Castle Roland

The Kandric

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 11

Posted: 17 Aug 15

The Kandric Saga

Kyle Aarons

Glaster called the six boys together in his room. "Are you all satisfied with your teachers and the men you have hired to protect us on our journey?"

Prince Klandon shook his head, "I don't see why I have to get a female wench to teach me magic."

Glaster glared at the boy with a withering stare; "If you continue to speak like a peasant I will have you dressed as one."

The prince started to respond but a quick nudge from Lylan allowed him the extra second he needed to control his tongue. He started to turn on Lylan only to see Glaster raise an eyebrow. The very last thing he wanted was another round with his bodyguard's belt so he clenched his fists and remained silent.

Glaster shook his head in disgust, "My young charge, the woman who will be teaching you is one of my personal friends, and a friend of your father's from some time back. Watch your mouth little one or she will smack it clean off your face, which if I might add, is exactly why she is to be your teacher!"

The prince's outrage showed in his gray eyes as his cheeks turned red with embarrassment. It took only moments for him to realize he stood no chance of winning this staring contest so he made a show of brushing some black hair out of his gray eyes. This, at least in his mind, gave him an excuse to look away.

Mylan gave a slight nod, "Master, I will be OK with my teachers, but I don't understand why we have not been allowed to cut our hair since you have been here. It is uncomfortable and not in line with our royal standings."

"You answered your own question my young student." Glaster smiled at Mylan, "I know it is not easy to get used to, but it will get far longer before you start getting trims. Where you are going I do not want you looking like perfect royal children. To do so may well make you a target of those who know what a proper royal child should look like and would surely get you in an extra measure of trouble and danger from youths of your own age. You will see a whole new world where we are headed."

"Where are we going Master?" Lylan asked in some bewilderment mixed with an eagerness of an eight-year-old.

"We will be traveling up to Slome then decide from there." Glaster's eyes twinkled with sudden excitement at the thought of going home to see Kandric.

All six boys exchanged looks then shrugs. Prince Klandon may have felt superior most of the time, but this time he was as confused as the others. Some relief appeared on his features as he realized he was not alone in never having heard of the place. The only one with any look of recognition was Kaznal, Mylan's whipping boy. His brow wrinkled with thought, but after a few moments he shook his head, not being able to place where he had heard of Slome before.

Mylan was first to voice all their thoughts, "I have never heard of Slome. Is it a small village?"

"Oh no, my young Shaman. Slome is the second largest city above the Silver Spine Mountains." Glaster let this sink in for a moment before continuing. Much to his amusement, Kaznal smacked his head in sudden remembrance. "Actually you would call it a large town, but up there a small town is a often called a city by the local people, so Slome is quite impressive to them."

Six small jaws dropped as if they were connected and a weight had been dropped on the connecting device. They again exchanged looks, this time of complete astonishment. More than one looked scared, while Mylan and Yarnay exchanged glances showing a measure of excitement. The very idea of going into the wilderness in and beyond the Silver Spine Mountains was almost too much to fathom.

Glaster waited for the small group to recover before getting their attention again. "You must remember, once we get into the fringes of your kingdom, the people will not know how to treat royalty, nor will they care who you are. Therefore, it is best if you do not look like royalty. Kids up there do not fear you like kids here do. They will pick on you and if you threaten them, you best be able to back it up or you will find yourself being beaten on. For you other three, you will not get the protections you have grown accustomed to. A whipping boy is not unheard of, but is not held in honor like you are in the central kingdom.

"You are boys learning how to run a trade caravan, merchants, nothing more. Some will even look down on you because you have wealth and do not have to work for a real living."

Lylan's whipping boy gave a quick bow as a way of asking for permission to speak.

Glaster reached out with his newly regenerated hand and ruffled the boy's hair, thoroughly enjoying the sensation of the thick sandy hair under fingertips un-callused and fully sensitive to touch sensations. "You are on equal terms with the other boys Sibler. Your extra duty as a whipping boy is the only exception. You may speak up if you have a question.

Pale blue eyes looked up in shock at the declaration by Glaster, "No titles Master?"

"None. You will go by first names only, just like all the rest of the people you will deal with. You are all expected to show proper respect to your teachers, but everyone else is by first name. You will not call me Master again because the people where we are going do not know me by anything other than the ‘One Armed Man'. While we are around others I will hide my newly replaced arm," Glaster winked at Mylan in some appreciation, getting a big grin in return. "It will remain out of sight under my cloak as if it was not there at all and you should treat me as such. So what was your original question Sibler?"

The boy nervously looked over to Lylan, who simply nodded with some encouragement. Taking a deep breath he spoke up, "Master, ahh, I mean sir, why did we each have to hire guards separately?"

"Ahh!" Glaster's smile grew, "You each were given the same amount of money and ordered to hire guards with what you started off with for a very good reason. First off, I must say you all did a fairly decent job of hiring your people. Lylan and Yarnay do not feel bad about my decision to not allow you to hire whom you wanted. I overruled you on gut instinct, not because of what I saw or heard. Years ago I would have had no problem hiring either one of your chosen guards. Both would have probably done fine, but I just did not like the feel of them."

Yarnay frowned, "I kind of liked the Gnome though sir."

"I know son," Glaster nodded, "She seemed very nice. It was probably paranoia on my part so do not take it personally."

"I understand sir." Yarnay's voice, however, told of his lingering disappointment.

Glaster made a note to talk to the boy alone. First he had to finish his explanation about what exactly was going to happen. Turning his attention primarily back on Sibler, Glaster pulled out six very full brown leather belt pouches. All of you need to drop all your coins and other belongings other than weapons on the table before I continue."

Glaster turned to Prince Klandon's personal bodyguard as the boys put all their belongings on the wooden table, "Frisk all of them. If you find a single thing of value it will be five lashes with your weapon belt."

Upon hearing this, all the boys quickly made sure to totally empty their pouches; even the Prince lost any signs of hesitation.

Glaster waited as each boy was checked from head to toe. The guard went so far as to have the boys strip down to loincloths and leave their clothing on the table.

"Excellent!" Glaster praised. He noted with a bemused grin the prince was totally beside himself about having to undress himself, let alone doing so while others were around. "You will not have servants for such duties on your journeys with me my young Prince. You best get used to doing such things on your own just like your father was made to do when he was your age."

Klandon turned an angry shade of red as he tossed his silk shirt and britches at the table. His temper tantrum didn't get a chance to continue any further. With a nod Glaster pointed to the big guard.

The man swiftly pulled his sword and without warning swatted the stunned prince across the back of his bare calves with the flat of the heavy Dwarvin Blue Steel blade. A yelp of pain cut short the boy's brief fit.

"By your own father's orders, you do not have a whipping boy any longer Prince Klandon. It would be in your interest to remember this." Glaster spoke matter-of-factly. Ignoring the tears, he tossed each boy one of the pouches. "Now you will each be on totally equal footing. Take your weapons and back away from the table."

One by one the lads retrieved their weapons. The three whipping boys, who had just chosen their weapons the day before, looked more intimidated with the implements of destruction than they were about wearing only loincloths. On the other hand, the other three didn't think twice about what they were holding other than to give themselves something to kind of hide behind. Lylan in particular used the long sword to cover much of himself from view.

Glaster chuckled to himself while keeping his face stern; "In the morning you will each find identical clothing waiting for you. The only difference will be in the style of weapon belts and sheaths, but they will all be basically the same. The pouches each contain twenty copper, a hundred silver, and twenty-five gold. Your allotted funds to hire guards will eventually dry up, then you will have to start paying for them on your own, so I suggest you do not go nuts spending what you have in there. However, anything above what you have now and the clothing you will get tomorrow will have to be bought by you."

Glaster saw Lylan about to say something so he pointed at the boy, "Hold your thoughts for just a moment my soon-to-be Swordsman. I have more information to impart and will probably answer some of your questions."

Lylan shrugged but figured he better ask a new question, "Should we take notes or something?"

Glaster thought it over then nodded. "Good thinking. Yarnay put on a robe and get us some parchment, ink, and quills."

While Yarnay was gone, Klandon's bodyguard and Glaster took all the belongings piled on the table and made short work of stuffing it into a large trunk. While the boys watched with some worry, Glaster locked it and dropped the key into his pouch. Six chairs were then placed around the table so the boys could write down whatever they thought to be important.

Once Yarnay returned, Glaster gave the boys a few moments to get organized before continuing. "First off I want to say you are allowed to talk to each other and ask questions as you have them, but you will still each be in charge of your own goods. None of the adults will stop you from buying or selling your goods at whatever price you decide on.

"Your guards will be given very strict instructions. In case of attack they will defend your wagon and only your wagon. Your protection will fall to me and the other teachers plus the guards I hired for the trip."

Kaznal shook his head as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing, "Our wagons, sir?"

"Oh yes." Glaster's face suddenly lit up in an almost cruel smile. "Each of you will be in charge of a wagon. At the start, all six of your wagons will be equipped in the exact same way including animal teams. As we travel you will need to buy and sell goods to make money for yourselves and your guards. If you lose everything, then you will be given food, shelter, water, and clothing, but nothing else for three moons. Furthermore, you will have to earn your food and clothing by working for me as a servant. I will then start you over with a full wagon of cheap goods, a tab to hire new guards, and enough money so you can do a little buying and selling. However, it will not be nearly as easy when compared to what the king has been kind enough to supply you all with for the start of your training in handling money wisely.

"You will have at least three to five weeks of very hard travel before we get to the Silver Spine Mountains. During this first leg there will not be many chances to trade, so you will have to make the best of what opportunities do come along. Once we get close to the pass, I intend to take up the mountains I will give you all plenty of time to listen to what has been selling well and let you equip yourselves accordingly. The thing is this," Glaster paused to make sure he had all six boys' undivided attention, "you may all hear one type of thing is selling well. However, if you all buy it, you will quickly find your supply will overrate their demand so you will not make much or may even lose money.

"Running a trade caravan is like a chess game with infinite possibilities, players and pieces. The more you play the game the more often you will lose but the better you will become over the long run. I suggest you plan your actions together at the start or at least discuss your buying plans so you do not all end up buying the same things, but it is only a suggestion. It will be your money to make or lose."

Glaster gave the boys a chance to write whatever they felt necessary before he continued his short speech. At Yarnay's request he read down a list of what each wagon had for goods to sell and explained how he wanted each boy to keep track of his money. Bookkeeping would be a large part of their learning experience and would benefit them over the rest of their lives.

Glaster let the boys talk over their situation before getting their attention again, "Boys, remember the first few weeks will not allow you to make much money, so conserve what you have until we get close to the mountains. In the time we travel to the Silver Spine, I suggest you six all start leaning how to be less like pampered royalty or royal servants and more like the low merchants we will be acting as."

"I'm no merchant scum!" Prince Klandon blurted out, slamming his ink quill to the table.

"No you are not, your speech rates you below a merchant." Glaster growled. Nodding to the boy's bodyguard he snarled, "Tylek, he is to get ten lashes tonight before bed plus an additional two for every time I note improper language for the rest of the day. Tomorrow he will be dressed as a low peasant boy and continue to be treated as such until his language and manners improve. His traveling clothing will be stored on one of my wagons until he starts behaving like a human and not an Orc."

Tylek's lips showed a hint of a grin, "Duly noted Master."

Glaster pointed a warning finger at Klandon; "Not one complaint or all the punishments will double with each and every word!"

Prince Klandon's eyes went wide with outrage but he managed to keep his mouth shut, again with the help of another nudge from Lylan.

Glaster then turned back to Tylek, "You are also not to call me Master again. I have spent years hiding my guild status from the people around me so I could live a more or less a normal life without having people asking me a bunch of silly questions or coming to me to gain my favor. I am simply to be treated as the caravan master. You may address me as Sir or Commander. The same will go for the rest of the men and women. Clear?"

"Perfectly clear Commander." Tylek nodded. I will make sure the others follow my example."

"Good." Glaster looked back to the sitting boys, "I hope you all intend to follow my instructions as well on this matter."

Lylan spoke up, looking very serious "We will."

"I am sure you will." Glaster pulled a list from under his cloak, "Now let us get back to what your duties will be."

For over three hours the boys were given instructions and ideas on how to handle their own wagons, men, animals, food, and a whole host of other details associated with running their own little caravans. Glaster made sure to answer each and every question while also being careful not to give out anything which would be helpful beyond the scope of the questions.

Sibler broke the exchanges of questions and answers with a surprise question, "Sir, is it allowed to share our guards and wagon with someone else and split any profits equally?"

Glaster pondered the question for a moment. He, as well as several of his comrades, had done this several times and had not heard of this coming up before. Part of him wanted to say no and leave it there, but in fairness, the world didn't work in such cut and dried ways. He took a deep breath as he answered, "Only if you each do all the work."

Yarnay frowned, "What do you mean sir?"

Glaster again took a second to gather what he wanted to say so it would come out clear. "What I mean is straightforward. You each will keep books as if you and you alone were running the pairing. You will each budget money separately, then come to a compromise under the watchful eyes of one of the teachers or myself. Any attempt to strong-arm your partner will result in seeing me for some very harsh punishments. Any doctoring of the records to misguide your partner will mean something far worse than any normal punishment your young minds can dream up. Another thing to think about is if one partner makes a critical mistake, both of you will go under and be wagonless for several moons. If such a thing happens, I will not tolerate one partner blaming the other."

