The Kandric Saga
Copyright © By
Glaster sat in the tavern section of the Green Goblin Inn watching Prince Klandon eat a large dish of Frost Elk stew with a determination seldom encountered in a boy unless he is very hungry. Ever since he had first talked to King Wyhrem about the assassination attempts on his son, he knew he had been missing something. So he continued to watch the boy closely, yet from a distance, as he sipped on a glass of Elvin whiskey
What really bothered Glaster was the fact Klandon was also confused yet no one, including himself, had realized it until tonight. Glaster mentally kicked himself for breaking one of his own rules when it came to dealing with a problem. He had focused on and attacked one element before he fully understood the depth of the problem at hand.
Sure it had been necessary to protect the Prince and halt the attacks. He had succeeded where no other had. Yet he had failed both Klandon's father and the boy. For over the past couple of months he had never taken the time to see what was going on with the Prince. He came to the palace, saw a spoiled brat, and decided his duty was to deal with the problem as rapidly as possible. It never occurred to him, or anyone else, there was a second part of the problem sitting right under their noses.
Sure King Wyhrem had commented on his son's unusual actions. Sure the others, including the boy's best friends, Mylan and Lylan, had commented on how strange the boy had been acting. And yes, the boy had been a royal pain to put up with. Even Glaster admitted to himself he had seen some things which had not added up quite right. The problem was no one had taken the time to put the pieces together and see Klandon was affected by something other than the attempts on his life.
All sorts of clues pointed to there being a second problem. Something had happened on the diplomatic trip. Something else besides the Queen dying and the Prince falling deathly ill had been going on. The real questions plaguing the Master Shaman was what had happened and when?
Glaster mentally played with the pieces of information he knew about Klandon as he continued to watch the boy eat. He knew the boy had lost his mother, he knew the boy had been sick and had almost died of a high fervor, and he knew he had acted very differently ever since. There was the poor speech, the lack of enthusiasm in going swimming, the poor treatment to his whipping boy, and the demands his best friends treat him differently.
It all had been pushed off as the child adjusting to the death of his mother and the realization he was as mortal as any peasant or slave. Glaster had thought from the start King Wyhrem had put too much importance on the fact his son had almost died. All the talk had surely undermined the boy's confidence. Yet he couldn't blame King Wyhrem. The man, Glaster's best friend, had lost his mate and only had one heir. Klandon's death would have started a power struggle which could have torn apart the kingdom as others fought for the right to have their own children be named heir apparent.
Other problems had cropped up regarding Klandon and his behavior, but had also been dismissed. The teachers had noticed a drop in interest in his studies. His desire to roam the city as a commoner had driven his guards nuts in the past. Yet upon Klandon's return he had not shown any desire to mix with anyone not of royal blood. Lastly, the boy had all but abandoned his hobbies of fishing and Dragonsteed ridding. All of this was looked on very quietly as being a good thing as concerns over the Prince's strange behavior became secondary once the attacks had started.
Now, however, Glaster was seeing a larger pattern and didn't like what he was seeing at all. It still seemed some pieces were missing because none of this added up, at least not yet.
Was his poor attitude and speech a way a rebelling against a father who couldn't prevent the death of the boy's mother as the King suspected?
At first glance it had seemed plausible. Klandon had been brought up sheltered from the real world. The only time he ever really saw things as they were when he walked the streets of the capitol dressed as a merchant class child. The capitol was a safe place though. It was well guarded and punishments for messing with a merchant class being or above were swift and harsh. One of the reasons his father took him and the Queen to the Isles was to show the boy the world was not a perfect place. The Isles were poor and lacked many of the goods Klandon would have found common.
The trip had been King Wyhrem's idea, a desire to show Klandon just how good he had it in his kingdom. Unfortunately, the Isles' lack of wealth also prevented them from finding the needed herbs to cure his wife and, had it not been for a merchant vessel which had a high level Shamen aboard, Klandon would have also died.
Sure King Wyhrem could have contacted the Watch. Help would have been sent. But he did not want to teach his son to cry for help. A major reason for the trip was to teach the child how to fend for himself. This had been a mistake in Glaster's way of thinking, but he could understand the thinking behind such a hard decision. Lessons in life were seldom easy.
The really interesting thing, at least in Glaster's way of thinking, was Klandon's comments as he watched the others ride off and leave him. He seemed genuinely confused and disoriented. He had all but given up. This was not what Glaster had grown to expect out of the boy at all. He thought the boy would stick to his princely attitude and order his men to look after his wagon as he found a good place to sleep. After all, Klandon had been very predictable up to this point. He cared for exactly one person: in simple terms Klandon cared about Klandon.
Glaster had half wondered, at least up to their arrival at this stop, if Klandon might not simply sell his goods and keep all the money. It would have given him enough money to pay for the guards for well over a year. This was especially true because Klandon had done such a good job of not paying too much for good guards. Glaster now wondered if the boy had even thought of it. If he had not Glaster was certainly not going to put the idea into the boy's thoughts! Glaster couldn't stop himself from a short chuckle.
Across the bar Glaster watched as Klandon looked up to a barmaid. He could barely hear the words; "I'll take another glass of milk." As Glaster continued to watch on he saw the boy wince and smack himself in the mouth. "I mean I will take another glass of milk."
It seemed implausible the boy's poor speech had been as troubling to himself as it had been to others. Glaster started to see he had been pulling the string on the punishments too quickly, because he could clearly see Klandon was upset by his poor speech. Even the boy's eyes flashed frustration as he caught himself.
Had his long stay on the merchant vessel exposed him to such poor grammar? It was a distinct possibility. He had spent weeks aboard the vessel and was only visited by his father a couple of hours a day because he had become so weak. Yet in Glaster's way of thinking, on a merchant vessel with a Master Echelon Shaman, a crewmember would not have allowed such poor speech to fall on the ears of such esteemed royalty as a Prince. Glaster chided himself, just because a being makes Master Echelon, does not mean the being has a high level of education.
There were still other pieces to play with though. It seemed extremely strange to find the child had knowledge of the warlords of Molden. One thing Glaster was certain of was the fact King Wyhrem would have contacted him instantly if any information on the murderous warlords had surfaced. Had Klandon found out something aboard the merchant vessel with the Shaman? Again, it was certainly possible. Even the warlords needed trade and Merchants would certainly have to be used to get rid of warlords' glut of slaves, for every new land taken meant an influx of loot, including intelligent merchandise.
Glaster continued to watch Klandon eat as he asked the other Teachers in the caravan to ride out and check on the other students. He ordered them not to assist, but to simply make sure the other boys were safe.
Once he was completely alone he stated playing with the information he had on Klandon in an attempt to put a picture together which would make sense. He already knew this would probably be a chore of days and would require a great deal of attention to small details. One thing was certain. There would be no more punishments for infractions such as poor speech. Glaster needed to see the boy act in a way comfortable to himself.
Aster listened to the information as Sardan talked about Zoldon. He waited until the befuddled Hawkling extended his wings in a massive display of frustration before he asked a single question, "Sardan, I don't get it. I have known you from my first days in the Watch when I helped heal the Lizardmen. I didn't know your lands were allied with King Wyhrem nor did I know you were royalty. How could a slave boy have such knowledge?"
"I don't know Aster. I can count the people who were involved with the treaty on my eight talons with two left over. Besides the people directly involved, the only audience there was members of the royal families. King Wyhrem's son and wife were there as were my brother and I, although we were not allowed to ever meet. Both our fathers felt it best if the kids stayed apart because, as my father put it, "Boys will be boys and a fight, even an argument would not look good.' Which was probably a good idea. My brother and Prince Klandon are close to the same age and my brother has a bit of a mean streak. He would have done something to Prince Klandon and from what I have heard about the prince, he would have done something right back."
Sardan scratched the feathers on his head, "I think I have covered everyone." Sardan held up a finger, "No, each side also had a scribe and a Healthman. One Scribe was the teacher of King Wyhrem's son and the other was my brother's teacher and mine. To my understanding neither scribe leaves their respective palaces unless traveling with the Royal party and both are trusted fully. Besides, King Wyhrem's scribe died on their recent journey to the Isles.
"I must admit I didn't care at all for the Healthman King Wyhrem brought with him. The man was arrogant and treated everyone like the world owed him a favor. He knew his job though, because I got really sick and he brewed a broth which put me right to sleep. I was still weak the next morning, but it sure made me feel better than what my father's Healthman had made me eat and drink. Maybe Zoldon was a slave in my father's palace or King Wyhrem's but I don't recognize him and I think I would, even if he only worked in the stables or something."
"What could a slave know?" Aster wanted to know.
"If he was a slave in the palace of either side, the knowledge he would have picked up on would be quite valuable to someone who wanted inside information."
Aster wasn't convinced, "After what Zoldon was put through, they could have had all this information and more. There would be no reason to want him back. Besides, a slave wouldn't know very much."
"Don't be so sure Aster."
"It still wouldn't explain them wanting him back."
"Unless whoever owned him before didn't want anyone to know he had gained such information."
Aster pondered the situation for a moment before asking, "Then why didn't they just kill him?"
"Maybe they needed him for something else." Sardan offered.
"Aster," Sardan squawked out harshly, "Some things go on in palaces and on large estates which could be quite embarrassing if the details ever got out. The only problem would be the need for an eyewitness. A Mindmaster can scan a witness for truth, however, a dead body cannot be scanned and thus the rumors of what happened stay just rumors.
Aster cringed at the look in his friend's eyes, "I gather I am not supposed to ask any more about what types of embarrassing things?"
Sardan loosened up and chipped out a laugh, "Don't ask questions you might not want to know the answers to my fellow Watch member!"
Aster nodded but his curiosity was running wild, "Can you give me an example of what could be so damaging as to want to turn someone as valuable as partially trained, Mage capable slave into a living statue?"
Sardan thought it over for a moment then smiled, "As a matter of fact, yes I could. What if a king had an affair with someone other than the queen and ended up having another heir?"
Aster scowled, "Kept a secret until the king's death and then let out there could be a civil war if the one heir was not well liked or didn't have the support of the lower royalty."
"Exactly, but there would have to be proof or the most of the soldiers would never take up arms to usurp the apparent ruler even if commanded to do so by their direct rulers. Unless, of course, the old ruler had been a tyrant, and even then many of the troops and most of the guilds would still support the one on the throne. If there was a witness, however, there would be a way to prove lineage."
Aster turned this over in his mind a few times, "OK, so if we follow with this logic then I see two problems. First would be the Forget spell you think was cast on Zoldon. He would be worthless as a witness the way it stands now.
"Second, how do you explain the knowledge of Dragonsteed care, saddling and riding? I don't know how things work in your kingdom, but I know a slave would never be allowed to learn such skills. Such knowledge alone would raise him into the skilled peasant class. The fact he can ride one bumps him to low merchant even if he knew nothing else."
"Your other slaves are being taught as we speak, Aster." Sardan reminded him.
"Yes, but I am not a normal owner. I have no intention of keeping them as slaves for the rest of their lives. Matter of fact, I see them as servants, not slaves, even now. I don't like slavery and you know it."
"True. But maybe one of the members of the royal family took a real shine to Zoldon. I know your interest in men and boys instead of women and girls, as does Sagell. Much to her disappointment, I might add. If a king, queen, prince or princess took such a shine to Zoldon, he would have access to all sorts of training, such as special Autospells, learning to fight, and being taught things like Dragonsteed handling."
"A member of a ruling family messing around with a slave?"
"Come on Aster." Sardan laughed, "How many times have you looked at Quavis since you have been in the same camp with him?"
Aster turned bright red and said nothing.
"You are not the only one, although Pocet's eyes return to you after just a few glances. One's class does not limit their ability to be eye catching to a higher or lower class. You are a Teacher, Quavis is a student, he is an almost a skilled peasant, you are on the edge of royalty. Does this make him any less attractive to you?"
Aster, still a bright shade of red, shook his head, "Is my stare really noticeable?"
"I think you should ask Pocet." Sardan chuckled, "I bet he is a bit jealous."
Aster swallowed hard, "I can't help it he is cute!"
"Aster, I have never been one to take an interest in boys. But there have now been five times where I can say I have seen a boy who I found very attractive. Three of them have been non-Hawklings and one of those is Quavis. So I agree with you."
Sardan paused and looked out of the tent were Sagell was working with Quavis and the others on how to properly tend to a Dragonsteed. He chirped a few times as he Saw Sagell's hand moving around on Quavis' back, sliding centimeter by centimeter further down as she explained something to the boys assembled around her. He focused back on Aster. "I actually wondered if his appearance was not one of the reasons you decided to let him go free after having us so expertly set him and his siblings up."
"He is who I let go?" Aster gasped out in total surprise; "I never got a look at him. It was dark and all I could do was make out his body heat as he moved out of the warehouse!"
Sardan blinked in surprise as he realized Aster didn't know Quavis was the one he had let go. "He is the one you decided to let slip away. And it is a good thing too! He threw the dagger you recognized as being made by your own hand."
Aster lowered his head and shook it in disgust. "I really screwed up with my Watch marker, Sardan. I didn't even think about whom else I would be hurting. All I wanted to do was strike out at his father."
"You did a grand job. His father was one of the few who got away during the attack on your caravan. Quavis recognized him and tried to toss a dagger at him, but his father ducked just in time. The man then ran away."
"His father had something to do with Zoldon?"
"So it would appear. He left his petty job in Junsac and vanished. He has an employer and is getting support from somewhere. I might also add Quavis is with us all the way, at least as it now stands. Any doubts he had about what his father's past deeds of wrongdoing disappeared when he realized the man was leading an army of Goblins, Orcs, Illorcs, and other monsters against a basically helpless caravan. I talked to him briefly and suggested the Watch might be behind his father's downfall in Junsac. All he said was "Good, I didn't want a man willing to lead bandits for a father anyway."
Sardan glanced back outside making sure Quavis was still out of earshot. Sardan's eyes lit up with merriment as he saw Quavis had a very red face as Sagell's hand was grabbing at his butt. Still the Druidess continued to go on with the lesson like nothing was going on at all. Sardan returned his attention to Aster again, "I didn't tell him the full story. But it was clear to me he understood there was more to him being branded a thief than his father sending him to a building. If handled properly he could learn the whole truth and might still be with us. His father refused to let him test for Field potential let alone get him trained so Quavis already held a grudge against the man. Seeing his father with Teaching Echelon Mage pins on was the final straw. He is dead set on hunting down the man."
"I don't think I'll ever forgive myself for setting him up."
"You reacted to several wrongs to a friend who, as it turns out, is also your brother. I bet if you talked to Quavis and really explained it, he would understand."
"But I caused his brother and sister to sit on the day Slave auction block!" Aster started crying, "They will be my slaves! How could I ever let him know the truth?"
Sardan pulled Aster into his body and wrapped his wings around the boy, "Aster, if this is the worst thing you ever do, you will probably be one of the kindest Watch members ever. Revenge has a down side, yet it feels so good to extract it. If there is a balance there, I have yet to find it."
Aster shrugged and started to pull away, but stopped short, "Sardan?"
"What is it?"
"You said earlier you found other boys besides Quavis attractive. Who where the other two non-Hawklings?"
Sardan's eyes lit up, "One I am honored to currently have my wings wrapped around; the other was a boy I met a few years back at his party for making it to Secondary Echelon. He was one of the most stunning children I have ever seen. His name was Kandric. And you know, he and you have the same nose." Sardan gently touched the tip of Aster's nose with a few wing feathers causing the boy to giggle.
