PROLOGUE: FRIENDSHIP IN TROUBLE
The young man’s gaze prowled across the rapidly filling taproom. Pantros habitually made note of the heavy purses on the crew of the Lady Marissa. In any other inn, he would wait an hour for their carousing to start taking its toll before lightening their belts. He didn't start trouble at the Inn of the Haughty Hedgehog, though. Despite having his best friend Bryan, an over-muscled brute a head and half taller than most men, sitting across the table; he knew that his sister, who owned the inn, would not appreciate the mess they would make in the rare event things went sour. He also knew the doormen, who he’d trained to look for thieves, would notice anything he did and they would toss him out as quickly as they would a stranger for stealing from the patrons.
The doorman on duty, a lame Matderi named James, hobbled over to the table, using a heavily nicked but polished battle hammer as a crutch. The Matderi knocked the edge of the table gently with the haft of his weapon. He said, coughing his words in the way his folk normally spoke, "You boys gonna git out of here before you start trouble?"
"James, you know I don't steal here," Pantros said with his best innocent smile.
"Yeah, I know you find your fun other places, now," James grunted, "But, your entertainment sometimes follows you back."
"When have we brought more trouble than we could handle?" Bryan asked in a deep baritone that rang evenly with a calm confidence. The large young man was always sure that nothing would go wrong. Things often did go wrong, however and Bryan’s size was often the deciding factor in keeping the trouble contained. Bryan shrugged and leaned back a little in his chair. “What could go wrong?”
"Don't you be trying those looks with me. We all know Commodore Mejal’s fleet just got back from a long run down the whole east coast of Teminev. There are over a thousand sailors running around town with overfilled purses. And you’re telling me you’re not interested in acquiring some of those coins? Nah, I wouldn’t buy it. You kids got the scent of trouble all over yourselves tonight," James said, pounding the handle of his hammer against the floor. "Git!" he spat. "Don't make me spank you with me hammer."
Bryan laughed, "With just the one good leg, you'd only get one swing before you toppled." It was a joke they shared nearly every night.
"I keep telling you: I only need one swing," the Matderi finished the joke. "Go find your trouble. The farther from here the better."
Pantros got up from his chair, tossing a copper coin to the woman behind the bar, his sister, Tara. She caught it, glaring slightly at him. Though he didn’t have to pay for his food and drink, it irked Tara when he didn’t clean his own table. Tipping his sister to do it didn’t always end in a humorous situation. As long as the taproom wasn’t crowded he could get away with it.
"If trouble means money,” Bryan said as they headed to the door. “We could use some.”
“Always work to do,” Pantros said. “So many purses and so few drinking hours to make the job easier.” Plucking coins from the purses of sailors was scarcely harder than picking stones off the ground. Sailors spent so much time in cramped quarters bumping into people, they didn’t pay heed to a passerby brushing too close. Add a little rum, and it wasn’t even slightly challenging.
As usual for the late summer, the evening had brought a gentle mist with it. The glow of the constantly active volcano to the east refracted through the droplets of water and spread its light to every corner of the street. The open areas had an almost festive red ambiance while the shadows flowed like blood.
“What kind of trouble do we want to get into tonight?” Bryan asked Pantros as they walked north, deeper into the city, away from the docks. “Wine, women or follow Mejal’s men around and catch whatever spills from their purses?”
“I’ve still no interest in wine,” Pantros said with a shrug. “It seems like I remind you every night that alcohol dulls my reflexes and dims my senses. Maybe it’s your predilection for it that makes me keep having to remind you. Picking locks and quick reactions are most of what makes me a great burglar.”
Down the street, Pantros could already see a group of Mejal’s crew staggering along the street. He could take a handful of silver from each of them and they’d just assume they’d spent it on drink, if they noticed the missing coin at all. He would never take more than half the coin in a marks purse. Less money would just leave them confused as to how they’d spent more than they thought. A suddenly empty purse would alert the victim that something was wrong and they’d start looking for a thief.
Silver wasn’t worth Pantros’s efforts or the risk, other than to create a situation for Bryan to have fun fighting his way out of. The following night would be ideal for a late night visit to Commodore Mejal’s home. Then the take would be in gold coins. Bryan didn’t like that kind of work because it left him standing outside watching for trouble but mostly being bored.
Bryan sighed. It sounded almost like a groan. “I guess drinking ourselves silly isn’t really doing anything worth bragging about.”
“Not like that box of pearls we took from the first mate of The Bleak Honor,” Pantros said. “Not that I hope you told the city we did that job.”
“That bunch of pirates deserved it,” Bryan said. “If my father were sober…”
“He’d be proud.” Pantros finished for him. “Wouldn’t seeing your father wallowing from his bed to his bottle make you not want to drink?”
“It makes me not want to drink two bottles of whiskey a day.”
It was Pantros’ turn to groan.
“Women?” Bryan asked. “Where do we find them, tonight? I hear Therl’s is having a belly dancing show.”
“If we went to Therl’s; we’d be two of two hundred men watching three or four girls,” Pantros explained, not seeing the point of just watching them dance. “Not to mention that we have yet to spend five minutes at Therl’s without you breaking something: usually someone else’s nose.”
“But you make good money lightening the spectator’s pockets,” Bryan commented, nudging Pantros. A less agile person would have been thrown across the street by the giant’s mass; Pantros had a way of rolling with anything. That skill helped keep him at his friend’s side.
Pantros shook his head, saying “Last time, I got forty copper pennies, mostly already broken into bits; not even a single silver in the crowd.”
“Oh,” Bryan said. After a breath, he blurted, “Maybe this town is too small for us.”
“What?” Pantros asked, surprised by the change of direction in the conversation.
“I’ve been thinking…”
“Bryan, you know that never goes well for us,” Pantros interjected. “Thinking is my job.”
“Seriously, Pan,” Bryan said. “I just think there might be something bigger out there than robbing a bunch of drunk sailors.
“We don’t just steal from sailors,” Pantros objected. “We steal from anyone with extra coins lying about, unused.” He picked his marks carefully, trying not to risk getting caught and hung over pennies. Not that he ever got caught. If trouble did start it was usually Bryan starting it.
“Yeah, but think about it,” argued Bryan. “If we went to Fork then we could join the Thieves’ Guild there and we wouldn’t have to find our own marks. Everton’s a port city four times as large as Ignea and I’d bet Novarra is just waiting for a pair like us to rule the nights.”
“Ignea is my town,” Pantros sighed. “This is where I’ll live until I retire and build my castle in the mountains upwind of the volcano.”
“You and I could own the world,” Bryan contended. “We could steal it piece-by-piece. Well, you could steal it, and I’d have your back.”
“I’m sure that with your audacity and my skills we could,” Pantros agreed. “But, I still have family here. Tara spent the last ten years building The Hedgehog to her perfect vision of an inn. I can’t just abandon my sister the way my parents did.”
Bryan’s head nodded, bouncing slightly from side to side. Recognizing the signs that his friend contemplated something deeper than usual, Pantros cringed. The giant said, “I guess I can’t really see you and Tara separating. She raised you since you were what, seven?”
“About that, yeah,” Pantros said. In an effort to placate his friend’s wanderlust, he added, “Maybe someday I’ll want to see the world but, since my parents disappeared at sea, I just don’t have any desire to set foot on ship. C’mon let’s figure out something before it gets late.”
“We don’t expect our nightly dose of trouble to just bump into us,” Bryan said. “I was just hoping for a better class of trouble tonight. If all else fails we can crash The Mate’s Club. Those officers have more coin than the common sailor. We might even find a gold coin or ten.” Bryan stopped and looked down a side street. “Hey, we’re not far from The Clean Cut. I hear Curt got some new swords in. Wanna check ‘em out?”
“Okay,” Pantros agreed since he couldn’t think of anything better to do.
The sign over the door had a pair of cutlasses standing parallel, one upright, and the other inverted. There were no words, many sailors never bothered to learn how to read. The door stood open and a burly man in a chain hauberk guarded it. He had a heavily nicked sword leaning against his chest, the point dug casually into a block of wood which Pantros guessed the guard had placed just to give his point something softer than the stone of the street to rest on. Several circular ruts had been dug into the wood and the guard appeared to be absent mindedly working on another.
Inside, there were a couple dozen swords hanging on the wall behind a raised counter. Most customers would need to ask for Curt to hand them a weapon if they wanted a closer look. When the boys walked in, Curt stepped away from a polishing wheel, carefully hanging a brass hilted cutlass on the wall. Clearly in his late fifties if not older, Curt had been a sea mercenary in his younger years, working often with Bryan’s father. He now moved with care that betrayed the arthritic pain in his knees. His grey hair was cut short as if he had shaved his scalp a few weeks earlier and hadn’t gotten around to shaving it again. The beard on his face appeared to be on the same schedule. His eyes lost a little of their smile when he recognized the boys.
“Just looking again today, boys?” Curt asked.
“I’m still looking for the right sword,” Bryan replied. “When I find it, I’ll buy it.”
“If you could tell me what it was you wanted, I could request it of my supplier.” Curt offered, as he usually did.
“If I knew what the right sword would be, I would tell you. I just know I don’t want a cutlass.” Bryan sighed.
“Well, I got all of four swords in the shop that aren’t cutlasses,” Curt mentioned. “But two of them are the gladius and the Abvi small sword you already looked at last week.”
“So, what do you have that is new?” Bryan asked, looking at the large two handed sword hanging behind the proprietor.
“You see it already, do you?” Curt said. “It’s a nice weapon. It was made by the Abvi four hundred years ago for some human prince who has long since died and faded from history.”
“You get your swords from the winning captains of sea battles,” Pantros imposed into the conversation. “How do you know the weapon’s history?”
“Smart lad,” Curt said with a chuckle. “This one is inscribed. Here let me show you.” Curt slowly pulled the large blade from the wall and handed it to Bryan. “There along the blade.”
“It’s in one of the Abvi scripts,” Bryan said. “I can’t read that.”
“Me either,” Curt admitted. “But I know someone who can and they told me it mentions a date, the name of Prince Desthayan of Relarch and offers best wishes.”
“It has a nice balance.” Bryan spoke with awe. “This is the kind of sword I want! Maybe a little longer. I think something closer to my size would be best.” Bryan held the sword in front of him with the point resting on the floor. The pommel didn’t even reach up to his collar. “I’m a head taller than this sword.”
“Maybe if you were a normal sized person, I’d have an easier time getting what you want. That’s the only greatsword I have had in my shop, ever,” Curt said. “I doubt I will see another. They don’t use these things at sea.”
“Good point, they’re too big for close quarters.” Bryan gave in. “How much for it?”
“Normally I would sell an Abvi made antique greatsword like that for twenty five gold,” Curt noted, but quickly amended, “but, for you, just fifteen.”
“Gold?” Bryan asked incredulously.
“We’ll take it for twelve and a half,” Pantros offered. “Just give us twenty minutes to fetch the coin.”
“Deal,” Curt smiled, his brown eyes glistened.
“Pan!” Bryan shouted, shaking the small store.
“What?” Pantros asked, only slightly intimidated.
“I don’t have that kind of gold,” Bryan whispered. “I don’t think all the gold you and I have gotten in the last three years would add up to that much.”
“What do you spend your split on?” Pantros asked. “My half has been twice that over the past year.”
“I guess I do throw a bunch of coin around on Jacobs street,” Bryan shrugged. “If I had realized how much, I would probably actually try to meet a girl rather than pay for three or four a night.”
“Sheesh!” Pantros shook his head, not believing anyone could spend so much money on nothing tangible. “I’ll cover the sword, but you are on half cuts of the loot for a season.”
“Let go get it,” Bryan said, setting the blade carefully on the counter. He gestured for Pantros to lead, then followed him out the door.
As they rounded the corner to head south back towards The Hedgehog, they bumped into two strangely dressed men. The fatter of the two almost managed to apologize when Bryan's elbow caught him in the chest. Pantros had slipped his foot behind the ankle of the man he had bumped into and shouldered the man's chest, knocking him to the ground. Had neither of the strangely dressed men reacted at that point, it would have ended there. Pantros and Bryan would have said, “Oops, reflexes, sorry mate!” and been on their way.
The obese stranger then made a critical mistake: He swung back at Bryan. Though he may have weighed the same as Bryan, the heavyset man was over a head shorter and he owed most of his weight to blubber. The punch never landed. Bryan edged it aside with his forearm as he stepped close to the man and grabbed his shoulders. With a grunt, Bryan slammed his forehead into the bridge of the fat stranger's nose. Bryan's opponent fell to the ground.
The smaller of the two strangers, the one Pantros had taken down, scurried over near the black stone wall of the nearest building. “Stay away from me!”
“Hey,” Bryan defended. “I didn't mean to hurt anyone. Your friend swung at me. That elbow thing was just a reflex from being surprised when you bumped into me.”
“Same with the trip,” Pantros told the thinner stranger. “Say, what's with the costumes?”
“So, you don't want my money?” The man asked glancing fervently at Bryan then back at his unconscious friend.
“I dunno. Do we want his money?” Bryan nudged Pantros.
“No,” Pantros smiled. “They can't even afford real clothes.” The two men dressed in a gaudy patchwork and had masks hanging around their necks.
“Me and Yarel are clowns,” The man said, suddenly. His voice trembled with anger or fear; Pantros couldn’t decide which. “We were on our way to a job. People pay us to act stupid and silly; dressing silly helps. I guess we won't be making that poor girl's birthday party tonight. I think you killed Yarel.” He reached towards his friend but seemed reluctant to actually touch him.
Yarel had a four-pointed hat with bells on each point. The bells were not jingling, though the fat clown was clearly breathing.
“Nah,” Bryan chuckled. “I didn't even break his nose. He will have a headache when he wakes up, but will be fine after a day or two.”
“Could you take a message to the manor district for me?” The skinny man asked. “Could you tell Lord Dane that we got waylaid and won't be able to make his daughter's party?”
“Sure, we could,” Pantros said. “It's the least…”
Bryan put his hand on Pantros’ chest, interrupting him. “I have a better idea.”
“No, Bryan,” Pantros said. “We already decided that we are not going to rob the poor clowns.”
“No, but we could be clowns.” Bryan suggested.
“Okay, you might be funny looking,” Pantros mused, “But that’s where your capability for entertaining humor ends. Not everyone thinks it’s funny to throw scuppers through walls.”
“Everyone at Therl’s laughed.” Bryan said.
“Everyone at Therl’s had just spent half the year at sea.” Pantros said. “They’d laugh at a horse sneezing.”
“Are we going to do this clown thing or not?”
“We’re going to deliver their regrets.” Pantros declared firmly. “That’s all we are going to do.”
“Pan,” Bryan leaned in close to whisper, “We have a pass into a noble’s party. Think about it.”
Pantros thought about it, cocking his head. He couldn’t believe Bryan had arrived at the idea first. “Bryan, remember what I said about you thinking?”
“It’s bad?” Bryan said.
“Yeah, remember that,” Pantros said. “But, if you accidentally stumble upon a great idea once in a while, I won’t hold it against you.”
“Does this mean I’m back on full shares?” Bryan asked.
“For now,” said Pantros.
“Because I thought up a great idea?” Bryan asked.
“No, because I haven’t given you any money, yet,” Pantros said plainly.
The two men walked along the streets in the red mist. The larger of the two wore a belled four-pointed hat and a purple, orange and pale green tunic that didn't quite look long enough.
The smaller man wore a red and white-checkered tabard and a long pointed hat that nearly hung to the ground behind him. A plume of pink and purple tassels erupted from the point of the hat. “I’ve reconsidered; this is the dumbest idea you have ever had,” muttered Pantros, his voice seething.
“Did you really want to tell some poor little girl that her clowns wouldn't be there for her birthday?” Bryan asked.
“No,” Pantros shrugged. “I always thought of you as the one who didn't care about other people feelings. I figured you would tell her. I’ve got to say, I liked you better when you didn't show your caring side.” Tugging the point of his hat over his shoulder, he wiggled the bell before his eyes. “At least this isn’t the dumbest thing we’ve done this year.” Pantros tried to sound sarcastic.
“Pummeling sailors is one thing,” Bryan said seriously. “Breaking children's hearts is just mean.”
“Ah,” Pantros rolled his eyes, but he nodded in agreement. “You sure you don’t want to just go get the gold and buy that sword?”
“Nah, the sword will still be there tomorrow,” Bryan spoke through one of those smiles that made Pantros believe they would somehow find more trouble than they could handle. “Besides, from the look of that crowd, I may not need to break your stash after my half cut tonight.”
“Let’s hope,” Pantros threatened lightly. “If it’s not then this silly stuff won’t have been worth it.”
Most days, the wind blew from the west across Ignea, keeping the fumes from the volcano away from the city. Every few years a freak weather pattern will bring the ash of the volcano down on the city. Anywhere in the city, there would be a buildup of ash along the corners and crevices; anywhere in the city but the neighborhood they stood in. Polished white marble streets wound between the large manses of Ignea's nobles. Supposedly, there were a hundred houses that jointly made up the city's ruling council but Pantros had never heard of them meeting. He occasionally heard of fighting between the guards of one house and a rival or the sailors who worked for a house start a nasty bar brawl with sailors from another house. A given block in this neighborhood would hold from one to four manses with walled grounds and guards patrolling the perimeters. The nobles, with their money and influence, lived in a different world than the dockside Pantros usually knew.
“I think this is it,” Bryan pointed to a brightly lit manse with gentle harp music drifting from the courtyard. A line of richly dressed nobles were queued by guards at the gate who checked the invitations. The guards wore puff-and-slash doublets in black and red. The guests wore gowns and doublets of their own houses colors. Each guest also wore a mask or carried a small mask on a stick. The masks were as ornate and colorful as the garb.
“Fine,” Pantros gave up protesting. “So, we are going to go in, and dance around and stick our tongues out?”
“I hadn't thought that far ahead,” Bryan admitted. “I guess people won’t laugh long at the outfits alone. Hey, don't blame me; you’re the brains. I just punch people.”
“Yeah, right,” Pantros sighed. Covering his face with both hands he let out a long slow breath. “This is what we are going to do: A mock sword fight. I'm sure we can make it silly.”
“Can't you just juggle and flop around?” Bryan asked. “Neither of us has a sword.”
“But we know how to use them,” Pantros mentioned. “We practice a few times a week with those old spits out behind the inn. Dale told me we are pretty amazing to watch. Making it a little silly shouldn't be hard. I can jump over some of your swings and bounce around you and make you look like an oafish ogre.”
“So I get to be the butt of the jokes?” Bryan looked at Pantros skeptically.
“This was your idea,” Pantros said. “And I never learned to juggle.”
“I bet they would like to watch us throw daggers back and forth,” Bryan suggested. It was something they did when they helped out with the dishes at the inn: throw breakables to each other, daring them to miss. It had evolved to sharp objects in the previous two years.
“We can do that,” Pantros agreed. “Okay, here's the show plan. We start by tossing stuff to each other through the crowd. Involve the audience, Sheillene, one of the regular bards at the inn, taught me that. We can even play keep away with some of their accessories, like ornamental walking sticks and large jewelry, but we have to give it all back. Then we can move on to food and finish with knives and then when we get to swords we can move into the mock fight. For that we should probably clear a space.”
“Yeah, got it,” Bryan said. “This might be fun.”
“I doubt it,” Pantros shook his head as he walked up to the guards.
The Guards sent them to a small area behind the manse where they waited with the other entertainers for the night. Six acrobats were practicing a standing human pyramid while an animal trainer was brushing the mane of heavily chained lion.
The table set for them to pick at looked lavish compared to what Pantros usually considered food. Various shellfish, sliced meat and cheeses were piled on platters. Pitchers of beer and at least three varieties of fruit juice were also available. Pantros did what any sixteen-year-old would do: he ate lots of everything. Bryan ate more.
After all the other entertainers had been out for their shows, Pantros and Bryan were summoned.
“One last thing before we start,” Pantros said. “Neither of us should speak.”
The host brought them to the front courtyard where magically glowing glass balls which hovered a few yards above had altered the glow to a very celebratory violet. An Abvi woman with golden blonde hair and dark ruby-like eyes sat in a chair at the center of a raised table. Gifts, some opened to reveal silken garments or semi-precious jewelry, covered the table.
“What are you waiting for?” the Abvi's voice glided across the table. “Show me something fun for my hundredth birthday.”
Pantros smiled and elbowed Bryan in the kidney. Reaching out, he grabbed the cap of a nearby servant and tossed it into the air. Bryan caught the felt cap and momentarily plopped it on top of his cap until the servant lunged after him. Given the difference in height, the lunge looked more like a hop and brought a chuckle from some members of the crowd. Just as the servant got close, Bryan flicked the hat to Pantros, who had moved into the crowd. They tossed the cap back and forth, playing keep away until the servant started to look frustrated. Pantros then plopped the cap on top of the nearest noble's head and gracefully whirled around the noble, ending up behind the noble and wearing the noble's cape. The noble laughed and reached for the cape but Pantros cartwheeled away, disappearing into the crowd.
A moment later a drink servant walked through the party wearing the noble's cape. Bryan had, meanwhile, procured an ornamental mirrored glass ball from the banquet table and was lobbing it from hand to hand. He stumbled and the orb went flying into the crowd where Pantros caught it and immediately tossed it back. Terse gasps told Pantros that crowd was on edge, watching the fragile glass fly above the flagstones of the courtyard. At one time Pantros nearly dropped it only to kick it back to Bryan just before it would have shattered on the stones. The ball was soon exchanged for whipped-icing filled pastries, which sent the nobles scurrying off to the edges, not wanting to get the delicious cream on their silk gowns. Bryan caught one toss of a pastry on the end of a decorative skewer, and the food tossing had progressed to sharp implements. The crowd was rapt as they tossed a carving knife and fork back and forth.
Bryan carefully edged near a pair of guards and as Pantros tossed the knife a last time, Bryan quickly drew one of the guards’ swords and knocked the airborne knife aside where it stuck into the leg of the banquet table. Bryan dropped the fork from his other hand onto the table and tossed the sword, end over end at Pantros. Pantros stepped aside, reaching out just to catch the hilt of the weapon as it flew by. He spun around to face his friend who had now drawn the other guard’s sword and was moving towards him rapidly. Pantros ran forward meeting the charge. They exchanged swings and parries for only a few seconds before Pantros rolled under a swing to come to his feet and smack Bryan's rear with the flat of the blade. He quickly parried Bryan's clumsy return shot as the larger man spun back to face his friend. Bryan threw a series of wide horizontal swings. Pantros ducked the first, jumped over the second, ducked the fourth then leapt into an airborne summersault over the fourth. Pantros retaliated with an overhead swing that Bryan caught at his hilt. Pantros pressed his blade down, but the larger man laughed and threw Pantros back, where he fell sprawled to the flagstones. Hopping to his feet, Pantros beckoned Bryan to come at him. Bryan charged wildly, sword high in the air. Pantros stepped aside at the last minute spinning his leg back and sweeping Bryan off his feet. Bryan flipped forward, rolling in the air, but landing on his rear. The audience broke into applause. Pantros helped Bryan to his feet then bowed along with his friend.
An Abvi in a black and red silk doublet stepped out of the crowd. “Well done,” The Abvi praised. “I have seen staged swordplay before and that was not the same.”
Bryan and Pantros looked at each other and shrugged.
“I mean, in plays and such when there is swordplay, each move is planned, the entire fight is a step by step reenactment,” the Abvi explained. “The way you moved was not choreographed. The way your eyes watched each other, you were looking for hints as to what would your opponent do next.”
“Well, this is our first time,” Bryan admitted.
“Indeed,” The Abvi nodded, looking impressed. “And I could also tell that the larger one is the better swordsman, though your show would outwardly imply otherwise. Where did you learn the art of swordplay?”
“My father taught me,” Bryan told the Abvi, “before mother left and he crawled into a barrel of rum.”
“Your father must have been very good when he was sober,” the Abvi commented.
“My father is Captain Aaron,” Bryan mentioned. “He is very good when he is drunk. When he is sober, he is the best.”
“I know him,” the Abvi said. “I am Lord Gliyn Dane, Lord of the House of Dane. He sailed for Uytlin, did he not?”
“Yes,” Bryan nodded.
“Captain Aaron Piratesbane,” Dane pondered. “He taught me a good bit about cutlass fighting. It was from him that I learned that sailors prefer a curved blade because it will cut through ropes easier. The curve forces a rope to run along the edge as the blade passes through, giving a cutting more than a chopping effect.”
“He told me that, too,” Bryan recalled. “I understand they work in a similar fashion against flesh.”
“I would like to see how good you really are.” Dane smiled. “Would you duel me? Just to first blood, and I will have an excellent healer nearby. The danger will be minimal.”
“I don't see why not,” Bryan agreed. “Is there a wager?”
Dane laughed. “No, no wager. I won't take the four silver coins you earned tonight.”
“You are that good?” Bryan asked.
Slipping a violet trimmed black glove onto his sword hand, the Abvi just smiled at Bryan. “Go into the front hall, to the right is my library there are several swords displayed on the walls. Pick one that you are most comfortable with and meet me out here.
Bryan nodded and walked into the manse, emerging a moment later with a huge seven-foot long greatsword over his shoulder. The blade was wide and heavy and made of polished steel and the hilt seemed made of silvery metal, which had a little too much luster. It looked like silver under the thinnest layer of glass.
“I should have guessed.” Dane chuckled as he drew his own sword from his hip. His was a slender Abvi bastard sword of dark steel but a highly polished golden hilt and pommel. “Begin when you are ready.”
“Okay.” Bryan swung his blade, forcing Dane to step back, but the Abvi lord quickly bounced forward again with a thrust towards Bryans chest. Bryan flipped the heavy blade around with one hand, knocking the thrust aside and riposted with a slash towards Dane's thigh. In seconds they were locked in a frenzy of slashes and parries, leaving a screaming constant ring of steel in the air. Periodically the blades would lock and Dane would throw himself back or be thrown by Bryan and they would charge each other and the ring would start again.
As everyone at the party clamored for a better view of the fight, Pantros resisted the urge to increase his collection of jewelry as the fight continued. Bryan had used his father’s name, which made them traceable if anything went missing.
“Blood, milord!” A servant who had been watching the combat shouted. “The giant bleeds!”
Bryan stepped back and looked down at his tunic. A small tear had appeared near his shoulder on the left side of his chest. The fabric near the tear showed a tiny trickle of blood. Bryan laughed.
“Well fought, son of Aaron.” Dane spoke between heavy breaths.
“Fun,” Bryan smiled, breathing just as heavily as they both collapsed to their knees in exhaustion. “My name is Bryan.”
“Well met, Bryan Aaronson,” Dane managed, “if you need better work than clowning around, I could use a good sword at my side.”
“Sure,” Bryan accepted the offer.
“Wait until you hear me out, my large friend,” Dane said. “I am going to Novarra and I need several skilled swords at my side. For reasons that I’d rather not discuss here, I need to travel by land. What I need are men stout enough to ensure that I survive the land journey.”
“No one has survived a land journey west for centuries,” Bryan countered. Pantros knew that at least a few people did, including his sister’s bard friend, but he also knew the roads were indeed dangerous.
“Does that mean that you are not accepting my offer?” Dane asked.
Pantros stumbled into the Inn of the Haughty Hedgehog, dressed as he had left four hours earlier. The jester’s costume lay in the street somewhere between Dane’s house and the dock district.
“What's wrong boy?” James inquired. “It’s not even midnight and you are home. How much did you take in that you are calling it in so early?
Pantros didn’t answer; instead he went straight up to his room. He locked the door and lay on his bed staring into the blackness above him. Bryan had taken the offer and would be leaving the next morning. His partner was gone, most likely soon to be dead. Pantros enjoyed adventure, but not the kind Bryan chose to face. From that moment forward, Pantros would be finding and facing his own trouble-alone.
CHAPTER 1: JULIVEL
In the immense city of Fork, there may be thousands of dark, seedy taverns. Julivel had arranged to meet his potential client in the darkest and seediest of those.
The velvet covered walls and plush cushioned chairs of Jesh’s Grotto gave a misleading air of sophistication to the place. Julivel rarely met anyone here. He always found himself tempted to kill the proprietor, Jesh, for the way he treated his women. The women were, at least in Jesh’s eyes, his.
Slavery was not legal in the city of Fork or anywhere else in the country of Relarch. Jesh just had the money to keep anyone from caring what went on in his establishment. One of the things that went on was customers getting charged far too much for mediocre wine. Julivel resisted the urge to slap the crystal goblet off the carved table onto the plush carpet. Such actions wouldn’t help him maintain his reputation as a professional. With his potential clients sitting across the table, and their having paid for the wine, Julivel just smiled and nodded.
Another activity that occurred, albeit rarely, in Jesh’s Grotto was the hiring of assassins. That activity is what brought Julivel there that night. He was the man being hired.
The two men hiring him were trying to make small talk. Julivel ignored the words and nodded when they paused. He took the time to size up his potential clients. Both looked older than he did, but he doubted they were older. They seemed in their mid forties. Both were human, no, Julivel corrected himself, both looked human. The one with dark hair and eyes moved with a degree of precision and grace that humans didn’t live long enough to attain. His skin tone was copper-like, but too even to be sun-colored. He wasn’t of a race of Human or Abvi that Julivel could distinguish.
The other had long blonde hair, starting to grey, and wore layers of robes under a black cloak. He wasn’t talking. He wasn’t wearing jewelry either, though he had holes for piercings in his ears and nose. He was hiding something under the thick layers of low-grade cotton and wool. His porcelain pale skin told of a man who rarely stepped into the sun at all. His expression was neither hardened nor broken, so Julivel ruled out the likelihood the man had spent any recent time in someone’s dungeons.
The man with the black hair was still going on about the physical attributes of one of Jesh’s women. Julivel knew the type. He was a noble, but not at the top of his local food chain. He was likely married in a political and loveless marriage. Whores would be his only outlet, due to their discretion.
Julivel slapped his hand on the table. “Shall we talk business, or are you working for Jesh, trying to sell his wares?”
The dark haired man nodded to his friend, who then produced a small crystal figurine and set it on the table.
“Do you know what this is?” The blonde man asked then said, “Look closely.”
Julivel leaned in and saw it was a statue of a nymph holding a crystal ball over her head. A bright blue light pulsed from the ball. Julivel couldn’t move.
“Now, that we have your attention,” The dark man said. “Here’s what you will be doing for us. You will travel to the island of Ollys and acquire the Nightstone that adorns the circular altar at the center of the city. You will then bring that gem to me in the port city of Ignea. I will be waiting for you at the Inn of the Haughty Hedgehog. Do you know it?”
Julivel wanted to deny it, but he nodded. He managed to swear, angry at himself for allowing the men to enchant him.
“Do not fret, you will be paid handsomely.” The dark man handed Julivel an iron key. “This is to the chest that sits under my chair. That chest is filled with gold coins. “The spell my servant cast on you will just ensure that you complete the mission to the best of your ability and if the tales are true, your abilities are the best.”
Stealing things was not what Julivel was best at. He didn’t feel the need to share the details with his clients.
“The spell allows for three rules,” The blonde man said. “These are the rules to which you are bound. First, you will fetch and deliver the stone within ninety days and at any cost, to Darien at the Haughty Hedgehog in Ignea.” He tilted his head towards his friend, indicating the dark haired man was Darien.
“Second, you will not harm either of us.” Julivel wondered if maybe they did know what it was he was best at.
“Third, you will not do anything which will impede your carrying out the first instruction.”
“We’re done then,” Darien asked the blonde man.
The blonde man gathered his cloak and robes about him and stood. “We’re done.” He walked out of the taproom.
Darien looked at Julivel then kicked something under his chair. Julivel heard the jingle of gold. “You’d better be worth it.” Darien then left the room as well.
Julivel hefted the chest onto the table and, using the key he’d been given, opened the lid. It was indeed filled with gold coins. Gold never impressed Julivel, but he knew its value. When folks were so rich that they no longer did, Julivel didn’t mind taking their money. A single gold coin could buy a good horse or rent a room at Jesh’s for a week, entertainment included. The chest probably had a thousand coins in it. He wasn’t surprised when Jesh slid up alongside his table. “The usual tonight, sir?” Jesh wasn’t looking at Julivel but at the chest.
Julivel glanced over by the hearth and saw the half dozen girls lounging, trying to look appealing but mostly looking tired, bored or both. Melissa and Gretchen sat together stroking each other while looking at him.
“Just Melissa tonight,” He told Jesh, pointing to the raven haired whore. “And have one of your men take this chest to my rooms as the Seven Gables.”
Julivel stood and gestured for Melissa to join him as he headed upstairs. He didn’t worry about the money. Jesh knew what he did for a living and wouldn’t be dumb enough to lighten the chest, nor would Jesh’s servant. The Seven Gables wouldn’t be where Julivel would store the chest, but it was far closer to his banker than Jesh’s Grotto.
Melissa always found ways to cheer him up, a surprising number of them without the need to disrobe. Her sense of humor was not one Julivel had encountered in anyone else. She was the perfect person to improve his mood. If he could just get Melissa to try to hire him to kill Jesh, the world would be a slightly better place, and it just might be enough to make up for allowing himself to be ensorcelled. But, his guild had rules and he couldn’t solicit a customer nor could he kill a man without a contract.
Between engagements, Julivel bent the rules a little and led into a conversation by asking Melissa if she could be anywhere, doing anything, what would it be.
It worked. She wistfully mentioned she sometimes wished she could be free of Jesh so she could see the parts of the world her clients talked about.
That was all Julivel wanted to hear. Unlike her owner, she didn’t know Julivel’s profession, but he took her wish for freedom as a request.
“Could you give me a penny?” Julivel asked, playfully.
She pulled a bronze coin from her pile of clothing and placed it in his hand. “This is unusual,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever paid a man to share my bed. What is the penny for?”
“Maybe it’s a way to make your dreams come true; maybe it’s just for a kiss,” Julivel said and pressed his lips to hers. The guild required there be payment for a contract; it just didn’t dictate any minimum amounts.
Much later, as he left the room, he whispered to Melissa’s ear. “Tomorrow, you will need to start coming up with new things to dream of.”
Pulling the dagger from his belt, he headed towards Jesh’s quarters. By late morning, he thought, he’d shorten the name of the place to J’s Grotto. As to what kind of place it would be or who would run it, those were thoughts for after he’d cleaned his blade.
The trip down the Evenflow River was not unpleasant except for the constant feeling of not wanting to be on the expedition to steal some gem for Darien. Julivel tried to imagine getting revenge but could think of nothing he could do to Darien. Any attempt to imagine slipping a knife into the man’s ribcage became a vision of pleasantly shaking the man’s hand.
Any thought of jumping off the barge was immediately replaced by the desire to lounge on the deck and take a nap.
He’d brought Melissa along, and she did a decent job of distracting him. It was the first time in years she’d been able to choose her company. He wasn’t paying her, but he also made sure she understood that he was not the type to keep a companion around for long. He expected to leave her on Ollys with enough coin to start a new life.
By the fourth day on the barge, Julivel had relented in his attempts to thwart whatever spell had been placed on him. He wanted control over his own actions again. To achieve that, he accepted that he’d have to get the gem to Darien, and never again look closely at an object at the behest of a stranger.
He spent the days teaching Melissa how to manipulate the nerves of the body. He taught her where to pinch or rub to relax someone, to relieve pain and what not to do if she didn’t want to kill or paralyze a person. She could make a living on Ollys, or wherever she chose to travel once they parted ways, offering a less intimate service. He hoped she understood those last few could also be used to defend herself. They weren’t among his preferred methods. A nerve hold took a bit longer than a knife blade. But, in his profession, it never hurt to have a large repertoire of methods.
In Everton he caught a merchant ship heading to Mansport on the Island of Ollys. The journey would take the better part of three weeks. Julivel bribed the first mate out of his quarters so that he could enjoy most of the journey in privacy. Melissa was not the only woman on the ship, but she was the most distracting. Distracted sailors tended to try stupid things.
Two weeks into the journey, the captain of the merchant ship invited Julivel into his quarters. As one of six passengers on the voyage, the captain had dined with him and the others each night, but this was the first time Julivel had been alone with the captain.
The captain stood by his dining table and offered Julivel a seat across the table. Julivel sat, casually pulling one foot up on his other knee.
“Thank you for accepting my invitation to an audience, Juli,” The captain said. He remained standing, leaving Julivel feeling awkward. It was likely an intentional ploy by the captain.
“Sure,” Julivel said, trying to maintain a casual calm to offset the formal dominant stance of the captain. “What did you need?”
“I have a crewman who says he’s met you and just remembered who you are,” The captain said.
Julivel had a reputation and a price on his head. He didn’t suspect, however, that the captain would be talking to his face if he were after the payout. “I made no effort to conceal my identity. My name alone is unique enough and I know my reputation is widespread.” The price on his head hadn’t changed in twenty years, but his reputation had kept all but two bounty hunters from trying to collect. What he’d done to those two only added to his reputation. “I don’t see how my identity would be problematic.”
Actually he could think of several ways knowing a wanted master assassin was on board could be problematic to the captain. But as much as he was a wanted criminal in more than one country, it seemed no one had a particular interest in trying to collect on the various bounties. Ironically, he hadn’t committed any of the murders he was wanted for. He’d never even been to two of the countries that had bounties posted for him.
“Neville is a bit unnerved at your presence,” The captain said. “He says he’s met you before, that someone hired you to kill him a couple years back over a gambling debt.”
“That is true, but if I were going to kill him, he’d be dead,” Julivel said. “I don’t have any current contracts open, so he’s safe.” Two years back, in Everton, a man who owed Neville a large sum of coin decided to take extreme measures to erase the debt. Julivel accepted the job and, in a way, gave the man what he wanted. The man would never pay his debt to Neville.
“Your guild has a reputation, once you take a contract you promise that someone will die,” The captain said.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Julivel asked. When, after a brief hesitation, the captain nodded, Julivel continued, “What you say is true, when we take a job, someone always dies. What we don’t publicize, for obvious reasons, is that sometimes the person who dies is the one that hired us-if we deem that person to be the only one, of he and the victim, deserving of death.” The only significant caveat of that guild rule was acknowledging that someone became deserving of death when they ordered the death of someone who was undeserving.
“I can see how you’d keep that aspect of your rule a secret,” The captain said. “I guess I now have to keep the secret or risk the wrath of the Assassin’s Guild.”
Julivel didn’t answer. That wasn’t a guild-mandated secret and the guild didn’t order the deaths of people who broke rules they didn’t agree to be subject to. The only people responsible for keeping to guild rules were guild members. To avoid a lie, which was always a good idea, Julivel simply said, “No one on this boat is in any danger from me.”
“I expected you would convince me,” The captain said. “But I need proof I can trust.” The captain walked to the cabin door and opened it to allow a young woman to enter. Julivel recognized the captain’s daughter. “Mischa’s mother was a gypsy queen, a master of fortune telling. Mischa has some of her mother’s gift.”
“This won’t work,” Julivel said. “Prognosticators cannot perceive my future.”
“Mischa will try.” The captain sat his daughter across the table from Julivel.
She placed her hands on the table palms up. “Place your hands in mine,” She said.
“This won’t work,” Julivel said, but put his hands in hers anyway.
She closed her eyes only to open them again and look at Julivel, clearly puzzled. “When were you born?”
“The last day of winter.” Julivel told her his birthday.
“What year?” she asked.
Tired of the nonsense, Julivel answered with the truth, “Next year.” The truth was complicated. “I know how fortune telling works. I also know that no man has a future until after he is born.”
Her hands tightened on his. “Sometimes I only need to read the past of a man to learn his future,” she said. “And you have a most complex past.”
Julivel pried his hands away. Reading his future was one thing, but there were things in his past he didn’t wish to share.
“You speak the truth, there is no danger to anyone on this ship,” Mischa said. “There are so many lies in your life, starting with your name. You are an odd mix of good and evil. I have never seen so much evil in a man. Your past leads to a far greater evil in your future. The truly odd part is that you have a good heart and a kind soul. Mister, you scare me more than any man I have ever met. I can advise you to some degree. You must not allow the demon Darien to possess that gem. He will bring death to many if you keep it from him, but he will bring death to all if you do not.”
When Mischa said demon, it sounded like she was calling the man something more than simply an onerous person. Darien’s being an actual demon meant Julivel had to put more thought into the puzzle.
CHAPTER 2: CHARLES
Charles climbed the path from the river to his master’s shop. Six buckets of water hung from the thick wooden pole across his shoulders. He muttered to himself about how foolish he’d been to start the day’s work without checking the cooling barrel to make sure the water was deep enough. He’d been an apprentice to the town’s blacksmith for as long as he could remember, checking the water was among the first things he was supposed to do each day.
If he hadn’t been in a rush to complete the project before the master arrived, he wouldn’t have forgotten. Maybe Segric would have allowed him to make the sword, maybe not. It wasn’t his first sword, just the first one he was making for himself.
When he stepped into the workshop, he immediately noticed Heather standing by the anvil. She held his unfinished blade in her hands.
“Isn’t that hot?” Charles asked. He’d left the blade on the anvil still glowing. It had taken him some time to get the water, adequate for the glow to fade, but not sufficient time for the metal to cool enough to touch.
Heather dropped the blade onto the anvil. She stammered for a moment before answering, “Well, yeah.”
Charles dropped the buckets and rushed to check on her hands. “Are you okay?” He could see no evidence of a burn on her hands. He reached for the blade to see how much it had cooled when Heather grabbed his wrist. “Don’t. It will burn you.”
“But,” Charles started to ask her why she was not burned, but she placed her finger over his lips and whispered, “What I’m going to tell you, you cannot repeat.”
“I’m a Wizard.” Heather said.
“There’s no such thing,” Charles said. “Fire magic was wiped out ages ago when the Wizards tried to destroy the Abvi Kingdom.”
“Both what you say and what I tell you are true.” She reached into the forge and pulled out a burning lump of coal. “Didn’t you ever wonder why my father and I, the only two Abvi in Blackstone, are so far from the Abvi Kingdom?” She tossed the coal back into the forge.
“Your father came to town to make sure the coal mining wasn’t damaging the local wilderness,” Charles said. “We all know the story. He runs the mine now because he has a couple centuries of experience with the mine.”
“We’re here because my magic is forbidden,” Heather said. “If the Abvi knew, they might have me killed. So I’ve lived here, as far from the major trade routes as my father could find among the civilized races, since just after I was born.”
Of the people Charles had met, only Heather’s father, who served the nature goddess as a Tempest, could use magic, though Charles had never thought of it as rare. The shop used magelights to illuminate the workspaces and several of the tools had been enchanted to not wear through use. Such was the work of the water college, the Mages. He only heard fantastic rumors of the abilities of fire magic, most of them horrific. “What can you do?” Charles asked. “I mean other than handle hot objects.”
Heather picked up the unfinished sword. “You still need to bevel the edge, maybe allow it to stretch another handbreadth or two?”
“Right,” Charles said.
Heather closed her eyes and the sword began to glow red and then brighter orange and then yellow. Charles stepped back, any hotter and the steel would burn, throwing sparks. She ran her hands over the length of the steel and the shape of the steel changed with her touch as if she were molding clay.
“Hand me another chunk of metal this size or bigger,” Heather said, holding out one hand and lowering the end of the sword to rest on the anvil.
Charles grabbed a bar of iron stock and placed it in Heather’s hand, careful to make sure she could hold the weight before releasing it. The iron glowed bright and hot after only a moment, but as it warmed, he could see the sword blade blacken. Heather held the sword out to him.
“This is cool enough to touch now,” She said and Charles took the sword from her. “It should be springy without being brittle. I can create heat, but cannot make it go away. I can only move it from one location to another.” She set the hot iron bar on the anvil. Charles bent the blade then let it bounce back to its shape. The temper was exactly where a sword blade should be. “You can manipulate the crystalline structure of the metal?”
“You should know that’s only a side-effect of the heat manipulation,” Heather said. “I can heat it to the point where I can shape it by touch, and I can control how and where the heat leaves the metal, as long as I have somewhere to put it. I’ve heard you talk enough about your blade-making to understand how it’s supposed to be inside.”
“Just, wow.” Charles said. “You can do in seconds what it’s taken me three years to learn.”
“I learned as you did,” Heather said. “I can also light candles. Now, is your work done for the morning? Are you up for a long walk in the woods and a picnic?”
He always had work to do, but none of it needed to be done before lunch. “Let me cool the coals,” Charles said. “I’ll meet you by the birches. Will you be bringing the food?”
“Who said anything about food?” Heather winked then giggled as she spun and walked with a sassy bounce from the workshop.
The afternoon clouds tried, with little success, to hide Amethyst, the huge violet moon. Charles lay on the blanket staring up, somewhere between bliss and unconsciousness. Heather lay beside him breathing deep. “I love our picnics,” she said.
“I should go back to the forge,” Charles said. “I am supposed to have a dozen cart hinges ready by tomorrow morning.”
“I could help,” Heather said.
“Master Segric will be there until sunset,” Charles said. “I’m sure it’s best for everyone to keep your secret a secret.”
“My father would not be pleased at all if he knew I told you,” Heather said. “I’m not sure he’d be any happier to learn of our frequent picnics.”
