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    Kyle Aarons
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Beyond the Crags - 3. Chapter 3

Adga dropped the last couple of meters, hit the sand, and stood. She knocked the sand off, then ran toward the guard building on the north side of the Gate Wall. She slowed as she saw a detachment of guards on Sand Skimmers angling in her direction. The lead skimmer had a small figure carrying the Shunral banner on it. The red-fringed black three-pointed flag whipped in the wind, making the crossed silver-colored morningstars behind a red shield with a black twin-headed winged snake on it easy to see.

The flag bearer pulled up short, allowing a dark-skinned man with white hair to move past. She recognized him instantly. It was none other than Lord Alagor Shunral. He had not aged much. This made her guess the noble wasn’t Human, but instead Highman or a half-race with his Human side infused with another longer lifespan being. She didn’t let this thought distract her too much. She dropped to a knee and lowered her head as she had been taught in guard training.

Alagor hopped off his Sand Skimmer. His metal-reinforced boots caused the sand to crunch. “Guardsman, stand.” As soon as Adga stood and looked down at him, the man smiled, “Why look there. It’s my sponsored young Illorc with rank pins and full guard armor!” He reached out and squeezed Adga’s right bicep. “And wow, you have grown! You are certainly turning into quite a strong young lady! Quite the difference from the last time my eyes fell on you. If nothing else, they are feeding you well.”

“I hit another growth spurt a few moons back and train with the master trainer whenever I get a chance, my Lord.”

“And it shows!” Alagor stated with clear praise. “I was informed you were promoted to full guardsman for your actions outside the dump. I am sorry I missed your promotion ceremony, Adga.”

“My Lord, you honor me by remembering my name.”

“It is I who is honored. Your promotion for the defense of the northern city from undead coming out of a previously unknown cave with access to the Crags shows my decision to sponsor you was a wise one. Being both Primary Echelon guilded and gaining the rank of guardsman before your age of ascension while wearing my sponsorship pin also does honor to the Shunral name. Therefore, it is I who thank you. He glanced up at the smoke, “So I assume you were sent to give a report as to the need to send up the highest level of alert?”

“Yes, my Lord.” Adga took a deep breath. “Healthman Koralm verified my sighting of Blood Tendrils spilling down the Outer Crag Cliffs!”

Behind Alagor, there were several gasps, and a few of the Sand Skimmers hissed and shifted as their riders pulled on the reins.

Alagor glanced back with a frown, “Enough of this nonsense! We are warriors of House Shunral! If we show fear, it will transfer off to those we are tasked to defend! They need to have full faith in this elite force at times like this!”

He turned back to Adga. “Do you know how long we have?”

“My Lord, Koralm thinks eight to ten runs of a sandglass… But…”

“But?” Alagor raised an eyebrow. “You were sent to give a report, so do not concern yourself with my title or class. If your watch leader sent you as a crier of ill information, it is because it needs to be heard. Continue.”

“My Lord, we don’t think the smoke will get seen by Scorpion Falls, and maybe not even warn Bladed Sands.”

Alagor looked up and scowled deeply. It was obvious both plumes of red smoke were being pushed to the north without gaining much height beyond that of the Spires. “A strong south wind to be sure.” He turned back to one of his men. “Lox-ram, you are my best Outdoorsman and scout. What say you?”

A Sand Skimmer moved up with a man in nice scale mail armor. He looked up and shook his head. “There is no chance it will be seen by either community, Lord Shunral. It is doubtful our guard posts at Amber Sands will be able to see it either. Word will not reach the southern communities unless we dispatch a team to do so. Warvon is not being kind.”

“It is not the duty of the gods to be kind,” Alagor grumbled. “The Blood Tendrils are a cautioning we should praise him for.” He glanced skyward again, then turned back to Adga, “Do you know the way to Scorpion Falls?”

“I do, my Lord. I have been on dozens of patrols between here and there during my years of training.”

Alagor nodded hard, “Good! Your longer lifespan and diligence to Twin Spires have served you well. It is now about to serve the whole of our Greater Desert Realm. As of now, you are assigned to my command. However, I do not want to pull more guard resources away from Twin Spires than absolutely needed. Nor will I send you through such perilous territory alone…” His eyes panned over Adga for a few seconds, glanced back up to the red smoke, then back to Adga. “I gather you have a few… let us call them skilled rough and tumble types… You get the idea. Um, anyway, do you have any guilded rough and tumble non-guard friends you trust to accompany you to Scorpion Falls?”

Adga gulped, “I’m an Illorc, so most of my guilded friends aren’t exactly…”

Alagor cut her off, “Do you trust them?”

“With my life.”

“There is no higher praise or level of trust,” Alagor stated with a satisfied tone and an odd-looking smirk. “There are times when a rougher assembly is better than a more refined one. As of now, you are authorized to recruit three or four of them. I do not care who or what they are. If you trust and speak for them, I accept their veracity. They will be paid as full guardsmen out of my own funds for the duration of this mission. They can also equip out of the guard storehouse. They can keep the gear, but I’m holding you responsible, so they don’t get greedy. If they do, well, I may be inclined to find other tasks for them…” He pulled out a single sheet of paper from a scroll case along with an ink vial and feather quill. He scribbled a note, then pushed his ring into it hard enough to leave a clear indentation.

Alagor glanced up to the smoke, then turned to his standard bearer, “Tez, take this. It verifies my words. As of now, Guardsman Adga has rank on you. Help her round up a group of her friends, then escort them directly to the central barracks. If any argue, show them the letter, and if needed feel free to snap at them. There is no time for senseless stigmas regarding race, rank, class, or caste to get in the way of sending such a dire alert to Amber Sand, Bladed Sands, and Scorpion Falls of the sighting of Blood Tendrils!”

A slender dark-skinned boy with white hair moved up on his skimmer, “As you command, my Lord…” His final word droned on well past when it should have and he squirmed in the saddle. Adga noticed the boy closed his eyes even as he spoke up. “Uncle, may I go with her?”

Alagor raised an eyebrow, “If you can find another noble to accompany you, yes. However, this will serve as a Rite of Nobility for both of you. Command rests with Guardsman Adga. Neither you nor your friend, which I can only assume will be Nuk, will use your noble social castes over her in any way. My banner also stays at the barracks. You travel as noble-born underlings of Guardsman Adga, nothing more. If I hear either of you refuse to do anything, no matter what it is, when being given any command by her, your next few years will be as unpleasant as your fathers will allow me to make them. Understood?”

