Castle Roland

The Kandric

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 12

Posted: 14 Sept 15

The Kandric Saga

Kyle Aarons

Kandric tied his Warsteed on a tree branch close to his mother's shack. The meal with the caravan guard had settled his nerves and allowed him to calm down from not only the fight but also the earlier argument with his mom. He had a much better frame of mind, and was determined not to allow another fight to start.

He looked at his home with a raised eyebrow. Sy had been very busy. The outside had been completely redone, and there was a new extension on the north side. There were also signs of yet another new section being built near the silver oak closest to the building on the east. As he looked over the work, several men he had known for most of his life backed off.

Kandric almost ignored them completely as he made his way to the front door. At the last second he turned, "Would any of you be willing to earn a pair of copper?"

The Dwarf grunted in amusement, "Yea rich boy. Whose boots do I have ta lick?"

Kandric shook his head, "Just pull some dead grass and put it down for my mount."

A teen who had been off to the side listening in spoke up. "You's payin' two copper fer dat?"

"Yes." Kandric nodded. "I am expecting to be here for a few days so I will need plenty of grass.

"Mind yer self boy!" The Dwarf bellowed out, "I's the one who piped up first!"

The boy started to say something, then thought better of it. He backed off out of sight.

The Dwarf put his hands on his hips triumphantly, "I be getting' yer grass as soon as we get this here ground cleared, packed down and flat like. Might take we folks a bit."

"As long as it has food before nightfall, and enough for a few days you'll get the copper."

"Fine." The Dwarf smiled showing rotten yellow teeth.

Kandric shook his head before he turned to the boy who wanted to make some money, "How about the same deal to brush my steed twice a day while I am here?"

"Sure!" The teen replied eagerly.

"The brush is in the left bag. There better not be anything missing either."

"No way. I don't want no spells tunin' me into a frog or nothin'"

Kandric smiled as he entered his home. He knew he would be the talk of the Swamp Slums for months to come. He hoped Glaster would not be too mad at him.

Jamon stood the second he saw Kandric enter. "Your mom would not let us leave, Master. So we were not able to find anyplace to rent before Vondum came and took Conth."

Kandric handed over his blood-coated weapons. "Clean these, then ask around. It will not take long to find someone who will rent their shack."

Kaylaria looked at the weapons her son handed over, "Are you hurt?"

"Oh, Mother," Kandric blushed, "it was only Gnolls!"

Kaylaria handed over a couple of slices of warm bread, "Only Gnolls? A Gnoll can fall a mundane nineteen out of twenty times!"

"I am not mundane." Kandric stated calmly as he looked around, "When did Conth go with Vondum?"

"He went with your commander several hours ago. Not long at all after the fighting stopped." Kaylaria's voice held a note of disgust. "He did not even let the boy get a coat."

"Did Vondum say where he is staying?"

"No. And since when does a low scout call his commander and teacher by name only?"

"He is not my teacher, and I work with him, not for him." Kandric shook his head. "Maybe it would be better if I just left." He started out the door while handing the bread over to his sister.

"Kandric wait!" Kaylaria took on a pleading tone, "I am sorry."

Kandric shook his head wondering if he was hearing things, "You are what?"

"I am sorry." Kaylaria's posture slumped some; "I have treated you very poorly since your return."

"Mom," Kandric slowly turned to face Kaylaria, "what have I done wrong?"

Kaylaria moved up to Kandric and gave him a hug. "Nothing, Son. You have done nothing wrong at all. I guess I do not know how to face a boy of mine who has made me so proud."

Kandric accepted the hug with mixed emotions. Part of him loved to get a real hug from his mom, the other half wondered if this too was fake as the hug he had received the day Glaster had told his mother of his new job. Regardless, it felt good and he relished it.

Kaylaria pulled back slowly, dragging her hands along Kandric's arms and hands. As she did her long unused Vindayin Channeler powers felt the ring and caused her to nearly collapse with the jolt of power it pushed into her.

Kandric grabbed his mother and lowered her to the ground, "Mom!" He shouted in concern.

Kaylaria shook her head to clear it and held up her hands, "I am all right Son."

Kandric glanced down at his ring finger. He could feel some power in the ring wanting release into his mother. The longer he held his hand back the more visible the ring became and the more intense the power. Finally he gave in and held out the ring toward his mother as he remembered the words uttered by the Tempest Lord, "Trust Syria".

Kaylaria saw the symbol, and gasped. "You wear a magical item with Vindayin's holy symbol on it!"

Kandric nodded deeply hoping he was making the proper decision, "Yes, and it wants to do something to you."

Still kneeling next to Kandric, Kaylaria reached out with trembling hands and touched the emerald tree insignia on Kandric's ring.

Instantly a new presence came into the room, "My humble priestess, why have you not come back to my queen?"

"I cannot my Lord; I have vowed not to use my powers!"

"Ahh, but alas you already broke your vow many years ago. Your actions resulted in your first born being evicted from your father's home. There is no more reason to hold back your powers."

Kaylaria wept, "My lord, is my son dead?"

"No, my priestess, he survives, no thanks to your father. He is well and quite successful, as is your second."

Kandric looked and listened to the conversation in total confusion. At last he couldn't stand it any longer "Spirit, what are you talking about?"

"I believe you are destined to find out about your brothers in due time Kandric, for fate seems to guide you on enchanted paths."

"Is someone watching over my oldest brother or something?"

"Not at the moment. However, I am sure something can be arranged."

Kaylaria looked at her son in a mixture of awe and horror as he held the conversation with one of the highest of Vindayin's minions, "Kandric, you are in the presence of a godling. Kneel!"

"I did not have to kneel for a Tempest Lord why should I for this one?" Kandric fired back. "I will give my respects to them, but it is a servant to, ahh, "Kandric thought about it for a moment before he finally looked down at his ring. "I guess to Vindayin."

Kaylaria cringed as the shimmering Nature Spirit moved toward Kandric. She expected to see a blast of anger, possibly even a blow to be struck. To her astonishment, quite the opposite occurred.

"Kandric, Kandric, Kandric," The Nature Spirit spoke in an almost amused tone, "You are indeed a very strange mortal. I have to wonder what you would do if Vindayin herself came before you."

"I guess I would thank her for the ring from the lowest Elvin bow I could possibly muster." Kandric replied truthfully. "Then ask her what it does."

The spirit laughed. "I bet you would! I cannot tell you everything, little Teacher. However, I think some of your questions will be answered upon the rising of the moon. I can tell you this much. Look where you have stepped, for your footfalls leave only the marks of the wind and you have no scent for the beasts of the forest to pick up. Wounds will more quickly fade with nary a mark, and sickness will never come your way.

"A word of warning is needed here, however. You wear items forged by Syria and Vindayin minions and enchanted by the goddesses themselves. This will not make the demons and devils directly opposed to Syria and Vindayin happy should they stumble upon you."

"I doubt they would like me much anyway. I did help kill an Ice Demon."

"Help? Nonsense! You alone took down a Demon Master outside of its realm killing it utterly. Your actions swung the pendulum of power back the other direction with more force than you can possibly know, Kandric. Fortunately, very few know who pulled off such a feat and all of us who do are not talking."

The Nature Spirit turned back to Kaylaria, "I cannot stay long or a demon might chance upon me and wonder what I am doing talking to a mortal. There is a war being waged and I do not want to endanger Kandric or his family." It pointed at a small locked chest Kaylaria had not opened in many years. The lid popped up. "My queen requests your return to her cause. For as the battle grows, we will need every available resource. Your three oldest boys have proven your father's decision to expel you was incorrect. Furthermore, your younger two are already proving your worth to those who would come to check on you. Now turn your nose up at your elders and rejoin the world of the living."

Kaylaria looked at the small chest, which held her armor, weapons, Channeler's holy symbol, and Outdoorsman equipment. "What does my goddess wish of me?"

"Vindayin wants you to transform this dismal place into a stronghold in her name. Help the people here and give them hope."

"How? They have nothing. Even the game animals have been sparse."

The shimmering faded, "Let Vindayin provide."

Vondum watched over the caravan with a light fire of hatred in his eyes. His first desire was to get his hands on Porma for the pain he had inflicted on Kandric, yet he didn't want to simply stop there. In his mind, the actions of the student fell on the shoulders of the teachers as well, so he studied what was left of the caravan's guards.

The Gnoll attack had hit them hard. Looking at the handful of non-wounded, Vondum wondered what would have happened if no one had interfered with the Gnolls' attack. After a few more moments of study, he figured odds were about even the caravan would have been destroyed as to it surviving.

The only problem was it would have gotten help even if Kandric's brothers had not joined it. The Dragonlings were a serious concern. Red Dragonlings in particular were not known for helping out those in need. It would have been more like them to let the battle finish, then kill the survivors no matter which side had been victorious. The loot would have then been theirs to plunder. And to give the captive young Gnolls over without even extending a claw wanting a silver or two told him something unsavory was surely going on deep behind the pleasant natured front they had portrayed

For such creatures to mention their Queen could only mean Gablon's caravan was now under protection of Trastifaria, Queen of the Red Dragons. No amount of reasoning could come up with a reason for such a powerful being to take such an interest in something so far from her territory. Even worse, Bandurlok had been mentioned by name. For the Prince of Black Dragons to be in collusion with Trastifaria sent shudders up his spine and further reinforced his desire to go below the Silver Spine Mountains and destroy Bandurlok's armies quickly before they became too strong to conquer. If the Queen of Red Dragons sent her forces to augment Bandurlok's before Monarch could launch a counterattack all would certainly be lost.

Vondum shook off these thoughts. All this continuing to worry about things beyond his control would get him was a headache. Besides, no matter what happened he was committed to Monarch's plan. To refocus on the situation at hand, he started watching how the people in the caravan worked on the multiple problems they had. It became apparent their first priority was to move the whole caravan into the clearing just beyond the rocky ridgeline. This took considerable effort due to extensive damage to half a dozen wagons.

A group of young slaves were worked to near exhaustion hauling all the goods from the wagons, which could not carry their loads. The group was carefully watched over by the apprentices, including the two whom had tormented Kandric. Also helping to guard were Kandric's fully Elvin brothers. Vondum pushed his hatred of Porma and Emroc aside enough to nod at the logical use of manpower. The female Dwarf in charge of the caravan's security certainly knew how to use limited resources.

As soon as the wagon's goods had been safely transported to the clearing and covered, the men and women would get to work with teams of draft animals. Three times the group used muscle power to carry one of the four corners of an empty wagon while a team of animals moved at a snail's pace pulling it to the new campsite. Each time one of the people supporting the wagon started to falter another took his or her place. Of course with the limited non-injured manpower, each wagon moved slower than the one before.

As he watched the group struggle with the third one, he realized the easiest way to get his hands on Porma would be to make it look like he was a fair man. He rode up to the group and hopped off. He looked back, "Conth, go help the other slaves transport their goods over here. You may use my steed to assist, but you better work up a sweat right along side the others!"

Conth took the reins and lowered his head, "I will Master."

Several guards eyed Vondum suspiciously as he approached.

Vondum pointed to one of the smaller guards, "You are more hindrance than help with those skinny arms. Move aside!"

Klorna motioned for the man to obey with her head as she struggled to keep the wagon moving. Gritting her teeth she managed to hiss out, "Get with Gablon."

The young man sighed with some relief, "At once Sergeant."

Vondum rolled his hands as he augmented his strength with every gram of Warrior Adept magic he could muster. He smiled almost evilly as several of the others breathed groans of relief as his powerful build was added to the mix of men and women. Even without magically increased strength, he knew he was much stronger than almost every one else in the group. Only Klorna and one other guard would have a snowflake's chance in a forge of besting him in an arm wrestling match.

As the group managed to get the wagon lowered onto the ground at the new campsite Klorna rolled her shoulders, "Thank you for your assistance. You up for helping with the last three?"

"I have little else to do." Vondum managed to smile. Hard work always improved his demeanor some, something he had noted in Kandric almost immediately, which had further endeared the boy to his heart. "It seems Kandric has set off to help your smaller guards with searching for wounded and gathering spoils, so I find myself without a partner and not much to do."

Klorna noted a glimmer in the man's cold eyes as he mentioned Kandric. It suddenly became clear why this man was dead set on getting a measure of revenge on Porma and Emroc. He loved the boy. She made a note to pass this information on to Gablon as she returned Vondum's smile, "Well there be plenty of work here if you want it!"

Vondum chuckled sincerely, "Then let's get on with it!"

Four full hours later Vondum sat down around a campfire with the exhausted guards while meals were served by two boys dressed in fairly nice clothing. "Looks like you have your work cut out for you Sergeant Klorna."

"Aye." She spoke as she tore at the horse meat with her teeth, "It doesn't help much this was one of our stronger animals either."

Vondum cringed involuntarily. Every good warrior knew the pain of loosing a good mount and he bet the same held true when a caravan lost a good draft animal. "How many did you loose?"

"Six," one of the bigger guards answered, "including two mounts. Those damned Gnolls hurt us bad."

Klorna snorted, "I could live with six animals falling if we had not lost over half our guards. I doubt we have the forces to really protect the wagons until we get to another town large enough to hire guards."

Vondum scowled deeply, "Slome is less than half a day's ride."

"No good." Klorna spat in disgust, "They are afraid to travel with us. Word is out there. We attract too much trouble. I am beginning to agree with them."

Vondum glanced around until he spotted Porma resting against a tree way off to the side and well out of earshot. The boy had no interest in getting close to him. Of course, it also occurred to him the lad may have been told to keep a safe distance. A plan started to form in his mind; "I may be able to twist a few arms. Slome owes Black Rapids more than a few favors."

Klorna raised an eyebrow, "For someone who was ready to fight all of us a few hours ago, you certainly seem to want to help."

"Oh, don't get me wrong. I will eat dinner with Gablon and you tomorrow and demand a measure of justice you will not be happy with, but what your two junior caravan guards did to Kandric does not mean I am interested in seeing you all fail. Kandric's brothers are with you and he would be very unhappy if either were harmed when I could do something to prevent it."

One of the older guards spoke with a mouth full of food, "I don't think you'll find none of us carin' much if ya beat Porma's butt er worse. He's been a brat since we picked em up, but I think you'll find most of us stickin' by Emroc. He be a good kid overall."

Klorna glared but kept her mouth shut as several of the others around the fire nodded some consent with the words. If so many of her senior surviving guards felt this way, it wouldn't do her much good to argue. Had she realized the feelings of so many guards were against the lad, she would have asked Gablon to let him go long before they got above the Silver Spine Mountains. To banish him now, however, would certainly spell grave consequences for the lad. Below the plateau he would have had at least a chance at a decent life. Many merchants would have given him a chance and even a few smaller towns guard forces would have taken him in. Up here, his chances were between slim and none with his hatred of non-humans. There were just too many non-humans spread throughout all the small towns and villages. He would either fall into a bandit group, tricked into becoming a slave, or far worse.

