Castle Roland

The Kandric

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 4

Posted: 08 Dec 14


Kyle Aarons

Kandric moved out of his hiding place right about high sun. The stolen rations and sleep replenished his energy and a quick search turned up a freshwater spring trickling out between some rocks. With his thirst quenched, he set off in pursuit of his prey.

An hour into his search he picked up the trail. The man finally made a real mistake. The captives had left easy to follow tracks through the forest as they struggled to maintain their balance. The long branches the man had lashed to their arms snapped twigs and one of them had started to drag his feet in exhaustion. Each shuffle had left a sort of arrow pointing in the direction of travel.

A look skyward tempered some of Kandric's exuberance. Thick white clouds could be seen building on the southwest horizon. A sniff of the air further added to his unease. A storm was definitely brewing and the increasing breeze held a cool bite. "Snow," Kandric muttered in disgust. Winter just didn't want to seem to let go this year.

Kneeling, Kandric went into a Shaman chant Glaster had taught him. Slowly Kandric felt a piece of himself slip away and enter the Spirit Realm. This was what separated Shamen from other spell casters.

Mages drew their power from within their own being, shaping spells by inner control. They took raw magic, focused it within themselves, and launched it in a new form. They were probably the most powerful of all spell casters but needed help through a book of spells to cast. Only the greatest Mages could memorize enough spells to go bookless. In addition, the book was a living extension of the Mage, so getting a book damaged would cause real damage to the Mage.

Druids pulled their magical abilities from life force and the four elements that allowed life to survive: fire, earth, water, and air. Like Mages, Druids had to have a spell book, but unlike a Mage they used life force to cast. Many kept and commanded pets much like an Animal Adept to help focus their spells. Their pets were nowhere near as powerful as an Animal Adept could command at a similar echelon and step, but they were often mistaken for Animal Adepts nonetheless. Without their pets, they had to use extra internal force to cast or try to force a non-attuned animal to channel their spells. Often this caused the untrained animal to attack the caster. The combination of Animal Adept and spell caster offset having less powerful spells than Mages.

Sorcerers shaped the magic flowing around all things; they could literally make tools of pure magic energies. They could see force and the way it flows when they concentrated. This ability progressed until at high echelons they could form a magical weapon for a period of time, such as a sword, by simply grabbing raw force and shaping it. Sorcerers were by far the rarest of all spell casters and the most feared. Their magic talents left them never without weapons, armor, and other tools. In addition, they could pull magic and make other spell effects. For example, a Sorcerer could yank life force out of a person making them go to sleep from exhaustion. Similarly, a more powerful Sorcerer could pull enough time force away from a being to temporarily suspend the being in time, freezing him in place totally defenseless.

Shamen, on the other hand, found their strength from within the Spirit Realms, Mother Earth and all that made the earth what it was. This allowed a knowledgeable Shaman to be able to "attune with nature". The more powerful a Shaman became, the more of himself he could send to get information. This ability took no spell casting force and in some cases could limit the amount of force a Shaman would need to expend to heal or injure a person. A Shaman in his own special lodge, with a fully prepared totem, was a being to truly be feared. A really powerful Shaman could even call spirits to defend himself or attack an enemy. They also had true healing spells and required no books. Like Sorcerers, all their spells were memorized.

On the down side, many Shamen had to spend years searching out those who had spells memorized who would also be willing to pass on their knowledge. Others spent thousands of silver to buy Shamen scrolls then teach themselves how to read them. Less than ten percent of Shamen knew how to read Shamanistic hieroglyphics, and they almost never passed on their secrets to others. This also meant there was a shortage of such scrolls, because so few were created.

Kandric, on the other hand, was much more fortunate. Glaster not only knew how to read Shamanistic, but also had passed this on to Kandric. In addition, he taught his favorite lad how to cast a huge number of spells including some in the teaching and expert echelon, in the event his special boy made it that far.

The very fact Kandric had made Secondary Echelon so quickly proved he would most likely make it well into the upper echelons. Of course, having had numerous chances in real combat with a protector and advisor had helped a great deal.

Kandric was nowhere near powerful enough to use spirits or Mother Earth against anyone, but being Secondary Echelon; he could gain some useful information. The part of him that separated entered into the Spirit Realms of Syria, Goddess of Weather, and "felt" the air until he could "sense" the approaching storm. Slowly that extension of himself explored the boundaries of the tempest and "asked" questions of the weather spirits in the area before returning.

It took almost an hour; Shaman spirit walks took a great deal of time. But when he stood, Kandric knew the storm was about twenty hours out and was a massive blizzard, which had been magically augmented. Nature itself seemed somewhat outraged by the massive amount of magic poured into the storm and was slowly unraveling the spell. Unfortunately, it would take way too long for this to happen. Syria was not concerned enough to get involved or send a representative, so it was up to minor weather spirits to pull at the knots of magic holding the spell together. One wind spirit claimed the storm involved a combination of a real blizzard, Dragon Magic, and Sorcery. Wind spirits were notorious for overstating what they knew and were every bit as fickle as the winds they rode on. Nonetheless, such complicated spells would take a great deal of time to pull apart and it was clear none of the minor spirits really knew what to do with it. A blizzard would soon slam into this area, making a horrible winter even worse, and the long awaited spring pushed even further away.

Somehow, Kandric realized, the Illorc leader had to have something to do with this. The creature had made it clear it wanted as much suffering as possible. Such a storm would limit communication between towns, make finding food harder than it already was, and prevent large towns from sending help to smaller ones.

Could it be this storm is a way to isolate the villages the Illorc wanted destroyed? Kandric thought to himself. No, the time and effort required to cast this type of spell would not be worth four villages. Why then?

Kandric shook his head. It really didn't matter at the moment. He had a choice to make. He could either abandon his tracking, in an attempt to make it back to the Swamp Slums, or continue on and leave his mom to fend for herself and his siblings. There was no chance he could find where the man went, then make it back home before the storm hit.

He argued with himself for several minutes before he realized going home would do absolutely zero good. He had no food to offer his mother nor money. He would just be an extra mouth to feed when there was not a bite to be had. If he managed to free one of the boys, he would then be able to sell something of Glaster's and have the boy and lots of information for a replacement. The money would feed his family for months. His mother would just have to manage on her own for a few more days.

His mind made up at last, he continued to follow the dragging footprints of the children. Kandric smiled. If anything, the prints were getting easier to follow with each passing meter. The more tired the restrained and chained captives got, the more all of them shuffled their feet and ran into branches. By late afternoon the distant smells of cooking food let him know he was close.

Becoming more cautious, Kandric maneuvered at a northeasterly direction to avoid the buildings he was just starting to make out through the trees. Unlike the makeshift camp set up by the Orcs, this enclave was much harder to scrutinize. Whoever had planned this site had kept it hard to find, but had also thought about eavesdroppers. All the big buildings were centrally located by a large rocky outcropping while several smaller cabin-like structures surrounded them. Trees stood close to many of the cottages which helped everything to blend in, but far too much foliage had been cleared to allow an unseen approach.

Getting close enough to take all this in left Kandric feeling vulnerable and exposed. Three times he found himself diving for whatever limited cover he could find. He felt fortunate there were not many out and about. Try as he might, Kandric could find no way to work his way into the central area. Frustrated, he eased his way back into the denser woods to re-evaluate options.

Twice Kandric saw the smaller boy the Illorc had given the armored man, but couldn't hope to get close enough to snare him. The boy's actions seemed uncomfortable, as if he really didn't want to be doing the tasks he had been assigned, yet there was no sign of force. Something just didn't add up as far as he went.

Kandric noticed an older child several times as well. Unlike the younger boy, this one showed total obedience to orders shouted from the largest of the cabins and wore a leather slave collar. It was somewhat difficult to tell if the slave was a boy or a girl. Long hair combined with generic clothing made identification next to impossible without a close examination. A voice reply to the commands would have also helped, but the slave didn't speak at all.

