A Prequel Story
Copyright 2016 by Zach Larson
Living Words Press
Distributed by Shakespir
Cover Art and Internal Image Copyright 2016 by Zach Larson
For more information about the author or the world of Destiny Scrolls, please visit:
For everyone who loves a good story and an ending that makes you yearn for more.
Three years to the day. Slightly ironic that he would make his first move against the A’gulen tonight. His long hair veiled his face but also trapped the Carnen heat in a halo around his head. Out of all four Arkeadion provinces, Carnen, the desert nation, collected the most warmth from the sun. Arnen, just over the border to the south, was far cooler. Greener too. Where Carnen triumphed in sand and coastline, Arnen found pride in numerous rivers, many of them still not mapped by scholars, and large prairies. His home near Cardum was—Ladramain’ochaman shook his head vigorously. He would not think about that tonight. He told that lie to himself often.
The heat helped his disguise along by making him sweat. It slicked his hair and caught the dust from the air only to deposit it on his skin when it dried. Sweat stink helped, too. As did the ratty cloak he’d traded that beggar for. Good trade, at least for the beggar. He would need another new cloak now, though. Spheres, he went through those things fast. It was a wonder so many people liked to trade for them, even in the heat of a desert nation.
He had been perplexed at first as to why so many of the people here wore cloaks, couldn’t be for warmth of all things. After one week in Shanti, however, he found out why so many locals wore them. Once the sunburn healed, he took to wearing his own cloak. The shade of a hood almost made up for the lack of breeze. His current hood undoubtedly contained lice, but he knew a quick cure for that. It wasn’t a pleasant cure by any means, but it got the job done. Better than having lice… mostly.
His mother always hated to see him dirty. She always scolded him as he walked through the door. “The son of a shipping merchant shouldn’t—
Thankfully, a crash interrupted his thoughts. He glanced up quickly through the curtain of black hair and scanned the square. Someone, a little way down the road he was facing, stooped over and began gathering pieces of the pot that had dropped off the back of a cart. It was the last cart left on the streets, most people had finished their doings in this part of the city for a while now. The night gatherings took people to Shanti’s central spring where the governor allowed favored merchants to open stands and keep torches lit until almost dawn. There might be smaller gatherings at other springs in the city, but he wouldn’t know. Those things didn’t concern him.
Water gurgled behind the low wall supporting him. He hadn’t thought about the noise in some time; it was just a part of his life at this moment, not important enough to stand out. This one was a small spring by Shanti standards. It served merely to water the nearby residents and passersby. He could have inserted near one of the larger springs, or in any number of places in the city, to overhear gossip and maybe even tail a runner, but he needed very specific information.
A slight breeze ruffled the tattered cloak and brought a stale odor to his nose from the cloth. He wondered for a moment when he last took a bath. No. Not when he last bathed, when the original owner of the cloak had washed. Sometimes the disguises seemed a bit too real to him. That was the thing about getting inside a man’s head; you really had to know the part to pull it off under scrutiny. Take the homeless in Shanti for example. More of them came here than elsewhere to avoid the cold winters of other provinces, so they appreciated the heat, almost reverenced it. Warmth was their savior. Sweat to them became a kind of honor badge, worn to show reverence to the thing that saved them. Some died of heatfaints now and then, but the cool springs of Shanti, free to all, kept them watered well enough to avoid that danger. So in a city of springs, the homeless washed infrequently, not because they were lazy or stupid, but because they felt it their duty not to. Like the beggars he studied earlier, Ladramain allowed the sweat to run down his face and remain on his skin until it dried in the air. His own nod to another’s blind faith.
He glanced down the road again, noting the pink glow flushing the sky as the sun descended beyond the distant edge of the western sands behind him. The color bathed the sandstone buildings in an eerie light and cast a pale glow on the distant harbor waters. Almost time now Ladramain mused, analyzing the scene and comparing it to the vision. Nicolan’s runner would pass by the fountain soon, carrying reports of proceedings back to his master, along with the information Ladramain needed.
The runner would come, no doubt about that, but when? He couldn’t be certain. He saw this scene earlier in the day as he viewed the future: sun almost set, deserted street, and a beggar beside the fountain. All that it lacked now was the runner.
Ladramain knew this future, or at least this particular piece of it. His visions were not complete, not defined, not specific, but they were set. Each flash of the future he pulled from the movements of the earth was fated to happen just as he viewed it. No deviations. The images his magic displayed to him were the ultimate outcome of choices, the true destiny of time. Not like the things his… He let the thought trail away.
A figure appeared in the distance and steadily grew larger as it traversed the street toward the spring. Ladramain carefully shifted his head forward, allowing his hair to fall more heavily over his face. He began a tuneless hum, swaying slightly to the chaotic rhythm. His beggar self got bored easily, what with nothing to do but watch the same crooked merchants every day, and had taken to the humming as a way to pass the time. Need to keep the mind working. Don’t want to go crazy like that poor fool beggar across the way. What was his name again? Ah, well.
As the runner drew near, his pace slowed and he moved closer to the buildings. The humming had drawn his attention and he watched Ladramain warily. Ladramain kept sight of the man but did not stop humming the tune. Soon the runner picked up speed again and cut across the square and past the spring, leaving the supposed beggar behind.
Ladramain quickly closed his eyes and tapped the pool of magic at the base of his skull. Energy surged in his mind, clamoring for an outlet, a path to follow. He pushed it out, connected it with himself, with his intent for the runner who had just passed, and allowed it to pull his consciousness forward. At first he saw only flashes of blurred gray and tan; they were, as far as he could tell, moments from the future that he could not grasp or connect with enough to see for some reason. It was like destiny enjoyed toying with him, showing him just enough to pique his interest but not enough for him to see the direct path. Clearer images began to assail him: a dark rooftop, the runner below on the street, and the sun all but gone from the sky. More blurs and the sensation of wind in his hair. A dark alley materialized with a shabby wooden door imprinted with the wispy sun, a symbol from the Church of Light. That scene, too, dissolved only to be immediately replaced by another. The darkness was nearly complete, with only enough light to distinguish a figure kneeling on the floor of an empty room. The stranger looked up, wide eyed. Ladramain released the magic and felt his soul rush backwards and then reorient to the present with a sudden jolt. A smile spread across his lips.
Barely two heartbeats had elapsed since tapping the magic. The runner had only just rounded a corner on the opposite side of the spring. Ladramain leaped to his feet and hurled himself forward. In three breaths, he reached the edge of the square by one of the merchant shops. An empty cart sat outside. He jumped without halting his momentum and landed atop the cart. From there, he leapt to the building, just managing to grab onto the lip of the roof. He easily hauled himself up and over the lip. Once on the roof, he paused long enough to catch his breath then began jogging softly, staying parallel with the street the runner had taken. Without snow weight to worry about, the roofs in Shanti were flat. So much the better for tailing someone.
The buildings in this area of the city were connected, so Ladramain didn’t need to do any jumping to reach the next roof, he just had to step over a small ledge. The runner was not far along the street, and Ladramain caught up with the man quickly. He kept pace with the runner while keeping himself a ways back on the rooftops and out of sight of the street. Every few paces, he checked to make sure his quarry was still below him. He soon left the connected buildings behind and was forced to jump small gaps and alleys between structures.
