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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 - 6. Chapter 6

Adga looked over everything they had taken off those they had eliminated in the Crags. It had been neatly laid out by Ven and Rin. Off to the side, Nuk tested his leg and nodded in satisfaction.

Adga looked over to Tez and Vyrax, “How are you doing on the spell pages?”

“Most are useful to one or both of us, but we’ll have four duplicates,” Vyrax responded as he pointed to one and gave Tez a hopeful look.

Tez nodded and pointed to another, then to himself. The spells were secured, and they moved on.

“When you finish, sell the others. We’ll divide the funds between the other four of us.”

As each boy settled on another page, they both nodded in agreement and understanding.

“We’ve scored a great deal of magic. We know what most of it does thanks to Sir Lenti Avery and his people. Stake a claim to what you want… Ven, Rin, I want each of you to take a magic weapon… Um, Vyrax, sorry, you’re not part of this.”

Vyrax held up both hands “I got the cloak, headband, plus spell pages. Plus, after what Sir Lenti told us about my blade, I think I made out way better than any of us knew! I’m beyond good!”

The selection went way smoother than Adga expected. She found little she was overly interested in. The enchanted axehammer was intriguing, but she saw the look in Rin’s eyes. He could have it. Instead, she moved over to the box given to her when she got paid. She inserted the key into a small hole in the middle and turned. Four hidden clasps popped up along the long front edge of the box. Each clasp included a small bladed trap.

Her eyes scanned the rest of the box before she opened it, carefully avoiding the tiny blades. Inside was the sheath of a weapon, wrapped in black silk with a thick silver weave. For some reason, the silk showed none of the aging of the outer wrap or box. She could tell by the size and shape it was a bastard sword. Her heart sped up. This was her favorite weapon. With shaking hands, she pulled it out of the molded indentation covered with red felt and unwrapped the silk from around it. For a moment, her eyes were torn between the weapon and the silk covering. The silk was emblazoned with four fanged wolves with long cat-like claws. Crossed longswords were behind them. The whole of the emblem was outlined by a kite shield with a thick red line sandwiched between two thinner silver ones. It was a royal banner with a vicious, yet majestic, royal crest. She had no idea of race, let alone the house.

She looked over the sheath of the blade. It had the same four wolves on it. They were doing battle with a long snake-looking serpent. It was not a snake. It had fins or wings. It was hard to tell. She wondered if they were both fins and wings after another look. The sheath was muted black, while the wolves were silver and the serpent a deep maroon. The hilt had seven gemstones on it, three rubies, and three opals, and the end of the hilt was a large star sapphire. The gems alone had to be worth thousands of silver! With a deep breath, she pulled the blade. It was heavier than she expected. The blade was midnight black and she could have sworn the light of Zeris suddenly got dimmer. She moved the blade in her hand. It was almost like it became one with her. A moment later she realized something totally insane. The blade, even though in the sunlight, cast no shadow! A look around made her realize she wasn’t casting one either.

Adga quickly sheathed the blade. Her shadow instantly returned. She let out a deep breath and pulled the blade again. Her shadow vanished. “Oh, by Lunara’s light, this must be a mistake!”

Tez looked over. He gasped. “A fully enchanted Dark Metal bastard sword!”

Nuk also turned and stared. After several seconds he squeaked out, “With enough magic in it to preserve what it was wrapped in! Tez, did your uncle not one time tell us there were several scores of long unclaimed weapons in the Shunral armory?"

“Yes…” Tez hissed out. “Weapons made to support the armies of the Mythlets. Weapons that were not easily wielded by our race or had fallen out of favor. The slow, heavy, extremely long, or very small. Most, he said, were made for the bigger or smaller races… Once in a great while one is awarded for a great deed.” Tez swallowed hard “I was told my uncle was awarded one for his defeat of the spectral champion a decade ago but said he would wait until the time was right… By the gods… Adga, he must have submitted his claim and given it to you as a gift of graduation into the guard.”

Adga sheathed the blade and picked up a scroll in the bottom of the box, “Why? Why me?”

“Because he took a huge risk by offering you sponsorship. More so since he also provides limited support to your brother and sister.” Nuk stated. “No royal, on record, had ever done so for an Illorc before. When it first happened, he was scoffed at by those in the other houses for wasting a sponsorship. Those in his own house threatened sanction if he did not drop your sponsorship. He was threatened with losing his final three. This would have been a huge hit. Each noble only gets four in his or her lifetime. However, as you progressed, then basically singlehandedly saved the patrol by protecting the mounts, you proved him right. He may even get another sponsorship, possibly two. If you make it through the next ten years as a guardsman, I am certain he will be granted two more. It gives a bump of prestige to those who sponsor a major success, and you are without a doubt one of them.”

“I just did what had to be done!” Adga argued.

“If you had run no one would have blamed you,” Tez stated. “Four on one, you with only apprentice armor and bronze weapons. There would have been no shame. You did not run though. While I did need my first Rite of Noblehood assignment, I took a chance on doing it with you because know it or not, there is not a noble in Twin Spires who has not heard of you. While most have no idea who you really are, being the biggest Illorc in the Spires, if not the realm, they will all pretend to do so by calling you by name when they see you.”

