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Tales Of Grimea

 

Tales of Grimea

Published by Andrew Mowere on Shakespir

Copyright 2016 Andrew Mowere

Shakespir Edition, License Notes Thank you for downloading this ebook. You are welcome to share it with your friends. This book may be reproduced, copied and distributed for non-commercial purposes, provided the book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed this book, please

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Blurb

Thank you for the smile

The wind and the tree

And thank you for being

The thing that I see

Also By This Author

 

The Final Life

The Final Death (Coming Soon)

Table Of contents:

The Pathseeker

Survival

Whispers Of Insanity

Crossroads

Worth

Strangers

The Blacksmith Of Coeur

 

The Pathseeker:

Year: Unknown

This tale precedes recorded history, having been passed through oral tradition for centuries before any known written form of tongue was invented. Most scholars from all four continents consider it to be myth. Those few who will take the possibility into account credit the unnamed man mentioned within, all those hundred thousand years ago, with taking humanity on its first step towards discovering magic.

The man ran, wheezing. His breath was as long as a great tree stood, but his stalker’s persistence was longer still and his left leg throbbed. Knowing not how he will survive the day, he began to look for places to die. It was common for two footers to avoid being eaten, at the very least, but the tall man thought it was wise to give back to nature. Deep within, he understood that it wasn’t demeaning to let the beast eat him, for he was part of everything in one way or the other. He was not its better, but still thought it would be best to find a suitable place to at least finish this desperate fight properly. The trees flashed by, a storm of green leaves and air heat causing his every inhaled breath to come in with a little bit of water. He did not understand that this was the very stuff that makes rain. He noticed a faint stench coming from far away, and his mind grasped at a possibility of survival. The sun stared at him from directly overhead as he turned right, racing over branches and ducking under vines. He could hear great loping strides behind, and at some point the haze of his vision intensified as fresh blood spurt from the nasty gash he’d been dealt earlier.

The man reached a copse of different trees with tall trunks. The stench of sweet death intensified, but he hoped that his pursuer’s feline nostrils were too filled with his blood. Before him, the ground stretched a rich dark brown layered deep and soft, like stacks of tired leaves. Above him, far above, he could barely glimpse fat reddish fruit hanging from branches. They looked ripe, which meant that care was needed here. Instead of looking down, the two footer wades through the fluffy brown ground rising up to his waist, knowing the dangers. As he did, he could feel the shake travel from his bare clawed feet and touch the trees nearby. A growl came from the creature behind him, but it was not the immediate danger. His blood pumped, and for a second everything slowed down. This was the single most dangerous moment he’d been in since infancy and his mind sharpened appropriately. It was one thing to charge the everyday dangers of this world, full of monsters and poisoned food and unseen death waiting to claim, quite another to willingly walk beneath Muahug’ha trees. He could hear the heartbeat, feel the very wind touch his skin with a blowing cold. He could smell the brown furred beast with death clinging to its fangs, white like polished bone after a hearty meal. It would pounce in one and a half heartbeats, for its muscle were already clenched with the determination to take this two footer’s corpse and flee quickly.

Perhaps it was the haze of blood loss, or perhaps the twofooter’s concentration had never been tested thus before, but at that precise moment something happened. Within the body that was within his body but had no body, something stirred. It was vague as the wonder of color after a sunrise, or the breath of an unnamed odor instinctually carved onto a man’s skin, but he grasped at the stirring. Suddenly, he looked at his body from without, and saw many ripples in the clearing, with the mountain cat behind him, the trees above, and the jungle around. Countless things rippled; insects and birds and small animals of little consequence as a hawk fluttered far above. Not knowing how or why, the man focused on himself and suddenly he was the calm of a lake before the ripple, knowing exactly what to do. Left and right, the trees would shake, but they would be too far from him. The animal would startle, and it would be time for the lake to take his shape and move before the third shake. This was not the future, he knew, but the understanding of what happened in the moment and how it would shape things.

Quickly the man turned, leaping a bit the side and forward, ripping off mountain cat hide tunic as he did. The first and second trees shook, sending red fruit as large as his head tumbling down. The fruits were so full of juice that they almost burst without touch, and their skins cracked as they tumbled down. Overhead the hawk turned, sensing someone’s doom. When red fruit hit soft brown land, it burst but was contained, for they fell deeper and burst onto a thousand little strands of earth. However, the sound prompted his enemy, a mountain cat with yellow eyes and hate against this two footer who dared impersonate its brethren upon his skin. It leapt, but the man was already in between its claws, waiting. He snagged one claw with the tunic, letting the other go. Both beasts roared, and both roars were of triumph, but the man’s prevailed. He knew the cat’s fate, clever as he was. In that instant, as it soared through the air and he grabbed it by ear and limb, the man felt three things.

The first was the bloom of pain in his chest as four claws scoured deep marks onto his haired, chiseled chest.

The second was a pang of sympathy for the beast as he and it exchanged looks and he understood the fundamental differences between them.

The third was a ripple behind him, and it was the shudder that reminded the two footer of life and death.

He twirled, using his strength to lift the beast further as it flew to his left. He had it in a grip and threw it behind him, where it finally landed with a snarl, angered and perhaps confused. The second it landed, the man scrambled back and onto safe greenish brown firm earth, clawing his way out of their arena. As he did, a splat was heard, and by the time he looked back the beast was dead, covered in red poison juice. Its face was twisted, and he knew the expression to be that of an anguished death. At least it was quick, and the jungle cat would be destroyed quickly, turning into more fuel for the Muahugh’ha trees. Within a day, one would hardly know what had happened here, for the soft brown earth would have taken over.

The two footer waded slowly out, feeling something was off. His chest burned and so did his leg. In all likelihood, he would not survive his injuries, for Najera’s mark would probably soon appear where he’d been wounded. It would fester and grow, taking claim slowly until death chose to come with his clean tunic. The sun being directly above made it more difficult to tell directions, but the man looked around a little and noticed the mountain housing his cave. From the ones all around, it was the eighth highest and stood waiting behind two rises. The two footer knew that between them a river would snake, sly and blue. He made his way towards it, and caught a bird soon after starting out. His limp, after all, did not stop him from lunging with lightning speed, and his prey was lazy, flying too low so as to avoid detection. As he walked, putting one clawed foot in front of the other, the sun seemed to follow him, and he adjusted his direction appropriately, knowing that it would set directly behind his cave. The darkened blur around his sight would take over at times, casting him into darkness. Whenever he awoke from it, he would be further ahead. One time it happened just before reaching the river, and when the man awoke there was no sound of running water anymore and his feet were wet. Sweat covered his face, mixing with the dirt in his shaggy hair to create knots. He did not mind much.

His thoughts turned slowly, and as usual they went towards sympathy. The bird lay limp in his hands, and he kept his grip deliberately tight so as not to drop it. Also, he wanted to get it salty, as he’d discovered that salty food tasted good and that was exactly what sweat did. It was a grain of information he kept to himself, not letting the other two footers find out, although he intended to share it eventually. He regretted not telling them, but salty food was a good bargaining tool. Speaking of regrets, he felt bad for the cat. It was killed, but not for food or use. Such a death was shameful. These thoughts throbbed and swirled within the man’s mind as the jungle gave way to craggy rock and he climbed up. Then the wave of darkness crested again and when it washed back, he was near his own cave. There were people walking around him, and he saw a woman tut at his condition from the left. He walked with a rocky cliff to one side and a drop to his left, overlooking more mountain and the jungle. Caves lined the path to where it curved left then right again. There were many of them, and he could see two footers holed up in some. The sky began to sleep as he looked, and the man knew that he would be unable to ward off predators. Perhaps for the first time he was glad to live on this mountain, for there were many caves and it would be safe. He fell asleep walking.

When the two footer awoke, it was dark and he was in worse pain than even that time he fell down a tree and his foot pointed in the wrong direction. That time, he had been able to force it into place, but on this day there was not such relief. He was forced to howl at the sky dots, for the burn in his chest and legs became unbearable. Worse, every time he closed his eyes, the inside of his head would throb and he would burn on the inside whilst shivering in a cold sweat. When that happened, he became the lake once again, feeling every living thing around him. The two footers around him walked, the animals in the forest climbed and ran and slithered. Birds flew and roosted and fed its young the very same worms that wriggled beneath his feet, far within rock which waited patiently. He could see and hear and smell every bit of it, and the knowledge hurt. It was like shouting within his heart, screams he regurgitated ten times or more that night, howling. The two footers around him, he could tell, thought that he would die soon, and he went quiet. Despite everything, the two footer understood two facts which clamored against each other: He was the same as everything else, and yet no two things were entirely alike. This, mixed with the euphoria of fever, lent itself to his own natural empathy, and in delirium the two footer took off his tunic and stuffed it into his mouth so as not to bother anyone. His life replayed itself before his eyes as he fell into the fits. He cried, remembering the time he had given his smallest brother some painstakingly gathered food, just to have it slapped out of their hands. He raged against himself, seeing the time his advances towards a particular maiden were largely ignored seemingly because he knew not how to swim. He sighed, reliving the day that his parents ventured out as one beyond their tree home and never came back for them. There were embarrassments and saddening moments, yet there were little triumphs here and there as well. Swimming in the river to cheers, having a young child recover from fever after he’d given it berries against the desperate protests of its mother, making friends with a slitherer. All these the two footer remembered as the fever raged. Slowly he began to control the lake within him and his inner sight quieted down, becoming a slow trickle, showing only some of what lay beyond him.

Within a few days, he was terribly weakened due to the lack of food but otherwise feeling healthy. The two footer dared poke his head outside for the first time since collapsing and found a few children playing beneath his spot. He growled at them and they ran away. Naturally, he was thought dead. Proving them wrong felt good. When a few older two footers came and checked up on him, they decided that recovery was possible. Angry scabs stood out along his chest and right thigh, but were unlikely to cause serious harm. Thus, fruit was brought to him. There were red orbs, green long tubes filled with brown nectar and seeds, and bitter bits of leafy things which tasted better the more you ate. The two footer feasted on those, mentally marking the cave they came from so as not to forget the debt owed.

When the sun next rose, the two footer was able to hunt, but left his cave cautiously. Just a few days earlier, he had seen the painted face of death. Moreover, the visions of what lay around lurked in the corner of his eyes. The lake was never far from him, and the two footer feared its pain. He was unsure of his ability to keep it at bay whilst moving, and so moved slowly so as not to steal from his concentration. When his feet were safely upon hard rock, he looked about, eyes stinging only a little. There were already children playing, parents going about here or there, and two footers wrestling playfully whilst trying to communicate as best they could. Luckily, the two footer saw a familiar face nearby and made his way to the child, pulling two objects from his tunic and brushing off a little bit of dirt from them. He grunted to get the black haired boy’s attention. When it was done, he showed him the first one, a leaf kept from last night’s dinner. He tried to remember the sound then grunted, “You me?”

The boy seemed confused at first, then nodded. Luckily, his parents had taught him some fundamental speech.

The two footer smiled kindly, then repeated almost the same guttural sound, pointing vaguely at a certain area of caves. “You You?”

Again the child nodded then laughed, pointing at a specific cave and saying “You yew!” over and over. Satisfied, the adult two footer gave him the second object: A green bird caked in salt, only slightly smelly. He pointed at the cave as he did so and the child snatched it from his hands, saying gibberish but certainly meaning well.

The two footer went down into that jungle certain that despite his weakened condition, there would be food to be had. The source of that confidence was the discovered lake of calm within him. There were noises everywhere, of insects and running animals and flying ones; even those strange climbing things that looked suspiciously like hairy two footers. He could smell the forest and the water mixed into the sun’s heat. When he’d gone sufficiently deep and there were no predators or two footed annoyances to disturb him, the man went left to climb up a tree. It reached high into the blue, but the man only went higher than two of him could stand, using vines to secure a sitting spot. There he found a small climbing animal, grey of fur but sporting two massive fangs. It hung upside down from the branch he sat on, waiting for prey to walk beneath so it could drop teeth down and bite. He sat next to the animal, much to its apparent disdain. It shrieked at him, fists balled. He chuckled and apologized.

The man allowed his breathing to slow down. His eyes closed and the lake within went completely still. There was only he at that moment. Slowly he relaxed, allowing the lake to take him into sweet euphoria, although he went careful and slow, staying deep within himself so as to avoid pain. He became aware of the blood pumping through his veins, of the bones creaking imperceptibly, of the air spinning within his lungs before coming back out. He was, of course, oblivious to what lay within humans, but somehow could feel things within himself as if his entire body had suddenly learned to touch. Every second was good, in the moment, and for minutes he thought of nothing, just sat and felt. Then slowly, he began to feel fatigue of a type unusual to him. There was power in his muscles, and his thoughts were silent but true. However, the two footer could tell that the very intent behind his being was drained slowly by this new sense he’d developed. It was like a dull void deep within who he was, an ache in marrow within bone. If this was taken to an extreme, he would lose all will and forget to breathe, sealing his fate and slipping into sweet oblivion. That, he needed to avoid.

The two footer decided to stop feeling for the day. Coming down from the tree, he spent a few minutes resting idly at its base, picking at leaves and doing nothing until he felt better.

The man went deeper into the forest, cautious. A hush was coming over the area he entered, which told him there must be a mighty predator prowling and keeping everything away. A good hunter did not go to a place birds did not dare fly over. In the distance he saw another two footer, who waved to him. He waved back, then motioned that he was going back. The other gave him an exasperated gesture.

As he walked back, the two footer found many low hanging fruits. The entire way, he marveled at everything he saw. Even the slitherers, whom he normally hated, looked resplendent in their scales that day. Perhaps it had something to do with the feeling he’d experienced earlier, but he felt light, better almost. A jungle’s constant chorus was often an overlooked form of music, but on that day he treasured every whistle, cluck, and roar. He smiled to himself that entire day.

Soon, the two footer fell into a familiar routine. He would wake up early, go out and feel for as long as he could, savoring the sensations gleaned, and then go hunting. Raised awareness became his ever-present companion, and even though he spent a little bit longer feeling each day than the one before it, there were never any hunting problems. He would hear and see things that would have gone overlooked before, smell fruit and other bounties in hidden places, and return to his cave happy each night, sharing a little bit with the family that had helped save him. The father, especially, took a liking to him and would teach the two footer things about tying vines together to hold things. It was a useful skill, he learned.

One day, months later, the two footer decided to take his feeling a step beyond. In his usual tree, next to the small grey climber, he felt not only himself, but slightly beyond. It was a jarring feeling, like expanding, but somehow he was able to control it and not go into the painful state he’d found himself in after being injured. He felt the branch beneath him, the speedy climber’s wheeze, and the slow patient throb of tree. In the tree, something felt off. Being unsure of what it was, but getting a certain sense of direction, the hunter looked towards a specific branch higher and to his left. He was surprised to find a piece of fruit there, hidden from sight by a peculiar arrangement of leaves. The fruit was rotten in its place, but taught the two footer that it was possible to use his ability to locate food. That day he left the tree early, saving his strength for searching. Every few minutes he would sit and feel, probing the immediate area around him. He only looked as far as he could run in ten strides, but the technique proved effective. That day he found a large amount of food, and had to leave some behind!

As days went on, the man learned not only to probe farther, but also discern his surroundings whilst moving. That made it possible to hunt animals better. The first time he did it, his skill was used against a red tailed four footer. It was tiny and weak, but with time the two footer was able to expand and find better prey and avoid predators, like those larger than trees or more dangerous than even the Muahugh’ha. Feeling lighter, knowing when and where obstacles may show up, made all the difference. The fourth time, he was a able to run and climb, barely touching branches with the tips of his arms and feet before swinging off and leaping, pushing off as if he were walking vertically on trunks. A huge tree came up, but the man was prepared and leapt high, landing against it with most of his upper body, but keeping his knees supple. He held there for a second, suspended by speed, and before he could slip down he leapt vertically, towards another branch. Even with his eyes closed, he could feel the immediate surroundings. A ripple moved towards him, fast, and the man knew that if he moved his arms forward it would swoop down to compensate. He put his palm in the correct spot and a large bird of prey flew right into it. It had a menacing beak, black and white feathers, and dangerous talons. The man smiled at his dinner.

That day, the two footers looked upon him with shock. No one caught that type of bird like that. Sometimes they were found, perhaps even trapped by a genius, but never caught. The man basked in it for a while, and then went to the family he knew, giving them the bird and gesturing that with that, his debt towards them has been paid in full. The father agreed.

Day after day the two footer hunted, finding better pray and understanding the lake within him better. There were slight differences in the ripples, telling him exactly what he was sensing and its conditions. The ripple of a river fish was different from that of a lean beating crawler or a sighing slitherer. Everything felt different and yet exactly the same. It made hunting much easier for the two footer and freed him to think of other things.

It is incredible to behold what people could achieve when they weren’t desperately fighting for survival. The two footer realized that his new sense worked on some principle different than climbing or understanding. There was something within him, a stamina of sorts. Moreover, he realized that the lake within him was the same one he saw from above in his mind’s eye, and that the ripples were reflections upon his own senses. His senses depended on the size of the lake, as well as intricacy of what he felt. If he stretched himself thin, he could feel farther, but with less detail. At distance, it was difficult to tell an injured bird from a leaping climber.

The two footer was fascinated with his senses, and so sought to develop them. He began to store food, and when he had enough for a week he went to his cave. It was not deep nor bright. There were no animals and no wood, just leaves for him to sleep on. It faced the sun’s rise to wake him up when time came, and it was high to protect him from predators. Most importantly, this small hole in the mountain was his home. On one side, its right wall curved to allow him a seating space, and that was where the two footer went.

He sat, making himself comfortable. He allowed his eyes to close and his breath to slow, then realized that the children would not allow him to work in peace. He needed another spot, and so tied up his storage of food in vines, making a small bag for it. He took it deep into the jungle, to a giant tree he knew of. The tree’s bark had seen many years, and so had mingled with the death-green. Only, he understood that the death green had nature and life within, small enough not to be noticed but important all the same. The man came to this tree because it had a hold in its trunk, allowing him to sit inside, hidden from everything. There were enough pieces of bark to cover him from predators, and the mossy seat was comfortable.

The man sat, watching the sun set beyond his mountain home. The light entered his eyes but stopped at his nose. This was how he would tell time when a day passed. Once more, the man allowed his consciousness to almost fade, closing his eyes and slowing his breath. He became the lake and sensed innumerable ripples all about. Wonder filled him at the euphoria of life, and he could hear many voices, chattering together as one. He saw them from above with his body as the center. He could see about as far as he could run for a few heartbeats. Slowly he focused on that feeling, allowing himself to push the boundaries whilst not rushing things. More than anything, he focused on the pleasant sensation of being one with himself.

His senses travelled, and every time the ripples became faint he would stop, savoring the sounds of a beating heart or a bloomed flower’s scent being lifted high into a cloudless sky by a red eyed bird. He saw the smallest of things and the largest of the mountain sized animals, those with skins like leather or hair longer than a man. Whenever the fatigue left him, he would continue expanding his senses until suddenly, he felt a two footer. He was used to how different two footers were from the rest of existence. There was somehow more complexity to them, whilst betraying no higher importance. Then the feeling came again, later, and the man realized he was sensing his home, where the caves were. Children danced and men laughed and women ran races against one another. Meanwhile a fluttering betrayed the ripples of butterflies. He pushed further.

The two footer had never seen any bodies of water larger than his jungle’s river. You can imagine then his gasp of wonder at finding his sight stopped by an incredibly ancient presence vaster, it seemed, than a dream spanning a thousand nights. The presence was filled with different types of animals the two footer had never encountered, having never been away from the jungle ringed by mountains. He could also feel other predators on the land between mountain and ocean, bigger still than the ones back home. Two footers, however, he could not sense. Instinctively, he was glad to that none of these predators roamed his lands.

If you walked along the river in the direction to your left when facing the sun, you would, in the two footer’s jungle, find two or three spots of land surrounded by water. This, the two footer discovered, was how most land was. There was mostly water, and he, his jungle, and everything around were one island. Smaller islands headed in a direction, then two large ones, far from one another but connected by a long thin strip. Far below him, down enough that it somehow became up again, was one last island. Four there were, in this… place they inhabited. The two footer had no concept of planets, but surmised that everyone lived on a ball. By this time, he had eaten a few times, but had stopped for nothing else. The sun rose when he found his strength waning and he stopped to rest his mind and self, and his eyes stung both with light and revelation, although these two things were sometimes one and the same. There was too much to know. Everyone lived on islands surrounded by water, on a ball? His head hurt with the number of new beings he’d felt. By the end of his day’s out of body adventure, he could only sense beings larger than reality, like the lizards that flew or the fish that walked or the two footers made of tree. Once more, he was glad to not have any in their jungle, for he sensed there was no way to hunt these things.

When his rest was over, the two footer readied himself to feel once more. It was now high morning, and he’d thought a few things through. Instead of feeling just all around, he sent his senses in an orb around him from the get go. It was coming to his attention that under was not quite always under, and as with many new revelations he took this one with wonder and a change of thought. When he passed the globe, this time, he could feel smaller things as well. Realizing that his senses were growing, the two footer gently pushed on through, and was surprised to feel little resistance. It was as if the space he probed was devoid of anything. He thought for a few seconds that he’d reached the end of the world, and so spent a few minutes basking in the world and in himself. Then, when caution’s grip loosened, the man pushed on further, until he reached white rock. Then he moved on and felt more rock, and more, then something akin to the red tongues which were sometimes left behind when lightning smashed its foot against the ground. There were no living things to touch, and yet the man was not disheartened, for he was the lake and could feel all around him. With a deep breath he moved on, sensing himself moving slowly. He spun slowly, and yet was still. He moved not, and yet at the same time hurtled through the void, as he could tell by his distance from the rocks. It was only when night fell that he realized that he’d felt moon and stars. It was a revelation of wonder, for he’d always assumed that the moon and stars hid during daylight. Things were proving different indeed. That night, he did not sleep or push on, but rather chose to pull back his probe until he could sense even the smallest insects again. It was that sense of unity in being the lake that brought him comfort through the night.

When the sun rose on the third day, the two footer had reached inner peace. He pushed through, going farther into the void beyond his world than he’d ever dared. He became sure that there was no living thing outside his void, and so stretched himself thin, taking a stroll. Thus, he was shocked in the same sense as being dowsed by cold water when his sensed something. Immense beings, beyond his understanding. They walked between the stars gently, through paths known only to them.

Hmm? Remarked a voice in his mind, strange and echoing. The man was so stunned that he said nothing, and the voice repeated its sound. There was a sense of question, and the two footer assumed he was being contacted. The being was so large that he felt an urge he’d never had before. He tried to contact it, focus on it, and enter it. Pain blossomed in him and the two footer retreated.

Gently, the being touched him and the two footer almost felt himself snap in half. It pulled back hastily, and he realized that it had only tried to communicate. A sense of disappointment came through, and he felt guilty for not being able to speak with it. There were almost a hundred of them, and he sensed them talk to one another. He felt jealous and lonely, so tried once more to communicate with the star walkers with their long strides, despite the pain. His attempts bordered on desperation, for he wanted more than anything to speak with them and be like them. He wanted to be one with these amazing beings, as he was one with the jungle. He needed their contact. He could tell that the attempts were killing him, and that he would never be able to step out of his body again. Still he tried, until finally he snapped. The pain was too much to handle and he almost blacked out, but was grabbed by someone.

The being he was trying to contact took him gently, preserving his mind, keeping him safe and trying to tell him things too big for his primitive mind to understand. When it released him, he was sucked back into his own body, which he knew would become his trap forever more. With a gasp, he awoke in the inside of a burning tree, with the sun setting, and knew that he would never be able to feel again. He tried, to great pain. He knew that he’d set the tree on fire, but knew not how.