A large commotion to the southeast drew Kandric's attention away from the slave. On the plus side, it also became the focus of the entire hamlet. Several men came out of cabins, most readying weapons. Others moved to cut off trouble before it could reach the inner buildings.

For a brief moment it looked as if someone was conducting a readiness drill or a call to arms. Kandric had seen the guards in Slome and other towns tested in similar ways. Once, in the city of Falcon's Loft, he got to help Glaster conduct such an exercise. The difference this time was the men's reaction times easily surpassed any test and they seemed deadly serious. Sounds of metal weapons striking armor and other metallic weapons verified this was a real attack.

Out of the corner of his eye Kandric saw one of the men go down trying to hold the parted flesh on his side together. Towering over him, a Warrior class Hobgoblin positioned its pike to finish the job. Reacting out of pure instinct, Kandric flipped his wrist and recalled the fastest combat spell known to a Shamen. This one was so quick it didn't even require a verbal command. Very few actually knew Cold Snap, but Glaster had taught many spell variants to Kandric this being just one of them.

A burst of freezing air fired from his extended fingertips catching the monster directly on its right thigh. Leather armor parted under the assault and frost formed directly on the hairy flesh below. The force of the spell wrenched the upper part of the right leg back while the firmly planted foot kept the lower leg forward in preparation for the killing blow. The only thing that was left to give way was the knee, and it did.

The Hobgoblin screamed as its knee hyper-extended. Forgetting about the man in front of it, the Hobgoblin dropped its pike and fell clutching its injured leg joint. As the Hobgoblin fell, he grabbed the dropped pike and attempted to spin it toward Kandric, but it was far too late.

Kandric bolted forward and pulled out his Dagger Boar knife. He slammed sharp natural tusk weapon into the defenseless creature's throat before it could straighten out its thoughts.

The wounded man looked up in pain and surprise.

Kandric felt the man's gaze burning into him as he looked at the bloody knife. He knew he had to think fast. He now had blood on his hands fighting for the very people he despised. 'What have I done and how do I get out of this?'Kandric's mind screamed. 'I can't just kill this guy. That would be murder.'

Before he could figure out an answer, fate intervened. A second Hobgoblin came around the corner of a nearby building and saw Kandric, knife in hand, looking over one of its fallen friends. It wasted no time in attacking.

Kandric dodged the sword thrust of this newest adversary, rolling to his left. He knew he would get nowhere trying to fight against a sword with a dagger, especially being out weighed by well over three times his own weight. Instead, he ripped the pike from the dead Hobgoblin's hands and planted its pointed tip toward the Hobgoblin as it again turned and charged screaming a war cry as it went.

Caught totally off guard by such a radical maneuver from a skinny little Half-elf, it couldn't get stopped in time. It did manage to twist its shoulders, however, so the pike's point only stuck into the meat on its non-weapon shoulder. It slashed its sword wildly as it went past cutting only air.

Kandric knew, even wounded, an adult Hobgoblin would easily be able to overpower him. To prevent this, he held onto the pike and pushed it deeper. Using all of his limited boyhood strength he twisted the wooden handle as he used all of his finite weight to push. His efforts paid off instantly. The shoulder wound widened and blood began pouring out of the injury as the point of the pike found bone and stopped. Yet again, he thanked Glaster; this time for haven taken him to learn combat and weapon techniques from some of the best teachers in the lands.

The Hobgoblin, now hopelessly impaled on the pike, realized it couldn't reach the slender, reddish-sliver haired, boy at the other end of the weapon even with the added range of its sword. It was also intelligent enough to know another twist or two could very well break its shoulder and probably spell death. With a desperate swipe, the Hobgoblin managed to snap the wooden pole-arm's handle leaving the head firmly embedded into its bone.

Kandric had already foreseen this maneuver. Instead of stumbling forward, or falling back with a broken wooden handle, he simply used forward momentum to charge, plunging the splintered tip of the handle into and clear through his attacker.

The stunned beast staggered back looking at the quarter meter of wood sticking out of its stomach. Panic and fear crossed its bulldog-like face as it dropped its sword. It made one last effort to grapple with the boy who fought like a man.

Kandric nimbly jumped back and watched his adversary stagger a few more steps before it fell to the ground in a growing pool of blackish blood.

Kandric glanced down noting the sword of his fallen enemy was not iron but Elvin Silver Steel. Its light silvery green hue told him as much; a sword he could use. Quickly he snatched the dropped weapon and spun looking for other threats. He found not one, but two.

The first was a Hobgoblin wearing chain armor and hefting a huge war hammer. An extra concern came with this. This being the weapon's huge size and obvious incredible weight didn't seem to faze the wielder or slow it down.

The second caused even greater consideration. It was smaller but held an open book. Kandric knew only a Mage or Druid would carry an open book in combat.

Glaster's words come to mind instantly, 'The best way to fight magic is with magic, the more unexpected the better.'

As the armored mountain of a Hobgoblin approached, Kandric cast a Mirror Image spell. Instantly, two figures seemed to step out of him. Both looked exactly like Kandric and did exactly what he did. To heighten the effect Kandric jumped to the side just as the spell went off. The momentary confusion of both Hobgoblins allowed Kandric to not only get another spell ready, but also to take the offensive.

Kandric spun to face the book-carrying monster and cast a Babble spell. He had to coerce the spell past the creature's magic defiance but smiled in triumph as he felt it take hold. For several minutes every word the recipient of a Babble spell spoke would be nothing but gibberish. This would abolish successfully casting all spells that required speaking. For a Mage or Druid this eliminated all but the most basic of spells except for a few defensive ones. Even better, the Cancel spell required speaking so there was no chance it could destroy the spell either.

The armored Hobgoblin, meanwhile, took a guess and swung on one of the Halfelvin figures. His hammer passed effortlessly though causing its chosen target to disappear. An angry roar of Hobgoblin curses filled the air.

Kandric glanced over to see the location of his other mirror image. It was off to his left and slightly behind where he stood. This could not have been any better if he had actually planned it. He held his captured sword ready and moved forward and to his right positioning his image to look like it was attacking the armored monster.

It took the bait. The Hobgoblin moved forward past Kandric and swung straight down from over its head smashing its hammer all the way through the image and smacking the ground hard enough for Kandric to feel a slight tremor in his feet.

Kandric switched to a two-handed hold on his long sword and drove the point into the unprotected back of the Hobgoblin. The superior quality of the Elvin Silver Steel blade easily parted several chain armor links before biting fairly deep into the lower back muscles. Much to Kandric's dismay, it didn't injure the beast nearly enough.

With a new set of curses the Hobgoblin warrior turned sharply, literally yanking Kandric's hands from the pummel of the sword. With the blade still sticking out of its back it lunged forward.

Kandric started to dodge, but knew there was next to no chance of getting out of the way. He closed his eyes as he rolled waiting for an explosion of pain. The expected blow never landed.

Still cringing, Kandric forced his eyes open wondering what had happened. What he saw caused a mixture of fear and relief at the same time. The armored man from the Illorc camp stood over the Hobgoblin warrior with the Hob's vital juices dripping off his bastard sword. The head of the Hobgoblin lay next to Kandric while the body had collapsed directly in front of the man, sword still sticking straight up out of its back. Two others were manhandling the befuddled and still babbling Hobgoblin spell caster.

The sight of open dead eyes staring at him from a detached head caused Kandric to jump to his feet shuddering. Never in his worst nightmares could he have imagined such a gruesome vision.

The man moved up to Kandric and removed his helm. "You're Glaster's boy, are you not?"

