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Kyle Aarons

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1,027 I'm Unstoppable

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    My Siberian Huskies are the overall love of my life. I am just as comfortable in front of a computer writing as I am with a fishing pole in my hand.

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  1. King Wyhrem, Prince Klandon, Count Salostar, Baron Greyhammer, Sardan, Sagell, Aster, Bayne, Benam, Quavis, Cresh, Dabaff, Gomriss, Pocet, Captain of the Guard, Molic, Olinday. With the latest Dragon Death, and how close it was, most in the old keep outside of Rolling Dale felt it. It stopped the group and caused them to head back out into the storm to look. However, they were delayed since Aster was once again overcome as a surge of power found him. In fact, Aster would have surely fallen had King Wyhrem not moved up and held the boy up. This didn't prevent Wyhrem from heading back topside, all but carrying Aster. From up on the wall, the eyes of all turned to the south while Stealth slid over to a corner and spit several times as the death of Prince Weraweld permeated the inside of its mouth, "Another... Very powerful... Close to the power of the first... No question another Great, this one White, and near, very, very near!" It hissed between spits. Aster saw spots and felt as if he was on the deck of a storm-tossed ship. Not even realizing who was holding him up and managed to speak. "It died trying to hold its breath... Looking up at a group including a redheaded Halfelf wearing black armor... I... I can't contain the power... I am going to be sick!" King Wyhrem picked Aster up and held him so he could puke over the wall, all the while patting the boy between his shoulder blades. "Take it easy and let it out, I have you." He then looked over at Baron Greyhammer, "Dragon magic has hit my son hard in the past. If you would, go below and check on Prince Bayne for me!" Greyhammer didn't hesitate; he hustled down the stairs. As the baron disappeared from sight, Wyhrem pointed at Sardan's water skin, even as he held Aster protectively while the boy leaned over the wall and puked. "I felt the magic seek him out in a way I have never felt or even heard of before. I have also heard from my close confidant and former whipping boy, Glaster, of his love of a redheaded Halfelf. I find it difficult to believe there can be more than one..." "The boy's name is Kandric, my King." Sardan responded. "Prince Aster and Prince Bayne's half-brother, Premier Kandric," Count Salostar interjected while staring out into the storm with his hand on his blade, half expecting a Dragon to appear out of nowhere, "your whipping boy did indeed mentor him. The Premier is also the real reason we are here, King Wyhrem." "He can go by whatever title he wishes and I will honor it, good Count. However, I would like to know why he is killing a Dragon in what must be my lands?" "As soon as we locate him, King Wyhrem, we will enquire. However, I did not think White Dragonkind were this far south, so a better question might be why he killed a White Dragon in your lands?" Quavis looked over at the adults and spoke up, simply not being able to keep his thoughts to himself, "Does it really matter? Shouldn't we just be happy it's dead and we don't have to fight it?" Wyhrem shot Quavis a momentary glare which quickly faded into a smirk, "Sardan, get this boy a Watch pin with all due haste along with some better equipment! Such level-headed thinking is what we need more of!" "Noted and fully agree with you, my King," Sagell snickered. "I will send for a magical long weapon, some armor, and a Watch pin to be brought with the next round of reinforcements! Quavis, other than daggers, do you have a preferred weapon?" "I haven't had much practice, but I like flails..." "Then you we will get you one and give you full training on it," King Wyhrem stated while sending a commanding look at Sagell. "We will find him a good one, my King. However, the real problem is, this Premier Kandric is extremely close, which means it is looking more and more like Rolling Dale is some kind of focal point. Are you sure you wish to be this close, my King? It may be in your better interest to back off some distance..." "You very well may be right, Sagell," Wyhrem responded with a shake of his head. "Conversely, as we just discussed, the people of my kingdom are out in this disarray, and I will not sit at a safe distance while men, women and children suffer under this growing threat." He then forced a grin, "Besides, how could I back off when this redheaded boy of what is becoming legendary proportions is certainly headed this direction? I do not know about the rest of you, but I have to admit I want to meet this child face to face!" Aster groaned as he spit out the last of what he had disgorged down the outside wall, "I want to meet him for sure... But I don't know if I am going to hug him or punch him when I finally see him..." King Wyhrem chuckled as he tilted Aster's head back and poured some water out of Sardan's skin into the boy's mouth. He allowed the boy in his arms to spit, then gave him another swig before speaking, "Aster... Prince Aster, should you decide on the punch, kindly let me know, so I can back off and watch from a safe distance. For punching someone with multiple Great Dragon kills, including King Blathamort, is simply something I wish to watch. However, doing so at a distance seems like a wise course of action as well." At this Benam spoke up, "I'll be with the King!" Wyhrem moved over and ruffled Benam's snow-coated hair even as he set Aster down, while keeping a protective arm around the overwhelmed boy, "Sagell, make it two Watch pins and extra equipment for this one as well. We cannot possibly allow Quavis into the Watch without bringing in his best friend. Now, let us get out of this storm, warm up, and get some food in us. For unless I miss my guess, Prince Aster, here, is going to be hungry once the magic flowing around him settles and I need to check on my new son." King Wyhrem quickly made his way over to Bayne, who had his head down on the ancient stone main table while Greyhammer gently patted him on the back, "Son?" The boy groaned, "Baddest one yet, me father... Him kill... White one this time." Wyhrem moved up and kissed Bayne on the top of his head, "As soon as you feel better, I would like for you to work on your speech more with the good baron here, as long as he is willing." "I will give him all the lessons you desire me to give him, King Wyhrem." "Thank you. If there is any compensation you feel is justified, you have but to ask." "Allowing me to make up for my people's lack of follow-through with this fine young man is all the remuneration I could ever ask for." Wyhrem gave a nod of acceptance, kissed Bayne again, and pointed to Quavis and Benam, "Boys, I believe it would be in all three of your better interests if you would spend some time with each other." He followed this up with a nod at Sardan, expecting he would see to his wishes. Wyhrem then looked down at Aster, "Young Prince, if you would lead me to my younger son so we can attempt to figure out with certainty which one you rescued?" "Of course, King, but can you not call me prince?" "But you are..." Aster shook his head, "First I heard of it was at the square in Rolling Dale... well actually while forging items, but that was during a dream of sorts. One way or the other, I am Aster. I'm no prince and if by blood I have such a title, I don't want nothing to do with it." "Prince Aster, it is your birthright. How could you not want what is rightfully yours?" "King, I don't want to say bad things about royalty, but I am no more royal than any kid in the Junsac orphanage I spent so many years with, all the years I can remember before moving into the forge full time. My Animal guild, and other pins, show who I am and what I should be known for. I am a Metalworker, Healthman, and Watch member. I want or need nothing more... Well, I mean, I want to meet all my brothers and sisters, but I'm a forge worker and work with animal health, as well as all intelligent beings, all of which I am much better at and care more about than a royal title unknown to me." "While this is commendable, Prince, you are deserving of your birthright." "King, did I really deserve some kind of royal birthed title? If so, then why not find me until now? I mean, if it was important for me to be royalty... Um, if this was the case someone would have or should have come looking for me well before now. I'm an orphan, and there is a pride I have in gaining what I have as an orphan." "But you are not an orphan, my Prince," Salostar spoke up. "Count, I am. Even if I wasn't supposed to be, I am known by everyone, even the highest members of the Watch, as an orphan. Even Master Lannet begrudgingly admitted I was one when he offered his home to me." Salostar looked down with a mystified expression, "You refused such an offer?" "I did!" Aster all but shouted, "Look, look at me. I am not helpless, and even though I hated the orphanage, those in it are my real family. Without them I wouldn't have survived the first winter in Junsac. I do not bow out on family, which is what I would have done if I had left my orphan brothers and sisters. However, since Master Lannet started training me and tried to open his home to me, I gave him a counteroffer. Instead of take in one, I asked him to help the others who could be trained to get trained and I would work hard to find my own way! I did, again with Master Lannet's help, but I still did it. "Now I like dealing with the common folk as one of them, and I'm sure you can tell, I'm not really the fancy dressing or speaking kind a kid. Besides, I don't want others looking up at me because of who my mom or dad happens to be, when neither cared enough to come find me. If someone does see me as needing respect, it should be because I healed them, their animal, or made them something in the forge with better than expected results!" Aster lips then twisted into a smirk, "Or even put on a good show in the Junsac arena..." Wyhrem let out a long breath and looked back to Sagell, "Is he always this stubborn?" "Oh, my King, you have no idea..." Wyhrem made a snorting sound even as he grinned, "I am beginning to..." With a shake of his head, he moved toward the sounds of children playing. As he walked up to what had once been a study in the old keep, he could see the side of what was certainly one of his twin boys. He stopped and took in the scene. There was a large fire in the fireplace, keeping the room warm, almost too warm after having been out in the raging storm above. He held up his hand to prevent anyone with him from speaking as he watched one of his sons playing with twin boys very close to his own age. Both the twins wore leather slave collars, but otherwise they showed no signs of being treated like slaves. Instead, both had on nice nightshirts and were sharing a bowl of toasted pine nuts with his son. Wyhrem leaned against the doorframe and smiled as his son patted one of the twin slaves who bounced a small wooden ball off the stone floor and into a wooden mug. The other slave boy attempted the same feat, but the wooden ball bounced against the front of the mug. "Nice try, Olinday," the young prince stated, then made a couple of practice motions before sending another wooden ball at the distant cup. The ball hit the rim, but rolled off to the side. The prince snapped his fingers in frustration, even as the boy who had just missed spoke up, "Super close, Zoldon. You are getting way better." "Long way to go. I still have not made one." The other slave boy shrugged, "You will. Go ahead and take another turn." "No, I do not want to cheat." The other slave spoke up, "Come on, Zoldon, just consider it changing the order. Beside, you almost had it and I want to see you put your next one in!" The prince took a long breath even as he nodded. Once again he gave a couple of practice flips with his wrist, then bounced the next wooden ball off the stone floor. This time the ball hit the lip, but instead of falling off the edge, it rolled down and into the mug. Both the other boys pumped their fists and spoke in unison, "First one, Zoldon! Way to go!" The prince's smile was huge as he reached out and put his arms around the two slaves, not caring in the slightest they were wearing collars. "This is a real hard, yet fun, game. Thank you for showing it to me!" King Wyhrem cleared his throat, letting the three boys know there was someone behind them. All three spun at the sound, but the two slaves reacted in a rather surprising way. Both pulled sect weapons from under their nightshirts and moved to put themselves between the prince and the door. The moment this happened, Aster clapped his hands hard from behind Wyhrem, "Olinday, Molic! Stand down and kneel for our king!" Both boys' eyes went wide and set their weapons down at their sides, then went into deep bows and stayed down with both hands flat on the floor well away from their weapons. At the same time, they shifted their legs back so their knees were almost even with the back of their hands and both put heads down to where their fairly long hair hung over their faces and touched the stone. Behind the twins, the prince looked up with a hint of recognition in his eyes, but dropped down after just a few moments. Unlike the boys in front of him, his bow was perfect and showed untold hours of tutorage. It was also abundantly clear to all those looking on, the prince had to fight not to look up, but didn't. Behind Wyhrem, Sardan spoke with some trepidation, "Our apologies, King Wyhrem. Aster made it abundantly clear to both slave boys; they are to protect their free friend with their lives once we realized who we found ourselves protecting. You son has thus far refused to let any of us call him prince. I do not think he believes he is one..." King Wyhrem ignored Sardan and Aster. Instead he stepped up close to the three boys and said nothing for several seconds wondering if any of the three would flinch. None did, even though keeping a royal bow for any length of time was less than pleasant and the knees of the two slaves were pressed hard into a rough stone floor and their back were arched in what had to have been a very uncomfortable position. Finally he moved up and knelt with an approving smile. "Exceedingly well done, boys. And slaves, your reactions, putting yourself in front of your free friend, tells me where your true loyalties lie. For being ordered to defend can be done with a great deal less zeal than the two of you displayed. You may both recover weapons and, while I expect you to stay down, you may get more comfortable. You duty remains first and foremost to your friend. Defend him at all times. For now, both of you stay your tongues. I will talk with the two of you in good time." Molic and Olinday quickly and soundlessly did as instructed, first sliding their knees back, then securing weapons with one hand while the other stayed flat on the floor. They also pulled their heads up some but remained looking at the floor. Wyhrem stood and sidestepped the two slaves. He moved up to his son and looked down, carefully examining the child. He stood over him for another full minute, watching for any sign the child simply couldn't hold the bow. When noting happened, he reached down and pulled his son up off the ground and quickly wrapped his arms around him. "Klandon, I can never forgive myself for allowing what was done to you." The boy looked up in confusion, but said nothing. His rigidness didn't go unnoticed by anyone looking on. Wyhrem kept the boy tight in his arms as he turned, "There is no question in my mind this is Klandon, not Zoldon." "My King," Sagall stated after a few uncomfortable moments of silence, "how can you be so certain?" "In truth, it is simple, and fills me with even more self-loathing for having not seen the switch. For, since coming back from the Isles with my son, his whipping boy, Yarnay, was punished more for inaccurate bows and my son's inability to hold one properly than any other infraction. It became such a problem, we ceased giving Yarnay punishments for it and accepted the fever my son had been taken with had done some kind of damage to him to where he could no longer give a proper high royal bow. I even sent him to Master Channelers and Shamen in attempt to heal him, all to no effect. We worked with him on a similar bow, a standard noble one, which he was able to get down, barely. Even then he could not hold it for very long. Klandon, on the other hand, was able to give a full royal bow from the time he was old enough to attend royal functions. More than one noble commented to his mother and me on Klandon's exquisite bows. What you just saw was the bow of Klandon, the real Prince Klandon." Klandon finally spoke, "I am really a prince?" Wyhrem pulled the boy into him so tightly it had to be someone painful for the perplexed child, "Not just a prince, you are my son. You are Prince Klandon, and so help me, those who took you from me and harmed you, will die agonizingly slowly while regretting what was done to you!" Wyhrem loosened his grip slightly and kissed his son on top of his head, "Son, before you ask too many questions, I have one extremely important one for you. The two slave boys I saw you playing with, do you like them as much as it appeared?" Klandon looked up, still very much confused, but nodded, "King, they are the only two friends I can remember. They are my best friends." Wyhrem gave his son another near crushing hug then released his grasp, but still kept his arm over his son's shoulders. He moved up to the two boys, lifted them by the backs of their nightshirts and put them down on their feet. He looked down at the two boys while using his hand to lift their chins so he was looking them square in the eyes. "You are friends and guardians of my son, Prince Klandon. Your days of looking down in the presence of anyone are at an end!" He then turned to focus on Aster, "Never once have I used my authority to relieve someone of rightfully owned property with no crime being committed, young man, but there is a first for everything. For as of this moment, these two are no longer slaves. Instead they are royal guards in training and protectors and friends of my son, Prince Klandon. I will pay you in either slaves, coin, or both in the amount of triple their value, which I will command a slave trainer to appraise as to their worth, not as children, but as adults." He then looked over at his captain of the guard, "These two are to get the best gear you can find, and they are to be forged the highest quality equipment my kingdom can produce. New items will be made and forged as they grow, and you are to see to it they get the best instruction on weapons, defense, and fighting we can offer. Now remove their collars, for no son of mine will have best friends who are slaves!" Off to the side, Aster took another deep breath still trying to fully recover from the latest burst of magic. However, he managed to speak with total sincerity in his voice, "I am happy for all three, King Wyhrem." ******* Conner, Sharris, Nake (HE 14), Tobash (HE 15) Zestolg, Ambrasia, Sarryel, Pontarious, Frenna, Dostem, Gagan, Other Thunder Rapids Crew + {Gilew Human HE 12, Munder Silver-Dragonling HE 11, Quelrik Human HE 10, Vaskar Human HE 14, Gil-Drak Wolfling HE 13} Captain Pontarious turned to look to the south even as Gagan rushed over to Conner who dropped to a knee and gripped at his stomach. Pontarious jerked his head back to look at Conner, "Son, you OK?" Conner rocked forward a couple of times in Gagan's arms as if he was going to throw up, but after the fifth attempt he let out a massive, several-second-long belch followed by a sigh of relief. Still he stayed down, "My half-brother just doesn't know when to stop. Another Dragon just died looking helplessly at him, only this time it was close, as within a day walk of here give or take. And by the gods, this one gave a powerful release of magic and death. I can't fully control the flows of magic around me, so if I need to cast you all best back way off!" Pontarious moved to the passage going down, dropping a potion as he did so. It broke on the bottom step and lit up the lower chamber with flickering light, much like a torch would put out. "Nothing coming from down there, but with the mess I made, I don't recommend anyone going down to take a listen." Gilew shook his head even as he moved over to Conner's side, "The chances of them risking anyone else after we stopped Ta-tara is slim. For as best as we know, Ta-tara was Gambra's number two. If you really did take out her lead Dark Mystic like it sounds, then her operations are effectively crippled!" "Gilew you are only partially correct," Conner managed to speak as he got a hand from Gagan to stand. "Crippled is an understatement. Not just here, either, but pretty much realm wide. Gambra has one of two choices. One is to come out swinging. The other is to retreat and regroup. My bet is we hurt her operations too bad for her to back off, though. If she falls back now she is admitting defeat and may open herself up for one of her underlings to make a play at supplanting her as Dark Mage and Wraith king or queen. Since this is something totally untenable to her, my bet is she strikes out with everything she has. It will take time for word of this defeat to reach her, and an hour or two before she realizes Ta-Tara has fallen. This gives us a narrow window I think we should use." Pontarious twirled his mustache for a couple of seconds. When Conner remained silent his right eyebrow arched up, "Conner, the floor is still yours. If you have a plan, do us all a favor and don't keep us waiting!" Conner winced then looked over with a cringe, "Oh, um sorry, I am having to fight this latest magic unleashing... I started to see spots... and yeah, you all may want to back off. I just ripped a hellacious fart..." Gagan shrugged, "Conner we are used to dealing with things like the good captain making a giant skunk's musk worse, a fart is... Oh, geesh, kid, that does rank right up there, and I mean rank in more ways than one! But we live on a Mystic's barge, so we've all smelled way worse!" Seeing Pontarious send a sharp glare at Gagan, Conner chuckled, lifted his leg and shot another long and this time audible discharge in Gagan's direction. Gagan let out an 'ewww' and plugged his nose while a few crew member snickered while backing off. Conner forced a grin while using a wall to prevent himself from falling. Even as overwhelmed as he was, he managed to look at Gagan, "Um, didn't want you to think I was holding back..." He smirked at the double flip-off before he returned to the important topic at hand. "Anyway, I strongly recommend we grab what we want from here, set this place ablaze, and relocate. This way, she will have to search us out and may leave her flanks open to either one of the other groups or better yet, my lord." Gilew looked over at Conner with confusion, "And go where? Our lord told us to stay within the city and do as much damage as we can..." Pontarious interrupted, "Boys I am way more concerned about what to do with the nine Dark Mystic apprentices we found. I sure don't want to release them, and they will slow us down, if or when we abandon this inn." "We should have sent them back with the others like you first suggested, Captain," Gagan stated. Conner shook his head, "We had our hands full with those they had taken prisoner. Plus, we really don't want Dark Arts agents on the Thunder Rapids unless we can really watch them. It is better for the innocent to be safe than those nine. Maybe it is time to question them and find out if they have done enough to justify killing them... But, um, someone is going to have to help me, cause I'm not real sure I can walk... at least not for a few minutes." Pontarious eyed Conner "Son, you need to calm and think this through. Besides, I can't let you murder them..." "Murder is unjust, eliminating them for Dark Mystic crimes, real ones, ain't," Conner countered. "Remember, the only reason they weren't killed during the assault was we took them fast. We don't even know if they were some of those tossing Brain Borers and Ghoul Makers at us." Dostem looked over while nodding, "Remember, Capt'n da First Mate and Zestolg had ta bite inta them nasty tentacles of them Ghoul making nasties, er we would a lost two more." "And we would have had to kill them before they fully became Ghouls, or they would have been doomed to live like the pieces of undead now feeding on Ta-Tara." Conner reminded Pontarious. "If you captured Dark Mystics, why are they still alive, Conner?" Munder demanded to know. Conner turned to face those from Lord Anarton's farm, while putting his back to the wall for support before more could be said, "Because they are all kids like us, and we all know the way Gambra and her agents work. Our lord took us in only because we refused their advances at great risk to ourselves. The vast majority are not as strong as we are. Many join to get trained only after exhausting other options. Others are brought in through deception. Still others join because of threats, thinking by agreeing they are protecting friends and family from Gambra or others like her. We all know better, but others don't see the truth until it is too late. Others never see it. Can you really see justice in killing those who have been tricked into it, or brought in, then found themselves trapped into either becoming weavers of the Dark Arts or used for practice by those who were? I can't. "Until I find out if they have crossed the line from learning about the Dark Arts into actually using what they have been taught against another living thing, I see no crime befitting execution. If you do, now is the time to tell me and the rest of the crew of the Thunder Rapids why the scales need to evened out by their deaths." Gilew took a deep breath, "I reluctantly tend to agree with you, Conner. Until the line between knowing Dark Arts and using Dark Arts has been crossed, there is no real crime. After all, every one of us have been tutored in the ways of the Dark Arts so we can better combat those who use it. We also all know the history of our lord. He didn't cross the final line, and we are all very lucky he survived to take us in." Gil-Drak let out a long breath, "As usual, Conner sees further past the teachings of our lord than most of us ever will. While I still find it hard to know a Dark Mystic apprentice may not deserve to pass on by my hand when I have access to him or her, I can't find any fault in Conner's thinking." Vaskar looked over, "You know, we might be able to use them as bait..." At this Conner rubbed his chin in thought for a few seconds, "If any are valuable to Gambra, it could work." Pontarious frowned deeply, "Boys, I really don't like where this conversation is going..." Conner turned, "Captain, one thing I can guarantee you is Gambra has scouts watching this building. I can secretly put a spell on one of the apprentices, a mark only I can see and feel... It will tell me where he or she is, much like a Mage knows where his or her book is even if it is stolen. This will allow us to follow from a safe distance. The apprentice will tell what happened and force Gambra's hand." Gil-Drak looked over at Gilew, "Well, if she is going to come out swinging as Conner suggested, it may leave her base of operation open for attack. While we were told we couldn't go there on our own, Conner is with us, so maybe we could hit wherever they take the apprentice for questioning. While they run to help there and another group hits here, we could just hang out close to the Gloom Fire and see if there is an opening created when she hears this place is in flames and her Mystic and Ta-Tara down and possibly dead." Conner shot Gil-Drak an evil looking grin, "Hey, is this your plan or mine?" "Depends..." the Wolfling's nose scrunched up. "If it is yours, I will not get in trouble for doing it. If it is mine, I'll find myself back in the dog house again for suggesting we hit the only place we were told to stay clear of." "We can't let a wolf spend too much time in a dog house," Vaskar quipped, "so it must be Conner's plan." "Oh, it is all Conner's plan no matter's whose mouth it came out of!" Gilew declared. "For if it is anyone else's, I'll get twice the blame for going through with it since I am team leader!" Munder nodded, "And we all get in trouble for letting it happen. No way, not again, not on purpossssse!" Pontarious eyed the kids, "I gather this lord of yours is not exactly forgiving when you go against what he tells you?" Vaskar shook his head wildly, "Forgiving only happens after we wish we were dead! He has non-Dark Mage spells capable of scaring demon lords, and he's not afraid to use them!" "On his students?" Conner nodded, "Captain, our lord's punishments for not following his decrees are enough to cause most of us to piss ourselves over the hint of him thinking we may have disobeyed, then should his wrath focus in on us, the retribution he unleashes reminds us what a Dark Wraith victim tastes. Once his spells are done with us, it only gets worse for a week or two before forgiveness even becomes an option." Pontarious looked at each child then back to Conner, "But they will not get into trouble if you take them to this Mystic shop?" Gilew responded, "No, sir. Our lord's command was very clear; none of us are to go near enough to the Gloom Fire to even see it from rooftops unless he or Conner is with us and orders us to do so. Conner is his number two here, and other than one thing, all of us will do whatever Conner commands unless it is directly countermanded by our lord." Gagan spoke up, "What can't Conner order you all to do?" Gil-Drak responded, "As Gilew just said, there is only one thing, but Conner would never do it, so it doesn't matter." Seeing Pontarious looking at Gil-Drak, Conner held up a hand, "Guys, they all know I am a Wraith, and you are with me. There is no reason to hide anything from the crew of the Thunder Rapids." He then turned to Pontarious, "Captain, the only thing I cannot command them to do is hold onto someone's life force too long or play with it. To do so would be a death sentence, one I would carry out on any who so much as suggest any within my order do so. I would execute them without any hesitation or remorse." "But they are your friends..." "Should any truly want to play with the life of another, he is not a friend or comrade. Instead he is a foe who needs to be extinguished." Gilew stated for Conner. Pontarious nodded in understanding but didn't look in the least bit happy. "While I am pleased to hear you speak with such disdain over those Wraiths who play with life enough to make undead, I still must say I don't like what I am hearing. Conner you have been given all but unlimited authority over these kids. It is way too close to the power a master has over a slave..." Gil-Drak shrugged, "Should he wish to treat us such, it is our duty to allow it. Our lord would do worse to us if we refused. But none of us here are even slightly concerned. Conner would never do so unless it was as a ploy to strike at our enemies." Gagan scratched his chin, "A ploy... Captain... Conner.... As long as the apprentice things works and we find some other base... I have an idea..." Even as all eyes turned to look at Gagan, Pontarious cringed, "Gagan, if you end up getting us killed, I am going to kick your ass for the rest of our afterlives!" ********* Yarnay (9yo Druid Gem Worker Channeler: Tallis- Klandon's WB), Sibler (9yo Mystic Sailor- Mindmaster Lylan's WB), Kaznal (9yo Warrior Adept Outdoorsman Channeler: Avgon Mylan's WB), Tazen (14yo Swordsman Healthman), Dario (13 yo Warrior Adept Leatherworker Gem Worker), Alkoris (13 HAE Halfelf Warrior Adept Lockmaster Outdoorsman), Tyndall (15yo Mage Woodworker Outdoorsman); Alkoris stood at the top of the steps, used the keys to unlock the door then paused. "Taz, there are four of those sashes down there, we might as well take them!" Tazen gave a nod even as he hustled back to the four dead guards and removed the red sashes. As he pulled them off, he noted all four had silver rings with a small grayish gemstone. With a shrug, he pocketed them then jogged back up the steps. He handed the sashes to the three younger boys, and after a few seconds of debate, and getting a nod from Alkoris, handed the last one over to Tyndall. Tyndall frowned at this, but before he could say anything Dario spoke up, "Look, you are our best spell-thrower." "But I am the oldest..." "And from what we've seen the worst straight-out combatant of the rest of us," Tazen stated with a bit of disgust in his voice. Seeing the kid wince at the tone and the words he fought to soften his voice, "Look, Ty, if we don't have to protect you as much, we can focus on fighting more. So if handing you one of the red cloths stops something from attacking you, then great. Besides, once we find more, we'll all put 'em on." Tyndall noted he had been given the one with the most blood on it, but also noted the blood was all but unnoticeable on the dark red cloth. After a few seconds, he slipped it over his shoulder. Dario moved back and adjusted it so the older teen had good access to his hip sword. He then took a few seconds to adjust the young Mage's Rolling Dale School of Arms leather armor and pack. This included sliding the belt off center so the dagger on the other hip was easier to grab and made sure the boot knife was as hidden as possible under the leather armor britches which was a bit short on the legs, but otherwise pretty good fitting. The fact it had come off a kid over two years younger said more than words could. Tyndall was flatly scrawny for a kid closing on the age of ascension. However, in Dario's mind, the kid was a Mage, so strength, stamina, and fight prowess was not nearly as important for him as it was for a Warrior Adept or Swordsman. Besides, even as he adjusted the pack so it was properly sitting on Tyndall's shoulders, Dario had to admit, the kid was likable and the unlocking spell was really impressive. Dario turned back only to get an approving nod from both Tazen and Alkoris. Tazen quickly turned his attention to Sibler, "We are going to go off of what you seemed to pull out of the guy's thoughts or whatever you mind-talkers call it. So do you know where to go?" "Just the basics... Um, there are steps the other side of the door, they go up to another door... the spiky key unlocks it, and it is trapped with a poison if you use the wrong key or try to pick it... The passage goes left and right; to the left is the double doors. Um, the way to the stairs is the other direction from the double doors. "To the left is a door where the prisons are... There is a spike trap in the ceiling, so stay on the lighter colored stones until you are five meters down... There is a turnoff to the left with a door at the end, then I lost it... Um, so I know where the stairs, double doors, and heavy door to the prisoner area are, but not really much else. I saw a quick painting in my head of the room the other side of left turn in the prison area, but he was thinking really bad things, so I lost it or whatever... It was kind of scary..." Alkoris patted Sibler on the shoulder, "You know way more than the rest of us, and don't worry about not getting more, little guy. Whoever wants to hurt you will have to get to me first. But before we go poking around, I want you to take us to the stairs." "But..." "Sib," Tazen took over with a stern sounding voice, "we all need to know the way out, so if you really know where it is, you lead all of us there first! Once you show us, then we will try get the commander whatever information we can. But the second it starts looking iffy, we are leaving with or without finding out more, so we need to know where those stairs are. Keep in mind, the commander told me I was in charge of you all, so you do what I tell you, or so help me I'll beat your ass. I'll also tell the commander once we find him!" Kaznal looked over, "Tazen, if I mess up, how about you just beat me twice, as hard as you want, and forget to tell the commander?" "Or even three times..." Yarnay added with only a half-joking tone. Dario shot Tazen a raised eyebrow, "Geesh, who do you work for, a freakin' troll?" "I would prefer a troll over being on the bad end of our commander," Sibler stated while keeping both hands up. He then looked over, "Tazen, I will do what you tell me, just make sure you tell me if I am getting close to you telling him about me being bad!" "It's the last thing I want to do, Sib, so lead us to the stairs first, then if I say it is time to go, you don't argue. Got it?" "Oh, yeah," Sibler nodded almost wildly. Alkoris slowly shook his head, "I don't even know the guy, but after seeing the looks on these three, do me a favor Taz. If you are going to tell on me, give me a chance to make it up to you first." Tazen chuckled, "You know me too well. Anything I could tell on you about, you know something I've done I really don't want the commander knowing about." He then focused on the others, "So guys, stick close and if we have to take someone out, we do it quick and stash the body. If they have a red shoulder cloth thing, we'll take it until all of us have one. Keep weapons sheathed but be ready for anything." Alkoris agreed with a quick nod. He then took one last look to make sure the others were ready before he pushed the heavy bronze-bound door open. Steps led up to another door, just like Sibler had predicted. He couldn't help but pat the boy on the shoulder again before heading up. He held up the key ring, pointed to the key with a series of spikes on the spine and held it up. Sibler nodded, "Turn it to the left, if you turn it the other way the poison spines with still pop out of the plate with the pull handle." To be on the safe side, Alkoris put the flat of his dagger blade between his hand and the pull handle plate. He then turned the key, heard the tumblers click, and with a deep breath pulled on the ring. As the pull ring went up, he spotted a thin wire leading into the bronze plate on the door, but it slid without tripping anything. "Definitely trapped, great work little guy!" Sibler managed a weak smile, "Knowing is pretty nice, but I... It made my head feel funny. I do not think I like it." "Well, I do. And it might have just saved my life, so you did good." Alkoris stated as he pulled the door open. Once again, whatever vision Sibler had, proved correct. Beyond the door was a two meter wide passage to the left and right. Instead of hooded lanterns lighting the passage, there were open oil lamps held on wall hooks about every ten meters. The light movement of air caused some of the flames to flicker, but it was not enough to keep the air totally fresh. This left the whole passage smelling lightly of oil smoke, and there were dim areas between the lanterns, but it was still enough light to use normal vision. There were some muted sounds of a hammer hitting metal, but otherwise the area was still. Alkoris couldn't help but keep his voice at a low whisper, "Little guy, go slow, but not too slow. Just take us to the stairs. If you run across anyone, pretend like you are supposed to be here. Once we know where the stairs are we'll poke around a bit." Sibler gave a nervous nod as he stepped out into the passage. He turned to the left and moved down just enough to leave room in the passage for everyone to join him, then turned to the right at the next branch. As he did so, he pointed toward a set of heavy-looking bronze doors with an engraved insignia on each. The second Alkoris saw them he cringed and stepped back to Dario and Tazen while motioning the others to continue to follow Sibler. Once they had moved just far enough away to be out of earshot to a whisper, Alkoris pointed to the doors, "The doors... They have the same symbols as the two flags in front of the Gloom Fire Mystic Shop!" Tazen moved up, took a closer look, and noticeably shuddered. He said nothing as he nodded. He then hustled to catch up to the others. Just seeing the markings made him want to leave the place faster. The very thought of being someplace associated with the Gloom Fire and or Master Tregasel was almost enough for him to decide to abandon the scouting mission. However, he had been given a tremendous boost of power, and he didn't want the gods to take it back. With a shake of his head, and moving his hand closer to the magical blade on his hip, he glanced down an offshoot passage to the left. Like the others it was lit, but one of the lanterns in the middle of the hall was flickering badly, like it was running low on oil. This made the middle part of the passage very gloomy. Seeing Sibler take the next turn to the left, he shrugged and followed. Within a just a couple of minutes he found Sibler standing in front of a wooden door with two thin bronze bands. Sibler waited for everyone then spoke softly, "The stairs up are in the room just the other side of this door, but there are voices..." He let his words drift off as he pointed to the door. Alkoris slid past everyone and put his ear to the door. After nearly a minute, he turned and spoke in a very hushed tone, "I don't know the language, but I'm pretty sure I hear at least four voices and the clink of coins. What do you want to do, Taz?" "The last thing we want is to have to fight our way out if we are already running, so..." he patted the magical blade. Dario let out a sigh as he looked over to Sibler, "What's up the steps?" "I do not know... Um, there is a door on the far side of the room and the room is triangle-shaped, though..." Alkoris gave a little short, "This is almost as good as knowing the place..." He then shot Tyndall a smirk, "So, you say you are good at distractions?" Tyndall let out a long breath and his shoulders slumped, "Yeah... It's one of the few things I am good at." Tazen had to fight to not slap either the older teen or his own forehead. He had never dealt with someone who seemed to always look down on himself before. It was actually pretty annoying. "Do your thing, but if the other door is open, try to get close to it. As soon as the fighting starts, close it." "OK, what else do you want me to do?" "Just do your best to hold their attention as long as possible and let us do our thing. But make sure none of them escape through the door. One of us will try to get to it fast, but you need to hold it until Alk, Dar or me can get over to it. "Sib, Kaz, and Yar, I don't want you on the front lines, but if you see an opening, feel free to take it. You three need to close the door and prevent anyone from escaping, though. Once the alarm sounds any scouting is done. "Alk, we want to do this fast, so use your Lockmaster skills. Direct me to the hardest target and you take the next hardest. We'll try to open a path so Dar can get to the other door and help hold it." "Solid plan," Dario whispered. "Ty, sounds like you're up." Tyndall took a resigned breath, moved up to the door, pulled it open just wide enough so he could slide through, then closed it to where it was barely cracked open. Alkoris peeked in high, while Tazen took a knee and surveyed the room from low. Both had hands on weapons. Tyndall didn't say a word as he entered. A quick glance left him a bit confused over what was going on. Along one wall were two boys and one girl, all humans, all about ten or eleven years old. They were tied with their arms high above their heads. Ropes hung down from rusty iron rings well above their heads. These were tied to the ropes around their wrists. This kept them standing on tiptoes. Broken glass under their left feet caused their left toes to ooze blood. All three were wearing only loincloths, while gags prevented them from doing more than making muffled sounds. All three were crying and shaking their heads. Next to the three was a boy of about twelve wearing a Mystic cloak over leather armor. A red sash hung over the cloak. On the boy's right hip was a light mace. On the other a hip sword. Finally he had a dagger in a sheath on his right boot. He looked up and shrugged as he spotted Tyndall's red sash. Across the room, Tyndall noted four Goblings, a Halforc female adult, and Human female of about fourteen. All were around a table with scores of copper and tin coins on it along with nine time glasses. In front of seven of the time glasses was a silver ring. All had sand running down them. Three were small and quickly emptying. Three were slightly bigger and had quite a bit of sand left. The last three were just getting started and would take quite some time for the tops to empty. The Halforc changed from Orcish to Northman and spoke as Tyndall moved deeper into the room, "You wants ta place bet? We jus' got goin!" Tyndall moved up to the table, as if he was interested. As he got close, he purposefully tripped over the chair with the teen girl. As he fell, he reached out and knocked the table over, while putting all his weight into pinning the girl. Those at the table jumped up. Two of the Goblings fell over chairs while the girl was knocked flat with Tyndall all but lying on top of her. "Now!" Alkoris shouted as he pulled open the door and charged. He angled right at the Mystic kid, "Taz, take the Halforc! Dar, far door!" The young Mystic was taken totally off guard. His hand didn't even get to a weapon before Alkoris' flail caught him in the gut. He doubled over, dropping to his knees as he did so. Alkoris didn't show any remorse. He slammed his flail down over the kid's back knocking him flat. He then stomped down with everything he had on the back of the kid's head, driving the face down hard onto the stone floor. This broke facial bones, while dislocating the jaw and shattering a few teeth. Dario sprinted across the room, but took an opening on one of the Goblings who was looking down at Tyndall with a great deal of anger. The door flying open didn't even get its attention until it found an axe buried into its stomach. It fell with a stunned expression and a silent scream on its lips. Dario left the axe in the Gobling. Instead of worrying about it, he pulled the Silver Steel one and put his back to the far door. Tazen already guessed who Alkoris would send him after, so he moved straight at the Halforc even as it kicked the table out of the way and drew a bronze short sword. What he wasn't even slightly expecting was for the Halforc to grab and shove the remaining standing Gobling at him. Seeing the Gobling already had a dagger out, Tazen didn't have much choice but to deal with the threat. He shoved the magical blade into its chest, mortally injuring it, but in doing so, fell back with the impaled Gobling laying on top of him. The three whipping boys quickly moved into the room and closed the door behind them. While Kaznal put his back to the door and pulled his light mace, Sibler and Yarnay pulled daggers and threw them at the Halforc. The Halforc deflected one with a small buckler on its forearm guard, and turned to the side avoiding a direct impact from the second, but it still nicked her enough to leave a bloody stripe on her left hip. It grunted, but didn't even slow. It came straight at Tazen. Alkoris pulled up his right hand, formed it into a cup shape and thrust it forward. A screeching sound slammed into the Halforc causing it to take a step back and shake its head. This gave Tazen just enough time to shove the dying Gobling off and roll back toward the door. However, he still paid for it, as one of the knocked over Goblings managed to stick his thigh with a dagger. Luckily the tip was the only thing to get past the chain armor, but it still left him with a painful and bleeding stab wound. He snarled, yanked a throwing axe off the side of his pack, and threw it down at the Gobling with everything he had, figuring he couldn't miss since it was still down and he was all but right over it. He was not mistaken. The axe's blade slammed into the smaller creature's shoulder, ripping right through the sash and the leather armor as if it wasn't even there. The Gobling let out a screech of agony while reaching for the axe. Tazen had to duck under a decent swing from the Halforc while he pulled his light flail. He came up in a fighting stance exchanging glares with the taller, but not particularly sturdy looking opponent. Seeing it purposefully flash a Primary step 1 Swordsman Guild pin, Tazen let out a snort and tapped his own Primary step 1 pin on his belt. This only caused the Halforc to frown and flip him off. Tazen grinned and stuck out his tongue. Alkoris double-checked the boy in the Mystic robe was indeed out by kicking him hard in the side of the head. Satisfied, he moved up on the final uninjured Gobling, while also checking on Tyndall. Tyndall had the upper hand from the start because he was literally lying on top of the girl and he was just a smidge taller and heavier. This allowed him to hit her with a couple of wild but effective punches. Out of desperation, the girl first bit his hand, then spoke a single arcane word and spit, hitting Tyndall in the cheek with a sharp shard of frozen spit. Tyndall rubbed the bloody spot with his shoulder, even as he spoke a couple of arcane words of his own. He then shoved his finger into the girl's ear and let loose a Frost Learned Autospell. The girl cried out and gripped at her ear as her eardrum froze. Tyndall wiped at the tiny trickle of blood on his cheek again and sucked on his bit hand for a moment. He looked down angrily, stuck his finger in the girl's other ear and duplicated what he just did. He was rewarded with another shriek while the girl knocked his hand out of the way and covered up her other ear. With both hands now covering her ears, she was all but unprotected so he pulled his dagger and shoved it into her stomach before rolling off, pulling the girl's book satchel off her as he did so. Alkoris was about to swing on the Gobling, but Yarnay beat him to it. Yarnay noticed the Gobling had lost its dagger when it tipped over the chair and it didn't have another weapon on it. This left him one-on-one with an unarmed opponent who was almost the same height and weight he was. It tried to grab for a chair, but as it reached out, Yarnay slashed down on the Gobling's wrist with his short sword. This opened up a nasty blood-flowing gash so deep bones could be seen. The Gobling howled in pain as it gripped at the life-threatening injury. Since it was totally defenseless, Yarnay couldn't bring himself to kill it, so he backhanded it in the face with the pummel of the blade. Finally, as the Gobling staggered back totally stunned and faltering, he stepped forward and punched it in the temple with the blade tightly clenched in his hand. He started to take a knee so he could hit it a third time, but noticed it was out cold, with its tongue hanging out of its mouth and a rapidly expanding pool of blood forming around the horribly wounded wrist. Dario spoke from the far door, "Nice!" Alkoris nodded in total agreement, even as he moved up to help Tazen with the Halforc. However, he only made it a couple of steps before the Halforc's back arched and it tried to grab at something in its back. Tazen didn't see the reason, but was only too happy to take a shot at a wide open target. He slammed his flail into the woman's exposed throat, causing her to topple back grabbing at her neck while making a sound very close to a lightly croaking frog. Tazen wasn't nearly as forgiving as Yarnay. He moved up on the defenseless woman and brought his flail down over the top of her skull, splitting it open. Sibler stood from behind the knocked over table holding a light crossbow in his hands. He turned away from the gruesome sight with a 'yewwww' sound. Dario looked over, "Where'd ya find a crossbow?" Sibler pointed to the corner, next to where the Halforc had originally been seated while holding up a quarrel of fourteen bolts, "She left it over there, loaded, so..." Alkoris moved up on the dead Halforc and used his foot to roll it onto its side. Just below the left shoulder blade was a deeply embedded bolt. "Good shooting!" Sibler pulled the string back and with a great deal of effort reloaded, "I really like crossbows... Can I keep it?" "I'd be kind of pissed off if you didn't!" Tazen stated without any hesitation as he moved up to the girl hanging on the wall, pulled his dagger, and sliced down on the gag. The girl didn't even try to get a full breath out. Instead she started begging, "Take it out, take it out, take it out..." Tazen cocked his head to the side in confusion even as Dario carefully pulled open the door he had moved to guard. Alkoris looked over and used his own dagger to remove the gag on the boy closest to him, "Take what out?" "Da worm thing!" the boy cried out the moment he could, "It hurts!" Dario noticed a small room with another door on the far side. It was empty and unlit save for the light coming in from the torches in the room he was in. He looked back, "Worm thing?" The boy jerked hard, "On me side! On me side!" Alkoris frowned deeply as he stepped closer. It took only a couple of seconds to spot a tiny bulge moving just under the skin on the boy's left side. Even as he pulled out his dagger and lightly poked at the moving spot he spoke with a great deal of concern, "What in the Nine Hells is this, Taz!" "Get it out! Please! It hurts!" "Taz, this is way more you than me!" Tazen started looking over the girl and noticed a small moving bump emerging from under the helpless girl's loincloth. Even as he pulled out his Healthman kit, he looked over to Yarnay, "Check the other boy!" Yarnay stepped up, and looked for a few seconds, "Found one! It is almost to his armpit!" "Screw this!" Alkoris stated even as he moved his dagger down on the submerged moving blob. "Don't stab it!" Tazen ordered as he carefully cut the girl's skin all the way around the unknown thing. "It might be like a Slime Leach! If you stab it, it might bleed inside him. If it as at all like a Slime Leach, it could poison him if it bleeds while still in him. Dig your blade under it and dig it out without cutting it!" Yarnay pulled his dagger and faltered, "Um..." Dario moved up, "I'll do it! Where is it?" Yarnay pointed, cut the boy's gag off and quickly turned away as Dario made a quick cut, flipped the skin back and slid the tip of the dagger under the small, blood covered, grayish-yellow slug-like thing with four small sharp-looking antennas. Seeing it try to slide back off and use the antennas to pull itself back into the twisting and bawling boy, Dario pulled his other dagger, cut the flesh right in front of the antennas and flipped it off onto the floor. He pointed to Kaznal, "Grab one of those torches and burn it or something!" Kaznal didn't hesitate to do as he was told. All the kids let out a relieved sigh as the nasty slug shriveled up and started to burn with the first touch of the torch. Seeing this, Alkoris quickly did the same thing, followed by a much cleaner and less deep cut and removal with Healthman tools by Tazen. Kaznal was only too happy to burn the last two. Alkoris moved back up to the boy who told him about the disgusting things, "Are there any more in you?" The boy shook his head while still crying, but did manage to speak, "No... no... just one... them... them monsters was makin' bets on the first a us ta have it get into a ear..." "Where'd it come from?" Tyndall timidly asked even as Tazen stopped the others from cutting the three kids down. Tazen held up his hands and spoke firmly. "Leave 'em up till I tell you! I want to make sure they don't have any more. Get the glass out from under their feet, but they stay right where they are at until I check 'em!" Tazen checked over the girl from head to toe, then moved to the others. Still he didn't let them get cut down as he decided to go so far as to remove all their loin cloths and spin them looking for any other signs of more of the gross slugs. The boy Alkoris cut the thing out of seemed to be the only one able to speak. He focused on Tyndall since he was the oldest and it was obvious the teen really wanted to cut the ropes holding his hands above his head. "The worm things was in the glass holders... The potion thrower had 'em... they was in the holders in him robe... him put the glass holders under our toes... Him tell us it eat us... Eat me head on inside... Us try not to step on the glass, but me couldn't hold meself up no longer. It break and it eat inta me toe and moved up... Let me down, me do whats ya want! Jus let me down..." Tazen moved over to the boy, "Not until I make sure there aren't any more in you and I bandage the spots where they went in and came out." "Ain't no more, just one, it hurt real bad. Me know if me had more in me..." Tazen pulled a few splinters of glass out of the boy's foot while speaking. "I want to make sure there ain't none of them things left to lay no eggs and make more or nothing. I'm also going to stick some Healthman herb in ya to so the bleeding stops. The Star Leaf will heal it faster while the Fire Root stops any puss from getting started inside you. It's gunna burn for a few minutes. Until I'm done I ain't about to let ya down, sorry." As he dug through his pouch, he continued to talk. "While I check him over, the rest of you clean this mess up the best you can." Dario pointed to the door he had guarded, "Empty room with a door on the far side. Opens in, so we can block it." Alkoris grabbed a red sash off a Gobling and started to drag it over to the empty room, "And if you don't have a red shoulder thing grab one. If anyone comes in, act like we are supposed to be here." ****** Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Lacate, Zeltoss and a whole lot of other folks: Kandric stood out in the driving snow just outside a hastily erected, yet extremely nice, tent just into the wood line uphill from the lake encasing the White Dragon prince. Next to him the Silver Warrior Dragon, San’i-sar protectively kept watch over him. Seeing the youngster's hands continually clench into fists, then unclench, the Dragon decided to attempt to get the boy out of the driving storm. It already guessed it would be hard to talk some reason into the boy, but it was his duty to try. He spoke in Dragon, knowing the boy would be able to understand and he would not accidently slur words with his long teeth and forked tongue in a different language. "Premier, as soon as your army's scouts locate the White Dragon encampment, I am sure you will be notified. Standing out here is doing nothing for anyone other than making you cold and those under you nervous." Kandric looked back and up, "I have a magical ward against Syria's wrath, and I believe the Gifting of Prince Weraweld included a large amount of cold resistance as well, for I feel no ill effects from this storm whatsoever. However, I thank you for your concern. And while I deeply appreciate your protection, I really do not feel it is needed." "Needed, my Premier, no. Required, yes, beyond any shadow of a doubt. And while I am more than content to stand here next to you until we both grow old, I feel it is my duty to request you join your young knighted compatriots in getting some deep rest." "If what I was told is correct San'i-sar, at least one, probably more, of my students are being held by the White Dragons. Between this storm and the type of cold I felt radiating off Prince Weraweld, they must be in agony, freezing to death." "Premier, unless they want to kill those they capture, they will provide enough shelter and warmth to where they do not freeze. While it will certainly not be comfortable, the White Dragons understand how to handle those who feel the bite of frost on their hides or skin. They will be tended to and sheltered." "You sound very certain, San'i-sar." "There is no certainty, Premier. All I can inform you of is what I know and have heard, which is substantial. The Silver Dragon Homeland has millennia of experience combating the White Dragons. Because of this, I can inform you, just as we do, the White Dragons have plenty of experience dealing with warm loving races. Also, as I am doing now, White Dragons can greatly temper the radiation of cold. In addition to this, they vigorously raid the lands close to them for treasure and other plunder, often including slaves. A frozen slave, or ransomable captive, does them no good. I assure you, they know how to handle such captives." "Sitting in a warm tent still feels very wrong to me, San'i-sar." "Premier, you being well rested for the attack will do your students far more than if you enter the combat with little to no sleep. Besides, if you really are not feeling this wicked weather, this whole process of standing out here to feel some of what you are afraid your students may be dealing with is rather pointless." Kandric let out a sigh of frustration since he could find no counterpoint, "You are correct, but getting sleep will be impossible..." "Premier, if you really wish decent rest, may I recommend you drop your magical defiance and allow me, or another Mage, to cast a Slumber on you?" The continued talk of sleep caused Kandric to yawn. This, in turn, caused him to note the faintest hint of a smirk on the Warrior Dragon. Kandric let out a breath while letting his shoulders sag in self-admitted defeat, "Very well. Every point you make is valid and I know it, even though I do not want to admit it. You and my teacher, Master Shaman Glaster have much in common when it comes to your ability to debate and challenge others. I am certain the two of you could hold hours of enjoyable conversation capable of making me look foolish while also boring me to death. "In addition, I get the feeling Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia do not want me poking my head into whatever meeting they need to have with my teacher, Monarch, General Vondum and the others who have assembled. Thus, to make everyone happy and better prepare me to fight, I will allow you to Slumber me and send word to them I am sleeping. However, I will allow you to do so only under the condition you promise wake me at the first word of the camp being located." San'i-sar gave Kandric a bow, "Premier, if we are to engage White Dragon forces, I assure you with every drop of cold blood running through my core, you will be the first I wake. For to enter combat without the slayer of Prince Weraweld at the very front of our lines would be beyond foolish." Kandric let out a little snort, "I got lucky, nothing more." "One victory, against a Great Dragon, is more luck than most beings will see in their combined lifetimes, Premier. Twice would be exhausting the luck of both this world and most of the Spirit Realms. There is simply not enough luck in existence to take the lives of three Greats, let alone three royal Greats. With a the addition of the True; Rovnar himself must know of you by name and may even see a rival." At this Kandric tossed his arms up in surrender, not wanting to further debate the matter. Instead, he shook his head, "I doubt I even rate the only non-Mythlet or Mythling to make godhood a passing glance, San'i-sar, nor do I ever need my name mentioned as a rival of any god. Somehow, I highly doubt Rovnar would need to have someone put himself to bed, either. However, thank you for the over lofty compliment." Before the Dragon could responded. Kandric entered the tent, laid his head down on the bed the Alphar and Garm somehow managed transport and set up for him. He then glanced at the dragon eye peering into the tent and motioned for San'i-sar to cast while dropping his magical defiance to let the full effects of the spell hit him. Even then, he felt the Dragon needing to add more Force into the spell before he fell sound asleep. Word of Kandric finally bedding down reached the command tent within minutes. Once it was confirmed he was indeed sleeping, Glaster was called in. Glaster entered the tent with Chark'ash by his side and gave a deep royal bow, giving the boy a light elbow to do the same. He found the jab was not needed, since the boy was already on his way down before he even touched the young Drow prince's flesh. While most stared or even glared at the young Drow, Duke Mathard quickly motioned for the man to stand while speaking, "Master Shaman, am told you are royalty by your own hand. I also fully understand you feel you need to protect your young Drow student. I formally welcome him into this tent and even the meeting." Glaster spoke while still staying low, "Good Duke, I lost my lands to the Warlords of Morden. My guild ranking is above my landless lord title and even if I still held my lands I would be at best a count. You are, and always will be, above my stature and caste." "Nonsense," Princess Syrissia stated forcefully. "You are, by right of being our Premier's instructor, an equal in this circle. In addition, I believe I speak for both myself, Duke Mathard and others here when I say you will have at the very least the full support of both the Alphar and Garm nations in retaking your lands once this... situation... is behind us." Duke Mathard gave a single deep nod, akin to a bow of respect, "Indeed you do speak for me, Princess, and you speak well. So please, Master Shaman, raise and join us as equals. To this end, young Drow, you may also raise. Should you feel the need to speak, I only ask you do so with something you truly feel will be helpful and you do so with whatever your best speech is. Also, I commend you for an extremely good bow." A Silver Dragonling sent by Prince Millen as an envoy quickly spoke up, but proved he was extremely adept with speaking Northman as none of its words slurred. "Master Shaman, with the death of Prince Weraweld by the hand of our Premier, tutored by you, our homeland owes you a huge debt of gratitude. We will throw additional troops in to the endeavor while helping our new Red allies to claim the lands our Premier has offered them. Your Drow student is also welcome into the Silver Dragon Homeland with open arms, as are any of his family or friends." The Red Dragonling Pangam gave deep nod, akin to a bow. "While we need to regain a homeland, we will find enough to prove we fully sssssupport the overall alliance. I hereby pledge the Red Dragon Homeland will help to break the backssss of thosssse holding your landssss. In addition, your Drow apprentice will find fully honorable treatment from all Red Dragonkind." Monarch's left lower tusk moved upwards making it look like the Illorc was almost smiling, "With a treaty between me and Prince Bandurlok in place, I will also add in serious forces. I never liked the Warlords of Morden much anyway. As a being normally seen as a monster, I assure you, your young Drow will be treated as an equal when in the boundaries of my lands and by any Illorc who does not want me to fold and twist them into interesting shapes." "Thanks to our Premier, the threats to tribal lands of the Pantherlings above the Silver Spine are greatly reduced." Wek chimed in. "This will allow us to mobilize warrior expeditions to aid the Red Dragons to claim a new homeland and still provide aid to you as well, Master Shaman." Wek turned directly to Chark'ash, "And you, young Drow, are always more than welcome in our lands and I formally extend a paw to any you speak for. My kind look at the being, not the skin." A Hawkling envoy cocked its head to the side, "If we can deal with the immediate threat, I am certain the Hawkling council will allocate significant troops to ensure the warlords of the southern seas forget they even knew of your former island landholds. In addition, I can assure you with the combination of the homelands assembled here, we will be able to expand said holding to where you are much more than a count. I feel I must also insist we show you proper deference, since word came to us of you no longer being a Master. So guild rated or not, you are, by your hand.. now hands, Lord Glaster." The Hawkling didn't show nearly as much in the ways of pleasantries toward Chark'ash, however. "While I accept the Drow boy, he may find the Hawklings less than... agreeable... to his unescorted presence. The Drow Wars took the lives of many royal households and resentment within remaining royalty still runs deeper than it probably should." "While the Black Dragon Empire is embroiled in a deep civil war," Bandurlok's envoy, the Black Dragonling Golhaod spoke, "the damage already done to the army of Prince Basssssork will allow Prince Bandurlok to sssscrounge aid for both the Red offensive and the retaking of your lands, Lord Glasssster. For the boy, Drow are openly welcome in our Homeland. The Black Dragon Homeland remainsssss alone in keeping large quantity of Drow in our military. He will have nothing to fear from Black Dragonkind." Although Glaster refused to see himself as equal to such high nobles and the representatives of others, he accepted them at their word. For to not do so would be to eliminate the best chance he had of freeing his people from the barbarity of the Warlords' boots crushing their bodies, hopes, and dreams. He was also surprised to find such minimal resistance to bringing Chark'ash with him, but for the boy's protection, he felt he had no choice. It was also abundantly clear by the reaction to not only himself, but their overall acceptance of Chark'ash, combined with there being so many royal members of different races, his beloved student had made a total mess of things. For his own wellbeing he had to be diplomatic as possible, so he could do what he could not only for Kandric, but himself. For he figured no one could garner this many races under one banner without stepping on some very big and powerful toes. A few hours later Glaster found himself sitting on a fine cushioned chair while his eyes told of both his disbelief and horror as he realized his precious student had done way more than simply stepping on a toe or ten. The backdrop would have been beyond believable save for the beings telling him of Kandric's true heritage and deeds. The last bit of information was the final straw. It hit him like a warclub. So stunningly hard did the information strike him, it was difficult to even find his voice, "Princess Syrissia, Duke Mathard... other assembled nobles and powerful house counsel... Am I really hearing you all correctly? Frexla, not one of her minions, but the Cunt of Flames herself came, in full flesh, back into our realm and has taken Prince Darmoth and Prince Rathiter?" Princess Syrissia cocked her head to the side, "Cunt of Flames... Huh, there is a new one to me...Crude, but somehow very fitting. I shall have to remember to use it in the Alphar Court just to see the reactions." While Glaster's eyes went wide with near panic, Duke Mathard busted up in deep laughter, "Oh, my good Princess, if you decide to do so, I beg of you to please invite me so I may bear witness. However, I must request a spell of silence be draped over my mouth so I do not make a total ass of myself!" Monarch couldn't help but chuckle even as he reached over and patted Glaster on the shoulder, "I can see where Premier Kandric gets much of his... contemptuous diplomatic tact from. I am liking you more by the minute Lord Glaster." Pangam snickered hard enough to cause some sparks to erupt from around his lips, "Very well said, Lord Monarch. I must concur with your obssssservation. However, we need to complete a plan to inform our Premier in a manner to... contain not only the anger, but power within, to a pragmatic level of ruin." While it took many a few seconds to absorb the words, Vondum looked over with a high level of respect, "Sir Pangam, not only do I suddenly understand why our Premier holds you in such high regards, I also can see the two of us becoming friends. The question remains, who should tell him?" As this was said all eyes fell on Glaster. Noting he was being seen as the authority figure behind the boy, he shook his head. "Esteemed members of royalty and proxy leaders of your kingdoms and empires, your gaze is on a person who all but abandoned the boy... Premier..." Glaster cringed at the momentary slip of court decorum and proper title, but forced himself to slow down and focus not so much on the problem of Frexla, but the youngster who would somehow need to control a rage that could unleash a calamity on the scale of the Mythling Wars, if not greater. Glaster ran his hand down his face, "The problem with pinning your optimism on me, is to truly not understand my relationship with the Premier. He did not enter into an agreement to become my apprentice or student with total freedom of choice." Seeing several eyes go wide, Glaster nodded, "Yes, I coerced him to a great degree in the beginning. Over time the arrangement became much more, but the initial agreement was struck under a certain amount of..." Glaster paused as he tried to find a word which would not get his throat slit. "Duress?" Princess Syrissia offered up. Glaster let out a long, uneasy, breath, "As descriptive a declaration as any, Princess." Princess Syrissia shrugged and spoke, "Lord Glaster, no matter how you acquired his apprenticeship, you obviously put your heart and treasure into his training. Furthermore, you took in and provided said training to someone who could not have been seen as anything other than a member of the lowest caste of any realm. Whatever form of payment you demanded out of our Premier was clearly paid back many fold by you. In addition, witnessing the reunion between our Premier and yourself shows he has no overt and little, if any, lingering resentment over his handling. "Given what and who Premier Kandric has become, I would happily direct my own child into your arms, with no restrictions, for half the instruction you provided our Premier. It would do him some good to meet and have to get to know a Drow as well, since he has never been given the chance. Truth be told, I have not either, so even being in the presence of your very well-behaved student is a bit of an educational honor for me." Her total support of Glaster surprised many and astonished others. However, it had the effect of instantly quashing any anger or resentment toward the man. "Thank you Princess," Glaster stated while doing his best not to sound relieved. "However, in addition to the circumstances surrounding his full apprenticeship to me, my tutelage of him was geared toward forcing him to accept the consequences of his verbal declarations as well as his actions. My teaching style is, and has always been, to make students take responsibility for both words and deeds while facing the world with head held high. When taking instruction from me, there were punishments for disobedience. When on his own, however, he learned quickly not to look toward me for aid. As an example, the first time he decided he wanted to track bandits into the swamps, I told him there would be consequences for doing so. He wanted to do so anyway, so I let him. When we caught up, I backed off, put my back to a tree and observed silently. "When he became angry after having to fight them all on his own, I reinforced my primary rule, take accountability for the consequences of actions. He wanted to track and capture or kill them for reward, not me. He wanted to show off, not me. He wanted to prove he was a Primary Echelon Shaman, Outdoorsman, and skilled enough to take the fight to some not particularly bright, but dangerous, ruffians, not me. I already knew all of those things and told him there was no good reason to brag to others or boast to himself. Thus, the fight and the after-effects were on his shoulders, not mine. "After his victory, which even I must admit was more impressive than I expected, he had to carry the heads and all the gear he wanted. It was his decision, and therefore he needed to deal with all aspects, including the taking of bounty. He lugged it all, close to double his weight, over the course of three days, through the swamp and to Paws, since there was no way I was going to be let him get seen in or around Slome with a tenth of what he ended up carrying. "My only action was to heal his injuries, but not until he had to deal with them for a decent span. Even then, the healing was by no means free. I charged him three-fifths of the reward and another fifth to turn the heads in on his behalf, because no one would have believed he had taken them, let alone in a fair fight." "I feel I must interject, here." Monarch stated with a smirk. "The fight between him and whatever bandits he fell could not have been a fair one. The bandits were way out of their league. I also must confess I was about to inquire as the Premier's age at the time of this first mission, but to do so would be pointless. By the time I first laid eyes on him, I saw a skinny, bordering on dainty, child. Had he not been standing next to our General Vondum as a free and well-armed and armored child, I would have never given him a second glance. However, he was with our general and I foolishly probed; only to find a power level well above anything I could have expected. Thus, I am sure he was nothing more than a tyke in the eyes of most the day he eliminated the bandits of which you speak, Lord Glaster." "Still is a child," Wek stated with a roll of his eyes. "I mean, seriously, if the Premier or any of his knighted friends walked through a gate, any gate, one of us were guarding, wearing commoner clothing, what would any of us think if we did not know him?" The Silver Dragonling shrugged, "Other than to make certain they could pay the gate tax, and probably to check for lice in a nicer ssssettlement, none." At this Pangam snickered again, "About what I thought the day he appeared riding a Warssssteed toward a line of attackersss attempting to capture the caravan the two Frexla-taken Princessss were in... Even armed and in very high quality armor, I believe it was along the linessss of... um... an utter wasssste of cute, vulnerable, and probably valuable flessssh. I believe I referred to him to my compatriotssss in thosssse exact termssss... Well, I did until he road through those who opposssed him with a ssssavagery I will never forget. Our problem becomessss I highly doubt he will back down from Frexla any more than he did the prior time Princesssss Rathiter and Darmoth were in peril." "I do not believe he will either," Glaster stated. "Should I be the one to try to tell him not to, I truly do not see him taking it in the way most of you are hoping. In fact, after all the years I have spent telling him to own up to the consequences of his actions, he will likely laugh at me and throw those words back in my face. The problem is, once he does so, I am no longer in a position to punish him and he knows it. Should I try to threaten him, it will be idle at best, and infuriating to him at worst." Golhaod rubbed his claws along the long blade at his hip even as he joined in the conversation, "If you are not the one to break the information to him, will he pay attention if you try to calm him?" "I believe there is a much better chance than if I am the one to tell him of Frexla's incursion. However, once again I feel there is a better than even chance of him telling me he made the mess and he needs to clean it up. If he takes such a mindset, I will be useless to you all. In my opinion, it is best to see if he will come to me for counsel, for if he does, then I will hold a decent amount of sway." After several seconds of uneasy silence, Wek spoke up, "General Vondum, you were his commander at the time we first saw you at the hot springs..." "Ah yes, when he dropped three trees like they were mere twigs, shortly after you all insulted him, if I remember correctly," Vondum snorted. The muscles on Wek's neck fanned out as he cringed at not only the looks he was getting, but the memory of watching the spinning snow blades slice through trees many times bigger around than he was. "Yes, General, and a reason we will have little to no sway in this. Our first interaction was memorable in all the wrong ways. He knows I already mistook him for an innocent, vulnerable youngster in your control. Something I should not have done to any good looking free boy in your company. But what is done is done. At least we reversed out initial mistake by working him through the Gate Stone activation." Vondum grinned, showing no shame in body posture or words. "A good recovery, but I agree. Your first interaction with Premier Kandric will still, unfortunately, be forever remembered by him. As far as a boy being in or under my control, he never gave me reason to impose myself on him. However, for those who do not know or understand, it might be best for me to state this clearly. My craving for boy flesh to share my bed is well known above the Silver Spine, as is how I treat those not strong enough to become men." He then hardened as he stared right into Wek's eyes and added, "Since you obviously knew this about me, you should have never underestimated him." Wek refused to flinch, "Indeed, and it was something discussed beforehand, but only in passing. However... much like many here, I let appearance cloud my judgment. But I would like to get back to the problem at hand. You were his commander. Will he not listen to you?" "Possibly," Vondum sighed, "but while there is some trust and even respect, I had almost nothing to do with bringing him in as a Black Rapids' Scout. His actions all but forced my hand. The whole reason we met was I was careless enough to leave a trail for..." he glanced at Bandurlok's representative, his former instructor, smirked and resumed speaking, "I guess the best word to use would be raiders... Yes, I allowed raiders to find my primary forward scouting base. Without our cute, yet cunning and deadly little Premier, I may not have held said base. He then defended it a second time from the Ice Hellions and the Ice Demon, an event I didn't fully understand the ramifications of until recently. Regardless, the result was my men demanded we offer him a position within the Black Rapids' military and most of what he was wearing when you first saw him was made by my men, without really bothering to ask me. "However, I had the advantage of seeing him best a caster and a Swordsman even as I was fighting to save said base, so I had no misgivings about his level of... ability might be the best word. What I have seen leads me to believe I really am not the right person to open the conversation about the princes or Frexla. Instead, it would probably be better served for me to step in, forcefully if needed, to try to calm him if he takes the news as we all expect." "Forcefully?" Syrissia asked with look of disbelief. "Good General, we really need you and your knowledge of Dragons for upcoming battles." Seeing Vondum shrug, the Hawkling tossed up its arms, "There are at least a dozen real Dragons in this camp, why not just have one of them inform the Premier?" Pangam grunted, "Massster Kentra, and High Priesssst of Avgon, you cannot expect any Dragonkind to have a longing to confront and probably anger Premier Kandric. You need go no further than to walk down to the ice of what had been a lake, now a solid block of ice from bank to bank, ssssurface to bottom. Allow the glow to guide you and look downward. You will behold the ice-locked head and body of Prince Weraweld, the White Dragon'ssss best fighter and who most Dragonkind imagine wassss Crown Prince. The body can be found, backlit by magic covered hornssss. Take in such a wonder to discover with zero ambiguity why no Dragonkind, anywhere, would be prepared to take the lead on informing Premier Kandric of Frexla taking Prince Darmoth and Prince Rathiter." Golhaod gestured toward Pangam, "Well declared Emissssssary Pangam. The Premier, up to now, hassss inveterated a near unfathomable, god-like, ability to ignore normal fear Dragonkind garner by reputation, size or lethalnesssss. Even more frightening, he impartssss the confidence to comradessss. No, Masssster Kentra, there is no Dragon going to take a lead role. In actuality, there be no Dragonkind I know of dim-witted enough to be within gazing range of the Premier, and killer of my former king, when he be told of Frexla's encroachment in our realm and procurement of the princesssss. "On the other hand, Massster Kentra, you are a lead Channeler of Avgon. You have colossal respect by right of title and position with the order of Avgon. Why not delegate the matter for you to handle?" The Hawkling Channeler's feathers ruffled some as his eyes moved around the tent. "I do not know, nor have yet met, the young Premier. This does not mean I am shirking my duties to Avgon or the mortal realm as a whole. If the consensus is it is best for me to do so, I will. "However, I have no familiarity with him and he has no reason to see me as anything more than a Master guild ranked Warrior Adept and Avgon Channeler. I do not even know if he worships Avgon and if he does, to what extent. The feelings I get from my connection with the Spirits of Avgon suggest he has much closer ties to Syria and Vindayin than Avgon." Glaster jumped back into the conversation, "Master Kentra, while you are partially correct, Premier Kandric really loves the night. To this end, he has always been awed by the night sky. Therefore, while he worships Vindayin and to a lesser extent Syria as part of daily life, he is a frequent visitor of the temples of Quati and has dropped offering in my presence a few times to Lunara. His Dagger Boar knife handle is carved by his own hand to where when he grasps it he is holding the insignia of Quati, God of the night sky." Glaster couldn't help but smile at the expressions of bewilderment on the faces of many within the tent. Quati was not one an Elf-blooded being normally worshiped, nor was he a god of the Outdoorsman, Shaman, or Ruinseekers go to for normal worshiping. "Once again, my teaching style is all about self-responsibility. While I have never been one to do more than pay Quati passing gratitude, who Premier Kandric chose to worship was left to him... I can also assure you he has been to temples or shrines of every god. However, he is not, and never will be one to speak highly of Jolan, and while he has said a few kind words about Crytrall over the finding of fresh drinkable water, the chances of him giving an offering at one of her shrines is exceedingly slim. "When it comes to Avgon, I can tell you little. He never showed an interest. Because of this, other than me demanding he spend a trio of days in a Avgon Shrine outside of Scorpion Falls so he could at least understand the basic tenants of the faith, I do not believe he has done more with Avgon worshipers. For the record, I had him do the same for all gods as part of his Ruinseeker training...Regardless, I do not believe he has an interest in the God of Air." Glaster smiled at the memory, "However, he did kill his first four undead there, so the trip was not a waste." "At least you allowed him to learn something about Avgon," Kentra sighed at the news Kandric probably didn't see much in the god Kentra faithfully served from boyhood. "There must be someone the Premier trusts enough to handle the news of his prince blooded brothers having been kidnapped by Frexla without an unreasonable amount of anger. He may be a Premier, but he is still a boy. What about his mother?" Coughs, snorts, snickers, and outright groans cascaded around the tent as this idea elicited negative responses from those who had even passing knowledge of Kaylaria. Seeing confusion in the Hawkling's eyes, Duke Mathard spoke, "Master Kentra, there are a multitude of reasons Princess Kaylaria is not here, and will never be part of this discussion. Her skills as a mother are... lacking... and to say such is probably being kind." He turned to look at Princess Syrissia to make sure he had not gone too far. Instead of being angry with Mathard, Syrissia simply nodded. "While I have never met Princess Kaylaria, what Duke Mathard stated gives our Premier's mother more credit than I feel she is due. Honestly, from what I have learned, we would have better luck with Frexla coming back to tell Premier Kandric while spitting in his face. While he cares for his mother... probably... the attachment, if it exists at all, ends there. He has done more to take care of his siblings than his mother for quite some time now and he sees her unwillingness to not use her skills to better himself and his siblings as absurd and foolish. My view is considerably worse. Princess Kaylaria will be offered a construction of a temple and a huge boost of prestige to be a royal breeder of a superior bloodline for the Alphar. She will not, under any circumstances, raise those she breeds for us, however." The Blue Dragonling envoy turned his attention to Syrissia, "Princesss, does the Alphar hold no influence over the Premier? He is of your blood..." "Master Veltam, you are only partially correct. He has our blood yes," Syrissia exhaled. "The problem is he is neither Alphar in mind or heart. This is once again an area of total failure by his mother. However, there is no question he finds extreme pride at having made his way from nothing to what he is now. In truth, as much as it pains me to admit this, he is a Premier because he had no help from the Alphar. Because of this, any sway we should have, is worse than useless. Any attempt to pander to him about his bloodline would undoubtedly end up further inflaming his anger and be totally counterproductive." Mathard shook his head, "By treaty it was the responsibility of the Garm to look after his mother. Once Premier Kandric was born, it was our duty to guide and aid him as well. With the exception of Prince Aster, we utterly failed in our duty, and the Garm who took Prince Aster under his wing, took a path of giving Aster all the freedom needed to have similar attitudes as Premier Kandric, so even where we did something it was not within our sworn duty." The Silver Dragon Court envoy made a bit of a snarling sound to cause enough of a sonic vibration to cause crystal glasses and decanters to vibrate, "If our Premier cannot be influenced by noble blooded heritage, why not turn to the other half, the commoner blood within him?" Glaster focused on the Silver Dragonling, "Your thoughts are good ones, Lord Pylithium. Unfortunately, as best I can surmise, his Human side was buried in a mining accident just outside of Junsac. He begged me to take him to the site of the mine on our last visit down there, when he earned his Secondary Echelon pins. It was one of the few times I saw him cry... His memories of his Human father, along with siblings I was not able to locate for him, are still there and it is clear he misses his father more than anything I have ever found. Now if we could find his brother, Conner, there is a Elvin... Alphar... brother he was clearly very fond of. The two would be very close to the same age since Premier Kandric ages as a Halfelf." "But it is already slowing," Mathard interjected. "Premier Kandric will end up about a human equivalent year behind Prince Conner and just slightly more when it comes to Prince Aster and Prince Bayne. Nonetheless, I find this news very interesting. For this is the first time I have heard of a strong attachment to any family. It is good to hear there is some, even if it is from a standpoint of sorrow." "Oh, I bore first-hand observer to family attachment," Pangam chimed in, "the way he charged into battle when Prince Rathiter and Prince Darmoth were in danger clearly exhibitsss a family loyalty. But if he rememberssss Prince Conner, we need to procure the young prince and bring him here to determine if he can have the needed calming effect." Monarch's jaw wiggled back and forth a few times before speaking. "While I know this is a bit farfetched, what about this?" He paused to make sure he had everyone's attention before continuing. "We could tell Prince Conner of Frexla's transgressions and have him ask Premier Kandric for assistance..." Duke Mathard let out a sigh, "While information is still sketchy, it is my understanding Prince Aster is in or near Rolling Dale. Last word we had on Prince Conner, however, was just before he separated from Prince Aster. He stayed aboard a barge called the Thunder Rapids with its crew while Prince Aster headed overland. My understanding was the barge was headed down to Everone." Glaster quickly verified, "Prince Aster made it out of Rolling Dale with me. He was with a Junsac Barony Watch team which included the Hawkling, Sardan. They broke off shortly after eliminating bandits chasing my caravan. If you think it would be helpful, I may be able to contact Sardan, but the magical disturbances my... our... Premier has unleashed may prevent it. The problem is, I doubt there are any ties, other than blood, between Prince Aster and Premier Kandric." Chark'ash said something softly while procuring himself some meat and cheese off the central table. While the barely audible muttering was all but drowned out, Wek looked over, "Something to say young Drow?" Chark'ash instantly put what he was selecting on a small plate, set it on the table, and took a knee in a deep bow of respect and subjugation, "My sincere apologies, Teacher and Emissary Wek, I did not intend for my utterances to be heard." Mathard couldn't help but blink even as he stood and moved over to Chark'ash. "Extremely elegant speech and astonishingly proper decorum in your current surrounding, child." He knelt in front of the boy. As he saw the youngster tighten and tremble slightly, Mathard lifted his chin, and gave him a warm smile. "Please do not be afraid. Stand and tell me your name." With a cringe he stood and glanced over at Glaster. "Do not look to me, Chark," Glaster snapped. "Your upbringing is better than to turn away from one of higher stature than your current overseer." Chark'ash turned back to Mathard, "Duke and Lord of Winter Creek, I am referred to by Chark by most over me including my current commander. My disturbance of this meeting is to my great shame. Please forgive me." Wek shot the boy a toothy grin, "There is nothing to be ashamed of, Chark. You have never been around Pantherlings or our keen ears before. Your utterance had to have been of a pitch you had no expectation of being overheard. Up to this point, you have been in this tent and shown amazing restraint and patience for a child of your age." "Indeed you have," Mathard concurred. "However, you did say something, and I wish to hear it." Chark'ash noticeably cringed while his shoulders dropped, "Lord of Winter Creek, it was really nothing worthy of your time, nor of any other esteemed member of this delegation. I feel it would needlessly distract from encouraging this Premier to not do anything so foolish as to invite another open war between the Mythlings and Mythlets." Syrissia's eyebrows shot up, "Not only does he have a royal court worthy speech pattern, good manners, and understanding of titles, the young Drow also listens and knows history. Very impressive. Now, however, you have the ears of all of us, and I find myself as interested in what was said, regardless of your desire to be heard. So knock off with the court inspired subtlety crap and spill it already!" The princess's words caused several eyes to go wide at her sudden lack of etiquette, but it had the desired outcome, as Chark'ash took a step back and spoke without holding back, "I stated there was another tie between the two princes, they shared Lord Glaster's bed!" While many gasped and a few grabbed for wine glasses, Vondum moved up and lightly punched Glaster in the shoulder, "Two princes, I am impressed Lord Glaster. You have an impeccable appreciation for, and ability to procure, high stature boy flesh!" Chark just couldn't stop himself at this point, figuring he would be punished in ways he could not even contemplate in his worst nightmares for letting the information out for the world to know. "Two princes? No, three, soon to be four... at least...." At this all eyes turned back to Chark'ash. It was Monarch who first found his voice, "Soon to be four? As in you?" Chark'ash quickly covered for his mistake, at least in part. "No Lord Monarch, I am not to be his fourth. Lord Glaster has had three princes and there is another in waiting to share his bed." Chark'ash lowered his head and shook it, "I assure you the third and soon to be fourth were not subjugated, harmed or tricked into being bedded." "So you are certain they were not forced?" Mathard demanded to know. "I am beyond confident of this, Lord of Winter Creek. Was there some subtle coercion, possibly. Force or other threats, no not by any stretch of any law I am aware of. In actuality, between the available options, both took the reasonable course of action in submitting to my lord's.... requests. One was placed in a situation where he ended up under the full control of Lord Glaster by right of debt and the other contracted to my current lord for the finalization of training with full knowledge, possibly after the fact, of what side duties would be, will soon be, required. Once again I fully apologize for being a major interruption and diversion from such an essential conference..." Matharad's hard demeanor eased considerably, but he stayed focused on Chark'ash. "And the possible act of coercion?" "While there, it cannot be construed by anyone as more than bargaining from a position of strength and power. From what I have seen and learned already, in the short time since he gained my services, negotiation is something Lord Glaster, as a trade caravan master, is phenomenal at. My current commander has an incredible gift of finding the weakness and desires in others to gain every advantage. I firmly believe he could find a way sell seawater to a ship captain lost at sea and make the man smile as he hands over a pouch of coin." "The profit taxes Lord Glaster pays when his caravan departs Black Rapids says this young Drow can't be far from the truth." Vondum snickered. "If a prince, any prince, is procured for bedding as part of a legitimate business deal, there can be no crime, at least in Black Rapids." "No crime anywhere." Syrissia stated. "In fact, if you really have the skills I am hearing about, Lord Glaster, and are willing to willing to teach them. I take my earlier words and transform them into a serious concession, for I have a prince in need of a someone to squire for, nowhere as beautiful as our Premier, but certainly trainable. If part of the price he and I have to pay to get him trained in the realms outside our lands in all aspects of what he will be facing as we reenter the larger world, I have a fifth prince for your list of conquests." As the tent fell totally silent and all eyes turned to her, she shrugged, "Considering, at some point I am going to have to make the offer for our Premier to come to my palace, and by doing so I will be inviting a Halforc into my home as an honored guest, the subsequent shock of me allowing the bedding of my son as part of his squire-ship will be less than nothing within the Alphar courts." At this Mathard reluctantly nodded, "Princess Syrissia, while I cringe at your offer, you are correct. Allowing Sir Seldnat in and opening up a honored guest room in the inner walls of palaces within Garm lands will send more than a few upper and even mid-level royalty to want to hide under their beds and conceal their valuables. It will be somewhat entertaining to observe the resulting firestorm of decorum breaches and how the Garm court will deal with any grievances." "The same will happen within Alphar lands," Syrissia smirked. "The fallout will be phenomenally enjoyable to monitor. By the time my son even enters into the conversation, it will be so minor as to not even be heard by the royal court, should anyone wish to imply wrongdoing on my part. I assure you it will not happen, however. Having Lord Glaster as my son's mentor will never be challenged." At this Vondum's new squire took a knee, "Princess, General Vondum, to move back onto the real problem, if I may interject?" Getting an elegant hand gesture from Syrissia followed by a nod from Vondum, Cam'ris spoke while keeping his head down, "Nobles, lords, and emissaries, I am just guessing, but I am starting to think there is a large difference between Alphar lands and customs and elsewhere. In Alphar lands, and traditions, who agrees to take a child as a squire is extremely important. While I have no idea how much this applies to high royalty, I know it does to some extent. Because of this, much like myself accepting the offer of General Vondum to squire for him with no protections in place, there is a level of prestige the prince would gain at procuring the squire duties to the Mentor of Premier Kandric. It will overshadow all. Also, much like myself, and I know I should not even mention who I am when talking about a prince, but, I know of no other way. Um, the world I am about to enter is totally foreign to me, and I can guess even more so to an Alphar prince. To work in the greater realms outside our lands, we will need instructors from here. Having to pay a price of body or treasure will save lives of untold numbers of Alphar youth. "As an example, one of the pouches of coin given to me by General Vondum, so I may have some local-style coin to spend, had bronze and tin crudely rounded and stamped coins. Until shortly before I entered this tent I had no clue anyone would find a piece of tin or bronze worth anything except as spare globs of castoff metal from inside a forge." Chark'ash looked over, "A tin coin could buy you a sweet stick in most places... For me it would be two or even three." Cam'ris frowned, "Why more for you? Um, and what is a sweet stick?" "You know, a sweet stick." Getting only a blank look from Cam'ris and noting a raised eyebrow out of Princess Syrissia, Chark'ash blinked then gulped, "I am sorry. A sweet stick is usually the sap of a tree, hardened, and drizzled with another sweet substance, often a hint of honey..." At this Cam'ris couldn't help but finger his pouch, "It sounds really good! I, um,would like to try one, probably a great deal more, but why would you pay more?" Vondum spoke up, "The reason is he is Drow and the vast majority of merchants are less than kind to Chark's kind, Cam'ris. Of course, any merchant I see doing so to Chark, will end up paying a Healthman several thousand tin, probably several cart loads of tin, to repair what I do to him or her. However, you have both made your points very well. As for getting Cam'ris a sweet stick, I think Lord Glaster and I could give the two of you some time in a town when all this is settled, to spend some coin and get to know each other. It would do both of you some good, and I really like the way you are not showing the degree of fear from Chark as most of your kind." "I see nothing to be afraid of, General. If anything, I see a possible friend who can teach me much." "I would very much like to get to know an Alphar." Chark'ash stated astonishing himself almost as much as everyone else in the tent. "My people only say bad about your kind, but I see nothing to fear in you either." "I feel I would learn much and if I have to defend you from stupid people, all I ask is General Vondum teach me how to fight better so I can do so properly." "Excellent." Vondum stated with clear praise. "Now before we continue this meeting, do either of you have anything else to add to our dilemma with our Premier we may find as helpful?" "General Vondum," Syrissia asked with astonishment and a degree of shock in her voice, "are you seriously asking a Drow and a worker caste Alphar squire boy for advice in a matter of such far reaching and with as many ramifications as this?" Lord Pylithium tossed up his silver-scaled arms and hissed with enough force to crack a few crystal glasses close to him from his accidently release of some of its sonic breath attack, showing a growing level of frustration, "Good Princess, we are only a turn or two of an hourglass before the slumber spell wears off of the Premier, and I am already surprised our scouts have not returned to tell us the location of the White Dragon encampment." At this Glaster tossed his leaking glass of wine off to the side, "Agreed. Time grows short, and one thing I guarantee you is this. Premier Kandric went to sleep knowing we were having a meeting we did not want him party to, and it will not be long before he asks, then demands answers as to why." Duke Mathard frowned deeply before looking back and forth between the two boys, then back over to Syrissia, "Princess, while reluctant, I am forced to concur. What could possibly come out of the mouths of these two worse than some of the ideas we have thus verbalized?" Monarch stood, grabbed a new glass and poured himself a healthy helping of wine, "Hearing ideas of two boys who should hate each other, but show no such desire to be anything other than friends, it is quite possible the two have more diplomacy in them than the rest of us combined, and certainly more than I ever will. So I say let them speak." Syrissia looked up, "Oh, great Pelgrin, God of Warriors and Wisdom, guide the tongues of these two boys as we let them speak and open our ears to any useful ideas to spill forth." Cam'ris cringed, "Nobles and emissaries, I have nothing." Seeing all eyes turn to him, Chark'ash took a deep breath, exhaled, and started to shake his head. however, he simply couldn't hold his thoughts to himself, "Nobles, Lords, Emissaries, if you really want to know who has the best chance of having the Premier listen, you have all have but to ask those who know him best." Mathard frowned deeply, "Young Drow, Chark, who better than the man who trained him and the man who was his commander?" "With all due respect Duke and Lord of Winter Creek, you all keep saying how he trusts his knighted friends, especially this Seldnat. If they really know him the way you all have reiterated in this tent several times, and they are as respected by him, you should ask them!" Syrissia started to say something only to have the words get caught in her throat. Several others started to speak as well but other than make some quick arm gestures, nothing was said. In fact the tent was dead silent for several seconds. A grin spread over Glaster's mouth as he leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms over his chest, and finally broke the silence, "And there, Lords and Lady, is why he is mine." While a quick vote was taken, and the idea was unanimously approved, word came from a Wolfling scout. The out of breath Outdoorsman was escorted in breathing hard, "Master Veltam..." The Blue Dragonling frowned deeply, "Scout, there are high royalty here!" The Wolfling took a knee, "My apologies! Princess, Duke, others, the camp has been located. Most have fled, but a decent detachment of at least four Warrior Dragons and several score of Dragonlings are still there. I was able to get close enough to hear some as their last True barked commands before taking to the air. They have orders to retrieve the glowing horns of Prince Weraweld at all costs. They also are keeping two captives with orders to deliver them to someone by the name of Gambra inside the walled settlement of Rolling Dale in hopes of forcing Premier Kandric to come after them." Seeing Mathard looking her direction as Syrissia reached for her fur coat, she sighed and grabbed an insulated, reinforced leather, coat capable of being worn over her leather armor. She also grabbed a set of warm gloves offered to her by one of her guards. As she double-checked to make sure she could pull her Alphar Light Sword off her hip cleanly, she shot a glance down at Chark'ash, then over to Mathard. With an annoyed shake of her head, she spoke, "Wake Premier Kandric and his knights. When you do so, tell Pike, Sir Lorthorn, Sir Zeltoss," Syrissia let out a deep sigh upon hearing Mathard clear his throat, "and yes, even Sir Seldnat... Inform them Duke Mathard and I would like a word!" While the combined forces got ready, a pair of Garm guards escorted the boys into the command tent. Pike gulped and took a knee while speaking to Mathard, "We were summoned, my Duke!" Lorthorn went into a basic bow, "Princess, Duke, um, other lords... um.... Kandric wants to know why you wanted us and not him." Seeing the others boys at least take knees, Syrissia spoke, "Young knights of our Premier, please stand. While we do not wish to keep anything from our Premier, we have some bad news for him. But since we are about to go into combat, we also feel it is imperative he is not too distracted or angry." Zeltoss looked up, "Ma'am... Princess, um Princess ma'am..." Mathard chuckled, "Just princess, is fine, Sir Zeltoss." Zeltoss took a couple of breaths to calm himself, "Um, Princess, do you really think any of us telling him is gunna keep him like calm or something?" "No," Mathard responded. "However, we are wondering what adult or adults you all would recommend." Seldnat cocked his head to the side, "Me Duke, me only sees one ta tells Kandric ta shapes up, but her no here none." Seeing Princess Syrissia turn her head, grit her teeth, and cringe at the horrible language erupting out of Seldnat, Mathard reached out and patted the boy on the shoulder, "Who would this woman be?" Lorthorn quickly spoke since he could see Syrissia was not the only one totally appalled by Seldnat's speech. "My Duke, Teacher Saslara did just what you seem to want someone to do before we attacked Bloody Rock. At the time she mentioned he needed to find an adult to put himself under and look to for advice. Kandric listened and spoke of a Dwarf, but I do not remember the name. But Teacher Saslara did stop a little... I guess temper tantrum would be the best words to use." Mathard shook his head while focusing on Syrissia, "The Slome Swordsman Teacher, we have not yet located her, and since a necklace was found which is said to be extremely important to her, we believe she may be dead." Mathard turned his attention back to the boys, "Do any of you remember the name of the Dwarf he spoke so highly about?" The three knighted kids exchanged glances and one after the other shook their heads. "Verbal responses should be given when being asked a question by royalty boys," Mathard spoke firmly, yet in a way telling everyone he was teaching not scolding. "Please remember to do so in the future. However, with it being unlikely we will find this Teacher, what recommendations would you make for who to tell him of the information we him to have, but do not want a..." he paused as he tried to find the right words. "We are trying to avoid a volatile response," Princess Syrissia filled in. "Vol'tile?" Seldnat couldn't help but ask, "Whats be vol'tile?" "It means getting mad and doing something stupid, Seld," Lorthorn stated. "We are not even implying our Premier would do anything stupid," Wek responded. "Bull!" Seldnat snorted. Hearing several gasps, Syrissia's lips twisted up, "Duke Mathard, I am starting to see some of the rudimentary charm others have noted in our knighted Halforc." Mathard gave a deep gut laugh, "Rudimentary charm, I like it Princess. However we are diverging from the proper topic. Boys, if we cannot locate this Teacher Saslara, who else do you feel would be the proper being to talk to him so he has the best chance of listening?" Zeltoss looked up, "Depending on the news, and I'm betting it's real bad if you all are afraid to tell him, the only one I see in this tent who may stand a chance of not having him blow something up, knock something down, or destroy something real big, is you, Duke Mathard." Seldnat nodded, "Me' think Zel be right, but me bets Kandric do all three if'n it be real bad ta calls me in ta asks!" Lorthorn looked up, "Princess, Duke, others, if I may?" "Please young knight!" Glaster stated while eyeing Mathard with a raised eyebrow. "Um, right now we have some students to rescue. You can use this as an excuse as why you aren't telling him whatever you don't seem to want to tell him, but the longer you wait the more angry he will get. So maybe it'd be best to just tell him in the middle of a fight. This way if he is going to get angry, it will be probably be directed toward the White Dragons." Monarch rubbed his chin, "Use the situation for a natural outlet for his anger?" Seldnat nodded, "If'n him's gunna gets mad 'cause what's me gots ta tells him, me'd want him mad at somethin' not me!" Vondum spoke up, "I sure got nothing better!" "It is a good plan," Glaster agreed. "It will allow him to vent in a direction where little to no long-term harm will be caused." "Except for White Dragonkind," Pangam snickered. "No better place to direct rage than on one of our mutual opponentssss." Mathard took a deep breath, "Very well. I assume you four can keep this to yourselves?" Seldnat held up both hands, "Me ain't dumb 'nough ta gets Kandric mad at me none!" The other three all pointed to Seldnat while nodding in total agreement. "Very well," Syrissia stated while still fighting hard not to vomit at Seldnat's speech patterns. "Boys, get back to Premier Kandric and prepare for battle, but do us a favor and tell him to hold back so you can all see why even Dragonkind knows better than to enter the Deathland Mountains. We will find the right moment to inform him of the grave news..." Lorthorn looked up with an eagerness in his eyes, "Guys, we get to see how the Garm and Alphar can really fight! Isn't it awesome?" Seldnat growled as he exited the tent, "All me hears be me no gets ta gunch no big lizard again." Mathard ran his hand down his face while Syrissia shook her head at the Halforc's words. Syrissia turned to the guard she had borrowed the gloves from, "We need a detachment of our best White Dragon Troopers down here now!" Mathard turned to one of his people, "Go with him! Order a full battalion of the White Dragon Legion to gate down here and while you do, tell someone, anyone, to see if we have found this Teacher Saslara! We have only got a few hours before our Premier needs to be told and I really do not want to be the one who tells Premier Kandric about the taken princes!" ****** Bloody Rock (Governor's School: Spar Human M 11 Mage/Miner) (Saslara's School: Aed F 10 Swordsman/Outdoorsman, Puck (Halfling M 9 Swordsman/Outdoorsman) A boy knelt next to a small bubbling pool of water. Using the light of a glow coin he looked it over before dipping his hand in and taking a small sip. With a relieved sigh he submerged his water skin and spoke up, "Finally, low iron and it's flowing. It's drinkable!" The other two kids with him quickly dipped empty water skins in the pool, pulled them out and took long drinks. Within a couple of minutes they refilled empty skins. The boy who made sure it was good water spoke again as the youngest kid, a Halfling of not quite the Human equivalent age of ten, started to dump a full water skin over his head, "Puck, back off and wash where the dirty water won't flow back into the pool! This is the first good water we've found in... well, probably days, and the last thing we want is to make it nasty with our filth." The third kid, a Human girl closing on her eleventh year, spoke up, "Spar's right, Puck. This be the first drink in a long time and me lips be cracked. Don't go messin' it up none!" As the Halfling backed well away and found a low spot well away from the pool, the girl turned her attention to Spar, "Hey, can us use a few torches ta build a fire so we can wash and stay warm while us dry off?" Spar shot a spark out of his finger, igniting a candle. Being careful not to put it out, he picked it up and held it high. He watched it flicker and wiggle while he moved around the natural cavern, "Yeah, I think we can, Aed. We have some air flow and a high ceiling, so I think a fire would be safe. But remember, the last time we made a fire, we got the attention of a couple of Goblings." He then looked around, "It's been a long time since my Force replenished, so it might be a good idea to take off any clothing you want clean. I'll cast a few Cleanse Autospells on them. This way we can be washed and have clean clothing." Puck, the young Halfling boy, pulled off his battered chain armor with Aed's help and quickly stripped down. He moved back over to a low spot away from the pool and dumped his water skin over his head. "How 'bout us get somethin' with better food ta come after us this time. Them Gob rations be nasty and me think them spit back inta them water skins!" "Better ta eat Gob food and have somethin' ta drink then nothin'," Aed stated, then forced a grin. "And neither not much worser than Teacher Saslara's squirrel stew." Puck snickered and nodded, but still pointed out the obvious, "Least us knew what kind'a meat be in Teacher's stew. Me ain't sure what this jerky be made a, and no really want'a know none." Spar moved well away from the pool and pulled a torch out of a backpack that was too big for him. He used the candle to light it before blowing the candle out. "My guess is the jerky is more pepper than meat, judging on the flavor, but I'm just glad they had some dry rations. Without them, the food and water skins we pulled off the crushed guards wouldn't have been enough for all this time. If we had tried to make it last, it would have probably spoiled by now and we'd be starving." "Be more good them Gobs have backpacks and some gooder small blades and junk," Puck responded. "The ones us pulled off them dead guards be way too big fer me." Aed pulled up one of the captured Gobling javelins, "Junk is right. Teacher Saslara would'a never let us use this none. But yer right, this Gob pack no be made good, but be way easier to carry than the big ones us pulled off them bad guards." Spar added two more torches to the already burning one to make a small fire, even as he kicked at the pack he had been wearing, "Yeah, tell me about it. This one is killing me. But guys, keep weapons with you even as you wash just in case. I'll wait to clean up till after you're both washed-up, then cast so I save magic until you are ready to guard while I wash and wait to get my Force back." "Good plan," Aed noted. "I still can't believe how lucky ya be ta have one a them crushed guards ta be carryin' yer spell thrower book." Spar patted his book pouch and nodded, "Lucky to be sure, and even more so to find extra loose pages in his pack. I just wish I was good enough to use the spells in it..." He sighed knowing he was close to being able to cast a real Mage book spell, but just wasn't quite there yet. Instead of dwelling on something he could do nothing about, he tried to stay positive. "I still say all three of us got lucky to not get caught in the cave-in when the big healing blasts happened. We not only got fully healed, we managed to get two glow coins, some decent gear, and escape. I just hope the others from our schools weren't crushed and got away." Puck nodded while using his water skin, mess kit, and a big hunk of soap to get clean for the first time since well before the dual bursts of black