The two footer went back to his cave, haunted by what he’d tried and seen. Only two pieces of information were gleaned from the star walkers, these mighty god figures. The first was the understanding that what he’d done, how he felt, was part of something larger. There were no specifics. All he knew was that living things were able to learn how to use something deep inside. The second piece of information was how the star walkers crossed great distances. In his cave, he used blood to draw a symbol: Two curves mirroring one another, almost touching. In their tails three dots sat, and at their heads triangles waited. The holes of void met inside and created the pathways for these great beings using the dots and triangles.

The two footer was sure that with time, the knowledge gleaned from them would prove useful. He knew that if the thing within him weren’t broken, he would be able to use it to great effect after his revelation, but there was no use crying over what was. He would make sure the others understand and keep the knowledge going until it became of better use. Time after time he drew the symbol, filling the walls of his cave. Time after time he repeated the revelation of magical wonders depending on inner strength and vitality, knowing that there was a world far beyond him, and a path that only he could walk.

 

Survival:

Year: 801 post Kerallus. 251 Pre Adventus

Claudis made her way outside of the nice, small home, savoring the scent of cooking pudding mingled with early spring flowers. She walked along the path to her small herb garden, making sure not to step over daffodils as she dead. The flowers seemed to look up at the woman in appreciation.

She hummed in a soothing manner as she cut small snippets of sage, thornswash and Heldibliss. Scissors snipped and the purple flower fell to her hands with a solemn sigh. She offered a prayer to Til, god of nature and forests, for the boon. It was said that offering such prayers gave the plants incentive to release more flavor. She walked slowly back, where a beautiful man sat by a fireplace, knife in hand. She frowned. “Markus Demask Dernagen, what do you think you’re doing?”

He looked up at her. As they sometimes did, the curves of his facial features took her by surprise and Claudis felt out of breath. His nose was slightly overlarge, and his messy hair often found its way into places hair had no reason to be, such as imperfect ears. Still, the sun’s rays kissed his lips through a nearby window, and somehow he seemed to light up their little living room. “Why do you need to know?” he asked confidently. This was the voice people didn’t often hear, mostly because he was too polite. With her, things were different.

“Because you might be trying to make me another wooden ring.”

“Maybe I am.” At that, the woman rolled her eyes. Her husband, for all of his good qualities, was not a craftsman. Woodwork didn’t come naturally to him, as was evident by the green bandage wrapped around his left thumb. Unfortunately, he could be as headstrong as a Gost. Just as the troll like things head-butted rocks to get at the water within, Markus liked to tackle challenges. Seeing her worried glance, he invited her over to him. When she came to check his hands for further injury, however, the man instead cupped her face with a hand. “Look into my eyes. I know what we talked about.”

“So you know I didn’t really mean what I’d said about back then.”

“Of course. I also know that if it were easy, you’d be more than happy to get a handcrafted wooden ring. You just don’t want me to get hurt.”

“Yes.”

“I’ve been through battlefields and this,” he showed her his thumb, “Is the injury I carry with the most pride. For you, I’d lose arms and legs. Let me make you happy and I will fly over a solemn moon in my dreams.” Now really, when he put things like that, there was little to be said. She let him continue fiddling with the knife, surprised to see how far he’d gotten.

Hours later, when Sol was finished pulling the sun back to its resting spot, Claudis and Markus sat down to have their dinner. She had brewed them a thornwash tea, and he had in turn brought out cheeses and breads. As she sat at the table, the dark haired woman saw a circle of relatively well-shaved ashwood. It was almost as white as his skin, spotted with a tiny red dot here and there, and obviously a few sizes too large. A simple chain had been passed through, and it hunched upon the table, average and unassuming. Little did that small ornament know that it was the best ring that had ever been made. Her impossible miracle smiled, and she smiled to him in turn, saying nothing. Words were too difficult to summon at that moment.

A knock came from their kitchen door, and after exchanging puzzled glances she went to answer. A little boy stood there, all freckles and energy. A part of her lamented not having one of her own, but luck had its way of taking and giving things. “Hello, Jareny!” she announced loudly.

“Evening, Mrs. Dernagen,” the child answered, fidgeting. He was polite as usual, but she could sense his urgency. “I’m sorry to bother you, but Ma asks if you have any of that burlen honey left. Da fancies some and we ran out a week ago.” She informed him loudly that she did, thus saving herself of explaining to her husband. After slight hesitation, she bade the child wait and went to take her ring with its chain from the table, placing the now necklace over her head and around her neck. She mouthed, “Thank you,” and her husband lit up. Then Claudis told little Jareny to go inside and get himself some cheese while she fetched the honey.

Claudis’ well-worn leather shoes thumped against dirt for a few seconds, then she turned left into grass, making sure to walk carefully. Night was relatively safe in this part of Veld. They didn’t even keep their Regalians hidden, for they were part of the fair kingdom and people were civilized. Still, one could hardly explain that to a snake or a belg just sitting there, waiting for a bite with impossible patience. She walked with eyes peeled under the moon’s solemn grace, silently asking Hydra for luck as was customary until she reached the small wooden structure they used for a secondary storage. The small room was wide enough for her to stand within and spin, so long as the tall woman kept both arms firmly at her side. Shelves lined the thing, stacked high with all sorts of things they’d chosen to keep. Both the man and his wife were hoarders at heart, and despite trying to keep that embarrassing fact to themselves it showed now and then. There was a small ladder on the dusty floor to help reach the higher things, and Claudis unfurled it in the tight space, breathing musty air through her mouth. She stepped on the first step, moves on shakily onto the second, then felt a small wiggle beneath her. The ladder didn’t sit right on the ground. She went up one more step and suddenly, Claudis felt her world turn sideways, then heard a thud.

When Claudis awoke, everything was strange. Something about her body didn’t sit right, and her head was strangely turned sideways. There was no pain, but when she tried to push it a little straighter her arm’s movement was strangely shaky. She stood in a grassy place filled with boulders, and could not for the life of her understand how she had come to be here. Furthermore, dull silence echoed in her ears, as if they were covered. Eyes scrolled downwards and she realized that something was horribly wrong. Her legs were bent wrong, and they should have screamed in protest. All the right one did was flop, and the woman knew she should be in terrible pain. Still there was nothing. All around her people slowly got to their feet, and she wondered why they had been sleeping on the ground wherever this was. An older lady made her way towards her, and Claudis assumed she must have been injured too, for the woman walked a pronounced limp. In the gloom a child hopped slowly, as if it were difficult.

Then dark clouds unveiled the pale moon and she gasped in horror. This was not a garden or a park, but rather her town’s graveyard. The boulders were tombstones, and what she had taken for small houses had been mausoleums. Even worse, the old woman limping towards her was partially decayed, flesh falling off her like pieces of horror. The young child was actually barely more than half a skeleton, hopping upon its midsection. How had she gotten here?

Suddenly Claudis felt her ears pop and sound burst to life. Three tones she heard. The first was an incessant whisper, gliding like oil upon water or a bird with too few feathers. The second was a female voice, ringing out in prayer like a clear bell. The third was a scuttle beneath a nearby tree, and it was to this closest sound she turned, putting the two others behind her. The whisper called to her very being, speaking of dark things and maggots, pulling at the strings of her being. She ignored it, and a dull throb began to mount in her head. Instead she focused on the scurrying man. He was terrified and yet instantly recognizable. “Markus? What are you doing here? What’s going on? Claudis meant to say these words, but only managed to gurgle. She found it unreasonable to address the scene around them. Part of her discredited it entirely.

“Claudis! Oh Claudis, what have they done to you!” He began to back away, and the woman realized that she was walking towards him in a fearsome manner. She began to reassure him, then to stop, thinking it best to stay still with injuries like the one on her right leg. She was unable to stop. Unbidden, feet shod in black moved on regardless of her will. With horror, she realized that there was no control in her. She began to drool, yet could not stop it.

“Now,” hissed the sinister voice that had been whispering, “Go forth and kill the human, my undead beauties. Feast on flesh fresher than yours, feel jealousy ferment in you.”

Undead? That couldn’t be. Just now, Claudis had been going to get some honey. Then her arms raised involuntarily, and she saw three things. Firstly, the Markus backing away from her, leaving his hat behind on the grass near the tree, was older than she remembered. Second, she was the only one going towards him, with everyone else heading somewhere behind her. Lastly, her flesh was rotten with maggots where her hands should have been human and rosy. She still didn’t understand what had happened exactly, but the woman tried to get her head around it.

She was dead. A dark force was using her body against her will, and it had managed to give her wrong directions. Instead of going after whoever owned that clear bell like voice, she was going to kill her husband. Something clinked, and Claudis realized that there was a white ring still around her death infested neck. Ever practical, she focused on the task at hand. No.

With everything she had, the woman tried to fight the voice’s control. It hissed in delight. Behind her, she could hear the two voices clamoring against one another.

“Your gods do you no good here, girl. You should have given up last time.”

“Merla guide me, take my hands. Slim lights grow bright when they know what has been done and what is to be, for the river flows towards good and the depraved shall seek nothing but love.” This was a prayer of a goddess outside the niners, rarely worshipped in this part of the country. The woman who stated it did so with conviction, and lights shone from behind Claudis. White and blue, it was. It brought warmth and pain and strength. She could hear fire and blades and bones being crushed while sighs filled the air. The old man’s voice gained urgency, and he focused on his spells. Thus the two battled.

Then Claudis focused on her own battle. She let the large one behind her rage one, praying for the priestess to vanquish her foe. The wind howled and lighting appeared out of nowhere, pitting light against dark as it sheared the world in half. Still she tried to stop moving those murderous limbs of hers without success. In desperation, the woman focused on her right arm, willing it to hold on to a nearby branch. The strategy succeeded, but only momentarily. Her husband was dazed with shock, and tripped with a crack and a cry. He crawled for dear life, but she would catch up with him. Scenes of their happy life together flashed, and the woman realized that for this man, she’d give up…. Yes. Exactly like he’d said the night before, although it must have been years ago. He still came to visit her, and she still saw a ring upon the terrified man’s finger despite the ashen streaks in his hair. He still came here, when the moon shone bright. She knew it instinctively, as if her cold body had remembered. For him…

As the fighting behind them intensified between priestess and foul magician, Claudis focused on her arm again. Every struggle against the forces holding her in their grasp caused the pain in her head to blossom red and hot. Still she refocused the former strength of her happiness, shaping it into pure will. Her arm moved, picked up a stone from the ground when she next limped close enough. She took a deep breath, seeing how close Marcus was now. Part of her, unbelievably, was happy to see everlasting love in the despair of his expression. She swung, striking her right leg. A snap was heard, and she lurched but kept moving. The incantation took on a lighthearted tone, as if mocking her efforts. “Ah, a feisty one. And going in the wrong direction, no less! Oh, oh, I see! Well, now then… I took your feelings out of mercy, hurmph! Let’s see what happens when I give them back, shall we?” Instantly, a gnashing within her bones almost caused Claudis to black out.

“What drivel do you speak, old one?” demanded the priestess.

He cackled. “None of your concern, child of light!” With that, the battle continued.

The two fought. Their songs clashed, flames of dark and glowing blue blades facing off amidst behind the woman. From the bangs and lights, Claudis was sure that the priestess was surrounded but advancing, wreaking havoc on the sorcerer’s undead army. She was sure that the havoc within her was worse still. Her brain felt like sea froth. Crushed lungs struggled to gather something unneeded whilst her bones grinded against one another. Even the falling skin and tunneling of insects could be felt. More than once, Claudis knew unbearable pain. At the same time, she did not give in. She knew that her husband could not move faster than her, and to give in was to doom him. The rock was still in her hand, and she swung again, fully shattering her right leg with an inhuman cry. She fell to her knees, and the undead within her began to crawl. She kept swinging again and again. The physical torture was nothing compared to what would happen in her undead heart if she killed Markus.

When the battle ended, the priestess in her white and blue garb was victorious. With an unholy cry the magician fell, along with most of his army. She lifted her black candle and mace, one in each hand, allowing a final songspell to leave her lips. Just then, the sun was peeking over the horizon, attempting to dispel the night’s terror. It revealed a mangled undead minion, barely more than a torso, kneeling just a foot away from a man shocked beyond belief. “Oh, my darling,” he murmured in a torn manner, trying to keep himself strong. She’d hated it when he cried. “I wish you’d let me join you.”

Claudis was in the throes of a sweet void then, offset by a single pinpoint glow. She could see nothing else. The light beckoned, and she was almost ready to go. She heard footsteps behind them, but the priestess remained silent. “I…” Claudis started in a gurgle, then struggled on. “I… you s… solemn… moon… ring….let…ppy…” She hoped that he got her meaning, for there was no strength left in her broken form. As she let go, content that her love had survived, the priestess offered a long slow prayer.

Whispers of insanity:

Year:822 Post Kerallus. 230 Pre Adventus

The following is an excerpt from the diary of Mardow Grame, a prisoner and one time apprentice of Krulov Gregerovitch, who would one day lay waste to cities numerous and wreak havoc over the eastern continent of Jerr. Eventually he would be stopped far west, at the gates of Lor, but not before he even managed to force Haq Ramad, the shadow spear, to slit her own throat.

Today, I heard a tale that caused my stomach to churn. Abused from the tender age of three and turning to crime earlier than I could walk, I had thought this tired heart incapable of sympathy, but the master’s story was unusual in its simplicity. My very heart cringes at the memory, and I pray never to become like him, for it was not the circumstances of his tale that spoke of woe, but rather the very destruction and depravity evident within mind and soul. I know now that the man, if unleashed, could cause the very world nausea.

I had gone within his cell, which was the only one beside mine perpetually unlocked by prison wardens, in order to bring the man some soup and stale bread. He sat there upon cracked stone, weathering whipping wind laced with ice. The window next to him was unbarred, for none could climb down the mountainside in such freezing condition. Not that he would try. Kurlov Gregerovitch was here of his own volition, though naturally the mind controlled guards treated him better than most. That was why I found him wrapped in a course blanket, shivering contently. I’d found out early that the master enjoyed having pain inflicted upon his body, as long as he could control frequency and intensity.

“Master,” I said to him by way of greeting, to which he nodded at the hot bowl of soup in my hands. I handed it to him, accompanied by a loaf of bread. Ignoring its greenish hue, the brown skinned man set upon his meal with the grace of a noble. Dipping chunks delicately into the murky liquid with two of his fingers, the man said, “Say, Mardow, how fares your training?”

“It’s not faring at all, Master. I am no closer to leaving my skull.” The words were spat out, for it had been a month already since the man accepted me as his pupil in psionic, and the only thing he’d told me was to try and leave my skull. It was less of a technique and more of a described state, according to his explanation, where the mind can come in touch with what is beyond it. “I don’t understand. How does the brain do something like that?”

“Not the brain, boy!” snapped Master Kurlov in annoyance, his beard and wavy hair seeming to writhe. It seemed to cause him frustration as well, and I wished there was someone else I could ask. “The mind is different from the brain. The second is housed within the temple, but the other wanders freely around it like a cloud or a soul seeking salvation.” His words made no sense to me, but that was the paradox of attempting to learn something completely new: The action never makes sense until you were already able to act it out. Thus I kept my peace and let the man speak. Outside the wind howled agreement and the drop beckoned as it always did. “To leave is to find enlightenment and awareness. You begin to understand truths and touch others.”

“But how, master? How do you reach that state? Is there a mental trick or exercise or-“

“I don’t know!” His eyes shined, and I could tell that he was thinking so I let him at it. It was frustrating to be stuck at the doorstep of knowledge for so long, and so my temper fumed. As he thought, two prisoners powerful enough to be allowed out the cell walked around, although they gave Krulov a wide berth. Had I been alone they would have bullied me, but I was with the master. I pulled a hair out of my grey beard, placed it on my palm, and blew in their direction. Scret hissed quietly but the other pulled him along.

“The key isn’t to think hard, but rather to think wide.” The master had oily hair, and now he brushed the straight length with his dirty fingers. He was dressed in a coat and cotton gloves, and I wish I knew what color they’d originally been. There was an emblem at his chest, stitched out, but the thing was so faded that I could not for the life of me make it out, and he’d never told me anything about himself. “You let your mind expand and at first it stretches you thin then you understand that thin is relative because space is for physical things. When you’re there the understanding from your mind will touch things and tell you things relative to what they know back home. Ah, but the selves won’t match at first because the me and the I only exist as me and I in the center, and when the world is the world and not what my world then what I see of me isn’t what I see but what the world sees and things become as they are. Thus one touches the all and begins to understand with a new sense…” At that, his lapsed off into another fit of drivel about colors and compounds and different frequencies of mental chirping and spectacles and towers of the mind. I could make no sense of what the dark haired man said at all, and so sought to distract him before I lose him completely.

“A lot of the prisoners here are insane,” I said, and the man stopped talking, looking at me as if I had interrupted something vital. “I think it’s the system here. The guards seem to enjoy letting prisoners run free and wild, but they also want us locked up and quiet. Men turn into beasts easily when in a caged jungle.”

“Well,” said the master whilst eyed one of his gate’s bars. He stood and went to look at it in interest for a while, then put his hands on the thing and tried to bend it. He struggled for a full minute valiantly with the desperation of a man requiring release, pulling and pushing and tugging with all of his weight. His grunts were loud and his face was flushed with effort. Foiled at last, the prisoner went back to his spot, ignoring the open door completely. “There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of insanity.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it has its uses. To be insane is to ignore reality, whether it be painful or angry. To be insane is to see with new eyes and be free of the world’s shackles. That is how I gained my powers, after all.”

“Truly?” It was true that the master had his moments of nonsense, but I had thought the man was mostly coherent. “So you’re insane?”

“Not right now, no. But I was for a moment, and every now and then I would embrace that sweet freedom and see colors that shan’t ever exist. That’s when I know the ultimate cruelty of existence, crystallized in its own perpetual nature.” He was beginning to lose me again, and so I decided to seize the moment. I asked, “Master, how did you gain your powers?” If he was able to tell me that, perhaps I could recreate the experience.

I assume he knew my intentions, for Krulov’s eyes glimmered and he smiled in deceitful innocence. And then he told me his heinous tale. “When I was younger, I was a noble in Xera of no real consequence. Versed in etiquette and knowing it was my destiny to become an official, I submerged myself in studies and found I had a roaring intellect. Soon enough I rose and was able to hold position, and that was when my father did the sensible thing and forced a woman upon me.”

“Sensible, sir?”

“Indeed. In Xera most would disagree, but I believe that if the person is indifferent enough and agreeable enough, there is nothing wrong with having a future partner decided for him or her. But there was a twist in my case, because despite being convinced that it did not matter who was chosen, I was infatuated by Helia upon our first meeting. We both agreed to marry readily and enthusiastically. She loved to enjoy her time more than I did, and despite a quiet nature had a way of being heard. Her hair was honey, her skin was milk, and every second with the girl filled my heart with such warmth as to make me walk the streets of Xera with no regard for ice or cold.”

I wondering where his story would go, but had I known what he would say, it is likely I would have asked him to still his tongue and spare me his teachings. The man’s voice gained strength, although he still spoke in a whisper.

“One day, she and I went to see a play. Upon leaving, I realized that I may have had a cup of wine too many, and had chosen a roundabout manner of reaching our manor. Of course, at some point she tried to warn me, but the man I was didn’t listen. There was too much love, if you could call it that. I just wanted to impress her, and in my pride ignored any indication that I could be wrong, ignorant, stupid, stupid stupid!” That last word was exclaimed with venom, and I had to calm the furiously whispering man, cooing and shooing as he babbled. When he’d calmed down enough to be coherent, he moved away from the window, where he couldn’t be heard as well due to the icy wind. Naturally, I was bewildered by the master’s fits today. He is prone to them, but rarely and only when teaching something complicated. Today, the revolved around a single recollection and the core of that iron will of his. Part of me dreaded the knowing, yet allowed him to press on. “Thank you, boy.” He always called me boy, despite being twenty years my junior. “So, where was I? Ah. My pride took us in a route next to one of Xera’s rougher neighborhoods. Now, being a criminal yourself, I’m sure you’re away of that city’s rougher area, home to thugs, rogues and mercenaries. In fact, since Greta to the north fell to some unknown calamity, only the roughest there had survived and made their way to our city like beasts. But I digress: they came and so Xera had become worse than ever, with gangs like the Reds and Fingers. Well, that day we went through and there were seven drunk men awaiting on the icy road. One called out, for my lovely was fairer than they’d ever seen, as nobles only could be when compared to the mongrel whores such men are used to. There was a light of fire far behind them, and we made for it as they leaned against a wooden back of whatever tavern it was and watched us. The tavern’s wall was of dark brown wood, which I remember clearly for whatever reason. The ice was white, although her skin was paler still, and her eyes were captivating.” My fists hardened at the dismissive manner he used when addressing those of my ilk, for my own mother had been forced down unfortunate paths and I knew us to be no beasts. However, I kept those fists firmly against the cold, chipped stone floor. The master could doubtlessly sense my rage, and could force me to jump through that window towards a cold death in an instant. I had seen him do it before.

“We walked further past them, she holding my arms and I tipsy and moving my feet as fast as possible. Then something stirred in me, a desire to comfort her. I told her that such scum would never dare harm her, and no sooner were the words out of my mouth than did I hear a crash that took my consciousness with it. My eyes opened a few times after that, and it was always to a gap toothed grin and another punch or kick. Behind them the starry sky beckoned, and I could heard screams and laughter, although of what I knew not. That could not have been the screams of a man, such pain they conveyed. Behind the men, orange fire and safety beckoned, but I could not reach it.

“When I awoke finally, it was to a physician’s room, white and sanitary. The man himself had painted the cabin, I knew, for he was my family’s physician. I don’t recall his name, but I do remember his grim sadness. He told me of gladness from my survival, although I was bandaged from head to toe. Every bone in my body had been broken or nearly so. I could not see much through the bandages, but when I asked him of Helia a softness entered his sadness. Perhaps he didn’t like me, but there no doubt that his heart had been moved to tears by her ordeal.

“She was raped. Not unheard of, but shocking all the same. The old fool told me of how she’d been taken by all seven of them in turn and in tandem, screaming and crying all the while. Naturally, I was devastated, and my thoughts turned to imagination. Of her lying in the cold snow, shouting for me, begging and pleading. That set my heart aflame, and I hated them with a passion. The pain from my own broken fingers vanished as I clenched them, and shattered teeth ground together in anguish. Those filthy worthless scum, her as I lay there?”

“You were unconscious, master.” My words were meant to soothe, but he chuckled instead. I noticed for the first time scars on his browned skin, subtle yet numerous on his face, and I was sure his body would be covered in more. It was curious that a man of his heritage would be a noble in Xera, for the land was covered by pale men, both blonde and brown headed like this man’s lover.

“Exactly what I thought at first. But was I? I imagined her screams so vividly, so perhaps I was at the edge and could hear. Maybe my mind blocked the vision, or perhaps I could see her there, stomach against the ground and a man twice my size destroying her as she tried to push away. Was she pushing or pulling? Was that begging to stop or to continue? Was she asking for that other one too? Such blasphemy, it could not be! How could I think that about the woman I love? No, in the first place, who would enjoy the rape? Surely the human mind would detest such unwanted intrusion? But maybe? I was filth, they were scum, and she should die! I Hate my weakness and their evil, and want nothing less than murder for them.” With the darkness of his words came a glitter to his sight and a pain within my skull. I realized that not only were these the exact thoughts he had back then, my master was lucid no more and the formidable power of his mind was running rampant. In horror I listen, fixed and place and begging silently for release, but not through the window. I could hear footsteps far away, coming from the corridor leading further down into the dungeons.