Kandric swallowed hard as he recognized Vondum. He was none other than the Captain of the Guard for Black Rapids, the only real city above the Silver Spine Mountains. He was also one of the best Warrior Adepts in the Silver Spine Plateau, the largest plateau known in any mountain range anywhere. It covered over 250,000 square kilometers, and was known as one of the most dangerous semi-settled areas on the Northern Continent.

Glaster had done a great amount of business within the walls of Black Rapids, including bringing in a couple of weapon shipments for the city guards. Suddenly Kandric knew why he had recognized the voice. He had been with Glaster when he bartered with Vondum over the price of some Dwarvin Steel blades.

Vondum put his hand lightly on Kandric's shoulder, "Relax son, it's over. My man says you fought like a demon!"

"Had to," Kandric managed to squeak out, "they did not like it much when I took down the first one."

Vondum let out a deep laugh; "They would have been much better off leaving well enough alone! So tell me, what in the blazes are you doing out here?"

Kandric allowed his quick wits to take over as a half-truth slid off his lips, his nervousness and adrenaline from the fight made his words spill out; "I went out hunting, but could not find any game. My mom, brothers, and sister are starving, so I kept going hoping to find something. I came across these Hobs about two hours ago and followed them hoping to get one of them alone. I thought if I could take one of their heads I could sell it and get food, but they stuck together. Then they attacked this place. I saw a man fall, so I joined the fight."

Vondum smiled, "Slow down young'an. Yer safe, we're safe. Are you injured at all?"

"No sir. I am fine thanks to you."

"No need to thank me. It is you we should be thanking. You single-handedly took down two warriors, wounded their commander and did something to their spellcaster. They only hit us with twelve so you took out over a quarter of them all by your lonesome!"

"Desperation." Kandric stated with a boyish grin, much of the tension draining out of him. Still he wondered what would happen, but at least Vondum was being friendly for the moment.

Vondum snickered for a moment before turning serious; "Did it look like they knew where to go? Or did they just stumble onto this settlement?"

Again, Kandric twisted the truth to fit the situation. This time, however, whatever he said could be checked up on by interrogating any captives. To cover himself, he decided to sound unsure, "I do not really know sir. It kind of seemed like they were following tracks. One of the Hobs kept stopping and looking at the ground, but I did not want to get to close so I never checked, sorry."

Vondum cut him off with a wave of his hand, "Don't worry about it. You did good, real good."

"Sir, I got to get home. Can you pay me for my kills so I can buy some food?"

Vondum looked skyward and scratched his chin; "If I remember correctly, Glaster said he found you in Slome, right?"

"Yes sir," Kandric's voice slipped to a whisper as he added, "the slums actually."

"Your family station means nothing anymore, young'an. You've proven yourself to be far more than swamp trash. You're destined for greatness. Unfortunately though, from what those clouds look like, you'll never make it back home in time. Besides, you have earned a hell of a lot more than the nine silver for the three you nailed."

"But sir," Kandric pleaded, "When I left home a day ago they hadn't had food for two days." His voice dripped with desperation, not for getting home nearly as much as getting away from this place.

"Young man," Vondum stated forcefully, "look at the sky. You must be an Outdoorsman to have followed the Hobs unnoticed. What chance do you have of making twenty-five leagues before you get caught in that?" He thrust out his arm toward the advancing wall of clouds to emphasize the point.

Kandric realized if he continued to argue Vondum might become suspicious. As it was, he had been lucky his obvious desire to leave had been mistaken lock, stock, and barrel for a need to get back home. Slowly he forced himself to nod, "I know, but it sure looks like a huge storm. It may take days to pass."

Vondum placed a hand on Kandric's slumping shoulders as he looked at one of his men, "Think ya can make it there in time?"

A huge man with short black hair and dark brown eyes glanced skyward, "Yea, if I takes one of the War Steeds and ride her hard. I'll have ta stay in Slome though."

"Fine," Vondum agreed while turning his attention back to Kandric, "I'll send him with some food and money for em, but he'll have to ride fast so he will not be able to take a passenger. Just tell Sy, here, which hut yer folks live in." Vondum pointed to the man he had spoken to. Neither Vondum nor Sy seemed to notice the flail Sy was carrying still dripped with gore from the recent battle. Of course, Vondum's sword had an evil looking red tinge to it still as well.

Kandric forced himself to look more at ease as he quickly told Sy which hut his mom lived in. As he finished, one of the other men handed the Elvin Silver Steel sword to him along with the sheath taken from the Hobgoblin he had killed. The man said nothing, but a nod and grin told Kandric his efforts were thought of very highly.

"Do ya think two silver and ten rations rolls will be good?" Sy asked Vondum.

"After what this kid just did for us?" Vondum bellowed, "You want to fight them over again with a spell caster and uninjured commander?"

"Ahh, no not really. Hell I didn't even like fighting what we did."

"Me neither. Ten rolls is good, I don't want you weighed down, but lets look at more like ten silver. We'll suck that up and still give him full spoils. That is unless you want him to drop whatever spell he put on that Hob caster?"

Sy shook his head vigorously, "No, no, ten with full spoils is fine. I'd have no problem with triple that. Ten is good."

"Anyone else have any complaints?" Vondum looked around.

No one stepped forward. More than a few even nodded approval

"Didn't think so." Vondum again looked over his men, "Well don't just stand there! Get to work cleaning up this mess and get our wounded taken care of. Oh, and Gormel, make sure our Hob spell caster is put through a forced casting till it's drained. I'd kill it now but it's the only one still breathin'. I want to question the beast before it dies."

Kandric waited for a moment while all the men set off on their duties before speaking; "Thank you sir." All the while wondering if the money and food would ever really be delivered.

"Happy to be of some help. There is no question you are worth every silver. Come on let's get you a good meal, a warm bath, and some clean clothing."

Kandric followed Vondum into one of the larger and definitely the nicest of the cabins. Directly in the entranceway he saw the bigger of the boys from the Illorc camp. His clothing was filthy, bloodstained, and torn in several places. The branch Vondum had fastened his arms to sagged some from the boy's weight, but was held firmly to the wall by two bronze hooks.

Kandric stopped, expecting Vondum to suddenly lose the kindness he had been displaying. As his body tensed, he started to get a spell ready.

Much to his surprise Vondum smiled warmly and patted Kandric on the shoulders. "Never mind him. He is a new slave and hasn't learned his place quite yet. He will catch on."

Upon hearing Vondum's voice Conth came from inside the cabin and stood next to him. It was clear that the now chilly breeze was cold for him since he only wore a night shirt, the toes on his bare feet curled trying to stay as warm as possible, yet he said nothing.

Vondum reached down and pulled Conth a step closer but otherwise ignored the boy.

Jamon saw all this and finally broke down. He croaked out in a pleading voice, "Please let me down."

Vondum stopped and turned, "Oh, is this a request Jamon?"

Jamon closed his eyes as his lips quivered, "Yes, master." His voice held no haughtiness only surrender and self-remorse.

"No matter the price?" Vondum asked with raised eyebrows.

"Anything. Please take the branch off." Jamon pleaded.

"The arm bar? That isn't even one of things you can ask for yet."

Jamon broke into sobs "Please!"

"What do you think?" Vondum asked looking down at Kandric.


"Yea, why not. I know Glaster has done a great deal of business in the slave trade before. I even helped him with paperwork a few times. Surely you have some knowledge on how to handle situations like this."

Kandric felt totally trapped. His heart wanted to free the boy, or at least do everything in his power to eliminate all the suffering. To do so, however, would show weakness which Vondum would probably take very badly.

On the other hand, if he played the hand he had just been dealt, he could bluff his way into a position within Vondum's operation and find out what was really going on. It took a few seconds to steady his nerves. He realized the only way he could pull this off was to think of the poor kid as property. Once he had set his mind to thinking in those terms he turned to face Vondum.

