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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. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Mature story contains dark themes involving graphic violence and taboo topics that may contain triggers for sensitive readers. Please do not read further if this bothers you.

The Kandric Saga - 31. Chapter 31

Conner, Sharris, Nake (HE 14), Tobash (HE 15) Zestolg, Ambrasia, Sarryel, Pontarious, Frenna, Dostem, other crew of Thunder Rapids + {Gilew Human HE 12, Munder Sil-Drgling HE 11, Quelrik Human HE 10, Vaskar Human HE 14, Gil-Drak Wolfling HE 13}

Conner glanced out one of the few upper floor windows of the Blazing Brook Inn, noting the sky had really opened up as night fell on the city. Large flakes of snow were coming down hard, propelled by a very strong eastern wind. While wondering why Syria was allowing such a storm in what should have been planting season, he was equally bothered by the fact the sheets of blowing snow drastically cut down on his infravison. On a normal spring night, he would have easily been able to see heat sources over two blocks away. With the current conditions, he couldn't even make out the variances in heat in the building straight across the street.

The other problem was, as with many large inns, the attic area was set up as an area for apprentices and those who worked for mostly room and board. This meant the fourth story was hot, since heat rose, and not made for comfort. There were three windows in this room all facing the main street. The other side was an identical area, but all the windows overlooked the stable area. This meant the ends of the large building had no upper windows to spot possible threats from. The ends were being covered by other members of the Thunder Rapids, but Conner doubted they were as skilled at spotting city problems as he was. At least the overall makeup of the crew was a rougher one, Conner reminded himself, so many had some decent street skills.

The bigger concern for Conner was the fact there were heat sources so large he could see them in the distance. This told him there were areas of Rolling Dale on fire. Judging by the large numbers of huge heat sources, plus the faint glow in the distance, Conner bet whole blocks of the city were burning uncontrollably. Again, this brought Conner back to the weather. The cold would make it hard on those displaced by such blazes. On the other hand, the heavy snow might be a saving grace for others, since it would certainly slow or possibly stop the flames from spreading.

The weather also told Conner something else. There were no city workers out doing any kind of care normally taken along such a major street like the Blazing Brook was along. Normally the city would have lanterns up on posts to light the streets. This was typical regardless of weather, but when snow came in, most cities would make navigation of the main streets a priority since streets didn't tend to be straight and getting lost in a large walled city was extremely easy. By lighting the main roads, people in the city would have less chance of getting confused. Another important part about having lanterns out, the main streets were normally patrolled, meaning those traveling the city at night would be much less likely to be robbed, mugged, or pickpocketed along lit streets.

The fact there was no light below, meant the city was sending a message. In simple terms, those in charge were saying, 'you are on your own'. Anyone out on the streets was at the mercy of whoever else was out and about. To Conner this meant either the city was in a state of total anarchy or the rulers were so overwhelmed with the distant fires and whatever the earlier explosion had been, they had nothing left to perform normal duties with. The other, much darker possibility was the city had fallen to Gambra and her people, and they were sending a message to the inhabitants of Rolling Dale about the new regime. If this was the case, the message was simple: 'you don't matter' with a large side of 'and we don't care'.

Conner didn't look negatively on the entire situation, though. For he saw upside to the current circumstances, at least for himself and the those helping him hold the inn. The snow made it all but impossible to sneak up on the inn, simply because moving on it would leave a trail noticeable from the upper windows. Invisibility simply wouldn't work since there was no way to eliminate the obvious footfalls in the snow. The trails would also show where the attackers came from. Conner knew Gambra would never let anyone leave a trail straight back to wherever she was operating out of.

This left only one real option for trying to take the inn back, the underground passage. However, Captain Pontarious made it perfectly clear he, and he alone, would deal with any intruders from below. To this end, he ordered the Dark Mystic apprentices Conner had locked in the cages moved up to a storage room while he and a trio of his Mystic students kept vigil on the trap door leading to the lower basement where the large Mystic lab had been. At the same time, Captain Pontarious wasted no time in bringing much of the lab to life, producing scores of small potions like the fire bursts. The really odd thing was he had those with Metal Worker guild pins melting all the easier to melt metal in the inn. They were then molding the molten metal into hollow balls with a single small hole in them.

Asking around provided no insight on what Pontarious was doing. None of the crew had seen him use hollow metal balls before. On top of the obvious fact if thrown with a potion on the inside, they wouldn't break, they were also pretty large, on order of a cantaloupe. This would make them hard to throw. In addition, he had the Metal Workers make them fairly thick, so they were also heavy. There was nothing Conner could see as to them being useful and it was taking a great deal of rest time away from the one adult and two teen Metal Workers, when everyone was pretty tired from the initial taking of the inn. It really made no sense.

Conner also worried about what the crew's thoughts were surrounding the captured Mystics. Yet, anyone who may have had reservations or complaints about them couldn't help but note Pontarious had said nothing about the plight of the youngsters in the small cages. The only thing he did, before ordering his people to stack the cages up in the storage room with the Mystic apprentices still in them, was to give each some water. The captain's lack of concern for the predicament of the captives sent a strong signal to the rest of the crew. None of the said a word about what Conner had done to them and the pleas from inside the cages were summarily ignored.

Even as these thoughts kept Conner's mind busy, he had other concerns. First and foremost was how drained many of those helping to hold the inn were. Several had chosen to attune to the sunrise, and many, like Sharris had used a great deal of magic. This meant over half the people helping to keep the inn out of Gambra's hands were almost out of magical reserves and were exhausted. If they could hold until first light, the tables would turn, but until then only a handful of those with him got a replenishment from Lunara's rising moon.

On the other hand, taking a second to look down at Sharris and a few of the other younger guilded members of the Thunder Rapids all sleeping, told him a great deal about the trust the entire crew had in their captain and surprisingly, himself. Having others trust him the way those sleeping in the room showed, was quite simply an astonishing and even scary revelation. For from the time he had first rejected Gambra's stewardship, he had entered a world where there was little trust in anyone, including those in the Wraith school controlled by Lord Anarton. Even those who trained him and the younger ones he subsequently mentored, there was always a watchful eye kept out for those holding onto life force too long or abusing the power and knowledge Lord Anarton was trusting them with.

His shifting thoughts ended as he spotted a trio of people rounding the corner at the end of the block. Two were small, one was quite tall and well built. The big being had a blanket draped over him and was using it to shelter the smaller two making it hard to really see any of them. There were two distinct things pointing to there being three under the blanket. The first and most obvious was the three sets of footprints in the snow. The second was the lumps marking heads of the two smaller beings under the blanket.

Conner fully expected the trio to angle toward the front door of the inn, but it didn't happen. The largest of the three guided the other two toward the far side of the street and picked up the pace. Conner frowned at this. For either the three were a distraction or the larger being was so afraid of the inn, he wanted to stay as well clear of it as possible. Conner quickly dismissed the three while trying to figure out what good such a minor distraction could be to Gambra.

This was also part of Lord Anarton's training. One of the first teaching points the man worked with on all knew apprentices, was never to take anything at face value. To this end, it was common for new students to find chairs with legs almost sawed through, sharp barbs on tableware, beds with holes in the middle with linen tightly pulled over to hide the hole, mugs with handles just barely attached, and a whole host of other devious little tricks. It took Conner only a couple of weeks to question everything he saw and to look past the obvious. He then had to learn to find a balance and really observe, since he found he was questioning everything and getting nothing accomplished.

To this end, he took a step back and thought about what goal the trio had if they were indeed a distraction. The most obvious answer was to draw attention toward them and away from something far more important. Much like the lessons of taking nothing at face value, Anarton had been equally good at teaching the art of distraction, and as Conner quickly learned, distraction was indeed an art form. One of the first classes the man taught was using Autospells to deflect attention away from something else. In a market, a puff of smoke would turn heads and open up pouches to those with nimble fingers. A hardy dash a salt in someone's food or drink would get a cringe and a downward turn of a head. This made grabbing some food off of the person's table almost too easy.

It took Conner only a few moments to run down a mental checklist. The trio, if they were planted, had one goal to draw gazes toward them. This meant, if indeed they were Gambra operatives, they were attempting to draw attention away from something else. But what? There were no other footprints in the snow... Then it came to him, Gambra may well want him looking down. Conner's head jerked upwards and he scanned the air. As the first few heat sources appeared over the building across the street he snorted. "Too easy..."

Still, this was a direct threat and had to be dealt with. Conner took a deep breath, "Everyone up! We have flyers coming in from the east!" He then backed off and shouted into the hall, "Everyone up, but this is not going to be Gambra's main attack. It's got to be a feint! Don't use magic unless you absolutely have to. It may well be a pawn attack to make us waste Force! Captain, keep your eye on the basement!"

“You have command up there, Conner!" Captain Pontarious' voice boomed from below. “Take out the trash if that is what it is."

Conner moved back up to the window while using his foot to flip a spear over to Sharris even as she rubbed sleep out of her eyes. He then grabbed a quiver of six javelins and tossed them over to the three teens as they all fought to shake themselves awake. "Get close to the windows but not so close they can see you. As soon as they bust through, charge and aim for center mass. If possible drive them right back out!"

Conner then took a few steps back and stood ready should there be any major problems.

Nake was first to act as one of the larger windows close to him shattered and a woman stumbled forward. He used one of the javelins to impale her and with a second shove pushed her back out the window. She fell screaming.

Next to Nake, Tobash did pretty much the same thing, only his thrust hit a man's sternum and the tip broke off.

Behind the fifteen-year-old, Dostem moved up and slammed the back of the javelin with his hand, sliding the broken weapon off the breastbone and driving the wooden stick into the man's lungs. He then spun and snapped his whip at another man who stumbled in right behind the first two. The whip wrapped around the man's neck only to get expertly pulled back, ripping skin off all the way around. The man fell choking and quaking.

Tobash wasted no time stepping forward, pulling his short sword, and plunging the tip into the man's gut.

Sharris' aim was not as good, but she still managed to shove the spear she suddenly found in her hand into the cheek of yet another man. The wound widened a great deal as the man's instincts were to grab at it, even as Sharris moved forward. The spear tip opened a wide gash from just behind the corner of the mouth and going all the way back to the ear. Even as blood poured down the man's left side, he kept the spear in one hand, while grabbing for Sharris with his other.

Conner was about to act, but Nake was closer and while one of the softer-spoken teens on the Thunder Rapids, he showed he had the same grittier side to him as the rest of the crew. Without caring about the massive amount of blood, he reached up and stuck his hand through the massive hole in the man's cheek, grabbed on to the small section between the corner of the mouth and the start of the gash and pulled back with everything he had. The result was to rip the wound open all the way, leaving nothing but a handing flap of skin all the way down the left side of the man's face. Since the teeth were fully exposed, Nake drew one of his daggers and, with a backhand, slammed the hilt into them shattering several.

Incredibly, the man remained standing, but seeing the hilt of the dagger coming in for a second shot, he spun and dove back out the window. He maintained control of whatever was allowing him to fly, so he hovered just outside the window for a second as he fought to hold his face together. It was a second too long. The last thing he saw was Nake's dagger spinning through the air. It hit him in the face. This was simply too much damage. He lost concentration and fell, crumpling into a heap on the cobblestone below.

A second wave of intruders came in through the busted windows, but the failure of the first group to gain a foothold left them in even worse circumstances than the first group. They had to come in through shattered windows into a line of defenders who were much more awake and considerably more ready. Five more fell quickly; two to Nake, one to Sharris, one to Tobash, and one to the youngest Primary Echelon girl from the Thunder Rapids, Frenna. Dostem then had to move up and eliminate a Halfling female on Frenna's side since she had opened herself up to the woman. Two other would-be attackers didn't even make it to the windows. They angled up and let the wind push them over the building.

Nake reached down and grabbed the loaded crossbow off one of the bodies, ran to the window, leaned out and fired a parting shot. The scream told the rest in the room not only had the shot been a good one, the target had been a woman. The subsequent howling about an arrow in her butt caused everyone in the room but Conner to grin and give Nake a nod.

Conner, on the other hand, took a deep breath after checking to make sure those on the other side of the inn were OK. Seeing they had not been attacked, he moved back into the room he had been keeping watch and shot Nake a glare, "Nice shooting, but you are lucky."

The fourteen-year-old cocked his head to the side with confusion, "Huh?"

"Nake," Conner stated in a harsh warning tone, "if there had been someone out there hovering just below the window he could have grabbed you and yanked you right out the window. Next time look, then take a parting shot."

The kid looked stung by the words, "Sorry..."

Conner shrugged, "Next time you will be, cause I'll knock the crap out of you for being careless and give you some chores you'll really hate. This time, well..." Conner forced himself to grin and sound a great deal less angry than he felt, "You shot her in the ass, so I'll let it slide."

He then turned totally serious again as the others snickered and both Sharris and Tobash gave Nake friendly shoves, "Now ignore the bodies. We can loot them later. I need you to pair up and spread out. They could have gotten a few on the roof and they may try to break through. Nake, Sharris, take the hall but I don't want either of you to cast unless you absolutely have to. Nake, you just got your Force back, but as a Mystic you don't have very much to play with and this is a probing attack at most. Don't waste it. Even Autospells are invaluable right now and you took out three without using any. Frenna, same for you. Keep your Mage book and Autospells in reserve. Until first light you can't have much left. Tobash, go with Frenna and check on the guards on the third floor. Dostem and I will hold this and make sure they don't try to pull up parts of the room above us to get in."

As the others did as they were told, Dostem nudged Conner, "You could have helped..."

Conner gestured toward the bodies littering the floor, "I could have, but you really should have held back and waited to see if Tobash needed help. The guy was wounded bad. Tobash should have been able to take him without you jumping in."


"I get it, but you are real close to Teaching Echelon. You can't do things for students, and like it or not, they may be Primaries, but barely and need to be able to hold their own against the scrubs Gambra just sent against us. Taking the Halfling bitch, I get. I was about to take her when I saw you angling to have Frenna's side, but Tobash is a Mystic, a guilded one. If he can't handle a straight up fight with what had to have been a mundane sword, then he needs to give his primary pins back! He shouldn't need a Secondary coming to his aide, none. I mean geesh, the guy was looking down at the shaft in his chest in disbelief. Your nine-year-old should have been able to take the idiot!"

Dostem let out a long breath, "Yeah, ya' young bugger, yer right. But I help to raise him..."

"So you should wanna see him grow up, not look to others like a scared kid. I mean, come on, he's less than a year from Age of Ascension!"

"I still see a lil kid..."

"Then do something to change how you see him!"

"Like what?"

Conner smirked, "Once we get out of this, take him to a whore house and get him laid. That'll change yer view."

Dostem elbowed Conner playfully in the ribs, "Not if I get to watch, cause me's bettin' he'll have no clue what ta do!"

Conner giggled, "Then don't watch..." He then shook his head, "Never mind, I know you wouldn't be able to help it."

Before more could be said, there was a warbling whistle from down on the street. Seeing Dostem grab for a javelin, Conner held up his hand even as he bolted over to the window and gave a whistling reply.

Dostem edged up to the window and peeked down. He blinked and looked again at the strange sight below.

Conner was cautious as he looked down, but quickly smiled as he saw faces of a few he knew all too well, "Gil-Drak! How'd you find me?"

Next to the Wolfling youngster, a young Silver Dragonling held up a pair of dead Halflings, one in each claw, while a young Human boy held up a blanket in one hand and the head of a Halforc in the other. Gil-Drak grinned up, "We followed the diversion meant to focus yer attention the wrong way and took 'em while they were distracted."

Conner snickered, "Is our lord here?"

"Somewhere." Gil-Drak responded. "He gave each high Secondary a team and each group came in alone. Gilew is our team leader."

"Gilew?" Conner asked in sudden concern, "Where is he?"

Another Human boy rounded the corner dragging two bodies, one with a bolt sticking out of the center of her rear. The kid looked up, "Cleaning up after you, as usual."

Even as Conner and a couple of the other chuckled, the Dragonling spoke up, "Conner, we heard 'em talk. Them levitatorssssss were to pull ya'll up top. The main group comin' underground."

"My boss has it covered, Munder. None a us 'er following the main attack, are they?"

"Better not be," the youngest Human boy spoke up as he stepped on the throat of the guy with the ripped face, ending his moanings. "From what us hear, they be coming from the Gloom Fire Mystic Shop and our master told us to stay WAYYYYYY away from there. You and him 'er the only ones allowed to take anyone of us near there... Um, it's cold out here, Conner. Can we come in?"

Conner grinned, "Sure thing, Quelrik! But do me a favor and grab the dagger sticking out of that guy's face. It belongs to one of the kids in here."

Quelrik shrugged, reached down, and pulled out the dagger.

At the same time the Wolfling looked up, "You want their gear, Conner?"

Conner didn't hesitate, "Grab what you can while I send someone down to unbar the door, Gil-Drak." He then stared down at the oldest Human, "And Vaskar, we are secure for now. Let it go."

Without any complaint, the fourteen-year-old took a knee and released the death gift he had taken from one of the Halflings.

Conner nodded in satisfaction before giving Gilew a stern look, "Gilew, I know you are almost two years younger than Vaskar, but as team leader, it is your job to tell the others when to drop the gifting. YOU KNOW what can happen if they hold on too long. Don't let this happen again."

Gilew's eyes went wide, "Sorry, Conner, but..."

"First off, no buts, none. You are the leader. It is your job to give the command. And it hasn't been very long for you, so you should remember how hard it is to let go at first, even if the Primaries want to. They have to be watched carefully and given a chance to focus so they can let go. Second, don't worry, everyone in here knows about me. I didn't tell them, but they figured it out and they fully accept who and what we are. You'll understand more once you talk to some of them." To this end, he turned to Dostem, "Go warn the captain about the big rats coming in the sewers, then open the door! We got some help!"

King Wyhrem, Klandon, Count Salostar, Barron Greyhammer, Sardan, Sagell, Aster, Bayne, Benam, Quavis, Cresh, Dabaff, Gomriss

King Wyhrem, with Bayne at his side, moved up to one of the old, partially crumbling walls of the aged keep. He was flanked by Sardan and Sagell, along with Count Salostar and Baron Greyhammer. Benam and Quavis, along with several others looked on in awe from well behind, never in their lives figuring they would ever get this close to a real king, let alone have one take enough interest to get to know them by name. Yet even as King Wyhrem moved up to greet Sardan, he took a moment to get introduced to them, while at least getting the names of a couple of others. He even thanked them for helping The Watch.

Even more astonishing to Quavis, the king listened to Sardan tell him and those with him who Quavis' father was. Instead of being angry, the man showed true gratitude, giving Quavis a hug, while praising him for having the fortitude and character to go against his father and Gambra's operation. In turn this caused both the Alphar count and Garm baron to pat him on the back as they moved up the badly weathered steps. Count Salostar went so far as to dig into his pouch and hand Quavis, Benam, Cresh, and Dabaff an emerald each, as a way of saying thanks for being a trusted traveling companion of Prince Aster.

While they looked at the large supremely cut stones in their hands, Quavis did his best to focus on what the king, his king, was saying only a few meters away.

Wyhrem looked out over to the cracked battlements to the distant glow. "Am I seeing Rolling Dale?"

Sardan answered, "Yes, my King, you are. Are you sure you do not want to go down and see your son?"

"My son... Which one?"

"We cannot be certain, my King. Our best guess is we actually have Prince Klandon, while Glaster has Prince Zoldon with him. I have now seen both boys and as best as I can tell there is no way, by looking, to discern which one we have. I can also assure you neither knows who is whom. The one we have now only remember being tortured into believing his name is Zoldon, but he has better royal speech than the other and skills he would have been taught in your court, such as Dragonsteed care. I was unable to say more than a few words to your other son, but he seems to firmly believe his name is Klandon. What I did observe, however, leads me to believe he has a rougher and less refined side to him, one he would not have if he had lived in your court for most of his life."

King Wyhrem brushed a tear out of the corner of his eye with his gauntleted right hand even as he sighed, "I have done serious wrong to both for not having seen through this nefarious plot. Have you been able to figure out what the end game was supposed to be?"

"Not yet, my King. No matter what, we will though," Sardan stated with complete conviction. "I do not care how many I have to step on or gut, sooner or later someone who knows something will talk."

Without realizing he would be heard, Quavis muttered, "Not if Gambra get to them first."

Sagell shot Quavis a glare, "There is no way to eliminate all those who helped with these operations, Quavis."

"Sagell," Quavis countered, "my dad killed my best friend right under my nose and I didn't even realize it until I found out who and what he is! I am sure most of the people behind the taking of Klandon, or Zoldon, or whoever, were killed the moment they were no longer useful. Just look at what my father almost did inside your city! Also, I head Noglin was killed by Gambra, and he was the one giving my father orders. She killed him inside Junsac, the home of The Watch!"

King Wyhrem made a slashing motion with his hand to cut off any rebuke on Sagell or Sardan's part. "Quavis makes some very strong points. My Royal Healthman was part of this plot against me, and he was killed within hours of becoming a liability. Killed in my capitol city in front of dozens of witnesses, and everyone insists it was nothing more than an accident. If this Gambra can get to my Royal Healthman in the manner she did, she would have certainly removed others with intimate knowledge of what her final goal or goals were." He then turned to look at Quavis, "Young man, I am willing to stake everything I am, on you not understanding one of the reasons why both my Watch members, along with the good count and baron, are glaring at you. I also am decreeing you are not to be scolded for this slight."

Quavis looked up with total confusion, "King?"

Wyhrem snickered at the befuddlement plastered on not only Quavis but Benam as well. "Boys, you are in a circle you have never had to deal with. Your lack of etiquette is totally understandable. However, you, Quavis, have committed what some would see as a major insult to me."

Quavis' eyes went wide, "I am super sorry, King!... Um, can I ask how?"

Baron Greyhammer snickered and moved up to Quavis, "The heart of a Tundra Lion this one has! Not even afraid to ask a king what he did wrong after being told he had insulted the very king he is talking to! You, lad, will go far in this world!"

He patted the boy hard on the back, as he spoke with a wide smile, "Young one, the two boys you spoke of by name are the sons of your king. Simply calling them by name leaves out a large measure of who they are, and by doing so you leave out who their father is."

Next to Quavis, Benam nudged him as it dawned on the boy what the Garm was referring to, "Aw, dude, are you trying to get us put into stocks until we are like fifty? For us it is Prince Klandon and Prince Zoldon! By not giving them credit for being princes, you are all but saying he's not a king, let alone our king!"

Quavis quickly held up both hands as he not only realized the underlying insult to King Wyhrem, but the fact he had bossed Zoldon around several times over the past few days. If Zoldon told on him, or even told a royal guard... Zoldon could have him thrown in the deepest darkest cell the kingdom had and toss the key in an ocean somewhere! "Oh, oh, crap... um.... geesh.... shit... um... Princes, yeah, damn, I'm an idiot, but I'm not the only one to make him do chores!"

Benam looked horrified, "I... I... oh... I'm sorry! I'll never do it again!"

King Wyhrem let out a booming laugh, while moving up to give both Quavis and Benam a bear hug, "You two are welcome in my palace anytime, boys! And if you made one of my sons do some chores, it will do him good in the long run. For a good ruler needs to know how to be ruled once in a while. I assure you, my own father gave others below my birth status power over me on occasion." He then turned a great deal more serious as he let go of them and moved back to stare at the distant glow, "My kingdom is going to need more boys like these two in the coming years. Take good care of them."

Sardan responded, "I look very much forward to it, and I assure you, my King, so does Sagell."

Sagell turned a bit red in the cheeks, while sending a sharp, yet playful glare at Sardan, "My Liege, I can only second Sardan's words."

"Good, see to it they get the best of everything possible including training and gear, for I am not speaking in jest when I decree my palace doors will remain open to both and I would like to see a great deal more of them. They have the type of hearts I want to cultivate. Now as far as my son, no matter which one is here, he is safe. The lives of many of my people are not." He pointed to the glow shining through the driving snow, "Is Rolling Dale on fire?"

Sagell's expression darkened as she spoke with disgust in her voice, "We think parts of it is, but it has been taken from within. The gates are closed and the walls manned, but not by anyone allied to you, my Liege. We have failed you."

"No, the baron has failed me and my people. He and the leadership of Rolling Dale will be answering directly to me for this failure as soon as I have time to find and deal with them. Right now, however, there are far more important details to attend to. So, to this end, what about refugees?"

Again Sagell responded, "My Liege, it seems few were able to escape. There was a large refugee camp on the opposite side of the city, but it was hit by siege weapons just before sunset from within the city. From the smattering of reliable reports we have been able to verify, it seems those who sought refuge here from the Everone Barony were forced to scatter. Many more were cut down or captured by an armed group of soldiers from Rolling Dale as they tried to flee. From what we have been able to glean, a large detachment of Rolling Dale garrison guards moved in and took everything of value and a number of those who did not scatter quickly enough. They then moved back inside the walls with hundreds, if not thousands, of refugees and wagons of items looted from the large camp. Some reports say they even took the bodies of those they murdered, however, this has yet to be verified. At this point we do not feel we can get close enough to get eyes on what is left of the camp. Once the weather clears, we may be able to get a decent long distance look. It remains to be seen what will be discernible after the heavy snows we are getting pelted with. Are you certain you do not wish to go below where it is warm and see your son?"

King Wyhrem's whole posture told those looking one he was sickened by the news even before his words and shaking voice verified it, "Those are my people out in this storm. If they are out in this with little to nothing, their king should at least be forced to endure Syria's wrath for a bit while we come up with a way to render aide to those really suffering. The real question I have is why attack refugees? What harm were those fleeing the fighting in Everone causing?"

Sagell gave a shrugging motion, showing more frustration than she wanted to let on. "My Liege, we do not know the reason for this unprovoked action, nevertheless, we do know the provision reserves you sent to feed and clothe the refugees were some of the things the soldiers took. It very well may be they were after supplies to hold for a long siege and simply took the chance to loot valuables. Unfortunately, this is all conjecture on my part. We simply do not have any good information from within the city other than what young Quavis was able to get from the four guards. The four in the patrol Quavis got talking seemed to know there was a major problem and three of the four were worried about family should things go bad, which it seems to have done."

Wyhrem turned to look back at Quavis, "Son, between the reports I received about the bandit actions you managed to get from within the Ghoul Drool and your ability to loosen tongues of a Rolling Dale patrol you have managed to get me more information than almost anyone else. You and your good friend Benam are more than welcome to join us as we discuss this further. Besides, my son, Prince Bayne could use a friend or two to help him with his studies and have someone to play with. I would like to see if the three of you could become friends."

Seeing Sardan gesture for the boys to move up to join the rest at the wall, Quavis gulped, but quickly grabbed Benam and stepped close to the wall, realizing while it hadn't been worded as an order, Sardan clearly saw it as such. As he moved up he heard King Wyhrem ask, "What of refugees from Rolling Dale? Certainly some within the walls got out before the city was sealed."

Sardan responded, "My King, some undoubtedly did. The problem is, we have been too preoccupied with getting your son and the duke's children out and then to fully secure this keep to try to locate any stragglers. We wanted to gate in more Watch members to this keep to aid in control and security, but this has not been possible since the magical flows are so badly off. They gated in to a safe location upriver, and will hopefully be here by sunrise. This storm may well delay them, however.

"One thing to consider, when thinking about those who reside in the walls of Rolling Dale, is without Glaster casting a massive spell on the merchant gate we would have been locked in as well, so while some must have managed to get out and others were outside the walls and unable to return home, most were trapped within. In addition to how fast the city was locked down, the aforementioned flows of magic are make gating into or out of Rolling Dale impossible, so even powerful casters within the walls were trapped the moment the gates closed. I have never seen anything like the magical disruptions of the kind we face out here, and this is mild compared to what is going on closer to the city.”

"King Wyhrem," Count Salostar spoke softly, "if I may?"

"The floor is yours, good Count," Wyhrem responded while giving a gesture to the Alphar.

"The magic I feel is much like we have in areas within our lands where large wars were fought between the Mythlets and Mythlings. Think of it as a magical rift, having been caused by a tremendous expenditure of magic in a very small area in a very limited span of time. In essence, it broke the normal threads of magic creating a hole where magic is both gushing out and streaming in, as if it is trying to repair the damage done.

"According to the ancient tomes I have read, the effects in the rift points did heal over time, at least to some degree. This phenomenon took time, and even now there are areas where rift points can drain an unexpecting spell caster of all Force. In the most extreme cases these tears in magic may even turn an inexperienced spell caster into a Mundane for days, weeks or even months. The tomes suggest at first a few were even reduced to being Mundane for life because they were unable to stop the release of their magic into the rifts."

Baron Greyhammer took a deep breath, "The ancient tomes within Garm lands have similar tales, Great King. One story I had read to me as a young-one told of a teacher who rendered several of his students unconscious to prevent them from losing their magic to a magical tear caused in a battle between Kryplok and Quati. The teacher was exiled for harming a child of a powerful lord. The lord then had his child leave the court in search of his teacher who saved him from becoming Mundane. It says both were cursed to wander in search of each other and it their voices we hear calling out when the wind howls. While a child's tale, there seems to be a truth behind it; for there are a few accounts of royal children who became Mundane from getting too close to the battles between the most powerful beings during the Mythling Wars."

"But Glaster is only a Master. There is no way he could have created such a magical fold..."

"My Liege," Sagell responded once she was sure Wyhrem's voice had truly faltered, "there is no chance in this existence or the next, Glaster was able to cast the spell he did on his own. While he may have been the prompt or spark, the result... the horrifying power... It was beyond the reach of mortals and I pray it stays out of the reach of mortals for evermore. Also, while he may have been Master Echelon before the spell, I would stake my life and those of my entire lineage on Glaster being a lord now. The spell he cast on the merchant gate was at the upper reaches of Legendary, for I have seen Master Echelon spells which look more like an Autospell when compared to the... The utter devastation he wrought on the small gate and guardhouse. I am certain you will concur to his Guild rank once he gets here."

Wyhrem clenched his fist and pounded on the battlement in front of him for a few seconds, "Sagell, I want you to get with my Captain of the Guard and send out some search parties. I want any surviving refugees found, brought here and cared for. I also want anyone who was within the wall Rolling Dale within the past week brought here for questioning. We need to know what we are dealing with and why."

King Wyhrem turned his attention quickly back to Quavis, "Young man, from what I was just told and what you let slip intentionally or unintentionally, you have met this Gambra and your father worked for her and was striving to become a Dark Mage under her tutelage. What insights can you provide, even if it is only supposition?"

Quavis' eyes went wide, "King... um my King?"

Wyhrem knelt and put on a slight smile while reaching out and grasping Quavis' shoulders, "Either is fine, Quavis. Now if you can try to focus and give me whatever intuitions you may have?"

Quavis found it hard not to look over to Sardan for guidance, partially because some of the words Wyhrem were using were on the edge of his comprehension. However, with a great deal of effort he stayed focused on the man, "King, I... I um, am very afraid of what Mistress, my father's mentor, will do. To be honest, I can't say I am positive it is this Gambra, but it all fits and I saw the Halfling woman several times and spent time with her on a few of them. The name Gambra was first told to me at the Ghoul Drool, but, um.... Well, my father always called her Mistress, and I know he was very afraid of her."

"I am going to assume, as you now do, this person was or is Gambra, a name I have heard whispered in fear more than a few times. So tell me what you know."

"OK, King... Um, I know just enough to guess she will use some of those the soldiers took to twist their life forces and use what she steals from them against anyone who gets in her way. I think she'll do it in the same way I found out my father took the life spark of my best friend and used him... it... um... whatever a life spark becomes when it is taken... Um, Father used my friend’s life to prove himself to Gambra and I think may have made his book out of him too. The more I find out and hear, the worse a monster my father becomes, and the mistress was the one who gave all orders. I would bet what little I have left of Mistress being this Gambra.

"Anyway, um, King, I also am willing to bet she has a non-magical escape route. I heard her tell my father more than once he needed to always leave himself a way out should he be discovered. At the time, I thought it was to escape should some of the former Day Slaves find out where he lived, but now... Um, I mean, I think it was really to escape The Watch or city guard. Anyhow, when she was talking to my father she said she never went anywhere or did nothing without having a way out. It was like it was one of the most important things to her. For when I saw her a couple of other times, one of the first things she would ask is what was the back door. Again, I didn't realize what she meant then, cause twice there was no back door, but now, I understand she was asking for a way to escape. I am so, so sorry! I didn't know better and tell..."

"You are a boy, a very perceptive one, but to not see your father in a bad light and obey him is not something I can find any fault with. I will say again, you are both strong of character and extremely brave for the path you have chosen. Once this is over, I will see you well rewarded and I will expect to see a Watch pin on you."

Wyhrem patted Quavis on the head as he stood and turned to look at Sagell, "I see no reason to doubt Quavis' inner familiarity of this situation. If this Dark Mage witch goes nowhere and does nothing without an escape route, we need to find it. For if it can get her out, it can get a small team in to get us hard information. Should we be very fortunate, and if Sariff wishes to be on our side, we may even be able to use it to take this Gambra and make her pay tenfold for what she has done to my people."

He took one last look at the orangish-yellow light in the distance before turning away from the wall and making his way to the steps down, "Sagell, out in this storm are children now twice displaced by war. The same must be said for the adults, but at least they have a measure of wisdom to guide them in this perilous time. The children do not. Making matters worse, many were probably orphans before, and others are orphaned now. I am willing to lay a considerable wager many of the young ones who fled the refugee camp are starving, even as I move down to sit in front of a fire, eat, and find out which of my sons is here. Those children out in this storm... They are a large measure of the future of my kingdom. I decree none are to be looked at, labeled, or treated as orphans. They belong to me until I find them homes. Even if I have to order every royal guard in my kingdom to take one in as his or her own, not a single one will be reduced to orphan class because of this travesty. As of this moment, we spare nothing and no expense on finding every child out in these woods and surrounding fields before they freeze to death, even if this means we lose time in trying to retake Rolling Dale. Those who have done this will pay for the suffering they are causing in ways I have not even dreamed up yet."

Wyhrem then put his arms around Quavis and Benam, "Boys, you have traveled with my son and at this point most certainly know him better than I do. And Benam, for Quavis to see you as his new best friend, you must be cut of the same mold, but have not been given a chance to show it. Now, if you two would, please accompany me down to talk with my boy. While I do, use the cunning you have shown my Watch members to see what information you can help me unlock within him."

As soon as King Wyhrem was out of sight, Sardan looked over at Sagell with a gleam in his eyes, "Unless I am totally mistaken, our king is every bit as enamored with Quavis as you are, only in a totally different way."

Sagell's face flushed, but she still smiled, "At this rate, by the time I finally bed him, I will be taking someone with a royal title to bed."

"Have his child, and you can have the son or daughter of royalty."

Sagell's eyes arched up, "You think he is old enough to make me heavy with child?"

"He has got to be close... but I was joking!"

"I am not! As good as he looks, he would be certain to make me have a great looking kid!"

Count Salostar shook his head with a bemused and somewhat dismayed smirk, "As gorgeous as you are, you want to have what may be your only offspring with a Human child?"

The corner of her mouth turned upwards, "For you, good Count, I would not mind giving you a chance at fathering my second child."

Salostar couldn't help looking at the woman with a shocked expression, "I highly doubt my wife would approve."

"Then do not tell her. I do not mind being a side fling for a good-looking hunk of Alphar."

Seeing Salostar turn a dark red all the way to the tips of his ears, Greyhammer roared with a deep gut laugh, "Look there Count, you have a mistress on your first official outing outside our lands!"

Sardan snorted, "If I may, Baron Greyhammer, I have just the lady for you as well..."

Seeing the Garm's eyes go wide, Sagell was only too happy to press the issue, "Oh, yes, Gomriss would be only too happy to be all over our good Garm Baron!"

The Garm and Alphar motioned for Sardan and Sagell to go down in front of them before Greyhammer spoke in a hushed tone to Salostar, "I am thinking continuing to venture out of our lands may be a great deal of fun, how about you?"

Glaster, {Beema - 12, and Kamen - 12 Devkiln, Famira, Dorwald, Bavrim, Javarim, Zoldon, Lylan, Mylan, Glaster, Rylan Oldsurn, Chark’ash-Shunral, Perth, Jolnart, King's Judge (Judge Andreus), 5 Alphar, Protector’s Keep guards, Nolram, Tazen, Gastrom}

Glaster double-checked the camp and made sure guards were posted. The spot they were bedding down in was clearly a known and popular one judging on the amount of debris in a well-constructed fire pit. This was far from ideal, but they simply had to stop and rest. Several of the animals had been wounded and were exhausted after pulling wagons totally full of goods along with extra people. Since they had hastily abandoned one of the wagons, but had cleaned out the most valuable goods before burning it at the edge of the city, and roads were still snow covered, the animals had to work harder. Then, when they went off normal paths and into the woods, the going got even harder.

In addition to the animals, a number of the surviving guards were injured and the others were in need of a break. For those who had never experienced combat, understanding of the physical and mental toll was simply not possible. Having fought a major battle, then forced to stay alert for several hours of travel, left even the strongest men faltering to some degree.

If a good thing could be said for the current situation, the campsite was partially sheltered from the brunt of the storm by a large overhanging rock and there was a path going up the side of the ridge, so guards could be posted up top. By ringing the wagons against the ridge, a fort-like security barrier gave further safety to those inside the camp. The most important bonus to the situation was Glaster had an Expert Echelon Warrior Adept Captain of the Guard and thirty-eight healthy Protector's Keep soldiers, including three who were Teaching Echelon, and another eleven who were Secondary. This meant he held plenty of guards to fill in for caravan guards and instructors killed. Even better an additional fourteen guards had made it out, but were wounded. Between the Healthmen and magical healing, Glaster figured he could get half of them up by morning and the other half over the next couple of days. He would focus on getting the least injured up first, so he had as many healthy defenders as possible.

He also had four remaining Alphar. One had gotten him to the prince and had sacrificed himself to do so, one had been killed early on by a potion, and the others fought well at the Green Goblin. One had even taken an arrow rather than let Rylan get hit. Yet Glaster found it impossible to fully trust them. For even though the one who had threatened Kandric had died, all of them seemed to be at least in part against his most beloved student of all time. Their sudden change of behavior and loyalty had been explained but it was at best troubling and flatly odd. When he was honest with himself, he found it hard to figure out what to think about them at all. Alphar... It seemed impossible. Yet when he really thought it over, it almost made sense.

Kandric was the most special find ever, and Glaster knew no matter who he tried to replace the boy with, none would come close. He had known, and had even bedded Aster a few times. Much like Kandric, the boy was phenomenal in skills and looks, but not on the same level of Kandric. If both boys did have Alphar blood, it would explain much. However, if they were really royal born, something was simply wrong with the Alphar, for the squalor both kids had endured, one an orphanage in Junsac, and the other the Swamp Slums of Slome... some royal prick needed to first be insane, and second, badly needed to have his face rearranged by way of a monumental pounding for leaving such fantastic children in such an environment.

However, with the present circumstances Glaster needed ever able body, and the well armed and very skilled Alphar gave him extra spell casting powers, healing, and above anything else, heat vision. The one thing he made sure of was to keep Chark'ash well away from them. The Drow youngster would stay out of sight and in Glaster's wagon or tent until such time as he had a real trust in the Alphar, and even then, there was no chance he would allow them to be alone with the boy.

Chark'ash was only one of the concerns Glaster had to deal with as the camp took shape. Each of the three royal boys was assigned two of the Protector's Keep soldiers for both protection and to keep them from trying to sneak away. Glaster knew it was possible, even probable at least one of the boys would try unless he made it too difficult to even bother to attempt. He made to absolutely clear the men he put over the boys had unlimited authority over them and disobeying would lead to time in stocks in the next city, for no less than a full day and night. The looks he got from all three told Glaster there would be no challenging of the six guards.

With a perimeter set, fires going, and meals being cooked, Glaster motioned for Rylan and Perth to accompany him. He looked down at the two, "Prince Rylan, you have been badly wronged by this kingdom. While the healing I gave your hand has eliminated the signs, nothing can take away from the memory. However, I cannot allow you to kill them, at least not yet. You will have a great measure of say over them and what I do to extract a measure of vengeance for the wrongs they have done, both to you and the taint they have put on my kingdom, and thus my king. Now is not the moment for you to speak up, for tonight I deal with the wrongs done to my kingdom and my king, not you. Tomorrow, or maybe even a day or two on, more of what happens to them will rest on your shoulders."

Glaster then focused in his newest boy, "Perth, as my latest trainee, you need to see and understand there are certain lines I cannot allow to be crossed, and what happens when they are. What you tasted in the arena is nothing compared to who and what I can become and do. The most important personal creed to me is the honor of this kingdom. To harm it, is to harm our king. To understand why this is important to me, you need to know I indentured myself to our former and our current kings and pledged undying and unwavering support to King Wyhrem and his father. Over the next few days you may puke, you may even soil your loincloth, but the lesson you need to get out of this is simple. Once you cross a line with me, there are no apologies and no stepping back. The line is there, it has been crossed and until retribution is made for breaking or ignoring it, there is no such thing as pity or mercy. In this case, so many lines have been ignored and blatantly breached, I really can only inform you, what you witness tonight and in the coming days is about as malevolent as I will ever become. As you take this in, understand one other thing. While you may hate me and what I make you do, if you are loyal to me, King Wyhrem, and his lineage, you will garner the same protections as I give this kingdom."

Without allowing a response from either boy, Glaster made his way back to where Devkiln and the other four who had tricked, then badly burned, Rylan were being guarded by the captain, an Alphar, and two Protector's Keep guards. As he moved closer, it was obvious, by looks alone, two of the boys were terrified, one was resigned to things not going well, while the girl and Devkiln looked defiant and even angry.

Glaster didn't give any warning. Instead he stepped up on Devkiln, grabbed the shackled teen by his thick mop of hair, lifted him off the ground, and tossed him out away from the others and outside the sheltered area of the rocky overhang. He ignored the screams and curses as the boy fell into ever deepening snow. He then did the exact same to the girl. Glaster then glared down at the remaining three young teens, "A single word from any of you, any attempt to get pity, and you join your ringleader friend out there instead of staying out of Syria's wrath."

Seeing one of the Protector's Keep guards move to make sure the two tossed into the snow didn't go anywhere, Glaster realized they were every bit as angry as he was. This meant there would be zero mercy afforded any of the five and this gave him free reign on whatever punishments he felt justified. The problem was, he really didn't have a clear idea what would be fitting. They had burned and came close to permanently marking a boy who had done nothing to them, assaulted a fellow student, attacked a child of a higher social class, done harm to a visiting member of royalty, and worst of all had done all this in a kingdom controlled school. Each infraction was more grievous than the prior. Death was a befitting punishment, a tortuous one. However, there was more going on with Devkiln and the Orc blade, and he needed to get to the bottom of it. He also required some understanding as to why those in charge of the school would want to force out prospective future Swordsmen when the kingdom was at war. Finally, judging on the looks of the other three kids, they were not quite as complicit in the attack as Rylan believed. Still, they had helped, and thus an extreme measurement of punishment needed to he handed down and Rylan would need to have a great deal of say over what the final outcome would be.

With a truly sinister undertone in his voice Glaster turned to look at the Alphar, deciding to see how loyal he, and thus the others, was going to be. "Those two need a quick and decisive attitude adjustment. I will deal with them personally. While I do so, I need you to take care of these three." He pointed down at the three boys. "Pound a few spikes in the rock just inside this natural shelter so they are not getting snowed on. Make them high enough to keep their hands up over their heads, secure them to the stakes and strip them. Leave them in shoes, since the cold of the rocky ground will damage feet quickly. Also, I do not want the frozen breath of Syria to claim them in anyway. At the first signs of frostbite, take a torch and warm them just enough to where they will not suffer permanent harm. No burns, just warmth, and as little as possible. The bite of the air needs to become their shroud. This will take diligence all night, and well into morning. If you need to switch out, find one of your compatriots who is willing to give them as little comfort as possible, while preventing permanent harm. They can wait until morning for me to decide how much blame for the crimes against Prince Rylan and our kingdom they are going to be burdened with."

The Alphar Warrior Adept didn't even flinch at the command. "At once, Commander. Food or water?"

"Water, no food. I do not want dehydration. They need to be in decent shape for whatever Prince Rylan has in store for them once I have extracted retribution on behalf of King Wyhrem and out beloved kingdom. For the pages of at least their near futures hold a promise of great misery and despair."

Glaster then moved out into the snow. Hearing the two kids hurling insults and threats at him, many of them about someone by the name of Tregasel feeding him potions, he kicked both hard and used his foot to roll them over onto their stomachs. He waited for Devkiln to get his breath back before he put his foot on the back of the boy's head pushed it down into the snow. He ignored the thrashing as he motioned for the Protector's Keep guard to do the same to the girl. With both all but drowning in snow, he handed Perth a dagger, "Remove their clothing, all of it. If you nick them a few times, so be it. However, I do not want you putting any deep gouges in their flesh."

Glaster then pointed to some nearby trees, "Prince Rylan, find a dozen or so long, thin, flexible branches. Cut them to a length of about a meter and a half, then take them over to the cliff and beat them against the rocks until the bark is breaking off and the meat of the wood underneath is marred. If they crack or break get others. I need at least eight."

Glaster lifted his foot, nodding for the guard to do the same. He let Devkiln get decent air, but at the first hint of a word he pushed the boy's face back into the snow. At first the process happened often, since the teen had plenty of threats to direct at Perth for slicing off his clothing. The boy's tirades didn't last. After the fourth time of getting his faces smashed into the snow-covered ground until he was close to passing out, he gave up. Next to him, the girl showed considerably more defiance. She was well into the double digits of inhaling snow before she finally grew quiet.

Both kids were shivering, with teeth audibly chattering by the time Rylan came back with eleven long sticks. Confusion could be seen in his eyes as he handed them over to Glaster who took his time, running his hands down the lengths of each. After careful examination, he handed five back, "These are dented, not marred. They need more work. I will start with these six."

While Rylan moved back to the ridge face, Glaster grabbed Devkiln by his hair and moved him to the nearest large tree. "Perth, well done on the clothing, I only see a few areas of blood. Now, get rope and toss it over the thick branches."

Glaster secured Devkiln first, trying the rope to the shackles securing the boy's hands behind his back. He then pulled the rope until the boy's shoulders were almost out of joint and only Devkiln's toes were able to relieve any of the pressure. As soon as he had the girl secured in the same way, he looked over at the guard. "They are too chilled. Let us get a fire to warm them and ourselves with."

By this time both kids were sobbing in a combination of pain and cold. They could barely move and it didn't take long for their feet and toes to cramp up. The problem was, getting off their toes simply wasn't possible, since to do so increased the pressure on their shoulders, causing terrible pain.

Both quickly discovered the fire, which they first thought would be welcome turned out to be anything but. The fire was built far enough away to where they caught only part of the warmth, meaning they had the horrible stinging sensation associated with warming up, but it didn't stop. In addition, only half their body got any real heating and Glaster knew it. He was only too happy to rotate them to prevent their fronts or backs from freezing, but as soon as they were turned the other half got cold again. Finally, to add insult to misery, they watched as Perth fed their clothing into the fire one scrap at a time.

Glaster, Perth and the guard stayed close to the large fire, feeding it wood, while consuming a great deal of warm food and drink moving only to rotate the kids. Then, without warning, Glaster took a hot mug of water and dumped it on Devkiln's feet. The liquid was not hot enough to scald, but it was close. However, since his feet were turning blue and losing feeling from the elements, the hot water felt way hotter. He screamed at the top of his lungs as the pain registered. Glaster didn't hesitate to do the same to the girl even as he spoke to the guard, "We will have to watch their feet carefully now. The water will cool quickly and will cause very fast frostbite. Perth, it is your task to keep warm water flowing over their feet. Prince Rylan, make sure he has plenty of warm water.

Glaster moved up to the girl, grabbed her jaw and squeezed hard, "You have quite the mouth on you, so you will be first.” He picked up one of the long sticks. "You know, getting thrashed when cold is much worse than when warm." He then brought the stick down across the backs of her legs. Because they had been smacked against rocks, they broke flesh and in a few places left bits of wood imbedded in the skin. This made them considerably worse than a blow from a riding crop or normal stick. After ten hard blows he rotated her and moved over to Devkiln, "Why is the Orc blade so important?"

"My blade..."

