazed over those in the enclosure. “While Drow have irrationally fallen into disfavor in your Mortal Realm let this be known and widely disseminated. I will take personal insult if any harm befalls this descendant of Kardin’lok because of actions or inactions on any of your parts. I sincerely hope for your sakes, my declaration to all here is abundantly unambiguous.” It focused back on Chark’ash. “Has there been any issues with those within this enclosure?”

 

Chark’ash spoke, “No Spirit. And I feel obligated by truth, therefore must unenthusiastically disclose, I am currently, by right of purchase of my freedom, in full service to Commander Glaster. He can order me to do as he wishes.”

 

“I am certain you will gain much in such an arrangement, line of Kardin’lok. I will let it be known the mentor of Kandric has absolute authority over you. Afterall, there is a necessity to inhibit… misunderstandings…”

 

It shot a stern glance at Glaster, “The boy is yours, without question, for the duration of the agreed contract. Nonetheless, I expect you to provide the lineage of Kardin’lok some of what you granted and impressed upon Kandric during his servitude.”

 

“Chark will receive as much or better than most who have found themselves in my service.”

 

“He better.” The cat growled. “I am loyal to his lineage. Very loyal.”

 

The spirit snorted as Glaster’s eyes got a little bigger. It focused back on Kandric, “Any other concerns before I take my leave?”

 

“Yeah, one.” Kandric pointed up at the bubbling, churning portal.

 

The cat gave a swish of its tail without bothering to look up. “What I assumed would be your principal matter instead is a remote second. Intriguing. Yet insight is constrained. Above is an ancient tightly constructed incantation in need of a pivotal turn of a key. What it will divulge will be revealed at the time the lock is negated, not prior.”

 

Moments later the cat walked through the barrier and the air grew heavier and turned thicker again.

 

“Premier,” Mathard asked with labored breath, “what is this?”

 

Glaster took in a couple of deep breaths and pushed on his chest as he spoke, “Duke, unless I miss my guess, this is Kandric’s Shaman hut. One constructed outside of Mortal Realms; thus, he can force formation from wherever he is! Am I correct, Premier?”

 

“It is not in the Spirit Realm nor ours, but between. There are some restrictions as to where it can be formed,” Kandric responded. “But in essence yes…”

 

Before more could be said a thick spiral of fog formed close to Kandric. This time it took the figure much longer to take shape. When it did, it took most of the mist out of the room. A coiled snake-like serpent with horns, continuous fins down both sides, and what appeared to be a ferocious stinger on its tail spun in a few circles carefully gazing at everyone in the enclosure. Seemingly satisfied, its fanged and horned head moved close to Kandric’s face. “You burden yourself with an obligation to me, young Kandric, for coming here with others in attendance!”

 

Kandric didn’t hesitate. “I will pay whatever price deemed fitting, Elder.”

 

“Yes, you will. Now what can I do for the first non-spirit student I have tutored since the Loreweavers formed the higher races of mortals out of the fractured and corrupted essences of the Realms of Cataclysm?”

 

It seemed to leer as several within the enclosure let out gasps, choked, and or swallowed hard. “I grant you this much, young Kandric, at least those you surround yourself with, within this flawed construct, have enough intellect and comprehension to rudimentally fathom the essentials of which I speak.”

 

Kandric, while still kneeling gave the best bow he could, “Elder, the Demon Pyrothermal dropped items when we fell him. I wish to grant some of the items to my closest and most trusted friends. I will not do so until I know if it is safe to allow them to take possession. Therefore, I request your guidance on this, even if this means being indebted to you.”

 

“Astounding loyalty!” The hissing shout was enough to make everyone cringe.

 

The serpent spun again and looked into the eyes of everyone in the enclosure. “Relax mortals, I purposefully tempered exuberance. Had I not, I would have damaged or even killed most.” Its eyes got to within centimeters of Kandric’s. “You still flinch. Better, but recoil, nonetheless. Greater focus and effort must be incorporated into your will and temperament. Your compensation to me for your request is to spend a moon of nights with Elder Seletssesslezzeler.”

 

Those close to Kandric noted his eyes went wide. This was followed by a gulp.

 

A hissing snicker was the only way to describe the serpent’s response. “Do you still request my expertise?”

 

Kandric closed his eyes and swallowed hard before finally responding, “I do Elder.”

 

“Excellent. I shall enlighten the senior elder to your commitment to further gain her insights.” Again, it took a moment to stare into the eyes of everyone. “Mortals do not move. I do not wish injury to any young Kandric has such trust in. With this comes words of dire warning. Should any attempt harm to what comes, the offender will simply cease to exist.” It gave no further warning as it uncoiled with astounding speed. The serpent twisted and turned around the items Pyrothermal dropped with such speed the hair of everyone in the tent was blown back and those small of stature had to brace against the wind. A couple who moved hands up to hair received slashes to arms.

 

Seeing Cam’ris cringe, Vondum snarled, “Cam, it said not to move! Stay still!”

 

“Same for you, Lylan!” Glaster shouted. “Do not even breathe oddly!” Glaster clenched his jaw as Lylan grabbed at the cuts on his forearm and received another series of slices. “Damn-it Lylan hold still! I will heal you as soon as I am allowed!”

 

Mylan and Klandon received a couple of cuts but quickly stopped moving.

 

A couple with Klent and Klorna also received gashes.

 

Klent sustained a nasty gash across his arm as he grabbed his slave boy and held him tightly so the boy couldn’t move. Moments later Lidevar did the same for Lyrod. About the same time, Glaster and Vondum also received cuts when they purposefully grabbed Lylan and Cam’ris.

 

The serpent’s movements continued to gain speed. Wind whipped around until the fog turned into a spinning, tight, vortex. As this happened dark red cracks formed out of thin air around the items. Shimmering claws of shifting red, blue, and green energy reached out of the cracks. At the same time, a dragon-like head stuck its head through the largest of the cracks. It forced the fissure to become a gaping red hole. What was beyond looked like a violent storm of multiple types of energy. The head was far bigger than any current dragon and it seemed to shift in appearance to look like the heads of all the different colors of dragons. It didn’t stay in any one shape more than a few seconds before it morphed again. Those in the enclosure felt power beyond anything within the Mortal or Spirit Realms.

 

The dragon-like head extended a tongue, only it was scores of tentacles. The extensions of tongue wrapped around and touched the items, lifted them, spun them and finally put them back on the stump. Some of the tentacles moved around and brushed up against those in the enclosure. A few wrapped around them. Like the items, they were lifted and spun. The power coming out of the cracks continued to build. It caused skin to tingle, itch, and in some cases, form rashes and small blisters.

 

A voice came from within the vortex, “No permanent harm will come to you. It is curious, nothing more. Lingering discomfort from exposure to the Realms of Cataclysm may take time to diminish, however.”

 

The creature lingered on Kandric and a few of the of the other most powerful. At the same time, a claw shot out, grabbed a winged creature that tried to come through one of the cracks, and crushed it with closure of the claws around the creature. A screech so powerful it coalesced into a visible wave of light blue energy came from the creature as it was crumpled. The energy wave stunned, then paralyzed, all but the most powerful within the enclosure. Those under Teaching Echelon all got badly bloody noses. Those who were not Secondary also had blood leak out of ears and the corners of their eyes.

 

The claw shook what was left of the winged creature. Hundreds of prismatic feathers fell around the enclosure. The head of the dragon moved close to the vortex.

 

The vortex remained silent until there was nothing left of the winged creature to shake. It then spoke, “Young Kandric, this young pre-Dragon wants one of the pouches. In return it will divulge a sufficient amount of knowledge to allow decisions to be made surrounding the rest. It is the best bargain I can negotiate.”

 

“It can take the pouch!” Kandric managed to bark out as he fought the desire to fight at the tentacle lifting, turning, and probably tasting him.

 

The red cracks pulsed. Waves of magic crashed into all. The tongue extensions let go of everything save the largest pouch Pyrothermal had been carrying. The dragon-head pulled back with the pouch. Moments after, the red cracks closed.

 

The Fog Serpent returned to its coiled position before anyone realized it was no longer circling around them. It ignored Cam’ris as he gripped his badly bleeding arm and pulled it into his stomach and Lylan as he curled up into a bleeding ball and cried. A few others grabbed at deep cuts. “Did I not say to hold still? Kandric, you allowed a few too weak of heart into my sight. Do not do so again.”

 

It eyed the others as it spun, “However, at least most, even most of those weak of will, have enough potential to be admired by most mortals.

 

“The Sand Dragon scaled pouch encompasses an uncorrupted, ancient, highly-enchanted Orakin sling, twenty-five ice bullets with an equal number of lava bullets. Force is required to activate them. They are then destroyed upon use. Lava are glowing red garnets, ice are cold to the touch, snowflake obsidian stones.

 

“The Brown Dragon scaled pouch contains a less-enchanted Sling of Accuracy. Inside the large pouch is a second Green Dragon scaled pouch with a bag of thirty empty soul stones. Any who allow flesh to make contact and bleed because of their sharp edges will fight a battle of wills against whomever controls or last controlled the soul stones at the time of wounding. If said victim fails the test of wills, their spirit will become entrapped within until the stone is used against another. The dispossessed mortal vessel will then be at the disposal of the utilizer of the stones. There are also enchanted gloves inside for use when utilizing the soul stones, for wounding oneself with an empty could result in accidental imprisonment within.

 

“The Sand Dragon skin pouch without the scales contains thirteen used soul stones. As with an empty, a contest of wills must be fought at time of wounding. However, unlike an empty stone, the victim will do battle with whatever is confined within for custody of the body. The vanquished will find their soul entrapped in the gem until again touched by wounded flesh. Destruction of the stones will allow the entrapped to either attempt to displace a nearby soul for judgement or voluntarily go to its own passing into the Outer Realms.

 

“The final, largest remaining, pouch whispers of a possible glimmer of hope for a demon to become mortal again. Or more likely, as egotistical conceit. For within, is a portion of Pyrothermal’s mortal wealth. Anything within the pouch will be fully protected from elements and aging and its interior is much greater than it superficially appears, therefore the pouch itself may be the larger treasure.

 

“His vest and britches were fashioned from cured skin of the Mythlet, Querjhekh, Sister of Avgon. Frexla had her mummy wrapped while still living. The skin was then allowed to harden and subsequently harvested off her still living body. What is left Querjhekh, within the body of another, is said to reside within the Desert of the Dead, a plaything for the power behind the accursed land. The blades held by the remolded and solidified flesh of Querjhekh are enchanted in the Realms of Decay. Use the vest and blades at your own peril.”

 

The serpent once again darted forward and stared into Kandric’s eyes. “The other items remain untainted; however, the Frozen Flames care not what realm the spirit resides. In improper hands, those who have accepted you can meet their ultimate conclusion. Choose their owners prudently or destroy them.”

 

The serpent returned to a tight coil in the center of the construct. “While the Mythmetal weapons persist unspoiled, the raw ore, gem, and magic originates from the Realms of Cataclysm. Those who take possession ought understand there is great significance, yet ambiguity, to infused enchantments prior to attunement!”

 

It backed off and started to fade, but added, “I believe the feathers you find around you can imbue arrows with enchantments and are unlikely to be matched by any arrows residing in the Mortal Realms, for it is unlikely any mortal, and admittedly few spirits, could hope to destroy a Cataclysm Storm Hawk.”

 

It spun again. As it dissolved back into fog it spoke with a fading voice. “As notice of gratitude for a long forgotten, if only momentary and partially shielded entry into the Mortal Realms, I offer final words of warning and advice. There undoubtably resides optimism and yearning within Frexla for Pyrothermal to have populated one of the soul stones. She must possess them to discern if her love was able to avoid absolute obliteration. She has not long to act, for the stones are untraceable and unscryable. Hold as long as feasible before the Scepter of Sands finds itself back in mortal possession of one Dragon Gifted of royalty… Oh, and Kandric, we tutored you better than this. Your construction of this sanctuary is hideously imperfect!”

 

Kandric, already on his knees, fell forward and had to grab onto the edge of the cliff with his hands as the Elder Spirit pulled the construct of the dimensional Shaman hut down as it returned to where it came from.

 

******

 

Conner (HE 11), Sharris (HE 11), Nake (HE 14), Tobash (HE 15) Dostem Halfling, Gagan + {Gilew Human HE 12, Munder Sil-Dragonling HE 11, Vaskar Human HE 14, Gil-Drak Wolfling HE 13}

 

The ruse recommended by the Thunder Rapid’s crew started out simple enough. Pontarious, Gagan, Dostem, and a couple of the other crew talked and even argued loudly about needing to know which Apprentices had performed evil magics. They alternated between dishing out horrible punishments leading to death for those who used dark arts on living beings and feeling sorry for any of the kids who hadn’t crossed the line from learning about evil magic to actually preforming them. They hinted at providing a great deal of leniency to those who didn’t perform Black Magic on anyone. In this, Conner made it sound like he had a spell to check and would cast it at on all of them at first light.

 

The cages holding the Apprentices were opened. They were given a couple of minutes out of the cages along with some water. As this happened, Conner cast a tracking spell and put it on the oldest girl and two others he guessed by actions and reactions were more likely than not to have used Dark Magic on others. When the cages were relocked, the one on the oldest girl was left improperly latched so while locked, it could still be opened. It was thought, if any had been involved in Dark Magic, she would certainly be one of them. Their suspicions were quickly verified.

 

The girl got out, and as Conner and others listened, she quickly broke out one of the older boys. The pair then pulled pins on the hinges of four of the other cages. There was a short argument between the two older ones and two who had been released. The two wanted Conner to cast his spell so they could prove they hadn’t yet done any Dark Magic on people. The older two wanted nothing to do with it. It was clear they had both directly used Dark Arts on others and didn’t want to be tortured to death. The other two said little. The final three cages were left locked even as the kids inside pleaded to be let out. The argument got worse. A few spells were tossed. Four of the captives ran down into the sewers, one of the others ran up and shouted of the escape while pleading to have Conner cast a spell on her so she could prove she had not yet crossed the line of using known Dark Arts on others.

 

A quick check of the room with the cages left little doubt of the viciousness of the oldest girl. All three who were in cages were puking, but with nothing in them but water, very little was coming up. The boy who had done much of the arguing against leaving was crumpled in a corner. His side had a nasty burn, and his face was a bloody mess from being slammed into a wall at least a couple of times. Last but far from least, one of the other girls who had been released had been tossed down into the sewer exit. She had been easy to recapture since she had broken a few bones in her right arm and her left ankle had been badly sprained.

 

Gilew, Munder, Vaskar, and Gil-Drak entered the sewers with Conner, Sharris, Tobash, Nake, Dostem and Gagan. They ignored the injured girl since Conner guessed she had been purposefully injured in hopes of slowing down the pursuit. Instead, they called up to Pontarious to send someone down to grab her.

 

With the help of the tracking spell, Conner was able to stay back, but still close enough to keep the pressure on. The path they took was oftentimes treacherous, since the sewers were running swiftly because of the snowstorm overhead. There were several times where the only safe path was a narrow lip of slimy, nasty brickwork above the main flow. Making it worse, rats and other vermin were using the same thin ledges to stay out of the icy cold, swiftly running water.

 

The whole time Gagan had them rotate talking loudly about how easy the trail was to track. In addition, they loudly discussed if it was wise to pull so many down into the sewers. Gagan and Dostem loudly argued about if they should send some back to the inn. Dostem openly yelled about doubting the others would be able to hold the Blazing Brook if it were attacked.

 

Those they were tracking went down onto a narrow ledge where three inlets of running water caused a large rectangular area to loudly churn, before escaping out a much bigger exit. The trail led to the far side where the escapees climbed back up into a clearly old section of the sewers. Conner was certain they were getting close to the exit. Only Conner and Gil-Drak continued. The others separated into two groups of four and moved back into smaller offshoots and waited.

 

The three escaping Dark Magic Apprentices scrambled up a ladder. It took the oldest girl and boy to push open a grate. As they did so, they shouted for help. At this point Conner tossed a Force Bolt into the back of the older boy. The older teen lost his hand hold. A howl of pain was followed by a cry of fear as he fell.

 

Conner could see from where he was at a strong-looking hairy arm yank the grate fully up while another hairy arm pulled the girl up. He smiled even as he shouted, “Fall back! Fall back! They have help! Fall back and get back to the inn!” He tossed up a Sound Burst as the head of a Halforc appeared. The guy took the full force to the face. His eyes rolled up and he fell, knocking the third escapee back down into the sewer with him. The kid hit the old brickwork hard, then had the Halforc land directly on top of him. Neither moved. Conner stayed long enough to let another head look down. This one he recognized. It was a guy from the Junsac Day Slave prison block. The guy had ‘escaped’ only a few days after being arrested for thievery and assault on a merchant’s wife.

 

The guy’s eyes went wide as he snarled, “Conner!”

 

Conner forced a smirk even as he tapped into the extra flows of magic. He used the link to tremendously augment a Sand Spray. A concentrated stream of grit caught the wide-eyed man in the face. He fell back with hands pressed up against his eyes screeching.

 

Conner glanced back over his shoulder at Gil-Drak, “They know I’m here. Time to get this party started.”

 

The Wolfling let out a low whistle while jumping over to the Halforc. He yanked the head back and punched the Adam’s apple as hard as he could, collapsing the neck. He looked at the boy under the Halforc and glanced over to Conner. “He’s breathing and doesn’t look badly hurt.”

 

“Let him live for now but cripple him. We’ll try to recapture and see what his true crimes are later, but we can’t risk having to fight him again. Make sure even a real good healer can’t quickly fix him.”

 

Gil-Drak shrugged, lifted the kid’s right foot, and drove his elbow into the knee. There was an audible pop as the lower leg bent forward, and the kneecap was badly displaced. Gil-Drak reached down, grabbed the kneecap, and twisted hard. Everything holding the bone in place under the skin tore lose. He gave it a final punch, pushing the kneecap all the way to the inside of the leg. “Not going anywhere for a long time no matter how good of healer they have, Conner.”

 

Conner glanced over. He cringed at the same time he snorted. “Efficiently vengeful as always. Glad to have you with me. Let’s go.”

 

The skirmish below the streets of Rolling Dale turned into a deadly game of hunter and hunted. Conner and those with him struck fast. They hit three separate groups from the Gloom Fire from the side and back. It quickly became obvious the majority were Mundane swords, given just enough training to be able to hold their own for a few seconds. For the most part they wore cheap leather armor with adjustable straps. Even though the armor was made for a wide range of sizes, for many it still didn’t fit properly. Several were too skinny, others overweight. Most of them had nothing but a light bronze weapon and carried torches. They ranged in age widely and were of several different races including Caveling, Gobling, Goblin, and Orc.

 

Others were not Mundane but were not fully trained or just into Primary Echelon. Most were Human, Halfling, Elf, Dwarf, or their half races. They stood out since they had more than one melee weapon, often had crossbows, and for the most part wore adjustable reinforced leather armor. A few had pets, mostly bobcats and Giant Rats. Well more than half were right around the age of ascension.

 

Intermixed with the less dangerous foes were those who wore better fitted armor, had nicer gear, and sported cloaks with a winged cat, fire breathing canine, a hand shooting sparks, a flaming hand holding an axe, or the most common, a Gloom Fire patch. Several had book pouches with spellbooks and basic Mystic cloaks. Those who controlled animals, including the ones wearing the cloaks with the fire breathing canine patches tended to have Armor Cats, Big Fanged Racoons, or large Barb-tailed Lizards. The vast majority were Primary and Secondary Echelon and wore guild pins.

 

A smattering were far more dangerous. These carried very nice gear, had good weapons including magic, and wore fancier cloaks with one of the five patches. These were the ones Conner and those with him targeted.

 

The tactic was simple enough. Conner cast a simple Illusion over a tiny offshoot passage close to a few others to make the opening look like part of the surrounding wall. The kids from Anarton’s farm would come out of a side passage and take out a couple of the easy to kill grunts then pull back fast before spells and potions could be easily used. The Gloom Fire leaders would order a pursuit. Once this happened, those from the Thunder Rapids moved in from the opposite side. They focused everything they had on one leader and fell back immediately. Inevitably this caused some of the better equipped ones to go after the Thunder Rapids crew.

 

In the chaos, Conner would slide out from behind his illusion, finish off the wounded leader and normally one or two others before sliding back into the hidden passage. Those who chased the other two groups were forcibly scattered by Pontarious’ nasty Stink brews and other concoctions. It was then easy enough to toss down one of the concoctions to counteract the stench and pick off those who got separated.

 

The other thing they discovered was the sewers were full of twists, turns, and long-abandoned offshoots. Sound echoed badly. The rushing water, shouts, and occasional sounds of combat added to the confusion.

 

When one leader adjusted to the tactic by keeping her group together despite hit and run tactics, Conner cut her and a pair of Apprentices off from the others in her group with one of the Firewall Potions Pontarious had given him. A few others with the woman were caught in the flames and jumped into the rushing water of the sewer.

 

The woman glanced back over her shoulders and turned back to Conner with a deep frown. “Conner! Mistress Gambra will pay be handsomely for your head!”

 

“As with all of Gambra’s stooges… All talk.” Conner countered as he grabbed the outstretched arm of an Apprentice about his age equivalent. A twist of the boy’s wrist was enough to get him to drop the dagger he had tried to stab Conner with.

 

Conner caught the blade as it slipped from the boy’s grasp and threw it at the female Apprentice. The dagger sunk in all the way to the hilt in the girl’s weapon hand. She screamed, dropped her morningstar, and scrambled into a small passage sloping down.

 

Even as the woman stepped forward, Conner yanked on the held wrist. The boy stumbled forward with a cry of pain. A headbutt to the kid’s face buckled his knees and stopped the protest. Conner’s knee came up and connected with the boy’s jaw as he fell. The force of the shot caused him to badly bite his lip. He fell back. His head hit the sewer floor hard. His eyes rolled up into his head and a small pool of blood appeared under the boy.

 

Conner spun out of the path of a Force Bolt, closed and punched the woman in the chest. His hand hit metal. The woman was knocked back toward the firewall. As she let out a hiss of pain and looked at Conner with wide eyes, she rubbed at a dent in her breastplate.

 

Conner rubbed his knuckles as he spoke, “No room for boobs under that… Flat chested, huh?” As the woman took a couple of deep breaths and glared, he continued. “Can’t Gambra at least just once recruit a good-looking wench who doesn’t have sagging tits, more hair in the nose than on the head, and a mouth so ugly most guys wouldn’t even want a put a dick into it? What’d your Elvin father mate with, anyway, a Harpy?”

 

She hissed as she took a few steps toward him to get away from the intense heat of flames behind her. “Your mouth will soon be a demon’s toy!”

 

“Come on, get on with it and shut up. Your voice is just as hideous as your looks.”

 

The Halfelf shook with rage. She grabbed her left wrist with her right hand and spoke a trio of words. A glowing disc appeared on her left arm. She held it ready.

 

Conner rolled his eyes and rubbed his chin as the shield put out an eerie lime-green glow. “I’d yawn, but you’re boring me too badly to bother.”

 

She took in several deep breaths and exhaled loudly.

 

“Aww, nasty!” Conner taunted. “Whose butt did you lick? Whoever it was needs to stop eating whatever came out of its ass!”

 

A mask of rage descended over the woman’s face. Her left hand started to rotate while she spoke a string of arcane words.

 

Conner edged back but made no attempt to stop her. A few seconds later, blackish-red tendrils shot out of her pinky, middle finger, and thumb.

 

Conner spoke a trio of arcane words and crossed his arms. As he did so, glowing blades appeared in front of him and sliced through the tentacles. The tips of all three fell to the floor and started thrashing around. At the same time, the woman screamed as the extensions coming out of her fingers gushed blood. She shook her hand wildly while speaking a series of arcane wards to send her spell back into the depths of the void from which it came. As she stumbled back, her cloak hit the wall of flames and ignited. She was forced to dismiss the shield so she could use her left hand, pull off the cloak, and slap it into the sewer water only a couple of meters away.

 

She moved away from the flames while looking at her hand. All three fingers that had sent out the demon larva tendrils were missing at the top knuckle. She looked over at Conner with terrified eyes as she dropped her cloak and grabbed a vial with orange liquid off her belt. She ripped the cork off with her teeth and downed it.

 

Conner leaned up against the sewer wall and kicked a rat into the firewall. He let the woman choke, cough, gag, and spit several times. As she took a long drink from a waterskin, he spoke. “If you want to continue to play with Dark Magic, be my guest. I’ll take you out piece by piece. Without full fingers I’m betting there’s some spells you can’t cast anymore. I’d be happy to increase the list… And after I remove your ring finger, you’re going to have to tell me why all of you are wearing silver rings with small gemstones. Even the lackeys. Or, if you want to really get a shot at me, grab the jaw hanging off your belt with what you have left of your hand and let’s dance.”

 

The woman looked at her fingers. The blood flow stopped quickly leaving her with scabbed over partially missing fingers. She blinked some tears out of her eyes as she dropped into a Sect Warrior fighting crouch and pulled out a morningstar with a hooked blade instead of spikes on one side.

 

Conner smirked, rolled his head, slid his right foot back. “Your move, hag.”

 

The bladed side of the jaw headed for Conner’s chest.

 

Conner took in a breath to get skinnier and turned nimbly to the side. The blade left a slice in his shirt but didn’t touch flesh. Still turning, he pulled a pair of non-magical dives out of his belt and tossed them down. One lanced into the top of each of the woman’s feet.

 

The jaw sailed through the air and clanged loudly as it bounced off the wall with a few sparks. The woman shrieked as she dropped down and grabbed at the four-pointed stars sticking up out of her boots.

 

Conner spun behind the woman and kicked her hard in upper left side of her back. Ribs broke. She toppled forward into the still thrashing tentacle tips.

 

The woman screamed as they latched on. As they tore into her flesh, they ripped out enough life force to become whole. Each turned into a meter long, blood-red, eel-looking thing, only each had tiny arms with claws on the end. They continued to tear at the Halfelf with their mouths while they fought each other with claws for which one was going to turn her into a demon larva.

 

The woman managed to rip one off and throw it.

 

Conner blasted it out of the air with a Flare Learned Autospell. He then watched as the Dark Mage fought a three-way battle with her two remaining creations.

 

After nearly three minutes one of the others managed to kill another. As this happened, she grabbed the last one, tore it out of her leg and tossed it off to the side. She gasped for breath on her hands and knees, trembling with exhaustion and pain. Blood dripped out of a score of bites and dozens of deep scratches.

 

Conner moved up, stomped on her good hand. Bones broke. As she howled and quivered, he wrapped her hair into his hand and dragged her close to where the demon larva maker was thrashing around. Noticing a fancy tattoo on her hip he rubbed it and got a shock. He licked his lightly burned fingers and nodded. “Two choices wench.” He spoke with a voice devoid of emotion. “One, I shove your face over into the corner, it latches back on. Without a good hand, you won’t be able to pull it off again. You become a demon larva. You get fed on, tormented, and suffer until you finally molt into a very low demon form. Then the process starts all over again until you somehow manage to gain enough power to fight back. Or two… you release whoever you killed to make your Dark Mage book, pull your tattooed book off, hand it to me, and I snap your neck.”

 

“I’ll destroy my dark book and empty my main book and give you all that is in it, if you let me live!” The Halfelf screeched as her face was pushed closer to the demon maker.

 

“No.” Conner responded. “You die and face your afterlife as you are and get a form higher than a larva or you start your next existence as a demon larva, but you will face your afterlife today. There is balance in letting both you and your book kill face the end of this life on your own. There is also balance in letting you become a demon larva as whoever makes up your link to the darkness is forced into whatever Demon Realm you chose to pull your power from. There is only two sides of a scale. I give you the choice as to what side you decide to pull down. By not deciding, you choose demon larva, since I cannot release the kill holding your vile book together.”

 

The woman let out another screech as her face was pushed forward then pulled back just as the demon leech launched itself at her face. “OK! OK!” she reached up with the hand missing three fingertips, spoke two words and pulled on the tattoo on her hip. She gritted her teeth as she grabbed the edge of a very large Mage book and yanked it out of herself. This left the outline of a book, but not the details.

 

Next, she pulled a smaller, yet still thick book out of her book pouch and spoke a quintet of words. The book cover shriveled up and blood poured out of it. A face of a girl looked up out of a pool of rapidly drying blood, “My mom holds those she has the horrible magic pages tied to in a complex beyond a deep cave guarded by several Green Dragonlings and maybe a Dragon. It is to the southeast, just down a small natural pass. Look for where you can see both the bend in the river and the southeastern tower of the merchant gate. The pass is directly below a five-meter jagged drop-off. At the bottom of the pass is where she killed me by impaling me on a hollowed out jagged stone in the middle of an altar to Entropic. There are twenty-two other Dark Mages who store their life-linked pages there, including nineteen of the last twenty-one Gambra still has alive, at least as of earlier today. Look for the three waterfalls. It is behind the middle one.” The girl’s face faded but managed to give Conner a weak smile of gratitude as she added, “As for the rings you asked about, they are used to move around in the Gloom Fire. The nicer the ring the more places the wearer can go. Turn the stone right to activate, left before you take it off. Both actions take some internal Force to let the stone reseat in the setting. However, no one can leave without wearing one. There is a poison glyph at all exits. They activate unless you wear a ring…” The voice faded and the last of the blood from the book cover hardened.

 

He tossed a Flare into the last demon larva maker as he moved behind the Halfelf. Conner almost offered to make a deal for more details about the rings, cave, and other Dark Mages, but stopped himself. The deal was done. He grabbed the woman’s chin, put his foot on her back and yanked back. The neckbones audibly snapped. He carefully gathered fourteen pages with blood-coated edges, stuffed them into the pouch and flipped through a huge amount of other pages from the two books. With the woman’s death thirteen pages from her main book had been destroyed while eighteen others had been damaged. He tossed the damaged ones into firewall. He stood only to find Sharris, Dostem, Nake, Tobash, and Gagan staring at him. Sharris and Tobash teamed up to carry the female Apprentice with the dagger in her hand by her belt. Blood dripped from her mouth and nose. She was unconscious.

 

Seeing a crossbow bolt sticking out of Gagan’s side and Nake with a deep slash on his left leg, he pulled two orange potions off the woman’s belt and handed them over. “Healing. Looked like they taste really bad…”

 

Sharris gulped, “We were able to see…” She pointed to a small sewer tube the apprentice had tried to use to escape. “It comes off the one we went down and leads to a deeper section you really need to see… But… Conner… the book…”

 

Conner glanced down to the dried-up blood with a sigh. “Dark Mage books are held together with essence of a sacrifice. It remains as a quasi-living fully aware extension for them to pull the Dark Magic spells from the living, through the Demon Realms and back into this one. If released, they can finally move on to be judged by their actions before they were sacrificed. She sounded like a pleasant girl and had a pretty face. I hope her judgement goes well.”

 

“Horrid and nasty… but I’m talking about the other book…”

 

“Her main book?”

 

“Yea, she pulled it out of herself, out of a tattoo… you said the tattoo on your shoulder looks exactly like your main book…”

 

“Because it is.” Conner nodded. “I’d prefer if you didn’t tell others.”

 

“No… No… I would never… But how do I get one.”

 

Conner raised an eyebrow. “Very, very painfully… Then putting it in is… well think of taking a fire poker left in a fireplace until it glows. Then imagine shoving it into you. Not on you… into you. Once in, it stings to pull out, and is horrible to put back in.”

 

“But it is with you… always!”

 

“Yes. It can’t be cut out either. It must be pulled out by the owner. If killed with the book inside, all the pages are destroyed with the body.” He paused as Gagan pushed the bolt through his side with a snarl, snapped off the tip, then pulled out the shaft. Both he and Nake drank the orange liquids. It dropped Nake to his knees as he repeatedly tried to puke. Gagan moved over to a wall and made choking sounds for over a minute, then downed the remainder of his waterskin. Both stayed down and gagged repeatedly.

 

Once Conner was certain they had recovered enough to pay attention, he continued. “The Lord who trained me has many books, ancient and protected by strong preserving magics. It is the job of those he takes in to scribe at least three… Anyway, one I reproduced said it was not uncommon for powerful lords, ladies, and the like to have pouches or even weapon holders tattooed into them. There is some accounts of powerful magic weapons being forged with such powers included. The Mythlings did their best to wipe out the knowledge of how this was done, because several Mythlets tattooed servants, serfs, and even slaves of the Mythlings with items. They carried the items until given a chance to strike. Several immensely powerful Mythlings were assassinated by those they thought they controlled. One book even stated the Mythlings’ capitol had a central tower with powerful magical defenses. The main dungeon was directly below the central tower. Those with tattooed items let themselves get caught, from the accounts over half of them were Drow. They were taken down into the deep dungeons. Many of them horribly tortured. But when the time came, they pulled all the items they had in them, killed the guards, and stopped the magical defense from being fully activated. This led to the fall of the Mythling capitol. Our realm split into fragments and allowed the Mythlets to become gods. The Mythlings were relegated to become the demon lords, because of their weakness and obstruction from the Drow and the Ancients.”

 

“Drow?” Tobash asked with clear skepticism, “Why would the evil Drow help the gods?”

 

“According to the book and one other I spent many moons rewriting, the Drow were on the side of the gods and most races who now worship them. They were firmly against the demon lords and their monster races from the start of the Mythling War. It wasn’t until the end of the Garm-Alphar War did they turn on everyone. The author guessed they didn’t like the final treaty penned between the Garm and Alphar, but this was an admitted guess by someone who claimed to have served as the highest Ruinseeker in the courts of Odin and his son, Greysac...”

 

Gilew and the others from Anarton’s farm came into the room. All were splattered with blood. It was clear they had all heard the conversation. One by one, they exposed tattoos of books, all on their shoulders, other than Munder. He pulled up a large stomach scale to expose his hide underneath. Like the others it had a well-inked book tattoo.

 

Dostem rolled his eyes, “Sound ta me like a pile a hogwash!”

 

“Maybe, but…” Conner took a deep breath and yanked a book out of his shoulder. It was easily twice the thickness of the one the woman had pulled out of her hip. He flipped through it, added a couple of pages he didn’t have from the stack taken off the Dark Mage, added a few other he had procured in the past few weeks by pulling them out of his secondary book and putting them in his primary. He even offered to let others touch it. They all shook their heads even though they stared with something akin to disbelief. Conner shrugged. “The book I’m telling you about had how to make the tattoo including a list of the rare inks and all the spells needed.” He bit his bottom lip and trembled as he pushed the book back in while gritting his teeth. After a few deep breaths before speaking. “It didn’t warn of the agony of initially shoving it in nor discomfort of pushing it back in, though.”

 

“I don’t care!” Sharris stated firmly.

 

“You will!” Munder snarled.

 

“And you’ll bawl, puke, and have to be held down while you force it in the dimensional pouch the first time,” Vaskar added.

 

Gilew nodded. “We all did!”

 

“Then I act like a baby,” Sharris decreed with certainty. “My biggest fear is someone stealing my book. I want one!”

 

Conner held up a hand to prevent the others from giving more dire yet truthful warnings. “If you’re sure, I’ll help make one for you when we find a really good artist, cause the better the representation the easier it is to pull… not to put back in… nothing I have found helps with cramming it back inside. Although there was one scroll my Lord and Teacher found saying the closer to the full-size a skin pouch is to the item, the better it is for the owner. I don’t know, because having the book is all I’m really willing to deal with in this… or any other life!”

 

Gilew nodded, “Same for me. I just wish Banta hadn’t defected with the knowledge of how to make the dimensional skin pocket tattoos. If I find him…”

 

“We take him down and hand him over to our Lord to deal with,” Conner stated. “How much discomfort he goes through before the transfer is another matter. There is a better than even chance he is here, possibly in the Gloom Fire. We can only hope to procure him.” Conner pulled the ring off the woman’s mangled hand and held it up, “Gilew, you said you had a way to contact our Lord. Let him know of the rings and the need to wear one to leave the Gloom Fire. I don’t want any of us dying from poison glyphs!”

 

Gilew twisted a stone on a ring given him by Anarton and went into thought. After a short, whispered conversation, he blinked and rubbed his temples. “The ring has two more uses, but unless it’s real important, I ain’t using it again!” He shook his head hard and blinked. “Our Lord is just outside the dock area. He says Gambra has totally taken it. Any barges or boats that didn’t leave have been captured by her people. Since early last night, over two dozen more barges have arrived. Half are crammed with captive refugees, some from as far away as Narcrom. The other half are full of mercenaries. He thinks many are castoffs of the nomadic tribes from the outskirts of the Desert of the Ancients. Most are speaking Drylander and have never felt air so cold. He also said it sounds to him like many have never even heard of snow until they got here.

 

“He’s guessing there are about 6,000 mercenaries and close to 9,000 captives left. There were more. Our Lord took out one of the mercenary barges and freed two of the captive barges. Both are floating downstream with people who claim they know enough about barges to get out of the area before putting to shore. He also insists a barge, made of stone, launched some exploding stones, sunk a pair of mercenary barges, badly damaged three others, took one of the captive barges, tied it off to them and sailed upriver with it. It also made a total mess of the dock garrison buildings with massive booming tubes. Our Lord pulled back because the stone barge had to be owned by a very pissed off Legendary Mystic.”

 

“Stone doesn’t float!” Gil-Drak scoffed.

 

“If it’s the Thunder Rapids it sure do!” Gagan countered with a deep frown.

 

Conner held up a hand. “Guys, Captain Pontarious’ barge is made of floating stone.” He glanced over to Gagan, “The big metal tubes I saw between the outer and inner hulls when I was on repair crew… The ones behind the side lifting windows I thought were to get air when you carry animals? They are like his thunder stick?”

 

“Real big and not safe.” Dostem shuddered.

 

“Had ‘em shatter a couple a time.” Gagan verified. “Almos’ sunk cause a dem once! Ca’tain Pon always be playin’ wit’ ‘em. Him and da First Mate be only one who know how to stuff ‘em so them work. And yea, them windows be for airin’ out the lower hold er shootin’ the roar tubes!”

 

Dostem nodded. “But last fall Captain Pontarious made some weird balls for the roar tubes. They look like them sparkin’ balls, but bigger and more barrel shape. Them also have a second spark twine ya have ta light. If ya do both they shoot like catapult stones, only out a the tube with a thunder-like roar. Gots ta put wads a cloth in yer ears er you no hear nothin’ for long time… maybe never. Sounds like the Thunder Rapids used most a what Captain Pontarious had stuck in the secret hold below his quarters.”

 

“Whatever it was both impressed and scared our Lord, which I didn’t know was possible,” Gilew responded with a shake of his head. “So, yea, our Lord said he wants nothing to do with the stone barge. He pulled back and is resting until nightfall. He recommends we deal with the immediate problems, and all get a full rest cycle and let things settle. He wants us to lay low since Gambra is certain to send out hundreds of trained mercenaries to sweep areas we have hit. In addition, he wanted to let everyone with me know he doesn’t understand what the reason or how they are seen, but he believes the red sashes are more than just a way to quickly ID others who are in on taking the city. All the surviving mercenaries were given one. He is certain Gambra would never use something so obvious for identification. The rings probably serve as a more subtle clue, but none of those he heard speaking Drylander got one. With everyone working for Gambra getting one, the sashes are important, though. He wants us all to capture and wear one.”

 

He tapped his temples again. “Oh, and he says he will go after the cave with the living extensions of the spell pages since we are taking on the Gloom Fire.” Gilew gulped as he added. “Our Lord also said if I wasn’t really with you and I got as close to the Gloom Fire as I told him I did, he would put me in the Black Rapids Orphanage with a Force stealing collar for six full moons… Longer if I didn’t get clear immediately.”

 

Conner, along with all the others from Anarton’s farm, openly winced.

 

“Gather it’s not one of the nicer places?” Nake asked as he looked over his fully healed leg then at the woman’s belt that held four more orange liquids.

 

“Nothing nice about it.” Vaskar responded. “Nothing!” He took a deep breath, “But you can’t take another one of those for at least a full day, preferably longer…”

 

Nake shot Vaskar a condescending look, “You think I don’t know how healing potions work? I’m a Mystic and trained under Captain Pontarious since I was eight!”

 

“Just making sure, rookie.” Vaskar snapped back.

 

Gagan walked between the two boys while still spitting in a futile attempt to get the taste out of his mouth. He smacked both boys hard on the back of the head. “Knock it off. Yer on the same side. If’n we fight each other, we lose! Guilded er not, ya pull this nonsense again, I’ll tan yer backsides! Got me?”

 

Both teens held up open palms and nodded.

 

“Good, now shake!” Gagan ordered. “The next fight the two a ya cover each other’s backsides or me’ll still tan ya both!”

 

Conner glanced over with a raised eyebrow. This was the last thing he expected to see or hear, since up till now Gagan had done naught to show he was nothing but a prankster. Seeing Nake’s wide-eyed expression and Tobash’s recoil, he suddenly understood why Pontarious had sent him as one of the adults. He bet, judging by the looks of the two teens who really knew him, Gagan would have no problem following through with his stern warning. To show full support to Gagan and help them focus on the task at hand, he waited until Vaskar and Nake shook hands and moved to stand by each other, then spoke. “We may be from two different places, but we are one now. Act like it or I’ll see about gating you to Black Rapids for a stint in the orphanage myself... Just so those who don’t know, Black Rapids doesn’t lock up kids for most crimes. The magistrates send them to the orphanage. In addition, the orphanage takes in kids who have given parents or teachers problems. They’re actually paid to keep them. Fifteen silver gets a kid a moon inside. They don’t take a kid for less than a moon cycle, but I’ve heard they have taken in noble brats for up to three moons, and they are treated the same as every orphan or magistrate sent kid.

 

“The orphanage is a walled work farm about three kilometers from the main walls of the city. There are four sets of bunkhouses. The real young kids, the small kids, the bigger kids, and the ones who are almost age of ascension. Boys and girls are technically kept separate, but… enforcement is lacking. All kids work from predawn light to sundown or don’t eat. The real little ones being the exception, but they still are taught the basics of farming. As soon as they are old enough to be in the fields, they kill bugs, and when they learn what plants are wanted and what plants are not, they pull the bad ones. Sick are treated and work inside, but still work. It’s actually better to work outside unless it is real cold, then everyone works at repairing or making stuff for the city garrison. Winter is a whole lot of sewing and leather working. Summer is planting, tilling, and harvesting. Much of the food for the garrison comes from the orphanage work farm, so problems are dealt with by guardsmen, big mean guardsmen… Days are brutal. Night is no better. Between gangs of street hard toughs beating on kids and the… um… guests… the orphanage overseers allow in for a few coin, there is little in the way of rest. Only the day of the new moon and full moon are real days of rest. The city puts guards in place to make sure everyone gets a full day of peace. Those two days and the two sandglass turns for mid-day meal break where guards watch everyone, so none flee, are the only true rest kids are guaranteed. The only plus side is Black Rapids does test and train any who are willing to join the Black Rapids Guards for a minimum of seven years. Those who agree get six days per moon cycle in Black Rapids for training and get three extra days of Subfield training instead of field work per moon inside the orphanage. From what I saw, the training is just as hard, if not harder, than the field work.”

