Castle Roland

The Kandric

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 10

Posted: 29 Jun 15

The Kandric Saga

Kyle Aarons

The king rushed into Glaster's chamber. He spoke as soon as he saw his friend holding Mylan, "Are you all right?"

"Have not been this good in many decades my Highness." Glaster smiled raising one hand, then the other, while making sure to keep one arm cradling Mylan, who was still recovering for the spell he had completed for Glaster.

The king took a step back in shock, "The pain I felt was a healing then?"

"Yes." Glaster lowered his head, "I am sorry. I should have warned you Highness."

The king waved off the apology, "I would have done the same had it been me Glaster. The pain was only momentary so I will be fine. I was much more concerned about you." He paused for a moment looking over Mylan's nude body, "Is there a problem with my great-nephew?"

"He finished the spell for me Highness. He is drained and exhausted. I have never before allowed an apprentice only in the Training Echelon to perform the hand motions for a spell above Secondary Echelon before. It took more out of him than I expected."

"Will he recover?"

"Absolutely." Glaster stated with total confidence. "He will also be stronger in the long run. Not many boys his age get to feel the effects of a Master Echelon spell. Now he has cast the spell he will never forget it, so the first spell this tike learned above Primary Echelon happens to be a very powerful Master Echelon spell."

The king's eyebrows arched. "Was this spell on one of the scrolls?"

"Indeed it was." Glaster handed the strange animal skin over to the man he had served as a whipping boy over sixty years before. "I have not looked at the fourth scroll yet, but this was the only one which had new spells on it." Glaster stopped then grinned, "At least they were new spells from my way of looking at things."

The king laughed at Glaster's remark, "You know more Shaman spells than anyone else I have ever known."

Glaster nodded but remained silent. Such words from a king meant a great deal. A king as powerful as Wyhrem got to see some of the most powerful men and women in the guilds. King Wyhrem's perspective was far deeper than most kings because the man had set about making a royal court of the best from each Field and Subfield he could find. His court contained more Expert and Master Echelon beings than any other known. Of course The Watch helped in this endeavor, however, King Wyhrem knew how to persuade those The Watch found to stay on.

King Wyhrem scratched at his arm, "You know there are times I wish our guard had not given us his blood."

"You could have kept it to yourself Highness, but you ordered me to partake of the Blood Bonding as well. Had you not done so, you would not have felt my arm get taken off in the first place, nor get replaced by the spell you found for me." Glaster did his best to hold a straight face.

Wyhrem shook his head with a smile, "I can only take some of this blame Glaster. Granted I didn't want my best friend to grow old and die while I still looked young, but you were the one who lost his arm, not me."

Glaster couldn't hide his grin anymore, "Very true. The youngster I saved has paid me back ten fold though Highness. He is now a Teaching Echelon, almost Expert, Shaman himself. He carries goods for me off and on still to this day."

"He should!" Wyhrem declared, "He was nothing more than a peasant boy."

"As was I when your father first took me in."

Wyhrem cringed, realizing he had accidentally insulted his lifelong friend, "Yes you were. Now you are one of the best Shamen known. Only seven others hold a guild rank higher than you and none know as many spells, at least I do not believe they do. When will you be ready for Legendary Echelon?"

"Not for many, many years."

"But you are already a Step 4. Surely close to Step 5 by now?"

Glaster barely nodded, "I could pass the Master Step 5 test if I wanted to, but going from Master to Legendary is no small feat. This latest spell tells me there is much more to learn. I had to use around four times the normal magical force it takes to cast a Master Echelon spell to cast this single spell tonight. My magic reserves are very low and I have not cast a single other spell today. Clearly there is much more for me to learn before I become one of the truly elite. I would not have made it this far without your help and the Blood Bonding we went through."

"I still do not understand why my guard wanted me to blood bond with him. It made no sense then and it makes none now."

Glaster adjusted Mylan in his lap and stroked the boy's hair, "I cringe every time I remember the pain of not only the ceremony, but also the feelings of Captain Jonell's struggles to survive. I still think he felt he had failed you when you got hit by the crossbow bolt and wanted to pass on something of his."

"What an awful feeling it was as he finally died." King Wyhrem shuddered. "I was amazed my father agreed to let me honor the Elf who had protected me from the day I had been born. Asking you to join in though almost caused my father to say no."

Glaster nodded, "I know. I can still recall the look on your father's face and the poor Healthman who had to figure out how to do a three-way Blood Bonding with a dying man when you demanded I become a part of the ceremony. You will never know how honored I was when you asked me."

"I did not really ask."

Glaster snorted and smiled, "No, come to think about it, you never did ask. You basically told everyone what was going to happen. Yet, you did tell me just before we got started I did not have to do it though. I think your father was hoping I would bow out."

"No question. Looking back I do not think I would have allowed it to happen had you said no."

"Really?" This really took Glaster by surprise.

"You were my only friend." King Wyhrem took a breath, "Are my only friend. When my wife died I lost the only other friend I had."

"Highness, you were a very popular boy."

"Because I was a prince. You, however, have always treated me as a true friend and with utmost of concern. You took the second crossbow bolt meant for me the day Captain Jonell fell mortally wounded protecting us. You may still try denying it, but I saw you step in front of me.

Glaster finally nodded, "I did, you are correct. The assassin would have killed you and I could not stand seeing you hurt, let alone die."

"You know we never have been able to track down the Illorc who ordered the attack." King Wyhrem stated, "Do you think the same one could somehow be trying to kill my son now?"

"Their life spans are certainly long enough." Glaster agreed, "But there is no proof. As you yourself said the conspiracy is all but dead. The ringleaders did not say they were working for anyone and they were all put to the test by Mindmasters, so I really do not see how there could be someone higher up."

"I know, but there are ways to trick people so the truth cannot come out and you know it." King Wyhrem countered, "I have done it myself a few times when the need has come up. So have you."

"True." Glaster conceded the point. "I must admit this whole plot against your boy does not add up. Mylan and Lylan's father would never harm you and the boys do not want the prince harmed, even if he does act like a spoiled merchant brat.

"Besides, if one looks at it from your enemy's perspective, the prince's death would not necessarily end your lineage's reign, because you are still young enough to have another child. If anything, with your wife's death, the chance of you having another child has increased because if you remarry, your new wife could have children while your prior wife could not.

"I know the way I speak must sound very cold hearted. I assure you it is not, however. Instead I say this because things still do not seem clear with the assassination attempts.

"I have had other problems with the attacks on your boy which up till now I have purposefully neglected to inform anyone about because I was not sure."

"Such as?" King Wyhrem asked as he pulled up a chair from the new desk, which had replaced the old one Glaster had blasted to ash only a day before.

Glaster looked down to make sure Mylan was indeed still sleeping before he turned his attention back on the king, "Each attack on your son has killed enough guards to prove your boy could have been killed if they had taken the time to do so. This is especially true before I got here. Two of the first attacks eliminated all the spell casters protecting the prince. In at least one of those attacks the other group had a caster still capable of throwing spells, but did not target your boy.

"One good spell could have killed him or at least seriously wounded him, yet he has yet to receive a single scratch. Certainly a spell caster could have launched off a fire dart, elemental burst or other offensive spell in an attempt to drop the prince. Let us not forget at least once the guards fought for their lives with three to one odds against them. The last of your son's guards had to kill three attacking Swordsmen each. Three on one, yet none of them concentrated on their intended target?"

"You know," King Wyhrem interrupted, "I had almost the same thought about the attack you are talking about. I figured they wanted to kidnap my son, hold him for ransom, but then he was attacked in the palace shortly after. They would never have been able to get my son out of the palace alive. My standing orders are quite plain. Any attempt at kidnapping royalty is to be met with deadly force, even if it means killing the hostage. The policy was instituted to prevent someone for thinking holding a royal figure as a shield would give him or her a way to gain safe passage. This is clearly known by all. It was only after I really thought it all over when I came to the conclusion it was time to call for The Watch. Because it became clear to me there was a traitor in the palace."

"Agreed, the last attack on the palace was more of an assault. They would never have gotten the prince out alive. The only problems with the attacks are the Dire Wolf and giant scorpion had the best chances to attack your son but the scorpion made straight for Mylan and Lylan and the Dire Wolf made a pounce for the Marquis' boy. Granted, Mylan and Lylan may have contributed to themselves being targeted because they purposefully stood between the attack and your boy, but things just do not add up."

"I am glad it is basically over. I lost almost every guard originally assigned to protect him. Those the sickness on our ship did not claim, the attacks did. My own most trusted guards are all I have left from the ship and many of them got ill. Until you returned, I was beginning to feel cursed!"

Glaster scowled as he listened, "Highness this only reinforces my opinion. Your son is not safe here. Whatever the reason, someone wants you and your boy to pay, along with all those around him. Maybe striking at your son is some sort of extended plan to get to you, but I do not see it yet. I will give it more thought though.

"I firmly believe whatever is going on started long before you realized. I think it would be best if you took a trip to Protector's Keep for a while. I will then be able to take your son with me and no one will be the wiser. The Duke is more than capable of running the Kingdom for a few months and on the very remote chance he wants to try something, his boys will be with me. He would not dare endanger them by doing anything so foolish."

King Wyhrem listened in silence for a few minutes. "Your over all plan is a good one, but I will not hide in Protector's Keep while there are so many threats to my kingdom. Instead I will travel with my Royal Knights to give the Dragon and its forces some real opposition. You get my boy to safety, train him properly, and get him back to the boy I had once been so proud of."

Glaster saw a new look of determination in his friend he had not seen since his return to the capital. He smiled. "Highness I look forward to seeing you after the Dragon's head is propped up on a pike! Rest assured your boy will be well cared for."

Wyhrem nodded, "Thank you my friend. I guess you will travel by caravan?"

"There is no other way for me Highness, unless I do so by magic, but Mylan, Lylan and the prince would not learn much if I simply gated them to wherever I wanted to go!"

"Very true. I will order some wagons readied with decent trade goods. I suppose you will want to do the hiring on your own though."

"Actually the boys will be doing the interviews while I watch on, but yes, I do not want more then a Healthman teacher for Mylan and Lylan, a Swordsman instructor for Lylan, and a Mage teacher for your son. The rest I can teach or find others to fill in. What interests does your son's whipping boy have?"

"I do not know. He is Druid gifted though."

"Very well. I guess I need a Druid teacher as well."

"I will give my own if you wish."

"No!" Glaster nearly commanded, "Your Royal Knights will need all the magical backup you can find! You would be a fool to not have your best Druid with the threat of facing a dragon!"

King Wyhrem agreed with slumped shoulders. "You are as usual correct. I will have a guard find a suitable teacher from the guild for your Druidic needs."