Nuk nodded, “While I am still not thrilled Tez all but tricked me into this, I would never have said no. There would have been dozens of other nobles needing their first quests lined up to take my place and I would have been a laughingstock for not having taken the chance to work under what is commonly referred to as the Illorc Colossus.”

Adga shook her head, “This is ridiculous! I am just a big-boned ugly Illorc!”

“You are not ugly,” Nuk stated. “But what you did back there in the Crags… You are certainly an Illorc."

“Not fair.” Rin snarled. “Ad made hard choicssse!”

“The only choice,” Tez stated. “We could not take the chance of the kid becoming a spell-throwing dead walker and attacking us. Not when we have to get down to alert Scorpion Falls!”

“We could have tied him up,” Nuk argued. “With hands trussed together tied to his side, and a gag, he would not have been able to cast!”

“And if he died, we would not have known it,” Vyrax argued. “He could have come back as a dead walker without us knowing it.”

“He would have still been tied up!”

“A dead walker don’t need ta breathe none.” Rin pointed out.

“So?” Nuk snarled.

“So,” Ven joined in, “it could have chewed on the gag until it could swallow it. It then could have bit the skimmer it was on or even the rider.”

“A bite look like be what try to make him dead walker. You want one a dem ta bite you?”

“No!” Nuk growled. “But… he was calling for his mother!”

“If it was who he was pointing at, it was his dead walker mom.” Vyrax countered. “He was fighting with it! Not against it.”

“Enough!” Adga shouted. “I don’t think he knew or understood what his old lady had turned into. He was close to being just like her. And, Nuk, if you think I wanted to end him, you’re a Dung Cat’s ass!”

As Nuk’s eyes narrowed, Tez moved up on the backside of him and smacked his friend with a staff hard enough to sting. “We are guardsmen, not nobles. We have to learn to take a few insults without feeling slighted.”

Nuk rubbed the back of his neck and clenched his fists.

“You will have to do the same thing to me before this is over. Besides, if my uncle heard you got angry over this, it would not be pretty.”

Nuk lowered his head, “Yes, you are right. Still…”

“No. Not 'Still'. Not anything. He would pull out his spare belt and remind you what being thinned-skinned really felt like.”

“Thinned skinned?” Ven asked.

Tez nodded, “Yes. Lord Alagor Shunral says if words cut like a knife, your skin is too thin. Otherwise, a breath of another has the same power as a sword in the hand. Thus, if we get insulted to the point of acting stupid over minor slights, we have thin skin. His correction is to break out his spare weapon belt, slap where our skin is truly the thinnest, the back of our upper legs and butts.”

“The same if we get caught doing something we know we should not do,” Nuk added sourly.

“Which is why we have gotten very good at not getting caught,” Tez smirked for a few moments, then turned serious again. “But we also have learned to take an insult or two. At least we should have by now.”

“I just think we…” Nuk stopped. “What you did to the kid was not right.”

“No, it wasn’t.” Adga agreed. “Yet you act like I wanted to do it. I didn’t. My gut is still churning. But our duty is to the Spires and the rest of our desert realm. Entire towns and villages are counting on the six of us. I cannot fail them. I owe House Shunral, and therefore the Spires everything. My oath as a guardsman to defend the Spires to death is more than a saying to me. It is a promise!”

Adga punched her open right hand with her left fist. “I… I will never say I made the wrong decision. The kid died with his body still living and I prevented the evil of the Desert of the Dead from claiming him. If we had been out there like normal… Me, Rin, and Vyrax taking my three days off to explore and grab loot off the dead walkers, I would’ve taken the chance. You may not believe me, but I would have. I wish… It doesn’t matter. What’s done is done and I will answer for it when my time in this realm comes to an end.”

Adga turned back to the scroll, “It says I can attune to it by giving it some of my Force. Sounds a lot like what Sir Lenti Avery said about Vyrax’s blade…” She paused as she read the rest of the scroll included with the blade. “Once I do so, seven times per half-moon cycle it can cloak me in a spell equal to Dark Steel plate mail. It next says what can only be how long the effect lasts, but it makes no sense to me. The opals give half chime of a tower bell, the rubies are for a full chime of a tower, and the star sapphire gives six chimes of armor…” She looked up from the scroll. “I have no idea what that means.”

“Got nothing,” Nuk admitted.

“Nor me,” Tez responded with a shrug. “What you are holding may date back to the end of the Mythling Wars and probably never handed out. Who knows how time was gauged back then? What else does it say.”

“When pulled I cannot be easily seen in the dark by any vision type save magical and it is supposed to give me enhanced vision of some sort. Something called Ghost Sight. We shall have to see…” She chuckled. “Or at least I will see… As I’ve already seen, it eliminates my shadow when held. I guess I should give it some of my Force if you are both certain this is not a mistake and it will not harm me.”

“No mistake,” Tez stated with certainty. “Most in the Shunral line would not be able to handle a blade so large unless it was with two hands. There would be no reason to ever take it, since if we are going to use two hands, we would select the bigger and more powerful battle sword. But it is not the Shunral way. Our Swordsmen and warriors use single-handed weapons with shields. You can use what my uncle gifted you one or two-handed. It was meant for someone big, powerful, and skilled with such a blade. It is also a blade you know. I am sure it had many brothers and sisters made at the same time, but for whatever reason, the blade you hold did not make it out to the field of combat against the Mythling hoards. It was shelved in hopes it would be useful in the future.”