 

“I’d run!” Tobash stated.

 

“You wouldn’t get far,” Conner responded. “Runners are tracked down by the elite Black Rapids Wilderness Scouts. I heard they let them run for a day or even two before they start tracking to make it more of a challenge. As far as I know, no runner has made more than a week before they are captured. They are punished severely and returned to the orphanage in far worse shape than before they ran. Also, runners are given an extra moon for each time they run, so there are several who are older than age of ascension in the orphanage cause they’re serving out the extra moon or moons for running. Those who are sent there also get an extra moon for running, and whoever paid for them is in debt for another fifteen silver.

 

“Having dealt with both the Junsac Day Slave Auction and the Black Rapids Orphanage, I’d take another several moon stint as a day slave than a single moon in the Black Rapid Orphanage.

 

“However, I can guarantee you, getting caught by those from the Gloom Fire or Gambra would be far worse, so let’s work as a team and take these bastards out.” Conner pointed to the still unconscious male Apprentice. It was clear he wanted to change the subject. “Munder, take him. Gilew, you grab the girl.”

 

“They’re Dark Mage Apprentices, Conner.” Gilew argued. “We should kill them both and be done with it!”

 

“Probably,” Conner nodded in agreement. “However, they have information and the extent of their crimes need to be discerned. Neither showed any sign of Sect Warrior fighting prowess, so they aren’t training to be Dark Wraiths. Speaking of which…” Conner moved up to the bladed morningstar and waved his hand over it. Hidden runes along the handle and ball briefly flared green. He nodded. “Gil-Drak, her jaw is Rune Magic-enhanced Blue Steel. It has strong attack enchantments and judging on the chunk it took off the wall, damage enrichments as well. I just checked. No demon tinge or intellect. You should take it.”

 

As Gil-Drak secured the weapon and gave it a few practice swings while nodding, Conner jerked his head and headed back toward the Blazing Brook, “Let’s move.”

 

Gagan held up his hand, “Before we go, Shar be right. Ya need to see what we find down there.” He pointed to the passage they had come up.

 

Conner followed Sharris down a steeply sloping passage. It was treacherous since the walking ledge was only half a meter wide while the channel in the middle churned with swiftly moving water. Sharris patted a section of a wall. She pointed. It was hard to make out, but there were evenly spaced holes in it. “Up there. We would have missed it, but thought I heard sounds like people pleading to be let go. Dostem noticed the holes.”

 

Conner easily scaled the rough, yet slimy wall. He pulled himself up onto a narrow recessed ledge not noticeable from below. There was an arched passage in the center. It went only a few meters before it was blocked with a Gnome Stone Steel grate. It looked built into the walls, but he spotted hinges and drag marks. He shoved it open enough to squeeze through and moved down the tube. Suddenly he found another passage. It was rectangular, had steps leading up, and had another Stone Steel gate. It had a lock but was open. He pulled it and moved up the steps.

 

Behind him, Gagan’s voice carried enough for Conner to hear. “It’s pitch black and he ain’t usin’ no light. I know him have heat sight, but how him seein’ as cold and damp as it is?”

 

“He and I, along with Avcar got a little… let me just call it a gift… back on the Isle of Cyclops. We don’t need heat or light to see in the dark.” Gilew responded.

 

“Gift?” Conner muttered, “Yea, sure…” He shook his head as he made his way up.

 

Another grate was at the top. This one had a nasty spiked lower guard plate and spikes along the upper edge of the plate to prevent rats and other vermin from gaining access. Beyond was a pair of trenches that went the length of the floor and up the walls. Both had spikes and razor-sharp blades going different directions. He stepped over them. “No rats getting in here even with the door open.” He shrugged and moved through. The passage opened into a huge arched chamber with two sets of pillars down the middle. Off on both sides he spotted large rooms. A quick examination of the closest two showed them to be bunk rooms with carved stone bunks and Stone Steel chests. He tried a couple. They were locked. He shrugged and moved deeper into the massive hall. It was dry, cool, but not cold, and had no smell of the sewer. He moved halfway across and dropped into a fighting crouch as the darkness was overtaken by a golden glow. A glance back told him his back foot was still in total darkness. With a deep frown he stood and cast a Glow Autospell on his hand. It glowed way brighter than normal in the glow lit area but faded to a mere pinprick when he moved it back into the line of darkness. He stood and scanned the room. As he did so, his head fell as he spotted four statues. One was a totally black horned creature holding a huge black pearl in each of its hands. On the opposite wall was another horned creature with large breasts. The light to the lit side of the chamber came from gemstones in its hands. An eight-pointed gleaming yellow topaz stone was held high with its right hand while a round yellow topaz was clenched in its lowered left hand.

 

In the middle of the side walls were statues of minotaur-looking creatures, only with much nicer looking faces. One looked Dwarven, the other Elvin. The Elvin one held up a shifting, shimmering, highly polished snowflake obsidian stone while the other gripped a star sapphire. The Dwarf held up a fire opal while its other hand gripped half a geode filled with rapidly shifting crystalline colors. Each was in half light and half dark.

 

As the others came into the chamber, their brightest lights dimmed to provide only a slight radiance around them until they crossed the line of darkness and entered the light.

 

Conner nudged Gilew and pointed to the black statue first then over to the opposite wall.

 

“Afterdusk…” Gilew hissed. “And… What was the ancient goddess of light?”

 

“Dawnbreaker.” Conner muttered.

 

Gil-Drak moved back and forth between the two statues to get a look since he had to get very close with a Dagger of Light at a full glow to even make out the outline of the Afterdusk statue. “What of the other two Conner?”

 

“Sky and land. Earthvoid, and Mountraiser. Our Lord channels for Mountraiser.”

 

Gil-Drak whistled with amazement. “This hall had to have been built before the Mythling Wars!”

 

Conner nodded. “Without a doubt, and still holds their enchantments. We are on consecrated ground. But if there is any place where a temple of the ancients still exists, this would be it. We are near the fragment of the ancestral home of Afterdusk and Dawnbreaker,” Conner stated. “And if the primeval texts are to be believed he and Dawnbreaker were brother and sister. Twins spit out of the vortex of magic that formed after the fall of the Pre-ancients and all their realms in the War of Cataclysms. Mountraiser and Earthvoid are supposedly their cousins.” He pointed to the other two statues. They and nine others formed the core of this new realm’s emergence and gave life to the Loreweavers, who in turn made the Mythlings, Garm, Alphar, Drow, Gnomes, Halflings, Highmen, and Orakin. It all started to unravel until these four went back into the shattered remains of the Cataclysm, using the fragment of it that got them here, and found enough magic to stabilize the New Realms. What they found were creatures roaming the Cataclysm scrounging up whatever they could find. This treasure lust and deep magic still exist in the ancestors of these creatures, what we know as the Dragon lines. Other survivors, lesser ancients, used the gateways these four opened to bring the pre-Dragons into the New Realms from the shattered realms of the Cataclysm. These lesser ancients came in and helped develop the rest of what became everything we know.

 

“At some point the Mythlings sided with the lesser ancients in a bid to take over all of it. This was the start of the Age of War here. It gets real muddy from there. However, at some point the Mythlings managed to push the ancients back into the Realms of Cataclysm. The problem was this didn’t kill them as expected. Since over the eons the Realms of the Cataclysm reformed enough to become viable and gave the Ancients a place to rule over. However, the fight to push the greater ancients into the Realms of Cataclysm all but wiped out the lesser ancients and most of the Loreweavers. Without allies to hold them back, fear and desperation forced the Mythlings to wall off the remaining ancients and the Realms of Cataclysm in an attempt to become the new gods. The Mythlets partially stopped the Mythlings by falling the Mythling capitol. But in doing expended massive magics and caused some sort of magical rupture, so we ended up with a mini calamity which in turn immortalized the most powerful of the remaining Mythlets and Mythlings. However, unlike the full cataclysm of the past, this realm was left basically intact to act as a stabilizing agent and to provide all the other attached realms spiritual force and a way to gain or recruit worshipers. Also, when we die, we move out to become a being within one of the attached other realms. This replenishes them with new… I guess direct spiritual energies. This is, at least in my understanding, how we ended up with multiple Demon and God Realms and why the Mortal Realm or possible realms are stuck in the middle.”

 

Sharris blinked several times, “How do you know all this?”

 

“Direct infusion of knowledge.” Gilew stated. “Like right from the source.” He gave a head bob in the direction of the statue of Afterdusk.

 

Conner moved through the huge hall and looked into every room, ignoring the conversation. He returned and let out a long sigh. “There is writing on many of the walls in the smaller side rooms. From what I can read, I’m pretty sure this central room served as a temple for those who built sewers, not of Rolling Dale, but of the twin cities of Light and Dark. My guess is Rolling Dale was basically put on top of the twin cities after Afterdusk and Dawnbreaker were walled off and their cities fell… or whatever happened to them. One thing is for sure, this is still sanctified ground for all four of the ancients we are looking at the statues of. Do not do anything to damage or desecrate it. You DO NOT want any of these four angry at you, let alone all four!”

 

Conner glanced at the two semi-conscious yet gagged and tied Apprentices. “Both Afterdusk and Dawnbreaker have grudges against followers of the demon lords. Let’s see what they think of these two. Munder, take the boy over to Dawnbreaker and touch his forehead to one of the glowing stones. Vaskar, do the same to the girl, but take her over to Afterdusk. I really don’t think it’s a good idea for me or Gilew get too close, let alone touch either statue.”

 

The girl regained some cognition as this was said. She tried to fight Vaskar, so Gagan joined him. They hauled her into the darkness. Conner watched as her head was pushed up to one of the black pearls. There was a muffled scream followed by the sounds of fading pleas to be let go. Everything she was wearing, including the gag and ropes tying her hands, fell to the floor. Gagan and Vaskar returned to the light holding the girl’s belongings.

 

Gagan held up her leather armor. “Her got sucked right out a it! Never see er hear a nothin’ like it!”

 

“The screams…” Sharris shuddered. “It’s the same as I heard and what let me notice the entry to this place… but what I heard were like lots of voices, not one… but… I’m telling you it was the same…”

 

“Sounds like Afterdusk and or Dawnbreaker took several others.” Gilew stated. “The lichling back on the Isle of Cyclops made a similar noise when Conner opened the gate enough to demand Afterdusk grab it.”

 

Seeing others looking at him, Conner sighed, “I think I lost more than I gained from it. And neither was even remotely pleasant…” He pointed to the boy, “Munder, let’s see what Dawnbreaker thinks of this one.”

 

The kid shook his head and refused to stand. Munder shrugged and dragged him over even as he kicked and gave muffled shouts.

 

Munder extended claws and put them up to the kid’s face. “Touch head to glowing rock or I make you!” Munder demanded.

 

The kid made what sounded like a resigned sob, but reluctantly leaned forward and tapped his head to the glowing stone. He shook for several seconds. Suddenly a ghostly image of himself, totally nude, was pushed out of his body.

 

Energy in the room built. The light seemed to take on density. It was like wading through deep water. Breathing even took extra energy.

 

The eyes of the statue flared. At the same time, the eyes of the ghostly figure of the boy bulged. Suddenly, light, in two streams, were sucked out and entered the eyes of the statue. At the same time a silent scream came from the ghostly figure’s mouth. The ghostly image dimmed greatly over the next couple of minutes. Suddenly an entity looking much like a two-headed Orc with horns on both heads was wrenched out of the see-through image of the boy. Lit stones on all the statues flared. The two-headed figure let out an audible horrified scream as it was split into two. The split parts were rapidly sucked into the glowing gems held by the statues of Mountraiser and Earthvoid. The sounds made it seem like both heads were being forcibly dragged to a horrid fate. At the same time, the boy’s thin Mage book turned to ash.

 

The statue closed its eyes. This cut off the flow of energy draining the image of the boy.

 

The statue of Dawnbreaker opened its eyes again. A glowing doorway appeared. A severely burned, frostbitten, and battle wounded Drow older teen, with constricting bands of grey metal around his neck, wrists, and ankles, wearing nothing else but a ragged loincloth stumbled out. He didn’t get far.

 

The eyes of the statue flared again. The ghostly shape of the Drow, with no blemishes, was pushed out of the body. A spinning maelstrom formed above the image of the Drow. Bolts of black and red energy shot out of the vortex; each shaft looked a whole lot like a spinning thrown dagger. The image seemed to stutter and shift under the onslaught for several seconds before it reformed into the Drow again, only it was smaller and younger in appearance. A few more spinning black and red bolts slashed into the other ghostly figure. It grew and appeared to get older but didn’t shimmer and skip.

 

A sigh seemed to escape from the statue while a snicker erupted from the vortex. A female voice emerged from the statue. Its language was unknown to most, but somehow understood by all. “Even as my follower, you could never do anything in a straightforward way.”

 

A male voice came from the vortex, “The straightest path is boring and leads to predictability, Dawnbreaker. Neither of which I am. Now it is done and I have upheld my end. This finalizes the contract.”

 

“By the letter of the agreement… Yes, you have completed your end... Barely. Now go be a pain in someone else’s ass, Rovnar, so I can finish this.”

 

“With pleasure!... But first, we cannot have him here with nothing, can we?”

 

“How many of his articles did you secure?”

 

“Enough to make life in this domain entertaining and was more than enough to drive Cyronia into a fit of rage which ended up killing all those who took him to begin with and allowed you, with the aid of Afterdusk, to secure him. Again, fulfillment of the contract with a unique twist befitting of who I am.”

 

“Oh, why did my temple ever take you in?”

 

“Because you adore me?”

 

“Tolerate…” The female voice stated with a tinge of humor. “Tolerate, nothing more. Now let me do my thing. The barriers are weakening even as we speak, yet still painful for me to cross over to this degree.”

 

As this exchange happened, the ghosts looked at each other for a few moments, then at the bodies. Both bodies were impacted by a couple of spinning black and red shafts out of the vortex. The ropes fell off from the boy and the metal bands dropped off and clattered on the floor around the Drow. Suddenly the gemstones held by the stature of Dawnbreaker sent out strong bolts of light. The two ghostly forms were pushed back into the bodies but not the body they came out of. Both fell face first at the feet of the statue quivering and drooling.

 

The vortex spun faster and widened. “I can only hope he proves more effective this time. Maybe allowing him grow up a bit more, a second time, will assist in his development and temper his ego. He, at one point even had the gall to say he was becoming my equal! I have seen chipmunks better suited to such an audacious proclamation!”

 

There was laughter from deep within the vortex. “But I doubt even this will sooth his highly self-embellished personality. Thus, I already have his back-up treading this realm. One way or another those Pyrothermal sought to destroy have now, officially, outlived him. As did their ability to continue the fight to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.” Several items crashed to the floor including a khopesh and a round spiked shield. Both were heavily rune and ornamentally engraved. The khopesh was made of a glowing green metal while the shield was Eldwar. This was followed by a set of ten black metal throwing daggers in an Eldwar chain vest, a black metal axehammer, an extremely ornate large signet ring, a necklace with a shimmering eight-pointed star of Dawnbreaker as a pendant, a longbow made of twisted together wood with an Eldwar string, a quiver of arrows, gloves with Eldwar metal bands so the bow string could be pulled back, and a very nice backpack with strange yet clearly royal crests on both sides. The items rained down on and around the body the ghost of the Drow had been pushed into.

 

The voice of the female spoke again. “Did you leave anything behind?”

 

“His phoenix feather token from his first real kill of Pyrothermal’s minions... He took too much pride in something well below his abilities to take down. I stuck it in the belt pouch of Electoroma with one feather discernable to make Cyronia think she took the other items. At the same time, I took Electoroma’s sling, so she blamed Cyronia for its theft. Thus she proclaimed Cyronia stole everything and tried to frame her. It was splendid to watch the fallout.”

 

A pouch popped out of the vortex and landed at Sharris’ feet. “This is my gift to those who fight Gambra for me. The young lady has the eyes to melt many a boy or man. And, as fate has it, she also carries a sling. I furthermore decree Electoroma’s sling should go to one with the best body. Not to mention she has an added benefit. A sliver of her heritage hails from beyond perfect lineage! Therefore, enjoy young lady. And mostly because of this gift, but in addition your lineage says I should expect some extra devotion to me. I fully expect you with an offering in hand the next time you are at one of my shrines, young lass!”

 

The female voice groaned, “You are so far beyond hopeless there are no words.”

 

“While I thank you, Dawnbreaker, I must endeavor to make them available. It is awkward to have worshipers if the right words are not there to proclaim my magnificence!”

 

“Magnificence? How about malfeasance?”

 

“Both.”

 

“Go interfere with some less-significant mortals elsewhere, Rovnar!” The female sighed deeply before resuming in a less aggravated tone. “Those items scattered around the non-Drow are the young man’s, now once again boy, no longer the Drow, instead a Highman youth… Rovnar’s final twist to an eons’ old contract; one mortals cannot fully hope to comprehend…” The gems glowed brightly enough to leave everyone seeing spots. “I have resized them to fit his change in form and enchanted them to where they will size with him over the decades to follow. Storage for them, thanks to my former temple warden, has also been transferred. Touch or try to take what is strewn around him at your peril.

 

“In this I give you added warning, his anger is something you may wish to keep in check until he adjusts to the point he finds himself in.” The statue’s eyes let out shafts of light at everyone in the room. They pulsated stronger when they moved to Sharris, lingered on Gilew and focused in on Conner for much longer than the others. The voice faded as it spoke. “Leave it to Rovnar to fawn over a beautiful girl…even if it be one he is distantly culpable for.” There was a snicker, “I doubt even myself along with all the elder gods combined can fathom the number of offspring he was responsible for as a mortal, then added to as a godling. Nonetheless, I detect the youngster is indeed spawn from one of those all but infinite lines. Therefore, she has ability to handle more than most. Because of this, I have granted the girl a sliver of Electoroma’s essence so she can fully utilize the sling. It is hers and hers alone. She will most certainly have to let such an empowering settle before she fully understands what being gifted, from Rovnar, through me means for her future.

 

“For your combined knowledge, the boy, now in the Drow, did play with demon touched magics, but never used them against anyone. The only deeds beyond using augmented incantations with the death of animals, was the result of the demon infused within. It has been expelled from his essence and shall provide entertainment to those represented in this temple.

 

“Yet, yes, the boy was on the path of, and even accepted by direct followers of Murderic. The added power given to him from the Mythling’s underling has been ripped from him and he is nothing more than a foundationless Mage with no current ties to anything including his demon-touched book. While I left him what you call high Training Echelon, he must re-acquire power to cast the spells he has memorized yet cannot access. Leave him be. For in this I have rare full agreement with Rovnar. His inherited form should prove reprimand enough for now… As additional admonishment I forcibly removed all power from, and his understanding of, malevolent Mythling augmented abilities.

 

“However, before I pull back from the discomfort of staying in this realm until more of the barriers crumble, there is an additional crucial matter I feel must be made more extensively recognized. For I sense powers beyond the reach of most. Two of you have met my brother… and astonishingly live to talk about it… and one of you has touched the Cataclysm and survived… Has direct lineage to the ender of Cyronia, Pyrothermal… thus allowing the final lines of the contract to conclude… And embraces excess Dragon Giftings which saturate him… Careful, mortals, for you are treading on the fringes of opposing abysses. Look to those who have touched them when the time comes… As much as it pains me to admit, Rovnar may be correct after all. Sending him, now within a Highman body, here, now, to be in your company, completes at least to the letter of the agreement, if not the spirit of the intentions ingrained within the bargain made with the Queen of the Sand Dragons, and closes the contracts. Duplicate legitimate rings should also prove… interesting.”

 

The vortex snapped shut and the extra energies around the statue faded to where only the gems glowed. Within moments the room felt exactly like it did when they first entered. All in the room, save the Drow and Highman, found identical curved and hooked Khopesh blades on their packs along with the knowledge of how to effectively use them. They matched the blade dropped close to the Highman but were made of Eldwar instead of the green material. Most also had small glowing eight-pointed yellow topaz stone in the hilt. Conner and Gilew both found theirs had black pearls. All had meticulously made yet minuscule raised runes made of the gem infused Eldwar running the lengths of the blades.

 

Munder looked back over his shoulder with wide eyes, “Um…”

 

Conner blinked and stared. His mouth opened, but no sound came out.

 

*******

Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Zeltoss, Lacate, Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris (with Blue Streak Shocker Lizard), Duke Axegrind, Hawkling Channeler, Kyltoss, Klorna, Morwar, Mokel, Princess Syrissia, Silver Warrior Dragon San'i-sar

 

Lorthorn moved to help Kandric up, “You OK?”

 

It took a few seconds for Kandric to accept the offered hand. “I will be fine. But I am seeing sparkles and my gut hurts.”

 

Zeltoss moved over and patted Kandric on the back then helped to steady him. “What happened?”

 

Kandric allowed both Lorthorn and Zeltoss to support him while taking several deep breaths. “The shelter was still tied to me when it was torn down. The Force expended to build it is not normally expelled from me until I carefully take it down. So, what I used was partially inside me.” He took a few deep breaths, “So when the elder destroyed it, the utilized energy was like it was ripped out of me. Hurts… Bad. But he was right. I was taught to do better. I just wanted to make it fast instead of properly.”

 

“Might be a good thing you did, Premier,” Syrissia stated. “For it sounds like we need to prepare for Frexla to make another move.”

 

The Hawkling Channeler spoke after a few tense seconds. “Is there any chance Pyrothermal managed to put his essence into one of the soul stones?”

 

“No,” Mathard answered with certainty. “I was right up by him. His hands were pinned then removed before he could grab for anything. He was sure trying, though. I would wager I am not alone when I thought he was grabbing for a weapon. However, understanding what we now do, it would make sense if he was going for a pouch with a soul stone. It would have left him trapped, but able to return.”

 

The Hawkling eyed the items as he spoke, “If true, his escape plan was certainly to have Frexla rescue him by way of procurement of the stone, then wound a demon in the Spirit Realms so he could take its form.”

 

“Or hope someone grabbed the stone and cut themselves so he could steal their mortal body,” Syrissia countered. “Regardless we need to prepare for another onslaught.”

 

She pointed to the weapons, “Sir Seldnat, you made it abundantly clear you desire the axehammer. Sir Zeltoss, while the scepter is certainly yours unless our Premier says otherwise…” She glanced over to Kandric.

 

“Zel is Royal Dragon Gifted so it is all his.” Kandric seconded without hesitation, “However, I believe most here are of the same thought I am. The elder said we should wait.”

 

“Indeed,” Syrissia agreed. “However, we cannot allow Frexla or any of her minions to get to it. We need to figure out a way to protect it!”

 

Rylan looked to Glaster, “Permission to speak, Commander.”

 

Glaster gestured to Rylan with a wave of his left hand. “You have an idea, Rylan, I believe we are more than open to it.”

 

Rylan took a few deep breaths, “While I have extensive royal protocol training, I am not sure if I should address our Premier, a duke, princess or…”

 

Syrissia’s eyes narrowed as her voice took on a venomous undertone, “There is time for pompous royal absurdity later. We are in imminent peril from another Frexla incursion! Just speak boy!”

 

Rylan nodded vigorously, “Sorry… Um, but… there were no gates around the Dragon at all other than when Pyrothermal entered and even his gate was on the opposite side of the charred stump. They may not be able to gate close to it because of its cold aura…”

 

“And no gate can open where something is at! Any Fire Demon small enough to gate into a small hole would be instantly frozen by the Dragon! Brilliant!” Monarch shouted in high praise. He pointed to a contingent of his personal guards. “Quick, dig a small pit under the side of the Dragon and slide the scepter in it! You five, surround the young knight and protect him. We will have to assume he will know when to grab the scepter! Everyone else… prepare for battle!”

 

There were a few seconds where only Illorcs moved. This changed as Mathard shouted, “Move! Move! Do as Lord Monarch commanded! Duke Axegrind, I give you the Dragon Legionnaires! Pull the worst wounded and the youngest back toward our tents and guard our provisions. Everyone else form rings around the Dragon but stay out of an arc where it can spit a phlegm ball!”

 

The Dragon struggled mightily but couldn’t break free. It pushed out a strong cold aura forcing many to pull back from it. At the same time, it snarled in Dragon tongue. “No! You cannot use me like some low serf or slave!”

 

Monarch glared and cast an Elemental Protection bubble over his guards. “We can and will Dragon, and unless you can break free, you have no choice!” He focused back on his guards, “Now Dig! Dig! Young knight of Premier Kandric, stay in the middle of my guards until you are either certain the time is right, or we call for you to grab the scepter, then… Well, we shall have to hope and pray to every god the spirit was correct in telling you to wait!”

 

Kandric nodded to Zeltoss then moved up to the other items. He grabbed the pouch he was told held part of Pyrothermal’s wealth then looked around. “Pike, Lore, either or both of you want the Frozen Flames?”

 

Lorthorn nodded wildly while Pike blinked and managed to squeak out a, “Seriously?”

 

“Yeah! You are my assigned Garm counterpart and… it is just sitting there doing none of us any good when we may be only moments until Frexla makes her next move! If you two want them, grab them!”

 

Syrissia moved behind the two, smacked them on the back of their heads, and shoved them forcefully over to the blades. “Stop gawking like wolves at meaty bones behind a cage! Grab them and hope they attune!”

 

The boys glanced at each other before moving forward. The second they grabbed the blades, they dropped to their knees. Lorthorn was the first to speak. “Ouch! Way worse than when a guild pin attunes!”

 

“Way worse!” Pike agreed. “Way worse… what an understatement! But it will not fully unlock until I… Well, probably will not be long.”

 

“Nope. Not long at all,” Lorthorn agreed.

 

“What won’t be long.” Vondum demanded to know.

 

Lorthorn let out a deep breath and managed to stand on wobbly legs. “It let us know we have to kill a being from the Outer Realms to fully attune.”

 

“Pretty sure, with Frexla about to make a move, it will not be long before we get a chance,” Pike verified.

 

Kandric nodded, “Probably not. So, get your breaths back and get ready.” He patted both on their shoulders before moving over to the remainder of the items. He grabbed the pouch he told the Orakin sling was in. He glanced around. “You,” his eyes settled on Chark’ash. “You said you use a sling. Do you have a magical one?”

 

“No, Premier, but…” His words were cut off as Kandric tossed him the pouch with the sling. “With the few exceptions, I am certain most in this clearing would see a sling, even magical, as below them. Considering it is, or was Orakin, the numbers probably drop further. Do me and the rest a big favor and prove their perceptions wrong!”

 

Chark’ash glanced to Glaster, only to get a shrug. He turned and gave Kandric a flawless bow. “Thank you Premier, I will endeavor to prove my worth to you!”

 

“Once all this is over, we will have to get to know each other better,” Kandric responded as he picked up the other pouch. He underhanded it to Jamon, “Yours, but hold off on use of soul stones. I have never heard of them until now. They sound nasty and… terrible... malevolent.” He slightly trembled. “I sure wish we had been told who or what are entrapped in the thirteen used ones. I hate to hear someone has been trapped inside them for… who knows how long!”

 

Kandric turned to Seldnat, “Your turn.” He pointed to the axehammer.

 

Seldnat suddenly took a knee as he gripped the axehammer. “Owwwww… yeeeeouch!”

 

Several heads turned in unison.

 

Seldnat shook his head and snarled. “Me not know! How’s me gunna decide somethin’ like dat!”

 

“Seld?” Kandric asked while eyeing his friend.

 

“It want me ta pick somethin’ called a ancestor talent. Not know but it give me choice… um… and it will fully attune if’n me do.”

 

Mathard scanned the area and moved up to the Halforc. “Take some breaths and talk us through what it is telling you, young one.”

 

“Me… kin… all the way back… like way far… dis thing want me ta pick a… a ability… I think it be a like some sort a Subfield er somethin’… it givin’ me all sort a choice, some me not know nothing ‘bout. It hurt but not let me let go!”

 

“Sounds like you need to make a choice, young man.” Mathard stated with compassion. “What sounds interesting to you?”

 

“Um… owwww… um…” Seldnat trembled and gritted his teeth, but still managed to speak. “There is this spell thing… Adroit?”

 

One of the Blue Dragons let out a hissing whistle. “An Adroit? Young one, there has not been a non-Dragonkin Adroit, at last none known, in thousands of years!”

 

A Silver Dragon joined in. “And even in Dragonkind, Adroits are beyond rare. The only Adroits in the Silver Dragon Homeland hail from royal lines!”

 

The Blue concurred. “Same in the Blue Dragon Homeland. You must have an extremely magically-gifted ancestorage!”

 

Kandric tried to move to Seldnat’s side but was stopped by Glaster. “No, Premier. We need you. Allow Duke Mathard to assist.”

Kandric shot Glaster a momentary glare, only to feel the hand on his shoulder tighten. It was something he knew meant Glaster was not happy with him. It stopped him cold. Instead, he gulped and glanced over at the Dragons. “What is an Adroit?”

 

A Black Dragonling Animal Adept answered, “A Subfield of the non-spellcasters that gives them some spellcasting abilities through deft hand movements, deep ingrained magic, and the intellect to force the manifestations of spell abilities through oneself, instead of a book, life force, Spirit Realm, or out of the surrounding magic. It comes from within.”

 

Seldnat gripped the axehammer tighter and shook in pain, “Dat sound neat ta me! Me take Adroit!”

 

The axehammer glowed a lime green and flared brightly. A fracture of red appeared above his head. It looked the same as what was behind the pre-Dragon’s head. A golden-blue sparking pulse shot outward. It swirled around Seldnat, then seeped in. The fracture into the Realm of Cataclysm snapped shut with a near deafening crack. Snow around him was pushed back forming a momentary clearing over ten meters in diameter and left Mathard needing to grip Seldnat’s shoulder to stay standing.

 

Seldnat stayed on a knee as he blinked. “Ohh, lots a pretty spots…” He tried to stand but faltered.

 

Mathard gripped and steadied him. “Take a moment.”

 

“No, me Ok, jus… lot a new thinks enter me head.” He rolled his fingers oddly. After a few seconds, a glowing ball formed in his hand. “Me can… make magic now!”

 

The Silver Dragon spoke, “Yes, yes you can. But hold your Force young knight. You will need it soon…”

 

Before the Dragon could finish a fiery hole opened. As all turned to face it, a lone five-meter-tall, gray-tone skinned creature with goat feet, six arms, goat head, and red-hot cracks in its skin stepped out. Its chest was covered in a vest of thick looking plated armor and an armored skirt hung down to its knees. It held up both its top two hands while the other four all went out to its side. “Halt and listen mortals!”

 

Kandric took a step forward, so he was the closest. “Come to beg?”

 

The goat-headed figure snarled. Its eyes narrowed as he stared at Kandric, “Boy, do not test me. I came to give you all an out, nothing more.”

 

“Premier,” Mathard barked. “Let us at least listen!”

 

Kandric nodded but refused to tear his eyes off the wicked looking beast. Even as he spoke, he advanced. With the help from the blazing portal, he noted it had back sheaths with six weapon handles poking up over its shoulders. The teachings at Protector’s Keep entered his thoughts. The female Swordsman instructor pointed to a massive statue at the bridge leading to Junsac. “Out here it has advantage. Its reach prevents us from even getting within striking range. In close its reach is its detriment. So while the foot of a giant can splatter many, your best bet is to play the dance of death from in close should you ever face such an opponent.”

 

Even though it felt wrong to do what he was doing, he moved ever closer. “Say your piece.”

 

The creature snorted, sending out flames through its nose. “Lady and lord of fire Frexla offers a truce. You give me the stones, all two score and three, and you get one of your brothers back. She also agrees to not intrude on the activities of this encampment or those in it as long as they stay clear of Rolling Dale.”

 

“I get Emroc, Gablon, and both my brothers back and she releases the essence of all those who her cronies forcibly took from the nether reaches of the Spirit Realms over the… oh, let me be generous and say last hundred years. They must be allowed to move on to where they wish and I will hand you over the non-empty soul stones. As for Rolling Dale, I never liked the place much to begin with. I will agree to stay clear. But not those with me.”

 

“This is not a negotiation, child mortal!”

 

“For your sake it best be,” Kandric retorted with anger while continuing to close. “For the release of Emroc, Gablon and my brothers unharmed is essential to your continued existence.”

 

The creature let out loud hideous snorting laughter. “I am not as arrogant and cavalier as Pyrothermal, boy. You will find my heart much harder to get to and… I bring friends!” It waved its middle two hands and spoke, “Mistress of fire, I do not believe the tyke is going to listen to me without some convincing.” Six more portals opened. Three on either side of the creature.

 

“Send them out,” Kandric stated while staring into the dark black eyes of the goat-head. He felt his knees wanting to shake but he pushed past the terror as he once again advanced. “I would not mind pocketing yours along with few more hearts of Frexla lackeys.”

 

The eyes narrowed, “You dare refer to me as a lackey?”

 

Kandric forced a smirk, “Gives you a great deal more credit than you are probably due. But since the wench of flames sent you, I’ll give you some credit and not call you a pee-on. Which is certainly more than you really rate.”

 

The creature shook with rage as it drew all six weapons: two bastard swords, two battleaxes, and two war hammers. “Kill! Kill them all and bring them to…”

 

Even as demons poured out of the six portals, Kandric darted up. He slid on the snow as all six weapons crashed into the ground around him. He jumped back up and went between the legs of the massive demon. At the same time, he called the Frozen Flame into his hand. He jumped and stabbed upwards with everything he had.

 

The blade skewered a testicle. The roar was horrid as it was otherworldly.

 

Kandric twisted the blade even as he jumped hard to his left to avoid getting trampled by a goat hoof.

 

The creature dropped a war hammer. Its left lower hand grabbed it its wounded jewels.

 

Kandric let the hand grab both the testicular region and sword before he pulled it back with as hard of a slashing motion as he could. He was rewarded. A pair of huge fingers with gnarled and blackened nails fell next to him. He used the opening to slice at the other testicle. The sac cut cleanly. The large mug-sized glob fell into the snow with a hiss as it turned the frozen liquid into steam.

 

Kandric had to duck and roll as the demon tried to stomp on him while the other lower hand dropped the second war hammer and gripped at its horribly wounded groin.

 

Kandric came up in a crouch and slashed at the back of the hooved right leg. The Frozen Flame took some of his Force and turned ice cold. At the same time, the muscles, ligaments, and tendons above the heel rolled upward.

 

The massive creature dropped both battleaxes and screamed a second time. A wave of flames erupted at those advancing. A few fell, but most dove into the snow to avoid the sudden burst.

 

Kandric could hear combat all around him but knew the beast he was facing was not done. He sliced the wrists of both middle hands as the brute grabbed at the horribly injured lower leg. This was rewarded with both the final two hands dropping bastard swords. Each hand took a wrist as it fell forward, crushing a pair of Pantherlings as they tried to advance and help.

 

“Stay back!” Kandric shouted as it managed to get up to its knees with gore coating the front of its armored vest. “This one is mine! Stop the others!” Guessing the armor plates and skirting were too thick to do much with his blade, he shoved the point into the left knee. He then took his right hand and slammed it into the pummel as hard as he could. He was repaid with yet another scream.

 

He yanked it out, cutting as much as he could as he did so. A pair of bloody hands grabbed for him. Kandric rolled over the back of the left leg to avoid the hands. As he did so, he slashed at the back of the knee. The leg gave out as the muscles and tendons parted.

 

As the monstrous goat-thing fell on its left side, Kandric snarled and moved up and into the armored skirt. Fiery hot blood and brackish red sludge covered him. Had the Frozen Flame not protected him he would have certainly been scalded to death. As it was, he still got a few blisters. However, his blade once again sliced upward under his guidance into the already shredded groin area. The second mass fell free. Intestines followed as he made a series of cuts and slashes. He emerged a gory mess. All around him fighting was beyond fierce.

 

Two more portals opened. One by the camp, the second close to Kandric. However, the one close to the camp was huge and didn’t have flames licking out of the middle of the burning ring.

 

The blade flashed as it took the heads off a pair of horned demons with barbed arms. He grabbed the hearts and handed them to a pair of Black Rapids guards who had been wounded fighting them.

 

Four more large demons fell to Kandric as he made his way up to the head of goat-demon. He noted others tried to protect it as it clawed at the frozen ground in an attempt to get back to the portal. He cut another of its wrists deeply to slow it, then opened up the guts of two more barbed-armed demons. This time he cooled the hearts of both in snow and put them into the pouch procured from the death of Pyrothermal.

 

He stayed close the massive demon, slicing at any exposed spots he could, while having to pause a dozen times to kill other, lesser demons. A few drew blood, but the hearts of all ended up in what had been Pyrothermal’s wealth pouch.

 

As he got up to the shoulder, Kandric cut the strap of the armored vest. He sliced off one of the hands as it tried to pull up on the vest, all the while the others pulled, centimeter by centimeter closer to the fiery gate.

 

Another slash cut both the neck and the opposite side of the vest. The armor slid down. Six more demons fell, and another hand of the demon fell free before he could jump and climb up on the back. Over a score of demons charged him. Only a handful made it. Most fell as his knights, Pike, Jamon, Chark’ash, Rylan, Cam’ris and many from Pocet’s group, even a couple of the younger ones from Glaster’s caravan, including Mylan and Klandon jumped in and formed a hasty wall to stop a second wave. This caused both Vondum and Glaster to step right up to another pair of new portals and take the fight to anything and everything that came out.

 

Still five more minor demons had to be diced and sliced before Kandric stood unimpeded on the back of the demon. He slammed his sword down and pulled. “I hope getting your heart from the back hurts more!” Kandric snarled as he pulled the blade out, shoved it back down, and pulled again with both hands.

 

The hands that remained couldn’t get to him. Every time it tried to shake him off, Kandric plunged the blade down and used it for a handhold. The demon screamed and flame blasted out of its mouth a half-dozen times.

 

Off in the distance, Kandric noted the huge portal next to the camp and tents had spilled out over three dozen four-meter-tall giants with heavy armor, weapons and deep maroon skin. The Dragon Legionnaires were doing their best to fight but it wasn’t going well. He gritted his teeth as he stabbed as deeply as he could and pulled to open the gash through the back deeper and wider even as he watched the battle close to the tents.

 

Those close to Chark’ash let out a yelp and fell back as the cat-like Fog Spirit emerged next to him along with another shadowy form.

 

Kandric shouted, even as he stuck the blade in yet again, “Those around Chark, protect the Fog Spirit and whatever is with it! It is a friend and vulnerable in our realm!”

 

As a score of Illorcs and a dozen Black Rapids guards moved to obey, all cutting down at least a pair of demons as they tried to move on the Fog Spirit, and the cat took down at least a dozen by itself, the shadowy figure seemed to surround Chark’ash. At the same time, massive gusts of wind tore icicles off trees and flung them at hundreds of smaller Fire Demons. A few seconds later both the shadow and cat-like fog creature vanished. All around Chark scores of horribly wounded demons met their end as hearts were removed by those close to them.

 

Chark’ash looked down at his wrists and shouted. “Please! I need help to get close to the giants!”

 

“Seld!” Kandric shouted as the Halforc cleaved a horned demon in half with his newly attuned axehammer, “Get Chark to the giants! I have this!”

 

“Rylan!” Glaster shouted as he cleaved the wing off a reptilian-looking demon, “Help Chark!”

 

“Cam!” Vondum roared while using a gauntleted hand to rip the forked tongue out of the mouth of a demon in front of him. “Get the Drow to the camp before we lose it!”

 

While Garm and Alphar were slow to move, Illorcs, Pantherlings, and Black Rapids guards were not. They formed interlocking wedges and plowed a bloody path toward the tents with Seldnat, Lorthorn, Jamon, Pike, Cam’ris, and Rylan closely surrounding Chark’ash.

 

While Kandric couldn’t see exactly what happened, the effects were beyond stunning.

 

As Chark’ash closed on the marauding Blaze Giants, he pulled the new sling and dropped one of the snowflake obsidian stones into it. He then tapped a speckled sodalite gemstone on dark black armguards which had appeared around his arms when the shadow had surrounded him.

 

He then eyed the sling and spoke a word given him by the Fog Spirit. In ancient Orakin it equated to ‘Scatter Stone’.

 

He then launched the single stone at what was the most heavily armed and armored giant.

 

He gasped and dropped to a knee as Force needed to cast a half-dozen Primary Echelon spells was ripped out of him. Still, he was able to focus enough to tap three gems on the left gauntlet and two more on the right. The expenditure of Force became too much. He fell unconscious.

 

The single stone lit up into a bright simmering frozen glob, then split multiple times as it descended toward the giants. Many had turned to face the advancing wave while others continued to advance on the camp. It didn’t matter. Over a hundred extremely cold marble-sized stones slammed into the cluster of giants.

 

However, the first stones to hit each giant changed yet again as they made contact. They pulsed as they hit the giants. As this happened, the belongings worn and carried by all the giants vanished. They were replaced by whatever they wore when they first woke from their last slumber. This left most with nothing but loincloths. A few had nightshirts, robes, or night britches and shirts, and only three had a weapon of any kind.

 

Moments later they were peppered with the remaining ice-cold stones, which all detonated with an icy blast. Only a half-dozen managed to escape getting hit by at least one of the stones.

 

What had appeared to be the overrunning of the camp become a rout the other way in short order.

 

While the Dragon Legionnaires, backed by Dragons and Dragonlings tore into the six still armed and armored giants, the others who didn’t fall outright were quickly cut down by arrows and bolts fired by the wounded, those tending to them, servants, kids, and even slaves which had been all but ineffective against their extremely heavy armor.

 

Kandric watched in astonishment as giants toppled like brittle saplings being hacked at with battleaxes. But his focus quickly returned to the massive giant demon under him.

 

Finally, Kandric cut through enough to see the heart. He cast a Cold Snap on his hand but still found it impossible to pull free. The demon thrashed madly as he drew a dagger and started to cut it free.

 

“Frexla!” the demon bellowed as it felt a hand close around its massive blood diamond heart and pull it free, “Help me!”