Mylan woke as Glaster next to called his great-uncle a fool. He couldn't help but wonder if there was anyone else in the kingdom who could have gotten away with such words. He seriously doubted it. Deciding it was best if it appeared as if he didn't see the exchange, he closed his eyes and kept his breathing natural. He knew for a fact his great-uncle trusted very few people, so basically what little he had heard told him Glaster held far more sway within the kingdom than most would ever know. He half wondered if his own father could advise his great uncle with such reckless abandon. He seriously doubted it.

Aster moved along side his new wagon as he ordered Dabaff to move it up behind the others in Handri's caravan. The youngest Swordsman was an easy choice to drive the wagon. He had skills to heal the others in case of attack and was by far the weakest of the lot. Fact of the matter was Aster had bested the Swordsman five out of five times in arm wrestling and had not even really tried. Working in a forge for even a few minutes took more energy. Aster found himself worrying about the kid who was his elder in equivalency terms by more than two years. The kid had obviously been beaten while in the cell with the others and had made no attempt to right the injustice. Even when Aster went out of his way to talk with Dabaff about the incident, the young Swordsman said it was no big deal.

The back wagon was one of the least preferred positions in any caravan. It was often the first to be targeted by bandits because it was relatively hard to turn the lead wagons to help protect it. Making matters even worse, the back wagon got all the dust from the other wagons on dry trails and wet trails meant mud. The further back a wagon was, the deeper the mud tended to become because the leading wagons with their animal teams turned normal muddy roads into quagmires.

Aster had to give his youngest guard some credit. Dabaff moved the wagon up and handled the somewhat spirited team of Dragon Steeds well. Dragon Steeds were in and of themselves very impressive animals, six legged, forked tongues and intelligence somewhere between animal and Shade's. They were stronger, faster, and far more impressive in combat than even War Steeds.

The Watch surprised everyone in the caravan by equipping all of Handri's guards with the beasts along with Aster and his own guards. The Warsteeds he had been given only the day before had been a nothing more than a way of keeping secret these magnificent animals!

In addition to this impressive gift, every Swordsman was given a Dagger of Light. These magical blades could be adjusted to glow from a minor shimmering to a full torchlight and made the group capable of doing damage to creatures of a mystical nature, such as Shade. Because Aster already had magical daggers, he was given a set of throwing daggers which would return to their bandoleer seconds after thrown. Their magical nature insured extra damage as well as range.

Master Lannet accepted a final hug from Aster. As the young Elf tried to say The Watch had spent too much on him, the elderly Dwarf gripped the boy tighter. "You are so wrong Aster. We feel guilty about not being able to get a team ready. We may not have been able to get you a Watch team, but we can damn sure guarantee those who travel with you are well equipped!"

A last set of waves were exchanged before Lannet bowed his head and wiped away tears. "Aster I know you cannot hear me, but if anyone harms you I will spend every Watch marker I have to eliminate the entire extended family of whomever or whatever does the harming!"

"You would have to beat me to it my friend. I do not know thisssss lad well. However, he hassss impressssssed me far more thhhhan any othhhher in a far sssssshorter time." Falk's rough scaly hands rippled with energy for a moment. "He is our future and I shhhhhare your consssscern."

"Thank you." Lannet stated sincerely. "What is the soonest we can get some support up to him?"

"Help isssssss already on the way." Falk seemed to hiss more than normal, "Glasssster is to leave the capital tomorrow morn. I informed him of the new problemssssss. He sssseemed very anxiousssss to make good time for sssssome reassssson."

"He may not be enough. What about a full team?"

Falk snorted with a small burst of smoke and flame coming out from under his hood, "Lannet he isssss a team all to himssssself! He sssssingle handedly dealt with the asssssassssssinsssss where our firssssst team could do little more then keep the battle even. I doubt I could have done a better job and I have almost a full Echelon on the man. However, I feel we will have a team assss ssssoon assss Sssssardan and hissss group getssss usssss the informasssstion we need on thosssse who attacked Asssster and Pocet."

"You seem to speak very highly of Glaster, so why do you not trust him?"

"Trusssst isssss the wrong word Lannet. Like would be the proper word. Hissss word issss more valuable than gold. My problem with him revolvesssss around hissss temper. He isssss capable of putting to ssssshame a hoard of demon lordssssss in cruelty when he getssssss angry. Fortunately, it alwaysssss sssssseemsssssss to be well directed. I also do not like him nor the way he usssssesssss young onesssss."

"He is not the only Watch member with a taste for young flesh Falk."

"True. He happenssssss to be willing to go further than mosssssst to get a hold of what he lussssstsssss after, however. On the good sssssside, he takessssss good care of thosssse who are unlucky enoughffff to firssssst attract hisssss attensssstion unlessssss they are sssssslavesssss, then it really matterssssss not. I would like him more if he sssstuck to sssssslavessss alone."

"I am not sure I agree." Master Lannet countered, "Aster was truly pleased when he first thought of getting some help from Glaster. Granted, he would destroy whole towns to get to someone who had hurt one of his boys, but the kids who I have talked to really respect him. It has been a few years ago since I last saw the little redheaded Halfelf he had taken in, but I must say my head turned as he walked by. Reminded me so much of Aster, it was eerie!"

"A red-haired Halfelf?" Falk turned to stare at Master Lannet, "I have lived for over 350 yearsssss and have not onssssce ssssssseen a Halfelf with red hair!"

"It was a first for me as well. You can check the Shaman guild records at Protector's Keep though. He is younger than Aster and is higher rated."

"Not posssssible!"

"I saw it with my own eyes. Tested Secondary Step 2 over a year and a half ago and was clearly holding back. I felt him holding back, then watched him cast a pair of spells after he left the testing chamber to heal a couple young students who had hurt each other in training."

"Bruissssse damage?"

"On one, but the other was bleeding and he healed it. So he cast at least one Secondary and one Primary Echelon spell after leaving testing."

"Ssssso he wassssss at leassssst a Sssssstep 4 then!" Falk exclaimed in total amazement. Doesssss the guild know?"

"Not a chance. They were reluctant to give him his Step 2."

"What isssss this boy'sssss name and where issss he now?"

"I do not know where he is at, Glaster didn't take him to the capital, but his name is Kandric."

Falk cocked his head to the side, "I have heard the name sssspoken at Protector'ssssss Keep right along with Asssster'ssssss. There are many debatesssss within the guildssss about what to do if either of them becomes Teaching Echelon before they reach sssstandard age of assssscenssssion. Sssssome feel it would not be good to have a child being able to legitimately take on an apprentisssce. Others dissssssagree. Until very resssscently I have sssstood on neutral ground."

"Why have I not been told!" Lannet asked in an angry voice.

"Becausssse there isssss no question where your vote would fall Lannet. Assssster is your sssstudent! Only thosssse of Master and Legendary Echelonsssss will be able to vote if it happensssss, which I am sssure it will after ssssseeing Assssster in acssssstion. More were pulled toward your sssstansssce after sssseeing Asssster fight in the Arena, but there are plenty of holdoutsssss."

"What do the guilds plan to do? Tell them they can't advance until they are older?" Master Lannet could feel his blood boiling. There was no question in his mind Aster would make Teaching Echelon before the human equivalency of thirteen. There was even an outside chance the boy would be Expert Echelon before reaching equivalency age of sixteen, also known as age of ascension. For Aster this would not be until he was sixty true years. Fifteen years was a long time for a boy who went from Training to high Secondary Echelon in the just under thirteen years.

Falk's hood moved with a scratchy sound as he shook his head. "When it originally came up, yesssss, but I and all the other Legendary membersssss flatly vetoed ssssuch a harssssssh ssssstansssce. It would not be fair and the guildssss would never be able to keep their reputationssss intact. The talk now ssscentersssss on giving them rank, but making a rule asssss to an age of apprenticsssse taking."

"So we will have teachers who cannot teach when there is not enough teachers to take on students now? What insanity is this! How does this help the guilds' reputations?"

"It doessss not. You have my vote and all but four other Legendary Echelon beingsssss, two will vote against ussss, the other two are assss neutral asss I onsssce wassss."

"I will fight any such ruling!" Master Lannet stated firmly.

"You will not be alone. I expect the vote to be clossse but now I have a good idea where Glassster'sss vote will fall and he hasss friendssss and our King'sss ear. Not many in the kingdom will go againsssst Wyhrem, and he will sssurly vote with Glassster!"

"His enemies will not though."

"They need teachersssss far worssssse than our kingdom. For it isss but a ssssimple fact, the landssss under Wyhrem'ssss control are far better stocked with teachers than any other within striking distance. If anything the ssssurrounding rulerssss will be sssurprisssed to find him in ssssuport of making more beingsss teacher eligible!"

Lannet turned to look at Falk, "Sometimes I long for the days when I didn't have such power within the guilds. Politics has never been my strong suit."

"Wait until you make Legendary." Falk seemed to chuckle. As he patted the Dwarf on the back

"No thanks!"

Beneath the hood Falk's sapphire colored eyes glinted with a combination of power and humor.

Deep in the swamps only a hundred leagues from the city of Everone a roar of pure anger shook a cave tucked into a small rocky hill. "What do you mean the storm is dead?"

"My Lord, Syria killed it." A quivering gray robed figure spoke from a kneeling position. "There was nothing I could do!"

"How dare a goddess interfere with my creation?! She had no right!" A massive black foot with enormous claws slammed into a stone table shattering it, as a man's boot would crush a fine crystal glass. "What of the Demon Lords? Surely they would not allow a mortal's creation to fall to a goddess!"

"My Lord," the gray robed figure squeaked looking up at the black dragon for the first time since bringing the news, "Inaxia, demoness of ice, suffered a major defeat from a mortal of unknown origin. Because she had sent some of her own forces in, it then opened the door for Syria to become involved."

Bandurlok, lead prince of all Black Dragons, shook with rage, "Involved yes, but you said she killed the storm!"

The messenger grimaced, "Not just the storm My Lord, her minions killed the Storm Lord you allied yourself with for this task."

Bandurlok roared in outrage. "How could a goddess get away with killing such a major figure? Surely Syria's enemies must be doing something to retaliate."

"My Lord, they have been put in a hard position. A mortal dealt the first blow, so there is little they can do or say without Syria's allies joining in."

Bandurlok exhaled with enough force to make the messenger clutch his robes, "So my storm did not reach the Deathland Range. Was it at least enough to disrupt Monarch's plans?"

"We believe so My Lord."

"Believe so?" Irritation could be heard in the Great Dragon's tone.

