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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 - 33. Chapter 33

Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Zeltoss, Lacate, Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris (with Blue Streak Shocker Lizard), Duke Axegrind, Hawkling Channeler, Kyltoss, Klorna, Morwar, Mokel, Princess Syrissia, Silver Warrior Dragon San'i-sar

The spot where Pyrothermal fell started to churn. Shimmering tendrils of highly reflective particles launched outward from a small round spinning vortex of energy. Five struck Kandric. Four lanced into Seldnat. Three hit Zeltoss, Lorthorn, and Jamon. Two slammed into Pike, Mathard, Syrissia, Glaster, Vondum, Chark’ash, Rylan and the White Dragon. Single tendrils found others who did some damage to Pyrothermal or assisted those who did. Before these faded, several large spinning globs found Pangam, Ornam, Cam'ris, Duke Axegrind, Kyltoss, Klorna, San'i-sar, and over three score of others who held fifteen or more demon hearts. Lances of fiery energy shot up the noses of any who had between nine and fourteen hearts. This included most in Glaster’s group and several of those with Klent. While this occurred, scores of smaller sparkling darts erupted from the portal. Anyone who held between three and five demon hearts were sought out by these magical eruptions. This included Conth, Lacate, Perth, the rest of Klent’s group, except the slave, and the remainder of those who were with Klorna.

Ultimately, a wave of intense heat rolled out in all directions. It washed over the entire force and continued outward, melting snow for over two kilometers around the spot Pyrothermal fell.

All who were struck were either knocked to the ground or had to take a knee as they found Force fully replenished, power increased, wounds healed, and some knowledge imparted. The worst of the injured were overcome by the healing and fell unconscious. The wave of fire snapped the few remaining fiery doors closed. Yet the spinning portal didn’t vanish. It bubbled and churned above the badly charred stump.

Other than some of the dragons, Seldnat was the first to stand. He shook and pounded at the side of his head. After a deep breath and wiggling fingers in both ears he reached down to assist Kandric. “Me hearin’ thing in me head!”

“Me too… and ringing, but it sounds like it is trying to say something.” Kandric winced and cupped his hands over his ears. He blinked, shook his head and held up a hand as a way to tell Seldnat he needed a few more seconds. “Anyone else hearing something?”

Those who got the largest influx of magic all nodded. Chark looked over, “A whisper or something. I cannot make it out. I… think it is saying to take something. The ringing is bad. I wish it would stop!”

Kandric got up to a knee and glanced up at the portal. “Come on Frexla, either give me those you took or send more to the slaughter.”

“How about you give it a bit, Premier?” Vondum snarled. “While I have no problem with lining my pouches with more hearts, a break would be nice!”

“Indeed,” Syrissia stated firmly as she stood. “Not required, yet certainly welcomed.”

“I could not have said it better, Princess,” Mathard stated. “And I agree with our young Drow. I think the humming is telling us to take something. It is too high-pitched to hear properly.” He moved over and helped a couple of Glaster’s boys up. “However, let us refrain from doing anything. We have vast numbers of younger ones and a sizable number of those above age of ascension who are clearly overwhelmed. A respite in combat is certainly to all our benefits.”

Seldnat wiggled another finger in his ear but moved up to the stump. He stared at the Dragon, “Ya try something, me’ll break out some a yer teeth and feed ‘em to ya!”

The White Dragon didn’t move.

Seldnat moved closer, “Me think it be out…” He grinned as he poked it, “Um, like out real cold.”

A cascade of groans cascaded over the forest. It only caused a bigger smile out of Seldnat.

Seldnat edged over to where Pyrothermal shattered. His eyebrows arched as he saw items scattered around the stump. “Him leave behind much a him thing. Lots a neat stuff!” He knelt, put on gloves, and picked up a green-tinged axehammer. “And… Wow, Kandric, look at dis!”

Kandric eyed the spinning churning portal, glanced over at the Dragon, and stood. He sidestepped over to Seldnat. “Interesting piece. Many guards carry them down in Scorpion Falls, but I was too little to even play with wooden ones. Seemed like only the biggest and strongest carried them. So I do not know how to properly wield them. You?”

Lorthorn answered as Seldnat ran his gloved hand down the entire length of the weapon. “Teacher Saslara has a couple. We all had to spend some time with one of them, but only Seld showed any aptitude for it. Probably because he is one of the biggest and strongest in the school. There was talk it was going to be his next mastered weapon. But Seld, be careful. It came off a major demon!”

“Major is a vast understatement, Sir Lorthorn,” Princess Syrissia warned. “There is some speculation and considerable surviving ancient texts suggesting Pyrothermal had a chance to be a demon lord. Some scrolls say he instead became Frexla’s husband. This allowed him intermittent access to this realm without breaking the covenants between the gods and demon lords about not directly interfering with the Mortal Realm. An accord Frexla broke by taking our Premier’s brothers.”

“And Emroc!” Kandric snarled. “If any harm comes to him…”

Syrissia looked up at the portal. “Premier, it is improbable she will harm your brothers or this Emroc. Just her coming here was a huge risk. Taking mortals crossed another line. Harming them would probably be the step too far. The gods would be forced to intercede or risk loss of faith as word spreads. Frexla can ill afford to go to war with the gods unless she has full support of the other demon lords. Both the demon lords and gods need this realm, so the others are unlikely to back such a conflict. For, without mortals, neither demon lords, nor gods, have worshipers or detractors which is where a vast majority of their power comes from.”

“This is true,” a Hawkling Channeler spoke as he moved forward. “The Mortal Realm, possibly realms, also provides a conduit for them to procure spirits to populate the Outer Realms. For only within the Mortal Realms can procreation happen. And young Halforc, your young Elf compatriot speaks sound advice. The weapon in your hand came off a formidable demon from the Realm of Fire. There is a likelihood it has serious demon taint within.”

“Me know. Teach’r Saslara warn not ta mess with magic we not know. Not gunna let it touch me. But… Wish me know if it be safe ta keep and use.” Seldnat put the axehammer on the charred stump and carefully picked a strange mace-like weapon. The entire head was rose quartz with greenish-gray bands holding it to a handle made from the same metal. The handle itself was ornately twisted and tapered. The end held the tip of another gem, or possibly the same as the head poking out the bottom. The rose quartz head was shaped in the likeness of a reptilian head with a center horn and two smaller ones protruding from a ridge just above the eyes. The backside of the glowing crystal formed into a flat hammer. “Be on him belt, but never see nothin’ like it.” He rotated the weapon in his gloved hand.

“It is a scepter.” Glaster spoke up as he moved forward. Like most, he eyed the portal, and refused to walk under it but shifted to get a better look.

Vondum also advanced. His focus was much more on the Dragon than the portal, but he kept an eye on both. “Such a weapon was certainly a symbol of nobility, probably royalty. Very few rulers use them anymore. Black Rapids, however, is one of those few. The Gloom Scepter is an ancient symbol of rulership and is said to be a very powerful weapon. Having never seen it used in combat, I can only go on lore, but the legend behind it say it helped kill Loreweavers known as the Ice Witch Triplets. Their deaths stalled the Mythling advance, which in turn saved Black Rapids early in the Mythling Wars. The second time the city was assaulted, the defenders were ready and armed with what was taken off the Ice Triplets and their forces. The attack was crushed.”

Syrissia edged around the portal but relocated to get a good look. She did however poke at the Dragon. It gave no response. Cautiously satisfied, she studied the weapon. “A scepter for certain. There is no chance he would have had such a petite item made for himself. There is also nothing demonic in its crafting. It was certainly a combat capture, but from whom or what…” she shook her head. “I have never beheld such a piece.”

Glaster glanced both at the portal and Dragon, but finally stepped up next to Seldnat to inspect the weapon. “It looks more feminine than masculine. My bet is Pyrothermal took it off a duchess, princess, or most likely, a queen.”

“It look more heavy den it be.” Seldnat stated as he gave it a couple of practice swings. “Be light and gots good balance too!”

Zeltoss eyed the scepter. “It’s awesome…”

Seldnat grinned as he put it down on the stump next to the axehammer, “Be too girly fer me!”

“Not me.” Zeltoss stated emphatically.

“It be yer Elf side likin’ pretty things,” Seldnat snickered. “But yer still da best Elf friend a guy could have.”

Zeltoss snickered, “You’re one of the best friends I could ask for, but you know, carrying something pink might let others see more of your non-Orc side, Seld.”

“Er make um think me wanna be see by guy not gal. Ya does what ya wants, but girls be the way ta go!”

“You might find out differently if you try,” Zeltoss retorted.

Seldnat snickered “Ya try me way, I try yer way.”

The two exchanged some playful shoves causing the adults to shake their heads and roll their eyes, yet most kept a careful eye on the portal and White Dragon.

Lorthorn giggled as he moved past the two. He also slid on new gloves as he moved up to a quartet of pouches, crossbow, satchel of bolts, a hide vest holding twelve throwing knives with a hole from Kandric’s Frozen Flame in the middle of it, and a pair of sheathed machete-shaped blades. “He had these smaller blades strapped to each leg and the crossbow on a shoulder strap. Surprised with all these weapons he didn’t pull one!”

“Probably didn’t occur to him he might need one.” Vondum responded. “A early mistake in a long list which ended him up very dead. He wanted to brag, see fear, and show his dominance over us puny mortals. All you boys should take note of how one misstep, one misread of a situation in combat, can lead down a path leading to your destruction. Such a lesson should apply to all, even a demon!”

From behind the group Chark’ash pointed. “He tried to grab the sandy-colored pouch after the Premier impaled him. It is why I targeted the hand instead of his head, which is where I was about to shoot him.”

Vondum nodded, “I noticed the same. Makes me leery of whatever is within. However, you all should all be looking more at the weird magic door and Dragon while much less on what the demon left behind.”

Lorthorn glanced up, “It’s not like the blazing doors all the demons came out of. This one isn’t on fire. And no heat is coming from it.”

“And Pyrothermal saw a boy, not the Premier we all know is in the body of said boy,” Mathard countered.

Lorthorn let out a long breath, grabbed both sheathed weapons, crossbow by the strap, and pouches. He backed well away from the portal and put the items down. Seldnat followed suit with the scepter, vest, and axehammer.

Jamon knelt next to the two machetes as Lorthorn dropped them well back from both portal and Dragon. “Kandric… these both have the sparkly handles like your sword does.”

Syrissia shot the portal another glance, then moved to take a look at the blades. She wiggled them back and forth in gloved hands. A few seconds later she let a whistle. “Frozen Flames! Not minor or even fundamental ones. These are major; a couple of steps down from your own blade, Premier; nonetheless extremely powerful in their own right. Both of these have additional Wellaras crests of Royal Expeditionary Guards. A crest not utilized since late into the Mythling wars… These were battle captures and certainly not tainted.” She paused as she looked at the crossbow. “As is this… A royal instructor and personal defender of someone very high, and probably young, in House Wellaras!”

Syrissia focused on Kandric. “At some point Pyrothermal killed elite guards and an instructor of a high royal youth within your house, Premier. With these crests and dedicated time with concentrated searching, we should be able to comb the historical scrolls and find what distant relative of yours Pyrothermal slaughtered.”

Mathard smirked, “My, my, Premier, you are becoming a pathway for vengeance to injustices done to your lineage!”

Kandric shrugged. “I am more interested in you saying there is no demon taint on those weapons. Are you certain?”

“There is no chance a Frozen Flame weapon can be corrupted.” Syrissia declared. “It is why the Mythlings resorted massive expenditure of resources to destroy them when found or captured. None would have attuned to any with ties to or directly from the Spirit Realms. Pyrothermal must have known this yet decided not to destroy them. He undoubtedly carried both blades and this crossbow as prestige symbols. There are probably many he dealt with who became demons or fell as demons and were banished for millennia to the lower realms by these weapons. Numerous more were certainly destroyed by them. By keeping all three with him, it undoubtedly gave him a readily identifiable heroic status. Keep in mind, the difference between hero and villain, or loyalist and traitor is in the eyes of the beholder. For those in the lower realms, seeing a Frozen Flame in the hands of a fellow demon would be seen the same as one of us walking around with…”

Syrissia paused and pulled out over a dozen demon hearts with one hand. “Let us start with these.” She put the stones back and eyed Kandric with a sideways cock of the head. “The real question is why? You have what is undoubtedly the greatest Frozen Flame ever made.”

“But those who travel with me have none.” Kandric countered. “Each of my knights could have one. If there are any others lying around, I would sure like Pike and Jamon to have one as well.”

Syrissia shook her head. “While hundreds, maybe thousands of minor, fundamental, major, and superior Frozen Flame weapons of all types were made, there are certainly none lying around. Surviving ones are passed down, generation to generation. Most were taken by the Mythlings, then vast energy and magic used to destroy them since Frozen Flames in the hands of the lower races can and often did kill Mythlings. As we can now testify to, some demons kept them.

“We do not believe a Frozen Flame has been made since the tail end of the Mythling Wars. The art of making them was destroyed when the only successful invasion of your fortress was carried out by Murderic and his mistress Lanabodess. Lanabodess was killed, but so were the remainder of those who knew how to make Frozen Flames, as well as the vault holding the written instruction on how to forge such weapons. However, should someone discover how they were made, more could still be forged. The assault, while successful in ending the knowledge of how to enchant them, failed to damage the magical forges used in their forging. The assault was repelled then crushed by a sizable force of Drow before the doors to the actual forges could be breached.”

Mathard spoke. “While this is the situation now, it may not have to be going forward. For, from what I saw in your blade, the record of how to make Frozen Flames may have been enchanted within your sword.”

Kandric took a deep breath, “Sounds like without the Drow many of us would never have come to be. Maybe you should all think about such things before you look down on the likes of Chark.” He shot Chark’ash a smile while scores of Alphar and Garm glared.

Mathard and Syrissia exchanged grim looks. After getting a nod from Syrissia, Mathard cleared his throat and spoke loudly. “As much as many around us refuse to accept our Premier’s words they hold a ring of truth. Furthermore, there is no question the young Drow in our midst not only had nothing to do with the fall of the Great Iron Fortress of the Garm, he also assisted in the destruction of Pyrothermal. I say it is time to set aside our hatred, at least when it comes to the young Drow traveling in service to our Premier’s Teacher and former Master. I, for one, see nothing within the boy to dislike, let alone hate.”

“I fully concur,” Syrissia announced. “Young Chark was close to me much of the battle. Many of you with me, and possibly myself, came out with more demon hearts and less injury because he fought beside us. Give him the same chance you wish to be given when around those who know nothing about you.”

She turned to Kandric, “You are the reason Pyrothermal fell, so if you wish to award the Frozen Flames to your knights it is your right.”

Zeltoss shook his head as doubled-checked his gloves and lifted the scepter. “I’d much prefer this. It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen! I just wish we could find out if it is safe…”

Syrissia moved up, cast a spell and waved her hand over the scepter. She blinked in surprise and tried again. With confusion, she looked over at Mathard, “I get nothing. It does not even detect as magical.”

“Not possible!” Mathard barked. “The gem head glows of its own accord!”

“Indeed it does,” Syrissia grumbled. With a momentary cringe, she glared at the weapon then forced herself to look gracious. With a forced smile, she gestured with a sweep of an arm and gave a half bow to Lord Monarch. “Care to try?”

Monarch blinked in astonishment at being invited to do anything by anyone else in the alliance let alone the highest Alphar member of royalty on the battlefield. He gave a bow, “Good Princess, while I thank you for requesting my assistance, what Pyrothermal carried is something I have spent the last sixty plus years in search of. For, from the first time I found mention of what we see before us, it became a major focus of my studies. Without getting into the immense enchantments and history behind what they are made from, there is no spell we have capable of telling us anything about the scepter or axehammer. What the boy holds is Mythmetal. Our magic will not, cannot, tell us anything. For the enchantments infused within come from beyond the Outer Realms.”

“You are saying the enchantments on the scepter comes from the outer Spirit Realms?” Kandric gasped.

“Further, young Premier.” Monarch corrected Kandric. “And the enchantment is not on, it is deeply infused within. The same holds true for the axehammer. Both get their power from the home of the ancients, what is most often referred to as the Realm of Cataclysm.” Monarch smiled at Kandric, “Premier, go ahead, cast a basic, spirit based, magical revealing incantation on either, or both.”

Kandric shrugged. He spoke a couple of arcane words and extended his fingers. A cascade of green shimmers erupted from his hands. Everything magic in a cone extending fifty meters in front of him took on an eerie blueish-green glow except the axehammer and scepter.

“Well,” Monarch stated with wide eyes, “this is quite the display, Premier.”

“Indeed!” Syrissia wheezed out. “What spell is this?”

Kandric grinned, “Glamour Magic. A Steam Spirit taught it to me my first night I went into spell training with them.” He walked up and looked down at the scepter. “The only glow is from within the gem. Interesting.”

“What is more interesting to me is the ‘how’ behind the spell you cast, Premier.” Glaster stated.

“And if it can be mimicked by Sorcerers,” Monarch added.

“Um, I bet Sorcerers can do the same, they just need to change a light spell in whatever color they desire and focus the casting so it only sticks on magical items… For me, um, any Shaman, I change the words of the incantation to light magic instead of simply light. It is really quite simple, but it requires at least Secondary Echelon because you must combine the effects of light and binding it only to magic. But Lord Monarch, you are correct, my spell did nothing.”

Even as he spoke, Syrissia, Monarch, Glaster, and over a score of other Sorcerers and an equal number of Shaman turned different directions and cast. Within moments every magical item glowed multiple colors as over fifty casters refocused their magic and followed through with Kandric’s explanation. This created a nearly blinding prismatic effect as cones of Glamour Magic overlapped and stuck to items, armor, weapons, shields and even clothing.

Kandric glanced around, got vertigo, and took a knee. “OK, OK, stop! Just stop and dismiss the effect! Geesh!”

One after the other most items stopped glowing as casters killed the effects, but several items continued to glow. Most with only one or two colors.

Syrissia spoke, “Those of you who are having trouble dismissing your spells need to rethink how you are trying to do so. You cannot just snap your fingers and kill the effect. It spread out, broke apart, and what remains is now bound to the enchanted items for the duration of the spell. It does not form a continuous sheet or a singular blob of magic. Eradicate the effect by making the entire area you affected disperse or dissolve! Many of you may need to use Force until you fully understand the weavings of magic you unleashed.”

Kandric stayed down and pushed hands into his eyes, “While I am happy to have taught you all something… did you all have to try it at the same time?”

“Premier,” Glaster stated in a scolding voice, “name one time I taught you a new spell where you did not instantly attempt it.”

“Never, but I am a kid!”

“Teach a caster of any age or echelon a new spell and we all become kids,” Monarch snickered.

Syrissia smiled widely, “Well said, Lord Monarch!”

Several others chuckled.

Kandric clenched both fists, shook his head and bit off a response. Instead, he looked at the scepter and axehammer again then moved to the edge of the cliff and took a knee. “Zel, give me a few moments. Let me see if I can find out about those weapons. If I can verify they are safe, you can have the scepter. And Seld, same holds for the axehammer… if you want it instead of a Frozen Flame.”

“Oh, me want!” Seldnat answered with hope and longing.

Kandric grinned. “Figured, since I think you got some drool on it.”

This got lots of laughter from around Kandric and caused Seldnat to blush. Kandric snickered, rolled his shoulders extended his arms out to his sides and put up both hands. “OK, let us see what I can do…” He looked around and motioned for Klent and Klorna’s group to come closer. “I owe you all, so if you want to see something most will not be able to… ever… come close… Oh, and everyone do me and yourselves a favor and keep your weapons at your sides unless you are attacked. Most of the rest of you will be left outside. Keep an eye on the Dragon and shout if it wakes and tries anything or if Frexla makes another move. We should be able to hear if I do this correctly.”

“What are you going to do?” Glaster demanded to know.

“See if a friend or two will be able to provide useful information on the items Pyrothermal dropped.” Kandric stated cryptically. Before more questions could be asked, he lowered his head and spoke an exceedingly long series of arcane phrases. At the same time his hands made elaborate and painful-looking movements.

Glaster studied the casting as best as he could. He whispered just loud enough for Monarch, Vondum, Syrissia, and Mathard to hear. “He is summoning… but not trying to bring a spirit into our realm. He is summoning something akin to a portal, but it is… bigger, grander… deeper than I have seen or even read about.”

Nearly a quarter of a sandglass passed with no affect. Abruptly mist seemed to seep out of the refrozen and freshly snow-covered ground. The haze coalesced forming walls around those closest to Kandric but excluded the Dragon. However, the spinning bubbling portal above the stump stayed within the new enclosure. The air grew so thick it caused labored breathing. An outline of a huge panther with horns amalgamated out of the mist. It took a few more minutes for it to form into a nearly solid creature. When it did so, those looking on could make out it had scales instead of fur and a fin ran from the back of its head all the way down the tail. While the cat-like creature had claws, its paws were webbed. The eyes glowed a shimmering golden-green and its front feline teeth were translucent ivory in color and appeared barbed in texture. Gill flaps could be made out in the scales just behind the head.

The creature walked around Kandric. This included walking out beyond the edge of the cliff but didn’t fall. Its head and eyes panned those within the foggy enclosure for a bit before its mouth twisted upward into what resembled a decadent grin. “Not bad for your first attempt at forming a pseudo-fog realm on the fringes of the Mortal Realm. Are these mortals giving you problems?”


“No? Then why expend this kind of Force?”

“Your elders said if I needed your help… Well I… um, we were hoping you could provide us with some information.”

“Ah, and you bring your friends to me, or me to your friends. How kind of you, Kandric.” It moved around those closest to Kandric and spiraled out. It stopped in front of Seldnat. “I gather this is the Halforc you talk so highly about. Seldnat, is it?”

“Um, yea… um, what me call ya?”

“As a close acquaintance of Kandric, you can call me friend. The only one here, other than Kandric, who has a chance of properly pronouncing my name is the Pantherling.” It moved over to Wek. “It has been a considerable span since one of your kind has come to visit. Has your Shamen forgotten the power of seeking out a totem?”

Wek gulped, “I have no idea what you refer, Spirit.”

The creature sighed. “Find a young Shaman, male, strong of heart, light on fear, and robust in intellect. Send him on a spirit walk in the land of fog outside the lake of crystals. I will find one to mentor the boy in the old ways. He will need a body protector for a considerable span; moons perhaps; Therefore, the caretakers must be willing to feed, water, and care for the body, for the one you dispatch will not revert to it until education ceases. However, it will benefit the boy, your clan, and your silvery associates.”

The cat didn’t wait for a response. It moved up to Glaster, “You, your description given me, matches the name Glaster. Am I correct?”

Glaster blinked. “You are.”

“Good to meet you, Glaster, overseer and mentor of my friend Kandric. I have heard much about you. Kandric talks about you as if you are greater than a mere mortal. Because of this, you should also search out a totem. Thanks to Kandric, your name is well-known within the Realms of Fog, Steam, Air, Dust, and Wind. I am certain, with effort, you could find a totem within any of the five. Do so.”

It briefly talked to Lorthorn, Zeltoss, Jamon, Vondum, Mathard, and Syrissia, before returning to Kandric. “Ah, this is most refreshing. Lack of fear and ability to hold conversation with non-Shaman or Spirit Warrior mortals. When time permits, we must revisit. Currently, you say you need help. What assistance can I feasibly provide?”

“Pyrothermal dropped several items when we killed him.” Kandric answered. “Can you tell me if any or all are demon tainted and what, if anything, he carried is safe for my friends to claim as theirs?”

The cat let out a snort. “With Pyrothermal out of the way, the Realms of Steam, Air, and Fire are all calmer. Consequently, I will send an elder to take a look, but remember, Kandric, the elders are vulnerable in an enclosure such as this. There may also be a price attached.”

“I will pay and protect whoever comes with my life.”

“As will me!” Seldnat stated. Other voices quickly pledged the same.

As Chark’ash spoke, the cat angled over to him. “You… I see striking semblance to a mythic historical figure, child. Are you in the lineage of…? I shall only use a first name for I do not wish to imperil you. So let me be as discreet as possible. Are you in the line of Kardin’lok?”

Chark’ash gulped, “He was the founder of my house following the Five-House Treaty and the restoration of the upper desert… How…?”

“Your eyes… Very few have them. All, to my knowledge, within one family line. I assume you are proficient with at least one ranged weapon?”

“I am, multiple, however, I mastered sling first because improvised bullets are abundant in the rocky desert, while wood, especially for making arrows or bolts is not.”

“Interesting, and what I consider to be a wise choice given your circumstances.”

“Thank you, however, may I inquire as to why you asked?”

“Certainly. Kardin’lok was an ally of sorts. I assisted him with a Nightmare Hag plaguing his non-waking moments and he… I shall reveal this much. Kardin’lok was an early worshiper of Rovnar, not because of fast fingers, but from a demented humor few could fully understand. He crafted something for me which only one as dementedly funny as he could have come up with. The said item solved a rivalry issue between me and another when all three of us were still mortal. With one of the lineage of Kardin’lok unearthed beyond the impediments of your lands, I believe time nears for return of an item borrowed, then protectively kept by a close acquaintance. Unfortunately, while still beneficial, the most auspicious consequences will be ineffective should you return home.”

The cat’s eyes narrowed as it gazed over those in the enclosure. “While Drow have irrationally fallen into disfavor in your Mortal Realm let this be known and widely disseminated. I will take personal insult if any harm befalls this descendant of Kardin’lok because of actions or inactions on any of your parts. I sincerely hope for your sakes, my declaration to all here is abundantly unambiguous.” It focused back on Chark’ash. “Has there been any issues with those within this enclosure?”

Chark’ash spoke, “No Spirit. And I feel obligated by truth, therefore must unenthusiastically disclose, I am currently, by right of purchase of my freedom, in full service to Commander Glaster. He can order me to do as he wishes.”

“I am certain you will gain much in such an arrangement, line of Kardin’lok. I will let it be known the mentor of Kandric has absolute authority over you. Afterall, there is a necessity to inhibit… misunderstandings…”

It shot a stern glance at Glaster, “The boy is yours, without question, for the duration of the agreed contract. Nonetheless, I expect you to provide the lineage of Kardin’lok some of what you granted and impressed upon Kandric during his servitude.”

“Chark will receive as much or better than most who have found themselves in my service.”

“He better.” The cat growled. “I am loyal to his lineage. Very loyal.”

The spirit snorted as Glaster’s eyes got a little bigger. It focused back on Kandric, “Any other concerns before I take my leave?”

“Yeah, one.” Kandric pointed up at the bubbling, churning portal.

The cat gave a swish of its tail without bothering to look up. “What I assumed would be your principal matter instead is a remote second. Intriguing. Yet insight is constrained. Above is an ancient tightly constructed incantation in need of a pivotal turn of a key. What it will divulge will be revealed at the time the lock is negated, not prior.”

Moments later the cat walked through the barrier and the air grew heavier and turned thicker again.

“Premier,” Mathard asked with labored breath, “what is this?”

Glaster took in a couple of deep breaths and pushed on his chest as he spoke, “Duke, unless I miss my guess, this is Kandric’s Shaman hut. One constructed outside of Mortal Realms; thus, he can force formation from wherever he is! Am I correct, Premier?”

“It is not in the Spirit Realm nor ours, but between. There are some restrictions as to where it can be formed,” Kandric responded. “But in essence yes…”

Before more could be said a thick spiral of fog formed close to Kandric. This time it took the figure much longer to take shape. When it did, it took most of the mist out of the room. A coiled snake-like serpent with horns, continuous fins down both sides, and what appeared to be a ferocious stinger on its tail spun in a few circles carefully gazing at everyone in the enclosure. Seemingly satisfied, its fanged and horned head moved close to Kandric’s face. “You burden yourself with an obligation to me, young Kandric, for coming here with others in attendance!”

Kandric didn’t hesitate. “I will pay whatever price deemed fitting, Elder.”

“Yes, you will. Now what can I do for the first non-spirit student I have tutored since the Loreweavers formed the higher races of mortals out of the fractured and corrupted essences of the Realms of Cataclysm?”

It seemed to leer as several within the enclosure let out gasps, choked, and or swallowed hard. “I grant you this much, young Kandric, at least those you surround yourself with, within this flawed construct, have enough intellect and comprehension to rudimentally fathom the essentials of which I speak.”

Kandric, while still kneeling gave the best bow he could, “Elder, the Demon Pyrothermal dropped items when we fell him. I wish to grant some of the items to my closest and most trusted friends. I will not do so until I know if it is safe to allow them to take possession. Therefore, I request your guidance on this, even if this means being indebted to you.”

“Astounding loyalty!” The hissing shout was enough to make everyone cringe.

The serpent spun again and looked into the eyes of everyone in the enclosure. “Relax mortals, I purposefully tempered exuberance. Had I not, I would have damaged or even killed most.” Its eyes got to within centimeters of Kandric’s. “You still flinch. Better, but recoil, nonetheless. Greater focus and effort must be incorporated into your will and temperament. Your compensation to me for your request is to spend a moon of nights with Elder Seletssesslezzeler.”

Those close to Kandric noted his eyes went wide. This was followed by a gulp.

A hissing snicker was the only way to describe the serpent’s response. “Do you still request my expertise?”

Kandric closed his eyes and swallowed hard before finally responding, “I do Elder.”

“Excellent. I shall enlighten the senior elder to your commitment to further gain her insights.” Again, it took a moment to stare into the eyes of everyone. “Mortals do not move. I do not wish injury to any young Kandric has such trust in. With this comes words of dire warning. Should any attempt harm to what comes, the offender will simply cease to exist.” It gave no further warning as it uncoiled with astounding speed. The serpent twisted and turned around the items Pyrothermal dropped with such speed the hair of everyone in the tent was blown back and those small of stature had to brace against the wind. A couple who moved hands up to hair received slashes to arms.

Seeing Cam’ris cringe, Vondum snarled, “Cam, it said not to move! Stay still!”

“Same for you, Lylan!” Glaster shouted. “Do not even breathe oddly!” Glaster clenched his jaw as Lylan grabbed at the cuts on his forearm and received another series of slices. “Damn-it Lylan hold still! I will heal you as soon as I am allowed!”

Mylan and Klandon received a couple of cuts but quickly stopped moving.

A couple with Klent and Klorna also received gashes.

Klent sustained a nasty gash across his arm as he grabbed his slave boy and held him tightly so the boy couldn’t move. Moments later Lidevar did the same for Lyrod. About the same time, Glaster and Vondum also received cuts when they purposefully grabbed Lylan and Cam’ris.

The serpent’s movements continued to gain speed. Wind whipped around until the fog turned into a spinning, tight, vortex. As this happened dark red cracks formed out of thin air around the items. Shimmering claws of shifting red, blue, and green energy reached out of the cracks. At the same time, a dragon-like head stuck its head through the largest of the cracks. It forced the fissure to become a gaping red hole. What was beyond looked like a violent storm of multiple types of energy. The head was far bigger than any current dragon and it seemed to shift in appearance to look like the heads of all the different colors of dragons. It didn’t stay in any one shape more than a few seconds before it morphed again. Those in the enclosure felt power beyond anything within the Mortal or Spirit Realms.

The dragon-like head extended a tongue, only it was scores of tentacles. The extensions of tongue wrapped around and touched the items, lifted them, spun them and finally put them back on the stump. Some of the tentacles moved around and brushed up against those in the enclosure. A few wrapped around them. Like the items, they were lifted and spun. The power coming out of the cracks continued to build. It caused skin to tingle, itch, and in some cases, form rashes and small blisters.

A voice came from within the vortex, “No permanent harm will come to you. It is curious, nothing more. Lingering discomfort from exposure to the Realms of Cataclysm may take time to diminish, however.”

The creature lingered on Kandric and a few of the of the other most powerful. At the same time, a claw shot out, grabbed a winged creature that tried to come through one of the cracks, and crushed it with closure of the claws around the creature. A screech so powerful it coalesced into a visible wave of light blue energy came from the creature as it was crumpled. The energy wave stunned, then paralyzed, all but the most powerful within the enclosure. Those under Teaching Echelon all got badly bloody noses. Those who were not Secondary also had blood leak out of ears and the corners of their eyes.

The claw shook what was left of the winged creature. Hundreds of prismatic feathers fell around the enclosure. The head of the dragon moved close to the vortex.

The vortex remained silent until there was nothing left of the winged creature to shake. It then spoke, “Young Kandric, this young pre-Dragon wants one of the pouches. In return it will divulge a sufficient amount of knowledge to allow decisions to be made surrounding the rest. It is the best bargain I can negotiate.”

“It can take the pouch!” Kandric managed to bark out as he fought the desire to fight at the tentacle lifting, turning, and probably tasting him.

The red cracks pulsed. Waves of magic crashed into all. The tongue extensions let go of everything save the largest pouch Pyrothermal had been carrying. The dragon-head pulled back with the pouch. Moments after, the red cracks closed.

The Fog Serpent returned to its coiled position before anyone realized it was no longer circling around them. It ignored Cam’ris as he gripped his badly bleeding arm and pulled it into his stomach and Lylan as he curled up into a bleeding ball and cried. A few others grabbed at deep cuts. “Did I not say to hold still? Kandric, you allowed a few too weak of heart into my sight. Do not do so again.”

It eyed the others as it spun, “However, at least most, even most of those weak of will, have enough potential to be admired by most mortals.

“The Sand Dragon scaled pouch encompasses an uncorrupted, ancient, highly-enchanted Orakin sling, twenty-five ice bullets with an equal number of lava bullets. Force is required to activate them. They are then destroyed upon use. Lava are glowing red garnets, ice are cold to the touch, snowflake obsidian stones.

“The Brown Dragon scaled pouch contains a less-enchanted Sling of Accuracy. Inside the large pouch is a second Green Dragon scaled pouch with a bag of thirty empty soul stones. Any who allow flesh to make contact and bleed because of their sharp edges will fight a battle of wills against whomever controls or last controlled the soul stones at the time of wounding. If said victim fails the test of wills, their spirit will become entrapped within until the stone is used against another. The dispossessed mortal vessel will then be at the disposal of the utilizer of the stones. There are also enchanted gloves inside for use when utilizing the soul stones, for wounding oneself with an empty could result in accidental imprisonment within.

“The Sand Dragon skin pouch without the scales contains thirteen used soul stones. As with an empty, a contest of wills must be fought at time of wounding. However, unlike an empty stone, the victim will do battle with whatever is confined within for custody of the body. The vanquished will find their soul entrapped in the gem until again touched by wounded flesh. Destruction of the stones will allow the entrapped to either attempt to displace a nearby soul for judgement or voluntarily go to its own passing into the Outer Realms.

“The final, largest remaining, pouch whispers of a possible glimmer of hope for a demon to become mortal again. Or more likely, as egotistical conceit. For within, is a portion of Pyrothermal’s mortal wealth. Anything within the pouch will be fully protected from elements and aging and its interior is much greater than it superficially appears, therefore the pouch itself may be the larger treasure.

“His vest and britches were fashioned from cured skin of the Mythlet, Querjhekh, Sister of Avgon. Frexla had her mummy wrapped while still living. The skin was then allowed to harden and subsequently harvested off her still living body. What is left Querjhekh, within the body of another, is said to reside within the Desert of the Dead, a plaything for the power behind the accursed land. The blades held by the remolded and solidified flesh of Querjhekh are enchanted in the Realms of Decay. Use the vest and blades at your own peril.”

The serpent once again darted forward and stared into Kandric’s eyes. “The other items remain untainted; however, the Frozen Flames care not what realm the spirit resides. In improper hands, those who have accepted you can meet their ultimate conclusion. Choose their owners prudently or destroy them.”

The serpent returned to a tight coil in the center of the construct. “While the Mythmetal weapons persist unspoiled, the raw ore, gem, and magic originates from the Realms of Cataclysm. Those who take possession ought understand there is great significance, yet ambiguity, to infused enchantments prior to attunement!”

It backed off and started to fade, but added, “I believe the feathers you find around you can imbue arrows with enchantments and are unlikely to be matched by any arrows residing in the Mortal Realms, for it is unlikely any mortal, and admittedly few spirits, could hope to destroy a Cataclysm Storm Hawk.”

It spun again. As it dissolved back into fog it spoke with a fading voice. “As notice of gratitude for a long forgotten, if only momentary and partially shielded entry into the Mortal Realms, I offer final words of warning and advice. There undoubtably resides optimism and yearning within Frexla for Pyrothermal to have populated one of the soul stones. She must possess them to discern if her love was able to avoid absolute obliteration. She has not long to act, for the stones are untraceable and unscryable. Hold as long as feasible before the Scepter of Sands finds itself back in mortal possession of one Dragon Gifted of royalty… Oh, and Kandric, we tutored you better than this. Your construction of this sanctuary is hideously imperfect!”

Kandric, already on his knees, fell forward and had to grab onto the edge of the cliff with his hands as the Elder Spirit pulled the construct of the dimensional Shaman hut down as it returned to where it came from.


Conner (HE 11), Sharris (HE 11), Nake (HE 14), Tobash (HE 15) Dostem Halfling, Gagan + {Gilew Human HE 12, Munder Sil-Dragonling HE 11, Vaskar Human HE 14, Gil-Drak Wolfling HE 13}

The ruse recommended by the Thunder Rapid’s crew started out simple enough. Pontarious, Gagan, Dostem, and a couple of the other crew talked and even argued loudly about needing to know which Apprentices had performed evil magics. They alternated between dishing out horrible punishments leading to death for those who used dark arts on living beings and feeling sorry for any of the kids who hadn’t crossed the line from learning about evil magic to actually preforming them. They hinted at providing a great deal of leniency to those who didn’t perform Black Magic on anyone. In this, Conner made it sound like he had a spell to check and would cast it at on all of them at first light.

The cages holding the Apprentices were opened. They were given a couple of minutes out of the cages along with some water. As this happened, Conner cast a tracking spell and put it on the oldest girl and two others he guessed by actions and reactions were more likely than not to have used Dark Magic on others. When the cages were relocked, the one on the oldest girl was left improperly latched so while locked, it could still be opened. It was thought, if any had been involved in Dark Magic, she would certainly be one of them. Their suspicions were quickly verified.

The girl got out, and as Conner and others listened, she quickly broke out one of the older boys. The pair then pulled pins on the hinges of four of the other cages. There was a short argument between the two older ones and two who had been released. The two wanted Conner to cast his spell so they could prove they hadn’t yet done any Dark Magic on people. The older two wanted nothing to do with it. It was clear they had both directly used Dark Arts on others and didn’t want to be tortured to death. The other two said little. The final three cages were left locked even as the kids inside pleaded to be let out. The argument got worse. A few spells were tossed. Four of the captives ran down into the sewers, one of the others ran up and shouted of the escape while pleading to have Conner cast a spell on her so she could prove she had not yet crossed the line of using known Dark Arts on others.

A quick check of the room with the cages left little doubt of the viciousness of the oldest girl. All three who were in cages were puking, but with nothing in them but water, very little was coming up. The boy who had done much of the arguing against leaving was crumpled in a corner. His side had a nasty burn, and his face was a bloody mess from being slammed into a wall at least a couple of times. Last but far from least, one of the other girls who had been released had been tossed down into the sewer exit. She had been easy to recapture since she had broken a few bones in her right arm and her left ankle had been badly sprained.

Gilew, Munder, Vaskar, and Gil-Drak entered the sewers with Conner, Sharris, Tobash, Nake, Dostem and Gagan. They ignored the injured girl since Conner guessed she had been purposefully injured in hopes of slowing down the pursuit. Instead, they called up to Pontarious to send someone down to grab her.

With the help of the tracking spell, Conner was able to stay back, but still close enough to keep the pressure on. The path they took was oftentimes treacherous, since the sewers were running swiftly because of the snowstorm overhead. There were several times where the only safe path was a narrow lip of slimy, nasty brickwork above the main flow. Making it worse, rats and other vermin were using the same thin ledges to stay out of the icy cold, swiftly running water.

The whole time Gagan had them rotate talking loudly about how easy the trail was to track. In addition, they loudly discussed if it was wise to pull so many down into the sewers. Gagan and Dostem loudly argued about if they should send some back to the inn. Dostem openly yelled about doubting the others would be able to hold the Blazing Brook if it were attacked.

Those they were tracking went down onto a narrow ledge where three inlets of running water caused a large rectangular area to loudly churn, before escaping out a much bigger exit. The trail led to the far side where the escapees climbed back up into a clearly old section of the sewers. Conner was certain they were getting close to the exit. Only Conner and Gil-Drak continued. The others separated into two groups of four and moved back into smaller offshoots and waited.

The three escaping Dark Magic Apprentices scrambled up a ladder. It took the oldest girl and boy to push open a grate. As they did so, they shouted for help. At this point Conner tossed a Force Bolt into the back of the older boy. The older teen lost his hand hold. A howl of pain was followed by a cry of fear as he fell.

Conner could see from where he was at a strong-looking hairy arm yank the grate fully up while another hairy arm pulled the girl up. He smiled even as he shouted, “Fall back! Fall back! They have help! Fall back and get back to the inn!” He tossed up a Sound Burst as the head of a Halforc appeared. The guy took the full force to the face. His eyes rolled up and he fell, knocking the third escapee back down into the sewer with him. The kid hit the old brickwork hard, then had the Halforc land directly on top of him. Neither moved. Conner stayed long enough to let another head look down. This one he recognized. It was a guy from the Junsac Day Slave prison block. The guy had ‘escaped’ only a few days after being arrested for thievery and assault on a merchant’s wife.

The guy’s eyes went wide as he snarled, “Conner!”

Conner forced a smirk even as he tapped into the extra flows of magic. He used the link to tremendously augment a Sand Spray. A concentrated stream of grit caught the wide-eyed man in the face. He fell back with hands pressed up against his eyes screeching.

Conner glanced back over his shoulder at Gil-Drak, “They know I’m here. Time to get this party started.”

The Wolfling let out a low whistle while jumping over to the Halforc. He yanked the head back and punched the Adam’s apple as hard as he could, collapsing the neck. He looked at the boy under the Halforc and glanced over to Conner. “He’s breathing and doesn’t look badly hurt.”

“Let him live for now but cripple him. We’ll try to recapture and see what his true crimes are later, but we can’t risk having to fight him again. Make sure even a real good healer can’t quickly fix him.”

Gil-Drak shrugged, lifted the kid’s right foot, and drove his elbow into the knee. There was an audible pop as the lower leg bent forward, and the kneecap was badly displaced. Gil-Drak reached down, grabbed the kneecap, and twisted hard. Everything holding the bone in place under the skin tore lose. He gave it a final punch, pushing the kneecap all the way to the inside of the leg. “Not going anywhere for a long time no matter how good of healer they have, Conner.”

Conner glanced over. He cringed at the same time he snorted. “Efficiently vengeful as always. Glad to have you with me. Let’s go.”

The skirmish below the streets of Rolling Dale turned into a deadly game of hunter and hunted. Conner and those with him struck fast. They hit three separate groups from the Gloom Fire from the side and back. It quickly became obvious the majority were Mundane swords, given just enough training to be able to hold their own for a few seconds. For the most part they wore cheap leather armor with adjustable straps. Even though the armor was made for a wide range of sizes, for many it still didn’t fit properly. Several were too skinny, others overweight. Most of them had nothing but a light bronze weapon and carried torches. They ranged in age widely and were of several different races including Caveling, Gobling, Goblin, and Orc.

Others were not Mundane but were not fully trained or just into Primary Echelon. Most were Human, Halfling, Elf, Dwarf, or their half races. They stood out since they had more than one melee weapon, often had crossbows, and for the most part wore adjustable reinforced leather armor. A few had pets, mostly bobcats and Giant Rats. Well more than half were right around the age of ascension.

Intermixed with the less dangerous foes were those who wore better fitted armor, had nicer gear, and sported cloaks with a winged cat, fire breathing canine, a hand shooting sparks, a flaming hand holding an axe, or the most common, a Gloom Fire patch. Several had book pouches with spellbooks and basic Mystic cloaks. Those who controlled animals, including the ones wearing the cloaks with the fire breathing canine patches tended to have Armor Cats, Big Fanged Racoons, or large Barb-tailed Lizards. The vast majority were Primary and Secondary Echelon and wore guild pins.

A smattering were far more dangerous. These carried very nice gear, had good weapons including magic, and wore fancier cloaks with one of the five patches. These were the ones Conner and those with him targeted.

The tactic was simple enough. Conner cast a simple Illusion over a tiny offshoot passage close to a few others to make the opening look like part of the surrounding wall. The kids from Anarton’s farm would come out of a side passage and take out a couple of the easy to kill grunts then pull back fast before spells and potions could be easily used. The Gloom Fire leaders would order a pursuit. Once this happened, those from the Thunder Rapids moved in from the opposite side. They focused everything they had on one leader and fell back immediately. Inevitably this caused some of the better equipped ones to go after the Thunder Rapids crew.

In the chaos, Conner would slide out from behind his illusion, finish off the wounded leader and normally one or two others before sliding back into the hidden passage. Those who chased the other two groups were forcibly scattered by Pontarious’ nasty Stink brews and other concoctions. It was then easy enough to toss down one of the concoctions to counteract the stench and pick off those who got separated.

The other thing they discovered was the sewers were full of twists, turns, and long-abandoned offshoots. Sound echoed badly. The rushing water, shouts, and occasional sounds of combat added to the confusion.

When one leader adjusted to the tactic by keeping her group together despite hit and run tactics, Conner cut her and a pair of Apprentices off from the others in her group with one of the Firewall Potions Pontarious had given him. A few others with the woman were caught in the flames and jumped into the rushing water of the sewer.

The woman glanced back over her shoulders and turned back to Conner with a deep frown. “Conner! Mistress Gambra will pay be handsomely for your head!”

“As with all of Gambra’s stooges… All talk.” Conner countered as he grabbed the outstretched arm of an Apprentice about his age equivalent. A twist of the boy’s wrist was enough to get him to drop the dagger he had tried to stab Conner with.

Conner caught the blade as it slipped from the boy’s grasp and threw it at the female Apprentice. The dagger sunk in all the way to the hilt in the girl’s weapon hand. She screamed, dropped her morningstar, and scrambled into a small passage sloping down.

Even as the woman stepped forward, Conner yanked on the held wrist. The boy stumbled forward with a cry of pain. A headbutt to the kid’s face buckled his knees and stopped the protest. Conner’s knee came up and connected with the boy’s jaw as he fell. The force of the shot caused him to badly bite his lip. He fell back. His head hit the sewer floor hard. His eyes rolled up into his head and a small pool of blood appeared under the boy.

Conner spun out of the path of a Force Bolt, closed and punched the woman in the chest. His hand hit metal. The woman was knocked back toward the firewall. As she let out a hiss of pain and looked at Conner with wide eyes, she rubbed at a dent in her breastplate.

Conner rubbed his knuckles as he spoke, “No room for boobs under that… Flat chested, huh?” As the woman took a couple of deep breaths and glared, he continued. “Can’t Gambra at least just once recruit a good-looking wench who doesn’t have sagging tits, more hair in the nose than on the head, and a mouth so ugly most guys wouldn’t even want a put a dick into it? What’d your Elvin father mate with, anyway, a Harpy?”

She hissed as she took a few steps toward him to get away from the intense heat of flames behind her. “Your mouth will soon be a demon’s toy!”

“Come on, get on with it and shut up. Your voice is just as hideous as your looks.”

The Halfelf shook with rage. She grabbed her left wrist with her right hand and spoke a trio of words. A glowing disc appeared on her left arm. She held it ready.

Conner rolled his eyes and rubbed his chin as the shield put out an eerie lime-green glow. “I’d yawn, but you’re boring me too badly to bother.”

She took in several deep breaths and exhaled loudly.

“Aww, nasty!” Conner taunted. “Whose butt did you lick? Whoever it was needs to stop eating whatever came out of its ass!”

A mask of rage descended over the woman’s face. Her left hand started to rotate while she spoke a string of arcane words.

Conner edged back but made no attempt to stop her. A few seconds later, blackish-red tendrils shot out of her pinky, middle finger, and thumb.

Conner spoke a trio of arcane words and crossed his arms. As he did so, glowing blades appeared in front of him and sliced through the tentacles. The tips of all three fell to the floor and started thrashing around. At the same time, the woman screamed as the extensions coming out of her fingers gushed blood. She shook her hand wildly while speaking a series of arcane wards to send her spell back into the depths of the void from which it came. As she stumbled back, her cloak hit the wall of flames and ignited. She was forced to dismiss the shield so she could use her left hand, pull off the cloak, and slap it into the sewer water only a couple of meters away.

She moved away from the flames while looking at her hand. All three fingers that had sent out the demon larva tendrils were missing at the top knuckle. She looked over at Conner with terrified eyes as she dropped her cloak and grabbed a vial with orange liquid off her belt. She ripped the cork off with her teeth and downed it.

Conner leaned up against the sewer wall and kicked a rat into the firewall. He let the woman choke, cough, gag, and spit several times. As she took a long drink from a waterskin, he spoke. “If you want to continue to play with Dark Magic, be my guest. I’ll take you out piece by piece. Without full fingers I’m betting there’s some spells you can’t cast anymore. I’d be happy to increase the list… And after I remove your ring finger, you’re going to have to tell me why all of you are wearing silver rings with small gemstones. Even the lackeys. Or, if you want to really get a shot at me, grab the jaw hanging off your belt with what you have left of your hand and let’s dance.”

The woman looked at her fingers. The blood flow stopped quickly leaving her with scabbed over partially missing fingers. She blinked some tears out of her eyes as she dropped into a Sect Warrior fighting crouch and pulled out a morningstar with a hooked blade instead of spikes on one side.

Conner smirked, rolled his head, slid his right foot back. “Your move, hag.”

The bladed side of the jaw headed for Conner’s chest.

Conner took in a breath to get skinnier and turned nimbly to the side. The blade left a slice in his shirt but didn’t touch flesh. Still turning, he pulled a pair of non-magical dives out of his belt and tossed them down. One lanced into the top of each of the woman’s feet.

The jaw sailed through the air and clanged loudly as it bounced off the wall with a few sparks. The woman shrieked as she dropped down and grabbed at the four-pointed stars sticking up out of her boots.

Conner spun behind the woman and kicked her hard in upper left side of her back. Ribs broke. She toppled forward into the still thrashing tentacle tips.

The woman screamed as they latched on. As they tore into her flesh, they ripped out enough life force to become whole. Each turned into a meter long, blood-red, eel-looking thing, only each had tiny arms with claws on the end. They continued to tear at the Halfelf with their mouths while they fought each other with claws for which one was going to turn her into a demon larva.

The woman managed to rip one off and throw it.

Conner blasted it out of the air with a Flare Learned Autospell. He then watched as the Dark Mage fought a three-way battle with her two remaining creations.

After nearly three minutes one of the others managed to kill another. As this happened, she grabbed the last one, tore it out of her leg and tossed it off to the side. She gasped for breath on her hands and knees, trembling with exhaustion and pain. Blood dripped out of a score of bites and dozens of deep scratches.

Conner moved up, stomped on her good hand. Bones broke. As she howled and quivered, he wrapped her hair into his hand and dragged her close to where the demon larva maker was thrashing around. Noticing a fancy tattoo on her hip he rubbed it and got a shock. He licked his lightly burned fingers and nodded. “Two choices wench.” He spoke with a voice devoid of emotion. “One, I shove your face over into the corner, it latches back on. Without a good hand, you won’t be able to pull it off again. You become a demon larva. You get fed on, tormented, and suffer until you finally molt into a very low demon form. Then the process starts all over again until you somehow manage to gain enough power to fight back. Or two… you release whoever you killed to make your Dark Mage book, pull your tattooed book off, hand it to me, and I snap your neck.”

“I’ll destroy my dark book and empty my main book and give you all that is in it, if you let me live!” The Halfelf screeched as her face was pushed closer to the demon maker.

“No.” Conner responded. “You die and face your afterlife as you are and get a form higher than a larva or you start your next existence as a demon larva, but you will face your afterlife today. There is balance in letting both you and your book kill face the end of this life on your own. There is also balance in letting you become a demon larva as whoever makes up your link to the darkness is forced into whatever Demon Realm you chose to pull your power from. There is only two sides of a scale. I give you the choice as to what side you decide to pull down. By not deciding, you choose demon larva, since I cannot release the kill holding your vile book together.”

The woman let out another screech as her face was pushed forward then pulled back just as the demon leech launched itself at her face. “OK! OK!” she reached up with the hand missing three fingertips, spoke two words and pulled on the tattoo on her hip. She gritted her teeth as she grabbed the edge of a very large Mage book and yanked it out of herself. This left the outline of a book, but not the details.

Next, she pulled a smaller, yet still thick book out of her book pouch and spoke a quintet of words. The book cover shriveled up and blood poured out of it. A face of a girl looked up out of a pool of rapidly drying blood, “My mom holds those she has the horrible magic pages tied to in a complex beyond a deep cave guarded by several Green Dragonlings and maybe a Dragon. It is to the southeast, just down a small natural pass. Look for where you can see both the bend in the river and the southeastern tower of the merchant gate. The pass is directly below a five-meter jagged drop-off. At the bottom of the pass is where she killed me by impaling me on a hollowed out jagged stone in the middle of an altar to Entropic. There are twenty-two other Dark Mages who store their life-linked pages there, including nineteen of the last twenty-one Gambra still has alive, at least as of earlier today. Look for the three waterfalls. It is behind the middle one.” The girl’s face faded but managed to give Conner a weak smile of gratitude as she added, “As for the rings you asked about, they are used to move around in the Gloom Fire. The nicer the ring the more places the wearer can go. Turn the stone right to activate, left before you take it off. Both actions take some internal Force to let the stone reseat in the setting. However, no one can leave without wearing one. There is a poison glyph at all exits. They activate unless you wear a ring…” The voice faded and the last of the blood from the book cover hardened.

He tossed a Flare into the last demon larva maker as he moved behind the Halfelf. Conner almost offered to make a deal for more details about the rings, cave, and other Dark Mages, but stopped himself. The deal was done. He grabbed the woman’s chin, put his foot on her back and yanked back. The neckbones audibly snapped. He carefully gathered fourteen pages with blood-coated edges, stuffed them into the pouch and flipped through a huge amount of other pages from the two books. With the woman’s death thirteen pages from her main book had been destroyed while eighteen others had been damaged. He tossed the damaged ones into firewall. He stood only to find Sharris, Dostem, Nake, Tobash, and Gagan staring at him. Sharris and Tobash teamed up to carry the female Apprentice with the dagger in her hand by her belt. Blood dripped from her mouth and nose. She was unconscious.

Seeing a crossbow bolt sticking out of Gagan’s side and Nake with a deep slash on his left leg, he pulled two orange potions off the woman’s belt and handed them over. “Healing. Looked like they taste really bad…”

Sharris gulped, “We were able to see…” She pointed to a small sewer tube the apprentice had tried to use to escape. “It comes off the one we went down and leads to a deeper section you really need to see… But… Conner… the book…”

Conner glanced down to the dried-up blood with a sigh. “Dark Mage books are held together with essence of a sacrifice. It remains as a quasi-living fully aware extension for them to pull the Dark Magic spells from the living, through the Demon Realms and back into this one. If released, they can finally move on to be judged by their actions before they were sacrificed. She sounded like a pleasant girl and had a pretty face. I hope her judgement goes well.”

“Horrid and nasty… but I’m talking about the other book…”

“Her main book?”

“Yea, she pulled it out of herself, out of a tattoo… you said the tattoo on your shoulder looks exactly like your main book…”

“Because it is.” Conner nodded. “I’d prefer if you didn’t tell others.”

“No… No… I would never… But how do I get one.”

Conner raised an eyebrow. “Very, very painfully… Then putting it in is… well think of taking a fire poker left in a fireplace until it glows. Then imagine shoving it into you. Not on you… into you. Once in, it stings to pull out, and is horrible to put back in.”

“But it is with you… always!”

“Yes. It can’t be cut out either. It must be pulled out by the owner. If killed with the book inside, all the pages are destroyed with the body.” He paused as Gagan pushed the bolt through his side with a snarl, snapped off the tip, then pulled out the shaft. Both he and Nake drank the orange liquids. It dropped Nake to his knees as he repeatedly tried to puke. Gagan moved over to a wall and made choking sounds for over a minute, then downed the remainder of his waterskin. Both stayed down and gagged repeatedly.

Once Conner was certain they had recovered enough to pay attention, he continued. “The Lord who trained me has many books, ancient and protected by strong preserving magics. It is the job of those he takes in to scribe at least three… Anyway, one I reproduced said it was not uncommon for powerful lords, ladies, and the like to have pouches or even weapon holders tattooed into them. There is some accounts of powerful magic weapons being forged with such powers included. The Mythlings did their best to wipe out the knowledge of how this was done, because several Mythlets tattooed servants, serfs, and even slaves of the Mythlings with items. They carried the items until given a chance to strike. Several immensely powerful Mythlings were assassinated by those they thought they controlled. One book even stated the Mythlings’ capitol had a central tower with powerful magical defenses. The main dungeon was directly below the central tower. Those with tattooed items let themselves get caught, from the accounts over half of them were Drow. They were taken down into the deep dungeons. Many of them horribly tortured. But when the time came, they pulled all the items they had in them, killed the guards, and stopped the magical defense from being fully activated. This led to the fall of the Mythling capitol. Our realm split into fragments and allowed the Mythlets to become gods. The Mythlings were relegated to become the demon lords, because of their weakness and obstruction from the Drow and the Ancients.”

“Drow?” Tobash asked with clear skepticism, “Why would the evil Drow help the gods?”

“According to the book and one other I spent many moons rewriting, the Drow were on the side of the gods and most races who now worship them. They were firmly against the demon lords and their monster races from the start of the Mythling War. It wasn’t until the end of the Garm-Alphar War did they turn on everyone. The author guessed they didn’t like the final treaty penned between the Garm and Alphar, but this was an admitted guess by someone who claimed to have served as the highest Ruinseeker in the courts of Odin and his son, Greysac...”

Gilew and the others from Anarton’s farm came into the room. All were splattered with blood. It was clear they had all heard the conversation. One by one, they exposed tattoos of books, all on their shoulders, other than Munder. He pulled up a large stomach scale to expose his hide underneath. Like the others it had a well-inked book tattoo.

Dostem rolled his eyes, “Sound ta me like a pile a hogwash!”

“Maybe, but…” Conner took a deep breath and yanked a book out of his shoulder. It was easily twice the thickness of the one the woman had pulled out of her hip. He flipped through it, added a couple of pages he didn’t have from the stack taken off the Dark Mage, added a few other he had procured in the past few weeks by pulling them out of his secondary book and putting them in his primary. He even offered to let others touch it. They all shook their heads even though they stared with something akin to disbelief. Conner shrugged. “The book I’m telling you about had how to make the tattoo including a list of the rare inks and all the spells needed.” He bit his bottom lip and trembled as he pushed the book back in while gritting his teeth. After a few deep breaths before speaking. “It didn’t warn of the agony of initially shoving it in nor discomfort of pushing it back in, though.”

“I don’t care!” Sharris stated firmly.

“You will!” Munder snarled.

“And you’ll bawl, puke, and have to be held down while you force it in the dimensional pouch the first time,” Vaskar added.

Gilew nodded. “We all did!”

“Then I act like a baby,” Sharris decreed with certainty. “My biggest fear is someone stealing my book. I want one!”

Conner held up a hand to prevent the others from giving more dire yet truthful warnings. “If you’re sure, I’ll help make one for you when we find a really good artist, cause the better the representation the easier it is to pull… not to put back in… nothing I have found helps with cramming it back inside. Although there was one scroll my Lord and Teacher found saying the closer to the full-size a skin pouch is to the item, the better it is for the owner. I don’t know, because having the book is all I’m really willing to deal with in this… or any other life!”

Gilew nodded, “Same for me. I just wish Banta hadn’t defected with the knowledge of how to make the dimensional skin pocket tattoos. If I find him…”

“We take him down and hand him over to our Lord to deal with,” Conner stated. “How much discomfort he goes through before the transfer is another matter. There is a better than even chance he is here, possibly in the Gloom Fire. We can only hope to procure him.” Conner pulled the ring off the woman’s mangled hand and held it up, “Gilew, you said you had a way to contact our Lord. Let him know of the rings and the need to wear one to leave the Gloom Fire. I don’t want any of us dying from poison glyphs!”

Gilew twisted a stone on a ring given him by Anarton and went into thought. After a short, whispered conversation, he blinked and rubbed his temples. “The ring has two more uses, but unless it’s real important, I ain’t using it again!” He shook his head hard and blinked. “Our Lord is just outside the dock area. He says Gambra has totally taken it. Any barges or boats that didn’t leave have been captured by her people. Since early last night, over two dozen more barges have arrived. Half are crammed with captive refugees, some from as far away as Narcrom. The other half are full of mercenaries. He thinks many are castoffs of the nomadic tribes from the outskirts of the Desert of the Ancients. Most are speaking Drylander and have never felt air so cold. He also said it sounds to him like many have never even heard of snow until they got here.

“He’s guessing there are about 6,000 mercenaries and close to 9,000 captives left. There were more. Our Lord took out one of the mercenary barges and freed two of the captive barges. Both are floating downstream with people who claim they know enough about barges to get out of the area before putting to shore. He also insists a barge, made of stone, launched some exploding stones, sunk a pair of mercenary barges, badly damaged three others, took one of the captive barges, tied it off to them and sailed upriver with it. It also made a total mess of the dock garrison buildings with massive booming tubes. Our Lord pulled back because the stone barge had to be owned by a very pissed off Legendary Mystic.”

“Stone doesn’t float!” Gil-Drak scoffed.

“If it’s the Thunder Rapids it sure do!” Gagan countered with a deep frown.

Conner held up a hand. “Guys, Captain Pontarious’ barge is made of floating stone.” He glanced over to Gagan, “The big metal tubes I saw between the outer and inner hulls when I was on repair crew… The ones behind the side lifting windows I thought were to get air when you carry animals? They are like his thunder stick?”

“Real big and not safe.” Dostem shuddered.

“Had ‘em shatter a couple a time.” Gagan verified. “Almos’ sunk cause a dem once! Ca’tain Pon always be playin’ wit’ ‘em. Him and da First Mate be only one who know how to stuff ‘em so them work. And yea, them windows be for airin’ out the lower hold er shootin’ the roar tubes!”

Dostem nodded. “But last fall Captain Pontarious made some weird balls for the roar tubes. They look like them sparkin’ balls, but bigger and more barrel shape. Them also have a second spark twine ya have ta light. If ya do both they shoot like catapult stones, only out a the tube with a thunder-like roar. Gots ta put wads a cloth in yer ears er you no hear nothin’ for long time… maybe never. Sounds like the Thunder Rapids used most a what Captain Pontarious had stuck in the secret hold below his quarters.”

“Whatever it was both impressed and scared our Lord, which I didn’t know was possible,” Gilew responded with a shake of his head. “So, yea, our Lord said he wants nothing to do with the stone barge. He pulled back and is resting until nightfall. He recommends we deal with the immediate problems, and all get a full rest cycle and let things settle. He wants us to lay low since Gambra is certain to send out hundreds of trained mercenaries to sweep areas we have hit. In addition, he wanted to let everyone with me know he doesn’t understand what the reason or how they are seen, but he believes the red sashes are more than just a way to quickly ID others who are in on taking the city. All the surviving mercenaries were given one. He is certain Gambra would never use something so obvious for identification. The rings probably serve as a more subtle clue, but none of those he heard speaking Drylander got one. With everyone working for Gambra getting one, the sashes are important, though. He wants us all to capture and wear one.”

He tapped his temples again. “Oh, and he says he will go after the cave with the living extensions of the spell pages since we are taking on the Gloom Fire.” Gilew gulped as he added. “Our Lord also said if I wasn’t really with you and I got as close to the Gloom Fire as I told him I did, he would put me in the Black Rapids Orphanage with a Force stealing collar for six full moons… Longer if I didn’t get clear immediately.”

Conner, along with all the others from Anarton’s farm, openly winced.

“Gather it’s not one of the nicer places?” Nake asked as he looked over his fully healed leg then at the woman’s belt that held four more orange liquids.

“Nothing nice about it.” Vaskar responded. “Nothing!” He took a deep breath, “But you can’t take another one of those for at least a full day, preferably longer…”

Nake shot Vaskar a condescending look, “You think I don’t know how healing potions work? I’m a Mystic and trained under Captain Pontarious since I was eight!”

“Just making sure, rookie.” Vaskar snapped back.

Gagan walked between the two boys while still spitting in a futile attempt to get the taste out of his mouth. He smacked both boys hard on the back of the head. “Knock it off. Yer on the same side. If’n we fight each other, we lose! Guilded er not, ya pull this nonsense again, I’ll tan yer backsides! Got me?”

Both teens held up open palms and nodded.

“Good, now shake!” Gagan ordered. “The next fight the two a ya cover each other’s backsides or me’ll still tan ya both!”

Conner glanced over with a raised eyebrow. This was the last thing he expected to see or hear, since up till now Gagan had done naught to show he was nothing but a prankster. Seeing Nake’s wide-eyed expression and Tobash’s recoil, he suddenly understood why Pontarious had sent him as one of the adults. He bet, judging by the looks of the two teens who really knew him, Gagan would have no problem following through with his stern warning. To show full support to Gagan and help them focus on the task at hand, he waited until Vaskar and Nake shook hands and moved to stand by each other, then spoke. “We may be from two different places, but we are one now. Act like it or I’ll see about gating you to Black Rapids for a stint in the orphanage myself... Just so those who don’t know, Black Rapids doesn’t lock up kids for most crimes. The magistrates send them to the orphanage. In addition, the orphanage takes in kids who have given parents or teachers problems. They’re actually paid to keep them. Fifteen silver gets a kid a moon inside. They don’t take a kid for less than a moon cycle, but I’ve heard they have taken in noble brats for up to three moons, and they are treated the same as every orphan or magistrate sent kid.

“The orphanage is a walled work farm about three kilometers from the main walls of the city. There are four sets of bunkhouses. The real young kids, the small kids, the bigger kids, and the ones who are almost age of ascension. Boys and girls are technically kept separate, but… enforcement is lacking. All kids work from predawn light to sundown or don’t eat. The real little ones being the exception, but they still are taught the basics of farming. As soon as they are old enough to be in the fields, they kill bugs, and when they learn what plants are wanted and what plants are not, they pull the bad ones. Sick are treated and work inside, but still work. It’s actually better to work outside unless it is real cold, then everyone works at repairing or making stuff for the city garrison. Winter is a whole lot of sewing and leather working. Summer is planting, tilling, and harvesting. Much of the food for the garrison comes from the orphanage work farm, so problems are dealt with by guardsmen, big mean guardsmen… Days are brutal. Night is no better. Between gangs of street hard toughs beating on kids and the… um… guests… the orphanage overseers allow in for a few coin, there is little in the way of rest. Only the day of the new moon and full moon are real days of rest. The city puts guards in place to make sure everyone gets a full day of peace. Those two days and the two sandglass turns for mid-day meal break where guards watch everyone, so none flee, are the only true rest kids are guaranteed. The only plus side is Black Rapids does test and train any who are willing to join the Black Rapids Guards for a minimum of seven years. Those who agree get six days per moon cycle in Black Rapids for training and get three extra days of Subfield training instead of field work per moon inside the orphanage. From what I saw, the training is just as hard, if not harder, than the field work.”

“I’d run!” Tobash stated.

“You wouldn’t get far,” Conner responded. “Runners are tracked down by the elite Black Rapids Wilderness Scouts. I heard they let them run for a day or even two before they start tracking to make it more of a challenge. As far as I know, no runner has made more than a week before they are captured. They are punished severely and returned to the orphanage in far worse shape than before they ran. Also, runners are given an extra moon for each time they run, so there are several who are older than age of ascension in the orphanage cause they’re serving out the extra moon or moons for running. Those who are sent there also get an extra moon for running, and whoever paid for them is in debt for another fifteen silver.

“Having dealt with both the Junsac Day Slave Auction and the Black Rapids Orphanage, I’d take another several moon stint as a day slave than a single moon in the Black Rapid Orphanage.

“However, I can guarantee you, getting caught by those from the Gloom Fire or Gambra would be far worse, so let’s work as a team and take these bastards out.” Conner pointed to the still unconscious male Apprentice. It was clear he wanted to change the subject. “Munder, take him. Gilew, you grab the girl.”

“They’re Dark Mage Apprentices, Conner.” Gilew argued. “We should kill them both and be done with it!”

“Probably,” Conner nodded in agreement. “However, they have information and the extent of their crimes need to be discerned. Neither showed any sign of Sect Warrior fighting prowess, so they aren’t training to be Dark Wraiths. Speaking of which…” Conner moved up to the bladed morningstar and waved his hand over it. Hidden runes along the handle and ball briefly flared green. He nodded. “Gil-Drak, her jaw is Rune Magic-enhanced Blue Steel. It has strong attack enchantments and judging on the chunk it took off the wall, damage enrichments as well. I just checked. No demon tinge or intellect. You should take it.”

As Gil-Drak secured the weapon and gave it a few practice swings while nodding, Conner jerked his head and headed back toward the Blazing Brook, “Let’s move.”

Gagan held up his hand, “Before we go, Shar be right. Ya need to see what we find down there.” He pointed to the passage they had come up.

Conner followed Sharris down a steeply sloping passage. It was treacherous since the walking ledge was only half a meter wide while the channel in the middle churned with swiftly moving water. Sharris patted a section of a wall. She pointed. It was hard to make out, but there were evenly spaced holes in it. “Up there. We would have missed it, but thought I heard sounds like people pleading to be let go. Dostem noticed the holes.”

Conner easily scaled the rough, yet slimy wall. He pulled himself up onto a narrow recessed ledge not noticeable from below. There was an arched passage in the center. It went only a few meters before it was blocked with a Gnome Stone Steel grate. It looked built into the walls, but he spotted hinges and drag marks. He shoved it open enough to squeeze through and moved down the tube. Suddenly he found another passage. It was rectangular, had steps leading up, and had another Stone Steel gate. It had a lock but was open. He pulled it and moved up the steps.

Behind him, Gagan’s voice carried enough for Conner to hear. “It’s pitch black and he ain’t usin’ no light. I know him have heat sight, but how him seein’ as cold and damp as it is?”

“He and I, along with Avcar got a little… let me just call it a gift… back on the Isle of Cyclops. We don’t need heat or light to see in the dark.” Gilew responded.

“Gift?” Conner muttered, “Yea, sure…” He shook his head as he made his way up.

Another grate was at the top. This one had a nasty spiked lower guard plate and spikes along the upper edge of the plate to prevent rats and other vermin from gaining access. Beyond was a pair of trenches that went the length of the floor and up the walls. Both had spikes and razor-sharp blades going different directions. He stepped over them. “No rats getting in here even with the door open.” He shrugged and moved through. The passage opened into a huge arched chamber with two sets of pillars down the middle. Off on both sides he spotted large rooms. A quick examination of the closest two showed them to be bunk rooms with carved stone bunks and Stone Steel chests. He tried a couple. They were locked. He shrugged and moved deeper into the massive hall. It was dry, cool, but not cold, and had no smell of the sewer. He moved halfway across and dropped into a fighting crouch as the darkness was overtaken by a golden glow. A glance back told him his back foot was still in total darkness. With a deep frown he stood and cast a Glow Autospell on his hand. It glowed way brighter than normal in the glow lit area but faded to a mere pinprick when he moved it back into the line of darkness. He stood and scanned the room. As he did so, his head fell as he spotted four statues. One was a totally black horned creature holding a huge black pearl in each of its hands. On the opposite wall was another horned creature with large breasts. The light to the lit side of the chamber came from gemstones in its hands. An eight-pointed gleaming yellow topaz stone was held high with its right hand while a round yellow topaz was clenched in its lowered left hand.

In the middle of the side walls were statues of minotaur-looking creatures, only with much nicer looking faces. One looked Dwarven, the other Elvin. The Elvin one held up a shifting, shimmering, highly polished snowflake obsidian stone while the other gripped a star sapphire. The Dwarf held up a fire opal while its other hand gripped half a geode filled with rapidly shifting crystalline colors. Each was in half light and half dark.

As the others came into the chamber, their brightest lights dimmed to provide only a slight radiance around them until they crossed the line of darkness and entered the light.

Conner nudged Gilew and pointed to the black statue first then over to the opposite wall.

“Afterdusk…” Gilew hissed. “And… What was the ancient goddess of light?”

“Dawnbreaker.” Conner muttered.

Gil-Drak moved back and forth between the two statues to get a look since he had to get very close with a Dagger of Light at a full glow to even make out the outline of the Afterdusk statue. “What of the other two Conner?”

“Sky and land. Earthvoid, and Mountraiser. Our Lord channels for Mountraiser.”

Gil-Drak whistled with amazement. “This hall had to have been built before the Mythling Wars!”

Conner nodded. “Without a doubt, and still holds their enchantments. We are on consecrated ground. But if there is any place where a temple of the ancients still exists, this would be it. We are near the fragment of the ancestral home of Afterdusk and Dawnbreaker,” Conner stated. “And if the primeval texts are to be believed he and Dawnbreaker were brother and sister. Twins spit out of the vortex of magic that formed after the fall of the Pre-ancients and all their realms in the War of Cataclysms. Mountraiser and Earthvoid are supposedly their cousins.” He pointed to the other two statues. They and nine others formed the core of this new realm’s emergence and gave life to the Loreweavers, who in turn made the Mythlings, Garm, Alphar, Drow, Gnomes, Halflings, Highmen, and Orakin. It all started to unravel until these four went back into the shattered remains of the Cataclysm, using the fragment of it that got them here, and found enough magic to stabilize the New Realms. What they found were creatures roaming the Cataclysm scrounging up whatever they could find. This treasure lust and deep magic still exist in the ancestors of these creatures, what we know as the Dragon lines. Other survivors, lesser ancients, used the gateways these four opened to bring the pre-Dragons into the New Realms from the shattered realms of the Cataclysm. These lesser ancients came in and helped develop the rest of what became everything we know.

“At some point the Mythlings sided with the lesser ancients in a bid to take over all of it. This was the start of the Age of War here. It gets real muddy from there. However, at some point the Mythlings managed to push the ancients back into the Realms of Cataclysm. The problem was this didn’t kill them as expected. Since over the eons the Realms of the Cataclysm reformed enough to become viable and gave the Ancients a place to rule over. However, the fight to push the greater ancients into the Realms of Cataclysm all but wiped out the lesser ancients and most of the Loreweavers. Without allies to hold them back, fear and desperation forced the Mythlings to wall off the remaining ancients and the Realms of Cataclysm in an attempt to become the new gods. The Mythlets partially stopped the Mythlings by falling the Mythling capitol. But in doing expended massive magics and caused some sort of magical rupture, so we ended up with a mini calamity which in turn immortalized the most powerful of the remaining Mythlets and Mythlings. However, unlike the full cataclysm of the past, this realm was left basically intact to act as a stabilizing agent and to provide all the other attached realms spiritual force and a way to gain or recruit worshipers. Also, when we die, we move out to become a being within one of the attached other realms. This replenishes them with new… I guess direct spiritual energies. This is, at least in my understanding, how we ended up with multiple Demon and God Realms and why the Mortal Realm or possible realms are stuck in the middle.”

Sharris blinked several times, “How do you know all this?”

“Direct infusion of knowledge.” Gilew stated. “Like right from the source.” He gave a head bob in the direction of the statue of Afterdusk.

Conner moved through the huge hall and looked into every room, ignoring the conversation. He returned and let out a long sigh. “There is writing on many of the walls in the smaller side rooms. From what I can read, I’m pretty sure this central room served as a temple for those who built sewers, not of Rolling Dale, but of the twin cities of Light and Dark. My guess is Rolling Dale was basically put on top of the twin cities after Afterdusk and Dawnbreaker were walled off and their cities fell… or whatever happened to them. One thing is for sure, this is still sanctified ground for all four of the ancients we are looking at the statues of. Do not do anything to damage or desecrate it. You DO NOT want any of these four angry at you, let alone all four!”

Conner glanced at the two semi-conscious yet gagged and tied Apprentices. “Both Afterdusk and Dawnbreaker have grudges against followers of the demon lords. Let’s see what they think of these two. Munder, take the boy over to Dawnbreaker and touch his forehead to one of the glowing stones. Vaskar, do the same to the girl, but take her over to Afterdusk. I really don’t think it’s a good idea for me or Gilew get too close, let alone touch either statue.”

The girl regained some cognition as this was said. She tried to fight Vaskar, so Gagan joined him. They hauled her into the darkness. Conner watched as her head was pushed up to one of the black pearls. There was a muffled scream followed by the sounds of fading pleas to be let go. Everything she was wearing, including the gag and ropes tying her hands, fell to the floor. Gagan and Vaskar returned to the light holding the girl’s belongings.

Gagan held up her leather armor. “Her got sucked right out a it! Never see er hear a nothin’ like it!”

“The screams…” Sharris shuddered. “It’s the same as I heard and what let me notice the entry to this place… but what I heard were like lots of voices, not one… but… I’m telling you it was the same…”

“Sounds like Afterdusk and or Dawnbreaker took several others.” Gilew stated. “The lichling back on the Isle of Cyclops made a similar noise when Conner opened the gate enough to demand Afterdusk grab it.”

Seeing others looking at him, Conner sighed, “I think I lost more than I gained from it. And neither was even remotely pleasant…” He pointed to the boy, “Munder, let’s see what Dawnbreaker thinks of this one.”

The kid shook his head and refused to stand. Munder shrugged and dragged him over even as he kicked and gave muffled shouts.

Munder extended claws and put them up to the kid’s face. “Touch head to glowing rock or I make you!” Munder demanded.

The kid made what sounded like a resigned sob, but reluctantly leaned forward and tapped his head to the glowing stone. He shook for several seconds. Suddenly a ghostly image of himself, totally nude, was pushed out of his body.

Energy in the room built. The light seemed to take on density. It was like wading through deep water. Breathing even took extra energy.

The eyes of the statue flared. At the same time, the eyes of the ghostly figure of the boy bulged. Suddenly, light, in two streams, were sucked out and entered the eyes of the statue. At the same time a silent scream came from the ghostly figure’s mouth. The ghostly image dimmed greatly over the next couple of minutes. Suddenly an entity looking much like a two-headed Orc with horns on both heads was wrenched out of the see-through image of the boy. Lit stones on all the statues flared. The two-headed figure let out an audible horrified scream as it was split into two. The split parts were rapidly sucked into the glowing gems held by the statues of Mountraiser and Earthvoid. The sounds made it seem like both heads were being forcibly dragged to a horrid fate. At the same time, the boy’s thin Mage book turned to ash.

The statue closed its eyes. This cut off the flow of energy draining the image of the boy.

The statue of Dawnbreaker opened its eyes again. A glowing doorway appeared. A severely burned, frostbitten, and battle wounded Drow older teen, with constricting bands of grey metal around his neck, wrists, and ankles, wearing nothing else but a ragged loincloth stumbled out. He didn’t get far.

The eyes of the statue flared again. The ghostly shape of the Drow, with no blemishes, was pushed out of the body. A spinning maelstrom formed above the image of the Drow. Bolts of black and red energy shot out of the vortex; each shaft looked a whole lot like a spinning thrown dagger. The image seemed to stutter and shift under the onslaught for several seconds before it reformed into the Drow again, only it was smaller and younger in appearance. A few more spinning black and red bolts slashed into the other ghostly figure. It grew and appeared to get older but didn’t shimmer and skip.

A sigh seemed to escape from the statue while a snicker erupted from the vortex. A female voice emerged from the statue. Its language was unknown to most, but somehow understood by all. “Even as my follower, you could never do anything in a straightforward way.”

A male voice came from the vortex, “The straightest path is boring and leads to predictability, Dawnbreaker. Neither of which I am. Now it is done and I have upheld my end. This finalizes the contract.”

“By the letter of the agreement… Yes, you have completed your end... Barely. Now go be a pain in someone else’s ass, Rovnar, so I can finish this.”

“With pleasure!... But first, we cannot have him here with nothing, can we?”

“How many of his articles did you secure?”

“Enough to make life in this domain entertaining and was more than enough to drive Cyronia into a fit of rage which ended up killing all those who took him to begin with and allowed you, with the aid of Afterdusk, to secure him. Again, fulfillment of the contract with a unique twist befitting of who I am.”

“Oh, why did my temple ever take you in?”

“Because you adore me?”

“Tolerate…” The female voice stated with a tinge of humor. “Tolerate, nothing more. Now let me do my thing. The barriers are weakening even as we speak, yet still painful for me to cross over to this degree.”

As this exchange happened, the ghosts looked at each other for a few moments, then at the bodies. Both bodies were impacted by a couple of spinning black and red shafts out of the vortex. The ropes fell off from the boy and the metal bands dropped off and clattered on the floor around the Drow. Suddenly the gemstones held by the stature of Dawnbreaker sent out strong bolts of light. The two ghostly forms were pushed back into the bodies but not the body they came out of. Both fell face first at the feet of the statue quivering and drooling.

The vortex spun faster and widened. “I can only hope he proves more effective this time. Maybe allowing him grow up a bit more, a second time, will assist in his development and temper his ego. He, at one point even had the gall to say he was becoming my equal! I have seen chipmunks better suited to such an audacious proclamation!”