Aster beamed with pride at hearing Sardan found him attractive but was kind of jealous his other brother. Kandric seemed to always make strong lasting impressions. Yet it swelled his heart to hear someone had noticed a similarity in them. It kind of put his mind at ease, for he held lingering suspicions about the gods. But this, coupled with the fact Conner was sure Kandric was his half-brother, was something he could latch onto. Aster's eyes lit up as he almost shouted; "He should, we are half-brothers!"
Sardan shook his head as if trying to clear it, "But I thought you said Conner is your half-brother?"
"He is. So is Kandric."
"By the gods magic runs strong in your family!"
"I'm not a spell caster though."
"So?" Sardan asked somewhat bemused.
"So I only deal with animals. I don't have spell casting powers."
Sardan knelt and took hold of Aster's shoulders; "Spell casting is only one part of magic. Animal Adepts with your abilities have every bit as much magic in their blood as a Sorcerer or Mage of equal Echelon! Besides, I have a friend who can show you a few things. Animal Adepts can indeed cast spells. You just have to learn how to make the magic flow around you. It is called Animal Magic. It is very rare to find someone who knows of its existence let alone is willing to teach, however."
"Can your friend teach me?" Aster next to demanded to know.
"I think so," Sardan snickered, "but she may demand a price."
"She as in a female?" Aster asked with a surprised high-pitched squeak.
"Yes, a she would make my friend a female!" Sardan stated playfully poking Aster in the ribs.
Aster put his head in his hands knowing the answer before he asked it, "Sagell?"
"Gee, how did you ever guess?"
Aster shuddered, "Tell her I'll pay the price if she teaches me, but I won't like it."
"You might, Aster." Sardan glanced back to where Quavis was leaning against Sagell so she could continue here sensual rub. He started chuckling as he left the tent, "You just might."
Kandric entered the Slome jail under the watchful eye of a pair of guards. Rylop, who had "escorted" Kandric to the long stone one story building two blocks away from the town square pointed the way toward the stairs leading down.
One of the guards watching Kandric chuckled, "Looks like ya whipped this one into shape Rylop. What'd he do, steal somethin'?"
"He is under arrest by Velert's orders." Rylop replied. And he has been very obedient. I'm gonna put him down with the rest of the kids."
"Who gave him the bruises?"
Londaw, the other guard who had been with Rylop during the altercation, came into the jail from a side door. "Velert did, but Velert's hand hurts so bad he had ta let one of them other Healthmen in his shop work on the merchant kid. One of Velert's buddies think he broke a finger er two when he punched this kid."
One of the other guards started laughing, "You got a hard head or somethin' boy?"
"No." Kandric replied with a grin, "Velert has a soft hand."
The other two guards on watch started laughing. One had to grab at his ribs he laughed so hard while the other managed to sputter out, "Boy, is he gonna be ready to spit hot forged nails when he hears what you said!"
Rylop snickered, "He might, but I doubt he'll try throwin' another punch. Ya should a seen the look in his eyes. Velert backed off and this one smiled just like he is now."
The lead guard at the jail calmed enough to grunt out, "Sounds like he may have some trainin' er at least be trainable then. Maybe ya should take him to the school."
"Been there." Rylop answered in a very serious tone. "Somethin' tells me he'll be runnin' the cells we keep the brats in before nightfall."
"Then Velert has no claim?" Londaw asked.
"This boy is lettin' Velert have a claim for now. I thinks it just better if we all leaves this alone and let this one settle in with them problem kids below."
"He be guilded then?" One of the guards sitting at the card table asked.
Rylop waved both his hands, "Let's just say I ain't touching yer comment none sergeant Tardot. Me thinks you should just forget to check on things downstairs until feedin' time comes. By then you'll see this one at the top of the peckin' order."
The lead guard stood up and walked up to Kandric, "You ain't plannin' on killin' none of my prisoners now is ya?'
"Would not be worth my time sergeant." Kandric replied matching the man's stare without a flinch. "I have nothing but respect for you and your men and I do not wish to jeopardize your jobs, so just let me go to the cell and don't bother me please."
"Jeopardize our jobs?" The sergeant shouted in a mixture of annoyance and humor.
Rylop patted Kandric on the shoulder, "Tardot, he could walk out of here with all of us tryin' to stop him and leave without a scrape on him. You're only a Primary Step four and I am a Step three. Don't try him. I already made such a mistake today."
"Secondary?" Tardot looked on skeptically.
"One might say so." Kandric answered to cover for Rylop.
"Then he should be put with the adults." One of the other guards stated while moving his had to his dagger.
Tardot shook his head, "If he truly be Secondary, then he goes where he wants till all this gets straightened out. I want no trouble from the Swordsman Guild fer allowin' a Primary step one to accuse a Secondary of nothin'. He wants to bunk with youngan's his age fine. Besides, one adult try somethin' others 'll join in and we'll be scrapin' bodies off the floor fer days. Ya all know how the Governor feels about deaths and fighting in here. Last time we had a problem of those likes the guards on duty served 2 moons in the cells and had ta clean em out ta boot."
"Your boss sounds worse then a Hobgoblin." Kandric commented with a shake of his head.
All the guards nodded, but Sergeant Tardot waved a warning finger, "Boy, you may be good but the Governor is a true Teacher. He'd rip ya to shreds without much thought. Better watch yer mouth."
Kandric grinned almost evilly, "Sorry sergeant. I do not mean any disrespect."
Rylop patted Kandric on the back, "We ain't insulted none!"
Tardot chuckled, "Nope not a bit, just don't be lettin' the Governor hear those kind of words. He runs the Swordsman Guild in Slome and can make your life not so fun."
Kandric started walking down the stairs, "It would be a great deal easier for him if I was a Swordsman."
Tardot and the other guards exchanged bewildered looks as Rylop smiled and waved his hands in front of himself, "Guys, don't ask. It is safer if you don't know! Just trust me, everything he has said is the truth! If anything, he is understating matters."
Tardot waited until Kandric and Rylop disappeared down the steps, "Not a Swordsman? What the hell is he? I don't see no animal."
Londaw shrugged, "I'd have bet money on him bein' a trained Swordsman after I saw the way he mouthed of to Velert. But if he ain't then he may even be a Warrior Adept er somethin'. I know Rylop ain't one ta back down so if he says the boy could walk out of here and we couldn't do nothin' ta stop him, then you can bet yer next week's pay on it."
Tardot snorted, "Yer right. There may be a plus side ta all this though. 'Cause if Rylop is speakin' so highly of the boy I'm willin' ta bet there will be some youngan's down stairs in for a real shock."
One of the new guards shook his head, "I don't know sarge, we got some mean ones down there!"
Londaw grunted and tossed down 4 copper coins, "I saw him today. My money is on the red head."
More coins were tossed into the pile as bets were made. By the time Rylop came up the stairs he could see well over 70 copper coins on the table. "Anyone bet on the new boy to have total control of the whole lower level by dinner?"
"Not a chance!" one of the other guards started laughing, "There be over forty brats down in those three cages! What'd ya do, leave the inner cell doors open?"
"Forty-three long termers plus the three newest ones." Rylop stated calmly as he drew a fist of silver coins out, "And yea, the only doors locked are the outer two. I'll put three ta one on the new kid!"
Everyone stopped and eyed Rylop for a moment before they started digging in their pouches for more coins. Only Londaw decided to stay out of the offered deal.
Rylop walked out of the jail patting Londaw as he went by, "Smart man!"
"Has nothin' to do with brains." Londaw replied as he walked out to continue his patrol of Slome, "I saw what he did to Velert's precious merchant kid."
"Believe it or not," Rylop snorted, "He was nice to the merchant brat and to Velert."
"I was afraid you'd say somethin' of the sort." Londaw snorted, "Getting' ta be late after noon, better check on the gates and make sure they be ready to lock down fer the night."
As Vondum rode toward Slome his blood stated to really boil. In the past, Kandric had been treated very badly in the town. He had even been attacked and had iron placed on his skin, yet no one had lifted a finger to help him. If the boy had gone into Slome alone to settle a score, he would be alone and badly outnumbered.
Vondum smiled in spite of his mood. Not many people would take on those kinds of odds, especially when he could have brought friends. Maybe it had been a passing thought on Kandric's part to tell his slave to say where he had gone and why. Maybe it had been because he expected trouble. It really didn't matter. The boy had gone into town alone. Such an action took far more guts than most men had!
His hands tightened on the reigns as he thought of the possible danger the boy might be in. As he rode he almost hoped someone had hurt Kandric so he would be able to rip the person apart.
It actually hurt Vondum's feelings slightly not to have been invited; yet he deeply admired Kandric for trying to take on a whole town alone. He dug his heals into his War Steed. Help was on the way regardless of whether or not Kandric expected any.
An older looking man looked over the assembled group of nineteen boys ranging from seven to fourteen human equivalent years of age. Behind him stood four other boys, two age thirteen two age fourteen in equivalent years. The man waited until the last of the boys in front of him went into the proper fighting crouch for a Wraith Sect Warrior.
The man frowned as he pointed out a flaw in one of the youngest students. The oldest of the assembled boys benind the man quickly walked up and smacked the boy's left leg with a long flexible stick.
The boy winced but slid his left foot forward slightly to almost perfectly distribute his weight.
Satisfied the older boy gave a quick bow to the man and resumed his own fighting stance.
All of the kids stayed perfectly still as they looked up at their instructor. It was clear to all the boys something strange was in the works. This realization was due, in no small part, to the extra four hours of combat drills taught to them each day since the massive late night storm.
The man gazed over his students with a bit of sadness in his eyes. At last he cleared his throat, "My students, I have important yet very grave news. As you all know, your former class leader, Conner, was framed as a thief. He took the fall instead of exposing us. For you all know how people feel about our ancient arts of the Wraith.
"I have found out something about who is to blame and you all know the name." The man held up two Elvin Silver Steel daggers for everyone to see, "I recovered these from Gambra's lead agent in Junsac shortly before Gambra killed him."
Even as the boys kept their stances there was some mutters of anger and hatred.
"Yes my students, The Dark Mage woman has broken her vows to leave us alone if we left her alone. Yet I cannot clear Conner or one of her agents may still expose us."
A new round of mutters broke out among the students.
The man smiled at the reaction. Gambra had tired to recruit all but four of his lower students and all but one of his junior instructors standing behind him. All eighteen of the ones approached by one of Gambra's agents had been touched by Dark Magic because they had refused to join her. Yet they all had still refused even after the attack.
The Wraith Sect Warrior had then targeted these youngsters for his training because they had been able to refuse the draw of power and Magical training and held to their beliefs. This was rare for a child. In the man's way of thinking, it was this inner strength to do right which had given his students the chance to learn the way of the Wraith. The other five had been brought in because of his own soft heart for beautiful boys with the Mage gift, but even they had been forced though more than a few tests to prove they could withstand the draw of power of Dark Magic.
As he looked over his class his mind drifted to his ultimate goal to make the Wraith Sect Warrior a part of society once again. It would be a long hard road, however. Maybe longer than it had taken for the skill to become so hated.
Over several hundred years the way of the Wraith became an evil thing. This was partially because the style was named after a creature of the dead, and partially because if drew on the death of an enemy to allow the Sect Warrior to increase combat abilities. Another strike against Wraith Sect Warriors was the fact they had to be able to cast magic or the training wouldn't work, thus Swordsmen and Animal Adepts could not enter into the ranks. Although, the old man had heard rumors of both Fields having members who could cast a limited number of spells. He had yet to confirm or debunk such absurd rumors. It really didn't matter for all of these excuses for hating Wraith Sect Warriors were secondary to the last reason.
Somewhere along the line practitioners of Dark forms of magic found they could capture the essence of a being killed and keep it beyond the typical few minutes of combat. These practitioners of Dark Magic actually started feeding on the extinguished life of those they killed with their hands. This, in turn, lead to many victims of Wraith Sect Warriors becoming undead. The exact reason for this was not known for certain. But the prevailing belief for the awakening of a dead body was the fact their spirit was never fully freed so the parts which were couldn't move on. So the used up life force came back to inhabit the dead body instead of flowing over to the sprit world.
Because of this, the Wraith Sect Warrior Subfield was targeted for extinction. The goal faded as Wraiths became fewer and fewer until the other Guilds decided they could claim victory. The few Wraiths to survive went deep underground. Those left still fought one another behind the scenes, the Dark Magic practitioners were down to only a few groups. Gambra's was believed to be the strongest. But Gambra's days of luring new recruits and training a new generation of life feeding Wraiths without opposition were drawing to an end as of this instant.
To this end the man again held the daggers high in the air once again and spoke in a loud voice.
"I have, however, found out some very important information. I know where her forces are building and I know a new way to free Conner's name of tarnish. I will need help to do this though."
The junior instructors behind the man had already been briefed, yet their eyes still flared in anger. Conner had been the lead junior instructor and had spent many hours with each of them teaching then not only the arts of the Wraith, but also how to read, write, and other academic skills. Most thought of Conner as an older brother while a couple of the human boys thought of him as more of an uncle do to the extreme real age difference.
The man smiled, "I will only take volunteers. Avcar and Klonaz have reluctantly agreed to stay here and teach those of you who do not wish to come and to keep the place ready in case any of you need to have a place to run to. I fully expect one out of every three whom volunteer for this will die within the next two months. Do not choose hastily. If you have doubts do not leave your fighting crouch. Those who are certain of your desire to join this expedition may now stand.
Of the nineteen boys standing in a fighting crouch six stood instantly five more stood more slowly. Over the next couple of minutes three more ended their inner debates and stood. Then, just as the man was about to dismiss the remaining four, one more stood, the youngest, a boy who had exactly thirty-five days of training.
"Janden, are you absolutely sure?"
The small seven-year-old Equivalent Pantherling bowed, "I am Lord Anarton. It was Conner who allowed me to escape my master and sent me here. The only reason I'm an escaped slave and not a full slave is 'cause of him."
"I know Conner." One of the junior instructors spoke up, "He would not expect you to do this Janden."
"I can't sit here knowing I might be able ta help him! I was goin' to have to fight in the arena against other slave boys if I'd not escaped! "
Anarton held up his hand to stop the conversation, "Very well. The rest of you will keep my home ready to handle wounded and continue your training under Avcar and Klonaz. This is where any of the others will come if they have to run so be ready to render aid. The rest of us leave for Everone in the morning so assemble your gear!"
Kandric entered the lower area and took the blanket and small bronze bowl. He watched as Rylop used a large set of keys to unlock the doors and stopped to take a look at a couple of young kids with fresh bruises. Seemingly satisfied the boys would be OK, he gazed around, "Normally we lock everyone in their cells when a new kid is brought down, so he doesn't have ta take on the whole place. I ain't doin' so this time, so it ought ta tell ya somethin'! He the walked back out and slammed the inner door.
Kandric was surprised out how solid the lock sounded as it clicked into place. Moments later a muffled sound echoed through the lower dungeon as the outer door was slammed and locked. Kandric quietly moved to an empty corner. There were quite a few other boys in the dungeon area which was lit by a series of torches which were out of every ones reach by the bronze bars. Each torch sat under a tiny slit in the wall which opened to the outside. This eliminated any smoke, but made the dungeon fairly chilly. The torches put out enough heat to counter much of the cold, but not all of it.
Kandric also noticed a large fireplace in the middle of the lower area. It was totally caged off, just like the torches and had a massive pile of wood next to it. Kandric guessed, correctly, the fire was lit when the temperature got too cold outside. Kandric also guessed, once again with perfect accuracy, the temperature would have to drop a great deal before anyone would light the fire. A far door also caught his attention. It was bronze and had bars set into it. There was nothing but darkness beyond the bars though, so there was no way of telling what the door lead to. Sooner or later Kandric knew he would get around to checking it out though. An unopened door was just too big a mystery for a young Ruinseeker. If nothing else his heat vision might give him some clues as to what was behind it.
