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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 - 4. Chapter 4

It was clear by the way the guards moved to get those trying to get into the relative safety of the northern settlement out of the way, some by force, they had been informed Adga had a priority mission. It was also obvious the wall garrison had been reinforced. This made her glad she was heading out. She would have lost her three days off because of the need for all guards to be on hand during the impending storm.

The red smoke from the torches was thick close to the wall. Many moving toward the main gate coughed and some even gagged. However, this didn’t stop them from rushing toward the still-open gate. As she turned to follow Son-tez toward the southern settlement, she saw lines of people on all the surrounding roads moving toward the northern walls. Further out she spotted two patrols. One flew the Shunral banner, and another displayed the Oldsurn banner. The patrols moved to help those who were struggling. Many appeared weak, injured, or had small children.

Scores of royal guardsmen on Sand Skimmers angled back toward the gates with their mounts overloaded with beings of all types. They dropped them off at the noble entrance, which for the first time she knew of was allowing anyone who made it there to enter the settlement. While some dropped off those they had rescued; others tore back out toward the surge of people looking for those who needed help.

This was not something she expected. For the most part, nobles and the royal guards didn’t show much concern for peasants. In fact, her only positive interactions had been the day she had been rescued from the slavers, the fight outside the noble trash pit, and just over a sandglass turn ago when she had once again spoken to Lord Alagor Shunral. However, seeing noblemen and royal guards from at least two of the noble houses working so hard to help those under them made her even more proud to be a Twin Spires guardsman. She briefly thumbed the pin marking her as having allegiance to and being sponsored by House Shunral with a smile.

Son-tez continued to lead until he spotted a massive line of wagons moving from the Royal Gate in the southern settlement walls toward the road leading to the northern walls. Adga found herself astounded over not only the quantity of wagons, but also the number of powerful draft Moose Camels, heavy horses, and Dragonsteeds being used to pull them all. As Son-tez led them closer to the line of at least a hundred wagons, Adga had to blink and shake her head. The vast majority of the wagons were fully loaded with barrels, sacks, and baskets of food. A few had stacks of cloth, and two were being heavily guarded and flew the flags of the Healthman’s Guild. Since one of her siblings was a Healthman trainee, and Rar’rin was a Primary Echelon guilded Healthman, she had a good idea of the cost of some of the specialized herbs. She had to be looking at countless thousands of silver of them!

She had looked down into the southern settlement countless times. There was no way all this had come from what she had seen. "No way," she muttered as she angled toward the seemingly endless line of supplies.

Finally, Son-tez called out, “I’ll go get Nuk-lem. Stay back so he can’t clearly see who he will be riding with.”

Adga nodded and slowed as Son-tez moved up alongside a detachment of royal guards flying the Vylevin banner. He suddenly darted his skimmer between two of the large carts and waved at one of the nicer wagons further back.

One of the guards angled over, secured the skimmer Son-tez had been leading, and moved it up next to the nice-looking wagon. While the line of wagons and draft animals blocked part of what was going on, Adga was very tall and on the biggest skimmer. This let her see more than those with her. The guard hefted a teen human-looking boy off the cart and dropped him, gear and all, on the back of the skimmer. The man then reached into the cart and yanked a bundle out of the wagon. Then, while still riding, helped to tie it onto the back of the moving skimmer.

Adga had once been told the Vylevin nobles were known as the best and most ferocious cavalry in the lands bordering the Desert of the Dead, but this took mountmanship to a whole new level. She was totally impressed!

The kid showed his own deftness in riding skills. He jerked the reins and spun the skimmer in a tight turn to pull up even with Son-tez. The pair then shot a gap between the wagons again at full speed. This had all been done with the new kid adjusting the pack on his back. He then gave Son-tez a nod, and the pair bolted across the sand toward Adga.

Adga noted the kid’s bewildered look as he grew closer to her and her friends, but it didn’t cause him to slow the skimmer. Adga missed whatever the kid said to Son-tez since she was too engrossed in his appearance. The boy looked young in his facial features but was either very large for his age or had a baby face. The oddities didn’t end there. The young lord didn’t wear a standard desert headdress. Instead, he had a wrap around his neck that looked to be about the same as what would make up a headdress. His short hair was light blond.

The next thing Adga couldn’t help but note was the kid had on strange black armor with thick-looking wristbands. It looked like metal-reinforced leather, but she didn’t think it was. She couldn’t help but wonder how the kid could be out under the full light of Zeris in black armor, but he was, and he didn’t look bothered by it. His outfit was rounded out by a cloak with a nice hip sword on his left hip and a dagger on his right. His pack sported a Morningstar and even odder, a machete sheath. The cloak held the boy’s guild pins and had the Vylevin crest of twin eagles over the left breast. The birds had talons dug into a dragon and were pulling in opposite directions while the middle of the dragon looked thin, as if being pulled apart by the eagles.

The cloak showed him to be a Primary Echelon Sorcerer with Subfields of Eagle Sect Warrior and Outdoorsman.

Adga didn’t find many kids of any race close to her age cute, however, this kid caused her to gulp and take a deep breath.

When the youngster spoke, his voice was skeptical sounding at best and offended at worst. “Tez, what game is this? The Spires are in imminent peril!”

“I know. So do they. Patrol Leader Adga is the one who spotted the Blood Tendrils!” Son-tez pointed at Adga for emphasis. “This is the rest of her chosen team to warn Scorpion Falls.”

The kid blinked, “But Tez, these are dregs!”

As Adga turned and glared, the newcomer gulped. “No insult, Patrol Leader, but I know of both Rar’rin and Vyrax! Rar’rin is a mutt-born Dragonling, rescued from being an arena spectacle in the village of Staggered Rock at a young age by Lord Kovalo Oldsurn. Vyrax’s family is under exile from within the walls of even the northern city. Vyrax can only get a smattering of day passes a moon. His father is not allowed to earn coin within the walls and his mother isn’t even allowed inside to shop!”

Vyrax looked over, “Young Lord Nuk-lem, I know of you as well. Your insults are hollow. If my family was really dreg, then guardsmen, guild leaders, and nobles, including your older brother, would not come or send runners to the Squatter Market to buy our potions.”

“You are dregs,” the kid grumbled with a wince as if the words had been accompanied by a slap. “Very skilled in the Mystical arts, but still dregs.”

“It is not my fault my father bedded a young Vylevin. If you want to be mad at him, so be it. But I know my dad! He never would have touched her, let alone got her heavy with child, had she worn her crest.”

“If your father had been faithful to your mother…”

Vyrax cut off the kid, “Noble or not you will not talk of my father and mother in such terms! My mother is too old to provide all the needs of my father. Them having me at her age over twenty years ago was a fluke, one I am thankful for, and I think they are as well, but I am a fluke, nonetheless. My mother is now closing in on eighty while my father is the human equivalent of thirty-four. Not any of this happens to be any of your business. But let’s set things straight for everyone here! Mom encourages Dad to seek out those he can find more pleasure from than she can provide. As far as my father ruining your cousin’s planned marriage by taking her purity…” A smirk crossed Vyrax’s lips, “I’ve done some checking when I get a day pass for shopping and even selling some of my own minor concoctions. If she was all what your family tries to make her out to be, she wouldn’t have been in the bar my father found her in. I was even embarrassed when I found out my dad frequented the place during the time he found her there.”

The noble kid clenched his fist and his olive-skinned cheeks took on a tinge of red. At this point, Son-tez spoke up. “Nuk-lem, stop! This is nothing we have not heard spoken about in our estates. If anything, the bar in question sounds like it has become milder since then. Now, like it or not, this is our chance and I took it! Vyrax has done nothing to you and even you must admit, if he is the son of Nymeger, he hails from a very good Mystic. He is now a Guilded Mystic who learned from one of the best in the area. Vyrax’s Mystical skills are something we will certainly need since we are part of this patrol for the next several weeks. I also need to remind you, he is Guardsman Adga's friend, you are not, and she is in command of us. We have no noble rights until released from her leadership. I do not want duties assigned to us based on you pissing her off!”

Son-tez glanced over at Vyrax, “And you need to get your noble lines straight. It hits closer to home for Nuk than you think. It was his sister, not cousin.”

Rar’rin glanced around and finally spoke up, “Wassss? What happen ta her?”