Glaster let the downside sink in before giving his view of the other positive aspects of such an idea, "Granted, it could add to your chances of success. You will be able to carry a wider array of goods and be able to pool money together to get strange things which could be very profitable."

"The last thing I want you all to think over is less obvious. I do not know any other way to put this so I will be down right direct. If you decide to pair up or even triple up, your goods also belong to your partner and his goods belongs to you. This means if you want something, you have to ask your partner if you can spend money for it. You would have to work out an allowance for each of you to get from profits for personal spending money. If things go wrong for one partner, they go wrong for both. If one happens to have a horse go down, the other partner will have to pay for half of the replacement. Partnering up is serious business. Once a partnership is agreed to, it will last for no less than two moons. If you then decide you do not want to continue, any goods and money will be split equally and you will be on your own with your wagon again."

Glaster looked around hoping the boys would see too many downsides, but he saw quite the opposite. Five of the six boys started looking to partner. With a hidden sigh of disgust, he pulled up a chair and listened to the discussions.

On the plus side, the session allowed him to get a better feel for each boy and where each would run into problems. It was also interesting to watch as the kids allied themselves with partners. It didn't surprise him in the slightest when Yarnay and Mylan started planning together. They were probably the two with the greatest amount of raw intelligence, but they would surely run into problems because they would first over-think situations. Their delays would cost them some money until one or both realized waiting for a better offer sometimes meant a lost opportunity. One thing he was fairly certain of. Mylan and Yarnay working together may not make a great deal of money to start out with, but it was very unlikely they would lose money.

Lylan did his best to work out something with Prince Klandon, but when it became clear he would get no assistance, he started working with Kaznal. At a first glance the two pairing up didn't seem like a good fit. Lylan was athletic and relied on his reflexes and coordination, while Kaznal was a prankster and was quick with fiery comments. His weapon was wit and tongue. The more Glaster thought it through, however, the more he saw how the two had some complimentary skills. If they both played to their strengths, then they would be a very formidable team. The problem would be if they didn't. Glaster smiled to himself. They would either be the first to go under or the most successful.

Sibler watched on with some disappointment as he was basically left out. This changed as Yarnay noticed and talked Mylan into making a three-way deal. The boy eagerly agreed the second he was asked.

Glaster knew he liked Yarnay from the first day in the palace, as the boy's kind heart really touched him. It was pretty clear neither Mylan nor Yarnay really wanted Sibler as a teammate, but Yarnay just couldn't let the boy feel left out. They even offered Prince Klandon a spot on their team under Yarnay's suggestion, but the bull-headed boy would have none of it. He would not work with the lower classes, period.

Glaster could almost picture Yarnay in ten years seeing a bully picking on a smaller being and jumping in because in his mind it was the right thing to do. With a shake of his head, he wondered how to get the young prince to see the world in the same way. Somehow, some way, there had to be a way to turn around the errant boy and make him see his position in life must be earned as it had been by his forefathers.

He just couldn't figure out where things had gone wrong with the prince. Years ago when the prince had been only four-years-old, he had played with the lad and had seen him care deeply when Yarnay fell and skinned both knees. Prince Klandon had even shed tears because he didn't want to see Yarnay in pain. Now he doubted the evil-tempered youngster would care at all if Yarnay or one of the Duke's boys got trampled under a team of horses. It just did not make any sense. He had seen times where a sickness with a high fever had changed someone, but never like this and certainly not after a proper healing from a Shaman and a Channeler.

Kandric looked down the valley toward Slome. In the far distance he could just make out a massive caravan mounting up and getting ready to leave the Swamp Slums. He breathed a sigh of relief as he spotted his mother's shack nestled up next to the largest red oak tree in the Swamp Slums. Movement around the shack told him at least someone was living there.

Vondum patted Kandric on the shoulder, "Why don't you take Jamon and Conth down and I will catch up. Monarch wants to do some quick planning with me in private."

Kandric gave the Illorc a suspicious glance, "I do not think I like him. You sure you will be OK?"

"Don't worry young Shaman. I don't totally trust him, but he can help the Lizardmen Wek told us about. He wants to get some help getting forces ready."

"If he sends an army I will have to go."

Vondum frowned, "Why?"

"Because someone will have to be able to use the other stone to open a gateway back." Kandric chewed on his upper lip nervously. "The only other way would be for me to enchant another gate and to do so would allow the Hobs to use the gates as well."

Vondum's frown deepened. "I had not thought about how we would get Monarch's forces back. I will talk it over with him, but I do not want to endanger you any further."

"Look," Kandric's voice sounded slightly hurt, "I can handle myself. Besides it will be in a swamp and I know swamps. I might be able to help."

Vondum put his arm around the boy knowing he had already lost the argument. His chest hurt just to hear Kandric sound unhappy, still he had to give it one last shot. "I'm sure you could be of great assistance, but we are talking about going up against a Dragon and its forces. This is not simply a band of marauding Hobs."

"Then my being there is even more important." Kandric countered. "How many of his people are swamp Outdoorsmen?"

"Some, but not many." Vondum seemed to back down some.

"So I can help and my magic will rival some of the best spell casters the Hobs could hope to have. If it comes down to a Dragon, the only thing I will have to do is run faster than the slowest of Monarch's soldiers."

Vondum tried to hold a straight face, but failed miserably. He started laughing so hard he had to hold is side. "A truer statement I have never heard!"

Kandric grinned a boyish smile and giggled, "Glaster taught me a few things very well."

"More than a few!"

"Then I can go?"

"Kandric, I would not prevent you, but now I have grounds to tell Monarch why he will have us joining his army as well."

"What about Jamon and Conth?"

Vondum shrugged, "Jamon belongs to you. Conth will be coming along as my squire though. If this fight is going to be half as hard as I expect it, then I do not want to have to spend extra energy cleaning weapons and setting up camp. I suggest Jamon goes to provide for your needs as well. With any luck we will be able to pick up Sy and he can add some extra strength to our little band."

Kandric looked down on Slome again; "I will let him know."

Vondum rubbed Kandric's shoulder; "You seem a little out of sorts. Are you OK?"

Kandric looked down and kicked at a stone, "It is just I promised Glaster never to show off the training he gave me. The moment I show up at home the villagers will know I am trained."

"Worry not." Vondum smiled a huge grin. "I talked to Sy before he left. He has a cover story for you, just follow along and if anyone asks tell them you were trained by the Black Rapids Guards. I even had paperwork sent to put you on the payroll of the city of Black Rapids as a scout."

Kandric looked up in amazement; "I am really a paid scout?"

Vondum nodded, "Yes. You get a silver and a half a week, plus full bounty for every dangerous beast you take down. The crest on your armor," Vondum pointed to Kandric's left shoulder, "is the symbol of the elite Black Rapids Guards.

Startled Kandric pulled down his winter cloak. He looked at the engraved markings for several seconds, "I saw the crest and knew it was from Black Rapids, but I didn't really know what it meant."

"The arrows inside the outer boarder with the crossed swords behind the normal Black Rapids crest of a jagged waterfall is reserved for the Black Rapids' Rangers. They do all the scouting for our military. From the night you took down the demon you have been a member."

"Wow, this is almost as good as being a member of the Watch!"

Vondum felt his eyes go wide with worry, "You know Junsac Watch members?"

"Not really," Kandric answered somewhat truthfully, "I have met a few though. Glaster got me a few weeks of training at Protector's Keep several times over the last few years. He delivers goods there and travels down river to the sea. I stay behind so I do not have to go on the oceans."

"Ahh, no wonder you can fight like a hoard of Ogres!" Vondum praised Kandric as he calmed. "There is no better school!"

"Maybe not, but I sure was always happy when Glaster came and picked me up. They are really strict!"

"I have heard, but I can assure you I went through far stricter training." Vondum seemed to shake with a mixture of fear and anger for a moment. He then changed the subject before Kandric could inquire further. Looking over the caravan in the valley below Vondum's voice hardened, "Sure is a bunch of wagons down there."

"Yea, Glaster would be furious if he knew he had missed such a chance at making money. I wonder where they will go now."

Vondum's somber mood changed slightly. His love for Kandric continued to grow as he got to see what the world looked like to the small Halfelf. For most boys, and men, the caravan would have been seen as a bunch of rich wanting to get richer. Kandric, however, looked at it as an opportunity. He always seemed to be thinking of those he cared most about. He also saw things with a mixture of a child's wonder and a man of the house's sensibility.

"If you travel fast enough you might be able to catch them."

"Not with Jamon and Conth." Kandric's voice told of his slight disappointment. As quickly as it showed, it vanished as his words became deadly serious. "I will make up for it when we hit the Hobs."

Vondum couldn't help but to briefly cringe. The Hobs would have been better off never having stumbled along the same path as this one. Their greatest mistake was ever getting Kandric started, now they had one mean bundle of magic and cunning hounding their every move and the more he proved to himself he could do it, the more confident and dangerous he became. Each and every defeat dealt to Bandurlok's forces gave the Dragon a worse enemy. "I am sure Monarch will be thrilled to have such a fierce warrior on his side."

Sy watched from Kaylaria's hut as the caravan moved out from the Swamp Slums. He shrugged as he continued to work on the decrepit wooden building. It amazed him a child who had single handedly defeated more Hobgoblins than either he or Vondum in the battle at the compound had came from such a dismal place.

The more he thought about it though, the more it made some sense. This was a place where living conditions would crush the sprit of most beings. The smell of the swamp was next to overpowering and it was very cold still. He could not imagine what it would be like during the heat of the summer as the swamp gasses bubbled and things rotted under the filthy waters only meters from the edge of the Slums. Lizards, snakes, and insects would be a constant plague on the residents here for well over half the year. Making matters far worse was the fact there were no real skilled beings here. There was nothing to build a community around, nor was there anything of value for the people to sell. This condemned everyone in the Swamp Slums to be laborers. If they got sick, then they would go hungry, making the chances of recovery slim. Such a cycle of life was the "gift" parents passed down to their children here.

Kandric, on the other hand, had not allowed this place to destroy him. He may have grown-up far too quickly for a boy, but he took on the swamp with the determination of a tiger stalking wounded game. This, coupled with some powerful inner gifts of magic, nurtured a boy strong of body and mind. Sure he had a teacher, but he doubted very much the teaching had come at no price. Quite the opposite: Sy bet, Kandric had probably paid for his training a hundred-fold more than most would be willing to do.

Part of Sy wanted to alert Vondum and Kandric about the caravan. He knew good and well Vondum would not allow any attacks on the caravan if he knew the boy's younger brothers were now part of it. Glancing down at his flail, he briefly wondered if he should have taken part in the defense of the Slums against the Orcs. Monarch would surely have him ripped limb from limb if his participation was ever discovered. He chuckled as he realized Monarch would not find out and would now need Vondum's forces more than ever. If anything he had just strengthened Vondum's hand in the future of the Silver Spine Plateau. Sometimes a little double-cross is a good thing he figured as he turned his attention back to fixing Kandric's mother's shack.

Grabbing another board he had made with his own hands he slipped it into place and made sure the fit was a good one before driving in the nails he had purchased from the caravan. He stood back and looked over his handy work with satisfaction.

Pressing his hands together he summoned a magical spell and pressed his hands into the wood. The spell would prevent the humid swamp from damaging his work for years to come. This building would not warp and the boards would not crack from winter freezes.

He gave a brief smile to Kaylaria's young girl as she watched on with wide eyes at the casting of the magic spell. He patted the girl on the head as he re-entered the shack. "I thinks that'll do it for ya."

Kaylaria turned from the rock fireplace Sy had finished building just the day before; "I do not know how I can ever thank you." She brushed a tear away from her cheek.

"You have yer son ta thank. He earned this here work. I sill think I should build ya an extra room fer yerself."

Kaylaria looked around; she no longer had a shack. For the first time since moving to the swamps she finally felt a real sense of home. "You have done far too much as is. I am one of the few with a real fireplace and fewer still have any inside walls. My kids and I now have beds to sleep in and I have a kitchen. There is no reason to make a room for me to sleep in as well."

"I've already got the wood." Sy grinned, "Give me two days and let me hire four er five men and you'll be set. Remember this ain't charity. Yer boy took down a spell-thrower!"

Kaylaria shuddered as she thought of her son fighting Hobgoblins. A Hobgoblin spell caster bounty sometimes rated as high as a hundred silver. How her little boy had managed such a feat was still a complete mystery, but if he really had earned it she might as well take advantage. "Very well Sy. Make sure you only do work my son earned though."

Sy groaned inwardly. This lady was a tough one. No wonder Kandric was such a fighter! "Ain't no chance I could work enough ta come close to what yer boy earned. I'll go fetch some men and get started."

Kaylaria shook her head as she prepared the evening meal. Something just didn't add up with all of this. The man working on her home was at least a Teaching Echelon Warrior Adept, so there should be no reason for him to be so totally impressed by her son who could not be more than low Primary Echelon. Yet if what he had told her was true, Kandric had dropped a spell caster and at least two Hobgoblin warriors. Her poor tike must be some sort of spell caster and must have depleted all his magic to impress this man.