Vyrax snickered as Adga quickly pulled and swung the blade as if it were made for her and her alone. “It appears the future has arrived.”

“It took quite a bit of my Force, but is now lighter and unless I am crazy, I think it formed to my hand!”

“You crazy,” Rin snorted. “But it be way we like ya!”

“Thanks Rin… I think. OK, whoever you took down, you get their pouch, if it was a dual kill, split it. But since I took so few picks… She moved up and grabbed a jeweled necklace that had been on the woman with the cleaver. “This is mine!”

“You keeping it or selling it?” Vyrax asked.

“Keeping it for now. Go in order, fast. Anything left we sell to the merchant Sir Lenti Avery told us to go to. We need to get to Scorpion Falls!”

⇼ ⇼ ⇼ ⇼ ⇼

Adga looked behind her as she moved up to the gate at the archway leading out of Avery lands. The others were in line. She moved close to the now-closed portcullis.

A voice came from inside the gatehouse. “Patrol Leader, we will open the gate for you. If you would be so kind as to move and guard the other side until the gate is firmly back in place?”

“Of course. Um, Sir Lenti Avery said something about getting our skimmers a caged meal?”

An old-looking Dwarf’s head popped out a window and looked down, “You are all fully skilled with skimmers?”

“We are.”

“Good, but skilled or not, make sure your packs are very secure. I will send six apprentice guardsmen out. Each will feed a mount. They will act odd, and jittery. Hold on tightly and get them around the bend quickly. Once you are on the road, just keep them on it and do not let go. They will fatigue about the time you reach the falls. Let them drink as much as they want, or this may kill them.”

Adga made her way through the portcullis even as it was being raised. She had to duck to get under it. She moved out past the arch and held. The others came through and formed up in a defensive line. Behind them, the heavy counterweights lowered the heavy Gnome Stone Steel gate cutting off easy access to House Avery lands.

Four boys and two girls all wearing junior guardsman leather armor and sporting Mystic Guild pins ran out of a side door. Each carried a metal cage. Inside, Adga saw what looked to be five or six large rats, but they were acting crazy, running around the cage, rolling over, and slamming their heads into the bars. Their normal beady black eyes bulged outward. The most noticeable thing to Adga, however, was their tails were bright red. The young trainees moved up to the mouths of the Sand Skimmers and pulled open the front of the cage. It was clear the cages were made for this purpose since the entire snout fit in with room for them to open their mouths enough to eat.

Predictably, the skimmers slammed into the cages, knocking five of the six kids down. Only the female Dwarf managed to stay standing but was violently shoved back a few steps. Adga shook her head. Rats were the skimmer’s favorite food. More than one rider had lost control inside the northern walls as a skimmer went after one. In addition, more than a few deaths had resulted from skimmers running over people to get to a rat.

Other times, when rat populations were very high, elite riders from House Vylevin would sweep the streets in the dead of night. She was once told it was a way for House Vylevin to weed out the weakest riders. Supposedly, those who fell and managed to live were sent to non-cavalry units. Regardless of the reason, the night rat sweeps by skimmer riders certainly cut down on the nasty rodents.

Adga’s thoughts were interrupted as her skimmer started to twitch under her.

From above the guard officer shouted, “Get them to the road and pointed either up toward the Spires or down toward Scorpion Falls. You don’t have much time!”

Adga pulled on the reins and turned the sharp corner leading to the road. She pointed it down the hill and looked behind her. Everyone else was fighting their skimmers, even Nuk, who was by far the best rider in the group. She let out a long breath as Ven finally appeared. Even her near-broken mount was acting jumpy.

The mounts hissed, snapped at each other, and jerked back and forth as they moved down the hill. However, they suddenly stopped fighting and gained speed. Their webbed feet made smacking noises on the stone road. At the same time, their breathing becomes extremely rapid.

Adga’s mount continued to surge ahead. She made one attempt to slow it, but all this got her was a sharp turn of its head and an attempt to bite her. With wide eyes, she leaned way back. The rocky edges of the pass became blurry. She was unable to focus her eyes on the rocks. It made her stomach roll. She had to close them to calm her digestive system. The strong wind, already from the south, seemed to increase. Since the others were right behind her, the sound of webbed feet slapping the stone became thunderous. Even through the roar, the sounds of someone puking could be heard. She opened her eyes and focused forward. She was certain she would also lose her meal if she looked at the blur of rocks again.

The skimmers continued to head down the road at a dead sprint. It was a good thing the areas on either side of the path were so rocky. It kept the skimmers from veering off the ancient road. However, as they rounded a bend, Adga had to shout at a group making their way up the road. “Move! Uncontrolled skimmers! Move!”

Behind her someone she guessed was Tez shouted, “Get to shelter! Storm! Storm coming!”