“I want blood and blades and burning and dancing and carnage I could watch in glee. I want them dead and tortured whilst I laugh. no!” As he exclaimed the word, the footsteps grew numerous and close. I turned first in relief then horror as the first prisoner, blank eyed and bare footed, stepped slowly into the dungeon, bowed to my master… then leapt headfirst through the portal and to his doom, shouting “Hail Gregerovitch!” with a voice growing so hoarse that I feared his throat had turned bloody before he struck the ground. One by one they went, prisoners large and small and weak and smart. One man even crawled, for Footless was exactly as one could imagine from his nickname.

“I want us all tortured and killed, slowly. I want to see destruction, then justice for those who abuse it, then more and more! I want hate, hate, hate, hatehatehhahahahaha! Then,” he continued with a calm smile and quiet voice as if nothing happened, to my horror. The few prisoners left in line were released, and the fled to their cells in terror of my master. I was close to fainting myself, but listened still. “I howled. The sound was guttural and base, and there was only one word in my mind. Hate. I hated everything and everyone, and in my mind countless visages of death arose, each horrid and strangely satisfying. When I shouted, my mind expanded for the first time and the hate within me dropped the physician and his aides. They were dead before hitting the floor, of course. Still the scream continued unabated, and my mind stumbled along it with more raw insanity than you could possibly imagine. For the first time, the world was mine to shape, and the walls of logic melted away. Then the breath ended and I inhaled. With that, all the hate was directed inwards, and it broke everything. There was nothing left to fear, for I was to become the stuff of madness itself. All would fear me, and all was required was to share.” His smile then was innocent, and set my legs a-shaking. Whatever he could do, I wanted none of it.

“You see, my boy, the thing I hated the most was my own weakness, and so my mind sought to compensate. I became strong of mind. The first thing I did was erase my existence so as to become no one and be able to spread things in anonymity. My wife, parents, friends, even those dogs who’d taken Helia. All took their own lives in numerous and enjoyable ways. Directly afterwards, I came here, and here I shall remain until ready to set out for the task at hand. Naturally, all here will die then, but that’s hardly a pity. You all are a sorry lot, barely worth the breath, guards and prisoners alike. Except for you, my child” he reassured me, “You shall live and spread the word long after I’m gone, when none can stop me anymore. You shall speak of your master when what I want is accomplished.”

“a-a-and what is it you desire, my master, lord, and god?” I sought to appease him, but that monster of a man was bemused.

“Don’t call me a god, that’s just plain silly. Why, I thought my want was simple enough to understand.” With a grin he turned to look at the window, then stepped over to overlook the mound of dead bodies barely visible far below, then tutted. “One of the buggers lives. Another one must have broken her fall. No matter, a slow freeze is fine as well. Where was I? Oh, yes. Many people live in the realms, you see. I just want to hear all of them cry in unison before it becomes quiet. Now, administer my daily beating and then run along, child.”

Run I did, as fast as my legs could take an old man after kissing the master’s feet, to where I immediately wrote this passage. I do not know if he’ll keep his word and spare me, for Krulov Gregorovitch is deep in the clutches of madness, and what’s frightening about it was that I hadn’t even known till this very day. I had thought him a capable psionic, if of dark disposition, but his every word hinted at fury so deep it could spell ruin for many. I yearn to stab him in sleep, even if the attempt results in my own doom, but he may end up leaving me alive when he decides to leave. Call me a coward, but life is precious. Perhaps he knew of this struggle, perhaps he even wanted it. If I do attempt the deed, and there are no more entries, then remember Mardow Grame not as a thief far past his prime, but either a hero who delivered many from certain doom, or a man who tried to.

 

 

Crossroads:

Year: 850 Post Kerallus. 200 Pre Adventus

What if nobody wants it? Thought Hwosh Ru’ub as he trudged along a tired, bitter dirt road. He could tell the road was tired because it was in disuse, causing the wasteland it ran through to try and eat into it here and there. Moreover, he knew the road was bitter because it tried to spit up dust at him. Hwosh sighed, allowing the sun to glare at him in disapproval. Probably, if he waited here long enough, in time that same glaring eye would grind him to dust, the same way that it took over everything in this landscape. The man grunted, adjusting the Worg’s corpse upon his back.

Worgs were dangerous creatures, large to say the least. In fact, this one had stood a little taller than him, boasted thickness at its torso equal to that of a tree trunk, and was longer than two men could stand upon each other. Black fur itched at the nape of Hwosh’s neck as he carried the thing with him. Then again, Worgs were fearsome beasts only around here. Beyond Ghata’s outskirts, there were creatures the likes of which he had never seen outside of books. Even within the region’s borders, there were many ways to die. He had no business getting cocky just because he killed a minor beast.

As he made his way, Hwosh began to sweat due to the wasteland’s heat. It was already mid-afternoon, but the sun seemed reluctant to budge from directly above his head. “Shoo,” he mouthed, throat caked with dust. Trees grew here and there, but they were greyish and small and thorny by nature, meaning they would provide no shelter. Of course, a glowing orb of heat wouldn’t listen to his puny commands, and so the sun stayed stubbornly in place, cooking him slowly. By the time Hwosh reached Lor’s crossroads, he’d sweated enough onto his cheap hide armour that his shoulder itched. Heedless of the southern and northern roads, the dark haired man adjusted his red bandanna and pushed on east towards his town.

Lor was an uncommon town, for it was independent from surrounding countries, and was thus considered unimportant in some ways. To the north and south rose two great empires, and neither bothered with this small oasis town. Nor was Lor easterly enough to actually be part of Ramlah, the desert with its secluded nomadic societies, boasting the proudest and most dextrous of warriors. Of course, Lor wasn’t part of the wastelands stretching west either, and so was considered interesting in its own way. Traders liked dropping by in caravans and bartering, because goods from almost every surrounding region could be found in the multicultural town. No desert wyrm talons or Regalian silk, but a careful eye could, perhaps, spot crystal orbs from Indellekt or a rare gem from the nearby western wastelands, where hidden chasms led into long forgotten cave systems filled with wonders and the dusty scent of death. That said, for Hwosh Ru’ub the monster hunter, this town with its clay and wooden structures was little more than good old boring home.

As he reached the town gates, Hwosh sighed, because along the beaten dirt road a long line of people stood between him and the town. Sometimes, due to how popular the town was with traders, such things happened. Hwosh stood there, between a wagon carrying turnips (which were actually halfway rare here) and a woman carting over selkworm eggs. Both were surprising to the monster hunter. A part of him longed to chat with the woman and ask her why she’d brought these eggs to Lor, despite its lack of rookie wizards needing a small safe familiar. In his mind, the conversation would go thus:

Hi!”

Hey, there. Oh my, that’s one big Worg you’ve got.”

Oh, it’s nothing to brag about.”

Really?”

Yeah. I’m more interested in your eggs. Do you go west often?”

From there on, she would tell him a lot about the farther reaches of the wasteland as well as where to find good towns to trade, and Hwosh would push his bandanna higher up on his head in wonder, causing its string of beads and ornaments to clutter about the side of his face. Slowly, their line inched forward, then faster, until Hwosh was gestured in through Lor’s gates after the man with the uproar causing turnips. The guard didn’t smile at him, although he grunted at the sight of a man carrying a Worg as calmly as Hwosh did.

Few in this town liked Hwosh; they seemed to carry an opinion of him that he himself shared. It was often better to stay quiet than to say something and make a fool of himself. Of course, the warrior looked back at the woman as she turned left after the gate with her wagon and after a second the man pushed on straight ahead. She wouldn’t have chatted anyway. Not with him.

After making his way through the winding dust bitten streets of Lor for a few minutes, the tall monster hunter’s shoulders loosened slightly, and his gait began to become more relaxed. Life can go on well enough, he thought.

Hwosh made his way towards the western side of town, beyond the bustling bazaar filled with exotic scents and smokes. Dust mingled here with spices and the feathers fallen from birds with impressive plumages, which were apparently a particular steal here. Why anyone would more for an “off turquoise” bird than for a small house, a simple warrior would never know. The buzzing crowd was mostly made up of foreigners, identifiable both by certain facial features which hadn’t yet been distilled into an average continental look, and also by choice of clothing. Regalians hade proud high cheekbones and often boasted bluish eyes and lighter skin, whereas those of Indellekt liked to dress in more modest robes, although still rather colourful. As Hwosh made his away along the shaded stands with their bright covers, calls came from merchants announcing their wares in an almost songlike chant. The sounds clamoured against one another, and the fighter ruefully smiled. This was what home sounded like to him.

Somewhere along the way, a merchant in a simple brown robe and a square hat, called a kama, stopped the tanned man. “That’s a mighty Worg you’ve landed yourself,” he remarked with an impressed whistle. His stand, noticed Hwosh, was better shaded than most. In fact, this merchant had set up a long tent like piece of blue cloth from the left building to the right in order to shield an entire section of street from the sun’s hot glare. His wares mostly consisted of beast: Skins, scales, pelts, as well as tusks. He could see jaws and fangs and even a drake scull looming ominously upon a high shelf. This man seemed to know his business.

“Thank you, sir,” Hwosh responded politely yet in a measured manner, “I’ve heard of your work, master Baqir.” The merchant smiled at that, a wide toothy grin. Lor was a town of trade, and it was natural for the most prominent of merchants to be famous. Baqir was one of those few who had risen above the need to have a street stand in the Bazar yet held one anyways. Some called him strange, and that he was indeed. Still, the charitable man was well respected, for he was as ruthless in trade as he was kind in society. Hwosh had heard of him, of course, and knew what he now wanted of him.

“So? How about thirty Regalians for the beast, boy?” offered the merchant with a thoughtful look. Hwosh almost flinched at the price. He eyed the slightly pudgy man, trying to think things through. Somewhere to the left, a parrot was repeating its owner’s cries.

“It’s green and red, great beside the bed!”

“It’s loud, it’s true, only the best for you!”

“Such, a steal, you can have it for a meal!”

Hwosh barely gave the background noise an ear, however. “Sir,” he murmured hesitantly, “The price you offer is too much. This worg,” he gave the wolf like thing upon his back a shake, “is worth twenty, maybe twenty three Regalias.” The man’s expression changed for a second, and then he laughed, slapping his thigh.

“Aye, boy,” he exclaimed, before a nearby man dropped his bag of cinnamon powder and sent all around into a coughing fit, chased by a hail of curses. When the commotion subsided, Baqir added “You look like a strong boy, so I thought selling this to you for a higher price would work as incentive.” A wide smile coated his face, and Hwosh understood the man’s reading of his tired leather armour and nicked broadsword. Not just as a lasting investment; this man wants to outfit me for better work somewhere. There was no way a merchant as savvy as Baqir would boast an inexperienced eye for wares, and yet Hwosh found himself doubting the man. There were many tough fighters in the streets of Lor, hardened by the town’s less lawful side, not to mention the east’s dextrous Muqateleen or Regalia’s knights. Settling on a cub such as himself could be no more than a backup plan, at best. Could the moustached man’s motive for this offer be pity?

Before he even knew it, Hwosh was considering Baqir’s offer seriously, lost in the man’s earnest and kindly demeanour. Then again, the black haired man was a simple one, if not stupid, and proud in his own way. Hard earned money was simply more appealing than the good natured charity of Baqir Kareem. Also…

“Thank you, uncle,” Replied he respectfully, setting his Worg down on the dusty road and almost tripping a coffee boy. He inched closer to the merchant and took one of his ringed hands in both of his, allowing his words to carry in an almost revering whisper. “But I have a commission from master Salim.”

Baqir almost recoiled at the name, but then laughed off Hwosh’s apologies with a waving hand. “That’s alright, my boy,” he exclaimed, “A merchant knows when he’s beat! But next time,” he added with a waggling finger raised in mock anger, “Don’t tease an old man with what he can’t have.” With that Hwosh was forced to take a cup of hot black coffee from one of the constantly moving vendors. The boy handed Baqir’s cup with ease yet seemed more hesitant with Hwosh, perhaps due to the man’s physique or the beast lying at his feet. His right hand shook as he held a cup out, hot coffee scented with kerdama seeds pouring into it through a pipe attached to the copper vat strapped onto the youth’s back. The child gulped as Hwosh smiled at him, trying to put him at ease. He kept his gorgeous grey eyes -a rarity when coupled with his browned skin- on the warrior for the full minute Baqir took to dismiss him with one more coin than was strictly necessary.

A few minutes after that, Hwosh Ru’ub was sent on his way. The man went quietly, secretly glad for the brief rest from carrying his prey upon one shoulder. As he went towards the east of town, Hwosh inevitably had to cross Themra: an oasis ringed by a lake and accessible only through four simple yet finely made limestone bridges. The oasis was devoid of buildings, for ancient law declared its waters public property and prohibited any parties from exerting influence upon it. Even the underground king adhered to that law. A few tired animals grazed here and there, yet Themra was decidedly man’s cohort: people were in perpetual motion to and from the oasis, carrying buckets laden with water sweeter than a sweetmaker’s potions and almost magical with its healing properties. Legend had it that when the first of Lor’s inhabitants had settled here and managed to choose a Sultan from amongst the many war chiefs and learned, Sultan Salah the first was chosen to lead. Directly after creating an advisory body out of guild leaders and establishing basic laws and ruling system, the man tasked his right hand man and sorcerer with casting as many spells of preservation and healing on the water, allowing it to become a foundation for a city to rise around it and to last through ages. Some say that the sorcerer, whose name had long since been lost, was so powerful that the water’s magic can still heal a multitude of illnesses and promotes good fortune. Another faction maintains that the sorcerer went on to do great things in Indellekt. Others say that Themra just has excellent water.

Hwosh made his way past the eastern bridge, unto the extremely fertile soil. He was prepared to go slowly, due to the large crowd of people gathered here, on the paths between shrubs and fruit patches, but person after person made way for him and his impressive burden. The warrior glanced here and there, noting that there were more Lorians and easterners when compared to Regalians and ‘Dellekts than there used to be. Men and women from Lor and the eastern lands were dressed more modestly than others, and often in simpler colours. The colours, Hwosh was surprised to learn, were more of a cultural gesture. Uncle Salim had once said, “Our colours are on the inside.” Added to that, despite the men not being required by faith to cover up their arms, lower legs, nor hair, many did so anyways as a gesture of support for their women. Those of Lor also moved in a more segregated manner, men often keeping to the left out of respect, and the warrior was slightly amused to see that most every one of them had the same type of beard. The water seemed to glisten in the sun, and Hwosh judged sundown to be a few hours away, still. He made his way further to the east.

Almost any town one enters will boast a poor district. In Lor, this part of the city was to the east, so as to shield the wealthiest from sandstorms. Here, the houses turned shabby, the people slowly grew less educated and started to almost sprout sunken cheeks. While Baqir and those like him tried their best to elevate those in poverty to better lives, they were unable to cover more than a tiny fraction of those in need. The higher council, meant to be a retardant against corruption, spent more time these days squabbling over trade agreements and tax cuts. Granted, they were not outright thieves, and work still went towards aid and education, but the council was certainly inefficient these days, if not outright negligent. Even the roads in the Qir quarter were strewn with tired garbage thrown from lean to homes barely able to support their own weight. Within a few minutes Hwosh had to slow down his breathing in order to keep himself from gagging. His sense of smell was better developed than that of others, but such a bliss when hunting could easily turn into a curse in Qir. He tightened his hold upon his Worg and kept his other hand close to his waist, where he kept both his old broadsword and money pouch. Pickpockets were a dime a dozen here, and most were desperate enough to risk death for a few meals’ worth. Such things happened when the main available occupation was begging. Either that, or join Mikhlab, if you don’t mind underground organizations.

Hwosh, luckily, had just barely escaped the fate of these hollow eyed children in rags he saw all around. Not being the religious type, he thanked old man Salim in his heart instead, then made his way towards a well-known house in the heart of Qir, ignoring the ravaged houses and people sitting aimlessly in the middle of trash filled streets, leaning against walls and waiting for something to change. Then the trash began to disappear, and then the dead look in people’s eyes.

Slowly but surely, as Hwosh made his way towards his destination, the living standards began to change until he entered an area that was almost middle class in nature. It was a block not more than twenty houses in length and width, but it was reminiscent of Themra: A magical oasis in the middle of a desert. Children played in the streets, some sitting at benches and teaching each other their letters, and shy Lorian lover sat next to each other and talked in a small garden with a slowly trickling fountain as well as vine flowers clutching a high white square pattern fence. Not a one of them even held hands, yet Hwosh could tell that they were lovers from the intense passion apparent in their eyes. Such was the way of easterners, he thought. Starting to tire again from carrying his prey for so long, the warrior moved towards his quarry with more haste than was absolutely necessary.

The house he went to stuck out against the others here like a sore thumb. Whereas this entire block of houses was renovated and repaired often, this one houses still seemed tired, if in acceptable shape: It still held on to old origins of lay walls, a faded wooden front portal, and an overall shabby quality of workmanship. Hwosh thought the place reflected its owner and his intentions quite well. The man knocked the door once. After a few seconds, he tried again, feeling slightly less patient. When his third knock went unanswered, Hwosh Ru’ub sighed, looking towards the sun in exasperation. Yeah, it’s about time for that. Finding the door unlocked, he went inside.

The small clay house was comprised of two chambers, and Hwosh found himself in the living room after ducking his head under the door top. Despite this room being scantily furnished, it was still in better shape than uncle Salim’s private quarters. Here, there were a few sturdy chairs, a few rugs covering the dusty floor here and there, as well as a well-made table. That pure white table was the only finely crafted thing in the whole house, Hwosh knew. It was a puzzling thing to many of Salim’s guests, but Hwosh had once heard the man say that a business man needed a reliable place to sign contracts. Besides, the thing was a gift from his brother.

Sure enough, Master Salim was praying in a corner of the room silently. Hwosh took a few seconds to observe the man, and determined that he was about halfway done. A couple of minutes, then, considering that the old bald man must have heard him come in. Old man Salim never put off his prayers, even when in the company of merchants or councilmen, but he was respectful enough to hurry up if someone was waiting on him. The warrior also noticed a pot bubbling in the corner over a low fire. Wisps of smoke and vapour flitted off the pot and were swept off from the ventilation holes directly above. That hole was bigger than the others, which were tiny and ran along one of the building’s walls, both at the bottom and the top. That was the ventilation method of choice in Lor, despite Indellekt’s advanced magicks and many merchants being able to afford people to fan them constantly. Cold air entered through the bottom holes and warm air left through the uppers. Each was barely large enough for a child to poke a finger through, to discourage theft.

Hwosh went over to the room’s right corner, returning to the rich stew with multiple bowls. He knew that it wouldn’t be just the two of them eating today. When he was done spooning food into about five, he heard a murmur behind him, followed by a shuffling sound. “Accepted, uncle,” he stated in a ritualistic manner.

“Who knows?” answered Salim Qamar with a voice just as creamy as the stew. Hwosh turned to him just in time for the man to raise a hand and offer, “Me and you both, my child.” He was well aware of Hwosh’s opinions on religion, and hadn’t wanted the official response used on a nonbeliever.

While Hwosh got the table ready for them, Salim went over to the outside door, tugging at his long frizzy beard as he went. “Children, I have four today!” he shouted to no one in particular, and then went back inside, leaving the portal with its peeled array of bright paints ajar. In less than a minute four children burst through the door, one almost smacking her head against its traditional metal studs. Noncommittally, Hwosh sat down on one of the rugs with his plate while Salim asked each of the children about his or her day. “Sufian,” he called out finally to a boy hanging back from the rest. “I heard your father came down with yellow cold. Is that true, child?” At that Hwosh’s ears perked, for that was the same disease that had claimed his own parents years back, setting him on course to meet with Salim.

“…Yes, dad. He’d been working on northern plum district, and a yella got him…”Uncle Salim looked at Sufian in sympathy for an instant or two, but when he knelt down to look him in the eye, he said, “Boy, I’m not that old yet. I’m still a young man, call me uncle.” The boy nodded bravely, and the man added, “I have some leftover medicine for the infection, you can have it if you want.” The boy’s astonished face made his response clear for all to see, and he rushed out the house to tell his family of the good news. Salim grumbled to himself for a second about men not being sensible around scorpions, and Hwosh could foresee him going to find another child to feed in a few minutes. The old man hated letting food go to waste.

Halfway through the meal, Salim went out to find someone else. While he was gone, the girl who had almost knocked herself unconscious looked Hwosh in the eye and flatly stated, “Uncle Salim doesn’t let the kids eat with strangers.”

Her glare was about to get accusing when Hwosh relented, admitting, “Yes, I’m one of his Baneen.” She grinned at that and all four remaining children suddenly became more open to the warrior’s presence here. After a few minutes, however, they realized that Hwosh’s clumsy attempts with them were more than an act and began to lose interest. This was fine with the black haired man, as his awkwardness with children made him usually prefer to be as far away from them as possible. Still, there was a young one who persisted in wanting to hear about Hwosh’s latest adventure, a blonde thing with dark eyes. His earnest face was pointed towards the man, while he told his story, like a Regalian crossbow. Under such duress, Hwosh was barely able to stammer through the admittedly slightly exciting tale of serpents and summer heat and Worg ambushes, but it seemed satisfactory and the little boy nestled unwanted into his lap for a nap just before Salim came back, dragging a rag wearing mess of a child by the ear.

“This one,” exclaimed he, “thought her clever fingers could steal from me!” Hwosh could tell that the man’s mirth was barely containable. This had less to do with an innate sense, and more to do with the man visibly hopping from foot to foot. “Let me go,” she shouted, “you old towel wearing child and potato loving coot, or I’ll stab you in the eye!”

Hwosh grimaced at the insult. One of the children’s spoon’s dropped. Even Salim gave her a look. “Do you mean that I like to eat children with potatoes?” he wondered patiently, perhaps hoping for the best. The blonde child in Hwosh’s lap woke up and looked around with bleary eyes.

“No,” she answered, putting a tongue out, “I meant that you like to-“ an old hand clamped on her mouth at the last possible second, thankfully.

“Child,” reprimanded Hwosh, although he didn’t really mind profanity himself. “Do you have any idea who you just insulted?” A confused look came over her then, and she shook her head, sending dusty yet still remarkably dusty red trestles flying. “A thief should always check prospective prey for signs of danger or fealty,” he said in a deliberate manner, letting each word hang for an instant, “especially when that sign of danger is an obsidian claw pin.” The muted girl went deathly pale then, turning slowly to look at where, sure enough, the older bald man with the seemingly innocent beggar look had a black brooch at his neck, holding the folds of his white robes in place. That brooch, with its three clawed paw, told anyone and everyone exactly who the man was, as well as who his older brother might be.

Uncle Salim took his subdued would be assailant off to literally have her mouth cleaned with soap. Hwosh knew that particular punishment.

When uncle Salim finally came back, today’s lunch guests had already bid their leave and left presents for him. The old man never wanted compensation for his meals, but painstakingly gathered trinkets and flowers were not to be returned. This time, one of them, the sharp minded little girl -who was the oldest at twelve and was called Shireen, the merchant had boasted- even drew him a picture on a piece of parchment. It depicted a better groomed likeness of him serving people food in a wonderful golden city with a large content smile on his face. Even his robe was whiter in the picture than in real life. The man eyed the drawing fondly for a few seconds, before pocketing it somewhere within his robe. The two ate in silence, with Salim dismantling his food with usual speed. As always, Hwosh marvelled at the deliciousness of their meal, and he knew it wasn’t due to any particular skills the white bearded man boasted. Salim just made a point out of buying the best ingredients possible.

With the meal done, Hwosh pointed at the Worg still lying near the doorway. “Twenty for that one?”

“Business, first, eh?” murmured Salim whilst standing up and giving the beast a cursory glance.