The city lay in darkness around him. Ladramain realized he had forgot to look for the first scene from his vision. He usually tried to compare what he experienced to what he saw using magic, since the future visions were so imprecise. There wasn’t a foolproof way to tell when he was throwing himself into danger or not just by trying to interpret the visions. If he hadn’t seen the person’s face who lay on the floor as he looked at the recent future, he would have no reason to think it might not be himself at the mercy of another. Even so, the visions, as far as he could tell, were the ultimate outcome of events. He could not change them. Whatever choices he or anyone else made had already been accounted for in the visions. It was like the magic showed him what outcome must occur and guided him to making that outcome happen. Would he have thought to run along the rooftops if not for the vision? There was no way to know for sure. He hadn’t planned ahead that far. Seeing the future could have that effect on a person. Less planning and more blind faith. Faith in what, exactly? Magic? Logic? Fate? He wasn’t sure yet.
The darkness suddenly thickened around him until he saw only black. His movements met resistance in the congealed air. He stopped, anticipating the experience before it happened. Pain blossomed in his chest and tore a muffled shriek from his lips. The sensation moved from his mid back to mid chest in the front. A bloody sword ripped through the skin on his chest and grew until it poked out of his body at least four hand-spans. The blade withdrew, and he collapsed on the roof, darkness fading back to the regular dim light of the moon over the desert. The vision always took him by surprise. He didn’t call for it; it just came on its own, bringing with it the feeling of real pain. It had started coming just after he arrived in Shanti. He hoped it didn’t mean he would never leave.
He stood and hurried to catch up with the runner, who had halted near a building and was about to knock on the door. Ladramain snuck to the edge of the roof directly opposite the door and watched as a thin ribbon of light appeared around the door’s edges. A heart-span later, the door opened enough for the runner to enter then closed with a swift thud. He knew he could wait out the runner and continue following once the man finished this particular errand, but he felt fairly confident that the runner would soon pass by the door in the alley from the vision. It might be better to scout the location first and simply wait for the man to come there.
Quietly, he backed away from the edge and stood up. The doorway could be anywhere in Shanti, but, since it was part of the vision, it was most likely close by. He began jogging across the rooftops again, inspecting each gap between buildings before moving on. After the tenth gap, he paused to consider the buildings on the other side of the street. The door he needed might be over there, but none of the structures seemed very empty. They all definitely looked run down and weathered; however, each one gave off a distinctive “lived-in” feeling. He turned back to his own row of buildings and noticed an oddity about the next one in line. The roof was partially caved in, leaving half of the rooms below open to the sky.
As he neared the structure, he saw sections of wall missing as well. The alley gap here was wider than many of the others. He looked down into the darkness. At first, he couldn’t pierce the deep shadows, but, as his sight adjusted, a door frame emerged from the gloom. It connected the building to the alley, away from curious eyes. The door looked promising, but any markings remained concealed in the night. He needed to get down there to be certain.
No easy hand holds revealed themselves to Ladramain’s scrutiny. Then he noticed a large pile of weathered crates stacked against his side of the alley. Those might be high enough if I’m careful. From beneath his cloak he produced a set of iron claws, which he proceeded to strap to his right hand. For a moment, he considered the distance and the force needed to bridge the gap then backed away from the ledge into the middle of the roof. Jianna would kill him if she knew what he was about to do, but at least he was only six body-lengths up, instead of fifty like the first time he had suggested the maneuver. Hopefully, she would never find out.
Thrusting himself forward, he sprinted to the edge of the roof and leaped across the alley directly at the wall of the crumbling building. As he landed, his right hand slammed forward and sunk the tips of the iron claws into the sandstone. His body weight pulled at the claws, which grated as they tried to keep hold of the wall. Just before the claws lost their grip on the stone, he bunched his legs, kicked himself away from the wall, and landed on the crates. He had enough time to smile before the crates buckled beneath his weight and dropped him to the cobblestones; chunks of light wood piled on top of him.
Ladramain lay staring up at the night sky through a gap in the broken crates just long enough to catch his breath and feel the aches begin creeping into his muscles. Then, with a burst of energy, he flung himself out of the wood mess and dashed to the mouth of the alley facing the main street where the runner would come. He peeked around the corner and watched until he was sure the noise had not disturbed anyone. After running the length of the alley and doing the same thing at the opposite opening, he walked up to the doorway.
Multiple points all over his back felt as though bruises were not far off, but he ignored them. At least none of the wood shards had actually broke through the skin. Any day he didn’t bleed was a good day. The carved lines on the door stood out immediately. The wispy sun glared at him, scolding him for the mess strewn about the alley. He wondered vaguely why the Church of Light would have anything to do with a building in this part of town. Truthfully, they wouldn’t. The symbol was most likely put here to throw people off of some thief’s hideout or as a denouncement of this part of Shanti. He touched the wood lines without thinking and felt pain burn sharply in his knuckles. Hissing softly and, drawing his hand away, noticed the broken skin showing underneath the strap of the iron claws he still wore. So much for it being a good day he thought while removing the claws and tucking them away.
All of his fingers seemed to function properly, so the hand wasn’t broken, but it was not going to be fun explaining it later. He tested the door again with his other hand. He pressed against it until he felt it budge against his weight then stood back and kicked it. The wood buckled slightly. He kicked again and heard the crack as the door broke away from its latch and swung inward. The room beyond was dark and empty. He pulled the door back into place and glanced quickly around the alley.
The alley itself provided no cover from someone walking along it, but the aches in his back gave Ladramain an idea. He gathered all of the wood fragments left over from the broken crates and stacked them opposite the doorway, almost like a small shelter. Any gaps in the planks he filled in with the smaller pieces until anyone sitting inside of it would be invisible from the main street. Once assured of his hiding place, he sat down inside of it and moved a plank just enough at eye level to watch the mouth of the alley.
The runner arrived one moon-span later at the mouth of the alley. He only hesitated for a moment before taking the shortcut. Ladramain tried to guess why the lad chose this particular path out of the multitude of better options. Habit, maybe? Orders from his lord? Pure whim? Whatever the reason, destiny had dictated this course for the both of them. The man walked at a brisk pace through the gloom between the buildings. He kept glancing over his shoulder in the direction he’d come. One did need to keep an eye out in this area of the city.
Ladramain tensed, readying for the pounce, as the man neared his hiding place. Each muffled footfall matched the concealed man’s heartbeats. As the runner moved into sight of the hiding place, parallel with the door to the building opposite, Ladramain spoke.
“A coin for the poor?”
The runner froze in his tracks and looked around just in time to see a beggar lunge at him. Both men tumbled through the door into the darkened room. Ladramain tried to land on top, but the runner moved faster, using the momentum of the lunge to send Ladramain spinning farther into the room where he sprawled on his back. His back flared in pain at the renewed torment, but he scrambled immediately to his feet and just managed to tackle the runner as the man dashed for the only escape.
They wrestled on the dusty floor, a mass of flailing arms and grunts. Ladramain managed to push the man far enough away from the door that he could stand and end up positioned in front of it, blocking the escape. He watched the runner get shakily to his feet and assess the situation. The runner’s features were obscured by the darkness, but his voice drifted to Ladramain’s ears.
“What do you want from me?” The voice only shook once, and the man’s stance remained firm.
“What would anyone want from a runner other than information?”
Ladramain thought for a moment that the confrontation might go more smoothly than he had expected, but the runner decided to be difficult. The man rushed without warning, drawing a dagger from a hidden sheath and slashing wildly at Ladramain. The latter dodged easily and grabbed the other’s knife arm as it passed. He twisted the arm, ripped the knife from the man’s fingers, and sent the runner to the ground with a knee to the stomach. The man sank to his knees with a groan and wrapped his arms around his stomach. As the groans subsided, the man raised his head to look at his attacker. Ladramain was close enough to recognize the man’s face as that of the stranger from the vision. Good, the night’s events are nearly at a close then.