Vondum hardened, "Kandric's brothers already defended Emroc. I would dearly love to take a switch to his hide, but to do any more would be to go against Kandric's wishes. You need not worry about him. Porma, however, has not been granted any protection by Kandric's brothers or Kandric himself. It is him, and him alone, I want to talk to your caravan master about."

Klorna noted with a bit of disappointment none of the guards made any attempt to defend the boy whom all of them had spent time training. It would fall to her to set down some sort of boundaries so her people would know where she and Gablon stood on the matter. "He is our responsibility Vondum. I assure you we will be fair in working out some sort of agreement. As far as taking a switch to Emroc, I doubt you will find me complaining much as long as the number of strikes is not too extreme."

"I am glad to see you are so reasonable." Vondum kept a very neutral face while knowing his demands would be very hard for Gablon and Klorna to challenge with the attitudes of the other guards. It would be even harder as long as he treated them well and found them good guards quickly. To this end he stretched and remarked, "I will send Sy into Slome to get you some people early tomorrow. I will also let you fly the Black Rapids' standard on your lead and trail wagon. Nothing up here would be stupid enough to attack one of our caravans."

He had to bite back a smile as all the guards except Klorna nodded in eager agreement to his offers. He held the bulk of the cards and he was sure there was almost nothing Klorna could do to turn her own people against him. Vondum finished eating the meal while making small talk before dismissing himself to grab Conth.

Klorna waited for Vondum to disappear before looking over her guards; "You all basically just threw Porma to the wolves. I hope you are happy with yourselves."

The oldest one spoke up, "Klorna, you know as well as we do, we need his help to get more guards or we is doomed. We have the eight of us, four junior guards, the two Healthmen, the priest, and thirteen other wounded. Most of the wounded will have ta drive wagons 'cause we lost most all the teamsters we had. Even if ya add Emroc, Mokel, Kandric's brothers, and Porma to help protect all the wagons and the goods we ain't got enough ta cover a full night's guard rotation. I have not factored in the slaves neither. We need ta keep an extra guard er two up just to watch the slaves er they might get ideas 'bout slippin' away. Porma did this to himself. Besides, my feelin' is we'd be better off with Rathiter or Darmoth guardin' a wagon rather than trustin' Porma with the job. The boy's nothin' but trouble."

A female guard broke in before the old man even finished. "I fer one am about tired of teachin' Porma. He have never once shown a gram of gratitude for us finishin' his Swordsman trainin'. Let Vondum do what he wants with the urchin. Maybe he'll see just how good he had it with us. About the only ones left in the guard force who are not injured are Teachers, and we didn't sign up with this caravan to pull primary guard duties, only to train the others and provide real firepower when necessary. I'll pull my share of guard shifts during this crisis, but not for an indefinite period of time. Besides, if we send Porma to a wolf, he'd feel right at home with his manners."

Klorna sighed, "Why have none of you approached me with your feelings about the boy before now?"

"We shouldn't have to." The lead Druid spoke up, "Gablon took all of them in. He should have taken more notice. I know you hired us to protect the caravan and teach, but the man we just shared this meal with was more than fair considering what Porma and Emroc did to one of his people. We basically slaughtered the Gnolls who raped Mokel because of what they did to him. Vondum could easily have called for blood for what our students put one of his people through. And I do not think Kandric would have stopped his advance on Emroc unless Vondum had called him off."

Klorna countered, "It had more to do with Rathiter and Darmoth than Vondum."

"Maybe." The female Swordsman grunted, "But Vondum be very fair in helpin' us when he don't have ta. I don't think none of us would be so willin' do half of what he be talkin' about."

The Druid nodded, "If he follows through, what are you going to tell him Klorna? I don't think I'll stick around much longer if you don't give him some measure of justice."

Klorna shook her head, "It will not be my decision, but I guess you all have a point. I will recommend Gablon hands Porma over as long as he will not be killed or permanently enslaved." She stood, as she saw all the others nod. "But I want to see he follows through with his promises first."

Vondum slipped further back into the shadows as Klorna passed by muttering to herself. He continued to listen to her curses with his magically augmented hearing for a few moments before he headed back to where the caravan's slaves were being held.

He smiled broadly as he picked up Conth from the lone young guard watching over the exhausted children. At first he noticed in some surprise the children were out of the cage wagons until he noticed the three slave wagons were full of captive Gnolls, "What's the plans for them?" Vondum waved his hand toward the slave wagons.

The young guard shrugged, "I do not know sir. Right now they are being treated as part of the spoils. Some belong to you and some us. I do not think anyone knows how things will be split yet."

Vondum glanced down at the young man's bandaged arm; "I can fix ya up with a simple spell if you would like."

The teen held out his arm, "If it is no trouble. It sure hurts."

Vondum extended his pinkie fingers and ring fingers, then spoke a short phrase while pointing at the wounded area. A flash of green light leapt from his fingers and entered the sliced arm.

The guard rubbed his arm; "The pain is almost gone!"

"You can thank Kandric for letting me capture a Heal Minor Injuries. It is the most powerful heal spell I can cast though, so you may want to keep the bandage on another day or at least let your Healthman take a look before you take it off."

"Thanks! I sure will!"

Vondum grinned as he ruffled Conth's hair. The more guards who liked him the easier it would be to guarantee Porma falling into his hands. He was somewhat aggravated Klorna had thought to ban permanent enslavement, but now he knew her stand and could offer the stipulations before they demanded them. Porma would one-day walk as a free person, for Vondum was a man of his word. The time in between Porma being turned over and him going free would make it all worthwhile.

He gave the teen one last farewell wave as he picked Conth up and placed him on his mount. As he climbed up he looked down, "I hear you pulled your weight this afternoon."

"I tried Master."

"I am sure you did. Your reward will be a full night's sleep without morning chores. Sleep as late as you would like."

Conth looked up in astonishment, "Are you sure Master?"

"Yes, little one, I am. The next two or three days will be your last chance to rest for a very long while. For we go into battle and you will be my squire, not my slave. I want you well rested."

"I understand Master."

"Not master Conth, I am to be addressed as sir while you act as my squire and during the breaks in fighting we will work on your Warrior Adept skills. Remember what I told you the first night you were given to me about having to change how you acted to fit what I wanted?"

"Yes sir."

"Well, until you are told otherwise, you will act as a squire, learn as a squire and receive the respect of a squire. A squire upholds the honor of his teacher and follows orders as a solider, not a slave. Your training will start as of now so take off the slave collar."

Conth struggled with his sore shoulders to remove the collar. Finally Vondum assisted in undoing the latch in the back.

"Do you know how to use any weapons?" Vondum asked as he slipped the collar into his saddlebags.

"I have received familiarization training with ten weapons sir."

"How about actual combat skill learning?"

"Only on a morning star, short sword, sling, and daggers sir."

Vondum's eyebrows rose, "You mentioned morning star first. Would such a hard to use weapon be your primary choice?"

Conth nodded slightly, "Yes sir. I got quite good with one after smacking myself countless times with wooden training ones my old teacher had made for me."

"Have you ever used a real one?"

"Yes. I had my own but it got took in the raid by the monsters who gave me to you."

Vondum briefly thought about finding out what Monarch had done with the boy's weapon, but dismissed the idea knowing it had probably been made of bronze or at best iron. Instead he felt another question was in order "Why didn't you use it?"

"I never got a chance. The creature busted through the side of my father's wagon while I was just getting ready for bed. I was told I would be killed if I made any move other than to get dressed."

Vondum shook his head; "One of your first lessons is to always try fighting first. The chances of them killing you were quite remote. Children are valuable to raiders. Had you fought, you may have distracted one of them enough to allow one of the adults to fight with less opposition. Had everyone fought instead of surrendered, the Illorcs would not have been so easily able to overwhelm your group."

Conth chewed on his lip in thought as Vondum guided the mount back to the Swamp Slums. Finally he looked up; "The two older boys who did fight were beaten up."

"So?" Vondum replied coldly.

"Well if I had fought I would have been beaten too."

"Look at where you are boy. Have you not been made into a slave, given away, lead by chains, beaten by me, forced to run around my cabin while my men took swipes at you, with switches and worked to near exhaustion?"

Conth lowered his head in shame, "Yes sir."

"So what difference would an additional beating have meant in the overall picture? I would not have been able to force you to walk behind my steed had you been handed over to me beaten and too injured to walk, so you did little more than exchange one ordeal for another." Vondum rubbed his hands down Conth knowing he would one day partake of the beautiful boy. He felt Conth shudder as his hand lingered on the boy's jewels. "Think this over as you endure my groping, boy. Had everyone in your group fought, you may have never been captured in the first place and you would not be as uncomfortable now as you are."

"I guess I should have tried."

Vondum removed his hand and stroked Conth's cheek. "I had some very harsh teachers Conth, far harsher than I have been to you or your brother. One thing I was taught, which I still hold as my motto, came from one of the meanest creatures to ever slap a whip across my back. I hope you can learn it without me scaring your beautiful body as I was scared."

Conth cringed at the thought of being beaten with a whip. He waited expectantly but only got silence. Finally he could stand the thought of getting whipped no longer, "Are you going to tell me what he said?"

Vondum stayed quite for a few moments more before speaking. "You are already learning. You pushed past your fear and asked the question. The words my teacher spoke to me I had to repeat every day when I first saw him and before every meal. Each time I failed to do so or missed even a single word I was beaten. Are you ready for such a responsibility?"

"What if I say no?"

Vondum laughed heartily for a few moments, "Try and find out."

Conth felt like he had just stepped into a trap. Every direction he looked seemed to come up with bad results. Yet he knew he now had to answer Vondum. Bracing himself for a blow he felt was sure to come he shook his head, "I don't think I am ready yet sir."

Vondum's voice dropped a full octave to take on a truly menacing tone, "You don't?"

Conth tightened even further, "No sir."

"Good for you." Vondum's voice resumed its normal gruff tone. You stuck to your words even under the threat of my voice. I will tell you the words, but not expect you to turn them into your creed yet. Some day, probably soon, you will ingrain them into memory through repetition, but right now I want you to simply think them over."

Vondum stopped the mount and turned Conth to face him. Once he knew he had the boy's full attention he stared deeply into the frightened child's eyes and spoke the words beaten into him over years and years of training. "To try and fail means you failed. Failure is second worse to only one thing, fear. To not try, due to fear, means failure and you disgrace yourself in the process."

Conth looked into Vondum's eyes as his Mindmaster training found the truth behind the words. Vondum lived his life refusing to admit fear because for him fear was the ultimate failure for any person. Fear was also his greatest tool, for as long as others feared him, he had power over them. The only question was how on this world could he not fear a man who was willing to torture to get the reaction he wanted?

Yet he also saw a glimmer of hope. For somewhere in Vondum's twisted mind a person who did follow the no fear creed would be treated with great respect. Like Kandric who faced his fears, he could become a free person if he could ever figure out how to push his own fears aside and prove he could do so to the man who now owned him.

Kandric looked over at his mom as she pulled item after item out of the chest Vindayin's minion had opened. His mind managed to make sense out of most of what was said, but so many questions were left unanswered his head hurt. "Mom, what did the spirit mean when it said your first born was evicted from your dad's home? I thought you declared my oldest brother a non-child and sent him away."

Kaylaria removed her gauntlets from the chest as she spoke, "Kandric, I did declare your older brother a non-child when you were still very young. He, however, was not your oldest brother. Long before you were born I was banished from my father's house and your oldest brother was kept by him as a ransom of sorts so I would not use my training." Taking a deep breath she tossed her long unused guild pins onto the floor for Kandric to see.

Kandric looked down in shock; "You are a Secondary Echelon Sorceress?"

"I put aside my training all these years except once. The single time I used my powers was in an attempt to save your father's life. I failed. I hoped my father would take some pity on your oldest brother, but it is clear he did not. I know as much about him as you do now."

"What is his name?"

"I know not. My father took him the day he was born. I was not allowed to name him nor even see him."

Kandric frowned deeply, "How can I contact my grandfather so I can find my brother?"

"You will have to figure such things out on your own. Sooner or later, I am sure you will cross paths; for it seems you have allies the likes of which are all but unheard of."

"Friends Mom, not just allies."

Kaylaria shuddered, "Son, I cannot imagine calling a spirit of any sort a friend, for they are far beyond normal mortal's power. Make sure you tread carefully on their territory."

"I am always careful and courteous Mom." Kandric looked over the growing pile of weapons and equipment. "Why did you not teach us how to read, write, and survive better when you had the skills and all the training?"

Kaylaria closed her eyes and asked her goddess for some guidance, a slight whisper seemed to fill her ears for a moment before fading with the sounds of rustling leaves being blown in a light breeze. She motioned for Kandric to help her with her chain shirt as she started to speak, "I hail from royal blood my son. When I was banished from my home I had to put aside every bit of my royal standings and training. To do less would have invited further reprisal from your grandfather. Furthermore, by not using my skills and having children who got trained I have in essence proven his decision was incorrect. Your hard work in getting trained on your own without my assistance grants me the chance Vindayin has now given me. For your true lineage places tremendous importance on how successful a child is.

"You succeeded where the conditions for you doing so do not exist for children. Yet somehow you have become a very powerful child without a single perk of the upper class to help you. By custom this makes me a very good mother, even though I look back and do not see how this could be. So through your actions I have regained my status."

Kaylaria looked at Kandric as he moved around to finish adjusting the chain links over her shoulders. His eyes told of his utter bafflement. "I am sure you have millions of questions, and you may ask as many as you wish. Let me ask one of my own first though. Did I understand you are Teaching Echelon?"

Kandric clasped his hands together and spoke a few arcane words before nodding. He extended glowing hands to the tarnished armor and allowed the golden green waves of light to seep into the armor. Within seconds all signs of the armor being long unserviced vanished. "I made Teaching Echelon the night I defeated the Ice Demon. I had help, but no one seems to care. They make it sound like it was me alone, even the spirits."

Kaylaria looked down at her armor, "So my boy is a Mage."

"No; Shaman."

Kaylaria's features slipped into a bemused frown as she looked into Kandric's eyes; "I have never heard of a Shaman with a repair spell. Only Mages can repair items."

"Mages have a Repair spell, yes. However," Kandric grinned devilishly, "with some teaching by my spirit friends I have learned a way to cast a spell called Refurbish. It does not truly repair a totally broken item like a Mage spell, but damaged or worn items can be brought back to original status as long as they are not actually broken."

He smiled at his sister as he again clasped his hands together. Carefully he touched her lone toy, a wooden doll which had been left on the shelf because its left leg was badly cracked and almost broken. She had cried for days about it, but refused to play with it because she didn't want it to "hurt" more than it already did.