and green energy instantly healed his broken arm, badly cut leg, and brought down tons of rocks on the guards just in front of them. The collapse even killed one of the Slome governor's spell casting teachers watching over the worst of the injured students forced to fight in the pit. As an added stroke of luck, the governor's student who had been with them was not only a spell thrower, but a Miner trainee as well. This meant the older boy was strong enough to help push some rocks around to get gear off the crushed guards while knowing which ones to move without causing others to fall. Spar was then able lead them safely down a few crumbling passages to get away from the governor and the horrible guards on the other side of the cave-in. It was almost enough for the small Halfling to think one of the gods had been watching over them. The real problem had been trusting the spell caster, a governor's school student. However, all doubts had been extinguished when they stopped and made a small fire to cook some of the food they had found in one of the big packs. Two Goblings came around a corner, drawn by the flickering light. Spar's use of spells was the difference between taking them down or getting recaptured. The older boy then let Puck and Aed take all the smaller gear off the two Goblings while he dealt with a pack too big for himself. The other thing was, Spar always seemed to look at the good side of things. Even being lost in the seemingly endless caves and passages under Bloody Rock was not enough to totally sour the young spell caster's mood. The following hours and even days cemented Spar as not only a friend, but the leader of the small group. For Spar's part, he had born into a wealthy merchant family, but unlike many in Slome, his father, and to a lesser extent his mother, expected him to make his own mark in the word. As his father told all seven kids in the household, "I'll give you all the tools you could ever need, but only if you provide the brains and or brawn behind them." True to the man's words, Spar had been provided with the best schooling and gear in the Slome area money could buy, but in exchange he had to apprentice himself out before his ninth year for family funds to continue to support him. His older brother thought he could slide by, but discovered otherwise. On the moon following Spar's brother's ninth year, the older boy found his room emptied and the only spot for him in the house was in the servant wing, and food at the servant table was only given to him if he did servant duties. Less than a moon later his brother found a slot in the local bakery, but was only allowed back into the main house as a member of the family for special occasions. It was a life lesson he learned by proxy, but it stuck. The moon after Spar turned eight, he cast his first Autospell and was put into the governor's school to learn control. Three moons later, Spar asked his father to take him around to shops looking for apprentices or at least needing a hand, so Spar could work toward being one. Having a wealthy and prestigious father, combined with his budding magical ability, helped open doors, but after a week and a score of shops, the only thing Spar found interesting was the Gem Worker shop right inside the main gate. After a long discussion, his father took him back to the shop that had an opening for a cleaning boy with the potential to work the cleaning job into an apprenticeship. However, as Spar was escorted in the small shop, he found the owner talking with two very rugged and strong looking men. The pair had a couple of sacks of quartz and a large pouch of topaz. Seeing the raw crystals really piqued his interest so he moved closer. Spar watched with growing interest as the gem cutter looked over several of the stones while the men told the shop owner about a newly discovered cave they had been working, and that they expected to have more crystals in the coming weeks. The bigger of the two miners glanced down as Spar edged ever closer and smiled, "You like rocks, boy?" "Yes, sir. I'm trying to apprentice here." "Apprentice, huh?" The man handed the boy a chunk of smoky quartz, "Ever thought about going after the raw stones like this instead of being stuck in some shop cutting and polishing them?" Seeing his son's eyes light up, Spar's father stepped up, "Unless you can provide some references and are guilded..." The big man extended his hand, "I'm Morge, guilded Warrior Adept and Miner." The guy nodded toward the other man, "And this is Granad, my cousin, also guilded as a Swordsman, Miner, and Argon Channeler. You can get with Channeler Mertz at the Argon Shrine for a quick reference and I'll think you will find a few of the forges know both of us pretty well." Spar's father shook the man's hand and nodded as Morge pulled at the shoulder strap of his pack with his other hand, uncovering Secondary step 2 pins of the Warrior Adept and Miner guilds. At the same time the shop owner spoke up, "Morge's a regular. Him and his crew work the hills just down into the pass. Normally they bring up ore, but as you can see, they are very opportunistic. They're good folk, and provide ore and stones to forges and cutters here and in four villages along the edge of the Silver Spine." Spar's father rubbed his chin, "What about schooling? He will need to spend time in Slome." Morge smiled even as he applied enough pressure on the handshake to get a wince out of Spar's father. He then let go and easily read a sign on the wall, showing his was at least decently literate. "If you provide your son some tomes, me and Granad can do some book teaching and we come into Slome with loads often. If you feel we ain't good enough, we can drop him off at a local school here for a few weeks at a time to catch up with what we can't teach him," Morge stated. "But being a miner means honing some inside magic, just like being a Gem Worker. I gather your boy got enough magical talent to at least Subfield guild?" Spar rolled his fingers and sent up a puff of bright blue smoke, "Not just Subfield, I'm going to be a Mage!" This got a raised eyebrow out Morge and caused Granad to take a great deal more interest in the lad. Morge knelt, lifted Spar's arm and squeezed the bicep. "Not bad for a boy your age, and me, Granad, and Zarga could use a good, young, willing to learn, hand or two. I can also work with you on spell control, but your pa is right, we'll have to drop you off here often for some proper Mage schooling. If you're willing to work hard, not afraid of getting dirty, and don't mind being around a bit of a rough crowd of guys and a couple of gals, I'd take you on." Spar's smile told everyone he was all for it, and a quick trip to the Argon Shrine was all it took for his father to give final approval. Spar headed out three days later, with brand new traveling and mining gear made for his size, plus a few books. This includied a spell book with two pages, and an agreement for Morge to drop him off at the governor's school at least once every other moon for no less than two weeks and for a three moon stint during the winter. With a signed contract stipulating 'good care', 'proper training', and 'fair trainee wages', Spar joined the two men as they headed out into the wilderness just off the main pass. Now, almost three and a half years later, Spar was one of the lead apprentices in Morge's troop, second only to his best friend Rafil, and was guilded as Training step 5 as both a Mage and Miner. His father had provided him with an extra page for his book with each step, and he had managed to pick up three others out of the pack of one of the guards. He had come very close to casting a couple of them, but just couldn't push enough Force through himself to turn the incantations into a working spell. Even the governor, who clearly didn't like him, told him a couple of weeks prior to heading out to Bloody Rock he was a moon, if not mere weeks, away from gaining the control needed. Every day since, he pulled out his book and tried to cast one of his spell book spells right after his Force replenished, and each day he felt like he was getting closer, but the breakthrough just hadn't happened yet. With the betrayal of the governor's school staff and the brutality he had endured at their hands, he was even more determined to cast a real spell so he could get his revenge and maybe rescue some of those he had attended classes with. However, unlike most of his fellow students, he didn't buy into the mantra of the governor's school being better or more elite than Saslara's. Spar guessed this was mostly because of working around a 'rougher' and 'less educated' group of folks. Spar didn't see the kids from Saslara's school as undeserving of being in the governor's school. He also didn't see the poor speech or minimal ability to read, like the kids he was now with, as them being stupid. All he saw were hard working kids wanting to go somewhere in life and he respected them. This allowed him to value and even admire their internal drive. Off in a small nook in the large natural chamber Aed washed. To keep her mind off of being naked in front of two boys, she tried to make some small talk, "Ya think we's close ta gettin' out a here?" Spar had to fight not to sound as disheartened as he felt, "I sure hope so. We haven't seen or even heard nothing in a long time, and I've tried to keep us going up as much as possible. The real problem is the goveroner took us in near the base of Bloody Rock, then took us deep. Then I took us deeper real fast after the Goblings since we heard noise above us. The healing bursts also blocked off the way I knew how to get out. But if we keep going up we've eventually got to come out someplace. Once we do, we can head down into the pass and hook up with Morge. I'm sure I can get him to take you both in, as long as you agree to work doing odd jobs around the camp. You can stay with us until we can figure out what is really going on inside Slome." Puck refilled his water skin, moved back away from the pool and used it to rinse off. "Me not really think it be good to go backs to Slome none, so me'll work real hard doin' whatever yer Miner teach'r want done. But Spar, me still don't know how ya can tell us ain't goin' round and round. Ya no leave no marks 'er nothin' and all this look the same ta me!" Aed snickered, "First time we've seen this pool, so us sure ain't been here before, Puck. And Spar, I'm with Puck, I'll work doin' whatever yer Mining teacher want me to do if it keep me out'a Slome and away from the gov'ner." "I know you both will work and Morge will like both of you." Spar then turned his attention to Puck, "Making marks would let someone follow and find us. I am wanting out of here just as bad as you are at this point." Spar assured the small Halfling. "But don't worry. There are lots of ways to tell one area of a cave from another and being a Miner apprentice, I was taught what to look for. We haven't been in the same part of the caves in a long time now. The last time was just before we slept the third time, and this is all totally different." "So us did double back at some point?" Aed asked. "Yeah," Spar admitted. "I took us back to spots we had already been to when we came to the deep looking hole with heat coming up out of it in the middle of the floor and again when we started to smell smoke." Aed frowned, "I get not wanting to be in the smoke. It smelled bad. But I kind of liked the heat..." "Something had to be making it, though, and if we had gotten in a spot where the air was trapped it could have been real bad. We don't want to get into any dead ends and we sure don't want to be stuck in smoke, even if the air is moving." He paused to cast four Cleanse spells on the clothing. "Best I can do until I get my Force back. But until I can find and cast a real cleaning book spell, you're stuck with the bloodstains." "Better than nothin, and ways gooder then tryin' ta pour skins a water over cloth and scurb with a hunk a soap. Washin' the hard way bites." Puck stated. "Sure does!" Aed agreed while sniffing at the thick shirt she wore under her armor. "It's soft again and this is the best we've smelled in a real long time. Thanks Spar." "As soon as I get my Force back I'll do your pants." "Save some spell throwin' for yerself," Aed stated. "With a clean shirt and loincloth, I'm happy... hey, Puck, I have sew kit; let me fix the slash on your britches." Puck tossed over his pants while he looked over his armor and put his fingers through a few holes, "Be more happy if'n ya had a armor kit." "What about the chain shirt you took off the smaller Gobling?" Spar wondered as he took one last look around before stripping down so he could wash. "It looked like it was in pretty good shape." "It's gooder, but don't cover me legs none." "Lot of weight to carry if you aren't going to use it." Aed spoke up, "Since you don't wear real armor as a spell thrower, you don't get it none. It's made pretty good and finding armor in our sizes is hard. Until we gets ta a town 'er Metalworker ta fix what us gots on, us needs some kind a backup. It's be same reason me keep the chain shirt off the bigger Gob." Spar patted what was left of his suit of reinforced leather armor, "Even this cuts down on my spell casting ability a little, but it's better than nothing. I'm betting I would be dead without it... Probably would have died if the magic burst hadn't healed my face, arm, and hand... But for now we've got fresh water and I could use some sleep. You two OK pulling guard?" Aed nodded, "Puck and me 'll stay up till the fire goes out, then us 'll each take a few hours. Maybe after us all get up and eat, you can find a way out a here." Spar forced a smile even as he yawned, "I'll give it my best shot." Several hours later Spar was nudged awake by Puck. The Halfling spoke tensely, "Wakes up, Spar. Us gots company comin'!" Spar blinked a few times and wiped the junk out of his eyes. As he did so he could see a faint but steady glow coming from a narrow passage the opposite direction from where they had entered the chamber. The consistency of the light told him it was magical, not fire, and was way brighter than a glow coin. "Is Aed awake?" Puck nodded, "She be hidin' in nook she wash in with da crossbow." Before Spar could do more than nod he heard a familiar voice of a girl, "I'm tired and my feet hurt again!" This was followed up by an equally familiar boy's voice, "Mine too. When are we going to get out of here, Onder?" A deeper male voice responded, sounding more than a little annoyed. "Kids, you know as much as I do. Beiro, here, will get us out of this maze as soon as he recognizes something... Unless you two want to go back to those two dead Dragons blocking the passage and try to crawl over them like Beiro recommended." The girl responded, "I am not touching a gross, nasty, Dragon, dead or not!" The boy quickly agreed, "Yeah, you are crazy if you think am I touching a Dragon. Besides, they smelled horrid and were all bloody! No way!" Another voice, this one a little on the squeaky side, but still male, spoke, "Jillian, we've been down here for days. None of us smell very good and we are low on water. If this way doesn't work out, we may not have a choice." The boy's voice took on an angry, haughty tone, "It is your job to get us out safe and I am not crawling over and around a dead, bloody, disgusting smelling, Dragon! It is bad luck! Just look at all the walking skeletons that came after us right after we found them!" "Yeah!" the girl responded. "Just look at what happened to Lar'Lilly after she touched the green one. The skeletons with green eyes took her!" Spar eyes narrowed, then spoke with a whisper, "It's Councilman Parad's kids, Jillian and Mora. They weren't with us, but two of Parad's house guards were the ones forcing us to fight each other. The Mystic who forced Rafil to fight me is the older brother of Jillian's best friend, too." "No want to get caught by 'em fer sure... Them kids not in gov'nor school?" Spar shook his head, "Not really. The governor goes over to their home with the Mage who was guarding us to teach them spell casting and both Mora an Jillian come over a couple of times a moon to spar with the worst of the students. My father say Parad really runs Slome, but stays on as council member, so he can call all the shots and do whatever he wants, while it looks to most like the governor is really in charge." "So what's we do? They is gunna see the fire pit..." "I know..." Before more could be said between Puck and Spar, the conversation down the passage picked back up, "You want out," the deeper sounding voice stated. "Beiro says there is a clear way to the main shaft just past the Dragons, and there is nothing in any tomes about touching a dragon bringing bad luck. Keep in mind if we had found a way past them, the undead down here wouldn't have found us!" The girl once again spoke up as the light continued to get closer and therefore started to illuminate the outer edge of the natural chamber. "Berio, again? Why we trusting a Gobling?" "Cause he is the only one left who has any clue how to get us out of here, Mora. Now if you two were even half as smart as you think you are, you'll give the OK to go back and find a way past those Dragon bodies!" "How dare you! It's your job to protect us and you are failing again!" The girl stated with what had to have been the stomp of a foot. "You are already in trouble for not being able to heal me and making me use my healing potion, Onder. Now you want me to tell Father you said we are stupid?!" The deeper sounding voice took on an angry tone, "I never called you stupid, Mora! Nor is not my fault I couldn't heal you. I already told your father something happened to Inaxia's spirits following the death of the big storm. She isn't granting full abilities to her Channelers right now. Councilman Parad and his wife, your mother and father, knew this before they assigned me as one of your guards for the special magic lessons he managed to get you with King Blathamort's Dragonling guards!" "Yes, you told him, but you let Yunlac, Lar'Lilly, and Boccad get killed and Mora get hurt," the boy fired back. "Boccad killed himself with one of his stupid potions!" The deep voice countered. "It burst in his hand and killed Fungrel, himself and probably Yunlac. As far as Lar'Lilly, the two skeletons with the bright green eyes drug her away, so we don't even know if she's dead. Nor is it my fault Mora wiped out over half our group when she tried to pry open a locked door! The two of you are going to have to explain to your father why over half his best people are not coming back!" The voice seemed to harden as it added, "Now you two knock off all this whining before I try to call an Inaxia spirit to deal with both of you!" He then snarled, "Maybe if I offer one of you to her she'll grant me some Channeler powers!" Puck's eyes went wide, "Them have demon priest a ice with 'em?" "Sounds like it..." Spar shuddered. "I don't think we are going to have much choice. We're going to have to try to take them down. I'm not getting captured and forced to fight and stuff again, let alone have some demon Channeler of the Ice Witch get a hold of us." "Ya gots yer magic back?" "Yeah. I'm Force full, but both Mora and Jillian are casters, so we've got to be careful. But I've faced off against them in practice a few times. Neither are above a Training step 1 or 2 at the most and don't know how to fight very well. We take down the adults first." Puck nodded, "Me'll go tell Aed, buts we gots ta kill the demon lover fast." "If we can figure out which one it is, fine, but once you tell Aed, find a hiding place in a nook away from her and get ready to try to surprise them. We can stay in the dark and use their light to surprise them. We'll try to attack from three directions and hope it confuses them enough to get off a few shots before they even know where we are." While Puck darted over to Aed to tell her the plan, the bickering down the cave continued, slowing the group down. Mora's voice echoed off the walls, "I need to stop! I am tired!" The higher-pitched adult voice let out a long sigh, "How about we take a few, grab a bite, and talk about going back?" "Go back? Go back to walking skeletons? You're nuts!" Jillian shrieked. "And what part of I am not about to touch a dead, blood-coated, Dragon did you not hear, Thorngare?" A third voice, this one with very broken Northman, jumped into the conversation with a snarl, "Ya ungrate brat me sick you. Shuts mouth an no sniv'l no more er me blood you lip!" "How dare you?" the boy responded with indignation. There was an audible smack followed by a yelp, someone hitting the ground, and the boy shouting through tears, "You hit me!" Down the cave a hint of a grin appeared on the left side of Spar's mouth, as he saw the boy stumble into his line of sight as he hit the ground. Moments later Mora appeared with an obviously magical glowing dagger in her hand, lighting up the whole group. While pulling a throwing dagger, Spar couldn't help but mutter, "About time someone smacked you, Jillian." However, as a Halfling in chain armor appeared, knelt, put down his shield next to the fallen boy, and offered a hand to help him up, it gave Aed the perfect shot at a well-lit, near defenseless, target. She took it before Puck could even get to her. The crossbow bolt could not have been fired much better. The shot slammed into the Halfling's face with a loud crack and popping sound. The guard's head tilted back with an agony-filled howling sound while both his hands went up to his right side of his jaw. Moments later Puck jumped up and launched a sling bullet into the badly wounded guard, the metal ball hit the man's ankle with a hard thud causing him to fall on top of Jillian. There was a couple of seconds of total confusion before a Halfdwarf rushed forward while shouting "Ambush! Mora, they can see us, but we can't see them! My infravision is being screwed up by a hot spot in the floor! Put out your Dagger of Light!" The man grabbed for the Halfling only to get a crossbow bolt in the gut. Aed watched as the Dwarven Steel-tipped bolt ripped right into and through the man's reinforced leather armor, deeply embedding in the Halfdwarf's stomach area. However, before she could yank back on the crossbow string again, a small Gobling moved forward. The Gobling shouted, "Sees more heats!" It pointed into the cavern the three students were in. "DER!" He then reached into a pouch and threw something in Puck's direction. A glow coin ached through the air and clattered on the ground in the big cavern, allowing those the three students were attacking to at least see shadows of who was attacking them. This was followed by a hastily fired arrow by the Gobling. Fortunately, it slammed into the cave wall behind Aed and shattered. Puck whipped another sling stone at the Halfling on top of boy, striking him in the arm, but ducked down and put his shield up as he slipped another metal bullet into his sling. With damage mounting, and blood flowing down his face, the Halfling guard rolled off the kid he was paid very well to protect and started to crawl for some better cover. At the same time, the Halfdwarf pulled up his crossbow and even though badly wounded, he fired a shot at Puck, only to see the bolt skip off the edge of the raised shield. Behind the Halfdwarf, the young girl with them shrieked in absolute terror at seeing a bolt embedded in her personal guard's jaw and blood flowing down his side. Without really knowing where she was going, she spotted an offshoot cave and ran down it as fast as her legs would carry her. The girl's brother wasn't much better. He looked terrified as he wiped at the Halfling's blood on his chest. His rapid head movements told all three kids attacking the boy's party he was in a total panic and not yet a threat. However, he did managed to pull a Dagger of Light of his own, which replaced the fading light source his sister had been providing. The Halfdwarf snarled, "Jillian, twist the handle! You're giving them advantage by lighting us up!" "I'm not going to stay in the dark where the skeletons can get to me!" The boy shouted back with panic in his voice. Spar blinked at how chaotic the whole thing had become even as he extend his right arm, made his hand into a claw shape and straightened out his fingers. This caused a burst of frost to streak across the cavern and into the left arm of the Gobling just as it was readying another arrow to send at Aed. The small but strong looking creature dropped the arrow, while spewing out a whole string of Goblin curses. Instead of trying to draw another arrow, it dropped its shortbow and yanked a pitch black colored hip sword from a sheath built into its equally black armor. It pointed the blade right at Spar. "Aw crap," Spar muttered while stepping back to put as much distance as possible between the Gobling and himself, drawing a throwing dagger as he did so. Aed loaded another bolt, stepped out so she could get a clear shot, and fired at the crawling Halfling. This time the bolt sunk deeply into the left leg. Seeing Aed was going to focus on the Halfling, Puck turned his attention to the Halfdwarf. With the man already reeling from having a bolt sticking out of his stomach, the sling shot was almost too easy. The metal ball crashed into the man’s left leg just below the knee even as guy tried to stand. The hard shot sent him toppling to the ground. The fall further drove the bolt in as the man fell face first. Puck dropped his sling and pulled a very nice Silver Steel hand axe he had found on one of the guards' bodies after the magic burst caused rocks to crush them. He stepped into the path of the onrushing Gobling who was almost the same size as Spar while raising his shield. "Spar, me see ya fights in da pit. Ya no want this one! Me'll take 'im! Finish da big Dwarf dude, den helps me!" Moments later there was a loud clang as the Gobling's blade slammed into the raised shield. The bronze shield dented badly, but otherwise held up to the assault. Spar almost said something, but noticed the Halfdwarf was trying to stand again with the aid of a quarterstaff. He reared back and threw the dagger in his hand while speaking more to himself than anyone else, "Now there is a close combat weapon I know how to use, and I want it!" The thrown blade sliced a gash across the right side of the man's neck before clattering to the floor next to Jillian. This finally caused the councilman's son to realize he was in the middle of a fight and had to do something. Out of desperation he grabbed the dagger and threw it back, but the throw was from his back and beyond wild. The blade went well over Spar's head. On the other hand it caused Spar to duck which gave Jillian enough time to jump to his feet and pull a nice Silver Steel hip sword. Between Spar and Jillian, Puck winced at feeling the impact of the high quality blade against the shield, but Teacher Saslara had done much to prepare him. Instead of shaking his arm to get the stinging out, he dealt with it. Using the axe in his weapon hand, he went low. The axe glanced off a hard plate grafted into the Gobling's reinforced leather armor and skipped downward and into the ankle. In addition, the Gobling proved to be pretty good. It turned at the last moment to make what would have been a deep wound into a minor graze. The pair then exchanged near misses. Aed also took a direct approach. She didn't even bother to drop her crossbow. Instead, she pulled her short sword, moved up to the struggling Halfling, and stabbed down hard. The Halfling saw the girl's shadow with the blade in hand and tried to kick back. All this did was get his leg sliced by the stab attempt. Before he could fully roll and try to defend, it was too late. The youngster took another step forward and shoved the blade into his lower back. At this point the damage became too much for him. He fell unconscious while his wounds started to create a pool of blood around him. At this point the Halfdwarf turned to look at Jillian with one hand clutching at the bolt in his abdomen, "They took us hard by surprise and have the upper hand. If they take you, your father will kill me even if they don't. Run, boy... run..." Jillian took a step toward Spar, heard the words, and glanced over. Seeing one of his guards down, the other seriously wounded, Aed angling toward him with her sword out, Spar readying another dagger and the Gobling, who had just smacked him in the mouth, fighting for its life, the boy turned and bolted. Upon seeing this the Gobling shouted out a long Gobling curse, pulled a knife and threw it at the quickly departing lad. He was rewarded with a pained cry, but it didn't slow Jillian down. If anything the departing bright light picked up speed as it faded down the winding cavern. Spar growled as the boy ran, but took full advantage of the Halfdwarf turning watch the kid flee. Without any hesitation he whipped another dagger. This one went straight into the back of the man's head. The Halfdwarf sagged forward while grabbing for the blade stuck in his skull. At the same time he pulled his bloody hand off the bolt in his gut and reached for an amulet under his cloak. He pulled out a silver and onyx symbol and cried out loudly, "Inaxia! Where are your Channeler Spirits? Please! Come to the aid of your loyal follower!" Aed and Spar paused as they saw the bladed snowflake insignia of Inaxia in the Halfdwarf's hand. Both kids half expected the Demoness of Ice and Cold to appear and strike them or something. When nothing happened, Aed stepped up to the faltering man and shoved her short sword into his throat. "Guess the Ice Witch no be listenin' none." Seeing the Halfdwarf fall and the other two kids turn their full attention towards it, the Gobling made one more desperate attempt to attack Puck only to dent the shield again. It then felt a dagger bounce off an armor plate in its chest. In addition, it had to spin to block an attack from Aed. This left its already injured ankle forward and unprotected. Puck saw the opening, darted forward and sliced with his axe. Once again the Gobling proved nimble, but he still managed to graze it a second time. The Gobling hissed in pain, slammed his hip sword down on Puck's battered shield and parried another attack from Aed. It then turned to see what Spar was doing, only to take a blast of frost to the side of its face from the boy's outstretched hand. This proved to be the final straw. It took several steps back, dropped its hip sword, and held up both hands. Puck stepped forward with his axe ready to fall, only to hear Spar shout from behind him. "Puck, stop!" The young Halfling just managed to pull back on his swing, but it was close enough for the Gobling to drop to its knees and cry out in fear. Puck readied another swing, "Him be with Ice priest! Him need ta die!" Spar moved up to the Halfdwarf, shoved his throwing dagger in deeper just to make sure the demon Channeler was dead, then pulled it out and wiped the blood and brain matter off on the guy's cloak. "Normally I'd agree, Puck, but didn't you hear what they were talking about?" Aed instantly realized what Spar was referring to. She moved up to Puck's side and put a hand on his shoulder, "Us needs this one. It know a way out." She looked down again and then back at Spar, "Plus, it be in super nice armor. Me bets it'd fit on Spar good and him need armor with no gashes." Puck growled, looked up at Aed, back to Spar, then took a quick step forward. With a snarl, he shield bashed the Gobling in the face knocking it flat on its back, causing it to cry out and clutch its badly bloody and broken nose with both hands. "OK, but me no have ta like it none! Me Ma was caught in the last big storm and died a da cold!" He held up the shield like he was going to hit it again, paused, shrugged, and slammed the edge into the Gobling's face a second time, shattering some teeth and knocking it out. With a truly malicious look in his eyes he glared at the fading light from the escaping boy. Even though he was the youngest and smallest, he looked over at a pretty much stunned Aed and kicked the Halfdwarf's quarterstaff up and into Spar's hands. "Jus leave me da glower coin this one threw and get them other two!" Aed started to move, but was blocked by Spar's outstretched quarterstaff. "Strip him to his loin cloth and tie him up, Puck. We need to stick together." "But them Ice Bitch lovers gunna gets away!" Puck fumed. Spar pulled out a glow coin to add to the one on the floor to replace some of the vanishing light, "Mora went down the larger passage just left of the one they came in, while Jillian went back the way they came. They are both alone with no idea how to navigate underground. They're also Human, so if they put out the magic lights they'll be as blind as we'd be..." Aed moved up to the dead Halfling, pulled rope off the side of its pack and moved up to the unconscious Gobling. "Spar's right Puck. Them no gettin' too far. No other footprints down here none, neither." Puck moved up to pull everything off the moaning Goblin as he nodded in understanding, "And prob'ly them no know ta cover tracks... Even with most rock us gots 'nough dirt and loose ground ta spot prints." Aed nodded, "Yup. Teacher Saslara's always say the trackin' classes be needed when us no expect it none." "So let them run, get tired, more scared, and lost." Spar stated with no hint of remorse. "It will make it easier to take them." "Then what? Kill 'em?" Aed asked. Spar shook his head, pulled a set of bronze shackles out of the Halfdwarf's pack, and held them up, "No. Between these and the set I have in the pack I kept, we chain them and take them to my mining camp..." He paused and looked over the backpack, "Hey, if you are both OK with it, I think I'll keep this pack. It's smaller and full of decent stuff..." "Might as well, us'll check them other two pack and prob'y switch. Even the Gob's pack look better then what me be carryin'" "Me gunna take the Halflin's pack fer sure! It be gooder one." Puck stated with certainty. "But what takin' 'em to yer camp gunna do Spar?" "Not sure, but I'm not going to kill the kids of a Slome Councilman. We'll let Granad figure out what to do, He's an Argon Channeler, so he'll probably take them to Paws, Clearwater, or even Levet and turn them over to the one of the temples for having a guard who was known to them as an Inaxia Channeler. We'll take the Channeler medallion as proof, but don't touch it. It stays wrapped up and we'll hang it on a pouch around the Gobling until we catch Mora or Jillian. Then they put it around one of their necks so they can carry it. Let the temples or town guards deal with them, but I bet there will be a reward. Once word gets out, the main guild halls in Black Rapids or Silverton may even make some kind of move to rid Slome of leaders with ties to Inaxia worship." Puck let out a snort, "Me bets Kandric hear and take 'em out first." Spar raised a questioning eyebrow, "The redheaded swamp Halfer?" Aed cringed, "Ya call him Halfer if'n ya wants, but me and Puck ain't gunna do nothin' but watch what him do to ya..." "If him say it OK, me 'll least find ya a Healthman." Puck added with a smirk. Spar shrugged, "I don't have anything against him. My father hired him for some odd jobs a few times over the last couple of winters, and he worked real hard for us... Father even said he was probably trainable. Mother sent Rafil out to the swamps a few times to buy fish from him, too. But Councilman Parad and the governor kind of put a stop to hiring Swamp Slum folk this winter, since food was short and it brought more lowlife beggars and squatters into town. Still my father paid the red-haired Halfer..." Seeing the look he was getting he took a breath, "OK, Halfelf... anyway, Father hired to cut some wood for us just after winter hit. Our house guards dropped him off a wagon and it only took him a couple of days to fill it, so he must have gotten some help." Aed shook her head, "Us see him chop wood before we split off ta attack Bloody Rock. Me guessin' he didn't get no help none." Puck quickly agreed while stripping and tying the Gobling so its hands were behind its back and held up in the small of its back by a loop around its neck. If it tried to lower its arms the rope would pull hard against the front of the neck. This would make it almost impossible for it to try to break free since doing so would all but strangle it. "No, Kandric do himself, me sure." "Huh," Spar shrugged again, "I would have never guessed anyone out in the slums would have gotten any training, but you both seem pretty sure he is getting guilded." Aed let out a humor filled snort, "Gettin'? Nope, him guilded." "Way guilded." Puck nodded almost wildly. Spar stopped digging through the Halfling's pack and looked over at the two kids from Saslara's school. "Already Primary?" Aed and Puck exchanged glances, before Aed spoke up, "Um, yeah... Primary, then some..." "Lots a some," Puck added. "Are you trying to tell me he's Secondary, legitimately Secondary?" "And some." Aed stated again. "Lots a some." Puck repeated himself. Spar noticeably cringed at the expressions on both kids, "Geesh, OK, then... No calling a high Secondary Swordsman a Halfer. I don't have a death wish." Puck shot Spar a grin, "If him be jus a Swordsman, not be so bad." "Or if him be just Secondary," Aed chimed in, as she checked the knots holding the very securely tied Gobling before tossing the armor over to Spar. Spar looked at the armor, and noted a very light shimmer coming from engraved black metal plates of a metal he had never seen before. Even as he carefully ran his hand down the runes, he glanced back and forth trying to find any hint of deception, but all he got in return was firm serious gazes tinged with some fear. "By Argon's name! You are not pulling my leg, are you?" "No." Aed stated while shaking her head to show how serious she was. "But him 'll prob'ly pull yer leg off and beat ya ta death with it if ya call him Halfer." "Beat ya ta dead with it before ya blood ta dead, too," Puck added. Spar swallowed hard, "Ok then..." He took a deep breath, "Guys, this armor is magical and I know this incantation. It is a repair spell! The blades it has are made to fit into the built-in sheaths and are made of the same strange metal and are magical too! This has to be worth a huge fortune!" "It'll fit ya, and yer gunna need all a it if yer gunna call Kandric a Halfer." Aed snickered. "It fit and give ya way gooder armor so gets it on. It be yers. Ya keeps the hip sword and leg dagger, too. It be part a the set." Puck quickly agreed. "Us 'll take the glowin' daggers soon as us catch them other two." "Alright... As long as you are both sure..." Seeing them nod, he shrugged, and switched armor. As he put it on, it seemed a little loose, but as soon as he pulled on the last securing strap it changed to fit him perfectly. "Guys... this is some super magical stuff..." Aed reached out and gave it a quick pull and raised an eyebrow, "Fit ya like it be made for ya!" "I think it magically sized to me..." "Good for all a us. Us no use plated leather armor none, and ya be more safer." Puck stated. "Yeah," Aed smiled. "And ya looks cute in black!" Spar ran his hand down his face even as his cheeks turned a little red, "Fine, I'll keep it. I like the feel and it's real light. However it sure makes me wonder how a Gobling came to have it... But since we're going over captured gear, can either of you used the Halfling's chain armor? It's real nice looking Gnome Steel." Puck looked the dead guard over with clear disappointment, "Real good made... Too big fer me, but me bets it fit Aed till she gets boobs." Aed rolled her eyes even as she moved over to take a closer look. "Nice. Very nice... Just a few cut links in the back and leg, Me'll take it. Spar, helps me get it off and wash the blood off." She then pointed off to the side. "Shield's small and Dwarf Steel. Ya should grab it Puck." Puck hefted the shield and gave a satisfied nod and smile, "Yeah, me like it and Gob beat snot out a the one me gots now. Hey, big Dwarf's got's good Dwarf Steel bolts, Aed." "Me'll be takin' them 'less ya wants the crossbow, Puck." "Na, me 'll find 'em sling bullets me shot. Bows 'er still too big fer me and ya be short on bolts. But me 'll grab the string fer ya case yers break." He picked up the Goblin's shortbow, "Junk, but ya could still shoot it, Spar." Spar shook his head and held up both hands, "Throwing daggers or a sling only for me, Puck. You don't want to see me with a bow in my hands... as in ever. At least I can get a sling stone close... sometimes." Puck snickered, "Me'll find daggers ya toss den. Ya helps Aed into the chain armor." ****** Bloody Rock: Saslara, Jaya F (HE 12) Swordsman/Outdoorsman (Saslara's School), Rafil M 13 Swordsman/Miner (Governor's School) A strong looking young teen squeezed through a space between a large, recently caved in, section of the ceiling and the side of the mined out passage. A few rocks fell off the side wall, but after a quick inspection of a few cracks radiating down from higher up, he ignored them. Once past, he held up a glow coin and jumped down onto a smooth floor, "Open chamber... and finally! This has got to be part of the main mine. There has to be some kind of way out through here!" He stopped short, "Um, I've got lots of bones, real old busted-up weapons, and recent bodies, none moving Teacher." Teacher Saslara's voice came from behind the rocks the boy had just traversed, "You sure nothing's moving? I could have sworn we heard somethin'." "Not seeing anything, Teacher." "So is it safe to come through, Raf?" "Yeah, as long as you keep your hands off the big hunk of rock sticking up. Pretty sure it's holding up the roof where the support timber is broke. The side has some loose rock, but you should be fine. The cracks don't go all the way to the floor. Just don't bang on anything, cause it isn't great and you'll have to really squeeze. It's a tight fit." Saslara pulled off what gear she had on and tossed it to the boy. After two attempts, she pulled off her armor, stuffed it through, then managed to squirm past the narrowest part. She dropped down with her sword in her hand. The chamber she found herself in was way too big to be lit by the single glow coin, but she had gotten used to the gloom of a single glow coin in the caves and passages under Bloody Rock. She noted hundreds of crushed and old looking bones, some with rusted or rotten tattered armor still on them in spots, and over a dozen weapons in the same condition as what was left of the armor. All in all, it looked to have been a major fight, probably decades ago, if not longer. However, as she continued to look, she spotted three much more recent bodies. None moved even as Rafil walked close and looked over the clearly carved out area. Satisfied there was no imminent damager, Saslara spoke up, "Come on through Jaya. Looks like we can finally scrounge up enough to get you some kind of real gear." Jaya ended up getting a hand from both Saslara and Rafil since her wide Halfdwarf body wouldn't fit without some help. Her sides scraped enough to give her a bloody rash as she got pulled through, but she didn't complain. Instead she moved straight over to the nearest body. Seeing an overfull backpack, she knelt next to a dead Black Dragonling and used her shoulder to partially roll it so she could look it over, "Big weapons er missin', but lots in a stuffed pack, and a good bronze dagger, Teacher. Look like him got nasty slice in side and hit in head with mace 'er somethin'. Blood's sticky. Him no be dead long time." Teacher Saslara kicked at a Hobgoblin. When it didn't move, she too knelt, "Pretty much the same here, ribs crushed with somethin' heavy and a sword or spear thrust to the face to finish him off, but somethin' took its dagger and its pouches were cut off the belt." Pulling at the straps on the backpack, she paused and reached down to the creature's left foot. Her hand came back with a steel boot knife with a glowing pearl and a strapped-on leg sheath. She slid it over to Jaya, "Somethin' looted the body fast, going for easy to grab and carry gear and valuables. They missed a gem magic knife since it was under him and behind its other leg." She looked over at a boy wearing nothing but the tatters of what had been a nice chain shirt, loincloth, and some feet coverings made from pieces of leather armor she had cut off of a Gobling, "Raf, anything worth mentioning on the one over there?" "Lots of stuff over here, including a bag of dried meats and nuts, Teacher Saslara," the boy from the governor's school stated with a great deal of deference and respect. "Got dried food here too, probably enough for a four or five days. Let's get rid of the softer meat we have left and eat some of this. Jaya, same of the moldy bread you've been chewin' on. I don't need you two gettin' sick on me." While the boy tossed some iffy smelling wild boar off to the side and tore off a hunk of dried Sword Deer with his teeth, he let out a sigh of relief. Food was becoming a major concern. The combination of finding a few days of longer lasting rations and a possible way out really lifted his spirits. He also didn't look bothered at all by the fact some kind of magical blade was given to Jaya. Instead he pulled the body away from the wall. "Teacher, there's a weird Dwarf-looking guy over here. He all but had his leg removed and has some burns. Doesn't look like anyone bothered to loot him or even look him over, the pool of still wet blood around him isn't messed up with footprints or nothing, probably because he was bleeding real bad. There is spray on the wall, so he bled something awful. I have a few pouches, a pair of bronze daggers, a bronze fighting axe, and a real full pack. There's burned and dried blood on all of it, like he got hit with fire after he was done bleeding." The young Human teen stopped talking and jumped over the body, "Teacher, there's another body behind him." After only a couple of seconds, Rafil spoke while kicking the second body, "Hey, Teacher! It's one of the guys who were betting on us when they made us fight down in the pits!" Saslara looked up, "There were several. Which one?" "The brown haired guy with the grey Mystic cloak," Rafil growled. "He is the one who made me fight Spar by threatening both of us with one of his concoctions." He kicked the body again while venting, "You bastard! You made me break my best friend's arm!" Saslara spoke up, "Raf, Stop! If he's wearing a mystic cloak and if you break one of the potions..." Rafil backed off and held up both hands. "Sorry Teacher." "I understand yer anger Raf, but ya have to think. Also keep in mind you really didn't have no choice. With any luck all the damage you were forced to do to your friend might have healed, just like all our wounds did when the green then black magic waves knocked us down." She paused, "Did you happen to know the kid you're kicking before we all entered Bloody Rock?" "Not really. I saw him hanging around Healthman Velert's shop a few times and I'm pretty sure he works in Councilman Parad's Mystic shop next door. I know he was Primary Echelon and I think he was past age of ascension, though. Spar and I got an invite to the party with almost every trainable merchant caste or above kid in Slome." Rafil gave a little snort, "But it was being held at Councilman Parad's shop, and we didn't want to go and be around Councilman Parad's kids, so Spar's dad recommended we both bowed out saying Morge was taking us out even though he wasn't." "Past age of ascension or not, guilded or not, he's still a kid in my eyes. With as baby-faced as he is, I bet you have more hair on your balls than he does, and the way you've handled things tells me yers are bigger too. But anyway, what else can you tell me about him?" "Not much, Teacher. I don't know his name, but he used to always hang out with Councilman Parad's second oldest, Boryill. Guess him and Boryill had a falling out right after the party, though since I haven't seen them together since. I know his younger brother, Yunlac, is a Training Echelon Mystic. This jackass often escorted Jillian and Yunlac to the school, but they never trained with us. Instead, the governor had them spar with the weakest and most junior students in the school, but never where any of us could watch. Most of us figured Councilman Parad hired him as a guard, since I almost never saw Jillian without this bastard and never without Yunlac..." Jaya shook her head, "Jillian? Ain't him the brother a Mora, the rich brat spell tosser girl?" "Yeah," Rafil kicked the leg of the dead Mystic just to feel a little better before he knelt to look over the body. "Jillian is a year older than Mora, but just as bad as his sister, maybe worse. They're both spoiled sewer rat turds with lots of coin and a father that makes sure they can get away with almost anything. They get the best of everything and if anyone talks bad about them the town guard seems to find out and hassle whoever they point a finger at." Jaya nodded, "Mora tell guard me trip her and gots me stuck doin' alley trash cleanin' fer two day and Teacher Saslara gots a fine me had ta work off fer three more." "Guards say you tripped her and a couple of other merchants backed up the claim, Jaya." "Me know, but me just shove her when her try ta jump line and buy all the sweet sticks in Handerlot's bread shop!" "I bet she heard you talking and wanted to get them all just so you couldn't," Rafil grumbled. "It would be just like Mora. Did you at least get the sweet sticks?" "Yeah, got me three, but there be like dozen er so left. Her no need 'em all. Her lucky me no deck her!" "You would have got a stint in the jail if you had, Jaya," Saslara spoke with disapproval. "Goods ta know! Kandric run jail now, so next time me sees Mora, me fist gunna be upside her head!" Rafil frowned, "Kandric? I know all the town council and most of the merchants, but don't know him... or is it her?" "Him," Jays stated with a smile. "Most call him Redhead Swamper." "The skinny halfer?" "Uh huh, but halfer no be nice, and you best no be mean to him none!" Rafil held up both hands at hearing such a steadfast defense of Kandric, "Hey, relax, I got nothing against him and I sure didn't mean any insult toward you Jaya. Honestly, I never thought about how the term halfer sounds to someone of two races." "Me no care none. Always gettin' called it." "Almost everyone says it, but I never really thought about it. I'll try not to say it anymore." "Like me say, no bother me none no more, but not know if it do Kandric, so ya best watch what ya says ta him!" "I'll try my best not to say it to anyone again, But I've seen the redhead swamp Halfer... um, Halfelf around several times. Spar's father hired him a few times and Spar's mother had me go out to the slums several times because the Halfelf always has fish for sale when he's around. But I've gone out there plenty and he was nowhere to be found... His little brother sold me some fish once and fresh squirrels a couple of other times, though." Rafil smiled, "Bet the little guy's got it in him to be an Outdoorsman. They seem pretty nice and the redhead speaks way better than most of those swampers, but I never got either of their names. So, um, how come you say he runs the jail?" "Because he does, Raf," Saslara stated firmly. "The governor conceded it to him to run as a, um, business of sorts." "Why would the governor care about a swamper kid?" Saslara snickered, "Because Healthman Velert foolishly brought charges on Kandric for beating up who Velert assumed to be Kandric's better." "I heard something about Velert getting in trouble for trying to accuse someone with a much higher guild ranking of attacking a merchant kid..." Rafil stopped short as he saw the other two nod and look at him. "But the knife fighting teacher at the governor's school said it was a major problem for the Swordsman guild because Velert accused a true Teacher, as in real Teaching Echelon of another Guild of..." Again he stopped as Saslara raised an eyebrow. "No... No way! He's younger than I am!" "In Human years, yes." Saslara agreed, "But what you heard from your instructor be straight fact." Rafil blinked, "He's a Teacher, like a real Teaching Echelon Teacher?" Saslara shrugged, "Kandric took over at my school for a time and I added his name to the wall of Teachers." Rafil's forehead crinkled up, "So you say he's not a Swordsman, he has no animal, no book, no Mystic cloak... So Warrior Adept, Sorcerer, or Shaman, right?" "One of those, yes," Saslara verified. "But he has requested we not say too much, and we have already told you more than he would probably like getting out." "You think I'm going to spread rumor about a Teaching Echelon spellcaster?" Rafil shook his head wildly, "No chance! But if he's a Teacher, why is he living in the swamps when he could be in the high merchant section of Slome?" Saslara shrugged, "Maybe he likes it outside the walls, but it's just a guess." "Outdoorsman..." Rafil let out a long breath, "and training his little brother to be one... makes sense. I bet they don't go hungry out there much either. However, if he really controls the jail, I'll have to warn Spar, if he's even alive, since both of us have called him a Halfer before. The very last place I want to get sent for speaking badly of a Teacher is a place he controls!" Jaya grinned, "Kandric get jail from the gov'nor so Swordsman Guild no get black eye. Now next time me sees Mora, me gives her blood lip er black eye!" "She's training to be a Mage, Jaya," Rafil warned, "so be real careful." He then smiled, "But I'd pay you big time to do the same to her brother." Jaya cracked her knuckles, "Me gots two fists; be happy ta bop him one er even two fer ya!" Saslara ran her hand down her face, "I sense more fines and city cleaning duties in your future Jaya, and like before I ain't paying 'em. But if either be part of what happened down here, feel free to give them a big poundin'." "I can only hope they were, so they get put in jail or worse." Rafil sighed as he started going over the body more carefully. "Um, I can't see how he died, but his right hand has a super bad burn, as in like to the bone. Even the edge of his Gnome Steel chain armor looks like it melted a little." "Sounds like the burn alone might have been enough to kill him and dry most of the blood on the other body," Saslara stated as she finished pulling the pack off the Hobgoblin, tossed it over to the side and moved over to Rafil. "But again, careful, Raf, he's wearing a Mystic cloak and we've got no clue what kind-a mixtures be in them glass containers. One a them might a even caused the fire!" "I know, Teacher, but even though he's older, he's my size and his armor looks like it's brand new, other than the edge where the metal is kind of melted." Rafil pulled at what was left of his chain shirt, breaking off a couple of badly damaged links for emphasis. "If he was really above ascension age, he was scrawny. Yer big for your age, so it sure should fit. Never seen a Mystic wear this heavy of armor, let alone carry a metal shield, but I'm not about to argue," Saslara noted. "Remember to leave the guild pins on him or carry them in a pouch to be turned in." "One of the first lessons given at the school was to never touch another's guild pins. They are attuned and could do bad things to me if I handle them for too long." Saslara reached over and pulled at the burned strap of a book pouch. "Looks like he had a casting book, but it broke up when he died." She dug in and pulled out eight pages, one with some damage, while six others fell apart in her hands. She put the pages back with a shrug. "Let's get the robe off and roll it up. Once we get back to Slome maybe you can take it into the shop and find out what all those vials do, or sell the whole thing back to them..." She paused, "Tell you what, since I just gave Jaya some kind of magic knife, you loot this kid. Take what you want while Jaya can have first pick off the other three." "Teacher, without you, I'd still be back in the pit or dead. You want to give your student first pick of everything, I'll take the scraps. The armor on this kid won't fit her Halfdwarven frame though..." She ruffled the boy's hair, "Raf, you are with us and without you, all of us would've been caught quick. It was you who set the distraction and told me who to take out to get the magical weapons I did. Without these," she held up a short sword and patted a heavy flail at her side, "them Goblings may have grabbed us. Now you take anything and everything off this kid you want and keep it. If we come across anything else magical, you will have first right of refusal. Just do us all a favor and roll up the Mystic cloak and stick it in the pack the kid was carrying so nothing breaks, or leave it." "I'll be careful, Teacher, and thanks. I sure don't feel I deserve anything after what the governor did to you and your students." "What the governor did was not your fault, Raf. He did the same to you and several other of his students including the friend you keep talking about. Besides, without you, Jaya and I would be lost and we sure wouldn't have got this far." Rafil shrugged as he carefully pulled off the cloak, "We're still lost..." "Yes, but you have knowledge of mining and a plan. It also looks like you finally found us another main shaft that has to lead somewhere. Jaya and I would probably be going around in circles and not even know it." Jaya let out a grunt, "Except for the bodies, me's say we is goin' in circles. The floor here look the same as the floor the last place we sleeped 'cept the bones!" "This place is bigger and doesn't have all the grey rock rubble on the floor." Rafil pointed up, "The support beams down there were real old swamp oak, these are... I think Winter Elm... but anyway, they aren't the same and are newer. Someone replaced these not too long ago. Probably a good thing, too, or this whole place may have come down. Also, just look at the walls. They are red, not the grey stone like we had deeper down." He suddenly spoke up with some excitement as he dug into one of the pouches on the boy's belt, "Teacher, I got another glow coin!" "It's yours, but we won't count it against your first pick on next magic," Saslara stated. "It'll be real nice to have more light on us!" "Thanks... " He slid over a small quarrel of ten crossbow bolts, "The fire got the bow, but not the bolts, Teacher, you may as well take them." Saslara quickly added the bolts to the nearly empty, but larger, quarrel she had strapped to her left leg. "He got a super nice shield, and... curses!" The young teen tossed the dead kid's right boot off to the side, "His feet are too small!" Jaya moved over to the dead Morg, "Sorry, Raf. Ya want'a try the one me's wearin'? Them be a bit tight, but this gunna fit good. Him small but gots Dwarf feet!" Rafil shook his head, "No, but thanks Jaya. Your feet are more Dwarf, wide and short. I'll just stick with the wraps Teacher Saslara was able to make for me." Saslara glanced over from the pack she was digging through, "I'll do a rewrap for you once you get the armor on. Jaya will help you into the armor if you need it." "I will," Rafil nodded with certainty. "I'm almost Primary Echelon, but I still can't get full chain armor on without help." "More than a few low Primary Echelon Swordsmen can't, Raf. It takes time and practice. Even higher echelon Swordsmen don't like to get armored up without help. It is why many rich and royal high guilded Swordsmen have a squire instead of just students. A squire has added duties to help ready the being served to enter battle, and getting armor on is a big part of a squire's duties." Jaya discarded a Goblin made short sword and a pair of Gobling knives, taking the axe and a couple of daggers instead. "Me tried ta squire for a big merchant down in Silverton before me comes up ta Slome. If'n me know ta read me would'a gots it, but the lady pick a boy who did." "I can help you learn if you want Jaya," Rafil stated. "Ya think me smart 'nough?" "I know you are," Rafil stated without any hesitation. At this Saslara spoke up, "If you're willing to come over to my school, I'd give you free room, board, and some coin to teach all the others and maybe even me some too. I don't read well enough to teach my students how to do more than the very basics. Once you certify as Primary, I'd give you a bump in pay and make you an assistant." "Be happy to. I sure ain't going back to the governor's school after this. I was figuring I'd have to go live full time with Morge's mining troop, but I'd prefer to have a place in Slome, at least for the winters." "Morge's a good guy," Saslara stated. "I've been trying to get him to help out with my school for a couple of years, but he prefers to search and dig for riches just off the passes. What about family, though, Raf?" "After Dad's venture with Morge at the Rook Rock mine ran dry on the blue ore for the Dwarves to make Blue Steel, he decided to work the mines down in Silverton; told me I could stay and he'd finish paying for my schooling or I could come with. I really liked working with Morge, and Morge told Dad he'd get me down to Silverton if I changed my mind. So now I live with Morge, or, when I'm in Slome, Spar's family. Last letter I got was just before the Gnolls closed the passes as cold weather hit, and I doubt the one I sent down got through. "I don't even know if he got hired by one of the big mines like he wanted, or not. So he could be in Silverton or one of the towns just outside it. Who knows, he may have even tried to start another new claim down there. But it really doesn't matter; I really like it up here. Silverton is a rough dirty place and word has it some of the smaller mines grab kids off the streets and make them work for little to nothing. I'd prefer to stick with Morge really learning the full mining trade, like finding the signs of good places to dig out in the wild, not just how to dig and shore up existing mines." "I grew up down in Silverton. It's a rough place, but the rumors of mines taking kids is greatly exaggerated. Although I am sure it happens from time to time, especially with beggars and orphans. Yer almost to Primary, so you'd find real work no problem. Still, I can see where workin' for a guy like Morge would give ya better knowledge and he can read and write real well." "He's a great miner and his people are awesome," Rafil smiled. "He keeps thinking he is going to hit a mother lode of either silver or gold, like the big mines down in Silverton. Even without it, he makes real good coin since he has a couple of go-to spots for tin, copper and his main mine has lots of good iron. I know him and my dad made a butt load off the blue ore. It's the main reason Dad was able to pay Spar's family and the school so I could stay up here." Jaya continued to look over to the Morg's body, joining in as the conversation between Saslara and Rafil died down. "Teach'r, the scale shirt on the ugly Dwarf gots cooked blood on it, but..." "Better than what you have left, no question, and it looks like it was made good." Saslara stated without batting an eyelash. "If it fits, you'd be far better off in it." "Ain't got no chest yet, so it'll fit. Wish us got a pool a water er somethin' to wash it in though." "Most of it is crusted over because of heat from whatever burned the Mystic kid's hand, so smack it on a wall a few times," Saslara commanded. "Bet most of the blood will flake off. It will also be a test to make sure the leather didn't get too hot and lose strength. Once we get back to Slome we'll get it clean and sell it so you can get back into something you like better." Jaya moved over to a wall with the heavy shirt and smacked it several times causing both Saslara and Rafil to put their glow coins down and ready weapons in case the noise attracted anything. After a couple of minutes to check it to make sure the leather was still good, Jaya finally pulled the shirt on and buckled it. With a sigh of relief, the other two moved back to the bodies. Rafil looked over the body as he continued to remove weapons, armor, and other gear, "Lots of light scars all over. I heard rumors he fought in the arena in Sage Wind, but had no idea he did it this often. No wonder he is wearing such good armor and has a shield." "You'd think he'd be stronger looking, then." Saslara snorted. "But at this point it's better for us, so it don't matter. Get his gear." "Oh I am!" Rafil stated even as he pulled a morningstar made of black metal off the pack of the Mystic. The second he did so, it seemed to become lighter. It also shimmered enough to have both Saslara and Jaya take notice. He dropped it and jumped back while looking at his hand. The problem was it vanished the instant he dropped it. Saslara moved up to Rafil, "You OK?" Rafil said nothing, instead he stared at his hand for several seconds while rocking back and forth like he was suddenly dizzy. Saslara rushed over and pulled the boy's hand up, noting a weird black kite shield crest with a ruby red and obsidian black six-legged tiger-looking creature in the center. She went to touch it, only to have Rafil hold up his other hand, "Don't... Please... Um give me a few..." He suddenly turned and puked. With Saslara's help Rafil went down to one knee blinking and shaking his head, "By Argon's name, I had no idea something had so much power!" "Power? What power and where did the weapon go?" Rafil held up his hand, "It's right here." "Huh?" Rafil rubbed his other hand over his long hair and let out a long breath. "It's in my hand." He stuck his weapon hand out to the side and used his middle and index finger to touch the crest. Instantly the Morningstar reappeared in his hand. As Saslara jumped back and stared with wide-eyes, Rafil nodded while letting out another long breath, "Yeah. I felt like it grabbed at me, like the guild pins do when the guildhall master makes them only ours. I let it and... it become part of me." He grabbed the weapon with his other hand and held up his weapon hand. The outline of the kite shield was there, but not the tiger. He then dropped the morningstar. It fell only a short distance before vanishing. The moment it did, the tiger reappeared in the center of the crest. Rafil leaned forward again, and gripped his hand into his stomach. "Not something I want to put back in me very often! That hurts bad!" "OK, but can you get rid of it?" "Yes, and for some reason I know how." He touched the crest again, made the weapon reappear and set it down. This time he kept his fingers out straight and the weapon stayed on the ground. He then held up his hand showing Saslara the entire crest was gone. "Wow!" Jaya stated in awe. Saslara looked down at the weapon, "Agreed, Jaya... But this is made of metal I have never seen before and magic beyond any I have ever been around, Raf. It could be unsafe." "It is..." Rafil stated, "for undead. When I accepted it, I somehow found out what it does. It's an Undead Spectral Killer, made to harm even the most powerful undead and protect the person using it from them. It also works as a magical morningstar giving extra defense and dishing out more damage. It only fully works for Swordsmen, Shamen, or something called a Spirit Warrior or Legionnaire." "And you know this how?" "It like told me when I accepted it." "OK..." Saslara eyed the weapon, "I want someone who really understands magic to look it over, but if you can rid yourself of it at will, then I don't think it's going to harm you... I also said you get first pick of magic, so do you want it?" "Seriously?" "Teacher say ya gots first pick, Raf," Jaya responded with more than a little longing. "If you're sure, yeah!" Saslara took a step back and pointed down, "All yours." Rafil took a deep breath, moved up and wrapped his hand around the handle. He gritted his teeth then opened his hand. The weapon vanished, but once again he had to cup his hand into his gut. Even as he blinked a few tears out of his eyes, he spoke, "Oh, by the will of Argon I hope it gets easier to pull into me real quick like!" Suddenly there was movement as a boy threw down a dark reddish-grey cloak that up to this point had looked like a rock against the side of the cavern and charged Rafil with a dark black hip sword out. "My brother found it, you can't have it!" Saslara reacted quickly, first blocking the boy's sword with a quick pull of her own blade, then shield bashed the youngster square in the face. The boy squealed in shock and pain, dropped his blade, and stumbled backwards. While backpedaling to try to stay on his feet, he took a fist to his side from Jaya, who quickly moved up and stepped on the boy's dropped blade, punched him hard enough to knock him down, and pulled her axe. "Jaya, hold!" Saslara shouted as the boy went down to a knee dripping blood from his face. Jaya pulled her swing so the axe whistled by, but it was still close enough to blow the kid's hair back. She took a quick step back and took a more defensive stance. At the same time she spoke with confusion, but never took her eyes off the kid, "Why, Teacher?" "Because he may have information we can use to get out of here, Jaya," Rafil responded. "No!" Saslara snapped. "When yer with me, or part of my school, you don't kill when someone's down, let alone a cryin' kid!" She took a few calming breaths, "But Raf, you got a point. We need to know what we're facin' and what's goin' on!" Rafil moved up with a dagger in his hand, "Yunlac, I'm taking off your mystic cloak and the daggers off your belt. If you try anything..." He gave the kid a light poke into the leather armor angling between reinforcing bronze plates as a clear warning. The boy put up one hand to show he got the message but kept the other over his bloody face. Rafil tossed the daggers off to the side, then had to work around the boy's attempts to keep a hand up to both his mouth and nose. While Saslara kept an eye on the fledgling Mystic, Jaya went over to the spot the kid had charged them from, "Gots a pack and lots a other stuff. Me's thinkin' him be one doin' most a the lootin'!" Saslara moved up and double-checked the youngster for other weapons and removed both pouches before she forcefully pulled the boy's hands back from his face. After a single glance she cringed. "Both lips split wide open, yer nose is bloody, but don't think it be broke, and looks the raised design on my shield caught you in the right eye. I can see the print of the Warsteed head. Lay back and let me see what I can do." Through tears, blood and snot, the boy managed to weakly shake his head, "No... green liquid vial... upper... left side of my cloak..." Rafil held up the cloak, "You can't expect me to give you a potion." "Please..." the boy moaned even as Saslara forced him to lay back. "Hand it to me," Saslara commanded while putting a hand on the kid's chest to keep him down. "All three on the top left have green liquid," Rafil stated as he carefully pulled each one up out of something in the bottom of each pocket and between padded bands securing them to the inside of the cloak. The youngster tried to raise his head only to have Saslara push his forehead down again. Realizing fighting was not only useless, but also stupid, he turned his head and spit out some blood before speaking again. "They're the same... Please. I'm just going to drink it." Saslara frowned deeply as she held an internal debate with herself. Finally she held up her hand, "Give me one and back way off Raf." "You sure, Teacher?" "No, but I'm gunna do it anyhow." She took the potion and waved it across the boy's face, partially to get a reaction. All she saw was some hope, so she put the vial right up to the boy's face, "I'm going to pull the cork on this. If it does somethin' bad you gunna get it same as me." "It won't, please... My face and head really hurts!" Saslara let out a long breath, glanced at the nasty, muddy green substance rolling around in the vial, and pulled the little stopper. It surprised her when it came open without a popping sound, but then noted it was actually wood with a wax seal, not cork. After several seconds of nothing, she let out a sigh of relief, "So you want me to pour this into your mouth?" "Yes, please!" Saslara shrugged, "Raf, Jaya, if this lets him do somethin' to me..." "Yunlac will look way worse than he does now, Teacher," Rafil assured Saslara. "Way worser!" Jaya agreed with a growl. Saslara gave the potion one last look before she used her fingers to fully open the boy's mouth so she could see it through all the blood and poured the odorless liquid in. Even though the young Mystic apprentice was in a great deal of pain, it was abundantly obvious to all three looking on the taste of what had been dumped in his mouth was truly retched. His face contorted and he gagged several times. "Did he just drink poison?" Rafil asked after several seconds and seeing the boy roll his head to one side stick out his tongue and gag a half dozen times. Saslara had similar thoughts. To this end, she turned the boy on his side and started to stick her fingers down his throat to make him puke. However, before she got fingers past his teeth she noted a rapid decrease in blood flow from the split lips. Still holding the boy on his side, she pulled at one of the spots where teeth had deeply cut in, only to find both sides of the tear were pulling themselves together and the skin was closing. Fascination took over. Saslara used her other hand to pull at an even deeper bite mark on the upper lip, and watched as it mended from the middle outward. Within five minutes the blood flow had stopped and most of the damage had disappeared save for a pink line. Saslara turned the still heaving boy and looked over his face. The steady flow of blood from his nostrils was down to a mere trickle, but the badly blacked eye looked like it was continuing to swell. However, there was no questions the potion had healed much of the damage, starting with the worst. Once the youngster recovered from the dry heaves she helped him sit up, "Do you want one of the others for your eye?" "Can't..." The boy managed to get out as he sucked in some deep breaths. "One a day at most..." He wiped some sweat and drying blood off his face, "Need one from a different Mystic or it might make me real sick and if it healed me at all, it wouldn't work nearly as good." He lowered his head and spit, "May I get some water please?" Rafil held up a Gobling water skin and tossed it over as soon as he was certain the boy was paying attention. Yunlac scowled at it, but said nothing instead he took a swig, swished it around in his mouth and spit it out. He then took a couple of drinks before handing it back. "Thank you..." "Yer welcome," Saslara stated even as she grabbed both sides of the boy's head and really looked him over. "Ya got a hell of a shiner, but ain't seein' much else wrong..." She stood and yanked the boy up to his feet by the front of his reinforced leather armor. "Yer also polite. So tell's me boy what were ya thinkin'? There be three of us!" The boy glanced over to his all but stripped dead brother and wiped some tears out of his eyes. "Boccad was going to try to buy my freedom with the morningstar..." "Freedom?" The boy's head dropped again. With sad shake of his head he slowly pulled up on the right sleeve of his armor. Underneath he had a locked lower armguard with a design of two daggers wrapped in chains burned into the leather between two thin Gnome Stone Steel locked bands. He held it out so it could easily be seen. "There is a small knife tucked under the metal bands. I have another on my left arm with some lock picks." Saslara looked over the armband before she pulled out a very sharp slender Gnome Steel blade. She then motioned at the other arm. With nothing more than a sigh, the kid extended his other hand. Saslara pulled out seven odd looking small tools and slipped them into a pouch on the side of her pack. "Any other surprises?" "No ma'am." Rafil moved up and grabbed the still extended arm and looked over the very high quality band, "So you are a combat slave or gladiator?" "Yes, bit of both." Saslara scratched behind her ear, "OK, so you are owned by Councilman Parad?" "He bought me and my cousin, but we were given to those we serve, just like when he bought Boccad from my mom before I was even born. I was given to Jillian. Teacher Parad holds the keys to my bands though." Rafil cocked his head to the side, "If you're a Lockmaster, like the lock tools suggest, why not just pick the locks and run?" "There is poison under the metal bands. If the key is not used it will stab into my arm. I would be dead within minutes." He pointed to a small keyhole with a latched sliding plate covering it. "When the keyhole plate moves, another under the armband opens. Only the right key goes around the poison holder and can get to the tumblers." Saslara looked at the band, "But if you get into a fight..." "It has a very strong spring and the small latch holding both upper and lower holes closed. I was very scared at first, but after six years of wearing these, only getting them off to fully bathe or when they need to get resized, I have stopped worrying about them." He then sighed, "Besides, there is nothing I can do about them and just like my brother, I am to be freed when I reach Age of Ascension as long as Jillian is Primary Echelon guilded." "But your brother was going to try to buy your freedom with the morningstar?" Rafil asked. Yunlac looked over at the body of his brother, "He was going to make the offer, yes. We knew it was magical, and... maybe it would have been enough for Teacher Parad to free me and find someone else for Jillian..." he wiped at his tears, "so now what?" Saslara looked over at the pile of gear, then back at Yunlac, "Now, take a few minutes to say goodbye to your brother while we finish going over all the equipment down here. Once we're done, yer coming with us. We'll figure out the rest once we get out of here. Do ya know the way out?" Yunlac shook his head, "No, but there be lots of skeletons and other dead walking around down here. Two big ones with glowing green eyes took my cousin and most of the bones down here are from others. I was trying to gather gear when I saw a glow and heard you all so I hid, hoping to follow you all out. We were with a Gobling who said he knew a way out beyond some Dragons. I was fighting some skeletons down the passage with Boccad and these other two, so I don't know what they were talking about. All I know is both Jillian and Mora wanted nothing to do with it. They demanded this Gobling, who knew lots about the caves in Bloody Rock, find us a different path." Rafil held up the Mystic cloak he took off the Yunlac's brother, "Do you know what the potions in this thing do?" "Yeah, since we both have potions out of Teacher Parad's shop and many of what we have Boccad made I know what they do. But something went wrong with one of the firebomb potions Teacher Parad made for us. It burst as he pulled it out and it didn't explode. It erupted into fire as he pulled it and cast the spark to activate it. Instead of the stopper burning, a flaming liquid ran down his hand and onto the ground. It got real hot and he fell back on me. It caused the skeletons close to us to back off, but I can still hear his screams." Rafil cocked his head to the side, "How come it needed a spark spell?" "Most dangerous potions don't work unless they are first activated," Yunlac explained. "If you take out one of the bigger glass tubes, second down on the right hand side from my cloak and let me use a glow coin, I can show you." Saslara glanced over, "No tricks, right?" "No ma'am." She shrugged, "Let's see it then." Rafil pulled out a larger glass vial and handed it over along with his glow coin. Yunlac held it up, and put the glow coin behind it. "If you look, you can see there are two liquids in this, the top is brown, the bottom more of a amber." All three of the other looked. After a few seconds Jaya spoke, "Somethin's in there keepin' 'em apart?" "Yeah, and the top part is way thicker and harder to break then the bottom." Yunlac demonstrated by tapping the top on the ground, then did the same to the bottom. The top took a few hard hits and only chipped while the bottom cracked on the first hard tap. "I'll have to be real careful now, cause the lower chamber is already cracked, but..." He looked around, "You getting rid of the bronze dagger and leather sheath?" Jaya nodded, "Gots it from a Gob, it be junk! Me's gunna keep a couple of the gooder daggers from up here!" While clearly not happy to see those he was with, including his brother, looted, he nodded in resigned understanding, "Since you aren't going to use it, put the sheath down next to me." Jaya dropped it then backed well off. Yunlac picked up a broken piece of bone and tapped the bottom, breaking it. The liquid from the lower part of the vial dripped on the leather, but nothing happened. Seeing three frowning faces he smiled, "Now watch when I push down on the stopper." As soon as his thumb pushed the stopper down, whatever was separating the two parts of the tube was forced down and broke. The liquid from the top dribbled down. As soon as it hit the other drops from the lower part of the tube, the leather started smoking and bubbling. He then dripped the last couple of drops onto another part of the sheath to show it did nothing to the leather without the other half. "See, it really isn't acid until the top and the bottom mix. Then it can be thrown and since the bottom breaks easily, it shatters and splashes acid. "The Mystic cloaks are made to protect the whole vial, but each pouch is surrounded with metal and there is a cork-like bottom to hold the potion in place, then even if one half breaks from getting hit or whatever, it almost never mixes. Even if it does, there is a special potion put inside most of the pouches to stop what is being held in them from working. Take a hammer and hit the next one over in my cloak until both halves break if you don't believe me." Saslara shook her head, "No need. Now sit here and recover while we see what is useful down here." Several minutes later, Rafil spoke up, holding three water skins, "Teacher. Yunlac's brother had two full ones and a empty, and they ain't the nasty Gobling ones." "One empty and one full on the Dwarf looking guy," Jaya stated. Saslara glanced over, "Got a real big full one and a mostly empty off the Dragonling, too. The Hob had two, but both were destroyed when he got hit." "We'll have to take all the good ones," Rafil warned. "Since we are seeing so much red in the walls, the water may have too much iron and other minerals in it to be really safe in this area and it will taste bad even if we do need to drink some. While this passage looks promising, I still have no clue how much longer till we find a way out of here." Saslara shrugged, "Then like it or not, we lug every drop we've got here. Just make sure both of you carry it in a way you can drop it without damaging the skins, cause none of us'll be worth a crap-filled loincloth in a fight if we go into it loaded down with this much water." She then paused and looked down at Yunlac, "Grab your pack and gear, but no weapons. You can help carry some of the extra water, too." She paused and shot him a firm stare, "Unless you want us to leave you down here in the dark..." "No, I'll carry whatever you want, but can I at least have a weapon? There are skeletons and other dead walkers around down here." Saslara frowned, moved over to the dropped black metal sword, and picked it up and spun it. After some internal debate she held it out, "Ya promise you will not try to use this on any of us?" "I promise!" "Fine," she handed it over along with the blade for the armguard, but kept the lock picks. "So where did this black metal blade come from?" "The same place the morningstar did, ma'am," Yunlac stated while grabbing his small pack and securing much of the extra water. "There is a room with six walls and a glowing staff in the center. All around the room was writing, but I have no idea what language. It's at the top of a passage with tunnels going down on all sides. "Jillian tried to take the staff, but it only turned. I bet he wiggled it back and forth a hundred times while most of us took a break, but at some point he did something different to it and it pulled toward him like a long lever. When it did, it opened up a trap door in the floor with a stone spiral stairway. There was a massive room below it with hundreds of dead bodies, all nothing more than bone now, but several had weapons and armor made of this black metal and many others with Blue Steel. Most were already looted, but even I could tell they were a combination of Dwarf and taller skinnier beings. Whoever they were, looked to have died fighting side by side against a mix of all sorts of other beings including a large number of Dwarves. Many were nowhere near as well armed or armored, but there was way more of them. "But even though most of the bodies had been looted, there was plenty to pick through. As everyone was looking over the place, I secretly changed my bronze sword for this one and was trying to slide a couple of Blue Steel daggers off another body when Mora demanded the crowbar I had on me. She pried on a solid Blue Steel door. Needless to say my bronze crowbar was no match for the door, but she wiggled it just enough to set off a trap. "Gas spewed out of several holes in the walls and those close to them fell gasping while their faces turned purple. The rest of us ran. We still all got sick and when we made a place to rest, two of the guards who got out of the gas fell asleep and never woke up. It took out over half of our group, but I think the gas was lighter than air, since most of the ones left were those who were short, like Dwarves, Halflings, kids, Goblings and the like." Rafil cringed, "So the upper room is full of poison air now?" "Maybe," Yunlac stated. "One of the guards who died in his sleep pushed the staff back up and the hole in the floor closed, but I really don't know much more. We ran down one of the six passages to get out while some of the others ran down a different one. I don't even know if it was the same one we entered the room or a different one. They all looked the same to me." "Sounds like yer just lucky to be alive," Saslara stated. "But for now yer still a slave. I'll let you stay as an armed slave, but you do what I tell ya, until we can really figure out who you belong to and if whoever it is wronged me or my students, understood?" Yunlac held up both hands, and nodded, "I've been a slave for over half my life, and it's pretty much all I remember. I'll do whatever you want. Just don't leave me down here in the dark. I think two of those skeletons with green eyes my brother drove back when his hand caught on fire was after me!" With the glow coins, including the one Yunlac had in his pack, and a smooth cut mineshaft, the trio made much better progress. A trio of hours of walking, Rafil suddenly stopped and closed his hand around his glow coin. Seeing this, Saslara motioned for Jaya and Yunlac to take a knee and did the same to the coin in her hand. It took only a few seconds for her eyes to adjust, but when they did, she realized there was a much brighter glow coming from what looked to be a side shaft, but it was promising, since it noticeably sloped upwards. "Slave boy, stay here and keep most of your glower hidden. Raf, behind me. Jaya, move into the passage, but keep a eye on the slave." Saslara moved up the passage slowly, putting her back to one wall as she did so. After a few hundred meters she heard voices but couldn't make out the language. At this point she put down her pack, water skins, and loaded her crossbow. She looked back, motioning the kids to put down traveling gear and move forward. Rafil edged up the passage. After several seconds he whispered, "They're speaking Seafarer. Morge's got some Wolflings in his iron mine who all speak it. A couple of them taught me, but I can't read it." "What are they saying?" "Most of it is about making a governor's girl fix their wounds, but there is also talk about dead Dragons, skeletons, and clawed undead with glowing eyes, and a way out." "Dead Dragons and undead with glowing eyes and claws?" Saslara hissed softly, "You sure you know how to speak what they're talking?" "Yeah," Rafil forced a grin, "I'm sure. They're talking about how Councilman Parad's kids were totally freaked out about the skeletons and ran after part of the group was taken out below... I'm thinking those Yunlac talked about may be this group. Anyhow, two of them said they could have been out by now if they had just cut through dead Dragons, but now they are lost. They think they are close, since they have been here before. They know cause of the glowing staff and they made a fire pit last time, and it's the staff that opened the passage below Yunlac was telling us about. But everything else looks the same to them. They keep saying they need find the Dragon bodies again since their Miner guide chased after Parad's kids with a couple of guards when they got hit by skeletal undead a fourth time not too long ago..." "OK, so when the slave boy be talkin' Dragons I be thinkin' he was talkin' about pictures 'er somethin'.... But now yer saying dead Dragons. They sure ain't talkin' about no pictures, so you do mean Dragonlings, not Dragons, right?" "No Teacher, Dragons. Real ones. The guy who is doing most of the talking said something about the Dragon bodies are blocking the way out, like in the whole passage and they will have to somehow cut through them to get past. One of the women keeps saying it's where the gate is, but the word she keeps using is more like a combination of gatehouse and door. I have never heard the word used before, so I am not totally sure what she means. The context makes me think it is some kind of locked or guarded passageway. They are also worried about more skeletal and clawed undead, but they are hoping they finally destroyed them all in the last fight." Rafil held up his hand as the man seemed to snap at the others, "I think they have another from my school, cause the guy just told someone the governor should have never let such a whelp into his school and he'd take whoever it is back to the pits if the bleeding on his leg doesn't stop. Whoever he's talking to isn't saying anything at all." "Probably can't understand what they're saying." "Maybe not, but it's weird to not hear anything from whoever they have." Saslara rubbed her chin, "Ok, so we need to see if we can rescue whoever it is. It sounds like whoever it they have is a Healthman. How many Healthman students did you have in your school?" "Um, four came with us; Kesha, Akantha, Eir, and Jarl." The guy and one of the females got into a brief argument. Before they even finished, Rafil translated the basics, "He's saying they used up way too much Force, and they need to rest until their wounds heal some and they can cast again. The lady wants to start marking passages so they can come back to where they are at and try different passages until they find the Dragon bodies and get out." "Spell throwers," Jaya muttered. "Not wanna fight them none." Rafil looked over, "If they are really low on Force, it may be the best time." "Agreed," Saslara stated while readying her crossbow. "If they are really hurt, and they are low on magic, it doesn't get much better. One thing is for sure, we don't want to stumble across them when they are magic full and healed up." "I think there are four talking, three ladies and the man. Go after the guy, Teacher," Rafil recommended. "He seems to be in charge and is definitely one of the casters." Saslara nodded and moved up the passage at a crouch. Because of a staff with a brightly glowing ball sticking up out of a pile of rocks, she was able to make out everything. One of the first she spotted was a girl wearing standard governor's school bronze chain armor shirt with several areas of damage. The girl was gagged and had her legs in chains, but her hands were currently free so she could work on an Elf's leg. The guy had his back to a wall and was pointing at the girl threateningly with a shortsword. Saslara lined up for a clean shot, but just as she got into position, a mean-looking, canine-headed, creature with front cat-like claws turned to look at her and snarled. This caused heads to turn just as she fired. The movement made her miss what she was aiming for, but the bolt still sliced down the man's left cheek. The guy grabbed at his face with one hand while shouting out a warning. At the same time the girl working on him fell back, then rolled to get out of the line of fire. Before Saslara could reload, the creature bounded down the passageway right at her while a wounded Gnoll woman stood, extended her hand and launched a small bright green burning ball at her. The ball went over her shoulder and down the passageway. Saslara dropped her crossbow and pulled the magical heavy flail she had captured, but was seeing spots since the Flare spell had been so bright. Mostly because of this, she missed as she swung on the cross between a dog and a predatory cat. The creature's claws raked down the side of Saslara's armor but didn't get through. Behind Saslara, Rafil moved up and swung on the creature with his newly procured morningstar. The head of the weapon knocked the creature off to the side, but it was far from out of the fight. It let out an angry hiss and turned to face Rafil. Up the passage a burst of sand erupted from the hand of an Elvin woman who had a Bobcat by her side. The sand went right through the chain armor on Saslara's right arm and left a bloody welt on her arm. Jaya moved up to the creature getting ready to slash claws at Rafil, and sliced it with her axe. Once again the creature hissed and lunged at Jaya, only to get knocked into the wall by the shield in Jaya's hand. It backed off a few steps with its tail between its legs while also shaking its head as if a little stunned by the hard impact. Saslara didn't even look back. "One of you take care of whatever in the nine hells that thing is and the other move up and cover my back!" She secured her shield and strapped it back onto her arm while moving forward. Jaya put herself between the creature and Rafil, "Go! Me gots this nasty thing!" Rafil quickly turned to catch up to Saslara, but had to stop and sneeze suddenly. When he did so, a tremendous amount of snot blasted out of his nose, forcing him to stop and wipe his hand across his face. Coming back with the back of his hand coated in snot and some still running out of his nose he shook it, "Aw, gross!" The wounded man, with one hand up to his face, managed a smirk even as he reached for a book pouch off to his side. The distraction allowed another Flare to streak down and hit Rafil in the chest. The good armor prevented a solid hit, but enough got through to give him a light burn. "Ahhh! I hate spell throwers!" The girl who had been working on the man looked up, "Rafil!" She then lunged at the guy knocking his hand away from his spellbook pouch while also hitting him with the hardest punch she could muster. The man retaliated by slicing the girl with his short sword. The girl fell back crying. Saslara advanced up the passage, blocking a muddy-colored ray from the Elf with her shield as she did so. She tried to move on the man but the Human woman stepped between them. The woman's swing with a mace told Saslara she was facing a someone with a pretty low guild ranking. She easily turned to the side to dodge the very basic attack while delivering an upper cut with her heavy flail. Her Teaching Echelon skill showed as flail slammed into the handle of the mace, snapping it. The flail then continued into the woman's gut. Adding to the devastation of the hit, the momentum knocked the woman down. The Gnoll shoved out its hand only to find Saslara was ready. Another bright green burning flare bounced off Saslara's shield with no effect. Next to the Gnoll, the Elvin woman reached down while speaking a quintet of words. As soon as her hand touched the bobcat at her side, it vanished. At the same time the woman spoke, "Take the boy!" Rafil didn't see what happened since he was focused on the man who had just cut one of his fellow students. He moved up on the Mage only to get claws raked down his weapon hand. "Yeeow!" Rafil howled as he suddenly found himself with four long bleeding claw marks across his hand. He swung his shield around but found only air. "What in the name of the gods clawed me?" Saslara moved up on the fallen woman and delivered an overhand smash into the woman's raised arm. It snapped almost as cleanly as the handle of the mace had and continued down into the woman's shoulder. Blood splattered across the cavern walls as the woman crumbled into an unmoving heap. The Gnoll saw this and instantly extended her hand while speaking a long magical phrase. Before Saslara could turn to face the sounds, she found her feet locked into a block of ice and two more bands of thick ice secured her arms to her side. Instead of doing nothing, she dropped her flail, pulled her dagger from off her hip and rocked forward as hard as she could. The result sent her face first down onto the injured man. She adjusted the point of the dagger as she fell, driving it deep into his hip. The guy screamed and tried to push the mostly immobile woman off him, but it was simply too late. The dagger was in and even as he tried to push her off he could feel the strong and determined woman twisting and digging the blade around, opening up a horrible wound. Within seconds he passed out and moments later the spellbook he had been reaching for fell apart. Down the passage, Jaya once again cut into the side of the weird creature, then tossed it off to the side with her shield. This time, instead of trying to attack, it made a sad whimpering hiss and tried to lick at a bloody wound on its side. Jaya showed no sorrow. She moved up and brought the axe down again. The creature screeched in pain and tried to back off, but before it could, the edge of Jaya's shield came down on its neck. It twitched a few times as it died. "NO!" the Gnoll screamed and ran toward the animal only to get hit by a wild and not particularly powerful swing by Rafil. The attack was enough to cause the Gnoll woman to back off and grab at her leg, however. The problem was, moments later four more long claw marks appeared as if out of nowhere on his weapon hand. He pulled his hand back and swung his shield again. The dilemma was he had no idea what was attacking him, let alone where it was. The shield missed and it opened him up to a hard jab from the Elvin woman's quarterstaff. He let out another yelp of pain and took a step back while blocking a mace swing from the Gnoll. Jaya saw this and rushed forward, only to have something she couldn't see bite into the back of her leg. She slapped at the sudden pain, but like Rafil, she hit nothing. With a great deal of anger and confusion she grabbed a dagger off her side and threw it at the Gnoll who was trying to work around behind Rafil. The dagger throw wasn't great, but it did put a slice across the outer thigh. The Gnoll turned its attention away from Rafil and extended its hand in Jaya's direction, but the spell failed, mostly because Yunlac had been forgotten in the confusion and used his Lockmaster skills to slide unnoticed down the side of the wall. He swung on the extended arm. The Gnoll saw movement at the last second and was able to mostly pull its arm out of the way. It still ended up with a light gash across its forearm. With a snarl it lashed out at Yunlac, only to have her mace swing impact Rafil's hastily raised shield. Rafil went low, taking advantage of the two raised arms. His morningstar once again hit the Gnoll's leg just as had been taught to both schools in Slome a year prior by Vondum. This time the hit wasn't a glancing one. The morningstar hit dead center in the thigh, which hyperextended the knee. The Gnoll fell howling. Rafil turned his attention to the remaining woman while speaking to the boy, "Finish the Gnoll, Yun!" Behind the two from the governor's school, Jaya let out a yelp followed by a few curses, "What keeps biting and clawing me?" Saslara banged her side against the wall of the chamber, trying to crack the ice holding her arms to her sides, "Jaya, remember your training! Treat this as if you were blind. Corner defense and get small!" The Halfdwarf looked up, only to get some bloody scratches across her face. This time she at least felt her shield connect with something solid and got a growl in return. It also gave her a chance to back up into a corner. She then dropped her axe, pulled a dagger and put the shield up to defend her left side. The next time the invisible bobcat lunged it scratched her leg, but she was ready and braced. She jabbed forward with the dagger before it could back off and was rewarded with both a snarl of pain and a very bloody dagger. The last woman saw this and shouted, "Slash run!" She then blocked a swing from Rafil, took a step back and cast another spell. With a deep scowl she backed off down one of the side passages. Rafil moved forward to stop her from fleeing, but the effects of the Misfortune spell found him with a vengeance. He slipped on some of the blood from the newly slit throat of the Gnoll. He went down hard, falling on top of Yunlac as he did so. He also dropped his morningstar which disappeared back into his hand causing him extra pain. Finally, he hit his knee hard on the stone floor. By the time he recovered, tapped his palm so the weapon reappeared, and got to his feet with a little bit of a limp, the woman was nowhere to be seen. With a shake of his head, he noticed Jaya was holding a piece of cloth over a nasty wound on Eir's side and turned his attention to Saslara. Since she was struggling to get free, he grabbed what was left of the broken mace and smashed it down on the icy bands around Saslara until they cracked enough for her to break free. Saslara motioned for Rafil to guard the passage the woman fled down while taking the remnants of the mace so she could smash the ice out from around her feet. "Damn this is cold!" Rafil rubbed his knee, but still managed to look over with an impish grin, "Um, Teacher, the last time I checked, it's ice. It should be." Even as the other two kids started snickering, despite having some bleeding wounds, Saslara smacked her forehead, "OK, smartass, once I get out a this and put us all back together, ya have first watch." Rafil wiped at the bloody claw marks on his hand, "Totally worth it Teacher, totally worth it." ****** Klent, Lidevar, Immeck, Garvol, Jory, Pulon, Lyrod, Rylop, Tayac, Gapon, Shothash, Losmock, Klent's Slave. Ever since arriving at the outer perimeter of the war camp Kandric had directed them to, Klent's mind was having a hard time figuring out if he was in a dream or a nightmare. Well before his small group made it to the camp, they were stopped by a combination of heavily-armed and armored Dwarves and Elves. His first instinct had been to back away from the group, but before he could convey those orders, a band of Illorcs came out of the woods on the back right, while four Silver and four Blue Dragonlings cut off retreat to the back left. At first he thought the groups would start fighting each other. However, within seconds it became obvious the only group they were seeing as hostile was his. Even as he motioned for all those he was with to drop weapons, a pair of Pantherlings came through the lines. Both wore rugged white-dyed, reinforced leather armor, white hoods, and white footwear. Both were armed with long bows over their backs and long swords at their side, with strips of white cloth tied to them. The effect was they blended into the raging snowstorm so well they were within meters before anyone in Klent's group realized they were there, and even when Rylop pointed them out, and Klent was looking right at them, they seemed almost ghost-like. The group's animals were also badly spooked by the eclectic assembly surrounding them, so all had to fight to control their mounts. This further prevented any kind of organized action or defense. The taller Pantherling was first to speak, "Adventurers, relax. We have no desire for conflict with you." Klent turned his attention toward the figure, still mostly obscured by snow even though it was only five meters away, "To say I am relieved to hear this is an understatement." The figure made a half-growling half-snorting sounding snicker before speaking, "If I was in your footwear I would have a similar feeling. Unfortunately, you have found yourself encroaching on our camp and we could not help but note you have young clearly wounded captives with you. Because of this, we require you to dismount and offer some sort of explanation of what brings you out here and what possible transgressions would require you to chain two grievously injured youngsters you travel with." Klent kept his hands visible as he jumped off his mount and took a step forward so he could show himself as the leader. At the same time he motioned for others to dismount as well while pointing to Lidevar to secure his mount so it didn't bolt. "To be honest, we were directed this way with instructions to ask for an audience with a Duke Mathard." "A lofty request, Human," one of the Dwarven men stated with some anger and a great deal of suspicion in his voice as he moved forward. "Who, within these savage lands, would know of Duke Mathard, let alone direct the likes of your rag-tag band to his location?" Klent glanced back over his shoulder, "Rylop, would you or one of the boys who knows the young lord who sent us this way speak up, please?" Getting a pat on the back from Rylop, Gapon nervously moved up next to Klent, "Mr. Dwarf, one of my teachers, Teacher Kandric, said we could seek shelter and maybe get a reward for our captives... Um truth is, we wouldn't a got them without Teacher Kandric, but he said they be ours." The posture and attitude of those facing Klent changed instantly. Hands moved away from weapons and the firm stances changed to being much less aggressive. At the same time, one of the Elves moved forward, "You, boy, are one of Premier Kandric's missing students?" Tayac raised an eyebrow as he spoke up, "Missing? Um, well, I kind'a am, since I have no clue where I am other than right here... So I guess while I see myself as pretty much lost, others would see me as missin'." Off to the side one of the Illorcs started snickering, "Same kind-a wit me see in Premier Kandric first time him come to Lord Monarch's camp. Bet our Premier like this one! So ya be one of him students too?" Gapon nodded, "Um, yea, we both be Teacher Kandric's students." He pointed back at Tayac, "Him and me." Klent had to blink at the oddness of seeing an Elf turn to an Illorc and nod in a friendly way, then all of the others quickly fall in line. It was equally astonishing to note the total attitude shift, as those surrounding his group heard Gapon state he was a student of this Kandric. The youngster had warned they would be approaching a camp with an strange make-up, but seeing Dwarves, Elves, Illorcs, Pantherlings, and two kinds of Dragonlings so fully cooperating, was almost beyond comprehension. However, since they clearly were all on the same side, there was no way Klent was going to be anything other than totally polite. To this end, and knowing his buddies were not anything close to diplomatic, he let talk between those encircling him die down before speaking up, "The youngster you all keep calling Premier said we could hand off a couple of his students for safekeeping and might be able to point us toward a Duke Mathard, who he thought would be interested in either paying for our captives or could point us to someone who would be involved in handing over a reward for them. As far as me and my merc band, we do not wish to be any sort of distraction or burden..." "Nonsense!" the lead Dwarf boomed. "You travel with students of our Premier! Come. We have one who can verify. Once we do so, we will get you all properly taken care of!" A single exchange of glances between himself, Immeck, Garvol, and Lidevar, told him his buddies had the same thoughts as Klent. None of them wanted any part of this, but at this point there was nothing to do but be escorted to wherever they were led. Klent took in a deep breath and nodded, "Very well, good Dwarf, please lead the way." Even as the Elf gave them an arm gesture to accompany the large patrol of Dwarves and Elves, the white-clad Pantherlings vanished back into the blizzard. They were quickly followed by the Dragonlings and the Illorcs, all of whom seemed to melt back into the woods. Klent was surprised when no one asked for his weapons, but upon cresting a small ridge, he instantly understood why. For on the only easy path down to the glows coming from scores of large fires, a trio of Warrior Dragons stood guard. Klent felt his knees lock even as he tried to tell his body to backpedal. All around him the mounts panicked and tried to run, and would have save for the fast and well-prepared actions of the escorts who grabbed and man-handled them. A few of the escorts even managed to catch the two injured students when the mounts they were on all but tried to bolt from underneath them. Next to Klent, Immeck attempted to take a step back, turn and flee, but much like Klent, the man's desire to run was hindered by absolute terror. The Swordsman fell hard. Directly behind Klent and Immeck, Pulon's Giant Raccoon jumped into the teen's arms, knocking the boy down, while Jory stood transfixed in shock and awe as the bright red eyes of the Red Warrior Dragon all but bored into his own. He was so stunned by the sight, a trickle of drool ran down out of the corner of his open mouth. Garvol's first intuition was to grab for a weapon, put pure fear took over, so even as his hand went for his warhammer, he dropped down to a knee, turned his head and puked. Lidevar fared no better. He passed out the second his eyes took in the glistening silver-tinged teeth of the Silver Warrior Dragon. Rylop's instincts were slightly different. He grabbed both Losmock and Shothash and yanked them behind him before holding up both hands to show he was unarmed. He tried to say something, but the only sound to escape his throat was a half moan, half sob. Gapon and Tayac glanced at each other, moved in front of Lyrod and the slave boy Klent had tasked Lyrod with keeping an eye on. The pair then glanced over the three Dragons, shook their heads, and grabbed each other's hand for support. However, Gapon managed to speak to his best friend, "We do our best to stay together, no matter what." Tayac had to swallow hard a couple of times, but finally managed to respond, "Agreed." He managed to gain enough control of his own fear to add, "But I bet you have enough meat on you to make a good snack, me, not so much." This caused Gapon to snort, "So you should be first, to wet one of their appetites." "Gee, thanks." Gapon forced the slightest of grins, "Just sayin'... But on the plus side, two of us might fill one of these up. I don't think the two a us combined would-a been more than a sweet roll fer the huge Green one back up in the Splitrock Knolls." The Red Warrior Dragon snickered hard enough to temporarily warm the entire group before it turned to look at the Blue and spoke in Dragon, "Those two must know Premier Kandric. I bet they are a couple of the students he is looking for." The Blue responded, "I have little doubt they are his students. The others, however, seem to be what I normally encounter when I am seen by the lower races." The Silver joined the conversation while continuing to eye the whole group, "The Human who grabbed the two boys has a good heart, he at least is attempting to protect the Human youth." "True," the Red answered. "However, those two cannot possibly be students of our Premier, for unless my nostrils are mistaken, at least one of them now has a wet groin cover." The Blue smiled, showing many more teeth and causing several in Klent's party to start to cry as they mistook a smile for something far more sinister, "Shall we place bets on how many we can get to soil their clothing before we let them pass?" The Silver started laughing, forcing most, including the Garm and Alphar escorts, to cover their ears and or fight the terrified mounts even more, as sonic waves erupted outward from its mouth, "As enjoyable as such a bet would be, I really have no desire to antagonize our Premier." The Red sighed, "I concur. I would much prefer to stay on the good side of Premier Kandric. However, I find your idea to be beyond tempting and it would be so ever much enjoyable! We must find a group at some point and make such a wager." The other two nodded and exchanged claw bumps before the Blue, who had the best Northman speech of the trio, leaned down and spoke to one of the Alphar, "Baron Foxhunter, what hooligan group have you found wandering our woodssss?" At this Gapon gave Tayac a light shove, "Hooligan? He must be talking about you." Tayac gave Gapon a punch in the shoulder, "Takes one to know one." The lead Alphar looked back with a frown, but much like the Dragons, he decided it would be best to let the two who claimed to be students of Premier Kandric be uncivilized boys. "Baz'eve, the two youngsters who seem to be far less fazed to see you than the others claim to be students of Premier Kandric. The group leader asserts our Premier directed them to come to our camp and seek an audience with Duke Mathard." The Blue nodded, showing no surprise at this point, "We conjectured they could be no other. Welcome travelerssss, and admired acquaintancesss of Premier Kandric. You will be well taken care of. However, we require authentication of your identity. To this end, Baron Foxhunter of the Alphar and Baronet Waraxe of the Garm will guide you to a tent where you will be allowed to warm, eat and relax. You are to remain in the tent and make no unfriendly act and draw no weapon until we verify your claim of being directed here by our Premier. "Once we have determined you are who you declare to be, much greater care and freedom will be granted." It then looked directly at Gapon and Tayac, "And you two, going forward, interruption of a noble will be looked on with a high level of contempt, no matter your tie to our Premier. I expect to note much better behavior henceforth. Do you find any ambiguity in what I am informing you of?" Gapon swallowed hard, "Sorry, Mr. Dragon... We'll never do it again! Um, us no knew him be a royal." "Noble, not royal, but now you do. Therefore, we demand a much greater level of deference toward both of them going forward. Do not make me re-examine your behavior. If I am required to, the two of you will not find my demeanor to be forgiving again. However, I give credit to both of you. You have bravery within for a hundred of your kind, if not more." Baronet Waraxe looked up and spoke, "They are certainly brave, and thank you for admonishing their behavior, Baz'eve. However partial fault lies with myself and Baron Foxhunter for not informing them of our titles. Since you have been kind enough to rectify this slight on our part, I am certain both these fine lads will be on the best behavior their upbringing allows." Baz'eve gave a nod, then spoke to the whole group again, "Remain between Baron Foxhunter and Baronet Waraxe and their patrol and no harm will come to you. I do not believe I need to inform you of the fire-gale our camp will rain down on you if you do not follow my command. Um, and would you mind if we ate the lame animal within your party? It be good for nothing and we will provide a better to replace it. The three of us will make a quick snack of it while ridding the world of it." Klent finally managed to find his voice, "Uhhh.... sure.... And, um, my party will be on our best behavior and follow all commands, I assure you." Garm and Alphar removed the gear and saddle while two others stayed back to hold it as the three Dragons moved in. It only got off a single terrified sound before it fell silent. Klent, along with those with him, quickly found himself in a tent with a fire pit in the middle and a steep roof to rid it of smoke. Hearty food was brought in and a pair of Healthmen entered to care for any and all injuries, no matter how slight. Neither argued when they were told Tarastala and Sorab were to receive no aid. Instead, they ignored the pained moans and focused on the others. While they were being patched up, Baron Foxhunter and Baronet Waraxe entered the tent with a boy dressed in extremely high quality Dwarven Steel chain armor, a lightly glowing ring on his right hand, a silver head band with a shimmering gemstone helping to hold his long hair back, and an Elvin Steel shield over the back of his pack. His weapons were equally as astonishing. A Dagger of Light was in a sheath on his left boot, a light crossbow with a very nice quiver hung off his pack, a light mace with magical runes covering the head was on his left hip and a hip sword with some runes on the pummel was on his right. The youngster also had on high quality winter boots, and a finely crafted winter cloak with a hood. Even as Klent guessed the boy was royalty, Tayac and Gapon jumped up and ran to him while shouting in glee, "Bonif!" Bonif embraced his fellow Swordsmen students before turning back to the two nobles, "My Lords, they be who they claim. This is Tayac and Gapon." He turned back to his two buddies, "I thought you be dead!" "Would-a been," Tayac responded, "but Teacher Kandric saved us... twice." "Start calling him Premier," Bonif warned. "The Dragons really ain't willin' to bend on him being called nothin' else." "Then Premier he be," Gapon stated without hesitation. He then paused, and glanced back at the Alphar and Garm nobles, "Um, sorry if we ain't supposed to be talkin' with you around..." Baron Foxhunter waved his hands, "It is quite alright. You saw a friend you thought may have been lost. I am quite certain Baronet Waraxe is as pleased to see you all this happy as I." Baronet Waraxe gave a hard nod, "Well spoken, good Baron. However, I believe we now have our answer. Bonif, is there anyone else in this tent you personally know?" "Yes," Bonif pointed over at Rylop, "he is a guardsman who went into Bloody Rock with us and is trusted by all of us, including Premier Kandric. Most of the rest I don't know." The young teen then paused and shot a frown over toward Losmock and Shothash, "Those two was part of the gov'nor's school, though." At this point Gapon put his hand on Bonif's shoulder, "They was, but ain't like most a them others. They fought with us and be our friends." Tayac also spoke up in their defense, "Don't group them in with the others, Bon. They helped us take down one a them Green Dragonlings and was beside us when Teach... um, Premier Kandric rescued Nylod and Padma, then let us drop