The youngster gulped. “Completely Uncle.”

“And under this condition, you still wish to go?”

“I do, Uncle.”

“Good. Your Rite of Nobility starts now.” He turned back to Adga, “My nephew, Son-Tez, is a guilded Mage and will be useful. However, he has a… slippery side to him. He is also prone to finding trouble.”

The right side of Adga’s thick lip twisted upward, “Then he will get along well with my friends.”

Alagor snickered even as his eyes rolled. “Just don’t go getting into too much trouble, Guardsman. You are traveling under the authority of the Shunral name.” He snorted again and lightly shook his head with a humor-filled grin. “Nuk-lem, Tez’s best friend will certainly say yes. Both lads have a wanderlust not fitting of normal nobles. However, it is something I happen to find intriguing and admirable about both. Maybe this will be a good way for them to spread their wings and see if a life of adventure is truly in their blood while also getting their first Rite of Nobility under them.

“Nuk-lem is a Sorcerer and also prone to deviousness. The added magic to your group from Son-Tez and Nuk-lem may come in handy. Plus, having a noble-born with you will quash any arguments when you seek shelter in the Scorpion Falls Guild Hall during the storm. You and those you assemble to join you, are to remain in the Scorpion Falls area to help deal with any undead until the danger has passed. Report to Count Saban Kandahar when you arrive and let him know I have sent you there on temporary reassignment, with you being squad commander of you and your associates. He will utilize you as he sees fit. Tez knows him, therefore introductions will be easy.”

He then turned his attention back to Tez, “Take Guardsman Adga on your skimmer to the main barracks. Tell the shift lieutenant she and her friends are authorized to equip and take skimmers. She, along with those she recruits, will need orders with my seal. Have the lieutenant get the guard captain to pen and stamp the needed documentation… Oh, and make sure she collects her pay. As her sponsor, I included a gift for her promotion. It may well come in handy. The needed information about the gift is written in Mage. If she has problems reading the scroll with the instructions, help her.”

“As you command Uncle!”

Adga simply couldn’t hold her tongue no matter how much common sense told her she should. “My Lord, I can read Mage. I am a Primary guilded Warrior Adept!”

While a few of the detachment behind the man frowned at her outburst, Alagor laughed. He reached upward and patted her on the shoulder. “I should have known. I will endeavor to check with all our instructors to see if there are areas we can help you further improve. However, know your hard work has made me proud. Now get moving!”

Adga gave what she figured was a decent bow but judging by the snorts and grunts of those in the detachment, it left much to be desired. However, Lord Alagor said nothing. She waved off the offered hand of the slender standard bearer, figuring she would probably pull him off instead of him helping her up. She grabbed the back handle of the saddle and fluidly yanked herself up. Riding Sand Skimmers, both single and double, was a required skill for all Twin Spire guards.

As the skimmer let out a hiss and turned to the northern settlement, she heard Alagor talk to one of his men, “We need to find more with her drive and commitment to the Spires. Maybe her friends are what I am looking for.”

As Tez approached the outer wall of the northern settlement, Adga tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to a set of ramshackle stone buildings built on the outside of the wall only a few hundred meters east of the main gate. “We need to stop there first.”

“The squatter market?” Tez asked with a note of revulsion and trepidation.

“Yes. If you are traveling with me, you’ll soon get used to such places, young lord.”

Tez gulped but turned the skimmer toward the buildings. Above, red smoke coming off the torches caused the air to have an acidic sulfuric smell and even taste. “The scent from the warning torches is disgusting!”

“Be happy,” Adga stated. “It’ll hide the aroma of those living here and at least mask the odor of those seeking services. Make sure to stay a few paces back from most, as Desert Mites and Thorny Lice are common.” She directed the sour-faced noble through the maze of tightly packed buildings, back alleys, and narrow streets before pointing to a sturdy-looking structure with a small stable area behind it.

Not even the red smoke was enough to overpower the fact the stable waste needed to be taken out and disposed of. The stench was enough to make Tez gag.

“Use your sand facemask and breathe through your nose. If you don’t, you’ll end up tasting what you are smelling.”

“Disgusting!” Tez managed to choke out before pulling his thin cloth mask from the back of his headdress and over his face.

Adga jumped off the back of the skimmer before it had completely stopped. “There is water around the back of the corral. Your skimmer will need it if we are going to take it all the way to Scorpion Falls without rest!”

Adga smirked as Tez looked around nervously at so many beings, most wearing what amounted to rags, staring at him. “Don’t worry, you carry the standard of Shunral. It would be suicidal for anyone to accost you… No matter how cute you are.”

Tez’s dark-skinned cheeks took on a crimson glow even as he maneuvered around the backside of the building Adga had directed him toward. She snickered.

She adjusted her bastard sword for quick and easy pulling even as she made her way past a line of beings waiting to get inside the shop. A few glared at her, but all moved aside. No squatter was stupid enough to mess with a guilded and armed guardsman. Besides, most who were in line were smaller, thinner, and unskilled. She bet she could take on most, if not all of them at the same time.

Adga ducked under the doorframe and moved up to a small counter. Behind it, a couple of people were on tables stained dark red from blood that had soaked in over the years of use. An old Pantherling, with greying fur around his face, stood between the two tables and gave instructions to a quartet of younger beings who were working on those lying on the tables.

The Pantherling looked up, “Adga, good to see you. But as you can see your sister is very busy.”

A younger Illorc looked up from where she was working on the arm of a Human boy. Tears ran down the lad’s face, turning brown as they left dirty trails as they fell. “Ad!” The girl shouted in joy. “What’s wit da warnin’ torches?”

“Bad sandstorms coming over the Crags, Mabda. You got a few hours before everything will need to be shut down.” Adga held up her hand as her sister started to move toward her, “He needs you more than you need a hug.”

The Pantherling nodded in agreement, “Mab, focus. His arm is broke and needs set. Jump up on him and hold him while Wohlan pulls it straight.”

“I’s can do it…”

“Yeah, ya can, but he’s a sturdy little fella, and yer stronger than Wohlan. Now jump up there and pin him down!”