The words were followed by a scream as the stick left a strip across Devkiln's lower legs. After ten, Glaster moved back to the girl, "Do you know why the Orc blade, my Orc blade, has such importance?"

"It's... it's magic..."

"This I know, but it does not seem to be immured more than a moderate aura. What more can you tell me?”


Glaster shrugged and brought the stick down over front of the girl's legs ten times before sidestepping back over to Devkiln, "The Orc blade is not yours, it is now mine. Do not test my patience."

Devkiln eyed the stick with terror. His delay in responding cost him as the front of his legs became Glaster's target. Even though he tried to speak, it was too late. Glaster was no longer listening.

Glaster went back over to the girl, "The blade?"

"I don't know! I don't know! It's magic! It's all I know!"

"OK, fine. I will give you a pass on the blade for now. Let us move on to the reason you helped attack a child who did nothing to you. Why?"

"Because we were told to!"

"By who?"


Glaster shook his head, "Real answers only." He then left ten more angry welts over the back of the girl's upper legs before moving back to Devkiln, "The blade is mine. Get this into your skull, for you own what you have on, nothing more, and even the flesh covering your body is at my disposal, so do not trifle with me. Now, the Orc blade, what is so important about it?"

"Father gave it to me, told me never to let it leave my side... It isn't Orc, it is Orackan, the race that all Orcs and Illorcs came from! Please..."

"There is no begging. Only answers and retribution." Glaster broke the stick after the sixth blow and grabbed another to finish the ten strokes.

Back and forth he went for over an hour. The moment one balked, gave a half answer, or asked for any kind of mercy, ten more strikes were unleashed. Finally, with knowledge of the girl a being fledgling Dark Mystic being trained by Devkiln's father, Tregasel, out of a shop called Gloom Fire, he knew she had broken. He moved on to finding who else was behind the attack on Rylan and other Swordsmen trainees. After being told the names of the several people, including the magistrate, the lead instructor, and a score of others, he moved on. He focused in on what other students were behind other such attacks, what happened to them, and finally what students refused or gave pushback to those wishing to rid the Rolling Dale School of Arms of outsiders. This gave Glaster a list he could work with. He at least knew who to track down and eliminate, and who to find and give some kind of reward.

There were still many questions, and he was certain the two teens would have given the information if they had it. The fact the girl admitted to being a Dark Mystic apprentice and using Dark Mystic potions on kids inside the school, made the possibility she was holding back other key information remote at best. The same could be said for Devkiln, who admitted to everything from splintering the wood handles of practice weapons of kids to get them to quit the academy, to putting shards of glass in their food, to forcibly handing them to adults for pleasure toys. The problem was he needed more answers, the biggest being what the endgame was. Of this the pair knew nothing of value, and they had paid for their lack of knowledge with over a score of strips on their battered flesh. All this got him was information on some of the perks and gifts they had been given for forcing kids out of the school.

Finding the magical blade was actually an ancient Orackan weapon, and very important to Devkiln's father and Gambra, was interesting, but it didn't really answer any questions either. On the other hand, he was certain if either child knew more they would have talked. To this end, he gave both children a final set of blows, these to the back. The final strikes were even more vicious, being done with fresh sticks and delivered with a back pull as the stick hit, deeply embedding splinters of wood with each strike. The girl only got eight before the final stick broke. With an annoyed sounding snarl, he glanced over at Rylan, who looked all but green, "Do I forgo the last two on this one?"

Rylan's head bobbed up and down, even as he kept his hand on Perth's shoulder. The smaller boy had become physically ill within the first few minutes, forcing the guard to keep warm water flowing over the feet of the captives.

Glaster rolled his shoulders from the exertion and tossed the remainder of the stick into the fire. He then turned to the guard, "Cut them down, get them inside the camp, and close enough to a fire to get real warmth with a ground cloth. Also provide water. There is to be no healing and no food. They stay in chains, without clothing, and get no help to remove splinters. In the morning, scrub them hard with a course cloth. It will remove most of the surface level bits of wood and clean out the wounds. I do not want then getting infected, at least not yet. Also, we need them to live for now, so after they are washed, provide a single blanket to them as long as they hold tongues. Any complaints or even requests means we start this whole process over again just to make sure I have all the information I need from them."

He then focused on Rylan, "Do me a favor and get Perth calmed, washed and fed. If he will not eat, at least get him warm cider or something. I still have a young assassin with a poisoned blade to deal with. For this night, neither of you will have any further duties to me, so get some rest. I will share my bed with Chark'ash and he will serve me for the foreseeable future since I cannot allow the Alphar access to him. This will allow both you and Perth to recoup from the horrors you have swirling in your heads. However, in the morning I need both of you up and to not to eat until after I interrogate the other three. There is no reason for either of you to lose a good breakfast should I need to be anywhere near as persuasive as I was with Devkiln and the girl..." Glaster paused and frowned, "You know with everything I got her to tell me I never bothered to inquire as to her name..."

Rylan took a deep breath, "Famira... she poured something over my hand as they all ran away. It made it tighten up into a fist. It made it hard for Tazen to treat. The guard had to dunk my hand in cold water to wash it off and cool my hand, then he pulled my fingers open just so Tazen could bandage it."

"And you are sure you do not want me to get another stick for the final two strikes?"

"No... I want to... I do not even know... But no more, at least not tonight..."

Glaster gave the boy a squeeze, as if he had forgotten everything he had just done. With Rylan in his grasp, he pointed to the three chained to the rocky face of the ridgeline, "And the names and actions of those three?"

"Dorwald is the one with the reddish hair and Bavrim is the blond. They were both in my barracks room and got moved to Devkiln's after they helped to burn my hand. They held me while Devkiln kept his hand over mine on the hot hilt of the Orackan blade. The other I do not know the name of. He was not in the Swordsman school, but trained in weapons with us. Like many of the students from other Rolling Dale schools, he was allowed to participate in the school functions, much like Famira. There were several others who had full access to the Swordsman school events. I heard the names of many given to you by Devkiln and Famira as helping drum kids out of other schools within Rolling Dale. While neither said so, I am pretty sure those who got extra status within the Swordsman school did so by getting rid of refugee students."

"While I still cannot understand why they wished to do this, it stands to reason those who helped would be given extras as a way of showing their actions were supported by those in positions of authority within the Rolling Dale training schools." Glaster paused and pointed to the last boy in the line, "How about the darker-haired boy? You say he was not part of the school, but he was in line with other students. He must be a student in Rolling Dale, correct?"

"I am pretty sure the other one was in the Shaman school. He did not really help the others. Instead he stood back and kept watch. He warned them when the guard who stopped the attack came running, but only agreed to keep watch after Devkiln and Famira threatened him with a potion of some sort. I believe he is Bavrim's brother or cousin, because Bavrim's father, Gastrom, often picked up both to take for meals. Gastrom is a Teaching Echelon Animal Adept with a trio of Great Quilled Wolverines. I guess because the Swordsman school helped all the other schools get students familiar with weapons, some were allowed to attend Swordsman school events. As I just stated, however, those who were seen often are many of the same Devkiln and Famira gave you the names of. It sounds like they got extra status for helping rid Rolling Dale of refugee students."

"Oh, I can assure you they have extra status with me as well, and it is not a status they will ever wish to be associated with! Now, I gather this Gastrom is the same one the Dark Mystic apprentice said picked up those who dropped out of the schools?"

Rylan cringed as he realized the names spilled by Famira and Devkiln were now all targets of Glaster. There was no question scores of other kids were going end up in a similar circumstance as Devkiln and he was extremely glad he was not one of them. Unfortunately, he couldn't add much to Glaster's knowledge on Gastrom or those who rang the bell to signal their desire to quit the school. "Lord Glaster, I cannot say this with any certainty, but I only know of one Gastrom. I never saw what happened to those who rang the dismissal bell at the Rolling Dale School of Arms. All I can say is, they were escorted out by guards with nothing more than basic field packs and what they were wearing. I never saw any of them again. A couple were the only friends I made my entire time in Rolling Dale, though, so I would like to find out."

"Remember to just call me Commander. I am not a lord until I test and I really do not have any desire to get bumped up in the political nonsense of the guilds by becoming one. Being a Master is bad enough. Let tonight go and do not concern yourself with any of the five who tormented you. Tomorrow we will see what the others know and try to find out what happened to the missing students and in particular any you consider friends." He gave Rylan a gentle but firm push toward the main camp. "For now, get dry and find yourself and Perth a warm spot to rest."

Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris, Duke Axegrind, Hawkling Channeler, Kyltoss, Klorna, Morwar, Mokel, Princess Syrissia

Vondum entered the 'war room' within Bloody Rock with a frown. Seeing Duke Axegrind marking reports on a huge parchment map of the area in and around Bloody Rock and Slome he moved to take a closer look. He quickly noted the lines to the west had firmed up but as of yet, there wasn't any kind of a solid battle line in the deep swamp to the east. On the other hand, Black Rapids and Falcon Loft forces were starting to push down from the northwest, threatening to squeeze the large pocket of Green Dragons and cut their lines.

He looked over with a raised eyebrow and pointed to a pair of arrows coming from Falcon Loft, "Is this correct, Duke?"

"Yes. Falcon Loft has decided its mutual defense treaty with Black Rapids extends to this conflict... It is one of the reasons I have recalled you..."

Vondum cocked his head to the side, "While I may have intimate knowledge of Black Rapids, I have little to no knowledge of Falcon Loft, Duke Axegrind. The defense pact has been in place for centuries, possibly going all the way back to when both cities held out during the Mythling Wars... But not once has it been activated. What brings the Hawklings out of near total exile from the rest of the world?"

Klorna came from a back room being guarded by a pair of Garm Swordsmen. "A former Mythling did."

Vondum turned to look at Klorna with a deep frown, "What are you doing here? You were supposed to be headed up to Black Rapids with Kandric's brothers!"

Duke Axegrind moved between the two, "General Vondum, she has first hand reports, and her sighting, combined with protectors the Garm and Alphar put in place to keep an eye on Prince Darmoth and Prince Rathiter is the primary reason for your recall. It is also what has caused Falcon Loft to put its full weight into this war."

Vondum shook his head to clear it even as he looked back down at the map, "Are you saying this is not a Falcon Loft expeditionary force, but instead a major formation of Hawklings moving in from the northwest?"

A Hawkling wearing a royal crest of Falcon Loft on a leather vest with Silver Steel reinforcements came out from behind Klora. The platinum guild pins showed the Hawkling to be a Master Echelon Warrior Adept, Outdoorsman, and Channeler of Avgon. "More than a major formation, General Vondum. Those arrows you are looking at represent two full legions of our Warriors of Avgon and more are being mobilized. We gated as close as we could to here with two full battalions of Falcon Loft Guards as soon as we got confirmation."

"Confirmation? Confirmation of what?"

Both the Hawkling and Duke Axegrind looked over to Klorna.

With a deep breath Klorna, looked up at Vondum, "Frexla took Gablon, Rathiter, and Darmoth..." seeing a few Alphar and several Garm, including Duke Axegrind look at her with glares, she swallowed hard, "Sorry, make that Prince Rathiter and Prince Darmoth. Um... and Emroc too..."

"Frexla?" Vondum spit out with disbelief, "You mean one of her minions, entered our realm, actually became a solid form, and took Kandric's brothers?"

"No," an Alphar moved up from out of the back room to join Klorna, "she means exactly what she said, General. Frexla came and took them. It was not a minion, it was not one of her demon princes, it was the Bitch of Fire herself, fire whip and all. It was my duty to protect the princes, but there was nothing I could do. Frexla has them along with the caravan commander and one of the other young guards. She took them all."

"No... Are you saying we now have to contend with one of Demon Lords in the flesh?"

Duke Axegrind sighed, "So it seems."

Vondum's eyes darted around the room, looking for any hint this was all some kind of twisted joke. The problem was all eyes were looking at him for his response, and they all wore shocked and terrified looks. Vondum clenched his fists and he turned to focus on the Hawkling, "And this is why you are joining the fight?"

"Yes," the Hawkling stated emphatically. "For three reasons. First, the caravan was headed up the pass to Black Rapids. This means it was in Black Rapids’ territory and it was attacked in your... or their lands. By ages old agreement we must come to Black Rapids' aid. Second, we have divine knowledge of one of Frexla's demon princes having taken mortal form and then having been subsequently destroyed down in Rolling Dale, within the lands of King Wyhrem. We have a treaty with his kingdom as well; therefore, we have yet another requirement to join this fight. Finally, and by for the most troubling to all of us here, Avgon's last act before joining the other Mythlets in the final assault on the Mythling capitol was to lead his army, combined with Warvon and his forces, against Frexla's legions of Orackan to the north of Black Rapids and Falcon Loft. This huge battle lasted almost a week right at the edge of the Deathland Mountains. Avgon and Warvon's final victory over the Orackan prevented the fall of Falcon Loft and Black Rapids and all but wiped out the Orackan as a viable race. This forced them to seek out lower races and breed with them, giving us the Cavelings, Morg, Telfs and other cave dwelling monstrosities, while passing the Orackan banner to the Illorcs and Orcs. Frexla's return will mean she will almost certainly seek to extract revenge on both cities."

The Hawkling let this all sink in before adding, "Regardless of whether you know the history behind Black Rapids and Falcon Loft, Avgon's lead temple resides in Falcon Loft, much like Warvon's is in Black Rapids, because of this massive battle. The Great Orackan Slaughter is also why Falcon Loft and Black Rapids have the distinction and honor of being in a small handful of cities whose walls were never breached during the Mythling Wars. Since Frexla is back among the mortals, there is little doubt she will try to rally forces against both our cities. According to an Air Guardian who took over our lead priest and spoke to those of us in Avgon's temple, her anger is focused against the boy dragon slayer, Premier Kandric. It then went on to tell us our best hope was to support this child, so we are throwing the full weight of the Hawkling Empire into this. I am told Warvon's lead priest gave a similar message in his temple. Even now, from my understanding, a call has gone out to all Warvon temples for the Hunters of Warvon to assemble to fight Frexla's return."

Duke Axegrind turned to focus on Vondum, "As you can hear with your own ears, things have become a great deal more complicated, for like it or not, we now have the Demon Lords entering the fight, and Frexla seems to be focused on our Premier."

Vondum's eyebrows raised, "Does our Premier know his brothers have been taken?"

Axegrind shook his head. "Not yet. One of the reasons you are here is to help us decide who is going to tell him of this. More than a few believe you may well be the best one to do so."

Vondum stared at Axegrind with a noticeable cringe. "I hope you all realize he will put all else aside to find them and will try to confront Frexla over this, right?"

"Oh, come on. No one is going to challenge a major demon, let alone a Demon Lord!"

"If you believe this, then you do not really know Kandric. This will have to be handled with a great deal of care. It may be best to locate his instructor, Master Shaman Glaster. Maybe between the two of us and Duke Mathard..." Vondum's words trailed off. Instead of finishing the thought, he turned back to the Hawkling, "Surely the gods are not going to let a demon lord come into the mortal realm and take a mortal?"

"No, the gods will not sit idly by. They are mobilizing. However, things are far more tumultuous than simply Frexla entering our realm," the Hawkling held up his talon, so he could finish handing out the information he had been given by the Air Guardian. "Things are way more complex. For I might add, the battle is not just up here. Even as Falcon Loft forces cut into Black and Green Dragon lines up here, King Wyhrem is engaging with allies of Frexla down in Rolling Dale as well. With direct interventions from Frexla followed by those of Avgon and allied gods, other Demon Lords are sure to get involved shortly. Actually, the last piece of information I have been given, suggests Frexla was not the first to send a lead demon in to our mortal realm.

"For those of us who live up here only have to think back a scant few weeks to the storm we had roll across the Silver Spine Plateau. Those who were up here know we were first stunned by its power and even more astonished at how quickly if faded and lost punch. As we all suspected, this was not a normal storm. As it turns out, it was not even one guided by Syria or Inaxia. Instead it seems to have been directly created by Inaxia through her lead demoness, Cyronia."

One of the Alphar Ruinseekers spoke up, "As in the Mythling who froze the entire Highman Palace in the lands of Odin and killed almost all of Odin's lineage, Cyronia?"

"Your knowledge of history of the Mythling Wars is of great credit to you. Yes, the one and the same Cyronia. At the time of the storm up here, Inaxia and thus Cyronia seemed to be working for the Black Dragons, but what side of the now war between Bandurlok and Bassork, we do not yet know, may never know. But before you chew your nails to the bone hearing of Cyronia return to our realm, know she ran afoul of a power we have not yet been able to identify. For at some point during the storm, an unknown mortal took on and utterly destroyed Cyronia. How this is possible, I cannot even begin to fathom. Nonetheless, I can assure you it did indeed happen. This led to Inaxia's fall from her throne of ice and as of yet no demon has yet to claim it. The civil war within the demon realms of ice allowed Syria's minions to step in and unravel the storm with no interference. It is why the storm broke apart so quickly. But the reason behind this string of events is an unknown mortal who is owed direct favors by the gods for his or her actions."

Even as the Hawkling said this, Vondum's head fell into his hand as all the pieces fell into place.

All eyes turned to look at Vondum. When nothing was said, Duke Axegrind cleared his throat, "Something you have to add to this, General?"

Vondum's hand ran down his face, "Sure... What the hell, it is not like we all don't all but worship Kandric anyway..."

"Premier Kandric had something to do with this latest development?"

"Yeah..." Vondum tossed up his hands, "Who in the name of the nine hells do you all think killed Cyronia?"

Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Lacate, Zeltoss

Kandric got to the top of the steep hill and looked around. Between the darkness and the blowing snow, his vision, even his infravision, was limited. What little he could make out told him there was some kind of very cold clearing below, possibly a frozen-over lake, and more forest. On the plus side, there was a slight rocky drop off just below him which provided a natural spot where the wind would at least partially blow over the top of them. It also had much less snow, since the wind was blowing the vast majority over the secluded spot. With a deep breath, he pulled his sword and hopped down to check the rocky face. It was relatively smooth with no caves. While this was kind of disappointing, it also meant he didn't just jump into the mouth of a creature's den. With a shrug, he quickly resheathed his blade as he looked out over the forest and down the rocky hill.

It had been several fruitless hours of searching the deep woods since stumbling on Klent and his troop. During this time, the weather had gotten progressively worse, and their luck had been nil. The other problem was Lacate was really slowing them down. The boy had even less stamina than Zeltoss had before the Dragon deaths. It had gotten so bad, Seldnat finally had enough and grabbed the boy's pack so they could make better time and not have to stop every twenty minutes. Over the prior three plus hours Seldnat had been carrying two packs but they had only had to stop for two short breaks.

Watching Lacate battle with poor endurance to keep up even without a pack, really made Kandric wonder about Mystics. Did they spend too much time in their labs playing with strange concoctions and not enough building up their bodies? This was something Glaster would never let happen to a student. For to apprentice under Glaster meant equal time strengthening body as well as mind. Glaster had often told Kandric if one put too much emphasis on one aspect of training, there would be a weakness of the whole. To this end, wood cutting, swimming in the summer, tree climbing in the winter, and long hikes became the cornerstones of keeping him physically fit when not doing weapon practice. These periods of intense physical activity were used to counter the hours upon hours of study in learning how to properly speak, read, write, keep books, learn values of trade goods, and or course spell mastery.

The interesting part of seeing Lacate struggle more with each passing step was this happened to be the first time in Kandric's life where he really saw what happened when a person spent too little time on body. He noticed some of it in Zeltoss, but at the time he figured Zel was born a bit scrawny. Truth of the matter was, Zel's arms were pretty thin, and there was no question his friend would never be as strong as most. However, Zel knew he wasn't very physically fit and since joining Kandric was actively working on it. The other huge difference was Zeltoss forced himself to drive on and not complain... much. Yes, the deaths of the Dragons had helped, but Zel continued to push himself. The same could not be said about Lacate. The kid didn't even try to force more out of himself. Instead it was up to Kandric and those with him, to motivate with everything from taunts, to threats, to a couple of times Seldnat smacking him on the back of the head and once Pike poking him in the butt with a javelin.

Lacate was totally opposite of what Kandric had grown accustomed to. For, by far, the tendency of those striving to become guilded was to focus on muscles for fighting, and not enough on the mind. While this made a person fearsome in physical combat, it made them vulnerable to deceptions and feints in the mental area of combat.

Watching Lacate stumbling through snow only up to his ankles after a few kilometers, and progressively getting more exhausted with each step, had at first been humorous. The worse it got, the more the feelings changed to annoyance and even disgust. As it became all too apparent the pampered merchant child had no real inner drive, Seldnat, and then Pike, become increasingly frustrated. So, while Seldnat finally demanded the boy's pack, Pike shoved him back and told him to stay right behind him so he could walk in a blazed trail. This had helped, but even with all the assistance, an extra break had to be taken unless they were going to physically carry the whimpering brat. At least this time everyone needed to get some food, water, rest, and warm up and the site was a good one for a sheltered camp.

Kandric let out a light whistle to signal for the others to join him even as he moved further out to check the area. Once he was convinced they were alone and not in danger, he stayed on guard, but put his back to a large tree to block the blowing snow. Once he heard Lorthorn help to lower Lacate down, then jump down to join the others, Kandric spoke up, "This is about as sheltered and safe a spot as we are likely to find tonight, guys. We will set camp here. Let us get a small fire and break out some food. I will take first watch."

Even Seldnat, who was by far the strongest of the group, gave a fist pump before he found a spot between the ledge and a large rock. The Halforc quickly dropped both packs, then slid down while grabbing some dried meat out of his gear. As the others saw this, they gratefully did the same, putting their backs to the natural barrier between themselves and the driving snow. Lorthorn was the last to do so, since he moved over to Seldnat, grabbed Lacate's equipment and tossed it to the physically exhausted and shivering boy. "Now you can grab some food. We should be done for the night, so you shouldn't over exert and puke it up like you did earlier. But before you eat, clear the snow from under you and wrap yourself in your blanket."

Kandric looked back with a shake of his head, "Lacate, until you can start serving me as agreed, the duration of your servitude will not start. So, if you want it to start now, you can clear the ground for us and go gather some wood before you eat and rest. If not, say you understand and agree your time has yet to start. If you do agree to more time, you can rest."

Lacate blew on his fingers to warm them. "Please Kandric... I just need..."

"You need to be an indentured servant doing as you are told, or give yourself to me for more time. Otherwise you do not eat, for if you do not serve, there is no reason for me to feed you."

Lacate set out a slight sob, "How much more time?"

At this both Seldnat and Pike exchanged disgusted glances while Jamon stood, shook his head, and started clearing snow by grabbing a couple of branches, wrapping a piece of old cloth around each, stretching the sticks and fabric out with tied cross braced sticks and pushed what little snow was in the natural shelter out.

Off to the side, Zeltoss frowned deeply, but moved out of the shelter and started kicking at the ground. It didn't take him long to find enough dead wood to at least get a small fire going.

Kandric didn't even look at Lacate, knowing if he had said anything similar to Glaster after first taking the man up on the offer of work and servitude for training, the man would have smacked him with a switch and would not have stopped until the requested duty was done, then followed it up with other punishments. "Lacate, either get up and help or give yourself to me for another full moon!"

Lacate let out a short sob, "OK..."

"OK? OK what?" Kandric demanded while guessing with utter contempt what the boy really meant.

"You have me for an extra moon... Just let me rest and eat... please..."

While the others all looked at each other in near shock over this, Lorthorn pushed his Lava Hammer up to the small pile of wood and sent a slight jolt of his inner Force into the weapon. It glowed for an instant before the wood burst into flames. "Lacate, move close to the fire, strip down, and put on dry clothing out of your pack..."

"No," Kandric stated harshly.

"No? But, Kandric, he fell at least a dozen times and is soaked..."

"Oh, he can strip down, dry his wet clothing, and get warm, but there is no need for him to get dressed in anything. He will be sleeping with me tonight."

Lacate eyes went wide, "But..."

"You belong to me, Lacate. You just gave yourself to me for an extra moon in exchange for not setting the camp while getting some rest and food. You may rest and eat now and finish the night with me after my time on watch."

"You're not being fair!"

At this Pike stood, pulled one of his javelins, pointed at Lacate, and snarled, "Kid, if you ever said something so stupid around my father, or worse, around Duke Mathard, your butt would end up red and warmed enough to melt what little snow is in this shelter! You are an indentured servant, one step away from a slave! Actually, the first two moons you gave yourself over with slave rights, which means you are currently owned."

Pike's voice dripped with contempt as he shouted in Lacate's face, spraying it with some spittle, while putting the point of the javelin to the boy's throat, "Furthermore, once the indentured servitude starts, you have no rights other than base food and remittance of what was agreed to in the contract. You did a very poor job in this, since you did nothing to secure yourself to any rights not limited to, but including clothing, rest, and shelter. What Premier Kandric offered you was minimum indentured rights of a copper a week. In addition, he agreed to see you are fully taken care of for the duration, see you are trained, progress some in your Mystic field, and to heal you of the injuries you had sustained when we found you in chains. He gave you the healing, so you are now in your time as a slave. However, once you are done with this time as his property, all he has to do is take care of you, have you progress some, and end up getting trained. Progress some, and getting trained are by default one and the same. How he takes care of you was not spelled out. So, as long as our Premier does you no permanent, non-reversible bodily harm, you are alive and more trained than you are now at the end, and have a hundred and four copper coins in a pouch, plus some kind of lab equipment, he can do whatever he wants with and to you!"

"Right now, your failure to follow through with clearing the camp of snow and gathering wood could be seen as a contract breach, and Premier Kandric could legally enslave you permanently! Instead he let you bargain for an extra month of service to him in an exchange. He is giving you exactly what you asked for, rest and food, while having no camp set-up duties. He decides what you wear and when you wear it, not you, so if he decrees you are to remain without clothing, then you will do so until he changes his mind. You should consider yourself lucky he is allowing you a blanket, for the gear you couldn't even carry is not yours. It is his."


Pike grabbed Lacate's jaw and squeezed, "No? Did you not give yourself to him?"

The moment Lacate tried to grab at the hand on his face, Jamon moved up and grabbed both of the boy's hands. "You were handed to me to train, and I guess it starts now. You try to fight either of us and I will be forced to punch you or, if Kandric says it's ok, even whip you. And trust me, you don't want me to break out my whip. I was forced to get very good at it and I did so on a close family friend. You're neither family, close, nor friend."

Lacate found it painful to move his jaw, but seeing Jamon patting the whip at his side, his eyes went wide and he shook with fear. He also stopped trying to resist.

Pike's voice dripped with anger as he glared at Lacate, "Now, answer. Did you give yourself to Premier Kandric?"

Lacate tried to nod but couldn't, so he managed to get out an, "Uh, huh."

"Then by default what you have belongs to our Premier as well," Pike stated coldly. "You should know, you are very lucky he is giving you anything. Many of the slaves and long time indentured servants in the Garm and Alphar lands don't get much, if any, clothing. It is considered a waste of money to clothe someone who is nothing more than property. In my household, we have two slaves. Both wear waist cloths outside and nothing inside except at meals. They wear a long shirt when eating at any table. We also have a slave footlocker for extras when it is very cold. At those times, they are given coat, boots or whatever is needed while doing work outside so they are not damaged by Syria. What we have tonight is not very cold, at least not to those of us from the area of Winter Creek, so the fire and possibly a long shirt would be all our slaves would get in this kind of weather.

"None of this really mattes to you, I know. It should, however, give you an idea of the kindness of your current master. Right now, you need to concern yourself with your future. Our Premier is taking first watch, which is your rest time. Once his shift is done, so is your rest. Thus your duties resume. Tonight those duties include but may not be limited to, sleeping with him. It matters to none of us, including you, why. Whether he is doing this for his enjoyment, your warmth, or both is up to him and him alone and you have no say in the matter. Just understand, you will do what he wants no matter what it is. For remember he fell multiple Dragons. You are barely a trainable Human..." Pike stopped and looked back over at Jamon, "No insult intended, my new friend."

Jamon smiled, "I'm above barely trainable, so you're fine."

At this Seldnat, Lorthorn, and Zeltoss all snickered and nodded.

Pike still reached out and patted Jamon on the shoulder before refocusing on Lacate, "As I was saying, our Premier killed Dragons, so you really do not want to find out what he can do to the likes of you. Also, in case you have not yet taken note, all of us fully support Premier Kandric and will do to you whatever he decrees, even if it is me holding you while Jamon demonstrates to us how good he is with his whip. If he happens to slip and nick me, all I can say is I have felt worse. Regardless, everyone in this camp will make you do exactly what Premier Kandric wants you to do without any question, feelings of guilt, or remorse for you. Therefore, you will sleep with... or maybe not sleep, but still share our Premier's bed tonight and whatever else he demands of you going forward."

"Thank you Pike," Kandric responded. "I am mostly concerned with warmth tonight... Mostly..."

Kandric turned to look at the entire group still sporting a smirk on his face, knowing the look would eat at Lacate and cause him extra dread. To this end, he spoke to Jamon, "Make sure he is clean. You know I do not want may bed soiled by the unclean body of another. I would also like for you to show him how to properly warm water to wash me. I am sure this is a duty you will only be too happy to teach him properly, so you do not have to do so much longer."

Jamon had to fight hard to not let out a sigh of relief. "I will make sure of it."

Kandric again sent a smirk at Lacate before glancing around at all the others, "While this is nothing more than a suggestion, I feel it would be in the better interest of all of you to bed with someone else. For there is nothing in this storm telling my Outdoorsman side it wants to let go and Syria's spirits are telling me to expect more of what we are dealing with through at least this time tomorrow. While it is not bitterly cold, the snow is wet, heavy and it will not warm enough tomorrow to do more than melt a little, which will only make it wetter and heavier to trudge through. Also, with leaves just starting to fan out on the trees, the weight of the snow is greater on them now than during the dead of winter. We can expect broken branches and even fallen trees to happen as well. All of us will have to keep our eyes open for dangers above and buried hazards on the ground as we press on. If you thought this evening was bad travel, tomorrow will be much worse. This means we all need as much rest as possible and getting sleep while warm is much easier than when cold."

Zeltoss moved to gaze down the rocky slope, "At least we have food, water, and a fire. What about the scattered students from Slome?"

"We will do them no good if we are tired and miss picking up on signs of them, or worse, getting ourselves hurt from pressing on too hard," Pike answered. "Even on a ship in a gale-tossed sea for days, crews have to be given breaks from patching cracked hulls and bailing water. A rotation must be made, giving everyone a chance to rest. A captain who pushes too hard will lose crew, and a short-handed ship is in as much or even greater danger than one where not everyone is fixing storm damage and tossing water over the side."

Kandric noticeably shivered, "While I thank you for a good answer, Pike, you could have found another... any other... example. For if there is one thing in this world I do not want to face, you just told us what it is. I am even happier I have Lacate in my bed tonight, for even hearing about a storm-tossed ship will give me nightmares!"

"Sorry, Premier," Pike gulped. "I am a Sailor. It is what I know and have been through."

Lorthorn couldn't help but giggle, "Don't worry, Pike. He isn't mad at you. But honestly, I can't help myself! Here we are with a kid who by his own hand is a powerful lord controlling a massive army, all but owns a city and the lands around it, and when he sees Dragons only wants to kill or make friends with them! Yet, he has nightmares over a ship on a stormy sea. Does anyone else see this as, like, totally backwards?"

While Kandric's face flushed with some embarrassment, everyone, even Lacate, cracked a smile and nodded.

Yarnay (9yo Druid Gem Channel: Tallis- Klandon's WB), Sibler (9yo Mystic Sailor-Lylan's WB), Kaznal (9yo War Adpt Outdoors Channel: Avgon Mylan's WB), Tazen (14yo Swordsman Health), Dario (13 yo War Adpt Leather Gem), Alkoris (13 HAE Halfelf War Adpt Lock Outdoors), Tyndall (15 yo Mage, Outdoors, Woodworker)

Tazen woke to the sounds of muttering. Even as he blinked and tried to wake himself up fully, his hand found the pummel of the magical short sword and drew it just enough to provide a light amber glow from around the hilt.

Only a couple of meters away Dario glanced back from edge of the small branch leading off the main sewer system. "Relax, Taz, it's jus' one a them little guys talkin' in his sleep. It started 'bout an hour ago, but was real soft. He just started ta get a little louder."

"Well, if it is loud enough to wake me up, it could be heard by others..." Tazen responded as he moved at a crouch down the offshoot passage they had found a few hours prior. Once he got to Dario, who was hanging back just far enough to not be seen by heat vision if someone looked down the main sewer passage, he edged by. He then stayed at where the offshoot intersected with the main sewer just long enough to look and listen both directions then backed off and knelt next to his friend "Anything?"

"Other than a few rats and a couple of the biggest bugs I've ever seen, naw. Right after ya finally crashed, I think me heard a scream, but it was hard ta be sure and it was kind-a... ah... echoy sound. So it could-a been somethin' else. You can sheath the blade, there is still some flickering comin' from a fire from around the grate just down the way." Dario pointed, "Once yer eyes adjust you'll be able to see enough to make out shapes and outlines."

Tazen dropped the blade fully back into its sheath, "What about the kid with the book I took down before I found you?"

"A few moans; nothing more. You must-a hit him real hard."

"I did, twice. But he has a book. Well, I have it, but I took it off him, so he must be a spell-tosser. You ever see him before?"

"Naw, but I bet he's older than us. He's not much bigger than we is, but he has real hair startin' to grow on his upper lip, so he's got to be older than me, probably older than you. No guild pins on him?"

"I didn't find any and I checked him pretty careful like. All I found was the book pouch, street blade, and sling. He didn't even have a coin pouch or travel pack. He must live in the city."

Dario shrugged, "Well, if he spent any time practicing weapon skills at the school, it was probably with those about to reach ascension age. He didn't have no animals, did he?"

"Nope, and neither did the woman he was with. I grabbed what is left of her book after it fell apart. Turned out to be thirty-eight pages, but six are messed up."

"They still might be worth some coin, Taz."

"Oh, I kept them, but this is the first time I have actually seen a spell book die with its caster, so while I know what we were taught about how some of the pages would be damaged and others might crumble, I was never able to really picture it. It's kind of creepy. There were nine other pages that just fell apart in my hands when I tried to grab them, so she had huge spell book."

"Not as many as Master Kormundle has..."

At this Tazen snickered lightly, "I bet the whole reason the Master of the Mage school walks over with a hunched back is how big of a book he carries! He must have way over two hundred pages in that beast!"

Dario nodded, "The book and all the magic junk he carries must weigh more than the gear we carry, fer sure! But I'd sure never want to find out what he can do with all those pages. He's the only one I ever saw my Warrior Adept teachers really scared of."

"Which is kind of funny, cause I have never seen him cast more than an Autospell."

"Me neither, but he has a few I'd like ta learn. I watched him clean one a his student's cloaks with a spell. Me thought it was a real one and asked, but was told by the girl it was just a Cleanse Autospell. Many a us also saw him point at a Swordsman kid in one of the lower classes who was picking on one of his students. A second later the kid sneezed and blasted all sorts of snot out-a his nose."

Further back in the small offshoot, passage Yarnay stood and moved up to the older boys, "I heard you talking. The spell is a learned Autospell called a Booger Burst. I can show you..."

Dario waved his hands back and forth, "No, no thanks... I saw what it did to the kid."

"But I could teach it to you."

"Not quite able ta do the learned Autospells yet, kid. I'm a Warrior Adept, so I needs ta get to Primary to be able to do the bigger Autospells. I'm close, but prob not for 'nother six moons er so before I can put on Primary guild pins and start learnin' the better Autospells." Dario then pointed to the sleeping form of Alkoris, "When he wakes up you can teach him some. He ain't passed Primary yet, but he can cast the learned Autospells. He knows three er four of em, so he's Primary fer sure."

Seeing Yarnay shrug and wipe at his eyes, Tazen grinned even as he reached out and patted Yarnay, "I can't cast nothing, but I'd like to see your Booger Burst one of these days. But shouldn't you be sleeping?"

"I cannot. I keep having really weird dreams."

"The spell our commander cast was nasty, huh?"

"Yes, but the dreams are not about the spell or even all the dead we saw when we helped you get all the stuff off the dead... Um, I am a Tallis Channeler Adept... I know we needed the packs and weapons... um, but I do not know if we should have taken their clothing..."

Dario looked over, even as Tazen pulled the smaller boy down in front of him and wrapped his arms around him, "Kid, Tallis is about life, and we needed the armor and junk off em ta live. Me can't see yer goddess givin' us no grief over what we done. We left em decent fer their meeting with Brandal, or whatever god er demon will take em into the next realm."

Feeling Yarnay slouch into him, Tazen lightly stroked the boy's hair, "Dario's right, Yarnay. We needed the armor, the cloaks, the coats, all of it. You all didn't really think out what you were doing when you pretended to be the others. You should have at least taken your gear and some food. But, Dario's right. We didn't strip them down all the way like those looters were doing. We left them with loincloths and undershirts. It is enough respect for the dead. Now if we was in your palace or wherever you live, then leaving them with more is totally the right thing to do. But you have to understand, in battle, pillaging of the dead, taking their gear and armor is totally acceptable. I can't see Tallis or any other god saying it isn't. We all fought the battle in front of the Green Goblin and we won, so those spoils were ours to take."

Dario pointed back down the tunnel to the tied-up kid, "Just look at what Taz did fer the kid who tried ta take you all. He didn't kill him, none. He even wrapped up his head. You need ta look at what Tallis likes, not what she might not."

"But Tazen killed the woman with the young man by stabbing her in the back, then slicing her throat..."

"Because she was trying to take you, and she had a big spell book," Tazen reminded Yarnay. "I really didn't think I'd be able to take her down head-on, so I took her out the easiest and safest way I could. She didn't suffer none, either. I cut her throat clean and fast after sticking my dagger in her kidney. There's a lot a people who would a left her there bleeding out, or made her talk, give her spells up, and made her talk about her ring too."

"What ring?" Dario all but demanded to know.

“I also grabbed this ring off of her." Tazen reached into his pouch and tossed over a large and well-crafted silver ring with a large chunk of Amber for a stone.

Dario pulled up the Dagger of Light and slightly twisted the handle so he could get just enough light to see it. The first thing he was struck by was in the middle of the smooth orangish-gold stone was a huge spider. While it was somewhat distorted by the amber around it, the spider appeared to have mostly a black body with a bluish tinge on the legs and an enormous red head with huge fangs. "Aw, man, how wicked!"

"Yeah, but be careful and don't put it on. It has some weird marking inside the band and those three tiny bits of light blue gemstone on the back glimmer, but just barely. It has to be pretty much totally dark to see."

Dario looked at the inside of the ring band then covered up his head with his hooded cloak so he could see the minute shine. He handed it back with a shake of his head, "Magic for sure, but it's super wicked lookin'. Maybe the kid ya took down will know what it does."

"Maybe, but I don't know if I'll trust him even if he tells me. He and the woman this came off of was trying to take the three little kids with me."

"Good point, and one thing we's all been told like a thousand times is ta never use nothin' magic till you know what it does, how to get it workin', and how to make it stop doin' whatever it does."

Tazen took the ring back from Dario and slipped it back into his pouch, "I'm awake now. You may as well go crash for a bit."

Dario looked down the small sewer tunnel, "With all the talkin' the little guy is doin'? Not like I'll be gettin a wink with all his yappin'."

"Just think of it as snoring in the barracks."

"Snornin' I can deals with, talkin'... naw. Reminds me a all them homesick kids when me first came ta the school almost fiver summers back."

"Oh, come on you were one of em! Don't forget I was assigned to yer barracks as your intro student."

"Yeah, and you were a mean bastard too!"

"Got extra points and lessons for every one of you I made cry during intro moon. It's what got me bumped up to a bronze chain shirt and a Dwarven Steel primary weapon. But I remember you cryin' and don't say you didn't!”

"Oh, I did, but not cause I was homesick 'er nothin'! My old man lost his shop and almost sold me and my sister ta pay off Master Treg. I just got lucky I had me a Teacher and had new Trainin' guild pins. The city paid Master Treg for me and stuck me in the school. I'm indentured ta be garrison fer six summers after me gets my Primary pins. Not sure how, now, though."

Yarnay spoke up, "If you get us out of the city and back to our commander, I will make sure your servitude is removed."

Dario cocked his head to the side, "Um, kid not sayin' yer not lyin' er nothin', but them papers me had to sign with me old Teacher, was done in the city keep. It be signed by the earl who paid off Master Treg with a big ass pouch a coin and signed over me sister to Treg to take away the rest of me father's debt. Now, I willin' ta bet you know an earl is big noble-type, but ya gots to understands Master Treg is one a the highest and most feared men in Rolling Dale, if not the whole stupid Barony. Ain't no one gettin' me out a that contract, and I ain't wantin' ta break it and be handed over to Master Treg... We all pretty much know him be a Dark Mystic... No, no way I'm goin' ta break contract and be handed ta Master Treg as no slave!"

Tazen put a finger up to Yarnay's lips, to prevent the boy from saying too much. He then shot a smirk over to Dario, "Dar, if there is anyone, anywhere, who could care less who or what signed the contract with you, it would be my commander. But, even he ain't rat piss compared to the father of the boy Yarnay is indentured to. You help me get Yarnay, Kaznal and Sibler safely out of here, I'm telling you what Yarnay just told you is true, more than true, it is guaranteed."

Dario let out a long breath as he stared at Tazen, "You sure 'bout this?"

"Oh, yeah, more than sure."

Dario chewed on his lip for a few seconds, "OK, fine, I'll try ta help, but we's nothin' more than two Primaries, me a high Trainin' and these three who be at best step 2 Trainees?"

Suddenly Kaznal, who had been the one talking in his sleep sat up. As he did, he turned his head in an impossible way, to where it was looking at them, even though his back was to them and focused on Dario, "Oh, young Warrior, ye of little faith..."

Dario and Tazen started to draw weapons, only to have Yarnay suddenly become extremely strong and fast. The younger boy's hands slashed out knocking both older boys’ hands off weapons while he spoke in a female voice, "Stay your hands boys, and listen. There is a battle you are now part of, willing or unwilling, and it is being joined. Frexla has broken the Oath of the Immortals and has entered your realm. This has unfettered the hands of the gods and you are with two of our masters' Channeler apprentices."

Both Tazen and Dario tried to break the sudden holds on their wrists, but it was like trying to pry off steel shackles. The small boy's handholds were unbreakable.

Down the passage Kaznal stood, but it was by no means a normal way to do so. He literally floated off the ground, spun in mid-air and glided close to the near panicked teens, while his head returned to a normal position, "Calm ye racing hearts boys; let this message be heard. You are guardians of one of my Adepts, and the call is going out for all Warriors of Avgon! Because you guard this young form, the calls goes forth to you as well. Join the growing fight, now! For what the rupture point can take, it can also give. Focus on it, feed on it, and find the inner power within and feel it harden!"

Yarnay, still with a female voice, and now brightly glowing, golden eyes, took over, "Yes! Feel the power of Tallis reach in and help you feed off the point of rupture. Allow Tallis to remold your inner spark! Rise up, defend my mistress' apprentice, spread the word, the chains holding back the gods have been unshackled. Frexla and Ixania must pay for their encroachments into the land of mortals. Let your hands help in this task!"

Without warning, the eyes of both younger boys flared and a powerful wave of magic burst outward, illuminating the entire sewer for dozens of meters. Cockroaches and other bugs were violently tossed back well away from the entire group while rats and mice let out what sounded to be terrified squeaks and scurried away. A moment later all was calm, save for Yarnay having fallen sound asleep on Tazen and Kaznal standing in the passage wobbling.

It took some effort for Dario to break Yarnay's handhold on his wrist, but he did so, jumped up and moved over to Kaznal, catching the boy before he crumpled into the ground. "Taz, what in the..."

Off to the side Alkoris sat up, "Wow! I suddenly feel really good! What did you do Tazen?”

Directly across from Alkoris, Sibler blinked, "Is it sunup already? My Force just refreshed like I am super full or something..."

The teen captive also rolled over, "What happened... where am I? Why am I tied up?"

Tazen kept a firm hold on Yarnay, with the hand still clenched in Yarnay's grasp. He blinked out some spots in his eyes, while rubbing his other hand down his face, "Oh, man, what a... I feel all tingly and... I... Oh, geesh! I think I just became Secondary!"

Dario carefully lowered Kaznal to the ground while taking a knee, "If I'm not Primary, I'll eat the bronze chain I'm wearing! What just happened?"

Kaznal's eyes fluttered for a second before popping open, "An Avgon Gust Spirit just happened."

In Tazen's lap, Yarnay finally let go of the teen's wrist as he spoke, "And a Tallis Breath Spirit as well. I feel really dizzy."

A strange breeze blew through the normally stagnate sewer tunnel bringing with it a whispering voice, "Take a few hours to adjust to the added lifesparks you have been given, but do not linger. Join the fight, while staying well clear of where the magical barriers between realms has ripped. Even now, agents of Lormantia, with the aid of Kryplok, are gaining a strong foothold. Find your way out of this village and let others know what is happening within these walls. If ye need help to find escape, seek out the brothers of Premier Kandric, for they can render aid."

Dario looked around, "Who?"

Tazen responded, "A student of my commander, Dar. But I have no idea where they are, who they are, or how to find them. All I do know is I suddenly feel great and as soon as Kaznal and Yarnay are up to it, we need to see what is going on, then get out of here so we can get my commander a report... Um, unless you want to tell whatever just did all this no?"

"Uh, uh!" Dario stated. "First off I don't want ta have what just happened taken back none, and second, the little guy damn near broke my arm. I ain't about to do nothing ta bring back whatever took him over and have it be mad at me!"

Conner, Sharris, Nake (HE 14), Tobash (HE 15) Zestolg, Ambrasia, Sarryel, Pontarious, Frenna, Dostem, Other Thunder Rapids Crew + {Gilew Human HE 12, Munder Sil-Drgling HE 11, Quelrik Human HE 10, Vaskar Human HE 14, Gil-Drak Wolfling HE 13}, Gagan

Conner verified the upper levels of the inn were secure before he made his way down the stairs. He let out humor-filled snort at seeing half a dozen men and women of the Thunder Rapids all basically blocking anything past the entryway, while eyeing the five youths from Anarton's farm. With a shake of his head he pushed his way past Ambrasia and moved up to Gilew. He didn't hesitate to wrap his arm around the slightly younger boy, "Great to see you! How many are in the city?"

Gilew returned the hug, "Almost everyone, there is just a handful back at the base. Our lord made most of us break into five man teams. Each team had to infiltrate on their own."

Conner quickly moved to the others giving each a hug, saving Vaskar for the last. He pulled the older boy tight while whispering, "You should have enough control to not have to take a knee to let the gifting go, my friend."

The teen nodded as Conner took a step back, "I tried, but the magic flow..."

"Don't let the twists and turns of the magic confuse you, Vaskar. This is no different than when I worked with you on the Isle of Cyclopes the last time, right by one of the rupture points."

Quelrik, the youngest of the students in the group shuddered, "I was Mundane for three days after I cast there the first time, and a day and a half the second time!"

Conner reached over and ruffled Quelrik's mop of brown hair, "You were warned by both our lord and me, you were too young, didn't know enough about your own magic, and had too much natural talent to try. It is pretty much the same here, but what we have here is a new rupture. This mean all spells have to be cast with concentration and focus in mind, not speed and power. Don't let your spells get out of control and if we find out where the rupture point is, stay away."

Gilew responded, "It's not far from the eastern wall in a merchant area. We felt it as we went by. I have warned them all, and we are not going anywhere close."

"Good, and good to know. So you got in on the east side?"

"Not far from the Eastern wall," Gil-Drak snorted. "Someone made a mess of one of the merchant gates. Looks like it got hit with a siege weapon, er something. Anyway, the guards were forcing a whole bunch of peasants to wall up the damage. We walked up, grabbed some of the rubble and handed it to the masons, then went right on in. The guards figured we were getting more rock, so they didn't even look. Once out of sight, we slipped into an alley. One guard came looking, and Mundar ripped his throat out and we buried him in some trash. It was stupid easy."

"While all the yappin' be interestin' and all," the voice of Gagan came from the back of the inn, "how about's ya all make small talk later! We've got movement below!"

Conner glanced over to Dostem, "Take the others back up top in case this is a secondary feint..."

Gilew shook his head, "No, we heard them talking, the main attack is going to be from under."

