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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 - 7. Chapter 7

Tez dug into his pack. He pulled out a piece of parchment, ink, and quill. As he jotted down a quick note, Adga glared at him, “What are you doing?”

“Sending a letter to the others!” Tez snapped.

Adga frowned, “Huh?”

“If we shout, they probably won’t hear us over the roar of the falls, but the bandits might. If we climb down, we lose height advantage.” He secured the note to an arrow with a piece of twine and strung his bow. “We can hit them from up top. The others can ride over and help from down there.”

Adga watched as Tez launched the arrow. It stuck in the ground right in front of Nuk and between Vyrax and Rin. All three jumped. “Nice shot!”

Tez grinned as Nuk reached down, pulled the arrow out of the ground, and pulled off the note. A few seconds later he held up his hand and gave a raised fist. At the same time, Vyrax and Rin sprinted over to Ven and the skimmers.

Adga gave them a hand motion to angle around to the bridge crossing the ravine the water ran down into. Once she got another raised fist, she glanced at Tez, “Make sure to tie your pant legs tight. I have heard about the riverbed up here from a few of the guards."

“So have I.” Tez sliced off a couple of pieces of twine before tossing Adga the small ball. “Same for you. Scorpion Falls has the name it does for a reason.”

Adga sprinted across the top of the ridge. As she got over the falls spewing out of the rocks below her, they came to a rocky ravine. The sides and bottom were all but coated with scorpions. She didn’t stop. She ran down the side, kept momentum, and scrambled up the other side. She paused to smack a half-dozen scorpions off her legs and boots, then looked back.

She stomped on a couple of scorpions as Tez followed her example and path. This meant he only had to smack off a couple of clingers. They then turned and made their way to where they could look down at what had turned into a raging battle. Neither side had gained an advantage, but there were already beings down on both sides. She spotted a man with a bow hiding behind some rocks almost directly below and pointed. “I’m going after him. You can join me or fire a few shots from up here.”

“We will be as easy to target as sunbathing lizards as we climb down!”

Adga pulled out a couple of vials from holding spots in her weapon belt. “Vyrax’s dad makes these. Drink one. Jump.”

“What are they?”

“Slowfall potions,” Adga stated as she pulled her shield from over her back and put it on her arm. She shot Tez a smirk and jumped.

Adga took the liquid in a single swig and jumped. She floated downward. The landing was feather soft and only a few meters behind the man. She pulled her new blade and stepped up. The guy turned at the noise as she swung. Blood flew from a gash across the man’s right shoulder. He screamed.

A moment later, an arrow from above slammed into the man. As it sunk in, it made a noticeable crackling sound, and the wood sticking out blackened. The man twitched. The bow fell out of his hand.

Adga snarled and used her shield arm to point out, hoping Tez would get the message she had this. She stepped up and slashed down. She caught the guy’s hand. The blade opened a nasty gash.

Leaking blood and with an arrow in him, the man used his other hand to yank a vial out of a Mystic robe. He popped the stopper with a hard push of his thumb. He all but shoved the liquid into his mouth. It acted instantly. Blood flow slowed drastically out of both of her slashes. He tried to back away from her.

An arrow bounced off her armor. She glanced in the direction it came from. A woman with a quiver over her back staggered with an arrow buried in her left breast. Behind the wounded woman, a smaller figure darted up and fired at Adga with a short bow.

She brought up her shield. The arrow snapped as it hit. The smaller figure let out a cry of pain as an arrow lanced downward and embedded in the gut. An arrow sailed up to the ridge from behind a boulder. From above a howl of pain came from Tez.

Movement from the wounded man in front of her refocused her attention. She deflected a hammer swing. The black blade in her other hand sliced deeply again. The guy fell. One hand pushed onto the newest gash. The other was raised with an open hand trying to surrender. She started to swing again but stopped at the last second. Instead, she stomped down. The upheld arm snapped.

A scream echoed off the ridge wall. “Mercy!” the man managed to croak out.

“Bandit scum get none!” she responded. The edge of her shield slammed down into the man's mouth, shattering his teeth and knocking him out.

Adga angled around the boulder she had seen the arrow launch up and into Tez. She spotted a Human girl about her own age. The girl was too focused on the area above the falls and too little on what was around her.

Adga's shield bashed the back of the girl’s head. It sent her face into the boulder.

The girl didn’t make a sound. Instead, she slid down the rock, leaving a streak of blood. Adga stomped down on the girl’s arrow hand. Bones crushed under her heavy boot. Even unconscious the pain seemed to register since the body jerked. Satisfied, that the bandit was not a threat, Adga scanned the immediate area for another target.

A shout came from the direction of the bridge. “Da Dragonlin’ be mine!” Even as she kicked her fallen opponent in the side of the head for good measure, she smirked. Rin had joined the fight.

Adga sheathed her blade. There was movement to the left. She grabbed the axe off the pack of the unconscious girl. Her eyes verified it was someone aiming a bow at the caravan. The axe spun through the air. The figure let out a yelp. Whoever it was dropped the arrow. With bow held in one hand and the other clutching the right side, the figure bolted.

Adga’s crossbow and javelins were still on her mount. She looked around for something else to throw. Other than her dagger, there was nothing. She snatched the girl’s bow. The shield fell. She grabbed for an arrow. She fired. The arrow broke as it hit a rock. She fired again. Once again, a rock got in the way. The figure disappeared into larger rocks at the ridge’s edge. She tossed the bow down. As she grabbed and re-secured the shield to her arm she bellowed. “Next time you’re dead!” Rage dripped off her words.

Tez floated down and immediately went down to a knee. An arrow with blue and red fletching stuck out of his right arm.

Adga moved up to him, but he waved her off. “It’s all the way through. Rin or another Healthman will be able to take it out. Go.”

“You sure?”

“It hurts, but I can still shoot and fight if I have to. Go!”

Adga gave Tez a nod. She pointed. “One of them ran off. Don’t let him sneak back up on us.”

“Not going to happen. Now GO!”

Adga ran toward the battle. She frowned as she spotted someone who looked a whole lot like Tez. Her delay cost the caravan. The young-looking dark-skinned boy fired and took a woman off a wagon with a nasty arrow shot. She moved up behind the kid and swung. The blade cut deep through ring mail armor and into the boy’s side. The bow fell out of his hand. He screamed.