The people barely got off the road in time. One of the older women had to dive. Adga heard a couple of curse words behind her. She pulled back slowly, “Come on, slow down you’re gonna kill someone!” The skimmer hissed and its neck muscles tightened to fight the reins. Adga gritted her teeth as her mount seemed to find some hidden energy. It picked up even more speed as it got angry with her. The normally smooth ride became bumpy. Adga had to plant her feet into the skimmer’s side to prevent getting continuously bounced.

“Me tail! Oww! Me tail! No go dissss fasssst! No!” Rin shouted and hissed at his skimmer from somewhere behind her. She cringed. It never occurred to her what Rin had to deal with having to sit on a mount with his long thick tail. Since her own butt was getting sore, Rin had to have it much worse.

The rocky pass gave way to open ground. The tall cliff to the west decreased in size. They left the relative safety of the Crags' outer wall and entered the middle desert plains.

“Adga,” Nuk shouted as he managed to pull up alongside her. “They can be guided, kind of. Use long firm pulls to one side! We need to get them into the shade of the low ridgeline! If we don’t, the heat and this speed will kill them!”

“And we’ll kill people on the road!” Adga pointed to a small caravan moving south. It was well in front of them, but at their speed, it wouldn’t take long to catch up. “But we need to warn them of the storm!”

“Rax has gained some decent control. We will angle over to them, then catch up to you. Get to the shade!”

“Fine, but don’t go calling him Rax. He hates it!” Adga responded as she pulled firmly and evenly with her right hand. “He’s OK with calling him Ax, but prefers his whole name!”

“Thanks for the warning!”

Adga glanced left while her skimmer angled slightly to the right. She couldn’t believe how easy Nuk seemed to control his mount. She already knew Vyrax was the best of her normal group when it came to riding. However, it annoyed her to see he was doing almost as well as Nuk.

The bit of advice from Nuk was as good as a message sent by the gods themselves. Full control was out of the question. On the other hand, it didn’t take her long to get a feel for angling her mount to the sides. Within minutes she was tucked up into the shade of the ridgeline.

A glance to her left allowed her to see Nuk and Vyrax’s progression. It was twin clouds of sandy dust as they raced across open ground, but it permitted her to keep track of them. A glance back made her wince. The other three were well behind her. Rin was the closest but several hundred meters back. He had resorted to standing on the foot slots to keep his tail up, but she could still see him turn to try to get it to hang off the side a little more.

Further back, at least a kilometer, she could see the other two skimmers, but couldn’t risk looking back long enough to see much else. Zeris’ rays continued to slip lower to the west, lengthening the shadow of the fifteen to twenty-meter uneven ridge. This allowed Adga to move further away from it. For her part, she was happy, because it gave her more room to get the beast under her to move should something appear in front.

At last, her mount’s breathing became more labored. It slowed. As this happened, she gained increased control. Three hills and five kilometers later she saw the Great Falls of Scorpion Falls. Over a dozen powerful streams of water shot out of cracks in the ridge. They combined to form a turbulent, yet spectacular, waterfall. The mist combined with Zeris’ light to make a multi-layered spectacle of prismatic colors. The lower Zeris’ skyward journey took, the more colorful it became. This was the perfect time of day. It was only two or three turns of a sandglass before the rays would no longer hit the falls and twilight would set in.

While Adga took in the beauty, her skimmer saw water and mustered another burst of speed. She could tell where it was going, so she let it. The nearly spent mount made as direct a path as possible through larger plants growing outward from the water. Once it got to the edge of the massive pool created by the falls, it took a drink, staggered on wobbly legs, and dropped down onto its belly with a thud. Its mouth fell into the edge of the water.

While its tongue eagerly lapped at the water, Adga pulled herself off and dropped to the sandy soil. She took a careful glance around with her hand on the pommel of her blade. She saw a few critters in the vegetation, but nothing large. Even better, everything seemed to angle away from her. With a deep breath of relief, she pulled the extra fabric from her head covering from around her face and tucked it back up by twirling it around her head, then used her right ear to tuck it back into a secure spot.

Most beings who lived in this part of the desert developed a hard callus behind one ear or the other because of this. Adga was no exception. The skin behind her right ear had no feeling, but when she touched it, it felt like hardened leather. One of the meanest punishments dished out by guards on troublemakers was to remove the callus and it was even used by commanders against egregiously behaving guardsmen. The pain they went through developing a new one was difficult to watch. It normally took weeks before their headwraps no longer showed blood spotting. It was not a punishment she ever wanted to have done to her. She shook off the thought and stretched. Every step taken to the water’s edge was spent twisting and turning. She bet she would pay for this dearly in the morning with sore muscles and even some cramps.

She cupped her hands and splashed water onto her face. It stung. “Windburn, even with face wrap,” she muttered. She moved away from her skimmer, knelt, and stuck her whole head in the pool. The extreme cold nearly took her breath away but felt great. She repeated the action three more times.

As she leaned back and shook her head, she noted Rin. The Dragonling was pulling off armor even as he made his way to the pool. As he discarded his loincloth, he stepped in and continued until water was up to his mid-chest, then dropped to his knees. “Me tail! Ohhhh… me poor tail.”

“Rin, lots of things come here to drink! It’s getting later in the day, so they will be coming soon. You need weapons!”

Rin extended his claws. “Me’ll rip ‘em up and eat if’n it try to no let me cool me tail!"