Tara and Sorab." He pointed over to the two badly injured kids being ignored by the Healthmen for emphasis. Nylod managed to sit up while getting some wounds touched up, "Without Shot and Los, we'd a been slave meat by now, Bon." Bonif glanced over, noting his two fellow students for the first time. He moved up and knelt between Nylod and Padma, then looked back at the nobles, "These two are also fellow students of Premier Kandric. I got ta know a few good ones from the gov'nor's school, so if all four of my friends be good with 'em, I am too. But I don't know these others none." Tayac quickly spoke up, "All of them be good folk, Bon. Without them, we'd all be dead. Plus, they be under contract ta take out bandits from the man who trained Teacher Kan...," noting a look from both the Garm and Alphar, he gulped, "um, I mean Premier Kandric. They have the paperwork showing it!" Seeing Klent dig into his pack for the paperwork, Baronet Waraxe waved him off, "I have heard more than enough to satisfy me. There is no need to provide further proof." "I concur," Baron Foxhunter responded before turning his full attention to Klent. "Unfortunately, Duke Mathard of the Garm Empire and Princess Syrissia of the Alphar Nation have other business and will not be able to meet with you. They have requested you allow us to stand in as their spokesmen." Klent turned to face the two and took a knee and gave a basic court bow, clearly surprising both nobles, "It is an honor to gain audience with any noble of the Garm or Alphar, and I apologize for myself and those under me for having called you Dwarf and Elf. I fully accept you or any other intermediary from either or both of your kingdoms." "Thank you for your apology and understanding," Waraxe stated. "Now other than get you properly cleaned and equipped, what can we do for you?" At this Klent scowled, "Good noble, while I cannot disagree about all of us needing a good scrubbing, do you find some fault with our gear?" Foxhunter answered, "To be honest, we find your equipment to be one step the wrong direction of Goblin-kind castoff scrap. We cannot possibly allow any student of our Premier, nor anyone who is a traveling companion or leader of them to be so appallingly outfitted. However, we can deal with this shortcoming in short order. So trouble yourself not of this. Instead, you had to have had heavy motivation to venture to our camp, and we are here to find out what those reasons are." Klent gestured back toward Padma and Nylod, "First and foremost, we would request you take care of those two children. Neither are in any condition to travel without good care and need a place of safety to recuperate." Waraxe motioned for Klent to stand even as he moved over to the two kids, "This you need not even ask. They will receive the best all the assembled nations can offer for care and protection." "Indeed they will," Foxhunter confirmed. "They shall want for nothing and we will find them reunited with family or locate someone to take them in just as we did with Bonif. What of the other youngsters?" "To be honest, the ones from Slome fall under Rylop, not me. But we had intention of traveling and scouting as one group for the time being. The boys seem set on coming and I have gained enough trust in them to allow it." "Even the younger ones?" Waraxe asked with some surprise. Seeing both nobles looking at him, Rylop reluctantly spoke up, "I think you'll find Gapon and Tayac far too stubborn ta stay when some a their buddies be still out in this storm. The other two can stay, but I have no problem with them joinin' in and lookin' for friends from their school er helpin' in bandit huntin'. If it'll make ya both feel better, I've 'nough coin ta pay for food and a few better weapons if ya have 'em ta sell. I should also try ta buy all a us more food and some warm wears..." "Guardsman," Foxhunter interrupted with a hint of annoyance in his voice, "do not concern yourself with arms, traveling equipment, nourishment, or clothing for yourself or your companions. If you have no problem keeping the youth with you to further their training and they have no reservations on accompanying you, then making sure you venture forth with proper equipment becomes our concern." He looked back at Bonif, then back at Rylop to better try to get his message across before turning his full attention to the kids, "Any of you from either Slome school who wish to stay here, you will find your care, mentoring, and training unparalleled. Proper outfitting will be one of our leading priorities as well." Seeing all four shake their heads, he nodded in understanding, "Very well. Those who leave this camp to continue to scout for brigands and or find lost friends and students of our Premier will venture forth with everything needed to take the fight to anyone opposing you. Now, what about the other boy?" Klent reached back and grabbed the kid by the back of his shirt and yanked him forward, "This little urchin is my property and I have the paperwork to prove it. He has no say." Waraxe shrugged, "May I at least suggest we find him some slave bands and collar, so there is no mistaking his property status?" Klent nodded and started to reach for his pouch only to get waved off, "No recompense needed. Allowing all to see his status will prevent any from speaking up should you treat him in a way someone might find otherwise objectionable. May I further recommend getting him in something to not only identify him as property, but also sturdy enough to give him protection for the times you are dealing with raiders?" Klent thought it over for a few seconds before agreeing, "Nothing more than reinforced leather and no weapons. I also agree it would be beneficial for anyone looking at him to instantly be able to know of his slave caste." Foxhunter patted Bonif on the shoulder, "How about you take all the youngsters over to the outfitter tents to get measurements, then get them to a bath tent to liberate them of the grunge and odor accompanying days of travel without access to clean water and soap. Once suitably cleansed, take them to our smiths so they can talk over weapons and other equipment. I leave them in your hands while we discuss what is going on with the two injured youth they are not allowing us to treat. Make sure to leave the slave boy with Leathersmith Titanfall, and explain what his owner requested." Waraxe glanced over at Jory, Pulon, and Lyrod when they made no effort to stand and accompany the others, "Regardless of who you are traveling with, if you are part of this... entourage, you need to get your sizes and preferred weapons to our outfitters. I note your animal is still nervous, so feel free to take him, or her, with you. "Bonif, make sure you tell the quartermasters of the status of each and have them get with Viscount Brightfire or Count Blackgranite to make sure optimal and proper items are procured for all. I am certain both will want to know current Guild ratings, so feel free to take them to our testers and get a report to ensure all are well-prepared for combating brigands and or finding more of your missing fellow students." Tayac glanced back at the other teens who all looked skeptical, "You guys can trust Bonif and it sounds like we ain't wanted 'round here none." With a deep breath, and noting the look in the eyes of the two nobles, Jory jerked his head, "Come on guys. If nothing else it sounds like we get to get a bath and some clean clothing and since I am bunking with Pulon, we could use both." At this Tayac snickered, "I'm betting Pouncer smells better than us." "I know the fur ball does," Klent stated with a grin. "So first stop is a bath, any kind of bath, for all of you. Keep in mind, there are Dragons walking around, so if you should talk of Premier Kandric, do not forget to use his title." He then focused directly on Tayac and Gapon, "I do not want a single report of any of you irritating a Dragon!" Tayac put a hand on his chest and made a mock attempt to look hurt, "Who, me?" "Both of you!" Klent, Rylop, Waraxe, and Foxhunter stated at almost the same time. Gapon gave Tayac a shoulder bump and smiled, "Gots a rep 'round here already!" Klent covered his face and let out a single, "Ugg." As soon as the kids exited the tent, he returned his focus on the two nobles, "Once again, good nobles, I apologize. While I do not know them well, they seem to be good kids, but they have no experience in a setting such as this." "Bonif has the same problem," Foxhunter responded with a smile. "However, as I have taken him in as a member of my family, he will learn. If you would allow, I could place a heavily educated advanced squire with a high merchant birthing with your group to tutor them, knowing the probability Bonif will, at some point, wish to invite them into my estate." Klent's upbringing in higher circles told him the suggestion was actually a lightly veiled command, so he simply gave a light bow while adding, "I will do my best to make sure Gapon and Tayac take in more than they bleed off on any such mentor, Baron." Foxhunter snickered, "It would do my cousin's son a service to get a less pampered view of the world he is finding himself in and learn some of the... rougher social nuances needed for survival outside our lands, I assure you. Now, not to be overly offensive, but would you mind if we sent in a servant party to bathe you, get your sizes, and procure a list of your preferred weapons and gear before we continue this discussion?" "Not at all, good Baron." Waraxe looked over at the two badly battered kids, "What of those? May we at least get them unsoiled and nourished?" "Cleaned, yes I will allow it. Water, yes, food, no. You may also treat anything your Healthmen find potentially life threatening, but no other care should be rendered." Seeing both men scowl, Klent added, "The reasons for this will become clear in short order." Waraxe's frown deepened, "Then I request you tell us now. Your odor can wait." "Very well," Klent sighed before moving to stand over the two kids. "The female claims to be Halfdrow, whose father is none other than the Governor of Slome. According to her, the man is a Drow himself, and from what I have been told by Shothash, Loshmock, and even both of these two, the governor was responsible for sending many of his students into some mines to be ambushed under his oversight. Premier Kandric feels she may have more valuable information, but has also requested she be taken up to Slome and added to his business dealings. The way he spoke made it sound like Duke Mathard would know what the young Premier wants." "We both do as well." Foxhunter stated with some distaste as he moved over and looked down, "The skin is certainly dark enough, however, according to texts, her hair should be white, even as a Halfdrow." Waraxe moved up, pulled a small vial out of his winter cloak, unscrewed the top and poured a couple of drops on the girl's hair. As soon as the liquid hit the hair, and ran down, every area it touched become an off-white. He looked down with a glare, "Dyed, and has been doing so for a very long time for my potion not to have taken all of it off. We will put her under heavy guard." Any sympathy he had vanished as he turned to look at the boy, "And this one?" "You may want to use a dagger or something to pull his necklace out and take a look." Klent warned, "Whatever you do, do not touch it." Foxhunter pulled his long blade and expertly slipped it under the chain around the boy's neck without even scratching the skin. As the pendant of a skull with a dagger sticking into the underside of the chin came into view, Waraxe pulled the pick off his weapon belt, hooked the necklace and yanked it with everything he had. the chain broke, but not before ripping skin off the back of Sorab's neck. The kid let out a squeal of pain from behind the gag, but it was quickly silenced by a hard boot to his side from Foxhunter. Since he was gagged, getting air back into his lungs was exceedingly difficult. No one in the tent took any pity. Instead, Waraxe fought hard not to just slam his pick into the boy. "A follower of Murderic! He gets nothing!" "Not just a follower, Baronet Waraxe," Klent stated, "he is a Channeler." Both nobles' heads turned back to the boy while readying weapons, but Rylop moved to stand as a buffer, "If ya kill him, we ain't gunna find who be above him!" Seeing both men glare, but at least take half a step back, Klent quickly added, "Rylop is correct, Lords. Someone had to train him. From what we heard from Losmock, Shothash, and even out of the mouth of this bastard, he has been in the school for years and even helped ambush fellow students who were trying to fight back in the mines during the preplanned ambush. He went so far as to brag about it." "And you are certain he is a Channeler of Murderic?" "Oh yea," Immeck finally spoke up. "Him had Dagger a Murderic and made it poison by askin' fer help. Gapon snapped it with da help a Golan, then beat the puke out-a him, but all us see it." Immeck moved up and pointed down, "Him be Murderic Priest!" Foxhunter stepped around Rylop, yanked off the gag taking with it a hunk of hair as he did so and snarled, "Where did you get your teaching, and who gave it to you, boy?" Even though Sorab was trying to draw in air and was crying from having a large hunk of hair ripped off the back of his head, he managed to gasp out, "I'm never telling you! The great Murderi..." his words were cut off as another kick expelled all the air he had managed to take back in. Waraxe stared down with pure fury, "So you admit your allegiance without shame? You are a disgrace to all races! You will tell us everything. If not now, within hours." The moment Sorab shook his head and spit in Waraxe's general direction. Foxhunter grabbed a stick from off the wood pile, broke it and grabbed both sides of Sorab's mouth to force the boy to open. He continued to apply more pressure until he could shove the stick in between the boy's teeth like a horse bit, punched him in the gut to once again expel air, and pushed the stick in even deeper to where it started to draw blood on both edges of the kid's mouth. He gave it one last push even as he tied the stick in place as tightly as he could. "You will not be able to spit, nor will you be allowed to silence yourself or take your own life by biting off your tongue. Once we extract the information you either willingly or unwillingly provide, we will verify and purge Premier Kandric's lands of your demon worshiping sect. Then, and only then, will punishment for your own transgressions be determined. But you will wish death a thousand times between now and then." Waraxe glanced back at the medallion of the demon lord now lying off to the side and back at Sorab. "Nor can we allow you any chance of escape." With those words he moved up, lifted his pick, turned it so the blunt end was pointed down, and brought it down on the boy's right ankle. He turned away from the thrashing and bawling child. Instead he focused on the Healthmen tending the other two children. "Get them someone to clean them, but they do not leave this tent! Send for someone to mend this demon worshiping scum's ankle in such a way he does not die from the wound I just inflicted, but also so he can never walk on it. In addition, get one of our best Channelers to procure the demon pendant and find a way to destroy it!" Foxhunter started to bring his boot down on Sorab, but stopped himself, mostly because his heart saw a child and just couldn't bring himself to do what his brain tried to tell him should be done. Instead he decided to give the youngster a final warning, knowing others within the camp would be far less concerned about his age. "Keep in mind, demon lover, this is but a taste of the torment you will continue to endure until you tell us all you discerned and even have guessed at from the time you started training as a demon Channeler to now. Make it easy on yourself when next questioned and spill what you know." He spun away and looked at Klent, "We will get with Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia to determine the value of the reward due you for these two. In the meantime, let us escort you to a bath tent and find you a new place to rest. This one will not be used again by anyone other than this filth," he pointed at Sorab and Tara, "until it is determined to be cleansed of the taint of Murderic, and even then, my recommendation is it be burned once we are done with the little demon loving monster within." They were then taken across the camp to a tent with large kettles of water hanging over fires. Each kettle had a crank handle to allow them to easily be tipped to fill much smaller buckets. Each man was requested to walk barefoot across a large square filled with a very dense clay before being led over to the bath tent. Once there, they were asked to pick two out of over eighty servant men, women, boys and girls of several races, many with slave collars on. While Rylop and Garvol were clearly bothered by the idea of being bathed, Klent made a slashing motion before they could voice a single complaint. Both men picked nice looking women and dealt with it. The others picked those fitting their tastes with way less modesty. From there all the men found the servants to be as hands on as they desired. Once clean and lightly oiled, they were offered soft, yet warm, robes and given perfectly fitting boots the quality none of them had ever seen. The problem was, they came out to the main area to find all their gear had been removed. Even as they all started to voice concern, a Silver Dragonling Mage entered, "Worry not, anything you yearn to have back will be handed over without comment or complaint. Now come." The moment the men exited the tent and entered the raging storm, the Dragonling cast a bubble around them so they could be escorted to a much larger tent without the snow battering into them. Once inside, they found a couple of scores of smiths of all sorts working on everything from weapons, to armor, to leather, to backpacks. A single look told most of the men the vast majority of items they could see being produced were for smaller beings, and no expense was being spared. Before they could dwell on this, a well-dressed Alphar and Garm came over with a pair of youngsters. The kids, one boy and girl, sat at a small tables, unscrolled blank parchment and pulled out an ink pot and feather quill, while the well-dressed adults moved to stand by their sides. The Dragonling gestured toward them. "Take your pick of one or the other. Your preference or comfort in who you talk to will not be judged. While you are here they will take calculation of body and inquire to your application of optimal equipment. Your reply to every enquiry need be well defined, for we will utilize your word to move forward. While humility may be wanted from you, doing thissss nude will allow for optimal fabrication of any garment we need make." Klent glanced back at Immeck, "Well, this explains the lack of loincloths after our baths and it sure looks to me like they plan on making us new outfits." Immeck nodded, "Which be why our stuff be taken. Me bets they's gunna patch it up or somethin'." "What be left of my clothing would take more thread than it be worth." Rylop snorted as he glanced around. "But if they is gunna make me a new set a clothes, I sure ain't gunna argue none!" After just a few seconds he moved over to a stand, pulled the boots off and hung up the cloak they had offered him. While being naked made him a bit nervous, the temperature in the tent was pleasantly warm, and he was really hoping they were indeed going to offer him some new clothing. He quickly made his way over to the Garm with the young female note taker. Klent glanced at the others. Seeing his long-time buddies were very skeptical, he shrugged, "Might as well find out what they have in mind. At worst we get back what we came here with, at best we get a set of the boots like they let us wear over here!" Klent removed the boots and cloak before moving up to the Alphar. The man said nothing at first. Instead he moved up with a piece of dark twine with yellow, red and orange markings on it. He held it up right at Klent's head level and called out something in Alphar. The boy quickly took pen to parchment. The man did the same for neck measurements around both biceps, calf muscles, thighs, forearms, upper and lower chest and even one going up his left leg, up to his crotch, and down his right leg. The only things said during this very in-depth measurement was for the boy to ask him to hold out his arms, change his stances, flex muscles, and other basics. Once the string was set off to the side, the man pulled a rack of weapons of almost every conceivable kind over with the help of the boy. At this point the Human boy who Klent realized was wearing a slave collar, gestured to the rack, "Warrior, if you would please point out your most desirable bladed or edge weapon and your preferred smashing or blunt weapon. Please just point, do not touch." Klent walked back and forth for several seconds before pointing to a flail. After several more seconds he shook his head, "I see no Panther Sect Warrior claws, so my next choice for an edged weapon would be the bastard sword one down from the end." At this, the man grabbed the string and carefully measured Klent's hands. Once done he turned and spoke to the boy in Northman for the first time since they entered the tent, "Size him for both blade and flail. You have done this enough to where I should be able to take my leave for a few moments. I expect perfection and your cycles for nourishment and rest will be altered by what I find when I return." Klent saw clear nervousness in the eyes of the boy, but waited until the Alphar was out of sight before he spoke, "Relax and tell me what you need me to do. I will do my best for you to get the highest grade possible." The boy took a deep breath, "Thank you, Warrior. However, I am really not supposed to speak to those over me, including you, other than to ask for you to do what is needed." "Then be as detailed as possible. However, may I ask how you came to be a slave here?" "I am required to answer all inquiries, Warrior. However, if I may request, and I am not supposed to ask anything of anyone, but would you please tell Sir Silkweaver you wanted me to speak to you should he return while I am talking?" "Of course I will." "Thank you, Warrior," the boy stated as he pulled out silk gloves and took the flail off the rack. He turned the weapon so the handle was pointed at Klent, "This needs to be done right for best results. I need you to take hold, use it as if in combat and find your perfect grip. Once you do squeeze hard, but do not squeeze hard until you find what you feel is the most comfortable grip to fight with." Klent took the weapon, stepped back and swung it a few times. "The handle does not feel right." "It is not meant to, Warrior. If you would, please keep going until you find your perfect grip." Klent moved the flail around as if attacking and defending for a couple of minutes. As he did so, he looked back over, "So tell me, how did you come to be a slave here?" "My father and uncle decided to take a trade caravan into the Deathland Mountains about three years ago. We lost most of our guards but continued to push on, since my uncle was convinced there were people in need of good trade goods somewhere within the range and they would have some of the riches rumored to be there. After almost four moons, we came across a detachment of Alphar riding Warsteeds. They told us we were getting too close to their lands and ordered us to turn back. At the time we thought they were just Elves, so my father and uncle decided to try another way in. The same thing happened three more times. Finally on the fifth time of getting caught trying to enter Alphar lands, Father decided enough was enough. We turned around, but a day later we were hit by Giant men, real Giants, over four or five meters tall, wearing hides and carrying clubs made out of what had to have been trees. They smashed our wagons and took the few of us who were still alive. One of the Giants was carrying me in his hand, and I swear, his fingers wrapped all the way around me, but anyway, he carried me for a long way, like over a day and a night. I was given nothing to eat or drink, but finally we came upon a camp of several dozen more Giants including some women. I was put into a cage with a couple of others from my caravan and at least a dozen others I had never seen before. We were tossed hunks of barely cooked meat and the bottom of the cage sat over a stream so we could scoop up water on the upstream side and relieve ourselves on the downstream side. "I lived in the cage what I think was about two weeks, and every few days it got more full. Finally when I started to wonder if there would be any room to move, a large number of other Giants came down with what had to be their kids. The top of the cage was opened and the kids came over one after the other and grabbed someone. Being one of the younger and smaller, I was one of the last picked. The kids then picked what was branches to me, but more like sticks to them. The kids then matched lengths of sticks. As soon as they found one with a stick the same length they were paired off. The one who grabbed me was set with one a little bigger, probably older, who grabbed a older man out of the cage. "They carried us over a large hill and while most of the adult Giants found places to sit, a couple of the biggest and strongest took those who had people they grabbed out of the cage to a open pit with all sorts of bones and a few old broken rusted weapons and other junk in the bottom." The boy stopped as he noticed Klent had finally stated getting a good feel for the odd textured handle. "If you are comfortable, Warrior, keep your handhold and squeeze hard, just make sure not to change your grip." Klent did as instructed, "OK, now what?" The boy moved back over, and extended his hands. "Now hand me the weapon but do not release your hold until I have the business end firmly in my grasp." Seeing Klent nod, the young man took a deep breath, "When I request you to do so, let go as if you suddenly found the handle red hot, just like you want to suddenly drop it." "Understood." "If you would, please, let go now." Klent did as instructed and watched as the lad carefully moved over to the table and unscrewed the bottom half from the rest of the shaft, carefully wrapped it in cloth, put it in a box and set it on a larger table with the measurement scroll next to it. He grabbed a new handle from directly under where the flail had been on the rack, screwed it in without touching anything but the knobbed end, and hung the flail back up. He moved down the weapon rack and pulled the bastard sword by the blade and extended the hilt for Klent to take hold of. "If you would, please do the exact same thing with this blade. We will need to do two, one for a one-handed grip and the other for two-handed." Klent nodded, grabbed the weapon and took a few steps back, "Please continue. I find myself all but holding my breath waiting to find out what happened." The boy gave a single nod, "I do not know how the order of who was chosen, but the Giant who took me was taken around the back side of the pit and placed behind two other sets of Giant youth. Those in front of us put a rope around those they selected and lowered them into the pit. A female Giant moved up and spoke in crude Northman, telling the two in the pit the only way out would be over the dead body of the other. At this point the Giants started howling and yelling. When the man and girl refused to fight, the two who dropped them in the pit got long branches and stated swatting at them. Finally the man had enough, grabbed the girl and snapped her neck. There was boos and hisses, but a rope was lowered and the man got pulled up and offered some meat and water. The next two were two old women. It took only a couple of swipes of the long branches for them to fight each other. I do not know what happened cause I looked away, but the Giants cheered way more. "I was lowered with this old man next. The guy didn't need to be told or hit with a stick. He came right at me. I guess he thought I'd be easy to take out, just like the girl, but I was and still am a Warrior Adept Trainee. I grabbed a long broken bone with a sharp tip and shoved it into his stomach as he grabbed for me. I tried to back off as he fell to his knees but the Giant who took me hit me with a stick, so I grabbed another broken bone and shoved it in his neck. I got pulled out, was fed, basically petted until all the prisoners had done a round, then was taken by the one who grabbed me for another stick draw. To make a long story short, I killed two more that day, one an older girl and the other a man who would have easily bested me earlier in the day, but he was badly beaten and had lost fingers on his right hand from what I bet was a bite judging by the other teeth marks on his hand. The girl was no problem so I was uninjured. I let him grab me, punched his hand and as he gripped it, I shoved a stick or bone or something of the sort into his eye. We started off the day as a hundred and twenty and ended the day as thirty. "All thirty of us were taken back to the camp and branded with a burning stick. The one who selected me traded me a day later for huge fur and real long and heavy spear and I was put in another cage, in another camp. "The cycle repeated itself several more times, but as one of the winners of the first, I was granted a broken spear for the second. I took out three, all without weapons, and was then given a broken spear and dagger for the third one. After my fourth or fifth they let me select two weapons from a pile so by the time I got to my last one, it was able to grab a real nice dagger and light mace." "Were you ever hurt?" "Oh yes, Warrior, several times I got cut up pretty bad and three times I broke bones, but managed to make the third kill each time. Since I won, they had a Shaman, or Channeler, or whatever, heal me. Each time they added to my brand and I was sold by whoever picked me and I was transported to another, normally bigger camp. "On my last time, for my third fight, I got dropped into the pit against what I thought was an Elf, who had obviously not been in the pit before that day. He saw me with weapons, dropped the sharp bone he planned to use and tried to run, but got hit with a stick until he finally he moved in on me with trembling legs. By then I knew what the Giants wanted, so I didn't go for a quick kill. I toyed with him, slicing him with the dagger twenty or more times, getting yells of approval and cheers for each time I drew blood." Seeing Klent stop and stare at him, the boy clarified, "The more blood I got, and the more pain I dished out, gave me better food and care, often times a good show got me time out of the cage and something other than hunks of somewhat cooked meat I had to fight over." Klent shook his head in sadness even as he squeezed hard and extended the blade for the boy to grab. As soon as the boy put the first handle in a box, set a new handle and turned it back over for Klent to find a good two-handed grip, Klent secured it, backed well away and went to work yet again. However he was really wanting to hear the rest as were the others with him, "Please continue. I wish to know how this ended with you being here." "And I am almost there, Warrior." The boy stated. "I eventually got him with a pretty nasty hit to his left calf. He was down and I was going for the kill. Most of the Giants stood with expectation of me delivering the kill shot when a loud cry came from above. "The Giants all jumped up and scattered, and by then I knew how it worked. The dead were left in the pit to feed the rats, buzzards or other vermin, so I covered the kid with another body and put his blood all over myself. I used hand signals to try to tell the kid to stay hidden until the matches were over. Not knowing if he understood, I stayed in the middle of the pit. Quite a bit later, the one who selected me from the cage pulled me out and I got out to find at least a score of dead Giants and double or more number badly injured. Rocks and waves of arrows came down on them from up on a ridge, but I guess I was too important a prize for the Giant boy who selected me to leave me, so he looked down in the pit, called out I won and hauled me out. He then ran with me under his arm as rocks and arrows pelted those around us. Very few escaped. "Two days later a large force of Griffins with Alphar riders caught up to the last of the Giants and slaughtered them, including the Giant who had been carrying me. One of the Alphar moved among the few non-Giants, saw me and drug me back to a Griffin carrying the boy I had hidden. The boy nodded and I was taken and made his servant for about a year. I was then sold to my current master since I was a fledgling Warrior Adept, Leatherworker, and Woodcarver as is he. He was ordered to gate here to keep the troops equipped, so here I am." The Alphar man came through a flap and glared at the boy, "And why do I come back to hear you speaking to this warrior?" "Because I demanded he do so, sir," Klent stated firmly. "Very well," the man dropped the matter instantly. "I certainly hope he got you through one by now." "He did and I did the single-hand and am finally feeling good about this grip." "So you are ready to set it, Warrior?" the boy asked. "I am." Klent gave the handle a hard squeeze and turned it back over to the young slave. Once the final handle was carefully put into a box, Klent turned to the Alphar, "Why enslave a the boy if he ended up saving an Alphar?" "Mostly to appease the father of the boy he all but cut to ribbons. However, Princess Syrissia overruled the decree of Viscount Nightrose, and turned the slave status to one of indentured servitude with nothing more than slave rights. The boy will be free upon his graduation into what I understand you call Secondary Echelon. Until all this happened and the Alphar re-emerged into the greater world, he would have been required to stay within Alphar lands, Now, however, upon completion of what we call Proficient Echelon, he will be able to go and do as he pleases. "If anything his value to the greater realms has increased drastically because very few within our lands know a sliver of what this Human child does of the land I am now in, and none from these lands have any knowledge of our kingdom. When he leaves his servitude, I am certain he will find offers from many houses to act as an intermediary on any number of transactions or dealings. "I believe you also now know why no one knows of the Alphar Kingdom or Garm Empire. Those who try find a way into our lands discover those we keep out are powerful and deadly. Most are true monsters and deal with those who encroach on our lands for us. The few who make it to the outskirts of our lands are turned back. Eventually they fall prey to creatures we continually push out of our lands, or on very rare occasions we take one in. This gives us a way to keep up with language and some limited news from the lower races. Most great houses also send out scouts and reports are sent back. However, I still believe we are ill-prepared to enter the world outside our lands. It will be this young one and others like him, who will suddenly be of a value beyond their social castes, and may even require Garm and Alphar to institute something on lines of a diplomatic caste for them, above a high merchant, and below or even equal to a knight such as myself." The Alphar moved over to the boxes holding the other handles, nodded, and glanced over at a woman hanging back next to the tent flap. "Take the scroll and this warrior over to tailors while I set another for proper outfitting." The woman put the cloak over Klent's shoulders and helped in into his boots. She then led him through a back flap, and into another tent that was set so close, the entrances almost touched. For an hour he was shown several types of cloth and fabric. Even as all this was going on, a couple sets of very nice underclothing and a basic set of warm weather clothing were pulled off a rack based on measurements and quickly altered. It also finally dawned on him, as he got help fully dressing, the incredibly nice boots and cloak were his, not borrowed. He was guaranteed three much nicer and more rugged sets of outer clothing would be ready within hours, then escorted to yet another tent for food and rest. Once everyone was sized, Klent and the other adults were escorted to another large tent containing a field gear storehouse none of them had ever encountered the likes of. There were packs, weapon belts, quivers, field cooking kits, water skins, rope, dry rations of over a score of blends, and just about anything else he could ever dream of buying. One look told him the quality was equal to the boots and cloak. He stood speechless for several moments. A Garm Leathersmith came over and spoke, but it had to be translated to Northman by a Human female apprentice. "Warrior," the young woman spoke, "please talk to Master Smith Titanfall. I am but a translator and should be ignored. Master Titanfall welcomes you to the outfitter's room and apologizes for the rapid mobilization of so many from this war camp. Rest assured you are still safe and will be very well protected. "Now, moving on to matters of getting you presentable enough to be scouts for our Premier, let us finalize your wears." She turned to Klent first. "According to the scroll you will be receiving a bastard sword and standard flail. You should take your time and select equipment you will both be comfortable in with those weapons in mind. My request is you do not get overly covetous, as we are at war, possible with Frexla herself, and gear needs to be Gate Stone transported to restock much of what you see here. However, we are custom-making clothing and gear to better suit you being a Sect Warrior. I have been able to find claws I hope you will be happy with, but we are forced to make a barb for your young Mage, and it will not be of the enchanted variety we wish to provide for his primary weapon. We will do our best to make it up to him in other equipment or spell pages." Klent let out a long breath, "Master Smith, I cannot..." Not knowing what to say or how to continue, he simply stopped and stated. "Your goods are so far beyond my ability to afford, it is an embarrassment for me to even be here." "Equipping a scouting party of Premier Kandric is not only my duty, but my honor. Now please, take your time, select what you would like, and let me know of what mounts you and those within your party are comfortable with, for alas, seeing the state of the animals you arrived in camp with was seriously disheartening. The Dragons even stated the one you allowed them to snack upon was somewhat stringy with age and poor diet." "This does not surprise me, Master Smith. A few were captured animals we needed just to carry our equipment and captives. We lost one other, but other than Lidevar, Immeck and Garvol, here, I have limited knowledge of what the others are comfortable with riding. We all prefer Warhorses or even Warsteeds." Rylop spoke up. "I've rode a Warsteed, and me knows both Tayac and Gapon know how ta ride 'em as part a Teacher Saslara's schoolin'. Not real sure, but most a the gov'nor's school know how ta ride 'em too." "I will make sure the others are talked to and we find suitable mounts for all. Warsteeds are good, however, have you ever ridden a Dragon Steed?" "I have," Klent responeded. "However, I doubt others in my party know anything about them. They are not easy to ride." Seeing all the others shake heads, Sir Titanfall, shrugged, "No, they are not the easiest to master, but in the heavy snow they are the best we have to offer. They also do not spook just because they see a Dragon, something you will encounter more of, I am certain. I will see about getting the rest of you, along others traveling with you, basic instruction on them and we can provide training style saddles for those who show limited initial aptitude. Now, I must finish with your slave boy's armor, so he can be by your side where he belongs. Feel free to call out to me with questions or if you find something you really like, but requires modifications to best fit you." Well before Klent decided what he wanted, help was provided by a another Garm under Master Smith Titanfall. Lidevar was last to decide on gear, and looked overwhelmed. "Is ya really tellin' me ya replacing me old stuff with whats me wants outta here?" The woman had a hard time translating, so Klent cleaned up the speech enough for the Garm to understand what the woman was struggling to tell him, "Warrior, you and those with you cannot go out as representatives of Premier Kandric looking like you escaped from the depths of a Morg den. By taking gear out of here, you are allowing us to properly support our Premier." Klent glanced back at Lidevar, "Long way of saying yes, but do all of us a big favor and don't get greedy." Lidevar shook his head, "Not gunna happen none. Me feel out-a place just walkin' 'round in here!" "Yea, me too." By the time they were escorted to yet another tent, this one with much nicer fur floor coverings to lay their new bedrolls out on, Klent was totally overwhelmed. Each man had three sets of very nice, yet rugged traveling clothes expertly sized for comfort and combat. They all had top quality packs with gear suitable for their subfields, and several wraps of their preferred traveling rations. While they were organizing what they had been given and had selected, Klent's slave boy was brought in by an Alphar lad wearing extremely nice gear, much of it gleaming on its own accord. The young Alphar looked nervous as he pushed the slave over to Klent. "Leader, Master Titanfall would like you to look over your property and let me know if I need to take him back for any changes in outfitting." Klent moved up and carefully examined his slave from head to toe. The boy wore reinforced leather with adjusting straps. The way it was made would allow the boy to grow over the next couple of years and have the main portions of the armor still fit him. In addition, he had locking forearm guards with metal plates, both with expertly burned-in markings showing him to be a slave. The outfit was completed with a locking slave collar, decent boots, and a warm looking cloak. He also carried a pack that had a couple of larger cooking pans hanging off of outer straps. Lidevar glanced over, "Yer toy gots some good stuff, and looks like him be ready ta cook fer us now!" "Better than he deserves, but having him in armor will keep him safer for camp duties," Klent snorted. He ignored the boy. Instead he moved up to the young Alphar who brought him in, "He looks fine. Did he give you any problems?" "No, Leader, he did not." The youngster handed over a set of small Dwaven Steel keys for the armbands and collar. "He said nothing, just as I was told you instructed him." The fourteen-year-old equivalent teen glanced around the tent, "Scout Leader, where do you wish me to bunk?" Seeing the others turn to look at the boy, Klent cocked his head, "You are a nephew of Baron Foxhunter?" "Second nephew, outside the lines of the nobles of my higher family, but yes, I am the one he told you about, Scout Leader. I can tutor in reading, writing, and even spell casting should you have any with such need. While I have not formally completed my squireship, I have passed into Proficient Echelon, barely. Because of this, and the need to give some of Premier Kandric's students some tutorage on proper protocols, Baron Foxhunter ordered my release from squire duties. This was seconded by Baronet Waraxe, thus I am unconstrained from my squire duties and I am allowed to move forth as an adult under Alphar and Garm law." Klent continued to look down at the boy who was very close to Lyrod's equivalent age. "You don't look terribly happy about being here." "My emotions over being here have nothing to do with anything, Scout Leader." "Maybe not to those who ordered you to join us, but they do to me. So talk, and while you are at it, my name is Klent, not scout leader and I would like to know your name and more about you." "I am Ulavee, Leader Klent. To most I am known as the former Shaman squire of Lieutenant Duskhunter, of the Alphar Border Scouts. I was on the scouting mission that found the enslaved indentured servant you spoke with. In addition to being a newly awarded Proficient Shaman, I am a Proficient as what those in your lands refer to as Gem Worker and Ruinseeker. As part of my squireship I have fought Harpies, Giants, Stone Lizards, Goblins, Morg, Goblings, Hobgoblins, Orcs, and a few lower types of undead." "Impressive, very impressive, but you told me nothing about your feelings about joining us." "Leader Klent, to be honest I am very scared. I was told there are students and acquaintances of Premier Kandric with you, and you have even met our Premier. Until days ago I knew nothing of this Premier, but now... he is a legend, a near god, if not a god! For you know and have met the killer of King Blathamort, slayer of Cyronia, demon lord second to only Inaxia within the realm of ice, assassin of a Great Green female Dragon, destroyer of a known Green True Dragon... His feats match or even surpass Rovnar! How can someone of such low stature as me, a mere merchant caste Alphar, apprenticed to a border guard lieutenant as a squire, ever properly serve someone who knows our Premier?" Klent looked over at Rylop, even as the others in the tent stood with jaws hanging open, "Um, Guardsman, did you know any of this?" "Um, we all hear what him said when he show up and me heard he killed a demon er two. Some a us be with him when him kill one er two more before we went inta Bloody Rock... And the Black Dragonling say him kill his king... Me guess him kill somehin' big down in Bloody Rock, but um, no..." Klent blinked and looked back down at the Alphar, "You are sure about everything you just said?" "Yes! This army is his. His actions forced the great Garm and Alphar nations to ally with the Silver, Blue, and even Red Dragons. Premier Kandric brought in the Illorcs. His actions have forced the Pantherlings, Black Rapids, and even the Hawklings of Falcon Loft to join, and forged a truce with half the Black Dragon Homeland, to gather the support of Prince Bandurlok under the great banner of this alliance." Lidevar shrugged, "Sure explains him walkin' through them holdin da kids. But, kid, ya gots nothin to be scared of. We ain't tryin' ta pick no fight with Demons 'er Dragons. Just huntin' bandits and tryin' ta find some more kiddos lost out in this here wood." Klent pointed over at Lidevar, "Exactly what Lid just said. As for where you want to bunk down, pick a spot. You're here to provide some teaching in dealing with nobles and royals, more for the kids, but all of us can benefit. At the same time, you're here to learn some of the realms outside your lands so you can take back knowledge to your peoples what to expect out here." "Such is what Baron Foxhunter told me. He even handed me a couple of pouches of crude coin I have no knowledge of." For emphasis Ulavee held up two pouches, both of which looked pretty full. Garvol moved up, "Spread 'em out and us can get started helpin' ya." Before more could be said, a Blue Dragonling entered the tent escorting Jory, Pulon and Lyrod. All three were very clean, had received haircuts and teeth cleanings. They all wore brand new equipment, much of it identical to each other, but couldn't have looked more different than one another. Jory wore no armor, but carried a very nice pack complete with a very nice Healthman kit, in addition, the outer part of the pack held a light crossbow, and a quiver of bolts attached with easy to pull straps. He had on warm clothing designed for a Sect Warrior to fight in and they were reversable, so he currently had off white, but could flip them around to have a muted black. He also carried a book pouch which held a much larger book than he had before being taken for cleaning and equipping. Rounding out his new look, Jory had on a silver headband with a lightly radiant moonstone in the front center and an amulet around his neck with glowing jade spider in the middle of a web. The belt clasp holding his weapons also had a lightly shimmering onyx stone. On his right hip was a new barb with a Blue Steel tip. A Silver Steel hip sword rested on the other hip, and his right boot had Dwarven Steel Dagger of Light. Finally his left ring finger held a silver ring with a lightly glowing orange gemstone. Pulon had a more combat oriented pack, but it included a duplicate of the crossbow and quarrel. He wore Dwarven Steel scale mail, and clutched an Elvin Steel round shield. For weapons, the teen carried a Blue Steel flail with runes etched on the head, a Silver Steel hip sword, and his boot held a Dwarven Steel Dagger of Light. The young Animal Adept also sported the same ring and headband as Jory. Finally, his Giant Raccoon, Pouncer, had a new collar with a glowing jade stone set into it. Lyrod had the same headband, Dagger of Light, and pack with crossbow and quarrel as the other two boys, but all similarities ended there. Lyrod had on extremely nice reinforced leather armor with runes etched into the breast plates, had Blue Steel forearm guards, and wore Blue Steel spiked gauntlets with runes running down them. On the left wrist between the gauntlet and the forearm guard, he had a bracelet with a glowing stone that looked the same as Pulon's and Jory's rings. Finally, his weapon belt held a Blue Steel combat pick and a Silver Steel hip sword. Seeing all the men stare at the boys, the Dragonling seemed to frown, "I detect a problem, gentlemen. I believe all three youth I am bringing back to you are quite happy with their new gear. Did we overlook an item or two?" Klent had to cough to find his voice, "Not at all good Dragonling! Um, no, they look..." Rylop managed to speak up, "Deadly..." Lidevar moved up to Lyrod and stroked the boy's hair, causing the teen to flinch, but not pull away. Lidevar put his arm over the boy's shoulders and gripped it firmly, "Smile, boy, yer a real pretty one now..." "Yea, and they all be stinkin' rich!" Garvol managed to gasp out. The Dragonling glanced over at Lidevar and Lyrod, but just as quickly dismissed the overt nature of man's advances since the boy said nothing and made no attempt to pull away. Instead, he snorted, "Your younger four will be here momentarily. I hope you find all to be equipped to your liking. Your gear, particularly weaponssss, will take a few more hours." Before the Dragonling left, yet another Dragonling, this one Red, entered with the younger four. All had headbands, Daggers of Light, and glowing rings. One look was all it took to see Gapon and Tayac, as actual students of Kandric, had been provided a few extras including better armor and an extra magic weapon each, but all had a primary magical weapon and looked stunning. The Red Dragonling looked straight at Rylop, "I was informed you are in command of the younger four. Look them over and let me know if we failed to provide anything." Rylop blinked a few times, "Them look better equipped than most guard captains me seen! What more could ya have givin' 'em?" "Not having worked with many non-Dragonkind, I cannot reply with any helpful knowledge. However, I believe they all appear well battle-ready." Klent spoke up, "Very much so, and it is beyond what we feel should be..." The Red Dragonling waved off the rest, "Good Leader, Premier Kandric not only killed a Great Green Female, but granted Red Dragonkind a homeland for the initial time ssssince late into the time of the Great Dragon War. I guarantee you, all of you, your equipment will be good. If you find any fault, you need but come to any Red Dragonkind, and the problem will be rectified. Now I was ordered to take you to the main tent." It gestured toward the tent flap. This time they were taken to the central tent, which was guarded by large Dragons. The second Klent stepped inside, he couldn't help but blink, for this was by far the nicest and best equipped tent he had ever seen. The furnishings were more for a mansion than a tent and beings with obvious great power and wealth mulled around enjoying softly strummed harp music and fine food and drink. Other than giving Klent and those with him a raised eyebrow, the vast majority totally ignored them. He quickly made his way over to the youngsters from his group, all of whom were eyeing a table heaped with extremely expensive wild meats, cheeses, wines, fruit juices, and at least a score of items Klent couldn't identify. "Boys each take a plate, put on it only what you will eat, and let one of the servers pour you a drink. Stick with what you know, because in a setting like this, discarding food because you don't like it may be frowned upon by whoever cooked it. And while I don't know the crests in here, my bet is, judging on what we saw on the lower Garm and Alphar nobles, we are among not just nobles, but real royalty." He made sure all of them were looking at him as he added, "Angering a royal cook... just don't do it. If you happen to take something you detest, eat it and find something you like to get the flavor out of your mouth. Cause the very last thing I want to have to do is have to make excuses for any of you, and I can guarantee, if I have to, your next few days will be as miserable as Lidevar, Immeck, Garvol and I can make them." Klent paused, leaned close and inhaled over a large silver tray and nodded at the black lumps on it, "However, I would strongly recommend you each take a couple of those before there is none left." Jory looked down at the plate and whispered, "Looks like globs of some kind of animal crap, Klent." Klent glanced around nervously, then quickly let out a sigh of relief as he noticed no one was paying them any sort of attention. "Careful what you say in here Jory. If you want to talk about any of the food, do so after we are allowed out of this tent. But I'm telling you, all of you, those are... just forget about what they look like. It doesn't matter. What they are is about fifteen silver apiece and something you will never find in any sweet shop outside of the highest merchant and noble parts of the biggest cities." For emphasis he moved over to the plate, took a small wood skewer stick out of a silver bowl next to the lumps and stabbed one. He put it up to his nose, took a deep sniff, and smiled as if he was about to have sex. He then, stuck the glob in his mouth, closed his lips and pulled the stick out very slowly, as not to waste anything left on it. All the kids eyed Klent for several seconds waiting for any hint of whatever he had just stuck in his mouth being nasty, but all they saw was a look of bliss. Tayac finally shrugged, stuck one with a stick and sniffed it. "Smells sweet, but... not like a sweet stick or roll." Next to Tayac, Gapon also stuck one, but didn't bother to smell it. "Here goes nothin'." The second it hit his tongue, Gapon's shoulders dropped and he let out a sigh of pure pleasure, "Oh, for the love of Golan... wow..." He then had to wipe at the corner of his mouth where some of it started to dribble out as it melted. He let none go to waste, quickly pushing it back into his mouth and licking his fingertip. As soon as the others each had one in his mouth, Klent snorted at the looks of joy plastered on all seven of them. "No more than two or three, boys. I mean it. The tray probably has close to a thousand silver worth of on it, and eating them all will certainly get me in more trouble and debt than I care to fathom." Shothash spoke in awe as he stared at the tray while licking his lips, "What are they?" A Garm youngster wearing very nice Blue Steel armor and a cloak with a royal crest on each shoulder, came up, grabbed a stick and quickly stuck two before backing off and holding them up, "These?" Shothash nodded, "Uh huh, those... um, sir, lord, um..." The young Garm held up the sick, "These are chocolates with whipped wildberry filling. As for who I am, I am Kyble, son of Count Iron Gauntlet. Almost all Garm and most Alphar take a more fitting name when they finally are given a royal title, and I am not even Training Echelon, let alone Proficient Echelon, so there is no need to address me as anything other than Prefect, young master, or even young lord. However, worry not what you call me, for Baronet Waraxe told me you all know our Premier, and are known by him, as in he actually knows your names!" Shothash shook his head, "Me, not really. The Premier only knows me in passing, and I have talked to Premier Kandric a few times." Shothash used a hand gesture, in Tayac's and Gapon's direction, "Those two are students of the Premier, though... So, um, Prefect Kyble, um, how do they get the berry in the middle of this... this, um, treat?" Kyble shrugged, "Chocolate is more than a treat and unless there is a royal banquet or something like this, it is almost never filled, so I do not know. All I can tell you is the plant used to mix with milk to make the chocolate comes from the jungle or something." His eyes glinted, "If you will tell me more of our Premier, I can get Father to give each of you a pouch with hunks of chocolate and could probably sneak a small tray of those into your tent tonight." Duke Mathard overheard the comment and made his way over to the table, "Kyble, my sly little sneak, you would not be trying to bribe these boys for stories of our Premier, would you?" Kyble looked up without batting an eyelash, "I most certainly am, Duke Mathard." Mathard patted the boy hard on the back hard while letting out a booming laugh, "Ah, honesty is such a fine trait! After this meeting, stick with these youngsters, help them finalize getting cleaned and equipped, and I will have my chef whip up a tray for the eight of you with more of these along with some other delights for youthful tongues. "In the meantime, I expect you to take advantage of being around those from outside our lands. I am sure they could teach you far more than you could teach them." Mathard then looked at the boys who were all staring at him, "Technically the filled chocolates are desserts, so please save some for the others. When the time comes, Kyble will be more than happy to direct your lust-filled mouths back for more." He paused for a moment, "But I can see in your eyes a longing for more, so take another one or two each. But I expect you all to partake of some Dagger Boar, Sword Deer, Viper Bear, or other meat along with a healthy amount of roots and gravy. All of you look to be in need of a real meal, not one of nothing but sweets." Klent took a knee, "Lord Duke, I will assure you, my charges will partake of a hearty meal and not over-feast on dessert." "I am sure you will try young scout," Mathard snickered, "but you are looking at a man who has four boys and two girls. I have seen the looks in children exactly the same I am gazing upon in the eyes of the lads staring at my table. Their eyes, and even drool, are telling me there is a better than even chance all will be somewhat sick by first light, and I would hope you would let them be boys for a night with my eldest third nephew." Klent gave a deeper drop of his head, "As you wish, lord Duke." "Young scout, do not see my words as a command, and you have given and shown me more than enough deference. Please feel free to stand. From what Baron Foxhunter told me, they are part of your scouting group, and you are their commander. All I ask is you find it within to glance in a different direction once in a while and let them be boys. After all, they have a lifetime of being adults ahead of them." Klent refused to look up, "I fully agree lord Duke." "Good, now enjoy and do not see yourself as not belonging here. You were invited into this tent because you have knowledge of our young Premier, and may have insights we do not." He then motioned for a young Garm to came over. He took a small sack out of the lad's hand and pushed it into Klent's hands. "I have always found gemstones easier to carry than large quantity of coin; thus, inside you will find pouches of gems. The one with the red strap is yours, the green for the guardsman of Premier Kandric's home, the black for the adults and the brown for the youth. This is your payment for the two you brought into our camp." The moment Duke Mathard moved past, taking a moment to get the names of everyone in Klent's group including the boys, Klent let out a giant sigh of relief. Even as he made sure everyone got one of the pouches, then verified every boy got a plate heaped with fine hearty food, the conference started. He kept everyone in his group close and whispered for them to say as little as possible and not attract attention to themselves. Fortunately, a young swordsman from Klorna's group spoke up before any of those with Klent could do more than answer questions directed at them. Duke Mathard's firm handling of the young Swordsman was more than enough to make even Gapon and Tayac hold their tongues unless asked a direct query. Even then, they kept their answers short and made it clear they were in awe of Kandric, making them of limited use to what Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia seemed to be wanting. On the other hand, hearing more of Kandric's history, exploits and recent victories left Klent and those with him near speechless. Hearing Frexla had come back, into the mortal realm, and seemed to be wanting a confrontation with Kandric, only added to the fear and respect they had for a boy most had only exchanged brief words with. For in their eyes, if a Demon Lord knew of Kandric by name and was either jealous, spiteful, or even fearful of him... Well, flatly speaking, this put the lad on the playing field of the gods. Well before the meeting broke up because of the felt death of a Warrior Dragon, followed by the incredible explosion of power from Weraweld's death, Kyble had the kids collect a large quantity of sweets and escorted them back to one of the outfitter's tents. As soon as many of the highest nobles jumped on various mounts and even Dragons, the Red Dragonling reappeared and escorted the adults back to the nice tent they had been in earlier. He then made it a point to station a pair of Warrior Dragon guards to keep them well protected so they could get a good night's rest while the boys feasted on over a thousand silver worth of fine exotic treats and talked of Kandric in a nearby, even more heavily guarded, tent. As Klent finally dozed off, an image of the boy from the Ghoul Drool entered his dreams. As this happened, a voice whispered to him. "When given the chance, go see what the lower mortal realms may soon have to deal with. Take with you the stories you witness and move southeast toward Rolling Dale, but do not cross the river. Leave the walled village for those who are ready to face the horrors within. Instead, look for the ruins of the village next to the broken bridge and prepare for battle. You still have a chance to find who you long for." Quavis' smiling face became extremely vivid for a moment. As it faded, the voice resumed. "Given the chance, render aid in the in the village and take those you help to the old fortress upstream, but again do not cross the river. Now sleep, for the next couple of days will change, for better or worse, everything you know..." the voice faded as if carried off by a wind, but every word stuck in Klent's mind. Before dawn, Baron Foxhunter entered the tent, "Scout Leader of our Premier, a word please." Klent sat up, realized who was talking, and jumped out from his bedroll, all but tossing the slave boy off to the side as he did so. Not caring about being nude, Klent went into a bow, "Good Baron, what can I do for you?" "The smiths have finalized your weapons and armor, and we have a couple of smiths standing by to make sure everything is acceptable to and for you. In addition, Duke Mathard wanted to know if you and the youth with you would like to see a combined Alphar Garm action against a White Dragon encampment?" Immeck sat up, "Yer gunna be fightin' Dragons?" "Yes, Warrior, we will be engaging a few White Warrior Dragons and a significant number of White Dragonlings shortly. Duke Mathard seemed to think the younger ones with you have a strong adventurous streak and may want to see elite formations of Garm and Alphar in action." Baronet Waraxe entered, "Regardless, it has been requested, but not ordered, by Princess Syrissia and Duke Mathard to see you fully prepared to resume your scouting mission whenever you wish to do so. Doing so now would be advantageous to us and you would be better organized to defend yourselves either here or out with us. We are by no means reneging on our promise to protect you all. However, please consider, most of those in this camp are heading into battle, and those laden with wounded are sure to be flow back here. Because of this, we would like to finalize your outfitting, so all our smiths will be available to repair arms, armor and other equipment." Klent looked up as the words of the whispering voice reentered his mind, "We will get dressed and be ready for your smiths shortly. We will accompany you so the boys can see a Dragon battle. But let me make this very clear, there isn't any way me or my group are going to jump in on anything but a Dragonling, maybe two, if really pressed!" Waraxe snickered, "Nothing to be ashamed of, Scout Leader, for neither Baron Foxhunter nor myself have any such inclination to combat a Dragon unless we absolutely have to do so to try to save our own skin." He then turned, stuck his head out of the tent flap and clapped his hands loudly. Seconds later a large entourage entered carrying armor, weapons, and finished clothing. It surprised all the men when each one of them was surrounded by three servants while a smith looked on. Within a couple of minutes all were fully dressed in brand new everything, while the smith assigned to each helped with small adjustments. Klent, being a Sect Warrior didn't get armor like the others, instead the smith handed him several items while telling him what they did, "This necklace with the pouncing cat will provide you with some light armor protection. This ring with the tiger's eye will give you a magical shield, so wear it on your shield hand. The headband is the same as we gave all the boys, it is a helm band and will protect your head as if you had a light helm. This other ring is also the same as we have for all your other team members. It is to protect you from the cold. It will not save you from a White Dragon breath, but will reduce the damage. Finally we have a satchel of a few potions for you. The red ones are fire burst, and the blue-green ones will heal most hard hits or even broken bones, but they have limitations and never use more than one per day, preferably no more than one every other day." The smith quickly moved on the weapons. "Your boot knife is a Garm made Dagger of Light. It is only gem magic and you can control the light by twisting the handle. We have found many of the lower races, um, those who don't have any kind of dark vision, really like them. Because of this, our people sell thousands a year outside our realm for a huge profit. We were able to come up with some magical Panther Sect Warrior claws off one of our students and our master smith was able to resize them to your hands. We will make the girl another set when time permits." Klent slid them on and let out a light whistle as they fit to perfection and were amazingly light given the fact there were made from Blue Steel. The Garm smith smiled at Klent's reaction, "I am glad you are pleased. I know out of all the work done in the forge over the last several hours the claws were the most difficult to rework and size." The Garm handed over the flail next, "Silver Steel, also with a light enchantment. Please check your grip and give it a few swings." Klent accepted the weapon and backed off a couple of steps. Before he even took a swing he was astonished at how well it fit his hand. A few swings only confirmed his initial take. The grip was made for him and him alone. "This is amazing! I have never held such a comfortable weapon!" The Garm said nothing, but did smile. He then reached back and held out the bastard sword. The weapon was also Silver Steel, but even though in near perfect condition, Klent could tell it had some age on it. However, his hand found the grip just as good, and when he changed over to a two-hand attack style, nothing was lost. If anything he found the double-hand grip even better. "I... the weapons with the odd handles, when the boy had me squeeze them... It allowed you to make these handles?" "Remake yes," the Garm stated with a degree of pride. "Almost all weapons made in Garm and Alphar lands are made for the owner, including non-magical weapons. We did not do this for the youth traveling with you since their hands and bodies need to fully develop, but once one becomes an adult, next to all have custom-made grips. Should they still desire to carry the weapons we provided them, they need but come to our lands when they are fully developed and we will rework the handles for them." Off to the side Rylop tested the grip on his new Blue Steel battleaxe, "Are ya tellin' me ya done this in one night?" "The weapons were already forged, Guardsman of Premier Kandric's home. We just took the impressions off the handles you set your grip in and worked what you now carry to give you the best and most comfortable handholds we could. Each weapon required a seasoned smith and two apprentices to do the work this quickly. However, I assure you, they were checked and strength and perfection verified by one of our master smiths before we were allowed to hand them over. You have nothing to worry about." "I ain't worried about 'em none. I'm just stunned ya all had this much magic around and could do this good a work so damned fast!" The smith in front of Klent grinned before he nodded in the direction of the bastard sword, "Most of the enchanted arms and armor we provided your group are new, however, Duke Mathard wanted to make sure, you, as the leader, had something a little more exceptional. The blade you have dates back to a time well before you were born. The enchantment comes from the forges deep within Premier Kandric's royal line. It is a Ghosthunter. It will do damage to any undead, including Ghosts, Specters, Wraiths, Banshees and even Vampires in their diffuse forms. In addition, it will protect you from undead draining you as long as you are holding it. Just having it over your back will not give you this added benefit, it needs to be in your hand." An Alphar smith gestured toward the flail in Rylop's hands, "You, Guardsman of Slome, are holding the other weapon to come directly out of our Premier's ancestral home. The flail will give an extra burst of extreme heat when you hit and expend some of your Force. We will show you how to tap into your magic and channel it properly once outside the tent. Keep in mind, this means it has limited uses a day with the extra damage, but should you encounter a White Dragonling, other cold based creatures, or undead, the damage will be greatly magnified when you utilize it. While it is not a Ghosthunter, it is quite a devastating weapon. We have provided two other Griffin Spire forged weapons to the two students of our Premier. We hope this will prove our loyalty and support to our Premier and you all as well." Garvol looked over to the runes etched into the Silver Steel longsword he had been given, "So ya tellin' us, we all gots a magic weapon? Even the boys?" The Garm smith looked almost insulted, "Of Course! We cannot allow a scouting group of our Premier to be under or ill-equipped. However, your leader, your second," the Garm nodded toward Lidevar, "the Guardsman of Premier Kandric's landholding," he gestured toward Rylop, "and our Premier's two students were given a bit more, but such is to be expected of leaders and direct associates of our Premier." The Alphar smith in front of Lidevar glanced around the tent. "It looks like you are all properly operational. As part of this the crossbow bolts we provided you are lightly charmed as well. Should they break, the enchantment will be lost, but are reusable should you be able to recover them. Now, before we prepare for the coming clash with the White Dragon encampment, we need to make sure you all satisfied with your outfitting and if you would like any of the belongings you entered this camp with returned to you?" While all the others shook their heads, Immeck spoke up, "Me'd kind-a like me old boot knife. It not be nothin' like any a this, but me make me first kill with it." Rylop also spoke, "The dagger me had be light magic, but it's been passed own down fer longer than me know." The Alphar pointed to one of the servants and gave the girl a hard nod. As the girl sprinted out, the Alphar smith spoke again, "Anyone else? If not, there is enough leather and metal there to make a few items for slaves and low servants." Klent could see the others found this insulting, so he spoke up, "I think we can all agree you have provided us everything needed to take the to fight to any enemies of Premier Kandric. We therefore surrender our other used wears for you to do whatever you feel best." "Very well," the Alphar smith stated. "I would recommend you allow your slave to get dressed. The blizzard has not broken and shows no sign of doing so. We can only guess Syria and the others are using this storm to show their displeasure at Frexla's encroachment into the mortal realms. Whatever the reason, the conditions are too harsh for someone without clothing to last very long. If you wish, we could keep him here under guard while you go out." Klent shook his head, "No, he comes with me. I am also certain Baron Foxhunter and Baronet Waraxe are correct about the boys wanting to see the great Garm and Alphar in combat against a powerful foe, so if I may enquire, how do we get out to where this battle with take place?" "We have Dragon Steeds for you all, along with saddlebags with extra food and basics. We will provide a couple of Dragons as escort and protectors for you, since both Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia want to make sure you can continue on with whatever mission our Premier assigned you. We will get you as soon as we are certain the youth are as happy with what we provided them with as you all seem to be." As soon as the group left, and Immeck's and Rylop's daggers were returned to them, Lidevar glanced over at the boy, "Ya know, Klent, him have better on, then what any a us had before we gots here, right?" Klent snickered as he helped the boy adjust a few straps on the new armor and made sure the armbands and collar were locked in place, "Yea, but he still looks better without anything on." Garvol snickered, "Me's thinking Lid feels same 'bout Lyrod." Lidevar nodded, "Yea, too bad him got to stay with them boys last night. Me's jus gettin' used to havin' someone warm to sleep with at night." "I'll make sure he is back in your tent or room going forward, Lid," Klent responded. "But I'd kind of like you to find someone else, even a slave or someone you pay, so you can give the kid a break once in a while. Oh and let's make sure all of us keep our hands off Ulavee. Gorgeous or not, he's in the family line of Alphar nobles." "As much as me'd like ta, me know better!" Lidevar snorted. "As for Lyrod, once him prove ta be worth half a what ya give him, before we gots all this, I'll cut him some slack." "Sounds good. Now let's get ready to go see a battle." "Why not jus' go and ferget about it?" Immeck stated with some trepidation. Klent found it had not to argue with his buddy, and he couldn't help but notice all the others nodding heads. However, the face of Quavis flashed into his head. This allowed him to come up with a very plausible reason he wanted to watch the battle. "Cause, guys, if some of the Dragons escape, I want to know what direction not to go." Rylop raised an eyebrow, "OK, yup, me say he gots us all there!" Garvol let out a long breath, "Yea, and why he's the big boss!" The others mulled it over for a few seconds before nodding in agreement. ****** Kandric moved into the woods flanked by multiple Warrior Dragons. To his left three, one-hundred-man formations of Garm and Alphar, led by a Garm commander spread out to envelop one flank of the camp, while a similar number of Alphar and Garm, led by an Alphar commander, did the same on the right. Directly in front of Kandric four more units of a hundred Alphar and Garm combined units hunkered down and waited. Within these formations, those about to do battle seemed to intermix randomly, yet Kandric could tell by the way they all moved it was well orchestrated and extremely precise. He was also surprised to find Duke Mathard leading one of the groups while Princess Syrissia took command of the other. At first he wanted to get closer to see better, but as if the weather knew what he wanted, the snow lessened enough for him and those with him to get a good view. He glanced over to look at Glaster, "What are they doing, Master?" "I am your master no longer Premier. As for what they are doing, I have no idea." Glaster glanced over to Vondum, "You were an officer in the Black Dragon Homeland. What is your take on this attack strategy?" "To be honest, to me it looks suicidal. Carefully planned, but suicidal nonetheless. If there are really multiple White Warriors in front of them, the forward ranks of Alphar and Garm shieldmen will be wiped out with breath and phlegm balls and leave the trio of Garm carrying whatever those massive crossbow-like weapons, along with the Alphar with the strangely hooked shovel-like tools totally exposed. The Alphar bowmen are too far back for any arrow, even magical, to do much if anything to Dragon scales, let alone in wind such as this." San’i-sar glanced over, "While I concur, General Vondum, I know for a fact no Dragon, even True or Great, willingly venture into the heart of the Deathland Range. Any who do, never return. Therefore, while I find the formation in front to be idiotic, my gut expectssss to behold a terror to Dragonkind unlike anything we know of." Off to Kandric's right Seldnat took a knee in the deep snow and shook his head, "Me say dis be waste a time. Us should go in der and gets us some stuff ta make lizard jackets and give 'em to all our Slome school buddies them be holdin'!" Ornam glanced down, "Young Halforc, refrain from calling Dragonkind lizardssss if you would. While you have proven to be a more than able friend of our Premier, and therefore a foe of Dragonkind, I am not, and never will be, a lizard." "Sorry," Seldnat grumbled, but quickly added, "but me still wanna go gunch one a 'em!" San’i-sar looked up and rolled his eyes. "Your lack of fear of our kind will end up getting you killed young knight." "If'n me gets ta gunch one a dem who hurt Teach'r Saslara er me Slome buddies, me dyin' be worth it!" Baz'eve snorted, "I fully know why Premier Kandric knighted you, young Halforc. You are definitely cut from the mold of a rare fabric even the godssss need admire. However, to want to fight a Warrior Dragon the way you do, makesss me believe you are a little... mad..." "Jus' a little?" Seldnat snickered. "Me needs ta do better den!" At this Zeltoss, Lorthorn, Jamon, and Pike all giggled while Lacate shook his head and kicked at the snow. Kandric reached over and lightly punched Seldnat's shoulder, "You know, you helped me take down King Blathamort, the Great Green, and were key on taking out Prince Weraweld. You really do not need to actually kill one." "Till me gunch one without ya, me just be helper." Kandric let out a long breath, "Well, sooner or later, you will get a chance." "Hopeful it be sooner!" "Well," Pike spoke up with a great deal less enthusiasm than Seldnat, "I will be more than happy to help. However, next time how about I do not get tail whipped halfway across a lake?" "It'd been fun if'n it no hurts so bad," Seldnat grunted out with a big grin. "First time me fly!" Ornam openly laughed, "Good young knight. The next time you yearn to fly, one of our kind can take you, or, if you prefer, find you a Griffin, Great Eagle, Giant Bat, or another flying creature large enough to take you aloft." "Lots less painful, but me no need wings when me and Pike got tail smacked. If'n ya can gets us ta fly without needin' no wing thing ta takes us inta the sky, it be gooder!" San’i-sar covered his mouth muzzle with his left front claw and shook his head. "Young knight, I will find you a pack full of flight potionsssss rather than allow you to be nearly killed by a tail pounding again. You are too valuable to our Premier to allow you to be battered and wounded from a longing to fly at any cost." "It no kill me da first time, so me bets me could do it again," Seldnat stated with a smile, knowing the comment would cause all those around him to shake their heads. He was not disappointed. However, before more could be said, Duke Mathard glanced around, verified everyone was where he wanted them and pulled up a huge conch shell and spoke into it. The shell proved to be highly magical as it amplified his voice many fold, "Warriors of the White Dragon Homeland. You are ordered to surrender all captives and fully capitulate to the forces of Premier Kandric or face annihilation!" Less than a minute later a pair of Warrior Dragons stepped into view even as over a score of White Dragonlings formed up in a line behind them and moved forward. A third Warrior spoke from behind the others, "How dare you puny bagssss of warm sssskin demand anything from the White Dragon Homeland?" "The same bags of warm skin that destroyed your last several incursions into the heart of my lands and the Deathland Mountains to the south, Dragonette!" Mathard retorted. "However, I will not mind another Dragon Skull chair or three for my youngest children to sit on when we dine on White Dragon breast steak again." Kandric raised an eyebrow as the Dragons around him leaned back and even cringed at the words. "Wow, so much for diplomacy." Vondum chuckled, "Yea, pretty much bypassed all niceties. Now I know why you like him so much Premier!" Vondum then glanced over at San’i-sar, "You ready?" "Always." Ornam glanced over, "May I take Conth, General Vondum?" "If he dies you owe me double what I was going to let you pay for him, for I have not bedded him yet, and he is not for sale until I get my fill of him!" "Bargained and agreed," Ornam responded, then turned to another Black Warrior Dragon, "IF, big if, but if I and the boy fall, make it known General Vondum will obtain everything I own." It then turned to look down at Conth, "Get on future Dragon Rider. It be time for you to undergo your first Dragon Combat!" Conth got an assist with Ornam using his tail and wing. The Dragon then looked at Kandric and spoke in Dragon, "Permission to leave your side, Premier?" "Go, but remember my students are priority. If any die, let none escape and make it as painful a death as possible!" Ornam gave a single nod before launching into the dark grey stormy sky. Kandric glanced over at Vondum, "General, I know the last place you want to be is sitting back here and I do not really need your protection." Vondum ginned widely, patted Kandric on the shoulder and jumped up onto San’i-sar with the aid of the Dragon's wing. Moments later Kandric had to turn his head to prevent getting blasted with a wave of air as the Silver Dragon jumped and flapped its wings to quickly get airborne. Seeing Kandric draw his Frozen Flame blade and start walking down the hill, Glaster spoke up, "Premier, I believe you promised Duke Mathard you would stand back and watch his and Princess Syrissia's forces at work." "No, Master, I told him I would stay back while they took the fight to the Whites. I said nothing about standing, nor did I promise to stay totally out of the fight. I am giving Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia rights of first engagement and will not interfere with their formations." He then shot Glaster an impish grin, "Besides, the closer I get, the better I will be able to see." "Yea!" Seldnat pumped his fist. "Maybe me gets ta gunch a Dragon this way too!" Glaster shook his head, "Alright, fine, but can you at least order good protection for those traveling with me along with my wagons?" Kandric glanced at the other Dragons. "I am more than sure my Master and teacher will be able to protect me, so please make sure those my Master travels with, along with his goods, are protected. Also double the protection of the Drow. I still do not fully trust the Alphar when it comes to him." Getting a nod from Baz'eve, he shoved Lacate over toward the others. "You stay here as well. You just got healed and clean, which is the way I want you when I get back." Slightly behind Kandric and those with him, Ulavee glanced over to those around Klent and the Dragons guarding them. "Is this not awesome? I have always wanted to see the Dragon Legions at work and now it appears we will get to see our Premier in battle as well!" Jory scratched at his chin as he watched Kandric move forward followed by the kids he had been with and the Shaman who had bedded him in Rolling Dale, while the Dragons moved to carefully guards those the Shaman had been traveling with. "I'm kind of hoping we get to see the Master Shaman fight, but yea, I'd kind'a like ta see the Premier kid fight again!" Below the lines of Dragonlings advanced past the Warrior Dragons and started to close on the front ranks of Garm and Alphar. Mathard spoke into the shell again, "Last chance to live to see the moon rise over this land again." The furthest back Dragon snorted, "Your armor and weaponssss will decorate my home, Dwarf!" Syrissia raised her hand, "He is a Garm duke, and you just ended your chance to see your home again!" An instant later she clenched her fist and made a wide arch with it over her head. Before the advancing ranks of White Dragonlings could even blink, the clouds directly above them pulsated with greenish waves of energy and dozens of bolts of lightning ripped downward. At the same time the Garm shieldmen all brought up crossbows and fired. Their bolts proved to be the same as were given to the boys. Each broke into several and skewered the lead rank of Dragonlings at almost the same instant as the lighting ripped into the formation from above. Within seconds there was not a single Dragonling left standing on the front line. The two lead Dragons reacted. They both took in a huge quantity of air and exhaled. However, before their breaths were even out of their mouths the lines of Alphar shieldmen moved forward, slammed their large shields down in front of the exposed Garm and touched torches to the front of their shields. All the shields seemed to burst into flame. The waves of arctic cold breath washed over the shields, putting a few out, but most flickered and flames quickly spread out over the shields again. At this point the Dragons realized they had badly underestimated their foes. All three extended their wings and jumped to get airborne. Mathard raised the shell and shouted into it, "Harpoons!" With the command given, the three-man crews of Garm all reacted the exact same. One of the three tossed a spiked chain around the nearest tree while the other two dropped into the snow. The two then seemed to become one, as the stronger put his feet on the shoulders of the other. The one with his feet free raised his legs to point the massive crossbow-like contraption up, while the other used gauntleted hands and his entire body to pull the massive Dwarven Steel cable back. The one with the bow part on his feet, then moved his legs, took aim, and shouted, "Fire!" At this point the Garm with his feet on the shoulders of the other released the cable holding the massive spiked bolt. Two score of oddly-shaped bastillia bolts, attached to a coils of chain, launched into the sky. A few bounced off scales, but the vast majority ripped into and through the extended wings of the three Dragons. As soon as the huge barbed bolts punched through the White Dragons' wings, the third Garm reached over and pulled on a small trailing wire attached to the tip. Once pulled, the heads spread out forming eight, one meter long hooks that slammed into the upper parts of the wings and were buried deeper because the Dragons were all trying to gain altitude. All three Dragons screamed in agony as their wings were punctured in multiple locations. Then, as they tried to pull free, they found the spiked chains leading down had dug into the trees preventing them from flapping wings. All three slammed back into the ground less than thirty seconds after trying to take to the sky. At this point the Alphar with the strange hook and shovel-like spears raced forward. Each shoved his or her weapon under a large scale. The shovel end slipped under the scales and the hook set it in place. The Alphar then used the long poles for leverage and yanked back toward the Dragons' heads. Dozens of scales were ripped off each of the Dragons causing all to shriek and wail in agony. With the scales removed, the Alphar abandoned their descalers and moved back behind the line of Garm shieldmen who had all dropped their crossbows and had shields ready. The badly wounded and secured to trees Dragons all hacked up balls of phlegm and launched them at the fleeing Alphar. But yet again, the ranks proved to be ready. The Garm shieldmen slammed their shields together showing countless hours of practice. The edges of the shield proved to be grooved so the shields locked together into a huge and much stronger wall of Dwarven Blue Steel. The frozen balls of spit and snot slammed into the shield walls with deafening clangs. A few shields were dented and the Garm who had arms right under the point of impact felt their bones snap, but otherwise the balls shattered lacerating a few of the Alphar with bits of frozen nastiness, but killing no one. Princess Syrissia extended two fingers and sent a bright yellow flair into the air. With the signal given, the Alphar bowman, who everyone thought were too far back to do much to scaled Dragonlings, let alone Dragons, raised their bows. As they pulled back on their bow strings, the carved in snakes that coiled down the bows from the top and bottom, to where the heads pointed forward right above and below the arrow release point shimmered. An instant later the ruby gems in the eyes of the snake heads lit up and sent beams of light out from the bows. Each of the archers moved the light beams to a spot on a Dragon where a scale had been ripped off, steadied their aim, and fired. Sixty arrows were fired and sixty slammed into the unprotected spots on the three Dragons. Each arrow then exploded in a blast of fire after it punched through the unprotected hide. All three Dragons fell gravely wounded. Duke Mathard made an overhead motion with his right hand even as he moved up on the closest dying Dragon and slammed his Lava Hammer down on the skull, caving it in. "Wounded fall back to the Alphar Archers and get aid! The rest of you, their front lines are shattered and the camp is open to assault! Reform and advance." Baz'eve blinked a few times before swallowing a bit of bile. He then looked over to one of the Red Dragonlings helping him protect those Kandric had tasked them with and spoke in Dragon. "No way am I ever going to the Deathland Mountains!" Pangam shuddered, "It is all theirs, and not a place I wish to take a vacation in, even if invited!" ***** All around Klent, the kids cheered and shouted in glee and astonishment while the adults sat on their Dragon Steeds with jaws hanging open. Lidevar edged his mount close to Klent while whispering, "Ya know, there ain't no way none a us are gunna tell the Alphar boy ta do nothin' after seein' this, right?" Klent watched blood pour from the wounds left by the exploding arrows while shaking his head. "I'll ask Ulavee to pull his fair share, but, yeah... If he tells me no, I'm just going to walk away and pretend I never asked him. There ain't no way I am pissing off a single one of those Dragon Hunters down there, no way in this life or any other." Klent did manage a slight grin as he added, "But I'm thinking we could remind the boys what they saw here whenever they start slide on any of the studies Ulavee was loaned to us to teach them." "Yea," Lidevar sighed, "but if him tells me to join in, I ain't gunna argue and I can't read hardly nothin', and I know Immeck don't know nothin' about readin' and writin'." Klent snorted, "Then he'll learn or risk having Ulavee tell some of his buddies down there about setting a bad example to the kids." Lidevar trembled slightly, "Not gunna happen. Immeck be brave but he ain't stupid. And angerin' one of them, let alone lots a them, ain't brave, it'd be plain dumb!" "Then I guess we'll all take some time around a campfire or twenty to get a bit of book learning drummed into us by a mere pup and smile about it no matter what we really think!" ****** Just down the hill, Seldnat paused and whistled at the amazing dance of death and destruction being dished out by the Alphar and Garm. He then glanced over at Kandric "OK, me's gunna gives da duke some kind'a thanks. Dis be more awesomer ta watch den me ever think... Still, be more funner ta be down there gunchin' some them 'stead a being back here watchin'." Lorthorn shook his head, "Seld, say what you want, but if this does not put the fear of the Garm and Alphar into you, nothing will. I've never seen anything like this. And yea, it be pretty damned awesome." He then managed to grin, "Or as you put it, 'awesomer'!" Zeltoss cringed as the exploding fire arrows blasted chunks of bloody dragon hide off the sides of the Warrior Dragons but still managed to snicker at Lorthorn's comment. "Agreed, but I can't help but feel a little sorry for them Dragons. They just got scales ripped of like we do to a fish!" Pike shuddered, "The pain must be awful! But feel sorry for them, no way Zel!" Jamon couldn't help but watch with morbid fascination as the last Dragon made one last attempt to lift a wing. The weight of the harpoons through the wings, coupled with the pain proved to be too much. The wing didn't even make it fully off the ground before it fell back into the snow. The Dragon lost all hope at this point. It dropped its head and allowed itself to be finished off. "I think I would have got to the same point as those Dragons if Vondum had kept the stick over my shoulders and kept me hanging on the hooks much longer." Kandric reached over and put his arm over Jamon, "You made it all the way to his cabin when few others would have. You proved yourself to Vondum before I even got to the camp. I bet countless others did fold, just like Conth." "Yeah, and to think I used to look up to him..." "He seems to have found a measure of confidence again, so hopefully he will find a way to free himself from Vondum's grip." "It'd be nice," Jamon agreed, "but I doubt I could ever be friends with him again." "He may yet surprise us," Lorthorn stated while watching the last of the three Dragons die. "I saw the Black Dragon General Vondum seems to know well, talking to Conth and it seemed to want to buy Conth's freedom for some reason." Kandric shrugged, "From what I heard from San'i-sar, Conth finally stood up to Vondum, but I am sure he will pay for it before our general lets anyone else have him. But enough of Conth. We really need to get down there before there is nothing left. However, there is no doubt, Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia really have made this fun to watch." ***** Above the sudden carnage Ornam had to shake his head and dive toward the ground as he felt Conth slipping off. "Young rider, you are becoming perceptive to Dragon thought! Lock your mind and hold on before you fall!" "How?" Conth moaned even as he managed to grip a couple of Ornam's larger neck spines. The short time he had spent around Ornam, and the way the Black Warrior Dragon had opened his mind to the boy, had made Conth sensitive to Dragons in a way most, even the best Mindmasters, could never understand. Unfortunately, this left his mind wide open to feel the pain, desperation, misery and helplessness of all three Dragons below. Ornam steadied his flight as he felt the child on his back grab on and better secure himself. However, he could tell the youngster was close to losing his grip on his own reality, as the three Dragons below were stripped of everything they assumed, including their superiority. It was beyond what any fledgling Mindmaster should or could hope to handle on his own. "Conth, forget about what be below and pay attention to me! A Mindtalker can block a thought, feeling, or mind attack. Think of a container lid. When open, what be out, can get in. Lock it and nothing will enter. Think of your head being the container. Now think of a lid around it!" Conth had to fight to get the needed mental picture, but finally he thought of a chest, his head being in it, and closed the lid. As soon as he did so, the horrors facing the Dragons below were cut off. He gasped for breath and leaned forward to rest his head on Ornam's lower neck. "Their minds... they're gone. They... they can't even form a thought..." "Pretty much, and you came far too involved and could have joined them had I not helped pull you out," Ornam stated with some admonishment, but also with a tone of a teacher mentoring a prized student. "Their mindssss have been overwhelmed and trampled under a wave of dejection. They could not handle having been outmatched by who they up to now looked on with a great deal of contempt. Being at the total mercy of non-Dragonkind, combined with the dreadful wounding, broke them like you would a dead twig when getting kindling ready for a fire. It be no different than the mind of the sssslave boy Vondum be keeping where he took you and your brother. The boy be nothing but a body. The mind be held by Vondum and Vondum be the one holding the wire yoke to what be nothing but a puppet body. Had you not found within to fight, you would have been no different within a year or two." Conth kept his head on Ornam savoring the strength of the beast, but forced himself to ask a question, "How do you know of all of this?" Ornam glanced back. "I got much from your mind. However, I be with Vondum right after he captured the boy you think about much too often. He not be worth any thought, let alone to take time to center any concern on. The lad you dwell on wandered into our royal land and it be Vondum who captured him. The reward, in part, be the boy. The other the blade hanging over the back of Vondum and the armored forearm guard with the Jungle Raven he have on each arm." "He took those instead of his brother, right?" "Ah, you have pried into Vondum harder than I expected. Very well done!" Ornam snickered while clearly praising Conth, "To Vondum, the brother he came into the forge with died the day Vondum became what may be the preeminent enforcer to ever prowl our forge pit. More graduated in the time Vondum be an enforcer than any time before or after. However, Vondum felt nothing but rage upon seeing the younger brother he entered the forge with. For the boy be clean, wearing fine cloth, and without the body and power he found within during the time in our forge pit. The brother he became an enforcer to liberate from death, be nothing to him by the time Vondum got the offer to take him and free him. "I know, for I felt identical contempt within Vondum in the way he looked at you until you finally found a backbone, albeit with a little help from me. For by the time the offer be made to take the brother he entered the forge with, he had within a hardened heart and a deep pride of having endured the Black Dragon Homeland Training Forge. Pride go deep within, for while the greater quantity folded, Vondum excelled into becoming an officer in training. To him, taking magic over blood and family be the only option. To him the alternative was not worth a moment of time. To my knowledge he never even looked back to watch the brother he entered the forge with break down and cry. If he ever harbored any regret, I have not felt it. Nor do I believe he ever tried to find the brother in an attempt to pay to free him." Conth said nothing for several seconds. Instead he watched the advancing Alphar and Garm move by the three dying Dragons, each stopping to shove in a blade or slam an exposed area with a crushing style weapon. The former majestic creatures didn't even try to fight. Instead they resigned themselves to death. Before the last line of Garm and Alphar got to them, bursts of Dragon Deaths blossomed outward seconds from one another. As this happened, Conth glanced down into the forest and blinked, "Ornam, am I seeing stuff, or are the trees moving down there?" Ornam did a gradual turn, as his eyes picked up on what his rider had seen. It didn't take long for the Black Dragon to pick up on a large White Dragon with holes in both wings and one hanging down awkwardly. It was running up the hill away from a line of advancing Alphar and Garm, who in turn were being held back by a thin but determined line of White Dragonlings and a pair of Warrior Dragons, also with badly damaged wings. "Conth, you have very good vissssion. Now take your bow and fire down at the Dragonlingssss. The additional height will add to the power of your arrow. Now reopen your mind, for we need to enter battle asss a team!" While the boy on his back readied his bow, Ornam felt the boy think of opening the chest lid he had put his head in. The moment this happened, he linked his mind with Conth's so the two became as one. Even as Conth's first arrow streaked downward burying itself into a White Dragonling's skull, Ornam did a sharp bank, lined up parallel to the line of Dragonlings and let out a stream of acidic spit. Half a dozen Dragonlings screamed as they felt their scales and skin underneath start to melt. As Ornam banked back upwards, Conth used the knowledge of what Ornam was going to do, to easily stay on the Dragon's back and fire three more arrows, two of which hit and dropped Dragonlings struggling to fill in the sudden gap in their lines, while the third impaled one of the White Warrior Dragon's tongues as it opened its mouth in an attempt to breathe on Ornam even as the Dragon departed. The arrow caused it to twist violently and hiss in pain. This also resulted in wasting its breath weapon on nearby trees and a line of Alphar with flaming shields. Ornam fought hard to gain altitude and angled toward Vondum, while praising Conth with mind speak, "You saved both of us from certain serious injury. Well done! You are everything I hoped you would be! We shall make a great and ferocious team." He then shouted in Dragon tongue as he struggled to catch up to Vondum, "General! White Dragon, escaping up the ridge to the northwest! Looks like its wing is broken as it is grounded! Garm and Alphar are in pursuit, but are being held up by Dragonlings and a pair of Warriors with injured wings trying to hold their encampment. Conth and I opened up a small hole, but I do not think it is enough for the Garm and Alphar to easily shatter the line." "Can you go in for another pass?" "I can, however, I need time to make more acid and my wings are icing up, I am barely able to stay up as it is!" "Then land and clear your wings!" Vondum ordered. "San'i-sar, signal a couple of the others to get to our Premier. I would bet everything I am, he and Lord Glaster will want to stop the fleeing beast and find out what it knows! All other Dragons hit the back line of Whites and shatter it!" ******* A Silver Dragon answered a shout from San'i-sar and dove down to Kandric's side while the Blue Dragon it had been teamed with, tucked in its wings to gain speed and break some of the ice off its body and wings. It then leveled out above the Dragonlings and let out a stream of electrical sparks. This was followed seconds later by a stream of fire from a Red Dragon and an ear-piercing wave of sonic energy from a Silver from the opposite direction. Fifteen more White Dragonlings and the Warrior with the arrow in its tongue fell before the remnants of the White Dragon forces could turn and fire up into the sky. Both the Blue and Red took a few hits, but not enough to do more than force them to back off, land and get wounds tended to. The damage, however, was done. The line of White Dragonlings was breached. They had no choice but to consolidate around the surviving Warrior, giving up their flanks to the Garm and Alphar. This allowed the Garm and Alphar commanders leading the forces sent to attack the back of the Dragon encampment to surround the whole group. While the fighting was fierce, the Dragonlings had nowhere to go. Minutes later Mathard and Syrissia's frontal assault merged with those pounding on what was left of a formerly large White Dragon encampment. Mathard ordered the Dragon Legions forward and they quickly dropped the last Warrior Dragon with harpooners, descalers and serpent bowmen. The last Dragonlings finally tossed down weapons and brought a pair of badly battered and somewhat frostbitten kids forward. Syrissia waited until the final thirteen Dragonlings were down on their knees and shackled. She glanced at the abused children and glared. She said nothing. Instead she pointed to a pair of her guards and held up a dagger. Both guards instantly understood what she wanted. They moved forward and punctured the cold breath sacks of the captive Dragonlings. Once this was done, Alphar with their fire shields still burning moved forward. At this point the Dragonlings realized the flames rippling across the front of the shields were not magical. Instead they were kept burning from reservoirs of oil stuck between the outer metal which had scores of small holes in it to allow the burning oil to drip down the entire front of the shield, and the insulated backing where arm-holding bands with some kind of non-burning padding kept the Alphar holding them from getting blistered and scorched. The Dragonlings were pushed down and the fire shieldmen moved up and held their shields over the sliced-open breath sacks. Drips of burning oil fell into the open wounds while the Dragonlings screamed and pleaded. It did no good. The breath sacks were burned out of each of them to prevent them from ever having breath weapons again. Their horrible burns were then ignored. Instead, they were forced to carry gear and drag huge, hastily constructed, sleds filled with loot taken off their fallen comrades and from their camp. Those who refused or fell, found fire shields pushed up against their scales until they moved or roasted. Only nine made it to the war camp at the edge of the frozen lake. At the same time Syrissia and Mathard each wrapped up one of the children in heavy blankets and ordered their best Channelers to heal them. They each carried one of the children back to the camp, refusing help from all those around them. ***** Kandric looked up as the Silver Warrior Dragon landed next to him and spoke in Dragon, "Premier, the camp is ours. It is surrounded. However, one of the Whites has escaped and is fleeing to the northwest." Kandric moved up, "Can you catch it with me on your back before it flies away?" "It is grounded, Premier. The Black Dragon, Ornam, claims it is with broken wing, but he says it is large, probably a True, not a Warrior." "How many can you carry?" "Two on my back and while greatly slowed, two in my front claws. However, Premier, I am sure I could find another to get you, and all your knights to it before it can disappear into the storm." Kandric glanced over to Glaster, "Care to join us, Master?" Glaster rubbed his hands down his face. "Oh, by Hertzal's name, why me?" Kandric glanced up with a gleam in his eyes, "Because you love me?" Glaster looked up and shook his clenched fists while growling. He looked down, noting this only got a bigger grin out of his most beloved of boys, and light snickers out of the others around him. "Mostly because you can command me, Premier, but yes, I also must defer to a level of love I have which would make me do things more foolish than should ever be contemplated." While Jamon and Pike took a Red aloft, Lorthorn and Zeltoss got help getting on the back of a Blue. Seldnat took a Black, while Glaster and Kandric jumped on the Silver. It didn't take long to see the forest moving as the large White desperately tried to flee. Kandric studied the land below even as the wind and snow slashed into him. However, between the magic given him by Syria and the Gifting of Prince Weraweld, the weather had no affect on him. This allowed him to take in more than the others. He spoke in Dragon to the Silver he was on the back of, "Drop us just down from the crest of the ridge to the north, then take the other Dragons back up and force it to the top of the cliff. Use breath or magic, but stay out of range and danger. We will take it once it finds itself trapped on the top of the cliff face with no ability to fly." "Premier," the Silver spoke with concern, "a cornered and desperate Dragon is not a foe you want to face." "Normally no, but it is what I am about to do. It will tell me where my grandfather is and what students he took, or one of us will not make it off the cliff." The four Dragons landed, let the passengers hop off, and after the non-Silvers smacked their wings to clear them of ice, took back to the sky. They took turns launching bursts of breath weapons and a few spells downward until the White Dragon turned to angle up the hill toward the cliff, roaring and cursing the four Warrior Dragons the whole time. Once the Silver was certain the larger White was headed to where Kandric wanted it, it spoke to the others. "Get Duke Mathard, Princess Syrissia, Lord Monarch, and the others. Also, if one of you can find General Vondum, he and San'i-sar would be of great help should I need to engage. "Let the others know what our Premier is doing and let them know he may need help. I do not know the White below, but it is at least a True, possibly even a Great, but not even close to fully grown. I will stay up here and, if needed, attempt to assist." ****** Kandric motioned for those with him to move back from the edge of the cliff and hide in the woods. The bursts of breath weapons and spells allowed him to have a good idea were the fleeing Dragon was at. This allowed him to move around behind the Dragon even as it went past. Within minutes the snorting and cursing Dragon, with softer-looking scales of more vanilla or cream color than pure white, angled up the hill while sending a frozen phlegm ball upwards at the Red Dragon. All this got was a snarl from the Red and opened it up for the Blue to spray it with sparks. Even though its wing was clearly broken, it managed to pull the wing up over its head to shield itself from the latest attack, but it was clear the movement of the broken wing, coupled with the spray of electrical sparks was excruciating. It let out an unearthly howl of pain as it tried to move up the hill and into the cover of trees. The problem was, it discovered the hiding place was nowhere near as good as it first looked. The trees rapidly thinned and it found itself on open ground at the top of a thirty meter cliff. It turned with panic in its pure white eyes, took a couple of steps back from the edge and stopped as a Silver Dragon hissed out enough of a sonic breath to hurt its ears. Kandric motioned for the others to stay down. He then moved rapidly in a crouch, angled well away from those in his group, and stood. He cleared his throat loudly as he walked out of the tree line to get the White's attention. Regardless of the pain and fear of being stranded on top of a cliff without being able to fly, it snarled, "You! You killed our crown prince and my grandfather!" While its breath sack was far from full, it drew in air and let out a breath of bitterly cold air. Kandric raised his Frozen Flame, pumped Force into it and smirked as the breath parted around him as if sliced in half. "At least your breath smells better than your former prince." The White made a coughing sound and let out a phlegm ball, forcing Kandric to dive. The frozen ball slammed into a tree, snapping it in two, dropping the top and forcing Kandric to roll to get out of the way. Kandric couldn't help but glance back at the shattered trunk of the hundred year oak with a cringe, but quickly returned his focus to the Dragon. He spoke even as he moved behind the stump and knelt, "Oh great killer of trees, and loser of armies and battles, your mother must be so proud!" The Dragon roared, ignored the pain of its tattered wings, reared back on its hind feet and lunged. As soon as it did so, Kandric spoke a quick phrase while pushing a great deal of Force through himself and into the rocky ground underneath. An instant before the Dragon's head got to Kandric, a two meter thick, four meter wide, and three meter tall slab of solid stone jutted upwards around the stump of the recently shattered tree. The Dragon saw the massive stone blast out of the frozen ground, but other than close its mouth and duck so its mouth didn't crash into it, there simply was not enough time to do anything else. An instant later the White Dragon's head hit the slab, snapping off both horns, knocking it senseless, pushing the entire stump, including the deep roots back a meter, and cracking the stone. Kandric was pushed back on his butt. He glanced up and saw the cracks radiate down the stone with a shiver, but quickly jumped up onto the stump and leaned to the side so he could see the effects. He grinned as he saw the massive Dragon's head wobbling back and forth and the front legs folded under the body. The Dragon clearly fought to stay conscious, but after blinking a few times, its head fell on the top of the stone slab, cracking it deeper while breaking some teeth and biting its tongue badly. Its head slipped off the top of the rock and slammed into the snow with a reverberating thud. Blood trickled out of its mouth and its eyes rolled up into the back of its head. Before it could recover, he hopped down and reached back into the snow until his hands found solid rock. This time he spoke another much longer phrase. At the same time, he made a clawing motion with both hands while twisting his wrists toward his chest. Two claw looking spires shot upwards, one around each side of the huge creature, and closed around it with hundreds of rocky spikes pointing forward to where they dug under the edge of the stunned creature's scales. They then stopped and grew thicker and harder. Kandric let out a couple of deep breaths before he forced himself to stand on rubbery legs. Once recomposed after such a massive expenditure of Force, he moved around the massive cracked stone and waited for the young unconscious Dragon to recover. Off to the side, Glaster shook his head and blinked, "Premier, what spells were those?" Kandric's smile and glee at being able to tell Glaster something the man didn't know about magic was tremendous. To Kandric, finally being able to teach Glaster was gargantuan. "A couple of variants taught to me by some Mountain Spirits, Master. Both are very similar to the claw spell you taught me after I killed those skeletons and zombies back in Scorpion Falls a few years back. Instead of using bricks and building stone, you pull the power directly from Mother Earth through the Spirit Realm of Stone, which sits between Earth, Lava, and Mud. Once you learn where it lays, it is simple to manipulate natural stone to shape and size, but it takes a great deal of Force." "Well worth the expenditure!" Glaster stated in pure awe. "There is no question my young Premier, the student has bypassed his former master by a vast margin!" "You always told me knowledge was where real power starts and stops, for almost everything else can be stripped away. What I learn is always there and thus learning is never a waste of anything." "A lesson I am thrilled you have taken to heart, no matter how many time you had to hold up piles of my books, Premier. But why not finish the spell and drag the claws into it?" "Because, just as you taught me very early on, the second I direct any part of my spell at it, its magic defiance comes into play. Magic defiance does not play a part until magic does it direct harm, and at this point, I have done nothing to activate what must be a massive pool of defiance. Besides, Master, if I kill it I may never find out where my grandfather took my students. As you told me more times than I can count or remember, a student is beholden to the teacher only so long as the teacher defends and tends to the needs his student. This beast knows where some of the students I swore to look after were taken, and my business with it will not be done until it tells me all it knows." "Another couple of lessons you have learned well, and I am extremely pleased, Premier. However, you are still left with a very deadly and dangerous foe, broken wings, stone incased body, and bitten tongue or not." Kandric chewed on the inside of his mouth for a few seconds before walking around to the side of the Dragon. "Hey, Zel, where is the breath sack on this one?" "As long as the Gifting I was given from the Green is correct, it is down the neck between the shoulders under a patch of thicker looking scales. But if you puncture it, the air rushing out will be far colder than when you poked the White Dragonling holding Lacate." Kandric nodded in understanding even as he moved up to seven thicker and larger scales under the neck. He tried pulling at one of them, but found no matter how hard he pulled they wouldn't budge. He frowned and used a hand axe off his pack to cut a branch off the fallen tree and tried to shove it under one of the scales and pull it up. All this did was cause the branch to snap. With some aggravated muttering, Kandric rubbed his chin, then moved up and poked at the scales with his Frozen Flame. All around him, those watching paid far more attention to the eyes and breathing of the White Dragon than Kandric, looking for any sign of it regaining consciousness. But it remained unmoving. Kandric backed off with a frown, "I do not want to pump Force into my blade to heat it up, cause if I burn the sack out, it will leave it nothing left to bargain for. There has to be a way under these scales!" Before he could do more than tug at one of the larger scales again, a baker's dozen of Griffins landed, all carrying Alphar being led by Princess Syrissia. She hopped off and watched the boy for several seconds before turning to Glaster, "What in the name of the gods is our Premier doing?" "Trying to get under the neck scales so he can pop the breath sack, Princess." Lorthorn responded with a bemused shake of his head. "And