"It's Gambra's people we are talking about, Gil. It would not be above them to lie to underlings to further enhance the main thrust of the attack."

"I know... But, the Halforc was supposed to break in the back door as secondary diversion. He was a Teaching Echelon Mystic and both Halflings were Secondary Echelon Warrior Adept Lockmasters with poisoned blades. It took Mundar breathing on them for us to be able to take them so easy."

"Good to know, but we still need to be careful," Conner warned. "Frenna, Tobash, Zestolg, go with Dostem. Keep the other guards upstairs on their toes." He then shot his fellow Wraith Sect Warriors a smirk, "How about joining the welcoming committee for the sewer rat infestation?"

Quelrik adjusted his Eagle Sect Warrior wristbands, "Sounds like fun."

Gilew nudged Quelric, "This is why I took you so early in the team picks."

Conner looked over as he made his way to the room with the cellar door, "You picked your teams?"

"Our lord kept some of the lower Secondary Echelons back, and assigned them to us, so I have Gil-Drak by assignment, but for the others we took turns, each turn was done with alternating who picked first."

"And you took Quel early?"

"Second pick, after Mundar. Everyone was wondering why I took him when there were several higher ranked and older kids still available..."

"By order of the picks I knew I would be one of the first two for the last pick, so I knew I wouldn't have to select Relicam or Sardor, but by taking a Primary step 1 and a Primary step 2 for my first two picks, I guessed right about being given first selection for the final round. Since Vaskar was still there, he was an easy pick. I have the youngest Human Equivalent team, but..."

"No need to defend your choices. You selected a very good team, and getting Gil-Drak for your number two is a huge bonus..." Conner paused as he saw four of the crew standing well back while Sharris' father, Kansnor held up a shield. At the same time, one of the young Mystics held onto the loop of the trap door, ready to pull it up. In Pontarious' hands were two of the metal balls he had the Metal Workers make. Both had a piece of twisted cloth poking up out of the small hole.

Pontarious looked over with an evil looking grin, "Oh, well, I have been wanting to meet some of Conner's friends. Welcome, boys."

All five of Lord Anarton's students stopped and cocked their heads to one degree or the other at seeing such an odd sight. Gil-Drak was first to speak, "Um, sir, are you just going to let them come into the basement?"

"Indeed I am."

"But we could stop them down in the sewers, and they would never get into the inn!"

"Oh, young man, they will not be getting into the inn. The cellar, sure, the inn... Not a chance!"

Gilew moved closer and looked down at the cellar door, "But they'll send up pawns in waves. We will be hard pressed to hold them all back. Then they will send in the bigger and better ones..."

"Son," Pontarious stated with a confident grin, "we will not be seeing their first wave, or even their second."

Quelrik glanced over at Conner who only shrugged, but didn't look even slightly concerned, then moved forward as well. “There are fifteen of us... We can hold the stairs or ladder for quite a while, but..."

Before more could be said, the sounds of the lower secret trap door shattering could be heard. Quelrik's eyes went wide and he started to take a step back, only to have Pontarious grab his shoulder, "Young one, you wouldn't happen to know the Spark Autospell, by chance? I have used up a great deal of Force making potions and other concoctions this eve."

The ten-year-old looked at the kind-looking man staring at him with some befuddlement, "Um, yes, sir..."

"Good!" Pontarious praised while gently giving the boy a reassuring squeeze, "Then how about you do me a favor and put a spark right on the end of this for me?" With a free finger on his right hand, he pointed to the twisted cloth coming out of the large metal ball in his left hand.

"Um, sure..." Quelrik pointed his finger and sent out a Spark Autospell while nervously glancing down at the cellar door. The sounds of people below became louder, even as the end of the cloth took the spark and started to sizzle. It then burned downward with a cracking-popping sound.

"Very nice. Now take a step back, son."

Pontarious eyed the cloth closely for another couple of seconds, then nodded at Mystic girl. The girl yanked back the door while Kansnor moved up with his shield. He slammed the first person at the top of the steps in the face, knocking the man back into the others trying to climb up behind him, then held the shield to block a trio of crossbow bolts and two potions.

At the same time Pontarious dropped the ball down into the cellar while giving a nod to the Mystic girl.

The girl quickly slammed the door down with everything she had, catching four fingers of a hand that was trying to pull himself up. Even as this left four severed fingertips on the ground floor of the inn, Pontarious spun, grabbed Quelrik, wrapped the boy in a hug while flipping his robe around both him and the boy while taking a knee.

A moment later a tremendous glass and wood shattering blast erupted from the cellar, violently flipping the door up and open, and sending a massive cloud of smoke and debris up from below. Pontarious let the rain of bits of cloth, parts of weapons, body parts, and blood fall back to the floor while he wiggled a finger from his free hand in his ear, "Oh, I think I made these a bit too hot! Oh, well..." He stood, pulling up Quelrik as he did so, then held out his other hand with the second metal ball, "Another spark if you would, dear boy?"

The boy was too astonished to do anything other than comply. A moment later the cloth poking out of the top of the second ball started hissing and popping. Pontarious waited a couple of seconds before dropping it down into the cellar, then used his foot to close what was left of the door. He once again flipped his cloak around Quelrik, but this time he moved a few steps further away from the passage leading down before taking a knee, protectively pulling the boy down with him.

Everyone else in the room had seen enough. To a person they all scrambled away from the cellar door, knelt down and put hands and arms over themselves, while whose with shields crouched with shields up. Three seconds later there was a second thunderous roar. This time the trap door in the floor ripped off its hinges and embedded into the ceiling, while the whole building seemed to shake. A few seconds later all was quiet, save for everyone's ears ringing and several people coughing.

Pontarious was the first to stand, pulling Quelrik up as he did so. He kept one arm protectively around the totally shocked and stunned child. He made his way into the other room, grabbed two more metal balls and moved back to the hole in the floor. From below there was sounds of someone whimpering and a couple others moaning, but nothing more. With a shrug, he put the two balls down on a badly blood splattered counter and ruffled Quelrik's hair. "Thank you, son. You did great."

Pontarious then glanced over at an awestruck Gilew with a totally satisfied smile, "See, son, pawn problem solved! So much for wave one and two..." He glanced back at the steps going down, "And probably three."

Spotting Conner staring at him with his jaw hanging down, he shot the boy a smirk, "I did mention a really good Mystic can learn how to use something called Blast Powder, did I not?"

Conner let out a 'pfft' sound and shook his head. Before more could be said, two more rustling sounds could be heard coming from below. Only this time it was hisses and a hauntingly hollow sounding voice saying, "Feed on the dead later my pets There is living above!"

"Undead!" Gilew snarled as he moved forward, "Quel, get behind us!"

Pontarious frowned deeply even as he slid around the corner.

A few moments later the head of a humanoid creature with grayish-green skin, a blackened forked tongue, yellow eyes, and a few matted clumps a hair still attached to it head appeared. Gil-Drak extended his paw-like hand, while making an twirling motion with his pinky and thumb. An instant later a golden-green ray shot out, hit the vile looking creature and caused it to scream with a hiss, even as it put up its clawed hands to its melting face and fell back down the steps. "Ghouls, and they are not new! Back off unless you have magic or silver weapons!"

Well back from Conner, Gil-Drak and Gilew, Pontarious moved back up to a clearly fearful Quelrik and held up another large ball, only this was forged out of silver, "My boy, another spark if you would?"

Quelrik nodded with a quivering lip, stuck out his finger and lit the cloth.

Pontarious moved forward, "Boys, back off."

Gilew looked over his shoulder, "You need silver!"

"One melted candle holder incoming!"

"Oh, for the love of the gods..." Gagan snarled, "Just make sure you hit the hole!"

"Hey, I haven't had any for a while, but my aim is still pretty good!" Pontarious fired back as he lobbed the large silver ball. True to his words his aim was fine. It dropped down the square hole in the floor, even as everyone in the room scattered to find some cover. A few seconds later the building shook yet again, followed by an unearthly scream and dozens of hate-filled hisses.

As the latest round of smoke and dust cleared and partially see-through cloaked creature floated up out of the cellar with dozens of holes in its form, "You..." it weakly spoke with a hollow sounding voice... "you destroyed my entire horde..."

Right behind the horribly wounded entity, a female Gnome staggered up the steps. She wore a dark purple cloak with Master Echelon Mage pins. She glared at Pontarious who eyed the undead floating creature with utter distain. "How dare you wear the cloak of Master Tregasel! I will transform you into..."

Conner's eyes narrowed as he recognized Gambra's second in command, "Master Ta-tara, you have come to the wrong inn and you will do nothing to anyone in it!"

"Conner... Oh, how Gambra will reward me for falling you!" The Gnome spoke in utter delight. She looked over at the floating form, "Wegalem, take the child before you and I will release what Life spark I hold of yours!"

As the floating figure moved right at Conner, Gilew spoke with terror in his voice from behind Pontarious, "Conner, that is a wraith! Back off before it drains...."

Conner stepped up, pushing Pontarious back as the words of the priestess suddenly returned to him, ‘You have tasted the powers of death, but this is not enough to join the coming battle, you must go further, stop playing with it. Instead, embrace it and learn to exhaust it in single bursts. The effect will be the same for you will not wake the dead, but you will find the power generated by such releases devastating to even the most terrifying of foes.

Without warning, and much to the bewilderment and astonishment of the badly wounded wraith, Conner plunged his hand into the center mass of the undead creature. He cringed at the foul taste that suddenly entered his mouth, but focused on the wraith's link to not life, but the power of death within. He pulled his hand back, revealing a bubbling dark mass. Everyone within the inn could feel the hate dripping off the glob even as the wraith let out pitiful howl of total anguish.

The wraith lost its incorporeal form and fell to the floor with a thud. Moments later the body of a Human man, with a hole where his heart should have been reached out toward the mass in Conner's hand as if trying to take it back.

Conner ignored this. Instead he focused and the totally confused Gnome Dark Wraith Mage, "Ta-Tara, you know how to take life, but there is a lesson you did not get. When you don't release the death gifting, part of your life spark is required to keep the link open. But death festers on it. However, this is yours, so by all means, take it back!"

Conner then raised his hand and blew the nasty pulsing black blob in Ta-Tara's direction.

While she had no real understanding of what was going on, she was terrified, for Conner had just done something she didn't think possible. To this end she stuck her arm up to block the shifting, pulsating mass, but as soon it hit her, it attached like a living leach.

She screamed in both horror and terrible pain, as the sickening hunk of undead first took a massive bite, then spread out, first covering her hand like a light sucking skin. It then moved down the arm, onto the chest and continued to spread out over her abdomen, lower body, other arm, then moved up her neck. With each passing moment, her screams became more shrill as agony and anguish was heaped on top of one another in ever increasing amounts.

Conner moved forward and stared at her with zero remorse, "What? You don't like what all those you have stolen and kept the life gift of are doing to you? Did you ever wonder what happened to the bits and pieces of life you ripped out of living things with your dark spells went?

"Well, let me explain so you will understand this is not about me, it is about all those you have so permanently wronged. This is justice for them. And, yes, I will get a massive amount of fulfillment out of what is being done to you and even some pleasure at knowing your fate, still this is not about me."

"What! What have you done?" The Gnome managed to scream out before crumpling to the floor, while trying to swat at the extra skin of death all but covering her.

"You wish to know?" Conner asked with a snort, "Fine, let me explain as best as I can. I highly doubt you've ever wondered what becomes of the little bits and pieces of life you steal every time you cast a Dark Spell or hold on and play with the life gift too long. Now you get to find out. For as you can now feel, those pieces of life didn't just disappear. The physical bodies here withered some with each casting and each theft, but the bits remain in the land of the dead. Each and every one of them know your life spark, and want... need... a chance to live again or become whole. To those chunks of life, your life spark inside an undead creature is a gateway to this ream, but it only went to a dead entity, sending them back to the land of the dead. However, I have pulled your life spark out and gave it back to you along with the link to the land of the dead. This opened a doorway and gives every bit and morsel of life a pathway directly to you. Even now, each Dark Mage spell in your book is linked to you and is being eaten, and with it your tie to the magic within those spells.

"But your misery does not end there, for you made the wraith, and therefore, your life spark is behind the undead, every undead, it made. I am willing to bet this is not the only one, either, so in addition to those you directly stole from, all those of your undead pets prevented from dying naturally are feeding on you as well. How many people and creatures are feeding on you, Ta-Tara? Dozens, Hundreds? Thousands?" Conner's smile was one of total malice, "My bet would be on the later. It will be days or even weeks before they are done with you. You will be left many years aged with no magic within; a Mundane hag with blighted and blistered skin, and surely no voice since you will have screamed yourself into silence long before all the scraps of life finish with you."

Conner grabbed her by the hair, drug her down the steps coated with gore and tossed her down into the flowing water in the passage below the cellar. He came back up and spoke with a note of grim satisfaction, "And now, I believe the scales have become in balance for Ta-Tara."

Way in the back of the room Gagan gulped, "Captain... while your mojo is scary as all nine hells combined, it ain't got nothin' to Conner’s!"

King Wyhrem, Klandon, Count Salostar, Baron Greyhammer, Sardan, Sagell, Aster, Bayne, Benam, Quavis, Cresh, Dabaff, Gomriss, Pocet, Captain of the Guard.

Aster looked up as the main door leading into the central keep of the old fortress opened. While he had seen King Wyhrem once, from a distance, the sight of his king coming right at him caused his heart to speed up. He quickly jumped up and pulled down on his leather vest, then started to reach for his axe, but stopped, not knowing what would be considered proper.

Much to his credit, King Wyhrem saw this and motioned for Aster to secure his weapons. "Young one, if you are here with my Watch, you have not only a right, but a duty to be armed."

Aster tried to say something but found his voice was stuck in the back of his throat. He also realized he needed to do something, being in front of a king, but had no clue what it was. To this end he dropped down to a knee even as he secured his axe.

Sardan snickered, "My king, this very well may be a first, for it seems Aster is without words!"

King Wyhrem smile warmly, "Oh, so this is the Aster I have heard so much about. It is a pleasure to meet you while also thanking you for your service to the Junsac Watch."

"Ah... Ah... um, thank you my King... Um..." Suddenly Aster stopped speaking as Bayne entered the room. He stared at the boy for a few uneasy seconds with wide eyes, focusing only his sole attention on the kid. Wyhrem, Sardan and Sagell all noticed this and glanced over their shoulders. The look on Bayne mirrored Aster's.

Before anyone else could speak, Count Salostar moved up and gave a bow, "Great King, if I may once again interject?"

Wyhrem glanced back and forth between the two boys while speaking, "If there is a reason for this sudden uncomfortable feeling between my new son and my esteemed Watch member, please enlighten us."

"King Wyhrem, your Watch member is known to us as well, for he is the elder twin brother of Prince Bayne!"

"My brother?" both asked in unison.

Baron Greyhammer spoke, "Yes, my Princes, Prince Aster, meet your brother Prince Bayne."

Aster spoke slowly even as Bayne moved closer, "I can feel a power in you... a Dragon... many Dragons..."

"Me killed one... but... I feel same in you."

"I killed one, Son. Not me." King Wyhrem stated firmly while moving forward to put his hand steadfastly on Bayne's shoulder.

Bayne looked back, "Sorry, Pa... um, Father... I killed one?"

"Yes, much better and you will be speaking like the high noble you are in no time if you continue to follow my words," Wyhrem praised the youngster.

"Father?" Aster asked in total confusion.

"I took him in as my own after he saved my life, Aster."

Aster's lips turned up slightly, "I am happy for you Prince Bayne... Do you know of our birth parents?"

Seeing Bayne shake his head, Aster let out a sigh.

Wyhrem gestured toward Salostar and Greyhammer, "I believe they can tell you more, son."

Aster eyed the Garm and Alphar for a second, "It doesn't matter. At least I found another brother..."

"Aster," Wyhrem spoke after a few seconds of awkward silence, "you are welcome into my palace..."

Aster managed a thin smile, "Thank you my King, but I am not a palace-type person. Even the free rooms in The Watch hall is more fancy than I like."

Sardan couldn't help but snicker, "He is being very honest, Highness. Aster prefers a forge or being out in the woods. When he gets an inn room, it is in the rougher sections of towns unless we all but demand he stay somewhere nicer."

"Waste of money. I can sleep almost anywhere..."

At this, Wyhrem laughed even as those around him cringed at the possible insult of saying living in a palace was a waste of money. Wyhrem clearly didn't take it as such as he reached out and patted Aster on the shoulder hard, "A sensible lad with a great deal of fortitude! I am liking you more by the moment, Aster." Still chuckling, he reached out and ruffled Aster's hair, "You are still more than welcome to visit my son, your brother, any time. If you prefer, you can sleep in the barracks."

Aster didn't pick up on the looks he was getting from the others, "Thank you, my King, I really don't need a special place to sleep." He then mumbled, "It's waking up in a strange place..."

King Wyhrem nodded, "Waking up in a strange bed is not easy, I fully understand. However, I owe you more than a bed, so if you would like a place near my palace as your own, it can be arranged with a simple command from me."

"My King, I don't see how you owe me anything..."

"Oh, come now, my young Watch member. I do indeed owe you, as a king and more importantly as a father. For I am told it is you and one of your pets who found one of my sons wandering the streets of Junsac in the middle of a storm not unlike the one Syria is pounding us with right now."

Aster looked back pointed over to Shade, "It was all him. If it wasn't for Shade, I wouldn't have noticed."

Wyhrem knelt, while motioning for Shade to come over. He was careful, but still reached out and ran his hand down the coat of the animal. "Believe me, I thank him as well. However, once you did notice, you took action. From what I hear you tended my son all night, not knowing who he was. In addition, you fought an arena battle for him which could have ended your life. For me, as a father far more than a king, what you did for a child you did not know, sends shivers down my spine. There are thousands, upon thousands, of men and women in this kingdom, but it was a boy... you Aster, who stepped up to defended an unknown child, risking your life multiple times to do so."

"I'm a member of The Watch, defending Junsac, the barony, and your kingdom as a whole is part of our pledge. He was in our territory. He needed help, and someone had harmed him. I could not stand by while any of it was going on. But I'm not the one who issued the arena challenge. Pocet did. All I did was jump in and fight with him."

"Aster," Wyhrem spoke with a firm voice, "my advisors have given more than enough information to know you are trying mightily to discount your involvement. While I will be equally thankful to this Pocet, you had to agree for the challenge to go forth. It was your work as a Healthman and the refusal to accept pay, not Pocet's challenge, which forced the arena match. It is also you who took possession of my child without enacting a slave clause over him. By rule of the arena, it was a right you had. Instead you just took possession. This means, again as a father, I owe you. For the stigma of being a slave is not something I can simply get rid of by decree. I can eliminate the title and free a slave, yes. However, as I am sure you know, once a slave always a slave, and you had legal right, because you did not know the boy you fought for to get the papers.

"All you have to do is realize countless members of The Watch were in attendance and saw my son, yet not one of them identified him as such. Certainly this was because he was not known to be missing, was in rags, had long hair, was in poor health, and had been badly tormented. However, I can name five who had met Klandon, who were in attendance, yet did not see him for who he is. You simply did not worry about his birthright. For you, he was not a slave and therefore a free being. You kept him free even though, from my understanding from my new Royal Healthman, the work you performed could have easily been charged to hundreds of silver coins."

Seeing King Wyhrem reaching for a large pouch being held up by his Captain of the Guard, Aster held up his hand, "My King, I didn't seek payment then, and I sure will not now. I did what was needed for a boy who was in need. I would do so again. But the real problem, those who really hurt your son... um, our prince, are still out there. This is not done until I find who did him so much harm and crush them."

Wyhrem still took the huge bulging pouch, grabbed Aster's hand, and pushed it firmly into Aster's fingers. "While I love your attitude and fully agree, Aster; as your king, I decree you do not have the right to refuse payment for services rendered to my son. Therefore, unless you wish to break one of my royal decrees, you will take this. Now, if you would be so kind as to direct me to this Pocet?"

Aster felt the weight of what he considered a small sack, and looked up with deference in his eyes, "As you command, my King. Pocet is in the back room with two of my slaves and who we believe is Prince Klandon, but he thinks his name is Zoldon, and we have been calling him Zoldon since one of my slaves got him to open up and start talking."

Wyhrem scratched his chin, "He is with slave children?”

"My King..." Sardan started to say only to get a hand in his face.

"I was asking Aster, Sardan. Stay your beak."

Aster looked up again, only this time he was somewhat annoyed and it showed in his eyes and voice, "My King, as I just told you they are the ones who got him to talk. At the time I didn't know who he was, but I did know he needed a friend or two. I ordered my slaves, who are close to whatever prince we have, in age, to befriend him. Once we found out who he probably is, I also made it clear to them, they were... are to treat him as a free child, while doing what they could to get him to tell us more. They have done a good job and the prince has even played with them a little, something he wouldn't do before. He was too afraid to even talk until they got him going. Right now, the prince is the only living link we have to whoever or whatever is behind this whole thing. We needed and still need more information out of him if I am ever going to find and destroy who did this. Yes, I did this for who turned out to be your son, but who he is didn't matter to me. I did it for him and to find out who badly needs my axe upside their heads. This, I will not apologize for."

While eyes all around Wyhrem went wide, King Wyhrem nodded, reached down and pulled Aster up. "You, young man, are certainly welcome and even expected to be a regular visitor to my palace. I could use more like you from my advisors, all the way down to those who command my smallest town garrisons. Should you ever want to take me up on my offer to lead a smaller community in preparation for bigger and grander tasks, you have but to ask. Now let us go see my son and the slave boys he is befriending. If they are truly seen as his friends, I will pay you whatever your asking price is, free them, and they can join me and my son as servants and playmates in my palace."

Wyhrem shot Sardan a hard glare as he walked by, "If you had a problem with my son playing with slaves, you should have tried to rectify it as soon as you found out. Since you did not, I believe anything you have to say on the matter has already been said by action, or in this case inaction. Because of this, I will defer to the judgment of the child who saved my son's life."

Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Lacate, Zeltoss

Lorthorn used a large tree to block the wind and snow as much as possible as he took his turn on guard for the small camp. Looked over his shoulder and realized it would take a total fluke for anyone to find it even if they knew the general location. For, as usual, Kandric had used his phenomenal Outdoorsman skills to make it all but invisible. Kandric had everyone pulled the cloths for their tents over the boulders and braced up the edges with a few quickly cut branches making a cave-like structure.

The small fire in the back was blocked by another cloth, so even looking right at the spot with heat vision, there was only a tiny plume of heat rolling upwards, but even this was made more diffuse by the way Kandric anchored the edges of the 'roof' so most areas were well secured, but there were a half dozen spots where gaps had been left. This allowed the heat and smoke to move up, but in several locations instead of one. The end result was each vent released only part of the heat and smoke. The cold wind quickly eliminated both. While someone downwind would certainly smell some smoke, locating where it was coming from would be nearly impossible.

Lorthorn stuck his hands inside his winter cloak to warm them as he moved to verify the top of the rocky ridge was secure before moving back to find another good windbreak for a couple of minutes. He had seen snow storms before, but never one this late in the season and it gave him the creeps. In addition to the snow falling in huge, wet, wind-driven flakes blocking both normal and , the howling of the wind, combined with the cracking and popping of trees, as limbs gave under the onslaught, drastically cut down on hearing.

After nearly an hour and a half, and him badly needing to get warm, Lorthorn made one last walk around the entire perimeter of the camp before waking Seldnat. He was just starting to pull the flap of the cloth structure back to enter when his ears picked up on an odd sound. It sounded like someone calling out, only it was not a normal yell, nor did the voice sound panicked as if someone was lost. He stopped dead in his tracks, pulled the hood of his cloak down and cocked his head to the sides so his ear would not fill with snow, but was still basically listening in the direction of the wind.

After several seconds of nothing Lorthorn shrugged, figuring he had heard a strange whistling of the storm. He reached out for the flap of fabric only to hear it again. "It's got to be wind," he muttered. But instead of dismissing it altogether, he moved his hand down to the Lava Hammer at his belt, slid in the shelter and nudged Jamon and Seldnat, who had been sharing a bed roll for warmth. "Guys, I think I am hearing something..."

Seldnat reached out and grabbed his Staff Spear while nudging Jamon, "Me knows ya got good ears. So do yer pet. Now get yer butt up and goes and hears somethin'."

Jamon rolled out of the side of the bed roll, reached back and grabbed his cloak from under him, and pulled it on. He shoved his feet into his boots and quickly accepted his light mace and whip from Lorthorn, who kept looking back to the entrance with some nervousness. While there was a hard chill to the air, the shelter wasn't horrible. This combined with the trick Kandric taught him about sleeping with his clothing off but with him, so they stayed warm, helped a great deal. He pulled up his hood and quickly followed Lorthorn out into the storm even as Seldnat pulled on armor as quietly as possible.

Off to the side, Zeltoss let out a yawn and looked over, "Problem, or shift change, Seld?"

"Not sure, none. Keep restin', but stays wake fer a bit. Lor 'll tell ya in'f ya needs ta gets up real soon like."

Zeltoss carefully rolled out from the bedroll he was sharing with Pike, so he didn't wake the Garm boy, then slid over, "Here, let me help with your armor."

"Me can get it," Seldnat grumbled.

"Yeah, I know, but if I help you will be in it faster and if there is a problem, you are the one I want beating the crap out of whatever it is." Zeltoss pulled the buckle tight for Seldnat while adding, "This way I don't have to."

"Year gettin' good at it, Zel," Seldnat snickered softly, "but the next big nasty, me'll jus' watch."

"Why?" Zeltoss asked tersely, "You're better at it."

"Ya jus' answer yer own question, Zel. Ya need da practice. If'n it be a real big nasty, me'll step in ta help." Seldnat answered even as Zeltoss helped adjust the shoulder armor, then pulled down on the straps to make it extremely secure. "Thanks fer the help; us'll let ya know if'n we needs help."

Seldnat pushed the bottom of the flap open so most of the trapped heat stayed in and slid out. Once clear, he knelt even as he spotted Lorthorn and Jamon. Both were nodding to each other and pointing right into the wind. Once he was sure he wasn't going to distract them from hearing what he couldn't he stood and moved up, "What's we got?"

"Not sure, but it..." Lorthorn stopped as he heard it again. Seeing Jamon nod and Jamon's Winged Bobcat, Glide, look directly into the snow, he focused back on Seldnat. "Someone or something is calling out, but we can't make it out. The storm is pushing the sound toward us, so it's coming from over there somewhere." He pointed directly into the gale.

"Wind like dis could really mess up where da sounds be comin' from," Seldnat warned. "Lor, ya OK ta stay on watch fer a bit more?"

"Yeah, sure. Um, what are you going to do?"

"Me's gunna take Jamon and the kitty inta dis mess. Him and Glide hear gooder, kind-a like you. Me'll use him and his kitty's ear and do's some scoutin'."

"Then get him armored up. I'm telling you there is something out there."

Seldnat nodded, "Ya help Jamon. Get's warm fer a few. Me'll take watch here."

A few minutes passed before Lorthorn and Jamon re-emerged into the storm. This time Jamon was fully armed, armored, and in warm clothing. Jamon looked over to Seldnat, "Anything more?"

"Orc hearin' no good, ya ought's ta know dat. Nose good, but me gets nothin' in all this Syria throwin' a fit." He jerked his head, "Come on, Jamon. Let's see if'n der be an Orc fer ya ta beat up on. We need's ta get ya to silver pins er gooder!"

Fifteen minutes later and kneeling to take a break from the snow slashing into their faces, Glide suddenly hissed. Even as Jamon's hand went down to calm his pet, he caught the sound. It was someone calling out Kandric, and it was being done in a very taunting way. "OH, KAAAANNNDRRRICCC. I have one of your Human striplings! OH KAAANNNDRRRICCC!"

Jamon looked over to Seldnat who had his hand on his spear, but clearly didn't hear the words being carried on the wind. "Seldnat, someone is calling out Kandric and says he has one of the students."

Seldnat frowned deeply, "Can ya tells how many?"

"One voice, male. It's all I can get... There it is again!"

Seldnat's nose crinkled up as he did his utmost to hear. After a couple of seconds, he shook his head. "Stupid Orc side, no can hear nothin'." He growled deeply, "Ya willin' ta go wake da others, but leave Glide? Him can hear and warn me case me miss 'em."

Jamon kissed his Winged Bobcat on the nose even as he cringed. He didn't want to lose another pet, but he sure didn't want to see Seldnat get hurt. "OK, but take care of him, please."

"Nothin' hurtin' Glide if'n me can helps it none."

Jamon took a breath, "Glide guard Seldnat. Stay close to him."

The Winged Bobcat cocked its head to the side as if trying to figure out why Jamon was telling it to stay. After a second command, it hissed lightly but moved up to Seldnat's side. Even then it looked back as Jamon followed his footsteps back to the camp.

Seldnat took a knee, "Don't ya worry's none, Glide. Ya jus' let me know where's dem fools be. Me'll take care a dem and gets whoever they holdin'."

Jamon pushed back through the snow, happy they hadn't been gone very long, for even in the brief time he had been gone, the trail was being covered by wind driven snow and drifts. He didn’t realize Seldnat had chosen the path they took, to do this very thing, to prevent easy discovery, but it didn't matter. All he cared about was he managed to make it back before all traces of their short trek vanished.

Even as Lorthorn spotted him and moved to make sure he was OK, Jamon took a breath of relief.

Lorthorn's eyes searched into the snow, "Where's Seld?"

"Sill out there with Glide," Jamon stated while trying to catch his breath. "Someone's calling out Kandric and says they have one of the students. He told me to come back and get you all"

"Oh, really?" Lorthorn's eyes narrowed. "Yes, go wake Kandric. Let's see what he says, but if he wants my vote; it is to go kill someone and get whoever they have back."

Jamon nodded, even as he moved into the shelter, "Kandric, we have a problem."

Even as all the other moved and Pike and Zeltoss grabbed weapons, Kandric sat up and looked over, "Something found us in this storm?"

"No, but someone is looking for you and is calling you out. It sounds like they have one of the students, too."

Kandric pushed Lacate away, "Not for long! Where are they?"

"Hard to tell, Kandric. Kind of in the direction the wind is coming from. I can’t tell. Seldnat is out there with Glide, trying to figure it out, though."

Kandric's eyes narrowed, "Where is Lor?"

"On guard..."

"No! Neither of them should be out there, not alone. If something is out in this, they are big, bad and mean. Go get Seld and tell him to come back while I try to find out who or what we are going to send to meet Brandall tonight."

Jamon let out a long breath and hung his head, but didn't argue. Instead he moved back out into the blizzard and followed his footsteps for a second time.

Kandric glanced over at Lacate who was grabbing for his cloak, "Did I say you could get dressed?"

Seeing the boy cringe and drop the edge of the cloak, Kandric smirked. "You dress me as a good chamber boy, Lacate, then you get nothing, nothing at all. Had you first offered to dress me, then asked, I may have said yes, but you do not do what you want without permission. Also, just so you know, I should be sending you out in this mess, not Jamon, but Seldnat is too important to me to risk the message not getting to him. Now get my clothing and help me dress."

As soon as Kandric was in clothing and armor, he pointed at the burned down fire, "Now, Lacate, get some more wood and re-stoke the fire. Once you do, get a meal going. We are going to need it. If you get us fed, I may let you get dressed until we bed down again."

Kandric then focused on Zeltoss, who was getting his last armor straps tightened by Pike, "Zel, join Lor on watch.

"Pike, I want you by me. I need to take a trip into the Spirit Realms, but keep an eye on Lacate. He is to put nothing on until we all eat and he does nothing other than tend the fire and cook. He tries to eat or drink, pop him... hard. He is in his time as a slave and slaves eat after free people do." Not bothering to see if his orders were going to be followed, he put his back to a rock, put his hands around his sword, and closed his eyes.

Lacate saw Pike glare at him so he didn't even reach for his cloak again. Never in his life had he been so embarrassed and helpless, but there was nothing he could do, and he was quite certain the small Garm boy would knock him into next week, or back into last week, if he so much as did anything other then exactly what he was told. Or worse, ask to take him to bed when Kandric didn't want him. All he could hope was whoever was brave enough to call out Kandric would be able to take them all out so he could escape... Even as this thought came, Lacate realized it was a stupid one. Chances were good it would be someone like Moba. At least Kandric wasn't viscious, yet... Even if Kandric and the others were taken out, and he escaped, it wouldn't benefit him, and Lacate quickly figured this out.

Where was he going to go in a storm like this when they were in the middle of the wilderness? He wouldn't be able to make a shelter one one-hundreth what Kandric had done and once any food ran out, then what? He wiped a tear off his cheek as he realized what he wanted, in reality, was for Kandric and the others to win so he could survive... survive to be a servant, a bedding boy, a living toy... Even as he blew on the embers to light the fresh wood, he wondered why he ever thought it had been a good idea and fun to pick on Kandric back in Slome. He also couldn't help but wonder why Kandric didn't just wipe the cobblestone with him and his older brother the first time they teased him and prevented him from getting work.

Lacate paused and got his breath back before blowing on the remnants of the fire, once again trying without success, trying to get the wood he put on them to ignite. The very fact he could not get glowing embers to start a fire reminded him just how badly he needed Kandric. It was not fair in the slightest to need someone who had such total control over him and took pleasure out of using him. Helplessly, he back off coughing, just long enough to get his breath back before he put his face close to the campfire and blew again.

While Pike kept careful watch on Lacate, Kandric slipped into the Spirit Realm. He quickly found both the mist and wind spirits he had befriended close by. Before they could call on more powerful one to teach yet another spell, Kandric held up his hand, "Guys, I hate to ask for help, but I need it if you are willing."

"You have but to ask, Kandric." The mist spirit stated.

At the same time the wind spirit spun, "Yes, ask. We have gained much by being your friend. We have both learned much from our elders and are much better because of it. We are even accepted by each other's elders, so I may even become able to be a fledgling storm spirit."

"And me a geyser spirit." the mist spirit responded with glee. "We will no longer be minor and looked down on."

"Whoever or whatever is looking down on you is also looking down on me. Tell them as much and the next time I slide in for a talk have them come discuss it with me."

The wind spirit nervously giggled before moving over to the fire and sending a swirl of wind around it, brightening the hot embers and igniting the wood, forcing Lacate to fall back on his butt while staring at the fire with wide eyes. It giggled, "Now the near Mundane can feed you."

Kandric chuckled, "Thanks, but next time no singeing his hair. As it is, I am going to make him grow it out, so I have some to play with in bed. Besides, no one looks good without eyebrows."

The wind spirit swirled around the small fire causing it to flare a second time before backing off, "Your servant needs to learn how to stack wood so it burns better, but if you want him with long hair, I will be careful to blow it back next time."

"With a bit of warning I can dampen it as well and keep eyelashes and eyebrows safe," the mist spirit joined in. "However, I do not see may spirits willing to confront you, Kandric."

"Yes, he is correct." The wind spirit stated while making the flames dance around the shelter in whatever direction Lacate moved just to make him more nervous than he already was. "It is probably not going to happen. Most are afraid of you, even some of the great spirits. Between the Dragon kills and what you have done in Spirit Realms, you are a considered beyond a mortal, but word has come to us one of your brothers has made his mark in the realms of Kryplok and Brandall in a way not seen since the Mythling Wars, so your line is quite simply not one most outside the Mortal Realms want to trifle with. Those who have and will are by far the exceptions."

Kandric watched Lacate have to continuously move away from the fire, over and over with an ever-growing smirk, "While I love your humor, it is not allowing him to cook for us."

"So I can mess with him some other time?"

"As long as he is not in my bed or directly trying to serve, by all means, have fun. But right now, I am told there is someone out in this mess trying to call me out. Any chance you can safely find out who or what and see if it or them have one of my Slome students?"

The two spirits spoke in unison, "Be right back!"

Kandric spent a couple of minutes learning yet another spell, this time from a rather cranky and old magma spirit, before returning back to his body. He glanced over at Lacate who was putting meat on a small pan and cautiously trying to warm it while eyeing the fire suspiciously. He couldn't help himself, "Come on, Lacate, get cooking already, the fire is very small and poorly stacked. It is not going to bite you."

"But it keeps blowing toward me!"

Kandric had to force any trace of a smile off his face and he stared at the nude boy, "How? I sheltered this place from the storm, and I sure do not feel any breeze at the moment."


"I guess you do not want any clothing until we move out again. Whatever."

Next to Kandric Pike leaned close even as Lacate bit back a sob and wiped at a few new tears, "It did seem to jump at him a few times."

"I know it did. The more I use lack of clothing as a punishment, the easier it will be for him to accept what he turned himself into. Until he stops tightening up every time I touch him or trying to edge away, he will not make a good bedmate, and he is. I am not sure how you feel about this, but regardless of what he wants or likes, he is going to be my primary chamber servant until he works himself out of his servitude with me. In addition, I am going to make sure everyone in Slome knows it."

"He gave himself to you, so what you do with him is none of my concern. One thing if certain, his usefulness as anything but a house servant is extremely limited. Maybe we can change him, but right now he is more of a liability than he is of use. Having a cook, and a camp hand is outweighed by how much he slows us and the fact we have to protect him from others as well as himself. I had no idea people outside of Garm and Alphar lands could have so little backbone. In Winter Creek, a child like him would be declared non-child by nobles and discarded by the peasants to fend for themselves or possibly even sold to a brothel. For the luckiest, life would be as a very low-level man or woman servant getting food and a robe, while tending to young or elderly until death. For most, the wilds of the lands shrouding the empire would claim them. A crippled, malformed, or badly injured child is held in higher regard than one like Lacate. At least their lack of use has reason and is in no way their fault. Charity is given when needed, but it is not acceptable for a being with a working body and mind to depend on others. There is always work and pay, even if it be removing waste dirt and rocks from mines or pulling wagons of trash and waste out of settlements. A sewer cleaner has more standing than one such as Lacate." Pike snorted, "In some ways thieves and brigands garner more respect, for at least they are willing to take risks."

"Those with wealth often have children who never have to learn basic skills. The family pays for what is needed. It is not the same in Garm lands?"

"No, every child, no matter what family or wealth is expected to make a name for him or herself. Every Mundane Garm and Alphar noble I know of must serve as a hand for the military for sixty moons; those of us who are not Mundane must apprentice out and serve thirty moons. While I am far from age of ascension, it was better to ask to get my thirty moons out of the way than go home when my ship was in port to a father who found extra work for me around the estate since I was not working or being useful. Trust me, serving as a runner and having to work in the ranks as a gopher is infinitely better than the tasks Father found for me while I was in port.

"Even our guild rankings are different than yours. In Garm and Alphar lands I am considered to not even be truly guilded. I am a schoolboy, in preparation for training. Your Primary Echelon is our Training level. Your Secondary, we call Proficient, and it is not until we reach Proficient we are considered to have advanced enough to be worthy to the Empire. One of the reasons I was so astonished to be given the opportunity to be your Garm counterpart is more about me only being Preparation Status, than being assigned to counterpart such a high noble."

"I am not a noble..."

"Kandric, you are self-made royalty. Your heritage is below what you obtained without any help from your family. This puts you on a king or emperor platform no matter what land people are from. The last time we had this in the Mortal Realm was probably the Highman Warlord Greysac!"

"Oh, come on, no way should you even mention me with him. He was quite possibly the greatest warrior king of all time, even the gods and demons feared him! The Demon Lords even sent their pawns into the Mortal Realms in an attempt to ruin him. All it did was make him mad. He fought back, killed a few powerful demons, and rebuilt. His name is all over our maps to this day!" Kandric stated while waving his hands in front of himself. "But enough about me, what would happen if a high merchant child in your lands acted like Lacate? What if a parent used wealth to keep him as comfortable as Lacate has been up till a few short weeks ago?"

Pike shook his head, "The merchant would be scoffed and would lose most customers, if not all of them. No one would take the merchant seriously ever again. We live in dangerous lands and must keep others out; so all see at least one major combat, most two or three, even our Mundane. Those who break, cannot keep up with the formations, or fail to serve honorably are given a very small stipends if their families can afford one, and are removed from the house lines, permanently. They then find work or... well there is no real tolerance for an able-bodied beggar."

Before more could be said, the air grew noticeably more humid. Kandric held up his hand to stop Pike. A moment later his body slumped and he re-entered the Spirit Realms.

In the Mortal Realm Pike watched Kandric's body go limp. With a shake of his head, he glanced over at Lacate who was watching with confusion. "He slid into the Spirit Realms."

"But I thought only the best could and it took time, right?"

Pike looked over at Kandric, then back at Lacate, "I have seen extremely powerful Shamen inside their spirit lodges who could not do in an hour what Premier Kandric can do in seconds, Lacate. This is not some strange fluke, either. For this is the second time in half the time of an hourglass he has done it and he does so effortlessly. You may want to keep this in mind as you serve him, for he is probably powerful enough to take your spirit with him and strand you there. I have heard of such things, but only a handful are rumored to have such powers. After seeing this, I am willing to bet Kandric is in said handful. Therefore, the next time you shrink back from his touch, procrastinate in washing him, dressing him, or pull away from him, consider he can almost certainly do things with not only your body, but your spirit. You gave yourself to him, and thus he controls the physical such as clothing, eating, rest, and even your body. Unfortunately, you gave yourself over to someone who also has control over your spirit. On this I can only go on what I have heard. However, I can tell you it is widely believed and accepted most Shaman are considered to be outsiders and encroachers when they venture into the spirit lands. They are tolerated, barely. I cannot imagine how the immortals view non-Shamen mortals who are pulled into the spirit lands, nor do I ever want to find out. Now, while you consider this, get us a meal. For I am betting our Premier is about to find out who we are going to have to go kill for even suggesting harm to one of his students."

Kandric could tell by the way both spirits were acting, the news was not going to be good. With a deep breath he braced for bad news, "I can tell by the looks and actions both of you are not really wanting to tell me what is out here with us. Just do me a favor and tell me if whoever or whatever has one of my students."

"One of yours and one from the other Slome School, plus two we do not recognize, but close to your equivalent age." The wind spirit spoke with trepidation.

"I will take this as good news, since I have yet to find one since separating from the small party led by the Swordsman Klent. Now, you may as well give me the bad news, for you both must know I am going to go after whatever has my student."

"Kandric," the mist spirit stated softly, "the two boys are being held by your grandfather."

At this Kandric blinked, "What? How? Surely Duke Mathard would not let him..." Kandric's voice stopped as he saw both seem to diminish in intensity, as if they were cringing. "He is not with Duke Mathard, is he?"

"No." The wind spirit whispered. "It appears he defected. One of the reasons it took us so long is we tried to find others who know or saw what happened, but they all seem to not want to talk. We believe there is something else going on as well, and we are not privy to it. I guess we are not seen as strong or important enough."

"One thing at a time, my friends," Kandric all but demanded. "Let us focus on the problem at hand first. I gather by your nervousness; my grandfather is not alone?"

"No," the wind spirit stated, then backed off and let the mist spirit take over.

"Kandric, he is holding the two boys you know with the assistance of several White Dragonlings and a Warrior Dragon. Before you shrug at this, they are being backed up by Prince Weraweld."

The name meant nothing to Kandric and it showed as he turned up both hands and spoke in total befuddlement, "Who?"

The wind spirit let out enough air to blow a few items around the shelter and accidentally fan the flames, forcing Lacate to jump back, while looking around wildly. This was ignored by all three in the Spirit Realms, "Kandric, Prince Weraweld is considered the front runner to be the next king of the White Dragons. It is believed he has mated with all four known White Great females over the last thirty years, which is all but unheard of, but he really is as scary as they come. He is on par with the most powerful of the Greats, and has the size of King Blathamort. He is nowhere near as old, though, so he is not slowed with age."

The mist spirit seemed to shrink inward. "Prince Weraweld has taken out two Great Silvers, at least five True Silvers, and probably a score of Silver Warriors."

Kandric's eyes narrowed, "So not only has he helped to take my student, he is a major enemy of one of my allies. He needs to die."

"Kandric," the wind spirit stated with a great deal of concern, "we guessed you would say this. However, this is not like the others. You have no surprise. Prince Weraweld knows who you are, what you are, and is very much ready to take you on."

A sly smirk crossed Kandric's lips, "Tell me, is the big clearing down the hill from us a lake, and if so how big and deep?"

"It is a very large lake." the wind spirit responded. "How deep I cannot tell you."

The mist spirit spread out some, "Give me a few moments. I will be back."

A minute later it returned, "The edges are shallow. The middle is deep, dozens of meters, but uneven. It has many massive rocks on the bottom. The entirety of the surface is frozen to a depth of a third of a meter. You cannot be thinking of trying to lure Prince Weraweld out onto the lake... Are you?"

"I most certainly am. First I need to know if my assumptions are correct. Will he radiate enough cold to not break the ice?"

"He will be able to walk across it and freeze it deep and hard enough to where his claws will barely scratch the surface," the wind spirit confirmed. "If you go out there, he will have you in the open."

"Which is exactly what gives me an advantage."

Both spirits pushed well back from Kandric, "Huh?"

"Ah, my good and loyal friends, gather a few of the others and place bets on this, offer yourself as servants if I lose, and demand power if I win. I promise I will do my utmost not to disappoint you."

"If we do this we cannot help," the mist spirit warned.

"I understand. I already have a plan... I just need to figure out one thing. Stick around while I go talk to Pike. I will be right back."

Kandric's eyes snapped open and his quickly turned to look at Pike, startling both the Garm and Lacate.

"Premier," Pike spoke, “you just took a decade of my life away... and the flames are..."

"Oh, probably my windy friend. He is a bit nervous."

Lacate gulped, "There are spirits here?"

"Of course there are!" Kandric remarked offhandedly. "They are friends and are close by most of the time. Nothing to concern yourself with. Now get a meal finished. We have a large blob of nasty frost to deal with and I would prefer to do so with a decent meal in me."

Kandric quickly turned his attention back to Pike, "Duke Mathard told me almost all Winter Creek Garm are taught how to fight White Dragons. Is this correct?"

"From my first day of combat training, yes... Um, why?"

Kandric debated on how much to tell Pike. Part of him wanted to give out all the information, but if Prince Weraweld was as well known as it sounded, chances were good it would terrify his new friend. To this end he stuck with basic facts and downplayed the true nature of the coming fight. "It seems the person holding my student and three others has the help of a large White lizard and few smaller White kind."

"A real Dragon? Not Dragonlings?"

Seeing Kandric nod, Pike gulped, "As in like a Warrior Dragon?"

"At least, yes." Kandric stated without feeling too badly. After all he had been told there was a Warrior Dragon out there too. "Does it matter if it is a Warrior Dragon or a bigger one, though?"

Even as Pike stared at him in semi-disbelief at the question, Lacate answered, "You're serious? There is a real Dragon out there and you are going to go after it? Are you insane?"

"Probably," Kandric grinned. "Come on Lacate, you cannot tell me you do not want to see a Dragon..."

"I did!" Lacate sputtered out with horror. "It was gigantic, Green, and had claws almost as long as I am tall! It opened the passage to get us here!"

"Oh, yeah, right..." Kandric shrugged, "But, Lacate, it was Green, this one is White. I bet they look totally different!"

Pike shook off some of his stupor as he looked over with wide eyes as it dawned on him Kandric was dead set on taking on a White Dragon, "We have to study Dragons, and yes they do look different than Greens. Greens have long twisting horns and really long wings that have claw-like hooks along the front edges where they fold. Whites have a much more sleek head, sharp horns pointed forward, and their wings are shorter and wider. The front edges of the wings are grooved and flex. We were told in our first class this allows them to fly in storms, since they can wiggle the entire length of their wings and break off built up ice."

"All White Dragons, regardless of size, have these wings?" Kandric asked with a great deal of interest.

"From what we have been taught yes... Um, why?"

"Is there a weakness we can target on the wing?"

Pike sputtered and coughed, "Yes... But... NO! We will have to purposefully get right up on it to strike, Kandric!"

"Geesh, Pike, give me a little credit. I guessed as much."

"Ahhh...." Pike shook his head, "I... oh, for the love of Brandall, take me in even though I am about to die a stupid death... Um, can you at least tell me why you want to get close enough to strike at the wing of a Dragon, when it will not do any real damage and seriously anger it?"

"An angry foe is a careless one. Besides, taking away its ability to fly, even for a short span is the final key to my plan. And yes, I know getting up close and personal is pretty much going to be required. Where is your sense of adventure?"