The wood mended and all the other cracks and scuff marks vanished under a new wave of golden green light. Grinning broadly he handed the doll to his sister, "Tamantha is better now."

The hug Kandric got made the hours he spent working with the quasi-water spirits all worthwhile. "Make sure you take better care of her so she does not get hurt again."

Kaylaria nearly shed tears along with her daughter, "My son, you have talents I could never hope to match!"

"I had a very good teacher Mom." Kandric smiled as he watched his sister start dancing with her doll.

"Indeed." Kaylaria sobered some but her smile stayed wide as she also enjoyed her daughter's joy. "Somehow I do not think I have heard the real story behind you becoming one of the youngest, if not the youngest Teaching Echelon Shaman in history."

"I cannot tell you." Kandric looked away, "but I have one more question I would like answered truthfully."

Kaylaria closed the chest and sat on it as she motioned Kandric over. "Somehow this sounds serious."

"Not really." Kandric sat next to his mother; "I just want to know more about my older brother. Why did you send him away?"

Kaylaria wrapped her arm around Kandric's shoulders. As she did so, she wondered how a young boy of such small stature could possibly defeat an adult Gnoll and she could not fathom how he could have felled a Hobgoblin. Yet he had done far more, for the Nature Spirit confirmed he had dropped an Ice Demon Lord in combat. To accomplish such an incredible exploit would elevate most people's egos to something beyond controllable, yet Kandric professed to have only shared in the victory and really seemed embarrassed by it all. "You know I have forbidden anyone to talk about him Kandric."

"Yes. But, technically my guild ranking is higher than yours, so I am truly the man of the house. If this is true, and what you have made us learn about Elvin culture is also true, then you must answer me for the man of the house sets the rules. Besides, it sounds like he is doing well too, from what the spirit said."

Kaylaria glared for a moment, then chuckled, "I see I have taught you too well, or you are far more sneaky than you seem."

"Both!" Kandric flashed her a grin.

Laughing Kaylaria pulled her son into her shoulder and stroked his hair, "My, my, you are a quick witted one!" Slowly she continued to caress Kandric's head and neck as her mood sombered some; "Your older brother did something for which I had no choice but to expel him from my home. Do you remember him at all?"

Kandric's brow furled in thought, "Some, I think. He taught me a game called log roll, where I rolled down a long hill like a log. The straighter I kept myself, the faster I would roll. He had races with me, did he not?"

"You do remember. I am impressed." Kaylaria squeezed Kandric harder. "He was very good with you. What else do you remember?"

"Not much," Kandric admitted sadly, "I kind of remember some of the other kids calling him names, like Dark Elf and Drow. He never said anything unless the kids started teasing Rathiter, Darmoth, or me. Then he would get really mad. I think he beat some kid up once because he made Darmoth cry."

"He did far more than beat a child up Kandric."

"He did?"

"Yes." Kaylaria breathed hard, "Conner, like you and your brothers, was gifted with magic. He learned how to control his Autospells on his own, and had complete control over them by the time he was about human equivalency of seven. About six months before your father died, Conner became very angry with a boy who was an apprentice of a Mage down in the city we were living in. I do not know what happened exactly, but for some reason the apprentice had something to do with Conner not getting an apprenticeship at the Mage's shop. Conner reacted by burning the apprentice with a Spark Autospell bad enough to where the boy was scared for life. The noble court declared it an accident, but I knew better and so did Conner even though he refused to admit it one way or the other.

"Your father tried for days to get him to come clean and tell the truth, but he did not. It was somewhat strange, but he flatly refused to say anything about the older boy or his own actions. I gave him the choice of becoming a non-child or telling what really happened. He walked away refusing to say a word."

"Did he ever try to come back?"

"Not while we lived in Junsac. Your father traced him to the orphanage there, but to the best of my knowledge he kept his word to me and never spoke to Conner. Less than a year later, your father died in an accident at a Silverton mine and we came up here. The last time I saw Conner was the day he turned his back and walked out of our home in Junsac."

"I go down to Junsac with the One Armed Man once and a while. Do you think he is still there?"

"It is very difficult for an orphan to do much of anything Kandric. It would have been doubly hard for him to get anywhere because he caused quite a scene when he burned the apprentice. To find someone who would overlook such a thing and risk angering an Expert Echelon Mage would be next to impossible. You may try to find him if you wish, but do not expect him to be the loving brother you remember. Then again, the spirit did speak highly of your older brothers, so he may have found someone to train him after all."

"Mom, I may have been very young, but I know in my heart my brother would not have burned anyone on purpose. Even when he beat the kid up who made Darmoth cry, he got mad at Rathiter because Rath wanted him to hit the kid again. He would not do it and refused to play with Rath the rest of the day."

"Kandric do what you feel is best, but let me reiterate, Conner knew full well how to control his Autospells. Your father tested him daily after he started displaying magic and Conner worked very hard to impress others with his magic control. All he wanted was to become a Mage from the first day a smoke puff escaped his outstretched fingers, which I might add was at you."


"Yea, you were a little sick, so he was trying to help feed you. You bit his hand as he tried to get you to eat more. He yanked back and a big puff of smoke made you start coughing. It took your father and I almost five minutes to figure out there was no fire and another thirty before we finally figured out what had happened."

Kandric giggled, "Sounds like I deserved it!"

"Conner did not think so. He was almost in tears thinking he had hurt you."

"See, he did not like to hurt people. He would have never burned anyone!"

Kaylaria shook her head, "Kandric if he did not why did he not say something?"

"I do not know." Kandric sighed, "My first spell was a Spark Autospell. I was the one who killed the Goblin the night we were attacked."

Kaylaria turned a little pale; "You killed the Goblin! In all these years I have wondered what happened the night they burst in. I almost used a spell, but I got hit and knocked silly. The next thing I knew they were running in terror as one of their own burned just outside our hut."

Kandric shrugged, "It was reflex. I must admit it was pretty funny watching all of them run as I started to walk forward. I was so tired I did not even know what had happened until you grabbed me and pushed me back inside. Maybe Conner saw something which made him react like I did."

The door opening as she was about to speak interrupted Kaylaria's reply.

Jamon entered and bowed as Kandric had taught him to do. As soon as Kandric acknowledged him he stood up and spoke. "I found an empty shack right next to the swamps. The people say the woman sold her kids to the caravan and left the Slums, master. There are a few of others we can rent for one to two copper a night depending on what you want."

"The empty shack will do fine Jamon. Get our gear into it and when Vondum shows up inform him of where we are staying."

Jamon gave a quick bow, but remained still.

"Is there something else?"

"Yes Master. You have a guest who wishes to speak to you."

"Send him in."

Jamon nodded and hustled out the door.

Kaylaria glanced at Kandric; "He is very well behaved. He would be worth far more silver than I have laid eyes on in some sixty years."

"He is my slave, but I like him as well Mom. He is my student as well as owned by me. Jamon will be freed when he makes Primary Echelon as long as he continues to serve properly."

Kaylaria cringed, "You have no idea how strange it sounds to hear you say a boy who will soon be older than you in equivalent years is your student."

Kandric grinned, "Sounds weird to me too!"

Kaylaria watched as Kandric's cheerful mood evaporated in an instant. Kandric's hand raced to his sword faster than her mind could react. She looked up to see a young teenaged Human boy shuddering in fear at the door.

"What do you want?" Kandric stood with his sword positioned perfectly for a deadly strike.

Behind the boy, Jamon spun and drew a small dagger Kandric had given him in case of an emergency. His look stated he would protect Kandric if needed even though his hand gripped the pummel way too tightly and was held all wrong for a serious attack.

Kaylaria was not sure what to make of this whole situation, but instinct took over. She rapidly picked up her Elvin Silver Steel tipped staff. Her hands quickly found a fighting grip even though she had not touched it is some sixty years.

The boy raised his hands showing he held no weapons, "Please let me speak." His voice squeaked in pure fear.

Kandric lowered his sword ever so slightly changing his blade for an attack to a defensive position "Why should I? You did not when you and your friend had me pinned on the street in Slome!"

Kaylaria glanced down at her son; "With your skills, this one bested you?"

"Him and one other. I had to let them." Kandric stated harshly through clenched teeth. "If I had used my powers I would have killed both of them, because I had not eaten in days! I did not have the fighting strength to stand up to them unless I reverted to real training in weapons combat, which would have also exposed me as being trained and also killed both of them."

"It will do no harm to let him speak son."

Kandric re-sheathed his sword with blinding quickness, "True, and now I can freely use my magic because it is not a secret here." He motioned to Jamon, "Thank you, but I can handle this. Please get our hut ready."

Jamon bowed, "At once master."

"A very good slave indeed." Kaylaria muttered more to herself than anyone else as she kept a close eye on the situation.

Emroc stood still with his hands still open. He had no idea what to do so he waited, figuring if he made the wrong move at this point it would most assuredly be his last.

Kandric took a long breath to steady his nerves. When he finally did speak his voice told both Kaylaria and Emroc of his barely underlying rage, "You came to me, so speak!"

Emroc's body trembled as much as his voice, "I'm sorry for puttin' my iron dagger to yer skin. I am bettin' the words sounds very hollow, so I'll let ya do whatever you want to me fer as long as ya want."

Kaylaria's hands tightened around her long unused staff; "You put iron to my son's skin?"

Emroc started crying in shame, "Yes ma'am."

"Do you know what iron does to an Elf's skin?" Kaylaria nearly screamed.

Totally quivering, Emroc managed to nod, "I knew it be bad fer you. I didn't really know it be like poison though."

Kaylaria started pacing, "It is far better for us to get impaled with an iron weapon than rest iron against our skin. I knew an Elf who was subjected to torture by being forced to wear iron shackles. His skin blistered so badly and the pain become so terrible he went crazy and killed himself by biting off his own tongue.

"To purposefully put iron to an Elf is enough to bring on an Elvin Blood Vendetta. Every Elf who found out about it took to arms to kill the offending person. The animal who did the torturing was eventually captured and put on a desert isle with a fountain he was magically prevented from getting to. He died of thirst within a meter of a clear pool of drinking water."

Kaylaria paused to take a breath, "Why in the name of Vindayin would you do such a thing?"

Emroc looked down at the dirt floor, "I thought all non-Humans be bad."

"Thought?" Kaylaria snarled.

Emroc nodded, "Yes ma'am. I never got to know no non-Humans before I came here. The day of da fight I see Humans, Halflings, Dwarves, Elves, and even a couple a Halforcs fight ta save other types of bein's. Then Darmoth saved my life when he didn't have ta none. I promised ta me never ta do such a thing again, but when I found out who I'd hurt I couldn't even take a look at Darmoth and Rathiter without hatin' meself. I heard Kandric be here so I told the sergeant of guard, Klorna, I needed some time ta be alone and she granted it to me. Even as she did I could see the bad feelin's in her eyes as she stared me down."

Kandric walked up to Emroc, "Did you tell your people where you were going?"

"No. I be told not to leave the camp area none, but they won't give me er Porma no duties. I can't sit there and be nice to your brothers knowin' what I did to ya. They don't understand none, and think it be partially yer fault no matter what I tell them. I couldn't let them blame you so I left. It be better they don't think a me as their friend."

Kaylaria scowled, "You are not planning on going back?"

"I can't. It ain't fair to Darmoth and Rathiter fer them to see me as their friend after what I did to Kandric."

"What do you expect me to do?" Kandric shouted out in frustration, "Beat you up?"

"Whatever ya want. I don't care no more."

Kandric spun suddenly with a rage filled punch, which knocked the wind out of Emroc. Before either Kaylaria or Emroc could react, Kandric delivered a second blow directly to Emroc's nose. The youngster fell flat on his back and covered his bloody face expecting more blows to fall.

Kandric backed off with his fists still balled up tightly. He had to fight himself not to continue the attack. Finally he got some control back. "Now we are even. All I want from you is to be nice to my brothers, help them learn, and protect them as best you can."

Emroc stood up on wobbly legs as he clutched his nose. Nervously he extended his hand.

Kandric accepted the offered hand, "I cannot guarantee Vondum will not want a piece of you as well."

"I'll take whatever he dishes out. I deserve it." Emroc turned to leave.

Kandric put a hand on his shoulder to stop him; "We can be friends if you like."

Emroc turned, "Seriously?"

"Yea, but only if you want to."

Emroc nodded as new tears of relief trickled down his bloody cheeks, "I really am sorry."

"I know." Kandric tucked in his middle two fingers and cast a quick healing spell. Instantly Emroc's nose stopped bleeding. "I respect you a great deal for coming here, and I am sorry I hit you. I should have taken your apology."

Emroc rubbed his nose for a second before he was sure the pain was really gone. "It be OK. I don't think Porma's gunna come and say sorry though. I don't think he cares none and I can't convince him he be wrong in hurtin' ya."

Kaylaria stepped forward, "You can only speak for yourself young man. I am sure Vindayin would be very proud of you for being so brave as to come here and face my son."

Emroc managed a slight smile, "I thought you'd make me a slave er somethin.'"

Kandric shook his head, "I might have if you had not been so kind to my brothers, but I owe you a great deal for taking care of them."

"I will, promise."

"You know Porma is another matter do you not?" Kandric warned as he stared Emroc down.

Emroc flinched but kept his gaze steady. "Uh huh. He don't talk to me none since I started helpin' yer brothers learn ta fight. I should a never thought he be my best friend. If I could says sorry fer him I'd do it, but he'd try ta make me take it back the way he be actin'."

Kandric walked out of the shack and watched Emroc head back toward the caravan camp. He used his infravision to make sure the boy made it back to his guards safely. As he turned he found his mother right behind him.

Kaylaria gripped Kandric's shoulder, "I do not think I have ever been more pleased with one of my own flesh and blood my son. Your actions this eve took more character than most will ever have over the course of their lifetime. No wonder the spirits treat you with so much respect."

"Do not praise me too much Mom. I have not begun to deal with the other kid."

Kaylaria laughed, "No, but very few Elves would have given anyone a chance to make amends, let alone do so for the simple price of a pair of punches, no matter how well placed they were. The other one will get what he deserves, for I assure you, I would not have been so lenient even to someone who had been kind to my own children."

Kandric stretched as he felt the moon finally come up. He breathed a sigh as his magical energies renewed. Suddenly one of the real powers of the ring became apparent. Some of his new magical casting force slid into the ring as a slight amount of his old force slipped out. Unlike a normal night where all of his old force would have vanished he kept most of what he had left, stored safely in the ring. A large amount of his new force spilled into the ring, while the rest stayed within his body. He suddenly realized the ring would store old force giving him almost double his normal casting abilities if he were to save his magical energies.