She opened the shutter Sy had built in only a few hours to get a little fresh air. She looked out to see Sy talking to several men. It amazed her to hear a man capable of reading and writing magic speak so poorly. She shuddered briefly, then quickly closed the shutter tight again. The air still had a nasty bite to it. Such a horrible winter this had been. She half-wondered what Syria had against the people to deal such harsh punishments.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Sy's voice shouting out "Kandric! Where is Vondum?"

Kandric's voice answered back, "Good to see you Sy. Vondum had to take care of some urgent business. He will be here later, maybe even sometime tomorrow."

Kaylaria started to run out of the house then stopped. She didn't know how to tell him about his brothers so she cracked the shutter slightly. What she saw nearly caused her to faint.

Kandric easily handled the massive Warsteed on which he rode. As he nimbly jumped down, the heavy fur-lined cloak opened to show six gleaming Elvin Silver Steel daggers and the hilt of a slightly jeweled long sword poked out of a slit sewn into the back of his very new looking, and quite impressive winter garment. The slit had been reinforced and was expertly placed to allow him easy access to his blade. He clearly had on superior quality reinforced leather armor, which didn't seem to affect his mobility in the slightest. His boots each had a dagger sheath sewn into them and matched his clothing perfectly. His walk told his mother this was not new to him. He had been in armor many, many, times before.

Several of the swamp dwellers looked on in astonishment as he walked up to Sy and exchanged a warrior's handshake of gripping the other's arm up to the mid-forearm. Of course this meant Sy's hand nearly enveloped Kandric's slender arm, but neither looked slightly uncomfortable with it. If anything the whole process looked very natural to Kandric.

Sy looked at the men he had hired to help with the building, "Is there a problem?"

Several of the men shook their heads, while others frowned noticeably.

Sy winked at Kandric as he saw the boy getting uncomfortable, "Kandric trains with the men from Black Rapids every time he gets up there. He is one of our scouts when he can be."

"I thought he worked for the one-armed-man."

"He do, but he come to us during one of his trips when he wasn't needed none. He talked us inta gettin' training from our guard forces. We figured any child with the guts to walk into a guard barracks and ask for such a thing deserved a chance so we took him to Vondum, Captain of the Guard for Black Rapids. He had him tested and he is now gets trainin' in our city and several others towns." Sy fired back. He had every intention of keeping Kandric's secrets as best as possible and his stance told anyone with even half a brain the conversation was over.

"I always wondered how he managed to bring down good meat so often." One man muttered.

Looking back over his shoulder Kandric nodded to the second Warsteed, "Jamon, Conth get down, secure my gear and tend to the animals. Once your tasks are done you may eat."

Jamon slid off the side of the steed and helped Conth. "Where do you want your things Master?"

"Have Conth find a shack to rent. We will be staying here a few days."

Jamon slightly bowed, "As you command, master."

Sy raised an eyebrow; "He came a long way since I saw him last."

Kandric nodded, "He learns very quickly. I heard there was a fight."

"Yea." Sy responded while motioning his head toward the direction the caravan had went, "The merchant's guards beat the stuffin' out of them Orcs with our help then tracked em down and took out the rest."

"Anyone hurt?"

"Yer brothers got a little banged up but the merchant's Healthmen fixed em up good and proper. Matter of fact, they signed on with the merchant."

"What?" Kandric shouted, "Mom allowed them to join a caravan?"

Kaylaria came out of her home, "Yes Son, they are no longer children."

"You did not!"

Sy stepped in before an argument was started in earnest, "Kandric they is goin' to get trained. Both tested to be Field trainable."

Kandric looked back and forth between his mother and Sy for a few moments, "Real training?"

"Just like you got." Sy confirmed.

Kandric nodded then his eyes went wide, "Sy, they are in danger. The caravan will surely be attacked again!"

Sy took a breath, "Maybe not. They took out more than their share. Each time the attackers have been handed their heads on a plate. No one will be too anxious to give it another go."

"I got to warn them Sy."

Kaylaria tried to intervene, "Kandric, they are non-children now and made their own choices."

"Say what you want Mom, but the whole reason I went out in the first place was so you could feed us. Darmoth and Rathiter are still my brothers and I will not let them simply ride off into danger."

Kaylaria glared, "Kandric you are still my child and you will do as you are told!"

"Stop!" Kandric bellowed, "I have been the bread winner for us for the last six years. Do not tell me what I can and cannot do, when I have bought all of our family the clothing, food, and Darmoth's schooling."

A sudden scream in the distance caused a sudden halt to the escalating shouting. A second later the sounds of metal on metal and battle cries echoed through the swamp. Before anyone else could scarcely react Kandric drew his blade and leapt up to his Warsteed in one fluid motion.

Sy moved equally as quickly pushing Conth down to get to the second steed.

"Mom," Kandric shouted as he spun the horned steed to face the sounds of battle, "Take Conth and Jamon inside and feed them. I will be back!"

Kaylaria regained her normal composure quickly, "Kandric be careful!"

"I will be by his side Kaylaria." Sy answered.

Kaylaria barely had time to nod before both steeds tore off down the road following the not so distant sounds of combat. "Boys get into the house now!"

Conth stood and felt himself get grabbed, "I said now!"

Gablon cursed as he saw his lead wagon get struck by the boulder rolled down from the ridgeline. "Klorna, defense will not work they will take out all our wagons!"

Klorna fired her crossbow catching a Gnoll with a poll who was trying to dislodge more stones. The bolt hit it squarely in its chest knocking it off its feet. The hapless Gnoll rolled down the hill driving the bolt in further with each roll. As she tossed the weapon aside she shouted, "Archers aim high! Ignore those close to us; get them away from the rocks!"

Jumping down she caved in the face of a Gnoll trying to light her wagon on fire. "They are using fire! Get water skins ready!"

Gablon readied a Water Spurt spell as he saw a pair of flaming arrows fall just short of one of the rear most wagons. This ambush had been well prepared. Already his guards were engaged on both sides of the road with an army of Gnolls.

Above on the ridge Vondum watched as the attack started on the caravan. His blood boiled. Monarch had just told him the Gnolls had been ordered to back off and had been replaced by his own Illorcs as the blockers for caravans. Their refusal to follow directives would mean Monarch would have even fewer forces when it came time to put his overall plan into action.

He almost started to take the steed he had borrowed from Monarch down to take command of the action, until he saw a distant pair of dots moving rapidly towards the battle. Using his magic he enhanced his vision three fold. It didn't take long to spot the pair again. This time, however he could make out details. He shuddered as he saw Kandric move in at a dead charge with Sy following close behind. He knew the boy would not do something so reckless unless there was a good reason. He also knew this meant the Gnolls must fail.

With one fluid motion he drew his blade and smacked the flank of his steed. He didn't know why, but if Kandric and Sy were going to defend the caravan so was he. Besides, the Gnoll clan had disobeyed Monarch's orders and needed to be taught a lesson. If not, the other Gnoll clans might start believing the alliance was not for the best. If this happened everything he had worked on the last six years would be for nothing. Four rear guards fell to his sword in quick order as he decided it would be best to work himself in one rank at a time.

Emroc shook off the impact of the rock striking his wagon. He looked back and saw it was flipped on its side and the mounts were desperately trying to break free. Off to the side he noticed Rathiter grunting in pain and a huge Gnoll getting ready to increase the discomfort ten fold. "Rathiter! Look left!"

The young Elf saw the wooden stick swinging at his legs and tucked them out of the way just in time. Grabbing his new sect weapons he had received from his Viper Sect Warrior teacher, he rolled himself into a ball and tumbled right at the creature.

Surprised by the action, the Gnoll reacted slowly, missing the small child with a lunge of its staff. The iron shod tip stuck deep into the somewhat frozen snow and mud.

Rathiter gulped at the near miss but stuck to what little training the female teacher had shown him. As he felt his body connect with the creature's legs, he spun both of the wavy daggers, known as fangs, to point straight down. Without any further thought, he untucked and used the extra momentum to deliver his strike. To supplement the uncoiling of his body he used ever gram of strength he could muster and slammed both fangs down. One lanced into each foot and the razor sharp tips easily cut through leather boots tops, flesh, bone and boot bottoms finally ending up in the mud.

The dog headed humanoid howled in shear agony as it found both of its feet impaled. Quivering its eyes rolled up into is head and it fell backwards into the snow.

Emroc also stayed low as he lashed out with his spiked flail. The ball tore into a second Gnoll's kneecap with a devastating cracking sound. When he yanked back, he could clearly see his blow had shattered the bone and had pushed some of the broken fragments all the way around to the outside of the Gnoll's leg. It didn't pass out but it did drop its axe and fall to the ground clutching its destroyed knee joint.

Darmoth, who also found himself on the ground next to the lead wagon, saw yet another Gnoll approaching. He reached for his dagger only to find it was not on his side. Frantically he searched but came up empty.

The terrifying beast grabbed the boy by his shirt and started to open his mouth to take a bite. This was just too much for Darmoth. He called on one of his auto spells not knowing what would happen. With a single word he let go with a Salt puff straight into the creature's eyes.

Screaming, it dropped Darmoth and backed away. Both its hands went up to rub out the gritty salt. Unfortunately for it, this only rubbed the salt in more which caused further pain. Finally it rolled on the ground and pushed snow up to its face, desperately doing whatever it could to get the terrible burning feeling off its eyes.

Emroc swung with a side arm motion delivering his flail to the back of the temporarily blinded attacker. His spiked ball smashed into the backbone causing the thrashing Gnoll to fall face first into the snow. He pulled back for a second blow but stopped himself. The angle of the backbone told him the first blow would forever keep it out of the fight. It could be finished off later if need be.

Before he could look around for another target he saw two wavy fangs zip by his chest, missing by only centimeters; he spun first to confront Rathiter but a grunt of pain caused him to do a full half spin. He found his eyes face to face with a younger Gnoll. This one had a pair of fangs sticking out of its left arm and its short sword stuck out of the snow only half a meter from where Emroc had savaged the other Gnoll's back.

The Gnoll feebly tried to use its right hand to pull out the fang closest to its shoulder but the pain was just too much. It fell to its knees and begged for surrender. Two other young Gnoll warriors dropped their short swords and raised their arms as well.

Rathiter jumped forward and grabbed one of the dropped bronze short swords, "What are we going to do with them?"

Emroc looked around for guidance but found none. The wagon guard and driver were both lying unmoving in the snow and the battle sounds continued to swirl around them. "Take em to the wagon and tie em with some of the rope we use to hold down the goods.

Emroc backed up keeping watch on the whole scene. Like the last time he was in this situation he felt very alone, only this time he knew he could count on Rathiter and Darmoth at least a little and both had learned some combat skills. Better yet, they trusted him enough to follow instructions.

A clang of metal on metal caused him to look left. He saw a pair of Gnolls going after Porma and Falden. Before he could move to help he saw Falden take a wicked slash across his gut and fall.

Emroc was not the only one to see what had happened. Rathiter felt a raw anger pour into him as the mean dog faced monster got ready to turn on Porma from the back. Shouting he extended his hands and let loose with a wave of sparks just like the Druid teacher had showed him only the day before.

White-hot sparks surrounded the Gnoll just as it raised its sword. The shout distracted it enough to allow Porma to get out of the way, then its hair, body fur, and clothing burst into sheets of yellowish blue flame. It ran screaming into the woods and fell after only thirty meters still burning.

The second Gnoll turned to run, only to get Porma's sword slashed across its leg. The blow was perfect, severing the limb with only a slight crunch as the sharp edge sliced through bone.

Two guards from further down the caravan moved up as Emroc ran over to Falden. One of the guards moved to watch over Rathiter and Darmoth while the second moved in to defend the older boys. What they saw didn't look good at all. Several Gnolls slowly moved forward in an ever-tightening circle. The guard standing in front of Rathiter and Darmoth counted a bakers dozen, with a few more backing them up. "Emroc worry about keeping yourself alive first!"

Emroc yanked off his cloak and pressed it into Falden's stomach. Blood covered his hands as he did so, "But he be hurt bad!"

"So will we if you don't get your act together!"

Emroc turned with tears in his eyes. He almost started to lash out at the man but suddenly saw the odds. "He will die if I let go of him! He is loosing too much blood!"

Gablon used a second water spell to eliminate a fire on a nearby wagon as he finally jumped off his own wagon. Enough was enough. He reached under the seat and drew a gleaming scimitar with a serrated blade. Before any of the nearby Gnolls could take him seriously he swung the scimitar with a well-practiced swipe. One Gnoll lost an arm, a second screamed as its chest parted showing neatly sliced rib bones under its leather armored tunic and a third fell into a ball and clutched its hand into its stomach as the ending motion took off all three of its fingers.

Klorna cringed, as she used the back of her mace to break the snout of another Gnoll. "This looks bad sir!"

"I know, but I for one do not want to be guests of these beasts! Do you?" Gablon shouted as he cleaved into the face of yet another attacker.

"No, I can't say I do!" Klorna kicked the wounded beast away from Gablon as her mace impacted the groin of a Gnoll who appeared to be a leader of some sort judging by the jeweled wristbands it was wearing. It shrieked and fell rolling back and forth in a pure form of agony. Its hands clutched at its crushed adulthood.

A shout from one of the newest guards hired only days before in Slome caught everyone's attention; "Something is attacking them from behind!"