There was laughter from deep within the vortex. “But I doubt even this will sooth his highly self-embellished personality. Thus, I already have his back-up treading this realm. One way or another those Pyrothermal sought to destroy have now, officially, outlived him. As did their ability to continue the fight to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.” Several items crashed to the floor including a khopesh and a round spiked shield. Both were heavily rune and ornamentally engraved. The khopesh was made of a glowing green metal while the shield was Eldwar. This was followed by a set of ten black metal throwing daggers in an Eldwar chain vest, a black metal axehammer, an extremely ornate large signet ring, a necklace with a shimmering eight-pointed star of Dawnbreaker as a pendant, a longbow made of twisted together wood with an Eldwar string, a quiver of arrows, gloves with Eldwar metal bands so the bow string could be pulled back, and a very nice backpack with strange yet clearly royal crests on both sides. The items rained down on and around the body the ghost of the Drow had been pushed into.

The voice of the female spoke again. “Did you leave anything behind?”

“His phoenix feather token from his first real kill of Pyrothermal’s minions... He took too much pride in something well below his abilities to take down. I stuck it in the belt pouch of Electoroma with one feather discernable to make Cyronia think she took the other items. At the same time, I took Electoroma’s sling, so she blamed Cyronia for its theft. Thus she proclaimed Cyronia stole everything and tried to frame her. It was splendid to watch the fallout.”

A pouch popped out of the vortex and landed at Sharris’ feet. “This is my gift to those who fight Gambra for me. The young lady has the eyes to melt many a boy or man. And, as fate has it, she also carries a sling. I furthermore decree Electoroma’s sling should go to one with the best body. Not to mention she has an added benefit. A sliver of her heritage hails from beyond perfect lineage! Therefore, enjoy young lady. And mostly because of this gift, but in addition your lineage says I should expect some extra devotion to me. I fully expect you with an offering in hand the next time you are at one of my shrines, young lass!”

The female voice groaned, “You are so far beyond hopeless there are no words.”

“While I thank you, Dawnbreaker, I must endeavor to make them available. It is awkward to have worshipers if the right words are not there to proclaim my magnificence!”

“Magnificence? How about malfeasance?”


“Go interfere with some less-significant mortals elsewhere, Rovnar!” The female sighed deeply before resuming in a less aggravated tone. “Those items scattered around the non-Drow are the young man’s, now once again boy, no longer the Drow, instead a Highman youth… Rovnar’s final twist to an eons’ old contract; one mortals cannot fully hope to comprehend…” The gems glowed brightly enough to leave everyone seeing spots. “I have resized them to fit his change in form and enchanted them to where they will size with him over the decades to follow. Storage for them, thanks to my former temple warden, has also been transferred. Touch or try to take what is strewn around him at your peril.

“In this I give you added warning, his anger is something you may wish to keep in check until he adjusts to the point he finds himself in.” The statue’s eyes let out shafts of light at everyone in the room. They pulsated stronger when they moved to Sharris, lingered on Gilew and focused in on Conner for much longer than the others. The voice faded as it spoke. “Leave it to Rovnar to fawn over a beautiful girl…even if it be one he is distantly culpable for.” There was a snicker, “I doubt even myself along with all the elder gods combined can fathom the number of offspring he was responsible for as a mortal, then added to as a godling. Nonetheless, I detect the youngster is indeed spawn from one of those all but infinite lines. Therefore, she has ability to handle more than most. Because of this, I have granted the girl a sliver of Electoroma’s essence so she can fully utilize the sling. It is hers and hers alone. She will most certainly have to let such an empowering settle before she fully understands what being gifted, from Rovnar, through me means for her future.

“For your combined knowledge, the boy, now in the Drow, did play with demon touched magics, but never used them against anyone. The only deeds beyond using augmented incantations with the death of animals, was the result of the demon infused within. It has been expelled from his essence and shall provide entertainment to those represented in this temple.

“Yet, yes, the boy was on the path of, and even accepted by direct followers of Murderic. The added power given to him from the Mythling’s underling has been ripped from him and he is nothing more than a foundationless Mage with no current ties to anything including his demon-touched book. While I left him what you call high Training Echelon, he must re-acquire power to cast the spells he has memorized yet cannot access. Leave him be. For in this I have rare full agreement with Rovnar. His inherited form should prove reprimand enough for now… As additional admonishment I forcibly removed all power from, and his understanding of, malevolent Mythling augmented abilities.

“However, before I pull back from the discomfort of staying in this realm until more of the barriers crumble, there is an additional crucial matter I feel must be made more extensively recognized. For I sense powers beyond the reach of most. Two of you have met my brother… and astonishingly live to talk about it… and one of you has touched the Cataclysm and survived… Has direct lineage to the ender of Cyronia, Pyrothermal… thus allowing the final lines of the contract to conclude… And embraces excess Dragon Giftings which saturate him… Careful, mortals, for you are treading on the fringes of opposing abysses. Look to those who have touched them when the time comes… As much as it pains me to admit, Rovnar may be correct after all. Sending him, now within a Highman body, here, now, to be in your company, completes at least to the letter of the agreement, if not the spirit of the intentions ingrained within the bargain made with the Queen of the Sand Dragons, and closes the contracts. Duplicate legitimate rings should also prove… interesting.”

The vortex snapped shut and the extra energies around the statue faded to where only the gems glowed. Within moments the room felt exactly like it did when they first entered. All in the room, save the Drow and Highman, found identical curved and hooked Khopesh blades on their packs along with the knowledge of how to effectively use them. They matched the blade dropped close to the Highman but were made of Eldwar instead of the green material. Most also had small glowing eight-pointed yellow topaz stone in the hilt. Conner and Gilew both found theirs had black pearls. All had meticulously made yet minuscule raised runes made of the gem infused Eldwar running the lengths of the blades.

Munder looked back over his shoulder with wide eyes, “Um…”

Conner blinked and stared. His mouth opened, but no sound came out.


Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Lorthorn, Jamon, Zeltoss, Lacate, Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris (with Blue Streak Shocker Lizard), Duke Axegrind, Hawkling Channeler, Kyltoss, Klorna, Morwar, Mokel, Princess Syrissia, Silver Warrior Dragon San'i-sar

Lorthorn moved to help Kandric up, “You OK?”

It took a few seconds for Kandric to accept the offered hand. “I will be fine. But I am seeing sparkles and my gut hurts.”

Zeltoss moved over and patted Kandric on the back then helped to steady him. “What happened?”

Kandric allowed both Lorthorn and Zeltoss to support him while taking several deep breaths. “The shelter was still tied to me when it was torn down. The Force expended to build it is not normally expelled from me until I carefully take it down. So, what I used was partially inside me.” He took a few deep breaths, “So when the elder destroyed it, the utilized energy was like it was ripped out of me. Hurts… Bad. But he was right. I was taught to do better. I just wanted to make it fast instead of properly.”

“Might be a good thing you did, Premier,” Syrissia stated. “For it sounds like we need to prepare for Frexla to make another move.”

The Hawkling Channeler spoke after a few tense seconds. “Is there any chance Pyrothermal managed to put his essence into one of the soul stones?”

“No,” Mathard answered with certainty. “I was right up by him. His hands were pinned then removed before he could grab for anything. He was sure trying, though. I would wager I am not alone when I thought he was grabbing for a weapon. However, understanding what we now do, it would make sense if he was going for a pouch with a soul stone. It would have left him trapped, but able to return.”

The Hawkling eyed the items as he spoke, “If true, his escape plan was certainly to have Frexla rescue him by way of procurement of the stone, then wound a demon in the Spirit Realms so he could take its form.”

“Or hope someone grabbed the stone and cut themselves so he could steal their mortal body,” Syrissia countered. “Regardless we need to prepare for another onslaught.”

She pointed to the weapons, “Sir Seldnat, you made it abundantly clear you desire the axehammer. Sir Zeltoss, while the scepter is certainly yours unless our Premier says otherwise…” She glanced over to Kandric.

“Zel is Royal Dragon Gifted so it is all his.” Kandric seconded without hesitation, “However, I believe most here are of the same thought I am. The elder said we should wait.”

“Indeed,” Syrissia agreed. “However, we cannot allow Frexla or any of her minions to get to it. We need to figure out a way to protect it!”

Rylan looked to Glaster, “Permission to speak, Commander.”

Glaster gestured to Rylan with a wave of his left hand. “You have an idea, Rylan, I believe we are more than open to it.”

Rylan took a few deep breaths, “While I have extensive royal protocol training, I am not sure if I should address our Premier, a duke, princess or…”

Syrissia’s eyes narrowed as her voice took on a venomous undertone, “There is time for pompous royal absurdity later. We are in imminent peril from another Frexla incursion! Just speak boy!”

Rylan nodded vigorously, “Sorry… Um, but… there were no gates around the Dragon at all other than when Pyrothermal entered and even his gate was on the opposite side of the charred stump. They may not be able to gate close to it because of its cold aura…”

“And no gate can open where something is at! Any Fire Demon small enough to gate into a small hole would be instantly frozen by the Dragon! Brilliant!” Monarch shouted in high praise. He pointed to a contingent of his personal guards. “Quick, dig a small pit under the side of the Dragon and slide the scepter in it! You five, surround the young knight and protect him. We will have to assume he will know when to grab the scepter! Everyone else… prepare for battle!”

There were a few seconds where only Illorcs moved. This changed as Mathard shouted, “Move! Move! Do as Lord Monarch commanded! Duke Axegrind, I give you the Dragon Legionnaires! Pull the worst wounded and the youngest back toward our tents and guard our provisions. Everyone else form rings around the Dragon but stay out of an arc where it can spit a phlegm ball!”

The Dragon struggled mightily but couldn’t break free. It pushed out a strong cold aura forcing many to pull back from it. At the same time, it snarled in Dragon tongue. “No! You cannot use me like some low serf or slave!”

Monarch glared and cast an Elemental Protection bubble over his guards. “We can and will Dragon, and unless you can break free, you have no choice!” He focused back on his guards, “Now Dig! Dig! Young knight of Premier Kandric, stay in the middle of my guards until you are either certain the time is right, or we call for you to grab the scepter, then… Well, we shall have to hope and pray to every god the spirit was correct in telling you to wait!”

Kandric nodded to Zeltoss then moved up to the other items. He grabbed the pouch he was told held part of Pyrothermal’s wealth then looked around. “Pike, Lore, either or both of you want the Frozen Flames?”

Lorthorn nodded wildly while Pike blinked and managed to squeak out a, “Seriously?”

“Yeah! You are my assigned Garm counterpart and… it is just sitting there doing none of us any good when we may be only moments until Frexla makes her next move! If you two want them, grab them!”

Syrissia moved behind the two, smacked them on the back of their heads, and shoved them forcefully over to the blades. “Stop gawking like wolves at meaty bones behind a cage! Grab them and hope they attune!”

The boys glanced at each other before moving forward. The second they grabbed the blades, they dropped to their knees. Lorthorn was the first to speak. “Ouch! Way worse than when a guild pin attunes!”

“Way worse!” Pike agreed. “Way worse… what an understatement! But it will not fully unlock until I… Well, probably will not be long.”

“Nope. Not long at all,” Lorthorn agreed.

“What won’t be long.” Vondum demanded to know.

Lorthorn let out a deep breath and managed to stand on wobbly legs. “It let us know we have to kill a being from the Outer Realms to fully attune.”

“Pretty sure, with Frexla about to make a move, it will not be long before we get a chance,” Pike verified.

Kandric nodded, “Probably not. So, get your breaths back and get ready.” He patted both on their shoulders before moving over to the remainder of the items. He grabbed the pouch he told the Orakin sling was in. He glanced around. “You,” his eyes settled on Chark’ash. “You said you use a sling. Do you have a magical one?”

“No, Premier, but…” His words were cut off as Kandric tossed him the pouch with the sling. “With the few exceptions, I am certain most in this clearing would see a sling, even magical, as below them. Considering it is, or was Orakin, the numbers probably drop further. Do me and the rest a big favor and prove their perceptions wrong!”

Chark’ash glanced to Glaster, only to get a shrug. He turned and gave Kandric a flawless bow. “Thank you Premier, I will endeavor to prove my worth to you!”

“Once all this is over, we will have to get to know each other better,” Kandric responded as he picked up the other pouch. He underhanded it to Jamon, “Yours, but hold off on use of soul stones. I have never heard of them until now. They sound nasty and… terrible... malevolent.” He slightly trembled. “I sure wish we had been told who or what are entrapped in the thirteen used ones. I hate to hear someone has been trapped inside them for… who knows how long!”

Kandric turned to Seldnat, “Your turn.” He pointed to the axehammer.

Seldnat suddenly took a knee as he gripped the axehammer. “Owwwww… yeeeeouch!”

Several heads turned in unison.

Seldnat shook his head and snarled. “Me not know! How’s me gunna decide somethin’ like dat!”

“Seld?” Kandric asked while eyeing his friend.

“It want me ta pick somethin’ called a ancestor talent. Not know but it give me choice… um… and it will fully attune if’n me do.”

Mathard scanned the area and moved up to the Halforc. “Take some breaths and talk us through what it is telling you, young one.”

“Me… kin… all the way back… like way far… dis thing want me ta pick a… a ability… I think it be a like some sort a Subfield er somethin’… it givin’ me all sort a choice, some me not know nothing ‘bout. It hurt but not let me let go!”

“Sounds like you need to make a choice, young man.” Mathard stated with compassion. “What sounds interesting to you?”

“Um… owwww… um…” Seldnat trembled and gritted his teeth, but still managed to speak. “There is this spell thing… Adroit?”

One of the Blue Dragons let out a hissing whistle. “An Adroit? Young one, there has not been a non-Dragonkin Adroit, at last none known, in thousands of years!”

A Silver Dragon joined in. “And even in Dragonkind, Adroits are beyond rare. The only Adroits in the Silver Dragon Homeland hail from royal lines!”

The Blue concurred. “Same in the Blue Dragon Homeland. You must have an extremely magically-gifted ancestorage!”

Kandric tried to move to Seldnat’s side but was stopped by Glaster. “No, Premier. We need you. Allow Duke Mathard to assist.”

Kandric shot Glaster a momentary glare, only to feel the hand on his shoulder tighten. It was something he knew meant Glaster was not happy with him. It stopped him cold. Instead, he gulped and glanced over at the Dragons. “What is an Adroit?”

A Black Dragonling Animal Adept answered, “A Subfield of the non-spellcasters that gives them some spellcasting abilities through deft hand movements, deep ingrained magic, and the intellect to force the manifestations of spell abilities through oneself, instead of a book, life force, Spirit Realm, or out of the surrounding magic. It comes from within.”

Seldnat gripped the axehammer tighter and shook in pain, “Dat sound neat ta me! Me take Adroit!”

The axehammer glowed a lime green and flared brightly. A fracture of red appeared above his head. It looked the same as what was behind the pre-Dragon’s head. A golden-blue sparking pulse shot outward. It swirled around Seldnat, then seeped in. The fracture into the Realm of Cataclysm snapped shut with a near deafening crack. Snow around him was pushed back forming a momentary clearing over ten meters in diameter and left Mathard needing to grip Seldnat’s shoulder to stay standing.

Seldnat stayed on a knee as he blinked. “Ohh, lots a pretty spots…” He tried to stand but faltered.

Mathard gripped and steadied him. “Take a moment.”

“No, me Ok, jus… lot a new thinks enter me head.” He rolled his fingers oddly. After a few seconds, a glowing ball formed in his hand. “Me can… make magic now!”

The Silver Dragon spoke, “Yes, yes you can. But hold your Force young knight. You will need it soon…”

Before the Dragon could finish a fiery hole opened. As all turned to face it, a lone five-meter-tall, gray-tone skinned creature with goat feet, six arms, goat head, and red-hot cracks in its skin stepped out. Its chest was covered in a vest of thick looking plated armor and an armored skirt hung down to its knees. It held up both its top two hands while the other four all went out to its side. “Halt and listen mortals!”

Kandric took a step forward, so he was the closest. “Come to beg?”

The goat-headed figure snarled. Its eyes narrowed as he stared at Kandric, “Boy, do not test me. I came to give you all an out, nothing more.”

“Premier,” Mathard barked. “Let us at least listen!”

Kandric nodded but refused to tear his eyes off the wicked looking beast. Even as he spoke, he advanced. With the help from the blazing portal, he noted it had back sheaths with six weapon handles poking up over its shoulders. The teachings at Protector’s Keep entered his thoughts. The female Swordsman instructor pointed to a massive statue at the bridge leading to Junsac. “Out here it has advantage. Its reach prevents us from even getting within striking range. In close its reach is its detriment. So while the foot of a giant can splatter many, your best bet is to play the dance of death from in close should you ever face such an opponent.”

Even though it felt wrong to do what he was doing, he moved ever closer. “Say your piece.”

The creature snorted, sending out flames through its nose. “Lady and lord of fire Frexla offers a truce. You give me the stones, all two score and three, and you get one of your brothers back. She also agrees to not intrude on the activities of this encampment or those in it as long as they stay clear of Rolling Dale.”

“I get Emroc, Gablon, and both my brothers back and she releases the essence of all those who her cronies forcibly took from the nether reaches of the Spirit Realms over the… oh, let me be generous and say last hundred years. They must be allowed to move on to where they wish and I will hand you over the non-empty soul stones. As for Rolling Dale, I never liked the place much to begin with. I will agree to stay clear. But not those with me.”

“This is not a negotiation, child mortal!”

“For your sake it best be,” Kandric retorted with anger while continuing to close. “For the release of Emroc, Gablon and my brothers unharmed is essential to your continued existence.”

The creature let out loud hideous snorting laughter. “I am not as arrogant and cavalier as Pyrothermal, boy. You will find my heart much harder to get to and… I bring friends!” It waved its middle two hands and spoke, “Mistress of fire, I do not believe the tyke is going to listen to me without some convincing.” Six more portals opened. Three on either side of the creature.

“Send them out,” Kandric stated while staring into the dark black eyes of the goat-head. He felt his knees wanting to shake but he pushed past the terror as he once again advanced. “I would not mind pocketing yours along with few more hearts of Frexla lackeys.”

The eyes narrowed, “You dare refer to me as a lackey?”

Kandric forced a smirk, “Gives you a great deal more credit than you are probably due. But since the wench of flames sent you, I’ll give you some credit and not call you a pee-on. Which is certainly more than you really rate.”

The creature shook with rage as it drew all six weapons: two bastard swords, two battleaxes, and two war hammers. “Kill! Kill them all and bring them to…”

Even as demons poured out of the six portals, Kandric darted up. He slid on the snow as all six weapons crashed into the ground around him. He jumped back up and went between the legs of the massive demon. At the same time, he called the Frozen Flame into his hand. He jumped and stabbed upwards with everything he had.

The blade skewered a testicle. The roar was horrid as it was otherworldly.

Kandric twisted the blade even as he jumped hard to his left to avoid getting trampled by a goat hoof.

The creature dropped a war hammer. Its left lower hand grabbed it its wounded jewels.

Kandric let the hand grab both the testicular region and sword before he pulled it back with as hard of a slashing motion as he could. He was rewarded. A pair of huge fingers with gnarled and blackened nails fell next to him. He used the opening to slice at the other testicle. The sac cut cleanly. The large mug-sized glob fell into the snow with a hiss as it turned the frozen liquid into steam.

Kandric had to duck and roll as the demon tried to stomp on him while the other lower hand dropped the second war hammer and gripped at its horribly wounded groin.

Kandric came up in a crouch and slashed at the back of the hooved right leg. The Frozen Flame took some of his Force and turned ice cold. At the same time, the muscles, ligaments, and tendons above the heel rolled upward.

The massive creature dropped both battleaxes and screamed a second time. A wave of flames erupted at those advancing. A few fell, but most dove into the snow to avoid the sudden burst.

Kandric could hear combat all around him but knew the beast he was facing was not done. He sliced the wrists of both middle hands as the brute grabbed at the horribly injured lower leg. This was rewarded with both the final two hands dropping bastard swords. Each hand took a wrist as it fell forward, crushing a pair of Pantherlings as they tried to advance and help.

“Stay back!” Kandric shouted as it managed to get up to its knees with gore coating the front of its armored vest. “This one is mine! Stop the others!” Guessing the armor plates and skirting were too thick to do much with his blade, he shoved the point into the left knee. He then took his right hand and slammed it into the pummel as hard as he could. He was repaid with yet another scream.

He yanked it out, cutting as much as he could as he did so. A pair of bloody hands grabbed for him. Kandric rolled over the back of the left leg to avoid the hands. As he did so, he slashed at the back of the knee. The leg gave out as the muscles and tendons parted.

As the monstrous goat-thing fell on its left side, Kandric snarled and moved up and into the armored skirt. Fiery hot blood and brackish red sludge covered him. Had the Frozen Flame not protected him he would have certainly been scalded to death. As it was, he still got a few blisters. However, his blade once again sliced upward under his guidance into the already shredded groin area. The second mass fell free. Intestines followed as he made a series of cuts and slashes. He emerged a gory mess. All around him fighting was beyond fierce.

Two more portals opened. One by the camp, the second close to Kandric. However, the one close to the camp was huge and didn’t have flames licking out of the middle of the burning ring.

The blade flashed as it took the heads off a pair of horned demons with barbed arms. He grabbed the hearts and handed them to a pair of Black Rapids guards who had been wounded fighting them.

Four more large demons fell to Kandric as he made his way up to the head of goat-demon. He noted others tried to protect it as it clawed at the frozen ground in an attempt to get back to the portal. He cut another of its wrists deeply to slow it, then opened up the guts of two more barbed-armed demons. This time he cooled the hearts of both in snow and put them into the pouch procured from the death of Pyrothermal.

He stayed close the massive demon, slicing at any exposed spots he could, while having to pause a dozen times to kill other, lesser demons. A few drew blood, but the hearts of all ended up in what had been Pyrothermal’s wealth pouch.

As he got up to the shoulder, Kandric cut the strap of the armored vest. He sliced off one of the hands as it tried to pull up on the vest, all the while the others pulled, centimeter by centimeter closer to the fiery gate.

Another slash cut both the neck and the opposite side of the vest. The armor slid down. Six more demons fell, and another hand of the demon fell free before he could jump and climb up on the back. Over a score of demons charged him. Only a handful made it. Most fell as his knights, Pike, Jamon, Chark’ash, Rylan, Cam’ris and many from Pocet’s group, even a couple of the younger ones from Glaster’s caravan, including Mylan and Klandon jumped in and formed a hasty wall to stop a second wave. This caused both Vondum and Glaster to step right up to another pair of new portals and take the fight to anything and everything that came out.

Still five more minor demons had to be diced and sliced before Kandric stood unimpeded on the back of the demon. He slammed his sword down and pulled. “I hope getting your heart from the back hurts more!” Kandric snarled as he pulled the blade out, shoved it back down, and pulled again with both hands.

The hands that remained couldn’t get to him. Every time it tried to shake him off, Kandric plunged the blade down and used it for a handhold. The demon screamed and flame blasted out of its mouth a half-dozen times.

Off in the distance, Kandric noted the huge portal next to the camp and tents had spilled out over three dozen four-meter-tall giants with heavy armor, weapons and deep maroon skin. The Dragon Legionnaires were doing their best to fight but it wasn’t going well. He gritted his teeth as he stabbed as deeply as he could and pulled to open the gash through the back deeper and wider even as he watched the battle close to the tents.

Those close to Chark’ash let out a yelp and fell back as the cat-like Fog Spirit emerged next to him along with another shadowy form.

Kandric shouted, even as he stuck the blade in yet again, “Those around Chark, protect the Fog Spirit and whatever is with it! It is a friend and vulnerable in our realm!”

As a score of Illorcs and a dozen Black Rapids guards moved to obey, all cutting down at least a pair of demons as they tried to move on the Fog Spirit, and the cat took down at least a dozen by itself, the shadowy figure seemed to surround Chark’ash. At the same time, massive gusts of wind tore icicles off trees and flung them at hundreds of smaller Fire Demons. A few seconds later both the shadow and cat-like fog creature vanished. All around Chark scores of horribly wounded demons met their end as hearts were removed by those close to them.

Chark’ash looked down at his wrists and shouted. “Please! I need help to get close to the giants!”

“Seld!” Kandric shouted as the Halforc cleaved a horned demon in half with his newly attuned axehammer, “Get Chark to the giants! I have this!”

“Rylan!” Glaster shouted as he cleaved the wing off a reptilian-looking demon, “Help Chark!”

“Cam!” Vondum roared while using a gauntleted hand to rip the forked tongue out of the mouth of a demon in front of him. “Get the Drow to the camp before we lose it!”

While Garm and Alphar were slow to move, Illorcs, Pantherlings, and Black Rapids guards were not. They formed interlocking wedges and plowed a bloody path toward the tents with Seldnat, Lorthorn, Jamon, Pike, Cam’ris, and Rylan closely surrounding Chark’ash.

While Kandric couldn’t see exactly what happened, the effects were beyond stunning.

As Chark’ash closed on the marauding Blaze Giants, he pulled the new sling and dropped one of the snowflake obsidian stones into it. He then tapped a speckled sodalite gemstone on dark black armguards which had appeared around his arms when the shadow had surrounded him.

He then eyed the sling and spoke a word given him by the Fog Spirit. In ancient Orakin it equated to ‘Scatter Stone’.

He then launched the single stone at what was the most heavily armed and armored giant.

He gasped and dropped to a knee as Force needed to cast a half-dozen Primary Echelon spells was ripped out of him. Still, he was able to focus enough to tap three gems on the left gauntlet and two more on the right. The expenditure of Force became too much. He fell unconscious.

The single stone lit up into a bright simmering frozen glob, then split multiple times as it descended toward the giants. Many had turned to face the advancing wave while others continued to advance on the camp. It didn’t matter. Over a hundred extremely cold marble-sized stones slammed into the cluster of giants.

However, the first stones to hit each giant changed yet again as they made contact. They pulsed as they hit the giants. As this happened, the belongings worn and carried by all the giants vanished. They were replaced by whatever they wore when they first woke from their last slumber. This left most with nothing but loincloths. A few had nightshirts, robes, or night britches and shirts, and only three had a weapon of any kind.

Moments later they were peppered with the remaining ice-cold stones, which all detonated with an icy blast. Only a half-dozen managed to escape getting hit by at least one of the stones.

What had appeared to be the overrunning of the camp become a rout the other way in short order.

While the Dragon Legionnaires, backed by Dragons and Dragonlings tore into the six still armed and armored giants, the others who didn’t fall outright were quickly cut down by arrows and bolts fired by the wounded, those tending to them, servants, kids, and even slaves which had been all but ineffective against their extremely heavy armor.

Kandric watched in astonishment as giants toppled like brittle saplings being hacked at with battleaxes. But his focus quickly returned to the massive giant demon under him.

Finally, Kandric cut through enough to see the heart. He cast a Cold Snap on his hand but still found it impossible to pull free. The demon thrashed madly as he drew a dagger and started to cut it free.

“Frexla!” the demon bellowed as it felt a hand close around its massive blood diamond heart and pull it free, “Help me!”

Over three score more fire portals opened and scores of minor and several major demons poured out of each one.

“Zel!” Kandric shouted and he reached his other hand into the gaping wound and pulled at the heart with everything he had.

The shout was not needed. Zeltoss reached into the hole under the Dragon and grabbed the scepter as waves of screaming demons came from nearly every direction.

The head of the scepter pulsated with sparkles of multi-colored particles. The front edge washed out and over everyone and everything until it got to the leading wave of demons. It then coalesced into a visible wave which rolled upward and outward, knocking flying demons out of the air.

The lurch of the ground was so intense it helped Kandric rip out the demon heart by bouncing him almost a full meter up from the back of the beast.

Demons in the front lines never got to the hastily forming lines of Kandric’s forces. Instead, rock turned to sand under the snow and shot upwards. The wave of sand was so powerful it shredded all but the hearts of over a thousand demons. The hearts didn’t make it to the ground. Instead, they were launched into and through demons behind them. The hearts eventually slammed into trees with enough force to embed deeply in the wood.

Demons behind the first waves were critically wounded by hearts of their fellow demons and the remaining high velocity sand.

The churning portal that had formed above Pyrothermal stopped boiling.

In the center of the portal, a Dragon head appeared. It was nothing like any had seen. The head had a bony plate with three horns sticking forward. It was multi-colored sandy and reflected light caused it to sparkle. The eyes looked like rotating kaleidoscopes of multi-colored sand. It roared loud enough to knock the fresh coat of snow off all the trees within a kilometer. It then spoke in ancient Sand Dragon, a language all who were hit with any of the energy somehow understood. “The Sand Dragons of eons past owe you all for extracting vengeance for the fall of our homeland and destruction of our good and loyal subjects. While we were forced to give our essence to Pyrothermal and others of the Realms of Fire, I Slyanivikia, Queen of the Sands cast one final spell as I was roasted and consumed while alive. Their depravity and lust for power in consumption of my living flesh and blood allowed me to link the Death Gifting of all remaining Sand Dragons from the time of Shieldfall to now to a single event. The Sand Dragon Giftings were granted, but only in small measure to Pyrothermal, Frexla, and their minions who wiped us out. Instead, the vast majority was placed in perpetuity, to be awarded to those who vanquished the consumers of our flesh and destroyer of our final barriers of protection for our subjects. All who have assisted in this battle have my gratitude, even if it be from a grave, eons forgotten. Let it be known, with the destruction of Pyrothermal, and the return of my scepter into Dragon Gifted mortal hands correlated with Pyrothermal’s mortal and immortal downfall, the call of ages and challenge of time my king wove with the assistance of Dawnbreaker, Afterdusk, Earthvoid, Mountraiser, and Rovnar is now complete. Those who Pyrothermal sought to hunt and eliminate may finally emerge into the light to reclaim what was so unjustly taken!”

The Dragon head faded. Hundreds of smaller bolts of shimmering energy shot out as the void snapped shut. The last of the Sand Dragon Gifting was wrenched out of all remaining demons of fire and found those who held even a single demon heart within the forest around Kandric. The portal collapsed. It did so with an unearthly howl of a multitude of terrified and agonized screams as demons who once held any Sand Dragon Death Gifting found whatever gifting they had, along with some of their own essence, ripped out of them. All portals across the field of battle collapsed.

Five score of powerful demons guarding the fiery portals were left stranded and badly weakened in the Mortal Realms. Kandric and many of the others within the clearing quickly cut them down and took their hearts before they could recover enough to put up more than token resistance. About half dropped powerful weapons and or gear they had captured and took to the Spirit Realms as trophies.

The sound of combat quickly ceased over the entirety of the surrounding forest.

A shimmering of windblown fog billowed up close to Kandric. The Wind Spirit caused trees to blow with sounds that mimicked Northman speech. “Kandric, Kandric, Kandric, we are further indebted to you my friend, for while those who did not lose their hearts, lost their leaders and were forced to flee back to the lands of fire; we, along with those who gave us some of their essence on the bet of Prince Weraweld falling to your hand were able to intercept many. Thus, you have granted over a score of us further giftings by your victory. Take these as a thank you!” As the fog and weird vortex of wind receded from the Mortal Realm, they left behind a stack of over 500 gemstone demon hearts.

Save for the cries of wounded, crackling of burning treetops and some tents, wind howling, and snow slashing into and through trees, the forest grew quiet. All eyes turned to Kandric.

Kandric stayed down on a knee for over a minute as he allowed the large fire opal and tourmaline hearts from two portal commanders to fully cool. He spat repeatedly as the taste of horribly burned meat permeated his mouth. Somehow, he knew he was tasting the burned flesh of Slyanivikia. It was beyond disgusting, especially since he knew the massive Dragon had been alive even as hundreds, if not thousands of demons, including Pyrothermal and Frexla fed on her burning body.

He stood, shuddered, and gave a full body jig to try to come to grips with what had just transpired. “Wow… That was disgusting and super creepy…” He blinked and shuddered. As his senses returned, he quivered and spoke with a loud voice. “I hear wounded. Let us find them and get them tended to!”

He took a knee again and spat. His hands put handfuls of snow in his mouth. He let it melt, swished it around and spat again. It did little to help. “Yuck!” He glanced up as Glaster, Vondum, Syrissia, and Mathard moved toward him. All shook and brushed off a thin layer of sand from themselves. He roughly moved his hand through his hair to get sand out of it. With a cracking of knuckles, he stood again. “So do you think Frexla got the message?”

“Oh, Premier,” Mathard responded with trepidation and a shake of his head, “she certainly got the message. How she responds… Well, how such events yet to transpire unfurl is anyone’s guess. The real question is: Are you alright?”

“Other than a horrible, vile, nasty, and just plain gross taste in my mouth, I am fine. How many more did we lose?”

Syrissia let out a long sigh, “It will take a while to get a count. However, because of the healing from a long-vanished race of dragons, we are remarkably intact. Even Dragons and Dragonlings received curing magics which is not standard for a Dragon Death Healing. And while the White Dragon ultimately allowed for this victory, he sent at least one phlegm ball into a couple of Silver Dragonlings. Both will live, but only because of the healing we all got. Regardless, I can assure you Frexla lost many times what your army did in this engagement.”

“If the skank does not hand Emroc, Gablon, and my brothers back…” He let the words trail off as he noticed the White Dragon shake in pain as it tried to let out a breath. He walked across the rapidly refreezing ground, pulled his arm back and punched it in the bridge of the nose. He then had to duck behind the cracked rock as it sneezed and hacked up a small phlegm ball. It shook its head and snarled as a trickle of blood dripped from its massive left nostril.

Kandric stood and snorted. “You may have been healed by the explosion of Dragon and Demon Gifting, but there is still an arrow and chunks of descalers in your breath sac. Your only chance at getting your frosty breath back is to tell me where my grandfather is and what students of mine he took with him.”

The Dragon tried to lunge forward and snap at Kandric, but the chains leading to harpoons shot into and through trees prevented it from making more than a meter.

Kandric moved a few steps back while keeping a careful eye on the young White Dragon. “Anyone have a hand mirror?”

Rylan spoke up. “Lord Premier, we have a several full-sized glass and highly polished silver ones in a couple of our wagons.”

Seeing Glaster turn to stare at him with a raised eyebrow, Rylan shrugged. “Commander, Klandon and Mylan each bought a crate of six each. I have no idea why.”

Klandon spoke up, “Because the refugees told me one way the besieged villages talk to each other is with Zeris’ light or flames reflected off of large mirrors. They are the life blood to get signals out and help guide in limited supplies. Me and Mylan figured many towns down below the pass would want some extras.”

“Klandon! Speak properly. It is Mylan and I, not me and Mylan!” Glaster barked. He then softened and patted the boy on the top of his head. “However, such a commodity is certainly an interesting one. This is especially true since it is unlikely many large mirrors are being produced.”

Kandric nodded, “And certainly not something other caravans would think to bring down into a war zone. I am impressed. So how much for one of them?”

Mylan spoke up, “We were hoping on selling the glass ones for 350 silver and the silver ones for 750. But, Premier, we cannot charge you…”

Kandric held up a hand to stop Mylan. He dug into a pouch and tossed the boy seven gold coin. “Learn from my mistakes. You are merchants. I have money, the need for something you have, and I am willing to spend to get it. Do not give anything away and always strive for profit. If something is not worth what you expect, still sell it for as much as you can get and use the coin for something you think will sell better. It is a lesson I learned the hard way on my first caravan trip with Master, now most certainly Lord Glaster.

“Now if you please, go fetch the glass mirror I just paid for.”

Mylan stuck the coins into a pouch while grinning at Klandon, “Paid for both crates of large glass mirrors with a single sale! Well done! Let us go!”

As the two sprinted up the hill toward the distant caravan wagons, Glaster called out. “Make sure to log the sale in your books, boys!”

Kandric glanced over to a pair of Blue and Silver Warrior Dragons. “These woods are far from safe, protect them, but make them carry the heaviest mirror they have. After the gouging I just took, and they foolishly admitted to, they deserve to struggle getting it here!”

Kandric turned his attention back to the White Dragon. “You will tell me what I demand to know. How much is left of you before you give me the information and what happens to you after you give me the information are the only questions here.”

Kandric smirked, “Oh, and I very much appreciate the assist in ridding all realms of Pyrothermal and the subsequent influx of invading Frexla cohorts.”

The White Dragon shook with anger, “You gave me no choice! They came after the items you buried under me! My scales were melting and my tongue blistering! You have reduced me to an outcast at best and a hunted bounty at worst! For I am certain Frexla will abandon the Mythling War-aged treaty of not interfering with the White Dragon Homeland after she finds out what you forced me to do!”

Kandric’s lust for knowledge got the better of him. He raised an eyebrow. “Why would such a treaty ever have been penned?”

The Dragon tried to break out of the stone encasement but hissed and stopped as one of the spines slipped under a large scale and drew blood. “I do not know much more than the basics from within our hall of history. It had to do with the fall of the Mythling capitol. Our king and queen got items out of Frexla’s estate during the final days of the siege and took something in and left it there for her. The city fell before whatever was smuggled in could help turn the tide of battle. It also caused a deep hatred of the Sand Dragons. Frexla and Pyrothermal sided with the Browns and wiped out all traces of the Sand Dragons, but in doing so pushed the Browns down to a vagabond half race since all Great Browns, male and female, were killed off in the final days of the war. But Frexla still kept with the treaty of us and her leaving each other alone. It is one of the reasons we have kept the upper hand against the Silver Dragon Homeland, for we have no problems with Frexla or her sister’s minions. The lands of the Silvers have no such protections. Now kill me or free me, little Premier, for I am done talking to you!”

“You only think you are.” Kandric fired back. “Let me warn you, as you lie there. If you hack up one more of those nasty globs, I will order a burning branch shoved into one of your eyes. If you harm any from this army again, I will do it myself, and it will not be a single eye. Heed my words, Dragon, for your eye would not be the first I have taken from a Dragon!”

Kandric turned his back on the White and moved up the hill. He stopped and frowned as he saw Lacate holding three small demon hearts in his lightly burned left hand while his right grasped a Dwarven Steel Dagger of Light. “How did you get armed and where did those come from?”

A Garm heavy footman moved up and knelt, “Premier Kandric of House Griffin Spires, it is my fault.”

“Your fault?”

“Yes Premier. I was tasked with keeping him safe. I was overwhelmed with seven of the fire creatures. I tossed him my boot knife and told him to defend himself as best as possible. I took four down and maimed two as they got by me. A group of Illorcs moved up to help as more gated in, yet another injured one got by them. Thus, your servant was forced to defend himself and finish off the last three injured ones. He burned his hand taking the hearts. The final Gifting healed his wounds. However, the hearts were still hot and caused some additional burning. My deepest apologies.”

Kandric motioned for the Garm to stand. “You and our Illorc allies did the best you could and succeeded in preventing serious injury to Lacate. You did well.” He patted the sturdy Garm on the shoulder as he moved past and up to Lacate. He grabbed the boy’s hand and cast a healing spell. As the red and tiny blisters faded, he pulled his hand back the yanked the gems out of the boy’s grip. “You are my property; thus these are mine! You will not have a single tin to spend until your time of slave rights servitude is finished! Now get a fire started and prepare us a meal. Since you will have a fire, get out of those clothes! Also, you eat none of our rations until the rest of us are fed. Nor are you to prepare extra for yourself!”

Lacate’s jaw trembled. “But Kandric, I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning.”

“You have done nothing to deserve it. You can have a few scraps after the rest of us eat. Maybe tonight, in my bedroll, you can fulfill enough of your duties to get a decent set of meals tomorrow.”

Lacate bit back a response as his shoulders sagged. A few tears welled up in the corners of his eyes.

Mathard moved up beside Kandric, “My Premier, may I recommend you, at the very least, let this youngster stay dressed until we are certain the area is secure and allow him to keep the Dagger of Light. He has proven he has skills needed to properly utilize it. In addition, it will give him something to defend himself with and provide him a reliable small blade going forward, once out of service to you.”

Kandric frowned, started to say something, then stopped as he saw a hardening in Mathard’s features. He let out a long breath. “I guess I can allow it, my Duke. He did kill demonettes with the blade, albeit wounded ones. However, once the shelter warms, and we have guards set, he will remove all he is wearing and stay that way until we move out.” Kandric sent a glare at Lacate then focused on Mathard, “My Duke, how much do I owe your footman for his blade?”

“I will get him another, Premier.” Mathard waved the question off with a flip of his wrist. “We make them by the hundreds.” Mathard motioned for the Garm warrior to hand over the sheath to Lacate before returning his attention to Kandric. “I also must point out the White Dragon, while still breathless, has been healed. You leaving such a dangerous foe alive is causing many, including myself, a great deal of discontent.”

“It knows something about my students and grandfather.”

“Probably. Nonetheless, you are placing this entire force in jeopardy for what may amount to little to no useful information, if you can even get it to talk.”

Kandric took a deep breath. He nodded in understanding and moved back down the hill.

Mathard glanced over to the footman, made a hand motion of eating, and nodded toward Lacate. He then put a finger up to his mouth. Getting a nod from the man, he patted Lacate on the shoulder and moved to join Kandric. As he caught up, he spoke, “You are being awfully hard on the servant boy, Premier.”

“He and his family are lucky I have given him a path to freedom without the taint of being a full slave.”

“I cannot argue. However, it seems to me much of your anger should be focused on not the boy, but the rest of his family. Surely you cannot hold him responsible for the actions of the rest of his family.”

“No, not all. He is a means to such an end, though. I also want him to feel the same degradation he put others, including me, through.” Kandric let out a deep breath. “And I also find him quite cute. With a bit less pudge and more muscles he would be, will be, even better looking. It is just an added benefit my enjoying of him also causes him to feel helpless and humiliated.”

“You really hate him.”

“I certainly have no like for him. But hate?” Kandric shrugged. “Loath is probably a better word. I despise his arrogance. He has done nothing to earn a flea worth of respect but thinks because he comes from such a wealthy family, he deserves it. I resent how he looks down on those from the lower castes. His ego did not even let him see the possibility those he talked down to were not what they appeared… And no one, regardless of caste, should have to put up with his conceit. Over the next couple of years, I am going to destroy all of it. I will also enjoy him fully regardless of what he or anyone else wants or even thinks about it!”

Mathard held up a hand to stop Kandric, “I highly doubt anyone will try to stop you even if they want to. However, please consider the harshness of your actions toward the boy may be to your own detriment.”

“How so?”

“Keeping him hungry and with little to no clothing once in a while is one thing. It will shave off some the excess you do not like. However, starving him will not allow any muscular development. In addition, maintaining him fully exposed in adverse conditions opens him up to sickness. Harsh weather damage will also greatly reduce his outward appeal. While he does nothing for me, if I had a good-looking slave woman, the last thing I would want is to have the appearance I desire degraded, especially by my own hand. Therefore, if one of the things you like about him is his looks, then preserving his appearance should be one of your goals.”

Kandric pounded his left fist into his open right hand. “You are right. I am being foolish on how I handle him. But I want him to feel horrible and cry like he made so many kids from the Swamp Slums do!”

Mathard inwardly winced at the words but kept his voice even. Such a task was made easier because he was used to holding his tongue and emotions in check when in the Royal Garm Courts. “If such is your desire, it can still be accomplished. You may find it easier to get the reaction and… despondence you yearn for, by not having him become accustomed to constant degradations.”

Kandric rubbed his hands together. “Interesting thought.” Kandric moved his chin back and forth in thought for several seconds. “Yes, I can see how taking better care of him and giving him some dignity would make the times I take it away more devastating, both to him and his whole family. I guess I should feed him a couple of decent meals today, right?”

“You already decreed said punishment. To go back on it will make you seem weaker than you ostensibly want. However, your wording left open the possibility of getting fed from stores not your own. If you would allow my men to borrow him to help clean up the field of battle, he could get fed as part of said detail out of rations not under your direct control. We could also work him hard. Such labor will assist in trimming him down to fit your physical attraction desires.”

“Which would give me a reason to let him dress after he feeds us… Yes, I can see how this would work without him thinking I am backing down.” Kandric nodded. “Just make sure he comes back to my tent clean. For his time in a bedroll will be in mine most nights, including tonight.”

Mathard patted Kandric on the back, “I will see to it, Premier. Now I strongly recommend you turn your full attention toward the Dragon, for it is still a very dangerous foe.”

Kandric took in a few deep breaths even as he nodded. He glanced over to the sentries nervously guarding the White. “Thank you for your diligence. Now back off and warm yourselves but stay ready. If it does anything to me, take its eyes out.” He angled to the side of the Dragon and waited for the mirror. He motioned for Klandon and Mylan to stop before they got too deep into the cold aura. He glanced over at two of the Silver Dragonlings, “If you would not mind, take the mirror and set it up against the stump so those two don’t get frostbite from getting too close.”

He turned to the Dragon, “You make one move to harm either of them, you lose an eye.”

The Dragon glared and let out a light snarl but held still as the mirror was put in place. The two Silver Dragonlings quickly backed off.

Kandric moved close, cast a light spell, and put up an Umbrella Autospell to block the snow so the Dragon could get a good look at scores of blackened, buckled, and even melted scales along the side of its face and down its neck. In addition, it got a full look at its broken off stubs where its horns had been and over a score of missing or broken teeth. “It appears your scales, horns, and teeth cannot be healed.”

“It takes a few weeks for scales to regrow,” San’i-sar stated in Dragon tongue. “Several weeks for Trues, and many moons, for Greats. Since those are badly singed yet still attached, they may need to be pulled before new ones grow. Honestly, I have never heard of any dragon having scales so badly damaged without falling out. Some of those appear to be melted into the hide, so they may have to be yanked or even cut out before new ones can grow. As for the teeth, the removed ones will eventually regrow. The broken will have to be pulled for new ones to come in, but replacement teeth are never as good as the original. The horns…” San’i-sar snickered, “they will continue to grow, but the ends are what they are. I have heard broken horns will close up, so the ends will not remain open. However, until they do close up, I have heard it is exceedingly painful to feel air move all the way down to the base. It is not uncommon for broken horns to be capped because of this. Given a few decades they may grow out enough to be filed down and they will have to be reworked, probably for centuries, to look even somewhat normal. He is still young, so he has a lot of growing to do. The time will aid in eventually having near normal, albeit shortened horns. As long as you allow him to live.”

Pangam chimed in, “However, while scales do regrow, the skin I am seeing is still blackened and callused over after the healing we got. Thus, it is possible new scales will never grow back. San’i-sar is correct. I doubt any dragon-kind knows for sure. But even if the blackened lumps are pulled out and new scales grow, they will not be the same. They will look different. So… Well, the scaring will show.” Pangam exposed some of his scales along his ribs, showing a line where his red scales were lighter and some of them along a line that must have been done with a blade were misshapen and uneven.

Kandric cringed. “Looks painful.”

“It was,” Pangam confirmed. “It often itches and when I bend the wrong way, the larger replacement scales dig in and even draw blood when they slide under original scales. I would bet most of the dragon-kin here have similar scale scaring. Yet, none are close to as bad is what is on this White. Not by a wide measure!”

Kandric gave a bow, “I thank both of you for the lesson on dragon scales and wounding.”

He returned his focus on the White. “So, all you have to do is look in the mirror. While the healing we got may have fixed your wing and other wounds, it did nothing to repair your appearance. Now I give you this single chance to tell me what you know about the students and my grandfather, or what you look like now will seem like a dream compared the appearance you will find yourself with.”

Off to the side, Syrissia motioned several Alphar with descalers forward.

Kandric held up a hand to stop them. “Thank you, Princess. While a superb idea, there is no need for any more of our fine combatants to feel the bite of cold from this pathetic enemy of the Silvers and thus the greater alliance. I have this handled.”

Kandric’s tone caused several close to him to cringe and many more to take several steps back.

The White’s eyes darted around showing a degree of nervousness and fear. “What are you going to do?”

Kandric glared at it, “Tell me what I demand to know or find out.”

“We were sent here to destroy you and this alliance, not to feed you information!”

“You failed. Actually, you aided it greatly by giving us a common foe to rally around and force teamwork. You also, willingly, or unwillingly, provided us the key to killing Pyrothermal and kept the second wave at bay until Zeltoss could grab the scepter during the final assault. Because of this I give you one last chance. Where are they?”

The White made a single hacking sound and lunged. The move sent a large phlegm ball at Kandric. It made it only a few centimeters out of its mouth before disappearing into a glowing door. An instant later a second portal opened directly above it. The frozen glob slammed into the top of its snout, smashing its jaw down onto the stone. The stone shattered as did over a score of teeth. At the same time, the front part of its forked tongue fell out of its mouth, as the Dragon totally bit it off.

The Dragon howled in agony. At the same time tears poured down from its eyes.

Zeltoss’ eyes went wide. He started jumping up and down, “I need something to collect those! Please, I need something to get those!”

“What?” a nearby Garm asked.

“The tears! The tears! I need to get some of those!”

The burly Garm yanked a huge drinking mug off his pack and handed it over, “Here you are, young knight.”

Zeltoss rushed forward and filled the container with a single tear. “I need more! I need more!”

The Garm cocked his head to the side, shrugged and looked back at his troops. “You heard our Premier’s knight, soldiers! Toss him your mugs!”

Scores of mugs were flung over to Zeltoss who gleefully filled one after the other. As this happened, more drinking mugs were tossed to him while several confused Garm formed a line and transported the full mugs back and stuck them in a hastily constructed tent.

Mathard blinked and scratched his chin as he took in the scene with a degree of befuddlement.

Glaster moved up to whisper to Mathard, “What in the name of the gods just happened? And what is the young Elf doing?”

Vondum snickered. “Unless I miss my guess, the boy, one of our Premier’s knights, is amassing a stockpile Dragon Tears! He is, after all, a Mystic, and there cannot be many chances to gather such a thing.” He shook his head as he continued to snicker. He moved up and offered Kandric a hand.

Glaster stepped back, grabbed Perth, and handed him a drinking flask, “It sounds like it is time to start gathering a few of your own supplies, my boy. Go fill this, then find a few others who would allow you the use of containers.”

“You want me to go up and…”

“Lightly burned hands or not, not only do I want you to, I demand you do so.”

“But it’s…”

“A Dragon. Yes. After killing a few demons, this should not bother you as much as the look on your face says. For, just think. You have a rare opportunity to not only collect something very few could hope to, but also say you have touched a live Great Dragon.” He gave the boy a hard slap on the butt, “And talk to the young one up there and find out what else you should procure, for I have never taken in a Mystic before, so I know nothing of what may come in handy in your future training. Besides, the cold will help sooth your scorched fingers.”

Not far away, Klandon and Mylan exchanged looks. Within seconds they begged several more mugs off of nearby Illorcs. Both wrapped themselves tightly in their winter garments and moved to the other side. They filled over a dozen mugs before backing off, shivering too badly to hold any more.

Kandric allowed Vondum to pull him out of the snow where he dove to avoid the massive frozen ball. He looked around in confusion. First at Zeltoss, then the bawling Dragon. He shook some snow out of his collar and glared. His hands formed into fists. He took a couple of steps forward only to be grabbed by Syrissia. “Good Premier, your inattentiveness almost got the better of you. Had you paid closer attention; you would have noted the Dragon had been making soft hacking sounds for several minutes. It had every intention of assassinating you this whole time.”

Kandric shook with rage. “Which means it was biding its time and never intended to tell me a thing. If anything, it has bought my grandfather more time to hide my students!”

“Such is my guess. However, there is no need to act rashly. We will have to find other ways to discover what happened to your students and grandfather. Allow your young knight, instructor’s boy, and our other Mystics to gather some obviously much treasured supplies. For, while I know only a minimal amount about the Mystic arts, I would bet it is very unusual to get true tears out of a dragon. For I have led our Dragon Legions for over a hundred years, and even as we kill them, I have never, until today, seen one cry, let alone uncontrollably sob like this one is doing. Once our Mystics have their fill, you can deal with the attempt on your life.”

Several minutes passed before Kandric moved up. Without a single word he scaled up its neck and sat on the White’s head. The Dragon thrashed, snarled, and snorted. This forced Kandric to take daggers and shove them under the edges of scales to prevent getting tossed off. Once he was directly above the left eye, he wiggled daggers under the scales until he felt them dig into the hide. The Dragon thrashed violently, causing some of the rock protrusions and chains holding it to draw blood.

Kandric let it thrash until it was exhausted. Then, without warning, he shoved his Frozen Flame into the Dragon’s right eye even as it desperately tried one last time to shake him off. He twisted and dragged it in a circle, but didn’t go in deep enough to kill. As the Dragon screamed and pleaded for the pain to end, Kandric slid down the side far enough to prevent the Dragon from being able to bite him. Without a single sign of pity, he glanced over at Zeltoss, “Dragon eye juice?”

“Got some from the Green… But yea! This one’s a Great!” He again moved forward.

Glaster procured a couple of waterskins from nearby Pantherlings, handled them to Perth, and smacked the boy on the butt to get him moving toward the Dragon once again.

Kandric noted this and glanced over, still breathing hard and trying to control his burning anger. “My replacement, Master?”

“Poor substitute at best, Premier.”

“He is sure cute.”

“Suitable, but you have always selected boys with light-colored eyes when I got something for you to enjoy. Something both he and the boy indentured to you have in common. I, however…”

“Like variety, and,” Kandric ran a hand through his hair, “love red hair.”

“Yes, and while not true red, the strawberry color of your servant is certainly eye-catching.”

“Lord and Premier,” Syrissia stated with a sigh, “even as you flirt with each other and lust over fine looking lads, please do not ignore the finer aspects of enjoying the opposite sex. Should you wish to indulge, my tent and bed are open to either… or both of you.”

Kandric’s cheeks turned a deep shade of red while Glaster’s eyebrows arched, “Both of us good Princess?”

“As an active participant, certainly. However, we digress from the real situation at hand. Something I find common to males of all races. For as we are witnessing, when desire and covetousness combine, even a dragon is not enough to fully pull the male mind out of the cesspool of erotic cravings.”

Mathard covered his face with his hand and groaned. “While your words have a bite of truth, Princess, it is you who offered your tent and bed even as we still have a Dragon to deal with.”

“I never said I was immune to sensual longings, just pointing out females of all races tend to have better control of them. At least most females remain vigilant regardless of physical longings while there are dire matters such as an angry, wounded, degraded, and desperate deadly foe within striking distance.”

Seldnat gave Kandric a playful push. “Me no know half a what da princess say, but me think she be tellin’ ya ta deal with frost-breath before doin’ much more beddin’ talk!” He paused and gave a toothy grin, “Me says ya should make it fast so’s ya can score!”

Syrissia cracked a smirk even as Kandric’s eyes went wide and he gave Seldnat a hard shove back.

This only got a hearty laugh out of Seldnat. “Me knew it! Ya be int’rested!”

Many red-faced Garm and Alphar looked at Seldnat with horror. Syrissia kept her focus on Kandric even as she spoke louder. “While the speech needs vigorous enhancement, Premier, your young knight’s directness is refreshing and extremely accurate.”

Syrissia’s words caused all Garm and Alphar to hold their tongues and blink with shock.

The tips of Kandric’s ears turned a red almost matching his hair as he twisted so he was no longer looking at Syrissia. “Zel! You done yet?”

Zeltoss glanced over while keeping a watchful eye on the Dragon. He held up a mug. “Just getting your teacher’s new toy a couple of good-sized portions of dragon drool. It be too cold and he’s too scared to be this close to its mouth.” Zel scooped up a stream of saliva running out of the corner of the Dragon’s mouth, backed off and handed it to Perth. He made sure he was out of lunging distance before turning his full attention to Kandric, “But Kandric, I’m with Seld! You can’t pass up on an offer like you just got!”

Kandric reached down, grabbed a handful of snow, squeezed, and launched it at Zeltoss only to see his friend dodge. The ball of show hit the Dragon’s side even as Zeltoss burst out into laughter.

“You guys are awful!” Kandric roared.

Off to the side, Lorthorn snickered, “We had a good teacher! However, if our fine princess is too much for you, Premier, I am willing to bet she could find scores of Alphar girls who would jump at the chance to give Lacate a night or fifty off of his nightly duties to you.”

At this, Syrissia’s smile grew even wider, “I have no uncertainty to the precision of your epiphany, Sir Lorthorn. However, I am correspondingly as certain I could discover almost as many who would enthusiastically thwart you from gaining ample, if any, rest during times in your own bed.” Seeing Lorthorn go pale, she sent Mathard a wink.

Mathard muttered, “Aw, crap. It is taking everything I have to keep a straight face and not join in on this Princess.”

“Then let me endeavor to make you either break your stony exterior posture or recruit you fully to this escapade, good Duke.” Syrissia stared straight at Lorthorn, “To be candid, young knight, there are more than a few young apprentice female Alphar and Garm in our camp who would vigorously compete against each other for the opportunity to truthfully claim knowledge of exactly what you have under your winter attire, armor, and loincloth. I would even go so far as to wager… Well I will hold my next words until our immediate problem is dispensed with.”

Lorthorn’s head jerked back and forth as if looking for an escape. He finally focused in on Kandric, “Do something!”

Mathard looked up and let some snow lance into his face before letting out a long plume of breath, “Sir Lorthorn, if you had been paying attention, Princess Syrissia has been trying to get Premier Kandric to do something since this conversation started. Now it sounds like she is trying her utmost to get you to partake as well. Unfortunately, none of her temptress innuendoes can be accomplished due to the need to wear excess clothing to prevent you and those who would willingly hand over their otherwise cloth-less bodies from being chilled to the bone.”

Kandric glared at Mathard with his jaw hanging open.

“Good Premier,” Mathard leered, “a cold mouth and tongue in bed is every bit as undesirable as a cold body.”

Kandric’s shoulders dropped as he snapped his mouth shut.

“Much better, at least for whoever shares you shelter and bedroll, Premier.” Mathard grinned widely. “However, there is still another pressing matter. For once the White Dragon no longer is around to chill us to the core, much of Princess Syrissia’s banter would stand a great chance of becoming fully prophetic… For if you look, there are several young female Alphar, Garm, Elves, and Dwarves, not to mention a few of other races looking for you to do something with them, or to them, while in the confines of your embrace. But like our good princess, all of them would prefer a warm bedroll partner. In fact, I am certain Sir Seldnat could find more than a few Illorcs or even hardier young ladies of other races willing to explore him in a most hands-on fashion. Likewise, Sir Zeltoss, Jamon, and even Pike could easily find several who would spar for the honor of keeping their most intimate body parts warm this blustery early morn.”

Kandric slapped his forehead as he turned to walk toward the Dragon again, “Duke Mathard, you are NOT being helpful!”

“I think, if you scan those observing this conversation Premier, you will find hundreds of eyes telling you of their eagerness to disprove your observation of me not being supportive to their desires.”

Kandric winced and bit back a nasty response. One of many important lessons Glaster had taught him through hundreds of oral sparring matches was to know when he was outclassed. At the moment there was no doubt, Syrissia had him soundly trounced. With the enlistment of Mathard, the only direction the current topic could go was to push him even deeper into the corner he found himself in. Glaster had always stressed when in a spoken altercation of any kind, was once the tide was firmly against him, there was no respectable way to come back. Therefore, the best course of action was to find a way to bow out while admitting as little defeat as possible. Worse, he knew he was not able to hide his discomposure. Furthermore, there was nothing he could say that would take the conversation away from who might want to be in bed with him. Finally, he came to the incontrovertible conclusion, Syrissia was every bit as crude as either Glaster or Vondum. Possibly worse!

Kandric took a deep breath, “Fine, I will deal with the whining ball of frost!” He turned his focus on the Dragon while quivering with embarrassment. The fact Syrissia could veil what should have been a very crude subject behind flowery speech made this whole thing even more exasperating. His quandary was, while he wanted to snap at her, he also appreciated her more because of her mixture of elegance and court-worthy vulgarity. Yet if he showed his newfound respect for her, he was certain it would only encourage her. It was a battlefield he was outmatched on, and he knew it. Her wit had so much bite it had caused Duke Mathard to join in. Even more telling was the fact her words reduced Glaster into total silence!

Had he seen the exchange of fist bumps between Syrissia and Mathard, along with Vondum and Glaster’s non-verbal response, he would have found his thoughts vindicated.

Slightly behind the duke and princess, Glaster and Vondum exchanged wide-eyed blinks. Both started to say something at the same time, and just as quickly shook their heads. They had identical thoughts. Kandric had bitten off more than he could chew and would have to deal with it on his own! For to come to his defense would be akin to stepping on a verbal Viper Bear trap, neither wanted anything to do with.

With embarrassment still coursing through him, Kandric focused in on the Dragon. One look was all anyone needed to see it was in a desperate state. Its right eye socket openly hemorrhaged. Blood, tears, and gooey-looking eye juice ran down the side of its face. Dozens of spots oozed blood from under its scales, and blood from the bitten off tongue and missing teeth mixed with saliva. It caused a steady stream of drool to run out of the corners of its mouth. Agonized moans came from its mouth and its breathing was labored. This time, as he moved closer, he cast a protection spell on himself and made sure he was ready for anything the White might attempt. It had little left to lose, so another attempt at killing him was a was a distinct possibility.

“Last chance!” Kandric yelled so his voice could be heard over its dreadful noises. “Are you going to tell me where my grandfather took the students from Slome?”

The Dragon spit forcefully. Kandric raised his arm. Sharp bits of teeth and a few bloody chunks of gumline bounced off a wind shield.

The Dragon’s head hit the ground again hard. It turned its head away from Kandric as if doing everything it could to protect its other eye and spoke. Its words came out badly slurred because of broken teeth and so much of its tongue missing. “Yooooth gettthh notttthh-thhhhhin! Ennnnd thhhhhissssss! Killlth meee!”

Kandric’s eyes narrowed. He moved over to the cliff and looked down. His voice hardened, “No.” He rubbed his chin as he gazed down. “At least I will not do so purposefully. But whatever you feel like now will seem like a skinned knee… Um, such a reference to you is probably not a good one… I have no idea what would best correlate. Possibly a chipped or loose scale maybe better.

“Regardless, because of the help with Pyrothermal and out of respect to dragons and dragonkin of the greater alliance, I feel I owe you one last chance. Knowing I have something I can only hope is worse than your death planned for you, do you still refuse my demand to be told where the students were taken?”

The Dragon tried to tail whip Kandric, but once again the Dwarven Steel chains held. More blood dripped from between tail scales.

“Fine.” Kandric growled. “Your stubbornness gives me reason to go after more of your kind until my grandfather is handed over and the students are given back, or I extract enough retribution to make up for what I can only presume is their deaths!”

Kandric moved to where the Dragon couldn’t send a frozen ball at him and took in a couple of deep breaths. With closed eyes, Kandric went into deep concentration. He gritted his teeth as he extended his arms outward and stretched his hands out flat.

Vondum gulped and muttered, “Oh shit!”

“What?” Glaster asked as he tried to focus on the spell Kandric was casting.

“Snow blades! He’s gunna cut the trees!”

Glaster and Mathard turned to Vondum, “Snow blades?”

“Cut the trees?” Syrissia gasped. “It is what is holding the Dragon down!”

“Oh, if this is what I think, it has no idea what going down is…” Vondum exhaled. “This better work!”

Opposite of Glaster, the Pantherling Wek, shouted a warning. “By the gods! Ice Saws! He is going to cut the trees! Get back! Get back!”

As beings all across the forest moved back from the Dragon, and the White’s head jerked around trying to figure out what was going on, Kandric continued to cast. Six huge spinning discs of ice and snow lifted off the forest floor. Kandric trembled and strained to focus on all six as he slowly turned his hands to an angle of about fifteen degrees.

The discs moved away from him, angled toward the trees the harpoons had been shot into and moved to the cliff side. They then tilted at the same angle as Kandric’s hands. As Kandric’s fingers rapidly pulled away from each other, he let out a snarl. All six discs sliced into the trees. They fell within moments of once another. All six tumbled with loud crashes and clanking of thick chains. They toppled out of sight down the cliff.

The White saw what was happening but didn’t seem to comprehend what this meant until the first chain pulled tight. The pain in its back left leg caused it to screech. Moments later the other chains also pulled taunt. One constricted around the tail with such force it cut it off, the other five dug in and started dragging the Dragon backwards toward the cliff.

The rocky structure around the Dragon caught scales. This slowed the Dragon’s movement, but caused scales to pull up, buckle and even fold. It extended its back claws and dug in with everything it had. The weight of the trees was too much. It continued to slide backwards leaving huge claw marks in the snow, ice, and even rock. The edge of the left wing caught on one of the rock spires. This halted the slide for a few seconds, then there was a distinct crack. Bone burst through the wing with a spray of blood. Scales all along the back of the Dragon started to pop off with audible snaps. Dangerous high-velocity discs of all shapes and sizes shot off in random directions. This forced even Warrior Dragons to dive behind cover.

The screams of agony cut off all other sounds. The Dragon tried to dig in even deeper with its claws. Several ripped off, leaving hunks of the paws behind. The other wing caught for a moment but quickly broke. With both wings folded back at unnatural angles, they snagged on rocky spikes further back and shredded. Moments later the Dragon was wrenched fully out of the stony encasement. Chunks of blood-splattered white scales rained down out of the snowy sky. The Dragon made one last frantic attempt with its front legs to grab the edge of the cliff. Six of its claws broke off. It disappeared from the view of most with a horrifying tortured shriek.

Off to the side, Kandric took a knee and put his wind shield over his head. Dozens of scales and parts of scales bounced off. He watched as the Dragon lost the battle centimeter by agonizing centimeter. As soon as it fell off the cliff he moved to the edge and looked down. He watched with a degree of satisfaction as it tumbled and smashed into rocks the whole way down. It ended up in a heap of shattered trees, rocks, and chains. The fact it moved caused him to nod and snort. He cast a spell. A glowing ball appeared between his hands. He shouted into it. It amplified his voice many times and transferred his voice into the Spirit Realms as well. “The retribution of keeping my students’ location undisclosed is complete! Bet you wish you were dead now! I give you three days. If you still live, then any in this alliance may hunt you as they desire! I am sure there are still parts of you intact enough to provide good trophies and many Mystics would enjoy harvesting more of you!” He paused and shouted even louder, “Frexla, if you are watching, you will release Emroc, Gablon, and my brothers or you will wish the Dragon below was you!”

He pulled his blade, expecting Frexla to send something to challenge. Nothing appeared.

He glanced to each side as he realized several had run up to look over the edge of the rocky ledge. Most were kids. The majority he knew, at least in passing. He nodded to several from Klorna, Klent, and Glaster’s groups, along with others he had met. His blade flashed is he sheathed it. He moved down the line and patted many on the shoulder and made sure he knew their names. He gave Tayac and Gapon hugs. A couple of others, including Rylan and Chark’ash he thanked for their assistance in destroying Pyrothermal and the helping with the second wave of demons. His eyes continued to scan the cliffside, clearly looking for something. He finally paused as he got close to a pair of Alphar arrow carriers he had not seen before. Both had sky blue eyes and long sandy colored hair. Each had a basic crest and were clearly from the same house as Princess Syrissia. In addition, they had on nicer cloaks, armor and had better gear than most of the Alphar and Garm apprentices, and much like Pike had when he first met him. He guessed this meant they came from noble lineages. He scanned those close again and shrugged. He made his decision.

Kandric moved up to the pair and extended his hand toward the boy, “Hi! I am Kandric. Good to meet you.”

The boy took the hand and stammered out, “Premier… I um… Bavajom…”

Kandric shook the hand before stepping over to an Alphar girl who was slightly older, but a smidge shorter than him. “Kandric, and you are?”

“Ad… Adafina Pre… Pre… Premiere!”

Kandric stepped between them and put an arm over each of their shoulders, “You both look cold, dirty, and tired. Come, let us get you clean, warmed, and out of this storm. We can eat, talk, and go from there.”

“I… um…” the boy gulped as he guessed he had been selected for more than conversation for some reason he couldn’t fathom. He turned to look at one of the serpent bowmen with wide and pleading eyes.

Kandric gave a dismissive wave with the hand draped over the slightly smaller and younger boy’s shoulder. “If you have other duties, I am certain another is available to fill in for you.” Kandric focused on the bowman, “Unless who you are assigned wants to tell me why I should not fully enjoy your company.”

The tall, sturdy Alphar bowman held up both hands. “Premier, no one… nothing… is going to… Um, I will find replacements. It will not be an issue!”

Kandric kept his voice friendly and loud. “There you have it! Easy enough. However, you could refuse my hospitality, Bavajom. I am not demanding you join me. Same for you, Adafina.” At the same time, he moved his hand under the kids’ thick cloaks. A couple of fingers slipped under the collars of the armor and pushed down on pressure points just hard enough to cause discomfort.

Adafina instantly spoke up, albeit with a quiver to her voice. “Premier it is above my stature and honor but will respectfully join you!”

When the boy did nothing but straighten his back and take in a deep uneasy breath, Kandric’s fingers pushed in a second time, this time harder. Kandric spoke again, “Please find your tongue and speak, Bavajom. I am certain another would eagerly exchange places with you.”

Bavajom’s back arched slightly, and he trembled a little.

“The cold is getting to you.” Kandric stated as his fingers backed off but still rubbed over the sensitive area. “You are trembling. Do you not want to join me and warm up?” At the same time, he glanced over to Seldnat, raised an eyebrow, frowned, and gave a single head nod in the direction of the boy.

The boy gulped, “Yes, my Premier, I would very much like to warm… But I am too far below your stature to…”

“No’s ya ain’t!” Seldnat spoke up abruptly while moving forward. “But if’n ya really think so, ya can join me and Pike instead.”

Bavajom shook his head wildly at this point, “No… No… I… am beyond honored to selected by our Premier!”

Seldnat moved up and whispered, “No me type, and way too scraw’ney even if him be.”

“Take one or two you like, and have the others do the same, including Pike.” Kandric whispered. “Do not take no for an answer. Just make sure everyone hears they agree… Just like my new friend here.” His fingers dug into Bavajom’s shoulder again. “Right, Bav?”

Bavajom winced but spoke loudly, “Yes, my Premier, I am looking forward to getting to know you!”

Syrissia stood well back. She shook her head with a frown. Her voice pierced the wind, “Premier, you are passing over experience when it is abundantly and unresistingly obtainable. Yet, I shall keep the invitation, my tent and bed open to you should you find you need tutelage in sensual yearnings beyond anything you could fathom.”

Kandric forced a smile while once again pressing down on the pressure points of both kids’ shoulders to keep them quiet. “Princess, I feel I should rehearse a multitude of times before accepting such an esteemed invite to edification beyond what I can currently comprehend.”

Syrissia blinked, shook her head, and quickly regained composure. “I look forward to presenting an understudy such as yourself into comforts of my arms, but also my bed. Until then, Duke Mathard and I will address the requirements of your forces.”

“My thanks, Princess Syrissia,” Kandric responded. “If it not be too much trouble, make sure my servant, Lacate, helps clean the field of battle and bunks with the slaves or low servants.”

“I shall see to it!” Mathard responded forcefully.

As Kandric took the two up toward his shelter, Syrissia glanced over to Vondum and Glaster. “Disappointing. However, my offer to you need not go to waste. Should one of you wish to find a suitable companion, even if it be each other, I am quite certain I can profoundly change your perception of what a real woman can accomplish to make your night and coming morn beyond what any lad alone could conceivably provide. My tent guard will be informed of your right of access should you wish to indulge.”

She left both men wide eyed as she moved down to take a look at what was left of the Dragon.

Mathard glanced over with a smirk as he followed, “I doubt either of those men have even been so tongue-tied in their lives.”

Syrissia’s eyes sparkled. “A tied tongue would be an interesting sensation if applied to the proper locations.”

Mathard burst into deep booming laughter. “There is a vision I doubt I will ever get out of my head!” He continued to chuckle as they approached the cliff. “I have more than a gut feeling neither of your arrow carriers have the slightest desire to deal with what our Premier has in store for them.”

“I am certain they do not.” Syrissia took in a breath, yet grinned. “Our Premier also has exceptionally good perception, for he purposefully selected noble children from my house who have some of my appearance. There is no chance he randomly selected my nephew and second niece. Judging on non-verbal winces and cringes their spoken agreement to accompany him was nowhere as voluntarily as their voices and words made it seem.” She shrugged. “However, willing or not, they both stand to gain a great deal of prestige over his selection of them.”

“True. In addition, while normally frowned upon, it is Premier Kandric’s right to select them as bed partners. He is, after all, the overall commander and they are lowly arrow carriers.” Mathard sighed.

“True, but he was devious enough to get verbal agreements from them, albeit with the cringes we witnessed, were anything but voluntary. Additionally, since he verbally gave them an out and they held their tongues, any complaint issued would be instantly dismissed since all within earshot heard the full exchange.” Her grin didn’t fade. “His cleverness makes him even more desirable.”

“Princess I…” Mathard shook his head and help up both hands. “Never mind. It would be a waste of words and the last thing I need is for you to try to recruit me further into your desire to bed our Premier… I do feel for the two kids. Nonetheless, you must acknowledge you have some culpability behind their selection.”

“Indeed I did.” Syrissia snickered. “Bavajom and Adafina’s displeasure and discomfort can be recompensed when our Premier has either satisfied himself with them or feels he has struck back at me enough to dismiss them. Any compensation I provide to them, along with their families, is worth having witnessed some exasperation and boyish lack of wisdom within our Premier. Yet he did better than I expected. Overall, he dealt with it well and knew when to withdraw from the conversation.”

“Certainly, he did.” Mathard couldn’t help but chuckle. “However, he had your tongue for a moment Princess.”

“Yes, he most definitely did.” She openly laughed. “I have undoubtedly never so eloquently been called a slut in my existence! I shall have to endeavor to demonstrate just how much truth lies behind his barbed comment… to him!”


Inside Bloody Rock: Spar, Puck, and Aed with captured Gobling (Beiro)

The passage twisted again and angled down. Aed took a knee and pointed. “Gots the prints clear. Still headed down. Look like da girl stop here. See handprint. Her daggin’ feet bad too.” The girl pointed to drag marks in footprints further down the passage. “Her stayin’ close to the wall.”

“Bet her usin’ it ta lean on.” Puck stated. “Us gots ta be getting’ closer!”

Spar pointed further down as a strong glow appeared in the main passage then dimmed as it moved out of a crossing. “Real close.” He whispered as he closed his hand around his glow coin.

Aed cupped her own glow coin to block light from easily being seen down the passage. She turned to the Gobling. A dagger was waved in front of its face and a slashing motion followed just in front of its neck. She put a finger up to her lips with her other hand.

Gagged and tied to where it couldn’t use its hands, all the Gobling could do was nod in understanding, but if possible, its eyes bulged even further out.

The light appeared then faded again. The sound of soft crying followed.

Puck crouched. He kept a glow coin out. “Ain’t no way she’ll see no light with what she’s puttin’ out. Let’s jus go grab her.”

“Until us see who be goin’ back and forth down there, we can’t be sure it’s her.” Aed countered.

Spar glanced over, “Yea, good point. Puck, you are small. If we help you out of your armor, do you think you can sneak down and check.”

“Ain’t takin no armor off.” He stated with a frown. “It’s got ta be her. Hear cryin’. Me’s sick a dis place! Let’s jus gets ready to fights in case der be other wit her. Us make her pay fer what the Gov’ner do and make us do! Der still be the boy us gots ta find, too. That’s if’n yer still wantin’ to get the other kid.”

“Not just Spar,” Aed snarled lightly. “I want ta kick him where it hurt da most a few time!”

“Me too, so us still gotta go all da way back and track him. Let’s jus go beat da girl down and no waste time. I wants out a here!”

Aed had to kneel to pat the young Halfling on the shoulder. “Spar’s in charge Puck. Ya gots to do what he say.”

Puck let out a sigh, stood and held up his arms so Aed could help him out of the bronze chainmail grumbling about wanting to see Zeris’ light the whole time. He continued to watch the light move back and forth. “If’n it be jus the girl, me’ll take her.”

“She’s a spellcaster,” Spar warned.

“She spell toss at me, her ‘ll wish her never learn ‘em!” Puck muttered as he stripped down to only a loincloth, then secured his shield and Silver Steel axe. He moved down the passage careful not to bump the cave walls with metal. He disappeared for several seconds. A shout, a flash of bright orange, and a yelp followed.

Spar kicked the Gobling behind the knees to make him kneel, as Aed raced down the passage. She stopped suddenly as a scraping sound followed by a bright light which fully illuminated the passage. The scene caused Aed to shake her head. Puck had a brightly glowing dagger clenched in his teeth, his Silver Steel hand axe in his left hand and a booted foot in the other. The foot led to a well-dressed, but dirty girl. Her butt was on Puck’s shield, her head bounced off the uneven cave floor. Her long hair trailed. Even though young and a Halfling, Puck’s Stoutman heritage showed as he dragged her by himself.

“Aw, come on, Aed!” he complained loudly as he rounded the corner, “No jus stand der! Dis ain’t be easy!”

Aed smiled “Looks like yer doin’ fine ta me!”

“Yea, well me’s getting’ first dib of her stuff den!”

Spar moved up snickering. He grabbed the girl’s other foot. The scraping of the shield on the stone floor caused a bad echo, forcing Spar to raise his voice. “The Dagger of Light is yours. You want something else?”

Puck shrugged. “Gots all sort a stuff. Bet da headband me knock off fetch lots a silver!” He dropped the foot he had been dragging and held up a silver and gem encrusted tiara. “Her be think she princess ‘er somethin’!”

Aed eyed it. “Wow!”

Puck grinned and tossed it to her, “Ya take. No look good on me!” he pointed at Mora. “Me’ll grab pouches, weapon, and ring…” He turned to Spar. “But her staff look lot like yer armor and blade. Me think be stronger too.” He picked up the girl’s quarterstaff off her chest and tossed it to Spar. “Be too long fer me!”

Spar spun the black metal-tipped weapon. “Yea, way nice. But I think you just gave me something else magical…”

Puck grinned, “Good! Ya gets to hit somethin’ next time while me watch!”

Spar gave a few practice thrusts with the staff and nodded. “Yes, this will let me join in the next fight with more confidence.” He looked down and noted a bloody lump on the girl’s head. In addition, even though it had only been few minutes her left eye was starting to swell. “I hope she’ll live…”

Puck shrugged, “Her jus one more ta guard. Me say take her gear and leave her!”

Aed moved up and started pulling off everything on her. “If we can wake her up, us can make her carry what we no want to… hey, look at this! Got a couple of black metal daggers like Spar’s armor and blade.”

“Be yers.” Puck stated “Me’ll take da small crossbow, quarrel with da bolts, and extra strings. Prob’ly not hit hard but gooder than a sling.” He also pulled a light flail from off her weapon belt. “Silver Steel! This be mine too!”

Aed smiled, “Small, like the crossbow. She must not be very strong, but great for you!” She pulled off a nice backpack with lots of new gear and held it up.

Puck dropped the one he captured and tried it on. It was big but had adjustable straps. He pulled them tight and wiggled around and jumped a few times. He grinned, “Yea, me’ll sure take dis. Better den the one the Halflin’ had.”

Puck dropped the pack and started to go through the gear in both. In one of the large pouches, he found a small book and several loose pages with weird looking writing. He held it up while looking at Spar. “Thinks me gots castin’ book and papers with fancy writin’. Ya want?”

Spar eagerly moved over and grabbed a thin book with only two pages. However, his real focus was on the loose pages. He thumbed through them. His eyes widened and he whistled, “Can’t do anything with what she has in her book, but five of these are good… the others are all damaged.” He glanced through them. “They must have killed a Mage, and this was what was left of his book. Bet we could probably sell the damaged pages for something. It’s weird she didn’t put these others into her book, but I’m sure not arguing!”

Aed smiled as she saw Spar fidget and look at the pages with longing. “Ain’t gunna do me er Puck no good.”

Puck nodded. “Me sure not know what ta do with ‘em. Might as well takes what ya can use.”

Spar took a deep breath and quickly added the five pages to his book. He tucked the damaged pages into a side pouch in his pack. He moved up, knelt, and flipped out a necklace from under Mora’s silk shirt with his blade. An obsidian stone carved into a raven with a fire opal clenched in its beak hung down in the front. “I hate to ask, but I really would like this.”

Aed glanced between the tiara and the necklace. “Wow… um… I guess…”

“I’m not going to lie to you. It’s magic.”

“Ya know what it do?” Puck asked.

“Yea. It would let me have more Force to cast with. Gets Force from Zeris every sunrise. I heard Mora brag about it just before we left Slome for this nightmare trip!”

Aed sighed, “If it really helps ya throw more spells, me’ll keep the headband.”

Puck glance up with a grin, “Me no think Spar look good wit princess head band… unless him in dress!” Seeing Spar turn red, he snickered and pulled off a set of copper bracelets. He tossed them over. Both had an obsidian raven with blue and white striped agate stones clutched in their beaks. “Look lot like the bird on necklace. Me think it be set. Dem look good wit the black armor too!”

Spar offered the bracelets to Aed.

She shook her head. “Na. Puck’s right. Look like a set with the necklace. But I get the next necklace unless Puck want it.”

Puck changed places with Aed as he adjusted all his gear and got Spar’s help to get back into armor.