“Exiled,” Nuk-lem sighed. “Tossed out of our estate with nothing save basic armor, a blade, light hammer, and a bow. I was able to distract the guards so Tez could slide her a pouch, but it only had a few gems and coins. She was taken to Barbed Lake, south of Scorpion Falls in chains and released a week after she had the boy.”

“What happened to my half-brother?” Vyrax demanded to know.

Nuk-lem hung his head, “Exiled with my sister.”

“Why?” Vyrax gasped. “Both my mother and father offered to take and raise her offspring as one of us. I would love to have a brother!”

“To give him to your father would have been to admit she had fault in the matter. Besides, exiles are done where other young nobles can see. It is used to set an example and warn others,” Son-tez answered for his friend. “Preserving good noble bloodlines without crossbreeding problems is a huge undertaking. Once chosen to continue a line, one does not break the plan.”

Son-tez shook his head and looked over at Vyrax, “While I had no idea you were caught up in this as the son of Nymeger, you are not the only one who lost. Keep in mind, while you lost a brother, Nuk-lem lost a nephew and his oldest sister. And while you have had to endure living outside the walls, many of the nobles, including my father, have purposefully bought goods from your father because it is felt your father became caught up in something beyond him. From what I have heard, he helps himself by making the best potions in the area.

“Your mother, Eghova, hasn’t done much to help. Her continued formal complaints to the courts have kept her banished and prevented other nobles from pushing this under the table to the point where you may one day be allowed to live inside the northern walls instead of only being able to get occasional day passes.

“Furthermore, I can assure you Nuk has looked for both his sister and nephew when he has been able. I have helped, but we risk exile ourselves if found out, so we have to be careful. Still, she all but raised both of us, so we would like to find her. If we do, we can funnel funds to her the same kind of way several nobles do for your family.”

Adga felt the drop in tension and let out a breath of relief. But she had a question she just had to ask. “So do the two of you already know who you are going to make a family with?”

Son-tez shook his head, “No. We are both eighth born; way too far down to have arranged marriages.”

Adga eyed Nuk-lem again, then put on as neutral a voice as she could, “We’ve wasted more time than we should’ve over this. Are you ready to go?”

“Yes,” Nuk-lem responded. “And if this is a real Spires mission, then no, I will not back out.”

“It is.”

“Then let’s move.” Nuk-lem angled toward the road leading south then slowed, “We’ll have to push through people trying to get to the northern settlement.”

“No we won’t,” Vyrax stated as he angled his skimmer toward the outer Crags.

“Hey! Where are you going?” Nuk-lem protested, but all it got was a jerk of a head from Adga as both she and Rar’rin moved in the same direction, which in turn caused Vendra’s hooded form to do the same.

Adga glanced over as Nuk-lem moved up beside her, “This is the wrong way!”

“No, it’s a shortcut through a break in the outer Crags.”

“What?!?”

“About four kilometers down there is a well-hidden rough break in the Crags. A common place for dead walkers to come out. But once through the shattered crag, there is a path leading down and around the main road. There is an archway several kilometers down from there we can go through. It is another common dead walker exit point from the Crags, but it has a narrow rocky path leading down where we can get back on the main road well south of here. And it’s way faster than taking the curves in the road and eliminates us having to go around Burning Lion’s Point.”

Son-tez blinked, “And you know of this, how?”

“It’s one of our favorite places to hunt dead walkers when Vendra can’t join us,” Vyrax stated, with a gleam in his eyes. “We found it before we even met Vendra and have explored dozens of the offshoot paths, but they all lead deep, and we never branch off too far. We’re not stupid.”

The skimmers scampered across the sands at full speed, making a great time toward the shortcut. No one went close to the Outer Crag Walls nor did anyone live close to them. During this time, Adga kept everyone focused on getting to know one another and calling each other by shortened versions of their given names. This was made easier as she pointed out that Vyrax and Nuk-lem should be friends since they had the joint goal of locating their missing family member. It built decent rapport quickly. This was especially true since both Vendra and Rar’rin offered to help in the search. Before most of them realized how far they had come, the Outer Crag Wall loomed over the group.

Suddenly Adga turned her mount sharply and headed up between several boulders. Nuk swallowed hard, then started coughing as he choked. Boulders gave way to a well-hidden, very narrow collapsed section of the Outer Crag Wall. Adga turned her skimmer hard and passed through.

Still coughing, Nuk managed to gasp out, “You weren’t joking? You all really come out here, enter the Crags, and hunt the undead?”

“We do,” Rar’rin responded. “All da time. Good loot we get.” As they made their way down into the Crags and turned south again, he pointed to a pile of bones, “Crunch five bone walker and hack two flessssh walker one moon ago. Dat what be left.” He pulled a coin charmed with a permanent glow spell out of a pouch, “Got me a glower off a one a dem!”

“It’s good combat work and best of all when we hunt on my days off, I do not have to claim spoils,” Adga added. “What’s on whatever I take down is all mine.”

“Any spoils pulled from inside the Crags is without guard taxation even if you are on patrol in it… But no one patrols inside the Crags unless ordered!”

“We do.” Adga smiled. “At least three of us. This is the first time Ven is allowed to do so. She has joined us on a couple of through-and-through cave outlets Rin and me found close to the Spires, though.”

At this, Ven spoke up. “I have been wanting to see this hunting area. Glad I can now.” She glanced over at Son-tez, “And while I thank you for thinking about us and what you thought we needed, the advance in pay was not necessary. Even I, who up till today had to stay in sight of the Spires, have plenty of coin from spoils taken off dead walkers.”

“But what if we run across a bunch of undead?” Son-tez protested. “We can’t waste the time to fight!”

“A few, probably, a bunch, unlikely,” Vyrax stated. “There is no clouds yet and Zeris’ sun rays keep the path we are going to take lit most of the late morning and early afternoon. Our best hunting out here is in the morning before Zeris’ light hits the path or as the sun goes down and the shadows stretch across the whole of the path. But that is when it gets dangerous, so we try to get out before then.”

“We only got caught out here two time after light go behind wall and we no have direct light. No good idea to do. But loot be gooder!” Rin grinned.

“Yeah, it sure was,” Adga stated with a smirk. “Got me a couple of kilos of figs and still had coin to buy me a Silver Steel flail.”

“You bought a Silver Steel flail with your own coin?” Nuk stated with awe. “Many sergeants don’t own one of their own!”

Tez also spoke up, “An Elvin Silver Steel flail had to run you over two hundred silver! It would take me saving every coin for close to half a year from my noble youth stipends to buy one of my own!”

“You carry very nice weapons and gear,” Vendra pointed out.

“With only a couple of exceptions, what we wear and carry belongs to our houses, not us. Everything we currently have will be granted to us upon the success of this mission.” Nuk stated. “So, Adga, mind if I ask how much you paid for your Silver Steel flail?”

“Three-ninety silver, most in gems we got as loot out here.” She reached into her pack and pulled it out. “Probably paid an extra thirty or forty since I’m an Illorc, but it came out of the Kandahar smithy and is stamped, so I know it’s a good one. Quartermaster Burntmetal verified it as excellent quality.” She put it back in her pack and patted it to verify it was secure. "It stays in the covered side compartment. One of you take it if I fall. I’d hate for it to get outside of Spires' control.”

Tez whistled lightly, “Not many guardsmen can afford Silver Steel. None I know of got theirs from the Kandahar smithy, certainly not Kandahar stamped. A royal Kandahar stamp means it was verified by one of their master smiths. Masterwork is almost as good and sometimes better than minor enchanted weapons, especially Silver Steel! I do not think you paid too much for it either. Masterwork Silver Steel runs close to four hundred silver for anyone buying out of the Kandahar smithy. I am beyond impressed and have a feeling your Primary step 2 Warrior Adept pins are a bit low.”

“They are,” Adga verified without divulging more information.

“None of us are fully tested up to the guild step we think we could pass. We all already had a Silver Steel weapon before your quartermaster gave us others, too.” Vyrax stated as he pulled his light mace to show it off. “Mine came off a recently dead flesh walker. The others were bought, but only Adga’s came out of the Kandahar forge."

Adga nodded, “I heard silver or magic is the only thing that will hurt the real bad dead walkers, so we all keep our Silver Steel weapons handy. Do you have Silver Steel or at least a silver-coated weapon?”