Her other hand brought the shield down over the top of his head. His eyes rolled up into his head. He fell back. His legs tucked awkwardly under his body.

At the same time, a voice came from off to her left, “Shouldn’t have come after a caster!” She knew the voice. Foelay! She saw red. The shield slammed into the youngster who looked a whole lot like Tez again. She turned. Her eyes fell upon her former fellow guard apprentice. The kid stood over a body. A female. Payback was nigh.

Ten steps, each faster than the prior. A chunky-looking Human blocked the path. A broadsword held menacingly.

Adga moved straight at the guy whose gut was partially hanging out of ill-fitting reinforced leather armor… Spires’ guardsman armor. She bet it had been taken off a fallen comrade. She let him have the first swing. A clang of metal on metal cascaded over the area. She dropped to a knee. Her shield shoved upwards. It pushed the attacker’s blade out of the way. The bastard sword in her other hand went into the obvious weak spot. The edge opened a massive gash across the exposed gut.

She stood. A backhand slash finished what she started. The blade cut into the back of the neck. The head rolled free of the body. She didn’t even bother to look. Her eyes returned to focus on Foelay.

A clang on the right shoulder of her armor took her by surprise. A twinge of pain followed. Her head turned sharply only to find a young-looking girl with a sling out. She stuck her sword in her other hand. The weapon hand went to her hip. A dagger flashed. A scream. The young bandit fell, wailed, dagger sticking out of the side of her knee.

The sword moved back to Adga’s weapon hand. Foelay was moving up on a helpless-looking woman. Her speed increased.

The young woman Foelay was attacking wasn’t armed and only wearing merchant clothing. She backpedaled. Foelay moved up and slammed his mace into her. She curled up into a ball only to get another mace shot.

Another figure appeared between her and Foelay. A burst of pure rage shot up Adga’s spine. Her blade tore through the breastbone of a weathered-looking man with a spiked hammer in one hand. The weapon flew into the water and he fell back mortally wounded.

Adga saw the mace come up for yet another blow. She saw red. “You’ll kill an innocent but run from a bone walker and abandon our patrol!?!” She ran right at him.

Foelay’s head jerked. Brown eyes became incredibly wide. They darted around wildly as if looking for an escape.

The delay was all Adga needed. She blocked a wild mace swing without missing a step. Momentum took her into the youngster.

Foelay’s mace flew out of his hand as he was driven into the ground by an Illorc almost twice as tall and over six times his weight. Adga’s armor, strength, and adrenaline-fueled anger added to a devastating tackle. Air rushed out of his lungs while a few ribs cracked. Her hand found his belt knife. She grabbed, spun, and slammed the blade into his butt cheek. His mouth opened to scream but he didn’t have air to do so. Weakened hands tried to shove her off. One poked her in the eye.

Animalistic fury took over. Head butt to the face spilled blood. Elbow to the side folded him. Gauntleted fists hammered the hips. An armored knee broke a leg bone. At some point she even bit his arm, leaving bloody teeth marks and a deep puncture from her fully healed tusk.

Two bandits moved up on her. She heard them. Her ire burned deeper at the idea of someone interrupting her revenge. Her shield shot out as the first man moved up. The edge caught him just above the knees. Adga made a dragging motion, opening up nasty gashes across both thighs. The scream stopped as suddenly as it started. A punch to the gut with her spiked gauntlet saw to it. The second man closed but stopped short as he saw his buddy go down in a bloody heap.

Adga pulled the downed man’s axehammer out of his hands and threw it. It flashed as it spun through the air. The impact of the axe sinking into the second man’s shoulder flipped him back. His head hit a rock as he fell. The blood on the rock combined with no movement told of the seriousness of his condition.

Adga turned her attention back to Foelay. The boy was somehow still conscious. He tried to crawl away from her. She snarled. Her hand grabbed at the much smaller fingers clawing at the rocks and sand. She squeezed. Fingers broke. As he gasped in agony, she grabbed his hair, pulled his head back, and slammed his face into the sand. He started choking because of the sand in his mouth.

Adga yanked back harder. Too hard. A large hunk of bloody hair came out of the back of his head. She punched him in the back. The body became slack. Another punch. An elbow. Knee. No movement. Some semblance of control returned. A fist slammed into the ground centimeters from the back of his head. An elbow dented the ground on the opposite side. Breathing hard she tossed the bloody hunk of hair off to the side and secured her sword.

Out of nothing but seething anger, Adga backhanded the guy with the deeply cut legs. The blade took off the guy’s weapon arm just below the elbow. She wiped her blade on his shirt and sheathed it. She stood and turned her full attention back to Foelay.

Foelay’s body twitched… spasmed. Deep breaths. They weren’t enough. A boot to the groin helped. Had Foelay reacted, she was certain she would have done it again. She flipped him over with a boot, not caring about the dagger in his butt cheek. She stared down at a bloody face. There was nothing to indicate consciousness. His chest rose and fell in ragged breaths, so he was alive. “I hope you feel it if you wake back up!” Spit blasted out and covered his face. A mixture of easing anger and the end of the adrenaline rush caused weakness. Muscles trembled.

Rational thought returned. A figure in tattered leather armor darted between two large rocks. Whoever it was, was trying to flee. Tired or not, she would not let a bandit escape if she could prevent it. She ran to get to the other side. She heard footsteps as the bandit scrambled away from the battle. She knelt, closed her eyes, and focused on her hearing just as Burntmetal had taught her.

As the footsteps got louder, she reacted suddenly. She extended her blade across the gap between the two rocks. Her arm jerked as someone ran into the edge of the extended blade at a full run. She yanked her arm back in a cutting motion and then stood. She spun, ready to strike. There was no need. A Gobling, half Goblin - half Human, was on the ground, hands up to its abdomen. Blood and innards spilled out of the long deep gash. Its eyes were already rolled up into its head. Adga turned back toward the caravan. There were some sounds of combat. Not much. As she made her way down toward the bridge, the sounds of combat faded altogether. Rin’s voice rolled over the vegetation around the massive pool. “Let ‘em run! We re-dead ‘em after da Dead Sssssstorm get ‘em!”