“Do you…” the runner began but cut off as a cough racked his throat. “Do you know the man I serve?”
Ladramain smiled. “Of course, Nicolan’s movements have been of great interest to me.”
The runner chuckled darkly. “Then you understand why I, as a simple messenger, need no real training in combat. No one in their right mind would cross Nicolan in his own portion of the city. You are a dead man.” He spat at Ladramain’s feet.
“Your master’s influence in this city seems very extensive,” Ladramain said, ignoring the runner’s condemnation, “I dare say he knows nearly everything that happens in this city.”
“Nearly? Nothing happens in this city without him knowing about it. Some of his men are probably on their way here right now.”
“Maybe, but I doubt that.”
“What makes you so skeptical?”
Ladramain smiled again. “Because there is one thing in this city about which Nicolan does not yet know: me.”
The runner laughed heartily this time. “You think you have been able to hide from a man like Nicolan. You’re more insane that I thought.”
“Probably. Now, let’s talk about what you know.”
“I won’t tell you anything. You have nothing to threaten me with that is more than what Nicolan would do to me if I talked.”
“Oh, I think you will want to talk to me. It is in your employer’s best interests.” The runner remained silent. “I am curious about a new sect of thieves in the city. They call themselves the A’gulen.”
The runner spat again at the mention of the name. “Nicolan has nothing to do with those storming fools. He wants to drive them out. Everyone knows that.”
“True, which is why my proposal will be agreeable to your boss when you tell him.”
“Why not just discuss this with him then?”
“I don’t care about Nicolan, but that doesn’t mean I want him knowing who I am either.”
The runner sat in silence for a moment. “I don’t think I should talk without his consent.”
“He will not care. I will tell you what to tell him because it is the truth. I have some bad blood with this band, and I am in a position to take retribution for it. I just need to know where to find them, say, tomorrow night for example.”
“That is delicate information. How would I know something so valuable?”
“Because you deliver more information to Nicolan than any other runner. If anyone knows, you do. Look at it this way: you tell me where to find them, I take them out of Nicolan’s hands, and you gain some favor with the Thief Lord for having a brain in that thick head of yours.”
The runner shifted slightly in the dark. “Agreed. A’gulen will be at the docks tomorrow night. They are doing a job there.”
“Oh no, I told you what you wanted to know. Anything extra is going to cost you.”
Ladramain kicked the man in the stomach again. As the runner doubled over, he walked behind him and wrapped an arm tightly around the man’s neck. The runner struggled and grabbed at the constricting arm. Ladramain applied just the right amount of pressure and at the same time reached up and pressed two fingers to the man’s neck as he had been taught. The runner collapsed senseless to the floor. Ladramain slammed the dagger down in front of the unconscious man’s face and walked out of the doorway, disappearing into the night.
Sunlight filtered through the slats in the shutters of the small room. Only a few spans from evening, the southwest side of the sandstone walls baked in direct heat from the sun. It was still better to have the shutters closed, though. Ladramain watched the door relentlessly, pushing away the dark thoughts that always plagued him when Jianna took on tasks alone. He would have gone himself, but they couldn’t be sure if the runner from the night previous would recognize him. He could take a glance at the future, but he might not see what he wanted to in the sporadic images. The watchful eyes of one of Nicolan’s men might be missed. Better to be safe and not be spotted by Nicolan’s men at the docks today. Hopefully, Ladramain was right about the Thief Lord wanting the rival A’gulen to come to some misfortune by any means necessary. The band had begun making a noticeable dent in his profits recently.
Ladramain dipped his hand into the watering pool and splashed some onto his face and hair. Shanti possessed many unique natural features, especially for being in a desert. The original settlers build the city around the springs. The entire layout focused on making use of the water supply. All streets converged at the squares containing the ever gushing fountains. Homes and shops had special floors that channeled the water underneath the building, cooling the rooms from below and filling the watering pool on the way through. Multiple buildings connected to just one spring by the underground water channels. The channels even made use of the natural waterbeds in the sand. As the water passed through the sand filled channel, any impurities were filtered out. A good system, but Ladramain still only drank from the main fountains when possible.
He splashed his face again, more for something to do than to cool down, just as the patchwork door creaked open and shut in a smooth motion. He lurched to his feet, water dripping down his neck and into his tunic. Jianna stood there with one eyebrow raised at him.
“Jumpy?” she asked in a mocking tone.
Her black hair shivered in the thin tendrils of light let in by the window covers. The subtle motion reminded Ladramain of a dark pool reflecting a starless sky. Her light blue eyes only increased the effect of the comparison. His own hair, though also black and almost reaching his shoulders, looked more like strands of cloth than a reflecting pool.
“I did just cross the most powerful man in the city,” he said.
“Who still has little to no idea of who or what you are. Honestly, he’s more likely to be interrogating beggars than looking for the son of a merchant. Speaking of that,” she tossed a bundle of cloth into his hands, “I picked this up for you. Try not to trade this one for some stable boy’s undergarments; I quite like it.”
She brushed by him to sit beside the watering pool. The cloak she wore fluttered as she walked. It concealed a slim frame that most would see as vulnerable, but they were wrong. Jianna was as well trained as Ladramain and a better fighter. Every one of her movements landed exactly where she intended, every time, without fail. Her connection to magic granted her perfect balance and control. Untrained fighters always neglected balance; that’s why they lost so often. Balance in fighting was everything. Your opponent might have the strength of a god, but, if he couldn’t hit you, that didn’t matter in the slightest. Perfect poise didn’t hurt one’s attractiveness either in Ladramain’s eyes.
He let her pass and directed his attention to the material in his hands. After searching for a moment, he found the edge of the cloth and let the rest unfurl to reveal a long black cloak. The material felt nearly as light as air in his fingers. When he pulled on it, it stretched without tearing; that meant good mobility. He swung it over his head and pushed his arms into the sleeves. The hood cast a deep shadow over his face. It was all but perfect. True, the deep black tone meant it would be a lot hotter in the daytime than another covering, but that same value also made it perfect for nighttime wanderings where one wished to remain unseen.
“I will have to find other things to trade now, I suppose,” he said, turning to face her.
Jianna looked him in the eyes, and a smile spread across her lips. “I knew you’d love it.”
He devoured the look. The slightly lopsided mouth that displayed surprisingly straight teeth, the nose that was just a bit too large for the rest of her features, and the permanent rose color in her cheeks all made her the more alluring to Ladramain. During his training, in the years since the death of his parents, Jianna had always been there to push him to fight harder, to forget his mourning in the intensity of his training. They had trained together, and now she fought by his side.
He threw back the hood but kept the cloak on as he moved to sit near the pool as well. “Did you learn anything?”
She frowned and smacked the pool with the palm of her hand, splashing water onto the new cloak. Ladramain scowled at her.
“It will dry,” she said, “and of course I did. Bat your eyelashes a few times at the men working on the boats or the docks and they tell you everything.” He splashed water in her direction this time. “Hey, watch it. You doubted my competence, so it’s your own fault if you heard something you didn’t like.”
“What did you find out?” he said, ignoring her prodding.