Adga turned away as her sister grabbed the boy while the other apprentice moved and gave the awkwardly bent arm a firm tug. The boy’s scream almost drowned out the crunching sound of bone on bone. It made her shudder. She turned back noting the boy had blacked out. She said a quick prayer of thanks to Lunara, goddess of the moon, her chosen primary deity.

The man moved up, inspected the straightening, and nodded. “Good, now splint and wrap with hard-drying mud. Add in a pinch of Fire Root when you do so to prevent Desert Mites from getting in. Make it thick. It will need to stay on for at least a full cycle of the moon.”

“Can’t we use a few Slime Thorns ta speed it?” Mabda asked.

“His old man only had a few tin coins and a basket of Sand Berries. I ain’t wastin’ no extra healing herbs on the kid. The Fire Root already cost more den the tin! Now we still got us a line and yer sister just said a storm’s comin’. Get ta work!”

He shook his head as he made his way up to Adga, “Yer sister’s got too big a heart and too little coin sense. Now what can I do for you?”

“Need to borrow Rar’rin for a extended time.”

“Yer three days off again already, huh? What trouble ya gonna to get into this time?”

Adga snorted, “Me? Trouble?”

The Pantherling roared in laughter. “If ya ever get a second name, dat’ll be it! So ya headed to explore some cave on dis side a the Crags again?”

“I was but plans just changed. I’m rounding up a group to go to Scorpion Falls to warn them of the storm and help down thereafter. The smoke is blowing north. They won’t see it.”

“This official guard duty?”

“Yeah. Orders right from Lord Alagor Shunral.”

“Well, crap. You know I hate to lose Rar fer even three day. But I ain’t about to say no to the Shunral’s. They be one a me sponsors and keep me in herbs and even toss extra coin and pay a stipend to me underlings.” The Pantherling sighed. “He’s down with da overnighters. Go grab him and tell Pokcol he’ll have ta make do without Rar.”

The Pantherling grabbed Adga’s shoulder as she went past. When she turned, he whispered, “How bad a storm we lookin’ at Adga?”

“Bad, real bad.”

“Blood Tendrils?”

Adga wasn’t sure what she was allowed to say, but her sister worked for the old Pantherling. She had to make sure the old Healthman knew what he was up against. She gave a single hard nod.

“Yeah, best ta keep it quiet fer now. Go on. But don’t get caught out in it. Last time me took fingers, hands, and limbs off a folk who didn’t cover up enough and got skin stripped right off what was exposed. It also shredded the eyes right out a the skulls of a few folk. They all died, and a few who had red sand in them came back from the dead. It be real bad.”

“I heard… Kind of sounds like a book I read about Sand Dragons. It said before they all died off their breath did the same kind of thing.”

“Never heard a no Sand Dragon, but if’n they had a breath a sand like a Dead Storm, be good they ain’t ‘round no more. It be a real bad way ta go and a bitch to heal.”

“Sounds like it… Um, can I use both your Dragonsteeds so Rar’rin and a couple of my other friends can get to the guard’s barracks fast? I’ll have a guard detachment bring them back.”

“You is workin’ fer Lord Shunral, so takes what ya needs. Be nice if the guards kept ‘em until after the storm, so I don’t have to worry about finding them food and getting them water during the big blow.”

“Bet I can arrange it.”

“Sounds good ta me. Now get yer hide movin’!”

Adga made her way around a few wood crates and some casks of water. The steps leading down were stone, but old. The edges were rolled smooth and narrow. It made the footing treacherous. As she hit the bottom step, the ancient cellar opened up. She frowned as she noted eight of the ten overnight beds had beings in them. Taking Rar’rin with her would definitely be a burden to the Healthman shop. However, she wanted Rar’rin with her both for his fighting and Healthman skills.

As she stepped into the lantern light, a young Dwarf hung his head. “Oh, come on Ad! You can’t take Rin! Can’t you see how busy we is?”

“I do, and I’m sorry. But this is Spire business. I need him.”

A head with dark crimson scales poked his head out of a back room, “Sssspire work? Really?”

“Hey, Rin! Yeah, really. I am getting a group to join me in getting down to Scorpion Falls. Wind’s going the wrong way, so I’ve been tasked with warning them in person.”

The Dragonling emerged from the back room, “That be way more far den cave pokin’. Not really have travel gear yet. We need ta find a treassssure ‘er dip into the buyin’ fund before me can buy enough fer a trip dat far.”

“Got permission from Lord Shunral to let you equip out of the guard stores and you’ll even get ta keep it. You’ll also get to use one of their Sand Skimmers.”

Rar’rin tossed a leather satchel over to Pokcol, “Ya got me! When we leave?”

“As soon as possible. But I need to find a couple of others. Any chance I can have you round up Vyrax while I snag Vendra?”

“Ya got it! Where we meet?”

“Get him here. We’re taking the Dragonsteeds to the central barracks.”

Rar’rin’s shoulders dropped. “Them guard ain’t gonna let me in none, Adga. Ya know they ain’t keen on me kind and don’t like we low-born dreg folk of question’bul blood.”

“They will this time. I’ve got Shunral escort and signed noble permission to grab who I want.”

Rar’rin perked up instantly, “Be right back with Vyrax then!”

“Oh, and dip into the buying fund if you need, but make sure to stock up on your healing herbs. This storm sounds bad.” Adga exchanged fist bumps with the Dragonling as he nodded and rushed up the steps.

She took a moment to give her sister a hug and slid her a few copper coins before heading over a couple of blocks to one of the nicest structures in the area commonly referred to as the Squatter’s Market. She entered, took a knee, and slid a copper coin into an offering box off to the side of a statue of the God Zeris holding up a staff with a flaming ball on the end. The fire coming off was very real, but for reasons Adga could only attribute to Zeris himself, the inside of the shrine remained amazingly cool.

A woman looked over as she heard the coin clatter into what sounded like an empty box. She smiled warmly, “Adga! It is good to see you. To what do we owe the pleasure of seeing you?”

A Human teen came out of a side door with a large Fanged Spider Lizard following her. The slave collar around her neck also had a black sash marking her as assigned to the shrine by the Spires Captain of the Guard. “It’s her three days off, Priestess. Did you find a cave or old ruin to explore Ad?”