At first the kids kept a distance from him. He had been escorted down with a great deal of respect from a guard and showed a couple of very nasty bruises. Kandric had to admit he could feel his eye swelling slightly. He touched his upper cheekbone under his left eye lightly and winced. Taking a punch on purpose was not something he cared to do much of. He desperately wanted to heal himself, but forced himself to not do it. He wanted the dark bruises to be the first thing Vondum would take notice of.
His sight had a very hard time adjusting to the flickering torchlight. The weird hot of the torches and cold of the walls messed with his heat vision badly so he had to concentrate on using normal vision. The swelling around his eye didn't help matters, but he eventually adjusted enough to see what the rest of his surroundings were.
The first thing he really noticed was the sheer number of kids. He was one of only two score plus kids ranging in human equivalent ages from like 6 all the way to 14 or so. Some of them looked like they had been down here quite a while because they looked pale.
The next thing to strike him was the lack of room. There were four cages, one central room with a long stone table and stone benches on each side, and the fireplace area in the back of the central room. Bars separated everything, but currently all four cage doors were open so kids could move freely from one cage to the next and could sit in the central room. The cages were only five meters by five meters and each held a pair of chamber pots and one large metal kettle with a lid and a pair of ladles.
Kandric could see many of the kids clothing looked very ragged, much like he was used to wearing, and some didn't have shoes. Other kids had quite a bit of clothing and it looked nicer. It didn't take long for Kandric to see the amount of clothing tended to correspond with size. The bigger the kid, the more he had.
As this dawned on him he started looking around a little more. Blankets were obviously another area where the littler kids were the have-nots. Some of the older boys walked around with two or even three while the littlest ones had none or shared with others.
Seeing the pattern Kandric quickly determined the pecking order. He guessed most of the kids in the dungeon took him to be in the middle somewhere, but were not quite sure where he would fit in. The longer he sat there the more eyes looked at him.
Kandric thought about making a preemptive strike or even rushing to get some of the smaller kids their blankets back, but figured he could wait. Someone would make the first move and then he could make everyone down here understand their current order of hierarchy didn't mean a thing to him.
An adult woman, chains keeping her feet fairly close together, shuffled in and replaced the torches after only an hour. A few of the kids begged her to light the large fireplace, but all she did was snort, "Shut up you spoiled brats! I ain't even gunna ask fer ya! It ain't cold in here none."
As soon as the door opened to let her back out a pair of boys came in the cage and walked right up to Kandric.
Kandric almost stood, but decided to wait. He bet Emroc would have been able to handle both of these older kids without breaking a real sweat.
The smaller of the two, a human boy of about 13 kicked Kandric lightly, "That be my spot yer sitin' in!"
Kandric reacted instantly. His right hand shot out and smacked the kid's knee while his left one grabbed the kid's arm and jerked him down. The boy's face collided with Kandric's knee hard enough for others to hear clearly. Kandric smiled knowing he had the kid all but out cold without doing any permanent injury. The black eye the kid would be left with would make Kandric's look like a love tap, however.
Before the boy could do anything Kandric flipped the kid over swung and his elbow into the exposed stomach. Kandric looked at the kid as he tried desperately to recover the air smashed out of his lungs. "I take whatever spot I want."
The bigger boy moved up, "Ya don't do dat to me sergeant!"
Kandric swung his legs around tripping the second kid. As the surprised lad thumped to the floor with a yelp, Kandric reacted viscously. He grabbed the boy's long hair and dragged the kids face close. He then used his other hand to clutch at the kid's throat.
The choking young teen tried to squirm free then attempted poke Kandric in the eyes when he realized he was not getting loose.
Kandric jerked his head to the side to avoid the desperate thrust of fingers at his face and pulled hard on the kid's head ripping out a large amount of hair.
The boy let out a strangled gasp of pain and thrashed about madly trying to escape the new boy's grasp. He only felt the grip around his adam's apple tighten. He stated shaking as he realized he was running out of air.
Kandric hadn't bothered to move from a sitting position. He used his left heel to knock the wind out of the first kid once again as he tossed the handful of hair aside. He smiled as he looked at the boy he was strangling, "Next time pick a better sergeant."
A few of the older boys standing outside the cell looked on in shock as the boy in Kandric's grasp passed out. As Kandric finally stood and brushed himself off everyone took a few steps back from him, even the ones clear across the small dungeon seemed to want more distance between themselves and Kandric.
Kandric reached down and grabbed his blanket and bowl then took a few seconds to grab the other four the other two had been carrying. A last second feeble grab at one of the blankets by the smaller attacker only accomplished getting the air knocked out of his lungs for a third time.
Kandric walked out of the cage only to watch the other seven larger boys all back up. He snickered, "Anyone else?"
The biggest of the kids came forward flanked by two others, "Ya control dat cell now. Don't give me no trouble none and ya keep it."
Kandric shrugged, "You give your blankets to the others so everyone has one and I will be happy to let things be." Kandric glanced over his shoulder; "I do not believe those two need one though."
"Ya don't seem ta understand none." The kid advanced, "I be da leader here."
"In case you did not notice, I did not stand up once during the little scuffle in there." Kandric hissed in a hard challenge, "Do you really think I care who you are?"
"You can't take that boss!" One of the two said from behind the large teen.
The big bully's face went a dark shade of red and he threw a wild punch quite suddenly. He was quite startled to find himself yanked by his arm right into the stone table. Before he could recover he felt a hand wrap around his hair and then slam his face down into the table by the back of his head. After the third time of his face impacting with the table he was not aware of any others.
Kandric released the "leader" after smashing the jerk's face into the table seven times. This was not because he wanted to stop, but due to the fact the two kids who had been standing behind their "boss" finally realized they needed to do something. Both exchanged fearful glances and rushed forward.
Kandric ducked under both and kicked the Halfelvin boy in the back sending him flipping all the way over the table. There was an audible thud as he hit the bench on the far side then another as he hit the floor. More than one of the other boys who looked on let out an "ouch," or "ohhhh."
Kandric spun to face the second boy, a Halforc. He could see the look of fear in the boy's brown eyes. He paused to see if the kid would back down. It took a full second, but the boy took a step forward with a clenched fist.
So much for brain's, Kandric thought as he stood his ground and taped into just a little of his magic. He waited until his opponent reared back his fist, then slammed his open hand into the boy's chin. He watched in a great deal of humor as the quasi leader's knees buckled and his eyes rolled up into his head. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.
Kandric glanced over his shoulder to see what the last of the older kids were doing. The remaining four retreated to the other two cells while the one he had kicked over the table was pulling himself up but made no aggressive moves. Instead the Halfelf shook his head and put up both hands in front of himself.
A few tense moments followed, but then the first two came out of the cage Kandric had left them in and sat at the table with shaky legs. The younger one had snot and tears still streaming down his face. As they took a seat the other four returned to the central room and joined them at the table as well.
The last few who looked to be any sort of a threat were all closer to Kandric's age and size. They all took the other boys' lead and held up their hands. One by one they went into cells and sat down. It became obvious the central room was for kids who were in charge at the moment and no one was contesting the new power structure.
The Halfelvin boy who had been kicked over the table finally spoke, "My name is Eyan boss. What do you want done."
"This was way too easy!" Kandric smirked, "You mean to tell me I am now in charge?"
Almost every kid in the lower area nodded vigorously.
"Easy? There only be three of us in the guilds and you took us all on!" Eyan shouted.
"So?" Kandric threw up his hands, "Am I supposed to be impressed?"
Eyan took a deep breath, "I guess not. I be a Training step five, Hongas is Training step four," He pointed to the Halforc Kandric had hit with an open hand who was still out cold on the floor, "and Bongef is a Primary step one Swordsman." He again pointed. This time the gesture was aimed at the teen who Kandric had smashed into the table repeatedly. A small trickle of blood was pooling under the kid's open mouth and a tooth lay on the floor next to where he lay unmoving.
Eyan shuddered; "You walked through us like a Lizardman playing with babies."
"Lizardmen are not really as tough as people make them out to be." Kandric stated calmly.
"You fought a Lizardman?" Eyan asked in shock.
"Three actually, but one was a young one."
"How many people were with you?"
"Just one," Kandric grinned at the memory of Glaster rolling his eyes as the trio came out of the swamps demanding money for safe passage. "But he didn't like the odds so he sat down with his back against a tree and watched."
"You're serious, aren't you?"
"Yes." Kandric nodded at Eyan, "I was a little annoyed at having to fight all three but my teacher insisted it would not be fair if he joined in."
"What are you?" Eyan asked nervously.
"I am a Guilded Shaman."
The older boy who had accosted Kandric in the cage managed to speak at last, "Ya mean ta say ya could a tossed spells too?"
Kandric grinned and pointed at the fireplace. The wood stacked in the central pit burst into a roaring flame, "I guess I could have, but talk about unfair!"
Several boys jumped at the display of spell casting. Very few had ever seen a real spell cast before, and those who had took note of the fact such a display should have required some sort of drain, even momentary, yet the Halfelf continued talking as he cast the spell!
"Da guards 'll get mad! They don't like ta buy wood fer us unless they have ta!" The younger boy from the first altercation stated."
Kandric shrugged, "I'll pay for more. Not a big deal."
Eyan shook his head; "They'll charge ya at least two copper for what was in the fireplace!"
"How much for the full stack in there?"
"Probably 3 or 4 silver!" Eyan almost shouted. "There be two or three weeks worth of wood in there!"
"Relax. I'll have one of the guards stop by the school to collect the money."
Eyan looked at Kandric with a sideways glance, "If you have money you might want to save it for good food."
Eyan scrunched up his nose, "Because we only get two meals a day for free and they are always oatmeal with a boiled egg for breakfast and a stew for dinner. They always fills the bowl they gave you to the top, but it ain't a very big bowl. The guards will bring you in other food if ya have money though."
Kandric looked around at the smaller kids, "Am I to guess meals work kind of like blankets?"
Eyan nodded, "Sort of. We have to be careful though. If the guards see any of the kids getting sick they watch real close. Normally we take their eggs every other day and some of their stew."
Kandric frowned but decided to keep things relaxed. "So what are the rules down here?"
"Don't mess with the guards. Don't make them call a Healthman, and…" Eyan let his voice drag on as he pointed to Kandric, "Whatever you say they are."
"I am not going to be here very long."
"While you are, you be the boss." Eyan stated in a flat tone.
Kandric suddenly felt a little sad. He hadn't really done anything spectacular. Matter of fact, he only tapped into his magic once during the fighting, yet it didn't seem to make any difference. He had won the fight and he was once again feared. He started wondering if he would ever have a real friend other than adults. Having the skills and raw power was great, but it sure separated him from others.
Suddenly Bongef, the oldest kid and full Guilded Swordsman, groaned and stated to roll over. Kandric pointed to a couple of the other kids seated at the table. "Drag him over to one of the cages. He only gets to keep his shirt and britches. Pile everything else up over where I was sitting."
"The cell closest to the entrance is the warmest." Eyan pointed out. "You might want your stuff moved in there."
The two boys looked at Kandric waiting for a reaction. As soon as he nodded, they went to work following his orders.
Kandric glanced back to Eyan; "What about bunk space, water, emptying chamber pots, and other normal stuff?"
"Water is refilled in the large covered pots three times a day by the woman you saw. She also comes around every morning and every night to empty the chamber pots.
"We get taken out for baths in the barn three times a week, which be the only times we gets to see the outdoors unless we offer our services or we be needed for labor."
Kandric raised an eyebrow, "What type of services?"
Eyan grunted, "The guards will rent you out for a day or a night at one of the inns for the pleasure of one of the merchants or anyone with the coins to spare. They keep seven out of every eight copper you earn."
"How many do it?"
"Why do ya want ta know?" The younger of the first attackers asked.
"Because he can, Cython. He runs this place until someone says otherwise, and I doubt all of us together could do much to him."
Kandric directed his full attention on the kid, "So your name is Cython?"
"Uh, huh." The boy nodded then gulped as Kandric continued to stare at him.
Kandric waited until the boy had stated to sweat some before speaking again. "How did you ever get to be one of the kids with two blankets?"
A couple of the others at the table snickered as Cython stated to chew on his lip.
"Eyan," Kandric asked after several seconds of silence, "how did he get to be one of the leaders?"
"He agreed to get close to the cell leader, real close."
Kandric watched Cython turn quite red, "Nothing wrong with sleeping your way to the top. Actually it shows a bit of brains."
It was pretty clear to Kandric most of the others expected him to make fun of Cython. When he did not several of the kids shifted uncomfortably.
Kandric decided to ignore this for the time being, "So how did the cell leader ever get to such a lofty position?"
"Dranel is trainable." Eyan answered. "So is Cython, but as an Animal Adept, not a Swordsman. In fact all the cell leaders and their underlings are Field trainable. The guards test all those who want to be tested and make the results known. There are three of the younger ones with potential too, but they are too young to defend themselves."
Kandric thought over the information. It was interesting to hear the guards would take time to conduct free tests, but then again a town the size of Slome needed new guards and where better to find some than in the jail. "Do they offer to train you?"
"When some of the kids are freed they're offered a spot in the School if they agree to be a guard for 6 years once they be trained. It depends on what you did to get in here."
"Sounds fair. Now back to my earlier question, how many agree to be rented out for a night?"
Eyan shrugged. "Only a few. I have been here for almost three weeks and have only seen three kids agree to it." Eyan pointed to a Halfling sitting in a far cell. He is the only one who does it regular like, but Ampad simply hates being locked up so he'll do almost anything to get out of here as often as possible. He ain't out today because they had to take him to see the Healthman a couple of nights ago. I guess the guy who rented him was a little too rough, so the guards won't let him go out again till he be totally healed.
"To be truthful, it ain't really worth it. If you're really lucky you come back with two copper. If you're unlucky you have to go out two times to come back with a single copper. I guess they won't take less than four copper for a kid though so one copper every two times is the worst it will get. I also gather they can always find renters, cause they are always asking and saying they'll take as many as wants to volunteer. I am kind of curious what your interest is in it if you don't think you'll be here long and you have money."
"If I am going to be the boss for even a few hours I want to know what is what." Kandric replied while hiding a smile. All the merchant trips with Glaster had taught him there were other ways to look at a given situation. The information he had gathered had given him an idea, but he would have to see if it was even a plausible concept before saying more.
"It be your right to ask what you want boss." Eyan responded as he saw the boy Kandric had knocked out with a singe punch get to his knees.
Kandric looked at the other two "cell leaders" who had not fought him, "Same thing. Shirt and britches only, everything else gets added to the pile in the front cage."
As both boys half-escorted and half-dragged the Halforc boy back to one of the other cells, Eyan shook his head, "You be making a couple enemies boss."
"They will learn very quickly I will not put up with their nonsense or their lives will only get worse." Kandric shrugged letting the others know just how unconcerned he was about the former leaders. He grinned as he changed the subject. "What is behind the big door in back?"
Eyan shook his head, "Don't know for sure. One of the guards told us this used to be a torture chamber below the central keep before this ever be a town. From what he was tellin' us, the cells for those put in here are back there. They was even talking about opening up the door and having us clean it out to make more room, cause ain't none of us do out of here fer a couple a months."
Kandric glanced to the door, "Very interesting." He noticed one of the former leaders was struggling as the two kids tried to remove his shoes, "Beat him down until he submits. He needs to learn who is in command down here!"
Eyan cringed as he watched to two smaller kids repeatedly punch the old boss until he gave up, "Does this mean you want everything but my shirt and britches too?"
Kandric shook his head. "No. You are smarter than those two. I am really kind of hoping you will be the one who will be my second while I am here." Kandric glanced over and nodded in satisfaction as the older kid finally surrendered his boots.