Charles heard the footsteps in the grass somewhere behind him. He glanced up to see his master and Heather’s father walking towards them. He jumped to his feet, quickly tightening his belt and then pulling his long blonde hair away from his face into a ponytail which he secured with a leather thong.
“Damnit!” muttered Heather. “This is not going to be pretty.”
“Charles,” his master called.
“Back to work?” Charles ventured.
“I think that would be best, Lord Feystal is not in the best of moods today,” Segric said, glancing at the Abvi by his side.
“Good luck,” Charles said to Heather as he threw on his tunic. He didn’t dare kiss her goodbye with her father standing there, silent but fuming. Charles just gathered his boots and headed back to town at Segric’s side. Before they made it back to town he could hear Heather and her father yelling at each other.
As he spent the afternoon filling the hinges order, the yelling continued off in the distance, coming from the Feystal house. After Segric left for the night, Charles pulled out the box under Segric’s workbench. The silvery hilt and crossguard in the box were the most beautiful pieces of metalwork Charles had ever seen. He’d asked Segric once if he could have them, to put them on a blade. Segric had laughed and said that when Charles made a blade he considered worthy of a master swordsmith, he could adorn it with the pieces from the box.
Charles had never been prouder of a blade, though Heather had helped some. Perhaps it was due to the collaboration he felt so good about it. After examining the crossguard, Charles took a file and made some adjustments to the shape of the tang and the base of the blade. He felt a rush of pride and accomplishment when he affixed the hilt, grip and a pommel onto his sword. It was just after midnight when he finished. The blade was double edged and long enough to reach from his hip to the ground. The handle was fit to one hand perfectly but could be held in two without having to grip the pommel. His master wouldn’t be able to deny the blade was worthy. He couldn’t focus entirely on the blade, though, the screaming between Heather and her father continued.
He stepped out into the yard and noticed dozens, if not hundreds of people stood down by the town square, all staring up towards the Feystal house. Heather did not need to stay with her father; she was well past entering adulthood at two hundred and fifty three years old. Charles could barely comprehend that much time. He’d just celebrated his twentieth birthday, though in actuality it was just a celebration of the third year since he’d been found lying by the river. He had no memories from before that.
After learning of Heather’s magic, Charles understood why Heather’s father was so protective. The argument, though incomprehensible, was not pleasant to listen to. It seemed to be getting louder.
A bright flash burst from Heather’s house; Charles felt a moment of pain and then felt nothing.
Charles stared up at the violet moon, the tiny white moon passed in front of it. There were no clouds in the sky, just Heather kneeling over him, looking down at him with tears pouring from her eyes and a smile on her face. The curls of her long auburn hair brushed against his nose. He reached up and grabbed her hand, “Are you okay?” he asked.
Her touch hurt his hand. It wasn’t her, but his hand that hurt. His entire body felt scalded, like he’d just stepped out of a boiling bath. He gritted his teeth to keep from groaning from the pain.
She chuckled with a sputter and a sniffle. “It’s funny, you asking me. A minute ago you weren’t breathing. Three minutes ago you were bleeding a river of blood.”
“I what?” Charles asked, climbing to his feet. As he did so he noticed the blood stains on the charred tatters that used to be his clothes. His skin was deep pink but fading back to the usual sun tinted color. The scalding feeling subsided. Then he noticed the world around him had changed. He stood in the middle of a charred depression several hundred paces across. “What in all the hells happened here?”
“I did.” Heather pulled herself against Charles’ chest. “I don’t know how, but when father and I were fighting, I just kept getting madder, then I got so mad it felt like everything inside me was going to explode outwards, and then it did. I think I understand why the Wizards were annihilated.”
“Where is everyone?”
“Gone,” Heather whimpered against his flesh. “I searched and searched, it took me two days to find you, and I never found more than a charred bone left of anyone else. I killed everyone. I think two dozen miners survived because they were at the mines. I told them I was off in the forest and that I didn’t know what happened. They set up a camp by the mines, but all of them lost their families. When I found you, you were dead. I don’t understand why you’re back or how you are healing so fast, but I’m glad to have you back.”
“Again,” Charles asked, confused, “I what?”
“I don’t know,” Heather said. “I just know I need to get rid of this magic. I am afraid I need to die to keep this from happening again.”
Charles wasn’t sure what happened or how, but he wasn’t going to let anything happen to Heather. “Your death would only add to the tragedy. If you think this was because of your anger, then we can keep that controlled. It took your father most of the day to get you so angry that you lost control. I now know better.”
He looked around; all he could see was the bowl shaped crater of charred soil. Everyone he knew was gone, except for Heather. He might know the surviving miners, but he was not close to them. Segric was the closest he had to family and it seemed he was gone. When he’d washed ashore on the riverbank three years earlier, Heather had found him, but only Segric, of the people in Blackstone, would take him in. He’d miss the blacksmith.
“At least your sword survived,” Heather said, pointing to the ground beside where he’d been lying. The blade was covered in blood and ash, but seemed to be undamaged.
He picked it up and looked for something with which to wipe it clean. Then he fully realized how little clothing he still wore.
“We left that blanket at our picnic spot,” Heather offered. “We could probably fashion it into some kind of kilt. I have that and some food up at the rim.”
“Right,” Charles led heather out of the crater and had to stop to take another deep breath when he saw the forest blown flat for miles around the crater. “Wow,” he said. “I guess the question is now where do we go?”
“I hadn’t thought of going anywhere,” Heather said. “I was thinking to stay as far away from people as I can. But then I found you and I’m a little conflicted. Do I go it alone, without you, or do I risk killing you again?”
“Though I don’t understand why, the killing me part doesn’t seem permanent. I think I’m safe around you,” Charles said. Noticing Heather’s supply of food consisted of a few pieces of fruit and a handful of blackberries, he then added, “Maybe we should find some fresh supplies before going taking on the role of hermit for the rest of our lives.”
CHAPTER 3: PANTROS
Pantros didn’t like anything about the meeting. Everything seemed slightly off. The older man with the black hair and fancily trimmed beard seemed familiar to Pantros, but he couldn’t place where he’d seen him before. Sitting in a taproom that wasn’t his sister’s made Pantros a little nervous as well. He didn’t like being hired for jobs. He knew his profession wasn’t a complete secret but his nightly activities were not common knowledge either, at least he hoped they weren’t.
“Would you like some wine?” the man sitting across the table offered, sliding a scuffed brass goblet across the table.
Pantros Phyreshade shook his head. “Drink dulls the reflexes and the wits. You didn’t send me that letter to get me drunk and I recall a very large sum of coin was promised.” The letter had been signed only with a ‘D’. Pantros didn’t ask what the ‘D’ stood for. As a rule, the less he knew about clients, the better.
“My father used to say exactly the same thing about drink,” the man said. “I’ll get right to business then.” He leaned across the table, sliding the wine aside. “I need something stolen.” He set a leather pouch the size of two fists on the table. The weight of the bag caused the table to shake, splashing a few drops of wine from the goblet onto the table.
Pantros glanced around, but only his potential client and he sat in the taproom that afternoon. Not even a barkeep or doorman could be seen or heard. The weight of the bag seemed right for the sum of coin that the letter mentioned. “Usually I get paid when I am finished with the job. You can pay me when I bring you whatever it is you want me to bring you.”
“I don’t want to see you again,” the man said, gazing away from Pantros. “I just want this item, a large gem, removed from a trader named Darien.”
Pantros nudged the sack of coin back towards the man. “I know the name. He’s a guest at The Haughty Hedgehog. I don’t steal from my sister’s Inn.” Darien had arrived the night before with four overly muscled large men and two under clothed women. “No one steals from my sister’s Inn. It’s one of the perks that allow her to charge premium rates.”
“I’ll triple the payment.” The man reached under the table and pulled out a lockbox and set it on the table. The table creaked from weight. “You’d never have to work again.”
“Thieves like me work for the challenge, the thrill of the accomplishment, not the money,” Pantros said. “I said no and I meant it. What item can be so important that you’re willing to part with so much money and yet you don’t even want it?”
The man reached into his shirt and pulled out a folded piece of black leather. He set it on the table and unfolded it. “This.” He said as he revealed a glowing red gem the size of a plum. The stone actually emitted a dull light.
Pantros admired the gem for a moment then looked the other man in the eyes, looking for reason. Had he just asked him to steal that?
“I can see your confusion,” the man said. “I’ll explain. In four hours I will meet Darien in the Hedgehog and give him this gem. Once I do, he will leave and a great evil will have transpired. He cannot be allowed to have this gem.”
Pantros stretched out his hand, placing fingers on either side of the gem. “But you’re going to give it to him? What if I just stole it now?”
“I’d hunt you down and kill you. I’d have to. Darien ensorcelled me to obtain this for him and I will do everything in my power to fulfill that requirement.”
“You’re that confident that you could kill me? I am a fair hand at swordplay and can throw knives better than anyone I know.” Pantros tilted his head to see if the man wore a sword. His potential client wore only a dagger, but it wasn’t a utilitarian knife, it was a weapon. Pantros had three throwing knives, one strapped to each arm and one under the back of his belt. He was too close to throw anything.
“You don’t know me. And you wouldn’t see it coming,” the man said, plainly.
Pantros could barely tell he’d just been threatened. “And if I just stole your gold?”
The man laughed. “Assuming you could carry half your weight in gold fast enough to get away, I’d let you live. I like you. The gold is yours, whether you take the job or not. But, I trust you to return my kindness and remove this gem from Darien’s possession before he leaves your sister’s Inn.”
“And I keep the gem and the gold?” Pantros asked, seeking verification. The man across the table scared him but seemed trustworthy. It was a combination Pantros couldn’t reconcile.
The man in blue spun the gem on the table and said, “Yes, the only vitally important detail is that Darien never possesses this. He can use this for more evil than you could imagine.”
“You’re so talented at killing, why don’t you just kill him?” Pantros asked.
“You are more inquisitive than I thought you’d be,” The man said. “My talent lies deeply in knowing my limits. Let’s just say I hired you because you can do it without being caught.”
“And how do I know that you won’t just kill me afterwards?” Pantros asked.
The man leaned over the table, uncomfortably close. “You look at me like I’m familiar, but this is, what, your seventeenth summer?”
Pantros nodded, resisting the urge to back away from the man’s face as the man continued, “We’ve never met, but, how should I put this. You don’t know me because I’m far older than you, of a far different generation. But, trust me, we are kin. We are both Phyreshades. I’m family. I won’t kill you.”
Pantros said, “You just said you would.”
“If you took the gem now, I wouldn’t have a choice, but I won’t because you won’t.” There was confidence in the man’s voice.
“If we are kin, tell me your name,” Pantros said. His mother and father were both Phyrshades, though of different grandparents. His parents were the last living Phyreshades before Tara was born, or so they’d told him.
“My name wouldn’t help. The one I use is not the one I was born with, but I will give you neither. You don’t need them and you don’t really want them. I’m almost sixteen hundred years old. I know it doesn’t look it, but I have some Abvi blood in me. My mother was from Melnith.” The man tightened his lips and sat back in his chair. “Ah, now you’ve got me telling you more than you need to know.”
Abvi didn’t frequent the city, but Pantros had seen several. They looked a little different than humans, but the man across the table had none of the Abvian traits such as pointed ears or glimmering eyes. Supposedly, they lived for thousands of years.
“Enough about me, and enough about you, Pantros. Time is growing short and I have a man to meet about a gem.” He folded the gem back into the black leather and tucked it into his shirt. “So do you.” The black haired man stood up and walked out the front door of the tavern, leaving Pantros with a chest of gold.
There was something guarded about the way the black haired man talked. Pantros could tell there were things about Darien and about the gem the man wasn’t telling him, and wouldn’t tell him. Still, Pantros was going to take the money and at least contemplate the job. If it would be easy, if he could do it without his sister finding out, he’d do it. He might not trust the black haired man, but the black haired man trusted him.
Carrying so much gold even the few blocks back to his sister’s inn exhausted Pantros. The lockbox was conspicuous, forcing him to take a longer route down alleys and through a rope weaver's storehouse, but he made it home to his sister’s inn unseen.
He entered through the cellar door and set the lockbox on the floor. He then moved two barrels away from the wall. Half way up the wall was a stone the size of a man’s torso. Only it was thinner than a man’s finger. Pantros removed that stone and set it gently on the floor. His new chest barely fit inside his stash with six other chests of similar size. He replaced the stone and the barrels and exited the way he came in.
He wondered if he had enough gold to build his castle. He didn’t know much about buying or building castles, but he knew he wanted one. He was pretty sure, with three other stashes in the inn and another few scattered around the city, that he had more gold than any other man in Ignea.
Walking around the block, Pantros returned to his sister’s inn from the front. The sign above the door was brightly painted and showed a porcupine standing on its hind legs wearing a fancy doublet and drinking from a mug. It seemed like it had been years since he had seen the front of the Inn in daylight.
The taproom of the Haughty Hedgehog was packed with people. Pantros only saw the inn so full when a particular bard passed through town. Sure enough, the crowd hushed and he heard the strum of fingers across a lute. He had to stand on his tip-toes to see over the crowd, but Sheillene was sitting on the Hedgehog’s tiny stage playing a song. Pantros looked for the large guards Darien had with him and spotted them standing around the corner booth. Darien and the black haired man sat at the table. Pantros wiggled through the crowd to get a closer look and barely managed to catch a glimpse of the folded black leather being passed across the table.
The next booth over was occupied by four women who came to the taproom often. They were friends of the cook. Pantros invited himself to sit with them. They were intently focused on the bard and barely glanced at Pantros.
Darien opened the leather briefly and glanced inside. A smile came to the gem merchant’s lips as he folded the leather again and placed it into crude but heavy iron chest on the seat beside him. Pantros sighed when he noticed the lock, or lack thereof. A sigil crossed the lid and the chest. The lock would be magical. That was something Pantros was unprepared to deal with. Who would put expensive magic on such a crudely welded chest? Possibly the magician who’d enchanted it had built it himself. Certainly no craftsman’s hand was involved. Even the hinge pins showed slipped hammer strikes in their dimpled iron heads. Seeing his plan become possibility, Pantros simply waited.
CHAPTER 4: DARIEN
Darien, ecstatic at having the Key in his possession patronizingly thanked Julivel for the service. But he didn’t trust the man not to wait in ambush, so Darien left the table first. The largest of his guards carried the chest. As they pushed their way through the crowd, some idiot dropped a purse of coins. The chaos of people diving to the floor in hopes for a spare silver did not hamper his guards; they simply shoved everyone in their path aside. The doorman threatened them as they stepped into the street, but Darien just laughed at the mortal. He led his guards around the corner into the alley.
He pulled the portal parchment from his shirt and unrolled it, revealing complex sigils around a large black circle. He set the box containing the gem into the circle. Once the box was safely back in Demia, Darien burned the scroll.
He and his guards then ceased their projection into the mortal realms. The clothing the demons been wearing fell to the street as the demons faded out of the world. In the blink of an eye Darien was standing beside the box in his chambers in Demia. He donned his best robes then gestured for one of his guards to pick the box up and headed out into the hallway.
Arriving in his lord’s throne room, Darien and his cohorts shifted back into their natural forms. For his guards, it meant their horns, tails and wings appeared. For Darien his skin color shifted to the color of damp coal. He turned and bowed before the demon on the throne, his master, Lord Murdread.
With a deep resonant growl, Lord Murdread asked, “You brought the Key?”
“I did.” Darien gestured for the guard carrying the chest to step forward. Darien approached and touched the symbols on the lock, releasing the latch. When he lifted the lid, it fell to the floor; the hinge pins had been removed. Panic overcame him as he realized the chest was empty. Darien dared not turn and face his Lord with the bad news.
“I sense failure,” Murdread said, standing from his throne. “Where is the Key?” He took a great flaming sword from behind the throne and strode slowly towards Darien. “Shall I send you back to the spawning pits so you can spend the next dozen centuries regaining your rank?”
Darien fell to the floor and groveled. “I made the mistake of entrusting a lesser demon to bear the stone. I deserve any punishment my lord would inflict upon me.”
Murdread raised his fiery blade and cut, not at Darien, but at the guard holding the box. The guard managed to raise the iron chest to meet Lord Murdread’s assault, but the blade passed through the chest as if it were made of paper and continued straight through the guard, cutting it from shoulder to hip. The guard would respawn as a rankless demon in the pits, but it would no longer be part of Murdread's household.
Darien cowered, “Please, my lord, I had an alternate plan in case this one failed.”
Resting his sword on his shoulder, Murdread simply looked at Darien.
Quickly inventing a plan, Darien sputtered words, hoping to pull a remnant of a plan from them, “The Vulak, we can get to them, use them. We can steer the gem into the hands of one of our powerful mortal followers.”
“You cannot project yourself to that mortal realm again for two of three parts of a millennia.” Murdread stepped back towards his throne and fell into it, shaking the hall. “How will you communicate to the Vulak? I only trusted you to project because you are my most intelligent underling. I know of none else who can deal with mortals effectively.”
“Vulak are a simple race,” Darien said. “I can send an imp and they will be impressed enough to follow a simple order. But I have to get the gem out of the city. I have a plan for that as well. I cannot project myself to the mortal realm, but I cannot refuse a proper summons by a powerful magician. This is only a setback. We know where the gem is. If we can’t get it into a powerful ally’s hands, we can at least get it out of the protections of a city.”
“I am only allowing you to exist after this failure because you are my most powerful underling, but I will not hesitate to demote you all the way back to the pits if you fail me again.” Murdread then laughed. “Demons of your rank do not always survive such loss in rank.”
“My plan is flawless,” Darien said. He crawled to his feet then bowed. He turned to his remaining guards and said, “Clean up this mess. Find Kirvel and send him to my office.” He left the room as quickly as he could without running, afraid to gaze again upon his master’s wrath.
His plan had been flawless. He’d hired the most reputable mortal among those who earned their living in the shadows, and he’d ensorcelled him to make sure the key was not only found and stolen, but delivered. The inn he’d chosen for the exchange was noted as the safest place from thieves and he hadn’t taken his eyes off Julivel. If he ever encountered that mortal again, he swore to make the suffering last weeks. Darien smiled at the thoughts of how he would punish the betraying rogue. If he couldn’t torture the mortal, someday Julivel would die, and his soul would come to Demia and Darien would claim it and torture it forever.
He stepped into the hall towards his quarters and bumped into another demon. “Watch where I’m going you…” Darien recognized whom he’d bumped into before he could add an insult. Lady Glacia, a rival lord to Murdread, blocked the hall. Darien dropped to the floor, and spouted as many apologies as he could. He knew he should be confronting her, asking her what she was doing in Murdread’s fortress, but she was one of the Hundred, the most powerful lords in Demia. He’d seen her freeze a demon solid and chip pieces away and didn’t want to find out what that felt like.
“Get up, Darien,” Glacia said.
Her voice was like a purr to Darien’s ears almost as pleasing to hear as her body was to admire, but Darien didn’t dare look below her neck when she could notice. He stood slowly and stepped away from the demoness. Finding a spot on the wall to study, Darien said, “Milady, what brings you here.”
“I’m merely trying to offer my help.” She leaned her black scaled wings against the wall and stretched her bare coppery arms over her head. “I know what you’re after and I have some hounds and a houndskeeper who are available to project to the mortal realm you just came from.”
“You mean to take the gem for yourself,” Darien said, daring to accuse the Lady Glacia.
“No, I have no interest in a mortal world. I already possess the best property in all of Demia, but to get Murdread off this little plot would give me a prime staging ground if I ever choose to challenge Osiris for the Crown. That’s something far beyond Murdread’s aspirations and the Mortal world is far below mine.”
“I see.” Darien nodded. Her plan made sense. “But why talk to me and not my lord? Surely the best alliance is between lords.”
“Murdread, unlike you, is an idiot. You understand how my help is beneficial to both of us. Murdread would never get beyond his suspicion that I’m after what he’s after. So, I work with you and Murdread never needs to know.”
“Can I think about it?”
“No.” Glacia stepped away from the wall and turned her back to Darien and started walking. “If you don’t want my help, I don’t want to waste my time selling it.”
Darien watched her take a few steps before chasing after her. “I agree to your plan. Let’s send your hounds.”
Without looking back towards Darien, Glacia said, “Running makes you look weak, desperate.” She then stopped and turned, stopping Darien at the end of her ice crystal staff. She caught his gaze with her golden eyes, “I’ll send the hounds, for my reasons, I am not your friend or your ally in this.”
“I understand. I don’t care as long as my goals are reached.” Darien tried to seem aloof, but his eyes kept darting to the dangerous end of her staff which threatened him less than a handbreadth from his chin.
In a deep, quiet moan, Glacia said, “Remember this is our secret.” She winked and spun. Her tail swayed gently as she walked away. Then it suddenly snapped like a whip. “Your eyes have no business down there, underling,” her voice sang teasingly.
Darien tried to lift his gaze away. Some assets of a Lord were infinitely beyond even his high rank.
CHAPTER 5: PANTROS
Pantros drank alone at the end of the bar. The mug in front of him contained only water, but he wondered if perhaps this were a day for wine. The lunch crowd had come and gone and his sister, Tara, sat at the other end of the bar counting the till.
“How’d we do? “ Dale, the cook, asked as he stepped out from the kitchen.
“You’ll get paid,” Tara said, “We pull a profit, always just enough to get by. But, what more do we need?”
“True,” Dale said, filling a mug with beer from a cask behind the bar. When Tara raised an eyebrow at him he explained, “This stuff the Goldenwind clan brings in makes a strong tasting beer bread.” He took a sip then headed back to the kitchen.
Pantros knew that Dale wasn’t making beer bread but so did Tara. What Tara didn’t know was that Pantros slipped a few coins into the till most days to make sure the inn stayed profitable. His reason for wanting the wine wasn’t to celebrate his wealth, but to drown his indecision over whether or not to tell Tara about it.
James and Bouncer, the doormen, stepped into the Inn. It was still a little early for their shift, but the beer wasn’t the only benefit of working at the Hedgehog. Any soup that didn’t get finished off by the lunch crowd got finished off by the doormen. Bouncer filled a mug with water and took the seat next to Pantros.
James hobbled over and filled a mug with whiskey before joining Pantros and Bouncer at the end of the bar. Pantros held back a chuckle when the two doormen tried to slyly switch mugs. The Matderi, as a race, valued their masculinity, and James couldn’t be seen as weak by drinking only water. But even with an ancient scarred war hammer as a crutch, whiskey would hamper James’ balance. Bouncer, having muscles the size of Pantros, could nurse a whole mug of whiskey over the course of a night and never be affected by it.
Tara waved at them. “I’ll go tell Dale to send out the rest of the soup and see if we need anything before the dinner crowd shows up.” She disappeared into the kitchen.
With a gentle nudge, Bouncer asked Pantros, “What was that all about last night?”
“What do you mean?” Pantros exaggerated his innocent face. He never thought for a second that he’d fool Bouncer.
“You took something from someone and had that someone not been so rude, I’d have called you on it last night.”
James thumped his mug onto the bar. “And you were sloppy. Well, not that I actually saw you take anything, but coins in a crowd? That could have gotten very dangerous.”
“I didn’t do anything.” Pantros knew they knew, but admitting guilt never came to anything good.
Bouncer sighed and shook his head. “I’d hate to be the one to tell Tara you broke the rules of the house. I know you’ve had it rough since your buddy left, and it seems like you take it harder every day. I hear about people losing things. Rich, dangerous people lose valuable things from places that things don’t normally get lost from. Like the safe of a certain Pirate Prince.”
Pantros smiled. That had been a tough burglary, but the money had been more than worth it. Maybe Pantros had been taking bigger risks since Bryan left.
Placing a hand on Pantros’ shoulder, Bouncer continued. “I am off topic now, but the point is that by taking it to the point where you are stealing in the one place you swore never to steal from, you’re going too far.”
James leaned in and asked, “So, was it your missing friend or a large reward that caused you to ply your skills where you oughtn’t.”
“I’m not admitting to anything,” Pantros said, reaching into a concealed pocket under his armpit. “Let’s just say that someone hired someone else for a specific item to be removed from a certain rude gem merchant. And that hired talent was not only paid, but got to keep the gem as well.” He set the stone on the table.
“Pretty,” said Bouncer.
“By the Gods,” muttered James. “I know what that is.”
“It’s a big ruby,” Pantros said. “Or maybe a sapphire. It changes color sometimes.”
“No, lad,” James said, hobbling closer to the gem. “That is…” He stopped talking when Tara screamed from the kitchen. The door to the kitchen flew open and Tara and Dale rushed out into the taproom. “What’s wrong?” James asked.
A creature resembling a hairless wolf as tall at the shoulders as a man bound into the room, tearing the kitchen door from the hinges. It turned away from where Tara and Dale cowered and charged towards the three men at the end of the bar.
Pantros grabbed the gem and slipped it back into its pocket. “Run,” he shouted and dove over the bar and sprinted to the stairs.
James hopped off his barstool and leaned against it, raising his war hammer over his head while Bouncer ran over to Tara and Dale, placing himself between them and the beast.
The beast’s claws tore into the wood floor as it spun and followed Pantros towards the stairs.
“Run, Pan!” Tara yelled.
Pantros didn’t want to take the beast up to the guest rooms, so he stopped and leapt from the stairs, passing over the creature. The beast rose up and swatted Pantros from the air, tearing his shirt from his body and throwing him into the bar.
Bouncer dove at the beast wrapping his arms around the creature’s ribs. They rolled together across the floor to land at James’ feet. With a single swing of his hammer, James crushed the creature’s skull and the beast fell limp. A blue flame engulfed the creature's body. Bouncer jumped off before the flames could burn him.
By the time Pantros got to his feet and stepped over to join Bouncer and James, the beast was gone, without even a scorch mark on the floor. He was about to ask what it was when James said, “I hate fighting demons. No one ever believes the tales and there are no trophies to prove your valor.”
“That was a demon?” Pantros asked.
“It was a hellhound,” James hobbled back to the bar and took a deep drink from Bouncer’s mug of whiskey. “Son, you’ve got enemies in low places.”
“The man who hired me, he said to make sure that Darien didn’t get to keep the gem. Darien’s probably the one who sent this thing.”
“Yes, the beast was after the gem,” Bouncer said. Picking Pantros’ shirt up from the floor, He dug the gem out of its pocket. “It grabbed at the gem, taking Pantros’ shirt in the process.”
“It didn’t even scratch the boy with those claws.” James waved his hammer at Pantros’ bare chest. “Demons are wily and very strong and quick. If it had been out for blood, one of us would be dead.”
“Where did that gem come from?” Tara asked, taking the stone from Bouncer’s hand, she stepped up close to her brother. “Pan, I thought you said you were just into petty theft, little things, silver coins and the like.”
Pantros dropped his gaze to the floor. “I took a job to take this gem, it seemed to pay well. No one said anything about demons being after the gem though.”
“Demons would be after that,” James said. “Like I said, I know what it is.”
Pantros, with everyone else turned to look at James. The Matderi climbed onto a barstool and said, “In Grabarden, where I grew up we have this big magical gate that we don’t use. It takes keys and each key opens to another magic gate somewhere else. We don’t use it because we lost all our keys, but when I was a young, I saw the key to Melnith. It was a white stone of the same cut as the gem you hold.
“There were other keys, each to a different city, and some to cities across the oceans. But there were tales of keys that would open gates to places not of this world. There was supposed to be a diamond to open a door straight to paradise and a nightstone that opened a door straight to hell.”
“This is a nightstone?” Pantros asked, taking the gem from his sister and looking at it closely.
“That is a nightstone. It's a ruby that formed in a natural convex of magical energies. It's a never-ending source of power. By itself, just by its size, a nightstone like that would be worth the whole city of Grabarden. And there are whole buildings of solid gold in that city. But because it’s a key to hell, it’s worth far more than that.”
“I could sell it and be rich?”
“You’d damn us all. The demons know of it and want it. I don’t know what a direct door to hell would do for them, but I have to think it would be bad for us. All of us. Every living thing on Mealth.”
“What do I do with it then?” Pantros asked. “I don’t want to keep it if it’s just going to mean I have to fight off demons every day for the rest of my life.”
James upended his flagon and drained the last of his drink. “The Archmage of Vehlos is the Keeper of the Keys. It was in his possession that I saw the key to Melnith. He brought it down so we could open the gate for a very large shipment of ore. He’d be the one to take it and keep it safe. He’s powerful enough to defend against any demons.”
Pantros folded the gem back into its pouch and tucked it into the pocket inside his shirt. “Vehlos is far. Six weeks by boat, longer if we walk.”
“You’re going to want to walk,” James said. “Demons can pop up anywhere and after a couple pop up at sea, the captain will throw whatever is causing them overboard. That would be you.”
“You talk like you’re not coming with me?” Pantros had hoped the Matderi, who seemed too familiar with the gem and its meaning, would accompany him.
“Boy, I’m lame.” James tapped his bad leg with the shaft of his hammer. “I don’t walk anywhere. Maybe Bouncer will accompany you if you think you need muscle.”
Pantros’ sister Tara objected loudly. “No,” she said. “I need Bouncer here. With me and Pantros gone, I’ll need all my loyal help to remain here.”
“Sis,” Pantros said, “It’s better for you to stay too. It’s not going to be safe. Especially if we leave James and Bouncer here.”
Tara put a hand on Pantros shoulder and patted. “If it were going to be safe, I’d not have to go. You’re my ward, my brother. Until you see your twentieth summer, you are still a boy. I saw the hellhound. I know what danger is going to be out there. If we go by foot, we not only have demons to deal with but we have to go through some untamed lands like the Wyldes. There could be giants, trolls, Vulak and maybe even a dragon.”
Pantros let out a derisive snort at his sister’s mention of dragons. Dragons didn’t bother people unless provoked and he hadn’t heard of any in the Wyldes.
Tara poked his arm. “Don’t laugh. Sheillene travels by foot between Fork and here. She tells of her battles on the road.”
Pantros knew the stories. Sheillene travelled across the continent and spent a day or two at the hedgehog twice a year. She told the same stories for as long as Pantros could remember. In more than ten years of travelling through the Wyldes, Sheillene had only four tales of personal experience with Giants or Vulak and none with trolls.
“Isn’t she still here?” Pantros asked.
“She left a short while ago,” Tara said. “We should follow in her footsteps. With any luck, we’ll catch her during her stay at the Backwards Trout in Stonewall. If her tales are true, she’ll be all the escort we need.”
“You think she’ll drop her income as bard to offer us a hand?” Pantros asked.
“You’re going to pay her more than she’d make on the stage for whatever time we need her as a guard.” Tara said.
“Me?” Pantros asked. “What makes you think I have money?”
Tara rolled her eyes. “You really think I can run an Inn and not notice that I have more coin in the till than I could have made by selling every bowl of soup dale cooks and every mug of beer behind the bar? I know where the money comes from. I don’t mind the extra coin, but we’ve never needed it. I do know how to run an Inn. It’s just not good business to let everyone know exactly how well we are doing. I have a little stash of all the extra money you’ve given to the till, but it’s tiny compared to yours. I found two stashes of coins and jewelry so far and I’m sure you have more around here.”
Pantros had four. Other than the one in the basement, there was a sack stowed behind the ovens, the third stair leading up from the taproom was hollowed and filled with silver and gold, and he had several sacks of jewelry under the floorboards of his room. “Which ones did you find?”
“There’s more than one?” Tara asked. “I lied. I only found the one behind the ovens, but I’ve never seen so much wealth. You have more than that? At least two more if you thought I knew of two and weren’t sure which ones I found.”
“Damnit,” Pantros said. “I don’t care about the money. I do have a lot of money. But life in this pirate pit of a town is terribly boring for someone who is not into drinking and fighting as primary forms of entertainment.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m glad you stayed. You could have run off with Bryan last year.”
“And leave you alone here?” Pantros asked. “You’d worry too much. Bryan makes things interesting, but he likes his fun a little more dangerous than I do.”
“You steal from people who would kill you if they found out,” Tara said.
“I’m good and I plan everything carefully. If I can’t figure out a way to take something without significant risk, I don’t take it.”
“Fine, Pan. But we need to go.” She looked over at Bouncer. “I assume you caught all the details of what’s happening?”
Bouncer nodded. “Dale’s in charge while you’re gone. There’s extra money behind the ovens.”
“Good.” Tara said then grabbed Pantros by the shoulders. “Go get whatever money you can carry easily, we’re leaving now.”
Pantros ran upstairs and grabbed a heavy leather satchel and filled it with handfuls of coins and jewelry.
As he came down the stairs to the taproom, James was sitting at a table with a long ornate box sitting on it. Tara sat at his side. “Come here, boy,” James said, gesturing to a seat across the table.
“What’s this?” Pantros asked.
James slid the box closer to Pantros as he sat down. “It’s a sword and it’s yours.” James opened the box to reveal a sheathed rapier with a polished silver bell. “My father was an axesmith and occasionally did trade with the Abvi. This here is Abvi made, not quite as good as Matderi made, but far better than you’ll find in this town or anywhere for a hundred leagues.”
“It’s beautiful,” Pantros said. He reached for the hilt. James hand closed over Pateros’s wrist.
“Hold up there,” James said. “This here is not even a normal Abvi sword. It’s got, um…I’m not sure how to say this…”
“Is it cursed?” Pantros asked, pulling his hand away.
“No, that’s not what I’d call it, but perhaps some would.” James reached into the box and gently lifted the sword by the scabbard. He seemed to carefully avoid touching the hilt or bell. “I don’t know what you know of Abvi, but when they die, they don’t really die. They transcend this world, taking their bodies with them. But that only works for Abvi that live out their full lives. When one dies early, they actually die and their souls wither and fade unless something is done to preserve it. One way to preserve it is to contain the soul in a magnificent work of art. This sword is such a work of art.”
“You’re saying the sword is possessed?” Pantros asked. He was not so eager to take the blade and set his hands on the table.
James nodded. “The sword is alive. It’s not able to fight on its own, but it can offer advice. I’ve never spoken to it, but it’s supposed to be the soul of a veteran warrior killed in battle. It’s dormant right now, asleep. It will wake up when drawn and it will bond to whoever pulls it from the scabbard.
“I don’t think I want to draw it if it’s sentient. I can’t take on another responsibility right now.” Pantros said.
“The thing is that I’ve had this sword for two centuries and my father for a few before that. We’ve never really felt right with the idea of selling it. But it needs to be drawn and have the opportunity to complete its life journey. Ideally, some day the soul will complete and it will transcend as it was meant to in life. If you’re not going to draw it, at least take it with you and give it to a worthy Abvi in Melnith. I will say that it’s one fine weapon and would not have any difficulty penetrating the thick hide of those hellhounds.
Pantros thought about it a moment. “I can take it with me to Melnith. I hope I don’t have to draw it on the way.”
Tara spoke for the first time since Pantros had sat at the table, “I hope so too. I’m sure you think you’re good with weapons, Pan, but the best way to avoid getting hurt in a fight is not to get in one.”
Pantros stood and took the rapier, and emulating James’ care not to touch the hilt or bell, he buckled it onto his belt. “C’mon, sis. We need to get going.”
Tara stood up and glanced around the empty room. “I know.”
CHAPTER 6: CHARLES
The village of Dragon’s Tear was little more than a large inn on the western shore of Dragon’s Tear Lake. The trail up to the inn had taken Charles and Heather three hours to climb. During that time they were passed by several carriages. When they arrived at the inn, Charles wondered if the climb had been in vain. By the look, the inn catered to the extremely wealthy and with only his sword and a blanket, Charles had no wealth.
Heather had only an ill fitting dress which she’d taken from the mining camp since her explosion had destroyed her own.
“The road stops here,” Heather said. “I’ve never heard of an Inn as a destination, just stops along the way to somewhere else.”
“I’m not sure this is the place to seek food we don’t have to forage,” Charles said. “I don’t think they’d let us in the front door.” From a distance the inn had looked large but modest; up close Charles could see the extremely detailed carvings in the trim surrounding every opening on the building.
“You’re probably right about that,” A woman’s voice said, approaching them from one of the few small houses of the village. The woman wore an apron and had several utensils hanging from its straps. “The menu in the Inn of the Dragon’s Breath is usually simple but the prices start at several silver coins. By the looks of you, you haven’t had a decent meal in a week, and your wardrobe is worse off than you.”
“Would you believe we were attacked by a dragon?” Heather asked.
“Just by your appearance, I would,” the woman answered. “But dragons aren’t stupid. They wouldn’t attack a man carrying a sword. There’s not enough meat on a man to make it worth the risk. Cows on the other hand are plenty of meat without much risk of being run through. This is one of the few places south of the great range where dragons can be found, but I’ve never heard of one attacking a person.”
Charles stepped up to the woman and offered his hand in greeting. “We’re from a little mining town up north, Blackstone. There was an explosion and most of the town was destroyed. My name is Charles and this is Heather.”
“I’m Amanda,” the woman said. “I do all the cooking at the inn. I might be able to get you a meal or two, but I’d feel better about it if you could offer something in return.”
“We’re blacksmiths,” Charles said. “If you have need of that kind of work, we could offer a trade.”
Amanda pointed to a building at the edge of town with a trail of black smoke pouring from the chimney. “We have a blacksmith, a young lad who just became a master, not much older than you. But I do have smithy work if you’re the right kind of iron worker.”
“What kind would that be?” Charles asked. “Iron is iron, heat it, hammer it, and cool it. We can make just about anything if we could borrow your smith’s tools and shop.”
“Gus’s is good at making things do exactly what they’re supposed to do,” Amanda said. “He has no sense for the aesthetic. I need a couple iron dragons to hang by the front door; they should look like they’re breathing fire. I keep asking Gus, but he’s not giving the job any priority since he can’t understand the purpose of them.”
“Sure we could do that,” Charles said. “Are you looking for cast or wrought iron?”
“Wrought,” Amanda said. “I just think it would look better from a distance. They should be this tall each.” She held her hand out at her shoulder level.
“Should we head to the forge then?” Heather asked.
“Let’s get you some food first,” Amanda said. “Follow me around to the side door.” As she started to walk, she added, “Occasionally guests leave some things behind. I’ll have to go through that stuff and see if there are any clothes that would fit you two.”
After a lunch of bread and some kind of lettuce that grew in the shallows of the lake, Charles and Heather headed to the blacksmith shop. Amanda had given them clothing that might have been some nobles’ hunting attire. The green and gray materials were soft leathers and heavy, layered, linen.
“I don’t think I could get used to wearing such tight pants,” Heather said. “We might have to venture into civilization to get some proper clothes in proper colors. I like the green, but the gray and brown are not pleasing.”
“I’m just happy to not be wearing a blanket,” Charles said.
Gus’s shop was small and tidy with piles of iron sitting behind it in a small open barn. A young man was drawing something at a desk on the opposite side of the workshop from the forge. Charles guessed it would be Gus and called out the name.
“Yes?” The man answered, setting his charcoal down. He walked over to Charles and Heather. “I’m the inn’s smith, any work you need should be requested through the barkeep, stable boy or innkeeper.”
Gus wore a red leather apron over a sooty white shirt and canvas pants. He had a lithe frame like a man who hadn’t yet reached twenty. Charles, though only twenty, had a thicker body. Perhaps Gus spent more time planning and less time swinging the hammer, Charles reasoned.
“Amanda sent us over to help you get those decorative dragons done,” Heather said.
Gus looked at Charles and nodded, “You look like a blacksmith. As long as you know what you’re doing and stay out of my way when I need to be at the anvil, have at it. The iron’s out back. I only use iron from the Red Clans, so don’t waste it.” Gus appraised them again, then, without another word, went back to his desk and picked up his charcoal.
“What did he mean that you look like a blacksmith?” Heather asked as they walked around back to pick out some iron from the barn. “You look like Charles to me.”
Charles pointed to the back of his wrist. “Strong muscles here mean that I’m either a blacksmith or a carpenter. He pointed to a different part of his hand, here would mean I’m a swordsman.”
“I guess the muscular shoulders don’t hurt,” Heather said. “Only Gus isn’t as muscular as you, I wouldn’t have noticed the same muscles on him.”
“Maybe maintaining an inn takes less smithy work than maintaining a coal mine.” Charles ventured.
Gus had a few long rods of iron among his stock so Charles picked half a dozen of them and headed back inside. The coals were barely warm, so he stirred them up and started pumping the bellows. He showed Heather how to pull the rope quick enough to speed the heating but not so fast as to burn away the coal closest to the bellows. He didn’t need to explain the whys to her; he’d done that several times in the past.
While the forge heated up, he stepped over to a rack of tools and looked for the right tongs, hammers and cutting chisels. A thick layer of dust covered the tool rack as he leaned over to blow the dust off, he paused.
“Heather, come here,” he said.
She left the bellows and stepped beside him. “What?”
“The tools,” Charles said. “Look.”
“Gus needs a maid,” Heather said.
“It’s not about what he needs,” Charles said. “It’s about what he doesn’t need.”
Heather looked at him like she didn’t want to play the guessing game.
“Something wrong?” Gus asked. He’d stepped over to the forge and pumped the bellows a couple times. “I should have two pairs of round stock tongs.”
“Oh!” Heather said. She elbowed Charles. She then said to Gus, “But you’re not sure?” With barely a pause she continued, “You’re not sure because you don’t use your tools.”
“I don’t know what you’re trying to imply.” Gus seemed nervous. Charles understood why.
“I’m implying you can do this,” Heather grabbed one of the iron rods and heated it to a red glow.”
“Of course I can,” Gus said. “Why didn’t you answer the Wizard call?”
“Wizard call?” Heather asked.
“You don’t know,” Gus said. “Well you should. When I said I only use Red Clan stock, you are supposed to respond, ‘Well, it is the hottest.’ That’s how we know we’re both Wizards. The red apron is a hint to ask about the Red Clan iron too.”
“I didn’t know,” Heather said. “I thought I was the only one.”
“You need to be trained,” Gus said. “You need to get to Melnith or Grabarden and seek one of the schools.”
“There are schools?” Heather asked. “I thought Wizards were extinct.”
“There are two, and they’re very secretive.” Gus put a finger to his lips. “Find a Wizard in one of those cities using the phrase I taught you and they’ll take you to the school.”
“I will,” Heather said.
“Do it soon,” Gus said. “More often than not, when a Wizard is untrained, they explode, usually killing themselves and sometimes blowing their homes apart, killing their families too.
“We might be too late for that,” Charles said. “Only when Heather had her incident, she destroyed a town.”
“And she survived?” Gus said. “Lady, you have too much power. Get trained and until you do, find some trollswart. It’s a relaxing herb that will help keep you calm.” He walked over to the tools and shook his head. “I guess the dust is a bit suspicious.”
“And your muscles are too small,” Charles said. “I see you keep your forge burning as a ruse, but you should do some of your work manually to help with the charade. It will build your muscles up a bit, which would also help.”
“Can you teach me anything?” Heather asked.
“I could,” Gus said. “But, without the proper training you will be dangerous with anything I’d show you. Training starts with several seasons of emotion control exercises, I really don’t want an untrained Wizard around me that long, especially not one that took down a town. You can get those dragons finished, but after that, get yourself to a school.”
CHAPTER 7: PANTROS
The sun had just set when Pantros and Tara crossed the bridge over the Backflow River into the town of Stonewall. By the smell, Pantros could tell it was a fishing town. The largest building in the town was also the only Inn. The Backwards Trout drowned out the smell of rotting fish with the smell of cooked fish and mulled wine. As he expected, Sheillene was sitting on a chair atop a table by the hearth, strumming her mandolin. The gathered crowd was far sparser than a night at the Hedgehog and Pantros and Tara had no difficulty finding a table close to the makeshift stage.
Sheillene silenced her instrument and stepped down from the table, apologizing to the crowd for cutting her first set short. She walked over and sat beside Tara. “I would not have expected to see you outside of your Inn, let alone this far west.”
“It’s only a day’s travel west,” Tara said. “But, I’ve never been here before. We’ve had something happen. Or maybe I should say Pantros got himself in a bit of trouble.”
“Someone finally caught you and you’re on the run?” Sheillene asked.
Pantros laughed. “I didn’t get caught.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Tara said. “You got caught, but more as in caught in a trap than caught misbehaving.”
“This sounds sticky,” Sheillene said. “Is there a story in it? I’m always looking for fresh stories to tell.”
“It’s not much of a story yet,” Pantros said. “But, if you let us travel with you as you head west, I am sure there will be more stories.”
“I can make the trek alone because I can avoid danger. But I can’t make that promise for three of us.” Sheillene’s glance fell on Pantros, her eyes narrowed and she nodded. “I could take Pantros alone. I know enough about what he can do to trust him to not be in the way of danger.”
“I’m not leaving my brother alone,” Tara said. “With my parents gone, he’s all I have.”
Sheillene took a deep breath then let out a long sigh. “I do know a safe route, but it will take six days longer than my usual path. I can take you along, but you’d have to cover my missed wages. I’m sorry to say I need the money. My mother and sister are living alone on a small farm and its good enough for food, but they need me to buy them clothes and tools.”
Pantros pulled a handful of coins from a pouch and splashed them on the table. Gold and silver glistened in the candle light. A few coins rolled to the floor. “I don’t know what a bard makes, but I suspect this should be enough.”