“Uncle, I sat here for hours playing with the children you brought, and knowing you I may stay for dinner too. There’ll be time for a chat.”

Salim chuckled. “Hah! I wouldn’t call what you did playing. You’re better with a sword In your hand and simple leather around you.” Hwosh conceded the point while the man who practically raised him for fifteen years checked the Worg’s pelt for injuries, claws and fangs for sharpness, and even opened its mouth wide, huffing at the hideousness of breath but taking a long look at a poison gland situated at the back end of its lolling barbed tongue. “Aye, twenty’s fair enough,” concluded the old man, rising to his feet and coming over to sit by the warrior. “So, how fares the youngest of my charges?”

Hwosh smiled at the question. “Still the same as last week, uncle. It was a long hunt, but nothing to fuss over. As long as you’re careful and set up enough traps and distractions, catching a Worg one on one isn’t too difficult.”

“That’s not what I meant, child,” said Salim, a frown forming on his face. Hwosh usually never saw him frown, even when the man was frustrated with his lack of understanding when it came to people. The old man started playing with his pin absentmindedly. “Have you been eating well? New girl in your life, that sort of thing?”

“Yes, uncle, everything has been going great. No girls, of course,” at that, uncle Salim looked slightly happy, although he didn’t repeat his advice about people taking their time to find someone worth the time and commitment once more. He had drilled that lesson deep into Hwosh, and had taught him to never hurt a girl, nor hurt himself using one. Hwosh was very glad for the lesson, yet didn’t think he needed to hear it for the three hundred and seventy fifth time. “I go out to eat with Percy and Adra more often than not at the inn near his room.”

Contrary to Hwosh’s hopes, Salim stirred on the stretch of rug he was seated upon and said, “Relationships and marriages should be between two people who can respect one another beyond pretty faces and slippery tongues; don’t feel pressured to rush things. Anyway, where does good old Persillius live? I need to meet that one; you’ve not told me of friends very often.”

“Same building, north from Themra, in the poorer part of mulahatha, Third Street from where it starts.” Despite Lor having newly started naming and numbering its streets, people still pretended it didn’t and used the old ways. To them, it only had districts. This often lead to confusion, for people were forced to rely on directions such as, “turn left three times, then go straight for two streets. If you see a fountain, you’ve gone too far.”

Uncle Salim perked up at the description and got to his feet, perhaps inspired to have his pre sunset dragonfruit. “I know the place,” he mostly shouted from the other side of the room, where he was apparently rummaging through a great deal many pots, if Hwosh was any judge. “Doesn’t Murata work there? That man can slice things like you’ve never seen, my boy. And his gambling! He used to do that on the side, you know. To get there from Themra, you go north for a minute, turn left three times, then go straight for two streets. If you see a fountain, you’ve gone too far.”

“Yes, uncle.”

“It’s good to see you taking responsibility for yourself and living alone, my child,” said Salim after having a sip of Themra’s water, “But I want you to know that if you ever need anything, I will be here for you.”

For a second, Hwosh said nothing. This was the usual thing uncle Salim said to all his Baneen whenever they came by to visit. All of them were fiercely loyal to him, and these orphan’s connections and aid turned out to be extremely useful in turn. Most of them, Hwosh included, owed the man their life and rarely bade anything of him in turn.

Then a question popped into his mind, and he looked over to where the thief girl was eating her stew sullenly. Uncle Salim got the hint and told her to go eat in his room. After a second of hesitation and another look at his brooch, she went. She wouldn’t know that uncle Salim had little to do with his brother illegal activities, and certainly thought that disobeying the man meant incurring the wrath of mikhlab, Saif’s claw.

“Uncle,” Hwosh whispered at length, “I know how business works, but this has been weighing on my mind…” No answer came, although a sigh told the warrior his uncle knew where this was going. “Why such a large Worg, and from that particular area?”

Salim went over to his room and closed the door, perhaps startling the crimson haired girl trying to eavesdrop from within. “Thieves have sharp ears,” he explained. For a while, the only sound present was him scratching at his bald scalp, perhaps hoping to avoid the question. “When it comes to people, you are as thick as can be, Hwosh,” he stated simply, almost even managing a chuckle, “but you’re critical, smart and analytical in nature. I’m sure you’ve figured that one out by now.”

“Worg poison,” breathed the warrior distastefully. The stuff wasn’t popular, and for good reason. “Is it Saif who wants it?”

“That I can’t say, and I don’t know what it’s for. However, the only reason to use Worg poison is to get caught. I’ll give you your money, and an extra few Regalians to warn your friend, Persilius Verde. Make him leave the city within a month. As for me, I’ll consider rearing up our little thief, there, god willing.” His smile returned at her mention, and Salim pointed mischievously at the door. “I think I have one more in me yet.”

After catching up on many little nothings, Hwosh left Salim’s house with a heavy heart. It was dark outside, and he felt as if within an island of light. Within this district, only uncle Salim’s area of influence could afford lighting. It was the old man’s dream to make life better for the downtrodden here, and so he began a chain of charity a long time ago: He would pull the closest families to his house out of poverty and provide them with jobs, on the condition that they gave to charity as often as possible. It began with one house, then ten, and now his circle of good was growing faster than ever before. Hwosh could see, within the light cast by starbeetles trapped in glass, faces content with life and willing to believe in others. When that light begins to fade, their faces would be once more plunged into bitterness.

Added to that particular system, uncle Salim had his Baneen to show for. It was amazing that such a saintly man could have such a wicked one for a sibling, for Saif Qamar was the father of Lor’s undisputed kings of underground and crime, the Miklhab. Uncle Salim avoided talking of Saif for the most part, perhaps out of disappointment.

At Themra, Hwosh took a right towards the north part of town, then almost chuckled when he absentmindedly found himself facing a small water fountain shaped like a cat. He retraced his steps and was knocking upon Percy’s door shortly thereafter.

“Come in, buddy,” answered a sly voice, sounding much younger than its owner had any right to claim being. Hwosh pushed the door open with a grimace. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” he grumbled at Percy, who was standing over a book in his blue robe.

Unlike Uncle Salim, Persillius Verde had somehow managed to keep most of his long hair firmly on his head. It ran down him in straight lines, ending at his midsection, just a little longer than his equally greyish blonde beard. Percy was rapidly approaching his seventies and looked it, due to laughing lines wreathing his face like a proud circlet. Like Hwosh’s foster parent, this man here was lanky and thin. Hwosh reckoned he could crush Percy’s hip in his grip, if he so chose. His neighbour laughed then, acting as childish as always. “Do what?” he asked innocently.

“You know what. Don’t read people’s minds without permission, Percy.” Like many, Hwosh had been initially wary of the man’s abilities, but was won over by his character. Unlike magic, the forces of psionics were relatively new and little understood by the common man.

“Ah, but for that you’d have to work on your defences a little, my good friend,” exclaimed the older man, sweeping a side of his blue robe in a grand gesture. Hwosh stepped over to him and sat on his only sofa. Conveniently, it was just wide enough for three. “How did it go?” asked Percy, and Hwosh waved away the question.

“Well enough, but it’s just as I feared. The job wasn’t for a Worg, but for a poison pouch and secrecy.” At that, Percy furrowed his eyebrows in concern, coming over from the tome he had been trying to decipher for the past month and finding place on a chair across from the warrior. “Why go through the trouble if you can just buy better poison?”

At that, it was Hwosh’s turn to frown. Sometimes it was difficult to remember how brilliant Percy could be. It was a paradox of sorts, to see someone so smart being simple minded like that. Then again, Adra was the same way, so the warrior counted it as a blessing for his psion friend. “The guards track poison bought legally through merchant ledgers, and you can’t get that many types anyways. Besides, Uncle Salim said whoever commissioned this job wanted to get caught eventually. If you ask me, the only logical conclusion is they want to scare someone by using that kind of poison. If you catch Worg poison early enough, you can treat the victim. If not, you’ll at least know it was an assassination.”

Percy whistled slowly, looking at Hwosh with renewed respect. “Are you sure about becoming a warrior? You’d make a good scholar, if a bit on the muscly side.” Hwosh mocked lunging at the man and he flinched, causing the warrior to laugh. Good to know he wasn’t reading his mind at the moment.

“So what’s for dinner today? And where’s Adra?” Usually, Percy’s lover was inseparable from him. Despite the two being different in many concrete ways, her age being foremost in that list, the two still got along amiably. At first, the warrior had even suspected foul play on the psion’s part.

“Oh, she went to Hydra’s temple for a quick prayer,” answered Percy, giving the warrior pause. Hydra… that was the goddess of… “Luck?”

“Exactly. You know, for a Lorian you really don’t know much about religions, do you?”

“Nah, not really my interest. Uncle saw early on that I had no faith in gods and forces beyond our understanding. He let me be. Besides, the eastern religion is much simpler. One god, almighty. You’re rewarded in the afterlife based on how much you did for the opportunity given. I have no patience for all that Regalian nonsense about nine gods and distributions of powers and flowery glass. They’re all about pomp and the priests fancying things up.”

“Huh.”

“You know? Last month Niners talked up a storm at the council all about how they’re underfunded for golden chandeliers at their temples. The councillors showed them El’s temples. Mud and clay things, they were. All their funds go to charity, and the Niners went back disappointed. Anyway, religions are just nonsense, so it hardly matters. All empty promises and claims no one can prove. I thought you’d agree.”

By the time Hwosh implied that question, Percy was deep in a mug of tea he’d prepared earlier. The man spluttered for a bit and the scent of lavender filled the air. “I mean, I see what you’re saying,” he gasped a few coughs later, “but the more you learn about the world, the more amazing it seems. I don’t mind people believing what they want. Besides, there are concrete benefits that come from organized groups like religions. Unity and peace of mind, that sort of thing. People commit suicide less often too.”

“Yeah?”

“Sure. I say to each their own. Adra’s a Niner, and it makes her happy. Who am I to butt into it? Most psions feel the same way, because we can see exactly how deeply each person cares about his or her religion. It’s a beautiful thing. Besides, she might very well be right. Who knows? Can’t really prove her wrong, can we?”

Hwosh thought about it for a second, but he had made up his mind about such things a long time ago, upon seeing a small dog being kicked away by a priest’s handlers. The man had watched on in contempt at first. Then the dog had died, and people started booing him. The priest had then raised his arms wide and announced a revelation, saying the dog was going to the third circle of Sol’s heaven, for his owner had died the night before, just shy of sundown. As the simple beggars began to cheer, Hwosh kept the truth about the dog’s owner to himself. Poor old Shemsa still didn’t know where her puppy had disappeared that day. “Bah,” he announced, “If it makes them happy, then sure, but if the sun is dragged across the sky by Sol’s invisible rope each day, then I’m a yal.” Nobody wanted to be a yal, due to the stink.

Too late, Hwosh noticed the slightly distant look Percy was giving him. Before he could empty his mind, the man smiled in a sympathetic manner. “Don’t do that,” he warned the psion again. This time, the old man actually looked sorry.

“I didn’t think there’d be anything that deep on your mind, friend,” he apologized. “It’s just the best way to train you in keeping your guard up against psionics. We can’t usually read beyond the surface of thought easily. Just a hint of what the person is like, and what’s occupying their mind at the moment. If I went deeper too fast, you’d notice and be able to fight it.” Being Percy, he moved to the other side of the room and got another cup for Hwosh. Sighing, the warrior took the slightly cracked thing. The tea was made of multiple herbs, but he could clearly identify ginger in it. It was soothing and sweet.

After a while, Percy and Hwosh began to talk of other things, starting with types of herb teas, then how much water a person needed, and finally exercise. Hwosh was a fanatic when it came to training, but Percy was also fit for someone focused on his mind. The man had picked up some far eastern poses and stretches somewhere and had been practicing them for ten years. Being relatively tall for a Lorian, Hwosh was certainly no giant, and wouldn’t even be considered too large in Regalia. Still, his fighting style was focused on brute strength, and his enormous relative strength was due to similar tactics as well as sheer training.

“I still don’t get why people don’t do these things elsewhere,” said Percy with apparent frustration. It was now a little dark outside, and Hwosh went to light a candle while his next door neighbour ranted. “Regalia’s knights are supposed to be the cream of the crop, but when I was researching for my health all they implemented was hard lifting, endurance and meat!”

“Come on, we’ve talked about this. The defence you ge-“

“I know!” interjected Percy, hands flailing in his usual emotion. Hwosh hated people interrupting him, but stayed his tongue patiently. “Don’t they realized that by mixing flexibility and muscle exercises, you can develop higher strength in a smaller body? Think of the mobility, the health when you get older!”

“Yes, but how are these impressive when someone looks at you? How does it help you stop a blow? I understand that higher quality muscles have many benefits, but the fact remains that more mass and a harder body can save your hide in a fight, or even war. Endurance is a big factor, and their approach has its own merits.” For all his brains, Percy had a way of letting logic escape him at times.

At some, point, Percy realized that Adra had been gone longer than usual and started getting antsy. After about half an hour of that, he finally snapped and decided to go out to Murata’s tavern for a quick meal. Hwosh offered to accompany him, since he was rather famished despite uncle Salim’s excellent stew. He went to the barely furnished room thirty four to deposit most of his coins and changed out of his leather armour in favour of brown pants and a long grey tunic before coming back out to find his next door neighbour waiting at the door. “Why so worried?” he asked of the warrior with a sly grin.

Realizing what was about to happen, Hwosh instantly summoned the image of a date tree to the forefront of his mind. Large and towering, its roots lay tired from trying to suckle out of dried crusty earthy. Its leaves were green, however, and seemed to fan out to block out the sun’s disapproving glare and it was heavily laden with red fruit. A brown trunk connected those two parts, offering inviting handholds for whoever felt like having a piece. A bee buzzed around the garden, and Hwosh could hear a solemn wind trying it’s best to- “Well done,” announced Percy with a laugh. “Soon enough you’ll learn how to channel that incessant inner monologue you seem to have stuck in your brain to confuse whoever tries to read you. I think you’ll be a natural at it, but for now this method will have to do.” The man put on his trademark spectacles upon his slightly bent nose. Not many in Lor wore such things, and the old psion was striking enough with his ever-present Indellektian blue robe as is. Hwosh didn’t see much sense in the slightly tinted apparel because Percy had admitted to having normal eyesight, but he’d gathered that the old man thought they improved his looks.

Murata’s tavern was less than five minutes away from Hwosh and Percy’s apartments, but almost seemed like it was part of a completely different city. Contrasting with clay house neighbours all around, Murata had went through the trouble of bringing wood with him from his home town to build Splinter. Many innkeepers were simply doing a job, but for the thin tall Regalian his tavern was akin to a home. Loud music could be heard from the place, and a few regulars were already staggering away from the warm orange glow spilling from doors and portals kept almost permanently swinging, either in arms or within blows of one another.

Hwosh and Percy silently made their way towards the tavern, although Percy was decidedly friendlier towards those he saw around him. Some smiled back at him and returned his waves, even sharing the occasional drunkard nonsensical laugh, but others eyed the man in suspicion. Murata’s was a place which served not only alcohol, food and games, but also good old Regalian nostalgia. I hope nobody picks a fight with him today, thought Hwosh absentmindedly. It had happened a few times before, but each time the psion from Indellekt had managed to diffuse the situation, and Hwosh was unable to determine whether that was due to his nature or abilities.

When they went through that wide swinging front door, the two were swept up almost immediately in Splinter’s atmosphere. The undiluted strength of glowing lights, hopping music, and medley of banter struck the two with the full brunt of a wave. After a few seconds, even Hwosh found his tense body unwinding, and he fingered the chain of beads and trinkets dangling from his bandanna’s side with a mind slightly less plagued than usual.

The place was crowded, as it was every night. Patrons sat around table to play games or drink. There was no space reserved for dancing, but serving girls and boys pranced around as they went. It was apparently a Regalian custom and Murata’s staff were thoroughly trained in it. Hwosh made his way towards a recently abandoned table, mind already on fried chicken and mushrooms, but a gasp from behind made him turn around.

Percy stood in the middle of the room with his mouth open and face looking slightly vacant. Before Hwosh could say anything, the man blinked. For a second, his expression bordered on anger, but then he started rubbing his beard. Without a word the old turned right and went to another part of the tavern, whipping his long hair aside to avoid a candle here and there. Hwosh debated going after the man, but immediately finding an empty table in Murata’s was a rare occurrence. Burning with curiosity about whose mind his friend had felt and what he had gone off to do, the warrior sat down. In less than a minute, a friendly waitress came over. “Hello, Xera,” said Hwosh, feeling a smile come over his features and brushing a hand through his shock of black hair. She was always nice and could remember orders better than most, so the warrior always felt reassured when Xera was the one to serve him. It happened rather often, actually. He found it strange, however, that she was named after such a far off city. Nobody knew much about the cities in that north-eastern continent across the sea, what with the Mist and sea monsters. As far as anyone know, the only way you could leave V by sea was south.

“Hey there, biceps,” she answered with a nicer smile than given to the group of women she had served just a second earlier. Hwosh ordered two meals promptly, not wanting to waste Xera’s time chattering on a busy night, and she raised an eyebrow high. “Oh, Percy’s with me today,” he explained.

“Coming right up. You watch yourself, okay? Wouldn’t mind patching you up again, but I’d rather see you safe and sound.” The warrior wondered if she had a sore throat, for she sounded a bit off.

Hwosh could see a particularly disgruntled fellow a ways off tapping his glass impatiently. Xera’s hip swayed to place itself between him and the man, causing Hwosh to turn his gaze up at her. “Thanks a lot for back then, Xera,” he told the tall bronze woman. He wondered how old she was, because she’d been working at Murata’s for almost as long as he knew of the place. “I was really inexperienced, but I’m sure I won’t be needing any more patching up anytime soon. I don’t get into fights here anymore and Adra’s really good at stitching whenever I’m not careful out there. Anyway, I think the man over there is-“

“Who is Adra?” asked Xera suddenly, then she thought for a second. “Oh, is she that brunette you and your old friend keep coming here with?”

“Yeah, they’re together.”

“Oh.. Oh!” A short laugh escaped her copper lips all of a sudden. Although she was not pale and thus lacked those luscious red ones so common on Regalians, Hwosh found her own rather nice. “Oh, she’s his girl!”

Hwosh drummed his fingers on the table in slight annoyance. What did she know about Adra and Percy’s relationship? “I… doubt ownership is part of the deal.”

“No, but, I mean… Just look at him! I doubt she’s with a guy like that out of love. You know, there are other ways to woo a girl.” Subtly, Xera rubbed her fingers before her face with a wink, causing Hwosh to sigh. Ignorance.

“That will be all, Xera,” he remarked quietly. The girl’s eyes widened, and the dismissal caused her to gulp before turning hastily and apparently brushing at something on the front fringe of her hair. When she went out back, Hwosh hoped she doesn’t cause their food to be late because of his mannerisms with her.

A few minutes later, a serving boy brought Hwosh two generously heaped plates of chicken upon a bed of well grilled mushrooms. The warrior felt then it was high time that Percy found his way back. He focused very hard, conjuring the old man’s image as vividly as if he were before him. The man had said psions were trained to notice when someone directed his thoughts at them, and true to his words, Hwosh felt an eventual slight tug at his mind. This was a method they used to communicate at times, and with some effort the warrior could also send entire sentences to his friend. This time, however, Percy’s touch felt more forceful than usual. Not now, the psion whispered, and Hwosh could almost hear an angry voice speaking the words. I’m having an argument. No need to come.

The warrior almost got to his feet then, anxious to help his friend. No matter how fit for his age Percy was, he wasn’t going to beat someone in a fist fight. The psion’s words, however, had seemed firm in their tone, and so Hwosh remained at his seat, casting an unfocused gaze at Splinter’s front door and the guests coming or leaving. Murata was in as usual, standing at the bar counter in his uniform and pouring cups for this patrons. Many didn’t drink, and so the thin grey haired Regalian needed to keep fresh supplies of juices for those.

Hwosh had just decided to set upon his slightly warm meal when Percy appeared from his right side, an annoyed frown still clouding his features, and pulled a seat next to him. The warrior was about to ask him what was wrong when the obvious cause leapt around to his other side in all of her grinning glory. Adra was dressed in a red vest, slashed vertically in places to show off high quality white linen beneath it, as well as red pants and brown hide boots. Her neck length curls were left as unkempt as always, and she had brown gloves tucked into a handy belt she always paraded around. “Heya, Hwosh! Hunt went well?”

The warrior found her enthusiasm almost as infectious as her lover’s, and smiled in turn. “As well as planned,” he answered, “What’s up with spectacles over there?” Adra and Percy were the only two Hwosh felt remotely comfortable talking to that way. Aside from uncle Salim, of course.

Spectacles grunted. “I can’t believe you’d let us wait so long for you, Adra!” he exclaimed.

“Why, I thought she just got here after going to Hydra’s temple?” inquired Hwosh calmly, starting to understand.

Adra tried to interject then, almost elbowing the warrior as she did. “Wait, that was be-“

His friend laughed again, obviously having upset himself by way of memory. “Yeah! The goddess of luck! This one,” a finger scratched behind his ear, his other hand waggling in Adra’s direction in accusation, “has been gambling here for the past few hours! Leave us in hunger, she thought!”

Adra looked suitably admonished, but still managed, “I said I’m sorry! I know I promised to come back earlier, but it was going so well!” Hwosh’s ears perked at that. Adra was an excellent gambler. Perhaps the luck, calculation and daring combination was part of what made her such a shockingly fine merchant, despite humble starts and a lack in funds. She always made more than she lost, and if she said it went well…

“How much did you win?” he asked, then added, “What game was it?”

“Oh, Baki.” Hwosh’s skills at the game’s strategy aspects were passable, and his knowledge of battle tactics aided him well, but he was never able to get accustomed to the game’s gambling and deceitful side. “Do you really want to know how much I made?” All of a sudden, Hwosh became less sure and he shook his head slowly, causing Adra to laugh. Then she turned to her lover. “Anyways, Purr,” she said, her voice sounding immediately different to Hwosh, “I said I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you.” Uncle Salim had once told the warrior that people’s voices go husky when in the presence of someone they had feelings for. He wondered if the old man in the blue robes knew about that little fact, or if he could even hear the difference in her voice. Hwosh’s senses were honed by training and frequent treks both to Ramlah and the wasteland out west.

“Gah, fine. You’re a lousy appointment forgetting dummy of a merchant, but you’re my dummy… So, you’re cooking tomorrow, huh?” Percy cocked his tall starry sky hat backwards as Hwosh and Adra gave each other an incredulous look.

“What!” they exclaimed as one, not quite believing their ears. “Do you want us to get poisoned, man?” added the black haired warrior, almost feeling a cold sweat coming down his chiselled back. Adra didn’t say anything, possibly agreeing with him.

Percy grinned and defended himself by saying, “Hey, she wanted to make things better, okay? I love the girl, and so want to taste something she made.” Adra didn’t say anything for a second, but when she did it wasn’t about the topic at all.

“You love me?” she asked, then added, “I mean, I love you too. Uh, um, what do you want to drink? I ate already.”

That evening they played many games, ranging from darts, some more Baki, to arm wrestling. Percy and Adra, true to their nature, were much friendlier to others than Hwosh and so managed to strike up many conversations while he remained passive except with the two of them. Even a scholar from Indellekt can make more friends than me, thought the warrior, brushing some spilt beer from his tunic. Then again, it was no surprise, with how great Percy was. At some point, a slightly tipsy Adra clapped him on the shoulders and tried to get him flirting with a nice enough redhead in a complementing dress. It didn’t go well, for her mind was as blank as the cup she kept trying to get him paying for, and in a few minutes a bored Hwosh found himself jumped by the merchant again at the bar. He was talking to Murata about a breed of drakes they had far north when she exclaimed “Hey, Murata, how has the place been shaping up?”