Kandric met Vondum's questioning gaze. His own hazel eyes held the strength of steel; "I do not know if he is ready. I heard a please, but nothing to indicate he sees you as his owner."

"I'm not sure what you mean." Vondum replied carefully as if testing Kandric.

"Simple, I am a guest here. I should say please when I need something because I am asking for your assistance. He is a slave, thus does not have the right to ask for anything unless you give him permission to do so. Besides, I highly doubt the ground rules you set down allowed him just to shout out 'please'."

"Well, I really haven't done much to set many basic rules yet. He has been too spirited for them." Vondum seemed a little embarrassed to admit such an oversight. "The only things he has been told is that when he asks for something, I'll demand something in return, He must speak when spoken to, and must call me master."

Kandric saw a possible way to help the beleaguered boy, but had to keep his tough stance at the same time. "Oh, well then maybe this is a good time to get some use out of him. He is yours to do with as you please, but he is not of much use with his arms strapped to a stick. Seems to me, you would really want to test his seriousness though. He did say he would do anything. I would take him up on his words.

"If he chooses to resist, move the hooks up, put the stick back on and weigh down his feet. If he thinks he is in pain now, see what he thinks with no chance to support himself with his feet at all, plus an extra ten kilos or so pulling him down."

This time it was Vondum's turn to show surprise. His eyebrows shot up and his mouth twisted into a strange depraved looking smile, "Interesting. You make a few very worthy points. You must have some experience in this business then?"

"Not as much as I would like," Kandric lied.


"Yea, the only times I have had any dealings with stuff like this is a couple of times Glaster took late payments in the form of a son or daughter. He does not like to resort to such tactics, but he always felt a strong image would do more to prevent having to strong arm others in the long run. The word of such a demanding person tends to get out. So once and a while, he forces someone to give up their own child to make good on a payment." This time Kandric spoke the truth. Kandric gave himself some credit. The less he had to build a story around a lie, the less he would have to remember in the long run. Besides, letting Vondum know this would show him Glaster was no one to be trifled with.

"And you enjoyed when Glaster did so?" Vondum was suddenly very interested.

"I do not know if I enjoyed it. It is never any fun not getting paid on time, and I do most of his book keeping. It is always a hassle trying to put a monetary price on trade goods, and I have next to no knowledge in pricing slaves. On top of normal problems, different markets have wildly varying prices. Depending on location and how many kids are up for sale, the price can range from a couple hundred silver to well over a thousand.

"Once and a while I got to help train them, though. That was always kind of fun, especially, rich kids. With Glaster, next to all the kids he gets are rich kids, some real rich."

"What's wrong with rich kids?"

Again Kandric saw a way to use truth to add some reality to his lies. "I hate it when they make fun of me for being slum trash or a half-breed. Glaster made me promise never to use the training he gave me unless it would protect my life or no one else could see. There have been many times I would have loved to smear a rich or tough kid's face into the cobblestone, but I never have because I will not do anything to hurt Glaster's trust in me. I do not like the fact rich kids seem to be worth more either. Put a good looking poor boy in the same auction as an average rich brat and the rich kid will fetch far more money nine times out of ten."

Vondum gave Kandric a knowing smile and a pat on the back as he ordered Tyfod to draw a warm bath and find good clothing for their new guest. He guessed, correctly, Kandric saw himself as very good looking, but knew many only saw his family stature. One thing was for sure, if he ever got a chance to take the splendid Halfelf to bed, he would, even if it meant paying money to do so. Vondum almost never went so far as to offer money for a boy, but this one was incredibly beautiful, skilled, and bright. Yes, he would pay a great deal of silver to spend a night with this one. Part of him was actually jealous of Glaster.

To prevent himself from thinking more about the Halfelf, he called harshly on Conth, gabbing the nightshirt; "Do you know how to clean weapons boy?"

As Vondum did so, Kandric could see the youngster had nothing on underneath. Just a glimpse of the boy's firm boy bottom made Kandric want to see more, much more.

"Yes master." The boy shook slightly with fear, "Would you like me to oil it as well?" Conth asked while looking at the gory bastard sword.

"Yea, that would be great. Take care of his sword as well."

"Ah, it's not really mine." Kandric shrugged, "I kind of took it in the middle of the fight."

"Fair capture. It is yours. Conth take good care of his sword as well."

"I will master." Conth bowed slightly as he hefted both Kandric's sword and Vondum's.

"Before you go," Vondum spoke stopping Conth is his tracks, "where did you learn to care for weapons?"

"My teacher taught me."

"Teacher? As in formal training?"

"Yes master."

"Very well, we will speak more of this later." Vondum waved for the boy to be off.

Finally he turned back with a serious look. "You have done your teacher very proud young'an. Your secrets will remain unspoken. I will make sure my men don't spread the word of your abilities. What are you, high Primary?"

"No sir. Low Secondary Echelon probably a step 2 maybe 3. I had to cast two Secondary Echelon spells in combat and pushed the amount of force up in the first spell cast to make it a Secondary as well. I figured it would take at least that much to drop the Hob who hurt your man. I have still got some force left, but not as much as I would like."

Vondum stared at Kandric searching for any sign the boy in front of him was exaggerating. When he didn't see a single flinch he nodded slowly, "Pardon my skepticism, but I've never seen or even heard of someone so young being that highly rated. Would you be willing to demonstrate you abilities?"

Kandric shrugged. It was late in the day and the moon would be coming up in just a couple of hours so he could afford to waste a spell or two. "Ok, but I want to save something incase there is another attack. What about this one." He pointed to Jamon who looked at them with pleading eyes, too tired to even cry anymore.

"Ah, yes. Let's deal with him first."

Vondum lifted Jamon off the hooks by the arm bar then cut the ropes holding his arms in place. "You will go out to the well, strip, and wash. You can then go over and lay down on that bench. If you are totally clean when I come back in, I will drop the spell and allow you to sleep for a few hours. If you are not, I will follow his suggestions." He pointed to Kandric, "Understood?"

"Yes." Jamon nodded weakly trying to rub his shoulders and neck.

Kandric saw a chance to impress Vondum and took it, "Yes? Yes what?"

Jamon blinked a couple of times before he realized what was being asked, "Uh, oh, sorry. Yes master."

"Much better!" Vondum noted with deep approval. "Oh and boy?""

Jamon cringed in pain as he tried to use his stiff neck to look up. "Master?"

"Burn those filthy rags you are wearing in the fireplace before you even go out to clean up, all of them."

Kandric watched the boy try to take off his shirt over the chains he still wore for a few seconds before turning to Vondum, "May I take charge for a few moments?"

"By all means."

Kandric forced himself to put on a mean look, "Stop!"

Jamon slumped allowing a wall to hold him up as he looked over at Kandric.

Kandric pulled out his Dagger Boar knife, still slightly sticky with Hobgoblin blood, "Cut your clothing off with this. I expect you to hand it back to me clean before you go outside. Understood?"

"Uh huh." Jamon whispered as he took the offered blade.

"Hold it!" Kandric labored to make his face and voice seem angry and dangerous, "You were given to me for a short period. You will address me as such!"

"Sorry master." Jamon wilted under the stern gaze and went to work cutting off his own clothing. Slightly reddish cheeks showed off his embarrassment as he finished with his shirt and sliced through his britches and loincloth in front of Vondum and Kandric.

Vondum watched with a growing smile and appreciation of the young Halfelf standing next to him. Clearly the lad had a mean streak and was a spell caster to boot. If he proved to truly be Secondary Echelon, his forces could really use such talent.

Added to this, he was getting to watch Jamon as his free spirit was being crushed while his eyes got to explore the boy's petite body. Such a body on a boy would fetch a handsome price in a brothel, but not before he had his fill first.