 

Over three score more fire portals opened and scores of minor and several major demons poured out of each one.

 

“Zel!” Kandric shouted and he reached his other hand into the gaping wound and pulled at the heart with everything he had.

 

The shout was not needed. Zeltoss reached into the hole under the Dragon and grabbed the scepter as waves of screaming demons came from nearly every direction.

 

The head of the scepter pulsated with sparkles of multi-colored particles. The front edge washed out and over everyone and everything until it got to the leading wave of demons. It then coalesced into a visible wave which rolled upward and outward, knocking flying demons out of the air.

 

The lurch of the ground was so intense it helped Kandric rip out the demon heart by bouncing him almost a full meter up from the back of the beast.

 

Demons in the front lines never got to the hastily forming lines of Kandric’s forces. Instead, rock turned to sand under the snow and shot upwards. The wave of sand was so powerful it shredded all but the hearts of over a thousand demons. The hearts didn’t make it to the ground. Instead, they were launched into and through demons behind them. The hearts eventually slammed into trees with enough force to embed deeply in the wood.

 

Demons behind the first waves were critically wounded by hearts of their fellow demons and the remaining high velocity sand.

 

The churning portal that had formed above Pyrothermal stopped boiling.

 

In the center of the portal, a Dragon head appeared. It was nothing like any had seen. The head had a bony plate with three horns sticking forward. It was multi-colored sandy and reflected light caused it to sparkle. The eyes looked like rotating kaleidoscopes of multi-colored sand. It roared loud enough to knock the fresh coat of snow off all the trees within a kilometer. It then spoke in ancient Sand Dragon, a language all who were hit with any of the energy somehow understood. “The Sand Dragons of eons past owe you all for extracting vengeance for the fall of our homeland and destruction of our good and loyal subjects. While we were forced to give our essence to Pyrothermal and others of the Realms of Fire, I Slyanivikia, Queen of the Sands cast one final spell as I was roasted and consumed while alive. Their depravity and lust for power in consumption of my living flesh and blood allowed me to link the Death Gifting of all remaining Sand Dragons from the time of Shieldfall to now to a single event. The Sand Dragon Giftings were granted, but only in small measure to Pyrothermal, Frexla, and their minions who wiped us out. Instead, the vast majority was placed in perpetuity, to be awarded to those who vanquished the consumers of our flesh and destroyer of our final barriers of protection for our subjects. All who have assisted in this battle have my gratitude, even if it be from a grave, eons forgotten. Let it be known, with the destruction of Pyrothermal, and the return of my scepter into Dragon Gifted mortal hands correlated with Pyrothermal’s mortal and immortal downfall, the call of ages and challenge of time my king wove with the assistance of Dawnbreaker, Afterdusk, Earthvoid, Mountraiser, and Rovnar is now complete. Those who Pyrothermal sought to hunt and eliminate may finally emerge into the light to reclaim what was so unjustly taken!”

 

The Dragon head faded. Hundreds of smaller bolts of shimmering energy shot out as the void snapped shut. The last of the Sand Dragon Gifting was wrenched out of all remaining demons of fire and found those who held even a single demon heart within the forest around Kandric. The portal collapsed. It did so with an unearthly howl of a multitude of terrified and agonized screams as demons who once held any Sand Dragon Death Gifting found whatever gifting they had, along with some of their own essence, ripped out of them. All portals across the field of battle collapsed.

 

Five score of powerful demons guarding the fiery portals were left stranded and badly weakened in the Mortal Realms. Kandric and many of the others within the clearing quickly cut them down and took their hearts before they could recover enough to put up more than token resistance. About half dropped powerful weapons and or gear they had captured and took to the Spirit Realms as trophies.

 

The sound of combat quickly ceased over the entirety of the surrounding forest.

 

A shimmering of windblown fog billowed up close to Kandric. The Wind Spirit caused trees to blow with sounds that mimicked Northman speech. “Kandric, Kandric, Kandric, we are further indebted to you my friend, for while those who did not lose their hearts, lost their leaders and were forced to flee back to the lands of fire; we, along with those who gave us some of their essence on the bet of Prince Weraweld falling to your hand were able to intercept many. Thus, you have granted over a score of us further giftings by your victory. Take these as a thank you!” As the fog and weird vortex of wind receded from the Mortal Realm, they left behind a stack of over 500 gemstone demon hearts.

 

Save for the cries of wounded, crackling of burning treetops and some tents, wind howling, and snow slashing into and through trees, the forest grew quiet. All eyes turned to Kandric.

 

Kandric stayed down on a knee for over a minute as he allowed the large fire opal and tourmaline hearts from two portal commanders to fully cool. He spat repeatedly as the taste of horribly burned meat permeated his mouth. Somehow, he knew he was tasting the burned flesh of Slyanivikia. It was beyond disgusting, especially since he knew the massive Dragon had been alive even as hundreds, if not thousands of demons, including Pyrothermal and Frexla fed on her burning body.

 

He stood, shuddered, and gave a full body jig to try to come to grips with what had just transpired. “Wow… That was disgusting and super creepy…” He blinked and shuddered. As his senses returned, he quivered and spoke with a loud voice. “I hear wounded. Let us find them and get them tended to!”

 

He took a knee again and spat. His hands put handfuls of snow in his mouth. He let it melt, swished it around and spat again. It did little to help. “Yuck!” He glanced up as Glaster, Vondum, Syrissia, and Mathard moved toward him. All shook and brushed off a thin layer of sand from themselves. He roughly moved his hand through his hair to get sand out of it. With a cracking of knuckles, he stood again. “So do you think Frexla got the message?”

 

“Oh, Premier,” Mathard responded with trepidation and a shake of his head, “she certainly got the message. How she responds… Well, how such events yet to transpire unfurl is anyone’s guess. The real question is: Are you alright?”

 

“Other than a horrible, vile, nasty, and just plain gross taste in my mouth, I am fine. How many more did we lose?”

 

Syrissia let out a long sigh, “It will take a while to get a count. However, because of the healing from a long-vanished race of dragons, we are remarkably intact. Even Dragons and Dragonlings received curing magics which is not standard for a Dragon Death Healing. And while the White Dragon ultimately allowed for this victory, he sent at least one phlegm ball into a couple of Silver Dragonlings. Both will live, but only because of the healing we all got. Regardless, I can assure you Frexla lost many times what your army did in this engagement.”

 

“If the skank does not hand Emroc, Gablon, and my brothers back…” He let the words trail off as he noticed the White Dragon shake in pain as it tried to let out a breath. He walked across the rapidly refreezing ground, pulled his arm back and punched it in the bridge of the nose. He then had to duck behind the cracked rock as it sneezed and hacked up a small phlegm ball. It shook its head and snarled as a trickle of blood dripped from its massive left nostril.

 

Kandric stood and snorted. “You may have been healed by the explosion of Dragon and Demon Gifting, but there is still an arrow and chunks of descalers in your breath sac. Your only chance at getting your frosty breath back is to tell me where my grandfather is and what students of mine he took with him.”

 

The Dragon tried to lunge forward and snap at Kandric, but the chains leading to harpoons shot into and through trees prevented it from making more than a meter.

 

Kandric moved a few steps back while keeping a careful eye on the young White Dragon. “Anyone have a hand mirror?”

 

Rylan spoke up. “Lord Premier, we have a several full-sized glass and highly polished silver ones in a couple of our wagons.”

 

Seeing Glaster turn to stare at him with a raised eyebrow, Rylan shrugged. “Commander, Klandon and Mylan each bought a crate of six each. I have no idea why.”

 

Klandon spoke up, “Because the refugees told me one way the besieged villages talk to each other is with Zeris’ light or flames reflected off of large mirrors. They are the life blood to get signals out and help guide in limited supplies. Me and Mylan figured many towns down below the pass would want some extras.”

 

“Klandon! Speak properly. It is Mylan and I, not me and Mylan!” Glaster barked. He then softened and patted the boy on the top of his head. “However, such a commodity is certainly an interesting one. This is especially true since it is unlikely many large mirrors are being produced.”

 

Kandric nodded, “And certainly not something other caravans would think to bring down into a war zone. I am impressed. So how much for one of them?”

 

Mylan spoke up, “We were hoping on selling the glass ones for 350 silver and the silver ones for 750. But, Premier, we cannot charge you…”

 

Kandric held up a hand to stop Mylan. He dug into a pouch and tossed the boy seven gold coin. “Learn from my mistakes. You are merchants. I have money, the need for something you have, and I am willing to spend to get it. Do not give anything away and always strive for profit. If something is not worth what you expect, still sell it for as much as you can get and use the coin for something you think will sell better. It is a lesson I learned the hard way on my first caravan trip with Master, now most certainly Lord Glaster.

 

“Now if you please, go fetch the glass mirror I just paid for.”

 

Mylan stuck the coins into a pouch while grinning at Klandon, “Paid for both crates of large glass mirrors with a single sale! Well done! Let us go!”

 

As the two sprinted up the hill toward the distant caravan wagons, Glaster called out. “Make sure to log the sale in your books, boys!”

 

Kandric glanced over to a pair of Blue and Silver Warrior Dragons. “These woods are far from safe, protect them, but make them carry the heaviest mirror they have. After the gouging I just took, and they foolishly admitted to, they deserve to struggle getting it here!”

 

Kandric turned his attention back to the White Dragon. “You will tell me what I demand to know. How much is left of you before you give me the information and what happens to you after you give me the information are the only questions here.”

 

Kandric smirked, “Oh, and I very much appreciate the assist in ridding all realms of Pyrothermal and the subsequent influx of invading Frexla cohorts.”

 

The White Dragon shook with anger, “You gave me no choice! They came after the items you buried under me! My scales were melting and my tongue blistering! You have reduced me to an outcast at best and a hunted bounty at worst! For I am certain Frexla will abandon the Mythling War-aged treaty of not interfering with the White Dragon Homeland after she finds out what you forced me to do!”

 

Kandric’s lust for knowledge got the better of him. He raised an eyebrow. “Why would such a treaty ever have been penned?”

 

The Dragon tried to break out of the stone encasement but hissed and stopped as one of the spines slipped under a large scale and drew blood. “I do not know much more than the basics from within our hall of history. It had to do with the fall of the Mythling capitol. Our king and queen got items out of Frexla’s estate during the final days of the siege and took something in and left it there for her. The city fell before whatever was smuggled in could help turn the tide of battle. It also caused a deep hatred of the Sand Dragons. Frexla and Pyrothermal sided with the Browns and wiped out all traces of the Sand Dragons, but in doing so pushed the Browns down to a vagabond half race since all Great Browns, male and female, were killed off in the final days of the war. But Frexla still kept with the treaty of us and her leaving each other alone. It is one of the reasons we have kept the upper hand against the Silver Dragon Homeland, for we have no problems with Frexla or her sister’s minions. The lands of the Silvers have no such protections. Now kill me or free me, little Premier, for I am done talking to you!”

 

“You only think you are.” Kandric fired back. “Let me warn you, as you lie there. If you hack up one more of those nasty globs, I will order a burning branch shoved into one of your eyes. If you harm any from this army again, I will do it myself, and it will not be a single eye. Heed my words, Dragon, for your eye would not be the first I have taken from a Dragon!”

 

Kandric turned his back on the White and moved up the hill. He stopped and frowned as he saw Lacate holding three small demon hearts in his lightly burned left hand while his right grasped a Dwarven Steel Dagger of Light. “How did you get armed and where did those come from?”

 

A Garm heavy footman moved up and knelt, “Premier Kandric of House Griffin Spires, it is my fault.”

 

“Your fault?”

 

“Yes Premier. I was tasked with keeping him safe. I was overwhelmed with seven of the fire creatures. I tossed him my boot knife and told him to defend himself as best as possible. I took four down and maimed two as they got by me. A group of Illorcs moved up to help as more gated in, yet another injured one got by them. Thus, your servant was forced to defend himself and finish off the last three injured ones. He burned his hand taking the hearts. The final Gifting healed his wounds. However, the hearts were still hot and caused some additional burning. My deepest apologies.”

 

Kandric motioned for the Garm to stand. “You and our Illorc allies did the best you could and succeeded in preventing serious injury to Lacate. You did well.” He patted the sturdy Garm on the shoulder as he moved past and up to Lacate. He grabbed the boy’s hand and cast a healing spell. As the red and tiny blisters faded, he pulled his hand back the yanked the gems out of the boy’s grip. “You are my property; thus these are mine! You will not have a single tin to spend until your time of slave rights servitude is finished! Now get a fire started and prepare us a meal. Since you will have a fire, get out of those clothes! Also, you eat none of our rations until the rest of us are fed. Nor are you to prepare extra for yourself!”

 

Lacate’s jaw trembled. “But Kandric, I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning.”

 

“You have done nothing to deserve it. You can have a few scraps after the rest of us eat. Maybe tonight, in my bedroll, you can fulfill enough of your duties to get a decent set of meals tomorrow.”

 

Lacate bit back a response as his shoulders sagged. A few tears welled up in the corners of his eyes.

 

Mathard moved up beside Kandric, “My Premier, may I recommend you, at the very least, let this youngster stay dressed until we are certain the area is secure and allow him to keep the Dagger of Light. He has proven he has skills needed to properly utilize it. In addition, it will give him something to defend himself with and provide him a reliable small blade going forward, once out of service to you.”

 

Kandric frowned, started to say something, then stopped as he saw a hardening in Mathard’s features. He let out a long breath. “I guess I can allow it, my Duke. He did kill demonettes with the blade, albeit wounded ones. However, once the shelter warms, and we have guards set, he will remove all he is wearing and stay that way until we move out.” Kandric sent a glare at Lacate then focused on Mathard, “My Duke, how much do I owe your footman for his blade?”

 

“I will get him another, Premier.” Mathard waved the question off with a flip of his wrist. “We make them by the hundreds.” Mathard motioned for the Garm warrior to hand over the sheath to Lacate before returning his attention to Kandric. “I also must point out the White Dragon, while still breathless, has been healed. You leaving such a dangerous foe alive is causing many, including myself, a great deal of discontent.”

 

“It knows something about my students and grandfather.”

 

“Probably. Nonetheless, you are placing this entire force in jeopardy for what may amount to little to no useful information, if you can even get it to talk.”

 

Kandric took a deep breath. He nodded in understanding and moved back down the hill.

 

Mathard glanced over to the footman, made a hand motion of eating, and nodded toward Lacate. He then put a finger up to his mouth. Getting a nod from the man, he patted Lacate on the shoulder and moved to join Kandric. As he caught up, he spoke, “You are being awfully hard on the servant boy, Premier.”

 

“He and his family are lucky I have given him a path to freedom without the taint of being a full slave.”

 

“I cannot argue. However, it seems to me much of your anger should be focused on not the boy, but the rest of his family. Surely you cannot hold him responsible for the actions of the rest of his family.”

 

“No, not all. He is a means to such an end, though. I also want him to feel the same degradation he put others, including me, through.” Kandric let out a deep breath. “And I also find him quite cute. With a bit less pudge and more muscles he would be, will be, even better looking. It is just an added benefit my enjoying of him also causes him to feel helpless and humiliated.”

 

“You really hate him.”

 

“I certainly have no like for him. But hate?” Kandric shrugged. “Loath is probably a better word. I despise his arrogance. He has done nothing to earn a flea worth of respect but thinks because he comes from such a wealthy family, he deserves it. I resent how he looks down on those from the lower castes. His ego did not even let him see the possibility those he talked down to were not what they appeared… And no one, regardless of caste, should have to put up with his conceit. Over the next couple of years, I am going to destroy all of it. I will also enjoy him fully regardless of what he or anyone else wants or even thinks about it!”

 

Mathard held up a hand to stop Kandric, “I highly doubt anyone will try to stop you even if they want to. However, please consider the harshness of your actions toward the boy may be to your own detriment.”

 

“How so?”

 

“Keeping him hungry and with little to no clothing once in a while is one thing. It will shave off some the excess you do not like. However, starving him will not allow any muscular development. In addition, maintaining him fully exposed in adverse conditions opens him up to sickness. Harsh weather damage will also greatly reduce his outward appeal. While he does nothing for me, if I had a good-looking slave woman, the last thing I would want is to have the appearance I desire degraded, especially by my own hand. Therefore, if one of the things you like about him is his looks, then preserving his appearance should be one of your goals.”

 

Kandric pounded his left fist into his open right hand. “You are right. I am being foolish on how I handle him. But I want him to feel horrible and cry like he made so many kids from the Swamp Slums do!”

 

Mathard inwardly winced at the words but kept his voice even. Such a task was made easier because he was used to holding his tongue and emotions in check when in the Royal Garm Courts. “If such is your desire, it can still be accomplished. You may find it easier to get the reaction and… despondence you yearn for, by not having him become accustomed to constant degradations.”

 

Kandric rubbed his hands together. “Interesting thought.” Kandric moved his chin back and forth in thought for several seconds. “Yes, I can see how taking better care of him and giving him some dignity would make the times I take it away more devastating, both to him and his whole family. I guess I should feed him a couple of decent meals today, right?”

 

“You already decreed said punishment. To go back on it will make you seem weaker than you ostensibly want. However, your wording left open the possibility of getting fed from stores not your own. If you would allow my men to borrow him to help clean up the field of battle, he could get fed as part of said detail out of rations not under your direct control. We could also work him hard. Such labor will assist in trimming him down to fit your physical attraction desires.”

 

“Which would give me a reason to let him dress after he feeds us… Yes, I can see how this would work without him thinking I am backing down.” Kandric nodded. “Just make sure he comes back to my tent clean. For his time in a bedroll will be in mine most nights, including tonight.”

 

Mathard patted Kandric on the back, “I will see to it, Premier. Now I strongly recommend you turn your full attention toward the Dragon, for it is still a very dangerous foe.”

 

Kandric took in a few deep breaths even as he nodded. He glanced over to the sentries nervously guarding the White. “Thank you for your diligence. Now back off and warm yourselves but stay ready. If it does anything to me, take its eyes out.” He angled to the side of the Dragon and waited for the mirror. He motioned for Klandon and Mylan to stop before they got too deep into the cold aura. He glanced over at two of the Silver Dragonlings, “If you would not mind, take the mirror and set it up against the stump so those two don’t get frostbite from getting too close.”

 

He turned to the Dragon, “You make one move to harm either of them, you lose an eye.”

 

The Dragon glared and let out a light snarl but held still as the mirror was put in place. The two Silver Dragonlings quickly backed off.

 

Kandric moved close, cast a light spell, and put up an Umbrella Autospell to block the snow so the Dragon could get a good look at scores of blackened, buckled, and even melted scales along the side of its face and down its neck. In addition, it got a full look at its broken off stubs where its horns had been and over a score of missing or broken teeth. “It appears your scales, horns, and teeth cannot be healed.”

 

“It takes a few weeks for scales to regrow,” San’i-sar stated in Dragon tongue. “Several weeks for Trues, and many moons, for Greats. Since those are badly singed yet still attached, they may need to be pulled before new ones grow. Honestly, I have never heard of any dragon having scales so badly damaged without falling out. Some of those appear to be melted into the hide, so they may have to be yanked or even cut out before new ones can grow. As for the teeth, the removed ones will eventually regrow. The broken will have to be pulled for new ones to come in, but replacement teeth are never as good as the original. The horns…” San’i-sar snickered, “they will continue to grow, but the ends are what they are. I have heard broken horns will close up, so the ends will not remain open. However, until they do close up, I have heard it is exceedingly painful to feel air move all the way down to the base. It is not uncommon for broken horns to be capped because of this. Given a few decades they may grow out enough to be filed down and they will have to be reworked, probably for centuries, to look even somewhat normal. He is still young, so he has a lot of growing to do. The time will aid in eventually having near normal, albeit shortened horns. As long as you allow him to live.”

 

Pangam chimed in, “However, while scales do regrow, the skin I am seeing is still blackened and callused over after the healing we got. Thus, it is possible new scales will never grow back. San’i-sar is correct. I doubt any dragon-kind knows for sure. But even if the blackened lumps are pulled out and new scales grow, they will not be the same. They will look different. So… Well, the scaring will show.” Pangam exposed some of his scales along his ribs, showing a line where his red scales were lighter and some of them along a line that must have been done with a blade were misshapen and uneven.

 

Kandric cringed. “Looks painful.”

 

“It was,” Pangam confirmed. “It often itches and when I bend the wrong way, the larger replacement scales dig in and even draw blood when they slide under original scales. I would bet most of the dragon-kin here have similar scale scaring. Yet, none are close to as bad is what is on this White. Not by a wide measure!”

 

Kandric gave a bow, “I thank both of you for the lesson on dragon scales and wounding.”

 

He returned his focus on the White. “So, all you have to do is look in the mirror. While the healing we got may have fixed your wing and other wounds, it did nothing to repair your appearance. Now I give you this single chance to tell me what you know about the students and my grandfather, or what you look like now will seem like a dream compared the appearance you will find yourself with.”

 

Off to the side, Syrissia motioned several Alphar with descalers forward.

 

Kandric held up a hand to stop them. “Thank you, Princess. While a superb idea, there is no need for any more of our fine combatants to feel the bite of cold from this pathetic enemy of the Silvers and thus the greater alliance. I have this handled.”

 

Kandric’s tone caused several close to him to cringe and many more to take several steps back.

 

The White’s eyes darted around showing a degree of nervousness and fear. “What are you going to do?”

 

Kandric glared at it, “Tell me what I demand to know or find out.”

 

“We were sent here to destroy you and this alliance, not to feed you information!”

 

“You failed. Actually, you aided it greatly by giving us a common foe to rally around and force teamwork. You also, willingly, or unwillingly, provided us the key to killing Pyrothermal and kept the second wave at bay until Zeltoss could grab the scepter during the final assault. Because of this I give you one last chance. Where are they?”

 

The White made a single hacking sound and lunged. The move sent a large phlegm ball at Kandric. It made it only a few centimeters out of its mouth before disappearing into a glowing door. An instant later a second portal opened directly above it. The frozen glob slammed into the top of its snout, smashing its jaw down onto the stone. The stone shattered as did over a score of teeth. At the same time, the front part of its forked tongue fell out of its mouth, as the Dragon totally bit it off.

 

The Dragon howled in agony. At the same time tears poured down from its eyes.

 

Zeltoss’ eyes went wide. He started jumping up and down, “I need something to collect those! Please, I need something to get those!”

 

“What?” a nearby Garm asked.

 

“The tears! The tears! I need to get some of those!”

 

The burly Garm yanked a huge drinking mug off his pack and handed it over, “Here you are, young knight.”

 

Zeltoss rushed forward and filled the container with a single tear. “I need more! I need more!”

 

The Garm cocked his head to the side, shrugged and looked back at his troops. “You heard our Premier’s knight, soldiers! Toss him your mugs!”

 

Scores of mugs were flung over to Zeltoss who gleefully filled one after the other. As this happened, more drinking mugs were tossed to him while several confused Garm formed a line and transported the full mugs back and stuck them in a hastily constructed tent.

 

Mathard blinked and scratched his chin as he took in the scene with a degree of befuddlement.

 

Glaster moved up to whisper to Mathard, “What in the name of the gods just happened? And what is the young Elf doing?”

 

Vondum snickered. “Unless I miss my guess, the boy, one of our Premier’s knights, is amassing a stockpile Dragon Tears! He is, after all, a Mystic, and there cannot be many chances to gather such a thing.” He shook his head as he continued to snicker. He moved up and offered Kandric a hand.

 

Glaster stepped back, grabbed Perth, and handed him a drinking flask, “It sounds like it is time to start gathering a few of your own supplies, my boy. Go fill this, then find a few others who would allow you the use of containers.”

 

“You want me to go up and…”

 

“Lightly burned hands or not, not only do I want you to, I demand you do so.”

 

“But it’s…”

 

“A Dragon. Yes. After killing a few demons, this should not bother you as much as the look on your face says. For, just think. You have a rare opportunity to not only collect something very few could hope to, but also say you have touched a live Great Dragon.” He gave the boy a hard slap on the butt, “And talk to the young one up there and find out what else you should procure, for I have never taken in a Mystic before, so I know nothing of what may come in handy in your future training. Besides, the cold will help sooth your scorched fingers.”

 

Not far away, Klandon and Mylan exchanged looks. Within seconds they begged several more mugs off of nearby Illorcs. Both wrapped themselves tightly in their winter garments and moved to the other side. They filled over a dozen mugs before backing off, shivering too badly to hold any more.

 

Kandric allowed Vondum to pull him out of the snow where he dove to avoid the massive frozen ball. He looked around in confusion. First at Zeltoss, then the bawling Dragon. He shook some snow out of his collar and glared. His hands formed into fists. He took a couple of steps forward only to be grabbed by Syrissia. “Good Premier, your inattentiveness almost got the better of you. Had you paid closer attention; you would have noted the Dragon had been making soft hacking sounds for several minutes. It had every intention of assassinating you this whole time.”

 

Kandric shook with rage. “Which means it was biding its time and never intended to tell me a thing. If anything, it has bought my grandfather more time to hide my students!”

 

“Such is my guess. However, there is no need to act rashly. We will have to find other ways to discover what happened to your students and grandfather. Allow your young knight, instructor’s boy, and our other Mystics to gather some obviously much treasured supplies. For, while I know only a minimal amount about the Mystic arts, I would bet it is very unusual to get true tears out of a dragon. For I have led our Dragon Legions for over a hundred years, and even as we kill them, I have never, until today, seen one cry, let alone uncontrollably sob like this one is doing. Once our Mystics have their fill, you can deal with the attempt on your life.”

 

Several minutes passed before Kandric moved up. Without a single word he scaled up its neck and sat on the White’s head. The Dragon thrashed, snarled, and snorted. This forced Kandric to take daggers and shove them under the edges of scales to prevent getting tossed off. Once he was directly above the left eye, he wiggled daggers under the scales until he felt them dig into the hide. The Dragon thrashed violently, causing some of the rock protrusions and chains holding it to draw blood.

 

Kandric let it thrash until it was exhausted. Then, without warning, he shoved his Frozen Flame into the Dragon’s right eye even as it desperately tried one last time to shake him off. He twisted and dragged it in a circle, but didn’t go in deep enough to kill. As the Dragon screamed and pleaded for the pain to end, Kandric slid down the side far enough to prevent the Dragon from being able to bite him. Without a single sign of pity, he glanced over at Zeltoss, “Dragon eye juice?”

 

“Got some from the Green… But yea! This one’s a Great!” He again moved forward.

 

Glaster procured a couple of waterskins from nearby Pantherlings, handled them to Perth, and smacked the boy on the butt to get him moving toward the Dragon once again.

 

Kandric noted this and glanced over, still breathing hard and trying to control his burning anger. “My replacement, Master?”

 

“Poor substitute at best, Premier.”

 

“He is sure cute.”

 

“Suitable, but you have always selected boys with light-colored eyes when I got something for you to enjoy. Something both he and the boy indentured to you have in common. I, however…”

 

“Like variety, and,” Kandric ran a hand through his hair, “love red hair.”

 

“Yes, and while not true red, the strawberry color of your servant is certainly eye-catching.”

 

“Lord and Premier,” Syrissia stated with a sigh, “even as you flirt with each other and lust over fine looking lads, please do not ignore the finer aspects of enjoying the opposite sex. Should you wish to indulge, my tent and bed are open to either… or both of you.”

 

Kandric’s cheeks turned a deep shade of red while Glaster’s eyebrows arched, “Both of us good Princess?”

 

“As an active participant, certainly. However, we digress from the real situation at hand. Something I find common to males of all races. For as we are witnessing, when desire and covetousness combine, even a dragon is not enough to fully pull the male mind out of the cesspool of erotic cravings.”

 

Mathard covered his face with his hand and groaned. “While your words have a bite of truth, Princess, it is you who offered your tent and bed even as we still have a Dragon to deal with.”

 

“I never said I was immune to sensual longings, just pointing out females of all races tend to have better control of them. At least most females remain vigilant regardless of physical longings while there are dire matters such as an angry, wounded, degraded, and desperate deadly foe within striking distance.”

 

Seldnat gave Kandric a playful push. “Me no know half a what da princess say, but me think she be tellin’ ya ta deal with frost-breath before doin’ much more beddin’ talk!” He paused and gave a toothy grin, “Me says ya should make it fast so’s ya can score!”

 

Syrissia cracked a smirk even as Kandric’s eyes went wide and he gave Seldnat a hard shove back.

 

This only got a hearty laugh out of Seldnat. “Me knew it! Ya be int’rested!”

 

Many red-faced Garm and Alphar looked at Seldnat with horror. Syrissia kept her focus on Kandric even as she spoke louder. “While the speech needs vigorous enhancement, Premier, your young knight’s directness is refreshing and extremely accurate.”

 

Syrissia’s words caused all Garm and Alphar to hold their tongues and blink with shock.

 

The tips of Kandric’s ears turned a red almost matching his hair as he twisted so he was no longer looking at Syrissia. “Zel! You done yet?”

 

Zeltoss glanced over while keeping a watchful eye on the Dragon. He held up a mug. “Just getting your teacher’s new toy a couple of good-sized portions of dragon drool. It be too cold and he’s too scared to be this close to its mouth.” Zel scooped up a stream of saliva running out of the corner of the Dragon’s mouth, backed off and handed it to Perth. He made sure he was out of lunging distance before turning his full attention to Kandric, “But Kandric, I’m with Seld! You can’t pass up on an offer like you just got!”

 

Kandric reached down, grabbed a handful of snow, squeezed, and launched it at Zeltoss only to see his friend dodge. The ball of show hit the Dragon’s side even as Zeltoss burst out into laughter.

 

“You guys are awful!” Kandric roared.

 

Off to the side, Lorthorn snickered, “We had a good teacher! However, if our fine princess is too much for you, Premier, I am willing to bet she could find scores of Alphar girls who would jump at the chance to give Lacate a night or fifty off of his nightly duties to you.”

 

At this, Syrissia’s smile grew even wider, “I have no uncertainty to the precision of your epiphany, Sir Lorthorn. However, I am correspondingly as certain I could discover almost as many who would enthusiastically thwart you from gaining ample, if any, rest during times in your own bed.” Seeing Lorthorn go pale, she sent Mathard a wink.

 

Mathard muttered, “Aw, crap. It is taking everything I have to keep a straight face and not join in on this Princess.”

 

“Then let me endeavor to make you either break your stony exterior posture or recruit you fully to this escapade, good Duke.” Syrissia stared straight at Lorthorn, “To be candid, young knight, there are more than a few young apprentice female Alphar and Garm in our camp who would vigorously compete against each other for the opportunity to truthfully claim knowledge of exactly what you have under your winter attire, armor, and loincloth. I would even go so far as to wager… Well I will hold my next words until our immediate problem is dispensed with.”

 

Lorthorn’s head jerked back and forth as if looking for an escape. He finally focused in on Kandric, “Do something!”

 

Mathard looked up and let some snow lance into his face before letting out a long plume of breath, “Sir Lorthorn, if you had been paying attention, Princess Syrissia has been trying to get Premier Kandric to do something since this conversation started. Now it sounds like she is trying her utmost to get you to partake as well. Unfortunately, none of her temptress innuendoes can be accomplished due to the need to wear excess clothing to prevent you and those who would willingly hand over their otherwise cloth-less bodies from being chilled to the bone.”

 

Kandric glared at Mathard with his jaw hanging open.

 

“Good Premier,” Mathard leered, “a cold mouth and tongue in bed is every bit as undesirable as a cold body.”

 

Kandric’s shoulders dropped as he snapped his mouth shut.

 

“Much better, at least for whoever shares you shelter and bedroll, Premier.” Mathard grinned widely. “However, there is still another pressing matter. For once the White Dragon no longer is around to chill us to the core, much of Princess Syrissia’s banter would stand a great chance of becoming fully prophetic… For if you look, there are several young female Alphar, Garm, Elves, and Dwarves, not to mention a few of other races looking for you to do something with them, or to them, while in the confines of your embrace. But like our good princess, all of them would prefer a warm bedroll partner. In fact, I am certain Sir Seldnat could find more than a few Illorcs or even hardier young ladies of other races willing to explore him in a most hands-on fashion. Likewise, Sir Zeltoss, Jamon, and even Pike could easily find several who would spar for the honor of keeping their most intimate body parts warm this blustery early morn.”

 

Kandric slapped his forehead as he turned to walk toward the Dragon again, “Duke Mathard, you are NOT being helpful!”

 

“I think, if you scan those observing this conversation Premier, you will find hundreds of eyes telling you of their eagerness to disprove your observation of me not being supportive to their desires.”

 

Kandric winced and bit back a nasty response. One of many important lessons Glaster had taught him through hundreds of oral sparring matches was to know when he was outclassed. At the moment there was no doubt, Syrissia had him soundly trounced. With the enlistment of Mathard, the only direction the current topic could go was to push him even deeper into the corner he found himself in. Glaster had always stressed when in a spoken altercation of any kind, was once the tide was firmly against him, there was no respectable way to come back. Therefore, the best course of action was to find a way to bow out while admitting as little defeat as possible. Worse, he knew he was not able to hide his discomposure. Furthermore, there was nothing he could say that would take the conversation away from who might want to be in bed with him. Finally, he came to the incontrovertible conclusion, Syrissia was every bit as crude as either Glaster or Vondum. Possibly worse!

 

Kandric took a deep breath, “Fine, I will deal with the whining ball of frost!” He turned his focus on the Dragon while quivering with embarrassment. The fact Syrissia could veil what should have been a very crude subject behind flowery speech made this whole thing even more exasperating. His quandary was, while he wanted to snap at her, he also appreciated her more because of her mixture of elegance and court-worthy vulgarity. Yet if he showed his newfound respect for her, he was certain it would only encourage her. It was a battlefield he was outmatched on, and he knew it. Her wit had so much bite it had caused Duke Mathard to join in. Even more telling was the fact her words reduced Glaster into total silence!

 

Had he seen the exchange of fist bumps between Syrissia and Mathard, along with Vondum and Glaster’s non-verbal response, he would have found his thoughts vindicated.

 

Slightly behind the duke and princess, Glaster and Vondum exchanged wide-eyed blinks. Both started to say something at the same time, and just as quickly shook their heads. They had identical thoughts. Kandric had bitten off more than he could chew and would have to deal with it on his own! For to come to his defense would be akin to stepping on a verbal Viper Bear trap, neither wanted anything to do with.

 

With embarrassment still coursing through him, Kandric focused in on the Dragon. One look was all anyone needed to see it was in a desperate state. Its right eye socket openly hemorrhaged. Blood, tears, and gooey-looking eye juice ran down the side of its face. Dozens of spots oozed blood from under its scales, and blood from the bitten off tongue and missing teeth mixed with saliva. It caused a steady stream of drool to run out of the corners of its mouth. Agonized moans came from its mouth and its breathing was labored. This time, as he moved closer, he cast a protection spell on himself and made sure he was ready for anything the White might attempt. It had little left to lose, so another attempt at killing him was a was a distinct possibility.

 

“Last chance!” Kandric yelled so his voice could be heard over its dreadful noises. “Are you going to tell me where my grandfather took the students from Slome?”

 

The Dragon spit forcefully. Kandric raised his arm. Sharp bits of teeth and a few bloody chunks of gumline bounced off a wind shield.

 

The Dragon’s head hit the ground again hard. It turned its head away from Kandric as if doing everything it could to protect its other eye and spoke. Its words came out badly slurred because of broken teeth and so much of its tongue missing. “Yooooth gettthh notttthh-thhhhhin! Ennnnd thhhhhissssss! Killlth meee!”

 

Kandric’s eyes narrowed. He moved over to the cliff and looked down. His voice hardened, “No.” He rubbed his chin as he gazed down. “At least I will not do so purposefully. But whatever you feel like now will seem like a skinned knee… Um, such a reference to you is probably not a good one… I have no idea what would best correlate. Possibly a chipped or loose scale maybe better.

 

“Regardless, because of the help with Pyrothermal and out of respect to dragons and dragonkin of the greater alliance, I feel I owe you one last chance. Knowing I have something I can only hope is worse than your death planned for you, do you still refuse my demand to be told where the students were taken?”

 

The Dragon tried to tail whip Kandric, but once again the Dwarven Steel chains held. More blood dripped from between tail scales.

 

“Fine.” Kandric growled. “Your stubbornness gives me reason to go after more of your kind until my grandfather is handed over and the students are given back, or I extract enough retribution to make up for what I can only presume is their deaths!”

 

Kandric moved to where the Dragon couldn’t send a frozen ball at him and took in a couple of deep breaths. With closed eyes, Kandric went into deep concentration. He gritted his teeth as he extended his arms outward and stretched his hands out flat.

 

Vondum gulped and muttered, “Oh shit!”

 

“What?” Glaster asked as he tried to focus on the spell Kandric was casting.

 

“Snow blades! He’s gunna cut the trees!”

 

Glaster and Mathard turned to Vondum, “Snow blades?”

 

“Cut the trees?” Syrissia gasped. “It is what is holding the Dragon down!”

 

“Oh, if this is what I think, it has no idea what going down is…” Vondum exhaled. “This better work!”

 

Opposite of Glaster, the Pantherling Wek, shouted a warning. “By the gods! Ice Saws! He is going to cut the trees! Get back! Get back!”

 

As beings all across the forest moved back from the Dragon, and the White’s head jerked around trying to figure out what was going on, Kandric continued to cast. Six huge spinning discs of ice and snow lifted off the forest floor. Kandric trembled and strained to focus on all six as he slowly turned his hands to an angle of about fifteen degrees.

 

The discs moved away from him, angled toward the trees the harpoons had been shot into and moved to the cliff side. They then tilted at the same angle as Kandric’s hands. As Kandric’s fingers rapidly pulled away from each other, he let out a snarl. All six discs sliced into the trees. They fell within moments of once another. All six tumbled with loud crashes and clanking of thick chains. They toppled out of sight down the cliff.

 

The White saw what was happening but didn’t seem to comprehend what this meant until the first chain pulled tight. The pain in its back left leg caused it to screech. Moments later the other chains also pulled taunt. One constricted around the tail with such force it cut it off, the other five dug in and started dragging the Dragon backwards toward the cliff.

 

The rocky structure around the Dragon caught scales. This slowed the Dragon’s movement, but caused scales to pull up, buckle and even fold. It extended its back claws and dug in with everything it had. The weight of the trees was too much. It continued to slide backwards leaving huge claw marks in the snow, ice, and even rock. The edge of the left wing caught on one of the rock spires. This halted the slide for a few seconds, then there was a distinct crack. Bone burst through the wing with a spray of blood. Scales all along the back of the Dragon started to pop off with audible snaps. Dangerous high-velocity discs of all shapes and sizes shot off in random directions. This forced even Warrior Dragons to dive behind cover.

 

The screams of agony cut off all other sounds. The Dragon tried to dig in even deeper with its claws. Several ripped off, leaving hunks of the paws behind. The other wing caught for a moment but quickly broke. With both wings folded back at unnatural angles, they snagged on rocky spikes further back and shredded. Moments later the Dragon was wrenched fully out of the stony encasement. Chunks of blood-splattered white scales rained down out of the snowy sky. The Dragon made one last frantic attempt with its front legs to grab the edge of the cliff. Six of its claws broke off. It disappeared from the view of most with a horrifying tortured shriek.

 

Off to the side, Kandric took a knee and put his wind shield over his head. Dozens of scales and parts of scales bounced off. He watched as the Dragon lost the battle centimeter by agonizing centimeter. As soon as it fell off the cliff he moved to the edge and looked down. He watched with a degree of satisfaction as it tumbled and smashed into rocks the whole way down. It ended up in a heap of shattered trees, rocks, and chains. The fact it moved caused him to nod and snort. He cast a spell. A glowing ball appeared between his hands. He shouted into it. It amplified his voice many times and transferred his voice into the Spirit Realms as well. “The retribution of keeping my students’ location undisclosed is complete! Bet you wish you were dead now! I give you three days. If you still live, then any in this alliance may hunt you as they desire! I am sure there are still parts of you intact enough to provide good trophies and many Mystics would enjoy harvesting more of you!” He paused and shouted even louder, “Frexla, if you are watching, you will release Emroc, Gablon, and my brothers or you will wish the Dragon below was you!”

 

He pulled his blade, expecting Frexla to send something to challenge. Nothing appeared.

 

He glanced to each side as he realized several had run up to look over the edge of the rocky ledge. Most were kids. The majority he knew, at least in passing. He nodded to several from Klorna, Klent, and Glaster’s groups, along with others he had met. His blade flashed is he sheathed it. He moved down the line and patted many on the shoulder and made sure he knew their names. He gave Tayac and Gapon hugs. A couple of others, including Rylan and Chark’ash he thanked for their assistance in destroying Pyrothermal and the helping with the second wave of demons. His eyes continued to scan the cliffside, clearly looking for something. He finally paused as he got close to a pair of Alphar arrow carriers he had not seen before. Both had sky blue eyes and long sandy colored hair. Each had a basic crest and were clearly from the same house as Princess Syrissia. In addition, they had on nicer cloaks, armor and had better gear than most of the Alphar and Garm apprentices, and much like Pike had when he first met him. He guessed this meant they came from noble lineages. He scanned those close again and shrugged. He made his decision.

 

Kandric moved up to the pair and extended his hand toward the boy, “Hi! I am Kandric. Good to meet you.”

 

The boy took the hand and stammered out, “Premier… I um… Bavajom…”

 

Kandric shook the hand before stepping over to an Alphar girl who was slightly older, but a smidge shorter than him. “Kandric, and you are?”

 

“Ad… Adafina Pre… Pre… Premiere!”

 

Kandric stepped between them and put an arm over each of their shoulders, “You both look cold, dirty, and tired. Come, let us get you clean, warmed, and out of this storm. We can eat, talk, and go from there.”

 

“I… um…” the boy gulped as he guessed he had been selected for more than conversation for some reason he couldn’t fathom. He turned to look at one of the serpent bowmen with wide and pleading eyes.

 

Kandric gave a dismissive wave with the hand draped over the slightly smaller and younger boy’s shoulder. “If you have other duties, I am certain another is available to fill in for you.” Kandric focused on the bowman, “Unless who you are assigned wants to tell me why I should not fully enjoy your company.”

 

The tall, sturdy Alphar bowman held up both hands. “Premier, no one… nothing… is going to… Um, I will find replacements. It will not be an issue!”

