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The Council of Bone

The Council of Bone

Tyler Earp

 

Copyright 2016 Tyler Earp

Shakespir Edition

 

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

Material included from The Children Rising is subject to change.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Summary: Charley Ashe must become the very thing he hates the most- a hero. When his life is shattered by family secrets, will he have the courage to take his destiny head on? Or will he fall into darkness?

 

 

Acknowledgments

To my Uncle Chuck. He made it possible.

Secondly, to the friends who never doubted

I would make it this far. Because I sure did.

Thank You

 

Pronunciation

Names

 

Bamard- Bahm ▪ Ahrd

Bramly- Brohm ▪ LEE

Hiberon- HIGH ▪ ber ▪ rohn

Jaelyn- Jay ▪ lynn

Maxima- Max ▪ uh ▪ mah

Rafe- RAYF (Rhymes with “safe”)

Renwick- REHN ▪ wihk

 

Races

 

Barghest- BAHR ▪ guest

Cait- Kate

Salan- Sah ▪ lahn

Sidhe- SHEE (Pronounced like “she”)

Volen- Vohl ▪ EEN

 

Contents

Acknowledgments

Pronunciation

One: The Dog and His Boy

Two: Mere Coincidence

Three: Talking to Squirrels

Four: Something Fishy

Five: A Dark Shadow

Six: A Heated Conversation

Seven: The Road to Undermire

Eight: The Value of a Soul

Nine: Right, Wrong, and Donkey Farts

Ten: The Brotherhood

Eleven: Speaking of Power

Twelve: Harsh Lessons

Thirteen: The Seven Paths

Fourteen: The Tests

Fifteen: Heroic Acts

Sixteen: Villainous Intent

Seventeen: A Trade

Eighteen: A Biting Flame

Nineteen: The Forgotten Ones

Twenty: Rock and a Hard Place

Twenty-One: The Awakening

Twenty-Two: A Hero Falls

Twenty-Three: Fall Into Darkness

 

Book Two

One: Look-A-Like

About the Author

Connect with Me

The Dog and His Boy

“One is always on the edge of heroism or villainy. It is just a matter of which way you leap.”

- Dramitus Fithen

 

Charley Ashe didn’t like heroes.

In fact, he hated them. He hated that they always won in the end. They always got the girl and saved the planet from being taken over by alien overlords. He sighed as he put down the latest edition of Tales of Another Hero. And yet, Abe has me hooked.

Charley looked around and saw that he was the only one in the store. A splatter of water fell onto the cover. He shook his hair out, sending a cascade of droplets everywhere. His mostly wet hair framing his face in long bronzed curls in their dampness even after drying it in the hot sun.

At the end of the school day, someone had pulled it, sending the students fleeing from the building like water- logged rats, covering themselves with their bags.

Because it was the last day of school, and the principal hadn’t been able to nail the culprit, they had been released early. I guess something good came out of it.

The man behind the counter leaned forward onto his arms and growled, “Watch where you’re getting that! If you ruin them, you’ll pay for them. And if you’re going to read them, you better buy one. This is a store, not a library.”

“Sorry.” Charley plunged his hands into his pockets and was able to dig up enough together to pay for the comic, leaving him with a whole seventeen cents. Not nearly enough for the bus fare.

Guess I get to walk… great. He shouldered his bag and started down the street.

With the sun beating down on his shoulders he made it to the park beside the three-story apartment that Charley called home.

He’d always loved that park. A little pond sat at the center, surrounded by a collection of swings and play equipment. Bushes lined the sidewalk as sentries. But in the summer heat, the plants and grass were all wilted.

Charley stopped when he heard a crack, sharp like a firecracker. He whipped around and saw something sitting beneath a clump of bushes.

Kneeling down, he saw a large black dog. It stared back at him with human eyes that seemed to look through him. Open scratches ran across its nose. It jumped to its feet and then moved from under the bush and slowly advanced on him.

“Good dog,” Charley said, taking a slow step back. It curled its upper lip and growled deep inside its throat.

Oh great…

Charley backed away, trying to keep his distance. “Good dog,” he said again.

The dog lunged. Charley whirled around and sprinted toward the safety of his apartment complex. His jeans flapped against the pavement, nearly tripping him up. Growling sounded from behind him. An instant later, large paws pushed him down with the force of sledgehammers, smashing him to the cement.

He attempted to push it off, but couldn’t move its large bulk. Its mouth opened to show a row of large yellowed teeth. A deep light flickered in the dog’s eyes and a jolt spread from the center of Charley into his fingertips.

Charley felt a sudden intense feeling of happiness as the tingling reached his hands before fading away. Whimpering, the dog leaped off of Charley and galloped down the street. Charley lay there, huffing, for a second.

Picking himself up, Charley felt a sharp pain in his stomach. He looked down and saw the large tear the dog had left in his shirt, and forgot all about the odd moment on the ground.

 

Pushing open the front door to his apartment, Charley didn’t see anyone. Ninja mode: activated. He raised himself up on tip-toes to move without sound, but, of course, made more noise in the process.

Charley walked around the corner to the kitchen and saw his mom had her back turned, slicing up bananas and putting them into a blender.

Trying to be as quiet as he could, he made for the hallway to his room. He made it to the entrance of the hallway when he heard a sound from behind him. “Hem.”

Charley froze. Crud…

“Hi, Mom.” He turned to see her holding her hands on her hips, one hand still holding the knife, nostrils flaring, looking very much the casual furious overlord– or was that overlady?

“What happened to you, Charley?” She asked in a near whisper, appraising his disheveled appearance. “Was it another fight? It was Victor again, wasn’t it? How many times do I have to tell you to stay away from him? What have I told you about violence?”

“No, I swear, it wasn’t a fight. I got jumped by a dog,” Charley said as he pulled up his shirt, grimacing in the act, to show her the large bruise on his ribs. Not like she’ll even believe me. I almost don’t believe me…

“Don’t make up stories. Wait until I tell your father,” she said. Charley let out an audible sigh. She pulled down a first aid kit from a cabinet and retrieved the gauze and disinfectant spray. “This is the last straw.”

“Mom, I swear, it wasn’t Victor. It really was a big black dog. I’ve never seen one like it. It had scars all over its nose, and it even looked like it was still bleeding. I’ve never seen eyes like that. They almost looked… human.”

His mother froze, her hands inches from his side with the spray in hand. She looked up at him, a new urgency in her voice, and asked, “Are you telling me the truth? How big was it, Charley?”

He looked back at her, surprised at her sudden change in attitude. “Really big. Bigger than Mrs. Brzezinski’s Great Dane. Easy. Why?”

“Almost like a large black wolf?” She asked, ignoring his question. She continued to attempt wrapping his waist, though she did almost mechanically. He didn’t even try to fight back. He’d gone down that road enough times.

“Yeah, it did. How do you know that?” Charley asked her.

At that moment, the front door opened and his mother flinched at the sound of the squeaking. His father had promised for months now that he would oil the hinges as the landlord and his assistants never seemed to be around to do it themselves.

He walked into the kitchen, toting a large sack. Hefting the bag in front of him for them to see, he said, “You’ll never believe it. I found this fresh produce place that has the best tomatoes.” He smiled at the two of them and placed the sack on the counter before turning back to them.

“What happened?” he asked, unsure of the situation, tensing as he sensed the mood.

His mother responded before Charley could. “Charley was attacked by a dog,” she said, shooting messages to him with her eyes that plainly said, ‘we need to talk.’ Charley rolled his eyes. Parents think they’re so sneaky. “Seriously, what’s going on?”

His mom avoided looking at him. “Nothing, Charley. I’m just worried that there is a dog like that. I’ve been hearing about something similar on the news lately.”

She turned back to Charley and finished wrapping him with unnecessary gauze. As she finished, there was a knock on the door, and both his mother and father froze to the spot. Charley looked at both of them, narrowing his eyes at them, before going to answer it. What’s wrong with them? It’s like they’ve seen a ghost, or something.

Behind him, his parents had followed him to the door. They stopped at the couch and his dad gripped the arm of it. Charley pulled open the door and caught a flash of long red hair before he was pulled into a hug. “Ouch! My side! Stop squeezing so much, Nina,” he said as he pulled her from him.

“Oh, Charley, did I hurt you? I’m sorry,” she said, anxiety in her eyes.

She stepped back and Charley saw his cousins Riley and Aberthol, whom everyone called Abe, were behind her.

Both of them were making faces. Abe looked bored while Riley also appeared concerned.. “So was it you?” Abe asked. “Did you pull the alarm?”

Charley shook his head at Abe. “Are you crazy!” He turned his gaze back to Nina. “No, you didn’t hurt me. It’s just my side… Well, come in,” he said, smiling at them.

“Actually, we were hoping that you would come with us to the tree fort,” Riley muttered.

Even though all four of them were teenagers, they still loved sitting in the old tree fort in the park next to his house for hours. Even when it was hot, they would sit up there all day, his mom bringing them snacks. Though it was old and creaky in places, it was sound and smelled like baked chestnuts in the summer.

He turned to his parents and saw the relief on their faces.

“Can I? I’ll make sure I’m careful climbing.”

Charley saw his mom was close to saying no. Please, please, please, Charley thought to himself. Mostly because he wanted to share the news with the others while keeping his parents out of earshot.

She folded when she looked at his dad, who nodded. “I suppose if it’s only for a little while. I want you back inside before it’s dark.

“You should also change shirts first,” she continued. “That one is filthy, and it has a rip now. And if you see that dog again, I want all of you to come in right away. I’m calling the pound so they can have someone out looking for it.”

The other three looked at Charley, noticing the dog odor and dirty smudges on both his shirt and pants. Abe mouthed ‘dog?’ at him. He shook his head and motioned with his hands towards the door. The three of them walked to the door while he went to his room to change.

When got to his room Charley knew what he had to do. He hadn’t done it in years, but he knew that if he knelt by the air ducts he could listen to what was being said in almost every room.

Charley always felt a little guilty about it, but he knew his parents would never tell him something when they didn’t want him to know.

His parents spoke and he almost didn’t catch what was being said. “…going to make it,” his father said.

“I just can’t believe they sent a Barghest to scout out Charley. Do you think it was Rafe?”

There was silence for a few moments and then his father’s deep drone sounded out. “You know what they want. They want Charley. We knew this day would come, Shyla. It might be time that we start considering listening. Charley is old enough now.”

His mom gasped. “But, what about Charley? He’s only thirteen! He doesn’t know anything about who he is. Who we are.”

“Maybe it’s time he knew. He’s old enough to make that decision. Soon we won’t have a choice at all. It was always his destiny to go back. We knew it was going to happen eventually.”

Their voices started to fade, and then he heard nothing.

 

“What’s a Barghest?” Riley asked. “Is it that dog that attacked you? And who would be after you, Charley?”

After changing his shirt, he had rushed from the house, wincing occasionally. Climbing the ladder to the tree house also hadn’t made his top fifty things to do, but he almost hadn’t noticed the pain over his excitement to tell the others the news. He knew they would never forgive him if he didn’t share it with them.

“I don’t know. But my parents are hiding something big, and I want to know what it is.”

A look came into Riley’s eyes. He usually wasn’t one to take the lead. But anytime it came to a mystery, he was the first one on the case.. “Then we need to find some answers… and the best place for that is-”

“At the library,” the other three sang in perfect harmony.

Riley looked at them, his eyes widening. Abe rolled his eyes. “You would live at the library if you could.”

“Why can’t we just use your computer, Charley?” Nina asked.

Charley shook his head. “Bad idea. My parents are super-paranoid about computer usage. They watch everything.”

She sighed. “The library it is then.”

  • * *

 

Rafe didn’t like lookout details.

In fact, he hated them. His was a noble blood that deserved better than to sit in wait for a kid. Even if that kid can change everything, he thought to himself begrudgingly. I’m not a babysitter, after all.

Rafe had been sitting in that park for what had felt like hours. He’d wanted so desperately to move. To do… something other than sit in that same spot. But what his master commanded, he must obey. So he sat– and waited.

He looked up at the sun to see the passage of time and noticed that the sun was now dropping down toward the horizon though it wouldn’t be dusk for hours still. That was when he heard the crunch of the dry gravel laid out on the pathway. Showtime.

He lowered his head and peeked toward the sound and recognized the boy as his target. He’s barely large enough to be a snack. Oh, well. He’d learned long before then that looks could be deceiving, especially where he was from. He blinked, and when he reopened them, he saw not the boy anymore, but an indistinct nimbus of color.

At first, he noticed almost none of the colors he would expect. No reds or blues from the heat and exhaustion or even golds and silvers to mark his mental state. Just a blank gray that disturbed Rafe. As he looked at him closer, leaning in a little, he saw that all the everyday colors were blocking what he was looking for.

Not realizing that he had been noticed, he blinked once more and saw the boy was looking at him. He told himself what he did next was to test the boy’s strength and speed, but was really just out of boredom. Running at full tilt, he jumped at the retreating boy and bared him to the ground.

He knew his master would forgive him for the small indiscretion– he hoped. It wasn’t like the boy would realize what he really was.

Not yet at least.

  • * *

 

A gnarled hand appeared from the left side of the chair and motioned for him to approach. “Come here, Rafe. Give your report. None of that growling and barking. Take your human form. Barghest hurts my head, what with all those pitches and body language,” an airy voice whispered, so thin a gentle breeze might have masked it.

The first pop is always the worst, he reminded himself. He’d always hated the change, but he knew it was a vital part of proving his humanity remained intact.

With a grinding wave of pain, he felt his lupine bones being manipulated. A feeling of spiders crawling over every part of his body and finally ended with him standing straight.

Most of the fur was gone, but the hair on the top of his head was still rather matted, and no less black. The scars remained as an eternal reminder to his dishonor.

Thankfully, the transformation allowed for clothes to remain intact, as otherwise it could have gotten very awkward.

He stopped directly behind the chair. Seeing the true form of his master once had been more than enough for even him. “Master, your information was correct. Though I can hardly believe that he will become what you say he must. That puny thing would be overcome by a common boggart, let alone a real warrior.”

“You think so, do you? What else did you perceive of the boy?” The voice echoed through his head with a hint of amusement.

“He isn’t much himself, but the potential is there. I do have to admit, you don’t find many of The Children that have auras that powerful in this age.

“In fact, he could possibly be the strongest Child in several generations, but he knows nothing of our world. It’s plain his parents have never told him anything about his heritage..”

For a few moments, there was a silence from the other side of the chair. “I am aware of his ignorance. It was for his own safety… And you say that his aura could already be considered strong? Hmm… Perhaps the parents… maybe… Thank you, Rafe. You have given me much to consider. I have another assignment for you.”

Rafe sighed, knowing what was coming. “Yes?”

“Watch the boy. Make sure the wrong… influences don’t get their claws into him until he is ready. He must be ready for what is to come, both here in this world, and in ours… Oh, and make sure you don’t scare him again like that. Your human form only, please.”

 

Mere Coincidence?

“What is happenstance but another moment in which the impossibly extraordinary appears?”

- Prophet of the Sand

 

The next day, on the way to the library, Charley felt like someone was watching him, almost like a sixth sense. Charley looked and saw a young man sitting in a coffee shop across the street. His long black hair fell in waves onto his bronzed skin perfect, except the deep scars that marked his face and neck.

He almost looked familiar to him, but Charley knew he had never seen the man before. For a second, he could have sworn the man was watching him pass, but he shook the thought from his head.

Turning the corner, he saw the large brownstone library. Charley and the others rushed for the entrance, knowing that cool relief was just within their grasp. They were brought to a stop as three figures stepped in their path.

Standing at the front was the smallest boy. His black hair contrasting as sharply as a knife with his zombie-white skin. The other two were nearly as tall as Riley, and probably a few years older, but were probably twenty pounds heavier in the muscles area, and about sixty IQ points lower.

“Well, well. Summer break started today, and look who’s already going to the library. Bunch of nerds, aren’t they” the smaller boy said to the two others.

Abe stepped forward. “Just leave us alone, Victor. Don’t you have some puppies to torture?”

Charley stepped forward and put his hand on Abe’s shoulder. “Let’s go. He’s not worth it.”

“Not worth it? You guys should be bowing down to me after yesterday. I got everyone out of school forty minutes early– Well, it was my plan anyways,” Victor said.

Nina’s face went nearly as red as her hair. “You’re the one who ruined my hair?”’‘

Victor smirked. “You mean it can get worse than that?” This time, it was Nina that Charley had to hold back from windmilling into Victor.

At that moment, Charley heard a raspy voice with a hint of an Irish accent from behind him. “Is there a problem here?”

Charley looked over his shoulder, still holding tightly onto Nina as he did so. The same man from the coffee shop was standing beside Riley. Even as tall as Riley was, the man still stood nearly six inches taller. With a coffee in one hand, he stood waiting. Even with his suburban clothing, Charley could tell there was something dangerous about him. Something just beneath the surface that told Charley he shouldn’t make this man mad.

“No, sir. I just had to defend myself from her. She was trying to take out my eye,” Victor said in his nasally voice.

The man smirked. “Well, I dare say you deserve to have your eye taken out if you can’t handle a girl,” the man said sarcastically.

Charley turned to see Victor had gone a bright red that didn’t match well with his pale skin. “Let’s go. We’ve got better things to do,” he said to his two goons before reversing down the street.

“Thanks for the help,” Charley said as he turned back to the man.

The man waved him off. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen his kind before.” He looked down at his watch. “Well, I must take my leave. Have a good day Charley,” he said as he sped past them.

Charley shook his head, not able to remember if he had told the man his name. I must have…

They continued on to the library, Victor forgotten soon after entering the refreshingly cool library. Abe looked at Riley, who was staring reverently at the books, and just rolled his eyes. Charley could have sworn he heard him mutter, “Nerd.”

Charley always found it funny when Abe would try to taunt Riley. Sure, Riley and Abe were paternal twins, and sure, they had different personalities and tastes. Though Abe appeared to look like the one that would make the better nerd with his small build, he was the one that was athletic. Riley, on the other hand, even with his large size, tended to side with the intellects. Even though they were so different from each other they were still extremely close.

Riley smiled at Abe and started walking forward again. They had all stopped when Riley had, as he was the one that really knew his way around the library.

Humming to himself, Riley started running his fingers along the spines horizontally as he passed them, causing him to slow down almost to a stop. “Riley, we’re here to help Charley, remember?” Nina whispered at him vehemently.

Riley turned to them sheepish, and a small smile appeared on his face. “Sorry, I forgot.”

Charley smiled back. “It’s fine, I like books too.”

Nina laughed. “Yeah, comic books.”

“They’re books,” Charley said, defending himself.

They made it to the librarian’s desk without any further stops along the way. They stepped into line with a few people ahead of them. Charley turned to Riley. “Do you think they’re going to have anything?”

“I don’t know. They have a lot of books, they might.” Soon, the line diminished until there was only one more person in front of them. By this time, Abe was tapping his foot as fast as a rabbit in impatience, even though they had only been waiting five minutes.

“Okay, I’ll take the next one here,” an older women said, motioning for Charley to come up. “And how can I help you, dearie?”

“Well, I’m not sure. I was wondering if I could use one of the computers to look something up.”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry honey, all of the public computers are down for maintenance. Maybe if you tell me what you’re looking for I can help you, though.”

“That's the thing. I only have a word- Barghest- and I have no idea what that is.” He gave her a guilty look and shrugged.

“I’ve never even heard of anything like that.” She looked to her fellow librarian. “Hey, Marge, have you ever heard of something called a…” she turned back to Charley. “What was it again, dearie?”

“A Barghest,” he repeated.

They looked at each other and then the one called Marge answered. “No, can’t say that I’ve ever heard of something like that. Do you want me to do a search on the computer? All I’ll need is how it’s spelled.”

Charley looked at them with embarrassment. “Uh… actually, I don’t know how to spell it, sorry.”

The two librarians looked at him and Marge replied. “If we don’t know what we are looking for, or how to even spell it, we can’t really do much for you.”

They left the library defeated. Even though they had spent an hour looking in all the wildlife sections to see if they could find anything, nothing appeared. All they found was a book on timber wolves and their habitats, and also a book on large dogs and their characteristics.

Both proved to be useless, as there was nothing in there that even resembled the thing that Charley had seen. The wolves looked similar, but even they weren’t large enough.

On the way home Charley felt deflated. It was getting even hotter now, and the clouds were gone. Charley felt the sun pelting his shoulders and he knew he was going to burn into a crisp.

Riley turned to Charley. “I’m sorry we didn’t find anything. I know I wasn’t much help… Sorry,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

“Don’t sweat it. We’ll figure out something,” Charley said, trying to put on a happy face for them.

They kept walking, as this was certainly no day to be out walking, especially with the building humidity. Charley saw that Nina was visibly panting, though she would smile and shake her head anytime one of them asked her if she wanted to stop and take a rest.

Finally, Charley gave up. “Okay, that’s it, you’re doing worse than I am. You need to sit down.” Seeing a nearby bookstore, he pulled her by the arm into the building.

He heard a tinkling above his head and then behind him as Abe and Riley followed them into the store. He deposited her in one of the chairs around a short coffee table.

The entire time she glared at him. He felt her glare follow him like the Grim Reaper over his shoulder as he walked over to the service bar and rang the bell.

They heard thumping coming from the back of the room and they all turned as an older man, came around the corner of a bookshelf. His eyes widened at seeing them.

His eyes landed on Nina and lit up with understanding. “Young lady, would you like a drink?”

Nina nodded instead of speaking. The man walked behind the counter and bent down. He soon returned with a bottle of water and handed it to her. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Renwick Mordecai, bookstore owner, and procurer of rare artifacts… among other things.”

Charley pointed to the four of them in turn, “Nina, Riley, Abe and me, Charley.”

“A pleasure. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you look like someone who could use some much-needed knowledge.”

Charley was confused for a moment but then responded, “Oh… yeah… but I don’t know if you would even be able to help, sorry.”

The man looked at him with a glint in his eye. “If I do not have anything on the topic, I’ll give you the store to keep.”

Charley grinned at his joke and replied, “Okay then, do you have anything on what a Barghest is? I don’t know how to spell it, and I also don’t know anything else about it.”

He laughed. “Well, I think I have both good and bad news for you: One, you do not get a store; and two, I think I have just what you are looking for. Wait here.”

He walked behind his counter and returned with a large leather-bound book. At seeing everyone’s reaction he laughed and said, “Don’t worry, this isn’t the book. This is my catalog. I don’t have a good memory, so I use to this to remember where I put everything.”

As he said this, he thumbed through the pages, occasionally running his forefinger across a line on a page, but shook his head, and then moving on. Finally, “Aha, of course. I should have known,” he said, and then slapped his forehead. “It’s upstairs with the more valuable books. Wait here.”

He was gone for what seemed an hour to Charley. Abe took it worse, though. When Abe rose to pace, Charley looked at the clock mounted on the wall behind the counter and saw that only fifteen minutes had gone by.

Abe spoke up. “I wonder when he’ll find it. All I hear is him making a huge racket.” Charley agreed but didn’t say anything. Riley looked at him with annoyance. “Come on, he did look kind of frail… Maybe we should have gone with him.”

Nina shook her head. “No, we probably would have gotten in his way. I mean, he did say he had valuable books up there,” she turned her head toward the back of the shop. “Anyways, I think I hear him coming.”

Sure enough, Charley could hear him coming back down the stairs. Clunk. Thump. Clunk. Thump. All the way to the bottom of the stairs, and, in hand, he held a thin volume in his hand.

“Come here, I’ll show you where it is,” he motioned for all of them to come to him as he set it under a lamp at a reading table. “Right there,” he said, pointing to a portion of the text and then pushing it over to Charley.

Charley read aloud, “Barghest: one of the oldest beings in Irish and Welsh mythology. Related to the Wild Hunt of the Tuatha. In mythology, they were known for their wolf-like appearance and overly large size, along with claws and teeth to rival that of any large cat. Their only natural enemy was supposedly man itself, who thought sighting one was a death omen. Also known as ‘the Grim.’”

Charley looked at the others in confusion. They looked back at him with matching looks, though Riley appeared preoccupied. To Charley, it looked like he was giving real consideration to the idea.

Renwick looked at them out of the corner of his eye. “Well, I have obviously given all four of you some confusing news. Maybe not what you were looking for, after all?” He turned and walked to the counter where he pulled a sleeve of cookies down from a shelf and returned to the four of them.

“Charley, I hope you found what you were looking for.”

“I think so, but I’m not sure.”

Renwick looked at him with a frown. “I’m sorry that I can’t be of more help. I usually have more information on things, but some mythologies are more obscure than others. Unfortunately, Welsh mythology is one of those. I suppose I could ask some of my colleagues if they have anything,” he said, looking at Charley, leaving the question unspoken.

Charley shook his head. “No, that’s all right. I don’t think that I need anymore information. Thanks for the cookies and the water. How much?” he asked, reaching for his pocket. His parents had given him cash that morning in case he got anything to eat.

Renwick held up his hand in a stop motion. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not often that I find those as young as you that are interested in that kind of information, let alone four of you. It’s my honor to treat young scholars,” he said with a wink and a broad smile.

“Are you su-”

Abe cut him off. “He said it was his honor.”

“Charley was just being polite,” Nina said as she bumped him with her elbow.

  • * *

 

As they were walking back to their homes Riley and Abe broke off, as they didn’t actually live in the condos that Charley and Nina did. They decided that they would meet in a few days after Abe told them, “We won’t be able to hang out this weekend. Our parents are taking us fishing for Memorial weekend.” They waved and walked back down the road, splitting off to their building.

As they walked, Charley turned his head to Nina. “What do you think this means? This whole thing with the Barghest, and my parents knowing something?”

She looked back at him. “What I want to know is how we ended up in the very store that just happened to have the book that you would need… It’s weird that I ended up getting tired. I mean, I was in track this year.”

Charley frowned. “That is weird. I didn’t even think about it.”

“Yeah, you were just trying to be heroic. Don’t do that again,” she said and then punched him in the arm.

“Ow! What was that for?”

She looked at him with an iciness that chilled him, even in the blazing heat. “I don’t need someone to save me. Don’t follow me.”

Charley stood there gaping as she climbed up the ladder to the tree fort above. Charley shook his head, walked toward the building. All he could do was shake his head. I just don’t understand girls…

He shook his head once more and walked into his living room. His parents were both sitting on the couch and followed him with their eyes as he plopped down in a chair. His mother broke the silence. “How was the library, Charley?” she asked, trying to be as casual as possible.

“It was all right.”

“Did you see anything… strange on the way to the library?” she urged.

At this, Charley started to understand. “No, we didn’t see the B… dog. It was really hot though.” Charley watched their faces and noticed signs of relief.

“That’s good. I gave a call to the pound. They said they would keep an eye out for a large black dog, especially when I told them that it attacked you,” his father announced.

His mother looked at him. “What do you want for dinner? We thought we would go out. You could bring Nina.”

“Nina’s mad at me right now.”

His mom looked at him with intent. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. The heat got to her, but she wouldn’t stop to rest. I made her, but then she got mad and said that she didn’t need someone to save her. It’s just weird!”

His mother smiled knowingly. “Oh, I think I understand. Charley, she wants you to see her as strong.”

Charley looked at his father, who just shrugged. “But she is strong.”

His mother sighed. “Don’t worry about it, Charley. You’ll understand eventually,” she said as she got up and walked into the hallway.

His father shook his head. “She’s been saying I’ll understand those kinds of thing eventually to me as well– But you know what? I still don’t have a clue most of the time,” he said with a chuckle.

On a whim, Charley concentrated on his dad and thought to him, Tell me what’s going on.

His dad turned back to him, a glazed look on his eyes. For a moment, Charley thought it had worked, but then his dad froze and something snapped and rushed back into Charley. “Come on, Charley. Let’s go get some food,” he said with a cautious glance at Charley.

Charley instantly got a throbbing headache and had to rush to the medicine cabinet for Aspirin. Too weird…

 

Three

Talking to Squirrels

“The unexpected happens all around us. All you must do is look.”

- Unknown Swordsman

 

Six weeks earlier…

 

Bored. That was the word that came to Castor’s mind as he sat on his iron throne. He didn’t know how his father had managed these people and their constant need to harass him about tiny matters.

“Why should I care that his goat was killed?” he had asked his aging father once. He still didn’t understand the answer he had been given. His father had always been one for giving what seemed to be pointless answers to him.

You shouldn’t care that the goat was killed. The goat was going to die even if that death wasn’t by killing it. You should care about the act.

Why was the goat killed? What was the value of killing it? Those are the questions that you should ask yourself,” was the answer that his father had given him. Castor huffed. Completely useless.

The reason he still sat on the throne every day to see these peasants was due to his father forcing it on him. He sat on that throne and listened to what the farmers had to say, and he either had the offender pay the repairs or he dismissed the offense depending on the situation.

And Castor hated every moment of it. He had big plans to change his boring life. Castor was a young man, still barely more than a boy in the eyes of many of the servants, he knew.

Most of them still saw him as the little boy that had stolen the plate of sweet rolls meant for a visiting Kind and then handed them out to peasants, rather than the hardened warrior he become in the last decade. Castor felt he was constantly undermined by their indirect disobedience.

A man wearing a rather colorful tunic approached him. He bowed to Castor, the mockery clear in his action. “My Lord, Castor, the next one is waiting. Should I allow him in, or do I send him away for the evening?”

Castor rubbed his temples with his first three fingers and thumb. He lowered his hand. “Have him approach, Samuel. He has come this far, why disappoint him now?”

Forcing his bloodshot eyes to focus on the approaching figure and noticed some things: the man was tall, though not nearly as tall as himself. He wore clothes that would have put even Samuel, his major-domo, to shame.

The man’s blood-red tunic and dusk colored cape appeared to almost shimmer in the light from the painted windows. His walk could be described as a shuffle. One leg pulling in front of the next one, as he had three, pull in front of the next one. The man then bowed until his greasy hair almost swept the ground.

His voice was nasally and scrapped on Castor’s ears as he spoke. “Lord Castor, I was once an adviser to your grandfather. As you know, your father, and his father before him, are the reasons that Granhold has grown so strong. I flatter myself in saying that parts of this success came from my humble advice given to them,” he said, and then bowed again, this time his hair did touch the stone ground.

Castor looked at him, rubbing his chin. It was true, his father had kept a secret adviser that he would consult on matters of importance. His father had always seemed different during those times, abandoning his cool, level-headed behavior. He would go into fits of rage and smash everything near him after meeting with that secretive man.

Afterward, the country would begin to flourish as it never had before, though at the expense of the poor, slaves and indentured. He decided to test him. His father had once told him the name of the man who had been his secret adviser, and he intended to find out if this was that man.

“Adviser, what is your name? I will need something to call you by when I need you.”

The man bowed once more, but now there was a smile on his face. One that appeared almost victorious. “My name, Lord Castor, is one that is so old that even I find it hard to remember. I will tell you the same that I told your father. I am Darnel to some, and the Creep to all.”

  • * *

 

Jaelyn broke through the brush in front of her with a final shove, sweat dripping down her face and blood beading on her arms from the thorns. If it weren’t for the Sidhe blood, the poison from the thorns would have incapacitated me hours ago.

She had a cutlass at her side but she knew that worse things waited for her than just the thorns and creeping vines. Things even her Sidhe blood would do little to help her with, let alone be profitable in a fight. Some beings even purposefully preyed upon her kind, she knew. To draw a weapon unprovoked here was tantamount to declaring war.