“Oh,” answered the man in his extremely courteous yet well measured manner, “If it isn’t our little plain crusher.” The term was used to refer to Baki players, for the game’s goal was to crush the other’s hand of warriors in predetermined numbers of moves. Murata smiled slowly and said, “People are starting to call you a crimson princess because of how well you play, but I told them you’re more like a thorn in their sides than anything else.” The name seemed to catch Adra’s fancy and she grinned. Hwosh sometimes thought that the highly intelligent tavern owner and he had a few things in common, barring social abilities. None had a slur to sling the man’s way.

“They just can’t play well enough,” she said, clapping the bartender on one shoulder, but Murata turned his attention to Hwosh. “Warrior, did you say? There’ll be success aplenty for a lad with that kind of head on dependable shoulders. It’s a shame you didn’t show up much earlier, and now only do with these two.” His grey eyes twinkled with fierce intelligence, and yet nothing in the bartender’s body language betrayed interest.

The young man waved off Murata’s question, for privacy was to be treasured. “I only moved here a few months ago. Used to live east of Themra.” His words elicited a whistle from the man.

“Rough parts, those are,” he said with a new air of respect, reading Hwosh’s implied meaning perfectly. The warrior hadn’t said where exactly he’d lived, and Qir wasn’t the only place east of Themra.

“He had a good uncle to take care of him,” replied Adra before Hwosh could say anything. The warrior felt his heart skip a bit, then slight annoyance as Murata’s grey eyes twinkled ever brighter. He had no doubt the man from Regalia, as street wise as he was, knew exactly who Adra had meant. Many Baneen held high ranks, and were sometimes seen as agents of Salim Qamar for their undying loyalty to the kind old man. Some even called them an order or exclusive club dedicated entirely to him. As Hwosh thought furiously, he felt Murata’s eyes scan his fingers in a semi casual manner, looking for a tell-tale pinkie ring. Not finding anything, the man let the matter go. “Young man, I wonder if you’d be willing to do a job for me,” he said in measured tones, and Hwosh felt curiosity brimming in him, despite feeling he’d only been asked due to the new piece of information.

The warrior leaned forward as Murata continued calmly, his lips barely touching each other as he spoke, “There’s a wine I need to prepare for some special guests coming in next month, and I’ll need some help with it.” Hwosh’s hand went instinctively to the string of beads hanging from his bandanna in thought, wanting to tell the man that he didn’t know anything about wines or brewing. Did people even brew wine, or was there another word for it? Before he could say anything, however, the bartender chuckled and clarified, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite proficient in the preparation, but the wine needs to be stored with a single high quality Scegel feather within the bottle. Normally I’d buy one from a merchant friend of mine, but I’ll need more feathers than that. I’ve been told to procure thirty bottles, so that’s thirty feathers, and at that point it’s easier to have someone get me the birds themselves. There should be ten magical ones per bird. You get me four, just in case, and I’ll reward you with fifty Regalians for the birds and the danger.”

Hwosh didn’t know much about wine, but he certainly knew about beasts. Getting high quality Scegel feathers was not easy, and he was certain Murata could get someone else for the job, but fifty Regalians for four of them was excellent money. He wondered if the man wanted to secure trading agreements with someone who might be one of uncle Salim’s Baneen, despite Hwosh’s apparent lack of a ring. However, he also knew that the shrewd man would undoubtedly make a large profit from the feathers, not the mention the carcasses themselves. This was a legitimate offer, not purely a political one. “Deal,” he answered with no hesitation, despite being slightly wary of the job at hand. He’d hunted the birds before, but never for feathers.

“So what did you think of Percy?” asked Adra suddenly, “Enough of all that work nonsense, you boys can talk about it tomorrow morning!” Despite her words, Hwosh knew that Adra was a clever competitor herself and had listened carefully, perhaps taking notes for when she had enough capital for similar endeavours.

“Quite right, red thorn.” remarked Murata with another calm chuckle. “He’s a good man, and extremely smart. I’m happy for you, finding a kindred fun loving spirit.” Hwosh found it curious that the man with the unkempt grey hair had spent so long chatting with them and ignoring other costumers. Naturally, he hadn’t missed a beat in his work, pouring and taking money as only a natural service person could, but he was known for spending his time with costumers equally, chatting well-meaningly and patiently with each of his patrons. He hoped it didn’t interfere with the man’s business.

“He’s pretty great,” agreed Adra wholeheartedly. “Some people bug us because of the age difference, but I don’t really mind. Fact is, I’m happier with him than I’ve ever been, so what are forty som- oops, you weren’t supposed to know that.” For once, the merchant looked embarrassed. In the orange glow, Hwosh even wondered if her heart shaped face had acquired a pinkish tinge.

“He’s gotten into a few issues here at times, but seems potent in befriending people. These days, with tensions between Indellekt and Regalia being what they are, I’m glad to see us getting along so well. I apologize for the least of my countrymen.”

“That’s alright,” grinned Adra, “It’s hard to get into a fight with a mind reader who doesn’t want to do it.”

Murata froze as she clapped his shoulder playfully. Slowly, he looked from Hwosh to Adra in disbelief. “He’s a psion?”

“Um, yes,” answered the woman, starting to look slightly worried from the man’s expression. “Haven’t I told you before?”

The tavern owner put his elbows on the bar counter, gesturing the two closer. With their heads close together, and the two starting to feel wariness and confusion, he whispered, “Luckily no one was focused enough to hear that, but you two need to understand that psions are rare. The ability to know what a person is thinking can be more terrifying than cold steel, especially in Lor. This isn’t Indellekt. I’m sure he knows that, but you two need to be careful. People don’t trust mind readers, and it would be best if people think him a simple scholar.” The sounds all around seemed suddenly subdued in the seriousness in Murata’s tone, and Hwosh thought Splinter’s owner had enough intensity in his eyes to burn a hole through him.

Adra looked upset at Murata’s words. “That’s not how it works, though,” she said, perhaps wanting to defend Percy.

“I know that, but they don’t.” The man’s pointed all around in a vague manner. “And just in case, he can’t be here when you play Baki. My business relies on the gambling more than anything else, and I can’t have people thinking their hands are being read.” Adra bristled, and the man added, “Or do you want me telling everyone that you scratch your right thumb whenever you get two archers and a tank in one hand?”

Immediately the fledgling merchant went deathly quiet. Hwosh was impressed with Murata’s speedy analysis and decisions. That way, Adra could still come and play, and nobody would lose. He looked at the man with newfound respect, and remembered what uncle Salim had said about his gambling skills. He suddenly understood why no one wanted to play against him anymore. The warrior could tell Adra was wondering if that was actually a thing she did subconsciously. At length, she asked, “How did you know that?” and the bartender smiled.

“I’m not one for violent enforcement,” he stated, and Hwosh remembered he’d heard of something similar about Murata. “However, I have my own tools to get costumers in line.” Adra grumbled, but there was truly little to do against the man from Regalia and his sharp mind. Good spirits were kept however, and in a few minutes Percy joined them at the bar counter.

When the three left Murata’s tavern far later than Hwosh intended, Adra grumbled to her man about what Murata had said, but Percy took it in good humour. “I can see his point,” he said brightly as they made their way through the darkened dusty street. “People don’t know much about psions, and there’s hostility towards us all the time. He’s just trying to protect me and his business at the same time. Nobody wants to lose customers.” Far behind them were the lights of pubs and taverns, and there was little music lingering in the air. There were fewer Lorians to be seen now, because there were always those who slept early in order to wake up for their sunrise prayer. Still, there were enough passers-by in all manner of clothing and looks to remember what city you were in.

“If you say so…” murmured Adra. “I just wish they’d take the time to understand you instead of just being so…”

“Ugh?”

“Exactly.” The two were now walking a bit ahead of Hwosh, and he gladly gave them space. It was true that they were his only friends here, but they belonged to each other first. The thought gave him a pang and thoughts of melancholy chased each other around his mind’s confines haphazardly.

The warrior said goodbye to his two friends at their door and then walked over to his own place. Whereas Percy Verde and Adra rented a one bedroom apartment with an extra living room, Hwosh’s lacked that extra space. The man lived simply, and the only high quality piece of furniture in his room was his bed. A man can’t live without a comfortable bed boasting pillows large enough to sink into. He changed into sleeping clothes –which were actually just old clothes- and took his ring and money pouch out of his pocket, placing them on a rickety writing table that hadn’t been written at for years, or so it looked. After triple checking that the door was locked, Hwosh laid himself upon his bed and tried hard to silence his mind. It was only after an hour of tossing and turning that the warrior remembered the day’s worries had completely made him forget about uncle Salim’s warning for Percy.

Five minutes before eight, Hwosh was standing outside Splinter as agreed, feeling more than slightly nervous. He hadn’t mentioned it to anyone other than Percy and Adra, but the man had only ever done jobs for uncle Salim before. What if he botched it up? How was he supposed to act around his new employer, and how was the new dynamic supposed to work after –and if– the job was a success? The sun was starting to think about glaring earnestly and people bustled about in true Lorian fashion around the warrior, paying him little heed.

Hwosh Ru’ub was about to turn around when he felt a slight push against his mind. He whirled to find Percy coming from the left, possibly bleary eyed and less cheerful than usual but still in all his blue glory. Hwosh fought hard to keep his glad look off his face when he said, “What are you doing here? I thought you never wake up before ten.”

“Adra told me about this new job with Murata. Sceggle feathers, huh? I thought you’d like to have a friend around to go inside with you.”

“Oh. I, uh. Um… thanks. I was starting to get worried.”

“I know, buddy.”

“Mind reading? I thought you couldn’t do it like that easily.”

“Can’t. But I don’t need to be a mind reader to know my best friend. Other than Adra, of course, but you understand that she’s friend number one.”

“…You’re my best friend too.”

With that said, the two friends then squared off side by side and went inside.

The agreement with Murata went much more smoothly than Hwosh expected it to. All the bartender really wanted was four Sceggles with their beaks intact (in order to preserve the magical properties present in their feathers.) The man even joked about getting Hwosh on to do more work out west if all went well, and foregoing some of his usual suppliers. The two then made their way back to their apartment, Hwosh to get ready and Percy to get some extra precious hours of sleep.

“I think I’ll go today,” deliberated Hwosh, eliciting a surprised glance from the Indellektian.

With a hand scratching under his neck, he asked, “This early? Murata said he needed the feathers in a week.”

The warrior thought about how to put what he thought, then said, “It’s just in case. I might find something better than expected.” He didn’t mention that despite Percy and Adra being the only people besides uncle Salim whom he liked spending extended amounts of time with, the warrior was better made for alone time. “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you. About the poison,” his voice went low, and the warrior found a near bench under a palm tree. The two sat in the shade, listening to children playing around a cat shaped statue. Despite its silly rounded shape, that cat statue represented a guardian spirit of the Niner god Serip, ruler of knowledge and keeper of secrets. “Uncle Salim didn’t tell me who it was for, but he told me that the only reason someone would use that sort of poison is to get caught. He… also told me to warn you.

“Warn me?” scoffed Percy, “Of what?”

“I don’t know, but if it came from him then it’s serious. I’m worried.”

“A natural state,” remarked the man then smiled by the way of apology. Nearby a fountain could be heard, mingling with the playfulness of youth. Hwosh had rarely been like that as a child, for after his parents had died and his uncle took everything owned, the then young boy was left as a pauper. Only Uncle Salim’s mercy had saved him, and Hwosh learned early that sometimes, laws needed to be enforced and protected. That was what first spawned his stubborn fascination with swordsmanship. He’d asked uncle Salim to punish him by way of beatings, and had gone out of his way to incur the old man’s wrath, although the wizened man never did things out of anger. It took only a few months for the man to understand Hwosh Ru’ub and apprentice him to a warrior hunter, and it had satisfied the young boy’s ambition enough that he stopped looking for beatings by way of disobedience. Uncle Salim was his first home, and he finally had a second by the name of Percy Verde. Now, that home was under unknown duress.

Percy said “Regardless, it’s a fascinating puzzle. A poison as if to prove a point, a kind old man with a dangerous brother, and an inconsequential old psion receiving warnings, although not about the aforementioned poison.”

“Uncle Salim would never help hurt you. Never an innocent, that’s how Mikhlab and their father have been able to stay popular for so long despite what they’re willing to do.”

“Hmm… I might heed the warning, but maybe it would be best if I go visit your uncle first and see if he’d be willing to shed light on the situation. What are you going to do?”

“I’ll go with you. I need to go tell him that I’ve gotten an outside job, just in case he has something planned for me.” With that, the two went on for home, agreeing to meet in the afternoon.

When Hwosh had went and gotten enough supplies to last him a week, he spent the rest of his morning oiling up his leather and sword, checking up on his physique for any latent injuries from his last voyage, and paying up on his rent of a hundred and fifty Regalians before going out. He almost bumped into Adra, who had a bag of groceries in one hand. “Congrats on the new job!” she exclaimed before informing him that Percy was just getting ready. When the old man came out, Hwosh noticed that he’d dressed up a little finer than usual: His long hair was brushed extra fine and a new pair of darkened spectacles adorned his hawk like nose. Even more strange was the new pointy hat upon his head, for it had a pattern of white filled in stars on it. Naturally, Hwosh didn’t comment on his friend’s choice of clothing, and the two went south, towards Themra.

“You know? I never asked,” said Hwosh as they neared the oasis. First in line was a Regalian knight in well-kept plate armour, who proceeded to allow an old man to fill up his drinking urn first. “How long have you been living in Lor?”

“A couple of years,” answered Percy as the bald man beckoned the now confused knight over to drink first. “Long enough to figure that one out,” added the old man with a finger pointed at the two. The scene was something Hwosh had witnessed multiple times, and which Adra had explained to him as well, her being mostly Regalian. Whereas there people thought of chivalry as something young men offer to women and the elderly, in Lor it was a universal concept. You couldn’t offend someone by offering them your seat and thus implying weakness, but there was no guarantee they wouldn’t just offer it back to you with a wide smile. It was considered polite and Lorians were more than willing to waste time going back and forth in that manner. This time the old man won, and the knight bent over to fill his water pouch looking slightly dishevelled as those around laughed. Hwosh stopped Percy to pick a few dates from a nearby tree.

When they neared Uncle Salim’s home, he had just finished feeding four children as well as an older man with a white ring, and they were helping him clean up. Uncle Salim wasn’t too upset with Hwosh for not coming earlier and eating with him, but he still received a slight earful. “Here,” he said finally, motioning the other man over, “Say hello to your older brother, Mukhlis. This is the youngest, Hwosh.” The two shook hands, and he asked a few questions of the warrior. The man had pitch black eyes and was pale of skin, which perhaps hinted at Indellektian blood. “And what do you do?” asked Hwosh back, hoping that he sounded pleasant enough. Whenever one of the Baneen met him, he turned quickly into the butt of jokes, especially when uncle Salim was around.

Surprisingly, instead of Mukhlis answering, a voice came from behind Hwosh, saying, “He’s Lor’s ambassador in Indellekt.” When the warrior looked around, he saw that it was Percy who’d spoken. The old man came up from behind him slowly, a look akin to wonder in his eyes. “I know you said that some of your brothers-“

“We’re not really brothe-“

“Are influential, but I didn’t think master Salim was this impressive. In Indellekt, Mukhlis Matr is such an impressive wizard that he’s the first Lorean to earn place in our ruling parliament. Master, my name is Percy, pleased to meet you finally.”

“Ah, old Percy Verde, I’ve heard so much! This is the grizzled geezer I told you about, boy!” Uncle Salim ignored Percy’s outstretched hand and embraced him instead. “And believe me, Mukhlis has earned his position with no help from a tired old coot like me. Here, have a seat.” For a few minutes the two old men squabbled over where to sit, each offering the other the best spot on the floor. At long last Percy lost, giving in and sitting down with uncle Salim coming in next to him. Hwosh was of course last in line, and he was stuck next to Mukhlis, who bombarded him with questions about his training and work. Upon finding out that he’d spent long living in uncle Salim’s home, he laughed. “Indeed, he did that with all of us. You seem like a bright boy, I’m sure you’ll do well.”

Hwosh’s attention wandered over to Percy just as the man stood up, saying, “So, what’s your favourite spot in Lor, master?” The man went walked over as if to look at something, and Hwosh realized he was fascinated by the cooling system here.

“Themra, probably. It’s the only place that hasn’t changed much in all these years.”

“Hahah, as nostalgic an answer as I could have hoped for,” retorted the psion, now moving over to the white writing table, the one well-crafted thing in the old man’s humble residence. “I hope I stay here long enough to say something like that… I hope Lor remains safe for me and others from Indellekt for many years to come.” For an instant nobody moved, then Mukhlis said, “Part of my job, mister Verde, is to make sure that remains the case. I assure you, Lor and Indellekt shall remain friends for many long years, no matter what happens.” This last part was said with fire not unlike Lor’s sun.

After that, the conversation went back to lighter topics. Uncle Salim congratulated him on his job and bade him well. Hwosh and his companion left uncle Salim and Mukhlis a few hours before sundown, each absorbed in his own thoughts. Just before reaching Themra, Hwosh went over to a nearby bush and pulled out a pack that he’d left there when they came through earlier. “You read him, didn’t you? What did you find out?”

“Nothing,” answered Percy. “I tried reading him, but it didn’t work.”

The warrior pulled on his string of beads a little in surprise. “How come?” he asked, “Was he trained like me?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t get anything, so either he’s been well trained,” concluded the old man with a scratch, “or he was protected by magical ways. Either way, I’m staying here.”

“But-“

“At least for a while. Adra is starting to investigate, and I’ll do the same. We’ll find out what the danger is and avoid it. If we can’t I’ll run with enough time to spare.”

Reluctantly, Hwosh agreed. His mind was plagued with dangers befalling his friend as he left the city for his next job, heading northwest. Despite what people thought or said, these past few months were some of the happiest he’d had. Without Percy and Adra in his life, the warrior didn’t know what he’d do.

Contrary to what he’d expected, only the last Sceggle caused him any trouble at all. He’d tracked and fought the beasts before, so knew he could best one in open terrain. The problem was leaving the beaks intact in order to preserve the magic in their feathers. The human sized flightless birds employed their beaks as the primary method of attack, seconded only by talons iced over and foggy with cold. Moreover, the beaks were fragile, and so Hwosh blocked blows with a soft wooden shield he’d brought along for the job.

The last and largest sceggle, identifiable as a sage sceggle by its golden plumage, broke that shield with an ill-timed blow as Hwosh tripped over a rock. After a few seconds of terror, the warrior was able to dodge left, right, then left again, avoiding striking the bird on its beak. After minutes of tiresome fights and bleeding the thing slowly to tire and enrage it, the Sceggle lifted one mighty leg and Hwosh twirled beneath it, getting scratched lightly on the left shoulder with a talon so cold it stole his breath away. Just as it tried to bring the appendage down on its would-be victim, the warrior stabbed upwards into the thing’s body, severing its life in a heartbeat.

Unlike with the worg, Hwosh was incapable of carrying four sceggles upon his back, and had arranged for a small wagon just for that. Thus he arrived at Lor only two days before the end of the seven day deadline Murata had given him. Luckily, the gate wasn’t as crowded as it was a few days earlier, and the man was able to get in without many delays. He found a warehouse to store the carcasses in, gave the lady in charge of it three coins for a day of storage, and went straight to Murata’s Tavern.

When he went through the swinging door it was still high noon, and yet there were still a few patrons here and there. The music was calmer than it would be at night, Hwosh noticed, and realized that the effect must be deliberate. As open as Lor was to other cultures, it would be problematic to have people get too rowdy this early in the day. Interestingly, Murata himself looked tired, and shied away from direct sunlight with whenever a stray beam got too close to him. “Hello, sir,” Hwosh greeted him with a slight sense of wonder. It was often the opposite sort of interaction between the two.

“Good day, Hwosh,” offered Murata with half of his good grace, which was about double the amount to be had from somebody else. “I see you’re looking slightly grimy. Good news, I hope? Ah, forget that,” he said suddenly, focusing on Hwosh’s shoulder, “You need to get that looked at.”

The warrior’s well rounded shoulder was sliced on one side, and although he had tried his best to bandage it up properly and had taken a healing potion with him, it was going slow. “Ah, I will, sir. It’s just that one of the Sceggles was a sage.”

Murata perked up at that. “A sage? Excellent news! I just got an order for some apteriffs, and the plumage would work wonderfully with what I have in mind. And you’re two days early, to boot. I’m sure me and you will speak in the future; I have uses for a man who can do this kind of fine work. The emissaries are going to be pleased.”

“Emissaries, sir?”

“Ah…” The bartender paused. “Well, I guess it’s fine to tell you.” The man leaned over, so as to discourage eavesdroppers. “The guests I’m to entertain are emissaries from Indellekt. With both our countries looking over their borders as they are, I hope my good service could remind them that Regalians are worth being friends with. But truly,” he announced, allowing his voice to carry loud once more, “great work, Hwosh!”

A few of the patrons were looking at the man now, and he could see Xera coming his way. “uh, thank you, sir,” offered Hwosh, not knowing exactly how to react and wanting nothing more than to go home and avoid the attention. “How has everybody been?”

“Ah, things have been well,” stated the bartender, “although your friend has been ill.”

Hwosh’s smile stopped dead in his tracks. The first thought that went to his mind was that Percy must have been poisoned. It was the only thing that made sense. He had promised him that no harm would come to him. Why didn’t uncle Salim say anything? Why would Percy be poisoned? Without another word, Hwosh ran out into the street, ignoring the alarmed shout from an elderly lady he’d almost leapt over. The man turned immediately right and raced through the street, arriving at their apartment building a panting mess. Almost doubled over and with so many thoughts sprinting through his mind, Hwosh knocked on Percy’s door hard. An alarmed shout came from within, and a few seconds later the portal swung open, slowly. The warrior forced it the rest of the way through, eliciting a startled cry from Adra.

“Where is he?” the man demanded of her, and she pointed at the bedroom.

“But what happ-“ she started to ask, but Hwosh cut her off.

“I don’t know why they’d do it,” he told her, “but I’m going to find out. It’s all my fault. I got that worg poison, and now they went ahead and did him in! Uncle Salim told me to get him out. They must have forced him to help.” He was pacing the living room, hardly daring to go and see Percy’s dying body just lying there in the bed. Adra was sitting on the sofa in front of him, her back to the door, looking a flustered mess and with one foot raised slightly up as if away from a rat.

Suddenly, Adra said, “Oh,” and started to laugh, relaxing visibly. Before Hwosh could do anything, she exclaimed, “He wasn’t poisoned!”

“What?”

“Well, I mean, he was,” she added, confusing the man evermore, “But not in the real sense. He was the one who wanted to eat something I made. So I tried making bread, and he ate it, and apparently there’s a powder I thought was salt and turned out to be something else completely and it got him ill.” For a couple of seconds, nobody said anything, although Adra’s lips trembled.

“Oh.” Hwosh looked over to where a pot of tea was brewing at the corner table, atop a heating stone Adra had purchased.

“Yeah, oh,” mocked a voice from the room. Hwosh went over to check. Sure enough, Percy looked healthy enough, if still a bit green. “He hasn’t been drinking his medicine enough,” explained Adra, “Says it tastes like dog food. Don’t ask how he knows.”

“Hey, you asked so I told you the story!” objected Percy in as much of his cheer as he could manage.

“And that’s why I told Hwosh not to ask. Now you,” this next part was aimed at the warrior, “Go and get yourself cleaned up, we have to talk about what we found out while you were gone.”

Hwosh was waved at with a hand as if he were fly, but still managed to say, “There’s an emissary from Indellekt coming here. That’s Murata’s client. Maybe he has something to do with the poison.”