Pike and Lacate exchanged duplicate looks of dread even as both lost their ability to coherently think, let alone talk.

"Hey, Pike, come back to me, buddy."

It took a few more seconds for Pike to recover his wits enough to speak, "Very well, Kandric, I will tell you and even help. However, if we live... very big if... you owe me an adventure on my terms!"

Kandric rubbed his chin as he stared at the Sailor guild pins with a great deal of foreboding, "Fine, bargained well and done, my friend. But if I am going to put myself in your hands for what I can only guess is going to be a very unpleasant ship ride, you are going to help me take out a wing... or two."

"Two?" Pike eyed Kandric suspiciously, "Two, huh? Oh, why not. It is not like I am likely to live through the first wing anyway."

"Wing? What wing?" Seldnat demanded to know as he pushed through the flap. He quickly stopped and sniffed, "Don't bother, none. Me smell bacon!" Without another word he moved up and nudged Lacate hard, "No spillin' da grease! Be good ta dip me bread in!"

Pike couldn't help but nervously giggle, "Food first?"

"No!" Seldnat all but shouted, "Bacon!" Without saying anything more he shaved of a long piece of wood from a branch in the pile, speared one of the cooking strips and held it up to cool just a little. He then held it up while cocking his head way back, letting the drips of grease drip directly into his mouth. He then bit off pieces before skewering a second piece and duplicating the process, "Ya wants me ta guard, ya feeds me like this, ya gots a guard fer life!"

Pike couldn't help but snicker. "I bet I could get some of the Garm to invite you over with an attitude like you are showing."

"Me'll even show up fer bacon." Seldnat put down two more hunks, then broke out some travel bread. He dipped the edge into the pan, ignoring the hot splatters, tore off a huge chunk with his teeth, and all but inhaled it. "Oh, yea! Now what’s me hearin' 'bout a wing?"

Lacate pointed over to Kandric, "Dragon wing."

"Ya mean me gets ta do somethin' this time?" Seldnat asked with a raised eyebrow.

"I need a couple volunteers to damage its wing," Kandric verified. "Pike is one. I need one more."

"It be 'bout time me gets ta join in. Me done nothin' wit them stupid lizards up ta now!"

"Then you and Pike get to hurt the big one for me."

"Der be more than one?"

"Two, but the other is small."

"Me no gunna argue none, Kandric, but if'n ya wants one a us ta take on the small without yer help..."

"I would prefer you help take the wing on the big one, then you can go play with the small one, Seldnat. I have a plan, but it will take quick hard strikes and then moving fast to get out. I was kind of thinking Lor and Zel could keep the smaller one busy with Jamon's help. But you will have to join them right after you hit the wing, because I am going to be real busy with the big guy."

Lacate looked over, "What about me?"

"You stay here, keep the place warm and have another meal ready for us. We are going to need it."

Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris, Duke Axegrind, Hawkling Channeler, Vondum, Kyltoss, Klorna, Morwar, Mokel, Princess Syrissia

Vondum stared at the Mythling Gate Stone with a shake of his head. While the idea of being gated to some distant spot by magic was simply not among the things Vondum felt should ever be done, at least the last time he had used the stone, Kandric had activated it, and he had total confidence in Kandric's abilities. Even more important, Kandric joined him. This time he was trusting an unknown Alphar woman, who was simply opening the gate and walking away. In his way of thinking a single miss-casting, or in the case mispronunciation of spoken rune, could send him somewhere he had no desire to be, like in the middle of an ocean or even a hundred meters up in the air. Making matters worse, there would be no way of knowing for sure until it was too late.

Since there was nothing he could do about it, and he had to agree with the Alphar and Garm commanders about Kandric needing a strong and trusted face or three to tell him about his brothers, he patiently waited for the woman to do her thing. At least there was some Alphar princess joining them, so he bet the woman playing with the green pyramid was going to be very careful. With nothing better to do, he glanced over at Ornam and spoke in Dragon tongue, "My last trip through was bitterly cold and we are going to be jumping into a snowstorm from what I have been told. Are you sure you wish to join us?"

"I would be sorely remiss in not taking an opportunity to meet this Premier Kandric, supposed killer of my king, Vondum. If everything we believe is true about this young Shaman, his name will go down in legend! How could I now miss a chance to say I met him?"

Vondum smiled and patted the Warrior Dragon hard on the side, "It is good to have you around me again, Ornam."

"Likewise." the Warrior Dragon smiled while nudging Conth forward with his left front foot. "Stay awake, young rider. We will find a time to rest once our mission is complete."

Vondum switched to the Northman tongue as he sent a nasty glare at Conth, "There will be little rest for him if he doesn't straighten himself up. He has not been awake even a full cycle of the sun and moon yet. By the time I am done with him in my tent, he will really need rest!"

Ornam glanced down at Conth and spoke to him with thought, 'Now is the time, boy. Release your fear. Get angry. Deal with what you know is coming and I will take you as my rider.'

Conth closed his eyes as he fought the desire not to puke from pure fear, but he also knew this might be his only chance to get out from under Vondum. To this end he clenched his fists and turned toward Vondum, "You're going to take me, so stop threatening me, and just do it already!"

Those gathered around the gate stone all turned their heads to observe even as Vondum's eyes narrowed, "Are you telling me what to do, boy?"

A slight smirk appeared on the upper edge of Ornam's mouth opposite of Vondum so the man could not see it. 'Do not back down. It is now or never. Besides, the line has been crossed; if you crumple to him now, he will make a long and painful example of you for finding the fortitude to speak up.'

It took everything Conth had to not fall to his knees and try to apologize. At the same time, he really wondered why the Dragon didn't help him by pulling away some of the fear he had wracking his very core. After a few moments, however, he realized he was on his own with Vondum. While this suddenly seemed like a really bad idea, beyond bad, he also realized Ornam was correct. He had stepped over the line and it was either stand his ground now or have Vondum's boot on his back for the rest of his life. His Mindmaster ability also told him a bit of insight as to the threatening posture of Vondum. While the man was furious, there was a tiny amount of hope within the bubbling anger. For even as Vondum put on his most intimidating and threatening face, a small fraction of him hoped the boy in front of him had finally found a spine.

The problem was, this same intuition also told Conth he was going to pay for this, and it would be brutal. What was done, was done, and there was no doubt he would pay for speaking out. With this knowledge in hand, he tossed aside the fear and went for broke. He stepped up to meet Vondum and forced himself to look into the man's eyes. "I can't tell you what to do, and you know it. You had me give you my word. I would be whatever you wanted, but I am done with being threatened! Do what you are going to do, kill me, whatever, but I'm done falling all over the place every time you hold taking me to bed over my head. Each time, I hand over more of my self-respect, and I am done with it!"

While there was no outward sign of joy out of Vondum as he grabbed the front of Conth's shirt and lifted him off the ground with a single hand and held him high, Conth detected a glimmer of warmth within the man. It was a feeling of... it took a few seconds for Conth's mind to really figure it out, but finally the word came... It was a feeling of respect. It was the same one Vondum had when dealing with Kandric and to a lesser extent even Jamon. It was then it dawned on Conth who the real Vondum was. He was a man who had no admiration for anything or anyone until those around him gave him a reason to see them as something other than a weak, spineless, worthless hunk of meat to be stepped on. For in the man's eyes, everyone and everything was nothing more than tools to be used and abused until they proved otherwise.

This had been what the time in the forges in the Black Dragon land had taught him. Most kids came in and folded. They were weak and worthless. A few, very few, were like Vondum. They toughed it out. Those were the ones who were something more. Becoming an enforcer only heightened this belief. The vast majority crumpled under his torment. Those who dealt with it and persevered were worthy. Few who entered to get 'free training' made it out as free and trained beings, but those who did had Vondum's respect.

Life after the forge was no different. The strong didn't let fear or adversity cripple them. The rest were nothing to Vondum and never would be. It was this code, developed in the depths of the Black Dragon underground forges, which lead to him turning his back on his younger brother. In Vondum, his brother had betrayed himself by succumbing to fear and thus deserved whatever happened. Quite simply, there was nothing there to admire, and in Vondum this trumped all else.

This insight allowed Conth a deeper glimpse into Vondum's mind and led to the reason Jamon was treated so differently by Vondum. Quite simply, Jamon had earned a slight amount of respect by making the forced walk back to Vondum's camp. This gave his cousin a chance to earn more. In this Jamon had come through. The slave training, and the beat down he had gotten at the hands of Jamon, followed by the whipping... All of it had earned Jamon more respect from Vondum while the massive man only held Conth in more distain. Up till now Conth realized he had done nothing to earn a shred of anything but loathing of his weak will. All Conth's attempts to placate the man had done the exact opposite. Each time he had a chance to show Vondum something, he had failed. He could have tried to go after Jamon, even if he got pummeled a second time. Doing so would have sent a message. He could have tried to stand up to the whipping, too. Sure he would have failed, but there was also a chance Vondum would have stopped it early. For he suddenly saw it in the man's thoughts. Vondum had stayed right outside, waiting to see if Jamon would balk or if Conth would try to stand up and take it. When neither happened, Jamon improved in Vondum's eyes, while Conth fell even further.

It was twisted, but it was a deep code of honor within Vondum. As all these pieces fell into place, Conth saw, or at least understood one more thing. Vondum would indeed take him. It would be awful, it would be brutal, but if Conth could force himself to endure it and bravely deal with the next time or three, the man would tire of him... no, tire was not the right word. Vondum would find him worthy enough to let go, to free him of his servitude. The hard part would be to stand tall and accept it when Vondum came back for a second, third and every time after until he had climbed up high enough on the ladder Vondum measured people with. Once Conth climbed high enough, Vondum would see him as... Conth wasn't sure of the word, but he would be free of the man's wrath and therefore, be free.

Once Conth figured this out, he also understood there was hope for pretty much everyone Vondum looked down on. Even the poor boy back at Vondum's camp could do the exact same thing, but probably never would. The kid would never crawl out from under the boot of oppression. In Vondum's mind, the kid deserved what he was getting and even after decades of turning the kid into a young boy over and over, there was still this tiny sliver of hope the kid would eventually do what Conth had just done and say 'enough'.

Conth was so wrapped up into this deeper understanding of the man holding him, it took him a few seconds to realize the man was shaking him violently.

"Tell me you are sorry, Conth! Tell me you take it all back, you pathetic little whelp!"


The shaking stopped and Vondum pulled Conth's face right up to his own, "No? Did you just tell me no?"

"I did! You want me to do something, fine. I gave my word I would. I will be whatever you want. But I'm done cowering to you. Do you hear me? I'm done!"

A slight grin appeared on Vondum's face even as he tossed Conth to the ground hard and drew his blade, "How about I kill you?"

Conth eyed the blade for a few seconds. He came close to breaking down and begging for his life. The problem was, he knew if he did, he would basically be ending any chance of being free and thus having a real life. Death may well be better. He then thought back to the claw hovering ever so close to his eye. What was the point of being afraid of being killed when the man could do it now, an hour from now, a year from now, or fifty years from now, after turning him back into a little kid for the tenth time? His life was over if he stayed under the man's control. "Then kill me. I can't stop you, and you know it. Living like this isn't really living anyway!"

As suddenly as the blade appeared it was resheathed, "Killing you is a waste, boy. You have use as a bed warmer and are worth coin to me. Get your scrawny hide up and get ready to go. Another word out of you until I say you can speak will get you lips smacked clean off your face!"

Vondum turned back toward the gate, "Come on, get us down to Kandric before I change my mind and gut this little cretin!"

Even as all eyes slowly turned away from Conth, Ornam sent a message, 'Very well done, boy. Your torment is not done, but the first step is the biggest. The braver you are in the coming days will do much to determine how long it takes for Vondum to offer you to me for coin. I will free you and make you my rider and together we will become a pair and in no time be the ones spreading terror instead of you being afraid.

Seconds later Vondum reached over and put his arm around Cam'ris, "There, my new squire, is how to handle fear. I believe my slave just found his spine. Time will tell, but he very well may have just started down the road to freedom."

"You are not angry at him?"

"Should I be?"

"He spoke back to you."

"He did, but it was not something I forbade until just a moment ago. If he says a single word until I let him speak again, I will punish him dearly. However, he kept his loyalty to me. He said he would do as he was told. This is what a slave is to do. However, he has little use as a cowering whelp. His fear was crippling to him. Your first real lesson under my tutelage has just been given. Fear nothing, ever."

"Fear can be healthy, though..."

"No, fear is debilitating. When facing a superior foe, you need to respect its power and ability. The second you fear it; it has you beat. So, to fully answer your question, Respect, yes. Fear, no."

Cam'ris reached down and scratched the head of his new Tundra Wolf with one hand and patted the side of Blue Streak with his other even as he looked up at Vondum, "So at what point is it acceptable to flee a lost fight or fall back against a superior force?"

"Very good questions. Both have the same answer."

"What is it?"

"Over the next several years of squiring for me, you need to find and give me the answer... not in words, but in deeds. For until you do, you will not be released from my side to move on as an adult in this world you are about to fully enter. Until then, there will be extreme consequences to you for letting any fear drive your actions or reactions to anything we do or any opponents we face. Fear is for the weak, and you, my fine lad, are anything but. However, should I find any trace of weakness in you, it is my job, my duty, as your chosen mentor, to stamp it out. And believe me, my fine looking boy, I will stomp hard should it become necessary."

He then turned back to look at Klorna, "Make sure Cam'ris and Conth get through, but send them late. I want to make sure the way is clear or at least any threats are engaged before they join us." Without further comment, he stepped toward the portal as it opened, determined to be the first one through.

Klorna moved up to Cam'ris' side, "I'm betting you’re having second thoughts about agreeing to squire for him, huh?"

"Even if I was, I think I just found out I am not allowed to show any fear of it. Therefore, I must respectfully answer no to your enquiry."

Klorna snickered, "Very good answer, lad. Very good indeed! I'm betting Kandric will like ya!"

Vondum ignored what was being said behind him. His only concern was to secure the way for those behind him. He stepped out into the wind driven snow with only the briefest of pauses. A half dozen Garm and an equal number of Alphar moved forward, but he still stepped forward undaunted. "Halt your advances and summon Duke Mathard! I am escorting Princess Syrissia, and will make the snow run red should you make a single threatening move toward her!"

Vondum was followed by Ornam, the Hawkling Channeler of Avgon, Klytoss, a Garm officer, and Princess Syrissia. They were then joined by Mokel, and Morwar. Klorna gave it a couple of seconds, "Boys, get yer hides through before Vondum get mad at me.” She then quickly followed.

Klorna stepped out into a horrible storm, but the weather was secondary to the massive camp, although massive was not really the proper words for it. The war camp all but surrounded a large lake, and while the snow drastically cut back on her vision, lit torches, camp fires, streaming banners and tents of all shapes and sizes could be seen in every direction as far as she could make out. The faint glimmer of more distant fires told her what she could see was a sliver of what she was in the middle of.

Mathard appeared out of the blowing snow wearing only armor and a light cloak. He didn't even have gloves on and his lower arms only had Dwarven Blue Steel guards, with no protection under or over them. While his beard had ice hanging off of it, he didn't look even remotely cold. "Princess, it is an honor to welcome you to the war camp. General Vondum, thank you for your steadfast protection of our esteemed princess!"

"My duty needs no mention, Duke Mathard, but I thank you for your words nonetheless. I believe we need to go speak to Premier Kandric while the good princess gets acclimated."

"As soon as we find him..."

"He is not in the war camp?"

"No. He took his core group out to scout in hopes of finding some of his students before the furies of Syria fully moved in. At least this far south, it is only wind and snow, with little cold."

Vondum snickered as he noticed several turn and stare at Mathard in disbelief, including the Warrior Dragon, Ornam. "My good Duke, while you may find this balmy, many in my entourage do not, at least not yet. In addition to the less than optimal conditions, the Gate Stone passage is not exactly what anyone can call comfortable. Is there a place they can settle in while we try to figure out how to locate our Premier in this mess?"

Once Vondum got a nod out of Mathard and the Duke motioned for the group to follow, Vondum turned sharply, "Cam'ris, Conth, you are with me. Neither of you are to leave my side until I decide exactly what I am going to do with Conth. Cam'ris, should Conth utter any words, you are to punish him... violently..."

Yarnay (9yo Druid Gem Channel: Tallis- Klandon's WB), Sibler (9yo Mystic Sailor- Lylan's WB), Kaznal (9yo War Adpt Outdoors Channel:Avgon Mylan's WB), Tazen (14yo Swordsman Health), Dario (13 yo War Adpt Leather Gem), Alkoris (13 HAE Halfelf War Adpt Lock Outdoors), Tyndall (15yo Mage woodworker/outdoors);

Guardman Vit, Corporal Klug +2 guardsmen

Tazen woke to the sounds of water dripping down in the main sewer tunnel. In the dark it was impossible to make out anything, so he moved down to the only bit of light he could see. After a few seconds, his eyes adjusted enough to make out Alkoris, who had been totally healed during the strange possession of Kaznal and Yarnay. Because of this, his good friend could take a stint on guard duty. Before he could say anything, he noticed a great deal of water running down the main passage. "How long has this been going on?"

"Last couple of hours and getting worse," Alkoris responded. "I popped up top to take a look while Dario kept lookout. It is snowing like Inaxia herself is above Rolling Dale. The only good thing about it is I was able to go back into the rubble and secure some more gear." He pointed back down the small passage. "I got full school packs for all three of the small ones and a better one for me. I even grabbed a pack off a street thug I had to take down. It's for the tied-up kid, since I didn't know what you were planning on doing with him. Besides, it was there and I had to kill him or he would have continued to try to follow me back here.

"I didn't do more than give them a quick check, but they have all the standard stuff, plus a couple of weapons. Even the thug’s pack has a decent gear set. So we all have bedrolls and school cloaks now. I wish they would have handed out winter ones, but no one could have expected this kind of blow when we should be deep into planting time."

"Good work, but speaking of planting time, what about food?"

"The packs each have two days and a water skin. The meat shop is a rubble heap, and there is too much activity close to the Green Goblin for me to try to raid it. I did manage to dig some bread out of what is left of the bakery. It's got some bits of stone and wood in lots of it, so if we are going to eat the loaves I managed to scrounge up, we'll have to be careful. I did find some pastries under the bread though, so we'll have a good breakfast."

"And how many did you eat before thinking of the rest of us?"

"Hey there's enough to everyone, even the trussed-up kid... So yeah, I had a few while I waited for a patrol to go by... um, and another while waiting for the thug to figure out I lost him..." Alkoris grinned for a moment before turning serious again. "Once we go through what we have, the bread is about all we are going to have left unless we want to risk trying to buy some in another part of the city..."

"No way. We were told to get out of the city... actually the village, but hey, I am not going to argue with whatever was in Yarnay and Kaznal. Besides, the bread, with rocks, splinters, and anything else, is probably better than what they fed out on the camp last summer."

"I can't argue a bit, that porridge crap was flatly nasty."

Tazen shuddered at the thought, "Yeah, but any food is better than none. Which I'm pretty sure was what the whole idea of feeding us whatever they served us, for five straight days, two meals a day. After two days, even the dumbest realized it was eat it or starve... still, yuck! Anyhow, we'll hold off on the bread, but spitting out some wood and stone is better than going hungry."

Tazen paused and looked around, "OK, so... how come there is so much water down there and none up here? And how do we get out of the city, Alkoris?"

"I bet you already guessed, but I checked the tunnel we are in. It is real long and ends with a tube going up and the top is sealed. Probably an old chamber pot dump spot..."

"Ewww, really? We are in a chamber pot dump tube?"

"Hasn't been used for a real long time, Taz. Besides, other than keeping the streets from flooding, what do you think the sewers are used for?"

"Ohhhh, I need a bath..."

"We all do, but look on the plus side. We are real lucky with a tube this long there ain't dozens of dump tubes leading up and being used. It's actually real odd there ain't many more up tubes off this one. Even better, with all the water running down here, most of the chamber pot leftovers is getting washed away."

"Just stop! At this rate, I'll never be able to eat anything we brought down here! How do we get out of here?"

"My suggestion?"

"Yeah! You are the Lockmaster and resident robber guild member. If anyone can get us out, it will be you."

Alkoris let out a sigh as he looked down the main passage, "The water is getting deeper and running faster than it was even a few minutes ago. It's too dangerous to try to wade through it. The way out up the way is way too close to the Green Goblin and the troops there. While I have no idea where we'll end up, I'd say the best bet is for you to boost me up the tube at the end of this passage. I'll shimmy up and try to break the cap. If it looks like it goes anywhere at all, I'll toss down the rope and you all can climb up. If we can make it to the docks, I can show you how the guild gets merchandise in and out of the city. It's a good a way out as any."

“And if you can't break through the cap on the tube or it goes into some long sealed off space or something?"

"One thing at a time. Like what are we going to do with the tied-up spell thrower?"

Tazen ran his hand over his hair, "I have no idea. Part of me wishes I had just killed him, but I ain't no murderer. Another part says to leave him, but the things inside of Yarnay and Kaznal healed him, just like they healed you. This makes me think they want him to join us."

"It would have been nice if they had said so."

Tazen nodded, "Yeah, but I never seem to be so lucky."

"Well, whatever you are going to do, I'd say you got about an hour, two at most, to decide."


“Because by then, as long as the snow keeps falling like it is, the water is going to start coming up into this tunnel. You leave him tied up, you may as well cut his throat, cause he will drown if you don't cut him loose and either have him join us or let him go."

"Damn, Alkoris, you are really full of good news tonight!"

"Hey, I got the kids packs!"

Tazen smacked his forehead, "Why me?"

"From what I heard from one of them kids, you volunteered to come after 'em and keep them protected."

"I did, and I still can't quite figure out why... How safe do you think it would be to get us some light going so we can all see and get organized?"

"We're pretty secure at this point. If anything sees it, we'll hear them coming through the water."

"Good, turn the handle on the light dagger and get the others up and in gear. We need to take everything we managed to grab. As soon as they are ready, we'll move up the tunnel and hope it leads to a way out."

"What are you going to do?"

"Talk to the spell thrower and try to decide if I am going to trust him or not."

"No way am I just going to just trust him none, no matter what he tells ya."

"Good, cause if I do let him join, I need you to be ready to stick a knife in his back the second he goes against us."

Tazen waited until the dagger illuminated the passage around him before moving over to the older teen. As he looked at the kid, he could see nothing but fear looking back at him. "Don't go pissing yerself. I'm not wanting to hurt you. But when I pull the gag down, if you try to cast on me I'll knock your ass out... again... Understood?"

Seeing the teen nod, he reached out and pulled down the cloth wrapped around the back of his head and stuffed into his mouth. "So let's start out real simple. What's your name and how old are you?"

The teen gratefully sucked in some air for a few seconds before answering, "Tyndall, I turned fifteen just over two moons ago... Can I get some water?"

Tazen looked back over his shoulder. Seeing Sibler getting up, he pointed to the water skin, "Hey, is it full?"

"Almost. I took a couple of drinks before I went to sleep after Yarnay and Kaznal stopped speaking in weird voices... I feel really strong and I think I know more about being a Mystic and about sailing, too."

"I think we were all given something, Sibler. I just hope it doesn't fade or whatever. Now toss me your skin and get armored up. The water is rising and we need to get out of here."

Tyndall let Tazen pour a few gulps of water into his mouth before nodding in gratitude. He stayed silent, not wanting to anger the younger, but clearly much stronger boy in front of him.

"So, Ty, you don't mind me calling you Ty for now do you?"

Tyndall shook his head even as he responded, "No, Ty is fine."

"Good. So Ty... give me something to go on here. You and the wench tried to take my little friends. Then, the second I take out the book witch, you turn and run. I take you down, drag you into the sewers, and all the sudden the gods or spirits heal you at the same time they heal me, my friends, and give us more power or whatever happened. I don't know what to think."

"I don't really know what you are asking..."

"Good, cause neither do I, not really. Can you explain what you were doing with the witch and going to do to my little buddies?"

"There was a reward. Mistress Naralis told me it would be easy to take them and collect. This is the first time she has taken me out to directly help her..."

"So she is... was what?"

"Bounty hunter."

"So she was or wasn't working for Master Treg?"

"I'm sorry. I don't know who that is."

"Then you are not from here..."

"For the last half moon, yes. Before was Eaglecrest, Salt Hill, Raven's Crossing, Night Water, Torrent Hills..."

Tazen held up a hand to stop the teen. "And you were her apprentice?"

"Basically, yes."


"Um, yeah... I am really not a very good Mage. To be honest I am not really good at much of anything other than wood working and carving. I'm skinny, weaker than most, small, not very fast or quick and well, yeah, I pretty much suck at everything other than wood. I mean I'm not like completely useless, I can hunt, fish and track, so I'm not bad outdoors... But, yeah, I'm pretty much a nobody. Even now I fail about one of every five spells I try. So no, she never formally accepted me. I am not guilded, never have been, but she did teach me almost everything I know as far as magic and tracking. So overall I was very lucky she took interest in me and was willing to teach me and take care of me. She is really all I have known for the past seven years. Until Naralis, my life was going nowhere. No Mage was willing to take me on back in Thunder Bay. I was considered too low a caste, weak, clumsy, not enough natural magic, talent poor, unworthy, magic limited... I heard it all. And I tried to find someone, anyone, to teach me from the first time I popped the stable master at the inn I was working in with a dusty Autospell after he hit me with a riding crop for the hundredth time."

"And the one I took out, Naralis, she agreed to teach you?"

"Kind of... Um, she saw me in the inn cleaning up. I have always been small and weak, so I couldn't reach the top shelves to dust. But I also figured out I could sometimes get lucky and dust them with a Autospell. The night she came in, I failed the first time, but got it on the second. When I turned around, all happy about not getting in trouble for not getting the top shelf clean, she was there eyeing me.

"The next morn, I came down to start cleaning duties like always, but she was there talking with the innkeep. She gave him a dozen silver and told me I was coming with her."

"You were a slave?"

"No, orphan... The innkeep gave me room and board for work. It is the only home I remember. I don't even know how I ended up in the inn. My first memories are me scrubbing the inn floor, sleeping in the upper loft of the stable, getting free leftovers from breakfast and dinner and giving hay and oats to the visiting horses."

"But he couldn't sell you..."

"If I'd have said no, he would have handed me over to the stable master and I wouldn't have been able to sit for days and my hands bloody from the riding crop. I really didn't have any choice but to go, but she said she'd show me more magic. She was the only one... so... We then left Thunder Bay at first light in her cart. The next stop for more than a night was Gritty Wind, on the edge of the Wastelands of Odin. Talk about a scary place... There was no way I wanted anything to do with it, so it was try to run away or stay with her... and, well an orphan in Gritty Wind with no ties... nothing good there... so yeah, stay with her was the only real choice. After a moon in Gritty Wind, she managed to take out a bandit and got a large reward while she also kept some of the bandit's loot. It also gave her information on who she was really after. We set out again and I found myself in Scorpion Falls, if possible, even more scary than Gritty Wind. Do you know undead actually come wandering out of the desert a couple of times per week there?

"It's stupid scary when the town bell rings and dozens of warriors spill out to go kill some random Skeleton, Zombie, or whatever. Anyway, I found out in Scorpion Falls why she had taken me. She rented me out to a small brigand group..." Seeing the return look Tyndall nodded, "Yeah, that kind of rent out... I guess she knew in advance what the leader liked, and I was about as perfect as they came. But what I didn't know was it was all for a distraction. She waited for the leader to take me for the night, then struck. She took out the junior thugs without many spells, and then came after the big guy with all sorts of magic. As soon as she collected her bounty in Scorpion Falls, she offered to let me go, or I could stick with her and learn and train. It was staying in a place where undead were wandering into town and scorpions are pretty much all over, or stick with her. Again, not really much of a choice. After a few more jobs, I was not only used to her, I pretty much was dependant on her for everything. She never paid me, never let me have any coins, and only bought me things when I needed them. Even now there is only two changes clothing for me in her cart, along with extra set of boots, and a lighter cloak. All I really have... um, had... was my spell book.

"If I wanted food, shelter and clothing I had to do what she wanted. When she needed me, used me for distractions, even if it was to bump into someone or throw a rock through a window, she rewarded me with little things, like teaching me a new Autospell. Most of the spells she taught me were to help distract others, so she could strike, but at least I learned more magic and how to control it.

"About a year and a half ago, she once again fully rented me out, this time to a small local warlord in the Isles of Morden. It was awful. But after a few nights she slipped in and eliminated all his guards, then came into his hut and knocked him out with a spell. She broke his back in a way to where he couldn't walk, or even use anything from the waist down and walked away leaving him pulling himself along the ground with his hands screaming at her. Another warlord paid her with a big chest and we went back to the mainland. In return for the treasure she got, she took me to a back-alley magic vender in Port Azure and got me my very own spell book and four pages. From there it was more of the same. Each town she went after a reward offered for someone or something. It was amazing how quickly she found new jobs to take on, but she always had a next stop. She would collect the fee for the mission and move again. She would work with me on the road, and in the towns I would tend to her Dragonsteed, keep up the camp or room she rented, and if she found out it would help her, I was handed over for some coin and she would come get me when the target was fully distracted with me. Then we would do it all over again. I finally cast my first book spell four moons ago, but I am still not guilded. She said I was still too unpredictable to allow to guild. But as with every successful mission, she taught me a new Autospell. If I had to be a distraction, it was a new learned Autospell, or if I really helped, like being rented out, she gave me a new spell page. I guess I'm getting kind of old, though, since I've only gotten a few more pages since she got me my book."

Tazen scratched at his head for several seconds, debating or what he should do or say. Finally he figured he would just ask the most direct question he could come up with, "So your loyalties are where?"

"I am not sure I have ever had reason to be loyal to anyone. I mean, I was dedicated to Naralis, but I had to be if I wanted to eat, get clothing, have a bed to sleep in... and I did owe her for teaching me magic, but real loyalty... never. Not to anyone."

Tazen blinked and stared for a second. The answer was about as honest as he had ever heard out of anyone's mouth, while also being about the saddest as well. After a few more seconds of debate, Tazen pulled his blade and sliced the ropes keeping Tyndall's hands secured behind his back, then cut the ropes keeping the teen's arms tight to his chest. Without bothering to watch the older kid, he moved back to his pack and pulled out the kid's spell book and shoulder pouch. He stared at it for a few seconds as he held an internal debate. Finally, he moved back over to Tyndall. "I'm about to give you a chance to decide if you want to start being loyal to others or go your own way. If you stick with us, Ty, you have a chance to make some real friends. You help us, we help you. If we manage to get out of the city, and we get lucky enough to find him, I'll do my best to convince my commander to let you stay with us. It's the best offer I can make at the moment. If not, you are welcome to go out on your own. My friend Alkoris managed to get you a pack. I don't know what's in it, but it's yours. If you want to take off on your own, you may want to wait till we get out of the city, though, since it sounds like you'd do better in the wilderness than in a city, especially Rolling Dale as it now is."

Tyndall all but hugged the book while slipping the pouch for it over his shoulder, "What do I have to do to be a friend?"

"You know..." Tazen stopped as he saw the confusion and even fear in the young Mage's eyes. "What? you have never had a friend?"

"Mistress Naralis never let me. I mean, I played with kids in many places for a few hours, but she never allowed me to get to know any for more than a day or two. Normally didn't fit in anyway. Like I said, I'm not very good at much of anything."

Tazen scrunched his nose and raised an eyebrow, "Dude, what do you mean you're not good at much? You're a freaking Mage!"

"Not really. I'm not very good and have never been guilded..."

"Who the hell cares about how good you are or if you are a member of the guild or not? You can cast spells, real spells, off real spell pages, for Salem's sake!"

"But I mess up about one out of every five times..."

"So what?" Tazen tossed his hands up in frustration. "All I hear is, hey, I'm a Mage who casts spells out of my book right four out of five times! Do you know how many Mundanes would love to be able to cast one spell, even and a single Autospell? Besides, if you can really cast a book spell, you can get guilded with no problem!"

"I have no money. I have never been allowed to have a single coin."

"Ty, if you help us get out of here with your magic, I'll pay to get you guilded. There is a Mage Guild Hall in Gnarled Oak half a day's ride to the east..."

"I don't know how to ride."

"But you said you tended a Dragonsteed and fed horses."

"Yeah, I did. I love them, but I have never been on one. I know how to drive a cart, though."

"So we'll either find a cart or we'll walk. But I give you my word, I'll pay for your guild test if you help me get the little kids out of here."

"Um, sure. What do you want me to do?"

"Help protect them. If you are good at using magic to create distractions, then do it and me or Alkoris will finish them off. It's not like stabbing someone in the back or kidney to protect them three little guys bothers me."

"So I noticed... Um... sure. I'll help you." Tyndall stood and started to work out the kinks from being tied up for so long. "Hey, can I get something to eat... and um... I'm not really good with it, but can I have my blade back?"

Dario looked over, "Kid, ain't no one good with no street sword. What arms is ya good with?"

"Mistress Naralis only gave me a few basic lessons with most hand weapons, but worked with me a lot on my blade... well her blade, but she's been letting me carry it for several moons now..."

Dario pulled the street sword Tyndall had been carrying, slashed the air a few times, then spun it in one hand. "Gots the balance of a lead club. Ain't worth half the coin I bet ya could gets in a street market fer it..." With a shake of his head he slid it back in its sheath and tossed it back on his own pack. He then moved over to the gear Alkoris and scrounged, "You little guys, all a ya gots arms ya seem pretty happy with. Any of ya mind if we gives Ty one a these blades?"

Kaznal looked over to the bronze light sword, a trio of short blades, commonly referred to as hip swords, and one of a pair of gladiator swords Dario put down in the middle of the tunnel. "We have only practiced with those kinds of blades a few times. None of us are very good with them, but I would like to learn how to use them better at some point."

Seeing the other two boys nod in agreement, Dario smiled. "Once we gets out of here I bet Taz, me and Alk, will all help ya learn 'em right. Till then, let's give him one a these." When no one argued, he held up two smaller swords, "Which one, Ty?”

"Um... the lighter one..."

Tazen reached over and grabbed Tyndall's arm and squeezed. He sent Dario a cringing look even as he responded for the older teen, "Give him one of the hip swords, Dario. It's a bit heavier than a light sword, but more like his street blade. Besides the other two need practice to use them the way they were designed to be used. Rig it for him to wear the same way as his street blade, so he knows how to pull it while Alkoris and me get the little guys geared up."

Ten minutes later Alkoris got a boost up to the tube, put his back on one side and his feet on the other. It took him over five minutes of exhaustive work to move up the twelve meters and another five to break the old sealed stone cap with a hammer while keeping himself braced. Finally, he pulled himself out over the lip of the tube and looked around.

He already guessed wherever he was coming up was abandoned, because the noise of him breaking the cap would have certainly drawn the attention of anyone, but where he found himself was almost ideal. It was on old basement with two score of rotting bed frames, each with an armor and weapon stand. A few stands still had weapons and armor, but they were badly degraded with time. Most were empty. Along one wall, stone stairs led up to a metal bound door with an old large keyhole lock. Even without examining it, Alkoris knew it wouldn't take long to pick it. With a sigh, he dropped the rope he had secured around his shoulder. "Long forgotten barracks with stairs. Not sure where it's going to take us, but we have a way out. Come on up."

Tazen grabbed the end of the rope and motioned for Yarnay to go first. "Drop your pack. I'll stay down and tie off the packs so you can all pull them up."

Kaznal quickly spoke up, "You will not need to. The man you call commander made us climb with packs full of rocks or sand at least twice a week since he took over our training, Tazen."

"Nice," Dario stated with a great deal of praise even as Yarnay started pulling himself up the rope. The boy had to pause once, but managed to make it up. He gratefully accepted a hand from Alkoris, fell on his back, and took several deep breaths.

Kaznal was next up. Since he was wearing the female Dwarven Steel armor, he almost didn't make it, but Alkoris told him just to hold on, then pulled him up the last couple of meters. Once his hands were in sight, Yarnay moved up and helped pull him over the lip of the tube.

While this was going on, Tyndall looked over at the others nervously, "Guys... I'm not sure I can..."

Dario shot the teen a frown. “Go without your pack. We'll pull it up."

"Yeah," Sibler spoke up. “It will be easy. You are tall enough to put your back against one side and your feet against the other like Alkoris did. With the rope, you can pull with your arms while using your feet to walk up."

Tazen moved up, "Come on, Ty, you can go next. I'll boost you up so you're almost in the tunnel."

It took almost ten minutes, since Tyndall had to take four long breaks, but finally he managed to disappear from view. Sibler spoke to Tazen with a whisper, "There is no way the commander is going to want him around..."

"I know, Sibler. I know."

"But you told him..."

"Yeah... One thing at a time. First we need to find out if we can trust him and second we have to get beyond the walls of Rolling Dale. If we do both, I'll worry about figuring out a way to keep him with us. Now go show him up and get up there."

Sibler grinned as he quickly made his way up without stopping for even a short break.

Dario glanced over to Tazen, "Gotta give 'em some credit. Yer little guys got some grit."

"Yeah, but once you meet the commander you'll get why. But you're right. They’re tougher than most and they risked their butts to get others out of the city, so I am going to do everything I can to keep them safe. Now stop talking and start climbing."

Fifteen meters later, Alkoris picked the lock and pushed the door open only to find themselves in a long forgotten storeroom full of rotting wooden barrels stocked with long neglected crossbow bolts, a couple of score of crossbows with strings so old they broke with a touch, along with racks of rusty daggers, swords, maces, hammers, and other weapons. Another rack held bronze weapons, long green with age and no care.

Alkoris stayed in the middle of the room, "Oh, way too much iron. Even worse, rusty iron. I need to get out of here!"

Kaznal moved up to the door on the left wall and pulled. It didn't budge. "It is stuck or locked, and I do not see a keyhole."

Tazen moved up and tried. He was able to get the door to wiggle enough to break some of the rust off the very old hinges, but something was holding the door shut. "Not stuck, must be locked. Alkoris, all you buddy."

Using the Dagger of Light, Alkoris moved up. "He's right. No keyhole from this side. Think you can break it down, Taz?"

"Looks thick, but maybe..."

Seeing Dario move over to where a few old war hammers were, Tyndall spoke up while pulling out his spell book, "Hold up."

Dario put the hammer down, "You got a spell to help or something?"

"As long as it isn't magic and I don't mess up the casting, yeah."

Tazen extended his arm while gesturing to the door. "All yours. I wasn't looking forward to making a whole lot of noise anyway.”

With the light from the dagger, Tyndall carefully read the spell page and followed the movements with his left hand. After nearly half a minute, muddy brown tendrils erupted from the middle of his hand and slid around the cracks in the door. It took almost two more minutes, but finally there was a series of clicks and the door swung inward a few centimeters.

Dario moved up and patted Tyndall on the back, "Nice!"

"I don't want to hear you say you're not a good Mage ever again, Ty! You're awesome."

"Until I screw up a spell..."

"Everyone messes up once in a while," Sibler joined in, "but you just passed a Primary Guild test. And I am with Dario. Very nice."

"You're getting me out of here," Alkoris praised the teen, "so, I really owe you."

Tazen moved up to the door while holding a finger to his lips, but still took a moment to pat Tyndall on the back. He pulled the door open and found it led to a lantern lit passage with an arched ceiling. "We got light, which means we also have people around."

Dario followed with a fighting axe in his hand. "Where is we?"

Alkoris moved into the hall and looked both directions, then back at the door. "No idea, but this door is a secret one, and judging on what's below, it's been long forgotten. Since the passage is well lit, we need to do whatever we can to blend in."

Tazen shot his friend a sideways glance, "I'm open to suggestions."

"As the guild master used to say, 'when cornered, use what you got and pretend you belong.’"

"And how do ya think we're pullin' off being down in a lower hall, when none a us know where we be?" Dario asked.

At this Tyndall moved up, "Mistress Naralis did it all the time. You got us these cloaks with patches. What are they for?"

"Standard Swordsman School cloaks," Tazen answered. "Warrior Adepts trained there too, but we still just called it the Swordsman School. Most of the packs we have are also from the school."

"So we'll put on the cloaks and look like we are supposed to be here. If anyone asks, say we took a wrong turn and are trying to figure out how to get to... um... Can't be too long till sunup, so breakfast?"

Alkoris snickered, "Good a plan as any. I say we run with it."

Kaznal looked over with total confusion, "So we do not try to hide or anything?"

"The chances of us avoiding everyone is next to impossible, kid." Alkoris stated. "By not hiding and walking around out in the open, no one would expect us to be anything but who we say. With any luck, they'll scold us for being somewhere where we were not supposed to be and show us the way out. If not, and they start to take or lead us to a boss or someone, distract them. I will try to kill them soft and quiet."

Seeing Tazen nod in reluctant agreement, Sibler shrugged. "I bet back at the palace the guards would never think any group of kids in local school cloaks they found walking around in the open was trying to do anything wrong. They would escort them out and warn them never to do it again."

"Then keep their eyes open in case they did it again..." Yarnay added. "Then they would get into real trouble."

"Everyone, switch to having your gear over your cloaks like how we go out into the field." Tazen spoke with authority, "Alkoris, you take the lead and do the talking. The rest of you all, follow and no matter what act like we are supposed to be here. If things start to go bad, Alkoris, call me... call me Dorwald. He is with the commander, so he isn't around and I know enough about him to pretend to be him to those who don't know either of us... At least long enough to give you time to kill whoever is giving us the problems."

Alkoris quickly agreed, "Good a plan as I could come up with. I'm going to keep trying to find ways up until we can see out a window or something. Once we get bearings we'll figure a way out of the city."

Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Lacate, Zeltoss

Seldnat glanced over to Pike as the pair knelt in deep snow, keeping them mostly hidden from the small group of White Dragonlings. Just by the look on Pike's face, Seldnat could tell the young Garm's thoughts mirrored his own. Kandric's plan seemed really sketchy. The only difference, between him and Pike was he was positive Kandric wasn't divulging everything. He had seen Kandric do this before, but had yet to figure out why.

Meanwhile, Pike didn't have the experience nor had he spent enough time around Kandric to understand he wasn't getting the full picture. All Pike knew was what he had been told. They needed to locate the 'Big Dragon' so they could lead it to the lake, damage one of the wings, and get out of the way. The last part Kandric assured both of they would be taken care of. The how had not been explained and this bothered Pike since he could see no way they would live more than a couple of seconds after teaming up to prevent the 'Big Dragon' from being able to fly.

Furthermore, Pike was not at all thrilled with the idea of splitting the group. It was bad enough they were going to take on a Dragon, possibly two. But to split the forces against such a horribly powerful foe just seemed insane. However, Kandric was a Premier, extremely high royalty by his own hand, and even if Kandric refused to admit it, he was Alphar. This made Premier Kandric 'his Premier' and one didn't argue with such a high noble.

The other thing, and the biggest reason Pike refused to do more than ask a couple of questions and hint at not being happy about any of this was his low noble family would benefit in prestige and influence regardless of Pike's survival. As long as Pike fought hard and did his utmost, the Garm and Alphar courts would document Pike's loyalty. This meant his family would reap the rewards of his actions. Conversely, if Pike didn't serve Kandric to his fullest ability, and something bad happened to the new Premier, his family would bear the shame of Pike's failure. It was a massive burden, but one Pike saw as a once in a lifetime honor. Because of this, even as Pike watched the outline of a moderate sized White Warrior Dragon move through the trees beyond the group of Dragonlings, he forced himself to keep most of his fear in check. This didn't prevent him from tasting bile, all the while guessing the outline of the close to twenty-meter beast wasn't the 'big one'.

Since Seldnat had been careful to keep them downwind, and the wind was blowing so fiercely, Pike risked speaking in a whisper, "I do not see any captives, and certainly no one who looks to be a student."

"Same," Seldnat grumbled. "No see Kandric grand-pops none either. Jus' seven Dragon-thing and da big lizard. Me no think it be da one Kandric after none. Dumb thing be puny next ta da ones him already gunch. Me bet two a us take dat one. Us no be happy after, but us live ta see it fall."

"Are Lorthorn, Zeltoss and Jamon really going to be able to take it down?"

"Me hope. Us come helps gunch it when we hurts wing on da big lizard. But we's got to take out a couple a dem Dragon-things er Lor and Zel will be outnumber bad. Think ya can shoot one in dis wind?"

Pike pulled up his crossbow and loaded it with one of the magic-tipped bolts Duke Mathard had given him, while handing a second one to Seldnat before looking over with a nervous grin, "Sure hope so. I heard from one of my senior uncle's scouts each one of these bolts cost about five hundred silver coins to make."

Seldnat shook his head, "Me pa would drop dead if'n him hear one bolt be worth so much, den haunt da person fer tellin' him 'bout it!"

Pike couldn't help but snicker, "Just remember I was only given fifteen of these and once shot they are done, so we really do not want to miss."

"Den let get closer."

"Oh, boy... Not really what I wanted to hear, Sir Seldnat."

Seeing Pike let out long breath, Seldnat quickly covered the boy's head with his cloak. "No do dat! Dem may see heat er breath!"

Pike gulped, "Sorry, I will not do so again."

"Den you learn, dis be good. But if'n ya calls me sir one more time we's gunna have ta wrestle till me makes ya says ya never do it no more."

"But you are knighted..."

"And ya be friend. None dat sir junk from ya no more er us spar."

"Alright, alright, but in the courts and in front of the my senior uncle..."

"Den... OK... if'n ya have to. But den ya have ta knock it off again! Me jus' Seldnat, er Seld to ya!" Seldnat didn't bother to wait for a response. Instead he moved forward on his stomach, staying lower than the snow around him.

Behind him, Pike had to fight the desire to curse as he kept pushing snow down the front of his armor. Looking toward Seldnat, the young Garm couldn't figure out if the Halforc was just dealing with it and ignoring it, or he wasn't getting any snow down his chest. The way Seldnat was moving, Pike guessed the clearly good Outdoorsman was doing something slightly different to prevent getting soaked and cold, but there was nothing Pike could do but push forward. The distraction had to be made and taking down some of the Dragonlings was key to isolating the almost twenty-meter long Warrior Dragon for the others.

After a sixty-meter crawl, Seldnat motioned for Pike to slide up next to him. As soon as the Garm was at his side he pointed, "Two big Dragon-things. Us take dem first. Ya take close; da one leanin' on tree. Me get da other.

"If'n us have time, reloads and goes after one a dem smaller ones. Dem last three be tiny, pob'ly kid like we be. No bother use magic on um."

"Sure..." Pike passed over another magic bolt. "But I have these so we may as well use them on the medium ones."

Seldnat nodded and put the second bolt in his teeth before taking careful aim, "What's dis bolt does anyhow?"

"Not sure," Pike admitted. "Duke Mathard said to aim for the center of what I wanted to kill and enjoy."

"Me move so we's straight downwind. Waits till after next big blow, den shoot. Me do same.

A couple of minutes later both boys raised up and fired. The tiger's eye gemstones right behind the Dwarven Blue Steel tip flared a moment before the bolts hit. As this happened the bolt seemed to shatter, only as each broke apart, the single bolt became seven. Seldnat's shot was dead center in the chest so the bolt he actually shot hit the Dragonling in the chest and the other six formed a near perfect circle a few centimeters out, creating a bull's-eye effect with crossbow bolts. The eyes of the Dragonling rolled up and it was dead before it fell flat on its face, further driving in the bolts into its chest.

Pike's aim wasn't quite as good. He hit just below the left shoulder, so two of the outer bolts missed, sinking into a tree behind it. But with five bolts sticking into it, the Dragonling didn't do more than let out a little gasp and stagger a couple of steps before collapsing in the snow.

Seldnat pulled up the bolt in his teeth with wide eyes even as he used his other hand and feet to quickly re-cock his crossbow, "Dis be no fair... um... almost... How me get more a dees?"

Pike was equally astonished. "I will be sure to ask my senior uncle... for both of us!"

"Yea, ya do dat! Now, me wants ta do it 'gain!"

Pike grinned as he slipped another magical bolt in his cocked crossbow, "Me too!"

Since two of Pike’s bolts missed and hit a tree, the distinct thunk sounds got the attention of all the other Dragonlings in the small camp. Further out, the Warrior Dragon hissed, "Find out what caused the sound or I swear I will feed you to Prince Weraweld!"

The next two largest Dragonlings quickly grabbed war picks and moved out away from the camp and in the general direction of the sounds. But since the impacts were near simultaneous, they didn't have much to go on. One of the called up, "Nad'bet, where are you?"