As every eye in the taproom turned to their table, Sheillene covered the pile of coins with her body. “Pan! You can’t show that much money, even in a quiet town like this.” She gathered the coins under her and pulled them into the skirt of her dress. “You’ve just bought my service as a guide for the next year, probably longer. My first advice is to keep your money hidden. Never let anyone know you can afford to throw a handful of gold around like that. Never.”
A man in an apron approached the table, stopping briefly to bend over and pick a few coins of the floor. He placed three of the five coins he picked up on the table. Pantros noticed his clumsy attempt to hide that he kept the others in his hand. “Lady Sheillene,” the man said, “My patrons were expecting entertainment…”
Sheillene interrupted him, saying, “I know, I’ll get back on the stage.”
The barkeep put a hand on her shoulder. “Actually, you seem busy here. If you’d prefer to pay for your stay, I do have a young pair of performers from the village who would like the stage if you’re not using it.”
“That’s fine,” Sheillene said. “How much is a room? It’s been half a century since I paid for a room.”
“Two rooms,” Pantros said. “I happen to know the going rates for Inn rooms fairly well. I’m sure it would be far less than the two gold you hold in your hand for both rooms and meals for the three of us.”
The barkeep nodded and peered into his hand. “Yes, of course.” He set one of the coins back on the table. “I promise the service and food will be excellent. I’m not so sure about the entertainment but the boys have made three trips here in the past season and they’re actually quite good, though they don’t draw your crowd. Since your crowd is already here, they might benefit from a large audience.”
Sheillene winced. “You mean we’re going to have to put up with amateurs? Maybe I could return to the stage.”
“No, Sheillene, let them play,” Tara said. “There are things we need to tell you about — things that happened this morning after you left that make our journey a necessity.”
Sheillene looked up at the barkeep, “Fine, Ned, let them have the stage.”
The barkeep walked to another table where two men sat. The two men picked up guitars and headed to the table Sheillene had used as a stage. One of the men was larger than any man Pantros had ever seen. Pantros best friend Bryan had been a head taller than Bouncer and that musician looked more than a head taller than Bryan. The other man looked normal, even somewhat familiar.
“Thomas?” Tara asked, barely loud enough for Pantros to hear her across the table.
“That does look like him,” Sheillene said. “But his clothing is not of the quality I’d expect of my mentor, and Thomas never wore his hair that long. I spent some time learning the trade from Thomas a decade ago. Like anyone else, I haven’t seen him in eight years, and that does look a lot like him, but it can’t be him. I’d know.”
“I knew Thomas better than you, Sheillene.” Tara said. “That’s him.”
“I spent every night for almost a year on the same stage with Thomas Boncanta. Thomas wouldn’t go on stage without his lucky hat or with such a poorly made guitar.”
“That stage was my stage. The stage where he left his guitar when he disappeared. I spent every night for two years in the same bed with Thomas,” Tara said. “I’d know my husband’s face.”
Pantros vaguely remembered a bard named Thomas that spent a lot of time at the Hedgehog when Pantros was a boy. He didn’t know his sister had been married.
“You were married to Thomas?” Sheillene asked. “When he ran off, he was your husband?”
Tara nodded. “And I’m going to go find out where he went.” Tara nudged Sheillene, but the bard didn’t get up.
She continued to block Tara’s egress from the booth. “Let him play, then we’ll know for sure.”
“I do know,” Tara said. Her voice seethed. “I love him, how could he just leave me like that?” Tara struggled to push Sheillene out of the way.
“Wait.” Sheillene’s voice was stern and even. She grabbed Tara by the arms. “Thomas Boncanta was the greatest bard ever to travel the lands. We don’t even know this boy’s name.”
“My name is Thomas Miller.” The small man with the guitar announced, sitting in the chair on the table. “This is my friend Marc.” Marc stood beside the table.
“That’s my Thomas; he’s so dead if he doesn’t have a good explanation for disappearing on me.” Tara tried started to climb onto the table, but Sheillene held her back.
“Let him sing,” she said. “No one I’ve ever seen could enthrall an audience like Thomas. In his performance we will know him if he’s Thomas Boncanta. He said his name is Thomas Miller and you and I both know that Thomas Boncanta cannot speak untruth.”
“But Thomas…” Tara started, but was cut off when Thomas started to sing. His first song was a silly romantic romp. Pantros found the bard far more interesting than any other performer he’d seen at the Hedgehog or anywhere else. About a dozen songs later, Thomas set his guitar down and reached for a jug of mead.
Tara scrambled over the table, but Sheillene caught her by the shirt before she could take two steps toward the stage. Tara took a ring from her finger and turned back to Sheillene. “Thomas’ real name is Miller. It’s the name we used when we were married.” She handed the ring to Sheillene. “Read the inside.”
Sheillene read aloud, “Tara and Thomas Miller, Spring First.” She let go of Tara’s dress.
Pantros’ sister nearly ran to the stage. She stepped up and slapped Thomas.
“Ma’am,” Thomas said. “I’ve never encountered an angry member of my audience before. Did something I sing offend you?”
“You know who I am,” Tara seethed. “Where did you go? Why didn’t you come back?”
Thomas’ large partner slunk back from the argument and headed to the bar.
The other patrons at the Inn seemed to suddenly remember their drinks as well and most of them headed to refill. Pantros just watched the argument on the stage.
“Miss, I’ve never met you,” Thomas said. “I don’t know who you are.”
Tara stumbled back and Pantros could see her expression fall from anger to shattered. “You,” Tara stammered, “You can lie now?”
“I am not lying?” Thomas said. “But, why would you think I could not lie?”
“I’m your wife. I know everything about you.” Tara’s voice was quiet, unsure. Then with more conviction she said. “You cannot speak an untruth. Tell me I’m not your wife.”
Thomas nodded. “I’m…” he seemed lost for words. His brow furrowed. Three more times he opened his mouth to say something, but didn’t speak.”
“I don’t remember having a wife,” he finally managed to say. Then very slowly, each word came out with clear effort, he said, “But, something is telling me I do and you are she. I don’t understand. I need more mead.” He picked up his jug and took several gulps.
“You forgot me?” Tara slapped Thomas again. “You’ve been around for thousands of years and can remember the words to ten times that many songs but you can’t remember your wife from ten years ago?”
“This is my Hundred and Thirtieth summer,” Thomas said. “I haven’t married anyone yet, but somehow I believe your story to be truth and that I am, somehow, your husband.”
“Now I don’t understand.” Tara said.
“Excuse me,” The barkeep approached the stage with a small ornate box in one hand.
“I’ll get back to playing soon,” Thomas said.
“Thank you,” The barkeep said, “But I just remembered that I had something for you. Several years ago you gave me this box and asked that I return it to you when I saw you get slapped on stage. I didn’t understand, but you paid me to do it, so I kept the box.” He handed Thomas the ornately carved golden box.
Thomas opened it. Pantros couldn’t see what was in the box from as far from the stage as he was, but he didn’t have to guess long. Thomas pulled up a ring that matched Tara’s. Pantros had seen that ring on his sister every day for as long as he could remember. He should have recognized it as a wedding ring, but he had no reason to think his sister was married.
“I think that I need to think,” Thomas said. “And I think best while I’m performing. Now, Tara, I assume that’s your name written inside this ring, I think we should talk after the show.”
Tara glared at Thomas a moment then said, “If you try to run again, you won’t get far. I have the best tracker in the world with me.” She pointed to the table where Pantros sat. Sheillene waved at Tara and Thomas.
“I won’t run,” Thomas said. “I am curious as to how this was done.”
“Ready?” Marc asked, handing Thomas his guitar.
Tara left the makeshift stage and made it back to the booth before the next set started. Sheillene slid to the inside, letting Tara sit by the edge.
“Are you as confused as I am?” Tara asked Sheillene. She picked her own ring off the table and after reading the inside again, placed it back on her finger.
“More so.” Sheillene said.
Then the music started again. Pantros fell into the songs and stories coming from the stage. When the hours had passed and the music stopped, Pantros left his sister to talk to her Thomas, and found their guest room. He secured the window and the door and placed brass coins on them so, were either opened, a coin would fall to the floor and alert him.
CHAPTER 8: PANTROS
Pantros woke with his hand draped over his sack of coins and gripping the scabbard of the Abvi sword. He looked to the other bed in the room but it was empty. Neither of his coins had been disturbed. Had his sister opted to sleep in Thomas' bed?
He scrubbed the thought from his head, instead analyzing the bell of the Abvi sword. He knew little of metal work, but couldn't help but be impressed. The intricate silver lace of the bell seemed as delicate as fey silk. He didn't dare touch it to see how strong it actually was. He couldn't see any hint of a tool mark and couldn't find any indication of where the metal had been welded.
Unable to completely force his sister from his mind, he buckled the sword to his belt and grabbed his satchel. He let the coin fall to the ground when he opened the door and left it where it lay. That and the coin from the window could go to whoever made the bed.
In the taproom, he found his sister sitting in a booth talking with Thomas. Sheillene sat alone at another table and waved him towards her. Thomas's large band mate was sleeping on the floor by the fireplace.
"He says he's not half ogre," Sheillene said as Pan sat across from her. "I'm not sure I believe him."
"I don't think he's half anything," Pantros said. "He might be three and a half somethings."
Sheillene laughed. "I'll have to remember that one."
"You remember everything," Pantros said. "That's what makes you such a fine bard."
Nodding, Sheillene asked, "Did you sleep well last night?"
"Well enough," Pan said. "You?"
"I got a few hours after the fight with your sister last night." When Pan looked at her quizzically, Sheillene explained. "See that blue hat on the table next to Thomas?"
Pantros nodded. It was the hat he'd always seen on Thomas' head. "His lucky hat, he did have it."
"No, I had it," she said. "Tara was less than happy with me when she learned that I did and that Thomas had left it with me when he ran away."
"She's upset because he told you he was leaving and never told her." Pantros understood.
"I left the Hedgehog three days after he did, telling Tara that I would find Thomas for her." Sheillene said. "I didn't lie. I looked for him. I didn't tell her that he spoke to me before he left. I didn't tell her why he left. When the hat came out, so did that secret."
"And that secret caused the fight?" Pantros asked.
"No, that secret ended it." Sheillene said. She reached across the table and put her hands on Pan's shoulders. "Thomas cannot speak an untruth. He couldn't stay waiting for the day when he'd have to tell Tara that your parents were dead."
Pantros had believed they were dead. Tara had told him that they must be dead, else they would have returned. But having it stated like a fact knocked the breath from Pantros.
"You've known this for that many years?" Pantros asked.
"Yes. I'd have told Tara and you, but you knew already. At least you believed already. The day he left, Thomas made me ask him of Kita and Leo's fate. And he told me. It has been ungodly hard not to tell you both earlier, but it always seemed even harder to tell you." Sheillene let her hands fall to the table. "This shouldn't be about me now. Pan, are you okay?"
Pantros didn't feel okay. He'd always hoped they were out there somewhere, trying to get back to him. Now those hopes were gone, leaving a large empty place inside him. "I barely remember them. I hadn't yet reached my tenth summer when they left. All I know is that before I was born they lived in a place called Novarra and had ruled on the council there. They'd left in a time of turmoil and started a life in Ignea. They were only returning to formally renounce their claim to their council seats before their rivals tracked them down."
"Because their rivals had tracked them down." Sheillene said. "Before I was a bard, I was a bounty hunter. I came to meet your sister when my partner and I went to the Hedgehog to claim the bounty on your parents, which specifically preferred them dead. When we found Kita, she had a baby bump and I wouldn't go further with the job. My partner also wouldn't kill your mother while she was pregnant. Your parents fled, hiring the first ship they could from Ignea to Novarra. They should have made it there several weeks before your mother was due to give birth. But they were dead by my partner's hand before they got there. I guess the purse was just too great for him to stand by his morals."
"You're morals are not as high as I believed them to be," Pantros said. Sheillene had always been one to speak of heroic acts of charity and kindness. He couldn't imagine her as a killer for hire.
"I've never committed an act I am ashamed of," Sheillene said.
"You were a bounty hunter." Pantros leaned back, away from her.
"I still am, Pan." Sheillene pulled a pendant from under her shirt. "This marks me as a Master Hunter in the Guild of the Hunt. I didn't give up my life to start another as a bard. I have cut back on the kill bounties, but every kill bounty I have seen has been for one criminal who crossed another. The men I kill very probably deserve it."
"You would have killed my mother," Pantros said.
"No, as evidenced by the fact that I didn't." Sheillene said. "I am the greatest archer alive. I win every tournament. I can shoot a pea dangling on a thread, twice, at fifty paces. I would have killed a criminal, but I knew as soon as I saw your parents that they were not criminals. They were safe from me. And I never did collect the bounty on you."
“What bounty on me?” Pantros asked. “No one knows of anything I’ve done.”
“There are several bounties out in Ignea offering gold for information about certain burglaries with large bonuses if we can produce the actual burglar,” Sheillene said. “I know enough of your exploits and your methods to be able to connect you to all nineteen bounties.”
“Well then, that falls more into the morality of the Sheillene I've known for nine years. I can only guess the bounties were not high enough to draw the attention of others from your guild.”
“Few bounties are high enough for a hunter to enter Ignea,” Sheillene said. “In a city where piracy is the main source of trade, there are thousands wanted by the merchants of other cities. Hunters are not welcome in Ignea. So I don’t go out of my way to let anyone know of my other profession. I like the world to believe that I’m just a bard who occasionally shows off my skills at archery.”
Pantros knew of Sheillene's skills with her bow, which was part of the reason she could make the trip westward across land. "Is Tara still mad at you? It's going to make for an uncomfortable journey if you two are not friends."
"She can be mad at me and still be my friend, Pantros." Sheillene waved at Tara. Tara waved back, but didn't stop her conversation with Thomas. "Tara knew why I went to the Hedgehog the first time. She's already accepted me for who I am. She's just mad at what I knew and didn't tell her. But she understands why I didn't tell her. Besides, she's madder at Thomas, which makes me better than someone in her eyes."
Marc rolled a tree stump over and flipped it up to act as a stool by the end of the table where Sheillene and Pantros talked. Sitting, he waved at Pan. "Hi, I'm Marc Williams, musician. Looks like Thomas is in a private conversation. I hope you don't mind if I join you."
"There's room for you at the table," Pantros said.
Sheillene said, "I think he means on the journey. Your sister invited Thomas along."
"What?" Pantros said. "This is not a safe trip. We left Dale and Bouncer behind because the fewer, the safer."
"I agree," Sheillene said. She pointed to the corner by the stage where Thomas and Marc's guitars leaned against the wall by a matched pair of swords. "Marc says he knows how to use his swords, I expect we'll find out."
"And Thomas?" Pantros asked Marc. "What can he bring to a fight if we get ambushed?"
"Um, one more target to thin out the enemy?" Marc offered. "He knows which end of the sword to hold. He's pretty quick at running away too."
"And you've been in a fight for your life, how many times?" Sheillene asked.
Marc's voice seemed a bit meek when he replied, "The pressure in the last village tournament was intense. But that was a fishing tournament. Did I mention I can fish?"
Sheillene rolled her eyes and Pantros and stood up from the table. "I'll be outside. I'm counting to three hundred then leaving town." She put a hand on Pantros shoulder as she stepped away.
Pantros looked up at her when her hand didn't leave his shoulder. She was standing completely still, staring at the doorway. A familiar, dreadful growl told Pantros what he'd see when he followed her gaze. His fingers checked the bulge in his shirt. At last he understood what the creature wanted. Without looking at the doorway, Pantros dove away from the table, putting distance between himself and anyone else in the room.
The creature roared as it charged. Pantros came to his feet only to have to launch himself upward. He grabbed the ceiling rafters and pulled his feet up as the demon passed under him and crashed into the stone fireplace, sending a splash of embers into the room. The demon stood and turned, uncaring that it’s feet were deep in a pile of glowing coals.
Tara rushed over and started kicking coals off of the wood floors and back to the fireplace. Pantros dropped to stand between Tara and the Beast. He drew the Abvi sword and braced for the next charge.
"Move away from me you idiot." Tara said. "It's chasing that cursed stone. It'll ignore me."
Pantros, knowing that his sister was right, stepped sideways. The creature squatted then pounced. Bracing himself Pan held the point of the Abvi sword toward the beast. The beast never hit. Marc, his swords still leaning against the wall with his guitar, backhanded the beast, sending it sprawling to the ground.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity, Pantros lunged, pressing the tip of his blade through the creature's chest. As the one at the Hedgehog had, the beast vanished in burning cloud of ash.
"I was wrong," Sheillene said. "Fewer numbers are not the answer here."
"What?" Pantros replied. "You saw that thing. Why would we want to risk more lives?"
"But it's only after you." Sheillene motioned at Tara who was just finishing sweeping the fire back into the hearth. "Tara was unharmed, though she was at one time barely more than a handbreadth away from the Hound. Having more people along means we can control the fight by how we position ourselves around you. I don't even care if Marc can actually use his swords. With his size and strength, and knowing the beasts will always be chasing you, it's almost enough to be certain of your survival."
"I killed it," Pantros said.
Marc raised his forefinger, but it was Sheillene who spoke the point. "Actually Marc's knocking it to the floor was the deciding factor in that battle. You merely administered the inevitable."
Marc tapped the blade of Pantros' sword with his finger. "With a flimsy sword like that, you're not going to shift the trajectory of an airborne…whatever that was."
"Sheillene called it a Hellhound, just as James did." Pantros said. "Sheillene, have you seen these before?" *Who is that oaf calling 'Flimsy'?*
"Yes," Sheillene said. "Well, in books and a couple tapestries, not in person."
Pantros looked around. "Who said that?"
"Me," Sheillene said. *Me.*
Pantros leaned to look behind Marc. "Not what you said, Sheillene. Who called Marc an oaf?"
"No one said anything about Marc being an oaf," Sheillene said. "I think I asked if he was an ogre last night." *He called me flimsy, I called him an oaf.*
"Hold this please." Pantros handed his sword to Sheillene then dropped to the floor, searching under the tables. He crawled around behind the bar, but no one was there.
"I know what's talking," Sheillene said. "I just heard it too."
"I'm not hearing anything, now. Don't humor me." Pantros stood up behind the bar
"Your sword is insisting I return it to you." Sheillene walked over and set the sword on the counter. "It's very finicky about who touches it."
"This is talking?" Pantros picked up the sword. *Yes,* the sword said. It took a moment for Pantros to realize he wasn't actually hearing the sword with his ears but with his mind.
"It's a nice sword," Sheillene said. "Too nice for a human, many Abvi would say. Do I want to know the story about how a human boy came to possess an Abvi Ensouled Blade?"
"Not much of a story, really." Pantros shrugged. "James gave it to me. I may not be twenty yet, but I'd think what I've faced has earned the title of 'man'." *My owner is a human boy?*
"In my eyes you've been a man since you robbed Grey Ed of every last penny and gave the money to the folk of orphan's row."
Pantros groaned. "It's really hard to hold two conversations at once."
"Sheath the sword," Sheillene said. "It's only conscious when unsheathed."
Pantros did as Sheillene suggested. "Grey Ed was scum. He stole pennies from the penniless. I didn't rob him of everything though. I did, in fact, leave him with precisely one penny. And that part about Orphan's row is pure fiction. Who told you this story?"
"Rumors, mostly. Grey Ed was very vocal in his search for the boy in black silk. So vocal that it got him half-keelhauled when he got too loud in the presence of some captain with a hangover."
"Half Keelhauled?" Marc asked. "Is that half as bad as a full keelhaul?"
"Only if you can breathe water," Sheillene said. "It means they stop when they've hauled the poor sap half way around, which pretty much leaves them right at the keel." She turned back to Pantros. "And I know the part about Orphan's row is not fiction. The tales of silver coins appearing in people's soup or in their fireplaces was not the blessings of the volcano, but the work of the best roof-walker I know of."
"Isn't robbing from the rich to give to the poor a bit cliche?" Marc asked, "It’s like something from a bard's fairy tale."
"First," Pantros said, keeping his voice almost to a whisper as the tavern began surging back to life, "this will be the only conversation we ever have about my professional work. Second, I don't usually give to anyone, rich or poor. I pretty much just hoard everything. Ed was stealing from easy targets who couldn't afford to miss a penny. I simply returned to them what had once been theirs. Grey Ed's actions were getting the city ready to organize a night watch, watching for burglars. I did what needed to be done to keep my income methods safe. And third, weren't we leaving town?"
"Yes." Sheillene grabbed her bow, her quiver and her satchel. "Marc, grab Thomas and Tara, we're walking. We'll walk slowly until the three of you catch up. Out the front door and left to the edge of town, then keep going."
Pantros grabbed his sack and followed Sheillene out the door. Once outside he asked, "So are we making a run for it? Keeping them safely left behind?"
Sheillene didn't even look at him; she just shook her head and said, "I was serious about the additional numbers being helpful. We're walking slow and letting them catch up. Once they do, we'll be keeping as fast a pace as possible. I want to make it to Melnith in as few days as we can. We're even taking the dangerous route. It means we'll probably have to deal with Vulak raiders, too. Again, the additional numbers will play to our favor when the Vulak attack us."
"If numbers are so great, why not go back and get Bouncer?" Pantros asked as they walked towards the west end of town.
"Time is also important. If those things attack every day, the fewer days before we remedy the curse, the better." Sheillene motioned back towards the Inn. "Those two will be plenty for the numbers part anyway. Heck, Marc is probably several of those numbers. I don't know if he can really use those swords, but with his mass and what speed I've seen, training and skill aren't going to be all that important, not against such foes as Vulak or Giants, anyway."
CHAPTER 9: PANTROS
The first two days travelling along the old road through the forest went uneventfully aside from the daily hellhound attack. As Sheillene predicted, dispatching the demons became simple, particularly with her being able to use her bow. Pantros felt relieved that he didn't have to draw his sword again; he wasn't ready for another awkward conversation with an old Abvi soul. Marc, on the other hand seemed a little let down that the beasts never came close enough for him to use his weapons.
Sheillene could drop them long before Pantros was at risk. When, on the sixth day out of Stonewall, no demons appeared in the morning, it set everyone on edge for the remainder of the day.
"We should be passing into the Kingdom of Relarch today," Sheillene said after lunch on the seventh day. "We've been lucky. Since the disbanding of the Ignea government, I've not heard of anyone travelling the highway without being attacked by raiders of some sort."
"We don't have anything of value with us to raid," Thomas said. "It's not exactly obvious that the boy has a king's ransom in his satchel."
"Thanks, Thomas," Pantros said. "What if some bandit scout is listening?"
"Then Marc might finally get to show you that he does know how to use his swords," Thomas said.
Sheillene tilted her ear to the wind. "We're alone, here. There's an odor in the air, though. Something nasty is near to the west. Before dinner we should pass through the Abandoned Arch, and then we'll be on the heavily guarded roads of Relarch. Don't let the name fool you, the last time I passed through the Arch, it had a dozen Knights stationed there. But even on the safe kingdom kept roads, it's best not to mention who has how much coin."
"That pack's got to weigh as much as Marc," Tara said. "I couldn't lift the one you left behind the ovens."
"That was all coins," Pantros said. "I brought my gem bag. There are only a few handfuls of gold. Mostly, it's gems and jewelry with some folded felt to keep the pretties safe."
Marc pointed over the next hill along the road. "That banner there, those are Relarch's colors?"
"Should be," Sheillene said.
Pantros could barely see the tip of a flagpole until he got closer. By the time he could make out the black and gold striped banner, he could hear people yelling.
"Battle?" Marc asked.
Sheillene ran ahead, nocking an arrow as she ran. "Come!" she yelled.
Marc drew his swords, and followed after her. Pantros followed as well but left his rapier sheathed. Looking back, to see if his sister followed, he saw Thomas holding his sword and staying close to Tara, both of them jogging along behind..
As they crested the hill, they passed Sheillene who'd stopped and was reloading her bow after releasing her first shot. Below, Pantros saw a stone archway with a tower beside it but his attention was immediately drawn by several armored men battling against large humanoids with greenish-gray skin.
"Trolls?" Pantros asked, setting his satchel on the ground.
"Yes," Sheillene said. "They're hard to kill, you have to pierce their heart or sever their neck."
"I was hoping not to have to do this again," Pantros said as he ran down the hill towards the fight. He drew his sword as he came within twenty paces of the back of one of the trolls. Marc had already engaged another. *Trolls!* the swords voice spoke in his mind.*You have to pierce their heart. It's the center of their bellies, not in their chest like a human or Abvi.*
Pantros didn't respond. He hoped to sneak up to the fight without being noticed. He approached a troll that was facing a knight. The grayish skinned troll stood twice as tall as Pantros, and he had to reach up to thrust his rapier through the center of the monster's lower back. The deerskin the troll wore draped over its shoulder did not hinder Pantros' blade. The troll spun, swinging a huge clawed hand at Pantros. It caught his shoulder and threw him through the air. Unable to get his feet beneath him, Pan hit the ground rolling. He came to his feet between the legs of another troll.
The troll looked down at Pantros with a grin of many large sharp teeth. Pantros quickly thrust his rapier up through the trolls chin and into its brain. The troll fell to the side. Pan thrust the rapier a few times through the creature's naval, just to be sure. *I got the heart,* his sword said.
Pantros looked around to decide where to offer his help next. Marc hacked through the neck of the troll he'd been fighting. Two of the Knights were still standing, both fighting the same troll. Pan was about to head over to get behind that troll when Marc yelled, "Pan, behind you!"
Pantros spun, swinging his rapier at whatever would be there. The sword bit into the thigh of a troll, but the troll didn't seem to care as it clawed at Pan's face. Ducking and parrying and giving ground, Pantros couldn't find an opening to launch a counterattack. A sharp pain tore through his left ear so he dove to the right as three arrows sprouted from the troll’s belly. The troll fell forward, missing Pantros as he rolled to his feet. Sheillene was standing only a couple paces away.
"Sorry about the ear," she said. "One scratch is better than the four you'd have gotten from that claw. Besides, I'm sure I keep my arrows cleaner than those fingernails."
The shreds of silk that used to be his shirt were now covered in blood. Much of it was his blood, and not all came from the nick in his ear. When the troll had tossed him, several of the troll’s talons had caught a little skin.
"We're done here?" Pantros asked noticing that none of the trolls still moved. *Clean me before you put me away,* his sword said.*unless you'd like to chat a little, maybe?*
"Maybe later," Pantros said, wondering if maybe he owed his sword some conversation time. He wiped the blade clean with the remnants of his shirt then sheathed it. "Do any of the fallen knights still breathe?"
"They got torn up pretty bad," Sheillene said. "That one laying over there by the archway looks to be in one piece and the two talking to Marc seem mostly fine." Marc and the armored men near him were also walking among the fallen, checking for life.
Pantros went to help the knight on the ground while Sheillene checked for others still alive. A groan coming from the visored helm gave Pantros hope.
"The battle's done," Pantros said, kneeling by the knight. "Can you stand?"
"I think not," the man in the armor said. "My leg's out."
Noticing a small pool of blood seeping from the dented metal plates over the man's thigh, Pantros could see how that would be problematic. It wasn't so much blood that the man's life was in immediate danger, but to be sure, Pantros pulled his knife and cut the leather straps, releasing the leg armor. After cutting through the cloth of the man's pants, Pantros could see blood seeping from a small lesion on a large bruise.
"Your leg's been crushed," he told the knight."It looks like you were hit so hard the blood burst from the far side of your leg."
"That's what happened," A woman's voice said. One of the other knights knelt beside Pantros. Without her helm, Pantros could see that the other knight was actually a woman. She prodded around the crushed leg with her hand.
"Meredith, stop," the man on the ground said. "That hurts."
"The bone's intact, David," she said to the knight on the ground. "You can probably walk with only severe pain. Not that you'd want to." She held her hand towards Pantros. "Lend me that knife, if you would.
Pantros flipped the knife in his hand and passed the handle to Meredith. She cut David's pants into strips and then tied them around the man's leg as a bandage.
"The others are all dead," Another knight said as he walked up with Sheillene and Marc at his side. The knight seemed to be a man about Tara’s age.
"I didn't think any had made it, your highness," Meredith said.
"Highness?" Pantros asked.
Sheillene motioned at the knight standing beside her. "Pantros, this is His Highness, Estephan, Prince of Relarch." She then introduced Pantros to the prince."Prince Estephan, this is Pantros Phyreshade of Ignea."
"Ah, Your Majesty," The prince said, then bowed to Pantros.
Pantros was unsure why a prince was bowing to him. He stood and looked around at his friends' faces for a clue as to what was happening. "I'm a little confused," he said.
Prince Estephan asked, "Are you not the same Pantros Phyreshade known as the King of Thieves?"
"Umm," Pantros said.
"He is," Sheillene said, looking away from Pantros. "He just might not know it. I don't tell the stories about him in Ignea and as far as I know, I'm one of a very few bards who travel between Ignea and the rest of the world."
"You tell stories about me?" Pantros asked.
"I'm not the only one," Sheillene said. "Other bards tell my stories about you too. That story about Grey Ed is pretty popular in Fork and some other towns around Relarch, not to mention Everton. It's not like I ever expected you to leave Ignea."
"I don't mean to be rude but should we bury the dead?" Marc asked. His shirt was also torn and he had four parallel shallow cuts across his chest.
"We will," Estephan said. "First, let's take David inside the tower. Today's stew might still be warm, if you're stomach will take food. You're welcome to join us for the evening meal."
"I doubt I can eat," Pantros said. "I'm not sure my stomach will hold whatever is in there now. Fighting like this and all the death are new experiences for me and not ones I'd like to get used to."
"It kind of made me feel more alive," Marc said. "Well, not kind of, definitely made me feel like this is what I was meant to do with my life."
"Again, you're sure you're not part ogre?" Sheillene asked.
A quiet somber mood stayed with them for the remainder of the evening as they buried nine knights. After a brief ceremony, Meredith began chiseling the knights' names into the stone of the archway, starting with each knights' initials while the other gathered the troll bodies into a pile. Their bodies were too big to bury or move far. As they retired to the tower, Estephan set the pile of trolls aflame.
Inside the tower, there were racks of weapons lining the walls and dried strips of meat hanging from the ceiling. Most of the stone construction of the tower was hidden behind animal hides, mostly deer, hanging along the walls. The only visible stone was a stairway leading up. Several benches and tables sat around the room. David sat on a bench by a fireplace along the outside wall.
"I've had the duties here for nine seasons over the past ten years," Estephan said. "I've never actually had someone pass through here travelling to or from Ignea. No one at all has come through here for as long as I can remember. The Knights of Relarch defend the borders at this tower, but until the last couple weeks, a season of duty here has been little more than an extending deer hunting trip."
"I’ve passed through a couple times, though not in the past decade, and the knights here seemed as shocked as you. This time we need the direct route of the highway to save time. I usually take a much more northerly route," Sheillene said. "The farther I can get from the forest to the east, the better."
"The Wylde Woodlands are a strange place," Estephan said. "I've only heard tales. I've never been farther east then the archway. I know no one who's been into the forest and returned."
"And I've never heard a tale of anyone doing so either," Sheillene said. "But our travels are westward, to Vehlos. The Wylde Woodlands don't really concern us."
"Fork is ten days walk from here," Estephan said. "But in three days we will be relieved. A carriage will arrive with twelve knights to assume guard here. We will be returning to Fork. The carriage ride will take three days. We sleep in the carriage and stop only long enough to change horses twice a day. If you are pressed for time, you're next three days would be best spent resting here with us, as odd as that seems. You can share our carriage as far as Fork."
"We'll consider the offer," Pantros said. "Tonight it's late and we've all had a hard day. May we sleep in here or should we set up a camp outside?"
Meredith gestured towards the ceiling. "We have a dozen hammocks strung across the tower in the rooms above this one. We've never really assigned them, we just pick one each night to sleep in. Nine will sadly be empty tonight if you don't choose to fill them. None would object if you did."
CHAPTER 10: PANTROS
Far to the north, snowcapped mountains blended with the clouds. To the east, the tops of the trees of the Wylde Woodlands extended to the horizon. Pantros could see the road they'd taken skirting the northern edge of that forest. A stone mesa to the south left a valley to the west, where the highway could be seen to meander into the Kingdom of Relarch. Plumes of pale smoke marked the presence of villages along the road.
He'd spent the whole first day atop the tower, watching such a huge world produce absolutely no change. Almost a hundred feet below, he could see Meredith carving her comrades names into the Archway. Before the trolls, there had been only two names carved in the archway. According to the prince, the outpost had been there for a thousand years.
Sheillene was kicking around the ashes left over from the trolls. They'd carried crude pouches, but she'd warned against looking inside. The things trolls collected would turn even a seasoned hunter's stomach. After a good burning all that would remain would be metal and Trolls occasionally found pretty, shiny, coins.
The prince stood in the center of the Archway; he held a large sword before him, the point resting on a piece of wood on the ground. Earlier, it had been Marc standing there, while the prince slept. Norda sat on a stool by the tower door and Pantros hadn't seen his sister or Thomas emerge from the tower since their arrival.
The hourglass by his feet was almost drained. Pantros flipped it and yelled, "All Clear."
Sheillene waved to him. She held something in her hand and was gesturing towards Pantros with it. Sheillene ran over to the tower door and yelled something inside. She then sat beside Norda, showing him the object in her hand.
A few moments later, the trapdoor opened and Thomas stepped out and stood beside Pantros. "Sheillene found something you'll want to see. I'll take over this post for a while."
"Once per hour, let them know that nothing's happening, that it's 'All Clear'," Pantros said. He then descended the ladder below the trapdoor. When the ladder became stairs halfway to the bottom, Pantros ran down and out the door. Everyone had gathered around where Sheillene sat beside Sir Norda.
"Look here," Sheillene said, holding a square flat stone in her hand.
"Onyx?" Pantros asked, recognizing the black glasslike sheen. The stone large, cut into a square with faceted edges. It fit into the palm of his hand. When he held it there, another, more familiar gemstone appeared in the air a few inches above it.
"Illusion Magic?" Estephan asked. When Sheillene nodded he said. "What use is a stone that shows the image of another? The gem in the image is interesting, I suppose. It does have an appealing glow to it."
"You don't know what that is?" Pantros asked.
"It's a dark ruby, probably enchanted to glow," Estephan said.
"The stone in that image is the Key to the gates of Hell," Pantros said. "And it means that it was no accident that the trolls decided to attack the other day. They were sent by someone to find that stone."
"We have no Key to Hell," Meredith said. She then turned to the prince. "We don't, do we? Surely we'd have more than a dozen knights guarding such a thing."
"All we guard is the border," Prince Estephan said. "That key is not here."
"Actually," Pantros said, pausing while he dug the gem from a holdout pocket inside his pants, "it is." He held the key out beside the illusion.
Sheillene took the onyx from Pantros' hand and put it in her pouch. "Trolls can't tell one human from another. They probably were only told to attack any humans and bring the stone back if they found it."
"You could track the trolls back to whomever they met," Pantros said. "We could end this long before Vehlos."
Sheillene shook her head. "Sure," she said, "We could find whoever sent the trolls, but we know we'd either find a demon or someone who can control demons. They didn't use the trolls for their brute muscle; they were just spreading a larger net. We need to get that Key to a person capable of protecting it."
Estephan held up a hand toward Sheillene while smoothing his mustache with the other. "You're saying that monsters like these trolls could be marauding everywhere and they'd be looking for that gem or Key?"
"Well, I think they know roughly where Pantros or the Key is," Sheillene said. "I just suspect the trolls were not as easy to steer towards us as a well trained hellhound."
"Nine of our peers are dead because of a single fancy rock?" Meredith asked.
"Key to Hell is not just a fancy name," Pantros said. "This can open a door to Hell, releasing all the demons there into our world."
"Why do you have that?" Estephan asked.
Pantros wasn't sure how to answer. He pocketed the gem then shrugged. "I'd really rather not," he said. "Someone gave me a large amount of gold to take it from someone else. Now I'm stuck with it until I can find someone who can protect it better than I."
Estephan cleared his throat. "As Prince of Relarch, I'm obligated to offer to try to protect the stone for you, but, I don't suspect myself or my kingdom are well enough prepared for the threats we'd see if we possessed that particular stone. The Archmage of Vehlos is certainly a better choice. I will offer you protection to the edge of my kingdom. I insist."
"We're already riding to Fork with you," Pantros said. "How much farther does your kingdom go?"
"Fork is the on the western border where the Starshone and Evenflow rivers meet. The road west from there will take you through Melnith to Vehlos. I'll have to check in and report in Fork regarding the deaths of so many of my brethren, but if you like I'd offer my services, as a favor, from our border to the gates to Archmage's tower."
Pantros didn't like having so many people around him. As much as they offered more protection, they could just as likely be additional corpses in his wake. He didn't want to offend the prince, though, so he replied, "That's a noble offer, thank you, your highness." Estephan seemed satisfied with the response. Pan wondered if maybe Fork were close enough to Vehlos for him to go that last leg of the journey alone.
Being from a port city, Pantros understood the distances between the major ports of the world. He'd seen the maps, and knew how far Gyptania, Rahvenna and Everton were in terms of sailing days. Vehlos was close to an ocean, he knew, but Fork was nowhere near an ocean.
CHAPTER 11: CHARLES
The roadside sign said that Fork was west and Southbridge was south and Westen was east. There was no sign pointing to the north road, where Charles and Heather had come from.
“Fork then?” Charles asked.
“I don’t think so,” Heather said. “Too many people too close together, I’d hate to get angry in that big of a city.”
They didn’t really need to resupply. In the week they’d been on the road, they’d found work each evening as either smiths or tinkers. Gus had given Charles a hammer and a tinker’s anvil as well as a pack to carry them in. The work they’d found along the way had gotten them plenty of salted food and dried fruit for the road and a small amount of coin. Charles now wore his sword sheathed across his back and Heather wore a red leather apron around her waist. Their clothes fit, as did their spare clothes, though both were in need of washing.
“Southbridge it is,” Charles headed along the road to the south with Heather at his side.
A few miles down the road a covered wagon pulled alongside and slowed. “You two look like you’ve a long road ahead of you and your feet could use a rest.”
The man was older than Charles by enough that his hair was graying at the temples. He wore light leather armor, which was not uncommon among men who traveled regularly. The carriage was painted in a splattering of colors. The lines of the paint were neat and straight, but the colors were varied and looked like they were either chosen at random or chosen deliberately to disturb anyone’s aesthetic senses.
“I am Jonah of the Wandering Rose,” the man on the wagon said. “Where are you headed?”
“Melnith,” Heather said.
“I’m not going all the way there, but I can give your feet a rest for a day or two,” Jonah said. We’re camped two days walk west of the river.”
“How far is that from here?” Charles asked.
“Five days on foot, two on my wagon,” Jonah said. “I travel this road regularly so I know all the best places to stop for lunch and for a good clean bed.”
“Do you always stop and offer people rides?” Heather asked.
“Just often enough to have someone to talk to on the long ride,” Jonah said. “You two look like you’ve got quite a story.”
“Maybe we do,” Charles said. “If it’s all the same, I’d rather not share that story today.”
“Then hop on,” Jonah said. “I’ll play the role of story teller.”
“I don’t want to walk anymore,” Heather said.
Charles shrugged, the man did have a sword strapped to the driver’s bench, but he was still only one man. He didn’t seem like a threat. “Okay,” he said. He helped Heather onto the wagon then climbed on himself.
“Welcome aboard,” Jonah said. “I promised a story, so here goes. This is a story I taught Thomas Boncanta himself. It’s the story of a woman I once met who changed history with her sword. Let me tell you the tale of Legend of Phyre.”
CHAPTER 12: TARA
The man holding her hand wasn’t the man she’d married, but Tara couldn’t convince herself that was true. He felt like the same person, he had the same way of thinking, of speaking and the same humors. His touches felt the same as she remembered.
This Thomas even had the air of worldliness to him, though he’d never been beyond the village of Stonewall before; he’d absorbed every bit of knowledge of the world from anyone who would talk about it. In the two days they’d been riding in the carriage and the two days prior, he’d talked endlessly with the Knights. He probably knew more about Relarch than any of the native Knights did simply because he’d gleaned every little bit of each individuals knowledge.
And Tara got to hear all about it when the Knights couldn’t take any more questions.
Relarch was one of two human nations on the continent of Teminev. It claimed all the land east of the Evenflow river as far south as the Great Bay and as Far East as the ocean, including the village of Stonewall, but not Ignea. To the north, Relarch ended at the mountains and the borders with the Vulak Tribal lands. That border was less defined and varied depending on the success of Vulak Raids or Relarchian expansion. The Vulak rarely organized in large enough numbers to siege a Human Fort, and the Humans didn’t really want the land for more than a buffer between the lands they did want and the Vulak Tribal Lands, so they also rarely committed the resources to expand. Half a dozen forts along the border changed hands every couple years. It was a constant war neither side seemed committed to try to win.
The truth was that Relarch was politically, though not geographically, centered on the city of Fork where the Starshone met the Evenflow. The Counties and Duchies closer to the Capitol felt more of the Kingdoms influence while the lands farther out, such as Stonewall, may have forgotten that they were part of a Kingdom.
Tara sat at the front of the carriage, beside Thomas. He was sleeping, but Tara was content to just snuggle by his side.
CHAPTER 13: PANTROS
Pantros sat by a window, occasionally reading one of a handful of books in the carriage and mostly just watching the passing scenery. He’d never seen anything but city where the ground was stone and he was never more than five paces from a wall.
At the end of the ridge, atop the cliff, stood ruins of red stone. “What’s that?” Pantros asked, Estephan, who’d been napping across a table from him.
The Prince glanced out the window. “It’s an old tower, older than the Abvi. The red material is called Opalite and it is exceedingly valuable, as long as it hasn’t been worked. Once it’s been worked, it retains its shape forever and is nigh indestructible.” Estephan said.
“That tower looks well destructed, I guess the Opalite is less valuable once it’s been worked and destroyed.” Pantros said. “Why hasn’t anyone rebuilt it using normal stone?”
“There’s nothing to this land. It’s in the middle of a mountain pass to nowhere. If there were anything at all east of here, we might have a town or fort here. That tower where we met is far more defensible with smaller numbers. The mountains prevent the rain here most of the time, so the land is not good for farming or grazing.”
“So, no one claims it?” Pantros asked.
“Its Kingdom land,” Estephan said. “No one wants it.”
“Can I buy it?” Pantros asked.
Estephan laughed. “Land is the most valuable commodity the Kingdom has beside its people. I couldn’t imagine a boy like you even being able to comprehend the amount of money it would take to purchase even unwanted land.”
“Let me surprise you,” Pantros said. “Give me a number.”
“I could probably arrange to sell that tower and the land for four leagues in each direction for a chest with ten thousand gold coins.” Estephan said.
Pantros thought, but doubted all his stashes combined quite had that many gold coins. Only the one chest was nothing but gold but it was a mere fraction of ten thousand coins.
“Done,” Sheillene said, landing in the seat beside Pantros.
Pantros looked at her, confused and curious.
Estephan ventured, his voice wavering, “Lady Sheillene, Are you saying you can afford such a Price?”
“Me?” Sheillene said, “No. I was speaking for Pan.” She tugged at the satchel by Pantros’s side. “Dump it on the table here.”
“You told me not to show my money,” Pantros said.
“When you’re buying something from a prince it’s okay to show your money,” Sheillene said. “And we’re in a very private carriage here. I think you’ll be safe.”
Pantros carefully dumped the bag onto the table. “I don’t have that much coin, Sheillene.”
“Don’t you know what the gems are worth?” Sheillene asked. She grabbed a rolled piece of felt and unraveled it and perused the gems.
“I actually don’t,” Pantros replied. He’d never had to fence any of his gems. He knew they could be worth a few gold each and they were lighter than gold.
“Where is it,” Sheillene said, unrolling several other of his gem protecting felts. She sorted through the gems. “I saw it at the Backwards Trout.” She pulled out a green stone the size of a thumbnail and set it in front of Estephan.
The Prince held it up to the light coming through the window. “I am shocked. I shouldn’t have underestimated someone known as the King of Thieves. This is nice, very clear; it’s among the largest Temistar Emeralds I’ve seen, but not worth the chest of gold I mentioned.”
“How about every gem on the table?” Sheillene asked.
“Well, that would be too much,” Estephan said. “I mean the emerald is by far the most valuable stone I’ve seen here, but the rest have significant value as well. I am not a jeweler, but I have ordered several custom works and can guess with a large margin of error. For the gems here, I would have to offer everything within a day’s walk, ten leagues, of the ruins.”
“Done?” Pantros said, unsure what he’d just done. He offered his hand to the Prince to seal the deal.
Estephan took his hand. “This is unofficial until it gets the King’s blessing, but he will agree with me. As I said, the land is of no real use to us or anyone, but if you want it and are willing to pay for it, it’s yours to govern.”
“Govern?” Pantros asked.
“All the land in the Kingdom belongs to the King,” Estephan explained. “But as governor, you can do as you will with the land and the only person who can change that is the King. I can’t give you a nobility title, though the land is technically the size of a Barony. The land will be a stewardship and you will be the steward. It will be your duty to collect the taxes and send the King’s share to Relarch. You’ll also be expected to maintain a military force, whatever the region can support. Right now I think it might include a couple farms on the outskirts toward Relarch. We’ll have a cartographer draw out the actual borders.