Aed wasted no time. She had the girl down to underclothing before Mora started to stir. She quickly tied her the same as the Gobling before checking the last of her belongings. This included tossing her coin pouches over to Puck, replacing her bronze daggers with the much nicer, harder, and sharper black metal ones, and rolling the girl’s very nice, reinforced leather into a large bundle. She tied it with twine out of her pack so Puck could add it to the top of the pack he was not going to use. Finally, she tossed her battered old boots off to the side and slid Mora’s wool with silk-lined stockings on and tested the fit of the very expensive boots. She stood, moved her feet around, and stomped a few times. “Me needed new boots and gots to find stockings this nice!” With a contented smirk, Aed adjusted everything. Satisfied, she stepped up and kicked Mora in the side, taking extra pleasure in the fact she was doing so with Mora’s own boot. “Wakey-wakey. Ya gots lots a stuff ta carry fer us.”

The girl moaned. It took some water splashed on her face to wake her. She blinked then started thrashing. She stopped as the rope around her neck pulled back when she tried to yank her arms down. She gaged and choked a few times. Finally, she stopped struggling as she realized she was securely bound. As she became more cognitive, she jerked again and shouted. “What’s going on? Why am I tied…? Where are my clothes?!” She looked horrified as she realized she was down to her silk undershirt and loincloth. She was even barefoot! She rolled around trying to get loose for several seconds.

Breathing hard, her eyes finally focused on her captors. Her eyes darted over the three kids, noting each were wearing and or carrying much of her possessions. “Do you know who I am? Untie me and give me my… Yeow!”

Aed moved up, yanked the girl’s hair and punched her in the mouth, “Shut yer mouth demon lover!” Aed showed no remorse. She moved up and stepped on the crying girl’s chest. “Mora, me know what ya did ta me friend Jaya.”

Mora blinked and whined, “Who?”

This only made Aed angrier. She put more weight on Mora’s chest. “Yer disgustin’. Ya don’t even know who Jaya be, but ya got her in trouble with Slome guard and Teacher Saslara!” Aed kicked Mora in the side again then backed off as she saw Spar start to step up. She spoke with complete contempt in her voice. “Too rich ta care who ya hurt, but it no matter. Yer gunna pay fer what you done and who ya be with! Ya gots two choices. One, ya stand up. We strap on the pack and ya haul everything us don’t want ta carry and does what yer told. Two, me kick the snot out-a ya and ya gets left here jus like ya is!”

Mora’s eyes went wide with terror as she shouted, “You cannot leave me like this!”

“Who’s going to stop us?” Spar demanded to know while eyeing Aed far more than Mora. “You’re down here tied up. This far down there’s no light. None. Once we leave and take all the light with us, you won’t even be able to see if you put your hand up to your nose, which you can’t... You’ll have to follow a wall. No telling where it will lead. You won’t be able to see drop-offs and pits. With you tied the way you are you can’t even use your hands to cast Autospells. Within a day or so you will start to starve. Your mind will play tricks on you. You will die of thirst, madness, or from falling. Unless, of course, the skeletons you were talking about earlier get you first.” Spar jerked his head and grabbed the heavy extra pack. “Come on. We don’t need her to carry anything. We’ll make her brother do it when we find him.”

Seeing all three kids turn to leave, Mora screamed. “NO! NO! I’ll go with you! Please don’t leave me!”

Spar spun, moved up, and yanked up on Mora’s arms. She hissed with pain and cried. As the pain built, she was forced to stand. The second she did so, Aed untied her hands while Puck slid the discarded pack over her shoulders. Finally, Aed used a set of shackles out of Spar’s pack to lock Mora’s hands in front of her. The nice thing about the shackles was, they were heavy reinforced leather with adjustable straps for the wrists. It took a knee to Mora’s gut to get her to stop struggling, but once fully shackled, Mora lost the last bit of fight within. Bronze pins locked the straps in place once tightened while bronze loops hooked to the chains between them. Aed made sure they were a little too tight before tapping the bronze pin in place with a small hammer.

Aed tied the chains holding the shackles together to a rope around Mora’s neck. It gave her some movement but made it nearly impossible to strike out at anyone. “Ya haul the pack and keep yer mouth shut. Give us grief, we takes the pack and leaves ya!”

“I cannot walk in bare feet!”

Puck moved to grab Aed’s discarded boots.

Aed stopped him. “No, those are too good for her!”

Spar let out a long breath, “Aed, there’s some stuff she could step on. I’d hate to lose our pack carrier because she cut her foot and we had to leave her behind.”

Aed rolled her eyes, “OK, she can wear them for now.”

Mora looked mortified as Puck took a little too long to first run his hands down her legs and look at her feet before pulling on the old boots.

Puck glanced up at Spar, “Her feet soft. Her’ll get blisters wit no stockin’s.”

“Cry me a waterfall,” Aed snarled as she moved up and yanked on the chains of the shackles.

Spar raised his eyebrows at Aed’s tone, but figured he better speak up. “She’ll slow us down if she gets blisters.”

“If’n her don’t move fast e’nuff, us ‘ll leave her demon lovin’ butt!” Aed responded.

Spar started to say something else, but a tug on his book pouch from Puck stopped him. He glanced down only to see the Halfling shake his head as if in warning. With a frown, Spar patted Puck on the shoulder and made a hand motion of buttoning his lip. This got a nod and chuckle out of Puck.

Aed glanced over, “What’s so funny?”

“Geesh, Aed,” Puck fired back. “Ya gots Mora, we’s gunna gets her brother, and we’s gots a Gobber who say he know way out. Stuff be lookin’ up so pull the fire lizard out a yer butt!”

Aed turned sharply to glare only to find Puck crossing his hands across his chest and staring right back. “Yea, ya hear me right! ‘sted a bein’ bitchy ya oughts ta be laughin’ bout how sour Mora look about wearin’ next ta nothin’ ‘cept shirt, loincloth and yer old boots while ya gots on lots a what her had.”

Aed’s frown deepened only to note Spar nodding in full agreement. She let out a breath. “Yea, OK. Yer right, but… If’n ya think me be mean ta Mora, ya ain’t see nothin’. Wait ta see what me do ta Jillian when us track him down.”

“He hurt one of your friends too?” Spar asked with a gulp.

Puck shook his head. “Worser. Family.”

Aed saw Spar’s eyes go wide. With a sigh she motioned for Spar to take the lead. “Gets us back ta spot so us can goes after Jillian, and me’ll tell ya.”

Spar took the lead but glanced back clearly wanting to know more.

“Ya know how fast and hard we got hit wit the first snow not long after harvest moon?”

“Oh yea!” Spar let out a long breath. “Rafil and I were supposed to be back in Slome for the post-harvest feast, but the storm slammed into us as we were making our way back from the mining camp. It started out as pouring rain and nasty sleet then changed to heavy wet snow. Broke lots of trees and washed out our path to the road. We had to hunker down in a cave for three days then had to make our way around to the Argo bridge because the Klom bridge was taken out by a fallen tree. We missed the whole festival!”

“Uh huh. Syria made bad weather.” Aed grumbled. “Lots a folk missed the fest cause a Klom bridge bein’ broke. Den Gnolls show up and still no fix last me hear.” Aed shook her head. “Well, Jillian, Jillian’s slave boy Yunlac, me cousin Lozek, him girlfriend Konna, and five other rich brats think it be a good idea ta poke down inta Slome sewers on night a the storm. Jillian told them ‘bout dis old part with doors, some locked.

“Not know all a what happen, but me one visit ta the jail ta see Lozek, him say Jillian took them to where old stonework in da sewer wall had holes, like der used ta be ladder rung er somethin’. Them climb up. It open ta old passage with ten old green bronze door. Most stuck. A couple them pry open. Both go ta room with nothin’ but rot wood. Say look like beds and junk. Them try ta open a few more door but be lock or stuck too good. Them get one at end a hall after while. It open into round room with circle stone stair goin’ down. Lozek say it go deep. Them keep going not knowin’ it start stormin’. Say them found passage with many room. Bronze doors, many ripped off wall. Lots of bones, skulls. Many smashed. Three of the rich brats get scared and go back. All the other poke ‘round. Them find another door. Lozek think it be Blue Steel, but no heard a Blue Steel door… Anyways, the door not open. Them spend long time tryin. Give up. Go back. Them found the sewers runnin’ hard.

“Lozek swear him and Konna tell the other ta wait it out. Them be safe above water. But one a da other brats see rats tryin’ to climb up wall. Go all stupid. Kicks at some. Fall off ledge. Him grab Yunlac. Both fall in. Jillian start screaming about da slave. Use him pa bein’ town council tell everyone to get Yunlac. Them save slave. Lose rich boy. Guards see them come out a sewers. Grab them. Find out kid missin’.

“Jillian say Lozek and Konna rescue da slave Yunlac, let other kid be wash away. The other rich kid try say it be what Jillian order, but do no good. When went to gov’nor, other three who left early and no see nothing take Jillian’s side. Say them be there. See slave get save, not merchant. Boy who try to tell what really happen dis’per, no show. No one see him since none neither.”

Aed took long breath. “Lozek and Konna each get four moon in jail and toss out of Slome. Both family lose much ta pay family a drown kid. Them forced to leave Slome. Hear them went down ta Silverton. Last me hear, Lozek and Konna get out. Get nothin’ not even gear them arrest with. Guard toss ‘em out a front gate a Slome after them get out. Me hear them tryin’ ta live in Swamp Slums, but no could check cause a the Gnolls and stuff.”

Spar let out an angry breath. “I heard a lot about it. It was all the talk when we got back. Rafil and I were good friends with Ryazolm, the kid who drowned. Well, I was a really good friend. Raf and Ryaz got along good but weren’t as close as I would have liked… Raf’s too serious sometimes, and Ryaz wasn’t… ever. He taught me to always look for the good and not stay mean or mad too long no matter what happens.”

Aed sighed, “Don’t know how ya do it, Spar. But yer mood be best thing, da only good thing, ‘bout bein’ lost down here!”

“If you see Ryazolm in the afterlife, thank him. He helped me through a real bad spot last summer. Made me see the good surrounding the bad. Without him, I’d… Pretty sure I would have done some real bad things.” Spar let out a sad sigh. “Ryazolm was the best friend anyone could ever have. I cried more when I found out he was dead than I did when my sister and aunt got captured by monsters and their caravan was all but wiped out. I may have even cried more than when some of the bad stuff happened to me last summer.

“Ryaz’s family, especially Pynom, Ryazolm’s older brother, blamed Jillian, not the kids thrown in jail. Pynom told me and Raf in private, the money the family got for Ryazolm’s death was only if they kept their mouths shut and left the area. Pynom went up to Lenz, took his Primary Echelon Swordsman test early, passed and demanded his cut of the payoff. Him and three of his guilded buddies went to Black Cedar Gulch, where the Slome Sewers flow into Raven Sands River to look for Ryazolm’s body. Pynom flatly didn’t believe any of what he had been told. Haven’t seen him since he left. Probably had to seek shelter in Black Cedar for the winter.”

Spar rubbed his chin and frowned deeply. “After hearing what you know, Ryazolm’s death makes even less sense. I knew him well. Going down in the sewers to explore, even with Jillian, I get. That is him. If we had been there, Raf and I would have been down there too! But there’s no way he would have been scared by a few rats. He was an Animal Adept who used to get girls to run out of the governor’s school bath house by playing with rats and getting them to go in.” A slight smile crossed his lips as he looked over. “There was one time he got a couple of rats to go into Kesha’s clothing. It frightened her enough to run out naked!” He let out a snort. “First time I ever saw a girl running with boobs out. They bounced all over the place!”

Aed slapped her forehead while Puck snickered.

Spar shook his head sadly, “He was great… But the rest doesn’t make sense either. First, if he did fall, he wouldn’t have tried to grab anyone, even in desperation. It just wasn’t him. Once, when me and him were climbing trees, the branch we were on cracked while we were way out on it trying to grab the next branch up. He told me to stay while he jumped and broke his leg instead of having both of us fall. THAT is just who Ryaz was! He was also a super swimmer. He used to jump into Macaw Creek when it ran hard and do the rapids on his back. First time I saw him do it, I think we were seven, maybe eight. It’s one of the reasons Pynom didn’t believe the drowning story.”

Spar clenched his fists, “And I’m telling you, there’s no way Ryazolm would have grabbed Yunlac. The kid creeped him out.”

“Why’d he be scared ‘bout a slave?” Aed asked.

“Not scared.” Spar shook his head vehemently. “Never saw Ryazolm scared of nothing!” He took a deep breath. “No, he just… Look, let me try and explain… Last summer Raf and I went with Pynom and Ryazolm up to Lenz to spend the day watching and betting on arena matches. I don’t know if you have even been up there…”

Aed shook her head. “Three day by foot ta go to village fer what? All it known for be tree sap, wild berries, er Liontooth spear fishin’ durin’ the late spring Liontooth fish run ta upriver. Us ain’t rich ‘nuff to go so far ta buy nothin’. Plus, us can sometime get inta the arena fer no coin and gets fed in Slome if’n us helps clean up after last match. See some good fights. Teacher Saslara ain’t a fan. But she no stop us from goin’ when call go out them need help cleanin’. Her even say watchin’ fights be good way ta first see battle. Puck goes all da time.”

“Me think cleanin’s yucky,” Puck joined in. “Takin’ bucket ta wash puke off da seats er blood off pit walls be nasty. Shovelin’ da blood off bottom a the pit be badder. Cleanin’ the animal area er fillin’ in the holes wit new dirt, now, yeah, fer no coin entry and a free meal, me do it lots!”

Aed snickered, “Once they found Puck, here, be willin’ to haul in dirt to fill holes, him get asked all da time. He’s small ‘nuff to go out through the animal entry. Him can easy take out animal waste and bring in dirt with small cart. Him be so regular, many time come back with tin or even copper. But, us be jumpin’ down wrong path. What ya gunna say about goin’ ta Lenz?”

“Well, the Lenz arena is different than most. They don’t normally do killing matches unless they are pitting criminals against one another. Normally they just do sporting and grudge matches with a pit master who steps in and stops fights once someone is firmly beat. It almost never results in death. In fact, if someone dies, a fee is demanded of the winner. If someone obviously kills on purpose during a grudge match, the winner finds his next match in the pit with a hardened criminal or captured wild animal. So Raf and I like to go up there. We even jumped in a few times to take on other kids our age for some good practice and coin. Volunteers can get a silver, two for a win, and up to five if the crowd likes us. They provide basic Healthman costs if we fight hard, win or lose, too.”

Puck and Aed exchanged glances and nods. Aed spoke for both, “Next time us ‘ll go with and jump in fer a silver!”

“You’ll feel it the next day, but sure. Be happy to go up there with you both. Anyway, when we went up last summer… Right after…” Spar took on an unusual sour look. “Right after the Mage training camp got over…” He quickly lost much of the sudden somberness as he returned his focus to the arena. “Not worth talking about. But the arena was super busy. When we went up to find out what was going on, we found out there happened to be a big event! Turned out six caravans with real Gladiator slaves were there for a big three-day competition to see which gladiator owner had the best. All of them also brought younger ones who were gladiators in training. The pit in Lenz is a good place to send such young valuable slaves, since chances of death are very slim, and they can still get good practice. After all, it’s what they will be doing the rest of their lives. It also guaranteed three full days of getting to watch dawn to dusk fights, so we got rooms and stayed to watch all of it. The kids got the days started and the adults fought later in the day, so the skill levels increased throughout the day. This also meant the price was bumped up to fifteen copper a day or four silver for all three days of the games. We eagerly paid sixteen silver each to get real good seats for all three days.”

Spar paused as he saw both kids give him a glare. “Hey, it was coin Raf and I earned. We found a small opening in a cave we were mining for copper. In the tiny offshoot we discovered a small crease in the rocks full of good quality rose quartz. Since it was a tight fit and overall a small discovery, Morge let us mine it ourselves in the evenings while we worked the main vein of copper during the day. Since we did all the mining, we got half the selling cut even though we are apprenticed. Took four weeks of hard work. Ten sandglass turns a day in the main mine and four in the small crystal cave, but by the time we got to Lenz we both still had over a hundred silver each.”

Aed gasped and Puck made choking sounds. When both kids recovered, Aed managed to stammer out, “Um, your boss need another hand? I’ll work till me bleed fer a chance a getting’ half what ya did fer three time more weeks of work!”

Spar noted Puck nod even as the Halfling knelt and pointed to show a footprint. He gestured down a side passage. “We aren’t back to where…”

Aed moved up and looked over the print, “No, but Jillian came this way, going away from where we first fought him. He’s alone and runnin’…” Seeing Puck point to a few drops she nodded. “And bleedin’. Keep talking while we track! But ya gots to get us with yer boss! I want a chance at makin’ real coin!”

“Um, sure… So… well we were in Lenz with real good seats. Late into the morning Councilman Parad showed up with all four of his kids. Wovall, Jillian, Mora here, and Boryill. They took seats right in front. A few minutes later Mora’s slave, Lar'Lilly, entered the pit on one side while a boy slightly bigger and older entered the far side. I could see right off the boy didn’t take the girl serious. It was a mistake he paid for with blood. He got worked over like a bunny cornered by a wolf. They had to pull Lar'Lilly of the kid.

“Next up was Yunlac. The boy who came out the far side had seen what happened to the fledgling gladiator before. Since both Lar'Lilly and Yunlac wear the same weird metal wristbands, the kid knew he was facing someone from the same house. The fight was a good one. Yunlac took several shots which would have dropped most kids his age and size, but in doing so he totally wore the bigger kid out. When it was done Yunlac left a kid a couple of centimeters bigger and easily five kilos heavier a bloody mess in the bottom of the pit. They couldn’t even wake the kid, so they stretchered him out.

“Taligan, younger brother of Boccad, the guy who made Raf and me fight, went next. Same basic results. We talked and even joked about how embarrassed the caravan master of the three gladiators in training must have been as we paid for food and juice to be brought to us. We watched a good fifteen more fights, only to see Mora’s slave come out again! She was still battered from the first fight and this time she had an even bigger opponent. It didn’t matter. The result was the same.

“Yunlac was next. We were amazed to see he took pretty much the same tactic of getting pummeled, but once again the other kid wore down. The other kid paid for his lack of stamina. It was the second kid Yunlac caused to get stretchered out… in the same day.

“Day two, the same basic thing. But this time Lar’Lilly got beat on the second match. Yunlac didn’t. The second to the last kid fight of the day turned out to be Yunlac. He actually came out a third time… He fought three matches and each time he destroyed the older and bigger kids he faced. Taligan also came out a third time. This time the fight was with wooden sparring weapons. Taligan barely won but suffered a broken arm. How he won with a broken arm was amazing to watch though.

“The third day it was clear the caravan masters weren’t keen on the idea of having their property so badly battered. Lar’Lilly didn’t make it through the first fight. She put up a great struggle, but her opponent was flatly better. Pretty sure Councilman Parad had to pay for a serious healing on the girl. Yunlac, however, came out for a wood weapon match. He took a horrible beating, absolutely brutal. He had to have broken ribs, his nose and lips were bloody messes, and he had at least three broken fingers. But in the end he took down, then stomped a kid who had to be close to the age of ascension into a puddle of blood, piss, and vomit. The pit master pulled him off. Before he left the pit, Yunlac limped back over to the kid who was on a stretcher, wiped his fingers on blood dripping out of the kid’s mouth and licked them clean. He then spit on the kid and was pulled back and smacked with a whip for his behavior. The strike ripped his already bloody tattered shirt over his shoulder and left him with a bloody stripe over his shoulder and upper back.

“However, it doesn’t end there. As he walked out, he took the gate right below where we were sitting. He turned and raised both fists up in victory. As he did so, we could all see his back.”

“His back?” Puck frowned.

“It had scars, many of them bites like we’d leave, human-like. They were all over it, many partially hidden from weapon and whip scars, but they were still noticeable as bites. A couple looked like fresh bite marks. Really fresh.”

Aed shrugged. “So he got bit in the arena.”

“No,” Spar shook his head. “Remember, I was there; so was Raf, Pynom, and Ryazolm. We watched him fight six matches in three days. He never got bit. I mean it’s possible he got bit on the arm or even leg in the middle of one of the fights, but one of us should have seen it. We didn’t. But, sure, they were brutal enough. But none of us saw it, and he certainly didn’t get bit on his shoulder or back.”

Puck knelt again as they came to an offshoot. “So bite be from other pit fights.”

“Some, maybe, but a couple were way too fresh… and I’ve been to lots of arena matches. Biting is not normal, even in the pits, unless it is a death match. Those are the ones where anything goes, and oftentimes there is biting, eye gouging, and even worse. But biting in non-death matches is rare, and I’m telling you, Yunlac had been bit a lot! The other weird thing is, he got pulled back into the pit exit by whoever was his escort real quick, which is not normal since the crowd was still cheering his victory.

“After we got back to Slome, Ryazolm and I found Yunlac alone, which is real rare. We caught him pulling water from a well. He was still badly bruised and had a light limp. When we asked him how he was doing after the fights in Lenz, all he did was grin. I think he thought we were trying to praise him, so he went on to talk about how wild the crowd got when he got hit yet continued to fight. He also seemed super happy when bragging about what he did to those he faced. He even joked about the fact none of those he fought were able to leave the pit under their own power.

“We tried to talk to Yunlac about the bite marks. He snorted and showed us a long thin scar across the palm of his hand. It went down under his slave bracelet to almost his elbow. He then pointed at his slave bands on his wrists. He quickly changed subjects. He said we didn’t cheer enough for him, so he’d try to do better next time we saw him in a fighting pit. He wanted to know what we would like to see him do to kids once he had them beat but before they were down. He made it sound like he’d do anything if it got him more or louder cheers, even if he had to face a whip again. Yunlac even asked if licking the last kid’s blood was good for the show. If it was, he could lick more or even do so during the fight next time.”

Puck noted some blood drips in the smaller side passage and moved into it. “Good way ta make show a power. Not know if it make me cheer er not. Sound nasty. But not get it, what be wit da arm scar?”

“I have no clue,” Spar admitted. “It was like he was trying to show us something. Maybe he was making the point he had been hurt worse or something. One thing we were certain of, Yunlac was super into pit fighting and loved to hurt those he faced so he could get the crowd roaring. The whole thing left us wanting nothing to do with Yunlac. Both Ryazolm and I thought he must be insane. So, the story from the sewers doesn’t make sense. Ryazolm would have never trusted Yunlac even if offered a hand. No way.”

At the same time Aed stepped back to Mora and yanked on her arm. Mora tried to fight only to get a fist in her gut. As she went down to her knees, Aed pulled the arm out as far as the restraints allowed. “Hey, Spar, I saw this when I was gettin’ her gear. Look here!”

Spar took a few steps back and gazed at the extended arm. A long thin scar went from the girl’s hand all the way down the arm. “Almost the exact same! This can’t be by accident!” He took a step back, “How’d you get the same scar as Yunlac?”

Mora tried to jerk her arm out of Aed’s grasp. The attempt failed and got her another fist in the stomach. Even as she curled up as much as possible and cried, she shook her head and said nothing.

Puck tossed up his arms, “Yer slowin’ us down Aed! Us ‘ll make her talk after Jillian be in chain like Mora!”

Aed pulled on Mora’s hair until the girl stood. She shoved Mora down the smaller passage hard. “Get movin!”

Aed moved up to help Puck check another intersection, but her comments were still directed to Mora. “Ya tell us ‘bout yer scar easy er hard, but ya gunna tell us.”

Mora managed to get her breath back as she watched Aed and Puck both point down an even smaller passage and nod. “When my father finds out what you did to me, he’ll make you drink potions that will make you wish you were dead!”

Spar moved up behind her. He lightly poked her in the butt with a dagger. As she yelped, and jumped forward, he pulled on the rope around the Gobling’s neck to prevent it from running and spoke. “Mora, hearing you is enough to make me wish I was dead, so shut up and keep walking before I gag you!”

Even the Gobling nodded which made Spar snicker.

A dozen turns later, Puck bolted forward and took a knee. He grabbed a long piece of cloth and held it up while he looked around, “Him found er got found by four, maybe five more. Not long ago, blood rag’s sticky.”

Aed pulled her short sword, moved up, and looked at the prints, “Two booted, one soft shoed, and one barefoot.” She pointed to two sets of boot prints. “Made same, same size, but this set be someone walkin’ on outside a foot. So, yea, me think five. Barefoot look like Dwarf-size foot. Soft one be rounded. Me thinkin’ Gnoll. Last two…”

Puck spoke up as Aed frowned. “Dis one be real nice hard bottom boot, no real big. Prob’ly Human er Elf. One ‘bout same size a Spar. Other two bigger, but no too much. Both be light. No leave heavy print. But wide. Maybe Halfdwarf? The four-point star heel be Jillian. Mora boot make same mark.”

Spar knelt. He motioned for the Gobling, and Mora to do the same. “OK, so if he’s with them it’s six on three. If he isn’t… Pretty much still six on three since we are after Jillian, and he’ll see we have his sister as a captive. Do we follow?”

“Ain’t gunna take ‘em off guard. Them ‘ll see us before us can gets to them.” Puck stated.

“What if we switch back to glow coins?” Spar asked. “We’ll see their light before they see ours.”

“Only if’n them keep the dagger lit like us do now.” Aed countered.

Before more could be said Mora started shouting, “Jillian! Jillian we’re where the bloody bandage is! Help! He…”

Her shouts were cut off by Spar. He did a combat thrust with his staff into her stomach. As she doubled over, he brought the staff down over the back of her head she tumbled to the ground bleeding from the back of her head.

A fairly close deep voice echoed through the caverns, “Wait there! We’re coming.”

Aed looked around wildly, while Puck stood, pulled his hand axe, and gulped, “What we do Spar?”

Spar took a deep breath, looked around, and said a quick prayer, “Salem, if there was ever a time to repay me for all the coin I have dropped off in your shrines, now would be the moment!”

He took a few more deep breaths, then spoke softly, “Aed, drag Mora back to where we saw the cave-in. It’s two turns to the left then straight past two turns. It will be on your right. Put her behind one of the big rocks with a glow coin so they can find her. Make sure she leaves a trail of blood. Gag her so tight she can’t even squeal. Then go to the narrow passage going down. It’s on the other side. Get in there and get ready to cover up all light. Puck, I need you to take the Gob and put him in the passage going down. Once Aed gets there to guard him, move to the turn just before the passage down. Fire the child’s crossbow you took off Mora as soon as you see one of them. Then this is super important. You have to lightly toss your glow coin into the room with the cave-in before you dart into the passage going down. As soon as you are both in the passage going down hide all light then head down deeper by feel until it turns to the left. It will keep your body heat hidden in case they have someone with infravision.”

“What ya gunna do?”

Spar took a long breath, “Say another prayer and hope I can cast the first real spells of my life! If this doesn’t work, I’ll get them to go after me. You make the Gob show you how to get out. If he does so, let him go.”

Aed’s eyes went wide. “What ‘bout you?”

“Those from my school got you into this, so if my plan doesn’t work, at least you’ll know someone from the same school repaid the debt owed you. Now go!”

Spar pulled his spellbook and moved into a small chamber littered with large rocks from a recent cave-in. There was a little air movement from between the boulders along the left wall. This told him there was a passage beyond. It also meant it wasn’t a dead-end so he could stay in the room for quite some time and if worse came to worse he could try to squeeze through the very narrow gaps in the rocks in an attempt to escape. He figured this was a very real possibility, since he was putting all his other options into doing something he had never done before.

He nodded to Aed as she dragged Mora into the chamber, stuck her behind the biggest boulder and put a glow coin next to her. As Aed gave him a teary-eyed smile and nod, he put his spellbook on a rock and dropped his glow coin on the page he selected so he could read it. He studied the incantations of the page and practiced the listed hand motions for probably the hundredth time. As he replayed the needed casting instructions, he listened to approaching footsteps and voices. The one with the deep voice suddenly spoke loudly, “Mora! Where ya at? We is in the room with the bandage!”

A softer high-pitched voice of a male who was just starting to lose his higher-pitched voice spoke up, “Brimgut, I’ve got blood over here. It’s real fresh.”

The deep voice shouted, “It goes this way! Get weapons ready! Mora, we is comin’! Whoever’s got Mora best let her go if ya want to keep breathin’!”

A voice that sounded like a combination of a bark and Northman spoke up, “Give the girl, we lets ya go! If not… we still get girl and ya wish ya die!”

More threats and shouts for Mora followed even as the voices got closer.

Spar gripped his spellbook with both hands and spoke softly, “Come on Salam, let me do it right this time!” With those words he followed the spell page in front of him. As he finished the last twist of his wrist, he felt more Force leave him than he had ever used before. He let out a gasp, “Oh, Salam if I live through this, I’ll give the first shrine I see a huge offering. Just let me cast this second one…”

He flipped the page and started the spell even as a ‘twang’ followed by a shout of pain from what had to be the kid. “My arm! My arm!”

“Deor’lash, get back!” the deep voice shouted. Followed by, “Yer book pouch be makin’ you a target!” This was followed by, “Whoever shot our spell thrower best be runnin’!” Another ‘twang’, a second shout from the younger sounding voice followed. “Yeee-ow! My leg! My leg!”

“How’s ya gunna get me when one a ya gots to limp!” Puck shouted back.

“I’ve splattered bugs with my bare feet bigger then ya be, boy!” the deep voice boomed. “Aw, damn. It’s in the bone. It’ll have to stay there till we get a Healthman. Deor’lash, get behind us before the little brat finishes you off! Yer one step the wrong direction from being useless, but we may need your spell throwin’!”

Spar closed his book with his elbows, which also cut the light from his glow coin since it was between the pages. He had to keep his anger in check and focus. Deor’lash… He knew the name. It was one he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear again. He also doubted there could be another spellcaster with a young sounding voice with the same name. He could feel the spell pushing out. His mixture of fond and horrible memories surrounding Deor’lash created confusion. It made it harder to contain the spell. Sweat beads formed on his forehead as he held it back. All he needed was to say the last word. He ducked down behind a large rock to hide his body while he focused his mind on the final word he needed to speak.

“Useless?” Aed chimed in from somewhere further away. “Bet ya ain’t gots any better braggin’ point ta say about any a ya all!”

There was a roar from the deep voice, “Oh, you must be a couple of the escaped students! You are going to pay for your words and actions little ones!”

“Ya ain’t gunna catch us none!” Puck shouted. Moments later a glow coin came bouncing into the boulder strewn chamber.

By this time Spar's arms were trembling with the effort to hold onto the spell he had at the tip of his tongue. He gritted his teeth as he felt the spell wanting to erupt out of his extended fingertips.

The barking voice shouted next, “See light! It move fast to offshoot!”

The deep voice spoke again, “We’ll get him! Jillian, help Deor’lash and follow. We paid his caravan lots for him and the other three young’uns for their spell throwin’. It be about time one a them make all those silver coins back! Just make sure to stay behind us.”

There was a cry of pain. The deep voice snarled, “Deor’lash, you’ll have to tough it out. Once we get the brats, we’ll take you back to the glowin’ staff with the others. One of them captured Healthman kids should be able to get those kiddy bolts out of ya! Jillian let him lean on you!”

Spar stayed behind the rock; hands extended. He peeked up as sounds of heavy breathing entered the rubble strewn chamber. Suddenly a very large Gnoll stepped into the entry. It had a massive hammer held menacingly in front of it. It moved toward the glow coin on the floor, then turned as it spotted Mora. It angled over to the girl. As it picked Mora up, a burly Dwarf with pasty gray skin and scraggly copper-colored hair and beard moved in. It held a war hammer in one hand and a shield in the other, although Morg, it had a look of intellect in its angry green eyes. It saw the girl and moved up to the coin on the floor. “So ya got smart and ran after all! But you hurt Mora and shot Deor, so we are gunna have to make ya pay!”

An Orc female with nice green scale armor, and a fancy cloak followed. Next to her was a female Halfdwarf.

The Halfdwarf scanned the area. Her left hand held a battleaxe. The headband had a soft brass-colored light emanating from it. She put her right arm out in front of the Orc as if she was a bodyguard or protector.

A moment later Jillian entered the small chamber. An older teen was leaning heavily on his shoulder. The teen had a bolt sticking out of his right arm, and another protruded from the side of his upper left leg. He was in obvious pain.

Another figure stood just out of the cave chamber. It was small but didn’t enter. Instead, it turned its back to the others and took a guarding position.

Spar carefully raised his head from behind the boulder to make sure all except the rear guard were inside the room then jumped up. The moment he spotted Deor’lash’s wide eyes, resentment washed over him. He spoke the last word of the spell with both relief and anger. All six in the chamber turned toward him. The Gnoll dropped Mora, pulled up its maul and took a step forward.

The Morg adjusted his grip on his hammer and turned toward him.

A Halfdwarf woman raised her lightly glowing battleaxe.

The Orc wearing Green Dragon scale armor, with two monkeys on her back pointed with a greyish metal gladius. Both dropped their tails down to her weapon belt and pulled daggers. They leapt with daggers menacingly pointed forward.

Jillian pulled up a loaded crossbow.

The teen leaning on Jillian yanked out a throwing dagger from a vest over his leather armor.

An instant later, waves of sticky threads blasted out of Spar’s fingertips.

Closest to Spar, the Gnoll’s eyes went wide. It didn’t even get a chance to react before the sticky mass overwashed it. It made gagging noise as its mouth filled with adhesive fibers.

Off to the Gnoll’s side, the Morg reacted a bit better. It jerked its shield up in front of its face and braced with his left foot forward. However, within moments, its forward movement was all but stopped as the threads stuck to the Morg, its gear, weapons, armor, ceiling, floor, and walls. It made snarling sounds as it struggled to advance.

The Halfdwarf swung as the webs came toward her. The blade cut through some but stopped in mid-swing.

Both monkeys screeched as they became suspended over a meter up with webs fully enveloping them.

An “OH SHIT” erupted out of the Orc woman’s mouth. She turned her head and shouted. “Deor’lash! Cancel this spell or we’re all dead!”

At the same instant, the teen being held up by Jillian shouted, “Web Spell!” dropped the dagger and reached for something on his belt. But fell with a yelp as Jillian dropped his crossbow and tried to dive out of the chamber. The teen fell on his back. Moments later he was stuck to the cave floor face up. Webs covered his mouth and eyes. Breathing became difficult and his eyelids got stuck shut.

Jillian got enveloped mid-dive. He ended up suspended in thousands of thin, strong, very gooey fibers. He hung just off the ground as his dive was suddenly halted.

Just beyond the curved entry into the chamber, a young-sounding voice shouted, “Oh crap! Webs!” The webs obscured the view, but the light the figure was carrying quickly moved away.

Jillian shouted, “Sylic, help me! Sylic!”

This was followed by a shout, the sound of metal hitting the ground hard, and a pain filled, “Owww!” This was quickly cut off by an, “Ufff” sound.

Casting two Primary Echelon spells in such a short period of time took a serious toll on Spar, but he forced himself to take a couple of deep breaths. Anger coursing through him also helped him ignore much of the exhaustion. The effects of the first spell became apparent as he moved through the mass of webs without any problems. The Spider Walk spell allowed him to slide in, around, up, down, on, and between the sticky threads.

The Gnoll pulled on the gummy mess with all it had. Spar could see many of the fibers were breaking and others were stretching. It wouldn’t be long before it got out. He moved up, smirked, and slammed his dagger into the creatures bulging neck muscles. Blood sprayed as the Gnoll jerked and trembled.

Next up was the Morg. It also showed impressive strength. The problem was its shield was strapped to its arm. The metal disc had a large surface area and had been put up to take the initial wave of the webs. It wasn’t going anywhere. Because of this, the Morg was doing its utmost to rip through the webs with its other hand to get to the shield strap. This meant it had to slowly turn which caused its chainmail shirt to pull up on its right side.

The Morg gritted his teeth as he saw Spar effortlessly slide up next to him with a dagger in his hand. “No! No! I’ll haunt ya! I swear I will. Ya little shit! NO!”

“Then haunt me!” Spar fired back as he plunged his dagger into the Morg’s kidney over a dozen of times as fast as he could slam it in and pull it out again. The Morg howled and cursed until it blacked out. Blood gushed down its leg from its pulverized side.

Spar continued to slip through the webs. He gutted both monkeys even as the Orc screamed, “Jax! Wok! My monkey kids! I swear I’ll rip your nuts off with my bare hands if you hurt my pets! Jax! Wok! I love you!”

Spar moved up to the Orc. The heavy green scales gave her good protection, so he shoved his dagger up under her chin and pulled down toward her chest.

The Halfdwarf saw the vicious attack. She struggled with everything she had. Many strands of webbing broke. But it simply was too little too late.

Spar backhanded his dagger into her right eye, twisted, and left it there as the Halfdwarf screamed. He pulled a dagger off her boot while she spasmed. The webs held her up well after she took her last breath.

A glance over to Jillian told him the kid didn’t have the strength to break free. The kid barely moved even though he was struggling to the point he had thrown up. In fact, his struggles were so intense his muscles were visibly cramping up. Jillian continued to call out muffled howls. “Sylic! Get back here! Sylic!” There was no response.

Jillian’s plight caused Spar to smirk and nod in satisfaction. Furthermore, Spar guessed he still had a few minutes before the webbing lost the magic behind it. As soon as the magic faded, the tough strands would lose strength and stickiness, leaving the whole chamber full of easy to push through cobwebs. “Jillian, you and I are going to have a talk, but there is someone who deserves first dibs, so I’ll leave you to her. Don’t go anywhere.”

Jillian spit and gagged. His voice continued to be muffled because of webbing in his mouth, but managed to get out, “Who are you?”

“A living nightmare, one I hope you see in your dreams for the rest of your existence. However, feel free to worry about who I am for a bit more. In the mean time…” He moved up and pulled a Dagger of Light, hip sword, gladius, daggers, and crossbow bolts off the helpless boy without allowing him to see who was doing so. Jillian jerked several times. The whole time he shouted a host of fear-laden cries. “What are you doing?... Those are mine!... Get your hands off!... Barend, stop him!... Someone help!... He’s stealing my stuff!” Jillian thrashed madly as the gladius was pulled out of its sheath and put down well away from him. “Stop! I need that! It’s mine! I NEED THAT! Take everything else, take it all, but not my Orakin Blade!”

“Oh, don’t worry, Jillian. We’ll take more. But I can’t have you armed when my webs start to fade.” Spar pulled the crossbow bolt out of the loaded crossbow and poked Jillian in the butt just enough to puncture the leather armor and get a yelp. “Now shut up or the next time I’ll push a whole lot harder.”

“You have to give me the Orakin blade back!” Jillian begged. All this got was the bolt pushed into his other butt cheek a little harder. This time it left a noticeable hole in the boy’s leather armor and a trickle of blood leaked out from around the gap. He squealed loudly.

“When I said shut up, I meant shut up!” Spar snapped. “If I have anything to say about it, you’ll never see the stupid blade again! Now, one more word and someone will have to pull this bolt out of your pampered ass!” He smacked the flat of the gladius down over Julian’s butt a few times for good measure.

As Jillian broke down and sobbed, Spar took a few steps to the side. He stared down at a wounded dark-skinned teen who was face up with webbing covering him. The young man was stuck to the cave floor in what looked a lot like a cocoon. However, he was desperately trying to free his hands enough to cast. Spar knelt and pulled at the webs covering the young Mage’s eyes, “Deor’lash, look close. Remember me?”

The teen managed to pull his eyelids open. He stared and blinked then shook his head as best he could, which wasn’t much. He managed to get out an “Uh huh”, through a closed mouth, covered and stuck shut with webbing. At the same time, he desperately tried to pull his right arm up. The bolt sticking out caught in the webbing which caused it to move around. The kid gasped. With no chance he could move his arm, he started to pull and roll the sticky fibers around his hands with his fingers. With fingers free enough to move some, he started mumbling while twirling his pinky and index fingers on both hands in opposite directions.

“No you don’t!” Spar stated coldly. He grabbed the teen’s left hand. He took the pinky finger in one hand and the index finger in the other. He pulled them both to the side as hard as he could. There were two audible snaps followed by a muffled cry of anguish. “Trying to cast a spell with me right on top of you? Are you stupid? Do you really think I’d do nothing while you try to do something to hurt me or destroy my webs? Can you give me a reason I should ever let you cast something around me ever again? You can’t seriously believe I’d forget what you did to me!”


“Huh? Huh!” Spar shook with rage. “The only thing you can say is ‘huh’, Deor’lash? Am I so easily forgotten? Was I just supposed to forget? Well, I haven’t. I can’t!

“Now ignore your hand, Deor’lash! Look carefully. Look at me! You have to remember me. I need you to remember me.” Spar pulled webbing out of the young man’s mouth so he could talk. He slapped the older kid as hard as he could across the face, “Your hand is soon going to be the least of your problems! Now look at me and tell me you remember. Tell me my name!”

Deor’lash managed to move his head just enough to look at his hand. His outer fingers were bent unnaturally to both sides. He took several short fast breaths while his lips trembled. It was becoming hard not to puke. In this there was fear, because he couldn’t turn his head enough. The thought of drowning on his own vomit crossed his mind. The hard slap brought his focus back to the small, yet powerfully built kid kneeling over him. “I don’t… I don’t know…” He closed his eyes presuming he knew where he had crossed paths with the boy. “Where… what town… You were at one of the casting encampments, right?”

Spar growled. “One of the… Yea. How many did you do last year?”

“Seven… Instructor Jago sets them up… we… I take a tent and do the basic levels of instruction… Come on, kid…”

“Come on?” Spar trembled. “After what you did to me and other spellcasters down in Paws last summer? All you got to say is come on? My father paid a huge sum for me to go. My present for passing my Training step 4 test and for my eleventh birthday. You, War’shen, and Rava’horn were supposed to work with us, teach us new Autospells and help on casting, control, and memorization tricks. Remember now?” He reached over and grabbed the other hand. His fingers wrapped around the thumb.

“No, no. Please don’t! I really don’t remember you! But… but… You got what was promised! I know you did! We made sure! We got documents with all applicants. We knew what magic training each attendee had, what their guild ranking was, and what Autospells they claimed to know! I kept careful ledgers on every kid! Your parent or teacher got a full report on you! Paws was the smallest one we did last year, so we spent extra time with every Mageling in our tents and even switched off for a few days! Everyone in my tent always learns at least five basic and three learned Autospells! I know the others do the same. But in Paws, everyone in my tent got at least six basic and five learned. There is no better immersive Mage training, traveling or otherwise, outside of the Combined Desert Realms! No Mageling ever goes home without gaining almost a full step in the Training Echelon and we do it in a moon and a half! If you were step 4 then, you had to be close to step 5 when you left!”

“Oh, you all were great teachers. I learned fifteen different Autospells. Half I didn’t even know existed. The only reason I haven’t killed you yet is mostly before the bad, but even some after the bad you worked with us. I don’t think I would have ever gotten the Mini-Illusion or Booger Burst without you kneeling behind me the second to the last day of the camp. You twisting and turning my fingers dozens of times, is probably the only way it became natural movement to move fingers on the same hand in opposite directions. In those times and scores of others, you were great. I liked you, trusted you… Then you took us out to the river… made us use up all our magic. Once we were spent, you cast on us. You hurt us with Brain Freeze, Heat, Cold, and coated our mouths with thick layers of Dust until we couldn’t take it anymore. You made us force cast! You didn’t care how much it hurt. You didn’t worry the next day when most of us couldn’t cast, and a few couldn’t even cast the following day. Then you did it again, and again… I cried, I puked, it hurt to cast for days after!”

“It’s part of the training!” Deor’lash countered. “We do it at all the camps! There are warnings in the contract your parent or teacher signed warning of a very hard and even dangerous third and fourth week. Normally we have one or two try to run away and at least one tries to kill himself. We have to go track the runners and bring them back. I always remember the runners, so you were not one of them!”

“I thought about it. Talked about it to Traber. We decided not to. We both knew our fathers would disown us after what was paid. We still almost ran, but Simozz stopped us. He said it would be over soon, and we’d be glad we stuck it out.”

“Simozz…” Deor’lash blinked, “Are you friends with the Quasiling?”

Spar frowned, “Friends? Well, kind of, I guess. Only got to know him during the camp. I don’t even know what village he hailed from. He was real weird. It was like he enjoyed those two weeks or something. But he was OK and helped us through the force casting and what came after you left for a full week. It was like he knew everything and helped us brace for it. He even knew some tricks to make it easier.”

“Simozz did know. Paws was his third time with us.”

Spar blinked and let out a gasp. “He came back for more twice? He really was crazy!” Spar trembled at the very thought of someone wanting to go back for another stint. It was beyond conception. He shook off the shock of such an idea. He refocused on Deor’lash. “So we had a basket of nuts and fruits in our tent, great. But why… You singled Traber out! He was taken by the guards for four days during week five. You handed him over to them! He almost killed himself! He bawled as you yanked him up and pushed him over to those brutes! I hold it against you. But there is more! For it isn’t just about Traber. It’s about you, what you did, what you made us do, and what happened to us when you left for the fourth week!”

Spar focused on the injured hand and flipped at the broken finger as he added, “And, yes this is for pulling Traber out of his bedroll to hand over to the guards the first four days you were back.”

Deor’lash took several deep breaths as Spar flipped his broken fingers. “He, I remember. I have to blink out tears every time I need to hand a Mageling over for extra training during week five. It is not by choice. But learning to push past the final barriers of magical limitations is a huge part of the encampment. He needed more time… He got his graduation spell, so Instructor Jago must have seen the needed breakthrough…” Deor’lash trembled. “If you want me to puke, you are doing a good job of it. But can you at least turn my head so I do not drown when I do so?”

Spar clenched his fist and took a deep breath. The young man’s attitude wasn’t one of total fear like he expected, wanted. There was too much calmness. It infuriated him, but it was also the voice and demeanor of the same level-headed kid who taught him over a dozen Autospells over a six-week span. After a few seconds he turned Deor’lash’s head to the side and moved his hands away from the battered fingers. “Traber did get his second spell. So did I. The two I got are what has made this possible.” He looked at and even plucked at some of the threads, taking note just how amazing the two spells worked in combination. “A recommendation by you to take both Spider Walk and Web as my chosen spell pages upon graduation… So even as I struggle with what I think of you, I have one more thing to thank you for. I just don’t know how I can ever trust you after what you did to me.”

“I bet few who go through an encampment will ever trust me. At least not fully. It is something I struggle with, because I know many, if not most, start to believe in me only to feel I betrayed them. You may never believe this, but I care about all who are in my tent. Yet to not do what I did to you and hundreds of others over the past several years would be a bigger transgression against you, the money we take to mentor you, and even the trust put into us by whoever paid for you to attend. And regardless of your antipathy toward me, the end result is a good one. Just look around. Do you think you could have pulled this off, found the motivation to do so, without those six weeks?”

Deor’lash took a few calming breaths which allowed his voice to lose some of its building edge. “If nothing else, kid, think back to your arrival. Instructor Jago gives an introduction. In it, he advises all attendees the encampment is not just fun and games. He even offers a full refund for those who have second thoughts. I’ve seen a dozen or so take him up on the offer, and yes, the refund is in full. Instructor Jago then divides the kids up. The girls always go to Pome’ramiss. How he sorts out the boys remains a mystery to me, but he sends students to the tent leaders.

“Once I have my assigned Magelings, I ask for the teacher or parent to stay while I give my initial talk. Most adults stay, so there is a good likelihood whoever brought you heard me. I talk to all who come to my tent. I go further than Instructor Jago. I forewarn all Magelings under my guidance. I tell them they will cry, they will get sick, they will be pushed, and compelled to learn magic in ways not for the faint of heart. They will also rejoice at learning deeper insights and will hug those around them when breakthroughs are made. Oftentimes this happens with tears of pain and frustration still streaming from exhausted eyes. I inform all Magelings, along with whoever brings them to the encampment grounds, of both the joy of learning and pain required to graduate. I remind all the gift of remaining the whole time is a spell page of the student’s choice. Those who graduate get two.

“As I do this, I try my best to make sure all are prepared as I possibly can. I have even talked a few out of attending. Like those who leave right away, they get full refunds. I have only persuaded seven boys to leave. Most, I am certain, are too afraid of parents or teachers to back out. Nonetheless, I do my utmost to be as transparent as possible to all without divulging the actual methods.

“Like it or not you chose to stay. And as a graduate I am proud to have been part of your enlightenment into the deeper aspects of being a Mage. For what you learn before and after is not nearly as important as the lessons in week three and four, and sadly for many week five as well. What you deal within those few days are the focal points of the training. The last week or two is to relax, practice what you were taught, and hone a few skills! You can’t hold the encampment against me!”

“I can’t? Really… I beg to differ! And yea, we knew the third and fourth weeks were going to be bad. You warned us on the first day. But… Bad doesn’t describe it!”

“It is tough. I know it is. But did you follow through with what I told everyone in my tent who got the graduation pendant and second spell page on the day before you went home?”

Spar nodded, pulled out the silver pendant from a cord around his neck, and growled at the same time. “I did. I look at this damned thing every time I use up all my Force shortly before moonrise twice a week, then force cast.” He gritted his teeth. “And yes, you were right. It does get a bit easier. But it still hurts and sometimes I still get sick afterwards. I do it because you swore it would be worth it. Me, I think it just made it to where I couldn’t cast my first Primary spell as soon as most thought I should… These were my first two. I guess revenge is a good motivator.”

“No… I mean, yea, vengeance can break barriers most don’t know they can push past until confronted with the situation where it is really needed. Others give up. Believe it or not, this is one of the lessons behind week three and four. What I first forced you to do, then you had to deal with without me, and finally reiterated before you went home is something few Magelings ever experience. And yes, it most certainly delayed your first book spellcasting. You are still young, amazingly young to have jumped into Primary Echelon. You are not unlike I was when I first came to be under Instructor Jago well over a decade ago.

“He made me slow down. I remember the pain, misery, tears… Yea, even the humiliation. But he guaranteed me I’d understand why quick, easy advancement through Training, and even Primary Echelon is really not the best way. Like many shortcuts, fast advancement without the underlying foundation leads to forever being a spell slinger, not a foundational Mage. He teaches how to dig deep in an emergency, but it goes much further. What he instills and how he instructs goes back to a time of great magic. It hails from when the gods and demon lords were here, fighting each other in the Mortal Realm before they became who is worshipped and detested. For like it or not, even our hate of the demon lords gives them power. At the same time the gods gain power from those who worship them and to a lesser degree hate them. If you really force casted twice per week for several moons, then broke into Primary Echelon today, by tomorrow, two days at most, you will understand.”

“Understand? What is there to understand? I was drained, cast upon with no magic defiance left in me. The week you left… Do you know what happens?”

“Yes. I’ve comforted hundreds of boys as they cried in the bedrolls over the past several years. I remember most of them as well. So I can only guess you were not one, or if you were you only needed a back rub, or stroking of your hair to get you to calm and sleep. I know it is hard to believe, but I feel for every Mageling who comes to Instructor Jago’s encampments.”

“Yea, sure. You cared enough to send Traber off with the big guards for the first four days after you returned.” Spar blinked out a few tears, “Traber was one of my best friends. He has not come down to see me or even sent a letter since the camp. I have sent several. I am sure he blames me. It was my idea to ask our parents to send us after I saw the fliers for the camp up in Marsh Lake. You destroyed a very close friendship; one I doubt I can ever get back.”

“Again, you think I had any say. I did not.” Deor’lash took a long breath. “I get why you may not either believe or possibly want to believe. However, it is Instructor Jago’s decision who gets pulled for further hardships during week five. Instructor Jago gives up on many Magelings. He has us get them a couple more Autospells and pens a detailed failure to graduate report for the parent or teacher who sent them. Others, like Traber, he sees something in, something worth a little more time and effort.

“But this is about you, not your buddy. If you decided to trust me all the way until today, trust me now. What you put yourself through did slow your advancement. The desire to graduate and the bragging rights a young one receives from getting to Primary Echelon at an immature age is a big part of the degradation of magic in this world. Yet you still did so. However, you have insights far deeper behind the Primary Echelon pins you will soon wear. A simpler way of seeing it, is this; any Mageling can cast a Glow Autospell. It is simple. However, very few get to understand the magic behind it enough to change the color. This insight is one I teach in week one. It may seem minor, but as your magical abilities and understanding increases, the little building block of being able to understand how to change the color of a glow will allow you to manipulate bigger and more powerful spells, as I suspect you did when you cast this web.

“Look around young Mageling. Most use webs to target a foe or block a passage. You saw past this. Your mind was open to the possibility of affecting an entire chamber. In doing so you nullified the magic resistance of all of us, since none of us were targets. The cave room was. It has no innate magic resistance. This allowed you to put full power into the strands holding me, us… although judging on the sounds, Jillian and I are the only ones left. You did this and need to see and fully comprehend the terrifying power you unleashed. I doubt one out of every thousand Magelings could open their mind to such a deep comprehension. Many Mages in high echelons couldn’t do what you did. For it takes more than desire to fill a room with webs while people are in it. It takes an understanding of the magic buried within the spell and yourself to do so. I am certain the being who killed the dragons learned this as well.”

“My friends say it was a Halfelf boy, about my human equivalency age… Red haired.”

“Kandric?” Deor’lash gasped. “Little Kandric did this?”

“Such is what those with me firmly believe. They all but worship him, and say he is already Teaching Echelon! How do you know of him?”

“His mentor offered Instructor Jago double to take him in, since he is Shaman, not Mage. But magic flows fairly evenly in your Training Echelon, so Instructor Jago accepted him. He was the youngest human equivalent in my tent, ever. He didn’t flinch during week three, and I was told he was the first to break free of those put over him in week four. Because of this and the fact he didn’t get spell pages as part of graduation, Instructor Jago sent for a Shaman from our homeland. Little Kandric learned half a dozen Primary and even a couple of Secondary Echelon spells in weeks five and six from the best Shaman we could find in our combined realm. I heard he even traveled down to Scorpion Falls for further instruction and killed a couple of bone walkers while there… and did so by himself!”

Deor’lash took a few deep breaths, “He was amazing, extremely skilled with sparring weapons, and incredibly gifted with magic and the understanding of the flows behind what is required to cast. But to do this… to be your Teaching Echelon… It is unfathomable!”

“I agree, but here we are and the two with me insists this is Kandric’s doing. If he really learned from you then… I don’t even know.”

“Mageling,” Deor’lash responded. “There is greatness in admitting you don’t understand yet strive to do so. You will discover the forced casting you have done will further benefit you in both comprehension and power in a matter of sandglass turns. If you continue to force cast at least once a week, preferably two, now with Primary Echelon spells, you will continue to get advantages others can never ascertain. However, just like when you were first coerced into force casting, the pain will be debilitating for the first few moons. Only then will it slowly get easier. However, this time you will understand some of the rewards of doing so. If this really is of Kandric’s doing, it is a lesson he learned far better than I, even though I started him down the path to such discoveries.”

“We’ll see… When this is over, I’ll go back into the swamps to talk to Kandric. However, since you know the name, I can only assume he has a graduation medallion.”

“He does, however he was awarded the gold one, for top student.”

Spar snarled. “It seems the swamp rat should have been in the high merchant section of Slome all along. But enough about him. There is nothing you can say or do to make up for what you did to us, made us do. It was awful! The emptying of us to the point we were nothing more than Mundane… the spells you hit us with after… when we had no defenses left. It still gives me nightmares! Then, just as I was getting my strength back, you disappeared for a few days. Teacher Jago and a few guards took over. He came in with guarded slaves. He made us cast on them until we were spent. We had to force cast on them with not one, but two Learned Autospells. He handed us over to them, guaranteeing them we couldn’t cast on them for at least a day. Two times I was a… toy… Until I pulled up the power to cast on the bastard slave. Caught him in the face with a Sand Spray! Hope he is still partially blind!”

“I will never apologize for the six weeks you were in the encampment,” Deor’lash stated. “I did what was required of me, and while you may resent what was done, you are better and stronger because of it. As for the slave you say you harmed, I am sure Instructor Jago found a way to heal whoever it was. If not, he certainly had to pay the slave’s owner for the damage. However, what is important is you found a reserve deep within. For inside all Magelings, all trainable beings, is an inner spark of magic very few know exists, let alone understand it is always there to be tapped into. You really were not reduced to being Mundane, even though you thought you were. You understand this, right?”

Spar looked up. “Oh, yea. I learned… found magic goes deeper than what we can easily get to. But… It should have been the best moon and a half cycle ever… would have been… All twelve of us in your tent looked up to you, trusted you…”

“Sounds like part of you still does.” Deor’lash countered. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have put yourself through force casting twice a week for several moons. Nor would I still be breathing to have this conversation, for unless I miss my guess, I and the boy Jillian are the only ones in this chamber you did not assassinate.” Deor’lash closed his eyes. “And honestly, as much as I hate myself for having to concede it. I still do not remember your name or even your face. But while you may wish to strike out at me for this admission of failure on my part, you really need to pay better attention to your surroundings. I feel the webbing around me is losing strength. It will not be long before the one you disarmed, Jillian, will be able to break free.”

Spar rubbed his hands across his face. He pulled all the weapons off Deor’lash even as he shouted, “Aed! Puck! You guys OK?”

“Yea!” Aed responded.

“What about the one who ran?”

Puck responded. “The Gobber tripped him den kick him in da face! Him still no move.”

“Guess, the Gobber ain’t lyin’ when it say it no be one a dem none,” Aed added. “But, Spar, der’s gots ta be like the biggest spider ever ‘round here! Did ya see it?”

“Nope, no spiders. Just me.” Spar snickered.

Puck’s voice was full of skepticism, “Ya sure? Look like demon spider gots loose ‘er somethin’!”

“Just a spell guys! But you need to get in here and grab Jillian. It won’t be too long before he can break free.”

Aed snarled. “Us’ll get him!” There was a pause before she spoke again. “Who ya talk to in der, anyhow?”

Spar looked down as Deor’lash used his uninjured arm to pull degrading strands off his face and chest. At the same time the bodies held up by the webs deeper in the room fell with thuds and clangs. He took a deep breath, “The only one in here worth keeping alive, Aed… The only one, besides Jillian, I left alive.”

Puck gasped, “By Brandall’s name, ya sayin’ ya kill all dem others?”

Spar glanced back into the webs, “Yea, I sure did. Although kill may be a mild way of putting it… Um, anyway, don’t go hurting Jillian or Mora once we get to her again…”

“Aww, come on Spar!” Aed complained.

“OK, OK… Make sure Jillian knows who is in charge, just don’t do too much to him, Aed. We’re going to need them to carry lots of loot.” Once again he stared at Deor’lash. “I really don’t want to kill you… But you were with those who were after us, so you have got to give me a reason why you don’t deserve to die.”

“It’s a real long story.”

“Give me the short version.” Spar demanded.

Deor’lash sighed. “I will try to be brief. I am fully under Instructor Jago. He can do what he wants to any tent leaders. When he found out there was a chance of getting information on what we are after, he hired all us tent leaders out, along with Simozz, right after the Dragon Deaths. He gave us over as indentured servants for a moon to the plump small Orc woman with the green scale armor and monkeys, a Black Dragonling, a Hobgoblin with an eye patch and a Green Dragonling. The Orc has, had, a blade, one of a set of thirteen weapons. It is one of what Instructor Jago has been seeking. It was our task to find a way to procure it once my servitude to her was over. With her dead, I am free of my indenture because there was no clause of transference within the subjugation contract. It is of incredible happenstance; however, I believe the weapon Jillian protested over your taking may be another of the thirteen! If it is, then there are two in this chamber. The location of only three more need to be ascertained! It is, after all, the reason we are up here to begin with.”

“So the camp is not why you are here?”

“No. And I may fail my Rite of Noblehood by divulging this, but you deserve to know the truth before you decide my fate. The traveling encampment is a veil to conceal the search for the weapons and the story they are prophesied to unlock when brought back together… This does not mean the encampments were not all they seemed. There was no deception behind them. But it gave reason for us to travel through the lower kingdoms without much notice, up the mountain passes, and finally to here. To this iron-filled rock. To the place I now passionately believe it all started.”

Spar scowled. “And bringing these blades together will do what? Unleash a demon or something?”

“No! Nothing even close to what your young mind is fabricating. The ancient scrolls say bringing the weapons simultaneously to a single location, not just blades, but most are… Um, to have them in the same place will coalesce magic of a time long forgotten. It will allow history to be seen as it truly was, not what it was made out to be. If the elders of the five great houses searching for them are correct, it will redefine the past and correct a deep, grave, and lasting misjustice. However, I now believe we were, are, closer to the overall goal than we could have ever hoped… More than just the weapons, the place we are in, on, under, could well hold the vaults showing everything the world believes if false. All I have to do is find it… Well, I have to live to find it, which is certainly not a given at this point. Especially with your blade pointed at my throat.”

“Part of me wants to believe you, Deor’lash,” Spar admitted. “But what you are saying doesn’t hold the water in the skin. You’re too young to have traveled with Teacher Jago for all the years you proclaim.”

“If I was Human, you would be correct. However, I am not. I am Half Highman. I am just moons away from my age of ascension. In addition, like I believe you are soon to find, I trained in the Mageling arts much like you forced yourself to do. This further slows aging. So while I may be the human equivalent of fifteen, almost sixteen, I am soon to be going into my fifty-fifth year. Furthermore, if you want proof of what I say being truthful, Simozz is down here as well. He joined the encampment as a tent leader in training and was indentured to a Caveling by Instructor Jago. Simozz has gone through multiple camps as a Mageling and one as my underling. If you can kill the Caveling and free him from his moon of servitude, he can verify everything I have told you. Another possibility is to locate Kandric, for if he is here, he can authenticate much of what I say.”

Spar moved his jaw back and forth several times. His thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of Jillian protesting being stripped down to his loincloth. This included several squeals of pain.

Aed snarled, “Me’ll be happy to kick ya der a few more time if’n you fight me one more time!” Another shriek of anguish followed. “And me no care ‘bout his feet! Me hear me cousin no get boots when him get tossed out a Slome, so Jillian no get ‘em either!”

This was followed by a slap and hiss of pain. Aed’s voice took on a less angry voice, “Hey, Spar, Jillian gots the same scar as Mora! What gives?”

Deor’lash spoke up, “The one running from the palm of the hand all the way to the elbow?”

“Yea.” Aed shouted back.

Spar muttered, “You know what caused it?”

“I do.” Deor’lash verified. “It could be nothing other than a full deep blood bonding with someone. Profoundly serious, exceptionally dangerous, and extremely painful. I have seen the scars of those fully blood bonded back home. I noticed the one on his lower arm when he moved to help me stand. I have never heard of one so young being completely blood bonded before. I am astonished it didn’t kill him.”

“All the way down the arm? I thought a Blood Bonding was hand to hand…”

“Normally, yes. The hands are locked together, cut, and after a few sandglass turns a magical healing is done to speed things up. Then there is the separation within a day, which is very unpleasant from what I have heard. However, the scar you are wondering about is of a full blood bonding. It is beyond brutal. I attended a ceremony where my older brother and his lover from another house were bonded. Their relationship was deemed unacceptable. A full bonding was offered for them to end the dishonor, so they agreed. The arms of the two being blood bonded have to be fully lashed together. A long extremely thin and sharp blade is slid down between the bonds. It cuts deep but does so in a way where the wounds line up exactly. Another wrap of cloth, this one even tighter, is put over both arms. A hardening paste is applied to the cloth. Then to prevent accidently moving or damaging the encasement, metal bands are placed around the hard cloth strips. The two being bonded are kept locked arm to arm until the wounds heal naturally. I hear it is not uncommon for them to die of blood loss and sickness. There is some aid from Healthman herbs, liquified and poured inside the wrap, but no magic. It took over two weeks before the hardened cloth bandage was broken. I honestly have no clue how they did it. They had to eat, bathe, and do bodily functions as a single entity. They then had to be carefully cut apart. It looked to me like their skin healed to each other. I think they wept more at the separating than they did at the original cutting. It is not a set of ceremonies I ever want to be part of again, and certainly nothing I would want to happen to me.”

Spar ran his hand down his face and shook his head as he mulled over the options. Part of him felt the best course of action was to kill the kid, another voice told him to leave him where he was and let fate decide. However, as he replayed the conversation, his mind went back to the last three days of the encampment. His hand simply wouldn’t move in the needed motions to cast a couple of Learned Autospells he desperately wanted to discover how to cast. He watched a couple of the others, tried over and over to duplicate what he saw them do. It simply wasn’t going to happen. Then, suddenly, and surprisingly Deor’lash moved up behind him. The older boy put his larger hands over Spar’s smaller ones. “We have all afternoon, and if need all day tomorrow. You can do this. Do not doubt, Mageling. After what you endured this is nothing. Now move your fingers with me…” Deor’lash stayed behind him for sandglass turns. When the spells faintly erupted from his exhausted fingertips, Deor’lash hugged him, kissed him on top of the head and spent the time until dinner to teach him yet one more Autospell. There was nothing hidden about his joy for Spar. Combined with what he had just heard, the stunning lack of anger from Deor’lash even though he was wounded and had his fingers broken… Spar badly wanted to believe this was who the real Deor’lash was. Not the monster who tormented him until he force casted the first time. The reason behind the suffering even made some sense. A final thought also entered into the debate. If Kandric really was behind this and had even a few fond memories of Deor’lash, then the very last thing he wanted to do was to get Kandric angry by doing extra harm to the kid who, once healed, could certainly take him down. Wondering if he would live or even die to regret his actions, he let out a long uneasy breath. “And what happens if I let you up?”

“My fate is in your hands, my former Mageling. However, if you want my assistance, you will need to remove the bolts your small Halfling friend skewered me with, help push my fingers back into some semblance of being straight, and allow me to drink one of the orange potions on Jillian’s potion belt… Even then, I am certain you will need to find me a Channeler, Shaman, or Healthman to finalize my recovery.”

Spar looked at the bolts with a cringe. “I’m no Healthman, but if one or both of them are in the bone, like I heard, removing them is going to really hurt!”

“I am certain you are correct. You will have to cut the skin and pull them out instead of pushing them through. All I can do is endure, possibly by biting onto the bow part of Jillian’s crossbow and hope the liquids Jillian bragged about having are as good as he claims. As a side note, it is possible, and is my sincere hope, inflicting such pain will quench your lingering anger toward me.”


King Wyhrem, Klandon, Count Salostar, Baron Greyhammer, Sardan, Sagell, Aster, Bayne, Benam, Quavis, Cresh, Dabaff, Gomriss, Pocet, Captain of the Guard, Molic, Olinday, Wraith SW Avcar, Zaffron, and Janden (Pantherling)

King Wyhrem took a bite of the Snow-Stag and Star Raven egg omelet, while watching Klandon and the two former slave boys eat. All three showed countless sandglass turns of manner training, as they cut, put knives down properly, switched hands with their forks and ate smaller than mouth-sized bites. They even used proper finger motions to secure the juice goblets, sip out of them and place them down on the table without making much, if any, noise. He gave them a smile but stayed voiceless. At the far end of the stone table, Bayne and Aster sat next to each other. They exchanged glances but remained tight-lipped. It was clear to the other Watch members, the boys wanted to break the ice with each other, but neither knew what to say or how to start a conversation.

Dabaff, Cresh, Quavis, and Benam munched eagerly at the omelets at a side table, and their plates were refilled before they finished their first helpings by servants of King Wyhrem. All four nodded in gratitude but were overwhelmed with the last couple of days. In addition, eating in the presence of a king with the inside of the room ringed by heavily armed and armored guards eliminated any aspiration for small talk. They were just happy to be eating such a fine meal and be inside on what amounted to a horrible budding of a new day.

Baron Greyhammer and Count Salostar sat on either side of King Wyhrem. Both came to the table with weapons. Those paying close attention could see at no time did they both put food in their mouths at the same time. Instead, they alternated. One, taking a bite while the other had a hand on a weapon ready to defend Wyhrem first, but were certainly ready to come to the aid of anyone in the room should the need arise.

The only talking, and it was very muted, came from a small blanket with a pair of low stools. Avcar and Janden encouraged and helped Zaffron to eat. The damage to Zaffron’s legs combined with the pain of Aster totally resetting them and binding them so they could properly heal made it difficult for the boy to want to swallow. However, a glance and nod from the Captain of the Guard to two of the sentries changed his attitude. The two men moved up, pointed at the plate, and made a motion of driving their right hands into the open palms of their left. This left Zaffron more afraid of what would happen if he didn’t eat than some of the nausea that came with finishing the breakfast.

The other sounds came from servants as they moved about the room, wind as it whistled through and around the ancient structure and the crackle from the fireplace along the west wall. After more than half a turn of a sandglass, Wyhrem finished off the last bite of a second omelet and glanced around. He tapped his glass with a knife to signal he was about to take the floor. With all eyes on him, he stood and spoke. “Members of esteemed houses, my loyal and faithful Watch members, admired royal guards and other guests to this meal, it is an honor to be in the presence of so many who have come to the aid of my kingdom. For those who secured my son and brought him into my arms, there can be no words, deeds, or treasures enough to express my gratitude. My failure to Prince Klandon will take a lifetime and eons of my afterlife to make right.

“As the king, I put people in place to run the day-to-day affairs of countless settlements, villages, towns, and cities. It is with a heavy heart; I say my nobles in this barony have utterly failed me. However, I cannot, will not, put any of this blame on anyone but myself. As the ruler of Eagleonia, the fall from within of Rolling Dale rests on my shoulders. Yes, when the time comes, some will pay a steep price for their lack of attention or flagrant usurping of my authority, but the moment for such action is not now. My focus must turn to those who were most wronged. Those who had little to no say, went about their lives as best as caste, hard labors, and even good fortune allowed them to do.

“Out beyond these ancient walls thousands, possibly tens of thousands of my subjects are in a desperate state. Decent men, women, and children within Rolling Dale now face the possibility of horrors we can only guess at. Those who may still be loyal to me are in even greater peril. Yet as I say this, there is no question the retaking of Rolling Dale is a given. The time it takes we cannot know, but the walls, whatever may be left of them, will once again fly my standards and the banner of Eagleonia.

“However, outside the city’s defenses, refugees from Everone have lost all hope yet again. They are caught in another struggle just as they thought and had every expectation to believe they would be protected. Reports say many were taken inside the walls along with goods I dispatched here to care for them. Those who are left or fled the refugee camps have little to nothing. Whatever hope they may have had in getting here has been shattered. Now they have nowhere to go and are left with naught. A few may have a few possessions, but those are certainly worth killing over. For, as much as I hate to admit, if I had a hungry child and saw another with a way to prevent him from starving or freezing to death, I could see how the hatred of Murderic could squirm into my heart and eat at my mind. Even if they have coin or valuables, there is nowhere to buy anything. Making things more desperate, this storm, and already thin resources of the refugees who managed to escape will most certainly prevent them from fleeing further.

“My presumption, and it is an educated one, tells me travel to where there may be purchase or trade opportunities will be further limited by simple lack of knowledge of the area. Those of us here are, by a wide margin, the exception. The vast majority, especially of lower castes, never travel more than a couple of days from where they were born. Those who do, settle into a new area and travel only as far as necessary to procure needed items. Even many skilled peasants wait for trade caravans to come through to purchase items not produced locally. The travel up the pass to Rolling Dale has put them in totally unfamiliar territory. Making their affairs worse, the land in this area is rife with danger that dates all the way back to the Mythling Wars.”

At this point Quavis couldn’t hold his tongue any longer, “The Mythling Wars were fought here? What Mythlings?”

Wyhrem shot a deep frown at Quavis. At the same time Benam let out “Shhhh,” and gave Quavis a hard punch in the shoulder.

Quavis returned the favor before he realized everyone was staring at him. “Oh, crap… Um I’m soooo sorry, King! I just…”

Sagell’s shoulders sagged, and her head dropped. “My sincere apologies, my King. I will deal with…”

At this Wyhrem’s frown changed to a smirk. He made a slashing motion, cutting off her words. He turned his full attention to Quavis. “You just what, young one?”

Quavis gulped hard and made a choking sound as he fought to find his voice, “I… it doesn’t matter…”

“A little late now, Quavis.” Sardan stated harshly. “The hole has been dug; you may as well answer our king.”

Quavis’ lower lip trembled. “I… I just… I wondered if I was really walking on the same ground one of the gods walked… It was a dumb thing to think and even dumber to interrupt! I… I…the words just came out!”

Wyhrem moved around the table and put both hands on Quavis’ shoulders. He gave them a light rub, leaned over, and kissed the boy on top of his head. “Your curiosity got the better of you. Such a thing is both dangerous and inspirational, for without curiosity, many hazards would not be confronted, nor would there be advancement on a personal or communal stage. Is there any one of us who, at the age of young Quavis is, did not make similar errors?”

“My King,” then Sagell sighed, “I certainly have opened my mouth when I should not have done so. However, never once did I do so in the middle of my king making a speech!”

Wyhrem strong hands continued to rub Quavis’ shoulders. “Which makes this a very special occasion. For I have never once heard of a king, any king, being so interrupted. Yet I can tell by look, lip quiver, and how stiff young Quavis’ shoulders are, he knows his mouth got the better of him. Furthermore, what royal training has this lad had? I bet the answer is none. Therefore…” Wyhrem yanked Quavis up by the back of his shirt, put his foot on the chair Quavis had been sitting at, put the boy over his knee, yanked down his britches and delivered four enormously powerful slaps. Two blows crashed down on the back of both of Quavis’ upper thighs. Wyhrem yanked Quavis back up, pulled his britches back up and dropped him back on the chair, hard. He took a deep breath, wrapped his arms around the boy and wiped the tears from his cheeks. “I suspect you have a full understanding of the perils of letting your curiosity get the best of you in this environment. Am I right young man?”

Quavis sucked in some deep breaths and fought hard not to rub the back of his legs. After biting back a few sobs, he nodded and managed to speak. “Yes King! Yes! It will never happen again!”

“Excellent. Then this matter, of your interruption of me, is fully closed.” He sent strong glares at Sagell, Sardan, and Gomriss to make sure they also knew the matter had been dealt with and was now over. “I suspect it would be remiss of me to not make the modest suggestion for young Quavis here, his friend Benam, and the older youth who they seem to admire, Cresh and Dabaff to receive a taste of court etiquette. I imagine they would gain a phenomenal quantity and quality of essential decorum instruction from tutelage offered by our good count and baron to my son, Prince Bayne. This is, as long as nobles from such esteemed houses would be inclined to have a larger assembly to so tutor.”

“It would be an honor!” Count Salostar stated. “In some ways it will make the education easier for your son. For it will allow us to work them in a group setting so they can practice with each other while we make needed corrections.”

“I can only assume the four of you are willing to such intensive instruction from both Garm and Alphar nobles?”

Getting a quick round of “Yes King!” Wyhrem once again leaned over and kissed Quavis on the head. “Now, as I mentioned, curiosity is a double-edged sword. For there can be no advancement devoid of a longing to find out what lies beyond the known. Therefore, I feel young Quavis has now earned a right to hear some of the history he obviously longs for. With a show of hands, including servants, watchmen, and those at my table, who would like to have a little more history behind this land, and in particular, this structure before I continue on my long-winded, yet important… I believe Sagell called it a speech?”

Quavis didn’t hesitate to raise a hand. This got him yet another kiss on the top of his head. His hand was followed by many others including the Captain of the Guard. With the captain’s hand held up, most of the others raised hands as well.

Wyhrem’s eyes scanned the room for several seconds. He gave a nod, “Very well. All those who opted not to raise a hand are to leave. You all can join my expeditionary force and assist with setting up an encampment. I do not need, want, nor desire the close company of those who do not long for extra knowledge to better themselves with.”

The Captain of the Guard stood and motioned for those who didn’t raise hands to leave. He handed one of the guards, the last to raise a hand, a medallion. “You are now their sergeant. A rank I will make permanent if you are willing to get with one of our Ruinseekers and get a series of lessons surrounding the history of this land. Now go and send replacements for the nine who have proven my selection of them as personal guards of our king and this entourage was a miscalculation of their character. Make sure those you send are both professional and judiciously intelligent. Also make sure the servants who are going with you get a taste of tending to our troops out in this storm!”

Wyhrem took a deep breath once the room was down to those who raised hands. “I confidently conclude the air has a better feel. For air becomes stale when in close confines with beings with no desire to better themselves. Instead, they steal it from those with a lust for improvement. And, alas, the minds of the moronic weigh on others who otherwise strive for greater understanding. Thus, young Quavis’ outburst has allowed me to assure such dim minds are no longer in our midst.” He once again rubbed Quavis’ shoulders as he smiled. “Shall we continue?”

Many of the adults spoke in the affirmative while most of the boys nodded. Wyhrem glanced over to the boys for their lack of a verbal response and over to Salostar and Greyhammer. Both nobles gave seated bows in understanding at the need for speech protocols to be added to their lessons. Wyhrem smiled, took a deep breath, and cleared his throat. “The answer is, yes, young Quavis. You are most certainly walking on stones both Mythlings and Mythlets did. However, this keep, its history of being haunted, and its place in history has and will continue to fascinate me.

“Lord Roland Dale was the last one to inhabit this structure full time. It is where the city of Rolling Dale gets its current name. However, eons before Lord Roland Dale took this as his own and subsequently was touched with insanity within its walls, this structure has been central in every prominent conflict known. Now before any of you ask how this structure can still be standing with as old as I proclaim it to be, one must understand this whole place has deep enchantments behind, under, and ingrained into it.”

He paused and scanned the room. His gaze fell upon Avcar, “Young Mage, do you happen to have the Repair spell in your book?”

“Not in my book, King. It is very rare, but it is one I was allowed to use from time to time. Because of how useful it is, my Lord and instructor allowed me to keep it long enough to memorize.”

“Excellent! Would you do us all a huge favor and cast it on this room?”

Avcar blinked, “King, I will do as you request, but… there is no chance it will do anything to something so large as a room… the main table, maybe, but even then…”

“Humor me.”

“As you command.” Avcar stood, looked around and wiggled his jaw back and forth a few times. “I really have no idea how to target the room, King. Um…”

Wyhrem smiled. “While you will find this will exhaust you, are you willing to try for something a little more grandiose?”

Avcar cocked his head to the side. “Grandiose? As in more than this central room?” His voice took a tinge of sarcasm and humor. “What? You want me to simply cast on the whole keep or something?”

Wyhrem chuckled. “Actually, yes.”

Avcar blinked as if waiting for Wyhrem to crack a smile of this being a joke. When it didn’t happen, he took several deep breaths, “OK, well, this should be a total waste of Force. But at least I can see how to attempt it.” Shaking his head, he moved to the edge of the table, so he was close to the center of the floor, knelt and tapped on the stone under his knee.

Wyhrem gave the boy a warm smile. “Before you cast know this: First you must believe and second you need to realize your actions will be exhausting to a degree I doubt you can fully comprehend. I will guarantee you will be recompensed for your discomfort and the effort you put forth.”

Avcar closed his eyes, took a few calming breaths, and rubbed his hands together.

Aster spoke, “Av, Conner has talked highly of you and you’re my orphanage brother. You can do this.”

Avcar didn’t open his eyes, but spoke to Aster, “If you know anything about Conner at all, you know our Lord and instructor does not take halfhearted efforts on the part of his students well at all. There is no attempt, there is do and succeed or do and fail. If the result is failure, you do again, again, and continue to do so until the result is achievement of the goal. Surrender to lack of success is the only real failure, one which our Lord makes certain is something as a student of his we only contemplate once.”

Sardan let out a chirping laugh. “I do not even know the guy, but I like him already.”

Avcar smirked as he started the spell. With hands glowing, he pressed them down onto the stone floor.

Within seconds his arms started trembling. A few seconds later beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He snarled between tightly clenched teeth, “Oh, King, how deep do you wish me to dig…”

“As deep as you can young man.”

“Fine. Then stay back and do not touch me! For I am about to go very, very deep! Recent events, extremely recent, have left the power of this place more open than it has been in written history! For I can feel Pyrothermal, lead destroyer of the home of the elder gods has been slaughtered! His death has opened a rift, a rift I was taught how to exploit on the Isle of Cyclops by Conner!”

Avcar gritted his teeth, “You want it, Overlord of Afterdusk, take it you bastard!” His hands clenched into fists. A moment later he purposefully scrapped them across the floor, so his knuckles bled. Drips of blood hit the floor. He continued to talk, “Yes, I know of you, and yes my blood I freely give! My best friend Conner did this once and let me and Gilew taste your power! You want more! Here! Take it!” He slammed his fist repeatedly into the floor until blood ran down his fingers. He took several deep breaths. A shadowy figure formed and took shape. The fire dimmed to look like a distant glow. Avcar shouted even as everyone in the room stood, and their hands raced to their armaments. “Stay your hands! It is here on my calling and only has access to me!”

The shadowy figure extended murky tendrils. Wave of inky darkness, only with considerable mass, shoved everyone else back against the walls and held them there. It spoke with waves of pulsing darkness so powerful it hammered into the chests of all in the room. “Mortals do not bother. You can no more harm me than you can slice into darkness and expect it to permanently part! Now hold your tongues for this is now between me and this insolent whelp!”

It turned and formed into an almost human-looking form, but with long horns and waves of darkness rolling off it. It towered over Avcar. “Only has access to you, Mageling? Look around. While you know more than I would ever expect, you play on a field of magic you know only the extreme fringes of. A dangerous undertaking. Yet you say you know of me, Mageling? You dare to call out my true name?”