 

Kandric kept his voice friendly and loud. “There you have it! Easy enough. However, you could refuse my hospitality, Bavajom. I am not demanding you join me. Same for you, Adafina.” At the same time, he moved his hand under the kids’ thick cloaks. A couple of fingers slipped under the collars of the armor and pushed down on pressure points just hard enough to cause discomfort.

 

Adafina instantly spoke up, albeit with a quiver to her voice. “Premier it is above my stature and honor but will respectfully join you!”

 

When the boy did nothing but straighten his back and take in a deep uneasy breath, Kandric’s fingers pushed in a second time, this time harder. Kandric spoke again, “Please find your tongue and speak, Bavajom. I am certain another would eagerly exchange places with you.”

 

Bavajom’s back arched slightly, and he trembled a little.

 

“The cold is getting to you.” Kandric stated as his fingers backed off but still rubbed over the sensitive area. “You are trembling. Do you not want to join me and warm up?” At the same time, he glanced over to Seldnat, raised an eyebrow, frowned, and gave a single head nod in the direction of the boy.

 

The boy gulped, “Yes, my Premier, I would very much like to warm… But I am too far below your stature to…”

 

“No’s ya ain’t!” Seldnat spoke up abruptly while moving forward. “But if’n ya really think so, ya can join me and Pike instead.”

 

Bavajom shook his head wildly at this point, “No… No… I… am beyond honored to selected by our Premier!”

 

Seldnat moved up and whispered, “No me type, and way too scraw’ney even if him be.”

 

“Take one or two you like, and have the others do the same, including Pike.” Kandric whispered. “Do not take no for an answer. Just make sure everyone hears they agree… Just like my new friend here.” His fingers dug into Bavajom’s shoulder again. “Right, Bav?”

 

Bavajom winced but spoke loudly, “Yes, my Premier, I am looking forward to getting to know you!”

 

Syrissia stood well back. She shook her head with a frown. Her voice pierced the wind, “Premier, you are passing over experience when it is abundantly and unresistingly obtainable. Yet, I shall keep the invitation, my tent and bed open to you should you find you need tutelage in sensual yearnings beyond anything you could fathom.”

 

Kandric forced a smile while once again pressing down on the pressure points of both kids’ shoulders to keep them quiet. “Princess, I feel I should rehearse a multitude of times before accepting such an esteemed invite to edification beyond what I can currently comprehend.”

 

Syrissia blinked, shook her head, and quickly regained composure. “I look forward to presenting an understudy such as yourself into comforts of my arms, but also my bed. Until then, Duke Mathard and I will address the requirements of your forces.”

 

“My thanks, Princess Syrissia,” Kandric responded. “If it not be too much trouble, make sure my servant, Lacate, helps clean the field of battle and bunks with the slaves or low servants.”

 

“I shall see to it!” Mathard responded forcefully.

 

As Kandric took the two up toward his shelter, Syrissia glanced over to Vondum and Glaster. “Disappointing. However, my offer to you need not go to waste. Should one of you wish to find a suitable companion, even if it be each other, I am quite certain I can profoundly change your perception of what a real woman can accomplish to make your night and coming morn beyond what any lad alone could conceivably provide. My tent guard will be informed of your right of access should you wish to indulge.”

 

She left both men wide eyed as she moved down to take a look at what was left of the Dragon.

 

Mathard glanced over with a smirk as he followed, “I doubt either of those men have even been so tongue-tied in their lives.”

 

Syrissia’s eyes sparkled. “A tied tongue would be an interesting sensation if applied to the proper locations.”

 

Mathard burst into deep booming laughter. “There is a vision I doubt I will ever get out of my head!” He continued to chuckle as they approached the cliff. “I have more than a gut feeling neither of your arrow carriers have the slightest desire to deal with what our Premier has in store for them.”

 

“I am certain they do not.” Syrissia took in a breath, yet grinned. “Our Premier also has exceptionally good perception, for he purposefully selected noble children from my house who have some of my appearance. There is no chance he randomly selected my nephew and second niece. Judging on non-verbal winces and cringes their spoken agreement to accompany him was nowhere as voluntarily as their voices and words made it seem.” She shrugged. “However, willing or not, they both stand to gain a great deal of prestige over his selection of them.”

 

“True. In addition, while normally frowned upon, it is Premier Kandric’s right to select them as bed partners. He is, after all, the overall commander and they are lowly arrow carriers.” Mathard sighed.

 

“True, but he was devious enough to get verbal agreements from them, albeit with the cringes we witnessed, were anything but voluntary. Additionally, since he verbally gave them an out and they held their tongues, any complaint issued would be instantly dismissed since all within earshot heard the full exchange.” Her grin didn’t fade. “His cleverness makes him even more desirable.”

 

“Princess I…” Mathard shook his head and help up both hands. “Never mind. It would be a waste of words and the last thing I need is for you to try to recruit me further into your desire to bed our Premier… I do feel for the two kids. Nonetheless, you must acknowledge you have some culpability behind their selection.”

 

“Indeed I did.” Syrissia snickered. “Bavajom and Adafina’s displeasure and discomfort can be recompensed when our Premier has either satisfied himself with them or feels he has struck back at me enough to dismiss them. Any compensation I provide to them, along with their families, is worth having witnessed some exasperation and boyish lack of wisdom within our Premier. Yet he did better than I expected. Overall, he dealt with it well and knew when to withdraw from the conversation.”

 

“Certainly, he did.” Mathard couldn’t help but chuckle. “However, he had your tongue for a moment Princess.”

 

“Yes, he most definitely did.” She openly laughed. “I have undoubtedly never so eloquently been called a slut in my existence! I shall have to endeavor to demonstrate just how much truth lies behind his barbed comment… to him!”

 

******

 

Inside Bloody Rock: Spar, Puck, and Aed with captured Gobling (Beiro)

 

The passage twisted again and angled down. Aed took a knee and pointed. “Gots the prints clear. Still headed down. Look like da girl stop here. See handprint. Her daggin’ feet bad too.” The girl pointed to drag marks in footprints further down the passage. “Her stayin’ close to the wall.”

 

“Bet her usin’ it ta lean on.” Puck stated. “Us gots ta be getting’ closer!”

 

Spar pointed further down as a strong glow appeared in the main passage then dimmed as it moved out of a crossing. “Real close.” He whispered as he closed his hand around his glow coin.

 

Aed cupped her own glow coin to block light from easily being seen down the passage. She turned to the Gobling. A dagger was waved in front of its face and a slashing motion followed just in front of its neck. She put a finger up to her lips with her other hand.

 

Gagged and tied to where it couldn’t use its hands, all the Gobling could do was nod in understanding, but if possible, its eyes bulged even further out.

 

The light appeared then faded again. The sound of soft crying followed.

 

Puck crouched. He kept a glow coin out. “Ain’t no way she’ll see no light with what she’s puttin’ out. Let’s jus go grab her.”

 

“Until us see who be goin’ back and forth down there, we can’t be sure it’s her.” Aed countered.

 

Spar glanced over, “Yea, good point. Puck, you are small. If we help you out of your armor, do you think you can sneak down and check.”

 

“Ain’t takin no armor off.” He stated with a frown. “It’s got ta be her. Hear cryin’. Me’s sick a dis place! Let’s jus gets ready to fights in case der be other wit her. Us make her pay fer what the Gov’ner do and make us do! Der still be the boy us gots ta find, too. That’s if’n yer still wantin’ to get the other kid.”

 

“Not just Spar,” Aed snarled lightly. “I want ta kick him where it hurt da most a few time!”

 

“Me too, so us still gotta go all da way back and track him. Let’s jus go beat da girl down and no waste time. I wants out a here!”

 

Aed had to kneel to pat the young Halfling on the shoulder. “Spar’s in charge Puck. Ya gots to do what he say.”

 

Puck let out a sigh, stood and held up his arms so Aed could help him out of the bronze chainmail grumbling about wanting to see Zeris’ light the whole time. He continued to watch the light move back and forth. “If’n it be jus the girl, me’ll take her.”

 

“She’s a spellcaster,” Spar warned.

 

“She spell toss at me, her ‘ll wish her never learn ‘em!” Puck muttered as he stripped down to only a loincloth, then secured his shield and Silver Steel axe. He moved down the passage careful not to bump the cave walls with metal. He disappeared for several seconds. A shout, a flash of bright orange, and a yelp followed.

 

Spar kicked the Gobling behind the knees to make him kneel, as Aed raced down the passage. She stopped suddenly as a scraping sound followed by a bright light which fully illuminated the passage. The scene caused Aed to shake her head. Puck had a brightly glowing dagger clenched in his teeth, his Silver Steel hand axe in his left hand and a booted foot in the other. The foot led to a well-dressed, but dirty girl. Her butt was on Puck’s shield, her head bounced off the uneven cave floor. Her long hair trailed. Even though young and a Halfling, Puck’s Stoutman heritage showed as he dragged her by himself.

 

“Aw, come on, Aed!” he complained loudly as he rounded the corner, “No jus stand der! Dis ain’t be easy!”

 

Aed smiled “Looks like yer doin’ fine ta me!”

 

“Yea, well me’s getting’ first dib of her stuff den!”

 

Spar moved up snickering. He grabbed the girl’s other foot. The scraping of the shield on the stone floor caused a bad echo, forcing Spar to raise his voice. “The Dagger of Light is yours. You want something else?”

 

Puck shrugged. “Gots all sort a stuff. Bet da headband me knock off fetch lots a silver!” He dropped the foot he had been dragging and held up a silver and gem encrusted tiara. “Her be think she princess ‘er somethin’!”

 

Aed eyed it. “Wow!”

 

Puck grinned and tossed it to her, “Ya take. No look good on me!” he pointed at Mora. “Me’ll grab pouches, weapon, and ring…” He turned to Spar. “But her staff look lot like yer armor and blade. Me think be stronger too.” He picked up the girl’s quarterstaff off her chest and tossed it to Spar. “Be too long fer me!”

 

Spar spun the black metal-tipped weapon. “Yea, way nice. But I think you just gave me something else magical…”

 

Puck grinned, “Good! Ya gets to hit somethin’ next time while me watch!”

 

Spar gave a few practice thrusts with the staff and nodded. “Yes, this will let me join in the next fight with more confidence.” He looked down and noted a bloody lump on the girl’s head. In addition, even though it had only been few minutes her left eye was starting to swell. “I hope she’ll live…”

 

Puck shrugged, “Her jus one more ta guard. Me say take her gear and leave her!”

 

Aed moved up and started pulling off everything on her. “If we can wake her up, us can make her carry what we no want to… hey, look at this! Got a couple of black metal daggers like Spar’s armor and blade.”

 

“Be yers.” Puck stated “Me’ll take da small crossbow, quarrel with da bolts, and extra strings. Prob’ly not hit hard but gooder than a sling.” He also pulled a light flail from off her weapon belt. “Silver Steel! This be mine too!”

 

Aed smiled, “Small, like the crossbow. She must not be very strong, but great for you!” She pulled off a nice backpack with lots of new gear and held it up.

 

Puck dropped the one he captured and tried it on. It was big but had adjustable straps. He pulled them tight and wiggled around and jumped a few times. He grinned, “Yea, me’ll sure take dis. Better den the one the Halflin’ had.”

 

Puck dropped the pack and started to go through the gear in both. In one of the large pouches, he found a small book and several loose pages with weird looking writing. He held it up while looking at Spar. “Thinks me gots castin’ book and papers with fancy writin’. Ya want?”

 

Spar eagerly moved over and grabbed a thin book with only two pages. However, his real focus was on the loose pages. He thumbed through them. His eyes widened and he whistled, “Can’t do anything with what she has in her book, but five of these are good… the others are all damaged.” He glanced through them. “They must have killed a Mage, and this was what was left of his book. Bet we could probably sell the damaged pages for something. It’s weird she didn’t put these others into her book, but I’m sure not arguing!”

 

Aed smiled as she saw Spar fidget and look at the pages with longing. “Ain’t gunna do me er Puck no good.”

Puck nodded. “Me sure not know what ta do with ‘em. Might as well takes what ya can use.”

 

Spar took a deep breath and quickly added the five pages to his book. He tucked the damaged pages into a side pouch in his pack. He moved up, knelt, and flipped out a necklace from under Mora’s silk shirt with his blade. An obsidian stone carved into a raven with a fire opal clenched in its beak hung down in the front. “I hate to ask, but I really would like this.”

 

Aed glanced between the tiara and the necklace. “Wow… um… I guess…”

 

“I’m not going to lie to you. It’s magic.”

 

“Ya know what it do?” Puck asked.

 

“Yea. It would let me have more Force to cast with. Gets Force from Zeris every sunrise. I heard Mora brag about it just before we left Slome for this nightmare trip!”

 

Aed sighed, “If it really helps ya throw more spells, me’ll keep the headband.”

 

Puck glance up with a grin, “Me no think Spar look good wit princess head band… unless him in dress!” Seeing Spar turn red, he snickered and pulled off a set of copper bracelets. He tossed them over. Both had an obsidian raven with blue and white striped agate stones clutched in their beaks. “Look lot like the bird on necklace. Me think it be set. Dem look good wit the black armor too!”

 

Spar offered the bracelets to Aed.

 

She shook her head. “Na. Puck’s right. Look like a set with the necklace. But I get the next necklace unless Puck want it.”

 

Puck changed places with Aed as he adjusted all his gear and got Spar’s help to get back into armor.

 

Aed wasted no time. She had the girl down to underclothing before Mora started to stir. She quickly tied her the same as the Gobling before checking the last of her belongings. This included tossing her coin pouches over to Puck, replacing her bronze daggers with the much nicer, harder, and sharper black metal ones, and rolling the girl’s very nice, reinforced leather into a large bundle. She tied it with twine out of her pack so Puck could add it to the top of the pack he was not going to use. Finally, she tossed her battered old boots off to the side and slid Mora’s wool with silk-lined stockings on and tested the fit of the very expensive boots. She stood, moved her feet around, and stomped a few times. “Me needed new boots and gots to find stockings this nice!” With a contented smirk, Aed adjusted everything. Satisfied, she stepped up and kicked Mora in the side, taking extra pleasure in the fact she was doing so with Mora’s own boot. “Wakey-wakey. Ya gots lots a stuff ta carry fer us.”

 

The girl moaned. It took some water splashed on her face to wake her. She blinked then started thrashing. She stopped as the rope around her neck pulled back when she tried to yank her arms down. She gaged and choked a few times. Finally, she stopped struggling as she realized she was securely bound. As she became more cognitive, she jerked again and shouted. “What’s going on? Why am I tied…? Where are my clothes?!” She looked horrified as she realized she was down to her silk undershirt and loincloth. She was even barefoot! She rolled around trying to get loose for several seconds.

 

Breathing hard, her eyes finally focused on her captors. Her eyes darted over the three kids, noting each were wearing and or carrying much of her possessions. “Do you know who I am? Untie me and give me my… Yeow!”

 

Aed moved up, yanked the girl’s hair and punched her in the mouth, “Shut yer mouth demon lover!” Aed showed no remorse. She moved up and stepped on the crying girl’s chest. “Mora, me know what ya did ta me friend Jaya.”

 

Mora blinked and whined, “Who?”

 

This only made Aed angrier. She put more weight on Mora’s chest. “Yer disgustin’. Ya don’t even know who Jaya be, but ya got her in trouble with Slome guard and Teacher Saslara!” Aed kicked Mora in the side again then backed off as she saw Spar start to step up. She spoke with complete contempt in her voice. “Too rich ta care who ya hurt, but it no matter. Yer gunna pay fer what you done and who ya be with! Ya gots two choices. One, ya stand up. We strap on the pack and ya haul everything us don’t want ta carry and does what yer told. Two, me kick the snot out-a ya and ya gets left here jus like ya is!”

 

Mora’s eyes went wide with terror as she shouted, “You cannot leave me like this!”

 

“Who’s going to stop us?” Spar demanded to know while eyeing Aed far more than Mora. “You’re down here tied up. This far down there’s no light. None. Once we leave and take all the light with us, you won’t even be able to see if you put your hand up to your nose, which you can’t... You’ll have to follow a wall. No telling where it will lead. You won’t be able to see drop-offs and pits. With you tied the way you are you can’t even use your hands to cast Autospells. Within a day or so you will start to starve. Your mind will play tricks on you. You will die of thirst, madness, or from falling. Unless, of course, the skeletons you were talking about earlier get you first.” Spar jerked his head and grabbed the heavy extra pack. “Come on. We don’t need her to carry anything. We’ll make her brother do it when we find him.”

 

Seeing all three kids turn to leave, Mora screamed. “NO! NO! I’ll go with you! Please don’t leave me!”

 

Spar spun, moved up, and yanked up on Mora’s arms. She hissed with pain and cried. As the pain built, she was forced to stand. The second she did so, Aed untied her hands while Puck slid the discarded pack over her shoulders. Finally, Aed used a set of shackles out of Spar’s pack to lock Mora’s hands in front of her. The nice thing about the shackles was, they were heavy reinforced leather with adjustable straps for the wrists. It took a knee to Mora’s gut to get her to stop struggling, but once fully shackled, Mora lost the last bit of fight within. Bronze pins locked the straps in place once tightened while bronze loops hooked to the chains between them. Aed made sure they were a little too tight before tapping the bronze pin in place with a small hammer.

 

Aed tied the chains holding the shackles together to a rope around Mora’s neck. It gave her some movement but made it nearly impossible to strike out at anyone. “Ya haul the pack and keep yer mouth shut. Give us grief, we takes the pack and leaves ya!”

 

“I cannot walk in bare feet!”

 

Puck moved to grab Aed’s discarded boots.

 

Aed stopped him. “No, those are too good for her!”

 

Spar let out a long breath, “Aed, there’s some stuff she could step on. I’d hate to lose our pack carrier because she cut her foot and we had to leave her behind.”

 

Aed rolled her eyes, “OK, she can wear them for now.”

 

Mora looked mortified as Puck took a little too long to first run his hands down her legs and look at her feet before pulling on the old boots.

 

Puck glanced up at Spar, “Her feet soft. Her’ll get blisters wit no stockin’s.”

 

“Cry me a waterfall,” Aed snarled as she moved up and yanked on the chains of the shackles.

 

Spar raised his eyebrows at Aed’s tone, but figured he better speak up. “She’ll slow us down if she gets blisters.”

 

“If’n her don’t move fast e’nuff, us ‘ll leave her demon lovin’ butt!” Aed responded.

 

Spar started to say something else, but a tug on his book pouch from Puck stopped him. He glanced down only to see the Halfling shake his head as if in warning. With a frown, Spar patted Puck on the shoulder and made a hand motion of buttoning his lip. This got a nod and chuckle out of Puck.

 

Aed glanced over, “What’s so funny?”

 

“Geesh, Aed,” Puck fired back. “Ya gots Mora, we’s gunna gets her brother, and we’s gots a Gobber who say he know way out. Stuff be lookin’ up so pull the fire lizard out a yer butt!”

 

Aed turned sharply to glare only to find Puck crossing his hands across his chest and staring right back. “Yea, ya hear me right! ‘sted a bein’ bitchy ya oughts ta be laughin’ bout how sour Mora look about wearin’ next ta nothin’ ‘cept shirt, loincloth and yer old boots while ya gots on lots a what her had.”

 

Aed’s frown deepened only to note Spar nodding in full agreement. She let out a breath. “Yea, OK. Yer right, but… If’n ya think me be mean ta Mora, ya ain’t see nothin’. Wait ta see what me do ta Jillian when us track him down.”

 

“He hurt one of your friends too?” Spar asked with a gulp.

 

Puck shook his head. “Worser. Family.”

 

Aed saw Spar’s eyes go wide. With a sigh she motioned for Spar to take the lead. “Gets us back ta spot so us can goes after Jillian, and me’ll tell ya.”

 

Spar took the lead but glanced back clearly wanting to know more.

 

“Ya know how fast and hard we got hit wit the first snow not long after harvest moon?”

 

“Oh yea!” Spar let out a long breath. “Rafil and I were supposed to be back in Slome for the post-harvest feast, but the storm slammed into us as we were making our way back from the mining camp. It started out as pouring rain and nasty sleet then changed to heavy wet snow. Broke lots of trees and washed out our path to the road. We had to hunker down in a cave for three days then had to make our way around to the Argo bridge because the Klom bridge was taken out by a fallen tree. We missed the whole festival!”

 

“Uh huh. Syria made bad weather.” Aed grumbled. “Lots a folk missed the fest cause a Klom bridge bein’ broke. Den Gnolls show up and still no fix last me hear.” Aed shook her head. “Well, Jillian, Jillian’s slave boy Yunlac, me cousin Lozek, him girlfriend Konna, and five other rich brats think it be a good idea ta poke down inta Slome sewers on night a the storm. Jillian told them ‘bout dis old part with doors, some locked.

 

“Not know all a what happen, but me one visit ta the jail ta see Lozek, him say Jillian took them to where old stonework in da sewer wall had holes, like der used ta be ladder rung er somethin’. Them climb up. It open ta old passage with ten old green bronze door. Most stuck. A couple them pry open. Both go ta room with nothin’ but rot wood. Say look like beds and junk. Them try ta open a few more door but be lock or stuck too good. Them get one at end a hall after while. It open into round room with circle stone stair goin’ down. Lozek say it go deep. Them keep going not knowin’ it start stormin’. Say them found passage with many room. Bronze doors, many ripped off wall. Lots of bones, skulls. Many smashed. Three of the rich brats get scared and go back. All the other poke ‘round. Them find another door. Lozek think it be Blue Steel, but no heard a Blue Steel door… Anyways, the door not open. Them spend long time tryin. Give up. Go back. Them found the sewers runnin’ hard.

 

“Lozek swear him and Konna tell the other ta wait it out. Them be safe above water. But one a da other brats see rats tryin’ to climb up wall. Go all stupid. Kicks at some. Fall off ledge. Him grab Yunlac. Both fall in. Jillian start screaming about da slave. Use him pa bein’ town council tell everyone to get Yunlac. Them save slave. Lose rich boy. Guards see them come out a sewers. Grab them. Find out kid missin’.

 

“Jillian say Lozek and Konna rescue da slave Yunlac, let other kid be wash away. The other rich kid try say it be what Jillian order, but do no good. When went to gov’nor, other three who left early and no see nothing take Jillian’s side. Say them be there. See slave get save, not merchant. Boy who try to tell what really happen dis’per, no show. No one see him since none neither.”

 

Aed took long breath. “Lozek and Konna each get four moon in jail and toss out of Slome. Both family lose much ta pay family a drown kid. Them forced to leave Slome. Hear them went down ta Silverton. Last me hear, Lozek and Konna get out. Get nothin’ not even gear them arrest with. Guard toss ‘em out a front gate a Slome after them get out. Me hear them tryin’ ta live in Swamp Slums, but no could check cause a the Gnolls and stuff.”

 

Spar let out an angry breath. “I heard a lot about it. It was all the talk when we got back. Rafil and I were good friends with Ryazolm, the kid who drowned. Well, I was a really good friend. Raf and Ryaz got along good but weren’t as close as I would have liked… Raf’s too serious sometimes, and Ryaz wasn’t… ever. He taught me to always look for the good and not stay mean or mad too long no matter what happens.”

 

Aed sighed, “Don’t know how ya do it, Spar. But yer mood be best thing, da only good thing, ‘bout bein’ lost down here!”

 

“If you see Ryazolm in the afterlife, thank him. He helped me through a real bad spot last summer. Made me see the good surrounding the bad. Without him, I’d… Pretty sure I would have done some real bad things.” Spar let out a sad sigh. “Ryazolm was the best friend anyone could ever have. I cried more when I found out he was dead than I did when my sister and aunt got captured by monsters and their caravan was all but wiped out. I may have even cried more than when some of the bad stuff happened to me last summer.

 

“Ryaz’s family, especially Pynom, Ryazolm’s older brother, blamed Jillian, not the kids thrown in jail. Pynom told me and Raf in private, the money the family got for Ryazolm’s death was only if they kept their mouths shut and left the area. Pynom went up to Lenz, took his Primary Echelon Swordsman test early, passed and demanded his cut of the payoff. Him and three of his guilded buddies went to Black Cedar Gulch, where the Slome Sewers flow into Raven Sands River to look for Ryazolm’s body. Pynom flatly didn’t believe any of what he had been told. Haven’t seen him since he left. Probably had to seek shelter in Black Cedar for the winter.”

 

Spar rubbed his chin and frowned deeply. “After hearing what you know, Ryazolm’s death makes even less sense. I knew him well. Going down in the sewers to explore, even with Jillian, I get. That is him. If we had been there, Raf and I would have been down there too! But there’s no way he would have been scared by a few rats. He was an Animal Adept who used to get girls to run out of the governor’s school bath house by playing with rats and getting them to go in.” A slight smile crossed his lips as he looked over. “There was one time he got a couple of rats to go into Kesha’s clothing. It frightened her enough to run out naked!” He let out a snort. “First time I ever saw a girl running with boobs out. They bounced all over the place!”

 

Aed slapped her forehead while Puck snickered.

 

Spar shook his head sadly, “He was great… But the rest doesn’t make sense either. First, if he did fall, he wouldn’t have tried to grab anyone, even in desperation. It just wasn’t him. Once, when me and him were climbing trees, the branch we were on cracked while we were way out on it trying to grab the next branch up. He told me to stay while he jumped and broke his leg instead of having both of us fall. THAT is just who Ryaz was! He was also a super swimmer. He used to jump into Macaw Creek when it ran hard and do the rapids on his back. First time I saw him do it, I think we were seven, maybe eight. It’s one of the reasons Pynom didn’t believe the drowning story.”

 

Spar clenched his fists, “And I’m telling you, there’s no way Ryazolm would have grabbed Yunlac. The kid creeped him out.”

 

“Why’d he be scared ‘bout a slave?” Aed asked.

 

“Not scared.” Spar shook his head vehemently. “Never saw Ryazolm scared of nothing!” He took a deep breath. “No, he just… Look, let me try and explain… Last summer Raf and I went with Pynom and Ryazolm up to Lenz to spend the day watching and betting on arena matches. I don’t know if you have even been up there…”

 

Aed shook her head. “Three day by foot ta go to village fer what? All it known for be tree sap, wild berries, er Liontooth spear fishin’ durin’ the late spring Liontooth fish run ta upriver. Us ain’t rich ‘nuff to go so far ta buy nothin’. Plus, us can sometime get inta the arena fer no coin and gets fed in Slome if’n us helps clean up after last match. See some good fights. Teacher Saslara ain’t a fan. But she no stop us from goin’ when call go out them need help cleanin’. Her even say watchin’ fights be good way ta first see battle. Puck goes all da time.”

 

“Me think cleanin’s yucky,” Puck joined in. “Takin’ bucket ta wash puke off da seats er blood off pit walls be nasty. Shovelin’ da blood off bottom a the pit be badder. Cleanin’ the animal area er fillin’ in the holes wit new dirt, now, yeah, fer no coin entry and a free meal, me do it lots!”

 

Aed snickered, “Once they found Puck, here, be willin’ to haul in dirt to fill holes, him get asked all da time. He’s small ‘nuff to go out through the animal entry. Him can easy take out animal waste and bring in dirt with small cart. Him be so regular, many time come back with tin or even copper. But, us be jumpin’ down wrong path. What ya gunna say about goin’ ta Lenz?”

“Well, the Lenz arena is different than most. They don’t normally do killing matches unless they are pitting criminals against one another. Normally they just do sporting and grudge matches with a pit master who steps in and stops fights once someone is firmly beat. It almost never results in death. In fact, if someone dies, a fee is demanded of the winner. If someone obviously kills on purpose during a grudge match, the winner finds his next match in the pit with a hardened criminal or captured wild animal. So Raf and I like to go up there. We even jumped in a few times to take on other kids our age for some good practice and coin. Volunteers can get a silver, two for a win, and up to five if the crowd likes us. They provide basic Healthman costs if we fight hard, win or lose, too.”

 

Puck and Aed exchanged glances and nods. Aed spoke for both, “Next time us ‘ll go with and jump in fer a silver!”

 

“You’ll feel it the next day, but sure. Be happy to go up there with you both. Anyway, when we went up last summer… Right after…” Spar took on an unusual sour look. “Right after the Mage training camp got over…” He quickly lost much of the sudden somberness as he returned his focus to the arena. “Not worth talking about. But the arena was super busy. When we went up to find out what was going on, we found out there happened to be a big event! Turned out six caravans with real Gladiator slaves were there for a big three-day competition to see which gladiator owner had the best. All of them also brought younger ones who were gladiators in training. The pit in Lenz is a good place to send such young valuable slaves, since chances of death are very slim, and they can still get good practice. After all, it’s what they will be doing the rest of their lives. It also guaranteed three full days of getting to watch dawn to dusk fights, so we got rooms and stayed to watch all of it. The kids got the days started and the adults fought later in the day, so the skill levels increased throughout the day. This also meant the price was bumped up to fifteen copper a day or four silver for all three days of the games. We eagerly paid sixteen silver each to get real good seats for all three days.”

 

Spar paused as he saw both kids give him a glare. “Hey, it was coin Raf and I earned. We found a small opening in a cave we were mining for copper. In the tiny offshoot we discovered a small crease in the rocks full of good quality rose quartz. Since it was a tight fit and overall a small discovery, Morge let us mine it ourselves in the evenings while we worked the main vein of copper during the day. Since we did all the mining, we got half the selling cut even though we are apprenticed. Took four weeks of hard work. Ten sandglass turns a day in the main mine and four in the small crystal cave, but by the time we got to Lenz we both still had over a hundred silver each.”

 

Aed gasped and Puck made choking sounds. When both kids recovered, Aed managed to stammer out, “Um, your boss need another hand? I’ll work till me bleed fer a chance a getting’ half what ya did fer three time more weeks of work!”

 

Spar noted Puck nod even as the Halfling knelt and pointed to show a footprint. He gestured down a side passage. “We aren’t back to where…”

 

Aed moved up and looked over the print, “No, but Jillian came this way, going away from where we first fought him. He’s alone and runnin’…” Seeing Puck point to a few drops she nodded. “And bleedin’. Keep talking while we track! But ya gots to get us with yer boss! I want a chance at makin’ real coin!”

 

“Um, sure… So… well we were in Lenz with real good seats. Late into the morning Councilman Parad showed up with all four of his kids. Wovall, Jillian, Mora here, and Boryill. They took seats right in front. A few minutes later Mora’s slave, Lar'Lilly, entered the pit on one side while a boy slightly bigger and older entered the far side. I could see right off the boy didn’t take the girl serious. It was a mistake he paid for with blood. He got worked over like a bunny cornered by a wolf. They had to pull Lar'Lilly of the kid.

 

“Next up was Yunlac. The boy who came out the far side had seen what happened to the fledgling gladiator before. Since both Lar'Lilly and Yunlac wear the same weird metal wristbands, the kid knew he was facing someone from the same house. The fight was a good one. Yunlac took several shots which would have dropped most kids his age and size, but in doing so he totally wore the bigger kid out. When it was done Yunlac left a kid a couple of centimeters bigger and easily five kilos heavier a bloody mess in the bottom of the pit. They couldn’t even wake the kid, so they stretchered him out.

 

“Taligan, younger brother of Boccad, the guy who made Raf and me fight, went next. Same basic results. We talked and even joked about how embarrassed the caravan master of the three gladiators in training must have been as we paid for food and juice to be brought to us. We watched a good fifteen more fights, only to see Mora’s slave come out again! She was still battered from the first fight and this time she had an even bigger opponent. It didn’t matter. The result was the same.

 

“Yunlac was next. We were amazed to see he took pretty much the same tactic of getting pummeled, but once again the other kid wore down. The other kid paid for his lack of stamina. It was the second kid Yunlac caused to get stretchered out… in the same day.

 

“Day two, the same basic thing. But this time Lar’Lilly got beat on the second match. Yunlac didn’t. The second to the last kid fight of the day turned out to be Yunlac. He actually came out a third time… He fought three matches and each time he destroyed the older and bigger kids he faced. Taligan also came out a third time. This time the fight was with wooden sparring weapons. Taligan barely won but suffered a broken arm. How he won with a broken arm was amazing to watch though.

 

“The third day it was clear the caravan masters weren’t keen on the idea of having their property so badly battered. Lar’Lilly didn’t make it through the first fight. She put up a great struggle, but her opponent was flatly better. Pretty sure Councilman Parad had to pay for a serious healing on the girl. Yunlac, however, came out for a wood weapon match. He took a horrible beating, absolutely brutal. He had to have broken ribs, his nose and lips were bloody messes, and he had at least three broken fingers. But in the end he took down, then stomped a kid who had to be close to the age of ascension into a puddle of blood, piss, and vomit. The pit master pulled him off. Before he left the pit, Yunlac limped back over to the kid who was on a stretcher, wiped his fingers on blood dripping out of the kid’s mouth and licked them clean. He then spit on the kid and was pulled back and smacked with a whip for his behavior. The strike ripped his already bloody tattered shirt over his shoulder and left him with a bloody stripe over his shoulder and upper back.

 

“However, it doesn’t end there. As he walked out, he took the gate right below where we were sitting. He turned and raised both fists up in victory. As he did so, we could all see his back.”

 

“His back?” Puck frowned.

 

“It had scars, many of them bites like we’d leave, human-like. They were all over it, many partially hidden from weapon and whip scars, but they were still noticeable as bites. A couple looked like fresh bite marks. Really fresh.”

 

Aed shrugged. “So he got bit in the arena.”

 

“No,” Spar shook his head. “Remember, I was there; so was Raf, Pynom, and Ryazolm. We watched him fight six matches in three days. He never got bit. I mean it’s possible he got bit on the arm or even leg in the middle of one of the fights, but one of us should have seen it. We didn’t. But, sure, they were brutal enough. But none of us saw it, and he certainly didn’t get bit on his shoulder or back.”

 

Puck knelt again as they came to an offshoot. “So bite be from other pit fights.”

 

“Some, maybe, but a couple were way too fresh… and I’ve been to lots of arena matches. Biting is not normal, even in the pits, unless it is a death match. Those are the ones where anything goes, and oftentimes there is biting, eye gouging, and even worse. But biting in non-death matches is rare, and I’m telling you, Yunlac had been bit a lot! The other weird thing is, he got pulled back into the pit exit by whoever was his escort real quick, which is not normal since the crowd was still cheering his victory.

 

“After we got back to Slome, Ryazolm and I found Yunlac alone, which is real rare. We caught him pulling water from a well. He was still badly bruised and had a light limp. When we asked him how he was doing after the fights in Lenz, all he did was grin. I think he thought we were trying to praise him, so he went on to talk about how wild the crowd got when he got hit yet continued to fight. He also seemed super happy when bragging about what he did to those he faced. He even joked about the fact none of those he fought were able to leave the pit under their own power.

 

“We tried to talk to Yunlac about the bite marks. He snorted and showed us a long thin scar across the palm of his hand. It went down under his slave bracelet to almost his elbow. He then pointed at his slave bands on his wrists. He quickly changed subjects. He said we didn’t cheer enough for him, so he’d try to do better next time we saw him in a fighting pit. He wanted to know what we would like to see him do to kids once he had them beat but before they were down. He made it sound like he’d do anything if it got him more or louder cheers, even if he had to face a whip again. Yunlac even asked if licking the last kid’s blood was good for the show. If it was, he could lick more or even do so during the fight next time.”

 

Puck noted some blood drips in the smaller side passage and moved into it. “Good way ta make show a power. Not know if it make me cheer er not. Sound nasty. But not get it, what be wit da arm scar?”

 

“I have no clue,” Spar admitted. “It was like he was trying to show us something. Maybe he was making the point he had been hurt worse or something. One thing we were certain of, Yunlac was super into pit fighting and loved to hurt those he faced so he could get the crowd roaring. The whole thing left us wanting nothing to do with Yunlac. Both Ryazolm and I thought he must be insane. So, the story from the sewers doesn’t make sense. Ryazolm would have never trusted Yunlac even if offered a hand. No way.”

 

At the same time Aed stepped back to Mora and yanked on her arm. Mora tried to fight only to get a fist in her gut. As she went down to her knees, Aed pulled the arm out as far as the restraints allowed. “Hey, Spar, I saw this when I was gettin’ her gear. Look here!”

 

Spar took a few steps back and gazed at the extended arm. A long thin scar went from the girl’s hand all the way down the arm. “Almost the exact same! This can’t be by accident!” He took a step back, “How’d you get the same scar as Yunlac?”

 

Mora tried to jerk her arm out of Aed’s grasp. The attempt failed and got her another fist in the stomach. Even as she curled up as much as possible and cried, she shook her head and said nothing.

 

Puck tossed up his arms, “Yer slowin’ us down Aed! Us ‘ll make her talk after Jillian be in chain like Mora!”

 

Aed pulled on Mora’s hair until the girl stood. She shoved Mora down the smaller passage hard. “Get movin!”

 

Aed moved up to help Puck check another intersection, but her comments were still directed to Mora. “Ya tell us ‘bout yer scar easy er hard, but ya gunna tell us.”

 

Mora managed to get her breath back as she watched Aed and Puck both point down an even smaller passage and nod. “When my father finds out what you did to me, he’ll make you drink potions that will make you wish you were dead!”

 

Spar moved up behind her. He lightly poked her in the butt with a dagger. As she yelped, and jumped forward, he pulled on the rope around the Gobling’s neck to prevent it from running and spoke. “Mora, hearing you is enough to make me wish I was dead, so shut up and keep walking before I gag you!”

 

Even the Gobling nodded which made Spar snicker.

 

A dozen turns later, Puck bolted forward and took a knee. He grabbed a long piece of cloth and held it up while he looked around, “Him found er got found by four, maybe five more. Not long ago, blood rag’s sticky.”

 

Aed pulled her short sword, moved up, and looked at the prints, “Two booted, one soft shoed, and one barefoot.” She pointed to two sets of boot prints. “Made same, same size, but this set be someone walkin’ on outside a foot. So, yea, me think five. Barefoot look like Dwarf-size foot. Soft one be rounded. Me thinkin’ Gnoll. Last two…”

 

Puck spoke up as Aed frowned. “Dis one be real nice hard bottom boot, no real big. Prob’ly Human er Elf. One ‘bout same size a Spar. Other two bigger, but no too much. Both be light. No leave heavy print. But wide. Maybe Halfdwarf? The four-point star heel be Jillian. Mora boot make same mark.”

 

Spar knelt. He motioned for the Gobling, and Mora to do the same. “OK, so if he’s with them it’s six on three. If he isn’t… Pretty much still six on three since we are after Jillian, and he’ll see we have his sister as a captive. Do we follow?”

 

“Ain’t gunna take ‘em off guard. Them ‘ll see us before us can gets to them.” Puck stated.

 

“What if we switch back to glow coins?” Spar asked. “We’ll see their light before they see ours.”

 

“Only if’n them keep the dagger lit like us do now.” Aed countered.

 

Before more could be said Mora started shouting, “Jillian! Jillian we’re where the bloody bandage is! Help! He…”

 

Her shouts were cut off by Spar. He did a combat thrust with his staff into her stomach. As she doubled over, he brought the staff down over the back of her head she tumbled to the ground bleeding from the back of her head.

 

A fairly close deep voice echoed through the caverns, “Wait there! We’re coming.”

 

Aed looked around wildly, while Puck stood, pulled his hand axe, and gulped, “What we do Spar?”

 

Spar took a deep breath, looked around, and said a quick prayer, “Salem, if there was ever a time to repay me for all the coin I have dropped off in your shrines, now would be the moment!”

 

He took a few more deep breaths, then spoke softly, “Aed, drag Mora back to where we saw the cave-in. It’s two turns to the left then straight past two turns. It will be on your right. Put her behind one of the big rocks with a glow coin so they can find her. Make sure she leaves a trail of blood. Gag her so tight she can’t even squeal. Then go to the narrow passage going down. It’s on the other side. Get in there and get ready to cover up all light. Puck, I need you to take the Gob and put him in the passage going down. Once Aed gets there to guard him, move to the turn just before the passage down. Fire the child’s crossbow you took off Mora as soon as you see one of them. Then this is super important. You have to lightly toss your glow coin into the room with the cave-in before you dart into the passage going down. As soon as you are both in the passage going down hide all light then head down deeper by feel until it turns to the left. It will keep your body heat hidden in case they have someone with infravision.”

 

“What ya gunna do?”

 

Spar took a long breath, “Say another prayer and hope I can cast the first real spells of my life! If this doesn’t work, I’ll get them to go after me. You make the Gob show you how to get out. If he does so, let him go.”

 

Aed’s eyes went wide. “What ‘bout you?”

 

“Those from my school got you into this, so if my plan doesn’t work, at least you’ll know someone from the same school repaid the debt owed you. Now go!”

 

Spar pulled his spellbook and moved into a small chamber littered with large rocks from a recent cave-in. There was a little air movement from between the boulders along the left wall. This told him there was a passage beyond. It also meant it wasn’t a dead-end so he could stay in the room for quite some time and if worse came to worse he could try to squeeze through the very narrow gaps in the rocks in an attempt to escape. He figured this was a very real possibility, since he was putting all his other options into doing something he had never done before.

 

He nodded to Aed as she dragged Mora into the chamber, stuck her behind the biggest boulder and put a glow coin next to her. As Aed gave him a teary-eyed smile and nod, he put his spellbook on a rock and dropped his glow coin on the page he selected so he could read it. He studied the incantations of the page and practiced the listed hand motions for probably the hundredth time. As he replayed the needed casting instructions, he listened to approaching footsteps and voices. The one with the deep voice suddenly spoke loudly, “Mora! Where ya at? We is in the room with the bandage!”

 

A softer high-pitched voice of a male who was just starting to lose his higher-pitched voice spoke up, “Brimgut, I’ve got blood over here. It’s real fresh.”

 

The deep voice shouted, “It goes this way! Get weapons ready! Mora, we is comin’! Whoever’s got Mora best let her go if ya want to keep breathin’!”

 

A voice that sounded like a combination of a bark and Northman spoke up, “Give the girl, we lets ya go! If not… we still get girl and ya wish ya die!”

 

More threats and shouts for Mora followed even as the voices got closer.

 

Spar gripped his spellbook with both hands and spoke softly, “Come on Salam, let me do it right this time!” With those words he followed the spell page in front of him. As he finished the last twist of his wrist, he felt more Force leave him than he had ever used before. He let out a gasp, “Oh, Salam if I live through this, I’ll give the first shrine I see a huge offering. Just let me cast this second one…”

 

He flipped the page and started the spell even as a ‘twang’ followed by a shout of pain from what had to be the kid. “My arm! My arm!”