One of the bandits appeared running through the vegetation with his head down. The Elf was so focused on fleeing, he didn’t even see Adga until it was too late.

Adga dropped to a knee. Her weapon arm shot out from behind a scrub tree. The Elf ran into it at collarbone level. Adga cringed at the impact but smirked as the Elf flipped back, both feet went forward, and his back and head slammed into greenery surrounding the water’s edge as he was clotheslined.

Since she was kneeling, it was easy to smash her armored elbow into the Elf’s groin. As his hands shot down to cover his crotch, Adga used the opening the action left to smash her gauntleted fist into his face. She felt and heard the nose squish. The Elf went limp. She punched his knee with the spikes of her gauntlet exposed just to make sure. As she stood, she rubbed the spot on her arm the Elf’s hand had crashed into. It was sore. With a frown, she glanced down and kicked him in the side. The body jerked under the impact.

She made her way back to her former fellow apprentice and looked down. Foelay’s enchanted Dwarven Blue Steel mace, a gift from his father he had once told her, was sticking up out of the mud just into the edge of the water. It went into a loop on her weapon belt. She grabbed the woman Foelay had taken down. She doubted anything could be done, but she wasn’t sure. It only took a grunt and a yank to put the limp body over her shoulder. Her other hand, shield still strapped to her arm, grabbed Foelay’s non-broken leg. She started to drag him. Her eyes fell on Nuk. The kid stared, mouth open. She was sure at least one fly flew in.

From slightly off to his left Vyrax also gazed in her direction. His left eyebrow arched. Head cocked to the right. Nothing was said.

Off to the other side, a boy who looked strangely familiar smirked and nodded. He stood over the unmoving form of the girl Adga had tossed a dagger into. His Dwarven Steel scale mail armor was spotted red with blood splatter. Sticky red liquid dripped off the bottom edge of the Silver Steel spiked shield held in his right arm. His left hand clutched a carnage-coated Blue Steel gladius. His Blue Steel neck guard had markings on it, but blood and sand obscured them. Behind him, an armored female Gnome and a lighter armored Gobling exchanged glances, then gaped. They blinked. No one spoke.

Tez came up from behind holding his arm, “By Rovnar’s blade! You really left a trail of gore, Patrol Leader…” His voice faded. “Um… he’s wearing Spires' recruit armor… do you… um, know him?”

Adga dropped Foelay’s leg. “He’s the one who abandoned my patrol.” A glob of spit hit Foelay’s chest. She started to kick him, stopped, and let out a whistle. “Rin! Tez needs a Healthman.”

Vyrax found his voice. “He’s busy, Ad. The caravan master’s son is in bad shape. He and Ven are helping.”

“I can wait…” Tez forced a smirk as he wiped at the tears in his eyes. “I have seen an arrow pulled out of an arm before. Really NOT looking forward to it.”

Adga snorted, “Can’t say I blame you. But we did get some of the salves from Sir Lenti. Hopefully one of those will help.” She looked around, “So where do things stand?”

The Gnome found her voice, “Bastards just ‘bout took out everyone. Would’ve, had ya all not showed up. We lost at least nine people, four mounts, and three draft animals.”

Tez gripped his arm, but glanced over to Vyrax, “So…” he nodded down to Foelay. “That’s a gunch, right?”

“Close. Real close.” Vendra stated from up on one of the wagons, “But no. I won’t count this as a gunch. There is something left and living.”

Vyrax looked down and frowned, “He’s still alive. Pretty sure breathing excludes being gunched.”

“Not no gunch,” Rin shook his head while glancing over the fallen form of a large Brass Dragonling. His attention returned to a boy behind the dead Dragonling as he spoke. “Lot more ta go ta make gunch.”

Tez eyed Foelay with a shudder. “Ok, you’ll have to tell me when something counts as a gunch, because… I have never seen anything so brutal!”

Adga rolled her eyes back and forth. She glanced over to Nuk, “I think you got enough free food.”

“Huh?”

Adga snorted, “Close your mouth. I don’t want the frogs and lizards getting mad at you.” She let out a long breath, “Vyrax, Nuk, get a couple of the skimmers hooked up to the wagons. The rest of you, grab the living. I want living bounty on Foelay if he keeps breathing, so don’t kill him… yet. Loot the dead. We need to get moving…” She paused and glanced back at Tez, “I beat the snot out of someone who looks a lot like you back there. He may still be alive… Wishing he wasn’t if he is. May even be the brother you told us about.”

Tez made his way back through the brush and called out, “By Rovnar’s hand, it is! My older brother, Gamo-Moc… He’s breathing, but just.”

The Gobling pushed past everyone and spoke, “What’s yer brother doin’ with a bunch of bandits?”

Adga slid her coverings over her spiked gauntlets so they wouldn’t do quite as much damage and took a step toward the Gobling.

At the same time, the boy with blood-splattered armor moved to better protect the Gobling.

Vyrax moved between Adga and the Gobling, “Same side here guys!”

“Not if his brother, who looks a whole lot like a Drow, was part of the attack against us!” Another man answered as he jumped off of one of the merchant wagons.

“Disowned former brother!” Tez growled.

“Disowned?” The Gobling asked while taking a few steps back from Adga.

“He refused his first Rite of Noblehood,” Nuk answered. “Haven’t seen him in half a score of moons or so. He is nothing more than a thief. Gamo is not with us, never can be.”

Tez spoke with total contempt in his voice. “He must have hooked up with brigands after he seized the equipment set out for his first rite and fled. There is a large bounty on him. Adga, you got a good seventy-five or so silver coming your way just on him!”

A man bleeding from several locations appeared, “If there is a bounty, we’ll help you collect…” He paused and looked at Adga and stared at the shoulder crests. “A GIANT Illorc guard?”

“Patrol Leader,” Nuk corrected the man while fingering his noble pin so it would be noticed. “My patrol leader and the one who just pulled your backsides out of the fire.”

“No insult intended young lord!” The man gulped. “We all owe you…”

“No, you owe Adga, not me.”

The man held up both hands. “Forgive my ignorance. Let us get everything and everyone loaded up and head toward what I can only guess is Scorpion Falls.”