Avcar looked up, “Yes, Overlord of Afterdusk, I do! You have seen me before! I was there with Conner when he split the rift and allowed you access to this realm to devour the Lichling Damafena!”

“Ah, yes, you can be no other than Avcar. He told you and those with you to run. He shouted your name half a dozen times, telling you to flee even as he split the rift with his very essence. Only you and one named Gilew, who you mentioned, imprudently or valiantly and devoutly stood by the side of the insolent and brazen Conner. And there between you and the rift. Damafena. A glorious and totally unexpected taste it was. To rip the power of the dead and partially living out of the Garm Duchess wench and end her reign of terror both above ground and in the deeper caverns of Under River! Now, however, Conner has been fully upstaged, for his younger brother, the one with red hair, has also touched the Cataclysm and fully vanquished Pyrothermal. It is a debt I cannot easily repay, for over the past several days cracks have formed, but now with the death of Pyrothermal and the augmentations put into the astral barriers with stolen Dragon essence untangled from the barriers put up by the Mythlings, their barricades have begun to fail. As you can see with your own eyes, I have access to this Realm of Mortals outside of the deep rifts. With time… Who knows?”

Claws extended from the shadowy hands, “However, you show the same audacity as Conner did when he demanded I take Damafena! The arrogance of one so trifling as a mortal to demand anything from me is repulsive! He is lucky I did not take all of him back to the Outer Realms instead of what I did acquire!”

“You want me? I am here, Overlord of Afterdusk! However, as trifling as I may be, it is my understanding of you, through Conner, that has allowed you to fully reenter this realm outside of a rift split in, how long?”

“Understanding of me, yes, ability no! The capability for me to stand here with my claws a mere fraction from your throat is because of his brother, not him!”

“So?” Avcar countered as he extended his neck to give the claws full access. “Conner gave of himself for you to save all of us on the Isle and in doing so spared countless others and ended the quest of a Lichling to become a full Lich! He gave you a taste of this realm, even momentarily. He let you feed on the dark magic powers of a Lichling. The least you could do is give back what you ripped out of him with a measure gratitude since his brother, who after what I have learned must be Kandric, wiped Pyrothermal from all existences!”

“The line of Conner deserves to have friends such as you, young and insolent Mageling! And yes, my taking from Conner may have been extreme. Yet I did give in return to Conner, you, and Gilew. We shall see if Conner earns the right for me to give back more with a bit of, as you put it, gratitude. And I will indemnify you with some additional appreciativeness as well. However, let this also be a lesson and life-long reminder to you, Mageling, not to tread where your feet are not invited!” The claws hissed as they sliced through the air. The cheeks of Avcar were left with three matching lines of long bloody marks. The claws continued downward putting deep lines on both his sides. They persisted down to just above the ankles. The clothing shredded under the assault.

Avcar fell gasping in pain as the figure turned toward Wyhrem, “You asked him to dig deep, and he did so for you. He will require protection for a day, perhaps scores of them. In addition, his Force replenishment will now and eternally be remolded to be tied to the time of Afterdusk, just as Conner’s was. His first replenishment will be, as he deserves it to be, agonizing.

“However, your command permitted him to open the pathways for my return, even briefly. Therefore, I will reward you as well. All I require is you allow me to take the litany of Dark Mystics and Mages along with their unfortunate victims who permeate the labyrinth under my keep and extend outward through the long-forgotten passages below the main temple of complex of Afterdusk to be my reward. Like more than a few thieves and bandits who sought refuge within these walls, and even the two treacherous guards who disappeared while you and your whipping boy explored this and what is below, there will be no trace. What lies beyond, including in your walled village, will be yours to do with what you wish. However, if you desire to award others to me, simply bring them to the altar in the central temple! I assure you; they will not relish the rest of their much-extended existences.”

Wyhrem had to force enough air into his lungs to respond. “If they really are users or the used of the Dark Arts, then do what you wish with them!”

“Bargained well and done. I also look forward to your promised history lesson, for I am sure I will find plenty of humor in the multitudes of errors you will teach.”

“Why not teach them yourself?”

“In good time it may become a reasonable possibility. However, the impediments the Mythlings put up still renders this an uncomfortable, but attainable stay. For you are assisting in putting a sizable hole in them through this audacious Mageling, along with your past explorations without the fear or detesting feel of malevolent longing I have grown accustomed to, within my home, you deserve recompense as well. Allow the foundations of Afterdusk to rise again, be your center of your command and serve as a reminder to all, including the lower demon lords and godlings the elder gods are far from vanquished!” The figure drew a rectangular outline and stepped into the purest of blackness.

Moments later Avcar cried out in pure anguish as the glow on his hands spread outward from where they rested on the floor. The color changed to black bubbling masses of light sucking darkness. Shortly after they left his fingers, lines of shadowy energy lanced outward. The darkness coalesced into ripples. The ripples merged to form waves. They rolled out of Avcar causing him to thrash and plead for it to stop. The waves overwashed everything. The roaring fire became a pinprick of light. The room grew cold. The darkness overtook everyone in the room. It rolled up and over clothing, weapons, and armor. It spun out of doors, down hallways and expanded out into the courtyard. The ground shook violently for several minutes, yet nothing fell or even moved on the table and chairs stayed exactly where they were. The darkness started to seep into the walls. The thick bands of darkness holding everyone to the walls faded as well. The fire flared. The room became warmer. Avcar lay panting, wheezing, and drooling. The slashes down his skin and clothing were mended as if nothing had happened to him. However, long scars down both sides of Avcar’s face gave testament to the wounds having been very real.

Everyone else went to a knee, touched their clothing, weapons, armor, and any formerly unhealed wounds. Zaffron touched his formally mangled legs. “The pain… It's, gone!”

Aster managed to crawl over to Avcar. The boy’s eyelids fluttered. He was cold and clammy to the touch. His clothing, while repaired to the point they looked new, were drenched in sweat. He cradled the boy’s head and put drips of water on his lips.

Avcar groaned. He opened his eyes, “Aster… I hurt inside… I hurt sooooo bad. I think… I think… Am I Mundane?”

Wyhrem moved up and knelt. He stroked the boy’s hair. “Judging on the words, it did not sound like it. But after sunset, we will know for sure.”

“What… What happened?” Avcar moaned.

“I think you overplayed your hand and knowledge of magic.” Wyhrem whispered in relieved awe, “But it was extremely impressive, for if I am not mistaken, we all just met one of the ancient gods!”

The Captain of the Guard stepped out of the room, and returned minutes later, “My King?”

Wyhrem kept a hand on Avcar, but turned, “Yes?”

“You need to take a look from the wall, for impressive is so far below what I just witnessed, I am not sure there is even a word, words, or books to describe. You really need to see this.”

Wyhrem picked up Avcar as he stood. Behind them, Janden helped Zaffron to stand. The formerly horribly injured boy gave a few test steps, then jumped a couple of times. Finally, he dropped into a fighting crouch and did a series of kicks and strikes.

Wyhrem watched the display, “It is good to see you up and moving young Sect Warrior, however, fully healed or not, I strongly recommend you take the next few days at a diminished pace to make sure you actually are free of lingering difficulties.

“Now come, let us see what has left my normally unflappable captain so disheveled.”

Wyhrem climbed the stairs to the upper wall of the keep with Avcar still in his hands. Before he got to the top, his eyes caught what had stunned his Captain of the Guard. He almost dropped Avcar and stopped so suddenly Salostar bumped into him hard enough to force him to stumble up a few steps.

“Good King, I am beyond apologetic…” Salostar’s words ceased as his eyes took in the view. “By all gods! What is this?”

Since adults blocked their paths, the younger ones including Prince Klandon, Quavis, and Benam bolted back down the steps, raced across the courtyard and up the steps on the far side. Some of the other kids including Aster, Cresh, and Zaffron only made it halfway across before they stopped and stared. For the keep was no longer a step away from ruins. Instead, it looked as if it had been constructed the day before. Even the black marble fountain was fully repaired. Inky jets of blackness shot out of the horns of the marble likeness of what had visited them in the main room. They hit the main pool creating wisps of steam. The water inside the pool looked totally clear. The cracked, crumbling towers were dark colored stone, and the walls were in pristine condition. The black metal portcullis was no longer hanging off broken chains. Instead, it appeared to be newly forged and blocked entry into the keep. In addition, the crumbling structures of what had been left of the carriage house, guest quarters, and servant dwellings stood strong with black metal-banded wood doors free of rot and expertly hung on deep-seated hinges. All rubble within the grounds had vanished.

However, gasps from both sides of the keep caused the kids to make their way up the walls. All stopped and looked outward. In all directions, five to six blocks of brand-new buildings stood. Cobblestone streets, already starting to be covered with wind driven snow, showed they were as new as the keep and the buildings radiating outward from it. A few structures including a black hexagonal tower stuck out as clearly important. Surrounding the structures an eight-meter wall with over a dozen crenelated hexagonal towers protected the edifices within.

Quavis was the first to find his voice. “It… The Overlord of Afterdusk raised an entire city!”

“No!” a voice hammered into all those who gazed outward, “I simply nullified, with the help of the bloodline of which I feel you belong, what Pyrothermal, Cyronia, and other Mythlings razed.”

Janden looked over to Aster, “What the Mythlings raised? Where did they take it up to?”

“No, Janden,” Zaffron managed to snicker as he scratched the young Pantherling behind the ears, “the razed the Overlord of Afterdusk speaks of is the word which means to destroy as in level to the ground.”

“So there is a raised to bring something up and a razed to pull something down?”


“What idiot came up with such nonsense?!” Janden demanded to know.

The sounds of a snicker permeated the air, “I believe I could come to like the little furball! However, not even I would dare call Odin an idiot! Now, gather your forces. Consolidate within. The areas within the walls of Afterdusk will provide shelter to those who require protection. However, with this comes a strong warning I expect to be well circulated. Those who enter with nothing but ill-intent or denigrated by malevolent magics will find their time in this realm ended before they can so much contemplate a move against those within the outer walls of my ancestral home!”

Darkness seemed to press into everyone on the keep’s walls as the voice added, “It seems those who stole your city have earned the enmity of others who have been pushed into this growing cataclysmic confrontation. I can only hope you can find it within to act as decisively as those who are already engaged. I shall watch on in interest and delight, for the conclusion, and thus the consequences, is far from determined.”

As the voice faded, sounds of rumbling thunder caused everyone to turn their heads toward Rolling Dale. The powerful rumbles seemed to be amplified as large blooms of fire erupted into the falling snow. Seconds later the force of the thunderous roars hit all on the walls of the keep with enough force to feel air leave their lungs. A couple score of deep booms and balls of fire continued to roll over the keep from the direction of the Rolling Dale docks for several minutes. A few could have sworn they could hear screams intermixed with the rumbling.

Wyhrem blinked, shook his head, and blinked again, as if firmly expecting what he was seeing and hearing, along with was laid out before him was all an illusion waiting to vanish. After several speechless seconds, and a dozen more thumping booms, he turned his focus to the Captain of the Guard. “Get my expeditionary force inside and man the defenses! Sagell! Get all the kids back into the main hall of the keep, for if this is the gift it appears, one of the commands I was given was to offer a history lesson. One I obviously do not have nearly the background I thought I did, but a lesson I intend to do my best to make as accurate as possible.

“Captain of the Guard find a way to get scouts close enough to the Rolling Dale docks to get a report as to whatever hell was just unleashed there. The voice of the Overlord of Afterdusk made it sound like we have other potential allies. I need to know what and who they are!

“Sardan! Send word to Junsac, Eaglecrest, Holgan, and all the other major land-holding lords. We need fresh supplies for refugees! Let them know we will open gates, stone gates to transport! Make it abundantly clear I expect the dukes, duchesses, counts, viscounts, barons, and earls to be far less covetous with treasures of MY KINGDOM this time!

“Everyone else, as you go about assigned tasks get gear ready, for the oration I was pulled out of, was leading to me toward requesting for all of your assistance. A discourse I intend to finish, and now thanks to Avcar and this Conner, brother of Aster, I have much more of a strategy forming to put into action!”

He subsequently turned to Salostar and Greyhammer, “So this Kandric, Premier Kandric, comes into my lands, kills a powerful White Dragon, and we consequently feel the deaths of at least six other lesser White Dragons. Then, the massive disturbance which woke all of us from a brief rest well before the first hint of Zeris’ light pushed through these deep clouds now appears to have been the death, by the hand of this Premier Kandric, of what is certainly the most powerful Mythling to not become a demon lord. This also must have been done in my lands. I think it is time you find a way to arrange a meeting with this… this… godling!” He stared at Greyhammer, “As fast as you all seem to get around, I see no problem with you delivering this Premier Kandric a message and him being able to respond quickly. Unless he wishes to deeply insult me, I expect him to be in front of me by nightfall today!”

He spun to glare at Gomriss, “And you my faithful Watch member, get Aster back in front of me! He knows of this Conner we all just received so much information about. I need insights into him as well! For I require understanding of both his brothers to determine if they are acting to rip this land asunder, halt its apparent sundering, or a combination thereof!”


Count Salostar and Baron Greyhammer

It took everything Salostar had not to speak to Greyhammer as King Wyhrem’s personal guards manned the main gate of the keep and activated the counterweight to raise the portcullis. The two moved out into the street of what was now an empty, but brand-new town. Salostar pulled up a pendant and spoke a set of arcane words. Nothing happened. “The wards against gating appear to have spread outside the keep gate.”

Greyhammer shrugged. “Then we head toward the gate we noticed in the outer west wall and hope there is a counter stone we can open it with.”

The pair walked slowly at first. They examined several structures, and even took time to open a few doors. The area close to the keep they had just left was obviously a high merchant area. There were display cases, counters, racks, and shelves. Most were empty. However, some weren’t.

A bakery had a display with rolls, loaves of bread, and even exotic cinnamon and sugar sprinkled pastries. After a moment of debate, Greyhammer took one, bit in and nodded. Not knowing what else to do, he dropped a silver on the counter and moved on. His actions were mimicked by Salostar, but instead of grabbing a cinnamon, he took one with a jellied apple topping. They moved on. Signs hung down from a shop saying it was a jewelry storefront. A poke inside showed the shelves were empty, but the equipment to make and repair were in the back. A forge with a pair of crossed swords was fully stocked with a multitude of armaments. Many were of muted black metal, and another dark but shiny black neither had any knowledge of. However, there were Silver Steel, Blue Steel, Stone Steel, Dwarven Steel, Elvin Steel, and Gnome Steel all available. The only sign of bronze was in a side display case. It had both the Elvin and Dwarven, along with half a dozen other languages, words for ‘youth’ above it. A glance inside the case showed the weapons were sized for smaller hands.

A meat shop, and the furrier shop across the cobblestone street were fully stocked. A silversmith and goldsmith shop had no goods, but the tools stood ready to make them into viable businesses with little to no preparation.

Greyhammer finally broke his silence. “We should go back and tell King Wyhrem of there being so may stocked and ready businesses! If he lets low caste, uneducated, and desperate refugees in here, it will be a feeding frenzy.”

“We should,” Salostar agreed. “However, can we afford to delay word to Premier and Alphar Prince Kandric of King Wyhrem’s demand to hold a summit? And what of this Garm Damafena? It is not a name I recognize. You?”

“No. But if she was really Garm, along with being a duchess, and was only a stone throw from becoming a Lich, she must have dated back a thousand years or more. I need to get word of this to Duke Mathard. I am certain, if he does not know, he will get an archivist to extract it from the historical scrolls. If it turns out she was Garm and a Lichling, her family line will have a taint on it the likes of which could end up stripping royal titles and lands!”

Salostar nodded, “The repercussions of such an epiphany coming out within the Alphar combined courts would certainly lead to a harsh family stigma. I hope for everyone’s sake within the Garm court, if she did exist, she was not royal nor noble, instead nothing more than a lower caste spell weaver.”

“Certainly, a Mage or Sorcerer…” Greyhammer shivered far more from the idea of a Garm becoming a Lich than the wind and snow slashing into him. He wiped snow off his face. As he did so, he noticed a couple of the King Wyhrem’s guards keeping a respectable distance, yet close enough to defend them if the need arose. “We need to keep our voices down. We have protectors.”

“I figured as much. We are in Wyhrem’s lands. I am certain he wants nothing to happen to emissaries from powerful races he had no idea existed until mere days ago.”

Greyhammer snorted, “With their arms and armaments we would be forced to defend them to preserve our honor.”

“Then let us dismiss them with a task worthy of their blessedly abandoning us.”

Greyhammer burst out in laughter, “An excellent idea, my fine Count!” He quickly spun and made his way toward the two guards. “Esteemed Royal Guardians of Eagleonia, if I may have a moment of your time?”

The two men exchanged glances, moved forward, and took a knee.

“No requirement for such deference, my good men, for I can only presume you were designated to safeguard us, so please stand!”

As both met got back on their feet, Greyhammer continued, “While I know it is to the possible extreme detriment to our health, my esteemed colleague, Count Salostar of the Alphar and myself, Baron Greyhammer of the Garm cannot in good conscious allow you to protect us when this empty walled village has scores of shops full of goods which need to be manned and protected prior to the gates being opened for refugees from your extraordinary kingdom to rush in. For I am certain after spending cherished time with gallant King Wyhrem, he would not be pleased to see this stronghold pillaged before it can even be brought to use against the deplorable beings who wrenched Rolling Dale out from under his benevolent control.

“I know a kingdom as grand as yours must, with certainly, have access to fine young nobles who need a starting point, and it would be totally remiss of us to hoard protection of such fine sentries such as yourselves when you could better serve your king by getting word back to him of the need to procure said nobles, fine merchants, and guards for these structures with all due haste!”

He smiled as the men exchanged words, verified their departure from their assigned duties would cause no undue ill-will for them to tend to such urgent matters. “No, my good men, instead I feel it would be a detriment to our budding diplomatic ties to hold you back from such an imperative undertaking.”

The two men turned and ran back toward the keep. Salostar raised an eyebrow as Greyhammer returned with a smirk on his face.

“Problem, good Count?” Greyhammer stated with a snicker.

“I… I just… Well… I did not think Alphar court… fluff… could be upstaged. I believe I was just proven wrong.”

“Ah, yes, I have heard much of the extreme etiquette within many of the Alphar courts. However, there is more than enough pompous self-righteousness within some of the elite Garm estates to nauseate even the most formal of beings from the lower races… and many from within the upper races as well. As an emissary and ambassador select of the Garm from a young age, I have learned how to play within without showing a hint of the disgust I feel while doing so. However, upon exit from such estates or meetings, I always feel the need to take a bath to rid myself of the smell of stuffy, uptight, self-aggrandizing asses.”

Salostar had to hold his ribs to quell some of the pain of his laughter. “Then do your utmost to stay well clear of House Wellaras, for you may need a complex of bathhouses to rid yourself of such a scent!” He took a couple of deep breaths to control his laughter. “However, good Baron, I must say, your diplomatic training worked this time to perfection! Now let speed our steps and take our leave of this place before King Wyhrem finds need to safeguard us again.”


Lord Anarton, Tyklor, Healthman, Yulay, and Ark’land

The path to get into the caves was far from hidden. It was well marked. Even ribbons of deep snow were not enough to obscure the path up and around the backside of the deep pool to get behind the falls. Anarton noted recent foot traffic. While it gave proof of the less than secret nature of what was behind the falls, it also assisted in navigation and safety. There were only a couple of potentially dangerous sections. One was on a switchback. It was steep and the path was icy. A fifteen-meter drop-off led down to the pool below the gigantic and impressive falls. However, it was wide enough to stick close to the cliff face. Recent footsteps aided them on how to best make it past this spot.

The second hazard was as they approached the falls themselves. Icy spray and bitterly cold mist billowed upward from where one section of the falls slammed into a rocky outcropping. However, this spot had a quartet of Gnome Steel poles buried deep into the rocky edge and a Gnome Steel chain provided a barrier and handhold, although the chain itself was coated in a thick layer of ice.

Anarton made the boys stay to the cliff side while he and the Healthman made their way through the mist close to the chain. Even with this, the Healthman tightly and protectively gripped Ark’land’s hand until clear of the billowing mist.

Once behind the raging torrent of water, the path became wider and easy to traverse. There was airflow as well, a constant warmer than air temperature draft flowed from deeper in the massive cavern and out around the waterfall. The air had a light smoky smell to it. This in and of itself was odd, but after a check for magic, Anarton guessed it was a natural phenomenon possibly caused by the wide mouth of the cavern and the water rushing down just outside. The other thing he noticed was the noise of the falls tapered off greatly once they got a hundred meters or so inside. At this point the path split. The larger trail continued up and over a smooth looking massive rock formation with water trickling around the west side. The area beyond looked immense.

Two much narrower paths went to smaller caves below the main cavern. The larger of the two was to the east while a tiny cave was down close to the pool and west of the main path. The paths for both angled out toward the falls and looked ice coated. However, a dim flickering glow came from the cave to the west. The passage behind the falls was far deeper than Lord Anarton had expected when he had been told about it. There was nothing to indicate the caves were an entry into a secret compound. Nothing.

Anarton gestured for the Healthman and boys to go over the smooth rock and into the main cave while he spent some time to observe the area and even took a moment to take in the beauty of being behind the huge falls. It really was quite a sight.

His attention reverted to his three boys who talked to the young Healthman. The exact words could not be made out because of the noise from the falls, but Anarton knew excitement when he heard it. He quickly hustled up the small outcropping, realizing it was surprisingly easy to jog up.

Once up, Anarton stopped and whistled. He found himself staring into a cavern larger and deeper than any he had previously encountered. In addition to the sheer size of the main area, protrusions went back into darkness in several areas. More astonishing, the main cave had clearly been used several times. In fact, Anarton was able to see so much because there were campfires already blazing within.

Five separate groups of refugees, most with little food, clustered around small fires far from each other. A sixth, better equipped group of six were in the process of setting up a camp slightly deeper in the cavern. They were working on getting a large fire started and were preparing a pair of Jackalope and some freshly speared fish for roasting. While a woman in a chain shirt prepared the meat, a teen boy about Tyklor’s age got a class on weapon care. The lad had several bladed weapons around him and was sharpening them under the guidance of a huge dark dull-scaled Dragonling. The color told Anarton it was probably a mixed breed. Another tall slender large-breasted member, hooded, and with a book pouch on her side, had a pot and was cutting vegetables into it. The youngest continued to blow into the fire while a man in reinforced chain armor worked with her on arranging the wood so it would burn better. All six had large packs close to them and wore heavy winter cloaks.

There were also over a dozen individuals or pairs, each with a small fire or in the process of trying to start one.

Anarton studied the surroundings for several seconds before speaking, “Ark’land with me. We’ll find a place to set up a camp so we can blend in. The rest of you go back out and get us some wood. No need to be picky since we can dry and light it with spells. You may have to make a few trips but stay together and be careful on those two trouble spots.”

Anarton and Ark’land found an out of the way spot with an already set up fire pit. The location was high above the area most were setting up camp. He sent Ark’land back down to guide the others to the location while he more carefully surveyed his surroundings.

The main area had scores of large ledges and dozens of small offshoot caves, yet he could only see about a quarter of the central cavern. As he studied the fissure in hopes of spotting something to indicate this was indeed a Gambra stronghold, more people staggered into the natural shelter. Most looked exhausted, shaken, and very cold. However, with few exceptions, they brought a bundle of wood with them. This last observation told Anarton two things. First there was most certainly another, easier, path since they had encountered no one on their way in. Secondly, there was absolutely nothing secret about where he found himself. It was so well-known people coming in knew to bring wood, so they certainly knew about the outdraft and there being places to set up fires.

While they ate a warm meal and the boys used Autospells to dry their gear, Yulay couldn’t help but note many eyed the four adults, teen boy, and young teen girl with silent pleas which were being totally ignored. “It’s like they don’t even see the others looking at them.”

Tyklor nodded as Anarton motioned for them to grab their gear so they could explore the area. The man angled away from the others to move deeper into the cavern, but Tyklor kept glancing back. “They have sacks of food, fresh meat, and are clearly able to hunt more. Most of the others have next to nothing.”

“Not fair at all,” Ark’land muttered.

“It is their provisions to share or not,” Anarton stated while looking back over his shoulder.

“But…” Ark’land whispered. “It looks like many of the others are starving.”

“You have rations. Hand over some of yours if you feel you must, Ark’land.” Anarton responded with no emotion evident in his voice. “Or you could go to the other group and ask them to share. But it is not up to us to intervene further. Also, remember, if you give your food away, you leave yourself short and put the rest of us in a position of having to feed you or let you go hungry should we be in here for more than a day or two. We only have three days with us.”

Ark’land frowned, “I bet if I go to them and ask, they will just tell me to share what I have.”

The Healthman glanced down, “Possibly. But as you look and feel sorry for the others, consider something else.”

Ark’land paused and looked up. “What?”

“No one is asking for help. And even if they have no coin, none are offering barter or services to those with all the grub.”

“Barter?” Yulay asked with confusion. “It does not look like most have much.”

“But they could offer to cut and bring in more wood, clean clothing, or approach with other services.” Tyklor responded in sudden understanding.

Anarton turned and eyed Tyklor with a raised eyebrow, “Very good! Such an astute observation shows the type of thinking I have wanted out of you for a few years.”

“Thank Conner, Lord. He has often stated how much he hates beggars but extends a hand to those who try to do something for him. It just hit me as I look at those staring at the other group and a few at us. We know many refugees were taken into the walled city. Most could have run, but instead stayed in hopes, even in captivity, they would be given the basics. Knowing Gambra, it certainly will not happen, and they didn’t know this, but they sacrificed what they had for want of someone to take care of them. Those in the other groups have little to nothing, but it is certainly better than those taken by Gambra. Yet they sit there waiting to be fed instead of putting forth effort. It is no better than a pet. Actually, it is worse because they are doing nothing. At least a good pet gives back joy to its owner.”

“I hate to see them starve,” Yulay stated. “But I see what you’re saying Tyklor. A handout does them little good. It feeds for a meal, maybe two. Working a task earns the meal and could gain enough trust to get hired again and again. At the same time the person working for the food gets better at a task and gains a skill he could use to feed himself or buy food to do so…”

Yulay hung his head, “Which is no different than I did by holding onto the life force for so long. I earned the initial burst as a spoils of combat, but I had no right to keep it. It was not mine and I should not have coveted something I had no right to.”

“Shrewd observation,” Anarton remarked. “Then why keep it when you no longer needed it to fight?”

“Selfishness.” Yulay admitted after a long period of silence. “I was so tired, even with the death gifting. I knew when I let it go, I would be wiped out and there was still duties to perform.”

Tyklor looked down at the slightly younger boy, “And other than to forego punishment, what other upside would there have been to dropping the gifting when our Lord commanded?”

Yulay frowned and thought it over. “I… guess… I would have learned better how to deal with being so tired, right?”

As Tyklor nodded, Anarton squeezed both their shoulders, “What else? Either or both may answer.”

Tyklor frowned deep while Yulay looked up with confusion. Tyklor mulled over the question for a long time. Even as Anarton moved deeper in the cavern and up a small rocky ledge, he handed out magical cold torches to everyone. Yet, he said nothing.

Suddenly Tyklor spoke as a new revelation hit him. “There are several, my Lord. Discipline and self-reliance instead of the barbarity of playing with the life force of another and not forging forward with what is ours, which is all we really deserve. Your whole pattern of teaching isn’t just a list of rules, it is like the foundation of the cabins you made us build. Without a solid one, the building is unsound and at the whim of storms of Syria and the winds of Avgon. With a good base they can hold up to both, and if damaged from severe wind or storm, they are easier to rebuild. However, the exact design can be altered on the foundation. Some will still come out stronger, but there is no way to make two buildings the exact same. There will be differences in the wood, and no matter how good, no two cuts are the exact same. Nor can nail placements exactly match. Because of this, we move a nail up or down into a better part of the wood, or set hinges slightly different, even when building two of the same buildings… your rules… they are our foundation. As long as we follow them, the rest of the structure changes to better match our skills, needs, and even desires… right?”

Anarton wrapped Tyklor in a tight hug. “While you describe what I have been attempting to teach in a way I have never heard before, your eyes are finally open. Now all you have to do is start building your structure from the foundation I have spent the last several years of your life providing.”

Tyklor let out a long breath. “How have I not seen this until now?”

“Some never do, Tyklor. Others, well, all one has to do is look at Conner to see a select few take my web of rules and connect the threads to form the foundation you speak of stronger than what the rules and my teaching alone cannot. Now your eyes are open, so I look forward to seeing what construct you come up with to become a Wraith of Light, so we can keep the darkness at bay.”

The boys continued to talk about how to build on the rules Anarton had drilled into them while the man remained quiet yet had a hint of a smile on a normally stoic face. As they discussed possibilities, both Tyklor and Yulay wondered how Conner had used the rules to come to see the world as needing to be in some kind of balance. Ark’land was more interested in the why behind some of the rules. As they talked, they explored the massive cavern.

There were scores of spots where fires had been built. It was clear numerous pits had been used countless times. Around many there were discarded bits from those who had used the cave for shelter over untold years. There were also a few piles of trash and discarded animal bones. Some pits even had small amounts of wood stacked by them.

One area had small flow of water that tumbled from above and into a deep hole in the floor. The area seemed to serve a dual purpose as a spot to discard waste down the hole while the water from above was clean, cold, and clear, which made for a good spot to refill waterskins. After nearly three-quarters of a day of searching the main cavern, they had come up with a few dropped copper coins, several more tin, and Ark’land had found a nice bronze dagger, a decent bronze mace, and coin pouch with both copper and silver coins under a heavily damaged and blood-stained suit of leather with a skeletal body still inside. The unfortunate person had died from a couple of crude arrows or bolts while hiding behind a pair of boulders.

Back at the campfire, Anarton sat on a large rock and took a swig of water. As he did so he pointed out several more groups had moved into the cavern, most of them just as poor-looking as the early groups. A few others looked better off, but nowhere near as well off as the group of six. Yet none approached the six with the food. Instead, they sat and stared with a mixture of hope and resignation.

Tyklor shook his head as he stood and rolled his shoulders. “If nothing else, they should all try fishing out of the deep pool since the waterfall has kept the surface from freezing. The overhang to the north would keep the snow off while they try. Even a totally Mundane can fish.”

“Maybe they don’t have stuff to fish with,” Ark’land stated. He paused and his eyes went wide as yet another group moved in.

This party was much larger and had a few heavily armed and armored men and women. Between the warriors, eighteen young men in light leather armor, crossbows, and hip swords hefted large snow-coved packs. All were breathing heavily. A couple started to take a knee, only to be pulled back to their feet by the guards. The guards pointed to a section deeper in the cavern. Behind them, an octet of mules, loosely lashed together moved into the cave with huge packs. One shook off as soon as it got fully up the embankment leading to the main cavern. This loosened ropes and spilled some gear.

Intermixed within the armed contingent were a few well-dressed adults. A small group of decently, yet ruggedly, dressed kids entered the cavern right behind the adults. The six kids grabbed what had fallen off the mule while two of the guards watched over them protectively. Once all the dropped items had been secured, the kids moved to catch up with the others, but all talked excitedly. This huge group bypassed all the others and moved in the general direction of Anarton’s group.

The voices of the kids caused weird echoes which in turn triggered one of the well-dressed men to call out, “Children, if what we heard is correct there is serious problems up in Rolling Dale. There are many who have sought refuge in here and certainly want to rest! Keep voices down!”

A nicely dressed woman called out moments later, “We have goods for trade if anyone wants to look over our wares! We will set up on the northeast merchant ledge. We will be open for business shortly.”

Ark’land climbed up higher on the rocks behind Anarton to get a better look. Suddenly he slipped a on wet section of rock and slid down into a smooth concaved section. His long squeal of fear changed to giggling as he came to a rest at the bottom of the bowl with a small pool of water in the bottom. Even in the gloom the others could see him look up. His gaze fell on Anarton with wide eyes. He shivered because of the cold water but sent up a beaming smile, “That was fun! Can I do it again?”

Anarton let out a relieved sigh and chuckled, “If you can find a way back up, yes. But it looks to me like we may have to toss you a rope. The sides look very smooth. You need to be more careful!”

Twin boys from the trade caravan sprinted from where the others were and scrambled up the rocks as they heard Ark’land. The speed they scaled up the rocky ledge told even the least observant they had been in the cavern countless times since they knew exactly how to get up to where Ark’land was. As they looked down, Anarton, Tyklor, and Yulay got a good look at them.

They were Human, and close to Yulay’s age, possibly a bit younger. Both boys sported reinforced leather armor and Training step 4 Warrior Adept pins on the left shoulder of a vest with eight Silver Steel throwing daggers. A Blue Steel messer with an amber stone was worn on the left hip while a six flanged Stone Steel light mace with a large blue laced agate stone in the handle hung off the right hip. Both boys also had a sheath built into their left boots, but the Daggers of Light they normally held were currently in the boys’ hands. The right shoulder showed the only noticeable difference between the two. One had a Healthman Training step 4 pin, the other a Sailor step 4 Training pin.

The lad with the Sailor pin brushed long brown hair back from his face and looked down at Ark’land with a big smile. “Turn to the left, just up from where the water in the bottom runs into the small crack! There are like, um steps. They’re hard to see without a light. But take it slow. It’s slippery, especially with wet hands and boots, but as long as you’re careful, you can climb up to us!”

The second twin moved down the rocks as Ark’land found the odd step-like structures and offered a hand. He hefted the small boy back up to the ledge with a wide grin. “You OK?”

Ark’land rubbed his arm as he looked at the older boy and nodded, “Uh huh. Bumped my elbow, but never done nothing like that before!”

The Healthman twin knelt and looked at Ark’land’s elbow while his brother held a Dagger of Light close. “Got the start of bruise. Don’t think it’s any big deal. It if starts to hurt come see us. As soon as we are set up so our folks can sell, we’ll be up here on the slide. It’s one of the best parts about coming up here!”

Anarton watched the twins as they helped Ark’land down from the rocky ledge. He didn’t turn his head away from them but spoke in a whisper. “Young Wraiths, it is time to do something I seldom allow. First, I am suspending your slave status, Yulay. If you do well, I may even decide to let it vanish under the understanding if you ever hold onto another’s life spark after I command it be dropped, your punishment will be something out of the deepest darkest interweaving of a nightmare. Second, and this is also just as rare. I want you both the make friends with those two. Remember to use your shortened names, non-Wraith disciplines, and do not show off... At least too much.”

“While I am not arguing and will never hold a life spark longer than absolutely needed ever again, may I ask why you want us to try to make friends with them?” Yulay asked.

Tyklor let out a soft snort, “Because we could spend moons in here before we know a tenth of what those two do about this place…” He then grinned, “And in this I happen to be with Ark’land. If we get to turn them into friends, we can do stuff with them. And those wet smooth rocks look super fun!”

A smirk crossed Anarton’s lips, “Do you really think I would stop you from trying it?”

“No Lord,” Tyklor responded. “But I doubt you would allow us to do it as many times as those two will want.”

Anarton snickered, “In this you are assuredly correct. However, from now until we are back on our own, my title must be Master, not Lord. Remember, I must now appear to be a Dragon Sect Warrior, which I am not quite to the level of Legendary Echelon. Those two have gear of extreme wealth. It is unlikely they will be allowed to spend time with you unless you have a high status. Therefore, all three of you are also to act as apprentices, not fully indentured servants. I will go down and introduce myself as a Master which will, or at least should, give the twins more time with the two of you. I see a younger girl, who could be a good playmate for Ark’land while you try to convince the twins to show you everything they know of this cavern. First, however, you need to show interest in getting to know them.”

Even as both Tyklor and Yulay nodded. Yulay glanced around, then spoke, “While it’ll be fun to get to know kids outside of your farm, I do not see how this could possibly be an entrance to one of Gambra’s strongholds. It is not secret, and people come and go all the time.”

Tyklor slowly shook his head. “I disagree. If there is a hidden passage, she and her people could come and go without attracting any attention. As big as this cave is, someone or even a large group could appear, intermingle and then slide in or out of the stronghold without anyone taking notice.”

Tyklor pointed, “Just look down there, Yulay. A trade caravan just made their way from somewhere outside the area, in a blizzard and are setting up shop as if it is normal for them. No one is going to notice people moving in and out of here!”


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

Tazen looked over the three kids one more time. He could find no more tunnels under their skin and all three had calmed greatly since the removal of the worms and their subsequent cutting down. He had yet to untie them, since he figured it would be easier to deal with the treatment, he felt he should give them while they were restrained. It would also remind them who was in charge. Last, but certainly not least. He didn’t want any of them running and accidentally alert hostiles to their presence. However, he did have the three whipping boys give each some food out of one of the packs in the room and allowed them to share a waterskin.

He moved up to the first boy he pulled the worm out of. “Hold still as you can. I bet this is gunna hurt, but it’s really gotta be done.”

“Don’t take too long! We’ve been here too long already.” Alkoris warned as he peeked out the door they had charged in through. Everything remained remarkably quiet.

Dario grabbed one of the dead Goblings and dragged it into the empty room. "We'll put the bodies in here and hopes them don't get found for a bit..." He glanced over at the first kid to have the Brain Borer removed from under his skin. "Do ya know where we’re at?"

"You not know?"

Alkoris responded with a shrug as he yanked valuables off the Halforc, "We kind of took a wrong turn, woke up in the basement, and escaped... Well, still trying to escape..."

"This no be the basement?"

"Not the bottom of it, no."

"Oh..." The boy let out a hiss of pain as Tazen pushed some fireroot into the spot where the slug had been cut out. After a few seconds, the boy managed to whimper, "If'n this no be bottom basement, guess me knows what them monsters was gunna do to us after them things went in our ears..."

"What do you mean?" Tazen demanded to know.

"The girl spell-thrower with the knife in her..." The boy nodded in the direction of the moaning girl with her hand clutching the dagger in her stomach. "Her say us go down with the rest after da worm thing went in all three a our ears."

The kid paused, let out a few yelps and whimpered as Tazen punctured the path the borer had made in several locations and pushed in some fireroot. Once satisfied he had done all he could and the boy was free of the any other nasty surprises, he tightly wrapped the entry and exit points with a bandage. Finally, Tazen cut the ropes from around the kid’s ankles and pointed for Yarnay to help him over to a chair. “Hands stay tied for now. We can’t afford any of them getting loose.”

As the boy sat and put his head down on the table, he glanced to the well-dressed kid Alkoris had taken down, "The one wit the brew cloak... him say once worm go into ear, it make us dead inside... make me wanna eat on living. Him have more a them in him cloak, so be careful with it."

Sibler moved up to the Mystic, poked him a couple of times with his foot to verify the kid was still unconscious, and started carefully pulling the cloak off.

Dario looked over with a frown, "What is ya doin' little guy?"

Sibler didn't stop, but did respond, "I am a Mystic, and this is a super nice Mystic cloak." The boy pointed to a stitched in wolf on the left side of the collar. The thread looked to be silver and gold with blue shimmering sparkles. "This comes from the Howling Wolf Mystic Shop in the noble section of the capitol, and they only embroider the magic ones. This stitching is real gold and silver with crushed gems melted into the metal, so it is one of the best they make!"

Alkoris gave Dario a shrug, but had a question of his own, "Sounds stupid expensive, but what about the stuff in it? How will you know what they do?"

Sibler got the cloak off and noticed a row for seven glass vials with three missing. He pulled one of the remaining four out and wiggled it back and forth before holding it up, "This is one of those worm things... How about we wake him up and make him tell by wiggling this in front of his face?"

Yarnay looked appalled as he shook his head, "Sibler, you cannot!"

Dario let out a snort, "Sure he can! All it'll take is the bastard thinkin' he'll do it. After seein' and hearin' what they do, I bet he'll spill his guts of everything he knows!"

Tazen took a moment to stop working on the girl to turn and raise an eyebrow, "Worth a shot. But be careful, no telling if he's lyin'."

At this point Tyndall spoke up while looking at the book pouch he had taken off the girl he had stabbed, "Maybe Sibler will be able to focus in on the kid and see if he's lying like the guy down in Brackish Lake did in front of me."

"What guy?" Alkoris asked with great interest.

"A mind talker I was handed to for a week so he would help see who was lying about knowing where a noble was being held." Tyndall continued to look over the book and pouch he had pulled off the girl with some longing as he added, "He was able to tell who was lying real fast..."

Alkoris glanced over to Sibler, "You want the cloak, so it's worth a shot, but it’ll be real big on you.”

“Almost down to my ankles. I like them long!”

“Give him a few years before he needs a new one too.” Tyndall remarked with a snort as Sibler played with the best way to wear it.

“This is taking too long,” Alkoris warned. “We need to get going..." he stopped dragging the Halforc, grabbed the pouch out of Tyndall's hands, knelt next to the girl and slapped her face to get her coherent. "You're still awake, so you're going to take all the spells, except one, out of this book and hand them to me, or I'm going wiggle this dagger stuck in your gut around until you do." For emphasis he flicked the dagger.

The young Mage trembled and shook her head, "No... It's mine..."

"He took it fair," Alkoris pointed back and up to Tyndall, "and if ya die, so does yer book. He gets what's left. Or... you can keep whatever page you really want, and we leave you gagged and tied in the other room. Maybe you'll get found and live. Otherwise, you'll die right here, right now, and he'll get whatever's left." His eyes hardened and he raised his hand as if getting ready to slap at the blade.

The Mage shook her head and weakly reached up for the book.

Alkoris handed her the book while putting his other on the hilt of the dagger, "One hint of a false move and I'll twist this knife in circles!"

The teen shook her head in terror. With trembling lips, she flipped through the book, finding a single page. She then let out a whimper as she whispered a short phrase and pulled all the other pages out.

Alkoris handed the seventeen pages over his shoulder, then pulled a lightly glowing ring off her finger and a heavy greyish metal hip sword from her left side. "Now tell me what the ring does!"

"Cold protection... tap stone three times fast for half a day of protection... fifteen charges per moon cycle... But… it takes the use of Force equal to an Autospell to activate… The blade is Orakin magic... heavy but helps with attack... and causes great pain… It… its extremely old… It is mine…”

"Was. Now it's his."

Tyndall shook his head, "I barely know how to use a blade and I sure don't want a heavy one. Besides, if I'm really getting all these spell pages and the ring, I've got way more than the rest of you! One of you who really knows how to fight, take it. I'll just keep the bronze one you gave me."

Alkoris shrugged, flipped the ring over to Tyndall and slid the weapon and sheath over to Dario. "I'm really not a blade guy, so here."

Dario grabbed the blade’s handle and quickly pulled his hand back. “Yeee-ow! I think it bit me!”

Seeing Alkoris reach for the dagger in her stomach, The girl trembled, “No, no! Don’t! It is not my fault. It must be in the hand of a spellcaster, or it will… cause great harm to the user. Please it must stay with me!”

“Not going to happen.” Tazen snarled. “Now tell us what you know of it, or I’ll use one of those worm potions on you!”

The girl’s eyes went wide, “You can’t!”

Tazen stopped working on the tied girl, stood and moved up to Sibler, “Give me one of those. I think it’s time ta find out what would have happened if one of these things got into any of these three kids’ ears!”

The moment Sibler pulled out one of the glass vials the girl screeched, “I’ll tell you everything! Just keep it away from me!”

Alkoris shook his head. “Finish up on those other two Tazen, I got this.” He carefully took the glass tube from Sibler and moved closer. “Start talkin’ before I accidently break this next to you." To enhance his words, he dropped it with his right hand and caught it with a scoop from his left just before it hit the ground.

Even with the dagger in her, the girl rolled to get further away while screaming, “Noooo!”

Alkoris moved up and stepped on her leg, “I suggest ya start talking!”

“The blade, it is beyond old and has to be in the hands of a spellcaster to work. There are others like it, but they need to be held by those of other Fields. Mine prefers a Mage! It was fully tied to me at the time I tested into Training Echelon by twisting the handle all the way around. It opens the mouth on the Orc-looking head on the handle. My grandmother put it in my hand and clamped her hand over mine. It… it bit me! It continued to chew until I agreed to give myself to it! If you take it… If you kill with it, it will bite you and what it took from me will be lost in the blade.”

“What does it do for you, anything?” Tyndall demanded to know as he stared at the blade.

“Helps me fight better and gives me an extra couple of spells a day… Please give it back. If you want one for a Swordsman, find Devkiln. I hear he escaped from the caravan and is somewhere in the city! His is longer and for a Swordsman… but it lost, like, all power when he used it to burn the refugee kid’s hand! Please I’m bleeding, and my mouth is so dry…”

Tazen moved over and poured some water into her mouth. “I’ll secure the knife in your gut best as possible and do what I can to stop the bleeding if you tell us everything you know. If not… The little worm goes in you. Now what about Devkiln’s blade?” He pointed to Alkoris, “As soon as she stops talking, put the worm on her!”

“You best keep those lips movin’!” Alkoris stated as he held the vial over her.

“OK, OK! Just get it away from me!”

As soon as Alkoris backed off a pair of steps the girl put both hands back on her stomach and trembled in pain but started talking. “Devkiln detested the refugee kid. Hated him. I don’t know why… He just did for some reason. So he finally decided to force him out. He pretended to heat the blade up in the forge, but he really activated some of the power within. It’s like my blade. It knows how to cause pain. It did so by burning and biting the kid. But instead of crumpling, the little brat continued to fight Devkiln and the others. It took like four or five to hold him down and keep his hand on the hilt. Devkiln told him, all he had to do was ring the bell, but the kid refused over and over. I don’t know how he did it, but the kid took both its bite and burn and refused to surrender. For some reason, the blade couldn’t handle being refused, rejected, and overpowered in the force of wills battle. Devkiln got what the blade originally took from him, and everything else stored inside that was supposed to one day be Devkiln’s was instead instantly passed to the kid. From what I heard, one of those with Devkiln alerted the guard, because the kid was starting to come for them even as his hand smoked!"

“It sounded like the hand was all but melted to the hilt.”

“It was. I’ve never seen any burn so bad.” Tazen snarled. “Hope I never do again.”

“Dorwald said the blade healed the kid some, but it sure didn’t sound like it from what I heard.”

“If it healed him, it did a piss poor job.” Tazen took a deep breath as the girl pulled her hand away from her stomach, saw the hand coated in blood, and whimpered. “Keep talking or be worm food! What more do you know about Devkiln’s blade?”

“Not much! Really! Please help… I’ve told you enough…”

Tazen glared. “I’ll decide when you’ve told me enough! Now talk or worm.”

The girl let out a sob, “You’re going to let me die, aren’t you?”

“No. You are killing yourself by not talking.” Alkoris stated as he jiggled the tube with the worm in it.

She curled up into a tighter ball and gripped at the dagger while speaking through sobs. “I really don’t know more. Like I said… By the time the brat’s hand was pulled from the blade, it had already been drained and was cooling.

“It even lost its bond with Devkiln. I know it took Devkiln going out and killing several refugees for the blade to even become magical again. From what his brother told me, Devkiln had to slowly kill like a couple of whole families with it before it started to inflict extra pain again, but his blade is still nothing like what it was before the kid bested it.”

This got Tazen’s full attention, “So the blade is not Devkiln’s anymore?”

“No… it’s his… again… His father would have… we don’t know but it would have been awful. I… it hurts too bad. I can’t…”

“Worm or continue answering our questions. Your choice.” Alkoris stated and flipped the vial up and caught it over her head.

The young Mage let out a screech of fear. Her voice also gained some strength and she talked faster. “You bastards! Keep it back!” She took a few fast shallow breaths. “Devkiln’s father had placed the blade with Devkiln to gain power, not lose it. Devkiln knew his father would do horrible things if he found out the blade’s energy had been lost to him. So he got me and his brother Vit’s help to reactivate the mouth and hold his hand on it as it bit him. He tried to surrender fast, but it must have been angry or something because it kept biting for several minutes. Devkiln begged us to let him take his hand off, but my blade took me over and Vit fell into a trance and wouldn’t let go either. When we finally snapped out of it, Devkiln’s hand was a bloody mess.”

The girl put her hand over the blade in her gut, and started to roll into a ball, but the second the worm vial was waved in front of her face she resumed talking, but in a weakening voice. “We had to give him one of his father’s best healing potions, then take him to a Channeler to get the scaring healed without showing too much. We had to lie to the acolyte to get the lead priestess of Veldora to channel a healing. It was obvious we were not believed about his hand falling into a Razor Rat’s nest, by either the priestess or the Healing Spirits she channeled for. She had to coax a healing out of the spirit, saying it didn’t matter what had happened, only that a boy would be left horribly scarred if something wasn’t done. She then made it clear a large gift was expected. We emptied our pouches into the coffers before his hand was finally healed.

“Please, don’t take my blade and… help me... I… cannot take more of this… The pain is getting too much… If I vomit…”

“Then ya probably die.” Tazen stated without any sign of remorse. “So I recommend you don’t. Now tell us about what is with these worms, what was going to happen to these three, what else you know about what is going on, and a way we can get out of here with these three. If ya do, I’ll take care of ya as I promised. You’ll get left in the back room. It’ll give ya a chance. If not… we get to see what a worm does.”

The girl held up a bloody trembling hand as Alkoris moved the vial close yet again. “The Gloom Fire Mystics make them. I don’t know how. Hadhel called them Brain Borers. They are easy to pull out, until they get into the ear. Hadhel told us once they get inside your head, they take over, make the person want to eat live flesh. Those who get them put in their ears are somehow trained with pain and rewards of flesh to learn not to attack those wearing red sashes. I hear they have over a hundred below being trained and are making more. They went out to the refugee villages before they took over and locked down the city. I hear they are going to turn all of them into flesh eaters and unleash them on Wyhrem’s armies when the king tries to retake the city. Some woman by the name of Gambra says the soldiers won’t go after peasants, especially kids, until it is too late. They then will take the soldiers and turn them into better and more powerful undead with potions and spells.”

Even as gasps cascaded over the room, Tazen held up his hand to stop the three whipping boys from speaking. “So these Brain Borers make the person into an undead as well as a flesh eater?”

“I don’t know or really understand… But Hadhel said they have other potions that turn people into even worse things. The cloak you took has two dark grayish-green liquids. If you shake them lightly you will see little heads with nasty teeth. Hadhel called them Ghoul Makers. He told us if we didn’t help him set up this bet on those three kids, he would use one on us or have one of the other Mystics turn us into demon larva, zombies, wraiths, vampirlings, or other horrible undead!”

Tazen moved up to the kid who had the Mystic robe, “I gather this be Hadhel?”

“Yes. He is a Gloom Fire Mystic, His father is a Raven Cat Mage who I’m apprenticed to, and his mother sits on the Rolling Dale council! He knows way more than I do. Most of what I am telling you came from him.”

Tazen glared at the Mystic as he rubbed his chin. “What makes you so important to have the blade and to be part of this?”

“I don’t know why I got the blade, but it had something to do with the death of my mother when I was born. My grandmother was a Raven Cat Mage, and my father is a lieutenant in the city guard…”

“So the city guard is part of this?”

“I heard at least one commander broke off with most of his detachment and have gone into hiding, but… Much of the guards, yes. They are with Gambra and the Gloom Fire…” She spit out some blood but managed to continue talking. “I know my father was given a liquid to take out the Captain of the Guard. If he succeeded, he was promised a promotion all the way to watch commander and was to be given one of the estates in the noble section…”

Tazen shook his head, “Why? We are in the middle of Eagleonia! Do you think the king will not retake it?”

The girl managed a shrug. “I don’t know… Are you going to let me die slow or…”

“Shut up and hold your guts in for a few!” Tazen growled. “I need to think!”

Kaznal looked over, “What is a Raven Cat Mage?”

“An elite private Mage organization.” Tyndall hissed. “They have an invite only hiring hall right next to the northeast wall. It’s where we were staying… where my mistress was staying… where I was tormented. The mistress was a member. She took jobs from them before. Actually, they normally came to her.

“The missions they gave the mistress were almost always revenge oriented, with someone always wishing they had been killed instead. The Raven Cats also tended to come to the mistress with tasks where I could be used as a diversion. It’s how I ended up in the hands of a Halfdwarf slaver, a Gobling raiding party leader, and a merchant who I found out double-crossed them, and a super mean and nasty noble. All of them had a thing for boys… The Raven Cats knew this which is why they came to the mistress. She would let the targets have me, then strike when their guard was down.

“They were all left helpless, stranded, with little chance of survival. The mistress usually killed all but one or two of their family, too. Those who didn’t die...” Tyndall shuddered. “Those she didn’t kill were left wishing they had perished with the rest of their families. The Raven Cats were also the ones offering the reward for Devkiln and his blade. It sounded to me like they were way more worried about the blade than Devkiln, though. They also told the mistress about the reward on the kid in the color picture but weren’t the ones offering the gold for him. I don’t know who was.”

“Raven Cats be real powerful in and ‘round Rolling Dale.” Dario muttered. “They handle most all the monster problem in the deep woods. They’re also the main Mage back-up for the city guard when spell tossin’ be needed. Other than guild leaders, Raven Cats be pretty much the only spell throwers allowed to toss killin’ type spells inside the walls, too.”

Alkoris nodded in agreement, but glanced over to Tyndall, “So the woman in charge of you was a active member, huh?”

“I think so, although it was more like she worked for them. Sometimes I got the feeling she was trying to win a membership by making those the Raven Cats sent her after suffer as much as possible.”

Tazen continued to work on the three kids but glanced over. “Sounds bad, but can you give an example of what the bitch I killed did that was so awful?”

“Yeah, sure.” Tyndall let out a long breath as he continued to help dig through the belongings taken off those who had been betting on the fate of the three kids. “Three Raven Cat Mages showed up in Leer’s Crossing.”

“Where?” Dario asked as he checked the sharpness of a boot knife and quickly decided to take it.

“Leer’s Crossing is the only bridge crossing Greysac’s Torrent, the river separating the Wastelands of Odin from the outside world. The two women and one guy offered the mistress a contract on making a merchant’s last sandglass turns as unpleasant as possible. They even requested the death of the entire family except the oldest and youngest girls.”

Tyndall involuntarily shivered. “It wasn’t one of my better days either. While they went in and discussed the details, the Raven Cat Mages’ Apprentices took turns casting on me. Booger Bursts, Brain Freezes, Cross-eyes, Trips, Burps, Twitches… They wouldn’t stop until I stuck my hand into a mound of Assassin Ants. The Raven Cat guy took me a Healthman to get the stingers and poison out and then paid a Shaman to properly heal my hand. The whole way there the bastard laughed about how much I cried and how loud I screamed. However, he did say his Apprentices went too far, so not only did I get my hand treated, he took me to a Mage shop and had a backup book made of my very own. He also gave me credit for keeping my hand in the nest for so long… He even slid me several spell pages… But he took me to a spell page maker and used his own magic to help make a tattoo pouch for it.” He pulled down on his shirt to show a tattoo of a book over his left shoulder. “Hurt almost as bad as the dammed Assassin Ants, worse when it was pushed in. Problem is, he had me cast a auto-memorizable spell through him to lock it, so I know it. Trouble is, it's Secondary, so I can’t cast the needed spell until I reach Secondary Echelon. The prick said it would motivate me to be a real Mage…

“But it gave me a book of my own and the mistress thought it was just a tattoo showing I was a Mage. She wasn’t happy about it though. Anyway, it took a few days for the puss to drain out of my hand and for me to be able to move my hand and shoulder, so the mistress trailed the caravan. Just as we rounded Mount Twilight End, heading toward Vaneuben’s Gap, they stopped for an early night where a stream cut across the path. She had me move in and told me to separate the girls. As the two girls went to get water from further upstream so it wasn’t close to the animals, I tricked the youngest girl with a Mini-Illusion of a hurt puppy. When she chased after it, the older girl chased after her. The mistress knocked out the oldest girl with a spell as the younger one ran over a small hill. I grabbed the older girl and pulled her away, then made a glowing ball so the younger one went away from the camp instead of toward it, calling for the dog the whole time.

“While I kept the girl distracted, the mistress took out everyone else in the wagons except the caravan owner. She even killed all the draft and riding animals. By the time I got back, the guy’s jaw was broken so bad he couldn’t talk, and she also broke one of his kneecaps. She staked him down so he could see his wagons, but from a long ways away between two rocks. She left all the other bodies strewn around the small caravan. Once she was satisfied, I had to break a wheel on all three wagons, put all the food in one of the wagons, and light it on fire. Then I dragged the oldest girl back to Mistress’ wagon while she cast Embers on the ropes tying the guy to the stake so the ropes would eventually burn enough to where he could break free.

“As the mistress expected, the large fire led the little girl back to the caravan. Last thing I heard of the little girl was her screaming. Don’t know if the caravan master ever got to her or not…

“We took the oldest girl to Baccard’s Keep. It has the biggest open-air market and has huge weekly slave auctions. Its walls are the only structures I know of before the hills to the Wastelands of Odin and the only real settlement on the north side of Greysac’s Torrent, on the grasslands before the first hills of the Wastelands of Odin. She then told me I’d been used so often, it was time to learn what it was like to use someone else. She also said it would be good for me to finally get to learn what being with a girl was all about.

“There I was… I had my first and only time with a girl… I was told to make her mine just I had been made into a toy for others… Mistress made sure I made her do everything and did everything to her. At first the girl cried, but after a few days she gave up. After just over a week with me, the mistress had me take her out into the street with only sackcloth for her clothing. Mistress told her she would burn her eyes out if she didn’t oblige. I had to take her out to the street on a leash and offer her up for a copper for a sandglass turn. This went on for fifteen straight days. Once I got a 120 copper, the mistress took her to a Healthman, got her a bath, and gave her two full days of rest. Then gave her to me for another two days. The next day, mistress handed her all the coin and left her outside the keep gate with a skimpy leather outfit, low boots, a small sling pack with basic travel gear, and a lady dagger. She was so damaged and used… and everyone knew it… she tried to run after the wagon, begging us not to leave her there. She even called out saying I could have her every night, but mistress made me get the animals to go faster… It’s the worst thing I ever saw the mistress do and by far the worst thing I was forced to do to someone else.”

“You could have said no!” Alkoris snarled.

Yarnay shook his head, “If everything he has told us is the truth, and I believe him, he had no more choice than I do when I am told to drop my pants to take a lashing. Ty was just like an indentured servant. No rights given, no money, clothed and fed by the Mage woman. To say no is… was… not an option.”

“He could have chosen to starve, get punished, and possibly even have his book damaged. But for what? Once he got hungry enough or beaten too badly, he would have done as told.” Sibler stated. “While not a full slave, he was pretty much owned by the woman. I do not think you all understand what it is to be fully under someone like Ty was.”

Tazen glanced over to Alkoris, “I’d listen to them. If anyone would understand it would be whipping boys to very high caste boys. After meeting their commander, I’m real sure I’d never say no to the guy, no matter what he demanded I do.”

Dario, glanced over, “To me, it sounds a lot like us tryin’ to tell Master Instructor Babawid no. It’s just not somethin’ we’d ever think about, no matter what him tell us to do!”

At this Alkoris tossed up his hands, “OK, yeah. But still…” he shook his head. “So the Raven Cats sent messages to your old lady?”

“No. Just like when I stuck my hand into a nest of Assassin Ants, they came themselves and always with two Apprentices each. I don’t know how they found us, but they did… often. The Raven Cats seemed to show up in different places with bounty missions when we were in travel. Oftentimes this would happen when the mistress would be trying to get somewhere to get an offered payment. Whenever they did show up, I knew it was going to be bad for me. They knew from the first time they saw me I wasn’t very gifted. They made fun of me and their Apprentices were mean, and always targeted me. They almost always cast spells on me until I did what they wanted. But no matter what they did to me, I knew it would be worse for those they put a price on.”

“I knew I didn’t like Raven Cats; I just didn’t know how bad until now.” Tazen grumbled. He turned back to the girl who was rocking back and forth moaning again. “Knock it off and tell us how we get out with these three, or we worm ya!”

She didn’t even look up. “Maybe you can get them out of Gloom Fire complex by dressing them up and pretending to be escorts for them to see family. Master Tregasel took many noble and even royal children. He lets them go see family for a few sandglass turns a couple of times a week under escort. Just make sure you are seen being mean to them and don’t let them speak. The Gloom Fire Mystics like to see them cry. I got in trouble for being too nice once, and I thought I was being real mean. But those three are low peasant trash at best. The first time they talk everyone will know they aren’t nobles! You will also all need a silver ring with a gemstone. I don’t know what but was told bad things happen if you try to leave without one. Twist the stone to the right once you put it on, so it will work. Twist the stone again to the left before you take off or again something bad will happen. But I wasn’t told what. As far as getting out of Rolling Dale, it’s locked down. There is no way out.”

Alkoris snorted, “If we can get to the merchant section or better the dockside open air market, I can get us out. Any of the liquids in the Mystic cloak worth anything to us?”

“I can only tell you what I was told…” she whimpered. “Please, you have to help me…”

“You get or don’t get aid based on how helpful you are. So tell us what you know about the liquids!” Tazen demanded.

The girl spit more blood out of her mouth, “Fine! But you can only pull three each before the robe stops you from pulling more. You want full access you have to get it to attune to you and I don’t know how to do it.” Blood dribbled out of the corner of her mouth. She cringed as she swallowed hard. “There are lots of different liquids in the robe. Bottom rows on both sides are all Fire Bursts. We were told if one of the Ghoul Makers ever gets loose, to use one on it before it gets in our mouths. The next row up on the left side is Acid. The right side is Cold Bursts. The bright orange are the best Healing Gloom Fire makes. Master Tregasel and two others make them, but I’m told they taste absolutely wretched. He has three pretty blue ones. They smell real sweet but are Poison. The muddy brown ones are Anti-Toxin for the poison and works on other kinds of poisons and natural venoms from things like Spine Throwers. I had to take one of those once. It made me totally goofy for a couple of days. Those, the Brian Borers and Ghoul Makers are the only ones I know.”

Tyndall took a deep breath, “As many times as I have dealt with Raven Cats, I know they always have two Apprentices, a boy and a girl. So where is your master and your counterpart?”

“Teacher Wobalage is on the other side of the bronze doors with Teachers Egafina and Gergallia. Raven Cat Mage Apprentices are not allowed in there. They told us we’d be here a day or two, so they gave us them three, six others, and a few students from the local schools to mess with. Initiates Bacura and Ruthim, Novices Fediffra, and Fubid, me and my Apprentice complement, Nimgost were in the study messing with a couple from the Rolling Dale School of Arms who were dragged in by two Raven Cat hiring hall guards a few sandglass turns ago. But Nimgost and I got bored. He went to the resting chamber with one of the girls brought in at the same time these three trash caste were… and I… I came in here…”

“Where’s the study?” Tazen demanded to know.

“Small hall other side of the door from where you dragged the bodies...” she trembled badly as she stopped to cough up some blood. “I don’t have much left… please help me.”

“It’s a gut wound. It can take sandglass turns to die from one of those according to our instructors.” Alkoris stated with zero remorse as he wiggled the vial in front of her face. “What’s all on the other side of the door going to the study?”

The girl turned her head away from the glass tube. “Get it away from me!”

“Tell us what we want to know then!” Alkoris hissed.

OK, OK… It’s a holding area for those the Gloom Fire Mystics have plans for. On the far side is some steps leading up to resting area for guest Apprentices and Initiates. There is also four lodging rooms for Gloom Fire Recruits and Novices. Only Gloom Fire Apprentices and Initiates are allowed through the bronze doors...” She took several short fast breaths, then whimpered as she saw the glass tube held above her. Her hands quivered as she tried to hold the dagger in place, but a shake of the vial was all it took for her to continue talking. “Raven Cat Apprentices get to use the nicer accommodations quite often when our teachers go into the Gloom Fire main complex to help or whatever they do. The holding area has eight doors. The closest four are for the guards… You killed several. Two have guard shifts of four Goblings along with a sergeant and shift leader on rest cycle…”

She stopped as pain caused her to clench her teeth. She took a couple of breaths, saw Alkoris jiggling the Brain Borer again, and whimpered. It was clear she fought not to vomit, regained her breath after a few seconds she started speaking again. “All four of the other small rooms have a chamber pot and four metal beds attached to the walls. They lock with a metal slide on the outside of the doors. The door to the upper hall unlocks by pulling down of the right-side torch holder closest to it while casting a smoke puff into it. The upper hall has nine doors, the one on the end is a study.”

“And the rest?” Tazen demanded to know.

The girl used her shoulder to wipe off blood as it dripped out of her mouth. She looked up with pleading eyes, only to get mean stares back. She let out a moan. “It hurts too much…”

“Bet the worm goin’ into yer ear will hurt more,” Dario remarked as he finished stripping down one of the dead Goblings down to its loincloth.

Her chin fell into her chest as she saw Alkoris smirk and Tazen nod. “It… the study has a small offshoot bathing chamber, kitchen with fireplace, a well room, and two small punishment rooms. The six doors closest to the study are all four-person bunk rooms with desks, small storage chests, magic lamps, and a central table. The closer to the study, the nicer the room. Each has a door to a tiny square room for the room servant in the back.” She coughed up more blood, closed her eyes and quivered. “The… the ones furthest from the study are… are… um cells for...” She choked and bloody drool leaked out of her mouth. “Cells for slaves and or captives the Apprentices or others guests may have with them… The other two are storage… If you aren’t going to help me, please, just kill me… it hurts soooo bad.”

Tyndall moved up to the Orakin blade, “And if I take this and refuse to surrender to it?”

“You will capitulate… It will make sure.” The girl whined with certainty.

“If someone else did it, I can as well.”

Dario turned and stared at the Tyndall with a befuddled look, “Ty, um… is you nuts? You’ve done nothin’ but tell all a us what ya can’t do and how bad you’re like at… everythin’. But now yer saying you can take a blade tryin’ ta eat you?”

“I’m a weak, next to worthless in anything but surprise combat, and probably the worst Mage ever, but one thing I have learned how to do is deal with pain. So how do I make this work?”

“Ty, you can’t!” Tazen stated. “I treated Rylan! I ain’t got a clue how he did it, but there ain’t no way anyone else could do it.”

“Oh, watch me.”

“Ty, listen to me! Rylan damned near lost his hand!”

He glanced over to the potion cloak. “If one of those healing containers will fix my hand enough to where it will eventually heal enough to use it, I’m game.” He glanced up and frowned, “Guys, don’t look at me like I’m being stupid. Dumb is about the only bad thing I’m not. I’ve heard enough to know what’s coming my way. Actually, I know better than anyone here, cause I know pain! Some from the mistress, more from all those she handed me over to as a distraction, or to those she had me take the brunt of their wickedness so she could get a clean shot. Not to mention the damned Raven Cat Apprentices.” He pointed down. “Which is why I went after this bitch.”

“And you did great, Ty!” Yarnay praised, “But did you not hear? The blade will try to eat you, may burn you, or might try something else! If it has power to make pain, who knows what all it could do to you?”

Kaznal nodded, “Part of what Master… our commander taught us from day one of him taking over the training of those we are indentured to, and thus us as well, is never to play with magic we do not understand. He never let us touch magic unknown to us unless someone was there who did know and could react if needed.”

Tyndall snorted. “You take beatings, so you think you all have a clue. But you really don’t get it. No matter how hard you get whooped for who you are indentured to, it’s nothing compared to what horrible people do to those they have no care for and complete power over. The person they have power over has been me too many times for me to count. I have been in the hands of a Warlord of Morden, an orphanage overseer, three pirate captains, a couple of slavers, a gladiator master, over a dozen bandits and too many merchants, nobles, and aristocrats to count. I’ve even been ‘gifted’ to a damned Wolfling arena pit master!” He clenched his fist, “Not to mention the innkeep where the mistress found me. Pain is something I know and know well. Too well…”

The girl spit out some more blood, “Won’t do you any good. It would take time to set it up and I don’t have… probably much if any time left if you don’t all help me. The only other way to have it take you, and again it will take you, is to kill with it. So just give it back to me and forget about it.”

“The chance of us giving you this weapon is less than zero, spell whore!” Tyndall glanced over at the Mystic. “I’d prefer to kill her, but if he is really part of making flesh eaters and undead, I have no qualms shoving this blade into his throat instead.”

Even as the others all said no, Tazen held up both hands. “Ty, if you are certain, but first we have to know if she is right about those being healing potions in the cloak. It took me sandglass turns of work to take care of Rylan’s hand and I had basically unlimited access to Healthman supplies! He still wasn’t able to use it for days. We don’t have the time and I bet we’re going to need your spell throwing again to get out of here!”

“And we’ve got to get our fellow students!” Dario stated firmly.

“Not really looking forward to going after two six-man guard shifts and five Mage Apprentices, Dar.” Tazen stated. “But I’m with you. We can’t leave comrades down here with these animals.” He took in a deep breath, “But I also gave my word to this wench, and I don’t go back on my word…” He stared down as the girl coughed up more blood. “Kaznal, give me one of those orange ones.”


Tazen’s voice strengthened. “Who is in charge of you Kaz?”

“You…” Kaznal sighed and took one of the seven long vials with orange liquid from the robe.

“Yea I am and remember it. Don’t make me talk to the commander about not mindin’ me.”

At this, all three whipping boys held up hands and gulped.

“Geesh,” the girl got out as she spit up some more blood. “Your commander must be as bad as Master Tregasel!”

“Get him mad, and he’s worse, I’m sure. But he doesn’t make undead or turn little kids into flesh eaters! Now open up.”

The girl looked up at Tazen in terror, “You… you can’t heal me with a dagger in my stomach!”

Tazen grabbed the girl’s weakened and blood covered hands to prevent her from pulling out the blade. “After what you’ve done and were gunna do, I sure can.” He looked over his shoulder and held up the tube. “Alk, get ready to pour!”

The girl thrashed. As the open vial got close to her lips, she bit them to keep them tightly closed.

Tazen reached down with his free and pinched her nose closed. She had no choice but to open her mouth to breathe. An instant later Alkoris dumped the liquid into her mouth and slapped both hands over it so she couldn’t spit it out. At the same time Tazen pinched her nose closed again forcing her to swallow. She started gagging a few seconds later.

Tazen released her nose so she could breathe. Several seconds later Alkoris backed off shaking his bitten hand. He glanced at it, “Wow, Taz, that’s some good stuff! It’s even working on my hand! Her teeth marks are closing as I watch them!”

Tazen ripped at the girl’s shirt around where the dagger was buried. The wound closed around the blade and even the upper half of the hand guard quickly. The whole time the girl spit, gagged, made hacking sounds, and quivered. After several minutes, the only sign of injury was the hilt and lower half of the hand guard sticking out of her upper stomach along with the blood coating much of her and her clothing.

Tazen smirked, “There, as promised, I did what I could to get the blood flow around the dagger to stop and secured it in place. Dario, tie and gag her. Be careful. She told us what we wanted to know, so we give her a chance.”

He eyed the dagger and shrugged, “I can only guess at what having a knife deeply healed inside a person does, but I’m pretty damned sure moving it around isn’t a good idea. So if I was you, I’d stay real still.” He used one of the waterskins in the room to wash the blood off his hands, gave her a decent drink, and turned to look at Tyndall, “If you’re really goin’ to try this, we at least know we have a curing mixture for you. But let me warn you, if you fail, and the blade makes you turn on us, we will kill you.

“So, before you do anything stupid, think it over. You’ve got some time. We need to wake the Mystic and find out what other liquids are in the cloak. We also have to see about rescuing the other two from our school.”

Alkoris let out an uneasy breath. “If there is a plus side, it sounds like this is basically a dead end, so unless someone comes to get someone or to get some rest, this wing should be left alone.”

Dario moved up to the Mystic. “He still ain’t moved even after we stripped him to his loincloth.”

“Tie his hands behind him and toss some water on him.” Tazen commanded. “We need to know what the other liquids in his cloak do.”

Dario used his foot to roll the kid over, “Even if he wakes, I’m not sure if he’s gunna be able to talk, Taz. His jaw’s a mess.”

“Makes it harder to cast.” Alkoris shrugged. “But after what his worms almost did to these here kids, he’ll find a way to talk, or I swear I’ll put this worm into him!” He held up the tube for emphasis.

“If anyone ought a have it done ta him, it’d be this prick.” Dario stated while making sure the kid’s hands were tightly secured. He stood, pulled down his armor and pissed on the kid.

The kid moaned, thrashed for a few moments, bumped his jaw on the floor and gasped in pain. A few seconds later his eyes rolled back up into his head.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Alkoris snarled. He looked at the boy who remained the only one of the three to talk, “You need to take a leak, kid?”

The boy looked over with a glare at the Mystic. “Yea, me could go. Ya gunna have ta help er untie me hands…”

Tazen moved up behind the kid and cut the ropes joining his hands. “Just don’t run.”

“And go where?” The boy asked as he rubbed his wrists and stood. “Yer the only chance me gots!” He moved over and put another stream into the Mystic’s face. It was obvious to the others he aimed for the mouth.

The kid’s eyes popped open again and he gagged as he realized what the boy standing over him had done.

Dario moved up and stepped on the Mystic’s chest. “Can’t have ya bumpin’ your mouth and knockin’ yourself out again.”

“You… Owwww!” The kid quaked as his jaw moved.

“Me what?” Dario demanded to know.

He spoke slowly without moving his jaw much, badly slurring words. “Yaww knaw whooo I mmm?”

“Yea, A Gloom Fire bastard.” Dario responded. “Now tell us what the fancy little bottles in yer cloak do.”

“And don’t lie.” Alkoris added. “We know what several of them are.”

“No!” the young Mystic managed to get out loudly without moving his jaw.

“Screw this!” Tyndall stated. He moved up, unexpectedly snatched the vial out of Alkoris’ hand, and tossed it down, right next to the Mystic. It broke. The Brian Borer quickly scooted over and dug into the kid’s thigh.

The kid thrashed madly, “No! NO! NOOOO!”

The others all moved forward, But Tyndall stomped his foot, “Back off! Judging on how fast the borers moved up those three, he has a few minutes!” He then spun and looked down with a glare. “Now tell us what those damned liquids are!”

“Geet it oowwwt! Geet it oowwwt feersst!”

“No.” Tyndall snarled. “You tell us what the robe does, how to make it work for someone else, and all the weird glass things do, and I mean all of them! If you do, I will stop the worm from getting to your ear. If not, then we get to see what happens when it gets in your head! If you don’t hurry, I’ll put another on your nuts just so I can have some fun watching you try to scream with a busted mouth!”

Behind Tyndall, Alkoris took a step back while most of the others put hands over their groins at the thought of one of the worms digging into such a sensitive area.

The Mystic rattled off how to activate the robe, what it did, and went down the potions by color. A couple of times Tyndall had to stop him and have him say something again because he was so hard to understand. He also motioned Sibler over. “Hold up the robe, point to each one, and tell him what it does so we all know you got it.”

Sibler noticed the worm was up to the bottom of the ribcage and continuing to move up. He gulped. He pulled out the cloak and pointed, “Maroon is Fire. Gold is Ice. Blue is Poison. Brown is Anti-Poison and dark green Ghoul Makers, um…” The worm had moved up a couple of ribs. Watching the trail it left right under the skin made him shiver. “Um, purple is a Bone Stripper and can only be used on someone who is bleeding. It is a one-shot demon-like beast… Orange Super Healing and pink Minor Healing. Black blobs are more of those nasty brain worms… Um… silver color kills the worms even after they get inside your head but makes you real sick and takes some of your magic… Clear liquid with chunk of rock inside is a Splinter Bomb. The tan is Dust Burst…the copper ones are something to do with Vomit. Small orbs down along the lower seam with multicolored rocks are Sickness…” He stopped as the borer seemed to get confused as it tunneled around the Mystic’s left tit a couple of times causing the kid to thrash and scream. He pulled out a clear one, “Burning gas?”

The kid nodded wildly, “Nooo fire… jus… ffeeelll like burrrn! Huurrrt eye real b…b…bad. Geet it oowwwt! Geet it oowwwt!”

As it got to the collarbone, Tyndall knelt, dug a knife under the borer, lifted it out and dropped it back on the kid’s other leg. “Figured I’d give you some more time, Sibler. Now take a breath and let’s make sure you have them all down. Go over all of them again.”

Around Tyndall, the other kids blinked at how calm, confident, and mean the older teen had suddenly become.

Below Dario’s foot the kid squealed as the borer once again dug into his leg and started working its way up.

Sibler shuddered as he went through the long list of tubes, orbs, vials, and two large flasks. “Big ash-colored shiny ones are Blister Blasts?”

Again, the kid nodded as he tried to shake his leg. Tears poured out of his eyes.

Sibler moved up to the top row, “Light green is… um…”

“Krrrammmp boom…”

“Cramp Bomb?”

The boy nodded again and let out a shriek as he tried to pull his left leg up to his stomach to pinch the borer off, but all this accomplished was for the worm to exit the upper leg and dig back into the skin just below the belly button. He then let out an anguished howl as it exited the skin and chewed directly into the belly button. From there it angled back over to where the first path was and moved quickly.

Sibler took a deep breath. “These icky dark blue are slides?”


“Oh, ok… and the dark sandy color is Sticky?”

“Yea… Taaake oowwwt, taaake oowwt.”

Sibler’s lip trembled as the skin pushed up where the borer moved slowly and steadily up toward the boy’s head. He tapped three potions on the seam, “And these reddish-pink ones stop the Ghoul potions?”

“If taken fasssst, yesss. Owww!” He thrashed again. “Get it owwwt!”

Tyndall shook his head. “We aren’t done yet. The command word to make the robe his is ‘Crimson-rose-wine’, and the robe gives him a shield and prevents more than three the flasks from being pulled except by the wearer when he is wearing it. It also cleans and repairs itself on new and full moon, but takes the Force equal to two Primary Echelon spells to do it?”

“Yea… yea… yooo got it.”

“Put it on Sibler. Let’s make sure he is telling the truth. If he isn’t, he’s worm food!”

“No, stawwp! Do tawwwp buuut-in firsss. Or beerrrrn youuu when speeeak ka…ka..ka-mand.” The kid took some gasping breaths as the borer once again wrapped around his tit a couple of times. Other tears fell and sobs escaped him as Sibler put on the cloak, buttoned the top and said, “Crimson-rose-wine!”

A moment later the robe seemed to move as if wind was blowing it around. Within a few seconds it was perfectly sized to the way Sibler wanted. “Oh, this is really nice! There are even dimensional pockets under each potion, so there are really three in most of the slots. But it means I now have five Ghoul Makers, three Bone Strippers and eleven of the Brain Worms to get rid of!” He dug into a small pocket over the breast and pulled out two large books. “And look! I have his spellbook and his brewing book!”

“Yaaa now con-roll my robe and can make many mixxxezz.” The Mystic stated with a hint of anger in his eyes. “Now TAAAAKE IT OOWWWT!”

Tyndall motioned for Dario to get off the kid, shoved Sibler back and stared down with a depraved grin. He knelt, reached back, and hefted up the Orakin weapon with both hands. He eyed it, expecting to get bit. When it didn’t happen, he took a deep breath as he moved directly over the Mystic. “I said I’d stop it from getting into your ear. I never said I’d take it out!” He lifted the blade above his head as the Mystic’s eyes went wide with the sudden revelation he was going to die.

Tyndall spoke through gritting teeth as he swung the blade down on the Mystic’s neck, “Ok, you metal hunk of crap, give me your best shot!”

The heavy blade made a swishing sound, followed by a clang and some sparks as it easily cut the head off the helpless Mystic and slammed into the stone floor. The stone under the headless body even took a deep gouge.

The whole blade rippled with greenish-grey waves of energy. At the same time, the eyes of on the Orakin head at the end of the hilt popped open and glowed a deep dark crimson. The mouth of the Orakin head opened and clamped down on Tyndall’s right hand, just below the thumb. Blood dripped down the hilt and onto the blade. The waves of energy rippled and churned. Bolts of crimson shot out, causing Tyndall’s hands and arms to cramp up. This was followed by scores of bluish-grey electrical sparks. They wrapped around and hit Tyndall all over his hands and fingers.

Tyndall shook violently. However, even as he started to go down to his knees, he gritted his teeth. Shaking like a leaf, he forced himself to fully stand. Through clenched teeth he snarled, “Oh, come on you useless lump of killing metal! I was told you knew how to inflict pain! Come on! Get on with it!”

More sparks shot out. They lanced into his hands. Where they hit, pinpricks of blood could be seen. The mouth on the hilt let go and took a deeper bite. Waves of energy from the blade arched upwards and lanced under Tyndall’s fingertips. All his fingernails started to bend back. Blood ran from underneath.

“Pathetic!” Tyndall roared as if he was feeding off the torment and torture. “Assassin Ants hurt ten times as bad! You can do better!”

Waves of heat rolled off the weapon. Tyndall’s skin started to blister.

“Had a Boiling Beetle put on my chest and left there until I sucked off an Illorc pirate captain and his first mate. Mistress had to get the scar cut out of and me healed by a Master Echelon Healthman in Boiling Bay!” Tyndall’s hands gripped the blade tighter. “It melted my skin! If all you’re going to do is ggggive me blisters, ya…ya… you ain’t worth a crap!”

Ice crystals formed around his hands. His fingers started to turn blue.