Adga rolled her eyes while moving to the ridge wall. It didn’t take her long to find a good trickle of water. She emptied her waterskin in a few long gulps, refilled, and emptied it again. The third time was spent savoring the cold fresh liquid. She refilled it and put it back over her shoulder.

By this time Tez and Ven were at the water’s edge. Ven walked with an awkward two-legged limp and rubbed her rear while cringing. Tez looked better off but rolled his shoulders and stretched in every way possible.

“You two OK?” Adga asked while glancing over at the skimmers. The one Ven had taken was on the ground, head half in the water while its chest rose and fell in heavy labored breaths.

“I’m beat and beat up. Let us never do this again… Ever!” Tez answered while rolling his neck causing it to make light popping and cracking sounds. “As soon as mine slowed, I angled back and pulled Ven over to my mount. Hers slowed a full hill before the rest of ours. Not sure it is going to make it.”

Ven winced as she moved up and put her head on the skimmer’s side just in front of the saddle. “You’re a good girl… Don’t quit on us. Rest and drink big gal.” She pointed over to Razor, “You, get off and get water. You’re being on its back ain’t helping none”

The fanged spider lizard wiggled and twisted to get out of the harness someone had made for it to be able to ride. It hopped down and immediately pounced on a large frog.

Vendra grinned widely, “Or grab a bite to eat!”

Tez splashed some water over his face and looked over with a crinkled nose. “Nasty!”

“You’ll get used to Razor,” Adga assured him. “But while I think I might be getting hungry, I ain’t so sure my gut is ready to get fed. I’m gonna need some unwind time!”

“Me too,” Vendra stated. “But Rin lost his meal on the road down here, so I’m betting he’s starving.”

Rin looked over, then suddenly lunged. His right hand came up with a good-sized fish pierced by his extended claws. “Me be ‘bout ta eat!”

Tez quickly turned his head as Rin took a bite, “Yuck! It is not even fully dead, let alone cooked!”

“Ya be WRONG!” Rin snapped, “Gooder if’n meat be fressssh!” He finished off the vast majority of the fish, bone and all, before flipping the tail and top fin off into the vegetation up from the water’s edge. Rin slowly moved into deeper water. “Me get ‘nother one! Get one fer ya?”

Tez held up both hands and shook his head, “Ah, no… But um… Thanks… I guess.”

“See if you can grab each of us one, Rin!” Adga called out, then gave Tez a light shove. “We’ll gut ours and take them to Scorpion Falls to cook and eat.”

“Oh!” Tez’s dark complexion showed a hint of red as he blushed. “Um… Sure… Yes, Rin, get me one too then, please!”

Nuk and Vyrax come over, leading their skimmers to the water. Nuk let out a long breath, “We warned the caravan. They said they would tell the guards at Scorpion Falls since we have to take a break.” He patted his mount on the side hard as it went down and started to drink. “Real hard on the skimmers. And while not something I want to do every day, it was fun!”

“Way better after I figured out it can be controlled.” Vyrax managed to snicker. “They could have told us…”

“Hard to know if they even fully knew,” Tez countered. “I have never heard of speed rats or whatever they were, so they must be a pretty big secret.”

“I have not heard anyone in House Vylevin talk of them. We are the cavalry for the Combined Desert Realm, so I would think I would have got wind of them. But this is the first. I wonder if they are made by Sir Lenti Avery or they are just a very rare rat.”

“My coin is all in on Sir Lenti Avery.” Vyrax stated. “I didn’t know there was a Legendary anyone in the whole of this desert realm, let alone a Mystic!”

“There are two others,” Nuk responded. “At least we have been told there are. But who, where, what guild, and the houses they hail from we do not know. All we have been told is they exist, and they are from the royal families in the area. Sir Lenti is well-known, at least by nobles. Many go to him since he has amazing healing potions, and makes magical garments and items, and he is the only one I know who can read Shamanistic. There are others who he has taught the basics to, for a very steep price. However, only Sir Lenti knows the deeper nuances to read beyond spells. I have first-hand knowledge of the fact he fully understands the ancient Shamanistic texts.”

Vyrax kicked at a plant causing a toad to jump. It was picked out of the air by Razor. He snorted, “Nice catch!” and then sighed. “If I could learn Shaman, I’d try to be a Shaman Mystic instead of a Mage Mystic.”

“Why specialize?” Tez asked. “Most Mystics do not.”

“My father is a non-specialist Mystic. He makes some great stuff, but he says he just can’t do some of the things he would really like. I won’t as a specialist either, but what I focus on I will be able to do easier, faster, and eventually better than a non-specialist. Being a Shaman, I could do healing and spirit stuff, though.”

“The price he’d ask to teach you wouldn’t be worth it,” Tez stated with certainty in his voice, then frowned, “Adga, where are you going?”

“Up.” She pointed at the ridge. “Thanks to the rats, we got here way faster than we would have. Even if we hadn’t divided up loot and spent time talking to Sir Lenti. We’d still be a sandglass or more back. But we were only working on a guess as to how long before the storm hits. We should have three or four sandglass turns, but… I’m going to go find out. Who is joining me?”

“Someone needs to join you?” Ven asked.