“Most of the cargo right now is just fish or food stuffs. It’s the off season, apparently. There’s really only one ship the A’gulen would want to hit, but I’m not sure why they would want to in the first place. Do you realize how ironic it is for a band of thieves to name themselves the A’gulen, the shadows. Why don’t more outlaws call themselves something clever like that? I mean, really, Nicolan the Thief Lord; where is the poetry in that?”
A dark look marred Ladramain’s features. “They do not deserve your compliments. Not after what they did.”
Jianna shot him a worried glance and moved on. “Anyway, the only ship that really stands out is one scheduled to put out to sea tonight for Arboch. It carries supplies for the judges at the capitol. There might be weapons on board, but, otherwise, I can’t see why the A’gulen might want to take that particular ship. It might only be supplies, but the judges will still take notice.”
It felt wrong. A government restock seemed well outside of normal A’gulen hits. If the ship really contained a weapon resupply, a large amount of money stood to be made off of it. But Ladramain just didn’t see taking such a risk for a small chance at a maybe. The A’gulen didn’t do that; they were making a name for themselves.
“We’re missing something about that shipment.”
Jianna pursed her lips and puffed out her chest. “Are you saying that I—
“I’m saying there is something important on that boat. Something not listed on the manifest. Something important to the A’gulen.”
Silence fell between them. After a time, Ladramain noticed the darkening of the room and glanced at Jianna. Her eyes were already locked on him.
“Nearly time,” she stated simply.
Ladramain nodded and adjusted his position, readying himself. As he reached with his consciousness for the magic, Jianna interrupted him.
“Why do you look at the future? You said yourself that what you see can’t be changed, that the choices that lead to those outcomes have already been made. If you see yourself dying, won’t it just happen anyway?”
A vision of a sword sticking out of his chest flashed before his eyes. “What if by looking at the future and seeing that I am on a particular course is the reason I avoid death? What if the flashes I see are the future only because I see them? There has to be a reason I can do this.” Or at least a way to change my mind once I have seen them.
Jianna said nothing, so Ladramain closed his eyes and pierced the magic. He liked to wait until the last moment, when he knew as much information as possible, before he viewed the future. He understood things better in the visions when he had information to compare it against. The magic tugged at him, aligning with his will, so he allowed his essence to be pulled forward. The first image appeared sooner than expected. Water sloshed below and the darkness was not yet fully consuming the city. He saw Jianna crouching behind a stack of barrels, peeking around them down the dock. The scene blurred momentarily then focused on the deck of a ship. Fighting surrounded him. For an instant, he recognized the faces of three men running past the wheel of the ship on the platform above him. Fury built inside his chest like a storm readying a thunder strike. Everything melted again as time moved on. Another flash showed him a darkened street away from the docks. A figure lay on the ground, not moving. He bent low to look at the face and smiled when he recognized one of the leaders of the A’gulen. Not the one he most wanted, but a victory all the same. The next image displayed the interior of the room he was currently in with Jianna. She was the only one there besides himself, so he released the magic and opened his eyes.
“You’re smiling,” Jianna observed, “good news?”
“Some. Tavagne and Istan get away, but Nodan doesn’t run quite fast enough. They will have to retreat from the boat, too many soldiers on board.”
“What?” Jianna said in an anxious voice. “That’s not supposed to be the case. Everyone at the docks swore there would only be a skeleton crew on board until nearly dawn. What changed?”
“No idea, but it doesn’t matter. We can still get the others before they leave the city. They might not even want to. Either way, the night goes well enough for us.”
“How can you say that? We’ve been planning for months, waiting for the right time to take all three of them together. If we alert them to our presence tonight, we’ll never get to them again. Not for years.”
“Look. None of that matters anyway. I’ve seen the future. Those events will happen.”
“You only think they are immutable because you have blind faith in your powers. What if the events you see only happen because you choose to follow the visions? You have the choice whether to proceed or not.” She waited for him to answer but received no response. “You won’t consider another future because you’ve made up your mind to go no matter what. Haven’t you?” Again, no reply. “Have you even truly considered what you will do with these men once you catch them? What will you do when you are looking Tavagne in the eyes? Kill him? Could you really do that to someone you were once close to?”
“He deserves it.”
Jianna’s expression softened. “I know he does. But will you taint your soul with that kind of justice?”
“Not justice, retribution. Are you coming or not?”
She glared at him. “You know I am. You already saw it. I won’t let you do this alone, no matter the outcome.”
He looked deeply into her determined eyes. “I love you.”
“I know,” she said.
“And you love me, too.”
“I know that, too.” She kissed him lightly on the lips. “You are my husband after all.”
“You chose poorly, woman.”
“Maybe,” she said with a mischievous grin, “are we going or not?”
Ladramain pulled her into another kiss then lead the way out to the sweltering city streets.
Saltwater splashed and swelled below the dock where Ladramain and Jianna crouched behind a stack of barrels. They hadn’t spoken in some time; there really wasn’t much to do except wait. As time passed, the water and sky darkened until barely any light remained on the horizon. The time was right, and Jianna peered around the crates as he knew she would. She signaled with her hand, indicating that figures approached the ship. They were one dock over from the ship destined for Arboch so that none of the thieves would happen across them accidentally. The band would still have a spotter somewhere nearby, but that wouldn’t matter once the fighting started on board.
Ladramain withdrew the iron claws, two pairs this time, and strapped one to each hand over his knuckles. He had placed an extra layer of padding underneath them this time along with a metal guard similar to that of a sword. The straps didn’t restrict any of the movement in his hands, and the claws were always a surprise to an unwary opponent. He checked the sword at his side to make sure the strings holding it in the scabbard could slip off with a mere brush of the hand. He saw Jianna check the dual daggers on her hips. She nodded, just a movement of the hood obscuring her face; they were ready.
Shouts floated over the water from the ship. Jianna moved immediately with Ladramain at her heels. The shortest path had been planned beforehand, and Jianna took it. Rowboats and small sailing vessels crowded the water between their dock and the next thick enough to be stepping stones. Jianna leapt to the first boat with ease and moved on to the next, barely disturbing the water under the prow. Ladramain followed awkwardly, wholly unable to match his wife’s grace, but he managed. They traversed the distance between docks quickly, jumping up or down depending on the size of boat ahead of them.
The last leap, from boat to dock, was a bit larger than any of those before. Jianna put on a burst of speed and sailed effortlessly over the water. She landed noiselessly. Ladramain pushed himself faster as well and landed squarely on the last boat before throwing himself into the air. He knew it wasn’t enough the moment he looked down. His feet slammed the edge of the dock and buckled. The force sent him backwards towards the churning water, but, at the last second, Jianna deftly grabbed his arm and pulled him onto the dock. Ladramain looked up, surprised, and found her panting, an arm wrapped around one of the dock’s support pillars that she had used as an anchor to balance out the weight of the larger man. His mouth fell open slightly, and she gave him a pained smile.
Metallic clangs accompanied by grunts reached Ladramain’s ears. He glanced at Jianna, who nodded and helped him up. Together they dashed to the ship and up the gangplank. Shadowy figures fought by the dim light of torches. Swords flashed in the semi darkness. Ladramain made his way in the direction of the cabin; Jianna kept close to him in the chaos. So far, no one had noticed the late comers.
Ladramain saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He just managed to flip Jianna behind him and spin out of the way himself. As it was, he still felt pain in his side; warm liquid ran over his skin. The man who had delivered the blow swung again, but this time Ladramain was ready for it. He brought a fist up and caught the attacker’s sword lengthwise in the iron claws. Numbness spread through his hand, and his arm muscles ached at the strain, but the blow stopped cold against the jagged pieces of metal tied to his hand. Shock froze the features of the man wielding the sword for only a heart-span before Jianna swung over Ladramain and landed a solid kick to their attacker’s head. His unconscious body slumped to the ground.