“It is,” Adga stated as she handed the woman over her shoulder to the man. “Couldn’t get to her in time. Don’t think she’s going to make it. Sorry.”

“A fine young tutor in the written arts for my boys. We will do what we can to save her.”

Adga reached down and grabbed Foelay by his belt. “I’ll take this one, then come back to help. Just keep the Gobling away from me!” She shot it a glare, then turned back to the man she guessed was the caravan leader. “There’s a few more down." She pointed to the bodies she left in her wake. "Sure they got loot, but we have a Dead Storm coming, so we need to move!” She carried Foelay one-handed by the back of his britches and belt while letting his knuckles drag along the ground. He didn’t even moan.

Over a score of skimmers beat a path toward them through the vegetation as the wagons were being loaded with survivors, including still-living bandits, and loot. The second one back held the flapping banner of Scorpion Falls grasped by a junior apprentice guardsman. Adga snorted at the youngster’s struggles to keep it high in the strong breeze. She remembered those days.

The detachment spread out, all but surrounding the wagons. A nice skimmer with ring mail armor pushed through the line. A strong-looking Dwarf with maroon hair, a beard, and bushy eyebrows looked down from it. Although, his head was almost even with Adga’s. Scanning eyes seemed to take in everything. His gaze fell on Tez. He pointed at the arrow still in his arm, “Bowmell, we have an injured young lord!”

The Dwarf’s brown eyes narrowed as he looked around again. “Why is a young lord not being attended to while others are?”

Tez moved up and took a knee, even as another Dwarf jumped off a skimmer and scrambled over to him. He wiped tears out of his eyes. “Count Saban Kandahar, I rate no special attention. I am on my rite, as is Nuk-lem Vylevin. I serve at the behest of my patrol leader, Adga. She has deemed others in more urgent need. I must deal with this until she sees fit."

The Dwarf’s eyes lost a great deal of intensity and anger. “Patrol Leader, may my Healthman attend to your patrol member?”

Adga attempted a bow, “I would be grateful Lord Kandahar.”

“Very good!” Saban nodded at his Healthman.

Nuk moved up, took a knee, bowed, and extended his hand with the scroll sealed with the Twin Spires signet. “Lord Saban Kandahar, we come with urgent news. There is a Dead Strom only a few sandglass turns out. I sent word by way of a caravan, but do not see red smoke…”

“Needed confirmation,” Saban responded. He took the scroll. Before he even opened it, he held his hand high and spun it. “Light torches and send patrols to the outer communities! Archers, flares!”

A half-dozen men fired crossbows into the air. The bolts went up over fifty meters. They exploded with huge booms and clouds of red smoke. Moments later a quartet of four-man patrols spun and tore off in various directions. The trailing mounted guardsman in each patrol slammed a staff into the ground. The tips flared and spewed red smoke.

Adga watched the four trails of smoke until Tez yelped and puked as the arrowhead was snapped off, and then the shaft yanked out. Adga moved up and handed him her waterskin. “Take a drink.”

“Thank you…” Tez managed to gasp out. He swished water around in his mouth, spit it out, then took a long drink. He paused and hissed as herbs were sprinkled into the wound and a tight bandage put around it.

Adga gripped his shoulder. “You did good, but next time, don’t help me when there are other targets. She gave him a playful shove the moment the bandage was secured. “I don’t like to split loot!”

“You took down at least six, probably more, on your own!” Tez shouted. “I think you have enough!”

“Never!” Adga responded with a twisted grin. “But I’ll give you first loot off him since you stayed in the fight with an arrow in your arm!”

The Healthman looked up and rolled his eyes at the banter. He patted Tez on the back, “Very brave of you, young lord.”

“Indeed!” Saban barked out. He read the document Nuk handed him. “Patrol Leader Adga, even before this, word made it down here of your lone fight with the undead at the refuse site. Your bravery in the face of such odds is a credit to you and House Shunral. It is good to have you in Scorpion Falls for the duration of this emergency. But I must ask, with as urgent as this news is, why did you delay your message to help this caravan?”

“Lord,” Adga responded while biting back a sharper reply, “we had to rest mounts after they ate some red-tailed rats and ran at amazing speed to get us most of the way here. We sent word with the other caravan, so we didn’t kill our skimmers. It was my decision to do so. When we saw the raiders, I chose to engage. Not only did our mounts need more rest and water, our lands depend on caravans to survive. We must protect them. In addition, I heard the Dead Storms are strong enough to peel flesh and create bone walkers. It is unlikely anyone coming out here on War Steeds would know what the red smoke means, and it is likely many, if not all the bandits, would also be caught in the storm. I know at least two have bounty out on them.”

She pointed where a Healthman was looking over Foelay. “He is the one who fled and left me alone with my patrol’s mounts. The dark-skinned, white-haired one was Son-tez’s brother before he fled with gear for his rite instead of going on it. If they took both of them in, I’d bet many of the others have bounties on them as well.

“Furthermore, they’d be stuck out here since they can’t seek shelter in any town for fear of being recognized. If everyone in the raiding party and caravan were caught out in what is just over the ridge,” she pointed to the area above the spewing water, “Scorpion Falls would need to fight all these people as dead walkers. Since three of us had to fight a dead walking skimmer a few moons back, their mounts may also turn. My choice is not something I will apologize for.”

Saban blinked as a few of his guards gasped. He pulled his fingers through his beard. After a few moments, he snorted and nodded. “Outstanding reasoning. While I would have done things differently, I can find no fault in your thoughts, reasons, and certainly not your actions. Your willingness to stand on your choices is a rare and honorable trait as well. Lord Alagor Shunral’s sponsorship of you is something the rest of us should sit up and take note of. There are huge rough gems sitting right in front of us which we ignore while looking for smaller less-valuable ones with more initial sparkle. You have great potential.”

Saban nodded to six of the last twelve guards. “Help them secure the wagons to your skimmers. You will stay back, extend the netting, and barricade in place. We will send replacements as soon as the storm breaks.”

Adga looked around, “How many guards are left in the Falls?”

“Not as many as I would like. Those I just sent out will not be available. There is no chance they can make it to their destinations and back. They will have to hold in place and help guard where they are going. Your patrol, along with those in the hiring hall, will be vital in filling in gaps and dealing with straggling undead.”