As she stepped over a log, her bootlace snagged on a branch and she tumbled to the ground. “Just great,” she cursed. All the chirping and croaks were silenced in an instance. It was her silence that guaranteed her survival here in the Garbed Forest, named for the bright mosses and creeping vines that seemed to clothe the carnivorous trees.

The chirping resumed and Jaelyn let out a small sound of relief.

She looked around and saw a squirrel sitting on a stump looking at her. “One would think a Sidhe would be better at maintaining their silence here,” a rather masculine voice said with a chuckle.

She blinked, but she had seen weirder things. A talking squirrel, Jaelyn thought to herself, trying to take it in stride and just nodded at the squirrel. I’m really talking to a squirrel.

That was when she could have sworn she saw a smile cross its buck-teethed mouth. “You may talk, girl. Most would not dare attack me, and nothing that lives in this forest would. I am more than I appear to be.”

“Thank you. Umm– Who exactly are you?”

“What is more important is who you are, Jaelyn. I am just the one who saved you from that Cait.”

“Oh,” she said, frozen in fear. All she could see was the giant, lithe cat that she had been in pictures her father had shown her when she was younger. The giant black spots and golden fur that covered its flanks.

“Oh is right. You wouldn’t be the first young adventuress that died that way. The Cait has had many an unlucky adventuress for lunch. But, luckily for you, I have a task for you, and your death would be very counter-productive to my plans.”

“But, I have a quest already. I can’t just abandon it like that.”

“I thought you might say that. I really must insist in this case. And what I am suggesting would make for a much better Galgain.”

“Why should I listen to you?” Jaelyn asked, blushing with anger at his words.

“First, even though you are not fully Sidhe, the blood still runs in your veins and you are bound to the Edicts of Honor. I do believe that I saved you. Second, this is much more important that searching for that sword. You are not ready for it, nor is the world.”

“More important? What could be more important than finding that sword?”

“Not what– who.”

She rolled her eyes at the squirrel. “Who, then?” “The Child of Fire.”

Her eyes widened and her mouth gaped like a fish. “Wha– what? How? I thought they were all killed.”

The squirrel twittered, and Jaelyn could only compare it to a laugh. “Well, his plan to kill The Children rather worked against Him. As all that live here in Undermire know, this is just one of three connected worlds. Since it is nearly impossible for humans to cross the Veil, The Children or not, He didn’t think that it would be worth the trouble of going there himself.”

“And what do you want me to do about this?”

“The Child of Fire will arrive in Talas in one week’s time. He will travel from Earth. I want you to be there to help him. Events are being put into motion. Entities that have not stirred in nearly a millennium are waking again, and it is all centered on this one boy. He is the spark that will light the fire. Some will try to help him, others will try to stop him. I just hope that I can be in time,” without a further moment’s notice, the squirrel was scampering off through the woods and then disappeared out of sight within seconds.

 

Something Fishy

“Even after twenty years, I still have the smell in my skin.”

- Fisherman Tom Rickety

 

Riley and Abe returned from their fishing trip that next Tuesday. They came back with wind burnt faces and every inch of them smelling like fish guts, which Charley was quick to tell them.

The day after they returned, they came to his building and threw rocks at his window until he open the window and was almost hit in the face by the last rock.

Abe pointed at the tree fort and then at themselves and then at him. Charley shot them the thumbs up and they turned to climb the ladder

He decided that he would try one last time to get Nina to talk to him. Pulling on his socks and shoes, he then went into the living room. His mother was sitting on the couch as Charley entered. “Where are you going?”

“Just to the tree fort. Riley and Abe are there.”

She sighed. “Don’t tell me they were throwing pebbles again. Wait, I don’t want to know– because if I do know, they’re dead. Well, are you taking Nina? She might like to see them too.”

“That’s what I was just going to ask.” She nodded. “Good. Be safe.”

He looked at her and cocked his head to the side. “We’re just going to the tree fort.”

“Just saying, Charley. Be safe.”

He shook his head and walked out of the condo to the door across from his own and knocked. No one answered, so Charley decided to knock again.

Nina’s mother opened the door. “Hello, Charley. I’m afraid it’s still the same. She won’t see you.”

Charley shook his head. “Will you tell her that Abe and Riley are in the tree fort? We have something to talk about.” She looked at him for a minute before answering, “Sure, I’ll tell her. No guarantees, though, okay?”

 

“Okay,” he replied. He walked toward the steps as Nina’s mother closed the door.

His foot was just touching the first step when he heard a series of thuds and then the creak of the door opening. He turned and saw a rumpled Nina, with hair flying in every direction, walking toward him with a brush in hand.

“Not a word, Ashe. Not one,” she said as soon as he had opened his mouth to comment. He shut it just as quickly. Realizing he was still in the dog house, he changed tactic and started back down the stairs. Though he did grin as he turned his back to her.

 

After several days of healing, he had no problem climbing the ladder. In fact, Charley felt that it was almost easier today than it was most days. No point in looking a gift horse in the mouth.

As soon as he climbed the last rung and had nodded to Riley and Abe he asked, “So, how was fishing?”

Nina came in behind him and plopped down in a chair and looked grumpily at all three of them. Riley answered. “Oh, it was really-”

Abe cut in. “Okay, we can chit-chat about fishing later when I’ve gotten the smell out,” he said, rolling his eyes at Riley who looked hurt at the interruption. “Right now we have bigger fish– never mind– more important things to think about. Did you two find anything else while we were in exile?” He asked, looking at both Charley and Nina.

Charley and Nina glanced at each other before returning their gaze to Abe and Riley. Riley’s face looked thoughtful. “About that. We haven’t actually been discussing that while you were gone.”

“Then what did you talk about?”

Nina answered this time. “Er, nothing, really. We didn’t exactly talk at all.”

Abe’ face turned incredulous while Riley still appeared to be off in his own world. “What do you mean you guys didn’t talk at all?” He nearly shouted.

“Well, I may have been angry at Charley– but– yeah,” she finished weakly.

They all jumped as the bell they had set up started ringing. Abe, being the closest to the trapdoor, looked down. He glanced back at them. “Someone left a package.”

“Did you see anyone?” Charley asked. “Just the package.”

Charley walked over to the trapdoor and looked down. A small package sat there. He looked back at them. “I’m going to go look.”

They all nodded. “We’re coming with you,” Nina said, her face stern.

Charley grew exasperated when they even refused to let him be the first one to go down the ladder. “What if this is a trap? The best way to keep you safe is if we go first and then you come,” Nina explained.

Charley rolled his eyes. He doubted his friends would be much help if it came to a large magical animal attacking, but didn’t say anything.

When they got to the ground, Charley picked up the package and read the tag:

Charley Ashe

Charley’s hands shook as he pulled the wrapping off the square packaging. Inside sat the old book that Renwick had shown them. He opened the front cover and a piece of paper fell to the ground. Charley reached down and grabbed it.

Charley unfolded it, but before he could read it, it was pulled from his hands. “Hey,” he shouted, “That’s mine!”

“Dear Mister Ashe, if you wish to know more about who you are, and what you are, come to the place you last saw this,” Abe spouted, dancing away from Charley.

Charley looked at Nina and Riley. They both looked thoughtful. “Do you think we should?” Riley asked.

Charley nodded. “I have to. How else am I ever going to find out who I really am?” Charley asked.

Riley nodded his head. “If this is real, I want to go too. How else is the mystery ever going to get solved?”

“I’m going to,” Abe said, looking serious for the first time about everything.

“Count me in, too. I don’t believe a Barghest is real, but I want to know more. I need to,” Nina added with her face set stubbornly.

He pushed open the door. The insides looked the same to Charley. The one difference was the black-haired man he had met the week before. Charley froze, blocking the others at the door. “You?”

The man grinned. “Yes, me. Though I’m not sure the dramatics were necessary.”

Nina pulled on Charley’s arm, trying to get him toward the door. Charley shrugged her hand off. “Who are you?”

“My name is Rafe. Rafe Fithen.”

Charley froze for a moment. Why does that name sound so familiar?

Charley caught a movement and saw Renwick appear from among the books. Renwick, noticing Nina attempting to pull Charley back through the door, smiled. “Do not worry, Nina. Rafe will not hurt Charley. In fact, he is here to help all of you understand.”

Charley heard the door tinkle behind him. His stomach fell when he heard who it was. “What are you going to help them understand, Renwick?” His mother asked, voice dripping with anger.

Charley turned to her. “Mom-”

“No, Charley. We’ll talk later. Wait outside.”

“Mom, I need to know. I need to know why a Barghest attacked me. I need to know who I am.”

His mother balked. “Charley– We just wanted to protect you. Please, don’t ask something that can’t be undone.”

She looked white in the face when Charley spoke, losing her air of anger. “Mom, what are you and dad trying to hide from me?”

After that, she just looked defeated. Charley felt guilty as soon as he saw her face drop. “I suppose I had better tell you,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll need to call everyone’s parents.”

“Everyone’s?” Riley asked.

Charley’s mom nodded and a small smile appeared. “Yes, all of you are very important. All four of you are very important– though I suspect you already know that.”

  • * *

 

Charley swallowed. His mother seemed to be trying to bore holes into both Renwick and Rafe with just her eyes. Renwick stared back with amusement while Rafe didn’t seem to care one way or another.

Charley looked at Nina and made a face of discomfort. She sent him a similar look. Everyone’s parents had arrived, tromping into the room like soldiers going to war. They immediately pulled their respective children into hugs.

They were no exception, as his father pulled him in for a manly hug that lasted just a few seconds. Charley smirked, as he saw that Riley and Abe’s father had apparently not gotten the Accepted-Teenage-Hug-Time-Limit memo.

The parents released their children and gave each other looks. Charley’s father took the lead. “I’m sure you all have a lot of questions, but first I need to explain some things. Many of your questions will most likely be answered then. First I actually have a question of my own: have any of you done anything extraordinary? Something that would normally be impossible.”

“What do you mean by extraordinary?” Riley asked. “Something like this,” Renwick replied and flicked a hand. Books rose off of their shelves and began to dance around in the air before returning to their resting places.

Riley nodded. “I– I think I can.” He repeated Renwick’s motion and several books rose, though not nearly as many as Renwick had been able to lift.

Renwick took a half-step forward, his eyes narrowed. “Interesting. You’re already more powerful than I thought. If only I had time to run some tests.”

His mom grabbed Riley’s shoulder. “He isn’t one of your experiments, Renwick.”

He backed off, hands up in the air. “It was just a thought.”

“Another question then– How exactly did you four find your way to Renwick in the first place,” Charley’s mom asked.

Charley reddened and his parents zoomed in on him. “Have something to say?” his dad asked. He cracked and told them, starting with spying and then finding Renwick.

His parents didn’t even blink at the news. “You’re not mad?”

His dad shrugged. “You were going to catch us talking about it someday. It was just a matter of time. We didn’t want to have to tell you yet, but you were always going to have to know– Okay, I suppose I should start at the beginning.”

Rafe barked a laugh. “We’d be here for half a year. Please, simplify if you would”

Charley’s dad laughed. “You’re right.” He turned to the four of them, “We are a race known as The Children. We don’t know why we are called that. Probably the oldest and most powerful of the Ancients, among a few others, know,” he said, sending Renwick a quick glance.

“What’s an Ancient? Some old dude?” Abe asked.

Rafe laughed. “Something like that.”

“What it meant to be one of The Children is that we were the mediators and protectors of a world known as Undermire and also Earth.

“Thousands of years ago,” he continued, “Earth and Undermire were connected. That is where many myths and legends come from. It isn’t because they were legends, it was because they were real– Still are, actually.”

“Why did we need protectors? Couldn’t the worlds protect themselves?” Riley asked.

Charley’s dad shook his head. “Not from the threat that appeared. You see… the Ancients are a race of very powerful beings, usually taking the form of giants. They are the only known inhabitants of Underdeep, a world beneath that of Undermire.

“That is when The Children, in a way that we do not understand, were created to combat the Ancients that had turned against those they had sworn to protect.

“The problem with that was that The Children of that day were not able to defeat the Greater Ancient that led the charge. Eventually, he was the only remaining Greater Ancient in all of Undermire. We don’t even dare say his name here so we won’t draw his attention.”

“Greater Ancient? What, are they just bigger?” Nina asked, skepticism clear on her face.

“Some of them, yes,” Rafe replied. “Not all of the Ancients were giant, not even most.”

Charley’s father nodded. “Right. Now as I was saying– He was forced to sign an armistice stating that neither side would ever attack the other side– There was one problem with that…”

“What was the problem?” Charley found himself asking. “It favored him greatly. As time went on, the bloodlines were diluted, and the power of The Children started to fade. We called it the Wilting, as the same thing was happening to all of Undermire. The magic began to go out of Undermire,” he said.

Charley’s mother picked it up then. “That’s enough on ancient history. Now, for the much more recent history. Around fourteen years ago, a prophecy was made. We have a portion of that prophecy. When word reached the Greater Ancient, he broke the armistice and killed every Child he could find.

“You see, the prophecy foretold of one of The Children being capable of ending his reign.” His mom turned to Charley. “The prophecy spoke of you, Charley.”

Charley felt his stomach hit somewhere around his feet. “What? I don’t even like fighting… let alone killing…”

His mother didn’t seem to hear him, her eyes glazed.

 

‘In the land mired in misery and hate,

The one of two will be born who may slay the eldest one.

Descended of ash, he will deal in fate.

To cut away the ancient sickness, Ash will battle Bone.

Can the hero save his light

or be doomed to fall to darkness?’

 

“But why? Why would I want to kill anyone?” Charley asked, grasping at anything to free himself. “And what’s that about me ‘falling to darkness?’ I mean, seriously.”

“Because if you don’t– well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be good for anyone. Not here on Earth, and definitely not on Undermire,” Rafe said.

Charley watched his dad turn beet red as he glared at Rafe. One of Rafe’s eyebrow rose. “I’m just telling him how it is, Tomas. They need to know this isn’t a game.”

Renwick raised his hands. “You too, remain civil. Remember who you are.” There was a silence as the two of them looked at each other, a silent agreement passing between them.

Renwick nodded and then turned to Charley. “And you shouldn’t read to much into prophecy. It could mean a number of things.”

Abe looked around at the adults and then calmly asked, “So when do we go?”

The adults all gaped at him, while Rafe barked a laugh. His mother looked at him uncertainly. “Abe– You could get hurt or even d– d– die,” she said, breaking into uncontrollable sobs. Abe’s father wrapped her in a hug.

Abe looked ashamed for a moment. “I know this won’t be a game. I just want to protect everyone, no matter the cost.” The feeling of tenseness was tangible to Charley as Abe said his beliefs aloud. He felt the air in his lungs drawn away.

“What was that?” Charley asked after he was able to breathe again.

“I’m not sure, but it was powerful enough to break my wards,” Renwick said, glancing at Abe. “I think that if you survive, you will become very powerful one day.”

“As for when we leave,” Rafe said, “We will not be taking everyone. Only six of us…”

The parents looked outraged at first, but then they just looked sad as they looked at the four of them.

“Who? When?” Charley found himself asking to break the silence.

“Myself, Renwick and you four. Two days from now.” “Why would you come? You’re just the Barghest,” Riley said, barely a whisper.

Charley froze and turned to Riley. “What do you mean? He can’t be… But he’s not a dog.” Charley said in confusion, turning to see amusement in Rafe’s eyes.

“Yes, Charley. I am the Barghest. I must apologize for hurting you. That was not my intentions.” That was when he remembered where he had heard the name from before. When I was spying.

Charley shook his head. “I don’t want you to come.”

Rafe smiled. “You might change your mind one day. You see, I’m to be your trainer and protector.”

“No! I can’t even trust you. How do I know you won’t try to take me out? You’ve already attacked me once.”

Rafe grimaced. “I did not attack you. I got bored. It was a mistake.”

“Great. That makes me feel much better. Now I know the person meant to protect me gets bored and jumps on kids as a giant black wolf,” Charley said.

“Like I said, one day you will want me there to save you.”

Charley’s dad grabbed Charley’s shoulder. “Charley, I know this is hard. This really is the best plan of action. With Rafe training you, you have a chance of living long enough for it to matter.”

Renwick tapped Rafe on the shoulder and whispered to him. Rafe nodded. “It seems I’m needed elsewhere. I know this will not be easy. I’m sorry.”

As he walked out Charley’s parents nodded. “I think we’re going to head home too. Come on Charley.”

 

A Dark Shadow

“Are the shadows born of the light, or is it that the light struggles against the existence of the dark?”

- Councilman Warren

 

Castor ran up the ramparts of the castle keep as the second boom thundered. He looked out to the battleground below. He saw a man he had considered an ally, Earl Calloway, ordering his mean to bombard his first ballast wall.

Castor cursed himself. Why you, Calloway?

Besides his horde of men, Calloway’s ranks were swollen with Volens, fleet cat-men that wielded spears and cudgels. Castor also spotted several groups of Salans, muscular lizard-men with filed nails and teeth. They also sported a sword at their hip, and some of them even had long wooden rifles across their backs.

Though Castor owned a vast stretch of land, his army was small, relying on the military might of his allies and the defenses of his keep.

His trump card was his team of Shadow Men, wispy creatures that could choke the life out of living beings and add to their ranks from the spirits they consumed. The problem with them was their uselessness during the day and that they cost so much, he could only afford four of them.

Castor signaled for the bowmen behind the second ballast wall to fire on the first ranks as they came pouring through the holes they had made in the first wall.

With a sweep of his arm, they fired, and a score of humans and Volen fell in the bottleneck opening. None of the Salans did, as they lived, breathed and ate war. They knew when to raise their shields almost by instinct.

He called for a second volley from the riflemen who had just arrived at the third wall. Thanks to the inclined slope that Castor’s city, Drunnel, sat on, the riflemen could shoot over the heads of their comrades and still fill the opening with bodies.

Soon the original holes the men had punctured in the wall were clogged with bloody corpses and acrid gunpowder. Only a handful of Castor’s men took wounds, mostly powder burns from their own rifles cracking under the pressure.

The attackers were soon forced to withdraw, so more holes could be made when the Creep approached the angry Castor. “Do not worry, my lord. He is the least of your allies. I sent word to Duke Calais as soon as I had reports of the army approaching. He will come in support against young Evan. We must hold them off until first light. After that, all will be well.”

  • * *

Valencia glided like a shadow across the floor of the cave. Without a crunch of either the gravel or bleached bones, she walked over them to the very depths of the cave, until even she was lost in the catacomb of niches and turns. Valencia knew where to go from some sense of direction given by her master.

Soon, Valencia came to the final hollow. As it bent down to walk into the final room, a dreadful reek reached her nostril. The sight inside was even worse than the smell.

Though the cavern was large and sprawling, over half of the floor opened into a giant chasm that appeared to have no bottom. Valencia knew it to be one of the few remaining passages to the Underdeep, which Hiberon was set to guard. She looked at the throne on the opposite wall from the chasm.

Sprawled on the giant throne, hewn of the rock, was a giant beast. Jutting from both corners of its bottom lip were large jagged canines. Each finger ended in gray-yellow fingernails.

His body could almost be called ghostly in the moonlight coming down from the large opening in the ceiling above. Even now Valencia still shuddered at the sight.

She looked around and saw that there were eleven others. She went to her place, second to the end on the left.

One by one, each of them pulled down their hood, starting at the right and working left. Soon, six humans, including herself, and six otherworldly creatures were crouching in a fealty-like manner. They all rose and looked at the giant being.

Its voice reverberated around the room. “Welcome, my disciples. I summoned you here to tell you some disturbing news that has reached my ears,” it spoke.

“I have heard, despite all our efforts, The Child of Fire will soon return to Undermire from Earth. We have much to fear, as he has not had his Awakening. He is already surrounded by many powerful beings, including several other young Children.”

A tall Salan woman spoke from in between two humans. “What should we do, Lord Hiberon?”

A rolling laugh emanated from the giant being. “Do, Maxima? We wait until we can do something. Even the reach of The Council of Bone is not limitless. We are but one player in a game where there are many others. The Child of Fire is just another piece entering the game. The most important? Undoubtedly. But not the only one.”

Valencia then spoke. “My lord, Hiberon, I do have some news you will find pleasing.”

His giant eyes turned to her. “Yes, Valencia? What news?”

She smiled, basking in her moment, savoring each word. “My plan to halt the Creep is going accordingly. I was able to gain the help of one Earl Calloway to attack Drunnel. So far, the siege has lasted nearly two days longer than I originally planned for it to. Duke Calais met some– most unfortunate opposition amongst his ranks. I was able to infect some of his soldiers with Kara maggots.

“The unfortunate part is that the Creep is nowhere to be found, whilst Castor has kept his ranks in unusually high moral for being so outnumbered,” she said with a slight frown on her face. “He is more charismatic that his father or grandfather were.”

Valencia noticed many of the other members were whispering amongst themselves, though they still looked at her to catch what she was saying.

The giant lifted his hand and they all fell silent. “This is indeed good news. the Creep and his magics have ever been a thorn in my side. I am most pleased Valencia. Do not worry, the Creep will not stray too far from his newest puppet. He fears what would happen too much.”

The others gave their news, both good and bad, about the states of certain countries, kings, queens, dignitaries and certain sorcerers or sorceresses.

“Now we must come to a topic I find… distasteful. Does anyone know the whereabouts of Bramly?”

All twelve turned to each other and to the break in the semi-circle. None spoke or made any gesture that they had news. Valencia watched them for any sign of deception and saw none.

Hiberon shook his great mane of hair. “Pity. I suppose I must send a Ja-lia to fetch him back.” Valencia drew in a breath along with everyone else.

Valencia had heard of the ethereal beings before, but few had lived after seeing them. Their ability to absorb any spell or sorcery cast at them tended to scare off even the most powerful of sorcerers.

There were no mortal weapons that could harm their mist bodies. They enjoyed killing, like the Shadow Men. They found a great joy in it, but they did differently than the quick slash of a blade.

They preferred the subtle art of torture.

  • * *

 

Bramly stared up as the first drops fell. It made a dull plink-ing sound as it bounced off of the pots and pans attached to the saddlebags on his donkey. He had watched the clouds go from white to slate gray over the last few hours and could feel his pursuers drawing ever-closer.

Instead of getting drenched, Bramly and his donkey stayed dry even as the rain grew heavier. None of the trees turned over their leaves to greedily suck up the water, as none of the trees had leaves.

Instead, they were filled with needles akin to that of a coniferous tree, though they were nearly three feet long and seemed to gravitate toward him as he walked past.

Bramly waved his hand at them, and they stopped following his movements though everything seemed to grow still after his sorcery. It was almost as if they was following his passage even more intently, but with the intention of understanding rather than feeding.

The Blood Trees grew motionless. He had sensed them for the past two days but had not succeeded in turning them from following him. Bramly sighed and dismounted, knowing this thing would not leave him be. “I know you are there Spooks. Show yourself. I would know why you insist on pursuing me even after I had deterred you.”

He felt a shiver crawl down his spine as he felt an enchantment lift and saw both of the Ja-lia. “Bramly, Hiberon requires your presence. He wishes that you would come of your own will, but my comrade and I are allowed to use force short of torture and death to… persuade you,” it whispered with a malicious grin spreading across its Cheshire’s mouth.

Its globular body stiffened as it raised its arm and a shadowy sword appeared in both of their hands.

“I have no wish to fight someone like you,” Bramly said, his voice a whisper in the rain. “You are one of the few creatures in all of Undermire that I am unsure of defeating. If you truly wish to stand in my path, though, I will have to combat you.

They approached, wary of the prey who had spoken so calmly when so many others had faltered in their presence. He raised two fingers in a wave and he, along with his donkey, shrunk into a pair of squirrels and started scampering toward the wood. Before they had made it more than five feet, the enchantment failed and they returned to normal.

He spat on the ground. “I truly detest anti-magic. It always leaves a bad taste in my mouth afterward. It is quite like copper,” he said conversationally as he swept one hand in a great arc and great bursts of flames shot toward the shadows.

The flames disappeared upon hitting their mist-like bodies.

The one who had spoken now laughed. “Give up, old man. There isn’t a spell that has been created that can harm us.”

“I bet I’ve made a few spells you’ve never heard of. And I’m not that old, I’m three thousand forty-six years old. That is relatively young for a sorcerer, thank you very much.” The air filled with the smells of sulfurous burning and fresh ozone, an odd mixture in even the best of circumstances.

The heat rose and a bead of sweat appeared on his face, but he saw it was also affecting the Ja-lia. They started shimmering under the growing heat and light. As it reached the point that Bramly couldn’t hold it anymore he let lose a great wave of light and heat toward the unsteady Ja-lia.

With a crack, a bolt of lightning pierced the ground between the two of them, and lava poured from the ground. As it did so, Bramly slumped forward onto his knees and everything went black.

 

A Heated Conversation

“Dragons. Unbelievably beautiful. Their beauty is only overshadowed by the certain death to follow.”

- Dragonknight Ymir

 

Charley woke up the next morning, a cold sweat coming to his face. He tried to think what he had dreamed, but could only remember darkness so intense that not even his hand had been visible in front of his face, and a sense of falling so overwhelming his muscles had felt like they were moving through water.

He brushed it off and rose out of bed. His sniffer kicked in. Scooting into the living room, he peered around the corner. Waffles. He saw his mother had her back turned, so he made for the stack of them. Ninja mode: activated.

He had just put out his hand to grab the top one when she turned and glared. “You know the rule, mister. Not everything is cooked,” she said, shaking the spatula at him.

Retreat!

As he slid back around the corner he saw his dad shaking his head. “It never works, Charley. Why do you even try?”

“Because my stomach controls me,” Charley said, snapping to salute.

His dad chuckled but then his face grew serious again. “Charley, we need to talk about yesterday.”

Instantly, everything fell back into place. His stomach fell as he thought about it. “So it’s all real? I have to fulfill a prophecy?” he asked, already dreading the answer he knew he would receive.

“Yeah… I wish there was another way, but there just isn’t.”

“If I don’t go, he’ll come one day, and we would all be dead.”

Charley slumped. If I don’t go, I die. If I do go, I’ll probably die. Great– Doesn’t really give me much of an option, does it?

He braced himself. “I’ll go.”

“You’ll be a hero one day,” his dad said with a sad smile on his face.

Charley shook his head. “I don’t want to be a hero. I just want to be me. Normal.”

His mom walked around the corner, carrying a plate of waffles, another of bacon and a warm bottle of syrup. “How about right now you worry about chowing down on this.”

Charley’s stomach growled, and the beast within took over, his self-doubts put aside for the moment.

 

Charley slid out of his parent’s car the next day. His mom climbed out and pulled him into a hug, but not before he saw the tears that streaked down her face. His father stood back and looked at him with concern.

“I promise, mom, you’ll see me again.” She broke into fresh tears and released him.

She smiled wanly. “I know we will. Don’t worry about us. Just… be safe.”

She stepped back as his dad walked in what seemed a funeral march to him and pulled him into a bear hug, squeezing the air out of him. “Of course, he won’t be safe. But, he’s going to survive. He’s an Ashe, after all,” he said as he set Charley down.

“That’s the spirit,” Charley heard from behind him. He turned and saw Renwick standing in the doorway.

Charley felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked back and saw his father smiling. “Charley, you have to live. I don’t have much to give you besides some advice. Firstly, everything that Rafe teaches you, you have to perfect it. I see now that your mother and I should have been teaching you these things.

“Second, don’t push yourself too hard. Many good people, powerful or not, have failed because they cracked under a tough situation. Lastly, do not trust anyone. Even those that seem to be on your side. Well, Riley, Abe and Nina are safe to trust.”

“What about Rafe and Renwick? Not that I would trust Rafe anyways.”

He looked hesitant. “No… not even them. They both have agendas and neither are above using you for their own gain, though Rafe is much more trustworthy than Renwick, as much as I do not like Rafe. Sorcerers are funny and will do the oddest things. Riley will be like that one day.”

Another car pulled up beside the store and Riley and Abe both appeared from the back seat, dressed in similar clothing. Riley was lugging a large bag on his back. Charley sent him a quizzical look.

Abe answered for him. “He’s decided to bring along books. Books! Of all things that he could bring,” Abe said, rolling his eyes.

Riley looked at him appalled, his eyes widening. “Why shouldn’t I bring books?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Abe asked, looking to Charley for support, who shrugged. “It’s because they’ll weigh you down.”

Their parents stepped in at that point. Charley’s father tapped him on the shoulder and pulled him over to the side again. “I said I didn’t have much besides advice, but I do have this.” He handing Charley a small leather pouch that his dad had kept in his study.

“This is all that remains of your birthright had you been raised on Undermire. Don’t open it now. You’ll know the time. For now, we should probably join everyone.”

Nina was already sitting with her parents around the same table that they had been at days before. Renwick was busy behind the counter with his back turned to them and Rafe was nowhere to be seen.

As Riley and Abe entered the store Renwick turned to face them. “Good, now all we need is for Rafe to arrive. As he already knows the instructions for entering Undermire I will spend this time explaining how it is done.

“The entrance is here in my shop on the second floor. Once we are past the– er– security, we will be at the entrance to the Flow. Any directions I or Rafe give you, you must follow or you could die. I want you to know ahead of time that the process is not fool-proof even for me,” he paused to allow it to sink in.

“Once we enter the Flow, you must not leave my side no matter what you hear or see. There are– things– that live there. Once, before the Flow was sealed, they weren’t so prone to tricking travelers.”

“That would be your fault,” Rafe’s voice rasped from the doorway. Charley jumped at the sound of his voice.

Renwick sighed. “Yes, I suppose that would be my fault. Times were different then. Bramly and I faced other problems in that time. We didn’t have as many options as I can see now. Hindsight is funny like that, is it not?”

Rafe barked out a laugh. “Well, let us hope that the same will not be true for these young ones.”

Charley’s father laughed. “On that we can agree.”

Renwick dug a pocket watch out and looked at the time. “I must apologize for cutting this short, but there is so little time left. It has taken much calculating to pinpoint this window of opportunity on such a short notice.”

Charley’s father pulled him in for one more hug. “Become the hero you must be,” he whispered into his ear and released him.

Renwick turned back. “Oh, will one of you mind turning out the lights and locking the door behind you? I do so hate intruders, especially with the nasty surprises that they might find for themselves.”

 

At the top of the stairs, which to Charley seemed to stretch on for much longer and higher than the top of the building, Renwick stood with his back turned to them at a door. They heard a clinking sound and the door unlocked with a sigh.

“I suppose you have a multidimensional spell on the entire building? Rafe asked.

Renwick nodded. “That is correct. Now, if you will all kindly keep quiet as we pass through this next room. You will be safe as long as you do not say anything. It would attack even me.”

“Then wouldn’t anyone be able to sneak through here?” Abe asked.

Renwick turned to him with a bemused stare. “No. First they would need the correct key and, more importantly, they would need courage or foolishness to remain silent. All of those things for this particular situation are only available to someone from Undermire.”

“Then why wouldn’t someone just find another entrance to the Undermire?”

“Yes, young sorcerer, there are other entrances. But none, I think, as safe to enter as Renwick’s. Also, it is Undermire, not the Undermire. If anyone there heard you say that, they would know you hadn’t been raised there.”

Renwick harrumphed. “Please, be quiet. I know that we aren’t in the room yet, but practice makes perfect as they say.

Charley didn’t need the warning. The second he walked into the room, he felt no urge to yell. He felt no urge to do anything other than stand there.

Instead, he was completely petrified, like a rattlesnake staring down a mouse. Rafe, though, had to clamp his hand down on Nina’s mouth when she almost screamed.