“I had something in mind, but duty calls and I’m hoping you’ll be willing to join us.”

“Ad, I’d love to, but I’m a non-owned slave given to the Shrine of Zeris until the waiting period of fifteen moons of no rightful heir claiming me is over. You know I’m not allowed within the walls on my own, let alone help the city guard.”

“Of course, I know. I am the one who killed your owner when he pulled a knife on my guard trainer. Come on, you will get to see Scorpion Falls and a few other settlements outside of the shadow of the Spires.”

“I really want to, but it would never be allowed.”

“It is this time, Vendra. I have Shunral authority to select a team of whoever I want with no restrictions.”

The priestess looked over with wide eyes, “This is a chance you cannot pass on, Vendra. Working directly for the Shunral family may be enough to have a noble review your case for ending your birth standing as a slave. A noble can end your slavery with a stroke of a quill on parchment.”

Vendra looked resigned to her social status as she spoke. “The time for a legitimate family member of my deceased owner to claim me is still seven moons away. If the Order of Zeris can’t get a noble to hear the case, no one can.”

“There is a chance, Vendra,” Adga argued. “The Channelers of Zeris have already gotten you rights as a freed slave unless someone comes to stake claim for the remainder of your waiting period. You just have to always be in view of the Spires and return to a shrine or temple of Zeris every third day. If you travel with me, the travel ban will be lifted until we return.”

The priestess spoke up, “I can send you with a letter of explanation. You can check in at the temple in Scorpion Falls.”

“Which is what I was gonna recommend.” Adga chimed back in enthusiastically. “Who knows, maybe Lord Alagor Shunral will be willing to strike your name from the slave without owner list. It would give you the caste of a guilded ex-slave, freedom of travel, and limited access inside the northern walls.”

Adga moved up and patted the girl on the back, “And the task comes with gear you can keep.”

“Only if I stay free. Anything I own will go to my owner if a legitimate heir of Obvogo appears.”

“Unlikely.” The priestess stated. “The person would have to pay the fines and transfer rights since your owner committed a crime against the Spires by trying to attack a guardsman. Besides, we have made sure no runners go out with information showing your owner has unclaimed property of any kind. We have also stricken your name off the known possessions list, even if someone comes looking. Therefore, it would take a close family member who knows you exist and your name to find you on the unowned slave list, and we have even made it difficult at best for such information to be found. Now gather what the Channelers of Zeris and Adga have put together for you to venture into the surrounding area with Adga. Should or when you become a freed slave it will be yours.”

“Alright, but when the gate guards stop me, don’t be surprised.”

Adga made her way to the corral with Vendra. She moved up to Son-Tez, “Young lord, I was told I could bring whoever I wanted without limits, right?”

Son-Tez turned away from the water trough and his Sand Skimmer, “You were, Guardsman, and please do not call me young lord. I am under your command. By Twin Spire law this allows you to call me by my first name only. Most call me Tez, and I am fine…” He paused as he saw the leather slave collar and black sash on Vendra. “Seriously? An unclaimed slave?” His gaze fell on the Fanged Spider Lizard, “With a poisonous pet, no less!”

Vendra hung her head, “See, I told you…”

“You tell her nothing,” Son-Tez barked, then turned back to Adga, “The document my uncle penned has no limit, but I think this is…”

Much to Adga’s satisfaction, the slender Mage stopped speaking the instant she glared at him. She spoke with a great deal of anger, “This is one of my most trusted friends and Razor is fully trained and a great addition to the squad!”

Son-Tez held up both hands. “Then she comes with as one of us. I am not about to tell you no and I have nothing against the slave. I am sure, if you trust her I can as well. In addition, you have not a clue what my uncle would do to me if I do argue.” He managed a slight smile. “Neither do I and I am certain I have no desire to find out. His temper on such matters is…” Once again, the young Mage stopped mid-sentence. “What in the name of Salam?!?”

Adga glanced over in the direction Son-Tez was staring and snickered. Rar’rin, wearing only a loin cloth, light pack, waterskin, and a shoulder strap with his weapons came into view as he rounded the backside of the stables. The sight was made far stranger because of who accompanied him. A well-dressed slender pale-skinned Halfelf happily whistled an upbeat tune. The lad had long silver hair hanging well below his desert headdress and wore a light grey hooded cloak that went down almost to his knees. It had a slit in the back to allow a pummel of a blade to poke up over his right shoulder. Under the cloak, he wore fancy reinforced leather armor. Over the cloak and weapon, he carried a very nice-looking backpack with a few pricey items strapped to it.

“Tez, let me introduce my friends. You just met Vendra. Her pet is Razor. The red guy is Rar’rin. Don’t let his small size fool you. He’s Dragonling to the core, right down to being able to breathe flames a few times a day. Next to him is Vyrax, the son of the only Mystic shop owner in the Squatter Market. These are the friends I was going to tell Lord Alagor Shunral about.”

Son-Tez blinked, “Dragonling with scales way too dark to be a normal Red, Halfelf who obviously hails from WAY to the north, and Human unclaimed slave with a poisonous pet… OK, then…” He let out a long breath. “And my commander is a newly promoted and biggest Illorc I’ve ever heard of, let alone seen. This should be an interesting trip.”

“Your commander?” Rar’rin snorted, “Ya tellin’ me the thhhhin one be comin’ along?”

Adga nodded. “He is as long as his buddy agrees to join us, Rin, and he is a Shunral, so be nice.”

Rar’rin turned his head in the other direction and eyed the boy, “OK, me no eat dis one. What ‘bout him friend?”

Adga burst out laughing as Son-Tez’s eyes went wide. “Another noble, Rin, and be pleasant. Tez doesn’t know your sense of humor yet.”

“No humor, him look clean and got good odor. Good eat compare to mossst ‘round here.” Rar’rin tried to hold a straight face but quickly exposed his mouth full of teeth as he broke out into a hissing giggle fit.

Next to Adga, Vendra smiled and snickered while Vyrax gave Rar’rin a hard, yet playful, shove.

Son-Tez dropped his head into his right hand, “Oh, by the gods, what did I get myself into this time?”

“This time?” Vyrax asked with a huge smile, “Sounds like you may already be one of us, Lord Shunral.”