Gablon looked to the ledges above the caravan. Sure enough, several huge figures moved down and ripped into the flank of the Gnolls who were trying to dislodge rocks on the caravan's wagons. Further up the ridge another mounted figure nearly loped a Gnoll in half.

Klorna reacted instantly, "Archers! Switch targets. Let our new friends deal with those on the ridge. We don't want to wound any friendlies!"

Emroc continued to press his cloak into the terrible wound in his friend's stomach. He looked up knowing he would have to abandon Falden as he saw the Gnolls advance.

The circle tightened inward another few steps as everyone readied to strike. One of the guards was about to offer a surrender when a trio of fire darts slashed into the left side of the circle. All three Gnolls fell under the new onslaught. One of the three attempted to crawl away but the young boy who had thrown the fire simply allowed his mount to trample the hapless creature.

Several of the Gnolls tuned to face the unexpected reinforcements.

Kandric happily obliged and he reared his steed. The Warsteed instinctively lowered its horns and gouged the arm of one Gnoll, while Kandric's well-timed blade stroke sliced at a second one. He was rewarded with the creature's weapon falling into the muddy snow with its hand still clutching the handle. It fell screeching as it looked at the stump of its own wrist.

The steed wasted no time either. It twisted its head to the side snapping the impaled arm of the other Gnoll in two places. Under Kandric's command it then reared up and slashed its hooves across the face and chest of yet another Gnoll.

The loss of almost half the circle of Gnolls caused momentary panic on their part. It was enough for Sy to surprise them from the other side. His flail smashed into the back on one Gnoll's head and his Warsteed managed to trample two others before they even knew he was there.

A reddish band of light suddenly leapt out of the trees and encircled him and his mount holding them firmly to the ground.

Kandric spun in the direction the light had come from and yelled out "Wind spirit, your first favor to me is now due! Take the caster down!"

The trees suddenly started to rustle with the sounds of wind. All around the perplexed Gnoll Mage gusts of wind started to blow. Swirling snow formed a small snow devil for a moment before lifting off into the air. Hundreds of icicles left on the trees from the recent blizzard broke loose from the limbs and shot out from the middle of the swirling disturbance. Several slashed downwards like icy fingers of death at the Mage, while others zipped around the forest dropping other Gnolls. One of the Gnolls who had been part of the closing circle closest to the trees also flopped down. Half a dozen long shards of ice could be seen sticking out of its back. Each one slowly melted as the heat of the dead creature's blood liquefied them.

Kandric did not have a chance to see the full effects of the wind spirit's onslaught. He turned the mount to face a Gnoll dressed in tribal war paint. He knew from his Ruinseeker studies, paint was an honor. Only Gnoll Druids and Shamen wore such paint and they were the best in the tribe, unless this one happened to be the tribe chieftain. Either way it had to be put down.

Kandric rolled his thumbs and spoke a single phrase. A bluish glow washed down from his hands and surrounded him and his mount. Satisfied he spurred the animal hard and charged with his sword ready.

The figure stood facing Kandric with a look of confident hatred and raised his arms. A crackling of lightning hurdled through the air and struck the steed. To the Druid's shock, all its most powerful spell did was cause the blue light to fade from around the steed. Still the animal veered away slightly.

Kandric felt the animal move away some so he switched hands with the blade and swung as he went past. He was not used to using his right hand for such a task, but had enough training to cut the Druid's shoulder.

The Druid spun under the impact but stayed on its feet. This could not have been a worse thing for it.

Sy cursed to himself as he at last managed to cast a Cancel spell on the Restraint spell holding him and his mount fast. It took two tries but he finally felt the glowing magical vines slide off him and disappear back into the ground. Angrily he pushed his mount forward hoping to catch the figure Kandric was charging from behind but Kandric got there first. However, the lad's fairly decent off-hand slash spun the spell caster directly in line with his own steed. Seeing this, Sy simply prodded the animal forward.

The Gnoll's eyes went wide in recognition just before Sy's Warsteed's chest collided with his own. The impact tossed him to the ground like a rag doll. The left back leg of the Warsteed then fell right onto its shoulder crushing it.

The Druid managed to stay conscious and roll slightly but it knew the moment it tried to stand, it would not be able to fight or cast spells. Nausea washed over the trampled Druid like a tidal wave swamping a rowboat.

Kandric saw the Gnoll get to one knee. His Spell Shield was still active on himself but not the mount. The last thing he wanted was to lose such a fine animal to a wounded spell caster and he couldn't cast as long as his own spell surrounded him. He grabbed two daggers and flung them at the Gnoll's back. One hit the snow but the second dug into the already ruined shoulder.

The dagger might as well have been a bastilla bolt as far as the Druid was concerned. The extra pain was unlike anything it could ever have fathomed. With its good hand it tried to pull the blade out but the second his hand touched the shattered collarbone it knew torment on a whole new level. Bending forward, it retched over and over.

The Druid's Warhound saw its master fall and raced over to its side, ignoring the needs of the remaining Gnolls as they desperately tried to regroup.

Sy spun to face the ridgeline where a handful of younger Gnolls ran down one of the small ravines. At first he thought they were coming to join the fight but as he started to charge they all dropped their weapons and pleaded to surrender.

For a moment he thought about killing them anyway thinking this had to be some sort of trick, then he saw a trio of massive red scaly creatures with reptile heads move down behind them.

Sy backed off wondering how he could tangle with such creatures until one spoke,

"Do you want them living or dead?"

Kandric looked over startled to see three Red Dragonlings, "Alive!"

"Very well!" The biggest Dragonling spoke as he moved forward. Within seconds all eight of the young Gnolls were pushed down into the snow and disarmed completely.

On the other side of the wagons several more icicles spun through the air. The Warhound fell mortally wounded, as did three more Gnolls.

The two remaining adult Gnolls saw this and dropped their weapons. They were too terrified to even run.

Kandric briefly turned his attention away from the new arrivals. "Wind Spirit, my thanks to you. I free you from your first task to me. You are down to one favor!"

A rustling of leaves in the trees was all the response he got.

One of the Dragonlings spoke, "To mess with a Shaman who has indentured spirit servants is never a smart idea, no matter how young he appears to be!"

A shout of pain in Gnollish caused everyone to turn. Seconds later Vondum road down the hill. His sword and the horns of his steed dripped heavily with blood. Vondum looked at the Dragonlings in some shock but recovered quickly. "You are correct. The Gnolls have made a serious error this day! They also didn't do a good job of watching their backs!"

The lead Dragonling extended a scaly-clawed hand in Vondum's direction, "No they did not! I am called Pangam by your kind."

Vondum took the offered arm with the most neutral face he could muster; "I am Vondum. The boy is Kandric, and my other friend is Sy. Like you, we are not members of the caravan, but things have not been good up here this winter and I believe these beasts are part of the reason."

"Ahh, the famed Black Rapidsssss Captain of the Guard!" Pangam spoke in hissing amusement. "Very good to meet you! I will be sssure to pass on a kind word to our Queen about your assistance in this matter."

Vondum barely stopped himself from shuddering. "I will pass on word of your help as well to the of Duke of Black Rapids."

"It is a pleassssure to fight with such a sssskilled ally." Pangam smiled almost evilly. I'm ssssure my Queen'sss ally, Bandurlok, will be pleasssed to hear one of his former ssservants is doing ssso well."

Vondum hardened and nodded. "I have learned much since those days. Be sure to pass on a greeting from me to him."

"I sssurly will!"

Pangam walked up to Kandric, "Well fought young one. I hope to sssee you again sssome day!"

Jumping off his mount, Kandric grinned. "Thank you! Maybe we will."

Pangam patted Kandric on the head before he moved to kneel down over Emroc who was still holding he friend. "Young man, he isss no longer with usss. Let him go."

Emroc looked down to see Falden's eyes lifelessly staring back at him. Devastated he put hands coated by his friend's blood up to his face and cried.

One of the caravan guards moved and gently took the sobbing youngster into his arms and stroked his hair.

Pangam shook his head, "I am sssorry for the lossss. If we had been here sssooner we could have prevented thisss. I vow I will make the Gnollsss pay!" He motioned for this other two Dragonling friends; "We mussst be off. We have other businessss to attend to."

A quick exchange followed. Kandric moved over to the Druid the second the Dragonlings were out of sight, "Death or slavery. Make your choice."

Getting only another retch in reply he looked to Sy. "What is your thought?"

Sy moved forward and slammed his flail into the Druid's skull ending its misery. "Death is easier."

Gablon struck forward with Klorna, taking down any Gnoll stupid enough to get in their way. His men and women often looked at him in some shock as he viciously carved into Gnoll after Gnoll.

The new reinforcements changed the picture for those trying to protect the bulk of the caravan. Several of the archers switched to hand weapons to better deal with those close by. This allowed those guarding them to stop defending. They quickly turned their attention on attacking whatever Gnolls they could find. A few of the better bowmen stayed back and began to pick off those who tossed spells or shot arrows. Within short order the seeming defeat turned into a rout the other direction.

Sounds of fighting seemed to diminish all along the road as Kandric approached the crying boy. Sudden recognition stuck him as he looked into Emroc's eyes. "I know you!" Kandric raised his sword.

Vondum moved quickly to Kandric's side as two of the adult caravan guards started to draw weapons as well. Vondum's eyes narrowed, "Don't even think about pulling a weapon on one of my scouts!"

Sy turned his attention away from securing the younger Gnolls who had surrendered, "Whoa, what in the hell is this all about!"

Porma's eyes went wide as he recognized Kandric. He turned and started to run.

Sy reacted in a flash casting a spell. Reddish brown glowing vines quickly surrounded the boy holding him fast. "Where do you think you're going?"

Tensions grew as Gablon and Klorna came into view.

Sy moved his flail into a ready position as Gablon canceled the spell he had just cast on the boy; "This is none of your concern!"

Gablon raised an eyebrow, "Oh? How do you figure? Porma is one of my guards."

"So you hire bullies and thugs?" Kandric suddenly spoke with a venomous voice. He advanced on Emroc with his sword, only to have one of the guards step between him and Emroc.

"Do not try me." Kandric hissed at the man.

Darmoth finished tying a knot on the last Gnoll he had been working on with Sy's help, "What's going on? He's my friend Kandric."

Kandric's blade wavered for a moment as he looked down at his brother, "Your friend?"

Rathiter joined Darmoth, "Uh huh. He helps teach us and plays games with us."

Klorna pulled her helm off as she looked over everyone. "Look gentlemen, I may be the only Dwarf here and have absolutely no idea what is going on, but from what I am seeing a few minutes ago we were all fighting on the same side.

"Now why don't you all put aside this nasty male temper thing I see going on and talk this out."

Looks were exchanged in all directions before weapons were lowered and stances were adjusted to a less hostile form. Sy was the first to find a voice, "I think the lady has spoken."

Tension eased another level as many chuckled. Only Kandric, Porma and Emroc remained battle ready. Klorna stepped up, "Boys, that's enough!"

Kandric lowered his blade and started to speak.

Klorna interrupted before he could get started, "I said enough! We will sort this dispute out as soon as all the wounded are cared for and we clear the field of battle!"

Vondum turned to Gablon, "She has a valid point, but I will not allow this caravan to move one meter until I find out what is going on!"

Gablon held eye contact refusing to back down but did manage to shrug, "With the damage to my wagons, I doubt I would be able to move a meter."

Kandric backed away from Emroc and knelt over his brothers, "Are you two OK?"

Rathiter hugged Kandric, "Thanks to you big brother!"

Vondum looked over at the two very cute Elvin boys, "So these are your brothers Kandric?"

Kandric felt some of his anger slide away. "Yes. They joined the caravan to get trained. I know I should not have helped, but…"

Vondum knelt next to Kandric as he stopped the boy, "I knew there was a good reason for what you did; there is no reason to apologize or explain."

Darmoth glanced nervously at Vondum, "Is Kandric really your scout?"

"He is. As a matter of fact he is one of the lead wilderness scouts for the City of Black Rapids." Vondum ruffled the boy's hair, "And judging from what I saw, you are going to make quite a warrior too!"

Rathiter still wore an unhappy frown, "Kandric why are you mad at Emroc?"

Kandric took a deep breath, "Is he really nice to you Rath?" He still couldn't believe his own brothers had stood up for the kid.

Darmoth answered, "Yea. He is very nice and helps us with sparring and stuff. You're not going to beat him up are you?"

Kandric clenched his fists, "Do not worry about it Darmoth. What happens is between him, his stupid friend, and me."

Vondum's eyes narrowed. "Kandric, why don't you and I help with the cleanup? Your brothers will probably be needed to help the Healthmen and the Channelers.

Kandric hugged both his brothers again, "Vondum is right. You better go help since you are not hurt."

Vondum kept his arm around Kandric as they watched the two boys go over to one of the guards to find out what they should be doing, "Mind telling me what is going on?"

Kandric shook with rage; "Those two put an iron dagger to my leg and head!"

Vondum's eyes blazed with a sudden inner fury. "Why in the name of the gods did you not kill them on the spot?"

"I was very weak. I had not eaten in several days, and had been out trying to find work;" Kandric lowered his head and cried, "and I was in Slome so I could not cast without someone taking notice."