A large, horned and scaled creature lay wrapped around a pile of coins and jewelry. Charley dry swallowed after regaining control of his body. The temperature had risen several degrees. A dragon.

I feel like I’m going to melt. All Charley could see in his head was an image of himself turning into a large pile of goo.

How do you know you won’t, young intruder? A voice boomed in his head.

Charley’s head whipped around and saw that one of the eyes was fluttering. Leave this place, boy of the heart and fire. You are not ready to see the treasures I hold here.

Charley, feeling brave, asked, You’re awake? Then why haven’t you killed us all? Charley noticed Renwick motioned for them to follow him but kept one eye on the dragon.

As they made their way across the room, the door closed with a thud behind them. Charley jumped and looked over his shoulder at it for a moment. A ten-foot flame spurted out of the dragons nostril seconds later. He felt his backside warm up.

Who says I will not try? Charley felt a moment of humor before it faded just as quickly. Of course, I joke. I sense in you a kinship I have not felt in millennia, child of fire– though your flame has yet to bloom. One day, you will free me and I will be indebted to you.

For that to happen, you and yours must live. Go in peace, though I ask you tell not the wizard what I have said. He is not what he seems. Feeling no deceit from the dragon’s thoughts, he promised not to.

The entire conversation happened in the few moments that it had taken to Charley and the others followed close behind him in a small pack. As they made it to the other side of the room Renwick pulled open the second door and motioned them through, keeping his eye on the dragon. They rushed past him into the room. Renwick followed and closed the door.

As he turned to them he smiled like a child on Christmas Day. “Well that was exciting, wasn’t it?”

The only one to smile back was Abe, who looked bursting with happiness. Nina hit Abe in the arm. “Will you stop bouncing up and down? It’s giving my neck whiplash just watching you.” Charley and Riley laughed.

Abe scoffed. “We just saw a real dragon, survived, and you don’t think that was awesome? Something’s obviously wrong with you, not me.”

Renwick spoke again. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you all to change into more accommodating clothing for Undermire. I know you all came dressed with the best possible intentions, but you would all be too conspicuous,”

He paused to point in both directions. “The room to the left for the gentlemen and the room to the right for the young lady.”

 

Seven

The Road to Undermire

“Your future is like reading a book. It all depends on where you want to be swept off to.”

- Riley Ashe

 

A cavernous room stood before Charley. Lined wall to wall with clothes of every type in cubbies. Charley saw blood red clothing. He ran his fingers across the fabric and pulled back his hand and gasped.

His fingers still remember the pulsing even then. The blood pumping. The blood vessels bulging against the cottony fabric. Muscles and tendons surging against their sewn constraints.

“Oh, dear. You probably shouldn’t have touched those.” Charley turned and saw a young man, a pair of mole-like eyes peering from behind crooked glasses.

“I must apologize. I tried to program the magic to match your needs– it appears I failed. Oh, dear.” With a snap of his fingers, some of the cubbies began to collapse into one another. As this happened, the room began to shrink.

“It’s not real skin or blood, by the way, if that’s what you want to know. It’s magically produced fabric to hide one’s identity.” Both Riley and Abe sent Charley looks.

The man clapped. “Ah, yes, introductions. My name is Aster, Renwick Mordecai’s personal homunculus. I know who you three are. I have been tasked with finding you suitable clothing. Come, we have much to do.”

Without waiting to see if they would follow Aster took off down one of the aisles. Charley looked at them. “I guess we should follow.”

He led them down several of the darkly lit aisles, picking up a shirt or pair of pants as he went. “I must apologize for the lighting. A homunculus’ eyes are not the best.” Aster soon had a large stack precariously balancing in his arms, swaying from side to side.

Charley had the almost uncontrollable urge to push the stack over, but restrained the childish urge. They had gone down so many twists and turns Charley soon lost sense of where he was, which surprised Charley when then found themselves back at the entrance to the large room.

Aster turned to them and looked at them, appraising. And like a magician at his trade, he pulled pieces from the pile, now balanced on one arm. He began doling out the pieces with a flourish. “This one for you.” Or, “Why not that one for him?”

Charley stared down at the growing pile in his hands. He was happy to not see any red in any of their piles after the last incident. A shiver ran down his spine.

Aster speaking pulled him from the thought. “Behind you, you’ll find the changing rooms.”

“There aren’t any…” Riley trailed off as he turned and saw them.

Aster smirked. “You were saying? Well– I must be off.”

 

Charley found himself looking in the mirror, his mouth falling open. His normal printed-tees and pants were gone. He wore a thick leather vest on top of cloth clothing. The boots, made of some kind of weird, stretchy material, elevated him several inches.

I wonder what I’m supposed to do with my clothes…

He turned to grab them and saw that they were gone. Turning in a circle, he tried to spot them but couldn’t see them in the cubicle. I guess that answers that question.

Charley opened the door and peered out. He caught Abe doing the same. “Your clothes disappear, too?” Abe asked.

“Yeah.”

They waited for Riley, but when he never appeared from his changing room they went back into the main room. For the first time, Charley noticed the door on the far side of the wall.

Riley and Rafe sat together, both of whom were dressed. “How did you-”

“Change so fast?” Riley asked. “I don’t take forever, like you two.”

Rafe sat silently. Charley looked at him and noticed his armor. It was death black and metal studs poked out of the one shoulder that was visible. The other was covered by a bat’s wing cape, that draped down his arm. Rafe pulled aside the cape and showed Charley what was at his side.

A pair of deadly, twin swords rested in sheaths, one above the other at his waist. Rafe smiled at the look on his face. “I told you, you’ll want me protecting you.”

Nina then walked into the room and Charley’s eyes were drawn to her. Mouth falling open, he stared at her. Her shirt and cargo jeans replaced by a black, knee-length dress. She crossed her arms over her stomach. “This was all they had,” she defended, face reddening.

Charley snapped back to himself. “You look– great,” Charley finished.

Her eyes narrowed and she held up a fist. “Don’t mock me, Ashe.”

Renwick appeared at that moment, coming from the tree door, saving Charley. A greed field rolled into a wooded area further back. “Fabulous. All of you look very much the Mirian,” he said, glancing at them.

“Mirian?” Charley asked.

“It’s what the collective of those who live in Undermire are called,” Rafe responded.

Renwick looked down at his wrist as if reading a watch. “It’s time. We need to go now.” Renwick said, lead them into what appeared to be a garden that couldn’t possible fit in the space it took up.

Renwick turned back to them. “You might want to grab a pack and a torch or two,” he said, pointing to a pile. Without another word, he turned and walked off down the path, not checking to make sure that they followed. After walking only a few dozen paces into the woods a door materialized in the middle of the path.

Renwick turned to Charley and motioned with his hand. “Would you do the honors, Charley?”

He stepped forward and grasped the handle. As he pulled it open a bright light flashed before disappearing into darkness. A total, palpable darkness that appeared to be gulping down the light spilling through from their side, like a man who had not seen water in a week.

 

They walked in total darkness except for the torches that each of them held. Holding a rope in the other, they followed Renwick in near silence.

“We must stay together in here. Even one moment of being apart, one wrong move, and you will never find your way out again,” Renwick had warned. “I will use my magic to help guide us, but those in between will still attempt to disrupt our progress. Ignore any voices you hear.” They each nodded their heads as Renwick looked at them.

Soon after arriving in the Flow, Charley started hearing sounds that felt like they were just out of reach and shook his head.

The sounds grew to a constant droning in his ears and the others seemed to start noticing the sounds themselves. It reminded him of summer when gnats and mosquitoes would buzz in his ears.

They all turned to each other and Abe commented, “Weird,” and shook his head.

“It helps to think about something else. I find reciting poetry or lyrics helps me. I could sing if you like,” Rafe responded.

Renwick looked back and smiled. “Yes, I think that would be perfect. They find music entrancing. It might appeal to them to be helpful. They might even turn on the lights for us.”

The four of them looked at each other skeptically at each other. Abe voiced their concern. “Rafe– no offense, but can you– um– sing?”

“You can be the judge of that,” he said with a barking laugh. Before another word could be said, he broke into song.

At first, it was low and crooning and barely audible above the white noise. As his voice grew in octaves and crescendo-ed the rasping left his voice.

It became a pure, clear sound that seemed to echo off of the darkness back at them. Charley couldn’t understand a word of it, but it felt like he should. Almost like it was at the corner of his brain, poking at him with a five-foot stick.

Charley noticed that the tension had broken. As the white noise disappeared, the pathway became more striking. Renwick looked back at them and smiled. “Still think he can’t sing?” he asked and then laughed.

The darkness lifted. Charley looked over to the left of the path and had a sudden sense of intense vertigo. Why does it have to be heights? There simply was no ground, but a swirling mass that continued down as far as he could see. He looked up and saw much of the same substance to both sides and upward.

Renwick spoke from the front, back still turned. “Oh, I should probably mention that you do not want to look down.”

Soon, Rafe ran out of breath. For a while, Charley noticed that the sounds had faded. Unfortunately, the whispering returned, but became more agitated and the sounds increased until the pressure on his head grew.

Rafe looked apologetic. The sound became a cacophony on Charley’s ears as they progressed forward. He felt the darkness reach out and brush against him. Come to us, Destined One. We can show you the future and so much more. Come to us…

He felt woozy and his legs started wobbling under him as the darkness and voices closed in on him. He concentrated his eyes on the lantern in his hand.

As he watched the flame, he stumbled on along behind Riley. Even as he tried to focus his eyes by squinting, his sight fell behind a black haze.

Abe spoke up from behind him. “Help! Charley is falling!” Charley heard it through what felt like cotton in his ears. All he felt was a sense of lightness as he drifted in both body and mind.

 

Peace. He felt peace as he floated and listened to them whisper. Why should you have to worry about saving a world that isn’t your own? It isn’t your problem. You’re no hero, they whispered to him.

He felt a smile come over his face as he floated. All the stress and worries over the past couple of days melted from him.

Stay with us and see how carefree you can be. We will never disappoint you. We want you to be happy and safe. Don’t you want that too? More of them whispered to him. He sensed joy coming from them as his own joy was broadcasted to them.

You can’t save a world, let alone two. Stay here with us. We will keep you safe for all eternity. Your quest is impossible… always surrounded by powerful enemies. Stay here, the voices echoed again and again until that was all he heard. They seemed to express his own concerns about who he was.

Even as he felt the joy an arm wrap around his mid-section and he was grounded. His sight cleared, the inky black disappearing, and he looked up into Riley’s face. He looked down at him, worry etched onto his wooden face. “Are you okay, Charley?”

A boiling heat fill his body and he felt for a moment that he might explode in anger. “Why! Why did you come for me?” Riley looked at him with confusion on his face. “Are you crazy? I just saved you.”

Charley snarled. “Who said I wanted to be saved?” “You’re not making any sense. Come on, I’ll take you

back to everyone. Flying makes me nervous,” Riley said, laughing. Even as he did so, the smile never fully reached his eyes as he continued to watch Charley for any more outbursts.

Charley, catching what he had said, looked down and saw nothing but blackness wrapping around what appeared to be a sphere. He pulled at Riley’s arm, groping with his fingers. “Put me down, Riley!” he screamed at Riley.

Riley slapped at his hand. “Seriously, Charley, settle down or we’re both going to fall. I’m just as nervous as you. I can only keep us out of it as long as I can concentrate, because I have no idea how I’m doing this.”

Charley continued to weakly hold onto Riley, but he stopped pulling at his hands. They continued to break through the mist-like blackness. Realizing how he had been acting he tried to calm down.

“How long was I out there?”

Riley looked down into his face and frowned. “I don’t know. Ten minutes? Fifteen? I’m not sure.”

“It felt so much longer.” A shiver ran down Charley’s spine and then they both lapsed into silence.

“We’re coming up on them,” Riley said after a few minutes.

Sure enough, Charley saw the lights come into sight along with their faces. At the angle the light fell on his face, Renwick looked to have a skeletal frown. As they descended it faded, but the image stuck in Charley’s mind. Nina and Abe ran up to hug both of them tightly before retreating a step and grinning.

Relief filled their faces as they saw Riley holding Charley up. “You actually found him,” Renwick shouted with what sounded like disbelief. “How?”

Riley released Charley and then shrugged. As he stepped away from Charley the sphere split in two and surrounded both him and Riley separately. “Honestly, I don’t know. I just had a feeling, so I jumped.”

Rafe smiled and turned to Renwick. “He’s a Traveler. It’s the only thing that explains it.”

At first, Renwick’s mouth fell open but then it looked as if he was starting to contemplate it. “A Traveler… Maybe so… Riley,” he said, “point to Talas.”

Riley looked at him, confused. “What are you talking about?”

“Just see if you can.”

Riley shrugged and his face went slack as his hand pointed at Rafe. Renwick smiled, “Well then. Now point to The Grimoire Hold.” Once again, Riley’s face fell slack as he pointed in direction off to the left of Rafe.

“I think you’re right,” Renwick said. “Now is the real test.”

Rafe looked at him, his concern clear on his face. “Are you sure?”

He nodded back. “I don’t know if Charley can survive the entire trip. We have to see if Riley has Awakened. The recognition of location is the precursor to the power, the actual traveling is another thing entirely.” He turned back to Riley. “Riley, I need you to concentrate.”

Riley once more looked at him confused, and Charley felt even more confused. “Riley, can you see anything that looks like a doorway? Something that glimmers in the corner of your eye, perhaps?”

Charley frowned. What are they talking about? A glimmer? Apparently, Riley knew what Renwick was talking about, because he then nodded. “Good, now here is the tricky part… Don’t look directly at it. It will disappear. Reach out your hand and pull on the handle.” Riley nodded again. He reached out to what appeared to be thin air and grasped at it.

Renwick became excited. “Now this is the most important thing to remember. You have to think about the destination. I want you to think about the word Talas.”

A white glow poured from a slice of thin air as Riley pulled it open. Charley put his hand up to cover his eyes, but was still blinded by the intense light.

Riley pulled the door open and it became fully visible. Falling to his knees, Riley started panting hard. Charley rushed to his side with Abe and Nina close behind.

“That is just the pull on his energy,” Renwick said, calming them.

“He not only found you, Charley but also conjured a ward strong enough to hold off the darkness. Then he created a pathway, something that hasn’t ever been done in the Flow.” He placed his hand on Riley’s shoulder and a glow appeared under it.

“There is some good to this, though,” Rafe said. Charley looked at him over his shoulder. Rafe continued, pointing at the door. “Through that door is Undermire.”

Over the hill, and through the door to certain death we go… Charley thought to himself. Looking at the other three, he could tell they were thinking something similar.

Riley stood up.

“Are you ready?” Renwick asked him. He nodded back at him, his face pale in the bright light shining on all of them.

Renwick grinned. “Welcome… to Undermire.”

 

Eight

The Value of a Soul

“From the smallest mouse to the largest Ancient, I think we are all of equal importance.”

- Rysander

 

The wagon jostled as the front wheel rolled over a rut. His head bashed against the bars and blood started seeping down his forehead into his mouth and beard. He sat up and looked around through crusty eyes, opened at a squint, and spit out the blood. He was surrounded by rocky ground and granite slabs stabbing out of the top of the soil like great parapets.

He heard a shuffling from the front and then a crunch as someone jumped down from the bench to walk beside the wagon. Bramly followed the man with his eyes, not turning to fully look at him. He couldn’t make out the face, but the hair looked stringy and unkempt and his shirt and trousers looked greasy. Though I suppose even he looks better than me at the moment, Bramly conceded.

The man started rapping on the side of the bars with a cudgel, “He’s awake Jorge. What do I do?” he asked with a thick slur, pronouncing Jorge’s name with a hard g.

A whisper of a voice sounded from the bench. “Nothing, Dudley. He can’t go anywhere. Just leave the wretch alone. Where he’s going is bad enough.”

The man grunted. “Suppose you’re right. I wouldn’t want to be the one going to Redpon,” he said, turning to Bramly. “Is nothing personal. Just business.”

Bramly closed his eyes and sighed inwardly. Slavers. Good. This I can handle. He opened his eyes and looked over at the man still walking beside him. “I demand in the name of Bramly Mordecai that you release me and give me good lodging on my way to Morness.

Dudley looked at him incredulously and then shouted to Jorge. “Hey, the slave is saying he knows Bramly. What do I do about that?”

The same whisper answered. “If he truly knows Bramly then ask him if he wouldn’t mind showing the mark. Then we can talk about letting him go.”

Dudley turned to repeat what was said, but Bramly cut him off. “Yes, I heard him. No need to repeat everything,” he said waspishly as he pulled up his sleeve and showed him his inner wrist. A small flame burned within his skin. The crackling flames were ringed by a set of runes unintelligible to anyone of the age.

“Jorge, he really does know Bramly.”

Bramly closed his eyes and sighed. “You dolt! I am Bramly. Now, stop this wagon so I may get out.”

The wagon pulled to a stop and Dudley walked to the back of the bars and pulled out a large set of keys and pushed a large one into the padlock. With a snick, it stuck in place and wouldn’t turn. As Dudley tried to pull it out a large crack could be heard from within the padlock as the head of the key broke off. Dudley stared at it dumbly.

A second man appeared from the front of the wagon. “How many times have I told you to not use that key in the padlock? The silver key… Nephew, if I didn’t owe your mother as I do, I never would have taken you as my apprentice.”

The neatly bearded man, Jorge he assumed, turned his gaze to Bramly. “I’m sorry Lord Mordecai. If I had known it was you I would never have thought to try to sell you as a slave,” he whispered as he bowed at the waist.

He ran to help Dudley after returning upright. He grabbed the stump of the key and held it against the mouth of the padlock and slid his hand over it and then pulled the reattached key from the padlock. The motion caught Bramly’s attention, as a tingle ran down his spine.

As soon as Bramly was free of the wagon he looked at Jorge from the corner of his eyes. “You can perform sorcery? Are you proficient in healing sorcery?” he asked, pointing to his head that had scabbed over, but still oozed blood.

“I am afraid that the limits of my magic lie in small cuts. Not something nearly so large as that. My talent lies in metallurgy,” he said, shaking his head.

Bramly shrugged his shoulders. “It was a thought. Though, I must ask, how did you find me?” He tapped his forehead and the bleeding stopped and then the cut started shrinking until a small scar remained. The crust of blood flaked off.

“Come sit on the bench and we can talk as we ride to… Morness, yes?”

Bramly nodded his head and followed him to the front of the wagon as Dudley re-closed the barred door. After they had climbed onto the bench Jorge told Bramly how he had found him passed out on the side of the rode in Needle Forest and everything scorched for a quarter mile around except where he lay.

“I will, of course, repay you for the food and lodging that you provide.”

“That will not be necessary. I feel that I must make recompense for what I have done.”

“Would you do the same for anyone you sold into slavery?”

Jorge looked at the grain of the wood in his wagon. “You were to be the first and only. I felt guilty even before knowing you were one of the Grand Sorcerers.”

“Would it have made you feel better if it hadn’t been a Grand Sorcerer? I should think that it would be a normal denizen that would make me feel worse. At least a sorcerer has a chance to be freed if they are powerful enough and they have the right connections at the Tower.”

“You don’t understand…”

Bramly looked at him sharply. “Then explain.”

“My child was taken to His palace. They told me that it was an honor, but if I truly wanted her back… I would have to trade a soul for a soul and we would be free from their Choosing in the future. I agreed to bring one and they bound me to my word.”

“I see. You are luck that you found me,” he said as he made a clawing motion at the grass below. A blade of grass shriveled up and turned black as a white speck appeared in Bramly’s hand. “Just as you were bound, so were they. Life magic is indiscriminate. It binds both parties to their word.”

Jorge looked at him and tilted his head to the side as a tear slid down his cheek. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, if they weren’t specific on what kind of soul, or even if it had to have a vessel, then this will do,” he said as he placed the speck in a cracked bottle drawn from within his tunic. He corked it and held it out to Jorge. “I have one condition to giving this to you.”

“A- anything you want.”

“Oh, no need to make it that extravagant. I can think of some things you would never be able to accomplish. I just wish to know if you thought to bring Halide, my donkey?”

Jorge whistled for Dudley. He lumbered up to them, “Yes, Jorge?”

“See to it that his donkey is taken care of. Rejoice nephew! Soon enough you will have your cousin back!” he shouted into the air. Dudley’s face lit up in a smile for the first time since Bramly had seen him.

 

Right, Wrong, and Donkey Farts

“Of all the smells in the world, I find donkeys singularly repulsive.”

- Unknown Barghest

 

Charley stepped out onto a patch of browning grass. He felt a coldness settle on his shoulders, like someone had placed ice down his back. A light layer of frost covered the ground and spread in every direction as far as Charley could see.

“I believe each of you will find a cloak in your bags to keep you warm. Unfortunately, while Earth is in early Summer, Undermire is in late Fall,” Rafe said, catching sight of their shivering forms.

Laughing, Renwick pointed to something behind them. Charley turned and saw a wall in front of them, stretching so high that Charley had to crane his neck to see the top. Rafe barked a laugh when Abe asked how they were supposed to get through the giant doors. “I’m not sure you want to go into that particular part of the city.”

“Why not?” Nina asked.

“This side is Rat Nest, the den of all the foulest taverns, gambling halls and– other things.”

Rafe looked toward the left end of the wall. “That way leads to Gold Dent, home of the merchant and artisan guilds. It is also the largest marketplace in all of Undermire.”

Charley looked around and saw a road off in the distance leading around the left side of the wall, away from where they were. “Then I guess we go there?”

Renwick nodded. “Yes. You should be within the city by midday. I wish you luck.”

Rafe turned to him. “I knew you were going to leave us, but this soon?”

Renwick sighed. “I am afraid so. I have some… matters to attend to elsewhere. Don’t worry, Rafe will be here to help you,” he added as he turned to the four children. “I do, however, have some information for you. When we went to Earth, I left my web of spies and informants intact. We left in such a hurry that much of the information we lacked then is now available to us. I know where you need to go to find out about the prophecy.”

“So where do we have to go?” Riley asked.

“The Academy, the original home of The Children. I have an informant there that sends me messages through the Flow on occasion. He informed me that he might know where to find the next portion of the prophecy.”

Nina rolled her eyes. “So what you’re saying is that you aren’t sure whether or not if it even exists, and that even if it does exist we have to go find it without any help? Oh yeah, don’t forget the fact that we could die at any time.”

“I am afraid that is the nature of the game. Undermire is not like Earth. We do not have the luxury to look online or have phones at our fingertips. We have to search for the information, and sometimes that can be hard, especially when so many want to control that information.”

“I don’t like it.”

Renwick scowled at her. “I do not care if you like it. Some things just are the way that they are. You can not fix everything so that it smells of roses. Some things are hard. Some things can kill you. And yes, some things will try to do just that.” Nina looked taken back.

“I am just trying to give you the best chance to success. If you do not like it, well– it will be your funeral. I do not need you. I need him,” he said, pointing to Charley. Charley backed up a step.

Rafe stepped toward Renwick. “Renwick, enough! You are scaring her even more than she already is. They’re just children, you can not forget that.” Charley moved to Nina’s side.

Renwick sighed. “We do not have time for them to be children anymore. I gave that to their parents twelve years ago when I promised I would not force them to be trained. That was a soft mistake– one that you will have to rectify in my stead.”

Charley saw Renwick in a new light. He doesn’t care about us. He cares about how he can use us.

“Not right now, and not all at once. You know as well as I do that we have time to train them properly, not force them into their roles too soon.”

Renwick stood with his head bowed for a moment, the anger fading from his face. He looked up at Rafe. “You are right.” He turned to the four of them. “I am sorry for how I acted. That really just shows you how unfit I am for the job of training.”

He turned to leave and shuffled a few steps away, his bag thrown over his shoulder. Without warning, he morphed into a fox and ran off into the prairie. Charley shaded his eyes and caught a final glimpse of the red and white tail disappearing into the forest moments later.

Well, that was rather anti-climactic, was it not? Someone asked in amusement.

He looked around and saw none of them were talking. Charley felt a moment of shock before realizing that none of the others had said it to him. He thought to himself, Who are you?

Who am I? You want to know who I am without even knowing yourself? Youth are always the same: asking for information before they have earned it, and even worse… expecting it without consequence.

What do you mean?

He felt more amusement. Exactly what I mean. Right now I would be more worried on what Master Fithen has to say than to what I mean.

With surprise Charley looked at Rafe and realized that he was talking directly to him. “What did you say?”

Rafe looked at him, searching his face. “I said we had better move out if we want to make our appointment before it shuts for the day.”

“Oh. Right. Who are we meeting exactly?”

“An old friend of mine, now lets go. We’re wasting time just standing here.”

  • * *

 

Charley wrinkled his nose as the donkey in front of him let rip a large fart that twisted his stomach in a knot. Abe looked at him with widening eyes, waving his hand in front of his face before laughing and then just as promptly closing his mouth again.

Riley choked as the smell reached him. He looked at Charley and mouthed ‘What is that?’ Charley giggled and pointed at the flatulent donkey. The others started laughing as well. Rafe slowed his pace until he was almost walking beside the man behind them.

The elderly man walking with the donkey looked back at them and smiled. “Right rank smell, no? Sorry about that. Bessie never did do good with big cities. Name’s Gus,” he said, proffering his hand to Rafe, who had caught up with them as the smell faded with distance.

Rafe grabbed his wrist and Gus did the same. “Rafe. This is my niece Nina and my nephews Abe, Riley, and Charley.”

Gus nodded to each of them. “New to these parts, are they- eh?”

“They’re from up toward Norkeep, near Merriden,” Rafe said.

Gus’s eyebrows rose into his sparse hairline. “I do no know how things are up there, but I would be careful when I mention being too closely attached to Norkeep at the moment. What with Castor and his bunch up around there and all the trouble it is causing for trade. But I suppose you came down here to avoid that– right?”

“We’ve been on the road for weeks. Is there any news on how it goes?”

Gus shook his head. “None good, I’m afraid. He gains ground at every turn now that young Calloway is gone and Duke Calais has rallied to his banner with another twenty thousand men and six thousand Salans.”

Rafe’s eyes widened. “Twenty-six thousand soldiers? There hasn’t been a host that large in the north since the War of Eight Crowns!”

“No. Closer to forty thousand with the mercenaries flooding his ranks now that they have seen that he can fight evenly with larger forces. He had less than three thousand men just a month ago, as you know.” He shook his head. “I do no know how high he will reach before he falls.”

Charley looked over at Abe and Nina, both of whom looked just as confused as him. Charley saw Riley was watching the exchange, his eyebrows knitted in a tight knot.

The conversation cut off as a guard approached Gus, his mail glinting in the afternoon, sun peaking over the top of the wall. Charley was reminded of a weasel when the guard lifted the faceplate. “What is your business in the Dent, farmer?”

“I’m here for a night. Gonna pick up a new sickle and some horseshoes for Bessie here.”

The guard pulled a scroll out of his waistband. “That will be three silvers for stabling and two for lodgings.”

“But it was just three for all that six months ago!”

“Do you not know anything? With Castor changing everything, prices had to rise. Pay, or you can leave.”

“But…”

“Like I said, pay, or leave. It doesn’t matter to me.” Charley tried to step forward to say something, but Rafe

put his arm out, stopping him from moving forward. He leaned over and whispered, “Let me handle this one.”

Gus dug into a pouch at his side, face set in unease as he pulled out five silver coins and deposited them in the guard’s outstretched hand. Charley saw the bag now hung almost flat.

The guard smiled, his face contorting into a leer as Gus walked through the gate, head bowed. The guard turned back to them and Charley could only think to himself how sleazy this man was.

“What’s your business mercenary, or will I send you away like the rest?”

Charley saw the side of Rafe’s mouth press into a coy smile. He tapped his finger against his top lip and murmured something to himself.

He then pulled the cape aside and revealed his shoulder along with an emblem stitched into it “Is that so soldier? You’ll turn me away? Your own general?”

The guard stammered. “Gen– General Rafe? I had no idea it was you,” he said, throwing himself down on his knee. Charley looked at Rafe sharply. General?

Rafe barked a laugh. “Stand up. Now,” he said, stepping to the man’s side, “you’re going to give me that money you just bullied out of that man. Do it quickly.”

“Bullied, General? I did not lie when I said the price raised.”

“Yes, I believe you, but there is also leniency to those who can not pay, or has that also changed in the years I have been gone?”

“The Merchants Guild abolished that three years ago.”

“Reinstate it.”

“But, sir– they will have my head.”

“I will have it now if you do not. They know my bite is much worse than their bark. If they question you, give them this,” Rafe said as he pulled the insignia off of his shoulder and handed it to him. “Now, the money please.”

The man handed Rafe the money. Rafe then went on to say, “Now, I better not hear anything about you, or any other guard, denying the poor their rights.”

After they had passed through the gate Charley asked, “Are you actually allowed to do that? And why didn’t you say anything about being a general?”

Rafe grinned. “No, I’m not technically allowed to do that, but he didn’t know that. As for being a general– that was a life time ago. I’m not the same man I was then.”

Rafe then sped up, as he had spotted the farmer. “Oh, thank you!” Gus said as Rafe handed him the coins back.

Charley smiled at the old farmer’s now bright face. Rafe responded. “Oh, it was nothing. I always did enjoy setting the guards straight,” he said, winking at Abe, who had been bouncing on the balls of his feet ever since the gate.

“I just can not believe that I did no recognize you, General Rafe. I fought for you all those years ago. Sixth Cannoneers Division, under Lieutenant Madder.” He snapped to attention with both hands crossed in an X over his chest, hands curled into fists and pounded them with a snap of his arms.

Rafe smiled and handed him a small piece of paper. Gus looked down at in confusion before opening it. His eyes grew wide after skimming it. Gus looked back up at Rafe and repeated the salute before flicking the reins and riding into the market.

Abe looked at Rafe. “What did you give him?”

Rafe smiled. “A little– motivation.”

Abe looked at Charley, who just shrugged back.

Rafe leaned over beside Charley. “That’s how I choose to fight back. I do what I can when I can.” He shrugged. “Maybe one day you’ll do more than I can. Never forget, choose your battles wisely.”

 

“Come on you four, we can still make it before he closes if we hurry,” Rafe barked over the loud noise.

Charley looked at Rafe’s back. “Make it where?”

“I told you, to a friend. Don’t worry, we aren’t far now,” he said over his shoulder.

As they walked Charley saw a throng of men and women standing behind stalls with neatly laid out jewelry, different foods in bins, and pieces of cloth in piles.

He looked up at the towering buildings. None of them were conventional skyscrapers but were made out of giant slabs of stone that looked like they belonged together.

It reminded him a little of the time that his mom and dad had taken him to New York City, and he had been surrounded. The smell of sewage was much more evident here, unfortunately. Like a thousand donkey farts.

The noises and smells soon overwhelmed him and he had to grab his forehead with one hand as he walked behind Rafe.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked back and saw Riley. “Are you okay Charley?”

“Fine. Just a headache,” he said with a slight smile that turned into a grimace as his head throbbed again.

Nina dipped her hand into the bag across her shoulder and pulled out a white pill after a few moments of fiddling in it. “Aspirin.”

“Thanks.”

She smiled. “No problem.” Charley couldn’t help but notice how much her smile lit up her face. Charley shook his head. It’s not like you’ve never seen her smile, Charley. Focus.

They walked down several more streets crowded by people. Many of them tried to be louder than the next, leading to the one beside them to hawk even louder.