“We both have minor enchanted weapons,” Tez stated as he patted the pick hammer on his side. “Enchanted weapons also hurt the nastier dead walkers. The weapons we carry will be ours if we complete the mission to the satisfaction of Count Saban Kandahar, lord of Scorpion Falls. Completion of a Spires mission will also allow us to keep our noble youth stipends from the time we reach human equivalent of fifteen until we reach age of ascension at human equivalent of sixteen. We will then have to complete at least one more between fifteen and sixteen, unless this lasts for more than eleven moons, or we do not get a noble title, adult stipends, and lose any chance of a land grant. If this lasts over eleven moons, it counts as us doing both, but I’ve only heard of a few of those. So, anyway, for both of us, this is a rite-of-passage quest. It is called a Rite of Noblehood or Rite of Nobility.”

“Do all nobles have to do this?” Vyrax asked.

“Those who do not have arranged marriage, yes,” Nuk answered. “As far as I know the same happens in all noble houses, but it certainly does for all five in our realm. “I am eighth born, but only have five older siblings left. Two died during their rite quests. Three of my older siblings failed or refused Rite of Noblehood before they turned the human equivalent of fifteen. They lost family support and are all guardsmen. Three of Tez’s are also in the guard because they didn’t quest, refused to quest, or failed when they attempted one. Another passed on, and one deserted when he found out he was quested to join a rescue party.”

“Deserted?” Adga gasped. “A noble deserted?”

“Yes, and the moment he did so his name was removed from House Shunral and he was marked as a bountied criminal.”

“Why would he… anyone desert?”

“Rites of Noblehood are extremely dangerous. Our guess is the one he was assigned was more than he was willing to risk. He should have simply refused. He would have been put in the guard, but for whatever reason, he chose to say yes, then desert with his Rite of Noblehood gear.”

What could have been so bad?” Vyrax asked.

“This.” Tez motioned to the area they rode through.

Nuk produced a clearly forced snicker. “Where you have made us enter… the Crags.” Nuk shook his head and continued before Adga could do more than grunt the start of a question. “His quest was to join a Crag rescue attempt. The mission itself, from what we heard, was a paid one. A high noble from somewhere called the Duchy of Guggenheim sent an emissary to House Shunral. It sounds like it is somewhere far to the east. Wherever it is, the envoy offered a huge sum to search for the duke’s son. The second-born son of the ruler traveled here thinking he could prove himself as the rightful heir. Not sure why he came here of all places, or even how he heard of the Crags. However, the fool took a party, including his entire family, into here. The rescue mission was only partially successful. Two of the man’s sons and one of his daughters were located.”

Rin chuckled. “Ad, me think we be called foolssss!”

Even as Nuk gulped and Tez cringed, Adga grinned. “Been called worse! But geesh, you both look like ya want to jump out-a your skins! We’ve got this guys. Rin, Vyrax, and me have been in here scores of times!”

Tez glanced around nervously, “Maybe you are not scared, but no one… or at least very, very, few come in here unless they are mad, desperate, or…”

“Or?” Adga asked.

“Never mind…” Tez sighed. “For me to say what I was going to puts me in the same group since here I am… But this place… it is evil, the land clearly controlled by the demon lords Murderic and Kryplok. Many who return are never the same. Not even kids, if the little kids are even spared. Most aren’t. From what I heard, all three of Duke Guggenheim’s rescued grandchildren had to be treated by Channelers for weeks and the taint on one from undead feeding on him could not be fully reversed!”

Vyrax shrugged. “I think the big difference is we’re not stupid enough to stay in here at night without taking serious precautions. When we do three-day trips, we normally exit and build camp in small caves in the Outer Crag Walls, not inside here. If we do stay in here, it is in caves we have previously cleaned out and do so again. We do not light fires to attract them and we make sure to do so only when Lunara’s light is full and bright. Only done it four times, and three of those four we had to fight straggling dead walkers who somehow found us."

Vyrax shrugged, “Got our best loot from them including my blade off one of ‘em… But you’re saying a noble really deserted? Why not just take the guard position? It sure looks to me like guards from noble houses get good slots.”

“Not at first. However, you are correct.” Tez confirmed. “Most nobles who fail in their Rite of Noblehood get quick promotions. At the very least, within a few years they are assigned to the best patrol slots. Those who refuse, do not advance as quickly and are almost always assigned to the Northern Spires permanently, so refusal is worse than failure.

“Nonetheless, yeah, my brother deserted as soon as he heard where he was going. He took his rite gear and did not show up for the rescue patrol’s departure. A check of his room and our estate showed he cleared his room and may have stolen my sister’s ring. It is still missing, so I assume he took it. Regardless, he is now rogue for refusing to do what Nuk and I are doing right now.”

Nuk kept a hand close to his blade and looked around nervously. “The irony of being forced to enter the Crags as part of a different quest, when one of what used to be a close friend abandoned all is not lost on me. But here I am, and I cannot refuse to follow all commands you give, or I forfeit my Vylevin name.”

Adga scanned down a couple of shaded side paths before she rejoined the conversation. “So, when Tez said you wouldn’t back out once you said you would go, it is because this counts as your first royal quest or something?”

“Exactly.” Nuk nodded. “It is also why Tez knew I would jump at the chance to join without asking for more details. For both of us, time to find a Rite of Noblehood is, was, growing short. Knowing what I now know, I probably would have said yes anyway, Even entering the Crags. But… It does not matter. I am here. Furthermore, it is my duty to inform you, as my commander, you have full authority over me. Neither Tez nor I are allowed to use our higher caste, including our nobility, to ease this mission for ourselves in any way. To do so would lose us any chance of being granted a successful quest. Upon our return home, a House of Oldsurn Mindmaster will be used to verify we did not try to pull rank by using position, bribes, or any other duplicitous methods to gain favorable duties. So, like it or not, I will follow any and all your commands, no matter what they are, until we are released from this mission to alert and protect Scorpion Falls.”

“To be clear,” Tez jumped back in, “you don’t have to worry about us trying to usurp your authority or having weapons to take on dead walkers or anything else. We were equipped to give us a fair fighting chance. Also, while you all may have coin beyond your pay, from now until this quest is considered done, we only get guardsman pay and spoils. Any coin we had above our pay advance had to be left behind. All our normal belongings, save for a few weapons and armor, were confiscated, and locked up. Our coin pouches were also locked up. We were searched to verify we did not have items of wealth before entering the outfitting room. Furthermore, from here on, spoils are to be awarded based on normal guardsman payouts, with us being considered the most junior guardsmen of the group.”

Adga shrugged, “I don’t know much about how loot allotment is supposed to work. Of the four times I have received any, the first three the pile had been pretty much picked through, so I was given some coin. The last time I got the glow-charmed boot knife, my shield, a pouch of onyx and turquoise, a handful of tin and copper coins, a Stone Steel gladius, and this moonstone ring.” She held up her hand, showing an intertwined silver and gold band with two tiger eye gems and a large moonstone. “The guard captain even had the Kandahar forge resize it to me ‘cause I took four dead walkers down alone and helped with five others over the next two days. The Vylevin knight granted me first pick off of each of the dead walkers I dropped. They also let me keep an old mace I grabbed and used. I cleaned it up and gave it to my sister. The gladius went to my brother."

“Which is standard,” Tez responded even as his jaw dropped. “Are you really saying the talk is true? You really took down four by yourself?”

“Yes,” Nuk nodded. “I heard all about it. My great-uncle’s patrol saw a bunch of Humans fleeing the little squatter village on the edge of the southern settlement trash pile. The leader thought it was a fight, so they moved up to watch, but when the detachment got there, they found at least a dozen bony flesh walkers attacking a standard guardsman patrol. Adga was tasked with mount guard. Not sure how it all went down, but four came out of the sand behind the front line. Our patrol leader decided to take them on, even though the other apprentice guardsman ran.”

“It was my duty and oath! I had to take ‘em on.” She pointed to her chipped tusk. “It’s how I got this.”

“No one came to help?” Tez asked.

"Didn’t get a chance. The one with this old shield came up on me fast.” She pulled it up so the noble boys could get a good look. “It looks bad, and I couldn’t polish off the green tinge of old bronze, but it is a real good shield… I bent my guard shield on it and this one didn’t even scratch.” She wiggled her shield arm for emphasis. “It smacked me in the face with it. Made me mad, so gunched all four before help could get to me.”

Tez tilted his head to the side, “Gunched?”