“Just call me Tez…” He took another look around before he jumped up on his Sand Skimmer. “Come on, we need to get to the barracks. While you all gear up, I’ll find Nuk and get him to join us by hook, crook, or blackmail.”

“Blackmail?” Vyrax spit out with wide eyes.

“Yes. He owes me for taking the blame for something he did. It would have gotten him a Bear Scorpion-sized more trouble than it did me. I had my reasons; however, he still owes me for it and, if needed, I’ll use it against him. Probably won’t need to, but I will…”

Adga snickered as she jumped on the skimmer behind him. “Lord Alagor Shunral was correct. You’re a slippery one. I like it.”

⇼ ⇼ ⇼ ⇼ ⇼

The guards at the main gate to the northern settlement moved out of the way for Son-Tez and Adga, then immediately moved to block access because Rar’rin was right behind them.

Son-Tez pulled on the reins of his Sand Skimmer hard, getting a nasty hiss out of it, but it turned quickly. “Guardsman!” Adga shouted. “They are with me!”

“He has to be cleared, so does the unclaimed slave!”

The other guard also spoke, “And I know the thin halfer! He and his family have only limited access to the city! His mother is totally banned fer her actions, as should her whole line be!”

“They have been cleared!” Adga growled. “They are with me under House Shunral banner!”

A sergeant came out of the gatehouse. He looked up at the banner, over at the three on the Dragonsteeds, then back at the banner. He frowned deeply as he focused on Son-Tez, “Young lord?”

Son-Tez didn’t even blink, “Guard Sergeant, Lord Alagor Shunral, Commander of Desert Legion One, and vanquisher of the Spectral Champion Lorvarin, has declared Guardsman Adga as my commander, and thus serves Twin Spires as a royal guard. This is under his signed and sealed orders. Now, unless you and your entire detachment wish to volunteer for the next undead sewer sweeps, you will let those who travel with Guardsman Adga pass without delay!”

The guard sergeant turned pale and shouted with a quiver in his voice. “Go! Go! My apologies, Guardsman Adga!”

On both sides of the gate, the guards moved quickly to get out of the way, but it looked to Adga like a couple had to be physically pulled since they had locked their knees to prevent them from buckling in fear.

As soon as Adga was certain they were out of earshot of the gate, she spoke, “So there really are dead walker sewer sweeps?”

Son-Tez shrugged, turned, and glanced back over his shoulder at her with a smirk on his face, “Never seen or even heard of one, but it is a strong rumor. I have used it a few times to get my way or prevent a guard from telling my father or uncle about something I knew I would get in serious trouble for.”

Rar’rin roared in laughter. “Tez, me no eat ya. Ya be like we are!” He continued to laugh so hard a few licks of flame escaped from the corners of his mouth. “Me no munch on our kind!”

While a few street guards saw them, none tried to stop them. Most got out of the way the moment the Shunral banner came into view. Others cleared the street since Son-Tez didn’t slow. Several beings ended up diving out of the way or were yanked clear.

Son-Tez pulled back on the reins hard to get the skimmer to stop only a couple of meters from the gates of the central guard barracks. The skimmer turned its head and hissed at him, but quickly settled.

A guard officer, accompanied by a quartet of guardsmen, moved out into the street. The officer frowned deeply but held his tongue. His eyes darted between the Shunral banner, Son-Tez, Adga, and those on the six-legged extremely strong, and powerful Dragonsteeds.

Son-Tez maneuvered the skimmer right up to the officer, “Lieutenant Edjekap, decree right from the quill of my uncle!” He handed over the document Alagor had penned.

The man took it, read it quickly, glanced up to Adga, and back to the document, “Hell of a spot promotion, Guardsman…” He glanced at the Dragonsteeds, then back to Adga, “I gather the… ensemble on the steeds are your version of handpicked and trusted compatriots talked about herein?” He held up the document.

“They are, Lieutenant. The Dragonling is…”

The man made a slashing motion even as his eyes scanned those on the Dragonsteeds again, “Per Lord Alagor, those who travel with you are at your total discretion and it says this is extremely time-sensitive. You know the way to the armory and quartermaster storehouse. I will round you up fresh skimmers. However, I will not allow a Fanged Spider Lizard to roam. It goes to the corral or sits outside the gate and waits!”

Vendra pointed to the shaded corral and spoke, “Razor, go. Rest. Drink. I will come back soon.”

The eight-legged lizard looked up, cocked its head to the side, then turned and went over to the corral. As it did so, a couple of the horses moved well away from it.

Adga snickered at this but quickly turned back to Edjekap. “Young Lord Son-Tez will need a skimmer for his friend, Lieutenant.”

“I will see to it.” He then looked at Rar’rin and Vendra, “You are welcome only so long as you stay within easy sight and preferably arm's reach of Guardsman Adga. Am I clear?”

“Very.” Vendra gulped.

“Me be right next ta her, sir.” Rar’rin quickly chimed in.

“Lieutenant, not sir. I am not a knight. Now get moving.”

Adga hopped down and motioned for her three friends to follow her even as the guards secured the steeds. “May I ask they be cared for until after the storm, then taken to the Healthman shop in the Squatter Market?”

Edjekap glanced down at the document and fingered the seal, “Guardsman, at the moment, you can order me to do so. Therefore, consider it done.” He then pointed to one of those with him, “You are escort. Guardsman Adga gets full and unfettered access to gear up her… associates… as she sees fit." He handed the woman the document. "I will have the Captain of the Guard meet her over there. Now move your asses!”

Adga jogged across the courtyard and weapon training area. She moved up to the quartermaster storehouse, opened the door, and motioned for the others to enter.

All she heard from inside was a “What moron, soon to be demon food, allowed this riff-raff bunch of filth in the barracks, let alone in my supply storage!” Adga smiled. The deep Dwarven voice was one of her favorite, and harshest, instructors.

The woman who had the document moved up. Adga heard the woman slap it down on the counter, “Quartermaster Burntmetal, orders from Lord Alagor!”

“Give me that you malnourished piece of mule shit!” the Dwarf boomed.

A second later Burntmetal's voice barked again, “Adga, you giant lowlife wanna-be Warrior Adept and crap excuse for an Orc, let alone an Illorc, get your bulky overfed ass in here and explain this before I come out from behind this counter and beat you all to death with this piss-stream, scrawny lump of Dragon bait.”