Ladramain looked around just in time to see three men scramble up the steps to the wheel of the ship. Just like in the vision, they stopped there long enough to turn to the men fighting below. A whistle sounded in the night even over the din of clashing weapons. Many of the fighting pairs broke apart as the men belonging to the gang retreated down the gangplank or over the sides. The ship guards attempted to follow, but a blow rocked the ship, sending most of those left on board to their knees.
Ladramain remained standing only because of Jianna’s assistance. He made to move for the wheel where the leaders last stood but stopped dead when he saw the wheel’s platform. Tavagne stood there alone looking directly at him. Ladramain moved to draw his sword, but the man merely inclined his head and dove over the side into the water. At that moment, the ship lurched and pitched slightly forward. They had been wrong. The A’gulen had not wanted anything from the ship’s cargo; they had come to sink it before it left the harbor.
“Let’s move,” Jianna said, pulling at his arm.
She led him down the gangplank and quickly along the dock. They managed to avoid the guards, who had bigger problems to deal with anyway, and put half the shipyard between themselves and the sinking vessel. Ladramain kept his eyes peeled for any movement by the water’s edge, but the outlaws were nowhere in sight.
They stopped to rest near an empty fish stand. When Ladramain caught his breath, Jianna made a sign to him, asking what they should do now. He signaled back to hold for a moment. He needed to think. The band had just made a major hit. You didn’t sink a ship in Shanti and not have the entire city in arms against you within the time it takes to travel a few streets away. Word was out and soldiers would be patrolling everywhere. That meant the best move for the outlaws was to split up, since one person could hide a lot easier than three, and head back to base separately. So, somewhere close, Nodan was traveling alone. The only question was where?
He’d tried looking at a set of future events a second time before, many times actually, but never saw anything different than his first glimpse. But what did he have to lose other than an inconsequential slice of time? Immediately, he loosed the magic and willed it to show him Nodan. Within moments he saw himself and Jianna move from their cover and turn left down the closest street. The vision blurred for only a heartbeat then solidified farther along the same street. Jianna pulled them out of sight as a group of soldiers passed. She led Ladramain to the next street over. The scene blurred once more only to be replaced by the dark street with a figure on the ground as he had seen earlier. He released the magic and motioned for Jianna to follow.
Ladramain nearly sprinted along the dark roadway. Nodan was close; Nodan would soon pay for what he had done. Jianna caught him mid stride as she tugged him behind cover. He stumbled but made it into the shadows just as ten soldiers came into view. Would he have been able to change this moment if he had been thinking clearly?
Jianna led him to the next street over where they resumed the same mad pace as before. Finally, Ladramain slowed until he reached walking speed. Jianna stepped up beside him, and he motioned for her to keep her eyes peeled. As they quieted their breathing, footsteps echoed lightly from ahead of them on the street. They increased their speed slightly and soon spotted a figure ducking into the shadows of a doorway. Jianna slowed, but Ladramain kept going, staring at the place where the person had disappeared.
“Nodan?” he asked loud enough for the person to hear.
After a pause, the person stepped out of the shadows and strode forward a few paces. “Who’s there? Tavagne?”
Ladramain cringed at the comparison. “Not quite.”
“Ladramain?” Nodan asked with a slight chuckle. “Well, well. I thought I heard Tav mention something about you as we jumped off the ship. Thought he was just being sentimental or something. What brings you to the docks this evening?”
“You know why I am here.”
Nodan back tracked a few steps. “Oh, are you still hung up on that little accident we had back home? You know we didn’t want it to go that far, right?” He moved closer to a nearby alleyway.
“I wouldn’t try to take that particular alley if I were you, Nodan. My partner might not take it very kindly for you to skip out on our conversation.”
Nodan started and glanced over his shoulder. Jianna sidled around the corner of the alley, daggers in hand.
“Hello, Nodan. Nice to make your acquaintance,” she said smoothly.
“She may look small, but you won’t get past her. I promise you that.”
Nodan spat on the ground. “Maybe so, but the whole storming city is blundering around after what we did at the docks. Soldiers might come busting this meeting up any moment.”
“They won’t,” Ladramain said confidently.
“Oh yeah, that’s right. Tav told me you can see the future like him.”
“Tavagne cannot see the future; no matter what he claims. He makes guesses as to what might happen, nothing more.”
Nodan laughed. “He said you were always jealous that his power was more useful than yours. You were always number two, weren’t you?”
“I found you tonight. I followed the A’gulen all the way here and found out what ship you were hitting.”
“But your main prize still got away, didn’t he? Tavagne knew just how to elude you.”
“True, but you’ll do for now?” Ladramain drew his sword and began closing the distance between them.
“Two on one,” Nodan said, drawing his own short sword, “mighty fair fight.”
“No, Nodan, it’s just you and me.”
Ladramain closed the last few lengths at a run. He threw his weight into a lunge, bringing the sword down at Nodan’s head. Nodan parried, barely, and countered with a swing of his own. Steel clashed again and again as they dueled. Nodan was at least as good as Ladramain, maybe better. He was forced back by Nodan. As he blocked a particularly heavy blow, the heel of his boot caught on one of the cobblestones and he fell. He tried to bring the sword up, but it was knocked from his grip. He looked up into Nodan’s face.
“Your parents didn’t need to die like they did,” Nodan said, raising his sword. “All your dad had to do was give up the ledgers to Tavagne. We only set the fire afterward to clean up the mess.”
Nodan made to bring the sword down on Ladramain, but as he tensed his muscles, the tip of a dagger emerged just beneath his shoulder. The blow staggered Nodan momentarily. He grunted but didn’t stop. He raised the sword again and brought it down.
A metallic thud reverberated around the street as Ladramain blocked the blow with the iron claw on his right fist. The blade of the sword missed the claws themselves and came down on the guard instead. His padding absorbed most of the strike, but the iron of the claw couldn’t match the blade’s crucible steel. It cracked in half, sending an ache deep into his bones. Driven by pure instinct, Ladramain slammed his other fist into Nodan’s stomach while the latter was still bent low from the failed strike. Blood gushed over Ladramain’s hand as the remaining claw sank into the other man’s soft belly. He kicked the stunned man away. As Nodan fell, the claw ripped a hole in his abdomen.
Ladramain stood shakily and walked over to the dying man, who was nothing more than a black lump in the darkness. Nodan’s face was sweaty and etched with pain. His breaths came in gasps.
“Now you have paid for what you have done. May Redoni forgive me if I have sinned by killing you. If he is even real.”
Nodan gasped once more and fell still.
The purified alcohol burned as Jianna poured it over Ladramain’s wound. He winced but kept still while she finished cleaning the cut and placed a wrap tightly around his waist. His right hand ached, and dry blood encased his left. He still wore the claw on his left fist; the right one lay in two pieces in the corner where he’s tossed it upon entering the room. Out of all the times he had trained with the claws, they’d never broken until today. He would have to commission a pair of steel claws for next time.
His gaze fell on the bloody weapon strapped to his hand and immediately his stomach churned. He hurriedly untied the straps and threw the claw across the room where it clanged against the wall. Jianna tensed and looked around. She spotted the claw and quickly turned her head away again. Ladramain’s hands shook.