“I can build a castle?” Pantros asked.
“If you have the money to do so, yes,” Estephan said. “I don’t see the point of one there, it’s not a place anyone has to pass to get into the Kingdom, but as steward, you can do as you wish. A castle will cost more than you paid for the land, if it’s of any significant size.”
Pantros knew he didn’t have that, yet. He’d brought most of his gems with him. “I see,” he said. “I guess I have to start with the land, so I’m on the way, at least.”
“Pan!” Tara’s voice sounded stern. “Did you just buy a county that’s not anywhere near the Hedgehog?”
“A Stewardship,” Pantros corrected. “Did you expect me to live there forever?”
“Well, no,” Tara said. “But, I hoped you’d move to somewhere close enough to visit, not somewhere through troll infested mountains.”
“Those trolls were an anomaly,” Estephan said. “They’re a symptom of that Key being outside its normal protections. Speaking of symptoms, we’ve not seen a Hellhound attack since we got in the carriage.”
“I noticed that,” Sheillene said. “I’m not sure why not. Maybe they ran out?”
CHAPTER 14: LADY GLACIA
“You’ve used all my hounds?” Glacia asked Darien. They spoke in an alley near Darien’s tower. That Glacia had one of her secret bungalows nearby, was common knowledge among the demons of the region, its precise location was not. She could be seen in the area without arousing suspicion. Entering Darien’s tower, however, would raise eyebrows.
“The boy who has the key is resourceful. He has friends who have adapted to expecting them.” Darien said. “Is there other assistance you could provide?
“I’ll have to think on it,” Glacia said. “I have some ideas, but I’ll have to be sure you won’t again squander the opportunities I provide you.”
“I have plans in motion that will succeed, but it’s going to be a very ugly solution,” Darien said. “We’re not going to be very popular with the gods of that world. Anything more elegant would be preferred.”
“You won’t be popular,” Glacia said. “I’m not involved, remember.”
Glacia pulled a hood over her head. It was made of thin gold mail, and didn’t hide her identity, but it let people know she didn’t want to be identified, which among demons scurrying for the favor of any lord had the same result. She walked past Darien without any parting pleasantries, though she did allow her tail to flick in front of his nose.
The alleys wouldn’t hide her forever, so she went out to the main thoroughfare and walked. The demons parted in front of her, some looking away, others bowing, but none let her pass without reacting to her status. She smiled. Making lesser demons appease her was one of the small pleasures of Demia. When she entered another alley, she was sure no one would follow her.
Bored of walking she opened a portal back to her palace; it would have been a three day walk from Darien’s Tower and she couldn’t think of enough entertainment on the way. She had no need to stay at her bungalow that night.
Her Hound master was waiting for her in her throne room. She gestured for him to approach as she stopped in the corner of the room from which sound did not carry. She suspected none would dare spy on her, but prudence dictated she not fully trust any demon.
“Report,” Glacia said.
The Hound master said, “I took hound form more than half a dozen times and each time projected to the mortal realm to the locations you dictated. Each time I found the boy and attacked, careful not to injure the boy or his companions, at least not beyond superficial scratches. Also, as ordered, I made sure the Key was still present. Darien believes that I sent a pack of hounds, one at a time, but only I made the projection to Mealth.”
“You performed perfectly,” Glacia said. “As a reward, I grant you the territory that used to belong to Qexeq. It’s a small territory, but you’ll need to establish yourself. I’ll lend you a dozen of my high guard until you can recruit your own.”
“And what stipend should I send to you, and how often?” The Hound master asked.
“I require none,” Glacia said. “Just your loyalty, if I should ever need it.”
“Thank you, Lady Glacia,” The Hound master bowed and walked away.
Glacia walked over and sat on her throne. Her seneschal approached and asked if she would be taking audience that day.
“Yes, send in the petitioners,” she said. She enjoyed every opportunity to manipulate the affairs of others. Demons seeking charity and assistance often seemed to be the most open to manipulation-almost as open as those looking for a leg up in the eternal battle for power. Little did they understand that the most assured way to lose that battle was to be the manipulated, while the surest victory lay in being the eternal manipulator.
CHAPTER 15: PANTROS
Fork was nothing like Ignea. The first thing Pantros noticed was that it didn’t smell of salt and fish. It mostly smelled like shoes, Pantros decided. It smelled like shoes at the end of a long day walking.
Ignea’s buildings were stucco and all the buildings had the same ceramic tile roofs. Fork’s buildings were made of a variety of materials, mostly granite, but some wooden structures were evident. The wood shingles of the roofs made Pantros nervous. He wasn’t sure the wood would support a roof walker.
The biggest difference in Fork was the city walls. They’d passed by a line a mile long to enter the city through a tunnel in the wall. The walls, at least at the base, were thicker than the common room at the Hedgehog was wide. They extended from horizon to horizon.
Once inside the walls, Pantros couldn’t believe how many people were packed into the streets. The carriage moved slower than a person could walk.
“How many people are there here?” Tara asked, voicing a question Pantros too was curious to answer.
“Almost two million,” Estephan said. “It’s the largest city on the continent, but it’s at the center of all the land routes. Northeast to Valencia, Northwest to Glimmer, South by road or barge to Everton and Novarra. Southwest to Grabar, Melnith and Vehlos.”
“I can’t even imagine two million people,” Pantros said.
“Spend an afternoon in The Pit,” Estephan said. “Your imagination will expand in directions you can’t fathom.”
Pantros had heard of The Pit, mostly from Sheillene.
“That’s true,” Sheillene said. “I remember my first visit to The Pit. So much innocence lost in one afternoon.”
“I think you’ve told me the story,” Pantros said.
“Not the whole thing,” Sheillene said. “There are some things even I don’t talk about.”
Watching out the carriage’s window, Pantros slowly began to understand just how many people they were around. People were walking past the window in both directions. At any time he could see a hundred people out the window.
“Are all the streets this crowded?” Pantros asked.
“Just the ones big enough for our carriage to pass,” Estephan said. “Usually we don’t allow such large carriages into the city. I am the prince, so I get to take my carriage wherever I like. The city was built in stages over the last millennium or so. Each time it expands, people start building outside the walls. Eventually we build new walls to keep the new sections of the city safe. There are very few passages through the old walls. The streets that lead through those tend to be the most crowded. This street is the only straight route from Southgate, where we entered, to the palace.”
“How can anyone live here if they have to move through such crowded streets?” Tara asked. “I’d never want to walk on streets this crowded. I could almost walk on the shoulders of the crowd, they are so many.”
Meredith said, “I have cousins that live in the docks quarter. My uncle has never been through any of the city walls. He just stays in the neighborhood he knows. He tells the story of how one day he climbed to the top of a building that could see over the city walls, out over the countryside and the vast landscape disturbed him such that he never wanted to go anywhere.”
CHAPTER 16: CHARLES
Jonah had spent four days telling tales of ancient heroes and great love stories in history. But he’d never told the same story twice and he’d never again asked for theirs. Charles couldn’t remember most of the stories. Mostly they were stories of historical figures or heroic tales with a few fairy tales. A few names Charles recognized as being characters in several stories. Jonah seemed fairly fond of an ancient Abvi General named Vena, and a Mythical Prince named Kehet.
The inns had all been pleasant, usually looking better inside than out. Everything he’d promised at the onset of the wagon ride turned out to be true. It was just before dinner on the second day that they arrived at a place where there were several concentric circles of wagons and carriages, all colorfully painted.
“Welcome to the summer camp of the Gypsies of the Wandering Rose,” Jonah said as he pulled his wagon into the center of the camp. Women and men all dressed in sparse but colorful silks gathered around the wagon and began unloading the contents. Other than glances and smiles, no one seemed to pay particular attention to Charles and Heather.
A woman dressed in sea green silks that were somehow sparser than the clothing of the other gypsies approached Charles and Heather as they stepped down from the driver’s bench. She was the epitome of beautiful. Her long pale blonde hair hung to her waist in gentle curls that seemed to accent more of her body than they hid.
“So, where have you been hiding all these years?” She said. Her voice was a seductive purr.
“Do you know him?” Heather asked.
“No,” Jonah interrupted, “Diten does not know Charles. She’s just particularly friendly.”
Diten then leaned close to Heather and whispered loud enough for Charles to hear, “Maybe I want to know him. Maybe I want to know you.” Her purr seemed a constant in her voice.
“I need to present them to the Queen, Diten.” Jonah said, placing his hand on her shoulder. “Make new friends later.”
Diten walked her fingers over Jonah’s hand on her shoulder. “Oh, I will, unless I decide to renew some old friendships.”
As she walked away her hair swayed in an almost mesmerizing dance around her body. Heather grabbed Charles's jaw and turned him to face her. “I think we were off to see the Queen. I think we’ve seen enough of Diten.”
“She not often here,” Jonah said. “She’s a friend, but not one of us. She’s not a gypsy.” He led them to a carriage with a balcony. A middle aged woman sat on a pile of pillows on the balcony. “Bow,” Johan told them.
They did and Jonah did as well.
The woman looked up at them then, in a panicked flurry, rolled to her feet, scrambled over the railing of her balcony and knelt on the grass, bowing towards them with her hands outstretched.
Jonah straightened and tapped Charles. He and Heather stood as well. The woman, whom Charles had assumed was the Queen, continued to prostrate herself before them.
“I’m not sure this is what I expected,” Heather said. “Isn’t she the Queen?”
“She is.” Jonah grabbed Charles’ arm and nodded to the queen. “Tell her she may rise.”
These folks had strange customs, Charles thought. “You may rise,” Charles said as gently as he could. When Jonah released his arm, Charles stepped up to offer the Queen his hand. The queen took his hand, but kept her head bowed towards him as she climbed to her feet.
“Thank you, Majesty,” the Queen said. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“Now I’m twice confused,” Charles said. Why would a queen be expecting him, and why would she address him with such an honorific as ‘Majesty’?
Jonah stepped to the Queen’s side. “Charles is not yet fully aware of who he is.”
“Then it’s time he was,” The queen said. “My name is Queen Azalea of the Wandering Rose Clan. Your name is Kehet, Prince of the Unicorns.”
“I’m who of what?” Charles asked. The name was familiar from Jonah’s stories. He looked around to see if a crowd had gathered to see how they’d react to the Queen’s joke. Surely, this had to be a joke. A crowd had gathered, but no one was laughing.
Heather was nodding.
“Do you know something I don’t?” Charles whispered.
“It makes sense,” Heather said.
“Unicorns aren’t even real.” Charles said.
“That’s a myth,” Jonah said.
“Right,” Charles agreed. “Unicorns are a myth.”
Jonah shook his head. “No, the part about them not being real is a myth. They’re quite real. They just don’t like to be hunted, so they like to keep the myth that they are a myth going.”
“Woman,” The Queen said, addressing Heather. “You said this made sense; how?”
“He could be anyone,” Heather said. “I found him by the river three years ago. He had no memories at that time and still can’t remember anything before that. And he heals unlike a normal person would. I saw him return to how he looks now from a body covered in nothing but charred flesh. There was an explosion at the Blackstone mines. He wouldn’t be alive if he were human.”
“So you would be Heather?” The Queen said, it barely sounded like a question so much as a confirmation. “Thomas told us to expect both of you. Jonah’s been out looking for you for almost three weeks.”
“Thomas?” Charles asked.
“This town of Blackstone, from whence you came, must be quite remote,” The Queen said. The mirth in her tone was the first lightening of the mood since they’d arrived at the Gypsies’ town. “Jonah, tell them who Thomas is.”
“Thomas Boncanta is the greatest bard to ever live.” Jonah said. “And, some myths say that he’s lived forever and some say he’s lived forever thrice. I know him as a close friend, as I know you as a close friend, or knew you until your disappearance a millennia ago. About a decade ago, Thomas dropped of a box for the two of you when you returned. That was the last anyone has seen of Thomas. He told me he was setting sail to see the other continents. He had some secret to keep.”
The Queen went to her wagon, this time using a door on the side. When she returned she held a simple and crudely carved wooden box. She opened the box and presented the contents to Charles and Heather. “The bracelets are for the Wizard, the ring for the Unicorn.”
Heather gagged and gasped. No one had mentioned her talents.
“Your secret is safe among us,” The Queen said. “Gypsies may have the reputation for not recognizing property and selling anything and everything, but we keep secrets.” She handed the box to Jonah then pulled the bracelets out and offered to help Heather put them on. The bracelets were gold and wide enough to cover most of Heather’s forearm. They looked heavy. As soon as the inside of the bracer touched Heather’s skin, they flowed onto her, appearing almost molten then hardening again on her arms. They were skin tight.
“How strange,” Heather said. “They’re very comfortable, they feel soft inside but…” The tapped her arms together and the bracelets emitted a dull metallic thud. “They are rock hard on the outside. They’re pretty but, how do I take them off?”
“You don’t,” Queen Azalea said. “But panic not; they are not a bad thing. These are enchanted to prevent you from channeling more fire than you can control. Such explosions as the one in Blackstone are all but impossible with those on.”
Heather held out her hands, cupped with her palms towards the sky. A sphere of flame formed in the air above her hands. With a sudden lift, Heather flung the fire into the sky where it exploded like a firework. “I can still work my magic,” she said. “I did not take responsibility for the explosion, just to be clear.”
“A Wizard and an explosion at the same location are rarely unrelated,” the Queen said. “For you, Kehet, I have this simple ring.” She pulled from the box a wrought silver ring in the form of a stylized Unicorn chasing its tail, biting the end. “Thomas said this will aid you in discovering your true form.”
“Thanks,” Charles said. Though he was still unsure who they thought he was, he accepted the ring. He tried it on several of his fingers to discover it fit almost perfectly on his left middle finger.
“It’s time to eat,” Queen Azalea said. “I eat alone in my wagon, but you are welcome to join the rest of the Gypsies at the tables. Kehet and Heather, you will always be welcome at our tables.” She bowed towards Kehet and then walked back to the door of her wagon.
“I think tonight’s meal is carrots stewed in potatoes,” Jonah said. “Like I said, we were expecting you, so we won’t be serving meat for a while.”
“How do you know that I can’t stomach meat?” Charles asked. But he realized they seemed to know so much about him, that they knew his diet hardly seemed surprising.
“All Unicorns are vegetarian,” Jonah said. “And, like I said, I know you.”
“I’m not a vegetarian,” Heather said. “I’ll be fine for tonight, but a week without meat seems unpleasant.”
“There will be meat available, just not served at dinner,” Jonah said. “I wouldn’t worry. We’ll take care of you while you are with us and with those bracelets, you shouldn’t feel the need to be so rushed in your journey. There are people here who would like to talk to you both.”
“Are you gypsies always this friendly?” Heather asked.
“Not at all,” Jonah laughed. “The Gypsies of the Wandering Rose don’t normally allow outsiders near our camp. They get a bit paranoid it might be someone who wants to take something, and by take something I usually mean taking it back. The Gypsies make most of their living through honest means, making clothes from imported silk, carved trinkets and such. But if one sees something they like and can’t think of a reason why it shouldn’t be theirs, they just take it.
“The two of you are the first outsiders, other than Diten, who can get herself invited anywhere, to be welcomed into our camp since Thomas disappeared.” Jonah pointed to a clearing where a dozen tables were covered in plates of bread and bowls of stew. “Sit anywhere,” he said. “I have to go guard the camp during the meal.” He tapped the sword hanging from his belt. “I’ll eat later. Enjoy your meal.”
Diten sat alone at a table. She waved for them to join her.
“We don’t know anyone else,” Heather said, sighing, almost growling. Still, she walked to the table where Diten sat. Charles did as well.
Diten bowed her head as they sat, Heather across from Diten and Charles next to Heather. “Welcome,” Diten said.
“Jonah said you didn’t know Charles, but everyone else seems to know him as someone else,” Heather said.
“No one here is old enough to know Kehet,” Diten said. “This is my twenty third summer. The Gypsies are all human; none could live the thousand years it’s been since Kehet disappeared.”
“But you recognize him?” Heather asked.
“Kehet was a strong handsome blonde man, as pleasing as any to look upon,” Diten said. “I’ve seen a lot of beautiful people, but none match Charles. He could only be Kehet.”
Charles had started to eat the bowl of stew, but on hearing Diten’s words, he choked. He had to turn away from the table for fear he’d lose control of what he’d been chewing.
“I’ve always thought he was cute,” Heather said, “But not the most handsome man in the world.”
“I suppose it’s a matter of taste,” Diten said. “Still, he looks just like the old statues and paintings. Usually those are idealized, but in Kehet’s case, they don’t do him justice.”
Having given up on eating, Charles had his mouth free to ask, “Statues? Paintings?”
“You’re the king of an entire species,” Diten said. “Of course there are statues and paintings and stories and…well, everything you’d expect.”
“The queen called me the prince, not the king,” Charles said.
“The Unicorns had a king once, but he died, since then they’ve only had a prince, but don’t be fooled by the title, in every aspect you are the absolute monarch of your entire species.”
“I’m still not convinced I’m not human,” Charles said.
“I could prove it,” Diten said. “It might hurt, but I could prove it. If I’m wrong, don’t worry, I’m the chosen of Beldithe, I can heal you.”
“Oh, damn,” Heather said. She sighed and rolled her eyes at the mention of the Goddess of Love’s name.
“Chosen?” Charles asked.
“It’s a misleading title,” Diten said. “The goddess didn’t choose me. I inherited it from my mother, who inherited it from hers and the chain goes back for thousands of years. We each have a single daughter who takes over the position upon coming of age. We are the highest of the High Priestesses of Beldithe.”
“Have you met her?” Heather asked. Charles was about to ask the same question but Heather beat her to it. “I’ve never known anyone who’s actually met a god.”
“I said I’m her Chosen,” Diten said. “I spend the majority of my time in her presence. I guess I should tell you, Heather, that you’re not exactly correct in thinking you’ve never known anyone who’s met a god. Kehet is, according to legend, not only a god, but one of the twelve founders.”
“We’re all Maia worshippers in Blackstone,” Charles said. “We barely speak of the other gods. What is a Founder?”
“The twelve original gods: Kehet is one, so are Beldithe and Maia,” the Chosen said. “Seven of other nine are Osris, Lord of Demia, Takel, the war god, Reina the goddess of the home, Caro, Lord of Paradise, Feasle the Crafter, Temistar the Huntress, and Theris, the goddess of knowledge. Then there are two whose names are lost to the mortals of the world. I’ve met all the gods I can name except for Temistar and Osris. Hang around the Temple District in Melnith for any length of time and you’ll see a few of them.”
Charles looked at Heather. She looked thoughtful. He’d expected her to seem as confused as he felt. “Kehet, me? I am an original god? I’m too young to be this Kehet. I am barely in my twenties.”
“Are you sure?” Diten said.
“I…,” Charles couldn’t be sure. He had only three years of memories. If he’d lost his memories, there really was no telling how old he was.
“For all we know he’s barely three years old,” Heather said, laughing as if she’d made a joke.
Charles couldn’t see the humor. Maybe he was only three. He couldn’t think of any true reasons to believe he was or wasn’t any particular age.
“If he were just a Unicorn and three, he could look like this.” Diten gestured to Charles. “Unicorns age very fast to maturity then live a thousand years or more. But you found him like this. Tell me, has he aged, gained or lost weight, or shaven since you found him.”
“I’ve never needed to shave,” Charles said. “I’ve never even had to cut my hair.” He undid his ponytail, letting his hair fall across his shoulders.
“He still looks exactly the same as he did when I found him,” Heather said. “Then again, so do I.”
“But you trim your hair when the ends get too frizzy?” Diten asked. “I’m the Chosen of the Goddess of Beauty and even I have to trim the ends of my hair twice a year.”
Heather nodded but was examining the ends of Charles’ hair. “No damaged ends,” she said. “I guess there wouldn’t be since it has all grown back since I burnt it away.”
“You what?” Diten asked.
“Everyone else knows already,” Heather said. “I exploded and burned away our entire town, including Charles, but he healed somehow.”
“Hair doesn’t heal,” Diten said. “Hair is dead matter. It cannot be healed. Unicorns do regenerate, but they have to grow their hair back over time. Kehet is something much more than a man, even much more than a Unicorn.”
“I’m starting to believe you,” Heather said.
“I don’t know what to believe,” Charles said. Everything the priestess had told him made sense, but it was just too much. He couldn’t fathom being a god. “Could we sleep on this before we discuss it further?”
“When you say ‘we’ do you mean you and I, you and Heather or the three of us sleeping together?” Diten put an unusual inflection on the word sleeping. Charles was stunned. He wasn’t sure if he’d been propositioned or not.
Heather’s chuckle was clearly forced, but she answered, “It’ll just be me and Kehet tonight, thanks. Where are we going to sleep anyway?”
Charles noticed she’d used the name which Diten and the Queen had called him. She really was starting to believe.
“That carriage over there is yours. Mine is the one next door, so if you change your minds, you know where to find me.” Diten pointed to a carriage just off the dining clearing. The one she’d indicated as theirs was painted white and a very royal shade of purple. “If you ever find yourself in need of companionship, and I mean ever, just knock on my wagon door.”
“You might be crossing the line into rudeness,” Heather said. “I know of your goddess’ ways so I can only assume your morality matches hers. Kehet is quite taken.”
“I’d only be rude if my offer was only to one of you,” Diten said with a mischievous smile and giggle. She then left the table and headed off into the Gypsy camp, away from their wagons.
Heather grabbed Charles’s tunic and dragged him toward their carriage. “Don’t plan on accepting her offer, ever. And I mean ever,” she said, mimicking Diten’s voice.
CHAPTER 17: PANTROS
When the carriage arrived at the palace gates a man in an ornate guard’s uniform approached one of the doors. Estephan stepped out of the carriage and met the guard. Pantros could hear the conversation through the open window.
“Your highness,” The guard said and then bowed in a very crisp but short bow. “By orders of the King, No one but royal family and household servants may enter the palace today.”
“Why?” the prince asked.
“‘Orders of the king’ is all we’ve been told, highness,” the guard said.
“I’ll see about that,” Estephan said, dismissing the guard with a gesture of his hand. The guard returned to stand in front of the carriage as Estephan leaned into the window. “I’ll be back momentarily,” the prince said. He then walked past the guard and into the palace. As he passed each guard, they gave the same crisp and short bow.
“This is unusual,” David said. He sat across the carriage from Pantros but leaned to Pan’s window to get a better view of the palace. “King Reginald is usually very open with his palace.”
“The last time the gates closed was when the prince was born,” Meredith said. “I didn’t think the queen was pregnant again after so many years.”
“I haven’t seen her in a year or two,” Norda said. “She’s not too old to bear children.”
“Over there,” Pantros pointed to a mangle of tents a few hundred paces away. Thousands of people moved in and around tents as far as he could see in that direction. “What’s going on there?” he asked.
“You’ve discovered the illustrious Mall of Heroes,” David said sarcastically.
“There are some large statues scattered around it, but you’d be hard pressed to notice them among the shoppes and shoppers,” Meredith said. “It’s half a square league of tents and carts and has long since been known not as the Mall of Heroes but as The Pit. It’s said that if you can’t buy it in The Pit, you can’t buy it anywhere.”
“Looks like heaven for pickpockets,” Pantros said. Even from a hundred paces away he could see the people were bustling so densely that the bumps of passersby would be completely unnoticed.”
David laughed, as did Meredith.
“There’s a joke there?” Pantros asked.
“Quite,” David said. “You know we have the biggest thieves’ guild in the world here, right?”
Pantros nodded. “I’ve heard it said.”
“Thieves run the city,” Meredith said.
“If the guild is as big as the tales, then it would have to,” Pantros said. “I’d hate to be a constable having to deal with the thieves.”
“You don’t understand,” David said, still chuckling. “Thieves are in charge of the public peace. It is the thieves’ guild that is the city government. The constables work for the thieves.”
“How could anyone live in such a city,” Pantros said. “No property could be safe.”
“Quite the opposite, actually,” David said. “With thieves running everything, they are responsible for the welfare of the public. The income from the thieving activities supplants the taxes. Pickpockets may only target purses that haven’t paid the weekly purse tax. Burglars recover the balance plus a penalty from anyone who fails to keep up their property taxes. Its remarkably efficient and a whole lot less violent.”
“I could see that. We don’t even have a thieves' guild or even a gang in Ignea,” Pantros said. “The pirate crews are too quick to organize against such endeavors. Thieving is a profession performed at great risk.”
“That’s true in most places,” Norda said. “I’ve seen people face the gallows over pilfered pennies.” He then pointed out the window, “Estephan is returning.”
The prince was walking from the palace, his face noticeably blank. He didn’t pay any heed to the bowing guards, and stepped up into the carriage. “It looks like you will need to find other accommodation this evening. The king has indeed closed the palace.”
“Why?” David asked.
“I’ll catch up to you later and explain,” Estephan said. “I assume you’ll be staying at Galina’s?”
“With this rabble?” David nodded towards Pantros and his sister. “Unless you care to dole out some baronages, we’d not make it past the stables.”
Sheillene climbed forward through the carriage. “I know a great place by Westgate. The Rampant Gelding.”
“I know the place,” David said. “The most expensive inn by the gate, but the fairest card tables in the city.”
“That’s the one,” Sheillene said. “I have a permanent room there and there are always a couple open suites for people with money to pay for them.”
When all eyes in the carriage turned to Pantros he just shook his head and sighed. “Fine, I’ll cover two suites. I don’t have a satchel of gold from spending it at every opportunity. You’ll each owe me a meal or something.”
“I have to attend my father,” Estephan said. He then returned to the palace.
The Rampant Gelding reminded Pantros of The Hedgehog if the Hedgehog was twice as large and watered down its beer and mead. Having spent three days sitting in a carriage, he took the drinks as a chance to loosen his muscles.
Meredith left, promising to find a healer for David’s leg. It was still too tender to stand on so they’d carried David into one of the three cards tables and left him there. He seemed to be a regular as the dealer called him by name and didn’t hesitate to advance him a handful of gold coins.
Thomas and Tara took a table while Sheillene negotiated with the innkeeper leaving Pantros and Marc sitting at the bar.
“Do you know the games at the tables?” Marc asked.
“I know them, I don’t play them,” Pantros said. “Trusting chance with anything is a sure way to fail. That’s one of the things I say back home. I also say that drink dulls the reflexes and dims the senses and yet, here I am drinking beer.” Being in a strange bar that obviously catered to a wealthier clientele than any in Ignea had made Pantros fingers itch. He chose to drink to try to relieve the stress that choosing not to pick the plump pockets was causing him.
Sheillene tapped Marc on the shoulder, “We’re on as soon as we can get our instruments tuned.” She pointed to a stage. “Vic, the innkeeper, saw Thomas’ hat and wanted him to go on alone, but I convinced him that we were working together for a while. I wasn’t sure you two would want to take on such a large crowd without more experience.”
Marc stood up and glanced around the room. Pantros followed the giant’s eyes. The taproom was large and every chair was filled. He estimated half again over a hundred people in the room. “It wasn’t this full before my beer or my mead,” Pantros said.
“They’ve been coming in since just after we did,” Sheillene said. “Thomas’ hat is legendary.” Seeing Thomas sitting in a taproom while wearing the blue hat reminded Pantros that he had seen a man frequenting The Hedgehog years earlier who looked very much like Thomas.
“And I’m sure none of these people are sitting her because they recognize you,” Pantros said, nudging Sheillene’s elbow to ensure she understood his joke.
“They’ll be getting both,” Sheillene said. “We’ll all be taking the stage. Come on Marc, time to tune that big guitar of yours.”
“Duty calls.” Marc gave Pantros a pat on the back as he got up and left with Sheillene.
Knowing that once the music started he would have a difficult time moving around the taproom, Pantros headed towards the door. He put one hand David had given him a ribbon assured him that as long as he had it tied to his pouch it would be safe from pickpockets, but that didn’t reassure Pantros.
The streets of Fork seemed different on foot than in a carriage. Pantros hadn’t realized just how crowded the city was until he had to bump shoulders with dozens of strangers just by walking from the Rampant Gelding to the taproom of the next inn down the street. He found himself constantly checking his belt pouch. The Three Diamonds was a much quieter Inn. The taproom was surprisingly sparsely populated compared to the streets. Though there were a dozen people in the room, Pantros could hardly hear anyone speaking. The crowd on the street outside made more noise than any of the conversations. Even the four men at the lone card table were mostly silent. Pantros sat on a stool at the bar and gestured to the bartender.
The bartender, a middle aged man with nearly shaved graying hair, came over and handed Pantros a mug of beer.
“How did you know what I’d want?” Pantros asked.
“We only serve one thing,” the man said. “That’ll be six tramps.”
“Tramp?” Pantros asked.
“Not from around here?” The barkeep asked, more commenting than seeking an answer. “Ignean from the accent, I’d guess. You’re not a sailor, though, no rope calluses and not enough sun in your skin. Tramps are the local bronze coin, but let’s not worry about that right now.”
“I’ve got a wager for you,” the man said. “If I can guess what you do for a living, you give me two silver coins; if I can’t, you drink for free.”
“I don’t think you’ve got a chance in this one,” Pantros said. “I’ll take the wager.” He set two silver coins on the counter.
“Give me a minute,” the barkeep said. He walked out from behind the bar and studied Pantros from his hair to the soles of his shoes. “Well, that was too easy. Don’t take this the wrong way, but this is where I’m going to ask you to leave.”
“Pardon me?” Pantros said.
“You are Pantros?” The barkeep said.
Sure he’d see a familiar face; Pantros looked around the taproom again. None of the faces seemed familiar. None of them were even looking at him as if they were in on the gag. “How would you know that?”
The man nodded and smiled. “First, your clothing is silk. Now, I know that silk is much cheaper in Ignea, being a middle port in the oceanic trade, but even so, most sailors would choose something more rugged that they wouldn’t mind soiling in their work. Merchants and Innkeepers tend to dress not too far above their clientele. These folks would own silk but rarely wear it other than small social functions and you’re here alone, in public. Your shirt is also just slightly worn, showing that you wear it often. It’s also dark in color and tight fitting. It’s actually tailored just for you.”
Pantros didn’t even tell his sister that he had his clothing custom made and the barkeep not only could discern that but Pantros was sure the man was about to tell him why.
“Tight fitting clothes don’t get caught on things like splinters, loose nails or guards’ hands,” The barkeep continued. “Dark means you’re harder to see. Most men in silks wear layers and if they do wear a dark color it is only under a brighter color. Men with wealth want it to be noticed, but you, like most of my customers, do not want to be noticed.”
Again, looking over the taproom, Pantros noticed that every other customer wore dark, tight clothing except for a woman sitting by herself, drinking a glass of wine and wearing a bright green cloak with the hood pulled forward just enough to hide her face above her lips.
“I’m in a thieves’ den?” Pantros asked.
“I figured you came here on purpose,” The man said. “My name is Able. I am the Guildmaster for the Guild.”
“The Thieves’ Guild?” Pantros asked.
“In Fork, we just call it the Guild. We are so much more than a gang of thieves. We never gave it a more specific name.” Able shrugged. “We never had to. It’s just the Guild. I am also Mayor of the city, though I delegate most of that work to a bunch of bureaucrats in the city offices by the palace. Don’t think of the Guild as a group of thieves, think of it as the city’s governing force, with an odd way of enforcing tax collection.”
“And because I’m competition I have to leave this taproom?” Pantros asked. He could understand some distrust, but surely they’d understand there was nothing for him to steal in such a place.
“Because you’re potential competition, you have to leave the city,” Able said. “We have very strict rules, and since we run the town, those rules are like laws, and there is no place for you here.”
“I couldn’t join your Guild?” Pantros asked.
“You’d have to pass a test, and if your reputation is remotely accurate, any test I could give you that would provide any challenge would be like stealing the ruby from the king’s crown.” Able took the two silver and slid them back to Pantros. “You’re too talented for our very strict rules. You’d never be able to pad your pockets like you could in other cities by those rules. You don’t want to be here.”
“It’s not that you don’t want me around personally, but if anything gets stolen outside of your rules, you want one less suspect?” Pantros guessed. He couldn’t imagine why else someone so polite would be inhospitable.
“That and if I let you in the guild, your god-like reputation would undermine my authority,” Able said. “You can stay for a couple days, but don’t take up residence here, please.”
“I have one question before I go,” Pantros said. “The woman in the green cloak, where did she get wine when all you serve is the one kind of beer?”
“She’s exactly the person you don’t want to be curious about,” Able said. “Let’s just say she holds enough sway in this town that I keep a case of a particular vintage on hand just for her and that she drinks for free. She usually drinks alone and when she does drink with someone else, it bodes ill for someone. If you’ve not heard of the Green Death, you have now.”
Pantros recalled a story somewhere in Sheillene’s repertoire about a killer-for-hire who wore a green velvet cloak. The story ended badly for several of its characters. He decided it would be a good time to leave The Three Diamonds. “I’ll see myself out then.” He didn’t feel he’d been threatened, but being in the presence of such a legendary monster and having antagonized the Guild just by his existence, his plan was to leave town as soon as possible.
Approaching the Rampant Gelding, he was reminded why he’d left. The music was hypnotizing and Pantros didn’t like the time he’d lost his awareness to Sheillene’s music. The music was fine, just not something he was in the mood for. He only had a limited time in Fork, so he decided he’d learn as much about it as he could.
Three hours of walking along thoroughfares and peering into the taproom of one tavern after another led Pantros to the part of the city he was most curious about: The Pit. Though it was long after sunset, the sounds of haggling filled the dense air. His senses had cleared and he wouldn’t be making the mistake again of missing details like he had at the Three Diamonds.
Around The Pit, he noticed dozens of children selling ribbons like the one David had given him. He also noticed that the rare person who walked past a ribbon seller without a ribbon on their purse, would, within a few paces, have a small hand dart in and out of their purse.
The rumors that anything and everything was for sale in the pit appeared to be true. He’d passed by people selling everything from dried meat to a small caged dragon. The dragon’s price was dozens of times the price Pantros had paid for his stewardship.
When he passed by the display case of a jeweler, what he saw brought him to a stop. Inside the case was a pair of royal crowns with a sign saying, “Jeweler to the Kings.” A woman behind the case was sketching on a small easel.
“Are these the current king and queen’s crowns?” Pantros asked.
“They’re the mock-ups I made before the final version. The gold is just plated and the gems are glass in case you’re thinking they’re worth what they appear to be worth. Not worth stealing at all.” The woman said.
“Does everyone know how to spot a thief in this town?” Pantros asked.
“The Guild trains the merchants,” The woman said. “We’re offered a nice reward to turn in non-guild thieves.”
“You can tell I’m not Guild?” he asked.
“Only because you asked a question every Guild thief wouldn’t need to ask,” the woman said.
“I’m not here to steal anything,” Pantros said. “I’m actually thinking of buying something.” He hadn’t been thinking it long. But a plan was formulating in his head and, though he considered it a bad idea, decided to see how far he could take it before it presented any actual risk. “Would you be able to cut another piece of glass like the one on top of the King’s crown you have here?”
The woman nodded. “It would take me a few hours.”
“So if you sold me the one that’s there, you’d be able to replace it without too much effort?” Pantros asked.
“Probably, but don’t think that doesn’t mean it will be cheap,” The woman said. “I’ve been trained by both Matderi and Abvi. My skill calls for quite the premium wage.
Pantros set five gold coins on the counter. “I expected as much.”
The jeweler’s eyes brightened at the sight of the gold. By her reaction, Pantros could tell he’d offered far too much.
The sun was rising by the time Pantros returned to the Rampant Gelding. The knight’s carriage sat in the street in front of the Inn. Marc was loading his guitar and Sheillene’s pack and waved to him.
“We figured you would be out,” the giant said. “Estephan is inside; he wanted to talk to us when you got here.”
The prince’s presence made Pantros only slightly nervous. He resisted the urge to check on the two gems tucked under his shirt. There was no way he’d been caught.
Inside Estephan sat at the end of a large table. David and Meredith sat to his left. Sheillene, Thomas and Tara all sat close as well. Otherwise the taproom was completely empty. Marc and Pantros took seats and then Estephan stood.
“My father is dying,” He said. Pantros, like everyone else at the table, started to voice his condolences, but Estephan silenced them with a gesture and continued. “I have to stay here and attend him, but I need a message taken to my brother in Melnith. He’s serving as an Ambassador, but he is two years older than me, which means when my father dies, my brother Reginald will be King. I’m giving you my carriage for the journey.”
“You want us to tell your brother?” Pantros asked.
“No, that would be asking too much. I am simply asking you to deliver a letter to him.” Estephan pushed a folded piece of parchment towards Sheillene. The letter had a wax bead on it bearing arms, probably those of the kingdom. “Lady Sheillene, I charge you with this missive,” he said.
“Yes, Highness. It’ll get there as fast as I can,” Sheillene said. “Do you have fresh horses stationed along the Abvian Highway?”
“No,” Estephan said. “I’m sending extra gold with the drivers. They’re going to try to trade for fresh horses when they can. Pantros, I’m charging you with securing the gold. You seem to be an expert in that area.”
“Of course, Your Highness.” Pantros was already regretting his early morning job, but he didn’t know how to undo it. Clearly, he wouldn’t have time get to the palace and back and even if he could, there would be more people in the great hall at this time of day. He pondered handing the ruby to Estephan, but knew that it was not the time for it, if there ever was a time for it, which he doubted.
“I’m going with them,” David said.
“I won’t order you to,” the prince said. “But, you don’t have another cycle at the Abandoned Arch for three seasons, so you are free to go where you will. Your leg is better?”
“I know one of the Tempests by the south docks, they aided the healing a little,” David said. “I could dance, well, if I could dance.”
“I’ve seen him try,” Meredith said. “A one-legged minotaur would have more grace.”
“It’s time I returned to the palace,” the prince said. “Your carriage should be ready for you to be on your way as well.”
CHAPTER 18: LADY GLACIA
Lady Glacia stood on her private balcony overlooking her holding in Demia. The cool breeze off her ice caves kept her palace comfortable. The only ice in Demia and it was hers. To her, it was what made her territories so special. Others, with ambitions, wanted it because it bordered directly on the lands of the King of Demia.
By concentrating a little, Glacia could focus her eyes on the distant lands, several leagues away. She set so many plans in motion every day, usually for her own amusement. The Murdread plans were finally coming to their ultimate fruition. Far away, at the gates to the King’s Palace, a very small army bearing Murdread’s sigil was pushing through a weak defense. The gates had already fallen and in the courtyard, pockets of defenders were struggling in vain.
A small demon glided down onto her balcony. Refocusing to her immediate surroundings, she held out her hand and summoned her icicle staff. It materialized in her hand with its point already barely penetrating the new arrival’s throat.
“You are not as wise as I believed, Kirvel,” she said, glancing at him then focusing her sight back on the battle in the distance. She left her staff in the demon’s throat, letting it draw a small trickle of blood.
“As you predicted Osris is not reacting to the incursion on his land,” Kirvel said in a strained voice, as if he were being careful not to move his throat. His fear of her would keep him from backing away from the staff. Fear had its uses.
“Those are my guards down there in Osris’s tabards.” Glacia said. “Is their performance believable?”
“I wouldn’t have guessed. Murdread has no reason to suspect the battle is anything other than it appears,” Kirvel replied. Glacia pulled her staff away, but kept it with her. “Why are your guards defending the King’s lands?”
“Because the King seems to have lost interest,” Glacia said. “His days are numbered, but I am retaining control over exactly what that number is. His entire staff, from his guards to the imps that handle his waste, is under my influence. I am awaiting a suitable replacement. So far, the candidates here are not pleasing to me.”
“But, you let Murdread into the King’s Palace,” Kirvel said. “Surely you are not going to let him take control.”
“No,” Glacia said. “But that’s where your knowledge of my plans ends. Thank you for your service. You will be rewarded when this has played to fruition. Be gone!” She pointed her staff back towards Kirvel, sure to hold the bloodied tip before his eyes. She didn’t even watch as he flew away, keeping her sight on the King’s courtyard. That courtyard was as far as her guards would let Murdread penetrate the palace. The gate was in that courtyard, which is what Murdread was after. Still, he hadn’t yet acquired the Key. She considered how involved she wanted to be to see that he did get the Key.
Once Murdread opened the gate to Mealth, he would no longer be a nuisance to her, but the timing had to be just right.
CHAPTER 19: CHARLES
Two Unicorns stood outside the Gypsy’s camp. Both had white coats and golden horns. The larger one’s mane and tail-tip were blue while the smaller one’s were pink. Charles stood beside them, along with Jonah.
“The colors are dyed,” Jonah said. “It helps them tell each other apart. Otherwise all Unicorns are as white as new snow and have the same golden horn, though their eyes vary from azure to blue.” The smile on Jonah’s face told Charles that last part was some kind of joke.
Until a moment before, Charles had thought Silon and Chelle to be human, just like the rest of the Gypsies. They’d invited him to join them outside the camp. When he’d arrived they’d introduced themselves then promptly shifted forms. It hadn’t been a shift so much as an instantaneous replacement. There wasn’t even a flash, just a slight whoosh sound as the air was forced to change shape around the Unicorns. The Unicorns themselves were not what Charles had expected either. Their long legs could almost make them look like horses from a hundred paces away on a foggy day after half a dozen drinks, but up close they looked nothing like horses as the legends described them. Their heads were wider than a horse, though they narrowed more at the nose and mouth than a horse. Their manes were more like a lion’s mane than a horse's and their tails were distinctly leonine. Their legs were thicker than a horse's and ended in tufted cloven hooves. The tufts were dyed on the smaller Unicorn but not the larger. It was also very clear that the larger of the two was male.
“They can’t speak?” Charles asked.
“They can make noise,” Jonah said. The Unicorns bleated then growled. Silon, the larger one, then roared. “They communicate mostly by body language. You hang around them long enough and you’ll be able to understand them as if they could talk.”
“Are they the only Unicorns among the Gypsies?” Charles asked.
“We have about a dozen,” Jonah said. “Unicorns are hunted for their horns, which are both highly magical and pure solid gold. They don’t take their natural forms often unless they know they are secluded and safe. Silon and his daughter are willing to risk it here, to help you change to your true form.”
“I’m supposed to turn into a Unicorn, here? Today?” Charles asked. “The ring is supposed to help with that, right?
“So the Queen says,” Jonah said. “Let’s see, how should we start?”
Silon grunted and moved his head back and forth.
“That’s as good a plan as any, I guess,” Jonah said. “Charles, why don’t you just imagine yourself as a Unicorn?”
“I’ve been doing that since they changed,” Charles said. He had. He’d been wondering what it would be like if it were true. How would it feel to be so big and to not have hands and not be able to speak?
“Concentrate on the image,” Jonah said.
He did, nothing happened.
Chelle bleated and pointed her horn at Charles’s ring.
“Now do it while touching the ring,” Jonah said.
“I don’t have to chant, ‘I am Kehet’ and spin around three times?” Charles asked, and then chuckled at his own joke. No one else laughed but Jonah smiled weakly. Maybe the Unicorns were smiling. Charles couldn’t tell.
“Just touch the ring and imagine yourself changing into a Unicorn.” Jonah stepped back, giving Charles room.
Charles hadn’t actually imagined the change before, just the being a Unicorn. When he touched the ring with his other hand and imagined the change, he changed.
“Ack!” he tried to scream. It came out as a roar.
“I guess that confirms it,” Jonah said.
“Confirms what?” Charles tried to ask, but only bleats came out. His body must have betrayed his question, though because Jonah’s next words answered him.
“You look just like Kehet and we never told you what he looked like,” Jonah said.
Charles bent his neck around, though he couldn’t focus on this mane, he could tell it was a royal purple, as was the tip of his tail. He also couldn’t see his horn. His eyes gave him a very binocular vision, barely overlapping.
“Your horn is here,” Jonah said, touching his finger to the tip, just above the center of Charles’s vision. Charles could feel the finger touch his horn. He wouldn’t have expected being able to feel through metal. Jonah then explained, “Also your horn is silver, and Kehet is the only Unicorn with a silver horn.”
“So I am Kehet,” Charles bleated, sounding nothing like the words he was trying to say.
“Remember you can’t talk,” Jonah said. “Your body will speak for you if you let it. By trying to talk, you’re actually impeding your ability to communicate.”
Silon grunted and tossed his head to the side, pointing his horn to the woods. Chelle snorted and nodded slightly.
“Time to run,” Jonah said. “Follow them.”
Before Charles could ask anything, Silon took off with Chelle just behind him. Charles ran after. His body knew how to move and it felt natural to run. He kept his focus on the Unicorns ahead of him, not wanting to lose them in the woods. Then he noticed how fast he was travelling. The woods blurred through his vision, barely recognizable as individual trees.
They ran for an hour, until Silon brought them to a stop. Charles knew the spot. It was where Heather had found him. In the distance he could see the edge of the crater that used to be Blackstone
“How did you know?” Charles asked, forgetting he couldn’t speak. The words came out as bleats and slight growl.
Silon went over to a large flat stone by the river. Charles had often used that stone to lie in the sun. Using his horn, Silon dug under and flipped it over. There were symbols carved in the other side. Charles had never seen them before but he could read them.
“This marks the spot where Prince Kehet of the Unicorns both exited and entered this world.”