Eyan got a puzzled look on his face, "What did I do more different than them?"
"For one thing you speak better than any of the others. Even more important, when you speak the others seem to follow. You are a natural leader."
"OK, I'll be your second." Eyan scowled, "You know the only time I ever heard the term second used like you're doing was when I was getting taught weapon skills at the barracks in Silverton. You got some guard training?"
"I work for a large city sometimes." Kandric replied cryptically then changed the subject quickly before questions could be asked, "So what are you all in here for?"
Eyan let out a long breath; "Well over three out of four are in for stealing food or something they could sell so they could buy food. This winter put many peasant families on the brink of starvation." He waved his hand around, "Almost every small kid is in here for food theft. More than one got caught on purpose so they could get some food. They be eating better in here than their families are. The only problem be the Governor. He always puts kids in for at least six months for stealing so it be real crowded down here now."
"The winter has been hard on everyone." Kandric sighed, "What about the rest?"
"Name it." Eyan managed to chuckle. "Everything from Bongef beating up an old lady for her necklace to Koril burning down a stable."
Kandric looked in the direction Eyan had pointed only to see a Dwarvin boy in one of the far cages turn a bit red. "Burn down a barn?"
Cython cracked a small grin, "He was cold like, so he take one of dem torches off the posts out front of da Hunters Inn and sneak inta one of dem small stables to get out of da wind. Me guess he put da torch down fer a sec and it lighted some hay on fire."
Kandric scratched his head for a moment before saying anything; "He put a lit torch down inside a barn?"
Eyan nodded while trying very hard not to laugh.
Kandric glanced back at the Dwarf, "Come here."
Koril looked left then right hoping he was not being singled out, but stood as it became clear he was. He walked into the central room chewing on his fingertips.
Kandric looked at the kid, who was a maybe a little older in equivalency years than he, "I just have to know. What possessed you to put a torch down in a barn?"
The boy's eyes darted back and forth nervously as he shrugged, "Didn't see no way ta get warm without the fire."
"Was there a bunch of hay?"
Kandric groaned, "Why did you not use some of it to cover up with?"
"Didn't think about it none." The boy admitted after thinking over Kandric's question.
"You can go back to whatever you were doing Koril." Kandric stated as he used his hand to motion for the Dwarf to leave the central room. Kandric thought over the whole situation a little more. Glaster had warned him some of the people in jails were there because of stupidity, he just did not quite understand how stupid until now. He rested his head on his hand and winced as he touched up against his swollen eye. "Wonderful. OK Eyan what are you in here for and how long?"
"I broke the leg of the governor's daughter in training. I didn't notice so I hit her again in the head with a wooden practice mace and hurt her bad. I have to stay in here double time it take her to heal up plus 6 months. The guards says I have about three more weeks before my six months start. Maybe even more, depends on her."
"For a training accident?"
"I would have had to stand holding books over my head for a very long time and I would have had to help care for her, but I think my teacher would have stopped there."
"The Governor set the punishment and the merchants I was with left town. I'll have to finish my training on my own and pay for a guild test I guess. The school here might take me in, but then I'd have to spend 6 years here and I don't know if I should. The guild is run by the Governor and he don't like me much"
"Do not worry about either. I may have another solution. But we will worry about it later. Right now I need to change a few things around here."
"Eyan, what am I allowed to do?"
"Like I said, you be the boss. You do whatever you want as long as you don't bother the guards or hurt someone so bad they have to spend money to fix them up. If you get enough money they'll even let you pound kids into a puddle if you pay for them to be fixed and you don't kill no one. Do whatever else you want, they don't care none. What do you want done?"
Kandric leaned back, "I have a few ideas, but it will have to wait until I can talk to a guard."
"They don't want to be bothered boss."
"They might change their minds once they hear my idea. In the mean time I want everyone to gather up all the blankets and you and the other leaders are going to take everything but their shirt and britches."
"Because I want everything piled in the cage I will be staying in. I want to know exactly what all is down here. As soon as I do, I will decide what to do from there. You and the other leaders can keep what you have on and two blankets each."
"OK, anything else?"
Kandric nodded, "Yes. Right now the only leaders under me are you, Cython, and the whoever you want to be in charge of each cage. The cage leaders can pick an underling, but the underling only gets their shirt and britches and one blanket."
Cython looked truly puzzled, "Why me?"
Kandric gave the boy a sideways grin, "Because I have plans for you."
"I've never sleeped with no younger kid."
"I was not thinking along those lines, but we may be able to work something out there as well." Kandric replied bluntly. "Right now, however, I want all the stuff piled on the table sorted and taken to my cage!"
Vondum rode up to the gate facing in the direction of the Swamp Slums and yelled up to the guard, "Open the gate!"
A stern answer sounded from above; "It is dusk. The gate is closed; come again tomorrow!"
"What?" Vondum shouted, "This gate has never been closed at nightfall before!"
"It has this winter stranger. We have been under an almost siege. Come again tomorrow!"
Vondum clenched his fists, "Soldier, if this gate does not open I am going to have your head handed to your lifeless body on a platter!"
"Go away before I have my archers open up on you stranger!"
"I am no stranger fool! I am Captain Vondum of Black Rapids and I demand the gate open at once!"
"I don't care if you are the god Argon popping right out the ground; this gate is closed for the night! Now leave or be fired upon!"
Vondum could not believe any junior guard would defy him anywhere above the Silver Spine Mountains, let alone in Slome where half the guards came from his city's academy. "Look watch leader, I could simply take you out from where I stand and enter the city anyway. So why don't you go get a corporal or a sergeant before I have to hurt you and the others with you."
"I will not leave my post sir. Any attempt to harm us and you will be killed where you stand!"
"Then send one of your men as a runner, soldier. If none of you know who I am you need to bring someone who does before I get very angry!"
"Dismount and wait! I will send a runner, but if you are not someone important you will be seeing the Governor!"
"He works for the guild in Black Rapids you fool!"
"We will see. Dismount now or we drop your mount!"
Vondum watched as a pair of massive crossbows were adjusted to aim at him for the upper wall. He shook his head and smiled despite his mood as he slid off his Warsteed, "Son, you fire those at siege engines not at mounts!"
"We will have a patrol leader here shortly sir. Stay still and you will not be harmed."
Vondum stood next to his Warsteed with a growing impatience. Every minute passing by was another minute Kandric could be getting himself into more trouble.
Aster looked up as the moon peeked over the horizon. The night was cold, too cold for this time of year, but at least the sky was clear and the stars were sparkling in abundance. Aster took a couple of deep breaths and made a quick prayer asking for the proper words to come to him and for understanding to come to Quavis. He hedged his bets by praying to both Quati, god of the night sky, and Lunara, goddess of the moon and peaceful sleep. It seemed only fitting given the splendid night lights shining from above.
Crunching of ice brought back renewed fear and uncertainty about the meeting he had asked Sardan to set up for him. Quavis came into view with his hands deep in his pockets and his breath clearly visible in the brightness of the moonlight.
Quavis looked around and finally spotted Aster leaning against a tree with Shade on one side, Frost on the other and Dart looking down from a branch above. He bit on his lip some but finally approached and patted the strange shape shifting Ice Griffin on the head. The eagle like head rubbed up against Quavis a few times as if Frost wanted more.
"Maybe later Frost." Aster commanded gently. "Why don't you, Dart, and Shade go to my tent? I'll catch up shortly."
All three animals obeyed as a team. Within seconds Aster was alone with Quavis.
Quavis glanced around as silence settled over the woods, "Sardan said you needed to talk to me."
"Yea, I do." Aster nodded slowly. Let's go for a walk so we are away from others."
Quavis shrugged, "OK, but don't you want your pets around. I doubt all the bandits led by my father are dead."
"Probably not, but I'm not concerned about them."
Quavis shrugged, "Yea you are like Teaching Echelon. I wouldn't be concerned if I was as strong as you either!"
Aster heard the joking tone in Quavis' voice. The fact the kid was trying to be a friend only made what he had to say worse. "You'll be there some day if Sardan has anything to say about it."
Quavis frowned, "Aster I was kidding. Why are you being so gloomy?
Aster looked up at the sky again, "Because I need to tell you something. Something I did. Something which is totally my fault."
"What are you talking about? Did you find and kill my father? If you did I would be happy!"
"No. I did something to you far worse. I did it without thinking about who would be hurt because I was very mad."
"Aster, I am not hurt. What are you talking about?"
Aster turned to face Quavis; "I was the one who sent you and your sisters to the warehouse down by the docks."
Quavis took a full step back, "No, no way. My father sent us there!"
Aster shook his head, "No, I did. I used some friends in the Watch to plant the stolen items on your sister, I had the Halfling hand you the bag of gold, and I had another friend alert the city guards. It was all me."
Quavis felt the blood leave his face, "But I though you were all my friends!"
"Don't blame anyone but me Quavis. It was my fault and I am sorry. Sardan knows because I told him about it. He never meant to trick you."
"But he is in the Watch! He knew I was wanted and helped me get out of the city!"
"Because I asked him to after I realized I had made a mistake."
Quavis started shaking, "What about my brother and sister?"
"The Watch cannot get them out of the auctions." Aster swallowed hard, "I asked."
"But I fought next to you!" Quavis started crying.
"I didn't know it was you until Sardan told me. I never even knew who you were when I gave the order to set you up. All I knew is your father had three kids and how old you all were. I then set everything in motion with a word to a few friends in the Watch."
"Why do you hate me then?"
"I don't hate you. I only hate your father. He hurt Conner and made him suffer in the dungeons on his days off from the day slave block. I wanted him to suffer like he made my brother suffer, but I wanted more. I wanted to destroy him and everything he had." Aster bit back a sob, "including his family."
"You used me and I fought to save your life and even brought my friends! I thought you were a friend! I thought all the Watch was my friends, all you are is a bunch of liars! I hate you!" Quavis burst into tears and took off running deeper into the woods.
Aster put his head against a tree and hit it over and over again as he sobbed.
Finally Sardan came up and put a talon on the boy's shoulder, "I guess it didn't go well?"
"He saved my life and he hates me!" Aster turned and cried into Sardan's chest. "I didn't mean to hurt him! I really didn't!"
"I know Aster." Sardan spoke softly while stroking the boy's hair. "But I think it would be a good idea if we find him. He is out in these woods alone and there is a better than even chance this area is not safe."
Klent ate his dinner at the Ghoul Drool tavern while listening to the conversation. Over the course of the day a small handful of men, women and beasts came trickling in the doors badly beat up and looking shocked. As the day wore on a picture emerged of a fight worthy of telling in taverns for years to come. At first the tales of the battle around the small merchant Caravan was taken with laughs and mockery. As more wounded and bewildered straggles came through the doors of the Ghoul Drool the mocking subsided.
There was no question in Klent's mind now as he listened to two Swordsman talk about the very gods throwing their weight behind the small group of defenders. Gambra had indeed suffered a full-scale route of her forces.
His mind had been spinning since he got the message to travel to Everone. The voice had said to take his kind of friends. He had taken this to mean scoundrels and cutthroats, but he didn't really want to travel with most of those types. Besides, until today, Klent had thought it impossible to round up anyone to go into a war when Gambra's people paid so well right here and the tasks she wanted done were basically safe. Now, however, he might very well find a few people who would risk such a journey.
Klent raised an eyebrow as he spotted a new arrival to the Ghoul Drool he knew as a kid. The man and his two buddies were mud splattered and all their armor showed damage. The trio walked up to the bar paid for a pitcher of ale, grabbed glasses and sat at one of the tables. One of them then motioned for one of the barmaids, "Wench get me a Healthman!"
"The two in the village be busy patchin' the remains of yer sorry group. You'll have to go to em, cause they be makin' plenty without doin' house calls!" The woman replied harshly.
Several others in the tavern started laughing, mostly because they felt pretty much the same way or were in the same or worse shape.
Klent walked up to the table, "Lidevar, You look like crap!"
The Warrior Adept glanced up from his ale, His left ear had a chunk ripped off and there was a hunk of dried blood stuck to his head. "I feel like it to. I never got my butt beat like it was out there!"
Klent noticed all three men had dozens of burns in all their leather armor. He pointed to the same Barmaid and tossed her a pair silver, "Get us another pitcher and send one of them slaves to get Healthman Tyrog's apprentice. He'll come a running if he knows he'll get paid out right."
"I thought you had more brains Klent." The barmaid snorted, "Fools like them 'll only get ya into more trouble."
"I ain't going with 'em Hanatha. I'm actually lookin' to get out of these parts!"
"I always know you be one of them smart ones Klent!" The Barmaid mumbled, "I'll be getting' a pitch of the good stuff and send one of the girls to go fetch the brat, so it'll be a minute.
"That'll be fine Hanatha." Klent grinned as he tossed her another silver.
Lidevar raised an eyebrow; "I ain't never seen you spend coins on no one but yourself and your pleasure, Klent. What you up to?"
"I'm not going to lie to ya Lidevar. I'm up to something, but I also never seen you in such bad shape before. Where are Sinaw and Thix?
"Dead. Which I be sure you be happy to hear."
"Can't says it bothers me none." Klent admitted. "I never did understand why you hooked up with those two idiots."
"Cause they found us good payin' jobs Klent. I didn't like all they did and I know they would have killed their own kids if it would have made them a few extra silver. I be the leader of this group now and I'll try to be a little less demonistic, but I still have to find us all jobs and keep us all fed. I picked up two replacements too, but they be out in the wagon we stole from a farmer earlier today. They be youngan's and look and feel worse than we do. Problem is, we lost just about everything and I ain't no leader."
"How bad was it?" Klent asked wanting first hand information while doing what he could to recruit. This whole thing sounded very promising. He knew Lidevar was telling the truth about not being a leader. The man was an action guy not a thinker, which was probably how he had managed to pull out with as many as he did and pick up a few stragglers. He reacted to the situation. Now the poor guy was probably all but lost.
"Bad ain't the word Klent." Lidevar hissed while taking a long swig of ale. "We were in the lead attack group. Orders were to grab a little dark haired slave boy and kill or capture the rest, in exchange, we would get whatever the caravan had. We hit it as planned, but they knew we be commin' The wagons had rocks in 'em to fake being loaded with goods and the boy we was lookin' for there was no sign.
"As if out of nowhere there came a pair of boys no bigger than the ones you like. They walked though anything getting in their way. Doin' what they could to defend the caravan master. I personally saw the one Elf drop 6 of our men and the other took a sword swing to his hand, but I swear to you the sword broke on impact and the dark haired munchkin kept fighting.
"I knew right there we was in over out heads, but Gambra paid 50 silver each for this so there was no way we could retreat. I moved toward the light haired Elf kid, but a dark shadow formed into a wolf and ripped off part of my ear."
Lidevar took another swig of ale and refilled his glass; "I fell and watched as Thix slammed his sword into the wolf. The blade didn't go in none though. It knocked the thing down but it jumped right back up again and ripped out Thix's throat. Sinaw moved up with his magical dagger, but never got a chance to use it. A blurry dragon looking thing appeared and slashed claws down his back. His chain armor shredded and I could see bones in his back. He fell as if petrified. I started to crawl over to him, but the blasted wolf came out of a shadow again and used claws to rip Sinaw's face wide open. It then grabbed his magical dagger and ran off.
Klent's face showed his disbelief. "A wolf with claws?"
A Halfling turned from another table. Her weapon hand was missing two fingers and her other arm was splinted. "Yea, buddy a wolf with claws!" She then pulled her leg from under the table. The leather armor was in tatters and her leg showed hundreds of stitches holding together long claw marks. "The Healthman who put me back into a semblance of one piece flopped down seconds after he finished up on me with a pair of feathers sticking out of the back of his neck from a bird launching feathers."