Next to Pike Seldnat realized he understood what was being said with a raised eyebrow, but didn't focus on this realization. Instead, he lightly nudged Pike, "Wonder which a us turn Nad'bit inta bolt target. Any guess?"

Pike was so focused on the one word he thought he understood, he almost missed the question, "Um, what? Oh. Sorry, ahh.... So is one of the ones we killed named Nad'bit and can you really understand what they are saying?"

"Yep, and yep again!" Seldnat pointed to the one off to the left. "Da one wit da broke horn be all you. Me take the one with da book out.”

Pike nodded as his mind focused in on the immediate threat, while his heart was still pounding in his chest over the single word he dearly hoped was something else, anything else, "Um, yeah... yes, sorry. The book carrier needs to go down. He is all yours. Um... I do not see any animals, so he is probably a Mage."

Seldnat shot Pike a frown at the sudden fear in the young Garm's eyes and in his voice, "Geesh, me'll gunch the book Dragon-thing no worry none!" Seldnat responded with an annoyed shake of his head even as he crawled forward to get a quicker and easier shot.

Pike grumbled to himself so softly he was certain he wouldn't be heard, "Did I just hear the name Weraweld? By the gods, he cannot be here... And are these guys all cocky or are they really as good as they think they are?"

Before he could dwell on his questions to himself, the Dragonling with the book got a face full of bolts and dropped like a sack of rocks. Seeing the other Dragonling turn at the sound of his partner's demise, Pike pulled up his crossbow, waited for a particularly hard gust of wind to pass, then fired. Since the Dragonling was standing still trying to locate his friend, the shot was an easy one.

All seven bolts sunk into its side. It managed three staggering steps back toward the makeshift camp while letting out a long gasping hiss of pain. It then grabbed onto a tree and slid down, while its right claw tried to pull at the cluster of bolts just below its ribcage.

Seldnat took the opportunity, while waiting for Pike, to put a regular bolt into the closest of the three smaller Dragonlings, purposefully aiming low. The bolt sunk into its upper leg and it fell screaming.

He looked back with a big grin, "Let's get dis game goin'!" He then took a deep breath and shouted, "Good Shootin' Kandric! Ya nail all four a dem dumb lizard-things! Me gots one a dem pups!"

He then turned and spoke in a hushed tone, "To da lake! Make 'em think Kandric wit us!"

Pike shoved his crossbow into his pack and started backing up quickly as the Warrior Dragon moved hastily through the woods toward them, "Premier Kandric, they got a Warrior Dragon!"

Kandric's voice came from much closer than Pike expected, but still in the direction of the frozen water's edge, "It is nothing more than a Dragonette! You can take it."

Moments after Kandric's voice pierced the storm, Zeltoss fired a crossbow from the opposite side. The bolt itself bounced off the Warrior Dragon's scales, but in doing so, caused a small vile attached to the bottom of the bolt to shatter. Suddenly the woods lit up as fire splashed over the side of the Warrior Dragon. Its roar of outrage and pain cleared snow off the trees for almost a hundred meters in all directions around it.

Seldnat watched as a second bolt followed up the first, splashing a great deal more fire over the outraged and suddenly injured beast, "Huh, us might not have ta help none. Me bummed."

Even though Pike was all but running, pumping his small Dwarven legs as fast as he could safely move them through the snow, he glanced over, "Knight or not, Seldnat, you all are a little crazy!"

"Only little?" Seldnat asked with a smirk so large it totally exposed one of his small tusks. "If'n so, me need ta does better!"

"Oh, by the gods, I am going to die with a group of lunatic kids! Brandall will never let me in!"

"Oh," Seldnat openly laughed, "him no want none a us none! Him worry us go der and takes over!"

"Brandall, he is only talking for himself, not me!"

"Ya wit us, ya be one a us!" Seldnat snickered.

Before more could be said, a huge roar came from overhead in Dragon, "Peradem, stop crying and kill the underlings before I rip your damned throat out for being totally incompetent! Your father should be ashamed to have fertilized you! I will deal with the two creatures trying to run away under me, then find this so-called Premier and dismember him!"

Pike turned at the sound and saw the massive eighty-eight meter long Dragon diving down through the blizzard like it was a calm day. As soon as he saw the gilded golden glowing blades on the tips of the horns he soiled his loincloth while diving, "Oh, by the gods, it is Prince Weraweld! Seldnat, GET DOWN!"

Before the massive Dragon could complete its dive on the two kids, five fire darts shot up from the edge of the lake. Four dissipated harmlessly as they slammed into Weraweld's magic defiance, but one managed to get through, burning a single scale on the side of its neck. "You marked me! How dare you?"

"Oh, shut your Dragonette snout, or come get some!" Kandric shouted out, while backing up to get between two huge rocks only a couple of meters from the edge of the iced-over lake.

"How dare you insult me child!" Weraweld snarled while sending and massive glob of frozen mucus at Seldnat, only to see the Halforc roll out of the way. Still, the massive Dragon had the satisfaction of watching the glob shatter and send bits and pieces into the boy. "I will be back to pull you out of your Black Dragon scale armor by your tusks and eat you like an hors d’oeuvre, child!"

Seldnat rolled over and put a hand up to a trickle of blood coming down his neck. Seeing the massive creature flying off into the storm he sat up and looked over the armor noting it wasn't even marred by the gigantic loogie, but several spots of exposed and cloth covered skin oozed blood. "Dat be nasty. It spit on me!"

"Be happy it missed, but hate to tell you... It was not just spit."

"Awwww! Ya not have ta tell me dat none! Super nasty!" Seldnat stood while drawing his Staff Spear and changing it over to a spear. "Dat damn thing gots to pay fer makin' me pulls forzen bits a what it jut hacked up out a me!" He started to move toward the edge of the lake, but paused as he realized Pike was moving slow, "Ya OK?"

"Ahhh, kind of messed my loincloth..."

"No worry none. Don't think me had no clean one after me see Blathamort none. Stick round us, ya gets used ta it. But ya got ta live with messy ass fer now. Kandric be countin' on us!"

"Gross, but yeah..."

Even as they picked up the pace, Seldnat looked over, "Um, Pike, what be a... um... hor... horderve?"

"Fancy pre-meal snack."

"Me be insalt... um insult... ya knows what me mean."


"Yea, dat be da word! Me be insulted! Me no snack and no way me be fancy!"

Down at the lake Kandric dodged around the massive stones as Weraweld made a diving pass. He couldn't help but note the massive Dragon had been strong enough to physically push one of the gigantic boulders over a meter and a half with its back foot. Realizing he had been extremely lucky to not get squished by the rock, he decided he needed to give himself more room and stay far enough away to not get flattened. "What, you afraid to land and take me on?"

"I can stay up here all night, Dragon Killer!"

"Huh, really?" Kandric once again dove and rolled while hearing the two stones smash into each other as Weraweld swooped down and used his back legs to kick them toward Kandric. Kandric stood and knocked some snow off his cloak, "There must have been some chicken in the egg you came out of!"

A guttural roar erupted from Weraweld as it made its next pass, unleashing the full fury of its glacial breath.

Kandric pulled up his Frozen Flame and pumped Force into it. The ruby and sapphire runes shimmered brightly, and the arctic winds parted around Kandric, clearing the snow all the way to the ground in two half fans on either side of him out to over twenty-five meters while also coating the ground in solid ice.

"Oh... Oh..." Kandric shouted, "Disgusting! Even your flatulence is ice cold!"

"My flatulence? MY FLATULENCE!" Weraweld screamed in total indignation! "How dare you talk about my breath in such words!"

"Wow!" Kandric called out as loudly as he could, "Even worse! Your breath smells like ass! What did you do; eat an Ogre and leave it stuck in your teeth to rot?"

Weraweld spun in the air and came down right at the rock in front of Kandric, slamming into it with everything it could muster. This pushed it over half a dozen meters and once again came very close to crushing Kandric, but also forced it to land.

This is exactly what Kandric had been waiting for. He waved his hand and spoke a trio of Shamanistic phrases. Moments later a pair of dimensional doors opened. One right in front of Seldnat and Pike, the other directly over Weraweld's back. "Seld, jump in now!"

Seldnat didn't even blink at the strange maroon colored rift floating in front of him. He reached over, grabbed Pike by the shoulder, and jumped in. A split second later he tumbled out of the other hole; this one more of a purplish orange. The pair landed hard on Weraweld's back. At the same time, Seldnat felt cold like he had never felt before as the saliva in his mouth started to ice over. However, he also had been told what to do and where to strike. With fingers starting to freeze, he slammed his Staff Spear, with the spear tip down, into the last scale over the wing bone where it hooked into the scales of the back. He then pulled back with everything he had, opening up a gap. The instant the unprotected bone became visible, Pike moved up and brought the magical axe he had borrowed from Seldnat down on the hollow bone, using the back pick-like end, rupturing the bone with a single shot.

This allowed Seldnat to pull a dagger and slam it into the hollowed out spot. He then yanked out his Staff Spear, grabbed Pike by the back of his collar and jumped off.

Both kids were then batted in mid-air by Weraweld's massive tail, even as it screamed in pain and tried to use its back claw to pull at where the dagger had gone in, but it was wedged in, under the scales in a place it could not hope to reach. At the same time, the massive Dragon tried to stretch out its wings to take back to the air, but instead retched in agony as the dagger buried under the scale and in its hollow bone split the bone open further.

This gave Kandric a few precious seconds to cast a Wind Wall, but used his spirit enhanced knowledge of spells to form it into a funnel with a long slide like formation at the far end. Both Seldnat and Pike entered the funnel and were deposited over a hundred meters away into deep snow. Both boys were coated with ice and seriously hurt from the tail whip, but very much alive. Just to make sure the Dragon stayed focused on him, he sent five more fire darts into it, getting past Weraweld's Magic Defiance with two.

Kandric backed off toward the lake, but pulled up yet another spell. He pushed his hand into the snow until he found ground and sent the energy into it. Even as he then jumped up and backed up onto the ice, a faint golden glow appeared under the snow where Pike and Seldnat shivered and moaned in pain.

Kandric shot Weraweld a nasty look and backed up further onto the lake while summoning another spell.

By this time Weraweld had managed to mostly fold the badly damaged wing onto the side of his body and shook his massive head in rage. "Where do you think you are going!"

"Too fat and lazy to run after me?"

Still in a great deal of pain, Weraweld launched itself forward only to see Kandric float upward and get pushed back rapidly by the wind. "Pathetic! Stand your ground child!"

Kandric lowered himself down on the ice, well out of lunge range of the massive Dragon prince, "What? Are you afraid to chase me out onto the ice?"

An evil smirk appeared at the corners of the wounded beast's lips and it suddenly charged.

At the same time this happened, Kandric had a smirk of his own on his lips. He shot upward and back fast.

Weraweld got a running start and jumped, narrowly missing Kandric with a tremendous bite attempt. He fell back on the ice hard even as Kandric floated back down. The Dragon glared at Kandric while cringing at the extra pain the fall had caused inside his wing. However, there was no way he was going to show just how much discomfort he was in. The other thing was, he was certain the little boy in the Black Dragon armor had made a major tactical error. To this end, it snorted, "What? You thought I would fall through the ice, child? Oh, silly boy! I freeze any body of water I step on deep enough to walk on it!"

"No, no I did not think the ice would crack. In fact, I was counting on you freezing it deeper." Kandric countered as he hovered just off the surface of the ice and waved his hands in a back and forth motion, twirling his thumbs, and speaking a very long Shamanistic spell.

Weraweld lunged again, only this time his back legs sunk into the ice and he didn't get fully off the surface. This caused his attempted jump to totally fail. His chin slammed down onto the ice and sunk in deeply enough to make it hard to pull his head out of the ice. Once it got its face out of the ice, it shook its head to clear some of the stars it was seeing while shouting, "What!?! What is this?"

Kandric's lips twisted up and his eyes gleamed, "Have you not heard of the Shaman spell 'Hard Water'?"

"Yes!" Weraweld shouted while trying to pull his back legs out of the ice only to find his front legs had started to sink in as well, "Hard Water make the surface of water hard enough to walk on! But this..."

"Ah, this... this is along the same lines, Prince. Only this is Soft Ice... Consider it the opposite of Hard Water. It is a little trick I learned from some friends of mine... Well, truthfully, they did not teach me this. I taught it to myself after learning how to modify a multitude of other Shaman spells. So while they did not tutor me in the exact incantations of making ice soft, they deserve full credit for teaching me there is a world beyond the perceived spell casting abilities us mortals tend to lock ourselves into. This is just one of many small tricks I have learned or taught myself."

Deep in the forest hundreds of meters from the lake's shore, Zeltoss fired his last bolt tipped with the 'Fire Splash' potion he had. The Warrior Dragon spun its head and let out a massive freezing breath only to see Lorthorn spin in front Zeltoss, hold up a hammer with one hand, while putting his other on Zeltoss' shoulder. The hammer took on a cracked rock appearance with the rock being black and the cracks glowing red. The intense heat could be felt for an instant before the breath hit it and rolled off a dome of super warm air.

"Garm Lava Hammer!" It snarled with a great deal of fear. "One of these years we will find the Garm making those and kill them all!"

"Maybe your kind will," Lorthorn responded in perfect Dragon tongue. "You will not be there to see it, however."

Zeltoss stood and whispered, "I'm out and he isn't as badly hurt as I had hoped or expected."

"But he is hurt and we are not. All things considered, we are doing far better than I expected." He then shouted out, "Jamon, you OK?"

Jamon's voice came out from some thick underbrush slightly to the left and mostly behind the Warrior Dragon. "I finished off the wounded Dragonling and dropped one of the others. It's still breathing, but down. I lost the third one, though."

"Follow its footprints and kill it!" Lorthorn shouted.

"How? I have no idea what footprints belong to who and there is all sorts of footprints out here!”

"Don't worry about it then. I sure wouldn't be able to track one thing with all the foot trails in the snow around there." Zeltoss spoke up, "Just kill the one you fell and give us a hand if you can, but keep your eyes open. The third young one couldn't have gotten far!"

The Dragon looked back by turning its head over its right shoulder and looking in the direction of the voice, "Yes, pup come help. I could use a small snack. It would be easier on you if you would give yourself up for a quick bite before Prince Weraweld gets over here. Those are his hatchlings you are murdering!”

"Murdering? You all started this by taking kids from our school! We are not murderers, we are rescuers!" Zeltoss shouted back, while loading a normal bolt in his crossbow. Noticing the look he was getting, he shrugged, "It ain't going to do much, but he's too cold to get close to!"

Lorthorn frowned even as he backed up into heavier trees pulling Zeltoss as he did so. This gave them decent protection, since the density of the foliage he was moving into was packed in enough to where the Warrior Dagon had to move forward and smash at the trees to pursue. This gave both Lorthorn and Zeltoss the ability to move faster than the Dragon could.

The Warrior Dragon pushed its front right shoulder into one of the trees causing it to crack, but it couldn't quite break it. "You can consider yourselves whatever you want, but to my prince, you are a murderer and he is the only one out here who matters." It paused and backed off before lunging forward with its front feet off the ground. It then used its powerful back legs to leap and drive its weight into the tree, breaking it. With an opening, he shoved his head in and snapped at Zeltoss, only to growl in frustration as Lorthorn pulled the less agile boy back in the nick of time. "You cannot stay in there forever, boys. Sooner rather than later, Prince Weraweld will slaughter those you are with, including the Great Dragon Killer pup, and he will and help me extract you two."

"It sounded to me like he expected you to be able to handle us," Lorthorn fired back. "I sure look forward to you having to explain why you couldn't come through. With any luck, he will carry out his threat and rip your throat out for us."

A deep-throated growl rolled out of the depths of its throat as it lunged at the next tree with everything it had, snapping it like a twig and forcing both Zeltoss and Lorthorn to dive to avoid getting hit by pieces of it as the branches shattered as they hit limbs of other trees. Both boys ended up being showered in bits and chunks of wood and were left with multiple bleeding spots.

The Dragon gave something akin to a victory snort as its back feet slammed back into the ground with enough force to cause both boys to bounce a little. "Oh, I smell blood! Not feeling so safe now, are you?"

Zeltoss fired his crossbow and watched as it harmlessly bounced off the Dragon's neck scales even as Lorthorn scrambled back to his feet, grabbed Zeltoss by his right foot and dragged him behind the next line of trees. "This is not going well."

"No, no it's not." Zeltoss fully agreed while reloading his crossbow, knowing it was all but pointless to do so.

Lorthorn pulled a particularly large splinter out of Zeltoss' chin, then turned and pointed to one just behind his left ear. He winced as Zeltoss extracted it, but otherwise stayed focused on the Dragon. It was then he noticed a very faint heat source off to the side of the Dragon. The problem was, the cold radiating off the massive creature was messing with his heat vision, so he couldn't make out who or what it was.

The Dragon snorted, "Oh, no pompous comments left, boys? Have you lost your bravado at long last?”

"No." Lorthorn stated with an annoyed voice. "Just waiting for Premier Kandric to show up and gut you like an iguana."

"Iguana?" the Dragon asked with total indignation, then hacked up a frozen glob and sent it into the tree right in front of Lorthorn.

Lorthorn looked over at Zeltoss with wide eyes as the tree partially split from the impact. Neither boy wanted to find out what a second Dragon hack-up would do to the tree they were counting on for some degree of protection so they moved to a different one.

Zeltoss looked over with a great deal of concern, "We are going to have to try to take it head on, aren't we?"

"I was kind of hoping Seld would come and help by now, but guess the heat source out there is only Jamon..." Lorthorn whispered even as he let out long uneasy sigh, "So, like it or not, I guess we'll have to try to take it face to face. Let's try to make it mad so it knocks over another tree. It might let us get close enough to hit it with my hammer and your mace."

Zeltoss had a look of nervous bemusement on his face as he took in a deep breath. "My turn..." He then moved so the Dragon could see him for an instant before disappearing behind a decent sized maple right on the edge of the dense line of trees. "Hey, lizard lips you getting tired yet, cause I think we can keep this up for hours."

The Dragon snorted, "Tired? I can keep this up for days, not hours!"

"Typical Dragonette, all haughty talk..."

Before Zeltoss could say more the Dragon leapt high, using its wings to propel itself into the higher part of the tree, "I am a Warrior!"

Even as the weight of the beast uprooted the whole maple and pushed it back forcing Zeltoss to dive and roll, Jamon sprinted over from his hiding spot, looked up, judged where the back feet were going to come down and put the two war picks he had taken off the bodies of the larger Dragonlings Seldnat and Pike had killed. He took just enough time to make sure both picks had their points up and did a quick adjustment to them as the back feet came back to earth. He then dove as far away as he could.

The Dragon didn't even notice movement below. Instead it started to prepare another ball of phlegm to send at the boy who was scrambling to get away from the toppling tree. This all changed in an instant as both its back paws came directly down on the spikes of the war picks. Its massive weight drove them through its immense hardened paw pads and into the meat and bones of its feet.

It screamed in horrified agony.

This not only caused it to fall off onto its side, it also opened up its neck since it was craning back and wailing.

While Lorthorn had no clue what had happened, there was no question in his mind the shriek and subsequent reaction could not have been faked. No one or nothing could make such a pained and tortured screech without reason and need. He rushed forward, pushed more Force into the Lava Hammer and swung with everything he had at a bulging spot on the neck which he took for an Adam's apple. The intense heat of the hammer shattered the white scales and cut off the ear-piercing cry in midstream. Not wanting to take any chances, and really needing the sound to stop for his own sake, he hit the Dragon's neck a second time.

This was followed up by Zeltoss, who much like Lorthorn, had no idea what had just happened but was equally sure the Dragon was not putting on some kind of ploy. It wasn't just in distress, something caused it to be in complete anguish. Since the creature was thrashing around wildly and for some reason didn't seem to be able to stand, Zeltoss pulled his Mace of the Dead back over his head with both hands and slammed it down into the side of the Dragon's jaw. When it didn't even try to snap or bite at him, but instead attempted to jerk away and curl into a protective ball, he stepped forward, following the head and hit it over and over again, not even trying to aim. It was too big of a target to miss anyway.

Lorthorn was doing pretty much the same. Except he concentrated on the neck. After nearly five minutes the Warrior Dragon convulsed and gave up its life in a blast of Dragon Death.

Jamon stood up from behind one of the trees the beast had toppled, brushed himself off, and grinned. "Not much different than stepping on nails for us, huh?"

Over in the middle of the lake, and feeling its belly sinking into the ice, Weraweld tried again to pull itself out, only to sink in further. With desperation in its eyes, it sucked in a vast quantity of air and exhaled another icy breath. Once again it watched as Kandric's blade flared and caused its breath to split around the boy. At the same time the bone chilling exhale did nothing to stop or even slow its downward movement into the ice. "You... You cannot do this! I am a prince!"

"And this means what to me? Now where are my students?"

"I sensed your presence, the Dragon Death Gifting in you, and knew you were close! Because of this I had your grandfather pull them back. I will give you the location if you let me out!"

"Not a chance. I will just have find them and kill any of your kind helping my grandfather. Besides, I have it from a very good authority you have taken down several Silvers. They are my allies. Letting you live, even to spare the life of some of my students, would be turning my back on others who have given me allegiance. This I cannot do and expect them to remain loyal to me or me to myself. No, Prince. You are going nowhere."

Weraweld spit out another huge ball of frozen phlegm, narrowly missing Kandric.

Kandric's eyes went wide, "Nice try, however, even if I die you are going down!"

By this time half of Weraweld's chest was in the ice. It made one attempt to stretch out it wings to pull itself out by flying, but instead screamed in pain as the bone along its wing split open further. "You deserve nothing! You tricked me!"

"You deceived yourself," Kandric responded with no remorse in his voice. "You ignored and disregarded those I have already taken the lives of with the help of my friends. You looked down on me and the abilities of my friends when you should have at least had a little respect. You are the arrogant one. You actually thought I was naive enough to think you would fall through the ice. Do you really think so little of other races to think we are so ignorant?"

Weraweld twisted and shook with all his might. Each jerk only hastened his downward movement. Just as his back disappeared below the ice, leaving only his head and neck sticking out, there was a small explosion in the form of a bright white ball of magic deep into the woods. The magic cascaded outwards rolling over most of the lake.

Kandric smiled as he felt a slight renewal of Force and some refreshing of sore muscles from trudging through the snow. "And there, Prince, just went your Warrior Dragon. Any thought you may have had of getting assistance from him seems to have gone up in a large plume of White Dragon death."

Seeing both Seldnat and Pike stand and shake their heads after getting a Dragon Death healing, Kandric shouted out, "Guys! Stay there! I put you on Allied Ground. It will protect you and help to warm you back up. I will heal you shortly!"

"Me think us pretty good all da sudden!" Seldnat called out.

"Good, no. Better yes." Pike verified. My chest still hurts and I am dizzy.

"Dizzy comes from the power of the Dragon death. Just stay there and keep warm or go check on Lor, Zel and Jamon! Whatever you do stay off the lake ice! I really have no idea how big of an area this spell works on!"

Fifteen minutes later Kandric watched as the ice settled over Weraweld's eyes and most of his snout. At this point the Great Dragon stopped sinking, leaving nothing but a little of the front of his mouth and nose exposed. Kandric waited for several more minutes. "Huh, either my spell does not go to the bottom or you are standing on it with your back legs. Either way... There is no reason to keep the ice soft."

Kandric waved his hands. The surface became smooth and glasslike for a couple of minutes before snow started stick on it again. He carefully lowered himself down and tested the surface. It was rock hard. He moved up to the snout and looked down seeing the open eyes of Weraweld staring back up at him with helpless terror. With a rush of anger, he smacked the exposed snout hard with the flat of his Frozen Flame blade. "For hurting at least one of my students... I hope you can hear me, Prince. Now do not go anywhere. I will be back."

He then half ran, half slid, across the lake toward Seldnat and Pike knowing it would be all but impossible to use his spell to fly against the driving snow. By the time he got to where they were, they had moved deeper into the woods.

It was a simple matter to track them to where Lorthorn and Zeltoss were congratulating Jamon on the sneaky use of the war picks. It took only a minute or so for Kandric to figure out what had happened. He moved around to the side of the dead Warrior Dragon and examined the back paws. He couldn't help but wince at the snapped off wooden handles and only a trace of the picks sticking out of the bottom of the paws. "Well done, my friend! From now till the end of time you can say you were key in bringing down a Dragon and I can feel it gifted you. I will do everything I can to get you armor made of this one and it sure sounds like both Zel and Lor are giving you the real credit for the kill, so I will as well."

Jamon couldn't help but continue to smile, "Thanks!"

At the same time Zeltoss followed Lorthorn's lead in grabbing handfuls of snow so he could wipe of some of the Dragon blood and scale splatter off his face, weapon and armor.

Off to the side Seldnat rolled his eyes, "Ain't no fair. Me still no gets to gunch no Dragon while ya all gets ta wipe da goo of it off ya!"

Kandric moved over and reached up to put his arm over Seldnat's shoulder, "Without you, I would have never beat the Dragon prince in the middle of the lake..." He then looked over to Jamon and Pike. "Speaking of which, you two pull off the armor on a couple of the Dragonlings and fill them with snow."

Jamon shrugged and moved in the direction of one of the young Dragonlings he had killed.

At the same time Pike cocked his head to the side, "I will do as you command, of course, but why?"

"Because!" Kandric all but shouted with glee, "You two get to finish off the big guy!"

"What?" Jamon and Pike shouted at the same time.

"Ya left it breathin'?" Seldnat asked with sudden concern.

"Oh, do not worry, guys. I just want to make sure Jamon and Pike get to finish it. Besides, Seld, you are the one who said we have to send Pike back in at least silver guild pins."

"Yea, ya right. Still, no fair none. Lor, Zel, and Jamon gots ta beats the crud out a dis one. Me jus' spear and dagger da big one!"

"I will be good if the single pick strike I gave is all I will ever have to do to any Dragon!"

"No such luck, Pike," Kandric grinned. "Lor, Seld make them some torches so they can melt snow in the chain armor.”

"Melt snow?" Jamon asked.

"You will see, my friend. Come."

Lorthorn looked over at Kandric, "One of the little Dragonlings got away. Don't you think we should try to track it?"

"Once we get done with the prince we will pick up its trail and hope it leads us to where ever Prince Weraweld sent my grandfather with my students. We will then kill all those holding them."

Kandric lead the group out to the middle of the lake, and pointed to the almost snow covered snout. "Pike, Jamon, you will have to do this quickly. It is still radiating a great deal of cold and I used up too much Force to place a protection spell around you. Fill chain armor with snow, melt it with torches, and pour it over the exposed parts until it is totally covered in ice."

Pike moved up close enough to brush off some of the snow and look into the ice. "He should have frozen the water solid! How did you get him to break through?"

"He did not break through. He sunk. I have a spell to make ice soft, kind of like quicksand. I will show you all some other time when I have more Force and the snow isn't pelting you all."

"Yea! Gets dis done. Me think Kandric need ta have Lacate cooks us more bacon and warm up! Me gots heals for me broke ribs from gettin' batted wit dis one tail, but me still froze me mouth bein' on top a da big lizard! Me needs warm!"

Kandric stood back and watched as Pike and Jamon took turns melting snow, then running back to get away from the cold the Dragon was radiating. It took several trips since a great deal of the water froze before they could dump it over the protruding snout, but finally an icy cap too thick for Weraweld to snort off formed. The two added a few more coats of water just to be sure, then they all backed off just outside of the intense cold radiating off of the ice-locked Dragon.

Kandric cast five Autospells, giving each of the others an umbrella over them to at least protect against the slashing snow of the raging blizzard.

After nearly ten minutes and really starting to shiver, Lorthorn looked over, "So how long can a Dragon hold its breath?"

Seconds later a massive eruption of white-colored magic blossomed outward from the snout, knocking all six kids flat and shoving them across the ice faster than any had ever moved. It took only seconds for them to get pushed well up onto the shoreline. Amazingly enough, the incredibly powerful magical discharge did nothing to the iced over lake, giving testament as to how solid it was.

Even as Kandric started to stand, he realized he had been Death Gifted yet again, and it had been a massive one. He stayed on a knee as he adjusted to having his Force fully refreshed. Finally, with a long exhale, he stood, shook off the snow, let his head clear some, and reached down to help Pike to his feet. He then looked over at Lorthorn, "Oh, to answer your questions, I would say about a quarter of an hour glass. How about you?"

God's viewing room

Rovnar shot Golan a dirty look as the Dwarven god of craftsmanship, elbowed him.

Before anything could be said, Veldora, Halfling goddess of farming, moved over to the viewing portal and spun it backwards, "Again?"

Golan let out a deep throated chuckle, "Our sticky-fingered friend, here, is looking more and more like a squire boy in comparison to Kandric! Another high royal Great to add to his list! If I remember correctly, Rovnar, you only had one royal among your kills..."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I didn't have the help we have given him..."

Veldora watched Weraweld's death, then spun it back to view how it came to be. After several seconds, she looked over at the Halfling god of mischief and thievery, "I see no help on this, and I certainly show no help on Blathamort..."

"Oh come on!" Rovnar complained. "He had friends with him! His Halforc buddy and the little Garm dude crippled the wing!"

"True," Vaneuben spoke as he watched the death with an approving nod. "However, my pouch pilfering little friend, this makes a True and three Greats with Kandric taking the lead in all. Oh, and then there is the minor White his underlings took out with zero help from him. Leadership is something to be admired as well as proficiency, and in this he makes you look like a junior school boy getting a bad grade!"

{Beema - 12, and Kamen - 12 Devkiln, Famira, Dorwald, Bavrim, Javarim}, Zoldon, Lylan, Mylan, Glaster, Rylan Oldsurn, Chark’ash-Shunral, Perth, Jolnart, king's judge – Judge Andreus, 4 Alphar, Protector’s Keep guards}

Glaster could not sleep. There was simply too much anger and confusion within him to do so. Even taking Chark'ash to bed, and breaking the young teen in, could not push what had transpired over the last several hours. The questions were too many and the answers all but non-existent. How had a major trade city been so totally undermined to where it could be taken from within? Where was The Watch, the Royal Guards, the lower nobles, the magistrates, and even the rank and file city guardsmen?

Then there was the prince, or princes. What did any of this have to do with a nine-year-old boy, or two of them. Which one had been damaged worse? Was there a prince capable of being 'Crown Prince' after all they had been through? What would the fallout from all of this do to the kingdom, to King Wyhrem, to the other royal houses?

Next and while not so important in Glaster's devotion to Wyhrem and the kingdom as a whole, was Kandric. Were the Alphar telling him the truth? Was Kandric really some kind of Alphar lord? Had his beloved Halfelf helped to fell a real Dragon? If the words of the Alphar were true, how did all this tie into a massed army of Alphar and Garm under the leadership of a kid? Why was it down in the middle of King Wyhrem's lands? How would the king react if it all was true?

Then there was the message from the gods. They told him to join the fight down in Everone, not Rolling Dale. How could they have been this wrong? On a complete sidenote, was it possible for Aster to really be a half-brother of Kandric? The two had crossed paths half a dozen times over the past few years. On two occasions Glaster had enjoyed one in the morning and the other the same night. He could also recall three other times where he had rented the services of Aster because he had paid extra for Protector's Keep to give Kandric training and schooling for multiple days. During the four-week training sessions, Kandric had stayed at Protector’s Keep, so Glaster had made long term arrangements for Aster's company. At the time, Master Lannet had made it clear Aster was important to him, and was every bit as gifted as Kandric. Even as he thought about this he couldn't help but lightly stroke Chark'ash's back while smiling. Aster had indeed turned out to be very talented, both as an Animal Adept as well as a young bed partner.

Truth of the matter was, it made sense the two were related. The really odd part is how close had they come to each other, and may have even met, yet had no clue they were related. However, in fairness to both, they didn't look much alike. In fact, Aster was a much more physical and sculpted child than Kandric could ever hope to be. On the flip side, when it came to agility, quickness, grace, and flexibility, Kandric had Aster beat hands down. Yet with all their differences, the one thing both had were the eyes of deep determination and innate intelligence. While the eyes were not the same color, what was right behind them was certainly made of the same stuff.

Feeling Chark'ash slide away from him, Glaster's thoughts came to a halt. He popped the young Drow on the butt, "You do not pull away from me while being enjoyed, understood?"

There was a deep breath followed by the boy sliding right back into Glaster's side. After a few moments of silence, a clearly unhappy voice responded, "Sorry, Commander. I am just very tired..."

"You can learn to rest or even sleep under my touch, Chark'ash, or shall I call you Prince Shunral?"

The Drow prince did his utmost to keep his voice free of the loathing he was really feeling. "I would prefer, Chark, or Chark'ash, to keep my full identity from being widely known, However, you bought my servitude from where I had been indentured, so you may call me whatever you wish. If you insist on calling me prince, and using my name, other Conclave members would see it as a serious dishonor to not call me by my full name, Prince Chark'ash-Shunral."

"Very well, I do mean no dishonor to you or your race. I am not one of the mindless who see a race and feel abhorrence. Therefore, should I find a need or have a desire to call you by title I will always use your full name. I also understand your desire to keep your status hidden, especially with Alphar returning from whatever exile they imposed on themselves. Because of this, I will leave how I address you in your hands. Would you prefer Chark'ash or Chark?"

"Chark is more familiar to me, since if Chark'ash was ever used it was combined Shunral."

Very well, Chark. Now as you spend the reminder of the night with me, realize there will be many more. It is also beyond probable there will be some periods during the day where I will enjoy you. You may find this distasteful. You may hate it. And as things progress, and they will fairly rapidly, you may be disgusted with me or even yourself. These are all attitudes you have control over. Your thoughts can only be changed by you and you can find ways to accept and even enjoy aspects of my advances. Others have, and I care about all who were more than cute slaves or paid pleasure boys. I can also tell you quite a few even show care toward me many years later. Also, I feel it would be helpful for you to keep in the front of your mind who and what you now are. I know you understand your position, but accepting may be helpful to you, especially over the next nights where there will be some serious discomfort and adjustments to what you feel should be acceptable treatment for someone of your social status.

"Your family sold you into indentured servitude. A servitude I took over without knowing of your real social status. A servitude I can only surmise your family expected you to be able to handle and deal with. It was a duty you took on, and said commitment is now to me. Therefore, regardless of your class and the status which goes with it, you are now indentured to me and will do what I require, when I desire it. This does not mean I see you as less than what you are. You are still a prince and it is because of this I have not pushed you as rapidly as I normally would or even as quickly as I would like. I fully realize this is your first night with me and very possibly a man. Because of this and your birth status, I have gone easy. Should you disappoint me again, I will forgo any further adjustment period."

"My contractual obligation is to you, Commander. This I know and will do my utmost to not disappoint you further."

"If you follow through and keep the attitude you are bravely trying to display, you will find me giving you credit, in silver, toward your freedom in larger quantities than I normally would. In this way, the length of your servitude to me is in your hands, as much as you will be in mine. Now, no further words and try to rest while I explore what I will soon be enjoying with a great deal more... zeal..."

Chark'ash gave a single nod and did his best not to tighten up as the man's hand freely explored him. Regardless of what his family thought was going to happen, he had agreed to servitude for the betterment of his people. While this was not in any way what he wanted nor expected, it was his responsibility to both his family honor and what little honor his race had left to deal with and even accept what the man who took over his indentured contract demanded or even wanted.

Chark'ash also realized his lot could have been much worse. For even as he badly disliked the situation and despised what he knew the man was going to do to him, this powerful Shaman commander was showing far more respect than anyone outside of the Drow ever had. The Master, or even Legendary, Shaman even accepted Chark'ash as a rightful prince and seemed to have no disdain for him or the Drow as a whole.

There had been no claims of there being no Drow royalty, nor snide or demeaning comments about the Drow race as a whole. If anything, the man seemed oddly happy to be in the company of a Drow, even if it was out of a desire to experience something a little different. Now in this, Chark'ash had a hard time understanding, since he had everything any boy did, with the possible exception of pointed ears. But he had heard enough to know the man's last long term boy had been a Halfelf, so pointed ears were not something new to him. However, being looked at as 'exotic' was far better than being seen as an evil pouch of animal waste simply because he happened to have been born Drow. He also comprehended another important point as the lustful hand continued over his entire body. Many others with similar proclivities would have brutalized him from the first moments. This would have been done either because of their hatred of Drow or because they had paid such a high price for services. In most cases, it would have been both. While Chark'ash could not say he was lucky, he also couldn't say the commander's taking over of his servitude had been ill-fated. As this dawned on him, he further realized what he had just been told was totally true. The way he looked at the situation was up to him, and the more positives he found, the easier it was to at least deal with his current lot in life. Chark'ash could find no way to like where he found himself, and there was certainly no chance he would enjoy this or what was to come, but understanding it could be much worse made accepting and dealing with it more tolerable.

Glaster gave a slight smile as the youngster next to him loosened up slightly. He really didn't want the child to hate what was going on and what would happen. In many ways, Glaster had to fight guilt, since what he was doing was on the very edge of acceptable behavior. The boy was high royalty. The only reason this was not a crime against a higher class was Chark's admission of his servitude having been done legally and without coercion to gain quick funds in a time of need. However, the child's class had to be taken into account. He was a prince and deserved proper care and overall respectable treatment.

To Glaster, it mattered none what the expectations of the family had been or how they would see their son's current predicament. He was a noble, and a noble in his care had to be given certain rights, indentured or not. Glaster also applied the same standard to Rylan. Both boys would need better clothing, proper gear, and would have to be included in the classes given to Zoldon, Mylan and Lylan. Yes, they would serve him, but they would need to have better food, be given free time, they would also be trained in Fields and Sub-Fields with the best Glaster could provide. It was a burden, yes, but they were nobles and if he were going to keep them around, it was his duty to his kingdom, his king and his own honor to see they advanced in as a professional a way as he could possibly provide.

Otherwise it would be his responsibility to get them back to their families safely. At some point, he would have to face potential consequences of bedding them both, however, the laws of servitude were clearly on his side with both. While one or both families may be angry with him, neither would be able to claim he had overstepped his bounds. He bet neither of the noble houses would even try to claim he had broken proper decorum. This was especially true if both advanced in the guilds and schooling while becoming better traveled. Of course, being cared for at higher standard than either family could expect an indentured servant to be given, would only add to the liberties he could take with them. Finally, and by far least important to Glaster, his own status as a Master within the guilds put him at a high enough social status to where some idiosyncrasies were expected. Even the highest and most powerful members of royalty would likely chalk up his bedding of the boys as distasteful, but acceptable. Glaster smiled at this, since neither Chark or Rylan could claim to be from a powerful or extremely high family regardless of them being princes to what had certainly been in ages past very important lineages.

Glaster played with Chark's hair for a little while, knowing in a matter of days the he would be fully enjoying the child. With a sigh, he tried to close his eyes again. The problem was, his mind simply would not let go enough to allow him to sleep. Some of it, Glaster guessed was his sudden and very unexpected rise into Legendary Echelon. The power coursing through him was insanely potent. Regardless of this, the whole situation he was in, still plagued him. He felt like he had scores of puzzle pieces, but wasn't even sure how many puzzles he needed to make out of them. Certainly they weren't all interconnected, were they?

Even as he wondered about this it dawned on him Chark and Rylan could also be pieces of the greater picture or pictures. For it would not be beyond the power of the gods to place one or both where Glaster would stumble across them. Certainly, if they needed him or even wanted him to find them, they would have put those Glaster would find eye-catching enough to make him take notice. This made him wonder how much was chance and how much was indirect or even direct intervention.

Once again he tried to manipulate what he knew while combining it with what he guessed. So much of it depended on information he could not verify, though, he was all but certain he was trying to paint a picture with a color of paint not even enclosed within the frame. If only he could...

His thoughts stopped as a truly spectacular wave of magic rolled over him. The very fact it caused Chark to jerk and sit up, told him it was beyond the sensitivity of even a lightly to totally untrained being.

Chark looked over with a gulp, "Again sorry, Commander, I..."

"Chark, you felt the same thing I did. There was just another extremely powerful disruption."

"It was not the same as what I felt back in Rolling Dale, but similar... Kind of..."

"Very perceptive. Maybe you have more training than I first thought. However, this was mortal based, not Spirit Realm. Because of it being mortal you are more open to it than the much more powerful release from the Spirit Realms when something beyond what I have ever encountered augmented my casting and so totally twisted it, it took on a near life of its own.

"Regardless of the source, what we just felt was stunning and I need to investigate. Grab a cloak and summon the judge. I need someone here to keep you safe from the Alphar while also watching over me."

"You are going to spirit walk?"

"Again, you show knowledge beyond what I expect. Very good, now go. I need to investigate before the source fades."

Fifteen minutes later Glaster, with the help of a few stunned and talkative spirits located the source of the latest instability to the natural flow of magic. It was a group of boys fighting to recover from what had to have been near overwhelming experience. From within the Spirit Realm, Glaster could see the ice-locked Dragon. This had been the initiation point. A Dragon death... A deeper look only enhanced Glaster's curiosity and confusion, for it was a White Dragon and the creature had died standing on its claws on a large boulder in the bottom of the lake. It had been just enough to get its snout above the surface of the water. But its last act to save itself had failed because ice had been obliviously put over the snout, smothering the majestic beast. The truly odd part was how had it sunk, for the entire lake, from shoreline to shoreline, from lakebed to surface was frozen solid.

Even as Glaster tried to wrap his brain around how this was possible, his eyes took in something even more remarkable, if such a thing was even possible. For not far from the group of boys were several spirits giving two smaller ones bits and pieces of themselves, permanently diminishing themselves, while augmenting a pesky wind spirit into a much bigger Squall Spirit and a lowly Fog Spirit into a much more powerful Steam Spirit.

He stayed back far enough to not interfere, but closed enough to listen. The first words he heard were enough to send his entire head spinning, "Your bet on Kandric felling the Great White was ingenious..."

Glaster couldn't help himself. He spoke up even as he moved closer to look at the boys. "Kandric?"

One of the much larger Gale Spirits glanced over with some aggravation, only to be held back by an equally massive Thermal Spirit. "Hold, it be Premier Kandric's mentor, Glaster."

The Gale Spirit pushed a little more of its energy into the now spinning and joyous Squall Spirit and motioned with heavy torrents of snow to move closer. "Glaster, you have surpassed the guild pins we detect on you. Maybe you should test at the same time your student does..."

Glaster moved forward only to see Kandric get up and stagger briefly, while playfully shoving a Halforc boy. "Kandric... It is you..."

"I would try to get his attention for you but alas, he is still trying to adjust to the combination of the power of the Dragon kill and the latest Dragon gifting..."

"The latest?"

"Oh, there is so much you have missed, good mentor of Premier Kandric. You really should bring your body out here and talk with him."

"You know," the Thermal Spirit stated, "should you wish to come and be with your student as he recovers from this and find out what all you have missed, we could probably provide enough amplification to a gate spell to get your camp here."

"You would do this for me?"

"No, we would do it for Premier Kandric."

Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris, Hawkling Channeler, Klorna, Morwar (Avgon Channeler), Mokel (one of the 4 kid thugs), Princess Syrissia, Klent's group, Rylop and company, Blumed, two students

Duke Mathard motioned for everyone to enter the command tent. Seeing Klorna take a step back while looking at Mokel with a frown, he moved up to the trio even as the others entered, "Good Dwarf, we need your report as to what you saw in the taking of Premier Kandric's brothers. If this youngster was there, his eyes and ears may have caught sights and sounds you did not."

Klorna was on the borderline of being too afraid to speak. She was once again looking at a very high noble, one with ice hanging off his face like it was normal, one with magic armor, weapons, and a build worthy to be chiseled out of stone. However, being in front of a Garm duke was not her only trepidation. She was in no way looking forward to another royal interrogation.

The questioning by the Garm count had been short and to the point. As soon as Count Steelhand understood Klorna and the two Humans had thought they were going after those who helped take Kandric's brothers, all was forgiven. This didn't end the barrage of questions and the demand for answers, however.

It had taken almost fifteen minutes before Klorna figured out those talking to her, demanding answers, were not Dwarven, but instead Garm. The addition of an Alphar detachment only made the whole situation more terrifying. As far as she knew, the last time Alphar and Garm had been around, they had first nearly wiped out each other and the lower Dwarven and Elvin races. They then turned on the Drow and locked up the horrible city of Under River before disappearing. Until who she was dealing with fully sunk in, she, like so many others, thought both races had moved on to be spirits or servants of the gods.

The verbal interrogation had been harsh, especially at first. Then, as soon Count Steelhand found out she had served and indeed worked with and fought beside Kandric, all attitudes changed. She was an associate of Kandric, therefore she was given a status beyond her guild rank and birthright. The same was afforded to both Morwar and Mokel, but the other two had been advised to say little unless directly asked, since it was abundantly clear the Garm count found it hard to see them as fully worthy. At least Klorna was a Dwarf, so Count Steelhand could relate to her better. There was obvious dislike toward Mokel, but it seemed to be centered on the boy's speech more than who or what he was. However, good food was served and much better equipment issued to all three. At the same time, a wagon full of better armor and equipment was prepared for the remainder of those in the caravan. Finally, a proper bath, and much better clothing was found, and in Mokel's part, tailored on the spot, before a magical portal was opened for the three of them to gate directly to the great hall to meet and answer questions from even higher Garm and Alphar.

Hours later, with another amazing meal in them and additional gear provided by the Alphar, the three were escorted to a heavily guarded building, then gated by Gate Stone, along with a small detachment of Alphar and Garm escorting an Alphar princess, to a war camp just within sight of Bloody Rock. There they met up with up with Vondum, a Hawkling Channeler of Avgon, and a few others. They answered a few questions before being taken by flying Griffins into the swamps where they discovered another war camp, this one predominately manned by Pantherlings, Illorcs, Black Dragonlings, and a newly arriving large force of Hawklings. Lined up at the edge of the clearing were hundreds of bodies of recently fallen, most Orcs, along with many Black and Green Dragonlings, but with them were a smattering of others. But all of this was made near inconsequential by the carcass of a dead Green Dragon, well over fifty meters head to tail. And while Vondum was riding a Black Dragon which only made her fear the man more, seeing a much larger dead one was truly horrifying.

Klorna and those with her didn't have more than a few minutes to gawk at the sight of a dead Dragon. In actuality, Mokel was still so focused on the smaller one Vondum was riding, she wasn't even sure the much larger dead one fully registered with the teen. But regardless they were given little time to dwell on any of it. Instead, they were firmly ushered over to the green pyramid of another Gate Stone. An Alphar Mage quickly activated yet another portal. In this Vondum took the lead, but all too soon the bitter cold of the passage once again gripped Klorna as she pushed Cam'ris and Conth through. This time she found herself in a truly colossal war camp being buffeted by one of the nastier blizzards Klorna could ever remember.

While the idea of getting into a tent was a fantastic one, since she was bitterly cold from the passage through another Gate Stone portal, she was beyond scared since two of the guards at the front of the tent they were directed towards were Dragons, not Dragonlings, Dragons, and both were slightly larger than the one Vondum had ridden on. One was Blue, the other Silver, and both were close to twenty meters in length. The fact the heads of equally large Dragons could be seen looking over at them from the back side of the tent, one Red, the other Black, only added to the overall feeling of awe and fear streaming through her.

Since she flatly didn't trust her voice, she gave Duke Mathard a nod and a slight bow, before turning once again to shoot as stern of an eye as possible at Mokel. It was clear, however, the teen wasn't too keen on wanting to say or do anything. As it was, Klorna had to reach back and grab at the boy's brand new Elvin Silver Steel chain shirt and drag him since his eyes were focused on the Blue Dragon. Well, actually, she was pretty sure Mokel's eyes were on the teeth and tongue of said Dragon, but regardless, she doubted the boy could have been more ridged in death than he was as she pulled him past the two terrifying, yet totally majestic, creatures.

A pair of Blue Dragonling Guards looked over and moved to intercept as soon as the trio were through the outer tent flap. They stopped instantly as Duke Mathard raised his hand and spoke, "All three have fought with our Premier and should be treated with respect due such allies."

Klorna couldn't help but notice a tinge of fear enter both Dragonlings as they instantly backed off and pulled clawed hands away from weapons at their hips.