Tyndall gritted his teeth as the puss in the newly formed blister froze. Still he managed to taunt the weapon. “Been colder! Was locked onto a table with ice restraints as a Dwarven Druid and his entire band had his way with me, you worthless piece of demon dung! I was melted free from his blood after mistress gutted him while he was still on me!” Tyndall derided even as tears rolled down his cheeks. He pulled the whole weapon into his chest, “Come on, freeze me if you can!”

The waves of energy coming of the blade flared yet again. Tyndall’s teeth started to chatter. “B… b… been dunked into the Frost River up in Frozen Stone in the middle winter and had my h… h… head held under by a Caveling as he split my backside… you bastard. S… st… Still been colder! You ain’t got nothing on that!”

The waves of energy started to falter. The blade jerked back and forth. “Taz! Alk! Dar! Help! It is trying to pull free! My hands are too stiff and I’m not strong enough to hold it!”

“Aw, crap…” Dario stated. “I just know I’m gunna regret this.” He moved up and put Tyndall into a bear hug. “But after what yer goin’ through I gotta try to help!”

The others all surrounded Tyndall, including the whipping boys and even the freed boy who peed on the Mystic. One, by one, they clamped down on Tyndall’s hands and helped him keep a firm grip over the weapon’s hilt.

The head of the Orakin figure pulled bits of flesh off as the other energies in the weapon rapidly faded. Finally, it stopped biting and spoke, “Let go! You are destroying me! LET GO!”

“No!” Tyndall shouted back. “Give me your power! Give it freely or I will drain your essence all the way out of this piece of crap Orakin-metal-coated sword!”

“You cannot do this!” the mouth shouted. “I… I…”

“You are dying, and you know it, General!” Tyndall countered. “Your link to Pyrothermal is dead, as I feel he is! You cannot tap into it all. You used up all the energy of the charred fiend first sent and Frexla’s channeled energy is dimmed to the point you are only giving me light burns from some blaze wench! Without real fire, you’ve got nothing left! The power of storms you exhausted early on. All you have left is ice and the link you have to it is draining you. Cyronia has not come to your aid, even though I feel you have tried a few times to get it. All you have is some demonette frost-whore helping to chill the metal! I’m draining her just as I did the charred fiend! I am now depleting you. You are beaten! Relinquish your powers to us and I’ll let go of you and the demonette. Otherwise, you are mine and I will pull you all the way out. Once I do, I will shatter the damned blade and send you to Inaxia’s side where you can tell her why you let me kill one of her minions! Then you can explain this utter failure on your part to Frexla herself!”

There was a series of hard pulls, jerks, and twists. This was followed by and agonized sigh. “You have bested me, Human. But you will inherit a few Orakin traits for this… you and your friends all will. I will see to it!”

“I’ve got little to lose.” Tyndall fired back.

“Then so be it. I surrender to you… I yield field of battle for only my third time…” A burst of brilliant green-grey energy erupted outward from the mouth of the Orakin head. It formed a ball in the center of the room. In the middle seemed to be a window looking into severely damaged brick structures in very dim light. The green mass churned and bubbled for a few moments before it exploded into eight crackling balls of energy. The middle one was by far bigger than the others. They swirled around the room, bounced off the walls and crisscrossed each other with sizzling sounds for several seconds. Then, decisively, they slashed downward. Tyndall was lanced by the largest one. The other seven holding him each took a smaller one. The force of ice-cold electrical bolts still knocked them back from Tyndall. The color of the metal blade dulled greatly and took on a green tinge. Tyndall took a deep breath, held the blade above his head and shouted, “Now start from scratch, asshole!” He tossed the blade into the body of the headless Mystic and stomped down on the worm as it crawled across the floor toward Dario, who was the closest.

The blade flared. A green aura surrounded it. The blade itself started to fade, then reappeared. Waned again, then surfaced again. Cracks appeared in the metal. A green glow came from underneath. It withered a third time. It seemed to jump in and out of the body a half-dozen times. The body of the Mystic evaporated from around the blade and disappeared. The head followed but left huge puddles of blood behind. The blade finally clattered to the floor. The Orakin head spoke, “There is too much magic from rupture points and dragon magic… I am trapped! I cannot allow myself to fade into history! I cannot be forgotten! Here, damn you all, take what is left of me! You eight… you are my legacy!” The Orakin metal coating peeled off the blade. More lightning surged out and lanced into the boys.

However, one ball of lightning was caught as it started to split into eight. Hands of pure blackness grabbed it, surrounded it, contained it. A deep creepy voice seemed to come out of the walls. An oppressive power filled the room and made it hard to breathe. “Oh, no neophyte godling. You do not get to leave a lingering presence in this realm beyond your power giftings!” There was laughter, but it was filled with gloating and anger. “No deityling, you leave this world as you entered it, a flicker of light to be swallowed by eternal blackness.”

A terror-filled voice came out of the inky blackness of the clasped hands, “This cannot be! We banished you and the twelve others!”

An insidious laughter oozed out of the walls. The temperature dropped. “Ah, but the barriers of banishment were never perfect. Mere former mortals have no concept of perfection! There were gaps. We still exerted influence. Over the millennia your barrier crumbled, for time is something you hold to and thus your incantations were built within the limitations thereof. Just over four decades ago a mortal found us, gave us a gateway back into your realms. These large cracks led to the Dark Mage purges. The defection of demons gave us limited access back to this realm without need for a Channeler. A few years ago, a young Elf dared defy the lesser ancients and put a two-way hole in the walls. The boy destroyed the Garm counterpart of the Alphar your blade allied with. This event in time, combined with my temple of power being revamped for the first time since the hole appeared makes this possible. Don’t worry little deityling. I suspect you will not be alone for me and the others to play with.”

The voice lost much, but not all of its angry tone. “Young, slightly greater than insignificant, mortals. If it does not trouble you too much, and you wish to slightly sate my irritation, the young one with the knife in her belly would be a good addition to this one’s cage… I cannot have this deityling go insane from darkness and loneliness… No, this one needs to stay sane to fully experience the torments it earned by helping build the barriers it so arrogantly assumed were infallible.”

Tazen, down on all fours, managed to gasp out. “I promised we would not kill her…”

“A mortal of his word. An interesting concept I have only fully beheld a handful of times within the entirety of the existence of your realms.”

Darkness pushed inward. It made the floor hard to see even though most were down on hands and knees. “Worry not.” The voice reverberated off the walls. “Death is a dream she shall not in your lifetime grasp. Nor will she taste what lies beyond the veil of this life in the span of your great-grandchildren ten times separated!”

“Then get rid of her,” Tazen choked out as the sounds off the walls seemed to close in, and with it darkness. Even the torches that were still blazing stopped putting out light.

“I find you, along with the pain tried and tested one, worthy as my Channelers. It is not an honor I recommend you rebuff.”

“As long I can fight those who are doing this to my city!” Tazen stated even as he swore the darkness had mass and was pushing into him from all sides.

“I also have a condition. I will not a be slave to you as I was the mistress,” Tyndall managed to get out through clenched teeth. “If you can guarantee this, I accept as well.”

“Neither of your ostentatious demands are outside my purview. Darkness is a vector to and of all, a slave to none. It can be pushed back by light but can also swallow it. Darkness makes its own way and leaves its own mark. Blackness is cherished by some and dreaded by others. It is a granter of rest, yet a tormenter of exhausted. It awards both dreams and nightmares. It is a blanket for those needing rest and a shroud to those who use its veil to conceal their transgressions. Nightfall ends the oppressive heat of day yet transforms a blustery day into a bitter cold night. My Channelers make their own way within such a dynamic, comforting, and terrifying cloak called Afterdusk.”

“Best pitch I’ve ever heard!” Alkoris responded. “If you need a third, I’m in!”

“As am I!” Dario wheezed out.

“Anyone else?” The darkness thundered in their ears.

Kaznal shook his head. “I follow Avgon to death!”

“Likewise, Tallis is my life!” Yarnay managed to proclaim.

“Your devotion to the lesser godlets, in the face of being confronted with one so clearly superior is admirable, even to me. I will find you both an augmentation befitting such exasperating piety. There are still two who have not spoken.”

“I guess I could be a follower…” Sibler stated, “But I would prefer to be a Lockmaster.”

Waves of darkness hammered into all of them as the voice laughed, “Lockmasters habitually look to Afterdusk as their friend, so… I grant your request, little one!” The dimness coalesced into a hand and tapped the boy who had the borer pulled out of him. “And you?”

The kid found it hard to breathe, but managed to get out, “Me jus wanna be bounty-getter like me great-gramps…”

“A predator of the stalked. Yet another proficiency best used under the cover of Afterdusk. Yes, you have earned such a gifting.”

The hand opened. In the middle was a spinning vortex. It seemed to suck up the remaining light. Just before the room became totally black, eight darts lanced out. All eight boys had one enter a nostril. Pain became close to unbearable as knowledge exploded in the center of their heads. Most blacked out. The temperature fell many degrees. The walls and even torches were covered in a thick coat of ice. The girl with the dagger in her screamed. The sound withered as if she was being dragged off into the distance until if faded altogether. Everything she had on fell to the floor around her other than her spellbook and the dagger buried in her gut. The weight and oppressive darkness seeped back into the walls, floor, and ceiling. Light sources flared back to life. Of the girl with the dagger in her, there was no sign.

Tyndall was left with the sheath for the green blade on his hip where his hip sword had been. In addition, an obsidian pendant of two hands clasping a black pearl dangled from a black chain around his neck. The only light came from the green blade on the floor, a Dagger of Light, and an axehammer. The axehammer was made of the same green substance as the blade and hung off Tazen’s weapon belt. He also noticed most of the others were down and motionless. Only Tazen was moving. He was down on all fours trembling.

Tyndall managed to grab the green blade. Mythling runes covered the blade and hilt. He eyed the markings for several seconds, then sheathed it. He knew, as he did so, it was his and his alone, but nothing more about it. As he regained more of his senses, he realized how cold the room was. He thrust his arms upward, extended his hands and spoke a long arcane phrase. Waves of heat rolled outward. The room warmed to above freezing but stayed cold. Ice melted and dripped down the walls. Taking several deep breaths, Tyndall pulled his hands into his stomach and dropped to his knees with tears rolling down his cheeks. He managed to speak between sobs, “Oh, shit… that… hurt!”

Sibler woke and pushed his hand up to his nose expecting to find it bloody. To his surprise, it wasn’t. Tears from the pain dripped off his cheeks. He rolled over, shook off the lingering twitches from being blasted with such strong jolts of electricity and shivered from the cold at the same time. He glanced at a small, dark wooden case filled with an assortment of rune-covered black metal lockpicks in his hand. He tucked them into the pouch with the potion mixing books before he crawled over to Tyndall, pulled one of the orange liquids, and popped the top. He carefully poured it into the older boy’s mouth before covering his head. “I feel… weird…”

Tyndall instantly started gagging, “That is… DISGUSTING! It better work twice as good as it tastes bad!”

Dario groaned. Pushing his hand into his forehead, he stood with shaking knees and ran his hand down his face. “The shouting ain’t helpin’ my head, Ty…” As his hand dropped off his chin it met a duplicate pendant of the one worn by Tyndall. It hung from a black chain around his neck. He let go of it and focused on Sibler. “Weird… Real good word for it, little guy… Ugg!” He moved to help Kaznal to his feet. “Ya OK, there little fella?”

Kaznal fought hard not to cry as he held a hand up to his nose. He held the other hand up to his mouth and turned. He let out a couple of dry heaves. This was followed by a several second burp. “I think... my nose broke… it hurts sooo bad!... And… And… I my guts are upside down or something.”

Off to the side the boy who had the borer removed groaned. He stayed face down and kept shaking his head and wiggling fingers in his ears as if trying to clear them. However, he found a belt around his waist with two dozen black metal bladed darts. The ability to use them, how to fight with his hands, and knowledge of tracking and hunting started to seep in.

Alkoris used the wall to stand, staggered over and helped Yarnay up. He then moved to a wall, put his head against it and took several deep breaths. He fingered an adornment that matched Tyndall’s and Dario’s. It hung from his neck and dangled down. He glanced at the obsidian hands holding a black pearl for a few seconds before tucking it in his shirt. A pained smirk crossed his face as he glanced over to Kaznal, “Yours may be upside down, Kaz, but… Pretty sure mine are frozen inside. Worst brain-freeze ever!”

“I’m feeling shocks rolling up and down my mouth and my teeth are coated in ice.” Tazen moaned as he crawled over to Tyndall and Sibler. The pendant on his necklace scrapped the floor before Tazen secured it, looked it over and pushed it under his shirt. He managed to grab Tyndall’s left arm and pull it toward himself. “Let… let me see your hands.”

He watched much of the damage fade thanks to the healing potion but could tell he had plenty of work to do. “You’re missing half of your fingernails. I’m going to have to bandage the meaty parts right below your thumbs. And… your hands are full of little bleeding holes! Most of them are healing, but it still looks like you slammed the back of your hands onto a thorn bush over and over!”

“They hurt… they really hurt, but... Whatever was in the orange stuff… it’s working… but is beyond gross!” Tyndall reached down and pulled the green sword and re-sheathed it with only a wince of pain. “Besides, I wasn’t joking. Assassin Ants hurt way worse than this.” He extended and curled his fingers several times while taking some pained breaths. “I’ll be fine… if the taste ever leaves my mouth!”

Dario rolled his head and shoulders, “I’m not fine and all I did is have to watch and get hit by bolts of wicked cold lightning and a black dart up my nose!” He took a few breaths, and he lowered his voice. “Um… all those things you were saying… where they… like true?”

“Yea. Every word.” Tyndall lowered his head.

Tazen rubbed Tyndall’s shoulders. “You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Easy for you to say…” He extended his hands so they could be bandaged. “But honestly, I’ll be fine in a few days.”

“Your hands are healing fast, but still a mess. Let me take care of them!”

“Sure. But I’m pretty sure anything the damned Orakin sword wanted to do to me, I could find something worse I have already been through. This isn’t nearly as bad as I expected. But I’d sure pass on doing it again!” He spit repeatedly and shook his head. “The taste of the healing liquid may be the worst of this whole damned thing!”

“You are amazing.” Yarnay managed to snicker as he tried several times to force his hair to go down. However, the static around him, coupled with the fact he had been forced to grow his hair long made it impossible.

“Really impressive Ty.” Sibler concurred. “There is no way I could grab anything, let alone pull a sword if my hands looked as bad as yours.”

“Agreed!” Kaznal stated in admiration. “I don’t know of anyone, other than Rylan, who could have taken half of what you just did, let alone do so and all but shrug it off.”

Tazen patted Tyndall on the shoulder, “You were right, and we were all wrong. No way could I have handled so much pain. Very impressive and I’m sorry for doubting you.”

“Lots of practice. None of it fun.” Tyndall stated with a shrug.

“I think I’d prefer the worm back in me to that,” the boy spoke as he once again wiggled a finger in his ear. “I’m not hearing right or something.”

“Still…” Yarnay stated with a shake of his head. “You are incredible! I am going crazy just because everything itches and is cold…” He paused and glanced over to the kid with fingers in both ears. “Um, I think he is right about not hearing normally! Are we all really speaking in ancient Orakin, the ancestors of the Illorcs and Orcs?”

Tazen blinked and moved his jaw back and forth. As he spoke, he nodded. “Yea, yea we are, and until right now I didn’t even know there ever was an Orakin race. Now I know lots about them.” He spit a couple of times and had to force himself to speak in Northman. “Not sure how I’m going to explain you three all-knowing Orakin to the commander, let alone being able to do so perfectly. But I’m certain we know it and know a whole lot about them.”

Dario swallowed hard as he also forced himself to switch back to Northman. “And I know how to write and read Orakin… And I barely know the basics a Northman… Geesh…”

“The commander is big on learning.” Yarnay stated. “Pretty sure he will thank you for us learning this. But did we all really just get a piece of an Orakin Mage General in command of a demon lord army?”

“Unless I’m crazy,” Alkoris exhaled loudly, “we got parts of him and tiny bits of those the blade killed over the years… probably thousands of both years and people.”

“I Did! I think I can read!” the boy excitedly exclaimed as he pulled himself up with the help of the table and took some deep breaths. “I also know how to talk better in this speak!”

“We all got some of the Orakin’s knowledge.” Tazen verified. “I know their language, and even older Elvin and Dwarven. I also caught glimpses of what he did with the blade, much of it horrible. He killed so many with it, I doubt the kills can even be counted!”

“Many of them early on were Orakin.” Tyndall stated. “I got a real clear picture. The general and twelve others formed a pact with Senexsia, Frexla, and Inaxia. The Orakin warlords willingly imparted part of themselves into thirteen green weapons. These were then coated with Orakin metal, and the weapons were linked to the demon lords’ three best warriors, all before they were demons. An Ice Witch who called herself Cyronia the Frigid. Then there was Pyrothermal the Searing. Lastly, a Storm Enchantress by the name of Electoroma the Wrathful. They all imparted some magic into the thirteen weapons with a direct link to the green stuff under the Orakin metal. They then got part of each kill the blade made, so while weakened at first, they got stronger in the long run. These future demons were fighting the gods we know and worship today… before they became gods. They were losing. Frexla, Senexsia, and Inaxia thought the Orakin race could help turn the tide of the war because Orakin young grow up very fast at first, then slow to age like a Caveling. Because of this, they could put many offspring, not quite age of ascension youth, into battle and make more extremely fast.

“There was a rebellion. Many Orakin leaders and parents didn’t want their kids to be sent to such a slaughter. Others fought back against being allied with the likes of Senexsia. But with the help of the Orakin-coated green weapons, the thirteen Orakin commanders killed off all the other major leaders and took over all the Orakin clans. They then put village elders in place who compelled Orakin women to have hordes of babies, often by force. It was not enough. The war turned increasingly desperate. Hundreds of powerful Mythlings fell, and with the victories those against them gained followers. Orakin villages started to fall in quick succession. I lose the history shortly after the thirteen leaders took almost all the Orakin, some too young to really fight, and others far too old. They used green pyramid stones the same color as the blade to gate all the Orakin to a massive war camp. They went into battle against a gigantic force of Hawklings, Humans, and weird tan-colored Dragons and Dragonlings. They were led by Quati, Warvon, and Avgon. I am pretty sure Rovnar was there as well, but he didn’t have nearly the power he did after he killed uncounted number of Orakins during this battle and gained far more worshipers because of it.

“Um, anyway, the future gods were backed by several other races including a huge force of Drow. I know the Orakin army was crushed. Electoroma the Wrathful was brought down by Drow with the help of Rovnar. When she fell, it opened a hole in the battle lines. The Mage general who owned this blade was surrounded. Even though this general was separated from the others who owned the other Orakin-coated weapons, they somehow combined the powers of the weapons by using the green stuff underneath the Orakin metal. They opened a portal allowing what was left of the Orakin army to escape. The number was less than a thousand… Wherever they went, it all but ended the Orakin line and left the Illorcs as the highest race of Orc-lineage. From there all I know is the general plunged the sword into his own chest rather than get captured. It took a huge chunk of his remaining spirit. His body fell into a river and was swept downstream with thousands, probably tens of thousands of other Mythlings, Orakin, Humans, Hawklings, Dragonlings, Drow, and others.

“The river got so clogged with bodies it got dammed up and split into two. To this day the river remains split. One part rolls down out of the western side of the Silver Spine Mountains and the other drains into a huge wetland swamp and bog. The edge of the swamp is just down from the town of Slome. I was there once. The Swamp Slums are one of the most dismal places I’ve even seen. Now I know what caused the swamp in the first place. Knowing the history behind how the swamp came to be, makes the place even more grim, if such a thing is even possible!”

Tyndall patted the hilt of the green blade. “The sword didn’t get to the dam. It came loose as the body fell over a waterfall. I don’t know when it was found again. The rest are just tiny flashes of the blade being used in the hands of others and all those it killed.

“However, there was one big image of an Elf who had clawed hands and fangs where normal teeth should have been, looking at a fortress made of red rock, tucked up against a red colored mountain. Much of the fortress was in flames. It was made of stones as red as the mountain it was part of. The Elf was brought down by a force of over two dozen powerful Drow. As she fell, she activated the blade and combined it with one of the others, an axehammer. It allowed a portal to open. A Dwarf jumped through but lost the axehammer in the process. The axehammer and this blade went back to where they were separated from the Orakins who first owned them.

“The female Elf had her fangs pulled from her mouth and was tied to a wooden pole. As the light of Zeris came over the red mountain, hundreds, probably thousands of beings all ran off a very high ledge, many burning. Others jumped with screams as if Zeris’ light was hurting them. Many of the screams came from children. They were so loud they echoed across a huge area of the surrounding woods. When the light of Zeris creeped across the lower area and hit the Elf, her skin started bubbling and she screamed until she couldn’t. Even though the blade wasn’t there, it seemed to watch as the Elf ignited and fell into a pile of ash along with the pole she was tied to while scores upon scores of other beings all around her did the same. Intermixed were some who didn’t burst into flame or melt under Zeris’ light. Don’t know why, but it seemed like something very important to the history of the blade. Maybe because it was the only other time the weapon lost power until today.

“On the other hand, I know where the general’s spellbook is. It didn’t die because part of him still lived… a chunk of him still lives within a pocket of space created by the god of Afterdusk. He tried to fully exhaust himself, but something inside the green stuff allowed Afterdusk to come here. And as we saw, stopped him… He is no longer in the blade. Instead, he’s imprisoned in a cage of darkness… For a moment I heard terrifying laughter as the general screamed and shook at the cage bars which are very, very cold… the voice was the same as we heard. It was laughing at him and said something about the roles are reversed. The want-a-be god was now under the foot of a true god it tried so hard to usurp… In the distance I head another voice, a female. It was speaking ancient Dwarven and pleading to be freed. It got only laughter and a demand to give power to the one who bested him. The voice of Afterdusk said whoever it was would release as much to the boy as the general bid to us. The Dwarven voice said no, then screamed. Whatever was done to it sounded super painful… And I don’t know how I know this, but another Orakin was pulled out of the axehammer you have on your belt. Afterdusk used an Elf boy, younger than we are, to imprison the other Orakin and the female speaking ancient Dwarven, just as he used us to take the Orakin general out of the blade on my side.”

Tyndall took a couple of deep breaths. “I think the female Dwarf was the final owner of the axehammer. But as I was saying, the best part of what I got is what happened just before the Orakin army was crushed! When the general realized he was most certainly going to lose, he hid his book in a small rock formation and reshaped the rock around it. It is massive with many ancient spells! I have got to find a way to get up to the Silver Spine Plateau again. Cause with part of him still alive, his book lives as well! I have enough of him to know its direction, take control of the book, and even his secret command word to pull the pages out, and put them in my book!”

“First things first, Ty,” Alkoris interjected. “We have to get out of here and then escape out of the walls of Rolling Dale!”

Dario pulled his shoulders back, fingered a pendant of obsidian hands clutching a black pearl and yanked up his Silver Steel battleaxe. “First we got to find out who they have from our school and kill anyone who hurt them!”

Tazen pulled the magical blade Glaster had loaned him, then finally noticed the green axehammer. He switched to it and swung it a few times. Fingers moved down the ancient Mythling runes before he put it back on his weapon belt. “Yes we do. And while I don’t know what exactly happened when Ty bested the blade, I sure got something more than learning some languages and seeing stuff, cause I feel stronger.”

“Me too!” Yarnay stated.

“A lot stronger,” Kaznal agreed.

“Stronger and better in other ways,” Sibler stated. “But I am not sure what yet… It is like it is still settling.”

Alkoris nodded, “I’m stronger and also know lots about Afterdusk, but… it… maybe I just need more time.” He paused as he looked at the table. On it were four axehammers and four khopesh blades made of dark black metal. Each had hands clutching a black pearl in the base of the hilt. Back sheaths were next to the khopesh swords, while the axehammers each came with a long back pouch.

Tazen gestured to the weapons, “Looks like Afterdusk decided to give us something else….” He grabbed one of the blades since he already had an axehammer. As he did, the handle formed to his hand and imparted exactly how to use it. It also let him know it held extra enchantments to fight the unliving, it could also heal. Both functions required Force to activate. The combination of using Force he didn’t fully understand he had, and the added knowledge made his head throb worse. However, within moments all wounds were gone. He knew as this happened, the blade could only do it five times per new moon, and never less than four days apart. He slowly glanced around the room since fast eye movements made his head spin and temples throb.

“If you are hurt, grab the weapons and see if it does for you what it did for me… but expect it to hurt…”

As those who were wounded got fully healed, they pushed hands up to their temples. Tazen spoke again. “It’s like I was fed a huge book and the words are trying to come back together in the middle of my head. It makes me dizzy to focus on it, so I’m with Dario. I think it needs more time before I can understand it all.” He tapped a pendant exactly like the one on Tyndall. “All four of us who agreed to follow Afterdusk have one of these… and the same thing is on the hilt of our new weapons… Mine is a khopesh blade… I don’t even know how I know this since I have never seen one before… But anyway, I guess the hands holding the black pearl is his symbol…” He tried to shake his head but stopped because it gave him some vertigo.

He scanned the room with a frown “While this wing may be a dead end, there’s no way we’re going to clean up all this blood. If someone comes in here, they’ll know there was a fight and sound the alarm. As it is, I’m amazed no one has poked their head in here yet. We need take a few to collect thoughts, gear, and reorganize, but we have to get moving.”


Bloody Rock: Saslara, Jaya F (HE 12) Swordsman/Outdoorsman (Saslara's School), Rafil M 13 Swordsman/Miner (governor's school), Yunlac (Mystic/Lockmaster), Eir F 11 (Swordsman/Healthman) (governor's school), Spar M 11 Mage/Miner (governor's school), Puck M (HE 9) Swordsman/Outdoorsman) (Saslara's School), and Aed F 10 Swordsman/Outdoorsman) (Saslara's School) along with the Halfdrow/Highman Deor’lash with captured Gobling Beiro, Mora, Jillian, & Drow captive (Sylic)

The battle in the chamber with the glowing staff left Teacher Saslara with three wounded kids, a slave boy she couldn’t fully trust and large pools of blood on the floor. Even more disconcerting was the fact the staff had been pulled down. This left a section of the floor open with stairs leading down into what she had been told was an area filled with poison gas.

Still shivering from being locked in ice restraints, she moved over to Jaya. Her Halfdwarf student held a piece of a ripped shirt up against the side of Slome’s best cobbler’s youngest girl. Cobbler Sudeth’s work was known across much of the Silver Spine Plateau. He was also Slome’s second most powerful Animal Adept. Saslara knew the man would not be happy if he found out his daughter wasn’t well taken care of after her rescue. On the other hand, she bet if she could deliver the girl back to him, she could gain a strong ally.

Off to the side of the man she had helped kill, Saslara noticed an open pack mostly filled with Healthman supplies. She moved up, secured the pack, and nudged Jaya, “Let me take a look.”

Jaya quickly slid back and put her free hand down on the back of her leg. “I thinks da Elf caster got away, Teacher.”

Rafil stayed standing with shield up and ready. His focus was on the passage the woman had fled down. He winced and rubbed his knee with his other hand as he looked down the passage. “She did, but whatever was clawing and biting us left a trail of blood, so you stabbed whatever it was pretty good. She was also limping. Between her pet being hurt and the limp, she’s slowed. I bet between your Outdoorsman skills and my Miner training we could follow if we wanted.”

“We’ll let her be, Raf,” Saslara countered. “She has heat vision, so she can see better than we can with glowers.”

Rafil flipped his glow coin and nodded, “Yea, good point. How’s Eir?”

“Took a deep cut and looks like she’s been beat and roughed up pretty bad,” Saslara stated as she cradled the head of the barely clothed and badly battered girl. “At least they have a well-stocked Healthman bag. It’ll take a while, but I don’t see anything I can’t patch up given some time.”

She glanced over to Yunlac, “You did good, kiddo.”

“I’d have done better if you hadn’t smacked me in the face with your shield earlier. My face still hurts.”

“I’m amazed it didn’t knock you out. I’ve hit grown and guilded men with less force and they didn’t get back up.”

Yunlac rubbed at his still slightly swollen and badly blackened eye, “Lots of practice getting hit, Teacher, but I’m sure I haven’t been hit so hard with a single shot ever. Hope I never do again, either.”

Rafil shot Yunlac a frown.

Saslara glanced over even as she found a large healing herb pouch in the pack. “Problem Raf?”

Rafil shrugged, but a glare from Saslara made him speak up, “I didn’t know he was a real gladiatorial slave, but I’ve seen him in the arena. He took pounding after pounding and still came back for more…”

Saslara glanced over to Yunlac. “So, you’ve been in combat before?”

Yunlac managed a smirk. “Lots, Teacher. I’m used to being hurt… But no one ever hit me so hard or even put me down with a single shot like you did.”

“You’ve never taken on a Teaching Echelon Swordsman,” Eir managed to hiss out.

Rafil scratched at his eyebrow and grumbled something unintelligible.

“Raf, if you have somethin’ to say, let’s hear it.” Saslara commanded.

Rafil let out a long breath, “Teacher, I saw him in Lenz. He took some stupid hard blows in the arena. No, not from a Teaching Echelon being, but he took some brutal poundings. He even fought three times in one day.”

“So?” Jaya asked.

“So?” Rafil snorted, “You needed to see it. He let those other kids wear themselves out by beating on him, then… annihilated them… He’s got to be somewhat mad… crazy… whatever… he can’t be fully right in the head to do what I saw him do.”

Saslara turned to Yunlac, “You arena fight often?”

“Yea… It’s what I have to do for Jillian and so I can get released as a slave.”

“What you do for Jillian?” Rafil asked. “How is being a gladiatorial slave helping Jillian?”

Yunlac noticeably cringed, “It helps him… he watches me in combat and uses what I do to get better, that’s all.”

“Better ta learn by doin’ not watchin’,” Saslara countered.

“There’s more, Teacher,” Rafil stated as he took a few steps back from the passage the Elvin woman had fled down. “Yun, come here.”

It was obvious doing what he was told was ingrained into him. Yunlac moved up to Rafil without hesitation.

Rafil eyed the smaller boy for several seconds. “Put your back to me and raise your arms up.”

Once again Yunlac obeyed. However, even as he did so he spoke. “You know I hoped others at the arena would see, right?”

Saslara pressed a bandage into Eir’s side even as she turned more attention to Yunlac and Rafil. “See what?”

“This.” Rafil growled out as he reached over and pulled Yunlac’s shirt off. The shirt fell from his hands as he looked at the boy’s back. “By the gods…” His hand ran over Yunlac’s shoulders, across his shoulder blades and down his back. “There are scores… Maybe hundreds…”

Saslara sprinkled some fireroot over the gash on Eir’s side. Even as Eir screeched, kicked, and thrashed at the sudden burning sensation and had to be held down, Saslara spoke, “Scores ‘er hundreds a what?”

Rafil either didn’t hear or ignored Saslara. He continued to lightly run his hand over Yunlac’s back. “Do they hurt?”

“When I get them, yea. Kind-a depends on how hard and where. Shoulder blades and upper back not real bad no more unless he clamps down. Lower and on the sides still hurt pretty bad. But not now. They’re just like a normal scar. Thanks to the arenas, I have lots of those, too.”

Rafil grabbed Yunlac’s right arm and ran his hand down a long scar going from the hand to the elbow. “What about this?”

“After that one, nothing hurts real bad… well, not until Teacher Saslara smashed me in the face with a shield… not sure which hurt worse… probably the arm… but… even after the curative potion, I think I have a few loose teeth and my jaw and eye still hurt pretty bad… so maybe the shield was worse… but the shield was fast, the arm wasn’t.”

“Jaya, hold this!” Saslara pointed at the bandage on Eir’s side. She stood moved over to Raf and Yunlac, “Scars and scores of what?”

Rafil spun Yunlac around so his back faced Saslara. “Bite marks, human-looking… too many to count.”

Saslara did almost the same thing Rafil did. She lightly ran her hand over the boy’s back, then looked at the right arm. “This one was deep. Yer lucky to be alive…” Her hand moved over the boy’s back again. “And who keeps biting you?”

“I’m not supposed to say.”

Saslara’s eyes narrowed. “I took you down and rendered aid. Until I gets paid, yer debt belongs ta me. So right now yer mine. So ya do what I tell ya!”

Yunlac smirked, “This is true.”

“And you knew this, but had to hear me say it so yer not bound by what yer owner demands, right?”

“Yes, Teacher.”

“Fer a slave yer a crafty one.” She ruffled Yunlac’s hair. “So, who bites you?”


“Why?” Rafil asked with a shudder.

“He owns me. As his property it is his right to bite me whenever he wants.”

Saslara ran her hand down the boy’s back and looked over the arm again. “Me and Councilman Parad and his brat er goin’ to have a fist to face chat over all of this. Slave ‘er no, ain’t no way a kiddo should have ta deal with this none… What happened to yer arm?”

“Cut to make a scar the exact same as Jillian has.”

Saslara’s eyebrow arched. “This was real deep…”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t see it, but it sure felt like it, Teacher.”

Saslara cracked her knuckles, “Do you know why he likes to bite you?”

There was a slight pause before Yunlac responded in a faltering whisper, “Says it makes him feel stronger.”

She started to say she felt she wasn’t getting the full story but stopped and turned he full attention to Eir when the girl let out yelp.

Jaya looked over, “Teacher it’s still bleedin’ so me try ta push down harder like ya tell us.”

Saslara moved back to Eir’s side. After a quick check she shook her head. “It’s not stoppin’. You’ll have to pinch it closed while I stitch it shut.”

At the same time, Rafil moved to the hole in the floor and looked down, “Pretty sure I heard something, Teacher.”

“Watch the hole and where the Elf went. As soon as I stitch this, Jaya will help stand guard while I finish up on Eir.”

Saslara smirked as Yunlac let out a sigh sounding a whole lot like relief when he assumed everyone’s attention was directed elsewhere instead of him. He quickly stepped over the body of the Human woman, paused, and stomped down on her stomach even as he dug into Rafil’s pack and handed over a vial of blue liquid. “Between mine and my brother’s robes we have four left after this, Teacher. They’re not like the orange ones Jillian and Mora carry, so it may not fully heal the wound, but it’ll come close. It’ll do better on her than me since she doesn’t take them all the time like I have to do. It should help with all the other bruises and junk, too. She’ll still have them, but they won’t hurt as bad.”

Saslara glanced over at Yunlac, started to say she knew he was not being fully open, then stopped. He wasn’t her slave, at least not yet. She bet she could get him awarded to her after this, but there were more important matters to deal with. Instead, she nodded, muttered a ‘thanks’, pulled the cork, and poured the liquid into the girl’s mouth. Even as she did so, she briefly wondered if she could get Eir’s father to make her another set of boots for a discount for rescuing his daughter.

All stray thoughts ended as the girl started coughing and sputtering.

Saslara patted her on the shoulder and took an offered waterskin from Yunlac. As the girl shuddered and made a series of faces showing how bad the liquid tasted, the wound on her side closed to the point it was only a thin scabbed over slice. Despite the healing, Saslara put some star clover and fireroot on a bandage and secured it in place with a liberal application paste made from the super sticky insect and even bird eating Snaring Tree. She then dabbed on some of the sticky goo over a few deep bruises and sprinkled on some crushed star clover. Finally, she handed the girl a pair of orange berries.

While the girl recovered, Saslara moved over to Jaya and Rafil. She briefly thought about giving each of them a healing liquid but decided the long scratches and minor bites from whatever had attacked them could be treated with Healthman herbs. This way, should they get seriously injured, she could give them one of the blue vials.

As she put a final bandage on Jaya’s cheek, she noticed Rafil eyeing the hole in the floor. She scowled, “Raf, noise or not, we was told there be poison down there.”

“Quite a while ago, Teacher,” Rafil countered. “And Yun said the poison was light and went up so it should all be gone from down there.” He glanced over to the girl, “Eir, we were told it got closed. Why did they open it again?”

Eir managed to speak even as she continued to stick out her tongue and wiped it with her fingers. “By the sounds of things, they needed to find Mora’s slave.” She gagged, “What did you pour into my mouth…? It’s awful!”

“Quick Healer,” Yunlac answered. “They’re great for after combat, but you can only take one per setting of the moon or you’ll get real sick. I have to take them a lot between arena matches cause they heal the real bad stuff but much of the wounds still show. And there is still some soreness. I’ve had ‘em so often I’m basically used to the taste and the soreness. But they don’t seem to work as good as they did when I first started taking them.”

“Get used to the taste? No way!” Eir protested before dry heaving a few times.

“You can’t throw it up. You be real hungry in a little bit too,” Yunlac warned.

Saslara took the obvious hint. She dug into the dead Mage’s pack and tossed Yunlac a tied roll of dried meat filled with dried fruits and nuts.

Saslara’s attention quickly went back to Eir. “You’ll have ta deal with the taste, kid. Now why’d they open the hole in the floor again?”

“They said they needed to get back down there…” Eir coughed and spit, “So nasty!” she quivered. She stuck out her tongue. “Um… they went back down cause the bright green glowing-eyed bony dead walker and armored bone walkers grabbed Mora’s slave and dragged her down a hall off the main room down there.”

Eir made a few choking noises and her face scrunched up. “So bad… Um, but yea, they got the staff to pull back down… Even them knowing the staff pulls up and then down like you see it now, it took a long time to get it to slide. I think they had to twist it and hold it and finally got lucky like Jillian did...” She coughed and looked like she was about to puke. Again, nothing came out.

“Aw, how disgusting! It’s like coating my whole mouth!” she spit, looked at the glowing staff and gagged again. “After they opened the hole, they forced us down first. When we didn’t die or get sick from the poison, they came down and killed several more dim-red-glowing-eyed skeletons that came after us. It looked like it was going to be an easy fight, but a nasty clawed thing that looked like a Dragonling joined in. It had ugly brown scales and showed up with two of the red-fiery-glowing-eyed skeletons like what took Mora’s slave. The Dragonling-thing was all dried up and wicked looking. Had to be a dead walker for sure. It took out a few of those guarding us… and the armored skeletons grabbed Boryill and his slave and dragged them down the same hall they took Mora’s slave.

“After they killed all the remaining dead walkers, I was brought up to fix these two.” She pointed to the Human woman and the man. “While I patched up a couple of wounds, the other two. They were also hurt, just not as bad… oh yuck!... but um, yea… the other two stood guard and made sure the staff didn’t get pushed back up. Everyone else who survived… there are seven or eight who died fighting the dead walkers… It’s real bloody down there…”

Eir paused and looked around with a wrinkling of her nose, “Real bloody up here now too…”

“Focus, young’an.” Saslara demanded.

“Um, yea, um, sorry. Anyway, the ones who lived without getting hurt bad enough to be brought up and have me patch them up are still down there… Oh, this taste in my mouth just won’t go away!”

Saslara scowled, “Be happy it healed the wound in your side er I’d be stitchin’ it. Now stay on task for us. We needs ta know what the threats be. So what and how many we talking?”

Eir cocked her head to the side and used fingers to rattle off who was below. “There is a small Human, maybe a Qling… He was the nicest of the group. He always did what an Orc with an eyepatch told him, but got us some water and food a couple of times we stopped… He stopped other bad things from happening to us too… at least some of it.”

Saslara rubbed the girl’s shoulders. “For the moment, you’re safe. But we need to know what else we may have to face.”

Eir gulped and nodded. “Yea, OK. Um…” She spat and cringed. She then rambled as she spoke and kept wiping her tongue. “After Mora set off the poison, several ran in different directions...” She pointed to Yunlac, “Jillian’s slave was one of them. He may be able to tell you more about some of them…. Um, we ran and met up with another group with the small Human. Like I said, the boss of the small Human was an Orc with an eyepatch. With him there was a little Black Dragonling, at least little for a Dragonling… It wore real nice banded-mail Stone Steel armor and a fancy ring. It had two young Illorcs about my age with him… There was like a dozen of what I heard the Orc say were Morg, and four young Halforcs, but they weren’t half-Human.

“They were super ugly, short, stalky, and strong looking. I think they were part Dwarven or maybe even those Morg things. But Halforc blooded for sure. They all had the nose and small tusks… They, along with all four up here, joined us several sandglass turns after the black and green bursts. They were at a spot we were heading to. It sounded like it was where all of them were planning on getting out.

“But the easy way out was a bust. The passage was blocked by a big cave-in. The Hobgoblin, who first tossed us all into the pit stayed the overall leader… But when the Black Dragonling said something, it seemed everyone else listened… no idea what was said. I guess most of them spoke Dragon, Dragonling, or whatever… it sounded like a lot of weird hisses to me… oh, um, and what is left of those who watched us fight in the pit… Five Kobalds, four Goblings and… the real ugly Dwarf-looking wench… the one with greyish skin… they took…” She grabbed another gulp of water. “From what I saw and heard, pretty sure like six or seven of the Morg things and at least two Kobalds were killed by the dead walkers.”

“The Black Dragonling and both young Illorcs ran when the brown-scaled dead walker showed up. So they may be down there, up here, or dead. I got no clue where they went. Had the little Human not cast a couple of spells on the brown dead walker, me, Sundara, and them other three kids would be dead with all them Morg things.”

Eir took a few deep breaths and spat a couple of times. “This is stupid! Nothing should taste so bad!” After another drink of water, she continued. “The rest have Sundara, two kids who said they were from Twisted Oak, and one from Paws down there… Don’t know how the Paws or Twisted Oak kids got into Bloody Rock. We got hit for talking and the kid from Paws got a tooth yanked out when he wouldn’t shut-up, so we stopped speaking…”

Eir let out a long breath, “After I came up here, I heard the Orcs talking at first. They said they had to find a Dragon to cut through, like we were told by a Gobling scout we had with us before the poison gas. None of them knew where it was, but this room was… is… supposed to be close to it.”

Saslara pressed her hand into her forehead, “So… um, exactly how many be down there, young’an?”

“I just told you!” she gagged, “Ewwww! Isn’t there something to take this taste away?”

“Nothing I’ve found,” Yunlac stated. “But it’ll start to fade in a sandglass turn or two. Like I said, over the past few years I’ve kind-a got used to it.”

“A SANDGLASS TURN!” Eir roared. “No!!!”

Saslara tossed up her hands, “Kids, I need ya ta stay on task! And ‘nough of the taste, young’an. You’ll have ta deal with it!

“Now, before I smack one or all of you, I want answers! I’m hearin’ about Morg, Halforcs, Goblings, a Dragonling, and who knows what else. I need ta know what we got facin’ us!”

Eir gulped and ran her hand through her hair, “Um, geesh, weren’t you listening?”

As Saslara let out a snarl and glared at her, Eir held up both hands, “OK, sorry… One more time it is!”

Eir took a deep breath, “The Hobgoblin leader, about six of the Morg things, a couple of Kobalds, the pasty-skinned nasty looking Dwarf… um, four Halforc kids… but one or two may have been killed by the dead walker Dragonling… maybe two or three Goblings are left… and the Orc with the eyepatch… There is the Dragonling and two young Illorcs, but they ran… Um, then there was the little Drow kid and his two servants or whatever those two kids were… you know, the darky and those bronze-skinned boys who were always by the grey-skinned Dwarf and watched us fight. Never heard the darky or the two servants with him say nothing… Oh, and the little Human… the nicest of them…” Eir took a deep breath and rubbed at her side. She winced, but also looked relieved. “Sundara and the other three kids were with them. Then there is Boryill and his slave. Those two were taken down the same hall as Mora’s slave was when we first went down there several sandglass turns ago. So I guess you should count the at least four dark-red-fire-eyed and one bright glowing green-eyed skeletons…. OK? Got it now?”

“Still confusin’, but much better,” Saslara stated with a shake of her head and roll of her eyes. “Now let’s see how much the magic liquid did fer ya. Get up, move around, and jump a few times.”

Eir got up and moved tentatively at first. After only couple of minutes, she shadowboxed herself and even picked up the dead Mage’s hip sword and did some practice swings. “Side hurts, but it’s not bad… but the taste…” she stuck out her tongue and did a full body quiver.

Saslara wagged her finger in warning. “One more gripe about the taste…” She added in her hardest glare.

Eir’s face scrunched up all the way down to her neck muscles, but she gave a nod.

“Good, now scrounge up some gear and eat somethin’!” Saslara barked. She shook her head and muttered. “Start a Swordsman school, I tells meself. What could be better than workin’ with kids me says…” she sighed.

Jaya grinned, “Ya, love us!”

“Most-a the time,” Saslara snickered.

Eir let out a sigh as she grabbed some rations out of the dead Mage’s pack. “Rafil, you shouldn’t stand so close to the stairs. There’s some bad stuff down there.”

“But you said Sundara is still down there, right?” Rafil growled as he adjusted his grip on his morningstar.

Eir shrugged, “It sounded like they moved deeper in the big chamber or down one of the side halls… their voices kept fading. It’s been quiet down there for a while. They must be down there somewhere unless they found another way out. They sure didn’t come up this way.”

“Do ya know why they took the kids down there?” Saslara demanded to know.

“It’s lucky I learned basic Orc from a Halforc who used to work in my father’s shop, or I wouldn’t know. They took all four to gather gear off those who were killed by the dead walkers and haul some extra weapons and armor off some of the long dead we found when we first saw the place… I think food was starting to run low, so they wanted what was on those killed. Sounded like the Goblins and two young Orcs were tasked with guarding the other kids while the others look for Boryill, his slave, and Mora’s slave… For some reason they really wanted to find her slave…”

Eir cringed again, “Sorry Teacher, but… Oh, yuck… the taste... it doesn’t go away… this food even tastes like it! I think I would have been better to still been cut… over drinking what you poured into my mouth!”

“Somehow I doubt it, kiddo. You’ll have ta deal with yer mouth tastin’ bad. How ‘bout you look at the good side a things?”

“Good side?”

“You could still be with these morons.” Rafil panned his arm around the three dead in the room.

Eir gulped, gagged, then nodded, “Yea, OK. You’re right. Bet I felt this bastard’s hands on me for days, if not longer!” She moved up and kicked the dead Mage in the face a few times.

Saslara moved up and pulled her back. “Pretty sure he ain’t feelin’ none a what yer doin’ and yer getting yerself all blood nastied for no good reason.”

“Makes me feel better,” Eir retorted before delivering one more kick. This time to the dead man’s groin. “Hope he feels that wherever he went!”

Rafil snorted, “Me too, Eir. Me too.” He rubbed his knee again as he sidestepped over to the hole in the floor and looked down. “Teacher, we gotta get Sundara away from them before they hurt her like they did Eir!”

“Too late, Raf. They had their way with all of us more than once since the green and black magic blasts.”

“We can stop it from happening more!”

Saslara glanced over to Rafil as the boy clenched his fist and looked at the hole in the floor with a deepening scowl. “Raf, enough. We are in no shape to go down there. And who’s this Sundara?”

“A Swordsman student …” Rafil growled.

“And toughest girl in our school… along with Rafil’s latest girlfriend. She’s learning mining just like him. Rumor has it they like to go to the caves to the north of Slome… and do more than rock hunting.” Eir managed a humor-filled snort.

As Rafil’s cheeks flushed, she spit a few more times. A resentful tone entered her voice as she added, “She looks and acts more like a boy than a girl and is always picked as a leader… Not even the older girls or the governor’s daughter, Tara, mess with her.”

Eir coughed and hacked up some phlegm. She still shuddered and wiped at her tongue again. “You sure the Mystic liquid wasn’t made of like demon blood or something?”

Saslara sighed as she noticed Yunlac’s mouth twist into a smirk as he rolled his eyes, but the boy remained silent. It did cause her to raise an eyebrow, but she returned her full focus on Eir, “Do ya think our lover boy’s girl is still alive?”

As Rafil’s face and ears grew red, Eir managed a grin, “Didn’t hear any fighting Teacher… Hey, Rafil, where’s Spar?”

Rafil’s higher-pitched voice also betrayed some embarrassment. “Don’t know Eir. After I broke his arm when they made us fight each other, they dragged him out of the pit. I was on the other side about to get put up against Cherno when the green wave of magic knocked us down. I escaped with Teacher Saslara and Jaya.” He pointed to Eir, “Just to make it clear, she’s Spar’s girlfriend when she is not trying to get Langken to look her direction.”

Eir shuddered as she stuck out her tongue and wiped it on what was left of her shirt. “I was just trying to get Spar jealous. No way would I do anything with the governor’s kid! He’s a jerk!”

“No argument there.” Rafil muttered but looked over with a great deal of hope. “Do you think Spar got away?”

“I know he got away.” Eir stated. “Several others from both schools did… But the reason I know Spar was one of them, is Lug and Roklos sent a couple of the Goblings and the mean skinny Hob after him.

“Right after we got healed from the magic blasts, it looked to me like Spar managed to knock the wind out of Langken. He then grabbed the pouch his spellbook was in off Langken’s friend who got hit by a few rocks from the ceiling. He and a couple of others ran. From all the yelling and talk, I think Spar and two from Teacher Saslara’s school managed to squeeze through a spot where those making us fight couldn’t get to them, so they started digging at the rocks where he went with the two from Teacher Saslara’s school. To me it sounded like they wanted to get back the pouch Spar took more than him or his book. I hoped he was with you…”

Rafil shook his head, “I wish…” He glanced down at the hole in the floor. “We heard there was poison down there.”

“I guess it went away or whatever,” Eir responded. “They made me and Sundara go down with the two from Twisted Oak before the Gobling brought me back up to tend to these three and the woman Elf. Instead, they took the kid from Paws with them.

“It’s a good thing Spar has been working with me on speaking Seafarer, too. The Mage,” she pointed at the man Saslara had gutted with her dagger, “said they had to find Mora’s slave or at least make sure she was dead or Councilman Parad and someone by the name of Tregasel would kill them… After I came up to fix him, it sounded like he was real worried about Boryill and his slave too.” She pointed to where the Mage’s book had fallen apart. “Someone should grab those. I bet Spar will want those spell pages…”

Saslara eyed Eir for a few seconds. She had dealt with hundreds of kids, but none of them had even been able to change topics or thoughts as quickly as Eir. She was quite certain the girl would drive her nuts in short order. This rogue thought caused a genuine smile to cross her features.

Saslara moved over and collected a huge stack of pages scattered around the dead Mage. Several fell apart as she touched them. Others had edges flake off and were brittle to the touch, but close to forty looked fine. She carefully put them into the man’s book pouch and slid it over her shoulder. “If we find this Spar, we’ll give him some. Now, young lady, before you go talkin’ in another direction, let’s see what else we can get off these three.”

Rafil knelt next to the Mage’s leg and pulled off a boot. He shook his head and tossed it off to the side. “At least you have boots, Eir…”

Saslara rolled her eyes, “Come over here. I’ll do another rewrap while Eir sees what she can use.”

She turned to Eir, “Equip yerself, but all coin, gems, and magic comes to me, and I divide it. Understood?”

“Loud and clear Teacher!” Eir let out a sigh of relief as she moved over to the Human woman. “But all of them have some of my stuff…. And they also have Daggers of Light. The Mage has mine in his pack along with my Silver Steel gladius, too.”

“All a dem have Dagger of Light?” Jaya gasp.

“Pretty common,” Rafil answered. “Both Spar and I had one, too. Two Dragonlings took ours when we were captured. Several merchants in Slome have them since Councilman Parad sells at his shop for 600 silver…”

Jaya’s jaw dropped. “Six… Hundred… Silver?”

Rafil grumbled, “Yea. Spar and me each bought one with some of the money from a rose quartz deposit the two of us found. Same money we traveled with when we saw Yunlac fight… Daggers of Light are great for mining since they light up without any smoke or heat. Got to let them recharge under Zeris’ light a full day two times a moon cycle, and they do eventually need an enchanted gem replacement in the hilt, but they last years. Much easier, more comfortable, and safer than mining with candles, torches, or lanterns. Sucks to lose it.”

“If they each have one, yer about to get one back!” Saslara pointed to the dead Mage. “Young’an, if’n he gots some of yer gear, take it back from the bastard... While yer at it, toss me, Raf, and Jaya the other lightin’ daggers. Always wanted one, but wasn’t about ta spend so much coin fer one. Havin’ real light be better than usin’ glowers, too.”

Eir pulled off the dead woman’s weapon belt, adjusted it down as far as it would go and procured a dagger off the woman’s boot. She grabbed the woman’s pack, then secured a Dagger of Light and Silver Steel gladius off the Mage. She darted around collecting other gear including a small Blue Steel disc shield off the back of the Gnoll’s pack and a Dwarven Steel reinforced leather vest with eight throwing daggers from the dead woman’s pack.

As she handed over the other Daggers of Light, Eir tried once again to vomit. “UG! Even with food in me I can’t puke. What kind of twisted jerk came up with such a healing liquid?”

Yunlac eyed a hip sword on the Gnoll’s side with longing but responded to Eir’s question. “Councilman Parad makes them but got how to do it from Master Treg.”

Saslara noted the look in the boy’s eyes, “Go ahead and equip yourself for combat. You are a gladiatorial slave after all. However, you obey me and only pull a weapon with my permission. Understood.”

“Completely, Teacher.”

“Good. Jaya help him find gear he can use.” Saslara paused as she noted Rafil was still looking at the hole in the floor. She stepped up behind him and flipped his ear hard. “Raf, I said no. We are in no shape to take on half of what Eir say be down there.”

Rafil winced and rubbed his ear. “I know, but… Sundara is down there…”

“Students and friends from both my school and yers be scattered all through this damned red hill. Once we get out, we’re gunna go ta the guild in Banner Falls and let em know what’s goin’ on in here. If we get lucky, real lucky, Silverton er Black Rapids will send help. Maybe even Junsac. Short of a miracle, it be the best chance we gots of gettin’ as many back as we can.”

“The real miracle will be us getting out of here.” Eir grumbled.

“No!” a voice shouted from the tunnel the Elvin woman escaped down. “Da real miracle be we found ya, Tea’cher!”

Before Saslara could more than spin in the direction the voice came from, Puck ran up the passage and crashed into her while wrapping his arms as far around her as he could. “Yer Alive! Yer Alive!”

Saslara wrapped her arms around Puck and lifted him up. With tears swelling in the corners of her eyes, she squeezed him tight. “Oh, by da gods, it’s good ta see you Puck!”

Jaya rushed over as well, “Puck!” As she joined in the group hug, she looked up at the boy in Saslara’s arms. “Who be with ya?”

Aed entered the chamber pulling at ropes around the necks of Jillian and Mora. Both kids had heavy overstuffed packs, hands tied to empty weapon belts and strips of cloth in their mouths and tied behind the backs of their heads. While it allowed for some breathing, it made anything but muffled talk problematic. In addition, both gags had the red tinge of blood on them. The captured kids were down to shirt, weapon belt, and loincloth. Jillian was barefoot, while Mora wore old boots. “Me, Spar, someone Spar know, and a Gobber who know da place real good!”

Aed yanked hard on the ropes which caused both kids to stumble further into the room. “Take a knee and keep quiet er I swear me’ll punch ya both in da mouth again!”

Spar entered the chamber with an older dark-skinned teen leaning on him. The teen walked with a distinct limp. He bit down on an arrow shaft and winced with every step. A bloody rag was wrapped around the snapped off shaft of a bolt which protruded from his right upper thigh. Another bloody rag was tied around his arm.

Trailing behind Spar was a Gobling. It held a rope. The other side was around the neck of an odd-looking Elf. The boy had dark skin, platinum blond hair, and yellowish-green eyes. He still wore nice Elvin Steel banded armor. Like Mora and Jillian his hands were tied to its weapon belt, so he could use its arms some, but couldn’t reach over to untie the other hand. While the boy was also weighted down with extra gear, he was in far better shape than Mora and Jillian. The boy also wasn’t gagged.

Eir pointed to the dark-skinned kid, “The Drow and Gobling was with some of them! They got out, so maybe some of the others did too!”

The Gobling dropped the rope and held up both hands as Saslara pointed her flail at it.

Spar put himself between the Gobling and Saslara, “I doubt you know me, Teacher Saslara, but Raf’s my best friend and the Gobling knows this place and has been very helpful…”

Rafil ignored the fact only one of his feet were rewrapped. “It’s Spar, Teacher!” He sprinted over to his friend. “The gods must be with us! I was sure I wouldn’t see you again!”

“Me neither!” Spar answered, breathing hard. “I’ll hug you as hard as Puck did Teacher Saslara… as soon as you help me… and I get my breath back.”

Rafil moved to support the dark-skinned teen, “Who’s this?”

“Deor’lash.” Spar managed to get out. He took a few deep breaths of relief at no longer having to support the teen. “He was one of the instructors… at the magic camp I went to last summer…”

“The one you learned a ton at, yet hated and wouldn’t talk about at all?”

“Yea…” Spar went down to a knee, glanced back, and motioned for the kid the Gobling was leading to do the same. “He was my tent leader and taught me… the Booger Burst, Mini-Illusion, Sand Spray, Ghost Sound, Flare, and several others. He also showed all of us how to change… the colors of all my Autospells…” He took a few more deep breaths. “He has a bolt in his leg. It’s in the bone. We tried to wiggle it out… it made it bleed and hurt more… Help him sit down… Maybe Eir can get it out…”

As Saslara scanned the group with wide eyes, Jillian managed to gasp out through the gag, “Yunlac! Hel…”

The words were cut off by Aed. She took a step back and drove her elbow back into the boy’s face.

Jillian fell back with an anguished cry and rolled to the side since the pack over his back was so large.

Aed showed no remorse. “Me tell ya ta shut-UP!” She turned and kicked him hard between the legs.

Jillian curled into a ball as much as the restraints and stuffed pack allowed. He bawled. Blood dripped down the side of his face from the newest damage to his nose and mouth.

Saslara dropped her weapon back into a loop on her belt and moved to Aed. She pushed her away from Jillian and stood between them. However, she took a moment to turn to Yunlac and wag a warning finger.

As soon as Yunlac held up both hands to show he had no intention of intervening between his owner and Aed, Saslara returned her focus on Aed. “As happy I be ta see ya, there best be a good reason fer what ya just did!”

Aed glared at Jillian, “Lots and lots a reason, Teacher!”

“Give me one, and it better be a good one!”

Puck spoke up, “Him and Mora be wit demon priest! Dem know it! Us see and hear it!”

Saslara started to say something, but nothing came out. She turned to stare at Puck.

Spar dropped his pack and rolled his shoulders as he spoke. “It’s true Teacher Saslara.” He stood and poured some water from a skin into the mouth of the kid the Gobling was leading before taking a different skin and downing a good portion of it. “Jillian had a dagger with the symbol of the Hag of Cold. Mora’s throwing knives has the same. We stuck ‘em in the bottom of the pack they’re carrying.”

“And they had a demon Channeler with them?” Eir asked with wide eyes.

“The Dwarf who set up the lots for which of us had to fight each other. The jerk with the white trim on his armor.” Spar growled. “He called for the Hag of Cold’s aid and had her symbol… it is real fancy and has gems.”

Saslara felt her eyes narrow even as her heart sped up. “Where be this demon Channeler?”

“Dead. Very dead.” Aed stated as she cracked her knuckles and glared at the wailing Jillian.

“Spar make us be sure,” Puck added. “Spar make me use knife ta pick up am’let so we gots proof. It be in Mora’s pack.”

“Pretty much buried under all the other stuff we’ve made her carry.” Spar stated. “But I think there’s something wrong with her. She hasn’t complained or begged for nothing in a while. She isn’t even kneeling when she has a chance.”

Jaya moved up to Mora and spit into her face, “Fine’ly gettin’ what ya gots commin’ if’n ya ask me!”

Mora blinked but otherwise there was no response.

Jaya cocked her head to the side, “Her eye ain’t lookin’ right, Teacher.”

Eir moved up to Mora and waved her fingers in front of her face. “She’s right Teacher Saslara. Mora’s eyes are glazed. She looks like she’s sweating… And she’s pale, too pale.”

“Prob’ly too scared and forced ta carry too much. Make her sit and give her some water,” Saslara ordered. “I’ll look soon as I deal with the bolt in this kid’s leg.”

Saslara took one look at Deor’lash and cringed. Her strength showed as she easily picked him up and set him down against one of the walls. She unwrapped the bloody cloth from around his leg and winced. “Should’a broke it off and left it there, kids. Trying to wiggle it out has cause a lot more damage.” She studied the wound and gave the broken shaft a couple of light pulls. As Deor’lash gasped in pain, she shook her head. “Yer right. All the way ta the bone… Do we know if’n the head is barbed er hooked?”

Puck pulled out one of the bolts for the small crossbow, “It be like dis Tea’cher.”

Saslara looked at the ridges along the back of the head. “You capture this from who shot him?”

“Me… um, yea, me took it… be Mora’s…”

Saslara raised an eyebrow at the odd response, but quickly turned her focus back to Deor’lash. “Pullin’ it out ‘ll rip yer leg open, son. Gunna have to cut in and open a spot to it. Only thing we gots fer pain is orange berries, so, yer gunna need somethin’ bigger and stronger than a arrow shaft ta bite down on.”

Aed offered Jillian’s small crossbow.

Deor’lash accepted with a pained fist bump, and bit down. Seconds later he let out a muffled anguished cry as Saslara used a captured boot knife with fireroot on the blade to cut into his leg.

Rafil turned from the sight and sound with a cringe. To take his mind off what Saslara was doing, he spoke to Spar. “What about the Gobling?”

“Was with Mora and Jillian’s group and fought us, but it was like guiding them, and they were bossing it around. It’s been helpful since we captured him.”

Spar pointed to the Drow boy in banded armor, “He was with Jillian. He tried to run when I… ambushed the others. The Gobling took him down and captured him for us. The Gob also insists it knows the way out.”

Spar glanced over at the Gobling. “We haven’t given it back any weapons, but it seems OK and Deor’lash says it wasn’t really one of Jillian’s group.”

“So how come it was with them?” Saslara demanded to know.

Deor’lash managed to speak even as he kept the cross brace of the bow clenched in his teeth. “It was assigned as a guide for the demon Channeler with Jillian and Mora. I was with them too… I was indentured to the Orc Spar killed… There was no clause of who was to take over, so technically, Spar freed me.”

Spar shrugged, “Lucky for both of them and us I knew Deor’lash, or I’d have killed him and the Gobber would be tied and gagged. We’d have never found you.”

“You were looking for us?”

“No. we didn’t even know you were alive. But geesh, we are happy you are.” Spar stated as he stood and put an arm over Rafil’s shoulders. “We were, are, just trying to get out. But the Gobling sure knows these passageways real good and even helped find us a small kitchen with a full pantry. It also pointed us to fresh water a few times. It says this leads to the way out.”

“Any water close?” Saslara asked without taking her eyes off Deor’lash’s leg. “I’d sure like some to wash this out once I get the bolt out.”

“Down tunnel wit the crossed hammers above it, den two left and right,” the Gobling responded.

“Crossed hammers?” Jaya asked.

The Gobling nodded. “Look up after ya go under da archway a each hall. Der be markin’s up on da backsides. Only ways ta know what hall go where me know a. Lots a marks down here if ya knows wheres ta look.”

Rafil pulled the Dagger of Light, twisted the handle, and poked his head in three of the tunnels. “Found it. Feel like a idiot, Teacher. I never saw the marks up there.”

“Bet they are harder to spot with a glower than the Dagger of Light,” Saslara responded.

“Ain’t gunna see ‘em with no glower ‘less ya know whats ta look fer and where.” The Gobling stated. “Der be small Dwarf-like markin’s all over Bloody Rock. No know what dem mean. Me think them be tunnel marks. Me got teached ta learn how ta tell where me be down here ‘cause a dem. Go down der, first two left, den first right. Be black wood door on other side. Den straight. Door be ta visit’r wing. Need key, no have one. But der be storeroom wit ration in der in’f ya can gets in… But put yer back ta black door. Ya go straight go past four… no five other hall. Most a dem lead ta deep’r mines. Me hear not much left, no use no more… no go down ‘em, ya get lost. Just keep in large hall. Be fountain wit Dwarf holdin’ bowl. Water out a hole in wall and bowl fresh, not so much in pool round it, but still OK ta drink. Lots a iron in pool, so no good fer Elf blooded.”

Saslara scowled, “If yer lyin’ and settin’ up me kids fer somethin’ bad to happen…”

“No. Me wants out. Will help all me can! Dragons gunna be mad… real mad… me think Great Green die, den Black King. Us need to get out… leave dis place… go far, so Dragon not find us none.”

“Yer sayin’ the blasts of magic were a Green and Black Dragon?” Saslara asked.

“No, not jus Green and Black Dragon, King Black; Great Green! Me hear talk maybe one a da Green’s girls… Great egg maker me hear many say. Da Black be da king fer sure. All da Black Dragonlin’s round us say so… Protectors and royal guard fail da king. Way me hear, all who serve, warrior, guard, servant, slave, young’ans… no matter. All be mark fer death now. Me be low guide down here since me be too young ta knows how me gots here. Me serve, so me think me mark ta die now. Me help ta get out… Wanna live… but no safe here. Diss be main cross path… And ya should close da hole back up. Big dead walker down der.”

“We know,” Jaya answered, “but one a Rafil’s friends be down dem steps…”

Spar turned to the Gobling, “If one of Raf’s friends is down there, we need to get him.”

The Gobling eyed the hole with clear trepidation. He started to speak again, stopped, and shook his head. He lowered his head and sighed. “Me give full service ta Spar till him release me, if him ever do. Me do what him want…”

“Stop with the servant talk. Just get us out and you can go your own way.” Spar moved up to the hole and looked down, “So who’s down there?”

Sundara,” Rafil answered softly. “But there is dead walkers and lots of others including some who made us fight each other… Teacher Saslara’s probably right. We’re not in any shape to try to rescue her… but…”

“But nothin’!” Saslara growled. “Getting’ captured er ate by bone walkers ain’t gunna do yer girlfriend or none a us any good!” She pointed to Jaya and Rafil with blood dripping off of her hand, “We need water fer this kid and ta wash his leg out real good. Follow the directions the Gobber gave ya.”

She spun and looked, staring at the Gobling, “If this be a trick, I’ll slit yer gut and leave ya here to bleed to death!”

“No, no trick. But do fast. Us need ta gets out!” the Gobling pleaded.

“No… No… iron water… got some Elf blood….” Deor’lash managed to gasp out as Saslara continued to slice into his leg.

“Fill skins from hole in wall, den,” the Gobling affirmed. “Hope hole still put out water… lot a break and fall rock all over Bloody Rock after Black King death…”

Rafil pointed at Yunlac, “Grab all the empty skins. Jaya, come on, let’s go!”

Saslara continued to work on the leg, “Someone really nailed ya, kid.”

Deor’lash continued to bite down hard on the wooden cross brace of the crossbow, but managed to glance at Puck and hiss out, “Pretty… sure… I… was targeted… cause of my… spellbook pouch…”

Saslara couldn’t help but note a smirk cross Puck’s lips for a moment. She once again knew there was way more to the story than what she was being told, but her priority was the young man in front of her. “It’s what I teach, fer sure…” She chanced another glance over to Puck only to see him avert his eyes as if something on the ceiling suddenly caught his attention. She growled as she finally saw where the bolt tip was in the bone of the leg. Without warning, she poked the tip of the Dagger of Light under the embedded head and popped it out along with a piece of bone.

Deor’lash let out a hissing scream through the wood in his mouth.

Saslara started to grab for the teen’s head, but Puck darted up and caught it as Deor’lash slumped.

She gave Puck a nod of thanks even as she tossed the bolt head off to the side and shoved some fireroot into the wound. She muttered as she worked. “Lot a extra damage… Should-a left the damned bolt in.”

Eir slid over, “I can help.”

“Thanks, but I’ve got it. We needs ya ta stand guard fer us!”

With Spar’s help, Eir secured her vest and readied her gladius, but stayed well clear of the hole in the floor. However, Spar was rewarded with a quick kiss and hug which he returned even though his cheeks flushed with some embarrassment.

Jaya, Rafil, and Yunlac returned with full waterskins. Rafil carried a large sack. As she stitched the wound. Rafil spoke, “Right where it said it would be, Teacher. And the black wood door was open. Looks like everyone in the wing left fast. There’s stuff scattered all over the floors. I grabbed dozens of dried ration rolls out of the pantry!”

Saslara took the largest skin, washed the area, her hands, and repacked the wound with fireroot. “Food and water? Best news we’ve had in prob’ly days.” She glanced over to Aed. “How bad is the arm?” She pointed to a bloody bandage around Deor’lash’s upper arm.

“Got the bolt out, but it won’t stop bleeding.” Spar answered as he held up the Mystic robe he had taken off Jillian. He pulled a vial with lightly glowing orange liquid. “He wanted us to give him one of these. Said it was a powerful healing liquid. But we couldn’t because of the shaft in his leg… It’s why we tried to get it out…”

Saslara glanced over to Yunlac, “Is the orange stuff like what me give ya?”

“Better, lots better, but tastes way worse…”

“Worse?” Eir gasped with an added shiver. “No way!”

“Way worse,” Yunlac stated with certainty. “Had to take them a couple of times after really bad arena fights. Once when the kid I was fighting grabbed a real axe off the arena wall and hit me in the side…” Yunlac pointed to a long scar mostly obscured by over a dozen bite mark scars. “I was back in the arena two days later. The kid who axed me… Don’t think he fought again…” Yunlac shuddered. “Anyway, Jillian and Mora always carry two, one for them and one for us… their slaves... Just in case… They were each given an extra one before they came out here this time, so they should each have three… But, as always, were told they best bring them back or have a real good reason why they didn’t. They have a few more inside their estate. They are held under lock, key, and guard since Councilman Parad doesn’t make them and it sounds like they are stupid expensive.”

“If Parad’s shop don’t make ‘em, who does?” Saslara asked as she took the one Spar was holding and looked at it.

“A powerful Mystic down in Rolling Dale. Pretty sure his name is Tregasel. Many call him Master Treg, but Jillian one time told me the guy is a Legendary Mystic, as in a true Legendary guild ranked Mystic. I have seen him a few times, but if he wears guild pins, he doesn’t display them where they can be seen.”

The Gobling spoke, “Him come here few time wit him young’ans. Hear him go see Green Dragon egg maker. Even take some a da Green egg when him leave couple a time… One time him get Black egg and some dat were weird lookin’. Dem be shiny, like dem other egg, but not Black, not Green… But both… depend on how light hit ‘em.”

The Gobling realized everyone was giving him their full attention, “So, yea, me sees dis Treg. Wear Orange cloak wit lot a dem type a liquids in it. One of da Dagonlin’ Mystic say it be made a flamin’ bird skin and be pow’ful magic. Me hear orange robe wearer called Master Treg, but General Boannad… him be lead Dragonlin’ in Bloody Rock, call him Lord Treg ta him face. After him leave with cart a egg, hear whisper a dis Lord Treg bein’ in da Green Dragon court. Other say him be Lord a Dark Mystics.”

Yunlac shrugged. “Some rumors are based in truth.”

Saslara once again eyed the corked vial with a deepening frown. “So if I’m hearin’ ya, Yunlac, a Dark Mystic made this? Yet ya want me to give it to this kid?”

“It’ll mostly fix him up, Teacher. Probably totally heal him.” Yunlac nodded as he spoke “Did me both times I took one. But the taste was like what burned rotten eggs and badly spoiled meat mixed together smell like… only worse, like maybe the burned stuff scrapped off the bottom of the pan of both.”

Saslara couldn’t help but gag at the description. She popped the cork. Her nose instantly scrunched up, “Geesh… Good fer him, he ain’t awake…” She parted Deor’lash’s lips with her fingers and poured the liquid in.

Even unconscious Deor’lash made choking sounds and trembled. His whole body then spasmed a few times.

“It really is that bad.” Yunlac snorted. “But it works real fast… It also took away all pain. Even as bad as it tasted I really wanted more. Crazy, huh?”

Saslara gave Yunlac a sad yet understanding smile. “With all the scarrin’ you have, I’m sure being free of pain did leave you wanting more.”

“Councilman Parad sips them all the time. Says it helps his bad knee… I think it makes him sweat and smell real bad…” Yunlac paused. “His breath is bad, too. Real bad.”

“I’ve heard,” Saslara retorted. “But only soft when him er the other council ain’t ‘round.”

“Bad things happen to those who talk bad about Councilman Parad, for sure,” Yunlac confirmed. “But, Teacher, you may want to warn him when he wakes. It make you feel weaker for a while and there’s the bad dreams. Everyone who takes one has them, even Councilman Parad who sips them all the time. Mine lasted for almost a week both times. Bet it’s already working.”

Saslara took off the arm wrap and blinked in astonishment. The wound, including where one of the kids had pushed the bolt all the way through, snapped off the head, then pulled the shaft out, closed in on itself as she watched. It was as if the muscle and skin became a living creature. The fibers of muscle reached out toward each other, grabbed hold, and twisted back into proper shape. The skin quickly followed suit. Within minutes the only sign was a pair of oval scars. While this happened, broken fingers made popping sounds as they straightened out. The swelling around the injured hand receded as the fingers returned to normal-looking positions.

Saslara checked the leg wound. Again, she watched in a mixture of wonder and bafflement as her stitches were forced out of the skin. The wound then reopened but no blood came out. Instead, she could clearly see the bone as it seemed to become liquid, fill in where she dug out the bolt head then hardened again. The injury then healed from the inside, outward. She couldn’t help but blink as deep tissue wiggled around like thin worms, found what they were supposed to attach to, grabbed hold of each other and become one. The wound closed with amazing speed. At the same time, blobs of blackish liquid, the beginnings of an infection, were expelled vigorously. It reminded her of someone squeezing a large pimple and it forcefully popping.

Rafil moved up to the edge of the spiral steps and looked down. “Definitely hearing something…” He turned to the Gobling, “If you know this place so well… and there were… are… Dragonlings and Dragons in Bloody Rock, why is there undead and stuff down there?”

The Gobling took in a deep breath of air, let it out and sighed again. “Been here, dis room, hundred, prob’ly thousand a time. Pull, push, and twist glowin’ staff jus’ ‘bout every time. Ever’thin’ down here done same. Rumer say staff be pow’ful weapon. All Dragon, even Black King, say whoever pull out get ta keep. No know it open hole. None a us did. But Jillian stop, yank him blade, and talk ta it. Like him really talk to him blade. But only hear what him said. No hear blade, but think it talk ta him. It be real odd. But after, Jillian pull staff jus’ right… er wrong… open hole with stairway. Lots down der. Where me find armor and weapon da boy took off me.” The Gobling nodded in Spar’s direction. “No footprint down der. Been hid fer… fer about ever me thinks. Much more down der, but big nasties show up quick. Dead walkers. Dem bone walker wit da flamin’ eye… no-magic weapon bounce off em… Two a ‘em took Boyrill and him slave. Four red-eye bone walker wit heavy grey-color armor take Mora’s slave girl. Try ta take Mora. Was after dat one too.” It nodded toward Yunlac. “Almos’ grab Jillian, too.”

The Gobling eyed the staff, “Pull it up. Lock ‘em up down der ‘fore them come up here!”

“We know what’s down there. Yunlac and Eir told us all about it!” Rafil growled. “But I can’t lock Sundara down there!”

“Us kill some a da dead walker.” The Gobling stated, “but none a da big ones. Pull staff up! Close it ‘fore them come up here!”

Before more could be said, a deep voice echoed from down one of the passageways leading to the chamber they were in. “No one’s goin’ nowhere er closin’ nothin’ up!”

As a glow came from deeper down the passage, Saslara jumped to her feet while both Jaya and Rafil turned to look down the passage the voice came from.

Eir quickly secured her reacquired shield to her arm and held the gladius but backed away from the hall the voice had come from.

Across from Eir, Yunlac secured the hip sword off the Gnoll’s body and backed into the passage just to the left of the one the voice came from.

The glow grew brighter. As it did so, a creature came into view. Behind it several other figures could be seen but were mostly obscured by its massive size. Jaya back-pedaled and fell. She let out a gasp. “What be that?”

Rafil gulped as he stared down the passage. His eyes widened as he took in a huge humanoid figure. It stood close to three meters tall, had so much muscle its shoulders tapered upward in a triangular shape to the head without there really being a true neck. The head was long, oval, with round folded-looking ears with tufts of hair coming out of them, flat mouth with huge thick leathery lips, eyes off to the side and a pair of horns. The bigger horn was centered below the pair of eyes and just up from a bull-like snout. The second horn was above the eyes. Its humanoid body appeared to have a thick hide with bulging muscles underneath. The lower torso looked bull-like, only stronger. The whole creature was covered in thick, deeply pitted, leathery-looking greyish-white hide.

It wore a leather skirt with metal reinforcing held up by thick straps that crossed over its shoulders. Over this it had a thick leather smock with scores of burn marks. Metal wrist bands with broken Gnome Steel chains hung off of them. A metal collar, also with a broken chain, rounded out what the creature wore.

Its massive three fingers and one thumb hands held a large blacksmithing hammer in the right and a staff with a bright glowing quartz shard on the end in the left. As it rapidly moved up the passage, the sound of its massive three-toed hooves caused an echo that reverberated and caused a pulsing sound from the hole in the floor. As it got closer, Rafil also back-pedaled. His eyes stayed fixated on the hooves since they were coated in blood and gore.

The Gobling let out a squeaky, “Grund’s escaped again!”

“Escaped and nothin’s left ta stop me this time, Gob-thing,” the creature snarled. “Ya give us all ya have, we takes a couple a little’uns ta sell and I might, just might, not kill ya all!”

Saslara pulled up her shield, readied her flail, and stepped forward. “You can have Parad’s brats and what them carry. The Gober will get us all out. We then goes er own ways.”

The huge creature snorted. “Woman, yer too good lookin’ for a Human to squish like me done to the Dragonlings who thought them be my jail guards.” It picked up its right foot for emphasis. Blood and a few black scales dripped and fell to the floor between the three hooved toes. “This ain’t a barter.”

“Yer not takin’ any a my kids and yer no leavin’ us with nothin’!”

It gave an overhead motion. Five more of the horned creatures advanced. The trailing two held thick chains leading to a pair of small Dragon-shaped figures further back in the passage they came up. “Yer not listening, Human. It’s me telling you what’s gunna happen!”

Saslara took a deep breath. “These be my students. All a ‘em be under my protection! Take the deal or we fight!” She chanced a glance back. “Kids, if there is no deal, take the Gober, leave Parad’s brats and run. Have the Gober show ya all the way out!”

“But Teach’r Saslara…” Puck started to complain only to be yanked back toward the far exit by Spar.

Suddenly another deep male voice came from one of the other passages, “Teacher Saslara? The teacher of the Slome Swordsman School?”

Aed responded, “Yea, she’s our Teacher!”

Before more could be said, over three score of heavily armored and armed Dwarves rushed into the room. Several pulled the kids back while the strongest and most heavily armored moved in front of Saslara and formed what amounted to a short wall of Blue Steel.

The massive creature let out a bellow and swung on one of the Dwarves, “You ain’t keeping me and my kin in here!”

The huge metalsmithing hammer slammed into the shield. The clang drowned out the sound of the Dwarf’s arm snapping. However, the Dwarf’s shield arm suddenly hung down awkwardly. Yet this didn’t seem to faze him. He let out a snarl and said something in what Saslara took to be Dwarven.

The retaliation was devastating. Even with a broken arm, the Dwarf used the war pick in its other hand. It came up under the leather armored skirt of the monstrous creature.

The beast let out an anguished roar as it dropped to its knees and gripped at its crotch. The sound didn’t last long. Battleaxes swished from both sides. They hit opposite sides of its neck and sliced deep. Blood blasted out of the grave wounds. Even as it fell with a resounding thud, the other Dwarves moved forward. The other five leathery-skinned creatures fell within moments. Shouts and cries came from those in the hall. Sounds of heavy running feet were followed by twangs of crossbows. A deep voice shouted something from down the hall.

A gravelly, highly irritated voice emerged from the Dwarf with the broken arm. It was who Saslara first heard in the hall before the Dwarves poured into the room. His voice was filled with fury. However, as soon as it touched a glowing gem on its chest plate the words became understandable to all in the room. “Their leader should have taken the offer of our Premier’s fellow Teacher! Take the young and their captives. The rest die for threatening our Premier’s students!”

More pain-filled shouts followed. There were a few pleas for mercy. More cries and anguished shouts were intermixed with the sounds of metal and swishing of what Saslara took to be heavy bladed weapons. This was followed by scared screams and more swishing sounds. Other than a few muffled snorts, hisses, sobs, clanking of metal, and heavy thuds, the sounds from the passageway quickly grew hushed.

Saslara’s hand gripped her flail and she kept her shield ready. Yet she stood transfixed at the sight of the nearly decapitated creature and its five almost as large compatriots lying in spreading pools of blood.

Her stupefaction only increased as over a dozen Blue Steel armored Dwarves appeared from the passage the creatures had come from dragging chains attached to a pair of small Dragons each of about fifteen meters in total length. Both had a mixture of green and black scales. One had straight bladed horns, the other round twisting swirled horns. Their snouts were muzzled with iron cages that didn’t allow them to open their mouths more than a few centimeters and their wings were pierced, as were scales where the wings folded. Iron pins were in the piercings. This blocked them from unfolding their wings. In addition, iron bands surrounded their feet. The bands prevented them from extending claws while chains connecting the front and back feet precluded anything but a shuffling walk.