"Someone had a trained Archer Eagle?" Klent shook at the thought. "I was only two of eight to survive accidentally getting too close to a nest. Me and the other Swordsman ran for our lives and still ended up pulling out a couple of those blasted feathers!"
"Don't know what it was called." One of the men sitting with Lidevar muttered, He pulled out a long beautiful blue and white feather from his belt, "but I had ta yank this out of me arm. I thinks it was stuck into the bone!"
Klent cringed as he noticed the bandage on the guy's arm was totally blood soaked, "Archer Eagle." Klent confirmed as he looked at the feather. He tested the weight for a second and tossed it at the dagger board. It stuck right between the eyes of the scratched in figure of a man. "It'll stay sharp for a few days before it dries out and starts to fall apart."
"Nice throw." Lidevar exhaled loudly. "Wish you would have been there with us."
"I don't trust or like Gambra."
"You've never even worked for her."
"No thanks. Matter of fact I be leaving in a couple of days."
Klent stated to answer then paused, "Mind if I ask where all the burns came from first?"
Lidevar shook his head, "Not at all. Gambra's on-site commander called in the reserves and we thought we had 'em beat, but then as if the sky itself erupted like a volcano as a new force arrived. The leader was a Mystic, a Mystic of great power. He tossed up a pair of bottles and even in the rain they burst over us with a loud roar and the rain turned white hot. Many of the Goblins and other lesser beings were killed instantly and those of us who thought fast enough were able to pull shields and even dead or wounded comrades over us to prevent getting hit, but no one under the blazing rain could get out of the way completely.
"The last of the forces were sent in, but the Mystic tossed some sort of firewall to protect the ones we had been fighting and his people took the lead. It would have been a lot more even, but then everything went wrong. The rain stopped and the mud grew deeper under our feet, the sun blinded us and was at their back, and every arrow, bolt and dagger sent our direction hit. The gods didn't simply stop there. The clouds returned and those of our number left standing on the battlefield were struck down by waves of lightning. Even those who were fleeing where lanced down by Syria."
Klent was skeptical, but he could see other heads around the tavern nod at his retelling. Gambra had hired over 120 beings at 50 silver each and had lost all but a handful to a single Caravan. The meanest had all fallen leaving only the greedy and the desperate. Could the gods have done this so he could get a group together while eliminating the truly nasty ones? With the gods anything was possible. If their interference in the battle had been even partially to assist him getting a group of men together then he would have to take advantage or risk angering the gods. He didn't like the sound of having even one god angry at him so, in his way of thinking, there was no choice but to use the opportunity to get a team together.
Klent stated to speak only to be interrupted by the arrival of a large pitcher of good ale and the young Healthman apprentice he had sent for. "Fix them up Jory, I'll pay."
The young man looked at the men, "This will cost Klent. I passed my Primary Step One and can charge full prices now."
"Well, congratulations! You have the right to charge, so I'll pay. But you know I would have anyway."
The youngster smiled warmly, "Yea, I know."
Lidevar moved his head so the boy could take a look at his half missing ear, "This be one of your favorites Klent?"
Klent nodded, "He's been known to spend a night or two with me. His price is too high to make him a usual though!"
Jory grinned, "But you pay it don't ya!"
"Yea, matter of fact I do!"
Lidevar bit back a curse as the thirteen-year-old removed the dried blood and started packing the wound with star clover.
"Something with sharp teeth ripped this off, huh?"
"Yea!" Lidevar managed to get out though clenched teeth. "So Klent where ya headed?"
"I'm going to go down to Everone. I figure all the fighting down there might be profitable. Besides, I have seen Gambra fail a couple of times before and she was always a terror afterwards. I don't even want to be around here after a loss like this!"
Jory looked up from his work; "Can I come? I have never been outside of the village before!"
"Might be dangerous for a boy." Lidevar managed to comment again before yelping in pain.
Jory handed the man a pair Orange berries; "This will help with the pain. I would give you something better, but the shop is running low on herbs."
"You sure you want to come? Everone will be very dangerous." Klent warned
"So will this place when Gambra comes looking for all those she paid money to who failed." Jory replied quickly while moving over to look at the man with the bloody bandage on his arm.
Lidevar reached up to touch the half ear only to have his hand slapped by Jory, "Don't mister, I only packed the wound. I'll have to clean it up and stitch it after I make sure all of you are treated for the basics first."
Lidevar growled but moved his hand back down and took another gulp of ale; "The boy has a point. I don't really care for Gambra finding me. You want some more company Klent?"
"Sure!" Klent couldn't believe his luck. "What about the rest of you?"
Both of the others nodded glumly. It was obvious none of them had thought about Gambra coming around to find all those who had failed her.
Lidevar slammed his mug down on the table after emptying it, "I'm sure the other two will be more than happy to join us too Klent. Besides, we need a leader for our band, and I ain't even Secondary Echelon yet."
"Looks like we have a team then. What shape is the wagon in?"
"We'll take it back to the farmer after I get us all equipped out then. I hate to see some old guy who can't even get his stuff to market. I gather you want to leave as soon as possible?"
All three men nodded.
"Will you be able to go with if we leave at first light Jory?"
"Yes sir! I'll start packing as soon as I am done!"
Lidevar managed a grin despite everything he had been through, "Good. It'll be nice to have a Healthman with us!"
Glaster entered the extra room he had rented for Prince Klandon. The boy turned sharply then gave a sight nod as he turned back to the small desk.
"Klandon," Glaster stated seriously, "You should never sit with your back to an unlocked door."
Klandon groaned, "Will I ever be able to do things right?"
Glaster sat on the bed. "Klandon, you do a whole host of things correctly. I just do not understand why you make such basic mistakes. You have been trained better than this."
"Have I?" Klandon tossed a pair of parchments at Glaster; "I can't even spell very good! Just look!"
Glaster looked at the parchments. The first was written fairly well, with passable punctuation. The second was a mess of misspelled words and almost nothing in the way of good paragraphs let alone proper punctuation. Glaster frowned, "What is this Klandon?"
"My writing lesson from our teacher. We all take down what he says and turn it in after the scroll is full. I keep two. The first is what I write while she is talking, the second is the one I do at night when everyone thinks I am sleeping. I go through our books and fix all my mistakes." Klandon started crying, "Ever since I got back to the palace I have done this, but I don't get any better!"
Glaster set the scrolls aside and motioned for Klandon to come over.
The boy stood and started to drop his britches.
"What are you doing Klandon?"
"Getting ready for my beating for cheating on my school work."
"There is no punishment for this."
Klandon stopped lowering his bottoms and looked at Glaster in confusion, "There isn't?"
"No. Actually I am quite proud of you."
"For what? I cheated."
"No, you are doing extra work. You are trying to better yourself. You must spend hours going through your books trying to make what you took down look right."
Klandon nodded, but still looked ashamed.
"All those days when Mylan and Lylan went down to the beach to play and swim, you were actually in your room doing this, correct?"
"Not always." The Prince admitted, "Sometimes I snuck down to the stables to learn how to ride Dragon Steeds and how to brush them. Other times I spied on the servants as they eat so I could use the proper tableware. A few times I snuck out of the palace altogether and then I find I am outside the palace and don't remember anything in between."
Glaster glanced over with a great amount of concern, "What do you mean you find yourself outside the palace?"
Klandon looked petrified by his admission of wrongdoing and started to cry again.
Glaster pulled the boy onto his lap, "Klandon, this is not about right or wrong. This is about you. I cannot hope to help you until I know the facts."
"I don't know Shaman Master!" Klandon cried loudly. "I remember sneaking out through the tunnel to the sewers like what I used to do when I liked to walk around in the streets, at least I think I used to do so, but then I end up out front of the palace gates an hour or so later! It's just like the roll the hoop game. I don't remember moving toward the walls let alone telling the others to do so, but everyone says I did, so I must of! Everything is my fault, but half the time I don't remember doing something to make it happen!" By this time Prince Klandon's body was wracked with sobs. The frustrations over the last few months came out in a flood of tears.
Glaster could do little but cradle the boy. Something was definitely amiss, the sickness had done something quite terrible to the Prince and he had managed to hide a great deal of things. Yet there was other answers to be had from the boy, this he was sure. The problem was, he had no clue what the questions were. Glaster decided to forget about asking anything else as he allowed the boy to weep himself into an uneasy sleep.
Gambra glared at the Dwarf standing before her as he gave his report. She could tell the man was trembling with fear and she liked it. Truth be told it was probably the only thing saving his life.
"Madam, we have lost the royal caravan. We were sure it would head to Junsac and then up to Slome as the boy told us, but it must have turned off. We sent scouts but the new storm has made finding them impossible."
"Did you check the towns?"
The Dwarf bowed, "All of them Madam, including every inn. There are no caravans close to the description of the one with the Prince in any town. I also checked around for any inns getting a visit from the one armed man. He has not been spotted either!"
"Then they are not in a town. Glaster would only stay in an inn and his single arm would make him stick out. He knows the land better than any of us. He probably went some back way. Send our people to Junsac and wait there. He will show up sooner or later!"
Gambra growled, "Not a good place at the moment, is it?"
"No Madam. We have almost no one left in the city. The watch has rooted out all but a few of our lowliest people in the city!"
"They must have recruited a mole! They also knew of the attack on the real Prince's caravan. Order what few people we have left in the region to disband. Send four of our best people up to Slome and have them wait until Glaster and our dear little Zoldon get there. As soon as they do, activate the extra runes we paid to have etched into his leg and find out everything you can. Then kill him. Let his death hang over Glaster's head.
"The real prince is still out there too Madam."
"I know, but he has no memories left. He is useless to them. King Wyhrem marches on Everone so we need the rest of our people to assemble there to give the King a rude welcome."
"Our forces will not get there before he does Madam." The Dwarf stated fearfully. We have suffered too many losses and are too scattered. Now we no longer have Monarch's support either, so what can we do?"
"We can band together with the Green and Black Dragons. It be our only hope of salvaging any sort of victory out of this mess!"
"Not a chance." The scout informed Gambra as he cringed expecting a dark magic spell to end his life, "Bandurlok doesn't trust us! We left him hanging out to dry on our last set of dealings with him. He had to buy off many of the Warlords of Molden to keep his area from their hit lists."
"Yes, I suppose I made an error there. I guess we have no choice but to go back to the Warlords and get some help from them." Gambra announced unhappily. "Tell them we will give the first warlord to send reasonable aid a full ship of slaves."
The Dwarf sighed, "They will expect payment upon arrival Madam."
"Then I guess you tell what I have left for a force to get us slaves by any means possible! Make sure it still looks like we are allied with Monarch and if we can help him, do so. We have to regain his trust or our whole organization will perish!"
The Dwarf bowed. He knew he should tell her of Monarch's orders to kill her and anyone associated with her. The Dwarf also knew he would probably be subjected to a very nasty black magic spell if he passed on more bad news. He had pushed things to the very limit as it was. No, he would let someone else tell her. Surely the former Junsac Day Slave Overseer would inform her as soon as he arrived in Everone. If not, the Dwarf figured he would inform Gambra in a few days when things were going better.
He waited until he was dismissed before he exited Gambra's chambers. The Dwarf issued Gambra's new orders word for word to his two lieutenants then headed out the door.
Two blocks down he encountered a pair of Pantherlings. The Dwarf could see they were eyeing him, so he ducked into a back alley.
The two Pantherlings seemed to smile as they stopped, cutting off the one end of the alley. A second pair stepped into view at the other end trapping the Dwarf. Yet three others came out of a door in the alley
"What do you want!" he called out nervously as he reached for a dagger.
One of the Pantherlings shook his head; "We want nothing. Our Prince, however, would like to ask you a few questions about Gambra, and we know you are one of her scouts."
"You'll never get me out of the city!"
"Ah, you seem to forget you helped to start a war here. Getting things in and out is easy if the guards know you as someone bringing in food and weapons for the good of Everone." The spokesman for the Pantherlings turned away. "Take him, but make sure he lives. Prince Millen will want a word or three out of this one!"
The Dwarf managed to cut one of the Pantherlings deeply with a dagger before the others drug him to the ground and beat him senseless.
Bandurlok, Crown Prince of Black Dragons, munched on a full raw cow carcass as he waited in a secret lower chamber of his mountain palace. The two robbed figures came in and licked their lips at the sight of such good food but respectively stayed standing at a distance.
Bandurlok continued to eat until his elite guards exited the chamber and closed the door. He then pointed, "Each of you can take a front leg if you wish. You have traveled a considerable distance to be here."
The hoods on their robes dropped as they moved forward to take the offered meal. The light from the torches showed them to be two very large Red Dragonlings. Both bowed and took a step back after they ripped off a front leg each.
"I gather you bring word from your King?" Bandurlok asked after swallowing a full hindquarter in one bite.
"We do Highnesssss." The one on the right spoke as it again bowed. "The greens are not ready to assist your nephew as you expected they would."
Bandurlok growled in displeasure, "If they truly want to make this look good I would expect them to help my pathetic nephew."
"So would our King. It wassss very confussssing, but our king figured it wassss posssssible the green Queen did not know of your nephew'sssss plight. He checked and found both Ganerthra'ssss lead spies perished inside your mountain. Their bodiesss were tossssed into a fire pit. They did not have a chance to get word to their queen."
"I knew I had followers operating behind my back, now it seems, I have proof." Bandurlok grumbled, "I guess my nephew is smarter than I thought. I am now faced with a bit of a problem; do to the inconvenient deaths of the green's spies.
"I cannot afford to kill off another one of my generals or demoralize my army further or what I will send to the field of battle will not convince the greens I am holding to my word. Nor can I send out my front line armies or I may accidentally win the field of battle. This would give the greens what they want and they will surely try to attack me in my weakened condition."
The Dragonling shrugged, "you still have your main army here for defense your highness. My king sees no reason for you to use them. The green queen does not have the power needed to crush your elite guards."
"True," Bandurlok nodded, "but I do not want any damage to my own kingdom. This is costing me a fortune as it is. Yet if I directly ask for help, Ganrethra will hold a card over me and she will be suspicious of my actions. There must be a way to make sure word gets to her of the deplorable state of the forces I currently have out in the field. I need her army on the field and taking losses from the very start! I cannot go against my father until I have proof of how weak the greens are!"
"Yessss, your father made the pact with the greenssss, and you cannot go againsssst hisssss will without having proof of their weaknessssss. And we alssssso know if you loossssse too much more there issssss a chance you would loosssse favor with your ailing father. The only chance we have to get you uncontesssssted kingsssship over the blacksss and gain a land of our own is to come to King Wyhrem'sssss aid with your help to crusssssh your bungling nephew and hissss green ssssscaled alliesssss."
"I gather it will be up to me to figure a way to let Ganrethra know of what happened in the great hall and the murder of one of my best second line generals?
"No. Our King hassss a better idea on how to inform the green queen assss to what happened in your great hall."
"Oh, and what wonderful scheme has King Remeque come up with?"
The red Dragonling snickered, "Ssssend a couple of your own Dragonlingssss you know to be dissssloyal along with one of your loyal Dragonlingssss to the queen asss emissssariesss for your upcoming war againsssst King Wyhrem. They will talk about your heinoussss actionssss and word will get back to dear Queen Ganrethra. Ssssshe will wonder about the loyalty of her own sssspiessss. Sssshe will, of coursssse ssssend otherssss, and your people will tell the new ssspiesss you were forced to kill the first two becaussssse they were giving information to Gambra.
"Thissss way you get the greenssss angry at Monarch and have ssssomeone to blame when thingssss go badly for the greenssss and your nephew. Then, when you pull sssssupport from their conquesssst plans, you can blame the whole messss on Gambra and indirectly thissss will make Ganrethra hate your worsssst enemy, Monarch."