Silon changed back into his human form. Charles had expected him to be naked but he had all the clothing he’d been wearing prior to taking Unicorn form. Charles followed, also changing to his human form. Chelle did the same.
Silon ran his fingers along the symbols on the stone. “I carved this stone a little less than a thousand years ago. I was part of the Vulak hunting party where you were last seen. Our camp was setup here, though the river was a little shallower than.”
“You knew I’d be back?” Charles asked.
“No, you told me you entered the world at that stone,” Silon said. “That’s what we had come here to do, to see where you’d come from. And to hunt Begli, they were rampant in this area back then, pressing south from the mountains. This was still part of the Abvi kingdom of Grenlith back then. Relarch was a much smaller nation a thousand years ago.
“I wasn’t born yet,” Chelle said. “I’m only three hundred years old. Relarch hasn’t changed in my lifetime.”
“How old do Unicorns get,” Charles asked. Before anyone could speak, he knew the answer; it somehow appeared in his mind. “Thousands of years,” Charles said. “There’s really no upper limit.”
“That’s it,” Silon said. “There are only a couple thousand of us, maybe ten. No one really knows. We’re terribly secretive; more so while you were gone.”
“So, what do I do?” Charles said. “If I am Kehet, what can I do? What do I need to do?”
“I don’t know everything, you’re not one to brag of your abilities,” Silon said. “Like all Unicorns you can heal with the touch of your horn, only a virgin may ride you, and you can sense when someone else is a Unicorn. And what did you mean by ‘if’? What is there to leave any question in your mind?”
“I have a ring to change me and Kehet is a god,” Charles said.
“I know nothing of the ring, but you are a god. You are Kehet,” Silon said. “I ran with you off and on for three thousand years. I never saw you do anything omnipotent. I’ve seen other gods create things from nothing and such, but not you. I know you’re a god; the other gods talk to you like you are one of them. I just think you’re a little different.”
“Probably because he’s a Unicorn,” Chelle said. When they looked at her she explained, “Unicorns are magical creatures, but we cannot possess magical ability. There are no Unicorn mages or Tempests or Sorcerers. It probably has something to do with that.”
“As good a theory as any.” Silon shrugged. “So, Your Majesty, can you really question who you are?”
Charles thought about it. The thoughts seemed ridiculous. But it felt true. The evidence was hard to argue with. I am Kehet, he thought. He’d always thought it as a question before that, this time it was a statement.
Kehet took his Unicorn form and led Silon and Chelle back to the camp of the Wandering Rose.
CHAPTER 20: PANTROS
They’d passed through three villages along the Abvian Highway without stopping. When they’d stopped the carriage at a one inn town called Whisperwillow, Sheillene seemed particularly happy and at the same time particularly sad. Pantros was the first out of the carriage, hopping to the ground, thankful to have the chance to stretch his legs. He helped his sister and Sheillene step down.
“This is your home, isn’t it?” Tara said to the huntress as they walked from the carriage to the inn.
“I am Sheillene of Whisperwillow,” Sheillene said. “But it’s been many decades since I lived here.”
“Do I get to meet your family?” Tara asked.
“Not today,” Sheillene said. “My mother lives with my sister in a cottage far to the north. We’re not really part of the town, but this is the closest town to our home. That’s probably why I’m not as happy as I could be for visiting home, I won’t actually have time to visit my home. Still, it will be nice to see a few friends in town and play for familiar faces, even if we are only staying long enough for a meal.”
“We’re staying the night,” David said, catching up to them. “The drivers say there aren’t enough horses here to trade for.”
“The inn is nice enough,” Sheillene said. “No running water, but clean. Faren, the proprietor is fair and offers food for both human and Abvi tastes. Don’t drink the local wine he offers though, it’s usually the vintages that weren’t good enough to transport and sell. Speaking of Faren…” Sheillene gestured to an Abvian man coming out the inn’s doors.
“Sheillene?” The man asked. “What are you doing in a Relarchian Prince’s Carriage? Did you finally find a wealthy patron to keep you?”
“Hush, Faren,” Sheillene said. “You know I live for the travel. The prince isn’t even with us; he just lent us the carriage. Our driver tells us you’re short on horses, but do you think you could spare one for a night?”
“I could,” Faren said, “But you won’t be needing it. Your mother and sister are heading to Melnith, as most people are. It seems there have been sightings of Vulak raiding parties, and not just a few. There’s so many that the King has called for Veterans to rejoin the army until the Vulak are gone from our lands. Mostly they’ve been to the southeast and northwest. Your family farm should be safe, but why risk it. Behind the city walls is the safest place to be.
“But you’re still here and still peddling bad wine on travelers,” Sheillene said.
“Business is good when people are moving,” Faren said. “I’ll head to either Melnith or Fork if the Vulak are within ten leagues. I’m keeping my fastest horses at the ready.”
“I’d thought the Abvi were not bothered by the Vulak. I thought they were only a human problem, aren’t they afraid of the Abvi,” Pantros said.
“The Vulak are a perpetual threat to everyone,” Sheillene said. “No nation has completely cleansed their lands of the vile race. They hide in the lands too remote and too inhospitable by Human or Abvi standards. There are millions of them north of the mountains, in the plains and tundra. They breed twice as fast as humans and they celebrate war.”
“But you’re encounters with Vulak are all in Relarch,” Pantros said. “Usually southern Relarch.”
“Personally, yes. That’s where I spend most of my winters and winter is when the Vulak need to raid for food. But there are constant battles along the northern borders of all the civilized kingdoms from Enlith to Valencia. Given the choice, a Vulak would rather raid the Abvi lands than the Human lands. Abvi ears are trophies and humans, in all honesty, are better at war than the Abvi who generally value their own lives too much to takes risks in battle. Abvi will give ground until they have a clear advantage. Humans will hold difficult ground out of sheer stubbornness, and somehow, that seems to work for them.”
Pantros rested his hand on the bell of his sword. It was a reminder of why the Abvi were less willing to engage in combat without a strong advantage.
Sheillene then lowered her voice a little, as if she were telling a secret. “I’m probably the only Abvi that will admit that when it comes to war, humans are better at it. Vulak know this. Even the Abvi know this. So when humans started becoming a significant population in Teminev, the Abvi were willing to cede the territories with the longest flatland boundary to the Vulak lands. Relarch’s northern borders are mostly flat plains dotted with forts.” The nation of Melnith has a northern border of the Starshone River and the Whitecap mountains. We still get Vulak raids from the north, but not as often as Relarch.”
Vulak raids were not something Pantros had ever had to worry about in Ignea. The city was isolated between the sea, the Backflow River, the volcano and the Valencian Peaks, which contained wild beasts far more threatening than Vulak. Those beasts never approached the cities, though.
“Could the Vulak be after the gem too?” Pantros asked the huntress.
“It would have to be something like that if they’re as active as Faren says.” Sheillene said. “There’s a small Hunter’s Guild lodge here, they have ways to communicate quickly throughout the lands. I’ll see what they know. I’ll catch up to you inside.” She headed down the street and Tara went into the Inn. Pantros followed his sister.
The only people at the Inn were the people travelling with Pantros and Faren. Everyone else had gone, headed to one of the walled cities.
“The Hunters are aware of hundreds of incursions by the Vulak, starting about four days ago,” Sheillene said. “So far none are more than fifty leagues into the country, but the numbers are large. The reports are either exaggerating or this is not seasonal raids, but a gathering army, and a large one at that. We need to head that way immediately. Faren is coming with us, so we get his horses for the next leg. After that, we may have to resort to drastic means such as pushing the horses beyond prudence and possibly stealing replacements from abandoned farms and inns.”
“Will we make it?” Pantros asked. “Melnith is still two hundred leagues from here.” He’d been trying to map out the journey in his head. The distance he’d stated was mostly a guess.
“A little more than that,” Sheillene said. “The towns between here and there are already evacuated. The Vulak forces are moving inward, but they are on foot and as slow as the slowest member of the group. We have an advantage in speed, though only a slight one. We should make it ahead of the Vulak with a couple days to spare.”
David raised a finger then said, “I’ve had tours at the northern forts. I know Vulak strategies. There will likely be small forces made up of younger, more eager Vulak ahead of the others. We’ll probably have to fight a few of those. I’d say that Vulak do not fight with any honor, but it would be more accurate to say that the Vulak sense of honor is alien to us. They don’t attack unarmed people, but they expect the unarmed people to become slaves for a season, two if the first season is spring. Slaves are treated with respect, even by our standards, but they lose all their property. Armed folks will be killed and if they don’t die immediately they face torture before death, and then they might be eaten, and that likelihood increases with their apparent prowess in battle.”
“So those of us who can’t fight would do better not to try?” Thomas asked.
“If Vulak attack us, and you aren’t a very competent fighter, sit down, wherever you are, and wait for the fight to end,” David said. “As long as we win, you’ll be fine.”
“The rest of us should wear armor,” Sheillene said. “I grabbed a few leather jerkins and some bracers from the Hunter’s hall. They’re in the carriage. I couldn’t find anything large enough for Marc.”
Faren pointed to the inn wall, or something on the other side of the wall. “I have a tanned ox hide in the barn. We wouldn’t have time to make proper armor, but we could cut a hole in it for his head and then belt it and trim off whatever is in the way of his movement. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it’s better than the canvas shirt he’s wearing.”
David said, “I have two sets of armor in the carriage: Battle armor and tournament armor. There’s little coverage on the back in the tournament armor, so I’d be willing to wear that if someone wanted to use the battle armor. It looks like it would fit Pan, Thomas or Faren. It might fit Tara, but it wouldn’t be an ideal fit.”
“I don’t think I could move in plate armor,” Pantros said. He’d always thought the best way to not be hurt was to not get hit. He figured if he could dodge Bryan’s sword, even when it was usually not actually a sword, he’d do fine against any Vulak. “I’ll probably try one of the jerkins if they’re anything like Sheillene’s armor.”
“Not as pretty,” Sheillene said. “Functional, but not pretty.”
“I’m probably going the sit-on-my-ass route,” Thomas said.
“I’ll take a jerkin,” Tara said. “I may not be the best with a sword, but I don’t want to be alive knowing I did nothing to keep my brother from being killed.”
“Real armor sounds good to me,” Faren said. “I’m a fair shot with a bow and can handle a spear and shield as well as any. I served in the Abvi Army for ninety years back when I was Sheillene’s age. I kept my weapons up, but my armor would need to be re-strapped and reconditioned. I don’t think we have the time for that.”
“We really should be leaving now,” Sheillene said. “Grab the ox hide and some shears and we’ll be on our way.”
Faren got up from his chair. “Sure thing,” he said then headed towards the front door. He stopped and turned around, “There are four sacks on the counter in the kitchen. That’s all my dried meat, my current bread and a hard cheese or two. Someone should grab it.” The innkeeper then stepped out the door.
Marc and Pantros gathered the food sacks and headed out to the carriage. The prince’s drivers had headed back towards Fork with the Inn’s staff, but David had claimed he could handle the team of horses and teach some of the others to do so as well. Moments later they were headed southwest on the Abvian Highway,
CHAPTER 21: KEHET
The pond reflected the stars and the occasional fiery explosion. Heather sat beside Kehet in his human form. She was concentrating, trying to manipulate the shapes of the blasts of flame. Jonah had produced a book from somewhere in the camp that contained spells for Wizards. According to Heather, the spells could be used verbatim for specific effects, but by taking bits and pieces from each of them, she could produce far more variations of effects.
She had spent the morning practicing throwing balls of fire that would hit a target and splash like they were made of liquid. The afternoon had been spent causing explosions at a distance. She’d managed to get the explosions to radiate in three prongs from the center, but, so far, could only do three equally spaced prongs of flame.
“It’s unfair that I can’t ride you in your other form,” she said, idly bouncing a tiny ball of flame in her palm. “I was a virgin when I first met you, which should count for something. You really don’t understand how much I wish I could ride a Unicorn, specifically you.”
Kehet didn’t want to go into the same argument again, especially not when she was wielding her magic. It’s not like they hadn’t tried. She’d just slipped right off every time. “I wish the same thing,” he said. A few of the times he’d tried explaining how he couldn’t control the rules, but he was unable to say why because he didn’t know. It became more difficult when she brought up that he was a god. This time he chose to simply be sympathetic.
He still didn’t feel like a god. He’d become comfortable with being the ruler of a species that didn’t really insist on recognizing any formalities regarding his position. He didn’t seem to have a whole lot of day to day responsibilities as Prince of the Unicorns. Among the Gypsies the bows had devolved to dignified nods as he approached people. The nods make him far less uncomfortable.
A sharp whistle and thud startled Kehet and Heather. A thick arrow had struck the ground just inches from Heather. The ball of fire in her hand fell to the ground, burning a thin trail as it rolled down the hill into the pond. Kehet picked up his sword and stood, looking for the source of the attack. Heather ran for the trees, back towards camp.
Three extremely ugly people emerged from the forest, blocking her. Two carried oddly curved swords and steel shields. One held a two handed axe. They were Vulak, surmised Kehet. He charged over to intercept the three before they could get to Heather. He swung wildly trying to cause them to step away. It worked on the Vulak with the axe and one of those with the shields, but the other stepped towards him, catching Kehet in the shoulder. Kehet was able to roll with the hit, but not enough to stop it from biting deep.
Kehet grabbed that Vulak’s sword arm and yanked him off balance. With a twist of his blade and a tug, Kehet pulled the attacker onto his sword then used both hands to swing the Vulak away, off the blade. Kehet then attacked the Vulak with the axe, cutting furiously, forcing the Vulak to block constantly. A splash of flame to Kehet’s left told him Heather was throwing fire at the other Vulak. Kehet knocked the axe free of one of the Vulak’s hands, leaving an opening for his next strike which cut deep into the Vulak’s chest. It fell to the ground gasping and spitting blood.
The last Vulak was retreating towards the forest with his shield between himself and Heather’s continuous onslaught of fiery balls. Its shield glowed bright yellow and was bending around his arm with each ball that bounced from it. The Vulak screamed and threw his shield to the ground and sprinted back into the forest. Heather stopped her attack when the Vulak turned away.
“We should get back to camp,” Kehet said.
“Your arm!” Heather said, “Are you okay?”
“Well, it hurts like hell,” Kehet said. “I can move it. It hurts to move it, but I can do it. We should get back and then worry about the wound.”
“I could cauterize it,” Heather said, her voice lilting with humor.
Kehet laughed. “I’ll heal, possibly before we reach camp.”
“Now would be one of those times it would be really handy if I could ride you,” Heather said.
Kehet agreed. “I wish I understood enough about this to know if and how to change such silly rules.” It was more of a fact than a rule. Earlier they’d even tried to tie her on but it didn’t help. The ropes either came untied or slid off as well. She could sit on him as long as he didn’t move, but riding was impossible.
They jogged back to the camp of the Wandering Rose to find the camp already under attack. Only the Gypsies were not fighting back. All of the Gypsies simply sat in the dining clearing as a couple dozen Vulak ran around them. The Vulak ignored the sitting Gypsies and crowded around a person by the fire pit. Kehet couldn’t tell who.
A Vulak noticed them and screamed, pointing their direction. Several others joined that one and headed towards them.
As soon as they did, Heather said, “I’m going to try something different. I hope this works.” She said a brief chant and her forearms became covered in flame. She pointed her arm towards a Vulak a dozen paces away and the flames arced outward, spraying the oncoming attacker. The Vulak dropped. Heather picked new targets and three others fell in a similar manner. The rest of the Vulak stopped, keeping their distance from Heather. Several rushed to join the others by the fire pit.
Diten stood from where she’d been sitting and approached Kehet and Heather. The Vulak stepped out of her way, but made no action to stop or harm her.
“There are archers among them,” she said when she got close. “And Jonah is among the best in the world with his sword, but he won’t last forever against this many.” She nodded towards the fire pit.
“Then we should go help him,” Kehet said.
“You and Heather, yes.” Diten said. “I don’t participate in combat and combat doesn’t participate with me. It’s a restriction and benefit of my role with my goddess. I should be able to heal minor injuries after the fight, so don’t get hurt too badly.”
Heather’s toe nudged Kehet’s boot and she said, “Jonah?”
“Let’s go!” Kehet said then ran towards the fire pit.
“Archers!” Heather said. She pointed to several Vulak around the clearing who were readying bows. “They’re too far for this spell.”
“I’ll get them,” Kehet said. He touched his ring and imagined changing to his Unicorn form mid-stride. It worked. He charged the closest archer and impaled it on his horn. He hadn’t thought it through and it took a bit of effort to shake the Vulak off.
Across the clearing another had an arrow nocked and began drawing back his bow. With his speed, Kehet was able to get there before the Vulak finished the draw-back. This time he just knocked the Vulak aside with his shoulder then kicked him with a hind leg as he passed.
The other archers were on the ground, dead or dying within seconds. By the time Kehet was back at Heather’s side, the Vulak were all screaming the same word. By their scurrying, Kehet guessed the word meant ‘retreat’.
They rushed over to where Jonah stood alone by the fire pit. From Diten’s explanation and the time that had passed, Kehet had expected to find him bleeding from several wounds and surrounded by Vulak bodies. Jonah was unhurt and there were no bodies near him
“You don’t kill either?” Kehet asked after reassuming his human form.
“I have no qualms with killing,” Jonah said. “But, that wouldn’t have been the prudent course for that situation.”
“You were surrounded,” Kehet said. “Shouldn’t you have been thinning their numbers?”
“I’d challenged one of their champions to single-combat,” Jonah said. “I wasn’t going to win a fight against all of them at once but one at a time, it was they that didn’t have a chance. I didn’t want to risk the others not accepting the single-combat challenge, so I made the duel last. I figured when you two showed up we’d be able to work together and kill them all. That part of the plan worked well enough. Getting them to retreat is a win, for now. They may come back.”
“They may not,” Diten said. “Heather is frightening, and though a Unicorn horn would be a prestigious hunting trophy, they’re not dumb enough to attack one in open combat.”
“Aren’t we in the nation of Melnith, one of the Abvi Kingdoms?” Kehet asked. “Why are there Vulak here?”
“Vulak are everywhere that other people are not,” Jonah said. “They live in the mountains, the swamps, and even the untamed forests. They do occasionally raid the civilized folk nearby. But it is odd they were here. There are no such places within thirty leagues of here. Our winter camp is occasionally subject to raids, but this is a first for our summer camp. That was a very large group for a raiding party.”
“They didn’t attack anyone but the three of us,” Kehet said.
Jonah explained that Vulak didn’t fight people who didn’t fight back; they just enslaved them and plundered their possessions, after they killed anything that did resist. “The Gypsies have never seen Vulak as more than a nuisance since the Gypsies of the Wandering Rose are extremely pacifistic. Still, two seasons of slavery and having to rebuild the camp is enough for me to fight to defend them.”
“And Diten?” Kehet asked.
“No living creature can see her as something to harm,” Jonah said. “I’m sure there’s a story behind that. I just don’t know it.”
“There is a good long story,” Diten said. “For another day, however. We should know what the Vulak are up to. I think someone needs to track them back to where they came from.”
“I’ll go,” Jonah said. “I know how to read tracks.”
“You should stay,” Kehet said. “The Unicorns here should be able to sprint out, gather some details and get back before the Vulak have time so set Unicorn traps.”
“Then go, quickly,” Jonah said. “Be careful.”
Kehet summoned all the Unicorns from among the gypsies and asked them to fan out of the camp and see where the Vulak were camped. He told them not to engage any, to which everyone laughed.
“We’re all of the Wandering Rose,” Silon said. “We won’t fight.”
The Unicorns all changed forms and ran out into the forest.
Diten looked puzzled.
“You didn’t know?” Kehet asked.
“That some of the gypsies were Unicorns, no,” She said.
She walked towards one of the fallen Vulak calling Kehet to join her. “I can’t save this one, you should kill it.”
The Vulak was charred over most of his body. Kehet had assumed it was dead. Cracking gasps came from the Vulak’s mouth.
“How?” Kehet asked.
“Your sword. Either cut off the head or pierce its heart,” Diten said. “I cannot kill, and Jonah cannot fight except to defend. “
Kehet drew his sword and took a deep breath then pushed it into the Vulak’s chest. It stopped gasping. “You would heal him if he weren’t dying?”
“I will make the ones who will live able to walk away,” Diten said. “I don’t like anything about the Vulak. I won’t kill one, however, either through action or inaction. If I have the ability to prevent death or even just prevent suffering, I will.”
“They wouldn’t do the same for us,” Kehet said.
“No,” Diten said. “They would not. We are not they.” She walked to the next Vulak and checked its condition. It was dead; she moved on. She only found one that was too wounded to flee with the others but not burned too badly to save. It was one Kehet had knocked over and kicked. She knelt by the Vulak put her hands on the creature’s ribs. A turquoise glow enveloped her and the Vulak.
A moment later the Vulak pushed Diten away then stood and ran off into the forest.
“I guess you don’t do what you do for the gratitude,” Kehet said.
“I do what I do because I can,” Diten said. “And it give me a reason to touch people. I like to touch people; it’s a little connection that brings us all a little closer.” She put her hand on his blood covered arm. “Are you hurt?” she asked.
“I was,” Kehet said. “I got better.”
When Diten didn’t remove her hand, Kehet found himself glancing around for Heather.
“Jonah took her off, away from camp, to burn the dead Vulak,” she said. “She’s not here, so I get to touch you without bothering her. Does it bother you?”
“It’s just a touch,” Kehet said, but he was bothered in a way he didn’t mind so much.
“When you find yourself alone, come to me,” Diten said. “I don’t invite men to seek me out, normally. They do on their own and I seek out those that interest me, but you are different, and not just because you’re a god or a Unicorn. When you find yourself alone, find me. I’d stay with you until your heart heals.”
“I don’t see anything coming between Heather and I,” Kehet said. “I’m the only one she knows she can’t kill.”
Diten pulled her hand off his arm and turned away. As she walked off she looked back over her shoulder and said, “If I’m not here when you come looking, I won’t be too hard for you to find, I promise.”
Each Unicorn reported the same things as they returned. There were no raiding camps; the Vulak were just moving through. There were a lot of Vulak, however, not just those that raided the Gypsy camp.
“We need to take the Gypsies east across the river and camp outside Fork. The Vulak won’t get close to that city,” Jonah said.
“We still need to go to Melnith,” Heather said. “I seem to be doing okay with the wizardry, but I’m still basically just playing with fire. It may not be safe.”
Jonah nodded. “The road is too dangerous, but there may be another way.” He turned to Diten, “Do you think Beldithe would be willing to do a favor for Kehet?”
Kehet wasn’t sure what happened. Suddenly he was standing by a pool, one of several in a temple, in a city. Dozens of women, mostly naked, swam around in the pools. Heather and Diten stood beside him. Heather looked as confused as he did. On the other hand, Diten seemed like she expected nothing else. Not only did she appear comfortable in the surroundings, she slipped out of her dress and dove into the pool.
Diten swam to another woman and embraced her. Kehet didn’t have to guess who the other woman was. He knew it was Beldithe, the goddess of love. Even if he didn’t have the instinctive knowledge, her near-luminescent blonde tresses and far too alluring smile would have been enough to tell him she could be no one else. Both women then swam back over to where he and Heather stood and climbed out of the pool. Other women rushed over to the goddess and her chosen and patted them with towels until they were dry.
Beldithe stepped close to Kehet, and placed a hand on his chest then leaned even closer and kissed his cheek. “Welcome back, my love,” she said. She then stepped away and embraced Heather, kissing her cheek as well. She also whispered something to Heather, but Kehet couldn’t hear it.
When Beldithe stepped back, Heather asked the goddess, in slightly shaky voice, “Are you and he lovers?”
“Jealous?” Beldithe said, her voice lilting, clearly teasing.
“How could I not be?” Heather asked. “I mean, look at you and your perfect body, your perfect beauty and your intoxicating voice. Diten is only a shadow of everything that you are and even I, a woman, wanted to be with her. With you, only knowing that you are a goddess and so far beyond a mortal like me, prevents me from pursuing the same with you. I can’t see how Kehet could see you differently, except, being a god, he doesn’t have the same reason to be inhibited.”
Beldithe laughed. “Should I dress? Would that help you feel better?” Without waiting for an answer, a gown appeared on Beldithe and a similar one on Diten. Neither gown did much to hide their bodies and if anything, it accented them making them more appealing.
Heather took a deep breath and looked away.
“Don’t get angry,” Beldithe said.
“Really, don’t get angry,” Kehet said. “I am with you, Heather. I am not with Beldithe.”
“Well, not today,” Beldithe said. “We’ve had our flings in the past and will probably have our flings again, but I don’t keep anyone. He loves you and that is something I cannot change.”
“So, I’m just supposed to be okay if my man has a fling with you?” Heather said.
“She’s a Wizard, my goddess.” Diten said. “I know you’re just teasing her, but she might not be the type to play with.”
“She’s a Wizard?” Beldithe asked then looked at Heather appraisingly. “My apologies, Heather. Diten is correct, I am just teasing. I wouldn’t take Kehet to bed while he was with you. That’s not true, I would. But, I promise that I won’t.”
“The goddess is always true to her word,” Diten said.
“And please don’t explode in my temple,” Beldithe said. “I like you, Heather. You are beautiful and dangerous. I like that combination in people. I have rooms below if you’d like to spend your time in Melnith being treated like a queen. Kehet, being a man, cannot stay here, but you would enjoy it here.”
Heather was noticeably calmer. “I’ll consider it, but I’ll probably be staying with Kehet.”
The goddess stroked Heather’s arm. “Now that he’s embraced his Unicorn self, he will have trouble staying in one place for long. You, on the other hand, are stuck here for the next twenty years if you are going to attend the Wizard school.”
Kehet didn’t have plans to go anywhere, and expected Heather to espouse her faith in him to stay with her, but instead she asked, “You know of the Wizard School? Do you know where it is?”
“There’s a smithy in the Foreign Quarter, in the Matderi section, called Izzy’s Iron,” Beldithe said. “Izzy’s not a Wizard, but she guards the entrance, which is under her shop. The Foreign District borders the Temple District behind the Temple of the Nightstar.” Beldithe pointed to a building made of dark blue marble. “You could get to Izzy’s in less than a quarter of an hour from here on foot.”
“Should we head there?” Kehet asked.
“Surely you’d like to stay and chat,” Beldithe said. “I have comfortable places to sit or lie down inside.”
“You know I’d like to,” Kehet said. “But we came here for Heather and helping her reach her potential and not explode again is what I want more than anything.”
“Yes, let’s go,” Heather said. She headed out of the temple without watching if Kehet would follow. He did.
From Beldithe’s Temple, Melnith had appeared a city of towering white marble structures reaching into the sky. Once they entered the Foreign Quarter it was not much different than Blackstone. Small shops ran along the main street with homes, some no bigger than a one room hovel, lined the alleys behind the street. The shops were a little bigger and had much more inventory on display than the ones in Blackstone, but without turning around to see the white spires, Kehet couldn’t tell he was in a large city.
Izzy’s shop was an inconspicuous wrought iron implement store. When Heather told the Matderi Woman that Red Clan Ore was the hottest, Izzy took them into her shop and led them down a staircase. They descended a couple dozen steps into a torch lit spherical room that looked to be thirty paces across. A platform at the center of the room had four tables. A human in red robes was talking to two people, both Matderi, who sat at the tables.
“This is it?” Heather asked.
“There’re not a lot of Wizards,” Izzy said. “Few are born with the talent; fewer survive to discover the school.”
“But you can teach me to control this?” Heather asked.
“Not me personally,” Izzy said. “I teach the metalworking classes. Lucian teaches fire control.”
“When can I start?” Heather asked.
“You started when you gave me the Wizard’s Call.” Izzy said. “I’ll need you both to sign the contract, which is really just a pledge to complete the training and promise of secrecy.”
“Whoa,” Kehet said. “I’m not here for Wizard School. I’m just here to support Heather.”
“Hmm,” Izzy said. “I’d assumed by your calloused hands and large forearms that you were a blacksmith.”
“I am a blacksmith. I’m just not a Wizard.” Kehet said.
“Wait here,” Izzy said, then took a few steps towards the walkway leading to the teaching platform. She then turned back and asked, “I assume you’d rather have your memories for the past couple hours erased than be killed?”
“I don’t see either one of those coming to pass,” Kehet said. “Let’s just say I leave, promising to not reveal your secret.”
“There are rules we have in place to protect our secret,” Izzy said. “The punishments are harsh, but you understand we all risk execution if discovered. I highly suggest the memory wipe. I’m told it’s painless, or at least if it’s not you won’t remember the pain, so it’s the same thing in the long run.”
Heather stepped towards Izzy. “My companion isn’t trying to be disrespectful of your, well I guess it now our, traditions. But, he’s correct, you won’t be killing him and you won’t be able to wipe his memory.”
“Oh?” Izzy said. “Is he of another magical college? I suppose a Mage could enchant protections but he doesn’t look like a Mage.”
“Does he look like a god?” Heather said.
Izzy stepped back towards them then walked around Kehet slowly. “No, but I suppose now would be a good time for introductions. Who, exactly, are you?”
“My name is Heather Feystal,” she said then added, “of Blackstone. I’ll let Kehet introduce himself.”
“But,” Kehet said, realizing Heather had given him away.
Izzy was quick to take in what the name meant. “The Founder?” she asked.
“That’s me,” Kehet said.
“I don’t know anyone who’s seen you in person,” Izzy said. “I’ve seen over two hundred gods, mostly lesser, but I’ve seen most of the founders in their temples. I’ve never seen you.”
“I don’t have a temple,” Kehet said. “I could change forms, but I’d have to step out of this alcove and onto the walkway to do so and I wouldn’t be able to turn around.” The walkway was only wide enough for a single person, and that person should have good balance.
“Or I could have Lucian test the theory that fire wouldn’t hurt you,” Izzy said.
“Well, it would probably hurt if Lucian is more powerful than Heather,” Kehet said. “But I’d get better and I’d probably be upset.”
“You know,” Izzy said, pausing as if to appear thoughtful, “I think we can trust our new student’s word on this.” Izzy went to stand by a bare, flat wall. “Heather, come place your hand here.”
Heather walked over and put the palm of her hand against the wall. The wall began to glow red, then after a moment changed to orange then yellow. It cycled through the colors of the rainbow. Izzy gasped when it hit blue and started to shake when it hit purple and then turned solid black. Izzy shouted for Lucian to run to them. By the time Lucian arrived, the wall had shifted again to white. “Does this mean what I think it means?” Heather asked. “This is a measure of my capabilities?”
Lucian took a deep breath. “It is a measure of your potential. I thought I was the most powerful Wizard alive and I measure somewhere between green and blue. You are a ninth circle Wizard. Even when Wizards walked the land freely, the tenth circle has only survived to adulthood twice. Ninth are almost as rare. In your lifetime, there will not likely be a more powerful Wizard. We need to get you started on the calming classes lest you not only kill us all but bring a good portion of Melnith to the ground. I imagine if you exploded it would be a radius of hundreds of paces.”
“The destruction was about a league across,” Kehet said. “The crater itself was about a fifth of that.”
“And you survived?” Lucian asked Heather.
“I’ve kept a fire protection spell on my body since my forth summer,” Heather said.
“You mean you recast it every day before you use your magic?” Lucian said.
“No, it’s been on since that summer,” Heather said. “I cast it as a self-maintaining spell.”
“Such things would take so much power,” Lucian said. “I am near fifth circle, but at ninth you are more than ten times as potent as I. We must be careful with you. What about the man?” Lucian asked, looking at Kehet.
“He’s a Founder,” Izzy said with a shrug. “He’s not a Wizard, but Prince Kehet of the Unicorns. It seems our Wizard Supreme has friends in high places.”
“Will it be okay if I stay with Beldithe during my training?” Heather asked. Kehet noticed the impish tone in her voice. She was just adding to Izzy’s astonishment.
“Once initiation, mostly calming training, is complete, you will be free to come and go as you please,” Lucian said. “Most people master the calming techniques in less than a week.”
Heather grabbed Kehet’s hand and squeezed. “Why am I thinking that between the lines of what you’re saying is that I won’t be leaving this facility at all until then?”
“We take calming seriously, it saves lives,” Lucian said. “Apparently this is a concept you should understand. We’ll start your training as soon as Prince Kehet leaves. Take your time saying your goodbyes; it may be several days before you see him again.”
Heather kissed Kehet then said, “Tell Beldithe where I can find you.”
“That wasn’t a joke?” Izzy asked.
Kehet ignored the Matderi smith’s intrusion as did Heather. “I won’t be far.” He stepped away from Heather, still holding her hand until the distance between them was too great. He blew her a kiss and headed up the stairs. Izzy followed him.
“We don’t judge here,” Izzy said, “but do you mind me asking if there were any casualties when Heather lost control of her fire?”
“Blackstone,” Kehet said.
“Isn’t that the town Heather said she was from?” Izzy asked.
“She is from there,” Kehet said.
“Are you telling me she destroyed an entire town?” Izzy asked.
Kehet didn’t feel like answering. He just climbed the stairs and left the smithy. On the street Kehet looked each way and decided that there was nothing he needed back at Beldithe’s temple. He had more questions for the goddess, but wasn’t sure he cared about the answers at that moment. Maybe he could find a way out of town and run for a while.
CHAPTER 22: PANTROS
Until they’d arrived in Whisperwillow, they’d been sharing the Abvian Highway with other travelers; wagons and carriages often filled the road going in both directions as far as Pantros could see. News of the Vulak raids must have reached others at or near Whisperwillow. Since leaving the town they hadn’t seen anyone travelling the same direction as them and few travelling east.
By the morning of the sixth day, they had the road to themselves. They’d been forced to camp two nights when fresh horses couldn’t be found. Farms had been abandoned, but not all of them left their animals behind. As they rode into a large village, they heard the sounds of combat.
“I thought we’d be past the danger by now,” Pantros said.
“Me too,” Sheillene agreed. “But it seems we were wrong. It sounds like a small fight.
“We may be able to ride through,” Faren called back from the driver’s bench. “Should I push the horses to a gallop?”
David leaned out a window and said, “Not just yet, but be ready to.”
“I can see the fight, behind that building over there,” Faren said. “It’s a small force of Vulak. I can’t see who they’re fighting Do we stop to help?”
The sounds of combat grew louder. Pantros was shocked to hear the clash of steel interspersed with laughter, and he recognized the laughter. He called to Faren, “Stop!” He said back to Sheillene and the others near him, “That’s Bryan.” Without waiting for the carriage to come to a complete stop, he opened the door and leapt from the carriage and drew his sword.
Rushing between the village buildings, he emerged by a well. Sure enough, Bryan stood in the middle of the Vulak, swinging a huge sword. The Vulak were leaning forward then jumping back, afraid to close with Bryan. Pantros saw several wounded Vulak lying nearby. He started running to help Bryan when two Vulak carrying armfuls of whatever they’d just scrounged came out the back door of a building. They dropped their bundles and drew swords. The weapons were not pretty, but looked heavy and sharp. Pantros tried to flank around them so they couldn’t both swing at him. He swiped his rapier at the closest one’s calf, but the Vulak stepped back. These were not the brutish mindless monsters of the stories. The two were working together, making sure to not let Pantros flank them. He kept trying to get a better position, but one would wheel back while the other wheeled forward to keep them both facing him. When they did both face him they advanced until Pantros forced them to pivot again. Pantros found himself retreating more than circling them. He didn’t want to engage two at once. The few swipes he managed to attempt were knocked aside. When a Vulak swung at him, he dodged back.
Then the two separated a little, but maintained their position relating to him. They were circling him. He leapt toward one of them only to have the other close to his side. He managed to prick his blade into one’s thigh, but barely enough to draw blood, before he had to roll away.
Pantros saw two men rush up behind the Vulak, to keep the Vulak attention, he lunged at one. Before the other could swing at him, a large blade cut into it from behind, nearly splitting its torso. Sword blades also erupted from the other Vulak’s chest. The first Vulak fell silently while the other fell with a scream that stopped abruptly. Marc and Bryan stood behind them. They were admiring each other’s kills.
“Kidney and Heart,” Bryan said. “Just to make sure he died a quick, painful death?”
“A heart shot is risky,” Marc said. “Too many bones. The kidney was just to make sure the Vulak wouldn’t be willing to fight if the heart shot failed.”
“Bryan?” Pantros asked, not because he was unsure of his friend’s identity, but because he was unsure why his friend was there.
Bryan’s tone was the usual aloof when he said, “Right about now I’d be bragging about how I saved your life if Shelly hadn’t just saved mine.” Pantros looked over to where Bryan had been fighting to see two Vulak bodies had arrows protruding from them.
“Don’t think that’s a debt that can be paid to someone else,” Sheillene said. “And I don’t know why you insist on calling me ‘Shelly’. That’s just one of the things I didn’t miss about you on my last visit to the hedgehog. Only my sister calls me that. To you and everyone else I am Sheillene.”
“Okay, Shelly,” Bryan said. “I’ll call you Sheillene, Shelly.”
Sheillene growled. “Are there more around?”
“No,” Bryan said. “I found their camp last night and followed them until they started ransacking the town. They split up to each pick their own building to loot and I picked them off one by one. I’d killed six before the others caught on and started working together.”
“I like ‘Shelly’,” Marc said. “It’s a much cuter name. It takes the edge off. Someone like you could use a few soft edges.”
“Don’t go there,” Sheillene said. “I am plenty soft when I can be, but my lifestyle needs those edges for protection. I am not Shelly, I am Sheillene.”
“I’m just saying, ‘Shelly’ is friendlier.” Marc shrugged.
“Friendly is something a Hunter only pretends to be to get close to a bounty,” Sheillene said. “Friendly is not a reputation a Hunter can afford.”
“But it would be good for a bard,” Thomas said, walking up to the group. Tara was at his side, her sword still in her hand.
“Your sister’s husband came back?” Bryan asked Pantros.
That Bryan knew when he did not caught Pantros by surprise. “Um, yeah, kind of, anyway.” *We should talk about your techniques when you are outnumbered.*
Pantros ignored his sword. Instead he asked Bryan, “Why are you here?”
“I got a letter that said you needed me,” Bryan said. “It said to meet you in Melnith. The letter said it was from you.”
“I didn’t write a letter,” Pantros said.
“It was probably me,” Thomas said. “The same me that left me the ring.”
“How can one sentence make me so confused?” Bryan asked. He tore off part of one of the Vulak’s pants and wiped the blood off his sword. He then held the rag toward Pantros only to pull it away when Pantros reached for it. “Doesn’t look like you need this,” his friend said then tossed the rag to Marc.
“I drew blood,” Pantros pointed to the tip of his sword. “At least I didn’t get cut. You have a few scrapes.”
Sheillene examined a few cuts on Bryans arm. “Those need to be washed and wrapped,” she said. “Vulak do not clean their weapons.”
“I know,” Bryan said. “This wasn’t my first encounter with Vulak. I am The General Prime of the Novarran Army, you know.”
“In less than a year?” Sheillene said. “I’ve heard of General Bryan, I’d never have thought you and he were one and the same.”
“Okay, so it’s a purely honorary rank,” Bryan said. “Dane, it seems, was a retired Admiral in the Novarran Navy and some of Ignea’s pirates knew that. Thus he couldn’t sail on a private merchant vessel. So we had to go over land. They needed him there because the Proconsul trusted him and he put Dane in charge of all the Military. He had other friends on the Council who owed him and since they didn’t want to actually trust me with power, but they agreed to set me up with a pension. It seems making the trek through Wylde Woodlands is impressive enough to earn a respectful rank. I sit in on Dane’s planning sessions and meetings, but I don’t talk much.”
“You went through the Wylde Woodlands?” Sheillene asked. “No one makes it out of there.”
“We almost didn’t,” Bryan said. “I have quite the story to tell you, if you’ll hear it.”
Sheillene rolled her eyes and smiled. “I’m a bard, asking me if I want a new story is like asking a child if they want candied pastries. We have two or three days left to Melnith. But, we should get back in the carriage and be on our way.”
Bryan pointed at the piles of loot the Vulak had dropped on the ground. “Shouldn’t we see if they have any valuables?”
“Those belong to someone,” Sheillene said.
“They used to belong to whoever lived here,” Bryan said. “But then they were stolen by Vulak. I’m only thinking to see if the Vulak we killed can provide a spare penny or two.”
“No, Bryan, we don’t have time. No need to risk another attack by waiting around,” Pantros said. “There can be nothing we need there. I’m sure whoever lives here took the best stuff with them when they went to the city.”
“Alright,” Bryan said. “Let’s see this carriage of yours.”
CHAPTER 23: LADY GLACIA
“Murdread has twenty-four demons of significant rank down in the King’s Courtyard,” Kirvel said to Lady Glacia.
This time they were meeting in the basement of an abandoned part of Demia. A place where the lava pools encroaching made the surroundings uninhabitable. She didn’t want to risk exposing her best spy in Murdread’s service. Two of her biggest guards stood beside Glacia, fully covered in black steel armor and each carrying very large axes.
Only twenty-four? Glacia pondered. She never thought Murdread was a serious threat, but only twenty-four?
“I thought better of you, Kirvel,” she said.
“I am performing my duties and no one believes for an instant my loyalties lie elsewhere,” Kirvel said.
“If you were performing your duties well, I wouldn’t be surprised by how small Murdread’s force is. A hundred or so demonlings and only two dozen of significance? I should have been aware of those numbers long ago,” she said.
“Are you worried he will not have enough to fulfill your needs of his plans?” Kirvel asked.
“Your little mind is not capable of understanding my plans,” Glacia said. “Don’t be presumptuous enough to think I will explain anything I don’t want you to know. The intricacies of my plans are mine to know. Your duty, for which I have been rewarding you handsomely, is to accomplish the little tasks I assign you.”
“I just thought we were happy with Murdread succeeding,” Kirvel said.
Glacia reached out and took large axe from one of her guards. She spun the axe around in one hand, rolling the haft over the back of her hand a couple times, just for show. Sometimes the lesser demons required a show of physical strength, and her human-like feminine body belied her strength. When the weapon stopped spinning the axe blade rested against Kirvel’s neck.
“This is the second time I’ve had to remind you of your station,” Glacia said, speaking in a firm voice. “I almost never have to resort to threats to keep my loyal followers in line. If your rewards are insufficient to temper your curiosity, perhaps we need to re-evaluate our arrangement.”
Kirvel croaked, “I’m actually perfectly happy with the current arrangement. Don’t ask questions, I get that now. You won’t hear another question from me other than ‘What can I do to serve you, milady?’”
“Since you asked,” Glacia said as pulled the axe away and tossed it to the guard. She again used her usual seductive honey voice, “I need the name of Darien’s mortal. The one he is going to use in the final phases of his plans.”
“I’ll get that for you, milady,” Kirvel said. He bowed, took a step away, bowed again, and then scurried off.
The demonling’s value was quickly diminishing in Glacia’s eyes. She’d expected ambition when she’d recruited him. She’d underestimated not only his curiosity, but his ability to comprehend her complex manipulations. He’d been wrong in his assessments, but someday he might not be. She was sure his time in her service was coming to an end. She pondered what kind of end would be appropriate for Kirvel.
CHAPTER 24: PANTROS
The white spires of Melnith were a welcome sight a few days after they’d met up with Bryan. Pantros had missed Bryan, but two days of hearing his tales of surviving the Wylde Woodlands were more than enough to reacquaint him with his friend. It took them another day to reach the city. Several spires reached all the way into the clouds. Sheillene told him the entire city had been built with magic. The marble was shaped and sometimes even grown using magic.
If the stories were true, Melnith was over fifty thousand years old and it wasn’t the oldest of the Abvi cities.
“The main tower at the Sorcery College is almost a league tall,” Sheillene said. “They say the top levels can sway a hundred paces in the wind. Odd that they say it, since, being sorcerers, master of the element of air, they can control wind.”
“My baby sister is a teacher at the Sorcery College,” Thomas said.
“How?” Sheillene asked.
Thomas shrugged. “Well, she went there, learned for a while, and now she teaches.”
“No,” Sheillene said. “I mean if you’re a hundred and thirty, and she’s your baby sister, and the Sorcerers don’t take Abvi students prior to a hundred and twenty-five, what you tell me is not possible. Is she not also Abvi?”
“She’s pure Abvi, but they took her when she was twenty five,” Thomas said. “She’d already taught herself basic Sorcery from a book. They take humans at twenty; it wasn’t that much of a stretch to take an Abvi that young. We mature as fast as humans, we just live forever and get far more mature.” Thomas’s eyes darted to the various humans in the carriage. No one reacted.
“We’re quite the crowd,” Tara said. “We have the King of Thieves, The Greatest Bard ever, a General who has yet to see twenty two summers, and you, Sheillene, who, as I understand it is not only the greatest archer alive, but you were born with an innate ability to play any instrument.”
“I only play strings,” Sheillene said. “I tried a flute once and a cat attacked me to make me stop. I took the hint and never touched one again.”
“Well we can’t be a collection of the greatest,” Norda said. “I’d never claim to be the best Knight, and which of Tara or Faren would be the best innkeeper? And unless biggest means best, I don’t know how to classify Marc.”
“Humility is the trait of a great knight,” Sheillene said.