The amulet with Syria's lightning bolts also rippled with energy. Wind and the smell of the air after a spring shower rushed around him and his mother. The amulet shimmered as it wrapped a protective cloak around him. He knew almost instantly this was some sort of magical wind armor. As it did so he realized all the sweat, grime and dust of the combat and its aftermath were effectively washed away. His hair returned to its splendid reddish silver luster and his body was as clean as if he had been given a bath by a trio of highly trained bathhouse slaves. The amulet also imparted knowledge of the next day's weather. It also kept the temperature exactly where he felt most comfortable.

Kaylaria saw the magical necklace for the brief few seconds it was visible. She gasped, "You have been taken in by two goddesses. Your fight with the demon must have been much more impressive than I could ever fathom!"

Kandric threw up his arms; "I did what had to be done with help. I do not see it as a big deal!"

"You may not wish to take credit Kandric," a stiff breeze stated firmly as it blew past, "but we both know you took command and you fell an Ice Demon Lord. Take my gift to you as a simple thank you."

Kandric knelt followed within seconds by Kaylaria, "You are welcome, and I thank you as well."

The wind spiraled upwards and a quartet of lightning bolts shot out. Each one stuck a cloud and ripped it asunder.

Kandric saw one start to reform in an angry bubbling mass. He extended his hand and spoke a phrase taught to him by the Fog spirit. Dry waves of heat rolled out of his fingertips and launched skyward. The cloud split again before it could totally reform. A dark figure in the center screamed in an unearthly female voice as moisture was sucked out from around it.

Kaylaria saw this and cast the first spell since the death of Kandric's father. Spirals of fiery bands swirled around the Cloud Demonette. Together they continued their magical assault until the hideous screaming stopped and the last of the cloud burst into a million raindrops.

Kandric snorted, "Gee Mom we work rather well together!"

"Not really, my spell was more like adding insult to injury. You took out a dark spirit and now there is one less demonette permanently, for she died outside of her natural realm!"

Guards throughout Gablon's caravan grabbed weapons as the terrible screeching sound carried over the swamps. Gablon ran out of his main tent grabbing his scimitar as he went. He moved outside to see other guards running around, "Klorna?"

The Dwarf moved to stand beside him, "Here. What in the name of the gods made such a noise?"

The young Warvon Channeler came out from the Healthman tent clutching his holy symbol. "Merchant Gablon, There is only one sound written about in the Scrolls of Warvon which could make such a death scream. Someone has just destroyed a demonette or she-devil!"

Gut instinct took a hold of Gablon as he breathed a single word, "Kandric!"

Klorna didn't understand why but she found herself nodding, "Agreed."

Gablon turned sharply, "Klorna, get one of the slaves to bring me my magic books. I need to do some study."

The Warvon Channeler frowned, "Why Merchant Gablon? Even if it was the red-haired Halfelf, why worry? One less demon or devil is a good thing!"

"Indeed, but he will be eating with me tomorrow and he comes from a very ancient and powerful race, he may even be more powerful than I first thought or his elders and teachers can imagine. If I am to do business with such power I need to understand what I am dealing with to the best of my ability!"

Klorna looked over with a totally puzzled expression, "What you are dealing with? He is a boy, a hell of a powerful boy granted, but still just a boy."

"Maybe." Gablon turned to look skyward as a spattering of raindrops came out of a clear sky, "But I am no longer sure just calling him a boy is a proper wording."

Emroc looked up from his seat next to the campfire. For an uneducated boy, a sudden inspiration far above his level of knowledge hit him. The word he spoke sent shivers up the spines of all those who heard his single utterance spoken in complete awe, "Mythling!"

Handri glared at Pocet as his lead guard told him of Aster's plan. "You expect me to stay with the goods while you go up the road with wagons full of rocks? Are you insane? I bet the people who attacked us want you to leave me defenseless!"

Pocet shook his head, "They want Zoldon and our goods and they are expecting us to continue on. You and all our goods would be well guarded by one of my men and one of Aster's. You would also have your pick of the hired swords. The only way to get these people off our back is to destroy them. We will be attacked one way or the other, so why not let them hit wagons laden with rocks instead of Aster's traveling forge and all of your goods?"

"Why not just hand over the slave boy and call it good?"

"He is not mine to hand over and if you ordered Aster to do so, I would walk away with him right now."

Handri's face burned a dark red, "Are you threatening me?"

"I would never do you harm or threaten you and you know it." Pocet took a step forward to crowd the man. "I have stuck by your side for many, many trips through areas where we could not find a single other sane warrior to join us and we have made a great deal of money together. However, I will throw it all away if you ever again suggest we give in to a bunch of bandits by turning over anyone, including a slave. Especially one who does not even be owned by you."

"Why not just ride the caravan through and let Aster's friends in the Watch stop them?"

"Because Aster will only be getting help from a team of four. They are all Teaching and Expert Echelon, but in no way make an army. Me, our men, Conner, and Aster will have to join the fight in order to take them out."

Handri glanced around. He could see all the men were already beginning the preparations for unloading the wagons in a small cave Pocet had found when he had scouted the area the previous night. "Very well then, under the conditions I go along and all but the one Aster has driving his wagon goes along. He can set up a small area to use his Channeler and Healthman skills for the wounded here. The only way this will work is if they can see me and I want you to have your men with you because I want my wagons to come back!"

Pocet conceded the stipulation without a single argument. Once Handri made such a decision there was no way he would be able to convince him otherwise. it made no difference how dangerous or stupid it was. He pointed to the men to begin unloading the wagons. "What about the swords?"

"They'll attract attention here. I want this place hidden in case they send scouts out. They must know by now their assault on us last night failed miserably."

"Yes, but this rainy weather will be our ally. They know we have little choice but to follow the roads, so they will not be suspicious of us continuing on down this path as they might otherwise be. Besides, it takes a great deal more than a single ambush to stop you and if they have done any checking at all, they would know this. They have no way of knowing we captured some of their people either, so they shouldn't suspect we know there are more of them."

"Why the rocks?"

"They would notice a lightly burdened wagon a kilometer away, even in this storm. Our wheels would not sink in the muck near enough if we kept them unloaded. We have to keep all the appearances normal as possible."

Handri muttered something unintelligible as he turned away and climbed back into his wagon.

Aster came over to Pocet, "What is he doing?"

"He is going with us, and will not take no for an answer. I'll detail all the swords to protect him the moment the fighting starts. It is the best I can do, we'll need every real trained person to fight without having to worry about protecting someone."

Conner shrugged, "I'll put an armor spell and shield around him as well. It will not prevent him from getting hurt, but it will give him a little extra protection."

Pocet smiled, "Good idea, but you two should be sleeping. You were up all last night!"

"So were you." Aster countered.

"I am an adult Aster, and my body can go longer without sleep than yours."

Aster shrugged, "Your men can handle the rock loading and the storage of the goods, why don't we cuddle up and take a nap together."

Pocet blushed madly as he looked around to make sure none of the men had heard Aster's remark. He felt his heart start beating again as he realized only Conner was within earshot. The look of shock on Conner's face told Pocet the young Elf didn't have a clue as to his friend's more hidden side.

Conner stood looking back and forth between Aster and Pocet for several seconds, "Are you like, ahh…" His voice trailed off in a mix of embarrassment and not knowing what words would fit the situation.

Aster patted Conner on the back, "Yes, we are more than friends. Don't worry; it was my choice as much as his."

"I can kinda tell. I mean, you are great friends… But do you really like being with each other?"

Pocet knelt, "Yes. Why would you think otherwise?"

"Because I think it is nasty to have someone pawing all over me." Conner stated after a few uncomfortable moments.

Aster moved toward them knowing Pocet didn't want his men knowing about his secret love life. When he spoke his voice was soft and full of understanding. "Conner, it isn't like it was when we rented ourselves out in the orphanage. I am not a toy or a tool when I am with Pocet. He loves me and I love him. We share, have fun and enjoy the closeness."

Conner frowned, "He lets you do stuff with him?"

Pocet nodded, "Of course I do. I have had slave boys before and rented boys from brothels and even wandering lads before, so I know what you are talking about Conner. You are used to having to do all the pleasing because you were being used for their pleasure. I still like to have all my desires met once and a while, as does Aster. I know because we have talked about it. Being with Aster is so much more special though, because he wants to be with me and I want to be with him. It is much more gratifying to get pleasure if you are also giving it. Unless I miss my guess Aster just wants to sleep, but would kind of like to be held by me as he does so." Pocet turned to face Aster and winked, "Such a thing sounds like a great idea to me by the way."

Aster yawned, "Good because I am tired."

Conner chewed on his lip in thought before speaking, "Why not girls?"

Pocet raised an eyebrow, "Girls are nowhere near as attractive as boys are, nor can you do as much." As he spoke he reached over and lightly squeezed Aster over his loincloth. "Boys simply have more to play with."

Aster giggled, "So do men."

Conner frowned, "Can I ask more questions if I have them?"

"Sure you can Conner." Pocet patted the boy on the back, "But I would ask you keep it somewhat private and away from my men."

"I will." Finally Conner relaxed enough to grin, "Have fun, I think I'll take a nap myself."

A small figure slipped past the guards at the main gate of Junsac. It wasn't at all hard for the Halfling woman to use a pair of wagons and a dispute over gate fees to gain entry unnoticed. Half a block in she chuckled evilly to herself. "Why pay a tax when you don't have to?"

It took her no time at all to blend in with the city dwellers and visitors. The heavy rain allowed her cloaked form to be only one of hundreds moving quickly to destinations. Unable to resist, she took full advantage of the situation at hand. Before she made her last turn into a back alley, she had collected no less than seven pouches from beings too concerned about not getting wet and keeping their heads down than keeping an eye on their own belongings.

She opened the locked door at the back of a home with her picks in less than five seconds. One of these days she figured rich people would learn to spend the money for good Dwarvin locks, but until then, she was quite content to have almost every door vulnerable to her skilled touch. Before anyone could detect a draft, she slid inside and shut the door without so much as a whisper of noise.

She stood still for several seconds getting a feel for her new surroundings. Her practiced ear picked up the sounds of a pair of children playing above as well as someone off to her left chopping crisp vegetables for the evening meal. Satisfied she advanced down the hall. A glance into an open kitchen door verified her hearing was good as ever. A Human woman dressed in a maid's outfit and wearing a slave collar worked busily getting a stew ready to cook.

The Halfling waited for the woman to move away from the cutting board before she reacted. She flipped her wrist tossing a dart as she did so.

The slave slapped at the sudden discomfort in her neck. Before she could even pull out the dart her hand had found she dropped to the floor.

The Halfling again paused and listened. She smiled as the sounds of the children playing continued and no one called out wondering what had happened. In some ways it seemed sad no one had heard the woman fall to the floor. A good fight was always kind of a challenge, yet Junsac was no place to accidentally alert guards either. Moving on, she found a spiral staircase heading up and a foyer separating the dining room from an elegantly furnished study. The smell of pipe smoke drifting down from above let her know the man of the house was indeed home. This complicated matters somewhat for she knew from her scout's information he always had a bodyguard close at hand. On the plus side she had very good information about her target. The man of the house never allowed any servants or slaves above street level.

Her original plan had been to secure the home before he came back from work then strike. She shrugged after another moment of thought. Her orders hadn't been very clear on this matter anyway, so I didn't really matter what happened as long as she completed her primary assignment. Twisting her fingers counterclockwise one after the other she spoke a long arcane phrase very softly. Swirling tentacles of blue smoke slowly laced out from all eight of her fingers and snaked throughout the beautiful house. She kept her concentration carefully on the spell so she would not loose control of a single tentacle and made sure none crept up the stairs.

The one controlled by her left ring finger found its prey first. She felt it spring forward like a coiled rattlesnake attacking someone who had just stepped too close. Quickly she flipped the finger controlling the magical extension. It instantly broke loose and shot down into the dining room out of sight.

The next strike came from her right pinkie followed within seconds by her left index finger's magical feeler. She sighed in some relief, for each one she was able to release made controlling the others all the easier. Better yet not a single alarm had yet sounded.

She allowed the other extensions to roam the lower floor freely for a few more minutes. One found the slumbering slave and broke loose while yet another found a target in the basement. At last she ended the flow of power to the final three. She had a brief struggle with the ancient evil magic as the remnants attempted to attack her, but she was ready and cut off the flow of energy before they could complete their attacks. Being a Dark Mage was challenging at times, because some of the spells were actually living and had primal instincts like wanting to survive. Much like a bee willing to die to sting, dark magic often times turned on the caster when it came time to end the spell.

Part of her felt sorry for the three parts of the spell which ended without finding a mark, for in essence they died never having had a chance to do anything at all other than feel life. Her feelings flickered and went away just as quickly as the spell had.

She moved through the lower section of the house already knowing what she would find. All five victims lay on the floor with dark crushing bands of bruises around their bodies. A slime trail led away from each body and continued under the front or back door, whichever had been closer. The five parts of the spell, which had killed, were now Demon Larva. If they survived long enough and managed to control the life force of their first kill they would one day become minor demons. A scream from the street told her one had already failed to find a hiding place. Its life would be brought to a swift end by the city guard. It also told her she would now have to move very quickly for the city guard would descend on this section of town in hoards looking for more of the vile Demon Larva.

A pair of faces looked down from the balcony overlooking the spiral staircase. Neither could see the carnage on the lower floors from where they were and their faces wore more of a look of curiosity rather than concern. The Halfling spotted another adult female looking over the rail just as the woman spoke, "Dafnay, what is all the commotion out on the stre…"

Her words stopped before the question could finish as a dart lanced into her side. Both kids jumped as the woman fell, and a third slipped into view. Gambra had not expected three children, but it was a simple matter to take care of the problem. She pushed a little extra magical force into her spell as she released it. All three youngsters failed to get out a warning as they slumped to the floor under the effects of a simple Slumber spell.

The Halfling darted up the stairs as sounds of shuffling feet caught her attention. She was already at the entrance to the upper office with a dagger drawn before the door opened.

A small man emerged and dropped his pipe as he saw the Halfling. Fear flared into his eyes as he realized who held a dagger on him. "Gambra, what is the meaning of this?" He yelled hoping to attract attention from people already growing cold from death.

Gambra laughed, "You really are a fool if you think any of your people are alive to help you!"

The man paled noticeably, "Wh…What do you want?"

"You failed us Noglin and we lost two of our best men because the slaves you sold us didn't fight for us. You knew how important winning the arena match was to us and you sold us trash!"

Frantically the man shook his head; "They were the best I had. I don't know why they didn't want to fight. I still have the money and will give it all back to you."

"The best you had?" Gambra's soft voice rang with the sounds of extreme hatred. "Your incompetence has cost Monarch dearly. I have had to send my own assassins to deal with the problem and they were killed by the people you sold to us. The money will not replace my students, nor will it make our next attempt to take the boy easier."