The robed figure realized he better come up with some sort of good news before he found himself being selected for a snack. To calm his master the being chose his strongest card. "The massive snow forced the Lizardmen army to back off and seek shelter. Their operations have been pushed back at least a full month giving us valuable time to strike a surprise blow and your nephew's Hobgoblin legions will be ready to move well before the cool blooded lizards will be back to full combat capability."

"At least my efforts were not completely in vain. What about above the Silver Spine Mountains?"

"My Lord, our patrols have vanished." The figure cowered but managed to add in, "But there is some good news from the Silver Spine Plateau as well."

"What you are really telling me is the patrols, including the ones I sent up with magic out of my own treasure hoard are dead."

"My Lord, I cannot disprove your words, nor can I prove them. Our agents in Black Rapids say at least one of the patrols was destroyed, but managed to inflict heavy losses. As for the other four, I really do not know."

Bandurlok seemed to sigh. "I cannot continue to toss resources to the winds. All the magic I augmented them with may well reside in the hands of Monarch's forces. This is not acceptable. I will try this one more time, but I want each team to be stalked by one of your agents. They can then report directly to me what happened to the patrols instead of just guessing.

"Let me hear the good news from above the mountains. Anything even slightly resembling good news from up there may make my whole day."

Somewhat relived the messenger looked up, "My Lord, a major caravan has managed to reach Slome and break the blockade. The same caravan then drove off an attack from Orcs, tracked them back to their settlement and wiped them out.

"Furthermore, a second caravan is now on the way up, heading out of Junsac. The Watch seems to be supporting this one. Already, Monarch's top agent in Junsac has fallen as a direct result of members of this caravan. Monarch's control of the lower passes seems to be slipping away without our own forces interfering."

"Tell me more about these caravans."

"My Lord, I do not have much more information to give you. Monarch ordered the first caravan destroyed and lost a whole clan of Orcs. He will have to think long and hard before trying anything else. Such a defeat will surely strain his ability to hold his coalition together."

For the first time since the meeting began Bandurlok showed his one hundred forty-eight teeth without snarling, a sure sign of a smile, "Excellent!" The massive black scaled reptile's eyes suddenly narrowed in a truly evil look as its scheming mind found a way to exploit what little good news there was. He came up with a new plan in only seconds. "Let us change our objectives slightly."

The messenger cocked his head to the side in a very awkward fashion, revealing himself not to be of a normal humanoid nature to the pair of Dragonling guards flanking the Prince of Black Dragons. "What are your plans, My Lord?"

Bandurlok's scaly lips twisted upwards into a depraved grin, "Disrupting Monarch above the mountains has only led to failure thus far. Maybe we have been approaching this from the wrong direction. Let us send some patrols out to clear the way for the two caravans and help them complete their runs."

"My Lord, your orders would be assisting the Watch!"

"Yes it would." Bandurlok let his cryptic reply hang in the air as he again smiled, "See to it those caravans are successful and your past failures will be forgotten." Bandurlok turned and exited the chamber disappearing deeper into its lair leaving the messenger and the two guards looking at each other in total bewilderment.

Quavis glanced down at his new outfit and traveling equipment one last time. He smiled as he again rubbed the reinforced leather armored shirt and britches. In some ways he felt like a warrior, something he had dreamed of since he first started venturing down to the docks on his own.

Since slipping out of the great walled city of Junsac, things had certainly started to look up. Sardan had taken him to a small village, fed him, let him get a bath in a bathhouse and even bought all his equipment.

Quavis showed his new Hawkling friend the money given to him from "his father's" messenger, but Sardan told him he may need it later. Thus, Quavis had not had to spend a single copper, even though he had many gold coins each worth five hundred copper coins.

Quavis took a deep breath of respect as he again watched Sardan's every move. Clearly they were close to their target, judging from the intensity of the Hawkling's eyes.

Sardan stood in a back alley. For the first time since entering the village of Macar, he started bracing for trouble. Less than a block away stood the infamous Ghoul Drool Tavern. After a few moments of study, he glanced down at Quavis. "This is your last chance to bow out young one. Of all the nasty places in this area, Ghoul Drool has to be toward the very top of the list."

"I can handle it Teacher." Quavis replied with a boyish grin. "I have been to more than a few Sailor bars before."

"This is no Sailor's bar my young companion. This is a haven for thieves, cutthroats, murderers, and down-on-their-luck willing-to-do-anything mercenaries. Stick to the plan and let your ears do most of the work. Whatever you do don't act too interested!"

"Don't worry. I'll be fine."

Sardan patted the boy on the back, then boldly walked into the bar.

Quavis crouched down and waited. Just as Sardan had told him, it only took a few minutes for the sounds of a fight to erupt from inside the tavern.

Using this as his cue, he darted across the street and peered in. His first goal was to appear to be a boy interested in the sounds of a fight. Truth be told, for this he didn't have to act at all. By the time he looked in, two men and one woman were already on the floor, while Sardan backhanded yet another woman hard enough to crunch her nose. Quavis couldn't help but cringe at the sickening sound of the impact.

Sardan glared at another figure somewhere deep inside the gloomy smoke filled room, "You pull your blade and I will no longer hold back! I want to know who has been hiring people to attack the people in Junsac and I will walk over every one of you single-handedly if I have to until someone talks!"

Quavis nearly let his cover slip as he saw the big burly Halforc barkeep move in behind Sardan. Every centimeter of his being wanted to throw one of his daggers, but at the last second he remembered Sardan's instructions not to get involved no matter what happened.

Quavis cringed as the barkeep smashed a thick wooden mug over the back of Sardan's head. Sardan surprised everyone in the bar as he merely took a couple of steps, wiped blood off the back of his head, and punched one of the Orc bouncers who thought the tables had finally turned in its favor. The advancing brute saw too late its unfortunate misjudgment. Before it could step back, Sardan was already attacking.

The Orc doubled up as air whooshed out of its lungs. Sardan didn't waste a single second. His foot lashed out catching the stunned Orc square under the chin. The poor beast's lower jaw slammed upwards and would have probably chipped a tooth or two, but its tongue got in the way. The force of Sardan's kick nearly caused the Orc to bite its tongue off. The creature fell to the ground clutching its mouth.

Sardan then picked up a heavy wooden barstool and swung it like a club. The Halforc barkeep almost got out of the way, but almost was not good enough. The stool smacked into the barkeep's heavy brow and shattered.

Quavis swallowed hard as he saw the Halforc stagger back half a step, then its eyes rolled up. Less than a second later it fell out of sight behind the bar, but the sounds of the fall told Quavis the barkeep's fall had broken something. It was a good bet, judging by the sounds of glass shattering and wood cracking and at least one keg of liquid breaking open, the back of the bar was now a complete mess.

Sardan looked around the bar for a moment with complete disgust. Wherever his head turned the patrons of the bar would jump back as if expecting Sardan's wrath to be directed to them. "You better find a way to tell me what I want to know or I will come back!"

Sardan stormed out, saw Quavis, gave him a wink, then grabbed the boy, "This is no place for a child! Find somewhere to play!"

"You ain't my dad!" Quavis replied, "You ain't even human! Take yer Hawkling feathers and go sit on an egg somewhere!"

Sardan picked up Quavis by his leather armored shirt, "I ought to beat your butt!"

"So? My old man does it all the time. What would I care?"

Sardan put all his effort into making it look like he slammed Quavis into the ground hard, all the while cushioning the blow with a quick reach around of his wing and using his impressive strength to stop the boy's forward momentum with his arms at the last second. The effects still left Quavis a little rattled, but otherwise unharmed.

Before anyone could see he hadn't really smashed the boy to the ground he let go of Quavis' shirt and wiped the back of his head again. In a voice just loud enough for Quavis to hear he added, "I'll be at the Healthman's shop at the south end of the village. Meet me in the woods in a couple of hours. If you aren't there I will come back for you."

Quavis slowly sat up and shook his head. He then made a show of wiping his eyes like he was getting rid of tears. As he started to stand, he picked up a rock and made to throw it at Sardan knowing full well it would fall short. One of the Ghoul Drool patrons stepped out of the bar and stopped him by grabbing the stone, "Don't be stupid young'an. He just tore through this place like a giant in a straw hut. You don't want any more of him."

"Says who?" Quavis snapped back in anger.

"OK, maybe you are stupid enough to want another round with him, but I am not so knock it off!"

Quavis glared for a moment, but saw the man had a Secondary Echelon Swordsman pin on and decided to cool down. "How could you just let him tear up the place? He ain't even Human!"

"He has me beat by an Echelon and three steps son. I am not stupid! Besides Hawklings have talons as a natural weapon. You may not like other races, but you best learn something about them before you go mouthing off or throwing a rock."

Quavis made a bit of a show of stubbornness before finally shaking his head. "I guess yer right. Why was he so mad anyway?"

"There have been some attacks in Junsac and The Watch wants to know who is behind them." The man looked down, "Where is your folks?"

"Down at the stable." Quavis stuck with the story line planned out with Sardan on the road to Macar, "One of our horses took on a limp this morning so we came here. I heard the fight so I wanted to see what was goin' on." He dug into a little pouch Sardan had bought for him and pulled out a pair of copper, "Do they serve food in there?"

The man scratched his dark brown beard "Young'an there are much better eateries around than this one."

"Yea, maybe, but I looked around and this is the only one with a knife throwing board in it."

The man grinned, "So you know how to use those knives you carry?"

"Some. Always wanting to practice but my old man says I need to stay out of these places."

"You should listen to him. Yer a good looking boy. Some of the men in there might just want to hurt you."

"I know." Sailors had often warned Quavis about being careful when he went into some of the bars in Junsac, but there he was fairly safe because the city guard was always close and the sailors tended to watch over him. This time would be a little different and it scared him some. "But I can't learn unless someone teaches me, I throw at logs and junk at home, but when I find a place with a board there is usually someone there to point out how to do it better."

The man nodded a knowing smile, "Bet there is a bit of Swordsman in yer blood. You can't train yourself, but it sounds like you've found a way to get trained."

This insight caused Quavis' eyes to go a little wide. His father had not allowed him, his brother or his sister to get tested. Even when he had asked, his father had refused saying he would be a merchant and didn't need to do real labor. The fact this Swordsman thought he might have potential really surprised him. "You really think I could be a Swordsman?"

"You never been tested?"

"My old man says it is a waste of money."

"Most of the time it is." The man nodded toward the tavern, "Let's see what you can do, then I'll have a better idea."

Quavis entered the tavern seeing the full extent of the mess Sardan had caused. Both bouncers were still on the floor, while a pair of Orc slave girls worked furiously to clean up the mess. The barkeep was standing but held a bloody rag up to his face where the barstool had slammed into his brow. Four of the nine tables showed damage and all told, five other patrons showed injuries of one kind or another.

A Dwarf over in the corner glanced up, "Klent who is your little friend?"