Adga entered and noted all three of her friends had backed well away from the burly Dwarf. “Just need to gear them up, so we can get to Scorpion Falls, Quartermaster.”

“How about you go find something worth spending a tin on first!”

Adga audibly exhaled, “Quartermaster, we have Blood Tendrils coming down the Deadland Cliffs and the winds of Warvon isn’t allowing the signal to get seen to the south. I don’t have time for this.”

“Oh, by Dresden’s holy blade! You telling me this motley bunch of tarantula dung is the only thing standing between a Dead Storm and getting word to the southern edges of our territory?”

“Pretty much.”

“Well, dragon crap on a spit!” Burntmetal snarled. “Get your less-than-worthless hides up to the counter and strip! You too Adga!”

“Strip?” Vyrax gasped.

“You spoiled well-heeled tyke, I’m about to jump over this counter, hold you up by them skinny ghost-pale legs, and shake you until yer naked as the day you popped out of your mama! I’ll then beat your bare ass with your fancy piss-poor made boots until it’s as red as a Zeris sunburn! Now strip! I ain’t about to say it again!”

Burntmetal’s eyes narrowed as Vyrax stopped at his loincloth. A fist slamming into an open hand was all it took for Vyrax to discard it as well.

Burntmetal moved out from behind the counter and up to Adga first. He picked up her boots, held them up to the bottom of her feet, and shook his head. He then turned to the woman who had the letter, “Bin sixteen, row four.”

“Huh?” the woman looked over with confusion.

This got her Adga’s right boot upside her head. As she yelped and gripped the right side of her face, Burntmetal snarled, “Get boots out of bin sixteen, row four before I make you eat the inside of this other boot! We’re in a hurry here!”

He went item by item, calling out bin number and row. The speed at which he did so kept the woman running since any delay was met with a very accurate throw of heavy items being replaced with brand-new equipment. Before they were even half equipped, Adga was certain the woman would be a walking welt for days.

Burntmetal moved to each in Adga’s group based on social caste, ignoring Vendra until everyone else was fully equipped to travel. At last, he moved up to the teenaged Human. "I ain’t giving a slave shit." He turned to the woman who had been getting gear, “Get lost you overpaid, pathetic waste of human flesh. We’re done here.”

As the woman quickly, and probably thankfully, scampered out, Adga started to argue. “But Quartermaster…”

“You hush before I smack your other tusk hard enough to where you have matching chips! I taught you better. You should have ducked or shield-bashed that dirt-nap-walker. Now go bar the door before you regret ever knowing me.”

Without further hesitation, he pulled a glowing dagger off his hip and slashed at Vendra’s neck. The girl screamed even as the leather collar reinforced with bronze bands fell off without so much of a scratch to her. He caught the collar before it fell to the floor and looked at it with disgust in his eyes. Adga noted the bronze bands were cut every bit as cleanly as the leather.

As Vendra reached up, felt her neck, and looked at Burntmetal with both fear and astonishment, he delivered a solid, yet not overly powerful, punch to Vendra’s nose.

He grabbed the girl by her hair as he shoved the collar up to her bloody nose. He let quite a bit of blood get on the leather. He shot Adga a frown, then pulled out a few leaves out of his herb pouch. He shoved the herbs up Vendra’s nose and pinched the nostrils. Once the bleeding stopped, he grabbed Vendra’s left forearm and studied the brand burned into her skin. “Whoever done this didn’t know a brand from a poker burn. Someone ought to go back and slap the mother hard enough to where whoever done this never popped out of her to begin with!”

Without warning he delivered a hard shot into Vendra’s gut knocking the wind out of her. As she crumpled to the ground and gasped for air, Burntmetal yanked her up and slammed her onto the counter. He held the arm tight with one hand while his boot pushed up into her shoulder so she couldn’t move or pull back. He then made a series of slashes then did a scrolling design.

During this whole time, everyone stood dumbstruck. The cutting off of a slave collar by anyone but a noble or the owner was a crime punishable by twenty-five death matches in the arena as a gladiatorial slave. Adga made one attempt to move forward, but a glare and shake of a head from Burntmetal stopped her cold.

Burntmetal looked at his work, knocked the air out of Vendra a second time, and pulled the arm straight again. He made several smaller cuts. He ended by taking the tip of his dagger and pinching it between his finger and thumb. “Brand’s a deep bastard. Got to put a little more work in on this. Adga, tell hunk of worthless owned flesh to hold still before I get angrier than I already am. A slave should know how to take a little pain!”

“Vendra, do as he says. Hold still,” Adga called out even as she wiped tears out of her own eyes.

The Dwarf pulled the dagger back. He examined the multitude of thin bleeding lines. With a growl, he smacked the hilt of his dagger between Vendra’s eyes hard enough to leave a red mark and bump. He wagged a warning finger at her. He made at least a dozen more cuts before nodding. As the girl cried, he pulled out his herb pouch and crumbled strong-smelling leaves into the bleeding wounds.

Finally, Burntmetal grabbed the robe Vendra had been using, cut it up, and squeezed some of her blood onto it. He then used a clean section and wrapped the arm tightly. “Adga, tell her not to take this off until dark, preferably, not until first light tomorrow. It will hurt like the slave-bitch she was and still should be. So make it take some of these if you want. Give it two of these every few turns of a sandglass for the next couple of days.” He thrust some orange-colored berries into Adga’s hand even as he shoved Vendra back hard. He wiped the blood from his dagger off on what was left of the robe, sheathed it, and tossed both the remainder of the robe and collar off into the corner.

He showed no remorse over what he had done and ignored Vendra’s tears. He focused on Adga. “I expect better of you. Having property as someone you trust… It’s disgusting. But you have proven yourself, so I will let this slide. Don’t dare bring a slave in front of me again unless it belongs to you.

“Don’t worry about the little bitch. She’ll be fine. Because it’s you, Adga, I’ll have a patrol report the owner of the collar was found dead during the storm. Her collar number will be taken off the list of unclaimed slaves. The Fire Root combined with ground Burning Nettle leaves I sprinkled on the fresh wound over the slave brand will cause it to heal with scarring showing she is a freed slave. You can let it keep her name if you want. Vendra is common enough to get no real notice.” He glanced down at Vendra, then over at Adga, “And you and your ex-slave bitch friend both owe me a favor!”