“We know, now go!” With that, the warrior was unceremoniously shooed out by both of his friends.

The bath Hwosh took was before going back to Percy’s was, perhaps, the most embarrassing one since that time he was seventeen and sneezed into a girl’s face. Ugh, what kind of idiot goes off like that without checking? he thought to himself, sitting down curled up in about two and a half feet of hot water. Murata only said that Percy was ill, and yet you had to go and…. Stupid, stupid, stupid! If he didn’t watch it, he was going to become a sentimental fool out of sheer care for the two, he realized. Things were so much simpler when you were alone. And yet, Hwosh found himself convinced that he would not be able to live the same without Percy and Adra in his life. They were just important, plain and simple.

About an hour later, Hwosh was able to face the prospect of going to Adra and Percy’s room. To her credit, the merchant kept her laughter to a minimum, yet it was still torture. When they had settled in on the sofa, Hwosh asked, “So, what did you guys find out?”

“As far as we know, Mikhlab is going to try and poison an emissary from Indellekt by the name of Tamas Wedd,” said Adra. Hwosh looked at Percy, but the man shook his head.

“I know the name,” he explained, “but all I heard about the man is he’s a psion and a nasty man.”

“How did you find out?” asked Hwosh with slight uncertainty. Business was good for Mikhlab. Why go for an ambassador and risk war?

“A mix of business contacts and mind reading,” answered Percy, “Although after she made me that meal, I wasn’t able to go out and help much at all. This was three days ago.” Adra grinned, perhaps stifling another “you asked for it”.

“So, when does it happen? How do we find evidence? What do we do?” The last question, the last of a rapid fire of them, seemed to Hwosh like more of a general sweeping plea than anything else. This all was growing a little too big for him, and despite the rapid whirring in his head, nothing was making much sense at all.

Adra said, “We tried notifying the authorities. At first they didn’t want to help, but Percy,” she pointed at her lover, who raised a lazy arm in acknowledgement, “Worked some of his magic.“

“It’s not magic.”

“He did it on one of the lower tier culprits. Walked right in and confessed everything he knew. It wasn’t enough for them to do anything, but we got their attention.”

“That’s good,” offered Hwosh with hope. Instead of answering him, Adra went over to the pot, where a crimson tea was bubbling slowly. She gave a cup to Hwosh and took another, but Percy received a murky green slimy looking liquid. He grumbled and she told him he needed to drink it to feel better. The back and forth ended with him drinking the foul stuff, murmuring about how all medicines taste bad. Ignoring him, the merchant elaborated, “Problem was, the next day he disappeared. So did the guards on his case.” Hwosh frowned, surprised at this sudden twist but remembering that if it were Saif’s men, they would be capable of doing such things with impunity. The underground king had a long reach indeed. “We think it was Mikhlab silencing them. Luckily, we kept our tips anonymous and so they can’t find us for nasty hurt times.” Disregarding the danger of what they were up against, she seemed more concerned with Percy trying to sneak away his brew into a plant pot. When he was properly chastised and she had once more apologized for poisoning the man, he told her that the food was delicious regardless and he was only so sick because he couldn’t stop eating the bread. Then, all three sipped quietly for a few moments.

Something about discussing battle plans sitting next to each other on a sofa felt wrong to Hwosh, and so he stood up and turned to face his friends. Adra and Percy each stretched out a little in response, getting comfortable. “How about uncle Salim?” he suggested quietly, knowing that he didn’t want to explicitly connect the man who raised him with such a big matter. “If they’re trying to assassinate Indellekt’s ambassador this obviously, then it means Mikhlab has decided that there needs to be another war, and Lor needs to be on the side of Regalia. This is too big, we need to get some more help to deal with this organization.”

“But would your uncle be willing to go after his own brother?” asked Percy.

“He would. The father of Mikhlab is terrifying, and nobody knows that better than uncle Salim. The only reason he lets the man do as he wants is because Mikhlab has promised to be on the side of the people. This is not the case anymore. He would go against them, and his sons would help in any way they can.”

At the very next opportune moment, Hwosh and Adra went over to uncle Salim’s house. Everywhere, people were going about their usual business: buying, selling, and chatting with neighbours. There was even a new house being built right next to an old disused water fountain. From the western side of town Hwosh could hear bustle, where the Bazar would be in full throttle about this time. It was difficult for the warrior, now dressed for comfort and in sandals, to imagine that an assassination attempt, designed to spark a war would be taking place in a few weeks. If Tamas Wedd were to be killed, Indellekt would likely immediately retaliate against Regalia and Lor, forcing a union against the nation of knowledge and magic. At the very least, trade would stagnate, cutting the life’s blood from such a trade reliant town like as well as all of Ghata. If that happened, poverty and despair would befall a folk so determined to better their own lot. Worse still, Indellektians would be forced to leave the city or be swept like ants before the flood of anger against the country. Even those like Murata wouldn’t be able to remain neutral. Naturally, that applied to Percy, one of those most determined to stop this entire mess from happening. He would be forced to go away.

“Adra?” said Hwosh to his companion, who was also dressed in brown comfortable clothes. It was unlike her to forego extravagance and flair for the sake of practicality.

“Yeah?”

“We need to stop this assassination, no matter what. Uncle Salim will help.”

Unfortunately, the two were unable to enlist the aid of the old man. They were told by a neighbour that he’d left a few days earlier for the east, in order to visit a relative of his. “Had to see that bald head of his shine all the way he walked into the sunrise. Said something about a jade rock, he did.”

“He’s not bald,” the warrior defended his uncle dutifully as he’d been taught to, reciting an age old adage. “He cuts his hair.”

Hwosh thought he knew which relative she’d meant, and therefore understood that the old man was now beyond their reach for a few months at the very least. Upon looking for Mukhlis, the two were informed by a rather surly woman at the ambassador’s office that he had been withdrawn to Indellekt for urgent business.

At that point, Hwosh was beside himself with worry. At least, he was sure that uncle Salim hadn’t been kidnapped or harmed, unless the man had been forced to make up a story for the neighbours. The bigger problem was that a man as influential as Mukhlis Matr had been pressured into leaving town early. There was no doubt in Hwosh’s mind that the wizard would arrive in the capital, only to be informed that there had been some sort of misunderstanding. After all, the impending crisis was in Lor.

“Don’t worry,” said Percy when they came back and told him the entire story. “I’ll be feeling better in a few days. I thought old man Salim was worried only about my personal safety, but now it seems that there’s more at stake. We only have a few weeks to figure out when the attempt on Wedd’s life is going to be, but I’m not leaving things as they are. There’s no running away. We will find him, warn him, and stop Mikhlab’s plan.”

Two weeks later, there was still little to show for their efforts. They were able to piece together only the location and timing of the attack: Tamas Wedd was to be poisoned after getting drunk, as he was wont to, at a gathering for high society just two days before the signing of a new trade agreement. All attempts to warn the man failed due to the large number of guards he had brought for protection. They were part of some order or the other, and their honour caused them to refuse any sort of aid with impunity. One even tried to strike Percy at some point.

Just as the blow came, Hwosh stepped in to take it on his shoulder instead. Luckily, only three of the guards were present in that particular alley next to the tavern. Hwosh was saved by the element of surprise, for his admittedly large but lean frame was nothing compared to the behemoths. Being underestimated, the warrior took the chance. The first’s blow was dodged, and he retorted with an upwards knife hand into the man’s neck, followed by and instant roll towards the second, who foolishly lunged into Hwosh’s straight kick as he came up from the ground, throwing the man backwards and unto his face, hard. The third, a blonde man who actually looked a little like Percy, was a magician and began to wave his hands whilst reciting a spell. He was smacked on the eagle like nose, then caught in a choke hold while still disoriented. The whole thing was over in a few blinks, and then Hwosh lead Percy away in a hurry.

“I knew you were good,” the old man had spluttered, “But I didn’t know you were that good!”

From that day on, they were unable to get anywhere close to the tavern, and even Murata became out of reach.

It is said that luck seems to wait for the last possible moment, and so it was for Hwosh and his companions. After countless futile attempts to warn Wedd or anybody capable of helping, the three found themselves loitering around the western part of town on the day of his assassination. Adra sat on the dusty floor, Percy on a low wall, and Hwosh stood to the side. Theirs was a trinity of disappointment.

That’s it, thought he. Death, war and destruction, just because I couldn’t save the life of one man. Percy will have to run away for his life, and I’ll never see either of them again. Adra will go with. He was going to be left alone again. One more loss for justice, two fewer treasures for him. He mentioned it to Percy in a low voice, and the man said, “It’s not that bad.”

“What do you mean?” Asked Hwosh. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than being separated from these two in such a way.

“If you live long enough, you realize a few things about life. One of those is the nature of friendships. They’re all about heart, not location or company. When people separate, their hearts are bound by strings of care, and it’s those that mark a true friendship. The stronger the string, the better the friendship.” Suddenly, the man coughed a bit, then continued after a few seconds of silence. Adra sniffled. “It will hurt not to play cards at Murata’s, but we’ll always be friends, and if we do meet someday, we’ll pick things up like nothing’s ever changed. No matter what, I and Adra are on your side, standing by you in spirit, thought and intent. Even if you need to go to a job interview and I’m not there, my support will be, like the leftover warmth after a hug. And I know it goes both ways.”

Hwosh didn’t know what to say. Part of him was extremely touched, and another felt lonely already. A nod was enough, he thought. If nothing else, he was thankful for his good memory, as it would allow him to keep these two close.

“Maybe he deserves to die. Wedd, I mean,” said Adra sullenly.

“You don’t mean that, sweetheart,” chided Percy.

“Have you seen how he treats the masses? It’s horrible, the way he gets carried on that chair of his, throws coins in the filthiest places to watch how beggars scramble for them, laughing like the pig he is. I want to punch that beady eyed face of his.”

“Aye, he is shifty,” agreed Percy. “It’s sad, but those kinds of psions exist too. To them, the difference between them and normal people is the same as between people and animals.”

Hwosh interjected, “It’s sick.”

Just then, a short robed figure bumped into Adra and moved past her. The tree were so absorbed in their own misery that none noticed anything for a few seconds, until Adra suddenly exclaimed, “My money! Thief!” By then the figure had turned left into an alleyway.

Almost immediately, Hwosh spun about and began to sprint after the brown robed thief. He managed to glimpse the thief just barely, turning away from the Bazar. Curious, he thought to himself. Hwosh and his quarry weaved left and right, each pushing hard but neither being able to gain an edge. The brown caped culprit overturned a few pigeon cages in an effort to put off the warrior, but Hwosh was able to vault over them with ease. Slowly, the thief visibly began to tire and Hwosh was able to slightly reduce the gap. Just then, the shape ahead saw its mistake and turned right twice, going back towards the Bazar in order to lose Hwosh in the crowd. Slowly the bustle began to mask all sinister movements, and the warrior was unable to find the thief. Panting, he stopped to catch his breath amidst the shouts, scents and shapes of the bazar. Shadows danced as the bright canopies of every colour directly above were rustled by a welcome breeze. Another failure, he thought to himself. At that point, it didn’t really matter that Adra had warned him too late. What good is it if I can’t even catch a pickpocket? He couldn’t do anything on his own. One job other than the ones from uncle Salim, and it was just getting some feathers. He had no doubt that if anything hard came along, he would have no plan to deal with it. All Hwosh wanted was to take a long bath and forget about the world, but he knew that even that mind of his wouldn’t leave him alone. It would just be a torrent of worry amidst horrid memories.

“So I just put this in a glass, and my debt is gone?” asked someone from Hwosh’s right, and for some reason the man peered over to where two obvious thugs were threatening someone. The boy looked to be about as old as Hwosh himself and as tall, although much smaller and prettier. Maybe he also had a few hidden talents to put the warrior to shame, but apparently avoiding intimidation wasn’t one of them, for the youth was visibly shaking in his perfect boots.

“Sure,” answered one, the bigger of the two. His voice slipped and snickered as he spoke. “Someone will find you and hand over the thing. You’ve just got to find the drunkest man around at midnight, and slip it in his drink. The guy said it’s to sober him up, but he gets feisty when he’s drunk and won’t admit it so needs to have the stuff slipped into his drink. No harm done, save a rich noble some face and save your pretty face a whole lot of heartache down the line. Good deal for our little Lila, no?” The other one, who was smaller and stood as if he favoured one leg, cackled a little but said nothing.

Could it be? thought Hwosh, not daring to hope. Part of him wanted to go get Percy and Adra, see what they thought, and ask them what to do. He crept to where he couldn’t be seen, behind a crate, and listened carefully, trying to reach Percy telepathically to no avail. If luck was truly on their side, then maybe the three of them could hatch a careful plan together. If not…

“B-b-but… What if he doesn’t want to?”

The smaller one slapped the boy, careful not to bruise him. “You don’t ask him, idiot! Weren’t you listening to what we said?”

The boy began to cry softly. “I did,” he said, about to sniffle into his rather expensive looking uniform, looking like it was made for serving boys and girls. The taller one, who was bald, smacked Lila’s hand away, exclaiming “No, no, we wouldn’t want you to ruin that uniform, would we? Nobody even knows what you look like over there, all you have to get in is that thing. Keep it safe, will you?

“Y-yes, Deg…”

“Good, make sure you do it right, or loan collection will be paying you a visit. Gump, let’s go.” With that, the two thugs strutted off to the opposite side Hwosh had come from, one looking around and giving the boy a little wave.

While Lila cried himself into calm, Hwosh thought quickly. If this was the same banquet, then he had to act quickly lest the boy leave. There was no time to go get Percy or Adra. Steeling himself calmly, the youth drew himself to his full height and went over to the serving boy. “Hi, there,” he greeted him in, hopefully, a reassuring manner.

Quickly, Lila rubbed away his tears before turning around. “W-what do y- I don’t have any money!” he announced, and Hwosh realized he’d made him think he was a robber.

“Don’t worry, Lila,” he tried again, putting both hands up as if to calm a skittish horse. “I won’t hurt you, promise.”

Slowly, Lila started to get more confidant and said, “My name isn’t Lila; it’s Daniel.”

Hwosh was confused, and came closer to the boy, still cautious about frightening him in the dark alleyway. “I’m sorry.” The boy seemed to draw power from the apology, and he stood a bit taller. All around, the bustle continued, although it was subdued by the houses on either side of the two.

“You should be!” he exclaimed in a high pitched moan.

“The two men you were with seemed to call you that,” explained Hwosh, and the boy stiffened. “I won’t tell anyone what I saw. I just need to be there tonight; it’s important. Someone could die unless we warn him first. I heard them say that no one would be able to tell the difference, that they wouldn’t check. If I could please have your uniform, everything will go perfectly like they said. No need to do dangerous things, and your debt will be erased exactly as you wanted.” Telling the lie hurt, but Hwosh decided to help the boy once this was all over to soothe his guilt.

For all intents and purposes, Hwosh thought the proposal was quite reasonable. He was starting to relax himself, hoping that for once things would go smoothly. Thus the warrior was taken entirely aback when Daniel’s face contorted itself and he wailed, “You, wear my uniform? Nonsense!”

“…What?”

“The sizes are all wrong,” complained the boy, showing off his thin shoulders on his gold threaded uniform. “It would be too tight. Besides, the servers at council balls and banquets are only the most attractive men and women. Look at your skin, your eyebrows. Ugh, what an unsightly jaw! You’d never make it, the first high class lady to take wine from your glass would spit it out and mess up all her conversations for the day.”

“Uh, sure, but that’s not really the point. I don’t want to work there. I just need to get in tonight to save someone.”

“Hah! And you think to blend in without looking and acting your best? If I were a humanitarian, I’d offer to train you in grace and care. However, I am a realist.” The warrior actually thought that the boy was going to pose. “I understand that people like you are different from those like me. We are of different stock, and always will be. Begone, and never think to raise yourself from being a simple brute! You are inferior. I might one day even be taken by a lady to be her private servant!”

Hwosh sighed, looking at the sky above. There was no time left, and this fool was bragging about the shallowest things anyone had ever heard of. “Look, are you going to help me? I’m sorry about your stock, but this really is more important.”

“Silence, Mongrel!” shrieked the servant, finger waggling imperiously as he pouted, “Your lies will not wo-“ Hwosh leapt in, swift as a nightmare, and struck him on the back of the head. He held him before his body could hit the dusty ground, and stripped him of his clothing. When he was dressed as a servant, the warrior tried to remember Daniel’s mannerisms for Percy and Adra, then said, “Sorry, Lila.”

Percy and Adra were surprised when Hwosh returned not with a bag, but with new information and a disguise. Within a few minutes, their misery turned into elation. Percy whooped, Adra did a little jig, and Hwosh remained composed as usual. It would have been a lie to deny his happiness, however, and the warrior knew that moment would stay with him for many long years.

However, things took a sour turn when Hwosh discovered it was his job to sneak into the council’s ball room and let Percy and Adra in. “Look, I’m an old man and she has the manners of a Ramlah Lizard,” Percy explained. “Neither of us has any chance of fitting in as servants at all. You’re our best chance, and when you’re given the poison, go show it to someone or tell the mister Wedd himself, if you get a chance to.” Hwosh grumbled, but there seemed to be precious little choice in the matter.

So it was that a few hours later, Hwosh found himself in an extravagant hall of chandeliers, gold and crystal, balancing a silver tray in one hand and folding the other behind his back. People spoke everywhere, and soft music was playing from a crystal somewhere. The place was filled with men and women dressed in beautiful clothing and made up with substances and powders, and it took all of his discipline not to use his other hand to brace himself against every incoming person, weaving around instead. The scents of lavender, cinnamon and all manners of perfumes mingled together, making the place seem like a garden of flowers if one could but shut one’s eyes. The suit of beige with golden patterns felt tight and itchy against his skin, and for the second time in his life, Hwosh felt the pain of being ignored like a piece of garbage on the side of the street. As he passed, snippets of conversation drifted over to the warrior, some adding to his disgust with the every flamboyant waste of money displayed here instead of spent in the service of the masses:

“Lord Hutha, I’ve heard your new mansion is…”

“Pooh, if they learned to pray more, perhaps they’d be distracted from the…”

“But truly, our current taxes are poorly invested in agrictult…”

“Knowledge is truly only fit for some. I say, if they can grovel in the streets, then perhaps their time would be better spent working than in school, don’t you think?”

By then, Hwosh had already let in his friends, and he could see Percy walking about on the other side of the hall, looking slightly green. The warrior felt sickened by some of what he’d heard, and could not imagine how bad it was for his friend, who could see into their thoughts. He excused himself for a few minutes, and spent most of that time looking for Tamas Wedd around the buildings many hallways and fancy rooms. If the man was as drunk as he usually got in Splinter, there was a good chance he wouldn’t be in the ballroom.

Just when he was about to give up, someone called out to Hwosh from a ways off. Turning, he spotted a man standing right by a small garden filled with rare flowers. “Where have you been?” the man demanded as Hwosh remembered his supposed job and ran towards him.

“My apologies, sire,” said the warrior, turning his tone as pretentious yet grovelling as possible, as if he were second only to this man. “Did you require something of me?”

The man chuckled and whispered, “Yeah, that’s better.” He slipped a small vial into Hwosh’s hand. “Almost didn’t recognize the uniform. The guy is in the hall’s left corner, almost asleep. Just put this in a wine glass and give it to him. Easy, right?”

“Oh, sure.” The man’s green eyes narrowed, and Hwosh caught himself. “I meant, most assuredly, your greatness… I will see to it at once, and please you greatly.”

“Enough grovelling! Get to it or we’ll put you back in the slums where you belong. Don’t forget us or our father’s kindness. The man showed Hwosh a bronze medal, ranking him as a low member of Mikhlab, with both impunity and a sickening degree of deprived pleasure. The warrior bowed and left, hand straying to where his string of beads would have dangled right next to his ear, had he been allowed to have his bandanna on with such a uniform.

This was the first true confirmation the three had gotten that Mikhlab was directly involved in the assassination attempt, for everything before had been inconclusive. Now, they were sure, and Hwosh would be willing to swear it to uncle Salim. Perhaps the old man couldn’t directly combat a crime syndicate, but withdrawing his support would surely deal a heavy blow to their operations. Uncle Salim wasn’t the most respected merchant in town for nothing. All that was needed now was to warn Wdd, get him to rally his guards and leave.

Once Hwosh was back in the kitchens, he asked the woman in charge for extra glasses on his tray. The portly woman eyed him suspiciously for a second then nodded with a wink, setting her enormous pigtails flying. “You’ve worked hard enough today,” she proclaimed, “I guess you earned a small reward.” As the tanned warrior made his way to the banquet hall, tray laden with crystal goblets and a vial of poison sitting sinister in one side pocket, it occurred to him that madam Sal had thought the extra wine was for him.

Hwosh was intent in his search, so much so that a few lords and ladies gave him curious glances as he went. At that point, however, camouflage was of minimal importance, and he went hastily to find a man in need of saving. Just as he came in sight of the thin man with his beady eyes and multiple chins slumped over a sofa, a hand grabbed Hwosh by the shoulder. He spun around and came face to face with Percy, who was looking deathly pale. He might have had wide eyes, too, but Hwosh couldn’t tell through his shaded spectacles. Percy dragged the warrior back through the room, taking him through corridors until they came to one which was darkened and empty.

“I’ve got the poison!” said Hwosh with almost contained glee. “We can save the emissary, prove it was Mikhlab, everything! There was a man with green eyes, and-“

“No, buddy,” retorted Percy. For the first time, Hwosh realized how badly the man had been shaken. “It’s worse than I thought. They didn’t want to kill him to start war, but to stop it.”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“That man, Tamas Wedd. He…” The words seemed to pain Percy, and they left him looking like he’d had some more of Adra’s medicine. “He was planning on starting a war all along. His plan was to rope Lor into Indellekt’s side, and he was going to do it using bribes and psionics. He was going to force them into doing what he wanted, then reap the benefits. He’s bought enough weapons for an army.”

“…money?” The man nodded in response. This was too much. “But, all this effort to save him. Mikhlab-“

“They were in the right. I’m sorry Hwosh, but letting him die would have been a right answer.”

Hwosh shook his head. “So… you want me to do it? Kill him? I can’t do that, Percy.” It went against every justice loving fibre in his body.

Percy looked almost resigned, but then he perked up slightly. “At least, that’s what I thought until I noticed how drunk the man was. There’s no need to kill him, buddy. I’ll take care of it. I just need you to protect me until I’m done. People will recognize what I’m doing and will try to rush me. Oh, and Adra won’t be with us this time. At least, not until we start running.”

The warrior thought about everything that had gotten them to this point, as well as how many ways things could go south. They didn’t even have a proper plan, this was all improvised. Then he let it all go, because he realized his trust in Persius Verde was complete. “Tell me what you need,” he said.

A few minutes later, an old man stood in the middle of the ballroom, a few feet away from Lord Wedd. As the lord slept peacefully, the man’s muscles went lax. He had dark spectacles on his hawkish nose, and a few lords stated that they needed to know where he’d gotten them, but if you could see behind him, you’d notice they went vacant. If you saw his blue robe, you’d wonder why a normal man from Indellekt was in such a prestigious event. However, for the most part, the long haired man was ignored.

Slowly, the lord stood from where he’d been slumped over, despite the ungodly amount of alcohol in him. People began to whisper as the lord, a lazy man at the best of times, began to stretch almost experimentally, as if he were testing his body. Despite swaying a little, he seemed to be in prime health. Then he walked over to the table, grabbed a glass, and shattered it on the floor with a massive crash. Everyone’s attention went his way, many smiling at the mess he was making.