Kandric waited until Jamon used his dirty clothing and a bucket of water to clean his knife before taking it back and sheathing it. "Good, now go to the well like your master told you and make sure to bring in a fresh bucket of water."

Jamon shivered as the cold breeze blew through the open door, "Yes master." Quickly he tossed the cut off clothing into the fireplace and hurried out to the well several meters outside the cabin's front door.

"Well done young'an!" Vondum stated with high praise in his deep voice.

"I kind of like it, and please call me Kandric." Kandric smiled, but knew he couldn't hold it up so he changed the subject, "So what would you like me to cast? I could heal some of the wounds on one of your men if you would like, or throw a fire dart if that would be better."

Vondum scowled for a second, "Fire dart? Since when can a Shaman throw fire?"

"Long time I guess. It is a variant, but not a very uncommon one."

"Really? Do you know any other variants that I might be able to catch? I don't have many Secondary Shaman spells, but throwing fire I can already do."

Kandric thought quickly. He knew a Warrior Adept could either attune to a specific type of magic when he reached Teaching Echelon or could Run Wild. They would then be a spell caster two Echelons of ability below their actual Echelon. Both Attuning and Running Wild had advantages and disadvantages.

Attuning meant the Warrior Adept would only be able to use one type of magic, Mage, Druid, Sorcerer, or Shaman but would have full command of the chosen type. A Mage Attuned Warrior Adept would need a book, like other Mages, but would also get the same powerful spells.

Running Wild, on the other hand, allowed the Warrior Adept to stay connected to all the types of magic. The problem was it required him to 'catch' spells from caster of each field to add to his arsenal. Once caught the spell would be memorized and available. However, if a spell failed to be caught, it could never be learned. Warrior Adepts who chose to Run Wild spent an endless search trying to catch as many spells as possible up to a maximum of nine in each Field, for each Echelon. Vondum, being Expert Echelon would be able to catch nine Primary and nine Secondary Echelon spells in all four realms of spell casting. Obviously he was fishing for more Shaman spells.

The last thing Kandric wanted to do was to make him more powerful or dangerous, but he couldn't just brush off Vondum's request either, especially if he ever expected to gain the man's trust. In a flash of devious inspiration, Kandric realized he might be able to give Vondum a new spell or two in non-combat related areas. If Vondum captured these spells, he would forever be filling slots with survival spells. As an Outdoorsman, he really wouldn't need them, but they would make his life easier. All at the expense of not becoming any more deadly than he already was.

Kandric mentally ran down a list of Secondary Echelon spells. He had a large number of variants thanks to Glaster, so he selected a few less harmful ones. "I have a few weird ones you may not have heard of."

"Such as?"

"Well, Glaster's friend taught me a few fish ones. Fishing Line, Fish Ward, and Attract Fish. I also know Pulsing Darkness and Find Safety. I know quite a few Primary ones if you need any."

Vondum nodded eagerly, "Oh, yes. I can definitely use some Primaries as well. Tell me more about these fish spells."

"They are pretty much like they sound. Fishing Line is the only strange one. It makes an invisible line with a magical snare on one end. For some reason fish like to bite it. Maybe they can see it and we can't or something. When I use it and Attract Fish at the same time I always get enough to feed my whole family and end up with some to sell at market. The only problem with doing so is fish tend to get used to the Attract Fish spell if you use it over and over again in the same area. The effects tend to diminish after a while. But if you stop using it for a month or two then come back, it works just fine again."

"Very interesting. And Fish Ward keeps fish away?"

"Yea, including sea fish like sharks."

"Excellent, do you have enough power to cast all three today?"

Kandric grimaced, "I could if I had to."

Vondum waved his arms, "No, no. I do not want you to cast any more than you want. Would you feel more comfortable just doing one?"

"I can do two, but I thought some of your men might need a healing spell."

"No I have a couple of Channelers to take care of the wounded."

Kandric wondered just what gods his men channeled for. He doubted many gods would allow their clergyman to heal men who fought for someone who would want to destroy whole villages. Shaking off such thoughts, he forced himself to look relaxed and friendly, "I am glad. I hope you did not lose anyone."

"Just a female slave, but a couple of our people were beat down pretty hard. We would have lost at least one had it not been for you. Speaking of which, why are you not with Glaster?"

Kandric had been dreading this question, but at the same time expecting it. Again he blended in a great amount of truth within the lie; "He had to go south with a huge shipment of goods. Some of it had to go to an island far to the south, and I hate ships. I am fine as long as I can see the shore line, but get me in a storm or so far out I cannot see land, I am no fun to be around at all."

Vondum let out a hearty laugh, "Get a bit green do ya?"

Kandric blushed deep crimson, "More than a bit sir."

Vondum ruffled Kandric's hair; "I have seen some great warriors brought to their knees by a rough trip at sea. There is no reason for you to be ashamed. Go take a warm bath and let Tyfod get you some clothing. By then I can have an idea as to what you captured and we can discuss what you would want for allowing me to catch some of your spells."

"I would be happy just giving them to you sir."

"Young'an, do you think Glaster would just give away a spell?"

Kandric shook his head, "No way."

"Learn from him. Nothing is free."

"I will give it some thought then. One favor though."

"Ask away."

Kandric looked out to where Jamon was using well water to wash. His jaw chattering form caused a tinge of guilt; "Can I have that one wash me before he gets to rest? If so, would you be willing to remove his chains?"

"You like boys your age?" Vondum felt an erection with the very thought. He also realized what price had been attached to Kandric's training. Glaster would occasionally use a boy from the Black Rapid's orphanage in exchange for some goods or silver. The time he brought Kandric to the negotiations for weapons, he put in a pair of high quality swords for the use of two boys for the whole week. Vondum smiled, as he suddenly understood why Glaster wanted a second youngster that visit.

Sheepishly Kandric nodded, "Actually slightly younger."

"Nothing to be embarrassed over. I like boys too. I'll make a deal with you. Jamon can be yours for as long as you are here. In exchange you help to train him just like you have started to do."

"Sure!" Kandric eagerly agreed, knowing he would have to be very tough on the boy. At least he would be able to prevent some suffering if he had full control for a while. It also occurred to him this would be a great time for another question, "How long can I stay?"

Vondum turned to face Kandric, "When is Glaster do back?"

"Not sure. But I could go home after the storm and leave a message as to where I am. He will get it as soon as he checks with Mom."

"The problem is this is kind of a secret location."

"So? Do not you trust Glaster?" Kandric felt like he was playing with a fish trying to set a hook.

Vondum cringed but one look into Kandric's innocent, hopeful, gray eyes touched him. He started to make an excuse then stopped. He had dealt with Glaster several times, including some questionable shipments for a Captain of the Guard of a city to make with city funds. Nothing had ever been said and Glaster always treated him fairly. The man was a merchant. Money talked. Besides, if he took proper care of Kandric, he might be able to make a good deal or two and make some good money. The Halfelf was clearly of great importance to Glaster, "How about I send a man to keep an eye on your family. He can live in the slums and help your folks. Then when Glaster gets there, my man can bring him here."

"Sure." Kandric agreed hesitantly. He had to figure out a way to warn Glaster of possible trouble though. A makeshift plan came to him. "Can I at least go home for a day or two after the storm? I want to make sure your guy got through with the food and money. My mom cannot fend for herself like she used to."

"No father?"

Kandric looked at his shuffling feet, "No. Mom doesn't even know who my dad was. She slept around for money, still does when she finds someone who will pay."

"Sounds like a strong woman." Vondum replied keeping his voice devoid of judgements.

"So can I go, then come back?"

"Absolutely. I'll take you myself if you would like."

Kandric smiled, this time it was not totally forced, "I would like that."