Vyrax glanced back as the guards moved to a small outpost building built into the side of the ridge. They worked in unison, pulling on what looked to be a metal cable. Above the falls, a twine-thick fine mesh extended upward from six poles. “What is that?”

Nuk looked over his shoulder. “The Gnome Stone Steel netting. It prevents Scorpion Falls from being hit with an avalanche of scorpions. It is normally extended when there is rain.”

Saban moved his skimmer closer to Vyrax. “Look directly above where the water shoots out of the rocks. The large smooth indentation in the rock is an ancient massive riverbed. There is moisture there. It lets bugs breed. Scorpions feed on the bugs. Therefore, it is full of scorpions. Thousands, millions, no one knows for sure. Rain and Dead Storm winds send them roaring over the edge. The falls from above literally become a massive wave of scorpions. If allowed to fall into the pool, they would drown. A few is no problem, but ancient texts tell of the water becoming poisonous for days, even weeks. Scorpion Falls, as it stands now, is nothing compared to what it used to be, but until the nets were rebuilt, the water fouled every few years. Untold numbers died of thirst. Scorpion Falls and indeed much of our realm was abandoned. Rumor is the first nets were built by the legendary Highman, Odin. His son, Greysac, re-tamed this land to the point where it could be resettled following the Mythling and Dragon Wars. He rebuilt the great nets and much of what is now our desert realm. Greysac was driven out, but his legacy remains.” He smiled. “As does Odin’s original forge and the design of the nets.”

“Nets?” Vyrax looked up. “Only see one.”

Saban motioned for the caravan to follow. He angled toward Scorpion Falls. Eight towers all had red smoke pouring out of them. Satisfied everyone was moving, he turned his attention back to Vyrax, “It is an amazing design, young one. There are ten nets. As scorpions fill them, they get heavier. At some point, they become a counterweight. The full net pulls loose from five of the poles. As it does so, it extends another net. It then closes into a tight ball and swings on only a large metal chain with a hook on it. When it swings over to the pit off to the side, the closed net flips off the hook and lands on the carved-out section south of the guard post. For as far back as records have been kept no more than seven of the ten have deployed in any Dead Storm, and no more than four in any rain event. Most of the time only two or three do so. It then takes us over half a moon per net to put them back in place.

“Most have to be repaired, so we have two spares ready under my estate. This gives us a couple of moons to fix those that dropped. They are made from Gnome Stone Steel. It never rusts and while it needs the hottest heat to work and is heavier than the other elite metals, it is easier to work into nets and chains.”

Adga listened with astonishment, “Lord, may I ask what happens to the scorpions?”

“They are harvested. The poison, tails, claws, and hard shells are sold far and wide. The funds brought in pays for the repair of the nets, provides wage for the harvesters, and mining of the needed ore to produce more Stone Steel. The meat is used to feed the people since both heavy rain and Dead Storms badly disturb the water. Fishing is terrible for weeks. Fish from the falls' pool and the river beyond, before it disappears back into the rocks a league to the south, is the primary food for those of us in and around Scorpion Falls. Without the scorpion meat, hunger and even starvation would be a major problem. This is especially true after a Dead Storm. Food from Avery lands slows to a trickle until they can get new crops up and it produces fruit.”

Nuk joined the conversation, “Lord Kandahar, it sounds like you have been through a few Dead Storms.”

“This will be my fourth. The first I was a younger human equivalent than you all, a mere pup, too young for my first rite by several years. But I can still remember it. Wish I did not.”

“Are they as bad as we hear?”

“Worse. No matter what you heard, young Son-tez, Dead Storms are more horrid than any description, verbal or written. Once inside, no one goes out. If someone knocks, too bad. Some undead retain degrees of intelligence. Every storm there are first-hand stories of some fool who opens a door for a missing loved one. It ends badly for most inside. No one will be allowed to unbar a window or door in the hiring hall. If someone tries, stop them with unbridled prejudice.

“I will sound a bell once the storm is over. It may be hard to hear since mounds will pile up against the side of buildings. This is why Scorpion Falls, along with most other southern settlements, has no walls. Without the Crags being close enough to filter some sand out, everything inside the walls would fill up and bury everyone.

“Once you do open the doors, be careful. It is not uncommon for undead to be right up against doors, trying to get in when they get pinned. Secure the hiring hall complex first. Once you have a safe place to operate out of, start a door-by-door search. No matter how ready everyone thinks they are, a few buildings will have disasters. Some will be destroyed by the red tendrils. Others will suffer failures in windows and doors. The lucky ones inside will have shredded hands, arms, legs, and feet. They can be saved. Others…” Saban shook his head. “We will need to get in and bless the dead and cremate them in a communal pit looked on by Channelers. The smell will be horrible… A few will have turned. You will have to take them down. Those unfortunates we will burn in a second pit so as to not foul the journey to the Spirit Realms of those who did not turn.

“During all of this, many will emerge from the sand. Others will come out of the desert. Some will have to dig their way out of buildings and cellars filled with sand. We will have to guard sand removal crews carefully. Anyone old enough to hold a shovel will be pressed into work, no exceptions. My first Dead Storm I was handed a shovel and worked alongside four merchants and a peasant. One merchant girl’s father tried to protest. My father ordered him whipped and sent him on the road and bridge cleaning crew. It is among the most dangerous tasks. He never returned. Less than half did.

“For my part, I was put on building and pathway cleaning duty inside the city. Most of the work is done from the outside in, for obvious reasons. I filled cart after cart. My hands bled even with gloves. Five days in, my shovel hit something hard. I pushed it in again and stepped to get more power. A skeletal hand grabbed it. Yanked it out of my grasp. It stood. Its red eyes flared. It knocked me back with the shovel. I watched helplessly as it swung my shovel in a wide arc. All the others were knocked down. The merchant girl’s head was split open. For some reason, it focused on a boy even though others were closer. It grabbed the kid. He was right next to me. The skeletal figure pulled the kid up and tore a hunk off his side with bony teeth. Blood sprayed. Guards dropped shovels, pulled weapons, moved up, and smashed it, but… Hundreds of years… the memory of blood from both the boy and girl covering me still creeps into my bed and gives me nightmares.”

Nuk shuddered. “And this is common after a Dead Storm?”