At the same time six teens, three Garm and three Alphar, moved up. All took to a knee in front of Klorna and those with her. An older Garm teen moved up behind them, "We know from recent experience the passage through the Gate Stones is a frigid one. If you would allow these squires to assist you out of your armor, weapons and clothing, we can provide warm robes. We will then tend to your equipment and should have it back to you clean and ready for combat as soon as you are released by Duke Mathard."

Seeing Morwar start to say something, she eyed the young Channeler while nodding, "Thank you for your kind offer. We will all accept, right boys?" She then added, "Unless you would prefer to go talk to the Dragons outside the flap behind you..."

Morwar held up both hands while Mokel managed to squeak out, "I'll be good."

Seeing the Alphar lad keeling in front of Mokel frown she looked down at the kid. "I think he's real cold. Help him out of his armor. I really don't think he wants to have to wait outside and pull guard with those already out there."

At hearing this Mokel's eyes went wide and he held out both arms so the Garm and Alphar could take off his gear. He started to fidget when they moved to remove his shirt and loincloth, but a single clearing of Klorna's throat was all it took for the boy to cease and accept the toweling off, full washing, and the redressing in a fresh loincloth, undershirt and heavy robe by the two kids who were very close in age equivalency to Mokel.

Klorna looked over to Mokel as the seven underlings left the outer tent room with all the belongings by way of a side flap. "Boy, watch yer mouth when we get in there!"

"I ain't sayin' nothin'! Didn't ya see the size of them teeth out there?"

Morwar managed a nervous little grin as he glanced over, "Not much different than what Vondum was riding on."

"Him hit the side a the beast like it be some kind a pet. Ain't gunna do nothin' to make him mad either! I don't think them things would even taste me none as I got ate!"

"Probably not," Klorna agreed, "so just do all a us a favor and keep your mouth shut until you really need to add something or they ask you any questions."

From the moment the meeting started, Klorna realized it was predominantly geared toward getting Princess Syrissia up to date on Kandric. During the first hour, Klorna found out more about the young Halfelf's lineage, history, and mother than she ever cared to know. It also gave her some insights into Garm and Alphar culture, laws, and the laws governing how the two races interacted. None of which she really cared about.

Next, a man and his small ruffian-looking mercenary troop were brought in to tell of the last known sighting of Kandric, how he took down a Dragonling, and handed over Murderic Channeler, along with an evil Drow brat. While the information told the princess quite a bit, it was nothing Klorna hadn't seen out of her own two eyes. Listening to the princess about how she would pitch in on the reward for the Murderic Channeler and the Drow girl was a complete waste of time, but upon hearing Kandric wanted the girl to serve in a brothel, she couldn't help but smile.

Klorna reluctantly held her tongue even as it was debated on if it was acceptable to hand over the Drow girl and the merits of the case Kandric had for enslaving the kid outside of his lands. She also suddenly remembered why she gave up being a city guard and took a much more dangerous job as a lead caravan guard. Quite simply, there were very few meetings, and when there was, it lasted just long enough to get things organized and moving again. On the other hand, she noted none of those present were willing to tell Kandric he couldn't do what he wanted with the girl, so when all was said and done, lots was said and very little was done, other than say they would send the Drow up to Slome and hold her for Kandric.

Next up was Slome Corporal Rylop, along with a group of boys, including some students from the two main Swordsman schools in Slome. They talked of the time in their schools, of how Kandric took over the jail, and even started his own business. They then talked about going into Bloody Rock, and how Kandric led them and protected them. Even the kids from the other school showed awe as they talked about what they knew of Kandric and what the Slome Governor had been told regarding Kandric's incursion into Bloody Rock.

Klorna was revolted at the descriptions of the forced fighting, but found none of it helpful. Furthermore, she also quickly became disgusted by how much time Princess Syrissia and Duke Mathard spent blaming their own races for what in Klorna's mind was the failure of one person, Kandric's grandfather.

Finally the talk turned to when little Rathiter and Darmoth were taken. Klorna rapidly became miffed at the lack of concern for Gablon, whose name was spoke but a single time and Emroc, whose name was never mentioned. Mostly because of this, when Duke Mathard asked if she had anything to add she nodded, "Yes, Duke, I do. Um, first, I better just say I'm sorry if I'm not as prim and proper as you would all like. I've never been in a court before today, and those with me ain't about to blend in with all your rules of social cra... um, codes."

She cleared her throat to try to hide how close she came to saying 'crap' before she continued, "But anyhow, yeah, when the boys were taken with caravan owner and master Gablon, and Emroc, one of our youngest guards, and good friend of Mokel here, they had just finished a class in the back of the wagon on wilderness equipment. So when they jumped out to toss some snow at each other and feed the animals, they were in full gear. While I'm sure ya all won't like what they had on, they still had their small packs, weapons and some basic armor. Both caravan master Gablon and Emroc had weapons, armor, and pack as well, since they was helping teach the class to the younger ones."

Princess Syrissia spoke up for the first time. "Did either have any magic with them?"

At this point Mokel, who was both sick of all the formality garbage and confused by why so much time was being spent on it when his best friend was being held by the demoness of fire, spoke up, "Gablon's got a kick-ass blade, the two little Elf dudes gots the castin' books Gablon had made fer em, but ain't no good to 'em yet, and me best livin' friend ain't got shit... But who cares about none a this! The Bitch a Fire gots 'em. How we gunna gets 'em back?"

Seeing shock in nearly every set of eyes looking at him, he stomped his foot, "Yer not even carin' about my friend 'er Gablon none! I'm about sick a all this uppity-up bull sh..."

While Klorna turned pale, Morwar reached over and put his hand over Mokel's mouth cutting off the final word, but it was far too late. Everyone knew what was coming out.

Seeing Vondum move straight at Mokel, Duke Mathard stepped between them and held up his hand. "My Princess, General Vondum, ladies and gentlemen, before you all self-combust and ruin my finest tent, let me interject a thought or two here.

"First off this young man has obviously never been in anything close to this environment. He must be given a full pass for lack of decorum. Second, if you have issues with what he says or how he says it, be angry with me. The fine lead caravan guard, here," he moved over to Klorna and patted her on the shoulder, "tried to prevent him from entering. I overruled her judgment. While I now understand her concerns, this boy has information within we need. Therefore, regardless of his incivility, this boy was present at the taking of our princes, his caravan master, and his friend. He jumped through a dimensional gate thinking he was going after our young princes, even though he had just witnessed, and I will use his own words, the Bitch of Fire. Now, before any of you dare pass judgement on him or his total lack of knowledge in protocol, you best go to a mirror. While you look at yourselves, tell me and yourselves if you have the testicular fortitude to not only go after Frexla, but then when you emerge and are surrounded by a sizable force of heavily armed Garm, demand those who had been taken be given back. You all heard the reports from Count Steelhand. You know this is exactly what this young man did. So, foolish or not, there is bravery beyond comprehension within this child.

"Now it is possible this is just me, but somehow, I really do not see many of us, me included, attempting such a rescue. Besides, regardless of how much bravado, and audacity, such an action shows, you have to find some admiration in it and therefore within this boy. Also remember we are not in our lands, we are actually in his and we will need to get used to countless others who have his level of royal etiquette... or lack thereof."

To show he was not simply talking out of the side of his mouth, Mathard moved up to the lad, put his arm around him and pulled him tight to his side. "Is there anything really wrong with this young warrior's desires? After all, he wants his caravan master, friend and our princes back. Furthermore, he is not a creature of noble circles, war camps and royalty. He is frustrated, with youthful exuberance, at how slowly things are moving. Now again, ask yourselves, how has he wronged any of us?"

Mathard then spun Mokel, grabbed him by the front of the brand new robe, ripping it slightly even as lifted him off the ground, "However, young Warrior, should you ever, and I do mean ever, talk about Prince Darmoth and Prince Rathiter again as Elf dudes I will smack your face so hard you will be taking out of the back of your head, understood?"

Mokel looked into the man's eyes and saw sincerity of both the small speech and the following threat as being totally true. "Um, yeah... I'll never do it no more... Um, what's me needs ta call 'em?"

Mathard didn't put the boy down. "You address any and all nobles by title once you know what the title is. If you do so, your speech, your lack of education and social graces, and even your impatience can all be overlooked, at least for now. Under my guidance, however, much of this will change quickly and for the better."

Mokel gulped as he saw only anger in the eyes of pretty much everyone else in the tent, although some of edge seemed to be fading or had at least been put in check, "So, me call ya duke and Rath and Dar, prince?"

"Better, but do not use nick names or partials when talking about the young princes, our princes. Now say it again, and say it to me while addressing all of us with the respect of at least title."

"Sorry, Duke, um, me'll no say nothing but Prince Rathiter and Prince Darmoth no more and always call ya duke."

Mathard lowered the teen but still didn't let his feet touch the ground. "The same for General Vondum, Princess Syrissia, and any other noble or military titles you hear. If corrected, you will instantly correct yourself and not make the mistake a second time. Furthermore, you WILL USE proper respect for those of the upper Echelons as you know them starting at Teaching Echelon. If not, we will revisit this and you will not like the results, young Warrior."

Mokel nodded almost wildly even as he spoke, "Me'll make sure of it Duke, sir."

"Duke, no sir, but much better." Mathard put Mokel down and patted him on the head before putting a protective arm around him and holding him close and very tight. To even the least observant, the non-verbal message was clear. Duke Mathard, no one else, was to discipline Mokel. The boy was under his tutelage and protection until such time as it was dropped, which simply wasn't likely to happen. Because of this, the mood within the tent quickly shifted, while conversations turned back toward the business of Frexla, figuring out what to do about her having two Alphar princes and most importantly, what to tell Kandric. However, Gablon and Emroc's names were now being mentioned as well. While it was clear Mokel was not happy with all the talk, at least his friend wasn't being left out anymore.

The other thing was, while he hated the way the extremely powerful Garm was gripping him and not letting go, he was smart enough to say nothing about it, not even attempt to pull away, and deal with it. Besides, with years of street smarts and learning how to read the crew of the pirate ship, it was obvious he would be spending a great deal of time with the duke who was all but crushing his side. Making a man as strong as this duke was angry again was pretty much of the bottom of a list of things which bordered on stupid.

At the same time, some of what Mathard had said also made an impact. How stupid was he to raise a weapon at all the Dwarves, Garm, whatever, when he came through the magic doorway? It had not been one of his smarter moves and he really was lucky to still be breathing.

Mokel stayed silent as the discussions continued, mostly because the duke simply wouldn't let go and there was no chance he was going to try to pull free.

Princess Syrissia finally joined in the discussion as she gained a better understanding of the entire situation as it was known. "My Duke, General Vondum, I must formally admit some confusion in the way you are talking of dealing with your wayward prince, Premier Kandric. While I fully understand why it is best our Premier hear about his brothers, our princes, from those he trusts, why have you not brought his mother, Princess Kaylaria, down to speak with him?"

Seeing Vondum and Mathard exchange glances and cringe at the same time, Klorna nervously cleared her throat, "Um, Duke, Princess... General... um..."

Vondum pointed over at here, "Oh, by all means, Klorna. Be our guest!"

Even as Mathard smirked and chuckled at Vondum's words, he nodded.

Klorna gulped, cleared her throat, and stepped forward, "Look, um, Princess, ah, it's not like I know Kandric... Premier Kandric super well or nothing. But, from what I've seen, his mother, well she may be a princess in birth or whatever, but she ain't no mother. At least not to Premier Kandric... Do I really have to say Premier every time?"

Mathard let out a little snort, "Good guard, in this case, just stick with it. I do not want the young warrior in my grasp to think he can take shortcuts at any time and I certainly have no desire to smack him into the next moon cycle because he gets the wrong idea."

Klorna let out a long breath, "OK, sure, you want me to call him Premier, fine..."

At this point Princess Syrissia interjected, "As far as I know, good Dwarf, there is only one Premier at this point so saying Premier alone, would certainly be sufficient."

Klorna pointed at the woman, not at all realizing this was a slight in and of itself, "Much easier. I like it. So anyway, getting his mom to talk to him, well, there really ain't much respect there. From what me hear the Premier be the big bread winner and be the reason Dar... um, Prince Darmoth got schooled in Slome. If it not be for the coin the Premier brought in, none of them would a had no book learnin'. As it be, Prince Rathiter can't even read as good as Mokel, since Gablon has only been working with them since they joined the caravan, and Mokel has been with us for several moons now."

Jaws from one end of the tent to the other dropped at hearing this. After several very uneasy seconds Princess Syrissia finally found her tongue, "Are you tell me... us... Prince Rathiter cannot read or write?"

Mokel couldn't stay silent, he just couldn't, "Look Princess lady, maybe y'all can read and junk, but next ta none a us can. Me just gettin' ta be able to read big words in Northman, and me pretty much suck at it! Dar... Prince Darmoth... well he be pretty good. Kind made most a us mad at first, but him help us once we start bein' nice to him. Prince Rath be..." getting a firm and hard flip on the ear from Mathard, Mokel winced badly, but didn't let out a yelp, "OK, sorry Duke, um, Prince Rathiter... well, him be like super smart. It took him only a day to learn the Northman alphabet and he be soundin' out small words like three or four days after Gablon and a couple of them others started teachering him. To be honest, like, it kind a pissed me off, cause what Prince Rathiter do in a week take me more like three 'er four moons!"

Morwar decided to finally break his silence, "I heard our lead Druid say your prince was picking up Druidic writing just as quickly. We were all very impressed with him."

Princess Syrissia looked sick, "While I am pleased to hear he was learning, this begs me to ask about the younger two, Princess Meggie and Prince Gellor. What education do they have?"

Klorna cocked her head to the side in confusion, "Prince Gellor?"

"Princess Kaylaria's youngest son," Mathard responded.

"Sorry, yeah, forgot about him." Klorna admitted. "We spent some time in the camp and had Princess Kaylaria over for a meal so Gablon..." Klorna turned red as she decided it would be a really good idea to not talk about why Gablon really had them over for a meal, "Um, well we needed information of the area and she was one of the... well Princess Kaylaria stood out... We had a busted axel, so... Well she provided us with good information and it’s when Gablon offered the two princes jobs along with book learning and the like. Both boys, um princes, were eager about the chance and so they joined us.

"So, yeah, the youngest prince... I don't even think we got his name. Super cute little guy, and boy could he eat!"

Hearing a few chuckles, Klorna continued, "But, me... well, the way it sounded, Darmoth... Prince Darmoth could read and junk, but it wasn't up to Gablon's standards, not by a long shot. Since Prince Rathiter didn't know how, I'm guessing the little prince couldn't read or write either."

"Don't think so none, either," Mokel joined in. "I know Kand... um Prince... Premier... geesh this is so confusing!"

Mathard again ruffled the boy's hair, while chuckling, "Give me a few moons, boy and you will be able to walk into any court in the land and while you will probably never feel comfortable, you will be able to blend. However, you are trying hard, and I give credit to where it is due. Please, do your best and we will work together to get you to where every fine lad should be."

"Thank ya, Duke," Mokel breathed a little easier. "Um, so me was tryin' to tell y'all Premier, um, yeah, me see him a couple a time with the brothers..."

"The princes," Mathard corrected him.

"OK, yeah, sorry, Duke, the princes... Anyhow, Premier Kandric spent more time with the little guy... um prince then with the others... Me thinks him likes the little prince the most, then Prince Rathiter, but not so much Prince Darmoth... Um, me not sayin' he don't like him, but just like, not so much. Me know Premier came back a couple a times with the youngest brother... prince... with snares, so me bettin' the little one is gunna be a good Outdoorsman.

"From what me see, the small prince pretty much stay out all day and hunt fer food, play in the swamp and junk. Me saw him have a Dagger Boar knife kind-a like the one Premier carries, and him's got a good sling. Little dude..." Mokel instantly cringed, "Oh, crap, sorry, Duke, um little prince be pretty good with it. Him took down a squirrel off a tree, cleaned it and took it home while me was pullin' guard one afternoon. Him know more than me 'bout huntin' and wilds stuff and he's just a tiny little..."

Mathard gave Mokel a squeeze to stop him. "What this young man says mirrors what our scouts have told us about Prince Gellor. They even lost him for a short time in the woods and swamps on more than one occasion. The wilderness around the village of Slome seems to be our prince's playground and he not only loves it, he understands it. I also tend to believe our brave young warrior guard here is correct; Premier Kandric has spent a great deal of time working with Prince Gellor when he was not out and about with his instructor, Master Shaman Glaster. Therefore, while it is unlikely the prince can read or write, he has certainly had some overflow of the Dragon Giftings and knows the forests and swamps. His bonds with our Premier are most certainly the strongest he has, but they are tenuous. He is a prince of the wilds first and foremost. This makes him dangerous and unpredictable. We will continue to guard and protect him, and when the times comes do everything we can to make sure he is properly schooled. However, he will not ever be a good fit for a royal position. In truth, our little prince may not be fully redeemable at all if what the legends say about Rovnar's little sister is true. At least Princess Meggie tends to stay close to Princess Kaylaria, so she has a decently strong attachment to respectable figurehead.

"Right now, our focus must remain on the tasks at hand, and as you have heard, Princess Syrissia, there are good reasons we have not included Princess Kaylaria in on this. To be honest, we feel Premier Kandric would not respond well to her."

Princess Syrissia frowned deeply, "I do not understand why Princess Kaylaria didn't instruct them..."

Duke Mathard let out a long breath, mostly because he didn't want to get caught up in Kaylaria and her clear failures, nor did he want to dwell on how badly this whole thing looked on the Garm hierarchy. It had been the Garm's duty, after all, to make sure Princess Kaylaria and her offspring were at the very least looked after. However, he decided to pass on what he knew as best and quickly as possible, "Princess Syrissia, while I only have what Premier Kandric has told me to go off of, it is his understanding Prince Rovanall forbade any use of Princess Kaylaria's teachings in the raising of her children. Our princess took this to the extreme, bringing them up as best she could without using her Sorcery abilities or even basic book teachings. The fact she produced Premier Kandric despite this, should tell all of us she has a near unbreakable spirit."

"Indeed she does," Princess Syrissia sighed, "but alas, I must also admit it shows a stunning lack of basic decency and common sense on her part. I am beginning to understand why finding a rightful leader for the Griffin Spires may be so difficult unless there is some way we can bring our Premier back into the fold."

"Princess," Vondum spoke, "I must warn you, after spending considerable time with our Premier, the chances of him taking over as a royal head of a house is all but non-existent unless he claims it for himself. All you have to do is look at Slome. It is his, but since he didn't... did not take it by his own hand, he does not yet physically see it as his."

"Utter nonsense," Duke Mathard snorted with a snicker. "All one has to do is walk down toward the central square and see the carcass of the Green Dragon he killed sticking up from the street to know he took Slome. It is his and we will make sure it is a place worthy of his name. But we digress. The fact remains we will have to be careful about who informs him of Frexla and her deeds and how it is said. General Vondum, do you concur about not having Princess Kaylaria talk to him?"

"Absolutely. I am quite sure Premier Kandric would see anything she says, no matter how well worded, as pandering and trying to rein him in."

"This is truly a sad day for the Alphar Kingdom," Princess Syrissia stated with a sad shake of her head. "These princes are our future and now, it seems a large bit of our legacy has been ripped from us. It is therefore, my opinion, after hearing this testimony, the crimes of Prince Rovanall are more egregious than I was lead to believe. Not only has he betrayed the whole of the Garm and Alphar empire and kingdoms, he has done direct damage to his bloodline and the future leadership of what had been his people. Thus, it is with a sad heart I decree former Prince Rovanall's presence must be removed from our realm, entirely, with extreme prejudice."

"In this, there is going to be no argument from the Garm," Duke Mathard stated with certainty. "There will also be serious backlash against those who failed to provide aid to Princess Kaylaria and her offspring from the Garm Empire. In this we will make sure you, Princess, are in agreement with who and what punishment befits their malicious transgressions. For now, I must request, however, we return conversation on who is best to deal with our Premier, so we do not end up in an all out war with the demon lords. For if they all start reappearing in our realm, I am sure the gods will as well, and it will take us back to the darkest days of the Mythling Wars."

Vondum took a deep breath, "I believe you were correct in asking for my help, Duke Mathard. However, the first words should come from you. He holds you in greater respect than any I have seen, with the possible exception of his friends."

"You, General are his commander."

"Yes, I am or was... But consider this. If we cannot locate Glaster, who does certainly hold a massive sway over our Premier, and I suspect holds some love there as well, then we must move on with a secondary plan. In this, I can try to be the authority figure, commanding him to stop and think should he not listen to you or if he lets his temper take over. But, Duke Mathard, everything I have heard and seen tells me not only does he like you, but he also respects you. I just do not think there are many who can claim both from Premier Kandric. He respects me, yes. Trusts me, yes, has enjoyed my company and companionship, certainly, possibly even loves me a little... But like... No, I really cannot say with any certainty he likes me. You, Duke, he likes."

Princess Syrissia nodded in understanding, "So baring a miracle and us stumbling across the man who has mentored him for several years, I am hearing Duke Mathard is probably best suited to break the news, with you, General, ready to move up and put your foot down should our Premier go on some kind of... tirade."

Mathard managed a grim smirk, "My Princess, should Premier Kandric decide to go on a tirade, I will strongly recommend you duck, cover, and pray to multiple gods, for I have seen him angry. His bare foot dented Dwarven Blue Steel plate armor while also breaking ribs in one of the Garm assigned to guard his tent. It was not a fault in the armor. It had to be taken and reforged. And while you may find this improbable, I feel I must add I witnessed this with my own eyes. It was also relatively easy to talk him down, since he was just frustrated and annoyed. This was before he killed the Green in Slome... No... if his temper fully erupts... Well, it must be our primary task to make sure this simply does not happen or he will go after Frexla and probably other major demons and demon lords. He may even kill a few..."

"Few more," Vondum stated with a nasty grin. "I was there when he killed Cyronia. While I did not know who it was at the time, it had to have been her, for within hours the storm started to break. He did it with very little help, nothing more than a distraction from a badly wounded man and a terrified little slave boy. All I could do was listen and watch out of the corner of my eye, since I was dealing with a trio of Ice Hellions."

Vondum looked down at Conth, "Boy you were there, you may speak. Tell them what you saw."

Conth gulped, "More what I heard. The storm was so bad... and all those things were screaming like high pitched wolves... Then... Kandric... Premier happened. He called out for people to grab fire, whatever burned while yelling about Ice Hellions. He was close to the back of the main building. I heard him slash into at least two, maybe more. They shrieked something awful, evil awful, as they fell. People in the camp were screaming and being ripped apart... but Kandric found the lead demon, chopped it, burned it alive, knocked it back into the inferno he made... The second it died the other creatures all screeched as if in the worst pain... I think I can still hear them in my dreams... nightmares... I looked out to see a couple of them that had been pounding at the door break up while their searing blue eyes faded away... they were so close when they cried out it made it hard to hear for a couple of days.

"But then Kandric came in, Premier Kandric... he wasn't even scratched. He was mad about having wasted all the firewood, and about needing to fix than man's arm... it was like totally frozen and black... Real nasty..."

"Enough, Conth. Now silence again!" Vondum barked out. "Unless any of you have any questions for this pathetic whelp."

Those in the command tent shook their heads while Duke Mathard shot Princess Syrissia a warning glance, "You see, there was a legend brewing before he became know to us. And yes, again this is the fault of the Garm, for we should have known and thus passed on this information to the Alphar. It will be dealt with in good time. Now, however, we do not want a repeat. Frexla entered this realm but for a few moments. It be our obligation to not only the Alphar and Garm, but the entire uncivilized realm outside our lands to make sure we do not have a return to the time of the Mythling Wars where cities were razed, rivers altered, mountains flattened, and lakes vanished while famine and disease ruled daily life.

"It took our combined races to beat back the scourge of the Drow, and because of it we altered history's perspective on how we are seen today. At this time we can reenter the world as a whole. If one of us cause a revival of the Mythling Wars..."

"We will not let this happen, my Duke," Princess Syrissia proclaimed. "Frexla must be stopped without dragging what is left of the world outside our territories down and burning in flames of near genocidal war."

While everyone was in agreement with the sustenance of the statement, there was still little idea how to go about it. Even as this topic was debated, a pair of Silver Dragonlings came in and knelt while a Pantherling stood behind them.

Duke Mathard held up his hand to halt discussion, then turned, "Has there been word of our Premier?"

"No, Duke Mathard, not yet. However, there are two matters, one certainly regarding him and the other, well, the Warrior Dragons in the camp all report there has been a Dragon death, somewhat close, most certainly a Warrior Dragon. None could think of anyone or anything, except our Premier."

"Do we have a direction?" Vondum demanded to know even as he moved to the tent flaps.

"Only a vague one, General," The Pantherling reported. "Somewhere to the southeast. It was too far away to get any better information."

"I'd bet money on it being Premier Kandric," Vondum grumbled. "Do me a favor and summon Ornam. Let him know I would like to take him up to check the general direction of this death."

"As you command, General. However, there is the second matter."

Mathard moved up to Vondum's side, pulling Mokel as he did so, "Let us hear it!"

"A Dragonling came into camp from the south side just before the latest death. It wears gear of Prince Bassork's allegiance, but professes to have come of free will, under guidance of Premier Kandric. He has with him two boys, both badly in need of attention from combat wounds as well as extreme exposure."

"Where are they?"

"We put them in a warm tent under heavy guard, but have done nothing more. The Black Dragon forces of Prince Bandurlok want the little Dragonling dismembered."

Vondum grinned, "Depending on why he is here, they may get their wish, however, if he came on behalf of our Premier, their bloodlust must be held in check until we run across something more deserving their wrath."

Mathard couldn't help but roll his eyes. "I find it hard to believe a Dragonling of an opposing side would willingly come to our camp without a very good reason. Shall we go interview this brave creature?"

Vondum shrugged, "I see no reason not to. Perhaps he has information we can put to good use while a few scouts head southeast to see if they can find our wayward Premier."

Klent spoke up from the back of the tent, "Duke, General, the boy you are calling Premier let one younger Black Dragonling go, with instructions should he find and rescue any of the missing students, he was to bring them here."

"Good information," Mathard gave a nod. "So if he does have some students from Slome, he is working for the Premier, and I would have to say it would not be in the better interests of the Black Dragon kind to harm him in any way."

"Not if they want to live," Vondum agreed with a large grin.

Making their way over to the guarded tent, Vondum whistled to Ornam, then spoke to him in Dragon, "Hey what were you able to get on the Dragon Death? Anything?"

"I believe it was a smaller White, direction southeast, more east than south. Too far away to get much, but for some reason the bottom of my back feet hurt for several seconds after it died. I would bet your Dragon killing Premier did something to its feet, then killed it."

"Thanks, Ornam. You have always been more sensitive to what happens than most of the others..."

"A slight gift, nothing more. Although for a few seconds I found it hard to stand, so in this case the gift turned into a momentary curse and I still have lingering discomfort. Whatever happened must have been excruciating to the White Warrior."

"I would say I am sorry."

Ornam busted up with laughter, "Then you would be lying, oh Great Enforcer! For I remember one of your greatest torments for those working the forge pits was to insert splinters into their toes! This allowed them to work while screaming their little lungs out!"

"Very true, and ultimately extremely effective. Many fell from exhaustion rather than be handed over to me, and more than a few made it through their training because they wanted no second or third time with me playing with their toes. So, do you think you will be able to fly me to the south to check if it is our Premier?"

Ornam let out a long breath, "With you alone, yes, with difficulty. With another, not likely. I do not have the wings for snow and ice. I very well may have to land a time or to and smack my wings on some trees as well. It will not be at all comfortable, but for you, I will do it."

"I will see if there is another way, but thank you. Oh, and speaking of pain, Ornam, you may wish to pass the word, Premier Kandric did indeed allow a Dragonling he captured to go under condition it search out and bring back any students it found..."

"I suspected as much. No Dragonling child allied to Bassork would dare ask for sanctuary in this camp unless he had very good reason. I will, as soon as you verify, make it clear the boy is no longer in Bassork's corner and is in actuality allied with Premier Kandric. It will end any and all talk of playing catch with our teeth, dismembering, eating, roasting on a spit, or any other things I have heard in passing since his arrival."

"Roasting on a spit? Really? As in alive?"

"Well, of course, but come now, Enforcer Vondum, he would not live for long... Besides, it came from one of the Red Warriors who offered to breathe on the fire to speed things along. However, when one considers it, the idea is not a bad one if you prefer your meat cooked as I know you do."

Noticing Blue Streak edging further away from Ornam, while looking out with a great deal of concern at Cam'ris, Vondum chuckled, "Cam'ris, your Shocker is getting nervous. You need to reassure him the conversation had nothing to do with him."

Cam’ris knelt in the snow and pulled the large lizard's head into his side for some comfort, then motioned for it to catch up as he ran to rejoin Vondum, "What was said to make Blue Streak so nervous, General? He is quaking!"

"Work on your Dragon tongue, and I am sure he will tell you. But let me assure you, Cam'ris it had nothing to do with the cold. Now come."

Vondum entered the tent, noting there were two teens on the floor. One was in badly tattered reinforced leather armor, and the other bronze chain with several holes. Neither teen had sufficient clothing on to be out in such a storm and no weapons or gear. Before Vondum could do anything, Duke Mathard moved over and knelt between them. He put a hand on both and frowned deeply. "There is frost on their fingers and under their skin and their body temperatures are dangerously low. Up in Winter Creek we call this the Bite of Inaxia. They need good Channelers or Shamen or a very high Healthman if we are going to bring them back without having to remove fingers, and probably toes as well."

"Cam'ris," Vondum spoke up, "go find what is needed. I saw the one in chainmail in the school on one of my prior visits. Even a year or two later he is fairly eye-catching and while not the sharpest knife in the sheath, was coordinated and refused to back down... Anyway, this is certainly one of Premier Kandric's students. We need to take care of him. The other, well, he does not look familiar, but what is left of his armor does carry the school patch... As a side note, I only spent but a half day working with the students and very few stuck out as being worth more than a moment of my time. I am gathering he was not one of them, but he is still one of the missing students and having them with us may help calm our sure to be extremely volatile young ."

Vondum took one more look down at the pair, then focused in on the Dragonling. Without thinking, he spoke in Dragon, "You found them like this?"

"Not exactly. I found the shivering by a small hot spring. They had nothing and were eating this bark." The Dragonling held up his left claw. "They used a sharp rock to peal it off of a nearby tree. I am not familiar with the plants in these parts, but..."

"Midnight Pine." Vondum stated. "And they were eating the soft wood right under the bark, not the bark itself. One of them must be an Outdoorsman. There are many types of pine trees one can eat, but the Midnight Pine is one of the best, for its softer edible wood goes deeper than most and is actually quite healthy. Although it is very bitter and extremely sticky, even in the winter.

"The question is why didn't you just stay with them where they were until the storm broke?"

"Sir, I had no way of knowing this was good food and I already killed two Kobalds. These two were in no shape to fight anything, and I thought they were starving to death and eating wood to fill their empty stomachs. I told them I would take them to safety and they didn't seem to believe me, but agreed to come with me."

"I am sure they thought they had been recaptured."

"Nothing I could do about it, sir. I mean I tried and was nice. I even cast an Endure Elements on both, twice, but I had no more Force to do so again. I helped them up the last hill, but both are very tough for being Human. I got them here shortly after the second spell faded from around them. I also gave them the weapons from the Kobalds, but all our gear, including my spell book, was taken when I surrendered and asked for Duke Mathard as the killer of my king instructed me to do.”

"As soon as we verify you are the one Premier Kandric released, and double-check on these two boys, I am certain all will be returned, but I can assure you they will not be getting Kobald quality weapons to replace what has obviously been taken from them and I will make sure you get a reward as well. Can you tell me anything at all about Bassork's plans?"

"Sir, I was but a junior spell caster in Bloody Rock to help defend the complex and the lairs in the catacombs deep below the red mountain. I have no knowledge of where I am now, but it is certainly nothing like the area around Bloody Rock."

"Catacombs? You have seen them?"

"Only the entrance. I was never allowed in since I was told there is an egg chamber there. It is a vaulted ceiling with a Dwarven statue at one end and a slender Elvin one at the other. Between were hundreds of smashed open burial vaults with bits and pieces of bone all over the floor. The entrance was through a Silver Steel gate with a set of Blue Steel lifting chains. The wheel for opening on my side had been broken, but it looked like it had been done ages ago. The wheel on the other side was how the gate was opened and closed, but like I said, I never got past the gate and it was manned by a Black and a Green True Dragon. Both of which were chained by their back feet to the wall with massive iron shackles and both had their wings removed and breath sack and tubes cut and burned so they were breathless."

"Their transgressions must have bordered on death. I cannot imagine what they did."

"I inquired once, and was told they overstepped their breeding rights. I got the impression I should know what crime it was, so I did not ask further."

At this Vondum cringed, "They tried to breed with a Great female. A high crime for any Dragon not given permission to do so, and such permission would never be granted to a True. The instinctual draw must have been too much for them and they were given slavery or death after ruining a breeding cycle. They probably should have chosen death."

"I was told both had been executed when the True Green was getting ready to gate us. It said they could never be trusted and their bodies would block the gate to the hatchery... But the power of the Splitrock Knolls twisted the gate spell and we ended up here, wherever here is."

An Alphar Channeler of Vindayin entered along with a Garm Channeler of Golan. Both turned their attention to the boys and went into deep prayer. Within a few minutes the skin color and their breathing returned to a much more natural appearance.

While this was being done, Vondum relayed what information the Dragonling had freely given over.

Without hesitation Mathard ordered the Dragonling be granted the return of his gear and spell book, while suitable equipment was found for the two boys, even before they started to stir. While Mathard oversaw this, and made sure the Dragonling was going to be accepted and even protected, Vondum moved out to Ornam, "Anything more on our Premier, my friend?"

"Nothing..." suddenly the sky to the south southeast lit up as a massive ball of white light spilled over the distant hill with a roar of a thousand angry Thunder Lions, followed by what could only be called a scream of absolute dismay. As this happened Ornam dropped his neck while using his wings to cover his ears. Other Dragons and many Dragonlings did the same.

From where Ornam had all but buried his head in the snow, he gasped out with a roar of agony, "Kandric has killed Prince Weraweld! The Great White died looking helpless at him! The last sights were of a smirk and red hair!"

As Mathard ran out of the tent to look at the retreating ball of pure white energy, Vondum shook his head, "Unless I miss my guess, good Duke, my wilderness scout is there, directly over those bluffs off the far side of the lake."

"So it seems. I need any Dragons who can take someone and all the Griffin riders up with their mounts! We need to get over there... like an hour ago!"

Ornam poked his head up from the snow, puking as he did so. "Vondum... I... I need a moment..."

"Can you take Cam'ris and Conth when you recover enough?"

"I will find a way... Even if I have to take the lizard and the wolf in my claws and land a few times, I will get them there... The Silvers... they have wings meant for cold... take one of them... Go... I will catch up."

Yarnay (9yo Druid Gem Channel: Tallis-Klandon's WB), Sibler (9yo Mystic Sailor-Lylan's WB), Kaznal (9yo War Adpt Outdoors Channel: Avgon Mylan's WB), Tazen (14yo Swordsman Health), Dario (13 yo War Adpt Leather Gem), Alkoris (13 HAE Halfelf War Adpt Lock Outdoors) Tyndall (15yo Mage woodworker/outdoors)

Guardman Vit, Corporal Klug +2 guardsmen

Alkoris moved down the torch-lit passageway, keeping a close eye open. He paused to test each door as he came to them, but a slight pull on each told him they were locked. Figuring if he wanted to pretend to belong, picking the locks and checking them out wasn't in his better interest, but it was beyond difficult not to do so. Each door was a place he really wanted to check out.

After a couple of turns he looked back, "Guys, come on, make some small talk or something. If you are all quiet it will seem off. We're kids, and as my pa always said, getting rid of us kids would finally give him some much-needed silence!"

Dario couldn't help but snicker, "Ma always tell me same. Say, her best day was when I was headed to the school. I thought it be 'cause she be proud, but Pa say it was jus' her bein' happy to get rid a the last a us kids so she could hear the birds sing."

Tazen rolled his eyes, "After putting up with you for few years I can see why." He nudged Kaznal with an elbow, "He holds conversations with himself in his sleep about half the nights, and the more uncomfortable it is, hot or cold, the more he talks. There was talk in the barracks of stuffing things in his mouth before bed after the first few days he was in the school."

"So says the kid who made livin' no fun at all fer the first two moons of us livin' there. Taz was so mean..."

"Mean? No..."

"So tyin' us in our beds as we was sleepin', movin' our gear around at night, puttin' fingers in water at night so's we peed..."

"All ways to get you to cry, make you all more alert, and to get me bronze chain armor. Besides, I never hurt any of you, not really. Scared you, tricked you, but not like some of the others who put sharp rocks in boots and made kids run around the outside walls, made them practice with wood weapons with splintered handles or made the entire barracks sleep outside in the rain. I also never hit any of you. Thanks to Alkoris, I didn't have to!"

Alkoris couldn't help but look back and nod, "Yeah, you were way nicer than most, but still, Taz, I know some of them slept in the beds with each other for days after we had them all thinking the barracks at the far end was haunted and you made each one sleep in one of those rooms alone..."

Seeing the younger kids looking at him, Tazen gave a quick grin, "I did, and we made noises in the middle of the night, moved things around, had one of the Shaman kids I know cast Dust on the floors, then walk out so there was footprints started in the middle of the room and going out the door, or cast Glow on things and moved them around with twine outside the windows... I even moved one of the old beds out into the hall between the rooms and walked on it so it creaked then drug it slowly so it made long scraping sounds. Man, those were the fun times."

"I still wants to know how ya shredded me blanket with claw marks..." Dario grumbled.

"Wasn't yours. I had Alkoris practice moving quiet..."

Dario looked over with a glare, "You switched it?"

"Yeah," Alkoris grinned from ear to ear. "You was easy, mumbling in you sleep and tossing around like crazy. You rolled over and grabbed for your blanket, so I handed you the old one Taz put four dagger slices in like claw marks, then slid yours out from under you when you tossed again. And wow, did you scream! I don't think the others came even close!" He snickered as Dario turned red, "Oh, and had you paid better attention, you would have seen the twine loop over the window going down to the door on the closet where Taz made you put all our gear for the night. The window shutter pulled open at the same time you opened the door, but I used a slip knot so it untied itself from the door and fell on the floor. The burning message to get back into bed when you opened the room door in the morning was nothing more than flint, steel, and lantern oil on the stone floor. The steel rubbed against the flint poking off the floor, sparked, and lit the oil. Of all the tricks Taz and me came up with, the burning messages were the best. Taz had to get help to pull some of you out of your beds!"

"Not me!" Dario shook his head. "When Taz called for formation, all I could think was I was allowed ta get out! I jumped over the fire and ran!"

"I think I would have ran and kept running, like in run away!" Kaznal stated seriously.

Dario shook his head, "A few did. He had to chase down four of 'em and the guards caught a few. Them first two nights in the haunted building left most of us crying our eyes out. The third night Taz had to have two of the bigger kids drag me into my room, toss me on da damned bed and slammed and locked the door! All me hear was screaming from all over the place."

Alkoris giggled, "Each time, the last night was the best, cause we didn't have to do nothing! Ya all kept each other scared with all your crying, shouting and pleading. All eight groups did the same thing. We stayed in a tent outside just to make sure none of you, like tried to climb up to the roof and jump or nothing. But mostly we just laughed. The best was Tannilem pulling at the bars on the second floor window of his room begging for him mommy. One of the guards started throwing stuff up at him, threatening him with all sorts of stuff if he didn't shut up."

"How mean!" Yarnay interjected. "What if you had attracted a real ghost from all the fear or something?"

Tazen reached out and playfully poked at Yarnay's Channeler guild pin, "Then we would have turned it over to someone like you."

Yarnay couldn't help but smile, "You are the one with the magic sword, and while I know a great deal more than I did or even should after the spirit took me over, there is no way I am stopping a ghost... Skeleton, maybe, but I really do not want to find out, since I really never want to see one."

Before more could be said, a pair of men came into view. They both wore reinforced leather and with weapons on their hips and a crimson sash with a twisting blue stripe in the middle was over their left shoulder and went down around to their right hip. The smaller of the two, whose shoulder had a patch marking him as a basic city guard spoke with a great deal of anger, "What's all this yappin' and what're ya brats doin' down here?"

Alkoris put on the most stupid grin he could muster, "We were told to grab breakfast. The sergeant pointed to the door and we went down the steps. We couldn't find the mess area though. Where is it, Guardsman?"

The other man's eyes narrowed. As he turned to focus on Alkoris, the sash moved enough for all the kids to see a city guard patch showing him to be a corporal, "Right next to the courtyard... How'd you get past the guards at the ground level and then the ones above us?"

"Walked right past. They didn't stop us none. Why? Are we not supposed to be down here?"

"Not without sashes! Do you all know how lucky you are?"

"Lucky? We've been walking around trying to find food..."

"Better than some a the things down here usin' ya for food!" the guardsman all but shouted. "Ya didn't open none a them doors down the way did ya?"

"They were locked..."

"Of course they are locked!" the corporal snarled, yet his face showed obvious relief. "So you boys from the school, right?"

Alkoris pulled at his cloak, "Yeah, we were pulled back after the street belched up steam and rock on those in the front and a bunch of buildings fell. We'd kind of like to eat and get back to the school..."

"No, no you don't. Those taken back to the school are the unlucky ones. You all must come from loyal families..."

"Not like Devkiln, or nothin'." Dario spoke up.

Tazen joined in, "Yeah... Hey, maybe you know. Did we get Devkiln back from the caravan like we heard?"

The corporal looked around nervously, moving down to where the hall branched off, while responding, "No. We now think someone from the caravan dressed like him to distract those trying to get to him... Master Tregasel is going to be furious from what we hear. He really wants the blade back."

"He's got a real wicked blade. I always wanted to try it, but he said his dad would be super mad, so only Devkiln was allowed to use it. What about Guelech?" Alkoris asked with as much fake concern as he could force into his voice, noting both men seemed to be nervous and worried about Devkiln. "I haven't seen him since we marched out of the school. He wasn't hurt was he?"

"Sorry, kid, he's dead," The corporal sighed. "Yet one more thing for Master Tregasel to be angry about. I sure wouldn't want to be any of those who were in his barracks who lived..."

"They should a know ta protect him," Dario spoke while looking down so he could hide the glint he knew was in his eyes. "If ya shows us were they is I'll put a fist inta them..."

"They are at the school with the others who are in a world of hurt." The corporal sighed, "But you all need to get some chow and get your assignments." The man pointed in the direction he had come from, "Second left will get you to the steps you all came down, then go right until you see the steps up. Don't be dawdling, either. No opening any doors on your way up and get up and stay up top. Won't be too long till there be some screaming and crying from the cells up there since the Gloom Fire sent over a couple of Mystics."

He then grabbed Alkoris by the ear, and twisted it. "Seems like you are the group leader, boy. If I see any of you down here again, I'll beat your ass with the flat of my blade till it starts bleeding and stick all of you butts on snow duty with no rest until the storm stops, got me?"

At this all the other kids nodded, even as Alkoris managed to hiss out in pain, "Won't happen again Corporal!"

"Good, but since you'll be wandering around here like lost puppies, you must not have gotten the words. Get one of these on." The corporal pulled at the sash. "You'll find a barrel of them in wood shed next to the well."

Sibler couldn't help himself, he looked up, "Why?"

The guardsman moved up and smacked Sibler hard on the back of the head, "Because you's told! But don't care none if ya gets ate 'er not!"

The corporal moved up with some concern, "You OK, kid?"

Sibler wiped at the back of his head, somewhat surprised it wasn't bleeding and even more astonished he hadn't been knocked to the floor. With frown and only a trace of tears in his eyes turned and glared at the corporal. "My sister hits harder."

Seeing he partner turn red and step forward with his arm raised, the corporal moved to intercept while snarling, "Peffen, you really think it is a good idea to be hitting kids allowed in this keep, kids with good armor, spell book, a Mystic cloak along with Blue Steel and Silver Steel weapons? Are you nuts?"

The guard stopped cold, but stared at Sibler with rage-filled eyes.

"You get me stuck in one of those cells, Peffen, I will rearrange your face as many times as I can before they do whatever they decide would be best for hurting a kid we really knew we shouldn't."

"We don't even know 'em none!"

Tazen stepped forward, "Name's Dorwald, but hey, come over and hit me, too. I'll ask to watch what they do to you, and I'll cheer while they do it..."

The guard noticeably gulped even as he dug into his pouch and pulled out a silver and three copper. He quickly pushed the coins into Sibler's hand, “Sorry kid, but ya ain't allowed down here none..."

Alkoris nodded, "Sorry, 'bout messing up. How about you forget we did and I'll make sure Kaddo forgets you hit him?"

The guard nodded while taking a step back.

To add to the effect, Alkoris reached over and lightly cuffed Sibler, "Kaddo, give me the coins; keeping 'em is just mean. None of us need silver and copper!"

"He hit me..."

"Yeah, well you mouthed off and he is a city guard," Alkoris took the coins out of Sibler's hands. "If you really can't get over it, tell your old lady Guardsman Peffen hit you. I'm sure she'll make sure it never happens again." Alkoris had to fight off any hint of a grin as he moved up the guard and handed the four coins back. The guy didn't even know Kaddo's mom and was about to dirty his loincloth. This gave him an opening, however, so he took it. As he spun away from the guards, bumping in to both.

Alkoris then jerked his head, "Come on guys, I'm hungry!"

As soon as he got to the top of the steps he looked down to make sure those below hadn't realized they had been pilfered, then smiled. He checked the door, noted it was a heavy bronze-bound wood door with an internal lock at the end of a hall. A look through the keyhole allowed him to see another door about five meters in front and there were no guards in the hall. He made sure all the others got through the door at the top of the stairs, then turned and went through five keys before finding the right one. With a smirk, he locked the door then pulled up on the bronze key till it broke off in the lock. "Unless one of them is a real good Lockmaster... And even better neither of them with a war hammer or axe, so getting through this door with what they have will take..." He snickered, "A real long time."

He tested the door. Then, while grinning widely, he tossed Sibler the corporal's pouch. "There was way more coins in this one."

Sibler caught the pouch with wide eyes, "You stole the keys and pouch?"

Tazen busted with some giggles, "Robber guild, Sibler. It's what he does."

"And I do it soooooo well!" Alkoris teased while giving Tazen a light shove.

"But..." Sibler stated weakly, while holding the fairly heavy pouch out as if totally uncomfortable with having it

"But you got hit," Tazen moved over and patted the boy on the back. "Funny comment by the way. Your sister hits harder... nice one."

With a troubled sigh, Sibler took a breath and added the pouch to his belt, "He is a mean jerk."

"Mean 'er not. He popped ya hard 'nough to hear," Dario shook his head with some admiration. "Had ta hurt and ya didn't even cry none."

At this Sibler spoke up, "Dario, all three of us are whipping boys. It will take way more than one hard hit to make us cry!"

At this both Kaznal and Yarnay nodded while smiling.

Seeing both Dario and Alkoris staring at him, Sibler shrugged, "I am up to at least ten lashes before I start crying... unless one of the guards uses the strap, then four or five at the most... three if they go for the back of the legs."

"Yes," Yarnay nodded with a shiver, "those still really hurt!"

"Uh, huh," Kaznal agreed, "but the sooner the tears are real the faster the commander calls for a stop, so I would almost prefer the legs at this point. Taking six or seven to the butt, then having to sit in the wagon is no fun at all."

"So ya really gets beat fer some other brat?" Dario asked with a sour face.

Kaznal nodded, "It is what we were indentured to do and be. I live way better as a whipping boy than a farm peasant would. I am also getting trained... Um, well maybe am now. I do not think the guilds will be happy if I can pass a Primary test before I turn ten though."

"What about me and Secondary!" Tazen joked.

"If what the commander said is true, you will not be the youngest." Sibler stated.

"Someone is younger than fourteen years and is Secondary?"

"I'm Human equivalent of thirteen years and am pretty sure I am."

Yarnay jumped in, "The commander says there are two younger, who are way into Secondary."

"I'm not believin' it none, till me gets ta meet 'em and see with me own eyes!" Dario snorted, "But let's get out a here before them start pounding on this door with their light maces."