As it dawned on Adga what Burntmetal had done, she moved up and hugged Vendra while looking up at Burntmetal. “Name it!” she stated with total sincerity.

Even as Vendra pushed her arm into her stomach, she managed to speak through sobs. “Yes… Name it! And… thank you…”

“You’ll thank me by performing the favor. I will call it due when I need it. Just remember, Adga, you both owe me.” He then glared at Rar’rin and Vyrax, “And if either of you ever breathe a word of this, I have lots of others who owe me favors on this level.”

“I’ll never utter a word, good Dwarf,” Vyrax responded with a bow. "I will give you a favor as well.”

“Me give favor too!” Rar’rin nodded. “Vendra be we friend!”

“Good, and I’ll hold you all to your offered favors. Don’t forget.”

“We won’t. None of us will,” Adga responded.

“Then this matter is done and never to be spoken of. Now get your ex-slave bitch up and have her knock off the whining before I give you all something to whimper about. One of you unbar the door, so no one gets suspicious. We need to get her geared up for travel fast and I can’t properly gauge size and what she needs while she’s curled into a sniveling ball.”

The moment he had Vendra fully equipped, this time in only used gear, he checked over their belongings and handed them items he approved of. This included Vyrax’s odd straight blade which got a light whistle as he swung it a couple of times. “Don’t know where ya got this boy, but keep it close and pass it down! This be a blade for the ages!”

Burntmetal gave Vyrax’s Mystic robe stocked with various potions a once over, handing him a satchel of twelve Fire Burst potions as he did so. He also looked over a few nice Silver Steel weapons with a raised eyebrow, yet said nothing. However, other than this, most of what they had been wearing and carrying went into a bin that was partially filled with damaged and broken equipment of all sorts.

“Only Adga’s armor was worth more than a fart in a strong wind.” He grumbled as he took them down to the armory. “I’ll get you all something you can actually count on. And Adga, I’ll upgrade you to patrol leader armor. Fortunately, I expected you’d get a promotion soon. We need ‘em and you got bigger balls than most of the men in this outfit. Also, since you are biggest damned Illorc I’ve ever seen, I counted on you not growing too much more even though you are only human equivalent of fourteen… so I have it ready for you. If you keep growing, I’ll rework some captured Colossus armor for you. It’d be a pain in my ass, so stop growing already!”

He quickly selected good quality armor for each, upgrading Adga from standard guard reinforced leather to Dwarven Steel ring mail. He even managed to find a suit of Gnome Steel ring mail for Rar’rin in a back area Adga bet no one else even knew about. It had fancy designs on it, so she bet it had been taken from a rich dragonling boy. It made Rar’rin look younger than he was, but it fit with only a couple of adjustments from Burntmetal.

The Dwarf also found decent, yet used, reinforced leather armor for Vendra. However, he never once spoke to her.

The next stop was the weapon racks. He said nothing as they moved down stands of bronze weapons of all kinds including bows and slings. He did tap his foot loudly on the floor impatiently the whole time causing all four to hurry.

Burntmetal looked over everyone. He cleared his throat as he noted Rar’rin was gravitating toward axes. “Make sure you each select a blunt and edged weapon. Remember, boney dirt-nap-walkers need to be shattered. Fleshy ones need to be cut up.”

Once everyone had grabbed what they wanted, Burntmetal walked down the line and switched out a couple of selected items with duplicates off the racks for reasons Adga could find no reason for. He also changed out one of Vyrax’s and one of Rar’rin’s primary bronze weapons with Elvin Silver Steel ones. Once again Vendra was slighted but still ended up with an obviously used Silver Steel dagger. "Since ya already had some, I’m sure ya know. But I’m under orders to equip all special patrols with Silver Steel, so there ya have it. Remember, Silver Steel is for big bad dirt-nap walkers, kids. Silver Steel works just like silver, only it be way harder and stronger. Almost be good as Dwarven Blue Steel… Almost. Adga, you’re gonna get a gift fer passin’ and bein’ sponsored, so no need to get you another Silver Steel pulled weapon, so take these.” He tossed her new Blue Steel spiked gauntlets. “I forged them for you as a gift for becoming a full guardsman! I better see dried blood on the leather the next time I see you.”

Finally, the Dwarf roughly tossed Vendra a long robe with a very big hood. He spoke to Adga. “No one best see her until you are all well outside of eyeshot of the walls of the southern settlement. She is to stay fully covered until well out on the open road, and I don’t want to see her again until she has proven herself to the Spires.”

He glared at the girl, then turned back at Adga. “She is lucky you have been such a good and promising student, 'cause in my eyes she is still slave filth. It’s only your clear faithful friendship to her that makes her worth more than wet turd stuck on a rat’s ass. Now, all you all, get your crap situated and get out of my supply hut!”

As they exited the quartermaster building, they were met by Haquev, the Captain of the Guard for the northern settlement. He had six guardsmen with him along with six Sand Skimmers lined up at the outer barracks gate. The mounts were already saddled and included packed saddlebags.

Son-Tez was standing next to the nicest-looking two. Both had reinforced leather barding. The third one back was larger and stronger. It had ring mail barding and a leather strap over its head with bronze horns on it. This gave it an extra way to attack if needed and marked it as the patrol leader’s mount. The next two had leather barding. The furthest one back was scraggly-looking and didn’t have any armor. While it looked to be in decent health, it was missing a few scales on its tail and one large one on its side. It also had several chipped scales and hung its head, marking it as weak-willed and a poor combatant should it be accosted on the road. However, it had an extra harness behind the saddle and Vendra’s Fanged Spider Lizard was already up on it. An Animal Adept Sergeant with Secondary Echelon guild pins was making sure the two lizards were comfortable with each other.

While Adga didn’t know much about animal handling, she bet the Sand Skimmer wouldn’t challenge Razor. It was a nearly broken mount. She wondered if it was selected because it wouldn’t fight to have Razor on its back or if it was because a slave, soon-to-be ex-slave, was assigned to it.