 

“Deor’lash, get back!” the deep voice shouted. Followed by, “Yer book pouch be makin’ you a target!” This was followed by, “Whoever shot our spell thrower best be runnin’!” Another ‘twang’, a second shout from the younger sounding voice followed. “Yeee-ow! My leg! My leg!”

 

“How’s ya gunna get me when one a ya gots to limp!” Puck shouted back.

 

“I’ve splattered bugs with my bare feet bigger then ya be, boy!” the deep voice boomed. “Aw, damn. It’s in the bone. It’ll have to stay there till we get a Healthman. Deor’lash, get behind us before the little brat finishes you off! Yer one step the wrong direction from being useless, but we may need your spell throwin’!”

 

Spar closed his book with his elbows, which also cut the light from his glow coin since it was between the pages. He had to keep his anger in check and focus. Deor’lash… He knew the name. It was one he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear again. He also doubted there could be another spellcaster with a young sounding voice with the same name. He could feel the spell pushing out. His mixture of fond and horrible memories surrounding Deor’lash created confusion. It made it harder to contain the spell. Sweat beads formed on his forehead as he held it back. All he needed was to say the last word. He ducked down behind a large rock to hide his body while he focused his mind on the final word he needed to speak.

 

“Useless?” Aed chimed in from somewhere further away. “Bet ya ain’t gots any better braggin’ point ta say about any a ya all!”

 

There was a roar from the deep voice, “Oh, you must be a couple of the escaped students! You are going to pay for your words and actions little ones!”

 

“Ya ain’t gunna catch us none!” Puck shouted. Moments later a glow coin came bouncing into the boulder strewn chamber.

 

By this time Spar's arms were trembling with the effort to hold onto the spell he had at the tip of his tongue. He gritted his teeth as he felt the spell wanting to erupt out of his extended fingertips.

 

The barking voice shouted next, “See light! It move fast to offshoot!”

 

The deep voice spoke again, “We’ll get him! Jillian, help Deor’lash and follow. We paid his caravan lots for him and the other three young’uns for their spell throwin’. It be about time one a them make all those silver coins back! Just make sure to stay behind us.”

 

There was a cry of pain. The deep voice snarled, “Deor’lash, you’ll have to tough it out. Once we get the brats, we’ll take you back to the glowin’ staff with the others. One of them captured Healthman kids should be able to get those kiddy bolts out of ya! Jillian let him lean on you!”

 

Spar stayed behind the rock; hands extended. He peeked up as sounds of heavy breathing entered the rubble strewn chamber. Suddenly a very large Gnoll stepped into the entry. It had a massive hammer held menacingly in front of it. It moved toward the glow coin on the floor, then turned as it spotted Mora. It angled over to the girl. As it picked Mora up, a burly Dwarf with pasty gray skin and scraggly copper-colored hair and beard moved in. It held a war hammer in one hand and a shield in the other, although Morg, it had a look of intellect in its angry green eyes. It saw the girl and moved up to the coin on the floor. “So ya got smart and ran after all! But you hurt Mora and shot Deor, so we are gunna have to make ya pay!”

 

An Orc female with nice green scale armor, and a fancy cloak followed. Next to her was a female Halfdwarf.

 

The Halfdwarf scanned the area. Her left hand held a battleaxe. The headband had a soft brass-colored light emanating from it. She put her right arm out in front of the Orc as if she was a bodyguard or protector.

 

A moment later Jillian entered the small chamber. An older teen was leaning heavily on his shoulder. The teen had a bolt sticking out of his right arm, and another protruded from the side of his upper left leg. He was in obvious pain.

 

Another figure stood just out of the cave chamber. It was small but didn’t enter. Instead, it turned its back to the others and took a guarding position.

 

Spar carefully raised his head from behind the boulder to make sure all except the rear guard were inside the room then jumped up. The moment he spotted Deor’lash’s wide eyes, resentment washed over him. He spoke the last word of the spell with both relief and anger. All six in the chamber turned toward him. The Gnoll dropped Mora, pulled up its maul and took a step forward.

 

The Morg adjusted his grip on his hammer and turned toward him.

 

A Halfdwarf woman raised her lightly glowing battleaxe.

 

The Orc wearing Green Dragon scale armor, with two monkeys on her back pointed with a greyish metal gladius. Both dropped their tails down to her weapon belt and pulled daggers. They leapt with daggers menacingly pointed forward.

 

Jillian pulled up a loaded crossbow.

 

The teen leaning on Jillian yanked out a throwing dagger from a vest over his leather armor.

 

An instant later, waves of sticky threads blasted out of Spar’s fingertips.

 

Closest to Spar, the Gnoll’s eyes went wide. It didn’t even get a chance to react before the sticky mass overwashed it. It made gagging noise as its mouth filled with adhesive fibers.

 

Off to the Gnoll’s side, the Morg reacted a bit better. It jerked its shield up in front of its face and braced with his left foot forward. However, within moments, its forward movement was all but stopped as the threads stuck to the Morg, its gear, weapons, armor, ceiling, floor, and walls. It made snarling sounds as it struggled to advance.

 

The Halfdwarf swung as the webs came toward her. The blade cut through some but stopped in mid-swing.

 

Both monkeys screeched as they became suspended over a meter up with webs fully enveloping them.

 

An “OH SHIT” erupted out of the Orc woman’s mouth. She turned her head and shouted. “Deor’lash! Cancel this spell or we’re all dead!”

 

At the same instant, the teen being held up by Jillian shouted, “Web Spell!” dropped the dagger and reached for something on his belt. But fell with a yelp as Jillian dropped his crossbow and tried to dive out of the chamber. The teen fell on his back. Moments later he was stuck to the cave floor face up. Webs covered his mouth and eyes. Breathing became difficult and his eyelids got stuck shut.

 

Jillian got enveloped mid-dive. He ended up suspended in thousands of thin, strong, very gooey fibers. He hung just off the ground as his dive was suddenly halted.

 

Just beyond the curved entry into the chamber, a young-sounding voice shouted, “Oh crap! Webs!” The webs obscured the view, but the light the figure was carrying quickly moved away.

 

Jillian shouted, “Sylic, help me! Sylic!”

 

This was followed by a shout, the sound of metal hitting the ground hard, and a pain filled, “Owww!” This was quickly cut off by an, “Ufff” sound.

 

Casting two Primary Echelon spells in such a short period of time took a serious toll on Spar, but he forced himself to take a couple of deep breaths. Anger coursing through him also helped him ignore much of the exhaustion. The effects of the first spell became apparent as he moved through the mass of webs without any problems. The Spider Walk spell allowed him to slide in, around, up, down, on, and between the sticky threads.

 

The Gnoll pulled on the gummy mess with all it had. Spar could see many of the fibers were breaking and others were stretching. It wouldn’t be long before it got out. He moved up, smirked, and slammed his dagger into the creatures bulging neck muscles. Blood sprayed as the Gnoll jerked and trembled.

 

Next up was the Morg. It also showed impressive strength. The problem was its shield was strapped to its arm. The metal disc had a large surface area and had been put up to take the initial wave of the webs. It wasn’t going anywhere. Because of this, the Morg was doing its utmost to rip through the webs with its other hand to get to the shield strap. This meant it had to slowly turn which caused its chainmail shirt to pull up on its right side.

 

The Morg gritted his teeth as he saw Spar effortlessly slide up next to him with a dagger in his hand. “No! No! I’ll haunt ya! I swear I will. Ya little shit! NO!”

 

“Then haunt me!” Spar fired back as he plunged his dagger into the Morg’s kidney over a dozen of times as fast as he could slam it in and pull it out again. The Morg howled and cursed until it blacked out. Blood gushed down its leg from its pulverized side.

 

Spar continued to slip through the webs. He gutted both monkeys even as the Orc screamed, “Jax! Wok! My monkey kids! I swear I’ll rip your nuts off with my bare hands if you hurt my pets! Jax! Wok! I love you!”

 

Spar moved up to the Orc. The heavy green scales gave her good protection, so he shoved his dagger up under her chin and pulled down toward her chest.

 

The Halfdwarf saw the vicious attack. She struggled with everything she had. Many strands of webbing broke. But it simply was too little too late.

 

Spar backhanded his dagger into her right eye, twisted, and left it there as the Halfdwarf screamed. He pulled a dagger off her boot while she spasmed. The webs held her up well after she took her last breath.

 

A glance over to Jillian told him the kid didn’t have the strength to break free. The kid barely moved even though he was struggling to the point he had thrown up. In fact, his struggles were so intense his muscles were visibly cramping up. Jillian continued to call out muffled howls. “Sylic! Get back here! Sylic!” There was no response.

 

Jillian’s plight caused Spar to smirk and nod in satisfaction. Furthermore, Spar guessed he still had a few minutes before the webbing lost the magic behind it. As soon as the magic faded, the tough strands would lose strength and stickiness, leaving the whole chamber full of easy to push through cobwebs. “Jillian, you and I are going to have a talk, but there is someone who deserves first dibs, so I’ll leave you to her. Don’t go anywhere.”

 

Jillian spit and gagged. His voice continued to be muffled because of webbing in his mouth, but managed to get out, “Who are you?”

 

“A living nightmare, one I hope you see in your dreams for the rest of your existence. However, feel free to worry about who I am for a bit more. In the mean time…” He moved up and pulled a Dagger of Light, hip sword, gladius, daggers, and crossbow bolts off the helpless boy without allowing him to see who was doing so. Jillian jerked several times. The whole time he shouted a host of fear-laden cries. “What are you doing?... Those are mine!... Get your hands off!... Barend, stop him!... Someone help!... He’s stealing my stuff!” Jillian thrashed madly as the gladius was pulled out of its sheath and put down well away from him. “Stop! I need that! It’s mine! I NEED THAT! Take everything else, take it all, but not my Orakin Blade!”

 

“Oh, don’t worry, Jillian. We’ll take more. But I can’t have you armed when my webs start to fade.” Spar pulled the crossbow bolt out of the loaded crossbow and poked Jillian in the butt just enough to puncture the leather armor and get a yelp. “Now shut up or the next time I’ll push a whole lot harder.”

 

“You have to give me the Orakin blade back!” Jillian begged. All this got was the bolt pushed into his other butt cheek a little harder. This time it left a noticeable hole in the boy’s leather armor and a trickle of blood leaked out from around the gap. He squealed loudly.

 

“When I said shut up, I meant shut up!” Spar snapped. “If I have anything to say about it, you’ll never see the stupid blade again! Now, one more word and someone will have to pull this bolt out of your pampered ass!” He smacked the flat of the gladius down over Julian’s butt a few times for good measure.

 

As Jillian broke down and sobbed, Spar took a few steps to the side. He stared down at a wounded dark-skinned teen who was face up with webbing covering him. The young man was stuck to the cave floor in what looked a lot like a cocoon. However, he was desperately trying to free his hands enough to cast. Spar knelt and pulled at the webs covering the young Mage’s eyes, “Deor’lash, look close. Remember me?”

 

The teen managed to pull his eyelids open. He stared and blinked then shook his head as best he could, which wasn’t much. He managed to get out an “Uh huh”, through a closed mouth, covered and stuck shut with webbing. At the same time, he desperately tried to pull his right arm up. The bolt sticking out caught in the webbing which caused it to move around. The kid gasped. With no chance he could move his arm, he started to pull and roll the sticky fibers around his hands with his fingers. With fingers free enough to move some, he started mumbling while twirling his pinky and index fingers on both hands in opposite directions.

 

“No you don’t!” Spar stated coldly. He grabbed the teen’s left hand. He took the pinky finger in one hand and the index finger in the other. He pulled them both to the side as hard as he could. There were two audible snaps followed by a muffled cry of anguish. “Trying to cast a spell with me right on top of you? Are you stupid? Do you really think I’d do nothing while you try to do something to hurt me or destroy my webs? Can you give me a reason I should ever let you cast something around me ever again? You can’t seriously believe I’d forget what you did to me!”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Huh? Huh!” Spar shook with rage. “The only thing you can say is ‘huh’, Deor’lash? Am I so easily forgotten? Was I just supposed to forget? Well, I haven’t. I can’t!

 

“Now ignore your hand, Deor’lash! Look carefully. Look at me! You have to remember me. I need you to remember me.” Spar pulled webbing out of the young man’s mouth so he could talk. He slapped the older kid as hard as he could across the face, “Your hand is soon going to be the least of your problems! Now look at me and tell me you remember. Tell me my name!”

 

Deor’lash managed to move his head just enough to look at his hand. His outer fingers were bent unnaturally to both sides. He took several short fast breaths while his lips trembled. It was becoming hard not to puke. In this there was fear, because he couldn’t turn his head enough. The thought of drowning on his own vomit crossed his mind. The hard slap brought his focus back to the small, yet powerfully built kid kneeling over him. “I don’t… I don’t know…” He closed his eyes presuming he knew where he had crossed paths with the boy. “Where… what town… You were at one of the casting encampments, right?”

 

Spar growled. “One of the… Yea. How many did you do last year?”

 

“Seven… Instructor Jago sets them up… we… I take a tent and do the basic levels of instruction… Come on, kid…”

 

“Come on?” Spar trembled. “After what you did to me and other spellcasters down in Paws last summer? All you got to say is come on? My father paid a huge sum for me to go. My present for passing my Training step 4 test and for my eleventh birthday. You, War’shen, and Rava’horn were supposed to work with us, teach us new Autospells and help on casting, control, and memorization tricks. Remember now?” He reached over and grabbed the other hand. His fingers wrapped around the thumb.

 

“No, no. Please don’t! I really don’t remember you! But… but… You got what was promised! I know you did! We made sure! We got documents with all applicants. We knew what magic training each attendee had, what their guild ranking was, and what Autospells they claimed to know! I kept careful ledgers on every kid! Your parent or teacher got a full report on you! Paws was the smallest one we did last year, so we spent extra time with every Mageling in our tents and even switched off for a few days! Everyone in my tent always learns at least five basic and three learned Autospells! I know the others do the same. But in Paws, everyone in my tent got at least six basic and five learned. There is no better immersive Mage training, traveling or otherwise, outside of the Combined Desert Realms! No Mageling ever goes home without gaining almost a full step in the Training Echelon and we do it in a moon and a half! If you were step 4 then, you had to be close to step 5 when you left!”

 

“Oh, you all were great teachers. I learned fifteen different Autospells. Half I didn’t even know existed. The only reason I haven’t killed you yet is mostly before the bad, but even some after the bad you worked with us. I don’t think I would have ever gotten the Mini-Illusion or Booger Burst without you kneeling behind me the second to the last day of the camp. You twisting and turning my fingers dozens of times, is probably the only way it became natural movement to move fingers on the same hand in opposite directions. In those times and scores of others, you were great. I liked you, trusted you… Then you took us out to the river… made us use up all our magic. Once we were spent, you cast on us. You hurt us with Brain Freeze, Heat, Cold, and coated our mouths with thick layers of Dust until we couldn’t take it anymore. You made us force cast! You didn’t care how much it hurt. You didn’t worry the next day when most of us couldn’t cast, and a few couldn’t even cast the following day. Then you did it again, and again… I cried, I puked, it hurt to cast for days after!”

 

“It’s part of the training!” Deor’lash countered. “We do it at all the camps! There are warnings in the contract your parent or teacher signed warning of a very hard and even dangerous third and fourth week. Normally we have one or two try to run away and at least one tries to kill himself. We have to go track the runners and bring them back. I always remember the runners, so you were not one of them!”

 

“I thought about it. Talked about it to Traber. We decided not to. We both knew our fathers would disown us after what was paid. We still almost ran, but Simozz stopped us. He said it would be over soon, and we’d be glad we stuck it out.”

 

“Simozz…” Deor’lash blinked, “Are you friends with the Quasiling?”

 

Spar frowned, “Friends? Well, kind of, I guess. Only got to know him during the camp. I don’t even know what village he hailed from. He was real weird. It was like he enjoyed those two weeks or something. But he was OK and helped us through the force casting and what came after you left for a full week. It was like he knew everything and helped us brace for it. He even knew some tricks to make it easier.”

 

“Simozz did know. Paws was his third time with us.”

 

Spar blinked and let out a gasp. “He came back for more twice? He really was crazy!” Spar trembled at the very thought of someone wanting to go back for another stint. It was beyond conception. He shook off the shock of such an idea. He refocused on Deor’lash. “So we had a basket of nuts and fruits in our tent, great. But why… You singled Traber out! He was taken by the guards for four days during week five. You handed him over to them! He almost killed himself! He bawled as you yanked him up and pushed him over to those brutes! I hold it against you. But there is more! For it isn’t just about Traber. It’s about you, what you did, what you made us do, and what happened to us when you left for the fourth week!”

 

Spar focused on the injured hand and flipped at the broken finger as he added, “And, yes this is for pulling Traber out of his bedroll to hand over to the guards the first four days you were back.”

 

Deor’lash took several deep breaths as Spar flipped his broken fingers. “He, I remember. I have to blink out tears every time I need to hand a Mageling over for extra training during week five. It is not by choice. But learning to push past the final barriers of magical limitations is a huge part of the encampment. He needed more time… He got his graduation spell, so Instructor Jago must have seen the needed breakthrough…” Deor’lash trembled. “If you want me to puke, you are doing a good job of it. But can you at least turn my head so I do not drown when I do so?”

 

Spar clenched his fist and took a deep breath. The young man’s attitude wasn’t one of total fear like he expected, wanted. There was too much calmness. It infuriated him, but it was also the voice and demeanor of the same level-headed kid who taught him over a dozen Autospells over a six-week span. After a few seconds he turned Deor’lash’s head to the side and moved his hands away from the battered fingers. “Traber did get his second spell. So did I. The two I got are what has made this possible.” He looked at and even plucked at some of the threads, taking note just how amazing the two spells worked in combination. “A recommendation by you to take both Spider Walk and Web as my chosen spell pages upon graduation… So even as I struggle with what I think of you, I have one more thing to thank you for. I just don’t know how I can ever trust you after what you did to me.”

 

“I bet few who go through an encampment will ever trust me. At least not fully. It is something I struggle with, because I know many, if not most, start to believe in me only to feel I betrayed them. You may never believe this, but I care about all who are in my tent. Yet to not do what I did to you and hundreds of others over the past several years would be a bigger transgression against you, the money we take to mentor you, and even the trust put into us by whoever paid for you to attend. And regardless of your antipathy toward me, the end result is a good one. Just look around. Do you think you could have pulled this off, found the motivation to do so, without those six weeks?”

 

Deor’lash took a few calming breaths which allowed his voice to lose some of its building edge. “If nothing else, kid, think back to your arrival. Instructor Jago gives an introduction. In it, he advises all attendees the encampment is not just fun and games. He even offers a full refund for those who have second thoughts. I’ve seen a dozen or so take him up on the offer, and yes, the refund is in full. Instructor Jago then divides the kids up. The girls always go to Pome’ramiss. How he sorts out the boys remains a mystery to me, but he sends students to the tent leaders.

 

“Once I have my assigned Magelings, I ask for the teacher or parent to stay while I give my initial talk. Most adults stay, so there is a good likelihood whoever brought you heard me. I talk to all who come to my tent. I go further than Instructor Jago. I forewarn all Magelings under my guidance. I tell them they will cry, they will get sick, they will be pushed, and compelled to learn magic in ways not for the faint of heart. They will also rejoice at learning deeper insights and will hug those around them when breakthroughs are made. Oftentimes this happens with tears of pain and frustration still streaming from exhausted eyes. I inform all Magelings, along with whoever brings them to the encampment grounds, of both the joy of learning and pain required to graduate. I remind all the gift of remaining the whole time is a spell page of the student’s choice. Those who graduate get two.

 

“As I do this, I try my best to make sure all are prepared as I possibly can. I have even talked a few out of attending. Like those who leave right away, they get full refunds. I have only persuaded seven boys to leave. Most, I am certain, are too afraid of parents or teachers to back out. Nonetheless, I do my utmost to be as transparent as possible to all without divulging the actual methods.

 

“Like it or not you chose to stay. And as a graduate I am proud to have been part of your enlightenment into the deeper aspects of being a Mage. For what you learn before and after is not nearly as important as the lessons in week three and four, and sadly for many week five as well. What you deal within those few days are the focal points of the training. The last week or two is to relax, practice what you were taught, and hone a few skills! You can’t hold the encampment against me!”

 

“I can’t? Really… I beg to differ! And yea, we knew the third and fourth weeks were going to be bad. You warned us on the first day. But… Bad doesn’t describe it!”

 

“It is tough. I know it is. But did you follow through with what I told everyone in my tent who got the graduation pendant and second spell page on the day before you went home?”

 

Spar nodded, pulled out the silver pendant from a cord around his neck, and growled at the same time. “I did. I look at this damned thing every time I use up all my Force shortly before moonrise twice a week, then force cast.” He gritted his teeth. “And yes, you were right. It does get a bit easier. But it still hurts and sometimes I still get sick afterwards. I do it because you swore it would be worth it. Me, I think it just made it to where I couldn’t cast my first Primary spell as soon as most thought I should… These were my first two. I guess revenge is a good motivator.”

 

“No… I mean, yea, vengeance can break barriers most don’t know they can push past until confronted with the situation where it is really needed. Others give up. Believe it or not, this is one of the lessons behind week three and four. What I first forced you to do, then you had to deal with without me, and finally reiterated before you went home is something few Magelings ever experience. And yes, it most certainly delayed your first book spellcasting. You are still young, amazingly young to have jumped into Primary Echelon. You are not unlike I was when I first came to be under Instructor Jago well over a decade ago.

 

“He made me slow down. I remember the pain, misery, tears… Yea, even the humiliation. But he guaranteed me I’d understand why quick, easy advancement through Training, and even Primary Echelon is really not the best way. Like many shortcuts, fast advancement without the underlying foundation leads to forever being a spell slinger, not a foundational Mage. He teaches how to dig deep in an emergency, but it goes much further. What he instills and how he instructs goes back to a time of great magic. It hails from when the gods and demon lords were here, fighting each other in the Mortal Realm before they became who is worshipped and detested. For like it or not, even our hate of the demon lords gives them power. At the same time the gods gain power from those who worship them and to a lesser degree hate them. If you really force casted twice per week for several moons, then broke into Primary Echelon today, by tomorrow, two days at most, you will understand.”

 

“Understand? What is there to understand? I was drained, cast upon with no magic defiance left in me. The week you left… Do you know what happens?”

 

“Yes. I’ve comforted hundreds of boys as they cried in the bedrolls over the past several years. I remember most of them as well. So I can only guess you were not one, or if you were you only needed a back rub, or stroking of your hair to get you to calm and sleep. I know it is hard to believe, but I feel for every Mageling who comes to Instructor Jago’s encampments.”

 

“Yea, sure. You cared enough to send Traber off with the big guards for the first four days after you returned.” Spar blinked out a few tears, “Traber was one of my best friends. He has not come down to see me or even sent a letter since the camp. I have sent several. I am sure he blames me. It was my idea to ask our parents to send us after I saw the fliers for the camp up in Marsh Lake. You destroyed a very close friendship; one I doubt I can ever get back.”

 

“Again, you think I had any say. I did not.” Deor’lash took a long breath. “I get why you may not either believe or possibly want to believe. However, it is Instructor Jago’s decision who gets pulled for further hardships during week five. Instructor Jago gives up on many Magelings. He has us get them a couple more Autospells and pens a detailed failure to graduate report for the parent or teacher who sent them. Others, like Traber, he sees something in, something worth a little more time and effort.

 

“But this is about you, not your buddy. If you decided to trust me all the way until today, trust me now. What you put yourself through did slow your advancement. The desire to graduate and the bragging rights a young one receives from getting to Primary Echelon at an immature age is a big part of the degradation of magic in this world. Yet you still did so. However, you have insights far deeper behind the Primary Echelon pins you will soon wear. A simpler way of seeing it, is this; any Mageling can cast a Glow Autospell. It is simple. However, very few get to understand the magic behind it enough to change the color. This insight is one I teach in week one. It may seem minor, but as your magical abilities and understanding increases, the little building block of being able to understand how to change the color of a glow will allow you to manipulate bigger and more powerful spells, as I suspect you did when you cast this web.

 

“Look around young Mageling. Most use webs to target a foe or block a passage. You saw past this. Your mind was open to the possibility of affecting an entire chamber. In doing so you nullified the magic resistance of all of us, since none of us were targets. The cave room was. It has no innate magic resistance. This allowed you to put full power into the strands holding me, us… although judging on the sounds, Jillian and I are the only ones left. You did this and need to see and fully comprehend the terrifying power you unleashed. I doubt one out of every thousand Magelings could open their mind to such a deep comprehension. Many Mages in high echelons couldn’t do what you did. For it takes more than desire to fill a room with webs while people are in it. It takes an understanding of the magic buried within the spell and yourself to do so. I am certain the being who killed the dragons learned this as well.”

 

“My friends say it was a Halfelf boy, about my human equivalency age… Red haired.”

 

“Kandric?” Deor’lash gasped. “Little Kandric did this?”

 

“Such is what those with me firmly believe. They all but worship him, and say he is already Teaching Echelon! How do you know of him?”

 

“His mentor offered Instructor Jago double to take him in, since he is Shaman, not Mage. But magic flows fairly evenly in your Training Echelon, so Instructor Jago accepted him. He was the youngest human equivalent in my tent, ever. He didn’t flinch during week three, and I was told he was the first to break free of those put over him in week four. Because of this and the fact he didn’t get spell pages as part of graduation, Instructor Jago sent for a Shaman from our homeland. Little Kandric learned half a dozen Primary and even a couple of Secondary Echelon spells in weeks five and six from the best Shaman we could find in our combined realm. I heard he even traveled down to Scorpion Falls for further instruction and killed a couple of bone walkers while there… and did so by himself!”

 

Deor’lash took a few deep breaths, “He was amazing, extremely skilled with sparring weapons, and incredibly gifted with magic and the understanding of the flows behind what is required to cast. But to do this… to be your Teaching Echelon… It is unfathomable!”

 

“I agree, but here we are and the two with me insists this is Kandric’s doing. If he really learned from you then… I don’t even know.”

 

“Mageling,” Deor’lash responded. “There is greatness in admitting you don’t understand yet strive to do so. You will discover the forced casting you have done will further benefit you in both comprehension and power in a matter of sandglass turns. If you continue to force cast at least once a week, preferably two, now with Primary Echelon spells, you will continue to get advantages others can never ascertain. However, just like when you were first coerced into force casting, the pain will be debilitating for the first few moons. Only then will it slowly get easier. However, this time you will understand some of the rewards of doing so. If this really is of Kandric’s doing, it is a lesson he learned far better than I, even though I started him down the path to such discoveries.”

 

“We’ll see… When this is over, I’ll go back into the swamps to talk to Kandric. However, since you know the name, I can only assume he has a graduation medallion.”

 

“He does, however he was awarded the gold one, for top student.”

 

Spar snarled. “It seems the swamp rat should have been in the high merchant section of Slome all along. But enough about him. There is nothing you can say or do to make up for what you did to us, made us do. It was awful! The emptying of us to the point we were nothing more than Mundane… the spells you hit us with after… when we had no defenses left. It still gives me nightmares! Then, just as I was getting my strength back, you disappeared for a few days. Teacher Jago and a few guards took over. He came in with guarded slaves. He made us cast on them until we were spent. We had to force cast on them with not one, but two Learned Autospells. He handed us over to them, guaranteeing them we couldn’t cast on them for at least a day. Two times I was a… toy… Until I pulled up the power to cast on the bastard slave. Caught him in the face with a Sand Spray! Hope he is still partially blind!”

 

“I will never apologize for the six weeks you were in the encampment,” Deor’lash stated. “I did what was required of me, and while you may resent what was done, you are better and stronger because of it. As for the slave you say you harmed, I am sure Instructor Jago found a way to heal whoever it was. If not, he certainly had to pay the slave’s owner for the damage. However, what is important is you found a reserve deep within. For inside all Magelings, all trainable beings, is an inner spark of magic very few know exists, let alone understand it is always there to be tapped into. You really were not reduced to being Mundane, even though you thought you were. You understand this, right?”

 

Spar looked up. “Oh, yea. I learned… found magic goes deeper than what we can easily get to. But… It should have been the best moon and a half cycle ever… would have been… All twelve of us in your tent looked up to you, trusted you…”

 

“Sounds like part of you still does.” Deor’lash countered. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have put yourself through force casting twice a week for several moons. Nor would I still be breathing to have this conversation, for unless I miss my guess, I and the boy Jillian are the only ones in this chamber you did not assassinate.” Deor’lash closed his eyes. “And honestly, as much as I hate myself for having to concede it. I still do not remember your name or even your face. But while you may wish to strike out at me for this admission of failure on my part, you really need to pay better attention to your surroundings. I feel the webbing around me is losing strength. It will not be long before the one you disarmed, Jillian, will be able to break free.”

 

Spar rubbed his hands across his face. He pulled all the weapons off Deor’lash even as he shouted, “Aed! Puck! You guys OK?”

 

“Yea!” Aed responded.

 

“What about the one who ran?”

 

Puck responded. “The Gobber tripped him den kick him in da face! Him still no move.”

 

“Guess, the Gobber ain’t lyin’ when it say it no be one a dem none,” Aed added. “But, Spar, der’s gots ta be like the biggest spider ever ‘round here! Did ya see it?”

 

“Nope, no spiders. Just me.” Spar snickered.

 

Puck’s voice was full of skepticism, “Ya sure? Look like demon spider gots loose ‘er somethin’!”

 

“Just a spell guys! But you need to get in here and grab Jillian. It won’t be too long before he can break free.”

 

Aed snarled. “Us’ll get him!” There was a pause before she spoke again. “Who ya talk to in der, anyhow?”

 

Spar looked down as Deor’lash used his uninjured arm to pull degrading strands off his face and chest. At the same time the bodies held up by the webs deeper in the room fell with thuds and clangs. He took a deep breath, “The only one in here worth keeping alive, Aed… The only one, besides Jillian, I left alive.”

 

Puck gasped, “By Brandall’s name, ya sayin’ ya kill all dem others?”

 

Spar glanced back into the webs, “Yea, I sure did. Although kill may be a mild way of putting it… Um, anyway, don’t go hurting Jillian or Mora once we get to her again…”

 

“Aww, come on Spar!” Aed complained.

 

“OK, OK… Make sure Jillian knows who is in charge, just don’t do too much to him, Aed. We’re going to need them to carry lots of loot.” Once again he stared at Deor’lash. “I really don’t want to kill you… But you were with those who were after us, so you have got to give me a reason why you don’t deserve to die.”

 

“It’s a real long story.”

 

“Give me the short version.” Spar demanded.

 

Deor’lash sighed. “I will try to be brief. I am fully under Instructor Jago. He can do what he wants to any tent leaders. When he found out there was a chance of getting information on what we are after, he hired all us tent leaders out, along with Simozz, right after the Dragon Deaths. He gave us over as indentured servants for a moon to the plump small Orc woman with the green scale armor and monkeys, a Black Dragonling, a Hobgoblin with an eye patch and a Green Dragonling. The Orc has, had, a blade, one of a set of thirteen weapons. It is one of what Instructor Jago has been seeking. It was our task to find a way to procure it once my servitude to her was over. With her dead, I am free of my indenture because there was no clause of transference within the subjugation contract. It is of incredible happenstance; however, I believe the weapon Jillian protested over your taking may be another of the thirteen! If it is, then there are two in this chamber. The location of only three more need to be ascertained! It is, after all, the reason we are up here to begin with.”

 

“So the camp is not why you are here?”

 

“No. And I may fail my Rite of Noblehood by divulging this, but you deserve to know the truth before you decide my fate. The traveling encampment is a veil to conceal the search for the weapons and the story they are prophesied to unlock when brought back together… This does not mean the encampments were not all they seemed. There was no deception behind them. But it gave reason for us to travel through the lower kingdoms without much notice, up the mountain passes, and finally to here. To this iron-filled rock. To the place I now passionately believe it all started.”

 

Spar scowled. “And bringing these blades together will do what? Unleash a demon or something?”

 

“No! Nothing even close to what your young mind is fabricating. The ancient scrolls say bringing the weapons simultaneously to a single location, not just blades, but most are… Um, to have them in the same place will coalesce magic of a time long forgotten. It will allow history to be seen as it truly was, not what it was made out to be. If the elders of the five great houses searching for them are correct, it will redefine the past and correct a deep, grave, and lasting misjustice. However, I now believe we were, are, closer to the overall goal than we could have ever hoped… More than just the weapons, the place we are in, on, under, could well hold the vaults showing everything the world believes if false. All I have to do is find it… Well, I have to live to find it, which is certainly not a given at this point. Especially with your blade pointed at my throat.”

 

“Part of me wants to believe you, Deor’lash,” Spar admitted. “But what you are saying doesn’t hold the water in the skin. You’re too young to have traveled with Teacher Jago for all the years you proclaim.”

 

“If I was Human, you would be correct. However, I am not. I am Half Highman. I am just moons away from my age of ascension. In addition, like I believe you are soon to find, I trained in the Mageling arts much like you forced yourself to do. This further slows aging. So while I may be the human equivalent of fifteen, almost sixteen, I am soon to be going into my fifty-fifth year. Furthermore, if you want proof of what I say being truthful, Simozz is down here as well. He joined the encampment as a tent leader in training and was indentured to a Caveling by Instructor Jago. Simozz has gone through multiple camps as a Mageling and one as my underling. If you can kill the Caveling and free him from his moon of servitude, he can verify everything I have told you. Another possibility is to locate Kandric, for if he is here, he can authenticate much of what I say.”

 

Spar moved his jaw back and forth several times. His thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of Jillian protesting being stripped down to his loincloth. This included several squeals of pain.

 

Aed snarled, “Me’ll be happy to kick ya der a few more time if’n you fight me one more time!” Another shriek of anguish followed. “And me no care ‘bout his feet! Me hear me cousin no get boots when him get tossed out a Slome, so Jillian no get ‘em either!”

 

This was followed by a slap and hiss of pain. Aed’s voice took on a less angry voice, “Hey, Spar, Jillian gots the same scar as Mora! What gives?”

 

Deor’lash spoke up, “The one running from the palm of the hand all the way to the elbow?”

 

“Yea.” Aed shouted back.

 

Spar muttered, “You know what caused it?”

 

“I do.” Deor’lash verified. “It could be nothing other than a full deep blood bonding with someone. Profoundly serious, exceptionally dangerous, and extremely painful. I have seen the scars of those fully blood bonded back home. I noticed the one on his lower arm when he moved to help me stand. I have never heard of one so young being completely blood bonded before. I am astonished it didn’t kill him.”

 

“All the way down the arm? I thought a Blood Bonding was hand to hand…”

 

“Normally, yes. The hands are locked together, cut, and after a few sandglass turns a magical healing is done to speed things up. Then there is the separation within a day, which is very unpleasant from what I have heard. However, the scar you are wondering about is of a full blood bonding. It is beyond brutal. I attended a ceremony where my older brother and his lover from another house were bonded. Their relationship was deemed unacceptable. A full bonding was offered for them to end the dishonor, so they agreed. The arms of the two being blood bonded have to be fully lashed together. A long extremely thin and sharp blade is slid down between the bonds. It cuts deep but does so in a way where the wounds line up exactly. Another wrap of cloth, this one even tighter, is put over both arms. A hardening paste is applied to the cloth. Then to prevent accidently moving or damaging the encasement, metal bands are placed around the hard cloth strips. The two being bonded are kept locked arm to arm until the wounds heal naturally. I hear it is not uncommon for them to die of blood loss and sickness. There is some aid from Healthman herbs, liquified and poured inside the wrap, but no magic. It took over two weeks before the hardened cloth bandage was broken. I honestly have no clue how they did it. They had to eat, bathe, and do bodily functions as a single entity. They then had to be carefully cut apart. It looked to me like their skin healed to each other. I think they wept more at the separating than they did at the original cutting. It is not a set of ceremonies I ever want to be part of again, and certainly nothing I would want to happen to me.”

Spar ran his hand down his face and shook his head as he mulled over the options. Part of him felt the best course of action was to kill the kid, another voice told him to leave him where he was and let fate decide. However, as he replayed the conversation, his mind went back to the last three days of the encampment. His hand simply wouldn’t move in the needed motions to cast a couple of Learned Autospells he desperately wanted to discover how to cast. He watched a couple of the others, tried over and over to duplicate what he saw them do. It simply wasn’t going to happen. Then, suddenly, and surprisingly Deor’lash moved up behind him. The older boy put his larger hands over Spar’s smaller ones. “We have all afternoon, and if need all day tomorrow. You can do this. Do not doubt, Mageling. After what you endured this is nothing. Now move your fingers with me…” Deor’lash stayed behind him for sandglass turns. When the spells faintly erupted from his exhausted fingertips, Deor’lash hugged him, kissed him on top of the head and spent the time until dinner to teach him yet one more Autospell. There was nothing hidden about his joy for Spar. Combined with what he had just heard, the stunning lack of anger from Deor’lash even though he was wounded and had his fingers broken… Spar badly wanted to believe this was who the real Deor’lash was. Not the monster who tormented him until he force casted the first time. The reason behind the suffering even made some sense. A final thought also entered into the debate. If Kandric really was behind this and had even a few fond memories of Deor’lash, then the very last thing he wanted to do was to get Kandric angry by doing extra harm to the kid who, once healed, could certainly take him down. Wondering if he would live or even die to regret his actions, he let out a long uneasy breath. “And what happens if I let you up?”

 

“My fate is in your hands, my former Mageling. However, if you want my assistance, you will need to remove the bolts your small Halfling friend skewered me with, help push my fingers back into some semblance of being straight, and allow me to drink one of the orange potions on Jillian’s potion belt… Even then, I am certain you will need to find me a Channeler, Shaman, or Healthman to finalize my recovery.”

 

Spar looked at the bolts with a cringe. “I’m no Healthman, but if one or both of them are in the bone, like I heard, removing them is going to really hurt!”

 

“I am certain you are correct. You will have to cut the skin and pull them out instead of pushing them through. All I can do is endure, possibly by biting onto the bow part of Jillian’s crossbow and hope the liquids Jillian bragged about having are as good as he claims. As a side note, it is possible, and is my sincere hope, inflicting such pain will quench your lingering anger toward me.”

 

******

 

King Wyhrem, Klandon, Count Salostar, Baron Greyhammer, Sardan, Sagell, Aster, Bayne, Benam, Quavis, Cresh, Dabaff, Gomriss, Pocet, Captain of the Guard, Molic, Olinday, Wraith SW Avcar, Zaffron, and Janden (Pantherling)

 

King Wyhrem took a bite of the Snow-Stag and Star Raven egg omelet, while watching Klandon and the two former slave boys eat. All three showed countless sandglass turns of manner training, as they cut, put knives down properly, switched hands with their forks and ate smaller than mouth-sized bites. They even used proper finger motions to secure the juice goblets, sip out of them and place them down on the table without making much, if any, noise. He gave them a smile but stayed voiceless. At the far end of the stone table, Bayne and Aster sat next to each other. They exchanged glances but remained tight-lipped. It was clear to the other Watch members, the boys wanted to break the ice with each other, but neither knew what to say or how to start a conversation.

 

Dabaff, Cresh, Quavis, and Benam munched eagerly at the omelets at a side table, and their plates were refilled before they finished their first helpings by servants of King Wyhrem. All four nodded in gratitude but were overwhelmed with the last couple of days. In addition, eating in the presence of a king with the inside of the room ringed by heavily armed and armored guards eliminated any aspiration for small talk. They were just happy to be eating such a fine meal and be inside on what amounted to a horrible budding of a new day.

 

Baron Greyhammer and Count Salostar sat on either side of King Wyhrem. Both came to the table with weapons. Those paying close attention could see at no time did they both put food in their mouths at the same time. Instead, they alternated. One, taking a bite while the other had a hand on a weapon ready to defend Wyhrem first, but were certainly ready to come to the aid of anyone in the room should the need arise.

 

The only talking, and it was very muted, came from a small blanket with a pair of low stools. Avcar and Janden encouraged and helped Zaffron to eat. The damage to Zaffron’s legs combined with the pain of Aster totally resetting them and binding them so they could properly heal made it difficult for the boy to want to swallow. However, a glance and nod from the Captain of the Guard to two of the sentries changed his attitude. The two men moved up, pointed at the plate, and made a motion of driving their right hands into the open palms of their left. This left Zaffron more afraid of what would happen if he didn’t eat than some of the nausea that came with finishing the breakfast.

 

The other sounds came from servants as they moved about the room, wind as it whistled through and around the ancient structure and the crackle from the fireplace along the west wall. After more than half a turn of a sandglass, Wyhrem finished off the last bite of a second omelet and glanced around. He tapped his glass with a knife to signal he was about to take the floor. With all eyes on him, he stood and spoke. “Members of esteemed houses, my loyal and faithful Watch members, admired royal guards and other guests to this meal, it is an honor to be in the presence of so many who have come to the aid of my kingdom. For those who secured my son and brought him into my arms, there can be no words, deeds, or treasures enough to express my gratitude. My failure to Prince Klandon will take a lifetime and eons of my afterlife to make right.

 

“As the king, I put people in place to run the day-to-day affairs of countless settlements, villages, towns, and cities. It is with a heavy heart; I say my nobles in this barony have utterly failed me. However, I cannot, will not, put any of this blame on anyone but myself. As the ruler of Eagleonia, the fall from within of Rolling Dale rests on my shoulders. Yes, when the time comes, some will pay a steep price for their lack of attention or flagrant usurping of my authority, but the moment for such action is not now. My focus must turn to those who were most wronged. Those who had little to no say, went about their lives as best as caste, hard labors, and even good fortune allowed them to do.

 

“Out beyond these ancient walls thousands, possibly tens of thousands of my subjects are in a desperate state. Decent men, women, and children within Rolling Dale now face the possibility of horrors we can only guess at. Those who may still be loyal to me are in even greater peril. Yet as I say this, there is no question the retaking of Rolling Dale is a given. The time it takes we cannot know, but the walls, whatever may be left of them, will once again fly my standards and the banner of Eagleonia.

 

“However, outside the city’s defenses, refugees from Everone have lost all hope yet again. They are caught in another struggle just as they thought and had every expectation to believe they would be protected. Reports say many were taken inside the walls along with goods I dispatched here to care for them. Those who are left or fled the refugee camps have little to nothing. Whatever hope they may have had in getting here has been shattered. Now they have nowhere to go and are left with naught. A few may have a few possessions, but those are certainly worth killing over. For, as much as I hate to admit, if I had a hungry child and saw another with a way to prevent him from starving or freezing to death, I could see how the hatred of Murderic could squirm into my heart and eat at my mind. Even if they have coin or valuables, there is nowhere to buy anything. Making things more desperate, this storm, and already thin resources of the refugees who managed to escape will most certainly prevent them from fleeing further.