Vondum clutched Kandric tighter, "They must pay!"

Kandric shook his head, "Only the older one. I will not hurt a friend of my brothers no matter what he did to me."

"Are you sure?" Vondum's voice now held a deadly edge.

Kandric nodded as tears still ran down his cheeks. "I do not want him hurt. It was the other kid's idea anyway."

"Very well." Vondum glared in the direction Gablon had moved, "We will discuss this with the caravan leader, but you will get your revenge!"

Gablon turned to Klorna as they got to the Healthman tent, "I want Porma and Emroc brought here at once! I want to know what is going on!"

"You and me both." Klorna agreed, "I don't think our guard would have been much of a shield for Emroc, had it not been for Darmoth and Rathiter speaking up.

"Their older brother was ready to kill to get to Emroc, no question. Kandric is one very dangerous child!"

"Dangerous is not the word, Merchant Gablon," A guard spoke up who happened to be the one who stood between Kandric and Emroc. "He cast a triple fire blast spell. He must be a very powerful Mage. He even commanded a spirit of some sort. I have never seen anything like it!"

Gablon shook his head is shock, "A spirit?"

The man's head bounced up and down wildly as he deposited the gravely wounded lead wagon driver in the hands of the Healthman. "He took down a spell caster, at least six Gnolls and the spirit he commanded took down at least a full dozen more Gnolls and another spell caster in the forest. It was as if a cold cloud of rage came rolling out of the swamp, hell bent on destroying anything in its path. His companion was secondary at best to the death he dished out." The man started to turn then stopped, "And Sergeant Klorna, you are correct, he could have gutted me without any effort what-so-ever. I was outmatched by a boy who cannot weigh half what I do and is a good half a meter shorter than I am."

Gablon watched the man go before speaking up, "Not real confident, is he?"

"A good Swordsman knows when to admit he or she is outclassed Gablon. I will not hold it against him. If anything, he deserves something for stepping up to defend Emroc knowing he didn't stand much of a chance."

Gablon nodded, "Noted. As usual you are correct. What really scares me is Kandric is Teaching Echelon!"

"No!" Klorna gasped.

"Yes." Gablon shook at the mere thought, "A Shaman Fire Dart can only be split by the Echelon of the caster and it is a very hard thing to master." Seeing a look of disbelief he went on to explain, "Fire Dart is a spell variant. By its very nature it wants to be unleashed in a single burst like a Mage Elemental Burst spell. To split a Fire Dart a Shaman must slip into the Spirit Realm of Fire and divide it while he is casting. Yet what I am hearing is he did so while riding a Warsteed at a full charge with a sword in hand. I cannot even pull such a feat of magic off!

"Making matters worse, he had an indentured spirit. Such a thing is not easy to gain. He must have done one of three things to get it. First would be to subdue it in the spirit realms. This is the most common, but is extremely dangerous because the spirit may well turn on you and would have never gone above the call to simply take the caster down like I heard it did. His ally continued to fight for him long after the caster had fallen.

"The second way would be to do it a favor, and believe me, it is not easy to impress a spirit enough to get it to be a servant even for a single day. Yet, he had to have it as a long-term favor so this is not likely at all.

"This leaves the third possibility. He would have had to back it into a corner it could not get out of, then demand a favor upon command in return for releasing it. This would have been some sort of true battle in the spirit realms. If you think the first two are difficult, try the third."

"Actually," Klorna replied with a twisted grin, "I don't think I would like to try any of the above."

Gablon smirked, "My point exactly. I have never been able to gain a long-term favor of a spirit and I have been trying for years!"

"OK, so my next question is a really silly one, why didn't the kid simply kill Emroc and Porma when they first met?"

"I do not know for sure, but like I said before, he very well may have the same teacher I did. If so, he took an oath not to use his powers unless they were really required. His brothers were in a life and death situation, so he could do whatever he wanted today, but our two young Swordsmen may well have done something to him in a public forum. If so, Kandric would have held back his magic. Why he didn't just beat the snot out of them is another question entirely though."

Klorna nodded, "Yea, it didn't look like he was terribly interested in casting spells on Emroc. He wanted to take his sword and cut Emroc's heart out."

"Yes it did look like he really wanted a piece of both of them, and judging from Porma's attempt to bolt, he knew he had something to seriously worry about. Which is exactly why we better talk to Emroc and Porma. We need to find out what this was all about before they come to talk to us. I, for one, have no desire to fight the Captain of Black Rapids' Guard and his friends."

"Don't forget about the little one." Klorna reminded Gablon, "It sounds like he took on his share plus some even without his spirit friend."

"Kandric is the last one I will forget about, believe me." Gablon stated gravely as he turned and entered the Healthman tent.

Kandric moved into the woods looking for any wounded Men or Gnolls. He still shook with rage and knew he needed to get rid of his anger before he did something stupid. He knelt in the snow next to yet another Gnoll. He grinned seeing at least two dozen wounds from icicles. He drifted into the sprit realm and found the wind spirit not far away messing with some trees, "You did a fine job, thank you."

The spirit swirled gleefully for a moment; "You are a strange one Shaman!"

"I am?"

"Yes. Most of your kind would never dream of coming back to thank one of us for something you could command us to do!"

"Then they are fools." Kandric replied. "I have no wish for you to be enslaved to me. I would much prefer a friend."

"I have heard rumors you befriended the fog spirit instead of taking its favors as it offered. Do you wish a similar deal?"

"I do not consider it a deal at all Wind Spirit. A deal is something which only lasts for a time, I want true friendship. I do not hold anything against you other than the fact you were picking on something smaller than you."

The spirit spun in the air, "I never dreamed a mortal would interfere let alone challenge two of us. I would have been far better off taking flight with my partner."

Kandric smiled, "I am not a normal mortal I guess."

"Very true, why don't I take you to my elders tonight and let you talk it over with them. Unlike the water spirits, we must defer to the decision of our elders."

A new presence spun around Kandric and the Wind Spirit. "There is no reason to ask an elder. You are commanded to teach this mortal all you know."

Kandric felt dizzy as the power of the new being became more pronounced, "I do not want a servant. I just want friends!"

"Very well," The new voice spoke again, "What say you Wind Spirit?"

"Highness!" The spirit proclaimed in total subservience, "I will do as you command."

"No," the voice spoke firmly, "I offered your servitude. The mortal does not wish this."

The Wind Spirit spun again causing several of the trees to shake, "I give this mortal my true friendship Highness!"

"Very good." The presence formed into a shimmering cloud, "Kandric, you have done my queen a great service. You have but to call for assistance and you will find it. However, do not abuse this or you may find it lost! Most battles you are quite capable of fighting on your own."

Kandric had never imagined such power as what he was feeling ever existed. He could barely speak, "Why me?" was all he could gasp out.

The shimmering grew brighter, "Because as you so elegantly stated, you are not a normal mortal and Syria and several other gods and goddesses owe you. Is there anything I can get for you now?"

Kandric couldn't believe what he was hearing. How could he, a simple poor Halfelf boy, do something to impress a goddess let alone the Goddess of Weather? Yet if this powerful spirit was going to offer he was surely going to ask, "I want to learn all the Shaman spells ever known!"

The new being laughed, "But I could give you riches untold, hand you an island kingdom of your very own or hundreds of other things!"

Kandric felt himself starting to dream of riches and power, but he quickly remembered words spoken by Glaster long ago when he first started to learn how to read and write. For a moment Kandric drifted back to the day he first had to write something.

For days Glaster had forced Kandric to memorize the alphabets of Northmen, Elvish, Dwarvish, Shaman, and a few others. Finally he pushed all the books off the table in the den. "It is time to test what you have learned my young Shaman,"

Kandric struggled for several hours to put down the proper symbols as Glaster spoke them. At last Kandric got so frustrated at the constant testing he pushed the scroll away and shouted, "Why do I have to learn all this anyway! It is just a bunch of stupid symbols!"

Glaster glared at Kandric with the meanest look Kandric could ever remember seeing in the man's eyes. "Get the books!" He bellowed in pure anger.

Kandric swallowed hard but grabbed the books and propped them up over his head, as he knew he would be commanded to do.

Glaster pulled out the sand filled timepiece and flipped it over. For several minutes he watched Kandric struggle with the books before finally speaking. "My little Shaman. Look around you while you hold up my tomes. My money, belongings, and even my life can be taken, but knowledge is something no one can take. Even the most powerful Forget spell will not erase knowledge. It will only make you forget where and how you learned it. Everything pales when put up against true knowledge. If you learn nothing else from me, I pray you learn this. When you strive to learn, you are not just bettering yourself. For, alas, one day a skill you learn may save your live or the life of a loved one. You may hate me for what I make you do and do to you, but please never hate me for anything I teach you, for then and only then will I be a failure."

Kandric recalled the almost pleading stare in Glaster's eyes as he faced the glowing being, "I can earn money and maybe even a kingdom, but the spells I may never be able to earn or find."

The figure got even brighter for a moment, "A normal mortal you surely are not! Very well. Every night for one hour I will send a teacher to you. By the time they are done you will know every Shaman spell possible!" It then turned to the Wind Spirit, "You and the Fog Spirit you harassed are to protect your new friend as he protected the Fog Spirit from you, is this understood?"

"As you command Highness."

Kandric spoke, "I am here to call on as you need as well. You are a friend not a servant."

"You are special Kandric." The glowing form spoke as it faded, "Never doubt yourself for you are indeed very special."

Kandric shook off the overwhelming feeling of power as the last of the glow faded, "What was that?"

The Wind Spirit spun in several loops as it spoke, "A Tempest Lord, second only to Syria. You are have caught the eyes of the gods, yes you have!"

Kandric talked to the spirit for a few more minutes before returning to the mortal realm. As he opened his eyes he saw two things lying on top of the Gnoll body he had just started to examine. A silver and jade necklace with the twin tiger-eye lightning bolts and a ring of pure onyx with an emerald tree set into it. Both holy symbols glowed slightly. The lightning bolts were the symbol of Syria and the tree could have only portrayed Vindayin, Elvin goddess of the forest and healing. Both items sat squarely in the center of the dead Gnoll's chest. Neither had been there before, he was sure.

A rumbling of thunder spoke to him, "Take them. They will help you in your journeys."

Kandric slowly picked up both items and looked around. No one was near him. At last he shrugged and slipped on the ring. Instantly it sized to fit him and he could feel it attune to him like his sword had done. For one second he gasped as the spell casting force he had left in him after the battle drained into the ring. As this happened, the ring vanished from sight but he could still feel it on his finger. A second later he realized his force was still there, only stored in the ring. He frowned. He didn't see how this could help him, but now he had to keep it on because he was out of spell casting force for the day without it.

Befuddled he almost decided to slip the necklace into his pouch, but a second grumble of thunder stopped him, "Trust Syria!" it rumbled.

Kandric looked up, then slipped it on. A small gust of wind blew through his hair, as this item also became invisible. Kandric looked around a moment before he realized he was no longer cold. As a matter of fact the temperature felt perfect. He grinned; this was something he could definitely live with!

A guard from the caravan called out, "Find anything over there?"

"Another dead Gnoll." Kandric called back. "What are we going to do about splitting the spoils?"

"For now we are loading everything of value on a wagon. My guess is your leader and ours will figure out a way to split things. I don't know how we will get the Dragonlings their share though."

"They did not seem too interested." Kandric replied as he tossed the Gnoll's weapons and pouch onto a small cart being pulled by a draft horse.

The guard who led the wagon backed off as Kandric finished tossing the Gnoll's armor into the wagon.

Kandric frowned, "I am not going to hurt you!"

"Maybe not," the man replied, "but we know you are mad at some of our people and I don't want no trouble."

Kandric giggled, "Only two of you."

"I hear you almost went through one of us to get to Emroc." The guard stated suspiciously.

Kandric shrugged, "Yea, but I was still in a fighting mode. You guys are taking care of my brothers and are training them, so I really am not angry with you."

The man's posture eased some; "Did you really take out seven Gnolls on your own?"

"No." Kandric flashed the man a huge grin; "I took out five before I even got to the caravan. Then I had some help with the Druid so I only dropped eleven. I did not use many spells though. I had a friend take care of most of the others."

The man gave the grinning youngster standing before him a sideways glance, "You didn't use all your magic?"

"Nope." Kandric watched a rabbit dart around a tree and pointed, "How would you like some meat for dinner?"

"Sure." The man licked his lips as he looked at the furry critter; "Fresh meat is not something we have enough of."

"Me neither." Kandric snapped his finger. The Cold Snap spell blasted into the bunny throwing it over a meter. It fell to the ground lifelessly. "Now we have some. I will clean it while you get the cart back, then you can cook it."

"Deal. I'll even grab a few potatoes and butter roots," The astounded man stated. He pulled on the horse's reins getting the cart rolling again.

"Sounds good." Kandric again smiled.

The man hurried off knowing he had never seen such a quick spell in his life and he had fought side by side with some very good spell casters. He wondered just how many other tricks the boy had at the tip of his fingers.

Gablon looked down at Emroc and Porma as Klorna stood guard at the door of the tent. It had taken some time but he finally got the story as to what really happened out of Emroc. "So you two just decided it would be a good idea to find out what happens when you put iron up to an Elf?" Gablon had a hard time controlling his voice, so it rose to a near yell.