“This is a guard patrol,” Tez answered. “Rules are real clear. No one ever goes anywhere alone while on patrol, not even the leader.”

Nuk pointed to Tez, “You should go. Especially after…”

Tez’s eyes narrowed, “Not another word, Nuk.”

Nuk smirked, “Just saying…”

“Yeah, now stop,” Tez grumbled. He moved over to his mount, hung his pick on his bags, and moved his hip sword to an over-the-back pull. He then added in a shoulder case for his bow and took a small ten-arrow quiver. After a wiggle and movement check, Tez shot another glare at Nuk. With a shake of his head, he moved to the rock face and easily pulled himself up while looking slightly down at Adga, “Come on. Let’s get up there and take a look.”

Adga started to climb right behind him, “So what was all that about?”

“Nothing, absolutely nothing.”

Adga snorted, “Yeah, right!” Her smile widened as Tez pulled himself up higher without saying anything. “Come on. It’s not like I’m going to tell anyone.”

“I love Nuk like a brother, but I’m going to smack him for opening his mouth.” Tez sighed. “How about you just let me off the hook by telling you this? We both have more coin than we should.”

“No way. I want to hear the whole thing.”

Tez stopped and rubbed his hand down his face. “And it goes no further than us, alright?”

“As long as we are talking the whole group, not just me.”

Tez shook his head and pulled himself higher.

“How about I order you to tell us?” Adga snickered.

“Grrrrr…” Tez grabbed a handhold, gave it a hard pull to test it, and then swung over to a better foothold. “If you order me and I do not tell you, it will come out in the Mindmaster scan and I will fail my rite. Please just let it go.”

“You’d risk failing this quest over not telling us?”

“Yeah… I would. If you give me your word it stays between the two of us and you just tell the others a basic cover story, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, not going to risk it."

Adga slid over and moved directly under Tez and extended her arm. “Use my hand. It should let you get up to the next solid handhold.” She sighed as the young noble did as instructed. “OK, I’ll give you my word, but… you really need to trust the others.”

“I do, but not on this… not yet at least. As soon as we are up top, but you have to swear…”

“On my own blood. Now get moving.”

It only took a few more minutes for Tez to pull himself up over the lip of the ridge and disappear from sight. Adga pulled herself up, ignoring the offered hand. “I don’t want to yank you off. I’m as heavy as I look!”

“Fair enough.” Tez stood and took a few steps away from the edge. He pointed to the next ridgeline up, “Above that is the beginning of the Desert of the Dead… You sure you want to go up there?”

“Can’t be any worse than poking around in the Crags.”

“Yeah… Point taken. But we’ll both need to have weapons ready…”

“I’ll go first so I can punch any dead walker up on the ridge.” Adga started to climb the second set of rocks.

Tez followed behind. “You do realize most people have a fear of them, right?”

“So do I. It’s why I have Silver Steel spiked gauntlets.”

“Pretty sure, being afraid precludes wanting to get into fist range of them.”

Adga snickered, “I’ve got a long reach.”

Tez snorted, “OK I give up…”

Adga rolled over the edge, reached back, and pulled Tez up. She said nothing as she stared down the rocky ledge into the Desert of the Dead.

Tez whistled softly as he got to his feet, “I have never seen a storm so large!”

Adga knelt next to him and stared. She barely noticed that her head was still above his, even though he was still standing. Instead, most of her focus was on a rolling wave of sand. The leading edge of grayish-brown sand was almost up to a distant rock formation. But the rounded wall of sand was way taller, and the reddish-black tendrils spiraled out from the leading edge. The snake-like extensions slammed down into the desert floor causing huge eruptions of sand wherever they hit. A few formed up into twirling sand devils and picked up size until the advancing swarm swallowed them.

She shook her head. “It looks alive!”

Tez nodded in silence.

Adga licked and held up her finger. The wind was still blowing from the south, but the encroaching storm was moving against it. Being an Outdoorsman meant she had the skills to judge the weather, but this… She’d never seen anything like the advancing gale. It was counter to everything she knew about… well everything. The sand moved closer to the three tall slender peaks and wide base of the rock formation. A few of the tendrils stretched out and overshot it. Sand devils formed and the storm rolled ever closer. It was almost like the tendrils were shooting out and pulling the storm against the prevailing wind. It was terrifyingly spectacular to watch.

“OK, So it’s just us. It’ll take me a few to gauge its speed, so what’s the scoop on climbing and you having more coin than you should?”

Tez let out a long uneasy breath, “Three moons ago my uncle took us both on an extended patrol. We ended up in Black Toad Butte.”

“Never heard of it.”

“I had not either. It is technically outside our Combined Desert Realm on the edge of the grasslands. It’s a river trading town. Basically, the last before the real grass fades into scrub and the outer desert begins. It is also the last stop for barges. Anyway, we send patrols out there a few times a year. It acts as a trade hub between us and Lower Eagleonia. The city acts as a river gateway to kingdoms east of there. It is also the closest any transport spell can gate or teleport to our southeast. The whole of the Combined Desert Realm is under a veil of ancient disrupting magic and wards against long-range magical transportation spells. It is why nothing or no one can gate in or out and why caravans are so important to us.