Vyrax snickered. “Orc-speak for kill... but it’s more than just kill. Like pound into a puddle kill.”

Adga chimed in. “Don’t think it’s an Orc word, but many Orcs and Illorcs know it. Think of it as… um…”

“Extreme overkill or a rage kill.” Vendra filled in. “If you see Adga get real mad, step back. She can get a little wild.”

“Little?” Rin chortled. “Me no think a hurt Bear Sssscorpion can get madder!”

“Oh, come on Rin; I’m not that bad!”

“Try to tell that to the bone walker you smashed into nothing but bone shards after you crushed its skull!” Vyrax teased. “You pounded it so many times, most of it looked like bone-colored sand!”

“It shouldn’t a bit me,” Adga responded with a sheepish grin. “But it was a real good workout.” As Rin, Ven, and Vyrax all shook their heads, Adga’s smile widened. “They’re just jealous of my muscles!”

“Bet most of the guardsmen are as well,” Tez stated with a serious tone. “Your build is one of the reasons I asked to help on this mission. I figured if I was going to have to go on a quest it should be with the biggest, most powerful guardsman I’ve ever seen…”

Nuk raised his left eyebrow, “OK, Tez, I will grant you that.”

“I like lifting more than most of the guys in the barracks. It’s real fun when I bet and then beat them in leg wrestling with my arm!” Adga smiled at the thought of the exasperated looks after beating four of the men in her assigned barracks. However, she returned to focus on the situation at hand.

“It sounds like you know how loot allotment works. Can you tell me, so I do it right?”

Nuk nodded, “Spoils go by rank. If we are in a noble-controlled area, the noble’s representative gets first pick and leaves the rest to be sorted out by the patrol leader. Out here, it is totally up to the patrol leader, but custom says if a guardsman takes something down without help, he or she gets first pick off the body. Which is what happened with you.”

“Ok, so if we all gunch something, how do I do it?”

Tez responded “Out here it is up to you. How about I give you an example of what I saw?”

“Sure!”

“The first time I went out with my uncle, his detachment wiped out a caravan raiding party. Five of his patrol members got to take items of those they killed by themselves, and two of those were then given a first selection based on how well he thought they fought. The rest was done by rank. Each getting to take one item. Then it started over. However, both those who got first pick took an enchanted item. My uncle made those worth three lots. He took a pouch with lots of coin and gems and his sergeant selected a very fancy jeweled street sword. Because of this, he designated both he and the sergeant had gotten two lots. Then it was done by rank with each item being worth one lot. This meant the two selected to pick first got skipped over twice and my uncle and his sergeant skipped over once. I, as a non-fighting standard bearer, didn’t get any picks until the end of the third lot. I was then kept in rotation until no one wanted anything. What little was left unclaimed we took to the squatter camp outside of Dune Mesa and dropped it off. The bodies were buried with Zeris Channeler blessed water to prevent them from needing to be re-killed."

“Sounds real fair to me,” Adga responded. “But we really don’t have rank other than me, right?”

“No, we have rank,” Nuk stated with a long sigh. “Tez and I are lowest ranking since we are on our Rite of Noblehood quests and must not use any privileges over those we are with. You decide rank order beyond that.”

Adga frowned. She didn’t want to pick one of her friends above the others for rank. An idea of how to get around it came to her. “How about we agree to base pick order on a vote of who does best? If there is a tie, I guess I’ll be the decider.”

Nuk looked surprised. “I have never heard of it being done in such a way, but I like it.”

Adga glanced around and noted everyone else nodded. “Good, then we got a plan. But I got to ask, are you two really ready to fight?”

Nuk nodded. “We both train two days a week with a guard training sergeant. We also attend two days a week of combo spell and combat training. Most who go out on their first rite are the high-training echelon. If they cannot pass into Primary at the end, they fail their rite. It is by far the most common way a noble fails his or her rite. However, thanks to working with and for Tez’s uncle, both of us are fully guilded Primary step 1s.”

“Me been ‘round lot-a Primary one, even two and three,” Rin fired back. “Few be able ta come out ta Outer Crag Wall wit Ad, Vyrax, Ven, and me wit’out needin’ protectin’! Only five we take in here. Three a dem no friend after. Need mommy after! Ad, Vyrax, and me need ta know if ya need ta be kiddy-watched er gunna hold yer own. Need ta know if ya can fight fer real!”

Tez took in a deep breath as Nuk’s eyes narrowed. “It is a fair question Nuk.”

Both of Nuk’s hands clenched into fists, but he sighed and nodded. “Yeah, I guess. But I don’t need to be babysat!”

Tez snickered, “Out here in the Crags, we might!”

Nuk tossed up both hands, “Point taken.” He turned to look at Rin with a great deal less hostility in posture and voice. “Both of us have been out on patrols and Lord Alagor Shunral made sure we both tasted real combat. Once he made us engage four younger bandits two on four while others watched. Another time he had a tracker lead us to three bandits who fled his patrol after he crashed their camp. His scouts separated them. As they did so, we had to take them down without help. Lord Alagor also put the two of us down in the arena’s lower pit in Foul Water with a pair of boney undead he managed to capture somehow. We had the clear advantage each time, but we know we can fight and kill.”

Vyrax frowned, “Good you were made to taste danger, but a staged fight where the advantage is yours isn’t what we’ll be dealing with…”

Tez held up a hand to stop Nuk, “We know.” He paused as Adga raised an eyebrow. “We really do know, Patrol Leader. We’ve seen real fights and had to help clean up stragglers a few of those times.”

Tez’s eyes darted around to the others so everyone knew he was speaking to the group, not just Adga. “We know and understand what is expected and will do our best. We will not run and will engage whatever comes out of the desert down in Scorpion Falls. We are also under your command until we are released from this quest. If we do poorly, we expect we will be punished in duty and training tasked to us by Patrol Leader Adga or any of the rest of you as she sees fit.

“While Captain Haquev made me second in command, it is a position I cannot take. Part of the Rite of Noblehood is we are not allowed to have any authority over any of you. We have very little say over our lives until this quest is complete. The only things required is our current belongings cannot be confiscated and we get to maintain basic guard rights. Which really means we keep our pay and are allowed enough food and water. We also must get some rest so we can fight. Healthman or Channeler care should be provided if needed and available. Other very basic rights such as spoils are expected, but cannot be demanded. Adga does not even have to give us time off. Many nobles give up their house rights by resigning from the task and thus their house. And as you heard, many do not advance into Primary Echelon, thus fail. Some even outright refuse, desert, or die during their first quest. It is anticipated. My guess is even wanted. Young nobles are a drain on the houses. This is a good way to make sure those who stay part of the houses are worth the cost."

“I am sorry you have to go through this. And I will do what I can to keep you both alive and your families happy. We all will.” Adga responded in total sincerity.

“Thank you, Patrol Leader,” Nuk stated, then snorted with a hint of humor. “However, taking us into the Crags is not a great way to instill faith in your desire to keep me alive.”

Vyrax busted up laughing. “Pretty sure I said almost the same thing when Rin had me join him and Adga the first time.”

“I can see why,” Tez spoke, then gave a nervous snicker. “To do this willingly makes me question your sanity, Patrol Leader.”

“Oh, don’t question none. I’m nuts!” Adga turned and smiled widely with as evil a grin as she could muster.

Ven chuckled then looked over at Nuk, “It sounds like the nobles use the same system as the lower castes with the age of ascension being human equivalent of sixteen, correct?”

“Yes,” Nuk answered evenly but still looked around as if expecting undead to come rushing out of the tall crags on either side of the path he found himself on. “For me, that is just over eight years, for Tez it is just under seven years.”

“You not Human?” Rin asked Nuk.

“No, I am Highman. Human equivalent age is currently thirteen for me, fourteen in under three moons. Tez is H.E. fourteen. How about you all?”

Vyrax responded, “Ad, Rin, and I are all H.E. fourteen, but Ad’s almost fifteen. Ven is Human and is thirteen. You both need to try to calm down, though. Every time we have brought others out here, the dead walkers seem to be able sense their fear.”

“It be true.” Rin nodded. “Dead walker go after ‘fraid one right off every time.”

“They sure do,” Adga concurred. “Foelay, the junior apprentice with me drew the meanest one toward him with his fear. When he ran, it focused on him. It made it an easy kill for me. But if I ever see Foelay again, I’ll… he best hope some other guard finds him to collect the bounty. He left me. It’s something I can’t forgive.”