"Why do you need him anyway? He is broken and will remember nothing."

"He is key to everything you pathetic fool! He and he alone was made heir. We control nothing without him! This is your second failure Noglin and there is a very good reason no one has ever failed Monarch three times."

"I have never failed you before!"

"Oh no? Then why is Parnell no longer the day slave Overseer?"

"Do you think me to be a miracle worker?" The man asked frantically, "He stole from The Watch. His children were scanned by the Baron's own Mindmaster and proven to have been sent by their father to where the goods were being hidden. Parnell's only defense was he, himself, didn't send them. Then he refused to a voluntary scan."

"Idiot!" Gambra hissed, "If he had allowed himself to be scanned by a Mindmaster he would have had to let down all barriers and it would have revealed his alliance with us. We spent thousands of silver to first find a Healthman capable enough to get rid of his burn scars, then years more putting him into a spot where he would be able to help us find talented people we could recruit right under the noses of The Watch. Now his oldest son is missing and youngest two sit on the day slave block he once ran.

"It was your job to cover his back. Even if he was stupid enough to steal from The Watch, which I do not believe he did, you could have done something. It would have been easy. You could have found a former day slave to say it was his plan because he hated Parnell, or any number of other methods. Now I am down to having a few jailers recruit for us. Making matters worse two of the jailers were caught by The Watch. Somehow, The Watch has infiltrated us and foiled my plans to kill those who failed to delay the caravan. We are compromised so completely in Junsac I was sent by Monarch to start from scratch.

"The jail is my only viable operation left and only because I had two independent teams. Those who were captured know nothing of the other two. Anyone my last two contacts in the dungeons get for us will already be known as serious problems though, so are nowhere near as valuable to our operations as those Parnell could find for us. The day slaves turned out to be our best recruits, and you knew how important Parnell's operation was to us."

"I still can arrange something." Noglin offered out of desperation, "They will believe it if I find someone to take the blame."

"Too late. The Watch has found out too much about our operations because of your lack of swift action." Gambra moved forward with her blade. "Besides, we have already found a replacement for you."

Noglin tried to run, but never stood a chance. Before he could even turn, the blade flashed in one quick slash upward into his stomach. Gambra watched with a measure of glee as pain rippled through her victim's face. She relished moments like this. Wanting it to last as long as possible, she twisted the blade slowly so the pain would be too intense for Noglin to retaliate or pull free, yet not so terrible as to make him loose consciousness. Several moments went by, then his eyes rolled up into the back of his head and he stopped breathing.

Gambra spat in the dead man's face, "You died much too quickly."

In the not so far distance she could hear the guards knocking on doors. It wouldn't be long before they made their way to the end of the block and knocked on the door below. First she slipped into the office and grabbed the man's money chest. It was almost too much for her to lift, but greed made her stronger than normal. She sighed as she set the chest down and pulled out her spell book. It took only seconds to find the page she wanted and another full minute to read the magical runes on the strange parchment. She could only teleport four beings including herself, so one of the living would have to be left behind.

Gambra shook her head, leaving a survivor was not her way. She looked over the three children wondering who the third one was, then glanced down at Noglin's wife. She grinned as she stepped on the throat of the slumbering mother. The children would be worth far more than a middle-aged woman. Her last deed was to fish out a small item from her own pouch which took a couple of extra seconds because she had to locate hers among the extra stolen ones dangling off her belt. At last she dropped a small silver butterfly, with a crest carved into both wings of an Illorc's hand holding a sword dripping blood on a kite shield. The blood was crushed ruby to give it the desired effect. There would be no question of Monarch's involvement in this mess. Part of her wondered why he wanted his crest displayed at such a crime scene, but orders were orders.

Hard pounding on the door let Gambra know it was surely time to flee but she waited. She finished the spell just as splintering wood sounded below. Typical guards, she thought with a smile as she put her foot on the locked box.

Seconds before the guards managed to get up the steps, dark gray swirls surrounded the girl, two boys, Gambra and the strong box. The only thing the lead guard saw was the final twists of the spell as a hideous mocking laughter echoed in the house devoid of living tenants.

Quavis watched Sardan as the Hawkling finished adjusting his armor. "I could help."

"I have no doubt of your desire, but you are not yet trained so the answer is no." Sardan stayed firm but did soften some as he slid his two daggers in place. "I guarantee the day you pass your Primary Echelon Swordsman guild test, I will take you out to search for treasure and glory."

"You will be long gone on some other assignment by then." Quavis stated glumly.

"Not true. I have taken you on as a student and will continue as your teacher until you are guilded. I may have to go on missions once and a while, but unless I am felled in combat I will return to continue your training."

Quavis' eyes lit up, "Are you serious?"

Sardan turned and knelt. "Quavis you are my first student. I was not there at the start of your learning because you did much on your own, but I have every intention of being there the day the Swordsman Guild pins a copper sword on your shirt."

Quavis looked down, "Shouldn't I go into combat with you as a squire or something?"

"You have not learned those skills yet and the enemy we face today is not the type to hold up to the ritual of not killing a squire who has not lifted a sword against them." Sardan hated the depressed look on the boy's face. "I'll tell you what: If you stay here like I have instructed, the second I get back, we will go to the guild here and have you tested in the Training Echelon. Once we find out just how advanced you are, I will have it entered into official records you are my student. I will then pin the Training Echelon pins onto your shirt myself. Furthermore, we will get you properly fitted for some good reinforced leather armor with sheaths sewn in for your throwing daggers."

"But what if you don't come back?"

Sagell spoke up as she helped Sardan adjust his armor, "The Watch will make sure you get trained Quavis. I will contact Protector's Keep before we ride out to the field of battle so they know they have someone to take care of if we fail, which we will not. This team has not botched a mission once since we started working together five years ago. Rage will stay with you until we return or some other member of The Watch comes to get you, so you will be protected."

"Shouldn't Rage go with you to help fight?"

"Not yet. Rage is fully trained but has this slight problem of going absolutely nuts if I am hurt. He will attack friend and foe alike if I get so much as a scratch. Until he gets over his master guardian problem, he stays behind. Sooner or later he will learn to accept me getting a little banged up and will come into combat with me."

"I thought all Druids had to have some sort of animal focus." Quavis thought aloud.

"She does." Sardan chirped out.

Quavis looked around carefully. Finally he gave up. "Where?

"Stealth," Sagell called out, "show yourself before the boy's eyes get stuck in a squinting position."

A shimmering of reddish copper materialized in the corner of the room, then took form.

Quavis gasped out in a mixture of fear and astonishment as his eyes took in a six-meter long, one-meter tall winged lizard with copper and orange colored scales and a fearsome set of teeth. "You have a dragon!"

The creature cocked its head to the side showing spiraled horns sticking out of its upped head, "A dragon? I am not simply a dragon, child."

Quavis backed up a step, "A talking dragon!"

"Dear lad, you might want to refrain from keeping your jaw from hitting your belt line. An open mouth invites critters to fly in and take refuge. I must again reiterate, however, I am not a mere dragon. I am a Fairy Dragon."

Quavis snapped his jaw shut and stared not knowing what to say.

Sardan put his hand on the boy's shoulder, "Stealth will give Sagell all the focus power she needs."

"How did she ever train a Fairy Dragon?" Quavis finally managed to ask as he cautiously slid forward to get a closer look.

"She did not train me, young one. I had been wounded in a battle and Sagell prevented my death, destroyed my enemy, and nursed me back to health. For her efforts, I gave my loyalty."

Sagell smiled warmly as she saw Quavis' hand move slowly forward, then pull back, "Stealth likes his tummy scales rubbed lightly the wrong way."

The Fairy Dragon rolled over and kicked its clawed feet out of the way, "Be careful of my talons. They often inflict temporary paralysis if they draw any blood, and the last thing I want is to get only a half a tummy rub!"

Gingerly, Quavis ran his fingers up the stomach of the beast.

"Hey!" Stealth squiggled, "Stop tickling me!"

Quavis laughed, "Your scales are soft!"

"Like I stated before, I am not a mere dragon! Now kindly rub a little harder before I accidentally nick you with a talon. I cannot help but thrash a little when being tickled!"

Quavis spent a full hour "petting" Stealth before Sagell shook her head. "I think we should get in position."

Stealth groaned with a hiss, "I was almost asleep!"

"I know. I also know how cranky you are if I have to wake you, so I felt it best if we leave now!"

Quavis stroked the Fairy Dragon one last time, "You take good care of her and Sardan and I will give you a tummy rub until you go to sleep next time."

Stealth rolled over and yawned. Wisps of steam licked around the corners of its mouth as its tongue gave Quavis' cheek a quick lick. "You have a deal!"

Stealth vanished from sight as Sardan and Sagell exited the room.

Quavis watched from the window as the quartet made their way down the road leading out of Lennic. Rage curled up next to him as he continued to stare out the window long after they had vanished from sight. Finally he felt the pangs of hunger and stood. The corner room offered him a second view. In his concerned state he almost missed it but the glimpse out of the edge of his vision was enough to make him look again. Off in the distance a shape slowly slid in and out of view. The rain and fog along the riverbank kept things a dull gray color but there it was, the twin "X" shaped magical sails of the Thunder Rapids.

Quavis jumped up and almost ran out of the room. Only a growl from Rage slowed him. "It's OK boy. I am going to the docks, not to follow Sardan."

Rage stalked up next to him and growled again.

"No. It's OK, you'll see." Quavis patted the huge feline as hard as he could. "Come on."

Finally Rage bounded forward and looked around. Its stance told Quavis it was looking for danger. Apparently satisfied, it glanced back as if to say, "Let's go."

Parnell looked over the assembled group of lowlifes and cutthroats. This was certainly a far cry from his nice cushy job as Overseer of the day slaves, but it was far better than the job of Gate Tax Auditor he had walked away from only a couple of days before.

The rain didn't make his job of commanding these misfits any easier. They had been grumbling for a full day and a half since the bad weather set in and each minute it only made matters worse. He moved away from the road so he could once again settle the men down. He stepped up to the one of the more vocal groups with a snarl; "I am not going to say this again. Knock it off with the complaining and the noise. We are here to ambush a caravan, and you have all been very well paid. The next person I can hear from the road will be sent directly to Monarch!"

A Halforc teen stood up and started speaking with a bad lisp where his lip had been caught between one of his tusks and a blunt weapon. "We's not come here to play in wadder. When's tay get here?"

"Water or no, you will cease making all this racket. They will get here when they get here. I am sure their wagons are not moving very fast along this path." Parnell fired back in a very aggravated voice.

"Don't matter none!" A Dwarf spoke up, "They would'a be here by's now if'n they be commin'. We should'a headed back hours ago!"

"We are not going anywhere." Parnell seethed as he glared at the group. "We wait till we hear they turned back or show up here, understood?"

"Who's made you's a god?" Another Halforc asked as she played with long bronze spikes sticking out of her massive meter and a half long club.

Parnell wanted nothing more than to blast the woman out of existence with a spell, but every warm body he had would dearly be needed shortly. He glanced around making sure he had all six beings attention, "If you want to leave, take your money and go, but remember this: Monarch, himself, is the one who paid you to follow my orders. Your instructions came from him and were two fold. First, and most importantly, is to get him the dark-haired Human child alive. Second is to destroy the others and follow my commands. You took his money. You decide if you want to do what he…"

A shout in the distance caused Parnell to halt his speech and look off in the direction of the road. A scream of pain told all the beings a fight had erupted. Parnell climbed over a log just in time to hear the sickening thump of arrows striking flesh behind him.

Frantically he turned back around only to see both Halforcs face down and another pair of arrows slam into the Dwarf and a Halfelf. Out of instinct he dropped to the ground as two more arrows impacted the last two members of the group he had just been speaking to. Near panic fell on him as sounds of fighting erupted from all around him. A trap had certainly been sprung, but whose?

Aster saw one of the swords nearly get cleaved in half as the lead wagon made its way down the hill leading to the town of Lennic. He barely shouted a warning before the small tufts of woods on both sides of the wagons seemed to erupt with dozens of charging beings of all shapes and sizes. His axe came out in a flash as he slammed his heels into his Dragon Steed. Two figures fell under his axe and another three fell to the hooves of his massive riding animal. The only problem was, his efforts didn't even make a slight indention into the enemy's forces or morale. A burst of fire gouged into the second wagon killing the driver instantly.

In his loudest voice he yelled out. "Shade! Dart! Go after spell casters only!"

On the opposite side of the wagons Pocet found almost the exact same thing. His charge with the Elvin silver steel blade he had purchased from Aster the first day he had met the boy took down multiple bandits. The blade was bloody well before he finished his first pass at a full charge with his Dragon Steed. Seven beings would never again get to their feet again, but those seven were replaced and almost doubled in number before he could spin for a second pass.

He watched in outrage as one of his own Swordsmen was pulled off his steed and beaten. In a flash he charged and dove off the steed. His flying tackle, with an extended long sword knocked six attackers off their feet, while another staggered back, looking at the pummel of his sword sticking out of her gut. He didn't bat an eyelash about the fact his weapon was no longer in his hand. He pulled his magical scimitar and swung at anything that moved around his fallen friend.

His well-trained Dragon Steed went to work without his guidance, slashing with front hooves while kicking with back ones. The middle two legs of the six legged beast moved methodically, taking the animal in a circular motion like a giant top spinning on a single point. When something tried to get to one side or the other, it found out a Dragon Steed's head could move far more than a horse or Warsteed. Each attempt was rewarded with a viscous bite of sharp reptile-like teeth.

Handri watched in horror as one of the young swords was first knocked down, then the Gnome standing over the teen plunged a spear into the lad's chest as he tried to surrender.

Less than a second later Conner appeared out of seemingly nowhere. The young Dark Forest Elf snapped the spear with his bare left hand, while his right middle finger and index finger gouged into the astonished Gnome's eyes. Handri nearly lost his afternoon meal as Conner pulled his hand back and still had both eyes on his fingers. Blood gushed from the ruined eye sockets as the Gnome fell.

Handri was about to shout out a warning to Conner when the boy's eyes glazed over for a split second. Before his 'Conner behind you!' emerged though, Conner spun to face a Human with a battle sword.

Handri was certain he had seen the last of the boy as the dark haired lad raised his right hand to defend against a sword slash, but quite the opposite occurred. The blade shattered as it impacted Conner's hand.

The Human backed off half a step looking at his ruined weapon. His eyes told of his total confusion, then of his agony as he died.

Conner's left hand plunged forward with an open palm.

One attacking Halfling standing a full fifteen paces away heard the man's breastbone shatter under the impact.

Conner's right hand produced a Dive and tossed the four-pointed bladed throwing star into the Halfling's throat, as he pulled back from the man's crushed chest.