"Bronze light maces," Alkoris snickered. "They'll die of starvation or stumble across the secret door before they get through this door with what they have. But Dar's right. Let's get out of here and see if we can grab some of those shoulder cloth things."

"Sashes," Kaznal and Sibler corrected the Halfelf at the same time.

"Shoulder cloth, sash, whatever," Tazen tossed up his hands. "If it stops us from something chewing on us, I want one!"

"I'm with him," Dario stated. "I eat meat, not meat for gettin' ate."

Yarnay looked over as Alkoris first tried the door then went back to the keys. "What if you broke off the key for this door?"

"Then I pick it or Ty spells it." Alkoris grinned as he found one of the keys turned the tumblers, "Have to do it the boring way this time, though. If there are guards, we were sent down to help Peffen move stuff in the lower cellar we saw with all those crates and barrels before we were allowed to eat."

"You talk we'll follow," Tazen ordered.

Alkoris finished turning the key, then pulled the door open. Four guards turned while gabbing for weapons. All four slowed as their eyes took in the group of boys, but all still finished pulling what they had on their belts.

Alkoris leaned away. Looking fearful was not terribly difficult when staring four city guards all in bronze chain shirts, heavy shields, two with heavy maces, one with a battle axe, the other with a broadsword and all wearing the red sashes. It didn't make him any happier to see one of the maces and the broadsword were Human steel. His skinned itched thinking about it.

He held up both hands while taking a step back into Tazen. "Whoa... whoa... easy guys!"

The man with the axe spoke up, "Boy, where do ya think you are goin'?"

Alkoris pointed down the passage, "To breakfast..."

The man with the sword eyed the kids with a deep frown. "No one but Corporal Grakel and a guardsman are supposed to be down there! What were you doing down there?"

"Stacking crates and moving barrels in the store room. We weren't allowed up until Guardsman Peffen was happy..."

"Get you butts back down there..."

"But I have keys..."

The man smacked the blade into his gauntleted hand as he moved up moved up, "Like I give a shit! I said..."

Next to Tazen, Sibler blinked as he heard what the man was thinking. "You are not sticking anything up my butt nor feeding me to a Life Husk, whatever it is!"

The guy's eyes went wide, "How did you..." Even as he spoke he reached out to grab Sibler.

"Screw this!" Tazen snarled as he realized these four weren't planning to let them go anywhere and one of them was going to seize Sibler if he didn't react. With a quick and smooth pull, he drew the magical short sword Glaster hand loaned him and went low, under the man's hand.

The guy tried to bring his shield around, but it was way too late. The blade pierced his left leg right where the leg met the hip, just under his chain shirt. His lightly armored leather britches did nothing to protect him. The thrust went all the way into the bone, slid off the ball at the top of the leg bone, and came out the back of the leg. He let out a pained gasp even as he swung his shield wildly. But again he was too late.

Tazen saw the shield angling toward his head so he kept moving forward, ducking and spinning, while ripping the sword out of the man's leg. The resulting cut, sliced all the muscle connecting the front and side of the leg to the hip along with tendons and ligaments. Tazen's knowledge as a Healthman told him the guy was all but done even before the leg buckled, unable to support any weight. Instead of worrying about the Swordsman, he angled right toward the man with the Human Steel mace, knowing he didn't want his best friend to get hit with anything made of iron.

Sibler, on the other hand, had somehow heard what the guy was thinking of doing to him and even saw a glimmer of the picture the guy had in his mind. There was no way he was going to allow the man to lay a hand on him if he could help it. To this end he yanked out the light mace one of the older boys had found on all the bodies in the rubble and slammed it down into the man's face before the guy could focus. The nicely made and balanced Blue Steel weapon sunk in as facial bones shattered, cutting the man's howls off before they could really get started.

Dario noticed the axe armed guard was about to bring his shield down on Sibler, so he slammed his bronze axe into the wooden shield, deflecting the blow away from Sibler and cracking it some, but found his axe had sunk in too far to easily pull out. All it took was for the man to yank his shield arm back to pull the axe handle out of Dario's grasp. However, this left the shield heavier and badly unbalanced, so the guy had a difficult time turning it to use it for protection.

Alkoris noticed the guy struggle to bring the shield with Dario's axe stuck into it back into a defensive position. He used the opening to his fullest advantage. He shoved his captured Silver Steel shod staff over Dario's shoulder and into the man's chest, then pushed forward with everything he had. The man stumbled back, tripped over his fallen comrades discarded broadsword, and fell back against the wall.

In the very back of the group, Tyndall extended his hand, cupped his other hand around the back of his extended one and spoke a trio of words. A burst of flame erupted out, striking the fallen man dead center in the chest and igniting the padded tunic under his chain shirt.

The guard shouted in pain and fear while ripping the shield off his arm. He tossed it at Ty with everything he could muster, then rolled while frantically trying to smack out the flames on the tunic under his armor.

Tyndall saw the shield coming and closed his eyes.

Right in front of him, Kaznal heard the older boy say, "Aww crap..." followed by an 'Oooofff'. He glanced over to see Ty fall back while gripping at his upper chest.

Dario pulled his back-up weapon, a Gnome Steel dagger even as he looked back over his shoulder. "Check on him! We gots this!" He then shoved the dagger into the burning guard's exposed butt as the guy rolled again, buried it to the hilt, and left it there. Even as the guy let out a scream and reached back at the hilt of the dagger protruding from his right butt check, Dario dove and snagged the dropped broadsword.

Alkoris stepped up, saw the dagger's hilt sticking up and stomped on it with everything he had.

The guard's back arched and he started shaking even as one hand tried to put out flames while the other grabbed for the dagger again.

"Nope, it's right where it belongs." Alkoris stated with a sinister grin before he brought his foot down on it a second time.

At this point the pain became too much. The guy blacked out even as flames and blazing material caused a glowing effect on the chain shirt.

By this point Tazen had gotten past the back two guards and parried a swing from the Human Steel mace. The Primary Echelon Swordsman showed some skill and strength as he slammed Tazen in the shoulder, leaving him with an arm without full movement. It wasn't horrible, but he was sure it would hurt a lot worse in the morning. On the other hand, the use of the shield for a weapon left a little bit of an opening and Tazen took it, slicing the guy's left cheek.

The guard snarled, lowered his stance, braced his shield, and tossed the offending teen back away from him, but boy didn't even fall. His eyes narrowed as he moved forward and swung. As the kid ducked under, he adjusted his attack and used the fist wrapped around the hilt of the mace to pop the boy in the face. The problem was, the kid wasn't nearly as affected as he planned, and this left his arm exposed.

Tazen made a growling sound as the fist slammed into his face just below his right eye. However, he spotted a flaw in his opponent. With his offhand, he pulled a dagger and drug it down the inside of the man's shield arm, along where it was strapped to the inside of the shield. Most of it was blocked by the chain shirt, but as the blade ran down, the end dropped off at the wrist, it opened a nasty gash on the man's wrist and onto his hand. Had the shield not been strapped on, the guy would have certainly dropped it, but as it was the man yanked his shield back with a hiss of pain. The edge of the shield knocked the dagger out of Tazen's hand, but other than leaving him with stinging fingers, he was able to back off with no problem. The drips of blood hitting the floor coming from behind the shield told him the exchange had been worth it. The man's shield use wouldn't be nearly as good. It also cut down on further shield bashes, since each hard hit would only cause the Swordsman more blood loss.

While all this was going on, the other man quickly put his back to his fellow guard so both had their backs protected. He moved fluidly, keeping the shield up. He easily blocked a tossed dagger from Yarnay and a Sand Burst Autospell from Sibler even as he did so he spoke to his partner, "Careful, the little shit with the heavy sandy-colored mop's a spell thrower!"

"Well, kill him, then!" The other man stated while just barely managing to deflect Tazen's swing with his shield "This kid's fully guilded! I really gots my hands full here!"

Dario moved up with the broadsword on the other guard only to have his swing blocked. He then ended up on his rear with a badly bloodied lip as the man shield bashed him, then stepped on his leg. This left Dario trying to scramble back to his feet on a leg with a knot in it. It would have been much worse, but Alkoris moved up and parried the man's swing on Dario's leg even as his freind fought to stand. This allowed Dario to roll well out of the way.

Since he was on the ground, Dario reached over and pulled his dagger out of the mortally injured guard's backside and threw it. The throw was poor, so the blade didn't hit, but the weapon bouncing off the guy's shin still hurt and put him slightly off balance.

Kaznal, who was beside Tyndall, saw this and went for broke. He jumped up, ran straight at the guy, and dove.

The man looked up to see a kid in ill-fitting Dwarven chain armor leap over his fallen comrade, while swinging a light mace at him. He brought up the shield and knocked the smallest of group into a wall, but already being off balance, he stumbled into his friend's back. This pushed the guard facing Tazen right at the boy.

Tazen didn't really see what had happened, but he sure saw the guy lurch forward clearly unexpectedly. He adjusted his attack. Instead of swinging, he ducked under the shield and did a straight in thrust. There was some resistance as the tip of the magical blade poked into the bronze chain, but the thrust was dead center and had both Tazen's forward thrust and the push the guard got into his back behind it. The blade sunk in between ribs and went right through the man's right lung before the tip stopped at the chain links meant to protect the man's back.

He fell forward, blood pouring from his mouth, further impaling himself. He reached out to grab at the blade in his chest only to feel it be swiftly and professionally removed. All this did was cause him to lose all four fingers on his right hand as the backward motion sliced them clean off.

He fell face first into a pool of his own blood.

The last guard turned just in time to see his buddy's fingers scatter over the ground. With rage and fear pouring through him, he made a wild swing at Tazen with his mace, while blocking Dario's attempt to slash him with the broadsword. It was an easy block since the kid was limping and wasn't able to put full power into the swing. However, he didn't take into account Kaznal, who, while a little battered, found himself amazingly well protected from the shield and his impact with the stone wall by the Dwarven chain. If anything, the uncomfortable cloth Dario and Tazen had stuffed in the loose spots, provided extra padding. He jumped back up and swung his light mace into the back of last man's knee.

The man let out a string of curses as he went down to one knee. He brought his shield up to block a swing by Tazen, while launching his elbow back at Kaznal. He followed this up with a weapon pummel into Dario's already sore leg. The kid backed off wincing badly.

The elbow shot hit Kaznal in the chest which knocked him back into the wall, but once again, while it hurt, he had felt much worse. For in his mind there was nothing as bad as getting a strap over his backside for Mylan after his charge broke his mother's favorite crystal bird when he tossed a pillow at Lylan in the sitting room.

In fact, Kaznal wasn't even stunned by the elbow. On the other hand, he had always kind of dreamed of the day he would be able to strike back at someone who had hit him, and this was a great chance! He moved up and dropped his mace right on top of the guy's head, splitting it wide open. Really not wanting to get tossed into a wall a third time, and getting some momentary satisfaction of finally being able to hit someone back, he pulled it up and did it again, and again, and again... He would have certainly continued, but Dario pulled him back, even while shaking his leg to get more feeling and blood flow back into it. "Aw, little guy, stop! Yer splatterin' blood all over the place! Geesh!"

Dario pushed Kaznal back, then pulled the sash off of guard Tazen had all but removed the leg of. He spent a few moments to wipe a few splashes of blood off his cheek before moving over to Kaznal. With a rather revolted look, he pulled out his water skin, got the sash wet and started wiping Kaznal's face and hair.

Seeing the tyke start to pull away, Tazen moved up and grabbed him so Dario could continue. At the same time this allowed Alkoris to step up and pour about half his own water skin over the boy.

All three backed off and scrunched their noses as Kaznal shook his head wildly to get rid of some of the still red-tinged water, then reached up and cast a Dry Autospell on himself. He then shot Dario a dirty look.

Before he could do or say anything Tazen pointed at him in warning, "Commander told me to take care of you all and put me in charge. Just don't."

Kaznal frowned deeply, "Do not, what?"

"Whatever you were about to do or say," Alkoris stated with a half-grin half-cringe, even as he moved down to where the hall came to a 'T'. He looked both ways. "Doors at both ends, and no sounds. If anyone was close they had to have heard all this though."

Dario moved up to the shield and tried to get his axe out a couple of times before he gave up.

Tazen snickered and grabbed the dead guard's axe. "This one's Silver Steel, Dar, forget about your bronze one!"

"But I..."

Tazen rolled his eyes, moved up, stepped on the shield and wiggled the axe out. "Here, but the other is way better."

"Yea, I know. But this still be mine and now me's got a back-up."

"You know," Alkoris quipped while doing his best to ignore the dead guards, "most people carry a smaller backup or something with a different attack style, not carry two of the same primary weapon."

"But I'm best with a axe."

"Then why did the guy pull it out of your hand, Dario?" Yarnay asked as he moved back to check on Tyndall.

Seeing Dario put his hands on his hips and glare at Yarnay, Tazen busted up with laughter, "Be pissed off all you want, Dar, the little guy's got a great point."

Dario took a few angry breaths while trying to stem the flow of blood from of his badly split lip and testing his leg. Seeing the others all looking back at him with smirks he spit out some blood and grabbed the sheath of the broadsword and stuck it over the back of his pack, "There! Happy?"

Kaznal muttered something softly causing Alkoris to bust up in a fit of laughter

"WHAT?" Dario shouted.

"Nothing," Alkoris managed to get out between laughs, while putting an arm around Kaznal and giving him a tight, friendly, squeeze.

"Nothin' my ass," Dario grumbled while motioning for Tazen to look at his lip.

Tazen looked back, "Ty, you OK?"

"Nasty blow to the upper chest," Tyndall muttered. He winced and rubbed his sternum, "I just knew it was going to hurt when he tossed the shield at me... I just knew it!"

"Then you should have ducked," Sibler noted as he looked at the bodies and decided the men in fact wouldn't need their pouches at this point and he really didn't have many coins other than the pouch Alkoris stole for him. Besides the corporal's pouch, he had just a few copper out of the pouch of the student whose armor he was wearing. He knew the other whipping boys were in the same situation. At least this wasn't quite the same as stealing...

The comment cheered up Dario who couldn't help but nod, "I's got ta agree with Sib, Ty."

Tazen spoke up, "Alk, keep an eye on those doors. Dar, I'll be with you as soon as I check on Ty."

Yarnay held up his hand "I think I can take care of this, Tazen."

"OK..." Tazen stated with a long drawl even as he moved over to Dario while pressing the hilt of his recovered dagger up to the bump just under his eye, knowing the cold metal would cut back on swelling.

At the same time Kaznal moved up to Dario, "Let me try. I think I am good enough now."

Tazen shrugged and backed off, fingering his Healthman pouch and watching both small boys. After just over a minute a glow erupted from Yarnay's hands and flowed into Ty. The teen had a momentary look of even worse pain, but then he patted his chest and looked over with wide eyes, "I think I owe a donation at the next Tallis shrine... if I ever get any coin... um, thanks kid!"

"Here," Sibler called out even as he tossed one of the guard's pouches over. "Now you do."

This caused Alkoris to nod in approval. "Much better Sib! I bet I could make a Lockmaster out of you..."

"Don't even think about it," Tazen warned. "The one field he will not let anyone use without permission is Lockmaster, and the kid he has as an apprentice has been told Lockmaster is like the only Subfield he can't ask to get training in. I'm not about to let any of these three learn those skills and have to explain it to the commander. Ain't no way."

A few seconds later Kaznal's fingers shimmered and he reached out and touched Dario's lip. The blood stopped, where the teen had bit in closed, and most of the swelling went away. At the same time, Dario was able to fully extend his leg without it cramping up on him.

Dario tapped at his lip and nodded before reaching out and ruffling Kaznal's hair, "I'm thinkin' I owes Avgon a coin 're two. Just a bit sore. Ways ta go little guy!"

"We can only do two a day..." Kaznal looked over to Yarnay, “at least I can do two.”

"Yes, same here. But they will not always work. We will get better as we go up in Echelon. I cannot believe we are really Primary!"

"How do you think us being Primary will work with us being whipping boys."

"Knowing the commander," Sibler snorted, "he will just have the guards hit us harder to make up for it. I am sure our charge's father will."

"And there is my luck summed up in a strap." Kaznal stated with a roll of his eyes and a slightly forced grin showing he really didn't take it too personally. "Tazen, I can try to fix you..."

"Just a few bruises, I'm fine. We may need those Channeler healings for something worse later. Hold on to them for now. You sure you are OK? He tossed you back in the wall a couple of times, Kaz."

"I have been strapped worse by one of the female servants," Kaznal grinned. "All it did was make me mad and be happy I could hit back. Most of the time I have to drop my britches and thank them for it afterwards."

"Hate to say it, but I'm glad it's you three and not me. Now, take what you want and move. We need to get out of here before these jerks are found." Tazen ordered. “We'll have time to joke around once we are out of the city."

Sibler shook his head, "They are.. were... the only ones down this far. They were to stop anything from coming up from below. There are some other guards behind a set of bronze-bound double doors just around the corner from the steps we were told to take to go up. Something really bad is going on the other side. And there are prisoner cells through the other door. There is at least one Mystic in there... The one you cut the leg of wanted to take me there... and do nasty things..."

"How could you know all of this?" Tyndall asked a great deal of skepticism.

"I saw it..." Sibler pointed to the middle of his forehead, "in here."

"You a mind talker?" Alkoris asked.


Kaznal looked over, "But your mother is, right?"

Sibler let out a long breath, "Uh, huh. Mother is the whole reason I am a whipping boy. She heard... felt... whatever a Mindmaster does... Um, well Mother knew Lylan did not like the boy his father picked out to be his whipping boy... she came up and offered me, saying she could feel Lylan not liking the selected boy when Lylan was throwing a temper tantrum in front of the inn we were walking by... So Lylan's guard took me over and... as soon as the deal was struck, I got my first thrashing for Lylan's outburst. I do not know if Mother got into his head and made him feel bad about it, or if he really did, but he did, or at least pretended to."

"So when he acts up you get popped?" Tyndall asked with a cringe.

"Yes... A couple of times a week."

"At least!" Kaznal spoke up. "Way more than I get because of Mylan."

"Yeah, but when Mylan messes up, he tends to really do it right... um, or wrong!"

Kaznal couldn't argue. With a sigh, he looked around at the others, "Oh, it is way more wrong, trust me. I know Sibler gets like three more times what I get, but I tend to get double what he gets when I get it. At least Mylan is real nice and tries not to get in trouble for a while after, and he helps me with chores for a day or so after. But, Sibler, we have all heard from the guards how you have a Mind Witch for a mother, so they are always careful to never let you close when there is dukedom business. And you know they said if it comes out it will be at a bad time, like when getting punished..."

"I know... I have heard it over and over. If I am one I will find out, probably between my seventh and eleventh year... So maybe it is starting. I do not know if I really am one, but I really did see what he was wanting to do to me and he was afraid of what things were going on behind the double doors. It made my head feel all prickly, too. I am supposed to tell a guard if it starts..." He looked down at the still smoldering guard, "It happened." He looked up with a smirk, "There, I kept my word. I told a guard."

While Dario snickered and Alkoris patted Sibler on the back, Tazen slapped his forehead, "There is something wrong with you... Come on, let's go."

The group made their way to the steps, but as the others started to go up, Yarnay took a step back.

Alkoris noticed almost instantly, "What's wrong?"

"We were told to get word out about what is going on. What if... what if what we need to know about is down here?"

"Yar," Tazen spoke with a scolding voice, "we just killed four guards and locked two more in the basement. We really need to get out of here. Come on!"

Alkoris held up his hand, "Taz, the little guy's right. If we get out now, what do we know?"

"The city has been taken over and lots of the guards are behind it!"

"Pretty sure the commander already knows," Kaznal stated blandly. "He did kill a lot of them... like half an army..."

Tazen looked around, only to see the others, even Tyndall and Dario cocking their head in Yarnay's direction. "Aw, shit... I am going to live to regret this... or die and be super pissed off at all six of you jackasses!"

Glaster reentered his body and sat up, causing both Chark'ash and the judge to turn and look at him. He didn't give either a chance to speak. "Judge Andreus, get everyone up. We need to be ready to move within the quarter of the hour. Chark, armor up, get Rylan and prep the captives for travel. Allow them nightshirts, but keep them in chains!"

Judge Andreus stood and moved to the tent flap, "Where should I tell the wagon drivers to point the wagons?"

"To the portal I am about to open. When it appears, they are to drive through. We will need guards next to the animals should they spook."

Even as Chark'ash pulled on the padded undershirt so he could slip into the bronze chain shirt Glaster had found for him in the caravan gear, he spoke up, "You cannot open a gate big enough for a wagon..."

"You are correct. As close as we are to the rupture point I do not even think I can open one big enough for me. However, this one is getting some otherworldly augmentation. Now, boy, unless you want to get a much quicker and rougher introduction into your night duties to me, you will get the others moving and secure the captives for travel before I get the gate open!"

Chark'ash quickly held up both hands to signify his total compliance before pulling up britches, stuffing his feet into fur-lined boots and wiggling the chain shirt over himself. Even as he secured the dagger and hip sword Glaster had furnished him with, Glaster's young Mystic apprentice came in to start packing the belongings inside the tent.

Glaster reached down and grabbed Perth, "Just secure everything within the wagon so there is no breakage. We will gate in as close as possible but will still have a ride and drive through a forest, because the magic flow where we are going is too strong to open a gate to our final destination even with the help I am going to get. Because of this, make sure nothing can fall out of the wagons and all easily broken items are surrounded in layers of cloth! You will be given time to properly pack it all at a later time! Move boy! Move!"

However, even as Glaster quickly got into his own gear he glanced over to Chark'ash, "I see just by the how quickly you are able to get into armor and the way you are wearing the armor and weapons you have a great deal more training than I first detected. If you truly are as comfortable with the blade as you appear to be, feel free to secure better weapons out of my trade goods in the third wagon back. Take only what you can use and carry properly into combat, but because of your royal status, I give to you whatever you take."

"Does this include one of the sets of Elvin Silver Steel chain armor and throwing daggers?"

"If those are preferred combat equipment to you, by all means. However, Chark, this does not mean I am releasing you from your servitude to me. All this means is you, as a Drow prince, are getting what is my duty as the holder of your contract to provide, just as would to any member of royalty."

"I fully understand, Commander." Chark'ash gave a slight bow, "Commander, do you have a good sling?"

"Sling?" Glaster asked with a cock of his head, "I have a whole case of them in the back of the fourth wagon... Chark, I have bows and crossbows in the main armament wagon..."

"I am very proficient with a sling, Commander. I will, however, take a bow if you would prefer."

"No, take what you feel best. If you really prefer a sling, it is your choice. Should you want practice with a bow, take both. Actually, as I consider this, I would prefer you take both. Slings are... not up to the standards of a prince and I do not want to appear to have under-equipped a child of your social stature. However, should you really decide on a sling, I strongly recommend you take some decent ammunition. I have a large locked box under the seat of my fifth wagon with odds and ends." He tossed the boy a key. "Inside are a dozen pouches with a score of Silver Steel sling bullets in each. I had them made for the high royalty and whipping boys in hopes of finding some Skeletons or Zombies for them to deal with. This way they could see the difference between using silver and non-silver bullets against low undead. Use them only for undead, but do not be afraid to use them."

Chark'ash secured the key in his hand even as he looked at the man with a raised eyebrow.


“Commander, far be it for me, your indentured servant, to question you. However, taking them against undead?"

Glaster managed a slight grin, "Your feelings about me taking the high royalty and their whipping boys to deal with undead, mirrors my thoughts on you selecting a sling for you primary ranged weapons. Now go secure real gear and be prepared to use any or all of it."

"Thank you, Commander. However, I feel as your servant I should tell you..." He paused for a moment as he considered his words, "Commander, I think you will find I can damage undead without the Silver Steel bullets, but they will make what I can do a great deal more deadly. I will make sure the box is relocked and get the key back to you."

Glaster nodded, then paused and frowned as the young teen equivalent Drow rushed out of the tent. "I will need to work on his understanding of undead, for yes, you can damage low undead without silver, but beyond the minor, you need silver or magic..." He shrugged, "Perth, I want you in the reinforced leather I had made for you before we go, as well as the light Silver Steel mace and Blue Steel dagger. This could be dangerous. Because of this, I ask you to remember what little training I have been able to provide and take as few risks as possible. I want not a blemish on your skin, so should you feel the need, get and stay behind me."

"Where are we going?"

"To see a dead Dragon, Perth. To see a dead Dragon and a boy I love with all my heart... A boy who may well be out of my reach; a boy you are the replacement for."

{A whole lot of folks}

Vondum moved up to one of the Silver Warrior Dragons, "You! You look to be recovering from the Dragon death quickly. Can you fly and if so, have you had a rider?"

"Yes to both, General." The Dragon lowered itself. "Hop on, but keep in mind I am not a Black. The front edge of my wings are a great deal more fluid and the scales along the leading edge shift as I fly. They are quite capable of cutting skin..."

"Understood, I will keep forward of them. Do you have a preference on foot placement and where I hold your back ridge?"

"The longer spines are better for holding onto, since, like my wings and other lead surfaces, they all naturally shift in flight. Boots right under my larger neck guard scales is a nice feeling for me while giving you a better grip. This snow and wind will be nasty. I recommend you keep your head down."

"In boot placement, you and Ornam are similar, and believe me, I have every intention of letting you look forward while I spend most of my time looking back to keep your flank well watched." Before more could be said the Silver Warrior flapped its wings hard and jumped, taking it nearly straight up. This forced Vondum to hold on and adjust since he was expecting a slow lift with a hard-forward running movement.

"General, careful..."

Vondum quickly adjusted to the flight, finding the Silver was tricky to ride because so many of the scales shifted, but he was impressed with the rapid rate of climb combined with forward speed. "Not the liftoff I was expecting. I am fine. What is your name?"

"San'i-sar, General. Should you ride any other Silvers, expect the same. Because of our wings’ flexibility we have to jump to get more air under us or our wing-tips hit the ground. We can still get into the air, but it is quite painful for us."

"Good information, thank you San'i-sar." Vondum took a few seconds to look around. He quickly noted three other Silver Warriors, only one with a rider flying a pattern, but making sure San'i-sar was in the lead. Below, he could scarcely make out scores of Griffins in formation. Well behind and further down, the shapes of other Dragons could barely be made out in the blowing snow, even though some of them had riders with light sources. He frowned, "San'i-sar, we are moving way faster than the others. We need to keep a more disciplined formation."

"We and the Griffins can fly much better in the snow and ice General. I can go down and have the Griffins slow so the others Dragon races can keep up. Some will still have to land at least once to get ice build-up off wings. Also, do me a favor and keep moving, you can build-up ice and catch snow in front of you if you stay still. Should this happen my maneuverability will be reduced."

“Do so, but get the attention of the other Silver with the rider. He should take the lead. We will trail and keep watch along our flanks... As long as you are OK with this..."

San'i-sar shouted out to the other Silvers, then dove giving Vondum a gut flipping dive as he did so. He leveled out next to the lead Griffin rider. This let Vondum give orders before San'i-sar spiraled back up at an impressive rate of speed and fell to the back of the formation above all the others.

"I will take all this as you not having a problem with my commands."

"General, we heard the field reports of you for a very long time. You are well known to most Dragon races as a feared rider with an eye for command. Some say you have been riding Dragons for decades, but you do not seem to age..."

"I have access to magic to keep me vibrant, so yes, I have been around for longer than most Humans. As far as an eye for command, being selected to be an officer in the Black Dragon Homeland as a teen, I really was not given much choice but to learn under fire. My first years as an officer was in the Troll War. Pushing the Forest Trolls out of the Jade Glade."

"A nice addition to the Black Dragon Homeland."

"Prince Bassork offered to vacate most of the land we took. Of course, we all knew the Duchy of Duchess Vanorra would be put in a very bad position if we did give the land back, because we boxed the Trolls in on three sides, and we told her we would pull out of the north side first, which would have opened up her already tattered Duchy to the remainder of the Trolls, while cutting her off from other allies. So of course she offered up most of the land in agreement for a defensive treaty. The Black Dragon Homeland now taxes all goods going to and from her lands, so she is nothing more than a semi-independent duchess to the Black Dragon Homeland and her people live under most of the taxation laws of the Black Dragons."

San'i-sar snickered causing all the scales along his back to shift in odd directions. This forced Vondum to dig his boots in harder while grabbing two of the spines, but he refused to complain. In his way of thinking this was a new challenge and gave him a reason for a slight smile.

To San'i-sar's credit, he grinned in satisfaction over knowing the man had slipped some, but didn't complain. The guy was as tough and determined as the rumors said he was. The fact Vondum was moving back and forth across his back, told him the man was either enjoying the flight or was totally fearless, probably both. However, he had someone in the know on his back, so he was not above trying to get information, "How will the Black Dragon Civil War affect Vanorra?"

"Good question. One I do not have an answer to," Vondum admitted. "Her daughter took over several years ago, and has kept with the treaty. However, with her now being seen as a Prince Bassork pawn, she is technically an enemy of Prince Bandurlok. She is in a very bad spot. If she tries to break off, Prince Bassork's armies are likely to move in and take it, forcing what is left to fight for him. If she stays allied to him, Prince Bandurlok will certainly try to break the thin northern border and if it was me, let the Trolls take care of her for him. At the very least she will be forced to fight the Trolls off, which will still deprive Prince Bassork of Vanorran allies. If it was me, and I will advise those with Prince Bandurlok's ear, the best solution to the Vanorran problem would be to quickly smash the northern lines and let Vanorra burn. Its remnants can be picked up and claimed in full after Prince Bassork is dead or in hiding."

"And there is why you are indeed a general. You see how to defeat enemies without even fighting them. I am glad to have you on our side."

"Thank you, but sooner or later, with this new alliance, Silver Dragons will be expected to help Prince Bandurlok in taking the throne of the Black Dragon Homeland. How do you feel about this?"

"If it helps us stop the incursion of the Whites into the Silver Dragon Homeland, we will support it with everything we can muster. We have been on the defensive for over two centuries. We could use someone with your tactical and strategic mind to turn things around up north."

"With my slave looking to gain his freedom and my favorite Black Dragon interested in taking the boy as his rider, I may well be interested as long as I can keep my slaves, have access to my private base on the Silver Spine Plateau... And I would also like to be able to take you into battle and keep my new title as general within the greater alliance. It would also not hurt my feelings to go down to Vanorra and pick up some slaves and other loot before the land is tamed by Prince Bandurlok again."

"To have you on our side, those are very reasonable terms, General, and I would be honored to have you as my rider for as long as you would like. Once we are done down here, I will see to it you get an audience with Prince Millen."

One of the other Silver Dragons swooped down, "General, there are two Warrior Dragons with multiple riders moving fast to the south. They have to be Whites or Silvers at the speed they are moving in this storm, and we know where all the Silvers are, sir!"

"Our mission is to get to Premier Kandric," Vondum stated firmly. "However... Track them for as long as you are able without breaking formation. I will be only too happy to help you track them down and eliminate them once the matter with our Premier is handled."

"Understood General," the Dragon stated with some frustration, but quickly banked back up without complaint.

"San'i-sar, as soon as you are able, do me a favor and inform the other Silvers what I just said should not be seen as me trying to placate. I will do all I can to help you all track them down and send a message about where my allegiance lies. After all, I cannot allow my former Wilderness Scout to have all the fun."

"I will be sure they know of your desire to help us. If what your friend, Ornam shouted out is correct, the blow Premier Kandric struck will send ripples of terror throughout the White Dragon Homeland, for without Prince Weraweld, their ability to overpower us will be greatly diminished."

"I have been around Ornam for a long time. I have never once seen or heard one of his guesses about such things be off. If he said it was your feared enemy, then I assure you it is... was..."

San'i-sar snorted, "Even as uneasy as I am about meeting this Premier, should what you say be true, I will be the first move up to him, bow and extend a paw in undying gratitude."

Vondum laughed, "You may have to extend a claw so he can shake it, but I am certain he will."

"We are about to find out, General, there is a glow coming from the middle of the lake down and to your left. The Griffins are all angling toward it, but the Dragons, me included, can see a figure with tremendous amounts of Dragon Gifting on the edge of the lake with others in the general area around him, all Dragon Gifted, but too much lesser extents."

"Stay up until the others are down. Once we land, send two of your Silver friends back up to keep watch. There is no telling if those Whites will try to angle back this way."

"I will do as you command, but they will only do so if they are suicidal, General. I have only seen Dragon Gifting twice before, but even the least of those below have double what I felt and saw in the others. The bright one... he must be our Premier... What I am seeing and feeling is beyond what I thought possible. He must have the Giftings not seen since the days of Rovnar!"

Well below Vondum, Duke Mathard was only too happy to get off the Griffin the second it touched down in the center of the iced over lake. His short legs made staying on, even with a saddle and reins, nearly impossible. He figured on the short flight he came close to falling to his death half a dozen times. Jumping off onto the ice was more than a relief. It bordered on jubilation. Even as he easily found his footing on the extremely smooth surface, he could see the glow from under the thin layer of snow. He carefully made his way over to it, gracefully slipping and sliding on purpose the whole way, while also testing the ice. With as little snow as was on it, he was worried some areas might be soft, but it seemed to be granite hard. This only made him smile.

Not far away, Princess Syrissia got off the Griffin she had been riding and her feet promptly went out from under her. She hit the ice hard. This caused the Griffin she had rode on to kneel, so she had something to grab onto to stand. It did little good. Her smooth-bottomed Mink Leopard boots simply had zero traction on such a surface and she was clearly not used to such a slick surface. She fell two more times in rapid succession.

Mathard looked over, "Princess, your footwear is not suited to this. You may wish to get back on and have it fly you to the lake's edge. I will be with you shortly!"

The Alphar princess gave Mathard an exasperated nod, even as she crashed into the ice a fourth time. By this point the Griffin was getting aggravated, so it lowered itself down so it was lying on the ice and all but shoved her on with its wing. With a hiss at having its wings grabbed and some feathers pulled out, it didn't give her a chance to get properly seated before it took off. It then did a hard spin causing her to cry out in fright.

At the lake's edge Kandric heard the sound and drew his blade. The latest gifting was still very unsettled with in him, but he forced himself to stand, albeit with a bit of and wobble, while shouting out, "Guys! Weapons out! We have company!"

Mathard heard the shout and moved his hips so he slid back over to his selected mount before he could figure out why there was a mound of ice on an otherwise glass smooth iced over lake, "There! Premier Kandric's voice! Everyone to the shore!" He then moved up to the Griffin he had ridden on, and spoke, "He says you can understand us, so how about you do me a favor and pull me over there while I hold onto the reins?"

The beast's eagle's head turned and shook, even as Mathard found the long lion-like tail being placed in his hands.

"You want me to hold on to your tail?"

It nodded.

"I do not want to hurt you..."

Seeing what was an eagle-head version of the ultimate condescending look, Mathard held up both hands before reaching out to grab the tail as it was offered a second time. Moments later he was sliding along the ice on both feet. The experience as a boy playing with a kite on the ice served him well as he easily found his balance and enjoyed the ride. "Oh! The ice is smooth, my feet are slick, the snow it be a flying, wind be a crying, and me be a gliding!" Mathard sang out in joy before taking a deep breath and shouting, "Premier, it is Duke Mathard with Alphar Princess Syrissia! Stay your weapons if it pleases you! I shall be sliding to see you at the shore momentarily!"

From up above, Princess Syrissia cried out in exasperation, "Duke Mathard, you are not here to play on the ice!"

"Oh my fine Princess, where there is smooth ice and a way to be pulled across, there is always time for a moment or two of blissful joy while sliding on it!"

"Duke!" Kandric shouted out in obvious joy. "Have fun, but beware! There still may be a White Dragon or two around."

"Unlikely, Premier!" A voice shouted down in Dragon from above. "But should one show itself, we will be happy to take it down, unless you would prefer to do the honor!"

Kandric looked up as a Silver Warrior Dragon with a Illorc on its back descend through the storm. It made a gentle landing about fifty meters away. Noting the Dragon was keeping a distance even as the Illorc made its way over Kandric frowned, "You can come on over!"

"Good Premier, I... How about we wait for Duke Mathard to slide over and General Vondum to get here?"

"Very well..." Kandric shrugged then smiled as he made out the figures of one of Monarch's camp guards. It was one of the first to congratulate Kandric after he had gutted the Illorc commander at Monarch's camp. "Sergeant Thymac! How was the ride?"

The Illorc took a knee as it got close, "Me Premier, it be thrillin'! I's could does it over and over, me could! Warmer would be much nicer, though!"

Kandric eyed the Silver Dragon with a sigh even as he staggered under the latest Dragon Gifting, "It sounds fun..." His thoughts were halted as Mathard came into view just as he let go of the Griffin's tail and used momentum to finish his slide across the lake. He came into the lake's edge fast, but easily made a hopping step and landed on the rocks with both feet, making it look much easier than the feat actually was. "Premier, I will leave flying to you longer legged folk. A good slide across the ice is plenty to get my blood pumping and far safer. After all, I have a low center which makes a good ice pull easy, while flying... not so much..."

Kandric laughed even as he grabbed a tree to stay standing. "My Duke, I would be up for trying the ice as such speeds, but I must admit, I do not think I could do it with the same style as you!"

Pike moved up rubbing his hand down his face and shaking his head as if trying to clear it, "Premier, in Winter Creek, kids take kites out on the big lake almost every winter day where there is good wind. We have races, and on a fine windy day it draws a good crowd. Then just as the temperatures warm, the surface ice melts during the day and freezes real smooth at night. Every year there is a series of races with a set of huge prizes. We start at sunup and go till the ice gets soft. The winners of each round go head to head in random draws. The contest lasts almost three weeks. Duke Mathard is the only Garm, only anyone, to have won five times and has eight second place finishes. He is legendry for his Ice-kiting!"

Mathard gave a light bow, "I still go out with the kids a few times a year. It is just too much fun to let good wind and smooth ice go to waste!"

Kandric scratched his chin, "My Duke, while it sounds fantastic... what is a kite?"

Pike looked over with an open jaw, "You know, a kite!" Getting nothing but a raised eyebrow he frowned, "Come on! You tie sticks together to form a T, make a frame with other sticks, wrap cloth around it, tie it to a ball of twine and fly it..."

Kandric shook his head while looking back and forth between Pike and Mathard, trying to see if they were teasing him.

At the same time, Duke Mathard shot Pike a warning look, "Pike, you know better than to not use title, even when trying to give an explanation."

"Sorry Premier..."

"I do not care about a title Pike... Are you two pulling some kind of prank?"

"No..." Duke Mathard looked over at Zeltoss who was leaning against a tree while trying to clear his head, "You! You surely know what a kite is!"

Zeltoss rubbed his forehead, let out a long breath and blinked, "A kite? A kite it is a kind of shield with a point at the bottom instead of being round."

"Uggg," Pike muttered, only to get a pop in the back of his head from Mathard, "sorry, but..."

"My Duke, please do not hit him. He is with me, and I do not want him to have to tighten up and be all royal with me. He is our friend, not a servant or some underling. Besides, this Dragon gifting was a strong one, and we are all feeling it."

"Regardless of what the circumstances, Pike knows better! He is with three knights and a Premier!"

"So, if I knight him..."

"His father will not be happy with me, since he will be well above his older siblings and even his father, but it will gain his entire family a great deal of prestige..."

"Good, he is a knight. As soon as my guts stop flipping around inside me, I will let you do the ceremony. Right now I might accidently nick him with my blade since my whole body is kind of... goofy feeling..."

"Good word, Premier." Pike stated.

"I'll go with it," Zeltoss stated while still letting the tree support him, "but I must say there has to be a much stronger word... My stomach feels real strange, like something is running around inside it... with a club..."

Vondum hopped off before San'i-sar fully landed. "Premier! Are you hurt?"

"No Captain... Sorry, General," Kandric rubbed his forehead, and leaned over, "this one seems way harder to get over than the others... The magic flowing through me is... it is like it cannot all sink in but is trying to, or it is trying to escape, but is trapped, maybe both..." He stayed bent over as Mathard patted his back, "My Duke, thank you..."

Kandric suddenly blinked and forced himself to stand almost straight, "General Vondum? Wait, what are you doing down here?"

"Wow, much longer than I expected," Vondum snorted, trying to keep things as mellow as possible. "You must really be out of it, Premier."

"I am still wearing a Wilderness Scout patch, General, I am your scout. You do not have to call me by any title."

"Remember, when I took a spot as a general, I left my post as Captain of the Guard, Premier. I am now your general, even if you are one of Sy's independent Wilderness Scouts. Much more independent than scout, since Sy is not about to tell you much of anything, other than call you Premier, like the rest of us."

"You know I really do not care what you call me, right?"

Vondum laughed as he moved up and put an arm around Kandric. "Regardless, you are my Premier, so humor those below you and let me show you the respect you deserve. And stop being cranky. It is not Duke Mathard's or my fault you decided to kick the snot out of another Dragon or two."

"Just one. Lorthorn, Zeltoss, and Jamon dropped the Warrior."

Vondum looked around, "Speaking of Lorthorn, Sir Lorthorn where is he and Sir Seldnat?"

Jamon came over, swaying back and forth as he did so, "They're trying to track down a Dragonling... We think it was the only one to get away... um, sorry, General. I am seeing blinky things in the corners of my eyes. It's hard to, um, see straight... For some reason Seldnat wasn't as bad, so Lorthorn agreed to go with him."

"Jamon," Mathard spoke with a harsh undertone, "it is Sir Lorthorn and Sir Seldnat to you."

"My Duke, I request you let it slide this time," Kandric all but pleaded. "Jamon is dealing with the same thing I saw shortly after the Ice Demon died back at General Vondum's camp." Kandric stated while leaning into Vondum, allowing the man to support him as he fought to regain full equilibrium. "I found by not keeping my eyes closed as much at first, and not blinking hard, even though it seems like it should be the right thing to do, they went away faster. I do not know about the twisting of my insides, though. It is like the first time I had a Slow Fall spell cast on me and Glaster pushed me off the cliff and laughed as I screamed."

Mathard grinned, "Hey... there is something I have never done to my kids..."

"Something else to get blamed for," Kandric grumbled, "great."

Mathard snickered, "Blame? Why certainly not. One cannot blame a Premier. Now... Recommended? Yes, without a doubt, you can recommend!"

"One way or the other it is still going to end up on me..."

"I never said it otherwise, Premier," Mathard stated with a wide grin before turning serious. "Now, are you certain you are going to be alright? You really do not look yourself."

Kandric grabbed Vondum's arm and put it around his chest. He managed a much stronger grin as he felt the man grip him tightly, "I will be fine. Remember, last time I slept for a great while after King Blathamort and the Green female fell. And I was allowed to eat and get a long night's sleep after assisting in the death of the Ice Demon. But I cannot rest now. The Whites have at least one of my students and my grandfather is working with them..."

Seeing the female Alphar, wearing extremely elegant boots, heavy cloak, mittens, ear wrap, and scarf look at him with wide eyes, he stared right back at her, "Princess I, assume?"

"Yes, my Premier. It is a pleasure to meet you! However, did I hear you correctly? Am I to understand former Prince Rovanall has gone over to the White Dragons?"

"Princess, such is what Prince Weraweld told me before he decided it was a good idea to see what I taste like... Um, Princess, did you get sidetracked or something?"

"No. Why my Premier?"

Kandric's head went so far to its left it almost touched his shoulder, "Um, well Princess... this is a war zone and a wilderness, not a royal wedding reception."

"Premier, what are you talking about?"

"Princess... Mink Leopard fur boots, mittens, and cloak... Snow Lynx scarf and head wrap..." He cringed as only a blank look stared back at him, "Oh, come on, Princess! Are you really going to fight in mittens?"

"But Premier, it is cold, and I am a leader, Sorceress, Jeweler, and Healer, not a front-line fighter..."

While it was not something he would have never done had he been feeling better, the cluelessness he saw looking down at him was simply too much on an already upset stomach. He simply couldn't stop himself. Kandric lowered his head and shook it.

The woman looked around. While no one else was shaking a head, all were pretty much staring at her. "What!?!"

Before more could be said a voice came from off into the forest, "Kandric, you better not be shaking your head at a princess!" Even before the words registered with Kandric, the voice caused dozens of Illorcs, Dragons, Dragonlings, Alphar, Garm, Pantherlings, and Griffins to ready themselves for combat, while moving to protect Kandric, Duke Mathard, Princess Syrissia, the three boys with Kandric and General Vondum, pretty much in said order, except since Kandric was in the arms of Vondum, the effect was Kandric and Vondum ended up with extra forces protecting both of them.

Glaster stopped at the edge of the wood line and looked over the assembled masses, and noticed a couple of Silver Dragons staring right at him. He pushed the kids with him behind as best as he could while his eyes darted around.

At the same time Kandric shouted out, "Halt! It is Glaster!" He tried to pull away from Vondum, only to get some vertigo.

This forced Vondum to grab him and pull him back into his chest, "Not so fast Premier..." He then spoke up even as he stroked Kandric's hair, "Merchant Glaster, how in the name of the gods did you find us?"

"Oh, I am not really sure!" Glaster announced. "Could it have possibly been a disruption in the flow of magic so intense as to cause my tent mate to nearly jump out of his skin?" He paused, "Kandric, while I will fight everything this world has to throw at you should you need me to, I am seeing at two Dragons looking far more interested in protecting you, and consuming me, than I care to ever see. What is all this?"

"San'i-sar, would you and your buddy mind stepping aside?" Vondum all but demanded.

As soon as the pair of Silvers moved to the side, Vondum cast a Light spell on his hand so the man could see him and Kandric better.

Glaster eyed the scene before glancing over his shoulder, "Boys, stay close behind me and keep hands well away from weapons. Focus on my back and do me a favor, do not make eye contact with the Dragons... As a matter of fact, I want you to only look at my back or your feet until told otherwise, but shout out if someone or something so much as touches any of you." Glaster then returned his full attention on Vondum and stepped between the Dragons.

"Merchant Glaster, come, join us, my fine friend!" Vondum responded strongly, while still keeping a note of caution in his voice. He still had no idea how the man would feel about his sleeping with Kandric. While he would, he really had no desire to stand toe to toe with an angry Master Shaman. "Trust me, nothing here is going to bother you, for none want anything to do with your student here."

Glaster stepped forward with a great deal of concern coupled with awe. Even as he did so, he found those who had blocked access to those further back were moving to form an opening akin to a line of honor. "Captain Vondum? You are well outside your territory..."

Vondum kept his arms around Kandric so the boy could find his footing, "Up to a short time ago, you would be correct, Merchant. However, I am a general now." He patted Kandric on the shoulder, "His general, and he has need of my services here at this moment far more than up at Bloody Rock."

"I see... Wait, what? His general... Are you saying these are his forces?"

"Yes, and well-earned let me tell you. However, as far as Black Rapids goes, it has a new Captain of the Guard. I believe you should remember Sy; regardless, he is now the Captain of the Guard in Black Rapids... Anyway, good to see you Merchant... Although from what Premier Kandric has hinted at, you are much, much more than a simple merchant..."

Glaster continued to move forward slowly, "Some believe there may very well be more surrounding me than my merchant side... Um, Kandric, are you alright with Vondum holding you?"

Kandric nodded, "Yes... I am having a hard time adjusting to... Wait! Your arm! You have two arms!!!" Kandric pulled free of Vondum and moved toward Glaster, only to have another wave of dizziness wash over him. As he faltered both Glaster and Vondum moved forward to prevent him from falling only to smack heads with each other.

While both men reached up to grab at their foreheads, Mathard angled in from the side to catch Kandric as he faltered. "Premier, how about you just take a few more breaths and slow down?"

At the same time Vondum and Glaster stood straight and exchanged rigid stares.

Kandric shook his head hard, which he quickly found out did nothing for his stomach and only added to his balance problems. He swiftly decided Mathard's strong yet tender hold was exactly what he needed. He glanced back and gave a single nod with as much of a smile as he could muster. Mathard pulled him close and lightly ruffled his hair.

Mostly because he didn't have to concentrate to stay standing, he looked at the two men and found some mental focus, "Master, General, please... Without both of you I would not be where I am. I owe each of you, and...” Kandric stopped... “Master, General Vondum helped me, made me a member of the Black Rapid Wilderness Scouts... do not be angry with him..."

Glaster glanced over, sent Vondum another sharp glare, then edged up and knelt as he noted the unfamiliar, yet clearly royal crest on Duke Mathard's armor, "Lord, I apologize I do not know your title..."