The man glanced down, "Don't rightly know Vahlag, but he was on the receiving end of our visitor after he mouthed off. Says he can throw knives so I figured we should see how good he is."

Vahlag stood up from the table, grabbed his mug of ale, and walked over, "What's yer name cutie?"

"Quavis, and I don't like being called cute."

Several of the patrons chortled out mild obscenities. Even the barkeep managed to chuckle.

Vahlag snorted, "Boy's got some girt, I must say. You got money boy?"

"None of your business." Quavis shot back knowing full well he had to act a great deal tougher then he currently felt.

Klent shook his head in amusement, "I'll cover his first couple of games."

"Fine." Vahlag slapped down a silver. "Let's see yours."

Klent flipped over a silver of his own as he walked over to the board and pulled out the six knives. "OK Quavis the point values are marked as to their killing values. Anything outside the scratched in figure of the man is worth nothing. You take turns. You want to go first or second?"

Quavis glanced at the six knives and selected the three best looking ones. One of the first things he had been taught was look for quality and take the best if given the chance. "I'll go first. I like to put the pressure on."

Several grunts and chortles sounded in the tavern as people were allowing the thrashing they had received slip away. The female with the broken nose even laughed, "Looks like you found yerself a tough one Klent!"

Quavis looked around, "Where is the throwing line?"

"The red stained board." Vahlag pointed to a spot almost on the other side of the room, but I'll give you two paces."

"I don't need them."

This got another round of cheers as people warmed to the competition. "You tell 'em youngster." The barkeep stated as he pressed a fresh rag up to his head with a wince.

Quavis stepped behind the line and flipped the knife into the air a few times getting a feel for it. More than one on looker was impressed by the ease at which the blade was flipped and caught. Not once did Quavis come close to cutting himself. Grabbing the blade, he made a couple of throwing motions before letting the blade sail thought the air. It hit just below the shoulder for five points.

Vahlag raised an eyebrow, "Nice toss. Them goons shoulda hired you instead of them other kiddies. Maybe they woulda taken the Elf kid with talent like yer showin'." As he spoke he tossed his dagger. Partially because of its poorer quality and the nick in the blade, it slid off to the left and stuck in the right arm of the figure scratched onto the board for three points.

"I wish Dad would let me do stuff to make money." Quavis stated as he stepped up to the line for his second throw. "He'd kill me if he knew I was here." He added as he tossed the second blade. This time he got a great throw as the blade stuck into the heart scratched into the wood.

"Twenty points!" Klent shouted. "Only a head or a neck shot can beat a heart shot!"

"Luck!" Vahlag snarled as he readied his knife, "Still shows some real skill in them bones though! Maybe you ought ta take him to Gambra. She needs some new people in Junsac." He grunted heavily as he tossed his second knife. This time the blade struck dead center in the chest area giving him fifteen points.

"Eighteen to twenty-five Quavis." Klent stated with satisfaction, "You almost have him beat. Just don't get greedy."

Quavis smiled. He saved the best blade for last and he now had a good idea of range. Most of the targets in Junsac were considerably smaller and more than one further away than this one. "Greedy? You mean like this?" With practiced ease he flipped the dagger at the target. It stuck dead center in the middle of the neck for fifty points. There was no chance the Dwarf could beat him and everyone in the establishment knew it even if they didn't know how to add.

Vahlag felt his jaw drop as the dagger slipped out of his hand and clattered to the floor. "Was you playin' with me boy?"

"Not really. I just knew I could do it."

"He's got the gift." The woman with the broken nose stated, "No question. He's damned near as good as me and I am guilded. Let's put him up against some of us who can give him a real game of it!"

Vahlag shook his head and handed both coins over to Klent, "I'm good for a mundane, and can hold my own against most low Echelon non-Swordsman, but this little bugger is no mundane and certainly has all but mastered the throwing knife."

Klent handed the silver coin won from Vahlag to Quavis with a wink. "I'll get us some grub while you have some fun. You just took ole Vahlag down a good notch or two. Bet he won't be tellin' none of those big tales of his for a long time!"

"I hope he isn't mad at me."

"Na, not really. But he'll never admit it. Break the silver down to copper though. Most games are two copper a piece. Have some fun and let some of the Swords give you some pointers if they see anything. I know I didn't see much to change except on your first throw; you held the blade a little too far down."

Quavis thought about it for a few seconds, "Holding the blade low makes it go high?"

Klent nodded, "Or you have to release later, but your release is just about perfect, so I would work on the hold more."

"Thanks I will." Quavis suddenly remembered why he was here, "Who is Gambra?"

"She is a Halfling who is a very nasty being. She hires people for jobs for someone up above the Silver Spine Mountains. Don't go asking around or you may well get her attention though and she hates when questions get asked about her."

"Does she hire kids?"

Klent knelt and grabbed Quavis, "Listen to me. You have a father, go with him and forget about her. She uses people, including kids and will kill people who do not do as she wishes. Word has it she already hired someone to kill some people in the Junsac prison because they were unsuccessful in doing what she wanted. At least one of them was a boy not much older than you who found out about her through this bar. Have fun, throw some knives, and learn, then go with yer old man."

Quavis swallowed hard, "OK Sorry I asked."

"It's OK to be curious, just make sure you don't ask for something you don't really want to know about. OK?"

Quavis nodded and grinned, "OK." He then looked around "Who's next?"

An hour-and-a-half later Quavis made his way out of the bar with an extra fifteen copper and the sliver coin he had won in the first game against the Dwarf. After checking to make sure he was not followed, he headed off into the woods. It took another half an hour to find Sardan.

Sardan smiled, "I was beginning to get worried. How did things go?"

"Good." Quavis jingled his small pouch, "I won a lot more than I lost!"

Sardan chirped out a chuckle, "Good for you! Any interesting gossip?"

Quavis turned serious, "Lots. There is a woman around here who hired people right out of Ghoul Drool to attack people in Junsac. She hired more people to kill them because they failed."

Sardan's eyes lit up with worry, "Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure. The guy I talked to said so like he knew first hand."

Sardan thumbed his watch pin and passed on the news to Master Lannet and a few others in Junsac before continuing to question Quavis. "What else did you find out?"

"The woman is a Halfling and her name is Gambra. I heard a few others talk about her when I was tossing daggers. It seems she works for someone by the name of Monarch. Whoever he is he is very angry about loosing the arena match and wants the slave boy back. One guy even said Gambra was offering a hundred gold reward for the slave's return, but the way Monarch's name was spoken, made it very clear I shouldn't ask questions. So I didn't."

"You mean one hundred silver, right?"

"No Teacher, Gold. The number varies depending on who is talking, but it is always gold and the smallest figure I heard was seventy-five."

"Such a figure could get men to kill kings." Sardan inadvertently glanced to the north knowing Aster's life was probably in grave danger. He thumbed his watch pin again passing on the information to Aster before returning his attention back to the boy in front of him.

Sardan clapped Quavis on the back, "Young man you have learned more for us in half a day than The Watch has been able to find out in months. I will pass on all of this to The Watch, but I also have some news for you."

"Really?" Quavis looked up questioningly.

"Do you know a young man by the name of Chresh?"

"Yes sir!" Quavis almost shouted, "He is one of the sailors on the Thunder Rapids! He always went with us when we looked around the towns we docked at so we had a Swordsman with us in case of trouble. None of the others wanted to baby-sit."

"So I have been told. He remembers you quite fondly. He told one of our people Thunder Rapids is to dock at Lennic next week. We should be able to make it there in four to five days if we hustle."

"Will they take me aboard?"

Sardan smiled, "Well my friend also talked to the captain and his son. He explained what happened and the fact The Watch does not believe you were involved. They are looking forward to us joining their crew."


"Yea. My team is going to meet in Lennic and use the Thunder Rapids for travel. Chresh has agreed to help us out, as has Captain Pontarious. He is going to take us up the Slash River all the way to Dark Rapids. My team has some work to do up there."

"Is Benam OK?"

"Is he the captain's son?"

"Yea. And my friend."

"He is just fine. My friend says he is very excited about you joining the crew."

Quavis gave Sardan a huge hug, "Thank you!"

"You are very welcome." Sardan put a wing around Quavis, "Let's get a little distance from here so no one sees us together. We wouldn't want anyone from Ghoul Drool to see us being friends now would we?"

"Nope. They would not be happy with me at all."

"Nor me."

Quavis remained quiet for a while as he walked down the path next to Sardan. Finally he looked up, "Sardan Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure you can."

"The guy in the tavern said I was certainly Swordsman gifted. Could he be right?"

"You have not been tested?"

"No. Dad would not let us test. He said he didn't need to waste money getting us trained."

Sardan shook his head sadly, "I am sorry to hear of any father who has money saying such a thing. You throw knives well enough to make good money though, so I bet you do have the gift. I will be happy to test you tomorrow if you like."

"I thought only spell casters could check."

"Even Swordsmen have some magic Quavis." Sardan looked down seriously, "When a Swordsman gets to be Teaching Echelon the magic has been honed enough to allow us to use our primary weapon as if it were magical. The same magic allows us to test others. Spell casters can cheat and simply cast a spell, but our way will give us the same information, just takes longer and requires you to do some real work. You up for it?"

"I think so." Quavis shrugged. "I don't mind hard work. It is actually kind of fun on board the barges, but my elbow kind of hurts after throwing all those knives."

Sardan smiled, "We will work on your throwing as well then. You do not have to stress your elbow or your shoulder to throw properly unless you need power."


"Let your elbow rest today my young friend. We will test you and work on your knife work in the morning!"

While sharing Vondum's bedroll deep within the swamps, Kandric waited until the big Warrior Adept fell into a deep slumber before venturing out into the outer spirit realms. Because of this he woke later than he originally planned, but didn't mind too much. The time he had spent in the Realms of Water and Air had again proven fruitful. Many of the beings there had started to accept him and the young Fog Spirit was becoming more and more friendly. The only problem with the late night spirit walks was he didn't get sleep. His body got rest, but his mind didn't. Truth be told, he was grateful Vondum had not decided to wake early. This at least gave him a little time to sleep properly.

As Kandric looked, he realized the storm had still not stopped, although the only remnants left were a few rogue snowflakes fluttering down out of the sky. As he glanced around, he saw Jamon pulling double duties letting Conth rest every second he possibly could. Not wanting to let Vondum see his boy not doing anything, he pointed at the sleeping figure.

Jamon looked over with a pleading stare, but quickly changed his stance when he saw Kandric point to Vondum's still sleeping form. It didn't take much thought to realize his kindness could get Conth and himself in an extra measure of trouble. Quickly he woke his cousin while speaking too softy for Kandric to hear.