Handri looked on in a mixture of morbid fascination and awe as Conner again paused for an instant, then ducked under an advancing Illorc's sword swing by doing the splits. From his low position both of the boy's hands shot up and crushed the bronze plate covering the Illorc's groin.

The Illorc screamed as it fell to the ground. Its only thought was to remove the metal now crushing its adulthood.

Conner's eyes glinted in a victory as his hands smashed into the crunched metal a second time as he stood up from the splits without the assistance of his hands. He paused for yet another moment as he used the life force of the dead Illorc to become even stronger. This was a real rush of power, which meant the beast had been at least Secondary Echelon. For a moment he pondered what to do with this newfound power. Both his hands were already the strength of stone, although the sword slash to his hand would surely need the attention of a Healthman before too long. The wound caused a steady trickle of blood down his arm.

Then the idea came to him, he allowed the Illorc's energies to wash down to his elbows. He allowed a pair of Humans to come at him from behind before he lashed out with both elbows.

Handri felt his eyes nearly bug out as the small boy's elbows smashed into the chain shirts of a pair of men. The blows impacted with such ferocity, the chain links burst outwards from the middle of their chests as rib bones popped into view

Conner felt another rush of power as he saw two men move toward Handri. He had never before had so much life force to play with so he experimented. He pumped the power into a burst of speed. Faster than any Lightning Puma could hope to run, Conner sprinted to Handri, clothes-lining both men as he did so. With the sheer speed he was moving and the fact his hands and elbows were about as hard as a marble statue, it didn't surprise him when both men's necks broke.

Conner calmed himself enough to cast a shield, armor, and blur spell on Handri before he blazed out of sight, flipping one hapless Halfling in a full 360 as he ran past. The Halfling's reinforced leather armor shredded under such a violent impact sending dozens of the metal studs into the being's torso.

Sardan slashed at two separate Lizardmen. One fell to his talons on his right hand while the other dropped under the onslaught of his sword in his left. "By the gods, Sagell, they must have fifty or more lined up against Aster out here!"

"More!" Sagell grunted as she swung her silver dragon adorned staff snapping the leg of a Gnome as she moved up next to Sardan. "I have never seen this many lowlifes in one place in my life!"

Gomriss stuck her axe point into the skull of a Hawkling, lifted the dead beast up and tossed it, knocking down a pair of Gnolls. "There are too many between us and Aster! We will never get there in time!"

A small Halfling darted forward, slicing the throats of the Gnolls before they could recover. One dagger in each hand did the job nicely. "Sardan, we have taken out fifty by ourselves. I am out of arrows and Gomriss is correct. We will not get there in time!"

Sagell felt her face go flush in anger as she launched a Fire Burst at a female Elf who successfully cast a Restraint Spell on a man standing next to Aster way off in the distance, "Stealth, find Dart and Shade! Open us up a path to Aster's caravan before there is nothing left of his group!"

Aster dove off his Dragon Steed in an attempt to help Elmar. His axe caved in the skull of a young Illorc as he came to his feet. All around him beings were locked in a deadly combat. From his vantage point he couldn't see a single surviving untrained sword. Sweat dripped off his body as he used his axe like a lever, swinging upwards as violently as he could.

The effects were telling for the Orc attacking him. It fell to the left as its leg came off at the hip. So shocking was the terrible attack, it didn't even cry out. Its eyes simply rolled up as it passed out.

Aster glanced back to Elmar's unmoving figure still held in magical restraints, but a new pair of attackers prevented him from giving aid to the wounded Swordsman. Off in the distance, Aster could see Sardan, Gomriss, Sagell, and Desmar moving up from the rear. The problem was they were every bit as engaged in the fighting as he was. One of the wagons was already on its side and there was nothing left to protect the others. Gritting his teeth, he swung the back of the axe smashing the jaw of a Dwarf as he did so. As much as he hated to, he started to fall back away from Elmar.

Conner's form shot into view in a single instant as an evil winged being known as a Harpy attempted to make a surprise swoop with extended talons on her feet. Conner's well-timed toss of a pair of Dives caught her in the wing and chest. She fell with a sickening thud and crunching of wing bones. "We have to pull back Aster!"

"I know Conner, but to where? I have never seen such an assault!"

"This is insane!" Conner grunted as he managed to cancel the spell holding Elmar's unconscious form. "How could one slave boy be so valuable?"

Aster helped Conner grab Elmar's arms and pull him back toward the wagons. He had to stop once to hack into the face of a Gnoll. Conner used the break to snap both arms of a Dwarf who decided to rush forward. "I don't know how much more I have left in me Conner, my arms are already feeling like jelly!"

"I am going on nothing but life force. When it runs out I will drop. I don't know how you and Pocet could still be going after all this."

Aster looked up as Shade solidified for a moment to rip the throat out of a Lizardman, then shift back into shadow form so it could vanish and attack from a different angle. A second falling Lizardman and a glint of copper colored scales told him Stealth was pairing up with his Shadow Wolf, "I am going on sheer desperation Conner."

Parnell looked at the Dwarvin woman in confusion, "What do you mean there is nothing in the wagons!"

"Just what I said Commander." The woman looked back to where the wagons were stopped due to lack of drivers, "I made it up to the wagons before the tall human forced me back. They are loaded with rocks. There is no children slaves, no cargo, just rocks!"

"No wonder it took them so long!" Parnell shouted in aggravation. "They somehow found out we were here and hid the boy and their goods!"

"What are your orders sir?" The woman bellowed, "We are well over seventy percent losses and they continue to mount!"

"We have them stopped and still outnumber them by four to one even with their friends out there. Send in the Goblins and dispatch the Illorc reserve to find where they have hidden the boy!

The Dwarf blinked wondering if she had heard him correctly, "Goblins? They are walking through trained men, Illorcs, and others and you want to send in our Goblin reserve?"

"Yes. Goblins would not have stood a chance earlier, but now they are near exhaustion and we have them beat. Surround them and capture one. In case the Illorc's can't backtrack the caravan, we will make them tell us where the child is!"

The Dwarf bowed and shouted out a set of orders. Within moments twenty-five more beings joined the fight against the caravan.

Aster panted in dismay as the new arrivals charged down the hill. Conner mirrored his look of consternation and near surrender. Aster looked at his bloody axe and used his right hand to pry loose his fingers, which were cramping around the weapon's handle. Likewise, Conner's small slender frame sagged against the wagon he had put his back to for a measure of protection. The two boys exchanged glances and almost sat down to give up when a new sound rang out on the battlefield.

All heads turned to look in the direction of Lennic. In the growing gloom of the late stormy evening a new force could barely be made out. Then an instant later the leader tossed something high in the air.

Two bright loud flashes burst above the fresh Goblin troops and those keeping the four Watch members away from the caravan. A thudding boom sounded with enough force to be felt by everyone within half a kilometer. Streaming greenish smoking particles fell around and onto the group of bandits and monsters below the flashes. Their screams of agony told everyone not touched by the particles the strange fiery light falling from the sky was much more than an optical effect.

Aster saw the effects and heard the sounds. Knowing the battle had been joined on his side gave him a shot of fighting spirit. He looked up after slamming his axe into the chest of a Gnoll. His arms were so tired he could barely pull out his axe. His eyes caught moment of a huge white feline as it ripped a Halfling attacker apart, "That is Sagell's new pet! They be more than allies, they be friends!"

Conner grunted as he forced himself to gain a second (or third) wind. He slammed his palm into a stunned Orc, ending any chance of it recovering from the shock of seeing a new force to contend with, "The gods must be in our favor for this miracle to happen!"

Quavis pointed to Sardan, "Captain Pontarious, he is my teacher!"

The captain looked over as the Hawkling ripped talons across the chest of an Illorc, "Quite an impressive sight."

Benam lowered to a knee and fired his crossbow, striking a figure trying to work its way behind the Hawkling his friend had pointed out, "Looks like they are all but exhausted though Father!"

"Indeed it does, but we are not." He looked over his shoulder, "Men and women of the Thunder Rapids, Attack!"

As he spoke, he pulled another potion from under his cloak and tossed it at a group of Gnolls moving toward the halted wagons. Even in the intense rain, sheets of flame shot up over three meters high forcing most back. Two were caught in the burst of flame and fell screaming. Three others escaped the flame and continued forward toward a pair of boys no older than his son and Quavis. "Cresh, take Benam, Quavis, and another Swordsman and help those two. They look like they are ready to fall from exhaustion."

Cresh looked down, "You ready boys?"

"Yes sir!" Benam looked over at Quavis, as they charged forward at a dead run following Cresh and another young Swordsman, "Is your Teacher going to be angry at you."

"Yes." Quavis smiled as he tossed one of the daggers he had stolen from the house where his brother and sister had been captured by Junsac's city guard. "But he thinks I will test very high in Training Echelon and said I could handle myself if I needed to."

Cresh glanced back, "Good throw, but knock off with the talk, because right now you need to!"

Aster spun with sagging shoulders as a Gnoll fell off to his side clutching at a dagger in its armpit. He slammed his Axe down with everything he had left, ending the creature's threat to him and Conner. As he used what little energy he could muster in himself to pull the axe out of the lifeless form, his eyes fell on the dagger, "Hey, I made you!"

Conner glanced down and saw his friend's craftsman mark on the hilt of the blade. He managed a smile. "Good thing you made it so well. Cause I don't think I could handle a Goblin, let alone another Gnoll at the moment."

"Nor I. The gods may be on our side, but a little more help from them would be very welcome right now."

A voice surrounded Conner and Aster, "You had but to ask. Consider this a long distance helping hand from your brother."

"Huh?" Conner looked to Aster, "You have a bother?"

"You both do. And he is owed a favor or fifty." A childish voice giggled, then faded.

Parnell saw a small figure move forward with three others and a massive, white, furry animal. The smaller boy threw a dagger with deadly efficiency. Just as his eyes fixed on the boy, the rain stopped and the clouds vanished. In the last rays of the setting sun, he could clearly make out his own son fighting side by side with members of The Watch and their new allies.

His eyes met his son's and he saw recognition and pure hatred. He barely ducked out of the way as his own boy threw a dagger his direction. As he rolled, he watched in a combination of horror and astonishment as the dagger suddenly veered as if the rays of sun striking it caused it to move. It spun sideways and stuck into the base of the skull of his female Dwarvin Lieutenant. She died without even seeing the boomerang effect of the dagger.

He glanced up to see rays of sunlight seemingly harden to deflect swings of his forces while guide the weapons of those he was supposed to destroy. It didn't take him long to figure out he was not going to counter magic on this level. Keeping his head low and using every bit of cover he could find, he ran for his life.

Captain Pontarious looked around in a momentary stupor as everything suddenly went right for his people and absurdly wrong for those he was attacking. He noted in some bewilderment the ground even changed to favor his guard contingent. When his men stepped, they no longer had to pull their feet out of the mud, while those they attacked seemed to sink in further with every footfall hampering their progress and their ability to fight. Movement off in the tree line also caught his attention.

Tree branches, blown by strange winds, deflected arrows flying out of the nearby woods making their flights completely inaccurate. His archers fired back and found their own arrows affected in an opposite way. Some deflected off branches and impaled enemies they were destined to miss, while others were literally blown on course. Four full volleys of arrows fell into the woods from his people and nary a one missed.

Sagell stopped as she felt a sudden aura of power close in with the setting of the sun. The Scrolls of Quati, god of the night sky, told of such a feeling when one of his minions was close at hand but over the years of being a Quati Channeler, she had never experienced it. Not even when she was deep in prayer and her god's power flowed into her so she could heal someone had she chanced on the true power of Quati until now.

Sardan noticed Sagell pause, "What is wrong?"

A young male voice emerged from her mouth, "Nothing is wrong Hawkling. Stop our people now so I can fight!"

Sardan almost raised a weapon to his longtime friend until he saw the starburst necklace glowing with intense golden white power. Nothing could possibly do anything to the holy symbol of a Channeler unless the god in question wanted it to or an evil force was attacking it. Gut instinct told him the former was clearly the case this time. "Gomriss, Desmar, pull back!"

Sagell felt total peace settle into her as she extended her arms upwards. The light of the Sun faded quicker than anyone could fathom as shooting stars burst into view in the sudden night sky. Each star seemed to shatter into a cloud of smaller shooting stars as they neared the field of battle. Men and monsters fell by the score between Sagell and the caravan as small glowing stones slammed into them.

Aster and Conner were still busy fighting, but they paused long enough to exchange quizzical glances. Aster fell to a knee. "I have nothing left!"

Conner grabbed a wagon to steady himself, "Me neither."

"Now, now boys," a female voice spoke to both of them, "your brother would not be happy with such a poor attitude."

Conner looked up at the night sky as he actually felt the light of the moon as it splashed light across the now dark battlefield. The moon replenished his magical force and then glowed even brighter. With the replenishment of magical energies he felt all weariness leave his bones. His eyes glinted, "Thank you Lunara!"

Aster shook his head to clear it. He looked over to Pocet and Foxtol who were both doing the same. With the sudden appearance of the moon he instantly felt completely refreshed. Lunara, goddess of the moon and sleep was the only explanation for suddenly feeling so rested. He raised his eyes to the full moon, "Goddess, I have never been to your temples before, but by my word I will drop off an offering the very next time I see one!"

Both boys, along with Pocet and Foxtol, re-entered the battle with renewed strength and spirit. Before the stunned attackers could counter the refreshed forces of Pocet, Conner, Aster, and Foxtol, fourteen more of their number had fallen.

All along the battlefield men and women of The Watch, Handri's caravan, and Thunder Rapids met as all remaining opposition was utterly crushed. Within minutes of the bizarre quickly setting sun, all was back to normal. The clouds grew heavy and the rain returned. A final crackling of lightning ripped through the sky and hurtled downward with deadly accuracy into the few beings who tried to flee.

Captain Pontarious moved up to Sardan who was helping Aster bandage Elmar, "The gods took a very personal interest in this fight!"

"Indeed." Sardan stood and offered his hand, "The gods were here in force and all will get a prayer from me, but my thanks also goes out to you!"

"Thank Quavis and my boy." Pontarious nodded in the direction of his son and Quavis who were busy helping to right a wagon with several other men.

Sardan tried to glare at Quavis to show some displeasure with his commands being ignored, but failed after only the briefest of moments.

Captain Pontarious grinned, "Know how you feel, mate. Quavis came to my son and then both came to me all but demanding I do something. The look alone had me beat before I even tried to figure out an argument." Pontarious rolled his eyes to show how helpless he was to counter the boys' pleas.

Sagell smiled, "He can be quite persuasive when he needs to be."

"Indeed." Pontarious laughed, "Nice display of firepower by the way, priestess."

"I had Quati's power to help me, you did not! What caused the loud noise and burning rain?"