“Nor should you,” Tez stated. “If you had both run, I doubt you would have been in trouble, but running and leaving another guardsman is totally unacceptable!”

Nuk concurred. “The exact same thing my great-uncle said. All I can say is you really impressed him, Adga.”

“I did what had to be done. My patrol needed their mounts, extra water, and gear. To leave them… I would not have been able to live with myself.”

“Which is why you will almost certainly be allowed to keep your patrol leader rank.” Tez stated. “We need to re-establish patrol numbers after finally driving the Colossus back into the lower desert. You earned it. I just hope, if dead walkers do appear while we are in here, I will be able to do a tenth as good as you did.”

“We will see and probably have to deal with a few of them.” Vyrax informed the two spooked nobles. “We have never once come in here, even during this time a day, without needing to face three or four.”

Adga looked over as the weapon hands of both nobles went down to preferred arms at their sides. “Most will still have flesh on them this time of day, so keep bladed weapons in easy reach. None of them like the light of Zeris, but the bony ones seem to be partially blinded and confused by bright light, so they don’t normally come down till the shadows cover most of this path or when there is heavy clouds or sand squalls that block sunlight.”

Tez tried to keep an upbeat attitude as he spoke after several minutes of silence. “Look on the bright side, Nuk. We will honestly be able to say we’ve been in the Crags. None of our siblings will be able to outdo this.”

“Only if we make it out. Every shift of sand or rolling of a rock down one of these crags makes me think there is a dead walker ready to come after me!”

“Much a what you note prob’ly be dead walker triggered.” Rin stated without sounding too concerned. “If’n ya want-a find dead walker, ya only need at look ta the cave up on the red crag ta da left. Der ya can note a few a dem boney walker. They be in deep dark a da cave. Look fer the red glow in der eye. It give ‘em away right off.”

Tez looked up and then pointed, “By the gods, there is three. No four! There are four of them up there! I see their eyes now. Why aren’t they coming after us?”

“Me bet them want ta come down, but no want to come in the light.” Rin shrugged. “You no note three other cave we go by had red eye in ‘em too. If’n we not need ta get goin’ fast, we’d go up ta one a dem cave and get loot!”

Vyrax pointed to another cave way higher up, “You know what to look for now, so you’ll see all sorts of them. We only go after the near caves and try to draw them out by staying just inside the shadows of the crags. If a bunch come out, we back off. But we’ve only had it happen a couple of times. Normally it’s only four or five. They seem to stay in small groups until the path is in the deep shade, then all bets are off.”

Adga shook her head as the nobles exchanged shocked glances and moved their skimmers closer to each other. They also sped their mounts up forcing everyone else to do the same. She shot Rin a frown only to get a grin out of her best friend. It made it hard not to laugh, but she managed. Instead of making fun of the nobles, she tried to ease their fears. “We’re on skimmers and are moving way faster than they can run, guys. The ones you have to worry about are the ones coming out in front of us, not behind or way up in the Crags.”

“Unless a dead walker skimmer comes after us.” Ven announced. “We only had it happen once, but it was pretty scary.”

“But the saddle bags had good loot.” Vyrax added.

“Got me e’nuff ta buy me Ssssilver Ssssteel knuckle!” Rin held up gauntlets that were specially made. They allowed him to extend his claws yet had a flap he could uncover to expose small Silver Steel spikes over his fists.

“And it had the bag of gems we all split between us.” Ven noted. “But it gave us a fight. All of us needed to pay for Healthman services at the Pantherling’s shop even after the Channelers of Zeris gave each of us a free healing."

“Well worth the money.” Vyrax stated. “We came out way on top even after all the treatments. It bought me a nicer Mystic cloak than my dad can make and let me buy a full traveling Mystic kit.”

Tez looked stunned as he blurted out, “You all must have pulled over a thousand silver worth of spoils out of here!”

“More.” Adga stated. “We got enough to fully equip my brother, sister, and Rin’s two brothers. They join us sometimes on my one day off a week. We look in caves on the Outer Crag Walls north of the river cave. Found a few dead walkers, but not much loot. It’s good practice for them. It’ll also help if dead walkers get into the Squatter Market since they know the basics of how to fight them and ain’t as afraid of them as they used to be.

“The real loot is in here. We almost never find tin coins on the old dead walkers, and even copper is rare. Pretty much everything is silver.”

"How are their pouches intact after so long?” Nuk asked.

Vendra dug into her pack and pulled out a pouch with tattered bits of cloth stuck in a fine bronze mesh. She tossed it over. “Most of them have pouches made with fine links, much like chainmail. Most are like the one I tossed you, bronze. But I have seen two Elvin Steel and a Dwarven Steel and Adga said they have even seen Silver Steel and Blue Steel ones."

“Yeah,” Adga nodded with a wide grin, “the Silver Steel ones always have great loot. We even snagged numerous gold coins from a few. We got the most gold out of one of the Blue Steel ones, but whatever killed it, to begin with must have been really hot. Most of the coins in the pouch were partially melted. Burntmetal had to separate them for me. It’s what got me the Kandahar forged flail. We almost never get gold out of bronze pouches…”

Adga flipped at a pouch on her side. “We all carry belt pouches we got out of the Crags since it’s all but impossible for a thief to cut open or off the belt.” Seeing both nobles go wide-eyed, she added, “We almost had enough to buy Ven so we could free her. So we have lots of gold, silver, and gems in a lockbox back at the Healthman shop.”

“Paying off my unclaimed owner status including the criminal fine of my owner runs over nine hundred silver!” Ven gasped. It was clear she had no idea her friends were even trying to do this for her. It caused her to wipe a few tears from her eyes.

“Seven-fifty for me. It was a discount offered to me since your former owner tried to stab a guard and I stopped him. If we want to show we have gold coins, we could have bought you already. But we don’t want anyone to know about them since they don’t look anything like the coins we have in the Spires. They have a raised flying lizard on one side and a real fancy crest on the other.”

“Do you have one with you?” Nuk asked.

Vyrax dug into a hidden pocket on his Mystic cloak, moved close, and handed Nuk a coin. “All three of us have several. They all look like this… Exactly like this.”

Nuk examined the coin, then slid over to Tez, “The crest is almost the same as the one on your magical amulet!”

Tez pulled out a silver, diamond-shaped, amulet with eight topaz stones around the edge from under his shirt. The amulet was attached to a silver chain. He compared the crests. Both coin and amulet had a dragon-like creature with extended wings. The tails were straight down as if the beast was flying straight upwards. The tips of both tails were shaped like arrowheads. In addition, the creatures were over a four-leafed clover, only the edges of the leaves were smooth, not lobbed. The eyes on the lizard were tiny star sapphires. The big differences between the amulet and the coin were the lizard on the coin had a long head horn and the bottom of its wings were sharp-looking and overlapped each other and the tail. The one on the amulet had a short head horn and the wings were not as long.

Ven held both and whistled in surprise. “My Ruinseeker instructor would love to see your amulet and this coin! My study of crests have not included anything like these, but they have to be from the same family line. If I had to bet, the coin has a higher royal crest than the one on the amulet. The horn and longer wings portray more power. At least it does to me when I look at it from my Ruinseeker studies." She let the amulet slip out of her fingers, then handed the coin back. “I’ve never seen a gold coin before today, let alone held one.”

“I’ve held gold before, but never owned one.” Tez stated with a tinge of jealousy in his voice. “You are all much higher a caste than anyone would believe!”

“Tez is right,” Nuk proclaimed emphatically. “You have the wealth of a low merchant, if not a merchant. I don’t want you to perceive this as a bribe of any kind, but I could get you an audience with one of the lords to formally bump up your castes…” He glanced over at Ven, “Can’t do it for you. Not being a slave. Sorry.”

Adga shook her head, “We will not leave Vendra out, so thanks but no. We were so close to being able to buy her freedom. Even without the gold, we were less than fifty silver short and we were going to sell the gems we got off the seven Rin pointed out when we first came in here.”

Adga turned to Ven. “We already would have bought and freed you, but the only Gem Worker who will buy from us without blabbing about us having lots of gems hasn’t swung through the Squatter’s Market since we took them down.”

“I’m sure he gouges us on price,” Vyrax grumbled. “But he stays quiet.”