“He’s the best knight I’ve known,” Tara said. “But we don’t get many knights or any knights in Ignea. Still, I’m a bit scared. What if this is something big that’s happening and fate is bringing us all together?”
“It’s not fate,” Sheillene said. “Thomas, the older Thomas, is behind much of this. And without trying to be mean, this Thomas is good, but it was the older Thomas who is the greatest bard ever, this one is not quite at that level yet.”
“And I’m retired,” Pantros said. He had been thinking about how to maintain his profession after the journey. His last theft had been such a mistake that he seriously questioned if he could rationalize the morality of burglary anymore. “I’m just going to go build my castle and enjoy the view, even if it’s on a scrap of land no one cares about.”
“It is looking less and less like I’m an innkeeper anymore,” Tara said. “It’s not like I can go back to living in Ignea if I’m going to be alone there.”
“I’m with you wherever you go,” Thomas said.
“Ignea is the absolute worst place for a bard to base from,” Tara said. “You need somewhere more central to the trade routes. Sheillene is based out of the Rampant Gelding so she can travel pretty much anywhere and everywhere.”
“So I’ll buy you an inn in Fork,” Thomas said.
“You’re poor,” Tara said.
“I won’t always be,” Thomas said. “There’s another me running around who is much older than me, he’s probably made a few pennies in his long and strange life. When I’m that Thomas, I’ll use my money to buy you an inn. If I remember to, I already did. Well, the other me already did, if he remembered. There was an old building between the Rampant Gelding and the west gate that looked like it might have been an inn at some point. I bought that for you.”
“You did?” Tara asked.
“Well not me, but the other me.” Thomas shrugged. “If I remembered, and it doesn’t sound like I’m the forgetful type.”
Pantros tried to blink away his confusion. His sister seemed accustomed to the idea of two Thomases.
“I liked my staff, James and Bouncer and even Dale, though he ate and drank more than I paid him. At least his consumption was predictable,” Tara said.
“We can send for them,” Thomas said. “It’s not like they have to take the dangerous overland route.”
“Couldn’t you arrange all this in your future so that we can avoid all the hassles and just move away when my parents died?” Tara asked.
“And let my older self be the one who gets to be married to you?” Thomas said. “I think things are how they are for a reason.”
“That sounds like the wine talking.” Tara tapped a bottle sitting on the seat beside Thomas.
“To me it sounds like I haven’t been drinking enough,” Thomas said. “Shall we discuss potential names for your new inn?”
At the gates to Melnith, a guard urged them to bypass the lines of people waiting to gain entry to the city. Once to the gates, the guards saluted and let them pass.
“I guess being in a royal family’s carriage has benefits?” Pantros asked.
“I’ll say,” Sheillene said. “From the looks of it, that line looks like it could take almost a day to get everyone through the gates.”
Looking out the window he could see the streets were packed with people and farm animals. Unlike Fork, most of the people in Melnith didn’t look like they were going anywhere. “And then where would they go?” Pantros asked.
“Where exactly are we going?” Faren asked. He was inside the carriage, resting while David drove. “I have an uncle with an Inn in the River Quarter. That’s where I was planning to go.”
“We have a missive for Prince Reginald of Relarch,” Sheillene said. “He’ll be at the palace, so that’s where we’re going first. I don’t think it’s much of a walk from the palace to the River Quarter, and with the streets this crowded, you can move faster on foot than in a carriage.”
Faren nodded, “And you need to get that cursed stone to somewhere safe.”
“We’d been hoping to get to Vehlos,” Pantros said. “That trip seems unlikely from here. Maybe we can get help from the King here. Surely Reginald could help us get to talk to King…um, I don’t know the Abvi king’s name.”
“Allaind,” Sheillene said. “King Allaind of Melnith. He has two children, Prince Aven the First Tempest and Princess Adria, whom I’ve met frequently in the city’s Hunter’s Guildhall.”
“The Princess is a bounty hunter?” Pantros asked.
“She’s an archer, she won the Silver Vanes the year I didn’t enter,” Sheillene said. “She hunts animals and such, but I don’t think she’s ever claimed a bounty. I don’t think she’s a master in the guild.”
“And Prince Aven is the First Tempest? Could he help with the gem?” Pantros asked.
“He might be able to, he’s about as powerful as Tempests get,” Sheillene said. “They are not usually as studied in artifacts as the Mages are, though. The Sorcerers might be able to help. With Thomas’s sister there, we might be able to talk to someone important. They should at least be able to point to someone else in the city.”
Marc asked, “What if the Vulak aren’t just raiding, what if they’re after the gem?”
“A whole army of Vulak?” Pantros said. “They couldn’t be after this.” He patted his pocket. “Could they?”
“I’m going to have to hop out and check on something,” Sheillene said. “Pan, I trust you with my pack. My lute is in there so don’t lose it or break it.” She grabbed her bow and hopped out of the carriage, which was still moving slower than the people on the streets were walking.
“Wasn’t she our ticket into the palace?” Marc asked.
“I think the carriage will be sufficient to get us in,” Pantros said. “David should be able to get us close to Reginald, and if needed, he can get us an audience with King Allaind, I’m sure. I doubt it will come to that. I expect Sheillene to be back by the time we reach the palace.”
Banners of a golden starburst on a blue background flew over the palace. Guards stood spaced sparsely along the top of the walls and several stood in front of the gates. Sheillene did return to the carriage as they approached the palace gates. “Bad news,” Sheillene said. “According to the Hunter’s Guild, the Vulak are converging on Melnith and looking specifically for the Nightstone. Something about a tribute their new god, Redevul.”
“Red devil?” Pantros asked.
“Close enough,” Sheillene said. “It seems that gem of yours is causing problems.”
“Should we give it to the Vulak?” Pantros asked. He didn’t think it sounded like a good idea to do so, but he hated the idea of being responsible for a whole nation being overrun by Vulak.
“Most certainly not,” Sheillene said. “The hint in their new god’s name is just not subtle and we already know what will happen if a demon gets his claws on that stone. A Vulak invasion would be a gentle breeze compared to the cyclone of a demonic invasion.”
“We’re here,” David called from the driver’s seat.
Pantros leaned out the window. Half a dozen guards approached the carriage and the palace gates were closed. “Why aren’t they opening the gates?” Pantros asked.
“Entry to the Palace is by invitation only until the crisis passes,” the guard closest to Pantros answered. The armor the guard was wearing was trimmed in gold, unlike the armor of the other guards.
“We’re here on official kingdom business,” Pantros said.
The guard approached the window. “That’s the same thing the last thousand people I turned away said. Unless you have King Reginald in there, you are not coming through.”
Sheillene stepped out of the carriage and approached the guard. “Captain Ghovan, I bear a missive from Prince Estephan to his brother. I am charged with delivering it, in person.”
“Sheillene, it’s good to see you again,” Ghovan said. “I can let you in, but your associates will not be allowed to enter.”
“The people in the carriage include a Knight of Relarch, Thomas Boncanta and a king.” Pantros heard Sheillene whisper, “of sorts.” After the royal title.
“King?” The guard asked. “Which king?”
Sheillene gestured to Pantros, “This is The King of Legerdemain.”
The guard’s looked at Pantros a moment then bowed, “Your Highness, my apologies.” He stepped away from the carriage and motioned to the guards by the gate. They pulled the gates open. “Welcome to Melnith, Your Highness, I hope you enjoy our hospitality.”
Pantros nodded, trying not to look surprised.
After they passed through the gates, Pantros asked Sheillene, “Legerdemain? Where is that? I don’t mind lying, but I should know more if I’m to play a role.”
“It’s not a where, but like you, the Guard didn’t seem to know that,” Sheillene said. “Legerdemain is the art of the pickpocket; it means sleight-of-hand. You are recognized as the King of Thieves; so really, there wasn’t a lie, just a juxtaposition of a title of nobility for one of recognition.”
“Bards know too many big words,” Pantros said.
“There are no big words,” Sheillene said with a grin, “just small minds.”
“Now you’re insulting kings?” Pantros asked.
Sheillene just chuckled.
David pulled the carriage to the palace’s main door. Men and women in royal livery scurried about the carriage, setting stepping blocks in front of the doors.
An Abvi in a fine doublet, also of the royal blue and gold, stood by a blue carpet rolled out to the step. When the travelers stepped out of the carriage, he asked, “I am Hijal, Assistant Seneschal of the Royal Palace. Who shall I say has arrived?”
“Sheillene of Whisperwillow,” Sheillene introduced herself. “And her esteemed companions.”
Pantros guessed they didn’t need to exaggerate their nobility now that they were past the gates. The guards were long out of earshot.
“Would that be Lady Sheillene,” Hijal asked.
“I’m not a noble,” Sheillene said. “If you need a title, you can use ‘Master’ or ‘Mistress’.” Sheillene pulled out a bronze medallion she had tucked under her armor. It had a symbol including a bow and spear, the symbol of the Hunter’s Guild.
Hijal looked at Sheillene’s medallion then at her face for a moment then at the guards by the gates.
“I have a royal missive from King Reginald for Prince Reginald,” Sheillene said.
Hijal looked a little relieved for a moment then the panic returned to his face when he asked, “Will you be staying in the palace?”
Sheillene put her hand on the seneschal’s shoulder. “Were that the only order of important business we had, no, but we have other matters and once the King is aware of them, he will undoubtedly wish us to remain his guests.”
“I’ll have quarters arranged. How many of you are there?” Hijal asked.
“Faren,” Sheillene asked the innkeeper, “Are you heading out to your cousin’s?”
“I would like to stay, the palace is tempting, but I’d not feel comfortable in a place so beyond my station,” Faren said. “I’ll be taking my leave of you here. I owe you all. My inn is your second home, if it’s still there once the Vulak are dispersed.” He gave a sleight bow then walked off towards the gates.
Sheillene turned back to Hijal and said, “Seven, and one of us is big, half-ogre, I think.”
“I’m not half-ogre,” Marc said.
“You may as well be,” Hijal said. “I don’t think we have beds that big.” The seneschal then went over to the attendants unloading the carriage. “Take their luggage to Reginald’s servant’s quarters. Take their weapons as well.” He pointed to Marc and Sheillene. Marc had his swords strapped to his back and Sheillene, as always, held her unstrung bow in her hand. A rack of arrows were clipped to the bow.
“No one touches my bow but me,” Sheillene said. “And I keep it with me at all times.”
“We cannot allow weapons in the palace proper,” The seneschal said. “As long as you…”
Sheillene cut the seneschal off, “I think you are forgetting that I am the kingdom archery champion. That makes me part of the king’s honor guard. I would be obligated to have my bow with me in his presence.”
“You are, aren’t you?” Hijal said. “I’ve seen you twice on stage and a dozen times at the tournament. I’ve never seen you here in the palace. Forgive my forgetfulness.”
“Politics does not make for exciting stories,” Sheillene said.
“We’ll still need to take the half-ogre’s weapons to the armory,” Hijal said.
“My name is Marc, Marc Williams, and I’m not part ogre.” Marc unslung his swords and handed them to an attendant. Bryan did the same with his greatsword.
David also handed his sheathed sword to the attendant. “Don’t lose this; it was my father’s.”
“Milord, your sword?” Hijal said, pointing to Pantros’s hip.
“I don’t think the sword would appreciate me letting you have it, even temporarily,” Pantros said. “He’s quite moody.”
Sheillene again intervened. “It’s an ensouled sword.”
“And the boy is human?” Hijal asked. “You’re right; we can’t take an ensouled sword. An ensouled sword would never allow itself to be used to threaten a king.” Hijal then stepped over to one of the attendants and said. “Make sure their rooms have baths prepared. I am certain they will want to have their clothing laundered, see that it gets done with haste.”
Pantros had gotten used to the stench of a handful of people stuck in a carriage for six days. Being reminded, he suddenly worried about the impression he was making on the King’s attendants.
Marc said dourly, “If we’re talking baths, I suppose this is where we make another half-ogre joke, since I doubt there is a tub in the palace to fit me.”
Hijal looked at Marc and sighed. “We have a dock on the river near your quarters. The river water is kept clean by several Tempests.”
“I’ll be fine with a bowl of water and a towel,” Bryan said.
“Your room attendant can see to that,” Hijal said. He then pointed to an attendant standing by them. “Tethen will see you to your rooms now.”
Tethen hadn’t spoken to them beyond saying, “This way,” or “Left just ahead,” during the walk to their rooms. Pantros had tried to engage him about the construction of the palace and who had designed the layout. As they walked, Pantros couldn’t help but notice the planning of the guests’ quarters being nearly separated from the main palace. They passed through two grand halls and had an opportunity to glance into the king’s great hall. They passed several nobles, none of whom did more than glance at them.
The quarters they were given were in the basement beneath a building connected to the palace only by a covered walkway. They were told that Prince Reginald was staying alone in the house above and that he didn’t have any servants staying with him.
More royal attendants arrived, drawing baths for them and taking all the clothing they could get away with. Only Sheillene had kept a clean dress in her pack, having worn only her armor every day on the road. Those that didn’t have spare clothing were measured and an attendant was sent into the city to find clothing for them. Pantros made sure that attendant took his gold to spend and not the king’s.
When an attendant arrived to tell them of the impending evening meal, they had just finished donning fresh clothing.
“I still think this kilt is a curtain with a belt,” Marc said. He was the only one not completely pleased with the new clothing.
The rest of them reveled in the soft cottons and silks of the Abvi clothing. The attendant had purchased clothing that closely matched in color what each person had been wearing. The black silk shirt they’d gotten Pantros fit a little loosely, but was far lighter than any silk he’d been able to find in Ignea.
“Abvi are patient,” Sheillene said. “They can take the time to make their cloth with a finer weave. Someone probably spent the better part of a week weaving the silk that became that shirt.
Bryan took the Abvi clothing but still insisted on wearing his armor over it. He had taken the time to clean the armor, getting much of the odor out. “It has my rank insignia,” Bryan said, pointing to his epaulet. “I don’t want to be the only one in the room without a title.”
Pantros shook his head and said, “You’re going to be the only one in the room with a title other than the Champion Archer over here.
The attendant led them back to the palace and into a huge dining hall. Over a hundred people, almost all Abvi, sat at rows of table crowded with plates of food.
Tethen met them at the door and pointed to the King’s table. A silver haired Abvi sat at the center of a table on a raised step at the end of the room. “Bow,” Tethen said.
They all bowed or curtsied and Tethen continued, “The human two seats to the King’s right is Prince Reginald. He’s been informed of your arrival, though he did seem confused at most of your names, as if he’d never heard of any of you except Sir David Norda.” Tethen then pointed to a group of empty seats close to the head table. “Your seats are there,” he said. “Enjoy the meal.”
“I’ll join you in a minute,” Sheillene said. She pulled the missive from her pouch and headed towards the Prince.
“Um,” Tethen said, stepping after her. He stopped and turned back to Pantros, “She shouldn’t be going there, it’s against protocol.”
“And she’s armed,” Norda said. “Two gold says she makes it to the Prince, leaving two of the King’s bodyguards on the floor, one bleeding.”
“I’ll take the bet,” Pantros said, “Only because I don’t think there will be blood.”
“Me too,” Marc said.
“You don’t have two gold coins,” Thomas said.
“Pan will cover me,” Marc shrugged.
Pantros nodded, realizing the exchange was less gambling and more camaraderie.
“Does it affect the outcome if I help her?” Bryan asked.
“Only for you,” David said. “Sheillene would side with the bodyguards if you got involved. Remember the part about her being the King’s Archery Champion? She’s only going to get away with this because she can know that she is not an actual threat.”
Several Guards rushed to intercept Sheillene. The guards wore thin mail that chimed when it slammed into the floor as Sheillene rolled a guard that had tried to tackle her over her shoulders. A second guard fell when Sheillene spun and kicked low, taking the guards legs out from under him.
“Let her be,” The king spoke loudly. “She is no threat to me.”
The approaching guards all stopped where they were, but did not return to their posts.
“Your Majesty,” Sheillene said. “Thank you.”
“Don’t yet,” King Allaind said. “I can’t say I’m pleased with you at the moment.”
Sheillene glanced back towards the guards on the floor. “My apologies, Your Majesty. I have an important missive for Prince Reginald from his father. It cannot wait.”
The king gestured for her to approach the prince. Prince Reginald stood and reached out across the table. Sheillene set the missive in the Prince’s hand. The Prince then broke the seal and sat down to read the letter.
“Perhaps if you would spend a couple days a year taking your spot on the royal guard, the other guards would have a better chance of recognizing you.” The King said.
“I will endeavor to do so at some point, Majesty” Sheillene said.
“Now’s as good a time as any,” The king pointed to a spot behind and left of his chair. A man wielding a long-bladed spear stood behind and right of the King. Sheillene stepped up and walked around the table. She strung her bow before taking a watchful stance behind the King.
Pantros and the others took their seats at the long dining table.
“I must leave,” Reginald said then stood and bowed to the King. “My father has died. I must return to Relarch.”
The King stood as well. “I am sorry to hear of your father’s passing. I knew him for many years as a friend.”
The man between the King and the Prince also stood and offered sympathy.
The prince then walked off the stage and out of the dining hall. A large group of men who had been sitting near Pantros got up and followed the Prince.
“His knights?” Pantros asked.
“Yes,” David replied. “I should go with them.” He excused himself and followed the others into the hall.
CHAPTER 25: KEHET
Try as he might, Kehet couldn’t feel comfortable as a guest in the King’s Palace. Beldithe had convinced him that it would only be polite if he introduced himself to the local king. The king had insisted not only that Kehet stay, but that he stay in a suite next to the royal family’s suites. For four days he’d had to sneak out into the city to avoid the constant attention of the princess. She wasn’t trying to seduce him; she was just trying to convince him to show her his Unicorn form. He obliged her several times over the days.
The meals, due to his presence as well as the presence of another foreign prince, were all elaborate feasts. Kehet didn’t miss the meals. Since the King went through all the effort to produce a feast, it was only polite for him to attend.
When, on Kehet’s fourth night eating with the King, the Prince of Relarch excused himself from the high table, the dinner essentially ended. Within minutes the hall was empty aside from the royal family and the King’s Guard. A small group stood just inside the dining hall. Two of the men in the group were among the largest people Kehet had ever seen.
“Does this mean Prince Reginald is the King of Relarch now?” Kehet asked. “Is he now Reginald the Second?”
The king nodded. “He’s Prince Regent until the coronation, and then he will be Reginald the Second.”
Kehet took a moment to think about the fact that he’d been sitting between two kings. Then he had the realization that both kings were probably just as awed to be sitting next to a god.
The king then said, “I only hope that he can make it out of the city safely.”
“I was told this gathering of Vulak is unheard of,” Kehet said.
“And they’re closing on Melnith.” The king’s archer stepped into the conversation. “The Prince may not be able to make it to Relarch today or anytime in the near future.”
“I knew their numbers were growing, Sheillene, but I hadn’t heard they were moving this way,” The king said. “I assume your Hunter’s Guild is passing news along.”
“Yes,” Sheillene, the archer, said. “We use an enchanted quill system to keep our bounty postings current between our guild halls. Occasionally they can be used for spreading news. We don’t really want that to become their primary use, however.”
“Yes,” the king replied, “but, don’t you think this is the kind of information you should tell your king as soon as possible?”
“I’m here,” Sheillene said. “This is as soon as possible.”
“I see,” the king said. “I should summon my generals.” He called over a servant and told him to get his generals to the palace. He then looked over at the motley group by the door. “Your friends, will they be helpful or are they just tagging along to get a chance to visit my palace?”
Sheillene took a moment of staring at her friends before answering, “I think they’ll be helpful. Thomas is always a good source of knowledge, and the smaller of the two large men is a Novarran General. The man in black is probably the cause of the Vulak invasion. The woman is his sister and the giant is, well a giant, and he can handle himself pretty well in a fight.”
The queen stood and excused herself. The Abvi prince, Aven, moved closer to the king’s conversation as did the king’s daughter, Princess Adria.
“You don’t need to stay,” The king said to his children. “This is likely going to be a boring conversation.”
“I will be King someday,” Aven said. “We don’t often have a reason to plan for war, I should learn at every opportunity.”
“I’m staying with Sheillene,” Adria said. “I’ve been Archery Champion too, that qualifies me to be here as much as her.”
“You just want to be here with Kehet,” Aven said. “He’s not going to change for you in the dining hall.”
“No,” Adria said, “I’m here to learn from Sheillene just as you are here to learn from father.”
“Kehet?” Sheillene asked. She looked straight at Kehet. “You’re the Unicorn god?”
Kehet nodded. “So it seems.”
“He doesn’t have all his memories,” King Allaind said. “He’s still as sharp as I remember.”
Sheillene chuckled, as did Adria. Aven didn’t even crack a smile. Kehet had no doubt the prince got the joke. The man seemed to have very little sense of humor.
Sheillene then asked, “Where has he been?”
“Even I don’t know,” Kehet said. “Beldithe is telling me what I should know, but she can be mischievous and I don’t really know how far to trust her.”
“You always trusted her completely, if the tales are true,” Sheillene said. “Of the gods, she is your closest ally. The two of you are the gods who interact most with the people. She can always be found at her temples and you have a long history of meddling.”
Kehet didn’t know what she meant by meddling, so he asked her to be more specific.
She replied, “There is a fight coming with the Vulak. The other gods may aid their followers, give them courage and possibly even heal their wounds after the battle, but you will probably be out on the field, killing Vulak with the mortals.”
“My love lives in this city,” Kehet said. “If it comes to defending it, I would see no other honorable choice but to fight.”
“And you have a mortal love?” Sheillene said. “Gods take mortal lovers, not loves. Again, you have a reputation for being different than the other gods.”
King Allaind waved his hand towards Sheillene’s friends. “We have all been trying to help Kehet remember his past, but we have more pressing matters. You said your dark clothed friend over there could be the cause of all this. I think that is a far more important topic of discussion.” He gestured to Sheillene’s friends to join them by the high table.
Once they approached and finished with their bows of respect, the King asked, “Sheillene, could you introduce your friends?”
She walked to the man in the black shirt, “This is Pantros Phyreshade, the one you’ve heard of. The woman is his sister Tara. The man in the blue hat is Thomas, but you knew that too. He is Tara’s husband. The largest man is Marc Williams, a swordsman who sometimes plays a bass guitar. The last is Bryan Aaronson, also the one you’ve heard of, who has since earned the rank of General in Novarra. He’s also pretty handy with a damned big sword.”
“So, Pantros,” The king said, “This is all your fault?”
“My fault?” Pantros replied, “I wouldn’t go that far, Your Majesty. The events that brought about the Vulak invasion were in motion long before I became involved. From my understanding of things. When I came into possession of the Nightstone Key, I have only brought about the best possible outcome so far.”
The king appeared thoughtful for a moment. Kehet was curious what a Nightstone Key was but felt it would be a question to ask later, if the answer didn’t come on its own in the meantime.
King Allaind said, “The Nightstone could certainly produce a far larger problem than a Vulak Army if it were in the wrong hands. No one wants to deal with the denizens of Hell. Do you have the Nightstone with you?”
“I do, Your Majesty.” Pantros pulled a pouch from his shirt and produced a very large dark, glowing gem. “I don’t know who I can trust with it, I should assume I can trust you but I was hoping to make it to Vehlos and see the Archmage about it.”
“I can have the Archmage come here,” The King said. “He’s not a subject of mine, but for him such travel is trivial. I’ll have to get a Sorcerer over here to send the message by wind, but he should be here by this time tomorrow. Until then I’d have you keep the stone and I will move you to more secure quarters than the guesthouse.”
“Why do I have the sinking suspicion I’ve just been placed under arrest?” Pantros asked.
The King smiled a little. “The cells below the palace are the most guarded place in the city. The rooms are quite nice since we only use them for nobility when they get into unpleasant circumstances.” The king motioned to two guards. When they approached, he instructed them, “Keep this man under close watch. Let nothing happen to him. He will be staying below in the big cell, but he is to be allowed to go anywhere on the palace grounds, under close guard. His name is Pantros; treat him as a noble.”
“The King of Thieves, Your Majesty?” one of the guards asked.
“The same,” The king said.
“The thieves have a king?” Kehet asked.
Several of the people in the room chuckled. “No.” It was Sheillene who explained, “It’s a fictional title describing his prowess, not his relationship to the other thieves of the world. There are only two kings in this room, you and His Majesty. I apologize I don’t know your particular address.”
“I’m a prince, not a king,” Kehet said. “I don’t know my address. Some call me Majesty, if you insist on using one with me, that will do, but I have no need for such things. Just a couple weeks ago, I thought of myself as simply Charles the blacksmith’s apprentice. King Allaind has met me before and I’ve met a few others who have known me over a thousand years ago. They just call me Kehet. I suppose you may do the same.”
Three of the King’s Generals joined them and, after introducing the officers to Kehet and Sheillene’s friends, the King moved the meeting to a planning room. A table with a model of the kingdom stood in the center of the room. It was enchanted to always represent the current view of the kingdom and it could be enlarged to focus on a specific spot, but only the king could control it.
The king spent several minutes silently moving the perspective of the model around. Views of several Vulak groups passed across the tabletop.
Malithe, a general with blonde hair so long she had to tuck it as a loop in her belt, spoke out, “They’re not terribly organized.”
Kehet asked, “They don’t look like more than a bunch of Vulak moving in towards the city, but can we be sure they are not acting in coordination?”
“We can’t be sure,” Bryan said, “but, they don’t share any banners or markings. Whatever is causing them to share a goal does not have a complete grip over them.”
“I suspect even they do not know the scale of the invasion,” Malithe said. There are no map tents, no intense planning, just moving as quickly as is reasonable, towards Melnith. There are already a couple thousand just beyond bowshot. The siege has begun.”
“So, how do we prepare?” The King asked.
“Have everyone start hoarding water,” said Shera, a general with silver hair cut above her shoulders. “Fill every barrel in the city. They will try to damn the river upstream of the city.”
“Amateurs,” Bryan said. “The Vulak are amateurs, so they will probably try to cut off the water. A better strategy would be to dam the river downstream of the city, flooding is far more devastating than forcing us into rationing our water. How soon do you think it will be before they start defiling the river upstream?”
“They won’t,” The third general, a bald man named Wun, said. “They need the water as well if they have any plans to stick around for more than a couple days. But, if they do, I understand the touch of a Unicorn’s horn will purify water. I imagine the Unicorn God can purify quite a bit of water.”
Kehet knew that what the man said was true. He didn’t remember learning it, but he somehow just knew. Kehet nodded, agreeing. “I could purify a few leagues of river. Defilement is not a threat to us.”
“Do we know how many Vulak are coming?” The long-haired general asked. “Maybe we should send some soldiers outside the city and take the Vulak down as they arrive.”
“How big is the Abvi Army?” Bryan asked.
“I’ll let Malithe answer that as well,” The king said, nodding to the long-haired general.
Malithe Nodded, “I am the senior ranking general in the city. There are two hundred and fifty thousand Abvi in the city and a few thousand others. Of those, one in ten is part of the militia reserve. We don’t have more than a handful of regular army here. Most of our forces are in border keeps and patrols.”
“And they didn’t report this invasion coming?” Bryan asked.
“We got two reports of Vulak movement,” Malithe said. “We sent reinforcements to those posts. We haven’t heard anything from the other posts along Vulak territories. That’s not unusual to go a season or two without communication, but seeing the size of these forces, it’s not a good sign.”
The king spun the view on the table and sped through the countryside to view a stone tower. Nothing seemed out of place, but nothing moved. Kehet couldn’t see anyone in the view.
“There should be two dozen soldiers at that post. At most, ten would be in the tower, out of sight. There should be three manning the parapet.” General Wun said.
“I know that post well,” Shera said. "The Vulak would have come through a pass three hundred paces north."Let’s see the pass, if you would, Your Majesty.
Before the scene reached the pass, Kehet could see the fate of the Abvi was not good. Several bodies, both Abvi and Vulak littered the ground around the opening of the pass.
“The Vulak are in a hurry,” Shera said. “They don’t leave their dead to rot in the sun, but though I see three Vulak dead for every Abvi body, it looks like the Vulak won the fight.”
“Why do you say that?” Pantros asked.
“The Abvi have had their ears removed,” Shera said, he voice seething and low with sadness. “Vulak take ears as trophies. Some of them survived to claim the ears.”
“Let’s see,” The King said. He scrolled the scene, following a trail left by the Vulak. It took him several minutes, but when he stopped, everyone in the room gasped. Thousands of Vulak marched in a column toward Melnith.
“I don’t think meeting them outside the gates is a good idea,” Bryan said. “I think we need to prepare the walls, get arrows up there along with anyone who can pull a bow. How many trebuchets are in the city?”
“Why would we have siege engines in a city?” Wun asked.
“They’re particularly handy for throwing oil soaked bales of hay at the enemy,” Bryan said. “Or pitch, or even rocks.”
“Barbaric,” Malithe said.
Marc stepped forward and said, “I too would prefer a toe-to-toe fight. When it comes down to win or lose in battle, it’s one thing to fight honorably and die honorably for yourself. When you’re fighting for the lives of everyone in the city, is it really the honorable path to fight only with your own honor in mind? There will always be lines of honor and morality that no soldier should cross, but having trebuchets aimed at enemy soldiers is not of those.”
“I’m beginning to question how the Abvi all but wiped out the human race so many thousands of years ago,” Bryan asked. “It’s looking more and more like they just waited for us to die of old age.”
“That’s exactly how we did it,” Malithe said. “We like to summarize that we won the war, but it took us ninety years. We won because we sterilized the humans by poisoning every water supply on the continent. When the war ended it took a couple hundred years before the Abvi could even breed again, but a couple hundred years isn’t even as a decade would be to a human.”
“And you call me barbaric,” Bryan said. “I don’t suggest that method in the coming fight. I’d like to live to see us win and though I may be young for a General, I doubt I have ninety years left in me.”
“The trebuchet’s sound like a good idea,” Malithe said. “I’ll send someone to fetch some Matderi engineers.”
“We do have magic,” Wun said. “We have at least a hundred students at the Sorcery School and a dozen instructors. They should be able to throw lightning around.”
“The Vulak might have sorcerers too,” Shera said. “Magic is rarer among Vulak than Abvi, but it is not non-existent.”
“I know some magic users that might be able to help as well,” Kehet said.
“Water mages are useless in combat,” Shera said. “And Tempests are notorious for not taking sides until there is a clear definition of good and evil among the combatants. They will side with the force for good, but that doesn’t mean they will decide the Abvi are less evil than the Vulak.”
“I’m not talking Earth or Water magic,” Kehet said. “I speak of the banned arts. I speak of the Wizards.”
“There are no Wizards,” The King said. “The trait was wiped from every living creature on the planet during the purge. If a Wizard is born, they are drowned. Fire magic is too chaotic, too dangerous.”
“I’ll agree it’s pretty damned dangerous,” Kehet said, “But if it did exist, that dangerous energy can be aimed at our enemies. If we want Wizards on our side, the laws would have to be changed to not doom them to death simply because they are who they are.”
“No,” Malithe said. “I had a nephew born as a Wizard. When he was two, he threw a temper tantrum and exploded, killing himself and his father and burning my sister so badly that it took two talented healers a season to return her physically to normal. Emotionally, she is scarred for a very long life.”
“If they weren’t hunted, Wizards could have tempered your nephew’s power until they could teach him to calm himself,” Kehet said. “I’ve met a few and they are good people, just like any of us.”
“By my decree, the ban on wizardry is lifted,” King Allaind said. “But, any acts of wizardry that result in unwarranted damage may be tried as crimes.”
“There are Unicorn Wizards?” Sheillene asked. “I always believed that Unicorns were unable to wield magic beyond the blessings of their horn.”
“No, the Unicorns cannot be Wizards,” Kehet said. “And this is knowledge I’ve gained in person, not just some of my godly omniscience, which I don’t seem to have very much of.”
“Then we have a plan,” King Allaind said. “Generals, organize the militias. Sheillene, you are in command of the archers. Adria, you are her second. Pantros, your companions can stay in the guesthouse, but you’re staying downstairs. I’ll send a messenger to the Sorcerer’s school and Kehet, if you would be so kind as to coordinate with your Wizard friends.”
“I’ll need to make a stop at the Hunter’s Lodge,” Sheillene said. “I have to pass on word that Wizards are no longer automatic bounties and, in fact, not bounties at all. It will be a rather big change to us. Our guild was founded in the days of the purge. Our first purpose was to hunt the Wizards. I’m a bit surprised there could be any alive with every hunter always looking for them.”
“Magic tends to breed true,” Shera said, “the element sometimes changes, but anyone with a magically talented parent has a more than fair chance to wield magic themselves. My mother was a Mage. I too have magic, but until today, that was not something I could tell anyone. I’ll accompany Kehet to the Wizard’s School. He may be a god, but they’ll be more likely to trust me.”
“There’s a school?” Sheillene asked. “In Melnith? Where?”
“I think we’ll keep some secrets for today,” Shera said.
CHAPTER 26: PANTROS
The bright azure of the sky with a few fluffy white clouds seemed out of place above the amassed armies of Vulak standing outside the Melnith walls. Pantros stood atop a palace tower with Thomas and the bard’s sister, Mirica and watched the Vulak moving around only a hundred paces from the walls.
Standing next to her brother, there was little family resemblance. Thomas could almost pass for a human, but Mirica was the epitome of the elegant Abvi. Her Strawberry blonde hair was pulled tight to her head, making her jutting, pointed ears far more pronounced. From where it was tied high on the back of her head, her hair fell in perfect ringlets to the middle of her back. Her solid white gown gleamed in the sunlight and showed barely a wrinkle. Where the gown slid across the ground, there wasn’t a hint of dirt or wear on the fabric.
“Even I could hit them with a bow from here,” Thomas said, waving his hand at the Vulak. He glanced towards the archers standing every few paces along the wall. “Why hasn’t the battle begun?”
“The King wants to wait until the Vulak start to charge the walls or until we get the Key safely in the hands of the Archmage,” Pantros said. “Sheillene tells me there are not enough arrows in the city to kill all of the Vulak out there. And we don’t want to start anything until there are a few trebuchet’s done, but even with the crews working day and night, we will only have a dozen two days from now.”
“The Vulak aren’t even building siege engines, just ladders and battering rams,” Thomas said.
“I’d always thought Vulak were beastly,” Mirica said. “They’re loud and they smell bad, but they seem just like any other army, if a little less organized. What surprises me is that they are not touching the monuments outside the city gates. They have them surrounded but they don’t touch them.”
“Abvi heroes,” Thomas said. “Most of them earned their status in wars with the Vulak. Vulak respect warriors who defeat them in straightforward combat. They are not a vengeful race, unless they think they were slighted or cheated.”
“And that archway in the middle of the statues?” Pantros asked. “What does that commemorate?”
Mirica said, “That’s the gate to which you hold the key.”
“I’d think it would be inside the city walls,” Pantros said. He then added an explanation, “To protect it.”
“It’s outside the walls so it cannot be used to invade the city,” Mirica said.
“That makes more sense,” Pantros said.
“Abvi are often stubborn in their ways, but we are not stupid,” Mirica said.
Behind her, Pantros noticed the king approaching along with a tall man in a grey robe with blue trim around the hood and sleeves. Pantros bowed. Mirica and Thomas mimicked his bow.
“Your Majesty,” Pantros said. “This is the Archmage?” he then asked.
“I am Robirt, The Archmage of Vehlos,” The man said. “You may address me as ‘Your Grace’.”
“Your Grace,” Pantros said. “It is good to meet you.”
Robirt held out his hand, palm up. “I think I speak for His Majesty as well as everyone in the city when I say, let’s see that stone, I’d like to get it away from the city as quickly as possible.”
“Yes,” King Allaind said. “Robirt can take care of the stone. He is the caretaker of all the keys.”
“Well, the eleven that remain,” Robirt said. “I am missing stones for Relarch and Rahvenna. And there are certainly ancient gateways that I do not know about. Much research has been lost.”
“I’m just glad to be rid of this,” Pantros pulled the gem out and set it in the Archmage’s hand. “How will you keep it safe from the Vulak, Your Grace?”
The Archmage looked Pantros in the eye, almost challenging his station to ask such a question. His face then relaxed and he said. “I will place it in a vault that is enchanted to prevent detection.” Still grasping the gem in one hand, he threw his other hand up as if he were reaching for the sun. When his arm reached full extension, he vanished.
“He was lying,” Thomas said.
“What?” The King asked.
“Something in the way he paused set off my intuition,” Thomas said. “I don’t know what he plans to do, but it doesn’t involve a non-detectable vault.”
“Are you sure he was lying?” The King asked. “He’s never been particularly polite, but I’ve never had reason not to trust him.”
“I know he was lying,” Thomas said. “I’m not sure, but I know, if that makes sense.”
“Not really,” Mirica said.
The King stepped over to the battlements and looked out over the walls. “Hopefully, now we can stop preparing for battle.”
“Marc will be disappointed,” Thomas said, pointing down to the palace gardens. Bryan and Marc were sparring.
“Disappointed?” Mirica asked. “No one is disappointed to avoid a battle. That man he’s fighting might be an exception. At least with a Vulak he’d probably win. He hasn’t landed a hit on Marc since lunch.”
The king agreed, “I watched them for a while, Marc never lets the same trick work on him twice. Bryan knew a lot of sneaky tricks. I had my champion out there with them this morning, but he quit after an hour saying there was nothing he could teach Marc and Bryan was besting my champion three out of four bouts.”
Pantros saw a familiar grey robe walking among the Vulak near the Statues. “I wouldn’t send the archers home just yet,” he said. “It seems the Archmage has business among the Vulak.
The king looked out and let out a staggered sigh. “Mirica, I know you’re not as powerful as Robirt, but is there anything you can do from here?”
Mirica raised an eyebrow. “Comparing Mages and Sorcerers is like comparing water to milk,” she said. “Still if we were both milk, I would be the cream and he would be the comparative chaff.” She spread her hands wide and brought them together in a loud clap. A shockwave bent the air before her and shot out across the walls, across the open field and hit Robirt, throwing him several yards through the air. He landed on the ground in a crumpled heap and didn’t move.
“If he’s alive, he’s going to be in a lot of pain,” Pantros said.
“I can’t do that all day,” Mirica said. “It’s very draining I will need a short while to regain my strength.”
“And you’re not in charge of the Sorcery School?” the King asked.
“Power is not the same as experience,” Mirica said. “I’m a senior instructor, but I am not even on the council and won’t be until I’ve been part of the school for a century or more.”
“The Nightstone Key is still out there,” The King said. “We need a plan to get it back. Gather the Generals,” he added. After looking at the people he’d been talking to, he then said, “I’ll get the Generals, you should all meet me in the planning room. I assume your presence means the Sorcerers have decided to help us?”
“The Council had not reached a conclusive vote,” Mirica said. “Several were hoping for a peaceful solution. Now that Robirt seems to have been about to open the portal to hell, I suspect we’ll be a little more decisive.”
“I am appointing you as the Sorcerer’s Council’s Representative to my court,” The King said. “I can’t put you on the council, but I can make sure they know you should be there. I fear we haven’t time to talk more now. Learn what you can and come to the planning room.” He turned away and headed down the stairs into the palace.
Mirica shrugged and said, “Um…”
“Um?” Thomas asked.
“I’m a little giddy, a little confused, and I feel like I want to vomit,” she said. “The king now not only knows who I am but seems impressed by me, that makes me giddy. I don’t know if I should be giddy with an impending invasion from hell, so I’m confused. And I think I just killed a man, which makes my stomach uneasy.”
“You just killed the most powerful Mage in the world,” Pantros said. “Uneasy or not, that was an accomplishment. If he hadn’t turned out to be evil, it might not be, but he was. I think you can feel proud as well.”
“I feel even more confused, and more queasy, and I know I’m about to fly back to the Sorcerer’s College and that doesn’t help the queasy.” She took a deep breath then said, “See you in a few.” She then leapt into the air and glided off towards the center of the city.
“You’re staring,” Thomas said.
Pantros blinked and looked away from where Mirica had disappeared among the city’s spires. Thomas nodded towards the stairwell. “We should go meet the King.”
“Right,” Pantros said.
“Mirica will be there, eventually.” Thomas said.
“What?” Pantros asked.
“You barely take your eyes off her when she’s around,” Thomas said. “You do realize she’s six times your age.”
“I’m not interested in her like that,” Pantros said. “That would be foolish, her being an Abvi and all. “She is very pretty, though.”
“She’s a Sorcerer, it might all be an illusion,” Thomas said.
“Is it?” Pantros asked.
“No,” Thomas said. “Now, let’s get to the planning chamber.”
Pantros hopped down the stairs ahead of Thomas. Abvi, for all their grace, were terribly patient, which meant they were slow walkers. It was torturous to be behind one on a narrow stairwell.
Prince Reginald stood at the map table and scrolled through views of the surrounding army. Pantros had tried to use the table, but being King of Thieves wasn’t quite as qualifying as being King of Melnith or de-facto King of Relarch. The prince had been particularly edgy since the rapidly gathering Vulak had impeded his plans to return to his kingdom.
“The Vulak will sooner or later decide to use that stone.” General Shera said.
“Are they smart enough to, or stupid enough to?” Prince Reginald asked.
Pantros said, “I don’t know much about Vulak but I know they don’t act in large armies like what we have out there. Something is controlling or coercing them to act together and the purpose seems to be that key. Whoever that is will, most likely, convince them to use the key.”
“You don’t think it was Robirt in control all along?” King Allaind asked.
“If it were him, the Vulak would be heading away now,” Sheillene said. “But someone is still commanding that entire force. There are red-cheeks and split-ears camped side by side and they are not even skirmishing. Something is commanding them. I suspect something infernal.”
“Have you seen anyone that looks like a leader?” King Allaind asked.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” Prince Reginald said.
“We haven’t spotted anyone from the walls,” Sheillene said. “There are too many Vulak out there to put scouts in the forest.”
“We know where they will take the key,” Pantros said, “We just have to take it from them when they do. Their army is thin on this side of the monuments. Archers and a fast assault could get in and take the gem.”
“We’d have to know when they are taking the gem to the portal,” Bryan said. “And that’s still a tenth of a league from the city gates to run across, and potentially fight off thousands of Vulak. They can run just as fast as we can. There’s the potential to have to fight there and then turn around and fight our way back again.”
“I found him,” Prince Reginald said. “Here, about a league north, but we can’t get to him.” The map showed a crowded encampment hundreds of Vulak knelt prostrate around a stone carving of a Vulak with outspread bat-like wings. A Vulak in a red robe stood by the statue, clearly preaching, though the map conveyed no sound. A Vulak wearing red and gold armor walked into the clearing then knelt and held out his hands offering the key to the red-robed Vulak.
“It seems the Vulak have a new god,” King Allaind said.
The scene on the table showed the Vulak, rather than take the stone, gesture for the key-bearer, clearly a leader among the Vulak, to keep it. The two then walked, and Reginald had the map follow them. “They’re heading to the portal. We’re going to have to act now.”
“I’ll gather as many soldiers as I can by the north gate,” the King said. “If they walk fast, they will take a quarter hour to reach the portal.”
“My knights can be there with time to spare,” Prince Reginald said. “I know a route through the alleys so we can avoid the crowded main streets, but I must head out now. Whatever plans you make, assume we will be riding straight to the gate. Archers and sorcerers aiding us from the gatehouse would earn our gratitude.”
“Us?” Allaind asked. “You will lead your knights personally? You are a king; you cannot risk your life so. Your people should not have to suffer two dead kings in so short a time.”
“I’m not planning on getting killed,” Reginald said. “If things don’t go as planned, I’m not actually the king yet and my brother, Estephan will be. He’s as good a man as I am, and would be as good a king as I will be. Now, we haven’t the time to debate this.” Reginald left the room.
“I’ll gather the archers,” Sheillene said. “We’ll be at the gatehouse before the knights leave. We can run along the wall faster than the knights can traverse the alleys of the city on horseback.”
“I’ll inform the Wizards,” Kehet said.
“No,” General Shera said. “I already have; they are in the palace. I should warn you that your friend is not among them. She is still in meditation. She had a bit of an accident the other day and though no one was hurt, the old school is now a small lake in the middle of the foreign quarter. The school has been forced to relocate her to the Sorcery College. They have a ‘cloud room’ high above the city. There’s nothing to hurt up there and the room was designed to be a training ground for damaging spells.”
“Mirica hasn’t returned with word from the sorcerers,” Thomas said. “I should run there.”
“I can get there faster than you,” Pantros said. “I’m used to moving quickly through crowds. I know the stories of me would never say, but I don’t always get away with my pilfering without being noticed. There are times I’ve had to make some rapid escapes.” Pantros turned to the King, “I assume, Your Majesty, that I am no longer required to stay in the palace.”
“Just run,” The King said. “As my zealous colleague pointed out, time is short.”
The rooftops of Melnith were not as uniform as those of Ignea or even those of Fork, but they were still faster to traverse than the streets. It didn’t take long for Pantros to reach the Sorcerer’s college.
One of dozens of students wearing white robes and running around the frenzied campus stopped Pantros. “You can’t be here,” the student said. “Only sorcerers are allowed on these grounds.”
“I’m on orders from the King,” Pantros said. “I need to find Mirica.”