"A potion I developed a few years back." Captain Pontarious opened his cloak to reveal several vials held in place by perfectly sized pouches. "We Mystics do not get a great deal of respect sometimes, but once in a while a magic liquid or two can turn the tide of an entire battle."

"Thanks for the firewall too!" Aster stated sincerely, "Conner and I were about finished before Lunara replenished our strength."

"I noticed young man. You two fought like godlings! It was my pleasure to assist."

Pontarious turned to Pocet. "My men are the freshest. What would you like us to do?"

Aster looked up, "Get our wounded sir."

Pontarious saw Pocet nod and immediately pointed to some of his men. Without a word, they grabbed others and went in search of those who could be saved. Everyone silently knew the numbers would not be good when they finished their sweep, but there was hope of finding one or two and the effort had to be put forward.

Master Lannet took the news of Aster's close call with a sigh. He released his Watch pin before turning to the guards under him, "Any more reports of the dark magic?"

The lead guard shook his head, "No Master. We have accounted for all the Demon Larva from the bodies in the home. They didn't even manage to get out of this block."

"Good." Lannet looked around before his eyes fell on the sobbing woman being held back from the house by a pair of guards. "What of her boy?"

"Nothing. We swept the house three times, there are a pair of toy horses up on the balcony, so it is possible the boy was magically transported with the bother and sister. All our guard saw was a swirling and heard a female laughing. Whoever did this left this behind, though." The guard handed over the silver butterfly dropped by Gambra.

Lannet studied the ornamental figure for a moment, before he lightly rubbed his hands over the finely carved wings. His eyes closed as he used his mind to "feel" the craftsman's work. It took a few seconds before he made out a dimly lit cave with a full jeweler's forge. The deeper he allowed his mind to merge with the object, the more he got to understand the maker and what it took to make the item. Every nick with a carving blade was etched into the item in more ways than most people could ever fathom. He could see the psychic impression as the being poured his heart out to make the item to the highest quality possible.

This love and dedication was the maker's focus, but Lannet ignored this and concentrated on what else had been accidentally impressed into the craftsmanship of the item. Even as the being labored to make each cut perfect, his eyes and ears picked up what surrounded him at the time. Most of these things were like trying to hear a whisper while holding a metal shield above one's head in a hailstorm, but some things caused a distraction. These, Lannet could easily make out because they were part of minor imperfections which aggravated the craftsman, so his or her thoughts dwelled on the minor mistake and why he or she had messed up.

At last Lannet looked up, "It was made in a well equipped yet hidden forge somewhere in the Deathland Mountain Range. This is only one of hundreds the craftsman has made or is supposed to make and there is a huge reward due for completion of them all. There was sounds of screaming and torture in the background, but I could not tell what was being tortured or who was doing the torturing. The being expected for the task to get easier as things quieted down and more help became available. I do know the person in charge of the forge is a Warrior Adept and is extremely cruel, yet very much respected by those around him. Last, but not least, I can assure you we have not seen the last of these.

Falk frowned, "Very impresssssive my friend. I cannot add nearly the detail you have managed. All I can sssstate issss the woman who casssst the dark magic sssspell left enough magical ressssidue in the building to tell me sssshe issss tiny, either a Dwarf or Halfling, and musssst be Masssster Echelon or even Legendary. I can sssstill ssssee the wavessss of magic and the anglessss ussssed.

"Furthermore, sssshe took three otherssss with her and a large box sssshaped object. The magical forsssce ussssed impliessss sssshe teleported hundredssss of leaguessss if not further. It issss not likely sssshe issss even within the confines of Junssssac Barony anymore. The children will never be able to be followed. The guard need inform the mother there be no hope of finding her boy."

Two other Watch members looked at one another in dismay.

Lannet glanced at both. "You wanted to be members gentlemen. Being in this organization has some nasty tasks. This happens to be one of them, so why don't you go over and talk to the mother together. Be polite and understanding. She may have some information she does not even know she has."

Both young men gave Master Lannet a quick bow before heading over to the near hysterical mother.

Falk growled sending a ripple of sparks out from under his hood. "Another innocent lossst in our war. Why can we not find a way to sssspare those who do not know or want to know what we do?"

"While you were doing your magic sensing, I heard from Aster. They were nearly defeated before help arrived. They lost all but their mundanes except for Handri, who is critically injured and Pocet lost all three of his trusted Swordsmen. Aster says the gods themselves stepped in to help."

"The godssss? Issss he confident of thisssss?"

"Positive. I even spoke with every member of Sagell's team although Desmar is too injured to make contact with. There was multiple interventions by the gods, including a report from this Captain Pontarious of his ship making it up stream in record time, even though the river is at an all time high. He got there just in time to provide the support necessary to equal the battle, then the gods went to work."

"Why would the godssss become involved in a mortal matter?"

"It must not simply be a mortal matter."

"Why do I not feel comforted by their reportssss?" Falk asked to no one in particular as his eyes flashed with a crackling of electrical energy.

Glaster looked skyward as the last vestiges of sunlight cascaded down on his caravan. Something was not right, yet he could not place his finger on what it was. He checked each wagon and the boys before riding out to the front again. The road was clear and dry so he again checked in on each child taking a few minutes to talk with each.

It didn't surprise him in the least when the prince refused to so much as acknowledge him. The boy had been a real nightmare since he had been forced to dress as a common peasant. Glaster smiled somewhat. Sooner or later the young prince would realize he was first a person and second royalty. The day such a revelation hit, Glaster would consider his task done. Until then, young Klandon would just have to deal with being put under a man not intimidated by much of anything. This had led to numerous challenges from the spoiled youngster. Each time his temper flared, Glaster had made sure his attitude had earned him a quick lash with a belt until his complaints had ceased. Unfortunately, the attitude remained and his hate-filled eyes would not even make contact with anyone else in the caravan including the guards he had hired.

Glaster was almost ready to say something to the young prince when he realized the strange feeling he had was now gone. Everything was normal again.

As disconcerting as this was, it became even more so as he realized every Teaching Echelon instructor was also glancing around as if they also were wondering what had just happened.

It was Yarnay who summed it up best from the wagon just in front of Prince Klandon's with a statement to one of his hired guards. "The air feels better now that it is dark."

"Indeed." Glaster spoke as he looked to the west. The sun had certainly set quickly, too quickly. "We will break for camp here. Pull the wagons off the road and set the watches."

Sibler guided his wagon off the road giving the others room, "Where are we going to sleep?"

"In tents silly!" Kaznal answered as he jumped down from his wagon looking very excited.

"I'm not sleeping on the ground!" Prince Klandon bellowed from his wagon the instant he saw Yarnay and one of the guards setting up the cloth hut.

Glaster had been eagerly awaiting this. He knew none of the boys had been camping before outside of royal forestlands and then they had royal servants to do the work. He had very much expected this reaction. His worries about the strange feeling and the quickly setting sun faded as he turned to Prince Klandon's wagon. "You may sleep where ever you wish Klandon, but you should take a careful look at the tents before you make such a hasty decision."

"Leave me alone," Prince Klandon paused for a moment, then added in the nastiest tone he could manage, "sir."

Glaster grinned, "Not a problem Klandon. You just sit in your wagon then." As he spoke his left hand traced a magical symbol on the wagon. His stealthy move was not detected by a single other member of the caravan. "Remember, however, your guards are not servants. They will not cater to you, so if you wish to eat you will have to cook your own meals, clean your utensils, and," Glaster paused for an effect of his own, "may the gods forbid, get your hands dirty gathering wood for your own fire."

Several of the guards, along with all five of the other boys, started laughing at Klandon's horrified expression.

Glaster decided to keep the pressure on so he glanced back at his own guards and the teachers he had hired to continue the boys' training. "The dried rations are to be put under guard. If the youngsters did not hire a cook, they will have to fend for themselves or pay someone who did hire a cook to get meals. Our dry rations are for emergencies only.

"Those who have teamed up already have at least one cook in their group, so they will be fine and I know I have a cook, so it looks like Klandon will have to pay for his guard's cooking as well as his own. Unless his guards decide to cut him a break and figure they can manage their own cooking."

The guard Klandon had hired as his lead man nodded, "I think we can manage a few days since he is new at this, but he better get us a cook before we decide to change our minds."

"Are you cooking for him as well?" Glaster asked with a hint of disapproval in his voice.

"Not a chance. We are fighting men, not servants. He puts up his own tent, cooks his own meals or goes cold and hungry. We'll give him a little break because he has never done this before, but he fends for himself when it comes to maters of his comforts. We will be happy to show him what to do, as long as he does the work."

Glaster grinned knowing he now had Klandon exactly where he wanted him, "Such a thing seems very fair. So what will it be Klandon? Learn how to set your camp and fire, cook for yourself, or sleep in the wagon and go hungry?"

Klandon folded his arms stubbornly, "I don't speak to peasants and serfs."

Glaster pointed to Tylek, "I heard a don't instead of a do not."

Tylek instantly drew his blade and smacked the flat of it down across both of Klandon's legs, then repeated it before Klandon could howl and cover his legs with his hands. This became a big mistake for the youngster as the third and final blow smacked down across the backs of both hands breaking skin over the knuckles.

Klandon clutched his wounded hands into his stomach and bellowed. Tears of pain cascaded down his cheeks as he curled up into a ball.

Tylek did not look in the least bit sympathetic as he shook his head, "Klandon, flesh blows hurt a great deal less than bone blows."

"Indeed." Glaster snorted, "You would have been much better off putting your palms up instead of your knuckles. Now are you going to get down and act civilized or are you going to stay up there and go hungry?"

"Go away!" Klandon shouted as he continued to press his bloodied fingers into his peasant style shirt. "I'll tell my dad about this!"

Tylek glanced over at Glaster and got a nod. He shook his head sadly as he smacked the flat of his Dwarvin Blue Steel blade across Klandon's shoulders, "Your who?"

Klandon screamed in pain but managed to gasp out, "Father! My father!"

Tylek re-sheathed the blade, "Should we have someone look at his hands?"

"No." Glaster announced firmly, "His father and I were expected to deal with bumps, bruises, skinned knees, and the like without getting pampered. I see no reason why the prince should be treated any differently."

Lylan came up, "Can I at least have my cook get him some food?"

Glaster patted Lylan on the shoulders, "A merchant does not make money by giving things away, but you may do what you wish as long as your partner agrees."

Kaznal nodded but spoke up, "How about the leftovers?"

The Pantherling cook Lylan had hired chuckled, "I do not waste food lad. There will be very little left over."

"Can you cook just a little extra please?" Lylan asked while looking back toward the crying Prince.

The Pantherling turned to Kaznal, "If you say to, I will."

"Just a little please." Kaznal replied after getting a pleading look from Lylan and Mylan both.

Glaster shrugged, "I hope he knows just how good of friends he has or learns very quickly."

Glaster waited until everyone had eaten and the boys had bedded down before talking to all the guards. He pulled them well off to the side, "We are too close to the capital for anyone to try anything stupid, so you may all want to keep a good distance away from Klandon's wagon."

"Why?" Klandon's lead guard asked, "I cannot protect him or his goods if one of my men are not close."

"I know. But no one or nothing will want to get close to it. All I have to do is speak a single word and for the next few hours insects will be more than abundant around his wagon."

"Some sort of spell?"

Glaster smiled and winked in reply, "Let me just say I already traced out the glyph and all the tents have permanent protection from insect markings on them. I was hopeful Klandon would try this little stunt."

Tylek stifled a chuckle, "You are good!"

"Not really, I have just dealt with hundreds of children in my lifetime and have learned almost every trick they can throw at me. So are we in agreement here?"

The guards and teachers all smiled and nodded one after the other. As the group broke up the meeting the Elf in command of Yarnay's guards came up, "I think I finally understand why you didn't allow the Gnome to join."


"You were afraid she would have coddled the children too much."

Glaster raised his eyebrows in mock surprise, "Why the thought of her being far too motherly never crossed my mind!"

The Elf burst out laughing, "You are good!"

Aster knelt next to Handri as he continued to work on the man's leg. "Sagell healed your other wounds, but even her Expert Echelon Quati Channeler abilities could not repair your leg. I don't see how I am supposed to do anything with it."

Handri continued to bite on the stick dribbled with dark honey. The sweet nectar produced by Ice Bees was unlike any other honey for it caused a numbness which would last for hours after being consumed. Even the slight coating Aster had applied to the stick had caused Handri's whole body to be barely able to move and his cheeks felt puffed out like a chipmunk storing food in its mouth. Although heavily slurred Handri managed to speak. "YouuuuuHavvvvvvvvvvve tooooooo fixxxx it."

Aster again looked down to the mangled leg and shook his head. Not knowing what else to do, he rubbed a little more dark honey on the stick and went over to where Captain Pontarious was standing, "Sir, do you have a good Healthman?"

"I do, but he went with your Swordsman, Hawkling friend, my boy, Quavis and a few of my uninjured guards to get your goods and other people. I have a pair of Primary Echelon ones if you need a hand."

"No. I need advice."

"Is there something I can help you with?"

Aster put up his hands in frustration, "Our caravan leader's leg is destroyed. I can't fix it and if I don't take it off, it will get infected and he will die. He refuses to let me though."

Pontarious looked at the boy's bloody clothing, "You have done more than your share of healing already lad. His leg will wait until my Healthman returns, will it not?"

Aster glanced back to where Handri's head and back were leaning against a wagon wheel, "Yes, but we cannot move him. The bones are shattered and any movement of the leg will allow the bones to grind the flesh and open up new wounds. Sagell healed the bleeding, and the broken arm, but not even she can cure blood loss. If we move him the leg will bleed and he will die of blood loss because of how much he lost already. If he stays here, I cannot guarantee he will live the night because he needs to be inside being kept warm. His body can't take this cold and rain. His leg must come off so we can move him to an inn."

"Can he understand if I speak to him?"

Aster nodded vigorously, "Yes. He cannot feel pain though."

"Let me talk to him alone. You get cleaned up and get some food."

"But there are others…"

"Young man, you have proven yourself to be a superb Healthman and a more than able Animal Adept. Those who are still needing some attention are few and their wounds minor. You have my respect, but you are still a child and from what I was told an orphan. Rest assured I will take you over my knee if you don't follow instructions of your elders, and I am Expert Echelon so I am your superior as well."

Aster sighed but managed a smile, "I don't think Shade and Dart would let you."

Pontarious chuckled, "Probably not." He knelt down and patted Shade's head and stroked Dart's feathers, "They are as tired, dirty, and wet as you are and poor Dart here can barely fly with all the feathers he has thrown. Let my people finish picking up the pieces and let me talk to your Caravan master. If I can talk him into getting his leg removed, my two Healthmen can handle it."

At last Aster nodded, "OK, but make sure they tie off the leg and have a cauterizing flame ready. Any more blood loss will kill him."