Behind the two Dragons, eight chained small Dragonlings, also with black and green mixed scales, were led by a pair of Dwarves. Saslara guessed all eight Dragonlings were juveniles, but the back two looked slightly different. Instead of a pair of small twisting horns, they had straight flatter horns that looked to have sharp edges. All had sackcloth shirts which went down to their knees and iron collars with chains attaching them to each other. Like the Dragons, all had iron mouth muzzles and iron mittens which prevented extending claws and made grabbing anything impossible.

All ten of the black and green scaled creatures looked exhausted.

Right behind the Dragonlings, eleven much smaller versions of the two-horned grey leather-skinned beasts were prodded forward by Dwarves. All of the beasts wore leather forge vests and skirts and were blood splattered. Two were bleeding from cuts and a third had a crossbow bolt sticking out of its left shoulder. All were crying. The Dwarves prodding them forward showed no remorse over them being so distraught nor forcing the injured creatures to walk even as they staggered from injuries.

A female Elf wearing robes, a glowing headband, shimmering ornate armbands, and wielding a flaming pickaxe shot the Dragons and Dragonlings a quizzical glance, but quickly forced herself to focus on Saslara and the kids with her. She put her hand on Saslara’s shoulders. Her other hand pressed up against a glowing stone similar to what was embedded into the gruff-sounding Dwarf’s chest plate. Only hers hung off a necklace. “You are the Teacher who added Premier Kandric’s name to your teacher roster in the village of Slome?”

Saslara swallowed hard, turned, and blinked. She turned back to those the Dwarves had captured.

The Elvin woman tapped her on the shoulder again, “Worry not of the captives and what must have been their prisoners. We will deal with them in short order.”

Saslara scanned the area again as she gulped and took in a couple of deep breaths. It took her a moment to find her voice. “What...? How...? Who...?” All around her, other Dwarves touched glowing gemstones on armor, bracelets, and necklaces.

The Elvin woman gave what was clearly a forced smile. “Relax Human. Nothing in this hill of rust will get to you without first getting through us, and such a thing simply will not happen. You are safe. Now tell me, are you Teacher Saslara, fellow instructor of our Premier Kandric?”

Saslara managed to nod even as her eyes panned over the heaviest armored and armed contingent of warriors she had ever beheld, then back to the Dragons.

The woman gave a flip of her wrist. “Escort the strange Dragon-kin out of the sight of the woman and kids. It is a distraction, and even I find myself disconcerted by their presence.”

The Elvin woman waited until the odd-looking Dragons and Dragonlings were led out of sight before returning her attention to Saslara. “I am a trained Dragon Legion Warrior, have killed three Warrior Dragons, and assisted in the deaths of a half-dozen others, including a True. However, I can honestly declare I have never encountered or even heard of ones with such a fascinating scale color. I will have to discover what they are once you are fully tended to.” Her smile was still forced but looked more sincere, “I believe you nodded to my earlier question. Does this mean you are the associate of Premier Kandric named Teacher Saslara of the village of Slome?”

Puck spoke up, “Yea, Teach’r Saslara added Teach’r Kandric ta the school list. Ya knows Teach’r Kandric?”

The Dwarf with the broken arm turned, “Premier Kandric!”

The woman held up her hand. “Remember Sir Ramhorn, the kids know him as their teacher. These is no disrespect here!”

The Dwarf took a knee, “My apologies, Baroness Raventhorn!”

“No need to apologize to me. For both our sakes, and feet, let us hope Premier Kandric does not hear of this disrespect to one of his students!”

The burly Dwarf’s eyes went wide. “Young student of our Premier, please accept my apology!”

Puck cocked his head to the side even as he stared at where the Dragons had gone with wide eyes, “Fer what? Ya just save er butts!”

The robed female snickered, “Speech needs vigorous enhancement, but the mind of this little one is sharp!” She glanced back to the Dwarf with the broken arm and let out a sigh of relief, “Sir Ramhorn, it seems there was no insult seen. However, let us make sure these precious students are well guarded. Get your arm tended and set us a perimeter!”

She sent Puck a warm smile, “Our Premier is extremely concerned about his students. It is a relief to finally locate a few of you.”

“After seein’ dat,” Puck pointed to the dead beast, “and dem Dragons… um, me be the one ta be reliefed ta see ya!”

Some Dwarves cringed, most chuckled.

Saslara watched as a quartet of lighter armored Dwarves, two with book pouches and one with a nearly polar bear-sized pure White Wolverine-looking animal moved up to the kids. They quickly cast Cleanse Autospells on them. Other Dwarves moved up and tended to injuries including those Saslara had already bandaged. A couple of the kids started to say something, but she cut them off with a held-up hand. There was no way she was going to do anything to prevent this group from doing whatever it wanted to do.

A Dwarf took off a helm and moved up to Ramhorn while the man held onto his broken forearm. The second Dwarf held out a pendant of Dresden. It was difficult to tell, since the Dwarf had a beard and wore Blue Steel plate, but the breasts of the armor indicated the Channeler was a female. After a few words, the pendant flashed.

Ramhorn gritted his teeth and let out a grunt, but otherwise dealt with the quick healing of his arm without comment or complaint.

The Channeler rolled her eyes, “Third time I have mended your shield arm this year, Sir Ramhorn. The spirit who healed you this time asked me to tell you to either not take on the biggest hammer or club armed foes we face or get a shield with more padding.”

Ramhorn rotated his arm, nodded in satisfaction, yet grumbled, “While I thank Dresden and his spirits for their aid, I happen to be knighted and should be expected to take the biggest adversaries. And this shield has been in the family for over a score of generations. No way am I changing it out!”

“You are well overdue a more highly enchanted one.”

“Why would I want one?” he patted the spiked disc. “Over 1,100 years old and not even a dent! This is fine!”

Hearing Jaya take a deep breath, Saslara started to tell her to keep her mouth shut, but it came too late. As normal, Jaya couldn’t hold her tongue. “Fine? Ya gots three broke arm in a year and ya say it be fine? Me think that no be right word Mister Dwarf!”

Even as Ramhorn’s eyes went wide and his ears turned red, several of those with him burst into laughter.

The Dresden Channeler moved up to Jaya, held up the pendant and touched her with it. “The spirit who healed our knight agrees with you! It offered to heal you without me having to use any of my own energy!”

Jaya let out a gasp as every cut, scrape, claw wound, and bite healed within moments.

The Channeler steadied Jaya as waves of dizziness rolled over her. “However, young lady, the correct title is sir, not mister. Sir Ramhorn is a knighted Garm out of Winter Creek, so if you please, address him as Sir Ramhorn or at the very least Sir Garm.”

“Garm?” Saslara gasped. She then gulped and tightly shut her mouth as she realized she had spoken loud enough to be heard.

“Yes,” Baroness Raventhorn responded. “Sir Ramhorn is every bit as much Garm as I am Alphar. We were sent to find, protect, and escort you and all of our Premier’s students out of this horrible rust-filled hill.” She paused and pointed to Rafil. “He is limping. Tend to him before any more of our own!”

Rafil help up his hands, “I… No… I don’t warrant no extra attention Baroness! I am not one of this Teacher or Premier Kandric’s students!”

Jaya shook her head, “Without you, we’d be dead er worser, Raf. Ya be one a us!”

Saslara saw several eyes turn to look at her. It took a moment to find the courage to speak. When she did, she focused on Rafil to try to block out everyone around her. “Raf, Jaya’s right You agreed to transfer to my school. You also helped save some of my students. This makes Kandric one of your teachers.”

Baroness Raventhorn put a hand on Saslara’s arm, “Call your fellow teacher by his title of Premier if you would please…” She glanced back at Rafil, “I appreciate your honesty; however you travel with Premier Kandric and Teacher Saslara’s students. In addition, since you helped protect them, we are indebted to you. This necessitates you be a priority to us as well!”

Raventhorn focused back on another Channeler with a crest of Lunara. “Heal him. However, he is not technically one of the Premier’s beloved students. Therefore, if he tries to resist, smack some sense into him, then heal both his current wounds and those required to knock some wisdom into him!”

The Channeler ran her left hand down her right Blue Steel knuckled gauntlet.

At this Rafil gulped, held up both hands, and knelt.

Raventhorn smirked, “Thought so. He also seems to have better speech and protocols. Such a thing is refreshing. At least there are some in the area with rudimentary decorum training.”

She returned her attention to Saslara. “What of those.” She waved her arm in the general direction of Mora, Jillian, Deor’lash, the Gobling, and the still silent Drow boy. “They appear to be your prisoners. The oldest with at least some Drow lineage has blood on him. The Human boy looks injured and the Human girl appears ill. The other probably full-blooded Drow boy is the only one who outwardly appears to be in reasonable shape.”

“The oldest one is a friend of Spar.” Saslara pointed to Spar, who nodded and moved to kneel next to Deor’lash. “Spar is an unknown to me but helped save and care for two a me younger students and from what me hear, it be ‘cause of him they were able to link up with me. In addition, Spar is what sounds to be Raf’s best friend. Because of this and the fact he helped keep my students safe, he is more than welcome in my school. Since the older teen is a trusted friend, I will defer to Spar and say he is reliable as well.”

Saslara paused. A gesture from Sir Ramhorn to continue was all it took for her to gesture to the others. “I don’t have all the ins and outs of what’s goin’ on with the rest of ‘em, but it sounds like the Gob be helpful ‘er somethin’. It also says it know the way out a here. My kids say the two kids who are barely dressed and badly battered were travelin’ with a demon priest and knew it… They also were with those who were behind the capture and horrible treatment of me and many of my students. And… well, honestly, a few of my students hold some deeper grudges on both of them.”

“Then they get nothing!” Sir Ramhorn snarled as he clenched his fist and took a step toward Jillian and Mora.

Raventhorn held up a hand, “Before we deal just punishments to them, I recommend we question them and do our utmost to root out the evil within the walled village of Slome. We owe it to our Premier to uncover such vileness in a place where he has business dealings. Eradication of forces conspiring against our Premier must always be part of our goal. Besides, the girl looks ill. We should tend to her until we can find out all she knows.”

Ramhorn took a couple of deep breaths and gave a single nod. “And this is why you are a good counterpart to me Baroness. Your forethought keeps my brashness in check.”

Raventhorn smiled, “While your boldness prevents me from overthinking situations when a fist in the face is needed far more than overcaution. I am just as thankful we were assigned to each other.”

Ramhorn gave what Saslara took to be a tight smile-smirk combination even as Raventhorn spoke to her. “I believe it is safe to say the Brass Dragon Homeland does not share our exuberance over being paired up by our respective courts.”

“Certainly not. However, it is because of their lack of wisdom I have armor made from the True Brass that gave our southern lands such problems.” She pulled back her robe revealing a shiny suit of brass-colored scales. “I do not understand why you do not wear yours.”

“Ancestral plate!” Ramhorn patted the chest of his Blue Steel armor.

Saslara quickly grabbed and put a hand over Jaya’s mouth and whispered into her ear, “Not a word, Jaya!”

At this the Raventhorn snickered, “Relax, Teacher Saslara. Your students should feel free to express themselves around us. We are, after all, in this hill of rust to find and safeguard them, and you, for our Premier!”

“Speaking of your students,” Ramhorn interjected, and he adjust his shield on his healed arm. “Do you have any ideas where we can search for other students of Premier Kandric, and thus yours?”

“I wish… But we was told there be some kids below with powerful undead. I don’t think any are my students though.”

Jaya spoke up, “But one is Raf’s girlfriend!” At the same time, she twisted a dingy greenish bracelet on her left wrist and scratched underneath it.

Rafil spoke, “Sundara is down there. Please try to rescue her.”

While Raventhorn moved up to the passage in the floor and looked down, Eir moved closer to Jaya and seemed to stare at her.

Jaya frowned, “What’s ya lookin’ at me for?”

“Not looking at you… Not really. I’m looking at your bracelet.”

Jaya held up her left arm were the greyish-green metal band wrapped around her wrist. “Dis?”


Jaya held out her arm. “Ain’t nothin’ really. Ma give it to me. Say it be ‘bout the only thing dem Orcs not take off Pa when them kill him a few year back.” She pointed at some raised markings with indentations in the middle. “Ma said her think dem spots used ta have gems er somethin’ nice. But it’s like tinglin’ er somethin’. It’s makin’ my arm itch!”

Jaya scratched at her skin again as she continued talk. “Ain’t never done dis none, but it still make me feel good ta have it on. Silly, huh?”

“Odd. Very odd.” Raventhorn stated with a raised eyebrow. “What more can you tell us about it young one?”

“Not much,” Jaya stated with a shrug as she spun the bracelet. “Pa used ta say it be in him family forever. Most a me Dwarf side no talk ta Pa none after him marry Human Ma, but me great, great, great, great, grandpaps not care none. He come over many time.” She grinned. “Him spout all sort a good story. Him tell tale about the hills deep in da swamp, sayin’ it be where we from before the Orc and Drow turn it inta the haunted land it be now. He tell big story of a vast castle somewhere in the Swamp Highland with walls of wood so old it turned ta stone. Said it was the home of Vindayin’s pa and where me family work fer him…” She snickered. “Him say us be from Garm, so him big talker… But me wanna go in der someday. ‘Cause him swear there be lots a cave, fell castle and treasure out there, too.”

Baroness Raventhorn glanced over at Jaya, “Ancient texts say the Swamp Highlands has the remnants of what was once known as the Timberland Fortress, the precursor to Vindayin’s home city of Forest Wall. Where, exactly, the ruins of the fabled fortress lies has been long lost. Nonetheless, both Alphar and Garm archives hint it is in there somewhere. Furthermore, if what you have been told about your heritage is correct, it sounds like you may have Garm lineage!”

“Me four G gramps say so… But me think it jus be story talkin’!”

Sir Ramhorn pointed for Garm warriors to guard all the passages out of the room while another group circled the passage leading down. “It sounds to me as if your ancestor’s storytelling is filled with hints of truth. However, what you call the Swamp Highlands are filled with more ruins and dangers than many places within the Deathland Mountains!”

Rafil sighed, “Such as I have heard, Sir Ramhorn. There are lots of rumors of old keeps and treasure out there. Spar and I talk about going out to the Swamp Highlands when we get older to explore. Now I’ve got a weapon to hurt the ghosts. All we need to do is find Spar something, so he can kill dead walkers too… But we want to go in the Swamp Highlands for sure.”

Spar held up the staff, “Pretty sure this would hurt the bad dead walkers.”

The Garm with the massive White Wolverine sidestepped over to Spar and held out a hand.

Spar handed the staff over.

The Garm pulled out a large spellbook and read a long incantation from one of the pages. Eyebrows arched as the staff briefly glowed. As the staff was handed back the Garm spoke, “Ravenwood infused with Drow Dark metal with un-life disruption and freezing magic deeply embedded. With the use of a little Force, the staff would even be able to seriously damage a Wraith, other incorporeal former living, or even spirit entity. While Drow tainted, it is quite a find!”

The Garm waved a still glowing hand over Spar and let out a light whistle. “All you wear is Drow tainted, however none of it holds ill magics. Your armor is enchanted to shield you from the draining of life force from the former living that have such malevolent abilities and is imbued with power only unlocked with Force including sizing, repair, and cleansing charms! There is something else, something I have never seen or felt, but it has something to do with combating those from the lower realm and undead they command… The throwing daggers built into the chest are also enchanted to better hit and damage those with links to the outer lower realms. You, young one, are the walking definition of an unliving’s nightmare!”

Raventhorn moved up to Spar and looked him over carefully. “Where did you come across such items, child?”

Spar gave a basic bow for nobility, “Baroness, I captured it. It was on the Gobling.”

As dozens of Garm eyes all turned to stare at him, the Gobling pointed at the hole in the floor, “It all come from down der! Be more, much more, all over down der! But big bad fire-eye bony walkers too!”

Rafil moved up to Spar and patted him on the shoulder, “Sounds like we can go explore the Highlands now! But if we can both hurt bad undead, we need to go down and rescue Sundara! If we could get some more stuff for her and Eir, all of us could poke around and even go into the Highlands!”

Saslara tossed up her arms, “Raf, enough. Stop with the rescue crap. Instead, let’s focus on getting out a here! Get yer butt over here so I can finish wrapping your other foot! The last thing we want to do is hold up a Garm war party because you want to go after someone we don’t even know is alive. I ain’t about to have ya step on something sharp either!” She took a long breath as she added, “Besides, nothin’ good ever comes back from the Swamp Highlands, kids.”

“Not what me quad G gramps say,” Jaya countered. “One time he point at dis,” she rattled her arm. “Him say rest a Dwarf side want Pa ta give it to him brother who gots a Dwarf mate and kids, but me quad G gramps, say no. It go to oldest, who always be train’bl in each line, like it always done. Him even joke it be older den the swamp and it’ll be mad if’n it not go ta oldest in family line, even if me not be full Dwarf!” Jaya jiggled her wrist again. “Quad G gramps say it show we come from high caste blood.” Jays shook her head. “’Bout the dumbest thing him ever try ta twist inta one a him stories. But Pa never took it off. Ma clamp it on fer me da day me start Teacher Saslara’s school. Say Pa made her promise. Now me not take it off none either. But me think it either wants, er not wants me ta go down the hole. It feels weirder whenever me gets close. Pretty sure it wants me down der…”

Jaya shrugged again. She tapped it with her other hand, “Kinda ugly, but only thing me gots from me pops and it feel good, even with it makin’ me itch fer some dumb reason.”

“Sounds like the necklace the governor’s people stole from me. It reacts odd at times, yet it be a great comfort ta have on.” Saslara remarked as she ran her hand through her hair and sighed.

Sir Ramhorn turned to Saslara, “Teacher, your necklace was recovered. We have it well-guarded in our camp. As soon as we get you safely out of this complex, it will be returned to you.”

Saslara let out a long, relieved breath, “My undying thanks!”

“It is the least we can do for our Premier,” Raventhorn stated. She glanced over to Jaya who held out her arm so Eir could take a better look at the bracelet. “Garm and Alphar royalty used to endow items with magic and information to be passed down. Your bracelet may have once held such power young one.”

“Which means, if it is really reacting to something and she can feel it, this young one must have a sliver of Garm royalty within, Baroness,” Ramhorn stated with another raised eyebrow.

“It is possible. Extremely unlikely, but feasible.” Raventhorn acknowledged. “After your great Fortress of Iron fell to the Drow, there were rumors some of your kin escaped into the surrounding countryside. By the time Garm and Alphar forces arrived to drive the Orakin offensive back and wipe out the last vestiges of the Orakin line, no traces were found of Garm survivors. Actually, if records are correct, there were no direct survivors from within the fortress ever found.”

“Because the Drow killed them all.” Ramhorn growled.

“Most, certainly. All? Very unlikely. There were over 4,000 Garm, not including family, and if what is believed is even half-reality, over 20,000 refugees fleeing from the final Orakin offensive. I find it impossible to believe none escaped.”

Raventhorn glanced over to Eir, “Why the keen interest in an ancient, possibly attuned, heirloom, young one?”

“Baroness, maybe I’m crazy, but…” Eir glanced over at Yunlac, “You got a better look at the door than I did, slave. Take a look.”

Saslara turned away from wrapping Rafil’s feet and glared at Eir. “Yunlac may be a slave, but he’s got a name. He also just helped save yer skinny butt. While yer with me, ya talk to him by name! Got me?”

Eir gulped, “Yes Teacher! I will not let it happen again.”

“For yer sake it best not.” She let out a long breath, “Yunlac, go ahead. Take a look… But be quick. I’m not about to be blamed for delayin’ a battle party of the legendary Garm and Alphar!”

Sir Ramhorn gave a slashing motion. “Worry not about hindering us. We are here for your wellbeing per orders of Premier Kandric. Your safety, along with our Premier’s and thus your students, is the only priority to us. However, if it does not trouble you too much, I would like to hear what the slave boy may know about the bracelet.”

“Me as well,” Raventhorn stated before turning to Eir. “And you, young lady, should never address the property of another like you just did without permission. Should you have talked to one of my estate slaves like you did to this one, you would have a very hard time sitting for many sandglass turns if not longer, and after crying your throat raw, probably would not be able to speak for several days.”

Eir’s eyes went wide as she gulped and nodded, “Won’t happen again, Baroness!”

“It best not.”

Yunlac edged over to Jaya. His eyes went wide, “Those raised marks… I think they are the same patterns, only opposite as what are on the metal plate next to the door Mora tried to pry open!”

Ramhorn’s eyes narrowed, “Possible Garm heirloom with a pattern on it the same as a door?” Seeing both Eir and Yunlac nod he turned to Raventhorn, “Baroness we must…”

Raventhorn held up a hand to stop him. “Teacher Saslara, while we are here for you and your students, I must request we be allowed to…”

Saslara held up both hands with palms up, “Um, I’m not gunna stop ya none. If ya want us ta go down there then I guess…”

“There is no guess,” Ramhorn cut Saslara off with a gruff voice. “If your proclamation is we leave; we do so now. Strong rumor says Premier Kandric commanded a couple of Alphar who angered him on a quest. They must walk home after they made threatening movements toward a Drow boy. Since this happened far to the south, below the Silver Spine, the main line of communication is in the form of supply personnel. Nonetheless, it has been quickly passed down through many mouths and is being spread far quicker than I can remember. Therefore, when gossip is as strong as this, the grain of salt I normally take with such allegations must be pushed aside. I will in no way do anything to anger our Premier, thus the rumors cannot be ignored.” He let out a long breath and glanced back down the hole in the floor.

“I fully agree,” Raventhorn stated. “Because of our Premier’s strong defense of his students and out of an abundance of caution, we will say or do nothing against the Drow-blooded young man nor the Drow boy. Furthermore, Premier Kandric has made it clear the rescue and recovery of his students and fellow teacher are a top priority. Therefore, we give command to you.”

Raventhorn glanced around to cut off comments from the dozens of Garm warriors who stared at her, many with open mouths. “Before any protest, let us think how far we are from our homes. I put her in command out of a desire to wear the same footwear I have on now when I next reenter my estate. For I have no desire to find myself under such a decree to walk home.”

Audible gulps and heavy cringes cascaded down the assembled Garm.

As all eyes turned to her, Saslara took a couple of deep breaths, “How ‘bout we say I’m not sure and there could be some students down there? We could also make a attempt at getting this lover boy’s girl out from the clutches of those holdin’ her. If nothing else, it will stop me from having to hogtie him to prevent him from sneaking away and going after this Sundara.”

Ramhorn took in a deep breath, “Everyone, switch to smashing weapons and prepare for combat against undead!”

“Um…” Eir managed to force herself to speak. “Most weapons, even hammers and maces bounced off the big flaming green-eyed and red-eyed bone walkers… I think it takes magic…”

Ramhorn snorted and gave a dismissive flip of his wrist. “If resistance to non-enchanted weapons is the only thing protecting them, this will not take long! If it is something more, it shall simply make the coming engagement more invigorating.”


Conner HE 11, Sharris HE 11, Nake HE 14, Tobash HE 15, Dostem Halfling, Gagan, + {Gilew Human HE 12, Munder Sil-Dragonling HE 11, Vaskar Human HE 14, Gil-Drak Wolfling HE 13}, (Highman 13-?), (Drow 18-?)

Silence permeated the area of dark and light. Conner fingered a dive on his belt but made no hostile moves. The first to stir was the body of the Drow. The figure looked up at the statue and quaked. Tears rolled out his eyes. “What… who…?” The Drow made one attempt to stand, shouted in agony and collapsed. “Someone… help… me…”

Sharris looked over at Conner, “I don’t care what he did or almost did! We can’t leave him like this!”

Conner took a long breath, pulled one of the last two orange potions out of the belt taken from the woman and held it up for everyone to look at.

Those from the Thunder Rapids quickly nodded. It took a little longer for the Anarton students, but finally they also gestured to give the potion, with Gil-Drak being the final one. “I can’t help seeing what Gambra’s people did to Hoconad. But as long as he hasn’t touched a person with vile magic… Yea, but he gets nothing more from me.”

Conner dropped an extra Dagger of Light taken off the woman next to the Drow, knelt and pushed the potion up to dry, cracked, and blistered lips. “I hope this heals some of what we’re seeing. I give you the dagger to help on your way out. Nothing more. When you recover, Gilew will escort you through the darkness to the exit. You can scrounge off the dead in the main sewers as you find a way out.”

As the Drow gagged and sputtered from the taste of the potion, and the worst of the wounds started to heal, the other youngster got up on hands and knees. The dark-haired boy quickly started patting himself, marking where the worst of the injuries were on the Drow. After a couple of minutes, he stared up at the statue of Dawnbreaker, crawled forward and kissed the lower glowing stone while speaking in a language most couldn’t understand, and others only got bits and pieces of. “… Great…. Dawnbreaker…power…falter… chosen… love…healing…”

He pulled himself around and sat at the foot of the statue while running his hand down his face and shaking his head. His eyes showed confusion as he once again patted and touched areas where burns, blisters, and lacerations were on the Drow. He spoke, but no one caught enough of it to even partially understand.

Seeing everyone frown, followed by Sharris trying to ask his name, he shook his head. His eyes fell on Munder. He switched to Dragon, only it seemed archaic. “You, of the Silver Dragon Motherland, certainly you comprehend my entire oration!”

“In this tongue, yea, but not what you speak before. And even this you do not speak in normal Dragon.”

“You speak Universal Dragon in slang?”

“I may not speak the best Dragon, but it sure ain’t slang!” Munder growled.

“Whoa!” Conner jumped in as it dawned on him he suddenly knew way more than the basics of Dragon. “There is no reason for arguments over speech! The important thing is we can talk to each other.”

“Wow, Conner, you sure got way better at Dragon!” Munder praised. “When did you get more teaching in it?”

Conner answered in Northman. “Think it came when the Dragon Magic found me, but we can talk about it more later.” He returned his focus back on the boy and spoke in Elvish. “Maybe we can talk better in this language?”

“Your eloquence of Dragon is clearer than lower Elvinkind. Nonetheless, you at minimum have the essentials of both. I deduce I should commend you. However, as a lower Elvinkind, one of your kin should have educated you to a much higher ability.”

As Conner frowned, the kid held up hand and pulled himself to his feet. He switched languages yet again. “It seems the Mistress of Light has placed me here with you, so I shall use utmost diligence not to offend. Let me try the ancient dialect. Certainly, while none of you appear to be of superior castes, one of you must be a commander and therefore be highly educated enough to properly converse with it.”

Only Conner and Gilew understood, but until this moment didn’t know they knew. While Gilew blinked in surprise, Conner managed to respond. “It seems I do have knowledge of this ancient tongue.”

The kid nodded and even briefly smiled, “Not perfect, but much better…” He suddenly stared at his hands. He pulled at the nice, dyed linen shirt. A deep frown cascaded down his face. “What? How?” He looked at the gagging and retching boy, “You! You stole my body!”

Gagan looked over at Conner with wide eyes. “We was warned ta contain his anger…”

Conner gulped, nodded, and moved forward with both hands up. “Good… um follower of Dawnbreaker… can I have a moment before you lash out at the former you?”

The boy turned sharply, “Follower?” The voice took on an undertone of a strange deep snarl, “I am a Temple Defender, Instructor Stratum, Priest of Dawnbreaker!”

“Sorry, I have no way of knowing who or what you are. But um… can I have a word please?”

The boy glared at the Drow then spun to face Conner. His anger seemed to fade quickly as he spotted the khopesh, “My apologies, Temple Defender of Afterdusk. I should have gazed stronger before I spoke. Your blade explains your knowledge of the ancients… However, you are quite young…”

“If you will allow me to cast, I think you need to see you as you now are before we carry on or you do something to your old self you may regret.”

“Certainly, I can give you a moment for an acolyte of blackness, for without the darkness of Afterdusk, the light of Dawnbreaker can have no meaning nor comfort.”

Conner had to bite off a reply. The last thing he wanted was to be seen as someone who was beholden to Afterdusk, and certainly not looked up to because of it. However, if it would keep the kid calm, he figured he’d roll with it. He pulled his spare book out of his pouch, found the needed page, and spoke an incantation while moving his hand like he was polishing a mirror. After a few seconds, a shimmering reflecting disc appeared. “Take a look if you would. It seems Dawnbreaker and Rovnar thought it easier, and from the conversation, possibly best, if you were transferred to a younger, different form. Your badly tortured body is now the home of what we were told is… was… um… whatever… his Highman essence is in your old… um… former body…” Conner took a few breaths as he tried to sort out how to continue.

Fortunately, the boy gazed in the magical reflection disc and looked himself over, clearly ignoring half of what Conner said, if not most of it. The boy clenched his fists, “This is…” He glanced over at the statue of Dawnbreaker and sighed. “I imagine I must accept and thank you Mistress of Light… But I doubt this body is even old enough perform with a breedable girl, let alone a real woman!” He took a deep breath, “At least in this body I will not repulse good-looking ladies with the horrid scars inflicted on me… But these clothes! I must be in the body of a beggar or squatter! Well-bred females will certainly scoff if I approach! I am a laughingstock!”

As Munder translated, Sharris blinked, “Those are dyed and good quality. What he is in now is at the very least low merchant clothing. What is he talking about?”

“No clue,” Conner stated in Northman so the kid couldn’t understand. “But as odd as this whole situation is, what he sees as poor clothing is pretty far down the list. Guys, I’m open to suggestions!”

“Good Priest,” Gilew moved forward a few steps while getting a nod from Conner. “Um, Dawnbreaker said she resized all your gear to your new form and size…”

The boy glanced around. It was clear he had not noticed all the items scattered around him. He quickly moved to his pack, wiggled his fingers, and softly spoke a phrase. He opened it and let out a sigh of relief. Without any hesitation or modesty, he stripped. The clothing he had on were tossed well away from him. As he did so, Conner couldn’t help but gasp. The boy was covered in dimensional pocket tattoos! He had one around his ring finger on his right hand, khopesh on his left leg, bow was on his left arm, and quiver on his right side. It didn’t end there. His upper shoulders and across his back had a chain vest with daggers, his chest and around his neck was a Dawnbreaker necklace and pendant, and further up on his right arm was a spiked shield. All were much nicer and of higher quality than the book tattoos sported by Anarton’s students. As the boy pulled out extremely nice silk underclothing and very fancy rune-marked dark brown hide armor, Conner realized there were even tattoos for all of it, right down to stockings and boots! The only thing seemingly not tattooed was the boy’s pack.

A glance over his shoulders confirmed he was not seeing things, for Gilew, Gil-Drak, Munder, and Vaskar were all staring with jaws hanging open. “By the gods…” Vaskar gasped. “The Force and pain required to put all those in… He must be insane!”

Conner spoke softly in Northman, “This may be some of the shifting and stuttering we saw when he was pushed into the body. His tattoos were even transferred…”

“Maybe, but it looked to me like a beast and other shapes were trying to come out as well,” Gil-Drak remarked.

“Yea, me look at horn and claw for a moment,” Munder stated.

“Long teeth and a wing.” Sharris added.

Gagan shook his head, “Nope, face like Lizardman and tail.”

“Pretty sure we saw whatever our imaginations wanted us to see.” Gilew countered. “But if we were seeing half of these dimensional pockets transferred, who knows what images were pulled as the dimensional rifts were opened so they could be relocated. For all we know, we could have been seeing spirits trying to grab some of it.”

The boy checked his groin area, frowning deeply as he did so. He glanced over at his former self and spoke with disgust in his voice. “While you inherit my scars, and you leave me with none, save for a sore jaw and crusted blood on the back of my head, I left you with much greater vitality!”

The Drow looked up blankly, still trembling in pain.

The boy glanced back to Conner as he started to dress, “Why does the pack I found myself with have all weapons removed?”

“He was a captive.”

“I see he has a dagger next to him now. Does this mean he is freed?”

Conner took a deep breath, “It sounded to me like those were Dawnbreaker’s wishes. His punishment is dealing with the injuries your body sustained. However, a Dagger of Light and a healing potion are all he gets from us.”

“He now represents me. I cannot allow him to wander as he is now.”

“You have some kind of regal crest and ring of what must be nobility. If you wish to give him something else, we will not stop you.”

The boy looked down at the pack he had been carrying then over at the Drow. “I gather by expression my words are wasted on you, however, maybe one of your former captors will translate or at the very least repeat the basics of what I say. Nothing inside this… bag… will fit, however I am certain there is nothing within up to my standards. This bag is not worthy of an indentured peasant!” He kicked it over to the Drow. He then spoke a mumbled phrase before he dug into the pack with royal crests and pulled out item after item. It was clear the pack held much more on the inside than it appeared it could. Finally, he came to a set of sturdy odd-looking spotted leather armor suit, including boots.

He held it up, waved his hand in front of it and spoke a long spell. His eyes arched. After a few seconds he shrugged and pressed his Dawnbreaker pendant into the material. “Oh, Lady of Light, if it pleases you, retrieve your enchantment from within these garments so the inhabitant of my former self does not further degrade my name with his deplorable state!”

Magic seemed to seep out. As it did so, the rugged clothing changed to fit his old self. He moved up to the Drow and dropped it in front of him. The boy then pulled out a handful of jasper, lapis lazuli, quartz, and turquois out of a side pouch on the royal-crested pack and dropped them in one of the boots. “I cannot allow my body to be seen unclothed and so totally humiliated. Put those on. It is Leopard-Crock hide, descaled, and softened on the inside while left hardened on the out… I do not remember where I got it from…” He blinked, “I seem to have colossal gaps in my memories… However, I am confident you can locate a jeweler to purchase those stones for a respectable sum. I expect you to procure equipment of a much higher standard than I found myself wearing when I woke within what was on you. My former body deserves no less.”

As Gilew translated for him, the boy pressed his Dawnbreaker pendent up to the Drow’s forehead. “Dawnbreaker, I call to you once again, if it be your will, heal my former self, at least so his remaining sores and cuts do not soil my clothing!”

Beams of light shot out of the statue and closed cuts further and scarred over burns and blisters. The Drow gasped and hugged himself as burns and blisters rippled, folded in on themselves, and scarred over in seconds. At the same time all breaks in the skin closed. He was left horribly scarred, yet mostly healed. As he recovered, he looked up as his former self with tears in his eyes. It was hard to tell if they were of pain, relief, sadness, or something else.

The boy let out a long breath and pointed to the clothing. “Your gratitude should not be to me. It need be to the great Lady of Light! Now dress and off with you. I do not wish to be reminded of what I once was!”

Conner gave a basic translation and nodded to Gilew. As soon as the Drow was dressed, dagger on his hip and pack slung over one shoulder since it didn’t fit over his back, he was escorted through the dark. Gilew’s voice could be easily heard as he gave strong warning, “Your meddling with the evil arts has been repaid. Should any of us discover you have drifted back into using such magics, you will be killed. Now get lost!”

The heavily tattooed boy moved back over to the items scattered around the area he had found himself. He fully dressed and verified everything fit. He moved up and kissed the statue of Dawnbreaker again. He angled back to the reflecting spell and looked himself over, cast a trio of cleanse Autospells on himself, held up his hands and studied them. He looked down at his signet ring and tapped it. It vanished into the tattoo underneath. As it did so, he gasped and pulled his hand into his stomach and dropped to the ground. He stayed down on one knee and took several deep breaths. He pulled his hand up and looked it over. He rubbed over the tattoo and took a few more breaths. He closed his eyes and tapped the tattoo. The ring reappeared. He winced. He studied the ring again, frowned and tapped it. Once again, he quickly pulled his hand into his stomach. He glanced up to Conner with tears welling up in his eyes. “What is wrong with magic? It is stale and stifling here! Are we in a Disbursement point?”

“No.” Conner shook his head. “There’s a recent rupture point close, but it is gushing with magic in both directions. You act as though you didn’t expect a dimensional pouch tattoo to hurt when you put the ring in…”

“Sting, yes… but not… NO! I most certainly did not!”

“Get used to it.” Seeing the boy frown, Conner changed tone and topic. “You don’t seem to be from around here… and um… can I ask what happened and how long were you in there?”

“Moments… it was only moments before I appeared here!”

“Um, somehow, I think you’re… mistaken…” Conner waited to see how the boy would react. He didn’t know why there was the warning about containing the kid’s anger, but if the likes of Dawnbreaker took a moment to give such an alert, he had every intention of heeding it.

The kid didn’t seem insulted by the remark. He pointed to a spot on his arm then blushed. “My skin, on my body, not this one, was still bubbling from when the burns were frozen and the puss under was thawing when I emerged into this temple… It was only moments…”

“OK, so… what happened?”

“I do not fully know… Fully is even the wrong word. I… My memory has huge faults…”

“You were badly tortured, so it may just need to come back. We had a fellow student who we rescued from Dark Mages. It took months for most of his memory to return, and much of it did during nightmares…”

“May I talk to him?”

“I only wish. He couldn’t take it. His body and mind was too badly broken to properly mend. He killed himself.”

At this the boy lowered his head, “I am sorry for your loss. I know I had thoughts of suicide at one point. Now I cannot even tell you when or what I was going to do... So yes, you may be correct. Hopefully I will remember more over time. As for what I do remember… Only images… flashes… There was a massive ambush. Something hit me. When I woke I was heavily shackled…” He pointed to the metal bands where the Drow had fallen. “They shoved me into a rip… a void which touched the most powerful Disbursement point I have ever felt. It ripped my tattoos open… They took everything… they wanted in my pack… I refused to give the command word and sequence… there was cold… intense cold… bolts and sparks of lightning… I almost gave in… then… combat… they were fighting each other… Black hands pulled me into the Disbursement point… other hands grabbed me and shoved me through the glowing doorway into this temple… Everything I am, was pulled out of my body… I felt forces wanted to take me to the Spirit Realms but the temple prevented this. I believe Afterdusk even interceded… I saw his form… it punched a spirit… it was knocked into… another realm… it screamed as it was dragged off. Other spirits trying to take me and the essence of the one I am in the body of fled… I looked at him, he looked at me… then I was forcibly altered. My tattoos were ripped out of my body and shoved into this one. Having it done so quickly was almost as bad as the lightning burns and cold… The power of Dawnbreaker slammed me into this body and him into mine.”

He took several deep breaths, “I… There is nothing else… or if there is… I cannot yet recall it.”

Conner rolled his eyes as the pieces came together, “Which would fit the conversation we heard between Dawnbreaker and Rovnar. Rovnar set those harming you against each other which allowed for your rescue and let Rovnar recover what he gave back to you.”

Gilew returned, “He is far from happy, but is on his way. As we should be, I heard a couple distant explosions. So I bet there is once again fighting at the Blazing Brook.”

“Combat? This I know and fully remember! I am a marvelous combatant! And if what I think I overheard is correct, I believe I heard the Great Lady of Light say I was to be part of this group… May I accompany you and help vanquish your adversaries?”

Conner nodded, “We heard the same as you. You are welcome to join us. But we need to go!”

The boy quickly put the rest of the items on and secured his weapons and shield. He went back down to his knees and let out a string of pained curses as he forced the axehammer into the dimensional pouch. He forced himself to stand. He took a few deep breaths and wiped tears out of his eyes. “Until I get out of whatever magical staleness I find myself in, there will be little more use out of my magical sheaths!” He rubbed the spot the axehammer disappeared into and gave a nod in Conner’s direction. “Ready. You can lead and we can talk!”

Conner motioned everyone back to the passage out of the temple. Once out and the gates closed, he jumped down into the sewers and helped others down. It was clear the boy was badly taken aback by where he found himself, but he didn’t say anything. He did, however, touch a couple of runes on his shield which caused it to give off a radiance.

Once on the move toward the Blazing Brook, Conner returned his focus to the boy. “Can I ask who hurt you so badly and what your name and title is?”

“My name… My name is…. Um… Sen… Sen… Sen’ry-nax. Yes, Sen’ry-nax… Title…” he looked at his finger. “I have memory of someone close to me calling me Nax, Prince Nax, so yes, Dawnbreaker put me here with you, so I will allow you to call me Prince Nax as well… For now, to make it easier for all, I will allow Nax until I can remember more. For try as I might, I have no idea what I was prince of nor even if prince is the proper title, but I am certain I am royal! As for who did what you saw to my true body… A powerful cold Mythling by the name of Cyronia and one of the nastiest Storm Mythlings, Electoroma.”

Gilew frowned, “Texts say Electoroma was abandoned on the field of battle by Cyronia. This allowed a group of Drow with the help of Rovnar to pull Electoroma down and kill her. Texts say this was right around the time of the walling off of the Ancients… over 10,000 years ago!”

“NO! It just happened. She is alive! I was there, pulled away and pushed through the doorway…”

Conner shook his head. “Might have seemed like it, but the death of Electoroma is well documented and led to Senexsia and Motikeg fighting over and eventually splitting the Demon Realm of Weather into Tempests and Storms. Until Electoroma’s death, Motikeg had the upper hand since she was his lover. After, he took Ocean Storms while Senexsia fractured off and formed a Realm of Land Tempests. Most thought Syria was behind the destruction of Electoroma since her falling out with Cyronia led to her death in the great Orakin battle. This meant Syria’s two biggest rivals have to constantly clash with each other for control of demons behind storms while she controls all of the godly Realms of Weather. It seems like it was actually Rovnar who was behind the initial bad blood between the two Mythlings though.”

“Rovnar…” the boy sighed. “Once the lead temple guardian of Dawnbreaker’s home temple, and the hand behind the Great Red Purge. His actions shattered the Red’s bid to join the gods and form their own realm which in turn unveiled the Green and Brown’s bid to join the Mythlings in the Outer Realms.”

Gilew blinked, “Are you saying the Dragon Wars were actually over some of the races wanting to go to the Outer Realms?”

“Dragon Wars?” Nax looked over with confusion, “There are only Rovnar’s Purge, the Reds and Greens vying for control of one of the key Gate Stones and the Browns fighting the Sands…”

Gilew shook his head. “While you may not care for the way Munder speaks, he has lots of Dragon history. Our Lord rescued him from an elderly Warrior Dragon Ruinseeker who was making a vie for eternal un-life here. Munder was enslaved to the evil creature!”

Nax’s jaw moved back and forth for several seconds, “Very well, if I must. I need to find out what is really going on.” He turned to Munder and spoke in Dragon, “I hear you know something about Dragon Wars? Who is winning?”

“Yea, I know. But you are asking about legendary history, not so much recent.”

“Legendary, how far back are you talking about?”

“Very long, thousands and thousands of years.”

“Certainly, you are mistaken or misled!”

“I may not speak your style of Dragon,” Munder grumbled with aggravation, “yet what you ask about is not current. Instead, it is history all but forgotten. You are the one with errors in your learning.”

Nax face turned red, but his momentary flair of anger was quickly tempered by the look he received from Conner and Gilew. “It… how can this be?”

“Maybe you were held in a preserved sleep state?” Conner offered as a possibility. “I have seen preserve spells cast by Shamen. It causes food goods not to spoil for weeks or even moons. If a Shaman can do it for fruits, certainly a god can do it to a person for much longer.”

“I… such conjecture is possible…” He turned to Munder, “I must submit to being a student of a poorly spoke Dragonling. Tell me what you know, please!”

Munder’s eyes narrowed. Only a shake and wag of a finger from Conner stopped him from saying what he was really thinking. Instead, he inhaled, held his breath, clenched both fists, exhaled, and took a couple of deep breaths before speaking. “OK, but even the 650-year-old Brass Dragon I was enslaved to said much of this was passed down over eons and probably held twisted facts, but he insisted the basics were still correct.”

“Very well, tell me the basics.”

Munder shrugged even as a pair of muffled booms echoed down the passage they were moving up. “The Browns wiped out the Sands by building an army of undead. Rumor says this is what has left us with the Desert of the Dead. Our Lord has taken us there. It is every bit as horrible as it sounds. But the Brown’s victory came at a terrible price. They were reduced to a castoff race which are still hunted by all the other dragons since they lost all their Greats, both male and female and the taint of undead magic has seeped through the whole line. Every dragon-kind is taught from birth, even slaves, Browns are to be destroyed when found. It is even custom, if not Dragon law, to give a Dragonborn slave full freedom if he kills a Brown of any kind.

“The Reds and Greens fully turned on each other shortly before the Brown-Sand War. There is indication this led to the Brown-Sand War, but rumor only. However, the Red-Green War destroyed the homelands of both. The other Dragon races then all tried for dominance. It left the Blacks, Whites, Bronze, and Golds as the lead Dragon powers, but there is plenty of bad blood within other races. Particularly Silvers and Whites, Coppers and Blues, and Brass and Bronze. Although the Brass have conceded much of their lands to the Bronze and last I heard the truce between them seems to be holding. It had something to do with the Brass stepping on the toes of something very powerful within the southeastern part of the Deathland Mountains and them needing to consolidate what they had left.

“Texts and scattered reports say the Coppers and Blues still harbor deep hatred and the Whites have pushed back the Silvers, and should have beaten them, but they hit a powerful foe over a millennia ago and lost vast numbers to whatever or whoever they tried to step on. It is probably the only reason there is a Silver Dragon Homeland still in existence. Something extremely powerful resides in the Deathland Mountains and the cold lands to the north, of this there is no dispute. No dragon ever willingly goes to the Deathland Mountains, not even Trues or Greats! It sounded to me like the Brass and Whites found this out the hard way or were so full of themselves they refused to heed the warnings. However, with Prince Weraweld, the Whites have started to penetrate into the Silver Dragon Homeland again.”

“Maybe,” Conner spoke up, “but one of those who just fell was a White, and his name was Weraweld. Of this I am certain.”

“This is good!” Munder grinned, “The Whites have lost their crown prince, and the Silvers once again have a chance.”

Nax interlocked his fingers as he took in the information. He briefly touched his pendant. “I must conclude the Lady of Light would not allow me to be handed misinformation, therefore I am left with the only viable conclusion. I am not where, nor when I was. Part of me declares I should know more, I do know more, but between my capture, torture, and transference of bodies I am left with little usable knowledge. I cannot even tell you from where I hail. However, I am still a temple defender of Dawnbreaker, and will demonstrate to this peculiar world I discover myself in why there is rationale to fear her warriors! Let us get to this battle so I may enter this realm, or time, and proclaim my name for all to remember.” He adjusted the spiked shield on his arm and patted at the khopesh on his side.

Munder stepped forward so he could walk close to Conner. He spoke in Northman, “Conner, I know you don’t like to be a glory hound, and you ought hold and only take on foe beyond our ability. But do all here a favor. Make him look bad on the next fight!”

Conner glanced over at Nax who fingered his daggers. Even his posture was arrogant. “Yea, he needs to be dropped a notch or two before he finds out very few even know of Dawnbreaker, and Drow are hated and feared. While he is no longer in the body of a Drow, I am sure he will certainly get angry at how they are treated. He needs to know he isn’t all he thinks before he sees a fellow Drow getting mistreated. The other thing which will certainly anger him is outward devotion to Dawnbreaker will get him nowhere and will probably scoffed at. Spread the word to let Nax and me take the lead, if not the whole fight, to the next Gloom Fire group. While you’re at it, let everyone know we must move in the second we see any Drow unjustly treated. We must also speak up for Dawnbreaker when he uses her name, so Nax sees us as allies. While I can’t imagine what danger he could possibly be, even if he was an adult… yet it sure sounded like Dawnbreaker wanted us to hold him back for some reason, and I just can’t see a god, any god, give such warning without a good reason.”

“OK, but why let him go forward if we want him not mad?”

“The way he is acting, he will get angry if we try to hold him back. Plus, we get to see what he is capable of. Last, but far from least, if he gets badly hurt and his temper blows, it won’t be at us.”

“Yea. Me’ll get word out. Watch your back, Conner. There no tellin’ what him really be about.”

“You watch my back. For this to work I need to badly upstage him, so he sees he is not all he thinks he is. Therefore, I’m going to take out as much of the trash as fast and savagely as possible in the next fight.”


Kandric, Seldnat, Pike, Zeltoss, Lorthorn, Jamon, Lacate, Bavajom and Adafina: Vondum, Conth, Black Warrior Dragon Ornam, Alphar boy Cam'ris (with Blue Streak Shocker Lizard), Glaster, Chark’ash, Rylan, and company with captives (Devkiln, Famira, Dorwald, Bavrim, Javari), Duke Mathard, Princess Syrissia, Silver Warrior Dragon San'i-sar

Wind driven snow seemed to carry the cries of wounded yet to be found while crackling pops of burning trees kept the area under the early dawn’s bleak grey sky well lit. Heavy patrols combed the woods to secure wounded, blessed the dead, gathered loot, and searched out possible threats.

Vondum glanced over to Glaster who was holding Perth’s shoulders as an Illorc Healthman wrapped the boy’s blistered hands. He moved up and ruffled the boy’s hair as the Illorc finished and pushed a quartet of garnet demon heart stones into the boy’s pouch. “Got more heart than most boys your age, Perth. Four additional demon kills on wounded Ember Spirits and a couple of others.”

Peth gritted his teeth as he held up his bandaged hands. “Burned me gloves… in first fight… I should’a had three more…”

Glaster rubbed the boy’s shoulders, not bothering to correct the language. “You have proof of a total of nine more demon kills than most will ever see, Perth. With only street-hardened intellect and the limited training I have provided, you did far better than I could have hoped.”

“Yer’ Lord be right! Fer a little one wit Trainin’ step 1 pin, ya done good ta finish off dem hell spawn!” another Illorc stated as he patted the pouch and adjusted the boy’s thick coat for him. A bemused smirk crossed the Illorc’s features as he patted the coat again, “Here be another, boy. Burn inta yer coat it did!” He wiggled his hand in the outer burned hole and pulled out another cornelian stone. “Ya take dem hearts and gets yerself somethin’ nice!”

Mylan pointed to a couple of deep indentations in the snow. He poked out two more hearts. “They were over there…” He shook his head, “Perth did the same thing every time. He dove into the snow when they got close. They moved to where he dove in. He hamstringed them, then as they fell, he opened their backs. He was so fast, I only saw him take out three, but I know the first two hearts fell out and into the snow before he could grab them.”

“Me… I not know where the heart be at first…”

A firm gesture from a heavily armored Illorc sent a couple of teen equivalent Illorcs to dig into the depressions and even smack at the ice patches underneath with a mace and hammer. He snorted, “Good chance lots a hearts lost all their heat and glow before they hit the ground. Bet there be a fortune lyin’ around out here. But since we know where to look, no sense in leaving them for some undeserving sap to find.”

The pair of young Illorcs quickly found both hearts and handed them over to the Illorc tending to Perth.

The Illorc opened Perth’s pouch and dropped the two recovered stones into it. “Dis snow froze ‘em before dem hit the ground. Them be dead forever and ya did get what ya deserve!” He gave Perth a bear hug, put him down, and ruffled his hair. “Yer a demon killer fer sure!” He glanced over to Glaster, “Lord, them burn should heal quick-like. The healin’ him got didn’t stop his smokin’ gloves and britches from reburnin’ him. Us got snow onta ‘em fast but not fast ‘nough ta stop him getting’ reburn a bit. Him hands and lower leg gunna be tender fer a few day.”

“I will adjust his training to compensate. Thank you.”

“No need ta be thankin’ me none. Him and dem other tyke,” he nodded toward the royal boys, “all move up wit what them had ta help me and me mates. Them all get some burn finishin’ off what we hurt, so’s we could fight da fresh ones as dem come out a the fire doors! Ya gots yerself some brave litt’l ones, ya does!”

One of the Alphar moved up and knelt, “My apologies Commander, they all moved in to help the Illorcs unexpectedly. It was then take the fight to those gating in close to your boys, or risk losing them all… Had your mercenary group not moved up to help, I do not think we would have held.”

“You all did your duty. All of them, save the prisoners Famira and Dorwald, who were certainly part of the main attack against Rylan, are alive thanks to your efforts. Their loss to demons was probably easier than what I had planned for Famira, so she got off easy. The other is disappointing, but he was of limited intellect. Therefore, getting anything useful out of him would have been surprising. I also deeply appreciate you and the Illorcs allowing the boys to borrow magical blades so they could take the fight to those who managed to get past you and the Illorc detachment.”

“As much as it pains me to admit,” the Alphar spoke with resignation, “you should thank Lord Monarch and your mercenaries. I seriously doubt we would have been able to hold, had Lord Monarch not sent this detachment to help protect your charges, wagons, and other assets.”

The Alphar glanced at the bodies of the two former captives with a shake of his head. “And regardless of usefulness, their loss falls on us. We promised yet failed to protect. With us now linked back up with the Combined Alphar Garm Force, it would be our honor, and as way of apologizing to you, if you allow us to procure youth Alphar Lightswords and Garm Daggers of Light for them all. It would give them good minorly enchanted blades they can use all the way into adulthood.”

Glaster put his arm over Chark’ash’s shoulders. “Such a gifting would be kind. I gather this includes all of my boys?”

The Alphar’s lips pressed together tightly for a moment before a sigh of resignation escaped his lips, “There is no issue with Daggers of Light. However, I see one concern behind arming the Drow bast… Um, Drow boy with an Alphar Lightsword, Commander. It is a relatively common blade produced in Premier Kandric’s home forge in decent numbers for royal and noble apprentice youth. The only fear, and like it or not, it is a legitimate one, is if the young Drow was seen with it by another Alphar or Garm who is not aware of his status. They may mistake his having one as him having killed an Alphar noble youth. I do not want to see your… young charge… endangered beyond his heritage because of such a misperception. Nor do I wish to have the Spirit Cat unleash anger at any Garm or Alphar over such a mistake.”

Chark’ash looked dejected by the Alphar’s words but did his best to shrug it off. “I am used to this. Being Drow is… what it is.”

Cam’ris spoke up. “NO! This is disgusting! Without him our camp would have fallen! He saved most of those now tending to wounded! My entire life, from stories as early as I can remember, I have been taught to dread Drow. Many of the archery targets my entire class shot at had dark skin, pointed ears and white hair. Those took precedence over all else. It was enough to when I first saw you, Chark, I almost peed myself! Yet within sandglass turns I find you to be not just honorable, but also likeable. It is not your fault being born as you are. It is ours for how we have been taught to look at you, when up to when I first saw you, I had never even met a Drow.”

Cam’ris turned to the Alphar leader with a deep frown and piercing glare. “How can we hold a grudge against an entire race for deeds done generations before most of us were born?”

“The horrors of what the Drow did speak for themselves.”

“Tell me, we, the Alphar, did nothing wrong. I dare you.”

As the other Alphar all turned and stared at Cam’ris, the one who had been speaking clenched his fist. “What we did or did not do is not important. What the Drow did at the Garm Fortress can never be forgotten.”

At this point Chark’ash spoke up, “And it should not be. The destruction of the Garm Fortress is a blight on all Drow. I also know texts say it was investigated by both the Alphar and Garm and even a contingent of Halfling Warmen. Of this I do not dispute. Nor is there question as to the destruction of the fortress. It left large areas open for Orcs, possibly the last vestiges of Orakin, to pillage huge swaths above the Silver Spine Mountains.”

One of the other Alphar gave a snort. “The boy is well versed, spoken, and learned for a Drow. Nonetheless, I hear a however coming.”

“No.” Chark’ash shook his head. “The destruction of such a large contingent of Garm who were there to defend against a massive Orc offensive should have never happened. Yet it did and by all accounts, of surviving Humans, Halflings, Elves, Dwarves, and a smattering of other races, it was the Drow who were behind it. What needs to be discovered, and to the best of my knowledge never has been unearthed, is why.”

At this point Glaster spoke up, “Chark’ash. I do not think it matters why. What was done was done.”

“Commander, if you wish me to hold my tongue, I will. Nevertheless, I must disagree.”

Cam’ris looked over. “Lord or Commander Glaster, I would like to hear what Chark’ash has to say. For I have often wondered what good it did the Drow to destroy a fortress protecting the whole of the Silver Spine Plateau. It was the largest, possibly only, major bastion capable of holding back the creatures form the Deathland Mountains. From my history texts, those Garm were not part of either the Garm-Alphar nor the Elvin-Dwarven Wars. It was a neutral fortress with an amazing reputation for defending all on the plateau. There was no reason for the Drow to assault it.”

“They needed no reason! They are nothing but bloodthirsty murdering fiends!” one of the other Alphar sneered.

Both Glaster and Vondum shot the Alphar glares. Seeing this, the Alphar held up both hands. “Fine, let him speak. And I apologize. I should have said his kind were fiends not the boy. And I will admit, his defense of the supply camp is something he deserves some credit and even recompense for.”

Vondum continued to stare at the Alphar even as he spoke, “Glaster, he is yours, but I think he is owed a chance to defend his point of view.”

At this point Prince Klandon spoke up, astonishing everyone who knew him. “As do I! His kind did awful things to me, but the more I get to know him, the less I hate him. None of this makes sense to me! Are there two types of Drow or something?”

Glaster glanced over and blinked, “Quite a change of attitude, Klandon.”

Mylan spoke, “We have been talking Commander. This whole thing with Klandon is very wrong. There is no way Klandon can be remembering what happened to him. His father, my uncle, would have… You know what I would like to say but cannot. There is no chance what his memories say can be true. He would have been missed by way too many people. It also seems wrong because Klandon has memories of others, including Halflings and Illorcs hurting him, not just Drow. Yet, while not possible, if I look hard enough, I can see traces of some scars. Even weirder, during the demon attack, the first to come to the aid of the Alphar guarding us was Illorcs. It scared Klandon. But at the same time, he found out he is very fluent in Orc. Then, during the times I have convinced him to talk to Chark’ash, we tested how much Klandon knows about Drow. We all found out he knows how to speak Drow very well. Do you think those who were protecting Klandon would have allowed Illorcs and Drow near him, let alone be close to him long enough to where he can fully speak and understand their languages? I sure do not. And I know Klandon did not speak Orc or Drow before he left for the islands.”

As Glaster’s eyebrows arched in surprise, Mylan shook his head and continued. “Plus, there is everything Klandon and I used to do together, things we both liked. Klandon does not remember any of it and hates some things we used to find fun, like spearfishing. It was our favorite thing to do since we were like five and were first shown how to spearfish by my mother. It is almost like Klandon is not the one I used to know.”

Lylan cocked his head to the side, “As nuts as it sounds, it kind of fits. Klandon used to hate climbing the tower at our winter estate. He got shaky knees when we got up to the first arrow slits, which are about four meters up on the wall. Right after Klandon came back and got better he, Mylan and I climbed all the way to the top with him and he was faster than both of us!”

Mylan’s eyes went wide, “I remember how surprised we were. You have always been the best climber of the three of us!”

Klandon kicked at the snow with clear aggravation, “I’ve never been afraid of heights!”

“Yes, you were!” Both Mylan and Lylan stated as one.

Lylan seemed to shiver. “Our father had to climb up and get you down the one time we got you to climb up above the arrow slits. Both us and our whipping boys had a hard time sitting down for a couple of days after. Father even had you use the strap on both of us because the only way we got you to go so high was to call you names! You have to remember that!”

“I don’t… um, do not…”

“Good catch Klandon,” Glaster praised.

“Yet another thing Klandon used to be super at…” Mylan sighed, “Our father used to use Klandon as an example of how kids should use proper speech.”

Klandon frowned, “No way…” Seeing both the others nod he shrugged. “Something is sure messed up with me… But this is why I want to hear more about why Chark’ash doesn’t… does not… understand why the Drow would burn a Garm castle during a war where they were fighting each other… I mean, they were fighting each other, right?”

“Yes.” One of the Alphar responded. “The Drow sided with us, the Alphar, at first, but as was noted, the Garm Fortress was never part of either war. It was built to defend the plateau after the great Orakin eradication toward the end of the Mythling War. For we know what was left of the Orakin escaped into the wilds above the Silver Spine. It was thought the Orakin would one day try again, and by all accounts the massive Orc raids may have been their last attempt to do so. After the Garm Fortress fell, and everyone heard about what they had done, Garm, Alphar, Elves, and Dwarves joined forces and routed the Orcs, but in doing so took huge losses. Those who were left, including survivors of other races decided to pay the Drow back for their treachery.

“This was the start of the Drow purges and ended with the locking up of Under River and the retreat of Alphar and Garm from the known word to rebuild. For like to admit it or not, we came way closer to losing than any of us care to admit and had only a shadow of our might prior to the Drow purges. We needed this last millennia or so to rebuild or risk vanishing into history like the Orakin and Sand Dragons.”

Chark’ash shook his head, “All surviving Drow history texts say pretty much the same thing. Everyone turned on the Drow after the destruction of the Garm Fortress. There are accounts from numerous survivors of the Drow burning adult survivors on stakes, but not before their children were forced to run off the upper towers to their deaths. It makes no sense, yet it happened. Drow got what we deserved… I do not dispute this. The thing I cannot get past is the reason. No Drow who understands our deep history can fathom the why. Drow revere youth. We protected Garm young we found in garrisons we hit and either turned them over to Garm with no recompense or took them down to Under River to care for. We defended countless villages and took and cared for the orphans of those the Mythlings, Dragons, and Orakin left for dead. Butchering of kids is unthinkable! The hitting of the fortress had no purpose, either. Those Garm were not part of the Garm-Alphar War, or if they were, it was as a minor supply base. Last but far from the least, the Drow never had a strong presence above the Silver Spine Mountains, never.”

An Illorc spoke up, “Yer wrong. The Drow were everywhere! From what me hear from Lord Monarch’s teach’rs, them who became da demon kings and queens lost all sort a battles cause Drow popped up out of Under River in town and city all over da place to give food, weapon, and even fightin’ men ta bolster defenses!”

“Drow texts say the same,” Chark’ash confirmed. “But we had no strongholds above the Silver Spine. Then, during the Mythling Wars, we helped crush the Mythling-Orakin offensive. While this was a precursor to the fall of the Mythling capitol, we, the Drow, lost so many warriors it crippled what operations we did have above the Silver Spine. After the Orakin extermination, Drow had limited access to cities above the Silver Spine and only a couple of spots in the whole of the Deathland Mountains, which used to be called the Serpent Highlands. It got the name Deathland Mountains shortly after the end of the Drow Wars. It was said going in to those mountains was a death sentence, so at some point it became the Lands of Death, which then became the Deathland Mountains.

“But anyway, most major population centers were wiped out above the Silver Spine because we... the Drow, had such limited access. Much of what survived was then decimated in the last major Orc offensive known. It is probably why the plateau has so few major cities to this day. It also makes the survival of Falconloft and Black Rapids even more remarkable because the Drow could not get supplies in like we did to so many other cities below the Silver Spine. Both cities also held during the great Orc offensive, which would have never gained the steam it did had the Garm Fortress survived.

“Without those cities the Orc offensive may have succeeded in taking the whole of the plateau. It is also why there is such hatred for my kind from the Hawklings. The Falconlings were all but wiped out and Hawklings lost huge numbers because they took the lead in taking the fight to the Orcs after the fall of the Garm Fortress. As far as I know, the Hawklings basically took over Falconloft, and the pure-blood Falconlings are only in a few high mountain villages overlooking Falconloft. Although, there are long standing rumors there are Falconlings in or to the north of the Wastelands of Odin.

“Regardless, by sheer will of character and the aid of Black Rapids, the remnants of the Falconlings and the more numerous Hawklings held until all the other races mobilized to crush the Orcs and eliminate their entire leadership. Unfortunately for those above the Silver Spine and below the Deathland Mountains, it left the area devoid of royalty of any kind and all but wiped out nobility. The once very wealthy and powerful area known as the Silver Spine Plateau remains mostly leaderless and wild to this day.”

Chark’ash eyed the whole group for several seconds. His surprise at being listened to was evident in both his face and body language. He took a deep breath and finished what he wanted to say. “The last thing to consider is, like it or not, believe it or not, Drow hatred of the Garm and Dwarves was nothing compared to the loathing we have toward Orcs and their natural allies. The Orakin and Orcs killed more from Under River and the above ground Drow than all the others did, including during the Drow war. Surviving Drow have learned to tolerate and even accept Halforcs and Illorcs, but… we will never accept an Orc, Morg, Caveling or if they should reappear, Orakin. To destroy a fortress protecting others and slaughtering Orc-kin and what is now called the low Dwarven races and their allies is the last thing Drow should have done.”

While all those close to Chark’ash stared at him as if he had suddenly become a tutor of a history lesson, one of the Illorcs moved up to Chark’ash. “Ya be quite da young’an!” He pointed to the boy’s light axehammer hanging off his belt. “Yer left-handed?”

“Yes, however, I have been trained to fight with either hand.”

“Let me see yer hand, boy!”

Chark’ash raised an eyebrow but extended his arm.

The Illorc ran his hand over Chark’ash’s fingers and looked over his hand. He ran his hand up the boy’s arm and gripped hard on the bicep. He nodded, “Yer hand be big ‘nough and ya gots da muscle, barely, ta handle it….” He glanced over to one of the other Illorcs who was on a stretcher with both his arm and one leg heavily bandaged. “Lomend, don’t want ta tell ya what ta do with Lefer’s blade, but us see this one put a arrow inta big flamin’ hell-spawn… killed more a dem big red bastards… and ain’t getting’ much in the way a thanks. Him also not have a magic blade. If any boy deserve it…”

The severely injured Illorc closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and finally nodded. “Me boy can’t take it into the afterlife, and I remade the blade with Monarch’s help for him cause he lost a finger to Sand Snapper many a year back and was left-handed. So it’s made for a five-finger lefty, not six. Sure ain’t going to do any of me other kids any good and I was barely able to reforge it with Monarch’s full attention to compel the enchantment to stay inside the first time. Ain’t about to try it again. Give it to him, Gulesh.”

Another Illorc limped over to a quartet of bodies. One was an Illorc boy. With a shake of a head, he knelt stroked the boy’s head, pulled up the boy’s left hand, kissed it and folded both arms over the deceased Illorc’s chest. With a few blinks to get out tears, he undid the boy’s belt and slid it from under him. He stood and moved up to Chark’ash. “Never got it off him hip. Hope it does ya more good den me nephew.” He thrust the weapon belt with a falcata in its sheath on the left side and a Gnome Steel shock dagger on the right into Chark’ash’s hand.

Lomend looked up from the stretcher. “My boy made the shock dagger with Monarch a few year back. It greatly amplifies any electrical spell pushed through it, and the effects last for a quarter of a standard sandglass turn. The handle was all him and shows some flaws, but the Gem Magic is good as is the whole blade.

“But what we really be giving you is the falcata. I found it in a cave over eight decades ago. Don’t know why it was there, cause there weren’t nothing else with it. But I kept it and finally reforged it. However, all the real work went into the handle. It was and still is an ancient Orakin metal blade, so it is heavier than other metals, but as strong as Blue or Stone Steel. Attack and damage enchantments were infused directly into the blade too long ago to ever trace back and were left intact, barely, during my reforging of the weapon. There are six gems in the hilt. They were added with the help of Lord Monarch. Push and cast an Air Puff Autospell directly onto them to activate. Each stone has one use per half-moon cycle. They recharge on full and new moons. The three blue zircon stones will wash you and anything you wear. Casting a Cleanse Learned Autospell will also mend any minor tears or issues with clothing or gear but will not repair anything broken or shredded. However, if you do so the stone will not recharge until the next full moon.

“The three yellow beryl will give you half a sandglass of extra damage to undead and will badly hurt creatures who are harmed by Zeris’ light.” He sighed. “Our village has a problem with Shadow Cats and… to be honest, Lefer’s distaste of bathing from a young age made the other gem enchantment easier than me having to strip him down and toss him in the lake with a chunk of soap a few times a moon as he got older. Truth is, my old lady got to the point she wouldn’t let him back in the house after playing and exploring the deep woods with friends for days at a time until he took a bath.”

Chark’ash started to push the blade back to the limping Illorc, “This is made for…”

Lomend let out a hiss of pain as he forced himself to sit up. “Boy, don’t dishonor my son by refusing it! You need a magical blade. It was reforged for a five-finger, and it is small enough for you to use now, yet large enough to be useful as a back-up blade well into adulthood. It is also not a weapon other races may mistake as you having stolen or taken off another. Very few races other than Illorcs and occasionally Dragonlings use falcatas anymore. Copper and Blue Dragonling young are often seen with them, and I have made some for a clan of Bronze Dragonlings only a few hills from my village. But the finger grips on my boy’s are wrong for both Illorcs and Dragonlings. It’ll serve you well and you deserve something for putting an arrow into the big flamin’ bastard and wipin’ the snowy ground with all them huge brutes!

“And while not nearly as popular as they once were, it is certainly a good weapon. It’s almost like I made it for you without knowing it. Take a look. Not only is the one you hold in your hand clearly made for a five-finger grip, not six, it is also made for a smaller hand, since my boy was not exactly built like most Illorcs. Any Illorc who may question ownership will assume it was made for you. This is especially true since it is made for a predominately left-handed grip. There are fewer left-handed Illorcs than any other race. Combine this with the five-finger grip, it is all but destiny it ends up in your hands.”

Chark’ash took a deep breath, glanced up to Glaster, got a nod, and knelt next to the body of the young Illorc. “Your blade is in good hands, and I will honor you every time I use it. I wish we could have met and been friends.” He put his hand over the hands of the dead Illorc. “Move on with the blessings of Vaneuben.”

He turned his full attention to Lomend, “You show me great trust and respect by allowing me to carry these weapons. I will forever remember where they came from and once released from my servitude will strive to come to your lands to serve for a couple of years as a guardian of you and your people.”

“Should you come, I will make sure you are welcomed with open arms young Drow.” He nodded to a couple of the stretcher carriers, “Now get me out of this snow before we all freeze! Our dead are blessed and ain’t going nowhere. We can send others to prepare pyres for them once this damned storm breaks!”

Chark’ash pulled the sheaths off the belt and secured them to his weapon belt. He pulled the blade and did some practice thrusts and slices. He frowned and tried again. He turned to Glaster. “While I know I am in your servitude, if you would kindly allow me to spend some time with the Illorcs so I can learn the basics of handling this blade?”

Vondum moved behind Chark’ash as he spoke up, “It is a weapon I trained with as part of the Black Dragon Homeland. As you heard, Dragonlings tend to like them. Therefore, all officers of the Black Dragon Homeland are trained in their use, regardless of race. I will be happy to work with you. The first thing you need to do is think of it less as a sword and more of an axe. It is weighted toward the front. The wider front is great for slashing.” He moved the boy’s hand and arm, guiding the most basic combat maneuvers. “The nice thing is the point also allows for thrusts and the handle surrounds the hand, so it is fantastic for a backhand. In addition, since the back is counterbalanced for easier pullback after a swing, it is good for adding extra weight to a punch.” He took Chark’ash through the motions.

One of the Alphar spoke as he watched the impromptu lesson. “With your permission, Commander Glaster and General Vondum, if I could procure one, I could carve the… boy… a couple of wooden ones so he could get a feel for them. Given a day or so with a forge master, I could infuse a wooden one with lead or bronze to give him a practice weapon with decent weight.”

“Wouldn’t be bad for him to have something to practice harder maneuvers with,” Vondum stated.

As Glaster nodded, the Alphar moved up to a another dead Illorc teen, got a nod from the Illorc tending to the bodies and secured the non-magical falcata off the body. He eyed it and gave it a couple of practice swings. “Interesting weapon. I have never fought against one.”

One of the Illorcs patted a falcata on his side, “Be good fer tight combat like in caves er thick wood. Most a our village’s trainable young’ans get a bronze one around human equiv’lent age eight er nine, den get a Gnome Steel one ‘bout twelve and keep em fer life. If’n da Drow young’an wanna come to er camp in the evenin’s ta spar with boys ‘bout him size, be happy ta have him.”

Glaster patted Chark’ash on the shoulder as the boy looked up with eager eyes. “Sounds like a great idea.”

Cam’ris looked over to Vondum, “If I can find one, I would really like to join in.”

Vondum didn’t hesitate. “I will never prevent you from gaining extra combat proficiency, Cam. I will let you use the one I still have from my days as an officer in training in the Black Dragon Homeland.” He pulled a Dwarven Steel one out of his pack and handed it over. “If you show aptitude, I will get with Monarch and help forge you a magical one. It will probably only be Gem Magic, but better than not enchanted. We will discuss more if you prove to me you deserve it.”

Vondum, with Cam’ris on his right and Conth on his left, moved to get a good look at where two of the White Warrior Dragons had fallen.

Glaster kept pace. He carried Perth on his shoulders, because the boy had bandages on his hands and right leg from light burns. On both sides of Glaster, with his arms draped over their shoulders, Rylan and Chark’ash trudged through the deep snow. Slightly behind, the royal boys, surrounded by the five Alphar and a dozen Protector’s Keep guards followed. The ring of guards kept weapons ready.

Glaster focused on Vondum as they came across three more Illorc bodies all but buried in the snow, “Looks like the Illorcs took the highest losses.”

“No question,” Vondum responded as he pulled off two falcatas. “We have a working forge. I will remake these handgrips for Rylan and Cam. They can train with each other and gain closer friendships.” He waited to get a nod from Glaster before he marked where the bodies were at and checked them for other useful gear.

With a shake of his head and a sigh, he spoke to no one in particular. “I think our Illorc allies were slow to fully trust the others when the first round of fire doors appeared. The other possibility is some of their commanders wanted to prove how strong they are or were. Either way, once they pulled back and fought side by side with the others it greatly aided all of us. The problem is we lost a handful of Silver, a dozen Blue, and close to a score of Black Dragonlings trying to get the Illorcs to integrate with us. Monarch is talking with the dragons now, to smooth things over.”

Cam’ris spoke, “Frexla also made a bad mistake if she thought she could attack the White Dragon Legions with fire. The White Dragon Legions are reserves for the Red Dragon Legions. They all have cold-based weapons and fire-based defensive items. Speaking of which, why does Chark not have a cold protection amulet or bracelet like was given the rest of us?”

Vondum squeezed Cam’ris’ shoulder as he angled over to a young dead Alphar archer with senior apprentice pins and a low noble crest pins on his cloak. He glanced back at the Alphar slightly behind him, “I gather there is no problem allowing our young Drow archer to procure equipment off the dead since you so blatantly disregarded properly equipping him?”

There were universal cringes from the five Alphar, but none spoke. After a few seconds, the youngest, and clearly most junior of the five of the Alphar moved up to the body, said a quick prayer to Vindayin over the youngster even though it had already been blessed. He pulled the gloves, pouch, armored vest, bow, quiver, and weapon belt off the body. The belt was more suspender like, with attachments on both front straps. It came with an Elvin Lightsword, a matching pair of Silver Steel knuckles, Silver Steel dagger, and morningstar. He concluded by removing the bracelet and headband. Everyone noted he let out a long sigh and clenched his fists before bundling the items in the tattered and blood-spattered cloak. Even then, he refused to give the items to Chark’ash. Instead, he handed the bundle over to Vondum. “The headband and bracelet are the same as we gave most of the kids. The bow is not enchanted, nonetheless, it is made by one of our master bowyers.” He extended his other hand, “The pouch should have three replacement bowstrings unless he had to use one since deployment to the field of battle with whom he was apprenticed. The user will also need the gloves. I am certain, if they are of the wrong size, one of our quartermaster Leatherworkers will be willing to resize or make a new set.

“The strings are made of intertwined Griffin fur and Silver Steel. It is not easy to string or unstring. The user will require practice and probably aid in stringing, along with lots of practice to fire, I strongly recommend those archer gloves. As with all bows, it should be unstrung when not in use, but can be left strung for long periods of time without losing strength or power. After all, Alphar, even apprentices, are expected to be able to engage in prolonged battles lasting days if required.” He took a deep breath, “The arrows are gem-base enchanted for damage and accuracy. Reusable until they break. The quiver holds fifteen. I am certain, if your… young archer… looks around, the quiver can be filled and several score found for replacements. Most of our troops will not scour the battlefield looking for arrows in a storm such as this. Instead, they will be issued replacements from stores Gate Stone gated from the Griffin Spires.

“The morningstar and dagger are Silver Steel and have the simplest of gem enchantments for extra damage and ability to damage creatures only magic can affect. I have no knowledge of the knuckles. They were something our young senior apprentice carried outside of normal issue. However, since each spike appears to be a lightly glowing shard of smoky quartz, they are certainly gem enchanted.

“Finally, the Elvin Lightsword… as you have been told is normally only handed to noble apprenticed youth. It is in essence a shorter and lighter weight version of an Elvin Longsword, with base elemental added damage, in this case electrical. In addition, Lightswords are a repository of extra Force for the casting of three of what you call Primary Echelon spells, without leaking. However, the wielder must first attune, which this one is now open for because the user is dead, then put the Force into it. Attunement is no different than attuning to a guild pin. As already mentioned, there is danger if seen with one by Alphar and Garm, especially a… No need to discuss this further.”

He shot Chark a scowl before returning full attention to Vondum. “The Great Alphar Nation gives these to you to do what you feel best during this time of great peril, General Vondum. We will get with Princess Syrissia and Duke Mathard to make sure there is record of transfer of…” He moved back to the corpse and looked at the noble pin. “Records will be updated to show the third, Elvin mother born, of Earl Lonelance gave his life in defense of the Mortal Realms and his belongings were transferred to General Vondum to distribute within the greater alliance as you see fit.”

Vondum pulled the sheath with the Lightsword and morningstar off the weapon belt and handed them over to Rylan. “Chark’s axehammer is Silver Steel, and is clearly a preferred weapon, so the morningstar is not needed by him. Like Chark, you also assisted in slowing Pyrothermal for Premier Kandric to destroy. Take these.”

Rylan looked up at Glaster, got a nod, and smiled, “Thank you General!”

“You earned it.”

The rest of the bundle was push into Chark’ash’s hands. “There is only six arrows left in the quiver. I am betting Cam’ris would be more than happy to help you search the area for more arrows, though.”

“Sure!” Cam’ris spoke up eagerly.

Glaster pointed to a pair of Black Rapids guards. “Go with them and keep them safe.”

The woman and man nodded, as did a Red Dragonling. The Red spoke up, “Thissss archer and a dozen other fire many volley into clump of birch tree.” It pointed. “It be where big fire door open and many four-arm demon come out. Me and two other come help when door open behind their line and kill boy and two other. But think birch grove be good place to look for more arrow. Me go with and bring a few of my kind too.”

“Good idea,” Vondum stated then pointed down to another bow. “Cam, you may as well take it and a quiver. I doubt I will be able to buy a bow for you with such quality or strength.”

Chark’ash quickly put on the gear and started to adjust it. “While we lost many good warriors, I do not know what Frexla was thinking. She sent all those fire-based demons into the middle of a powerful force with a huge amount of magic!”

Cam’ris procured the bow and strapped on an almost empty quiver as he spoke. “Plus, she sent them into a blizzard. It was stupid of her, but I have never heard of anyone going into the Demon Realms and pulling a demon out while challenging a demon lord before. I wonder if she was so shocked and appalled, she did not even look. Instead, she reacted with what she probably thought was extreme overkill…”

“Oh, it was overkill alright!” Rylan grinned. “It was a slaughter. I bet she had to lose more than twenty times than what we did!”

“Undoubtedly more. Those in the second wave were rendered next to helpless long enough to eliminate most before they could attempt to flee.” Vondum stated with a smirk. “It was also very unwise to send lower fire-based demons against a force with a large contingent of Red Dragon-kind. The four-armed ones and the smattering of larger ones were the only ones able to damage the Warriors, and only with weapons. The most numerous, the long-snooted ones, couldn’t do a thing to the Red Dragonlings, let alone the Dragons. I bet there isn’t a Red Dragon-kind with less than fifteen demon hearts, even the youngest.”

“If count is right the minor demons only dropped eight of my kind.” The Red Dragonling stated with a toothy grin and glimmer in his eyes. “All but two were young and they did nothing to any of our commanderssss. The major ones in the second wave got another dozen young and one sergeant, but the rest were healed by the long-dead line of Dragon. Frexla ought not have put demonssss with heat and fire asss their major weapons against Red Dragon-kin.”

Vondum snickered, “And the Silvers, with their cold breaths… while they lost a few more than the Reds, their number of kills left most of their kind with full pouches of demon heart stones.”

“It makes me worry about what Frexla will do next.” One of the Alphar stated. “She cannot let a defeat of this magnitude go unchallenged.”

“She lost Pyrothermal, several leaders, a major commander of some sort, along with hundreds, probably thousands to us and even more as they were sucked back into the Realms of Flames when Pyrothermal was killed. The second wave was then devastated by the unleashing of the counter spell within the scepter. As the mound of demon hearts indicates, Frexla lost hundreds more by the hands of spirits who are quite obviously directly allied to our Premier.” Glaster stated. “This shows there is a deterioration of fear of Frexla from spirits in general. This will embolden others who want her position. One does not quickly bounce back from such a crushing rout and subsequent diminishing of prestige anywhere, let alone in the hierarchy of the Spirit Realms.

“While I do not gallivant into the Spirit Realms to the degree our Premier seems comfortable in doing, I know enough to understand Frexla cannot afford another failed powerplay. This is especially true if I was unknowingly behind the death of one of her other senior lieutenants back inside the walls of Rolling Dale. If this is indeed the case, then she may be in a position where she must fend off challengers to her leadership. If so, she will have her hands full at putting down such an attempted coup. If not, she still has to prepare for a possible challenger and may have to further weaken herself in the short term to eliminate potential challengers.” He gave Rylan a light shove, “Go with Chark’ash and Cam’ris. You may as well procure one of these bows and some enchanted arrows as well. I am sure they could use a hand and you all seem to be on the road of friendship.”