"Anyway, Black Toad Butte is named after a poisonous toothed frog-like creature that lives along the river’s edge and into the surrounding rocks. There is a sizable Dwarven population along with Halflings and Humans. We get a great deal of our grain from there and they buy pretty much everything deep desert from us.

“Caravans constantly move along the marked paths. There are over a dozen watering spots, and bandit activity is light since there are not many places to hide. But to keep everyone honest, we send out sizable patrols randomly.

"While we were taking a few days in Black Toad Butte, Nuk and I were in a… let us call it a hiring tavern…”

“What were you doing there?”

“Playing dice and cards.”

“Gamblers? I would have never guessed!”

“A bad habit we picked up from spending way too much time with Sir Lenti Avery.” Tez griped. “But there we were in this… establishment… when we overheard a caravan leader complaining about having to pay so much for watering hole fees. It did not make sense to us, because he was talking about leaving to head up to Amber Sand. All but the first watering hole is technically in our lands, not Black Toad Butte’s. There is no way we would ever think of a ‘water tax’. We never charge security fees, let alone watering fees. It would kill our trade. But there we were hearing a large caravan owner was thinking about not going because he did not want to pay for permits for each stop.

"Nuk and I decided to poke around a bit more. Sure enough, we found one of the guard lieutenants and her sergeant were telling merchants there was a ‘water tax’. We watched them take coin and gems from a couple of caravan merchants. They handed out some documents with a seal kind of close to the Unified Houses of Twin Spires, but with clear differences, and told the merchants if they got stopped the paperwork would be all they would need. They also said it was good for three full moons, so they could get to Spires land and not have to worry about getting new permits to get back. If they were fast, they could even make two trips. The payments then went into their pockets. We followed. They never turned them over to the captain of the guard, purser, or other official.”

“Scumbags!” Adga snarled. “They’re hurting us and stealing!”

“They were, so we went to my uncle with what we found out.”

“Good, but you should have been rewarded, not gotten into trouble.”

At this point, Tez smirked, “Oh, we were rewarded.”

“And this is where you went and did something you shouldn’t have?”

“Depends on your definition of should not.” Tez snickered.

“OK, spill it!”

“Well, my uncle and Count Gurganhammer went behind closed doors. A sandglass or two later we saw both the lieutenant and the sergeant get escorted in. We figured we had time, so while Nuk stayed on watch below the upper tower on the west wall, I climbed it just as Zeris draped the town into darkness. I popped the latch on a shuttered window with a thin blade and entered the officer’s wing. I found Lieutenant Myagvel’s quarters, picked the lock, and entered. Inside I found an extra wardrobe with her sergeant’s uniforms. I also found a lockbox, the fake signet, and a dozen ‘water permits’ behind a loose stone in the wall. I got a signal from Nuk of trouble. He ghost-sounded the window which was our danger signal. It turned out guards were sent to search the room. I heard them in the hall so I… let’s just say I procured the box and put the signet, a pouch of coin and gems, and ‘water permits’ in the sergeant’s wardrobe where they would easily be found. I barely got out and just managed to re-latch the window as the door opened.

“Since there was a detachment below, preventing any from entering or leaving, I had no choice but to climb up, over the very smooth top of the tower. I stayed there until the guards changed shifts in the middle of the night.

“The sergeant and lieutenant were stripped of rank and all their belongings sold. I heard they were put in the stockade for a moon, locked in stocks for three days, then kicked out of Black Toad Butte. However, we left two days later, so I am not sure if the punishments were handed out or not. The money from the sale of their belongings was given to my uncle and Nuk and I each received an enchanted item and an enchanted weapon once we got to Sir Lenti’s keep. When we got back to the Spires, we got to pick out of some found enchanted items our Ruinseekers discovered in a set of ruins somewhere not far from here.

"Nuk ended up with a machete and the black armor with cooling and warmth magic built in so he stays comfortable no matter the temperature. Which is pretty much the same as the kid you killed was wearing and I now wear. So I guess Nuk’s must have been made by Sir Lenti as well. He took the beryl bracelet with the silver-crossed khopesh swords and hand holding a moonstone. It gives him more Force to cast with every day.

“I was given this ring.” He held up a silver ring with a dark red stone that looked a lot like a snake’s eye. “Like Nuk’s bracelet, it gives me more Force every day to cast with.” He patted his small bow. “It’s nicer than it looks.”

Tez patted at his chest. “When I got back, I looked through the pile of enchanted items and took the amulet that looks like the same crest as the gold coin. As you heard, it gives me armor-like protection. Even better it works with the black armor we got off the kid.

“Not saying I wanted him dead, but now I know why Nuk was so thrilled with his armor. I feel great and I can easily move in this. Nuk’s is reinforced, so his is heavier, but I like this. As for what else I got… I was able to sign on with my great-uncle’s patrol instead of being assigned to a city guard patrol as an apprentice. Nuk took a spot with the Vylevin cavalry instead of city guard. Which is great. We get to go out on patrols together a lot.”

“Better than being stuck inside the city all the time.” Adga agreed. “So you are a closet Lockmaster?”