Saban nodded. “It is. You did not take an easy path on your first Rite of Noblehood, young Nuk-lem. However, all noble youth old enough will be pushed into their first or second rite, so at least you do so as a patrol. Once we have Scorpion Falls cleared of sand and the majority of undead, you will be sent out to check on and assist smaller settlements.

"Just as importantly, your patrol will be tasked with clearing the roads of threats so caravans can safely reenter our desert realm. Most nobles your age will be pushed directly into city and town guards. Once the streets are basically safe, they will be on sand-clearing duties with weapons to deal with straggling and buried undead.

"While you have what I consider better duties, this will not be a short or easy rite. You and Son-tez will remain under your patrol leader with no rights other than the most basic. Your young noble status will not be reinstated until I feel Scorpion Falls and the surrounding communities have been fully restored to the point where we do not need your patrol’s services. Then, before dismissal from your rite, you will move further out to make sure all roads, especially the one to Black Toad Butte, is safe. As part of this, you will escort in at least one caravan. Chances are I will send you back out a second time so word spreads of us opening and protecting one of our most important trade routes.”

Saban glanced over to the caravan master, “If you are wise, you will stay in Scorpion Falls until this patrol can be used to escort you back out. I will make your wait here well worth your time.”

The caravan master didn’t hesitate. “I would be honored to have such fine protection, Lord. Having seen them fight, there would be no one I would prefer with us!”

“Excellent!” Saban’s voice boomed. “Patrol Leader, once the initial clearing of Scorpion Falls and the surrounding settlements is complete, you will escort this caravan back out so it can get the word out of the road being open. You can then escort a caravan or two back here. This will also allow you to patrol all the watering holes both on the way out and back a couple of times.”

Adga’s smile betrayed her delight. “We get to help get supplies out and back into our desert realm. To be the ones tasked to reopen roads and help the entire desert realm is not a task. I see such an assignment as a great privilege, my Lord!”

A grim smile crossed Saban’s face. “We certainly need more like you.”

Count Kandahar returned his focus to Nuk and Tez. “As you have heard, this will be a long and extremely dangerous rite. You will find and fight scores of undead. Snakes, four-fangers, scorpions, and spider lizards will roam the streets looking for food. A few creatures will be undead or tainted and crazed by the storm. There will be no days off for the first moon. None. Food will run short. Scorpion meat will make up most meals. We will smoke as much as we can, but… there is only so much wood we can use. It is not plentiful here and much of what we have will be needed to shore up or rebuild structures. Before this is over you will know what raw scorpion tastes like.

“Water will have to be brought in and left so sand will settle out in the bottom of the pots. This will go on for at least a couple of weeks. Bathing will be done rarely, and you will be left with a coat of fine grit over you since the water will be brownish-grey with Desert of the Dead soil. Therefore, while not as good as a normal bath, save some of your magical Force and cast Cleanse Autospells on yourselves, equipment, and others with what you have left just before your Force replenishes at the Sun or Moon’s first light.

“Sand clearing guard shifts will be from the first light of Zeris to the last glow over the falls. As a patrol, you will be on alert, ready to dispatch to where crews run into problems. You must eliminate threats so the clearing can continue. Clearing the streets, then the roads must be done before we run out of scorpion meat. During the night undead will reclaim sections of the city. Night guard patrols, which you will be part of, will be limited to important places and are by far the most dangerous. We will drive them out a dozen or more times.”

Son-tez spoke up, “As awful as it sounds, we should come out ready to retest in the guilds.”

“The attitude of your patrol leader is contagious. A rare thing to discover a natural leader… I have a feeling we are all looking at a future commander!” He gave what appeared to be a genuine smile, “And yes, young ones. If you survive, you will gain a step, probably two or even three. I would not be surprised if a few of you came out ready to test into Secondary Echelon. If either you or Nuk-lem does so, you will be able to forgo your second rite and be accepted as a full noble in your houses. It has happened before.”

“It is a goal I will shoot for,” Nuk stated in a voice saying he felt the chances were too slim to bother to seriously contemplate. “How long do you think it will be before we can go home, Lord Saban Kandahar?"

“Expect to be in Scorpion Falls for at least a moon. By then most of the undead will have pulled themselves out of the sand and we will have reclaimed all but the poorest areas of Scorpion Falls. Your patrol duties will at the very minimum be another two moons, probably closer to four or even five. I may need you to escort three or even four caravans out and back here.

“All of you need to understand that undead pour out of the Desert of the Dead during Dead Storms. Therefore, greater-than-normal numbers of undead will continue to plague these lands for a dozen or more moons. Most hate the light of Zeris, so they will seek shelter wherever they can find it. Caves, abandoned buildings, wells, cellars of buildings… a few small hamlets will be totally overrun. At least one or two will be taken over by undead. Those who live there will be turned or forced to flee. All of these must be purged. Undead gravitate toward the living, therefore, the closer in watering holes will certainly need to be cleared. Those further out will be where bandits and desperate folk cast out by undead will flee to. Watering holes will also be hotbeds for those who lost everything to assemble. We cannot allow this. I do not allow settlements around them. It would drain off our trade before it got here.

"Also, and I speak from experience when I say if not put in check quickly, a leader will spring up and give us much greater problems. Therefore, those around the watering holes cannot be allowed to organize. They will become the next generation of bandits plaguing our land. Worse, there is a tendency for people to overburden the supply. Waste will foul the water, leaving the oasis unusable for many moons. We lost one altogether during my grandfather’s time as Count of Scorpion Falls because too large a settlement sprung up around an important caravan water point. It became a huge bandit camp. It got so bad, that trade was totally shut off. The Greater Combined Realm mustered a force and wiped out the bandits. While we crushed the thieves, we lost over a hundred men and found the oasis was all but dry and so badly fouled it had become useless.

“My great-great-uncle, Duke Kolm Kandahar, banished my grandfather over this. Scorpion Falls was handed to my father before he reached the age of ascension. His first task was to rework the caravan trade route from Lake Luster, the closest town in the Kingdom of Eagleonia, far to the east. As part of this, the Banister Cliffs Oasis was removed from maps. Rumor says it is now a horrible, haunted place. To my knowledge, the exact location has been lost.