 

“My presumption, and it is an educated one, tells me travel to where there may be purchase or trade opportunities will be further limited by simple lack of knowledge of the area. Those of us here are, by a wide margin, the exception. The vast majority, especially of lower castes, never travel more than a couple of days from where they were born. Those who do, settle into a new area and travel only as far as necessary to procure needed items. Even many skilled peasants wait for trade caravans to come through to purchase items not produced locally. The travel up the pass to Rolling Dale has put them in totally unfamiliar territory. Making their affairs worse, the land in this area is rife with danger that dates all the way back to the Mythling Wars.”

 

At this point Quavis couldn’t hold his tongue any longer, “The Mythling Wars were fought here? What Mythlings?”

 

Wyhrem shot a deep frown at Quavis. At the same time Benam let out “Shhhh,” and gave Quavis a hard punch in the shoulder.

 

Quavis returned the favor before he realized everyone was staring at him. “Oh, crap… Um I’m soooo sorry, King! I just…”

 

Sagell’s shoulders sagged, and her head dropped. “My sincere apologies, my King. I will deal with…”

 

At this Wyhrem’s frown changed to a smirk. He made a slashing motion, cutting off her words. He turned his full attention to Quavis. “You just what, young one?”

 

Quavis gulped hard and made a choking sound as he fought to find his voice, “I… it doesn’t matter…”

 

“A little late now, Quavis.” Sardan stated harshly. “The hole has been dug; you may as well answer our king.”

 

Quavis’ lower lip trembled. “I… I just… I wondered if I was really walking on the same ground one of the gods walked… It was a dumb thing to think and even dumber to interrupt! I… I…the words just came out!”

 

Wyhrem moved around the table and put both hands on Quavis’ shoulders. He gave them a light rub, leaned over, and kissed the boy on top of his head. “Your curiosity got the better of you. Such a thing is both dangerous and inspirational, for without curiosity, many hazards would not be confronted, nor would there be advancement on a personal or communal stage. Is there any one of us who, at the age of young Quavis is, did not make similar errors?”

 

“My King,” then Sagell sighed, “I certainly have opened my mouth when I should not have done so. However, never once did I do so in the middle of my king making a speech!”

 

Wyhrem strong hands continued to rub Quavis’ shoulders. “Which makes this a very special occasion. For I have never once heard of a king, any king, being so interrupted. Yet I can tell by look, lip quiver, and how stiff young Quavis’ shoulders are, he knows his mouth got the better of him. Furthermore, what royal training has this lad had? I bet the answer is none. Therefore…” Wyhrem yanked Quavis up by the back of his shirt, put his foot on the chair Quavis had been sitting at, put the boy over his knee, yanked down his britches and delivered four enormously powerful slaps. Two blows crashed down on the back of both of Quavis’ upper thighs. Wyhrem yanked Quavis back up, pulled his britches back up and dropped him back on the chair, hard. He took a deep breath, wrapped his arms around the boy and wiped the tears from his cheeks. “I suspect you have a full understanding of the perils of letting your curiosity get the best of you in this environment. Am I right young man?”

 

Quavis sucked in some deep breaths and fought hard not to rub the back of his legs. After biting back a few sobs, he nodded and managed to speak. “Yes King! Yes! It will never happen again!”

 

“Excellent. Then this matter, of your interruption of me, is fully closed.” He sent strong glares at Sagell, Sardan, and Gomriss to make sure they also knew the matter had been dealt with and was now over. “I suspect it would be remiss of me to not make the modest suggestion for young Quavis here, his friend Benam, and the older youth who they seem to admire, Cresh and Dabaff to receive a taste of court etiquette. I imagine they would gain a phenomenal quantity and quality of essential decorum instruction from tutelage offered by our good count and baron to my son, Prince Bayne. This is, as long as nobles from such esteemed houses would be inclined to have a larger assembly to so tutor.”

 

“It would be an honor!” Count Salostar stated. “In some ways it will make the education easier for your son. For it will allow us to work them in a group setting so they can practice with each other while we make needed corrections.”

 

“I can only assume the four of you are willing to such intensive instruction from both Garm and Alphar nobles?”

 

Getting a quick round of “Yes King!” Wyhrem once again leaned over and kissed Quavis on the head. “Now, as I mentioned, curiosity is a double-edged sword. For there can be no advancement devoid of a longing to find out what lies beyond the known. Therefore, I feel young Quavis has now earned a right to hear some of the history he obviously longs for. With a show of hands, including servants, watchmen, and those at my table, who would like to have a little more history behind this land, and in particular, this structure before I continue on my long-winded, yet important… I believe Sagell called it a speech?”

 

Quavis didn’t hesitate to raise a hand. This got him yet another kiss on the top of his head. His hand was followed by many others including the Captain of the Guard. With the captain’s hand held up, most of the others raised hands as well.

 

Wyhrem’s eyes scanned the room for several seconds. He gave a nod, “Very well. All those who opted not to raise a hand are to leave. You all can join my expeditionary force and assist with setting up an encampment. I do not need, want, nor desire the close company of those who do not long for extra knowledge to better themselves with.”

 

The Captain of the Guard stood and motioned for those who didn’t raise hands to leave. He handed one of the guards, the last to raise a hand, a medallion. “You are now their sergeant. A rank I will make permanent if you are willing to get with one of our Ruinseekers and get a series of lessons surrounding the history of this land. Now go and send replacements for the nine who have proven my selection of them as personal guards of our king and this entourage was a miscalculation of their character. Make sure those you send are both professional and judiciously intelligent. Also make sure the servants who are going with you get a taste of tending to our troops out in this storm!”

 

Wyhrem took a deep breath once the room was down to those who raised hands. “I confidently conclude the air has a better feel. For air becomes stale when in close confines with beings with no desire to better themselves. Instead, they steal it from those with a lust for improvement. And, alas, the minds of the moronic weigh on others who otherwise strive for greater understanding. Thus, young Quavis’ outburst has allowed me to assure such dim minds are no longer in our midst.” He once again rubbed Quavis’ shoulders as he smiled. “Shall we continue?”

 

Many of the adults spoke in the affirmative while most of the boys nodded. Wyhrem glanced over to the boys for their lack of a verbal response and over to Salostar and Greyhammer. Both nobles gave seated bows in understanding at the need for speech protocols to be added to their lessons. Wyhrem smiled, took a deep breath, and cleared his throat. “The answer is, yes, young Quavis. You are most certainly walking on stones both Mythlings and Mythlets did. However, this keep, its history of being haunted, and its place in history has and will continue to fascinate me.

 

“Lord Roland Dale was the last one to inhabit this structure full time. It is where the city of Rolling Dale gets its current name. However, eons before Lord Roland Dale took this as his own and subsequently was touched with insanity within its walls, this structure has been central in every prominent conflict known. Now before any of you ask how this structure can still be standing with as old as I proclaim it to be, one must understand this whole place has deep enchantments behind, under, and ingrained into it.”

 

He paused and scanned the room. His gaze fell upon Avcar, “Young Mage, do you happen to have the Repair spell in your book?”

 

“Not in my book, King. It is very rare, but it is one I was allowed to use from time to time. Because of how useful it is, my Lord and instructor allowed me to keep it long enough to memorize.”

 

“Excellent! Would you do us all a huge favor and cast it on this room?”

 

Avcar blinked, “King, I will do as you request, but… there is no chance it will do anything to something so large as a room… the main table, maybe, but even then…”

 

“Humor me.”

 

“As you command.” Avcar stood, looked around and wiggled his jaw back and forth a few times. “I really have no idea how to target the room, King. Um…”

 

Wyhrem smiled. “While you will find this will exhaust you, are you willing to try for something a little more grandiose?”

 

Avcar cocked his head to the side. “Grandiose? As in more than this central room?” His voice took a tinge of sarcasm and humor. “What? You want me to simply cast on the whole keep or something?”

 

Wyhrem chuckled. “Actually, yes.”

 

Avcar blinked as if waiting for Wyhrem to crack a smile of this being a joke. When it didn’t happen, he took several deep breaths, “OK, well, this should be a total waste of Force. But at least I can see how to attempt it.” Shaking his head, he moved to the edge of the table, so he was close to the center of the floor, knelt and tapped on the stone under his knee.

 

Wyhrem gave the boy a warm smile. “Before you cast know this: First you must believe and second you need to realize your actions will be exhausting to a degree I doubt you can fully comprehend. I will guarantee you will be recompensed for your discomfort and the effort you put forth.”

 

Avcar closed his eyes, took a few calming breaths, and rubbed his hands together.

 

Aster spoke, “Av, Conner has talked highly of you and you’re my orphanage brother. You can do this.”

 

Avcar didn’t open his eyes, but spoke to Aster, “If you know anything about Conner at all, you know our Lord and instructor does not take halfhearted efforts on the part of his students well at all. There is no attempt, there is do and succeed or do and fail. If the result is failure, you do again, again, and continue to do so until the result is achievement of the goal. Surrender to lack of success is the only real failure, one which our Lord makes certain is something as a student of his we only contemplate once.”

 

Sardan let out a chirping laugh. “I do not even know the guy, but I like him already.”

 

Avcar smirked as he started the spell. With hands glowing, he pressed them down onto the stone floor.

 

Within seconds his arms started trembling. A few seconds later beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He snarled between tightly clenched teeth, “Oh, King, how deep do you wish me to dig…”

 

“As deep as you can young man.”

 

“Fine. Then stay back and do not touch me! For I am about to go very, very deep! Recent events, extremely recent, have left the power of this place more open than it has been in written history! For I can feel Pyrothermal, lead destroyer of the home of the elder gods has been slaughtered! His death has opened a rift, a rift I was taught how to exploit on the Isle of Cyclops by Conner!”

 

Avcar gritted his teeth, “You want it, Overlord of Afterdusk, take it you bastard!” His hands clenched into fists. A moment later he purposefully scrapped them across the floor, so his knuckles bled. Drips of blood hit the floor. He continued to talk, “Yes, I know of you, and yes my blood I freely give! My best friend Conner did this once and let me and Gilew taste your power! You want more! Here! Take it!” He slammed his fist repeatedly into the floor until blood ran down his fingers. He took several deep breaths. A shadowy figure formed and took shape. The fire dimmed to look like a distant glow. Avcar shouted even as everyone in the room stood, and their hands raced to their armaments. “Stay your hands! It is here on my calling and only has access to me!”

 

The shadowy figure extended murky tendrils. Wave of inky darkness, only with considerable mass, shoved everyone else back against the walls and held them there. It spoke with waves of pulsing darkness so powerful it hammered into the chests of all in the room. “Mortals do not bother. You can no more harm me than you can slice into darkness and expect it to permanently part! Now hold your tongues for this is now between me and this insolent whelp!”

 

It turned and formed into an almost human-looking form, but with long horns and waves of darkness rolling off it. It towered over Avcar. “Only has access to you, Mageling? Look around. While you know more than I would ever expect, you play on a field of magic you know only the extreme fringes of. A dangerous undertaking. Yet you say you know of me, Mageling? You dare to call out my true name?”

 

Avcar looked up, “Yes, Overlord of Afterdusk, I do! You have seen me before! I was there with Conner when he split the rift and allowed you access to this realm to devour the Lichling Damafena!”

 

“Ah, yes, you can be no other than Avcar. He told you and those with you to run. He shouted your name half a dozen times, telling you to flee even as he split the rift with his very essence. Only you and one named Gilew, who you mentioned, imprudently or valiantly and devoutly stood by the side of the insolent and brazen Conner. And there between you and the rift. Damafena. A glorious and totally unexpected taste it was. To rip the power of the dead and partially living out of the Garm Duchess wench and end her reign of terror both above ground and in the deeper caverns of Under River! Now, however, Conner has been fully upstaged, for his younger brother, the one with red hair, has also touched the Cataclysm and fully vanquished Pyrothermal. It is a debt I cannot easily repay, for over the past several days cracks have formed, but now with the death of Pyrothermal and the augmentations put into the astral barriers with stolen Dragon essence untangled from the barriers put up by the Mythlings, their barricades have begun to fail. As you can see with your own eyes, I have access to this Realm of Mortals outside of the deep rifts. With time… Who knows?”

 

Claws extended from the shadowy hands, “However, you show the same audacity as Conner did when he demanded I take Damafena! The arrogance of one so trifling as a mortal to demand anything from me is repulsive! He is lucky I did not take all of him back to the Outer Realms instead of what I did acquire!”

 

“You want me? I am here, Overlord of Afterdusk! However, as trifling as I may be, it is my understanding of you, through Conner, that has allowed you to fully reenter this realm outside of a rift split in, how long?”

 

“Understanding of me, yes, ability no! The capability for me to stand here with my claws a mere fraction from your throat is because of his brother, not him!”

 

“So?” Avcar countered as he extended his neck to give the claws full access. “Conner gave of himself for you to save all of us on the Isle and in doing so spared countless others and ended the quest of a Lichling to become a full Lich! He gave you a taste of this realm, even momentarily. He let you feed on the dark magic powers of a Lichling. The least you could do is give back what you ripped out of him with a measure gratitude since his brother, who after what I have learned must be Kandric, wiped Pyrothermal from all existences!”

 

“The line of Conner deserves to have friends such as you, young and insolent Mageling! And yes, my taking from Conner may have been extreme. Yet I did give in return to Conner, you, and Gilew. We shall see if Conner earns the right for me to give back more with a bit of, as you put it, gratitude. And I will indemnify you with some additional appreciativeness as well. However, let this also be a lesson and life-long reminder to you, Mageling, not to tread where your feet are not invited!” The claws hissed as they sliced through the air. The cheeks of Avcar were left with three matching lines of long bloody marks. The claws continued downward putting deep lines on both his sides. They persisted down to just above the ankles. The clothing shredded under the assault.

 

Avcar fell gasping in pain as the figure turned toward Wyhrem, “You asked him to dig deep, and he did so for you. He will require protection for a day, perhaps scores of them. In addition, his Force replenishment will now and eternally be remolded to be tied to the time of Afterdusk, just as Conner’s was. His first replenishment will be, as he deserves it to be, agonizing.

 

“However, your command permitted him to open the pathways for my return, even briefly. Therefore, I will reward you as well. All I require is you allow me to take the litany of Dark Mystics and Mages along with their unfortunate victims who permeate the labyrinth under my keep and extend outward through the long-forgotten passages below the main temple of complex of Afterdusk to be my reward. Like more than a few thieves and bandits who sought refuge within these walls, and even the two treacherous guards who disappeared while you and your whipping boy explored this and what is below, there will be no trace. What lies beyond, including in your walled village, will be yours to do with what you wish. However, if you desire to award others to me, simply bring them to the altar in the central temple! I assure you; they will not relish the rest of their much-extended existences.”

 

Wyhrem had to force enough air into his lungs to respond. “If they really are users or the used of the Dark Arts, then do what you wish with them!”

 

“Bargained well and done. I also look forward to your promised history lesson, for I am sure I will find plenty of humor in the multitudes of errors you will teach.”

 

“Why not teach them yourself?”

 

“In good time it may become a reasonable possibility. However, the impediments the Mythlings put up still renders this an uncomfortable, but attainable stay. For you are assisting in putting a sizable hole in them through this audacious Mageling, along with your past explorations without the fear or detesting feel of malevolent longing I have grown accustomed to, within my home, you deserve recompense as well. Allow the foundations of Afterdusk to rise again, be your center of your command and serve as a reminder to all, including the lower demon lords and godlings the elder gods are far from vanquished!” The figure drew a rectangular outline and stepped into the purest of blackness.

 

Moments later Avcar cried out in pure anguish as the glow on his hands spread outward from where they rested on the floor. The color changed to black bubbling masses of light sucking darkness. Shortly after they left his fingers, lines of shadowy energy lanced outward. The darkness coalesced into ripples. The ripples merged to form waves. They rolled out of Avcar causing him to thrash and plead for it to stop. The waves overwashed everything. The roaring fire became a pinprick of light. The room grew cold. The darkness overtook everyone in the room. It rolled up and over clothing, weapons, and armor. It spun out of doors, down hallways and expanded out into the courtyard. The ground shook violently for several minutes, yet nothing fell or even moved on the table and chairs stayed exactly where they were. The darkness started to seep into the walls. The thick bands of darkness holding everyone to the walls faded as well. The fire flared. The room became warmer. Avcar lay panting, wheezing, and drooling. The slashes down his skin and clothing were mended as if nothing had happened to him. However, long scars down both sides of Avcar’s face gave testament to the wounds having been very real.

 

Everyone else went to a knee, touched their clothing, weapons, armor, and any formerly unhealed wounds. Zaffron touched his formally mangled legs. “The pain… It's, gone!”

 

Aster managed to crawl over to Avcar. The boy’s eyelids fluttered. He was cold and clammy to the touch. His clothing, while repaired to the point they looked new, were drenched in sweat. He cradled the boy’s head and put drips of water on his lips.

 

Avcar groaned. He opened his eyes, “Aster… I hurt inside… I hurt sooooo bad. I think… I think… Am I Mundane?”

 

Wyhrem moved up and knelt. He stroked the boy’s hair. “Judging on the words, it did not sound like it. But after sunset, we will know for sure.”

 

“What… What happened?” Avcar moaned.

 

“I think you overplayed your hand and knowledge of magic.” Wyhrem whispered in relieved awe, “But it was extremely impressive, for if I am not mistaken, we all just met one of the ancient gods!”

 

The Captain of the Guard stepped out of the room, and returned minutes later, “My King?”

 

Wyhrem kept a hand on Avcar, but turned, “Yes?”

 

“You need to take a look from the wall, for impressive is so far below what I just witnessed, I am not sure there is even a word, words, or books to describe. You really need to see this.”

 

Wyhrem picked up Avcar as he stood. Behind them, Janden helped Zaffron to stand. The formerly horribly injured boy gave a few test steps, then jumped a couple of times. Finally, he dropped into a fighting crouch and did a series of kicks and strikes.

 

Wyhrem watched the display, “It is good to see you up and moving young Sect Warrior, however, fully healed or not, I strongly recommend you take the next few days at a diminished pace to make sure you actually are free of lingering difficulties.

 

“Now come, let us see what has left my normally unflappable captain so disheveled.”

 

Wyhrem climbed the stairs to the upper wall of the keep with Avcar still in his hands. Before he got to the top, his eyes caught what had stunned his Captain of the Guard. He almost dropped Avcar and stopped so suddenly Salostar bumped into him hard enough to force him to stumble up a few steps.

 

“Good King, I am beyond apologetic…” Salostar’s words ceased as his eyes took in the view. “By all gods! What is this?”

 

Since adults blocked their paths, the younger ones including Prince Klandon, Quavis, and Benam bolted back down the steps, raced across the courtyard and up the steps on the far side. Some of the other kids including Aster, Cresh, and Zaffron only made it halfway across before they stopped and stared. For the keep was no longer a step away from ruins. Instead, it looked as if it had been constructed the day before. Even the black marble fountain was fully repaired. Inky jets of blackness shot out of the horns of the marble likeness of what had visited them in the main room. They hit the main pool creating wisps of steam. The water inside the pool looked totally clear. The cracked, crumbling towers were dark colored stone, and the walls were in pristine condition. The black metal portcullis was no longer hanging off broken chains. Instead, it appeared to be newly forged and blocked entry into the keep. In addition, the crumbling structures of what had been left of the carriage house, guest quarters, and servant dwellings stood strong with black metal-banded wood doors free of rot and expertly hung on deep-seated hinges. All rubble within the grounds had vanished.

 

However, gasps from both sides of the keep caused the kids to make their way up the walls. All stopped and looked outward. In all directions, five to six blocks of brand-new buildings stood. Cobblestone streets, already starting to be covered with wind driven snow, showed they were as new as the keep and the buildings radiating outward from it. A few structures including a black hexagonal tower stuck out as clearly important. Surrounding the structures an eight-meter wall with over a dozen crenelated hexagonal towers protected the edifices within.

 

Quavis was the first to find his voice. “It… The Overlord of Afterdusk raised an entire city!”

 

“No!” a voice hammered into all those who gazed outward, “I simply nullified, with the help of the bloodline of which I feel you belong, what Pyrothermal, Cyronia, and other Mythlings razed.”

 

Janden looked over to Aster, “What the Mythlings raised? Where did they take it up to?”

 

“No, Janden,” Zaffron managed to snicker as he scratched the young Pantherling behind the ears, “the razed the Overlord of Afterdusk speaks of is the word which means to destroy as in level to the ground.”

 

“So there is a raised to bring something up and a razed to pull something down?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“What idiot came up with such nonsense?!” Janden demanded to know.

 

The sounds of a snicker permeated the air, “I believe I could come to like the little furball! However, not even I would dare call Odin an idiot! Now, gather your forces. Consolidate within. The areas within the walls of Afterdusk will provide shelter to those who require protection. However, with this comes a strong warning I expect to be well circulated. Those who enter with nothing but ill-intent or denigrated by malevolent magics will find their time in this realm ended before they can so much contemplate a move against those within the outer walls of my ancestral home!”

 

Darkness seemed to press into everyone on the keep’s walls as the voice added, “It seems those who stole your city have earned the enmity of others who have been pushed into this growing cataclysmic confrontation. I can only hope you can find it within to act as decisively as those who are already engaged. I shall watch on in interest and delight, for the conclusion, and thus the consequences, is far from determined.”

 

As the voice faded, sounds of rumbling thunder caused everyone to turn their heads toward Rolling Dale. The powerful rumbles seemed to be amplified as large blooms of fire erupted into the falling snow. Seconds later the force of the thunderous roars hit all on the walls of the keep with enough force to feel air leave their lungs. A couple score of deep booms and balls of fire continued to roll over the keep from the direction of the Rolling Dale docks for several minutes. A few could have sworn they could hear screams intermixed with the rumbling.

 

Wyhrem blinked, shook his head, and blinked again, as if firmly expecting what he was seeing and hearing, along with was laid out before him was all an illusion waiting to vanish. After several speechless seconds, and a dozen more thumping booms, he turned his focus to the Captain of the Guard. “Get my expeditionary force inside and man the defenses! Sagell! Get all the kids back into the main hall of the keep, for if this is the gift it appears, one of the commands I was given was to offer a history lesson. One I obviously do not have nearly the background I thought I did, but a lesson I intend to do my best to make as accurate as possible.

 

“Captain of the Guard find a way to get scouts close enough to the Rolling Dale docks to get a report as to whatever hell was just unleashed there. The voice of the Overlord of Afterdusk made it sound like we have other potential allies. I need to know what and who they are!

 

“Sardan! Send word to Junsac, Eaglecrest, Holgan, and all the other major land-holding lords. We need fresh supplies for refugees! Let them know we will open gates, stone gates to transport! Make it abundantly clear I expect the dukes, duchesses, counts, viscounts, barons, and earls to be far less covetous with treasures of MY KINGDOM this time!

 

“Everyone else, as you go about assigned tasks get gear ready, for the oration I was pulled out of, was leading to me toward requesting for all of your assistance. A discourse I intend to finish, and now thanks to Avcar and this Conner, brother of Aster, I have much more of a strategy forming to put into action!”

 

He subsequently turned to Salostar and Greyhammer, “So this Kandric, Premier Kandric, comes into my lands, kills a powerful White Dragon, and we consequently feel the deaths of at least six other lesser White Dragons. Then, the massive disturbance which woke all of us from a brief rest well before the first hint of Zeris’ light pushed through these deep clouds now appears to have been the death, by the hand of this Premier Kandric, of what is certainly the most powerful Mythling to not become a demon lord. This also must have been done in my lands. I think it is time you find a way to arrange a meeting with this… this… godling!” He stared at Greyhammer, “As fast as you all seem to get around, I see no problem with you delivering this Premier Kandric a message and him being able to respond quickly. Unless he wishes to deeply insult me, I expect him to be in front of me by nightfall today!”

 

He spun to glare at Gomriss, “And you my faithful Watch member, get Aster back in front of me! He knows of this Conner we all just received so much information about. I need insights into him as well! For I require understanding of both his brothers to determine if they are acting to rip this land asunder, halt its apparent sundering, or a combination thereof!”

 

******

 

Count Salostar and Baron Greyhammer

 

It took everything Salostar had not to speak to Greyhammer as King Wyhrem’s personal guards manned the main gate of the keep and activated the counterweight to raise the portcullis. The two moved out into the street of what was now an empty, but brand-new town. Salostar pulled up a pendant and spoke a set of arcane words. Nothing happened. “The wards against gating appear to have spread outside the keep gate.”

 

Greyhammer shrugged. “Then we head toward the gate we noticed in the outer west wall and hope there is a counter stone we can open it with.”

 

The pair walked slowly at first. They examined several structures, and even took time to open a few doors. The area close to the keep they had just left was obviously a high merchant area. There were display cases, counters, racks, and shelves. Most were empty. However, some weren’t.

 

A bakery had a display with rolls, loaves of bread, and even exotic cinnamon and sugar sprinkled pastries. After a moment of debate, Greyhammer took one, bit in and nodded. Not knowing what else to do, he dropped a silver on the counter and moved on. His actions were mimicked by Salostar, but instead of grabbing a cinnamon, he took one with a jellied apple topping. They moved on. Signs hung down from a shop saying it was a jewelry storefront. A poke inside showed the shelves were empty, but the equipment to make and repair were in the back. A forge with a pair of crossed swords was fully stocked with a multitude of armaments. Many were of muted black metal, and another dark but shiny black neither had any knowledge of. However, there were Silver Steel, Blue Steel, Stone Steel, Dwarven Steel, Elvin Steel, and Gnome Steel all available. The only sign of bronze was in a side display case. It had both the Elvin and Dwarven, along with half a dozen other languages, words for ‘youth’ above it. A glance inside the case showed the weapons were sized for smaller hands.

 

A meat shop, and the furrier shop across the cobblestone street were fully stocked. A silversmith and goldsmith shop had no goods, but the tools stood ready to make them into viable businesses with little to no preparation.

 

Greyhammer finally broke his silence. “We should go back and tell King Wyhrem of there being so may stocked and ready businesses! If he lets low caste, uneducated, and desperate refugees in here, it will be a feeding frenzy.”

 

“We should,” Salostar agreed. “However, can we afford to delay word to Premier and Alphar Prince Kandric of King Wyhrem’s demand to hold a summit? And what of this Garm Damafena? It is not a name I recognize. You?”

 

“No. But if she was really Garm, along with being a duchess, and was only a stone throw from becoming a Lich, she must have dated back a thousand years or more. I need to get word of this to Duke Mathard. I am certain, if he does not know, he will get an archivist to extract it from the historical scrolls. If it turns out she was Garm and a Lichling, her family line will have a taint on it the likes of which could end up stripping royal titles and lands!”

 

Salostar nodded, “The repercussions of such an epiphany coming out within the Alphar combined courts would certainly lead to a harsh family stigma. I hope for everyone’s sake within the Garm court, if she did exist, she was not royal nor noble, instead nothing more than a lower caste spell weaver.”

 

“Certainly, a Mage or Sorcerer…” Greyhammer shivered far more from the idea of a Garm becoming a Lich than the wind and snow slashing into him. He wiped snow off his face. As he did so, he noticed a couple of the King Wyhrem’s guards keeping a respectable distance, yet close enough to defend them if the need arose. “We need to keep our voices down. We have protectors.”

 

“I figured as much. We are in Wyhrem’s lands. I am certain he wants nothing to happen to emissaries from powerful races he had no idea existed until mere days ago.”

 

Greyhammer snorted, “With their arms and armaments we would be forced to defend them to preserve our honor.”

 

“Then let us dismiss them with a task worthy of their blessedly abandoning us.”

 

Greyhammer burst out in laughter, “An excellent idea, my fine Count!” He quickly spun and made his way toward the two guards. “Esteemed Royal Guardians of Eagleonia, if I may have a moment of your time?”

 

The two men exchanged glances, moved forward, and took a knee.

 

“No requirement for such deference, my good men, for I can only presume you were designated to safeguard us, so please stand!”

 

As both met got back on their feet, Greyhammer continued, “While I know it is to the possible extreme detriment to our health, my esteemed colleague, Count Salostar of the Alphar and myself, Baron Greyhammer of the Garm cannot in good conscious allow you to protect us when this empty walled village has scores of shops full of goods which need to be manned and protected prior to the gates being opened for refugees from your extraordinary kingdom to rush in. For I am certain after spending cherished time with gallant King Wyhrem, he would not be pleased to see this stronghold pillaged before it can even be brought to use against the deplorable beings who wrenched Rolling Dale out from under his benevolent control.

 

“I know a kingdom as grand as yours must, with certainly, have access to fine young nobles who need a starting point, and it would be totally remiss of us to hoard protection of such fine sentries such as yourselves when you could better serve your king by getting word back to him of the need to procure said nobles, fine merchants, and guards for these structures with all due haste!”

 

He smiled as the men exchanged words, verified their departure from their assigned duties would cause no undue ill-will for them to tend to such urgent matters. “No, my good men, instead I feel it would be a detriment to our budding diplomatic ties to hold you back from such an imperative undertaking.”

 

The two men turned and ran back toward the keep. Salostar raised an eyebrow as Greyhammer returned with a smirk on his face.

 

“Problem, good Count?” Greyhammer stated with a snicker.

 

“I… I just… Well… I did not think Alphar court… fluff… could be upstaged. I believe I was just proven wrong.”

 

“Ah, yes, I have heard much of the extreme etiquette within many of the Alphar courts. However, there is more than enough pompous self-righteousness within some of the elite Garm estates to nauseate even the most formal of beings from the lower races… and many from within the upper races as well. As an emissary and ambassador select of the Garm from a young age, I have learned how to play within without showing a hint of the disgust I feel while doing so. However, upon exit from such estates or meetings, I always feel the need to take a bath to rid myself of the smell of stuffy, uptight, self-aggrandizing asses.”

 

Salostar had to hold his ribs to quell some of the pain of his laughter. “Then do your utmost to stay well clear of House Wellaras, for you may need a complex of bathhouses to rid yourself of such a scent!” He took a couple of deep breaths to control his laughter. “However, good Baron, I must say, your diplomatic training worked this time to perfection! Now let speed our steps and take our leave of this place before King Wyhrem finds need to safeguard us again.”

 

******

 

Lord Anarton, Tyklor, Healthman, Yulay, and Ark’land

 

The path to get into the caves was far from hidden. It was well marked. Even ribbons of deep snow were not enough to obscure the path up and around the backside of the deep pool to get behind the falls. Anarton noted recent foot traffic. While it gave proof of the less than secret nature of what was behind the falls, it also assisted in navigation and safety. There were only a couple of potentially dangerous sections. One was on a switchback. It was steep and the path was icy. A fifteen-meter drop-off led down to the pool below the gigantic and impressive falls. However, it was wide enough to stick close to the cliff face. Recent footsteps aided them on how to best make it past this spot.

 

The second hazard was as they approached the falls themselves. Icy spray and bitterly cold mist billowed upward from where one section of the falls slammed into a rocky outcropping. However, this spot had a quartet of Gnome Steel poles buried deep into the rocky edge and a Gnome Steel chain provided a barrier and handhold, although the chain itself was coated in a thick layer of ice.

 

Anarton made the boys stay to the cliff side while he and the Healthman made their way through the mist close to the chain. Even with this, the Healthman tightly and protectively gripped Ark’land’s hand until clear of the billowing mist.

 

Once behind the raging torrent of water, the path became wider and easy to traverse. There was airflow as well, a constant warmer than air temperature draft flowed from deeper in the massive cavern and out around the waterfall. The air had a light smoky smell to it. This in and of itself was odd, but after a check for magic, Anarton guessed it was a natural phenomenon possibly caused by the wide mouth of the cavern and the water rushing down just outside. The other thing he noticed was the noise of the falls tapered off greatly once they got a hundred meters or so inside. At this point the path split. The larger trail continued up and over a smooth looking massive rock formation with water trickling around the west side. The area beyond looked immense.

 

Two much narrower paths went to smaller caves below the main cavern. The larger of the two was to the east while a tiny cave was down close to the pool and west of the main path. The paths for both angled out toward the falls and looked ice coated. However, a dim flickering glow came from the cave to the west. The passage behind the falls was far deeper than Lord Anarton had expected when he had been told about it. There was nothing to indicate the caves were an entry into a secret compound. Nothing.

 

Anarton gestured for the Healthman and boys to go over the smooth rock and into the main cave while he spent some time to observe the area and even took a moment to take in the beauty of being behind the huge falls. It really was quite a sight.

 

His attention reverted to his three boys who talked to the young Healthman. The exact words could not be made out because of the noise from the falls, but Anarton knew excitement when he heard it. He quickly hustled up the small outcropping, realizing it was surprisingly easy to jog up.

 

Once up, Anarton stopped and whistled. He found himself staring into a cavern larger and deeper than any he had previously encountered. In addition to the sheer size of the main area, protrusions went back into darkness in several areas. More astonishing, the main cave had clearly been used several times. In fact, Anarton was able to see so much because there were campfires already blazing within.

 

Five separate groups of refugees, most with little food, clustered around small fires far from each other. A sixth, better equipped group of six were in the process of setting up a camp slightly deeper in the cavern. They were working on getting a large fire started and were preparing a pair of Jackalope and some freshly speared fish for roasting. While a woman in a chain shirt prepared the meat, a teen boy about Tyklor’s age got a class on weapon care. The lad had several bladed weapons around him and was sharpening them under the guidance of a huge dark dull-scaled Dragonling. The color told Anarton it was probably a mixed breed. Another tall slender large-breasted member, hooded, and with a book pouch on her side, had a pot and was cutting vegetables into it. The youngest continued to blow into the fire while a man in reinforced chain armor worked with her on arranging the wood so it would burn better. All six had large packs close to them and wore heavy winter cloaks.

 

There were also over a dozen individuals or pairs, each with a small fire or in the process of trying to start one.

 

Anarton studied the surroundings for several seconds before speaking, “Ark’land with me. We’ll find a place to set up a camp so we can blend in. The rest of you go back out and get us some wood. No need to be picky since we can dry and light it with spells. You may have to make a few trips but stay together and be careful on those two trouble spots.”

 

Anarton and Ark’land found an out of the way spot with an already set up fire pit. The location was high above the area most were setting up camp. He sent Ark’land back down to guide the others to the location while he more carefully surveyed his surroundings.

 

The main area had scores of large ledges and dozens of small offshoot caves, yet he could only see about a quarter of the central cavern. As he studied the fissure in hopes of spotting something to indicate this was indeed a Gambra stronghold, more people staggered into the natural shelter. Most looked exhausted, shaken, and very cold. However, with few exceptions, they brought a bundle of wood with them. This last observation told Anarton two things. First there was most certainly another, easier, path since they had encountered no one on their way in. Secondly, there was absolutely nothing secret about where he found himself. It was so well-known people coming in knew to bring wood, so they certainly knew about the outdraft and there being places to set up fires.

 

While they ate a warm meal and the boys used Autospells to dry their gear, Yulay couldn’t help but note many eyed the four adults, teen boy, and young teen girl with silent pleas which were being totally ignored. “It’s like they don’t even see the others looking at them.”

 

Tyklor nodded as Anarton motioned for them to grab their gear so they could explore the area. The man angled away from the others to move deeper into the cavern, but Tyklor kept glancing back. “They have sacks of food, fresh meat, and are clearly able to hunt more. Most of the others have next to nothing.”

 

“Not fair at all,” Ark’land muttered.

 

“It is their provisions to share or not,” Anarton stated while looking back over his shoulder.

 

“But…” Ark’land whispered. “It looks like many of the others are starving.”

 

“You have rations. Hand over some of yours if you feel you must, Ark’land.” Anarton responded with no emotion evident in his voice. “Or you could go to the other group and ask them to share. But it is not up to us to intervene further. Also, remember, if you give your food away, you leave yourself short and put the rest of us in a position of having to feed you or let you go hungry should we be in here for more than a day or two. We only have three days with us.”

 

Ark’land frowned, “I bet if I go to them and ask, they will just tell me to share what I have.”

 

The Healthman glanced down, “Possibly. But as you look and feel sorry for the others, consider something else.”

 

Ark’land paused and looked up. “What?”

 

“No one is asking for help. And even if they have no coin, none are offering barter or services to those with all the grub.”

 

“Barter?” Yulay asked with confusion. “It does not look like most have much.”

 

“But they could offer to cut and bring in more wood, clean clothing, or approach with other services.” Tyklor responded in sudden understanding.

 

Anarton turned and eyed Tyklor with a raised eyebrow, “Very good! Such an astute observation shows the type of thinking I have wanted out of you for a few years.”

 

“Thank Conner, Lord. He has often stated how much he hates beggars but extends a hand to those who try to do something for him. It just hit me as I look at those staring at the other group and a few at us. We know many refugees were taken into the walled city. Most could have run, but instead stayed in hopes, even in captivity, they would be given the basics. Knowing Gambra, it certainly will not happen, and they didn’t know this, but they sacrificed what they had for want of someone to take care of them. Those in the other groups have little to nothing, but it is certainly better than those taken by Gambra. Yet they sit there waiting to be fed instead of putting forth effort. It is no better than a pet. Actually, it is worse because they are doing nothing. At least a good pet gives back joy to its owner.”

 

“I hate to see them starve,” Yulay stated. “But I see what you’re saying Tyklor. A handout does them little good. It feeds for a meal, maybe two. Working a task earns the meal and could gain enough trust to get hired again and again. At the same time the person working for the food gets better at a task and gains a skill he could use to feed himself or buy food to do so…”

 

Yulay hung his head, “Which is no different than I did by holding onto the life force for so long. I earned the initial burst as a spoils of combat, but I had no right to keep it. It was not mine and I should not have coveted something I had no right to.”

 

“Shrewd observation,” Anarton remarked. “Then why keep it when you no longer needed it to fight?”

 

“Selfishness.” Yulay admitted after a long period of silence. “I was so tired, even with the death gifting. I knew when I let it go, I would be wiped out and there was still duties to perform.”

 

Tyklor looked down at the slightly younger boy, “And other than to forego punishment, what other upside would there have been to dropping the gifting when our Lord commanded?”

 

Yulay frowned and thought it over. “I… guess… I would have learned better how to deal with being so tired, right?”

 

As Tyklor nodded, Anarton squeezed both their shoulders, “What else? Either or both may answer.”

 

Tyklor frowned deep while Yulay looked up with confusion. Tyklor mulled over the question for a long time. Even as Anarton moved deeper in the cavern and up a small rocky ledge, he handed out magical cold torches to everyone. Yet, he said nothing.

 

Suddenly Tyklor spoke as a new revelation hit him. “There are several, my Lord. Discipline and self-reliance instead of the barbarity of playing with the life force of another and not forging forward with what is ours, which is all we really deserve. Your whole pattern of teaching isn’t just a list of rules, it is like the foundation of the cabins you made us build. Without a solid one, the building is unsound and at the whim of storms of Syria and the winds of Avgon. With a good base they can hold up to both, and if damaged from severe wind or storm, they are easier to rebuild. However, the exact design can be altered on the foundation. Some will still come out stronger, but there is no way to make two buildings the exact same. There will be differences in the wood, and no matter how good, no two cuts are the exact same. Nor can nail placements exactly match. Because of this, we move a nail up or down into a better part of the wood, or set hinges slightly different, even when building two of the same buildings… your rules… they are our foundation. As long as we follow them, the rest of the structure changes to better match our skills, needs, and even desires… right?”

 

Anarton wrapped Tyklor in a tight hug. “While you describe what I have been attempting to teach in a way I have never heard before, your eyes are finally open. Now all you have to do is start building your structure from the foundation I have spent the last several years of your life providing.”

 

Tyklor let out a long breath. “How have I not seen this until now?”

 

“Some never do, Tyklor. Others, well, all one has to do is look at Conner to see a select few take my web of rules and connect the threads to form the foundation you speak of stronger than what the rules and my teaching alone cannot. Now your eyes are open, so I look forward to seeing what construct you come up with to become a Wraith of Light, so we can keep the darkness at bay.”

 

The boys continued to talk about how to build on the rules Anarton had drilled into them while the man remained quiet yet had a hint of a smile on a normally stoic face. As they discussed possibilities, both Tyklor and Yulay wondered how Conner had used the rules to come to see the world as needing to be in some kind of balance. Ark’land was more interested in the why behind some of the rules. As they talked, they explored the massive cavern.

 

There were scores of spots where fires had been built. It was clear numerous pits had been used countless times. Around many there were discarded bits from those who had used the cave for shelter over untold years. There were also a few piles of trash and discarded animal bones. Some pits even had small amounts of wood stacked by them.

 

One area had small flow of water that tumbled from above and into a deep hole in the floor. The area seemed to serve a dual purpose as a spot to discard waste down the hole while the water from above was clean, cold, and clear, which made for a good spot to refill waterskins. After nearly three-quarters of a day of searching the main cavern, they had come up with a few dropped copper coins, several more tin, and Ark’land had found a nice bronze dagger, a decent bronze mace, and coin pouch with both copper and silver coins under a heavily damaged and blood-stained suit of leather with a skeletal body still inside. The unfortunate person had died from a couple of crude arrows or bolts while hiding behind a pair of boulders.

 

Back at the campfire, Anarton sat on a large rock and took a swig of water. As he did so he pointed out several more groups had moved into the cavern, most of them just as poor-looking as the early groups. A few others looked better off, but nowhere near as well off as the group of six. Yet none approached the six with the food. Instead, they sat and stared with a mixture of hope and resignation.

 

Tyklor shook his head as he stood and rolled his shoulders. “If nothing else, they should all try fishing out of the deep pool since the waterfall has kept the surface from freezing. The overhang to the north would keep the snow off while they try. Even a totally Mundane can fish.”

 

“Maybe they don’t have stuff to fish with,” Ark’land stated. He paused and his eyes went wide as yet another group moved in.

 

This party was much larger and had a few heavily armed and armored men and women. Between the warriors, eighteen young men in light leather armor, crossbows, and hip swords hefted large snow-coved packs. All were breathing heavily. A couple started to take a knee, only to be pulled back to their feet by the guards. The guards pointed to a section deeper in the cavern. Behind them, an octet of mules, loosely lashed together moved into the cave with huge packs. One shook off as soon as it got fully up the embankment leading to the main cavern. This loosened ropes and spilled some gear.