Nodan was a murderer, a thief. He deserved death. All the leaders of the A’gulen did. Didn’t they? People like that didn’t stop, unless someone else stopped them. Redi needed those who could to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. He needed agents to enact his justice on Estyn. But what was God’s justice? Ladramain didn’t know the answer. The religious texts lay beyond his understanding. But what he did know was that the blood on his hands tonight felt wrong. His actions tonight felt wrong. Every bit of logic and intellect in his body told him that murderers deserve death. Yet he knew, to the depths of his soul, that however true that statement might be, it didn’t justify what he had done.
He sat down, put his head in his hands, and squeezed until his muscles burned. His arms relaxed and fell to hang between his legs. Whether or not God was real, he wasn’t quite sure yet, but he did know that his actions tonight were wrong and needed… to be atoned. There was only one course of action that might make up for it. Someone still needed to make Tavagne and Istan pay for killing his parents. He couldn’t kill them. Not right now. Not like this. But he could still try to stop them from getting away.
Ladramain leapt to his feet and pulled his cloak back on, ignoring the hole where the man on the boat had nicked him. Jianna glanced up from cleaning the blood from her dagger and hands. Striding past her, he retrieved two steel rods from their hiding place under the bed. Hefting one in each hand, he twirled them each in turn, reorienting himself with their weight and balance.
“What are you doing?” Jianna said angrily.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “What does that mean? How do you atone with fighting rods?”
He ignored her questions. “Tavagne and Istan are still out there. Someone has to stop them before they get away again.”
“They know we are here. More than that, the entire city guard is probably out searching the city. There is no way you are going to get to them, if you even knew how to find them in the first place.”
He stared into her eyes and saw only concern. She didn’t understand. He had to go. “I don’t know where to find them yet, but maybe I do later.”
He closed his eyes and instantly merged with the magic. His will was set, and the magic carried him effortlessly forward. Brief flashes of dark city streets assailed him. The vision stopped on a larger building, nearly three spans the size of the regular Shanti structure. Torches lit the outside walls and sentries patrolled along the ground floor and second floor balcony. Ladramain recognized it easily. The scene blurred and he felt himself pulled quickly through time. This jump was longer than usual with only small snatches of slowed time when he caught only movement and flickering shadows. Then everything halted and cleared. Tavagne stood breathing heavily with a sneer on his face looking at Ladramain. The energy dissipated and he saw only Jianna standing before him in their small room.
“So?” she asked.
“I don’t know where to find them, but I know who does.”
She pursed her lips. “You are determined to go?”
“Even if I asked you not to?”
He nodded, more slowly this time.
“I don’t approve of this.”
“So stay here.”
“Are you mad? You’re clumsy; you wouldn’t survive one moon-span without me. Besides, I still love you, for some reason.” She picked up her daggers and slid them into their sheaths at her hips. “So, where are we going first?”
They moved quickly onto the streets and made their way carefully, avoiding two different patrols on their way to the building from Ladramain’s vision. Soon, though, they watched the building from behind an empty cart. The wood gave off a deep seated odor of rot. Ladramain wondered what had been in it to leave such a smell. Oocha, the desert’s beast of burden, didn’t mind strong smells, but the human driving the cart must have. Poor fellow.
“How many men do you think he has in there?” Jianna whispered.
“And you are assuming we are just going to fight them all, and that he will just volunteer the information if we manage to survive?”
Ladramain coughed nervously. “Actually, I thought we should head for his chambers and take him hostage before too much of the fighting started.”
“Oh sure,” Jianna muttered with a roll of her eyes, “because it will be easy to bypass all the armed men and get to him before too much fighting happens. Right.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll make it through,” Ladramain said with almost his usual light-heartedness.
“Of course, we are relying on your untested visions again.”
“Hey, they’re tested.”
Jianna didn’t respond for a time. “The sentries leave a gap on the left side long enough during their patrols that we might be able to sneak in the window over there. If we are lucky, no one is currently occupying that room.”
“Sounds like our best shot to get in unnoticed. You say when; I’m right behind you.”
They crouched in the darkness for a few heart-spans then Jianna gave the signal. As quietly as possible, they ran to the window, opened the shutters, and climbed in, closing the shutters behind them. No alarms voices rang; Ladramain breathed a sigh of relief. The room was small with a few shelves of books and a table strewn with papers. Light seeped into the room through a door that stood ajar. Ladramain walked to it and looked out at the main entryway. Stone columns lined the room and marble tiles covered the whole of the floor. A staircase rose halfway to the next level where it widened and allowed the second set of steps to continue to the left the rest of the way. The room looked deserted.
He motioned to Jianna and slipped past the door without disturbing it. They stayed close to the walls as they crept for the staircase. Without warning, a horn blared close by, echoing in the stone chamber. An indoor balcony on the upper floor completely encased the entryway. Hooded figures filed onto it from multiple directions and leveled crossbows at the intruders. At the same time, men with swords emerged from hidden doorways throughout the lower chamber. Ladramain froze in his tracks and felt Jianna do the same just behind him. The steel rods weighed heavy in his hands, but he did not raise them.
A hooded figure strode forward and took their weapons. Then he ushered them at knife point into the center of the room. A man appeared at the top of the stairs and descended. His tan skin complemented his dark brown hair and dark eyes. He was similar in build to Ladramain but had the countenance of a lawmaker or merchant rather than a fighter. Instead of a cloak, he wore a ruby red robe that opened in the front, revealing a chain mail hauberk. He carried no weapons that Ladramain could distinguish. The man stopped at the halfway platform on the stairs and surveyed the couple, waiting.
“Well, Nicolan,” Ladramain said casually, “this is quite the reception for two lowly outlaws like ourselves.”
Nicolan smiled at the joke. “Anyone who thinks they can take on a band of thieves like the A’gulen with only two people is either crazy or very good. Which do you think you are?”
“Really, I could never choose between the two.”
Nicolan laughed aloud. “Looking at your current predicament, I might believe the former.”
“This is quite the protective measure.”
“I placed my men the moment I heard about your botched attempt at the docks. Knew you would come asking about the A’gulen’s whereabouts. It makes things easy. Almost any man will stop dead with a few dozen crossbows pointed at his chest.”
Ladramain scanned the balcony above him where the crossbowmen still stood. “Then why are we still alive? Seems easier to just kill us and be done with it.”
“Truthfully, I’m curious. I still don’t know who you are or why you are after the A’gulen. I hate not knowing things, one of my biggest flaws.”
“Well, I can’t help you there. I’m fond of my secrets, one of my biggest flaws.”
Nicolan stared at him for a long time. No one moved in the room. “I really should kill you, you know, for all the trouble you’ve caused me in the space of a mere two days.”
“So, what are you going to do instead?”
“I’m going to tell you what you want to know,” Nicolan paused, “if you agree to my one demand.”
“And if we don’t agree?”
Nicolan raised an eyebrow and opened his arms, seemingly embracing the men filling the chamber. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Jianna snorted, but Ladramain ignored her; she hated theatrics. “What’s the demand then?”
“I want you out of my city by the coming sunset, whether you are finished with your mission or not. You are an unknown in my games, and, like I said, I hate not knowing. Do you agree?”
Ladramain nodded. “We’ll be gone long before then.”
“Very well. The A’gulen always return to a very old part of the city. The houses are all crumbling under the wind and sun, and the spring no longer flows continuously; only beggars live there. It is in the northwest section of Shanti. You will find nothing beyond this section except desert. The A’gulen are spread out among the buildings there.”