“You?” the student said snidely while looking at Pantros from toe to head, “You don’t bear the king’s arms. You look like a street urchin who’d just raided a silk merchant’s shop.”
“Actually a very good assessment,” Pantros said. “But I’m still a messenger for the King, and I will be continuing on. A direction would be helpful.”
“I think not,” the student said. He began gesturing with his hands and murmuring.
Pantros couldn’t take the time to deal with the student properly. He drew his sword and slammed the bell into the student’s head then ran to the shadows of the nearest building. No one seemed to be reacting to the slumped student in the courtyard. The other students continued to run about, too focused on their goals to be distracted. *Did you just hit an Abvi with me?*
“Not now, sword,” Pantros said. “But, yes.” He sheathed the blade. The smooth white marble that every building in the Sorcerers College seemed to be made of made climbing difficult, but he managed to get atop one of the smaller towers. He then looked around, trying to see where Mirica would be with the gathered Elders. He could see them in a courtyard moving together towards the tallest tower. He slid down the wall and rolled to his feet then sprinted.
“Mirica!” He called when he was in sight of her.
She stopped. The others with her stopped as well. “What are you doing here?” She asked. “We are just going to discuss whether to fight or not.”
“There’s no time to discuss anything,” Pantros said. “Reginald is riding out now to assault the Vulak by the gate. We think they are going to use the stone immediately.”
“We’re not going to rush our decision,” One of the men with Mirica said. “Using magic to kill is against our code. Breaking that code is not something we do lightly.”
Mirica said, “The code is not an oath, it’s a guideline. Pantros is right; we don’t have time to debate. I’m going to help the Prince. Any others that would help, come with us.”
“You’d risk losing your post at the school?” The man said.
“When the alternative is losing my world to demons,” Mirica said. “There’s really nothing to debate. Of course I would risk my post.”
“I’m taking this to debate, we’ll discuss this deviation from the code later,” the man said then nodded with his head towards the door to the tower. “Come, Elders, lets decide like civilized Abvi.”
Mirica cast a spell and Pantros’ feet lifted off the ground. She said, “I can’t teach you to fly, but I can make you light enough to carry. Let’s go.” She grabbed Pantros’ hand and flew off towards the north gates of the city.
Pantros looked back to see that all but three of the Elders were following Mirica. Ahead, Pantros could see the city gates were open. The Abvi soldiers, however, were not leaving the city. Reginald and his knights were visible over the walls. They had already engaged the Vulak by the monuments surrounding the gate. The Vulak had surged, however and were defending the gate.
“There!” Pantros pointed with his free hand to the Vulak in the red and gold armor. “He has the gem.”
Mirica alit atop the Gatehouse then cast a quick spell returning Pantros’s weight. She then started casting a spell that Pantros recognized as the same one she’d used against Robirt. When the wake flew out across the battlefield, it stopped a few paces before the Vulak. The Vulak in the red robes stood nearby holding out both hands toward Mirica.
“The Vulak in the robes,” Mirica said. “I don’t know what kind of magic he’s using but it’s not of this world and it’s strong.”
“Is he a god?” Pantros asked.
Mirica cast another spell and her eyes glowed with a violet light. “He’s a demon,” She said. “Not a god.”
The well-armored Vulak produced the stone and the robed Vulak gestured then the key floated into the air. The gem glided into a socket above the gate and the gate flashed, leaving a shimmering portal. Immediately, dark creatures emerged from the portal, one after another.
“Demons,” Mirica said. “We’re too late.”
Sheillene ran to the edge of the wall and drew her bow then released it. Her arrow flew out the hundreds of paces to the gate and struck the gem but failed to dislodge it. Two more of her arrows hit the gem. “It’s magically held,” she said. “Our only hope is for Reginald to make it to the gate and recover that gem.”
The demons continued to come through and all anyone could do was watch. Sheillene and the other archers who could shoot that far managed to hit a few of the demons and some of those fell to the ground. They didn’t vanish like the hellhounds had.
Realizing even the Vulak were all watching the gate, Pantros wondered if he could get close enough to take the gem and run before anyone could react. “Mirica, are you sure you can’t make me fly?”
She shook her head. “Flying takes training and I see crossbows among the Vulak. You’d be a floating pincushion before you ever got there.”
“Then can you make me light, but not weightless?” He asked. “About a quarter my weight?”
“Are you going to do something stupid and heroic?” Mirica asked.
“I was thinking I would,” Pantros said. “I can get the gem, likely without being noticed. Being light would just make it easier to climb the gate quickly.”
“I don’t like it but I can’t think of a better plan,” Mirica waved towards Pantros and he could feel his mass decrease.
“I can’t let you,” Sheillene said. “Your sister would kill me.”
“Stop me if you can,” Pantros said and then leapt from the wall toward the battle. He scurried along the ground on all fours to be less noticeable and avoided the area where the knights were still fighting.
When he came to the backs of the Vulak he stood upright. The Vulak were clamoring, bumping into each other, constantly trying to get a better view of the gate. Pantros used the chaos to remove a Vulak’s cloak and wrap himself in it. Getting to the gate then became simply a matter of pushing and shoving and squeezing through gaps. The pushing and shoving were harder than his usual crowd handling because of his decreased weight, but he made it to where the Vulak stood in a circle, giving the demons and the gate room. He took a deep breath then sprinted to the gate. Without allowing himself to be distracted by the Vulak howls of alarm or even the demonic screams. He scurried up the gate’s frame, drew his boot knife and pried the key free. The portal closed, bisecting the demon that’d been coming through.
Pantros then leapt off the gate, diving onto the crowd. He ran along the tops of the densely packed Vulak towards where the Knights were still fighting through the Vulak forces. Only a handful of knights still stood and only two were still on horseback, David and Prince Reginald. Pantros headed towards the prince but as he got close a Vulak cut one of the horse’s legs off with a glaive. The horse fell, trapping the Prince. Pantros drew his sword and dove, but couldn’t reach the prince before the Vulak with the glaive swung again, cutting deep into the Prince’s breastplate.
Landing at the fallen Prince’s side, Pantros sliced open the throat of the Vulak that had killed the prince. He then put himself back to back with the few knights who still stood. “I have the key,” he shouted. “To the city!”
A hand grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked him into the air. David set Pantros behind him and spun his horse. He sprinted out of the fray, straight for the city gates.
“The other knights?” Pantros asked.
“They understand that we won the battle,” David said. “They get to know they are dying as heroes. There’s nothing we can do to save them. Protecting that key is everything.” They passed into the city and the gates began closing behind them. Two dozen Unicorns rushed out of the city at the last moment before the gates closed.
“What are they doing?” Pantros asked.
“I don’t know,” David said. “I just hope Kehet had a plan before running out like that.”
CHAPTER 27: DARIEN
The Portal opened without warning but Darien had been waiting for days. He sent Murdread’s High Guard through first to make sure that it wasn’t a trap and that if it were then the High Guard should be able to out-fight any ambush.
Darien then followed. Kirvel, dressed as a Vulak high priest welcomed him to Mealth. His human servant, Robirt was nowhere to be seen. “Where is that Mage?” Darien asked.
“Dead,” Kirvel said. “He let his guard down and a Sorcerer from the city killed him. She’s a potent one; I could barely hold a barrier against her wind strikes.”
More demons followed Darien through the portal. Kirvel assigned each a Vulak Tribe. Arrows started to rain down around them. Most missed, and most that hit a demon didn’t even penetrate their armor. A few were deadly even to the demons.
“Scatter among the Vulak!” Darien ordered. “Find your assigned groups. Make sure they know who is in charge.”
Over a hundred demons had passed into the mortal realm when Kirvel yelled “No!” and pointed at the top of the gateway. A man was pulling a knife from his boot.
Darien didn’t need to contemplate the inevitable. “Retrieve the stone and re-open the gate,” he yelled at Kirvel as he rushed back through the portal. He barely made it before the gate dissipated. A demon passing the other direction wasn’t as lucky, half of that demon fell to the ground in Demia. Darien wondered what would become of that demon. A demon that died in Demia respawned at the pools. A demon that died in a mortal world didn’t always make it back to the pools. His worries about the gate re-opening overcame his curiosity. He waited.
It shouldn’t have taken Kirvel long to kill one human man and reopen the gate. That the gate hadn’t reopened after an hour made Darien’s heart sink. How had one man escaped an Army of Vulak and a contingent of demons? Kirvel would pay for that failure if he didn’t recover that key soon.
If the human made it back to the city, it could take weeks to prepare a proper siege. Kirvel would be mostly on his own, though a few communications through ritual would be possible.
How would he explain this to Murdread? Could he convince his lord that everything was going as planned? If only he could think of a reason to not send the two thousand demons he’d had at the ready all at once.
Positioning? He was saving the bulk of his force for another battle and would be summoning them when they were needed to prevent having to travel with so many demons? That Abvi city was small and the Vulak army was huge. The city would fall. It was just a matter of time. There would be other, larger cities, and it was economical to save the majority of the demons for those fights.
Everything was going according to plan, even if that meant he had to change the plan.
CHAPTER 28: KEHET
While rallying the soldiers at the north gate, Kehet had been approached by Silon and Chelle in their human forms. The Unicorns from the Gypsies had run to the city, arriving just ahead of the Vulak armies. Silon apologized for not participating in the battle at the Gypsy camp, as did Chelle. They were pacifists, but that shouldn’t have kept them from defending their god, they said. After they’d thought about it, they felt they had to come to Melnith and make amends.
Kehet assured them that he thought no less of them for avoiding combat. It was Silon who’d suggested they leave the city walls and rally the Unicorn population. When Kehet saw Reginald engage the Vulak and began to understand the futility the Abvi faced with the scale of the armies, he knew that Silon’s suggestion had merit.
“We have to charge through the Vulak,” Kehet said. “I can see some thin area’s in their lines. I could go alone, but I wouldn’t know where to find the other Unicorns.”
“We’ll go with you,” Silon said. “We Unicorns don’t often like to admit it, but we do all serve our god.”
“I’m not very good at the fighting,” Chelle said. “I’ll do my best for you, my Prince.”
“Just stay in my wake,” Kehet said. He planned to run point first through the enemy lines and not slow down to let any Vulak swing at him.
“I should let you know, it won’t just be the three of us,” Silon said. He gestured at the people around him.
Kehet hadn’t noticed them. But there were scores of people around him, all kneeling with their heads bowed. Instinctively, Kehet knew they were all Unicorns, disguising themselves as humans and Abvi.
“Okay,” he said, “Everyone get up and get ready, we’re going now.”
“Follow me,” Kehet yelled. “Don’t stop to fight, don’t impale anything. Threaten with the horns but hit with your shoulders. Shoulders and trampling are our weapons today.”
“Don’t hit them too fast,” Silon said. “I know we can move fast, but impacts at those speed will hurt us.”
Kehet hadn’t thought of that, but it made sense. He nodded in agreement then shifted. Most of the people around him did as well. The street, which had already been crowded with the thousands of soldiers, was suddenly packed even tighter. Kehet didn’t even try to count.
He just turned and bolted out the gate. He noticed Pantros and one of Reginald’s knights come in through the gate. He didn’t know why the boy had been outside the gates, but assumed that his returning was a good thing. Whatever the reason was, it wasn’t as important as making it out of the siege.
Outside the gate, Kehet took a sharp left, away from the monument and away from where a couple of Reginald’s knights still fought. The Vulak were converging on the knights and Kehet wanted a shallow place in the battle line.
The first rank of Vulak had time to prepare. They set spears and locked shields. Just before he would hit the spear points, Kehet turned sharply to the side. He cut into the spears, allowing a few to cut his flank, but using his horn to push the hafts of the spears aside. He ran through the hafts of the spears then pushed into the Vulak force, jumping the locked shields. The Unicorns behind him did the same, though some of the larger ones just hit the shields sending the Vulak behind them sprawling only to be trampled. The Vulak behind the first line scattered. When they were clear of the initial battle line, Kehet glanced back to see not a single Unicorn had fallen though many had bloody wounds. He turned again and ran towards the next group of Vulak. All but one of those scattered. The remaining one held a crossbow level at Kehet.
Kehet increased his speed heading straight towards the crossbow, but the Vulak didn’t falter. He remained steady in his aim and released the missile when Kehet was only a few paces away. Before Kehet could react, a white form passed before him. Kehet heard the scream and Chelle fell before him. Kehet, unable to stop, leapt over her and pierced the crossbow wielding Vulak through the throat then tore his horn out. He stopped and looked back at Chelle, but could sense she was dead. There was nothing he could do for her.
He ran on, seeing no other Vulak before him, he increased his speed to one he knew Silon could keep up with. After a few minutes, he stopped and changed form. The other Unicorns did so as well as they approached him.
Silon approached him and said, “Remember what she did for you, please. That’s all I ask.”
“Why did she do that?” Kehet said. “I would have healed.”
“Maybe,” Silon said. “But such a wound would have dropped you long enough for the other Vulak to get close and strike you with their weapons. You might heal from all those attacks too, but you’d never make it away from them. They’d just keep wounding you. In the best case, we’d have been forced to defend you until you could run again. Others would die. We lost one Unicorn; it’s tragic but not as bad as it could have been.”
“I’ll remember Chelle,” Kehet said.
Silon nodded. “Our first stop will be the Unicorn Meadows, our country. There will be Unicorns there that have fled from the Vulak incursion.”
Kehet turned to the other Unicorns present and said, “I don’t have time to run across the continent and introduce myself and rally our people. I need each of you to run to where you know the local Unicorns and have all of us meet…” He didn’t know where to have them meet. He tried to think of somewhere everyone would know.
“At the Spire, in the Meadows.” Silon finished for Kehet.
Most of the other Unicorns assumed their natural forms and darted off. A few remained with Kehet, including Silon.
The Spire was a modest tower compared to the towers of Melnith. Silon explained it as Kehet’s palace. It spiraled upward like a Unicorns horn, reaching perhaps a hundred paces into the air and gleamed pearly silver. Inside, the palace was bare other than a single dais in the center of the large main room that took up the entire ground floor. A stairway spiraled up the outside wall leading to rooms above. The walls of the palace were just translucent enough to allow the sunlight to illuminate the hall.
“There aren’t even doors,” Kehet said.
“Unicorns in their native form cannot turn doorknobs,” Silon said. “What use do we have for doors?”
“I suppose I’m the type of guy that doesn’t care to keep people out?” Kehet said.
“Keep who out?” Silon asked. “The nearest town is forty leagues from here. There’s nothing to take here and no food other than the particularly tasty varieties of grass we’ve cultivated in the Meadows.”
“Have I done anything like this before?” Kehet said.
“Not in my lifetime, but there are probably a couple dozen precedents in the last ten thousand years,” Silon said. “Pacifism is not usually the nature of Unicorns; we are a passionate race often prone to rash decisions.”
“So, what do we do now that we’re here?” Kehet said.
“You wait here, the rest of the Unicorns are spreading the word of the call. As they arrive, you greet them.” Silon said.
“Should we send scouts to Melnith, to keep apprised of the enemies’ placement, their strong points and their weaknesses?” Kehet said.
“I wouldn’t have thought of that,” Silon said. “I think you should go ask for volunteers.”
The four hundred league journey to Melnith would take a Unicorn four hours to run, so Kehet assigned the scouting missions on two day rotations. Everyone present volunteered, but Kehet only sent twenty.
He didn’t know how many days it would take to gather the Unicorns, nor did he know how long he had until the Vulak pressed the defenses of Melnith. All Kehet could do was hope that his actions would ultimately help the Abvi.
CHAPTER 29: PANTROS
Again in possession of the Key, Pantros found himself sitting alone in the best cell in the King’s dungeon. He had three rooms and a private bath with running water. The two servants insisted on assisting him in everything he did. If he went to sit down, one would fluff a cushion and thrust it under him as he sat. When they brought him food they set his table and offered to cut his meat. He’d tried to send them away but they told him they served the King. The two guards standing by the doorway day and night ensured Pantros couldn’t even sustain an illusion of privacy. He’d spent the morning on the battlements, watching the Vulak’s progress in building their siege towers. The sight was depressing.
Without the hope of the Archmage taking and protecting the gem, the only alternative was the inevitable battle. The Vulak had backed away from the city again. Only a handful of archers could hit them at that distance, and they were saving their arrows for when targets might have tactical value. Well over a hundred demons were concealed among the enemy. Sheillene and the Sorcerers and Wizards had been striking at the foul creatures whenever one became visible.
Bryan, Marc, Tara and Thomas came down to join Pantros. “The Vulak have started moving their Siege Towers closer to the city. The Wizards are unable to keep one burning without concentrating and the flame arrows are not doing anything,” Bryan said. “The Vulak used green wood.”
Thomas said, “Mirica and a couple other Sorcerers have the power to blow them over, but that only worked twice and now the Vulak have braced them with ropes.”
“Didn’t Lucian say something about having a Wizard that would turn the tide of the battle?” Tara asked.
“He did, but he also said that Wizard might be too dangerous to expose to battle,” Thomas said. “Wizards, it seems, come with nasty side-effects, such as exploding and leveling buildings or anything else around them. If the Vulak are getting ready to attack, and it looks like they are, I do hope that Lucian’s secret weapon will be able to help us. Sheillene and the archers are on the wall and she is worried they won’t have enough arrows.”
“We don’t,” Sheillene came up behind Thomas. “I was coming down to warn you that the Vulak have started an attack. They are launching stones into the city, but the sung marble construction of all the buildings seems to be mostly undamaged. When the stones hit people, it’s bad, though. You guys should stay inside.”
“Shouldn’t you be on the wall?” Thomas asked.
“Now that the Vulak are closing, any archer can hit them.” Sheillene said with a shrug. “They have their orders. I am staying down here to keep Pantros and his gem safe.”
“You don’t think Bryan and I can handle it?” Marc asked.
“I didn’t know you would be down here,” Sheillene said. “But even so, adding my bow to your blades can only improve his odds of surviving.”
“I’m fifty feet below ground and there is only one stairwell up from here. I think we can defend that,” Pantros said. “The only real risk to me here is dying of boredom.”
“You have a neat stack of books there,” Thomas pointed to the desk in Pantros’ sitting room. “How could you be bored?”
“I don’t read Abvi,” Pantros said. “I did find an interesting picture.” He went to the desk and retrieved a book titled ‘The History of the Sword by Col. V. Venusheart’. “There’s a picture of a sword here,” He opened the book to a marked page and showed everyone the drawing of the sword on that page. “Look Familiar?”
Bryan gasped. “That’s my sword!” he said. “Well it’s the blade of my sword. My guard, hilt and pommel are just plain iron. That’s a fancy mold or carving and clearly some kind of huge gem in the pommel.”
“The Blade of the Baron?” Sheillene read. “That would be a proper translation but the dialect of the book is over twenty thousand years old. “It says the blade is of human origin, making that blade over twenty five thousand years old.”
“And not a spot of rust,” Bryan said. “I already know it’s enchanted.”
Sheillene continued to translate the text near the picture. “It says here that the sword was disassembled because the combined enchantments on the various parts made a weapon that would cut an armored horse in half. It’s also too heavy for an Abvi to carry, which explains why it was disassembled. At that time humans with potent swords would be a threat to the Abvi nation.”
“You mean nations?” Pantros said. “I thought there were four: Melnith, Grenlith, Valencia and Rahvenna.”
Sheillene then explained, “Twenty five thousand years ago there was one and it was called ‘Enlith’. That country stretched across the continent from one ocean to the other. Relarch didn’t exist; there were no humans because the Abvi had purged them around that time.”
“Why did they…” Pantros started to ask about the Purge when a crashing sound echoed through the dungeon. Snarled battle cries filled the halls. Dust filled the air and Bryan picked up his sword and rushed out of the room. Abvi Guards were yelling, but Pantros still didn’t speak enough of the language to understand them.
“Vulak!” Sheillene snarled. She stood and strung her bow.
Marc beat her to the hallway and chased after Bryan.
“I suppose I shouldn’t let them have all the fun,” Pantros said. He reached in his shirt and pulled out the Nightstone. He placed it in Tara’s hands and then drew his sword. He didn’t try to explain to Tara what she should do before following the others into the dust filled hall.
Deeper into the dungeons a wall had collapsed revealing a tunnel behind it. The tunnel was filled with Vulak, all pushing and shoving to get through the hole. Once through the hole they met Bryan and Marc. Marc’s swords were knocking the Vulak weapons aside and occasionally striking at the Vulak. Bryan’s sword lay on the floor behind him, as he simply grabbed any part of a Vulak he could. He then twisted whatever he’d grabbed and tossed the Vulak into the nearest wall.
Pantros heard the bowstring snaps and shafts appeared in the chests of the rushing Vulak. He knew better than to try to find a place in the fight between Bryan and Marc. The scar on his ear reminded him not to get between Sheillene and her targets and she had claimed the gap between the giants, though from ten paces back.
“You need to get into that mine,” Sheillene said. “We need to push them back and collapse the tunnel.” *That one, on the floor over there, it’s still breathing,” his sword said.
Pantros looked around and saw one of the Vulak starting to roll to his feet. Pantros thrust his sword through the Vulak’s heart. *It’s not the most honorable kill,* the sword said.*But we can’t afford to have Vulak standing up behind us. The Vulak would not be so kind to you if your positions were reversed. They’d break your legs, then your hands, then give you a gut wound, the kind that will kill you slowly and painfully.*
Bryan picked up a Vulak and swung it around then flung it back into the tunnel knocking a few others to the ground. Marc took the opening to step into the tunnel and Bryan followed after. The tunnel was wide and braced. The Vulak had spent time building the mine. Marc and Bryan could stand side by side with enough distance between them to fight and more than enough for Sheillene to shoot through. Pantros accepted the job of delivering the Coup-de-Grace on any Vulak that managed to survive as the two giants pushed into the tunnel.
“Hey Pan, Bring my sword with us,” Bryan said. “If this widens out, I’ll need it.”
Pantros picked up his friend’s sword. It weighed as much as a feast day turkey. He could hold it in one hand, but couldn’t swing it effectively with both. So he held it in his left hand by the ricasso with the blade nearly dragging behind him. He could still use his rapier to finish off the occasional enemy. Fewer survived for the giants to step over once Bryan had a wall right next to him to crush the Vulak against.
“Someone went for help, right?” Pantros asked Sheillene.
“I hope so,” Sheillene said. “I can re-use my arrows, but not always and I will run out and I will tire. And one of those Vulak might get lucky against the two big guys up front.
“I can help if you tire,” Prince Aven said as he approached from behind. “I can also heal so any Vulak would have to get extremely lucky.” He nodded behind him to a cluster of Abvi. “And, just in case, I brought forty of my best soldiers.”
Aven held a staff of gnarled wood that he held out and touched to Bryan’s back. Pantros hadn’t realized his friend had slowed until Aven’s touch clearly revitalized him. The same action on Marc provoked many Vulak Screams. Soon it was evident that they were no longer pushing the Vulak back but were chasing them out of the tunnel.
“Sword!” Bryan shouted.
Pantros realized they were fighting under a twilight sky and handed Bryan the huge sword. The Vulak again surged towards them coming in from all sides. They were in a clearing half a mile from the city walls and they were surrounded.
“I just need a moment,” Aven said. “I can use my magic to seal the tunnel, but it will take time to channel the amount of power I need.”
“You’ll have all the time you need, Tempest,” Bryan said, swinging his sword clean through a charging Vulak.
Aven’s soldiers spread around the tunnel’s opening, helping them defend the prince.
CHAPTER 30: SHEILLENE
My name is Sheillene and I am your narrator. I don’t usually tell my tales as if they are about me, but this next part is very important to whom I became. While we travelled through the tunnel, each time I shot an arrow, there was the chance the Vulak could fall on it and break it. I recovered the ones I could and, by necessity, reused them. When we finally emerged from the tunnel, I’d run out of arrows. I slung my bow across my back and drew my sword.
Vulak fear Abvi organization. They didn’t really engage the prince’s soldiers more than stand just outside spear reach. But Marc and Bryan were not Abvi. The Vulak crowded towards them. The irony is that though the Abvi soldiers were highly disciplined, far fewer Vulak would have died if they’d tried to press through them than died trying to take down Marc or Bryan.
I stood with the two large men, but I lost track of Pantros, most of the time. Occasionally, I’d see him lunging among a cluster of Vulak and then darting back to the cover of the Abvi shield wall.
I still maintain that Marc is part ogre, though he vehemently denies it. Still, I am constantly surprised whenever I see him fight. I expect him to chop and hack using brute strength to power through the enemy’s blocks. He does not play that way. Every movement of his swords is a precision dance. No blow he threw was ever blocked by a Vulak. His blades seemed to find a way around every parry or through every opening in his opponents defense.
Bryan, on the other hand, though clearly trained in the art of sword fighting, relied heavily on his mass and strength. I saw him cleave more than one iron shield in half.
Eventually, it seemed the Vulak had learned to fear the three of us. I include myself because while the two giants were killing a Vulak with every heartbeat, I was at least dropping one with every breath. I am exaggerating a little, but we were killing a lot of Vulak. They’d noticed and they stopped pressing toward us.
A Vulak dressed in the most ornate leather armor I’d ever seen stepped forward from their retreating lines. He drew a pair of swords and gestured at Marc. Around us, the battle had paused. I could see some Vulak regrouping and others moving away. I don’t know to this day what that Vulak had hoped to accomplish, though I’ve learned there is a particular vanity among sword fighters who duel so I understand why Marc, surrounded by the enemy, accepted the challenge.
The Vulak screamed an order and every other Vulak in the area backed away, but all kept their eyes on where that Vulak and Marc met on the field. For a moment, the world was silent as the two swordfighters circled, sizing each other up. Vulak are a little bigger than Abvi, but nowhere near Marc’s size. I can only imagine the Vulak was thinking Marc would be lumbering. Just looking at Marc, I would never engage such a being in close combat. That Vulak must have been confident in his swordplay.
As duels go, this one was fast. The Vulak had skill. He was the first warrior I ever saw parry one of Marc’s blows. In fact he parried three. Marc threw five. When the Vulak fell, Marc knelt beside him and said, “You fought bravely; may you be among the warriors in your paradise.”
Bryan poked me with the tip of his sword. I’m sure he didn’t mean to harm me, but that sword is sharp and he did draw blood through the side of my armor. It was little more than a needle prick, but it got my attention. Bryan then pointed off through the ranks of Vulak at a large winged creature moving towards us, pushing, almost herding, a wave of fresh Vulak in our direction.
“Now!” Prince Aven shouted. “Get back in the mine. It’s closing!”
The fresh Vulak were moving too fast and Marc and Bryan insisted on being the last through. I wasn’t about to leave them behind. Five of the Princes guards were still outside the mine with us when the stone around the tunnel flowed together.
“Where I come from, we would call this a bad situation,” Marc said.
Bryan laughed then said, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere where this would be good.”
The prince’s guards gathered close to us. One of them said, “It was an honor fighting at your side, milady and my lords. If we are to die in battle, it honors us to do so in the company of such heroes.”
If we’d had more time, I’d have told them that they were heroes too, but I was focused on the Vulak surging around us. These were more organized and all of the same clan. They were a uniform style of armor and fought in formations.
“We won’t last long if we play this defensive,” Bryan said. “Stick with me, I’m going to be moving around and changing direction. Our only hope is to not let them plan a way to overwhelm us.”
“You’re suggesting we might survive?” Marc asked.
“Well, I will,” Bryan said. “Stick with me and you might also.”
I’ll say this: I am not fond of the idea of actual death. We Abvi don’t die like the other races, we transcend. We believe that death before we achieve the completeness that leads to transcendence is a true end of our souls. I wasn’t one of those who would have been happy to die as long as it was a heroic death. However, I knew Bryan and if anyone would make it out of an army of Vulak alive, it would be him.
Bryan started running towards a unit of Vulak advancing as a shield wall. We were all behind him. Just before he hit the shields, he rolled into a somersault and came to his feet under the bottom edges of the shields, throwing them upward and bowling the Vulak aside. Marc just threw the Vulak he encountered aside. I am not a big person, even for an Abvi, I’m a bit on the wiry side. I just stayed behind Marc and parried any attack that came at us. There weren’t many. The other Abvi advanced in loose formation behind us, but kept up. They did a great job of keeping anyone from closing on our rear flank. Once we were in the middle of the Vulak unit, Bryan started swinging his huge sword. We all took that as the cue to lay into whatever Vulak was near us. For a dozen or so breaths we laid waste to any Vulak within our weapons reach.
“Moving!” Bryan shouted then rushed through a gap in the enemy and hit another unit, pressing into the middle of that unit and tearing through them as if they were stalks of wheat. The rest of us were right at his side, doing the same.
But, stalks of wheat don’t swing back. By the fourth unit of Vulak, somehow none of us had fallen but each of us had at least one bleeding wound and several minor scrapes. Then we found ourselves in a gap in the enemy forces. No Vulak came near us. We weren’t puzzled though, we knew why. Bryan stood in front of a demon.
The creature was half again as tall as him and carried a foul looking axe of black metal.
The demon made a low grunting noise that I recognized as a chuckle. “Foolish creature, your mortal steel cannot harm me or my kind.” The demon swung his axe, and Bryan blocked, severing the haft of the demon’s weapon but the force of the blow also knocked Bryan’s sword away. The creature then swiped at Bryan with his claws, cutting deep into the man’s chest. Bryan stepped up and punched the demon hard, causing it to stagger. Then the demon thrust the remaining haft of his weapon towards Bryan. Bryan grabbed it, yanking it from the demon’s hand. He then spun impaling the demon’s thigh straight through.
“Who’s foolish now?” Bryan asked.
The demon snorted than brought both of his hands down hard on Bryans shoulder. I heard the snap and two bones jutted from Bryans shoulder as he fell to the ground. I assumed he was dead. I saw Bryan’s sword lying on the ground and dove for it. It was heavy. I could lift it, but I wasn’t going to swing it more than once.
Marc had already been charging to join the fight but got there too late to help Bryan. Marc’s swords hit the demon hard enough to cause the demon to flinch, but not hard enough to penetrate the creature’s armor or even scratch the monster’s blood-red skin. The demon stepped up and grabbed Marc around the waist, lifting him into the air.
Marc dropped his swords and tried to tear free of the demon’s grip.
“Behind you!” I shouted and held out Bryan’s sword.
Marc reached back and took the huge weapon by one hand. He swung out and wide. As the blade rolled around, I heard the crunch as the demon squeezed Marc crushing his spine. But Marc’s wrap-around blow was already on course. It cut deep into the demon’s back, severing both wings and nearly cutting through the demon’s torso. They both fell and neither moved.
“Archers, left flank,” One of the guards yelled. Half a dozen Vulak with crossbows leveled towards us were only ten steps away.
Three of the bows were aimed at me. I closed my eyes and prayed to Temistar to see me as complete. If I could transcend at that moment I’d go on. My prayers were not answered.
“Get ‘em!” I heard Bryan’s voice and saw the big man stagger towards the archers, one arm hanging useless by his side. I followed behind him and the other Abvi were behind me. Just two paces from the Vulak, I heard the bowstrings snap and Bryan spun as he fell into the Vulak archers. I could see all six quarrels sticking out of his chest and I could tell by his eyes he was already dead. Even in death, Bryan killed two more Vulak when he fell on them. It was my blade, inspired by the two giants’ sacrifice that cut down the rest of the archers. But, I was fighting blind with rage; I didn’t see the spear skirmishers flank us. A sharp pain shot through my hip and I fell. As I lay on my back, I saw the spear come at me, but couldn’t defend against it as it tore into my belly, through to the ground below me. He left me impaled and looked me in the eye. I was spitting blood but couldn’t even find the strength to spit on the vile creature. He pulled a knife from his belt then leaned down and cut my left ear off. I can say I wasn’t in enough pain not to be able to feel more, and that hurt.
He then unhooked a necklace and threaded my ear onto it. I couldn’t even turn my head away; I had to watch him admire it. As he started to put the trophy necklace back on, his eyes turned from a prideful smile to a stunned look of death. A silver spear tip emerged from his chest. I barely had time to realize it wasn’t actually a spear tip, but a Unicorn’s horn before I faded to a dark, dreamless sleep.
CHAPTER 31: KEHET
Kehet shook the Vulak off of his horn and looked down at the battered body of Sheillene. He could see her chest moving in breath, but she was dying. He touched his horn to her body and gave her just enough strength to survive until he could finish the battle and return to her.
But around him, there was nothing left to kill. Fiery explosions were throwing Vulak into the air, creating a space around him and Sheillene. Kehet looked up to see a shimmering disc floating through the air. Standing on the disc were several figures in robes of varying styles and colors. A woman in white robes was floating above the disc with her arms outstretched. Kehet’s eyes fell on the woman in the orange and red robes: Heather. She was shooting jets of flame from each of her fingertips. Where the jets hit the ground in an arc dozens of paces away, the area erupted in fire. The disc landed by Kehet and most of the robed figures rushed off.
Dozens of Unicorns created a perimeter around the disc, though it seemed unlikely that any of the now routed Vulak would be approaching them again.
Two of the robed figures came to Sheillene and the others knelt by the bodies of Marc and General Bryan and a handful of uniformed Abvi. One of the robed Abvi by Sheillene said, “She’s in no immediate danger.”
“This one is dead,” A man by General Bryan said.
“This one as well,” A man by one of the uniformed Abvi said.
“These live,” A woman kneeling by two of the Abvi said. “I can heal them.” She started murmuring something between a prayer and a song.
A man kneeling by another Abvi was doing the same but another Abvi lay dead as well.
“The giant is barely alive,” A healer in particularly ornate robes said as he knelt over Marc. “I’ll need the help of everyone whose patient is not in imminent danger. I’ll keep him breathing and make sure his blood flows, the rest of you, pick a wound and get to work. Maalia, you take the broken spine.”
A woman rushed over and set her hand on Marc’s back. She closed her eyes and Kehet could see the blue and white energies flowing in tiny strands from the sky, into the healer and as a thick flow from her hand into Marc. “He shouldn’t be alive,” she said. “Several of the spinal bones are shattered. I can mend them, but I’ve never seen someone survive such injuries.”
“Of course you can,” the ornately dressed healer, clearly a leader among them, said, “That’s why I chose you to do so.”
“There’s a Unicorn right here,” One of the Healers said. “They could help.”
“A Unicorn’s healing cannot make the difference between life and death,” the lead healer said. “They can heal any ailment of the flesh from poison to plague to the most dire burns, but they cannot heal bone and they cannot save a life from a mortal wound.”
Outside the perimeter of Unicorns the battle was no longer raging. What Vulak could were running away from the city. Kehet could not see a demon anywhere. There were Abvi on the battlefield, fighting a few stubborn units of Vulak and finishing off those left dying on the ground.
Off in the distance, dozens of mounted knights approached from the east. They charged down several groups of Vulak, though they actually killed very few. They seemed to simply be scaring the fleeing Vulak. Seeing the lances of the knights, Kehet understood why. A lance, like a Unicorn’s horn, could pierce an enemy and a lance with an enemy impaled on it cannot be used again and must be dropped. The Vulak were in full rout, so there was no real need to kill more of them.
The knights approached the circle, but only one passed into the perimeter. He rode up next to where the healers worked on Marc. “I know this man,” the knight said. “Will he live?”
“I cannot say,” the ornately dressed healer said. “We’ve fixed the wounds, but there is more to life than the body. His spirit must believe that he can survive and until he regains consciousness we will not know whether it has faith or has already given up.”
“And Sheillene?” The knight asked.
Two healers had rolled her on her side and were pulling the Vulak spear through her body. “She’s not in any danger,” one of the healers said. “The Unicorn purified her, so there is no risk of infection. Once we mend the wounds, which are not as bad as they look, she will be fine.”
The knight rode over to Kehet, “I’ve never seen a Unicorn,” he said. “I believed your kind were just a myth.”
Kehet shifted to his human form then said, “It wasn’t that long ago that I thought the same thing. Until recently I didn’t even know I was a Unicorn, let alone a god. And today I led twenty thousand of us into battle.”
“Prince Kehet?” The knight asked. He dropped from his horse and knelt. “Your Majesty, I didn’t know.”
“Please stand,” Kehet said. “Like I said, I didn’t know either and it’s a long story, one that I don’t even know the whole of.”
“I’m happy to meet you and happier to meet your army,” the knight said. “I brought every knight that I could gather on short notice and we are only a couple hundred. Seeing how many Vulak were here, I doubt we would have made much difference.”
“I’m sorry, I should have your name,” Kehet said.
“I’m Estephan: a Prince of Relarch,” the knight said.
“I’ve heard of you,” Kehet said. “I’m sorry to hear of your father’s passing.”
Estephan looked back to the east. “He’ll be remembered as a good king.”
Sheillene stepped up beside Kehet; she was pulling at a hole in her leather armor where the spear had been moments before. “Majesty, I owe you my life,” she said. “Thank you.”
Kehet nodded, he didn’t know how to respond. How could he make saving someone’s life sound humble?
Estephan saved him from having to try. He said, “I’m glad he did. Westgate wouldn’t be the same without Sheillene on the stage at the Rampant Gelding.”
“Highness,” Sheillene said. “Forgive me, I didn’t notice you. I was distracted.”
“It’s understandable,” Estephan said. “They tell me your half-ogre friend may live.”
“Marc?” Sheillene looked over at where the giant lay on the ground. The healers had finished but one still knelt at his side. “If he’s breathing, he’ll live. I can’t actually imagine anything killing him, and I saw a demon crush his spine and Marc still killed the demon. His spirit is not the kind to give up.” Sheillene’s eyes dropped to the ground and she said, “Prince Estephan, there is something you should be told.”
“Oh?” he asked. “Your other friends, are they well?”
Sheillene looked at General Bryan then she shook her head and said, “Most of my friends were not in the combat. I need to tell you of your brother.” Before Estephan could ask for details, she said, “He died a hero. Between him, his knights and Pantros, they stopped this from being an army of demons.”
Estephan took his helm off and fell to his knees. “He always liked the stories of the great battles and the heroes who fought in them. To be among them will make his spirit proud. The loss of his knights is also sad, and I can’t help but mourn your friend, he was young and not really meant for a warrior’s death.”
“I’m not dead,” said Pantros as he walked over to them. His armor had been torn and there was a cut on one of his shoulders, but the boy smiled impishly.
“Where did you go?” Sheillene asked. “I assumed you went back into the tunnel with Aven.”
“When the Vulak started to flee, I decided to take advantage of their panic,” Pantros said. He held up several pouches, most still attached to belts. “Vulak, it seems, keep silver and gold just like we do. Now several Vulak are a few silver and gold poorer.”
“And their pants are falling down,” Sheillene said. “This is how you cope with sadness?”
“Bryan?” Pantros said, looking over at the fallen General. The healers had draped a sheet over the body. “I expected him to die like this. I honestly expected he already had. The only thing I hadn’t been expecting was that it was for a good cause. I’m going to be sad that he’s gone, but I’m sure he’s causing all kinds of fun trouble in paradise.”
“Sheillene is right,” Estephan said, “You deal with sadness with risk. You use the rush of the daring accomplishments to overcome the depression. You shouldn’t. It’s dangerous. I’m sure you can appreciate how being in a depressed state means you might not be performing to your best. If I know you, I know you take pride in how little risk you actually take. Stealing pouches from people fighting a battle is the biggest risk I’ve ever heard of.” Estephan looked around the battlefield a moment then said, “You were stealing from the living, right?”
“Steal from the dead?” Pantros asked. “Where’s the challenge in that?”
Heather then approached them. “I can’t see any Vulak left to burn,” she said.
“It’s good to see you,” Kehet said. “I’m sorry I left you alone in the city.”
“You left?” Heather asked. “The Wizards hadn’t let me leave the training platform until this morning when Mirica came up to get me.” Heather pointed to the woman in the white gown, who was walking towards them. “It seems that what I am to fire magic, she is to air magic.”
“Close enough, anyway,” Mirica said. She bowed and said, “Your Majesties, thank you for giving us the room we needed to come and save my brother-in-law and two of my brother’s closest friends. She looked at Pantros, “The healers didn’t fix that shoulder?”
“I haven’t seen a healer, yet.” Pantros said.
“Are you telling me you came through that almost unscathed?” Sheillene said.
“I don’t like fighting,” Pantros said. “That was always Bryan’s thing. I did my best to only engage in combat where there was little chance of the Vulak swinging back. It would have been easier, but my sword insisted I only attack from the front of the Vulak I chose to confront. There were a couple that got in my way that I hadn’t planned on. I wasn’t counting but my sword tells me I killed fourteen, which isn’t much compared to Marc, Bryan or you.”
“I didn’t count either,” Sheillene said. “But I can guarantee no one killed as many as the Wizard.”
“Are you okay?” Kehet asked Heather. He had kept count and the number of Vulak he’d killed was four and he felt remorse for having to do so. “You shouldn’t have been thrust into a battle.”
“Fire kills,” Heather said. “Learning to understand that is part of maintaining a Wizard’s calm. I’ve killed warriors prepared to die and I’ve killed innocents who never saw it coming. I can feel sad for the loss of life, but I cannot feel guilt for being the instrument of their death. The warriors I killed on purpose, but they understood that potential fate. The innocents I had no design to kill, but no one without training could control that rage, that power. I kill; it’s a part of who I am.”
“That’s disturbingly rational,” Kehet said.
“Wizards come in two kinds,” Heather said. “Pragmatic and insane. Being able to rationalize the results of our magic allows us to still care about the outcomes without being crippled with guilt. It means we maintain the emotional and intellectual facilities to choose how to use our power in the future. Those who can’t rationalize lose all ability to make those choices.”
“We should head to the city,” Sheillene said. “Mirica can you fly us all back?”
“That’s what I came over to tell you,” the woman in white said. “The healers are done, but Marc and two of the Abvi may not wake up for days. I’m going to fly them back, but I can take you all with us.”
“I’ll meet you at the palace,” Estephan said. “I trust your ability to fly us, but I can’t speak for my horse. Pantros, I will want to talk to you about my brother, later.”
“And I look forward to telling you about Prince Reginald,” Pantros said.
“Sheillene,” Kehet said, “Your ear?”
“My ear?” Sheillene’s hand touched the side of her head where her left ear had been. It didn’t find anything. “All I have is a little hole in the side of my head.”
One of the healers rushed over and stood with his gaze on Sheillene’s feet. “I am terribly sorry,” the healer said. “I didn’t notice the missing ear. I am afraid there is nothing that can be done now that we’ve closed the wound.”
Sheillene pulled back her hair, showing scarred flesh around a tiny hole. “This is permanent?”
“Can you hear?” The healer asked.
“That’s not the point,” Sheillene said, “But yes, I can hear. I’m just not thrilled about the idea of going through life looking like this. I know healers can regrow body parts, find one that can regrow an ear.”
“If we hadn’t healed your flesh, we might have been able to re-attach the old ear,” the healer said. “But we cannot do more than regrow flesh and ears are more than skin and muscle. Perhaps a Tempest could regenerate it. I’ve seen them do what you said and regrow limbs.”
Sheillene turned away from the healer. “I’m ready to head back, Lady Mirica.”
The woman in the white gown reached out to her sides and Kehet felt the wind pick up around his legs. The wind grew stronger though more densely focused closer to the ground. Then something pried his feet from the ground and he nearly stumbled. He stood on a wide disk of wind. Mirica pulled it from the ground and they floated back to the city.
The Abvi had launched an attack from the city gates when the Unicorns arrived. The Unicorns had focused on the demons, and the Abvi had simply formed into battle lines and advanced slowly to the enemy. In most cases the Vulak fled before the Abvi reached them. At the end of the day, the Demons were all dead, the Vulak were running back to wherever they came from and only three people died, though the number of people injured was far greater.
King Allaind announced a day of celebration and had the royal stores of wine emptied and distributed throughout the city. He then held a memorial for the fallen of the Battle of Melnith in his audience chamber. The gathering was small, only a couple hundred people. Sheillene and Pantros were among them, as was Marc who seemed as healthy as ever. Three bodies lay draped in sheets, two had swords and shield lain over their chests; one had only a very large sword.
Heather didn’t come to the memorial. After the battle, she kissed him goodbye and retreated back into her training chamber. As much as she said she was fine with what she did, she’d had a melancholy air about her since they’d come back to the city.
The king stood before his throne and said, “There is, among the Abvi of Melnith an Honor rarely given, and when it is, it is only to those whose actions preserve our kingdom. It is an award of such prestige that no Abvi alive has achieved it. Few do so and survive. Today we induct six into the Order of Light.”
An Abvi knight approached the king, holding a cushion in his hand. On the cushion, several pendants glowed. Each was attached to a blue and yellow ribbon. The king took one of the pendants and stepped over to one of the covered bodies. He draped the pendant over the hilt of the sword and said, “Elefth Tercloud, you are hereby inducted into the Order of Light, you have served with honor.”
He did the same with body of Vila Wythetone.
As he stood by the last body he said, “No human has ever earned any Abvi award of such prestige. He set the pendant over the huge sword and said, “General Bryan Aaronson, you have served with honor.”
He then returned to stand by his throne, “General Bryan is not the only human we induct today. Prince Estephan, if you would accept on behalf of your brother.”