“Yeah,” Tez shrugged, “something Sir Lenti paid for me to learn at the same time he paid for Nuk to become an Eagle Sect Warrior. The master who trained us was both a Lockmaster and Eagle. I am guilded, but it came from a place way far away. We traveled by skimmer out to Dekker’s Creek so we could get outside of the magic that prevents gates and other such spells. He then gated us to a huge walled city where it rains cold white flakes. It’s called Black Rapids. The price I paid was very high. Too high. But it is not like… never mind.”

“So, what happened to the chest?”

“It is in the watering hole close to Black Toad Butte… Empty.” Tez smirked again. “We hid the four large pouches full of coin and gems in a spot in the back of the food wagon. When we got back to the Spires, we slid them in an alcove by a well close to Nuk’s estate. The place has been for sale for a long time but rumored to be haunted, so we knew it wouldn’t sell. After we were stripped of our funds and normal belongings, Nuk picked up the pouches before he left. So yeah, we have coin.” He winked.

Adga snickered, “Glad you do, and explains you saying you didn’t have house funds to us. But with what we all just got we should all be good for quite some time.” Adga turned her attention to the approaching gigantic rolling wave of sand. She’d never seen anything so horrifying, yet spectacular. The red streamers were truly breathtaking.

As sand over-washed the rock formation, Adga counted. The lone rock formation had to be Ship Rock. Maps said the front edge was seventy kilometers out from Scorpion Falls and was seventeen kilometers long. The distance between each top was about five kilometers. She had heard of it but had never seen it. It was the furthest out the elite patrols went to keep the dead walkers away from Scorpion Falls and the other southern settlements. It didn’t fully work. Scorpion Falls was known for sounding the bell warning of the undead coming out of the desert a few times a month. Without the sweeps, everyone was certain it would be a great deal worse.

She stopped counting as the second tall rock disappeared behind the wall of sand. “If it stays steady, we got about four to four and a half sandglass turns before it gets here. Let’s get down, get to the town, and hunker down. There is no way I’m getting caught out in THAT!”

“Adga,” Tez whispered. “What are all those dots way out there?”

Adga took a knee again and squinted as she focused on something she had not noted until Tez said something. She felt her heart speed up. She blinked. Her eyes narrowed. “People running… Running this way… out of the Desert of the Dead… Oh, by all the gods’ might, it’s got to be dead walkers, hundreds of them… It's like they are running away from the tempest!” She jumped up. “Come on, let’s move!”

Adga motioned for Tez to climb back down, then stopped. Down on the opposite side of the falls’ pool, she saw a caravan watering Moose Camels and clearly exhausted War Steeds. Along the ridge over a dozen beings moved in and out of the rocks, staying hidden from the caravan. Several had bows out. Adga put a hand against Tez’s chest to prevent him from climbing down and pointed.

“Bandits!” Tez hissed.

 

Copyright © 2023 Kyle Aarons; All Rights Reserved.
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What a scary, very painful ride on the sand skimmers when fed by those special red tailed rats.

Adga and the others had to recover and feast on water near Scorpion Falls. Agda and Tez climbed up and scanned the desert to checkout the upcoming sand storm. It is a terrible, fearful sight of death.

Moving back, they see 12 bandits ready to attack resting, tired travelers. Adga and crew will be outnumbered but I am sure they will engage and beat the enemy. We should find out in the next chapter.

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Tez and Nuk are quite enterprising. They are a perfect fit with Adga and her group.

Now they are sandwiched between this terrible storm fronted by a horde of dead walkers and this crew of bandits. Talk about a rock and a hard place. I hope Adga has a way to let the others know about the bandits.

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Adga and her group were given or captured magical weapons and new spell pages. The descriptions were fascinating. I liked hearing about her---" fully enchanted Dark Metal bastard sword!" She will get the chance soon to test out its powers in battle.

I expect we will see once again why Adga is so wise and skilled in fighting and will do what few can. She will certainly lead her group in destroying the bandits. They must act quickly and succeed and also must keep out of the way of the many approaching deathwalkers who are fleeing the terrible sands storm.

They have to complete their main mission very soon and warn Scorpion Falls. Serious, extra preparations must be made to safeguard the residents. The clean-up from all the collected sand will have to be very ambitious and time consuming. Adga and her group will have more work, I bet. They are to stay until released, This cataclysmic, very deadly sand storm in a once in a century calamity and will test all.

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2 minutes ago, akascrubber said:

Adga and her group were given or captured magical weapons and new spell pages. The descriptions were fascinating. I liked hearing about her---" fully enchanted Dark Metal bastard sword!" She will get the chance soon to test out its powers in battle.

I expect we will see once again why Adga is so wise and skilled in fighting and will do what few can. She will certainly lead her group in destroying the bandits. They must act quickly and succeed and also must keep out of the way of the many approaching deathwalkers who are fleeing the terrible sands storm.

They have to complete their main mission very soon and warn Scorpion Falls. Serious, extra preparations must be made to safeguard the residents. The clean-up from all the collected sand will have to be very ambitious and time consuming. Adga and her group will have more work, I bet. They are to stay until released, This cataclysmic, very deadly sand storm in a once in a century calamity and will test all.

Remember they sent word ahead with a caravan, so this part of their duty is done.

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Very exciting! Hopefully they have time to save the caravan and get to safety from both the storm and dead walkers. You have set up quite the chapter!

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