Conth looked up at Vondum with hope, but only got a slap on the back of his head.

Vondum frowned, “You are mine. You get nothing from now until the moment we bed down, Conth. Once I sate myself of you, I’ll hand you over to Ornam. For while I do not understand his fondness of your near uselessness, I do owe him a few favors. If getting rid of you evens the obligation, I will hand you over with only the need for a few days of recovery.”

Glaster raised an eyebrow, “If you are not going to break him fully, he, too, will need friends, General.”

Vondum let out a sigh and kicked Conth in the butt hard. As Conth fell face first into the snow and let out a yelp, Vondum snorted. “Pathetic, as normal, Conth. However, Commander Glaster has a point. Go. See if real boys will accept you as a friend. I doubt you have the heart needed to make them look at you as anything but sewer waste, but maybe you can once again surprise and prove me wrong. But know this. Once we settle down for rest, you will get none. For you are still mine and you will know what this means. If you have any motivation left after I am done with you, you will earn your transfer to Ornam. If not, then my camp has room for another broken slave-servant. So if you have more of the heart you found earlier I suggest you don’t let it go, for I am going to test every gram of it. Of this I guarantee you.”

As Conth ran to catch up to the other departing kids, Glaster shot Vondum a smirk and snort, “You realize you just gave him cart loads of extra motivation to endure what you have in store for him, right?”

“Yes. But honestly, he found a spine, and may make something useful of himself. I haven’t and never will keep a boy under my boot and confined to my bed who shows me he may be of benefit to the greater realm. Besides, since Ornam has found something within Conth worth a crap, it is a good way to get multiple lingering debts off my back. For, judging on what I heard from other Warrior Dragons, Conth did extremely well in the air. Not only was Ornam praised for having such a fine young rider, a few Warriors even asked if Conth would be interested in being their rider instead. It is very unusual to find a natural dragon rider. If he truly is one, then handing him over will be seen as me providing a very valuable gift to the whole of the Black Dragon Homeland. This would clear my plate of the last vestiges of lingering obligations to the Black Dragon Homeland. It would fully free me to be a alliance general without having someone or something expect me to favor any faction of it.”

“A good exchange and while I only know what I have heard in passing, dragon riders get a huge status boost, correct?”

“Very much so.” Vondum verified. “Once he certifies, he will be a non-dragon of at least a sergeant rank and have status of a landless knight, not just within the Black Dragon Homeland, but all Dragon homelands. In addition, he will have little to no taint of formerly being owned. From what I have been told, he will certify easily. Again, a natural dragon rider. Something I would have never guessed at. However, he is only days away from freedom and months, if not weeks away from gaining a dragon rider emblem.” Vondum tapped a crest on his tunic. It was dark orange with an upright lance. Behind was the head of a Black Dragon. “All dragon rider crests are the same except for the color of the dragon head. It was one of the few things all dragon races agreed on sometime shortly after the end of the Dragon Wars… although, they really never stopped fighting each other.”

Glaster took in a deep breath, “Such as I have learned in the last several sandglass turns.”

Vondum shrugged. “We all have garnered a huge amount of history in the last few days. Your Drow is certainly well learned and versed in history. I gather he is a Ruinseeker in training along with a Warrior Adept?”

“Honestly since graining his servitude I have not found out. But I do not believe he is a Warrior Adept. He somehow turned an arrow into ice. I do not know of the spell, but it cannot be possibly be something a Warrior Adept of what cannot be more than Primary Echelon could cast.”

An Alphar spoke, “He is not a Warrior Adept, Commander.”

“You know what he is?”

“Yes.” The Alphar grumbled. “The only way he could have done what we saw is if he is a fully trained Enchanted Archer.”

“A what?” Glaster and Vondum asked at the same time.

“An Enchanted Archer. The guild was all but wiped out during the Dragon Wars, because as you saw with our archers and the Garm harpooners, Enchanted Archers are a serious threat to dragonkind. In fact, Enchanted Archers wounded and killed so many dragons during the Dragon Wars, the dragons turned on the Enchanted Archer Guild and decimated it. Most who have the natural talent of an Enchanted Archer outside the Garm and Alphar lands are seen as poorly talented spellcasters. The magic inside them is fickle, so someone who does not understand what they are feeling or looking at, much like our general did, tend to proclaim them to be Warrior Adepts. A smaller number become Mages. Those who are taken in and trained are basically forced into a Field they really are not, so most fail. Those who succeed are not what they should or could be. Our scouts even found a few places where Enchanted Archers are forced into being Mystics or even Sorcerers. For as with any fully trainable being, if the magic is forced down a different path from a young age before it fully coalesces, one can change a person’s natural Field. The Garm and Alphar royals have ceremonies, aided by powerful Shamen who can change a Field with a great deal less long-term degradation, but considerably more initial discomfort.”

Glaster’s eyebrows arched. “Fascinating… It is a ceremony I would pay a large sum to learn…”

“Your mentorship of our Premier and the assistance in the destruction of Pyrothermal is payment enough, Commander. Should you wish to take a few moons I am certain the Alphar or Garm could find one of the few of our kind who can perform such ceremonies who would be willing to teach you the needed rites and rituals. The honor of working with the mentor of Premier Kandric will certainly open a few normally zealously guarded Shaman huts.”

“It is an offer I will take you up on as soon as time and circumstances allow.” Glaster stated without hesitation. “However, what exactly is an Enchanted Archer?”

“Much as the name implies, and you witnessed, an Enchanted Archer can enchant missiles with spell effects. The cost of Force is much less than a normal casting of the same spell for the rest of us. However, while they can cast without enchanting a missile, they expend more Force than normal casters to do so. In the case of the arrow your… boy fired into Pyrothermal’s hand, he most certainly cast an ice-based Autospell. This turned the head of the arrow into a cold-based magical weapon. Since Pyrothermal’s magic resistance was crumbling from the onslaught of our Premier and backed up by scores of us, it allowed the arrow to momentarily pin his hand to the stump.

“The other thing you most certainly should understand about Enchanted Archers, since you control one, is they have an affinity for one type of missile weapon. Most take bows, but judging on the time it took for him to aim and fire the bow, he must have mastered thrown, or after what we witnessed with the giants, sling as his primary missile attack. At such a short range, a bow mastered Enchanted Archer, even a low echelon one as he must be, would have been able to snapshot fire with the same effectiveness as we witnessed. Yet he had to take time to aim. This gave him some of the benefits, but not what he could do with whatever missile type he chose to first master. He has the ability to gain mastery of a second missile type at your Teaching Echelon and a third at your Master Echelon should he progress. However, somehow, someone, somewhere understood what he was meant to be and professionally trained him to be an Enchanted Archer.

“This tells me your… lad… has had access to teachers and mentorship far above what most outside the Garm and Alphar realms have and makes us question his true lineage.”

Glaster decided large measure of truth may benefit Chark’ash so he snorted and shook his head, “If you are implying, he may be more than a low Drow child with impressive training, I feel I need to inform you I procured him from an arena pit where he was sold by the family he served for a fairly low sum. Because he fought well and I have never bedded a Drow, I procured him. As with other boys I have obtained over the years, I agreed to give him indentured status if he fully serves me and my needs until he fully earns the debt I incurred, or I decide to release him. Thus far, I feel I made an outstanding acquisition.”

“He is certainly a rare find. However, he speaks too well to be low born. He even holds up well when surrounded by nobles and royals of the upper races…” The Alphar cringed as Glaster frowned. “No insult intended, Commander.”

Mylan spoke up, “I have servants in my house with every bit as much etiquette training as Chark does!”

“But he is Drow…”

“So?” Mylan growled. “It does not matter the race of the servant or slave in my house! My father would never allow anyone in our house until they have proper training to attend to the needs of even the highest of castes!”

The Alphar held up both hands, “Your house has higher standards than most, even within the Garm and Alphar nations, young one. However, if you have knowledge of him coming from such an estate, I would feel a great deal better about him.”

“I do not think it should matter where he comes from or who he is. He serves us well, and our commander has placed enough trust in him to where he is teaching us the basics of written and spoken Drow and Drylander.”

“Drylander?” The Alphar spoke with a great deal of interest. “The boy reads and speaks Drylander as well as Drow?”

“Yes.” Mylan responded with a scowl at the tone of voice. “He told me he comes from way to the southwest, by a great desert. He was trained by the house he serves to fight undead since they come out of the desert all the time. He was also expected to attend to extremely high caste guests, so was taught protocols needed fulfill the needs of those of the upper castes, including nobles. The house he is in service to has a repository of historical scrolls, many of them written in Drow, which he both speaks and reads, so he was allowed access to them. Because of his literacy and a desire for those within the house he serves to understand the library they own; another part of his duties was to tutor the youth of the household while the house leaders were out. He came up here with them but was sold when funds ran unexpectedly short. It sounded like they expected to return and buy him back, but our Commander got to him first.”

Lylan quickly continued, “By the time Commander Glaster and the rest of us saw him, Chark was underfed, overworked, and weakened. He was in such a poor state my cousin and brother were able to defeat him and one other in the pit, but it was still a good fight to watch.”

The lead Alphar raised his eyebrows. “It is lucky he did not have access to missile weapons. Had he, your brother and cousin may not have lived. As it is, he could have picked up something, enchanted it and thrown it.”

Glaster rolled his eyes. “Had he done so, there is no chance I would have bought him. As I think back, I have to wonder if he didn’t put on the show and lose, just, in the chance I would fulfill my promise to buy him out from under the gladiator pit master and place him into my servitude. Regardless, he is mine now and I have found him useful, surprisingly intelligent, charming, and exotically enticing. Thus far, he has kept his word and as I already noted, I fully enjoy him. While he finds part of my enjoyment of him distasteful, he is fully compliant. And while I have no idea how... yet… Frexla will discover my loyalty to my boys extends well beyond the time I release them from servitude to me.”

He stared right at the lead Alphar, “Make no mistake, Chark’ash is not only under the protection of a powerful spirit, he is proving to be loyal to me even during discomfort and what he must find as serious indignity. More importantly, I like the boy. Therefore, he is under my full protection.”

“And Premier Kandric’s,” Vondum added.

The Alphar audibly gulped as both men stared at him. “Yes, and we take full note of both. I think you will find all five us in agreement to a distinct lack of enthusiasm to the idea of facing our Premier. Furthermore, none of us have a yearning to walk home. Nor do any of us want to be on the receiving end of the sling and bracers. Therefore, no. The boy has nothing to fear from us.

“As for his point of origin, hailing from the edge of the Desert of the Dead makes sense. Our scouts have told us there are a few totally accepted Drow villages and a couple of small Enchanted Archer Guild Halls down there. The annihilation of the Sand Dragons and eradication of most of the Brown Dragons left the entire area dragon free and allowed the guild to stay intact. Our scouts tell us the archers they put out are extremely important to holding back the dead. In addition, and something we cannot deny, the Drow were legendary as undead fighters. Therefore, whoever controlled Chark had reason to get him professionally trained. For even a Drow slave would be an indispensable asset to combat undead afflicting the lands of an estate large enough to have an ancient library.”

Glaster shrugged, “How he got his training and why is not nearly as important as my obligation to continue his proper training. Nor do I want to annoy the Fog Spirit. However, in this I am exceedingly lacking. Any insights?”

Another Alphar spoke as the group angled toward the carcasses of two White Warrior Dragons. “While unthinkable up till sandglass turns ago, the boy did assist in the destruction of Pyrothermal, was instrumental in wiping out Frexla-allied mortal giants, is under our Premier’s and your protection and has shown both Duke Mathard and Princess Syrissia enough to be listened to. Because of all of this, I believe we may be able to find an Alphar or Garm Enchanted Archer to, at the very least, point you in the proper paths to enhance his training. However, he got a large Gifting from the combat with the Fire Demons, the death of Pyrothermal, and the amazing Gift of long extinct Sand Dragons, so my guess is he has received enough magic to push him much higher than any Drow we have heard of in decades, if not longer.”

“All our boys, and numerous other youngsters of every race out here got some of the Sand Dragon Gifting,” Vondum stated. With a snicker he added, “I am certain the guilds will find the enhanced ranks of many kids in this forest to be a serious problem to the status quo.”

Glaster openly laughed, “Without question. I would be astonished if the youngest ones out here, such as Klandon, Lylan and Mylan are still within the Training Echelon. A few may have progressed all the way into Secondary after the Sand Dragon Gifting. I know Mylan and Klandon teamed up to take at minimum, four hearts each. Lylan holds at least three hearts, and even Perth,” Glaster patted the boy on his non-burned leg, “secured several. One more if the one burned into his coat is counted.

“My guess is all the boys have more than I have seen, so my number may be well low. Wounded or not, they were demons; all were well above the magic residing within the youth fighting them. Therefore, the lower demons certainly passed on some magic when they were bested. Combine this with the Sand Dragon Gifting… we have some dangerously powerful youngsters out here.

“It will now be up to those of us over the young ones in our care to mold the magic into their Fields and Subfields, so they advance properly, not just take a giant step up because of an influx of wild magic. Otherwise, they will be able to pass the guild tests but will not have the underlying footing to use the power properly. Further advancement without building up their base will leave them with so little foundation, they will become unable to fully control powers they can unleash. In the worst cases they can become magically unstable and a danger to friends and family as well as themselves. This is even more reason for me to understand what an Enchanted Archer is and what Chark can become with proper mentorship.”

“And you know this, how?” Vondum asked.

Noticing everyone looking at him he snorted, “Do not worry, it was not from Premier Kandric. Well before he unexpectedly moved into Primary Echelon earlier than I could ever fathom a child could, I spent thousands of silver to give him the strongest base I could. However, he did much on his own, albeit with the help of bags of coin from me. I also made sure as he progressed, he learned to fight foes close to equal in guild ratings or ability before I allowed him to push into more dangerous adversaries. I have no idea when he suddenly decided taking on demon lieutenants was a good idea, let alone royal dragons, but he had the needed base in place. In addition, we have confirmation of spirits taking him in and teaching him. If nothing else look at the mound of demon hearts they left behind. His ability with the Fog Shaman Hut, Blades of Snow, the Stone Encasement, and several other astounding displays, along with him being able to explain to me, in detail, the nature behind them, tells me the spirits didn’t just shove magic at him. Instead, they carefully built him up with foundational spells and understanding of the Spirit Realms I cannot fathom, let alone grasp. So no, our Premier is beyond solid.”

Vondum scowled. “But it sounds like you have firsthand knowledge of children advancing too quickly without the needed understanding of what they are.”

“I do.” Glaster took in a deep breath. “I discovered the consequences of not giving highly skilled and talented youth a good base from a colleague, a merchant and his mistress, whose taste in young female flesh rivals mine, ours, for boys. They push their girls to be independent and fully guilded by the human equivalent of about thirteen since… well their desirability greatly and rapidly diminished to both the merchant and his mistress.

“Regardless, the merchant in question is not willing to spend the coin or time to build them up properly. Instead, he pits his girls against creatures and beings equal or even greater than what most of the youth in these woods fought this night. Most do not survive, which he has no real problem with, which is why they are acquaintances, and not friends… However, a few did survive and even excelled. Unfortunately, more than one of his girls progressed into Secondary Echelon way too quickly with no subsequent building of the foundations to support such power. This caused accidental spellcasting when they experienced emotional highs or lows. One even started sleep casting. It killed two of his other girls and the girl’s brother. It also cost him a wagon and two draft animals. You would think he would have learned, but last I saw him, he had another young lady who showed the same volatility.” Glaster sighed. “And honestly, the foundations can be built rapidly as long as the youth in question is forced to understand the whys of what they can suddenly do. It then must be reinforced with lessons and tempered with constant use until they know who and what they truly are. This is why I need more guidance on what Chark’s capabilities were, are, and will be. I need the knowledge so I can work to integrate his newfound magical abilities with the stability of understanding what he was, is, and will become.”

Glaster glanced back at the royal boys, “If there is a silver lining, most of the youth in these woods have been brought up properly, so they have a very solid base already. While it will not be easy, the fact they have diligent mentors and because of this understand what they were expected to become, the building blocks are there to work with.”

Glaster once again patted Perth on the leg, “However, we have some, like Perth here, who have little to no real foundation. For him and others like him, there is need to teach responsibility in addition to control and understanding of the magic now within. Children like Perth must be singled out and tested to see where they are at magically. In Perth’s case he took the hearts of multiple demons and sounds like he should have had a few more. The last two he did not get full benefit from because they cooled outside of his control, however, he still took them down. His street-hardened side and stealth acquired because of survival needs served him well out here. While most were wounded prior to him finishing them and removing their hearts, the kills belong to him. He was then given some of the Sand Dragon Gifting. There is no way he is able to understand the flows of magic now within him.

“Much like Perth, there are other children out here with excess flows inside them, which they must now learn how to properly tap into. Their mentors must force them to slow down and understand not only proper and full control, but who they now are. For example, only days ago Perth fought another Training Echelon boy and won with heart, grit, and determination. He can now certainly kill such a boy without any real effort. In reality, he could easily kill or gravely wound friends, family, or strangers he has no grudge against because there is no way he appreciates what and who he has suddenly become. Until he does grasp this, teaching control of the magic within to the point he tempers it in daily life cannot be fully accomplished. It is because of this I did not allow our Premier to test when he could have passed the needed guild tests. Instead, I made him learn full control and paid others to ensure the best foundation I could provide for him.”

One of the Alphar took a deep breath, “You definitely have more experience with this dilemma than any of us, Commander. What do you recommend we do first?”

Glaster moved to the Dragon body and put Perth down next to it. He smiled as all the kids moved right up to it and started examining the removed scales, deep wounds, and intact scales. It didn’t take long for them to gravitate toward the head and look at the teeth. This quickly became their primary focus.

Glaster took a few steps back. “It may be better to discuss this outside of their ears.”

Vondum shot Glaster a smirk, “One distraction coming up!” He moved over to the boys and pointed out a few key features. After a basic anatomy lesson, he focused on the head. “This will be a story you can tell your kids and grandkids. For there are very few who can say they have ran their hands down the teeth of a dragon. Fewer still can say they have seen a dragon killed and the number shrinks even further for those who can honestly say they saw multiple dragons killed.”

He moved up and pointed to the base of the Dragon’s horns. “You know, if you take a sharp axe, these horns can be removed here, where the bulge meets the skull, without risk of cracking them. They are hollow. If you take them to a skilled jeweler, he can find the spot where the hollow will fit over your fingers. He can then file down the outside, so you have dragon horn rings. It is rumored rings made of dragon horns provide a magical effect to those who have been Dragon Gifted, which all of you have been. It is only a rumor, however…” He pulled an axe off his pack and slammed into down into a spot in the hide where a scale had been removed and pointed. “Up to you boys.”

He moved back to Glaster and the other adults with a smirk as Mylan eagerly grabbed the axe. The others followed. “The base is rock hard. Even with a Dwarven Steel axe I bet it takes them all taking turns and good couple of sandglass turns to cut them both off.”

“A good workout and lesson in axe handling for all of them.” Glaster pulled an Elvin Steel axe off his own pack and handed it to one of the Protector’s Keep guards who wore an Outdoorsman pin. “Make sure they are safely handling the axes and give them needed pointers on proper technique. If one slacks, point it out so the others make whoever it is feel obligated to put in a little more effort.

“As for Perth, his hands are tender, but there is no reason he cannot actively participate.”

The woman gave a slight bow and moved over to the boys.

One of the Alphar shook his head and grinned, “Interesting tactics, gentlemen. You have them so fixated on a goal they have no idea they are getting a valuable class.”

Glaster grinned, “A motto of mine: Boys play harder than they work, so if work can be made into play, they work harder.”

“Not to mention learn more,” Vondum added. He patted Glaster on the shoulder. “It is something I am glad Commander Glaster taught me several years back. It has become a proven tactic the Black Rapids guards use when teaching prospective youngsters. There are hundreds of games we have come up with to get boys and girls to work harder and learn while they think they are simply playing.”

Glaster pointed to the boys, “There is your answer. Find games and challenges to make them use and understand the magic they now have but cannot control. Some of it will be trial and error, but errors can be fun for them. When they make a mistake, use it to show why they need the underlying building block. If done right, the vast majority will beg to be taught so they can play the games again and do better. Add an occasional reward of coin, gear, or the like, but only once there are several who can compete for it. The rest of the time care must be taken to encourage further practice.”

Glaster watched the woman take the axe from Mylan and take a couple of swings into the meat of the dragon. She then started rotating all of them through the same thing, so they had proper handholds before they went to work on the horns again. He smiled as each boy eagerly took the practice swings and listened to the woman point out needed corrections. He returned his focus to those around him. “One thing we need, is to show them, all the kids in this valley, what will happen should they lose control. For not a one of the boys over there understands a punch into another boy their age has the potential to kill. We need to show them this and do so quickly.”

“How?” an Illorc asked.

Vondum glanced over to Glaster, “While I was in the air, Ornam said he and Conth saw a bunch of small fires the next valley over to the south. They took a quick look. According to both, it is a sizable Kobald settlement.” His demeanor took on a dark edge, “I bet, with as fast as Kobald females are normally forced to pop out kids, there are sure to be enough young in the village to allow every child in this combined legion to eliminate a couple as part of teaching our fledgling warriors what they have become.”

Vondum smirked, “I’d also bet if we send a dozen dragons, backed with enough ground troops to secure them all, we could take the whole place with limited fighting. It would give us the added benefit of allowing the dragons a chance to compete against each other and procure loot and live food. I will just need to make it clear we need the youth and young adult Kobalds for our youth to beat on.”

Glaster’s chin moved back and forth. “While not the most respectable of ideas, it gives us what is needed quickly. In addition, since the creature being fought is intelligent, we can use the reactions of what they fight and even have instructors make visualize faces of those they know on what is left after they the fights. This will prove a shock to many and probably cause some to want to back out of training. Therefore, the whole time the kids are actively working with their magic, even when fighting the Kobalds, there will be need to heap public praise on those who do learn and succeed. Show disapproval to those who slack off and point them out. Most boys do not enjoy being negatively singled out when in a group of peers and friends. Girls are a bigger problem because they are not quite as competitive. However, girls tend to care about others more than boys, so we can use the shock of what they do to the Kobalds they face as an incentive for why they need to focus. Of course, this is a generality, not a hard or fast rule, so all need to be required to pound on the Kobald they are pitted against. Make it clear any who try to hold back will be dropped in the holding pens with the remainder of the captives without guards. The fear of this will, or at least should, push aside any moral qualms with what we need them to do.”

One of the Alphar shot Glaster a startled look. “This means all must be made to unleash, with reckless abandon, on one of the Kobalds.”

“Indeed it does. Which truth be told is my only problem with this solution. Nevertheless, unless one of you can come up with an alternate solution, it is better to force what is in essence a murder of something all should see as a monster race, than have our charges accidently kill a friend, family member, or complete stranger. As it is, there is not a single child who will not be able to annihilate any normal child in any village, town, or city I have been to. It took years of temperamental control for me to feel safe allowing Premier Kandric go anywhere on his own.” He smirked. “I guess I should have worked on him a bit harder.”

“More than a bit,” Vondum chuckled, “but honestly, he did hold back in Slome even with iron applied to his skin, so your methods have proven success. Which is exactly what we need right now.”

Glaster sighed, “The big difference is our Premier had the chance to fight bandits and kill beings with a face and expressions of fellow beings as part of his advancement. The kids out here can only put a face of a demon on those they killed. A Kobald or three may be the closest we can get them, so we must take care to make sure they see it as something more than a monster.

“I can only hope to duplicate, or at least come close to the same level of success with the kids we find under us out here. Yet, regardless of what we do, some will get too frustrated because of repeated disappointments to advance. We must separate them out and find other games and rewards for them to continue to push forward. In the end, sadly, a few will fail. And while exceedingly harsh, I know what I would do with them…”

A Protector’s Keep sergeant let out a long exhale, “You would feed them to the wolves, right?”

Seeing the Alphar all cock their heads to the side, Glaster nodded, sighed, and spelled it out. “Yes, I would take them out against foes they couldn’t possibly survive against. I would move up and help, but only to show my support so they do not see or understand the real betrayal in their last moments in this life. This will allow them to move on without too much hate and anger. Thus, the demon lords’ minions should not take too much notice and try to take them before Brandal’s minions find them a suitable place to start their next existence within the upper Spirit Realms.”

“You would sacrifice them?”

“No. See it as a mercy kill. For out in these woods are a few who will become so frustrated and angry at the power they cannot learn to control they will take it out on Mundanes and lower echelon beings. They will then have to be hunted down. Instead of dying with innocence intact, they will become hardened of heart.” Glaster held out a couple of demon heart gemstones. “Ever wonder where the term a hardened heart came from or why, when demons die in this realm, their heart turns to stone?”

Vondum glanced over, “So regular spirits don’t have stone hearts.”

“No. Like a demon, they can be killed utterly outside their realms. However, I will not divulge how. It is one of the few things I did not even teach Premier Kandric. However, as much as he has learned and surpassed my instruction, I would be astonished if he does not know.”

Vondum looked in the direction of Kandric’s shelter. “Speaking of your mentorship of our Premier… While I have not known him long, this is the first time he has shown any interest in a female…”

The left side of Glaster’s mouth twisted upward. “Just because I enticed him into my service for my own desires, and kept most focus on where my tastes lie, I made sure his instruction on such matters was well-rounded. Therefore, while we were down in Twin Spires, I hired a lady with… experience, along with a couple of girls from a low merchant family who had gotten into serious debt. And while I do not indulge often, I have been known to enjoy a change of pace. Consequently, I took the oldest daughter in for the week as well. Since then, I made it a point to infuse some variety into our Premier’s… erotic awareness. However, most of the time, when not with me, I arranged access to boys he could select. While this was more for my own benefit, to keep him focused on what I wanted him to fully accept, it gave me access to those he selected once he was done. For I do not care for females as young as I do males. Our Premier, however, does like those slightly younger than himself regardless of gender.

“Therefore, while it is not the norm, and I have never known him to take both a boy and girl at the same time, his selection only caused me to raise an eyebrow. One thing I am certain of, neither will be released from service to him until they perform the way he wants and he subsequently gets bored with them. For while I am certainly at least in part at fault, our Premier learned to have an expectation of proper servitude from those he was given power over. He was required to make me happy, thus he expects the same, possibly more, out of those I handed to him. He also has an ingrained, deep-seated irritation of those he sees as being spoiled or pampered. This is not something I purposefully infused into my training of him.”

Vondum snorted, “If you had anything to do with it, it was minor. I have noted his profound pride in having earned his way. While he knows without you, he would have never progressed to where he was, let alone now is, Premier Kandric feels he had to work hard and endure much to stay in your good graces. He doesn’t see the same in most higher caste kids, and it annoys the crap out of him.”

Glaster shrugged. “Yes it does, and our Premier is correct. I did require he earn what I provided. However, he worked harder and requested far less than any boy I have taken in. He also voluntarily weathered more than any other youngster I have ever known. Probably, because of this… and no doubt because of his splendor, I willingly spent more on him than any three others I have taken in combined. Nonetheless, his servitude has led to a distaste of high caste youth who are required to give minimal effort to receive as much as they have.

“Unfortunately for the two Alphar youth, I am inclined to wager he perceives them as overindulged or at least somewhat coddled, so they will have a rough few days. If they do not capitulate to what he wants, demands, it will be longer.”

Glaster couldn’t help but grin and shake his head at the same time. “There was a low noble boy down in Black Toad Butte I procured when his father attempted to renege on a documented transaction. I handed the boy over to Premier Kandric. The more the kid fussed about what Premier required him to do, wear, and eat, the worse his situation became. I also believe the agreed upon transaction was eventually completed because word got back to the noble’s wife as to the treatment of their son. For it was only a few days after Premier Kandric forced the boy go everywhere in nothing but sackcloth clothing and to publicly bathe in the river, not a bathhouse, the payment for services rendered suddenly became available. Regardless, in the three weeks it took for the noble to make good on his word, his boy was subjected to a whole new outlook on life.”

One of the Alphar took a deep breath, “With your permission, Commander Glaster, I will find a way to get word to the two young noble-born he took to his shelter as to the need to endure and be compliant.”

“I believe it would be in everyone’s better interest if you do, for our Premier has much more pressing matters to focus on.”

Vondum pulled up his cloak to protect his face as a particularly hard gust of wind-blown sideways snow. “Now if we could find a way convince Syria to control the temper of her spirits, we could more easily scour these woods, recover our dead and wounded, and find our Premier’s students.”

“Be happy we have this storm,” Glaster countered. “Without it, Frexla’s demons would not have had to hold onto as much energy, which in turn would have allowed them to release more on us. While I am certain we would have gained victory, our body count would have been much higher.”

A Protector’s Keep sergeant spoke up, “It makes me wonder if the young Premier realized this before skewering one of Frexla’s minions and dragging it here.”

Glaster cracked his knuckles and watched the boys chop at the base of the Dragon’s horns for a few seconds. “From the time he heard about Gablon, his brothers and what must be a close friend I have no knowledge of, and the time he vanished into the Realms of Fire was only moments. Therefore, my presumption is he reacted more out of anger, but he also knew and understood we held the upper hand because of these conditions and the pure power of the forces he managed to assemble and bring to these woods.

“He gained such astounding abilities at such a young age; I was forced to dedicate a great deal of time and energy on emotional and foundational control of the magic within. Had I not, he would have certainly accidently or even purposefully, killed kids his age to quite a bit older. For he was often subjected to cruel remarks and worse during our travels.”

“Why?” the lead Alphar demanded to know. “He had to have been seen as apprenticed to a high merchant.”

“He could have been seen as such, but it was not his desire. He had, and I am certain still has, pride at being what and who he is while coming from and extremely low caste. And while I provided tens of thousands of silver worth of education, I seldom gave him anything. Instead, when he wanted something more, he always wanted to know what he needed to do to earn it. Therefore, other than extensive training sessions so he could properly learn how to wear proper attire, along with needed protocols for occasions he needed to blend in with the upper crust, he dressed to the caste I found him in. Even when I allowed him to get guild pins, he chose not to display them.”

Vondum snickered, “Me and my men certainly didn’t need to see pins on him when engaged the Hobs attacking my encampment. Nor his astounding single-handed defeat of the Cyronia. Yet I guarantee you we took note. But he eagerly accepted and wore the armor and gear we made for him.”

“There is the difference,” Glaster stated. “He did not ask for it, nor was it given. Judging on the Black Rapids Scout patch he wears on all his various armor, he feels it was earned.”

“It was. Everything made for him at my forward camp was. When presented with it, he enthusiastically put it on and wore it proudly.”

Glaster showed no surprise. “Our Premier often talked about one day being able to buy or earn armor and walk around and be seen for who he is. I offered scores of times to outfit him. But he wanted to earn it. The same holds with the Dragon armor he now wears. He took down the beasts those scales came from. The pride he has in it would not be there if he had not. Your granting him a position in the Wilderness Scouts was a final key to him fully opening up, since I had him promise not to divulge my training of him unless it was life or death.

“I seriously doubt he would even wear the Dragon armor had the Alphar and Garm showed up and gave it to him. The same goes for the royal title he apparently has by birthright. He has not earned it, therefore wants nothing to do with it.”

A deep voice came from the east, “As I noticed the truth behind your current words from the first time I spoke to our Premier, Commander and Lord Glaster.” Duke Mathard appeared out of the blowing snow with Princess Syrissia, and Alphar and Garm females in nice diplomatic adorned cloaks, along with a score of heavily armed Garm and Alphar. The ice coating the Silver and Blue Steel armor under the Alphar and Garm diplomats’ cloaks gave testament to them recently having been gated through a Gate Stone gate. Their stiff movements and deep breaths gave further testament as to their discomfort, but they remained ridged and silent.

The five Alphar, quickly followed by Glaster, Vondum, and the others dropped into a kneeling bow.

“Stand!” Syrissia snapped. “Active or not, this is a battle zone, not some bothersome royal court.” She glanced over to where the boys were chopping on the bases of the dragon horns, “If the youth want the horns, I would be happy to remove them with a couple of quick spells.”

“Far be it for me to tell you what to do, Princess,” Glaster stated. “However, they are gaining experience with axes, building endurance, and entertaining themselves and each other in friendly competition. Additionally, their focus being elsewhere allows us freedom to liberally discuss important matters.”

Syrissia smirked, “Yet another reason to hand over my boy for extended tutelage under your guidance, Commander and Lord Glaster. Your instruction techniques are unconventionally astounding. For I can see what they are doing is bettering them, yet none are complaining. Therefore, I am equally certain none of them realize this is part of a greater lesson. Your youths’ actions will deplete their excitement and leave them exhausted. Hence, when you tell them to bed down, they will happily do so, while across the whole of this forest, most other mentors will find great difficulty in getting their charges to calm, let alone bed down. While yours will wake fully rested, most apprentices will not; since their sleep will be pushed aside by recent events. Most will instead talk about what they witnessed, and were then forced to deal with. They will not come out of their rest cycle ready to deal with their required duties.”

Glaster shot her a devious grin, “Have those who have such overactive apprentices, team up and make snow shelters if they wish to get out of this storm.” He glanced over to Mathard, “Good Duke, I presume, since you hail from somewhere called Winter Creek there are plenty of Garm out here who have knowledge on how to make such shelters?”

“Indeed we do.”

“There is your answer. They can teach others. All can learn valuable skills, whether it be from a leadership standpoint, or how to make such a shelter. It will give them focus on getting out of the storm. The effort required to dig and pack the snow to make a suitable shelter will leave them wet, cold, hungry, and exhausted. Thus, most will eagerly eat and bed down with others to warm and get a good rest cycle. If done properly it will further Premier Kandric’s requirements of full integration of this force. For, you could use such a project to accelerate the amalgamation all the way down to the apprentices the demon battles started within the adults.”

Mathard didn’t hesitate. He nodded to his guard detachment leader, “There is enough firepower here to dissuade almost anything. Spread the word. I want all apprentices to team up with others, not only of their race. Each group should have four different races and a Winter Creek or Snow Bluffs Garm Outdoorsman apprentice. They do not get tents. They build snow shelters and do not eat until their shelters are verified to be sound of construction by an adult Outdoorsman from either dutchy. Tell those who complain, our supply lines are stretched too thin and too much damage was done to out encampment to get them shelters and this is the best way for them to get out of this storm. Let it be known, the Drow, Chark, be the only reason we have an encampment at all, and deference needs to be given him for his heroics.

“For the next couple of days, the apprentices will eat, work, train, and sleep with their shelter mates. There may be language barriers, since most Garm and Alphar do not understand a word of Northman, and many did not make enough demon kills to get a gifting of the Dragon Tongue. Therefore, send for more Communication Sphere Stones. Also send word we are buying demon hearts from any who wish to sell them for a reasonable exchange rate. Transport the purchased demon hearts back to get communication enchantments on them so we have enough. Most of what we had were sent into Bloody Rock so my people could talk to students of our Premier when they find them.”

Syrissia cleared her throat and gave the guard leader a harsh stare. “I further decree there is to be no balking on the part of our youth. Any Garm or Alphar apprentice who say a negative word about having to bed in the same shelter with an Illorc, Dragonling, Pantherling, or any other race is to be sent to us for correction. Should I hear of any adults speaking poorly about other races or encouraging young Alphar or Garm to do likewise, will also see us. When they do so, correction will be the least of their upcoming difficulties. Understood?”

The guard leader dropped into a proper royal bow, “You have made your demands abundantly unambiguous, Princess Syrissia and Duke Mathard. We will make certain word fully spreads as to your requirements.”

As the guard contingent separated and spread out through the forest, Duke Mathard gestured for the two diplomats to step up, “Commander and General, this is Alphar Attaché Greenraven and her counterpart Garm Attaché Thornhand. They bring word for our Premier from Count Salostar and Baron Greyhammer, who will be here shortly.”

“Good Duke, why bring them to us instead of Premier Kandric?” Vondum asked.

“Because I wanted to buy us time. Our Premier just bedded down. He expended a vast amount of Force. We need to give him time to rest and unwind. I believe I have bought us till sunup tomorrow, but no longer.”

“Well thought-out, Duke Mathard,” Glaster responded slowly, knowing he had to be missing something. “However, I see no reason they should first come to me.”

“Oh, but there is,” Syrissia stated with a smirk. “For this has every bit as much to do with you, and since General Vondum is, or was, our Premier’s commander, him as well.”

Vondum and Glaster exchanged glances. The very fact the Alphar princess was openly, and purposefully smirking, told them she was enjoying this far too much. It was not a comforting thought knowing she could out crude almost anyone in the camp.

Glaster focused on Mathard, “How, exactly do I rate such high… honor…?”

While Syrissia snickered, Mathard grinned. This caused both Glaster and Vondum to cringe, but they held their tongues and waited.

”Lord and Commander Glaster, the diplomatic attachés behind me bring word from someone you know far better than any of the rest of us.” Mathard stated to Glaster before he gestured to the Alphar diplomat.

The woman managed a bow even though this caused some of her garments to crackle because they were ice coated. “Lord and former whipping boy of King Wyhrem, Count Salostar and Baron Greyhammer decreed it best we come to you first. Duke Mathard felt it more important to dig into archival records than have them bring word themselves. However, they should both be here shortly.”

Glaster gave a basic bow of respect, “I accept you both as their intermediaries. What message do you bring?”

The Garm woman spoke. “Lord, instructor of Premier Kandric, and former whipping boy of the current king of this land, and General Vondum, Premier Kandric’s Commander by way of his entering into the Wilderness Scouts of Black Rapids, we bring news. King Wyhrem knows Premier Kandric has entered his lands with a huge force and has killed both White Dragons and Pyrothermal within his territory. Furthermore, he knows of our Premier’s ties to both Lord Glaster and the Black Rapids Wilderness Scouts. King Wyhrem demands audience, preferably by dusk this eve, with the Premier along with those who used to command him.”

Mathard interjected, “I sent a courier to King Wyhrem letting him know we would try to keep with his demand timeline. However, I did put in a line to suggest if may take until well after daybreak tomorrow. He has reluctantly accepted this. Nonetheless, his return message made it clear he would prefer this eve, if at all possible. He also is aware you and General Vondum are with Premier Kandric and in his lands. He, therefore, expects both of you in attendance.”

Glaster ran his left hand down his face, “Well… this should prove… interesting… and regardless of outcome, extremely uncomfortable for me.”


Conner HE 11, Sharris HE 11, Nake HE 14, Tobash HE 15, Dostem Halfling, Gagan, + {Gilew Human HE 12, Munder Sil-Dragonling HE 11, Vaskar Human HE 14, Gil-Drak Wolfling HE 13}, (Sen’ry-nax Highman HE 13)

Conner led the group as distant thuds and booms cascaded and echoed down the passages of the sewers. Sounds of screams occasional overpowered the explosions. Nax stayed next to him. Three times he looked back to the adults when Conner gave a command. While it was clear he was confused by Conner being in charge, he made no comment.

Nax constantly looked around, using the glow from his shield to look down offshoots, up at the roof, and into the water. It quickly became apparent, Nax was either not the nimblest, or was simply not used to the body he found himself in.

Several times Gil-Drak, Gilew, or Conner had to grab him as his feet slipped on the nasty slime coating the higher ledges above the rapidly flowing water. Each time he gave a sheepish-looking nod of embarrassment. While he said little, the look on Sen’ry-nax’s face spoke volumes. He was disgusted at being in the sewers. He did everything possible not to get dirty, and every time he pushed up against a wall his nose scrunched up. The first time he had to press up against a wall to go down a particularly narrow area, he immediately cast a Cleanse Autospell on himself.

Seeing this, Munder couldn’t hold his tongue any longer. “You’re gunna be out a spell Force in no time if you keep casting to get a little gook off.”

Nax frowned, muttered something to himself, and continued on. However, he didn’t cast again.

Rounding a curved section of the sewer, Conner held up a hand as he noted light from around the bend. He motioned for everyone to kneel and cover light sources. As they did so a couple of bodies floated down the center channel. Both were down to loincloths.

Nax reached out as a third floated by but stopped as he saw milky eyes on the young woman. The sound of a splash came from the lit area, followed by a powerfully loud, yet feminine sounding voice. “Pull the bodies out, take what is worth grabbing, and toss ‘em back in. And keep yer guard up! We knows Gloom Fire gots patrols down here!”

Nax pulled his khopesh and started to advance. Conner help up a hand even as another body floated past. “Hold. Sounds like scavengers.”

“Scavengers?” Nax hissed in Dragon, “They are pillaging the dead and you say hold?”

“The dead have no need of belongings,” Munder stated.

“And they are worried about the same people we are,” Gilew added. “Gloom Fire patrols are who we are after and who they are worried about.”

Nax’s shoulders sagged, “Enemy of my enemy… But they are looters. We cannot ally with them!”

“Nax,” Conner stated harshly, “while it sounds like they are pulling bodies out of the water to scavenge them, we have no idea if they are looters, or they fought those we see floating past us and are simply collecting spoils. Nor does it matter. Are you saying in your time or where you came, battlefields were not plundered?”

Nax frowned, “They were… at least I believe they were. But by the victors.”

“And after the victors claimed what they wanted?” Munder asked. “Did others not come to scour the battlefield in hopes of finding something valuable or even to take items purposefully left behind?”

Nax grabbed his forehead and squeezed. “I… Maybe. I have flashes of large battlegrounds littered with dead, hundreds and hundreds of dead… but nothing more.”

“Well, here, in this time and place, looting a battlefield is common. Normally the victors take their spoils, but if they cannot or they wait too long, beggars, squatters, peasants, and even higher castes will pillage what they can. Whatever is left will draw in others hoping to find something overlooked or deemed not worth taking by others. It is something you will have to learn to deal with.”

“What of the dead? What becomes of them?”

“Normally locals are tasked with collecting and either burying them or burning them. If not, nearby villages do so to prevent undead. It is not uncommon for the winning side to force those they capture to do such tasks. Other times the soldiers take care of it. Sometimes, especially if there are no villages close, the skulls of the dead are crushed to prevent them from becoming undead and the bodies are left for the bones to be picked clean. The Warlords of Morden are said to do this when they take and enslave whole villages.”

“No better than animals,” Nax muttered. “They should be wiped out.”

“No argument from me.” Conner stopped as another splash came from around the bend followed by the body of an Elf. “However, the rats down here will be busy for the foreseeable future.”

Suddenly there was twang of a crossbow string followed a cry of pain. The deep voiced woman shouted, “City Patrol! Fall back! Fall back!”

“Halt!” A much higher-pitched female voice shouted. “By order of the new Council of Rolling Dale you are in violation of decrees of Lady Gerlondic and Mistress Gambra against the citywide lockdown! Furthermore…” the sound of another crossbow being fired and the crack of the bolt against stone cut the woman off.

“Screw you and your rules!” the deep voiced woman retorted. “You idiots released me from the jail and for what? You gave me none of my belongings and put me on the street only to turn around and demand I not be out on them! Some of us have starving families since you have closed all shops. Others have nowhere to go since we cannot earn coin to pay for inns!”

“Not our problem! Now surrender!”

“And get taken into the Gloom Fire for violation of rules we cannot follow? For you and Gloom Fire bastards to torture and have horrible liquids used on us? To make us turn on each other? No!”

“You are badly outnumbered! If you refuse to surrender, we will kill you all, find the families you talked about, and turn them over to the Gloom Fire and Mistress Gambra!”

Another gruff-sounding male voice responded. “Ya already took most a me buddies’ kiddos and wife er husband! Ya ain’t getting mine!”

Another woman spoke, “Your defection from the city guard has already put them on wanted lists! Surrender to us and we may remove them from said lists.”

“Me’ll never believe ya murderin’ skum! Ya poison da captain and most a him best leader!”

“Commander Befder, you were given a chance to follow us! You chose to pull your guard patrol off rotation and hide the captain’s family along with over a dozen other deserters! It is you who have broken your oath!”

“Me word be ta the captain ta defend Rollin’ Dale, not ya murderin’ skum!”

“I am now the Commander of the Northern Wall Garrison, Befder,” a younger sounding male voice stated. “You are under arrest…” Another twang of a crossbow quickly followed the exchange. This time it was followed by a gasp of pain and the sound of something heavy with lots of metal hitting the ground.

“Ya ain’t commandin’ shit no more Senjen!”

The woman who first spoke shouted, “They have fallen the new northern sector commander! Kill most and take a few so we can find the others!”

Conner translated for Nax, but as the last line was said he dropped his gear. “You only think you will! Guys, watch our backs. Nax, you ready?”

The boy cocked his head to the side, as arrows and bolts were fired around the bend followed by shouts of combat. “Yes, but… Just the two of us?”

Conner hardened, “The others will move up as needed, but you talk a good game about combat. Time to show you deserve to be with us!”

Nax’s eyes narrowed. “Me with you? No. I am of royal blood! Therefore, it is time to show me why you should be in command of this group, not me!”

Conner moved up, glanced around the corner, and scanned the combat. Fifteen, wearing red sashes were moving on nine who fell back into an offshoot dragging a man wearing standard Rolling Dale guard armor. A large Halforc male wearing heavy plated chain city guard armor and an even larger Illorc female with an ill-fitting chain shirt covered the fallback. Leading those with red sashes was a Halfling female and a muscular woman with large breasts. Two others were on the ground, including an older teen in heavy armor with fancy epaulets.

Conner ripped off his sash and tossed it back toward the others. He then charged straight into the middle of the fifteen with red sashes. “Those who fight for Gambra face us! Those opposing them, let us take this fight! Munder! Green Dragonling!” He snarled as he grabbed the arm of a Halforc teen, snapped the arm holding a crossbow up, twisted the broken arm, and fired the crossbow into the temple of a Human man wearing chainmail who was only a couple of steps away.

Behind Conner, Nax let out a gasp as the Halforc at least two dozen kilos heavier than Conner screamed as the man in chain armor crumpled. He moved up on a female Gobling but was intercepted by a Giant Rat. The rat launched at him and knocked him back a few steps, but quickly had its head removed by Nax’s khopesh.

As Nax advanced again, he couldn’t help but see the Halforc fighting Conner pull a dagger with his off hand.

Conner stepped up, lashed out with his left foot to snap the ankle of a nearby Halfling female, and used his right hand to grab the Halforc’s wrist. His other hand shot out. The arm snapped at the elbow. Just as with the crossbow arm, Conner violently twisted the broken arm and shoved the dagger still clenched in the hand of the Halforc into the back of the head of a female Human teen. He kicked the Halforc in the chest.

The Halforc, with both arms badly mangled, stumbled back into scrawny-looking Dwarf. Both tumbled to the ground. As Conner stepped back, he took a moment to elbow the Halfling female leader in the mouth. It knocked the woman back and forcibly sent several teeth into the back of her throat.

She staggered back gagging.

Conner used the opening. He kicked the leg on the younger Halfling up, put his foot under the good leg and stomped down on the ankle. Bones crunched under the assault. The Halfling screamed and rolled back and forth clutching at both ruined ankles.

Nax parried a swing from the Gobling’s short sword, hooked its shield with the back of the khopesh, and pulled it back. This yanked the shield away from the Gobling unexpectedly and left Nax an opening. He plunged the tip of the khopesh into the Gobling’s gut, twisted, and pulled back. The Gobling collapsed in a heap. He had to block a swing of a cutlass from a burly Dwarf with a shield and wearing chainmail. He then exchanged a couple of shield shots with the Dwarf while having to avoid stab attempts from a Green Dragonling with a gladius.

Fortunately for Nax, Munder moved up, spun the Dragonling around and shoved his claws into its gut while he sent a blast of cold air into its face. Munder headbutted the Green Dragonling in the nose. Bones in its snout broke. It would have stumbled back, but Munder dug his claws in deeper and twisted. Whiffs of poison gas along with blood ran out of the corners of the Green Dragonling’s mouth as it dropped to its knees.

Munder yanked out his claws and kneed the Green under the chin. Its eyes rolled up into its head even as its head snapped back.

Nax had to parry a swing from the Dwarf at the last second as the Dragonling fell lifelessly to the sewer floor next to him.

Munder sidestepped a wild mace swing from a huge woman wearing nice chain armor. He snarled and used the death gifting of the Green Dragonling to further enhance his strength. He grabbed the woman’s head with both hands while extending his claws again. As the woman screamed, he picked her up by extending his arms out well above his head and shoved his thumb claws into her eyes. He wiggled them around inside the eye sockets for several seconds then and dropped her. He took a step back and dropped the death gifting. “Don’t look to me mister royal whatever. Show us what ya got!”

Nax made a growling sound. He twisted to the side as the Dwarf swung on him and slammed the spike in the center of his shield into the Dwarf’s arm. The spike proved to have barbs, which made it exceedingly painful and difficult to pull his arm off the spike. Before he could figure out what to do, Nax’s khopesh removed the arm just below the shoulder.

As the Dwarf dropped to his knees spewing blood, Nax spun out of the way of a short sword swing then used the edge of his shield to slash the throat of the offending female Gobling. He took a couple of steps back so he could twist the Dwarf’s arm off his shield and looked over at Conner.

The Dwarf Conner had toppled with the Halforc shouted to a Barbed-tailed Bobcat to pounce. Conner spun to the side and lashed out with his right hand. His fist slammed into the Bobcat’s ribcage. Bones snapped. It collapsed into the ground convulsing.

Conner rotated and delivered another elbow into the mouth of the Halfling leader. Still choking on her teeth, she didn’t make any attempt to defend herself. More teeth found the back of her mouth while a few others were ejected into the breasts of the well-built woman.

The sturdy woman shook with rage. She swung on Conner with a battleaxe. Conner leaned back. This allowed the axe to harmlessly go over the top of him. As he straightened, he lashed out with a foot. It caught the woman in the side of her leg. While she was tough enough to where her leg didn’t break, it still caused her leg to buckle.

Conner wrapped her hair in his left hand and yanked hard, forcing her to lean even more. This let him sidestep behind her as another woman attempted to swing on him with a cutlass. The swing was good but found the left breast of the other woman instead of Conner. The slash cleaved off the entire tit and cut into the other.

Shock and rage combined before the pain and damage took hold. The woman ripped loose of Conner’s grasp, leaving a huge hunk of bloody hair in Conner’s hand. Her axe descended into the woman holding the cutlass. Blood splattered across the sewer wall over two meters behind the cutlass armed woman. A second swing of the axe dug in, even as the other woman collapsed with a large section of her upper shoulder missing.

Conner kicked the sturdy woman hard in the back as he dropped the hair. This sent her floundering forward. Once again, he used the opening this created to slide back and slam his elbow into the face of the Halfling leader. Her nose and upper cheekbone broke. She staggered back, hit the sewer wall, and stumbled forward again. Conner was ready. His elbow found the face a fourth time. The Halfling’s eye socket crushed inward while her right eye popped out. She finally fell into a quivering mass of semi-consciousness.

The breastless woman turned on Conner. Blood poured down her chest from her missing tit and deep slash across her other. Her eyes were dark marbles of fury. She raised her axe and let out a rage-driven barbaric howl as she rushed him.

Conner took a step back and dropped into splits as the axe descended toward him. With her reach, and attempt to hit him in the head, the axe found and sunk into the stone sewer wall.

Conner slid between her legs, hardened his hand with death gifting, and popped up behind the woman. He punched her in the base of the back of her head. Her neck audibly snapped. He dropped the death gifting while chancing a glance over to Nax.

He watched as Nax easily avoided a massive swing from a young-looking Halfling. He thrust his khopesh and expertly turned it sideways as the opposing kid brought up his shield. Once again, Nax proved he knew how to wield the blade. He hooked the shield, pulled it out of the way, then stepped forward. Instead of shoving the blade in, he spun and delivered a fist, still clenching the khopesh and further aided by Eldwar knuckles built into his combat gloves to the teen’s jaw. Nothing but the whites of the Halfling’s eyes were visible before he hit the ground.

Conner nodded in satisfaction as he stepped over to the scrawny Dwarf who was still trying to push the Halforc with two broken arms off him. He knelt and drove his fist down into the Dwarf’s hip, dislocating it. As the Dwarf howled and clutched at his injured joint, Conner’s other hand slammed down on the opposite hip. This time the blow shattered the bones. He stood, ducked under the falchion swing of the final member of Gambra’s patrol, and grabbed the Illorc’s wrist. His other hand slammed into the elbow. As it hyperextended, she dropped her blade.

Conner let go of the wrist and kicked her in the gut. Conner backed off as she stumbled back over a couple of her former compatriots’ bodies.

The woman gripped at her elbow and looked around frantically at the carnage around her. “You… you must be hell-spawn or godlings!”

“Compared to you, most five-year-olds would qualify!” Conner retorted with a snort and smirk.

He used the bridge of his foot to scoop-kick the falchion over to the other group and pointed to the last member of the Gloom Fire patrol. “The hag is all yours if you want her.”

The red-sash-wearing Illorc looked around frantically as the biggest Illorc, Halforc with heavy guard armor, and two of the others advanced on her. Suddenly she tossed her pack off to the side, pulled an orb from off her belt and tossed it at the feet of the Illorc. The orb hit the ground with a thunderous roar. Bits of the ceiling fell and left those in the Illorc’s group stunned and gripping their ears. Several went down to a knee. As Conner and Nax advanced, she let out a string of curses and dove into the swiftly flowing water.

Conner snarled and shook his head. “No you don’t! Everyone stand back!” He stepped up to the edge of the water and spoke an arcane phrase. As soon as his hands started to shimmer and crackle, he shoved them into the water and spoke a final command word. Powerful arcs of electricity shot out of his fingers. Rats close to the water let out squeaking hisses as they were fried. A few seconds later, the Illorc woman bobbed to the surface. Arches of electricity jumped across her body from metal weapon to metal weapon and a few even danced over her teeth and arced from tusk to tusk. After several seconds, the electrical effects faded. The body rolled over of its own accord. It started to sink as it was pulled downstream face down.

Nax turned to look at Conner with wide eyes. “You… you could have cast such a spell on all of them?!”

“Yea,” Conner shrugged, “but I wouldn’t have gotten the workout.”

Dostem and Gagan moved up shaking their heads while Gilew and Vaskar snickered.

Nake and Tobash stood with open mouths looking at the sounds and sights of the slaughter. Nake finally spoke, “Conner... you didn’t even pull a weapon!”

“It would not have been fair on ‘em if Conner had come in with a weapon.” Gil-Drak stated.

“Conner be a weapon,” Munder countered. “But Nax, I got to admit, ya done good. Even if ya had to wield a blade to cut down half of what Conner did.” He stepped over to the scrawny, wailing Dwarf and bawling Halforc teen. A pair of punches was all it took to silence them. He moved over to the girl with the two broken ankles and pointed at her. At the same time, he extended a claw. His other hand went up to his snout and tapped his mouth with his index finger.

The barely age of ascension girl trembled but bit down on her spear to stop from crying too loudly.

Noting a look from Nax, Munder let out a snort and grumbled. “The sound and echo of their squealing was getting to me. Now it ain’t.”

Sharris hooked the leather armor of the dead Illorc woman and pulled the body to the edge with a staff from one of the dead. She yanked off a belt with several vials and held them up, “Got some more Mystic potions, Conner.”

“Any of them orange with a green stopper?”

Sharris looked through the vials, “Yea, four.”

A Halforc-Halfdwarf from the other group managed to stand and shake his head. He pounded on the side of his head with an open palm a few times and moved over to Sharris. Seeing both Conner and Nax turn to defend her, he held up both hands. “Just tryin’ to help. I’m a Mystic.” He pulled open his heavy cloak which exposed an armored vest with dozens of small pockets. “Bought lots a stuff from the Gloom Fire over the years till me open my own shop. Then the bastards blacklisted me.”

Conner motioned him forward.

The Halforc pulled the belt out of Sharris’ hands and looked through the potions. “Ya got yerself a nice magically shielded potion belt.” He ran his hand down the vials. “Yer red stoppered ones be eight Fire Bursts. Sound like ya already know, but yea, them four be real powerful Healin’s. Next five er minor Healin’s and three Thunder Balls. There are spots open for seven more regular potions and one Thunder Ball or similar sized orb.”

“Thunder Ball?” Sharris asked.

The Halforc-Halfdwarf pointed to three remaining orbs. “What the bitch tossed at us. Big noise, no real damage ‘less ya get some glass from bein’ too close er yer ears blow out. Bad on the ears.” He wiggled a finger in his ear and winced. “Real bad, ‘specially down here in tunnels.” He glanced back to where most of his party members were down on all fours. A couple of them still puking. “Stupid bad if ya be in tunnels and ya be close to where it shatters.”

He moved over to the body and dragged it all the way out of the water and pointed to the short swords on each hip. “Those are made at the Gloom Fire’s forge. Gnome Steel Gem Magic. Enchanted for light damage and attack…” He patted a duplicate on his own side. “Before me was blacklisted, I bought me and each of me boys one, and maces just like ‘em for me girls. Ain’t nothin’ too special but they’re enchanted and hurt things like Eclipse Hounds and Blood Ferrets. Both things we hunt in the south woods, just down the pass. Their parts and blood be ingredients for a few of my special potions.”

Conner moved up and secured the blades. “We’ll take these for spoils along with the potion belt.” He pulled one of the orange liquids and handed it to the Halforc, “For your buddy with the bolt in his side.”

Conner glanced over at Nax. “My… friend is not from around here and needs local coins. So we’ll take some of the coin pouches as well…” He paused as a trio of bodies floated by from further up in the sewers. “Nake, Tobash, grab those and check ‘em for gear these guys might be able to use.”

The Halforc in nice city guard armor pulled himself off the ground, “Us ain’t got no claim on none a dis. Ya takes all ya wants!”

A female Illorc, still down on all fours nodded, “Be yours for sure. Never seen nothing like what you, the skinny kid with the big ring, and your Dragonling buddy did… Five on one and you all but danced through them. My kids will never believe it when I tell them about this… And while I’ve never had nothin’ against Dragonlings, I’m gunna make damned sure ta treat em better after this!” She let out a long breath. “We’ve pulled all our families into the cellar of the old abandoned Chipped Rock Foundry with a handful of guardsmen still loyal to the old city leadership and Commander Befder.” She nodded to the Halforc. “We also secured some other city officials and nobles who refused to follow Gambra. A few of us managed to forcibly acquire several younger ones and spouses of officials and nobles who were rounded up on the first sweep ordered by the new city council and Gambra. We ain’t got much food, but plenty of space and good water. Be happy to have you all down there with us.”

“Real happy.” The Halforc guardsman commander agreed. “Cause, like Smerna, my youngan’s ain’t gunna believe what ya done. I can just see the looks them’ll give me! We could use ya too! Each one a ya fight better than any three of us!”

“Thanks for the offer, but we have our own spot,” Conner stated. He kicked at a pack on the shoulders of the man with a bolt in his temple. “Looks like they all came down with full gear. Probably to move in and hold the Blazing Brook when they got in. Hopefully, their packs have some food in them for you all. But there’s got to be places to buy food, right?”

“There’s a few places still selling, but their prices are real high.” The Illorc with the poor fitting chain shirt stated. “It’s why we came down here when we heard about the fighting. Those in the Gloom Fire who control the city council and most of the guards are setting up what prices are supposed to charged, but they haven’t thought about non-coin trade. We can get better trade with weapons, armor, spell pages, and the like than we can with coin.”

Conner glanced over to the woman Munder killed. “Lots of blood on the chest of the big woman’s armor, but bet it’ll fit better than what you got on…” He took a trio of deep breaths and spoke a long incantation. With hands spread wide, he waved his arms over the body-strewn sewer. “Got some other magic on them. The battleaxe and armbands from the titless wonder… the Silver shod staff Sharris is fishing bodies out of the water with… the cutlass… three more duplicate hip swords and some items on the belt of the Halfling who sounded like she was leading them… and items on the belt and pouch of the Halfling Nax punched into the next lunar cycle. Most have a few small magics under gear. I bet they are more potions… How about we take the staff, cutlass, two hip swords, wristbands, other potion belt, enough known potions to fill both belts… but leave you with a couple healing ones… whatever is in the pouch, and half the coin pouches. The rest is yours.”

The Halforc grabbed the other potion belt and sorted through potions on a few of the other bodies including several in a vest on the young Halfling Sen’ry-nax knocked out. Conner moved his jaw back and forth a few times. He switched to Dragon tongue. “Good punch, Nax, but surprised you let him live.”

Nax’s eyes seemed to stay fixated on the Halforcs and Illorcs even as he moved up to the young Halfling, pushed his khopesh under a necklace and lifted it. The silver chain had a lightly jeweled pendant of a raven with extended wings. On each wing was a skull. The one of the right wing was right side up, the skull on the left was upside-down. He spoke in Dragon tongue. “He wears the symbol of the fledgling god of the keeper of the unnamed dead. Killing him seemed wrong.”

Munder translated for everyone, purposefully leaving off the fledgling part.

“Mercovia.” Another Illorc in standard guard armor stated as she finally managed to stand, albeit with the help of the sewer wall. “Guardian of the non-evil spirits no other god has claimed for their own realms. Protector of the downtrodden and those too young to have made any mark at all in this realm… And a very nice Mercovia symbol it is. He must be a Channeler.”

Gil-Drak moved up and knelt next to the Halfling, “Mercovia’s tenets is to give voice to the voiceless, to help those who are not deemed worthy to move on to any other realm. His Channelers are also the most likely to provide help and healing to the lowest castes. A follower of Mercovia should never side with Gambra, and absolutely not one of his Channelers.”

Dostem moved up, looked down at the pendant and frowned deeply. With a shake of his head he shifted over to the Halfling with two broken ankles and spoke, “The Halflin’ lad. Da one with the splint armor. What ya know ‘bout him?”

The girl continued to bite into the shaft of her spear and shook her head.

“Them ankles ain’t gunna be yer big prob’lem if’n ya don’t find yer voice young lass.”

“Careful,” Conner spoke up. “She’s a spellcaster of some sort. I saw her start to cast, which is why I went after her so fast. The Halforc with the broken arms is also one. He was about to cast on the other group. It made him my first objective.” He glanced over to the Halforc, “He is a Mage, so I bet there is a spellbook you can force him to hand over pages from. A page or two should get you quite a bit a food.”

“It will… lots… Ya sure?”

“We got plenty of eats.” Gagan responded as he dug into the pack. “Dis one gots some rations…” He pulled out a book. “Not very big, only seven pages…”

“Wake him, make him pull out six and knock him out again,” Conner commanded. “Also check the Dwarf. I killed his cat, so he is either a Druid or Animal Adept. He may have a book too. If he does, same thing.”

Dostem rubbed his right fist with his left hand as he stared down at the teen biting down on the spear shaft. “Ya throw a spell on me it best kill me lass. But…” he glanced back at the boy with the Mercovia pendant then down again. “If ya not tell me da truth about the lad, yer gunna go fer a swim.” He poked at the folded left ankle with his foot causing the young woman to quiver and bite down harder on the shaft of the spear. “Thinkin’ swimin’ and pullin’ yerslef out with yer feet all mucked up ain’t gunna happen, so ya best get ta talkin’.”

Munder moved up with extended claws and reached for her leg. “I’ll drag and hurl her in for you.”

The Halfling shook her head wildly as Munder’s claws started to dig into her calf. She spit out the spear and shouted, “No! No! I’ll talk!”

“Out with it and ya best keep dem lips movin’!” Dostem snarled.

“He was with those brought in from the refugee camps.” The Halfling woman managed to mutter between sobs of pain. “Him and a few other Mercovia devotees were helping the dregs from Everone. It sounded to me like patrols of Mercoviaites gathered a large group of a bunch of useless urchins separated from family as they came up the pass. When the refugee camps were raided, the Mercovia fools tried to stop Lady Gambra’s people from taking the brats. The city guards took all of them, kids and Mercovia dumbasses, to the combat pit in the Swordsman school. A city guard lieutenant promised they would be freed if all the Mercovia morons joined us. A few Mercovia acolytes and one senior idiot were killed when they refused. The others were locked in the pit with no food or nothing to stay warm.”

As the girl spoke, Dostem’s eyes narrowed more and more. She didn’t seem to notice.

“Then, a few of the guards tossed looped ropes down to snag kids and pull them up. They made a game of it. It sent all those in the pit scurrying around. The cleverer and quicker ones pushed others into the loops to get away. Once they roped fifty, those who were pulled up were bid on by those who were there. I guess a few of the refuge kids weren’t worth the starting price of fifteen silver. I know I sure wouldn’t have bid on a few even if I had more coin to do so… Those disgusting scum were slowly killed by two black-hooded guards where everyone in the pit could see.

“The kid over there and three others from the Mercovia shrine in Pitted Rock, just upriver and along the first offshoot to the northeast begged for mercy, not for themselves, but for the dreg brats. He and the other three finally agreed to help if Mistress Gambra’s appointed city guard leader, Olahimun and his son, Onavestel, who is now the merchant sector patrol lieutenant, promised to feed the remaining kids and leave them alone. Each was allowed to pick two, who were freed, given a sling pack with the basics, boots, boot knife, a reasonable coat for their caste, waterskin, and a day of rations and lowered down the outside of the city walls on long ropes so they could run. The kid over there and the other Mercoviaites were told the other kids would get food and each Mercovia follower could pick one more brat to be released for each day they helped secure and control the city. If they didn’t… well, pretty sure they fell in line or lots more dreg kids would be bid on by city guardsmen or scream themselves into unconsciousness before they die. I don’t know any more about him or the brats. Hell, I don’t even know his name!”

Dostem’s hands closed into fists, and he spoke with a voice devoid of any compassion. “And ya know this how?”

“I was there with my father. My old man bought a couple, and I borrowed some silver from him and snagged one. Dregs or not, they were fifteen silver a piece to start and most sold for less than twenty-five! Anyone with the coin had to be fool not to buy a slave, any slave, for such a price!”

“And ya do nothin’ to stop kiddos from bein’ killed?”

“I bought one. Would have gotten two, but Father only lent me thirty silver and the one I got was twenty-three. Since I was going out on patrol and I only had six silver with me, so I didn’t have enough to bid on another. If I had known, I would have brought more silver and grabbed at least one more!”

The Halforc commander spoke up. “Where is the one you bought?”

“Home, chained to a servant bed. I’ll make the coin back renting her out once I get her cleaned up and trained, but she’s breathing thanks to me. Besides, those nobody bought were bottom-feeder dregs… starving, sickly, not even worth fifteen silver! The realm be better off without them!”

Dostem’s face went red. He kicked one of the ankles as hard as he could. As the young woman screamed, he pulled off her pack, cut off her weapon belt, grabbed the other foot, made an obvious intentional twist, and tossed her into the sewer flow.

She started to scream but the cold water took her breath away and she started gagging as she inhaled water. Her arms thrashed madly. She got to the side, but her fingers slipped on the slimy sides. She disappeared from sight as her armor pulled her down while the current dragged her deeper into the sewers.

As the others looked with wide eyes, Dostem snarled, “Maybe a Mercovia follower will show ya some mercy and drag ya out, but not this one! Swim bitch! Swim if’n ya can!”

He moved up to the Halfling lad, picked him up and put him over his shoulder. “Me’ll take care a dis one!”

The Illorc in the ill-fitting chain shirt spoke up even as she removed the armor from the woman Munder killed. “Might be easier if we take him. We aren’t far from the foundry and with everything you’re giving us, we can barter for enough food to stay hidden until things calm. There’s no way the kingdom will let someone else take and keep Rolling Dale! All we have to do is hold out until the baron sends his army…”

Conner shook his head, “Gambra is behind this. She wouldn’t take a city unless she could hold it, or is using this whole thing for some other dark purpose…” He took a deep breath. “But you’re right about taking the Channeler with you. If you can find a way out of the city, maybe he’ll be able to help you find shelter in the village he comes from.”

Dostem handed the Halfling over to the Halforc. He turned to Conner. “When him not come back, them bastards ‘ll kill more of them he try ta save. Once we gets back to the captain and check on him, we gots ta find a way ta get dem kiddos out a the pit!”

The Halforc-Halfdwarf pulled the pack and weapons off one of the bodies. “It might be a longshot… But if you get to the foundry, maybe we could help. We have a couple of Swordsmen students we freed from a small Gloom Fire patrol. They may be able to give you more information about the arena. All of them practice in it. And from what I hear, most of them are tasked with cleaning it after match days several times during their first year or two in the school.”

The Halforc commander nodded. “Them do. Me oldest tell me bout how nasty a duty it be. Me tell him it make a man out a him. Teach him ta be used ta blood and dealing with them dead him ’ll have ta kill. At least him no be here none. Him out in the tin mine wit fourteen other Miner want-a-bees, so him not be in Rollin’ Dale fer this. Lots a him’s buddies not be so lucky.”

As Munder continued to translate, Nax finally spoke in Dragon, “Are you really trusting Orc-kin?”

Conner shot Nax a raised eyebrow and frown combo. “Nax, Illorcs and Halforcs aren’t monsters.”

“Since when?” Nax gasped.

“Long time ago.”

“Real long.” Munder verified.

The Halforc commander scowled. “There be a problem?”

Conner turned away from Nax, “Our… companion is concerned about how much we can trust you.” He held up a hand to stop comments. “I mean, we heard one of you say you were in jail before we took the fights to these jerks.”

The commander pointed over to the Illorc still pulling the armor off the woman. “Kenyass was my lead sergeant. She filled in at the Gale Wind Tavern as a bouncer for extra coin.”

The Illorc glanced over her shoulder, “Hard to feed a lazy husband and six kids on sergeant’s pay!”

The other Illorc spoke up, “Yeah, Kenyass, but harder when you get tossed in the slam for stopping Baronet Licons’ three oldest from cheatin’ on the card table.”

“Not what ya were der for, either.” The Halforc guard commander stated. “You were supposed to be a bouncer.”

A “Pfft!” escaped from Kenyass. Her mouth twisted enough to where her right tusk was totally uncovered, and her left was almost completely hidden. “I totally disagree, Befder! They were some of the best bounces I’ve ever dealt... I bounced them off the walls, ceiling, up and down the stairs, and floor just fine!”

Munder barely finished translating for Nax before he busted up in a fit of laughter.

As Nax stared at the Illorc and blinked, Conner gave a fist pump and delivered Nax a playful shove. “See there? Nothing wrong with them at all!”

“Yea,” Sharris giggled, “I like you all already!”

Dostem smirked and nodded. “We need to check on the cap’n. Once we make sure him’s OK, we’ll try to get back and see what we can do ‘bout them kiddos in the pit!”

Kenyass took a deep breath. “We’ll see what info we can dig up for ya.”


Klent, Lidevar, Immeck, Garvol, Jory, Pulon, Lyrod, Rylop, Tayac, Gapon, Shothash, Losmock, Ulavee: (Alphar merchant handed over to help teach the boys reading and writing), Klent's Slave.

Klent woke. His head pounded. The limited light hurt his eyes badly. It took several seconds for him to realize where he was. He let out a sigh. The sound caused him to wince. He rubbed his forehead and took some deep breaths. He knew the feeling. It was either a horrible hangover or he had just progressed into the next echelon.

Since he hadn’t drank, it had to be the latter. He heard from others over the years the feeling each person had was different. Some found an exhilaration, others were exhausted, yet others got physically ill from the massive increase of internal magic. For Klent it was a hangover, only much worse. This time was beyond significantly harsher. He bet he had gone up more than just an echelon, but also a couple of steps. Unless he missed his guess, he had somehow moved deep into Teaching Echelon. ‘Somehow’. He scoffed at the thought. After the events of the prior night, it boiled down to one thing, a redheaded lad who looked so innocent, so cute… Nothing, even seeing the boy fight prior, could have prepared him for what he witnessed. The tyke was as close as he ever wanted to get to a god. Closer than he wanted to get. The kid had stood up to a dragon, killed a major demon, and even directly challenged a demon lord. No, he wanted no part of this.

In Klent’s mind, there was only one option if he wanted long-term survival; to distance himself from such power. He shuddered. It caused his head to pound again. He needed to drink, eat, and move around. It would help. He also knew from past experience; he would be worthless for several sandglass turns until he adjusted to the powers both in and around him. The problem was it was excruciating to keep his eyes open for more than a few moments.

He laid in the bedroll, his hand on the slave boy. He needed to give the kid a name… It was an odd thought. He tried to think of a good name. He even considered letting the kid keep the one he had been born with. He dismissed the last idea quickly. The kid wasn’t what or who he had been born. He was less. A new name would further drive this point home.

As the pounding in his head lessened, Klent glanced around the tent some Illorcs had set up for his group. Only Ulavee was up. The Alphar boy moved lethargically. He had a waterskin on his lap and was oiling weapons but didn’t look well. He was pale and his hands trembled slightly. All the others were still sleeping.

He thought back to after the second battle. The kids, both scared and excited, hadn’t wanted to bed down. He tried to order them. It didn’t work well. Everything changed when one of the Warrior Dragons growled at the boys to help clear the snow and build a snow wall so the Illorcs could set them up a somewhat protected tent. All arguments stopped. The kids, including Ulavee quickly went to work. The Dragon, still not satisfied the kids were tired enough to bed down without further complaint, ordered them to help the Illorcs clear spots for a couple more tents. The kids staggered back into the tent wet, shivering, and exhausted.

The youngsters quickly changed into dry items and bedded down with each other for warmth. The Dragon watched them the whole time. Only when they were asleep did it shoot a toothy smirk at Klent. It posted a quartet of Dragonling guards outside the tent, informed Klent there would be no need to post guards and finally ambled away. It wasn’t until then, the adults finally dropped off into sleep. Even then, Immeck and Garvol decided to take watches.

Klent forced his eyes open again and looked over at the two men. Since both were sound asleep, they must have at some point decided to let the Dragonlings take over. However, both were still in armor and had weapons next to their bedrolls.

A look up caused Klent to cringe. The weight of the snow was pushing down on the top of the tent causing the wooden poles to bend. He smacked his slave on his bare butt. This got a squeal out of the boy. “Get up you useless cretin.” Klent stated with no remorse. “Grab boots, coat, and clear the snow before the weight snaps the poles!”

Off to the side Lidevar groaned, but still ruffled Lyrod’s hair. He ran his hand down the teen’s body, then stretched. “Long night. Woke to the feelin’ of gettin’ stronger. Couldn’t get back ta sleep. Not even a round er three with Ly let the feelin’ settle… Finally dozed off… don’t think it was too long ago.” He yawned as he stroked the boy under him for a few before glancing upward. “It be still snowin’, Klent?”

Klent didn’t need to answer. The second the slave boy, dressed in only boots and coat, pulled at the flap, snow blew in.

“Damn,” Garvol grumbled from the corner, “what a storm. Got ta wonder who pissed on Syria’s favorite dress ‘er whatever. It be downright chilly. And I’m right there with Lid. Got the feelin’ shortly after we bedded down. I ain’t got no real sleep. If there be an upside, it be me thinkin’ I be ready to take a new guild test.”

Immeck pulled himself out of his bedroll while rubbing his forehead. He shivered. “Got to see the guild as well, and chilly? Hell! Cold! Too damn cold! But geesh, what a night. Not much sleep here neither. Some of the sleepin’ problem be goin’ up in the guild, but dis damn cold and snow crap ain’t helpin’ none.”

Lidevar stroked Lyrod’s back and shot Immeck a smirk. “Find a bed warmer. You’ll wake happier!”

“Don’t think the same can be said fer Ly,” Garvol snickered. “Sound like him had a rough night.”

Lidevar’s hand moved back and forth under the cover of the bedroll. “Our boy got a little jumpy bout the same time I felt the power in me settle and really sink in. Thinkin’ my boy here get some a what the rest a us did. Didn’t ya Ly?”

“Yea. I don’t feel good at all. Sure some of it be ‘cause the magic grew inside me last night…”

Lidevar once again ruffled Lyrod’s hair. “Sure you’ll be fine in no time.” His hand then gripped the back of the boy’s neck. “Besides, yer getting’ used ta good ole Lid takin’ care a ya, ain’t ya boy?”

Lyrod cringed as the strong hand dug in. His words sounded hollow and resigned as he responded. “Yea, Lid. Thanks for letting me stay in the group.”

“Keep provin’ yerself, boy and you’ll get it easier,” Garvol stated with a shake of his head directed at Lidevar even as he shivered. He reached over and grabbed the bracelet with the moonstone on it given to all the adults by the Alphar. As soon as he clamped it on, he let out a sigh of relief. “Wish these warmin’ bracelets worked all night, but least them work all day!”

“Two-thirds of a day and they recharge at moon down, but not on new moon.” Jory remined everyone as he also grabbed for the protective jewelry. “The kid in the supply tent told me new moon is when they have to fully recharge. But remember, six times per full moon cycle you can give it some of your Force to keep it going for the entire day.”

Jory glanced over at Lyrod who was all but pinned under Lidevar. He, along with anyone watching, could see a hand moving up and down under the bedroll. It was clear the man wasn’t quite ready to get up and had no intention of letting the teen out of the bedroll yet. He turned his attention to Pouncer. The Giant Raccoon was tucked between him and Pulon, keeping both warm. The ringed tail brushed across his face as it nuzzled Pulon.

Across the tent, Shothash and Losmock sat up from their shared bedrolls and shivered. Both boys said little as they reached out and grabbed clothing and protective jewelry so they could get dressed in the warmth created by sleeping together.

Next to them, Tayac and Gapon did likewise. The two stood as soon as they had on britches and pushed up on the deep sagging bulge over them. As snow cascaded down outside the tent made of some bluish-tinged hide, a yelp came from outside. Gapon then had to help Tayac as his friend got a cramp in his side and let out a yelp.

Klent snorted, “If you’d done what you were told faster, you wouldn’t have been buried in it, boy! Now get to work out there! And if you want anything to eat, you best get a fire started under those rocky overhangs to the east of the tent. If not, you can go hungry. Also, you get nothing else to wear until breakfast is started!”

Ulavee finally stood and moved to help Tayac as the boy’s legs cramped up as well as his side. “Did anyone else have nightmares of demons and dragons last night?”

Shothash nodded, “Sure did! Most were about fire doors opening and burning hands coming out to grab me.”

Losmock quivered, “I had one… I was where the Dragon was, chained down, then pulled off the cliff when the trees fell. I’ve never seen something so… awful. I think it was the screams and it crying. I can’t believe we saw a Dragon… let alone one made to cry.”

From the bedroll with Lidevar, Lyrod sniffled. Getting a light cuff on his head from Lidevar, he let out a resigned sigh, then spoke. “That Premier kid made a Dragon cry. If he can do that… What could he do to us?”

“Whatever the hell he wants.” Lidevar stated, then pushed Lyrod down as the teen tried to get out of the bedroll, “As slow as Klent’s slave is, we got lots a time, boy.” His hand once again ran down the boy’s back.

Jory focused in on Klent since he wanted to take his mind off Lyrod’s predicament. “Not hearing many moving around outside. I wonder how many are like us. Not feeling right after probably getting enough magic to go up in the guilds.”

“Probably my ass.” Klent answered as he forced himself to dress. “All of us in this tent took a burst of magic after the big bastard shattered and another shortly after the huge head of the tan-colored Dragon spoke. I was up there with you. None of you gave me much of a choice since you all moved forward to look at the White Dragon. And I know a few of us took some shots at the big demon before the little redhead… Premier… froze it. Therefore, some of us got more than one of the small magic darts up the snout.”

He shot purposeful glances over at Jory and Pulon before he continued, “Those magical globs held lots of power. So to answer your question, Jory, quite a few out in the forest last night took lots of power from the demon spawns they killed. Since many, including all of us, were then given more from the Dragon head, I’m certain we all got enough magic to require new guild tests… At first I thought the extra burst of magic was temporary, but it settled in me, and I could hear the rest of you gasp about the same time, so I’m not alone… I’ve never seen, heard, or read about anything like what happened last night, including the magic empowering we all got.” Klent let out a deep breath. “Which means all of us, but especially you kids, need to figure out who and what you now are.”

“What are you talking about?” Shothash asked, then frowned. “I know who I am!”

Rylop surprised the others as he chimed in, “No ya don’t boy. You only know who ya used to be. You were a merchant kid in a school, betrayed, captured, and tortured. Basically a homeless kid no better than a Training Echelon orphan. Now yer at least a Primary Echelon Swordsman without the faintest clue what yer capable of! You ain’t alone, neither. I sure as hell ain’t who I was before last night! I’ll be needing to test myself before I walk into a guild and test. Cause I don’t know what I can do, so there ain’t no way I can test yet. And neither can you.”

Garvol chimed in, “Klent and Rylop’s right. Ya teamed up with yer buddy ta take down enough a them little devil things ta get a magic dart. With them little devils alone ain’t no way ya still be Training. Add in the power dart thing, ya both gots ta be way up in Primary…” He let this sink in, “And you other lads… Most, if’n not all ya all, was already Primary. If ya ain’t Secondary after last night, ya gots to be damn close. Ain’t a one of ya ready fer what ya have become. Hell, I ain’t sure I’m ready none, and I was Secondary. Now I’m prob’ly Teachin’! I gots no clue how to deal with what I gots and gots close ta ten year on the oldest a you boys!”