Bandurlok stared up at the ceiling for several minutes before speaking, "As much as I love this whole idea, there will be no way to prove Gambra's involvement. Ganrethra would need solid proof of her spies' treachery in the mater before she would begin to listen to me or my people."
"We are ready to provide it Prince Bandurlok. We have one of her agentssss with usssss. He wassss not eassssy to capture, but we managed to get him as he was fleeing from the recent failure to reclaim King Wyhrem'ssss ssssson."
"Who is this person, and how much weight does he pull with Gambra?" Bandurlok demanded to know.
"The former Overseer for Junsac'ssss day sssslave block issss a Dark Mage and led the attack. We got him assss he wassss running away. Hisss direct link to Gambra will be all the proof you will need."
"Keep him for me. I do not want such a card to have any chance of detection by the greens. I was told you had other news of interest?"
"We do Highnesssss." The second Dragonling spoke up.
"Then out with it. I have other matters to attend to."
"Prince Bandurlok, it lookssss assss if your ssssussspicionsss about the man known asss Vondum are incorrect. We do not believe he workssss for Monarch."
"You must have some very strong proof before I would believe he is not allied with the meddlesome Illorc!"
"He helped our forcessss defend the caravan which broke the Ssssilver Sssspine Blockade."
"He helped? How much?"
"A massive amount. He, one of hissss lieutenantssss, and a boy took down about a third of the attacking Gnollssss on their own. My own soldiers talked to him after the battle and even mentioned your name. He wassss guarded but happy for the asssssisssstance and polite. He even assssked my people to ssssend a greeting back to you. He hassss ssssince sssssent word back to Black Rapidssss of an extended leave assss he ssssaysss he isss on the trail of Gambra!
"He would not do this unless it were true. His position would be too badly weakened if he said something so profound and didn't follow through. This is indeed interesting news. My former guard is not my enemy. Keep me posted on this. For if he truly has a solid tracking lead on Gambra, he may need my help. She would be one I would happily turn over to King Wyhrem to show him I am not at all like my nephew! It would also help your king in getting a land of his own once again!"
Kandric looked at the slop the others called stew and shuddered. He then mentally kicked himself as he realized the mound of goo in his bowl would have been a treasure only a few weeks ago. The idea of getting food for doing wrong really started to bother him as he thought over the situation in the dungeon more. He never even considered breaking a law in the town when his whole family had been on the brink of starvation. He wondered how some of the kids in the dungeon lived with themselves. It took a great deal of weakness to want others to hand you food on a daily basis. In Kandric's way of thinking this type of action should have dropped the social status of all the boys who got arrested to get food to a beggar, one below a squatter, which was the class his family belonged to until very recently.
The guard pushed the sticky mess down and heaped a little more on top. "Looks like you be the boss, huh?"
"Yes." Kandric chuckled, "It was not much of a fight."
"How'd the fire get going?"
"I started it."
"I don't see how boy, but you could be punished fer wastin' wood"
"You may get the money for the fire from the school. The teacher has my pouches."
"We might just have ta charge ya double fer getting her lit without askin' first."
"I will not object soldier." Kandric stated as he met the man's gaze with his own, "Would you please tell the sergeant I would like to talk to him."
"Normal we don't want ya botherin' us none, but looks like Rylop be right about ya boy. Ain't never seen all these brats this quiet. What'd ya do with da blankets?"
"They are over in the first cage. I plan to give some of them back, but I want to talk with the sergeant before I do."
"Ya want fresh ones?"
"It would be nice to get them all cleaned, and I would pay for a couple of women in the swamps to do so, but I have other matters to discuss with the sergeant.
"I'll send Rylop down, he'll decide if'n you have reason ta bother a sergeant."
"Fine. Thank you soldier."
The guard jerked his head to tell Kandric to get out of the way so the line of hungry youngsters could get their food. Each boy got his bowl filled to the brim, but no one else got food pushed down so more could be added.
Kandric started to understand the guards actually supported the stronger dominating the weaker down here. It kept trouble down because the ones most likely to start trouble were the ones who got to take things from the younger ones. As long as they could pick on someone they didn't give the guards as much problems. The smaller and weaker ones couldn't do anything to the older kids let alone cause trouble for the guards, so this also worked in the guards' favor. The guards only had to figure out who was the meanest and toughest and watch them. Of course this was also simplified because the ones to worry about let themselves be know by taking over.
The moment the guard left, nine of the smallest kids came up with bowls and offered Kandric some extra. When he started to refuse they moved over to Eyan.
Eyan shook his head, "Ya might as well take some boss, they only goin' to get half a bowl tonight one way or the other.
Kandric sighed and scooped on some more stew from the first two boys' bowls. He watched in some fascination as the nine boys went on down the line from leader to leader. Once one of their bowls got to be half full they went to the table and ate what they had left. All nine ended up with half a bowl of food for dinner.
Kandric turned to Eyan after the last kid sat down, "How were they chosen to forfeit food?"
"Three are selected from each of the non-leader cells by the cell leader. It cannot be the same boy two nights in a row. Otherwise, it be up to the cell leaders how they be picked." Eyan responded between bites of his dinner. "We also make sure none of them look sick. Anyone starting to get real thin or sick keeps their food and may get more if we be really worried. I only see it happen once though. It be the little brown haired one sitting at the end of the table on the far side. The boss we had before the one you beat up switched his cell because the cell leader was always on the kid and he gave up half his dinner every other night."
Kandric glanced down the length of the table spotting a little kid of only about 7 or 8. Even with all the other kids down in the jail area, he was pretty much alone, with more space around him than anyone else had. "What did he do wrong?"
"Don't have a clue. I know some of the kids are jealous of him, cause he can read and write. I even be a bit annoyed cause I only know the basics. I just got here a few days before it all went down, though, so I never got the full story. I do know the Halforc kid in charge of the second cell should be able ta tell you some of what happened, he was the old cell leader's sergeant."
"Why is everyone ignoring him now?"
Eyan shrugged, "I don't rightly know. He just ain't liked for some reason."
Kandric finished off every bite of stew and rinsed it down with the small glass of milk each kid got as they went through the line.
Eyan pointed to the cup; "We have to drop those out the window for collection. If they don't get every cup back we don't get milk until the missing cup turns up. I guess some kid tried to hit a guard with his cup a few months ago."
Kandric looked at the small wooden mug, "Why bother, I can do more damage with this bronze bowl. Speaking of which, how do we wash these things?"
"The large bronze pot by the door will be filled with warm water and a couple of brushes in a few minutes. You get the honor of using the water first, while it is the cleanest."
Kandric snorted out a short chuckle, "Gee, I guess it is good to be the boss."
"Yep, sure is."
Kandric glanced down the length of the table to the boy sitting glumly as kids talked all around him but not to him. "I want him moved to our cage."
"The kid who got picked on."
Eyan frowned, "Why boss?"
"Officially or unofficially?"
"Uh," Eyan paused for a second; "I guess both."
"Officially, he is going to be a servant to the ones in the leader's cage. Unofficially, I feel sorry for him and think he is kind of cute."
Eyan's eyebrows shot up, "Not a problem boss. What type of servant stuff though?"
"Start by having him clean our dishes and drop our cups. We should not have to do anything we do not want to do, and I hate doing dishes." Kandric grinned. "He eats with us, sleeps with us and will do anything we do not want to do. Make sure he gets a blanket too."
A guard entered through the door causing the conversations throughout the room to halt. The man suddenly pointed to Kandric, "Yo, red head, ya got a visitor!"
Kandric glanced at Eyan, "I was found more quickly than I expected."
"I don't think so boss. They only bring lowly visitors down here. They'll lock you between the first and second door to let you talk, but if you give em a hard time at all it'll be yer last visit!"
"Oh, OK. Thanks for the warning." Kandric stated as he moved over to the door is puzzlement.
The guard lightly pushed him through the door and closed it.
Eyan shrugged and stood up, "Devney, the new boss want ya to move to his cell. You'll be doin' stuff for him. You'll start with his bowl and then wash the rest of the leaders' bowls. Once you are finished drop all our cups then you can grab one blanket."
One of the older boys stuck out a foot and tripped the small boy as he moved up to the front of the table. A round of snickers broke out.
Eyan glared at the kid who had tripped the small kid, "Androp, I am sure the boss will enjoy having a chat with you too!"
Snickers died instantly as kids turned to look at Androp. More than a few cringed as the boy realized his mistake and started looking around the room as if trying to find an escape. "It be like a accident!"
"I'll let ya tell yer story to the boss. For right now, all I'm gunna do is have ya wash your bowl last and you get cleanup duty by yerself when they bring in the brooms and junk."
Bongef, the former boss, stood up. "Ya ain't got no right tellin' us nothin!"
Eyan smiled evilly, "I didn't challenge you for the boss spot, but I could'a and you know it. You only got a couple a months training on me and I know I am faster than you be. The boss made me his second, and I intend to keep it. Ya want to go a round right now?"
Cython surprised everyone including himself as he stood, "You ain't no leader here no more. Sit and shut up or I'll help Eyan kick yer teeth in!"
Eyan glanced back at Cython, "Right On!"
Bongef turned a bright red as he again let his anger control him. He rushed forward.
Cython ducked down by doing the splits and slammed both of his hands into Bongef's crotch.
Eyan was about to do a dodge and hit Bongef as he went by, but stopped in mid stride as Bongef's face turned white as a sheet. "Cython, you have some trainin' too, don't ya?
Cython jumped to his feet without the use of his hands. "Some."
Eyan shook his head in confusion, "Then why did you sleep your way into sergeant's spot?"
Cython grinned as Bongef fell to the ground clutching his groin, "Because I like it."
"How come ya didn't say nothing till now?"
"Cause I thought I'd get ganged up on, but da new boss basically said he be inta it and no one bothered him none."
"Did he catch ya off guard, or is he as good as I think?" Eyan asked.
"He be good, I never stood no chance." Cython stated emphatically. "I thought I be ready when I kicked him, the next thing I knows I be tryin' ta breath."
"I was ready for a fight by the time he dropped all of you and me still got kicked over the table like a toy er something. He be a lot better than us." Eyan glanced toward the door then shrugged, "Let's get this place cleaned up!"
Vondum decided to spend the time waiting outside the gates of Slome toying with the guards. Every time the men on the walls got the massive cranked crossbows pointed at his mount he would move it a few steps. The guards would curse at him as they adjusted the aim of the anti-siege weapons only to watch in frustration as he moved again once they had the steed ranged.
This went on for almost fifteen minutes before a small door on the outside of the gate wall opened and a sturdy looking man came out. Vondum growled, "About time someone come out here and talk to me face to face!"
The guard looked at Vondum and gulped before managing to come to attention and salute, "Captain, my apologies, all the men manning this gate were trained outside of Black Rapids!"
"I don't recognize you soldier." Vondum stated as he returned the salute.
"I didn't train under you sir, but I attended the classes you taught last year here on how to fight Gnolls. I was still a training step five then."
"Ah, yes, where to strike a Gnoll and how. Do you remember?"
"I do sir, their legs are their weak point. Your class really helped us this last winter. We had a lot of Gnoll raiders trying to steal food the councilmen bought to feed the people here. They tried to starve us out!"
"I heard. It's one of the reasons I'm here. We need to get the caravan routes opened back up."
The guard bowed then turned, "Open the gate! He is Captain Vondum!"
Vondum felt like jumping up to is steed and tearing off in search of Kandric but had to keep up appearances. "Are you in command of the guards tonight?"
"No sir. I am just a senior guard though because I volunteered for security duty for the caravans the city paid to get us needed food. Did the guards do anything wrong?"
"Actually they did quite well until they decided to play with your wall defenses. The chances of them getting a good shot on my mount was somewhere between zero and really stupid."
The young guard lowered his head; "I be sorry Captain. It must look like we are real fools."
"Don't sweat it soldier. I made em work the whole time by moving around some. But, I'd suggest you tell your sergeants to teach em better."
"I will pass your observations on Captain. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Vondum almost said no, then changed his mind, "Yea. Matter of fact you can. Have you seen a reddish-silver haired Halfelf boy around here anywhere?"
"There be one living down in the swamps Captain. I see him once and a while. Is he wanted?"
"No, he is one of my Wilderness Scouts. He was coming into town today and didn't return. I need to know if he ran into any problems."
"The little guy be trained?"
"Son, he has been out of Primary Echelon for a couple of years. He is an independent scout, but I need him. We have a mission to go on!"
The guard shouted up to the gate, "Any of you see the red haired slum Elf today?"
One of the guards on the wall shouted back, "He come through 'bout high sun today. Ain't seen him since."
"I'll ask around for you Captain" The guard in front of Vondum promised. "You going ta get your usual room at the Iron Bard?"
"Yea. But I'm going to poke around some first. Send me a messenger to the inn if you find out anything at all."
"Will do Captain!" The guard saluted as he watched Vondum tear down the darkening street at a full gallop. He spoke aloud to himself as he motioned for the gate to be pulled shut again, "I never thought none of them swampers be trained. I best give em a little more respect till I know from now on."
Rylop came up the side street with Londaw. He looked at the guard, "Why is the gate just now bein' shut?"
The guard shook his head, "It is being closed for a second time corporal. Captain Vondum of Black Rapids wanted in. I was sent out make sure it was him."
"Good reason." Londaw chuckled, "Otherwise we'd be replacin' a gate!"
"Was it Vondum who just tore down the street like his mount's hooves were on fire?" Rylop asked.
"Yea, he be looking fer one of his people. Sounded like he'd be needed for somethin' in the morning."
"Who'd be so blasted important?" Londaw wondered aloud.
The guard sighed, "The red haired Halfelf from the slums. I've seem the kid a couple of times looking for work. Turns out the little munchkin is one of Black Rapids elite Wilderness Scouts."
The guard didn't notice the looks exchanged between Rylop and Londaw because he was busy watching the men pull the counterweights to shut the gate. Rylop managed to keep control of his voice, "Ah, did Captain Vondum happen to say anything else?"
"Not really corporal. Other than if we find out anything to send a messenger to the Iron Bard."
"Thanks. Make sure the gate gets buttoned up and stay here fer this watch in case Captain Vondum needs out again." Rylop ordered carefully. "I'll get a search going for the kid."
"You know what he looks like?"
Londaw managed to chuckle, "Boy, how many red haired Elf blooded people have ya seen?"
"Only one sir."The guard answered sheepishly.
Rylop forced a smile, "Don't worry none. I know the boy we be lookin for anyhow."
The guard nodded and climbed the stairs to the tower to assist with the gate watch.
Londaw cringed, "He said we should be worried about his boss, now I know why!"
Rylop held up his hand, "I wouldn't of taken him down and locked him up if I'd of know he be a Wilderness Scout. Oh, by the gods I don't want to be Healthman Velert right now."
"The boy's got a couple of nasty bruises too!"
"Yep." Rylop cringed, "Worse part is the boy tried to tell Velert!"
"Let's get back to the jail and talk to this young'an again." Londaw suggested.
"Good idea." Rylop started chuckling.
"I ain't seein' none of this as funny!"
"You didn't face the boy in the school arena with two other swordsmen and three students today. I did. He not only took us all out with wooden practice weapons, he also told us who was going to drop next."
"He be that good?"
"Yea." Rylop chuckled again; "As he finished us off I wondered if the Black Rapids Wilderness Scouts or the Junsac Barony Watch would be scared of a kid like him. Never even occurred to me he belonged to one of em!"
Jamon had been put in charge of the slaves. Why he didn't really understand, but the decision had not been his. All he cared about was keeping Vondum's wrath away from himself. To this end Jamon made sure the hut was completely clean once all of the slaves had eaten. His orders from the horrible man had been crystal clear. The blame for any mistakes would fall strictly on his shoulders. Jamon shook his head and went to the door.