Satisfied Kandric gave Conth a few minutes to get up and get busy before he stretched. As expected this woke Vondum.

Vondum glanced around. As soon as he saw both Conth and Jamon tending to the mounts he smiled and gave Kandric a hug and a kiss. "Last night was wonderful. Glaster is one very lucky man!"

"Actually I feel I am the lucky one. Thanks for sharing my bed last night."

"My privilege. Part of me is going to be very sorry to see Glaster come back."

Kandric nodded, "You do not mind me missing him then?"

"No," Vondum paused feeling a little disappointment at knowing he came in second to Glaster, "Well a little I guess. I just hope we can still be friends after he gets back."

Kandric hugged Vondum and returned the kiss. "I am sure we will! Maybe we can set up times where I can work for you when he is gone."

Vondum felt his heart swell again, "You will always be welcome at my camp Kandric. From what I know about Glaster he is a very reasonable man. I am sure we will be able to figure out something."

"He will be very grateful for all your help Vondum. Since I hate ships and he does a lot of overseas trips there are lots of times when I will be alone."

"Sounds like a good thing for me!"

Kandric giggled as Vondum tickled his ribs, "Good for me too! I used to hate it when he would go away, now I have you too!"

"Yes you do." Vondum sighed, "We better get dressed and check out the clearing before we go."

"Yea, I do not want to get only half way though the Knolls today."

"Me neither, although I would deny ever saying it."

"You do not have to worry about me. I feel like a baby being told about trolls under the bridges for the first time when I think about the Knolls. I have been there and still cringe at the thought of journeying through them. But Glaster always said fear was the worst of enemies and never should I let it alone control me."

"Sound advice." Vondum agreed as he finally pulled on his loincloth. Suddenly he scowled, "Jamon what are you coming over here for?"

Jamon felt his lower lip quiver with fear as he pointed back to where the mounts were.

Kandric jumped up while grabbing his blade in one smooth motion, "What is it?"

"There's a skull over there!"

Vondum snorted, "Well if it only be a skull, then it ain't going to hurt ya is it!"

Kandric couldn't help but giggle, "Sounds like it is dead to me."

"Go ahead and finish dressing Kandric," Vondum smiled, "I'll go see what all the fuss is about." Turning to Jamon, he shook his head, "Go on, lead the way."

Kandric watched with some amusement as Vondum shooed the mounts away so he could get a good look. The task was easier said than done, however. All three mounts seemed to like the uncovered grasses in the area where Jamon was pointing so each time Vondum managed to get one of the animals away the other two were already back munching.

Finally Kandric decided to lend a hand. After he slipped on his boots he shouted, "Jamon, Conth, get the steeds over to the water and pull up some of what they are eating to lead them."

Vondum nodded some thanks to Kandric as he at last got a chance to kneel down and take a good look. "Kandric, you might want to take a look at this."

Kandric glanced over to make sure the steeds were indeed being watered before joining Vondum, "What did Jamon find?"

"Take a look and tell me what you see."

Kandric knelt as looked at the skull. Around it he noticed several other bones poking up at odd angles. Swiftly he brushed away more snow and dirt revealing several smashed skeletons. Frowning he picked up one of the skulls for a moment. "Hobgoblin."


"My guess is at least six maybe as many as a dozen. All the meat is gone, but there are no signs of belongings so someone must have taken what they had. Looks like whoever did this beat them down hard and then piled them on top of each other."

"Your thoughts are right along the same lines as mine, but it wasn't just belongings. There isn't a single scrap of clothing on them either."

Kandric picked up a broken bone, "Take a look at this. It was broken open and the insides taken out. They were eaten!"

"Trolls?" Vondum asked not quite believing it himself.

"At a glance yes, but the bones have been snapped like twigs with no tooth marks. Forest trolls are all we get in the swamps and they chew bones."

Reluctantly Vondum nodded agreement, "Besides they wouldn't bother with taking smaller weapons let alone every scrap of clothing. What else do you have out here capable of doing this kind of damage?"

Kandric shook his head after a full minute of thought. "Everything I come up with would leave tooth or claw marks or would not be resourceful enough to take all the belongings unless it happened to be Lizardmen, but they are not active in this territory. And there is nothing to indicate they were here. Lizardmen leave a Clan Standard at a major victory such as this."

"We better keep our eyes peeled then. Let's do a quick sweep of this area then head out."

On the far side of the clearing, two pairs of eyes watched over Kandric and Vondum. The smaller being spoke, "We could take them out right now."

"Yes, maybe we could, but to do so would tip the balance of power." The other answered.

"But never before have we had such a chance to deal such a major blow to Monarch and his followers."

"As nice as it would be to do so, killing Vondum would not be in our best interest right now. Monarch is the leading rival of Bandurlok. Without him and his forces, we would be forced to confront Bandurlok directly and our liege has no desire to do so. Besides, I detect quite a bit of power over there. I doubt taking out Vondum and his friend would be quite as easy as the Hobs were."

"Oh you must be joking. He is escorting three kids!"

The bigger being shook his head, "Nephew, relying on how a situation looks will get you killed. Already I am using extra magic to prevent us from being detected and the main force behind the intrusion does not seem to be Vondum. Take me at my word, fighting them would not be an easy victory."

"Great, so we sit here with our tails getting cold while they enjoy the hot springs."

"So be it. They will move on and we can then warm up. I just hope they do not find the stone."

"What if they do Uncle?"

"Then they do. It is not likely they would know what it is anyway, but if they do, we still do nothing. Our current mission is to prevent either side from gaining too much ground on the other. When evil fights evil we get to stay out of the way, thus conserve resources, which may be needed later. Already Monarch's iron clad grip on the Plateau is crumbling without our interference. A caravan has gotten through and the Orc's Clan Raven is destroyed. Surely Bandurlok will try helping others do even more damage. We must be alert to these attempts and stop Bandurlok's agents from helping just as we have been doing for the past year. Any more damage to Monarch's forces will open up the door for Bandurlok to finish the job. If they are to fight we want both sides to lose as much as possible."

"Uncle, we could assist and destroy the blockade. People up here are suffering!"

"You have a good heart my boy, but sometimes we must let evil run its course. The battle between good and evil is much less bloody if evil also has to fight evil. Rest assured, our King will not let the people get to the point where they are crushed under Monarch's boot. Good will overcome in the long run, but we must play the hand dealt us or we my find ourselves fighting both Bandurlok's and Monarch's forces. Such a battle we cannot win."

"But we have done so little to help."

"I know. However, sometimes doing nothing is for the best. Look at what happened when we didn't fight the storm."

"I still do not know what happened Uncle."

"Nor do I completely, all I do know for sure is a young mortal intervened, destroying one of Inaxia's lead demons.

"Making matters worse for Inaxia, her forces have been decimated because she decided to fight Syria's intrusion into the storm. Syria's minions already had the upper hand due to the destruction of one of Inaxia's lieutenants. They pushed their advantage to the fullest, all but wiping out Inaxia's forces. Demon forces have been handed the most severe defeat ever known. Inaxia has been pushed down from a Demon Lordess to a simple demon in stature. Now there are wars breaking out in the lower planes as major demons attempt to rise to power to claim the realms of Ice.

"This infighting has further weakened demon influence in the mortal spheres and has allowed other gods and goddesses to take out their own frustrations on their own demon enemies. Somewhere, there is a mortal who has flipped the current balance of power and no one seems to know who or what pulled it off.

"Had we used our magical resources to weaken the storm, none of these things would have happened and demons would still hold the upper hand in the Old Kingdom of Kronar! There is now a chance Kronar can once again rise up to be a symbol of goodness in this land, but we still need a few more miracles for such a thing to happen."

"Or a few more beings like the one who destroyed Inaxia's minion!"

"Hats off to whoever or whatever did us such a favor. Let us hope the battle in the lower planes continues to weaken their evil schemes here."

Conth took a brush to the Vondum's War Steed. The animal had a few tangles and was just tame enough to allow the boy to pull the course brush through its mane. Conth was wary of the steed, but knew his only chance of further good night's sleep would hinge upon how diligent he was toward his duties. Kandric had given him the break he needed, but Conth realized Kandric would only go so far to help him. The rest would be up to him.

To this end, he pushed his fear of the horned mounts to the side as he pulled the brush yet one more time through the thick tufts of hair. Without warning the animal jumped, sending Conth flipping into the air. His cries of astonishment and fear ended with a splash as he landed in the middle of the hot springs pool.

Kandric turned his attention away from the bones, "Jamon, does he know how to swim?"

"I don't know Master." Jamon answered as he watched his cousin flailing away in the fairly deep pool. "It don't look like it though."

Kandric threw off his shirt as he kicked off his boots only to be grabbed by Vondum.

"Let him learn. If he starts to drown, then you can go get him."

Kandric glared at Vondum for a moment before he realized he was almost to the point of actually challenging Vondum's authority. He looked away as he shucked his britches but his voice told of his displeasure, "So be it, he is your slave!"

Vondum glanced up and saw Conth was still flailing about but managing to keep his head above water. He turned his attention back to Kandric with a frown. "Kandric, why are you angry at me?"

Trembling, Kandric turned sharply to face Vondum, "The very first person I killed, other than a Goblin, died because the spell I cast made him drown! I do not ever want to see someone drowning again!"

Vondum pulled Kandric to his chest as he glanced over to Jamon, "Can you get your brother?"

"Yes Master." Jamon nodded eagerly as he spoke.

"Get him out of there then."

Still clutching Kandric, Vondum watched as Jamon dove in and pulled at a struggling Conth. As he watched, he saw Conth grip his cousin in a bear hug of desperation.

Jamon struggled to free his arms so he would not drown himself, but Conth refused to let go in his panicked state. The more Jamon fought the more Conth pulled him down. Conth's frantic state allowed him to momentarily gain the upper hand as he grabbed onto Jamon's neck and took both under.

For a second Vondum though he would have to dive in, but Jamon surprised him with some calm thinking. The resilient lad dove deeper.

Petrified of the idea of going down instead of up, Conth let go.

Jamon then used his swimming ability to slip up under Conth. Before his cousin knew what had happened, Jamon slammed his fist into his Conth's jaw stunning him enough to drag him back to the surface. As the terrified child regained his senses, Jamon again reacted, pushing Conth's head down below the water. As Conth lost strength Jamon grabbed him by his hair and tried to swim to the shore. Finally he gave up trying to drag him to the edge and pushed him toward a small stone isle in the middle of the pool.

Vondum nodded approval as Jamon hauled first himself out, then Conth. "Stay there and catch you breath. Get your brother out of his clothing so he can learn to swim without the garments dragging him down."

"Master what about our wet cloths?"