Even the others had to cover their ears. Rafe seemed to be unaffected and continued to weave in and out of the throng of people. He left a path that they were forced to follow in or be separated.

Charley ran into Rafe as he stopped in front of a store. “Careful there! You need to learn to pay more attention… Now, come on. We’re here.”

With a tinkling of a small bell they entered a store in one of the smaller buildings. As the door closed behind them, the sound outside became muffled.

Mounted on the walls were fierce looking swords, sharpened spears, and deadly axes. Armor rested on mannequins in neat rows throughout the room. Behind the counter was a cavernous hole leading into darkness, and to the side of the room a pair of stairs led downstairs somewhere.

Only one other customer was in the store, eying one of the most severe blades with a hide wrap on the pommel and a thin hand guard. There was nothing pretty about the blade. Nor anything about the man was pretty.

Charley could tell by the scars criss-crossing his body that this man had seen a lot battles, even though he only looked to be a few years older than his dad.

The man looked at Rafe and nodded. As he looked at Riley one eyebrow rose, but he snorted when he looked at Charley, Abe, and Nina in turn. “You three look like you could barely lift a rapier, let alone a broadsword. You on the other hand,” he said to Riley, “look like you have the right size even for Princess,” he said, tapping the broadsword on his back.

Rafe barked a laugh. “You would be right there, stranger. That’s what I am for.”

“What are you, a fencing instructor?”

A sound from behind the counter made all of them turn. Appearing from the door was the largest man that Charley had ever seen. His large bear-like hands dwarfed the large blade he held in his hand. His mane of hair was pulled back into a ponytail, thought white wisps escaped. “He’s much more than that, Hans.”

Hans laughed. “I bet I could take him, Bamard,” he said, looking Rafe up and down.

Rafe smirked but said nothing. Bamard responded. “I could make you a wager on that.”

Hans looked back at Bamard. “What sort of wager?”

“That blade you are always longing for in exchange for your mercenary’s license.”

He appeared thoughtful, rubbing his goatee. “Bamard– you have yourself a deal.” He stalked off, going down the pair stairs.

Bamard let out a rumbling laugh as he looked at Rafe. “I’m sorry Rafe. I know you just arrived, but I’ve needed a way to put him in his place for a while. I hate cocky mercenaries, even ones that have earned the right to be.”

Rafe shook his head. “No need to apologize. This will be just as good a way to show these four the basics of the sword as any I can think of. I can also see if I have gotten rusty in the past ten years.”

Bamard laughed again. “That is one bet I would not take. I don’t think it would possible for you to lose your edge.”

 

Charley sat on a bench as Hans and Rafe squared off against each other on a mat. Hans with his long blade and Rafe with his two shorter curved swords. Bamard tapped Charley on the shoulder. “See how Rafe puts his feet almost a should- widths length apart and then pulls one leg back to make himself a smaller target?” All four of them looked.

Bamard tapped a mallet to a bell and as the tone still sounded Hans thrusted forward. Rafe stepped to the side in a blur without the blade even coming close to him.

Hans continued to hack and thrust at Rafe, who continued to frustrate all of his movements by stepping past them or to the side, never giving any ground.

Charley couldn’t have described it as anything other than a master at his craft. It just happened that Rafe’s craft was the art of war, and his paintings were divine.

“Watch his feet. He pushes off with one leg while the other helps him keep his balance. Look at the bend in his knees to use gravity to ground himself.”

Hans tried several more swipes, his face growing red with anger when Rafe spoke. “Enough, you cannot hope to hit me with that giant thing. I could have killed you one hundred different ways.”

Hans came to a stop, his breath coming in ragged intervals. “Then what– do you– suggest?”

“Put that thing to the side and use this,” he said, proffering one of his swords to him.

Hans placed his sword to the side and returned, accepting the blade from Rafe. He looked it up and down and then gasped. “These are Sister Swords!”

Rafe nodded. “I know.”

“Then that makes yo-”

Bamard cut him off. “One of the thirteen sword masters of Undermire. The seventh, to be exact. The Black Wolf of Fithen.”

Rafe scowled. “In the ring, it matters little who I am. Right now I’m just a warrior. Right now, we fight.”

Rafe reset his pose. He now held both hands on the pommel but retained the same leg placement as before. Hans mimicked him with a less fluid movement. Once more, Bamard rung the bell.

“Watch this. I think this is going to be rather quick,” Bamard whispered to the four of them and then winked.

Hans was much warier now, unlike his uncaring blows of before. He analyzed Rafe before swinging. As soon as he raised the blade, Rafe moved in a blur so quick that his entire body disappeared. Rafe’s pommel smacked him on the back of his knee, knocking him to the ground.

Hans cursed as he picked himself up. “I never had much of a chance, did I?” he asked, his face now set in a forced smile.

Rafe laughed. “No, but it is not by your own fault in training. Rather, it is from the extensive training I went through as a child. The fact that I can naturally Amplify my body does not hurt– even still, my response time was off. Any of the Thirteen would have destroyed me in minutes.

Hans handed Rafe the blade back. “Thank you,” Rafe rasped much as the blade did as it slid into its sheath. Hans then picked up his blade and slid it into its own sheath across his back before approaching Bamard.

He pulled a wad of folded leathers from the strap holding his blade on his back and thrust them at Bamard.

Bamard waved him off. “Keep it, Hans. You suffered enough humiliation already, I think.”

“Take it Bamard. You won the bet.”

Bamard shrugged. “If you insist,” he said, reaching out to pluck it from Hans’ hand almost daintily with his large hands.

Rafe had walked over during the exchange and was now staring at Hans. “What do you want?”

“I want you to join us. You’re good enough to train Riley.”

Hans spat to the side. “Why would I want to train babes not even blooded?”

Bamard laughed, but it was Rafe who answered. “Because he’s The Child of Fire,” he said, pointing at Charley.

Hans looked at him intently then at the other three. “Is he, now?” he asked with wonderment in his eyes.

“Yes.”

Hans laughed. “You know, I think you’re just crazy enough that I would actually say yes. I have one condition,” he said, raising a finger.

“What would that be?”

“You buy me that blade I wanted.

 

The Brotherhood

Deliverance to the Silent Lands is the only redemption for the uninitiated.

- First Teaching of The Brotherhood

 

The sun was setting by the time they left the shop, Bamard waving them off. Charley looked down at the blade at his right hip, still barely believing it.

He thought back to the measurements Bamard had taken of each of them. Measuring their legs and arms with a piece of knotted string saying, “This is the same string my master used… and his master before him.”

He then had each of them hold different lengths of wood with different shapes to them. “Each of them is filled with lead to give a fair idea of the weight of a real blade. To tell the truth, many of them are heavier. But that just helps later.”

Hans had gone, saying he need to collect some things from his boarding room and to break the news to his band. But not before saying, “Be ready to train. I might be able to make fighters out of you yet if you’re anything like your master.”

His parents had always been strict about him never having weapons. He wondered what they would think about him having this now. Nothing I would like, probably.

I would not be so sure of that. Your father is nearly as good a swordsman as Rafe.

My father? Charley asked, not believing it. It couldn’t be the same person the voice was talking about. He had seen his father drop more than one knife while peeling potatoes or buttering bread.

There is a world of difference in preparing one’s food and fighting for one’s life.

I guess I’ll believe it when I see it.

That you shall, young warrior. After that he felt the presence leave his head. Even after only a few visits, it was starting to annoy him that this voice would just drop in unannounced, hint at some information and then leave again.

Charley saw that Rafe had stopped in front of a small building with a sign over it that a large black dog snarling with lopsided words painted underneath:

The Barghest’s Watch

Rafe turned back to them and grinned. “Built by my kind. Every inn with that sign is owned and run by those of my kind.” He said, pointing up at it.

“Anyways, come on.” He led them through the door. A rank smell hit Charley and by the queasy look on Nina’s face he wasn’t the only one affected. Charley noticed a man with a pipe in his mouth and every time he breathed out the smell worsened.

Rafe walked on, unperturbed, and handed a similar slip of paper to what he’d given to Gus to the large man, his stomaching sticking out from under his shirt, behind the counter. The man unfolded it and looked down at it for a second before nodding and hurrying out of the room.

“Come on, now. Don’t stand in the doorway. You’re likely to be run over,” Rafe said without looking at them.

Sitting in the room were several men and what looked like three large lizards with human-like hands with pointed claws at the end of them. All of the men avoided looking at the them and kept their shoulders hunched as they talked amongst themselves.

Charley could hear Abe whisper, “Are those lizard- men?”

Rafe looked at the small group to see if they had noticed before sending a glare Abe’s way. “They are called Salans. Never let them hear you call them lizards. You might as well sign your death warrant.” Abe looked diminished for a moment.

One man stood out from the others. He sat bent over a table, by himself, in direct contrast to all of the other patrons.

A chill ran down Charley’s spine, as he could almost tell that the man was staring him down. Charley shook his head. You’re imagining things.

Rafe motioned them over to a table and sat down, his back against the wall with a full view of all the doors. “Starting tomorrow we’re heading out. I thought tonight I might answer some of the questions you must have. Well– who’s first?”

“What is-”

“How do you-”

“Where is-”

Charley, Nina, and Abe all said in a big jumble. They realized all three of them had attempted to talk at the same time and started laughing.

Rafe smiled. “I can only answer one question at a time. How about you take turns asking and I’ll do my best to answer. Ladies first, I suppose.”

Nina nodded. “How did you do that? With the sword?”

Rafe sighed. “I should have known that would come up. Like I told Hans, it is called Amplifying. Instead of training in sorcery, like most of my kind does, I trained in swords and transforming. It originated as an ability of The Children.

“Overtime, my magic aligned itself towards the uses of the body rather than the mind, so I am able to tap into it and use it like an energy source. It is a hard branch of magic to use, let alone master, for most humans.”

Abe sat forward on the chair. “Are you saying that I could learn how to move like that?”

Rafe looked at him for a moment, his eyes becoming unfocused for a moment. “Actually, your power appears to be very well suited for just that.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that unlike your twin brother, your aura, or your magic, is waiting to be released. It is literally begging to be used.”

Nina smiled. “Auras? Like with mediums and palm readers?” she asked with a certain amount of skepticism.

Rafe frowned. “No. A lot of what they do is fake or half right. I am surprised by you, Nina. Do not forget, here in this world many things use magic and can pierce the Veil to sense others who would use it.

“For example, your aura is bright and hard as steel, so I imagine you’re an earth type. You are too steady and… rooted for anything else,” he said with a smirk at the word rooted.

“Charley’s is the oddest, though. It’s unlike Riley’s, who has a very deep aura; or Abe’s, which is energetic. Charley’s is– odd,” he finished with a shrug.

Abe looked at Charley and squinted. He turned to Riley and shrugged. “Do you see anything odd about him?”

Nina and Riley both shook their heads.

“That’s because none of you have been taught to sense, let alone see, auras,” Rafe said. “Riley could probably be taught to sense them with little effort with his affinity for magic. You others– there’s no telling.”

Abe started jumping up and down in his chair to the point that he almost fell out of the chair. “I’ve got something. Why didn’t you tell us you were a gene-” At that moment Rafe slapped his hand over Abe’s mouth, reaching across the table to do so.

Charley saw several people turned around to stare at the sudden movement before muttering and turning back to their bowls of stew. Rafe put up one finger to his mouth before releasing Abe. The others stared at him with wide eyes as he sat back down.

Rafe whispered, “I would rather not have everyone in the Dent know that I have returned. We need to be able to move around stealthily for the time being, and having a large group is the very last thing that we want right now.”

Abe looked down at the table, his cheeks reddening. Rafe’s eyes softened at the sight. “Do not worry. I am trying to protect you, even if sometimes it is hard to see that’s what I’m doing. While with me, there are few things you need fear. I am not one of the Thirteen for nothing.”

A hand came down on Rafe’s shoulder and then in a flurry the man lifted his other arm and Charley only caught the faintest glint.

Rafe tensed for a what seemed an infinitesimal moment and then a dagger appeared in his hand. Hearing a clang, Charley blinked. When he opened his eyes, the blade rested inside the shadow of the hood and. Charley recognized him as the same man that had been watching them earlier.

Charley looked with surprise at Rafe once more. He now saw that Rafe had been toying with Hans before, as this was at least twice as fast. So fast, in fact, that Charley hadn’t even seen a blur.

A single drop of blood fell onto Rafe’s shoulder. The man then slumped to the ground with a heavy thud. Red gleamed dully on the tip of Rafe’s blade. Rafe hefted the blade. “Exhibit a, I suppose, on how I can protect you,” he said nonchalantly.

I just watched someone die.

Rafe looked at him, seeming to read into his expression. “Don’t worry, Charley. He’s not dead. Just stunned from the poison on my blade.” Rafe turned to the others in the tavern. “Will one of you please go retrieve the guard?”

Finally, a man got up from a chair near the door and ran outside calling for help. Rafe knelt beside the man and pulled aside his cloak with everyone in the pub watching on.

In the hand that had been hidden was a knife similar in size to Rafe’s, though even Charley could tell that Rafe’s was far superior in craftsmanship. On the man’s chest was an icon of an old-fashioned weight with one arm weighed down by coins and a heart in the other.

Many of the people gasped at the sight of it. Abe jumped up and down, but didn’t say anything. The man soon returned with a platoon of guards, and for a few moments it looked as if Rafe would be taken in for questioning.

Rafe settled them down by pulling his cloak to the side, showing the guards the insignia on the armor that had somehow returned to his shoulder, and then also the icon on the man’s chest.

They pulled the man into a chair on Rafe’s orders and waited for him to regain consciousness. The man appeared disoriented at first, but when he realized who was leaning over him his mouth turned into a leering grimace.

“The Black Wolf of Fithen returns. I won’t be telling you nothing, and I’ll give you nothing but the silence you deserve,” he growled before attempting to spit in Rafe’s face. Rafe pulled back and narrowly avoided the spit landing on him.

“Well, I suppose I should have known someone would have realized I had returned. I assume you work for Ramas, then? Only a few of The Brotherhood know me by more than just reputation.”

“Like I told you, I won’t be saying nothing.”

Rafe grinned wolfishly. “You won’t have to.” He turned to the guards standing behind the man. “See if the a few weeks in the dungeon will loosen his tongue.” Rafe appeared thoughtful for a moment.

“Make sure you have at least three guards posted on his door at all times, or you can be sure that the Brotherhood will have him winkled away so fast it would make your heads spin.”

The guards saluted him before clapping the assassin in handcuffs.

Rafe turned back to them. “That is what I mean by dangerous. Even here, in a place protected by my people, you were still at risk,” he said, looking at Abe.

A woman walked up and stood behind Rafe. Her long golden brown hair splayed over her shoulder in a tight, whipcord braid. Light green eyes swam with mirth. She leaned over near Rafe and whispered. “I assume you’re The Child of Fire’s guardian, then?”

Rafe gripped his knife. “Who is asking?”

She pulled her hand back and motioned for him to relax. “I’m Jaelyn.” She leaned in closer and whispered, “A squirrel sent me.”

Rafe grinned. “Join us then, Jaelyn Squirrel-sent.”

Jaelyn glared at him. “How many squirrels do you know of that can reflect a Cait from its prey.”

“Not many, I suppose.” Rafe relented. “Do you have any idea of who it might have been?”

“Not a clue.”

Abe started jumping up and down on his seat. “Yes?”

“W-what’s a Cait?” He asked, in a loud voice. Several people looked around in distress at him, giving him a dark look.

Rafe groaned. “When are you going to learn to control yourself, Abe?” He lowered his voice. “To answer your question, it’s a Cait. They are a form of large goblin cat. I would say they range from about the size of a mountain cat to the largest tending toward the size of a tiger.”

Charley sat forward. “Can they do what you do?”

Rafe looked at him quizzically before understanding dawned in his eyes. “No. They can’t change their shapes. They are what you would consider feral.”

Riley frowned. “Feral?”

Jaelyn spoke up. “Feral as in they lack the compassion required for transformation to human forms.”

Nina spoke for the first time since Jaelyn had taken a seat. “Exactly who are you?”

Jaelyn smiled. “Someone who can help. I can’t reveal who I am, not yet at least. Just know that I would lay down my life just as readily as Rafe Fithen to keep you four alive.”

Rafe laughed. “From the looks of you, I’d say you’re Sidhe.”

“Half Sidhe, but yes.”

Rafe looked at Charley. “She can be trusted. If a Sidhe, even a half Sidhe, promises something, they are held to it by their Edicts. Now that the introductions are over can we eat some food and get ready for tomorrow?”

Almost as if Rafe’s words had summoned him, the rather large man from behind the bar reappeared through the door and came around to put large bowls of stew in front of all of them, including Jaelyn.

Rafe’s eyebrows rose but said nothing about her also having a bowl. Charley pushed the meat chunks and vegetables around until a mini-funnel was created in the center of the bowl.

Nina bumped his shoulder with hers. “What’s wrong, Charley? Normally your food would be half gone already.”

Charley looked at her, not hearing what she was saying at first. He shook his head and said, “Nothing.” He shoved a few bites into his mouth all at once to prove it. Nina looked away in disgust. While on the inside he was thinking just how close Rafe must have been to killing that man.

Even if that man had wanted to kill or take them, Charley still didn’t think violence should have to be the answer. Yes, he knew that it was inevitable sometimes, but he felt it shouldn’t have been necessary.

He still couldn’t understand how someone he didn’t even know could want him and his friends dead. He shook his head again, this time to knock the thoughts from his head.

At one time I would have agreed with you. I, too, hate violence, the voice whispered without the mirth he usually felt present. I would rather things to be dealt with more… civilly. Unfortunately, that is not the way of this world anymore.

Anymore? Charley asked.

Yes. When this land was much younger, it was much like your Earth. Calmer. Livelier. More… manageable.

What happened?

The Ancients happened.

Charley still couldn’t understand it. Why would the beings who had lived in harmony with Undermire suddenly take over?

The reason everything truly happens in nature… survival. They just weren’t betting on The Children to appear.

Why are you telling me this? What did they need to survive?

Let’s just say that I’m betting on this race, and you’re the horse I chose. I need you to win almost as much as you need you to win. And you still aren’t asking the right questions.

So I can trust you?

Charley could almost feel the voice laughing. I suppose you can trust me about as much, if not more, than you trust Renwick. I do what’s best for me. If it ever comes to the point that misleading you becomes more advantageous, I wouldn’t hesitate to do so. Like I said, everything is about survival here.

Why would you tell me something like that?

Because I honestly hope it won’t come to having to trick you.

 

Eleven

Speaking of Power

“Power is all that matters. The only difference between you and me is that I choose to use mine, dear brother.”

- Renwick Mordecai

 

Lifting herself into a standing position on her clawed feet, Maxima looked down, over the side of the cliff.

The Catacombs had always been the home of her people. The large mountain range had a huge array of tunnels and caverns connected by tunnels made by a race close in relation to ants.

The creatures, the Poll-ants, had been enslaved by the war-like Salan centuries before to burrow further and further into the mountains for minerals until nothing had been left to excavate.

Maxima thought about her reason for coming. Earlier in the evening, a young Salan had approached her, silent as a shadow. He had moved to her side and palmed a note into her hand and then disappeared again.

She knew that there was a good chance that she would never see him again. The Master’s servants were always mysterious, especially his messengers.

Below her, a group of Salans were finishing another statue to Hiberon, whom they unknowingly called their Dark Master. Maxima sneered, her sharp canines poking down over her bottom-lip as she looked upon them. Ants, all of them. Wriggling around, hoping for a scrap. Fitting that we live in a home we stole. Fit to create nothing original, only to destroy.

Thinking back, she remembered when she had been just like them: squirming around on the bottom of the Catacombs, with no future in sight except the dim light from above and the rock that surrounded her.

“Pathetic, is it not?”

Maxima twisted to face the figure, her shoulders falling in relief at seeing who it was. “Renwick. You really should not sneak up on a High Priestess like that. Even someone of your powers might find himself in trouble. Especially when one wields the authority of Hiberon.”

Renwick gave a mocking bow. “Oh, I know I must fear that giant oaf’s powers. Come now– We both know that you serve a– higher power. I think that you will find against someone of my powers you would still fall woefully short of Our Lord’s highest servant.”

A clap of light and a reverberating booming sound met his words.

Maxima felt a strangling Will surround her, and the breath was forced out of her lungs. It was so dense she was rendered motionless in front of his great power.

He came to stop in front of her. “I think that you will find my power much more– refined than Bramly’s. That idiot does not know half of the power that we possess. He would rather be the good brother. The righteous brother who can do no wrong. Well, I say let him. I will be the powerful brother.” He stopped to look at her again.

“My apologies. Were are my manners? Here I am, rambling on, and I have not even given you the message you were sent here to receive.” He grinned. “Our Lord requires something of you.” The power disappeared and she was able to move again.

She stood looking at him expectantly. He let out an annoyed grunt. “Are you not going to ask me what it is?” A wild gleam appearing in his eyes.

She took an involuntary step back before steadying herself, right at the edge of the cliff. She sent a small shower of rocks down the side of the wall. “What does He will of me?”

A crooked smile once more overtook Renwick’s face. “See, was that so hard? You may be a powerful witch, but even you must bow down to me– Very well then. He requires you to reinstate your line of spies, so he may once again follow the plotting of Hiberon. Another thing.”

“What else would He have of me?”

“You learn very quickly, Maxima, but this directive comes from me, actually. Your second objective– is to kill Charley Ashe.”

She looked at him, her mouth turning down in a frown. “Who is the Ashe you speak of?”

His grin widened. “He is The Child of Fire. I led him through the Flow just this day. He is now in Talas.”

“Renwick, I don’t understand. If you lead him through the Flow why did you not simply kill him then?”

Renwick scowled. “I can not directly do the deed. There are many barriers protecting young Charley.”

“Would you have me kill him like a common assassin?” “Use your imagination. You are a powerful servant of Our Lord, after all. It matters little, as long as he is removed from the picture… permanently. We can not afford for The Prophecy of Ash to become reality.

“Be wary, though– My brother is doing all he can to bind powerful men and women to Ashe’s cause. The true threat, for now, comes not from Charley himself, but from those he will inevitably draw to himself.”

  • * *

 

Castor walked down the line, inspecting the men in front of their tents. Not a thing was out of line, from their tents to their woodpiles.

“At ease,” Castor called, one hand raised into the air. The five hundred men readjusted themselves, but then settled into almost the exact same position.

Duke Wasser Calais stopped as Castor did. “What is it, my lord?”

Castor shook his head. “Wasser, why do they look so– stiff?”

Wasser tilted his head to the side. “What do you mean? They are Landwald mercenaries. There are none better in the world. Much better than the legions of cannon fodder that were trickling in until now. Trained as a child until their fifteenth nameday. I would not say they are stiff. Rather that they are rigid. Steadfast, if you will.”

“Steadfast– I suppose you are right. How many more of them can we have by next month?”

“Next month? I– I don’t think that would be possible. We barely had the funds for the three thousand we have now, especially with the other seventeen thousand regular mercenaries!”

“Then we take the funds we need. If we are to succeed, then we will need all the men that can be mustered. The Creep is right– war is coming. We must win.”

Wasser sighed. “Can we please talk about this– Creep you are so fond of? Perhaps in a more private manner?” he asked, gesturing to the mercenaries who continued to hold the pose.

Castor waved away his suggestion. “Anything you have to say about him can be said here and now, or never.”

“Very well, My lord– I do not mean to question your judgment, but I must Samuel’s side. Plainly said, I do not like him nor his kind.”

Castor turned to look at him, confusion in his eyes. “His kind? What do you mean?”

“Sorcerers.”

“Dear friend, it’s his magic that has led us to such great victories these past few weeks.”

Wasser sighed again. “I know– forget I said anything, my lord.”

Castor looked at him. “I know this is quick, friend. We are moving months ahead of time. But is not this the perfect time to strike? When everyone is looking for The Child of Fire?.”

Castor whirled at the sound of footsteps. A man ran, with his sword above his head, right at Castor. As soon as Castor had his sword clear of the sheath, the man threw the sword.

Diving to the ground, Castor heard the whoosh of the sword pass a few foot away from his head. Wasser ran at the man, but Castor called him off.

Castor stood and moved aside the branches of a tree and his suspicion was confirmed. A man was slumped over on the ground, a dagger in hand.

My gods– he was right behind me.

Castor walked to where Wasser was holding his sword pointed at the man’s throat. “What is your name?”

“Paddrick, milord. First Lieutenant of the Grey Falcons.” His eyes crinkling with a mischievous set. “Now would you kindly call off this good sir? I don’t need to shave that badly.

“Well, Paddrick of the Grey Falcons, you will dine with my advisers and me tonight. I also want to know how you saw the assassin.”

“I’m afraid that I must decline. My vast apologies, milord. It is a duty of the Lieutenants to make sure the soldiers and younger men are taken care of. As for seeing the assassin,” he shrugged, “I guess it is just my father’s eyes I inherited.”

Castor shook his head. “I insist Lieutenant. You will dine with me. I will have one of my aides take your duties for the evening. Come, we have much to talk about– especially your father’s eyes.”

Paddrick looked at a man in black armor who gave a curt nod. “I would be honored to join you. I do not know how much help I will be in telling you about my eyes, though. I was orphaned before I joined the Grey Falcons.”

Wasser stepped toward Castor. “My lord, you have the inventories to go over.”

Castor waved him off. “Have the scribes do it. I tire of the tediousness. I will see you at dinner, friend.”

 

Twelve

Harsh Lessons

“The things that we learn the most from in life aren’t always the most visible scars.”

- Rafe Fithen

 

If Charley had learned one thing in the past few days, it was that walking sucked. He remembered reading all kinds of comics back home. Not in one single comic was there anything about how much walking sucks.

No, he thought to himself, that little fact was glossed over quite nicely. Every night that they stopped, he would pull off his boots, and his feet would be a little more blistered. The only upside of this whole thing is that my headaches are gone.

Strength training is what Rafe had called it. “I need you to be build up strength before I can start training you,” he had told them when Abe complained about his blisters.

At the end of the sixth day outside of Talas, Rafe set up camp as usual. “When I get back from scouting, have a fire ready.” That was all he said before he left.

Charley watched him disappear into the woods. He shrugged and turned to the others. “Right, so who’s turn is it to get firewood?”

They stared back at him with saying anything. Charley felt his shoulders slump. Great…

 

That was how Charley found himself outside the camp, picking up wood. The grainy wood scraping against the skin of his hands. He flipped over a log and caught sight of a purple moss. He thought of the purple of Nina’s dress.

Charley’s head snapped up when he heard the scream. The scream echoed again a moment later. Foliage snapping and twigs cracking under his clumsy feet as he ran for the camp, Charley ran with all he had.

He came within a whisper’s length from running all the way to the camp. He stopped. What are you thinking, Charley? You’re not a hero, remember? What are you going to do that Hans and Jaelyn couldn’t handle?

Like a pump, he filled his lungs with air several times. The last bit of distance to the camp he crept forward. Charley peaked around a tree and saw Abe and Riley valiantly, albeit inefficiently, fighting against two Salans.

They were disarmed and thrown to the ground, arms wrenched behind their backs. Charley looked around, trying to see Nina or the other two. He eventually saw that Hans and Jaelyn were tied to a tree on the far side of the camp, slumped over in unconsciousness.

Where are you, Nina? Please say she got away.

That hope was dashed, as a third Salan soon carried a screaming and kicking Nina over his shoulder. “This one’s a fighter, too,” the Salan said, a sly grin crossing its face.

After he tied Nina he looked around and frowned. “There should be another boy and the warrior.”

One of the Salans looked up from holding down Abe. “I don’t care. I just wanted this one for calling us lizards.” The Salan looked back down at Abe. “Bet you wish you’d kept your mouth shut now, boy.”

Charley remembered what the other Salan had said. Rafe is out scouting– maybe if I can find him. I need to hurry!

Charley felt a sharp pain shoot through his hand as he started mousing away. He looked down and saw he still held the thick branch with the purple moss in a death grip, causing his fingernails to turn a ghostly white. Instead of putting it down, for whatever reason he could never explain, he kept it.

He soon found the trail of snapped twigs. To most people it would look like an accident, but Rafe had taught them how to read through it to find him in emergencies. As he got further from camp he sped up until he was once again crashing through the underbrush. Pushing aside a limb, his mouth was covered as he raced by. He started fighting back, and even tried to hit at the arm with his makeshift club.

“Stop, Charley. It’s me,” Rafe whispered in his ear. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Rafe’s strong arms released him. He turned. “They’ve got everyone.”

“You’re going to have to be a little more specific. Who has them?”

“Those Salan guys from Talas.”

Rafe sighed. “I should have know– wait, what do you have in your hand?”

Charley held up the branch. “It was for firewood. What’s it got to do with anything? We need to save them.”

Rafe grabbed the log and twisted it over to the moss. “Not the branch, the moss.” He brought it up to his nose and snuffled at it. A wolfish grin split across his face. “This is Scale Itch. Come on, Charley. I have a plan.”

Rafe set off at a quick pace, breaking through the underbrush with silent ease. Charley did his best to follow in the same path. Rafe held his hand as they came upon the camp. He looked back at Charley. “When I motion for you, lob this branch at them. We might get through this without a fight.”

Rafe walked into the camp. Charley felt his mouth open at the blatant boldness of the action. The Salans also appeared just as shocked. Charley saw that the others were bound as well. The lead Salan motioned for the other two to flank Rafe.

Rafe held up his hands. “I think the three of you are smart enough to realize you can’t win this fight.”

The Salan in the middle leered and his tongue flicked out. “Even you can’t take all three of us.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure. Are you sure you insist on this?” When the three Salans continued to move in on Rafe, he kept completely still as they closed in a pincer around him. “Now, Charley!” Rafe shouted as they closed in the last few feet.

With a great “oomph”, Charley threw the log. He watched as it tilted end over end. Reaching the peak of its trajectory, it almost seemed that it would continue into the air and fly off forever, destroying the plan in an instant.

Then gravity took over, and it plummeted straight for the four of them. For a moment, Charley though their last hope had been ruined. The lead Salan reached up and plucked the large branch out of the air almost mechanically.

Crap…

Then the moss began releasing spores that poured out and covered all four of them. Almost instantly, the Salans started scratching at their hides. Rafe folded his arms across his chest. “I suggest you leave and don’t come back. Next time I won’t be so gentle.”

Charley ran into the camp as the Salans fled, still ripping at their skin with snarls and whimpers. He knelt beside Nina and started pulling at the knots, but found them to be too strong. Rafe knelt beside him and held out a knife. “You free them. I’m going to make sure they leave for good.”

Charley sawed at their bindings until he had them free. Nina jumped at him, pulling him into a hug. “You saved us.” She sat back and then slugged him in the arm.

“What was that for?” Charley asked, sitting down hard from the force of the blow.

“For saving me again,” she said, a frown crossing her face. Then a small smile materialized. “But I’m glad you did.”

Abe chuckled. “Just kiss her already,” he called.

Nina turned on him, tensing up. “Do you want me to hit you too?”

“No. I think I’ve been abused enough for one day.” Abe put up his hands in surrender.

  • * *

 

Rafe watched over his shoulder throughout the next day. When he called for them to stop, he didn’t tell them to set up the tents.

Rafe turned to them. “Tonight, your training starts. I’ve been putting it off to allow you time to adjust to the traveling. That was obviously a bad decision, as events have shown me.” Without a further word, he motioned with his hand for Riley to go with Hans to the other side of the clearing, wooden broadswords in hand.