 

Intermixed within the armed contingent were a few well-dressed adults. A small group of decently, yet ruggedly, dressed kids entered the cavern right behind the adults. The six kids grabbed what had fallen off the mule while two of the guards watched over them protectively. Once all the dropped items had been secured, the kids moved to catch up with the others, but all talked excitedly. This huge group bypassed all the others and moved in the general direction of Anarton’s group.

 

The voices of the kids caused weird echoes which in turn triggered one of the well-dressed men to call out, “Children, if what we heard is correct there is serious problems up in Rolling Dale. There are many who have sought refuge in here and certainly want to rest! Keep voices down!”

 

A nicely dressed woman called out moments later, “We have goods for trade if anyone wants to look over our wares! We will set up on the northeast merchant ledge. We will be open for business shortly.”

 

Ark’land climbed up higher on the rocks behind Anarton to get a better look. Suddenly he slipped a on wet section of rock and slid down into a smooth concaved section. His long squeal of fear changed to giggling as he came to a rest at the bottom of the bowl with a small pool of water in the bottom. Even in the gloom the others could see him look up. His gaze fell on Anarton with wide eyes. He shivered because of the cold water but sent up a beaming smile, “That was fun! Can I do it again?”

 

Anarton let out a relieved sigh and chuckled, “If you can find a way back up, yes. But it looks to me like we may have to toss you a rope. The sides look very smooth. You need to be more careful!”

 

Twin boys from the trade caravan sprinted from where the others were and scrambled up the rocks as they heard Ark’land. The speed they scaled up the rocky ledge told even the least observant they had been in the cavern countless times since they knew exactly how to get up to where Ark’land was. As they looked down, Anarton, Tyklor, and Yulay got a good look at them.

 

They were Human, and close to Yulay’s age, possibly a bit younger. Both boys sported reinforced leather armor and Training step 4 Warrior Adept pins on the left shoulder of a vest with eight Silver Steel throwing daggers. A Blue Steel messer with an amber stone was worn on the left hip while a six flanged Stone Steel light mace with a large blue laced agate stone in the handle hung off the right hip. Both boys also had a sheath built into their left boots, but the Daggers of Light they normally held were currently in the boys’ hands. The right shoulder showed the only noticeable difference between the two. One had a Healthman Training step 4 pin, the other a Sailor step 4 Training pin.

 

The lad with the Sailor pin brushed long brown hair back from his face and looked down at Ark’land with a big smile. “Turn to the left, just up from where the water in the bottom runs into the small crack! There are like, um steps. They’re hard to see without a light. But take it slow. It’s slippery, especially with wet hands and boots, but as long as you’re careful, you can climb up to us!”

 

The second twin moved down the rocks as Ark’land found the odd step-like structures and offered a hand. He hefted the small boy back up to the ledge with a wide grin. “You OK?”

 

Ark’land rubbed his arm as he looked at the older boy and nodded, “Uh huh. Bumped my elbow, but never done nothing like that before!”

 

The Healthman twin knelt and looked at Ark’land’s elbow while his brother held a Dagger of Light close. “Got the start of bruise. Don’t think it’s any big deal. It if starts to hurt come see us. As soon as we are set up so our folks can sell, we’ll be up here on the slide. It’s one of the best parts about coming up here!”

 

Anarton watched the twins as they helped Ark’land down from the rocky ledge. He didn’t turn his head away from them but spoke in a whisper. “Young Wraiths, it is time to do something I seldom allow. First, I am suspending your slave status, Yulay. If you do well, I may even decide to let it vanish under the understanding if you ever hold onto another’s life spark after I command it be dropped, your punishment will be something out of the deepest darkest interweaving of a nightmare. Second, and this is also just as rare. I want you both the make friends with those two. Remember to use your shortened names, non-Wraith disciplines, and do not show off... At least too much.”

 

“While I am not arguing and will never hold a life spark longer than absolutely needed ever again, may I ask why you want us to try to make friends with them?” Yulay asked.

 

Tyklor let out a soft snort, “Because we could spend moons in here before we know a tenth of what those two do about this place…” He then grinned, “And in this I happen to be with Ark’land. If we get to turn them into friends, we can do stuff with them. And those wet smooth rocks look super fun!”

 

A smirk crossed Anarton’s lips, “Do you really think I would stop you from trying it?”

 

“No Lord,” Tyklor responded. “But I doubt you would allow us to do it as many times as those two will want.”

 

Anarton snickered, “In this you are assuredly correct. However, from now until we are back on our own, my title must be Master, not Lord. Remember, I must now appear to be a Dragon Sect Warrior, which I am not quite to the level of Legendary Echelon. Those two have gear of extreme wealth. It is unlikely they will be allowed to spend time with you unless you have a high status. Therefore, all three of you are also to act as apprentices, not fully indentured servants. I will go down and introduce myself as a Master which will, or at least should, give the twins more time with the two of you. I see a younger girl, who could be a good playmate for Ark’land while you try to convince the twins to show you everything they know of this cavern. First, however, you need to show interest in getting to know them.”

 

Even as both Tyklor and Yulay nodded. Yulay glanced around, then spoke, “While it’ll be fun to get to know kids outside of your farm, I do not see how this could possibly be an entrance to one of Gambra’s strongholds. It is not secret, and people come and go all the time.”

 

Tyklor slowly shook his head. “I disagree. If there is a hidden passage, she and her people could come and go without attracting any attention. As big as this cave is, someone or even a large group could appear, intermingle and then slide in or out of the stronghold without anyone taking notice.”

 

Tyklor pointed, “Just look down there, Yulay. A trade caravan just made their way from somewhere outside the area, in a blizzard and are setting up shop as if it is normal for them. No one is going to notice people moving in and out of here!”

 

******

 

Yarnay (9yo Druid Gem Channel: Tallis - Klandon's WB), Sibler (9yo Mystic Sailor Mindmaster Lylan's WB), Kaznal (9yo War Adept Outdoors Channel: Avgon Mylan's WB), Tazen (14yo Swordsman Health), Dario (13yo War Adept Leather Gem), Alkoris (13 HAE Halfelf War Adept Lock Outdoors), Tyndall (15yo Mage Woodworker Outdoors).

 

Tazen looked over the three kids one more time. He could find no more tunnels under their skin and all three had calmed greatly since the removal of the worms and their subsequent cutting down. He had yet to untie them, since he figured it would be easier to deal with the treatment, he felt he should give them while they were restrained. It would also remind them who was in charge. Last, but certainly not least. He didn’t want any of them running and accidentally alert hostiles to their presence. However, he did have the three whipping boys give each some food out of one of the packs in the room and allowed them to share a waterskin.

 

He moved up to the first boy he pulled the worm out of. “Hold still as you can. I bet this is gunna hurt, but it’s really gotta be done.”

 

“Don’t take too long! We’ve been here too long already.” Alkoris warned as he peeked out the door they had charged in through. Everything remained remarkably quiet.

 

Dario grabbed one of the dead Goblings and dragged it into the empty room. "We'll put the bodies in here and hopes them don't get found for a bit..." He glanced over at the first kid to have the Brain Borer removed from under his skin. "Do ya know where we’re at?"

 

"You not know?"

 

Alkoris responded with a shrug as he yanked valuables off the Halforc, "We kind of took a wrong turn, woke up in the basement, and escaped... Well, still trying to escape..."

 

"This no be the basement?"

 

"Not the bottom of it, no."

 

"Oh..." The boy let out a hiss of pain as Tazen pushed some fireroot into the spot where the slug had been cut out. After a few seconds, the boy managed to whimper, "If'n this no be bottom basement, guess me knows what them monsters was gunna do to us after them things went in our ears..."

 

"What do you mean?" Tazen demanded to know.

 

"The girl spell-thrower with the knife in her..." The boy nodded in the direction of the moaning girl with her hand clutching the dagger in her stomach. "Her say us go down with the rest after da worm thing went in all three a our ears."

 

The kid paused, let out a few yelps and whimpered as Tazen punctured the path the borer had made in several locations and pushed in some fireroot. Once satisfied he had done all he could and the boy was free of the any other nasty surprises, he tightly wrapped the entry and exit points with a bandage. Finally, Tazen cut the ropes from around the kid’s ankles and pointed for Yarnay to help him over to a chair. “Hands stay tied for now. We can’t afford any of them getting loose.”

 

As the boy sat and put his head down on the table, he glanced to the well-dressed kid Alkoris had taken down, "The one wit the brew cloak... him say once worm go into ear, it make us dead inside... make me wanna eat on living. Him have more a them in him cloak, so be careful with it."

 

Sibler moved up to the Mystic, poked him a couple of times with his foot to verify the kid was still unconscious, and started carefully pulling the cloak off.

 

Dario looked over with a frown, "What is ya doin' little guy?"

 

Sibler didn't stop, but did respond, "I am a Mystic, and this is a super nice Mystic cloak." The boy pointed to a stitched in wolf on the left side of the collar. The thread looked to be silver and gold with blue shimmering sparkles. "This comes from the Howling Wolf Mystic Shop in the noble section of the capitol, and they only embroider the magic ones. This stitching is real gold and silver with crushed gems melted into the metal, so it is one of the best they make!"

 

Alkoris gave Dario a shrug, but had a question of his own, "Sounds stupid expensive, but what about the stuff in it? How will you know what they do?"

 

Sibler got the cloak off and noticed a row for seven glass vials with three missing. He pulled one of the remaining four out and wiggled it back and forth before holding it up, "This is one of those worm things... How about we wake him up and make him tell by wiggling this in front of his face?"

 

Yarnay looked appalled as he shook his head, "Sibler, you cannot!"

 

Dario let out a snort, "Sure he can! All it'll take is the bastard thinkin' he'll do it. After seein' and hearin' what they do, I bet he'll spill his guts of everything he knows!"

 

Tazen took a moment to stop working on the girl to turn and raise an eyebrow, "Worth a shot. But be careful, no telling if he's lyin'."

 

At this point Tyndall spoke up while looking at the book pouch he had taken off the girl he had stabbed, "Maybe Sibler will be able to focus in on the kid and see if he's lying like the guy down in Brackish Lake did in front of me."

 

"What guy?" Alkoris asked with great interest.

 

"A mind talker I was handed to for a week so he would help see who was lying about knowing where a noble was being held." Tyndall continued to look over the book and pouch he had pulled off the girl with some longing as he added, "He was able to tell who was lying real fast..."

 

Alkoris glanced over to Sibler, "You want the cloak, so it's worth a shot, but it’ll be real big on you.”

 

“Almost down to my ankles. I like them long!”

 

“Give him a few years before he needs a new one too.” Tyndall remarked with a snort as Sibler played with the best way to wear it.

 

“This is taking too long,” Alkoris warned. “We need to get going..." he stopped dragging the Halforc, grabbed the pouch out of Tyndall's hands, knelt next to the girl and slapped her face to get her coherent. "You're still awake, so you're going to take all the spells, except one, out of this book and hand them to me, or I'm going wiggle this dagger stuck in your gut around until you do." For emphasis he flicked the dagger.

 

The young Mage trembled and shook her head, "No... It's mine..."

 

"He took it fair," Alkoris pointed back and up to Tyndall, "and if ya die, so does yer book. He gets what's left. Or... you can keep whatever page you really want, and we leave you gagged and tied in the other room. Maybe you'll get found and live. Otherwise, you'll die right here, right now, and he'll get whatever's left." His eyes hardened and he raised his hand as if getting ready to slap at the blade.

 

The Mage shook her head and weakly reached up for the book.

 

Alkoris handed her the book while putting his other on the hilt of the dagger, "One hint of a false move and I'll twist this knife in circles!"

 

The teen shook her head in terror. With trembling lips, she flipped through the book, finding a single page. She then let out a whimper as she whispered a short phrase and pulled all the other pages out.

 

Alkoris handed the seventeen pages over his shoulder, then pulled a lightly glowing ring off her finger and a heavy greyish metal hip sword from her left side. "Now tell me what the ring does!"

 

"Cold protection... tap stone three times fast for half a day of protection... fifteen charges per moon cycle... But… it takes the use of Force equal to an Autospell to activate… The blade is Orakin magic... heavy but helps with attack... and causes great pain… It… its extremely old… It is mine…”

 

"Was. Now it's his."

 

Tyndall shook his head, "I barely know how to use a blade and I sure don't want a heavy one. Besides, if I'm really getting all these spell pages and the ring, I've got way more than the rest of you! One of you who really knows how to fight, take it. I'll just keep the bronze one you gave me."

 

Alkoris shrugged, flipped the ring over to Tyndall and slid the weapon and sheath over to Dario. "I'm really not a blade guy, so here."

 

Dario grabbed the blade’s handle and quickly pulled his hand back. “Yeee-ow! I think it bit me!”

 

Seeing Alkoris reach for the dagger in her stomach, The girl trembled, “No, no! Don’t! It is not my fault. It must be in the hand of a spellcaster, or it will… cause great harm to the user. Please it must stay with me!”

 

“Not going to happen.” Tazen snarled. “Now tell us what you know of it, or I’ll use one of those worm potions on you!”

 

The girl’s eyes went wide, “You can’t!”

 

Tazen stopped working on the tied girl, stood and moved up to Sibler, “Give me one of those. I think it’s time ta find out what would have happened if one of these things got into any of these three kids’ ears!”

 

The moment Sibler pulled out one of the glass vials the girl screeched, “I’ll tell you everything! Just keep it away from me!”

 

Alkoris shook his head. “Finish up on those other two Tazen, I got this.” He carefully took the glass tube from Sibler and moved closer. “Start talkin’ before I accidently break this next to you." To enhance his words, he dropped it with his right hand and caught it with a scoop from his left just before it hit the ground.

 

Even with the dagger in her, the girl rolled to get further away while screaming, “Noooo!”

 

Alkoris moved up and stepped on her leg, “I suggest ya start talking!”

 

“The blade, it is beyond old and has to be in the hands of a spellcaster to work. There are others like it, but they need to be held by those of other Fields. Mine prefers a Mage! It was fully tied to me at the time I tested into Training Echelon by twisting the handle all the way around. It opens the mouth on the Orc-looking head on the handle. My grandmother put it in my hand and clamped her hand over mine. It… it bit me! It continued to chew until I agreed to give myself to it! If you take it… If you kill with it, it will bite you and what it took from me will be lost in the blade.”

 

“What does it do for you, anything?” Tyndall demanded to know as he stared at the blade.

 

“Helps me fight better and gives me an extra couple of spells a day… Please give it back. If you want one for a Swordsman, find Devkiln. I hear he escaped from the caravan and is somewhere in the city! His is longer and for a Swordsman… but it lost, like, all power when he used it to burn the refugee kid’s hand! Please I’m bleeding, and my mouth is so dry…”

 

Tazen moved over and poured some water into her mouth. “I’ll secure the knife in your gut best as possible and do what I can to stop the bleeding if you tell us everything you know. If not… The little worm goes in you. Now what about Devkiln’s blade?” He pointed to Alkoris, “As soon as she stops talking, put the worm on her!”

 

“You best keep those lips movin’!” Alkoris stated as he held the vial over her.

 

“OK, OK! Just get it away from me!”

 

As soon as Alkoris backed off a pair of steps the girl put both hands back on her stomach and trembled in pain but started talking. “Devkiln detested the refugee kid. Hated him. I don’t know why… He just did for some reason. So he finally decided to force him out. He pretended to heat the blade up in the forge, but he really activated some of the power within. It’s like my blade. It knows how to cause pain. It did so by burning and biting the kid. But instead of crumpling, the little brat continued to fight Devkiln and the others. It took like four or five to hold him down and keep his hand on the hilt. Devkiln told him, all he had to do was ring the bell, but the kid refused over and over. I don’t know how he did it, but the kid took both its bite and burn and refused to surrender. For some reason, the blade couldn’t handle being refused, rejected, and overpowered in the force of wills battle. Devkiln got what the blade originally took from him, and everything else stored inside that was supposed to one day be Devkiln’s was instead instantly passed to the kid. From what I heard, one of those with Devkiln alerted the guard, because the kid was starting to come for them even as his hand smoked!"

 

“It sounded like the hand was all but melted to the hilt.”

 

“It was. I’ve never seen any burn so bad.” Tazen snarled. “Hope I never do again.”

 

“Dorwald said the blade healed the kid some, but it sure didn’t sound like it from what I heard.”

 

“If it healed him, it did a piss poor job.” Tazen took a deep breath as the girl pulled her hand away from her stomach, saw the hand coated in blood, and whimpered. “Keep talking or be worm food! What more do you know about Devkiln’s blade?”

 

“Not much! Really! Please help… I’ve told you enough…”

 

Tazen glared. “I’ll decide when you’ve told me enough! Now talk or worm.”

 

The girl let out a sob, “You’re going to let me die, aren’t you?”

 

“No. You are killing yourself by not talking.” Alkoris stated as he jiggled the tube with the worm in it.

 

She curled up into a tighter ball and gripped at the dagger while speaking through sobs. “I really don’t know more. Like I said… By the time the brat’s hand was pulled from the blade, it had already been drained and was cooling.

 

“It even lost its bond with Devkiln. I know it took Devkiln going out and killing several refugees for the blade to even become magical again. From what his brother told me, Devkiln had to slowly kill like a couple of whole families with it before it started to inflict extra pain again, but his blade is still nothing like what it was before the kid bested it.”

 

This got Tazen’s full attention, “So the blade is not Devkiln’s anymore?”

 

“No… it’s his… again… His father would have… we don’t know but it would have been awful. I… it hurts too bad. I can’t…”

 

“Worm or continue answering our questions. Your choice.” Alkoris stated and flipped the vial up and caught it over her head.

 

The young Mage let out a screech of fear. Her voice also gained some strength and she talked faster. “You bastards! Keep it back!” She took a few fast shallow breaths. “Devkiln’s father had placed the blade with Devkiln to gain power, not lose it. Devkiln knew his father would do horrible things if he found out the blade’s energy had been lost to him. So he got me and his brother Vit’s help to reactivate the mouth and hold his hand on it as it bit him. He tried to surrender fast, but it must have been angry or something because it kept biting for several minutes. Devkiln begged us to let him take his hand off, but my blade took me over and Vit fell into a trance and wouldn’t let go either. When we finally snapped out of it, Devkiln’s hand was a bloody mess.”

 

The girl put her hand over the blade in her gut, and started to roll into a ball, but the second the worm vial was waved in front of her face she resumed talking, but in a weakening voice. “We had to give him one of his father’s best healing potions, then take him to a Channeler to get the scaring healed without showing too much. We had to lie to the acolyte to get the lead priestess of Veldora to channel a healing. It was obvious we were not believed about his hand falling into a Razor Rat’s nest, by either the priestess or the Healing Spirits she channeled for. She had to coax a healing out of the spirit, saying it didn’t matter what had happened, only that a boy would be left horribly scarred if something wasn’t done. She then made it clear a large gift was expected. We emptied our pouches into the coffers before his hand was finally healed.

 

“Please, don’t take my blade and… help me... I… cannot take more of this… The pain is getting too much… If I vomit…”

 

“Then ya probably die.” Tazen stated without any sign of remorse. “So I recommend you don’t. Now tell us about what is with these worms, what was going to happen to these three, what else you know about what is going on, and a way we can get out of here with these three. If ya do, I’ll take care of ya as I promised. You’ll get left in the back room. It’ll give ya a chance. If not… we get to see what a worm does.”

 

The girl held up a bloody trembling hand as Alkoris moved the vial close yet again. “The Gloom Fire Mystics make them. I don’t know how. Hadhel called them Brain Borers. They are easy to pull out, until they get into the ear. Hadhel told us once they get inside your head, they take over, make the person want to eat live flesh. Those who get them put in their ears are somehow trained with pain and rewards of flesh to learn not to attack those wearing red sashes. I hear they have over a hundred below being trained and are making more. They went out to the refugee villages before they took over and locked down the city. I hear they are going to turn all of them into flesh eaters and unleash them on Wyhrem’s armies when the king tries to retake the city. Some woman by the name of Gambra says the soldiers won’t go after peasants, especially kids, until it is too late. They then will take the soldiers and turn them into better and more powerful undead with potions and spells.”

 

Even as gasps cascaded over the room, Tazen held up his hand to stop the three whipping boys from speaking. “So these Brain Borers make the person into an undead as well as a flesh eater?”

 

“I don’t know or really understand… But Hadhel said they have other potions that turn people into even worse things. The cloak you took has two dark grayish-green liquids. If you shake them lightly you will see little heads with nasty teeth. Hadhel called them Ghoul Makers. He told us if we didn’t help him set up this bet on those three kids, he would use one on us or have one of the other Mystics turn us into demon larva, zombies, wraiths, vampirlings, or other horrible undead!”

 

Tazen moved up to the kid who had the Mystic robe, “I gather this be Hadhel?”

 

“Yes. He is a Gloom Fire Mystic, His father is a Raven Cat Mage who I’m apprenticed to, and his mother sits on the Rolling Dale council! He knows way more than I do. Most of what I am telling you came from him.”

 

Tazen glared at the Mystic as he rubbed his chin. “What makes you so important to have the blade and to be part of this?”

 

“I don’t know why I got the blade, but it had something to do with the death of my mother when I was born. My grandmother was a Raven Cat Mage, and my father is a lieutenant in the city guard…”

 

“So the city guard is part of this?”

 

“I heard at least one commander broke off with most of his detachment and have gone into hiding, but… Much of the guards, yes. They are with Gambra and the Gloom Fire…” She spit out some blood but managed to continue talking. “I know my father was given a liquid to take out the Captain of the Guard. If he succeeded, he was promised a promotion all the way to watch commander and was to be given one of the estates in the noble section…”

 

Tazen shook his head, “Why? We are in the middle of Eagleonia! Do you think the king will not retake it?”

 

The girl managed a shrug. “I don’t know… Are you going to let me die slow or…”

 

“Shut up and hold your guts in for a few!” Tazen growled. “I need to think!”

 

Kaznal looked over, “What is a Raven Cat Mage?”

 

“An elite private Mage organization.” Tyndall hissed. “They have an invite only hiring hall right next to the northeast wall. It’s where we were staying… where my mistress was staying… where I was tormented. The mistress was a member. She took jobs from them before. Actually, they normally came to her.

 

“The missions they gave the mistress were almost always revenge oriented, with someone always wishing they had been killed instead. The Raven Cats also tended to come to the mistress with tasks where I could be used as a diversion. It’s how I ended up in the hands of a Halfdwarf slaver, a Gobling raiding party leader, and a merchant who I found out double-crossed them, and a super mean and nasty noble. All of them had a thing for boys… The Raven Cats knew this which is why they came to the mistress. She would let the targets have me, then strike when their guard was down.

 

“They were all left helpless, stranded, with little chance of survival. The mistress usually killed all but one or two of their family, too. Those who didn’t die...” Tyndall shuddered. “Those she didn’t kill were left wishing they had perished with the rest of their families. The Raven Cats were also the ones offering the reward for Devkiln and his blade. It sounded to me like they were way more worried about the blade than Devkiln, though. They also told the mistress about the reward on the kid in the color picture but weren’t the ones offering the gold for him. I don’t know who was.”

 

“Raven Cats be real powerful in and ‘round Rolling Dale.” Dario muttered. “They handle most all the monster problem in the deep woods. They’re also the main Mage back-up for the city guard when spell tossin’ be needed. Other than guild leaders, Raven Cats be pretty much the only spell throwers allowed to toss killin’ type spells inside the walls, too.”

 

Alkoris nodded in agreement, but glanced over to Tyndall, “So the woman in charge of you was a active member, huh?”

 

“I think so, although it was more like she worked for them. Sometimes I got the feeling she was trying to win a membership by making those the Raven Cats sent her after suffer as much as possible.”

 

Tazen continued to work on the three kids but glanced over. “Sounds bad, but can you give an example of what the bitch I killed did that was so awful?”

 

“Yeah, sure.” Tyndall let out a long breath as he continued to help dig through the belongings taken off those who had been betting on the fate of the three kids. “Three Raven Cat Mages showed up in Leer’s Crossing.”

 

“Where?” Dario asked as he checked the sharpness of a boot knife and quickly decided to take it.

 

“Leer’s Crossing is the only bridge crossing Greysac’s Torrent, the river separating the Wastelands of Odin from the outside world. The two women and one guy offered the mistress a contract on making a merchant’s last sandglass turns as unpleasant as possible. They even requested the death of the entire family except the oldest and youngest girls.”

 

Tyndall involuntarily shivered. “It wasn’t one of my better days either. While they went in and discussed the details, the Raven Cat Mages’ Apprentices took turns casting on me. Booger Bursts, Brain Freezes, Cross-eyes, Trips, Burps, Twitches… They wouldn’t stop until I stuck my hand into a mound of Assassin Ants. The Raven Cat guy took me a Healthman to get the stingers and poison out and then paid a Shaman to properly heal my hand. The whole way there the bastard laughed about how much I cried and how loud I screamed. However, he did say his Apprentices went too far, so not only did I get my hand treated, he took me to a Mage shop and had a backup book made of my very own. He also gave me credit for keeping my hand in the nest for so long… He even slid me several spell pages… But he took me to a spell page maker and used his own magic to help make a tattoo pouch for it.” He pulled down on his shirt to show a tattoo of a book over his left shoulder. “Hurt almost as bad as the dammed Assassin Ants, worse when it was pushed in. Problem is, he had me cast a auto-memorizable spell through him to lock it, so I know it. Trouble is, it's Secondary, so I can’t cast the needed spell until I reach Secondary Echelon. The prick said it would motivate me to be a real Mage…

 

“But it gave me a book of my own and the mistress thought it was just a tattoo showing I was a Mage. She wasn’t happy about it though. Anyway, it took a few days for the puss to drain out of my hand and for me to be able to move my hand and shoulder, so the mistress trailed the caravan. Just as we rounded Mount Twilight End, heading toward Vaneuben’s Gap, they stopped for an early night where a stream cut across the path. She had me move in and told me to separate the girls. As the two girls went to get water from further upstream so it wasn’t close to the animals, I tricked the youngest girl with a Mini-Illusion of a hurt puppy. When she chased after it, the older girl chased after her. The mistress knocked out the oldest girl with a spell as the younger one ran over a small hill. I grabbed the older girl and pulled her away, then made a glowing ball so the younger one went away from the camp instead of toward it, calling for the dog the whole time.

 

“While I kept the girl distracted, the mistress took out everyone else in the wagons except the caravan owner. She even killed all the draft and riding animals. By the time I got back, the guy’s jaw was broken so bad he couldn’t talk, and she also broke one of his kneecaps. She staked him down so he could see his wagons, but from a long ways away between two rocks. She left all the other bodies strewn around the small caravan. Once she was satisfied, I had to break a wheel on all three wagons, put all the food in one of the wagons, and light it on fire. Then I dragged the oldest girl back to Mistress’ wagon while she cast Embers on the ropes tying the guy to the stake so the ropes would eventually burn enough to where he could break free.

 

“As the mistress expected, the large fire led the little girl back to the caravan. Last thing I heard of the little girl was her screaming. Don’t know if the caravan master ever got to her or not…

 

“We took the oldest girl to Baccard’s Keep. It has the biggest open-air market and has huge weekly slave auctions. Its walls are the only structures I know of before the hills to the Wastelands of Odin and the only real settlement on the north side of Greysac’s Torrent, on the grasslands before the first hills of the Wastelands of Odin. She then told me I’d been used so often, it was time to learn what it was like to use someone else. She also said it would be good for me to finally get to learn what being with a girl was all about.

 

“There I was… I had my first and only time with a girl… I was told to make her mine just I had been made into a toy for others… Mistress made sure I made her do everything and did everything to her. At first the girl cried, but after a few days she gave up. After just over a week with me, the mistress had me take her out into the street with only sackcloth for her clothing. Mistress told her she would burn her eyes out if she didn’t oblige. I had to take her out to the street on a leash and offer her up for a copper for a sandglass turn. This went on for fifteen straight days. Once I got a 120 copper, the mistress took her to a Healthman, got her a bath, and gave her two full days of rest. Then gave her to me for another two days. The next day, mistress handed her all the coin and left her outside the keep gate with a skimpy leather outfit, low boots, a small sling pack with basic travel gear, and a lady dagger. She was so damaged and used… and everyone knew it… she tried to run after the wagon, begging us not to leave her there. She even called out saying I could have her every night, but mistress made me get the animals to go faster… It’s the worst thing I ever saw the mistress do and by far the worst thing I was forced to do to someone else.”

 

“You could have said no!” Alkoris snarled.

 

Yarnay shook his head, “If everything he has told us is the truth, and I believe him, he had no more choice than I do when I am told to drop my pants to take a lashing. Ty was just like an indentured servant. No rights given, no money, clothed and fed by the Mage woman. To say no is… was… not an option.”

 

“He could have chosen to starve, get punished, and possibly even have his book damaged. But for what? Once he got hungry enough or beaten too badly, he would have done as told.” Sibler stated. “While not a full slave, he was pretty much owned by the woman. I do not think you all understand what it is to be fully under someone like Ty was.”

 

Tazen glanced over to Alkoris, “I’d listen to them. If anyone would understand it would be whipping boys to very high caste boys. After meeting their commander, I’m real sure I’d never say no to the guy, no matter what he demanded I do.”

 

Dario, glanced over, “To me, it sounds a lot like us tryin’ to tell Master Instructor Babawid no. It’s just not somethin’ we’d ever think about, no matter what him tell us to do!”

 

At this Alkoris tossed up his hands, “OK, yeah. But still…” he shook his head. “So the Raven Cats sent messages to your old lady?”

 

“No. Just like when I stuck my hand into a nest of Assassin Ants, they came themselves and always with two Apprentices each. I don’t know how they found us, but they did… often. The Raven Cats seemed to show up in different places with bounty missions when we were in travel. Oftentimes this would happen when the mistress would be trying to get somewhere to get an offered payment. Whenever they did show up, I knew it was going to be bad for me. They knew from the first time they saw me I wasn’t very gifted. They made fun of me and their Apprentices were mean, and always targeted me. They almost always cast spells on me until I did what they wanted. But no matter what they did to me, I knew it would be worse for those they put a price on.”

 

“I knew I didn’t like Raven Cats; I just didn’t know how bad until now.” Tazen grumbled. He turned back to the girl who was rocking back and forth moaning again. “Knock it off and tell us how we get out with these three, or we worm ya!”

 

She didn’t even look up. “Maybe you can get them out of Gloom Fire complex by dressing them up and pretending to be escorts for them to see family. Master Tregasel took many noble and even royal children. He lets them go see family for a few sandglass turns a couple of times a week under escort. Just make sure you are seen being mean to them and don’t let them speak. The Gloom Fire Mystics like to see them cry. I got in trouble for being too nice once, and I thought I was being real mean. But those three are low peasant trash at best. The first time they talk everyone will know they aren’t nobles! You will also all need a silver ring with a gemstone. I don’t know what but was told bad things happen if you try to leave without one. Twist the stone to the right once you put it on, so it will work. Twist the stone again to the left before you take off or again something bad will happen. But I wasn’t told what. As far as getting out of Rolling Dale, it’s locked down. There is no way out.”

 

Alkoris snorted, “If we can get to the merchant section or better the dockside open air market, I can get us out. Any of the liquids in the Mystic cloak worth anything to us?”

 

“I can only tell you what I was told…” she whimpered. “Please, you have to help me…”

 

“You get or don’t get aid based on how helpful you are. So tell us what you know about the liquids!” Tazen demanded.

 

The girl spit more blood out of her mouth, “Fine! But you can only pull three each before the robe stops you from pulling more. You want full access you have to get it to attune to you and I don’t know how to do it.” Blood dribbled out of the corner of her mouth. She cringed as she swallowed hard. “There are lots of different liquids in the robe. Bottom rows on both sides are all Fire Bursts. We were told if one of the Ghoul Makers ever gets loose, to use one on it before it gets in our mouths. The next row up on the left side is Acid. The right side is Cold Bursts. The bright orange are the best Healing Gloom Fire makes. Master Tregasel and two others make them, but I’m told they taste absolutely wretched. He has three pretty blue ones. They smell real sweet but are Poison. The muddy brown ones are Anti-Toxin for the poison and works on other kinds of poisons and natural venoms from things like Spine Throwers. I had to take one of those once. It made me totally goofy for a couple of days. Those, the Brian Borers and Ghoul Makers are the only ones I know.”

 

Tyndall took a deep breath, “As many times as I have dealt with Raven Cats, I know they always have two Apprentices, a boy and a girl. So where is your master and your counterpart?”

 

“Teacher Wobalage is on the other side of the bronze doors with Teachers Egafina and Gergallia. Raven Cat Mage Apprentices are not allowed in there. They told us we’d be here a day or two, so they gave us them three, six others, and a few students from the local schools to mess with. Initiates Bacura and Ruthim, Novices Fediffra, and Fubid, me and my Apprentice complement, Nimgost were in the study messing with a couple from the Rolling Dale School of Arms who were dragged in by two Raven Cat hiring hall guards a few sandglass turns ago. But Nimgost and I got bored. He went to the resting chamber with one of the girls brought in at the same time these three trash caste were… and I… I came in here…”

 

“Where’s the study?” Tazen demanded to know.

 

“Small hall other side of the door from where you dragged the bodies...” she trembled badly as she stopped to cough up some blood. “I don’t have much left… please help me.”

 

“It’s a gut wound. It can take sandglass turns to die from one of those according to our instructors.” Alkoris stated with zero remorse as he wiggled the vial in front of her face. “What’s all on the other side of the door going to the study?”

 

The girl turned her head away from the glass tube. “Get it away from me!”

 

“Tell us what we want to know then!” Alkoris hissed.

 

OK, OK… It’s a holding area for those the Gloom Fire Mystics have plans for. On the far side is some steps leading up to resting area for guest Apprentices and Initiates. There is also four lodging rooms for Gloom Fire Recruits and Novices. Only Gloom Fire Apprentices and Initiates are allowed through the bronze doors...” She took several short fast breaths, then whimpered as she saw the glass tube held above her. Her hands quivered as she tried to hold the dagger in place, but a shake of the vial was all it took for her to continue talking. “Raven Cat Apprentices get to use the nicer accommodations quite often when our teachers go into the Gloom Fire main complex to help or whatever they do. The holding area has eight doors. The closest four are for the guards… You killed several. Two have guard shifts of four Goblings along with a sergeant and shift leader on rest cycle…”

 

She stopped as pain caused her to clench her teeth. She took a couple of breaths, saw Alkoris jiggling the Brain Borer again, and whimpered. It was clear she fought not to vomit, regained her breath after a few seconds she started speaking again. “All four of the other small rooms have a chamber pot and four metal beds attached to the walls. They lock with a metal slide on the outside of the doors. The door to the upper hall unlocks by pulling down of the right-side torch holder closest to it while casting a smoke puff into it. The upper hall has nine doors, the one on the end is a study.”

 

“And the rest?” Tazen demanded to know.

 

The girl used her shoulder to wipe off blood as it dripped out of her mouth. She looked up with pleading eyes, only to get mean stares back. She let out a moan. “It hurts too much…”

 

“Bet the worm goin’ into yer ear will hurt more,” Dario remarked as he finished stripping down one of the dead Goblings down to its loincloth.

 

Her chin fell into her chest as she saw Alkoris smirk and Tazen nod. “It… the study has a small offshoot bathing chamber, kitchen with fireplace, a well room, and two small punishment rooms. The six doors closest to the study are all four-person bunk rooms with desks, small storage chests, magic lamps, and a central table. The closer to the study, the nicer the room. Each has a door to a tiny square room for the room servant in the back.” She coughed up more blood, closed her eyes and quivered. “The… the ones furthest from the study are… are… um cells for...” She choked and bloody drool leaked out of her mouth. “Cells for slaves and or captives the Apprentices or others guests may have with them… The other two are storage… If you aren’t going to help me, please, just kill me… it hurts soooo bad.”

 

Tyndall moved up to the Orakin blade, “And if I take this and refuse to surrender to it?”

 

“You will capitulate… It will make sure.” The girl whined with certainty.

 

“If someone else did it, I can as well.”

 

Dario turned and stared at the Tyndall with a befuddled look, “Ty, um… is you nuts? You’ve done nothin’ but tell all a us what ya can’t do and how bad you’re like at… everythin’. But now yer saying you can take a blade tryin’ ta eat you?”

 

“I’m a weak, next to worthless in anything but surprise combat, and probably the worst Mage ever, but one thing I have learned how to do is deal with pain. So how do I make this work?”

 

“Ty, you can’t!” Tazen stated. “I treated Rylan! I ain’t got a clue how he did it, but there ain’t no way anyone else could do it.”

 

“Oh, watch me.”

 

“Ty, listen to me! Rylan damned near lost his hand!”

 

He glanced over to the potion cloak. “If one of those healing containers will fix my hand enough to where it will eventually heal enough to use it, I’m game.” He glanced up and frowned, “Guys, don’t look at me like I’m being stupid. Dumb is about the only bad thing I’m not. I’ve heard enough to know what’s coming my way. Actually, I know better than anyone here, cause I know pain! Some from the mistress, more from all those she handed me over to as a distraction, or to those she had me take the brunt of their wickedness so she could get a clean shot. Not to mention the damned Raven Cat Apprentices.” He pointed down. “Which is why I went after this bitch.”

 

“And you did great, Ty!” Yarnay praised, “But did you not hear? The blade will try to eat you, may burn you, or might try something else! If it has power to make pain, who knows what all it could do to you?”

 

Kaznal nodded, “Part of what Master… our commander taught us from day one of him taking over the training of those we are indentured to, and thus us as well, is never to play with magic we do not understand. He never let us touch magic unknown to us unless someone was there who did know and could react if needed.”

 

Tyndall snorted. “You take beatings, so you think you all have a clue. But you really don’t get it. No matter how hard you get whooped for who you are indentured to, it’s nothing compared to what horrible people do to those they have no care for and complete power over. The person they have power over has been me too many times for me to count. I have been in the hands of a Warlord of Morden, an orphanage overseer, three pirate captains, a couple of slavers, a gladiator master, over a dozen bandits and too many merchants, nobles, and aristocrats to count. I’ve even been ‘gifted’ to a damned Wolfling arena pit master!” He clenched his fist, “Not to mention the innkeep where the mistress found me. Pain is something I know and know well. Too well…”

 

The girl spit out some more blood, “Won’t do you any good. It would take time to set it up and I don’t have… probably much if any time left if you don’t all help me. The only other way to have it take you, and again it will take you, is to kill with it. So just give it back to me and forget about it.”

 

“The chance of us giving you this weapon is less than zero, spell whore!” Tyndall glanced over at the Mystic. “I’d prefer to kill her, but if he is really part of making flesh eaters and undead, I have no qualms shoving this blade into his throat instead.”

 

Even as the others all said no, Tazen held up both hands. “Ty, if you are certain, but first we have to know if she is right about those being healing potions in the cloak. It took me sandglass turns of work to take care of Rylan’s hand and I had basically unlimited access to Healthman supplies! He still wasn’t able to use it for days. We don’t have the time and I bet we’re going to need your spell throwing again to get out of here!”

 

“And we’ve got to get our fellow students!” Dario stated firmly.

 

“Not really looking forward to going after two six-man guard shifts and five Mage Apprentices, Dar.” Tazen stated. “But I’m with you. We can’t leave comrades down here with these animals.” He took in a deep breath, “But I also gave my word to this wench, and I don’t go back on my word…” He stared down as the girl coughed up more blood. “Kaznal, give me one of those orange ones.”

 

“But.”

 

Tazen’s voice strengthened. “Who is in charge of you Kaz?”

 

“You…” Kaznal sighed and took one of the seven long vials with orange liquid from the robe.

 

“Yea I am and remember it. Don’t make me talk to the commander about not mindin’ me.”

 

At this, all three whipping boys held up hands and gulped.

 

“Geesh,” the girl got out as she spit up some more blood. “Your commander must be as bad as Master Tregasel!”

 

“Get him mad, and he’s worse, I’m sure. But he doesn’t make undead or turn little kids into flesh eaters! Now open up.”

 

The girl looked up at Tazen in terror, “You… you can’t heal me with a dagger in my stomach!”

 

Tazen grabbed the girl’s weakened and blood covered hands to prevent her from pulling out the blade. “After what you’ve done and were gunna do, I sure can.” He looked over his shoulder and held up the tube. “Alk, get ready to pour!”

 

The girl thrashed. As the open vial got close to her lips, she bit them to keep them tightly closed.

 

Tazen reached down with his free and pinched her nose closed. She had no choice but to open her mouth to breathe. An instant later Alkoris dumped the liquid into her mouth and slapped both hands over it so she couldn’t spit it out. At the same time Tazen pinched her nose closed again forcing her to swallow. She started gagging a few seconds later.

 

Tazen released her nose so she could breathe. Several seconds later Alkoris backed off shaking his bitten hand. He glanced at it, “Wow, Taz, that’s some good stuff! It’s even working on my hand! Her teeth marks are closing as I watch them!”

 

Tazen ripped at the girl’s shirt around where the dagger was buried. The wound closed around the blade and even the upper half of the hand guard quickly. The whole time the girl spit, gagged, made hacking sounds, and quivered. After several minutes, the only sign of injury was the hilt and lower half of the hand guard sticking out of her upper stomach along with the blood coating much of her and her clothing.

 

Tazen smirked, “There, as promised, I did what I could to get the blood flow around the dagger to stop and secured it in place. Dario, tie and gag her. Be careful. She told us what we wanted to know, so we give her a chance.”

 

He eyed the dagger and shrugged, “I can only guess at what having a knife deeply healed inside a person does, but I’m pretty damned sure moving it around isn’t a good idea. So if I was you, I’d stay real still.” He used one of the waterskins in the room to wash the blood off his hands, gave her a decent drink, and turned to look at Tyndall, “If you’re really goin’ to try this, we at least know we have a curing mixture for you. But let me warn you, if you fail, and the blade makes you turn on us, we will kill you.

 

“So, before you do anything stupid, think it over. You’ve got some time. We need to wake the Mystic and find out what other liquids are in the cloak. We also have to see about rescuing the other two from our school.”

 

Alkoris let out an uneasy breath. “If there is a plus side, it sounds like this is basically a dead end, so unless someone comes to get someone or to get some rest, this wing should be left alone.”

 

Dario moved up to the Mystic. “He still ain’t moved even after we stripped him to his loincloth.”

 

“Tie his hands behind him and toss some water on him.” Tazen commanded. “We need to know what the other liquids in his cloak do.”