"I will be sure to let my people know." Pontarious stated as he gently pushed Aster to where his men had set up a series of tents for eating and keeping the wounded out of the rain.

Aster entered the largest tent and was immediately stopped by one of the men standing guard, "Get yer filthy clothin' off and let the rain wash you up. Use this too." The man handed over a vial of yellowish liquid stoppered with a piece of cork. "There be towels and robes here fer ya once yer clean."

Aster grumbled, but obeyed. The cold rain was not the best way to get clean but the strange liquid made quick work of the dirt and smelled lightly of scented oil. He watched in some astonishment as a slave girl, hired from the inn in town, also dribbled his clothing with a potion of some sort. Dirt and blood rolled off under the combination of rain and potion. By the time he was drying off in the tent, the girl had brought his clothing in looking very clean and smelling of a slight lemony scent. Once he had approved, another slave girl took his clothing and hung his it on a line in a separate tent with a fire in the middle.

Conner motioned with a bandaged hand, "Get some food and join us."

Aster watched almost drooling as a man to cut off a huge slice of meat from a spit and put it on top of a mound of vegetables, then handed the bowl over to him. "Eat well young Animal Adept!"

"I will, thanks!" Aster licked his lips as he made his way over to Conner and Foxtol.

Foxtol scooted over to make room for Aster, "How are Handri and the others?"

Aster shook his head, "Gomriss and Elmar will be fine, but all of Pocet's men are dead and every single sword Handri hired died as well."

Aster looked at the wounded in the tent with a bit of disgust, "All these men and women are hurt and Handri will loose his leg or die. It is still too soon to say how Desmar is. It will be months, if ever, before he will be fit to travel as part of Sardan's team."

Conner patted his friend on the shoulder, "You did everything you could Aster. A lot more would have died without your help."

"Maybe." Aster tore off some of the meat with his teeth before continuing, "But none of this would have happened if I had left Zoldon back at Protector's Keep."

"Possibly," Foxtol countered as he adjusted his bandaged knee, "but you had no way of knowing. None of us did. Besides, the area can't have more than a handful of slime bags left, so this whole region is much safer for the average mundane now. Those who died have made this a safer world doing so. Not many can say such lofty things."

"I just hope Pocet and the others find Zoldon and the others safe and sound." Conner stated hopefully, "They didn't have much to defend themselves with."

Pocet approached the cave entrance cautiously. He motioned for Sardan to take Quavis and Benam around to the far side, while he kept the Swordsman and Animal Adept from the Thunder Rapids with him.

Cresh knelt and pointed, "Looks like an Illorc's body."

Pocet squinted. In the flickering light coming from the cave he could indeed make out a body lying just outside the somewhat hidden cave mouth. "Yea, sure does. Go tell the Swordsmen driving the wagons to expect trouble."

"Why? It looks like we are already too late."

"Someone left a fire going." The Halfelf Animal Adept replied, "And I bet it is still being tended because the bodies outside the cave are cold."

"Bodies?" Pocet asked as he peered down at the scene. I only see the one."

"Having Infravision allows me to see more." The Halfelf answered without sounding arrogant, "There are two more in the clump of bushes to the left of the came opening. Another three are in the tree right next to the cave opening."

Cresh looked at his friend, "Illorc or human, Pythor?"

Pythor shrugged, "Can't tell for sure. One looks Elvish actually. Even stranger, it looks like the bushes attacked them. One has a thorny vine around his throat."

"We didn't have no Elves guarding." Pocet whispered.

"Good," Cresh tightened his hand on his blade, "mean's yer people put up a good fight."

"At least the bushes did." Pythor chuckled lightly.

"Let's hope they're alive in the cave." Pocet growled as he advanced.

Sardan came around the far side of the cave as he spotted an Illorc crouching behind a boulder flanked by a pair of young Goblins. All three had bows and were keeping a careful eye on the cave. The more he watched, however, the more it seemed they were actually watching the large trees by the opening. He looked over his shoulder and squawked out a soft question, "You boys think you can each take out a Gob?"

Benam flashed a grin and ran a hand down the wet fur of his giant skunk as Quavis drew a dagger and nodded.

"Nothing fancy boys, just get the job done. I'll take the Illorc." Sardan extended his wings and leapt. His wings were not strong enough for true flight but they easily supported him gliding. He silently extended his talons and raked them across the back of the Illorc's head as he dove past.

The Goblins both turned as the Illorc screamed in surprise and pain. One caught a dagger in the leg, while the other found its face full of a horrible stench as Benam's skunk unleashed a full spray of musk.

Sardan backed off, gagging from the fumes, as a second dagger from Quavis thudded into the other leg of the already injured Goblin.

Sardan waved off the boys' attacks seeing neither Goblin had any interest in continuing the fight. The Illorc made an attempt to stagger away, but claws from the giant skunk ended any chance of such an escape. The Goblin on the receiving end of the skunk's scented attack did nothing at all, other than roll on the ground gagging and choking.

"Interesting pet." Sardan stated while kicking the weapons out of reach from the stench drenched Goblin.

"Blackie does not like Goblins." Benam stated with a huge grin. "Dad rescued him from a band of Goblins a couple of years ago. They were trying to skin him alive."

"I see. Problem is, how do we get rid of the smell?"

Benam pulled a vile out of his cloak, "Dad created this right after I started to train Blackie. I carry a whole bunch of it all the time." He threw the vial on the ground. It broke and billowed a bluish smoke for a couple of seconds, then faded. With it all the smell on the skunk and the Goblin vanished as well.

"Mystics and their potions." Sardan chuckled as he tied the Goblins up. "Your dad is quite remarkable!"

"He's the best dad in the world!" Benam announced happily as he rubbed noses with Blackie.

Pocet entered the cave cautiously after getting the all clear from Sardan. What he saw nearly caused his jaw to hit the floor.

Dabaff spun with his sword drawn, then let out a sigh of relief, "Boy am I glad to see you!"

Pocet looked over the half-dozen dead Illorcs and another four Goblins before recovering enough to speak, "Why? Looks like you are doing fine."

"Not just me. Molic, Olinday, and Zoldon tossed enough magic around in here to make it a nightmare and Vindayin sent plenty of help as well!"

Pocet almost said something, then stopped and looked down at Zoldon, "He is a spell thrower?"

Dabaff nodded, "Oh yea. Big time. He even knows some special Autospells!"

Sardan heard enough to join the conversation, "Special Autospells?"

"Uh huh." Dabaff pointed to one of the Illorcs, "I have seen smoke puff and dust bursts from a youngster before, but he hit this one in the face with some kind of sand burst. It literally shredded the eyelids and eyes. Look at its face."

Sardan knelt and flipped over the dead Illorc. He turned away forcing himself to swallow bile as it rose in his throat, the skin on the Illorc's face looked like it had been rubbed in a plate of shattered glass."

Pocet sat on a stone and motioned for Zoldon, "Where did you learn such a spell?"

Zoldon came over and stood with his head lowered, "I know not Master. It came to me suddenly in the middle of the fight. I also know how to use a dagger, axe, and staff."

Pocet looked around confused, only to see Molic agreeing, "He does Master. He took one of their staffs and knew how to parry, sweep, and lunge with it. He took down two of the Goblins."

Olinday jumped into the conversation, "And he knows other Autospells we have never seen before, he made the Illorc I was fighting go cross-eyed for a few moments with a spell."

"Then Vindayin sent some help." Dabaff stated seriously, "I let out a plea for assistance and it arrived moments later. The tree outside the cave reached in and crushed two of the Illorcs and the bushes wrapped the two firing arrows at us in thorns and they didn't have thorns before. There are more archers out there though."

Quavis shook with excitement, "Not any more."

Benam also sounded eager and boyish, "The gods helped us too! The made everything go right for us!"

Cresh put his had on his young friend's shoulder, "There will be time for stories and to get to know each other better soon enough. Right now we should get the wagons loaded and get back to the others.

Sardan turned, "Agreed. There will be plenty of time to sort all this out once we are all in a safe campsite. Let's get this stuff loaded. Boys, get the Goblin prisoners while we load up."

Kandric entered Gablon's tent with Vondum. Kandric realized instantly a couple of the boys from the Swamp Slums were doing most of the work for the meal and wore leather slave collars. Kandric had a very hard time feeling sorry for either of them because neither had ever so much as offered to let him join in one of their games nor had they even spoken to him before. If anything Kandric liked seeing the awe and helplessness in their eyes as they took his cloak and pulled up a chair for him.

Gablon gave a proper greeting, but otherwise stayed very quiet as his guests were made comfortable. He was both aggravated and very tired and it showed.

Klorna was first to speak beyond a greeting, "This is a most unpleasant task for us. Our people have attacked you, Kandric, without provocation and with intent to cause serious suffering. We have asked you here to discuss reparations."

Kandric spoke after an uneasy moment of silence. His voice told every one of his anger and frustration. "Vondum, Sy, and I all fought to protect your people and wagons. I did so because you have my brothers, but did not know at the time it was your people who had attacked me. I risked my life and killed many of your enemies. What could you possibly offer to counter what I went through?"

Gablon fought hard to keep his voice under control, "You are more than powerful enough to stop such an attack without much effort, so why did you allow it to happen at all?"

Vondum growled, "Does it matter? Your people put Iron to an Elf-blooded being!"

Gablon deflated some, "No, I guess it really does not matter. I would like to know though."

Kandric held up his had to stop Vondum's next outburst, "There is no harm in telling the truth. It is not my fault and I have nothing to hide." Kandric glared at Gablon as he spoke. "I had not eaten in days. I had been out looking for food and or work when Emroc and Porma happened to see me. I could have done something, but wanted to avoid all problems. They would not let it end with words, however. My only recourse would have been to react with either deadly weapon force or spells because I did not have the strength to handle two on one in a fist fight if they had been mundane, and they are not mundane."

"But you are a Black Rapids' guard." Klorna countered.

"Scout." Vondum barked out, "He normally operates independently and had no way of getting me information on how bad things had become here. His primary job is to work with the One Armed Man. His duty to Black Rapids is secondary. He chanced upon one of my patrols only hours before the storm. Lucky for him and us he did find my people, for he used his magic to halt a major ambush by Hobgoblins. He has tried very hard not to let his skills and training become known here, because he wanted to live a normal life. Now everyone knows he is not only trainable, but more than fully trained because he fought to protect his brothers."

Gablon swallowed hard at the mention of the One Armed Man. There was now no doubt what so ever he and Kandric had trained under the same Master.

Klorna saw Gablon's distraction and quickly filled in, "We figured it must have been something like this. So what do you wish us to do about it?"

"Make an offer." Kandric hissed while rubbing the area of his leg where the dagger had been placed. This meeting caused him to remember the intense burning from the iron weapon. "Or take a lit torch, put it to your leg and leave it there for a while. Then do the same thing to your arm and forehead. Maybe then you could tell me what would be fair."

Gablon shook his head sadly, "I do not know if anything would be fair young man. I would prefer if you named a price so we can just put this all behind us."

"No way." Kandric's voice hardened before Vondum could speak, "I want to know what you are offering."

Vondum glanced down with a sense of pride. He doubted any other child as young as Kandric would push an adult like this. Furthermore, Kandric didn't show the slightest hint of being intimidated. Glaster had certainly taught the boy well!

Across the table Gablon's thoughts mirrored Vondum's. He could see Glaster's teachings coming out in the boy plus a level of confidence never before encountered in a child of any age. He was not a man used to being put on the spot and it made matters quite a bit more difficult knowing his adversary was not yet a teen in equivalent years. To break the tension he motioned for the slaves to serve the meal.

Kandric couldn't help himself. He felt the advantage and pushed to keep his opponent off guard, "Nice distraction, but I have yet to hear an offer."

Klorna nearly gasped at the rudeness of such words, but managed to keep her tongue.

Vondum also looked down at Kandric with wide eyes as he accepted the plate offered by the boy slave. Such a bold statement made it clear Kandric was not going to let Gablon off easily. Out of curiosity and without anyone knowing, he cast a simple detect spell to check everyone's Echelon and step. What he found nearly astonished him. Klorna was the lowest at a Teaching step 2, Kandric had progressed to a Teaching step 3 with the near constant practice and combat. Gablon was at the breaking point of Expert Echelon, but had not quite broken past the Teaching step 5 stage yet. Vondum had to hide a grin as his spell showed him to be at Expert step 5, an improvement over his last Guild testing.

Gablon took a sip of wine so he could bring his anger under control. He had seen this tactic work countless times for Glaster before and was determined not to be suckered into such a ploy, no matter how well executed. Still he couldn't help but make some sort of concession, "You are a gifted merchant Kandric and know how to drive a hard bargain, so let me start by offering you whatever spoils you want from the battle with the Gnolls."

"You have more need of the captured equipment than I do." Kandric took a spoonful of gravy and covered his meat. Keeping his voice very calm he added, "I would be more interested in your people helping me to track down the Gnolls, destroying their home utterly, and gaining all spoils found there. Then toss in a pair of your wagons, plus one of your slave wagons, mounts for them all and throw in your servants in this tent. Then I will be happy to take enough spoils to give me trade goods along with concessions to be named by Vondum."

"What!" Klorna nearly exploded. "You greedy little…"

"Enough Klorna!" Gablon commanded, "This might be to our advantage. We need to test the guards Vondum's man found for us in Slome, and his price, albeit steep, is not out of line with what our students did to him. We may well come out of the assault on the Gnoll's home with enough goods to outfit the wagons and even gain a wagon or two from the Gnolls. Vondum, what concessions do you demand?"

Vondum looked strait at Klorna. "I think she already knows. But I will make a promise not to make the boy into a slave, instead he will be indentured to me fully for a period of three years or until he appears to be an adult, whichever takes longer, with no rights at all other than he will not be maimed or put to death. The other boy I wish to lash with a cane until I am satisfied. It will be no more than thirty-five stripes and will be spread evenly enough to prevent the possibility of permanent injury or death."

"Thirty-five?" Gablon cringed, "With a belt, yes but not a cane. He just barely be a teenager."

"No more than thirty-five," Vondum stayed firm, "with a cane. I will stop if it even appears he will not be able to handle them all. There will be no blows to the chest or areas between his legs."

Gablon looked to Klorna, only to find the Dwarf at a loss for words. Vondum had already put her own stipulations forth before they had been demanded. She couldn't come up with an argument against his demands other than saying they were extremely harsh, which she knew from her talks with the guards would not be a problem with them. To say anything she would need their support so she shook her head and remained quiet.

"Very well." Gablon sighed at last, "It looks like we have come to an agreement."

Kandric finished chewing his breast of turkey with gravy before speaking, "I am satisfied."

"As am I." Vondum agreed.

Gablon looked up, "When do you want Emroc brought before you and Porma handed over?"

"No need to hurry." Vondum grinned evilly, "I for one would like a second helping."

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