Charley watched as Hans started swinging slowly at Riley, giving him time to block it. Riley started moving quicker, until the blade was knocked from his hand in a quick clubbing swing of Hans’ blade onto Riley’s wrist.

Charley couldn’t help but laugh. He felt a sharp rap on his wrist and grabbed at it from the pain. “What was that for?” he snarled at Rafe through the pain.

Rafe grinned. “You just lost your hand. It’s not nearly as funny when it is your wrist being hit, is it?”

Charley felt ashamed at laughing at Riley, and had the throbbing wrist to remind him. After that, it went smoothly for the rest of evening. Charley couldn’t believe his luck at first when Rafe had them just hold their sword aloft and just stare at it. He called it attuning.

Soon, Charley didn’t feel near as luck. Each time his arm dips Rafe swooped in and had him correct his stance by returning it to the correct height, only letting them relax for what seemed just a few moments out of every hour.

“Is this really training?” Charley found himself asking.

Rafe nodded. “I do this not to torture you, or reprimand you. I do this to train your muscles. This is the same method that all young Barghest are taught in. With your magically enhanced bodies, this should not be truly difficult.”

Abe looked at Rafe. “What do you mean, magically enhanced?”

Rafe walked over, and corrected his head before replying. “I mean, that as Children, you are each born with a certain amount of magical reinforcement. It is much like the magic that runs through Barghests, so our training styles are easily adapted.” He pushed Nina’s feet further apart by what seemed a minimal amount.

“A good example of your enhancements is when I landed on Charley near that park. In my animal form, I weigh four hundred pounds. If I had done that to a normal boy his size, I would have broken his ribs. Charley came away with a few bruises that faded within a week.”

“Or like when I threw the branch. That thing was, like, thirty pounds.”

Rafe nodded. “Exactly. A boy your size would have thrown out his shoulder.”

Abe looked over at Riley enviously. “Then why is Hans training Riley? Shouldn’t he be with us?”

“Riley is being trained differently as he is too large, and will continue to grow larger. The way of the Dancer is not his to follow.”

He paused for a moment before a grin spread across his face. “I also imagine that he will rarely ever be forced into a situation in which he will have to rely on brute force. It’s really just a rudimentary learning process for him.”

“Because of him being a wizard?” Charley found himself asking.

“Yes. His path does not lie in steel, but in magic.”

 

Thirteen

The Seven Paths

“We each have to follow our own paths. Maybe, one day, they will cross once more.

- Gregory Vance

 

His arms seemed to heal quicker and quicker until he’d built up muscle. His feet also started healing quicker, and soon even the hours of just holding the sword became easier. There was only one thing wrong.

Charley couldn’t fight.

After Rafe was satisfied that they understood the poses, he had them move onto flowing through sets, or groups of movements that went naturally together. “Think of your opponent and how he would react to a movement. A true master can see the intentions of anyone after a single swing of a blade.”

Charley mastered the rudimentary sets, but could not do as Rafe said. Everything fell into shambles the second he tried to visualize attacking an enemy.

Even after Rafe had him slow down even further, he still couldn’t get even the simplest sets to work for him. Rafe watched him over the course of two days but still seemed confused.

“I don’t understand. You perform each move flawlessly, even better than Abe, but you are incapable when completing any of the visualization techniques.”

Jaelyn stopped her training on the third day of this and watched him as well. A look of understanding crossed her face. Rafe caught sight of it. “What is it, Jaelyn?”

“This is just an idea,” she said, approaching Rafe and finishing her idea by whispering it to Rafe. His brow crinkled as he listened.

Rafe nodded and walked in front of Charley. “Raise your blade, Charley. You are going to spar with me.”

Charley took a step back from him. “You’re crazy! I wouldn’t last a second against someone like you!”

“Do it. Now,” Rafe said, growling the last word.

Charley felt a shudder run down his spine as he stepped back forward and reset his wooden sword into the ready position, thanking all the practice that Rafe had forced them through in the last few days.

The sword felt light in his hand. Charley could see Riley walking over and asking Abe something in a hushed voice. Hans looked at him, pity in his eyes. “Fight well, young one.

Charley looked back at Rafe, and good thing he had. At the moment Charley had looked at him, Rafe slashed at him. His fear helped him raise his blade to meet Rafe’s at the last moment. Like a puppet, Charley felt his control of movement disappear.

His fear consumed him in a flash flood and then disappeared into the eye of the storm. A sense of weightlessness filled his body. As the second swing descended, Charley’s blade rose to meet it with ease.

Within a few moments, Charley was watching Rafe and sensing each and every attack he would use before he had even moved. Charley felt something rising in his chest and he grew confident and started attempting to return blows.

That was when everything went wrong all at once.

Like magic, he felt the power flee and he was back to being a bumbling novice. Rafe, not noticing the change almost hit Charley before a different blade moved in and knocked his blow away. Rafe looked over and saw Jaelyn standing beside him, her longsword holding his shorter blade in check.

“The magic failed him. If you had not been so concentrated on taking his head from his shoulders you would have noticed,” She said with a shrug of her shoulders.

Rafe sheathed his swords and turned back to Charley. “I am sorry. I pushed you too far.”

Charley looked at him, still standing in the same position he had been in just before Rafe would have hit him. He shook his head and looked at Rafe. “What was that?”

Rafe sighed. “I think it best that all of you sit down for this.”

Charley sat down next to Nina and looked at Rafe. He appeared to be muttering to himself, his lips moving like twin hummingbird wings. What’s going on? He tried to ask the voice.

He felt the connection solidify and realized that this was the first time that he had tried to start the conversation. He felt irritation from the voice. Don’t try to contact me so casually. I am a busy person… Also, I suspect that Rafe is about to tell you himself.

Charley felt the connection disappear and he had a moment of frustration at the way he had been brushed off, yet the voice seemed to be allowed to connect to him at any time.

Rafe sat across from them. Jaelyn lowered herself to the ground and sat back against a tree. “Make it brief, will you Rafe?” was all she said before leaning her head against the tree, and closing her eyes.

“Not sure I can do that,” he murmured.

“Will someone just tell us what is happening to Charley? I mean, seriously. How did he go from horrible to amazing?” Abe asked, noticeable envy in his voice.

Nina nodded. “I’m with Abe on this one. No offense, Charley, but you sucked. Then you had major mojo all of a sudden.”

Rafe sighed again. “I was hoping that we wouldn’t have to have this conversation for some time. Well– can’t control everything. You remember how you were told you that The Children were the protectors and negotiators of both Undermire and Earth long ago?” He paused while everyone nodded.

“Well, they didn’t do it with numbers. While at the height of their power there were only around forty thousand active Children. They were always outnumbered if you consider the millions who live in Talas alone. They ruled with a group of powers.”

“Powers?” Abe started bouncing. “What kind of powers?”

Rafe held up his hands. “I will explain that if you will let me. I need you to give me time to explain, so please attempt to hold your questions for now,” he rasped. Abe motioned locking his lips and tucking the “key” in his pocket and then patted it for good measure.

Rafe rolled his eyes. “The Children are born with the ability to use one of seven powers, or Paths as they were later called. Usually, each Child would manifest in one of those powers, which is the Awakening, sometime around their fourteenth or fifteenth birthday. After you Awaken the other paths will close to you for the most part.”

“Is that door thing Riley’s Path?” Abe asked, seeming to forget his promise.

“Yes. That is the Traveler’s Path. A magic based on teleportation and location magics. Another is the Amplifier’s Path. You have seen me use it to increase my speed and strength in combat.”

“The third Path is the Diviner’s. Their powers are drawn from ancient druidism. They use rune stones to manipulate the elements and summon Daeva. Their abilities eventually spawned the birth of modern magic, which comes from the user or a patron and not their surroundings.”

“Wow. Way cool,” Abe said, interrupting again. Charley had to agree, though.

Rafe held up a fourth finger, ignoring him. “Next is the Animator’s Path. They use their art to generate a type of magic to give a pseudo-life to them,” he said with a shrug.

“The Silencer’s Path is the fifth. They were the spies of The Children. It is largely thanks to their corps that you four are alive today. Without one of their best, Gregory Vance, sneaking into the Palace of Giants near Redpon, The Children would have never had time to flee.

“Their abilities lie in silent movement. I do not mean that they were cautious, but that they could be the clumsiest men in Undermire, and they still made no sound. They largely relied on magic that could manipulate vibrations.”

Riley nodded. “That’s smart.”

Abe looked at him, his eyebrows scrunched. Riley said to him in explanation, “Sound is made of something colliding with something else. It causes vibrations. You control the vibration, you control the sound.”

Rafe smiled. “Exactly. They would create what they called vacuums. These vacuums would hold the sound in a certain area inert… But what was perhaps their most important power was manipulating those vibrations into weapons.

“Think if you could harden those vibrations into a blade. It would be like holding a small chainsaw that causes an explosion every time-”

“Dibs!” Abe exclaimed.

Rafe shook his head in exasperation. “You don’t pick the power, the power picks you.”

He went on to finish. “And the sixth Path is the Empath’s. They are perhaps the rarest of the six Paths. Simply put, they sense and manipulate emotions. Once upon a time, they were said to be able to control even thoughts and actions. But no Child has been powerful enough for that in several hundred years,” Rafe said, though Charley did notice him sending a glance his way.

Rafe looked at the four of them. Charley shifted as Rafe’s gaze fell on him. Still looking at Charley, he said. “We just happen to have an Empath sitting among us. I think I understand your aura. Can I ask if you have headaches when in crowded areas?”

“Yeah. What does that have to do with anything?”

Rafe smiled. “Because it isn’t due to the sound or stimuli. It’s due to the large amounts of emotions and being unable to Siphon it correctly. Yes, medicine helps, but that’s because it numbs your abilities.”

Abe jumped up and down on the spot. Rafe looked at him and rolled his eyes. “Yes?”

He went through the motions of unlocking his lips before replying. “So you can tell by our aura what we will get?”

“No, but it is a good indicator. I could, with a very high probability, tell both you and Nina what your manifested ability will be.”

“Would you?” Abe asked, quivering with anticipation. Rafe barked a laugh. “I’m not sure it’s needed. I already told you before what your auras were like. Let’s see if you two can come up with the answer for yourself,” he said, leaning back on his hands.

Riley sported a small smile. Abe turned to him. “Ok spill it, you know something.”

Riley shook his head. “I know, but I think Rafe is right. We need to be able to figure out things for ourselves. We’ve already seen that things aren’t always what they appear.”

Abe threw up his hands. “Why does Charley get to be told?”

“Because even I wasn’t sure until just a while ago when Jaelyn suggested the test,” Rafe said after a few moments of silence.

Nina appeared thoughtful, her eyebrows coming together, before looking at Rafe. “I think I might know, but I want to check something first.”

“Shoot.”

“You said I have an aura like steel, right?” Rafe nodded. “So… either a Diviner or an Animator, right?”

Rafe frowned. “No, the Diviner’s Path would not suit you well.”

“Why is that? They use those stones… what were they called again?”

Rafe grinned. “Runestones. I should have mentioned they are called Diviners because of their ability to glimpse the future. It’s just so rare I did not think it worth mentioning. Their heads are always in the clouds.”

“So I’m an Animator?” Rafe nodded once more.

Abe perked up. “I know, I’m an Amplifier!”

Rafe laughed. “Very good. It should have been simple for you. You’re easily the best fighter already.”

Abe frowned. “What about Charley?”

Yeah, what about Charley?

Jaelyn sat forward. “He’s not a good fighter, he’s just good at reading emotions and intentions and his body takes over. You might notice that the magic failed him soon after he attempted a retaliatory attack.”

“But what does that mean for me? I mean, if I can’t fight, I’m not much use, right?”

Jaelyn looked at him for a moment. “I would assume that means violence is against your nature. Your aura and your Awakening are both affected by who you are as a person. Your anti-confrontational nature led to your manifestation of Empath abilities.”

Riley spoke. “I do have one question.”

Rafe sighed. “You want to know what the seventh Path is?”

Riley nodded. Rafe shrugged in return. “I don’t know. No one does anymore. It hasn’t been seen in nearly three thousand years.”

 

Fourteen

The Tests

“Life is a set of trials. It is up to you to find the courage to pass them, or fail them.”

- Head Keeper Ban

 

“We’ll be there soon,” Rafe said over his shoulder. Abe asked. “Be where soon?”

“The Academy. What used to be the stronghold of The Children. None have entered in nearly fifteen years.”

“Since– then?” Charley asked.

Jaelyn piped up. “Yes, since the extermination of The Children. Aren’t there tests to enter?”

Rafe stopped and turned to face them. “Yes. The Tests of Sight, Wisdom, Strength and Blood. But, you only have to take them if it is your first time visiting.”

The first three sounded like something he would expect from the adventure series he had read. But blood? That’s kinda creepy. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be connected to anyone who thought of a test like that as a good idea.

“What if, say, you only pass the first three?” Riley asked, a visible shiver passing down his spine.

“You’re only required to pass the first to enter. If you fail to pass the second most of the Academy will remain barred to you. But do not worry. Remember, things are not always what they seem.”

Rafe turned to Hans and Jaelyn. “You two have to take the first test. The rest are optional, as you are not of The Children.”

Charley saw a motion behind Rafe. As if a sword had cut space, a rip appeared and a boy stepped through. His silvery hair hung to his shoulders in a short braid. Abe’s eyes appeared to bulge.

“Rafe… you know I hate it when you do my job for me.” The boy whined.

Rafe smiled wolfishly without turning. “Yet you never seem to stop me from doing so. How are you Arty?”

“Good enough, I guess. Not many people come this way anymore. I don’t get to scare anyone anymore.” He started giggling. “I do have to say, though– You four had some of the best reactions I’ve ever seen.”

“Everyone, this is Arty. He’s a Keeper.” Rafe pointed out

Charley. “Arty, this is Charley, The Child of Fire.”

Arty scowled at Rafe. “I know who he is. I could sense all four of them miles away. I haven’t sensed auras that strong in nearly six centuries from Unawakened.”

Rafe’s mouth turned down. “You’re losing your touch. Both Charley and Riley have Awakened.”

“No, I can see it clearly. None of them have.” Arty stood on tiptoes to rap his knuckles on the side of Rafe’s head. “What, are you saying? They manifested already?” He took a closer look at Charley, leaning in closely. He then did the same thing to Riley and huffed. “Well, that’s no fair– he’s a Double. Who’s his twin?”

“Me. Are you really six hundred? You don’t look much older than me,” Abe said matter-of-factly.

Arty took a moment to stare at him in the same manner. “Yup. I see it now. You two share Paths… as for how old I am… well, I’m not six hundred. I’m actually nearly seven hundred years old.”

“That is very fascinating, but what about them? Are you sure they haven’t Awoken?” Rafe asked.

Arty gave him a look of annoyance. “Of course they haven’t.” He started staring off into space. “They just have a lot more– juice.”

“Well, no use waiting for the cow to hatch a chicken. Who wants to go first?” Arty asked, sweeping his gaze across them.

“First?” Nina asked.

Arty clapped his hands. “The tests, of course! I can’t just let you in, silly.”

Riley raised his hand. “I guess I’ll do it.”

“Very well then. The first always has the funnest time.” He clapped his hands again and Riley disappeared.

Charley jumped and then fell down after his foot slipped on a rock. Arty laughed at Charley. I guess he wanted something like that to happen. Nutty guy.

“I’ve… never seen… anything… quite like… that!” Arty wheezed out. Charley had the sudden urge to stick his tongue out and almost gave into it.

Arty got his breath back. “Oh, you might as well get comfortable. This might take a while.”

No sooner had he finished speaking then Riley reappeared. Arty looked at him, his face turning down. “Aww– I don’t like it when they’re good,” He whined.

Without a further word, he clapped his hands again and Nina disappeared. This time everyone was ready for it and didn’t react. Arty’s face fell further. Charley could have sworn he heard him mumble, “They never fall for it twice…”

Abe tried to pump Riley for information. “What was it like? What did you have to do?”

“I can’t tell you. I swore to never reveal the secrets of the tests.”

Rafe eyes widened in surprise. “You passed all four tests on your first try?”

“Yeah. Is that good?”

“Very, but I just didn’t think someone your age would be able to do it. Most are several years older than you before taking the tests– and even fewer as fast as you.” He shrugged and leaned against a nearby pine tree.

This time Arty’s words proved true as Nina remained gone for much longer than Riley had. Finally, looking rumpled, she reappeared.

Arty took one look at her windswept hair and busted out in laughs even louder than with Charley falling. What’s with this guy?

Nina stared at him defiantly. “I finished all four.”

Arty stuck his tongue out and sent Abe. He reappeared quicker than even Riley had, though he didn’t look happy. “I only passed two tests.” Arty looked pleased.

“That’s good enough for where we need to go in the Academy. Don’t feel bad. I only passed the first test on my first try. All of you are exceptional,” Rafe assured him.

Arty sniggered. “Kids these days. Thinking two is bad. Most don’t even make it that far!” He clapped his hands and Jaelyn was gone.

She took the shortest time yet before reappearing. She looked in perfect condition, not a single hair out of place. “Well, that was easy.”

Arty snarled and turned to Hans. Hans’ eyes darted from side to side. “I would rather not-” Hans yelled as he disappeared. The sound reverberated around the clearing several times before fading.

Arty looked meaningfully at Charley. “I hope you’re fired up. Get it? Ha! Because– you know– you’re The Child of Fire. Ha!”

He’s definitely got some screws loose.

Oh, more than a few, assuredly, The voice said with mirth. He has been like that for as long as I can remember.

Welcome back, Charley responded.

Is that sarcasm I sense?

Oh, no. You just shrug me off when I try to talk you, but you seem fine coming into my head whenever you feel like it. The grass greener over here or something?

I told you. I’m a busy man. I help you when I can, not when you want me to. And as a matter of fact, it is much easier for me to contact you than for you to contact me.

Well, lets see if I can make this simple. GET OUT! With a great mental push, he forced the voice out of his head and blocked it off when it tried to come back in.

He tried to move to sit down but did so faster than he meant to. He realized his arms and legs were numb and they felt like they were moving through wet cement. Or maybe syrup. Mmm, syrup.

His eyes went dark and he knew someone was shouting, but it was like hearing it from inside a pile of blankets.

  • * *

 

“Charley! Wake up. Oh god– wait– he’s coming around.” He felt someone shaking his arm. He opened his eyes to

see the sky above him spinning. Everything slowed down and came to a stop. He felt someone shift against his side. He turned his head to the side, and a splitting pain shot through his spine. Son of a cracker-jacker.

“Don’t try to sit up yet. Just let yourself settle. You went down pretty hard,” Nina said.

“What happened?” Rafe asked.

“I– I’m not sure. There was a voice. I pushed it out of my mind.”

“Ah. I figured it must have been something along those lines. You overextended your Will.”

“Will? Like willpower?” Nina asked.

“Yes, and no. You see, will, with a little ‘w’, is something that everyone has. Will, with a big ‘w’, is something that every mage or sorcerer has.

“It is a visual showcasing of your magical abilities. It is much more draining, but a lot more powerful than most forms of magic.”

Abe started laughing, having overheard the conversation. “So you’re saying Charley has the Force?”

Rafe looked thoughtful for a moment before barking a laugh. “Yes, I suppose that is an apt explanation for it.”

Hans and Jaelyn both appeared confused. “What are you talking about?” Jaelyn asked.

“It’s from a series,” Riley replied.

“Series? Of books?”

“Yes. Along with a movi-””

Rafe cut him off. “It’s an Earth thing. Not important.” Arty giggled. “Well, this is all rather fascinating, but

Charley still needs to take the tests.”

Charley sat up, remembering why they were even here. He regretted it as much as he had the time he went on one of those extreme spinning rides at carnivals. His eyes started spinning, and he felt a hard knot in his stomach.

Rafe examined him, concern clear in his eyes. “I am not sure I would advise he take the tests today. I think it would better if he waited until tomorrow.”

Arty rolled his eyes, his freckled nose scrunching. “What’s wrong with him, huh? He looks alright to Arty.”

“I said no, Arty.”

Charley pushed Rafe’s hand away and stood up. Huh, no spinning. He looked Arty dead in the eyes. “I’m ready.”

Rafe tried arguing but Charley talked over him. “You are always saying you are just here to protect us, not lead us. I– I’m supposed to lead, right?”

Rafe sighed. “Yes, but I’m just trying to put your best interest at heart.”

“That’s not gonna work forever. You also said that you might not be there to help someday. Well, shouldn’t we be able to make important decisions too?”

“I said that because I know that I have time to train you– to get you ready for when I can not be there.”

Charley shook his head. “That just sounds dangerous. What if it comes to a time when you can’t be there and we don’t know how to do it ourselves?”

Jaelyn laughed. “He’s right, Rafe. Even someone of your caliber could die, or some other unanticipated event could occur.”

Rafe nodded before moving over to a tree and leaning against it, his chin in his chest.

Arty looked at Charley with enthusiasm. “Well, it’s been fun.” He clapped his hands.

Charley found himself in a stone room with no exits or windows. It was like dawn: enough light to see, but not enough to see everything clearly. But, there were no light sources in sight.

In the center of the barren room was a figure sitting on one side of a table, his face hidden behind a hood. He waved for Charley to sit.

Once seated, the figure pulled his hood down. Sitting on the other side of the table was Victor, his personal tormentor.

“Hey, Charley. It’s been a while.” His wide smile tearing any of the confidence that Charley had built up over the past weeks with the training Rafe had given them.

“I think you know what time it is.” Phantom Victor rose from his seat and as he did the room shifted. Lockers stood on all sides. His two friends, Chuck and Justin, materialized beside him.

Charley backed up as they came at him from three directions, trying to pin him against the locker. Bolting to one side, he almost made it past Justin. Jetting the other way, Chuck stopped him. He aimed a punch at him, but Chuck caught his arm.

He was forced against the lockers and panic almost gripped him as they attempted to push his squirming body into it. This can’t be real. This can’t be real.

He felt something snap into place in his head. Wait… this can’t be real.

Charley stopped fighting and closed his eyes. For a few seconds, the shoving continued, but then the feeling of the hands on him were gone.

He opened his eyes and the stone room had reappeared. Now a young boy sat behind the table. “Join me, Charley,” the youthful voice enticed.

“Do you know where this is?” Charley asked as he sat down.

The young boy tilted his head. “I think you know– at least, you could know.” He shrugged. “It matters little to me.”

Charley sighed. “Can you at least tell which test this is?” They sat in silence for several moments. Charley took in the boy’s silence and accepted it as a challenge. The young boy smiled after several more minutes of silence. “Good. You know the wisdom inherent in silence.”

Huh?

“Why are you here?”

He thought about the obvious: that he was here to fulfill a prophecy. But the more he thought about it, he didn’t really know why he had come at all. It hadn’t really been his choice to come. Yeah, he had gone along with it, but he hadn’t chosen this. Not really, anyways.

“I… I don’t know.

The boy smiled. “Good. You also know the wisdom of honesty. Never forget that when you do not know, you have simply to ask. This does not mean you will receive an answer, but it may also mean you will.”

“Now, my final question,” the boy paused. “What does it mean to be strong to you?”

“I think– it means to protect those close to me, no matter the cost,” Charley said, thinking of Riley, Abe and Nina along with his parents.

“Even if it means suffering for others, or others suffering for their sake?”

Charley hesitated. “I– I’m not sure.”

The boy’s face angered. “You have to know. If it truly came to it, could you choose the good of the many over the good of those you love, or conversely?”

“I don’t think I could sacrifice them. I– I would try to find a way to save them all.”

The boy’s mouth broke into a grin. “The hero with a need to save everyone. Isn’t that the kind of hero you hate the most, Charley?”

Charley shook his head. “I’m not a hero. Not really. I don’t know why everyone keeps saying I’m supposed to become some hero. I mean, Riley is smarter. Nina is much braver. People even like Abe better than me.”

“By your own words you mark yourself the most average of the remaining Children. And yet, the prophecy is about you. There is no mistaking it.”

The boy started recited in a sing-song voice, “‘Descended of ash, he will deal in fate.’ Charley, you are meant to lead, you just don’t know it yet.”

Once more his surroundings disappeared and then reappeared. A large brute of a man stood with arms crossed on the other side of the table. “Come here, boy.”

Charley hesitated for a moment.

“What are you waiting for?”

He approached the man. For the first time, the man smiled. “Good. You feared me, yet you still came. That takes the strength of will.”

The man walked over to stand in front of Charley and he then poked him in the chest, nearly sending him sprawling. That hurt. Charley thought, getting angry.

“My concerns with you are the strength of character, and the strength of body.” He looked critically down at him and huffed. “Look at you. No meat on your body. How are you going to protect anyone with that body?”

Charley tried to feel anger, but couldn’t make himself do it. He sighed. He’s right. I couldn’t even protect anyone when we were attacked. Nina said I saved them, but it was really Rafe. Without him, it never would have worked. I couldn’t have done that on my own.

A smaller part of his brain responded, Then get stronger. Get strong enough so that never has to happen again.

Charley grabbed hold of the words. Something seemed to click into place at that moment. “Then I’ll just become strong enough to protect them.”

“Ho-oh. So you can control your emotions. He who is quickest to anger is he who loses his way the fastest– and I do suppose you have time to bulk up a little. Very well, I’ll pass you.”

Charley found himself in a courtyard as the room once more shifted. Torches stuck out of the ground, the flames waving in salute to Charley as they lit the path toward a stage. He saw the hooded figure, the boy and the man all standing on the stage. Beside them was an elder man.

The elderly man stepped to the edge of the stage and held out his hands, palm up. “Charley Ashe, son of Tomas Ashe. I have been waiting to meet you for many centuries.”

Centuries? What is he talking about?

“I am talking about the fact that I foretold your coming several centuries. Long before that prophet made the prophecies about you.”

Charley looked at him, mouth hanging open. “You can

read my thoughts? Wait– did you say prophecies? I thought there was only one.”

The man nodded. “Of course I can read your thoughts. And yes, prophecies, not prophecy. But that is a topic for another time. As for right now, I can only tell you that I am the Head Keeper, Ban.”

“Well if you’re the Head Keeper, you should do something about Arty. He’s kind of nutty.”

The three behind Ban, chuckled. “I assume you are talking about my son’s– eccentricities?”

“Sure, whatever that means. Wait, he’s your son?”

“Very much so. Well I would love to chat, but we are on a bit of a schedule.”

“Right. Sorry,” Charley said, not at all sure why he was in fact supposed to be sorry.

Ban nodded. “There are three qualities necessary to come to the Test of Blood.”

The three behind him stepped forward. The figure in the hood threw it back. Victor reappeared and spoke. “The sight to see what must be seen.”

The young boy squeaked out, “The wisdom to know what matters most.”

And, finally, the large, beefy man spoke. “And the strength to do what must be done.”

Ban turned to them. “Has Charley Ashe met your expectations?”

The three of them nodded, but the large man appeared hesitant for a moment. Ban turned back to Charley, a knife appearing in his hand. He proffered it to Charley. “You must take it and show your resolution. Speak now if you have any reservations.”

“I– I don’t think I’m the person you want me to be.”

 

Fifteen

Heroic Acts

“Doing the right thing isn’t enough. It has to be done for the right reasons as well.”

- Bramly Mordecai

 

Ban nodded his head. “I know you’re not that person. I have known since the moment I laid eyes on you.”

“So you don’t think I’m some great hero meant to save Undermire?”

“No, I do not.”

Charley felt a moment of relief. Like a great bird taking flight, he felt free of the cage that held him so tightly he felt like he might suffocate. Then he felt like the pigeon that has nowhere to roost, confused and lost.

“Then why did you say the prophecies are written about me?”

Ban smiled. “The prophecies are indeed about you– but not as you are now. Right now, no one expects you to be a hero. They do not believe in you, they believe in the idea of you– but even more importantly, you do not believe in yourself. But that does not matter right now. Right now there is only this.”

He held out the knife again, offering it to Charley. Charley stepped forward to take it and saw engraved across the blade:

Charley Ashe

“What am I supposed to do with this?” “Simply show your resolution.”

Charley hesitated for a moment. “You want me to– cut myself?”

Ban smiled. “I can not tell you what is right or wrong. The meaning is entirely up to you.”

Charley stood frozen to the spot. What should I do? He contemplated cutting his hand. It was the only action that Charley could see that would satisfy the demands of the test.

He readied the blade over his hand but couldn’t go through with the motion. After several false starts, he reset the blade and brought it back to rest on the palm of his hand.

Come on, Charley… If you can’t even do this, how can you get stronger? He felt his resolve harden. Somehow he knew he would be able to do it. He squinted his eyes and stared straight at Ban, refusing to look as he maimed himself.

As he pulled the blade hard across his palm he knew the blade should have cut in deep, but he felt none of the resistance he expected.

His mother had on occasion forced him to help with the cooking. He had expected it to be like cutting a chicken breast, but he felt nothing. He looked down and noticed his skin was unblemished.

Charley blinked. “I… I don’t understand. What happened? I should be bleeding.” Charley said, looking back up at Ban.

Ban smiled and the others chuckled. “You have shown your resolution. Few as young as you could come this far in the tests, and yet you have completed all four. Even further, you do not believe the prophecies to be yours, and yet you still came to Undermire. I have rarely met young Children possessing such courage.

“True, you have faced no real hardship, due to Rafe Fithen’s assistance, but you know it can happen at any time.”

“You got that right,” Charley murmured to himself.

Ban jumped down from the small stage and stood next him. “Do not fret. In time, you and your friends will come into your own. In the coming years, the roles will reverse: those things you fear most will come to fear you.”

“Thanks– I guess.”

Ban patted his shoulder. “You have been here long enough. I will see you soon. Well– the real me will.”

He had the same intense feeling as the landscape disappeared and he reappeared with everyone else. Nina came to stand in front of him. She looked him up and down before huffing, her hair still a mess. She walked away and continued to untangle her hair.

Abe laughed while everyone else attempted to hide their smiles behind hands or biting lips. This just made Nina grumpier, and she refused to talk to anyone.

Abe broke the silence. “So how far is it to the Academy?”

Rafe turned to him and smiled. “We’re here.”

Abe turned in a circle, seeing just the trees surrounding the forest path. “Uh, Rafe? Hate to break it to you, but I don’t see any buildings. So– yeah.”

Charley piped up. “He’s right. I can’t see anything.” Nina nodded, agreeing.

Abe turned to Riley. “Hey, bro, you see anything?” Riley’s face broke into a small smile.

“Enchantment,” Hans said.

Arty clapped. “A prize for this man.”

“You have to see through it. You all passed the Test of Sight. This is the reason that you have to pass it on the first try. Simply put, you can not even see the Academy without the necessary ability to see through enchantments. It is the reason most never make it there.”

Abe squinted his eyes at the nearest tree. He walked up to it and knocked on its side. “Feels real enough.”

Hans laughed. “That’s the point. It’s supposed to feel that way.”

Jaelyn nodded her head. “The trick to seeing through it is strong concentration plus an understanding that everything around you is not real. Without those two things you will never see through it.”

Charley stared at the trees. You are not real. You are not real. You are not real, he thought to himself like a mantra. He watched as the trees lining the path faded and were replaced by columns or statues. Turning to face Rafe, he saw a figure standing behind Rafe and Arty.

“Hey, its you,” Charley said, waving.

Abe looked at him like he was insane. “What are you talking about, man? It’s just us.”

Charley shook his head, but it was Nina who responded. “No, Charley’s right, Abe. You just need to concentrate more. There is someone there,” she said, pointing at them.