he is not freezing pulling on the scales of the Dragon?" She stated with a mixture of astonishment and frustration. "I have two types of cold protection up and being this close is truly numbing!" Lorthorn shrugged, "Pretty sure Weraweld Gifted all of us, Princess. I am only a bit chilly." Syrissia took a few steps back in an attempt to get out of the cold aura of the huge Dragon before she spoke up, "Premier, I have a couple of Descalers and Serpent Bowmen with me. With your permission we can finish this." Kandric punched the thick scale, leaving a light mark, but doing no real damage to it before he turned away, "No magical arrows and no kill shots, Princess. Just pull back on the scales and shoot the breath sack!" She glanced over at Glaster, only to see the man toss up his hands and roll his eyes. With a very visible long exhale she glanced over to a couple of those with her and jerked her head in the direction of the Dragon while replying to Kandric, "As you command, Premier." Kandric backed off but held up his hands as half a dozen Dragons came in carrying several Garm in claws including Duke Mathard. "Hold up a moment Princess." He then turned to Mathard, "My Duke, can we get some of your harpooners up here with their gear?" Mathard rolled his shoulder as he adjusted his armor while moving back from the intense cold of the White Dragon. "As long as our Dragon allies do not mind flying back and grabbing some, Premier." He then looked back the Blue that had just dropped him off, "Thank you for the lift, my scaled friend. However, unless the need is as great, I will stick with ground transport from here on out!" The Blue snickered, "Having a Dragon claw around you a little alarming, my Duke?" "I think I will stick with disconcerting, Bav'art. Regardless of the exact wording, I just do not feel this particular Garm was meant to have boots off the ground by more than a meter or two... And since I am happier in this bitter cold, than in the air, would you mind finding others to help bring up some of my harpooners?" Bav'art smacked its wings on the ground and spoke while it took to the air, "And get away from the cold aura of this young, probably Great, White? No, good Duke, I would not mind at all!" All those around Kandric moved back to get as far away as possible from the horribly freezing temperatures coming off the Dragon, but stayed ready, looking for any signs of it waking while Kandric directed some of the newly arriving troops. After nearly an hour and only a couple of moans from the Dragon, Kandric put the final pieces of his plan into place. He first had a couple of the harpoon teams fire their weapons into the thickest trees they could get to, close to the Dragon, then used the spiked ends of the chains to wrap around the Dragon's tail. The last few links of chain were then locked together with the end spikes. These were bent by two very determined Garm Metalworkers with large hammers, which locked them into place. Once this was done, two descalers combined with their hooked shovel-like tools to pull one of the thick scales back. Both poles made cracking sounds, but it was enough for a Serpent Bowman to find a good spot and launch an arrow into the slender gap. Deathly cold air whistled out between scales, froze the poles solid and forced the two Alphar descalers to be taken well back and get treatment for serious frost damage. Finally, six more teams of harpooners worked their chains into the scales of the hind legs, three attached to each, and fired the harpoons into trees very close to the edge of the cliff. Kandric surveyed the work for several more minutes before he nodded in satisfaction. He then moved up to the Dragon's head and smacked the nose with his Frozen Flame blade. The Dragon did nothing but moan. Kandric let out a growl, "Come on, wake up!" After another hit to its snout did no good Kandric looked over to Vondum and San'i-sar. "I am more than open to suggestions General and or San'i-sar, for to say he is out cold may be too much of a pun for most, but..." While several groaned, many of the younger ones who had moved up to see the Dragon from both Klent's group and Glaster's giggled. Mathard couldn't help but put his head into his hand and shake his head while Princess Syrissia clenched both fists and gallantly tried to remain with little emotion on her face, but failed badly, so she quickly stopped trying. Vondum let out a snort, walked up to the Dragon and surveyed the damage while gritting his teeth at the horrible chill coming off of it. "This be my first time facing Whites in combat, but I'd have to say the rock it slammed into won... As far as waking it up, I'm kind of at a loss, Premier, for normally I use water, beer, or even a stream of urine to wake up those whose faces had a close encounter with my fist. I highly doubt liquid would make it before it froze, and while I am fearful of nothing, there is no demon lord or god who could make me pull my manhood out and try to piss on this beast with the cold coming off it." "Not wanting to have a frozen pole to impale Conth with, General?" San'i-sar enquired with a huge smile. Vondum flipped off San'i-sar even as he quickly backed off, "Feeling is required for enjoyment, and I highly suspect I would have none, nor do I want to hear any jokes about anything breaking off me or talk about frozen nuts, for I a certain mine have pulled up as deeply as they have been since I was a babe to fight this cold..." Princess Syrissia decided to jump into the exchange, "Good General," she paused and shot a glance over to Glaster, "and if I may, even our Lord Instructor of our Premier; if the two of you would give the boys a little less attention and instead focus on me, I am quite sure I could warm even the coldest manhoods within my tent." Seeing both men's faces flush, the left side of her mouth twisted up into a smirk even as she lead up against a tree and shot Mathard a wink. At this point, Mathard's face took on a red tinge. Seldnat, glanced around, and snorted, "Ya be three fer three, Princess! Hows do me gets in on dis deal?" While her eyes went wide, she recovered extremely fast, "Depends on how quickly and well you study, good knight, for my bed is only for the highest of educated." Seldnat frowned, "Gessin' me be out a lucks den." Zeltoss gave Seldnat a shove, "Kudos for the attempt though, Seld!" Princess Syrissia glanced over, "Sir Zeltoss, if you should like some extra tutorage, I am sure I can get you up to speed with your speech and protocols far more quickly than Sir Seldnat, and my tent can be a very accommodating place to finalize your instruction." Seeing the boy swallow hard, she glanced over at the others with Kandric, "Anyone else wish to speak up?" Seeing several heads shake, she smirked, "I thought not. Now, if I may, Premier?" Kandric blinked a couple of times, totally astonished at the Alphar Princess being able to so effortlessly spar on such a crude level with those around her. Having gained a great deal more respect for her, he shook his head to clear the thoughts, and gestured toward the White Dragon, "I am very much open to suggestions, good Princess." She raised an eyebrow at the shift in the boy's tone toward her, "If I had known me showing my warrior or sailor bar side would have gotten your approval, I would have shown it much sooner, Premier. I think I now understand why Queen Jostallis personally selected me to be Duke Mathard's Alphar counterpart... Anyway, there is another common way to wake up those who I have bitch-slapped into the next lunar cycle." She grinned almost evilly, "A strong smell often takes even the drunkest and bloody-faced warrior out of a stupor." At this Vondum raised a finger and glanced over to Ornam, "Do you still..." Ornam grinned widely, showing a mouthful of black teeth, "Oh, yesssss, good General!" As this was said both the other Black Warrior Dragons and over a score of Black Dragonlings moved well back from Ornam. Vondum chuckled, "And judging from reactions, lost none of your... potency?" "Oh, General Vondum, if anything I have only become more enhanced with age." Vondum even backed up a few steps as he continued to speak, "Have you happened to have eaten any fresh meat recently?" "Fressssh..." the Dragon's shoulders moved up, allowing a shrugging motion, "well, I would not give it the credit of fresh. However, the mountssss the reconnoiter team of Premier Kandric entered the encampment were alive at the time of our banquet." Even though well back, Jory's jaw fell open, "You ate our horses?" "Not him alone," the Blue Dragon guarding Klent's group responded, "but indeed they were eaten. They were of little benefit to any other than food." Jory looked down with clear sadness, "She was old, but she was a real good and sweet animal..." "The flavor left in my mouth may require me to differ, young Mage." Jory and Pulon both frowned at the Dragon, but neither said anything. The idea of talking back to a Dragon was simply never contemplated. Instead they both wiped at a couple of tears in their eyes as they grieved over horses they had become attached to. With a great deal of sadness, they switched focus back to Vondum and Ornam. Vondum glanced over at Kandric, "Premier, what Ornam can expel was one of the reasons I remain one of the best, if not THE best, enforcer within the training forge under the Obsidian Fortress. For I kept record of output and once in a while I would take the lowest five percent, put them in a lower chamber and ask Ornam, here, to unleash." "Indeed," Golhaod snorted, "it left them ailing, quivering, and unable to eat even after allowed out after cleaning their vomit from the wall and floor. I tend to recall the chamber in question held the reek for a week or more. Furthermore, it became a place to put other poor output youth, many of whom became ill within an hour. But if I remember correctly, you waited for a time duration when Tathamane be at bottom of required output before declaration of Ornam being your method of reprimand." Vondum's smile verified the Black Dragonling's suspicions before he even spoke, "Tath should have never spit on me, tripped me, and laughed as I skinned my knees on the stone steps even as I realized what my desire to get trained actually entailed upon entering the forge. Had his brother, Tregasel, not failed out, he would have been a constant target of my authority over the forge apprentices for knocking my brother down and beating on him whenever he had the chance as well!" Golhaod grinned, "But you got the outcome you wanted. Tathamane failed out and joined his brother, and yours, in the upper brothel." "I have yet to track them down and kill them, but they are still on a list I have not crossed all the names off of. I can only hope both are still slaves and have children, preferably boys, for me to continue my wrath on." Golhaod shrugged, "All you had to do be to inquire. The Black Dragon Homeland cannot allow a former forge worker to tell of our training program. Therefore we keep track of all and initially warn, then if needed, eliminate any who attempt to undermine our... program of enticement to get poor youth into training. I knew your hatred of the two youth, therefore I came with an update for you, General. I can tell you both gained freedom under dubiousssss circumsssstance and now live in Rolling Dale. Tregassssel as a Massster potion maker with a disturbing reputation, now with two free boy youth and three female. Tathamane be a highly paid mentor in the Warrior Adept field for any with limited talent, yet abundance of family coin. He produced two free female youths and three males, three of which are grown, one, a Swordssssman by the name of Vit, recently became a city guard. The other two work within the kingdom school, coaching the fledgling apprenticesss in armor and weapon handling." At this, Glaster spoke up, "General, we need to speak, for I have a great deal more information and very possibly a gift for you." Vondum looked over, "Then indeed we need to speak. But we digress..." Golhaod cocked his head to the side, "No inquiry on your brother, General?" "No!" Vondum barked almost too quickly, showing a bit of desperation not to find out more. He took in a deep uneven breath before he continued in a very angry voice, "I did what I could for Pontarious when needed, and he made his own bed... or should I say, the Black Dragon Homeland found a bed for him to serve it from. His fate is not tied to me any longer." As he spoke he failed to see Syrissia, Mathard, and even Glaster look at him with wide eyes. Instead he turned his full attention to the White Dragon, "Ornam, let's see if you can wake this damned ball of frost up before we all freeze to death!" Ornam jumped up on the rock and raised his tail. Upon seeing this, Princess Syrissia put both hands up to her face, "General, Good Dragon, are you both seriously collaborating on using flatulence to arouse this grand, yet ill-tempered and bloodied beast out of its stupor?" "We most certainly are, Princess!" Vondum declared with a leer, showing he had no desire to angle conversation any other direction on the off-chance his brother re-entered it. Syrissia let out a long breath, "General, this is without any degree of dignity! I was thinking more of an amalgamation of onions, garlic, vinegar and possibly some raw valerian, all of which we have in our main camp!" Off to the side, Seldnat gave a snort, "Me'd kinda like ta see da Dragon rip one on big frosty." "Well make up your mind! Even with this amulet of cold protection the Alphar and Garm gave me, my tail be freezing up here!" Ornam snarled. Kandric glanced over at Syrissia, "I would kind of like to see if it is as nasty as it what we have all heard." "Oh, it be!" one of the Dragonlings spoke up. "Indeed, it be retched!" another confirmed. Mathard shrugged, "Premier, I am with Princess Syrissia on this. To do this would be a highly inauspicious a command from one in your position. However, this is your army." Kandric's eyes glinted, "Princess, Duke, while I tend to agree with both of you, I am still a kid, and I really want to know how bad a Dragon fart can be, so... Give it your worst, Ornam!" "About time," Ornam muttered while giving his butt a shake. A few seconds later a truly massive, horribly odorous, discharged blasted outward with a strange, clattered sound, as the force caused Ornam's back most scales to vibrate against each other. Ornam quickly jumped down and moved close to a Red Dragon to warm, while the White Dragon's eyes popped open and it started thrashing and gasping. Those downwind quickly scattered, many with watering eyes and noses. Several vomited. Lorthorn, Kandric and Zeltoss all gagged while Jamon covered his mouth and nose and made several sidesteps to get further upwind. Pike lost his meal and continued to gag, but managed to wheeze, "Oh, by the gods, that is horrible even upwind!" Kandric also backed off and pushed some fresh snow onto his face, "Nasty! Totally nasty!" He then managed to giggle, "But awesome!" Mathard also moved back several paces while staring at Vondum, "You forced children into an enclosed room and let this happen to them? How could you?" Vondum responded without any hint of remorse. "Until you see the training forges of the Black Dragon Homeland, you simply would not, could not, understand, Duke Mathard. A time or three of Ornam's stench probably freed many who would have otherwise been sent to the brothels and eventually sold off or gifted to important merchants or others the Black Dragon Homeland wished to keep happy." Syrissia yanked off her Silver Fox fur scarf and tossed it into the woods, "The rest of my non-magical wears will be tossed as soon as I can find a big enough pyre to burn it all, for I will NOT take any chance of any of what just emanated from within Ornam lingering on anything I wear! There must be something dead stuck up inside your backside, Dragon!" She shook her head and pulled in some fresh air, "But alas, our Premier was right to desire a demonstration, for there is no doubt you could render a Greater Giant Kodiak Lion defenseless with such a... discharge." Vondum chuckled as he turned his attention back to Ornam and spoke with a depraved grin plastered on his face, "As disgusting as ever..." Ornam gave a quick bow, "Why thank you, General!" Kandric continued to snicker as he moved closer to the White, as the strong wind pushed away the stench. "Ah, awake and probably smelling better..." The White gagged, retched and coughed even as it struggled to break free of the stone surrounding it. When it found most movement caused the stone spikes to dig under its scales and into its hide, it let out several hisses of pain even as it continued to choke. After over a minute it craned its head around to look at Kandric and tried to let out a breath. Ice cold air whistled from under its breath sack scales and the arrow lodged within caused it to thrash in agony, which in turn caused some of the stone spikes to draw blood from under its scales. Its head hit the snow hard as it quaked in pain. Kandric moved a little closer, but far enough away to dodge should it hack up a phlegm ball, "I bet a good Healthman Dragonling, or whatever, could remove the pieces of the frozen descalers under your scales and the arrow in your breath sack. While I am not certain, I can only guess the sack itself may even be able to repaired by a good enough Shaman or Channeler." The Dragon glanced over and tried to do a tail whip on the boy. The moment the tail jerked, the chains anchoring it to the trees rolled around the tail causing the spikes forged into the Dwarven Steel chains to cut in. It let out deep, pain-filled roar and quickly dropped its tail. Kandric glared at the Dragon, "Oh, please continue, with any luck the spikes encircling your tail will eventually cut it off. Then you can go home a hornless, semi-toothless, breathless and tailless creature to be pitied by all your kind... or mocked. Either would be fine with me. Now before I burn out your breath sack permanently, TELL ME WHERE MY STUDENTS ARE!" The Dragon tried once more time to stand, but as soon as some of the stone spikes dug in to the point of drawing some blood it stopped. It closed its eyes and trembled with a combination of fear, pain and anger. However after a few seconds, it opened its eyes and stared at Kandric and spoke with a snarl, "You ought to be far more worried about your pathetic brotherssss than an insignificant apprentice, Dragon murderer!" Kandric's hand closed around his Frozen Flame tightly as concern and resentment boiled up within him. When he spoke, his voice only carried a fury-filled tone even though the words were only whispered. "My Brothers?" "Ah, crap..." Glaster muttered softly with a deep cringe. "At least the initial rage is going to be directed at the White like the boys recommended..." Syrissia stated quietly. "But then what?" Mathard responded with a great deal of anxiousness. Vondum shrugged, "We can only hope he stays focused on the Dragon long enough to sooth and sate some of his sudden need for retribution." Before more could said, Kandric shouted, "WHAT ABOUT MY BROTHERS?" The Dragon forced a laugh, but just as quickly stopped as it caused the flattened spot on its head to throb. It closed its eyes and winced, took a few breaths as deep as possible without having the rock spines to dig in, and rested its head on the snow. "Your killing of Cyronia dethroned Inaxia from the Demon lord throne of Ice, Dragon killer... Inaxia's sister, Frexla, moved some of her Flame Spirits to Inaxia's defense, but lost a powerful underling in the mortal realms herself. According to the Ice Spirits fighting to take control of the Demon Realm of Ice, rather than abandon Inaxia, Frexla hersssself came to our realm and took two of your clan, a Rathiter and a Darmoth and two others, a Gablon and a whelp by the name of Emroc..." As the last name was spoke, Kandric's demeanor grew even darker, "Emroc?" Kandric seethed, "The flaming pile of roach crap took my friend?" The Dragon blinked at the sudden venomous tone over an all but unknown Human of little to no consequence, "I can only hope he be redundant to Frexla and already roasted in the Spirit Realms of Flames." At the same time Glaster spoke a long Shamanistic phrase, and put a bubble of warm air around himself so he could safely move closer to the Dragon, "Gablon? The Teaching Echelon Shaman, and caravan leader, Gablon?" "A caravan leader, yea, but I know nothing more of him, he be worth nothing in the eye of Frexla..." "He was a former student of mine, Dragon. How do I find him?" Kandric glanced up with deep fury in his eyes, "Master, if you would, please watch my body. I shall be back." Before Glaster could say anything the boy collapsed into his arms. Glaster quickly carried Kandric back from the Dragon, while looking down with a mixture of anger and astonishment. "I have never seen any Shaman enter the Spirit Realms so fast!" Jamon spoke up, "Get used to it Lord and Teacher of Premier Kandric. He does it this fast whenever he wants. From what I have be able to glean he goes to the Spirit Realms almost every night, sometimes several times a night, and a few times a day to speak with some of his spirit friends and learn spells." Glaster blinked, "Spirits teach him spells?" "All the time," Zeltoss verified. "He has even taken me a few times so I can learn Shamanistic writing and spells to use in as a Mystic." Glaster looked down, "He has taken non-Shamen into the Spirit Realms and has survived to tell about it?" Jamon looked up, "Lord, he took me a few times as well because I was afraid he would hurt me with a spell in his sleep. He had me talk to a couple of spirits and they showed me he was actually awake and learning spells when I thought he was casting in his sleep. One even taught me a few magic-like things Animal Adepts can do..." Before more could be said the Frozen Flame disappeared off of Kandric's back. An instant later Kandric's body jerked and stood as he returned to his body. As he did so, the blade appeared in his hand with a flaming goblin-sized spirit impaled on it. The flaming creature thrashed and screeched as it was yanked out of the lands of fire and into the mortal realm. Kandric yanked up on the blade with both hands, lifting the flaming beast off the ground and getting another unearthly howl. Kandric ignored the sounds, as he shouted, "Frexla! This be one of your Scorch Spirits, and it will be the first of thousands of your allies I will kill outside of its home, utterly destroying it unless you return all those you have taken, including Emroc and Gablon!" Even as snow melted around Kandric, the spirit started to shake as the waves of heat rolling off it started to fade. Mathard, moved up, "Premier! You are going to bring..." Before more could be said, scores of very hot shimmering portals appeared around Kandric. While most drew weapons to fight the sudden incursion of minor demons, Kandric twisted his blade and ripped it out the side of the creature he had abducted from the lands of fire. At the same time, his hand shot into the hole and yanked out a lightly glowing red carnelian gemstone out of the hole in its chest. As the glow in the middle of the gem faded, the creature let out a guttural gasp and fell into ash around Kandric. Kandric quickly sliced the head off another the instant it appeared. Before it could fall back into the lands of fire, he reached into the neck and grabbed another carnelian even as he shouted, "Red Dragonkind, grab and hold some of them! I need a few alive to question! These low spirits cannot burn you! Others take out the trash! But they need a leader to enter our realm, and it is mine!" Pangam was the first to react. His claws buried into the shoulder of a nasty-tempered Scorch Spirit. He then slammed it into the snow, savoring the heat rolling off of it. It tried to bite him, so he slammed his fist into its mouth, stunning it, before grabbing all four arms and pushing them high up into the spirit's back. He then sat on it while shouting, "Red Dragonkind knock some them out and pin them! Watch it though! They want to bite. Keep clear of their teeth!" The nearest Red Warrior Dragon joined the fight with a twisted zeal. It first jumped on a Spark Spirit as it materialized, pinning it with its left back foot. At the same time its right front claws closed around another and its tail wrapped around a Scorch Spirit that appeared right behind Vondum and pounded it into the frozen ground over and over. Other Red Dragonkind jumped in, taking Scorch, Spark, and Ember Spirits down before any could do more than appear. "Those we are not holding, take their hearts before they can return to Frexla and they will be destroyed utterly!" The Hawkling Channeler of Avgon squawked loudly, even as he carved the heart out of an Ember Spirit near him with a glowing scimitar and held it over his head to show everyone. "When the glow is gone, so is the demon it gave life to!" Vondum and Glaster did nothing but exchange glances before casting fire protection spells on themselves. Before most could do more than blink, both men had a pair of hearts of nearby intruding spirits. Kandric gutted an Ember Spirit and yanked out its gemstone heart, even as Zeltoss smashed the head of a Spark Spirit, Pike slammed his magical pick into the gut of another, Lorthorn took all four arms off a Scorch Spirit and Seldnat extended his Staff Spear, impaled two, and shoved them into the side of the White Dragon. Jamon jumped in as well. He lashed out with his whip, tripping a Spark Spirit. He then slammed the short sword Kandric had taken off the Dragonling and given him, into the demon's back and dug out the heart with his hand. Even though it burned his hand some, he grabbed the cinnabar stone and shoved it into the snow, ending the glow within quickly and destroying the spirit it had been inside of. Vondum jumped over to Jamon's side, punched an Ember Spirit hard enough to knock it out, and grabbed the boy's hand. He used a healing spell on the burn while plunging in his dagger into the chest of the Ember Demon with a backhand. He then dug his blade in and popped the heart out. He patted Jamon on the shoulder, "Well done, but in the future dig the heart out with a blade so you don't burn yourself. If it hurts the demon more before you end it, good!" Not far from Jamon, the White Dragon yelped in pain since it had a pair of Ember Spirits and a spear pushed into its side. With a great deal of effort it sent out an extra internal burst extra of cold, freezing both spirits before they could do more than singe a few of its scales. The cold was enough to freeze the hearts as well, so they fell into nothingness but left their hearts behind signaling the total destruction of both. Syrissia snarled as she tapped into her Sorcery abilities, surrounded her hand in an icy claw, and shoved her hand into a Scorch Spirit angling toward Mathard. She withdrew her hand and held up a glowing carnelian. She tossed it over to one of her guards, then backhanded a Spark Spirit, pulling out yet another glowing gemstone. Mathard took a deep breath, pulled two daggers, and jammed them into both sides of the next nearest Scorch Spirit. Even as it tried to hit him with four very hot fists, he drug his blades downward, ripping it wide open. As it started to fade back to its home, the glow of the gemstone in its chest could still be seen, so Mathard reached into the gash he had made and pulled it out. He then went low on an Ember Spirit and jammed upward into what looked to be the groin area. The pitiful squeal signaled he had been correct. Noting his eyebrows had been singed, he slammed in second dagger into its chest and popped out the heart. Klent's, Klorna's and Glaster's groups all entered the fray as more fire-based minor demons continued to appear. The magic weapons they had been handed, especially the cold-based longsword Gapon had been given, were more than a match for demons. At the same time Alphar, Garm, Illorcs, Pantherlings, Black Rapids Guards, Hawklings, and Dragonkind all jumped into the battle. Any thought the demons may have had about all the different races not trusting each other or not being able to work together was proven groundless, for even as several mortals fell, others pulled them back and took the fight to the spirits invading the mortal realm. Hundreds of minor demons ceased to exist as they fell from one end of the forest to the other. Newly arriving demons were slow to realize it was suicide to enter the mortal realm with such a powerful opposing force capable of permanently ending their existence leading to a couple hundred more demon hearts being removed. The assault faltered as other demons refused to jump into the fight no matter what power was commanding them to do so. Suddenly a powerful wave of extreme heat blasted outward not far from Kandric. An Inferno Demon stepped out of a glowing portal and shouted "Enough!" The heat it put out forced most well back, but the Frozen Flame flared cloaking Kandric with a powerful heat protection and put up enough protection for those closest to be pulled back with serious burns, but still alive. At the same time, the trapped White Dragon screeched and pushed more cold outward trying to protect itself. Kandric noted the Inferno Demon wince at the cold. A new idea came to him even as he cringed at the power of the creature facing him. While the icy aura coming off the Dragon caused it serious discomfort, the Inferno Demon forced itself to stay focused on Kandric, "How dare you challenge my Mistress, little mortal?" Kandric sidestepped to put the demon between the stump and himself, "Your mistress? So Frexla sends in a lackey to speak for her? You are not worth my time to talk to. Now go be a good little demonette. Go away and tell your burning pile of dug beetle waste whore of a boss to give Emroc, Gablon, and my brothers back!" "Demonette?" The Inferno Demon roared in total indignation. "I am Lord Pyrothermal!" Kandric had to force himself not to gulp, but it didn't really matter because all those who knew history instantly identified the name did audibly swallow hard, and almost all took a few more steps back. Those who didn't know, took cues from those who did and also backed well away. The demon's eyes glinted as it noted recognition in Kandric's eyes, "Yes, puny mortal, It is I, Lord Pyrothermal, ender of the lineage of Greysac, and burner of the outer walls of Seandra!" Kandric lowered his blade some while forcing air into his lungs, "Some say you failed, Pyrothermal, for a child of Greysac, badly burned, but still living, made her way to Seandra with word of your deeds and before her death gave birth to a son. The boy was last seen with Prince Xavier shortly before the walls fell in flames. However, according to the texts within Protector's Keep I was given access to, the Sand Dragons held long enough to allow some from within the great city of the Sand Dragons to escape before you, your Brown Dragon allies, and their undead armies turned the land into a desert of the dead. Among the escapees were a Drow, a disgraced and declared non-child Alphar prince, a Garm, and the grandson of Greysac, a young Highman Mage by the name of Lucas. For, unless there is a tome saying otherwise, the Great Sand Dragon Xavier, son of the King of Seandra, along with those who fled with him, was never located." The demon gave a dismissive motion with its left arm, "Food for the undead, probably a skeletal Dragon by now... Along with its companions, the Garm, Alphar, Halfling, and Drow and yes, the boy, Lucas, grandson of Greysac. They were never seen again, and I looked for hundreds of years. They vanished into history, never to be heard from again!" "Maybe, maybe not, but you still failed, and someone made it out of Shandra with enough information to write of its fall. It was you, along with your Brown Dragon and undead loving buddies who started the Dragon Wars! Look around Pyrothermal, for all around you are Dragonkind who hate what you did to them and their empires, including the White behind you!" Pyrothermal, glanced back at the White with a glare, but the momentary distraction was all Kandric needed. He pumped extra Force through the blade to give him more protection from heat while putting a Cold Snap on his hand, but not releasing it. Instead, he lunged forward and punched Pyrothermal in the chest with everything his Ferret Sect Warrior training allowed. The cold around his hand evaporated, but protected his skin while breaking a couple of ribs in the Arch Demon. In addition, the unexpected blow staggered the Demon, knocking it back toward the stump, which ignited in roaring flames as the Mythling stumbled back into it. The White Dragon bellowed in agony at the flames licking at its face and clenched it jaw while blasting out every gram of cold it could muster. The result was to snuff out the fire on the stump and even cool Pyrothermal. The bitter chill caused Pyrothermal to shout out in pain as his back lost all heat and the waves of warmth around it lost a great deal of potency. It arched its back and his head tilted back to where it touched the back of his shoulders as the unnatural chill lanced into his back. With Pyrothermal's whole body contorted forward and his arms out to the side, Kandric quickly brought the Frozen Flame up. With a snarl, he once again showed incredible mastery of a longsword and shoved the blade into and through the chest of the demon. Before it could do more than grab at the blade sticking out of his chest, Kandric slammed his left hand into the pummel, driving the blade in all the way to the hilt, cutting off a few fingers of both hands of Pyrothermal as he did so. Pyrothermal's shout was enough to ignite snow laden tree tops within fifty meters of his agonized scream. He could do nothing as he was driven through by the Frozen Flame and pushed back into the stump, which again ignited only to once again be snuffed out by the White Dragon, even as its scales around the White's face started singe and buckle from the heat. The Arch Demon tried to reach out to grab at the boy pinning him to the stump with the sword sticking through him, but those watching on with wide-eyes all finally reacted. Cold based spells out of Syrissia, Glaster, Vondum, Monarch, Zeltoss, Jory, Judge Andreus, Ulavee, a multitude of Dragonkind and other spellcasters slammed into Pyrothermal. Moments later Mathard shouted out, "Gapon, finish the damned thing you are playing with and toss me your cold blade!" Gapon did a backhand slash across a Spark Demon, gutting it. Next to him, Lyrod used the magical gauntlets he had been given as a primary weapon, reached into the creature's open gut, punched upwards and came out with its gemstone heart. Seeing this, Gapon tossed his cold blade over to the Garm Duke. Mathard stepped forward, caught the blade and pumped his own Force into the weapon all in one motion. He finished the swing by removing one of the hands reaching for Kandric with a clean and precise strike. At the same time Chark'ash pulled up the bow Glaster had demanded he take, spoke a couple of arcane words, and fired an arrow. The head turned to ice as it streaked between Kandric and Mathard. It hit the other hand and pinned it to the badly charred stump. As soon as Rylan saw this, he seemed to move with unnatural speed, much like he did with the Alphar inside Rolling Dale, only faster. He got to the Arch Demon just as the shaft of the arrow burst into flame, but before Pyrothermal could pull its skewered hand free. He quickly yanked the magical dagger off of Mathard's belt and drug the blade across the exposed wrist, removing the other hand. Rylan then quickly moved as if one with the wind as he replaced the dagger in Mathard's sheath and backed off before the heat of the demon could do more than blister his hand. With both hands removed and its magical defiance crumbling from a continuous onslaught of cold-based spells, Pyrothermal let out a withering string of curse words as he tried to retreat back into the Realm of Fire. However, even as he started to fade from the Mortal Realm the blade in his chest flared. Kandric saw the Arch Demon start to fade, "No!" he shouted even as he activated the Force stored within the necklace given to him just outside of the Swamp Slums. With a gritting of teeth, he pushed as much as he could into and through the Frozen Flame and continued to expend more. The fading demon was jerked fully back into the Mortal Realm as the influx of Force from Kandric combined with the cold power of the Frozen Flame cut off his access to all fire including its home. Ice crystals spread outward from the blade, freezing Pyrothermal until after nearly two minutes there was nothing but a body of ice with a frozen scream on his lips. Kandric glanced over to where the Red Dragon was continuing to pound an Ember Demon into the ground with his tail. "Bring it over here!" Kandric shouted. Pangam held up a clawed hand, "No, we do not want to chance reheating Pyrothermal! Rip out the heartssss of the otherssss! Our Premier can have this one to deliver his communication." He yanked the wounded demon he had pinned up and bought him close to Kandric, but far enough away to where it could do nothing to help the frozen Arch Demon. Kandric glared at the creature even as it thrashed around from having Pangam's claw buried into its shoulder. "Listen or get your heart cut out and be totally destroyed!" The small demon let out a squeal of terror and stopped fighting as Monarch moved up with a dagger and stuck the tip into the chest directly over the creature's heart, while holding out seven hearts in his other hand for it to see. "You stop and listen or be my eighth!" At this the fledgling demon held up all four hands and looked at Kandric with terror in its red glowing eyes. "Better." Kandric stated. "Now do you understand me?" It nodded, but said nothing. "Good enough. If you do not do what I tell you, I will jump back into the pit of fire, find you, bring you back here, freeze you, let you thaw and freeze you again, over and over!" Seeing it tremble and stare at Pyrothermal with terror etched into its features, Kandric slapped it. "Look at me, not your soon to be eliminated master! You are to go directly to Frexla and tell the boiling skank she will give me Emroc, Gablon, and my brothers back one way or the other. How many minions she loses before she figures it out is totally up to her. If any of them suffer a single burn or are in any way tortured, I guarantee this skirmish is only the beginning of her end!" Kandric drug his blade across the neck of the demon and let it fade rather than take its heart so it could go back and deliver the message. He paused, reached over to his Frozen Flame and shoved a little more Force to make the blade colder just to make sure before he dropped to a knee, clearly exhausted, "Would someone shatter this monster for me, please!" Seldnat shrugged, and called out, "Gets me hammer!" Lorthorn started to offer up his hammer, but was stopped by Mathard, "No, boy! The last thing we want to hit this demon with is a Lava Hammer!" "Aw, screw dis!" Seldnat barked. Instead of grabbing a couple of offered hammers, he moved up to Pyrothermal, reared back and slammed his head forward with everything he could muster. Pieces of the demon fell to the ground and cracks radiated downward. "Grrrrrr." Seldnat snarled and rubbed his forehead once. He repeated the head butt, but added in a jump to make sure he put everything he possibly could into the physical attack. This time the former Arch Demon from the Realm of Fire shattered. The few remaining minor demons lost their power to stay within the Mortal Realm and faded, but more than a few lost their hearts before they could leave the Mortal Realm for the relative safety of the Realm of Flames. Even as Kandric managed to grab the massive fire opal heart before it hit the ground, Seldnat blinked out a few tears before speaking to any and all who cared to listen, "Ya sees, it be trues! Halforcs gots hard heads, but no means me no know how ta use mine none!" Many dropped their heads into their hands while Kandric snickered as he continued to toss the heart up over and over until the glow within faded and the stone cooled. With a smirk he looked down at the stone, then tossed it over to Syrissia, "Here, go get something really nice made out of it. From my studies, there is nothing better for a gem magic item than a demon heart." "But Premier..." Syrissia's words faltered as she stared at an almost pineapple-sized fire opal, "The best magical items within Alphar lands come from your ancestral home and you just killed the creature this came out of! you should have something made for yourself in your home forge!" "My ancestral home is Junsac. However, it matters none. I have not been as kind or polite to you as I should have been, so make yourself something nice." Lorthorn glanced over and whispered softly, "You want to bed her or something?" Kandric turned bright red, started to say something, then turned away. "Lorthorn!" ****** The gods viewing portal room: Veldora, Quati, Salem, Syria, Pelgrin, Rovnar, Vindayin, Warvon, Vaneuben, Lunara. "Oh my..." Veldora spoke as she felt a disturbance between the mortal realm and the outer realms. She watched for several seconds as the assault started. Salem moved up, "The flow of Magic has suddenly changed. What is..." her voice faltered as she watched Kandric rip the heart out of a minor demon, spun and behead another. "It is too soon..." Pelgrin came out of a side room "Too soon for what?" "To enter the mortal realm," Veldora responded. "However, it appears Kandric may have overplayed his hand." Rovnar let out a snicker as he grabbed his vest with rows of glowing throwing knives and started to strap it on. "It was only a matter of time before we were needed to pull his butt out of the flame and Frexla broke the pack of the immortals and untied our hands, so let's go show the little twerp up." Quati shook his head and put a firm hand on Rovnar's shoulders, "Hold, my over-eager, slippery fingered, associate. Kandric has been worshiping me for more than half his life and I have had my spirits feed me enough reports to know no matter how bad the situation, he is not going to act kindly to outside intervention, especially ours. Least you forget this whole thing started because my Star Spirits noted the immense power within the child and got me interested enough to peek in on the youngster. Without me, he would have slain Cyronia without us knowing who did it. However, we had eyes on the lad, so we knew and were able to utterly destroy all those guiding the storm before Inaxia realized she had lost her lead Arch Demon, Cyronia. Now hold your blades for a span and let us see how this plays out first." Vindayin nodded in full agreement, "Every single time we have thought Kandric was doomed, he has surprised us. Should he strike another serious mortal blow to the Demon Lords, the balance of power tilts much more to us. It is becoming harder and harder for the Demon Lords to stop us from bringing in another god." Syria moved up to the viewing portal as hundreds of demons poured into the mortal realm, "Indeed, and Frexla is throwing a massive amount of power into this assault. If, and yes, a very big if at this point, but if the mortals beat this back, Frexla's ability to assist Inaxia will be drastically diminished, if not ended. For if this fails, Frexla may find it hard to keep control of the lower Realm of Fire, let alone assist her sister in reconsolidating power within the demon pits of ice." Vaneuben moved up and gazed down just as Pyrothermal appeared, "There is no way any mortal can face up to Pyro! We need to move!" "Hold, but stay ready!" Rovnar shouted as he saw Kandric angle around Pyrothermal. "Hold?" Warvon asked in disbelief. "Moments ago you were ready to jump in with both feet and our future godling is about to be roasted!" "Maybe not..." Rovnar peered into the spinning portal and listened to the exchange of words. "The little brat has a plan..." "A plan?" Lunara shouted. "A plan to fight Pyrothermal?" "I believe so, yes..." "Believe so?" Crytrall gasped, "And if he does not?" "Then we go..." Rovnar grumbled, "but I have seen this exact same look in his eyes before. It is the look of a pissed-off kid who still feels like he's not respected enough. Everything about him tells me he has the upper hand for some reason... It was the same look and demenor he had when Cyronia attacked Vondum's camp, and the stare I saw when King Blathamort charged in on him and his buddies. Now wait and watch... Remember, out of all of us, I got here by my own hand, and the use of tactics most simply cannot fathom. While I cannot see what the damned, ruby-haired, Halfelf has in mind, I am certain he has something spectacular planned and Pyrothermal, like most massively powerful beings, is ignoring the warning signs and badly underestimating a foe who should at least be given some respect... And for the record, if Kandric pulls this shit off, I may even start worshiping him!" Minutes later, as Seldnat head-butted a frozen Pyrothermal, the jaws of several gods dropped. At the same time Rovnar spun the portal back so all those gazing downward could see it again before he yanked off his vest and tossed it up on his armor stand over two dozen meters away, "OK, Kandric, you win. I got nothing to compare to that! Short of someone killing Frexla herself, you will have my full support into godhood, just so I don't lose worshipers to you!"
  2. Kyle Aarons

    Chapter 14

    Within a couple of days it was clear the world everyone thought they knew had changed. The nightly attacks grew in number and severity, even as power and communications across much of the world was becoming so unreliable large areas were all but cut off from the rest of the world. Thanks to COSAM a few world powers were getting military communications back up while the Unified British Isles, Unified North America and Israel had paid considerable sums to get emergency networks stabilized. For a longer term solution, satellites would have to be built and launched. Partially because he was already in London, and partially because UB was all but opening up its country's coffers, Bryan Caldwell and COSAM helped in the launch of two communication satellites. While it wasn't enough to give all of UB stable communications, London and the surrounding areas never fully broke down. This allowed military and emergency teams to coordinate and deal with threats much more quickly than anywhere else in the world. The problem was, as soon as night came, the number of calls continued to grow. Large numbers of military personnel were transferred over to help deal with the growing threats, but oftentimes it was patrols who spotted problems, since the emergency system kept crashing. By sunrise of the fourth day after the storm, the leaders of Unified Britain found themselves in a terrifying new world. Reports from one end of the isles to the other circulated the halls of both the government and military. While the vast majority were unverifiable, or only accompanied by blurry images taken by people who were trying to film even as they ran, screamed in terror, or both; there was growing hard proof. At the same time, scientists were coming to grips with the new reality. One irrefutable item came from the aircraft downed in London on the first night. In the wreckage, recovery crews found what had downed the attack helicopter. It was an organic spike. While its exact nature was still being looked into, initial scans show it was composed of ultra-hardened cellular material, meaning it had come from something living. The remnants of one of the weird flying lion-like creatures was carted into parliament, ending the scoffs of even the firmest disbelievers. At the same time bodies of a pair of bipedal lizard-like creatures with dexterous hands were being looked at in the UB Defense Ministry building by top generals and those in government over them. While most of the creatures seemed to disappear as quickly and easily as they appeared, carcasses of other creatures were being discovered throughout the country in ever increasing numbers. The words Mythical Attacks was overheard by a member of the press and before noon on the fourth day, the term M.A. was being widely circulated. Within days it would be one of the widest used new terms in history. Even worse, military and emergency casualties stood at two dozen and civilian well over a hundred. Some reports suggested others had disappeared with the beasts, who took a few through 'glowing holes' or 'simply vanished'. The exact numbers were still being tracked, but anywhere from a dozen to a score of people seemed to be missing with no trace, and that was only what was being reported. If anything, this was even more terrifying than the fact hostile beasts were appearing out of seemingly nowhere. The real crisis was no one really knew what to do about it. By mid-morning of the fourth day after the storm UB Parliament disintegrated into a series of shouting matches as some proposed a wait and see approach, others wanted to enact a nationwide curfew, and yet others wanted to implement martial law. Another growing coalition of members recommended making safe zones for people to go if they wanted: these would be heavily fortified by the military while those outside the safety zones would have little to no protections. For those in the hotel and aboard the Cynthia, the raging debates were noted, but for the most part ignored. The adults rotated out, but rest was hard to come by. For even as things calmed in UB, reports started coming in from other areas as the sun set in other areas of the world. This meant round the clock monitoring and cataloging of every event. The other problem was the disruption in power grids was far harder to solve than the communication grid. Just about every waking hour, Bryan and COSAM science teams from one end of the globe to the other focused on trying to cut through the interference caused by the pulsing green waves erupting from points throughout the globe. They had some limited successes. First was to move power sources closer to key installations, so the disruptions wouldn't drain away as much power. This was a straight forward but cumbersome solution, since there was less distance between the what was making the power and what was using it. Second was heavier insulation around the main wires. Neither solution was feasible for the general public, since thousands of kilometers of high power lines would have to be made and replaced. This meant many homes outside of a couple dozen kilometers of power plants started to lose power unless they bought generators. Because of this, Bryan lead a team which designed a new low cost generator and COSAM moved a production facility into mass producing a small 50 Amp generator in one of its UB facilities. The government gave it a military priority so supplies were brought in to build more. The supplies actually came in faster than they could churn them out. The other significant intricacy in handling the growing threat was the MAs were not just increasing in frequency, they were also becoming more vicious with larger and more terrifying creatures showing up. Stan took the lead on tracking new creatures as they appeared. By far the worst, in Stan's mind, was a video clip taken from a fishing trawler of a small sailboat being dragged under the waves in the Gulf of Mexico. While the quality was poor, some technical enhancements done aboard Cynthia clearly showed it wasn't tentacles like many were reporting in Unified North; instead, each extension ended with a head with a single eye and a snake-like mouth. All the long necks were attached to a flippered body and were strong enough to wrap around the small craft and drag it under within just a couple of minutes. Another video out of Unified South America seemed to show skeletal cats attacking a boy and his dog. The person taking the video was shaking like a leaf, but it ended with a group of men rushing out of a nearby bar, armed with everything from barstools, to beer bottles, to a baseball bat. While the men went about smashing at the cat-like things, a woman and an older teen pulled the boy and his wounded dog into the bar. As soon as this was discovered, Stan dispatched a heavily armed COSAM team to get the child, figuring it was way too much like Evan to not be one of the special kids they were trying to find. Stan watched the vid two more times before sending it down to get it as cleaned up and stabilized as possible. He wanted a good image of the boy for the team dispatched to Tiwanaku, Bolivia, not far from the ruins of Puma Punku. The fact it had come so close to another mysterious ruin, added credence to what the attack showed. The fact Stan had never heard of Puma Punku until he looked it up told him there were probably hundreds, if not thousands of possible hot spots for the growing phenomenon to come from. Stan exited the bridge with a shake of his head. He had seen a great deal in his time as a SEAL team member, but this... well this was almost too much. His resolve to find an easy answer had vanished from the moment he saw the images taken from the hotel of the horned thing coming after Alex. The problem was, with each passing hour the explanations were getting harder and harder to find, and even more difficult to accept. For a highly decorated combat veteran, his mind just found some of it too surreal to fully believe. Looking over the enhanced vid of the creature pulling down the boat for the third time, trying to find any sign it had been altered or tampered with, he rolled his neck and shoulders as he stood. He needed air. He also needed to check on the weapon systems on the ship. No way was he going to let some... whatever... attack his ship! For the kids at the hotel, the games of hide and seek turned out to be eye-opening not only to them but the security details who started following them. Within the first couple of days Iona and Lyle had dialed in their abilities enough to find others from a couple of score of meters away, even through multiple closed doors, although thick concrete and metal drastically reduced how far this 'sense' seemed to work. Alex and Ryan quickly caught up with Iona and Lyle's abilities, but Evan and Craig found it harder. However, with some work they expanded their own extra-sensory perceptions to about ten to fifteen meters and were continuing to improve. At the same time, Stan had all the kids working on trying to hide or mask their powers, making them harder to notice. In his mind, if they could find each other, so could other things. Hiding who they were and what they could do was essential for their safety. He flatly refused to let any of the six out of the hotel except to practice out on the parking deck until they could figure out a way to mask their abilities. Even as they experimented at hiding the energies they obvious exuded, the kids started playing with their abilities more. Once the timing of the 'refilling of their pools' could be firmly established, training periods were set up for them to practice and use up much of what they had inside just prior. The 'refilling' turned out to be based on two things working in conjunction. The main one centered on the rising of the moon and the setting of the moon. However, it didn't happen for those who were at moon rise until the sun set and happened as soon as the rays of the sun hit where they were at, even if the moon was still visible. This meant it was an interaction between the sun and moon but the moon seemed to be the real key, since if the rays of the moon didn't shine down until after sunset, the pool would not refill until then. The same thing applied for those who 'recharged' in the morning. If the moon set before the sun rose, the 'pool' would replenish itself. The good thing about this was the kids knew the moment it happened. It didn't take long for the adults to see this as well, since the kids' behavior changed at the same moment. It was almost like they had been injected with sugar and caffeine. Once this was noticed, the parents universally said they had seen this in their children from a pretty early age, but didn't give it much thought. Once their 'recharge times' were firmly established, all the kids worked on what they could do. As predicted Alex was able to repair the hole in the wall, but it took a huge amount of his 'pool' to do so. On the plus side, if there had been any questions about the supernatural powers in their kids, the parents of those in the hotel had none as they watched the plaster inside and outside of the wall float upwards and shift around like pieces in a puzzle. Each piece moved to where it had been, joined with the pieces around and the cracks vanished as the final bits, no bigger than grains of dust, filled in the last of the damage. The only sign of damage was the fact the area where the hole had been looked cleaner and newer than the rest of the wall. The morning of the fifth day, right before moonset, those who were about to get their 'pools' refilled played around with what they could do and tested their limits out in the second from the top level of the concrete parking structure in an area purposefully marked off. This meant they wouldn't have much to damage should something go wrong while still being under heavy cover and hidden from others. Ryan, Lyle and Iona took turns using bits of their pools. Behind the three Alex, Evan and Craig watched, gave suggestions, and when something worked, listened so they could try to duplicate just before moon rise. The problem was, they all had different abilities and how they did things were not the same. The power bases seemed to differ as well, so while Alex could make extremely devastating releases of energies, Ryan could heal. Craig seemed to be very close to the same in nature to Ryan. Already the boy was learning how to do some very minor healing, and had caused some nasty road rash on one of Flynn's men to heal within seconds, but it took quite a bit of the boy's 'pool'. In addition, Craig seemed to be able to talk to things unseen by the others. But after only three days Ryan was doing the same thing. Both boys said they were talking with 'friends of the Griffins' when it happened. Whatever they were talking to or with helped all the kids greatly. For after a 'talk with nothing' the two had new suggestions which greatly helped all the kids gain more control. Evan had some amazing powers with animals, and astounded everyone when he taught Iona's iguana how to do tricks like stand on its tail while using its front feet to throw little punches. The whole process was accomplished within just a couple of hours. He also taught it how to unlatch the top lever of the aquarium with its tongue, much to the horror of Iona's father. There was also universal belief of his ability to fully communicate with it. Seeing this and hearing from the boy's mother about Evan's remarkable talent with animals, Bryan paid for a couple of other critters including a parakeet and a hamster. Evan had the parakeet talking within four hours and the hamster doing back flips after only an hour. Just like the iguana and his dog, the parakeet and hamster were flawlessly following voice commands from the boy within two days. Lyle and Iona were similar, if not the same, in base abilities. They could increase strength, hearing, sight, feel, taste, smell, quickness... every time Flynn thought they couldn't impress him more, they found new ways to do so. In particular, Iona could run impossibly fast when she used her 'pool' and Lyle could react faster to danger than anyone he had ever seen. The boy could also bend his body in ways Flynn was certain would break any normal person. Seeing a video of the boy's motorcross 'accident', Flynn bet Lyle had used this astounding body manipulation ability to prevent being seriously hurt or even killed. Since, by all rights, the boy should have ended up in intensive care after the kid had kicked his back tire and sent Lyle and his bike over the safely wall and into the repair pits. However, over the prior few days they learned there was a set of core abilities all the children seemed to have. These 'spells' at first seemed to vary, but as they worked together, the kids found they could teach all the others. At the same time, as they experimented, they occasionally 'found' a new 'spell' by accident. Once this happened they tried to work with the others to see if it was one of what the Australian Team leader, Flynn Markesan started calling 'Core Powers'. He figured since all the kids could do them, they were a core set of abilities all the 'gifted' children had. All six children had started calling them CSs, for Core Spells, over the past couple days. However, much like Stan, Flynn refused to say the word 'magic' or 'spell', but with each passing moment he was getting closer to joining in with the kids and calling them Core Spells. Flynn stood ready to protect the kids while also encouraging them. He focused more on Ryan since he was rapidly becoming fond of the boy, his quick wit, and very caring side. He also liked how dedicated both Ryan and Alex were to learning how to fight. However, he had to admit, both kids were beyond their years in self-defense and blade play abilities. The two took to the gladius-like blades and small axes as if they had been born with them. When he added a shield, just to see what would happen, he found himself astounded since neither boy needed any coaching on their use. It was almost like the dreams they talked about had not been dreams at all, but some kind of past life and the dreams had been keys to unlocking not just the memories of how to use such archaic weapons, but also unlocked the needed muscle memories as well. He had the boys demonstrate their prowess the prior day and Bryan, with heavy encouragement from Stan, gave permission for his sons to carry the gladius blades at all times. Flynn nodded in satisfaction as Ryan focused on shooting out small darts of fire and ice at plastic bottles, trying to limit the size, since his problem seemed to be overkill, destroying set up targets with massive and heavily draining discharges. Within four or five he was normally wiped out. Today, however, he was shooting much smaller darts and was over thirty with more energy within before his 'pool' refilled. Next to Ryan, Iona was learning to manipulate the pool inside herself to enhance her strength and senses, just like Lyle had shown he was capable of doing. With Lyle's aid, she was able to gaze out from the parking lot and watch as an ambulance pulled up alongside a badly injured woman. The unfortunate woman had claw marks down her side and her shirt was badly ripped. The fact it was over fourteen blocks down the street and she could make out the hair and eye color of all those involved and could see a broken off claw on the top deep scratch sticking out of the woman's skin verified she had finally been successful. At the same time, Iona was looking over the victim of yet another MA, Lyle was once again trying to move things the way Iona did. It annoyed him, since she seemed to have such good control. He didn't and had yet to figure out what he was doing wrong. At most he could make things wiggle while she moved the same items around with almost no effort. He could feel the small teddy bear wanting to move, but once again it wouldn't travel toward him. In frustration, he pulled out more from his 'pool' and muttered at it. Moments later it crunched into the concrete and the stuffing exploded out of it. He took a step back, "Oh, crap!" Flynn, the Australian Special Forces team leader snorted, "Kind of looks like what we wanted to do to the leader of the gang who hurt Evan's dad." The number two man on the team cringed, "No, Flynn, we had to clean up. Shattering both his collarbones and kneecaps was good enough. At least we didn't have anything to mop up." He glanced down at a wide-eyed Lyle, "So, Mate, what'd the bear ever do to you, anyway?" "Nothin'!" Lyle stated as the last of the stuffing floated down. "Yeah, as in nothing left!" One of the other team members snickered, "Lyle one, bear zero." Off to the side Ryan glanced over with a big smile, "Hey, massive overkill is my job, stop trying to show me up!" Flynn smiled widely, "Guess COSAM is going to have to buy a few more teddy bears." He paused as his phone and watch started beeping. "So there is moonset. Did you all refill?" All three kids nodded. "OK, so no more practice until tomorrow for you three. Keep hold of what you have in case something bad pops up. Since there is a glow on the horizon, the sun is about to come up which will hopefully kill any more MAs. Your bodyguards can keep us all covered. Let's move on to some blade and hand to hand combat work. Alex, Ryan, you two are way too advanced to work with the others. We don't want Ryan to fix another rib today, do we Craig?" Craig shook his head, "No, sir, but I'm glad he was able to, because I am sure it was broken." "I'd have to agree with you, so I want you to work with Pat with the wooden blades COSAM made for you all to practice with. Take fifteen minutes to refresh on throwing a good punch and blocking, then move to the wooden blade. You have a real knack for them, so I think with just a little more work we can approve of you carrying a real one. "Iona, you are with Harry today. You still need to work on punches and blocks. You don't seem to like the blade work, but I really think you should try to get a handle on it. Harry can work with you on both but focus in on unarmed. Oh, and no enhancing your strength. I don't need Craig to have to repair scraped knees on Pat or anyone else again from being tossed several meters." Pat snorted with some exasperation, "You don't? What about me?" "Hey," Flynn grinned, "it was kind of fun watching a little girl take you down." Everyone laughed as Pat flipped Flynn off. Flynn turned his attention to Evan, "I really liked what I was seeing out of your blade work yesterday and you aren't bad with unarmed either. You're still a ways off from carrying a blade or practicing with Alex and Ryan, though. I want you with Wilson. "Wilson split time evenly between unarmed and blade until we can figure out which one he is going to be better with." Flynn took a long breath and looked over at Lyle, "Son, I know you have your heart set on carrying a blade, but you have some real talent with unarmed and I want you to focus on it. Bobby is my best unarmed guy and with his help you can get yourself up to being on par with Ryan, if not Alex. You work with Bobby during the scheduled training times and give it all you've got and I'll work with you on blade during your free time, OK?" Lyle made a light growling sound while making a shoving motion. Suddenly all the remains of the toy were blown off the side of the parking structure. "OK, as long as you promise to get me to where you will let me carry one of those swords like Alex and Ryan..." His voice trailed off as he glared at where the remnants of the bear had been. "At least it doesn't look like it is smiling at and mocking me anymore!" Flynn moved over and patted Lyle on the back, "Remember, conserve your 'pool' until you need it. But, son I'm serious here. You get good at hand to hand with Bobby, then we can work with you incorporating some of those strength and flexibility things you can do. With some work and commitment, you could be one of the most devastating unarmed people on this planet." Once Flynn was certain the others were situated with men best suited to working with them, he turned to Alex and Ryan, "So you two are with me. Grab shields and wooden swords. You will spend fifteen minutes of trying to take each other down. Then we will switch to unarmed with you doing the same. If I say stop, stop. Once you both have a good sweat, you'll take turns sparing with me. Fifteen minutes of unarmed, fifteen minutes of blade each. I sense either of you slacking we start over. Once I am happy, then and only then will we get showered and have breakfast." Seeing unhappy faces looking at him, he smiled, "Hey, give it your all this morning and later today we'll go into the basement. I'll have Luke work with you all on firearms, since he was a certified sniper instructor. He is setting up a shooting range for you all which is why is isn't around." Hearing they would get some time with a sniper instructor gave all the kids some serious incentive to give the training their all. Two hours later Alex all but stumbled out of the shower, totally exhausted after the grueling training session. He had to admit Flynn was a phenomenal instructor, though. He had no idea he could be pushed as far or do as much as the man had brought out in the last couple of days. Alex grabbed a heaping plate of eggs, bacon, and a fresh bowl of diced mixed fruit and moved over to Lyle's dad. He watched the man run an expanded search for other kids with special abilities signifying they may be like him and his new friends. He said nothing as Mr. Cartwright moved a couple more names into a secondary program to do a more detailed search. Finally, Alex let out a long breath, "Any luck on finding Zachery?" Vince Cartwright glanced over and pointed over to a nearby chair, "Not much, but grab a seat and I'll pull up what Stan and I have come up with. Since you know him, maybe you can come up with some further search criteria." "I'm not very good with computers." "Let me handle the computer, you just give me some more input factors." "Like what?" "Well, here. Let me show you what we've come up with and you can see if there is any other details you can add." Alex shrugged, "Sure." Alex looked over the details COSAM's computers could find. It was actually a pretty good trail from the time of the collision in Hawaii to the time Zachery's family made it back to the outskirts of London. Somehow, Lyle's dad even found records of Mr. Norris paying power and water bills in person to cover for the two-month extended vacation the family had taken. The trail stayed solid for several months. At this point, Mr. Norris put down more money than was owed on power and water, signifying they planned on another extended trip. But all records ended a day later when Mrs. Norris bought a decent amount of groceries and some dog food on credit and Mr. Norris had a charge for filling up on hydrogen at a petrol station just outside of Liverpool. The same day Mrs. Norris pulled out a sizable amount of cash directly from a bank. Alex sighed, "So they had plenty of money to take another trip and no need to pull more out. They may have even paid for where they were staying with cash, huh?" "Same thing your Uncle Stan and I think, buddy. I have tried facial recognition and social media, but other than Zachery's sister posting she was tired of Zachery and his dog, and she didn't want to go to one more... not so nice words... museum, there isn't much. The last posting on her account was a over a couple of years ago saying she wanted to go back home and date someone by the name of Bentley. From there, nothing. I have hit a brick wall." "So they vanished?" "Seems so. We'll keep looking and I know Stan has set up a worldwide facial recognition scan, but it could take months, if not longer. We really are pretty much out of ideas. I know after Mr. Norris sold his construction company; he basically went into semi-retirement. The bank still shows a few million in his account, and it hasn't been touched since groceries were bought and cash was pulled out... Power to their estate was shut off followed by water after six months. It is paid for and taxes get pulled out of a holding account every six months, so it is still in their name. I hate to say this, but..." Alex frowned at the tone, "Zachery is alive." "Kiddo, I hope you are right... but..." "No, I am telling you, he's alive. The bracelet is his and he somehow showed up here in London to help Evan." Evan looked over as he reached down and scratched his dog's ear, "Whoever or whatever it was, sure looked like Alex and Ryan, Mr. Cartwright." He let out a long breath, "I know it sounds crazy, but I saw what I saw." "Son," Vince stated, "the things I see coming over the news and the web are crazy. I believe you. And even if it seems like I don't, I believe Alex. But they would have run out of cash way before now. I really don't know where else to look." Iona finished chewing on the chunk of pear she had in her mouth before speaking up, "What about the sister's boyfriend?" Seeing all eyes look at her, Iona grinned "Hey, I don't know about the rest of you, but until all this happened and you forbade me from telling my friends much, everyone on my social network knew pretty much everything I do and had planned. l also posted my practice and race schedules so those who wanted to watch me smoke a bunch of boys out on the track could come watch." "You were getting quite the groupie following," Lyle snickered. "And one of the reasons she had a better sponsor than you, Lyle," his dad joined in the conversation even as his fingers went to work on the keyboard. "Huh..." Lyle's mouth twisted up into a thoughtful smirk. "Iona, can you help me set up a social networking page for me to post racing stuff on?" "As long as your dad says it's ok." "Fine by me, but I want to review it before it goes live and we will need to figure out what is going to happen with races with all this going on." He paused and looked back, "Oh, and for the record, I better not see either of you two cheating out there with your new found... abilities." "Come on, Dad, can't you just say magic?" "No, not yet, and I am being serious here!" "Mr. Cartwright," Iona responded, "we both had some control before and we didn't cheat... Well I wrecked Blake, but not to win..." "You wreaking him is fine with me, Iona. But never again, even if someone cheats or wrecks my son. I get why you did it, but you could have killed him. Never again, get me?" "Yes... Yes, sir." She grinned, "As good as I am going to get at fighting, I'll take on whoever tries after the race, in front of the cameras, and embarrass him." Alex looked over with a wide smile, "Iona, you and a friend of mine, Shelly, should get together. You'd get along great with her." Before more could be said Vince snapped his fingers, "Iona, good call. I tracked over to Bentley's social profile and did a search. Right about the same time as the Norris family vanished, he started posting to others to see if they had heard from her..." his face went pale, "Oh, crap..." Alex moved up to look at the computer and read the post in reply to Bentley's search, it was from a girl by the name of Kara. He felt his heart speed up as he reread it, "According to this, Kara said they went to Dublin a few days before it was nuked..." Ryan looked over, "Alex, we know he is alive." "Maybe that is why he looked so skinny and was wearing wrong fitting clothing and junk," Evan added in. "We've all heard there are still survivors in the Dublin Disaster Zone." "There are?" Alex and Ryan stated at the same time. Vince nodded, "The whole city was cordoned off and centers set up for anyone making it out past the inner perimeter. Even now there are stories of new survivors making their way out ever few weeks... The UB government and military have talked about going in, but the couple of times they tried they were met with resistance and their equipment was contaminated enough to need to be destroyed. It is a lawless zone of ruins, gangs, radiation, and God only knows what else." "Then we need to go there and find him!" Alex shouted. "But boys, if he's there... and if you could find him... He is probably contaminated, sick, and..." "He was skinny and didn't look great, but he didn't look sick either, Mr. Cartwright," Evan countered. Flynn stood, "Boys, I'll talk to Stan, but there is no way any of you are going." "You have to take at least one of us," Iona quickly countered. "And why do we have to take one of you?" "Because we can feel him. You can't." Flynn had no good argument and he knew it. With a deep breath, he pulled up his phone and placed a call to Stan while walking out of the room where the kids were eating. Stan talked over the situation with Flynn for several minutes. He was flatly against sending anyone into Dublin, let alone kids. However, it really wasn't his decision to make. He reluctantly called Bryan. As soon as the man answered he started speaking, "Boss, we have a lead on Zachery Norris..." "I just heard. Alex and Ryan both came in and woke me up. How solid is this?" "Still working on it Boss, but... Yeah, it makes sense and we are tracing more social networking posts. We have found over a dozen other posts suggesting they were in or around Dublin when it was hit. The chances they made it is exceedingly slim..." "You know it, I know it, hell, everything tells me the boy is dead... except..." "Alex and Ryan." "Not just them, Stan. Evan is every bit a certain, if not more so. The other three are more than willing, and like it or not, and surprising as it is, Vince says if it helps deal with what is going on he'd let his son go. I am leaning the same way." "But this is a childhood pipe dream, Boss! A kid as young as Zachery, would never survive in such wastelands. And keep in mind, I am talking about how old he is now, not how old he was when the place was nuked!" "Stan, I'd never buy into this if the whole world hadn't just gone insane on us and we've both seen what my boys and these other children can do..." "Yeah, I know. They are growing more powerful and competent by the day." Stan let out a long breath, "OK... It's your call, sir. But I am going to put in my firm belief this is a bad idea along with an incredibly dangerous waste of time, money, and resources." "While I agree, I am on the ground here in London and the MAs are getting worse as are the electrical grids. If Zachery is someone tied to this and we can stop it or at least turn the tide..." "It could save more lives than we can count, Boss. I get it... But seriously, even if Zachery is tied to all this, he's just a kid who, if alive, has been though a hell none of us could hope to understand. He is going to need all sorts of mental and probably physical help. Considering all of this, what more is he going to be able to do than what Alex, Ryan and his new friends are going to do?" "I have no idea... But let me interject something else, here. If we don't try, we will have to hogtie three boys, maybe all five and the girl too. Even if we take them out to the ship, they will try to get to Dublin on their own. I can see it in their eyes." "Yeah, I could just see Alex stealing a MORSAV and trying to do it on his own." "My son, but you helped make him who he is," Bryan couldn't help but nervously snicker. "OK, Boss, tell them we are doing an extended search in hopes of pinpointing some kind of location. This will give me time to talk to Flynn and his team. But we can't take the kids." "Stan, you've seen the vids. They can sense each other and if the little guy is really out in those ruins... he isn't likely to trust men, especially men with guns. I know I wouldn't and I'm an adult." "Oh, for the love of God... Let me talk it over with Flynn and his men. I'll get back to you shortly, Boss." Stan splashed water on his face and made his way down to the sub bay hoping to sort out his thoughts and find an argument to dissuade everyone from attempting to find a boy in the hell that was Dublin. As he turned the corner, he noted a group of kids switching off pods on MORSAV Four. The seven boys and three girls were all part of the security cadet program, and thus wore their security jumpsuits and patches, making them look all but identical since they all had their heads stuffed down into and around the rocket pod. At the same time, two of the senior security people talked each one through the connectors for both the triggering and targeting. Two of the boys finished hooking it up, then disconnecting it so the next two could take a turn. They moved around to the other side of MORSAV Four lightly poking at each other with good natured playful martial arts attacks. Stan was about to clear his throat and tell them this was no place to be horsing around when one of the boys slipped on the wet deck, reached for something to stop his fall out of instinct, and grabbed the chain holding up the rocket pod. Unfortunately, the thirteen-year-old's hand grabbed on the connector causing the chain holding up the ninety-kilogram weapon system to break loose. Stan rushed forward while changing what he was about to say, instead shouting at those who had their heads in the hatch where the connections had to be made, "LOOK OUT!" Alex's friend, Shelly, looked up at Stan's voice and turned. She saw what was happening, but could do little about it. Still, she had to do something. She yanked one of the two who were starting to make the connections with one hand, while trying to grab the edge of the rocket pot with her other. There was no chance she would be able to even slow it down but she had to try. The two instructors jumped forward as the pod dropped on the boy and Shelly's arm. Even as the twelve-year-old let out a howl of pain and fear as the pod smacked into his back and pinned him in the hold, Shelly gritted her teeth as she felt the metal smack into her hand and start to cut into her arm. Even as Stan rushed over to help the two instructors, Shelly started to shake and her eyes suddenly lit up with a bright green light. Moments later a massive updraft whipped around the docked MORSAV causing her hair to blow straight up. An instant later, before the instructors could even get to her, a golden green glow erupted from her pinned hand. A screeching protest of bending metal quickly followed. Slowly the green light expanded outward forming a scissor-like wedge with a jack-like lever in the middle. The lever moved rapidly for several seconds pushing the pod off of Shelly's arm and the boy's back. Shelly pulled her arm out and shook her head, while the two instructors quickly extricated a stunned, but basically unharmed boy from the open hatch. Other than a bruise on his back from the initial hit, he was fine. Stan noted Shelly was wobbling, staggering, and blinking her eyes, so he angled to grab her so she wouldn't fall off the internal dock, even as he eyed the glowing green contraption with total confusion. At the same time, most of the kids backed away with wide eyes, but one boy moved forward very cautiously and poked at the glowing green item. He let out a little yelp as a spark shot off the edge of the makeshift jaws of life, but he still bravely, or foolishly, touched it. He found it warm and tingly to the touch, but hard and strong as steel, "Shelly... How?" Shelly took in several deep breaths before managing to stammer out, "I... I... don't know, Ramsey... Um, it just came out... I am like real empty inside or something..." She all but fell into Stan, allowing the man to hold her up. Ramsey once again poked at the green thing and glanced back at Shelly, "But it like came out of your hand! ... It's wicked awesome, but..." he smacked it hard enough for the sound to echo in the all but silent bay, "But I can see through it but it's hard as a freakin' rock! Where'd it come from?" The boy who had been pinned looked over while one of the instructors cut his jumpsuit open so she could look over his back. "I don't give a crap how or where, I owe you! But, that's... that's like impossible!" Ramsey smacked it a second time, "Sorry, Darren, but I'd have to say it's real, which pretty much by default, makes it possible!" The male instructor finally moved over, got a light shock as he extended his hand, but like Ramsey reached out and touched it. "Yeah, impossibly possible... and I'm with Ramsey. While I'm thrilled it... um... appeared... I want to know where it came from... Shelly?" Shelly closed her eyes and shook her head, "It's like... I thought about a block of metal to stop the pod... but um.... my hand was pinned... So I thought of making it a wedge with a jack in it... um, I used up what was inside, like stuff I use when Alex and I spar and shoot and stuff... I guess... um... but this time it's all gone... Oh, I don't feel so good..." Stan picked Shelly up and handed her over to the male instructor, "Grayson, get her and him," he pointed to Darren, "to medical and get science down here now!" He then looked over at the two boys who came very close to killing fellow cadets, "And you two, mop and KP duty in the security kitchen! Move before I decide to talk to your parents and get permission to whoop you butts!" The two didn't hesitate to bolt toward the security mess hall. He nodded in satisfaction even as he edged over toward the glowing green see-through jaws holding the pod off the MORSAV. He eyed it for several seconds, debating on if he was going to touch it. After a few more seconds he backed away. This was simply too much. He shook off a shiver as it traveled down his spine. After this, he was all but certain all the creatures he had seen, including the one pulling the boat down really did exist. He took a deep breath. "OK, this is a scientific ship, so let's start behaving like it! The rest of you get pictures and vid of this from every angle, but stay back. We have no way of knowing how long whatever this thing is, is going to last. If or when it vanishes I want it on vid but keep well clear. Just let the pod fall in the water. We'll fish it out later. As it stands, the pod should have already killed at least one of you, so let's make sure it doesn't!" Stan quickly made his way back to his quarters, pulled out his phone and made a call to some former SEAL buddies. In his way of thinking he needed as many special ops folks as he could find aboard Cynthia and able to protect Alex, Ryan and Bryan as he could possibly find. This was especially true since they were heading into Dublin. Even as Stan talked to one of his former team members, he sent a text to Bryan, "Boss, I'm in. Dublin it is. And we didn't have far to go to find another one like the kids with you. Alex's sparring partner and girlfriend, Shelly is one of them or I'll take my next paycheck in coins and eat them! Oh, and tell Alex and Ryan... I'm now there! It's Magic!"
  3. Kyle Aarons

    Chapter 13

    While COSAM and in particular, Bryan Caldwell, worked to overcome everything from interference with radar to keeping power flowing from ocean wave generators, the newly recruited parents used the computer links provided by COSAM to start a wide variety of research angles. Even as the five boys slept, the adults stayed up and started putting pieces of a gigantic puzzle together. The problem was, none of them knew what the puzzle even looked like, so even finding related pieces of it was proving frustrating. Bryan didn’t waste time turning the hotel into his base of operations. He used hard cash to arrange for adjoining rooms so the small group could easily move from one room to another through internal doors without attracting attention of others staying in the hotel. At the same time he offered a considerable amount of money for those in nearby rooms to switch so he could have rooms available for those like his boys, should they find more. At the same time, Stan called in a couple of the corporation's big gun lawyers to find a way to buy the hotel outright. This, he figured, would allow COSAM to do whatever they wanted to the building without having to explain itself too much. Between cold hard cash and technological bonuses offered to the parent company of the hotel, a preliminary agreement was reached before midnight. Knowing he was going to own the building, allowed Bryan to turn his full attention on getting set up the way he wanted. It only took an hour for Bryan to set up each room with a link directly to Cynthia’s mainframe through COSAM secured and hardened communications networks. COSAM also flew in generators and other hardware to keep the hotel fully powered and dropped off hardened cell phones for all the adults and kids with him, along with a case of additional ones should more kids be found. This allowed the other three adults to focus in on tasks assigned to them by Stan; who also remotely brought in a pair of researchers from one of COSAM’s Antarctic research labs to help sort through data and determine truth from fiction. Lyle’s dad focused his efforts on first locating the girl his son seemed to always be in competition with on the motocross circuit. Once she was located and a COSAM security team sent to protect her, he then expended his search to look for other kids who seemed to have made a name for themselves over the past few years. This proved very frustrating, since the possibilities were all but unlimited. Still, after several hours he managed to find a list of a dozen kids between the ages of ten to fifteen who seemed to really stand out. Lyle’s mom took a two-pronged approach. First she took over tracing the movements of the Norris family, and in particular Zachery. At the same time she noticed all the locations emanating power seemed to be on ancient ruins, so she started looking at other, less known, places to see if there was any activity around those. It didn’t take long to find her hunch had been correct as reports around some of the locations she pinpointed indicated very strange activity. Becky, on the other hand, took in all found reports of strange attacks and started cross-referencing them with legends and lore. The idea was to start building a database of whatever started to appear. At the same time, she would put in what seemed to harm each creature and what special abilities had been reported with each. Stan felt this, above all else, would be humanity’s best defense, since it would give those facing each creature an idea as to what each could do, what its weaknesses where, and where and how to attack it. The problem was the sheer number of reports COSAM managed to find was somewhat overwhelming. Making matters worse, the reports were often times fractured, since communications across the globe were getting worse by the hour. Because of this, there were gaps in the report, and in more than a few cases all she had to go on were intercepted police broadcasts of first responders shouting, “What the hell is that!” or very similar statements. Often time further, possibly valuable, information was drowned out by gunshots. This forced Becky to get help from the Antarctic researches to try to filter out the shots so she could hear more. The other problem was, as the night wore on, the reports got more fractured while they also became more numerous. As the first vestiges of daylight appeared in the sky over London, most of those in the city found communication systems totally down with no radio or news broadcasts. Even worse, those in the outlying areas were starting to see flicking in their lights as the power grids started to fail. At the same time, the military scientists in the government of United Britain were just starting to come to terms with the fact one of their military helicopters had been taken out by mythical creatures and they had no good answers for those higher up. While top government researchers didn’t have any answers, COSAM did seem to have a few, at least as far as restoration of communications. Because of this, COSAM was given full access to power grids and military communications along with a massive down payment. In simple terms, as long as military units could talk, COSAM would get paid and paid well. Because of this rare bit of quick reaction by a huge government, the UB military never totally lost command and control and was able to defend areas of Liverpool, Glasgow, and Belfast from what scientists started coding as MA’s, short for Mythical Attacks. Much like the London attacks, the creatures appeared, seemingly out of thin air, and went after humans almost instantly. At least as the first rays of sunlight started to cause the early morning sky to brighten, the MA's seemed to come to a sudden end. The damage and carnage they left behind, however, could be seen by all. Sara Cartwright glanced over form her computer link as her son jerked hard in bed and cringed slightly. “Lyle?” The youngster shook his head and wiped his eyes. A second later a rather loud and long burp emerged from him. “The pool thing… It just happened… I am full again.” Sara tapped a key on the computer marking the time and turned her full attention to her boy. “How are you feeling?” Lyle let out another burp and stretched. “Good… Um, I think I am like stronger or something too… the pool thing we were telling you about last night seems to be bigger today or…” Before he could finish talking, Ryan all but burst into the room through the adjoining room door wearing nothing but boxers, “Lyle, did your pool just refill?” Lyle sat up and nodded. “I guess we really are kind linked, kind of like what happened to the others last night… We fill back up at the same time in the morning as the others do at night.” Ryan nodded then looked at Lyle’s mom. “Oh, um sorry…” Lyle’s mom smiled warmly, “No problem, young man. Actually it is nice to see someone Lyle’s age eager to come see him!” Lyle pulled himself out of bed as his head dropped, “I don’t have many real friends…” “Me neither.” Ryan admitted. “I had a few on the swim team, but they were never real friends, only buddies for swimming. At the orphanage, I was always the odd one out for some reason.” “Same for me on the motocross circuit.” Lyle sighed. “I think most are jealous since I am younger and already have a big sponsor. But, even in school, I am picked as a leader for projects and stuff all the time. None of it matters, cause I really don’t have real friends.” Sara listened to the two boys talk about their lack of friendships for a couple more minutes while she sent word back to Cynthia’s central computer. Suddenly her computer beeped and Stan’s face appeared in the upper corner. “Good work, Mrs. Cartwright! The computer confirms your suspicions. If we can verify Ryan recharged at the same time as your son, then we can pretty much link their powers to time of moonrise and moonset.” “It did, Uncle Stan.” Ryan spoke up as he moved to be able to be seen by the computer camera. “We both refilled at the same time.” Uncle Stan nodded, “This is the first thing we can point to something we can track with you all. If this holds over the next few days, then we will be able to tell you to within moments when your internal energies replenish. In turn, it will give you all the benefit of being able to expend what you have left for practicing just before you recharge.” “Wow, neat idea!” Ryan jumped up and down with a great deal of eagerness. “We can hold on to what we have in case we need it, then practice just before it all comes back and we lose what we had inside us already!” “Exactly.” A smirk appeared on Stan’s face as he continued to talk to Ryan, “Unfortunately, it also means you two will have to get up early every day.” Lyle shrugged, “I pretty much wake up with the pool refills anyway, sir. It kind of hurts so it always wakes me, then I can’t get back to sleep for a while after I refill cause it is like getting an energy drink or something.” “Same here.” Ryan nodded, “And I think the same goes for Alex, since he always seemed to have a hard time going to bed when he stayed with us and Mom made us turn out the lights. He always wanted to talk for like a couple of hours. Normally he talked me to sleep.” Stan’s eyebrows shot up, “Maybe we should add sleep problems to our search. Mrs. Cartwright, tell your husband to add in sleeping difficulties to his cross-reference research! Alex’s mom always used to complain about how much of a night owl Alex was and how hard it was to put him down for the night. If we can combine sleep problems with kids who have shown incredible gifts of some sort, then we may be able to narrow the search.” “And how, exactly, do we get medical records of the kids you want my husband to look at?” “We hack them.” Stan stated without any hint of it bothering him. “COSAM communications are pretty much all that is running in most areas so we have full access to just about everything going out. As other countries realize UB and Unified North have full communications, I am sure others will come crawling to us. It will give us next to unlimited access to health records since emergency services are already starting to switch over to COSAM equipment in UB and we are in discussions to do the same thing for Unified North.” Sara frowned, “I’m not sure I am comfortable…” Lyle interrupted, “Mom, if we don’t get to them something else might. What if some of the monsters, like the one that attacked us go after them; they will not stand a chance!” “Your boy is totally correct, Mrs. Cartwright. The security team we dispatched to Iona Smyth had a firefight with some bipedal lizard-like creatures not far from her house and two more showed up as we were tying to convince them to come with them. They were attacking other civilians, but were headed in the direction of the house when we intercepted. I will get a full video and audio feed dropped off by the security team when they bring her and her family to the hotel.” “So she is coming here?” Lyle gulped. “Yes, and she is one of you just like you thought. She yanked the front door off her house and threw it at two of the lizard things who tried to come after her and our team once she came to the door. At least with her display and the beasts coming after them, it didn’t take much to convince the dad she should come to the hotel for safety. It also eliminates the idea of it only being male children we need to search for.” “So you think those things were after her?” Mrs. Cartwright demanded to know. “So it appears. We may be the best chance these kids have of staying alive. As you know, we are still working at consolidating reports, but we have over a hundred probable creature attacks in this country alone since the phenomenon started, and they are increasing. If what Alex was told last night by the jewelry is correct, it will only get worse. On the plus side, we have yet to document any major incursion during daylight hours, which in turn may mean these openings pretty much happen while the moon is up.” Ryan frowned, “Um, Evan saw some creatures during the day…” “Yes, but they didn’t stay after they were killed or whatever happened to them.” Stan countered, “And it was during the storm, which as much as I hate to say this, was almost certainly caused by this eruption of um…power.” “You just won’t say the word magic, will you?” Ryan grinned. “Not yet.” Stan grunted. “As long as we can find scientific links, then it really isn’t magic. An unknown power, yes, but this is not the dark ages. Just because we can’t explain it, does not mean it cannot be explained.” “Sure seems like magic to me.” Lyle grinned, “So what are we doing today, anyway?” Ryan let out a long breath. “I think we need to work to help each other get better at what we can do and then try to find others like us… Uncle Stan, did any of the other attacks look like they were going after kids? If so, maybe we can use these attacks to find more of us too.” Lyle’s mom’s eyes went wide. “Stan, can you get me a list of who was targeted and if any kids were in the area of known attacks?” “I’ll have the Antarctic guys get on it. You stay focused on categorizing these creatures. Let your husband work on this new angle. I need each of you all to stay focused on your projects or we will start duplicating efforts.” Stan let out a long tired sounding breath. “Still, it was some good thinking Ryan, but again, don’t go using too much of this inner pool thing. If you are attacked, you may need it. Maybe you should see what you can do without using it.” “How?” Lyle wondered while staring out the window toward some billowing smoke in the distance. He fought the desire to put some of his ‘pool’ into his eyesight so he could see more. “So far we have all been kind of drawn together.” Ryan thought aloud, “Maybe we should start by seeing if we can figure out what caused it to happen.” Lyle’s head cocked to the side as he pondered a new idea. “What if we can force ourselves to feel others like us?” Stan quickly concurred. “Lyle, Ryan, you both may be on to something. I want you and the others to try something for me.” “What, Uncle Stan?” Ryan asked without hesitation. Stan paused to collect his thoughts. “Once you have all eaten, the five of you should spread out in the hotel and play hide and seek. Only I don’t want you to actually look for one another with your eyes, I want you to try to find each other with this new power you all seem to have.” Stan rubbed his chin, realizing he needed to shave. He pushed the weird thought out of his brain as he focused in on the kids again. “When I was on Alex’s mom’s Special Forces team, I saw her do something very similar to what I am asking you to try to do. She was amazing at locating things none of the rest of us could see, smell, hear, taste or touch. She also reacted to danger better than any man or woman I have ever worked with. I have seen the same kind of reactions in Alex and to a lesser extent even the two of you in the video we got from the hotel. If this is really some kind of energy available to a select few, the power running in your veins could all be linked somehow. If it is, then you and your friends need to get used to using it and get to a point here you are not only comfortable with it, but trust it as well.” Lyle nodded slowly, “And what better way than to test it on trying to find each other!” “Exactly,” Stan stated firmly. “Until we have a better handle on things I don’t want any of you to leave the hotel anyway, so you may as well see what you can and cannot do. At the same time, make sure to tell the others to conserve your energy pools in case something else comes after you all. If something does, deal with it and don’t worry about damages. Let COSAM handle the bills, especially since we should have the hotel as a corporate asset before close of business today. Just keep each other safe. “In the mean time I am going to send a couple of those Australian guys to join your security team since they already know and like you, Ryan. They also firmly believe you have a special power or gift. They might be able help you to find new ways to harness this ability and it may even be the key to find others like you. In the meantime, we will continue to search for possible candidates to check out.” Sara pushed back from the computer. “I need a break…” “Take some down time, and if you can, get some sleep. The outbreaks of creatures are pretty much happing in Unified North and South America now, and their communications are not going to be able to get us good data until they give us more control so we can fix the interference problems. Unified South doesn’t seem interested yet, and Unified North only wants us to get their military channels up. My bet is that will change quickly as these things start appearing over there too, but right now we can’t do much. This is a good time rest, since nightfall over UB will almost certainly bring a new round of problems for us and data for you.” While Ryan and Lyle got dressed, a COSAM transport helicopter, flanked by a pair of attack copters landed on the upper level of the hotel’s parking garage. Six heavily armed men jumped out and formed a protective ring around a girl and her dad. The moment the pair of escorted civilians was safely inside the adjoining structure, five of the six-man team hustled back to the large transport, which in turn took off back in the direction of the coast. Even as this happened, the last slammed the door and held his weapon at the ready, just in case something else tried to come through. The look in his eyes told everyone he was more than a bit concerned. Bryan met the man and girl. Even as he nodded at the armed security man, he pointed to a couple of hotel employees to take the bags from the disheveled pair. “Sorry for all this. Is there anything I can get you?” The man protectively put an arm around his daughter. “An explanation would be great! One minute we were getting ready to go to bed, the next a team of mercenaries are pounding on the door while a firefight erupted in my vegetable garden!” Bryan held up his hand to try to calm the man, but it failed badly, “Don’t go trying to shut me up with some kind of hand gesture! My girl ripped the door off the front of my house! I saw it with my own eyes… and there were upright walking iguanas with big knives in their hands coming at us! I want to know what is going on!” The girl pulled her hair back to get it out of her face showing she was considerably calmer than her father, “They were a bit bigger than Herman, Dad, like by a full meter.” Bryan frowned. “Herman?” “My pet iguana.” The girl grumbled with both some concern and anger. “They wouldn’t let me take him!” “I’ll send someone to get him and bring him here.” Bryan promised. “Is there anything else you want from your home?” The dad looked down at his daughter with a look of total disbelief. “You seriously are worried about your damned lizard after what we just saw?” The girl’s dark blue eyes narrowed, “Herman is not just some lizard!” The armed man turned, “May I recommend we pull back from the outer door, sir. The entrance to the garage is open and there is no telling what may be out there. We are just now getting permission to get more armed people here so we can keep the entire property secure.” Alex stepped up beside his dad with Evan and Mystic next to him. “Nothing is coming through the door while we are here.” He then turned to look at the girl, “Wow, Lyle was right, I call feel you are one of us!” The girl looked over and felt a shiver roll down her back. “You two… you are like Lyle and me? Is that what I am feeling? Is that why you sent those people to get us?” “Yes. Lyle was worried about you, so we sent out a protection team. Sounds like it is a good thing we did.” Alex nodded as he stuck out his hand, “I’m Alex and this is Evan.” The girl took the outstretched hand and smiled warmly after only the briefest of hesitation, “I’m Iona. So is Lyle really here too?” “Yeah.” Evan spoke up. “Like Alex said, it was his idea to see if we could get you here.” Iona’s father glanced around at the small group with total confusion, “What in the hell are you all talking about? Doesn’t anyone else care about the fact there are machete armed lizards running around just outside of Maidstone?” “Actually they were more like roman short swords called a Gladius, only better made. The rest had fighting axes, much like the Viking style battle axe, not machetes,” The security guard snorted as he dug into his pack and pulled one of each type of blade for Bryan and the two boys to see. “Besides, they ain’t running around anymore; at least none we could find. We took down eight and your girl sent the last two into and half through a car when she batted them with your front door…” The guy then glanced at Bryan, “Um sir, we kind of left the house unsecured…” Bryan let out a breath of air, pretty much ignoring the girl’s father since the guy was clearly trying to process everything and failing badly, “Phone your people and see if they can get back there, nail the door back up, and get the girl’s pet and any food she may have for it.” Iona’s father once again looked around. “Phones don’t work…” “COSAM’s do.” Bryan stated matter of factly, “So do our radios and computers. And right now you are under COSAM’s protection, so if there is anything else you want out of your house for the next few days, now is the time to speak up. While it isn't too big of a deal, I have a feeling it is not cheap to have three of my choppers flying around.” Alex snickered at how flustered and totally bewildered the man looked before he turned his attention back to Iona. “Where’s your mom?” “Out on sea patrol.” Iona sighed. “She works for the Channel Guard keeping French pirate boats well away from our soil.” Alex nodded then looked back at the weapons, “Um, any chance Ryan and I could each get one of those, Dad?” Bryan looked over the blades and remembered the conversations from the other hotel the day before. “You are sure you can use them?” “More than sure.” Alex stated with total certainty. Bryan saw the security man eyeing Alex and shrugged. “Do you know how to fight with them?” “Not professionally, but we all have some blade work as part of our training. I know enough to see if the boy knows what he is doing, if you want me to.” “Then have your men bring back a couple more of those so we can see what my boys know and don’t.” Bryan commanded. He then turned back to Iona’s father, “I totally understand you being a bit overwhelmed at the moment, so let’s get you settled in so you can calm down and sort out your thoughts.” Iona glanced over her shoulder at her dad with clear disappointment in her eyes as she followed Alex and Evan back toward the elevator. “Um, should we be taking the stairs? The power at our house was acting funny before your guys showed up.” “We have stable power here.” Evan answered, “COSAM has been working all night to make sure this place has everything and it all stays running.” Iona took a deep breath as Alex punched the button for an elevator going up. “Your energy levels are really strong… I think I can almost see the stuff surrounding you.” Alex shrugged, “My brother and I seem to have big pools to draw from, but from what I can tell you are right on par with Lyle, maybe even stronger.” The group exited the elevator and the hotel employees showed the new arrivals to their room. While Iona’s dad went in and looked around with an almost blank expression on his face, Iona stopped in front of a door two down for the room they were shown. “Lyle’s in there, isn’t he?” At almost the same time, Lyle glanced over at Ryan and dropped the game control unit. “She’s here.” Bryan paused and watched as the door to the room suddenly opened. Ryan quickly stepped out into the hall and smiled. He glanced back into the room, “Yeah, she’s here.” Iona moved up to the door and broke into a big smile as she saw Lyle, “Hey, I hear I have you to thank for the rescue!” Lyle blushed slightly as he moved up. “All I did was recommend they try to find you. Mr. Caldwell and his company did the rest.” Iona’s smile didn’t fade in the slightest she moved forward and hugged Lyle, “Thank you! I owe you. The next time we are on the course you take first and I’ll take second!” Lyle turned even redder as he accepted the hug, “No way. We compete till the flag drops. I can’t let you throw a race!” Iona kissed Lyle on the cheek with a glimmer in her eyes. “Mom says I have to be thirteen before I can date, but maybe we could do things together until then!” Lyle blushed even deeper, but quickly nodded, “Any time!” Craig’s mom stepped out into the hall upon hearing the commotion, “So you two really do team up to help each other?” “Every time we race the same course, which is all the time now, since we both have decent sponsors.” Iona confirmed as she gave Lyle a quick kiss on the lips and backed away some. “Somehow I always know where he is and over the past few months I could tell he knew where I was. There is only one race where we both didn’t place and that moron, Blake, who knocked Lyle out of the Supercard Express didn’t finish the race either. I made sure of it. I still can’t believe they didn’t sanction him!” Lyle’s dad also came out of another room. “I saw him wreck, and can’t say I felt bad about it. The only reason they didn’t penalize him was because Lyle was unhurt and Blake’s broken arm and leg put him out of the circuit for at least two to three months and eliminated him from contendership. I also made sure to put in a protest, so potential sponsors would see it. But there was no way you could have caused his wreck. No one was around him…” Iona closed her eyes, whispered something, and a moment later the door behind Lyle’s dad slammed shut hard. Everyone except the other kids jumped with the sudden closing of the door. The kids all turned to look at Iona. Ryan was the first to speak, “I felt you do it!” “Yeah,” the red headed girl smiled without any hint of remorse in her voice for what she had done to the other boy. “I didn’t have to touch him. I stuck his throttle as he came over the big hill so he couldn’t slow down. I thought Lyle had been badly hurt after Blake kicked his back wheel on the short jump.” She then grinned back at Lyle, “I’m glad you weren’t.” “Thanks.” Lyle smiled back, “Me too!” Iona glanced over and whistled softly as Craig also came out into the hall. “Wow, how many of us are there?” “Not sure, but we are looking for as many as we can find.” Lyle’s dad announced while making sure the ‘boy-girl talk’ was pushed way back up on the to-do list. There was no question in his mind his son and Iona were extremely interested in each other. Bryan nodded, “We also brought you here for your protection. I wish I could talk to your father, but…” Iona rolled her eyes in some disgust, “Stepdad, and he isn’t going to be of much help. He freaks out when he sees any kind of blood. And if you think that is bad, you should hear him scream when he sees a snake! He won’t even feed Herman when I am gone, so I have to use my allowance and winnings to pay for someone to take care of him while I am racing.” “Herman?” Lyle asked. “Her pet iguana.” Bryan stated blandly, clearly not liking the way the girl had so little respect for her father. “You have an iguana?” Craig shouted, “Can I come over to see it?” “We are bringing it here.” Bryan managed a smile to see excitement in the boy’s eyes. Lyle’s father frowned, “Will the hotel allow it?” “I see no reason why the first hotel owned by COSAM can’t be totally pet friendly.” Bryan snorted. “You bought the place?” Iona gasped. “Paperwork is still being finalized and the UB government has to approve, but since they really want their emergency communications to work, I think they will OK it.” “Are you blackmailing them?” Craig’s mom demanded to know. “Nope, I just had one of my lawyers hint it could take a bit longer to get everything running smoothly if we couldn’t get everything finalized quickly. She made it a point to slip in such possibilities, since part of my time will have to be spent dealing with paperwork instead of their police, fire, and rescue frequency problems. I never said we wouldn’t do it.” Bryan paused and glanced over at Ryan, “Blame him, it was his idea.” Ryan put on a tight grin and turned his full attention to Iona, “We were about to test to see if we can find each other using our powers. Do you want to join in?” Iona glanced back to the room her dad went into and quickly nodded, “Sure, he is going to be a mess for hours after seeing what came after us. As a matter of fact, I may need one of you to keep Herman for a few days.” “I will help take care of him!” Craig stated with total sincerity. “I have wanted a pet like an iguana for a couple of years, but Mom can’t afford one.” “I’m sure you’ll love him!” Iona grinned then turned back to Lyle. “What are the rules of the game?” Lyle spoke up, “We can’t leave the building and two of us search while the others hide. Once everyone is found we switch.” Alex tossed her a COSAM cell phone, “It has your old number and the rest of ours are programmed in, so we know when everyone has been found. Since you and Lyle seem to have such good control, why don’t you go first? Give us fifteen minutes, then come looking." Iona nodded and slid the phone into her front pocket. She then glanced into the room Lyle came out of and spotted food, “How about we eat and talk while they go hide.” While the kids scattered to find good places to hide and Lyle and Iona went into the other room and closed the door, Bryan glanced over at Lyle’s dad, “So, Vince, when was your first kiss? I think I was almost fifteen, and it was one, not two.” Vince rolled his eyes and rubbed his forehead as he groaned softly. “Thirteen, at my second school dance, but fourteen before I got one on the lips.” Vince responded as he glanced back at the closed door and shuttered. “I am really going to have to expedite the dreaded chat!” “I could give you my two for it too, since I have no idea what I am going to say and I know Alex has a girl friend.” Bryan only half teased. “Maybe we could do it together, since I am right there with not knowing what to say.” The man admitted. “In the meantime, I think I need to grab some shut eye. I am wiped.” “As soon as I am sure the girl’s dad is OK, I’ll be right there with you.” Bryan admitted. “As long as the kids stay in the hotel, they will be fine. I also have more armed security coming in, just to make sure.” Iona sat at the small table and poured herself a large bowl of cereal and grabbed a couple of oranges from the fruit bowl, “So how long have you known you could do stuff?” “Like two years, but no real control until like a year ago.” “Same here.” She took a couple of bites as she glanced around the room, “But it wasn’t until I raced you the first couple of times before I started to really be able control what I could do. Actually, I think I finally got decent control last fall.” Lyle thought it over for a few seconds, “After the race at Hertfordshire, right?” “Yeah!” Iona looked over in surprise. “The very next race is when I started noticing you and within a couple more, I was sure you were like me.” Lyle looked back out the window noting the smoke could still be seen in the distance. Once again he fought the desire to send some of his pool into his vision. To prevent himself from just doing it, he turned to look at Iona, “Something happened there, it was during the lightning storm when we had to get under shelter…” “The lightning hit…: Iona whispered, “It hit those rocks with the weird circles on them… It was almost like I could hear them scream or something.” Lyle nodded, “It was more like an angry moan, like something was asleep and didn’t want to get woken up…” “You heard it too?” She gasped in surprise. “How wild!” Lyle took a deep breath, “Yeah, and it haunted me for days. Still, I didn’t have reliable control until then, within days after the race, I did. We also both got a whole lot better and have been at or near the top of the leader board for points ever since.” “Do you think something is there?” Iona asked thoughtfully. “Maybe…” After we do this hide and seek game, we should talk to Mr. Caldwell. It may be linked to what we are after." Iona finished eating. As she moved to the door she grinned. “What floors do you want?” “I’ll take odd, you take even?” “Sounds fair to me.” She grinned, “If we continue to do this, you are going to have to come find me one of these times.” Lyle blushed badly and laughed, “I think that is what my dad is worried about!”
  4. Kyle Aarons

    Chapter 31

    yes, the next chapter is well underway, Now that I have finished my first commercial novel up on Amazon and Kindle, i can fully focus in on getting Kandric 32 done! I am hoping to get it to an editor in about three weeks.