Both boys remained silent. Emroc hung his head and nodded.

"Do you have any idea what you your actions may have done to this whole caravan?"

"We didn't know he was a caster!" Porma spoke up.

Gablon nearly lost his temper completely, "I don't give a damn what you knew at the time. You are both lucky he didn't kill you on the spot then and even luckier he didn't do so today! I almost lost a good guard to this boy who you thought would be fun to torment! I do not know why he didn't beat you both senseless on the spot, but I am sure we will find out.

"I am basically forced into inviting them in to my tent and trying to figure out a way to make amends for both of your actions! Iron is almost worse than deathweed to an Elf and you purposefully used it on someone you didn't even know. I don't have any defense to offer for you two when they come in here tomorrow morning."

Gablon continued his tirade not really caring if anyone outside the tent heard him or not. "I gave you a chance and you go and do this? I should toss both of you out of the caravan and let you fend for yourselves!"

Emroc cringed but spoke up anyway; "I deserve it Merchant Gablon."

"Yes you do! The only reason I don't is because you have taken our two newest trainees under your wing! The same two boys whose brother you tried to give iron poisoning to, I might add."

Emroc put his head in his hands and cried, "I'll never be able to live with this. Let their brother do whatever he wants to me!"

"I very well might do so." Gablon fired back. "Do you understand how close we came to losing everything? Without his help today there is a very good chance neither of you would have lived or if you had survived, you would have been in a cage guarded by Gnolls."

"We had other help!" Porma growled, "The only reason he helped us at all is because his brothers are with us!"

Gablon turned and smacked Porma hard enough to knock the young man flat on his back. In all his years of running a caravan he had only used physical force three times before. Like all the other times he inwardly cringed as his actions sank in, this time was somewhat different, however, his anger didn't totally dissipate. "You ill tempered little brat, keep you mouth shut before I knock it off you! You are not one of us yet. Until you learn to think about this caravan as your family, which includes every member of it, you cannot be one of us."

Gablon turned and stormed out, "Klorna, send word to Vondum and Kandric. They have an open invitation to dinner in my tent tomorrow evening to discuss the unspeakable actions of Emroc and Porma! If they prefer we will go to them."

Klorna nodded, "I will send word at once!"

Aster found it hard to believe how slowly the caravan was moving. He was used to not being tied down by the wagons and the need to stay on a somewhat hard path. He looked upwards at the gray sky and shook his head. Another storm was building. Unlike the last one, this would probably be rain unless the temperature went down a considerable amount.

Pocet noticed Aster's stare drift up toward the sky and moved his Dragonsteed alongside Aster's. "Doesn't look good, does it?"

"No." Aster sighed, "This road is already a quagmire, I don't even want to know what it will look like after a rain."

"I share your concern, but I really don't have a better idea. If we could get to a less muddy road our pace would well over double. The draft animals are capable of going much faster, even in this muck, but the wagons are not."

"Master?" A small voice spoke out from Aster's wagon. "May I speak?"

Aster nudged his mount over to his wagon.

Olinday instantly lowered his head and shook with fear.

"Hey, relax." Aster stated as he moved back a little. "You do not ever have to ask to speak to me. I just wanted to get closer so I could hear."

Olinday chewed on his lip for a moment before getting the courage to continue; "I did not know Master. Our old owner always wanted us to ask first."

Pocet moved up along side of Aster's wagon as well, "What were you going to say little one?"

Olinday swallowed hard, "Am I allowed to make suggestions?"

Aster nodded vigorously, "Of course you are. All three of you need to feel comfortable with the idea of talking to me and letting your ideas be known."

Olinday managed a slight smile, "Thank you Master."

Pocet grinned, "So what is on yer mind?"

"We are headed to Welleger, then up to Silverton, right?"

"You pay attention!" Pocet praised, "We sure are."

Olinday glanced around nervously for a moment before he turned to face Pocet; "We went to Silverton one winter with our old master. The roads were really bad so we turned north, caught a barge where the river flows into Lake Junsac, then got out at the village of Korm where the smaller river flows in. Korm is just into the Silver Spine Mountains so the roads were more rocky and we made better time. The only problem is we would miss Welleger."

Pocet turned to Aster, "You know the lay of the land better than I do. Are there villages to trade with along the river?"

"All sorts. But buying passage on a barge will not be cheap." Aster looked at his pouch with a frown, "I'm not sure I want to pay to take my wagon aboard a barge."

"I'll talk to Handri and see what he says. He may want to do it, just so we can get closer to the Silver Spine Plateau. He plans on making a king's haul if we ever get up there."

Aster nodded reluctantly, "It may be for the best. All the villages close to Junsac do most of their trading with merchants in the city so we will not make much anyway."

Aster looked skyward as Pocet rode forward to discuss matters with Handri. The clouds continued to grow heavier and darker. "Olinday, you and Molic get the cover ready for the wagon. Make sure your new friend is included, but do not force him."

Molic looked over at the dark haired boy who sat quietly with his back against the wagon's sideboards petting Shade. "He just gives us blank looks when we talk to him, Master."

Aster jumped off his Dragonsteed and onto the wagon, "Then get the cover out and start putting it up, I will talk to him."

Olinday and Molic both stood and gave perfect bows, which was impressive considering they were riding in a wagon moving over rough, muddy ground.

Aster looked over at the Dragonsteed he had been riding. "Stay close big fella, I will be right back."

The massive six-legged steed moved off the path to get out of the mud but continued to keep the wagon's very slow pace.

Satisfied, Aster moved over to Shade and the silent boy he had rescued from the storm back in Junsac. As Aster lovingly scratched Shade's ears he focused in on the boy, "You have been with us for a few days now. I think you know we will not hurt you."

The boy's hands dug deeper into Shade's thick coat of fur as he looked away. Fear could be easily read in the boys cloud gray eyes. His whole body tensed some as Aster moved closer.

Very slowly Aster moved his hand forward until he touched the boy's shoulder. Getting no resistance he slid forward a little more and wrapped his arm around the terrified lad. "Come on lean against me."

It took a few more seconds of coaxing, but finally the boy moved slightly and put his head on Aster's shoulder.

Aster could feel the boy shaking like a leaf as he hugged him. All he really wanted to do was hold the boy and comfort him. The news from Sardan about the huge reward for the boy, however, made getting some information imperative. If someone was really offering gold, then this kid must be extremely valuable. "Let's start off with a few simple things." Aster whispered, "If you can understand me, and the language I am speaking nod your head."

The boy shuddered more violently for a second, then nodded ever so slightly. He then tightened up as if expecting to get hit.

Aster continued to speak softly, "Did you think you were going to get in trouble for nodding?"

The boy again nodded this time slightly more vigorously. His shaking hands clutched onto Shade's fur coat as he again tensed up.

"You were not allowed to ever answer, were you?" Aster asked in some shock as he realized the pattern he had been seeing since he first found the boy.

The boy shook his head, then for a brief instant looked up with some hope before lowering his gaze again.

"You may answer whenever someone talks to you." Aster hugged the smaller boy and stroked his back. "Can you speak?"

The boy looked up with wide eyes for a moment before again lowering them, "Y…Ye…Yes." He managed to stammer out.

Molic turned from his task of putting up the left front part of the wagon cover, "Hey, he can talk Master!"

Aster felt the boy curl up some as he nodded, "Indeed he can, and you should be working and not talking at the moment."

Molic made a quick bow, "Sorry Master."

"Not a problem. Just get the cover up before any of my things get wet or you will get to ride out in the weather the rest of the day!"

Molic immediately turned his attention back to the thick cloth tarp. "Understood Master." He added as he lifted up one of the support for the covering and slid it into place with Olinday's help.

"There is no reason to be concerned," Aster spoke as he turned his attention back to the boy, "I am not going to beat you like your old master did. Can you tell me your name?"

The child started to say something then stopped. He shook his head then cried, "I…I am not sure."

Aster frowned, he had heard some weird things, and even knew what it was like to remember almost nothing, but to not be sure just didn't make a great deal of sense. He almost asked for an explanation, then stopped. Another idea came to mind, "You were about to say something. What were you going to say?"

The boy swallowed very hard, "Zoldon."

"Your name is Zoldon?"

"I do not think so Master."

Aster shook his head in confusion; "You don't think so? Explain please."

"I cannot Master."

Aster could feel himself becoming aggravated. The last thing he wanted was to scare the boy any more but he had to get some kind of information.

Olinday saw Aster's deepening frown as he secured the last of the tie downs. "Master may I ask a few questions?"

Aster nodded, "Just be nice about how you ask them."

"Oh, I will. I am a slave just like he is."

Aster glanced at the boy in his arms; "I want you to answer his questions, understood?"

"Yes Master." The boy answered miserably.

"Go ahead and ask Olinday."

Olinday knelt, "Who do you belong to now?"

"Him." The boy pointed at Aster.

"OK, so you have new rules to learn, just like I do. I had to select a name because my new master required me to do so. I have to learn other things as well, like how to set up a traveling forge and pack it up when he is done.

"Part of our duty to our master is to obey. Our new master is very fair and nice so it is easy for me to do what he wants. The same should true for you. He has not beaten you; he has not demanded anything at all until now. He wants to know about you and you should answer him because he owns you, right?"

The boy shuddered but nodded

"So let's start out with your name. How come you are not sure if your name is Zoldon?"

The boy nervously rubbed his wrists before finally deciding to speak. "I do not know why, but I do not think my name is Zoldon. All I can remember is being hit over and over until I said the words ‘My name is Zoldon'. It was the only thing I was allowed to say. Sometimes I had to do it ten or more times a day."

Olinday didn't look nearly as bothered by this as Aster did. "Your old master wanted you to have the name Zoldon. He owned you so it was his right. Now you have a new owner who can pick your name, let you select one, or keep your name as Zoldon. It is up to him."

Aster interrupted, "For now we will call you Zoldon."

The boy cringed, "Then my name is Zoldon Master."

"How long were you owned by your last master?" Olinday asked after getting a quick nod from Aster to continue.

The floodgates seemed to open all at once as Zoldon spilled what he remembered while barely stopping for a breath, "I do not know. I think I was bought by him on a ship. I can kind of remember being on a boat ride, but I was really sick. I am not even sure if it was a boat or a bad dream of some sort. I think I remember someone talking about me dying, then a man came in picked me up and forced me to drink something by holding my nose shut and pouring the liquid into my mouth. I was then taken to a hut and forced to eat some nasty tasting black fruit.

"Another man came in almost as soon as I managed to swallow the last bite of the horrible thing. He was dressed with very expensive clothing and talked about gold and silver. He paid the guy who made me eat the fruit a bunch of money, slapped a slave collar on me and forced me to walk out of the hut, even though I was still so sick I could not even see very well. Several times he dragged me scraping my knees because I could not keep up.

"I do not know anything else other than the whips, chains, wooden staffs, ropes, and the shackles. My training started almost immediately with making me say my name was Zoldon. I was too sick to argue, but I think I tried to tell him it was not. Maybe it is though, I do not know. He beat me over and over until I could not remember if my name was Zoldon or not. Every day I got better, he got meaner and meaner. I was not allowed to answer even when a question was asked of me. I was not allowed to stand or sit unless I was told then whipped. I could not even eat when food was put in front of me until the command came followed by a beating. He was starting to prevent me from moving at all without permission when everything went black. I still do not know how I came to be fought over in the arena. I remember being aware of being in the cage looking at the fight, then a man in shiny armor pushing me toward you with official paperwork, Master."

Aster frown deepened in worry, "The fruit you were made to eat, did it look like a peach with thick yellowish fuzz all over it?"

"Yes Master." Zoldon nodded.

"Were you made to eat the fruit more than just the once?"

"Yes Master. I had to eat it almost every day for a very long time."

Olinday looked at Aster questioningly, "Have you heard of a black fruit before, Master?"

Aster dug into his large Healthman's kit and pulled out a smaller pouch made of chain. He then took out a key from a hidden pouch on his boot and unlocked a small very well made Dwarvin lock securing the chain pouch. Being very careful, he pulled out a couple slices of dried black something, "I think so. Zoldon smell this. Is this what you were forced to eat?"

Zoldon turned very pale as he sniffed one of the slices, "Please Master, do not make me eat any more. I will do whatever you want!"

"Don't worry I will not have you eat any." Aster stroked the boy's hair as he stuffed the small bits of fruit into the chain pouch and re-locked it. He made sure to put the chain pouch deep inside his Healthman kit before saying any more. "There is only one reason for you to ever have to eat Rottenberry. Somehow you had been poisoned with Mandrake!"

Dabaff turned around from the driver's bench at the front of the wagon with a start, "Mandrake Poisoning?"


"He should be dead!"

"Yes." Aster stated firmly, "Unless he had been poisoned on purpose over weeks and weeks with the most minute traces of Mandrake. There would be no other reason for him to have to eat daily doses of Rottenberry."

Molic couldn't contain his curiosity, "Master, what is Mandrake?"

Dabaff answered, "It is the most deadly poison known and also the most valuable root in existence. Its weight is worth more than gold. It is used in the preparations of several Druidic and Mage spell pages and scrolls. It also is used by Mystics in a whole host of non-drinkable potions such as Firewall, Poisonous Cloud and Ice Mist just to name a very few. No other single thing is used in more magic. Rottenberry is the only cure for a Mandrake poison victim and must be used very quickly after it happens to prevent death.