"I will dry them with a spell or two. Bring his things with you when you swim back over."

Jamon nodded as he tried to regain his breath.

Vondum turned his attention away from the slaves and back toward Kandric, "I did not know of your fear."

Kandric relaxed some as he saw both boys recovering. He clutched Vondum's thick coat crying, "I am sorry I yelled at you."

"You need not apologize." Vondum rubbed Kandric's bare back, wishing he was back in the bedroll with the beautiful boy holding him. "Your first day at my camp you said you got seasick on boats, that is not quite true is it."

"I do get seasick." Kandric wiped the tears from his eyes feeling very foolish, "But not just because of the motion of the boat. Although I do not like the ground moving on me all the time."

Vondum grinned, "Sea legs are seldom a gift given by the gods, they have to be earned."

Kandric nodded as he glanced over to where Conth was still coughing because of water he had swallowed. "I am a very good swimmer, but every time I see someone having trouble swimming or doing something dangerous in the water, I get the picture of the guy I killed. I can still see him as he arched his neck and his hands clawed at the branch holding him under until they bled, all in a desperate attempt to get one more breath of air. I saw his eyes as they silently pleaded for help then switched to terror as he understood he was doomed. I just cannot escape it."

"If I had known, I would not have stopped you." Vondum hugged Kandric with a mighty squeeze. "Rest assured I will not get in between you and someone drowning ever again. This still leaves me with a bit of a problem though."

"What?" Kandric asked as he at last regained some of his composure.

Vondum used his hand to wipe away some of the tears and snot off Kandric's tear-streaked face. "How am I supposed to teach him how to swim? A slave boy who cannot swim is not worth much to someone like me who goes on ships once and a while."

Kandric took a deep breath as he looked over to where Conth was laying on the rock still coughing and breathing hard. "Let me teach him. I will do it as soon as he gets his strength back."

"We will lose valuable time Kandric."

"I will still get us to the Slums in two days time. Trust me."

"Very well. We will do this your way then," Vondum patted Kandric on the back as he smiled, "as long as I can sleep with you again tonight."

Kandric grinned and kissed Vondum, "I win twice!"

Vondum smiled warmly as Kandric took a long run and dove into the warm water of the pool. Gazing at Kandric's perfect body gracefully swimming in the pool another piece of his heart lost some hardness.

Conth groaned as Vondum once again let his guard down. Refusing to let this opportunity slip away Conth concentrated pushing past the happy thoughts of what was currently going on in Vondum's head. He forced his way deeper into Vondum's mind, digging into past memories. This time Conth managed to get a look at Vondum's real past. For an instant he saw images of a dimly lit forge where swords were being made by several Metal Workers. All around were boys with metal neck collars on, chains from the collars led to massive rings on the walls. Some of the boys pumped billows, while others fed the fires keeping them hot. A pair of beasts clad in black walked around with whips. Their faces covered with a mask made their race hard to tell, but their hairy bodies told of their monster origins.

Conth shook as his mind watched a boy fall from exhaustion behind one of the huge billows. Blow after blow from whips fell on the boy until he spasmed and stopped moving altogether. One of the figures growled, went to the far side of the room and emerged with another boy who was forced to replace the boy lying on the floor of the forge.

For a moment everything seemed to return to normal until the other beast came over to the fallen boy. With a truly evil grin the beast looked down with no remorse whatsoever. Drawing a black two-pronged knife out of a sheath with skulls down the sides, it took another step forward and bent down.

Desperately Conth tried to back out of the memories, but the snaking smack of a whip caught his attention. His mind reeled as he realized the blow had fallen on Vondum, who was none other than the fallen boy's billow mate. Being so deep in Vondum's mind he actually felt the blow land.

"No," Conth heard Vondum shout in the memory, "I will pull his duty and share my food!"

One of the Metal Workers turned with a glare, "You would be too weak to work."

"I can do it!"

The Metal Worker shook his head, "He has never been of much use to us. He works too little and eats food better given to ones like you who does work."

Conth felt strain as Vondum's filthy boyish arms pumped harder on the billow meant to be handled by two not one, the other boy was still being chained so he was not in a position to help "Master, I will do anything. Please do not kill my little brother!"

The Metal Worker held up his hand to stop the beast from slicing the unconscious boy's throat with the readied knife. "Including being a trainer for new recruits?"

Conth didn't know what exactly this meant but knew from the shuddering, this was one of the least pleasant tasks a boy in the forge could do. The eyes of the replacement boy also spoke volumes as to the nastiness of the task. So deep was Conth into the memory he even felt tears rolling down his cheeks, actually Vondum's cheeks. Finally Vondum answered, "Yes. I will train the new recruits Master. As long as you let my brother live."

The replacement boy shook his head, trying to prevent Vondum from making the decision, only to get the flat of a glowing blade pressed against the bottom of his foot by a nearby Metal Worker. The scream seemed to last for hours. Once it finally died down, Conth saw the man still staring at him. …No, this was Vondum; he again had to remind himself.

"Unchain him." The Metal Worker commanded. The moment Vondum's metal collar fell away the man looked at the boy who had been burned with the blade, "He is your first."

Conth felt Vondum cringe but quickly steadied himself. He approached the bawling boy, picked up a piece of wood off the fuel pile and borrowed a knife from one of the junior Metal Workers. He then pointed to one of the masked beasts. "Hold out his other foot."

The beast complied yanking the boy clear into the air by his foot.

Vondum glanced down at the unmoving figure of his brother and took a quick breath. He then shaved a few slivers off the log. Refusing to let his brother die, he walked up to the boy being held in the air, placed one of the slivers of wood between the boys big toe and toe nail and shoved. Screams stood as testimony to the youngster's agony. "Who is your master, slave?"

"I am an indentured servant not a slave!" The boy cried.

Vondum readied the next sliver of wood, "You are a slave here. Say it!"


Vondum pushed in the second sliver, while biting his own lip hard enough to get a mouthful of blood. He knew he must make the boy agree or his brother would die.

The boy thrashed about crying. "Please stop!"

"Who are you?" Vondum asked again as he showed the boy the third little chunk of wood.

The boy shook his head quivering, "I am a slave!"

"Who am I?"

"You are the trainer." Tears dripped to the ground.

"Who are they?" Conth felt Vondum grit his teeth in disgust over what he was doing as he pointed to the Metal Workers.

"My masters." The boy managed to spurt out through sobs.

"You learn fast." Vondum spoke as harshly as he could force himself to do, spitting some of his own blood in the tortured child's face. "Hopefully you will learn how to give the masters some enjoyment as quickly." Vondum turned back to the beast holding the boy. "Replace him and tend to his feet. He is to be strapped to the board until they heal and every servant is to finger him before each shift. Food and water are to be cut in half until his feet enable him to return to work."

The Metal Worker next to the billows smiled, "Take this boy and the weak one upstairs and clean them up. The young one can be a pleasure boy for our clients. As for him," Conth shuddered as he saw the man point at him. "He gets clothing and a red belt. Make sure to start him on his Field training schedule." As he listened and watched Conth again had to remind himself the finger was pointed at Vondum not himself.

Not being able to take much more Conth backed out Vondum's memories. This time however he took enough time to close the mental doors so the mind reading would not injure Vondum. Conth still didn't have all the information, but he now had a good idea as to why Vondum was so mean. His Mindmaster instructor once told him knowledge of a person's past could be used for control. All he had to do is figure out how to do it. Of course he also half wondered if his teacher had just been trying to impress him.

Jamon recovered quickly from pushing Conth over to the stone in the middle of the warm pool. He glanced over noticing Conth had gone into one of his trances again. He knew this had something to do with his cousin's training, but nothing else. Taking their combined clothing, he swam over to where Vondum sat watching Kandric swim, "Master did you want these?"

Vondum nodded, "Toss them over here and play for a while. It is not often you get such a chance so make the best of it."

Jamon looked over to Kandric. Getting a nod he pulled himself out of the water. "May I get some clothing on so I can look around some more, Master?"

Vondum glanced over, "Kandric your slave wishes to get dressed."

Kandric thought it over as he splashed around, "I do not mind Jamon, but I think Vondum would like to do the dressing."

Vondum smiled, "Yes, I believe I would."

"Do not shy away from him, Jamon. Once he finishes you may look around and explore, but stay within eyesight of us. We do not know what is out here."

Jamon bowed as Kandric had taught him and walked up to Vondum trembling slightly.

Vondum pulled Jamon onto his lap and placed his huge hand over the boy's balls, "I am not going to hurt you. Kandric just gave you to me to dress and enjoy for a few moments. You are one very lucky slave, you know. I had every intention of breaking you in and selling you to the brothel catering to the guards of Black Rapids. You owe your owner a great deal of loyalty."

"I know Master." Jamon answered truthfully. He could tell by the way Vondum's hands moved and caressed him he was not going to be hurt. He also knew full well had Kandric not come along he would be being brutalized right now.

Vondum pulled Jamon's clothing out of the pile, wrung them out and cast a couple of Dry Autospells on the garments. "There you are, nice and dry." Slowly he dressed the boy in his lap before patting him on the bottom, "How about a kiss before you go explore?"

Jamon's nose wrinkled for a moment, but he forced himself to push his lips to Vondum's. The intrusion of the man's tongue was not a welcome one, but he dealt with it until he was at last released.

Happy to be free from the man, Jamon quickly moved to the far side of the hot springs. Behind him he could hear Kandric teaching his cousin how to swim. From the sounds, things were going fairly well. Once he was sure Vondum could no longer see him, he knelt and spat repeatedly to get not only the taste of the man's tongue out of his mouth, but also the feeling.

At last satisfied, he started to stand again when something strange caught his eye. Sliding over a little he looked at a strange bluish green rock barely sticking up out of the snow. It glimmered with an inner power. Glancing around, he saw no one paying him any attention so he brushed the snow away.

The stone turned out to be a small perfect triangle with strange writing on the sides. Looking more closely at the inscriptions he realized he was looking at none other than the Mythling tongue in written form. His limited teachings as a Ruinseeker allowed him to remember the Mythling race was supposed to be nothing more than a fable. According to legend, each being had different powers over nature such as fire, water, animals, earth, weather, wind, smoke or other natural things. Eventually this race became the gods and moved to their respective planes allowing the lower races, such as Alphar and Garm to take over the world. In turn these races moved on letting Elves, Dwarves, Humans, Halflings and the other races fend for themselves.