  5. Conner, Sharris, Nake (HE 14), Tobash (HE 15) Zestolg, Ambrasia, Sarryel, Pontarious, Frenna, Dostem, other crew of Thunder Rapids + {Gilew Human HE 12, Munder Sil-Drgling HE 11, Quelrik Human HE 10, Vaskar Human HE 14, Gil-Drak Wolfling HE 13} Conner glanced out one of the few upper floor windows of the Blazing Brook Inn, noting the sky had really opened up as night fell on the city. Large flakes of snow were coming down hard, propelled by a very strong eastern wind. While wondering why Syria was allowing such a storm in what should have been planting season, he was equally bothered by the fact the sheets of blowing snow drastically cut down on his infravison. On a normal spring night, he would have easily been able to see heat sources over two blocks away. With the current conditions, he couldn't even make out the variances in heat in the building straight across the street. The other problem was, as with many large inns, the attic area was set up as an area for apprentices and those who worked for mostly room and board. This meant the fourth story was hot, since heat rose, and not made for comfort. There were three windows in this room all facing the main street. The other side was an identical area, but all the windows overlooked the stable area. This meant the ends of the large building had no upper windows to spot possible threats from. The ends were being covered by other members of the Thunder Rapids, but Conner doubted they were as skilled at spotting city problems as he was. At least the overall makeup of the crew was a rougher one, Conner reminded himself, so many had some decent street skills. The bigger concern for Conner was the fact there were heat sources so large he could see them in the distance. This told him there were areas of Rolling Dale on fire. Judging by the large numbers of huge heat sources, plus the faint glow in the distance, Conner bet whole blocks of the city were burning uncontrollably. Again, this brought Conner back to the weather. The cold would make it hard on those displaced by such blazes. On the other hand, the heavy snow might be a saving grace for others, since it would certainly slow or possibly stop the flames from spreading. The weather also told Conner something else. There were no city workers out doing any kind of care normally taken along such a major street like the Blazing Brook was along. Normally the city would have lanterns up on posts to light the streets. This was typical regardless of weather, but when snow came in, most cities would make navigation of the main streets a priority since streets didn't tend to be straight and getting lost in a large walled city was extremely easy. By lighting the main roads, people in the city would have less chance of getting confused. Another important part about having lanterns out, the main streets were normally patrolled, meaning those traveling the city at night would be much less likely to be robbed, mugged, or pickpocketed along lit streets. The fact there was no light below, meant the city was sending a message. In simple terms, those in charge were saying, 'you are on your own'. Anyone out on the streets was at the mercy of whoever else was out and about. To Conner this meant either the city was in a state of total anarchy or the rulers were so overwhelmed with the distant fires and whatever the earlier explosion had been, they had nothing left to perform normal duties with. The other, much darker possibility was the city had fallen to Gambra and her people, and they were sending a message to the inhabitants of Rolling Dale about the new regime. If this was the case, the message was simple: 'you don't matter' with a large side of 'and we don't care'. Conner didn't look negatively on the entire situation, though. For he saw upside to the current circumstances, at least for himself and the those helping him hold the inn. The snow made it all but impossible to sneak up on the inn, simply because moving on it would leave a trail noticeable from the upper windows. Invisibility simply wouldn't work since there was no way to eliminate the obvious footfalls in the snow. The trails would also show where the attackers came from. Conner knew Gambra would never let anyone leave a trail straight back to wherever she was operating out of. This left only one real option for trying to take the inn back, the underground passage. However, Captain Pontarious made it perfectly clear he, and he alone, would deal with any intruders from below. To this end, he ordered the Dark Mystic apprentices Conner had locked in the cages moved up to a storage room while he and a trio of his Mystic students kept vigil on the trap door leading to the lower basement where the large Mystic lab had been. At the same time, Captain Pontarious wasted no time in bringing much of the lab to life, producing scores of small potions like the fire bursts. The really odd thing was he had those with Metal Worker guild pins melting all the easier to melt metal in the inn. They were then molding the molten metal into hollow balls with a single small hole in them. Asking around provided no insight on what Pontarious was doing. None of the crew had seen him use hollow metal balls before. On top of the obvious fact if thrown with a potion on the inside, they wouldn't break, they were also pretty large, on order of a cantaloupe. This would make them hard to throw. In addition, he had the Metal Workers make them fairly thick, so they were also heavy. There was nothing Conner could see as to them being useful and it was taking a great deal of rest time away from the one adult and two teen Metal Workers, when everyone was pretty tired from the initial taking of the inn. It really made no sense. Conner also worried about what the crew's thoughts were surrounding the captured Mystics. Yet, anyone who may have had reservations or complaints about them couldn't help but note Pontarious had said nothing about the plight of the youngsters in the small cages. The only thing he did, before ordering his people to stack the cages up in the storage room with the Mystic apprentices still in them, was to give each some water. The captain's lack of concern for the predicament of the captives sent a strong signal to the rest of the crew. None of the said a word about what Conner had done to them and the pleas from inside the cages were summarily ignored. Even as these thoughts kept Conner's mind busy, he had other concerns. First and foremost was how drained many of those helping to hold the inn were. Several had chosen to attune to the sunrise, and many, like Sharris had used a great deal of magic. This meant over half the people helping to keep the inn out of Gambra's hands were almost out of magical reserves and were exhausted. If they could hold until first light, the tables would turn, but until then only a handful of those with him got a replenishment from Lunara's rising moon. On the other hand, taking a second to look down at Sharris and a few of the other younger guilded members of the Thunder Rapids all sleeping, told him a great deal about the trust the entire crew had in their captain and surprisingly, himself. Having others trust him the way those sleeping in the room showed, was quite simply an astonishing and even scary revelation. For from the time he had first rejected Gambra's stewardship, he had entered a world where there was little trust in anyone, including those in the Wraith school controlled by Lord Anarton. Even those who trained him and the younger ones he subsequently mentored, there was always a watchful eye kept out for those holding onto life force too long or abusing the power and knowledge Lord Anarton was trusting them with. His shifting thoughts ended as he spotted a trio of people rounding the corner at the end of the block. Two were small, one was quite tall and well built. The big being had a blanket draped over him and was using it to shelter the smaller two making it hard to really see any of them. There were two distinct things pointing to there being three under the blanket. The first and most obvious was the three sets of footprints in the snow. The second was the lumps marking heads of the two smaller beings under the blanket. Conner fully expected the trio to angle toward the front door of the inn, but it didn't happen. The largest of the three guided the other two toward the far side of the street and picked up the pace. Conner frowned at this. For either the three were a distraction or the larger being was so afraid of the inn, he wanted to stay as well clear of it as possible. Conner quickly dismissed the three while trying to figure out what good such a minor distraction could be to Gambra. This was also part of Lord Anarton's training. One of the first teaching points the man worked with on all knew apprentices, was never to take anything at face value. To this end, it was common for new students to find chairs with legs almost sawed through, sharp barbs on tableware, beds with holes in the middle with linen tightly pulled over to hide the hole, mugs with handles just barely attached, and a whole host of other devious little tricks. It took Conner only a couple of weeks to question everything he saw and to look past the obvious. He then had to learn to find a balance and really observe, since he found he was questioning everything and getting nothing accomplished. To this end, he took a step back and thought about what goal the trio had if they were indeed a distraction. The most obvious answer was to draw attention toward them and away from something far more important. Much like the lessons of taking nothing at face value, Anarton had been equally good at teaching the art of distraction, and as Conner quickly learned, distraction was indeed an art form. One of the first classes the man taught was using Autospells to deflect attention away from something else. In a market, a puff of smoke would turn heads and open up pouches to those with nimble fingers. A hardy dash a salt in someone's food or drink would get a cringe and a downward turn of a head. This made grabbing some food off of the person's table almost too easy. It took Conner only a few moments to run down a mental checklist. The trio, if they were planted, had one goal to draw gazes toward them. This meant, if indeed they were Gambra operatives, they were attempting to draw attention away from something else. But what? There were no other footprints in the snow... Then it came to him, Gambra may well want him looking down. Conner's head jerked upwards and he scanned the air. As the first few heat sources appeared over the building across the street he snorted. "Too easy..." Still, this was a direct threat and had to be dealt with. Conner took a deep breath, "Everyone up! We have flyers coming in from the east!" He then backed off and shouted into the hall, "Everyone up, but this is not going to be Gambra's main attack. It's got to be a feint! Don't use magic unless you absolutely have to. It may well be a pawn attack to make us waste Force! Captain, keep your eye on the basement!" “You have command up there, Conner!" Captain Pontarious' voice boomed from below. “Take out the trash if that is what it is." Conner moved back up to the window while using his foot to flip a spear over to Sharris even as she rubbed sleep out of her eyes. He then grabbed a quiver of six javelins and tossed them over to the three teens as they all fought to shake themselves awake. "Get close to the windows but not so close they can see you. As soon as they bust through, charge and aim for center mass. If possible drive them right back out!" Conner then took a few steps back and stood ready should there be any major problems. Nake was first to act as one of the larger windows close to him shattered and a woman stumbled forward. He used one of the javelins to impale her and with a second shove pushed her back out the window. She fell screaming. Next to Nake, Tobash did pretty much the same thing, only his thrust hit a man's sternum and the tip broke off. Behind the fifteen-year-old, Dostem moved up and slammed the back of the javelin with his hand, sliding the broken weapon off the breastbone and driving the wooden stick into the man's lungs. He then spun and snapped his whip at another man who stumbled in right behind the first two. The whip wrapped around the man's neck only to get expertly pulled back, ripping skin off all the way around. The man fell choking and quaking. Tobash wasted no time stepping forward, pulling his short sword, and plunging the tip into the man's gut. Sharris' aim was not as good, but she still managed to shove the spear she suddenly found in her hand into the cheek of yet another man. The wound widened a great deal as the man's instincts were to grab at it, even as Sharris moved forward. The spear tip opened a wide gash from just behind the corner of the mouth and going all the way back to the ear. Even as blood poured down the man's left side, he kept the spear in one hand, while grabbing for Sharris with his other. Conner was about to act, but Nake was closer and while one of the softer-spoken teens on the Thunder Rapids, he showed he had the same grittier side to him as the rest of the crew. Without caring about the massive amount of blood, he reached up and stuck his hand through the massive hole in the man's cheek, grabbed on to the small section between the corner of the mouth and the start of the gash and pulled back with everything he had. The result was to rip the wound open all the way, leaving nothing but a handing flap of skin all the way down the left side of the man's face. Since the teeth were fully exposed, Nake drew one of his daggers and, with a backhand, slammed the hilt into them shattering several. Incredibly, the man remained standing, but seeing the hilt of the dagger coming in for a second shot, he spun and dove back out the window. He maintained control of whatever was allowing him to fly, so he hovered just outside the window for a second as he fought to hold his face together. It was a second too long. The last thing he saw was Nake's dagger spinning through the air. It hit him in the face. This was simply too much damage. He lost concentration and fell, crumpling into a heap on the cobblestone below. A second wave of intruders came in through the busted windows, but the failure of the first group to gain a foothold left them in even worse circumstances than the first group. They had to come in through shattered windows into a line of defenders who were much more awake and considerably more ready. Five more fell quickly; two to Nake, one to Sharris, one to Tobash, and one to the youngest Primary Echelon girl from the Thunder Rapids, Frenna. Dostem then had to move up and eliminate a Halfling female on Frenna's side since she had opened herself up to the woman. Two other would-be attackers didn't even make it to the windows. They angled up and let the wind push them over the building. Nake reached down and grabbed the loaded crossbow off one of the bodies, ran to the window, leaned out and fired a parting shot. The scream told the rest in the room not only had the shot been a good one, the target had been a woman. The subsequent howling about an arrow in her butt caused everyone in the room but Conner to grin and give Nake a nod. Conner, on the other hand, took a deep breath after checking to make sure those on the other side of the inn were OK. Seeing they had not been attacked, he moved back into the room he had been keeping watch and shot Nake a glare, "Nice shooting, but you are lucky." The fourteen-year-old cocked his head to the side with confusion, "Huh?" "Nake," Conner stated in a harsh warning tone, "if there had been someone out there hovering just below the window he could have grabbed you and yanked you right out the window. Next time look, then take a parting shot." The kid looked stung by the words, "Sorry..." Conner shrugged, "Next time you will be, cause I'll knock the crap out of you for being careless and give you some chores you'll really hate. This time, well..." Conner forced himself to grin and sound a great deal less angry than he felt, "You shot her in the ass, so I'll let it slide." He then turned totally serious again as the others snickered and both Sharris and Tobash gave Nake friendly shoves, "Now ignore the bodies. We can loot them later. I need you to pair up and spread out. They could have gotten a few on the roof and they may try to break through. Nake, Sharris, take the hall but I don't want either of you to cast unless you absolutely have to. Nake, you just got your Force back, but as a Mystic you don't have very much to play with and this is a probing attack at most. Don't waste it. Even Autospells are invaluable right now and you took out three without using any. Frenna, same for you. Keep your Mage book and Autospells in reserve. Until first light you can't have much left. Tobash, go with Frenna and check on the guards on the third floor. Dostem and I will hold this and make sure they don't try to pull up parts of the room above us to get in." As the others did as they were told, Dostem nudged Conner, "You could have helped..." Conner gestured toward the bodies littering the floor, "I could have, but you really should have held back and waited to see if Tobash needed help. The guy was wounded bad. Tobash should have been able to take him without you jumping in." "Instinct." "I get it, but you are real close to Teaching Echelon. You can't do things for students, and like it or not, they may be Primaries, but barely and need to be able to hold their own against the scrubs Gambra just sent against us. Taking the Halfling bitch, I get. I was about to take her when I saw you angling to have Frenna's side, but Tobash is a Mystic, a guilded one. If he can't handle a straight up fight with what had to have been a mundane sword, then he needs to give his primary pins back! He shouldn't need a Secondary coming to his aide, none. I mean geesh, the guy was looking down at the shaft in his chest in disbelief. Your nine-year-old should have been able to take the idiot!" Dostem let out a long breath, "Yeah, ya' young bugger, yer right. But I help to raise him..." "So you should wanna see him grow up, not look to others like a scared kid. I mean, come on, he's less than a year from Age of Ascension!" "I still see a lil kid..." "Then do something to change how you see him!" "Like what?" Conner smirked, "Once we get out of this, take him to a whore house and get him laid. That'll change yer view." Dostem elbowed Conner playfully in the ribs, "Not if I get to watch, cause me's bettin' he'll have no clue what ta do!" Conner giggled, "Then don't watch..." He then shook his head, "Never mind, I know you wouldn't be able to help it." Before more could be said, there was a warbling whistle from down on the street. Seeing Dostem grab for a javelin, Conner held up his hand even as he bolted over to the window and gave a whistling reply. Dostem edged up to the window and peeked down. He blinked and looked again at the strange sight below. Conner was cautious as he looked down, but quickly smiled as he saw faces of a few he knew all too well, "Gil-Drak! How'd you find me?" Next to the Wolfling youngster, a young Silver Dragonling held up a pair of dead Halflings, one in each claw, while a young Human boy held up a blanket in one hand and the head of a Halforc in the other. Gil-Drak grinned up, "We followed the diversion meant to focus yer attention the wrong way and took 'em while they were distracted." Conner snickered, "Is our lord here?" "Somewhere." Gil-Drak responded. "He gave each high Secondary a team and each group came in alone. Gilew is our team leader." "Gilew?" Conner asked in sudden concern, "Where is he?" Another Human boy rounded the corner dragging two bodies, one with a bolt sticking out of the center of her rear. The kid looked up, "Cleaning up after you, as usual." Even as Conner and a couple of the other chuckled, the Dragonling spoke up, "Conner, we heard 'em talk. Them levitatorssssss were to pull ya'll up top. The main group comin' underground." "My boss has it covered, Munder. None a us 'er following the main attack, are they?" "Better not be," the youngest Human boy spoke up as he stepped on the throat of the guy with the ripped face, ending his moanings. "From what us hear, they be coming from the Gloom Fire Mystic Shop and our master told us to stay WAYYYYYY away from there. You and him 'er the only ones allowed to take anyone of us near there... Um, it's cold out here, Conner. Can we come in?" Conner grinned, "Sure thing, Quelrik! But do me a favor and grab the dagger sticking out of that guy's face. It belongs to one of the kids in here." Quelrik shrugged, reached down, and pulled out the dagger. At the same time the Wolfling looked up, "You want their gear, Conner?" Conner didn't hesitate, "Grab what you can while I send someone down to unbar the door, Gil-Drak." He then stared down at the oldest Human, "And Vaskar, we are secure for now. Let it go." Without any complaint, the fourteen-year-old took a knee and released the death gift he had taken from one of the Halflings. Conner nodded in satisfaction before giving Gilew a stern look, "Gilew, I know you are almost two years younger than Vaskar, but as team leader, it is your job to tell the others when to drop the gifting. YOU KNOW what can happen if they hold on too long. Don't let this happen again." Gilew's eyes went wide, "Sorry, Conner, but..." "First off, no buts, none. You are the leader. It is your job to give the command. And it hasn't been very long for you, so you should remember how hard it is to let go at first, even if the Primaries want to. They have to be watched carefully and given a chance to focus so they can let go. Second, don't worry, everyone in here knows about me. I didn't tell them, but they figured it out and they fully accept who and what we are. You'll understand more once you talk to some of them." To this end, he turned to Dostem, "Go warn the captain about the big rats coming in the sewers, then open the door! We got some help!" King Wyhrem, Klandon, Count Salostar, Barron Greyhammer, Sardan, Sagell, Aster, Bayne, Benam, Quavis, Cresh, Dabaff, Gomriss King Wyhrem, with Bayne at his side, moved up to one of the old, partially crumbling walls of the aged keep. He was flanked by Sardan and Sagell, along with Count Salostar and Baron Greyhammer. Benam and Quavis, along with several others looked on in awe from well behind, never in their lives figuring they would ever get this close to a real king, let alone have one take enough interest to get to know them by name. Yet even as King Wyhrem moved up to greet Sardan, he took a moment to get introduced to them, while at least getting the names of a couple of others. He even thanked them for helping The Watch. Even more astonishing to Quavis, the king listened to Sardan tell him and those with him who Quavis' father was. Instead of being angry, the man showed true gratitude, giving Quavis a hug, while praising him for having the fortitude and character to go against his father and Gambra's operation. In turn this caused both the Alphar count and Garm baron to pat him on the back as they moved up the badly weathered steps. Count Salostar went so far as to dig into his pouch and hand Quavis, Benam, Cresh, and Dabaff an emerald each, as a way of saying thanks for being a trusted traveling companion of Prince Aster. While they looked at the large supremely cut stones in their hands, Quavis did his best to focus on what the king, his king, was saying only a few meters away. Wyhrem looked out over to the cracked battlements to the distant glow. "Am I seeing Rolling Dale?" Sardan answered, "Yes, my King, you are. Are you sure you do not want to go down and see your son?" "My son... Which one?" "We cannot be certain, my King. Our best guess is we actually have Prince Klandon, while Glaster has Prince Zoldon with him. I have now seen both boys and as best as I can tell there is no way, by looking, to discern which one we have. I can also assure you neither knows who is whom. The one we have now only remember being tortured into believing his name is Zoldon, but he has better royal speech than the other and skills he would have been taught in your court, such as Dragonsteed care. I was unable to say more than a few words to your other son, but he seems to firmly believe his name is Klandon. What I did observe, however, leads me to believe he has a rougher and less refined side to him, one he would not have if he had lived in your court for most of his life." King Wyhrem brushed a tear out of the corner of his eye with his gauntleted right hand even as he sighed, "I have done serious wrong to both for not having seen through this nefarious plot. Have you been able to figure out what the end game was supposed to be?" "Not yet, my King. No matter what, we will though," Sardan stated with complete conviction. "I do not care how many I have to step on or gut, sooner or later someone who knows something will talk." Without realizing he would be heard, Quavis muttered, "Not if Gambra get to them first." Sagell shot Quavis a glare, "There is no way to eliminate all those who helped with these operations, Quavis." "Sagell," Quavis countered, "my dad killed my best friend right under my nose and I didn't even realize it until I found out who and what he is! I am sure most of the people behind the taking of Klandon, or Zoldon, or whoever, were killed the moment they were no longer useful. Just look at what my father almost did inside your city! Also, I head Noglin was killed by Gambra, and he was the one giving my father orders. She killed him inside Junsac, the home of The Watch!" King Wyhrem made a slashing motion with his hand to cut off any rebuke on Sagell or Sardan's part. "Quavis makes some very strong points. My Royal Healthman was part of this plot against me, and he was killed within hours of becoming a liability. Killed in my capitol city in front of dozens of witnesses, and everyone insists it was nothing more than an accident. If this Gambra can get to my Royal Healthman in the manner she did, she would have certainly removed others with intimate knowledge of what her final goal or goals were." He then turned to look at Quavis, "Young man, I am willing to stake everything I am, on you not understanding one of the reasons why both my Watch members, along with the good count and baron, are glaring at you. I also am decreeing you are not to be scolded for this slight." Quavis looked up with total confusion, "King?" Wyhrem snickered at the befuddlement plastered on not only Quavis but Benam as well. "Boys, you are in a circle you have never had to deal with. Your lack of etiquette is totally understandable. However, you, Quavis, have committed what some would see as a major insult to me." Quavis' eyes went wide, "I am super sorry, King!... Um, can I ask how?" Baron Greyhammer snickered and moved up to Quavis, "The heart of a Tundra Lion this one has! Not even afraid to ask a king what he did wrong after being told he had insulted the very king he is talking to! You, lad, will go far in this world!" He patted the boy hard on the back, as he spoke with a wide smile, "Young one, the two boys you spoke of by name are the sons of your king. Simply calling them by name leaves out a large measure of who they are, and by doing so you leave out who their father is." Next to Quavis, Benam nudged him as it dawned on the boy what the Garm was referring to, "Aw, dude, are you trying to get us put into stocks until we are like fifty? For us it is Prince Klandon and Prince Zoldon! By not giving them credit for being princes, you are all but saying he's not a king, let alone our king!" Quavis quickly held up both hands as he not only realized the underlying insult to King Wyhrem, but the fact he had bossed Zoldon around several times over the past few days. If Zoldon told on him, or even told a royal guard... Zoldon could have him thrown in the deepest darkest cell the kingdom had and toss the key in an ocean somewhere! "Oh, oh, crap... um.... geesh.... shit... um... Princes, yeah, damn, I'm an idiot, but I'm not the only one to make him do chores!" Benam looked horrified, "I... I... oh... I'm sorry! I'll never do it again!" King Wyhrem let out a booming laugh, while moving up to give both Quavis and Benam a bear hug, "You two are welcome in my palace anytime, boys! And if you made one of my sons do some chores, it will do him good in the long run. For a good ruler needs to know how to be ruled once in a while. I assure you, my own father gave others below my birth status power over me on occasion." He then turned a great deal more serious as he let go of them and moved back to stare at the distant glow, "My kingdom is going to need more boys like these two in the coming years. Take good care of them." Sardan responded, "I look very much forward to it, and I assure you, my King, so does Sagell." Sagell turned a bit red in the cheeks, while sending a sharp, yet playful glare at Sardan, "My Liege, I can only second Sardan's words." "Good, see to it they get the best of everything possible including training and gear, for I am not speaking in jest when I decree my palace doors will remain open to both and I would like to see a great deal more of them. They have the type of hearts I want to cultivate. Now as far as my son, no matter which one is here, he is safe. The lives of many of my people are not." He pointed to the glow shining through the driving snow, "Is Rolling Dale on fire?" Sagell's expression darkened as she spoke with disgust in her voice, "We think parts of it is, but it has been taken from within. The gates are closed and the walls manned, but not by anyone allied to you, my Liege. We have failed you." "No, the baron has failed me and my people. He and the leadership of Rolling Dale will be answering directly to me for this failure as soon as I have time to find and deal with them. Right now, however, there are far more important details to attend to. So, to this end, what about refugees?" Again Sagell responded, "My Liege, it seems few were able to escape. There was a large refugee camp on the opposite side of the city, but it was hit by siege weapons just before sunset from within the city. From the smattering of reliable reports we have been able to verify, it seems those who sought refuge here from the Everone Barony were forced to scatter. Many more were cut down or captured by an armed group of soldiers from Rolling Dale as they tried to flee. From what we have been able to glean, a large detachment of Rolling Dale garrison guards moved in and took everything of value and a number of those who did not scatter quickly enough. They then moved back inside the walls with hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees and wagons of items looted from the large camp. Some reports say they even took the bodies of those they murdered, however, this has yet to be verified. At this point we do not feel we can get close enough to get eyes on what is left of the camp. Once the weather clears, we may be able to get a decent long distance look. It remains to be seen what will be discernible after the heavy snows we are getting pelted with. Are you certain you do not wish to go below where it is warm and see your son?" King Wyhrem's whole posture told those looking one he was sickened by the news even before his words and shaking voice verified it, "Those are my people out in this storm. If they are out in this with little to nothing, their king should at least be forced to endure Syria's wrath for a bit while we come up with a way to render aide to those really suffering. The real question I have is why attack refugees? What harm were those fleeing the fighting in Everone causing?" Sagell gave a shrugging motion, showing more frustration than she wanted to let on. "My Liege, we do not know the reason for this unprovoked action, nevertheless, we do know the provision reserves you sent to feed and clothe the refugees were some of the things the soldiers took. It very well may be they were after supplies to hold for a long siege and simply took the chance to loot valuables. Unfortunately, this is all conjecture on my part. We simply do not have any good information from within the city other than what young Quavis was able to get from the four guards. The four in the patrol Quavis got talking seemed to know there was a major problem and three of the four were worried about family should things go bad, which it seems to have done." Wyhrem turned to look back at Quavis, "Son, between the reports I received about the bandit actions you managed to get from within the Ghoul Drool and your ability to loosen tongues of a Rolling Dale patrol you have managed to get me more information than almost anyone else. You and your good friend Benam are more than welcome to join us as we discuss this further. Besides, my son, Prince Bayne could use a friend or two to help him with his studies and have someone to play with. I would like to see if the three of you could become friends." Seeing Sardan gesture for the boys to move up to join the rest at the wall, Quavis gulped, but quickly grabbed Benam and stepped close to the wall, realizing while it hadn't been worded as an order, Sardan clearly saw it as such. As he moved up he heard King Wyhrem ask, "What of refugees from Rolling Dale? Certainly some within the walls got out before the city was sealed." Sardan responded, "My King, some undoubtedly did. The problem is, we have been too preoccupied with getting your son and the duke's children out and then to fully secure this keep to try to locate any stragglers. We wanted to gate in more Watch members to this keep to aid in control and security, but this has not been possible since the magical flows are so badly off. They gated in to a safe location upriver, and will hopefully be here by sunrise. This storm may well delay them, however. "One thing to consider, when thinking about those who reside in the walls of Rolling Dale, is without Glaster casting a massive spell on the merchant gate we would have been locked in as well, so while some must have managed to get out and others were outside the walls and unable to return home, most were trapped within. In addition to how fast the city was locked down, the aforementioned flows of magic are make gating into or out of Rolling Dale impossible, so even powerful casters within the walls were trapped the moment the gates closed. I have never seen anything like the magical disruptions of the kind we face out here, and this is mild compared to what is going on closer to the city.” "King Wyhrem," Count Salostar spoke softly, "if I may?" "The floor is yours, good Count," Wyhrem responded while giving a gesture to the Alphar. "The magic I feel is much like we have in areas within our lands where large wars were fought between the Mythlets and Mythlings. Think of it as a magical rift, having been caused by a tremendous expenditure of magic in a very small area in a very limited span of time. In essence, it broke the normal threads of magic creating a hole where magic is both gushing out and streaming in, as if it is trying to repair the damage done. "According to the ancient tomes I have read, the effects in the rift points did heal over time, at least to some degree. This phenomenon took time, and even now there are areas where rift points can drain an unexpecting spell caster of all Force. In the most extreme cases these tears in magic may even turn an inexperienced spell caster into a Mundane for days, weeks or even months. The tomes suggest at first a few were even reduced to being Mundane for life because they were unable to stop the release of their magic into the rifts." Baron Greyhammer took a deep breath, "The ancient tomes within Garm lands have similar tales, Great King. One story I had read to me as a young-one told of a teacher who rendered several of his students unconscious to prevent them from losing their magic to a magical tear caused in a battle between Kryplok and Quati. The teacher was exiled for harming a child of a powerful lord. The lord then had his child leave the court in search of his teacher who saved him from becoming Mundane. It says both were cursed to wander in search of each other and it their voices we hear calling out when the wind howls. While a child's tale, there seems to be a truth behind it; for there are a few accounts of royal children who became Mundane from getting too close to the battles between the most powerful beings during the Mythling Wars." "But Glaster is only a Master. There is no way he could have created such a magical fold..." "My Liege," Sagell responded once she was sure Wyhrem's voice had truly faltered, "there is no chance in this existence or the next, Glaster was able to cast the spell he did on his own. While he may have been the prompt or spark, the result... the horrifying power... It was beyond the reach of mortals and I pray it stays out of the reach of mortals for evermore. Also, while he may have been Master Echelon before the spell, I would stake my life and those of my entire lineage on Glaster being a lord now. The spell he cast on the merchant gate was at the upper reaches of Legendary, for I have seen Master Echelon spells which look more like an Autospell when compared to the... The utter devastation he wrought on the small gate and guardhouse. I am certain you will concur to his Guild rank once he gets here." Wyhrem clenched his fist and pounded on the battlement in front of him for a few seconds, "Sagell, I want you to get with my Captain of the Guard and send out some search parties. I want any surviving refugees found, brought here and cared for. I also want anyone who was within the wall Rolling Dale within the past week brought here for questioning. We need to know what we are dealing with and why." King Wyhrem turned his attention quickly back to Quavis, "Young man, from what I was just told and what you let slip intentionally or unintentionally, you have met this Gambra and your father worked for her and was striving to become a Dark Mage under her tutelage. What insights can you provide, even if it is only supposition?" Quavis' eyes went wide, "King... um my King?" Wyhrem knelt and put on a slight smile while reaching out and grasping Quavis' shoulders, "Either is fine, Quavis. Now if you can try to focus and give me whatever intuitions you may have?" Quavis found it hard not to look over to Sardan for guidance, partially because some of the words Wyhrem were using were on the edge of his comprehension. However, with a great deal of effort he stayed focused on the man, "King, I... I um, am very afraid of what Mistress, my father's mentor, will do. To be honest, I can't say I am positive it is this Gambra, but it all fits and I saw the Halfling woman several times and spent time with her on a few of them. The name Gambra was first told to me at the Ghoul Drool, but, um.... Well, my father always called her Mistress, and I know he was very afraid of her." "I am going to assume, as you now do, this person was or is Gambra, a name I have heard whispered in fear more than a few times. So tell me what you know." "OK, King... Um, I know just enough to guess she will use some of those the soldiers took to twist their life forces and use what she steals from them against anyone who gets in her way. I think she'll do it in the same way I found out my father took the life spark of my best friend and used him... it... um... whatever a life spark becomes when it is taken... Um, Father used my friend’s life to prove himself to Gambra and I think may have made his book out of him too. The more I find out and hear, the worse a monster my father becomes, and the mistress was the one who gave all orders. I would bet what little I have left of Mistress being this Gambra. "Anyway, um, King, I also am willing to bet she has a non-magical escape route. I heard her tell my father more than once he needed to always leave himself a way out should he be discovered. At the time, I thought it was to escape should some of the former Day Slaves find out where he lived, but now... Um, I mean, I think it was really to escape The Watch or city guard. Anyhow, when she was talking to my father she said she never went anywhere or did nothing without having a way out. It was like it was one of the most important things to her. For when I saw her a couple of other times, one of the first things she would ask is what was the back door. Again, I didn't realize what she meant then, cause twice there was no back door, but now, I understand she was asking for a way to escape. I am so, so sorry! I didn't know better and tell..." "You are a boy, a very perceptive one, but to not see your father in a bad light and obey him is not something I can find any fault with. I will say again, you are both strong of character and extremely brave for the path you have chosen. Once this is over, I will see you well rewarded and I will expect to see a Watch pin on you." Wyhrem patted Quavis on the head as he stood and turned to look at Sagell, "I see no reason to doubt Quavis' inner familiarity of this situation. If this Dark Mage witch goes nowhere and does nothing without an escape route, we need to find it. For if it can get her out, it can get a small team in to get us hard information. Should we be very fortunate, and if Sariff wishes to be on our side, we may even be able to use it to take this Gambra and make her pay tenfold for what she has done to my people." He took one last look at the orangish-yellow light in the distance before turning away from the wall and making his way to the steps down, "Sagell, out in this storm are children now twice displaced by war. The same must be said for the adults, but at least they have a measure of wisdom to guide them in this perilous time. The children do not. Making matters worse, many were probably orphans before, and others are orphaned now. I am willing to lay a considerable wager many of the young ones who fled the refugee camp are starving, even as I move down to sit in front of a fire, eat, and find out which of my sons is here. Those children out in this storm... They are a large measure of the future of my kingdom. I decree none are to be looked at, labeled, or treated as orphans. They belong to me until I find them homes. Even if I have to order every royal guard in my kingdom to take one in as his or her own, not a single one will be reduced to orphan class because of this travesty. As of this moment, we spare nothing and no expense on finding every child out in these woods and surrounding fields before they freeze to death, even if this means we lose time in trying to retake Rolling Dale. Those who have done this will pay for the suffering they are causing in ways I have not even dreamed up yet." Wyhrem then put his arms around Quavis and Benam, "Boys, you have traveled with my son and at this point most certainly know him better than I do. And Benam, for Quavis to see you as his new best friend, you must be cut of the same mold, but have not been given a chance to show it. Now, if you two would, please accompany me down to talk with my boy. While I do, use the cunning you have shown my Watch members to see what information you can help me unlock within him." As soon as King Wyhrem was out of sight, Sardan looked over at Sagell with a gleam in his eyes, "Unless I am totally mistaken, our king is every bit as enamored with Quavis as you are, only in a totally different way." Sagell's face flushed, but she still smiled, "At this rate, by the time I finally bed him, I will be taking someone with a royal title to bed." "Have his child, and you can have the son or daughter of royalty." Sagell's eyes arched up, "You think he is old enough to make me heavy with child?" "He has got to be close... but I was joking!" "I am not! As good as he looks, he would be certain to make me have a great looking kid!" Count Salostar shook his head with a bemused and somewhat dismayed smirk, "As gorgeous as you are, you want to have what may be your only offspring with a Human child?" The corner of her mouth turned upwards, "For you, good Count, I would not mind giving you a chance at fathering my second child." Salostar couldn't help looking at the woman with a shocked expression, "I highly doubt my wife would approve." "Then do not tell her. I do not mind being a side fling for a good-looking hunk of Alphar." Seeing Salostar turn a dark red all the way to the tips of his ears, Greyhammer roared with a deep gut laugh, "Look there Count, you have a mistress on your first official outing outside our lands!" Sardan snorted, "If I may, Baron Greyhammer, I have just the lady for you as well..." Seeing the Garm's eyes go wide, Sagell was only too happy to press the issue, "Oh, yes, Gomriss would be only too happy to be all over our good Garm Baron!" The Garm and Alphar motioned for Sardan and Sagell to go down in front of them before Greyhammer spoke in a hushed tone to Salostar, "I am thinking continuing to venture out of our lands may be a great deal of fun, how about you?" Glaster, {Beema - 12, and Kamen - 12 Devkiln, Famira, Dorwald, Bavrim, Javarim, Zoldon, Lylan, Mylan, Glaster, Rylan Oldsurn, Chark’ash-Shunral, Perth, Jolnart, King's Judge (Judge Andreus), 5 Alphar, Protector’s Keep guards, Nolram, Tazen, Gastrom} Glaster double-checked the camp and made sure guards were posted. The spot they were bedding down in was clearly a known and popular one judging on the amount of debris in a well-constructed fire pit. This was far from ideal, but they simply had to stop and rest. Several of the animals had been wounded and were exhausted after pulling wagons totally full of goods along with extra people. Since they had hastily abandoned one of the wagons, but had cleaned out the most valuable goods before burning it at the edge of the city, and roads were still snow covered, the animals had to work harder. Then, when they went off normal paths and into the woods, the going got even harder. In addition to the animals, a number of the surviving guards were injured and the others were in need of a break. For those who had never experienced combat, understanding of the physical and mental toll was simply not possible. Having fought a major battle, then forced to stay alert for several hours of travel, left even the strongest men faltering to some degree. If a good thing could be said for the current situation, the campsite was partially sheltered from the brunt of the storm by a large overhanging rock and there was a path going up the side of the ridge, so guards could be posted up top. By ringing the wagons against the ridge, a fort-like security barrier gave further safety to those inside the camp. The most important bonus to the situation was Glaster had an Expert Echelon Warrior Adept Captain of the Guard and thirty-eight healthy Protector's Keep soldiers, including three who were Teaching Echelon, and another eleven who were Secondary. This meant he held plenty of guards to fill in for caravan guards and instructors killed. Even better an additional fourteen guards had made it out, but were wounded. Between the Healthmen and magical healing, Glaster figured he could get half of them up by morning and the other half over the next couple of days. He would focus on getting the least injured up first, so he had as many healthy defenders as possible. He also had four remaining Alphar. One had gotten him to the prince and had sacrificed himself to do so, one had been killed early on by a potion, and the others fought well at the Green Goblin. One had even taken an arrow rather than let Rylan get hit. Yet Glaster found it impossible to fully trust them. For even though the one who had threatened Kandric had died, all of them seemed to be at least in part against his most beloved student of all time. Their sudden change of behavior and loyalty had been explained but it was at best troubling and flatly odd. When he was honest with himself, he found it hard to figure out what to think about them at all. Alphar... It seemed impossible. Yet when he really thought it over, it almost made sense. Kandric was the most special find ever, and Glaster knew no matter who he tried to replace the boy with, none would come close. He had known, and had even bedded Aster a few times. Much like Kandric, the boy was phenomenal in skills and looks, but not on the same level of Kandric. If both boys did have Alphar blood, it would explain much. However, if they were really royal born, something was simply wrong with the Alphar, for the squalor both kids had endured, one an orphanage in Junsac, and the other the Swamp Slums of Slome... some royal prick needed to first be insane, and second, badly needed to have his face rearranged by way of a monumental pounding for leaving such fantastic children in such an environment. However, with the present circumstances Glaster needed ever able body, and the well armed and very skilled Alphar gave him extra spell casting powers, healing, and above anything else, heat vision. The one thing he made sure of was to keep Chark'ash well away from them. The Drow youngster would stay out of sight and in Glaster's wagon or tent until such time as he had a real trust in the Alphar, and even then, there was no chance he would allow them to be alone with the boy. Chark'ash was only one of the concerns Glaster had to deal with as the camp took shape. Each of the three royal boys was assigned two of the Protector's Keep soldiers for both protection and to keep them from trying to sneak away. Glaster knew it was possible, even probable at least one of the boys would try unless he made it too difficult to even bother to attempt. He made to absolutely clear the men he put over the boys had unlimited authority over them and disobeying would lead to time in stocks in the next city, for no less than a full day and night. The looks he got from all three told Glaster there would be no challenging of the six guards. With a perimeter set, fires going, and meals being cooked, Glaster motioned for Rylan and Perth to accompany him. He looked down at the two, "Prince Rylan, you have been badly wronged by this kingdom. While the healing I gave your hand has eliminated the signs, nothing can take away from the memory. However, I cannot allow you to kill them, at least not yet. You will have a great measure of say over them and what I do to extract a measure of vengeance for the wrongs they have done, both to you and the taint they have put on my kingdom, and thus my king. Now is not the moment for you to speak up, for tonight I deal with the wrongs done to my kingdom and my king, not you. Tomorrow, or maybe even a day or two on, more of what happens to them will rest on your shoulders." Glaster then focused in his newest boy, "Perth, as my latest trainee, you need to see and understand there are certain lines I cannot allow to be crossed, and what happens when they are. What you tasted in the arena is nothing compared to who and what I can become and do. The most important personal creed to me is the honor of this kingdom. To harm it, is to harm our king. To understand why this is important to me, you need to know I indentured myself to our former and our current kings and pledged undying and unwavering support to King Wyhrem and his father. Over the next few days you may puke, you may even soil your loincloth, but the lesson you need to get out of this is simple. Once you cross a line with me, there are no apologies and no stepping back. The line is there, it has been crossed and until retribution is made for breaking or ignoring it, there is no such thing as pity or mercy. In this case, so many lines have been ignored and blatantly breached, I really can only inform you, what you witness tonight and in the coming days is about as malevolent as I will ever become. As you take this in, understand one other thing. While you may hate me and what I make you do, if you are loyal to me, King Wyhrem, and his lineage, you will garner the same protections as I give this kingdom." Without allowing a response from either boy, Glaster made his way back to where Devkiln and the other four who had tricked, then badly burned, Rylan were being guarded by the captain, an Alphar, and two Protector's Keep guards. As he moved closer, it was obvious, by looks alone, two of the boys were terrified, one was resigned to things not going well, while the girl and Devkiln looked defiant and even angry. Glaster didn't give any warning. Instead he stepped up on Devkiln, grabbed the shackled teen by his thick mop of hair, lifted him off the ground, and tossed him out away from the others and outside the sheltered area of the rocky overhang. He ignored the screams and curses as the boy fell into ever deepening snow. He then did the exact same to the girl. Glaster then glared down at the remaining three young teens, "A single word from any of you, any attempt to get pity, and you join your ringleader friend out there instead of staying out of Syria's wrath." Seeing one of the Protector's Keep guards move to make sure the two tossed into the snow didn't go anywhere, Glaster realized they were every bit as angry as he was. This meant there would be zero mercy afforded any of the five and this gave him free reign on whatever punishments he felt justified. The problem was, he really didn't have a clear idea what would be fitting. They had burned and came close to permanently marking a boy who had done nothing to them, assaulted a fellow student, attacked a child of a higher social class, done harm to a visiting member of royalty, and worst of all had done all this in a kingdom controlled school. Each infraction was more grievous than the prior. Death was a befitting punishment, a tortuous one. However, there was more going on with Devkiln and the Orc blade, and he needed to get to the bottom of it. He also required some understanding as to why those in charge of the school would want to force out prospective future Swordsmen when the kingdom was at war. Finally, judging on the looks of the other three kids, they were not quite as complicit in the attack as Rylan believed. Still, they had helped, and thus an extreme measurement of punishment needed to he handed down and Rylan would need to have a great deal of say over what the final outcome would be. With a truly sinister undertone in his voice Glaster turned to look at the Alphar, deciding to see how loyal he, and thus the others, was going to be. "Those two need a quick and decisive attitude adjustment. I will deal with them personally. While I do so, I need you to take care of these three." He pointed down at the three boys. "Pound a few spikes in the rock just inside this natural shelter so they are not getting snowed on. Make them high enough to keep their hands up over their heads, secure them to the stakes and strip them. Leave them in shoes, since the cold of the rocky ground will damage feet quickly. Also, I do not want the frozen breath of Syria to claim them in anyway. At the first signs of frostbite, take a torch and warm them just enough to where they will not suffer permanent harm. No burns, just warmth, and as little as possible. The bite of the air needs to become their shroud. This will take diligence all night, and well into morning. If you need to switch out, find one of your compatriots who is willing to give them as little comfort as possible, while preventing permanent harm. They can wait until morning for me to decide how much blame for the crimes against Prince Rylan and our kingdom they are going to be burdened with." The Alphar Warrior Adept didn't even flinch at the command. "At once, Commander. Food or water?" "Water, no food. I do not want dehydration. They need to be in decent shape for whatever Prince Rylan has in store for them once I have extracted retribution on behalf of King Wyhrem and out beloved kingdom. For the pages of at least their near futures hold a promise of great misery and despair." Glaster then moved out into the snow. Hearing the two kids hurling insults and threats at him, many of them about someone by the name of Tregasel feeding him potions, he kicked both hard and used his foot to roll them over onto their stomachs. He waited for Devkiln to get his breath back before he put his foot on the back of the boy's head pushed it down into the snow. He ignored the thrashing as he motioned for the Protector's Keep guard to do the same to the girl. With both all but drowning in snow, he handed Perth a dagger, "Remove their clothing, all of it. If you nick them a few times, so be it. However, I do not want you putting any deep gouges in their flesh." Glaster then pointed to some nearby trees, "Prince Rylan, find a dozen or so long, thin, flexible branches. Cut them to a length of about a meter and a half, then take them over to the cliff and beat them against the rocks until the bark is breaking off and the meat of the wood underneath is marred. If they crack or break get others. I need at least eight." Glaster lifted his foot, nodding for the guard to do the same. He let Devkiln get decent air, but at the first hint of a word he pushed the boy's face back into the snow. At first the process happened often, since the teen had plenty of threats to direct at Perth for slicing off his clothing. The boy's tirades didn't last. After the fourth time of getting his faces smashed into the snow-covered ground until he was close to passing out, he gave up. Next to him, the girl showed considerably more defiance. She was well into the double digits of inhaling snow before she finally grew quiet. Both kids were shivering, with teeth audibly chattering by the time Rylan came back with eleven long sticks. Confusion could be seen in his eyes as he handed them over to Glaster who took his time, running his hands down the lengths of each. After careful examination, he handed five back, "These are dented, not marred. They need more work. I will start with these six." While Rylan moved back to the ridge face, Glaster grabbed Devkiln by his hair and moved him to the nearest large tree. "Perth, well done on the clothing, I only see a few areas of blood. Now, get rope and toss it over the thick branches." Glaster secured Devkiln first, trying the rope to the shackles securing the boy's hands behind his back. He then pulled the rope until the boy's shoulders were almost out of joint and only Devkiln's toes were able to relieve any of the pressure. As soon as he had the girl secured in the same way, he looked over at the guard. "They are too chilled. Let us get a fire to warm them and ourselves with." By this time both kids were sobbing in a combination of pain and cold. They could barely move and it didn't take long for their feet and toes to cramp up. The problem was, getting off their toes simply wasn't possible, since to do so increased the pressure on their shoulders, causing terrible pain. Both quickly discovered the fire, which they first thought would be welcome turned out to be anything but. The fire was built far enough away to where they caught only part of the warmth, meaning they had the horrible stinging sensation associated with warming up, but it didn't stop. In addition, only half their body got any real heating and Glaster knew it. He was only too happy to rotate them to prevent their fronts or backs from freezing, but as soon as they were turned the other half got cold again. Finally, to add insult to misery, they watched as Perth fed their clothing into the fire one scrap at a time. Glaster, Perth and the guard stayed close to the large fire, feeding it wood, while consuming a great deal of warm food and drink moving only to rotate the kids. Then, without warning, Glaster took a hot mug of water and dumped it on Devkiln's feet. The liquid was not hot enough to scald, but it was close. However, since his feet were turning blue and losing feeling from the elements, the hot water felt way hotter. He screamed at the top of his lungs as the pain registered. Glaster didn't hesitate to do the same to the girl even as he spoke to the guard, "We will have to watch their feet carefully now. The water will cool quickly and will cause very fast frostbite. Perth, it is your task to keep warm water flowing over their feet. Prince Rylan, make sure he has plenty of warm water. Glaster moved up to the girl, grabbed her jaw and squeezed hard, "You have quite the mouth on you, so you will be first.” He picked up one of the long sticks. "You know, getting thrashed when cold is much worse than when warm." He then brought the stick down across the backs of her legs. Because they had been smacked against rocks, they broke flesh and in a few places left bits of wood imbedded in the skin. This made them considerably worse than a blow from a riding crop or normal stick. After ten hard blows he rotated her and moved over to Devkiln, "Why is the Orc blade so important?" "My blade..." The words were followed by a scream as the stick left a strip across Devkiln's lower legs. After ten, Glaster moved back to the girl, "Do you know why the Orc blade, my Orc blade, has such importance?" "It's... it's magic..." "This I know, but it does not seem to be immured more than a moderate aura. What more can you tell me?” "Nothing!" Glaster shrugged and brought the stick down over front of the girl's legs ten times before sidestepping back over to Devkiln, "The Orc blade is not yours, it is now mine. Do not test my patience." Devkiln eyed the stick with terror. His delay in responding cost him as the front of his legs became Glaster's target. Even though he tried to speak, it was too late. Glaster was no longer listening. Glaster went back over to the girl, "The blade?" "I don't know! I don't know! It's magic! It's all I know!" "OK, fine. I will give you a pass on the blade for now. Let us move on to the reason you helped attack a child who did nothing to you. Why?" "Because we were told to!" "By who?" "Everyone..." Glaster shook his head, "Real answers only." He then left ten more angry welts over the back of the girl's upper legs before moving back to Devkiln, "The blade is mine. Get this into your skull, for you own what you have on, nothing more, and even the flesh covering your body is at my disposal, so do not trifle with me. Now, the Orc blade, what is so important about it?" "Father gave it to me, told me never to let it leave my side... It isn't Orc, it is Orackan, the race that all Orcs and Illorcs came from! Please..." "There is no begging. Only answers and retribution." Glaster broke the stick after the sixth blow and grabbed another to finish the ten strokes. Back and forth he went for over an hour. The moment one balked, gave a half answer, or asked for any kind of mercy, ten more strikes were unleashed. Finally, with knowledge of the girl a being fledgling Dark Mystic being trained by Devkiln's father, Tregasel, out of a shop called Gloom Fire, he knew she had broken. He moved on to finding who else was behind the attack on Rylan and other Swordsmen trainees. After being told the names of the several people, including the magistrate, the lead instructor, and a score of others, he moved on. He focused in on what other students were behind other such attacks, what happened to them, and finally what students refused or gave pushback to those wishing to rid the Rolling Dale School of Arms of outsiders. This gave Glaster a list he could work with. He at least knew who to track down and eliminate, and who to find and give some kind of reward. There were still many questions, and he was certain the two teens would have given the information if they had it. The fact the girl admitted to being a Dark Mystic apprentice and using Dark Mystic potions on kids inside the school, made the possibility she was holding back other key information remote at best. The same could be said for Devkiln, who admitted to everything from splintering the wood handles of practice weapons of kids to get them to quit the academy, to putting shards of glass in their food, to forcibly handing them to adults for pleasure toys. The problem was he needed more answers, the biggest being what the endgame was. Of this the pair knew nothing of value, and they had paid for their lack of knowledge with over a score of strips on their battered flesh. All this got him was information on some of the perks and gifts they had been given for forcing kids out of the school. Finding the magical blade was actually an ancient Orackan weapon, and very important to Devkiln's father and Gambra, was interesting, but it didn't really answer any questions either. On the other hand, he was certain if either child knew more they would have talked. To this end, he gave both children a final set of blows, these to the back. The final strikes were even more vicious, being done with fresh sticks and delivered with a back pull as the stick hit, deeply embedding splinters of wood with each strike. The girl only got eight before the final stick broke. With an annoyed sounding snarl, he glanced over at Rylan, who looked all but green, "Do I forgo the last two on this one?" Rylan's head bobbed up and down, even as he kept his hand on Perth's shoulder. The smaller boy had become physically ill within the first few minutes, forcing the guard to keep warm water flowing over the feet of the captives. Glaster rolled his shoulders from the exertion and tossed the remainder of the stick into the fire. He then turned to the guard, "Cut them down, get them inside the camp, and close enough to a fire to get real warmth with a ground cloth. Also provide water. There is to be no healing and no food. They stay in chains, without clothing, and get no help to remove splinters. In the morning, scrub them hard with a course cloth. It will remove most of the surface level bits of wood and clean out the wounds. I do not want then getting infected, at least not yet. Also, we need them to live for now, so after they are washed, provide a single blanket to them as long as they hold tongues. Any complaints or even requests means we start this whole process over again just to make sure I have all the information I need from them." He then focused on Rylan, "Do me a favor and get Perth calmed, washed and fed. If he will not eat, at least get him warm cider or something. I still have a young assassin with a poisoned blade to deal with. For this night, neither of you will have any further duties to me, so get some rest. I will share my bed with Chark'ash and he will serve me for the foreseeable future since I cannot allow the Alphar access to him. This will allow both you and Perth to recoup from the horrors you have swirling in your heads. However, in the morning I need both of you up and to not to eat until after I interrogate the other three. There is no reason for either of you to lose a good breakfast should I need to be anywhere near as persuasive as I was with Devkiln and the girl..." Glaster paused and frowned, "You know with everything I got her to tell me I never bothered to inquire as to her name..." Rylan took a deep breath, "Famira... she poured something over my hand as they all ran away. It made it tighten up into a fist. It made it hard for Tazen to treat. The guard had to dunk my hand in cold water to wash it off and cool my hand, then he pulled my fingers open just so Tazen could bandage it." "And you are sure you do not want me to get another stick for the final two strikes?" "No... I want to... I do not even know... But no more, at least not tonight..." Glaster gave the boy a squeeze, as if he had forgotten everything he had just done. With Rylan in his grasp, he pointed to the three chained to the rocky face of the ridgeline, "And the names and actions of those three?" "Dorwald is the one with the reddish hair and Bavrim is the blond. They were both in my barracks room and got moved to Devkiln's after they helped to burn my hand. They held me while Devkiln kept his hand over mine on the hot hilt of the Orackan blade. The other I do not know the name of. He was not in the Swordsman school, but trained in weapons with us. Like many of the students from other Rolling Dale schools, he was allowed to participate in the school functions, much like Famira. There were several others who had full access to the Swordsman school events. I heard the names of many given to you by Devkiln and Famira as helping drum kids out of other schools within Rolling Dale. While neither said so, I am pretty sure those who got extra status within the Swordsman school did so by getting rid of refugee students." "While I still cannot understand why they wished to do this, it stands to reason those who helped would be given extras as a way of showing their actions were supported by those in positions of authority within the Rolling Dale training schools." Glaster paused and pointed to the last boy in the line, "How about the darker-haired boy? You say he was not part of the school, but he was in line with other students. He must be a student in Rolling Dale, correct?" "I am pretty sure the other one was in the Shaman school. He did not really help the others. Instead he stood back and kept watch. He warned them when the guard who stopped the attack came running, but only agreed to keep watch after Devkiln and Famira threatened him with a potion of some sort. I believe he is Bavrim's brother or cousin, because Bavrim's father, Gastrom, often picked up both to take for meals. Gastrom is a Teaching Echelon Animal Adept with a trio of Great Quilled Wolverines. I guess because the Swordsman school helped all the other schools get students familiar with weapons, some were allowed to attend Swordsman school events. As I just stated, however, those who were seen often are many of the same Devkiln and Famira gave you the names of. It sounds like they got extra status for helping rid Rolling Dale of refugee students." "Oh, I can assure you they have extra status with me as well, and it is not a status they will ever wish to be associated with! Now, I gather this Gastrom is the same one the Dark Mystic apprentice said picked up those who dropped out of the schools?" Rylan cringed as he realized the names spilled by Famira and Devkiln were now all targets of Glaster. There was no question scores of other kids were going end up in a similar circumstance as Devkiln and he was extremely glad he was not one of them. Unfortunately, he couldn't add much to Glaster's knowledge on Gastrom or those who rang the bell to signal their desire to quit the school. "Lord Glaster, I cannot say this with any certainty, but I only know of one Gastrom. I never saw what happened to those who rang the dismissal bell at the Rolling Dale School of Arms. All I can say is, they were escorted out by guards with nothing more than basic field packs and what they were wearing. I never saw any of them again. A couple were the only friends I made my entire time in Rolling Dale, though, so I would like to find out." "Remember to just call me Commander. I am not a lord until I test and I really do not have any desire to get bumped up in the political nonsense of the guilds by becoming one. Being a Master is bad enough. Let tonight go and do not concern yourself with any of the five who tormented you. Tomorrow we will see what the others know and try to find out what happened to the missing students and in particular any you consider friends." He gave Rylan a gentle but firm push toward the main camp. "For now, get dry and find yourself and Perth a warm spot to rest." Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris, Duke Axegrind, Hawkling Channeler, Kyltoss, Klorna, Morwar, Mokel, Princess Syrissia Vondum entered the 'war room' within Bloody Rock with a frown. Seeing Duke Axegrind marking reports on a huge parchment map of the area in and around Bloody Rock and Slome he moved to take a closer look. He quickly noted the lines to the west had firmed up but as of yet, there wasn't any kind of a solid battle line in the deep swamp to the east. On the other hand, Black Rapids and Falcon Loft forces were starting to push down from the northwest, threatening to squeeze the large pocket of Green Dragons and cut their lines. He looked over with a raised eyebrow and pointed to a pair of arrows coming from Falcon Loft, "Is this correct, Duke?" "Yes. Falcon Loft has decided its mutual defense treaty with Black Rapids extends to this conflict... It is one of the reasons I have recalled you..." Vondum cocked his head to the side, "While I may have intimate knowledge of Black Rapids, I have little to no knowledge of Falcon Loft, Duke Axegrind. The defense pact has been in place for centuries, possibly going all the way back to when both cities held out during the Mythling Wars... But not once has it been activated. What brings the Hawklings out of near total exile from the rest of the world?" Klorna came from a back room being guarded by a pair of Garm Swordsmen. "A former Mythling did." Vondum turned to look at Klorna with a deep frown, "What are you doing here? You were supposed to be headed up to Black Rapids with Kandric's brothers!" Duke Axegrind moved between the two, "General Vondum, she has first hand reports, and her sighting, combined with protectors the Garm and Alphar put in place to keep an eye on Prince Darmoth and Prince Rathiter is the primary reason for your recall. It is also what has caused Falcon Loft to put its full weight into this war." Vondum shook his head to clear it even as he looked back down at the map, "Are you saying this is not a Falcon Loft expeditionary force, but instead a major formation of Hawklings moving in from the northwest?" A Hawkling wearing a royal crest of Falcon Loft on a leather vest with Silver Steel reinforcements came out from behind Klora. The platinum guild pins showed the Hawkling to be a Master Echelon Warrior Adept, Outdoorsman, and Channeler of Avgon. "More than a major formation, General Vondum. Those arrows you are looking at represent two full legions of our Warriors of Avgon and more are being mobilized. We gated as close as we could to here with two full battalions of Falcon Loft Guards as soon as we got confirmation." "Confirmation? Confirmation of what?" Both the Hawkling and Duke Axegrind looked over to Klorna. With a deep breath Klorna, looked up at Vondum, "Frexla took Gablon, Rathiter, and Darmoth..." seeing a few Alphar and several Garm, including Duke Axegrind look at her with glares, she swallowed hard, "Sorry, make that Prince Rathiter and Prince Darmoth. Um... and Emroc too..." "Frexla?" Vondum spit out with disbelief, "You mean one of her minions, entered our realm, actually became a solid form, and took Kandric's brothers?" "No," an Alphar moved up from out of the back room to join Klorna, "she means exactly what she said, General. Frexla came and took them. It was not a minion, it was not one of her demon princes, it was the Bitch of Fire herself, fire whip and all. It was my duty to protect the princes, but there was nothing I could do. Frexla has them along with the caravan commander and one of the other young guards. She took them all." "No... Are you saying we now have to contend with one of Demon Lords in the flesh?" Duke Axegrind sighed, "So it seems." Vondum's eyes darted around the room, looking for any hint this was all some kind of twisted joke. The problem was all eyes were looking at him for his response, and they all wore shocked and terrified looks. Vondum clenched his fists and he turned to focus on the Hawkling, "And this is why you are joining the fight?" "Yes," the Hawkling stated emphatically. "For three reasons. First, the caravan was headed up the pass to Black Rapids. This means it was in Black Rapids’ territory and it was attacked in your... or their lands. By ages old agreement we must come to Black Rapids' aid. Second, we have divine knowledge of one of Frexla's demon princes having taken mortal form and then having been subsequently destroyed down in Rolling Dale, within the lands of King Wyhrem. We have a treaty with his kingdom as well; therefore, we have yet another requirement to join this fight. Finally, and by for the most troubling to all of us here, Avgon's last act before joining the other Mythlets in the final assault on the Mythling capitol was to lead his army, combined with Warvon and his forces, against Frexla's legions of Orackan to the north of Black Rapids and Falcon Loft. This huge battle lasted almost a week right at the edge of the Deathland Mountains. Avgon and Warvon's final victory over the Orackan prevented the fall of Falcon Loft and Black Rapids and all but wiped out the Orackan as a viable race. This forced them to seek out lower races and breed with them, giving us the Cavelings, Morg, Telfs and other cave dwelling monstrosities, while passing the Orackan banner to the Illorcs and Orcs. Frexla's return will mean she will almost certainly seek to extract revenge on both cities." The Hawkling let this all sink in before adding, "Regardless of whether you know the history behind Black Rapids and Falcon Loft, Avgon's lead temple resides in Falcon Loft, much like Warvon's is in Black Rapids, because of this massive battle. The Great Orackan Slaughter is also why Falcon Loft and Black Rapids have the distinction and honor of being in a small handful of cities whose walls were never breached during the Mythling Wars. Since Frexla is back among the mortals, there is little doubt she will try to rally forces against both our cities. According to an Air Guardian who took over our lead priest and spoke to those of us in Avgon's temple, her anger is focused against the boy dragon slayer, Premier Kandric. It then went on to tell us our best hope was to support this child, so we are throwing the full weight of the Hawkling Empire into this. I am told Warvon's lead priest gave a similar message in his temple. Even now, from my understanding, a call has gone out to all Warvon temples for the Hunters of Warvon to assemble to fight Frexla's return." Duke Axegrind turned to focus on Vondum, "As you can hear with your own ears, things have become a great deal more complicated, for like it or not, we now have the Demon Lords entering the fight, and Frexla seems to be focused on our Premier." Vondum's eyebrows raised, "Does our Premier know his brothers have been taken?" Axegrind shook his head. "Not yet. One of the reasons you are here is to help us decide who is going to tell him of this. More than a few believe you may well be the best one to do so." Vondum stared at Axegrind with a noticeable cringe. "I hope you all realize he will put all else aside to find them and will try to confront Frexla over this, right?" "Oh, come on. No one is going to challenge a major demon, let alone a Demon Lord!" "If you believe this, then you do not really know Kandric. This will have to be handled with a great deal of care. It may be best to locate his instructor, Master Shaman Glaster. Maybe between the two of us and Duke Mathard..." Vondum's words trailed off. Instead of finishing the thought, he turned back to the Hawkling, "Surely the gods are not going to let a demon lord come into the mortal realm and take a mortal?" "No, the gods will not sit idly by. They are mobilizing. However, things are far more tumultuous than simply Frexla entering our realm," the Hawkling held up his talon, so he could finish handing out the information he had been given by the Air Guardian. "Things are way more complex. For I might add, the battle is not just up here. Even as Falcon Loft forces cut into Black and Green Dragon lines up here, King Wyhrem is engaging with allies of Frexla down in Rolling Dale as well. With direct interventions from Frexla followed by those of Avgon and allied gods, other Demon Lords are sure to get involved shortly. Actually, the last piece of information I have been given, suggests Frexla was not the first to send a lead demon in to our mortal realm. "For those of us who live up here only have to think back a scant few weeks to the storm we had roll across the Silver Spine Plateau. Those who were up here know we were first stunned by its power and even more astonished at how quickly if faded and lost punch. As we all suspected, this was not a normal storm. As it turns out, it was not even one guided by Syria or Inaxia. Instead it seems to have been directly created by Inaxia through her lead demoness, Cyronia." One of the Alphar Ruinseekers spoke up, "As in the Mythling who froze the entire Highman Palace in the lands of Odin and killed almost all of Odin's lineage, Cyronia?" "Your knowledge of history of the Mythling Wars is of great credit to you. Yes, the one and the same Cyronia. At the time of the storm up here, Inaxia and thus Cyronia seemed to be working for the Black Dragons, but what side of the now war between Bandurlok and Bassork, we do not yet know, may never know. But before you chew your nails to the bone hearing of Cyronia return to our realm, know she ran afoul of a power we have not yet been able to identify. For at some point during the storm, an unknown mortal took on and utterly destroyed Cyronia. How this is possible, I cannot even begin to fathom. Nonetheless, I can assure you it did indeed happen. This led to Inaxia's fall from her throne of ice and as of yet no demon has yet to claim it. The civil war within the demon realms of ice allowed Syria's minions to step in and unravel the storm with no interference. It is why the storm broke apart so quickly. But the reason behind this string of events is an unknown mortal who is owed direct favors by the gods for his or her actions." Even as the Hawkling said this, Vondum's head fell into his hand as all the pieces fell into place. All eyes turned to look at Vondum. When nothing was said, Duke Axegrind cleared his throat, "Something you have to add to this, General?" Vondum's hand ran down his face, "Sure... What the hell, it is not like we all don't all but worship Kandric anyway..." "Premier Kandric had something to do with this latest development?" "Yeah..." Vondum tossed up his hands, "Who in the name of the nine hells do you all think killed Cyronia?" Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Lacate, Zeltoss Kandric got to the top of the steep hill and looked around. Between the darkness and the blowing snow, his vision, even his infravision, was limited. What little he could make out told him there was some kind of very cold clearing below, possibly a frozen-over lake, and more forest. On the plus side, there was a slight rocky drop off just below him which provided a natural spot where the wind would at least partially blow over the top of them. It also had much less snow, since the wind was blowing the vast majority over the secluded spot. With a deep breath, he pulled his sword and hopped down to check the rocky face. It was relatively smooth with no caves. While this was kind of disappointing, it also meant he didn't just jump into the mouth of a creature's den. With a shrug, he quickly resheathed his blade as he looked out over the forest and down the rocky hill. It had been several fruitless hours of searching the deep woods since stumbling on Klent and his troop. During this time, the weather had gotten progressively worse, and their luck had been nil. The other problem was Lacate was really slowing them down. The boy had even less stamina than Zeltoss had before the Dragon deaths. It had gotten so bad, Seldnat finally had enough and grabbed the boy's pack so they could make better time and not have to stop every twenty minutes. Over the prior three plus hours Seldnat had been carrying two packs but they had only had to stop for two short breaks. Watching Lacate battle with poor endurance to keep up even without a pack, really made Kandric wonder about Mystics. Did they spend too much time in their labs playing with strange concoctions and not enough building up their bodies? This was something Glaster would never let happen to a student. For to apprentice under Glaster meant equal time strengthening body as well as mind. Glaster had often told Kandric if one put too much emphasis on one aspect of training, there would be a weakness of the whole. To this end, wood cutting, swimming in the summer, tree climbing in the winter, and long hikes became the cornerstones of keeping him physically fit when not doing weapon practice. These periods of intense physical activity were used to counter the hours upon hours of study in learning how to properly speak, read, write, keep books, learn values of trade goods, and or course spell mastery. The interesting part of seeing Lacate struggle more with each passing step was this happened to be the first time in Kandric's life where he really saw what happened when a person spent too little time on body. He noticed some of it in Zeltoss, but at the time he figured Zel was born a bit scrawny. Truth of the matter was, Zel's arms were pretty thin, and there was no question his friend would never be as strong as most. However, Zel knew he wasn't very physically fit and since joining Kandric was actively working on it. The other huge difference was Zeltoss forced himself to drive on and not complain... much. Yes, the deaths of the Dragons had helped, but Zel continued to push himself. The same could not be said about Lacate. The kid didn't even try to force more out of himself. Instead it was up to Kandric and those with him, to motivate with everything from taunts, to threats, to a couple of times Seldnat smacking him on the back of the head and once Pike poking him in the butt with a javelin. Lacate was totally opposite of what Kandric had grown accustomed to. For, by far, the tendency of those striving to become guilded was to focus on muscles for fighting, and not enough on the mind. While this made a person fearsome in physical combat, it made them vulnerable to deceptions and feints in the mental area of combat. Watching Lacate stumbling through snow only up to his ankles after a few kilometers, and progressively getting more exhausted with each step, had at first been humorous. The worse it got, the more the feelings changed to annoyance and even disgust. As it became all too apparent the pampered merchant child had no real inner drive, Seldnat, and then Pike, become increasingly frustrated. So, while Seldnat finally demanded the boy's pack, Pike shoved him back and told him to stay right behind him so he could walk in a blazed trail. This had helped, but even with all the assistance, an extra break had to be taken unless they were going to physically carry the whimpering brat. At least this time everyone needed to get some food, water, rest, and warm up and the site was a good one for a sheltered camp. Kandric let out a light whistle to signal for the others to join him even as he moved further out to check the area. Once he was convinced they were alone and not in danger, he stayed on guard, but put his back to a large tree to block the blowing snow. Once he heard Lorthorn help to lower Lacate down, then jump down to join the others, Kandric spoke up, "This is about as sheltered and safe a spot as we are likely to find tonight, guys. We will set camp here. Let us get a small fire and break out some food. I will take first watch." Even Seldnat, who was by far the strongest of the group, gave a fist pump before he found a spot between the ledge and a large rock. The Halforc quickly dropped both packs, then slid down while grabbing some dried meat out of his gear. As the others saw this, they gratefully did the same, putting their backs to the natural barrier between themselves and the driving snow. Lorthorn was the last to do so, since he moved over to Seldnat, grabbed Lacate's equipment and tossed it to the physically exhausted and shivering boy. "Now you can grab some food. We should be done for the night, so you shouldn't over exert and puke it up like you did earlier. But before you eat, clear the snow from under you and wrap yourself in your blanket." Kandric looked back with a shake of his head, "Lacate, until you can start serving me as agreed, the duration of your servitude will not start. So, if you want it to start now, you can clear the ground for us and go gather some wood before you eat and rest. If not, say you understand and agree your time has yet to start. If you do agree to more time, you can rest." Lacate blew on his fingers to warm them. "Please Kandric... I just need..." "You need to be an indentured servant doing as you are told, or give yourself to me for more time. Otherwise you do not eat, for if you do not serve, there is no reason for me to feed you." Lacate set out a slight sob, "How much more time?" At this both Seldnat and Pike exchanged disgusted glances while Jamon stood, shook his head, and started clearing snow by grabbing a couple of branches, wrapping a piece of old cloth around each, stretching the sticks and fabric out with tied cross braced sticks and pushed what little snow was in the natural shelter out. Off to the side, Zeltoss frowned deeply, but moved out of the shelter and started kicking at the ground. It didn't take him long to find enough dead wood to at least get a small fire going. Kandric didn't even look at Lacate, knowing if he had said anything similar to Glaster after first taking the man up on the offer of work and servitude for training, the man would have smacked him with a switch and would not have stopped until the requested duty was done, then followed it up with other punishments. "Lacate, either get up and help or give yourself to me for another full moon!" Lacate let out a short sob, "OK..." "OK? OK what?" Kandric demanded while guessing with utter contempt what the boy really meant. "You have me for an extra moon... Just let me rest and eat... please..." While the others all looked at each other in near shock over this, Lorthorn pushed his Lava Hammer up to the small pile of wood and sent a slight jolt of his inner Force into the weapon. It glowed for an instant before the wood burst into flames. "Lacate, move close to the fire, strip down, and put on dry clothing out of your pack..." "No," Kandric stated harshly. "No? But, Kandric, he fell at least a dozen times and is soaked..." "Oh, he can strip down, dry his wet clothing, and get warm, but there is no need for him to get dressed in anything. He will be sleeping with me tonight." Lacate eyes went wide, "But..." "You belong to me, Lacate. You just gave yourself to me for an extra moon in exchange for not setting the camp while getting some rest and food. You may rest and eat now and finish the night with me after my time on watch." "You're not being fair!" At this Pike stood, pulled one of his javelins, pointed at Lacate, and snarled, "Kid, if you ever said something so stupid around my father, or worse, around Duke Mathard, your butt would end up red and warmed enough to melt what little snow is in this shelter! You are an indentured servant, one step away from a slave! Actually, the first two moons you gave yourself over with slave rights, which means you are currently owned." Pike's voice dripped with contempt as he shouted in Lacate's face, spraying it with some spittle, while putting the point of the javelin to the boy's throat, "Furthermore, once the indentured servitude starts, you have no rights other than base food and remittance of what was agreed to in the contract. You did a very poor job in this, since you did nothing to secure yourself to any rights not limited to, but including clothing, rest, and shelter. What Premier Kandric offered you was minimum indentured rights of a copper a week. In addition, he agreed to see you are fully taken care of for the duration, see you are trained, progress some in your Mystic field, and to heal you of the injuries you had sustained when we found you in chains. He gave you the healing, so you are now in your time as a slave. However, once you are done with this time as his property, all he has to do is take care of you, have you progress some, and end up getting trained. Progress some, and getting trained are by default one and the same. How he takes care of you was not spelled out. So, as long as our Premier does you no permanent, non-reversible bodily harm, you are alive and more trained than you are now at the end, and have a hundred and four copper coins in a pouch, plus some kind of lab equipment, he can do whatever he wants with and to you!" "Right now, your failure to follow through with clearing the camp of snow and gathering wood could be seen as a contract breach, and Premier Kandric could legally enslave you permanently! Instead he let you bargain for an extra month of service to him in an exchange. He is giving you exactly what you asked for, rest and food, while having no camp set-up duties. He decides what you wear and when you wear it, not you, so if he decrees you are to remain without clothing, then you will do so until he changes his mind. You should consider yourself lucky he is allowing you a blanket, for the gear you couldn't even carry is not yours. It is his." "No..." Pike grabbed Lacate's jaw and squeezed, "No? Did you not give yourself to him?" The moment Lacate tried to grab at the hand on his face, Jamon moved up and grabbed both of the boy's hands. "You were handed to me to train, and I guess it starts now. You try to fight either of us and I will be forced to punch you or, if Kandric says it's ok, even whip you. And trust me, you don't want me to break out my whip. I was forced to get very good at it and I did so on a close family friend. You're neither family, close, nor friend." Lacate found it painful to move his jaw, but seeing Jamon patting the whip at his side, his eyes went wide and he shook with fear. He also stopped trying to resist. Pike's voice dripped with anger as he glared at Lacate, "Now, answer. Did you give yourself to Premier Kandric?" Lacate tried to nod but couldn't, so he managed to get out an, "Uh, huh." "Then by default what you have belongs to our Premier as well," Pike stated coldly. "You should know, you are very lucky he is giving you anything. Many of the slaves and long time indentured servants in the Garm and Alphar lands don't get much, if any, clothing. It is considered a waste of money to clothe someone who is nothing more than property. In my household, we have two slaves. Both wear waist cloths outside and nothing inside except at meals. They wear a long shirt when eating at any table. We also have a slave footlocker for extras when it is very cold. At those times, they are given coat, boots or whatever is needed while doing work outside so they are not damaged by Syria. What we have tonight is not very cold, at least not to those of us from the area of Winter Creek, so the fire and possibly a long shirt would be all our slaves would get in this kind of weather. "None of this really mattes to you, I know. It should, however, give you an idea of the kindness of your current master. Right now, you need to concern yourself with your future. Our Premier is taking first watch, which is your rest time. Once his shift is done, so is your rest. Thus your duties resume. Tonight those duties include but may not be limited to, sleeping with him. It matters to none of us, including you, why. Whether he is doing this for his enjoyment, your warmth, or both is up to him and him alone and you have no say in the matter. Just understand, you will do what he wants no matter what it is. For remember he fell multiple Dragons. You are barely a trainable Human..." Pike stopped and looked back over at Jamon, "No insult intended, my new friend." Jamon smiled, "I'm above barely trainable, so you're fine." At this Seldnat, Lorthorn, and Zeltoss all snickered and nodded. Pike still reached out and patted Jamon on the shoulder before refocusing on Lacate, "As I was saying, our Premier killed Dragons, so you really do not want to find out what he can do to the likes of you. Also, in case you have not yet taken note, all of us fully support Premier Kandric and will do to you whatever he decrees, even if it is me holding you while Jamon demonstrates to us how good he is with his whip. If he happens to slip and nick me, all I can say is I have felt worse. Regardless, everyone in this camp will make you do exactly what Premier Kandric wants you to do without any question, feelings of guilt, or remorse for you. Therefore, you will sleep with... or maybe not sleep, but still share our Premier's bed tonight and whatever else he demands of you going forward." "Thank you Pike," Kandric responded. "I am mostly concerned with warmth tonight... Mostly..." Kandric turned to look at the entire group still sporting a smirk on his face, knowing the look would eat at Lacate and cause him extra dread. To this end, he spoke to Jamon, "Make sure he is clean. You know I do not want may bed soiled by the unclean body of another. I would also like for you to show him how to properly warm water to wash me. I am sure this is a duty you will only be too happy to teach him properly, so you do not have to do so much longer." Jamon had to fight hard to not let out a sigh of relief. "I will make sure of it." Kandric again sent a smirk at Lacate before glancing around at all the others, "While this is nothing more than a suggestion, I feel it would be in the better interest of all of you to bed with someone else. For there is nothing in this storm telling my Outdoorsman side it wants to let go and Syria's spirits are telling me to expect more of what we are dealing with through at least this time tomorrow. While it is not bitterly cold, the snow is wet, heavy and it will not warm enough tomorrow to do more than melt a little, which will only make it wetter and heavier to trudge through. Also, with leaves just starting to fan out on the trees, the weight of the snow is greater on them now than during the dead of winter. We can expect broken branches and even fallen trees to happen as well. All of us will have to keep our eyes open for dangers above and buried hazards on the ground as we press on. If you thought this evening was bad travel, tomorrow will be much worse. This means we all need as much rest as possible and getting sleep while warm is much easier than when cold." Zeltoss moved to gaze down the rocky slope, "At least we have food, water, and a fire. What about the scattered students from Slome?" "We will do them no good if we are tired and miss picking up on signs of them, or worse, getting ourselves hurt from pressing on too hard," Pike answered. "Even on a ship in a gale-tossed sea for days, crews have to be given breaks from patching cracked hulls and bailing water. A rotation must be made, giving everyone a chance to rest. A captain who pushes too hard will lose crew, and a short-handed ship is in as much or even greater danger than one where not everyone is fixing storm damage and tossing water over the side." Kandric noticeably shivered, "While I thank you for a good answer, Pike, you could have found another... any other... example. For if there is one thing in this world I do not want to face, you just told us what it is. I am even happier I have Lacate in my bed tonight, for even hearing about a storm-tossed ship will give me nightmares!" "Sorry, Premier," Pike gulped. "I am a Sailor. It is what I know and have been through." Lorthorn couldn't help but giggle, "Don't worry, Pike. He isn't mad at you. But honestly, I can't help myself! Here we are with a kid who by his own hand is a powerful lord controlling a massive army, all but owns a city and the lands around it, and when he sees Dragons only wants to kill or make friends with them! Yet, he has nightmares over a ship on a stormy sea. Does anyone else see this as, like, totally backwards?" While Kandric's face flushed with some embarrassment, everyone, even Lacate, cracked a smile and nodded. Yarnay (9yo Druid Gem Channel: Tallis- Klandon's WB), Sibler (9yo Mystic Sailor-Lylan's WB), Kaznal (9yo War Adpt Outdoors Channel: Avgon Mylan's WB), Tazen (14yo Swordsman Health), Dario (13 yo War Adpt Leather Gem), Alkoris (13 HAE Halfelf War Adpt Lock Outdoors), Tyndall (15 yo Mage, Outdoors, Woodworker) Tazen woke to the sounds of muttering. Even as he blinked and tried to wake himself up fully, his hand found the pummel of the magical short sword and drew it just enough to provide a light amber glow from around the hilt. Only a couple of meters away Dario glanced back from edge of the small branch leading off the main sewer system. "Relax, Taz, it's jus' one a them little guys talkin' in his sleep. It started 'bout an hour ago, but was real soft. He just started ta get a little louder." "Well, if it is loud enough to wake me up, it could be heard by others..." Tazen responded as he moved at a crouch down the offshoot passage they had found a few hours prior. Once he got to Dario, who was hanging back just far enough to not be seen by heat vision if someone looked down the main sewer passage, he edged by. He then stayed at where the offshoot intersected with the main sewer just long enough to look and listen both directions then backed off and knelt next to his friend "Anything?" "Other than a few rats and a couple of the biggest bugs I've ever seen, naw. Right after ya finally crashed, I think me heard a scream, but it was hard ta be sure and it was kind-a... ah... echoy sound. So it could-a been somethin' else. You can sheath the blade, there is still some flickering comin' from a fire from around the grate just down the way." Dario pointed, "Once yer eyes adjust you'll be able to see enough to make out shapes and outlines." Tazen dropped the blade fully back into its sheath, "What about the kid with the book I took down before I found you?" "A few moans; nothing more. You must-a hit him real hard." "I did, twice. But he has a book. Well, I have it, but I took it off him, so he must be a spell-tosser. You ever see him before?" "Naw, but I bet he's older than us. He's not much bigger than we is, but he has real hair startin' to grow on his upper lip, so he's got to be older than me, probably older than you. No guild pins on him?" "I didn't find any and I checked him pretty careful like. All I found was the book pouch, street blade, and sling. He didn't even have a coin pouch or travel pack. He must live in the city." Dario shrugged, "Well, if he spent any time practicing weapon skills at the school, it was probably with those about to reach ascension age. He didn't have no animals, did he?" "Nope, and neither did the woman he was with. I grabbed what is left of her book after it fell apart. Turned out to be thirty-eight pages, but six are messed up." "They still might be worth some coin, Taz." "Oh, I kept them, but this is the first time I have actually seen a spell book die with its caster, so while I know what we were taught about how some of the pages would be damaged and others might crumble, I was never able to really picture it. It's kind of creepy. There were nine other pages that just fell apart in my hands when I tried to grab them, so she had huge spell book." "Not as many as Master Kormundle has..." At this Tazen snickered lightly, "I bet the whole reason the Master of the Mage school walks over with a hunched back is how big of a book he carries! He must have way over two hundred pages in that beast!" Dario nodded, "The book and all the magic junk he carries must weigh more than the gear we carry, fer sure! But I'd sure never want to find out what he can do with all those pages. He's the only one I ever saw my Warrior Adept teachers really scared of." "Which is kind of funny, cause I have never seen him cast more than an Autospell." "Me neither, but he has a few I'd like ta learn. I watched him clean one a his student's cloaks with a spell. Me thought it was a real one and asked, but was told by the girl it was just a Cleanse Autospell. Many a us also saw him point at a Swordsman kid in one of the lower classes who was picking on one of his students. A second later the kid sneezed and blasted all sorts of snot out-a his nose." Further back in the small offshoot, passage Yarnay stood and moved up to the older boys, "I heard you talking. The spell is a learned Autospell called a Booger Burst. I can show you..." Dario waved his hands back and forth, "No, no thanks... I saw what it did to the kid." "But I could teach it to you." "Not quite able ta do the learned Autospells yet, kid. I'm a Warrior Adept, so I needs ta get to Primary to be able to do the bigger Autospells. I'm close, but prob not for 'nother six moons er so before I can put on Primary guild pins and start learnin' the better Autospells." Dario then pointed to the sleeping form of Alkoris, "When he wakes up you can teach him some. He ain't passed Primary yet, but he can cast the learned Autospells. He knows three er four of em, so he's Primary fer sure." Seeing Yarnay shrug and wipe at his eyes, Tazen grinned even as he reached out and patted Yarnay, "I can't cast nothing, but I'd like to see your Booger Burst one of these days. But shouldn't you be sleeping?" "I cannot. I keep having really weird dreams." "The spell our commander cast was nasty, huh?" "Yes, but the dreams are not about the spell or even all the dead we saw when we helped you get all the stuff off the dead... Um, I am a Tallis Channeler Adept... I know we needed the packs and weapons... um, but I do not know if we should have taken their clothing..." Dario looked over, even as Tazen pulled the smaller boy down in front of him and wrapped his arms around him, "Kid, Tallis is about life, and we needed the armor and junk off em ta live. Me can't see yer goddess givin' us no grief over what we done. We left em decent fer their meeting with Brandal, or whatever god er demon will take em into the next realm." Feeling Yarnay slouch into him, Tazen lightly stroked the boy's hair, "Dario's right, Yarnay. We needed the armor, the cloaks, the coats, all of it. You all didn't really think out what you were doing when you pretended to be the others. You should have at least taken your gear and some food. But, Dario's right. We didn't strip them down all the way like those looters were doing. We left them with loincloths and undershirts. It is enough respect for the dead. Now if we was in your palace or wherever you live, then leaving them with more is totally the right thing to do. But you have to understand, in battle, pillaging of the dead, taking their gear and armor is totally acceptable. I can't see Tallis or any other god saying it isn't. We all fought the battle in front of the Green Goblin and we won, so those spoils were ours to take." Dario pointed back down the tunnel to the tied-up kid, "Just look at what Taz did fer the kid who tried ta take you all. He didn't kill him, none. He even wrapped up his head. You need ta look at what Tallis likes, not what she might not." "But Tazen killed the woman with the young man by stabbing her in the back, then slicing her throat..." "Because she was trying to take you, and she had a big spell book," Tazen reminded Yarnay. "I really didn't think I'd be able to take her down head-on, so I took her out the easiest and safest way I could. She didn't suffer none, either. I cut her throat clean and fast after sticking my dagger in her kidney. There's a lot a people who would a left her there bleeding out, or made her talk, give her spells up, and made her talk about her ring too." "What ring?" Dario all but demanded to know. “I also grabbed this ring off of her." Tazen reached into his pouch and tossed over a large and well-crafted silver ring with a large chunk of Amber for a stone. Dario pulled up the Dagger of Light and slightly twisted the handle so he could get just enough light to see it. The first thing he was struck by was in the middle of the smooth orangish-gold stone was a huge spider. While it was somewhat distorted by the amber around it, the spider appeared to have mostly a black body with a bluish tinge on the legs and an enormous red head with huge fangs. "Aw, man, how wicked!" "Yeah, but be careful and don't put it on. It has some weird marking inside the band and those three tiny bits of light blue gemstone on the back glimmer, but just barely. It has to be pretty much totally dark to see." Dario looked at the inside of the ring band then covered up his head with his hooded cloak so he could see the minute shine. He handed it back with a shake of his head, "Magic for sure, but it's super wicked lookin'. Maybe the kid ya took down will know what it does." "Maybe, but I don't know if I'll trust him even if he tells me. He and the woman this came off of was trying to take the three little kids with me." "Good point, and one thing we's all been told like a thousand times is ta never use nothin' magic till you know what it does, how to get it workin', and how to make it stop doin' whatever it does." Tazen took the ring back from Dario and slipped it back into his pouch, "I'm awake now. You may as well go crash for a bit." Dario looked down the small sewer tunnel, "With all the talkin' the little guy is doin'? Not like I'll be gettin a wink with all his yappin'." "Just think of it as snoring in the barracks." "Snornin' I can deals with, talkin'... naw. Reminds me a all them homesick kids when me first came ta the school almost fiver summers back." "Oh, come on you were one of em! Don't forget I was assigned to yer barracks as your intro student." "Yeah, and you were a mean bastard too!" "Got extra points and lessons for every one of you I made cry during intro moon. It's what got me bumped up to a bronze chain shirt and a Dwarven Steel primary weapon. But I remember you cryin' and don't say you didn't!” "Oh, I did, but not cause I was homesick 'er nothin'! My old man lost his shop and almost sold me and my sister ta pay off Master Treg. I just got lucky I had me a Teacher and had new Trainin' guild pins. The city paid Master Treg for me and stuck me in the school. I'm indentured ta be garrison fer six summers after me gets my Primary pins. Not sure how, now, though." Yarnay spoke up, "If you get us out of the city and back to our commander, I will make sure your servitude is removed." Dario cocked his head to the side, "Um, kid not sayin' yer not lyin' er nothin', but them papers me had to sign with me old Teacher, was done in the city keep. It be signed by the earl who paid off Master Treg with a big ass pouch a coin and signed over me sister to Treg to take away the rest of me father's debt. Now, I willin' ta bet you know an earl is big noble-type, but ya gots to understands Master Treg is one a the highest and most feared men in Rolling Dale, if not the whole stupid Barony. Ain't no one gettin' me out a that contract, and I ain't wantin' ta break it and be handed over to Master Treg... We all pretty much know him be a Dark Mystic... No, no way I'm goin' ta break contract and be handed ta Master Treg as no slave!" Tazen put a finger up to Yarnay's lips, to prevent the boy from saying too much. He then shot a smirk over to Dario, "Dar, if there is anyone, anywhere, who could care less who or what signed the contract with you, it would be my commander. But, even he ain't rat piss compared to the father of the boy Yarnay is indentured to. You help me get Yarnay, Kaznal and Sibler safely out of here, I'm telling you what Yarnay just told you is true, more than true, it is guaranteed." Dario let out a long breath as he stared at Tazen, "You sure 'bout this?" "Oh, yeah, more than sure." Dario chewed on his lip for a few seconds, "OK, fine, I'll try ta help, but we's nothin' more than two Primaries, me a high Trainin' and these three who be at best step 2 Trainees?" Suddenly Kaznal, who had been the one talking in his sleep sat up. As he did, he turned his head in an impossible way, to where it was looking at them, even though his back was to them and focused on Dario, "Oh, young Warrior, ye of little faith..." Dario and Tazen started to draw weapons, only to have Yarnay suddenly become extremely strong and fast. The younger boy's hands slashed out knocking both older boys’ hands off weapons while he spoke in a female voice, "Stay your hands boys, and listen. There is a battle you are now part of, willing or unwilling, and it is being joined. Frexla has broken the Oath of the Immortals and has entered your realm. This has unfettered the hands of the gods and you are with two of our masters' Channeler apprentices." Both Tazen and Dario tried to break the sudden holds on their wrists, but it was like trying to pry off steel shackles. The small boy's handholds were unbreakable. Down the passage Kaznal stood, but it was by no means a normal way to do so. He literally floated off the ground, spun in mid-air and glided close to the near panicked teens, while his head returned to a normal position, "Calm ye racing hearts boys; let this message be heard. You are guardians of one of my Adepts, and the call is going out for all Warriors of Avgon! Because you guard this young form, the calls goes forth to you as well. Join the growing fight, now! For what the rupture point can take, it can also give. Focus on it, feed on it, and find the inner power within and feel it harden!" Yarnay, still with a female voice, and now brightly glowing, golden eyes, took over, "Yes! Feel the power of Tallis reach in and help you feed off the point of rupture. Allow Tallis to remold your inner spark! Rise up, defend my mistress' apprentice, spread the word, the chains holding back the gods have been unshackled. Frexla and Ixania must pay for their encroachments into the land of mortals. Let your hands help in this task!" Without warning, the eyes of both younger boys flared and a powerful wave of magic burst outward, illuminating the entire sewer for dozens of meters. Cockroaches and other bugs were violently tossed back well away from the entire group while rats and mice let out what sounded to be terrified squeaks and scurried away. A moment later all was calm, save for Yarnay having fallen sound asleep on Tazen and Kaznal standing in the passage wobbling. It took some effort for Dario to break Yarnay's handhold on his wrist, but he did so, jumped up and moved over to Kaznal, catching the boy before he crumpled into the ground. "Taz, what in the..." Off to the side Alkoris sat up, "Wow! I suddenly feel really good! What did you do Tazen?” Directly across from Alkoris, Sibler blinked, "Is it sunup already? My Force just refreshed like I am super full or something..." The teen captive also rolled over, "What happened... where am I? Why am I tied up?" Tazen kept a firm hold on Yarnay, with the hand still clenched in Yarnay's grasp. He blinked out some spots in his eyes, while rubbing his other hand down his face, "Oh, man, what a... I feel all tingly and... I... Oh, geesh! I think I just became Secondary!" Dario carefully lowered Kaznal to the ground while taking a knee, "If I'm not Primary, I'll eat the bronze chain I'm wearing! What just happened?" Kaznal's eyes fluttered for a second before popping open, "An Avgon Gust Spirit just happened." In Tazen's lap, Yarnay finally let go of the teen's wrist as he spoke, "And a Tallis Breath Spirit as well. I feel really dizzy." A strange breeze blew through the normally stagnate sewer tunnel bringing with it a whispering voice, "Take a few hours to adjust to the added lifesparks you have been given, but do not linger. Join the fight, while staying well clear of where the magical barriers between realms has ripped. Even now, agents of Lormantia, with the aid of Kryplok, are gaining a strong foothold. Find your way out of this village and let others know what is happening within these walls. If ye need help to find escape, seek out the brothers of Premier Kandric, for they can render aid." Dario looked around, "Who?" Tazen responded, "A student of my commander, Dar. But I have no idea where they are, who they are, or how to find them. All I do know is I suddenly feel great and as soon as Kaznal and Yarnay are up to it, we need to see what is going on, then get out of here so we can get my commander a report... Um, unless you want to tell whatever just did all this no?" "Uh, uh!" Dario stated. "First off I don't want ta have what just happened taken back none, and second, the little guy damn near broke my arm. I ain't about to do nothing ta bring back whatever took him over and have it be mad at me!" Conner, Sharris, Nake (HE 14), Tobash (HE 15) Zestolg, Ambrasia, Sarryel, Pontarious, Frenna, Dostem, Other Thunder Rapids Crew + {Gilew Human HE 12, Munder Sil-Drgling HE 11, Quelrik Human HE 10, Vaskar Human HE 14, Gil-Drak Wolfling HE 13}, Gagan Conner verified the upper levels of the inn were secure before he made his way down the stairs. He let out humor-filled snort at seeing half a dozen men and women of the Thunder Rapids all basically blocking anything past the entryway, while eyeing the five youths from Anarton's farm. With a shake of his head he pushed his way past Ambrasia and moved up to Gilew. He didn't hesitate to wrap his arm around the slightly younger boy, "Great to see you! How many are in the city?" Gilew returned the hug, "Almost everyone, there is just a handful back at the base. Our lord made most of us break into five man teams. Each team had to infiltrate on their own." Conner quickly moved to the others giving each a hug, saving Vaskar for the last. He pulled the older boy tight while whispering, "You should have enough control to not have to take a knee to let the gifting go, my friend." The teen nodded as Conner took a step back, "I tried, but the magic flow..." "Don't let the twists and turns of the magic confuse you, Vaskar. This is no different than when I worked with you on the Isle of Cyclopes the last time, right by one of the rupture points." Quelrik, the youngest of the students in the group shuddered, "I was Mundane for three days after I cast there the first time, and a day and a half the second time!" Conner reached over and ruffled Quelrik's mop of brown hair, "You were warned by both our lord and me, you were too young, didn't know enough about your own magic, and had too much natural talent to try. It is pretty much the same here, but what we have here is a new rupture. This mean all spells have to be cast with concentration and focus in mind, not speed and power. Don't let your spells get out of control and if we find out where the rupture point is, stay away." Gilew responded, "It's not far from the eastern wall in a merchant area. We felt it as we went by. I have warned them all, and we are not going anywhere close." "Good, and good to know. So you got in on the east side?" "Not far from the Eastern wall," Gil-Drak snorted. "Someone made a mess of one of the merchant gates. Looks like it got hit with a siege weapon, er something. Anyway, the guards were forcing a whole bunch of peasants to wall up the damage. We walked up, grabbed some of the rubble and handed it to the masons, then went right on in. The guards figured we were getting more rock, so they didn't even look. Once out of sight, we slipped into an alley. One guard came looking, and Mundar ripped his throat out and we buried him in some trash. It was stupid easy." "While all the yappin' be interestin' and all," the voice of Gagan came from the back of the inn, "how about's ya all make small talk later! We've got movement below!" Conner glanced over to Dostem, "Take the others back up top in case this is a secondary feint..." Gilew shook his head, "No, we heard them talking, the main attack is going to be from under." "It's Gambra's people we are talking about, Gil. It would not be above them to lie to underlings to further enhance the main thrust of the attack." "I know... But, the Halforc was supposed to break in the back door as secondary diversion. He was a Teaching Echelon Mystic and both Halflings were Secondary Echelon Warrior Adept Lockmasters with poisoned blades. It took Mundar breathing on them for us to be able to take them so easy." "Good to know, but we still need to be careful," Conner warned. "Frenna, Tobash, Zestolg, go with Dostem. Keep the other guards upstairs on their toes." He then shot his fellow Wraith Sect Warriors a smirk, "How about joining the welcoming committee for the sewer rat infestation?" Quelrik adjusted his Eagle Sect Warrior wristbands, "Sounds like fun." Gilew nudged Quelric, "This is why I took you so early in the team picks." Conner looked over as he made his way to the room with the cellar door, "You picked your teams?" "Our lord kept some of the lower Secondary Echelons back, and assigned them to us, so I have Gil-Drak by assignment, but for the others we took turns, each turn was done with alternating who picked first." "And you took Quel early?" "Second pick, after Mundar. Everyone was wondering why I took him when there were several higher ranked and older kids still available..." "By order of the picks I knew I would be one of the first two for the last pick, so I knew I wouldn't have to select Relicam or Sardor, but by taking a Primary step 1 and a Primary step 2 for my first two picks, I guessed right about being given first selection for the final round. Since Vaskar was still there, he was an easy pick. I have the youngest Human Equivalent team, but..." "No need to defend your choices. You selected a very good team, and getting Gil-Drak for your number two is a huge bonus..." Conner paused as he saw four of the crew standing well back while Sharris' father, Kansnor held up a shield. At the same time, one of the young Mystics held onto the loop of the trap door, ready to pull it up. In Pontarious' hands were two of the metal balls he had the Metal Workers make. Both had a piece of twisted cloth poking up out of the small hole. Pontarious looked over with an evil looking grin, "Oh, well, I have been wanting to meet some of Conner's friends. Welcome, boys." All five of Lord Anarton's students stopped and cocked their heads to one degree or the other at seeing such an odd sight. Gil-Drak was first to speak, "Um, sir, are you just going to let them come into the basement?" "Indeed I am." "But we could stop them down in the sewers, and they would never get into the inn!" "Oh, young man, they will not be getting into the inn. The cellar, sure, the inn... Not a chance!" Gilew moved closer and looked down at the cellar door, "But they'll send up pawns in waves. We will be hard pressed to hold them all back. Then they will send in the bigger and better ones..." "Son," Pontarious stated with a confident grin, "we will not be seeing their first wave, or even their second." Quelrik glanced over at Conner who only shrugged, but didn't look even slightly concerned, then moved forward as well. “There are fifteen of us... We can hold the stairs or ladder for quite a while, but..." Before more could be said, the sounds of the lower secret trap door shattering could be heard. Quelrik's eyes went wide and he started to take a step back, only to have Pontarious grab his shoulder, "Young one, you wouldn't happen to know the Spark Autospell, by chance? I have used up a great deal of Force making potions and other concoctions this eve." The ten-year-old looked at the kind-looking man staring at him with some befuddlement, "Um, yes, sir..." "Good!" Pontarious praised while gently giving the boy a reassuring squeeze, "Then how about you do me a favor and put a spark right on the end of this for me?" With a free finger on his right hand, he pointed to the twisted cloth coming out of the large metal ball in his left hand. "Um, sure..." Quelrik pointed his finger and sent out a Spark Autospell while nervously glancing down at the cellar door. The sounds of people below became louder, even as the end of the cloth took the spark and started to sizzle. It then burned downward with a cracking-popping sound. "Very nice. Now take a step back, son." Pontarious eyed the cloth closely for another couple of seconds, then nodded at Mystic girl. The girl yanked back the door while Kansnor moved up with his shield. He slammed the first person at the top of the steps in the face, knocking the man back into the others trying to climb up behind him, then held the shield to block a trio of crossbow bolts and two potions. At the same time Pontarious dropped the ball down into the cellar while giving a nod to the Mystic girl. The girl quickly slammed the door down with everything she had, catching four fingers of a hand that was trying to pull himself up. Even as this left four severed fingertips on the ground floor of the inn, Pontarious spun, grabbed Quelrik, wrapped the boy in a hug while flipping his robe around both him and the boy while taking a knee. A moment later a tremendous glass and wood shattering blast erupted from the cellar, violently flipping the door up and open, and sending a massive cloud of smoke and debris up from below. Pontarious let the rain of bits of cloth, parts of weapons, body parts, and blood fall back to the floor while he wiggled a finger from his free hand in his ear, "Oh, I think I made these a bit too hot! Oh, well..." He stood, pulling up Quelrik as he did so, then held out his other hand with the second metal ball, "Another spark if you would, dear boy?" The boy was too astonished to do anything other than comply. A moment later the cloth poking out of the top of the second ball started hissing and popping. Pontarious waited a couple of seconds before dropping it down into the cellar, then used his foot to close what was left of the door. He once again flipped his cloak around Quelrik, but this time he moved a few steps further away from the passage leading down before taking a knee, protectively pulling the boy down with him. Everyone else in the room had seen enough. To a person they all scrambled away from the cellar door, knelt down and put hands and arms over themselves, while whose with shields crouched with shields up. Three seconds later there was a second thunderous roar. This time the trap door in the floor ripped off its hinges and embedded into the ceiling, while the whole building seemed to shake. A few seconds later all was quiet, save for everyone's ears ringing and several people coughing. Pontarious was the first to stand, pulling Quelrik up as he did so. He kept one arm protectively around the totally shocked and stunned child. He made his way into the other room, grabbed two more metal balls and moved back to the hole in the floor. From below there was sounds of someone whimpering and a couple others moaning, but nothing more. With a shrug, he put the two balls down on a badly blood splattered counter and ruffled Quelrik's hair. "Thank you, son. You did great." Pontarious then glanced over at an awestruck Gilew with a totally satisfied smile, "See, son, pawn problem solved! So much for wave one and two..." He glanced back at the steps going down, "And probably three." Spotting Conner staring at him with his jaw hanging down, he shot the boy a smirk, "I did mention a really good Mystic can learn how to use something called Blast Powder, did I not?" Conner let out a 'pfft' sound and shook his head. Before more could be said, two more rustling sounds could be heard coming from below. Only this time it was hisses and a hauntingly hollow sounding voice saying, "Feed on the dead later my pets There is living above!" "Undead!" Gilew snarled as he moved forward, "Quel, get behind us!" Pontarious frowned deeply even as he slid around the corner. A few moments later the head of a humanoid creature with grayish-green skin, a blackened forked tongue, yellow eyes, and a few matted clumps a hair still attached to it head appeared. Gil-Drak extended his paw-like hand, while making an twirling motion with his pinky and thumb. An instant later a golden-green ray shot out, hit the vile looking creature and caused it to scream with a hiss, even as it put up its clawed hands to its melting face and fell back down the steps. "Ghouls, and they are not new! Back off unless you have magic or silver weapons!" Well back from Conner, Gil-Drak and Gilew, Pontarious moved back up to a clearly fearful Quelrik and held up another large ball, only this was forged out of silver, "My boy, another spark if you would?" Quelrik nodded with a quivering lip, stuck out his finger and lit the cloth. Pontarious moved forward, "Boys, back off." Gilew looked over his shoulder, "You need silver!" "One melted candle holder incoming!" "Oh, for the love of the gods..." Gagan snarled, "Just make sure you hit the hole!" "Hey, I haven't had any for a while, but my aim is still pretty good!" Pontarious fired back as he lobbed the large silver ball. True to his words his aim was fine. It dropped down the square hole in the floor, even as everyone in the room scattered to find some cover. A few seconds later the building shook yet again, followed by an unearthly scream and dozens of hate-filled hisses. As the latest round of smoke and dust cleared and partially see-through cloaked creature floated up out of the cellar with dozens of holes in its form, "You..." it weakly spoke with a hollow sounding voice... "you destroyed my entire horde..." Right behind the horribly wounded entity, a female Gnome staggered up the steps. She wore a dark purple cloak with Master Echelon Mage pins. She glared at Pontarious who eyed the undead floating creature with utter distain. "How dare you wear the cloak of Master Tregasel! I will transform you into..." Conner's eyes narrowed as he recognized Gambra's second in command, "Master Ta-tara, you have come to the wrong inn and you will do nothing to anyone in it!" "Conner... Oh, how Gambra will reward me for falling you!" The Gnome spoke in utter delight. She looked over at the floating form, "Wegalem, take the child before you and I will release what Life spark I hold of yours!" As the floating figure moved right at Conner, Gilew spoke with terror in his voice from behind Pontarious, "Conner, that is a wraith! Back off before it drains...." Conner stepped up, pushing Pontarious back as the words of the priestess suddenly returned to him, ‘You have tasted the powers of death, but this is not enough to join the coming battle, you must go further, stop playing with it. Instead, embrace it and learn to exhaust it in single bursts. The effect will be the same for you will not wake the dead, but you will find the power generated by such releases devastating to even the most terrifying of foes.’ Without warning, and much to the bewilderment and astonishment of the badly wounded wraith, Conner plunged his hand into the center mass of the undead creature. He cringed at the foul taste that suddenly entered his mouth, but focused on the wraith's link to not life, but the power of death within. He pulled his hand back, revealing a bubbling dark mass. Everyone within the inn could feel the hate dripping off the glob even as the wraith let out pitiful howl of total anguish. The wraith lost its incorporeal form and fell to the floor with a thud. Moments later the body of a Human man, with a hole where his heart should have been reached out toward the mass in Conner's hand as if trying to take it back. Conner ignored this. Instead he focused and the totally confused Gnome Dark Wraith Mage, "Ta-Tara, you know how to take life, but there is a lesson you did not get. When you don't release the death gifting, part of your life spark is required to keep the link open. But death festers on it. However, this is yours, so by all means, take it back!" Conner then raised his hand and blew the nasty pulsing black blob in Ta-Tara's direction. While she had no real understanding of what was going on, she was terrified, for Conner had just done something she didn't think possible. To this end she stuck her arm up to block the shifting, pulsating mass, but as soon it hit her, it attached like a living leach. She screamed in both horror and terrible pain, as the sickening hunk of undead first took a massive bite, then spread out, first covering her hand like a light sucking skin. It then moved down the arm, onto the chest and continued to spread out over her abdomen, lower body, other arm, then moved up her neck. With each passing moment, her screams became more shrill as agony and anguish was heaped on top of one another in ever increasing amounts. Conner moved forward and stared at her with zero remorse, "What? You don't like what all those you have stolen and kept the life gift of are doing to you? Did you ever wonder what happened to the bits and pieces of life you ripped out of living things with your dark spells went? "Well, let me explain so you will understand this is not about me, it is about all those you have so permanently wronged. This is justice for them. And, yes, I will get a massive amount of fulfillment out of what is being done to you and even some pleasure at knowing your fate, still this is not about me." "What! What have you done?" The Gnome managed to scream out before crumpling to the floor, while trying to swat at the extra skin of death all but covering her. "You wish to know?" Conner asked with a snort, "Fine, let me explain as best as I can. I highly doubt you've ever wondered what becomes of the little bits and pieces of life you steal every time you cast a Dark Spell or hold on and play with the life gift too long. Now you get to find out. For as you can now feel, those pieces of life didn't just disappear. The physical bodies here withered some with each casting and each theft, but the bits remain in the land of the dead. Each and every one of them know your life spark, and want... need... a chance to live again or become whole. To those chunks of life, your life spark inside an undead creature is a gateway to this ream, but it only went to a dead entity, sending them back to the land of the dead. However, I have pulled your life spark out and gave it back to you along with the link to the land of the dead. This opened a doorway and gives every bit and morsel of life a pathway directly to you. Even now, each Dark Mage spell in your book is linked to you and is being eaten, and with it your tie to the magic within those spells. "But your misery does not end there, for you made the wraith, and therefore, your life spark is behind the undead, every undead, it made. I am willing to bet this is not the only one, either, so in addition to those you directly stole from, all those of your undead pets prevented from dying naturally are feeding on you as well. How many people and creatures are feeding on you, Ta-Tara? Dozens, Hundreds? Thousands?" Conner's smile was one of total malice, "My bet would be on the later. It will be days or even weeks before they are done with you. You will be left many years aged with no magic within; a Mundane hag with blighted and blistered skin, and surely no voice since you will have screamed yourself into silence long before all the scraps of life finish with you." Conner grabbed her by the hair, drug her down the steps coated with gore and tossed her down into the flowing water in the passage below the cellar. He came back up and spoke with a note of grim satisfaction, "And now, I believe the scales have become in balance for Ta-Tara." Way in the back of the room Gagan gulped, "Captain... while your mojo is scary as all nine hells combined, it ain't got nothin' to Conner’s!" King Wyhrem, Klandon, Count Salostar, Baron Greyhammer, Sardan, Sagell, Aster, Bayne, Benam, Quavis, Cresh, Dabaff, Gomriss, Pocet, Captain of the Guard. Aster looked up as the main door leading into the central keep of the old fortress opened. While he had seen King Wyhrem once, from a distance, the sight of his king coming right at him caused his heart to speed up. He quickly jumped up and pulled down on his leather vest, then started to reach for his axe, but stopped, not knowing what would be considered proper. Much to his credit, King Wyhrem saw this and motioned for Aster to secure his weapons. "Young one, if you are here with my Watch, you have not only a right, but a duty to be armed." Aster tried to say something but found his voice was stuck in the back of his throat. He also realized he needed to do something, being in front of a king, but had no clue what it was. To this end he dropped down to a knee even as he secured his axe. Sardan snickered, "My king, this very well may be a first, for it seems Aster is without words!" King Wyhrem smile warmly, "Oh, so this is the Aster I have heard so much about. It is a pleasure to meet you while also thanking you for your service to the Junsac Watch." "Ah... Ah... um, thank you my King... Um..." Suddenly Aster stopped speaking as Bayne entered the room. He stared at the boy for a few uneasy seconds with wide eyes, focusing only his sole attention on the kid. Wyhrem, Sardan and Sagell all noticed this and glanced over their shoulders. The look on Bayne mirrored Aster's. Before anyone else could speak, Count Salostar moved up and gave a bow, "Great King, if I may once again interject?" Wyhrem glanced back and forth between the two boys while speaking, "If there is a reason for this sudden uncomfortable feeling between my new son and my esteemed Watch member, please enlighten us." "King Wyhrem, your Watch member is known to us as well, for he is the elder twin brother of Prince Bayne!" "My brother?" both asked in unison. Baron Greyhammer spoke, "Yes, my Princes, Prince Aster, meet your brother Prince Bayne." Aster spoke slowly even as Bayne moved closer, "I can feel a power in you... a Dragon... many Dragons..." "Me killed one... but... I feel same in you." "I killed one, Son. Not me." King Wyhrem stated firmly while moving forward to put his hand steadfastly on Bayne's shoulder. Bayne looked back, "Sorry, Pa... um, Father... I killed one?" "Yes, much better and you will be speaking like the high noble you are in no time if you continue to follow my words," Wyhrem praised the youngster. "Father?" Aster asked in total confusion. "I took him in as my own after he saved my life, Aster." Aster's lips turned up slightly, "I am happy for you Prince Bayne... Do you know of our birth parents?" Seeing Bayne shake his head, Aster let out a sigh. Wyhrem gestured toward Salostar and Greyhammer, "I believe they can tell you more, son." Aster eyed the Garm and Alphar for a second, "It doesn't matter. At least I found another brother..." "Aster," Wyhrem spoke after a few seconds of awkward silence, "you are welcome into my palace..." Aster managed a thin smile, "Thank you my King, but I am not a palace-type person. Even the free rooms in The Watch hall is more fancy than I like." Sardan couldn't help but snicker, "He is being very honest, Highness. Aster prefers a forge or being out in the woods. When he gets an inn room, it is in the rougher sections of towns unless we all but demand he stay somewhere nicer." "Waste of money. I can sleep almost anywhere..." At this, Wyhrem laughed even as those around him cringed at the possible insult of saying living in a palace was a waste of money. Wyhrem clearly didn't take it as such as he reached out and patted Aster on the shoulder hard, "A sensible lad with a great deal of fortitude! I am liking you more by the moment, Aster." Still chuckling, he reached out and ruffled Aster's hair, "You are still more than welcome to visit my son, your brother, any time. If you prefer, you can sleep in the barracks." Aster didn't pick up on the looks he was getting from the others, "Thank you, my King, I really don't need a special place to sleep." He then mumbled, "It's waking up in a strange place..." King Wyhrem nodded, "Waking up in a strange bed is not easy, I fully understand. However, I owe you more than a bed, so if you would like a place near my palace as your own, it can be arranged with a simple command from me." "My King, I don't see how you owe me anything..." "Oh, come now, my young Watch member. I do indeed owe you, as a king and more importantly as a father. For I am told it is you and one of your pets who found one of my sons wandering the streets of Junsac in the middle of a storm not unlike the one Syria is pounding us with right now." Aster looked back pointed over to Shade, "It was all him. If it wasn't for Shade, I wouldn't have noticed." Wyhrem knelt, while motioning for Shade to come over. He was careful, but still reached out and ran his hand down the coat of the animal. "Believe me, I thank him as well. However, once you did notice, you took action. From what I hear you tended my son all night, not knowing who he was. In addition, you fought an arena battle for him which could have ended your life. For me, as a father far more than a king, what you did for a child you did not know, sends shivers down my spine. There are thousands, upon thousands, of men and women in this kingdom, but it was a boy... you Aster, who stepped up to defended an unknown child, risking your life multiple times to do so." "I'm a member of The Watch, defending Junsac, the barony, and your kingdom as a whole is part of our pledge. He was in our territory. He needed help, and someone had harmed him. I could not stand by while any of it was going on. But I'm not the one who issued the arena challenge. Pocet did. All I did was jump in and fight with him." "Aster," Wyhrem spoke with a firm voice, "my advisors have given more than enough information to know you are trying mightily to discount your involvement. While I will be equally thankful to this Pocet, you had to agree for the challenge to go forth. It was your work as a Healthman and the refusal to accept pay, not Pocet's challenge, which forced the arena match. It is also you who took possession of my child without enacting a slave clause over him. By rule of the arena, it was a right you had. Instead you just took possession. This means, again as a father, I owe you. For the stigma of being a slave is not something I can simply get rid of by decree. I can eliminate the title and free a slave, yes. However, as I am sure you know, once a slave always a slave, and you had legal right, because you did not know the boy you fought for to get the papers. "All you have to do is realize countless members of The Watch were in attendance and saw my son, yet not one of them identified him as such. Certainly this was because he was not known to be missing, was in rags, had long hair, was in poor health, and had been badly tormented. However, I can name five who had met Klandon, who were in attendance, yet did not see him for who he is. You simply did not worry about his birthright. For you, he was not a slave and therefore a free being. You kept him free even though, from my understanding from my new Royal Healthman, the work you performed could have easily been charged to hundreds of silver coins." Seeing King Wyhrem reaching for a large pouch being held up by his Captain of the Guard, Aster held up his hand, "My King, I didn't seek payment then, and I sure will not now. I did what was needed for a boy who was in need. I would do so again. But the real problem, those who really hurt your son... um, our prince, are still out there. This is not done until I find who did him so much harm and crush them." Wyhrem still took the huge bulging pouch, grabbed Aster's hand, and pushed it firmly into Aster's fingers. "While I love your attitude and fully agree, Aster; as your king, I decree you do not have the right to refuse payment for services rendered to my son. Therefore, unless you wish to break one of my royal decrees, you will take this. Now, if you would be so kind as to direct me to this Pocet?" Aster felt the weight of what he considered a small sack, and looked up with deference in his eyes, "As you command, my King. Pocet is in the back room with two of my slaves and who we believe is Prince Klandon, but he thinks his name is Zoldon, and we have been calling him Zoldon since one of my slaves got him to open up and start talking." Wyhrem scratched his chin, "He is with slave children?” "My King..." Sardan started to say only to get a hand in his face. "I was asking Aster, Sardan. Stay your beak." Aster looked up again, only this time he was somewhat annoyed and it showed in his eyes and voice, "My King, as I just told you they are the ones who got him to talk. At the time I didn't know who he was, but I did know he needed a friend or two. I ordered my slaves, who are close to whatever prince we have, in age, to befriend him. Once we found out who he probably is, I also made it clear to them, they were... are to treat him as a free child, while doing what they could to get him to tell us more. They have done a good job and the prince has even played with them a little, something he wouldn't do before. He was too afraid to even talk until they got him going. Right now, the prince is the only living link we have to whoever or whatever is behind this whole thing. We needed and still need more information out of him if I am ever going to find and destroy who did this. Yes, I did this for who turned out to be your son, but who he is didn't matter to me. I did it for him and to find out who badly needs my axe upside their heads. This, I will not apologize for." While eyes all around Wyhrem went wide, King Wyhrem nodded, reached down and pulled Aster up. "You, young man, are certainly welcome and even expected to be a regular visitor to my palace. I could use more like you from my advisors, all the way down to those who command my smallest town garrisons. Should you ever want to take me up on my offer to lead a smaller community in preparation for bigger and grander tasks, you have but to ask. Now let us go see my son and the slave boys he is befriending. If they are truly seen as his friends, I will pay you whatever your asking price is, free them, and they can join me and my son as servants and playmates in my palace." Wyhrem shot Sardan a hard glare as he walked by, "If you had a problem with my son playing with slaves, you should have tried to rectify it as soon as you found out. Since you did not, I believe anything you have to say on the matter has already been said by action, or in this case inaction. Because of this, I will defer to the judgment of the child who saved my son's life." Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Lacate, Zeltoss Lorthorn used a large tree to block the wind and snow as much as possible as he took his turn on guard for the small camp. Looked over his shoulder and realized it would take a total fluke for anyone to find it even if they knew the general location. For, as usual, Kandric had used his phenomenal Outdoorsman skills to make it all but invisible. Kandric had everyone pulled the cloths for their tents over the boulders and braced up the edges with a few quickly cut branches making a cave-like structure. The small fire in the back was blocked by another cloth, so even looking right at the spot with heat vision, there was only a tiny plume of heat rolling upwards, but even this was made more diffuse by the way Kandric anchored the edges of the 'roof' so most areas were well secured, but there were a half dozen spots where gaps had been left. This allowed the heat and smoke to move up, but in several locations instead of one. The end result was each vent released only part of the heat and smoke. The cold wind quickly eliminated both. While someone downwind would certainly smell some smoke, locating where it was coming from would be nearly impossible. Lorthorn stuck his hands inside his winter cloak to warm them as he moved to verify the top of the rocky ridge was secure before moving back to find another good windbreak for a couple of minutes. He had seen snow storms before, but never one this late in the season and it gave him the creeps. In addition to the snow falling in huge, wet, wind-driven flakes blocking both normal and , the howling of the wind, combined with the cracking and popping of trees, as limbs gave under the onslaught, drastically cut down on hearing. After nearly an hour and a half, and him badly needing to get warm, Lorthorn made one last walk around the entire perimeter of the camp before waking Seldnat. He was just starting to pull the flap of the cloth structure back to enter when his ears picked up on an odd sound. It sounded like someone calling out, only it was not a normal yell, nor did the voice sound panicked as if someone was lost. He stopped dead in his tracks, pulled the hood of his cloak down and cocked his head to the sides so his ear would not fill with snow, but was still basically listening in the direction of the wind. After several seconds of nothing Lorthorn shrugged, figuring he had heard a strange whistling of the storm. He reached out for the flap of fabric only to hear it again. "It's got to be wind," he muttered. But instead of dismissing it altogether, he moved his hand down to the Lava Hammer at his belt, slid in the shelter and nudged Jamon and Seldnat, who had been sharing a bed roll for warmth. "Guys, I think I am hearing something..." Seldnat reached out and grabbed his Staff Spear while nudging Jamon, "Me knows ya got good ears. So do yer pet. Now get yer butt up and goes and hears somethin'." Jamon rolled out of the side of the bed roll, reached back and grabbed his cloak from under him, and pulled it on. He shoved his feet into his boots and quickly accepted his light mace and whip from Lorthorn, who kept looking back to the entrance with some nervousness. While there was a hard chill to the air, the shelter wasn't horrible. This combined with the trick Kandric taught him about sleeping with his clothing off but with him, so they stayed warm, helped a great deal. He pulled up his hood and quickly followed Lorthorn out into the storm even as Seldnat pulled on armor as quietly as possible. Off to the side, Zeltoss let out a yawn and looked over, "Problem, or shift change, Seld?" "Not sure, none. Keep restin', but stays wake fer a bit. Lor 'll tell ya in'f ya needs ta gets up real soon like." Zeltoss carefully rolled out from the bedroll he was sharing with Pike, so he didn't wake the Garm boy, then slid over, "Here, let me help with your armor." "Me can get it," Seldnat grumbled. "Yeah, I know, but if I help you will be in it faster and if there is a problem, you are the one I want beating the crap out of whatever it is." Zeltoss pulled the buckle tight for Seldnat while adding, "This way I don't have to." "Year gettin' good at it, Zel," Seldnat snickered softly, "but the next big nasty, me'll jus' watch." "Why?" Zeltoss asked tersely, "You're better at it." "Ya jus' answer yer own question, Zel. Ya need da practice. If'n it be a real big nasty, me'll step in ta help." Seldnat answered even as Zeltoss helped adjust the shoulder armor, then pulled down on the straps to make it extremely secure. "Thanks fer the help; us'll let ya know if'n we needs help." Seldnat pushed the bottom of the flap open so most of the trapped heat stayed in and slid out. Once clear, he knelt even as he spotted Lorthorn and Jamon. Both were nodding to each other and pointing right into the wind. Once he was sure he wasn't going to distract them from hearing what he couldn't he stood and moved up, "What's we got?" "Not sure, but it..." Lorthorn stopped as he heard it again. Seeing Jamon nod and Jamon's Winged Bobcat, Glide, look directly into the snow, he focused back on Seldnat. "Someone or something is calling out, but we can't make it out. The storm is pushing the sound toward us, so it's coming from over there somewhere." He pointed directly into the gale. "Wind like dis could really mess up where da sounds be comin' from," Seldnat warned. "Lor, ya OK ta stay on watch fer a bit more?" "Yeah, sure. Um, what are you going to do?" "Me's gunna take Jamon and the kitty inta dis mess. Him and Glide hear gooder, kind-a like you. Me'll use him and his kitty's ear and do's some scoutin'." "Then get him armored up. I'm telling you there is something out there." Seldnat nodded, "Ya help Jamon. Get's warm fer a few. Me'll take watch here." A few minutes passed before Lorthorn and Jamon re-emerged into the storm. This time Jamon was fully armed, armored, and in warm clothing. Jamon looked over to Seldnat, "Anything more?" "Orc hearin' no good, ya ought's ta know dat. Nose good, but me gets nothin' in all this Syria throwin' a fit." He jerked his head, "Come on, Jamon. Let's see if'n der be an Orc fer ya ta beat up on. We need's ta get ya to silver pins er gooder!" Fifteen minutes later and kneeling to take a break from the snow slashing into their faces, Glide suddenly hissed. Even as Jamon's hand went down to calm his pet, he caught the sound. It was someone calling out Kandric, and it was being done in a very taunting way. "OH, KAAAANNNDRRRICCC. I have one of your Human striplings! OH KAAANNNDRRRICCC!" Jamon looked over to Seldnat who had his hand on his spear, but clearly didn't hear the words being carried on the wind. "Seldnat, someone is calling out Kandric and says he has one of the students." Seldnat frowned deeply, "Can ya tells how many?" "One voice, male. It's all I can get... There it is again!" Seldnat's nose crinkled up as he did his utmost to hear. After a couple of seconds, he shook his head. "Stupid Orc side, no can hear nothin'." He growled deeply, "Ya willin' ta go wake da others, but leave Glide? Him can hear and warn me case me miss 'em." Jamon kissed his Winged Bobcat on the nose even as he cringed. He didn't want to lose another pet, but he sure didn't want to see Seldnat get hurt. "OK, but take care of him, please." "Nothin' hurtin' Glide if'n me can helps it none." Jamon took a breath, "Glide guard Seldnat. Stay close to him." The Winged Bobcat cocked its head to the side as if trying to figure out why Jamon was telling it to stay. After a second command, it hissed lightly but moved up to Seldnat's side. Even then it looked back as Jamon followed his footsteps back to the camp. Seldnat took a knee, "Don't ya worry's none, Glide. Ya jus' let me know where's dem fools be. Me'll take care a dem and gets whoever they holdin'." Jamon pushed back through the snow, happy they hadn't been gone very long, for even in the brief time he had been gone, the trail was being covered by wind driven snow and drifts. He didn’t realize Seldnat had chosen the path they took, to do this very thing, to prevent easy discovery, but it didn't matter. All he cared about was he managed to make it back before all traces of their short trek vanished. Even as Lorthorn spotted him and moved to make sure he was OK, Jamon took a breath of relief. Lorthorn's eyes searched into the snow, "Where's Seld?" "Sill out there with Glide," Jamon stated while trying to catch his breath. "Someone's calling out Kandric and says they have one of the students. He told me to come back and get you all" "Oh, really?" Lorthorn's eyes narrowed. "Yes, go wake Kandric. Let's see what he says, but if he wants my vote; it is to go kill someone and get whoever they have back." Jamon nodded, even as he moved into the shelter, "Kandric, we have a problem." Even as all the other moved and Pike and Zeltoss grabbed weapons, Kandric sat up and looked over, "Something found us in this storm?" "No, but someone is looking for you and is calling you out. It sounds like they have one of the students, too." Kandric pushed Lacate away, "Not for long! Where are they?" "Hard to tell, Kandric. Kind of in the direction the wind is coming from. I can’t tell. Seldnat is out there with Glide, trying to figure it out, though." Kandric's eyes narrowed, "Where is Lor?" "On guard..." "No! Neither of them should be out there, not alone. If something is out in this, they are big, bad and mean. Go get Seld and tell him to come back while I try to find out who or what we are going to send to meet Brandall tonight." Jamon let out a long breath and hung his head, but didn't argue. Instead he moved back out into the blizzard and followed his footsteps for a second time. Kandric glanced over at Lacate who was grabbing for his cloak, "Did I say you could get dressed?" Seeing the boy cringe and drop the edge of the cloak, Kandric smirked. "You dress me as a good chamber boy, Lacate, then you get nothing, nothing at all. Had you first offered to dress me, then asked, I may have said yes, but you do not do what you want without permission. Also, just so you know, I should be sending you out in this mess, not Jamon, but Seldnat is too important to me to risk the message not getting to him. Now get my clothing and help me dress." As soon as Kandric was in clothing and armor, he pointed at the burned down fire, "Now, Lacate, get some more wood and re-stoke the fire. Once you do, get a meal going. We are going to need it. If you get us fed, I may let you get dressed until we bed down again." Kandric then focused on Zeltoss, who was getting his last armor straps tightened by Pike, "Zel, join Lor on watch. "Pike, I want you by me. I need to take a trip into the Spirit Realms, but keep an eye on Lacate. He is to put nothing on until we all eat and he does nothing other than tend the fire and cook. He tries to eat or drink, pop him... hard. He is in his time as a slave and slaves eat after free people do." Not bothering to see if his orders were going to be followed, he put his back to a rock, put his hands around his sword, and closed his eyes. Lacate saw Pike glare at him so he didn't even reach for his cloak again. Never in his life had he been so embarrassed and helpless, but there was nothing he could do, and he was quite certain the small Garm boy would knock him into next week, or back into last week, if he so much as did anything other then exactly what he was told. Or worse, ask to take him to bed when Kandric didn't want him. All he could hope was whoever was brave enough to call out Kandric would be able to take them all out so he could escape... Even as this thought came, Lacate realized it was a stupid one. Chances were good it would be someone like Moba. At least Kandric wasn't viscious, yet... Even if Kandric and the others were taken out, and he escaped, it wouldn't benefit him, and Lacate quickly figured this out. Where was he going to go in a storm like this when they were in the middle of the wilderness? He wouldn't be able to make a shelter one one-hundreth what Kandric had done and once any food ran out, then what? He wiped a tear off his cheek as he realized what he wanted, in reality, was for Kandric and the others to win so he could survive... survive to be a servant, a bedding boy, a living toy... Even as he blew on the embers to light the fresh wood, he wondered why he ever thought it had been a good idea and fun to pick on Kandric back in Slome. He also couldn't help but wonder why Kandric didn't just wipe the cobblestone with him and his older brother the first time they teased him and prevented him from getting work. Lacate paused and got his breath back before blowing on the remnants of the fire, once again trying without success, trying to get the wood he put on them to ignite. The very fact he could not get glowing embers to start a fire reminded him just how badly he needed Kandric. It was not fair in the slightest to need someone who had such total control over him and took pleasure out of using him. Helplessly, he back off coughing, just long enough to get his breath back before he put his face close to the campfire and blew again. While Pike kept careful watch on Lacate, Kandric slipped into the Spirit Realm. He quickly found both the mist and wind spirits he had befriended close by. Before they could call on more powerful one to teach yet another spell, Kandric held up his hand, "Guys, I hate to ask for help, but I need it if you are willing." "You have but to ask, Kandric." The mist spirit stated. At the same time the wind spirit spun, "Yes, ask. We have gained much by being your friend. We have both learned much from our elders and are much better because of it. We are even accepted by each other's elders, so I may even become able to be a fledgling storm spirit." "And me a geyser spirit." the mist spirit responded with glee. "We will no longer be minor and looked down on." "Whoever or whatever is looking down on you is also looking down on me. Tell them as much and the next time I slide in for a talk have them come discuss it with me." The wind spirit nervously giggled before moving over to the fire and sending a swirl of wind around it, brightening the hot embers and igniting the wood, forcing Lacate to fall back on his butt while staring at the fire with wide eyes. It giggled, "Now the near Mundane can feed you." Kandric chuckled, "Thanks, but next time no singeing his hair. As it is, I am going to make him grow it out, so I have some to play with in bed. Besides, no one looks good without eyebrows." The wind spirit swirled around the small fire causing it to flare a second time before backing off, "Your servant needs to learn how to stack wood so it burns better, but if you want him with long hair, I will be careful to blow it back next time." "With a bit of warning I can dampen it as well and keep eyelashes and eyebrows safe," the mist spirit joined in. "However, I do not see may spirits willing to confront you, Kandric." "Yes, he is correct." The wind spirit stated while making the flames dance around the shelter in whatever direction Lacate moved just to make him more nervous than he already was. "It is probably not going to happen. Most are afraid of you, even some of the great spirits. Between the Dragon kills and what you have done in Spirit Realms, you are a considered beyond a mortal, but word has come to us one of your brothers has made his mark in the realms of Kryplok and Brandall in a way not seen since the Mythling Wars, so your line is quite simply not one most outside the Mortal Realms want to trifle with. Those who have and will are by far the exceptions." Kandric watched Lacate have to continuously move away from the fire, over and over with an ever-growing smirk, "While I love your humor, it is not allowing him to cook for us." "So I can mess with him some other time?" "As long as he is not in my bed or directly trying to serve, by all means, have fun. But right now, I am told there is someone out in this mess trying to call me out. Any chance you can safely find out who or what and see if it or them have one of my Slome students?" The two spirits spoke in unison, "Be right back!" Kandric spent a couple of minutes learning yet another spell, this time from a rather cranky and old magma spirit, before returning back to his body. He glanced over at Lacate who was putting meat on a small pan and cautiously trying to warm it while eyeing the fire suspiciously. He couldn't help himself, "Come on, Lacate, get cooking already, the fire is very small and poorly stacked. It is not going to bite you." "But it keeps blowing toward me!" Kandric had to force any trace of a smile off his face and he stared at the nude boy, "How? I sheltered this place from the storm, and I sure do not feel any breeze at the moment." "But..." "I guess you do not want any clothing until we move out again. Whatever." Next to Kandric Pike leaned close even as Lacate bit back a sob and wiped at a few new tears, "It did seem to jump at him a few times." "I know it did. The more I use lack of clothing as a punishment, the easier it will be for him to accept what he turned himself into. Until he stops tightening up every time I touch him or trying to edge away, he will not make a good bedmate, and he is. I am not sure how you feel about this, but regardless of what he wants or likes, he is going to be my primary chamber servant until he works himself out of his servitude with me. In addition, I am going to make sure everyone in Slome knows it." "He gave himself to you, so what you do with him is none of my concern. One thing if certain, his usefulness as anything but a house servant is extremely limited. Maybe we can change him, but right now he is more of a liability than he is of use. Having a cook, and a camp hand is outweighed by how much he slows us and the fact we have to protect him from others as well as himself. I had no idea people outside of Garm and Alphar lands could have so little backbone. In Winter Creek, a child like him would be declared non-child by nobles and discarded by the peasants to fend for themselves or possibly even sold to a brothel. For the luckiest, life would be as a very low-level man or woman servant getting food and a robe, while tending to young or elderly until death. For most, the wilds of the lands shrouding the empire would claim them. A crippled, malformed, or badly injured child is held in higher regard than one like Lacate. At least their lack of use has reason and is in no way their fault. Charity is given when needed, but it is not acceptable for a being with a working body and mind to depend on others. There is always work and pay, even if it be removing waste dirt and rocks from mines or pulling wagons of trash and waste out of settlements. A sewer cleaner has more standing than one such as Lacate." Pike snorted, "In some ways thieves and brigands garner more respect, for at least they are willing to take risks." "Those with wealth often have children who never have to learn basic skills. The family pays for what is needed. It is not the same in Garm lands?" "No, every child, no matter what family or wealth is expected to make a name for him or herself. Every Mundane Garm and Alphar noble I know of must serve as a hand for the military for sixty moons; those of us who are not Mundane must apprentice out and serve thirty moons. While I am far from age of ascension, it was better to ask to get my thirty moons out of the way than go home when my ship was in port to a father who found extra work for me around the estate since I was not working or being useful. Trust me, serving as a runner and having to work in the ranks as a gopher is infinitely better than the tasks Father found for me while I was in port. "Even our guild rankings are different than yours. In Garm and Alphar lands I am considered to not even be truly guilded. I am a schoolboy, in preparation for training. Your Primary Echelon is our Training level. Your Secondary, we call Proficient, and it is not until we reach Proficient we are considered to have advanced enough to be worthy to the Empire. One of the reasons I was so astonished to be given the opportunity to be your Garm counterpart is more about me only being Preparation Status, than being assigned to counterpart such a high noble." "I am not a noble..." "Kandric, you are self-made royalty. Your heritage is below what you obtained without any help from your family. This puts you on a king or emperor platform no matter what land people are from. The last time we had this in the Mortal Realm was probably the Highman Warlord Greysac!" "Oh, come on, no way should you even mention me with him. He was quite possibly the greatest warrior king of all time, even the gods and demons feared him! The Demon Lords even sent their pawns into the Mortal Realms in an attempt to ruin him. All it did was make him mad. He fought back, killed a few powerful demons, and rebuilt. His name is all over our maps to this day!" Kandric stated while waving his hands in front of himself. "But enough about me, what would happen if a high merchant child in your lands acted like Lacate? What if a parent used wealth to keep him as comfortable as Lacate has been up till a few short weeks ago?" Pike shook his head, "The merchant would be scoffed and would lose most customers, if not all of them. No one would take the merchant seriously ever again. We live in dangerous lands and must keep others out; so all see at least one major combat, most two or three, even our Mundane. Those who break, cannot keep up with the formations, or fail to serve honorably are given a very small stipends if their families can afford one, and are removed from the house lines, permanently. They then find work or... well there is no real tolerance for an able-bodied beggar." Before more could be said, the air grew noticeably more humid. Kandric held up his hand to stop Pike. A moment later his body slumped and he re-entered the Spirit Realms. In the Mortal Realm Pike watched Kandric's body go limp. With a shake of his head, he glanced over at Lacate who was watching with confusion. "He slid into the Spirit Realms." "But I thought only the best could and it took time, right?" Pike looked over at Kandric, then back at Lacate, "I have seen extremely powerful Shamen inside their spirit lodges who could not do in an hour what Premier Kandric can do in seconds, Lacate. This is not some strange fluke, either. For this is the second time in half the time of an hourglass he has done it and he does so effortlessly. You may want to keep this in mind as you serve him, for he is probably powerful enough to take your spirit with him and strand you there. I have heard of such things, but only a handful are rumored to have such powers. After seeing this, I am willing to bet Kandric is in said handful. Therefore, the next time you shrink back from his touch, procrastinate in washing him, dressing him, or pull away from him, consider he can almost certainly do things with not only your body, but your spirit. You gave yourself to him, and thus he controls the physical such as clothing, eating, rest, and even your body. Unfortunately, you gave yourself over to someone who also has control over your spirit. On this I can only go on what I have heard. However, I can tell you it is widely believed and accepted most Shaman are considered to be outsiders and encroachers when they venture into the spirit lands. They are tolerated, barely. I cannot imagine how the immortals view non-Shamen mortals who are pulled into the spirit lands, nor do I ever want to find out. Now, while you consider this, get us a meal. For I am betting our Premier is about to find out who we are going to have to go kill for even suggesting harm to one of his students." Kandric could tell by the way both spirits were acting, the news was not going to be good. With a deep breath he braced for bad news, "I can tell by the looks and actions both of you are not really wanting to tell me what is out here with us. Just do me a favor and tell me if whoever or whatever has one of my students." "One of yours and one from the other Slome School, plus two we do not recognize, but close to your equivalent age." The wind spirit spoke with trepidation. "I will take this as good news, since I have yet to find one since separating from the small party led by the Swordsman Klent. Now, you may as well give me the bad news, for you both must know I am going to go after whatever has my student." "Kandric," the mist spirit stated softly, "the two boys are being held by your grandfather." At this Kandric blinked, "What? How? Surely Duke Mathard would not let him..." Kandric's voice stopped as he saw both seem to diminish in intensity, as if they were cringing. "He is not with Duke Mathard, is he?" "No." The wind spirit whispered. "It appears he defected. One of the reasons it took us so long is we tried to find others who know or saw what happened, but they all seem to not want to talk. We believe there is something else going on as well, and we are not privy to it. I guess we are not seen as strong or important enough." "One thing at a time, my friends," Kandric all but demanded. "Let us focus on the problem at hand first. I gather by your nervousness; my grandfather is not alone?" "No," the wind spirit stated, then backed off and let the mist spirit take over. "Kandric, he is holding the two boys you know with the assistance of several White Dragonlings and a Warrior Dragon. Before you shrug at this, they are being backed up by Prince Weraweld." The name meant nothing to Kandric and it showed as he turned up both hands and spoke in total befuddlement, "Who?" The wind spirit let out enough air to blow a few items around the shelter and accidentally fan the flames, forcing Lacate to jump back, while looking around wildly. This was ignored by all three in the Spirit Realms, "Kandric, Prince Weraweld is considered the front runner to be the next king of the White Dragons. It is believed he has mated with all four known White Great females over the last thirty years, which is all but unheard of, but he really is as scary as they come. He is on par with the most powerful of the Greats, and has the size of King Blathamort. He is nowhere near as old, though, so he is not slowed with age." The mist spirit seemed to shrink inward. "Prince Weraweld has taken out two Great Silvers, at least five True Silvers, and probably a score of Silver Warriors." Kandric's eyes narrowed, "So not only has he helped to take my student, he is a major enemy of one of my allies. He needs to die." "Kandric," the wind spirit stated with a great deal of concern, "we guessed you would say this. However, this is not like the others. You have no surprise. Prince Weraweld knows who you are, what you are, and is very much ready to take you on." A sly smirk crossed Kandric's lips, "Tell me, is the big clearing down the hill from us a lake, and if so how big and deep?" "It is a very large lake." the wind spirit responded. "How deep I cannot tell you." The mist spirit spread out some, "Give me a few moments. I will be back." A minute later it returned, "The edges are shallow. The middle is deep, dozens of meters, but uneven. It has many massive rocks on the bottom. The entirety of the surface is frozen to a depth of a third of a meter. You cannot be thinking of trying to lure Prince Weraweld out onto the lake... Are you?" "I most certainly am. First I need to know if my assumptions are correct. Will he radiate enough cold to not break the ice?" "He will be able to walk across it and freeze it deep and hard enough to where his claws will barely scratch the surface," the wind spirit confirmed. "If you go out there, he will have you in the open." "Which is exactly what gives me an advantage." Both spirits pushed well back from Kandric, "Huh?" "Ah, my good and loyal friends, gather a few of the others and place bets on this, offer yourself as servants if I lose, and demand power if I win. I promise I will do my utmost not to disappoint you." "If we do this we cannot help," the mist spirit warned. "I understand. I already have a plan... I just need to figure out one thing. Stick around while I go talk to Pike. I will be right back." Kandric's eyes snapped open and his quickly turned to look at Pike, startling both the Garm and Lacate. "Premier," Pike spoke, “you just took a decade of my life away... and the flames are..." "Oh, probably my windy friend. He is a bit nervous." Lacate gulped, "There are spirits here?" "Of course there are!" Kandric remarked offhandedly. "They are friends and are close by most of the time. Nothing to concern yourself with. Now get a meal finished. We have a large blob of nasty frost to deal with and I would prefer to do so with a decent meal in me." Kandric quickly turned his attention back to Pike, "Duke Mathard told me almost all Winter Creek Garm are taught how to fight White Dragons. Is this correct?" "From my first day of combat training, yes... Um, why?" Kandric debated on how much to tell Pike. Part of him wanted to give out all the information, but if Prince Weraweld was as well known as it sounded, chances were good it would terrify his new friend. To this end he stuck with basic facts and downplayed the true nature of the coming fight. "It seems the person holding my student and three others has the help of a large White lizard and few smaller White kind." "A real Dragon? Not Dragonlings?" Seeing Kandric nod, Pike gulped, "As in like a Warrior Dragon?" "At least, yes." Kandric stated without feeling too badly. After all he had been told there was a Warrior Dragon out there too. "Does it matter if it is a Warrior Dragon or a bigger one, though?" Even as Pike stared at him in semi-disbelief at the question, Lacate answered, "You're serious? There is a real Dragon out there and you are going to go after it? Are you insane?" "Probably," Kandric grinned. "Come on Lacate, you cannot tell me you do not want to see a Dragon..." "I did!" Lacate sputtered out with horror. "It was gigantic, Green, and had claws almost as long as I am tall! It opened the passage to get us here!" "Oh, yeah, right..." Kandric shrugged, "But, Lacate, it was Green, this one is White. I bet they look totally different!" Pike shook off some of his stupor as he looked over with wide eyes as it dawned on him Kandric was dead set on taking on a White Dragon, "We have to study Dragons, and yes they do look different than Greens. Greens have long twisting horns and really long wings that have claw-like hooks along the front edges where they fold. Whites have a much more sleek head, sharp horns pointed forward, and their wings are shorter and wider. The front edges of the wings are grooved and flex. We were told in our first class this allows them to fly in storms, since they can wiggle the entire length of their wings and break off built up ice." "All White Dragons, regardless of size, have these wings?" Kandric asked with a great deal of interest. "From what we have been taught yes... Um, why?" "Is there a weakness we can target on the wing?" Pike sputtered and coughed, "Yes... But... NO! We will have to purposefully get right up on it to strike, Kandric!" "Geesh, Pike, give me a little credit. I guessed as much." "Ahhh...." Pike shook his head, "I... oh, for the love of Brandall, take me in even though I am about to die a stupid death... Um, can you at least tell me why you want to get close enough to strike at the wing of a Dragon, when it will not do any real damage and seriously anger it?" "An angry foe is a careless one. Besides, taking away its ability to fly, even for a short span is the final key to my plan. And yes, I know getting up close and personal is pretty much going to be required. Where is your sense of adventure?" Pike and Lacate exchanged duplicate looks of dread even as both lost their ability to coherently think, let alone talk. "Hey, Pike, come back to me, buddy." It took a few more seconds for Pike to recover his wits enough to speak, "Very well, Kandric, I will tell you and even help. However, if we live... very big if... you owe me an adventure on my terms!" Kandric rubbed his chin as he stared at the Sailor guild pins with a great deal of foreboding, "Fine, bargained well and done, my friend. But if I am going to put myself in your hands for what I can only guess is going to be a very unpleasant ship ride, you are going to help me take out a wing... or two." "Two?" Pike eyed Kandric suspiciously, "Two, huh? Oh, why not. It is not like I am likely to live through the first wing anyway." "Wing? What wing?" Seldnat demanded to know as he pushed through the flap. He quickly stopped and sniffed, "Don't bother, none. Me smell bacon!" Without another word he moved up and nudged Lacate hard, "No spillin' da grease! Be good ta dip me bread in!" Pike couldn't help but nervously giggle, "Food first?" "No!" Seldnat all but shouted, "Bacon!" Without saying anything more he shaved of a long piece of wood from a branch in the pile, speared one of the cooking strips and held it up to cool just a little. He then held it up while cocking his head way back, letting the drips of grease drip directly into his mouth. He then bit off pieces before skewering a second piece and duplicating the process, "Ya wants me ta guard, ya feeds me like this, ya gots a guard fer life!" Pike couldn't help but snicker. "I bet I could get some of the Garm to invite you over with an attitude like you are showing." "Me'll even show up fer bacon." Seldnat put down two more hunks, then broke out some travel bread. He dipped the edge into the pan, ignoring the hot splatters, tore off a huge chunk with his teeth, and all but inhaled it. "Oh, yea! Now what’s me hearin' 'bout a wing?" Lacate pointed over to Kandric, "Dragon wing." "Ya mean me gets ta do somethin' this time?" Seldnat asked with a raised eyebrow. "I need a couple volunteers to damage its wing," Kandric verified. "Pike is one. I need one more." "It be 'bout time me gets ta join in. Me done nothin' wit them stupid lizards up ta now!" "Then you and Pike get to hurt the big one for me." "Der be more than one?" "Two, but the other is small." "Me no gunna argue none, Kandric, but if'n ya wants one a us ta take on the small without yer help..." "I would prefer you help take the wing on the big one, then you can go play with the small one, Seldnat. I have a plan, but it will take quick hard strikes and then moving fast to get out. I was kind of thinking Lor and Zel could keep the smaller one busy with Jamon's help. But you will have to join them right after you hit the wing, because I am going to be real busy with the big guy." Lacate looked over, "What about me?" "You stay here, keep the place warm and have another meal ready for us. We are going to need it." Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris, Duke Axegrind, Hawkling Channeler, Vondum, Kyltoss, Klorna, Morwar, Mokel, Princess Syrissia Vondum stared at the Mythling Gate Stone with a shake of his head. While the idea of being gated to some distant spot by magic was simply not among the things Vondum felt should ever be done, at least the last time he had used the stone, Kandric had activated it, and he had total confidence in Kandric's abilities. Even more important, Kandric joined him. This time he was trusting an unknown Alphar woman, who was simply opening the gate and walking away. In his way of thinking a single miss-casting, or in the case mispronunciation of spoken rune, could send him somewhere he had no desire to be, like in the middle of an ocean or even a hundred meters up in the air. Making matters worse, there would be no way of knowing for sure until it was too late. Since there was nothing he could do about it, and he had to agree with the Alphar and Garm commanders about Kandric needing a strong and trusted face or three to tell him about his brothers, he patiently waited for the woman to do her thing. At least there was some Alphar princess joining them, so he bet the woman playing with the green pyramid was going to be very careful. With nothing better to do, he glanced over at Ornam and spoke in Dragon tongue, "My last trip through was bitterly cold and we are going to be jumping into a snowstorm from what I have been told. Are you sure you wish to join us?" "I would be sorely remiss in not taking an opportunity to meet this Premier Kandric, supposed killer of my king, Vondum. If everything we believe is true about this young Shaman, his name will go down in legend! How could I now miss a chance to say I met him?" Vondum smiled and patted the Warrior Dragon hard on the side, "It is good to have you around me again, Ornam." "Likewise." the Warrior Dragon smiled while nudging Conth forward with his left front foot. "Stay awake, young rider. We will find a time to rest once our mission is complete." Vondum switched to the Northman tongue as he sent a nasty glare at Conth, "There will be little rest for him if he doesn't straighten himself up. He has not been awake even a full cycle of the sun and moon yet. By the time I am done with him in my tent, he will really need rest!" Ornam glanced down at Conth and spoke to him with thought, 'Now is the time, boy. Release your fear. Get angry. Deal with what you know is coming and I will take you as my rider.' Conth closed his eyes as he fought the desire not to puke from pure fear, but he also knew this might be his only chance to get out from under Vondum. To this end he clenched his fists and turned toward Vondum, "You're going to take me, so stop threatening me, and just do it already!" Those gathered around the gate stone all turned their heads to observe even as Vondum's eyes narrowed, "Are you telling me what to do, boy?" A slight smirk appeared on the upper edge of Ornam's mouth opposite of Vondum so the man could not see it. 'Do not back down. It is now or never. Besides, the line has been crossed; if you crumple to him now, he will make a long and painful example of you for finding the fortitude to speak up.' It took everything Conth had to not fall to his knees and try to apologize. At the same time, he really wondered why the Dragon didn't help him by pulling away some of the fear he had wracking his very core. After a few moments, however, he realized he was on his own with Vondum. While this suddenly seemed like a really bad idea, beyond bad, he also realized Ornam was correct. He had stepped over the line and it was either stand his ground now or have Vondum's boot on his back for the rest of his life. His Mindmaster ability also told him a bit of insight as to the threatening posture of Vondum. While the man was furious, there was a tiny amount of hope within the bubbling anger. For even as Vondum put on his most intimidating and threatening face, a small fraction of him hoped the boy in front of him had finally found a spine. The problem was, this same intuition also told Conth he was going to pay for this, and it would be brutal. What was done, was done, and there was no doubt he would pay for speaking out. With this knowledge in hand, he tossed aside the fear and went for broke. He stepped up to meet Vondum and forced himself to look into the man's eyes. "I can't tell you what to do, and you know it. You had me give you my word. I would be whatever you wanted, but I am done with being threatened! Do what you are going to do, kill me, whatever, but I'm done falling all over the place every time you hold taking me to bed over my head. Each time, I hand over more of my self-respect, and I am done with it!" While there was no outward sign of joy out of Vondum as he grabbed the front of Conth's shirt and lifted him off the ground with a single hand and held him high, Conth detected a glimmer of warmth within the man. It was a feeling of... it took a few seconds for Conth's mind to really figure it out, but finally the word came... It was a feeling of respect. It was the same one Vondum had when dealing with Kandric and to a lesser extent even Jamon. It was then it dawned on Conth who the real Vondum was. He was a man who had no admiration for anything or anyone until those around him gave him a reason to see them as something other than a weak, spineless, worthless hunk of meat to be stepped on. For in the man's eyes, everyone and everything was nothing more than tools to be used and abused until they proved otherwise. This had been what the time in the forges in the Black Dragon land had taught him. Most kids came in and folded. They were weak and worthless. A few, very few, were like Vondum. They toughed it out. Those were the ones who were something more. Becoming an enforcer only heightened this belief. The vast majority crumpled under his torment. Those who dealt with it and persevered were worthy. Few who entered to get 'free training' made it out as free and trained beings, but those who did had Vondum's respect. Life after the forge was no different. The strong didn't let fear or adversity cripple them. The rest were nothing to Vondum and never would be. It was this code, developed in the depths of the Black Dragon underground forges, which lead to him turning his back on his younger brother. In Vondum, his brother had betrayed himself by succumbing to fear and thus deserved whatever happened. Quite simply, there was nothing there to admire, and in Vondum this trumped all else. This insight allowed Conth a deeper glimpse into Vondum's mind and led to the reason Jamon was treated so differently by Vondum. Quite simply, Jamon had earned a slight amount of respect by making the forced walk back to Vondum's camp. This gave his cousin a chance to earn more. In this Jamon had come through. The slave training, and the beat down he had gotten at the hands of Jamon, followed by the whipping... All of it had earned Jamon more respect from Vondum while the massive man only held Conth in more distain. Up till now Conth realized he had done nothing to earn a shred of anything but loathing of his weak will. All Conth's attempts to placate the man had done the exact opposite. Each time he had a chance to show Vondum something, he had failed. He could have tried to go after Jamon, even if he got pummeled a second time. Doing so would have sent a message. He could have tried to stand up to the whipping, too. Sure he would have failed, but there was also a chance Vondum would have stopped it early. For he suddenly saw it in the man's thoughts. Vondum had stayed right outside, waiting to see if Jamon would balk or if Conth would try to stand up and take it. When neither happened, Jamon improved in Vondum's eyes, while Conth fell even further. It was twisted, but it was a deep code of honor within Vondum. As all these pieces fell into place, Conth saw, or at least understood one more thing. Vondum would indeed take him. It would be awful, it would be brutal, but if Conth could force himself to endure it and bravely deal with the next time or three, the man would tire of him... no, tire was not the right word. Vondum would find him worthy enough to let go, to free him of his servitude. The hard part would be to stand tall and accept it when Vondum came back for a second, third and every time after until he had climbed up high enough on the ladder Vondum measured people with. Once Conth climbed high enough, Vondum would see him as... Conth wasn't sure of the word, but he would be free of the man's wrath and therefore, be free. Once Conth figured this out, he also understood there was hope for pretty much everyone Vondum looked down on. Even the poor boy back at Vondum's camp could do the exact same thing, but probably never would. The kid would never crawl out from under the boot of oppression. In Vondum's mind, the kid deserved what he was getting and even after decades of turning the kid into a young boy over and over, there was still this tiny sliver of hope the kid would eventually do what Conth had just done and say 'enough'. Conth was so wrapped up into this deeper understanding of the man holding him, it took him a few seconds to realize the man was shaking him violently. "Tell me you are sorry, Conth! Tell me you take it all back, you pathetic little whelp!" "No!" The shaking stopped and Vondum pulled Conth's face right up to his own, "No? Did you just tell me no?" "I did! You want me to do something, fine. I gave my word I would. I will be whatever you want. But I'm done cowering to you. Do you hear me? I'm done!" A slight grin appeared on Vondum's face even as he tossed Conth to the ground hard and drew his blade, "How about I kill you?" Conth eyed the blade for a few seconds. He came close to breaking down and begging for his life. The problem was, he knew if he did, he would basically be ending any chance of being free and thus having a real life. Death may well be better. He then thought back to the claw hovering ever so close to his eye. What was the point of being afraid of being killed when the man could do it now, an hour from now, a year from now, or fifty years from now, after turning him back into a little kid for the tenth time? His life was over if he stayed under the man's control. "Then kill me. I can't stop you, and you know it. Living like this isn't really living anyway!" As suddenly as the blade appeared it was resheathed, "Killing you is a waste, boy. You have use as a bed warmer and are worth coin to me. Get your scrawny hide up and get ready to go. Another word out of you until I say you can speak will get you lips smacked clean off your face!" Vondum turned back toward the gate, "Come on, get us down to Kandric before I change my mind and gut this little cretin!" Even as all eyes slowly turned away from Conth, Ornam sent a message, 'Very well done, boy. Your torment is not done, but the first step is the biggest. The braver you are in the coming days will do much to determine how long it takes for Vondum to offer you to me for coin. I will free you and make you my rider and together we will become a pair and in no time be the ones spreading terror instead of you being afraid.’ Seconds later Vondum reached over and put his arm around Cam'ris, "There, my new squire, is how to handle fear. I believe my slave just found his spine. Time will tell, but he very well may have just started down the road to freedom." "You are not angry at him?" "Should I be?" "He spoke back to you." "He did, but it was not something I forbade until just a moment ago. If he says a single word until I let him speak again, I will punish him dearly. However, he kept his loyalty to me. He said he would do as he was told. This is what a slave is to do. However, he has little use as a cowering whelp. His fear was crippling to him. Your first real lesson under my tutelage has just been given. Fear nothing, ever." "Fear can be healthy, though..." "No, fear is debilitating. When facing a superior foe, you need to respect its power and ability. The second you fear it; it has you beat. So, to fully answer your question, Respect, yes. Fear, no." Cam'ris reached down and scratched the head of his new Tundra Wolf with one hand and patted the side of Blue Streak with his other even as he looked up at Vondum, "So at what point is it acceptable to flee a lost fight or fall back against a superior force?" "Very good questions. Both have the same answer." "What is it?" "Over the next several years of squiring for me, you need to find and give me the answer... not in words, but in deeds. For until you do, you will not be released from my side to move on as an adult in this world you are about to fully enter. Until then, there will be extreme consequences to you for letting any fear drive your actions or reactions to anything we do or any opponents we face. Fear is for the weak, and you, my fine lad, are anything but. However, should I find any trace of weakness in you, it is my job, my duty, as your chosen mentor, to stamp it out. And believe me, my fine looking boy, I will stomp hard should it become necessary." He then turned back to look at Klorna, "Make sure Cam'ris and Conth get through, but send them late. I want to make sure the way is clear or at least any threats are engaged before they join us." Without further comment, he stepped toward the portal as it opened, determined to be the first one through. Klorna moved up to Cam'ris' side, "I'm betting you’re having second thoughts about agreeing to squire for him, huh?" "Even if I was, I think I just found out I am not allowed to show any fear of it. Therefore, I must respectfully answer no to your enquiry." Klorna snickered, "Very good answer, lad. Very good indeed! I'm betting Kandric will like ya!" Vondum ignored what was being said behind him. His only concern was to secure the way for those behind him. He stepped out into the wind driven snow with only the briefest of pauses. A half dozen Garm and an equal number of Alphar moved forward, but he still stepped forward undaunted. "Halt your advances and summon Duke Mathard! I am escorting Princess Syrissia, and will make the snow run red should you make a single threatening move toward her!" Vondum was followed by Ornam, the Hawkling Channeler of Avgon, Klytoss, a Garm officer, and Princess Syrissia. They were then joined by Mokel, and Morwar. Klorna gave it a couple of seconds, "Boys, get yer hides through before Vondum get mad at me.” She then quickly followed. Klorna stepped out into a horrible storm, but the weather was secondary to the massive camp, although massive was not really the proper words for it. The war camp all but surrounded a large lake, and while the snow drastically cut back on her vision, lit torches, camp fires, streaming banners and tents of all shapes and sizes could be seen in every direction as far as she could make out. The faint glimmer of more distant fires told her what she could see was a sliver of what she was in the middle of. Mathard appeared out of the blowing snow wearing only armor and a light cloak. He didn't even have gloves on and his lower arms only had Dwarven Blue Steel guards, with no protection under or over them. While his beard had ice hanging off of it, he didn't look even remotely cold. "Princess, it is an honor to welcome you to the war camp. General Vondum, thank you for your steadfast protection of our esteemed princess!" "My duty needs no mention, Duke Mathard, but I thank you for your words nonetheless. I believe we need to go speak to Premier Kandric while the good princess gets acclimated." "As soon as we find him..." "He is not in the war camp?" "No. He took his core group out to scout in hopes of finding some of his students before the furies of Syria fully moved in. At least this far south, it is only wind and snow, with little cold." Vondum snickered as he noticed several turn and stare at Mathard in disbelief, including the Warrior Dragon, Ornam. "My good Duke, while you may find this balmy, many in my entourage do not, at least not yet. In addition to the less than optimal conditions, the Gate Stone passage is not exactly what anyone can call comfortable. Is there a place they can settle in while we try to figure out how to locate our Premier in this mess?" Once Vondum got a nod out of Mathard and the Duke motioned for the group to follow, Vondum turned sharply, "Cam'ris, Conth, you are with me. Neither of you are to leave my side until I decide exactly what I am going to do with Conth. Cam'ris, should Conth utter any words, you are to punish him... violently..." Yarnay (9yo Druid Gem Channel: Tallis- Klandon's WB), Sibler (9yo Mystic Sailor- Lylan's WB), Kaznal (9yo War Adpt Outdoors Channel:Avgon Mylan's WB), Tazen (14yo Swordsman Health), Dario (13 yo War Adpt Leather Gem), Alkoris (13 HAE Halfelf War Adpt Lock Outdoors), Tyndall (15yo Mage woodworker/outdoors); Guardman Vit, Corporal Klug +2 guardsmen Tazen woke to the sounds of water dripping down in the main sewer tunnel. In the dark it was impossible to make out anything, so he moved down to the only bit of light he could see. After a few seconds, his eyes adjusted enough to make out Alkoris, who had been totally healed during the strange possession of Kaznal and Yarnay. Because of this, his good friend could take a stint on guard duty. Before he could say anything, he noticed a great deal of water running down the main passage. "How long has this been going on?" "Last couple of hours and getting worse," Alkoris responded. "I popped up top to take a look while Dario kept lookout. It is snowing like Inaxia herself is above Rolling Dale. The only good thing about it is I was able to go back into the rubble and secure some more gear." He pointed back down the small passage. "I got full school packs for all three of the small ones and a better one for me. I even grabbed a pack off a street thug I had to take down. It's for the tied-up kid, since I didn't know what you were planning on doing with him. Besides, it was there and I had to kill him or he would have continued to try to follow me back here. "I didn't do more than give them a quick check, but they have all the standard stuff, plus a couple of weapons. Even the thug’s pack has a decent gear set. So we all have bedrolls and school cloaks now. I wish they would have handed out winter ones, but no one could have expected this kind of blow when we should be deep into planting time." "Good work, but speaking of planting time, what about food?" "The packs each have two days and a water skin. The meat shop is a rubble heap, and there is too much activity close to the Green Goblin for me to try to raid it. I did manage to dig some bread out of what is left of the bakery. It's got some bits of stone and wood in lots of it, so if we are going to eat the loaves I managed to scrounge up, we'll have to be careful. I did find some pastries under the bread though, so we'll have a good breakfast." "And how many did you eat before thinking of the rest of us?" "Hey there's enough to everyone, even the trussed-up kid... So yeah, I had a few while I waited for a patrol to go by... um, and another while waiting for the thug to figure out I lost him..." Alkoris grinned for a moment before turning serious again. "Once we go through what we have, the bread is about all we are going to have left unless we want to risk trying to buy some in another part of the city..." "No way. We were told to get out of the city... actually the village, but hey, I am not going to argue with whatever was in Yarnay and Kaznal. Besides, the bread, with rocks, splinters, and anything else, is probably better than what they fed out on the camp last summer." "I can't argue a bit, that porridge crap was flatly nasty." Tazen shuddered at the thought, "Yeah, but any food is better than none. Which I'm pretty sure was what the whole idea of feeding us whatever they served us, for five straight days, two meals a day. After two days, even the dumbest realized it was eat it or starve... still, yuck! Anyhow, we'll hold off on the bread, but spitting out some wood and stone is better than going hungry." Tazen paused and looked around, "OK, so... how come there is so much water down there and none up here? And how do we get out of the city, Alkoris?" "I bet you already guessed, but I checked the tunnel we are in. It is real long and ends with a tube going up and the top is sealed. Probably an old chamber pot dump spot..." "Ewww, really? We are in a chamber pot dump tube?" "Hasn't been used for a real long time, Taz. Besides, other than keeping the streets from flooding, what do you think the sewers are used for?" "Ohhhh, I need a bath..." "We all do, but look on the plus side. We are real lucky with a tube this long there ain't dozens of dump tubes leading up and being used. It's actually real odd there ain't many more up tubes off this one. Even better, with all the water running down here, most of the chamber pot leftovers is getting washed away." "Just stop! At this rate, I'll never be able to eat anything we brought down here! How do we get out of here?" "My suggestion?" "Yeah! You are the Lockmaster and resident robber guild member. If anyone can get us out, it will be you." Alkoris let out a sigh as he looked down the main passage, "The water is getting deeper and running faster than it was even a few minutes ago. It's too dangerous to try to wade through it. The way out up the way is way too close to the Green Goblin and the troops there. While I have no idea where we'll end up, I'd say the best bet is for you to boost me up the tube at the end of this passage. I'll shimmy up and try to break the cap. If it looks like it goes anywhere at all, I'll toss down the rope and you all can climb up. If we can make it to the docks, I can show you how the guild gets merchandise in and out of the city. It's a good a way out as any." “And if you can't break through the cap on the tube or it goes into some long sealed off space or something?" "One thing at a time. Like what are we going to do with the tied-up spell thrower?" Tazen ran his hand over his hair, "I have no idea. Part of me wishes I had just killed him, but I ain't no murderer. Another part says to leave him, but the things inside of Yarnay and Kaznal healed him, just like they healed you. This makes me think they want him to join us." "It would have been nice if they had said so." Tazen nodded, "Yeah, but I never seem to be so lucky." "Well, whatever you are going to do, I'd say you got about an hour, two at most, to decide." "Why?" “Because by then, as long as the snow keeps falling like it is, the water is going to start coming up into this tunnel. You leave him tied up, you may as well cut his throat, cause he will drown if you don't cut him loose and either have him join us or let him go." "Damn, Alkoris, you are really full of good news tonight!" "Hey, I got the kids packs!" Tazen smacked his forehead, "Why me?" "From what I heard from one of them kids, you volunteered to come after 'em and keep them protected." "I did, and I still can't quite figure out why... How safe do you think it would be to get us some light going so we can all see and get organized?" "We're pretty secure at this point. If anything sees it, we'll hear them coming through the water." "Good, turn the handle on the light dagger and get the others up and in gear. We need to take everything we managed to grab. As soon as they are ready, we'll move up the tunnel and hope it leads to a way out." "What are you going to do?" "Talk to the spell thrower and try to decide if I am going to trust him or not." "No way am I just going to just trust him none, no matter what he tells ya." "Good, cause if I do let him join, I need you to be ready to stick a knife in his back the second he goes against us." Tazen waited until the dagger illuminated the passage around him before moving over to the older teen. As he looked at the kid, he could see nothing but fear looking back at him. "Don't go pissing yerself. I'm not wanting to hurt you. But when I pull the gag down, if you try to cast on me I'll knock your ass out... again... Understood?" Seeing the teen nod, he reached out and pulled down the cloth wrapped around the back of his head and stuffed into his mouth. "So let's start out real simple. What's your name and how old are you?" The teen gratefully sucked in some air for a few seconds before answering, "Tyndall, I turned fifteen just over two moons ago... Can I get some water?" Tazen looked back over his shoulder. Seeing Sibler getting up, he pointed to the water skin, "Hey, is it full?" "Almost. I took a couple of drinks before I went to sleep after Yarnay and Kaznal stopped speaking in weird voices... I feel really strong and I think I know more about being a Mystic and about sailing, too." "I think we were all given something, Sibler. I just hope it doesn't fade or whatever. Now toss me your skin and get armored up. The water is rising and we need to get out of here." Tyndall let Tazen pour a few gulps of water into his mouth before nodding in gratitude. He stayed silent, not wanting to anger the younger, but clearly much stronger boy in front of him. "So, Ty, you don't mind me calling you Ty for now do you?" Tyndall shook his head even as he responded, "No, Ty is fine." "Good. So Ty... give me something to go on here. You and the wench tried to take my little friends. Then, the second I take out the book witch, you turn and run. I take you down, drag you into the sewers, and all the sudden the gods or spirits heal you at the same time they heal me, my friends, and give us more power or whatever happened. I don't know what to think." "I don't really know what you are asking..." "Good, cause neither do I, not really. Can you explain what you were doing with the witch and going to do to my little buddies?" "There was a reward. Mistress Naralis told me it would be easy to take them and collect. This is the first time she has taken me out to directly help her..." "So she is... was what?" "Bounty hunter." "So she was or wasn't working for Master Treg?" "I'm sorry. I don't know who that is." "Then you are not from here..." "For the last half moon, yes. Before was Eaglecrest, Salt Hill, Raven's Crossing, Night Water, Torrent Hills..." Tazen held up a hand to stop the teen. "And you were her apprentice?" "Basically, yes." "Basically?" "Um, yeah... I am really not a very good Mage. To be honest I am not really good at much of anything other than wood working and carving. I'm skinny, weaker than most, small, not very fast or quick and well, yeah, I pretty much suck at everything other than wood. I mean I'm not like completely useless, I can hunt, fish and track, so I'm not bad outdoors... But, yeah, I'm pretty much a nobody. Even now I fail about one of every five spells I try. So no, she never formally accepted me. I am not guilded, never have been, but she did teach me almost everything I know as far as magic and tracking. So overall I was very lucky she took interest in me and was willing to teach me and take care of me. She is really all I have known for the past seven years. Until Naralis, my life was going nowhere. No Mage was willing to take me on back in Thunder Bay. I was considered too low a caste, weak, clumsy, not enough natural magic, talent poor, unworthy, magic limited... I heard it all. And I tried to find someone, anyone, to teach me from the first time I popped the stable master at the inn I was working in with a dusty Autospell after he hit me with a riding crop for the hundredth time." "And the one I took out, Naralis, she agreed to teach you?" "Kind of... Um, she saw me in the inn cleaning up. I have always been small and weak, so I couldn't reach the top shelves to dust. But I also figured out I could sometimes get lucky and dust them with a Autospell. The night she came in, I failed the first time, but got it on the second. When I turned around, all happy about not getting in trouble for not getting the top shelf clean, she was there eyeing me. "The next morn, I came down to start cleaning duties like always, but she was there talking with the innkeep. She gave him a dozen silver and told me I was coming with her." "You were a slave?" "No, orphan... The innkeep gave me room and board for work. It is the only home I remember. I don't even know how I ended up in the inn. My first memories are me scrubbing the inn floor, sleeping in the upper loft of the stable, getting free leftovers from breakfast and dinner and giving hay and oats to the visiting horses." "But he couldn't sell you..." "If I'd have said no, he would have handed me over to the stable master and I wouldn't have been able to sit for days and my hands bloody from the riding crop. I really didn't have any choice but to go, but she said she'd show me more magic. She was the only one... so... We then left Thunder Bay at first light in her cart. The next stop for more than a night was Gritty Wind, on the edge of the Wastelands of Odin. Talk about a scary place... There was no way I wanted anything to do with it, so it was try to run away or stay with her... and, well an orphan in Gritty Wind with no ties... nothing good there... so yeah, stay with her was the only real choice. After a moon in Gritty Wind, she managed to take out a bandit and got a large reward while she also kept some of the bandit's loot. It also gave her information on who she was really after. We set out again and I found myself in Scorpion Falls, if possible, even more scary than Gritty Wind. Do you know undead actually come wandering out of the desert a couple of times per week there? "It's stupid scary when the town bell rings and dozens of warriors spill out to go kill some random Skeleton, Zombie, or whatever. Anyway, I found out in Scorpion Falls why she had taken me. She rented me out to a small brigand group..." Seeing the return look Tyndall nodded, "Yeah, that kind of rent out... I guess she knew in advance what the leader liked, and I was about as perfect as they came. But what I didn't know was it was all for a distraction. She waited for the leader to take me for the night, then struck. She took out the junior thugs without many spells, and then came after the big guy with all sorts of magic. As soon as she collected her bounty in Scorpion Falls, she offered to let me go, or I could stick with her and learn and train. It was staying in a place where undead were wandering into town and scorpions are pretty much all over, or stick with her. Again, not really much of a choice. After a few more jobs, I was not only used to her, I pretty much was dependant on her for everything. She never paid me, never let me have any coins, and only bought me things when I needed them. Even now there is only two changes clothing for me in her cart, along with extra set of boots, and a lighter cloak. All I really have... um, had... was my spell book. "If I wanted food, shelter and clothing I had to do what she wanted. When she needed me, used me for distractions, even if it was to bump into someone or throw a rock through a window, she rewarded me with little things, like teaching me a new Autospell. Most of the spells she taught me were to help distract others, so she could strike, but at least I learned more magic and how to control it. "About a year and a half ago, she once again fully rented me out, this time to a small local warlord in the Isles of Morden. It was awful. But after a few nights she slipped in and eliminated all his guards, then came into his hut and knocked him out with a spell. She broke his back in a way to where he couldn't walk, or even use anything from the waist down and walked away leaving him pulling himself along the ground with his hands screaming at her. Another warlord paid her with a big chest and we went back to the mainland. In return for the treasure she got, she took me to a back-alley magic vender in Port Azure and got me my very own spell book and four pages. From there it was more of the same. Each town she went after a reward offered for someone or something. It was amazing how quickly she found new jobs to take on, but she always had a next stop. She would collect the fee for the mission and move again. She would work with me on the road, and in the towns I would tend to her Dragonsteed, keep up the camp or room she rented, and if she found out it would help her, I was handed over for some coin and she would come get me when the target was fully distracted with me. Then we would do it all over again. I finally cast my first book spell four moons ago, but I am still not guilded. She said I was still too unpredictable to allow to guild. But as with every successful mission, she taught me a new Autospell. If I had to be a distraction, it was a new learned Autospell, or if I really helped, like being rented out, she gave me a new spell page. I guess I'm getting kind of old, though, since I've only gotten a few more pages since she got me my book." Tazen scratched at his head for several seconds, debating or what he should do or say. Finally he figured he would just ask the most direct question he could come up with, "So your loyalties are where?" "I am not sure I have ever had reason to be loyal to anyone. I mean, I was dedicated to Naralis, but I had to be if I wanted to eat, get clothing, have a bed to sleep in... and I did owe her for teaching me magic, but real loyalty... never. Not to anyone." Tazen blinked and stared for a second. The answer was about as honest as he had ever heard out of anyone's mouth, while also being about the saddest as well. After a few more seconds of debate, Tazen pulled his blade and sliced the ropes keeping Tyndall's hands secured behind his back, then cut the ropes keeping the teen's arms tight to his chest. Without bothering to watch the older kid, he moved back to his pack and pulled out the kid's spell book and shoulder pouch. He stared at it for a few seconds as he held an internal debate. Finally, he moved back over to Tyndall. "I'm about to give you a chance to decide if you want to start being loyal to others or go your own way. If you stick with us, Ty, you have a chance to make some real friends. You help us, we help you. If we manage to get out of the city, and we get lucky enough to find him, I'll do my best to convince my commander to let you stay with us. It's the best offer I can make at the moment. If not, you are welcome to go out on your own. My friend Alkoris managed to get you a pack. I don't know what's in it, but it's yours. If you want to take off on your own, you may want to wait till we get out of the city, though, since it sounds like you'd do better in the wilderness than in a city, especially Rolling Dale as it now is." Tyndall all but hugged the book while slipping the pouch for it over his shoulder, "What do I have to do to be a friend?" "You know..." Tazen stopped as he saw the confusion and even fear in the young Mage's eyes. "What? you have never had a friend?" "Mistress Naralis never let me. I mean, I played with kids in many places for a few hours, but she never allowed me to get to know any for more than a day or two. Normally didn't fit in anyway. Like I said, I'm not very good at much of anything." Tazen scrunched his nose and raised an eyebrow, "Dude, what do you mean you're not good at much? You're a freaking Mage!" "Not really. I'm not very good and have never been guilded..." "Who the hell cares about how good you are or if you are a member of the guild or not? You can cast spells, real spells, off real spell pages, for Salem's sake!" "But I mess up about one out of every five times..." "So what?" Tazen tossed his hands up in frustration. "All I hear is, hey, I'm a Mage who casts spells out of my book right four out of five times! Do you know how many Mundanes would love to be able to cast one spell, even and a single Autospell? Besides, if you can really cast a book spell, you can get guilded with no problem!" "I have no money. I have never been allowed to have a single coin." "Ty, if you help us get out of here with your magic, I'll pay to get you guilded. There is a Mage Guild Hall in Gnarled Oak half a day's ride to the east..." "I don't know how to ride." "But you said you tended a Dragonsteed and fed horses." "Yeah, I did. I love them, but I have never been on one. I know how to drive a cart, though." "So we'll either find a cart or we'll walk. But I give you my word, I'll pay for your guild test if you help me get the little kids out of here." "Um, sure. What do you want me to do?" "Help protect them. If you are good at using magic to create distractions, then do it and me or Alkoris will finish them off. It's not like stabbing someone in the back or kidney to protect them three little guys bothers me." "So I noticed... Um... sure. I'll help you." Tyndall stood and started to work out the kinks from being tied up for so long. "Hey, can I get something to eat... and um... I'm not really good with it, but can I have my blade back?" Dario looked over, "Kid, ain't no one good with no street sword. What arms is ya good with?" "Mistress Naralis only gave me a few basic lessons with most hand weapons, but worked with me a lot on my blade... well her blade, but she's been letting me carry it for several moons now..." Dario pulled the street sword Tyndall had been carrying, slashed the air a few times, then spun it in one hand. "Gots the balance of a lead club. Ain't worth half the coin I bet ya could gets in a street market fer it..." With a shake of his head he slid it back in its sheath and tossed it back on his own pack. He then moved over to the gear Alkoris and scrounged, "You little guys, all a ya gots arms ya seem pretty happy with. Any of ya mind if we gives Ty one a these blades?" Kaznal looked over to the bronze light sword, a trio of short blades, commonly referred to as hip swords, and one of a pair of gladiator swords Dario put down in the middle of the tunnel. "We have only practiced with those kinds of blades a few times. None of us are very good with them, but I would like to learn how to use them better at some point." Seeing the other two boys nod in agreement, Dario smiled. "Once we gets out of here I bet Taz, me and Alk, will all help ya learn 'em right. Till then, let's give him one a these." When no one argued, he held up two smaller swords, "Which one, Ty?” "Um... the lighter one..." Tazen reached over and grabbed Tyndall's arm and squeezed. He sent Dario a cringing look even as he responded for the older teen, "Give him one of the hip swords, Dario. It's a bit heavier than a light sword, but more like his street blade. Besides the other two need practice to use them the way they were designed to be used. Rig it for him to wear the same way as his street blade, so he knows how to pull it while Alkoris and me get the little guys geared up." Ten minutes later Alkoris got a boost up to the tube, put his back on one side and his feet on the other. It took him over five minutes of exhaustive work to move up the twelve meters and another five to break the old sealed stone cap with a hammer while keeping himself braced. Finally, he pulled himself out over the lip of the tube and looked around. He already guessed wherever he was coming up was abandoned, because the noise of him breaking the cap would have certainly drawn the attention of anyone, but where he found himself was almost ideal. It was on old basement with two score of rotting bed frames, each with an armor and weapon stand. A few stands still had weapons and armor, but they were badly degraded with time. Most were empty. Along one wall, stone stairs led up to a metal bound door with an old large keyhole lock. Even without examining it, Alkoris knew it wouldn't take long to pick it. With a sigh, he dropped the rope he had secured around his shoulder. "Long forgotten barracks with stairs. Not sure where it's going to take us, but we have a way out. Come on up." Tazen grabbed the end of the rope and motioned for Yarnay to go first. "Drop your pack. I'll stay down and tie off the packs so you can all pull them up." Kaznal quickly spoke up, "You will not need to. The man you call commander made us climb with packs full of rocks or sand at least twice a week since he took over our training, Tazen." "Nice," Dario stated with a great deal of praise even as Yarnay started pulling himself up the rope. The boy had to pause once, but managed to make it up. He gratefully accepted a hand from Alkoris, fell on his back, and took several deep breaths. Kaznal was next up. Since he was wearing the female Dwarven Steel armor, he almost didn't make it, but Alkoris told him just to hold on, then pulled him up the last couple of meters. Once his hands were in sight, Yarnay moved up and helped pull him over the lip of the tube. While this was going on, Tyndall looked over at the others nervously, "Guys... I'm not sure I can..." Dario shot the teen a frown. “Go without your pack. We'll pull it up." "Yeah," Sibler spoke up. “It will be easy. You are tall enough to put your back against one side and your feet against the other like Alkoris did. With the rope, you can pull with your arms while using your feet to walk up." Tazen moved up, "Come on, Ty, you can go next. I'll boost you up so you're almost in the tunnel." It took almost ten minutes, since Tyndall had to take four long breaks, but finally he managed to disappear from view. Sibler spoke to Tazen with a whisper, "There is no way the commander is going to want him around..." "I know, Sibler. I know." "But you told him..." "Yeah... One thing at a time. First we need to find out if we can trust him and second we have to get beyond the walls of Rolling Dale. If we do both, I'll worry about figuring out a way to keep him with us. Now go show him up and get up there." Sibler grinned as he quickly made his way up without stopping for even a short break. Dario glanced over to Tazen, "Gotta give 'em some credit. Yer little guys got some grit." "Yeah, but once you meet the commander you'll get why. But you're right. They’re tougher than most and they risked their butts to get others out of the city, so I am going to do everything I can to keep them safe. Now stop talking and start climbing." Fifteen meters later, Alkoris picked the lock and pushed the door open only to find themselves in a long forgotten storeroom full of rotting wooden barrels stocked with long neglected crossbow bolts, a couple of score of crossbows with strings so old they broke with a touch, along with racks of rusty daggers, swords, maces, hammers, and other weapons. Another rack held bronze weapons, long green with age and no care. Alkoris stayed in the middle of the room, "Oh, way too much iron. Even worse, rusty iron. I need to get out of here!" Kaznal moved up to the door on the left wall and pulled. It didn't budge. "It is stuck or locked, and I do not see a keyhole." Tazen moved up and tried. He was able to get the door to wiggle enough to break some of the rust off the very old hinges, but something was holding the door shut. "Not stuck, must be locked. Alkoris, all you buddy." Using the Dagger of Light, Alkoris moved up. "He's right. No keyhole from this side. Think you can break it down, Taz?" "Looks thick, but maybe..." Seeing Dario move over to where a few old war hammers were, Tyndall spoke up while pulling out his spell book, "Hold up." Dario put the hammer down, "You got a spell to help or something?" "As long as it isn't magic and I don't mess up the casting, yeah." Tazen extended his arm while gesturing to the door. "All yours. I wasn't looking forward to making a whole lot of noise anyway.” With the light from the dagger, Tyndall carefully read the spell page and followed the movements with his left hand. After nearly half a minute, muddy brown tendrils erupted from the middle of his hand and slid around the cracks in the door. It took almost two more minutes, but finally there was a series of clicks and the door swung inward a few centimeters. Dario moved up and patted Tyndall on the back, "Nice!" "I don't want to hear you say you're not a good Mage ever again, Ty! You're awesome." "Until I screw up a spell..." "Everyone messes up once in a while," Sibler joined in, "but you just passed a Primary Guild test. And I am with Dario. Very nice." "You're getting me out of here," Alkoris praised the teen, "so, I really owe you." Tazen moved up to the door while holding a finger to his lips, but still took a moment to pat Tyndall on the back. He pulled the door open and found it led to a lantern lit passage with an arched ceiling. "We got light, which means we also have people around." Dario followed with a fighting axe in his hand. "Where is we?" Alkoris moved into the hall and looked both directions, then back at the door. "No idea, but this door is a secret one, and judging on what's below, it's been long forgotten. Since the passage is well lit, we need to do whatever we can to blend in." Tazen shot his friend a sideways glance, "I'm open to suggestions." "As the guild master used to say, 'when cornered, use what you got and pretend you belong.’" "And how do ya think we're pullin' off being down in a lower hall, when none a us know where we be?" Dario asked. At this Tyndall moved up, "Mistress Naralis did it all the time. You got us these cloaks with patches. What are they for?" "Standard Swordsman School cloaks," Tazen answered. "Warrior Adepts trained there too, but we still just called it the Swordsman School. Most of the packs we have are also from the school." "So we'll put on the cloaks and look like we are supposed to be here. If anyone asks, say we took a wrong turn and are trying to figure out how to get to... um... Can't be too long till sunup, so breakfast?" Alkoris snickered, "Good a plan as any. I say we run with it." Kaznal looked over with total confusion, "So we do not try to hide or anything?" "The chances of us avoiding everyone is next to impossible, kid." Alkoris stated. "By not hiding and walking around out in the open, no one would expect us to be anything but who we say. With any luck, they'll scold us for being somewhere where we were not supposed to be and show us the way out. If not, and they start to take or lead us to a boss or someone, distract them. I will try to kill them soft and quiet." Seeing Tazen nod in reluctant agreement, Sibler shrugged. "I bet back at the palace the guards would never think any group of kids in local school cloaks they found walking around in the open was trying to do anything wrong. They would escort them out and warn them never to do it again." "Then keep their eyes open in case they did it again..." Yarnay added. "Then they would get into real trouble." "Everyone, switch to having your gear over your cloaks like how we go out into the field." Tazen spoke with authority, "Alkoris, you take the lead and do the talking. The rest of you all, follow and no matter what act like we are supposed to be here. If things start to go bad, Alkoris, call me... call me Dorwald. He is with the commander, so he isn't around and I know enough about him to pretend to be him to those who don't know either of us... At least long enough to give you time to kill whoever is giving us the problems." Alkoris quickly agreed, "Good a plan as I could come up with. I'm going to keep trying to find ways up until we can see out a window or something. Once we get bearings we'll figure a way out of the city." Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Lacate, Zeltoss Seldnat glanced over to Pike as the pair knelt in deep snow, keeping them mostly hidden from the small group of White Dragonlings. Just by the look on Pike's face, Seldnat could tell the young Garm's thoughts mirrored his own. Kandric's plan seemed really sketchy. The only difference, between him and Pike was he was positive Kandric wasn't divulging everything. He had seen Kandric do this before, but had yet to figure out why. Meanwhile, Pike didn't have the experience nor had he spent enough time around Kandric to understand he wasn't getting the full picture. All Pike knew was what he had been told. They needed to locate the 'Big Dragon' so they could lead it to the lake, damage one of the wings, and get out of the way. The last part Kandric assured both of they would be taken care of. The how had not been explained and this bothered Pike since he could see no way they would live more than a couple of seconds after teaming up to prevent the 'Big Dragon' from being able to fly. Furthermore, Pike was not at all thrilled with the idea of splitting the group. It was bad enough they were going to take on a Dragon, possibly two. But to split the forces against such a horribly powerful foe just seemed insane. However, Kandric was a Premier, extremely high royalty by his own hand, and even if Kandric refused to admit it, he was Alphar. This made Premier Kandric 'his Premier' and one didn't argue with such a high noble. The other thing, and the biggest reason Pike refused to do more than ask a couple of questions and hint at not being happy about any of this was his low noble family would benefit in prestige and influence regardless of Pike's survival. As long as Pike fought hard and did his utmost, the Garm and Alphar courts would document Pike's loyalty. This meant his family would reap the rewards of his actions. Conversely, if Pike didn't serve Kandric to his fullest ability, and something bad happened to the new Premier, his family would bear the shame of Pike's failure. It was a massive burden, but one Pike saw as a once in a lifetime honor. Because of this, even as Pike watched the outline of a moderate sized White Warrior Dragon move through the trees beyond the group of Dragonlings, he forced himself to keep most of his fear in check. This didn't prevent him from tasting bile, all the while guessing the outline of the close to twenty-meter beast wasn't the 'big one'. Since Seldnat had been careful to keep them downwind, and the wind was blowing so fiercely, Pike risked speaking in a whisper, "I do not see any captives, and certainly no one who looks to be a student." "Same," Seldnat grumbled. "No see Kandric grand-pops none either. Jus' seven Dragon-thing and da big lizard. Me no think it be da one Kandric after none. Dumb thing be puny next ta da ones him already gunch. Me bet two a us take dat one. Us no be happy after, but us live ta see it fall." "Are Lorthorn, Zeltoss and Jamon really going to be able to take it down?" "Me hope. Us come helps gunch it when we hurts wing on da big lizard. But we's got to take out a couple a dem Dragon-things er Lor and Zel will be outnumber bad. Think ya can shoot one in dis wind?" Pike pulled up his crossbow and loaded it with one of the magic-tipped bolts Duke Mathard had given him, while handing a second one to Seldnat before looking over with a nervous grin, "Sure hope so. I heard from one of my senior uncle's scouts each one of these bolts cost about five hundred silver coins to make." Seldnat shook his head, "Me pa would drop dead if'n him hear one bolt be worth so much, den haunt da person fer tellin' him 'bout it!" Pike couldn't help but snicker, "Just remember I was only given fifteen of these and once shot they are done, so we really do not want to miss." "Den let get closer." "Oh, boy... Not really what I wanted to hear, Sir Seldnat." Seeing Pike let out long breath, Seldnat quickly covered the boy's head with his cloak. "No do dat! Dem may see heat er breath!" Pike gulped, "Sorry, I will not do so again." "Den you learn, dis be good. But if'n ya calls me sir one more time we's gunna have ta wrestle till me makes ya says ya never do it no more." "But you are knighted..." "And ya be friend. None dat sir junk from ya no more er us spar." "Alright, alright, but in the courts and in front of the my senior uncle..." "Den... OK... if'n ya have to. But den ya have ta knock it off again! Me jus' Seldnat, er Seld to ya!" Seldnat didn't bother to wait for a response. Instead he moved forward on his stomach, staying lower than the snow around him. Behind him, Pike had to fight the desire to curse as he kept pushing snow down the front of his armor. Looking toward Seldnat, the young Garm couldn't figure out if the Halforc was just dealing with it and ignoring it, or he wasn't getting any snow down his chest. The way Seldnat was moving, Pike guessed the clearly good Outdoorsman was doing something slightly different to prevent getting soaked and cold, but there was nothing Pike could do but push forward. The distraction had to be made and taking down some of the Dragonlings was key to isolating the almost twenty-meter long Warrior Dragon for the others. After a sixty-meter crawl, Seldnat motioned for Pike to slide up next to him. As soon as the Garm was at his side he pointed, "Two big Dragon-things. Us take dem first. Ya take close; da one leanin' on tree. Me get da other. "If'n us have time, reloads and goes after one a dem smaller ones. Dem last three be tiny, pob'ly kid like we be. No bother use magic on um." "Sure..." Pike passed over another magic bolt. "But I have these so we may as well use them on the medium ones." Seldnat nodded and put the second bolt in his teeth before taking careful aim, "What's dis bolt does anyhow?" "Not sure," Pike admitted. "Duke Mathard said to aim for the center of what I wanted to kill and enjoy." "Me move so we's straight downwind. Waits till after next big blow, den shoot. Me do same. A couple of minutes later both boys raised up and fired. The tiger's eye gemstones right behind the Dwarven Blue Steel tip flared a moment before the bolts hit. As this happened the bolt seemed to shatter, only as each broke apart, the single bolt became seven. Seldnat's shot was dead center in the chest so the bolt he actually shot hit the Dragonling in the chest and the other six formed a near perfect circle a few centimeters out, creating a bull's-eye effect with crossbow bolts. The eyes of the Dragonling rolled up and it was dead before it fell flat on its face, further driving in the bolts into its chest. Pike's aim wasn't quite as good. He hit just below the left shoulder, so two of the outer bolts missed, sinking into a tree behind it. But with five bolts sticking into it, the Dragonling didn't do more than let out a little gasp and stagger a couple of steps before collapsing in the snow. Seldnat pulled up the bolt in his teeth with wide eyes even as he used his other hand and feet to quickly re-cock his crossbow, "Dis be no fair... um... almost... How me get more a dees?" Pike was equally astonished. "I will be sure to ask my senior uncle... for both of us!" "Yea, ya do dat! Now, me wants ta do it 'gain!" Pike grinned as he slipped another magical bolt in his cocked crossbow, "Me too!" Since two of Pike’s bolts missed and hit a tree, the distinct thunk sounds got the attention of all the other Dragonlings in the small camp. Further out, the Warrior Dragon hissed, "Find out what caused the sound or I swear I will feed you to Prince Weraweld!" The next two largest Dragonlings quickly grabbed war picks and moved out away from the camp and in the general direction of the sounds. But since the impacts were near simultaneous, they didn't have much to go on. One of the called up, "Nad'bet, where are you?" Next to Pike Seldnat realized he understood what was being said with a raised eyebrow, but didn't focus on this realization. Instead, he lightly nudged Pike, "Wonder which a us turn Nad'bit inta bolt target. Any guess?" Pike was so focused on the one word he thought he understood, he almost missed the question, "Um, what? Oh. Sorry, ahh.... So is one of the ones we killed named Nad'bit and can you really understand what they are saying?" "Yep, and yep again!" Seldnat pointed to the one off to the left. "Da one wit da broke horn be all you. Me take the one with da book out.” Pike nodded as his mind focused in on the immediate threat, while his heart was still pounding in his chest over the single word he dearly hoped was something else, anything else, "Um, yeah... yes, sorry. The book carrier needs to go down. He is all yours. Um... I do not see any animals, so he is probably a Mage." Seldnat shot Pike a frown at the sudden fear in the young Garm's eyes and in his voice, "Geesh, me'll gunch the book Dragon-thing no worry none!" Seldnat responded with an annoyed shake of his head even as he crawled forward to get a quicker and easier shot. Pike grumbled to himself so softly he was certain he wouldn't be heard, "Did I just hear the name Weraweld? By the gods, he cannot be here... And are these guys all cocky or are they really as good as they think they are?" Before he could dwell on his questions to himself, the Dragonling with the book got a face full of bolts and dropped like a sack of rocks. Seeing the other Dragonling turn at the sound of his partner's demise, Pike pulled up his crossbow, waited for a particularly hard gust of wind to pass, then fired. Since the Dragonling was standing still trying to locate his friend, the shot was an easy one. All seven bolts sunk into its side. It managed three staggering steps back toward the makeshift camp while letting out a long gasping hiss of pain. It then grabbed onto a tree and slid down, while its right claw tried to pull at the cluster of bolts just below its ribcage. Seldnat took the opportunity, while waiting for Pike, to put a regular bolt into the closest of the three smaller Dragonlings, purposefully aiming low. The bolt sunk into its upper leg and it fell screaming. He looked back with a big grin, "Let's get dis game goin'!" He then took a deep breath and shouted, "Good Shootin' Kandric! Ya nail all four a dem dumb lizard-things! Me gots one a dem pups!" He then turned and spoke in a hushed tone, "To da lake! Make 'em think Kandric wit us!" Pike shoved his crossbow into his pack and started backing up quickly as the Warrior Dragon moved hastily through the woods toward them, "Premier Kandric, they got a Warrior Dragon!" Kandric's voice came from much closer than Pike expected, but still in the direction of the frozen water's edge, "It is nothing more than a Dragonette! You can take it." Moments after Kandric's voice pierced the storm, Zeltoss fired a crossbow from the opposite side. The bolt itself bounced off the Warrior Dragon's scales, but in doing so, caused a small vile attached to the bottom of the bolt to shatter. Suddenly the woods lit up as fire splashed over the side of the Warrior Dragon. Its roar of outrage and pain cleared snow off the trees for almost a hundred meters in all directions around it. Seldnat watched as a second bolt followed up the first, splashing a great deal more fire over the outraged and suddenly injured beast, "Huh, us might not have ta help none. Me bummed." Even though Pike was all but running, pumping his small Dwarven legs as fast as he could safely move them through the snow, he glanced over, "Knight or not, Seldnat, you all are a little crazy!" "Only little?" Seldnat asked with a smirk so large it totally exposed one of his small tusks. "If'n so, me need ta does better!" "Oh, by the gods, I am going to die with a group of lunatic kids! Brandall will never let me in!" "Oh," Seldnat openly laughed, "him no want none a us none! Him worry us go der and takes over!" "Brandall, he is only talking for himself, not me!" "Ya wit us, ya be one a us!" Seldnat snickered. Before more could be said, a huge roar came from overhead in Dragon, "Peradem, stop crying and kill the underlings before I rip your damned throat out for being totally incompetent! Your father should be ashamed to have fertilized you! I will deal with the two creatures trying to run away under me, then find this so-called Premier and dismember him!" Pike turned at the sound and saw the massive eighty-eight meter long Dragon diving down through the blizzard like it was a calm day. As soon as he saw the gilded golden glowing blades on the tips of the horns he soiled his loincloth while diving, "Oh, by the gods, it is Prince Weraweld! Seldnat, GET DOWN!" Before the massive Dragon could complete its dive on the two kids, five fire darts shot up from the edge of the lake. Four dissipated harmlessly as they slammed into Weraweld's magic defiance, but one managed to get through, burning a single scale on the side of its neck. "You marked me! How dare you?" "Oh, shut your Dragonette snout, or come get some!" Kandric shouted out, while backing up to get between two huge rocks only a couple of meters from the edge of the iced-over lake. "How dare you insult me child!" Weraweld snarled while sending and massive glob of frozen mucus at Seldnat, only to see the Halforc roll out of the way. Still, the massive Dragon had the satisfaction of watching the glob shatter and send bits and pieces into the boy. "I will be back to pull you out of your Black Dragon scale armor by your tusks and eat you like an hors d’oeuvre, child!" Seldnat rolled over and put a hand up to a trickle of blood coming down his neck. Seeing the massive creature flying off into the storm he sat up and looked over the armor noting it wasn't even marred by the gigantic loogie, but several spots of exposed and cloth covered skin oozed blood. "Dat be nasty. It spit on me!" "Be happy it missed, but hate to tell you... It was not just spit." "Awwww! Ya not have ta tell me dat none! Super nasty!" Seldnat stood while drawing his Staff Spear and changing it over to a spear. "Dat damn thing gots to pay fer makin' me pulls forzen bits a what it jut hacked up out a me!" He started to move toward the edge of the lake, but paused as he realized Pike was moving slow, "Ya OK?" "Ahhh, kind of messed my loincloth..." "No worry none. Don't think me had no clean one after me see Blathamort none. Stick round us, ya gets used ta it. But ya got ta live with messy ass fer now. Kandric be countin' on us!" "Gross, but yeah..." Even as they picked up the pace, Seldnat looked over, "Um, Pike, what be a... um... hor... horderve?" "Fancy pre-meal snack." "Me be insalt... um insult... ya knows what me mean." "Insulted?" "Yea, dat be da word! Me be insulted! Me no snack and no way me be fancy!" Down at the lake Kandric dodged around the massive stones as Weraweld made a diving pass. He couldn't help but note the massive Dragon had been strong enough to physically push one of the gigantic boulders over a meter and a half with its back foot. Realizing he had been extremely lucky to not get squished by the rock, he decided he needed to give himself more room and stay far enough away to not get flattened. "What, you afraid to land and take me on?" "I can stay up here all night, Dragon Killer!" "Huh, really?" Kandric once again dove and rolled while hearing the two stones smash into each other as Weraweld swooped down and used his back legs to kick them toward Kandric. Kandric stood and knocked some snow off his cloak, "There must have been some chicken in the egg you came out of!" A guttural roar erupted from Weraweld as it made its next pass, unleashing the full fury of its glacial breath. Kandric pulled up his Frozen Flame and pumped Force into it. The ruby and sapphire runes shimmered brightly, and the arctic winds parted around Kandric, clearing the snow all the way to the ground in two half fans on either side of him out to over twenty-five meters while also coating the ground in solid ice. "Oh... Oh..." Kandric shouted, "Disgusting! Even your flatulence is ice cold!" "My flatulence? MY FLATULENCE!" Weraweld screamed in total indignation! "How dare you talk about my breath in such words!" "Wow!" Kandric called out as loudly as he could, "Even worse! Your breath smells like ass! What did you do; eat an Ogre and leave it stuck in your teeth to rot?" Weraweld spun in the air and came down right at the rock in front of Kandric, slamming into it with everything it could muster. This pushed it over half a dozen meters and once again came very close to crushing Kandric, but also forced it to land. This is exactly what Kandric had been waiting for. He waved his hand and spoke a trio of Shamanistic phrases. Moments later a pair of dimensional doors opened. One right in front of Seldnat and Pike, the other directly over Weraweld's back. "Seld, jump in now!" Seldnat didn't even blink at the strange maroon colored rift floating in front of him. He reached over, grabbed Pike by the shoulder, and jumped in. A split second later he tumbled out of the other hole; this one more of a purplish orange. The pair landed hard on Weraweld's back. At the same time, Seldnat felt cold like he had never felt before as the saliva in his mouth started to ice over. However, he also had been told what to do and where to strike. With fingers starting to freeze, he slammed his Staff Spear, with the spear tip down, into the last scale over the wing bone where it hooked into the scales of the back. He then pulled back with everything he had, opening up a gap. The instant the unprotected bone became visible, Pike moved up and brought the magical axe he had borrowed from Seldnat down on the hollow bone, using the back pick-like end, rupturing the bone with a single shot. This allowed Seldnat to pull a dagger and slam it into the hollowed out spot. He then yanked out his Staff Spear, grabbed Pike by the back of his collar and jumped off. Both kids were then batted in mid-air by Weraweld's massive tail, even as it screamed in pain and tried to use its back claw to pull at where the dagger had gone in, but it was wedged in, under the scales in a place it could not hope to reach. At the same time, the massive Dragon tried to stretch out its wings to take back to the air, but instead retched in agony as the dagger buried under the scale and in its hollow bone split the bone open further. This gave Kandric a few precious seconds to cast a Wind Wall, but used his spirit enhanced knowledge of spells to form it into a funnel with a long slide like formation at the far end. Both Seldnat and Pike entered the funnel and were deposited over a hundred meters away into deep snow. Both boys were coated with ice and seriously hurt from the tail whip, but very much alive. Just to make sure the Dragon stayed focused on him, he sent five more fire darts into it, getting past Weraweld's Magic Defiance with two. Kandric backed off toward the lake, but pulled up yet another spell. He pushed his hand into the snow until he found ground and sent the energy into it. Even as he then jumped up and backed up onto the ice, a faint golden glow appeared under the snow where Pike and Seldnat shivered and moaned in pain. Kandric shot Weraweld a nasty look and backed up further onto the lake while summoning another spell. By this time Weraweld had managed to mostly fold the badly damaged wing onto the side of his body and shook his massive head in rage. "Where do you think you are going!" "Too fat and lazy to run after me?" Still in a great deal of pain, Weraweld launched itself forward only to see Kandric float upward and get pushed back rapidly by the wind. "Pathetic! Stand your ground child!" Kandric lowered himself down on the ice, well out of lunge range of the massive Dragon prince, "What? Are you afraid to chase me out onto the ice?" An evil smirk appeared at the corners of the wounded beast's lips and it suddenly charged. At the same time this happened, Kandric had a smirk of his own on his lips. He shot upward and back fast. Weraweld got a running start and jumped, narrowly missing Kandric with a tremendous bite attempt. He fell back on the ice hard even as Kandric floated back down. The Dragon glared at Kandric while cringing at the extra pain the fall had caused inside his wing. However, there was no way he was going to show just how much discomfort he was in. The other thing was, he was certain the little boy in the Black Dragon armor had made a major tactical error. To this end, it snorted, "What? You thought I would fall through the ice, child? Oh, silly boy! I freeze any body of water I step on deep enough to walk on it!" "No, no I did not think the ice would crack. In fact, I was counting on you freezing it deeper." Kandric countered as he hovered just off the surface of the ice and waved his hands in a back and forth motion, twirling his thumbs, and speaking a very long Shamanistic spell. Weraweld lunged again, only this time his back legs sunk into the ice and he didn't get fully off the surface. This caused his attempted jump to totally fail. His chin slammed down onto the ice and sunk in deeply enough to make it hard to pull his head out of the ice. Once it got its face out of the ice, it shook its head to clear some of the stars it was seeing while shouting, "What!?! What is this?" Kandric's lips twisted up and his eyes gleamed, "Have you not heard of the Shaman spell 'Hard Water'?" "Yes!" Weraweld shouted while trying to pull his back legs out of the ice only to find his front legs had started to sink in as well, "Hard Water make the surface of water hard enough to walk on! But this..." "Ah, this... this is along the same lines, Prince. Only this is Soft Ice... Consider it the opposite of Hard Water. It is a little trick I learned from some friends of mine... Well, truthfully, they did not teach me this. I taught it to myself after learning how to modify a multitude of other Shaman spells. So while they did not tutor me in the exact incantations of making ice soft, they deserve full credit for teaching me there is a world beyond the perceived spell casting abilities us mortals tend to lock ourselves into. This is just one of many small tricks I have learned or taught myself." Deep in the forest hundreds of meters from the lake's shore, Zeltoss fired his last bolt tipped with the 'Fire Splash' potion he had. The Warrior Dragon spun its head and let out a massive freezing breath only to see Lorthorn spin in front Zeltoss, hold up a hammer with one hand, while putting his other on Zeltoss' shoulder. The hammer took on a cracked rock appearance with the rock being black and the cracks glowing red. The intense heat could be felt for an instant before the breath hit it and rolled off a dome of super warm air. "Garm Lava Hammer!" It snarled with a great deal of fear. "One of these years we will find the Garm making those and kill them all!" "Maybe your kind will," Lorthorn responded in perfect Dragon tongue. "You will not be there to see it, however." Zeltoss stood and whispered, "I'm out and he isn't as badly hurt as I had hoped or expected." "But he is hurt and we are not. All things considered, we are doing far better than I expected." He then shouted out, "Jamon, you OK?" Jamon's voice came out from some thick underbrush slightly to the left and mostly behind the Warrior Dragon. "I finished off the wounded Dragonling and dropped one of the others. It's still breathing, but down. I lost the third one, though." "Follow its footprints and kill it!" Lorthorn shouted. "How? I have no idea what footprints belong to who and there is all sorts of footprints out here!” "Don't worry about it then. I sure wouldn't be able to track one thing with all the foot trails in the snow around there." Zeltoss spoke up, "Just kill the one you fell and give us a hand if you can, but keep your eyes open. The third young one couldn't have gotten far!" The Dragon looked back by turning its head over its right shoulder and looking in the direction of the voice, "Yes, pup come help. I could use a small snack. It would be easier on you if you would give yourself up for a quick bite before Prince Weraweld gets over here. Those are his hatchlings you are murdering!” "Murdering? You all started this by taking kids from our school! We are not murderers, we are rescuers!" Zeltoss shouted back, while loading a normal bolt in his crossbow. Noticing the look he was getting, he shrugged, "It ain't going to do much, but he's too cold to get close to!" Lorthorn frowned even as he backed up into heavier trees pulling Zeltoss as he did so. This gave them decent protection, since the density of the foliage he was moving into was packed in enough to where the Warrior Dagon had to move forward and smash at the trees to pursue. This gave both Lorthorn and Zeltoss the ability to move faster than the Dragon could. The Warrior Dragon pushed its front right shoulder into one of the trees causing it to crack, but it couldn't quite break it. "You can consider yourselves whatever you want, but to my prince, you are a murderer and he is the only one out here who matters." It paused and backed off before lunging forward with its front feet off the ground. It then used its powerful back legs to leap and drive its weight into the tree, breaking it. With an opening, he shoved his head in and snapped at Zeltoss, only to growl in frustration as Lorthorn pulled the less agile boy back in the nick of time. "You cannot stay in there forever, boys. Sooner rather than later, Prince Weraweld will slaughter those you are with, including the Great Dragon Killer pup, and he will and help me extract you two." "It sounded to me like he expected you to be able to handle us," Lorthorn fired back. "I sure look forward to you having to explain why you couldn't come through. With any luck, he will carry out his threat and rip your throat out for us." A deep-throated growl rolled out of the depths of its throat as it lunged at the next tree with everything it had, snapping it like a twig and forcing both Zeltoss and Lorthorn to dive to avoid getting hit by pieces of it as the branches shattered as they hit limbs of other trees. Both boys ended up being showered in bits and chunks of wood and were left with multiple bleeding spots. The Dragon gave something akin to a victory snort as its back feet slammed back into the ground with enough force to cause both boys to bounce a little. "Oh, I smell blood! Not feeling so safe now, are you?" Zeltoss fired his crossbow and watched as it harmlessly bounced off the Dragon's neck scales even as Lorthorn scrambled back to his feet, grabbed Zeltoss by his right foot and dragged him behind the next line of trees. "This is not going well." "No, no it's not." Zeltoss fully agreed while reloading his crossbow, knowing it was all but pointless to do so. Lorthorn pulled a particularly large splinter out of Zeltoss' chin, then turned and pointed to one just behind his left ear. He winced as Zeltoss extracted it, but otherwise stayed focused on the Dragon. It was then he noticed a very faint heat source off to the side of the Dragon. The problem was, the cold radiating off the massive creature was messing with his heat vision, so he couldn't make out who or what it was. The Dragon snorted, "Oh, no pompous comments left, boys? Have you lost your bravado at long last?” "No." Lorthorn stated with an annoyed voice. "Just waiting for Premier Kandric to show up and gut you like an iguana." "Iguana?" the Dragon asked with total indignation, then hacked up a frozen glob and sent it into the tree right in front of Lorthorn. Lorthorn looked over at Zeltoss with wide eyes as the tree partially split from the impact. Neither boy wanted to find out what a second Dragon hack-up would do to the tree they were counting on for some degree of protection so they moved to a different one. Zeltoss looked over with a great deal of concern, "We are going to have to try to take it head on, aren't we?" "I was kind of hoping Seld would come and help by now, but guess the heat source out there is only Jamon..." Lorthorn whispered even as he let out long uneasy sigh, "So, like it or not, I guess we'll have to try to take it face to face. Let's try to make it mad so it knocks over another tree. It might let us get close enough to hit it with my hammer and your mace." Zeltoss had a look of nervous bemusement on his face as he took in a deep breath. "My turn..." He then moved so the Dragon could see him for an instant before disappearing behind a decent sized maple right on the edge of the dense line of trees. "Hey, lizard lips you getting tired yet, cause I think we can keep this up for hours." The Dragon snorted, "Tired? I can keep this up for days, not hours!" "Typical Dragonette, all haughty talk..." Before Zeltoss could say more the Dragon leapt high, using its wings to propel itself into the higher part of the tree, "I am a Warrior!" Even as the weight of the beast uprooted the whole maple and pushed it back forcing Zeltoss to dive and roll, Jamon sprinted over from his hiding spot, looked up, judged where the back feet were going to come down and put the two war picks he had taken off the bodies of the larger Dragonlings Seldnat and Pike had killed. He took just enough time to make sure both picks had their points up and did a quick adjustment to them as the back feet came back to earth. He then dove as far away as he could. The Dragon didn't even notice movement below. Instead it started to prepare another ball of phlegm to send at the boy who was scrambling to get away from the toppling tree. This all changed in an instant as both its back paws came directly down on the spikes of the war picks. Its massive weight drove them through its immense hardened paw pads and into the meat and bones of its feet. It screamed in horrified agony. This not only caused it to fall off onto its side, it also opened up its neck since it was craning back and wailing. While Lorthorn had no clue what had happened, there was no question in his mind the shriek and subsequent reaction could not have been faked. No one or nothing could make such a pained and tortured screech without reason and need. He rushed forward, pushed more Force into the Lava Hammer and swung with everything he had at a bulging spot on the neck which he took for an Adam's apple. The intense heat of the hammer shattered the white scales and cut off the ear-piercing cry in midstream. Not wanting to take any chances, and really needing the sound to stop for his own sake, he hit the Dragon's neck a second time. This was followed up by Zeltoss, who much like Lorthorn, had no idea what had just happened but was equally sure the Dragon was not putting on some kind of ploy. It wasn't just in distress, something caused it to be in complete anguish. Since the creature was thrashing around wildly and for some reason didn't seem to be able to stand, Zeltoss pulled his Mace of the Dead back over his head with both hands and slammed it down into the side of the Dragon's jaw. When it didn't even try to snap or bite at him, but instead attempted to jerk away and curl into a protective ball, he stepped forward, following the head and hit it over and over again, not even trying to aim. It was too big of a target to miss anyway. Lorthorn was doing pretty much the same. Except he concentrated on the neck. After nearly five minutes the Warrior Dragon convulsed and gave up its life in a blast of Dragon Death. Jamon stood up from behind one of the trees the beast had toppled, brushed himself off, and grinned. "Not much different than stepping on nails for us, huh?" Over in the middle of the lake, and feeling its belly sinking into the ice, Weraweld tried again to pull itself out, only to sink in further. With desperation in its eyes, it sucked in a vast quantity of air and exhaled another icy breath. Once again it watched as Kandric's blade flared and caused its breath to split around the boy. At the same time the bone chilling exhale did nothing to stop or even slow its downward movement into the ice. "You... You cannot do this! I am a prince!" "And this means what to me? Now where are my students?" "I sensed your presence, the Dragon Death Gifting in you, and knew you were close! Because of this I had your grandfather pull them back. I will give you the location if you let me out!" "Not a chance. I will just have find them and kill any of your kind helping my grandfather. Besides, I have it from a very good authority you have taken down several Silvers. They are my allies. Letting you live, even to spare the life of some of my students, would be turning my back on others who have given me allegiance. This I cannot do and expect them to remain loyal to me or me to myself. No, Prince. You are going nowhere." Weraweld spit out another huge ball of frozen phlegm, narrowly missing Kandric. Kandric's eyes went wide, "Nice try, however, even if I die you are going down!" By this time half of Weraweld's chest was in the ice. It made one attempt to stretch out it wings to pull itself out by flying, but instead screamed in pain as the bone along its wing split open further. "You deserve nothing! You tricked me!" "You deceived yourself," Kandric responded with no remorse in his voice. "You ignored and disregarded those I have already taken the lives of with the help of my friends. You looked down on me and the abilities of my friends when you should have at least had a little respect. You are the arrogant one. You actually thought I was naive enough to think you would fall through the ice. Do you really think so little of other races to think we are so ignorant?" Weraweld twisted and shook with all his might. Each jerk only hastened his downward movement. Just as his back disappeared below the ice, leaving only his head and neck sticking out, there was a small explosion in the form of a bright white ball of magic deep into the woods. The magic cascaded outwards rolling over most of the lake. Kandric smiled as he felt a slight renewal of Force and some refreshing of sore muscles from trudging through the snow. "And there, Prince, just went your Warrior Dragon. Any thought you may have had of getting assistance from him seems to have gone up in a large plume of White Dragon death." Seeing both Seldnat and Pike stand and shake their heads after getting a Dragon Death healing, Kandric shouted out, "Guys! Stay there! I put you on Allied Ground. It will protect you and help to warm you back up. I will heal you shortly!" "Me think us pretty good all da sudden!" Seldnat called out. "Good, no. Better yes." Pike verified. My chest still hurts and I am dizzy. "Dizzy comes from the power of the Dragon death. Just stay there and keep warm or go check on Lor, Zel and Jamon! Whatever you do stay off the lake ice! I really have no idea how big of an area this spell works on!" Fifteen minutes later Kandric watched as the ice settled over Weraweld's eyes and most of his snout. At this point the Great Dragon stopped sinking, leaving nothing but a little of the front of his mouth and nose exposed. Kandric waited for several more minutes. "Huh, either my spell does not go to the bottom or you are standing on it with your back legs. Either way... There is no reason to keep the ice soft." Kandric waved his hands. The surface became smooth and glasslike for a couple of minutes before snow started stick on it again. He carefully lowered himself down and tested the surface. It was rock hard. He moved up to the snout and looked down seeing the open eyes of Weraweld staring back up at him with helpless terror. With a rush of anger, he smacked the exposed snout hard with the flat of his Frozen Flame blade. "For hurting at least one of my students... I hope you can hear me, Prince. Now do not go anywhere. I will be back." He then half ran, half slid, across the lake toward Seldnat and Pike knowing it would be all but impossible to use his spell to fly against the driving snow. By the time he got to where they were, they had moved deeper into the woods. It was a simple matter to track them to where Lorthorn and Zeltoss were congratulating Jamon on the sneaky use of the war picks. It took only a minute or so for Kandric to figure out what had happened. He moved around to the side of the dead Warrior Dragon and examined the back paws. He couldn't help but wince at the snapped off wooden handles and only a trace of the picks sticking out of the bottom of the paws. "Well done, my friend! From now till the end of time you can say you were key in bringing down a Dragon and I can feel it gifted you. I will do everything I can to get you armor made of this one and it sure sounds like both Zel and Lor are giving you the real credit for the kill, so I will as well." Jamon couldn't help but continue to smile, "Thanks!" At the same time Zeltoss followed Lorthorn's lead in grabbing handfuls of snow so he could wipe of some of the Dragon blood and scale splatter off his face, weapon and armor. Off to the side Seldnat rolled his eyes, "Ain't no fair. Me still no gets to gunch no Dragon while ya all gets ta wipe da goo of it off ya!" Kandric moved over and reached up to put his arm over Seldnat's shoulder, "Without you, I would have never beat the Dragon prince in the middle of the lake..." He then looked over to Jamon and Pike. "Speaking of which, you two pull off the armor on a couple of the Dragonlings and fill them with snow." Jamon shrugged and moved in the direction of one of the young Dragonlings he had killed. At the same time Pike cocked his head to the side, "I will do as you command, of course, but why?" "Because!" Kandric all but shouted with glee, "You two get to finish off the big guy!" "What?" Jamon and Pike shouted at the same time. "Ya left it breathin'?" Seldnat asked with sudden concern. "Oh, do not worry, guys. I just want to make sure Jamon and Pike get to finish it. Besides, Seld, you are the one who said we have to send Pike back in at least silver guild pins." "Yea, ya right. Still, no fair none. Lor, Zel, and Jamon gots ta beats the crud out a dis one. Me jus' spear and dagger da big one!" "I will be good if the single pick strike I gave is all I will ever have to do to any Dragon!" "No such luck, Pike," Kandric grinned. "Lor, Seld make them some torches so they can melt snow in the chain armor.” "Melt snow?" Jamon asked. "You will see, my friend. Come." Lorthorn looked over at Kandric, "One of the little Dragonlings got away. Don't you think we should try to track it?" "Once we get done with the prince we will pick up its trail and hope it leads us to where ever Prince Weraweld sent my grandfather with my students. We will then kill all those holding them." Kandric lead the group out to the middle of the lake, and pointed to the almost snow covered snout. "Pike, Jamon, you will have to do this quickly. It is still radiating a great deal of cold and I used up too much Force to place a protection spell around you. Fill chain armor with snow, melt it with torches, and pour it over the exposed parts until it is totally covered in ice." Pike moved up close enough to brush off some of the snow and look into the ice. "He should have frozen the water solid! How did you get him to break through?" "He did not break through. He sunk. I have a spell to make ice soft, kind of like quicksand. I will show you all some other time when I have more Force and the snow isn't pelting you all." "Yea! Gets dis done. Me think Kandric need ta have Lacate cooks us more bacon and warm up! Me gots heals for me broke ribs from gettin' batted wit dis one tail, but me still froze me mouth bein' on top a da big lizard! Me needs warm!" Kandric stood back and watched as Pike and Jamon took turns melting snow, then running back to get away from the cold the Dragon was radiating. It took several trips since a great deal of the water froze before they could dump it over the protruding snout, but finally an icy cap too thick for Weraweld to snort off formed. The two added a few more coats of water just to be sure, then they all backed off just outside of the intense cold radiating off of the ice-locked Dragon. Kandric cast five Autospells, giving each of the others an umbrella over them to at least protect against the slashing snow of the raging blizzard. After nearly ten minutes and really starting to shiver, Lorthorn looked over, "So how long can a Dragon hold its breath?" Seconds later a massive eruption of white-colored magic blossomed outward from the snout, knocking all six kids flat and shoving them across the ice faster than any had ever moved. It took only seconds for them to get pushed well up onto the shoreline. Amazingly enough, the incredibly powerful magical discharge did nothing to the iced over lake, giving testament as to how solid it was. Even as Kandric started to stand, he realized he had been Death Gifted yet again, and it had been a massive one. He stayed on a knee as he adjusted to having his Force fully refreshed. Finally, with a long exhale, he stood, shook off the snow, let his head clear some, and reached down to help Pike to his feet. He then looked over at Lorthorn, "Oh, to answer your questions, I would say about a quarter of an hour glass. How about you?" God's viewing room Rovnar shot Golan a dirty look as the Dwarven god of craftsmanship, elbowed him. Before anything could be said, Veldora, Halfling goddess of farming, moved over to the viewing portal and spun it backwards, "Again?" Golan let out a deep throated chuckle, "Our sticky-fingered friend, here, is looking more and more like a squire boy in comparison to Kandric! Another high royal Great to add to his list! If I remember correctly, Rovnar, you only had one royal among your kills..." "Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I didn't have the help we have given him..." Veldora watched Weraweld's death, then spun it back to view how it came to be. After several seconds, she looked over at the Halfling god of mischief and thievery, "I see no help on this, and I certainly show no help on Blathamort..." "Oh come on!" Rovnar complained. "He had friends with him! His Halforc buddy and the little Garm dude crippled the wing!" "True," Vaneuben spoke as he watched the death with an approving nod. "However, my pouch pilfering little friend, this makes a True and three Greats with Kandric taking the lead in all. Oh, and then there is the minor White his underlings took out with zero help from him. Leadership is something to be admired as well as proficiency, and in this he makes you look like a junior school boy getting a bad grade!" {Beema - 12, and Kamen - 12 Devkiln, Famira, Dorwald, Bavrim, Javarim}, Zoldon, Lylan, Mylan, Glaster, Rylan Oldsurn, Chark’ash-Shunral, Perth, Jolnart, king's judge – Judge Andreus, 4 Alphar, Protector’s Keep guards} Glaster could not sleep. There was simply too much anger and confusion within him to do so. Even taking Chark'ash to bed, and breaking the young teen in, could not push what had transpired over the last several hours. The questions were too many and the answers all but non-existent. How had a major trade city been so totally undermined to where it could be taken from within? Where was The Watch, the Royal Guards, the lower nobles, the magistrates, and even the rank and file city guardsmen? Then there was the prince, or princes. What did any of this have to do with a nine-year-old boy, or two of them. Which one had been damaged worse? Was there a prince capable of being 'Crown Prince' after all they had been through? What would the fallout from all of this do to the kingdom, to King Wyhrem, to the other royal houses? Next and while not so important in Glaster's devotion to Wyhrem and the kingdom as a whole, was Kandric. Were the Alphar telling him the truth? Was Kandric really some kind of Alphar lord? Had his beloved Halfelf helped to fell a real Dragon? If the words of the Alphar were true, how did all this tie into a massed army of Alphar and Garm under the leadership of a kid? Why was it down in the middle of King Wyhrem's lands? How would the king react if it all was true? Then there was the message from the gods. They told him to join the fight down in Everone, not Rolling Dale. How could they have been this wrong? On a complete sidenote, was it possible for Aster to really be a half-brother of Kandric? The two had crossed paths half a dozen times over the past few years. On two occasions Glaster had enjoyed one in the morning and the other the same night. He could also recall three other times where he had rented the services of Aster because he had paid extra for Protector's Keep to give Kandric training and schooling for multiple days. During the four-week training sessions, Kandric had stayed at Protector’s Keep, so Glaster had made long term arrangements for Aster's company. At the time, Master Lannet had made it clear Aster was important to him, and was every bit as gifted as Kandric. Even as he thought about this he couldn't help but lightly stroke Chark'ash's back while smiling. Aster had indeed turned out to be very talented, both as an Animal Adept as well as a young bed partner. Truth of the matter was, it made sense the two were related. The really odd part is how close had they come to each other, and may have even met, yet had no clue they were related. However, in fairness to both, they didn't look much alike. In fact, Aster was a much more physical and sculpted child than Kandric could ever hope to be. On the flip side, when it came to agility, quickness, grace, and flexibility, Kandric had Aster beat hands down. Yet with all their differences, the one thing both had were the eyes of deep determination and innate intelligence. While the eyes were not the same color, what was right behind them was certainly made of the same stuff. Feeling Chark'ash slide away from him, Glaster's thoughts came to a halt. He popped the young Drow on the butt, "You do not pull away from me while being enjoyed, understood?" There was a deep breath followed by the boy sliding right back into Glaster's side. After a few moments of silence, a clearly unhappy voice responded, "Sorry, Commander. I am just very tired..." "You can learn to rest or even sleep under my touch, Chark'ash, or shall I call you Prince Shunral?" The Drow prince did his utmost to keep his voice free of the loathing he was really feeling. "I would prefer, Chark, or Chark'ash, to keep my full identity from being widely known, However, you bought my servitude from where I had been indentured, so you may call me whatever you wish. If you insist on calling me prince, and using my name, other Conclave members would see it as a serious dishonor to not call me by my full name, Prince Chark'ash-Shunral." "Very well, I do mean no dishonor to you or your race. I am not one of the mindless who see a race and feel abhorrence. Therefore, should I find a need or have a desire to call you by title I will always use your full name. I also understand your desire to keep your status hidden, especially with Alphar returning from whatever exile they imposed on themselves. Because of this, I will leave how I address you in your hands. Would you prefer Chark'ash or Chark?" "Chark is more familiar to me, since if Chark'ash was ever used it was combined Shunral." Very well, Chark. Now as you spend the reminder of the night with me, realize there will be many more. It is also beyond probable there will be some periods during the day where I will enjoy you. You may find this distasteful. You may hate it. And as things progress, and they will fairly rapidly, you may be disgusted with me or even yourself. These are all attitudes you have control over. Your thoughts can only be changed by you and you can find ways to accept and even enjoy aspects of my advances. Others have, and I care about all who were more than cute slaves or paid pleasure boys. I can also tell you quite a few even show care toward me many years later. Also, I feel it would be helpful for you to keep in the front of your mind who and what you now are. I know you understand your position, but accepting may be helpful to you, especially over the next nights where there will be some serious discomfort and adjustments to what you feel should be acceptable treatment for someone of your social status. "Your family sold you into indentured servitude. A servitude I took over without knowing of your real social status. A servitude I can only surmise your family expected you to be able to handle and deal with. It was a duty you took on, and said commitment is now to me. Therefore, regardless of your class and the status which goes with it, you are now indentured to me and will do what I require, when I desire it. This does not mean I see you as less than what you are. You are still a prince and it is because of this I have not pushed you as rapidly as I normally would or even as quickly as I would like. I fully realize this is your first night with me and very possibly a man. Because of this and your birth status, I have gone easy. Should you disappoint me again, I will forgo any further adjustment period." "My contractual obligation is to you, Commander. This I know and will do my utmost to not disappoint you further." "If you follow through and keep the attitude you are bravely trying to display, you will find me giving you credit, in silver, toward your freedom in larger quantities than I normally would. In this way, the length of your servitude to me is in your hands, as much as you will be in mine. Now, no further words and try to rest while I explore what I will soon be enjoying with a great deal more... zeal..." Chark'ash gave a single nod and did his best not to tighten up as the man's hand freely explored him. Regardless of what his family thought was going to happen, he had agreed to servitude for the betterment of his people. While this was not in any way what he wanted nor expected, it was his responsibility to both his family honor and what little honor his race had left to deal with and even accept what the man who took over his indentured contract demanded or even wanted. Chark'ash also realized his lot could have been much worse. For even as he badly disliked the situation and despised what he knew the man was going to do to him, this powerful Shaman commander was showing far more respect than anyone outside of the Drow ever had. The Master, or even Legendary, Shaman even accepted Chark'ash as a rightful prince and seemed to have no disdain for him or the Drow as a whole. There had been no claims of there being no Drow royalty, nor snide or demeaning comments about the Drow race as a whole. If anything, the man seemed oddly happy to be in the company of a Drow, even if it was out of a desire to experience something a little different. Now in this, Chark'ash had a hard time understanding, since he had everything any boy did, with the possible exception of pointed ears. But he had heard enough to know the man's last long term boy had been a Halfelf, so pointed ears were not something new to him. However, being looked at as 'exotic' was far better than being seen as an evil pouch of animal waste simply because he happened to have been born Drow. He also comprehended another important point as the lustful hand continued over his entire body. Many others with similar proclivities would have brutalized him from the first moments. This would have been done either because of their hatred of Drow or because they had paid such a high price for services. In most cases, it would have been both. While Chark'ash could not say he was lucky, he also couldn't say the commander's taking over of his servitude had been ill-fated. As this dawned on him, he further realized what he had just been told was totally true. The way he looked at the situation was up to him, and the more positives he found, the easier it was to at least deal with his current lot in life. Chark'ash could find no way to like where he found himself, and there was certainly no chance he would enjoy this or what was to come, but understanding it could be much worse made accepting and dealing with it more tolerable. Glaster gave a slight smile as the youngster next to him loosened up slightly. He really didn't want the child to hate what was going on and what would happen. In many ways, Glaster had to fight guilt, since what he was doing was on the very edge of acceptable behavior. The boy was high royalty. The only reason this was not a crime against a higher class was Chark's admission of his servitude having been done legally and without coercion to gain quick funds in a time of need. However, the child's class had to be taken into account. He was a prince and deserved proper care and overall respectable treatment. To Glaster, it mattered none what the expectations of the family had been or how they would see their son's current predicament. He was a noble, and a noble in his care had to be given certain rights, indentured or not. Glaster also applied the same standard to Rylan. Both boys would need better clothing, proper gear, and would have to be included in the classes given to Zoldon, Mylan and Lylan. Yes, they would serve him, but they would need to have better food, be given free time, they would also be trained in Fields and Sub-Fields with the best Glaster could provide. It was a burden, yes, but they were nobles and if he were going to keep them around, it was his duty to his kingdom, his king and his own honor to see they advanced in as a professional a way as he could possibly provide. Otherwise it would be his responsibility to get them back to their families safely. At some point, he would have to face potential consequences of bedding them both, however, the laws of servitude were clearly on his side with both. While one or both families may be angry with him, neither would be able to claim he had overstepped his bounds. He bet neither of the noble houses would even try to claim he had broken proper decorum. This was especially true if both advanced in the guilds and schooling while becoming better traveled. Of course, being cared for at higher standard than either family could expect an indentured servant to be given, would only add to the liberties he could take with them. Finally, and by far least important to Glaster, his own status as a Master within the guilds put him at a high enough social status to where some idiosyncrasies were expected. Even the highest and most powerful members of royalty would likely chalk up his bedding of the boys as distasteful, but acceptable. Glaster smiled at this, since neither Chark or Rylan could claim to be from a powerful or extremely high family regardless of them being princes to what had certainly been in ages past very important lineages. Glaster played with Chark's hair for a little while, knowing in a matter of days the he would be fully enjoying the child. With a sigh, he tried to close his eyes again. The problem was, his mind simply would not let go enough to allow him to sleep. Some of it, Glaster guessed was his sudden and very unexpected rise into Legendary Echelon. The power coursing through him was insanely potent. Regardless of this, the whole situation he was in, still plagued him. He felt like he had scores of puzzle pieces, but wasn't even sure how many puzzles he needed to make out of them. Certainly they weren't all interconnected, were they? Even as he wondered about this it dawned on him Chark and Rylan could also be pieces of the greater picture or pictures. For it would not be beyond the power of the gods to place one or both where Glaster would stumble across them. Certainly, if they needed him or even wanted him to find them, they would have put those Glaster would find eye-catching enough to make him take notice. This made him wonder how much was chance and how much was indirect or even direct intervention. Once again he tried to manipulate what he knew while combining it with what he guessed. So much of it depended on information he could not verify, though, he was all but certain he was trying to paint a picture with a color of paint not even enclosed within the frame. If only he could... His thoughts stopped as a truly spectacular wave of magic rolled over him. The very fact it caused Chark to jerk and sit up, told him it was beyond the sensitivity of even a lightly to totally untrained being. Chark looked over with a gulp, "Again sorry, Commander, I..." "Chark, you felt the same thing I did. There was just another extremely powerful disruption." "It was not the same as what I felt back in Rolling Dale, but similar... Kind of..." "Very perceptive. Maybe you have more training than I first thought. However, this was mortal based, not Spirit Realm. Because of it being mortal you are more open to it than the much more powerful release from the Spirit Realms when something beyond what I have ever encountered augmented my casting and so totally twisted it, it took on a near life of its own. "Regardless of the source, what we just felt was stunning and I need to investigate. Grab a cloak and summon the judge. I need someone here to keep you safe from the Alphar while also watching over me." "You are going to spirit walk?" "Again, you show knowledge beyond what I expect. Very good, now go. I need to investigate before the source fades." Fifteen minutes later Glaster, with the help of a few stunned and talkative spirits located the source of the latest instability to the natural flow of magic. It was a group of boys fighting to recover from what had to have been near overwhelming experience. From within the Spirit Realm, Glaster could see the ice-locked Dragon. This had been the initiation point. A Dragon death... A deeper look only enhanced Glaster's curiosity and confusion, for it was a White Dragon and the creature had died standing on its claws on a large boulder in the bottom of the lake. It had been just enough to get its snout above the surface of the water. But its last act to save itself had failed because ice had been obliviously put over the snout, smothering the majestic beast. The truly odd part was how had it sunk, for the entire lake, from shoreline to shoreline, from lakebed to surface was frozen solid. Even as Glaster tried to wrap his brain around how this was possible, his eyes took in something even more remarkable, if such a thing was even possible. For not far from the group of boys were several spirits giving two smaller ones bits and pieces of themselves, permanently diminishing themselves, while augmenting a pesky wind spirit into a much bigger Squall Spirit and a lowly Fog Spirit into a much more powerful Steam Spirit. He stayed back far enough to not interfere, but closed enough to listen. The first words he heard were enough to send his entire head spinning, "Your bet on Kandric felling the Great White was ingenious..." Glaster couldn't help himself. He spoke up even as he moved closer to look at the boys. "Kandric?" One of the much larger Gale Spirits glanced over with some aggravation, only to be held back by an equally massive Thermal Spirit. "Hold, it be Premier Kandric's mentor, Glaster." The Gale Spirit pushed a little more of its energy into the now spinning and joyous Squall Spirit and motioned with heavy torrents of snow to move closer. "Glaster, you have surpassed the guild pins we detect on you. Maybe you should test at the same time your student does..." Glaster moved forward only to see Kandric get up and stagger briefly, while playfully shoving a Halforc boy. "Kandric... It is you..." "I would try to get his attention for you but alas, he is still trying to adjust to the combination of the power of the Dragon kill and the latest Dragon gifting..." "The latest?" "Oh, there is so much you have missed, good mentor of Premier Kandric. You really should bring your body out here and talk with him." "You know," the Thermal Spirit stated, "should you wish to come and be with your student as he recovers from this and find out what all you have missed, we could probably provide enough amplification to a gate spell to get your camp here." "You would do this for me?" "No, we would do it for Premier Kandric." Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris, Hawkling Channeler, Klorna, Morwar (Avgon Channeler), Mokel (one of the 4 kid thugs), Princess Syrissia, Klent's group, Rylop and company, Blumed, two students Duke Mathard motioned for everyone to enter the command tent. Seeing Klorna take a step back while looking at Mokel with a frown, he moved up to the trio even as the others entered, "Good Dwarf, we need your report as to what you saw in the taking of Premier Kandric's brothers. If this youngster was there, his eyes and ears may have caught sights and sounds you did not." Klorna was on the borderline of being too afraid to speak. She was once again looking at a very high noble, one with ice hanging off his face like it was normal, one with magic armor, weapons, and a build worthy to be chiseled out of stone. However, being in front of a Garm duke was not her only trepidation. She was in no way looking forward to another royal interrogation. The questioning by the Garm count had been short and to the point. As soon as Count Steelhand understood Klorna and the two Humans had thought they were going after those who helped take Kandric's brothers, all was forgiven. This didn't end the barrage of questions and the demand for answers, however. It had taken almost fifteen minutes before Klorna figured out those talking to her, demanding answers, were not Dwarven, but instead Garm. The addition of an Alphar detachment only made the whole situation more terrifying. As far as she knew, the last time Alphar and Garm had been around, they had first nearly wiped out each other and the lower Dwarven and Elvin races. They then turned on the Drow and locked up the horrible city of Under River before disappearing. Until who she was dealing with fully sunk in, she, like so many others, thought both races had moved on to be spirits or servants of the gods. The verbal interrogation had been harsh, especially at first. Then, as soon Count Steelhand found out she had served and indeed worked with and fought beside Kandric, all attitudes changed. She was an associate of Kandric, therefore she was given a status beyond her guild rank and birthright. The same was afforded to both Morwar and Mokel, but the other two had been advised to say little unless directly asked, since it was abundantly clear the Garm count found it hard to see them as fully worthy. At least Klorna was a Dwarf, so Count Steelhand could relate to her better. There was obvious dislike toward Mokel, but it seemed to be centered on the boy's speech more than who or what he was. However, good food was served and much better equipment issued to all three. At the same time, a wagon full of better armor and equipment was prepared for the remainder of those in the caravan. Finally, a proper bath, and much better clothing was found, and in Mokel's part, tailored on the spot, before a magical portal was opened for the three of them to gate directly to the great hall to meet and answer questions from even higher Garm and Alphar. Hours later, with another amazing meal in them and additional gear provided by the Alphar, the three were escorted to a heavily guarded building, then gated by Gate Stone, along with a small detachment of Alphar and Garm escorting an Alphar princess, to a war camp just within sight of Bloody Rock. There they met up with up with Vondum, a Hawkling Channeler of Avgon, and a few others. They answered a few questions before being taken by flying Griffins into the swamps where they discovered another war camp, this one predominately manned by Pantherlings, Illorcs, Black Dragonlings, and a newly arriving large force of Hawklings. Lined up at the edge of the clearing were hundreds of bodies of recently fallen, most Orcs, along with many Black and Green Dragonlings, but with them were a smattering of others. But all of this was made near inconsequential by the carcass of a dead Green Dragon, well over fifty meters head to tail. And while Vondum was riding a Black Dragon which only made her fear the man more, seeing a much larger dead one was truly horrifying. Klorna and those with her didn't have more than a few minutes to gawk at the sight of a dead Dragon. In actuality, Mokel was still so focused on the smaller one Vondum was riding, she wasn't even sure the much larger dead one fully registered with the teen. But regardless they were given little time to dwell on any of it. Instead, they were firmly ushered over to the green pyramid of another Gate Stone. An Alphar Mage quickly activated yet another portal. In this Vondum took the lead, but all too soon the bitter cold of the passage once again gripped Klorna as she pushed Cam'ris and Conth through. This time she found herself in a truly colossal war camp being buffeted by one of the nastier blizzards Klorna could ever remember. While the idea of getting into a tent was a fantastic one, since she was bitterly cold from the passage through another Gate Stone portal, she was beyond scared since two of the guards at the front of the tent they were directed towards were Dragons, not Dragonlings, Dragons, and both were slightly larger than the one Vondum had ridden on. One was Blue, the other Silver, and both were close to twenty meters in length. The fact the heads of equally large Dragons could be seen looking over at them from the back side of the tent, one Red, the other Black, only added to the overall feeling of awe and fear streaming through her. Since she flatly didn't trust her voice, she gave Duke Mathard a nod and a slight bow, before turning once again to shoot as stern of an eye as possible at Mokel. It was clear, however, the teen wasn't too keen on wanting to say or do anything. As it was, Klorna had to reach back and grab at the boy's brand new Elvin Silver Steel chain shirt and drag him since his eyes were focused on the Blue Dragon. Well, actually, she was pretty sure Mokel's eyes were on the teeth and tongue of said Dragon, but regardless, she doubted the boy could have been more ridged in death than he was as she pulled him past the two terrifying, yet totally majestic, creatures. A pair of Blue Dragonling Guards looked over and moved to intercept as soon as the trio were through the outer tent flap. They stopped instantly as Duke Mathard raised his hand and spoke, "All three have fought with our Premier and should be treated with respect due such allies." Klorna couldn't help but notice a tinge of fear enter both Dragonlings as they instantly backed off and pulled clawed hands away from weapons at their hips. At the same time six teens, three Garm and three Alphar, moved up. All took to a knee in front of Klorna and those with her. An older Garm teen moved up behind them, "We know from recent experience the passage through the Gate Stones is a frigid one. If you would allow these squires to assist you out of your armor, weapons and clothing, we can provide warm robes. We will then tend to your equipment and should have it back to you clean and ready for combat as soon as you are released by Duke Mathard." Seeing Morwar start to say something, she eyed the young Channeler while nodding, "Thank you for your kind offer. We will all accept, right boys?" She then added, "Unless you would prefer to go talk to the Dragons outside the flap behind you..." Morwar held up both hands while Mokel managed to squeak out, "I'll be good." Seeing the Alphar lad keeling in front of Mokel frown she looked down at the kid. "I think he's real cold. Help him out of his armor. I really don't think he wants to have to wait outside and pull guard with those already out there." At hearing this Mokel's eyes went wide and he held out both arms so the Garm and Alphar could take off his gear. He started to fidget when they moved to remove his shirt and loincloth, but a single clearing of Klorna's throat was all it took for the boy to cease and accept the toweling off, full washing, and the redressing in a fresh loincloth, undershirt and heavy robe by the two kids who were very close in age equivalency to Mokel. Klorna looked over to Mokel as the seven underlings left the outer tent room with all the belongings by way of a side flap. "Boy, watch yer mouth when we get in there!" "I ain't sayin' nothin'! Didn't ya see the size of them teeth out there?" Morwar managed a nervous little grin as he glanced over, "Not much different than what Vondum was riding on." "Him hit the side a the beast like it be some kind a pet. Ain't gunna do nothin' to make him mad either! I don't think them things would even taste me none as I got ate!" "Probably not," Klorna agreed, "so just do all a us a favor and keep your mouth shut until you really need to add something or they ask you any questions." From the moment the meeting started, Klorna realized it was predominantly geared toward getting Princess Syrissia up to date on Kandric. During the first hour, Klorna found out more about the young Halfelf's lineage, history, and mother than she ever cared to know. It also gave her some insights into Garm and Alphar culture, laws, and the laws governing how the two races interacted. None of which she really cared about. Next, a man and his small ruffian-looking mercenary troop were brought in to tell of the last known sighting of Kandric, how he took down a Dragonling, and handed over Murderic Channeler, along with an evil Drow brat. While the information told the princess quite a bit, it was nothing Klorna hadn't seen out of her own two eyes. Listening to the princess about how she would pitch in on the reward for the Murderic Channeler and the Drow girl was a complete waste of time, but upon hearing Kandric wanted the girl to serve in a brothel, she couldn't help but smile. Klorna reluctantly held her tongue even as it was debated on if it was acceptable to hand over the Drow girl and the merits of the case Kandric had for enslaving the kid outside of his lands. She also suddenly remembered why she gave up being a city guard and took a much more dangerous job as a lead caravan guard. Quite simply, there were very few meetings, and when there was, it lasted just long enough to get things organized and moving again. On the other hand, she noted none of those present were willing to tell Kandric he couldn't do what he wanted with the girl, so when all was said and done, lots was said and very little was done, other than say they would send the Drow up to Slome and hold her for Kandric. Next up was Slome Corporal Rylop, along with a group of boys, including some students from the two main Swordsman schools in Slome. They talked of the time in their schools, of how Kandric took over the jail, and even started his own business. They then talked about going into Bloody Rock, and how Kandric led them and protected them. Even the kids from the other school showed awe as they talked about what they knew of Kandric and what the Slome Governor had been told regarding Kandric's incursion into Bloody Rock. Klorna was revolted at the descriptions of the forced fighting, but found none of it helpful. Furthermore, she also quickly became disgusted by how much time Princess Syrissia and Duke Mathard spent blaming their own races for what in Klorna's mind was the failure of one person, Kandric's grandfather. Finally the talk turned to when little Rathiter and Darmoth were taken. Klorna rapidly became miffed at the lack of concern for Gablon, whose name was spoke but a single time and Emroc, whose name was never mentioned. Mostly because of this, when Duke Mathard asked if she had anything to add she nodded, "Yes, Duke, I do. Um, first, I better just say I'm sorry if I'm not as prim and proper as you would all like. I've never been in a court before today, and those with me ain't about to blend in with all your rules of social cra... um, codes." She cleared her throat to try to hide how close she came to saying 'crap' before she continued, "But anyhow, yeah, when the boys were taken with caravan owner and master Gablon, and Emroc, one of our youngest guards, and good friend of Mokel here, they had just finished a class in the back of the wagon on wilderness equipment. So when they jumped out to toss some snow at each other and feed the animals, they were in full gear. While I'm sure ya all won't like what they had on, they still had their small packs, weapons and some basic armor. Both caravan master Gablon and Emroc had weapons, armor, and pack as well, since they was helping teach the class to the younger ones." Princess Syrissia spoke up for the first time. "Did either have any magic with them?" At this point Mokel, who was both sick of all the formality garbage and confused by why so much time was being spent on it when his best friend was being held by the demoness of fire, spoke up, "Gablon's got a kick-ass blade, the two little Elf dudes gots the castin' books Gablon had made fer em, but ain't no good to 'em yet, and me best livin' friend ain't got shit... But who cares about none a this! The Bitch a Fire gots 'em. How we gunna gets 'em back?" Seeing shock in nearly every set of eyes looking at him, he stomped his foot, "Yer not even carin' about my friend 'er Gablon none! I'm about sick a all this uppity-up bull sh..." While Klorna turned pale, Morwar reached over and put his hand over Mokel's mouth cutting off the final word, but it was far too late. Everyone knew what was coming out. Seeing Vondum move straight at Mokel, Duke Mathard stepped between them and held up his hand. "My Princess, General Vondum, ladies and gentlemen, before you all self-combust and ruin my finest tent, let me interject a thought or two here. "First off this young man has obviously never been in anything close to this environment. He must be given a full pass for lack of decorum. Second, if you have issues with what he says or how he says it, be angry with me. The fine lead caravan guard, here," he moved over to Klorna and patted her on the shoulder, "tried to prevent him from entering. I overruled her judgment. While I now understand her concerns, this boy has information within we need. Therefore, regardless of his incivility, this boy was present at the taking of our princes, his caravan master, and his friend. He jumped through a dimensional gate thinking he was going after our young princes, even though he had just witnessed, and I will use his own words, the Bitch of Fire. Now, before any of you dare pass judgement on him or his total lack of knowledge in protocol, you best go to a mirror. While you look at yourselves, tell me and yourselves if you have the testicular fortitude to not only go after Frexla, but then when you emerge and are surrounded by a sizable force of heavily armed Garm, demand those who had been taken be given back. You all heard the reports from Count Steelhand. You know this is exactly what this young man did. So, foolish or not, there is bravery beyond comprehension within this child. "Now it is possible this is just me, but somehow, I really do not see many of us, me included, attempting such a rescue. Besides, regardless of how much bravado, and audacity, such an action shows, you have to find some admiration in it and therefore within this boy. Also remember we are not in our lands, we are actually in his and we will need to get used to countless others who have his level of royal etiquette... or lack thereof." To show he was not simply talking out of the side of his mouth, Mathard moved up to the lad, put his arm around him and pulled him tight to his side. "Is there anything really wrong with this young warrior's desires? After all, he wants his caravan master, friend and our princes back. Furthermore, he is not a creature of noble circles, war camps and royalty. He is frustrated, with youthful exuberance, at how slowly things are moving. Now again, ask yourselves, how has he wronged any of us?" Mathard then spun Mokel, grabbed him by the front of the brand new robe, ripping it slightly even as lifted him off the ground, "However, young Warrior, should you ever, and I do mean ever, talk about Prince Darmoth and Prince Rathiter again as Elf dudes I will smack your face so hard you will be taking out of the back of your head, understood?" Mokel looked into the man's eyes and saw sincerity of both the small speech and the following threat as being totally true. "Um, yeah... I'll never do it no more... Um, what's me needs ta call 'em?" Mathard didn't put the boy down. "You address any and all nobles by title once you know what the title is. If you do so, your speech, your lack of education and social graces, and even your impatience can all be overlooked, at least for now. Under my guidance, however, much of this will change quickly and for the better." Mokel gulped as he saw only anger in the eyes of pretty much everyone else in the tent, although some of edge seemed to be fading or had at least been put in check, "So, me call ya duke and Rath and Dar, prince?" "Better, but do not use nick names or partials when talking about the young princes, our princes. Now say it again, and say it to me while addressing all of us with the respect of at least title." "Sorry, Duke, um, me'll no say nothing but Prince Rathiter and Prince Darmoth no more and always call ya duke." Mathard lowered the teen but still didn't let his feet touch the ground. "The same for General Vondum, Princess Syrissia, and any other noble or military titles you hear. If corrected, you will instantly correct yourself and not make the mistake a second time. Furthermore, you WILL USE proper respect for those of the upper Echelons as you know them starting at Teaching Echelon. If not, we will revisit this and you will not like the results, young Warrior." Mokel nodded almost wildly even as he spoke, "Me'll make sure of it Duke, sir." "Duke, no sir, but much better." Mathard put Mokel down and patted him on the head before putting a protective arm around him and holding him close and very tight. To even the least observant, the non-verbal message was clear. Duke Mathard, no one else, was to discipline Mokel. The boy was under his tutelage and protection until such time as it was dropped, which simply wasn't likely to happen. Because of this, the mood within the tent quickly shifted, while conversations turned back toward the business of Frexla, figuring out what to do about her having two Alphar princes and most importantly, what to tell Kandric. However, Gablon and Emroc's names were now being mentioned as well. While it was clear Mokel was not happy with all the talk, at least his friend wasn't being left out anymore. The other thing was, while he hated the way the extremely powerful Garm was gripping him and not letting go, he was smart enough to say nothing about it, not even attempt to pull away, and deal with it. Besides, with years of street smarts and learning how to read the crew of the pirate ship, it was obvious he would be spending a great deal of time with the duke who was all but crushing his side. Making a man as strong as this duke was angry again was pretty much of the bottom of a list of things which bordered on stupid. At the same time, some of what Mathard had said also made an impact. How stupid was he to raise a weapon at all the Dwarves, Garm, whatever, when he came through the magic doorway? It had not been one of his smarter moves and he really was lucky to still be breathing. Mokel stayed silent as the discussions continued, mostly because the duke simply wouldn't let go and there was no chance he was going to try to pull free. Princess Syrissia finally joined in the discussion as she gained a better understanding of the entire situation as it was known. "My Duke, General Vondum, I must formally admit some confusion in the way you are talking of dealing with your wayward prince, Premier Kandric. While I fully understand why it is best our Premier hear about his brothers, our princes, from those he trusts, why have you not brought his mother, Princess Kaylaria, down to speak with him?" Seeing Vondum and Mathard exchange glances and cringe at the same time, Klorna nervously cleared her throat, "Um, Duke, Princess... General... um..." Vondum pointed over at here, "Oh, by all means, Klorna. Be our guest!" Even as Mathard smirked and chuckled at Vondum's words, he nodded. Klorna gulped, cleared her throat, and stepped forward, "Look, um, Princess, ah, it's not like I know Kandric... Premier Kandric super well or nothing. But, from what I've seen, his mother, well she may be a princess in birth or whatever, but she ain't no mother. At least not to Premier Kandric... Do I really have to say Premier every time?" Mathard let out a little snort, "Good guard, in this case, just stick with it. I do not want the young warrior in my grasp to think he can take shortcuts at any time and I certainly have no desire to smack him into the next moon cycle because he gets the wrong idea." Klorna let out a long breath, "OK, sure, you want me to call him Premier, fine..." At this point Princess Syrissia interjected, "As far as I know, good Dwarf, there is only one Premier at this point so saying Premier alone, would certainly be sufficient." Klorna pointed at the woman, not at all realizing this was a slight in and of itself, "Much easier. I like it. So anyway, getting his mom to talk to him, well, there really ain't much respect there. From what me hear the Premier be the big bread winner and be the reason Dar... um, Prince Darmoth got schooled in Slome. If it not be for the coin the Premier brought in, none of them would a had no book learnin'. As it be, Prince Rathiter can't even read as good as Mokel, since Gablon has only been working with them since they joined the caravan, and Mokel has been with us for several moons now." Jaws from one end of the tent to the other dropped at hearing this. After several very uneasy seconds Princess Syrissia finally found her tongue, "Are you tell me... us... Prince Rathiter cannot read or write?" Mokel couldn't stay silent, he just couldn't, "Look Princess lady, maybe y'all can read and junk, but next ta none a us can. Me just gettin' ta be able to read big words in Northman, and me pretty much suck at it! Dar... Prince Darmoth... well he be pretty good. Kind made most a us mad at first, but him help us once we start bein' nice to him. Prince Rath be..." getting a firm and hard flip on the ear from Mathard, Mokel winced badly, but didn't let out a yelp, "OK, sorry Duke, um, Prince Rathiter... well, him be like super smart. It took him only a day to learn the Northman alphabet and he be soundin' out small words like three or four days after Gablon and a couple of them others started teachering him. To be honest, like, it kind a pissed me off, cause what Prince Rathiter do in a week take me more like three 'er four moons!" Morwar decided to finally break his silence, "I heard our lead Druid say your prince was picking up Druidic writing just as quickly. We were all very impressed with him." Princess Syrissia looked sick, "While I am pleased to hear he was learning, this begs me to ask about the younger two, Princess Meggie and Prince Gellor. What education do they have?" Klorna cocked her head to the side in confusion, "Prince Gellor?" "Princess Kaylaria's youngest son," Mathard responded. "Sorry, yeah, forgot about him." Klorna admitted. "We spent some time in the camp and had Princess Kaylaria over for a meal so Gablon..." Klorna turned red as she decided it would be a really good idea to not talk about why Gablon really had them over for a meal, "Um, well we needed information of the area and she was one of the... well Princess Kaylaria stood out... We had a busted axel, so... Well she provided us with good information and it’s when Gablon offered the two princes jobs along with book learning and the like. Both boys, um princes, were eager about the chance and so they joined us. "So, yeah, the youngest prince... I don't even think we got his name. Super cute little guy, and boy could he eat!" Hearing a few chuckles, Klorna continued, "But, me... well, the way it sounded, Darmoth... Prince Darmoth could read and junk, but it wasn't up to Gablon's standards, not by a long shot. Since Prince Rathiter didn't know how, I'm guessing the little prince couldn't read or write either." "Don't think so none, either," Mokel joined in. "I know Kand... um Prince... Premier... geesh this is so confusing!" Mathard again ruffled the boy's hair, while chuckling, "Give me a few moons, boy and you will be able to walk into any court in the land and while you will probably never feel comfortable, you will be able to blend. However, you are trying hard, and I give credit to where it is due. Please, do your best and we will work together to get you to where every fine lad should be." "Thank ya, Duke," Mokel breathed a little easier. "Um, so me was tryin' to tell y'all Premier, um, yeah, me see him a couple a time with the brothers..." "The princes," Mathard corrected him. "OK, yeah, sorry, Duke, the princes... Anyhow, Premier Kandric spent more time with the little guy... um prince then with the others... Me thinks him likes the little prince the most, then Prince Rathiter, but not so much Prince Darmoth... Um, me not sayin' he don't like him, but just like, not so much. Me know Premier came back a couple a times with the youngest brother... prince... with snares, so me bettin' the little one is gunna be a good Outdoorsman. "From what me see, the small prince pretty much stay out all day and hunt fer food, play in the swamp and junk. Me saw him have a Dagger Boar knife kind-a like the one Premier carries, and him's got a good sling. Little dude..." Mokel instantly cringed, "Oh, crap, sorry, Duke, um little prince be pretty good with it. Him took down a squirrel off a tree, cleaned it and took it home while me was pullin' guard one afternoon. Him know more than me 'bout huntin' and wilds stuff and he's just a tiny little..." Mathard gave Mokel a squeeze to stop him. "What this young man says mirrors what our scouts have told us about Prince Gellor. They even lost him for a short time in the woods and swamps on more than one occasion. The wilderness around the village of Slome seems to be our prince's playground and he not only loves it, he understands it. I also tend to believe our brave young warrior guard here is correct; Premier Kandric has spent a great deal of time working with Prince Gellor when he was not out and about with his instructor, Master Shaman Glaster. Therefore, while it is unlikely the prince can read or write, he has certainly had some overflow of the Dragon Giftings and knows the forests and swamps. His bonds with our Premier are most certainly the strongest he has, but they are tenuous. He is a prince of the wilds first and foremost. This makes him dangerous and unpredictable. We will continue to guard and protect him, and when the times comes do everything we can to make sure he is properly schooled. However, he will not ever be a good fit for a royal position. In truth, our little prince may not be fully redeemable at all if what the legends say about Rovnar's little sister is true. At least Princess Meggie tends to stay close to Princess Kaylaria, so she has a decently strong attachment to respectable figurehead. "Right now, our focus must remain on the tasks at hand, and as you have heard, Princess Syrissia, there are good reasons we have not included Princess Kaylaria in on this. To be honest, we feel Premier Kandric would not respond well to her." Princess Syrissia frowned deeply, "I do not understand why Princess Kaylaria didn't instruct them..." Duke Mathard let out a long breath, mostly because he didn't want to get caught up in Kaylaria and her clear failures, nor did he want to dwell on how badly this whole thing looked on the Garm hierarchy. It had been the Garm's duty, after all, to make sure Princess Kaylaria and her offspring were at the very least looked after. However, he decided to pass on what he knew as best and quickly as possible, "Princess Syrissia, while I only have what Premier Kandric has told me to go off of, it is his understanding Prince Rovanall forbade any use of Princess Kaylaria's teachings in the raising of her children. Our princess took this to the extreme, bringing them up as best she could without using her Sorcery abilities or even basic book teachings. The fact she produced Premier Kandric despite this, should tell all of us she has a near unbreakable spirit." "Indeed she does," Princess Syrissia sighed, "but alas, I must also admit it shows a stunning lack of basic decency and common sense on her part. I am beginning to understand why finding a rightful leader for the Griffin Spires may be so difficult unless there is some way we can bring our Premier back into the fold." "Princess," Vondum spoke, "I must warn you, after spending considerable time with our Premier, the chances of him taking over as a royal head of a house is all but non-existent unless he claims it for himself. All you have to do is look at Slome. It is his, but since he didn't... did not take it by his own hand, he does not yet physically see it as his." "Utter nonsense," Duke Mathard snorted with a snicker. "All one has to do is walk down toward the central square and see the carcass of the Green Dragon he killed sticking up from the street to know he took Slome. It is his and we will make sure it is a place worthy of his name. But we digress. The fact remains we will have to be careful about who informs him of Frexla and her deeds and how it is said. General Vondum, do you concur about not having Princess Kaylaria talk to him?" "Absolutely. I am quite sure Premier Kandric would see anything she says, no matter how well worded, as pandering and trying to rein him in." "This is truly a sad day for the Alphar Kingdom," Princess Syrissia stated with a sad shake of her head. "These princes are our future and now, it seems a large bit of our legacy has been ripped from us. It is therefore, my opinion, after hearing this testimony, the crimes of Prince Rovanall are more egregious than I was lead to believe. Not only has he betrayed the whole of the Garm and Alphar empire and kingdoms, he has done direct damage to his bloodline and the future leadership of what had been his people. Thus, it is with a sad heart I decree former Prince Rovanall's presence must be removed from our realm, entirely, with extreme prejudice." "In this, there is going to be no argument from the Garm," Duke Mathard stated with certainty. "There will also be serious backlash against those who failed to provide aid to Princess Kaylaria and her offspring from the Garm Empire. In this we will make sure you, Princess, are in agreement with who and what punishment befits their malicious transgressions. For now, I must request, however, we return conversation on who is best to deal with our Premier, so we do not end up in an all out war with the demon lords. For if they all start reappearing in our realm, I am sure the gods will as well, and it will take us back to the darkest days of the Mythling Wars." Vondum took a deep breath, "I believe you were correct in asking for my help, Duke Mathard. However, the first words should come from you. He holds you in greater respect than any I have seen, with the possible exception of his friends." "You, General are his commander." "Yes, I am or was... But consider this. If we cannot locate Glaster, who does certainly hold a massive sway over our Premier, and I suspect holds some love there as well, then we must move on with a secondary plan. In this, I can try to be the authority figure, commanding him to stop and think should he not listen to you or if he lets his temper take over. But, Duke Mathard, everything I have heard and seen tells me not only does he like you, but he also respects you. I just do not think there are many who can claim both from Premier Kandric. He respects me, yes. Trusts me, yes, has enjoyed my company and companionship, certainly, possibly even loves me a little... But like... No, I really cannot say with any certainty he likes me. You, Duke, he likes." Princess Syrissia nodded in understanding, "So baring a miracle and us stumbling across the man who has mentored him for several years, I am hearing Duke Mathard is probably best suited to break the news, with you, General, ready to move up and put your foot down should our Premier go on some kind of... tirade." Mathard managed a grim smirk, "My Princess, should Premier Kandric decide to go on a tirade, I will strongly recommend you duck, cover, and pray to multiple gods, for I have seen him angry. His bare foot dented Dwarven Blue Steel plate armor while also breaking ribs in one of the Garm assigned to guard his tent. It was not a fault in the armor. It had to be taken and reforged. And while you may find this improbable, I feel I must add I witnessed this with my own eyes. It was also relatively easy to talk him down, since he was just frustrated and annoyed. This was before he killed the Green in Slome... No... if his temper fully erupts... Well, it must be our primary task to make sure this simply does not happen or he will go after Frexla and probably other major demons and demon lords. He may even kill a few..." "Few more," Vondum stated with a nasty grin. "I was there when he killed Cyronia. While I did not know who it was at the time, it had to have been her, for within hours the storm started to break. He did it with very little help, nothing more than a distraction from a badly wounded man and a terrified little slave boy. All I could do was listen and watch out of the corner of my eye, since I was dealing with a trio of Ice Hellions." Vondum looked down at Conth, "Boy you were there, you may speak. Tell them what you saw." Conth gulped, "More what I heard. The storm was so bad... and all those things were screaming like high pitched wolves... Then... Kandric... Premier happened. He called out for people to grab fire, whatever burned while yelling about Ice Hellions. He was close to the back of the main building. I heard him slash into at least two, maybe more. They shrieked something awful, evil awful, as they fell. People in the camp were screaming and being ripped apart... but Kandric found the lead demon, chopped it, burned it alive, knocked it back into the inferno he made... The second it died the other creatures all screeched as if in the worst pain... I think I can still hear them in my dreams... nightmares... I looked out to see a couple of them that had been pounding at the door break up while their searing blue eyes faded away... they were so close when they cried out it made it hard to hear for a couple of days. "But then Kandric came in, Premier Kandric... he wasn't even scratched. He was mad about having wasted all the firewood, and about needing to fix than man's arm... it was like totally frozen and black... Real nasty..." "Enough, Conth. Now silence again!" Vondum barked out. "Unless any of you have any questions for this pathetic whelp." Those in the command tent shook their heads while Duke Mathard shot Princess Syrissia a warning glance, "You see, there was a legend brewing before he became know to us. And yes, again this is the fault of the Garm, for we should have known and thus passed on this information to the Alphar. It will be dealt with in good time. Now, however, we do not want a repeat. Frexla entered this realm but for a few moments. It be our obligation to not only the Alphar and Garm, but the entire uncivilized realm outside our lands to make sure we do not have a return to the time of the Mythling Wars where cities were razed, rivers altered, mountains flattened, and lakes vanished while famine and disease ruled daily life. "It took our combined races to beat back the scourge of the Drow, and because of it we altered history's perspective on how we are seen today. At this time we can reenter the world as a whole. If one of us cause a revival of the Mythling Wars..." "We will not let this happen, my Duke," Princess Syrissia proclaimed. "Frexla must be stopped without dragging what is left of the world outside our territories down and burning in flames of near genocidal war." While everyone was in agreement with the sustenance of the statement, there was still little idea how to go about it. Even as this topic was debated, a pair of Silver Dragonlings came in and knelt while a Pantherling stood behind them. Duke Mathard held up his hand to halt discussion, then turned, "Has there been word of our Premier?" "No, Duke Mathard, not yet. However, there are two matters, one certainly regarding him and the other, well, the Warrior Dragons in the camp all report there has been a Dragon death, somewhat close, most certainly a Warrior Dragon. None could think of anyone or anything, except our Premier." "Do we have a direction?" Vondum demanded to know even as he moved to the tent flaps. "Only a vague one, General," The Pantherling reported. "Somewhere to the southeast. It was too far away to get any better information." "I'd bet money on it being Premier Kandric," Vondum grumbled. "Do me a favor and summon Ornam. Let him know I would like to take him up to check the general direction of this death." "As you command, General. However, there is the second matter." Mathard moved up to Vondum's side, pulling Mokel as he did so, "Let us hear it!" "A Dragonling came into camp from the south side just before the latest death. It wears gear of Prince Bassork's allegiance, but professes to have come of free will, under guidance of Premier Kandric. He has with him two boys, both badly in need of attention from combat wounds as well as extreme exposure." "Where are they?" "We put them in a warm tent under heavy guard, but have done nothing more. The Black Dragon forces of Prince Bandurlok want the little Dragonling dismembered." Vondum grinned, "Depending on why he is here, they may get their wish, however, if he came on behalf of our Premier, their bloodlust must be held in check until we run across something more deserving their wrath." Mathard couldn't help but roll his eyes. "I find it hard to believe a Dragonling of an opposing side would willingly come to our camp without a very good reason. Shall we go interview this brave creature?" Vondum shrugged, "I see no reason not to. Perhaps he has information we can put to good use while a few scouts head southeast to see if they can find our wayward Premier." Klent spoke up from the back of the tent, "Duke, General, the boy you are calling Premier let one younger Black Dragonling go, with instructions should he find and rescue any of the missing students, he was to bring them here." "Good information," Mathard gave a nod. "So if he does have some students from Slome, he is working for the Premier, and I would have to say it would not be in the better interests of the Black Dragon kind to harm him in any way." "Not if they want to live," Vondum agreed with a large grin. Making their way over to the guarded tent, Vondum whistled to Ornam, then spoke to him in Dragon, "Hey what were you able to get on the Dragon Death? Anything?" "I believe it was a smaller White, direction southeast, more east than south. Too far away to get much, but for some reason the bottom of my back feet hurt for several seconds after it died. I would bet your Dragon killing Premier did something to its feet, then killed it." "Thanks, Ornam. You have always been more sensitive to what happens than most of the others..." "A slight gift, nothing more. Although for a few seconds I found it hard to stand, so in this case the gift turned into a momentary curse and I still have lingering discomfort. Whatever happened must have been excruciating to the White Warrior." "I would say I am sorry." Ornam busted up with laughter, "Then you would be lying, oh Great Enforcer! For I remember one of your greatest torments for those working the forge pits was to insert splinters into their toes! This allowed them to work while screaming their little lungs out!" "Very true, and ultimately extremely effective. Many fell from exhaustion rather than be handed over to me, and more than a few made it through their training because they wanted no second or third time with me playing with their toes. So, do you think you will be able to fly me to the south to check if it is our Premier?" Ornam let out a long breath, "With you alone, yes, with difficulty. With another, not likely. I do not have the wings for snow and ice. I very well may have to land a time or to and smack my wings on some trees as well. It will not be at all comfortable, but for you, I will do it." "I will see if there is another way, but thank you. Oh, and speaking of pain, Ornam, you may wish to pass the word, Premier Kandric did indeed allow a Dragonling he captured to go under condition it search out and bring back any students it found..." "I suspected as much. No Dragonling child allied to Bassork would dare ask for sanctuary in this camp unless he had very good reason. I will, as soon as you verify, make it clear the boy is no longer in Bassork's corner and is in actuality allied with Premier Kandric. It will end any and all talk of playing catch with our teeth, dismembering, eating, roasting on a spit, or any other things I have heard in passing since his arrival." "Roasting on a spit? Really? As in alive?" "Well, of course, but come now, Enforcer Vondum, he would not live for long... Besides, it came from one of the Red Warriors who offered to breathe on the fire to speed things along. However, when one considers it, the idea is not a bad one if you prefer your meat cooked as I know you do." Noticing Blue Streak edging further away from Ornam, while looking out with a great deal of concern at Cam'ris, Vondum chuckled, "Cam'ris, your Shocker is getting nervous. You need to reassure him the conversation had nothing to do with him." Cam’ris knelt in the snow and pulled the large lizard's head into his side for some comfort, then motioned for it to catch up as he ran to rejoin Vondum, "What was said to make Blue Streak so nervous, General? He is quaking!" "Work on your Dragon tongue, and I am sure he will tell you. But let me assure you, Cam'ris it had nothing to do with the cold. Now come." Vondum entered the tent, noting there were two teens on the floor. One was in badly tattered reinforced leather armor, and the other bronze chain with several holes. Neither teen had sufficient clothing on to be out in such a storm and no weapons or gear. Before Vondum could do anything, Duke Mathard moved over and knelt between them. He put a hand on both and frowned deeply. "There is frost on their fingers and under their skin and their body temperatures are dangerously low. Up in Winter Creek we call this the Bite of Inaxia. They need good Channelers or Shamen or a very high Healthman if we are going to bring them back without having to remove fingers, and probably toes as well." "Cam'ris," Vondum spoke up, "go find what is needed. I saw the one in chainmail in the school on one of my prior visits. Even a year or two later he is fairly eye-catching and while not the sharpest knife in the sheath, was coordinated and refused to back down... Anyway, this is certainly one of Premier Kandric's students. We need to take care of him. The other, well, he does not look familiar, but what is left of his armor does carry the school patch... As a side note, I only spent but a half day working with the students and very few stuck out as being worth more than a moment of my time. I am gathering he was not one of them, but he is still one of the missing students and having them with us may help calm our sure to be extremely volatile young ." Vondum took one more look down at the pair, then focused in on the Dragonling. Without thinking, he spoke in Dragon, "You found them like this?" "Not exactly. I found the shivering by a small hot spring. They had nothing and were eating this bark." The Dragonling held up his left claw. "They used a sharp rock to peal it off of a nearby tree. I am not familiar with the plants in these parts, but..." "Midnight Pine." Vondum stated. "And they were eating the soft wood right under the bark, not the bark itself. One of them must be an Outdoorsman. There are many types of pine trees one can eat, but the Midnight Pine is one of the best, for its softer edible wood goes deeper than most and is actually quite healthy. Although it is very bitter and extremely sticky, even in the winter. "The question is why didn't you just stay with them where they were until the storm broke?" "Sir, I had no way of knowing this was good food and I already killed two Kobalds. These two were in no shape to fight anything, and I thought they were starving to death and eating wood to fill their empty stomachs. I told them I would take them to safety and they didn't seem to believe me, but agreed to come with me." "I am sure they thought they had been recaptured." "Nothing I could do about it, sir. I mean I tried and was nice. I even cast an Endure Elements on both, twice, but I had no more Force to do so again. I helped them up the last hill, but both are very tough for being Human. I got them here shortly after the second spell faded from around them. I also gave them the weapons from the Kobalds, but all our gear, including my spell book, was taken when I surrendered and asked for Duke Mathard as the killer of my king instructed me to do.” "As soon as we verify you are the one Premier Kandric released, and double-check on these two boys, I am certain all will be returned, but I can assure you they will not be getting Kobald quality weapons to replace what has obviously been taken from them and I will make sure you get a reward as well. Can you tell me anything at all about Bassork's plans?" "Sir, I was but a junior spell caster in Bloody Rock to help defend the complex and the lairs in the catacombs deep below the red mountain. I have no knowledge of where I am now, but it is certainly nothing like the area around Bloody Rock." "Catacombs? You have seen them?" "Only the entrance. I was never allowed in since I was told there is an egg chamber there. It is a vaulted ceiling with a Dwarven statue at one end and a slender Elvin one at the other. Between were hundreds of smashed open burial vaults with bits and pieces of bone all over the floor. The entrance was through a Silver Steel gate with a set of Blue Steel lifting chains. The wheel for opening on my side had been broken, but it looked like it had been done ages ago. The wheel on the other side was how the gate was opened and closed, but like I said, I never got past the gate and it was manned by a Black and a Green True Dragon. Both of which were chained by their back feet to the wall with massive iron shackles and both had their wings removed and breath sack and tubes cut and burned so they were breathless." "Their transgressions must have bordered on death. I cannot imagine what they did." "I inquired once, and was told they overstepped their breeding rights. I got the impression I should know what crime it was, so I did not ask further." At this Vondum cringed, "They tried to breed with a Great female. A high crime for any Dragon not given permission to do so, and such permission would never be granted to a True. The instinctual draw must have been too much for them and they were given slavery or death after ruining a breeding cycle. They probably should have chosen death." "I was told both had been executed when the True Green was getting ready to gate us. It said they could never be trusted and their bodies would block the gate to the hatchery... But the power of the Splitrock Knolls twisted the gate spell and we ended up here, wherever here is." An Alphar Channeler of Vindayin entered along with a Garm Channeler of Golan. Both turned their attention to the boys and went into deep prayer. Within a few minutes the skin color and their breathing returned to a much more natural appearance. While this was being done, Vondum relayed what information the Dragonling had freely given over. Without hesitation Mathard ordered the Dragonling be granted the return of his gear and spell book, while suitable equipment was found for the two boys, even before they started to stir. While Mathard oversaw this, and made sure the Dragonling was going to be accepted and even protected, Vondum moved out to Ornam, "Anything more on our Premier, my friend?" "Nothing..." suddenly the sky to the south southeast lit up as a massive ball of white light spilled over the distant hill with a roar of a thousand angry Thunder Lions, followed by what could only be called a scream of absolute dismay. As this happened Ornam dropped his neck while using his wings to cover his ears. Other Dragons and many Dragonlings did the same. From where Ornam had all but buried his head in the snow, he gasped out with a roar of agony, "Kandric has killed Prince Weraweld! The Great White died looking helpless at him! The last sights were of a smirk and red hair!" As Mathard ran out of the tent to look at the retreating ball of pure white energy, Vondum shook his head, "Unless I miss my guess, good Duke, my wilderness scout is there, directly over those bluffs off the far side of the lake." "So it seems. I need any Dragons who can take someone and all the Griffin riders up with their mounts! We need to get over there... like an hour ago!" Ornam poked his head up from the snow, puking as he did so. "Vondum... I... I need a moment..." "Can you take Cam'ris and Conth when you recover enough?" "I will find a way... Even if I have to take the lizard and the wolf in my claws and land a few times, I will get them there... The Silvers... they have wings meant for cold... take one of them... Go... I will catch up." Yarnay (9yo Druid Gem Channel: Tallis-Klandon's WB), Sibler (9yo Mystic Sailor-Lylan's WB), Kaznal (9yo War Adpt Outdoors Channel: Avgon Mylan's WB), Tazen (14yo Swordsman Health), Dario (13 yo War Adpt Leather Gem), Alkoris (13 HAE Halfelf War Adpt Lock Outdoors) Tyndall (15yo Mage woodworker/outdoors) Guardman Vit, Corporal Klug +2 guardsmen Alkoris moved down the torch-lit passageway, keeping a close eye open. He paused to test each door as he came to them, but a slight pull on each told him they were locked. Figuring if he wanted to pretend to belong, picking the locks and checking them out wasn't in his better interest, but it was beyond difficult not to do so. Each door was a place he really wanted to check out. After a couple of turns he looked back, "Guys, come on, make some small talk or something. If you are all quiet it will seem off. We're kids, and as my pa always said, getting rid of us kids would finally give him some much-needed silence!" Dario couldn't help but snicker, "Ma always tell me same. Say, her best day was when I was headed to the school. I thought it be 'cause she be proud, but Pa say it was jus' her bein' happy to get rid a the last a us kids so she could hear the birds sing." Tazen rolled his eyes, "After putting up with you for few years I can see why." He nudged Kaznal with an elbow, "He holds conversations with himself in his sleep about half the nights, and the more uncomfortable it is, hot or cold, the more he talks. There was talk in the barracks of stuffing things in his mouth before bed after the first few days he was in the school." "So says the kid who made livin' no fun at all fer the first two moons of us livin' there. Taz was so mean..." "Mean? No..." "So tyin' us in our beds as we was sleepin', movin' our gear around at night, puttin' fingers in water at night so's we peed..." "All ways to get you to cry, make you all more alert, and to get me bronze chain armor. Besides, I never hurt any of you, not really. Scared you, tricked you, but not like some of the others who put sharp rocks in boots and made kids run around the outside walls, made them practice with wood weapons with splintered handles or made the entire barracks sleep outside in the rain. I also never hit any of you. Thanks to Alkoris, I didn't have to!" Alkoris couldn't help but look back and nod, "Yeah, you were way nicer than most, but still, Taz, I know some of them slept in the beds with each other for days after we had them all thinking the barracks at the far end was haunted and you made each one sleep in one of those rooms alone..." Seeing the younger kids looking at him, Tazen gave a quick grin, "I did, and we made noises in the middle of the night, moved things around, had one of the Shaman kids I know cast Dust on the floors, then walk out so there was footprints started in the middle of the room and going out the door, or cast Glow on things and moved them around with twine outside the windows... I even moved one of the old beds out into the hall between the rooms and walked on it so it creaked then drug it slowly so it made long scraping sounds. Man, those were the fun times." "I still wants to know how ya shredded me blanket with claw marks..." Dario grumbled. "Wasn't yours. I had Alkoris practice moving quiet..." Dario looked over with a glare, "You switched it?" "Yeah," Alkoris grinned from ear to ear. "You was easy, mumbling in you sleep and tossing around like crazy. You rolled over and grabbed for your blanket, so I handed you the old one Taz put four dagger slices in like claw marks, then slid yours out from under you when you tossed again. And wow, did you scream! I don't think the others came even close!" He snickered as Dario turned red, "Oh, and had you paid better attention, you would have seen the twine loop over the window going down to the door on the closet where Taz made you put all our gear for the night. The window shutter pulled open at the same time you opened the door, but I used a slip knot so it untied itself from the door and fell on the floor. The burning message to get back into bed when you opened the room door in the morning was nothing more than flint, steel, and lantern oil on the stone floor. The steel rubbed against the flint poking off the floor, sparked, and lit the oil. Of all the tricks Taz and me came up with, the burning messages were the best. Taz had to get help to pull some of you out of your beds!" "Not me!" Dario shook his head. "When Taz called for formation, all I could think was I was allowed ta get out! I jumped over the fire and ran!" "I think I would have ran and kept running, like in run away!" Kaznal stated seriously. Dario shook his head, "A few did. He had to chase down four of 'em and the guards caught a few. Them first two nights in the haunted building left most of us crying our eyes out. The third night Taz had to have two of the bigger kids drag me into my room, toss me on da damned bed and slammed and locked the door! All me hear was screaming from all over the place." Alkoris giggled, "Each time, the last night was the best, cause we didn't have to do nothing! Ya all kept each other scared with all your crying, shouting and pleading. All eight groups did the same thing. We stayed in a tent outside just to make sure none of you, like tried to climb up to the roof and jump or nothing. But mostly we just laughed. The best was Tannilem pulling at the bars on the second floor window of his room begging for him mommy. One of the guards started throwing stuff up at him, threatening him with all sorts of stuff if he didn't shut up." "How mean!" Yarnay interjected. "What if you had attracted a real ghost from all the fear or something?" Tazen reached out and playfully poked at Yarnay's Channeler guild pin, "Then we would have turned it over to someone like you." Yarnay couldn't help but smile, "You are the one with the magic sword, and while I know a great deal more than I did or even should after the spirit took me over, there is no way I am stopping a ghost... Skeleton, maybe, but I really do not want to find out, since I really never want to see one." Before more could be said, a pair of men came into view. They both wore reinforced leather and with weapons on their hips and a crimson sash with a twisting blue stripe in the middle was over their left shoulder and went down around to their right hip. The smaller of the two, whose shoulder had a patch marking him as a basic city guard spoke with a great deal of anger, "What's all this yappin' and what're ya brats doin' down here?" Alkoris put on the most stupid grin he could muster, "We were told to grab breakfast. The sergeant pointed to the door and we went down the steps. We couldn't find the mess area though. Where is it, Guardsman?" The other man's eyes narrowed. As he turned to focus on Alkoris, the sash moved enough for all the kids to see a city guard patch showing him to be a corporal, "Right next to the courtyard... How'd you get past the guards at the ground level and then the ones above us?" "Walked right past. They didn't stop us none. Why? Are we not supposed to be down here?" "Not without sashes! Do you all know how lucky you are?" "Lucky? We've been walking around trying to find food..." "Better than some a the things down here usin' ya for food!" the guardsman all but shouted. "Ya didn't open none a them doors down the way did ya?" "They were locked..." "Of course they are locked!" the corporal snarled, yet his face showed obvious relief. "So you boys from the school, right?" Alkoris pulled at his cloak, "Yeah, we were pulled back after the street belched up steam and rock on those in the front and a bunch of buildings fell. We'd kind of like to eat and get back to the school..." "No, no you don't. Those taken back to the school are the unlucky ones. You all must come from loyal families..." "Not like Devkiln, or nothin'." Dario spoke up. Tazen joined in, "Yeah... Hey, maybe you know. Did we get Devkiln back from the caravan like we heard?" The corporal looked around nervously, moving down to where the hall branched off, while responding, "No. We now think someone from the caravan dressed like him to distract those trying to get to him... Master Tregasel is going to be furious from what we hear. He really wants the blade back." "He's got a real wicked blade. I always wanted to try it, but he said his dad would be super mad, so only Devkiln was allowed to use it. What about Guelech?" Alkoris asked with as much fake concern as he could force into his voice, noting both men seemed to be nervous and worried about Devkiln. "I haven't seen him since we marched out of the school. He wasn't hurt was he?" "Sorry, kid, he's dead," The corporal sighed. "Yet one more thing for Master Tregasel to be angry about. I sure wouldn't want to be any of those who were in his barracks who lived..." "They should a know ta protect him," Dario spoke while looking down so he could hide the glint he knew was in his eyes. "If ya shows us were they is I'll put a fist inta them..." "They are at the school with the others who are in a world of hurt." The corporal sighed, "But you all need to get some chow and get your assignments." The man pointed in the direction he had come from, "Second left will get you to the steps you all came down, then go right until you see the steps up. Don't be dawdling, either. No opening any doors on your way up and get up and stay up top. Won't be too long till there be some screaming and crying from the cells up there since the Gloom Fire sent over a couple of Mystics." He then grabbed Alkoris by the ear, and twisted it. "Seems like you are the group leader, boy. If I see any of you down here again, I'll beat your ass with the flat of my blade till it starts bleeding and stick all of you butts on snow duty with no rest until the storm stops, got me?" At this all the other kids nodded, even as Alkoris managed to hiss out in pain, "Won't happen again Corporal!" "Good, but since you'll be wandering around here like lost puppies, you must not have gotten the words. Get one of these on." The corporal pulled at the sash. "You'll find a barrel of them in wood shed next to the well." Sibler couldn't help himself, he looked up, "Why?" The guardsman moved up and smacked Sibler hard on the back of the head, "Because you's told! But don't care none if ya gets ate 'er not!" The corporal moved up with some concern, "You OK, kid?" Sibler wiped at the back of his head, somewhat surprised it wasn't bleeding and even more astonished he hadn't been knocked to the floor. With frown and only a trace of tears in his eyes turned and glared at the corporal. "My sister hits harder." Seeing he partner turn red and step forward with his arm raised, the corporal moved to intercept while snarling, "Peffen, you really think it is a good idea to be hitting kids allowed in this keep, kids with good armor, spell book, a Mystic cloak along with Blue Steel and Silver Steel weapons? Are you nuts?" The guard stopped cold, but stared at Sibler with rage-filled eyes. "You get me stuck in one of those cells, Peffen, I will rearrange your face as many times as I can before they do whatever they decide would be best for hurting a kid we really knew we shouldn't." "We don't even know 'em none!" Tazen stepped forward, "Name's Dorwald, but hey, come over and hit me, too. I'll ask to watch what they do to you, and I'll cheer while they do it..." The guard noticeably gulped even as he dug into his pouch and pulled out a silver and three copper. He quickly pushed the coins into Sibler's hand, “Sorry kid, but ya ain't allowed down here none..." Alkoris nodded, "Sorry, 'bout messing up. How about you forget we did and I'll make sure Kaddo forgets you hit him?" The guard nodded while taking a step back. To add to the effect, Alkoris reached over and lightly cuffed Sibler, "Kaddo, give me the coins; keeping 'em is just mean. None of us need silver and copper!" "He hit me..." "Yeah, well you mouthed off and he is a city guard," Alkoris took the coins out of Sibler's hands. "If you really can't get over it, tell your old lady Guardsman Peffen hit you. I'm sure she'll make sure it never happens again." Alkoris had to fight off any hint of a grin as he moved up the guard and handed the four coins back. The guy didn't even know Kaddo's mom and was about to dirty his loincloth. This gave him an opening, however, so he took it. As he spun away from the guards, bumping in to both. Alkoris then jerked his head, "Come on guys, I'm hungry!" As soon as he got to the top of the steps he looked down to make sure those below hadn't realized they had been pilfered, then smiled. He checked the door, noted it was a heavy bronze-bound wood door with an internal lock at the end of a hall. A look through the keyhole allowed him to see another door about five meters in front and there were no guards in the hall. He made sure all the others got through the door at the top of the stairs, then turned and went through five keys before finding the right one. With a smirk, he locked the door then pulled up on the bronze key till it broke off in the lock. "Unless one of them is a real good Lockmaster... And even better neither of them with a war hammer or axe, so getting through this door with what they have will take..." He snickered, "A real long time." He tested the door. Then, while grinning widely, he tossed Sibler the corporal's pouch. "There was way more coins in this one." Sibler caught the pouch with wide eyes, "You stole the keys and pouch?" Tazen busted with some giggles, "Robber guild, Sibler. It's what he does." "And I do it soooooo well!" Alkoris teased while giving Tazen a light shove. "But..." Sibler stated weakly, while holding the fairly heavy pouch out as if totally uncomfortable with having it "But you got hit," Tazen moved over and patted the boy on the back. "Funny comment by the way. Your sister hits harder... nice one." With a troubled sigh, Sibler took a breath and added the pouch to his belt, "He is a mean jerk." "Mean 'er not. He popped ya hard 'nough to hear," Dario shook his head with some admiration. "Had ta hurt and ya didn't even cry none." At this Sibler spoke up, "Dario, all three of us are whipping boys. It will take way more than one hard hit to make us cry!" At this both Kaznal and Yarnay nodded while smiling. Seeing both Dario and Alkoris staring at him, Sibler shrugged, "I am up to at least ten lashes before I start crying... unless one of the guards uses the strap, then four or five at the most... three if they go for the back of the legs." "Yes," Yarnay nodded with a shiver, "those still really hurt!" "Uh, huh," Kaznal agreed, "but the sooner the tears are real the faster the commander calls for a stop, so I would almost prefer the legs at this point. Taking six or seven to the butt, then having to sit in the wagon is no fun at all." "So ya really gets beat fer some other brat?" Dario asked with a sour face. Kaznal nodded, "It is what we were indentured to do and be. I live way better as a whipping boy than a farm peasant would. I am also getting trained... Um, well maybe am now. I do not think the guilds will be happy if I can pass a Primary test before I turn ten though." "What about me and Secondary!" Tazen joked. "If what the commander said is true, you will not be the youngest." Sibler stated. "Someone is younger than fourteen years and is Secondary?" "I'm Human equivalent of thirteen years and am pretty sure I am." Yarnay jumped in, "The commander says there are two younger, who are way into Secondary." "I'm not believin' it none, till me gets ta meet 'em and see with me own eyes!" Dario snorted, "But let's get out a here before them start pounding on this door with their light maces." "Bronze light maces," Alkoris snickered. "They'll die of starvation or stumble across the secret door before they get through this door with what they have. But Dar's right. Let's get out of here and see if we can grab some of those shoulder cloth things." "Sashes," Kaznal and Sibler corrected the Halfelf at the same time. "Shoulder cloth, sash, whatever," Tazen tossed up his hands. "If it stops us from something chewing on us, I want one!" "I'm with him," Dario stated. "I eat meat, not meat for gettin' ate." Yarnay looked over as Alkoris first tried the door then went back to the keys. "What if you broke off the key for this door?" "Then I pick it or Ty spells it." Alkoris grinned as he found one of the keys turned the tumblers, "Have to do it the boring way this time, though. If there are guards, we were sent down to help Peffen move stuff in the lower cellar we saw with all those crates and barrels before we were allowed to eat." "You talk we'll follow," Tazen ordered. Alkoris finished turning the key, then pulled the door open. Four guards turned while gabbing for weapons. All four slowed as their eyes took in the group of boys, but all still finished pulling what they had on their belts. Alkoris leaned away. Looking fearful was not terribly difficult when staring four city guards all in bronze chain shirts, heavy shields, two with heavy maces, one with a battle axe, the other with a broadsword and all wearing the red sashes. It didn't make him any happier to see one of the maces and the broadsword were Human steel. His skinned itched thinking about it. He held up both hands while taking a step back into Tazen. "Whoa... whoa... easy guys!" The man with the axe spoke up, "Boy, where do ya think you are goin'?" Alkoris pointed down the passage, "To breakfast..." The man with the sword eyed the kids with a deep frown. "No one but Corporal Grakel and a guardsman are supposed to be down there! What were you doing down there?" "Stacking crates and moving barrels in the store room. We weren't allowed up until Guardsman Peffen was happy..." "Get you butts back down there..." "But I have keys..." The man smacked the blade into his gauntleted hand as he moved up moved up, "Like I give a shit! I said..." Next to Tazen, Sibler blinked as he heard what the man was thinking. "You are not sticking anything up my butt nor feeding me to a Life Husk, whatever it is!" The guy's eyes went wide, "How did you..." Even as he spoke he reached out to grab Sibler. "Screw this!" Tazen snarled as he realized these four weren't planning to let them go anywhere and one of them was going to seize Sibler if he didn't react. With a quick and smooth pull, he drew the magical short sword Glaster hand loaned him and went low, under the man's hand. The guy tried to bring his shield around, but it was way too late. The blade pierced his left leg right where the leg met the hip, just under his chain shirt. His lightly armored leather britches did nothing to protect him. The thrust went all the way into the bone, slid off the ball at the top of the leg bone, and came out the back of the leg. He let out a pained gasp even as he swung his shield wildly. But again he was too late. Tazen saw the shield angling toward his head so he kept moving forward, ducking and spinning, while ripping the sword out of the man's leg. The resulting cut, sliced all the muscle connecting the front and side of the leg to the hip along with tendons and ligaments. Tazen's knowledge as a Healthman told him the guy was all but done even before the leg buckled, unable to support any weight. Instead of worrying about the Swordsman, he angled right toward the man with the Human Steel mace, knowing he didn't want his best friend to get hit with anything made of iron. Sibler, on the other hand, had somehow heard what the guy was thinking of doing to him and even saw a glimmer of the picture the guy had in his mind. There was no way he was going to allow the man to lay a hand on him if he could help it. To this end he yanked out the light mace one of the older boys had found on all the bodies in the rubble and slammed it down into the man's face before the guy could focus. The nicely made and balanced Blue Steel weapon sunk in as facial bones shattered, cutting the man's howls off before they could really get started. Dario noticed the axe armed guard was about to bring his shield down on Sibler, so he slammed his bronze axe into the wooden shield, deflecting the blow away from Sibler and cracking it some, but found his axe had sunk in too far to easily pull out. All it took was for the man to yank his shield arm back to pull the axe handle out of Dario's grasp. However, this left the shield heavier and badly unbalanced, so the guy had a difficult time turning it to use it for protection. Alkoris noticed the guy struggle to bring the shield with Dario's axe stuck into it back into a defensive position. He used the opening to his fullest advantage. He shoved his captured Silver Steel shod staff over Dario's shoulder and into the man's chest, then pushed forward with everything he had. The man stumbled back, tripped over his fallen comrades discarded broadsword, and fell back against the wall. In the very back of the group, Tyndall extended his hand, cupped his other hand around the back of his extended one and spoke a trio of words. A burst of flame erupted out, striking the fallen man dead center in the chest and igniting the padded tunic under his chain shirt. The guard shouted in pain and fear while ripping the shield off his arm. He tossed it at Ty with everything he could muster, then rolled while frantically trying to smack out the flames on the tunic under his armor. Tyndall saw the shield coming and closed his eyes. Right in front of him, Kaznal heard the older boy say, "Aww crap..." followed by an 'Oooofff'. He glanced over to see Ty fall back while gripping at his upper chest. Dario pulled his back-up weapon, a Gnome Steel dagger even as he looked back over his shoulder. "Check on him! We gots this!" He then shoved the dagger into the burning guard's exposed butt as the guy rolled again, buried it to the hilt, and left it there. Even as the guy let out a scream and reached back at the hilt of the dagger protruding from his right butt check, Dario dove and snagged the dropped broadsword. Alkoris stepped up, saw the dagger's hilt sticking up and stomped on it with everything he had. The guard's back arched and he started shaking even as one hand tried to put out flames while the other grabbed for the dagger again. "Nope, it's right where it belongs." Alkoris stated with a sinister grin before he brought his foot down on it a second time. At this point the pain became too much. The guy blacked out even as flames and blazing material caused a glowing effect on the chain shirt. By this point Tazen had gotten past the back two guards and parried a swing from the Human Steel mace. The Primary Echelon Swordsman showed some skill and strength as he slammed Tazen in the shoulder, leaving him with an arm without full movement. It wasn't horrible, but he was sure it would hurt a lot worse in the morning. On the other hand, the use of the shield for a weapon left a little bit of an opening and Tazen took it, slicing the guy's left cheek. The guard snarled, lowered his stance, braced his shield, and tossed the offending teen back away from him, but boy didn't even fall. His eyes narrowed as he moved forward and swung. As the kid ducked under, he adjusted his attack and used the fist wrapped around the hilt of the mace to pop the boy in the face. The problem was, the kid wasn't nearly as affected as he planned, and this left his arm exposed. Tazen made a growling sound as the fist slammed into his face just below his right eye. However, he spotted a flaw in his opponent. With his offhand, he pulled a dagger and drug it down the inside of the man's shield arm, along where it was strapped to the inside of the shield. Most of it was blocked by the chain shirt, but as the blade ran down, the end dropped off at the wrist, it opened a nasty gash on the man's wrist and onto his hand. Had the shield not been strapped on, the guy would have certainly dropped it, but as it was the man yanked his shield back with a hiss of pain. The edge of the shield knocked the dagger out of Tazen's hand, but other than leaving him with stinging fingers, he was able to back off with no problem. The drips of blood hitting the floor coming from behind the shield told him the exchange had been worth it. The man's shield use wouldn't be nearly as good. It also cut down on further shield bashes, since each hard hit would only cause the Swordsman more blood loss. While all this was going on, the other man quickly put his back to his fellow guard so both had their backs protected. He moved fluidly, keeping the shield up. He easily blocked a tossed dagger from Yarnay and a Sand Burst Autospell from Sibler even as he did so he spoke to his partner, "Careful, the little shit with the heavy sandy-colored mop's a spell thrower!" "Well, kill him, then!" The other man stated while just barely managing to deflect Tazen's swing with his shield "This kid's fully guilded! I really gots my hands full here!" Dario moved up with the broadsword on the other guard only to have his swing blocked. He then ended up on his rear with a badly bloodied lip as the man shield bashed him, then stepped on his leg. This left Dario trying to scramble back to his feet on a leg with a knot in it. It would have been much worse, but Alkoris moved up and parried the man's swing on Dario's leg even as his freind fought to stand. This allowed Dario to roll well out of the way. Since he was on the ground, Dario reached over and pulled his dagger out of the mortally injured guard's backside and threw it. The throw was poor, so the blade didn't hit, but the weapon bouncing off the guy's shin still hurt and put him slightly off balance. Kaznal, who was beside Tyndall, saw this and went for broke. He jumped up, ran straight at the guy, and dove. The man looked up to see a kid in ill-fitting Dwarven chain armor leap over his fallen comrade, while swinging a light mace at him. He brought up the shield and knocked the smallest of group into a wall, but already being off balance, he stumbled into his friend's back. This pushed the guard facing Tazen right at the boy. Tazen didn't really see what had happened, but he sure saw the guy lurch forward clearly unexpectedly. He adjusted his attack. Instead of swinging, he ducked under the shield and did a straight in thrust. There was some resistance as the tip of the magical blade poked into the bronze chain, but the thrust was dead center and had both Tazen's forward thrust and the push the guard got into his back behind it. The blade sunk in between ribs and went right through the man's right lung before the tip stopped at the chain links meant to protect the man's back. He fell forward, blood pouring from his mouth, further impaling himself. He reached out to grab at the blade in his chest only to feel it be swiftly and professionally removed. All this did was cause him to lose all four fingers on his right hand as the backward motion sliced them clean off. He fell face first into a pool of his own blood. The last guard turned just in time to see his buddy's fingers scatter over the ground. With rage and fear pouring through him, he made a wild swing at Tazen with his mace, while blocking Dario's attempt to slash him with the broadsword. It was an easy block since the kid was limping and wasn't able to put full power into the swing. However, he didn't take into account Kaznal, who, while a little battered, found himself amazingly well protected from the shield and his impact with the stone wall by the Dwarven chain. If anything, the uncomfortable cloth Dario and Tazen had stuffed in the loose spots, provided extra padding. He jumped back up and swung his light mace into the back of last man's knee. The man let out a string of curses as he went down to one knee. He brought his shield up to block a swing by Tazen, while launching his elbow back at Kaznal. He followed this up with a weapon pummel into Dario's already sore leg. The kid backed off wincing badly. The elbow shot hit Kaznal in the chest which knocked him back into the wall, but once again, while it hurt, he had felt much worse. For in his mind there was nothing as bad as getting a strap over his backside for Mylan after his charge broke his mother's favorite crystal bird when he tossed a pillow at Lylan in the sitting room. In fact, Kaznal wasn't even stunned by the elbow. On the other hand, he had always kind of dreamed of the day he would be able to strike back at someone who had hit him, and this was a great chance! He moved up and dropped his mace right on top of the guy's head, splitting it wide open. Really not wanting to get tossed into a wall a third time, and getting some momentary satisfaction of finally being able to hit someone back, he pulled it up and did it again, and again, and again... He would have certainly continued, but Dario pulled him back, even while shaking his leg to get more feeling and