Klent rolled his head and stood after he finished dressing as much as possible under the bedroll. All eyes remained on him as he adjusted his weapons and double-checked his pack. He took another long drink out of his partially frozen waterskin. This woke him up but did little to help his pounding head. “First off, sounds like everyone believes they are ready to retest in the guilds. Second, most of the men in this tent feel like we moved up an echelon in the guilds. Boys, how about you all?”

“No question,” Ulavee responded. “The power Gifting from the Dragon, combined with having taken so many hearts… I advanced more than… I do not know… Certainly further than I thought possible until I was well into adulthood.”

Gapon nodded, “Yea, what him say. I feel it in my gut. A burnin’. I need to burp, have tried a score a time since I woke. But it ain’t happenin’.” He patted Tayac. “He’s even worse. He cramped up same time I woke. Been helpin’ him stretch ever since.”

Shothash let out a long yawn. “I Feel Strong… Really Strong! The magic in me is all tingly. I think you are right. I may have somehow made Primary Echelon!”

“Same here,” Losmock stated. “But while I know I have more magic to toss spells launched at me… I have little else to say. My whole body feels strange… like… like… Um, there is too much in me and it wants to get out… or maybe it doesn’t want to get out, but I don’t know how to… contain it... or something. I don’t feel… safe… Not a good word. But best I can come up with.”

Pulon reached over and stroked Pouncer. “What I feel is the same, only more, as what I felt when I made Primary Echelon. The problem is, just like when I made Primary, I am super tired. I’m also starving even after eating before we bedded down.”

Jory also patted Pouncer, “Like I’m still drunk. Real drunk. I might be able ta cast Secondary now, but you don’t want me to… not until I can… um, not stagger around and junk.”

“You all need to listen.” Klent snapped. He cringed at the pain in his head but forced himself to finish what he wanted to say. “Listen to us and hear what your bodies are trying to tell you. Look, kids, there’s a hell of a big difference from bein’ Trainin’ ta bein’ Primary, and way more if you really are now Secondary, which I’d bet a few of you are.” He held up his hand, lowered his head to take a few deep breaths. Every move caused his head to throb. He cringed and took a long drink out of a different waterskin. It was slushy from the cold. “Boy”, he called out, “get us a fire going! All our water is freezing!”

“No hurry,” Lidevar stated as he caressed Lyrod’s hair and shoulders. “Is there boy?”

“I guess not,” Lyrod stated with a submissive tone.

Klent noticed the look from not only Jory, but also Gapon and Tayac. A glance over to Shothash and Losmock told him the two were happy Lid nor any of the others were as interested in them, but had eyes all but pleading for someone to help Lyrod. They did, however, do their best to focus attention anywhere but on Lyrod and Lidevar.

At best, Ulavee was disinterested in what was happing to Lyrod. He did shoot a couple of glances over toward Lid and Lyrod but shrugged. Once Tayac’s cramps had subsided, he grabbed his sword and continued to oil and wipe it down. It was clear by the way he persisted in running a rag over his blade, he really wanted his hip sword sparkling clean for some reason.

Next to Jory, Pulon showed even less concern for the teen. It was clear Pulon didn’t care for Lyrod. Klent wondered if he could find a way to change the boy’s mind. He took a deep breath and finally motioned for Lidevar to let Lyrod up. The man shot Klent a frown, but reluctantly relented. As Lyrod emerged nude and grabbed for his clothing, Klent eyed the boy and watched him dress for several seconds. He had to admit Lyrod really was a good-looking kid.

Once dressed, and before he got into armor, Lyrod went over to Pulon and Jory. He stuck out his hand. In it were three sunstone demon heart gemstones. “Um, you guys did the hard work… I’ll just keep the three I took down alone.”

While Pulon eyed the stones, Jory waved Lyrod off. “You finished off those three so we could gut the bigger ones who got through the Black Rapids’ guards and tried to attack us. Besides, you nailed the one that got behind Pouncer. Without you, we’d have lost him, and it would have been lots colder for both of us. Right Pulon?”

Pulon rolled his eyes without even trying to hide it. “Yeah, keep ‘em. Pouncer’s worth it.”

Jory reached down and scratched the Giant Racoon behind the ears. “How many did you end up with, Pulon?”

“Six in the first fight. Didn’t count after the second…” Pulon dug into his gear and held out thirteen gems: Six cinnabar, two topazes, a trio of garnets, a jasper, and a zircon. “Should have had one more but dropped the first one when it burned my hand.”

Shothash tossed over a carnelian stone, “I saw it fall. It hit the snow and cooled before it got to the ground. I grabbed it for you before we were mobbed.”

This got a smile out of Pulon, “Thanks little guy. But why give it to me? You got it fair.”

“’Cause if I hadn’t seen what happened I would have burned my hand too!” Shothash responded while Losmock nodded vigorously. “It showed us we could grab the bigger, meaner ones’ hearts, stick our hand in the snow and cool them off so fast it wouldn’t burn us.”

Jory snickered, “Think the two youngest be the smartest. All the rest of us burned our hands grabbing those damned hearts. So how many did each of you end up with?”

Both boys pulled out five carnelian stones and four cinnabar. Losmock spoke with enough eagerness and excitement to cause Klent to smile as he listened. “We teamed up. Neither of us took one down alone, but together we dropped ten of them halfling-sized ones with the lizard heads, forked tongues, long snouts, and real hot breath in the first fight and eight of the small-fanged ones with wings on the second.”

“Ya be our little devil killers!” Garvol praised.

“Indeed!” Immeck stated. “So how about the rest of you young’ans?”

Jory held out fifteen stones. Seven were cinnabar. Three were carnelians, two topaz, two zircon and one exceptionally large red beryl. The last one got whistles from all the adults.

Rylop picked up the stone. “Wow, what did this come out of?”

Gapon answered. “The big spiral-horned ones.”

“With the burning and fire glob throwing hands.” Tayac added.

Garvol, Klent, and Immeck all looked over. Garvol was the first to speak. “And you two know this how?”

Tayac and Gapon exchanged glances as they pulled out pouches. Each produced twelve stones from within. Each boy held out an impressive red beryl. Tayac also held three topazes, four jaspers, and four sunstones while Gapon yielded a topaz, two garnets, a pair of sunstones, and a large red spinel. The rest were cinnabar.

Jory shook his head, “Damn… Pretty sure you two beat me on cost.”

“You took down fifteen. We only got twelve each, so you win,” Tayac joked.

“Yea,” Gapon snickered as he rewrapped his gems and placed them back in his pack. “We’re slackers compared to you and Pulon!”

Immeck snickered, “Ya all realize once ya get out dis here valley, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a kid yer age who saw a single demon, let alone faced one. Bet none a you will ever find a kid who pop a heart out a one!”

“Of this I am certain,” Klent snickered. “So, what about our young Alphar? How’d you do over there?”

Ulavee emptied a large pouch with eleven stones. Like the others most were cinnabar, but he also had a few topazes and carnelians. However, one was bigger and a different color than any of the ones the other boys had produced.

Klent sidestepped over and picked it up, “Red tourmaline. Nice hunk too… Didn’t see anyone get one of these. What’d this come out of?”

“Do not know what it was called.” The young Alphar trembled. “It showed up with the spiral-horned ones when the second big bastard appeared. It had twisty-barbed-horns, huge fingernails, and long fangs… General Vondum and our Premier’s mentor, Commander Glaster, moved into a bunch of them when they appeared… But one got away from them… It bit one of the Pantherlings and started to suck its blood. I… stabbed it. It sprayed me with lots of blood… General Vondum ripped out its heart from behind and tossed it to me before the thing even turned to ash. It was super-hot, so I cast a cold spell on it… It still burned through my glove and gave me blisters.”

Ulavee took a couple of breaths and had to wipe tears out of the corners of his eyes. “But… there was soooo much blood.” Ulavee wiped hard on his blade again, “Too much blood… It took two Cleanse spells from the Lord Shaman, Commander Glaster, to get my armor clean and two more to get it off me and my other clothing… And I still took a warm bath in the Alphar rest, rearm, and refit tent… I think the water had a red tinge…”

Klent knelt and rubbed the boy’s shoulders. “Pretty sure you got it all off your sword.”

Ulavee looked up with a few tears in his eyes. “The Pantherling… it thanked me for letting it die on its own and from stopping the thing sucking out its blood. It is like… I saved it, but it still died…”

Gapon also moved over and knelt next to Ulavee. “Sounds to me like he died thankful of what you did. Being a Channeler, I can tell you the knowledge I got when Hertel granted me a sliver of his power says you probably guaranteed it a spot with one of the gods instead of with Mendaven or worse, one of the demon lords. My limited teachings all say there are lots of worse ways to go than being thankful as you pass on.”

Ulavee let out a long uneasy breath and finally put down his blade. “Yes, I am sure there are. Thank you.”

Gapon said nothing but did pat Ulavee on his back.

Tayac individually wrapped his gems before he put the demon hearts back in his pack. “How about you grown-ups? How many hearts did each of you get?”

Immeck smirked, “Seventeen, which be eighteen too many in me way a thinkin’. Bet there be some of them damn fire-beasts mad at me. Last thing me ever want, but here we be.”

“I’m with Imm,” Garvol remarked as he dropped nine hearts out of one pouch and several more out of a second. Eight cinnabar, five zircons, three garnets, and a pair of topazes hit his bedroll. He unwrapped the final one, a fire opal. He held it up for all to see. “The black and red tigers took out several Illorcs. Took me, the Master Hawkling Channeler, and two Silver Dragonlings to take down two of the bastards. I got lucky in making one of the kills. One of the Silver Dragonlings was not so lucky. It fell before the Hawkling killed the second one.” He quickly rewrapped it and put it deep into an inside belt pouch. “Bet them Frexla lovin’ bastards know who me be now. Gunna have to watch er backs fer a bit.”

Lidevar grabbed his pack. He came out with sixteen hearts, including a red tourmaline stone and a red and black stone that was bigger than the others.

Ulavee spoke up as the odd colored stone fell onto Lidevar’s bedroll. “Eudialyte? Careful. Those who mine it often get sick. The Alphar only use Goblin and Orc captives in the deep mines.” He didn’t touch it but moved close and looked it over. “Many say it is toxic, but there are lots of Mystics in Alphar lands who would eagerly buy it. I heard one say she melts it in acid and the resulting liquid makes for some very nasty potion ingredients… Oh, and I hear they can damage other gemstones by changing their color, so keep it separate.”

Lidevar held up the stone, “Come from a flamin’ dog thing. Damn thing came out a the same fire hole the ones with da twisty horn did. Its charcoal-black fur rippled with fire! Its teeth were glowin’ hot too! Took down a Dwarf er maybe Garm, can’t tell ‘em apart none. Way worse than the Hell Hounds me and Imm fought a couple year back. It didn’t just disappear when me got its heart, neither. Its innards turned to steam, but the pelt stay.”

“Agony Wolf.” Gapon stated. “Two of ‘em almost got to us, but a Silver Dragon breathed on them as they jumped over the Black Rapids’ guards trying to protect us. Both hit the ground and their insides shattered. The Dragon told us what they were as it shook the fur until the hearts came out. It snatched the hearts with one claw as it grabbed a smaller Fire Dog with red fur with its other and squeezed so hard we heard it pop. Got nasty stuff all over a couple of kids with Commander Glaster. It moved off, but told us we could keep the pelts since we each killed one of the twisty-horned ones… After everything settled, a pair of Garm took the pelts and said they’d get ‘em back to us today or tomorrow… But I’m real glad the Dragon was with us! It had to kill at least ten times more demons and Fire Dogs than any of the adults around us did. After it made sure we were safe, it moved down the line of Black Rapid guards ripping apart all sorts of monsters!”

Lidevar shrugged, “Don’t care what the flamin’ pooch be. I just hope I don’t have ta see another. But got ta say it pay ta take it down. One of them Blue Dragons offer me a bag a silver fer its pelt, so I sold it soon as we got heal up from getting’ them magic arrows up our noses, ‘er whatever them be. Sound like I needs ta get rid of the heart, though.”

Lidevar glanced over to Ulavee, “You know any who’d wanna buy it?”

“I am sure I can find someone. There are several Garm and Alphar Mystics in the main war camp.”

Klent eyed the stone, “I’ve never seen or heard of it, but if it is so magic it can make you sick, I say we let Ulavee find a buyer and get rid of it.”

Lidevar nodded, “Yea, if’n ya can find me someone who’ll give me more than a few silver for it, sell it.” He tossed the stone off to the side, well away from the other gems as he moved to the tent flap. He poked his head out the tent flap and quickly pulled his head back in. However, he did hold the flap open and peer out into the storm. “Still got four Dragonlin’ guard, Klent. But them change shift, be Reds out there now. And looks like there be a fire goin’ fer us. Me thinking the Red Dragon out there have somethin’ ta do with it, cause dat boy ain’t never got a fire start so quick. ‘specially not one as big as what we got under the overhang. Look like a few from the Master Shaman tent be up and gots a fire goin’ too. None a them look any better than me feel.”

He glanced back to Klent, “So how did our leader do last night?”

“Pretty damned good,” Klent patted his pack. “Twenty-nine stones, most topaz and cinnabar, but I took a on a few going after Rylop like they wanted to drag him through one of the gates. They all had red spinel hearts, big ones. And those arm barbs were freakin’ sharp!” He shot Rylop a frown, “What’d you do to piss off so many of those winged ones anyway?”

All eyes turned to Rylop. With a grunt and roll of his eyes he grabbed his pack and pulled out a strange, just slightly curved blade of about fifty centimeters in length. Both the handle and blade glinted. “I took this off one of those harpy looking ones with the bony spikes along their arms. As soon as I did, a bunch of others tried to get it back. Not knowing what to do, I pulled it out of the sheath and killed another of the harpy things. As soon as I did, it took some energy from me, but the blade became cold, real cold. It also let me know how to actually use it and protected me from their heat...”

“You got a blade?” Shothash whistled.

“Wow!” Losmock gasped as he moved to take a closer look. “It shines a whole lot like the Premier kid’s sword!”

“Someone, I think it was an Alphar, told me it was a standard Frozen Flame, which is a weaker version of the Premier’s blade.” Rylop put it back in his pack. “I heard a couple of other demons had them as well. Don’t know why they didn’t try to use them on us, but whatever.”

“How about hearts?” Jory asked.

Rylop dug into his pack again. He pulled out a shirt tied to make a makeshift bag. He held it up. It looked to be loaded with small bulges. “Didn’t count. Didn’t have time. Those winged bastards really wanted to take the sword back from me.”

Pulon blinked several times. “How is your hand not burned raw?”

Rylop patted the blade. “This let me cut and grab the hearts right out of ‘em without getting burned. But I needed a Pantherling Shaman and a Dragonling Avgon Channeler to fix me up, cause those bony spikes on their arms about cut me to ribbons. This shirt isn’t even mine. Someone wrapped up all the hearts I shoved in my coat, shirt, and britches. They started falling out of all the cuts in my clothes… Whoever it was handed this to me after we got the healed up from the sandy-colored Dragon head and helped me stagger to get new clothes. It’s why I came in late. They had to get me all new stuff.”

Jory eyed the shirt with clear longing. “Can we look?”

Nods of the other boys along with both Garvol and Lidevar showed Jory was not the only one interested.

Rylop handed the makeshift bag over to Jory, stretched and rolled his shoulders. “While I didn’t get near enough sleep, I feel great. But I also have no idea where I stand in the guilds. I think some of what was given me is still settling.”

Jory untied the shirt. He, along with most of the other boys made choking sounds.

Klent moved to get a closer look. His jaw dropped as he found himself looking at over a dozen red spinel stones, another half-dozen topazes, and at least a score of others, mostly cinnabar, carnelian, and sunstones. “By the gods, man! What a haul!”

Immeck dug into his pack and pulled out his cooking stuff, “Look like we gots a winner! While ya all gawk like little ole ladies, I’ll get us some grub goin, since I ain’t eatin’ another nothin’ that boy burn!”

“You’ll be goin’ out without me,” Lidevar stated. “Ain’t no way I’m getting’ any closer to a dragon then we be right now!”

Immeck moved to the flap. His eyes went wide. It wasn’t a Warrior Dragon. It was considerably bigger. He tossed the cooking stuff onto his bedroll and backed into the tent. “Nope, food ‘ll have ta wait. It be right there between the cookin’ fires!” He took a deep breath and glanced over to Klent, “Ya got a plan on what we’s doing now?”

Klent pulled a winter cloak over his armor. “Got a few ideas, but let’s get some chow before we talk about it. And think about it guys, if the dragon, any dragon, wanted to eat us, we’d already be food…”

Immeck took a deep breath and grabbed the cooking stuff again. “OK, ya gots a point, but… This be way too much, Klent. We gots ta find somethin’ we can fight er guard without needin’ real dragons ta help!”

“Agreed.” Garvol stated as he also grabbed cooking stuff from his pack.

“I’m not about to argue with you guys,” Klent forced a grin. “But as long as we got dragon and dragonling guards we should take advantage. With guards like we got, we should take a day or two of downtime, plan, and get some more rest since none of us got decent sleep.”

One of the Red Dragonlings glanced over as Klent stepped out of the tent. It spoke in Dragon tongue, yet both Immeck and Klent found they understood it. “We could not help but overhear some of your conversation. Word came down about first light. Everyone is going to stay here for a few days. Since you have some of the Premier’s students, your group will be well guarded. Therefore, feel free to stay within our camp and do not worry about guard shifts or protection.” It pointed to a small cart tucked up between a few of the tents. “The Pantherlings brought fresh foodstuffs for those in these tents not long ago. Feel free to grab a bag or two so you do not waste preserved rations.”

Klent blinked and forced his mind to think about how to respond in the Dragon tongue. Much to his amazement he was able to do so. “Thank you. We will take you up on your kind offer of both food and protection. This way we can get some more rest and talk over our options.”

Klent quickly followed Immeck over to the fire with a bag of food the Pantherlings had provided. As he did so, he thought back to the latest dream. It had been extremely specific. If he wanted to be looking at the boy from the Ghoul Drool instead of just his slave, Lyrod, or one of the other kids in the tent, he needed to figure out how to build a plan around getting to what the voice called the ‘ruined village next to the broken bridge on the far side of the river from Rolling Dale.’ Or something along those lines. The rest of the dream, helping those he finds and getting them to the old fortress… He wondered who, what, and why, but the thought of Quavis’ face caused him to take another deep breath. If there was even the slightest of chances…

The other thing he couldn’t let go of was the voice of warning within the dream. It scared him almost as badly as he desired to find Quavis. For he didn’t know what change was coming, but he badly wanted to be on the winning side. If a god or spirit wanted him to do something, it was certainly in his better interest to do so. Even as distracted as he was, he still gave the Red Warrior Dragon a wide birth as he angled over to the cooking fires.

He couldn’t help but note many of youngsters who had been with the Master Shaman were clustered around the fire next to the one his slave was tending. They looked every bit as bad off as he felt. The youngest ones appeared flatly ill. However, they were not allowed to simply stand close to the fire. Instead, four Black Rapids guards, a big Black Dragonling, and a trio of Pantherlings worked with them on weapon usage and maneuvers. At the same time, a Garm and Alphar ran drills on magic usage and spellcasting.

A Hawkling Channeler Klent could not remember the name of came up with a trio of Dragonlings, two Blue and one Silver, a pair of Illorcs, and nine young-looking Hawklings, Pantherlings, Garm and Alphar following. The Channeler gave a bow which Klent quickly returned.

Klent swallowed hard as he stared more at the Master Echelon guild pins than the Hawkling, “How can I help the Order of Avgon, Master?”

“It is I who am offering you some assistance,” the Hawkling stated. His tone and posture, however, said it was more of a command than a friendly overture.

Klent caught the tone but blinked in confusion. “Assistance in…?”

“Instruction in self-control within your young ones, and possibly your adults as well.” The Hawkling extended a talon and pointed over to the kids under Glaster. “Princess Syrissia and Duke Mathard, along with Commander Glaster and General Vondum have ordered all youth who partook in the fighting last night to receive magical control testing and possibly instruction; for their abilities may have outdistanced their understanding and training. General Vondum indicated your group, along with a couple of others, was right up front when the demon invasion started. All of the youth with you directly engaged multiple Frexla underlings. At least a few with you took on larger and much more powerful demons than the vast majority of the children in the camp even saw. Therefore, your band has been marked as a priority.”

Behind Klent and Immeck, Garvol spoke up, “Master, um…We’d already talk about this. We tell ‘em we’s got to work with ‘em fer a bit and them all needs ta be careful. ‘I know, ‘cause I saw it after da fall a Vecel Towers when me be a lad. Many a us, little ‘un who fought them Harpies and lived got lots a magic too fast like. Didn’t know how ta control ourselves ‘er whatever. Made a mess a things. So I’m bettin’ some a them kiddos in er tent ain’t gunna know what them become.”

“Exactly. I am happy to hear you all had such a conversation and understand the dangerous undercurrents within many of the youth scattered across this forest. Because you already anticipated this, it tells me they have caring mentors with them. However, they must be taught how to do more than manage the magic within. They need to build foundational understanding they may have skipped over by this sudden influx. And leaders, like the three of you, need to learn how to help them properly. For some youth, this can be done quickly. For others… Unfortunately, many will need weeks, if not moons of close supervision and intensive re-education to form a solid base before their internal magic becomes wild and untamable. We also need to verify all adults, especially mentors, are in command of the power you wield and are comfortable with who you now are.”

As Klent nodded, Immeck spoke. “It be needed fer sure. And ya be right, even me could get somethin’ out a such a class, ‘cause there ain’t no way I be low Secondary no more… And me sure ain’t ready ta teach no rug rat how to deal with all we gots last night... But how much ya gunna charge?”

The Hawkling gave a dismissive wave with his left arm. “There is no recompense needed. We have gathered instructors verified by Princess Syrissia, Duke Mathard, Commander Glaster, and General Vondum, along with myself and several other high ranking guild members. All of them have shown complete comfort in the magical increase within themselves. We have assembled instructors in weapon, armor, spellcasting, magic control, and unarmed combat usage for each group. The instructors will spend the rest of the day, and possibly all of tomorrow seeing where all of you, along with the children you guide, stand with the new influx of magic we all find ourselves with. Furthermore, regardless of your own competency, we ask for all adults to actively participate. This will ensure the youth take the instruction seriously and will show those over them what pitfalls may linger within each child.

“Some, including the vast majority of adults, will need only a little reinforcement on how to contain and utilize the enhanced powers within. Others will need a great deal foundational restructuring before they can be allowed to safely venture out.”

The Hawkling paused and introduced those with him. The Dragonlings and Illorcs were handpicked instructors. All wore Teaching Echelon pins. The kids with them were singled out because, like Klent’s group, all were close to the White Great Dragon when the final demon assault started, and thus had to fight and kill multiple higher-powered demons.

Klent let out a long breath, “Then I guess we train today. But me and my party are still tired, and we need to eat.”

The Hawkling gave another bow then spoke loud enough for all to hear. “These instructors will stay with you as you prepare and eat. Rest will have to wait until tonight. We cannot allow magic to improperly set in, which it has already started to do. However, a meal will allow these fine Teachers to go over what will be expected as your group intakes needed nourishment. Should any slack or outright refuse to do what they are commanded by these trainers, physical punishments and extreme hardships will ensue.”

Klent couldn’t help but smirk as he heard a series of gulps from inside the tent. Judging on the reactions of the Illorcs and Dragonlings, the sounds were not missed by them either.

The day was grueling. However tired he and the kids were before the testing and training started was nothing compared to how they felt as day slipped into evening. If there was an upside, all the kids had been certified as safe enough to not need long-term retraining. The two Slome schools had done a remarkably good job of developing a solid foundation for Gapon, Tayac, Shothash, and Losmock. Jory, and to a lesser extent Pulon, had grown up hard and fast, so while they didn’t have the instructional foundations, life had provided enough for them to adjust with minimal, yet focused, guidance.

Lyrod and Ulavee turned out to be the ones the trainers were most concerned about. The two boys joined a couple of other Garm and Alphar for some extra classes before rejoining the group late in the day.

It cumulated in a brutal display of forced control. A huge group of captive Kobalds were brought in. The Kobald youth were brought in one at a time and promised freedom if they won. Each child in the group of trainees was then pitted against a single opponent. The first time the youth was told to focus and contain their magic while they fought. The goal was to gain victory without killing the small dog-headed creature. Only the one fighting Lyrod was killed.

Lyrod was once again separated and taken by other instructors.

As wounds were dressed and the defeated Kobalds were taken away, another group of Kobalds were led in. This time, however, the kids were brought into a small cavern individually. They were told to let go of the training they received during the day. If they didn’t fight with everything they had inside, they would be put in cages with the remainder of the Kobalds with no guards for their protection. One after another the dog-headed opponents fell to savage beatings.

Klent cringed as Jory shattered the snout, then stomped on it until guts ruptured out of it. Jory had to be pulled back. However, as this happened his eyes went wide, and he trembled.

Gapon was almost as brutal. After stunning the Kobald with a vicious elbow to its side, he grabbed it by the front of its shirt and delivered a series of devastating punches to the creature’s gut. Each one lifted it off the ground. A final elbow to the top of his head caused it to crumple at Gapon’s feet. The way it fell told of the devastation Gapon had wrought. There was no question most of its ribs were broken. Even unconscious, it quivered as blood leaked out of its mouth.

As Gapon regained control, he knelt and cried as he looked at what he had done.

One of the Garm let out a long breath, “Certainly Secondary Echelon… maybe higher.” He moved up and lifted Gapon by the back of his collar. “Fear and anger can bring out the same thing. Look down. Look.” He forced Gapon’s head to stare at the dying Kobald at his feet. “You must control the magic within when you are in combat and doubly so when you get angry at someone who is not trying to kill you. For this is what you have become! Do not see this little creature’s head as it is! Instead, put the face of someone you have become angry at on the body at your feet! For it is now in you to accidently hurt those you care about. For what is left of the Kobald could just as easily be your friend, brother, sister or even your father or mother.”

A third fight ended the day for most of the kids. They were pitted against those deemed close to their own abilities with wooden weapons. As they got tired and hit, instructors continued to coach them on control. Those who lost the ability to maintain focus and let the magic spill out in savage attacks were forcefully subdued and led away for more instruction. While Pulon came close, he was able to rein himself in by backing off after taking a shot to his side with a wooden mace. He did, however, kick the boy when the kid fell and submitted, so he was escorted out for disciplinary actions and some remedial training.

The Garm facing Losmock totally lost control and had to be knocked back, then slept with magic spells. An Alphar Crytrall Channeler was brought into heal the damage done to Losmock. He was then required to fight another boy to insure he had the willpower, after getting pummeled, to hold and control the new and powerful magical currents swirling within.

Lyrod returned as dinner was served. As he sat down, the Garm escorting him informed everyone Lyrod needed to be carefully watched and guided but had enough self-control to be allowed to serve under those who understood he needed both time and development to be able to properly wield what he was capable of. The Garm added Pulon would join them in the morning, as long as the lad behaved himself. Very little was said as they ate and bedded down. However, Lidevar waved off Lyrod as the boy moved toward his bedroll. “Ya earned a full night a sleep, boy. We all did.”


Kandric, Seldnat, Lorthorn, Zeltoss, Pike, Lacate, Bavajom, and Adafina - Glaster, Vondum, Duke Mathard, Princess Syrissia, Greenraven, Thornhand, Chark’ash, Rylan, Conth, Cam’ris – in comes Salostar and Greyhammer.

Glaster paced back and forth as he took and read reports as they came back from those selected to work with the kids attached to the forces assembled in the valley. Part of his anxiousness was his concern at the sheer numbers who were clearly not ready for the influx of raw magic they had received.

It surprised him, as well as Princess Syrissia and Duke Mathard, to find huge numbers of Garm and Alphar were among those who couldn’t fathom the rapid increase in magic. Both Mathard and Syrissia wondered if the longer lifespans and normally slower advancement of their races was partially to blame. However, neither backed down from ordering those who had failed initial testing to begin in-depth mentoring, regardless of race. If anything, they both made it a point to assign at least a couple of non Garm and Alphar Teachers to those from their respective empires. This told Glaster they took the situation seriously.

Glaster, with Vondum’s help, worked up a series of games and minor awards to take the sting out of the day’s failures. To further incentivize those who didn’t do well, those who did pass were given access to the supply tents to grab any two items they wanted, including one enchanted item. Those who really stood out were given an additional gift; a ring made from one of the White Dragon horns. The legends about such rings granting power to those Dragon Gifted quickly proved correct. The rings attuned and granted the wearers the ability to let out an arctic breath. The ability required Force usage, but it was an interesting and potentially deadly surprise. Because of this, rings were also crafted for the major leaders and all those traveling with Kandric.

The bigger problem revolved around Kandric. The boy, along with his odd entourage, had not ventured out of his sheltered rock area except to grab a warm bite for the noon meal. When they did so, they emerged with those they had selected to ‘get to know’ and escorted them back in. Regardless of actual willingness of those invited in, reports indicated all appeared ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘exhausted’ when seen. A few who knew Pike stated the boy seemed embarrassed to be seen with the young Garm girl he had ‘invited’ to join him. Yet others said similar things about Lorthorn and Zeltoss, but not Seldnat or Jamon. However, it was much harder to be certain about those accounts since those observing the youngsters didn’t know them. They could only report on body language and general appearance.

Furthermore, guards stationed close enough to possibly overhear anything, only reported some whimpers and in one case possible crying from within the natural shelter.

Yet another serious concern centered on the White Dragons. Two major attempts to recover the body of the iced over lake-locked Great had been crushed. Another had been driven back and as of latest frontline reports the third White incursion had been surrounded.

The hatred between the Silver and White Dragons was center stage. The Whites had been pummeled. All told, nineteen more Warriors, four Trues and one Great Dragons and well over three hundred White Dragonlings had been killed since Kandric had killed Pyrothermal. At the same time, one Silver True and two Silver Warriors, and one Blue Warrior had been lost. An additional baker’s dozen other Warriors were seriously wounded, most Silver. A further sixty dragonlings and close to a score of Alphar and Garm had also fallen. Because of this, both empires had sent in reinforcements of their elite Dragon Legions. The Blue and Silver Dragons also sent for reinforcements.

Explosions of Dragon Deaths had been limited, since the greatest majority of the dragons had fallen to other dragons, however, all told four more explosions of White Dragon Death had blossomed in the forests surrounding the valley. Glaster cringed as another happened to the west. As a cheer went out from those close to the command area, Glaster cringed and muttered. “Make it five. Yet another for me to have to explain to King Wyhrem…” He let out a sigh and moved out from under the rocky overhang. He stood still and accepted the lingering waves of Dragon Death energy as they washed over him. He let the snow hit him for a few minutes before stepping back into the relative comfort of the natural shelter.

Glaster’s mind continued to evaluate the current circumstances. What had started out as an ‘expeditionary force’ had grown into a full-scale army. This fact made the upcoming conference with King Wyhrem much harder. It was one thing to try to explain away a boy acting impetuously by sending in forces to rescue students. It was another to bring in a multifaceted army and fight a prolonged battle, bordering on all-out war with a separate invading power.

If there was an up-side, the latest skirmish had resulted in a White True Dragon being captured. According to Vondum it took some serious coercion, including having allied Dragons drag it to look at what had been done to the barely still living White Kandric had dropped over the cliff. Regardless of what had really transpired, the True White Dragon finally talked.

The Whites, as it turned out, were desperate to recover the glowing metal covered horns of the Great White Dragon. The body was a distant second goal. Because of this, teams of Miners had been drafted to use their skills in digging into rocks to mine out the head and retrieve the horns. As a side goal, the Miners were going to dig down deep enough to pull off upper back and neck scales since Kandric had enquired about having White Dragon Armor for himself and those with him.

His mind was pulled back to the situation at hand. A Pantherling moved up and gave a bow.

Glaster motioned for it to stand, “Wek, I gather you bring news as to the testing of my charges?”

“I do, Commander. All things considered it could be much worse.”

Glaster couldn’t help it, he snorted and shot Wek a smirk, “Which also means if could be much better.”

Wek let out a long sigh, but did grin slightly, “Alas, you are assuredly correct, Commander.”

“Give me the good news first, Wek. It will make the bad easier to swallow.”

Wek gave another slight bow, “As you command. I know your primary concern was on the younger ones. Both Mylan and Klandon are simply too advanced for them to know who they are, but all things considered, both are handling it far better than expected. We also believe, as the magic settles in, both will be better off than they are currently. Of the two, Klandon, did extremely well with every trainer. Mylan has needed control and basic understanding drills, which he took to and completed with only minor incidents. Nonetheless, he still requires minor foundational remediation with regards to spellcasting. He has some control issues with regards to offensive oriented Autospells. He occasionally casts them at combat strength when practicing. He did, however, get better as the day wore on. He is now all but out of Force, so we plan on working with him again at first light. Both boys will need to be carefully watched while sparring, since they have lingering yet normal youthful over-exuberance issues when practicing. Because they are among the most advanced of kids their age, even a slight magical push from spare enthusiasm can do a great deal of physical damage to another.

“In combat Mylan could be dangerous if he takes significant damage or sees a friend fall. He, unlike others, is able to contain anger long enough to back off and take a breath, but he needs to be watched. Even with your enhanced requirements surrounding the younger three boys, he has been cleared.

“Like Mylan, Klandon has to force himself to hold back when sparring. He does, however, contain anger much better than Mylan. On the other hand, when he did let resentment slip into his training, he did serious damage to two other youth. One certainly deserved it. The second made fun of his speech. I doubt the girl will be able to talk properly for a couple of days unless we prioritize a Channeler healing.”

All this got as a response was a snort, so Wek moved on. “Of the older boys, the Drow, Chark is as foundationally solid and developed as any we tested. Probably because of the damage he did to the giants, he is also the most advanced. I do not know who trained him, but there is no question he was given as solid a base of any youngster in this camp! Rylan is right behind him in both advancement and ability, but he has some deeper anger issues, especially when it comes to his Black Dragon trainer…”

Glaster gave a dismissive flip of the wrist. “He was almost killed by a Dragonling, so I will let this slide.”

“Understood, Commander. Then it is the opinion of the trainers, even the Black Dragonling, both Chark and Rylan receive Dragon horn rings… However, both showed an interest in the getting rings made from the fallen Blue.”

As Glaster’s eyebrows went up, Wek quickly added, “The Great Blue, Bivilord, has approved the use of the Warrior’s horns, and even scales, for awards to the youth should they want it. The same holds for the Silvers. We have yet to lose a Red Warrior so I cannot say how their commander will feel should it come to pass.”

“If the Blues are OK with it, then I have no issue in them taking a Blue Dragon horn ring.” He forced a grin, “For, unlike Premier Kandric, I have no desire to challenge, let alone insult, a dragon of any kind. I certainly plan on never annoying, let alone angering, a Great.”

Wek snickered, “Right there with you, Commander.”

Glaster smiled, “Nevertheless, since the offer is out there, I formally request a horn ring off a Silver.”

“Then you shall get one.” Wek affirmed. “As for me, I am waiting. While I wish no harm to come to a Red, should it happen, I would prefer a Red Dragon horn ring.” He paused and took a deep breath, “I was also told to report to you on General Vondum’s youth. Conth has shown remarkable control. It is almost like he has a link to the Dragon he has been riding. This remarkable feat has helped him incorporate the Dragon Gifting as well as the magical influx from killing demons. I know our general may not want to hear this, but Conth is also in line for a ring…”

Glaster let out a long breath. “Then he gets one, but not before our general is done with him. Let him know he will receive a ring publicly if he fully deals with what General Vondum has in store for him. It will give him extra incentive to overcome what would certainly crush many a boy.”

“I shall see to it.” Wek rolled his shoulders and forced himself to stand straight as he prepared for delivery of the less stellar news. “As for the others…”

Glaster sighed, “Let me hear it.”

“Commander, Cam’ris needs considerable work. He understands he has become more but cannot contain it. He killed three Kobalds, all brutally. He can control his magic when facing those he knows and likes, so he is not totally unfocused. Yet remains a danger to Mundanes and those he does not know. Because of this we have not allowed him to spar with other boys except Chark and Rylan, both of whom are more advanced and controlled than he is. In addition, he sees them as friends, much to the consternation of some of the Alphar...”

“Their hatred of Drow is too deeply ingrained.” Glaster stated with exasperation. “I am amazed Cam’ris has so fully accepted Chark.”

“From what we have been told, Cam’ris is seen as idiosyncratic by many of the younger Alphar. He has few friends his own age because he is seen as both outspoken and peculiar. A few Alphar youth made it a point to gang up on him in an attempt to make Cam’ris fail. It seemed to have worked to some degree. On the other hand, those who teased him about being a ‘Drow lover’ found he certainly advanced magically much further than they did. We had to render aid to a couple who hinted at doing Chark harm.”

Glaster’s eyes narrowed. “Find a way to get Cam’ris a Dragon horn ring. His openness is refreshing and deserves reward. As for those who insult Chark, give me names. I will discuss their futures with Princess Syrissia and Duke Mathard.”

Wek cringed, “As you command. However, the two who instigated this found out the hard way what trainers of Rylan, Chark, and Cam’ris concluded.”

“Which is?”

“Commander, it is the opinion of multiple trainers, including myself, all three boys are very close to, if not into, Teaching Echelon…”

Glaster winced as if he had been slapped. He clenched both fists, “And you are certain both Rylan and Chark are capable of dealing with such power?”

“We are. Especially Chark. Rylan has no issue with control but did go a little further than needed when besting a Black Dragonling. It did not stop there. Our Black Dragonling instructor told him to back off or face him. Rylan did back off, in all actuality had already backed off, but verbally accepted the instructor’s challenge after doing so.”

This caused a brief chuckle to escape Glaster. “Was the challenge accepted?”


“Go back and make sure it is. I selected Bexidarad under the recommendations of General Vondum as one of the instructors of my charges because he is an Expert Echelon Warrior Adept who trained Vondum when he was a youth. After last night, Bexidarad must be close to Master Echelon. Let him know I would find it in Rylan’s interest to have to receive treatment from a Healthman after a good ole thrashing. It will teach a hard lesson before Rylan’s head and ego gets the best of him on a field of battle. Make sure others see it. It will hammer home he is not all he wants to believe he is.”

“Very well. Something tells me there will be no disagreement from Bexidarad.”

“Good. So, what else did the time with my young ones reveal?”

“Going back to Cam’ris for a moment. Mostly because of his budding friendship with Rylan and Chark, and the fact both can stand up to him in a sparring match, he has focused enough of the spare magic within to properly utilize the falcata. In fact, all three have. It is now all but a matter of pride and camaraderie within them to become fully proficient in the rather odd blade. General Vondum thinks their quick understating of the blade may be linked to the Dragon Gifting, but regardless, expect all three to carry them with pride.”

“Good for them. Make sure you publicly praise all three. Maybe it will cause others to work as diligently.”

“I will see to it.” Wek smiled as he added, “It may cause further integration of Illorc youth into the greater alliance since the three boys spent every moment of rest with Illorcs in the use of their blades. Additionally, Cam’ris also has begun to tap into his enhanced echelon with regards to his Animal Adept side. His pets are already starting to grasp more advanced commands from him.”

“Vondum will be happy to hear about this. It shows the boy is closer to having a good foundation than many of the Alphar I have received reports on. The fact he is striving to better himself will further endear him to Vondum.”

“I agree. Bexidarad is less optimistic, but this might be because Cam’ris offered to join Rylan if it would convince Bexidarad to accept Rylan’s challenge.”

This got a true laugh out of Glaster, “Then by all means! If Bexidarad is certain he can send both boys to a Healthman for treatment needs, then he has my blessing! Such a trouncing will do much to show both boys of the need to understand who and what they have become. Doing so as friends will make it easier on Cam and force both Rylan and Chark to become the Teachers you believe they either are or are close to becoming.”

Glaster took deep breath, “This leaves three important young ones you have not reported on. Your lack of enthusiasm surrounding them, tells me there are serious problems with all.”

“There is.” Wek admitted with softer voice. “Premier Kandric’s servant-slave is probably the best off of the three, but not by much. Lacate did not get nearly the Gifting many of the boys did, which is probably an incredibly fortuitous thing. However, he did get more than enough to be Primary Echelon, certainly above midway to Secondary, maybe step 5. Secondary is a possibility, but doubtful. However, he has little ability to contain or control the magic within. He killed two Kobalds and even did damage to one of the instructors who jumped in to pull him back.

“It was not done purposefully, but he still got a solid seven-lash switching for bloodying Teacher Geglib’s lip. When it came to casting, it was even worse. He cannot fully contain Autospells when he casts them. They come out as if he needs them for combat. He expended his Force far too fast and even accidently forced cast the last Autospell which all but crippled him. He gets his Force back a sun-up tomorrow, but until then he is spent and useless. It is the opinion of all of us, he was never taught proper spell control to begin with. He needs… I do not even know what.”

Glaster held up a hand to stop Wek, “Then he is probably Secondary with only Training Echelon foundation. He must have grabbed more than three demon hearts and hid or pocketed some. They need to be taken and kept until our Premier frees him, for if Premiere Kandric finds out, Lacate’s future will be even worse than Kandric has currently planned. He also needs to go down to Scorpion Falls.”

“Why?” Wek asked, then quickly followed up with, “Um, and where?”

“Because there is a traveling school I sent our Premier to a few years back. The overall instructor was from Scorpion Falls… There is a school down there that offers the same thing as his traveling school does, only more in depth. One, as I think about it, I would now bet Chark attended. Regardless, Scorpion Falls is a town just outside the Desert of the Dead, far to the southwest of here. Anyway, the six-week traveling camp taught our Premier more about foundational magic than I provided in the prior several years. What he brought back even taught me a few things, although I never admitted it to our Premier. He already had a big enough head after being awarded top student at both the traveling school and the fixed one down in Scorpion Falls.”

Wek let out a whistle, “Is there anything our Premier does not do well?”

“Yes, several,” Glaster stated without hesitation. “Get him out on a boat and you will quickly discover some of what I refer to.”

“No sea-legs, huh?”

A glint entered Glaster’s eyes, “All you need is a boat, any boat. As far as sea-legs… Get him out beyond the sight of land or in any kind of rough waves, the color of green he turns is enough to make seaweed jealous!”

Wek tried awfully hard not to laugh.

Glaser snickered, “Oh, no need to hold back on my account.”

As Wek busted out in laughter, Glaster grinned widely. “It is his lack of ability in and around ships which let me build a degree of humility in him. From the moment I discovered the effect of ship travel on our Premier, it became my ultimate character builder. At first, I tried to get him used to ship travel. When it became apparent he would never take to a ship, I took him out a few times just to remind him he was not as perfect as he sometimes liked to think he was. It also happened to be my favorite punishment used against him when he showed signs of rebellion against what he originally agreed to or when he defaulted on anything he promised. Because of this, the one thing I can guarantee you about Premier Kandric, he will not give his word unless he absolutely means it.”

“I am surprised you were able to get him on ships if they have such an effect on him.”

Glaster once again chuckled. “It was not easy. He even tried crying a couple of times and resorted to attempted bribery another. All this got him was longer trips, much longer, and he still had to follow through with what he attempted to bribe me with. Thus ended any endeavors to get out of such trips. As an interesting side note, because of the dozens of voyages he was forced to take, he made it a point to become an excellent swimmer.”

Wek frowned, “So it is not the water or the idea of things in the water eating him that bothers him.”

“No,” Glaster stated emphatically. “It is all about the movement of the ship.” Glaster paused to take a written report from another group of instructors before returning his attention back to Wek, “This leaves two others… and you seemed to indicate there was some kind of upside to this Lacate?”

“There is. The one thing Lacate has full control of is weapons and is comfortable fighting in various armors. He is fully competent in his favorite weapon, the fighting axe, and is well on the way with a mace. His dagger usage is also right on par with any Primary Echelon non-Swordsman. Furthermore, Lacate also has decent fist usage. Because of this we decided to test an idea of mine. We allowed him to try spiked gauntlets. He liked them. ‘Like’ may not be a strong enough word. He took to them with an interesting zeal. His shield use is good enough for him to utilize it as a weapon as well, so the best foundation he has is in weapon and armor usage, which I find odd considering he is a Mystic and is not as physically fit as many kids out here.”

“Interesting. I will talk to our Premier about either finding the traveling magic camp or sending Lacate down to Scorpion Falls. It will certainly cost extra because he needs to backtrack on his casting, and he is powerful enough to be high Primary Echelon or more probable, low Secondary. However, as I found with Premier Kandric, coin opened both tent flaps and school doors. In addition, since the boy is indebted to Premier Kandric, the funds required can be added to it, thus greatly expanding the time the boy is in service. To keep him at the age our Premier likes, I could even procure a few potions from Vondum to keep Lacate young for the entire term on the indentureship.” Glaster nodded more to himself, than Wek. It would make a good commencement gift.

“So let us move on. What about Lylan and Perth?”

Wek took an uneasy breath. “Commander, let me start with Perth, because simply put he is the easiest to describe.”

“Very well.”

“Commander, to be bluntly honest the boy has no foundation. None. He is a walking, talking, and even by my standards, extremely cute meter and a third, thirty-five kilo, bundle of wild magic. By all accounts he took down five demons during the second wave. Five… maybe more… But we have confirmation of five… many adults did not do as well.” Wek let out a long breath. “One of them in the final wave and was bigger than what most kids had to deal with. In addition, he ended up with four, possibly more, hearts when Pyrothermal died, thus giving him one of the small globs of magic Gifting. He did so with only courage, street smarts, and the most limited of training you said you managed to provide after acquiring him.

“Perth is boy who should be Training step 1 yet is at least Primary step 3, probably higher. He does not understand what he now knows, nor does he appreciate what most who have been in training of any kind should at least grasp. Even worse, there is limited understanding of what he was as a Training step 1, let alone as a mid to high-ranged Primary Echelon being. Making matters more dire, he has zero expertise behind his Mysticism.”

Glaster let out an uneasy breath as he realized he may need to ‘throw the boy to the wolves’. The thought made his stomach churn. “Recommendations?”

“Commander, I have an idea, but it would cause considerable discomfort to Perth.”

“And finding an Ogre and then sending him out against it to get splattered would not?”

“The discomfort from an Ogre’s club would not last as long,” Wek stated seriously, “but I get your point.”

“So, what is this suggestion?”

“We could take him to the Silver Dragon Court and have a Shaman and Sorcerer combine to remold the magic in him.”

“Remold it into what?”

“We could take him directly to the Spirit Realms. The Shaman could take both the Sorcerer and Perth fully into the Outer Realms. There, a highly skilled and well-versed Sorcerer could then change the basic form of the magic in and around the boy. Since Perth’s so wild and untamed, it would be possible to use some of it, so he ages slower, since rumor has it you like slower aging apprentices… While this is being done, they could also change his Field.”

Since there was no doubt he had Glaster’s undivided attention, he continued. “My recommendation would be to use enough magic to where he ages as a Highman. This would take up much of the excess magic while still leaving him at the edge of, but still into Primary Echelon so he would not deal with substantial decrease in the power he has access to now. As far as his Field, I feel the best would be Shaman, but any spellcasting field would be available. We could go another route, but since he already has a few Autospells learned, the magic behind them would have to be pulled out, causing him long-lasting damage, possibly including physical scaring, and a degradation of magical talent.”

“Interesting concept, and I want no chance of harming him permanently, so if this is even possible, it would certainly have to be as a spellcaster. But why Shaman?”

“Two reasons. First it would allow you to easily monitor and mentor him in all aspects of what he needs to build the knowledge base to best be what he will become, in actuality, what he already would be as Primary Echelon Shaman if you take this route. Second, with our Premier’s attachment to you, coupled with the loyalty many spirits obviously have to our Premier, we may find spirits who would assist in his training.”

Glaster scratched his chin while going into deep thought. After a long span of silence, he returned his focus on Wek, “There was a boy I found outside a small, very strange town called Lucas the Lost. They worshiped a statue of a woman holding a baby… Very odd. Yet Lucas the Lost is where I ran across the apprentice I took two before Premier Kandric. The boy in question was a low peasant farm boy who was begging for training from a tiny guild I have only encountered one other place… Twin Spires… Twin Spires sits right on the edge of the Crags, the gateway to the Desert of the Dead… A full day’s ride by Sand Skimmer from Scorpion Falls… Edjekap was the lad’s name…”

Wek waited for several seconds before he spoke, “As interesting as this is, Commander, what about the boy and the guild?”

“Oh, sorry.” Glaster face took on a sheepish grin. “It has been many years since I have fully thought about Edjekap. Such a wonderfully sweet kid… Who grew up way too fast.” Glaster sighed. “But I digress into the past. What I was wondering, more in abstract than in reality, is if it is possible Perth could be changed to live longer, thus grow up more slowly like you hinted at and… you may not even know what this is. However, can the magic he finds himself with be remolded into making him a Spirit Warrior?”

Wek cocked his head to the side, “While I am astonished you know what a Spirit Warrior is, I am certain the untamed magic within Perth could be shaped to become one. May I ask why?”

“Because I am being selfish,” Glaster stated frankly. “I thoroughly enjoyed helping Edjekap’s journey to becoming a Spirit Warrior. I was able to use my Shaman training for much yet had to risk venturing into the Spirit Realms with him to assist in his dual-faceted training. I came to know much about Spirit Warriors and vastly more about the Outer Realms. I, well, let me be honest. I would enjoy another Spirit Warrior apprentice, but to my knowledge Edjekap is the only one I have ever run across.”

Wek shrugged, “Historically Drow, Pantherlings, Falconlings, Dragonlings, and Hawklings, in said order, had and still do have more Spirit Warriors than other races. Because of this, the respective races have not let the guilds in their lands totally die out. I honestly had no idea there were any actual guild halls left, since the Mythlings did their utmost to wipe them out. However, while you obviously prefer Elvin and Human apprentices, you probably have stumbled across others, but the vast majority are forced to become Shaman. Most do not do well, and few make it beyond Secondary Echelon because they are forcing themselves to become what they are not without properly remolding the magic within.”

“Interesting…Until very recently, I never considered the possibility of someone forcing themselves into a Field they were not born into.”

“It happens far more than most realize. For a child who can cast Autospells in many villages may only have one or two options to become trained. If the child is desperate enough, or the instructor too demanding, the child forces the change within without anyone knowing. It does damage, and most never see Teaching Echelon, but it is not as uncommon as you may believe. On the flip side of the coin, many of them would not have been able to find an instructor in their ideal Field, thus would never have been guilded had they not forced the change to happen.

“The same can be said for other Fields. There are a great many Swordsmen out there who should have been something different, particularly Legionnaires and to a lesser extent Animal Adepts. There are even spellcasters but because they showed training potential at a young age, they were taken into fighting drills by a Swordsman who either had good but misguided aspirations for the child, or they may have less virtuous goals in mind and simply forced the child to become what he or she could teach. There are reasons the guilds do not officially allow a Secondary Echelon being to take an apprentice. This is one of them… Nonetheless, magic in young ones is not as set as most like to believe, but all trained beings have a natural ideal Field path. Perth’s is Mystic, but he is untamed and has extra magic. Therefore, a careful remolding can make him whatever you desire.”

Glaster frowned and drummed the fingers of his left hand over the back of his right. “Wek, I have a multitude of questions, and I have no idea what a Legionnaire is, however my focus must stay on task.” He gestured to the small pile of scrolls reporting on youngsters throughout the war camp. “So let us focus on Perth for now. How much would such a… transformation… in both the slowing of age and his raw magic formed to make his ideal Field a Spirit Warrior cost me?”

“Nothing.” Wek stated without hesitation.

“Nothing?! You sure?”

“Positive.” Wek smirked. “Commander, the White Dragons lost their most powerful Great by the hand Premier Kandric and his entourage. You are the mentor of the person who did this. The whole of the Silver Dragon Homeland owes you for this!”

“And you know this how?”

“My clan is friendly with a pocket of Silver Dragons just to the south of the Deathland Mountains. Some of them, because of their proximity to Bloody Rock, were the first Silver Dragons to arrive after the death of King Blathamort. Many accompanied us here. Your name is being mentioned right alongside Premier Kandric as a heroic figure.”

Wek paused as he felt another White True Dragon Death bloom wash over him. He grinned. “And every one of those only adds to a debt owed you and your former student by the Silver Dragon Homeland.”

Glaster dropped his head and sighed, “And only makes it trickier when it comes to the upcoming face-to-face meeting with King Wyhrem… For while he may not feel the death of Warriors, and if he does, he will only know something with considerable magic died out here, he certainly felt and knows another True White Dragon just perished in his lands.” Glaster shook his head. He had to figure out a way to put Kandric’s actions in the best possible light, However, every dragon death deep inside Wyhrem’s lands only made it harder.

He eyed Wek for several seconds before giving a single nod. “Fine, as long as both you and the Silver Dragons can guarantee me no lasting harm, either physically or magically will befall Perth, take him to wherever you need, for as long as you need him. However, he best be returned to me in as good, or better condition than he is now!”

“I assure you; he will receive the best of care. Additionally, his youthfulness, combined with how untrained and wild the magic swirling within is, I doubt the whole ceremony will take more than a few days. Maybe less. Should I warn him of the intense discomfort he is about to undergo?”

“Before you take him, bring him to me. I will inform him. He belongs to me, thus cannot refuse. However, I may be able to soften the blow, for he was not terribly happy to find out he was a budding Mystic. If I play my cards right, he will feel further beholden to me while being grateful to the Silvers, regardless of the anguish of the transformation.”

“Why would he not wish to be a Mystic?”

“For some reason Mystics are not looked at in a good light in and around Rolling Dale.” Glaster gave a flip of his wrist, dismissing it. “If it works in my favor and I can have Perth for an extended period in a Field I can actively assist him in building a strong magical footing, all the better. Let us see if we can locate the traveling school, or if we cannot, send both Lacate and Perth to the one is Scorpion falls. For, while I can teach much, I cannot scratch what they taught Premier Kandric about magic, casting, and control in a few short weeks.”

“I will dispatch an emissary down there,” Wek stated. “Maybe we can get them to take a full class or two of those who are in need of such understanding and control of spellcasting.”

“It would be a worthwhile, yet extremely costly endeavor.”

“I bet the Garm and Alphar would be willing to part with wealth over losing some of their youth. I am positive both the Pantherlings and Silver Dragons will.”

Glaster took another report, glanced it over and shook his head. He turned to the Garm, “This makes it sound like the whole class is in need of remediation. Get me the best two in this group so I can see for myself if they are as bad as this indicates.”

He took in a couple of deep breaths before returning his focus onto Wek, “This leaves you to tell me what is going on with Lylan. I can only assume, since you have avoided talking about him, he has major issues?”

Wek gave a disgusted snort and growl combination. The sound was enough to cause Glaster to cringe. “Bad, huh?”


This caused Glaster eyes to go wide, “Worse than Perth?”

“Commander,” Wek switched to a soft mutter while looking away, “Perth can be explained. He got hammered with Demon and Dragon magic when he had nothing to focus it on. It is just there waiting, almost hoping to find a pivotal pathway so it can be shaped and honed. Lylan...” Wek shook his head. “Lylan could not be more opposite.”

“Would this not mean he has control over his new-found magical energies?”

“Outwardly, yes. He has it contained. It is his and he covets it. It is power and with it he is powerful.”

Glaster waited. When nothing else was said he spoke. “And…?”

“Commander there is no ‘and’. Like both Mylan and Klandon, he is close to, or above Secondary Echelon. A nine-or-ten-year-old Secondary Echelon kid who knows what magic inside him is and how to… unleash it… He uses what he has with unbridled abandon.”

“How many has he injured?”

“Four students and annihilated three captured Kobalds. From what I have heard from other class instructors, he is not alone. But he is certainly one of the worst. I am not sure if the power is simply a rush and he loves it or if he simply does not have the will to limit its full use. Either way, he is a thirty kilo, meter and a quarter tall, imprecise weapon and fist swinging maniac. He has yet to focus the magic within him to weapon skill. To weapon savagery, yes, skill no. Against a being of less magic he is a what amounts to a death sentence on two legs. To someone equal or close to equal in power, he will not last but a few seconds unless he gets a fluky, incredibly lucky hit.”

Glaster thought back to the fist fight between Lylan and Mylan. Lylan should have held the advantage but lost soundly. Glaster realized he should have seen it then and made needed corrections. Instead, he focused the vast majority of the attention on Mylan, which certainly improved one, but it was at the severe detriment of the other. Mylan advanced, Lylan took it as he needed to fight with more barbarity with no regards to refining the growing magic within. As Glaster saw it, he was at fault, not Lylan. What, with a little strong discipline, would have been easy to correct, was now anything but. One did not spank, scold, or forcibly isolate a Secondary Echelon being with any expectation of instilling anything expect anger. Anger was the very last thing Lylan needed to feel more of. Anger gave an unhealthy sense of added power which when already uncontrolled would lead to further habit-forming mistakes.

Glaster asked a question he figured he already had the answer to. “How is he outside of combat with kids his own age, friends, his sibling?”

Wek shook his head. “Horrible. He injured two boys slightly older and bigger already and he tried to pull the ‘I am a tough guy’ with Mylan and paid for it. Mylan has control and used it to his full advantage.”

“How bad?”

“Commander, to put it bluntly, it was a full-fledged ass kicking. Mylan put him down three times before he finally had enough and flattened his brother. Lylan’s wild swings against tempered and control fighting skill from Mylan, left Lylan needing to get his front teeth put back in and his nose set by my Clan’s best Healthman. He probably had rib damage as well. The point is moot since we finalized healing with an Illorc Warvon Channeler. He will have no permanent blemishes by sometime tomorrow, as long as he does not do anything stupid, which we are assuring by putting a Teaching Echelon Mage with him at all times. The problem is, if anything, the beat down only made him worse.”

Glaster sighed. “He is almost certainly Secondary Echelon, then. Which means most forms of physical discipline are out. We would have to deal out real and lasting bodily damage before the pain becomes enough to break bad habits, let alone poor fighting techniques. This also tells me his brother has certainly outdistanced him.”

“Without question. Klandon and Mylan are among the most skilled kids their age in the camp. Possibly the most skilled. Your mercenary group has a few who are also way up there. My understanding is they all teamed up and worked together from the moment Frexla sent in the first wave and they did not back down when Pyrothermal appeared. Your mercenary band was already on the front lines, but the leader still ordered his people in to help protect Klandon and Mylan who moved forward, not back. There is some speculation both your boys, as well as a few from your mercenary group, went so far as to fire missile weapons at Pyrothermal as his magic defiance crumbled under the onslaught of the Premier, the White Great Dragon, and backed by many of us. If this is true, one or both of your boys may have scored a hit, since Pyrothermal’s resistance to non-magic weapons was eliminated just before he totally froze.

“If this is true, both Mylan and Klandon received the same scale of gifting we did. Much of it was probably wasted. However, they took the fight to the second wave with as much or even greater zeal. Therefore, by the time we got the Gifting from the extinct Sand Dragon Queen, they may have already advanced well into Primary. The second Gifting hit them as hard as the first. This means they maybe a stone throw from Teaching Echelon!”

Wek seemed to shiver. “The problem is, while Mylan and Klandon have each other and are extremely willing and open to be taught how to handle who and what they now are, Lylan is not far behind with raw magic. However, Lylan has neither desire nor willpower to temper the magic he now has.”

Glaster ran his hand down his face and muttered a string of curses under his breath.

Letting out his anger, thus letting it go allowed him to focus on the problem. “Wek, I cannot go into too much detail, however, all three of my main charges are very high caste. They have been forbidden to use this to their advantage, so we still have this going for us. However, some of what I think you are witnessing within Lylan is because he still sees himself as better than most of those around him, even those who have received an equal or greater Gifting. We need to break this view of himself.”

“How? He knows he is extremely well advanced for anyone his age. Couple this with a superiority view, what can dislodge him from the perch he sees himself on?”

“We need to find something he has not done or has done that shows he is less than those around him. We have some very lofty youngsters in the camp. Garm, Alphar, Dragonlings, and even Hawklings, and your own Pantherlings. Is there something, anything, many kids are talking about or bragging about?”

“Yes. One.” Wek responded immediately. “But we have done everything we can to quash it.”


“The number and kinds of demon hearts each kid procured during the fights, especially the final one. Kids across the whole of this valley are using them as status symbols and for bragging rights. As best we can tell any who did not get at least three in the initial fight got only a minimal bump in magic. None of them advanced enough to do much in the second fight. Only a few of them managed to take down enough to get a major Gifting when Premier Kandric’s Elvin Knight, Zeltoss took possession of the scepter. However, those who possessed three or more hearts after the first, then took down three or more during the second wave of demons got a major increase with at least some Dragon Gifting, including knowing how to speak Antiquated, yet universal, Dragon. Those with more than five got considerably more. On the other hand, those who managed to take so many also seemed to have a good foundation. Thus far we have had very few problems, other than cockiness, with the takers of more than five demon hearts. Most are Garm and Alphar. Yet, Lylan happens to be one of a couple of score or so who falls into this group. Perth is another, but we already discussed this.”

Glaster couldn’t help it. He snickered. “Wek, any child who can honestly say they killed and took the hearts out of three or more demons, then had the fortitude to destroy five additional demons of any kind in a second even more vicious battle, has the right to be a little cocky, even Lylan and Perth!”

Wek chuckled. “Agreed… The problem is most of the kids have figured out the power gained relates to number of hearts taken, or at the very least attribute number, size, and value of the stones to who did the best.

“Also, while most only got cinnabar, carnelian, cuprite, sunstone, and zircon, a few took on the final wave of greater demons that arrived when we solidified our lines. Those with red tourmaline, eudialyte, topaz, red spinel, fire opal or even red beryl, not only got extra power from the demons they eliminated, but a more substantial Gifting. Additionally, they got stones of higher base value and for the most part the stones gained were larger. While I have no idea how these facts spread so quickly, it is pretty much universally known at this point.”

“Because kids like to brag, and adults tend to get drawn into such discussions.” Glaster fiddled with a trio of pouches on his belt. At the same time he smirked, “As a purely obnoxious and self-serving example… Any kids currently hold forty-eight?”

Wek choked on his own saliva. As he coughed, he managed to wheeze out, “Forty-eight?”

“I kept forty-eight.” Glaster stated with bemused grin and shrug. “Both Vondum and I sold a couple eudialyte after hearing they could be dangerous and may even have enough lingering magic to damage the color of other stones. I also sold my cinnabar stones to the Garm and Alphar first thing this morning because they announced they wanted as many as they could get, and I already knew cinnabar are soft and can easily scratch.”

Wek blinked several times as he fought to find his voice. “Um, if I may ask, how many cinnabar?”

“Over a score.” Glaster stated as his voice hardened and got cold. “Vondum also took and sold at least a score. The toothy bastards we ripped them out of emerged between us, our boys, and a couple of our Premier’s students right before Premier Kandric froze Pyrothermal. Another, larger, door opened in almost the same place midway into the second fight. It was a pair of doors Frexla ought not have opened.”

Again, Wek blinked, yet said nothing.

Glaster took yet another report from a runner. As he skimmed over the information he spoke. “So, Wek, how many stones did Lylan take last night?”

Wek cleared his throat so he could find his voice. “Um, honestly, I do not know. Like I said, we have done our utmost to keep the kids focused on who they are, not what got them to where we are now… It is also why I do not have an exact count on what Perth took. What I told you are from eyewitness reports of those who were tasked with defending them. Unfortunately, they became too embroiled in the fight to know exactly what your kids managed to do. Why?”

An ominous smirk overtook Glaster. His voice became sinister. “Find out. When you do, place him with a few boys and girls who did the same. Make sure a couple are having the same difficulties in adjusting as Lylan.” Glaster help up the scroll. “Reports indicate there are plenty to choose from.” As he rolled the scroll up, his voice became even darker. “While you do this, find several kids, both boys and girls close to his age who did better and are even more advanced. Make sure the vast majority are in need of minor corrections and have basic control of their giftings. Again, while numbers are significantly lower, reports show there should be at least a few dozen.

“Make it a point to talk about all their successes, even Lylan’s. But do so in a way where it forces Lylan to admit he is toward the bottom of the group. This will single him out while not isolating him. Pit all of them against each other. If done correctly, Lylan will gain an occasional victory while taking far more crushing defeats.

“Do not step in right away. Allow him, actually all of them, to dish out and take beatings requiring Healthman attention. No quick Channeler or potion healings unless there is dire need. They all need to feel the combat practice.

“Give rewards, small ones, to those who fight the best. Time it to where he gets very few, but make sure to give him one or two. After all, we want him to keep his drive to better himself. He needs to lose and lose badly against both boys and girls. If this still does not force him to work on skill over raw magic, let it be known no one graduates until everyone except the worst two are deemed competent. The added pressure will either remold or leave him as one of the two worst performers. One thing I do know about Lylan is he likes to look good, so unless I am sorely mistaken, this will compel a self-correction. Should I be wrong, the subsequent few moons will either crush or totally reform him. For better or worse he will not go home until he has mastered control over what he gained last night.

“However, frequent devastating losses should, over time, sink in. Do not let up until he comes to grips with the fact his success was not nearly what he currently thinks it was. Furthermore, do both him and me a favor and do not show any leniency. For if this does not temper his lofty attitude and force him to mold into what he should be, I will risk the wrath of his father and put Lylan in a situation where he wished he were dead.”

Another voice came from just outside the natural overhang. “Who wished they were dead, Commander?”

Glaster and Wek’s head both jerk at the sound of Kandric’s voice. Both instantly saw a very tired looking boy with five equally exhausted friends.

“You look like crap,” Glaser retorted as Kandric, his three young knights, along with Jamon and Pike moved out of the snow. “However, to your question. We were discussing some of those who advanced beyond their ability to utilize what they have. We have spent the greater portion of this day testing all the kids… All except you six and those you all…shall we say… welcomed into your shelter.”

“Dem all be good er gettin’ der, Commander!” Seldnat responded with certainty.

As Wek’s left eyebrow shot up, Glaster focused on Seldnat, “While I am extremely interested why you should think this, it is not proper for you to answer for who you serve unless asked to do so.”

The right side of Seldnat’s mouth went up to the point it covered his tusk, “Um, geesh… Sorry, me not know. Der so many rule with high caste bein’s. Not know how ya keep ‘em all straight. No happen again.”

“Then you learned something and there is no harm,” Glaster answered with a snicker. “And you are correct, young knight. There are probably too many rules and etiquette protocols when one gets into the upper crust. However, since you are now part of said world, we need to get you a decorum tutor.”

“Duke Mathard is already working on finding one willing to teach a Halforc,” Kandric informed Vondum.

Wek glanced over, “I am certain I could find a Pantherling willing to provide said instruction.”

“Then find him and send him over,” Kandric responded with a relieved sigh.

“Not wanting a Garm or Alphar?” Glaster inquired with some humor.

“Ahh, no, not really…” Kandric shook his head. “Um, do not get me wrong. I like the Alphar and really like quite a few of the Garm, but they take the royal practices to the extreme. Most address me as Premier before and after every exchange and they all bow and stay down until I commanded them to raise. I then have to give them permission to speak. Before they leave, I have to do the whole process again. I did not even realize one approached a couple of days ago. Lorthorn had to tell me the poor guy had been at a bow for over a sandglass turn!”

Kandric rolled his eyes, “So now I have to look around all the time to make sure the same thing does not happen to some poor messenger. This being in full command with royal status leads lots to be desired!”

As Glaster snickered and Wek grinned, Kandric sighed with a note of disgust. “And while the guards… a ridiculous amount of guards… surrounding my campsite all bowed when I stepped out, one said you needed to see me… But, Master, Commander, Teacher, whatever the proper title is today… because we realized there was a potential problem with unprepared advancement, you should know Seld is correct. Those we invited before first light are, or soon will be, able to comprehend and utilize the magic garnered to push them higher in their respective guilds. I have friends working with them.”

“Who?” Wek asked. “We have your shelter heavily guarded! None have come or left!”

Kandric let out a disgusted grunt. “No, Wek, a castle is heavily guarded. My shelter is… at least ten steps the wrong direction of being a fortress made of armored and armed beings instead of brick. Would not this force be better served by having some of them out hunting White Dragonlings and finding my students?”

“Probably,” Glaster answered. “But there is not a single commander or general out here who is willing to chance you being targeted by assassins. You have made some powerful enemies. The most worrisome is Frexla, who, regardless of the crushing defeats she suffered last night, has plenty of demons to send after you… and a huge reason to want you dead.”

Kandric growled, “She will have even more if she does not hand Emroc, my brothers, and your former student back unharmed... And do so soon.”

“Let us see what happens.” Glaster stated sternly. “Her next move may take a few days.”

“Understood, Master.” Kandric stated. He tried to hold back a yawn but failed.

Glaster moved up and ruffled Kandric’s hair. “You should have gotten some sleep instead of… enjoying your requested guests.”

Kandric smirked, “They may have been requested, Master, but they all verbally accepted…”

“Yes, this is true.” Wek countered. “However, there is no way you can argue you made sure their verbal agreements were overhead by many. Of course, their outward apparent willingness was greatly enhanced by Sir Seldnat, here, hinting he would be interested in them should they not agree to accompanying the rest of you. And while I have tried to find out why the Black Rapids Human apprentice girl agreed to join you, Sir Seldnat, I hear she did so only after you glanced over at Sir Zeltoss.”

Zeltoss rolled his neck. As he did so, he pulled a vial out of his cloak and shook it. The clear vial in his hand turned red and yellow. It looked like flames rippled up and down the inside of the container. He spoke a couple of soft words. The flames changed to a burning four-armed demon beating on the glass like it was trying to get out. He slipped it back in his cloak and shrugged.

While Wek blinked and gulped, Glaster’s brow furled, “What, young one, is that?”

“A Blank Fire Illusion Potion.” Zeltoss answered. “All I have to do is cast a Mini-Illusion Learned Autospell of whatever I want and throw it. It enhances the Mini-Illusion to become full-sized, like up to a building in magnitude. But it must be something on fire. I got how to do it as part of the Green Dragon Gifting up in Slome. However, I can cast the Mini-Illusion and not throw the potion. It gives me a chance to test what it will look like. The better I can visualize what I want the more real it looks. I got lots of close looks at the four-armed demons.” He pulled out a handful of zircon stones. “Very close.” He put the gems back in the pouch.

Zeltoss pulled another vial, shook the clear liquid until it appeared to start to burn, then cast another Mini-Illusion. This time it took the form of flames gushing out of the shelter they were in. He held it up so everyone could see it. “I can look at a building, cast a Mini-Illusion of it erupting into flames, and toss this inside. To any looking on, it will appear to suddenly start burning. If I dropped this in here, those outside would see this sheltered overhang erupt in flames. There is even a heat element to the outer edges, so it will scorch light cloth and could cause embers on the edges of paper, but it is not hot enough to burn wood. This way, those who see it also feels real heat, but it wouldn’t do more than cause it to get warm inside. Don’t really know when I would ever use one, but they are cheap and fun to make. The other thing is, in a sandglass or two both vials will revert to being clear and will become open to different illusions. Since I used up most of my cold potions last night, I restocked my cloak with what I have. I have several of these.

“Thanks to the Alphar and Garm, I have a very nice traveling Mystic kit and a pile of requested ingredients, so I will brew some more cold-based potions over the next several days.” He pulled out the potion of the Fire Demon beating on the inside of the glass container and looked it over. “Until then, I have what I have. Hearing about the soul stones gave me this idea.”

Wek shook his head, “But your illusion of the demon looks real. You even had me believing you had trapped one! To the girl it looked like you somehow trapped one of the demons and bottled it… I bet it only took a frown and a glare to get her to all but beg to join Sir Seldnat.”

While Zeltoss did his utmost not to show any facial expression, his eyes and slight smirk caused both Glaster and Wek to shake their heads.

Seldnat put his arm over Zeltoss’ shoulders, “Him never said nothin’ to her.”

Glaster snorted, “He did not have to. When I was a kid, the very idea of being trapped in a tiny glass container if I had not agreed to go with you would have been more than enough for me give myself over regardless of what I felt or knew you wanted.”

Wek shuddered, “Might be enough for me to do so now.” He let out a long breath. “I hope you are not planning on being too mean or rough with any of them.”

Kandric shot Glaster an impish smile, “None of us will do more than what my Teacher required of me.”

Wek sighed. “The agreement entered into between you and Commander Glaster got you training. Not to mention you coerced all of those you took back to your shelter for your enjoyment, Premier.”

Kandric smirked as he glanced over to Glaster, but quickly focused his attention on Wek. “I wish there had been more enjoyment and less coaching.” Kandric yawned again. “It was just getting interesting when both Bavajom and Adafina felt the magic of their demon kills settle in. Shortly after, most of the others we…” His smirked and his eyes sparkled, “Hosted… also had to deal with their Giftings. All of us standing here did as well, but intense magical infusions have become more annoying than overwhelming for us.”

“Annoying?” Wek grunted in exasperation. “Premier, not many in written history can claim an immense Gifting of Dragon and or Demon Magic as annoying!”

“How about aggravating?” Lorthorn asked. “It makes sleep hard to come by. Dreams and nightmares take over when I do finally doze off, and the influx of magic, three this time, because we had Weraweld, Pyrothermal, and the Sand Dragon Queen all slam into us last night. And all three settled in one after the other about the same time as Kydray and the others we were… getting to know. It made me need to pee real bad, real often. The chamber pot I procured from the Garm supply tent had to be emptied twice. Luckily, there is a hole in the back of the small cave we found to dump it in. But there was certainly little chance for fun, and even less for sleep. Especially when we had to go get tested and shown tricks to… I guess stabilize might be the best word. So yea, we spent lots of time and effort learning to stabilize the massive magic we got dumped into us.”

“So your guests did receive part of the energies of both Pyrothermal and the long extinct Sand Dragons?”

“Not like many did,” Kandric shook his head. “Only those who did damage to Pyrothermal got the full Gifting after the latent Sand Dragon spell pulled power out of them. None of those we hosted did so. All took at least three demon hearts, so they did get some of the Sand Dragon Gifting, and most got the added demon magic of taking at least six. The quartermaster servant Zeltoss selected took seven but had the needed foundation. The Alphar girl Lorthorn invited also procured only three hearts. While she advanced, it was not above her ability to understand and deal with it. Therefore, after quick testing, neither needed advanced tutorage. All the others, along with the six of us underwent, and some are still receiving, excess magical remediation and retention instruction.”

“From whom?” Wek demanded to know.

Kandric smirked, “How about you answer, Seld?”

“Teach’r Wek, thanks ta Kan… um, Premier Kandric… um, many have come and gone over da past several sandglasses, jus not from here. Us had ta go ta them. Me even learn how to use me new magics!”

Wek frowned, “Go to them? There is no way you left the shelter without us knowing!”

Glaster’s head dropped, “Wek, as demonstrated earlier, our Premier got them teachers from the Spirit Realms.”

Wek took a step back and shook his head. “But we have kept at least three Shamen and a Spirit Warrior watching you. There is no way you summoned spirits to help you. It would have been noticed.”

Kandric let out a snort, “There was no need to summon anything.”

Seldnat let out a snort. “Open door to fog-land. Be even more weirder than the foggy-walled place where we see the snake and water cat things.”

“There was no summoning because you all went to them,” Glaster stated in sudden understanding. “The spiritual guards were, and still are, looking for incursions into our realm from the outside. Not for someone leaving this realm, then returning to their bodies.”

While Wek’s jaw dropped, Glaster stared and frowned at Kandric. “Who guarded your bodies?”

Kandric shook his head, “At first we guarded them while one of us went with. We rotated out. Pike had to stay since he had some difficulties at first, and one of the elders had to show Seld, here, how to use his new magic abilities, but another acquaintance of mine got Pike straightened out. Right Pike?”

Pike gulped. “Very much so. I have full control and will work hard to maintain it! I have no intention of having to spend an extra moment with the female Elder Spirit!”

“Me neither, but a deal is a deal,” Kandric sighed. “So I will be spending at least a moon of nights with her… Anyway, once we made sure the magic was stable enough to not be a danger in all six of us, there was no need to watch our bodies.” Kandric smirked. “Simply put, there were no bodies to watch.”

Glaster gasped, “You… you fully took all of you into the Spirit Realms?”

Lorthorn couldn’t help it, he snickered. As both Wek and Glaster turned to look at him, he also yawned and stretched. “If you think what Seld and Zel did was intimidation, let me tell you… After getting them fully into the lands of water, fog, steam, and air for the last few sandglass turns and leaving them there so they can continue to gain control… I’d bet it is very unlikely any of them will refuse to remain in our company for as long as we want them to stay with us.”

The right side of Seldnat’s mouth twisted upwards, “Course, Premier Kandric gots to open door fer them and let ‘em back in.”

Wek growled, “This is beyond coercion, boys!”

“No more than my first excursion with my Master and Teacher,” Kandric countered while sending a sly glance over toward Glaster.

Wek looked back and forth between the two, while the other five boys all looked over to Kandric with wide eyes.

Glaster shook his head with a bemused smirk. “Well played, Premier. Very well played. Worry not, Wek, I will provide all of them with a little something extra for their commitment to spend time with our Premier and his entourage.”

Kandric stretched and fought off a yawn even as he grinned. “They are all learning from sources few could ever hope to get instruction from and are safe even if they do not realize it.” He turned his full attention to Glaster, “I was told you needed to see me Master, and somehow I do not think this is the reason.”

Glaster gestured to a stack of scrolls, “Part of my needing to talk with you is, was, those you selected to get to know. What you see here is a stack of reports on most of the young ones in this valley. There are many we are seriously concerned about. However, you seem to have properly dealt with any advancement issues.”

“Some are still working on it, Commander.” Kandric stated seriously. “The others are getting extra teachings and tutorage they cannot hope to get elsewhere. And again, they may not know it, but they are safe where they are at. Frexla would not dare intrude where I took them. Nor will the spirits, especially those of wind and fog, allow anything or anyone to harm them.”

Kandric took a long breath and wiped at the corners of his eyes, “We all felt a few more Whites die, thus it seems we are doing well. So, what problems do we have that need my attention?”

Glaster stepped over to the scrolls and picked up an ivory scroll case with fitted and wax-sealed end caps. He handed it over to Kandric.

Kandric looked at the case and eyed the impression in the wax. His eyes went wide and jaw dropped. After several seconds of lightly rubbing the seal, he looked up. “Um… Is this not the signet of the King of Eagleonia?”

“It most certainly is.”

Kandric fingered the crest again. “Why are you handing this to me?”

Wek couldn’t help but snicker. “Premier, it was delivered by noble diplomats for you.”

“Me? But… this is from a KING!”

Glaster nodded. “Indeed, it is.”

Kandric’s eye darted between Wek, Glaster, and the scroll case. “Why?”

Seldnat snorted, “Um, didn’t ya say we be in the Eagle kingdom er somethin’?”

“Eagleonia,” Lorthorn corrected Seldnat. “But Seld is right Kandric. We are in his kingdom, and you did bring down an army into it.”

“And we killed a few dragons and demons in his land,” Zeltoss added. “If he knows this…”

“Oh, trust me boys,” Glaster stated firmly, “he knows.”

Kandric fiddled with the ivory case as he looked to Glaster, “What does it say?”

Glaster’s left eyebrow shot up. “I have yet to find a spell allowing me to read what is contained in a sealed case. Even if I had such a spell, I would not do so. For as you know, the man who sent what you hold in your hand is the same one I was indentured to. Therefore, I can only extrapolate from what I have heard, Premier.

“On the other hand, Princess Syrissia, Duke Mathard, General Vondum, and myself do know enough from what the diplomats told us to know King Wyhrem has demanded, not requested, a face-to-face with you. He wanted it by nightfall today.”

Kandric glanced up and out of the natural overhang, “Today?! While I cannot see any sun, it cannot be long before it… I…”

“Relax and take a few breaths,” Glaster barked.

Kandric gulped, “Sorry… Um but today?”

“A basic response was crafted by Duke Mathard with the help of Princess Syrissia. They let it be known you were out in the field of combat and, while we would attempt to meet with his timeline, chances were good we would not be able to locate you in time to meet his original deadline…” Glaster winced as the death of another White Warrior Dragon washed over the group.

Seldnat sighed, “Not fair. Me wanna be out der gunching dragon.”

Glaster’s head fell into his hand. “Sir Seldnat…” He shook his head and eyed the Halforc, “There is something seriously off with you!”

Seldnat grinned, “Me think me should say thank you!”

As a round of snickers and giggles broke out. Wek looked upward and rolled his eyes. “Premier, Knights, and you other two, can we try to stay on topic?”

Still grinning, Seldnat responded. “Thought me was. Der be White Dragon out here ta gunch. Me wanna get one!”

Kandric gave Seldnat a playful shove. “You just will not be satisfied until you take down a dragon on your own, will you?”

“Uh, uh!” Seldnat flexed his muscles. “Gots to gunch dragon without ya, Kandric. Not be real dragon killer till me do it on me own!”

Jamon ran both hands down his face, “Seld, from what I heard you were there when Kandric took down the Green female, helped with King Blathamort, and I saw what you did to Weraweld! I think you’re good!”

Seldnat shook his head. “Nope! Gots ta gunch one wit’out Kandric!” His eyes seemed to gleam as he added. “Me wants it ta be big one, but little dragonette like just bit it be enough… Least fer now.”

Wek stared at Seldnat, started to say something, stopped, tossed up his hands