“Regardless, we can never allow a repeat. Trade from Lake Luster dropped by less than half because of the new trade route and has never recovered to what it once was. Therefore, squashing any attempt to put up a settlement around watering holes must be done fast.”

Vyrax’s jaw moved back and forth. “Lord of Scorpion Falls, what are we supposed to do with those who have fled to the water spots?”

Saban shrugged. “Direct them to the nearest town. All nobles within Kandahar land are expected to provide sustenance and shelter to those who lost everything from the Dead Storms. How they are treated is up to the local noble.

“Those who come here will be put to work and fed until everything is back to near normal. Much like my father, I will send out patrols with those who fled their homes, to see if they can reclaim what they had. If not, I will provide a stipend based on caste. It is then on them to remake their lives up to their own ability.

“Orphans and those marred by the sand will be a larger burden. However, most will find they can still perform basic labor.

“Once orphans can hold a shovel or sort ore, and the injured recover enough to where they can do something useful, they will be given a chance. Most will be shunted into old mines along the Stone Dunes just outside the squatter settlement of Gurgling Rock. I will set up an encampment with some skilled Miners to teach the basics.

“As training starts, the old shafts are cleared of undead. Once this is done, I will pay a smaller contingent of Miner trainers to stick around long enough to make sure everyone in the encampments learns enough of the craft to sustain themselves. For even Mundanes can dig coal, sort ore, and pump billows to smelt out the copper, tin, and even a little silver. While much of the old mines have been played out, there is enough within to learn and make a basic living. Those who excel will either move on to stake their own claims or be taken into large mines deeper into the Stone Dunes to earn decent coin. Others will eke out a living along the outer ridge of the dunes or fail and fall to the beggar and squatter castes.”

Adga gave a nod, “A hand up, not a handout.”

“Exactly. While costly, my father managed to teach enough in the mining craft to where a couple of large mines opened along with scores of smaller ones. Taxes more than refilled his coffers. A few within the lower castes used the chance to become much more. Those merchants are now extremely loyal to House Kandahar and continue to bring in good coin.

“It will be ten to twelve moons before things fully return to normal. But once the city of Scorpion Falls and surrounding roads are cleared of sand, and trade routes reopen, my guards should be able to handle it.

“Regardless of how long it takes, all survivors in your patrol will leave with considerable plunder. I suspend normal spoils distribution. I will take one item off any undead you destroy or brigand you capture. I take three, including first right of spoils if the bandit is killed. A live cutthroat has value in and of itself.

“To increase the desire to carry the fight, my single selection will be after the victor stakes claim to an item and the patrol leader stakes claim to a standard lot to be awarded based on rank, not before.” Saban smirked, “This is, of course, as long as your patrol leader allows you to have spoils. She does not have to.”

Son-tez patted his pouch and elbowed the extra packs on the back of his skimmer. “We already gained some on our way down the pass. We took a shortcut through the Crags to get here.”

“You what?!?”

"It is true, Lord Sabon Kandahar,” Nuk-lem spoke up. “Patrol Leader Adga knows a path to bypass many of the curves in the road. We would still be on our way down, fighting those trying to head up the pass to get behind the northern walls of Twin Spires.”

Son-tez spoke up. “Without her knowledge and fighting skills inside the Crags, my guess is we would still be a sandglass out, maybe more.” He managed a grin, “Sir Lenti Avery did not believe it either. He had a Mindmaster verify. He awarded us extra spoils and bestowed Mystic Vyrax, son of Nymeger, a large gifting and even hinted at sponsorship. We are to return to Avery lands so Vyrax can get tutorage directly from Sir Lenti Avery.

“I got the feelings Sir Lenti Avery’s Mindmaster detected what we saw firsthand. Vyrax is extremely knowledgeable inside the Crags as well. I carry a spoils certification scroll if you wish to read it.”

Saban waved off the offered scroll. “Astonishing! And you all had to fight undead inside the Crags?”

“A large group.” Son-tez nodded. “Patrol Leader Adga is beyond fair with how she handles spoils. We all came out with more than I could have hoped even though she did most of the fighting. All of us have enchanted items and weapons thanks to Patrol Leader Adga!”

“Your Illorc patrol leader, along with her patrol, certainly took the fight to the bandits attacking us, Lord Kandahar.” The caravan master stated. “At least six of those attacking us fell by her hand. Yet another was by her hand if you include the one she granted first right of spoils to. Two or three others may be her work, but none from my caravan bore witness. A young woman my slave secured for her and two others live, but just. I owe her, along with her patrol, for the lives of all who survived including my two sons.”

“I am sorry you lost your wife,” Ven responded sadly.

The man looked up trying to hide tears. “It is a heavy loss. But if you hadn’t shown up when you did, my oldest son would certainly be lying next to her. Most of us would have. While me and my people assisted on some of those you ultimately ended up taking down, I forfeit all salvage claim to you all. I will work out something to give you as well. It is the least I can do."

“I grow more impressed by Patrol Leader Adga and her patrol with every grain of trickling sand.” He focused on Vyrax. “It also sounds like some changes need to be made for you, young Vyrax, and your family. Between Sir Lenti Avery and myself, I am certain we can ease, if not eliminate the taint on your family, young man!” Saban gestured toward the caravan wagons. “I counted nineteen raiders killed or captured.” He focused on Adga. “Caravan owner Fonklob has given your patrol full credit for them. All had packs. Many look full. While it is technically before the storm, and you are inside my lands, I will grant your patrol post-storm spoils rights on all of them. After the victor then your patrol leader stakes a claim, I will take my lot and leave the rest to you.”

“What ‘bout bounty me hear dem have on der head?”

Saban frowned at Rin, “As always, bounties will be paid in full. However, if you are to speak to me, I at least expect the courtesy of being called Lord or Count Saban Kandahar.”

“Lord Saban Kandahar, if I may?” Vyrax spoke.

“Proceed.”

“Rar’rin, we call him Rin most of the time… Um, he has a very hard time with words with ‘S’ and ‘Th’ sounds in them. If he tries to say your name, it will come out with a hiss. It is not something he can help. He is also our third when we explore the Crags on Adga’s days off.”