Ladramain wanted to slap himself for being so stupid but didn’t, eyeing the crossbows still aimed at him. He should have thought to search there. “Is there anything else?”
“I have told you all you need to know to finish what you started. It is time you get on with it.”
The men blocking their exit parted for them to leave. Ladramain turned but thought of one more thing. “Why did the A’gulen attack that particular ship tonight? They didn’t even take anything.”
The Thief Lord considered the question. “Not that it really matters, but the A’gulen were paid to sink the ship. They were paid a large sum for it, actually; though, I do not know why.”
Ladramain dared to speak one last time. “Who paid them?”
Nicolan shrugged as he turned to ascend the stairs. “A nobody, really. His name is Murdock.” He disappeared at the top of the stairs, and the hooded figure who had taken their weapons returned them and ushered the couple outside.
The crumbling facades in front of them stood vacant, mere husks yawning wider to the sky with each passing span. Soon, the wind and sand would either conceal them or grind them away. Ladramain looked at the gray horizon. Dawn would soon find them, and the A’gulen would be gone. They had to weed the band out before it left Shanti. Jianna crept through the dark, crumbling building they had hidden in and peered out the window with him.
“Where do you think they are?” she asked quietly.
“Probably in a group close by the fountain square but out of sight. They will be arranging for all of their members to leave the city secretly but quickly.”
“Can you look and see how many there are?”
Ladramain grimaced in the dark. “No, I’ve tried a few times, but the magic isn’t showing me anything new to the events like it did last time. I just keep seeing Tavagne’s face with its stupid grin.”
“So we go in blind without time to prep. Nice.”
“The group won’t be large, not if they want to hide from patrols. We’ll need to separate them and take them down one at a time.”
“What if Tavagne gets away again?”
“He won’t,” Ladramain growled.
Jianna was silent for a moment. “You never told me that he has powers like yours.”
Ladramain turned from the window and sat with his back against the wall. “He doesn’t. At least, not exactly.”
“What do you mean?” she prodded, sitting beside him.
“My powers show me the future, the true future. Whatever I see in them happens and I can’t change that. But Tavagne… He sees things that might happen. It’s like he sees all the choices people might make and figures out how to alter the future to one that is desirable. And where I can see into the distant future of any specific chain of events, he can only glimpse choices, say, within the next one thousand heart-spans of his own life.” Jianna didn’t speak, and the silence weighed on him. “I don’t know if I can beat him. He’ll see me coming.”
“How do we even sneak up on someone like that? He will see every move we make before we make it.”
“There might be a way,” Ladramain hesitated, “He has a lot to think about right now. If we focus our goal on someone else, Istan for example, with the intent not to act until sometime after our arrival, we might be able to make this work.”
“I don’t know exactly how either of our powers works, to be honest. It could all come down to how distracted he is at the present moment.”
Jianna stood and dusted off her cloak. “Well, enough worrying. Let’s jump in and see if your half-brained plan works. We don’t have much time.”
Ladramain looked her in the eyes. “You don’t have to come with me.”
“Stop it, I already—
“I mean it,” he said, cutting her off. “It’s like you said; my visions don’t control our choices.”
“Then why are you still going?”
“Because I have to.”
“Well then, so do I.”
He stood and pulled her into a long kiss that lifted her off her feet. Finally, he set her back down and they broke apart. “Remember, we need to focus our goals on Istan and resolve not to act when we first find the group.”
“It won’t be a problem for me,” she said, looking at him pointedly.
He ignored the jibe and led the way out of their hiding place. It was only after they had left the relative safety of their hiding place that he realized Jianna had not been part of his final vision for the night’s events. Hopefully, that didn’t mean anything.
They did their best to remain in the darkest shadows as they moved along the abandoned streets. It didn’t take long for them to hear voices talking quietly. Jianna led them through a maze of dilapidated structures until they had a clear view of a group of fifteen men huddled around a fire. Desert nights got really cold sometimes; tonight was moderate, but the fire still looked welcoming to Ladramain.
A voice carried to them; Ladramain recognized it at once as Tavagne’s. “…patrols are getting closer, and I don’t think Nicolan will put up with us staying in the city much longer anyway. When dawn breaks, we need to be well out of the city.” Another man said something that Ladramain couldn’t hear. Tavagne answered him in annoyance. “We always knew that our stay in Shanti would be a short one. We’ve got what we need, so we are leaving. Nicolan is too powerful for us to take head on just yet. The funds from the ship tonight will give us the amount we need to set up more permanently somewhere else.”
Another unintelligible voice started speaking. Ladramain silently broke a chunk of crumbling stone from the wall he was crouching behind. He spotted Istan and decided that he would soon throw the rock at the man. Tavagne didn’t change his posture; he was still listening to the one speaking. Ladramain began counting down just like in the games he and Tavagne used to play. Tavagne reacted faster than Ladramain remembered.
“Stop,” Tavagne said forcefully. The group immediately fell silent. “Someone is coming that shouldn’t be here. Douse the fire and search the area. I want them alive.”
The fire went dark with a hiss. Gray vapor rose like a specter above the spot where the fire had just been. Dark figures dashed around the nearby buildings and disappeared in the darkness. Ladramain glanced at Jianna. She signaled, asking him if they should split up. He hesitated for a moment but then nodded. It was the best way, and she was one of the best fighter’s he’d ever seen. She would be okay. She had to be okay.
He ducked out of the crumbling building and squeezed the leather grips on his fighting rods, checking for any slippage, then made his way along the street. Earlier, all had been still, but now the wind had picked up, dampening the noises that would have alerted Ladramain to anyone moving nearby. He was just about to look around a corner when a head appeared there. Fortunately, the other man’s shock was greater than Ladramain’s own because a heavy rod connected with the head before it could raise an alarm. Ladramain checked around the corner but found no one else. The man he’d hit was out cold. The rods were dangerous and could kill under the right circumstances, but they could also just as easily disable. During his training, the rods had simulated swords, but now he had found a more valuable use for them.
Stepping over the unconscious form, he made to move on, but three men appeared farther down the street. They spotted him before he could hide. One of them whistled just before all three charged him. He brought the rods up as he broke into a run. This was his first real duel with multiple opponents. It was going to be fun.
As the man in the lead drew near, Ladramain crossed his arms over his chest and dropped to one knee. He brought his right arm back hard with the heavy rod and knocked his attacker’s blade to the side; the other rod swung to the left, taking out the man’s legs with a dull thud. He immediately brought the rods over his head, doubling them up and holding on the ends with both hands. The second man’s sword slammed down on the rods. I thought Tavagne said alive. The block gave Ladramain enough time to push the man’s sword away and jump to his feet.
The third man appeared on his left. He parried the incoming strike with a left sweep of a rod and, at the same time, brought the right one around to connect with the man’s head. One down. He blocked another blow from the second assailant and saw the first regain his feet, though a bit unsteadily.
Obviously wanting to wait for his friend, the second man stepped back instead of attacking, but Ladramain went on the offensive. He lunged forward as if to strike at the chest, which caused the man to lean back to avoid the blow, but spun at the last second. The spinning rods knocked the sword out of the other’s grasp. Ladramain followed with a knockout blow.
He turned in time to see the first attacker make a wild swipe at him. A swing of the left rod effectively blocked the strike while a swing with the right cracked the man’s ribs. The attacker dropped to the ground, gasping in pain. Ladramain turned in a circle, but no one else had showed up yet. He sprinted to the next street, looking for Tavagne, and ran straight into three more armed men.