Abe closed his eyes, crushing the lids together. That can’t be comfortable. His eyes opened. He looked around for a minute, his mouth opened wide. “Holy crap. Where were you guys hiding this? I mean… it was here the entire time?”

Rafe clapped Abe on the shoulder. “Welcome. You six are now among the last few living beings with the right to enter The Academy.”

Ban walked to stand beside Arty. “Yes. Your guide is correct. You also happen to be the first new Children to walk these grounds in fifteen years. I am sure you would like to explore your birthright, but at the moment we do not have that luxury. Unfortunately, we must convene to my office.”

On each door they passed, a vertical marking appeared on the wood. It ranged from one to four marks. Ban spoke over his shoulder, once again reading his mind. “You may only pass through doors with the corresponding amount of tests you have passed.

“While everyone can enter those with one mark, not all of you may enter those three marks and higher.” He gave Abe a penetrating glance, as if knowing his personality already.

Abe looked back at him innocently, but winked at Charley after Ban turned away. Ban laughed. “Even if I am not looking at you, does not mean I do not know your intentions, young Abe.” Abe looked shocked.

“Do not be so surprised. Who do you think raised

Arthur?”

“Call me Arty, dad.”

They reached a door with no mark apparent on it. Instead of pushing it open, Ban stared at it, and it swung open. He turned to look at them. “Do not try to open that door without me present.”

He pushed the door the rest of the way open. “Enter. I have information I must share with you. Information you will find– useful.”

Charley saw what appeared to be a normal office with a large desk and rolling chair he would expect to see back on Earth in a lawyer’s office.

Something else that caught his eyes was the cage sitting in the corner. A small, man-like being sat cross-legged. His tousled red hair was finished with twin horns breaking through the curls.

The little man sneered at Charley. “Welcome, princeling. Have you perhaps come to gawk upon my form?”

Ban rapped on the metal cage as he passed it. “That is enough, Godfrey. I do not want to hear another word from you. They are my guests, and you will treat them as such.”

He reached the other side of the desk and stared at them arrayed in a semi-circle around the desk. “Please. Sit.” He waved his hands and cushy chairs appeared for all of them.

“I know why you are here. You are here for information on finding the rest of the prophecy. Well, the Keepers have continued to send out agents across Undermire over the past decade, and we have– uncovered some information.”

Ban paused. Rafe growled impatiently. “Ban, I know you have a flare for the dramatic, but these young ones have walked nearly sixty miles in just a few weeks– and we probably have more miles to walk today.”

He took a moment to breathe. “I came here for help, not your acting abilities.”

“I apologize, old friend. I know how important this prophecy is, possibly more so than you do. With my contacts in the many kingdoms across Undermire, I have found several leads on were the rest of the prophecy can be found,” he said, giving Charley a knowing look before continuing.

“I can, with absolute certainty, tell you where three fragments are. The closest would probably be the Mage Tower of Morness, which is the next town on this road. The next is with the Creep of Granhold. Lastly is Grimoire Hold, being the furthest, and probably the least accessible.

Where? Charley looked at Rafe and saw recognition in his eyes. But there was something else as well. Fear, Charley realized.

Rafe nodded his head. “Do you have an idea on how many there are in total?”

Ban shrugged. “If I had to guess, I would presumably say five in total. Though I can’t be certain.”

“One found, three accounted for and one missing. That is certainly not what I had hoped to hear, but certainly better than it could have been.” Rafe sighed. “Is there anything else?”

Ban leaned in and raised three fingers. “A bit of advice and two pieces of information.

“First, my advice is that you make for the Mage Tower first. It will be the easiest of the fragments. The first piece of information is directly linked to this: the Sorcerer has returned to Mage Tower. He is waiting for you. The other information is something I need to share directly with the young Children.”

He turned to face the four of them. “I am assuming none of you know the real name of Him?”

Abe jumped up and down. “Nope. Everyone’s keeping their mouths as shut tight as a lid on sauce.”

He nodded. “I assumed as much. In most of Undermire, it would be ill-advised to speak his name. Here, though, it is safe to share it. His name is Ultimo.”

The room darkened and thunder rolled. The lights came back and the sound disappeared. Charley looked around the room, panicked. “What in the world just happened?”

Rafe smirked. “It’s what happens when a Greater Ancient is named.”

“What did you expect? He just said the name of one of the most powerful beings in existence,” Arty replied sarcastically.

Ban frowned as he looked at a clock. “We’re taken too much time. You need to rest. Here, I have something for each of you.” He stood and walked to the bookshelf behind his desk and removed four tomes. He handed one to each of them.

Abe groaned. “Reading? Why does it have to be reading.”

Ban laughed. “Inside you will find basic techniques on harnessing your Paths. You may actually find this much more interesting than you believe.”

Abe seemed to ignore him. “Can we at least explore some?”

Arty chuckled. “You’re my kinda guy.”

“No, we need some time to rest and recuperate,” Rafe said, staring at him sternly.

Hans clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on. I’ll show you some moves with Princess.”

After the two of them left, Ban turned to Rafe. “I’m assuming you will need rations, then? I think we can also spare one or two of the pack animals.”

  • * *

 

They spent the night in the Academy, and Charley almost cried when he saw the bathroom had hot water. He had also become so used to not sleeping on a bed, that it had almost felt weird to him.

I could get used to this, Charley thought to himself as he looked at the donkeys that Ban had given to them. Just as long as they don’t fart.

That day, Rafe stopped earlier than he normally did. He had them set up the tents before pulling Charley, Abe and Nina into a large clearing among the trees with practice swords in hands. “What, did you think you were going to get out of training?”

“It had crossed my mind,” Nina muttered under her breath.

Rafe growled. “It shouldn’t have. I must turn each of you into competent warriors. What should take a decade, I have to teach in just a few short years. Not only that, but you must each learn to master your Paths.” He paused for a moment, his back turned to them before shouting out, “The first pose.”

They each snapped to attention, holding practice swords out. Arms and knees slightly bent with back straight but relaxed. One foot further out than the other, with the gap in between feet about shoulder-width apart, Charley reminded himself.

Rafe walked around each of them. Without saying a word, he made the usual adjustment to Nina’s feet that appeared impossibly small. He had them hold the swords at attention for what had to be twenty minutes.

Surprisingly, Charley felt none of the usual strain from holding it. In fact, it felt completely weightless. Rafe leaned against a tree and a small smile spread across his face. “From now on, you will practice forms with your real sword.”

“What about sparring?” Abe asked.

Rafe barked a laugh. “If I wanted one of you to be missing an arm, I would cut it off myself. No, sparring will still be done with practice blades, but none of you have anything more to learn from the stave’s balance. All of you know the correct forms, now you need practice implementing them with the balance of your swords.”

He broke Nina and Abe off into a pair and had them start a mock match while he paired himself with Charley. Oh great. Another death sentence.

Rafe smiled at him. “I want to test something. Draw your real sword.”

Charley groaned. “Not again. Isn’t almost killing me once bad enough?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll use a stave.”

Charley tilted his head. “Won’t I cut it?”

“No. I’m going to imbue it with magic. If it hits you, it will just leave a nasty bruise, and I’ll hold back on Amplifying. Now get set.”

Charley faced Rafe, his sword held at ready. Why do I deserve this? He slid his feet into position and nodded at Rafe. Abe and Nina paused to look over, forgetting that they were supposed to be sparring.

Without looking, Rafe said, “Get back to it, you two.” Rafe covered the small amount of space between them and jabbed at Charley. He felt the same weightlessness again as he effortlessly knocked Rafe’s blade away.

A light appeared in Rafe’s eyes. Charley gasped as he saw a flash of Rafe’s intentions. Before Rafe had even made the move, Charley preemptively moved his blade to block Rafe’s blow.

A moment later, Charley found himself kneeling over with Rafe’s boot planted in his stomach. He looked up at Rafe as he stepped back. “I don’t– understand. I saw what– you were going to do.”

Rafe grinned. “No, you saw what I wanted you to. I figured out how your Empath powers are manifesting. You can read other people’s intentions. I just had to trick your ability into reading something that wasn’t going to happen.”

“So you tricked me? Isn’t that cheating?”

Rafe laughed. “Do you think sword fighting is all about chivalry and honor? It’s not. It’s about survival. You can be as honorable as you want, but you would be honorably dead if you refused to fight dirty.”

Charley sat, thinking about what Rafe had said. He decided to go with the easier topic. “So how did you trick me?”

“It was easy once I figured it out. I let you see what would be the easy move, and then I do the unpredictable. I moved by instinct, not with my training I feinted you out, basically. It's not as easy as it sounds. If you were a better- trained swordsman, I could have easily lost my leg. I would not try it against a veteran, just someone like you.”

Charley smiled. “Well, the good thing is that I don’t have to fight you for real– or anyone like you.”

Rafe shook his head. “That is exactly why I showed you this. Someday you might not be able to rely on your intuition and magic. You might end up fighting someone who can do exactly what I did.”

“Is there any way for me to see through it?”

Rafe shrugged. “When your Empath abilities mature more, who knows. But, for now, the best thing you could do is train your swordsmanship. You could easily be almost as good as Abe if your could overcome your aversion to violence.”

“What if– I don’t want to?”

“That is certainly a noble sentiment, but not exactly a smart one. It is like I said, nobility usually just gets you killed. Now, get out your stave. I want you to practice repressing the abilities while you train. That way you can concentrate on controlling your Path.”

“How do you know that will build control?” Charley asked.

Rafe shrugged. “I knew another Empath once. She was like you.” He refused to say anything more on the matter.

  • * *

 

It was the same dance and song over the days following. They would wake up in the morning, pack everything after a light meal, walk for ages and then train until it was time to eat.

Training would start with sparring or practicing the poses, and then afterward Rafe had Charley practice repressing his Path to build control. Charley felt his powers growing as the days passed. He would touch someone and feel their emotions, though it was often fuzzy.

Charley noticed that Abe seemed to grow more serious as he started his training to honing his Amplification. In fact, it was like seeing a whole new Abe. He mastered much of the lower-level training, and could be seen flitting across the camp.

Charley saw that Nina, on the other hand, was having trouble even doing the simplest of the tasks that the book detailed. Rafe consoled her. “It’s fine. Many Children do not have conscious control as quickly as Charley and Riley, or even Abe.”

 

As usual, Rafe stopped them in the early evening, the fifth day out of the Academy. But then he pulled Hans and Jaelyn over to the side to talk to them with a quiet intensity. Charley watched them nod back in response.

Charley felt something was different as Rafe walked over to them. He leaned down over one of the stakes and he murmured out the side of his mouth, “Listen, you four, there isn’t much time. We’re being followed. They’ve been tailing us for nearly three days and will be here in minutes. I want all of you to finish the tent, and get in it. When you do, get your swords out and stand back to back at the center.

“Hans and Jaelyn are going to hide in the foliage while I confront them. I doubt they will attack a single man. If it gets physical, we will do our best to protect you, but a few might get past us.”

With that, Rafe straightened up and went to the center of the clearing and set himself in a relaxed position with arms crossed. The four of them hastily put the tent up and entered.

Charley saw that Abe was wired, nearly jumping out of his skin as Riley drew his much larger sword. Abe chuckled, his eyes darting around. Nina put a hand on his arm. “Chill out. We’re gonna be okay. I mean, we have Rafe out there.”

Rafe to save the day– Yay. Come on, Charley. Didn’t you say you would find a way to protect them all? How are you going to do that hiding in a tent? Charley had the sudden urge to leave the tent and join Rafe. He steeled his mind and turned to the others.

“I’m going out there.”

Nina grabbed him, her eyes widening. “But Rafe said to wait in here.”

Charley shook his head. “I’m tired of getting saved and not being able to help. I’m tired of Rafe or Riley doing all the heavy-lifting.”

“But what about the Salans the other day? That was all you.”

“No. Rafe could have beaten them easily. You know how good he is.” Charley sighed. “I need to do this.”

Nina turned to Riley. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”

Riley shook his head. “Charley’s right. He has to face danger eventually. It might as well be now when Rafe can help.”

The entire time, Abe had been bouncing up and down on his toes. He pumped his fist “Alright, I’m coming with you!”

Before either of them could change their minds, or before Nina could anyway, they ran from the tent and came to a stop on either side of Rafe. He looked at them, confusion in his eyes.

He saw their resolution and nodded. “If you must, but stay behind me. And sheath your weapons. We don’t want to frighten them too bad,” he said with a smirk.

He didn’t know how to feel either. On one hand, he wanted to protect himself and his friends. But on the other hand, he didn’t want to have to hurt anyone. Especially because he knew that if he did, it wouldn’t be like a comic, he would actually be hurting a living, breathing person.

The hoof beats broke through his thoughts. He looked down the trail and saw at least two dozen horses and their riders.

As they neared, a tall blonde man dismounted. He came forward and gestured toward them. “Hail, travelers. May I share your fire for a few moments?”

Rafe acquiesced by motioning for the man to join them. “Why do you travel in such a large group?” Rafe asked.

“I’m searching for a certain party making for Morness. I would know one of the group from a brief meeting in a tavern about two weeks past.”

Rafe grinned wolfishly. “I would need a name, my lord.” “Her name was Jaelyn. A fair Sidhe maiden. Possibly of noble heritage.”

 

There was rustling off to the side of the clearing and Jaelyn walked out from the brush. She approached Rafe and the man, dragging her feet. “Is that you, Vard?”

Charley watched Vard lock eyes with her. She seemed to freeze to the spot, a deeper tension filling the glade they were standing in.

“Why are you following us, Vard?” Jaelyn managed to ask.

“I was sent to help you.”

Charley’s heart sunk as soon as he realized that his grand gesture had been a flop. A lot of good that did me.

 

Sixteen

Villainous Intent

“We are judged by who we choose to be? Well, I guess it isn’t going to to go too well for me.”

- Maxima

 

In the trees, far from the tunnels and caverns of her youth, Maxima always felt uncomfortable and exposed. Even with her magic, which could make her invisible to even the most observant mage, she still had the feeling that someone was watching her.

She raked a deep line into the tree as she watched the large group of mercenaries join the much smaller band. Several times, throughout the evening, Maxima saw the boy, his sandy blonde hair a stark contrast to the predominately brown and black haired group.

The other boy she made note of was the taller, more muscular boy. His aura was also deeply powerful. She could already tell that he was someone not to be reckoned with.

The other two children, though, were much less powerful. She knew she had to choose one of those two to take. That was the plan she had settled on.

She made her decision. The girl. Nothing gets the boys running like a girl in trouble, she thought to herself, a reptilian sneer crossing her face. A little cliché, but effective.

Now just to take her.

Even though she had her shroud of magic, the instant she moved it would be broken. And she knew no invisibility sorcery that would allow her to draw close unseen.

Her power came through years of prayer and mental training in the honor of her dark god. Of course, she had seen through the deception and had found that she was just drawing her powers from Hiberon.

Guess I’ll just have to do this the hard way, after all. She began dragging her claws across the tree at an angle to sharpen them.

 

Waiting until it was complete darkness, she slinked into the camp. At one point, she could have sworn one of the guards looked right at her. She stilled her breathing, crouching behind a two-foot shrub for what seemed an hour before the man moved on. She continued on her way to the tent she knew the four children were in.

She could hear light murmuring from inside. Calling her magic, she shrouded herself once more. It almost turned out to be a mistake, as she heard a loud thump from within the tent.

Even though she was separated by the fabric she heard a small male voice say, “Sorry. I could have swore I felt something. Was that you, Riley?”

“No. I felt it too, though.” A deeper voice replied.

“It was probably just one of the mercenaries. What are the odds that none of them can do magic? Can we please just get some sleep?” The girl asked.

That seemed to end the conversation, as they all fell silent. Soon, their breathing deepened and she knew they had fallen asleep. She glanced around for any guards. Seeing none, she turned back to the tent and with extreme control she cut a hole large enough for her to walk through.

Her reptilian eyes adjusted to the dim light and she saw everything in hues of green and blue. She spotted the girl laying on the far side of the tent and cursed herself. Of all the places I could have chosen to enter.

On clawed feet, she tiptoed across the room, almost kicking one of the boys as she went. She paused, making sure her near miss hadn’t spooked one of them awake, before continuing. She drew a small bag from a pocket and sprinkled a dust across her lips. It quickly dissolved.

Now comes the fun part. Maxima scooped her up. The girl murmured in her sleep for a moment but made no further sound. Moving much quicker than when she had entered, she walked to the hole. She stopped long enough to seal the hole and then vanished into the night with her new captive in tow.

And now the game begins.

  • * *

 

Nina cracked open her crusty eyes to blazing sunlight. She heard a shuffling as someone came to her side. “Well, you’re awake.”

She attempted to sit up, but a pulsing headache forced her to stay still. “Where am I? What’s going on?”

A scaly, brown face appeared over hers, the elongated snout inches from her face. A gray tongue darted out and tickled her nose. The male Salan snorted. “You don’t taste good at all. Too much fear and confusion– oh yes, Nathan knows. Yes he does,” he said, hissing every s.

Nina attempted to sit up again and was able to fight through the headache. She took in her surroundings, seeing that she was still surrounded by trees, but she herself was on top of a small rocky hill.

The Salan had backed up and was sitting beside a slimmer and more beautiful Salan. The female turned her way. “What’s your name, girl?”

“Where am I?”

The Salan woman laughed. “First the pleasantries, then the information. Here– I’ll start. My name is Maxima. What’s yours?”

“Nina. Why am I here?”

“I kidnapped you.” “Why?”

“Because you’re my insurance that your precious prophecy boy will come exactly were I want him to.”

A jolt fear passed through Nina, overriding the headache she had. “What do you want with Charley?”

A small smile crept over Maxima’s face, making it look more like a snarl with all the teeth shown. “I have orders to dispose of him.”

The jolt came again and took up residence in her belly. “You want to– kill Charley?”

“No, I have to kill Charley Ashe. And you’re helping me do it.”

“I would never,” Nina spluttered out.

Maxima grinned. “Just by being my captive you already are.”

 

Seventeen

A Trade

“Nathan knows– oh yes. Nathan sees it. Oh yes, Nathan does.”

- Nathan the Outcast

 

“Wake up!”

Charley opened his eyes to see Rafe standing inside the entrance to the tent. “Get up now.”

“What’s going on?”

Rafe growled. “Nina was kidnapped.”

Charley shot to his feet, awake in a matter of seconds. “What do you mean kidnapped? We have to go after her!”

Rafe held him back from charging through the tent flaps.

“Hold on, Charley. Rushing and getting ahead of ourselves isn’t the answer. We need to have a calm head about this.”

“How can you tell me to be calm when one of my best friends has been taken? I thought you said you would protect us!” Charley hurled at him.

Rafe grimaced. “I know I said that. And I’m doing my best to protect the rest of you.”

“Protect the rest of us? Sounds really good coming from you.”

Charley felt a hand on his shoulder. “Charley, chill out man. He’s doing the best he can,” Abe said, trying to calm him down.

Charley pushed him his hand away. “That’s bull! If he was doing the best he could, we would all be here right now!”

Riley walked over to him and stared him dead in the eye. “Charley, shut up.”

Charley looked at his serious face and felt his mouth opening and closing.

He found his voice. “But how can you not be angry?”

“We are mad. We are scared, just like you. But the difference is that we are mad at the right person. And that person is whoever took Nina.”

Charley felt his surging emotions settle some. “You’re right.” He turned to Rafe. “I’m sorry for what I said.”

Rafe shook his head. “No, you were right. I didn’t protect everyone. I told you the day might come when I couldn’t protect you. I didn’t think that day would come so soon. If we’re going to follow the trail, we need to set out soon. Who ever did it has an advantage of time and distance.”

With that, he left the three of them standing there. Charley could feel the gaping hole that Nina had left. “We should probably pack,” Abe said.

 

The trail took them off the road. Rafe and several of the mercenaries scouted ahead to make sure there were no false trails. Rafe, or one of the mercenaries, would appear out of the trees and tell them to continue going straight. Charley noticed they had a strange look on their faces as they said it.

Jaelyn explained it after he asked. “It’s weird because someone trying to get away does not tend to leave an easy path. I’ve done a little tracking myself and they usually pull tricks like walking backward or looping around through their path several times to confuse the direction they are headed.”

Rafe appeared out of the trees beside them. “In my experience there are two reasons someone does not lay false trails.”

“And why’s that?” Abe asked.

“One: they were in a hurry or did not have time. Or two: they want us to follow them.”

“Meaning it’s a trap,” Riley finished, shooting a look at Charley.

Oh. Charley now felt like a jerk for what he’d said to Rafe earlier.

Rafe nodded his head. “And if I had to bet all the gold I have, I would put it on the second option nine out of ten times.”

“So whoever took her expects us to follow them?” Abe asked.

Rafe nodded his head again. “And by the direction we are traveling I have a fair idea on where that would be.”

Jaelyn gasped. “The only thing in this direction are the Catacombs an d -- ”

“That’s right– the supposed lair of The Council of Bone. ‘To cut away the ancient sickness, Ash will battle Bone.’”

Hans looked disturbed by the entire conversation. “I have heard whispers about this supposed phantom council. Some say they are demons from another plane. Others say they are men and women who gain their powers from eating children.”

Vard, who had been listening, laughed and waved his hand at Hans. “Hardly, friend.”

Hans looked at him affronted. “And how would you know that, greenhorn?”

“Because I’ve worked for one of them before. They are normal mages and arcane users who serve Hiberon.”

Rafe growled. “And you would work for someone like that?”

Vard shrugged. “I worked for the gold, not for the person. I won’t lie, I’ve done things that I’m not proud of. But they kept me fed and alive.”

Rafe nodded. “You’re no worse than I am.”

“Who’s Hiberon?” Abe asked.

For a moment no one responded, and the only thing Charley heard was the chirping of birds. Finally, Rafe replied. “He’s a Lesser Ancient. Some say he is the embodiment of greed. His need to win any bet is known throughout all of Undermire.”

Charley put up his a hand. Rafe looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Yes, Charley?”

“I see one of those lizard men. What was it you called them?”

They all looked around until they saw what Charley had been talking about. Nathan the Salan sat on his hill, staring down at their approach.

Rafe decided that a small group of them would go up to meet the Salan so that they didn’t spook him. “We should go and see if the Salan has any information. I think four or five ought to do it. Myself and Charley, definitely. Who else wants to go?”

Most of the mercenaries backed up or shuffled their feet. Vard looked back at them and scowled. He turned back to Rafe. “Sorry, this bunch is a bit skittish around Salans. We’ve had too many bad encounters with them. I guess I can make up one of the party.”

Jaelyn nodded. “I guess that means I’ll stay here, then.” Rafe gave her a look that she very pointedly ignored.

Rafe then looked at Hans. He shook his head. “Afraid I’m going to sit out on this one as well.”

Riley stepped forward. “I’ll go if that’s okay with you.”

Rafe frowned. “I would rather not have both you and

Charley go, but– It should be okay.”

 

With that, they separated from the group and climbed the hill. The entire time, Nathan sat on top of his hill without moving a twitch. He turned his head to look at them after they had reached the top, using the path he had pounded into the ground after decades of solitude.

“Greetings travelers. Your path is far from the beaten one. Oh yes, Nathan knows.”

He’s nuttier than a squirrel.

“You know why we are here, hermit?”

“Of course. Oh yes, Nathan knows. You search for that which has gone poof,” he said, making a popping noise after he finished.

Rafe drew one of his swords and in an instant had it against his throat. “Tell me where Nina is, or else.”

The crazy Salan hardly seemed to care the sword was there. “Oh yes, Nathan knows. Nathan knows what ‘else’ is. Oh yes. Your little pretty that has gone poof. Oh yes, Nathan knows. Nathan knows where she is, too! Ha!”

“Then tell me,” Rafe growled.

“Nathan knows. Oh yes, Nathan knows.” He started to whisper. “Nathan also knows what is around the little dog’s throat. Oh yes, Nathan does indeedie.” Rafe growled.

Around his throat?

Vard laughed. “Come on, Rafe. Whatever sense this Salan had fled years ago. We’ll get no information from him.”

Rafe nodded. “You’re right. We have nothing to learn here.” He turned to walk away, sheathing his sword in the process.

“Wait, don’t leave. Nathan kids. Nathan will tell you. Oh yes, Nathan will.” Charley watched as the Salan stood and charged Rafe. He caught a blur of Rafe stepping to the side and tripping up Nathan.

“Oh no. Nathan did not see that coming. Maybe Nathan shouldn’t give nasty man-wolf his scroll. Oh yes, Nathan knows. He will keep it to himself.”

Rafe gave them a surprised look before a smile crossed his face. He removed the hold he had on Nathan and helped him up. He gave Nathan a dazzling smile. “Perhaps I was too hasty. Can Nathan find it in his heart to forgive me?”

Nathan looked taken back by the sudden gesture. “Oh

yes. Perhaps Nathan can forgive this once.” He started whispering to himself. “Maybe Nathan was quick to judge man-wolf. Maybe Nathan should give man-wolf the scroll.”

Poor guy is starved for attention.

Nathan ran off to a small hole that Charley had missed. The Salan slid into the hole headfirst, pulling himself along with his sharp claws. He soon returned and had somehow turned himself around for the exit. Probably has a small den in there somewhere, Charley reasoned.

He ran back to Rafe and held out a dusty scroll. “Nathan thought he might keep this. Ugly Salan woman forcing Nathan to do her bidding. If it weren’t for Nathan’s dark god, he wouldn’t have even taken it in the first place. Oh no, Nathan wouldn’t have.”

Rafe unfurled and scanned the scroll. He sighed and rolled it back up. “We have to go.”

A look of horror crossed Nathan’s face. “Please, don’t leave poor Nathan. He served his penance. Other Salans say they will come to rescue Nathan if he stays on hill for ten years. Oh yes, Nathan remembers. Nathan must live in solitude for one decade.”

He looked at Rafe with sorrow in his eyes. “That was thirty years ago. Nathan swears he never even stepped one claw off of the hill. Please, take Nathan home.”

Rafe shook his head. “I am sorry, Nathan. We are going somewhere dangerous. I do not want to put your life on the line as well.”

 

Rafe hurried the pace so that they could outdistance Nathan’s horrible crying. Rafe would cringe every time the sound they heard the sound, and Charley could have sworn that he saw a wetness around Rafe’s eyes more than once.

After they left the hill, Rafe shared the contents of the scroll. “This Salan woman, Maxima, demands that we meet her for a trade of sorts.”

Charley had a dark feeling in the pit of his stomach. “What is she willing to trade Nina for?” he asked, though he was sure he already knew what Rafe was going to say.

Rafe looked at him pointedly. “She wants you to willingly trade places with Nina.”

 

Eighteen

A Biting Flame

“A flame can give provide you the warmth of life, but can also consume you a moment later.”

- Gwyn Fairlight

 

Since Paddrick had saved Castor, he had quickly risen to a position of personal guard. Castor stared at those glowing yellow eyes. He shuddered slightly. He still wasn’t quite used to them even though Paddrick had been his constant companion for weeks. He sat forward.

“Paddrick.”

The eyes flickered toward him. “Yes, Lord Castor?”

“My advisers find the Creep– distasteful. What are your thoughts?”

Paddrick stepped into the light of one of the torches. He quickly pushed his flattened hand through the flames, cutting through it like a blade. “The Creep is like this,” he said, motioning to what he was doing. “The flames burn, but only if they can catch you. The more you evade the flames, the better you get at it, but the blacker your had becomes.”

Castor put his head in his hand. He’s like my father all over again. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean– the more you use the Creep, the better your chances of success become. But the down side, is that he will blacken you. Turn you into his puppet, change who you are.”

“His puppet? But I’m the one using him.”

Paddrick shrugged. “In your own way, that is probably true. But I think it is both ways. You can control the flame, but it only takes one time moving your hand too slowly and then the flame wins.”

Paddrick turned to the large doors as they opened once more. The Creep slowly shuffled in. He walked down the long carpet draped over the stone floor, flickering torches illuminating him.

He turned his head to stare at Paddrick for a moment, and bowed his head briefly. He continued toward Castor. “You called, Lord Castor?”

Castor nodded. “Yes. Some of the castle guards tell me there was a– problem a few days ago. Why did you not come to me as soon as it was finished?”

The Creep lowered his head. “It was nearly midnight. I did not wish to wake you for something so– insignificant.” Castor scowled. “Any threat to my plans is not insignificant. From now on you will bring me any plots you uncover. Are we clear?”

The Creep bowed, his long, lanky hair nearly sweeping across the carpet in the action. “As you wish, my lord.”

“Good. Now, tell me about this intruder.”

The Creep hesitated. “She is a young sorceress. At first, she seemed to be a rare talent. She grew ever more powerful with me tutoring her, but something seemed off. It seemed like she grew too fast.”

He paused for a breath. “I planted a false document to see if she would take it. She, of course, did and is now being held in your dungeon.”

“Has she told you who she’s working for, or for what what reason she infiltrated our ranks?”

The Creep shuffled his feet. “I’m not sure who she is working for– it could be any number of people. But I do know she was working as a weapon’s enchanter. It might have something to do with that.”

“Well, go find out,” Castor said, staring down at the Creep with anger in his eyes.

The Creep opened his mouth to reply, but he closed it and turned to shuffle from the room.

Paddrick waited for the doors to fully close before he once more stepped back out into the light of the torches. He once more pushed his hands through the flames. “Like I said, he is using you. Why else would he hide something so important from you?”

Castor quickly turned his gaze to him and scoffed. “For all I know, you could be a spy too.”

Paddrick laughed. “You pay too well for me to betray you. Mercenaries go to were the money is– and that is you, milord.”

Castor nodded his head. The fear that he had been keeping to himself seemed silly now that he had said it out loud and Paddrick had refuted the claim with such ease. He had been cautious to become to close to anyone since Calloway had betrayed him.

“You are a good friend, Paddrick.”

Paddrick looked at him. “How so? I do not know of many friendships built on gold.”

“You tell me the truth. Most of my other advisers are unwilling to do so, or only tell me part of what they know or think, like the Creep does.”

 

Later that evening he and Paddrick went to the dungeon

to see the young sorceress that the Creep had kept secret from him.

He peered through the rune inscribed bars and saw a young, composed woman. The only thing that marked her as a prisoner was her messy hair and current surroundings.

“What is your name?”

She stared back at Castor calmly before replying, “Valencia.”

Her eyes punched holes into his with a defiant look and then she stood and gave a mock bow. “What may I do for you, my lord? Unfortunately, there is very little I can do for you in my current– situation.”

Castor grimaced. “The only thing I want to know is why you are opposing me, the future king of all Undermire.”

She laughed. “I could not care less if you were the future empire of the universe. I was not here to fight you.”

This time it was Paddrick’s turn to laugh. “Then what exactly were you hoping to accomplish by stealing from one of Lord Castor’s advisers?”

She gave him a look-over. “And why would I answer to the hired help? I talk to him, or no one,” she replied.

Castor looked at her curiously. “So you will tell me why you are here?”

“If you will listen.”

Castor hesitated before nodding and waved for Paddrick to leave. He did, but not before shooting her a glare.

“Fine then. Let me explain. As a small girl, I grew up in a minor noble family. We were not the richest, nor the most influential, but we were happy. There was my father, Marquis Deleon, my baby brother and my mother– It’s strange, I can’t even remember their names anymore.”

Castor shuffled his feet. “What does this have to with anything?”

She glared at him. “I’m trying to tell you the reason I will stop the Creep, no matter the cost. Even if it means my soul.”