“If you will let me borrow one of those gold coins so I can take it to my House’s lead Ruinseeker, I will get you a contact inside the northern walls who will buy from you without talking and give you better pricing.” Nuk stated. “There is a Gem Worker just off the central market who owes my house a few favors.”

“As long as we get it back, and you tell us what you find out, we’ll take you up on…” Adga stopped speaking as she noticed a scattering of stones rolling down a hill a couple of hundred meters in front of them. The stones came directly from the path leading up to the archway out of the Crags.

Her keen eyes quickly found the source. “We got fleshies coming down the hill we have to go up guys. Looks like a few Humans, a Dwarf, a pair a young, probably Human, a Elf blood, and a Orc. Maybe Halforc. Whatever it is, the Orcy goes down first. Best I can tell it’s got dried blood on its face, but very little damage to its gear. It has decent-looking scale mail armor with a shield and is carrying a fully intact war hammer!”

“The pointy-eared one goes next!” Vyrax shouted. “It’s got reinforced leather, shield, and longsword.”

“Damn, two a dem thing even have pack on and the little young’an be in night cloth with boot on. Must’a been part of a caravan hit right at dark before them unpack. All a ‘em look ta be real new dead walker, too.” Rin growled as he pulled his battle axe. “It gunna ssssplatter and reek when we cut ‘em. Cover yer mouth and nossssse. Ya no want ta eat er breathe none a dem!”

Tez quickly pulled the edge of his headwrap down and covered most of his face, “Oh… totally nasty and disgusting!”

“It is,” Nuk agreed as he undid part of his neck wrap to cover his nose and mouth, “but at least we were warned. I wouldn’t have known until it was too late!”

“It’s something you’ll need to think about going forward.” Vyrax spat off to the side before he covered his mouth and yanked his long straight sword from over his back.”

“What type of blade is that?” Nuk asked as he pulled his magical hip sword.

“Not sure what it’s called,” Vyrax responded. "I got it off a Human fleshy bone walker with weird-looking banded mail armor and a helm with horns. It took all of us to kill the damned thing. But its blade is magic and real comfortable in my hand.”

“The handle is too small for Rin and me, so we let him keep it while we took and sold the rest. We know it’s magic, but we don’t know what it does none.” Adga added as she pulled her bastard sword. “Also, don’t let your skimmers bite fleshies this new. The juices in the bodies will make them real sick.”

“Good to know,” Tez gulped.

Adga turned to Ven, “See what you can do about the Humans and small ones!”

Ven nodded and pulled up a copper amulet with a raised sunburst with a small rose quartz stone in the middle, “I call on the aid of any nearby spirits of the god of sunlight! Zeris grant me a sliver of your power if you feel me worthy!”

An instant later sunlight reflected off the copper disk in a shower of rainbow-colored beams and splashed across the two young ones and both adult Humans carrying packs. All four rocked back. As they did so, they dropped what was in their hands and covered their faces.

“There be our window!” Rin shouted, even as Adga charged forward on her skimmer. He quickly kicked his skimmer in the side to get it moving forward.

“Ignore the ones Ven was able to stun or the touch of Zeris will be broken!” Vyrax loudly warned.

Adga angled right at the Orcish beast, noting it had a huge flap of skin hanging down where its right cheek should have been. The edges looked ragged and the eye above the wound hung down as if on a cord. Because of this, she darted to its right hoping the fleshy undead wouldn’t be able to see as well because of its wound.

The former Halforc swung wildly as Adga got into range. It was an easy attack to block with her shield. She then shield-bashed it in the face as she went by.

The blow knocked the creature off balance. It stumbled back while wildly slashing nothing but air. Adga jumped off the skimmer the moment she was behind the Halforc and did something very few could do. She went low and swung the bastard sword with her right hand as if it were a longsword.

The blade bit deeply into the back of the undead Halforc’s left leg. Skin and calf muscle peeled back exposing bone. It lost support and fell with a thrashing body and pitifully evil-sounding moan. It rolled over onto its back and tried to smash at Adga with its hammer. She spun out of the way and slashed at the extended hand. It fell free of the body with the Warhammer still clenched in its dead and rotting flesh. Brackish maroon blood and yellow pus gushed from the wound.

She took a step back and scrunched her nose at the putrid smell of rotting meat combined with the sickly-sweet smell of a rancid infected wound. She looked up, noting Rin was closing. “I’ve got this one, Rin! Take the Elf.”

Rin’s skimmer passed by so close to her back that she felt the wind of its passing. She looked back down the hill. Vyrax had the upper hand on the Dwarf, but it was still armed with a light flail. Vyrax was being backed up by both Nuk and Tez, but the two remaining Humans were moving up on them from their left.

“Damn useless spoiled nobles!” She snarled softly as she hacked off the leg she damaged at the knee. This allowed her time to back off and shout instructions. “Nuk, Tez, look to your left! You each take one of those! Let Ven help Vyrax.”

She delivered a straight-down thrust into the neck of the undead beast she was fighting. The strike was devastating. It nearly severed the head even as it tried to use its one hand and one leg to get close enough to attack her. “You ain’t biting me!” she snarled as she twisted and wiggled her blade until the head rolled free and the body stopped moving. Satisfied she had ended the threat; she turned her attention back to the pair of nobles. They stood, weapons out in defensive positions as the two Humans continued to close on them.

“Don’t let them come for you! You’ll box Vyrax in!” She shouted in frustration. “Take the fight to them!” She continued to watch as the boys exchanged glances, then moved forward with a great deal of trepidation. “Oh, for Lunara’s sake!” She growled while extending her hand. With a twist of her finger, a greenish bolt leaped out of her hand. The glowing bolt shot between the two boys. It hit the taller Human. It jerked back and let loose with a high-pitched scream.

“Let it pass! It will come right at me! You two take the other Human!”

Both nobles moved well to the left. This allowed the one Adga had hit with a Life Ray, to open ground. In addition to giving it unrestricted access to her, they continued to nervously approach the smaller Human. “My little brother has bigger balls than those two…” She muttered as she once again extended her hand and let out a Life Ray. This time striking the second one. The spell was a simple learned Autospell. It did nothing to the living but disrupted a bit of the vile magic that allowed the undead to exist. “OK, I got them both coming at me so take your shots!”

Her head dropped as the pair moved up on the smaller Human again with their blades held primarily for defense. “Oh, come on! Engage it!”

“It smells horrible and it has an axehammer!”

“If you ever find a good smellin’ dead walker, then we have a problem!” Adga snapped back in anger while she smacked the flat of her blade against her head a couple of times to calm down. It didn’t help. “If you two don’t get your act together, you’re cooking, cleaning, and oiling all our weapons tonight! Now I was told you’re casters!” Adga shouted. “So cast!” Adga let loose with a third Life Ray at the taller one to slow it down. It jerked back and made a snarling sound. The former Human raised the dagger in its right hand high above its head.

However, this gave her a chance to look around. What she saw caused a satisfied smirk. Rin was all over the undead Elf. His battle axe dripped with gore while the Elf wobbled and swung its axe in wide arcs. This told her it didn’t have much left.

Just down from Rin, Vyrax was being more careful with the flail-armed Dwarf but had the clear upper hand. Vyrax had cut it in several places and a fresh gouge down the leather armor covering its chest oozed brackish blood. As best as she could tell, Vyrax hadn’t received a scratch.

However, Ven had turned to the south and was focusing on something Adga couldn’t see. “Ven?”

“Got a Halfling with a Morningstar!” She shouted as she swung.

Adga’s eyes went wide as Vendra’s scimitar reappeared from the swing sending a splatter of vital juices in a wide arc.

Ven twisted to the side and smacked away an attack with her shield. “I’ve got this one, but we’ve got two more coming down the hill!” Ven swung again, then blocked a swing with her shield, causing a clang of metal on metal to echo over the Crags. “Looks like one’s a kid about our age.” She swung and snarled, “This is the problem with dead walkers. They just don’t know when they’re beat!” She did yet another shield block, then swung. She looked down at what was in front of her, “And stay down!”

Adga snorted, glanced over at the tall Human coming toward her, then at the nobles. They both shot off Life Rays and finally moved up on the other Human. “Ven, you OK?”

“Arm hurts like crazy from the cutting in the equipment place, but the Halfling didn’t even scrape me. But Ad, I’m not sure what to make of the last two coming down the hill. The kid is in nice looking leather and has a hip sword out! The other is what was a nice dressed woman. I think she has a freaking meat cleaver! She’s a dead walker for sure, but the kid is… I’m not sure. He’s not acting dead, but he ain’t acting living either.”