"Not a problem." Vondum again mussed Kandric's hair, "Allow Tyfod show you to your bath and make sure to tell him he is to keep it warm for you. He is also a great cook so let him know what you want to eat. I'll send Jamon in with a full understanding of his duties to you." Vondum put on silly grin, "Without the chains of course. Not much fun having cold metal in bed is it?"

"Nope." Kandric laughed as Tyfod motioned for him to come to the bath chamber. He followed while looking back to Vondum as the man exited, letting the door slam shut as he went. This killed off the flow of cold air making the cabin and its blazing fireplace seem warm and cozy. He started to wonder if Vondum was really as nasty as he first thought. One way or the other he would have to find out.

Aster woke to the sound of a light knock at his door. For a second he panicked in the unfamiliar surroundings of his inn room. It had been many years since he had awoken with a gash on his head and no memory, but the fear of forgetting everything never strayed far from his thoughts. This fear had led to several habits, such as always having his room above the forge set up the same way every night. Waking up in an unfamiliar environment should have become easy over the years of traveling with Watch members, but the momentary terror of waking in a strange room, tent, or cabin never went away.

Quickly, Aster took himself through brief step by step remembering sequence as to what had lead him to not wake up in his very familiar forge room. A concerned lick from Shade helped calm his racing heart. Once he fully settled he went to the door, "Yes?"

"Aster," Pocet's voice seemed muffled through the door, "A Master Lannet wants to talk to you down in the serving room."

Aster unlatched and swung open the door. "Sorry, I was sleeping. What time is it?"

Pocet came in fully dressed, armored, and armed, "Right about sun-up, but the storm is so nasty, it's hard to tell for sure."

"Oh, jeez. I overslept."

Pocet chuckled as he stepped in and closed the door, "Not a problem. After the fight you had yesterday afternoon, you deserve a late morning. Besides, we're not going anywhere in this weather. I've never seen such a storm this time of the year."

Aster flipped off his nightshirt revealing himself totally to Pocet, "When do you think we'll be able to leave?"

Pocet felt like his eyes had popped out of his head. The young elf standing before him was so far above beautiful it took his breath away. The well-toned, yet boyish, slender chest and arms angled to a well-worked stomach, with creamy smooth skin and an adorable belly button. Lowering his gaze further down, Pocet took in smooth healthy hips and a finger sized boy tool, tight, hairless, walnut sized testicles and finally strong looking legs progressing downward to smallish sized feet with cute toes. He completely lost track of Aster's Question "Sorry, what was that?"

"How long till we'll be able to get on the road?" Aster looked up and smiled at the somewhat befuddled look on Pocet's face. His thoughts about Pocet seemed to have been answered. All he would have to do is verify it at the end of the day.

Pocet couldn't take his eyes off the splendid Elvin boy before him no matter how hard he tried. It surprised him a great deal when Aster smiled instead of looking uncomfortable or angry. "Two to three days at least. Don't worry about it, yer on the payroll now. Enjoy the easy money while you can. This is one of the good things about being a caravan guard."

"I've never been paid for doing nothing before." Aster giggled as he slowly started to dress. The more he watched Pocet's reactions the more he was sure Pocet fancied him. A combination of relief yet disappointment played across the Swordsman's face as he slowly covered his body. This new job started to look better all the sudden.

"Handri is very fair. He pays his key people no matter what."

"I should have tried to hire out a long time ago!" Aster grinned as he finally put on his loincloth, "Please tell Master Lannet I'll be right down."

"I sure will." Pocet blurted out glad to have a reason to leave the room. Part of him wondered if Aster had been checking him out or playing some sort of game. The problem Pocet had with trying judge Aster was race. Pocet saw a boy when he looked. He also felt the need of acceptance that a boy has when around men, but that is where the lines started to blur. Aster was actually older than Pocet by about seventeen years, was Guild Certified, Secondary Echelon, and had no real problem taking out six attackers single-handedly.

Pocet grinned to himself as he headed down the steps of the inn. It really made no difference. Seeing such a wonderful sight so early in the morning officially made his whole day. So infectious were his attitude, smile, and peppiness; it caused two of his men to smile as he passed them on the way to the dining hall.

He quickly relayed Aster's message to the elderly dwarf sitting at a back table. A trio of winged panthers looked up, saw their master was not in danger, and went back to tearing huge chunks of meat off a barely cooked moose leg. A true case of a Master Echelon being able to do whatever he wanted. Even this somewhat gruesome sight didn't shake his good mood, but it did cause him to seek out Handri instead of sticking around.

Aster came down a few minutes later. Before he sat he took a few seconds with each of the three deadly black winged cats, calling them by name as he playfully roughhoused with them.

Lannet's eyes twinkled in merriment, "How can you tell them apart like that? I can't unless I take time to closely examine them."

"They act differently, Master." Aster remarked simply as he gave Lannet a quick hug.

"You never cease to amaze me." Lannet returned the hug and held on for an extra couple of seconds.

Aster savored the closeness before finally speaking, "What can I do for you, Master?"

"Well, nothing really. This is information for you."

"About the attacks on Pocet and me?"

"Some, but some of the Watch has an interesting idea as to how you might be able to get up into the Silver Spine Plateau."

"Should I get Pocet?"

Lannet arched his eyebrows, "That would mean revealing your station within the Watch. You had to once in order for you to convince Handri to hire you, but there is no reason for this man to know unless you want him to."

"I'd really like him to know I have some ties with Junsac's Watch. I trusted him before yesterday, but his concern for me last night made me feel like I wasn't some weird kid. Only you, my metalworker teacher, and Healthman expert have made me feel so ordinary, yet so special."

"Very well. I am pleased to know you have found someone you are at ease with. I know you are an excellent judge of character. Go get him. I'll have the room cleared so we can talk in private."

Aster came back with Pocet, briefly introducing him to Lannet's pets. The animals sensed the man's ill ease and growled. It surprised Pocet when Aster, not Lannet, scolded the beasts. Equally impressive, they all stopped growling and hung their heads. It reminded Pocet of a boy disciplining a pet puppy not three winged panthers each capable of tearing up three or four men.

Lannet motioned for Pocet and Aster to sit, "Don't worry; they make lots of people nervous."

"You can put me on that list." Pocet stated with no shame. He took the chair furthest away from the animals.

Aster took the opposite approach, sitting where he could pet their dark fur and started scratching one of the beasts' chins.

Pocet cringed as the massive animal started lightly chewing on Aster's arm as the Elf played rather roughly with it.

Lannet liked what he saw in the man sitting before him. He obviously cared about Aster, but didn't react in an overly protective way. "Would either of you like something to eat?"

Aster spoke up instantly, "Steak and eggs would be nice."

"Already ordered my boy!" Lannet poked at Aster's ribs getting a short giggle.

"I'll take some biscuits, jam and a mug of fruit juice." Pocet stated as he reached into his pouch.

Lannet waved him off, "No need. The Watch has a tab here."

"As in the Barony Watch?" Pocet nearly fell back on the chair he had propped up on its back two legs. He just barely managed to grab the table's edge in time.

"Yes. Aster says you may want to hear some of the information we were going to pass on to him. Seemed like a good idea, you bein' the team leader and all."

Pocet chewed on his upper lip for a moment as Lannet ordered his food. He looked around realizing the large dining area was empty except for the three of them and a couple of slave inn boys. He then glanced back and forth for a few seconds wondering what he should say, if anything.

Aster gave a reassuring grin, "Master Lannet says there may be an easier way up to the Silver Spine Plateau."

Pocet continued to shift his eyes back and forth trying to figure out what was going on. Not being successful in the least he looked straight at Aster, "I'm very interested, but why would the Junsac Barony Watch pay for our meal and give you information?"

Aster took a breath wondering if this would spoil his budding friendship with Pocet. In the long run, a real friendship couldn't exist if he kept such a powerful secret. Slowly he turned up his entire collar as he lowered his head.