"Rottenberry is also very rare, expensive, and used in many, many magical spells. In fact I have never seen it before today, even though I am a fully trained Healthman."

Aster grinned slyly, "It helps to have friends in the Watch."

"I can tell. How much do you have?"

Aster chuckled, "About five doses."

Dabaff shook his head in astonishment, "A single dose must cost one hundred silver!"

"Closer to two hundred." Aster confirmed, "What is more troubling than the cost of what I am carrying, is the cost of what Zoldon here consumed. Long term poisoning by Mandrake can only be cured with fresh Rottenberry. He must have consumed several thousand silver worth, plus the cost of the Mandrake. I have heard tales of slaves being made immune to Mandrake poison for the sole purpose of having them go into the deepest swamps to harvest it. If Zoldon here was being made into a Mandrake harvester, he would be worth a great amount of money."

Dabaff countered Asters thoughts quickly. "No way. If you spend the money to build the immunity, I do not understand the training. There is no way you would want to make a Mandrake harvester into a living statue. Instead you would want him to be trained to fight and deal with the dangers of working in a deep swamp someplace."

Aster shook his head in frustration. Just when he thought he had it all figured out the new argument tore it all apart. "You are correct Dabaff. He would die quickly in a swamp nasty enough to have Mandrake. So what are we missing?"

"I do not know Master," Molic spoke, "But it looks like Pocet has new orders."

Aster slipped from under the cloth tarp and climbed into the driver's bench with Dabaff, "What's the word?"

"We head to the river mouth and take a barge. Handri will pay half your fee."

"Sounds good to me." Aster motioned for his steed to come over just as the first spatters of rain smacked into his face and a crackling of thunder and lightning lit up the skies and shook the very ground. "You know with weather like this, I have to wonder if the gods have gone to war!"

Sardan entered the small common room at the Fire Water Bar and Inn in Lennic before he rolled in his wing.

Quavis shook off the little rain, which had managed to find him under the protective feather covering, "Thank you!"

"Not a problem." Sardan chirped as he made his way over to an empty table. "I do not think I have ever seen a storm rage up so quickly!"

Several other patrons of the Fire Water nodded agreement. One, a small, muscular, female Dwarf with a long dark beard snorted, "Yea, Syria must really be out for blood!"

Sardan's whole feathery face lit up, "Gomriss! Where is everyone else?"

Gomriss shrugged. As she did so her short-handled but huge headed double-bladed axe, with a spike on the tip poked up over her head for just a second. "My guess the weather has slowed em down like it did you. Who's the filthy, puny boy?"

Quavis' shoulders slumped.

Sardan reached over and ruffled his hair; "Everyone is puny to Gomriss, and you have to admit both of us could use a bath."

"We took one in the stream."

"Two days ago! We have put more than a few footfalls on our boots since then."

Quavis nodded, "I guess, but I am not puny am I?"

"To her, yes. She is one of those beings who likes to do things like rip trees out by their roots when she stubs her toe on them. Don't take offence."

Gomriss growled, "You are not being fair! I only did it once!"

Quavis brightened some; "You ripped out a tree by the roots?"

Another female voice interrupted from the door, "Oh yea! Then she carried the whole thing over to the fire and tossed it in. Hopping up and down the whole time cursing at her toe, I might add."

Quavis spun to see a gorgeous Elvin woman with long golden hair and green eyes. Silver and gold jewelry adorned her fingers, wrists, neck and ears, yet her over all appearance didn't seem gaudy, instead it struck Quavis as very beautiful. The staff she carried had a silver dragon carved into the top. Both the eyes were made out of sapphire and glowed slightly.

Her ringmail armor glistened with water and her backpack, book pouch, and cloak looked drenched. Behind her a Snow Tiger shook off sending a sheet a water splattering to the floor.

The barkeep glared, "Hey! Either get that beast out of here or pay to clean up the mess!"

"Hold your beer-belly in a sec!" The woman barked back as she shook herself off adding to the puddle.

A bouncer came up but stopped the second the pure white tiger snarled.

"I said give me a sec!" The woman hissed.

The man backed off with his hands held high, "Look, we don't want no trouble er nothin'"

The woman shrugged, "I don't see anything which could give me any trouble at all except my two friends over there."

Sardan chirped out a chuckle, "Sagell, would you please clean up this mess before you start a fight and I have to send Quavis in to take care of their guard."

Quavis looked up with wide eyes, "Hey, he is bigger than I am!"

"Yea, but you are smarter and have more skill!" Sardan stated loudly while clapping Quavis on the back.

The bouncer glared but prudently kept his mouth shut.

Sagell shook her head in amusement before clasping her hands together and speaking a short phrase. Instantly a dry breeze swirled around the whole room for a moment, then pushed open the door and dissipated. Before anyone knew what had happened, every glass in the place was empty and the puddle of water on the floor was gone. Several people also noticed their clothing dried out, along with their mugs.

Gomriss growled, "Now look what you did! My glass is empty!" The Dwarf held up an empty mug. "Now I am going to have to buy a whole round for the house ‘cause ya stole our ale!"

A slight cheer went up from the patrons who were just starting to realize their mugs and glasses were also empty.

Sardan couldn't keep a stern face any longer, "And, alas, I will pick up a second round to calm things down!"

A second louder cry of jubilation killed the uneasy mood in the small barroom.

Sagell moved up to the trio, "Hello my friends, I gather Desmar has not shown his ugly face yet?"

"Nope." Gomriss spoke as she got her mug filled by a barmaid and plunked down several silver coins to cover the cost of buying everyone in the room a drink. "The day our beady-eyed little Halfling appears somewhere on time it will probably be for my funeral pyre!"

Quavis couldn't help but laugh.

Sagell looked down, "You must be Sardan's new apprentice."

"How did you know?" Quavis looked up in surprise.

"A good Druid knows much little one." She ginned, "Say, do you like cats?"

Quavis nodded, "Yes ma'am!"

"Ma'am?" Gomriss grumbled, "You better cut it out before she gets used to it!"

Quavis' smile grew, "I'll try to remember not to call her or you Ma'am anymore Ma'am."

Sagell laughed as Gomriss tried to backhand the boy, only to see him nimbly dodge out of the way. "Ah, you indeed be a smart one lad!" She looked down to the floor, "Rage stop being lazy and introduce yourself to the boy!"

The Snow Tiger leapt up and pushed against Quavis so hard he almost fell to the floor.

"Wow!" Quavis stated. Not looking at all intimidated, he started petting the massive one hundred-twenty kilogram beast.

Sagell looked on impressed, "You know young man, Rage will give you at least a week to stop what you are doing."

Quavis flashed a huge grin as he sat on the floor and stated playing with Rage. "She is great!"

"Close, but not quite. Rage is a he, sweetheart." Sagell ruffled Quavis' hair. "If you like, you can take him up to your room and feed him. He only eats raw meat though."

Gomriss tossed Quavis a key as she broke in; "While you are at it you can get another room for yourself. I didn't know Sardan had company with him."

Sagell waved her hand in disgust. She noticed Quavis giggle and looked around. She could barely contain a laugh as she realized many of the patrons had immediately covered their mugs thinking she was casting another spell. She gave Quavis a huge smile liking the lad more by the second. "Just see if you can get a bigger room so you can stay with Sardan and me. Unless Sardan minds."

Sardan shook his head, "As long as you are OK with it I am."

"We'll go with a bigger room than." She saw Quavis start to stand up, "Young one, be careful when you feed him. He really likes to be hand fed but do not let him lick your bare hands. His tongue is rough enough to peal your skin right off."

Quavis looked at Sardan, "Can I Teacher?"

Sardan smiled, "Sure. Just have the food put on my tab and don't wrestle with Rage too much, he sometimes forgets just how strong he is. His playing could break your bones without much effort. Also, get to the bathhouse in town before you even sit on the bed. Rage will follow you and make sure others keep a distance."

Quavis nodded somewhat reluctantly as hustled over to the innkeep and arranged for a larger room. The Gnome didn't appear to be too thrilled with the idea of taking back one of his rooms and switching someone to a larger one until he saw Rage sniffing at him and opening its mouth. Quickly he handed over a key and took the other back.

Sagell called out in a loud voice, "Rage guard your new friend!"

Rage instantly moved a few paces closer to the boy.

Satisfied Sagell turned to Sardan the second she saw the boy go up the steps, "He is simply adorable!"

Sardan shook his head in amusement, "Here we stand in front of one of the most beautiful women in leagues and she is going to break the heart of every man lusting after her because she has the hots for my new student!"

Gomriss almost spit her ale out with a laughing fit as she looked at the Elvin woman's face, "Judging from what I saw she is not alone. His young tongue almost fell out of his mouth the second she walked into the room. Furthermore, it's a good thing eyes are attached or little Quavis' would have been rolling around on the floor the way they bugged out!"

Sagell tried to look insulted but failed quite badly. A large grin spread across her features. "How long do I get the joy of being in the company of the lad?"

Sardan shrugged, "Not sure, but we are booked on the same barge as he is to work on, and we first head up river from here, then take the branch off at Korm. We then head down river for a while until we pick up the Slash River. Finally, we head back up stream all the way to Black Rapids. In simple terms, you will have plenty of time to spend with him."

Sagell smiled deeply, "Ahh, this trek with the Watch may be the most fun yet!"

Aster stood guard with Conner as the rain continued to fall. "Just our luck to be the only two who have infravision other than the Dwarven drivers."

Conner peered off into the cold darkness again before he spoke, "We at least get to sleep all day long for taking the long night shift."

"I never could sleep well on a wagon. Every bump and bounce just wakes me up."

Conner laughed, "With the mud this storm is making there won't be many bumps in the roads unless we hit tree roots or rocks."

"True. Are you sure you don't have a spell to keep the water away from us?"

"I do, but it only lasts for a few minutes. It will be a long time before I get good enough to make a spell last long enough to be helpful."

Aster turned serious, "I am just glad we have a spell caster at all."

"Believe me, so am I. I'd do this any day over sitting on day auction block."

Aster swept the area with his eyes again before showing some discomfort. "May I ask how bad it was?"

Conner started pacing, "Aster, I really do not have any way to describe it. The days in the cells were OK after the first few. I cast a few minor spells and let those in the cell with me worry about what else I could do. One of the guards really came down on me hard the first time he saw me do it, but one of the Sergeants pulled me out and told me he would allow me to defend myself with spells as long as I didn't try anything on any of his men. Things were fine for the most part after he let his decision be known.

"The real problem was the auctions. Some times people didn't bid very much for me. Those were usually easier on me because they didn't expect as much. Some were actually quite nice; fed me, let me get plenty of sleep, and the like.

"But when I was up for bid and the price started going up, I knew I was in for a very bad time. Some of them wanted very hard labor and because my price went so high, they took it out on me by feeding me very little and keeping me up working long hours.

"Others wanted me to be a play thing, a real slave." Conner voice dropped to a whisper and he shook violently. "Those were the worst."

Aster really wanted to comfort his friend but just didn't know what to say. He patted his friend on the shoulder hoping it would be enough.

Conner forced himself to shake off the memories. "So what are your thoughts about Zoldon?"

Aster looked back toward the wagon all three boys were sleeping in. "I don't have a clue. For someone to have poisoned him and cured him the way he talks about would cost thousands of silver. Even to make a Mandrake harvester, it would take years for him to make the money back."

"So you don't believe him?"

Aster shook his head, "Quite the opposite. Word from the Watch is there is a reward of gold out for whoever can take him to someone by the name of Monarch. So someone wants him really bad."


"Yea." Aster looked over to his friend, "Have you heard of him?"

"Oh yea." Conner stated firmly, "Half the people in the dungeons whispered the name now and again. More than one who claimed Monarch was nothing more than a myth died mysteriously within hours after saying so. The name is feared by almost every criminal I heard speak the name. Twice men came in stating they worked for him. Somehow both ended up escaping because their cell doors were carelessly left unlocked."

"Do you know where he works out of, or how to contact him?"

"No one ever asked, Aster. Rumor has it, he contacts whom he wants. Anyone who asks about him ends up very dead. If he wants Zoldon for some reason, you have an enemy which rivals the Watch in ruthlessness and cunning."

"Master Lannet once told me the worse the enemy the better, because a weak enemy does not push us to better ourselves."

"Be ready to be pushed hard then Aster. Because from what I heard Monarch is not one to back down, even in the face of the Watch."

A cry from above interrupted the boys' discussion.

"Dart has seen something." Aster warned as he slipped his axe from his belt loop.

Conner motioned with his head as he spotted three pairs of heat sources creeping along the underbrush of the stream. Whispering he slipped behind Aster's wagon. "Draw them in, I will alert Pocet and the others.

Aster nodded and snapped his fingers. Instantly Shade's head popped up. In a voice he could barely hear, Aster spoke to his beloved pet knowing it would be able to hear him. "Circle Shade. Make sure there are not more of them. Call to Dart for help if you need it."

The canine slipped into its shadow form and vanished without further instructions.