Conth moved up to the door, "What, you want them to come back?"
"Yes and no."
"What! Are you crazy?"
Jamon shrugged, "Probably."
"After what Vondum did to you," Conth hissed in a mean voice, "I can't believe you would ever wish to see him again."
Jamon threw up his arms; "I don't know what I think anymore. In the past few weeks I have gone from a low merchant to an illegal slave. I don't have a family: I have an owner. Three owner really. The monster who took us, Vondum and now Kandric. Three weeks ago I was dead set on never doing a thing I was told, to today being a somewhat trusted lead slave today. The worst part is, I don't even how they did it to me!"
"Yea, and now you are just like our owners." Conth grumbled.
"Look at you." Conth threw up a hand in a gesture of frustration toward Jamon, "Vondum tells you what to do and you have made sure we all did it. I can't talk to my own brother because you have watched us like some sort of vulture. All of us did the chores you assigned and all you did is watch. You passed out the food, but made sure you got fed first. What else am I supposed to think?"
Jamon couldn't help but show some of his own anger, "Conth, you were the one who road on Vondum's horse most of the night while I was dragged by chains. It was you who has done every single thing Vondum has told you to do from the first time he told you to do something, and it was you who fed me while Vondum was off in the woods chasing shadows."
"Yea, I did. I could tell from the start the only chance I had was to get on Vondum's good side. Look where it has gotten me!"
Jamon suddenly realized the real grudge Conth was holding. He snickered.
"What's so funny!" Conth next to shouted at Jamon.
"You're mad at me, not because Vondum picked me, but because he didn't pick you!"
Conth clenched his fists and shook with rage. "You get all the breaks. You are owned by Kandric. He treats you better, feeds you better, and demands less. I've even seen him talk to you like a person. The only time you have to be a slave is when you are around others. It's not fair!"
"Probably not, but you better be thankful Kandric is around. He has given you plenty of breaks you wouldn't have got from Vondum alone."
Conth punched the doorframe to vent. As the pain registered he calmed down, "You're right. I just don't know what I am doing wrong. I mean, your owner is going out of his way to get your brother while mine sits right over there and I can't say a word to him."
"Give Kandric a few days and I bet he will find a way to soften Vondum's stance. But you know as well as I do, if I let you two talk, even for a few minutes, Vondum will be able to tell."
"Yea. I just wish Kandric owned me too."
"He does to, my brother. Believe me."
Conth slapped his forehead, "I must be out of my mind! I am standing here wishing I was owned by someone else instead of wishing I were free."
Jamon cringed, "Do you remember the talk your dad gave us last summer when we started feeling sorry for the slaves we were taking to market in Falcon Loft?"
Conth's brow wrinkled in thought for a moment before his shoulders slumped, "Yea, he said they would get used to their new life as property. He then told us not to worry about them, because by the end of the year they will be wishing for better owners while we would be wishing for later bed times. I think his words were, "No matter what your situation, all you will ever dream about is more freedom. Then, when it comes, it is never fully appreciated." I think I am finally able to understand what he was saying."
Porma glared at the boys as they came back inside the hut, "Why don't you take these chains off me so we can run?"
Conth shook his head, "Don't be stupid, they'd find us in hours!"
"It might be hours before they find out!"
"Maybe, maybe not." Jamon answered, "But I gave Kandric my word, and I don't have much else left, so I will stand behind what I promise my owner I will do. Now shut up or I will have you gagged."
"One of these days I'm goin' ta get loose and kill all ya slaves." Porma snarled.
Conth shook his head, "If you think you can get away from Vondum, you are very dim. Besides, as soon as Sy gets back, something very bad is going to happen to you!"
"What's he gunna do?"
"I don't know." Conth stated sincerely, "But one thing I can assure you of, Vondum says you'll probably live, so you most likely will. He told you if you do die, he will bring you back from the dead, so he can. He also says you'll suffer terribly, so you will. He knows all about how to make people suffer. If I remember correctly, he hinted around about making sure you would learn how to obey and think like a slave so I can guarantee you, he will find a way to make it happen. I can say millions of bad things about Vondum and be correct; the one thing he will not do, however, is lie. He will avoid the truth, but he will never lie."
Jamon returned Porma's stare, "You might want to think about what my brother tells you."
"I thought you were cousins."
"We are, but Vondum said we are brothers now, so we are brothers." Conth fired back. "After the caning your friend got didn't convince you of what my owner is capable of, then you are truly one of the dumbest kids I have ever met."
Jamon brushed off Porma with a wave of his hand. He pointed to one of the others, "Give him water if he wants some then gag him. It is time we all get some sleep."
Conner moved through the forest with less sound than a snowflake hitting the ground. The combination of Lockmaster and Sect Warrior Subfields blended well letting him to move across fallen leaves with less sound than the breeze whispering through the branches above him.
He paused for a moment to listen. He knew Quavis would not be able to be quiet in the woods. The kid had not completed training, but there was no question In Conner's mind about Quavis making a great sailor. He had seen the boy's eyes light up as he stepped aboard Thunder Rapids. The crew had welcomed him with open arms and respect, not because he was a friend of the Captain's son, but because he was one of them.
Conner sighed. His brother had made a mistake in telling Quavis the truth. Of this, he was sure. Quavis could have gone his whole life without knowing what really happened and how it had all taken shape under Aster's orders to the Watch. But Aster was different. He had always been different from the first day he had met his half-brother in the orphanage.
Where other kids would join in on a new kid getting picked on, Aster would jump in and be ready to fight to defend the newcomer. More than once he had, and seldom did he loose. Yet when he did get a good old-fashioned beating from some of the others, he wouldn't simply give up. No, giving up was not in the cards for Aster. Aster would get up the very next morning and go for round two, not caring if he got beat down again. It didn't take long for the biggest and meanest kids in the orphanage and on the streets of Junsac to understand they would never get an easy shot at Aster or anyone Aster decided to stick up for. More than once Conner heard one older kid say to another who was trying to beat up Aster, "You're makin' a mistake," or "It ain't worth it."
Conner grinned at the memories as he looked down, "Shade, can you hear him boy?"
Shade stuck his snout up in the air then tilted his head. After a few moments Aster's beloved pet shook its head.
"He must be up wind of us then." Conner took a moment to scratch Shade's head. "Let's try closer to the river boy."
Shade whined as they moved over the next hill.
"I know boy." Conner stated softly, "Maybe Aster and Frost or Pocet and Dart are having better luck. But we can't give up till we know Quavis is safe."
Shade suddenly froze and growled.
Conner tensed and looked in the direction Shade had taken such an interest in. His heat vision picked up a pair of beings standing over a third. One of the two standing had something long and very cold in his hand. "Is it Quavis boy?"
Shade nodded as it sniffed the air.
Conner started to move then stopped, "Shade, find Aster. Bring him here. They have at least one metal weapon."
Shade growled again.
"No boy. We have to let Aster do this. I'll make sure they don't hurt him too much."
Shade again whined.
Conner knelt, "Shade I know you have a hard time understanding some things, but it will be better for both Quavis and Aster if Aster does this. I will watch em boy. They won't hurt Quavis too much or they will be dead before you get back."
Shade glanced back to where the two beings were looking over the one on the ground. He growled again then slipped into shadow form and vanished.
Conner moved closer making even more efforts to stay absolutely quite.
One of the beings looked up and glanced around as if he knew he was being watched but shrugged it off after almost a minute.
"Outdoorsman, huh?" Conner muttered to himself, "You should trust your training you idiot."
Conner finally got close enough to hear the hushed conversation. The one holding what Conner could now clearly make out as a long sword seemed quite happy. "This one will fetch a good price up in Silverton!"
"Why there?" the other man grumbled, "We could sell him in one of the river villages."
"No paperwork. I have a buddy who works in one of the mines in Silverton. He can get us paperwork on the kid."
"He'll be worth more, but how much will we have ta spend?"
"Fifty silver! It ain't worth it!"
The long sword holder shook his head in disagreement, "If we don't have paperwork, the best we can hope for is some dishonest rich farmer buying him for a couple hundred silver. Get the paperwork, and we can take him around to the mines." The man reached down and grabbed Quavis, "look at this boy, he be in splendid shape! The mines would buy him for at least five hundred, and a private buyer might give us more!"
"Yea, but we got ta get him there. Yer talkin' a good two weeks on foot and we'll have ta watch him and pay ta keep him fed. We only got fifty silver each fer attackin' the caravan. If we sell him round here we'll each get a hundred and say it was worth getting' our butts kicked!"
Conner could see Quavis struggling against the strips of cloth holding his hand and feet together. He could also make out a thin trickle of warmer liquid oozing from Quavis' head. They had hit him from behind and he was injured bad enough to be bleeding. As much as Conner wanted to rush in and take the two cutthroats down, he knew Aster would react much more violently. He also knew Quavis would take note of the fact Aster had saved him.
"It would be nicer if I just killed you both now, but I am not Aster." Conner ginned knowing Aster well enough to realize his brother would not take a mercy plea from such men. More than one bully in the orphanage and been beaten beyond senseless when word got back to Aster at the forge. The only reason Aster had not gone to jail for a couple of the beating was due to direct intervention of the Watch.
The weird thing, at least it was weird in Conner's way of thinking, was the fact Aster had always gone back, paid for the best Healthmen to care for the bullies or even did the work himself. He also made a point to make sure the former bully was not teased for getting his face used as a sparing post. How many times had Conner heard Aster tell the kids at the orphanage, "He found out he isn't the toughest so let it go. If you bother him you will be no better than he was being to you."
Conner stayed kneeling until he heard a deep screeching howl. Only one animal made such a sound. Frost was coming, which meant Aster was too. Conner rubbed his hands together eagerly and snickered, "It be butt stompin' time!"
The men jerked to the sound of the terrifying screech. The one turned his sword toward the sound while the other grabbed a spear leaning up against a nearby tree.
Aster voice came ringing out over the forest, "Frost, Shade, free Quavis and protect him. These two are all mine!"
The man holding the spear laughed as Aster came into sight, "Another boy! This be our lucky night!"
Conner rolled his eyes. He caught sight of a small critter landing next to Quavis. For a second he was wondering what it was, then he realized Frost had gone back to being the little winged rodent. As Frost worked at biting through the cloth Shade formed into a solid beast right behind the two men. Neither noticed they had two very capable and deadly animals behind them.
Aster pulled his axe as he walked strait for the two men; "It wasn't enough to kill my boss, huh! Now you go and hurt the person who saved my life!"
The man with the sword took a step back; "He ain't no kid! He be the Elf from the caravan!"
The man with the spear raised it, "By the gods, and there be only two of us against him!
Aster didn't slow down or even take a second to adjust. He swung his axe at the spear snapping it like a twig. He then switched his grasp as he swung back. The hammer like back of his magical axe slammed perfectly into the man's elbow shattering it.
The man with the sword started to back up only to hear a very viscous growl. He glanced back to look right into Shade's eyes.
"You face me or I'll have my pets ham-string you!" Aster bellowed as he stepped on the chest of the man with the destroyed elbow. He wasted no time in swinging the back end of the axe down on the crippled man. His aim was just as precise and the hit the kneecap.
Conner felt his eyes go wide as he watched the top bone in the knee move all the way around to the side of the man's leg.
"Don't go anywhere." Aster stated calmly as he advanced on the second man, "I'm not done with you yet."
"Shade, Frost, convince him to move toward me!"
The man's fear turned to stark panic as he saw Frost transform into a massive white Griffin. Shade then lunged forward snapping at him. The man jumped back toward Aster before he realized he had done so.
"Good boys! Now guard Quavis!" Aster shouted as he swung his axe.
The man didn't even get a chance to react before the blunt end slammed into his weapon hand. He heard the crunch of his fingers before the realized it had been his fingers. His sword fell from his grasp as he screamed.
He raised his hand only to see bones sticking out of the skin from all four fingers. His left hand went up to clutch at his destroyed right hand only to see the moonlight reflect off the swinging axe again. This time Aster used the blade.
This time Conner stared in a combination of horror and awe. The swing could not have been more perfect. The man's left hand still clutched the mangled right, but was no longer attached to the man's wrist!
Conner was fairly certain everyone within 5 leagues of the man had to have heard him scream at the sight of his own detached hand clutching his other ruined hand. The agonized and shocked cry seemed to last far longer than it actually did, for only a second later the man's eyes rolled up in his head and he passed out.
Aster pivoted on one foot and went back to the first man. "My friend is bleeding because of you."
Shaking in pain and the purest fear he had ever known the bandit looked into the stare of a boy less than half his age in equivalent years. The eyes were colder than a tundra in the middle of a blizzard.
Aster wiped the blood from his axe onto the man's shirt. "I want to know why you attacked us. I want to know who was behind it. I demand to know when and where you and your handless partner got your orders and I most importantly I want to know how you could have possible attacked a kid I know had to have been crying when you found him out here. If I don't get every one of those questions answered I will move to you right side. Your elbow first, and your knee second."
The man stated to cry like a young child, "I don't know! It be all Gambra and the Day Slave Overseer! They wanted the dark haired boy! They didn't care about no one else!"
"When did you find out where to ambush us?" Aster inquired with a voice of absolute malice.
"We never were told. We had to wait where the Overseer told us to. Most of us were recruited out of the Junsac dungeons by him!"
Quavis staggered over on shaky legs, "why was my fath… Why was the Overseer in charge?"
"He be one of Gambra's Dark Mages."
"Dark Mage?" Quavis fell backwards, "He can't be!"
"He is! I swear to you. He had to promise to give up his first born before he or she reached age of ascension for sacrifice to the demon lord Dranrog! I was there when he used stolen Elvin Silver Steel daggers to sacrifice a child so he could rise to Teaching Echelon a few months back! The demon lord rewarded him by making the daggers magical. They started to glow red as they absorbed the blood on them then faded, but we could all see the change in them. They made us watch as one of the people who had betrayed Gambra was killed with the daggers a warning as to what would happen if we failed Gambra in any way."
Quavis started to shake, "This kid, was he… did he have sandy hair and brown eyes?"
"Yes, how did you know?"
Quavis looked up at Aster; he had to fight to speak through a river of tears and the occasional sob. "Lypon disappeared after spending the night at my house. His father had messed up on some of my father's paperwork. One of the day slaves was set free because of the mistake and my father was furious about it. I was told Lypon left early because he wasn't feeling well. I believed what my father had said so I told his mom he left early."
Quavis shuddered, "My father made Lypon drink a thick red drink just before we went to bed. He was really sick afterwards, he said it tasted like…"
Conner stepped out of the woods, "Blood?"
Aster looked at Conner, "The daggers you took the blame for?"
"It was my punishment for burning the man in the first place!"
"My father is terrified of fire!" Quavis stated, "He won't even light the fireplace!"
"You are human, Quavis, you age much quicker than I do. So did your father. He is the reason I was kicked out of my home. He was behind the death of my step father at the mine and he is the one who sent me to the day slave block and had me locked up with a bunch of men who tried repeatedly to make my life a living nightmare."
Quavis looked at Aster; "He's your brother?"
"Yea, and my best friend." Aster replied softly as he started to cry. The fact he had not heard even half of what Conner had said until tonight bothered him a great deal, but some secrets were hard to let go of. He just wished he could have been there for Conner more than he had.
Quavis stood and moved up to Aster. Slowly he gave the boy a hug. "I forgive you for everything you have done to me and my brother and sister. I am sorry my dad did all this to your family."
Aster returned the hug; "I will free your brother and sister into your care as soon as they are done on the day slave block. It is I who am sorry. You shouldn't have to apologize for your father."
Quavis looked back down at the man, "He was really going to sacrifice his first born?"