Pocet felt his eyes grow wide and jaw drop upon seeing the Watch dagger pin. Its magical shimmering called out to him in a way few could ever understand. From the first time he had seen a Watch pin as a boy, he dreamed of one day wearing one. Now, it seemed, he was at least working with the group. A part of a boyhood dream was becoming reality.

Aster scowled, "I'm sorry. I should have told you from the start."

Pocet slid his chair close to Aster and put an arm around him; "There is no reason you should feel guilty. I'm honored you let me know at all."

Aster looked into the Swordsman's eyes, "You're not mad at me?"

"Not at all!" Pocet gave a hard reassuring squeeze with is arm, "You showed me you were Secondary Echelon, so I knew you had a few secrets. You had to get practice somewhere. Actually, I am honored to be able to help the Watch."

Lannet didn't need to probe Pocet to feel his sincerity. As usual, Aster had chosen a friend well, a thought that made him wonder more about Conner. He shook off this rogue notion. "You will be helping us out a great deal by getting us a detailed report of what you find in the Silver Spine Plateau. Since Aster first told us about your troubles we have done some checking. As far as we can tell, not one merchant has made it up and returned since mid-winter. Although, several have failed like your group did. We need to find out what is happening and why someone wanted your trip halted."

"So the people who attacked me were trying to stop us from leaving?" Pocet asked.

Lannet shook his head in disgust, "We don't know yet. The beings who ambushed you were paid to injure you, not kill. Someone paid them through a courier to break bones and leave you. The ones you left alive, gave a very good description of the Halfling who paid them, but she has vanished."

"What about those who attacked Aster?" Pocet growled, "Were they going to bust up a kid too?"

"No, at least not them. They were paid to kidnap him and await orders. Best we can tell, they shifted to him as soon as the mugging of you failed." Lannet stopped for a second looking over at Aster, "By the way, the young lady Shade took down is a Mage. I wasn't able to recover Conner's book fully intact without pulling strings. To do so would take too much time, but you have rights to her spell pages."

"Fully intact?" Aster frowned.

"The overseer refuses to allow him to keep his offensive spells. Don't worry though, the girl's book will more than make up for it." Lannet's eyes hardened, "I can also guarantee you the overseer will find out why one does not go against the wishes of the Watch."

Aster nodded, "Is he the one that refused to put Conner by himself?"

"One and the same." Lannet confirmed.

Aster's whole demeanor changed from a fun-loving, curious boy to a serious deadly trained Animal Adept. "Fine, then I want one of my markers called in on him as well."

Lannet's eyes went wide, "Aster, you've never called in a marker."

"Yea, so I have plenty to use." Aster stood up and started to pace; "Why in name of the gods does the day slave overseer hate Conner so much?"

Lannet took in a deep breath while sending a thought message to Pocet, "I will tell you more of this later. For the moment, this is between him and me. Please do not interrupt."

Pocet put up his hands to show this was now Lannet's show. He also shook his head to clear it. He had heard rumors of Mindmasters powerful enough to send thought to others as easily as many people speak. To experience such a phenomenon, on the other hand, left him feeling somewhat giddy.

Lannet concentrated for a moment on Aster's chair causing it to slide back from the table, "Stop behaving like a spoiled brat and sit."

The words hammered into Aster harder than any fist could have. He regained his composure and took the chair Lannet had pushed out through the power of the mind alone. As he sat back down at the table he lowered his head, "Master I am sorry for my outburst."

"Aster, you have every right to call in a Watch marker. Do not get me wrong, I do understand where you are coming from. The overseer has now defied the Watch two times concerning Conner alone, plus he was already on thin ice for earlier behavior. It is time he learned why we are feared. No one in the Watch will be against it. But if you put in the marker, you will have to come up with punishment. You can't possibly think straight when you allow anger to overwhelm intelligence."

Aster kept quiet while the food was served. It was clear to Master Lannet and Pocet the young Elf was in deep thought.

Pocet took the momentary quiet to ask Lannet a question. Looking at the Dwarf's platinum guild pins made him almost stop, but he forced himself to Push fear to the side, "May I ask, what a Watch marker is?"

Lannet spoke with his mind when he answered, "Think to me; do not speak. Let's give him some peace and quiet.

"When one is made an official Watch member a tally of successes is kept. The exact formula is secret, but once in a while an award is made to the member in the form of a marker. Markers can be cashed in for help, money, equipment, or in this case lesson teaching. Many times Watch members help each other out without markers, but when a marker is called in, help is basically being demanded. Only a Watch Council vote can forbid a marker from being cashed in. I have only seen five markers go that far, only two of which were struck down."

"Wow, how many does he have?"

"Such things are very private, but I can tell you are a trustworthy man. Aster has garnered eight markers and has never used a single one."

"Eight, that sounds like a lot." Pocet thought. His face showed some surprise.

"The most I have ever had on record is nine." Lannet smiled, "The record is eleven. So you are correct, eight is huge. Part of the reason he has so many is, he can be very charming when he wants something. The other reason is more formidable. He has saved quite a few members' lives."

Pocet looked at the elderly Dwarf in disbelief; "He's only a kid."

"A kid who knows how to use his youth to deceive others into thinking he is just a boy. Remember, this youngster sitting with us is an Animal Adept fully trained. He took down the same number of people you did by himself. Be very careful how you think of him, he is boy with boy needs, but just a kid? Not at all."

Pocet nodded solemnly, "Point taken. So what is he allowed to do with this marker?"

"Whatever he wants. Markers are how the Watch gets most of its reputation. By the way, I'm sure you know this is not something outsiders get to see very often."

"Yes, and it will go no further. I am truly honored to be getting this glimpse of the inner working of the Watch."

Lannet gave Pocet a wink, "Consider this journey your trial run. If you wish to continue to take assignments from us, I'll put you on applicant level."

"You mean I could become a member of the Watch?"

"Yes. I sensed in you just such a desire when you first found out about Aster."

"Yes. Yes. I am very interested."

"Fine! Let's eat while he thinks."

Pocet couldn't help but to smile. The day just seemed to be getting better by the moment.

Lannet and Pocet made small talk, and got to know each other. Meanwhile Aster ate most of his meal in silence only occasionally putting in a word or two.

As Aster polished off the last bite of his steak, his face suddenly lit up with a devious grin of the type only a boy about to pull off something forbidden could get.

Lannet picked up on it instantly, "What have you come up with?"

Aster chewed on his lip for a moment; "I need some information first, Master. Does the overseer have a wife and kids?"

"Yes." Lannet responded, "Wife, two boys and a girl. Not totally sure of their ages, but the boys are about eight and twelve, the girl around tenish."

Aster gave a hard yet satisfied nod, "Perfect. I want his kids to have to go through the day slave sales for a massive debt. Make it as close to the day slave maximum as you can get. The overseer will not be allowed to participate because of his direct ties. I also want whoever is put in charge of their rest days to keep them in normal six man chambers, and not together either, separate chambers. In addition, I want it to look like it was his fault, but had covered his tracks well enough to prevent conviction. I don't even want his wife standing by him."

Pocet had a hard time controlling his tongue. Aster's instructions would destroy a man while tormenting three kids. He didn't know what was going on to prompt this, however, so he forced himself not to judge. Besides, he couldn't see how such a request could be pulled off. The complication of setting up all the pieces, without making mistakes which would free the kids, would be next to impossible.

"How Aster?" Lannet asked with a frown, obviously thinking along the same lines as Pocet. "With something so complicated you have to come up with the basics so we have a framework to work with."

"I know." Aster grinned evilly, "Set a warehouse with stolen goods. Trick the kids into going there. Make them think their father passed on the instructions to get some of the items. When our person passes on the message have him plant a couple stolen items on them. The city guards recover a bunch of stolen goods. The people get their stuff back with some extra money. Our city makes money. Everyone but the overseer and his family wins. Everyone knows he takes bribes, or does something else illegal because he lives too well for his position so he will be suspected.