“Make sure the Halfling can’t get back up, then take the cleaver woman. Rin and or Vyrax should be able to move and help you with the kid real soon!”

“On it!”

Adga turned back to focus on the other Human only to find it had closed way faster than she expected. It was already up on her. She tried to spin out of the way, but the dagger grazed her shield arm before she could perform a block. “Oh, no you didn’t!” Adga bellowed.

She spun to the side and slashed, opening up a gash in its left leg.

From further up the hill Rin called out, “You OK Ad?"

“Damned thing nicked me!”

“You need help?” Vyrax called out.

“For a scratch?” Adga snarled as she smacked away a poor dagger thrust. “NO! You two stop playing and go help the others. One join Ven, the other the young lords. I gots me a mean bag of pus to re-kill!” Her anger caused her to miss with a backhand thrust, but she was easily able to avoid a stab attempt. This opened the Human up for an easy slice, so she took it.

While its follow-up attack was easy to sidestep, she was surprised when it did a head bob, and juked to the side to avoid her next swing. She then had to use a quick shield block which made her next swing easy for it to sidestep. Clearly whoever this had been had some skill in life that had carried through to its undead form.

The deathly serious dance continued as Adga exchanged several misses and a few minor hits. She bet, as she took a dagger thrust to her leg, this Human had been one of the group’s lead guards before running into whatever killed and turned them into what they now were.

She didn’t let the trickle of blood running down her leg slow her down. As it went after a false opening Adga purposefully provided, it left its face totally unprotected. She shield-bashed it. Maroon blood and yellow pus splattered across the front of her shield as the blow pulverized its nose. As it stumbled back, she saw an opening and slashed down. Her bastard sword ripped through the armor over the left shoulder and continued down, into and through the collarbone. The Human fell but still grabbed for a knife on its boot with its right hand. It didn’t make it.

Adga shoved her blade into its open mouth and angled the thrust. The tip of the blade emerged from the upper back of the skull. At last, the Human went limp.

She took a step back and sucked in a few deep breaths. She surveyed the battle. Adga frowned deeply as she noticed the initially stunned four flesh walkers were no longer wobbling. One of the adults with a pack reached down for its dropped cutlass. The other adult ignored its short sword lying in the sand. It pulled a light fighting hammer off its belt loop.

The two young kids were both on their knees going after whatever Zeris’ powers had caused them to discard.

On the plus side, the nobles had finally dropped the one they had been facing. Nuk had a nasty-looking cut on his hip, and was limping slightly, but still looked combat worthy. Rin was over with Ven, while Vyrax angled in on the one trying to pick up the cutlass.

She went after the one with the hammer while whistling for the nobles to help. As soon as they looked away from the Human they had dropped, she pointed. “Take the little kids. Vyrax and I will take the adults!”

She didn’t wait to see if they would follow her orders. Instead, she fired off a Life Ray into the hammer wielder so it would focus on her alone. She readied her sword as it turned and glared at her with milky-white eyes of death and a snarl showing yellowing teeth.

She didn’t even need her shield to defeat its first swing. It sailed way to her right. It stumbled, pulling it away from Adga’s return swing, but it stayed off balance. This allowed Adga an easy shot. She took it.

The problem was she exposed her foot as she stepped forward. She saw her mistake at the last moment, but the hammer shot still managed to nick her little toe. She let out a yelp and slashed while taking weight off her right foot. This took a great deal of power out of the swing, but the heavy blade still cut in.

The next hammer shot glanced off her shield. She went low, putting deep gashes across both thighs. As it fell forward, she did a follow-up slice into the back of its head. A hunk of hair flew off as its face slammed down into the sand. It didn’t move. She stomped on its head with her boot, opening a hole in the skull, then looked around for another target.

Adga’s hand crashed into her forehead as she watched Tez start to reach for a wooden doll being held out by the little girl. “Tez! It’s dead! It’s going to try to bite you!”

Tez yanked his hand back just as the girl’s head shot forward. Her little teeth came together so hard they made a loud click sound.

Tez’s eyes went wide, “No biting!” He shouted as he swung his hip sword at the suddenly snarling little kid in a nightshirt and a single boot. It then spit at him, splashing his cheek with spit and what looked and smelled like vomit. At this point, Tez lost it. He started swinging wildly, missing as many times as he connected but cut the little girl to ribbons in the process.

Next to him, Nuk narrowly avoided getting hit with a nice looking large wooden toy horse, then had to jump back to avoid getting bit. While not as crazed as his buddy, he proceeded to chop into the young boy until it was down. He slid over to Tez and yanked him back. “It’s down! For the love of the gods, man, it’s down! Stop already! You are spraying me with what is left of it!”

“Guys, when you are done making a mess out-a what’s already re-dead, get the gear off and sunbake the armor. Leave them in the rest of their clothing. It may have critters on it. Ven will do a quick blessing on everything before we bundle it to be extra safe. These things are real fresh and foul. They easily could have something nasty in or on them, so use gloves.”

A rage-filled shout from Rin prevented Adga from saying anything further. She turned away from the nobles and dashed up the hill at a full sprint.

Adga crested the hill only to see Ven finish off a woman in what had been an expensive-looking merchant-style dress. At the same time, Rin was smacking at a smoldering spot on his left thigh with one hand while running straight at an extremely pale-looking Human boy. The kid was staggering awkwardly but had a hip sword in one hand while his other was extended at Rin. She blinked back spots in her eyes as a small ball of flame launched out of the extended hand and hit Rin in the chest.

“No!” Rin shouted. “Not to me new armor! Don’t ya know fire dat tiny ain’t gonna hurt me none?”

The advancing kid seemed unphased by Rin’s shout. A third bolt of fire lanced outward from his extended hand. It hit Rin in the hip.

“If’n ya ain’t dead, ya gonna wanna be after me get done wit ya!” Rin roared.

Ven stabbed the unmoving woman one more time to make sure it would not get back up, then shouted, “Razor, help Rin, but no kill. NO KILL Razor!”

Vyrax moved up behind Adga, and gasped as yet another small ball of fire impacted Rin, “A spell-throwing dead walker?”

“Not sure the kid is dead…” Adga stated. She took a deep breath, “Rin, don’t go for the kill! Beat him down.”

Next to Adga, Vyrax extended his hand and waited until Rin got close. He then waved both hands and crossed his left in front of his right.

The full effect, while impossible to see from the distance they were at, had a clear result. The kid shook his head while the blade in his hand slashed well off to Rin’s left.

A moment later Rin’s left fist slammed into the boy.

Vyrax glanced over at Adga and smiled, “Cross eyes! I love that Autospell! Let’s get up there.”

Adga snorted as she jogged next to Vyrax. She cringed briefly as the kid swung his blade at Rin, but it was easily deflected by the armored gauntlet on his left forearm. Rin punched the kid again.

An instant later Ven’s spider lizard leapt up on the boy’s back. Its front claws twirled in the boy’s hair and pulled his head back.

Rin sidestepped a poor sword thrust, then quickly and unexpectedly grabbed both the boy’s arms and yanked him forward. Rin then delivered a very hard head-butt.

The boy couldn’t even try to defend himself since Razor was on his back pulling his hair and thus kept his head back.

The kid rocked back and tried to pull free, but totally failed. Rin once again yanked on both arms and slammed his scaled bony skull into the kid’s face. Blood rolled out of the boy’s nose and split lips. Still, he tried to get free.

“Ya burn me armor! Ya pay!” Rin snarled as he extended his claws into the boy’s forearms making it impossible to pull free without ripping much wider wounds. Rin yanked the boy forward again. Only this time he brought up a knee.

The kid, who up till this moment had said nothing, let out a squeal and fell to his knees.

Rin showed no mercy. He kicked the youngster in the chest. He retracted his claws and let the kid fall face-first into the sand.

“Burn me armor one more time.” Rin snarled while grabbing the kid’s blade, then reached down and yanked a bandoleer with five throwing daggers off his chest. “Go on try it!”

Ven moved up and patted him on the back. “Take a breath and have some water Rin. He’s not getting back up anytime soon.

“Him better not!”

“He’s done.” Ven stated firmly. She then looked down, “Razor, let go! Guard the mounts!”