"He promised this ta get trained as a Dark Mage. If he can't follow through fer some reason, he'll have ta provide a suitable replacement plus one of his other children. Now He be Teachin' Echelon, the time fer the sacrifices are commin' up too! If you be his brat like it sounds like, then yer dead boy!"
Aster wiped the tears from his eyes as they flared in anger. He tightened his hand on his Axe and swept his hand down. The axe crushed the man's jaw. The three boys watched as the man jerked a few times then stopped moving altogether.
"I will contact the Watch in Junsac." Aster pledged. "They will watch your brother and sister. We will also have to make sure to keep you out of his hands Quavis."
Quavis looked crushed by the news. In barely a whisper he groaned, "My father always said it would be a waste of money to see if I be trainable. He then said I'd be a merchant like him, so I thought he didn't want me to get hurt now I know better."
Aster kept his arms around Quavis; "You'll get your training and live to see age of ascension if I have any say about it at all!"
From a distance Pocet exchanged glances with Sardan, "I think we need to tend to the boys and the mess they left behind."
Sardan nodded. "You deal with the boys. You are better at it than I. Besides, there is no one better suited to cleaning up messes of this sort than a veteran Watch member."
Kandric entered the area between the door to the cages and the outer door going up the steps. He was amazed to see the Elvin boy who broke his arm in the school arena. Concerned by the look on the boy's face, Kandric asked, "Is your arm OK?"
"Oh yes sir." The boy nodded nervously, "Ah, I a, just a, umm." The boy finally thrust out his hands which held a large cloth sack, "Here!"
Kandric took the offered sack and opened it. Inside were a couple of changes of clothing, some food, some parchment, an ink quill, jar of ink, and a couple of small books. "Thanks! But where did all this come from?"
The boy swallowed hard, "Um, my room at the school."
Kandric smiled, "Oh, no I can't take this from you!"
The boy looked down at the floor and kicked at a small stone, "Please sir."
Kandric set the bag down and knelt, "May I ask why? I mean the thought is very much appreciated, but I broke your arm today."
"You fixed it though sir." The boy kind of stammered out.
Kandric held up his hands, "Enough with the sir nonsense. My name is Kandric, What is yours?"
"Zeltoss." The boy blushed slightly, "Please honor me by taking what is in the sack."
"I am the one honored Zeltoss. You cannot have much to give if you live in the school."
"I earn some money from some of the jewelry I make. I just wish I could bring more but most of the money I make goes to pay for my room and my training."
"I cannot say I have ever known a Gem Worker before." Kandric stated as much to himself as he did to Zeltoss.
The boy turned away totally embarrassed, "I must look like a sissy."
Kandric stood quickly and moved over to the boy who was trying very hard not to cry. "Zeltoss, you are very wrong. There are very few people who put themselves through school let alone at our age. Besides, you have gone out of your way to come here. You had to be brave enough to ask the guards to visit me, and your willing to sacrifice some of your own things to make my life a little better. I cannot honestly say I have ever had anyone do something for me just to be nice before. Until now I don't know if I even knew what friendship was!"
"But you are a Teacher! You must have lots of friends"
Kandric cringed, "I have my teacher, a master Echelon Shamen, and I have an Expert Echelon maybe even Master Echelon Guard Captain. Both care about me, and I care about them. One I love the other," Kandric paused and exhaled. "Well, the other I really don't know other than I like him very much most of the time. But friends, real friends. No. I have none."
Zeltoss listened to Kandric in a state of wonderment. The boy actually knew someone of Master Echelon and maybe even two?
Kandric paused to let what he had said sink in before speaking much softer, "By the way, if it is alright with you, would kindly not talk about my Echelon rating."
"Sorry. I'm such a screw up."
"Zeltoss, do not ever say such a thing." Kandric put his hand on Zeltoss' shoulder. "You know I realized something. I just misspoke. I said I have no friends. Such a statement is not true, I have you."
Zeltoss slowly turned to face Kandric. The look on his face was one of disbelief. "Really?"
Kandric offered his hand. "Yes. When I said no one would do what you have done for me tonight I was not being dishonest. My own mother, who I do love, would not have done such a kind thing for me. You may have come in here a stranger, but I pray to every god there is, you leave as a friend. I have always wanted one."
Zeltoss took Kandric's hand gently, "Thank you Kandric."
"I should be the one thanking you. I still do not understand why you came down here and why you would want to be so nice to me."
"You care about me. I saw it in your eyes when you fixed my arm." Zeltoss eyes teared up slightly. "I could see how you hated to show others you are a spell caster, yet there was no hesitation. You next to threatened the Teacher and the Healthman when you told them to back off. As you held me when I cried out in pain as you fixed my arm I could tell you were concerned."
Zeltoss wiped his eyes; "Since my caravan was attacked and decided to disband in the city, I've gotten used to getting hit in the arena. I'm used to people making fun of me because I am a Gem Worker and a Mystic. I'm not as good as most of the Swordsmen students are, even though I passed my Primary testing. I have to tap into my magic to fight on an even keel with most of them. Look at these skinny arms. I can barely swing a war hammer without it taking me in a complete circle so I had to learn ways to let the weight help me to swing the bigger weapons to even pass the testing.
"The Teacher doesn't let the other kids know I am not a Swordsman so I can stay at the school. She makes me work out and work with weapons daily because she thinks I should have more skill as a Guilded member of the world. She has hinted I would not have passed at all if she had been a judge. It's no secret, I'm not strong, I'm not fast, and I like to read books and play with strange liquids. I am the only one in the school who can cast a spell. There are only nine people in the city who know I am a Primary Guilded Gem Worker, and only three of them know I am a Guilded Mystic.
"I doubt you'd ever agree, but I wonder if we… I mean I'd sure like…" Zeltoss shook his head, "Never mind. This is so stupid."
Kandric put both his hands on the boy's shoulders and looked him dead in the eyes and grinned. "When I am with my Shaman Master, he tells me at least twice a week the worst answer you can get to a question is a no when you want a yes and a yes when you want a no. So as he so aptly puts it, the answer you get can be no worse than walking away and not asking."
"Gee, I never thought of it like that." Zeltoss frowned. "When you put it in such a neat perspective, it make question hard not to ask."
"Yes, yet I get the same speech every time I hesitate."
Zeltoss laughed, "Sounds like you have a neat teacher!"
"The greatest! So what were you going to ask?"
"When they let you out, can I travel with you?"
Kandric blinked a couple of times then let out a breath of air, "Zeltoss, I need to tell you something before this goes any further, then if you want to ask the same question again I will answer."
Zeltoss' shoulders slumped, "In other words, no."
"Hold on a second." Kandric lifted his hand, "I want you to listen and think this over then, if you wish to ask the question again, I will give you an answer."
"Still sounds like a no to me, but OK. I'm listening."
"I am working with a powerful man, a man who likes to break slaves. He is a good man over all, but can seem like a demon spawn if you look at how he treats his property. I also own a few slaves and he is teaching me how to handle them. So I may not always seem like the nice kid who healed your broken arm, although I would not do some of the things this man does.
"Together with a few others we are about to travel far to the south. I am talking all the way down below the Silver Spine Mountains, so far south you will not be able to see the mountains if you flew high into the sky. When we get there we will be fighting in a war, a real war. The enemies include Dragons, not Dragonlings. These are the real ones; the type we read about in fights with the greatest heroes and villains ever to walk on Mother Earth. We will be traveling into a swamp into some of the nastiest bogs you can imagine.
Now put all of this information aside while I move on, for some of our allies will be Lizardmen and others will be Illorcs. Believe it or not, they are on the good side of this and we are considered underdogs at this point. Now, think about all of what I just told you, put everything together, then decide if you want to ask the same question again."
"You are saying Lizardmen and Illorcs will be friends?"
"I do not know if they will be friends, all I know is they are our allies."
"And with them on your side it is an up hill fight?"
"Yes. An uphill battle in some of the nastiest land there is, deep swamp. A place I call home."
Zeltoss paced back and forth for a few minutes, "Alright. I know I may see a side of you I won't like and this is going to be a very hard challenge. I'll take the risk, can I join you?"
Kandric nodded, "You sure can my friend. I just wanted to make sure you knew all the facts up front. I still want you to think this over and there will be no shame in deciding not to go when I stop by the school before I leave."
"I won't change my mind Kandric."
"Probably not, but promise me you will at least think over what I have told you. Also remember the man I, actually we, will be traveling with will not tolerate complaining or giving up. He respects people who confront fear and challenges and will put another foot down when there is no energy left to do so, then pick up the next foot and do it all over again. I am sure he will test you, and although I can assist some I cannot pass those tests for you."
"He sounds like a monster."
"His slaves consider him far worse than a mere monster Zeltoss. He finds ways to make people afraid then exploits it. I have never seen anyone so ruthless in all my travels. Yet he has another side which is so devoted to his few friends and his causes he would stand up and slap a god in the face if he thought it would help."
Zeltoss chewed on his lip for a moment; "I will think it over. I really will, but I still am sure I will want to join you."
"I will see you when I get out of here then." Kandric watched as the boy pounded on the door with his small fist. As the guard finally opened the door Kandric added, "Zeltoss, thank you for being my first real friend."
Rylop entered and motioned for Zeltoss to leave then stood looking down at Kandric with kind a bemused grin, "Young'an, do you mind tellin' me how in the blazes I'm going to explain to Captain Vondum why I arrested one of his Wilderness Scouts?"
"He is in the town already?"
"OH yea, and has already walked through two bars trying to find out where you are. I've told my people to keep a distance 'cause I ain't in the mood for scrapin' up none of my people off cobblestone."
Kandric cringed, "I am sorry. I guess you could send word of my arrest to him, but I think it would be better if you simply let him find out. He will understand what happened when he hears you were blackmailed into arresting me."
"It might be better fer my guards, but I'm not so sure the town take a rampage like this!"
"Velert will ultimately be held responsible. I am not allowed to tell people I am a member for Black Rapids military without his approval, so you cannot be blamed for bringing me down here."
Rylop shrugged, "Oh well. To be honest, I can't say I mind someone walkin' through a few bars. It'll cut down on fighting fer a couple of weeks or so as people recover."
Kandric laughed, "Interesting, My Shaman teacher always told me there is usually an up side to every situation if you look hard enough at it."
Rylop nodded with a bit of a smile, "As long as I don't end up one the receiving end of Captain Vondum's wrath, I'll be a happy camper. So what is it you wanted to talk to the sergeant about?"
"This could take a while. I am seeing a way to turn this whole jail thing into a bit of a business."
"The Governor don't like to force no one to work unless they have to pay fer damages and don't have the money."
Kandric's eyes gleamed in merriment, "How about putting on a little pressure?"
"Pressure? Mind explainin'?"
Kandric pointed toward the inner door, "The system of leadership you allow in there gave me an idea. We could make doing things much more appealing to some of the kids, but we would have to figure out a better split."
Rylop pointed toward the door, "This sounds interestin'; let's go up and take a seat so we can really talk about this idea of yours!"
Vondum straightened his coat as he walked out of the Icewind Bar right next to the northern gate. He glanced behind him to see a patrol of four guards, "What you looking at!"
"Just here to clean up the mess captain!" The lead man saluted.
"Carry on then, but stay out of my way!"
"Have no intention of stopping you, sir."
Vondum grinned and returned the salute, "Good, cause I haven't even worked up a sweat yet!"
"Not a problem sir!" The lead man stated as he watched Vondum jump up to his steed and ride off." The man turned to the other three, "He ain't got no scum-pit taverns left. Guess he'll move up to the merchant places."
"Yea," One of the guards grunted, "Might be kind a fun to see some of them upper classes gettin' tossed out a door like the trash they are."
"Let's get this mess cleaned up first." The lead guard ordered as he went inside the table and chair strewn bar. He shook his head as he counted 3 of 12 still standing, and they were all using the bar to hold themselves up. "Which one of ya fools mouthed of to Captain Vondum?"
All three people pointed to a woman laying in the middle of a snapped in half table.
The guard pointed to two of the men, "Take her to the jail."
"Who's gunna pay fer this mess?" The barkeep managed to ask through a badly split lip and a broken nose.
"My guess?" The lead guard asked, then pointed to the woman, "She is. There ain't no one in Slome tough enough to tell Captain Vondum he be doin' wrong!"
Vondum turned down a back alley as he headed toward his next target. Someone in this town knew something about Kandric. The boy hadn't left the walls, so he had to be somewhere inside them. He was so fixated on getting to the next bar, he almost missed seeing the little kid jumping up and down and waving to him.
Vondum yanked back hard on the reigns of his War Steed causing the massive beast to raise up on its back two legs. He easily road with it and slapped his hand on the steed's massive neck as it finally settled, "Good boy!"
Vondum glared down, "This better be good whelp!"
The Halfling boy nodded vigorously.
Vondum jumped down, "What be so important then!"
"Me heard you're looking for red haired Elf."
"You mean Kandric?"
"Uh Huh." The boy nodded, "The Healing man hit him and made the guards arrest him for helping me."
Vondum felt a rage shoot into every bone in his body. In some ways it felt good. "What do you mean the Healthman hit him?"
The little Halfling explained how his great uncle had given him ten whole copper for his birthday and how the merchant kid had tried to steal everything.
Vondum listened as the boy then told of Kandric's sudden appearance and a very short fight. He couldn't help but smile as the lad talked bout how the merchant brat's teeth ended up all over the alleyway. But his anger flashed to a whole new level as He heard about Velert and how the Healthman had not only threatened the guards with withdrawing healing aid, but also punched the beautiful Halfelf he had fallen in love with, not just once, but two times.
Vondum interrupted at last, "Son where is this Velert's shop?"
"Down by the square, but he be at the Hunter's inn. Me saw him go there. He also wants the merchants to get me too."
"Cause he don't want the gov'nor to hear 'bout what happen other then the merchant boy getting hurt. I heard him tell one of the others he want me locked in a closet er something till the red haired Elf go to jail."
"How did you hear all this boy?"
"I follow Velert to see if I can help Kundruk like he help me."
The boy chewed on his lip.
"You be in the Robber's Guild don't ya!"
The lad cringed as he barely nodded.
"Warrior Adept." The boy whispered. "But me no get training till Robber Teacher say I be good enough Lockmaster."
"Ah, I see!" Vondum nodded, having heard about this sort of thing from just about every city he went to including Black Rapids. "He trains you in the Subfield and has you start bringing in money to prove your worth, then he may or may not train you! What be your specialties?"
"Pick pockets and hide." The boy admitted after a few seconds.
Vondum had to laugh at the whole situation and the boy's terrified little face. "I guess this means the money you told me about ain't really from any uncle either, right?"
The boy lowered his head and shook it.
"Don't worry none." Vondum chuckled as he picked the boy up and set him on his mount. "You can forget about the local Robber Guild. You work for me now. I don't know this Velert, so I'm going to take you to Hunter's Inn and you are going to walk up and point to him. I will take care of the rest."
The Halfling started to cry, "Then me go to jail?"
"No. Then you come with me to the jail so we can get Kandric out and leave together. I'll have my Lieutenant, Sy, work with you and finish all your training."
The boy settled some but still looked petrified at the idea of going to the jail.
Vondum gripped the boy's waist as he settled himself on the saddle, "I have seen such looks many times before boy. Don't try to run, or I will start a new search for you as soon as I am done with Velert and I will destroy the whole Robber Guild along the way. You belong to and work for me now, understood?"
"Yes sir." The boy stammered out.
"Good. I'd much prefer for skills like yours to be used for my benefit and for you to grow up to be a Black Rapid's Guard then for you to end up as one of my permanent servants. Besides, I owe you a favor. You are helping me to find Kandric!"
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