 

Dario used his foot to roll the kid over, “Even if he wakes, I’m not sure if he’s gunna be able to talk, Taz. His jaw’s a mess.”

 

“Makes it harder to cast.” Alkoris shrugged. “But after what his worms almost did to these here kids, he’ll find a way to talk, or I swear I’ll put this worm into him!” He held up the tube for emphasis.

 

“If anyone ought a have it done ta him, it’d be this prick.” Dario stated while making sure the kid’s hands were tightly secured. He stood, pulled down his armor and pissed on the kid.

 

The kid moaned, thrashed for a few moments, bumped his jaw on the floor and gasped in pain. A few seconds later his eyes rolled back up into his head.

 

“Oh, no you don’t!” Alkoris snarled. He looked at the boy who remained the only one of the three to talk, “You need to take a leak, kid?”

 

The boy looked over with a glare at the Mystic. “Yea, me could go. Ya gunna have ta help er untie me hands…”

 

Tazen moved up behind the kid and cut the ropes joining his hands. “Just don’t run.”

 

“And go where?” The boy asked as he rubbed his wrists and stood. “Yer the only chance me gots!” He moved over and put another stream into the Mystic’s face. It was obvious to the others he aimed for the mouth.

 

The kid’s eyes popped open again and he gagged as he realized what the boy standing over him had done.

 

Dario moved up and stepped on the Mystic’s chest. “Can’t have ya bumpin’ your mouth and knockin’ yourself out again.”

 

“You… Owwww!” The kid quaked as his jaw moved.

 

“Me what?” Dario demanded to know.

 

He spoke slowly without moving his jaw much, badly slurring words. “Yaww knaw whooo I mmm?”

 

“Yea, A Gloom Fire bastard.” Dario responded. “Now tell us what the fancy little bottles in yer cloak do.”

 

“And don’t lie.” Alkoris added. “We know what several of them are.”

 

“No!” the young Mystic managed to get out loudly without moving his jaw.

 

“Screw this!” Tyndall stated. He moved up, unexpectedly snatched the vial out of Alkoris’ hand, and tossed it down, right next to the Mystic. It broke. The Brian Borer quickly scooted over and dug into the kid’s thigh.

 

The kid thrashed madly, “No! NO! NOOOO!”

 

The others all moved forward, But Tyndall stomped his foot, “Back off! Judging on how fast the borers moved up those three, he has a few minutes!” He then spun and looked down with a glare. “Now tell us what those damned liquids are!”

 

“Geet it oowwwt! Geet it oowwwt feersst!”

 

“No.” Tyndall snarled. “You tell us what the robe does, how to make it work for someone else, and all the weird glass things do, and I mean all of them! If you do, I will stop the worm from getting to your ear. If not, then we get to see what happens when it gets in your head! If you don’t hurry, I’ll put another on your nuts just so I can have some fun watching you try to scream with a busted mouth!”

 

Behind Tyndall, Alkoris took a step back while most of the others put hands over their groins at the thought of one of the worms digging into such a sensitive area.

 

The Mystic rattled off how to activate the robe, what it did, and went down the potions by color. A couple of times Tyndall had to stop him and have him say something again because he was so hard to understand. He also motioned Sibler over. “Hold up the robe, point to each one, and tell him what it does so we all know you got it.”

 

Sibler noticed the worm was up to the bottom of the ribcage and continuing to move up. He gulped. He pulled out the cloak and pointed, “Maroon is Fire. Gold is Ice. Blue is Poison. Brown is Anti-Poison and dark green Ghoul Makers, um…” The worm had moved up a couple of ribs. Watching the trail it left right under the skin made him shiver. “Um, purple is a Bone Stripper and can only be used on someone who is bleeding. It is a one-shot demon-like beast… Orange Super Healing and pink Minor Healing. Black blobs are more of those nasty brain worms… Um… silver color kills the worms even after they get inside your head but makes you real sick and takes some of your magic… Clear liquid with chunk of rock inside is a Splinter Bomb. The tan is Dust Burst…the copper ones are something to do with Vomit. Small orbs down along the lower seam with multicolored rocks are Sickness…” He stopped as the borer seemed to get confused as it tunneled around the Mystic’s left tit a couple of times causing the kid to thrash and scream. He pulled out a clear one, “Burning gas?”

 

The kid nodded wildly, “Nooo fire… jus… ffeeelll like burrrn! Huurrrt eye real b…b…bad. Geet it oowwwt! Geet it oowwwt!”

 

As it got to the collarbone, Tyndall knelt, dug a knife under the borer, lifted it out and dropped it back on the kid’s other leg. “Figured I’d give you some more time, Sibler. Now take a breath and let’s make sure you have them all down. Go over all of them again.”

 

Around Tyndall, the other kids blinked at how calm, confident, and mean the older teen had suddenly become.

 

Below Dario’s foot the kid squealed as the borer once again dug into his leg and started working its way up.

 

Sibler shuddered as he went through the long list of tubes, orbs, vials, and two large flasks. “Big ash-colored shiny ones are Blister Blasts?”

 

Again, the kid nodded as he tried to shake his leg. Tears poured out of his eyes.

 

Sibler moved up to the top row, “Light green is… um…”

 

“Krrrammmp boom…”

 

“Cramp Bomb?”

 

The boy nodded again and let out a shriek as he tried to pull his left leg up to his stomach to pinch the borer off, but all this accomplished was for the worm to exit the upper leg and dig back into the skin just below the belly button. He then let out an anguished howl as it exited the skin and chewed directly into the belly button. From there it angled back over to where the first path was and moved quickly.

 

Sibler took a deep breath. “These icky dark blue are slides?”

 

“Ssslllicknessss.”

 

“Oh, ok… and the dark sandy color is Sticky?”

 

“Yea… Taaake oowwwt, taaake oowwt.”

 

Sibler’s lip trembled as the skin pushed up where the borer moved slowly and steadily up toward the boy’s head. He tapped three potions on the seam, “And these reddish-pink ones stop the Ghoul potions?”

 

“If taken fasssst, yesss. Owww!” He thrashed again. “Get it owwwt!”

 

Tyndall shook his head. “We aren’t done yet. The command word to make the robe his is ‘Crimson-rose-wine’, and the robe gives him a shield and prevents more than three the flasks from being pulled except by the wearer when he is wearing it. It also cleans and repairs itself on new and full moon, but takes the Force equal to two Primary Echelon spells to do it?”

 

“Yea… yea… yooo got it.”

 

“Put it on Sibler. Let’s make sure he is telling the truth. If he isn’t, he’s worm food!”

 

“No, stawwp! Do tawwwp buuut-in firsss. Or beerrrrn youuu when speeeak ka…ka..ka-mand.” The kid took some gasping breaths as the borer once again wrapped around his tit a couple of times. Other tears fell and sobs escaped him as Sibler put on the cloak, buttoned the top and said, “Crimson-rose-wine!”

 

A moment later the robe seemed to move as if wind was blowing it around. Within a few seconds it was perfectly sized to the way Sibler wanted. “Oh, this is really nice! There are even dimensional pockets under each potion, so there are really three in most of the slots. But it means I now have five Ghoul Makers, three Bone Strippers and eleven of the Brain Worms to get rid of!” He dug into a small pocket over the breast and pulled out two large books. “And look! I have his spellbook and his brewing book!”

 

“Yaaa now con-roll my robe and can make many mixxxezz.” The Mystic stated with a hint of anger in his eyes. “Now TAAAAKE IT OOWWWT!”

 

Tyndall motioned for Dario to get off the kid, shoved Sibler back and stared down with a depraved grin. He knelt, reached back, and hefted up the Orakin weapon with both hands. He eyed it, expecting to get bit. When it didn’t happen, he took a deep breath as he moved directly over the Mystic. “I said I’d stop it from getting into your ear. I never said I’d take it out!” He lifted the blade above his head as the Mystic’s eyes went wide with the sudden revelation he was going to die.

 

Tyndall spoke through gritting teeth as he swung the blade down on the Mystic’s neck, “Ok, you metal hunk of crap, give me your best shot!”

 

The heavy blade made a swishing sound, followed by a clang and some sparks as it easily cut the head off the helpless Mystic and slammed into the stone floor. The stone under the headless body even took a deep gouge.

 

The whole blade rippled with greenish-grey waves of energy. At the same time, the eyes of on the Orakin head at the end of the hilt popped open and glowed a deep dark crimson. The mouth of the Orakin head opened and clamped down on Tyndall’s right hand, just below the thumb. Blood dripped down the hilt and onto the blade. The waves of energy rippled and churned. Bolts of crimson shot out, causing Tyndall’s hands and arms to cramp up. This was followed by scores of bluish-grey electrical sparks. They wrapped around and hit Tyndall all over his hands and fingers.

 

Tyndall shook violently. However, even as he started to go down to his knees, he gritted his teeth. Shaking like a leaf, he forced himself to fully stand. Through clenched teeth he snarled, “Oh, come on you useless lump of killing metal! I was told you knew how to inflict pain! Come on! Get on with it!”

 

More sparks shot out. They lanced into his hands. Where they hit, pinpricks of blood could be seen. The mouth on the hilt let go and took a deeper bite. Waves of energy from the blade arched upwards and lanced under Tyndall’s fingertips. All his fingernails started to bend back. Blood ran from underneath.

 

“Pathetic!” Tyndall roared as if he was feeding off the torment and torture. “Assassin Ants hurt ten times as bad! You can do better!”

 

Waves of heat rolled off the weapon. Tyndall’s skin started to blister.

 

“Had a Boiling Beetle put on my chest and left there until I sucked off an Illorc pirate captain and his first mate. Mistress had to get the scar cut out of and me healed by a Master Echelon Healthman in Boiling Bay!” Tyndall’s hands gripped the blade tighter. “It melted my skin! If all you’re going to do is ggggive me blisters, ya…ya… you ain’t worth a crap!”

 

Ice crystals formed around his hands. His fingers started to turn blue.

 

Tyndall gritted his teeth as the puss in the newly formed blister froze. Still he managed to taunt the weapon. “Been colder! Was locked onto a table with ice restraints as a Dwarven Druid and his entire band had his way with me, you worthless piece of demon dung! I was melted free from his blood after mistress gutted him while he was still on me!” Tyndall derided even as tears rolled down his cheeks. He pulled the whole weapon into his chest, “Come on, freeze me if you can!”

 

The waves of energy coming of the blade flared yet again. Tyndall’s teeth started to chatter. “B… b… been dunked into the Frost River up in Frozen Stone in the middle winter and had my h… h… head held under by a Caveling as he split my backside… you bastard. S… st… Still been colder! You ain’t got nothing on that!”

 

The waves of energy started to falter. The blade jerked back and forth. “Taz! Alk! Dar! Help! It is trying to pull free! My hands are too stiff and I’m not strong enough to hold it!”

 

“Aw, crap…” Dario stated. “I just know I’m gunna regret this.” He moved up and put Tyndall into a bear hug. “But after what yer goin’ through I gotta try to help!”

 

The others all surrounded Tyndall, including the whipping boys and even the freed boy who peed on the Mystic. One, by one, they clamped down on Tyndall’s hands and helped him keep a firm grip over the weapon’s hilt.

 

The head of the Orakin figure pulled bits of flesh off as the other energies in the weapon rapidly faded. Finally, it stopped biting and spoke, “Let go! You are destroying me! LET GO!”

 

“No!” Tyndall shouted back. “Give me your power! Give it freely or I will drain your essence all the way out of this piece of crap Orakin-metal-coated sword!”

 

“You cannot do this!” the mouth shouted. “I… I…”

 

“You are dying, and you know it, General!” Tyndall countered. “Your link to Pyrothermal is dead, as I feel he is! You cannot tap into it all. You used up all the energy of the charred fiend first sent and Frexla’s channeled energy is dimmed to the point you are only giving me light burns from some blaze wench! Without real fire, you’ve got nothing left! The power of storms you exhausted early on. All you have left is ice and the link you have to it is draining you. Cyronia has not come to your aid, even though I feel you have tried a few times to get it. All you have is some demonette frost-whore helping to chill the metal! I’m draining her just as I did the charred fiend! I am now depleting you. You are beaten! Relinquish your powers to us and I’ll let go of you and the demonette. Otherwise, you are mine and I will pull you all the way out. Once I do, I will shatter the damned blade and send you to Inaxia’s side where you can tell her why you let me kill one of her minions! Then you can explain this utter failure on your part to Frexla herself!”

 

There was a series of hard pulls, jerks, and twists. This was followed by and agonized sigh. “You have bested me, Human. But you will inherit a few Orakin traits for this… you and your friends all will. I will see to it!”

 

“I’ve got little to lose.” Tyndall fired back.

 

“Then so be it. I surrender to you… I yield field of battle for only my third time…” A burst of brilliant green-grey energy erupted outward from the mouth of the Orakin head. It formed a ball in the center of the room. In the middle seemed to be a window looking into severely damaged brick structures in very dim light. The green mass churned and bubbled for a few moments before it exploded into eight crackling balls of energy. The middle one was by far bigger than the others. They swirled around the room, bounced off the walls and crisscrossed each other with sizzling sounds for several seconds. Then, decisively, they slashed downward. Tyndall was lanced by the largest one. The other seven holding him each took a smaller one. The force of ice-cold electrical bolts still knocked them back from Tyndall. The color of the metal blade dulled greatly and took on a green tinge. Tyndall took a deep breath, held the blade above his head and shouted, “Now start from scratch, asshole!” He tossed the blade into the body of the headless Mystic and stomped down on the worm as it crawled across the floor toward Dario, who was the closest.

 

The blade flared. A green aura surrounded it. The blade itself started to fade, then reappeared. Waned again, then surfaced again. Cracks appeared in the metal. A green glow came from underneath. It withered a third time. It seemed to jump in and out of the body a half-dozen times. The body of the Mystic evaporated from around the blade and disappeared. The head followed but left huge puddles of blood behind. The blade finally clattered to the floor. The Orakin head spoke, “There is too much magic from rupture points and dragon magic… I am trapped! I cannot allow myself to fade into history! I cannot be forgotten! Here, damn you all, take what is left of me! You eight… you are my legacy!” The Orakin metal coating peeled off the blade. More lightning surged out and lanced into the boys.

 

However, one ball of lightning was caught as it started to split into eight. Hands of pure blackness grabbed it, surrounded it, contained it. A deep creepy voice seemed to come out of the walls. An oppressive power filled the room and made it hard to breathe. “Oh, no neophyte godling. You do not get to leave a lingering presence in this realm beyond your power giftings!” There was laughter, but it was filled with gloating and anger. “No deityling, you leave this world as you entered it, a flicker of light to be swallowed by eternal blackness.”

 

A terror-filled voice came out of the inky blackness of the clasped hands, “This cannot be! We banished you and the twelve others!”

 

An insidious laughter oozed out of the walls. The temperature dropped. “Ah, but the barriers of banishment were never perfect. Mere former mortals have no concept of perfection! There were gaps. We still exerted influence. Over the millennia your barrier crumbled, for time is something you hold to and thus your incantations were built within the limitations thereof. Just over four decades ago a mortal found us, gave us a gateway back into your realms. These large cracks led to the Dark Mage purges. The defection of demons gave us limited access back to this realm without need for a Channeler. A few years ago, a young Elf dared defy the lesser ancients and put a two-way hole in the walls. The boy destroyed the Garm counterpart of the Alphar your blade allied with. This event in time, combined with my temple of power being revamped for the first time since the hole appeared makes this possible. Don’t worry little deityling. I suspect you will not be alone for me and the others to play with.”

 

The voice lost much, but not all of its angry tone. “Young, slightly greater than insignificant, mortals. If it does not trouble you too much, and you wish to slightly sate my irritation, the young one with the knife in her belly would be a good addition to this one’s cage… I cannot have this deityling go insane from darkness and loneliness… No, this one needs to stay sane to fully experience the torments it earned by helping build the barriers it so arrogantly assumed were infallible.”

 

Tazen, down on all fours, managed to gasp out. “I promised we would not kill her…”

 

“A mortal of his word. An interesting concept I have only fully beheld a handful of times within the entirety of the existence of your realms.”

 

Darkness pushed inward. It made the floor hard to see even though most were down on hands and knees. “Worry not.” The voice reverberated off the walls. “Death is a dream she shall not in your lifetime grasp. Nor will she taste what lies beyond the veil of this life in the span of your great-grandchildren ten times separated!”

 

“Then get rid of her,” Tazen choked out as the sounds off the walls seemed to close in, and with it darkness. Even the torches that were still blazing stopped putting out light.

 

“I find you, along with the pain tried and tested one, worthy as my Channelers. It is not an honor I recommend you rebuff.”

 

“As long I can fight those who are doing this to my city!” Tazen stated even as he swore the darkness had mass and was pushing into him from all sides.

 

“I also have a condition. I will not a be slave to you as I was the mistress,” Tyndall managed to get out through clenched teeth. “If you can guarantee this, I accept as well.”

 

“Neither of your ostentatious demands are outside my purview. Darkness is a vector to and of all, a slave to none. It can be pushed back by light but can also swallow it. Darkness makes its own way and leaves its own mark. Blackness is cherished by some and dreaded by others. It is a granter of rest, yet a tormenter of exhausted. It awards both dreams and nightmares. It is a blanket for those needing rest and a shroud to those who use its veil to conceal their transgressions. Nightfall ends the oppressive heat of day yet transforms a blustery day into a bitter cold night. My Channelers make their own way within such a dynamic, comforting, and terrifying cloak called Afterdusk.”

 

“Best pitch I’ve ever heard!” Alkoris responded. “If you need a third, I’m in!”

 

“As am I!” Dario wheezed out.

 

“Anyone else?” The darkness thundered in their ears.

 

Kaznal shook his head. “I follow Avgon to death!”

 

“Likewise, Tallis is my life!” Yarnay managed to proclaim.

 

“Your devotion to the lesser godlets, in the face of being confronted with one so clearly superior is admirable, even to me. I will find you both an augmentation befitting such exasperating piety. There are still two who have not spoken.”

 

“I guess I could be a follower…” Sibler stated, “But I would prefer to be a Lockmaster.”

 

Waves of darkness hammered into all of them as the voice laughed, “Lockmasters habitually look to Afterdusk as their friend, so… I grant your request, little one!” The dimness coalesced into a hand and tapped the boy who had the borer pulled out of him. “And you?”

 

The kid found it hard to breathe, but managed to get out, “Me jus wanna be bounty-getter like me great-gramps…”

 

“A predator of the stalked. Yet another proficiency best used under the cover of Afterdusk. Yes, you have earned such a gifting.”

 

The hand opened. In the middle was a spinning vortex. It seemed to suck up the remaining light. Just before the room became totally black, eight darts lanced out. All eight boys had one enter a nostril. Pain became close to unbearable as knowledge exploded in the center of their heads. Most blacked out. The temperature fell many degrees. The walls and even torches were covered in a thick coat of ice. The girl with the dagger in her screamed. The sound withered as if she was being dragged off into the distance until if faded altogether. Everything she had on fell to the floor around her other than her spellbook and the dagger buried in her gut. The weight and oppressive darkness seeped back into the walls, floor, and ceiling. Light sources flared back to life. Of the girl with the dagger in her, there was no sign.

 

Tyndall was left with the sheath for the green blade on his hip where his hip sword had been. In addition, an obsidian pendant of two hands clasping a black pearl dangled from a black chain around his neck. The only light came from the green blade on the floor, a Dagger of Light, and an axehammer. The axehammer was made of the same green substance as the blade and hung off Tazen’s weapon belt. He also noticed most of the others were down and motionless. Only Tazen was moving. He was down on all fours trembling.

 

Tyndall managed to grab the green blade. Mythling runes covered the blade and hilt. He eyed the markings for several seconds, then sheathed it. He knew, as he did so, it was his and his alone, but nothing more about it. As he regained more of his senses, he realized how cold the room was. He thrust his arms upward, extended his hands and spoke a long arcane phrase. Waves of heat rolled outward. The room warmed to above freezing but stayed cold. Ice melted and dripped down the walls. Taking several deep breaths, Tyndall pulled his hands into his stomach and dropped to his knees with tears rolling down his cheeks. He managed to speak between sobs, “Oh, shit… that… hurt!”

 

Sibler woke and pushed his hand up to his nose expecting to find it bloody. To his surprise, it wasn’t. Tears from the pain dripped off his cheeks. He rolled over, shook off the lingering twitches from being blasted with such strong jolts of electricity and shivered from the cold at the same time. He glanced at a small, dark wooden case filled with an assortment of rune-covered black metal lockpicks in his hand. He tucked them into the pouch with the potion mixing books before he crawled over to Tyndall, pulled one of the orange liquids, and popped the top. He carefully poured it into the older boy’s mouth before covering his head. “I feel… weird…”

 

Tyndall instantly started gagging, “That is… DISGUSTING! It better work twice as good as it tastes bad!”

 

Dario groaned. Pushing his hand into his forehead, he stood with shaking knees and ran his hand down his face. “The shouting ain’t helpin’ my head, Ty…” As his hand dropped off his chin it met a duplicate pendant of the one worn by Tyndall. It hung from a black chain around his neck. He let go of it and focused on Sibler. “Weird… Real good word for it, little guy… Ugg!” He moved to help Kaznal to his feet. “Ya OK, there little fella?”

 

Kaznal fought hard not to cry as he held a hand up to his nose. He held the other hand up to his mouth and turned. He let out a couple of dry heaves. This was followed by a several second burp. “I think... my nose broke… it hurts sooo bad!... And… And… I my guts are upside down or something.”

 

Off to the side the boy who had the borer removed groaned. He stayed face down and kept shaking his head and wiggling fingers in his ears as if trying to clear them. However, he found a belt around his waist with two dozen black metal bladed darts. The ability to use them, how to fight with his hands, and knowledge of tracking and hunting started to seep in.

 

Alkoris used the wall to stand, staggered over and helped Yarnay up. He then moved to a wall, put his head against it and took several deep breaths. He fingered an adornment that matched Tyndall’s and Dario’s. It hung from his neck and dangled down. He glanced at the obsidian hands holding a black pearl for a few seconds before tucking it in his shirt. A pained smirk crossed his face as he glanced over to Kaznal, “Yours may be upside down, Kaz, but… Pretty sure mine are frozen inside. Worst brain-freeze ever!”

 

“I’m feeling shocks rolling up and down my mouth and my teeth are coated in ice.” Tazen moaned as he crawled over to Tyndall and Sibler. The pendant on his necklace scrapped the floor before Tazen secured it, looked it over and pushed it under his shirt. He managed to grab Tyndall’s left arm and pull it toward himself. “Let… let me see your hands.”

 

He watched much of the damage fade thanks to the healing potion but could tell he had plenty of work to do. “You’re missing half of your fingernails. I’m going to have to bandage the meaty parts right below your thumbs. And… your hands are full of little bleeding holes! Most of them are healing, but it still looks like you slammed the back of your hands onto a thorn bush over and over!”

 

“They hurt… they really hurt, but... Whatever was in the orange stuff… it’s working… but is beyond gross!” Tyndall reached down and pulled the green sword and re-sheathed it with only a wince of pain. “Besides, I wasn’t joking. Assassin Ants hurt way worse than this.” He extended and curled his fingers several times while taking some pained breaths. “I’ll be fine… if the taste ever leaves my mouth!”

 

Dario rolled his head and shoulders, “I’m not fine and all I did is have to watch and get hit by bolts of wicked cold lightning and a black dart up my nose!” He took a few breaths, and he lowered his voice. “Um… all those things you were saying… where they… like true?”

 

“Yea. Every word.” Tyndall lowered his head.

 

Tazen rubbed Tyndall’s shoulders. “You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”

 

“Easy for you to say…” He extended his hands so they could be bandaged. “But honestly, I’ll be fine in a few days.”

 

“Your hands are healing fast, but still a mess. Let me take care of them!”

 

“Sure. But I’m pretty sure anything the damned Orakin sword wanted to do to me, I could find something worse I have already been through. This isn’t nearly as bad as I expected. But I’d sure pass on doing it again!” He spit repeatedly and shook his head. “The taste of the healing liquid may be the worst of this whole damned thing!”

“You are amazing.” Yarnay managed to snicker as he tried several times to force his hair to go down. However, the static around him, coupled with the fact he had been forced to grow his hair long made it impossible.

 

“Really impressive Ty.” Sibler concurred. “There is no way I could grab anything, let alone pull a sword if my hands looked as bad as yours.”

 

“Agreed!” Kaznal stated in admiration. “I don’t know of anyone, other than Rylan, who could have taken half of what you just did, let alone do so and all but shrug it off.”

 

Tazen patted Tyndall on the shoulder, “You were right, and we were all wrong. No way could I have handled so much pain. Very impressive and I’m sorry for doubting you.”

 

“Lots of practice. None of it fun.” Tyndall stated with a shrug.

 

“I think I’d prefer the worm back in me to that,” the boy spoke as he once again wiggled a finger in his ear. “I’m not hearing right or something.”

 

“Still…” Yarnay stated with a shake of his head. “You are incredible! I am going crazy just because everything itches and is cold…” He paused and glanced over to the kid with fingers in both ears. “Um, I think he is right about not hearing normally! Are we all really speaking in ancient Orakin, the ancestors of the Illorcs and Orcs?”

 

Tazen blinked and moved his jaw back and forth. As he spoke, he nodded. “Yea, yea we are, and until right now I didn’t even know there ever was an Orakin race. Now I know lots about them.” He spit a couple of times and had to force himself to speak in Northman. “Not sure how I’m going to explain you three all-knowing Orakin to the commander, let alone being able to do so perfectly. But I’m certain we know it and know a whole lot about them.”

 

Dario swallowed hard as he also forced himself to switch back to Northman. “And I know how to write and read Orakin… And I barely know the basics a Northman… Geesh…”

 

“The commander is big on learning.” Yarnay stated. “Pretty sure he will thank you for us learning this. But did we all really just get a piece of an Orakin Mage General in command of a demon lord army?”

 

“Unless I’m crazy,” Alkoris exhaled loudly, “we got parts of him and tiny bits of those the blade killed over the years… probably thousands of both years and people.”

 

“I Did! I think I can read!” the boy excitedly exclaimed as he pulled himself up with the help of the table and took some deep breaths. “I also know how to talk better in this speak!”

 

“We all got some of the Orakin’s knowledge.” Tazen verified. “I know their language, and even older Elvin and Dwarven. I also caught glimpses of what he did with the blade, much of it horrible. He killed so many with it, I doubt the kills can even be counted!”

 

“Many of them early on were Orakin.” Tyndall stated. “I got a real clear picture. The general and twelve others formed a pact with Senexsia, Frexla, and Inaxia. The Orakin warlords willingly imparted part of themselves into thirteen green weapons. These were then coated with Orakin metal, and the weapons were linked to the demon lords’ three best warriors, all before they were demons. An Ice Witch who called herself Cyronia the Frigid. Then there was Pyrothermal the Searing. Lastly, a Storm Enchantress by the name of Electoroma the Wrathful. They all imparted some magic into the thirteen weapons with a direct link to the green stuff under the Orakin metal. They then got part of each kill the blade made, so while weakened at first, they got stronger in the long run. These future demons were fighting the gods we know and worship today… before they became gods. They were losing. Frexla, Senexsia, and Inaxia thought the Orakin race could help turn the tide of the war because Orakin young grow up very fast at first, then slow to age like a Caveling. Because of this, they could put many offspring, not quite age of ascension youth, into battle and make more extremely fast.

 

“There was a rebellion. Many Orakin leaders and parents didn’t want their kids to be sent to such a slaughter. Others fought back against being allied with the likes of Senexsia. But with the help of the Orakin-coated green weapons, the thirteen Orakin commanders killed off all the other major leaders and took over all the Orakin clans. They then put village elders in place who compelled Orakin women to have hordes of babies, often by force. It was not enough. The war turned increasingly desperate. Hundreds of powerful Mythlings fell, and with the victories those against them gained followers. Orakin villages started to fall in quick succession. I lose the history shortly after the thirteen leaders took almost all the Orakin, some too young to really fight, and others far too old. They used green pyramid stones the same color as the blade to gate all the Orakin to a massive war camp. They went into battle against a gigantic force of Hawklings, Humans, and weird tan-colored Dragons and Dragonlings. They were led by Quati, Warvon, and Avgon. I am pretty sure Rovnar was there as well, but he didn’t have nearly the power he did after he killed uncounted number of Orakins during this battle and gained far more worshipers because of it.

 

“Um, anyway, the future gods were backed by several other races including a huge force of Drow. I know the Orakin army was crushed. Electoroma the Wrathful was brought down by Drow with the help of Rovnar. When she fell, it opened a hole in the battle lines. The Mage general who owned this blade was surrounded. Even though this general was separated from the others who owned the other Orakin-coated weapons, they somehow combined the powers of the weapons by using the green stuff underneath the Orakin metal. They opened a portal allowing what was left of the Orakin army to escape. The number was less than a thousand… Wherever they went, it all but ended the Orakin line and left the Illorcs as the highest race of Orc-lineage. From there all I know is the general plunged the sword into his own chest rather than get captured. It took a huge chunk of his remaining spirit. His body fell into a river and was swept downstream with thousands, probably tens of thousands of other Mythlings, Orakin, Humans, Hawklings, Dragonlings, Drow, and others.

 

“The river got so clogged with bodies it got dammed up and split into two. To this day the river remains split. One part rolls down out of the western side of the Silver Spine Mountains and the other drains into a huge wetland swamp and bog. The edge of the swamp is just down from the town of Slome. I was there once. The Swamp Slums are one of the most dismal places I’ve even seen. Now I know what caused the swamp in the first place. Knowing the history behind how the swamp came to be, makes the place even more grim, if such a thing is even possible!”

 

Tyndall patted the hilt of the green blade. “The sword didn’t get to the dam. It came loose as the body fell over a waterfall. I don’t know when it was found again. The rest are just tiny flashes of the blade being used in the hands of others and all those it killed.

 

“However, there was one big image of an Elf who had clawed hands and fangs where normal teeth should have been, looking at a fortress made of red rock, tucked up against a red colored mountain. Much of the fortress was in flames. It was made of stones as red as the mountain it was part of. The Elf was brought down by a force of over two dozen powerful Drow. As she fell, she activated the blade and combined it with one of the others, an axehammer. It allowed a portal to open. A Dwarf jumped through but lost the axehammer in the process. The axehammer and this blade went back to where they were separated from the Orakins who first owned them.

 

“The female Elf had her fangs pulled from her mouth and was tied to a wooden pole. As the light of Zeris came over the red mountain, hundreds, probably thousands of beings all ran off a very high ledge, many burning. Others jumped with screams as if Zeris’ light was hurting them. Many of the screams came from children. They were so loud they echoed across a huge area of the surrounding woods. When the light of Zeris creeped across the lower area and hit the Elf, her skin started bubbling and she screamed until she couldn’t. Even though the blade wasn’t there, it seemed to watch as the Elf ignited and fell into a pile of ash along with the pole she was tied to while scores upon scores of other beings all around her did the same. Intermixed were some who didn’t burst into flame or melt under Zeris’ light. Don’t know why, but it seemed like something very important to the history of the blade. Maybe because it was the only other time the weapon lost power until today.

 

“On the other hand, I know where the general’s spellbook is. It didn’t die because part of him still lived… a chunk of him still lives within a pocket of space created by the god of Afterdusk. He tried to fully exhaust himself, but something inside the green stuff allowed Afterdusk to come here. And as we saw, stopped him… He is no longer in the blade. Instead, he’s imprisoned in a cage of darkness… For a moment I heard terrifying laughter as the general screamed and shook at the cage bars which are very, very cold… the voice was the same as we heard. It was laughing at him and said something about the roles are reversed. The want-a-be god was now under the foot of a true god it tried so hard to usurp… In the distance I head another voice, a female. It was speaking ancient Dwarven and pleading to be freed. It got only laughter and a demand to give power to the one who bested him. The voice of Afterdusk said whoever it was would release as much to the boy as the general bid to us. The Dwarven voice said no, then screamed. Whatever was done to it sounded super painful… And I don’t know how I know this, but another Orakin was pulled out of the axehammer you have on your belt. Afterdusk used an Elf boy, younger than we are, to imprison the other Orakin and the female speaking ancient Dwarven, just as he used us to take the Orakin general out of the blade on my side.”

 

Tyndall took a couple of deep breaths. “I think the female Dwarf was the final owner of the axehammer. But as I was saying, the best part of what I got is what happened just before the Orakin army was crushed! When the general realized he was most certainly going to lose, he hid his book in a small rock formation and reshaped the rock around it. It is massive with many ancient spells! I have got to find a way to get up to the Silver Spine Plateau again. Cause with part of him still alive, his book lives as well! I have enough of him to know its direction, take control of the book, and even his secret command word to pull the pages out, and put them in my book!”

 

“First things first, Ty,” Alkoris interjected. “We have to get out of here and then escape out of the walls of Rolling Dale!”

 

Dario pulled his shoulders back, fingered a pendant of obsidian hands clutching a black pearl and yanked up his Silver Steel battleaxe. “First we got to find out who they have from our school and kill anyone who hurt them!”

 

Tazen pulled the magical blade Glaster had loaned him, then finally noticed the green axehammer. He switched to it and swung it a few times. Fingers moved down the ancient Mythling runes before he put it back on his weapon belt. “Yes we do. And while I don’t know what exactly happened when Ty bested the blade, I sure got something more than learning some languages and seeing stuff, cause I feel stronger.”

 

“Me too!” Yarnay stated.

 

“A lot stronger,” Kaznal agreed.

 

“Stronger and better in other ways,” Sibler stated. “But I am not sure what yet… It is like it is still settling.”

 

Alkoris nodded, “I’m stronger and also know lots about Afterdusk, but… it… maybe I just need more time.” He paused as he looked at the table. On it were four axehammers and four khopesh blades made of dark black metal. Each had hands clutching a black pearl in the base of the hilt. Back sheaths were next to the khopesh swords, while the axehammers each came with a long back pouch.

 

Tazen gestured to the weapons, “Looks like Afterdusk decided to give us something else….” He grabbed one of the blades since he already had an axehammer. As he did, the handle formed to his hand and imparted exactly how to use it. It also let him know it held extra enchantments to fight the unliving, it could also heal. Both functions required Force to activate. The combination of using Force he didn’t fully understand he had, and the added knowledge made his head throb worse. However, within moments all wounds were gone. He knew as this happened, the blade could only do it five times per new moon, and never less than four days apart. He slowly glanced around the room since fast eye movements made his head spin and temples throb.

 

“If you are hurt, grab the weapons and see if it does for you what it did for me… but expect it to hurt…”

 

As those who were wounded got fully healed, they pushed hands up to their temples. Tazen spoke again. “It’s like I was fed a huge book and the words are trying to come back together in the middle of my head. It makes me dizzy to focus on it, so I’m with Dario. I think it needs more time before I can understand it all.” He tapped a pendant exactly like the one on Tyndall. “All four of us who agreed to follow Afterdusk have one of these… and the same thing is on the hilt of our new weapons… Mine is a khopesh blade… I don’t even know how I know this since I have never seen one before… But anyway, I guess the hands holding the black pearl is his symbol…” He tried to shake his head but stopped because it gave him some vertigo.

 

He scanned the room with a frown “While this wing may be a dead end, there’s no way we’re going to clean up all this blood. If someone comes in here, they’ll know there was a fight and sound the alarm. As it is, I’m amazed no one has poked their head in here yet. We need take a few to collect thoughts, gear, and reorganize, but we have to get moving.”

 

******

 

Bloody Rock: Saslara, Jaya F (HE 12) Swordsman/Outdoorsman (Saslara's School), Rafil M 13 Swordsman/Miner (governor's school), Yunlac (Mystic/Lockmaster), Eir F 11 (Swordsman/Healthman) (governor's school), Spar M 11 Mage/Miner (governor's school), Puck M (HE 9) Swordsman/Outdoorsman) (Saslara's School), and Aed F 10 Swordsman/Outdoorsman) (Saslara's School) along with the Halfdrow/Highman Deor’lash with captured Gobling Beiro, Mora, Jillian, & Drow captive (Sylic)

 

The battle in the chamber with the glowing staff left Teacher Saslara with three wounded kids, a slave boy she couldn’t fully trust and large pools of blood on the floor. Even more disconcerting was the fact the staff had been pulled down. This left a section of the floor open with stairs leading down into what she had been told was an area filled with poison gas.

 

Still shivering from being locked in ice restraints, she moved over to Jaya. Her Halfdwarf student held a piece of a ripped shirt up against the side of Slome’s best cobbler’s youngest girl. Cobbler Sudeth’s work was known across much of the Silver Spine Plateau. He was also Slome’s second most powerful Animal Adept. Saslara knew the man would not be happy if he found out his daughter wasn’t well taken care of after her rescue. On the other hand, she bet if she could deliver the girl back to him, she could gain a strong ally.

 

Off to the side of the man she had helped kill, Saslara noticed an open pack mostly filled with Healthman supplies. She moved up, secured the pack, and nudged Jaya, “Let me take a look.”

 

Jaya quickly slid back and put her free hand down on the back of her leg. “I thinks da Elf caster got away, Teacher.”

 

Rafil stayed standing with shield up and ready. His focus was on the passage the woman had fled down. He winced and rubbed his knee with his other hand as he looked down the passage. “She did, but whatever was clawing and biting us left a trail of blood, so you stabbed whatever it was pretty good. She was also limping. Between her pet being hurt and the limp, she’s slowed. I bet between your Outdoorsman skills and my Miner training we could follow if we wanted.”

 

“We’ll let her be, Raf,” Saslara countered. “She has heat vision, so she can see better than we can with glowers.”

 

Rafil flipped his glow coin and nodded, “Yea, good point. How’s Eir?”

 

“Took a deep cut and looks like she’s been beat and roughed up pretty bad,” Saslara stated as she cradled the head of the barely clothed and badly battered girl. “At least they have a well-stocked Healthman bag. It’ll take a while, but I don’t see anything I can’t patch up given some time.”

 

She glanced over to Yunlac, “You did good, kiddo.”

 

“I’d have done better if you hadn’t smacked me in the face with your shield earlier. My face still hurts.”

 

“I’m amazed it didn’t knock you out. I’ve hit grown and guilded men with less force and they didn’t get back up.”

 

Yunlac rubbed at his still slightly swollen and badly blackened eye, “Lots of practice getting hit, Teacher, but I’m sure I haven’t been hit so hard with a single shot ever. Hope I never do again, either.”

 

Rafil shot Yunlac a frown.

 

Saslara glanced over even as she found a large healing herb pouch in the pack. “Problem Raf?”

 

Rafil shrugged, but a glare from Saslara made him speak up, “I didn’t know he was a real gladiatorial slave, but I’ve seen him in the arena. He took pounding after pounding and still came back for more…”

 

Saslara glanced over to Yunlac. “So, you’ve been in combat before?”

 

Yunlac managed a smirk. “Lots, Teacher. I’m used to being hurt… But no one ever hit me so hard or even put me down with a single shot like you did.”

 

“You’ve never taken on a Teaching Echelon Swordsman,” Eir managed to hiss out.

 

Rafil scratched at his eyebrow and grumbled something unintelligible.

 

“Raf, if you have somethin’ to say, let’s hear it.” Saslara commanded.

 

Rafil let out a long breath, “Teacher, I saw him in Lenz. He took some stupid hard blows in the arena. No, not from a Teaching Echelon being, but he took some brutal poundings. He even fought three times in one day.”

 

“So?” Jaya asked.

 

“So?” Rafil snorted, “You needed to see it. He let those other kids wear themselves out by beating on him, then… annihilated them… He’s got to be somewhat mad… crazy… whatever… he can’t be fully right in the head to do what I saw him do.”

 

Saslara turned to Yunlac, “You arena fight often?”

 

“Yea… It’s what I have to do for Jillian and so I can get released as a slave.”

 

“What you do for Jillian?” Rafil asked. “How is being a gladiatorial slave helping Jillian?”

 

Yunlac noticeably cringed, “It helps him… he watches me in combat and uses what I do to get better, that’s all.”

 

“Better ta learn by doin’ not watchin’,” Saslara countered.

 

“There’s more, Teacher,” Rafil stated as he took a few steps back from the passage the Elvin woman had fled down. “Yun, come here.”

 

It was obvious doing what he was told was ingrained into him. Yunlac moved up to Rafil without hesitation.

 

Rafil eyed the smaller boy for several seconds. “Put your back to me and raise your arms up.”

 

Once again Yunlac obeyed. However, even as he did so he spoke. “You know I hoped others at the arena would see, right?”

 

Saslara pressed a bandage into Eir’s side even as she turned more attention to Yunlac and Rafil. “See what?”

 

“This.” Rafil growled out as he reached over and pulled Yunlac’s shirt off. The shirt fell from his hands as he looked at the boy’s back. “By the gods…” His hand ran over Yunlac’s shoulders, across his shoulder blades and down his back. “There are scores… Maybe hundreds…”

 

Saslara sprinkled some fireroot over the gash on Eir’s side. Even as Eir screeched, kicked, and thrashed at the sudden burning sensation and had to be held down, Saslara spoke, “Scores ‘er hundreds a what?”

 

Rafil either didn’t hear or ignored Saslara. He continued to lightly run his hand over Yunlac’s back. “Do they hurt?”

 

“When I get them, yea. Kind-a depends on how hard and where. Shoulder blades and upper back not real bad no more unless he clamps down. Lower and on the sides still hurt pretty bad. But not now. They’re just like a normal scar. Thanks to the arenas, I have lots of those, too.”

 

Rafil grabbed Yunlac’s right arm and ran his hand down a long scar going from the hand to the elbow. “What about this?”

 

“After that one, nothing hurts real bad… well, not until Teacher Saslara smashed me in the face with a shield… not sure which hurt worse… probably the arm… but… even after the curative potion, I think I have a few loose teeth and my jaw and eye still hurt pretty bad… so maybe the shield was worse… but the shield was fast, the arm wasn’t.”

 

“Jaya, hold this!” Saslara pointed at the bandage on Eir’s side. She stood moved over to Raf and Yunlac, “Scars and scores of what?”

 

Rafil spun Yunlac around so his back faced Saslara. “Bite marks, human-looking… too many to count.”

 

Saslara did almost the same thing Rafil did. She lightly ran her hand over the boy’s back, then looked at the right arm. “This one was deep. Yer lucky to be alive…” Her hand moved over the boy’s back again. “And who keeps biting you?”