Adga moved up and knelt next to the boy as Razor pulled free, taking some hair as it did so. As the Fanged Spider Lizard turned and raced down the hill, Adga ran her finger over the blood pouring out of the boy’s nose and sniffed it. “Little bit sour of smell and runny, but it looks like blood. Rin, you’re our Healthman. What do you think?”

“Me think me want to kick him more!” Rin growled as he looked at a few minor burn spots in his armor. “Not look nice no more, but think it not be hurt too bad.” He grumbled as he looked at a couple of the blackened spots and walked in a circle around the kid.

He shook his head, “Dumb. Little fire no hurt. Me Red Dragonling!” He finally moved up and knelt. He looked at the blood coming out of the nose, split lip, and forearms. “Yer right. Blood runny. Too thin.” His lower jaw moved back and forth. After doing another check he motioned to Vyrax, “Not right. Help get him armor off.”

Adga turned to Ven. “Get Tez and Nuk. Make sure nothing else is coming out of the Crags. If there is, shout. But we don’t have time to waste. If we’re clear, gather the skimmers. Have the young lords help sunbake the loot while you bless it. Once you are ok with us bundling the gear, load the skimmers up with all the loot. But keep loot from each dead walker separate and marked so we can properly handle loot awards."

“I’ll have them bundle everything in the armor or their packs.”

“Good enough. Don’t let them be snobby about taking everything they can, but make it fast. Nobody grabs nothing for themselves. We’ll sort through it later.”

Adga turned her attention back to the boy. While Vyrax peeled the armor off the battered youngster, the boy managed to point toward the woman in the merchant-quality dress Ven had taken down. “Mama… Mama.” He mumbled and sobbed.

Vyrax pulled a book out of a satchel and held it up. The reddish leather cover had a quartet of smoky quartz gemstones on the front. “Adga, he’s a real caster.”

“Mage or Druid book for sure.” Adga stated. “Keep it in the book pouch for now.”

Rin finished stripping the kid while occasionally slapping the boy’s hands as the kid tried to point in the direction of the woman. He pointed to guild pins on the kid’s belt. “Mage. Not know the other.” He pointed to a pin with crossed hammers over the outline of a ship.

“Shipwright.” Vyrax stated. “One of the smaller and weaker guilds and no reason for them to be out here. I couldn’t even guess where the closest guildhall is. He must have come from real far away."

Rin wrapped bandages around the claw marks he had put into the boy’s arms, checked his back then rolled the boy over. He stopped as he noticed a bunch of marks on the kid’s stomach along with some blistered skin. “Think him be bit and burn. Not know by what. Three, maybe four bite.”

Rin pushed on the wounds. Clear fluid came out followed by some blood. He looked up and shrugged. “Not know Adga.”

“See what you can do. Vyrax, let's finish this.”

Vyrax stood, “Never had to do this to those who don’t really look dead.”

“Me neither,” Adga cringed. “Don’t look at them for what they were. Look at them as what we know they’ll become if we don’t.”

“I know.” Vyrax picked up a heavy stone, moved up to the woman’s body, hefted the stone well over his head, and slammed it down over the woman’s head with both hands. As the skull crushed, gore sprayed outward. He looked away and cringed. “Stay back further, they’re really gooey… At least they have dead eyes.”

Adga moved down the hill, found a good-sized rock, and duplicated what Vyrax had just done on one of the little kids. “Yeah, the death-clouded eyes does make this a bit easier.”

Over at the skimmers, Nuk looked up as the second little kid’s skull splattered from the heavy impact of a stone. He shouted in horror, “What are you doing!?!”

Ven let out a loud sigh from over at her skimmer where she was loading belongings taken off the Dwarf. “If we don’t smash the skulls, they will come back as boney undead once their flesh has been picked clean. Or way worse, the skin will dry and give them a hard leathery armor of dead flesh. We have had to fight the same ones twice. The first time as fleshies and again as bone or hide walkers. One had Adga’s bolt still in its dried hide chest, the other one of Vyrax’s bent daggers still stuck in its arm bone.

“Don’t worry. Once they are done destroying the heads, I will perform a quick rite of death. But out here rites from a Channeler, especially as low an echelon as me, ain’t enough to stop them from coming back. The only way we know to make sure they can’t ever get back up is to crush the eye bones so they can't get the death glow. With no skull, they have no way for their eyes to start to glow. They stay down forever. We do the same to bone walkers just in case."

“So we can’t give them a proper burial?” Nuk asked with an incredulous tone.

“No!” Adga barked back. “There ain’t no sacred ground out here and we can’t afford the time to drag them out even if we wanted to!”

Tez tied the gear from the Elf and one of the Humans to the back of his skimmer as he spoke up. “Nuk, it is not our call. She is patrol leader. We are her guardsman. Her lowest ranked guardsman.” He quickly turned away as Adga destroyed the head of one of the other Humans. “Disgusting!”

Adga nodded in agreement. She paused long enough for Ven to say a quick prayer to Zeris over each body, then mounted her skimmer and moved up the hill.

Adga hopped off her skimmer and moved over to Rin and the boy. “What do you think?”

“Him not right. May heal. May not. Think me got icky clear goo out a da bite. Hope me did… Blood be too runny, and no ssssmell right, but be blood.”

“Could he turn into a flesh walker?” Adga demanded to know.

“I don’t know. Him no be dead, but not know if him really alive. We take and check?”

Adga looked down at the kid. She frowned. He was a fit-looking boy with the possibility of a good future. He had graceful hands and lean yet toned arms and legs. Had his face not been used as a head-butt post, she was certain she would have found him cute. She was certain Ven would. He even had the potential to be a friend. His eyes weren’t clouded by death. Instead, they were a beautiful light grey, but they appeared confused. She had to admit to herself she’d be confused too, after getting the type of pummeling Rin had given the boy. She knelt and stroked his cheek.

“Mama… Papa…” the boy muttered even as he pushed his head into Adga’s hand. She kept her hand there, hoping it gave him some comfort.

Adga used her other hand to run her finger over a couple of the oozing injuries on his stomach. The clearer discharge had been pushed out by Rin, so while runny, all the wounds had blood-colored liquid coming from them. She sniffed at her fingers. It didn’t have a putrid odor; she often smelled from undead but there was a hint of bitter sulfur to it.

The problem was taking the kid was a risk and she had the Spires to worry about. She looked away. Before anyone could stop her, she picked up an extremely large stone lying next to the boy. She held it over her head even as she allowed the kid to push up against the palm of her other hand with his cheek. She held the stone up just long enough to say, “I’m so sorry.” She then slammed the heavy rock down on the boy’s skull while pulling back her other hand at the last possible moment.

Adga wiped a tear out of the corner of her eye with her shoulder, stood, and mounted her skimmer. “Ven, bless his gear. Rin, bundle and load it. We have a warning to get out!”

 

Copyright © 2023 Kyle Aarons; All Rights Reserved.
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The choice Adga had to make dealing with the kid, is not a choice I would have liked to make.

Despite what we may think, she has a heart!

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Wow--this started out calm and all said who they were and described their skills and experiences. The young nobles pledged to obey Adga and will be junior and the lowest rank of the team. The had fought in mostly practice situations, The Crags are damn scary and inhabited with death walkers and flesh walkers,

Adga and her crew engaged some terrible creatures and fought bravely and fiercely. The description of the combat was compelling and heart rendering worrisome. The young nobles held back and were too tentative. Aga had to force them to fight and they slowly began taking on the enemy. The creatures were destroyed, and their heads bashed to prevent them for coming back to fight in another form, Adga painfully felt compelled to smash the head of a young kid who she would not be able to take with him. Completing the mission came first.

I hope the young nobles turn around , become aggressive in battle and bond better with the team. They are young and have been bloodied. The other fighters shown themselves to be very effective and able to meld their skills to help each other. Adga is a new leader and has made a hard decision about life and death. She will have more tough decisions to make, I expect. She is a magnificent warrior and is showing she is the right person to head this mission.

Edited by akascrubber
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The young nobles have been blooded in their first action with the group. Despite the claims of experience, they're too timid and indecisive. They're lucky to be with this group of skilled fighters. They should be alright in time.

Killing the boy was a tough call, but Adga has the safety of the group and her mission to consider. It was the questionable chance of saving one against the risk to many. She displayed why she merits a position of command.

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