blood flow back into it. "Aw, little guy, stop! Yer splatterin' blood all over the place! Geesh!" Dario pushed Kaznal back, then pulled the sash off of guard Tazen had all but removed the leg of. He spent a few moments to wipe a few splashes of blood off his cheek before moving over to Kaznal. With a rather revolted look, he pulled out his water skin, got the sash wet and started wiping Kaznal's face and hair. Seeing the tyke start to pull away, Tazen moved up and grabbed him so Dario could continue. At the same time this allowed Alkoris to step up and pour about half his own water skin over the boy. All three backed off and scrunched their noses as Kaznal shook his head wildly to get rid of some of the still red-tinged water, then reached up and cast a Dry Autospell on himself. He then shot Dario a dirty look. Before he could do or say anything Tazen pointed at him in warning, "Commander told me to take care of you all and put me in charge. Just don't." Kaznal frowned deeply, "Do not, what?" "Whatever you were about to do or say," Alkoris stated with a half-grin half-cringe, even as he moved down to where the hall came to a 'T'. He looked both ways. "Doors at both ends, and no sounds. If anyone was close they had to have heard all this though." Dario moved up to the shield and tried to get his axe out a couple of times before he gave up. Tazen snickered and grabbed the dead guard's axe. "This one's Silver Steel, Dar, forget about your bronze one!" "But I..." Tazen rolled his eyes, moved up, stepped on the shield and wiggled the axe out. "Here, but the other is way better." "Yea, I know. But this still be mine and now me's got a back-up." "You know," Alkoris quipped while doing his best to ignore the dead guards, "most people carry a smaller backup or something with a different attack style, not carry two of the same primary weapon." "But I'm best with a axe." "Then why did the guy pull it out of your hand, Dario?" Yarnay asked as he moved back to check on Tyndall. Seeing Dario put his hands on his hips and glare at Yarnay, Tazen busted up with laughter, "Be pissed off all you want, Dar, the little guy's got a great point." Dario took a few angry breaths while trying to stem the flow of blood from of his badly split lip and testing his leg. Seeing the others all looking back at him with smirks he spit out some blood and grabbed the sheath of the broadsword and stuck it over the back of his pack, "There! Happy?" Kaznal muttered something softly causing Alkoris to bust up in a fit of laughter "WHAT?" Dario shouted. "Nothing," Alkoris managed to get out between laughs, while putting an arm around Kaznal and giving him a tight, friendly, squeeze. "Nothin' my ass," Dario grumbled while motioning for Tazen to look at his lip. Tazen looked back, "Ty, you OK?" "Nasty blow to the upper chest," Tyndall muttered. He winced and rubbed his sternum, "I just knew it was going to hurt when he tossed the shield at me... I just knew it!" "Then you should have ducked," Sibler noted as he looked at the bodies and decided the men in fact wouldn't need their pouches at this point and he really didn't have many coins other than the pouch Alkoris stole for him. Besides the corporal's pouch, he had just a few copper out of the pouch of the student whose armor he was wearing. He knew the other whipping boys were in the same situation. At least this wasn't quite the same as stealing... The comment cheered up Dario who couldn't help but nod, "I's got ta agree with Sib, Ty." Tazen spoke up, "Alk, keep an eye on those doors. Dar, I'll be with you as soon as I check on Ty." Yarnay held up his hand "I think I can take care of this, Tazen." "OK..." Tazen stated with a long drawl even as he moved over to Dario while pressing the hilt of his recovered dagger up to the bump just under his eye, knowing the cold metal would cut back on swelling. At the same time Kaznal moved up to Dario, "Let me try. I think I am good enough now." Tazen shrugged and backed off, fingering his Healthman pouch and watching both small boys. After just over a minute a glow erupted from Yarnay's hands and flowed into Ty. The teen had a momentary look of even worse pain, but then he patted his chest and looked over with wide eyes, "I think I owe a donation at the next Tallis shrine... if I ever get any coin... um, thanks kid!" "Here," Sibler called out even as he tossed one of the guard's pouches over. "Now you do." This caused Alkoris to nod in approval. "Much better Sib! I bet I could make a Lockmaster out of you..." "Don't even think about it," Tazen warned. "The one field he will not let anyone use without permission is Lockmaster, and the kid he has as an apprentice has been told Lockmaster is like the only Subfield he can't ask to get training in. I'm not about to let any of these three learn those skills and have to explain it to the commander. Ain't no way." A few seconds later Kaznal's fingers shimmered and he reached out and touched Dario's lip. The blood stopped, where the teen had bit in closed, and most of the swelling went away. At the same time, Dario was able to fully extend his leg without it cramping up on him. Dario tapped at his lip and nodded before reaching out and ruffling Kaznal's hair, "I'm thinkin' I owes Avgon a coin 're two. Just a bit sore. Ways ta go little guy!" "We can only do two a day..." Kaznal looked over to Yarnay, “at least I can do two.” "Yes, same here. But they will not always work. We will get better as we go up in Echelon. I cannot believe we are really Primary!" "How do you think us being Primary will work with us being whipping boys." "Knowing the commander," Sibler snorted, "he will just have the guards hit us harder to make up for it. I am sure our charge's father will." "And there is my luck summed up in a strap." Kaznal stated with a roll of his eyes and a slightly forced grin showing he really didn't take it too personally. "Tazen, I can try to fix you..." "Just a few bruises, I'm fine. We may need those Channeler healings for something worse later. Hold on to them for now. You sure you are OK? He tossed you back in the wall a couple of times, Kaz." "I have been strapped worse by one of the female servants," Kaznal grinned. "All it did was make me mad and be happy I could hit back. Most of the time I have to drop my britches and thank them for it afterwards." "Hate to say it, but I'm glad it's you three and not me. Now, take what you want and move. We need to get out of here before these jerks are found." Tazen ordered. “We'll have time to joke around once we are out of the city." Sibler shook his head, "They are.. were... the only ones down this far. They were to stop anything from coming up from below. There are some other guards behind a set of bronze-bound double doors just around the corner from the steps we were told to take to go up. Something really bad is going on the other side. And there are prisoner cells through the other door. There is at least one Mystic in there... The one you cut the leg of wanted to take me there... and do nasty things..." "How could you know all of this?" Tyndall asked a great deal of skepticism. "I saw it..." Sibler pointed to the middle of his forehead, "in here." "You a mind talker?" Alkoris asked. "No..." Kaznal looked over, "But your mother is, right?" Sibler let out a long breath, "Uh, huh. Mother is the whole reason I am a whipping boy. She heard... felt... whatever a Mindmaster does... Um, well Mother knew Lylan did not like the boy his father picked out to be his whipping boy... she came up and offered me, saying she could feel Lylan not liking the selected boy when Lylan was throwing a temper tantrum in front of the inn we were walking by... So Lylan's guard took me over and... as soon as the deal was struck, I got my first thrashing for Lylan's outburst. I do not know if Mother got into his head and made him feel bad about it, or if he really did, but he did, or at least pretended to." "So when he acts up you get popped?" Tyndall asked with a cringe. "Yes... A couple of times a week." "At least!" Kaznal spoke up. "Way more than I get because of Mylan." "Yeah, but when Mylan messes up, he tends to really do it right... um, or wrong!" Kaznal couldn't argue. With a sigh, he looked around at the others, "Oh, it is way more wrong, trust me. I know Sibler gets like three more times what I get, but I tend to get double what he gets when I get it. At least Mylan is real nice and tries not to get in trouble for a while after, and he helps me with chores for a day or so after. But, Sibler, we have all heard from the guards how you have a Mind Witch for a mother, so they are always careful to never let you close when there is dukedom business. And you know they said if it comes out it will be at a bad time, like when getting punished..." "I know... I have heard it over and over. If I am one I will find out, probably between my seventh and eleventh year... So maybe it is starting. I do not know if I really am one, but I really did see what he was wanting to do to me and he was afraid of what things were going on behind the double doors. It made my head feel all prickly, too. I am supposed to tell a guard if it starts..." He looked down at the still smoldering guard, "It happened." He looked up with a smirk, "There, I kept my word. I told a guard." While Dario snickered and Alkoris patted Sibler on the back, Tazen slapped his forehead, "There is something wrong with you... Come on, let's go." The group made their way to the steps, but as the others started to go up, Yarnay took a step back. Alkoris noticed almost instantly, "What's wrong?" "We were told to get word out about what is going on. What if... what if what we need to know about is down here?" "Yar," Tazen spoke with a scolding voice, "we just killed four guards and locked two more in the basement. We really need to get out of here. Come on!" Alkoris held up his hand, "Taz, the little guy's right. If we get out now, what do we know?" "The city has been taken over and lots of the guards are behind it!" "Pretty sure the commander already knows," Kaznal stated blandly. "He did kill a lot of them... like half an army..." Tazen looked around, only to see the others, even Tyndall and Dario cocking their head in Yarnay's direction. "Aw, shit... I am going to live to regret this... or die and be super pissed off at all six of you jackasses!" Glaster reentered his body and sat up, causing both Chark'ash and the judge to turn and look at him. He didn't give either a chance to speak. "Judge Andreus, get everyone up. We need to be ready to move within the quarter of the hour. Chark, armor up, get Rylan and prep the captives for travel. Allow them nightshirts, but keep them in chains!" Judge Andreus stood and moved to the tent flap, "Where should I tell the wagon drivers to point the wagons?" "To the portal I am about to open. When it appears, they are to drive through. We will need guards next to the animals should they spook." Even as Chark'ash pulled on the padded undershirt so he could slip into the bronze chain shirt Glaster had found for him in the caravan gear, he spoke up, "You cannot open a gate big enough for a wagon..." "You are correct. As close as we are to the rupture point I do not even think I can open one big enough for me. However, this one is getting some otherworldly augmentation. Now, boy, unless you want to get a much quicker and rougher introduction into your night duties to me, you will get the others moving and secure the captives for travel before I get the gate open!" Chark'ash quickly held up both hands to signify his total compliance before pulling up britches, stuffing his feet into fur-lined boots and wiggling the chain shirt over himself. Even as he secured the dagger and hip sword Glaster had furnished him with, Glaster's young Mystic apprentice came in to start packing the belongings inside the tent. Glaster reached down and grabbed Perth, "Just secure everything within the wagon so there is no breakage. We will gate in as close as possible but will still have a ride and drive through a forest, because the magic flow where we are going is too strong to open a gate to our final destination even with the help I am going to get. Because of this, make sure nothing can fall out of the wagons and all easily broken items are surrounded in layers of cloth! You will be given time to properly pack it all at a later time! Move boy! Move!" However, even as Glaster quickly got into his own gear he glanced over to Chark'ash, "I see just by the how quickly you are able to get into armor and the way you are wearing the armor and weapons you have a great deal more training than I first detected. If you truly are as comfortable with the blade as you appear to be, feel free to secure better weapons out of my trade goods in the third wagon back. Take only what you can use and carry properly into combat, but because of your royal status, I give to you whatever you take." "Does this include one of the sets of Elvin Silver Steel chain armor and throwing daggers?" "If those are preferred combat equipment to you, by all means. However, Chark, this does not mean I am releasing you from your servitude to me. All this means is you, as a Drow prince, are getting what is my duty as the holder of your contract to provide, just as would to any member of royalty." "I fully understand, Commander." Chark'ash gave a slight bow, "Commander, do you have a good sling?" "Sling?" Glaster asked with a cock of his head, "I have a whole case of them in the back of the fourth wagon... Chark, I have bows and crossbows in the main armament wagon..." "I am very proficient with a sling, Commander. I will, however, take a bow if you would prefer." "No, take what you feel best. If you really prefer a sling, it is your choice. Should you want practice with a bow, take both. Actually, as I consider this, I would prefer you take both. Slings are... not up to the standards of a prince and I do not want to appear to have under-equipped a child of your social stature. However, should you really decide on a sling, I strongly recommend you take some decent ammunition. I have a large locked box under the seat of my fifth wagon with odds and ends." He tossed the boy a key. "Inside are a dozen pouches with a score of Silver Steel sling bullets in each. I had them made for the high royalty and whipping boys in hopes of finding some Skeletons or Zombies for them to deal with. This way they could see the difference between using silver and non-silver bullets against low undead. Use them only for undead, but do not be afraid to use them." Chark'ash secured the key in his hand even as he looked at the man with a raised eyebrow. "Question?" “Commander, far be it for me, your indentured servant, to question you. However, taking them against undead?" Glaster managed a slight grin, "Your feelings about me taking the high royalty and their whipping boys to deal with undead, mirrors my thoughts on you selecting a sling for you primary ranged weapons. Now go secure real gear and be prepared to use any or all of it." "Thank you, Commander. However, I feel as your servant I should tell you..." He paused for a moment as he considered his words, "Commander, I think you will find I can damage undead without the Silver Steel bullets, but they will make what I can do a great deal more deadly. I will make sure the box is relocked and get the key back to you." Glaster nodded, then paused and frowned as the young teen equivalent Drow rushed out of the tent. "I will need to work on his understanding of undead, for yes, you can damage low undead without silver, but beyond the minor, you need silver or magic..." He shrugged, "Perth, I want you in the reinforced leather I had made for you before we go, as well as the light Silver Steel mace and Blue Steel dagger. This could be dangerous. Because of this, I ask you to remember what little training I have been able to provide and take as few risks as possible. I want not a blemish on your skin, so should you feel the need, get and stay behind me." "Where are we going?" "To see a dead Dragon, Perth. To see a dead Dragon and a boy I love with all my heart... A boy who may well be out of my reach; a boy you are the replacement for." {A whole lot of folks} Vondum moved up to one of the Silver Warrior Dragons, "You! You look to be recovering from the Dragon death quickly. Can you fly and if so, have you had a rider?" "Yes to both, General." The Dragon lowered itself. "Hop on, but keep in mind I am not a Black. The front edge of my wings are a great deal more fluid and the scales along the leading edge shift as I fly. They are quite capable of cutting skin..." "Understood, I will keep forward of them. Do you have a preference on foot placement and where I hold your back ridge?" "The longer spines are better for holding onto, since, like my wings and other lead surfaces, they all naturally shift in flight. Boots right under my larger neck guard scales is a nice feeling for me while giving you a better grip. This snow and wind will be nasty. I recommend you keep your head down." "In boot placement, you and Ornam are similar, and believe me, I have every intention of letting you look forward while I spend most of my time looking back to keep your flank well watched." Before more could be said the Silver Warrior flapped its wings hard and jumped, taking it nearly straight up. This forced Vondum to hold on and adjust since he was expecting a slow lift with a hard-forward running movement. "General, careful..." Vondum quickly adjusted to the flight, finding the Silver was tricky to ride because so many of the scales shifted, but he was impressed with the rapid rate of climb combined with forward speed. "Not the liftoff I was expecting. I am fine. What is your name?" "San'i-sar, General. Should you ride any other Silvers, expect the same. Because of our wings’ flexibility we have to jump to get more air under us or our wing-tips hit the ground. We can still get into the air, but it is quite painful for us." "Good information, thank you San'i-sar." Vondum took a few seconds to look around. He quickly noted three other Silver Warriors, only one with a rider flying a pattern, but making sure San'i-sar was in the lead. Below, he could scarcely make out scores of Griffins in formation. Well behind and further down, the shapes of other Dragons could barely be made out in the blowing snow, even though some of them had riders with light sources. He frowned, "San'i-sar, we are moving way faster than the others. We need to keep a more disciplined formation." "We and the Griffins can fly much better in the snow and ice General. I can go down and have the Griffins slow so the others Dragon races can keep up. Some will still have to land at least once to get ice build-up off wings. Also, do me a favor and keep moving, you can build-up ice and catch snow in front of you if you stay still. Should this happen my maneuverability will be reduced." “Do so, but get the attention of the other Silver with the rider. He should take the lead. We will trail and keep watch along our flanks... As long as you are OK with this..." San'i-sar shouted out to the other Silvers, then dove giving Vondum a gut flipping dive as he did so. He leveled out next to the lead Griffin rider. This let Vondum give orders before San'i-sar spiraled back up at an impressive rate of speed and fell to the back of the formation above all the others. "I will take all this as you not having a problem with my commands." "General, we heard the field reports of you for a very long time. You are well known to most Dragon races as a feared rider with an eye for command. Some say you have been riding Dragons for decades, but you do not seem to age..." "I have access to magic to keep me vibrant, so yes, I have been around for longer than most Humans. As far as an eye for command, being selected to be an officer in the Black Dragon Homeland as a teen, I really was not given much choice but to learn under fire. My first years as an officer was in the Troll War. Pushing the Forest Trolls out of the Jade Glade." "A nice addition to the Black Dragon Homeland." "Prince Bassork offered to vacate most of the land we took. Of course, we all knew the Duchy of Duchess Vanorra would be put in a very bad position if we did give the land back, because we boxed the Trolls in on three sides, and we told her we would pull out of the north side first, which would have opened up her already tattered Duchy to the remainder of the Trolls, while cutting her off from other allies. So of course she offered up most of the land in agreement for a defensive treaty. The Black Dragon Homeland now taxes all goods going to and from her lands, so she is nothing more than a semi-independent duchess to the Black Dragon Homeland and her people live under most of the taxation laws of the Black Dragons." San'i-sar snickered causing all the scales along his back to shift in odd directions. This forced Vondum to dig his boots in harder while grabbing two of the spines, but he refused to complain. In his way of thinking this was a new challenge and gave him a reason for a slight smile. To San'i-sar's credit, he grinned in satisfaction over knowing the man had slipped some, but didn't complain. The guy was as tough and determined as the rumors said he was. The fact Vondum was moving back and forth across his back, told him the man was either enjoying the flight or was totally fearless, probably both. However, he had someone in the know on his back, so he was not above trying to get information, "How will the Black Dragon Civil War affect Vanorra?" "Good question. One I do not have an answer to," Vondum admitted. "Her daughter took over several years ago, and has kept with the treaty. However, with her now being seen as a Prince Bassork pawn, she is technically an enemy of Prince Bandurlok. She is in a very bad spot. If she tries to break off, Prince Bassork's armies are likely to move in and take it, forcing what is left to fight for him. If she stays allied to him, Prince Bandurlok will certainly try to break the thin northern border and if it was me, let the Trolls take care of her for him. At the very least she will be forced to fight the Trolls off, which will still deprive Prince Bassork of Vanorran allies. If it was me, and I will advise those with Prince Bandurlok's ear, the best solution to the Vanorran problem would be to quickly smash the northern lines and let Vanorra burn. Its remnants can be picked up and claimed in full after Prince Bassork is dead or in hiding." "And there is why you are indeed a general. You see how to defeat enemies without even fighting them. I am glad to have you on our side." "Thank you, but sooner or later, with this new alliance, Silver Dragons will be expected to help Prince Bandurlok in taking the throne of the Black Dragon Homeland. How do you feel about this?" "If it helps us stop the incursion of the Whites into the Silver Dragon Homeland, we will support it with everything we can muster. We have been on the defensive for over two centuries. We could use someone with your tactical and strategic mind to turn things around up north." "With my slave looking to gain his freedom and my favorite Black Dragon interested in taking the boy as his rider, I may well be interested as long as I can keep my slaves, have access to my private base on the Silver Spine Plateau... And I would also like to be able to take you into battle and keep my new title as general within the greater alliance. It would also not hurt my feelings to go down to Vanorra and pick up some slaves and other loot before the land is tamed by Prince Bandurlok again." "To have you on our side, those are very reasonable terms, General, and I would be honored to have you as my rider for as long as you would like. Once we are done down here, I will see to it you get an audience with Prince Millen." One of the other Silver Dragons swooped down, "General, there are two Warrior Dragons with multiple riders moving fast to the south. They have to be Whites or Silvers at the speed they are moving in this storm, and we know where all the Silvers are, sir!" "Our mission is to get to Premier Kandric," Vondum stated firmly. "However... Track them for as long as you are able without breaking formation. I will be only too happy to help you track them down and eliminate them once the matter with our Premier is handled." "Understood General," the Dragon stated with some frustration, but quickly banked back up without complaint. "San'i-sar, as soon as you are able, do me a favor and inform the other Silvers what I just said should not be seen as me trying to placate. I will do all I can to help you all track them down and send a message about where my allegiance lies. After all, I cannot allow my former Wilderness Scout to have all the fun." "I will be sure they know of your desire to help us. If what your friend, Ornam shouted out is correct, the blow Premier Kandric struck will send ripples of terror throughout the White Dragon Homeland, for without Prince Weraweld, their ability to overpower us will be greatly diminished." "I have been around Ornam for a long time. I have never once seen or heard one of his guesses about such things be off. If he said it was your feared enemy, then I assure you it is... was..." San'i-sar snorted, "Even as uneasy as I am about meeting this Premier, should what you say be true, I will be the first move up to him, bow and extend a paw in undying gratitude." Vondum laughed, "You may have to extend a claw so he can shake it, but I am certain he will." "We are about to find out, General, there is a glow coming from the middle of the lake down and to your left. The Griffins are all angling toward it, but the Dragons, me included, can see a figure with tremendous amounts of Dragon Gifting on the edge of the lake with others in the general area around him, all Dragon Gifted, but too much lesser extents." "Stay up until the others are down. Once we land, send two of your Silver friends back up to keep watch. There is no telling if those Whites will try to angle back this way." "I will do as you command, but they will only do so if they are suicidal, General. I have only seen Dragon Gifting twice before, but even the least of those below have double what I felt and saw in the others. The bright one... he must be our Premier... What I am seeing and feeling is beyond what I thought possible. He must have the Giftings not seen since the days of Rovnar!" Well below Vondum, Duke Mathard was only too happy to get off the Griffin the second it touched down in the center of the iced over lake. His short legs made staying on, even with a saddle and reins, nearly impossible. He figured on the short flight he came close to falling to his death half a dozen times. Jumping off onto the ice was more than a relief. It bordered on jubilation. Even as he easily found his footing on the extremely smooth surface, he could see the glow from under the thin layer of snow. He carefully made his way over to it, gracefully slipping and sliding on purpose the whole way, while also testing the ice. With as little snow as was on it, he was worried some areas might be soft, but it seemed to be granite hard. This only made him smile. Not far away, Princess Syrissia got off the Griffin she had been riding and her feet promptly went out from under her. She hit the ice hard. This caused the Griffin she had rode on to kneel, so she had something to grab onto to stand. It did little good. Her smooth-bottomed Mink Leopard boots simply had zero traction on such a surface and she was clearly not used to such a slick surface. She fell two more times in rapid succession. Mathard looked over, "Princess, your footwear is not suited to this. You may wish to get back on and have it fly you to the lake's edge. I will be with you shortly!" The Alphar princess gave Mathard an exasperated nod, even as she crashed into the ice a fourth time. By this point the Griffin was getting aggravated, so it lowered itself down so it was lying on the ice and all but shoved her on with its wing. With a hiss at having its wings grabbed and some feathers pulled out, it didn't give her a chance to get properly seated before it took off. It then did a hard spin causing her to cry out in fright. At the lake's edge Kandric heard the sound and drew his blade. The latest gifting was still very unsettled with in him, but he forced himself to stand, albeit with a bit of and wobble, while shouting out, "Guys! Weapons out! We have company!" Mathard heard the shout and moved his hips so he slid back over to his selected mount before he could figure out why there was a mound of ice on an otherwise glass smooth iced over lake, "There! Premier Kandric's voice! Everyone to the shore!" He then moved up to the Griffin he had ridden on, and spoke, "He says you can understand us, so how about you do me a favor and pull me over there while I hold onto the reins?" The beast's eagle's head turned and shook, even as Mathard found the long lion-like tail being placed in his hands. "You want me to hold on to your tail?" It nodded. "I do not want to hurt you..." Seeing what was an eagle-head version of the ultimate condescending look, Mathard held up both hands before reaching out to grab the tail as it was offered a second time. Moments later he was sliding along the ice on both feet. The experience as a boy playing with a kite on the ice served him well as he easily found his balance and enjoyed the ride. "Oh! The ice is smooth, my feet are slick, the snow it be a flying, wind be a crying, and me be a gliding!" Mathard sang out in joy before taking a deep breath and shouting, "Premier, it is Duke Mathard with Alphar Princess Syrissia! Stay your weapons if it pleases you! I shall be sliding to see you at the shore momentarily!" From up above, Princess Syrissia cried out in exasperation, "Duke Mathard, you are not here to play on the ice!" "Oh my fine Princess, where there is smooth ice and a way to be pulled across, there is always time for a moment or two of blissful joy while sliding on it!" "Duke!" Kandric shouted out in obvious joy. "Have fun, but beware! There still may be a White Dragon or two around." "Unlikely, Premier!" A voice shouted down in Dragon from above. "But should one show itself, we will be happy to take it down, unless you would prefer to do the honor!" Kandric looked up as a Silver Warrior Dragon with a Illorc on its back descend through the storm. It made a gentle landing about fifty meters away. Noting the Dragon was keeping a distance even as the Illorc made its way over Kandric frowned, "You can come on over!" "Good Premier, I... How about we wait for Duke Mathard to slide over and General Vondum to get here?" "Very well..." Kandric shrugged then smiled as he made out the figures of one of Monarch's camp guards. It was one of the first to congratulate Kandric after he had gutted the Illorc commander at Monarch's camp. "Sergeant Thymac! How was the ride?" The Illorc took a knee as it got close, "Me Premier, it be thrillin'! I's could does it over and over, me could! Warmer would be much nicer, though!" Kandric eyed the Silver Dragon with a sigh even as he staggered under the latest Dragon Gifting, "It sounds fun..." His thoughts were halted as Mathard came into view just as he let go of the Griffin's tail and used momentum to finish his slide across the lake. He came into the lake's edge fast, but easily made a hopping step and landed on the rocks with both feet, making it look much easier than the feat actually was. "Premier, I will leave flying to you longer legged folk. A good slide across the ice is plenty to get my blood pumping and far safer. After all, I have a low center which makes a good ice pull easy, while flying... not so much..." Kandric laughed even as he grabbed a tree to stay standing. "My Duke, I would be up for trying the ice as such speeds, but I must admit, I do not think I could do it with the same style as you!" Pike moved up rubbing his hand down his face and shaking his head as if trying to clear it, "Premier, in Winter Creek, kids take kites out on the big lake almost every winter day where there is good wind. We have races, and on a fine windy day it draws a good crowd. Then just as the temperatures warm, the surface ice melts during the day and freezes real smooth at night. Every year there is a series of races with a set of huge prizes. We start at sunup and go till the ice gets soft. The winners of each round go head to head in random draws. The contest lasts almost three weeks. Duke Mathard is the only Garm, only anyone, to have won five times and has eight second place finishes. He is legendry for his Ice-kiting!" Mathard gave a light bow, "I still go out with the kids a few times a year. It is just too much fun to let good wind and smooth ice go to waste!" Kandric scratched his chin, "My Duke, while it sounds fantastic... what is a kite?" Pike looked over with an open jaw, "You know, a kite!" Getting nothing but a raised eyebrow he frowned, "Come on! You tie sticks together to form a T, make a frame with other sticks, wrap cloth around it, tie it to a ball of twine and fly it..." Kandric shook his head while looking back and forth between Pike and Mathard, trying to see if they were teasing him. At the same time, Duke Mathard shot Pike a warning look, "Pike, you know better than to not use title, even when trying to give an explanation." "Sorry Premier..." "I do not care about a title Pike... Are you two pulling some kind of prank?" "No..." Duke Mathard looked over at Zeltoss who was leaning against a tree while trying to clear his head, "You! You surely know what a kite is!" Zeltoss rubbed his forehead, let out a long breath and blinked, "A kite? A kite it is a kind of shield with a point at the bottom instead of being round." "Uggg," Pike muttered, only to get a pop in the back of his head from Mathard, "sorry, but..." "My Duke, please do not hit him. He is with me, and I do not want him to have to tighten up and be all royal with me. He is our friend, not a servant or some underling. Besides, this Dragon gifting was a strong one, and we are all feeling it." "Regardless of what the circumstances, Pike knows better! He is with three knights and a Premier!" "So, if I knight him..." "His father will not be happy with me, since he will be well above his older siblings and even his father, but it will gain his entire family a great deal of prestige..." "Good, he is a knight. As soon as my guts stop flipping around inside me, I will let you do the ceremony. Right now I might accidently nick him with my blade since my whole body is kind of... goofy feeling..." "Good word, Premier." Pike stated. "I'll go with it," Zeltoss stated while still letting the tree support him, "but I must say there has to be a much stronger word... My stomach feels real strange, like something is running around inside it... with a club..." Vondum hopped off before San'i-sar fully landed. "Premier! Are you hurt?" "No Captain... Sorry, General," Kandric rubbed his forehead, and leaned over, "this one seems way harder to get over than the others... The magic flowing through me is... it is like it cannot all sink in but is trying to, or it is trying to escape, but is trapped, maybe both..." He stayed bent over as Mathard patted his back, "My Duke, thank you..." Kandric suddenly blinked and forced himself to stand almost straight, "General Vondum? Wait, what are you doing down here?" "Wow, much longer than I expected," Vondum snorted, trying to keep things as mellow as possible. "You must really be out of it, Premier." "I am still wearing a Wilderness Scout patch, General, I am your scout. You do not have to call me by any title." "Remember, when I took a spot as a general, I left my post as Captain of the Guard, Premier. I am now your general, even if you are one of Sy's independent Wilderness Scouts. Much more independent than scout, since Sy is not about to tell you much of anything, other than call you Premier, like the rest of us." "You know I really do not care what you call me, right?" Vondum laughed as he moved up and put an arm around Kandric. "Regardless, you are my Premier, so humor those below you and let me show you the respect you deserve. And stop being cranky. It is not Duke Mathard's or my fault you decided to kick the snot out of another Dragon or two." "Just one. Lorthorn, Zeltoss, and Jamon dropped the Warrior." Vondum looked around, "Speaking of Lorthorn, Sir Lorthorn where is he and Sir Seldnat?" Jamon came over, swaying back and forth as he did so, "They're trying to track down a Dragonling... We think it was the only one to get away... um, sorry, General. I am seeing blinky things in the corners of my eyes. It's hard to, um, see straight... For some reason Seldnat wasn't as bad, so Lorthorn agreed to go with him." "Jamon," Mathard spoke with a harsh undertone, "it is Sir Lorthorn and Sir Seldnat to you." "My Duke, I request you let it slide this time," Kandric all but pleaded. "Jamon is dealing with the same thing I saw shortly after the Ice Demon died back at General Vondum's camp." Kandric stated while leaning into Vondum, allowing the man to support him as he fought to regain full equilibrium. "I found by not keeping my eyes closed as much at first, and not blinking hard, even though it seems like it should be the right thing to do, they went away faster. I do not know about the twisting of my insides, though. It is like the first time I had a Slow Fall spell cast on me and Glaster pushed me off the cliff and laughed as I screamed." Mathard grinned, "Hey... there is something I have never done to my kids..." "Something else to get blamed for," Kandric grumbled, "great." Mathard snickered, "Blame? Why certainly not. One cannot blame a Premier. Now... Recommended? Yes, without a doubt, you can recommend!" "One way or the other it is still going to end up on me..." "I never said it otherwise, Premier," Mathard stated with a wide grin before turning serious. "Now, are you certain you are going to be alright? You really do not look yourself." Kandric grabbed Vondum's arm and put it around his chest. He managed a much stronger grin as he felt the man grip him tightly, "I will be fine. Remember, last time I slept for a great while after King Blathamort and the Green female fell. And I was allowed to eat and get a long night's sleep after assisting in the death of the Ice Demon. But I cannot rest now. The Whites have at least one of my students and my grandfather is working with them..." Seeing the female Alphar, wearing extremely elegant boots, heavy cloak, mittens, ear wrap, and scarf look at him with wide eyes, he stared right back at her, "Princess I, assume?" "Yes, my Premier. It is a pleasure to meet you! However, did I hear you correctly? Am I to understand former Prince Rovanall has gone over to the White Dragons?" "Princess, such is what Prince Weraweld told me before he decided it was a good idea to see what I taste like... Um, Princess, did you get sidetracked or something?" "No. Why my Premier?" Kandric's head went so far to its left it almost touched his shoulder, "Um, well Princess... this is a war zone and a wilderness, not a royal wedding reception." "Premier, what are you talking about?" "Princess... Mink Leopard fur boots, mittens, and cloak... Snow Lynx scarf and head wrap..." He cringed as only a blank look stared back at him, "Oh, come on, Princess! Are you really going to fight in mittens?" "But Premier, it is cold, and I am a leader, Sorceress, Jeweler, and Healer, not a front-line fighter..." While it was not something he would have never done had he been feeling better, the cluelessness he saw looking down at him was simply too much on an already upset stomach. He simply couldn't stop himself. Kandric lowered his head and shook it. The woman looked around. While no one else was shaking a head, all were pretty much staring at her. "What!?!" Before more could be said a voice came from off into the forest, "Kandric, you better not be shaking your head at a princess!" Even before the words registered with Kandric, the voice caused dozens of Illorcs, Dragons, Dragonlings, Alphar, Garm, Pantherlings, and Griffins to ready themselves for combat, while moving to protect Kandric, Duke Mathard, Princess Syrissia, the three boys with Kandric and General Vondum, pretty much in said order, except since Kandric was in the arms of Vondum, the effect was Kandric and Vondum ended up with extra forces protecting both of them. Glaster stopped at the edge of the wood line and looked over the assembled masses, and noticed a couple of Silver Dragons staring right at him. He pushed the kids with him behind as best as he could while his eyes darted around. At the same time Kandric shouted out, "Halt! It is Glaster!" He tried to pull away from Vondum, only to get some vertigo. This forced Vondum to grab him and pull him back into his chest, "Not so fast Premier..." He then spoke up even as he stroked Kandric's hair, "Merchant Glaster, how in the name of the gods did you find us?" "Oh, I am not really sure!" Glaster announced. "Could it have possibly been a disruption in the flow of magic so intense as to cause my tent mate to nearly jump out of his skin?" He paused, "Kandric, while I will fight everything this world has to throw at you should you need me to, I am seeing at two Dragons looking far more interested in protecting you, and consuming me, than I care to ever see. What is all this?" "San'i-sar, would you and your buddy mind stepping aside?" Vondum all but demanded. As soon as the pair of Silvers moved to the side, Vondum cast a Light spell on his hand so the man could see him and Kandric better. Glaster eyed the scene before glancing over his shoulder, "Boys, stay close behind me and keep hands well away from weapons. Focus on my back and do me a favor, do not make eye contact with the Dragons... As a matter of fact, I want you to only look at my back or your feet until told otherwise, but shout out if someone or something so much as touches any of you." Glaster then returned his full attention on Vondum and stepped between the Dragons. "Merchant Glaster, come, join us, my fine friend!" Vondum responded strongly, while still keeping a note of caution in his voice. He still had no idea how the man would feel about his sleeping with Kandric. While he would, he really had no desire to stand toe to toe with an angry Master Shaman. "Trust me, nothing here is going to bother you, for none want anything to do with your student here." Glaster stepped forward with a great deal of concern coupled with awe. Even as he did so, he found those who had blocked access to those further back were moving to form an opening akin to a line of honor. "Captain Vondum? You are well outside your territory..." Vondum kept his arms around Kandric so the boy could find his footing, "Up to a short time ago, you would be correct, Merchant. However, I am a general now." He patted Kandric on the shoulder, "His general, and he has need of my services here at this moment far more than up at Bloody Rock." "I see... Wait, what? His general... Are you saying these are his forces?" "Yes, and well-earned let me tell you. However, as far as Black Rapids goes, it has a new Captain of the Guard. I believe you should remember Sy; regardless, he is now the Captain of the Guard in Black Rapids... Anyway, good to see you Merchant... Although from what Premier Kandric has hinted at, you are much, much more than a simple merchant..." Glaster continued to move forward slowly, "Some believe there may very well be more surrounding me than my merchant side... Um, Kandric, are you alright with Vondum holding you?" Kandric nodded, "Yes... I am having a hard time adjusting to... Wait! Your arm! You have two arms!!!" Kandric pulled free of Vondum and moved toward Glaster, only to have another wave of dizziness wash over him. As he faltered both Glaster and Vondum moved forward to prevent him from falling only to smack heads with each other. While both men reached up to grab at their foreheads, Mathard angled in from the side to catch Kandric as he faltered. "Premier, how about you just take a few more breaths and slow down?" At the same time Vondum and Glaster stood straight and exchanged rigid stares. Kandric shook his head hard, which he quickly found out did nothing for his stomach and only added to his balance problems. He swiftly decided Mathard's strong yet tender hold was exactly what he needed. He glanced back and gave a single nod with as much of a smile as he could muster. Mathard pulled him close and lightly ruffled his hair. Mostly because he didn't have to concentrate to stay standing, he looked at the two men and found some mental focus, "Master, General, please... Without both of you I would not be where I am. I owe each of you, and...” Kandric stopped... “Master, General Vondum helped me, made me a member of the Black Rapid Wilderness Scouts... do not be angry with him..." Glaster glanced over, sent Vondum another sharp glare, then edged up and knelt as he noted the unfamiliar, yet clearly royal crest on Duke Mathard's armor, "Lord, I apologize I do not know your title..." Mathard extended his arms, pushing Kandric over to Glaster. "Your former charge has missed you a great deal, Master Shaman. Take care of his desire to hold you first. I can wait." Glaster took hold of Kandric and pulled him into his chest, savoring his first touches of his student with his replaced arm and hand. However, he simply couldn't center on Kandric even as much as he wanted to. His main focus remained on Mathard, "Lord, while I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, I still must ask for forgiveness..." "For what?" Mathard responded with a smile at seeing Kandric wrap his arms around Glaster's neck. "A boy, our Premier, has a desire to hug his beloved instructor. We are all here because of him, therefore, he holds sway here, not Princess Syrissia, not me." "But Kandric... He is..." Glaster looked around only to notice everything and everyone looking at Kandric, not the Dwarf with the magical armor, not Vondum, not the elegantly dressed woman with an equally exquisite royal crest. It quite simply did not make sense, unless everything the Alphar had told him was true... Yet it was too fantastic, to be... no, it was impossible. Mathard crunched some ice off his beard with his left hand while motioning for Glaster to stand with his other. "Master Shaman, I can assure you our Premier, the boy in your grasp, is indeed in command here. You have no need to kneel to any of the rest of us, and it sure appears Premier Kandric has no interest in you kneeling to him." "No, never!" Kandric confirmed as he continued to squeeze Glaster. Glaster still stayed down while turning his attention to the woman, "And you good Lady? Do you also say I can stand, even after my student spoke so demeaning to you?" "Duke Mathard speaks for the both of us in this matter, Master Shaman. Your student, our Premier has made it clear he does not wish you to show standard deference, therefore we will accept you as this land sees you, a titled being, a Master." She forced a smile, and it was clear it was forced. However, she did motion for Glaster to stand and kept her voice neutral of emotions. "As far as his words, this is his army, and I am a member of it. He holds title and rank over all here, so if he says I am not in proper attire, then I must accept it and endeavor to find something our Premier would find acceptable even if it means more discomfort to me. As for titles, I am Princess Syrissia, of the Saw Spruce Glades within the Alphar Kingdom, and the man you secured our Premier from is Duke Mathard of Winter Creek, from the Garm Empire. It sounds like you already know General Vondum from past dealings within the walls of Black Rapids. There are other officers and titled members within this army, however, most are back at the war camp. Those of us here came here with all due haste the moment we saw the ball of White Dragon Death mushroom up from this location. For, as soon as it did, those with me all knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, it had been caused by none other than our Premier. The young Alphar of high noble blood you hold in your arms." Glaster stood, picking up Kandric as he did so, "High noble? But I found him..." "Yes," Mathard spoke with a sigh. "And we are very thankful you did and are in your debt for the phenomenal training and deep personal commitment you have devoted to him." "I had no way of knowing he was a..." "Master, you have nothing to explain. The fault lies within the Garm Empire, and we are indebted to you. Now please, relax and catch your breath." "Thank you, good Duke, however, I have a large caravan further off in the direction I came from. May I go back and..." Kandric looked over his shoulder, "Some of you, please follow his path in the snow and escort the whole caravan here! There are other Whites about!" Instantly a dozen Griffins with riders took off while one of the Silver Dragons went high to be eyes, ears, and if needed support. Glaster couldn't help but blink at how the request was seen as an order. "Rylan, go with and explain to the others what this is about. I do not want to lose my caravan!" Seeing one of the Griffin riders instantly moved up as the boy asked "How?" to help Rylan onto a Griffin and then take to the sky with him, Glaster didn't bother to respond. Instead he gave Kandric a kiss on the forehead, "You have some serious explaining to do, if it pleases you, Premier Kandric..." Kandric suddenly let go of Glaster, pulled free of the man's grasp and drew his blade as he noted a couple of the princess' Alphar guards moving toward Chark'ash and the other boys with the Drow. "Stop or so help me!" At the same time the blade came out, a bright blue glob appeared on his hand. "The Drow and those with him are with my Master, which puts them not only under my Master's protection, but mine as well. Lay a finger on the Drow or any of the others and I will... Well, at the moment... I... I will knock you both back into the trees with the spell I have on my hand and will have Duke Mathard deal with you. But when I get over this, it will be my turn... If there is anything left, which I highly doubt..." Before Kandric finished speaking, both Glaster and Vondum drew blades and turned to see what Kandric was referring to. The two Alphar who had been closing in on Chark'ash held up hands while backing off slowly. Around them, many others glared at the pair, while San'i-sar stepped up to place itself between the other royal Alphar guards and the obviously extremely scared Drow boy and those with him. Kandric looked back at Mathard and gave the man a single nod. Mathard moved by Kandric and patted the boy on the stomach. "Premier, do us all a favor and calm yourself, if it pleases you. Keep in mind they... most of us from the Garm Empire and the Alphar Kingdom have never seen a Drow, and all they know is what is in the history books." Kandric took as deep as a breath as his still jittery and magically overwhelmed body could inhale, before he gave Mathard an understanding open hand signal, letting the spell fade as he did so. He then turned and looked right at the princess, "You will keep your guards in check or I will..." Seeing a wide-eyed look from Glaster, Kandric gulped and added, "Good Princess." Glaster looked around expecting to have to say something, but much to his astonishment the initial look of anger he saw in the woman's eyes, which he thought for certain was going to be directed at Kandric, turned out to be pretty much the opposite. She spun and glared at the whole of her guard contingent. "You dare to move aggressively at anyone our Premier has commanded be allowed enter into our lines? Get out of my sight! In fact, it would be in your interests to never fall under my gaze again! Now go!" The two guards took a knee, while the senior one spoke with a great deal of deference and fear, "To where, my Princess?" Despite the way he was feeling, Kandric responded with his first thought, "Walk home!" Noticing the eyes of nearly every Alphar and Garm stare at him, his resolve only hardened, "Yes, you heard what I said. Walk your haughty, egotistical, moronic, self-centered, Warrior Adept and Swordsman hides back to where you came from. No mounts, no wagons, no magic gates, no spells to help you get there faster! Two feet on ground, or... if you two can stomach those of the world I come from... book passage on a barge for part of the trip should you find one willing to take you as a passenger or deck hand." "But Premier..." Kandric pointed to the north, "You have good weapons, armor, and packs, and I see pouches, so you probably have coin. If not, you can earn some along the way. If what I understand is correct, you hail from somewhere in the Deathland Mountains. Straight north would be a good direction to start your hike." He pointed a second time for emphasis. "This way, you can stay in villages along the way and see what the world I hail from truly is!" The other guard looked up mortified at the command, "Premier, we do not even know where we are at or how far!" "The two of you have all the skills you should need, with your Healer skills and the corporal being a Hunter." Princess Syrissia stated while chewing lightly on her bottom lip. "Between the two of you, and your Alphar training, I have faith in your ability to figure it out and make the journey." Kandric made a snorting sound, "An extremely diplomatic way to say you do not know, Princess." Seeing the princess' eyes go wide, and Glaster's face flush with anger, he cringed and quickly added, "But you should not need to. Your skills are as a Sorceress." Kandric then focused back on the two still kneeling Alphar. He couldn't help but show a slight grin even as he tried to hide it. He once again pointed north, "It is about nine hundred leagues from here to the passes at the base of the Silver Spine Mountains. Four hundred and fifty days of hard but doable march. Another few weeks to get up the pass and possibly four moons or so to get to the edge of the Deathlands. From there, I cannot help you since I have no idea where your homelands are. However, I expect you to go slower. Find out what your people left behind. Stay in inns, pick up real work..." A real smirk appeared on Kandric's face as he noted both men were mortified at hearing they were expected to work. To rub it in further, Kandric nodded, "Yes, actual labor of some kind benefiting the world around you. Prove you can handle the world outside of Alphar lands. A few possible thoughts for you. Caravan guards are always needed. Barges need guards as well. Many towns and cities, even some villages, have hiring halls. There is often times bounties available. Collect a couple. It will teach you more of this world. Try your hand in your given subfields: Outdoorsman to us, Hunter to you, and Healthman to us, Healer to you, gives you both valuable skills. Hunting, trapping, tracking, tending to injured... all of those and many, many more tasks could earn you coin and hopefully some respect of those outside of your lands. If not, so be it. "If you harm a single non-threatening Drow child on your trek, however, I will revisit whatever you do to him or her tenfold ten. In fact, you are to do everything in your arrogant hides to make sure not a single non-threatening Drow is harmed while you are within eye or ear shot. With any luck, you can befriend one and find out not everything you have read is true. A Drow is still a person, some good, some bad, most just trying to survive in a world hostile to them. A hostility your race helped to champion to hide your own crimes from what I have heard. You left the outside world and abandoned what remained of the Drow to suffer. At the time they may well have deserved it, but the vast majority now are still paying for it generations later and their misery is a combination of the crimes of ancient ancestors around Bloody Rock and how you spun a narrative of how all evil was their doing.” Duke Mathard looked over to Kandric, "From what I was told by some of your students who came into our camp, they were harmed by Drow." "They were, but they were also harmed by others, my Duke. Just look around even as some of the other Dragons arrive with riders. We have Illorcs, several Dragon races, Pantherlings, Hawklings, and now a Drow. If he is with my Master in the armor he is wearing, he is an ally, the same as every other man, woman and creature out here!" As anger coursed through Kandric he regained some control and was able to take better understanding of the power flowing within and around him. This was noticeable to everyone looking on, and many took a few steps back even as Kandric's back straightened and he took a few deep breaths. He stood firm as he glared at the two Alphar. "In my eyes these two came very close to betraying me far more than the Drow who harmed my students! These two were about to strike at a known ally! Those we took down in the forest were one step away from brigands, and they were not allies to start with. Because of this, there was no betrayal, only a need for my retribution to a slight against me and those I helped to teach! "Those who harmed those I taught at the Slome Swordsman School were not allies, and trust me, those I have not found will be hunted down even if it takes me the rest of my life, but they did not try to stab a knife in my back... while I was standing right here! But these two are from outside this land and do not understand, so I am giving them this chance, or they can come at me right now and challenge me..." The corporal looked close to tears, "Premier, we made a grievous error in judgment. We are sorry and accept your decreed punishment! How long do you expect us to take..." "I put no time frame on this. I expect you to experience my world and earn your way through it! Then and only then will I forget about your bandit-like behavior and actions toward someone traveling with the man who made me what I am... along with help from the likes of our good general and others... None of whom have or had a known drop of Alphar blood within. What has been good for me can certainly be advantageous to you. Now get out of my sight!" He waited for the two Alphar to be escorted well away before he paned his gaze over the rest, "Any other Garm or Alphar or anyone else have a problem with a Drow joining us? If you do, now would be the time to leave without a command on how you leave or where you go, because as of now, the kid over there is, and will remain, directly under my protection!" Duke Mathard glanced around, noting many Garm and Alphar were stunned and some sickened by the hard line Kandric had taken, "Ladies and gentlemen, our Premier has opened the door for others to leave his side. I however, have to admit I have never once gotten to know a Drow, and am curious. After all, we all know our history." Mathard moved over to the clearly terrified boy and patted him on the shoulder, "Yes, think of history as you look at this lad! Without the Drow we would have never driven the Mythlings out of our realms. What happened later is what it is, yes. Yet, can any of us say we should harbor hatred for this child? For all we know he could hold bloodlines of those who drove the Mythlings back from Forest Wall or The Sapphire Towers. Is this something we should harbor fear and loathing over?" He pulled the boy to his side, "I know what comes next out of many of you! He could also hold the blood of those who murdered those fighting the last know Orakin raids below the Deathland Mountains. A raid which fractured the plateau and ended the Garm's foothold below the Deathlands and eventually the Alphar's as well. This is possible, yes. But we do not know, cannot know. How about we find out for ourselves who and what Drow really are in the world we abandoned? In particular, should we not strive to find out who this child is before passing judgment?" Glaster looked over to Kandric as all other eyes were focused on Mathard, "He will not harm Chark?" "No, Master, he will not." "Good, but if everything I am hearing is even a tenth true, you should not be showing me deference, Premier." "I will always be your student, Master..." "Maybe so, but this is a matter of caste, and you, Premier Kandric are so far above me, it is... there simply is no comparison. Now, before attention turns back to you, I have a few questions I request your permission to ask." "Master, you do not have to ask permission.” "Yes, I absolutely do." Kandric let out a long breath. "No, no you do not, but please ask away." "First, did you really just kill a Dragon?" "I allowed others with me to finish it, but yes. It is in the middle of the lake." "And this is not your first?" "Fourth, but only the third Great." Glaster shook his head and blinked hard, "Four... you have... Kandric... Premier... I leave you for a few moons and... and... how?" "A stalactite, a breath pouch of the one stalactited," Kandric glanced over with an impish grin, "sorry, best word I can come up with... Um, crushed rib cage of a True sticking his head up out of the center of Slome, and the one in the lake drowned, um, at least I think it would be called drowning... Maybe smothered... But until you tell me differently, I will stick with drowning." Glaster rubbed his hand down his face and watched Mathard carefully. The Dwarf, Garm, whatever, whoever, was defending Chark'ash the same as he had Kandric a few minutes prior. It was also not lost on him there were now two Silver Dragons, a Blue, and a Red all protectively surrounding Chark'ash and the other boys. At the same time the Alphar princess was making a short speech of her own, claiming it was not their place to restart the Drow War and the boy had not, as of yet, done them any harm. Her tone of voice told Glaster she fully expected Chark'ash to suddenly turn on them and strike them all down, but at least her words were supportive. With a deep breath, he turned his attention back to Kandric, "Last question for now, Vondum and the duke... I have never once seen you allow anyone to hold you the way they were unless... Have they..." "Bedded me?" Kandric managed a grin, "Why, would you be jealous if they had?" Glaster's eyes narrowed, but he couldn't get past the boy in his arms was now a member of high royalty. He couldn't bring himself to scold him, no matter how much he wanted to. "Careful, Kandric, Premier. Do not forget I know where you are ticklish." Kandric's eyes gleamed, "So you would be jealous!" "Some... more than some... yes. So, Premier unless you want me to tickle you until you piss this strange armor you are wearing..." "Dragon scale made out of King Blathamort..." Seeing Glaster's eyes go wide even as the man's hand started fingering the scales, Kandric's grin widened. "Yes, he is dead and I pretty much caused it... Um, as far as what was done to me, do not worry. Duke Mathard would never, not to anyone without total consent both ways and he loves his wife and kids. I also cannot see him enjoying any child." "And Vondum?" "Vondum... General Vondum has others he can utilize if he wants." "Did he..." Glaster tapped the crest of the Wilderness Scouts. "He did nothing I did not want or even recommend, Master. I was made a member of the Wilderness Scouts with no strings." "How? Was it King Blathamort, Premier?" "No, Master, just some stupid Ice Demon." "You mean Hellion or Frost Demon, do you not, Premier?" "No, Ice." Seeing a look of total disbelief, Kandric flipped the armor, "Master, I am wearing some of what is left of King Blathamort, why would I lie about some stupid Ice Demon?" "Premier Kandric, it will be angry and will come back..." "No, I killed it, here, in this realm. It did not get a chance to return to the Realm of Ice. It was surrounded by fire. I made sure of it..." Seeing nothing but a raised eyebrow, Kandric leaned his head into Glaster, "Really, feel free to ask General Vondum. I earned my spot in the Scouts without sleeping my way into it. Although, Master, I do have to question. How can it be called sleeping to get something when there would be little to no sleep involved?" Glaster couldn't help but softly snicker, "And there, Premier, is the boy I have missed for all these moons... the devious, and cunning inquiries at every turn, the questioning of all and the recognition of the absurdity of what is said and thought by the vast majority." He sighed, "So Vondum did nothing against your wishes... I should probably be grateful to him. I left you for far too long." "Long enough to allow me to cause a little trouble, Master, yes." Kandric giggled. "Boy... Premier, if this is your definition of a little trouble, you and I need to go back down to my library and hit the books again!" Glaster paused and cringed, "Um, my library and my vault of valuables... is it all still intact?" "Very much so. I gave strict orders to secure your property without anyone entering and let no one close. I was told they put a Dragon and some Dragonlings on guard after the Slums were fought over." "And the Slums are still intact?" "Some damage, but yes, the Dragons, Garm, and Alphar allied, then crushed Prince Bassork's forces before they could organize more than a raid into the Slums and they never breached the walls of Slome. The Dragon under Slome should have stayed below. But it did not, so I finished it off." "And this leads me to my final question for now, Premier. Dragons?" "Would you please stop calling me Premier?" "To do otherwise would not proper." "Well, please just stop for now, Master. Now what about the Dragons?" "Unless I am badly mistaken Reds are not accepted well at all and others... Why are they working with or even for you and not trying to kill each other?” "Master, I am still trying to figure it all out, but when my friends and I killed the first, a Green, the release got the attention of several others. I guess word spread and since King Blathamort fell so quickly after the Green... Well, the Reds hate the Greens and I had already met some Red Dragonlings... So the Reds came to thank me, and the Silvers and Blues were already kind of allied, but with the death of the two Greats they moved up and combined to wipe out some others and... And it turns out I am in the family line of Alphar royalty... The Garm and Alphar came to help and... well... You always said I liked to stir the pot in ways certain to get me in trouble. So, Master, consider the pot well stirred." Even as Glaster was shaking his head, Lorthorn came running back through the woods, shouting "Kandric!" He stopped as soon as he emerged into the clearing surrounding the lake... "Oh..." Kandric reluctantly pulled loose from Glaster, "Lor! Over here! What is wrong?" Lorthorn glanced around, noting most in the clearing recognized him and gave him a nod of respect and even some deference. He bolted over to Kandric, "Seldnat picked up the trail!" "We know where the camp is?" "No, the Dragonling must be an Outdoorsman. It found our tracks down from the ridge. Seldnat says it headed up to see where we came from!" Kandric's eyes narrowed, "Lacate is up there alone." "Seldnat sent me back. He is going to try to get there in time, but..." Vondum moved up, "You have a friend up at a camp by himself, Premier?" "Not a friend," Kandric growled, "but he is under my protection..." He tried to open a portal but he could tell even as it formed it wasn't stable. With a shake of his head, he snapped his fingers causing it to vanish as quickly as it appeared. "The magic is still unstable! I need a Griffin or..." Vondum whistled loudly, "San'i-sar! You wanted to meet our Premier, and he needs a ride! It is a good time for both!" Seeing the Silver Warrior move up and drop its head and wing Kandric looked over, "Ride a Dragon, um, sure... How about a quick lesson?" "Climb on the wing, allow San'i-Sar to push you up, put your boots in behind the large neck flair scales and hold onto the spines of the upper back!" Kandric did as instructed even as several other riders moved to Griffins and other Dragons. Mathard looked down at Lorthorn, "Young Knight, how about you lead me, the good princess, and the remainder of her guards up the to this camp on foot so Premier Kandric's instructor can borrow our mounts for himself and those with him..." Even as Kandric took to the air on the back of a Dragon, talking to it in Dragon, Glaster turned and shook his head, "Duke, I could not allow you to walk! I am too far below..." "Master Shaman," Mathard looked back toward the Griffins, "believe me, this is not me giving up a faster transport, instead it is you doing me a blessed favor by allowing me to stay on the ground!" Princess Syrissia moved up and smiled, "A good walk alone with Duke Mathard, here, would give me a chance to air some thoughts outside of our Premier's ears, so please, feel free. We insist." Glaster gave a full royal bow, "As you command, Princess. My full apologies for any and all insults real or perceived toward you from my student." "There are none to apologize for, Master Shaman. This has more to do with Garm Alphar business than our Premier. For Queen Jostallis and Emperor Bloodstone have handed command of this army over to Premier Kandric. He and he alone commands it. It is our task to help him utilize it to the maximum benefit of the world as a whole. To this end, and my being newly assigned to help Duke Mathard, I could use this valuable time to confer with my Garm counterpart on royal matters. Besides, as your student, our Premier pointed out. While I may not be combat ready in Premier Kandric's eyes, I am comfortably dressed to handle the walk in this storm." "As you wish, Princess." Glaster bowed again, "You have my thanks nonetheless, and if it pleases you I request an audience with the two of you at your convenience." Duke Mathard spoke up, "Master, I assure you, we seek the same with you, and soon. For we have need of your... unique relationship with our Premier. Your insights into him are of vital importance to us." "Us, as in the two of you, Duke?" "NO!" Princess Syrissia stated forcefully, "To everyone, everything, Master Shaman. So yes, we will only be too happy to hold discussions with you. Now, however, our Premier is already out of sight of my infravision, so you best get moving. He seems to have limited patience and may be in need of your council." Duke Mathard watched as Glaster helped the boys with him get seating in Griffin saddles, while one of the Alphar Griffin riders gave them basic instructions. As soon as they all took into the snow-filled night he glanced over, "So Sir Lorthorn, would you care to lead the way, but stay far in front of us so we may hold a private conversation?" "At your command, my Duke." Princess Syrissia pointed to her four remaining guards. "Protect him and help him blaze a trail through this heavy snow for the two of us. We will be fine." Mathard moved out as soon as he was sure he was out of casual earshot of Lorthorn, "Princess, I give you the floor." "While I am full of thoughts and questions, my Duke, I first want to state the young Halfelf, Lorthorn seems to be a pretty good choice as a friend for our Premier, but is it true he had a Halforc knighted as one of his most trusted friends?" "Indeed it is, and while you may find it untenable, let me put my personal feelings and beliefs out for you out of the earshot of all. Seldnat, Sir Seldnat, is a very impressive youngster, Halforc or otherwise. I strongly recommend you give him a chance to show what has thus far impressed me. Also keep in mind, our Premier trusts him as much if not more than the others around him. The last Garm who spoke ill of Sir Seldnat ended up with dented Blue Steel breastplate and broken ribs from a kick, and before you ask I will reiterate, a kick of a bare foot from our Premier." "This will be difficult, and should I need to be held back in words or deeds, I give you full permission to interject or even interrupt me. I do not want to anger our Premier when we need him as level-headed as possible. Now, on to what really concerns me... I want your take on his defense of the Drow child!" "Princess, what I told the troops is where I am forced to stand. One of the reasons we backed out of the greater world as a whole when we did was to quell the bloodlust against any and all with even a hint of Drow blood. Our texts were clear and unambiguous. We left word the war with the Drow was done and stepped on a few large-scale purge efforts. The texts state we hoped to let what was left of the Drow reclaim a foothold outside our lands without ever regaining the power they once had. Over the centuries, we have taken our end to the extreme. Our lands are purged of them, as are a goodly amount of the Deathland Range. However, when the final treaty between our great nations was hammered out, it clearly stated a desire to calm the anti-Drow fever gripping the lands." "Only because there was concern it would spread to our peoples, since we were, we are, the next highest races. Look what happened to the Highmen. They stuck it out and were almost eliminated. Those who exist do so as Humans except in a few very small pockets. They are reduced to near nothing while we have grown to something close to what we were before the Drow Wars.” "Only because we took the steps of breeding with multiple mates of the races of Elves and Dwarves to bring up our birth rates. The reason I have six children is I have two Dwarven concubines. I was lucky, my wife gave me three children before becoming barren. "However, we are nothing in the realm of what our people were prior to the Mythling Wars, or even the Dragon Wars. We must monitor the bloodlines to keep them Garm and Alphar, while weeding out those born as Dwarves and Elves. Besides, like it or not, we both know the whole reason we locked up Under River had more to do with Under River having never felt the full weight of the Mythlings and Dragons within their realm. They were the real power behind the fending off of the Mythlings and we could not allow such a power to put its weight behind the Conclave. As weakened as we were after fighting each other, we would have never been able to stop such a powerful united kingdom." "So you suggest we do nothing about our Premier defending a Dark-one and accept the fact his instructor is harboring one?" "He is a child, and calling him a Dark-one is not acceptable in my eyes, Princess Syrissia. Besides, before you go all judgmental on our Premier, keep in mind he is keeping the Drow female for use in a brothel." At this Princess Syrissia both grinned then cringed, "Not a business one of such a high stature should be associated with, but yes, you do have a valid point there. I would prefer to take her back to our courts, however, it is a fitting place... As long as he keeps the greater races out of his side ventures." "I think you miss my point, Princess. Our Premier does not care about race. You have been told and expressed concerns over his selection of a Halforc as one of his most trusted companions. You also need to really look around. Without Premier Kandric, we would be battling Illorcs, not fighting beside them. We have the full backing of Red Dragons, when no one else would have even thought to try. He and he alone has brought the Red Dragons back into this world as a legitimate race and has given them a Homeland, one both the Blues and Silvers agreed to without any resistance, and one the Black Dragons under Prince Bandurlok accept. He looks at the greater picture, not the race. "This is something I feel we could learn from, must learn from, if we are to re-enter this realm as Queen Jostallis and Emperor Bloodstone are trying to organize. Cities here may be towns to us, but there are many, too many to gain full control over, let alone rule over. If we start looking down on the weaker races to the extent you are hinting at, we will be putting ourselves in the same spot the Mythlings did, and while it will not be in our lifetimes or even in the lifetimes of our children, we will lose. This is not what I want to pass on to my great, great-grandson or granddaughter. You?" "Duke Mathard, the day I allow some Halforc or worse, Drow, into my home..." Mathard gave a shrugging motion, "Then chances of our Premier stepping a foot within your palace is less than the chance of this snow being gone by tomorrow. When you see his relationship with Sir Seldnat, you will understand." "The we must drive a wedge in and sever it." Mathard let out a long breath, "My Princess, should you try, the wedge will have to be removed from between your breasts, and I do not believe either of us would desire to see such beauty so ruined." Princess Syrissia blushed, "Duke Mathard, you are too kind, but your words suggest you feel the boy is uncontrollable. No child is unmanageable." "Uncontrollable, no. Untamable, with every gram of Premier Kandric's being, unquestionably." Five kilometers away Kandric pointed to where he had made the shelter even as he slid back and forth across the back of San'i-sar. "Down there!" "Premier, please hold on. I do not want to be held accountable if you should fall." "I will not blame you." "You will not be able to blame anyone if you fall from this altitude." "Oh, San'i-sar, you underestimate me. See you on the ground!" With those words Kandric jumped off. San'i-sar turned and spiraled down fully expecting to have to dive with everything it had to catch the falling boy, only to spot Kandric gliding slowly down under a Levitate spell, while allowing the wind to push him toward his desired destination. He banked close, "Premier, you just aged me a half century! DO you have any idea what Prince Millen would do to me if you died while riding on my back after you slew our greatest nemesis?" Kandric grinned, "You could tell him I died doing something I have dreamed of since I first heard tales of Dragon Riders!" "Somehow I do not believe I would be allowed the opportunity to provide any kind of defense for myself." "Then you are extremely lucky you will not have to. When all this is done, I would request a much longer flight from you, though." "Anytime, although, you may have to talk to your general about it. He seemed very interested in coming up north to help us deal with our White Dragon invaders." "If they have even a single one of my students, you will not have to go up north to deal with them. We will be facing off with them down here." "While I wish no harm to any of your students, it would not hurt my feelings to have to rescue one of them." "Oh, if they harmed one, I will either kill the responsible party or die trying. However, I am guessing it really matters not if they have one of my students. For should it be true my grandfather has sought asylum from them, you will get your wish to assist in an attack on their camp... Hey, I see fresh footsteps leading up to the camp, and they are not Seldnat's. It got here first. If you do not mind, circle and block some of the wind around me so I can get a look at the whole area without the snow blowing in my face." "Premier, it is an honor to have had you on my back, there is no need to request a favor, just tell me what you want to do, or when on my back, lightly push the tallest spine in the direction you want me to back and I will do so." "Thank you, I have no desire to order any Dragon allied to me to do anything, instead I prefer to request. For now, do me a favor and please tell the others this needs to be between me and it. I do not expect or want any assistance. Lacate is mine, and therefore should anything have happened to him, it will be me and me alone extracting revenge." "Very well, Premier. Call out if you change your mind or simply want me to eat your adversary when you are done with him." "I very well may take you up on the second part of your offer. We shall see." Kandric landed only twenty meters from the shelter, pulled his blade and made toward the flap of material he had set for the outer flap. After a moment of debate, he stopped and called out in Dragon, "You, within my shelter come out and face me! Just you and me." A few moments later, Lacate's robe covered and shivering form appeared in the flap. His face was red and signs of frost could be seen on his cheeks. A couple of seconds later a White Dragonling came out holding on to a cloth wrapped around the boy's neck, "You... I can see it within! You killed my... our greatest combatant, my father!" "I would say I am sorry, but it would be a lie." Kandric stated coldly. "Now, let him go and either surrender the location of your encampment or face me." "You think I am insane? I will do neither. Instead, you will let me go or I will twist this cloth a little tighter and pull back, snapping this pathetic Human's neck!" Kandric snorted, "Lacate, you did at least try to tell this imbecile just how unimportant you are, did you not?" Lacate's eyes went wide, "Please Kandric..." but his words were cut off to choking sounds as the Dragonling twisted the cloth tighter. Kandric simply rolled his eyes, "You are about as stupid as they come. For him to look so frozen you had to have breathed on him. Why waste a breath on a servant brat?" "I only put of the fire. If I had unleashed my breath on him he would be dead as scrawny as he is combined with his being without clothing." "As a servant, he does not rate any unless we are out and about," Kandric stated with a voice devoid of any emotion. His long pent-up anger at Lacate made it impossible to feel sorry for the kid, but the Dragonling was harming his property, and this was simply not acceptable. "Just so you understand, Dragonling, the boy you are all but strangling is in my service for a couple of years plus a few moons. Any long-term harm to him takes away from his value to me, and thus unless you let him go, you and I will have problems beyond what we already do." A flicker of concern caused the Dragonling to lick at its teeth with its forked tongue and loosen up on the hold enough for Lacate to take some forced breaths, "Let me go with the items I took from inside and I give you this pathetic piece of human meat to you." It tightened up on the cloth again causing Lacate's face to start turning blue. By this time others were arriving, all but surrounding the small shelter, both above and below the ridgeline. Kandric put his sword away and held up both hands, "This is between the two of us. Feel free to cheer for or against me, for as soon as he gets done strangling Lacate this is going to get ugly. In the very unlikely event he manages to take me down, you are commanded to let him leave." Kandric let out a long breath as he stepped up "Come on, stop wasting my time. I have real Dragons to go kill." Seldnat appeared moving up the hill, "Me wants ta take him!" "You can have the next White Dragonette, this one is not worth your time Seldnat. It does not even rate one of my weapons. I will take it with bare hands." Kandric stated. The words caused the Dragonling to shake with fury, which is all Kandric had been waiting for. With the creature's focus on him and off Lacate, it gave him a chance and he took it. Kandric darted forward, stuck his hand up into the makeshift noose to give Lacate some air, while at the same time yanking the cloth forward. Without any hesitation, his other hand shot forward, over Lacate's shoulder and connected with the Dragonling's snout, badly bloodying the nose with his bare hand. Since the Dragonling was stunned and reacted out of instinct to grab its bloody muzzle, Kandric yanked the cloth off from around Lacate's neck and pushed him to Seldnat. "Get him inside and warmed! If there is a Healthman, Shaman or Channeler, go help Seldnat! I have healed Lacate within the last day, thus cannot do so again until at least much later today, preferably tomorrow!” A Pantherling quickly hopped down from the ledge over the shelter, "I will care for him, Premier! Very nice punch, by the way." "Thank you!" Kandric snarled, while backing up from the Dragonling and waving it forward with a hand gesture of motioning toward himself with his fingers of his right hand. With his total focus on the Dragonling, Kandric's eyes narrowed, "Let us see what you have chilly breath. Use what you want, but know I am going to pound you into oblivion without ever pulling a weapon off my belt or casting a spell. You simply do not rate high enough. Same deal applies, you manage to take me down, you can leave." "You, you broke my nose!" "No, not yet. But give me a few seconds. Then you will know what a broken beak feels like." The Dragonling pulled a glowing short sword from a sheath at its hip. "I am going to cut you..." "Maybe, but you will not bloody me enough to prevent me from handing the magical blade in your claws over to my former slave. He needs a nice magical weapon, so I thank you in advance." Glaster landed just in time to hear the exchange, but since it was being done in Dragon he had no idea what was being said. "Can someone or something translate for me?" Another Pantherling moved up and spoke softly, while clearly looking worried. Glaster watched as Kandric ducked underneath the swing of the glowing blade and spun clear before he spoke up softly, "With all the money I paid out to have someone teach him, it is time I see what my money bought him." "Taught him? What did you pay to get him taught?" "Translate and watch. I think you are about to find out." Kandric rolled his neck as he spun out of the way of a second swing, "Poor schoolboy swing. How did you ever rate Primary Swordsman pins, let alone Secondary step 3?" The Dragonling came straight at Kandric with a hard thrust and a snarl, only this time Kandric grabbed his arm and pulled it hard past him, sending the much larger Dragonling stumbling forward. He then delivered a devastatingly hard shot to the lower back just left of the backbone. So hard was the impact everyone within earshot heard a pair of scales snap. The Dragonling screamed and spun with a wild swing of the blade even as its left hand went to the point of impact to cover the wound. It took almost no effort for Kandric to duck under the swing, but the moment the blade passed over his head, his left hand lanced out into the exposed underarm of the Dragonling's weapon arm. Only this time, not only did Dragon scales break, Kandric's hand continued in, grabbed unprotected flesh and twisted as hard as he could. He then yanked back, ripping a hole in the hide. Blood poured down the Dragonling's side. As this happened, the blade flew out of its hand, forcing a Griffin to dive into the snow. Even then it clipped a couple of feathers off the top of its head. Its squawks of indignation, were lost on all but those closest to it, since the blood curdling scream of the Dragonling pretty much drowned out all else. The Dragonling desperately tried to lash out with extended claws but by the time it let go of its back and slashed, Kandric was already behind it again. Kandric grinned as he saw the exposed spot on the back. He launched his fist at the same location. This time the Dragonling went down to holding its lower back with its left hand, while trying to shake out numbness and agonizing pain from its right arm. The problem was, it hurt far too bad to do anything other than pull it as tight to its side as it could. It also hoped this would help with the blood, but drips rolling down its leather armor started falling into the snow. At the same time, it looked around desperately trying to figure out where Kandric was at. It jerked its head to the left, then to the right, only to see Kandric's hand descending down at its face. Kandric's hand smashed into the right side of the beast's skull even as it turned to the right. The impact not only knocked the Dragonling fully down, it snapped off one of its horns. Kandric shook his hand, "Hard headed in more ways than one." Seeing the wooziness of his adversary, Kandric moved over and picked up the section of horn, "Hey, Zell, does your Mystic teachings tell you where the breath weapon of a White Dragonling originates from?" "Small pulsating pouch under scales on the right side of the neck on a live one, a hard bubble on a dead one. Why?" "Because, I do not want him trying to breathe on me, or anyone else, ever again." He moved up with the horn in his right hand. He smashed his fist down onto the struggling to stand foe, knocking it down into the deep snow and all but rendering it unconscious. Then, before it had any chance to recover, Kandric located the pulsing spot, yanked up the scales and plunged the creature's own horn in. Ice cold air rushed out, causing Kandric to yank his hand back, shake it and blow on it before he stuck it under his arm and backed off. Glaster simply couldn't take seeing Kandric in so much pain. He moved over and cast a spell on the hand. "Next time wait and borrow the princess' mittens!" This got several snickers out of those watching even as the Dragonling rolled over, puked and pulled out its horn and held it up, "My breath... my breath... You... you lied..." "I did not pull a weapon off my belt and I did not cast a spell. None of those surrounding you have done anything to you, either, so I have told no falsehoods. Believe me, since my Master is here, lying is something I would end up regretting for a long time. Even if he was not here, I do my best not to lie, but with him here... Let me state a clear unequivocal fact: What I am doing to you is nothing more than the warm-up for what would happen to me should I lie in his presence. Now get up and fight or tell me where your camp is!" "You will have to kill me!" "No," Kandric warned as he moved closer, "but you will wish you were long before I finish. Also, like it or not, think so or not, you will tell us where my student and grandfather are at, one way or the other." "I will not!" Kandric delivered a roundhouse kick, knocking the Dragonling back into the snow. Around the top of the snout, blood turned the snow red but interestingly enough did not melt it. Kandric took a step back as an evil glint and smirk crossed his face, "For the record, now you can complain about having a broken nose." Several cringed as the Dragonling pulled itself up and touched its muzzle only to feel its hand push into mush. "Nooooo!" It lunged at Kandric with its clawed left hand. Kandric easily sidestepped the lunge. He kicked the beast as it went past, nailing the open spot on the back. He then reached down, grabbed the extended left arm, stepped on the elbow and yanked up with everything he could muster. Predictably, the joint snapped. Kandric let the creature cry, hiss, and sputter as he went up to the small woodpile off to the side of the campsite. He took over a minute as he looked over the largest chunks of wood, finally finding one he was happy with. Without any sign of remorse, he walked up and stomped down on the damaged area on the back yet again. Seeing his opponent spasm, an evil smirk crossed his lips. He knelt down, drove his fist into the already busted nose, dislodging a few teeth with the viciousness of the punch and finally checked to make sure the creature was indeed still breathing. Upon seeing the chest moving up and down, he nodded in satisfaction. He turned the broken arm over, verified the claws were still extended and slammed the wood down over them. This embedded the claws into the wood. He then reached over and smacked the Dragonling's face, "Come on lizard boy, wake up. I am not done playing with you yet." It took several minutes for the eyes to flutter open. Kandric simply smiled, "Now I need you awake, so I am going to sit on your back until you become coherent enough to answer questions." Once the Dragonling started struggling, Kandric jumped off and kicked it in the back, putting it fully down yet again. He then stood right over the Dragonling as he spoke, "This is really going to hurt, so instead of screaming and passing out on me again, how about you just tell me where the camp is?" "No!" "Do not say I failed to warn you." Kandric stated with a shake of his head even as he kicked at the chunk of wood with the claws buried in it. Blood quickly oozed from around where the claws went into the hand, while the broken joint twisted more. The Dragonling let out a horrified scream. Seeing it start to thrash and get to a knee, Kandric dropped his elbow into the back, totally breaking off another scale next to the two broken ones. This time the Dragonling went face down and didn't move. "Oh, no passing out on me again!" Kandric muttered with anger. He knelt and started twisting and the wood back and forth. It took only moment for the pain to bring it back to consciousness. "Oh, there you are. Now get your breath back and look up, so I know you can answer... Good little lizard... Say, one last chance here. Tell me where the camp is or I twist this wood till all your claws rip out, then I move to your other arm." For emphasis, he gave the wood a hard twist. The howling, hissing scream caused many looking at this to cringe. Kandric simply ignored them as he spoke up. "The next time I will pull all the claws right out of your paw, or hand... Just so you understand, I know wood, and the chunk I selected has very good grain. It will not splinter as I twist. All your claws will rip out from well under your fingers and chances are good a few fingers will break and may be damaged too badly to ever heal as this happens. Now where is the camp?" "To the southeast! To the southeast! Oh, for the love of Jolan, to the southeast between two round hills, both with rocky points on top! But with Prince Weraweld dead, I don't know if they will be there much longer!" Kandric brought his fist up, letting the Dragonling see it, "If there is no sign of the camp when we get there, I will drop hot coals into the hole I made into your breath sack, rip out all your claws, break your others arm and ask San'i-sar here to eat you very, very slowly, like over the course of weeks." "It's there... It's there..." "It better be. Now this is for messing with my beddable servant!" Kandric brought his fist down, snapping off the other horn and knocking the Dragonling totally out again. Kandric kicked it again in its damaged back to make sure it was indeed out. When it didn't move, he nodded in satisfaction, then looked up to San'i-sar, "He says he was the son of Prince Weraweld. Not sure how this is possible, but if he is, he may have information your empire can use." "All Dragons, when they mate, make mostly Dragonlings, Premier Kandric," Vondum stated while smiling in satisfaction over the way Kandric had handled the interrogation. "The birth of a Great, even when two Greats mate, is a special occasion and the birth of a Great Female is a truly historic day and brings about moons of celebration. We will take him back to the camp and hold him as a valuable prisoner... It would help if we could render some aide, however. I suspect the damage you did to him borders on fatal." "Whatever the Silver Dragons want is fine with me. I give him over to them. If he lied about the camp, though, I will heal him and start all over again." Vondum stood laughing and moved up to San'i-sar. "Suicide would be a much better option. I will ready the army, Premier!" Kandric nodded. "Let me fly back with you as long as San'i-sar can take two." "I can take three, even in this storm, Premier." Vondum looked over, "Premier, as your general I would recommend you go to the frozen lake where we found you with those here. It is much closer to the position given you as to the location of the base and a much easier march for your forces, especially in this storm. If the lake is as solid as it appeared, we can use the entire clearing, including the lake, to prepare lines of march and situate our flanks.” Kandric looked over at Glaster, only to see the man nod in agreement. "Hard for me to say no when both you, General, and my Master think it best." Mathard watched Vondum take back to the sky, lowered his head, and grumbled, "Walk all the way up here, miss a good fight, now have to walk all the way back! What a let-down!" Kandric shot the duke a huge smile, "My Duke, it will give you time to go see Prince Weraweld!" Princess Syrissia moved up and looked down at the Dragonling, then over to Kandric with a stunned expression, "Premier... You did this with your hands?" A wicked little grin crossed Kandric's features as he gave a very graceful bow, "A few kicks too, Princess. Oh, and its horn." She knelt, "But there are scales snapped and missing... and blood, so much blood..." "He talked sooner than I hoped, Princess. Otherwise, there would be more. Now, with your consent, I need to go check on Lacate. If he is in any way permanently damaged I will twist the wood off the hand in such a way all its claws will be ripped out!" She said nothing. Instead she gave a dismissing hand motion while looking back at Mathard, "My Duke, how is this possible?" "While I believe he now hits harder, I do clearly remember telling you he dented Blue Steel with a bare foot, Princess." "But... I was briefed in full about all we know. He is a Ruinseeker and Outdoorsman... This this is of a very high skilled Sect Warrior... Very high..." "Many of the Mythlets we now worship had three subfields and most had a second, albeit slightly less powerful, second Field. Unless I am totally mistaken the bloodlines have combined to make our Premier a Mythlet." "How can this be his father was..." "Very low, yes, probably not a drop of Mythling blood within his entire bloodline." "This would make Princess Kaylaria..." "A true Half Mythling, yes... And she has had many offspring, all from very low born, and even Mundane Elves... which would also explain how come she is such an amazing breeder. She is Alphar and Half Mythling." "Then the other children... the princes and princess... they could be... Mythlets!" "Indeed. Yet another reason to put so much care into our next few hours with our Premier. We really could be on the edge of a new Mythling war with several Mythlets running around, and if Frexla does not understand who or what she has..." "Then this could bring them all back into our realm to try to claim others for gods or demons!" "Or eliminate them so they cannot rival them, yes." "This keeps getting worse." Mathard pointed down at the Dragonling, "Now, if I might be slightly undiplomatic, here Princess, take another careful look at what is at your feet. Our premier did this with his bare hands because this creature did harm to a servant, one he does not even appear to like very much. With this in mind, look over to your left at the Halforc child. There is a true friend of our Premier..." Princess Syrissia swallowed hard, "Yes... I get your unspoken implications... So maybe, just maybe, my palace could allow a Halforc to visit..." "At the very least, Princess, it would be in everyone within your palace walls better interests to not refuse him should he show up." Princess Syrissia let out a long nervous breath, "Along with the furnishings and possibly the walls... Yes, my Duke, I will endeavor to force aside my distaste and misgivings and at the very least get to know the Orc-blooded child... My Duke, do you know if he was a child of rape?" "From my discussions with him, no. He has at least six brothers and sisters, but only he and an uncle came into Slome. I know nothing of where his uncle went, or what happened to his family, but it seems his uncle saw him as a gifted fledgling Swordsman and found out the Slome School would take in those of questionable blood. He did hint, however, of his mother's rougher side. It seems his mother was intrigued by... length and girth of the Orc.... weapon..." Princess Syrissia shuddered, "Disgusting!" "Possibly for us, Princess, but any Human female who could deal with such intrusions and continue to provide such offspring tells me she must be or have been a woman with tremendous stamina." Hearing a note of intrigue within the duke's voice, Princess Syrissia looked over with a frown, "Pardon the non-credulity within, my Duke, but she must also have a vagina loose enough to accept a Dragonsteed!" Duke Mathard had to cover his mouth, but even then, a loud laughter boomed out of him getting looks from many. This ended quickly as Kandric came out of the shelter with the Pantherling holding up a woozy Lacate. Kandric eyed the Dragonling then looked over at Duke Mathard, "No permanent harm was done, let the Silver Dragons take this one and do whatever they want." Kandric then turned to Glaster, "Master, it has been so long... would you like to talk as we walk back to the lake? I bet those with you would like to see Prince Weraweld." "A fine idea, as long as it is acceptable with the good princess and duke?" Princess Syrissia motioned with her hand, "Feel free Master, we shall follow at a respectable distance. For the situation prevented either of us from seeing more than a glow from within the lake. I would appreciate an opportunity to take in such a fantastic sight." Half an hour later, with Glaster's arms wrapped around him, Kandric eyed the mound of ice in the middle of the lake, marking where the snout of the Dragon had been above the surface backlit by the magical gilded blades of the horns under the ice, "Um, my Duke, would it be over my authority to ask if some of my forces chip him out so I can have sets of White armor for me and those with me, too?"
  6. Lord Anarton looked over his students, then back to those they had captured in the taking of the old fortress. He glanced over at the structure and back to the nineteen remaining captives with a bemused tug on his twirled mustache. This base, while full of horrors, was nothing like some of her other strongholds. Either Gambra was slipping or this was not nearly as an important of a stronghold as he had first thought. The problem was, it had held the life links of several spell pages and had a demon she had clearly summoned for information. This fact alone made this old fortress significant. So where were the hardened defenses of higher Echelon Dark Mages? Where were the charmed or tranced beasts? There had been Ogres leading to this place, but inside, just the Lava Wolves. One of her favorite things to put in as added security were spiders and snakes. Normally there would have been pits with them, or traps where holes would open and the vermin would come out of the walls. Not here, however. There had been a startling lack of such traps. In addition to the physical traps he expected to find, there was a stunning lack of magical pitfalls. Where were the magical glyphs of damnation to annihilate those she didn’t want entering? Normally at least one of his beloved students would have been gated directly to a waiting demon as the unfortunate youngster stepped into a rift rune. With all of his students recalled to him, including those on other minor missions for him, he took a knee. Even though he was low on force and tired, he eyed all of his students. He couldn’t help but to count heads one more time. Once again he found every single student accounted for and very few had any sort of major injury. Only Korom, Sardor and Gledd needed assistance from the Healthman and none of their injuries were life-threatening. While he was not displeased in the slightest to have taken out any operation’s fortification of Gambra’s without a single loss of a student, it simply didn’t add up. In simple terms, he was certain he had overlooked something vital within the fortress. The problem was, the information given to him by Terigore, a high ranking Demon of Jardkil, held information vital to not only crippling Gambra’s long and short range plans, but maybe even slicing at her underlying power base. Standing here looking over the now burning and empty keep wondering where he had somehow missed something vital was not doing him any good. He needed to use the knowledge gained from Terigore and do so quickly. However, he still had young ones to teach and it was time for another quick lesson. He glanced down at his students and over to the prisoners. “Boys, the nineteen before us are not Dark Mages, they are not Dark Mystics. They are not guards found in the lower levels where the life links were being housed. Some were cooking staff, others were cleaning staff, and a few were wall guards we found in barracks sleeping.” Lord Anarton looked over to Tyklor, “What are your thoughts as what should be done with them?” “They worked for the bitch!” Tyklor growled with eyes so narrow he was only looking out of slits. “They had to have seen, heard or at least guessed some of the things going on in there! They should be killed!” Upon hearing this, several of the captives shook their heads and some started crying. A few of the tougher ones glared. Lord Anarton glanced over at the rest of the students, “Anyone care to refute Tyklor’s venomous observations?” Klonaz, a thirteen-year-old human with skills almost equal to Tyklor, glanced around at the other students and nervously shifted his feet before speaking up, “My Lord, in good conscious, I cannot fully agree.” “What?” Tyklor growled in a mixture of shock and anger. “How can you say such a thing? You are one of those who found the branded boy up in the guest rooms! You saw how he was treated! Those living in the upper levels had to have seen and heard his screams and pleas! They are all guilty!” Klonaz glanced over at the child who was still being cared after getting treatment on the brand and the battered body. “Tyklor, I was not there. You may be right on this, but just because they heard such things does not mean they were wrong.” Tyklor’s fists balled up and had Anarton not put an arm out to keep the boy in check, he would have certainly tried to attack Klonaz. The single move to hold up his arm was all it took to back down Tyklor, however. Forcing his face to remain totally neutral he glanced around to some of his other more advanced students. “Celador, Gilew, Hexthew, Wisym, you are all closing in on being skilled enough to move out of my estate and into the real world. What do you all say and why?” Wisym, a Dark Forest Elf who had lived with Lord Anarton and his teaching for over a decade was the first to speak, although his voice told those listening he was not totally confident of his own thoughts. “My Lord, there are people out there who would demand you are killed for what you demand of us. I speak not of being taught in the arts of Wraith, but on the bedding of us. It is a requirement for all of us to give not only our minds, but also our bodies, over to you and you have used us for your pleasures repeatedly. This was part of the deal, and we all know this and accepted it. There are some, though, who would see this as a twisting of a teacher’s pledge to protect his students and some could try to say you are guilty of harming your students. Yet we all stand by as you use us. We do nothing to stop you. Are we guilty? I don’t think we are and I don’t think you are guilty. I would sure hate to be put to death should someone come around and make what you do to us in bed a crime, simply because I did nothing to stop it.” Gilew, a human of only twelve years of age, but a boy who had been rescued by Lord Anarton from becoming a life linked spell page at age nine by his own father, spoke up next. “Many say since my father was a Dark Mage I am of tainted blood and should be killed. Yet I did nothing other than come within a fraction of a centimeter from cutting off my right tit to avoid scalding water being dumped on me by the very same man. Am I guilty of knowing what was going on? Yes, in a way. I heard some things and saw other things, but it didn’t really make sense to me until I saw what a huge barrel scalding water did to my best friend. It was then I knew, but the threat of it being done to me even as my best friend screamed himself into unconsciousness, was what it finally took. Can you hold people responsible for not fitting pieces together? Possibly, maybe even probably. Should they endure a punishment? yes? No? Probably? Whatever you answer there is still no real proof of a crime by those who we have here. So take everything they have and let them go. It is kilometers to the next village and even when they get there they will arrive with nothing. Make them start over, as I was made to do under our Lord.” Hexthew, Gilew’s scalded best friend spoke up next, “Gilew is right. We both saw and heard things when I was over playing with him. Things didn’t add up. The fact we were taught magic and forced to use every drop within ourselves by his father was not normal, nor was forced casting beyond what we should have been able to do. It hurt a couple of our friends badly, and one became damaged and unable to cast for weeks because of the harshness of the training. We heard things from the cellars, but we ignored them because it was his father, my instructor. Getting the boiling water poured on me was probably the punishment fate had in store for me for not telling others about what went on inside Gilew’s home, but did I deserve it or death… well death would have probably been way better or at least easier than the treatments Lord Anarton got for me to restore my flesh, but had someone killed me I would not have learned from the past and helped to kill two Dark Mages today.” Celador, a River Elf, was the last of the mentioned students to give his thoughts, "My Lord, many of these in front of us are only alive because they were not on guard or in the line of combat when we stormed the upper levels. This may be luck or just fate. Had these men and boys been on guard duty, they would have been killed like their comrades, but they were not. I for one do not want to play with fate or test the Goddess Serriff’s resolve by killing those fate seems to have dictated not die. “The other thing I think we should all consider is this. How we would view what we know went on in the upper levels?” At this he moved over and knelt next to the branded boy, “Do not get me wrong. I am sorry you were so tormented, but to those working in the upper parts of the keep who heard you scream, it really matters not what they felt. Unless you can prove they knew you were not a slave, you can hold nothing against them and neither can we. It is the right of any owner to treat any slave however he or she wishes. It is their property and if they wish to break it, destroy it and or discard it, it is the owner’s right to do so.” He then stroked the boy’s hair. “You were not a legal slave, and if you can point to any in this group who knew this and then knew what happened to you, then and only then will I change my opinion on letting them live. So did any know you were not a slave and still did nothing when you were being brutalized by the man Tyklor tossed off the upper balcony?” The crying boy extended a finger and pointed to one of the female cooks, “She did. She even teased me about cooking the very last meal I would have as a free person!” Celador glared at the woman, then glanced over to Lord Anarton, “Her, my Lord, I would take a degree of satisfaction in killing. The others, I tend to agree with Gilew. Strip them of all belongings and let fate decide. Serriff will either continue to shine on them with the mysteries of good fortune, or their luck will turn and they will not make it out of this area alive. We will have at least given them a chance.” With this Lord Anarton managed a slight smile, “Celador, you will yet get me to pay a temple of Serriff to teach you.” He then glanced back down at Tyklor, “So, have your thoughts changed any?” Tyklor shook his head, “No, my Lord. If we don’t kill them now, we very well may end up having to fight them later.” “Or we will have gained an ally to tell the world of Gambra’s deeds. For the more out of the shadows she is, the harder it will be for her to hide!” Wisym countered. “We cannot come out of the shadows, but others can expose who and what Gambra is to the world for us!” Tyklor tossed up his hands in frustration, “You all do what you want, but if you wish help in quickly and painlessly ending the existence of any of these fools, then I will be happy to help!” “And there, dear boy, is the problem.” Lord Anarton sighed, "You wish to execute people for being fools. Being stupid and foolish is not a crime punishable by death. If it was, we would all have been killed by now. Just look at me. I was a Dark Mage apprentice and knew what Dark Magic was about. It took me seeing the look in my son’s eyes with my dagger hovering over his stomach in my hand before I woke up and saw the true evil behind it all. I was given a second chance and have ended many, many Dark Mages’ reigns of terror because I was given such an opportunity. “Just look at what we all did here today! There are many beings free from the life link of pages ripping at their souls because of what we accomplished this day. I learned and would hope you would give such a chance to others in hopes of a similar outcome. Now we know the faces and should any of us come across them again and they are doing such treachery, then we can say there were given a second chance and did nothing with it.” Tyklor rubbed his forehead, “Yeah, I guess… Sorry My Lord.” Lord Anarton pulled Tyklor back into him and kissed him on the top of the head. At the same time he glanced over at Celador, “I tend to agree with you. End the taunting woman’s threat to this realm and the next by ending her now. Then get help stripping the others. They get nothing, not even clothing.” Celador glanced down at the crying boy, “Do you wish the honors of ending this bitch’s life or do you want me to?” “The boy closed his eyes, ”Just do it… Please." It took only a moment for the Elvin boy to move up and snap the woman’s neck even as she tried to pull away. Without the slightest hint of remorse, he used her death to augment his strength so he could easily toss her body into the flames licking the door of the nearest tower. Taking a knee, he let go of the death gift just as quickly as he took it, shook his head over the feeling of loss of power and took a deep breath. Without looking back at where he had tossed the body, he nodded with a slight smile over at the badly abused boy. Celador then looked at the remaining captives. “You can either let us cut the bonds holding your feet and wrists, stand and strip and toss your stuff into the fires burning in the gate house or we can cut it all off you and toss it in there. It is up to you, but the chances of getting accidentally nicked with a blade as we cut off your clothing is a very real possibility and we do not wish to add any discomfort beyond what our decreed punishment is. Once nude and your stuff in flames, you can go!” Once the last of the captives had moved off into the woods outside the keep, Lord Anarton took a deep breath, “Tyklor, you Yulay and Ark’land are with me and our Healthman. Celador, Gilew, Hexthew, Klonaz and Wisym select four others to be on your teams. Take turns and choose wisely. I will then gate us all to just outside of this place called Rolling Dale. You will then split up into your teams and enter the settlement separately so our incursion is not obvious. Instead you will be seen as a groups of boys dealing with whatever we find when we get there and with any luck, some of Gambra’s minions will mistake you for easy targets. This way we can let their greed lead to their downfall. Your primary mission is to find Conner and or to help him deal with the Dark Mages and Dark Mystics. Whatever you do, however, stay clear of the place called the Gloom Fire. For if Gambra is really there, she will happily do horrible things to any of my students. Leave the Gloom Fire for me!” Seldnat moved up to Kandric as the boy started to move off in the direction of Rolling Dale, “Us no can leave dem like this. It not be safe ’nuff yet!” Lorthorn moved between the two as he saw Kandric turn to glare at Seldnat, “Look, Premier, we will do what you command and we always will, but look around! We finally found some of the others, and there are more out here! With everything you have told us about your teacher, he is going to be able to handle whatever comes his way. Do you think it is better to go after him, or finish helping here and try to find the others from the school?” Even though Kandric badly wanted to head straight to Rolling Dale, dearly wanted to run, find Glaster and jump into the man’s arms, he took a deep breath and nodded. “I am sorry. You are both correct. Thank you.” Before Zeltoss could try to calm him further, Kandric moved over to the restrained Gobling, clearly annoyed with himself. As he walked by, Kandric delivered a powerful shot to its face, shattering the several facial bones and knocking it out with the single devastating blow. Blood ran down the ruined face as it remained standing, held upright by the restrain spell. Kandric then stepped up on the Gobling with the bolt stuck in its butt cheek. He kicked it in the face hard enough to flip it onto its back, snapping the bolt and sending the remaining part in even deeper, while distributing teeth over the forest floor. Everyone watching realized the savagery of the boot to the face almost certainly killed the badly injured creature. Still showing some inner rage he clenched his fists and glanced around. After pointing to the young Dragonling who had surrendered while growling, “Do not move and you will live though this,” Kandric walked down the hill. He eyed the large green Dragonling Zeltoss had broken the snout of, noting its chest was moving as it took in breaths. He studied it for a moment, then looked up to the students it had helped to torment. Kandric shook his head with disgust before motioning to the five who came with him. “It is still alive. Move the injured from the Slome schools and the others Tara captured close to it and finish it off. Its death will do some healing to all of them and cut down on what I will need to cast to get them back up to being healthy enough to travel with this group.” He kind of cringed as he realized how pompous he was sounding. The last thing he ever wanted was to become some snobby royal with nothing but contempt for those of a lesser caste. He ran his hand down his face and muttered to himself about acting like a spoiled brat, then turned and paused to gather his thoughts and temper his anger. Finally Kandric took a deep breath and turned back to face Klent, “My apologies. I should not try to demand or assume anything. I owe you for helping to protect my students while trying to aid those you could. However, with the situation what it is, I am going to ask this of you. If you would be kind enough to be willing to let them all travel with you for a bit, you would have my thanks. For, from what I was able to glean before we stepped into this skirmish, this is your crew.” Klent eyed the small redheaded boy with a mixture of caution and intrigue. The very fact the boy called this engagement a skirmish, not a fight, would have normally been annoying at best and maddening at worst. This was especially true since two of his party members and one pet had already been captured by the hostile group. His feelings this time, however, only allowed for fear and astonishment all knotted up in a large mass in the pit of his stomach. The youngster was, after all, in Green Dragon scale armor with a crest of royalty he could not recognize on one shoulder and the crest of the Black Rapids Wilderness Scouts on the other. The Wilderness Scout crest showed him to be an officer and an independent scout. Finally, everything the boy wore was secured properly and the casting and combat skills the child displayed were a few steps above terrifying. All this told Klent this boy was so far above his social caste, he probably shouldn’t be talking to him. Furthermore, this was not just some super-rich child; it was, in fact, a boy who had proven he was as skilled as the armor and insignias seemed to indicate. For the boy was the leader and there was no denying the six youngsters had walked though a very powerful group without breaking a sweat. No one in their right mind, who had witnessed what just happened, could refute the ruthlessness of their actions. Besides, the aftermath was scattered all around him. Truth be told, all Klent really wanted to do was to remain silent and do whatever this child told him to do. Unfortunately, he was being forced to enter into a dialog with the youngster, so he knelt to show as much deference as he possibly could. “Young lord, I will do as you commanded me to do. If you are giving me a choice, though, I will keep those you just rescued with me until we get someplace where I am certain I can leave them safely. My group has yet to fully come together and the added burden of more young ones would hamper my group’s cohesion. Rylop and the four boys we already took in, however, can stay with me or go their own way. I will leave it up to you and or Rylop.” Kandric gave Klent a nod, “Thank you. The decision is yours to make. I am not commanding you to do anything more than you have already done. If you wish to get my students out from under your feet quickly, there is a rather large encampment a few kilometers from here just between those two rocky hills.” He pointed to emphasis. “You can take them there and drop them off if you wish to unburden yourself of their care without much travel. They will be safe and well cared for. Do not be alarmed at what you find there, however. Since I can assure you it is unlike any force you have ever seen or even dreamed about. On the other hand, I feel I need to reassure you most of those you now have with you would be able to add a great deal of skills to your entourage. Given a chance, time will show you why I care about them as much as I do.” “Young lord, may I ask why you say most of them?” Kandric couldn’t help but giggle, “By asking the way you did, you just asked, so I would have to say yes, you can ask!” Klent couldn’t help but smile at the child he was kneeling before, “Very true, young lord. Your words give me pause, since I gather you have some questions or concerns with at least one of them.” Kandric sent a cold stare up at one of those Tarastala had captu