Saban shot Rar’rin a raised eyebrow then shrugged, “There is no insult if none is intended. Rar’rin if you need to speak to me, I will allow you to simply say My Lord instead of My name. However, it may be best if you allow others to speak to me whenever possible. When alone or just with your patrol, you are free to speak to me with no limitations. I look forward to getting to know you.”

“Me get it, Me Lord.”

“Respectable enough. I will make sure my guardsmen spread the word, so no one takes exception to abnormal decorum.”

Son-tez glanced at Adga and forced a pained grin before he turned his attention back to the wagons. He rejoined the conversation with some concern and confusion in his voice. “Lord Saban Kandahar, why are your Healthmen tending to the bandits?”

Saban’s demeanor turned dark for the first time since Adga had seen the man. “Ten to twelve instead of five or six able bodies to shovel streets without having to pay them is worth the expense of healing herbs. Once my streets are clear and life returns to normal, I will find suitable castigations for their transgressions. One plausible usage would be to bolster the number of matches in the pits. The scheduled arena battles on the dark moon will obviously have to be canceled. Probably for two moons. I am certain at least a few of those who survive sand shoveling will help me bring in larger than normal crowds. As for the former Shunral and the one who deserted his duty and abandoned our shining example of a patrol leader…” The man’s whole face and tone took on a sinister presence. “If they survive, they will wish they had not. Therefore, I am going to put extra resources into ensuring both recover.”

Adga rode the rest of the way in silence. The conversation between those in her patrol, the remnants of the caravan, and Saban covered a wide range of topics. The caravan had been on its way to Scorpion Falls for dual reasons. The first was trade. This was the first time the caravan master, Fonklob, had come into the desert. He had done his homework, so he made a series of very good deals. On the other hand, the heat and dryness had taken a toll on his mounts, wagons, guards, workers, and family. Scorpion Falls was going to be his final major stop before heading out to Black Toad Butte.

The second reason Fonklob had come out so far from his normal trade route was centered on the boy who looked familiar to Adga. The kid was a slave, a gladiator. Born into the blood of the arena and expected to die in one. His first matches had been at age six with fists. He graduated to wood weapons at age eight and metal before ten. Fonklob bought him after seeing him fight a few times in a small arena where he had been born. The kid was used as a show starter. He fought pickpockets, street hooligans, and kids whose parents had acquired debt and needed a way out.

Fonklob, a lover of gladiatorial games, didn’t see a crowd-starter. He saw a natural showman. To him, the kid was nothing more than a 1.6-meter, 70-kilogram way to fill coin pouches, lots of them. He bought the boy for eight hundred silver at age ten. Now, not quite thirteen years old, the young gladiator had over four scores of kills and triple that in victories as Fonklob’s property. The kid had scars in several places, including two across his face. He was also the strongest-looking Human boy she had ever laid eyes upon.

Fonklob admitted the kid had gained a reputation as a sure win against kids his own age to slightly older. Untrained adults were no longer a challenge either. This made him less valuable in arenas back home since betting had dried up. Therefore, Fonklob changed his trade route and tried to time his arrivals to when local arenas had open match days. With a new audience, he was once again able to make good money off the boy.

When the lad was not in the arena, he was a caravan guard. The expense of his equipment told even the least observant, that the caravan master not only trusted him to be armed but put a great deal of money into giving the youngster every opportunity to survive almost any encounter. The boy had lighter armor and standard bronze weapons in one of the wagons, but those were only for use in the arenas.

Fonklob admitted he tried to play the boy’s skill levels down. He normally put the kid up against young thieves who were sentenced to a set number of matches. He collected good fees for non-death matches and great fees for matches where death was a likely outcome. He also won great coin, off bets he placed on his gladiator. The arena had been where Adga had seen him. The kid fought and killed a pair of slightly older cut-throats only a few weeks prior in Raven Wadi and pummeled a trio of young pickpockets into bloody submission in Jade Gulch only a few days before she fought the dead walkers outside the trash pit.

Both times the kid prolonged the fight, tormented those he was up against, and played on the bloodlust of the audience. The kid was a trained killer and a skilled manipulator of the crowd. She had cheered his skill, showmanship, and brutality. Everyone in her patrol, including Foelay, had. Now, only a few meters from the kid, she didn’t know if she should feel sorry for him or fear him. The kid’s face remained unreadable even as Fonklob talked of his high body count and the fact he had already gained a following during this desert run. But while he brought more into the arena, betting against him was already souring. It wouldn’t be long until Fonklob would have to offer to pit him against stronger opponents. Adga could tell it wasn’t something Fonklob was comfortable with.

The talk changed to what would happen over the next several weeks. There was no question the caravan was stuck in Scorpion Falls for the foreseeable future. Fonklob was bluntly told he would be allowed to leave at any time once the Dead Storm passed, but the road would not be passable for wagons and it would not be safe outside of protected settlements for weeks. If he stayed, he and his guards would be pressed into guard service at a fair wage and daily rations. In addition, the loot would be allotted the same as for a guard. The Mundane workers and kids, including his own, would join sand shoveling crews. Adga fought hard not to snicker at the look on the man’s face when Saban told him his kids would be fed and paid a six tin in a day wage, with a two copper bonus at the end of the week, if they worked all seven days without needing a day off.

 

Copyright © 2023 Kyle Aarons; All Rights Reserved.
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Adga once again proved her skills in battle. They've acquired even more spoils plus bounties on the bandits. Adga found her deserter and Tez has his shunned brother now out of the way.

The months ahead will be brutal both during and after the Dead Storm.

Let the big fun begin.

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Adga and crew stepped up and successfuly destroyed the babdit force attacking the caravan. They refused to stay by while the bandits attacked.The fighting was intense and was described realistically as brutal and deadly. 

Lord Kandahar arrived with his forces and welcomed the caravan and was very impressed by Adga . The  nobles on the quests were told they are on the way to succeed .The Lord stated he will need this patrol for many uses to help in the recovery of the city and to protect future caravans. They will be fully employed for many  months.

Adga   and his patrol looks forward to the new opportunties.The destruction from the deadly storm will be massive and take every able hand. Lord Kandahar has seen these type storms before and knows what to to to survive and how to lead the recovery . Adga and his patrol should be tested in new and bold ways. I am sure they will learn and adapt. 

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