"It will look like he is behind what his kids were caught doing, but there will be no proof. We then have someone talk to his wife about where her husband is because they need to ship out the goods that are left. He loses ability to take bribes because until his kids are off the block, he will not be allowed to do anything other than be moved to a city guard leader, if he is even that lucky. It will take a great deal of time for his kids to work off such a massive debt, so his income goes down. His wife will be furious, at least should be. Plus everyone around him will look down on him."

Pocet trembled as his stomach seemed to twist deep in his gut, "Aster you will ruin him."

"Exactly." Aster confirmed with a smug nod.

"Interesting." Lannet pulled on his beard with vigor, "Very simple to carry out, no violence involved, no way to trace any of it back to the Watch. Doesn't do much to put fear into others though Aster."

"It does if some of the goods recovered belonged to us and we intimidate people not to bid very high for the kids when they are on the day auction stage."

Lannet whistled softly, "Ouch. They could end up on the block for over the six month maximum."

Pocet glanced at Lannet, "What happens then?"

"They become the property of the person who had the most property stolen from them."

Pocet's heart beat fast. Part of him still hated this whole set-up, but another piece found the plan inspiring. It took a sharp mind to come up with such a simple plan, yet have such a terrible effect on its intended target. Another question came to mind, "OK, who would end up with the kids when they are turned into slaves then?"

Lannet answered quickly, "They would go to the person who put in the marker. By then Junsac will have been forced into finding a permanent replacement for our current day slave overseer. He will be degraded. His property sold off to fill in whatever debt is left to the city, because they are his kids after all. By the time we are done with him, he will be broke, homeless, demoralized, and shunned."

"You can have them, Master" Aster responded, "I don't need them."

"Aster, they will become your responsibility. Your plan will make them slaves. Your marker, your plan, your slaves, unless you want to change your plan."

Aster took a second before shaking his head, "No, Master. I wish to formally invoke the marker. He put Conner through hell. Now it is my turn."

"Very well. I will summon a team." Lannet went into thought. His eyes seemed to glaze over for a couple of minutes. When he spoke again his voice had a slightly fatigued tone "Your marker is set. No one wishes to challenge."

Pocet looked over, "Master, do you need a rest? We can continue this later."

"No. Let me pass on this information first."

Aster knew Master Lannet would never agree to a rest until business was finished so he took the lead, "So how do we get up to the plateau?"

"Go to Silverton, then head up Razor Rock Gap." Lannet stated.

Pocet shook his head vigorously, "Excuse me, Master Lannet, but I don't have a death wish. You're talking about going through the Bogland Swamp Hills. The Lizardman Clans control those hills and the Highland Trail going through it. I'd prefer to fight my way through twenty Gnolls rather than ten Lizardmen."

Aster suddenly understood where his mentor was coming from, "Normally you'd be correct Pocet, but they are cool-blooded creatures and don't have their warriors to guard it with. We tracked combined clan Lizardman armies leaving the Boglands late last fall. We lost track of them in the saltwater marshes down by the city-state of Everone, but they could not have slipped back by us unnoticed to get back to their homeland. The cold weather will also help, because the few guards they have left will not be interested in a fight against a well-armed caravan when they will have to wear heavy winter coverings. Besides, I'll be with you."

Pocet's head cocked questioningly to the side; "Will you being with us help?"

"More than you know." Lannet responded.

Pocet looked to Lannet, "How firm is this information, Master?"

"You are hearing it first hand. Aster spent a month as part of one of the tracking teams. He also knows the Lizardman tongue."

Aster twisted his mouth into a weird shape, "Yea, but it is very hard to speak."

Pocet laughed at Aster's strange facial expression, "I bet." Curiosity however demanded a question, "How did you learn such a difficult language?"

"Goes back to the very first time I went out with the Watch. I wasn't even a team member yet."

"May I ask how you got started with them?" Pocet asked, switching the subject.

Lannet smiled as he remembered, "Both your questions are tied together my young Swordsman. I had been teaching Aster for about six years. He drank up every bit of teaching he could get his hands on. It didn't matter if he was in the forge, in the Healthman shop, or with me working with the animals.

"One day he asked if he could go out to find a real wild animal to teach. At that point we had a team getting ready to search out a group of bandits, but they didn't have a Healthman or Channeler. I saw a way to give Aster real life practice while the team could protect him and help him get a wolf or something."

Lannet called out to one of the inn boys to get him a fresh glass of ale before he continued, "The team wasn't thrilled with my idea, but I have some pull. Well, anyway, they set off tracking the bandits all the way into Razor Rock Gap. The team caught up to them about the same time a band of Lizard Folk did.

"The team leader figured he would allow them to fight it out and pick up the pieces. For reasons I am not certain of, the fighting drifted toward the Watch team kind of forcing them to join in. It started out as three separate groups fighting each other, but Aster changed that."

"Oh?" Pocet glance back to Aster

Aster blushed, "Yea, I kinda overstepped my bounds."

"Go on, tell him." Lannet prodded.

Aster took a deep breath, "One of the Lizard Folk was small, a kid like me. He got hit hard by one of the female bandits and fell. I ordered my dog to attack the woman who looked like she wanted to finish the job. Smoky caught her off guard, biting her arm hard. She sliced Smoky with her dagger, only to have a Lizardman warrior rip her throat out.

"I ran over to Smoky, but when I got there the Lizard boy reached up weakly. I could see he had a huge wound on his chest. His eyes pleaded for help though so I pulled out my Healthman kit and went to work. I had no idea what I was doing. I just kind of began with what I knew, stop the bleeding and went from there."

Aster couldn't help smiling at the memory; "It seemed like the second I started helping the kid all the other Lizard Folk stopped fighting Watch members. The team leader didn't know what to make of it, but didn't argue. It didn't take long for the bandits to fall once we teamed up with the Lizard Folk. As soon as the last bandit dropped, everyone turned to face each other not knowing what to do. Weapons were kept ready, but neither side was in much shape or mood to fight it out.

"Finally one of the Lizard Warriors picked up one of our wounded and motioned for us to follow. The rest of the wounded were gathered up and we were lead to a Lizardman hamlet. The whole time I worked on wounds Watch and Lizardman, but of the living, the one who needed the most attention the Lizard boy. I finally got him patched up enough to where I was pretty sure he would live late in the day."

Aster took a long swing of juice so Lannet picked up the details; "To make a long story short, it turned out Aster had saved a clan leader's eldest son. The Lizard Folk were really touched because Aster could have ignored the boy and tried to save his dog, but didn't. This didn't go unnoticed. Our team was treated to three weeks of some of the warmest hospitality I've ever heard of and Aster was given a magical axe and an abandoned cub you know as Shade. He was also made an honorary clan member and he spends a couple weeks with the clan every summer. They even helped us track the Lizardman armies some."

"Nice start to a career in the Watch!"

"Yes." Lannet confirmed, "Hasn't looked back since either."

"Will Aster's membership in a Lizard clan prevent attacks?"

"No." Aster responded flatly, "My clan and their allies will not bother us, nor will those who are neutral. My clan's enemies will hate us even more, but they are the ones who sent their warriors south. We should be able to slip through with little to no trouble. If we can get going before the snow stops, we have an even better chance of not being bothered."

Pocet stood, "Very well, I'll get with Handri. Be ready to leave as soon as the storm slacks off enough to move out."

"I'm ready when you are." Aster grinned.

"I can tell." Pocet gave Aster's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "I'll let Handri know the basics of your information. He won't like traveling in a winter storm, but it sounds like we will want as much cold snowy weather as possible. He'll listen. Besides, he is as anxious to get going as we are."

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