The Mythling language was the first to find a written form and all the other languages drew from it. Because it was the base language, at least in legend, Ruinseekers strove to learn it. Unfortunately very little of it survived so over time it became an art known to those Teaching Echelon and above. Jamon studied the markings for several minutes only making out a couple of words, "down" and "door" or at least words very close to the Elvish equivalent to them. Giving up after making yet another attempt and getting nowhere, he tossed some snow over it in frustration. For a moment Jamon considered covering it back up altogether and not telling anyone. However, he knew Kandric was a high Secondary Echelon Ruinseeker so there was a chance Kandric could read some of it. His own lust for knowledge in the arts of a Ruinseeker finally got the best of him. Wondering if this was a good idea, he took in a deep breath and called out in a loud voice, "Master, you better take a look at this."

Vondum came into view first, "What did you find, Jamon?"

Jamon hesitated; normally Vondum took every chance he could to reminding him of his status as master by simply calling him slave. Hearing his name spoken in a friendly way momentarily made him forget the stone, but seeing impatience flickering in Vondum's eyes caused Jamon to turn his attention back to the stone, "Master I do not know what this is but it has runes of the Mythlings on it." He pointed at the tip on the greenish blue pyramid.

Walking over, Vondum eyed Jamon for a moment before kneeling down to look at the strange find. His own knowledge of magic languages allowed him to read some of the more basic markings, but much like Jamon he could not put enough pieces together to make sense out of it.

Kandric, having heard some of the discussion, moved up from the side, "Conth will not drown in calm water but needs much more practice."

"Thank you Kandric," Vondum spoke without looking up, "Maybe you would be willing to teach him more on the waterfront of Black Rapids?"

"I would be happy to," Kandric quickly changed the topic, "What did he find, Vondum?"

"I'm not sure; it has a combination of magical and non-magical runes on it. Jamon says it is Mythling. How he could know this is just as interesting to me as the stone is."

Kandric raised an eyebrow as he looked questioningly at Jamon, "Little bit of Ruinseeker training?"

"Very little Master. My mother sent me to classes when my father didn't take me on a trip."

"Field training?" Vondum asked, while still studying the stone.

"No Master. Even though I have Animal Adept potential, Mom could not pay for me to get training without Father noticing the missing money. I used to practice with squirrels, raccoons, birds and other small creatures though, because Father allowed me to attempt to train myself."

Kandric barely listened to the interchange as he realized what he was looking at. Still, he had to make sure and it sounded like he might be able to teach Jamon something.

"I knew you had a great deal of inner drive when I really took a look at you, Jamon." Vondum praised the astonished boy.

"Why did your father not pay for your training?" Kandric asked as he knelt down next to Vondum.

"I was not a spell thrower so he said it was a waste of his hard earned money. Only my oldest brother got sent to school because he had the Mage gift."

Kandric shook his head in bewilderment over a father willing to pay for training in one field but not another. His discomfort disappeared and a smile crept into his features as Vondum put an arm around him, "You learned something well. The stone is covered with Mythling runes."

Vondum motioned for Jamon to come closer to the stone, "I noticed this is the rune for a Mage Light spell and the other two sides are darkness and glow, but they have an additional set of squiggly lines. What to you recognize Jamon?"

Jamon pointed, "This is close to Elvish for down, and other than the extra border, this is door."

Kandric giggled, "You are both very close. Vondum the wavy lines represent the sky. This is daylight; this in nighttime and the last is dawn or dusk. They used the same symbol for both. Jamon, you are using Elvish, do you know any Alphar?"

"A little Master."

"OK, use what you know and rethink your answers," Kandric gave Jamon a reassuring smile.

Vondum slid back and whispered into Kandric's ear, "Something tells me you were not totally truthful with your Echelon."

"Why?" Kandric looked up nervously.

"I have learned enough to know you probably just showed you could pass the Teaching Echelon Ruinseeker test and you have developed a teaching style. I do not know what the guilds would think but you are a Teacher, aren't you?"

"I made it at your camp Vondum, the night I defeated the demon. It must have had quite a magical power for the victory to impart so much power and knowledge to me."

"You fed on its magic, no doubt, but you had to be closer than you let on."

"I was. I just knew you would not believe me if I said so."

Vondum chuckled, "You made the proper choice. I didn't even believe you were Secondary, so saying you were a Step 5 probably would not have been very wise. You know the guilds only show ninety-seven Teaching Echelon and above beings above the Silver Spine Mountains. No wonder you do not fear the Knolls."

Kandric shook his head, "Oh I fear them, but Glaster taught me to face fear." He paused as he checked to make sure Jamon was still studying the stone, "All except drowning."

"Everyone has a fear too powerful to get past. At least you admit yours and know it is there. Most do not. Even more impressive you have found a way to not only get around it, but to also defeat it." Vondum's eyes twinkled, "You simply will not let anyone around you drown. The goddesses Crytrall and Jolan must be very wary of you."

"They get revenge in their own ways," Kandric again giggled, "The goddesses of fresh water and the oceans give me wobbly legs when I ride on their surfaces."

Vondum laughed a hearty laugh, "Indeed they do my young friend, indeed they do!"

Jamon tried to concentrate over all the noise being made by the people who now owned him. His mind just couldn't stay focused on his limited training with all the merriment going on behind him. He wished they would just go back down the hill to the hot springs and let him study some more. He stopped and smacked his head, go down, like on a map, the word was not down, it was south! Looking over the stone again, he picked up all the other directions out of the runes, "Master they are directions but I don't understand what they mean. The other symbol still looks like a door though."

Kandric returned his attention to Jamon, "How much legend and lore did your teacher have you study?"

"Almost every time I saw him half the class centered on tales and fables."

"Anything about green pyramids?"

Jamon scrunched his nose up as he thought over the question. The more he thought about it, the more he was sure there was some tale about green pyramids. It was an old story from the time when the Mythlings walked the world. Slowly it came back to him; the Mythlings set up magical gateways throughout the lands so beings could travel faster and move trade goods around. Each gate had a magic control stone, a green pyramid! When the Mythling wars broke out thousands of years ago most of the stones were destroyed because each Mythling used the gateways to get armies from one area to the next quickly. Those Mythlings who didn't have armies were forced to destroy many of the gates rather then be caught up in the wars.

The legends went on to tell of how this didn't work because the most powerful of the Mythlings simply started teleporting their armies with magic spells of their own. This left only a few extremely powerful Mythlings to fight the last of the Mythling Wars. Their armies eventually, at least according to the legend, became their followers. Very few Mythlings survived the wars, but those who did became the gods, goddesses, demon princes, and princesses of the outer planes while their followers became the spirits.

Looking at the glowing green stone again he wondered if maybe there was more to the stories than he originally thought! "Master I think it is a gate stone!"

"As do I." Kandric replied

Conth's eyes went wide as he walked up trying to dry off from learning to swim, "Master does it still work?"

Kandric took a deep breath, "I am sure it does. But it will take me a while to translate enough of the runes to use it." He faced Vondum, "I know I can figure out how to transport us extremely close to the Slums if I take a few hours to figure this out."

"Why not just take it with us?" Vondum asked somewhat impatiently.

"There have been attempts to take similar stones." Kandric replied quickly, "They are set in an exact position. Any movement of the stone throws off its power balance. Each time a being or beings have tried in recorded history, they vanished along with the stone never to be seen again."

Vondum swallowed hard, "Good reason!"

"Yea, but finding this stone makes me wonder about your Hobgoblin problem."

"How so?"

"The stones were supposed to be able to link with other stones. If the Hobgoblins found this one, they would be able to send as many of their warriors as they wanted to wherever the gate was set to now. You said they had to be getting supplies from somewhere."

"Why not send them to different places?"

"Maybe they do not know how. Hobs are smart, but reading Mythling is something very few can do, let alone knowing enough about magic to understand what the writing actually means. If by some chance they came across this gate stone already set to another one, then they have a free doorway to supplies, allies or even comrades of their own kind. Or even worse, they may have found friends to supply them from some far away land. Unless I figure out how to back track the gate, we may never know."

"What about your family?" Vondum asked in an almost concerned tone.

"If I manage to translate enough, I might be able to open up a doorway to the Slums from here and we could simply step through!"

"Then we miss out on the Knolls." Vondum sounded somewhat disappointed.

"Only if we do not check them out on the way back!" Kandric grinned mischievously, "Then we could even spend a night or two there exploring!"

Vondum nodded with a growing smile, "Sounds like a plan. Get to work on the stone. I'll take another look around. Something had to kill those Hobs."

"They found the stone!"

"Yes and it sounds like the youngster knows how to use it. Maybe this is a good thing…" The older being's voice drifted off in thought.

For a second the younger being started to say something but stopped himself. He had seen his uncle get an inspiration before, so he knew the look. Part of him wanted to react but he held back watching as his uncle's expression as it changed from careful thought, to a wide grin.

The older being stood up, "I think it is time we introduce ourselves Anax."


"Just follow my lead nephew. The more befuddled you act the better!"

"No problem there! I'm totally confused!"

Conth pulled on Vondum's coat and pointed. "Master what are those?"

Vondum turned sharply to look in the direction Conth's arm suggested. His eyes quickly focused on a pair of leather clad black beasts, "Kandric, we have company!"

Kandric jumped up from his sitting position with his sword in hand. "Jamon, stay down until we know what they want."

Jamon's eyes betrayed his fear as he looked at the furry beasts with green eyes and catlike faces, "Master, what are they?"

"Pantherlings." Kandric stated calmly as he sheathed his sword. He moved up alongside of Vondum while motioning for Conth to get behind them.

"I think we just found out what ate the Hobs." Vondum spoke softly.

Before Kandric could do more than nod, the bigger of the two Pantherlings licked its lips, "Indeed you have. They are not as good as deer or rabbit but with the lack of good game this winter, it was better than nothing."

"Good ears." Vondum growled while moving his hand off the hilt of his battlesword.

"We tend to hear and see better than most." The bigger Pantherling confirmed, "My name is Wek and this is my nephew, Anax. We were just out doing some hunting. Don't often see people in these parts."

Vondum nodded, "We are cutting cross swamp to get to the Slome. Is this area your home?"

"Part of my clan's hunting lands actually."

"We had no way of knowing. Sorry to intrude."

"No problem at all. Feel free to use this camp and the springs all you like. Just be warned, the Hobs try to use the magic gate to get patrols and equipment here once and a while."

Kandric felt his eyes widen, "You know of the Mythling gate?"

"Sure do." Wek responded, "My clan uses it quite often. You know, we were thinking about going through to help the Lizard Folk, but we just do not have enough resources to support them. It seems rather unfair what the storm has done to their plans."

"What Lizardmen?" Vondum blurted out in obvious concern.

Kandric glanced back and forth, wondering what was going on. Fortunately, he could see he was not alone. Anax looked even far confused, almost to the point of being shocked.