The prince, who had been standing near the king, stepped forward. The King placed the pendant in Estephan’s hand. “Your brother, Prince Reginald, a king among men and Abvi, is hereby admitted to the Order of Light. He has served with honor.”
The prince clasped his hand over the pendant and stepped back with a bow.
The king then said, “Prince Kehet, please accept for your subject.”
Kehet stepped up to the dais and transformed into his Unicorn form as was proper while participating in a royal court. The king hung a pendant from Kehet’s horn. “For Chelle, noblest of the Unicorns. She has served our kingdoms with honor.”
“Each of these great heroes has earned a monument outside our gates. The king then held up the last pendant. “This one is the only one I have to give to someone who didn’t die earning it. Marc Williams, please approach.”
The large man stepped up and knelt. He was still taller than the king but not so tall that the king could not put the pendant around his neck. “You now know the weight of honor. I cannot induct you unless you accept. If you do, can you swear to never bring dishonor to the kingdom?”
“I do accept,” Marc said. “I am flattered by the invitation and will always act with honor, with the honor of the Abvi of Melnith.”
“Then stand, Sir Marc,” The king said. “You are now not only a knight, but the senior knight of the Order of Light. I only require you to attend me twice per year, but you are forever welcome in my court and my palace.”
Marc bowed and stood then stepped away from the king.
The king then said, “I have too many other, lesser but still exalted knighthoods to award at the moment. Tonight we remember the sacrifice of these five and the others, Prince Reginald’s knights, who have died in this battle. Go now and spread word of the fallen and their deeds.”
People began leaving the Audience Hall. Not one had dry eyes.
Kehet shifted back, catching the pendant as it fell from where his horn had been. It looked like a flat diamond with an eight pointed starburst of gold inside. The star glowed, giving off a bright light. He placed the pendant in his pouch.
Kehet noticed pages handing folded parchment to several people, including Sheillene and Pantros. He walked over to them and they were joined by Marc, the bard Thomas and his wife, the sorceress who had flown them all earlier that day, and a young Abvi girl Kehet hadn’t met.
“Writs of knighthood,” Sheillene said, holding up her paper. “We’re to be given smaller ceremonies in the coming weeks if we want them, but it seems Pantros and I are now Knights of the Order of Truth, and David is an honorary knight of that order. Since he’s a Knight of Relarch, he can’t really accept a true Melnithian knighthood.
“Me too,” Mirica said. “And that Wizard Heather’s name is listed as well. I’m a little surprised. Just a few days ago, all Wizards were living under threat of execution and today one is a hero of the kingdom.”
“She’s worthy,” Kehet said. “If nothing else, a person of that power is someone you’d want to have obligated to be on your side.”
“True, there are not many people of any school of magic, with that much power.”
The words came from Prince Aven, who stepped up to the conversation. “For each school of magic, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, there are ten circles of power. Magic is rare in humans and uncommon in Abvi. At any given time, for each school there is, at most, only one person alive with the potential of the tenth circle, and no more than three of the ninth. Though with that much power, the bearers of often destroy themselves before they find training.”
“So it’s not just fire that’s dangerous?” Kehet asked.
“No,” Aven said. “Any magic, if untamed, can be dangerous. But to have so many potent people in one city at a time has not happened in the history I know. Though, we were never in the same room, at one point we had the world’s most potent people of each of the four schools in the city. I am ninth in Earth Magic. The Archmage was ninth in Water. Heather is Ninth in Fire and Mirica is Tenth in Air. The way magic is measured, that makes Mirica as powerful as Heather and I combined. I have never seen so many powerful people in one place.” Aven then turned to Sheillene’s sister, who’d been with her since the huntress returned from battle. “You’re Aemelia, aren’t you?”
The girl, who, with dark brown hair and brown eyes, didn’t look at all like Sheillene, answered, “Yes, Your Highness.”
“You are also a Tempest, but still a Keeper,” Aven asked.
“I only tend my garden,” Aemelia said.
Aven leaned close to Kehet and said, “Her garden is the northern third of the kingdom.” He then stood straight and said, “I have to wonder if such a convergence of potent people is a sign of something.”
“Or maybe it’s just that most of the people in the kingdom are currently seeking refuge in the city,” Sheillene said. “But I had the same speculation earlier when I noticed I was sitting at a table with Thomas, Pantros and Marc.”
Kehet nudged Aven’s shoulder, “Worried that the world is going to tip off balance?”
“I actually am,” Aven said. “But, of all of us here, that’s something more of your concern than mine.”
Beldithe stepped into the room, “Kehet, I’ve been looking for you.”
Kehet was surprised to see the goddess actually wearing clothing. Though she wasn’t wearing much. Her robe didn’t have sides and the turquoise fabric did little to contain her body. “What do you need?” Kehet asked.
“I need for little,” Beldithe said. “There are, however, things I want. What I want right now is to speak with you.” She then looked around the room and her eyes fell on Marc. “But, I am suddenly overcome with a desire to postpone our discussion. The city is in celebration, we should join in the festivities.”
“We?” Kehet asked.
“You and I,” Beldithe said. “And these fine heroes should join us. I would like to sit at a table in a little tavern in the Foreign Quarter and chat with Thomas, Tara, Sheillene, Marc, Pantros, Aemelia, Aven and you. Drinks are on the prince.”
“Of course they are,” Aven said. “I can plainly see that a goddess carries no purse.”
“Follow me,” Beldithe said. She turned and walked, swaying as only she could.
It was a long walk to the foreign quarter but the densest parts of the crowded streets were near the palace. As they walked Aemelia stepped up next to Kehet. “Would you change to a Unicorn for me?” she asked.
“You saw me as a Unicorn in court,” Kehet said.
“You were pretty and I’ve never seen a Unicorn before. I’m sure there are thousands in the city right now, but they all look like people,” Aemelia said. “I was hoping to see one up close. I wasn’t standing that close to the throne and if you hadn’t noticed, I’m short.” The top of her head was around Kehet’s shoulder, for an Abvi, she was short.
Kehet looked around and, noticing they were on a relatively empty street, took a step back and changed.
“You’re so beautiful,” Aemelia said. “Can I ride you?”
Kehet thought about it, but hadn’t had a rider yet and wasn’t sure how to carry anyone. He changed back and said, “No, I don’t carry passengers.”
“I’m a virgin,” Aemelia said. Kehet already knew that to be true. It was a sense common to all Unicorns.
“It’s not about that,” Kehet said. “I’ve never carried anyone and am a bit afraid I’d drop you.”
“I could hold on tight to your mane,” Aemelia said. “Or would that hurt?”
“It wouldn’t hurt,” Kehet said. “Perhaps another time.” He pointed down the street, “We should catch up.”
CHAPTER 32: PANTROS
The group reached their destination and Beldithe literally pulled Marc in by the hand. Thomas and Tara were close behind. Pantros lingered by the doorway, trying to get a feel for the place by what he could see before stepping through the door. That’s when he noticed Sheillene was not among them. He caught a glimpse of her ducking into the alley beside the tavern and his curiosity got the best of him. He stepped over towards the alley, but could hear Sheillene’s voice before turning the corner so he stopped and listened.
“I don’t care what you’re reason is,” Sheillene said. “What you did was abandon my friend.”
“I didn’t abandon anyone,” The other voice, which Pantros recognized as Thomas’, said. “I did what I did when I did because that’s when I did it.”
“You’re going to have to repeat that again,” Sheillene said. “Slowly and in a language I would understand. First, let’s get to the part where you explain why you are inside and out here at the same time.”
“I’m a lot older than the me that is inside,” Thomas said. “I am far older than anyone thinks.”
“So the oldest Abvi is around ten thousand years old,” Sheillene said. “Are you close to that?”
“Not remotely. More than a hundred times that,” Thomas said. “I’ve lived to the end of time and back to the beginning and now I’m here again. And when I say here I’m referencing a point in time.”
“You travel through time?” Sheillene asked.
“No,” Thomas said. “I live through time. The guy in the Inn is me in the decades after I was born. I was him a long time ago in my past. I am currently in my third, and I believe final, trip through the timeline. Just be glad you haven’t met me while I was living through time backwards. Even for me, it was confusing to wake up each day a day earlier than the one I went to sleep. The worst part about those million years was that I could never travel more than a day from my home.”
“You’re over two million years old?” Sheillene asked.
“Just barely,” Thomas said.
“How can that be?” Sheillene said. “Are you a god?”
“Not for lack of trying,” Thomas said. “The gods have issues with me; they say I know too much. I tell the truth when it is inconvenient.”
“But that’s a curse,” Sheillene said.
“Not really,” Thomas said. “I just adopted the story of another Thomas, one who lived a much shorter life. I’ve just been around a while, so I get the chance to know an awful lot of things. And I share a bit of consciousness with my other selves. I remember being the young Thomas and how insane I thought I was. It’s odd knowing things that I don’t remember learning, but then later in my life I learned them and the young me has some access to that knowledge.”
“Why are you here?” Sheillene said.”Why drag me into this alley?”
“You’re going to tell the story,” Thomas said. “The story of Pantros and Kehet and the battle of Melnith?”
“I’m working on something,” Sheillene said.
“Then you need to be able to explain why the Thomas in that tavern is married to Tara and can’t say why,” Thomas said. “I’m explaining why, for your story.”
“But ten years ago, in Ignea, that was you, this version of you?” Sheillene said.
“There’s only one version of me,” Thomas said. “It’s not like I died and was remade. But yes, that was me during this trip through the timeline.”
“So when you left and left me to explain to Tara, it wasn’t because you discovered the death of Tara’s parents, you clearly already knew that from the memories of the Thomas inside.”
“My memories get a little fuzzy after so long,” Thomas said. “But I knew the truth all along. I know lots of truths that I won’t share. I just knew I had to get out of the picture before the younger me came into the picture. Sometimes I just do things because I know that’s how I did or was going to do them. I’ve yet to find a way to change anything I know to be true about history, even the history that hasn’t yet been written for you, because it’s all been written for me. Luckily, I never told my younger selves the day to day details of every day from this trip through time. Most days are still full of surprises.”
“I guess you are not coming inside,” Sheillene asked.
“Me and my younger selves bump into each other now and then, but not tonight,” Thomas said. “Go inside; don’t let your husband have all the fun.”
“I’m not married,” Sheillene said. “I’m not even engaged or for that matter romantically involved with anyone.”
“Oops,” Thomas said. Pantros could hear the mirth in the man’s voice. Then there were footsteps walking deeper into the alley.
“Who?” Sheillene shouted. She repeated it again louder.
Jovial laughter came from the far end of the alley.
“Did you hear?” Sheillene asked. Pantros hadn’t heard her step out of the alley but she stood an arm’s length away looking at him with suspicion.
“I did,” Pantros said. “Just to clear, it’s not me.”
“Not you?” Sheillene asked.
“I’m not interested in being your or anyone else’s husband,” Pantros said. “But I can guess who.”
“Really?” Sheillene asked, her voice low with disbelief.
“Don’t get too jealous of Beldithe,” Pantros said. “He’s not yours, yet.”
“The half-ogre?” Sheillene asked. The term had changed from a jibe when they’d first met Marc. It now sounded more like a pet name or an endearment.
Pantros just smiled then turned and walked into the Tavern. Sheillene followed several minutes later.
The sun was low in the sky when Pantros finally left the tavern. Thomas and Sheillene were still taking turns on stage telling stories or playing their instruments. Aemelia had left the party early with Kehet, though the Unicorn prince had returned moments later. It seems she’d managed to convince him to give her a ride back to the inn where her mother was staying. She’d only asked him a dozen times through the night.
Marc and Beldithe disappeared somewhere around midnight. Tara slept at a table by the stage.
Kehet caught up to Pantros as he walked back towards the palace.
“Steal any good purses lately?” Kehet asked.
“What?” Pantros asked. He hadn’t been practicing his trade during the celebration.
“How does one start a conversation with a thief?” Kehet asked.
Pantros shrugged. “‘Good Morning’ would probably work just fine,” he said.
“Well good morning, then,” Kehet said.
“You’re remarkably sober,” Pantros said, his mind still blurred, though he’d stopped drinking shortly after midnight. At least he didn’t remember drinking after Thomas’s ‘Midnight Merriment’ song.
“It’s a Unicorn curse,” Kehet said. “No poison works on my kind, not even alcohol. I could cure your minor case of being hung over.”
“Can I call it hung over if I haven’t been to sleep yet?” Pantros asked.
“So you and Mirica weren’t sleeping for the two hours you disappeared into the back room?” Kehet asked.
“I what?” Pantros asked. It seemed there was more than drinking that he’d forgotten. But thinking back, he could remember most of getting very friendly with Thomas’ sister.
“Stand still,” Kehet said. The man then changed to a large Unicorn and without warning, stuck Pantros in the arm with his horn. Before Pantros could complain, Kehet had changed back.
“What was that for?” Pantros asked.
“Feeling better?” Kehet asked.
It took only a breath to realize that not only was he no longer hung over, he was no longer tired. Aside from a small, bleeding prick in his arm, he felt fine. “Mostly,” Pantros said. “I now not only have a hole in my shirt, but it’s getting bloodstained.”
“But you’re sober?” Kehet asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Pantros confirmed.
“Good,” Kehet said. “Because I’ve been thinking about the demons and your gem and I don’t think it’s over.”
“Oh?” Pantros asked. “You think there’s someone else who wants to summon all the demons in hell to Mealth?”
“I think the same someone is going to try again,” Kehet said. “None of the demons we killed stood out as a leader among their kind. Somewhere, they have a general or a king directing them.”
Pantros hadn’t been looking at the battle from beyond the parts he’d been directly involved with. “They didn’t get that Vulak in the fancy armor?”
“They got the armor,” Kehet said. “One of my Unicorns caught up to the creature wearing it, but when the creature saw my Unicorn, it disappeared in a swirling cloud of black smoke. Prince Aven says that’s a way for demons to return to their hell. But he also says such a small demon would not have been in charge. He was probably selected because he was the same size as a Vulak. Demons get bigger with power or maybe it’s easier to get power for demons of immense size, but small demons are not leaders.”
“Are you saying we have to coax the demon king out of hell?” Pantros asked.
“I’m saying we have to go to hell and kill the demon in charge of this whole mess,” Kehet said. “And when I say ‘we’, I’m not sure I can include myself. There are some limits as to what I am allowed to do and going to hell may not be one of them.”
Gods were not something people of Ignea dealt with on a regular basis. Ships’ crews would offer sacrifice to Avengale before long voyages, but once on land, the gods were forgotten. Ignea had no temples. Pantros shrugged. He’d never really expected to be able to rely on a god. He saw them as being who helped on their whims. “I am glad you helped where you could, then,” he said.
“You’ll need weapons of power,” Kehet said. “Your own sword may not be strong enough to penetrate the hide of a demonic lord.”
“What of your sword?” Pantros asked. “What of the sword of a god?”
“There’s nothing special about this,” Kehet pulled his sword from over his shoulder. “I made it from a block of steel I’d smelted that came out to be not hard enough for mining tools. The crossguard and hilt were in an old box that my master kept under the workbench. Poor Segric died before approving my using them on this blade.”
“I’ve seen that hilt before,” Pantros said. “I know where the blade is that originally sat in it.” The blade he spoke of had been Bryan’s. He pulled the page he’d torn from the book out of his pouch. The drawing clearly showed the same wolf and bear moldings as the crossguard, though the actual piece was far more detailed than the drawing. “Sheillene told me the blade was disassembled to prevent humans from using it against the Abvi. We have most of the pieces of one of the most powerful swords in the world.” Pantros looked more closely at the drawing, focusing on the part they didn’t have. The pommel also looked familiar. “I think we need to talk to Estephan,” Pantros said.
They found the prince with King Allaind eating a quiet breakfast. The king was clearly disturbed by their intrusion but did offer them seats at the table and had settings placed on the table for them. Pantros suspected the courtesy had more to do with who he walked in with than politeness towards him.
“Kehet has convinced me that someone needs to go to hell and kill the demon behind this,” Pantros said.
“If you’re looking for a champion,” the king said, “then your coming here surprises me. Surely the man you are looking for is your friend Marc.”
“I’d already reached that conclusion,” Pantros said. “Though others coming along would be welcome. I came for two reasons. First, to get to hell, we’d have to open the portal. That’s not something I would want to do without your support or at least your permission. Second, I was wondering if maybe Prince Estephan had, among his possessions, his father’s crown.”
“I do,” Estephan said. “I had hoped to present it to my brother.”
“Could you have it brought here,” Pantros said. He pulled the picture out and set it on the table. “If I’m not mistaken, the setting on the top gem is actually the pommel for the Blade of the Baron, and we’re going to need such a weapon intact to assault hell. We have all the rest of the pieces.”
“I’m curious when you had the opportunity to see my father’s crown,” Estephan said. He gestured for page to attend him then sent the page off running. “I don’t recall you coming to the palace.”
Pantros said, “Not every piece of knowledge must be acquired first hand.”
“You mentioned the rest of the sword,” Estephan said. “I can see Kehet has the hilt and crossguard, but the blade?”
“Bryan’s sword,” Pantros said.
King Allaind nodded. “The blade still sits on his coffin,” he said. “I’ll have my best soldiers at the ready to join you at the gate this afternoon. I can offer only so much support, however, if the battle turns against you, we will pull the key and close the portal.”
“Once we reassemble the blade, we’ll need someone to wield it,” Estephan said.
“I was thinking of Marc,” Pantros said. “I’ve never heard of anyone better with swords.”
“Swords,” Estephan said, emphasizing the last ‘s’. “Marc is incredible with a pair of blades. We happen to have in the city the champion of the greatsword tourney of Relarch.”
“Your highness cannot go,” King Allaind said. “While no one questions your prowess with such a weapon, you are the last of your line. If you fall, your kingdom may end. The Archibolds founded Fork.”
“I designate David Norda as my heir,” Estephan said. He’s a cousin to my father and the only other direct male descendant of my great grandfather. That should prevent any serious attempts at civil war in Relarch.”
“I can’t stop you,” King Allaind said. “I appreciate the honor and valor of your decision, but I’ve seen one too many king die this season for honor and valor. I don’t have a swordsman that could lift that sword, though. I’m sure Marc would do fine.”
“That’s not a chance we can afford to take,” Estephan said. “We get one try; we can’t send anyone but the best we have. That means me and that means Marc and Sheillene and I can’t really ask this but your son and daughter, too.”
“Aven won’t,” Allaind said. “He won’t have access to his magic in any realm but ours. That Wizard, Heather and Mirica are my subjects I can order them to assist.”
“Asking would be fine,” Estephan said. “If they decline, then I’d appreciate it if you would be sterner in your request. I’d still rather everyone who goes with us goes by their own choice.”
Allaind turned to Prince Kehet. “You are going as well?”
“I can go with them, but I cannot kill a demon in its home realm.” Kehet said. “Demia is and at the same time is not part of this universe.”
“Demia?” Pantros asked.
“The proper name for what we call hell,” Kehet said.
“Thomas?” Pantros asked. “Should we bring him?”
“A bard?” Allaind asked. “What would a bard do? Offer morale support? I’m not even sure why you should be included. I can certainly see why we’d send Marc and Mirica and the Wizard, and I can even assent to Estephan, but the key won’t be going anywhere other than the top of the portal.”
“I’m still responsible for this mess,” Pantros said. “I feel like I should see it through.”
“You have the Kingslayer on your staff,” Estephan said. “Should we bring him as well?”
“Kingslayer?” Pantros asked.
“You know of that?” Allaind asked. “Julivel is not mine to command. We have a similar arrangement to the one your father had with his assassin.”
“My father wouldn’t have an assassin,” Estephan said. “My father was a good, honorable king.”
“Careful, prince,” Allaind said. “You just insulted my honor by implying that having a spy on retainer is less than honorable. It is part of being a king and one you too will come to use. In any event, a battle in Demia is not the place for a man who only kills from the shadows. When you get back to your kingdom, you would do well to make nice with the thieves who run your capitol city and make amicable contact with the one they call The Green Death.”
“She’s a myth,” Estephan said. “She’s a rumor the thieves use to help them keep control of our streets.”
“She’s not,” Pantros said, remembering the woman in the green cloak from The Three Diamonds. “I’ve seen her. But, we should prepare for the battle at hand and save the troubles of running your kingdom for a time when you’re more certain that running a kingdom is part of your future. If we fail, won’t we all feel silly in the afterlife for having wasted so much of our morning discussing whether assassins make a king less than honorable?”
“I think now would be the time for me to fetch Bryan’s sword,” Kehet flickered into his Unicorn form and ran off like a gust of wind.
Estephan’s page returned and set a box on the table. Estephan opened it and removed the crown.
“Would now be a bad time to ask for amnesty for all I’ve done in the past?” Pantros asked.
“You’re a hero of my people,” Allaind said. “In my kingdom you have done no wrong.”
“I know you,” Estephan said. “I’m sure you’ve done shady things here and there in your past. Since these are all in your past and not part of the man I know now, I grant you forgiveness for your actions before now. I cannot promise immunity from crimes you commit in the future, so please avoid committing any.”
“Thank you, my prince,” Pantros said.
Kehet returned to the room and shifted again to his human form. In his hands he held Bryan’s sword. He held the crossguard under his arm and twisted the pommel off. He then pulled off the hilt and crossguard. He chuckled, “No wonder it was hard to twist off that pommel, it was pinned through the tang. I should have expected as much. The Matderi invented the threaded pommel a couple centuries ago. This sword is far older.”
“The crown setting is similarly pinned,” Estephan said. “I don’t suppose anyone has jeweler’s tools handy.”
“I have these,” Pantros produced a leather folding pouch from a pocket in his shirt. The pouch contained a dozen rods flattened and bent to various angles. “As long as we’re not cutting the gem, these should work to pop the pin out.
Kehet disassembled his own sword and slipped his hilt and crossguard onto Bryan’s. He then used one of Pantros’ picks to remove the gem setting from the Relarch crown. He used the same pin to affix the setting as the sword’s pommel.
“I would have expected some kind of reaction,” Estephan said. “At least a glow from a sword so renowned.”
Pantros remembered why he’d insisted on the amnesty. “Oh, right,” he said. He then pulled the pouch with the crown jewel from his shirt and proceeded to use his tools to remove the glass gem from the sword.
“I’m feeling a little anger right now,” Estephan said. “I’m also a bit amused. Amnesty: now I understand. I’m also thinking to enforce the ban on your presence in Fork. Good thing we already agreed on that land deal, so I won’t have to worry about you having nowhere to go.”
Pantros said “Whatever I did in the past, the gem would be on the sword now.” He affixed the gem back into the pommel. When he finished, the sword began to glow with a pale white aura speckled with red flecks. “Behold, the Blade of the Baron.”
CHAPTER 33: KEHET
It was shortly before sunset that Estephan had his group of raiders ready to enter Demia. They were delayed while the king had several leatherworkers and smiths put some real armor together for Marc. It wasn’t pretty, but the large man seemed to retain his full range of motion and now had a couple layers of leather and some metal plates between him and whatever wanted to make him bleed.
Marc’s own swords were strapped across his back, but he held an Abvi made dueling sword in each hand. They were ancient single bladed weapons that once belonged to the Twin Kings. King Allaind had actually offered them to Marc as a gift, but Marc insisted he would return them after the demon was dead.
Sheillene had a dozen arrows she’d procured from the king’s armory. They weren’t much, but they were the only ones she felt confident would help against potent demons. They were made of some translucent crystalline metal she called Opalite. Princess Adria also had a dozen similar arrows.
Pantros was standing by Prince Estephan. He was wearing an Abvian breastplate and bracers and seemed uncomfortable in the minimal armor. He carried a helm in his hands and stared at it in disgust. He then set the helm on the ground and stepped away from it.
Heather approached Kehet and gave him a long hug. “I get to go first,” Heather said after she’d released him. “I get to see how much damage I can cause intentionally.”
“I can go ahead of you,” Kehet said. “I can’t fight, but I can distract.”
“No,” Heather said. “I’m stepping through as soon as the Portal is open and doing my thing and then stepping back. Aven seems sure the energy I release won’t pass through the portal. Marc and the Prince will then pass through and clean up my mess. Mirica will be going with the others, standing with Adria and Sheillene. No one is making any plans for that Pantros boy. He’s the only one who thinks he should be going in.”
“He’s stubborn,” Kehet said. He’d tried twice to convince Pantros to let others handle the fight, but the young man wouldn’t concede. He felt responsible and felt he needed to do his part to make it right.
“Good luck,” a familiar sultry woman’s voice said. Beldithe stepped up behind Heather and hugged her, giving her a gentle kiss on the neck before releasing her. “Call it cheating, but that kiss will protect you for a little while. Until you harm anything, no one will want to harm you. They’ll just stare at your beauty longingly. It should give you the moment of concentration you might need.”
“Thank you, goddess,” Heather said.
“Thank you, Heather,” Beldithe said. “I prefer this world be populated by the peoples that populate it now. I don’t know if I would continue to exist if there were no mortals left to worship me.”
The Prince waved toward Kehet and called to Heather.
“Wish me luck,” Heather said. She kissed Kehet on the lips and walked briskly towards the portal.
“Come with me,” Beldithe said. She reached over and took Kehet’s hand in hers.
“Where are we going?” Kehet asked.
“We already went,” Beldithe said.
Kehet became aware that he no longer stood anywhere in Mealth. The sky was the color of smouldering charcoal. Kehet stood on the balcony of a tower above a black landscape. A city built of black stone sprawled out in all directions to the horizon. Off in the distance and far below, hundreds of demons were gathered around a stone structure Kehet recognized as a portal.
“We’re in Demia?” Kehet asked.
“I know you cannot travel between the worlds on your own,” Beldithe said. “I can go anywhere, but I tend to stick to where I have the most influence, Mealth. But, I wanted to see how your friends fared and I’m sure you’d like to see Heather do her thing.”
Kehet could see the portal clearly and by adjusting his perception, it seemed as if he were standing just feet away from the structure.
A woman’s voice, with even more purr than Beldithe at her most seductive, brought Kehet’s attention back to where he stood. A crimson skinned woman with glowing gold eyes and a pair of bat-like wings waving gently from her back stood with Beldithe. She wore a gown made of pale blue translucent crystal chain links. “Something is about to happen at the portal?” the woman asked.
“Yes,” Beldithe said. She nodded to Kehet, “He won’t remember you.”
The woman held a hand out toward Kehet and said, “They call me Lady Glacia.”
Kehet carefully took her hand a kissed it. “I take it you know me,” he said.
“Not as well as I’d like,” Glacia purred. Unlike when Beldithe was being seductive, when the demoness spoke, Kehet felt like he was prey. It unnerved him slightly.
“She’s doing it on purpose,” Beldithe said. “With Glacia it’s more about the power than the conquest.”
“And with you it’s all about the experience without agenda,” Glacia said. “We all have our means and our reasons. If you are here, Pantros is coming to seek a more permanent conclusion to this game.”
“Game?” Beldithe asked.
“Everything is a game,” Glacia said. “This one is my game. I wanted to see if I could get a pesky minor lord to destroy himself.”
“By helping him try to conquer our world?” Beldithe asked. There was nothing seductive in her voice as she spoke.
“Relax, pretty,” Glacia said, still with a purr in her voice. “No demon has ever successfully conquered a mortal world. None have lasted more than a season. And I have the benefit of knowing of proof that Pantros will survive at least long enough to father a son.”
Beldithe looked at Kehet and he knew that she knew what Pantros had done the night before. “You think?” Kehet asked.
“He did, and it’s done,” Beldithe said. “There’s no guarantee of his safety today.”
“Well,” Glacia said, “Then the show is about to get interesting. It’s always a bit boring when we know how the ending will go.”
“The portal opens,” Beldithe said.
Kehet shifted his perspective back and saw Heather step through a shimmering mist. She looked around, spread her arms to the sky and took a deep breath. The demons around her gathered close to her but none made any aggressive action toward her. Heather closed her eyes and released her breath. Halfway through the exhale, Kehet’s perceptions became nothing but a bright orange light. He felt his skin singe.
“Ouch,” Beldithe said. Without shifting his vision back, Kehet knew the fire had reached where he, Beldithe and the demoness stood.
When the flames passed, Heather stood nearly alone on a sheet of black glass more than a league across. Only a couple dozen of the demons had survived on the ground, but those that were there were among the largest. One drew a huge sword of flame from his back and started to step towards Heather.
“That would be Murdread,” Glacia said. “He’s a tough bastard.”
Murdread wore black and gold armor that covered every inch of his huge figure, even covering his wings.
Heather stumbled and fell back through the portal. Two breaths later Estephan came running through with Marc close behind. Mirica followed and stopped just a step from the portal. She extended her hands to the ground and threw a jet of air so dense that Kehet could see it at the ground. Of course, Kehet realized. The ground was still hot. Adria came next, loosing an arrow as she stepped to Mirica’s side. The arrow pierced a demon through the chest, dropping it. Sheillene came next and took a moment to pick her target. She chose the demons closest to Marc and Estephan.
“I thought Pantros was coming too,” Kehet said.
“He’s there,” Glacia said. “He bends light around him. He’s not invisible, but if you don’t know where to look, you won’t notice him. Right now he’s behind that demon flanking the archers. See, that was his sword that tore through the demon’s heel.”
Kehet was able to see Pantros after that. The king of thieves was staying close to the portal.
The first to reach Murdread was Estephan. Mirica’s air blasts had been able to make the large demon stumble, but did nothing more. Estephan threw his shoulder into Murdread’s thigh and swung Bryan’s sword towards the demon’s knee. Murdread dropped a hand from his sword and swatted at the prince with a huge claw. Estephan flew several paces before landing with a crash of metal. Murdread was still holding the prince’s breastplate. He threw it at the fallen prince with enough force to roll the prone body of the prince. A puddle of blood began spreading from Estephan’s chest onto the glass-like ground.
Kehet reached out to aid the prince, but Kehet’s body was not the same place as his perceptions.
“You cannot help,” Beldithe said. Kehet knew it to be true. He had to let the battle play out without divine intervention.
Mirica’s wind then started throwing demons into the few remnants of walls near the portal. Between the arrows, and the Sorceress’s magic, it was only a moment before only Murdread stood fighting Marc. The man, who Kehet considered a giant, looked tiny beside the demon lord. For several passes, the two dodged each other’s swings, throwing attacks that served no other purpose than to feel out the defenses of their opponent.
Murdread took the first serious swing at Marc’s side. Marc tried to parry, but the blade of Murdread’s flaming sword was made of nothing but fire and passed around Marc’s sword as if it wasn’t there. Marc stumbled back. There was a charred gash across Marc’s chest armor, but he wasn’t bleeding. When Marc swung back, Murdread blocked with his arm. Even the Abvi made swords didn’t penetrate the demon lord’s armor. Murdread cackled a roaring, mocking laugh.
Marc then was forced to go on the defensive. Instead of blocking the flaming sword on the blade, Marc was throwing blows at the cross-guard of Murdread’s sword. Though smaller, the man was clearly as strong as the larger demon lord.
Marc’s parries were holding Murdread’s sword away, though the giant now had his back to a wall.
Estephan climbed to his feet and staggered over to stand behind Murdread. Estephan raised the Blade of the Baron above his head and just held it there.
“Prince,” Marc yelled. “Why aren’t you killing this guy?”
“I can’t strike a foe from behind,” Estephan said. “I just can’t bring myself to do it.”
Hearing Estephan speak must have gotten Murdread’s attention. The demon lord spun, his blade even with Estephan’s neck.
Estephan didn’t waver. He brought the Blade of the Baron down, cutting through Murdread’s skull and deep into the demon’s chest.
It was one of Marc’s blades that deflected the flaming sword up and over Estephan’s helm. The flaming sword then fell from Murdread’s hand as the demon slowly slumped to the ground.
Estephan fell over on top of the demon.
“Prince!” Marc yelled. He dropped his sword and pulled Estephan away from Murdread. The giant rolled the prince on his back. There were two deep cuts all the way across the prince’s chest. Kehet could see a splintered rib jutting from the lower of the two.
“I can help now,” Kehet said. He stepped back and changed into a Unicorn then leapt from the balcony.
“Wait!” Beldithe cried. Kehet felt a tug on his tail as he fell toward the ground. Suddenly the ground was much closer. He landed hard just a step away from Estephan. Beldithe lay on the ground behind him. “Gravity is unforgiving,” she moaned as she crawled to her feet. “Being able to move between worlds means I can use the same methods for somewhat shorter trips.”
Kehet nudged Beldithe’s shoulder to show his thanks and then rushed to Estephan. He touched his horn to the prince’s wounds. The bones slid back into place and then the flesh closed. The prince, however, did not awaken. He touched his horn again to the prince’s skin, but Estephan did not stir.
Frustrated, Kehet changed back to his human form to ask Beldithe, “Why isn’t this working?”
“You can mend flesh and remove fatigue,” Beldithe said. “As a god, you can even mend bone. You cannot make blood. Prince Estephan has lost quite a bit of it, probably so much that consciousness is difficult. He breathes, though.” Kehet noticed the slight movement of Estephan’s chest. “I suspect he will be fine after a few days of rest.”
“Can you heal a bit of a burn?” Marc asked and pointed to his chest.
“I’m sure I can,” Kehet said. “Well, mostly sure, anyway.”
“Wait,” Marc said. “Maybe I’ll want the scar. They say scars are stories.”
“Scars are stories,” Beldithe said. “I usually prefer the pure beauty of unmarred flesh, but there are always exceptions.”
“You’ve got the memory, my goddess,” Marc said. “I would not be averse to giving you another.”
“A tryst is nothing more,” Beldithe said. “I’ll treasure the memory of our night. Adding another would only diminish the one I have.” She stepped over and kissed Marc’s wound. The charred flesh healed instantly into a mottled scar. “You’ve already captured another heart. I shall not interfere again.”
“Who?” Marc asked.
“Is this really the place to talk about affairs of the heart?” Pantros asked. Kehet hadn’t noticed his approach. The thief then said, “Should we go home, maybe?”
Mirica stood by the gate and gestured for them to run.
Beldithe walked toward the gate, unrushed. Marc handed the Abvi Swords to Pantros and picked up Estephan. Kehet picked up the Prince’s sword. It was heavier than his sword, but not as heavy as it looked like it should be.
Demons were standing at the edge of Heather’s destruction, but none stepped closer. The walk to the portal was unhindered. Kehet passed through last. Aven had the portal closed just behind him. Beldithe was already gone when Kehet returned to Mealth. Heather lay on a pile of blankets.
Kehet stepped over, changing to a Unicorn as he did, and touched his horn to Heather’s arm. She awoke with a smile.
Kehet returned to his human form and knelt beside Heather. “You got to push your abilities,” Kehet said. “How do you feel?”
“Exhilarated and scared,” Heather said. “That damage was far more than Blackstone. If I did that here, now, I’d kill just about every Abvi in the whole kingdom. Nothing of this city would be standing.”
“I cannot stay here,” Heather said after Kehet didn’t comment.
“I’ll take you as far away as you like,” Kehet said.
“No,” Heather said. “Your place is here. You have worshippers and friends and kings who rely on you. I’ve learned of places where the magic of this world is weaker, where I cannot channel so much power.”
“Velamore,” Mirica said. “The city is supposed to be bereft of magic of any kind. I’ve heard rumors of there being a tiny bit of magical energy, but it’s a very small amount. Then again, no one goes inside the walls except those that are already there and no one ever comes out.
Velamore was a walled island people talked about like it was forbidden to mention, like ghost stories during harvest season. The island had a port town in a cove but outside the city walls. A few men claimed to have seen inside the walls and described a city run by diabolical mechanisms.
“You can’t go there,” Kehet said.
“I need to go somewhere,” Heather said. “Somewhere with less power to channel would mean I can’t explode. Since I can destroy things farther than I can see, I can’t just trust a place that’s remote.”
“I know a place,” Thomas said in a quiet voice as he knelt beside Kehet. “It’s a place where there is almost no magic. There would be nothing for Heather to channel.”
“Tell me more,” Heather said.
Kehet heard Thomas’ voice over his shoulder and looked back to see Tara and Thomas laughing with Marc and Pantros.
The Thomas beside him nudged his shoulder. “Don’t draw attention; I’m not ready to explain myself to me yet. Anyway, this place is both far and close. Like Demia it’s another world in another universe. The problem with such a place is that Kehet would not be able to enter that world, ever. You could go there, and return someday, but you could only make each journey once.”
“I’ll go,” Heather said.
“But…” Kehet protested.
“Anywhere I cannot destroy a city is a good place for me,” Heather said.
“I can go to Demia”, Kehet said then asked, “Why can I not go to this other world?”
“You are a god here. Gods are intimately connected to the worlds in which they preside. You can go to Demia because it’s a half this world. Demia is half every world,” Thomas said.
“How do you know so much?” Kehet asked. “Who are you if Thomas is over there?”
“I’m him, just a bit older and wiser,” Thomas said. “I’d say I know everything, but every time I do, someone surprises me. Let’s just say I’ve heard all the stories and told most of them.”
“So how do I get to this world?” Heather said.
“With this,” Thomas held up a crystal with a familiar shape. The crystal scintillated from one color to another, passing through the spectrums. “This is a key to anywhere and I am its keeper.”
“We use the same gate we used to get to Demia?” Heather asked then said, “Please tell me I don’t have to go through Demia to get to this other world.”
“Come,” Thomas said. “I have places to be and you, if I recall, are not one for long goodbyes.”
Kehet and Heather walked hand in hand out of the city. The crowds on the streets, still in the throes of celebration, made conversation impossible. When they arrived at the gate, the Abvi standing guard bowed to Kehet and let them pass.
“Goodbye, my love,” Heather said.
Kehet said. He pulled the ring from the middle finger of his left hand. “Take this. Think of me from time to time. I’ll wait for you.”
“Don’t.” Heather reached out and gave his arm a little nudge. “I don’t know when or even if I’ll be back.” She took the ring from his hand, though, then looked at Thomas, “How do I get back here when I’m ready to return?”
“I’ll know when you’re ready,” Thomas said. “The gate will be open for you on that day.” He held out a leather satchel. “This is heavy, but you’ll want to take it with you.”
Heather took the bag and nearly dropped it. “Gods, this must weigh half of what I do,” she said. “This is Pantros’s gold, isn’t it.”
“I’ll pay him back,” Thomas said. He handed Kehet a rolled paper tied in a blue ribbon. “My I.O.U. for Pantros.” Then, to Heather he said, “Don’t worry.” He reached up and set his crystal in the socket and called a name Kehet didn’t catch. The portal shimmered.
Without looking back, Heather stepped through.
Kehet and Thomas stood silently for a moment staring at the gate then Thomas took the crystal out and the portal vanished.
“I hate you a little bit right now,” Kehet said.
“She’ll be happier without the risk of destruction,” Thomas said. “You will find happiness too. I know your future and hers. This is where your paths part.”
“Forever?” Kehet asked.
“There is only so much of a man’s future I am willing to disclose,” Thomas said. “Now, tell me what you are going to do without the ring.”
“The ring was a gift from you,” Kehet said. “From what I can gather about you, I don’t think the ring had any magic. I don’t need it to be who I am.”
“There are all kinds of magic, Kehet. Some are less mystical than others. The ring had no magical energy, but it did give you the focus you needed to believe in the change. Really, it was just something I gave you so you’d have something to give Heather when she left. Your melancholy won’t last as long as you’re thinking it will. Right now, the best thing for you is to go back and enjoy the company of your new friends. Me, I’ve got to put more leagues between me and my younger self. He’s just not ready for prolonged exposure to himself, myself, yet.” He waved and walked off, away from the city.
Kehet shifted and ran back into the city.
“No, it was an older Thomas that gave Heather your gold,” Kehet explained again to the young man whose satchel Heather took with her. “He said he’d pay you back. This is between you, Heather and Thomas.”
“I’m penniless,” Pantros said. “Well, mostly penniless. I have to go all the way back to Ignea to fill my purse.”
“I haven’t touched a coin since several days before I realized who I am. Penniless, as a temporary state, is nothing more than an opportunity to find out what resources you really have. As a permanent state, it’s probably a very sad life, but I’m sure you’ll find a pocket to pick if you get desperate,” Kehet said. He handed Pantros the rolled piece of paper. “Thomas left an I.O.U. for you.”
“If I did that kind of thing anymore,” Pantros said. “I had planned on being retired from the life in the shadows. I’m going to build a castle on the edge of a mountain in my Stewardship and relax and enjoy the view.” Pantros then unrolled the paper. He studied it a moment before saying, “This is not a letter of credit; it’s a letter telling me that a couple weeks after we left Ignea, Bouncer and the rest of the staff followed, avoiding a gang-war. They’re walking to Fork, but should be there by the time we get there. James is travelling by sea with several heavy chests. Someone told him where to find all of my stashes. He’ll be in Fork when we arrive as well. It mentions an inn by Westgate I’d have sworn was a boarded-up building.”
“Did I hear you mention a Stewardship?” Estephan asked as he stepped into the conversation. “You think after everything you’ve done you deserve a Stewardship?”
Pantros looked taken aback. Kehet recalled that the boy had stolen part of the crown and from some perspectives it was the boy who brought all kinds of trouble to the world. “But, I already gave you the jewels. I paid for the land,” Pantros said.
Estephan laughed. “We’ve fought side by side, Pantros. That makes us brothers and a brother of a King can be nothing less than a Duke.”
Kehet noticed that Estephan now wore the Crown of Relarch. Allaind must have crowned him while Kehet was off saying goodbye to Heather. Estephan stumbled slightly but Kehet nudged him back into balance.
“My apologies,” Estephan said. “They say I should be in bed, but I had things to do once Allaind insisted on making me accept that I am King of Relarch.”
Pantros said, unsure, “If I’m a Duke, then that makes my land a Duchy?”
“Smart boy,” Estephan said. “Now, if you two would be so kind, could you carry me over to that fountain and sit me next to one of the maidens. It seems I need to start looking for a queen.”
CHAPTER 34: LADY GLACIA
Again, Glacia stood on her balcony overlooking the scar left by the mortal. She felt deep satisfaction that her endeavor had succeeded after so many years of plans and preparations. The thief, the archer, the swordsman and the new King had taken careful manipulations to fulfill her scheme. The Wizard had not been part of the plan. The damage had been a little more than she’d anticipated, but acceptable. Most of the damage was to the King’s Palace and his territories.
She was wondering if he’d even notice when, for the first time in ages she saw him walk out onto one of the many walls. He glanced down at the destruction and turned and walked back. He knew, but she was puzzled by how little he seemed to care. Osris of ages past would have flown into a rage, screaming for punishment of those involved. Not that she was worried no one would be able to trace the events to her. Only one being in Demia knew she had anything to do with it at all.
As if he’d heard her think of him, one of her heralds called out behind her, announcing the arrival of Kirvel. Being seen in public with such a low ranking demon would be suspicious so she stepped into her audience chamber and met him there. She poured herself into her throne and gave a sigh, letting the small demon know she was already bored of his presence.
Kirvel bowed, but not as deep as one of his station should. “Milady, is this where you give me my reward?” he asked. He had nerve, Glacia thought.
She’d had a small sack of iron coins on the floor by her throne, waiting for him. She tossed it to him. He didn’t make much effort to catch it and it bounced off his chest, knocking him back a couple steps.
“Money?” Kirvel asked, though he took the sack from the ground by his feet. “I was expecting territory of my own. Maybe even Murdread’s territories.” Again the nerve of the imp nearly caused Glacia to lose her composure. But it was his brash demeanor that had caught her attention so many years earlier. He was the perfect combination of ballsy, ambitious and unimportant for her to manipulate.
“I give territory to minor lords with little or no ambition,” Glacia said. “If I gave Murdread’s land to you, in a decade or so I’d be doing the same thing to you as I did to Murdread. No, an ambitious little imp like you needs to take their own land.”
“What?” Kirvel asked. “I don’t want to take land. I’m fine with being given a leg up.”
“I’m not taking off your head and sending you back to the spawning pools,” Glacia said. “You could consider that your leg up.”
Glacia waved her hand, opening the portal near Kirvel to the far side of Demia. Though the imp starting saying something in a shocked tone, Glacia didn’t hear the words. She motioned to one of her guards. The large demon was simple but understood his job. He grabbed Kirvel and threw him through. “Good Luck,” she said, then closed the portal. If the ambitious imp did manage to make something of himself, it would be millennia before he or his influence made it around Demia. By then she’d come up with a way to use him again.
Though Kehet and Heather’s love was not meant to be, Beldithe’s blessings fell heavily on the other heroes of this tale.
Thomas and Tara complimented each other perfectly and opened the new place in Fork that Thomas had promised. They called it the Inn of the Moonsong.
Pantros, when learning that his tryst with Thomas’s sister was fruitful, invited her to join him as Duchess of Phyreshade, which was the name he gave the castle he was building. She accepted.
Pantros built his castle and a town sprung up around it. While digging out the stone for the castle, a gold vein was discovered. While the lion’s share went to the crown, with his share, he never had to steal again. That’s not to say he didn’t, but he didn’t have to.
Sheillene eventually came understand that she loved more than poking fun at Marc’s size.
More tales of adventure and more tales of love came after, due in no small part to the events of this tome, but those shall wait for another day and another story.