Haquev glanced over at the hooded figure of Vendra, raised an eyebrow, then shrugged. He turned his full attention to Adga. “Guardsman Adga, per royal decree, you are given the temporary rank of patrol leader. It comes with a five copper a-week pay increase for the duration. Mostly because you have a sponsor and proved yourself beyond any hope or expectation, I see it as fitting. Additionally, because you are the biggest guardsman in the city, possibly, the biggest being in the city, I am inclined to let you keep the rank. Your young age notwithstanding, you are an excellent candidate since you know the surrounding area so well and enjoy poking around places most of my guardsmen steer away from. Therefore, should you be successful in not only warning the southern settlements but also assisting in the defense of Scorpion Falls until the danger from the coming Dead Storm has passed, I will make your temporary rank permanent.”

He paused as he motioned for a woman with a sack to move up. “I also have your pay from last week, and I am authorizing a one-week advance in pay to you and each of your chosen compatriots since I can only assume, based on what I have heard about their castes, most have little to no coin and may need it. Scorpion Falls will pay you, along with your friends, in two weeks, for your second week should you still be down there. I am guessing you will. My presumption, based on what I know of Dead Storms, is they will need help with undead for at least a full cycle of Lunara’s moon, probably two.”

He looked toward the other three. “Pay is only part of being a Twin Spires guard. There are rules in place for the dispersion of spoils for hostiles dropped or taken in combat. They are greater for those on patrol outside the walls than those inside the city. Therefore, you stand to gain extra spoils for undead and or bandits you eliminate during your employment of Twin Spires. Adga and young Lord Son-Tez can go over these with you when there is time to do so."

He motioned for the female purser to hand out pay. The woman passed Adga a sizable black leather pouch, then moved down the line giving the other three each a smaller brown one. Haquev spoke as this happened, “Those are full guardsman wages kids. Keep in mind by accepting this pay you all agree to be under the command of Twin Spires for three moons, the least amount of time anyone can take a contract to the city. Adga cannot dismiss you early. Only a noble or I can release you from duty before three moons. Your contract starts now. Your allegiance is to our desert realm. Desertion, insubordination, or dereliction of duty will result in harsh punishments. Should Adga fall, young Lord Son-Tez is to take command followed by whoever his noble traveling compatriot happens to be.”

As the others secured pouches of twenty-five copper coins to their belts, Haquev motioned a lieutenant forward. The man handed Haquev a long leather-wrapped box-shaped package. Adga could tell it was heavy since the man used two hands and made a light grunting sound when he handed it over. As Haquev took possession, bits of the edge of the leather wrap flaked off, telling even the least observant it was very old. Since it also left behind a couple of thick lines of dust on the lieutenant’s uniform, Adga figured whatever it was had been in storage almost as long as it had been wrapped in leather.

Haquev kept it well away from his nice maroon cloak, then extended it toward Adga, “This is a gift directly from Lord Alagor Shunral. This was given to me three days after your promotion to guardsman to give to you at the time of your first pay. Instructions to make sure you got this was reiterated to me again by the young Lord Son-Tez and Quartermaster Burntmetal. This means it must be something Lord Alagor suspects will be useful during this mission."

She took the box and noted the leather had a burned-in crest. It looked a whole lot like the Shunral crest, but instead of the winged snake, it had a twin-headed wolf. Each head had long fangs on the shield. In addition, the package had a piece of twine with a small key hanging off it. She snapped the rotten twine and put the key in her pouch. The wrapped box was indeed heavy. This made her curiosity grow. It also made not opening it right away very difficult, but she stuck it under her right arm and returned her full attention to Haquev.

The Captain of the Guard had a disappointed-looking frown cross his features. Even as he spoke, Adga guessed he wanted to know what was in the package almost as badly as she did. However, the man quickly returned to the task at hand. “Now, Patrol Leader, you have at least a five-sandglass-turn ride at a fast pace to get to Scorpion Falls, not including a water break. Make sure you water the skimmers at Sir Lenti Avery’s keep. It is too far and hot for a straight-through ride. Your stop will also allow you to inform him what is happening. House Avery will send runners out from there to Bladed Sands and Amber Sand, along with the smaller settlements. You are then to proceed down the pass to Scorpion Falls. Keep in mind, we have had quite a bit of bandit activity in the lower passes close to Scorpion Falls recently, so keep your eyes open and weapons ready.

“With the time it has taken to get equipped, you need to get moving. Good luck.”

Adga secured the box on the back of her skimmer with rope even as she looked over to Son-Tez. “I was told you can’t go alone. Where’s your noble friend?”

“He will meet us outside the city gate.”

“Why not here?”

“Cause he needed to go get his equipment and let his father know he is joining in on an official Twin Spires guard assignment. Once he tells his father, he would not dare back out. I’ll take the lead and his mount to the pick-up point, then you can take over.”

“OK…” Adga frowned and cocked her head hard to the left. “What am I missing?”

Son-Tez grinned, “I did not tell him who we would be traveling with, other than you, nor did I want him to see the others until it was too late.”

“Oh…” Adga pulled herself up on the skimmer and motioned her arm forward even as she snickered. “Yeah, you’ll fit in with us great!”

 

Copyright © 2023 Kyle Aarons; All Rights Reserved.
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What a band of apparent , very colorful odd balls. But Adga knows them and trusts them. They must have the skills Adga thinks are needed to fight and survive in the desert against the monsters they will face. They seem to be mischievous and are willing to break the rules. This team is needed to warn Sir Lenti Avery and then Scorpion Falls. If they succeed , they should be well rewarded. Adga's advancement will be made permanent.

The fights ahead should be fierce and dangerous. They will be very compelling to read about. Let's who will be real hero's. I wonder what is in the gift box and how it will help Adga. Interestingly, Adga knows about sand dragons and others do not. I wonder if he will get to meet one?

 

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1 hour ago, akascrubber said:

Interestingly, Adga knows about sand dragons and others do not. I wonder if he will get to meet one?

I wonder if there will be any kind of convergence between the three stories!

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Two unconnected events have entwined to propel Adga all the way to Patrol Leader. It may have taken her years to get there otherwise.

Burntmetal has stripped Vendra out of her slave caste with the brutal yet skillful use of his blade. It was done so efficiently It can't be the only time he's preformed this act. For all his hard edges demeanor he is on the side of good.

We have yet to meet Nuk, but if he's like Tez this group will be quite something.

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