“My name,” he announced, “Is Tamas Wedd of Indellekt, Her emissary to Lor,” people began to nod politely, and somewhere some overly enthusiastic soul began to clap. “And I am a traitor to my country, as well as a threat to Lor.” There was stunned silence, and the man who had begun to clap stopped abruptly. You could hear the tension in the air. “Using unlawful methods and against the best interests of my employers, the ruling council of Indellekt and the voting populace, I have moved to set off a war in motion in between my land and that of Regalia.” Gasps came from his ever increasing audience, which swelled as many came from other rooms, prompted by whispers.

“Impossible!” someone shouted.

“Not so,” replied the lord, pushing away those of his guards who tried to escort him away. His voice began to raise. “I have proof in my room at Splinter, a Tavern here. Read my meticulous records and you shall find proof against Lords Kharuf, Himar, and Kalb of Lor, as well as Councilmen Ages, Sind…” As the names were announced, each man or woman mentioned either smiled in incredulous rage or promptly left the hall. Shouts began to raise, saying that lord Wedd was under a spell. Fingers began to point towards the perfectly still old man with the starry hat, and guards moved to apprehend him. When the first reached, however, a servant boy shot out of nowhere and smacked him upwards with a tray, stealing his blade and fighting to protect the old man. Guard after guard came, and despite the warrior being nicked here and there, he was able to position himself and his charge well. As guests began to flee in earnest, he stabbed, blocked, dodged, and slashed, fending off one after the other. One particular strike almost took him in the side, and yet he struck the flat of the blade downwards with his own left palm, getting his attacker with his pommel silently. All the while lord Wedd confessed, and when he was done the warrior took his friend, grabbed a rather poorly dressed brunette, and all three fled the premises, leaving the palace in an uproar as smaller groups of guards mysteriously made way.

When Hwosh, Percy, and Adra first ran, there had to be more than fifty guards after them with pikes, blades and spears. Percy did his best to distract them with visions of obstacles while Hwosh carried him out, and from then on it became a matter of dexterity and Adra’s knack for doing the unexpected. They fled fast, knocking over anything they could find, and sooner or later the three were lost in the chaos and almost a mile out from the city, after having gotten together what they could from the apartments. For Hwosh that meant his armour, blade, and an always ready backpack of supplies. Percy and Adra had gotten almost everything they owned, from teapots to crystals and even extra clothes. They’d fled through the southern gate, turning westward then to draw attention and to leave the sandstorms of Ramlah far behind. Only then could the trio pause and catch their breath for a while, finding a deep canyon to hide within. Red rock rose from both directions, offering safety in darkness. Above, a half-moon could be seen, offering enough light. Their fire was mostly there for the warmth.

“What now?” wondered Hwosh when he could breathe properly? “Sooner or later, the guards will know who you are.” When the guards search Wedd’s rooms, they’ll find out enough proof to have the man stand a long and arduous trial. War would be averted, and with luck both Lor and Indellekt will take a long hard look at the current requirements for hiring officials. All in all, they had done well, but it came at a steep price.

“And circumstances aside, we’d be jailed for what we did to an emissary,” agreed Adra. “But it sure was worth it, no?”

“Aye,” added Percy, eliciting a laugh from his lover, which infected him. Within instants the two were laughing themselves silly whilst Hwosh watched. At long last they quieted, Percy trying to brush dirt from his beard and her hair all at once.

“So what do we do?” Asked Hwosh. In less than a month, he’d been plunged into more mischief than he ever thought possible. Moreover, they’d made an enemy of both the guards and Mikhlab. Staying in Lor would be nothing short than a perpetual wait for death. However, he knew nowhere else.

“Me and Percy have been thinking about starting a business,” Adra informed him. Her red clothes made her stand out in the light from the campfire they’d made. Hwosh thought them being tracked was unlikely, but he still made sure their camping spot was surrounded by high enough rock.

“What kind of business?”

“Candy flavoured medicine,” she answered, taking the man aback. “The idea came to me from how often he tried to pour his medicine down the plant pot. I spoke to a healer and she said that if you make the medicine slightly less effective, other tastes could be added for some of them. I’m thinking of starting small, with pills that you suck to relieve stomach ache, and work my way up.”

By then, Hwosh was thinking about it seriously. “And how would you do it in Lor without drawing attention?” his beads clattered and the fire sputtered as if in turn. There was a small lizard speared on a stick just above the licking flames.

“We won’t. Our plan will probably be based in Regalia. Best market for good tastes that aren’t necessarily the best for you.”

“Regalia!”

“Take advantage of the continued peace we helped create, you know.” This time it was Percy’s smooth vigorous voice that spoke out, although the man did indeed sound tired. He’d explained that taking control of another man’s actions was no mean feat, especially when the person in question was a psionic, drunk or not.

“I would think that a plan most wise,” came a voice from beyond their campfire’s orange light. Hwosh leapt to take up arms and Percy went to pour water over the flames, but the person said, “I mean no harm. Please, no violence, and put that bucket away.”

“Show yourself!” exclaimed Adra, and black shod feet stepped into the fire’s light. The lady was blonde and dressed as a captain, with red stripes down her leather armour. Despite her size, she stepped silently, and she cast a longer shadow than was strictly natural. A pale scar ran horizontally across her neck, and smaller vertical scars crossed that one to mimic bad stitching. Hwosh did not often see black leather armour, but knew that only a specific type of city guards were allowed to wear them it. Was it desert patrols?

“I am Haq Ramad, captain in Lor’s reserve regiments, assigned to Lor’s special assault corps.” Percy looked confused, although Hwosh and Adra showed signs of dismay.

“What? Why would someone in the back lines be here?”

“In Lor, they let the inexperienced fight. We leave our best for last, and only those with exceptional records of service are allowed in the reserves,” explained Adra while Hwosh thought slowly, at once playing with his now returned bandanna and checking up on the armour strapped onto his body. He could hear others behind her, and even as close as his broadsword was, there would be little chance to block multiple arrows. Then he saw something golden and his temper flared.

“Service indeed,” he spat. “She’s with Mikhlab!” Percy and Adra tensed up, and the lady moved her cloak a bit to the side, showing her claw medallion. “A high ranker, too. Here to get revenge for your failed assassination? You’ve got your tentacles everywhere.”

The woman grimaced, and Hwosh heard an arrow being pulled back somewhere. His eyes were now better used to the darkness, for he’d avoided looking at the fire and tried his peripheral vision. The assassins, all dressed in dark colours and crouched down, looked more like crawling demons than anything else. They were like shades on a jet black desert, and sent a shiver down his spine. Haq stepped forward, closer to the trio. Her scar now came into painful relief, and Hwosh could hardly believe just how powerful her frame looked. She reached behind her shoulder and pulled out a long, thin sword just as tall as she was. The blade was called a needle, and was akin to an iron spear with sharpened edges. It required immense dexterity to use, added to the sheer strength needed to handle it nimbly. This one was of black pig iron, and ornate writing decorated it in what seemed like faded golden ink. Instead of attacking, the tall woman placed her weapon almost reverently on the ground before raising a fist. The whine of taut arrow strings ceased.

“You have displeased my masters by interfering with their plans. All of you,” she said, pointing to the three in turn, “are guilty of this. However, there will be peace, and Lor is saved. Moreover, I have a bigger debt here. Larger loyalties.”

“What debt?” Asked Hwosh. He looked to his companions, and both seemed confused. “I don’t think I’ve met you before.”

“I did not say the debt was to you. But it is large, and demands immediate service and my life, if need be. Here, take this. It is from Murata. You may leave with your friends if you so choose, but neither have you been recognized today. I think his offer is worth considering.” She handed Hwosh a piece of paper. “The other two must leave, and may return when the stones have settled back and water runs clear.” As she spoke, Hwosh read the letter. It was an invitation from Murata for him to go on expeditions west for the man, three months at a time, and to bring him ingredients from the caves and wastelands there. There were also signed papers from the tavern owner for three separate supply, weapon and armour shops, vowing to pay for anything the warrior takes from them. It was a tremendous offer, as if a star from the black sky above had descended and brought him its boons. And he didn’t know what to do. “The way I see it, you can go with them as a friend, or take this job and live your own life. It is up to you to decide which the path is. Decide with the light of dawn, and if you re-enter the city, we will know what you have chosen.”

For a few seconds, no one said anything and Haq picked up her weapon, satisfied that her job was done. When she turned to leave, however, Percy remarked, “I think you’re lying.”

The woman froze. Turning deliberately, she stated, “That is not true. Upon my honour, your safety outside Lor will be-“

“Not that.” The man began to stroke his beard, thoughtfully and slow. Adra shifted in her position. “About your masters being upset. There have been too many coincidences. Why did Wedd choose Murata’s tavern? Perhaps to mask his hate of Regalians, but we all know how much he cares about decency. Why was Uncle Salim allowed to warn me? And the sheer coincidence in Mekhlab never going after us, then Hwosh suddenly stumbling into the grand plan? Hah!” The man clapped his hands together. “Each man and woman I questioned had never heard of me, so I never thought anything of it. But everything fits in place if someone had been playing us the whole time, giving everyone just enough information for me not to notice. It was old Salim, no? He needed to help them, but never wanted the assassination to succeed, so he arranged for a psion from Indellekt to expose a psion from Indellekt. That way, the discrimination would be minimal.” For once, Percy actually took off his spectacles, and his blue eyes showed open admiration. “That coot actually made me into a pawn!” Hwosh could not tell if Haq was furious or impressed with Percy, stony as her face was, but at least she didn’t order anyone to shoot him. Adra, silly as always, thought it a proper time to clap.

“That settles it, these ones here wouldn’t kill us,” she said with a shrug.

“Don’t be too sure,” retorted Haq quietly, cutting the gambler’s mirth in half.

There was one thing Hwosh didn’t understand, though. It was like one last crucial piece of the puzzle, and he looked into the fire as if to find it there. “Why would she side with uncle Salim over Mikhlab?” he asked.

“She said it herself. Owes her life to him. Apparently, honour is bigger than criminal organizations. Maybe I should say it’s gratitude, though. Want to show him?” This question was aimed at the woman, who sighed and took a glove off after glaring, showing off a white ring. It was just like the one Hwosh kept in his pocket. The warrior was speechless.

“How could you?” he asked finally, “How could you be in Mikhlab? That’s not what uncle would have wanted! Don’t you know anything about him?”

That seemed to strike a nerve, and the level headed woman snapped. “Enough!” she yelled, taking everyone aback. “It’s you who doesn’t know anything about him!” apparently catching herself, the woman went back to her calm mannerisms with sudden and terrifying speed, “You must decide by morning. I have wasted enough time here already. I bid you all goodbye, and wish you many bounties. And you,” she added to Percy, who was looking curious, “Would do best to leave that mind of yours out of such things. And my mind!” with that, the captain walked out from the circle of light, and with her Hwosh felt the presence of those shadows withdraw.

For the longest time, nobody said anything. There was too much to think about, and not enough time. Hwosh was almost starting to catch a headache, and barely knew what foundations he stood upon anymore. There were life changing choices to make, added to Haq’s words about uncle Salim. He was a pebble jostled along, and there were so many secrets that he couldn’t even tell where the river started or would flow. He needed years to figure everything out.

Slowly, Percy and Adra started to talk. It seemed that to them, there was little choice other than going with their original plan. They would catch the first caravan towards Regalia and start fresh. Hwosh envied them the simplicity of their choices, as well as the decisive nature each seemed to have. Lastly, he wished he had someone to rely on like that. Then he realized that he did, and always would.

The sun rose without anybody sleeping at all. They had spent hours talking of many things, but mostly about the past. It was another night of friendship, and none wished to ruin it. When the three went towards the caravan stops, Percy finally stopped them. “It’s time to decide, buddy. We’d love to have you with us, you know.”

“I know… and I’d love to be with you guys. Here,” he said, a sudden idea coming to him. “Try reading my mind.”

Adra frowned. “Now?” she asked with worry, but Percy assured her he had enough strength. His eyes went blank, and Hwosh started.

I like my bandanna, but it’s a little too empty. The best part is the string, and I really want to add things to it. Maybe Percy and Adra can add something. Locks of hair? Nah, maybe from her, but his hair might start to fall off. Oh, one of those small stars on his hat. If he gave one to me, I’ll put the two next to each other. But then again, I hope the stars aren’t too big or get ripped or something like that. Maybe they’ll say no. About saying no, what if the line for the western city gate is too long? That would be rea-

“Enough!” exclaimed Percy Verde with a laugh. “You almost gave me a headache, you damn worry worm! And we’d love to give you exactly what you want. Adra, he wants a lock of your hair for his string.” The two gave Hwosh a lock of hair and a small silvery piece of cloth shaped like a star, although he almost managed to nick Adra with his sword and got yelled at. After he affixed them where they belonged, Hwosh felt much better.

“Well?” asked Adra expectantly. She was crying a little bit, and so was Percy. Hwosh decided that old men shouldn’t cry, because it’s highly infectious.

“Friendships are strings between hearts,” Hwosh Ru’ub recited, “and ours are made of steel. The times spent with you were some of the best of my life. Just come to visit, guys. I’ll do well here, and work hard and be the best I can be. I can do it, I think. But I’ll always be with you.”

 

Worth:

Year: 879 Post Kerallus. 171 Pre Adventus

M’kousi was barely past eight years old when she was forced to grow up. It was a universal truth that did it, but it could also be said that a child’s innocence was precious, so perhaps she should have been spared its bite for a few years longer. Still she saw and learned, eyes going red with the wetness of tears as she did. Her mother was not spared the noble woman’s whip, and young M’kousi was not spared the bitterness of this one truth: All men are not born equals.

Forever after, her mother was marked a thief by brutal tradition requiring a branding, and the young child had been required to attend the ceremony, for it was believed that wickedness was an illness that could be passed on by unqualified parenting, and the only cure was the cold fear of hot iron. Sanapi was given one tiny bit of mercy, for the noblewoman’s husband had known she only stole bread to feed her child, and so allowed the brand to be put upon her calf rather than her face. Still, although both men and women showed off the back primarily, seeing a strong worker’s bulging calves would have delivered her more opportunity than was given.

In the five years after that, Sanapi’s coal black skin, formerly smooth and the envy of villagers for miles around, began to gain a hardness like old leather after being battered by sun, worry, and hard labor. Her face drooped into an almost permanent scowl, and premature aging caused her back, once corded and shown off by the open backed yellow tunic that had dubbed her the nickname “Night’s sun”, slumped slowly and irreversibly forwards as if to drag her down towards the mud.

One night Sanapi came back to their single room clay home in pain, her intricate braids a mess. M’kousi had been by the hearth, then eleven years old but a competent cook already in hopes of lessening a mother’s burdens. When she heard Sanapi’s grunts of pain she sprang in fear, for the once black skinned beauty worked construction sites more often than not and fatal injuries were not uncommon in Ghouti tribes, deep within tundras in the southwest of Baku. However, what she saw caused her both horror and rage, for her mother’s back, when revealed in the firelight, was crisscrossed with fresh horizontal slashes. “Who did this?” asked the girl, reaching for a knife.

“Peace, child,” scolded Sanapi quietly whilst seating herself on the one and only stool in their house. Ghouti tradition dictated that mothers were to have their own personal chair, and so its smooth wooden surface had only ever been touched by Sanapi.

“How did this happen? Uncle Asali is a good man!”

“He is, but he has a new deputy called Adabu. Old Uncle Asali is good but old, and Adabu is tempered like a bat at noon but he gets work done and has energy aplenty. It was my fault, thinking I was still young and insisting they still give me a young man’s share of wall to push. The thing came down and I had to be whipped.”

“But that’s not fair,” wailed M’kousi. “You’ve been doing good work for a year now!”

“Yes, but today I didn’t. Remember: A farmer who overestimates his earth will reap only seeds. Know what you have and understand. This,” she pointed at her right calf, where the ugly brand depicting an old man stuck in a hole and reaching miserably for the sun still stood out bright against her skin. Then she pointed on her back, “Is what I have reaped. This is the hand Colna and the spirits of sun, moon and all that exists between them have dealt me. I should accept it. Thankfully master Adabu,” Sanapi cringed at her mother’s use of honorifics for such a vile man, but kept her peace, “has decided to allow me work, but with less pay to make up for what I’ve wasted. We’ll need to make do for now.” Inside, M’kousi seethed, remembering the times her own flesh and blood had been stepped on, the laugh on that noblewoman’s face as she literally kicked Sanapi for taking a loaf of bread the cooks in her house had left out for animals. She decided that it would not happen to her. She would grow a tree of Iron within her soul and the roots of weakness would perish.

“I will work with you,” she started, but Sanapi interjected.

“No. You will study. I want you to have a better life. Maybe you can be a servant in the future, if you learn well.” People were not created equals. There it was again, the best she could hope for was servitude. There would no reprieve if she stayed…

And so it was that when she turned thirteen, a woman by any standard, M’kousi left home. She told her mother it was to find work elsewhere, to study; to learn. In truth, she wanted to run away. She could only find greatness by discarding her heritage, for she would forever be the thief’s daughter within the village and all of Ghouti’s tribes, numerous as the stars. Deep within, her horror at Sanapi’s branding and whipping had burnt low for years, turning slowly into resentment for her mother’s acceptance of lowliness and, by extension, perhaps an inherent worthlessness.

Thus M’kousi left, taking with her Seris and other forms of traditional clothing with a fair amount of pride. She also took with her Sanapi’s blessings, as well as those from the villagers who had never lent a hand through hard times. Their resignation offended her, but there was no reason to tell them that they had been born lesser than others and that she wanted no part in it.

M’kousi was a smart woman, and so she found job upon job wherever she went, mostly bookkeeping for all manners of shops. Often the girl chose candy stores, for she was particularly fond of what was not to be had as a child. She also learnt about other cultures, slowly and surely as more foreigners started to mix into the mostly Ghotian crowd. The girl turned into a woman and turned towards a scholarly mind as she neared the continent’s eastern front, where the lands were more civilized, though they were still part of Baku. Sooner or later, the clothes of her homeland were discarded in favor of more fashionable things, and she began to pretend she was from Heza, a nearby town. By now, the lowliness of her family and old friends was mostly forgotten, but she would awake at times in a night terror, and she felt the fear stalk her like a night owl.

One day, she was tasked with attending to a rich man from the Far East as he went hunting. That she did, holding his bags and speaking of nothings. “And that bird, M’kousi?” he asked finally, taking aim with his magical vial.

“A red plumed sparrow, sir,” she answered politely. Her head was adorned by a feathered hat. “It feeds on insects that live in the Keigo trees, which are the most common here.” As she spoke, the woman pointed at such a tree. It had seven branches, each ending in what seemed like a cloud of thorns protecting yellow fruit. The man chucked his vial, catching the bird right in the beak. The vial broke then exploded into a small fireball, dropping the bird. He sighed in satisfaction as she went to fetch his dinner.

“I wonder if this bird has a soul.”

“Who would know, sire? What amount of soul a bird has.”

“Amount?”

“Yes, sire. The inner self. For animals and people, it is not the same, for we are better. It is not the same between humans either.”

He looked at her in surprise. “Do you think so? I always thought character fluctuated.”

“Maybe,” she shrugged, “But I know that men are not born equal. There are people who would have been better born birds or insects. And there are others with inner virtue. I can tell that you think me foolish, but I believe this.” Her voice was quiet and resigned to the truth.

“And you think this has something to do with a person’s soul?”

“It must, sire. Isn’t a soul our deepest core, master?”

“Huh… you remind me of a man in the east. He lived in our largest mountain ranges, beyond Yotaku. They say he believes people’s worth in life is directly proportional to the amount of soul they have, and that he can see how much that is. Many go to learn from him each year, and he teaches them all without exception. To find out how much your life is worth… such a terrifying ability, isn’t it? Girl?”

M’kousi had not been paying attention, so lost she was in his words. She agreed readily, and the man thought nothing of it, but the next month M’kousi had left town, asking leave of her employer. He was a good man, and fond of her fire, so let her leave and gave her money for part of the journey as well as many sweet treats. She went east, crossing the Yesgor, the earthen bridge between Baku and the eastern continent.

It was magical, what with its red lamps barely visible amongst water coming down from above and buffeted up from the sea. It was constant storm and tree high waves and cold. The buildings twisted and curved in magnificent ways unknown to her, and the people kept a warmth in their hearts to stave off the outside gloom. As she went, she made friends and lost them, gained work and money as she did odd jobs to pay for her trip. Wherever there was a book on magic, she read it, especially if it had anything to do with seeing auras. However, none could teach her how to see the worth in a man’s soul. She even fell in love with a man on the way, and they went together for a year, but he soon became tired of something within her. “You just don’t trust people,” he said finally, leaving her in the sweltering rain in front of a restaurant boasting a single red lantern above its upwards arched roof. That night she had wept bitter tears, but ended up thinking that the man must not have been worth much if he could hurt her in that way. She could not allow herself to be ruled as her mother had been. She had to be more.

And so it was that finally, seven years later, M’kousi reached Yotaku and ventured even farther east. Villagers here and there would know of the man she sought, and rice farmers would speak of him with great respect. Many times she was invited to stay, and she did for a while, but knew her quest awaited, so she climbed the mountain they pointed to, taking a donkey with her to carry supplies. Tired and nearly frozen solid despite the heavy coats, delirious with hunger, she finally found herself upon a yellow robed old man with a moustache down to his feet walking down a mountain trail. It was a slightly underwhelming meeting, for he had simply come across her on the road and she almost passed him by before realizing who the man stepping humbly along the road was. His warm eyes pierced through her, and the black skinned woman threw herself at his feet. She said, “Master Kasuri, I have crossed continents to see you. I need to learn how to see a man’s worth in his soul.”

“Why?” he asked, “Come into my cave, have some soup, and tell me slowly. I’ll teach you, but the payment is a story.”

So she told him, in that cavern of rough rock. He sat by the entrance as if unphased by cold. She told him of her mother’s whipping, the slow realization that there was something lowborn in Sanapi, the fear that the noblewoman was somehow better than them. “I have to find out how much I’m worth. If I can do that, maybe I can somehow better myself. If I know what makes those of higher caliber better, then I can surely replicate it. If Colna and the spirits are fair, then that noblewoman was somehow better than my mother. I need to know what it was that set her apart.”

The man looked sad yet resigned. “You may lose your surety afterwards. It is, however, true that the amount of soul a man has corresponds to the worth of his life. What if it turns out we’re set in stone and you’re just a lowly peasant?”

She was prepared, and he must have seen it in his eyes. Still she said it. “Then there will be nothing to change.” At worst, she would be as worthless as her mother, regardless of knowledge and hard work.

For a month he taught her. She gazed at mountains in the horizon for hours on end, recited incantations, and prepared herself. At times, the magical energies within seemed like fire within her eyes, and she would scream. When that happened, the old man would put cloth soaked with ice water over her eyes. She felt very deeply for him, and knew that soon, for better or for worse, the truth would be revealed. His calm anticipation was palpable. Perhaps to him she was just a poor girl, for she often saw pity in his eyes when he thought she could not see.

Then one day, something magical happened. She and master Kasuri were meditating together, him peacefully, she struggling, when suddenly the girl opened her eyes and there was something. A golden cloud floated, suffusing the man from chest to naval. She gasped and the man smiled.

“Master-“

“I know. Your training here is done. I hope this gives you peace, child.”

Gone she was, like the wind. After thanking Kasuri, the first thing she did was find a nearby lake surrounded by trees. The water was calm and she could see herself reflected in it. Her breath caught in her throat, and M’kousi’s stomach churned and clenched. Then she focused on the calm and looked. There it was, finally, appearing like a mirage as she recited the incantation: a cloud suffusing her from chest to naval, golden in color. It was identical to the one her master had displayed, and shocked the girl to her core. Could she truly be as spiritually complete as her master? She had never thought herself so pure, and it filled her chest with joy. Like a dark cloud before a sunny day, her doubts were lifted. Gone was the shadow of her mother toiling for someone else, shoveling filth and doing hard manual labor. It was with a light heart that the girl went down the mountain, sure that everything was going to be fine in her life.