Mathard extended his arms, pushing Kandric over to Glaster. "Your former charge has missed you a great deal, Master Shaman. Take care of his desire to hold you first. I can wait."

Glaster took hold of Kandric and pulled him into his chest, savoring his first touches of his student with his replaced arm and hand. However, he simply couldn't center on Kandric even as much as he wanted to. His main focus remained on Mathard, "Lord, while I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, I still must ask for forgiveness..."

"For what?" Mathard responded with a smile at seeing Kandric wrap his arms around Glaster's neck. "A boy, our Premier, has a desire to hug his beloved instructor. We are all here because of him, therefore, he holds sway here, not Princess Syrissia, not me."

"But Kandric... He is..." Glaster looked around only to notice everything and everyone looking at Kandric, not the Dwarf with the magical armor, not Vondum, not the elegantly dressed woman with an equally exquisite royal crest. It quite simply did not make sense, unless everything the Alphar had told him was true... Yet it was too fantastic, to be... no, it was impossible.

Mathard crunched some ice off his beard with his left hand while motioning for Glaster to stand with his other. "Master Shaman, I can assure you our Premier, the boy in your grasp, is indeed in command here. You have no need to kneel to any of the rest of us, and it sure appears Premier Kandric has no interest in you kneeling to him."

"No, never!" Kandric confirmed as he continued to squeeze Glaster.

Glaster still stayed down while turning his attention to the woman, "And you good Lady? Do you also say I can stand, even after my student spoke so demeaning to you?"

"Duke Mathard speaks for the both of us in this matter, Master Shaman. Your student, our Premier has made it clear he does not wish you to show standard deference, therefore we will accept you as this land sees you, a titled being, a Master."

She forced a smile, and it was clear it was forced. However, she did motion for Glaster to stand and kept her voice neutral of emotions. "As far as his words, this is his army, and I am a member of it. He holds title and rank over all here, so if he says I am not in proper attire, then I must accept it and endeavor to find something our Premier would find acceptable even if it means more discomfort to me. As for titles, I am Princess Syrissia, of the Saw Spruce Glades within the Alphar Kingdom, and the man you secured our Premier from is Duke Mathard of Winter Creek, from the Garm Empire. It sounds like you already know General Vondum from past dealings within the walls of Black Rapids. There are other officers and titled members within this army, however, most are back at the war camp. Those of us here came here with all due haste the moment we saw the ball of White Dragon Death mushroom up from this location. For, as soon as it did, those with me all knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, it had been caused by none other than our Premier. The young Alphar of high noble blood you hold in your arms."

Glaster stood, picking up Kandric as he did so, "High noble? But I found him..."

"Yes," Mathard spoke with a sigh. "And we are very thankful you did and are in your debt for the phenomenal training and deep personal commitment you have devoted to him."

"I had no way of knowing he was a..."

"Master, you have nothing to explain. The fault lies within the Garm Empire, and we are indebted to you. Now please, relax and catch your breath."

"Thank you, good Duke, however, I have a large caravan further off in the direction I came from. May I go back and..."

Kandric looked over his shoulder, "Some of you, please follow his path in the snow and escort the whole caravan here! There are other Whites about!"

Instantly a dozen Griffins with riders took off while one of the Silver Dragons went high to be eyes, ears, and if needed support.

Glaster couldn't help but blink at how the request was seen as an order. "Rylan, go with and explain to the others what this is about. I do not want to lose my caravan!"

Seeing one of the Griffin riders instantly moved up as the boy asked "How?" to help Rylan onto a Griffin and then take to the sky with him, Glaster didn't bother to respond. Instead he gave Kandric a kiss on the forehead, "You have some serious explaining to do, if it pleases you, Premier Kandric..."

Kandric suddenly let go of Glaster, pulled free of the man's grasp and drew his blade as he noted a couple of the princess' Alphar guards moving toward Chark'ash and the other boys with the Drow. "Stop or so help me!" At the same time the blade came out, a bright blue glob appeared on his hand. "The Drow and those with him are with my Master, which puts them not only under my Master's protection, but mine as well. Lay a finger on the Drow or any of the others and I will... Well, at the moment... I... I will knock you both back into the trees with the spell I have on my hand and will have Duke Mathard deal with you. But when I get over this, it will be my turn... If there is anything left, which I highly doubt..."

Before Kandric finished speaking, both Glaster and Vondum drew blades and turned to see what Kandric was referring to.

The two Alphar who had been closing in on Chark'ash held up hands while backing off slowly. Around them, many others glared at the pair, while San'i-sar stepped up to place itself between the other royal Alphar guards and the obviously extremely scared Drow boy and those with him.

Kandric looked back at Mathard and gave the man a single nod.

Mathard moved by Kandric and patted the boy on the stomach. "Premier, do us all a favor and calm yourself, if it pleases you. Keep in mind they... most of us from the Garm Empire and the Alphar Kingdom have never seen a Drow, and all they know is what is in the history books."

Kandric took as deep as a breath as his still jittery and magically overwhelmed body could inhale, before he gave Mathard an understanding open hand signal, letting the spell fade as he did so. He then turned and looked right at the princess, "You will keep your guards in check or I will..." Seeing a wide-eyed look from Glaster, Kandric gulped and added, "Good Princess."

Glaster looked around expecting to have to say something, but much to his astonishment the initial look of anger he saw in the woman's eyes, which he thought for certain was going to be directed at Kandric, turned out to be pretty much the opposite. She spun and glared at the whole of her guard contingent. "You dare to move aggressively at anyone our Premier has commanded be allowed enter into our lines? Get out of my sight! In fact, it would be in your interests to never fall under my gaze again! Now go!"

The two guards took a knee, while the senior one spoke with a great deal of deference and fear, "To where, my Princess?"

Despite the way he was feeling, Kandric responded with his first thought, "Walk home!"

Noticing the eyes of nearly every Alphar and Garm stare at him, his resolve only hardened, "Yes, you heard what I said. Walk your haughty, egotistical, moronic, self-centered, Warrior Adept and Swordsman hides back to where you came from. No mounts, no wagons, no magic gates, no spells to help you get there faster! Two feet on ground, or... if you two can stomach those of the world I come from... book passage on a barge for part of the trip should you find one willing to take you as a passenger or deck hand."

"But Premier..."

Kandric pointed to the north, "You have good weapons, armor, and packs, and I see pouches, so you probably have coin. If not, you can earn some along the way. If what I understand is correct, you hail from somewhere in the Deathland Mountains. Straight north would be a good direction to start your hike." He pointed a second time for emphasis. "This way, you can stay in villages along the way and see what the world I hail from truly is!"

The other guard looked up mortified at the command, "Premier, we do not even know where we are at or how far!"

"The two of you have all the skills you should need, with your Healer skills and the corporal being a Hunter." Princess Syrissia stated while chewing lightly on her bottom lip. "Between the two of you, and your Alphar training, I have faith in your ability to figure it out and make the journey."

Kandric made a snorting sound, "An extremely diplomatic way to say you do not know, Princess." Seeing the princess' eyes go wide, and Glaster's face flush with anger, he cringed and quickly added, "But you should not need to. Your skills are as a Sorceress."

Kandric then focused back on the two still kneeling Alphar. He couldn't help but show a slight grin even as he tried to hide it. He once again pointed north, "It is about nine hundred leagues from here to the passes at the base of the Silver Spine Mountains. Four hundred and fifty days of hard but doable march. Another few weeks to get up the pass and possibly four moons or so to get to the edge of the Deathlands. From there, I cannot help you since I have no idea where your homelands are. However, I expect you to go slower. Find out what your people left behind. Stay in inns, pick up real work..." A real smirk appeared on Kandric's face as he noted both men were mortified at hearing they were expected to work. To rub it in further, Kandric nodded, "Yes, actual labor of some kind benefiting the world around you. Prove you can handle the world outside of Alphar lands. A few possible thoughts for you. Caravan guards are always needed. Barges need guards as well. Many towns and cities, even some villages, have hiring halls. There is often times bounties available. Collect a couple. It will teach you more of this world. Try your hand in your given subfields: Outdoorsman to us, Hunter to you, and Healthman to us, Healer to you, gives you both valuable skills. Hunting, trapping, tracking, tending to injured... all of those and many, many more tasks could earn you coin and hopefully some respect of those outside of your lands. If not, so be it.

"If you harm a single non-threatening Drow child on your trek, however, I will revisit whatever you do to him or her tenfold ten. In fact, you are to do everything in your arrogant hides to make sure not a single non-threatening Drow is harmed while you are within eye or ear shot. With any luck, you can befriend one and find out not everything you have read is true. A Drow is still a person, some good, some bad, most just trying to survive in a world hostile to them. A hostility your race helped to champion to hide your own crimes from what I have heard. You left the outside world and abandoned what remained of the Drow to suffer. At the time they may well have deserved it, but the vast majority now are still paying for it generations later and their misery is a combination of the crimes of ancient ancestors around Bloody Rock and how you spun a narrative of how all evil was their doing.”

Duke Mathard looked over to Kandric, "From what I was told by some of your students who came into our camp, they were harmed by Drow."

"They were, but they were also harmed by others, my Duke. Just look around even as some of the other Dragons arrive with riders. We have Illorcs, several Dragon races, Pantherlings, Hawklings, and now a Drow. If he is with my Master in the armor he is wearing, he is an ally, the same as every other man, woman and creature out here!"

As anger coursed through Kandric he regained some control and was able to take better understanding of the power flowing within and around him. This was noticeable to everyone looking on, and many took a few steps back even as Kandric's back straightened and he took a few deep breaths. He stood firm as he glared at the two Alphar. "In my eyes these two came very close to betraying me far more than the Drow who harmed my students! These two were about to strike at a known ally! Those we took down in the forest were one step away from brigands, and they were not allies to start with. Because of this, there was no betrayal, only a need for my retribution to a slight against me and those I helped to teach!

"Those who harmed those I taught at the Slome Swordsman School were not allies, and trust me, those I have not found will be hunted down even if it takes me the rest of my life, but they did not try to stab a knife in my back... while I was standing right here! But these two are from outside this land and do not understand, so I am giving them this chance, or they can come at me right now and challenge me..."

The corporal looked close to tears, "Premier, we made a grievous error in judgment. We are sorry and accept your decreed punishment! How long do you expect us to take..."

"I put no time frame on this. I expect you to experience my world and earn your way through it! Then and only then will I forget about your bandit-like behavior and actions toward someone traveling with the man who made me what I am... along with help from the likes of our good general and others... None of whom have or had a known drop of Alphar blood within. What has been good for me can certainly be advantageous to you. Now get out of my sight!"

He waited for the two Alphar to be escorted well away before he paned his gaze over the rest, "Any other Garm or Alphar or anyone else have a problem with a Drow joining us? If you do, now would be the time to leave without a command on how you leave or where you go, because as of now, the kid over there is, and will remain, directly under my protection!"

Duke Mathard glanced around, noting many Garm and Alphar were stunned and some sickened by the hard line Kandric had taken, "Ladies and gentlemen, our Premier has opened the door for others to leave his side. I however, have to admit I have never once gotten to know a Drow, and am curious. After all, we all know our history."

Mathard moved over to the clearly terrified boy and patted him on the shoulder, "Yes, think of history as you look at this lad! Without the Drow we would have never driven the Mythlings out of our realms. What happened later is what it is, yes. Yet, can any of us say we should harbor hatred for this child? For all we know he could hold bloodlines of those who drove the Mythlings back from Forest Wall or The Sapphire Towers. Is this something we should harbor fear and loathing over?"

He pulled the boy to his side, "I know what comes next out of many of you! He could also hold the blood of those who murdered those fighting the last know Orakin raids below the Deathland Mountains. A raid which fractured the plateau and ended the Garm's foothold below the Deathlands and eventually the Alphar's as well. This is possible, yes. But we do not know, cannot know. How about we find out for ourselves who and what Drow really are in the world we abandoned? In particular, should we not strive to find out who this child is before passing judgment?"

Glaster looked over to Kandric as all other eyes were focused on Mathard, "He will not harm Chark?"

"No, Master, he will not."

"Good, but if everything I am hearing is even a tenth true, you should not be showing me deference, Premier."

"I will always be your student, Master..."

"Maybe so, but this is a matter of caste, and you, Premier Kandric are so far above me, it is... there simply is no comparison. Now, before attention turns back to you, I have a few questions I request your permission to ask."

"Master, you do not have to ask permission.”

"Yes, I absolutely do."

Kandric let out a long breath. "No, no you do not, but please ask away."

"First, did you really just kill a Dragon?"

"I allowed others with me to finish it, but yes. It is in the middle of the lake."

"And this is not your first?"

"Fourth, but only the third Great."

Glaster shook his head and blinked hard, "Four... you have... Kandric... Premier... I leave you for a few moons and... and... how?"

"A stalactite, a breath pouch of the one stalactited," Kandric glanced over with an impish grin, "sorry, best word I can come up with... Um, crushed rib cage of a True sticking his head up out of the center of Slome, and the one in the lake drowned, um, at least I think it would be called drowning... Maybe smothered... But until you tell me differently, I will stick with drowning."

Glaster rubbed his hand down his face and watched Mathard carefully. The Dwarf, Garm, whatever, whoever, was defending Chark'ash the same as he had Kandric a few minutes prior. It was also not lost on him there were now two Silver Dragons, a Blue, and a Red all protectively surrounding Chark'ash and the other boys. At the same time the Alphar princess was making a short speech of her own, claiming it was not their place to restart the Drow War and the boy had not, as of yet, done them any harm. Her tone of voice told Glaster she fully expected Chark'ash to suddenly turn on them and strike them all down, but at least her words were supportive.

With a deep breath, he turned his attention back to Kandric, "Last question for now, Vondum and the duke... I have never once seen you allow anyone to hold you the way they were unless... Have they..."

"Bedded me?" Kandric managed a grin, "Why, would you be jealous if they had?"

Glaster's eyes narrowed, but he couldn't get past the boy in his arms was now a member of high royalty. He couldn't bring himself to scold him, no matter how much he wanted to. "Careful, Kandric, Premier. Do not forget I know where you are ticklish."

Kandric's eyes gleamed, "So you would be jealous!"

"Some... more than some... yes. So, Premier unless you want me to tickle you until you piss this strange armor you are wearing..."

"Dragon scale made out of King Blathamort..." Seeing Glaster's eyes go wide even as the man's hand started fingering the scales, Kandric's grin widened. "Yes, he is dead and I pretty much caused it... Um, as far as what was done to me, do not worry. Duke Mathard would never, not to anyone without total consent both ways and he loves his wife and kids. I also cannot see him enjoying any child."

"And Vondum?"

"Vondum... General Vondum has others he can utilize if he wants."

"Did he..." Glaster tapped the crest of the Wilderness Scouts.

"He did nothing I did not want or even recommend, Master. I was made a member of the Wilderness Scouts with no strings."

"How? Was it King Blathamort, Premier?"

"No, Master, just some stupid Ice Demon."

"You mean Hellion or Frost Demon, do you not, Premier?"

"No, Ice." Seeing a look of total disbelief, Kandric flipped the armor, "Master, I am wearing some of what is left of King Blathamort, why would I lie about some stupid Ice Demon?"

"Premier Kandric, it will be angry and will come back..."

"No, I killed it, here, in this realm. It did not get a chance to return to the Realm of Ice. It was surrounded by fire. I made sure of it..." Seeing nothing but a raised eyebrow, Kandric leaned his head into Glaster, "Really, feel free to ask General Vondum. I earned my spot in the Scouts without sleeping my way into it. Although, Master, I do have to question. How can it be called sleeping to get something when there would be little to no sleep involved?"

Glaster couldn't help but softly snicker, "And there, Premier, is the boy I have missed for all these moons... the devious, and cunning inquiries at every turn, the questioning of all and the recognition of the absurdity of what is said and thought by the vast majority." He sighed, "So Vondum did nothing against your wishes... I should probably be grateful to him. I left you for far too long."

"Long enough to allow me to cause a little trouble, Master, yes." Kandric giggled.

"Boy... Premier, if this is your definition of a little trouble, you and I need to go back down to my library and hit the books again!" Glaster paused and cringed, "Um, my library and my vault of valuables... is it all still intact?"

"Very much so. I gave strict orders to secure your property without anyone entering and let no one close. I was told they put a Dragon and some Dragonlings on guard after the Slums were fought over."

"And the Slums are still intact?"

"Some damage, but yes, the Dragons, Garm, and Alphar allied, then crushed Prince Bassork's forces before they could organize more than a raid into the Slums and they never breached the walls of Slome. The Dragon under Slome should have stayed below. But it did not, so I finished it off."

"And this leads me to my final question for now, Premier. Dragons?"

"Would you please stop calling me Premier?"

"To do otherwise would not proper."

"Well, please just stop for now, Master. Now what about the Dragons?"

"Unless I am badly mistaken Reds are not accepted well at all and others... Why are they working with or even for you and not trying to kill each other?”

"Master, I am still trying to figure it all out, but when my friends and I killed the first, a Green, the release got the attention of several others. I guess word spread and since King Blathamort fell so quickly after the Green... Well, the Reds hate the Greens and I had already met some Red Dragonlings... So the Reds came to thank me, and the Silvers and Blues were already kind of allied, but with the death of the two Greats they moved up and combined to wipe out some others and... And it turns out I am in the family line of Alphar royalty... The Garm and Alphar came to help and... well... You always said I liked to stir the pot in ways certain to get me in trouble. So, Master, consider the pot well stirred."

Even as Glaster was shaking his head, Lorthorn came running back through the woods, shouting "Kandric!" He stopped as soon as he emerged into the clearing surrounding the lake... "Oh..."

Kandric reluctantly pulled loose from Glaster, "Lor! Over here! What is wrong?"

Lorthorn glanced around, noting most in the clearing recognized him and gave him a nod of respect and even some deference. He bolted over to Kandric, "Seldnat picked up the trail!"

"We know where the camp is?"

"No, the Dragonling must be an Outdoorsman. It found our tracks down from the ridge. Seldnat says it headed up to see where we came from!"

Kandric's eyes narrowed, "Lacate is up there alone."

"Seldnat sent me back. He is going to try to get there in time, but..."

Vondum moved up, "You have a friend up at a camp by himself, Premier?"

"Not a friend," Kandric growled, "but he is under my protection..." He tried to open a portal but he could tell even as it formed it wasn't stable. With a shake of his head, he snapped his fingers causing it to vanish as quickly as it appeared. "The magic is still unstable! I need a Griffin or..."

Vondum whistled loudly, "San'i-sar! You wanted to meet our Premier, and he needs a ride! It is a good time for both!"

Seeing the Silver Warrior move up and drop its head and wing Kandric looked over, "Ride a Dragon, um, sure... How about a quick lesson?"

"Climb on the wing, allow San'i-Sar to push you up, put your boots in behind the large neck flair scales and hold onto the spines of the upper back!"

Kandric did as instructed even as several other riders moved to Griffins and other Dragons.

Mathard looked down at Lorthorn, "Young Knight, how about you lead me, the good princess, and the remainder of her guards up the to this camp on foot so Premier Kandric's instructor can borrow our mounts for himself and those with him..."

Even as Kandric took to the air on the back of a Dragon, talking to it in Dragon, Glaster turned and shook his head, "Duke, I could not allow you to walk! I am too far below..."

"Master Shaman," Mathard looked back toward the Griffins, "believe me, this is not me giving up a faster transport, instead it is you doing me a blessed favor by allowing me to stay on the ground!"

Princess Syrissia moved up and smiled, "A good walk alone with Duke Mathard, here, would give me a chance to air some thoughts outside of our Premier's ears, so please, feel free. We insist."

Glaster gave a full royal bow, "As you command, Princess. My full apologies for any and all insults real or perceived toward you from my student."

"There are none to apologize for, Master Shaman. This has more to do with Garm Alphar business than our Premier. For Queen Jostallis and Emperor Bloodstone have handed command of this army over to Premier Kandric. He and he alone commands it. It is our task to help him utilize it to the maximum benefit of the world as a whole. To this end, and my being newly assigned to help Duke Mathard, I could use this valuable time to confer with my Garm counterpart on royal matters. Besides, as your student, our Premier pointed out. While I may not be combat ready in Premier Kandric's eyes, I am comfortably dressed to handle the walk in this storm."

"As you wish, Princess." Glaster bowed again, "You have my thanks nonetheless, and if it pleases you I request an audience with the two of you at your convenience."

Duke Mathard spoke up, "Master, I assure you, we seek the same with you, and soon. For we have need of your... unique relationship with our Premier. Your insights into him are of vital importance to us."

"Us, as in the two of you, Duke?"

"NO!" Princess Syrissia stated forcefully, "To everyone, everything, Master Shaman. So yes, we will only be too happy to hold discussions with you. Now, however, our Premier is already out of sight of my infravision, so you best get moving. He seems to have limited patience and may be in need of your council."

Duke Mathard watched as Glaster helped the boys with him get seating in Griffin saddles, while one of the Alphar Griffin riders gave them basic instructions. As soon as they all took into the snow-filled night he glanced over, "So Sir Lorthorn, would you care to lead the way, but stay far in front of us so we may hold a private conversation?"

"At your command, my Duke."

Princess Syrissia pointed to her four remaining guards. "Protect him and help him blaze a trail through this heavy snow for the two of us. We will be fine."

Mathard moved out as soon as he was sure he was out of casual earshot of Lorthorn, "Princess, I give you the floor."

"While I am full of thoughts and questions, my Duke, I first want to state the young Halfelf, Lorthorn seems to be a pretty good choice as a friend for our Premier, but is it true he had a Halforc knighted as one of his most trusted friends?"

"Indeed it is, and while you may find it untenable, let me put my personal feelings and beliefs out for you out of the earshot of all. Seldnat, Sir Seldnat, is a very impressive youngster, Halforc or otherwise. I strongly recommend you give him a chance to show what has thus far impressed me. Also keep in mind, our Premier trusts him as much if not more than the others around him. The last Garm who spoke ill of Sir Seldnat ended up with dented Blue Steel breastplate and broken ribs from a kick, and before you ask I will reiterate, a kick of a bare foot from our Premier."

"This will be difficult, and should I need to be held back in words or deeds, I give you full permission to interject or even interrupt me. I do not want to anger our Premier when we need him as level-headed as possible. Now, on to what really concerns me... I want your take on his defense of the Drow child!"

"Princess, what I told the troops is where I am forced to stand. One of the reasons we backed out of the greater world as a whole when we did was to quell the bloodlust against any and all with even a hint of Drow blood. Our texts were clear and unambiguous. We left word the war with the Drow was done and stepped on a few large-scale purge efforts. The texts state we hoped to let what was left of the Drow reclaim a foothold outside our lands without ever regaining the power they once had. Over the centuries, we have taken our end to the extreme. Our lands are purged of them, as are a goodly amount of the Deathland Range. However, when the final treaty between our great nations was hammered out, it clearly stated a desire to calm the anti-Drow fever gripping the lands."

"Only because there was concern it would spread to our peoples, since we were, we are, the next highest races. Look what happened to the Highmen. They stuck it out and were almost eliminated. Those who exist do so as Humans except in a few very small pockets. They are reduced to near nothing while we have grown to something close to what we were before the Drow Wars.”

"Only because we took the steps of breeding with multiple mates of the races of Elves and Dwarves to bring up our birth rates. The reason I have six children is I have two Dwarven concubines. I was lucky, my wife gave me three children before becoming barren.

"However, we are nothing in the realm of what our people were prior to the Mythling Wars, or even the Dragon Wars. We must monitor the bloodlines to keep them Garm and Alphar, while weeding out those born as Dwarves and Elves. Besides, like it or not, we both know the whole reason we locked up Under River had more to do with Under River having never felt the full weight of the Mythlings and Dragons within their realm. They were the real power behind the fending off of the Mythlings and we could not allow such a power to put its weight behind the Conclave. As weakened as we were after fighting each other, we would have never been able to stop such a powerful united kingdom."

"So you suggest we do nothing about our Premier defending a Dark-one and accept the fact his instructor is harboring one?"

"He is a child, and calling him a Dark-one is not acceptable in my eyes, Princess Syrissia. Besides, before you go all judgmental on our Premier, keep in mind he is keeping the Drow female for use in a brothel."

At this Princess Syrissia both grinned then cringed, "Not a business one of such a high stature should be associated with, but yes, you do have a valid point there. I would prefer to take her back to our courts, however, it is a fitting place... As long as he keeps the greater races out of his side ventures."

"I think you miss my point, Princess. Our Premier does not care about race. You have been told and expressed concerns over his selection of a Halforc as one of his most trusted companions. You also need to really look around. Without Premier Kandric, we would be battling Illorcs, not fighting beside them. We have the full backing of Red Dragons, when no one else would have even thought to try. He and he alone has brought the Red Dragons back into this world as a legitimate race and has given them a Homeland, one both the Blues and Silvers agreed to without any resistance, and one the Black Dragons under Prince Bandurlok accept. He looks at the greater picture, not the race.

"This is something I feel we could learn from, must learn from, if we are to re-enter this realm as Queen Jostallis and Emperor Bloodstone are trying to organize. Cities here may be towns to us, but there are many, too many to gain full control over, let alone rule over. If we start looking down on the weaker races to the extent you are hinting at, we will be putting ourselves in the same spot the Mythlings did, and while it will not be in our lifetimes or even in the lifetimes of our children, we will lose. This is not what I want to pass on to my great, great-grandson or granddaughter. You?"

"Duke Mathard, the day I allow some Halforc or worse, Drow, into my home..."

Mathard gave a shrugging motion, "Then chances of our Premier stepping a foot within your palace is less than the chance of this snow being gone by tomorrow. When you see his relationship with Sir Seldnat, you will understand."

"The we must drive a wedge in and sever it."

Mathard let out a long breath, "My Princess, should you try, the wedge will have to be removed from between your breasts, and I do not believe either of us would desire to see such beauty so ruined."

Princess Syrissia blushed, "Duke Mathard, you are too kind, but your words suggest you feel the boy is uncontrollable. No child is unmanageable."

"Uncontrollable, no. Untamable, with every gram of Premier Kandric's being, unquestionably."

Five kilometers away Kandric pointed to where he had made the shelter even as he slid back and forth across the back of San'i-sar. "Down there!"

"Premier, please hold on. I do not want to be held accountable if you should fall."

"I will not blame you."

"You will not be able to blame anyone if you fall from this altitude."

"Oh, San'i-sar, you underestimate me. See you on the ground!" With those words Kandric jumped off.

San'i-sar turned and spiraled down fully expecting to have to dive with everything it had to catch the falling boy, only to spot Kandric gliding slowly down under a Levitate spell, while allowing the wind to push him toward his desired destination. He banked close, "Premier, you just aged me a half century! DO you have any idea what Prince Millen would do to me if you died while riding on my back after you slew our greatest nemesis?"

Kandric grinned, "You could tell him I died doing something I have dreamed of since I first heard tales of Dragon Riders!"

"Somehow I do not believe I would be allowed the opportunity to provide any kind of defense for myself."

"Then you are extremely lucky you will not have to. When all this is done, I would request a much longer flight from you, though."

"Anytime, although, you may have to talk to your general about it. He seemed very interested in coming up north to help us deal with our White Dragon invaders."

"If they have even a single one of my students, you will not have to go up north to deal with them. We will be facing off with them down here."

"While I wish no harm to any of your students, it would not hurt my feelings to have to rescue one of them."

"Oh, if they harmed one, I will either kill the responsible party or die trying. However, I am guessing it really matters not if they have one of my students. For should it be true my grandfather has sought asylum from them, you will get your wish to assist in an attack on their camp... Hey, I see fresh footsteps leading up to the camp, and they are not Seldnat's. It got here first. If you do not mind, circle and block some of the wind around me so I can get a look at the whole area without the snow blowing in my face."

"Premier, it is an honor to have had you on my back, there is no need to request a favor, just tell me what you want to do, or when on my back, lightly push the tallest spine in the direction you want me to back and I will do so."

"Thank you, I have no desire to order any Dragon allied to me to do anything, instead I prefer to request. For now, do me a favor and please tell the others this needs to be between me and it. I do not expect or want any assistance. Lacate is mine, and therefore should anything have happened to him, it will be me and me alone extracting revenge."

"Very well, Premier. Call out if you change your mind or simply want me to eat your adversary when you are done with him."

"I very well may take you up on the second part of your offer. We shall see."

Kandric landed only twenty meters from the shelter, pulled his blade and made toward the flap of material he had set for the outer flap. After a moment of debate, he stopped and called out in Dragon, "You, within my shelter come out and face me! Just you and me."

A few moments later, Lacate's robe covered and shivering form appeared in the flap. His face was red and signs of frost could be seen on his cheeks. A couple of seconds later a White Dragonling came out holding on to a cloth wrapped around the boy's neck, "You... I can see it within! You killed my... our greatest combatant, my father!"

"I would say I am sorry, but it would be a lie." Kandric stated coldly. "Now, let him go and either surrender the location of your encampment or face me."

"You think I am insane? I will do neither. Instead, you will let me go or I will twist this cloth a little tighter and pull back, snapping this pathetic Human's neck!"

Kandric snorted, "Lacate, you did at least try to tell this imbecile just how unimportant you are, did you not?"

Lacate's eyes went wide, "Please Kandric..." but his words were cut off to choking sounds as the Dragonling twisted the cloth tighter.

Kandric simply rolled his eyes, "You are about as stupid as they come. For him to look so frozen you had to have breathed on him. Why waste a breath on a servant brat?"

"I only put of the fire. If I had unleashed my breath on him he would be dead as scrawny as he is combined with his being without clothing."

"As a servant, he does not rate any unless we are out and about," Kandric stated with a voice devoid of any emotion. His long pent-up anger at Lacate made it impossible to feel sorry for the kid, but the Dragonling was harming his property, and this was simply not acceptable. "Just so you understand, Dragonling, the boy you are all but strangling is in my service for a couple of years plus a few moons. Any long-term harm to him takes away from his value to me, and thus unless you let him go, you and I will have problems beyond what we already do."

A flicker of concern caused the Dragonling to lick at its teeth with its forked tongue and loosen up on the hold enough for Lacate to take some forced breaths, "Let me go with the items I took from inside and I give you this pathetic piece of human meat to you." It tightened up on the cloth again causing Lacate's face to start turning blue.

By this time others were arriving, all but surrounding the small shelter, both above and below the ridgeline.

Kandric put his sword away and held up both hands, "This is between the two of us. Feel free to cheer for or against me, for as soon as he gets done strangling Lacate this is going to get ugly. In the very unlikely event he manages to take me down, you are commanded to let him leave."

Kandric let out a long breath as he stepped up "Come on, stop wasting my time. I have real Dragons to go kill."

Seldnat appeared moving up the hill, "Me wants ta take him!"

"You can have the next White Dragonette, this one is not worth your time Seldnat. It does not even rate one of my weapons. I will take it with bare hands." Kandric stated.

The words caused the Dragonling to shake with fury, which is all Kandric had been waiting for. With the creature's focus on him and off Lacate, it gave him a chance and he took it.

Kandric darted forward, stuck his hand up into the makeshift noose to give Lacate some air, while at the same time yanking the cloth forward. Without any hesitation, his other hand shot forward, over Lacate's shoulder and connected with the Dragonling's snout, badly bloodying the nose with his bare hand. Since the Dragonling was stunned and reacted out of instinct to grab its bloody muzzle, Kandric yanked the cloth off from around Lacate's neck and pushed him to Seldnat. "Get him inside and warmed! If there is a Healthman, Shaman or Channeler, go help Seldnat! I have healed Lacate within the last day, thus cannot do so again until at least much later today, preferably tomorrow!”

A Pantherling quickly hopped down from the ledge over the shelter, "I will care for him, Premier! Very nice punch, by the way."

"Thank you!" Kandric snarled, while backing up from the Dragonling and waving it forward with a hand gesture of motioning toward himself with his fingers of his right hand.

With his total focus on the Dragonling, Kandric's eyes narrowed, "Let us see what you have chilly breath. Use what you want, but know I am going to pound you into oblivion without ever pulling a weapon off my belt or casting a spell. You simply do not rate high enough. Same deal applies, you manage to take me down, you can leave."

"You, you broke my nose!"

"No, not yet. But give me a few seconds. Then you will know what a broken beak feels like."

The Dragonling pulled a glowing short sword from a sheath at its hip. "I am going to cut you..."

"Maybe, but you will not bloody me enough to prevent me from handing the magical blade in your claws over to my former slave. He needs a nice magical weapon, so I thank you in advance."

Glaster landed just in time to hear the exchange, but since it was being done in Dragon he had no idea what was being said. "Can someone or something translate for me?"

Another Pantherling moved up and spoke softly, while clearly looking worried.

Glaster watched as Kandric ducked underneath the swing of the glowing blade and spun clear before he spoke up softly, "With all the money I paid out to have someone teach him, it is time I see what my money bought him."

"Taught him? What did you pay to get him taught?"

"Translate and watch. I think you are about to find out."

Kandric rolled his neck as he spun out of the way of a second swing, "Poor schoolboy swing. How did you ever rate Primary Swordsman pins, let alone Secondary step 3?"

The Dragonling came straight at Kandric with a hard thrust and a snarl, only this time Kandric grabbed his arm and pulled it hard past him, sending the much larger Dragonling stumbling forward. He then delivered a devastatingly hard shot to the lower back just left of the backbone. So hard was the impact everyone within earshot heard a pair of scales snap.

The Dragonling screamed and spun with a wild swing of the blade even as its left hand went to the point of impact to cover the wound.

It took almost no effort for Kandric to duck under the swing, but the moment the blade passed over his head, his left hand lanced out into the exposed underarm of the Dragonling's weapon arm. Only this time, not only did Dragon scales break, Kandric's hand continued in, grabbed unprotected flesh and twisted as hard as he could. He then yanked back, ripping a hole in the hide. Blood poured down the Dragonling's side.

As this happened, the blade flew out of its hand, forcing a Griffin to dive into the snow. Even then it clipped a couple of feathers off the top of its head. Its squawks of indignation, were lost on all but those closest to it, since the blood curdling scream of the Dragonling pretty much drowned out all else.

The Dragonling desperately tried to lash out with extended claws but by the time it let go of its back and slashed, Kandric was already behind it again.

Kandric grinned as he saw the exposed spot on the back. He launched his fist at the same location.

This time the Dragonling went down to holding its lower back with its left hand, while trying to shake out numbness and agonizing pain from its right arm. The problem was, it hurt far too bad to do anything other than pull it as tight to its side as it could. It also hoped this would help with the blood, but drips rolling down its leather armor started falling into the snow. At the same time, it looked around desperately trying to figure out where Kandric was at. It jerked its head to the left, then to the right, only to see Kandric's hand descending down at its face.

Kandric's hand smashed into the right side of the beast's skull even as it turned to the right. The impact not only knocked the Dragonling fully down, it snapped off one of its horns. Kandric shook his hand, "Hard headed in more ways than one." Seeing the wooziness of his adversary, Kandric moved over and picked up the section of horn, "Hey, Zell, does your Mystic teachings tell you where the breath weapon of a White Dragonling originates from?"

"Small pulsating pouch under scales on the right side of the neck on a live one, a hard bubble on a dead one. Why?"

"Because, I do not want him trying to breathe on me, or anyone else, ever again." He moved up with the horn in his right hand. He smashed his fist down onto the struggling to stand foe, knocking it down into the deep snow and all but rendering it unconscious. Then, before it had any chance to recover, Kandric located the pulsing spot, yanked up the scales and plunged the creature's own horn in. Ice cold air rushed out, causing Kandric to yank his hand back, shake it and blow on it before he stuck it under his arm and backed off.

Glaster simply couldn't take seeing Kandric in so much pain. He moved over and cast a spell on the hand. "Next time wait and borrow the princess' mittens!"

This got several snickers out of those watching even as the Dragonling rolled over, puked and pulled out its horn and held it up, "My breath... my breath... You... you lied..."

"I did not pull a weapon off my belt and I did not cast a spell. None of those surrounding you have done anything to you, either, so I have told no falsehoods. Believe me, since my Master is here, lying is something I would end up regretting for a long time. Even if he was not here, I do my best not to lie, but with him here... Let me state a clear unequivocal fact: What I am doing to you is nothing more than the warm-up for what would happen to me should I lie in his presence. Now get up and fight or tell me where your camp is!"

"You will have to kill me!"

"No," Kandric warned as he moved closer, "but you will wish you were long before I finish. Also, like it or not, think so or not, you will tell us where my student and grandfather are at, one way or the other."

"I will not!"

Kandric delivered a roundhouse kick, knocking the Dragonling back into the snow. Around the top of the snout, blood turned the snow red but interestingly enough did not melt it. Kandric took a step back as an evil glint and smirk crossed his face, "For the record, now you can complain about having a broken nose."

Several cringed as the Dragonling pulled itself up and touched its muzzle only to feel its hand push into mush. "Nooooo!" It lunged at Kandric with its clawed left hand.

Kandric easily sidestepped the lunge. He kicked the beast as it went past, nailing the open spot on the back. He then reached down, grabbed the extended left arm, stepped on the elbow and yanked up with everything he could muster. Predictably, the joint snapped.

Kandric let the creature cry, hiss, and sputter as he went up to the small woodpile off to the side of the campsite. He took over a minute as he looked over the largest chunks of wood, finally finding one he was happy with. Without any sign of remorse, he walked up and stomped down on the damaged area on the back yet again. Seeing his opponent spasm, an evil smirk crossed his lips. He knelt down, drove his fist into the already busted nose, dislodging a few teeth with the viciousness of the punch and finally checked to make sure the creature was indeed still breathing. Upon seeing the chest moving up and down, he nodded in satisfaction. He turned the broken arm over, verified the claws were still extended and slammed the wood down over them. This embedded the claws into the wood. He then reached over and smacked the Dragonling's face, "Come on lizard boy, wake up. I am not done playing with you yet."

It took several minutes for the eyes to flutter open. Kandric simply smiled, "Now I need you awake, so I am going to sit on your back until you become coherent enough to answer questions."

Once the Dragonling started struggling, Kandric jumped off and kicked it in the back, putting it fully down yet again. He then stood right over the Dragonling as he spoke, "This is really going to hurt, so instead of screaming and passing out on me again, how about you just tell me where the camp is?"


"Do not say I failed to warn you." Kandric stated with a shake of his head even as he kicked at the chunk of wood with the claws buried in it.

Blood quickly oozed from around where the claws went into the hand, while the broken joint twisted more. The Dragonling let out a horrified scream.

Seeing it start to thrash and get to a knee, Kandric dropped his elbow into the back, totally breaking off another scale next to the two broken ones. This time the Dragonling went face down and didn't move.

"Oh, no passing out on me again!" Kandric muttered with anger. He knelt and started twisting and the wood back and forth. It took only moment for the pain to bring it back to consciousness. "Oh, there you are. Now get your breath back and look up, so I know you can answer... Good little lizard... Say, one last chance here. Tell me where the camp is or I twist this wood till all your claws rip out, then I move to your other arm." For emphasis, he gave the wood a hard twist.

The howling, hissing scream caused many looking at this to cringe. Kandric simply ignored them as he spoke up. "The next time I will pull all the claws right out of your paw, or hand... Just so you understand, I know wood, and the chunk I selected has very good grain. It will not splinter as I twist. All your claws will rip out from well under your fingers and chances are good a few fingers will break and may be damaged too badly to ever heal as this happens. Now where is the camp?"

"To the southeast! To the southeast! Oh, for the love of Jolan, to the southeast between two round hills, both with rocky points on top! But with Prince Weraweld dead, I don't know if they will be there much longer!"

Kandric brought his fist up, letting the Dragonling see it, "If there is no sign of the camp when we get there, I will drop hot coals into the hole I made into your breath sack, rip out all your claws, break your others arm and ask San'i-sar here to eat you very, very slowly, like over the course of weeks."

"It's there... It's there..."

"It better be. Now this is for messing with my beddable servant!" Kandric brought his fist down, snapping off the other horn and knocking the Dragonling totally out again.

Kandric kicked it again in its damaged back to make sure it was indeed out. When it didn't move, he nodded in satisfaction, then looked up to San'i-sar, "He says he was the son of Prince Weraweld. Not sure how this is possible, but if he is, he may have information your empire can use."

"All Dragons, when they mate, make mostly Dragonlings, Premier Kandric," Vondum stated while smiling in satisfaction over the way Kandric had handled the interrogation. "The birth of a Great, even when two Greats mate, is a special occasion and the birth of a Great Female is a truly historic day and brings about moons of celebration. We will take him back to the camp and hold him as a valuable prisoner... It would help if we could render some aide, however. I suspect the damage you did to him borders on fatal."

"Whatever the Silver Dragons want is fine with me. I give him over to them. If he lied about the camp, though, I will heal him and start all over again."

Vondum stood laughing and moved up to San'i-sar. "Suicide would be a much better option. I will ready the army, Premier!"

Kandric nodded. "Let me fly back with you as long as San'i-sar can take two."

"I can take three, even in this storm, Premier."

Vondum looked over, "Premier, as your general I would recommend you go to the frozen lake where we found you with those here. It is much closer to the position given you as to the location of the base and a much easier march for your forces, especially in this storm. If the lake is as solid as it appeared, we can use the entire clearing, including the lake, to prepare lines of march and situate our flanks.”

Kandric looked over at Glaster, only to see the man nod in agreement. "Hard for me to say no when both you, General, and my Master think it best."

Mathard watched Vondum take back to the sky, lowered his head, and grumbled, "Walk all the way up here, miss a good fight, now have to walk all the way back! What a let-down!"

Kandric shot the duke a huge smile, "My Duke, it will give you time to go see Prince Weraweld!"

Princess Syrissia moved up and looked down at the Dragonling, then over to Kandric with a stunned expression, "Premier... You did this with your hands?"

A wicked little grin crossed Kandric's features as he gave a very graceful bow, "A few kicks too, Princess. Oh, and its horn."

She knelt, "But there are scales snapped and missing... and blood, so much blood..."

"He talked sooner than I hoped, Princess. Otherwise, there would be more. Now, with your consent, I need to go check on Lacate. If he is in any way permanently damaged I will twist the wood off the hand in such a way all its claws will be ripped out!"

She said nothing. Instead she gave a dismissing hand motion while looking back at Mathard, "My Duke, how is this possible?"

"While I believe he now hits harder, I do clearly remember telling you he dented Blue Steel with a bare foot, Princess."

"But... I was briefed in full about all we know. He is a Ruinseeker and Outdoorsman... This this is of a very high skilled Sect Warrior... Very high..."

"Many of the Mythlets we now worship had three subfields and most had a second, albeit slightly less powerful, second Field. Unless I am totally mistaken the bloodlines have combined to make our Premier a Mythlet."

"How can this be his father was..."

"Very low, yes, probably not a drop of Mythling blood within his entire bloodline."

"This would make Princess Kaylaria..."

"A true Half Mythling, yes... And she has had many offspring, all from very low born, and even Mundane Elves... which would also explain how come she is such an amazing breeder. She is Alphar and Half Mythling."

"Then the other children... the princes and princess... they could be... Mythlets!"

"Indeed. Yet another reason to put so much care into our next few hours with our Premier. We really could be on the edge of a new Mythling war with several Mythlets running around, and if Frexla does not understand who or what she has..."

"Then this could bring them all back into our realm to try to claim others for gods or demons!"

"Or eliminate them so they cannot rival them, yes."

"This keeps getting worse."

Mathard pointed down at the Dragonling, "Now, if I might be slightly undiplomatic, here Princess, take another careful look at what is at your feet. Our premier did this with his bare hands because this creature did harm to a servant, one he does not even appear to like very much. With this in mind, look over to your left at the Halforc child. There is a true friend of our Premier..."

Princess Syrissia swallowed hard, "Yes... I get your unspoken implications... So maybe, just maybe, my palace could allow a Halforc to visit..."

"At the very least, Princess, it would be in everyone within your palace walls better interests to not refuse him should he show up."

Princess Syrissia let out a long nervous breath, "Along with the furnishings and possibly the walls... Yes, my Duke, I will endeavor to force aside my distaste and misgivings and at the very least get to know the Orc-blooded child... My Duke, do you know if he was a child of rape?"

"From my discussions with him, no. He has at least six brothers and sisters, but only he and an uncle came into Slome. I know nothing of where his uncle went, or what happened to his family, but it seems his uncle saw him as a gifted fledgling Swordsman and found out the Slome School would take in those of questionable blood. He did hint, however, of his mother's rougher side. It seems his mother was intrigued by... length and girth of the Orc.... weapon..."

Princess Syrissia shuddered, "Disgusting!"

"Possibly for us, Princess, but any Human female who could deal with such intrusions and continue to provide such offspring tells me she must be or have been a woman with tremendous stamina."

Hearing a note of intrigue within the duke's voice, Princess Syrissia looked over with a frown, "Pardon the non-credulity within, my Duke, but she must also have a vagina loose enough to accept a Dragonsteed!"

Duke Mathard had to cover his mouth, but even then, a loud laughter boomed out of him getting looks from many.

This ended quickly as Kandric came out of the shelter with the Pantherling holding up a woozy Lacate. Kandric eyed the Dragonling then looked over at Duke Mathard, "No permanent harm was done, let the Silver Dragons take this one and do whatever they want."

Kandric then turned to Glaster, "Master, it has been so long... would you like to talk as we walk back to the lake? I bet those with you would like to see Prince Weraweld."

"A fine idea, as long as it is acceptable with the good princess and duke?"

Princess Syrissia motioned with her hand, "Feel free Master, we shall follow at a respectable distance. For the situation prevented either of us from seeing more than a glow from within the lake. I would appreciate an opportunity to take in such a fantastic sight."

Half an hour later, with Glaster's arms wrapped around him, Kandric eyed the mound of ice in the middle of the lake, marking where the snout of the Dragon had been above the surface backlit by the magical gilded blades of the horns under the ice, "Um, my Duke, would it be over my authority to ask if some of my forces chip him out so I can have sets of White armor for me and those with me, too?"

Copyright © 2000-2021 Kyle Aarons; All Rights Reserved.
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O' Wow! 80K+ words. This is longer than many stories on this story site.
I did wonder if Kyle had decided to retire this story since he had not updated it for so long.
I hope that Roland will update his spinoff to his "Sands of Time".
Thank you, Kyle, for your most welcome update.

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Great chapter Kyle! I, too, loved having the character summary in each section. There is so much going on it can be hard to keep track of otherwise.
I also love the section with Glaster and Kandric finally reuniting.

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centexhairysub, Kyle Aarons posts here first, then at Wolfwalker's site and finally at Castle Roland.
We don't mind a bit that Kyle posts here first. It's a long time arrangement that is not necessary to squabble about.
As a beta reader, I'm glad that everyone seems to like how the character summaries worked for each section. We did feel that because there were so many sections, the readers could easily become confused. At 88K words, this is the longest chapter I've seen Kyle write... heck, it's a novel in itself!

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Finally! After years of waiting, he rewards us with 80K+! It's worth the wait every single day!
It's an awesome chapter. I hope and pray we can read Chap 32 sooner!

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Personally I am a new reader to your material Kyle, and I have to say WOW! Great story, great world fantasy world you're writing it in as well! I cannot wait until you post your next installment! 

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This chapter is awesome! I have read this at least three times and it keeps getting better and I notice and put more info together each time!

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Just so everyone knows, the latest word I have is that Kyle has about 60K words done on chapter 32... He says that he is "just" a bit more than halfway.

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I have to agree with the other comments that this is a wonderful chapter very good writing and the reunion between Glaster and Kandric was great even with the mistakes made by his teacher in regards to the fact that Kandric was now a great deal higher in caste than Glaster. I hope that the information Kandric got from beating the white Dragon about the location of the base where Kandric's grandfather was with some of his students is correct or even more white dragons will fall by his hands and then his army. I don't want to be Kandric's grandfather when he catches up with him as he's going to do something that normally wouldn't be allowed because of the fact that his grandfather is a prince of Alphar lineage who has been discovered as committing a crime against the Alphar-Garm community. I hope that Kandric is able to get his students back in the same condition that they were in when he left them otherwise his grandfather will be in more trouble than he is now. I hope that those in the Alphar- Garm communities will be welcoming of Seldant due the fact that he is a halforc also he was accepted and made a guard for Kandric. I love the story and can't wait to read about what happens when Kandric catches his grandfather. 

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