“Very well then.”

“It happened nearly eleven years ago, when I was seven. I only remember because my birthday had just passed. The Creep came to my father, as a guest. He ate our food. He drank our wine– and the entire time he planned to kill my family.

“At first, he made gestures to pay us to join your father. Then he begged. After that, he seemed to have given up hope. He killed my mother and father first, I was told later. Then he went to my brother’s room, and killed him so that he could never seek revenge.

“The guard who told me later said that the only reason I was spared was because as a female I could never pose a threat. Those are my reasons for fighting against the Creep however I can. You just happened to be the easiest way to do that.”

Gods… Is he really that type of man? Castor kept his face composed, but his insides coiled with the power of a thousand snakes. What kind of man am I if I partner myself with him?

Nineteen

The Forgotten Ones

Perhaps the most sinister and evil of all creation, The Forgotten Ones are without peer.

- Hortikulture Encyclopedia

 

Rafe’s words rang through his head even several days later. They still had yet to break through the large forest, though Rafe said it was a matter of time until they did.

He still even stopped in the evening to train. Many of the mercenaries either watched or practiced themselves, so Charley didn’t feel quite so awkward dancing around while practicing movements.

Rafe stopped Charley from using his Empath abilities every time they seemed to kick in. “I told you, I don’t want you to rely on them too much.”

Charley continued to feel frustrated at both the pace they were taking and the way Rafe seemed to think it was his fault that his abilities kept appearing. “I can’t help it. It’s like a reflex.”

“The best way to improve reflexes is by consciously using them. If it’s still an unconscious reflex, you need to practice harder.”

Rafe sent him back to practicing with Abe, who seemed to have gained an even greater fire for the sword since the ransom for Nina had appeared. Charley knew Abe was now much better than him with the sword.

It doesn’t help that I have to stay on the defensive– if I can’t even fight Abe, how am I going to save anyone? Charley asked himself in frustration after a particularly bad defeat.

Charley reset his pose. “One more time.” Abe nodded. Once more Abe was able to disarm him. Instead of taking the sword, Charley swatted it away and walked off of the field. Abe called after him. “Charley, come back! Okay, I’m sorry. I’ll go easier on you.” That just made him feel even worse.

Walking out of the camp, he stomped around for a while, his anger and insecurities washing over him. Worthless– You can’t even fight. He felt himself say the words, but they didn’t seem to be his.

Charley was lost in a daze as he walked about, losing himself completely. He came to a stop in the middle of a large grove of gnarly trees, with dark flower buds on the lower branches. Charley approached and hesitated before he touched the flower, and felt it throb beneath his fingertips. He drew his hand back.

He felt an intrusion on his mind, like when the voice had still visited him, but it was much darker, brooding. It felt like a dark fog descended on him. Who enters the Grove of Forgotten Ones?

Without realizing it, he answered, Charley Ashe.

It has been many ages since one so young could hear our call.

What call?

Did you not hear us? Did you not come of your own accord?

Oddly enough, he realized he had felt drawn to take the path he had. At first, all he had felt was the anger and frustration from his inability to do anything. They seemed to melt away the further he walked, almost like he had forgotten that he was even angry to begin with.

I– I think I did. Why did you bring me here?

So you could sleep beneath our boughs. To dream with us of days far gone. To give you rest from a path you would not have chosen for yourself. A dark path filled with suffering and bloodshed.

He felt his mind slipping into the fog. He barely even noticed when he sat against the tree. Feeling a small jolt, a small part of Charley’s brain realized the danger that he was in. With the fog shaken from the jolt, the rest of him got the message, and he started fighting back. He could almost feel the trees laughing at his attempts to free himself from them.

 

Relax, young one. You can not remove yourself from this snare. Why struggle? You could enjoy the last moments of your life in our euphoria. We could make it seem an eternity if you wished– did you not want this not so long ago? We could give you that and so much more.

Not only was he now fighting a mental battle, but as creeping branches with the flowers ensnared his body. With a final push, he was able to free his mind in time to see that the flowers opening. I have people– people I need to protect.

They had gone from a dark black color to a bright red. On the inside of the flower were sharp teeth-like protrusions. Fighting against the thorny branches, Charley was able to draw the dagger Bamard had included with the sword.

What are they to you? Have they not let you down? Belittled your efforts and worth? What kind of hero would you be?

Charley cut at the branches, severing several of the smaller ones to no effect except to be drenched in a red liquid.

Charley attempted to free his arms enough to cut at the tree. He felt his abilities at the corner of his brain, but they refused to manifest, almost like they were being blocked. I’m not a hero. I’m just me.

Charley pushed against the invisible wall, even as he fought against the thrashing limbs and flowers that nipped at him. The wall seemed to buckle and then collapse completely. He felt his powers surge through him, but Charley felt a difference.

As the weightlessness fill him, his abilities didn’t flee as he slashed at the branches with renewed vigor. As he cut at the indifferent bark, his blade somehow found the stem of a flower and sheered it from its branch.

The entire grove shivered, and Charley heard a great roaring in his ears. It sounded like cracking ice and a wounded bull all at once. Charley clapped his hands down over his ears as he felt the great sorrow of the trees.

Several of the branches that carried the flowers back away from him and he was able to fight his way free of the others. He backed away from the trees to the center of the grove, now covered in scratches.

He felt the mental intrusion once more. Charley fought back, but it broke through anyways. You are the first in many generations to free yourself from us.

Good, let me leave then. I promise to cut off all of your flowers if you don’t let me.

He felt the trees contemplate his words. Their branches stopped rustling. They seemed to come to a consensus. We will let you leave. On this day you have already destroyed one of our few remaining children.

Thank you.

He felt them break contact with him. Just to be safe, Charley backed his way onto the path he had taken to enter the grove. Once he felt he was far enough away that the trees could no longer attack if they changed their minds, Charley sheathed his dagger.

Charley vaguely remembered the path and was able to retrace his steps. Around every turn, his eyes deceived him with shapes appearing in the branches, caused by the light from above.

Stepping through the last of the brush, he saw what the branches above his head had been blocking. The sun had set and the moon was nearly two-thirds of the way into the sky.

I must have been gone for hours.

He walked into the camp and saw a large group of the mercenaries along with Rafe and Abe gathering torches. They all stopped and stared at him like he was some kind of monster.

Charley almost expected Nina to run out of their tent and hug him until he remembered she was the reason he had been so anger and frustrated about not being able to anything about it. His insecurities felt pointless and silly now that his tempered had been cooled by the near-death experience.

He didn’t feel any of that now. For the first time since he had come to Undermire, he felt like he was a little in control. It was like when he had been given the scratches from the branches, he had also been given a sense of control.

Abe opened his mouth, gaping at Charley. “We were– I mean– You’re here. I’m sorry about earlier.”

Charley smiled. “No. I’m the one who should be sorry. I’ve been afraid since the moment we came here, and I took it out on all of you.”

Rafe growled and came up to them. “No time for an Oprah special right now. We’ve got to go find Riley.”

Charley looked at him in surprise. “What do you mean ‘go after Riley?’ Did he get kidnapped too?”

Rafe barked a laugh. “No, he used his Traveler abilities to locate you. He sensed you were in trouble and told the rest of us to stay.” Rafe let out another laugh.

“It seems he’s been training himself. His Will was strong enough to make us forget that he was there. It faded a while ago,” Jaelyn added.

Charley stepped into the light and Abe’s eyes narrowed. “Is that blood? Geez, Charley, it looks like you went through a meat grinder.”

Charley waved him off. “I got attacked by some trees.

Right now we need to be worried about Riley.”

Rafe grabbed his arm and smelled one of the cuts. “Hmm… No poison. Are you sure it was a tree that attacked you? Most varieties of carnivorous trees aren’t in this forest.”

“Can any of those trees talk to your mind?”

Rafe gasped. “You found Forgotten Ones? How many were there?”

Charley shrugged. “I don’t know. Fifteen or twenty of them, probably.”

Rafe looked impressed. “And you aren’t dead– Did any of them have flowers?”

“All of them. But what does that have to do with anything? Shouldn’t we be going to look for Riley?”

“Yes, we need to go. Grab a torch. We’ll look after your wounds afterward. I don’t think you’re the only one who’s going to need them.”

 

The large group made good time, covering the distance that had probably taken him thirty minutes in less than fifteen.

Though, that was due to the fact that the underbrush was summarily chopped down as they went.

Everyone stopped when they came upon the grove. Or rather, the lack of a grove. Charley turned in a circle. “I don’t understand. This is were it was.” He looked around at the destruction. Not a single one of the trees still stood. Instead, what had once been large, knotted trees were now shattered stumps, shredded pieces of wood and red ichor.

“Spread out and look for him. Stay in groups of at least two or three,” Rafe barked at the mercenaries.

They dispersed and started moving some of the large pieces of wood to see if he might have been trapped. Others went to search the surroundings outside of the grove. Rafe turned to Charley and Abe. “You two are with me.”

Rafe was able to move several of the larger pieces of wood that not even the biggest mercenaries had been able to budge. Almost in a frenzy, he picked them up and then hurled them to the side, one after another.

“What is Rafe doing?” A voice asked.

Charley rotated on the spot. There stood Riley, a shallow cut above one eye. “Riley! You’re alive? Do you know what happened here?”

Many of the mercenaries had noticed Riley’s appearance and appeared disgruntled over all that work they had done for nothing. Riley gave Charley a once over. “I see the trees almost got the better of you.”

Charley laughed. “Yeah, I barely got out alive. Which is why I want to know what happened.”

This time, it was Riley’s turn to laugh. “They tried to take over my mind. I’m assuming that’s how they get their prey. What they didn’t expect was for me to be able to fight back.”

Charley looked around at all the destruction. Abe whistled and said. “You did all this? That’s some major power.”

Riley shrugged. “This is a temperate forest, so I knew there was a good chance that if I froze them they might snap.”

Abe cracked. “My bro’s a boss.”

Rafe walked over to them, having noticed Riley. “Did I hear you correctly? You froze all of them?” A look of shock overtook his face.

“It wasn’t that hard. I just froze the sap and then pushed on the trees a little. They broke easy enough,” Riley said with a shy smile, now that many of the mercenaries were gathered around, also listening in.

“That’s high-level magic. I don’t think even many true

Sorcerers could have pulled that off so young.”

Many of the mercenaries looked at him appreciatively, as they knew how much help even a mostly untrained mage could be. “I just did what I had to.”

Rafe shook his head wearily. He looked up at the moon, which had reached the center of the sky. “We need to get back to camp. I need to dress yours and Charley’s wounds.

The trip back proved to be uneventful. As the adrenaline wore off, Charley started to feel the effects of the cuts and scrapes from his fight with the now destroyed trees. Toward the end of the walk back, his knees buckled. Luckily for him,

Riley caught him before he fell to the ground, and was able to support him the rest of the way back to the camp.

“You– are really heavy– Charley You know that?”

“Sorry about that, I’ll try to be lighter next time,” Charley said with a laugh, righting himself once Riley deposited him beside the fire.

Riley laughed. “How about there not be a next time. At this rate, you’re going to have to start paying me to be your horse.”

“You’re out of luck when it comes to money.”

Riley smiled, but it faded. “I wonder how Nina is.” “Probably fighting back, if I had to guess,” Abe said with a small smile. “She’s not going to go quietly.”

“Yeah, they’re not going to know what hit them. They’ll wish they never took her,” Charley said, trying to comfort Riley.

He didn’t look it. “Yeah– maybe,” Riley murmured.

Twenty

Rock and a Hard Place

“I find myself stuck between two impossible situations. Only one leads to where I go.”

- Wanderer of the Sand

 

Nina tried to find a comfortable position. She really did. But the moss-ridden and stony cavern made it impossible to find a good seat. And it wasn’t helped any by the giant hole just feet away and the putrid smell that made her want to puke.

It smells like moldy socks and gym bags– and Abe’s feet with maybe a little donkey thrown in.

Unfortunately for Nina, that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was the giant man who sat on a throne carved out of the side of the bluff. He sat leering at her for hours.

Even now she had the urge to stick her tongue out at him. Instead, she tried to amuse herself with the bit of chalky rock she had found on the ground by drawing random shapes.

On a whim, she decided to draw a dog, thinking about how she had always wanted one, but the landlord had always been strict about his no pet policy.

She pictured a Labrador Retriever, the kind of dog she wanted. Before she knew it, an almost exact representation appeared on the floor before her.

She stared down at it, surprised. When did I get that good? She leaned forward to look at the detail. Flinching back, Nina almost let out a scream. Did the drawing just– move?

She looked again, and sure enough, the tail was wagging. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, it turned its head to face her and barked, but no sound came out.

She reached down and touched the fur on the drawing, her eyes widening. It feels exactly like I always imagined it would! Nina looked around to make sure Maxima or the giant weren’t paying attention. She saw that Maxima was gone and the giant appeared to be dozing. She began petting the dog behind the ears.

With a sucking sound and a loud pop! the dog pulled itself off the floor and its body filled out until it had an entire chalky body.

It started sniffing at the air and ground, seeming to enjoy the horrible smell. It returned to her and started licking at her face, leaving it wet. Ew, dog slobber.

Getting impatient with the unwanted bath, she pushed it away and whispered, “Stop!” The dog seized licking her and backed away.

Surprised at the obedience, she decided to test it out again. “Sit,” she commanded. The dog sat. “Roll over?” It complied.

A smile broke out on her face. “Walk on two legs.” It stared at her for a moment before rising to its back legs and walked around. Okay, that’s kinda cool. Still, I’d rather have some food right now.

The dog ran off, skirting the far wall away from the giant. Nina almost tried to call it back, but quickly realized she would be heard if she did. Well… there goes my first and only pet.

She leaned back against the wall, and once more attempted to find a comfortable position. Closing her eyes, she tried to envision that she was on one of those luxury mattresses they were always showing on t.v.

Just as she was starting to drowse, she felt something furry rub up against her. She opened her eyes and was met by the sight of the dog carrying what smelled like chicken in a tied-off napkin. Her mouth opened in awe.

Did the dog read my mind? She reached out for the food, and the dog deposited in her hand and started wagging its tail, whipping through the air at high speeds. And how did it tie the napkin?

Her stomach started growling, protesting that she wasn’t already eating. She untied the napkin and two roasted drumsticks rolled out. She bit into the leg and was fast on her way to eating the roasted meat.

She finished off the first drumstick with speed and groaned at the rich taste of the fatty meat after several days of coarse, tasteless bread. The second leg she resisted the temptation of finishing off quickly, and instead savored it.

The entire time, the dog kept watch on the sleeping giant. Several times the dog wagged its tail as it sensed her happiness.

Catching the sight of the dog, Nina felt bad eating most of the meat by herself. She pulled off what remained of the second leg and held it out to the dog. It sniffed at the meat and snapped it down in a single bite.

She laughed. “Good boy.”

 

She heard a sound behind her and her mind jumped into overdrive. She looked down at the napkin and pile of bones. I need somewhere to hide this, she thought to herself, looking around her for a rock large enough to hide it under. Before she could find one, the dog leaned over and snapped up both the bones and napkin into its mouth and swallowed.

The sound grew louder, and she could hear talking. She looked at the dog. “You need to hide,” she whispered. Almost with a human-like understanding, it looked back at her before laying down. “No, don’t lay down. Hide!” Her mouth fell open as the dog melted back into the ground, once more just drawing.

At that moment Maxima and a group of people appeared from the far tunnel. Nina glared at them as they drew closer.

A young man winked at her as he approached, his white- blond hair styled. “Well, she's a fiery one, isn't she?” He looked down at the drawing of the dog on the ground and grinned. “And quite the artist, I would say.”

Maxima laughed. “Oh, she’s tame enough, Henry.”

Nina scowled. I’ll show you…

Maxima smirked, her vicious fangs showing. “You’ll show me what?” Nina’s mouth fell open.

“What, did you think I couldn’t read your mind? I can do much more than that, girl.”

The giant interceded. “That is enough, Maxima. She’s your hostage, not prisoner.”

Maxima bowed to the giant. “As you wish, Lord Hiberon. I was just having a bit of fun.”

Hiberon scowled. “You’re my High Priestess, not some common torturer. As long as this girl remains mine, the boy must follow my orders. I can already sense him at the edge of my domain,” he boomed, a large grin spreading across his face.

Nina decided to play her ace. “Did Maxima tell you about how she’s going to kill Charley?”

Maxima glared at her out of the corner of her eye. Several of the other people, including the young man, looked at her curiously, as if mulling over her words.

Hiberon on the other hand laughed. “I doubt that Maxima would attempt anything that might undermine my plans. She is my most loyal follower,” he boomed, not a hint of doubt in his giant face. Maxima smiled victoriously at her. None caught her expression except the young man. His face turned thoughtful.

So much for my ace…

A sudden flash of lightning lit up the cavern through the large hole above.

  • * *

 

Charley woke to find that many of his cuts and bruises had somehow faded during the night, leaving him almost completely healed. Even Rafe hadn’t been able to understand how it had happened.

This just meant Rafe attacked practice that evening with much more rigorously than usual, but it didn’t bother Charley. His former inability to fight had faded. He could still only beat Abe one out of ten matches, which was more than enough for him

The morning after that Rafe set a pace that seemed to leave Charley’s feet in agony. Not even when Jaelyn or Hans would remind Rafe that they needed to conserve energy would he slow down for more than a mile or two before he sped back up.

The mercenaries seemed to be focused, taking the speed without complaint. Charley had also noticed most of them were quiet. Vard was the one exception as he continued to shadow Jaelyn.

She continued to ignore him in turn. Charley would often catch her looking relieved when one of the mercenary scouts would come in with a report of and he would have to attend to it.

By the end of the morning, they had reached the edge of the forest and were faced by mountains that towered above them.

Charley had seen them all day through the thinning treetops, but this was the first time he had seen how large they truly were. Charley shaded his eyes to stare at the peaks for a moment ans saw tall thunderclouds approaching.

“What are the mountains called?”

Rafe stopped beside him for a moment. “None know the true names of these mountains except the Salans. Everyone calls them The Catacomb Mountains. But don’t look too surprised, these aren’t even the tallest mountains.”

Charley looked at him with shock in his eyes. “Where are those?”

“In the far south. They are called Heaven’s Ascent. They’re nearly three times taller and many times wider. They mark the end of what we know as Undermire in the south. No one has ever returned from adventuring past them.”

“And who would want to? It’s bitterly cold down their, anyways. Even before you get to the mountains,” Hans said with a chuckle.

Rafe nodded his head and barked a laugh. “I suppose you’re right– but it does make you wonder ‘what if?’ Well, we should probably keep going. We’ll be very intimate with them by noon tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? They look so close.”

“That’s just because of how big they are,” Riley added.

Rafe nodded. “I also didn’t mean to the mountains. We will most likely make camp at the foot of the mountains tonight. But it will not be until tomorrow that we find the cave system that will lead to Nina.”

True to his word, Rafe pushed them late into the afternoon to make it to the mountains. It was made hard by the foothills that lined the range, forcing them to walk up and down their slopes in a mind-numbing pattern.

He stopped them by a large stream that ran down the mountain. As they had approached, the clouds had grown and now blocked out most of the sky with a gray, steely determination.

That evening, instead of the normal sparring that Rafe had them do, he had them both sit in front of him while meditating. He looked to Charley. “Charley. I want you to focus on my mind. I know you catch glimpses of other’s feelings. We need to get it to where you can sense emotions or intentions without it being a reflex.”

Next he turned to Abe. “Abe, I want you to practice that muscle vibrating technique I showed you. Remember, it’s about control, not power.”

Rafe shook his head as Abe started vibrating so fast steam appeared. “That’s way too much. You’re making the vibrations too fast.” The heat dissipated to a bearable heat. “Better. Now keep that up for as long as you can. I need to focus on projecting my thoughts to Charley.”

Taking the cue, Charley shut his eyes and focused on sensing Rafe. At first, it was just blackness. His mind started to wander. Focus, Ashe. Don’t get outdone by Abe, he reprimanding himself.

He pushed his mind and felt an almost physical force press on the back of his eyes. Without warning, masses of colors appeared as the wall collapsed.

He sensed Abe’s joy at figuring out how to control the vibrations and Rafe’s anxiety. He could also sense Riley’s tiredness as he fought with Hans and several of the mercenaries.

He tried to push it, to connect with Rafe as he had done with the voice on one occasion, but was pushed back. He examined the mental barrier: a complex set of shifting barriers that repulsed his probing. He decided to test his limits by pushing on what he thought was a weak spot in the barrier. But the more he pushed, the more he was pushed back.

He was jolted back into his own mind by Rafe shaking him. He looked up into Rafe’s face. He saw both happiness and a subtle anger. “I didn’t tell you to try to engage me in a mental battle. Though I am surprised. You almost snared my mind.”

“What do you mean by snare?”

“Do you remember how the trees were able to get inside your mind and control your actions and thoughts?” Charley nodded. “It’s like that. Thankfully, you didn’t have any ill intentions or I would have fought back more intently. I was actually curious to see how far you would get. It seems your natural talent isn’t enough against my experience.”

“Does that mean I can start using it in fights?” Charley asked, hoping for a yes.

Rafe laughed. “It took you five minutes to even get to a state of feeling the emotions around you. Don’t get me wrong, that’s amazing in itself. It means you are starting to Awaken your path. But you’re going to have to get it down to where that state comes almost instantly before I’ll even think about it. Try to do it faster.”

That was how the rest of the evening progressed. Charley would exert himself mentally to try and reach that same state, but only succeeded about half the time. The rest of the time he ended up with a flash migraine.

The one thing that made him keep trying was the thought that he might be able to help Nina if he could figure out how to perfect it.

A flash of lightning split the sky. As if a great door had been opened, a storm began pouring on the camp.

Twenty-One

The Awakening

 

It is only the path of the Empath that is unpredictable, as we are as different as the stars above.

- Proverb of The Children

 

Charley woke up with a searing headache. Holding his hand to his head, he sat up. Without warning, he felt a surge. Everyone’s emotions flooded into him. The more they came in, the more he seemed to be open to them. It was all he could do just to think.

He heard someone speak, but it was like it was happening to someone else. Everyone’s emotions washed over him like a great wave. The more he attempted to push it back, the greater the strain on him it took.

No one seemed to realize the depth of emotion they possessed unconsciously. All the anger and frustration, sadness and grief, joy and happiness long forgotten, but still present.

Charley felt it from all of them, all at once. There was one exception. A seeming drop of calm in the larger pond of bodies. He found focus and was able to brush aside the others’ and felt a sudden urge to know

He attempted to enter but felt something even stronger than Rafe’s defenses. Without warning, he was forced away. Stay out of my head, Charley.

Riley?

Yeah. Don’t try coming into my head. It’s not safe.

I just wanted to know why I couldn’t feel your emotions. Sorry.

I don’t know. I don’t do most of it on purpose.

He felt Riley leave his head. He opened his eyes, the emotions faded. Riley looked at him from across the tent and nodded. “Sorry about that Charley.”

Charley swallowed, his mouth dry. “Yeah, me too. Promise it won’t happen again.”

 

Later, Charley explained what had happened to Rafe. “I’m not surprised.”

“What do you mean?”

Rafe shrugged. “I figured if you learned how to manifest your powers yourself, you would Awaken.”

“Then why wasn’t I able to control it then?”

“It could be anything. Maybe the fact that you had just woken up made it harder for your to control it at first, or maybe the Awakening is so powerful even your control wasn’t enough. Either way, you can summon it at will, right?”

Charley though about it and realized that he could feel others’ emotions without concentrating. He sensed Rafe’s happiness. “Yeah, I can use it at will now.”

“Good, get ready. We’ll be leaving soon,” Rafe said as he walked away.

The rain had fallen endlessly the entire night, flooding the river and causing many of the roads to become muddy.

Even though Rafe had given all three of them a cape to ward off the worst of the rain, he still felt the chill. He looked up and saw that the clouds ran on without an end in sight. Just great. The heroes in comics never have to worry about getting drenched.

Riley and Abe appeared mostly unaffected. When he asked them how, Riley responded, “Think how much worse Nina’s probably got it than us.” That shut up his complaining quickly enough.

To take his mind off of the rain, he started testing out his abilities. He pushed the power outward and it would stretch out like a piece of taffy. He could make it expand at will to encompass any select group he wanted, but his range seemed to be about fifteen to twenty feet.

He tried pushing it further, but it seemed to work better when he was sitting still. Several times, during a break, he would sit with his eyes closed, and was able to double the length.

He asked Rafe. Rafe grimaced in return. “Charley, I don’t have all the answers. I wish I did, but I know only a little more than you do. My expertise in magic runs about as far as some minor healing and Amplification.

“Yes, there are those in Undermire that would have the answers, but most of them would as soon try to kill, you as help you. Right now, you’re going to have to figure things out as we go. I’m sorry, but if I had to guess, I would probably say it has something to do with your concentration.”

“I– I’m sorry.”

Rafe’s eyes softened. “Look, I don’t mean to be harsh with you, but I was left in the dark too. Right now, we need to concentrate on Nina.”

“How do we even know we’re going to even get her back? Like you said, they’re dangerous.”

Rafe smiled. “Because of you. You’re the one the prophecy speaks of.”

Charley shook his head. “You shouldn’t put all your hope on me. I’m just a kid.”

Rafe laughed. “If I wasn’t betting on you, I wouldn’t have any hope at all. I’ve seen your aura. I’ve seen the power you can wield.”

“But these people are even more powerful.”

Rafe nodded. “But I think you have a hidden strength just waiting to be unleashed. Don’t sell yourself short. The first time I saw you, I thought you were all power and no skill.”

Charley nodded and walked over to his stuff and was deep in thought when someone approached him from behind. Turning, he saw it was Riley. “Charley, we need to talk.”

Charley, unsure, nodded. “Yeah, what’s up?

A pregnant silence filled the air as they continued down the trail. Riley opened his mouth to talk but shut his mouth before speaking. “I just want to ask you something.”

Charley looked at him curiously. “What is it?”

“If I told you– If I told you that I could send you home, would you go?”

Charley’s eyes widened. “Why would you ask me something like that?”

“Because you don’t think you belong here. You don’t think you’re a hero.”

Charley knew Riley was right. He didn’t think he was strong enough to save anyone. Just a few weeks ago he had been a normal kid. And then wham! he was now expected to save an entire world. But would I actually leave if I could?

Charley thought about the reason that -had made him come in the first place: Earth would be in danger if he didn't. Ultimo would eventually have come for him even there. Then he knew his answer.

At least here, I can bring the fight to him. I came because I might be able to help.

Charley shook his head. “No. I wouldn’t go back to Earth. I would just be draw it out. You know, the truth is that you’re right– I don’t think I’m a hero. But, I think I want to believe it might be true in the future. We might be able to do something to help them someday.”

Riley let out his breath and smiled. “Good. It’s like I said: all of us are scared. Sometimes I don’t understand how

Abe keeps himself together so well. I don’t know how to keep going sometimes, and then I just have to look at him. I was just thinking that if there was an out if I would take it.”

“I know what you mean– did you ask Abe if he wanted to go back?”

Riley laughed. “Yeah. He laughed in my face and told me he doesn’t ever want to go back to being normal.”

Charley laughed and then sighed. “We really aren’t normal anymore. I mean, I can read emotions, you can use magic and teleport, Abe can Amplify and Nina…”

“Nina is the one who holds us together. She reminds me what it’s like to be normal,” Riley said, finishing it for him.

Charley nodded. “We really do need to get her back.” Charley felt better after that. Still scared and angry about

Nina, but he also felt a deep determination now. He felt some of the self-doubt fade. He knew it wasn’t all gone, and probably never would be, but it was a start.

Rafe stopped them. He, along with the scouts, had returned. “The cave entrance is just past the next hill. I personally scouted the interior of the cave and found six tunnels to choose from. From what I can tell, three of them are options, because I felt no airflow from some of them.”

One of the mercenaries chuckled. “How can you tell if that tunnel is any good just by airflow?”

Rafe gave him a sharp look. “Because the cavern we are looking for will have to be able to support life. Without airflow in tunnels, it’s impossible to breathe. Those tunnels could be set up to bury us in a cave-in.”

Charley watched as a wolfish smile crossed his face. “These are not the typical kinds of targets you will have had until this point– I won’t say anything if you want to back down.”

Charley heard many of them mutter at Rafe implying that they might coward enough to call it quits. Charley looked at Rafe, who winked back.

Vard calmed them down. “Alright boys, I think that the good man is trying to say we need to pull our weight around

here. You should all realize where we are and what we’re up against.”

Rafe nodded. “I want us to break up into three groups. I’ll be the first leader, Vard will be the second and Hans the third. Jaelyn, I want you with Vard.

“If anyone finds something too dangerous to confront, come back to the main cave immediately and wait for the other groups to rejoin.

“Of course, it would then be that group, or groups, job to protect this cave from any enemies that might appear.”

To Charley it sounded almost like he was ordering troops into formation, and the mercenaries seemed to sense his confidence and offered no more remarks. Rafe pulled him, Riley and Abe to the side. “You three will be with me, along with a few of the mercenaries that I’ve selected.”

Abe shook his head. “The one thing I don’t understand is why you’re having us split up into groups. Shouldn’t you be able to tell which of the tunnels will lead to Nina?”

Rafe grinned. “Only one of the tunnels leads anywhere.”

A look of confusion spread across Abe’s face. “Then why are you splitting everyone up?” Charley drew a blank as well.

“Think about it Abe? What reasons would I possibly have?” What reason could there be?”

Abe concentrated and Charley winced at his pained expression. A light bulb went off somewhere in his brain. “Because we’re going into tunnels, you want more maneuverability if we have to fight.”

Rafe nodded. “That’s one of the reasons. The other is that I wanted to be able to gauge which of them is the least squeamish about fighting against magic.”

“So that means while most of them will make sure we have an exit, we can also have the best fighters with us,” Abe finished for him.

Rafe smiled and nodded. “Exactly. I might just be able to make a tactician out of you.”

Abe puffed out his chest and turned to Riley. But before he could say anything, Rafe deflated his ridiculous pose. “Of course, we can’t forget why we are here. This is a rescue mission first and foremost.”

Leaving a small group to protect their donkeys and horses, the three groups split off for the three tunnels Rafe pointed out. Their tunnel proved to be quiet, and Charley couldn’t understand it.

Rafe had warned them to be quiet if they had to talk, in case they alerted any sentinels or beasts placed to roam the tunnels in search of intruders. He kept expecting an ambush around each turn of the gritty tunnels.

He walked up the line to Rafe. “Shouldn’t there be more– movement?” he whispered.

Rafe shook his head. “I don’t think there will be many, if any, traps or surprise attacks. You could easily get hurt or killed and then they would lose their major bargaining chip. I suspect the other tunnels might have traps, but I actually doubt that as well.”

“Why? Aren’t they evil?”

Jaelyn nodded. “Evil? Yes. Stupid? No. They do the thing that will profit their schemes the most. Controlling someone like you would definitely be advantageous.”

Rafe held up his hand to stop them. “Quiet, I hear something.” He turned to Charley. “I need you to feel to see what it is. We’ll keep guard while you concentrate.”

Charley nodded and closed his eyes. He pushed his consciousness out toward the other end of the corridor. He felt an oppressive darkness. He prodded at it and felt it turn its attention toward his mental probe.

Charley gasped as control of the vision was taken from him. A giant face grinned down at him, bloodshot eyes narrowed in joy. It then shifted to an image of Nina chained to a rock in the center of the room with a giant hole nearby. He heard a voice. I know why you’re here, boy. You can’t beat me.