Aster turned his back on the first pair as they moved closer. He wanted things to look easy. He made a quick round checking all the wagons without raising any alarm. He dearly hoped the stealthy pair saw exactly what he tried to portray, an easy target. He laid his axe on a wagon within easy reach and waited.

A second warning screech from Dart was all he needed. He took a single step forward, grabbed the waiting axe and spun.

The Halfling moved forward with a dagger in his teeth. This kid should have never been put on guard duty; he would end up getting his whole caravan killed, which was fine by the Halfling. This assassination paid the same if it was easy or hard. He started to grab his dagger for the quick death strike when the call of a bird cascaded out from above. His glance upwards was his last.

Aster's axe swing couldn't have been better timed. Aster noticed the small Halfling was looking upward and adjusted his swing to take advantage of the exposed throat. The blade did exactly what he wanted it to. A 15 centimeter gash appeared as blood gushed out into the muddy ground.

The Halfling grabbed at his throat and tried to call off the attack, but no sound came out. A second later he fell to the ground as rain washed away his blood.

Pocet, alerted by Conner, stayed still other than to ready his weapon until he saw the outline of a figure approaching his tent with a pair of daggers. He saw the figure crouch and start cutting the fabric. Pocet lunged with the scimitar captured in the arena. Like Aster's, his timing and placement were perfect. The tip of the blade speared into the assassin's head and continued on into the brain. This would-be attacker also fell without a single sound.

Elmar and Foxtol took a slightly more direct route. Foxtol slipped out of the tent and made for a nearby tree.

The pair of attackers smiled evilly; there was something very satisfying about the idea of cutting a man down while he was busy relieving himself. They split up, one going for the tent the second going after Foxtol.

Foxtol didn't stop at the tree as expected. He continued to move past and into the brush. The second he was sure he was out of sight he ducked down and waited. It didn't take long.

The assassin cursed very softly to himself as he watched the guard move past the tree. So be it. He would really catch the man in the middle of things. He lost sight of the Swordsman for a brief moment so he picked up his pace. Suddenly he felt something grab both of his legs and pull. He fell forward face first into a muddy puddle. Before he could get his thoughts back, powerful hands gripped his arms and pulled them up into the small of his back. Before he could lift his head he felt the full weight of the man sit on the back of his neck.

Foxtol sat for a full two minutes after the Halfling below him stopped struggling. Finally he turned the black clad figure over. Unblinking eyes told of the last seconds of panic. He grinned as he spoke softly to himself, "I guess you really can drown in a few centimeters of water."

Meanwhile Elmar made a show of re-securing the tent flaps. As he did so he carefully pulled out one of the wooden stakes and started cursing softly about the mud and rain.

Elmar's attacker slowly closed in until he was almost breathing on the man. He flipped his dagger around for the ultimate backstab, when the man suddenly spun, knocked him off his feet and covered his mouth.

Elmar smiled at the terrified expression on the face of the Halfling as it saw the wooden spike plunge into its chest. Elmar pulled back his hand and drove in the spike a second then a third time. He removed his hand from the Halfling's mouth with a wince of pain. "That'll teach ya some. Never bite a Swordsman."

Conner cringed as he saw one of Pocet's men slam a warhammer into the face of the partner of the guy he was stalking. The only sound was a splutting sound as the assassin fell into the mud. This caused his prey to turn in the direction of the sound. The timing could not have been more to his liking.

The Halfling looked around nervously as he worked into the heart of the campsite. He was somewhat surprised by how easily it had been to slip in this far. With any luck he would be able to secure the whole caravan without the need for reinforcements. The sudden sound to his right startled him. The last thing he wanted was to raise the alarm now. He tried to look in the direction of the noise but the cloud cover and rain really hampered his ultravision. "If I only had a little starlight I would be able to see perfectly," he muttered. A blindingly fast movement caught his attention and his windpipe.

Conner lunged with his Sect Warrior skills. Two blows struck the Halfling's Adam's apple within a fraction of a second of each other. Before the stunned figure's throat could more than let out a wounded croaking sound, Conner slammed stiffened finger from his right hand into the Halfling's nostrils as his left hand delivered a blow to the back of the neck. Bones cracked as his right hand pushed the head back and his left hand forced the upper body forward. "Whiplash!" Conner hissed in victory.

In the distance Shade let loose a howl of victory as Dart did with another loud screech.

Aster moved to Conner's side, "Sounds like my friends found the rest of them."

Pocet nodded. "Should we join them?"

"Yes." Aster stated firmly, "Foxtol, Elmar, Dabaff, defend the caravan."

Pocet repeated almost the same orders to his men as he moved toward the sounds of Shade tearing into someone. He found three men down and another three trying to surround the canine. He noted with some relief all the blood on the canine's coat belonged to the men. With a battle cry he plunged straight into the group. He dropped one and got the others' attention.

Shade almost seemed to grin as it gladly attacked the men who seemed to have momentarily forgotten about it. Shade extended it claws and leaped from behind. A fifth body fell on the pile of death leaving one lone Swordsman facing both Pocet and Shade.

Shaking like a leaf, the man dropped his spear and raised his hands.

Shade looked up to Pocet.

"I've got him. Go help Aster." Pocet replied with almost a laugh.

Shade wasted no time. It bolted out of sight.

Aster and Conner found a group of retreating Swordsmen doing their best to take their wounded with them.

Conner noticed most of the injured had feathers sticking out of them. He spoke first getting the attention of the Swordsmen, "Looks like Dart has been busy!"

Aster went to one knee and used both hands like a lever on his axe as one of the Swordsmen charged. The blade cleaved upwards serving the artery on the man's left leg. He fell gasping. His only thought was to try to hold his leg on.

"Who's next?!" Aster growled

All four uninjured Swordsmen moved forward.

Conner gritted his teeth and spoke a short phrase. Steam burst from his mouth like some sort of dragon's breath weapon. Three of the four men screamed as scalding hot steam washed across their faces.

Conner then launched forward in a fighting style Aster had never seen before. Aster nearly felt himself get sick as he saw Conner's hand plunge into the uninjured man's chest and come out with his still beating heart.

A motion to his right caused Conner to turn, but the figure fell as Shade's jaw clamped onto the book toting female's arm. Shade thrashed back and forth without letting go until it heard the bone snap.

Aster saw the book, "Shade she is a spell caster!"

Shade reacted instantly. Its claws extended and tore into the woman's face, ripping the corner of her mouth wider by several centimeters. It then leapt over to the woman's other side and clamped its jaw down on the woman's hand. Delicate bones crushed easily under the pressure of the viscous bite.

Conner shuddered as he realized Shade had eliminated all forms of spell casting in a matter of seconds. Her ruined mouth couldn't invoke a verbal spell, the ruined left hand would not be able to cast nor could the broken right arm. Shade was much more intelligent than he believed!

Aster dropped the last of the men Conner had scalded before he turned to face his friend, "Where in the name of the gods did you learn to do that!"

Pocet led his captive over, "Very good question Aster. I have never seen either the spell or the attack before!" He turned to Conner, "How did your hand get through his chain shirt to pull out his heart!"

Conner took a deep breath, "Aster, this is the reason I couldn't defend myself when I was accused of taking your daggers. The man who trained me as a Lockmaster threatened to let everyone know what I was if I spoke up."

Pocet pushed his captive down, "And what exactly are you?"

Conner looked at the ground, "When I went looking for a teacher, I couldn't find one. I knew I had magic and even learned to control my Autospells without help, but I wanted to learn to be a real Mage. I lived in the orphanage so no one would even look my way. I got desperate and finally found a teacher."

Pocet put his hand on the boy's shoulder; "Did you find a Black Mage?"

Conner shook his head, "No. I would have never gone to one of them. Instead I found a man who agreed to teach me under the condition I would learn how to be a very special Sect Warrior. At first I didn't really understand what the big deal was. By the time I did, it was too late."

Pocet shuddered, "By the gods, you are a Wraith Sect Warrior, aren't you."

Aster looked back and forth between the two, "A what?"

Pocet rubbed Conner's shoulders. "Aster, the Wraith style has been illegal for hundreds of years in every land. Until now I believed its ways had vanished from mortal knowledge. A Wraith hides behind a façade of another type, in Conner's case, a Griffin. However, in combat they can tap into the spirit realms of death and draw extra power after they make their first kill, or something along those lines."

Conner nodded, "Close. I actually keep the life-force of the being I kill until I need access to the powers of the realms of death. I released the life-force of the first one I killed to be able to harden my hand stronger than the chain this one wore." He pointed down to the man he killed by ripping out his heart. "Each kill makes me more powerful in combat as long as I keep the life-force."

Aster shook his head trying to come to grips with what he was hearing, "What about the breath spell?"

"It is a Secondary Echelon spell. It is very rare. I had to memorize it."

"Secondary Echelon?"

Pocet nodded, "He keeps his true Echelon hidden, because he has to pretend to be a Griffin Sect Warrior. His façade is one full Echelon below what he truly is. From my studies and teachings, a Wraith Sect Warrior took, or in this case takes, an oath not to test until he can pass a test for his fake Sect Warrior Subfield."

Conner gulped. "How do you know all this?"

"My Swordsman teacher was a Ruinseeker. Some of his teachings rubbed off."

Conner looked up, "What now?"

"Huh?" Aster's eyes showed his confusion.

"Under the laws of every single kingdom Wraiths are to be put to death."

"No!" Aster shouted.

Pocet quickly agreed, "They would have to come through me to carry it out, I assure you, but we have a couple of witnesses. If they speak there will be a major uprising to execute Conner." He looked down to the captured Swordsman and the female spell caster.

"I won't tell!" The Swordsman spoke up.

"Sure you won't." Pocet snorted, "I should have just killed you when I had the chance!"

"I'll tell you everything I know! Don't kill me!"

The woman spat blood at him from her ruined mouth and glared.

Shade growled and slashed its claws down her good cheek.

The spell caster kicked at Shade as she tried to back away.

Dart screeched in outrage at the feeble attempt to attack Shade. The huge Archer Eagle ended the problem by throwing down a pair of feathers, ending the woman's life.

The Swordsman saw this and lost his bladder. "P…Pl…Please don't kill me!"

Aster glared, "Let's take him back to camp and see if he really is willing to spill everything he knows. Any attempt to escape, tell on my friend, or hold back information will ensure you a swim in the river with two broken arms and at least one broken leg. Am I being clear?"

The man nodded wildly.

Pocet picked the man up, only to find his knees shook so badly he could hardly walk. "Get moving or we'll let the animals have some fun with you!"

Shade snapped at the man understanding Pocet was using it as a threat. This got the man moving very quickly.

"Good boy Shade!" Pocet stated as he patted the canine on the head. It was becoming apparent having an animal with Shade's intelligence and frightening abilities around was a major bonus.

Dart squawked from above in seeming aggravation.

"I'll pet you when we get back Dart!"

Dart screeched and took to the air.

Conner managed to laugh, "You better keep your word. He will remember if you don't!"

Pocet ruffled the boy's hair. "I don't doubt it!"

The trio walked their captive back to the caravan's campsite joking with each other.

Handri hustled out to meet the small group as they came within sight, "What is going on!"

Pocet ignored Handri as he turned to his men. Forcefully he pushed the captive toward them. "Secure this one, then follow our footprints upstream. There are a few wounded up there. Bring them in so we can get some answers. You other swords form teams and bring the bodies with all their gear here. We need to make a count and check what we got for spoils."

Handri clenched his fists as his face turned a dark shade of red. "I asked you a question Pocet!"

"As soon as I find out I will let you know." Pocet replied calmly as if he was very used to being yelled at. "Go back to bed. Maybe by the time the sun comes up I'll have something to report."

Handri scowled, as he looked around at all the mundane swords he had hired. "Can you a least tell me how many we lost?"

"No one." Aster smirked as he added, "Because we didn't wake them."

"Why not?" Handri screamed, "Why do you think I hired them?"

Pocet shook his head, "Go to bed or I will order a few of the men to take you there!"

Handri's eyes grew in size. He started to scream something before thinking better of it. He turned without another sound and went back to his tent.

Pocet pointed at a pair of mundane guards, "Stay at his tent until he goes to sleep, or he never will."

Both men nodded and went to play sentry duty.

Conner frowned, "What was he yelling at us for?"

"He wasn't," Pocet snickered, "and he will even apologize in the morning."

"Huh?" Aster spat out

"Handri is a very deep sleeper who is totally out of sorts unless he wakes up on his own. Him, getting woken up so rudely halfway through the night, is not the way anyone would ever want to meet the man. Don't take it personally. It is just one of his quirks."

Foxtol came up with a big grin on his face, "The Swordsman you captured is singing like a choir boy on the god of music's holy day!"

Pocet stifled a chuckle; "The important thing is whether or not it is worth hearing."

"Quite worth while. It seems a Halfling woman by the name of Gambra hired all of them to get Zoldon and kill all the rest of us. She even sent in Halfling assassins she herself trained. This was their test of loyalty or something."

Aster shook his head as he grinned, "She didn't train them very well then."

"Sure didn't." Foxtol agreed, "He also said they have a base camp just over a league upstream and they will hit us again just as we get to Lennic."

Aster smiled devilishly, "Then we will let them meet us there!"

"Why?" Pocet asked as he gave Aster a sideways glance.

Aster's whole face lit up, "Because Sardan's team is in Lennic as we speak!"

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