Wek continued to speak as if he was simply making small talk, "Oh, they are not around here. Several months ago a hoard of Lizard Folk moved down below the Silver Spine Mountains to the Everone Barony. They camped over the winter but a big Dragon cast a spell before the effects of the winter could wear off. Now they are slowed down once again and the Dragon is getting ready to attack them with the help of a bunch of Hobgoblins. Our people believe in honor above all, so to summon such a storm just does not seem like a way to win a battle such as this. If we had more forces we would help just because it is not an honorable way to fight."

Vondum couldn't hide his concern, "I have a friend who could help, but I would have to get word to him!"

"Do you know where he is at?"

"Yes, on the far side of the swamp, in the hills overlooking Slome."

"We could set the gate to get you there, but we would need a spellcaster capable of casting an enchant spell to keep it open long enough to allow your friend to get his forces organized and here. We could then send them to help the Lizard Folk."

Kandric could see Vondum's pleading look. Something told him if he pulled this off, the man would be in his debt for a very long time. "I can and will if you show me how the stone works."

Wek growled, "You are too young for such a spell child. Our kind do not like liars."

Kandric hardened. He switched into the Pantherling tongue to give the two standing before him a little demonstration of his own abilities "How dare you! If you do not believe me, ask for proof before accusing me of deceit!"

Wek held up his hands, "My apologies, little one. Let us see a demonstration."

Vondum didn't know exactly what Kandric had said, but hearing Wek he had a good idea. "He has promised his teacher to keep his training a secret. Will you swear on your clan not to speak a word of this?

Wek nodded, "I swear I will not utter a word of this if it proves to be true."

Kandric, still speaking in Pantherling, stared down Anax, "What about you?"

Anax glanced to his uncle. Getting a stern glare he hastily spoke, "I also swear on my clan's honor not to breathe a word of your abilities."

"Fine," Kandric's voice betrayed his fierce anger. As he tried to contain his inner rage as he thought back to the two boys who had tormented him with the rusty iron dagger in Slome. Part of him knew if he had not been weak from days of no food this same anger might have caused him to kill the pair of want-a-be Swordsmen. For a moment he wondered what the people in Slome who had refused to hire him would have thought. Part of him really wanted to find out. Fortunately, however, he had kept enough control then. One day he would see the two boys again, and then they would not be so lucky. Letting these thoughts slide away, he refocused his anger for a more constructive purpose. He called up a spell taught to him by the quasi water sprits. "See those trees behind you?" Kandric grunted under the strain of controlling such a demanding spell.

Wek glanced behind him seeing a trio of trees only fifty meters behind him and his nephew. Each one was over twelve meters tall. "I believe so."

"Look at them while you can!" Kandric gritted his teeth as he spun his hand and arm fiercely. A single word caused winds to swirl the snow in three spots for a moment; three disks of swirling snow lifted off the ground. Each one zipped through the air with a crunching ice sound. One hit each tree right at the base slicing clean through. All three trees fell to the ground within moments of each other. The disks then burst apart into a cloud of ice and snow before settling back to the ground.

Wek gasped at the power and viciousness of the displayed magic, "By the gods, I have never seen such a spell!"

Kandric caught his breath after only a brief pause, "I can enchant the gate to stay open! In return, you teach me how to use the stone!"

"Calm thoughts little one." Wek implored with a downward motion of his black furry arms. "I will not doubt you ever again! Follow me and I will show you everything I know about the Gate Stone!"

Vondum stayed back looking at the trees. Like Wek, he had never fathomed such a spell could exist, let alone be cast by a boy. Glaster was clearly not a man to be trifled with if he had such a student. The man must be made into an ally at all costs. Yet something told him Glaster was only part of Kandric's success story. Kandric was destined for something far more than most, no matter who taught him!

An hour later Kandric activated the gate with Vondum's guidance as to where he wanted to go. With a simple arcane phrase he enchanted the gate to stay open until it was magically cancelled.

Kandric and Vondum took the Warsteeds, Conth and Jamon through the shimmering portal, much to the Warsteeds displeasure. Seconds later they emerged on a ridge line overlooking the town of Slome.

Anax watched the small group disappear, "Uncle, what did you just do?"

Wek snarled, "Making sure Bandurlok suffers a major defeat in his territory and with any luck weakening his own nephew's hold on the land enough to where King Wyhrem has a chance at bringing his head back on a pike!"

"Bandurlok will go nuts!"

"Indeed he will. He will blindly strike at anything and everything to maintain his position as Prince of the Black Dragons. To do anything less would be to risk the throne upon his father's foreseeable death from old age.

"In turn, this will force all the somewhat reasonable kingdoms currently at war to band together to fight him off. Better yet, it will look like Monarch was the one behind it all, so Bandurlok will be forced to send forces up here to challenge our nasty little Illorc problem here. Both sides will lose on this, because the Lizard Folk will still lose much, since they will be in no shape to fight. Monarch's reinforcements will wipe out most of the Hobs while suffering serious losses and we get to watch and smile!"

"Sometime I wonder if you do not enjoy this too much Uncle."

"So do I Anax."

Anax shook his head as he walked over to the fallen trees, "We should cut this up for firewood."

"Agreed." Wek glanced back towards the gate, "We need to find someone to watch the one who cast this spell. He is a great unknown."

"But we promised not to tell anyone."

"And we will not. Still, we must figure out some way to keep track of him. He is far too powerful to simply ignore." Wek frowned as he felt the smooth cut around the stump. "Bet you are now glad we did not attack them, huh?"

"Extremely!" Anax sighed, "Even if my magic defiance had blocked some of the spell the swirling ice would have surely torn me to shreds."

"Me as well, and think about this, he split his spell three ways, he would have only had to cut it in half against us. I might have lived, but doubt I would have been able to put up much of a fight and then we would have had Vondum to deal with. There is no question this Kandric is the most dangerous and skilled child I have ever seen and his temper makes him even more dangerous than he would otherwise be. When you think it over, we really did not do much to aid him either. He would have figured out the stone without our help."

"I noticed, Uncle. He could read Mythling and Shaman. Not even our liege can do so!"

Wek grabbed an axe and tossed a second to his nephew, "He is destined for power no question. The question is will it be for good or evil."

"He is with Vondum. I think the question is already answered."

"I disagree." Wek stated firmly, "Kandric had a strange affect on Vondum. Monarch would be appalled if he knew Vondum was actually being kind to the two slave boys with them."

"I noticed." Anax begrudgingly admitted, "I have watched Vondum for quite some time and have never seen him act so kind and friendly. Things are sure getting confusing!"

"Welcome to the game, nephew. Now you know why trying to do good is often a great deal harder than it sounds."

Gablon made his rounds one last time. With the end of the storm, it was time once again to move out. The only concern he currently had was how many of his guards were still injured. He would have loved to give them time to heal, but the price of feeding them and the slaves would seriously cut into profits. Also, the longer he stayed in the Slums the worse he personally felt about buying the children from people who were so desperate.

The only thing keeping him at a respectable profit margin at the moment was the sale of all the Orcs to the merchants of Slome. Klorna broke off this thought chain as she stepped up to the wagon, "Everything is ready. But I do not expect to make good time at all with the heavy snow still covering the roads. Not to mention a road up here is not even a good goat path below the mountains."

Gablon glanced down at the Dwarf, "I know. The animals will tire quickly, so we must be prepared to switch off on which wagon will be breaking the trail and which ones will be in the back. I do not want any animals getting so tired they are injured."

"I already set a rotation; the only problem will be road width. We may have to fudge some. If so, I will rotate sooner than the schedule calls for whenever possible."

"Klorna, what would I ever do without you?"

The Dwarvish Swordswoman grinned, "Probably be sitting at home getting fat instead of earning a real living."

Gablon burst into laughter, "You are probably correct! Did you take care of Rathiter and Darmoth's friends?"

"As requested. Both tested to be Swordsman potential, so we offered them jobs if they agreed to pay off the money you spent to buy them as indentured servants. They agreed without any hesitation. I will work with them to begin training, but neither know a lick about reading, writing or mathematics."

"No real surprise. They will be grown men by the time they pay off their indentured servitude, so they have plenty of time to learn. Put them in some classes with Rathiter. I will teach classes every night and their attendance will be mandatory until they all know how to read Universal and Northman up to basic standards. Have any of them chosen a Subfield yet?"

Klorna nodded, "As expected, Darmoth wants to be a Ruinseeker. Rathiter, on the other had has already started working with Larkist."

"Viper Sect Warrior?"

"Yea. Surprised me when I saw him with her, but he seems to have a bit of a knack for it. Both him and his brother show remarkable talent with their magic. To tell you the truth, it scares me some."

"Really? Why?"

"Because," Klorna glanced around to make sure no one else was close, "I have never in my life seen children take to their respective Fields the way these two are. Rathiter has already learned how to summon enough magic to cast Autospells and is already using Fangs in his Subfield lessons."

Gablon grabbed the wagon in astonishment, "Those wavy daggers are very dangerous! He is not doing anything fancy is he?"

"Larkist has him twirling and dual attacking already. It is as if he was born with the darned things. Darmoth is not too far behind, he has already learned to control three of the more dangerous Autospells, and is learning to cast the others at a rate of one a day."

Gablon shook his head, "Klorna, they are very special boys. I hope to be able to tell you some day, but let me just say this, they are not simple Elves."

"And their brother?"

"I do not know for sure, but he is very special too. After hearing his description, there is a chance I know of this boy."


"Someone saved my life and took me in long ago. I still have contact with him and he teaches a boy who is, and I quote: 'The most amazing child I have ever taught.' If it is the same child, then he is already high Secondary Echelon and has not achieved human equivalent of twelve."


"Impossible or not it is true. You can check the Shaman guilds if you like."

"There is one in the next town. I just might."

Gablon shrugged, "Klorna, how long have you known me?"

"Over ten years now." The dwarf answered, "Why?"

Gablon glanced around the flipped over his belt buckle, "The same man taught me."

Klorna looked at the guild pins in total astonishment, "I knew you were guilded, because I have seen you cast secretly in combat before to help us, but I had no idea. You are very well connected with the guild then!"

"Yes. It is no joke. Darmoth's brother may be Secondary Step 5 by now. Magic and ability runs very deep in this family."

"I will keep it in mind. All I have to do is figure out a way to warn the teachers."

"They will find out soon enough." Gablon suddenly spun looking to the northeast.

Klorna's hand shot to her spiked mace, "What is it?"

"I am not sure. I felt a sudden blast of magic. It seemed to pass right through me and head toward Slome."

"I don't believe in coincidences. These last few days have not been good at all."

"Agreed." Gablon firmly stated, "Let's get this caravan moving! The more distance we put between ourselves and this place better."

Klorna nodded, "We'll be on the move in fifteen minutes!"

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