He took the first by surprise with a double rod blow to the chest that sent the man sprawling. The other two were farther back and had time to build up some speed as they came at him. There was just enough time for him to spread his arms wide and bring the rods back across each other as the first man struck. The incoming sword shattered from the force of the opposing blows. His arms were now crossed, so he pulled the rods in opposite directions once again in time to slam the second man’s sword in a similar manner to the first. This sword didn’t shatter, instead it spun violently out of the man’s grip, breaking his wrist in the process. Ladramain ducked a punch from the first attacker and slammed a rod into his stomach and another across his face. The last man standing went down from a double rod sweep to his legs that shattered the bone.
Breathing heavily, Ladramain stumbled away from the men on the ground, but a familiar voice brought him up short. He turned as Tavagne spoke.
“You are much more violent than the last time I saw you.”
Tavagne looked a lot like Ladramain, the same build and black hair, but green eyes instead of gray. He stood there in the dissipating darkness looking at Ladramain with a sardonic smile plastered across his face.
“I have you to thank for that,” Ladramain almost spit the words at him; besides, the men’s wounds were nothing to a healer with decent magic.
“Come now, Loch, don’t talk to your only brother that way.”
“Don’t call me that,” Ladramain yelled, “you lost the right to call me that the night you killed them.”
Tavagne paled slightly. “Loch, I didn’t mean for that to happen. I promise. Nodan… he got a little carried away.”
“Don’t blame him. It was your fault. You brought your filthy friends into the house hoping to run off with everything our parents owned. The entire ledger with all the contracts and deeds. Your selfishness killed our parents.” Ladramain couldn’t get enough breath. He gasped and glared at his brother, the man who killed his parents.
“I’m sorry you feel that way brother, but what are you going to do now?”
“I won’t let you get away with another crime. You aren’t leaving this city.”
Tavagne laughed humorlessly. “How will you keep me from leaving? Do you think your pathetic power will save you. I can see every move you might make before you make it; you can only see pieces of a distant future.”
“I see the actual future, Tav. You only see maybes.”
Tavagne shook his head. “You never really understood it, did you? You never believed what was right in front of your face.”
“What?” Ladramain yelled.
“If the future that I see is changeable then so is the one you see. We are brothers after all.”
Tavagne drew a sword and waved for Ladramain to come forward. He complied, raising the rods as he did so. As he closed the gap, he tapped his magic, but this time he kept his eyes open and pushed himself to see both real time and the future. A second image cast a shadow over the scene before him. The shadow changed just before the present did. It was the future like he had never seen it before, a constant flow of images directly connected to each other.
He watched the shadow of his brother move moments before the real one did. Shadow Tavagne reacted to a blow that Ladramain had only briefly thought about making. Ladramain changed his mind heartbeats before the strike, but shadow Tavagne swapped to a new posture; real Tavagne followed, blocking the strike. Their weapons touched for barely a hundredth of a heart-span then spun flashing through the air again.
Each time Ladramain attempted to change his attacks closer to landing them, but Tavagne countered just as fast and followed with chaotic strikes of his own. They danced around one another, barely touching. Ladramain tried feigning one move just before another time after time with the same result. He even tried smashing Tavagne’s sword like he had done to the others in the hopes that the opposite swings would catch his brother off guard. Tavagne was never taken by surprise.
Ladramain slammed his will against the magic, pleading to see just a little farther, a little faster. Then it happened. Time ripped apart and he felt the future sword pierce his chest. It tore through his heart and parted his skin. The pain was unbearable, maddening. It brought him to his knees. Beyond the agony in his chest, he felt pain as something smashed into first his right hand then his left. He fell onto his back as the vision faded. Tavagne stood over him looking down in disgust.
“You’re weak, Loch. You let the future control you. That’s why you could never change the outcome, why I have beaten you.”
Ladramain raised his arms, but the rods were gone, knocked away during the all-consuming vision. He watched as his brother raised the sword and pointed it at his chest. Something was wrong in his mind. What Tavagne had said felt all wrong to him. Tavagne tensed as if to fell the blade, but Ladramain distracted him.
“No, Tavagne, I never believed the future controlled me.” His brother stopped, curious. “I just always knew that the events of time belonged to a much higher power than myself. It just took me until now to realize it.”
Tavagne stared at him, dumfounded, then he shook himself and looked around, terror materializing on his face.
“No!” he screamed.
He left Ladramain lying in the street and started to sprint along the street. Five body-spans away, Tavagne stopped, cursed, and ran in another direction. Men appeared between the crumbling buildings wielding swords. They forced Tavagne back. He dashed back to Ladramain and placed the tip of his blade against his brother’s neck. A hooded figure moved away from the ranks of armed men and walked towards them. From Ladramain’s position on the ground, he watched as the man drew near and halted.
“I’ve seen what you want to do to me,” Tavagne yelled. “But I also know you want my brother. Well, you won’t get him unless I go free.”
The man in the hood seemed to think for a moment then he raised his arms and lowered the cloth concealing his face. His black skin stood out even in the dim light. “You won’t win this battle. This is your only warning.” The voice struck Ladramain to his very soul, but Tavagne’s anger drowned it out.
“No, don’t! I’ll—
Tavagne cut off abruptly. Ladramain looked up at his brother and saw an image like he had never seen before. The stranger raised a hand and sent a jet of fire through the air. It hit Tavagne before he had time to react. The flames consumed the entire body, and Ladramain watched as his brother’s flaming outline seared itself into the air and vanished.
“Let your sins be consumed in Redoni’s cleansing fire.” The stranger spoke the verse with emotion that vibrated every syllable.
Suddenly, Ladramain found Jianna lifting his head and kissing him. “I couldn’t find you,” she sobbed, “I just kept running into more of them. What happened?”
Ladramain simply pointed at the stranger, who was watching them intently. “He saved me.”
Jianna looked critically at the man. “Who are you?”
The stranger smiled at them. “My name is Murdock, and I have a very important job for the both of you.”
Loch (a.k.a Ladramain) will return in Destiny Scrolls’ next prequel installment. In the meantime, make sure to check out book one: Destiny Scrolls: Path of the Warrior.
A special thanks goes to my wife and family for encouraging my writing obsession and beta reading my books, over and over again. Credit is also due to my friend, Robert Smith, for giving me the original ideas for Loch’s history, which is where my prequel stories are ultimately headed. Loch has an important role in the Arkeadion world that would not be revealed if not for these short story installments.
Thank you readers for enjoying my stories; there is so much more to come.
For more information about the author or the world of Destiny Scrolls, please visit:
An old betrayal, an indistinct future, and a lust for retribution… The desert city of Shanti holds many secrets, but Ladramain is only concerned with one of them: what are the A’gulen doing? The band of thieves is somewhere in the city, and he has finally tracked them down. All he has to do now is follow his visions of the future and get close enough to take them down. The only problem is his visions only let him view brief glimpses of what will happen. With the aid of his partner Jianna, Ladramain fights his way across the city searching for the men who threw his life into chaos. The future will guide him there, but his destiny may not be what he hopes. Destiny Scrolls: Retribution adds new depth to the expanding world of Arkeadion and explores some of the history leading up to the events of book one. This is a stand-alone story meant to be read before or after Path of the Warrior. Ladramain’s storyline will shed light on many of the small but important events of the Destiny Scrolls world. Check inside for information about getting book one, Destiny scrolls: Path of the Warrior, 50% off!