He was thrust back with much more force than what even Riley had done. Rafe looked at him with concern. “What happened, Charley?”

“Nina’s through there, but there is something with her– something powerful and evil.”

Rafe nodded. “Hiberon.” Rafe started down the corridor. Charley grabbed at his arm. “Wait– I don’t think we can beat him.”

“I have a plan. You’re going to have to trust me– and yourself– for this to work. Are you with me?”

The others walked a little further down the corridor. Charley stood frozen to the spot for a moment. Riley stopped by him. “It’s now or never, Charley. Now is when you have to choose who you are: the coward or the hero.”

Charley nodded and felt his resolve return. He and Riley caught up with the rest of the group. Grabbing the pommel of his sword, he realized that this might be the first time he would be using it in an actual fight. It’s time to swing for the Big Leagues, or go home.

 

Twenty-Two

A Hero Falls

 

“We can not see the moment of our own death, and if I was allowed to I would not take the offer.”

- Rafe Fithen

 

It was exactly as he had seen it: a small group of humanoid figures stood in a line in front of Nina on one side of the room, while a single figure rested in a cliff-side throne. He stared down at them with triumph in his eyes.

Nina strained against her chains, but could only scream into the gag they had put on her while tears streamed down her face. Abe, Riley, and Charley all tried to run to her, but Rafe held up his arms. “We have to talk business.”

They walked fully into the large cavern, part of the floor caved into a dark hole so deep that Charley couldn’t see the bottom of it. He looked at Hiberon again as he sat forward.

“Welcome, prophecy boy– I see you came. Are you ready to serve me?”

Charley stood behind Rafe. “We can’t give him to you, Hiberon. You know how important he is,” Rafe said.

Hiberon sneered. “Ah, the shield wolf fights all of young Ashe’s battles. Send the rabid dog while the master stands back and watches, is that it?”

Charley stepped forward but Riley pulled him back. “He’s trying to bait you. Remember, he’s got Nina.”

Hiberon laughed. “You should listen to your sorcerer friend. I am indeed testing you. You know what I think? You’re still too weak. To easily manipulated for others’ gain.”

Rafe turned to Charley. “I have a plan. Just– don’t do anything stupid, okay?” He turned back to Hiberon. “I offer myself in his place. We both know that I would be a more profitable hostage. I am the Barghest prince, after all.”

Everyone looked at him in shock, but Hiberon, appearing to already know, just stared at Rafe. Or is it me he’s looking at?

Hiberon shook his head. “Now, now, Rafe. We both now you’ve been dishonored. You’re not even in line for your throne. No, I want the boy.”

Rafe grabbed his hilt. “Then I offer you a wager.” Hiberon’s eyes narrowed, but Charley could feel his interest strongly. “What kind of wager, exactly?”

“I will fight each of your councilors one-by-one until I am either victorious against all of them, or I lose.”

Hiberon grinned. “We both know you would win those fights quite handily. You are not of the Thirteen for nothing, Black Dog. I still think the boy is the better choice– unless you have some else to offer.”

A thought struck Charley. Acting on impulse, he stepped forward, drawing Hiberon’s gaze. “What is it, boy?”

“Wh– what if I fought one of them? Would that work?” Rafe sighed and then nodded. “If he wins, we get Nina and you leave Charley alone.”

Hiberon looked like he would truly consider the possibility. The greed was now quite visible in his gaze.“What if my fighter wins?”

“You get Charley and me,” Rafe stated simply.”

Hiberon examined Charley for a moment, looking him up and down before finally replying. “No. The stakes are too easy. I want all three of them to fight. If even two of them can win, you all go free. On the other hand, if two of them lose, you’re all mine.”

Rafe nodded. “Only if we can choose how they fight.” Hiberon laughed. “I don’t see them winning in any situation, so why not?”

Rafe turned to them. “Are you three fine with the odds?”

Abe nodded without even appearing to think it over. “Only if they can’t use magic on me.”

Riley nodded. “I’m fine with any kind of fight.”

Rafe grabbed Charley’s shoulder and turned him to face him. “This was the last scenario I would have wanted to happen. Remember, don’t lose yourself to the emotions.”

A silence filled the air as all eyes fell on him. He looked at Nina, considering his options. It’s this or slavery. He tightened his grip on his sword and looked back at Rafe. “I’m in.”

Hiberon’s grin deepened to encompass his face. “Now that we have that settled. Who’s going first?”

“Not quite that simple, and you know it Hiberon.” Confusion clouded Hiberon’s overly large face. “What do you mean, dog?”

“Swear you will allow us to leave in peace if they win, and that we can take Nina with us.”

“Ah. Yes. It seems I overlooked that one very important thing. Very well, I swear to both the moon and the stars, the sun and the clouds, the plains and the mountains, and most importantly on my own freedom that neither I nor my council will attack you in the case that you succeed. Satisfied?”

Rafe nodded and then repeated the oath back to him.

“Abe, you’re first.”

Hiberon sneered down at Abe. “The boy warrior. Brecken, I think you will do nicely.”

A large man stepped forward and threw his cloak away, revealing himself. He wore twin swords that seemed familiar to Charley. His steel gray hair was closely cropped near his head and was nearly a foot taller than Rafe, who looked at him, his face whitening. “You’re alive? But– you died. I watched you die.”

Brecken grinned down at him. “A simple enough trick. I couldn’t have you and the others coming for me.”

The others? Charley thought to himself. Charley gasped when he realized why the swords looked so familiar. He’s one of the Thirteen!

Rafe turned to Abe. He removed his swords and deftly flipped them over so he held the blades. “Take my swords, Abe. You’re going to need them if you are going to have a chance to win.”

Brecken laughed. “Rafe, you and I both know he’s going to need much more than Sister Swords to defeat me. I may have been the thirteenth among thirteen, but that still makes me many times better than a novice.”

Rafe smiled knowingly. “You always were jealous that I surpassed you so fast.”

Brecken reddened and then seemed to contain himself. “My fight isn’t with you, it’s with the boy.”

He walked away from Rafe and turned at the center of the room to face Abe. “Come boy. We must bow. You may not be my equal, but I will still give you proper etiquette.”

Abe grabbed the Sister Swords from Rafe and approached Brecken. Charley had the sudden thought that it looked like Abe was walking to his death. He shook the thought from his head. Abe is going to win. He has to.

They bowed to each other, Abe’s face remaining emotionless. They then backed away from each other and readied themselves. Hiberon sat forward on his throne and smiled. “No interference from either side. You know the consequences, Rafe.”

They began by circling each other. Brecken seemed to be mocking Abe with the few halfhearted swipes he sent toward Abe, who knocked all of them away with ease. Brecken started toward him. Charley recognized the combinations Brecken used as the simplest that Rafe had taught to them.

Abe saw through them and put a good defense, and seemed even better with the two swords than with just the one he was used to.

Brecken’s eyes widened as Abe continued to match him, blow for blow. Charley watched as Brecken quickened the pace and moved to more complex combinations.

Abe’s face stayed straight but Charley noticed that his eyes had tightened with concentration. This time Abe was the one who increased the tempo of the blows. As they continued to grow faster and more complex, Charley looked at Rafe and could tell that even he was surprised at how well Abe was doing.

While Charley was still looking at Rafe, he saw a small fall in his shoulders, as if he had seen something. Charley turned back in time to see Brecken sweep Abe’s legs out from under him. Abe fell with a loud thud! Charley winced and looked at Rafe.

Rafe frowned. “Abe hasn’t lost yet. Look.”

Abe had somehow regained his feet and was again holding Brecken at bay, but he was losing ground. Brecken soon had him back up against the far wall, and appeared to be toying with him.

“You’re good, boy. I’ll give you that much. A few more years, and you might have won this fight.” As he said it, he broke through Abe’s defenses that had held up so well and Charley knew with a certainty that he hadn’t been truly trying, but only testing Abe.

Abe defended himself and Brecken knocked one of blades from his hand. Abe rolled along the wall, away from Brecken. He regained his feet and grabbed the pommel of the remaining sword in both hands, setting his feet. Rafe gasped at the same time Brecken’s eyes widened.

Charley felt a great heat coming off of Abe even though he had to be twenty feet away. One second Abe was standing in front of Brecken and the next he disappeared. Brecken punched out at the air, and Abe was reappeared as the hit connected with his chest.

Everything seemed to slow as Abe was sent flying through the air and collided with the wall. Nina had somehow removed her gag and her screamed filled the cavern, magnified many times over.

As he hit the ground, the spell seemed to be broken and Charley was finally able to move. Riley ran to his side and pulled him into his lap. Abe smiled up at him. “I was awesome, right?” Charley stood frozen to the spot.

Riley smiled weakly back at him. “The most.”

“I knew it.” Abe started coughing, but flecks of red came with it. “Can I ask you something?”

“Whatever you want.”

“Why can’t I feel my chest?”

Tears came to Riley’s eyes. “You’re just hurt. Everything’ll be fine. I’m going to help you.”

Rafe approached him. “Riley– there are some things that not even magic can heal.”

“What’s he talking about, Riley? I’m gonna be fine, right?” Abe coughed again, his breath coming out ragged.

Riley nodded down at him. “Of course you are. I’m going to fix you up. You’ll be back to fighting in no time.”

He placed his hands on Abe’s torso and a glow appeared under his palms. Abe let out a spasm as his hands clawed at the ground. Tears continued to fall from Riley’s eyes. He pumped more and more of the light into Abe, and his caved in chest began to reinflate.

“Just a little more, Abe. Come on, just a little more.”

Abe smiled and gently pulled Riley’s hands away. “Stop it, Riley. I think– we both know you can’t– fix me. You need to concentrate on getting– Nina back.”

Riley shook his head hard. “No. I can do this. Just one more try!”

“No. I’m asking you to stop. For me.” He coughed once more, red covering his lips. “You can’t me.”

Riley appeared to be searching for words. “But– we– we were going to be heroes! You promised!”

“Then be one.” Abe closed his eyes and smiled. A glowing symbol appeared over his head and everyone around Charley gasped.

Abe himself then began to glow and grew so bright that Charley was forced to cover his eyes. When the light faded, Abe’s body was gone, but the symbol remained for several moments before fading.

“What just happened? Where is my brother?”

“That’s what happens when a one of The Children dies,” Rafe said, almost in a whisper.

Riley eyes filled with tears and even the mercenaries appeared saddened. Hiberon simply smiled. “That’s one loss for you. It doesn’t seem your bragging was for nothing. I hope the other brother can actually land a hit.”

A wave of power washed over everyone, knocking Hiberon silent. Charley looked at Riley and sensed that he was at the center of it. Riley rose and turned to face Hiberon.

“Don’t. Ever. Insult. My. Brother.”

 

 

Twenty-Three

[]Fall Into Darkness

 

“It isn’t the darkness we must watch. It is in the light of day that we will encounter most dangers.”

- Ramas

 

Hiberon growled. “Are you threatening me, boy? I was alive before your kind ever even existed. And I still exist. Don’t assume that you scare me,” he said, though he didn’t look as confident as he sounded.

Riley laughed darkly. “No, but I scare them,” he said, pointing at the small group surrounding Nina. They pulled back, shrinking away from Riley.

“Either way, they fear me more. Titus, he’s yours.”

A small man stepped forward, he pulled his hood down, and a mat of hair fell down into his face A pair of bucked-teeth stuck down over his bottom lip, and his cherubic cheeks were bulging. “As you wish, master.”

Riley looked at Charley and he felt Riley’s thought strongly. For Abe.

Charley inclined his head. For Abe.

 

Riley looked at the small man. “How do you want to do this?”

“A sorcerer’s duel. Magic only. No swords or Will. The first to forfeit or be unconscious loses,” the man said, his nose twitching erratically.

Riley nodded. “I’m ready.”

Without another word the small man raised his hands and a flash of lightning streaked toward Riley, a large blade of light that pierced the air and flew with a loud crack!

Riley raised a hand and with a twisting motion caught it in his palm. It seemed to grow more intense before Riley flicked it back at Titus. As it flew, it seemed to harden into a sphere.

Titus made a slapping motion and it zapped into the ground at his feet, sending blackened bits of rock and mud in every direction. Before he had time to retaliate, Riley motioned at him and Titus’ feet were upended in a mudslide. He sprawled onto the ground. Riley continued by holding his hand palm out, and water blasted toward Titus.

It froze upon reaching him and encased him in a block of ice, leaving his face untouched. He finished it off by throwing a ball of condensed air at Titus.

Titus melted the block of ice and froze the ball of air, and then regained his feet as he sent it flying to the side. Holding out both hands, Titus sent an inferno of flames that consumed Riley.

Riley walked from the middle of it, nothing on him burned and continued toward Titus at a slow pace. He then retaliated by trapping Titus in the middle of jagged columns of rock summoned from the ground.

They seemed to claw at the air as they surrounded Titus.

Titus frantically mashed his hand onto the rocks and they broke apart into piles of sand at his feet.

He now looked completely out of breath, while Riley appeared composed, though Charley could sense the extreme anger just beneath the surface.

Raised his hands, but Titus shook his head. “I can’t beat you. I forfeit.”

Riley shook his head. “No. I don’t accept that.” A frightened look came into Titus’ eyes.

Riley sent out a gust of air and it started picking up mud and small pebbles and stones from the ground. A great rotating cyclone appeared above his hands and then he was standing in the middle of a giant tornado. Titus fled toward the other members of the Council, but he was pulled back into it.

He’s gone crazy. Charley ran toward, Riley, avoiding the pelting stones and mud, ignoring the danger to himself. As he got closer to Riley, the winds became stronger, ripping at his feet and clothing. He fought his way to Riley over the last couple of feet. “Riley, this isn’t you. You need to stop before you hurt us all.”

Riley looked at him over his shoulder, his eyes red. “But they deserve it. They should all pay. You know I’m right.”

Charley shook his head. “No. Not like this. What do you think Abe would tell you? He would say be a hero, not the villain.”

“But– I just want to stop them– forever.”

“And you’ll become them. You’ll be just as bad.”

Riley’s shoulders slumped and the cyclone of wind and mud died down. As it disappeared Riley fell to the ground near the great chasm and cradled his legs to his chest. “It just hurts.”

A figure flickered into existence beside them. Scaly, clawed hands threw back the hood. A lizard face stared down at Charley. “It seems you’re my opponent. “The name’s Maxima.”

Charley felt his anger resurface and drew his sword and swiped at her. She dodged back and wagged her finger at him. “My, how unsporting of you. Attacking someone unarmed.”

She flourished her hands and twin daggers appeared in her hands. “Well, that’s better.”

Charley slashed at her again and again. “You. Took. Nina,” he said, one word for each swing of the blade.

She deflected the much larger blade off of hers. “Yes. I did. I took your precious little girlfriend, hero.”

He felt the weightlessness come, his anger becoming numb with distance, and he saw through all of Maxima’s patterns. All of her intentions. All of her thoughts. For one terrifying moment he became Maxima, and then he found himself again.

He grew more confident and started striking with more force. Charley knew her better than she did in that moment, and Charley soon had her backing up. She couldn’t force him to a standstill until right before reaching the edge.

Maxima’s eyes narrowed. “Very good, hero. Harness that anger, use it, drive it. It feels good, doesn’t it? I took Nina, the little warrior is gone, and the sorcerer has gone insane. What do you have left?”

He saw her words for what they were: an attempt to anger him into making a mistake. He stayed in the void and battered down her best attacks and defenses. “I’m no hero.”

His sword seemed to almost move independently of him as it came down on her throat. He watched as inch by inch the blade approached in almost slow motion and he felt a single second of sickening satisfaction.

His sword met a sudden resistance and the weightlessness faded. He regained control and saw that Rafe had stopped his blade, using the palms of his hands to grab it, inches from her exposed neck. “You won,” he stated, and stepped back. “That’s enough Charley.”

Hiberon growled. “You interfered, Rafe.”

Rafe scoffed. “I did no such thing. The results were inevitable, and you know it. I simply stopped a needless death.”

“I still say you interfered, Rafe Fithen.”

Charley locked his eyes on Maxima. “I’ll fight her as many times as you want me to. She will never win.”

Rafe shook his head. “No, you won, he just doesn’t like losing. Go make sure Riley will be okay to leave. I’ll get Nina.”

Charley watched him walk toward the group surrounding Nina. That’s when everything went wrong. Maxima attacked him from the side. As if on cue, the others attacked Rafe. Of course, Charley had bigger things to worry about than Rafe.

Maxima rammed into him, knocking him to the ground. He looked up at her and saw her eyes were glossed over. She appeared almost mechanical in her advance on him. “Hello, Charley,” a voice said, not sounding like hers.

Charley recognized it, though. “Renwick?”

“That’s right. You see, I’ve been trying to get rid of you for weeks. Your little fall in the Flow. That assassin in Talas. The Salans who ambushed you. Your incident with the Forgotten Ones. All my attempts failed. Congratulations.

“Or should I say, congratulations to your friends. Without them, I would have gotten you. Though I must admit: your little victory over the Forgotten Ones was your own. I do

have to give that to you.”

“But why? You helped us.”

“Why help you and then betray you? It’s simple… power. You see, you do possess the powers to save Undermire. But I don’t want that. I can’t let that happen.”

“But what about saving Undermire? Helping everyone?” Maxima-Renwick scoffed. “Undermire has been a dying world for generations. Just like Underdeep, it’s fading. The magic here is not a tenth as powerful as it was a hundred years ago. And the magic a century ago is an even smaller fraction compared to that five hundred or a thousand.”

Charley heard Hiberon’s voice above the loud fighting. “So, that’s why Maxima brought the girl here, Renwick. Sorcerers– I hate your kind. Always meddling in things you would be better leaving alone.”

For the first time, Hiberon rose from his giant chair and Charley saw how large he truly was. The top of his head nearly brushed the top of the cavern. With a single swipe of his hand he sent several large rocks tumbling down over where Charley

and Maxima-Renwick stood.

Maxima-Renwick shot a glare at Hiberon and stopped the rocks in midair. “Shut up, Hiberon. You’ve outlived your usefulness.” With the other hand a great gout of blackness poured toward Hiberon, sliding across the ground like a snake until it reached Hiberon.

Charley watched in horror as Hiberon’s body was swallowed by the shadowy forms in a matter of seconds. He let out one scream that faded away into nothing.

The shadows shimmered away into nothingness, and where Hiberon had been sitting was a crystalline form of him. Charley looked back at Maxima-Renwick. “What did you do to him?”

He laughed. “Are you feeling sorry for a being that would have enslaved you and all of your friends without a second thought?”

Charley grasped his sword and tried to rise. Maxima- Renwick put out the scaly hand again, and he was frozen to the spot. “Steady, Ashe. I'm sending you somewhere you might never return from. You see, my plans can't work if you're here to ruin everything, so I need you out of the way for now.”

Charley caught motion over Renwick's shoulder. He saw it was Riley sneaking up on them. He looked back at Maxima- Renwick, so he wouldn't draw attention to him. “Why can't you just help us save Undermire?”

“Simple. I don’t want Undermire to survive. I need to destroy it before I can remake it. Undermire is poisoned. When The Children started killing off Ancients, they started draining Undermire’s life-source. I’m going to remake Undermire, starting with getting rid of the two people capable of stopping me.”

Riley raised his hand to attack but froze as Maxima- Renwick released a large amount of Will. “Sorry, Riley, Mr. Ashe gave you away.”

Charley glared up at him. “You said it yourself, you can’t get rid of us forever. We’ll find a way back.”

Maxima-Renwick smiled down at him. “Big talk coming from the boy who doesn’t even want to be a hero”

“I’ve learned something.”

“What's that?” A small smile playing over Maxima- Renwick's face.

Charley smiled. “The one’s who are real heroes don’t care about winning. They care about doing the right thing. And it doesn’t take a hero to do the right thing. I’ll stop you in the end.”

Maxima-Renwick clapped. “Very good, Mr. Ashe. I’m almost touched by your speech,” he said. “Now watch as I crush your beloved dog.”

With a simple flick of his fingers the rocks suspended over their heads flew toward where Rafe was frantically fighting against several members of the Council. Somehow, he had managed to free Nina, and the two, along with a huge Labrador Retriever, were holding them off.

None of them seemed to see the rocks flying at them at a rapid pace, but Rafe suddenly turned and a pillar of light flew from the tip of his blade, vaporizing the rocks into nothing, and without missing a beat turned back to the three he was fighting.

Maxima-Renwick frowned as he turned back toward Charley. “It matters not. I can at least be rid of you, Mr. Ashe. Goodbye, Charley. You’ve amused me more than most.”

Charley felt as light as air as Renwick lifted him with magic and threw him and Riley into the chasm. He felt a great pull, like he was being drawn down into the hole by some large invisible hand and disappeared into the abyss.

 

Epilogue

A Game of Shadows

 

“Make your next move, Ultimo. It makes no difference,” the shadowy image said with a deep chuckle. “There is nothing you can do to win this game.” It’s hand rested on a piece that soon disintegrated under the harsh touch of the shadow.

Ultimo grimaced. “I haven’t lost yet,” he replied, staring intently at the board where it seemed that he had so few pieces still standing on the board.

“Haven’t you, though? Your most valuable player has been removed from the game. There is little you can do now. Even your dog wasn’t enough to save the boy,” the shadow said, moving a piece off the board in front of them.

Ultimo snatched the piece off the table and cradled it in the palm of his hand. “Removed, but not destroyed. The Child of Fire will return. A flame is always strongest after being pushed to the point of being snuffed out. It returns to consume the shadow once more.”

A red line appeared in the place that the shadow should have a mouth. It curled upward. “We will see, brother. We will see. Until then, the game continues. Show me your best move.”

Ultimo looked over the board and slowly picked up a piece from the table. It was smaller than the others, but there was a small, but bright, light in the dark. It just needs to be released.

With a feeling of confidence that he hadn’t had in many years, Ultimo placed the piece square in the center of the board, facing the largest and darkest of the pieces.

The red line curved even further upward. “Interesting move, brother. You’re going to bring back the last of the Children? That piece is almost mine.”

“Maybe, and maybe not. I’m willing to roll the dice.”

The shadow inclined its head. “And so the true Game of Shadows begins.”

 

 

 

Turn the Page for a Sneak peak of…

 

The Children Rising

Look-A-Like

A doppelganger does not in fact exist, but a twin does, and that is almost as chilling to think about.

- Traveling Bard

 

His youthful face drew a lot of looks from the hard-faced men in the bar. The boy’s calculating eyes only had time for one man, though.

His almost dead eyes seemed to stare through everyone and everything. The man he had received a mark on sat in a back corner, playing a dice game.

His spirited voice and happy eyes showed that he had no idea of what was to come later that night. For Lloyd never failed to take his mark. Even though he was only fourteen he had taken hundreds of men to the Silent Lands– women for that matter, as well. He was uncaring in their gender, age, nationality, creed or species. All would fall to his blades, and then he would move on to the next one.

To Lloyd it was simply business. Nothing more, nothing less.

Lloyd did not have to wait much longer for the man to rise from his place at the table and head for the privies nearby. He rose with him, and followed silently.

Many had not even realized that the boy, who looked so kind, had two elegantly curved knives at his waist, or the other blades he hid beneath his clothes.

The man simply nodded to him as he relieved his bladder, a dark green cape hanging down his shoulders. Lloyd made no attempt to return the greetings. Since he had been a small child it had been pounded into his head that he much never see his next victim as anything other than that. A victim.

They meant nothing to him.

 

The man turned back to his business, and Lloyd almost released his blades at that moment, but he knew that his master would not be pleased to know that he would be giving himself away in the process.

He still had three more marks before the end of the week in Morness. Lloyd couldn’t afford for anyone to be able to link him to the marks.

“Are you just going to stand there, staring at me, or are you going to use the privy? No offense, my type does not tend toward the young, nor male,” the man said, breaking him out of his thoughts.

He looked up at the man, a jovial light, partially because of the ale the man had been drinking, filled his eyes.

“Sorry, sir,” he said, before scuttling to the neighboring stall and pretended to go himself as the man left, swaying a little in his intoxication.

Carelessness. The worst enemy of the assassin. It will take your life faster than any blade ever could, Lloyd told himself, thinking back on the lessons of always knowing his surroundings and what was happening in it.

Regaining his composure, he returned to the main room and saw that the man was gone. Lloyd rushed to the entrance, looking toward both ends of the street, and caught sight of the cape whipping around the corner.

Lloyd took off at a near run, pushing through several small groups of late-night revelers. None of them gave him a second glance.

Everyone in the city was too busy celebrating the recent defeats for the young upstart king, Castor of Drunnel. Coming to a stop, he looked around the corner and saw that the young man had sped up considerably.

That could only mean one thing. Against all odds, this man had somehow figured out that Lloyd was an assassin sent to take him to the Silent Lands. Cursing himself over his lapse in following his training, Lloyd then grabbed several stones jutting out of the side of the building and shimmied up the wall, imbuing his arms and legs with magic for strength.

Lloyd shadowed after the man for several miles of the twisting streets that made up the magic capitol of the world. Several times the man stopped at late night merchants who chanced the streets at night to try and make a profit, even with the very likely possibility of being mugged by a group of thieves.

The few times he caught sight of the man’s face, Lloyd saw that he was very wary of his surroundings, checking every deep shadow before moving on.

Lloyd smirked. If I wanted to hide in the shadows you would never even know I was there. He still had one more trick that not even his master had been able to duplicate.

Lloyd had the ability to hide in the shadows so thoroughly that not even the most well-trained dog could catch his scent. It was as if he actually didn’t exist while within the embrace of the shadows.

Lloyd slowed as the man stopped at a building. He looked around, eyes leering at shadows, before knocking in a relatively complex pattern.

 

He laid on top of the building for several hours, so the twin moons could continue past their zenith to shed less light on his next maneuver. He stood, shaking the numbness from his legs and arms in the process, and then backed up to the opposite side of the building.

With one deep breath, he started forward at a run and threw himself from the roof across the street before he could give it another thought.

He put his arms out before him, elbows bent to absorb his weight, and caught the edge of the roof. Pulling himself up with ease, he walked to a small hole in the roof with a ladder protruding from the room below. Something that was required on the hot summer nights so people could sleep on their roofs.

Lloyd crept forward and looked down into the dark

room, his eyes quickly adjusting. Catching a quick movement out of the corner of his eye, he tried to pull his head out of the hole, but was caught under the arm and wrenched into the room, collapsing onto his back.

Lights appeared everywhere, blanket thrown from on top of the lanterns and he realized exactly how foolish he had been. A tall man with inky hair and sharp eyes stood over his prone body. “Don’t even think about making a break for it. You won’t make it five feet.”

An even larger man with a mop of red hair and a beard starting to go gray snorted. “I doubt he’d get even that far, Rafe.”

“Don’t be fulled, Hans. He’s a personal apprentice of Ramas,” Rafe replied.

Another man stepped forward, and Lloyd recognized his mark with his green cape and light blond hair. “That’s all well and good, but what I want to know is why I would have had a mark put on me? Actually– I think I want to know the answer

to a question I’m sure all of us are thinking. Why does he look exactly like Charley?”

  • * *

 

Victor sat back, slumped in his chair, ignoring everything that the teacher was saying. His adoptive father was the owner of one of the largest car dealerships in the state. Everyone in the family expected him to take it over, especially his father. They didn’t expect him to anything else, why should he care about something that he didn’t even need?

“Victor? Victor– are you even listening?”

He looked up at the teacher and groaned. I’m never called on, why now? Mrs. Novak knew he wouldn’t answer the question. Who cared if he even knew the difference between a gerund and a participial phrase? No one would care when he owned the dealerships. “What’s up, teach.”

Shaking her head. “Mrs. Novak to you, Mister Cain. The principal would like to see you.

His stomach dropped as he stood to leave the room, though he kept his face blank as always. There were only a few reasons the principal would be calling him into his office: someone in his family had died or been hurt, he was in trouble, or he’d done something good.

He snorted at the last one before remembering the other two options and steeled himself as he walked to the office. The secretary looked up at him and smiled. “Victor Cain? The principal is expecting you.”

He walked through the door and stopped. An elder man sat in the principal's chair, with a small, graying goatee, a well- tailored suit, and piercing blue eyes that twinkled with an unknown humor, as if he was in on an unknown joke that no one else knew. But there was something Victor certainly knew.

This man was not his principal.

The old man motioned for him to sit. “Come now, Victor. We have much to discuss, and so little time in which to do so.” Victor didn’t move, though he was tempted to run back

through the door. Oddly enough, he felt safe in the presence of this man, as if he knew the man would never attempt to harm him. “Who are you?” he finally got out.

“I’m Bramly Mordecai, First Mage of Undermire. The Last Defender of The Veil. But most importantly, I’m here to tell you about your people– your family.”

“Uh– there isn’t really much you can tell me that I don’t already know. My dad’s a salesman, my mom’s a housewife, and my snotty little sister is a third grader who thinks she owns the planet.”

“Your real family. The family you were born to. I can tell you everything. The things they did. The inheritance you were born to. The things you can do. You’ve noticed the changes in yourself– haven’t you?”

Victor felt his stomach drop again. Like a bath of ice being dumped on him, he sat completely still, hooked by every word this man said.

How could this man know anything about who he was? Where he came from? And how in the world could this man have any idea of all the strange things that had been happening to him over the last month.

He looked Bramly straight in the eye, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He stood up, but what Bramly said next froze him once more.

“So you’re going to deny your magic? That you can’t block out all sound, all too easily. So well that you hear nothing if you wish it? That is only the most base use of that power. A mere trick. That is the least of what could be taught to you if you wished it.”

“How do you-”

“Know that?” Bramly smiled. “The same way I know about your family. Your past. Do you want to know? If I tell you, things can never return to the way they were again.”

Victor slumped back into the chair and rested his chin on his chest. Here it was. His life long wish to know who he was.

The one thing that his family had never been able to tell him, always deflecting his questions by saying that they were his family now. But why was he so hesitant?

Victor finally looked up at Bramly. “Tell me– Tell me everything.”

About the Author

Tyler Earp is an avid reader with a big imagination and even bigger dreams. His biggest dream was to write a book. Well, he’s accomplished that. Now his biggest dream is to influence some young reader to love reading as much as he does. Another reason Tyler likes to write is that he gets to talk in the third-person, and not get called insane for it.

 

Connect with Me

Thanks for reading!

I hope you enjoyed reading it just as much as I did writing the first novel in The Undermire Chronicles.

 

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The Council of Bone

Charley Ashe is a normal enough boy, or so he thinks. After he is attacked by a large, black dog, his world is flipped upside down. With his parents acting weird and odd things happening all around him, Charley is skeptical. So, along with his three best friends, he is determined to find out what exactly is going on. This leads to a meeting with a dubious Sorcerer and a hero from a different time. When he finally unravels what is going on, and that not only he but his closest friends must travel to Undermire, a world very different from their own. He is tasked with saving Undermire from the Wilting and also from a dark force that is always on the verge of finding him. What is most chilling of all, though, is the dark prophecy saying that he will become the very thing that he must try to save Undermire from. 'In the land mired in misery and hate, The one of two will be born who may slay the eldest one. Descended of ash, he will deal in fate. To cut away the ancient sickness, Ash will battle Bone. Can the hero save his light or be doomed to fall to darkness?'

  • ISBN: 9781311900272
  • Author: Tyler Earp
  • Published: 2016-04-30 21:50:16
  • Words: 54709
The Council of Bone The Council of Bone