Then something went wrong. It began three days after she began the journey back to Ghouti, for although she was free of her family’s curse and had no desire to go back to that village, her knowledge would be put to better use there. Besides, the cold in the eastern continent, Sehkai, was unappetizing, as were its sweets. Out of curiosity, she recited the incantation whilst waiting on a noble’s procession. Her cloud was from the chest to the naval, golden, as were the guards’. Even the commoners on the streets had the exact soul. Only the animals were different; from them she saw nothing. Panicking, M’kousi ran to the beggars and saw. Then in desperation, she went to the jail. She begged the guards until, thinking she was insane, they granted her wish to see the meanest, worst prisoner they had. They took her down the dungeons, path illuminated only by their torches. She eyed them absentmindedly. There, beneath ornate obsidian armor, the guards also had the same cloud.

The guards dropped her before a dark cell, set alone at a corridor’s end. There she could barely glimpse a man’s face, where light and shadow met. She knew that this criminal at least would be different. His soul must be tiny, dismal and black. But no. When she saw and recited the incantation quietly, his soul was like all the others.

“What is it, girly? Why are you crying? I’ll have you know, I only like to kill old men. You don’t whet my appetite one bit.”

So M’kousi cried and laughed, letting the guards escort her from the building where she laughed at the horrid irony of it all. All this time she looked for the worth of people, condemned her mother and all those others. She wanted to prove her own worth, when in fact…

 

 

Strangers:

Year: 982 Post Kerdallus, 128 Pre adventus

Gurei woke up well before dawn, stirred by something. For a second, things felt alright. For one first blissfully still instant, the world waited and held his breath. More importantly, his own insides waited a little. Then they came crashing down and he closed his eyes again, hoping for the void. “Gurei,” came a voice, gruff with years of use. “Katou!”

Before the boy could say anything, the other boy sleeping in his room replied, “Coming!”

The boy groaned, getting up to his feet and hastily changing into something suitable for the muddy work ahead. He glanced at Gurei. “Coming?” he asked, then added, “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” said the straight haired youth. He moved a strand away from his eyes, since it sometimes felt the horrid thing would cut him with how straight it grew. He felt like a surudoi, all thorny fur and brittleness. Without another word his twin brother left their small one room lean to and went out to help out with the day’s work. This was routine in its own way, and allowed Gurei to take a few moments for himself. These he used to gather his strength. He had to get up.

After a few moments, Gueri was able to painstakingly get up to his feet. He pulled on his brown mud-stained tunic over his tall but slender frame. It was to be washed in a few days, but for now the boy had to bear with the stench of work. It was his, after all. He left the lean to, careful not to drop any of uncle Yatushi’s moldy wallboards nor cut himself on a rusty nail. If any damage came to the place, his family would pay. His father, Yukihira Midoriya, was already taking up a big set of clippers. “About time, slowpoke,” he chided, as he often did. His voice was louder than other people’s, which was all very well and good for the weak eared Gurei. His father, however, did not believe that his son didn’t hear as well as others, and assumed he was either stupid or lazy. This was because the mild mannered boy had always slept very lightly.

“I’m sorry, father,” said he softly. His father didn’t seem to understand that ‘mild mannered’ and ‘Skittish’ came hand in hand for some.

“Well, there’s no use telling you to make this the last time.” His weathered face cracked, exposing a smile of sorts. Gurei’s father didn’t do that often, and the boy almost smiled back in gratitude. Instead he looked to his right. He and his family lived on a small hill, overlooking rectangular mirror like patches of water. Each was long and wide, and villagers made their way between them using the green grass roads created when the rice paddies were first dug out. To their right was a forest of bamboos rising up, curving slightly as if tired from a long climb. Gurei knew that the forest held more variety, although none really knew how far it stretched and none dared tread too far. Far behind the forest, darkness reigned. The boy knew that a tired sun would eventually start a painstakingly long climb, but that he was still too early for that. “Well, come on.” With those words, Yukihira made his way down the hill. “You were late, so no real time for breakfast. Your mother gave me this for you.” The tall but slightly hunched over man pulled a rice ball out of a pocket as he walked, showing it to the boy. Gurei could looked behind, to where his Katou was saying goodbye to their mother. He waved, and she waved back with a wide smile, although the woman looked tired. Far in the distance behind her, something flew amongst the clouds. Gurei could not be sure if it was a bird or something else. Nobusame came to mind, and he averted his eyes quickly, lest he see the face upon a nobusame’s back and be cursed. Maybe it was something good and cute like a fairy or Tennyo. Gurei blushed, knowing that even if it were a Tennyo, it wouldn’t be as pretty as Natsumi. It was impossible for anyone or anything, even an angelic yokai, to be as beautiful as Natsumi. Of course, anyone who saw a Tennyo feeding on a rat would hardly be able to consider them beautiful anymore.

The boy made his way down the hill more carefully than his father and brother did. Despite doing this for a good many years now, working every morning had done nothing to improve Gurei’s feeble constitution. Despite his litter containing only two pups, there was no doubt in his mind about which was the runt. Whereas Katou was lean but hardworking and their father strong if sporting a beer belly, Gurei’s twenty years of existence left him looking more like a bamboo stalk than anything else. Still, he was worked as hard as his brother, and as the sun began to find its way up the sky’s canvas, his breath began to catch in his throat. He and his brother had the task of walking around a set area of rice paddy, picking out anything that was getting into the soil and making sure all the plants were growing straight and true. Spending hours stooped in that manner can get into a man’s back, as Yukihira Midoriya had demonstrated with his permanent slightly askew stance. Pain lanced and throbbed slowly through the boy’s body. Come on, he urged himself, seeing his brother parallel to and ahead of him. You’re a man now. Do it for dad. Do it for the village. Sweat beaded his scrunched up forehead, and his breath came cold like stalagmites dropping through his body. Don’t drop, not yet. He could see his father doing harder work with the heavy rusted shears. It was always Gurei who dropped first. His constitution was too different from a healthy boy’s. Twenty years of wishing couldn’t change that. Shadows flitted inside his mind, reminding him of every time his body let him down, whispering weakness. He wasn’t smart, nor was he strong. For those who had nothing else in their favor, perseverance was the only way. Mrs. Kitsune had said so, trying to cheer him up once. Don’t be useless.

“Boy, weed patch to your left. Don’t get sloppy now!” The words came as if from far away. A rare spot of reflected sunlight in the water below blinded the boy as he turned his gaze left, seeing the patch. He stepped towards it and fell face down into the water. His father glanced upwards, towards the mostly dark sky above, trying to gauge the time. “Yip, that’s about when he usually drops. Break!”

Gurei remained in a haze as he was hauled to his feet by strong arms. His father grumbled in his ears, and although he couldn’t figure out what was being said, the boy knew that it was something about him. Of course it was, for he could barely keep up with children five years his junior. The sky above looked like rain, he thought, but didn’t say anything as he was plopped down on one of the paddy’s grassy outskirts. A cloth and rice balls were shoved into his hands, and he was unable to determine if he wanted to eat them or bury his face in his hands with shame. In the end, the boy wiped his wet face on his sleeve, sniffed, and began to eat with more enthusiasm than was normal. He kept his eyes down, lest a tear escape them.

A sound of sloshing came towards him slowly, and then a plop. Gurei looked to see his brother next to him. “Hey, buddy,” he said gently.

“Hello, Katou,” answered the older brother, trying to put some cheer into it.

“I hope you didn’t hurt yourself falling. Dad can be a bit rough, but we really can use all the help we get. You’re doing well. Can’t miss uncle’s deadlines, you know.” The words sounded hallow. Gurei knew that every bit of help was needed. That was the only reason a useless muss such as he was tolerated. He could feel villagers on other parts of the paddy eyeing him with disdain. He could sympathize with them.

“It’s all because of uncle,” he said, words burning hot.

“Yeah. If he hadn’t gotten those paddies, we’d be way worse off.”

“No. It’s all because he doesn’t pay well!” Gurei’s brother gasped at his outburst, although it was still delivered in hushed tones. “Just because he lucked out in Yotaku with what little he got when grandpa died doesn’t mean he’s better than us.” Much like the empire and large glamorous city, their uncle had forgotten his roots and wanted only riches. Gurei hated it, as did any sensible person. The settlements had lost much to Yotaku’s expansion.

Katou looked at his brother. “Don’t talk like that. He’s older than us. He’s successful. Smart people are successful, and smart people figure out when someone hates them. We have what we have because of his grace.” Further to the side, Gurei glimpsed Natsumi eying them. Beautiful Natsumi with her shoulder length hair. Usually seeing her calmed him, but not when he looked this pathetic.

“Grace! We pay rent for our shack. We do all the work and he gets most of the money! And we go to visit, I see how he looks at us. If he’s so smart,” he spat out, “Then how come his daughter is as dumb as a brick? She’s a pig!”

His brother, always happy, gave Gurei a cold look. “His daughter was born wrong. Sympathy is what that poor girl deserves.” He didn’t say it, but with that last glance and the way he leapt into the rice paddy and his work, Gurei understood what he’d meant. I of all people should understand what it’s like to be born wrong.

Naturally, the rest of his morning was spent in hard work with intermediate breaks. Katou did not come back to talk to him for a while, but he was too good a person not to eventually check up on his older brother. For his part, Gurei mumbled and said everything was fine when he was asked, but he was born with a fragile heart. The darkening gloom above, usual around this part of Sehkai, mirrored his heart in an uncanny manner. He’d let the ever-present hurt inside him out, aimed at someone who didn’t even deserve it. Gurei wanted nothing more than to crawl into his bed like a miserable creature and never come back out again. He didn’t understand why he was so different.

The boy had always been angst ridden, but brief flashes of happiness were tucked away within his childhood. The memory of being carried upon his father’s shoulders at a Niner festival, watching explosions light the sky, still had a strange warmth to them. Nowadays he just felt out of place, like a thorn stuck where it doesn’t belong. Every day, his own worthlessness would haunt him, waiting for the inevitable failures like carrions circling above a bloody feast.

That day, relief came in the form of Natsumi’s closeness. Old lady Sakasha had died the week before, and today was Natsumi’s turn in rotation at the woman’s old spot. Gurei’s heart lurched with the glee of her being so close. He tried to talk to her, for they’d known each other since their childhood. However, the pale girl with the shoulder length hair was a fast worker, and so he gave that up after an initial greeting. “It’s fine,” he wheezed as she shrugged. Her eyes, curved like a mountain was, burned with dark concentration and focused on the work at hand. Gurei wished only for money so he could make her happy. It pained him to see the way his uncle hoarded golden ring coins. If he were like that, cute Natsumi would never have to work a rice paddy ever again. The thought made his heart throb, and it staved off the dark numbness lurking in his mind.

At midafternoon, Gurei was allowed to leave the rice paddy. He splashed off the watery mud, wiping off sweat on his sleeve. It wasn’t the best of days, so the boy asked permission to rest before going on to his second job. His father looked him up and down, but agreed. The man was distracted, Gurei saw. When he followed his gaze, the boys saw trails of smoke in the distance, coming from behind horse drawn carriages. They were coming right towards them. His father spat in distaste, and Gurei knew he thought these may merchants coming from the north east. Distrust was rampant against those who came from those parts, for they might be mixed with those from the northern continent of Jerr, or even the island savages in between the two continents. Leaving that matter, the boy went into his father and mother’s cottage, where he was greeted by the smell of fresh dumplings. For a second they brought good memories, but as Gurei ate, his nostalgia turned into wishful remembrance. It doesn’t really matter, he finally thought.

“Is something wrong, child?” asked his mother. She had been a slender woman, Gurei had been told, but had turned hard and bellied with age.

“Nothing, really. Well, it’s just…” He was twenty years old already, and didn’t know anything about what he wanted to do with his life. It wasn’t like he could work the farms well. He couldn’t read and write too well either. No skills, hobbies, nothing except wasting time and going into the forest. He didn’t fit anywhere. There was gaping hole inside him, fertilized with worry and fear, with the only fruit to show being self-loathing. “I’m just worried about the caravans coming here.”

Gurei’s mother was naturally accepting of others, but had a strong dislike for those coming from the north. “Hope they just don’t steal from us,” she muttered darkly.

When Gurei finished his meal, he went out to his other job. Being feeble, he’d been often sent into the forest to stay out of everyone’s way. He liked to pick whatever got his interest, and one day a wizard who happened to live in a nearby village caught him grasping a bluish sort of nut. “Bring me three sacks of those each month, and I’ll pay.” Ever since, this became Gurei’s specialty. The wizard used it for something or the other. Gurei didn’t really care, although Katou had prodded him to ask.

The sky had begun to shed a few tears when Gurei got beyond the bamboo forest. Here, the trees were large and ominous, gnarly and close knit. Bark grew from them like malicious growths, and the grass beneath them rose tired and sickly. The sky above was… gone, hidden by more leaves than a thousand men could count. Gurei walked cautiously, listening for howls, scuttles, screams or crashes. He cursed his weakened hearing as a honey snake slithered away from his foot. These snakes were captured and raised for their sweet venom, which was harmless to humans for some reason. Somewhere in the distance, a light alerted the boy to a fairy’s presence, and he made towards it as silently as possible for someone like him. Before he was a hundred steps away the light fled, but he did not mind.

Fairies, for some reason, gathered near the trees which produced the fruits Gurei was after. It was with a small breath of excitement that the boy found what he sought: A long slender trunk laden with tiny branches, like fingers. Each ended in a small puff of leaves and fruit. Opening the sack he’d brought with him, the boy filled the sack with wonder, disregarding everything around him. The trees didn’t stay in place long, so he had to bag as much as he could that day. For a second, he didn’t seem quite so useless, filled with immediate purpose as he was.

The boy took to his task with too much purpose, evidently. A crack behind him alerted the slant eyed boy to danger, and he turned to find a monstrosity right behind him. A Dodomeki. It screamed at him, all hundred eyes glaring at him. The eyes covered its ball like body, and it stood on four arms. Not knowing where to look, the boy stammered. “Eh, ah, erm…” He thought about holding his breath, remembering the stories about the beast’s breath. He couldn’t see a mouth anywhere.

After a second, the beast came and Gurei ran, zigzagging his way around the trees as he tried to put anything between him and a horrid death. Grass and trees and screams blurred in his head as he cut left then right over and over, praying only for a quick end. He was so terrified that it didn’t even occur to him that his life was hardly worth the effort of saving. It was only due to dumb luck that the monster managed to trip on something and lose him, for with his stamina there would have been no contest in a true chase. His bag was only half full, but the boy whooped his survival, wheezing. Then he began to think. He only filled the sack halfway. Filling it completely would have gotten them that much extra money.

He may as well have let the thing eat him. There was no purpose in anything he ever did, and all of his actions ended in failure. Gurei’s life was just an empty routine, trying every day to summon the strength to smile and enjoy something like normal people did. It was too hard. He knew that every day would be the same, and there was nothing but emptiness to look forward to. Letting that reality crash over him for the first time that day, the boy in the brown tunic sat down and cried. Even that felt stupid, because he didn’t really have any big problems. The shadows flitted in his heart, telling him that nothing will ever make him happy. Someone without a purpose should just lie there and turn to stone. This was the part of his second job that he hated. Keeping the mask of normal life on all the time was difficult, but it kept him from overthinking things. Now, that safety was gone. Desperately, squatting against a tree trunk, the boy grasped on to his knees. Mentally, he tried to think of something to get him up. He needed the strength to stand up and go back, face his family, and keep living. The only purpose which came to mind was Natsumi, and so Gurei focused on that. He visualized the beautiful girl in something other than filthy work tunics, cute with done hair and just a hint of powder on her face. He held that image in his head for a few seconds, then got up.

When Gurei came back out the bamboo forest, the sky was almost completely dark. He could see light from his parent’s shack, but made his way to Natsumi’s with a determined step. He had filled another sack, that one with momo and sakura flowers. He walked a few minutes to where her own shack was, then paused, fist hanging over the door. His knees shook, and the boy realized that he didn’t have it in him. He’d gathered all the strength he had in his soul, and still couldn’t knock on the door of a silly girl’s room. A low moan like sound escaped his mouth. Even if he could, she would never accept his advances.

Just as he turned to make his way back home her door opened. She eyed at him in surprise. “Gurei?” she asked, and slight irritation ran through him. Then he noticed how cute it was when she asked while knowing the answer. “Uh, yes.”

“What is it?” she asked, then saw the sacks. “Wow, did you gather that much?”

“No… half is… it’s…” She waited patiently, looking innocent with head cocked to the side. Then she asked, “Flowers? Are they for me?”

“…Yes…” Now it was his turn to cast his gaze shyly. He was sure it wasn’t quite so captivating when he acted this way.

“Awww! That’s so sweet of you!” she stepped forward, took the sack in his right hand, and looked inside. Gurei realized how clammy his palms were, and hoped he hadn’t stained the sack. Then he saw the mark on it and his heart dropped. It began to rain again, slowly. Luckily, this cut the conversation time.

“It’s amazing of you. I like momo and sakura flowers. Tsubaki is my favorite, though. It signifies perfect love. Anyway, the people from the caravan hired you. There’s a magician and some scouts from Yotaku, want to go into the forest. We were with them most of the evening.”

Gurei couldn’t sleep that night. After he got home, his father had introduced him to a lord Aimatsu, who was a man around his forties. The lord owned a nicely trimmed beard, bore a green cape, and seemed completely uninterested in Gurei, his guide for the night. He simply told him that he was to take them into the forest and guide them as deep within as possibly. When that was done, the lord retreated back to his wagon, where he and his hardened scouts set up camp for the night.

Stress wore on the boy. He had not an inkling of what was meant to happen with him the day after. Moreover, Natsumi’s rejection of his flowers had hurt. What kind of idiot doesn’t check the flower types before picking them? Thus he tossed and turned, opening his eyes every so often so as to glare at his shack’s roof. Katou snored peacefully.

An hour before it was time to wake, Gurei started trying to get him. He tried threats, goads, encouragement, everything. None of it worked, and it was not until he was summoned that he stood up and got dressed. Maybe I was born to be a servant. Maybe uncle Yatushi will have me clean up after his daughter. When he went out, the “expedition party” looked dashing in their matching cloaks. The scouts were armed with bows and daggers and their leather boots looked more expensive than the shack Gurei shared with his brother. One of them glanced at him and then winked in a friendly manner while the others looked like statues. There were five of them, and they stood a circle around their lord, whose hooded cloak was a dark blue with golden trimmings. His wooden staff was cracked a foot and a half from the bottom. “Ready, boy?” Asked the older man.

“Yes, sir,” mumbled Gurei. His father and the man exchanged a look and he wondered if they could see the emptiness in his eyes. It was especially bad that day, and he just prayed for things to be over. He needed the ground to swallow him up. He just wanted to be left alone.

They walked into the forest for an hour or so, Gurei took his six companions on the trail he usually followed, but the going was much smoother. The scouts would flit out ahead and back every so often, making sure there were no dangers ahead and clearing them if they found any. Gurei couldn’t hear their arrows, but could see fewer and fewer of them on the scout’s quivers as time went on. The sky was almost black above them, and there no birds in flight. This caused another type of activity as landlocked creatures used the chance to hunt while sound and smells were blocked by the heavy rains. As they walked, Gurei saw a surudoi under a tree, lying on its back. He went over and flipped it on its stomach, and the needle covered rat scuttled away.

“Kind of you,” remarked the scout who had winked at him earlier.

“He might as well go,” he answered, and the man raised an eyebrow.

“How come you know this forest so well? I do not see a woodsman in you, child.” The forest ahead was starting to thicken, and the formation around them tightened to protect lord Aimatsu. This was far deeper than Gurei had ever gone before, but the magician seemed to follow his cracked staff, tapping it every so often and then choosing a direction. He seemed to backtrack often and turn in strange manners, but Mamuro told Gurei that was normal. “There’s a very specific magical path. He’s following that. Stay close to us.”

Just when Gurei was about to nod, their group stumbled upon another Dodomeki. The fell creature turned its eyes on them as Gurei gasped, knees turning week. Before it could move any of its four lanky arms, the magician grunted, “All clear?”

“Yes, sir,” replied his five guards one by one, each pointing arrows in different directions. He gave his staff a dismissive wave and the beast fell over with a scream. Gurei whimpered, realizing he was in way over his head when none of the guards even glanced at the beast when they walked past it. He glanced at the beast as they left, and still could not see a mouth.

They walked another few minutes when something went wrong. Gurei couldn’t feel it, but he could see the scouts tighten their circle as their nerves frayed slowly, drawn as tight as their arrows upon curved smooth bows. “Sir…” said Mamoru at last.

“I know,” retorted his master, quickening his pace. The scouts and Gurei began to walk faster in turn, until they were trotting, as if fleeing from something unseen and unknown. The boy knew not what his betters were abhorring, but he felt bile rise in his throat. The already menacing trees grew more frightening with encroaching danger, and the shadows all around grew ever longer and deeper.

Just when Gurei’s weak constitution was about to cause him to falter, their leader stopped abruptly. Before anyone could say anything the man turned, sweeping his cloak wide and waving his cracked staff. He recited the words of an incantation old enough that the trees sighed, and Gurei looked about them in fear. All of the scouts were facing behind them, the way they had come. He did so too, and could barely make out a slender figure making its way towards them. It carried what looked like a small dagger, and the boy’s heart skipped a beat.

The faraway figure waved its dagger and Lord Aimatsu cried. He fell with a thud, dropping his staff. Still he recited his spell furiously, voice mounting, pitted against the sigh of the forest. One by one the scouts fell to their knees. “You are making a mistake,” said the old man finally, having given up on defense.

The figure was now near, but stood behind a shadow so as not to show his face. “Am I, now?”

“You are. We are here to negotiate peaceful communication. The Empire of Yotaku wishes to initiate contact with your people, now that we know you exist and hide in the forest.”

“We do not hide. We simply keep our distance from foolish humans such as yourself.”

“To what end? At least let me speak, so as to search for common grounds. We have heard the tales of elves. When you last saw us, we were but apes. Not so now.”

“No?” The figure laughed and took one step forward. He was pale, boasted large blue eyes and blonde hair, as well as long ears tipped ears. “You do well to resist my spell.”

“Believe me, I am trying hard. It feels like… like…”

“Like your soul becomes enshrouded in darkness. You lose all will to fight, to breathe, and to live. Things become empty and the only sensation you are left with is a numbness filled with self-loathing.”

The mage nodded, then let his head hang. “Please… release us. Let us speak. I beg of you.”

“It’s a particularly nasty spell; got me this position as guardian, in fact. If it is peace you want, and relations, then I suppose I can let you through for the senate to hear and the guards to deal with. I must admit, no one has ever gone against it this hard, and it says a great deal about your devotion. This brat is strange though.” The man’s eyes homed in on Gurei, and the boy thought he might die then and there. “He does not seem to react at all. Is he warded?”

“Not that I know of. How are you still fine, child?” This the Lord asked Gurei, and in wonder at that. The boy felt Aimatsu look at him for the first.

“I, sir….” Something about the man’s description of the spell felt strange “I don’t really know. I’m just a stupid brat. But that sensation you described, sir elf? The crushing sense of worthlessness and not knowing who or what you are or why you’re alive? The despair and numb and all t-that?” as he spoke, the boy realized that he was speaking to a living, breathing elf. There were magical creatures in all of Grimea. However, the other sentient beings besides humans were all supposed to be either myths or long lost. And he was speaking to one!

“Yes?” asked the elf impatiently.

“That’s how I feel all the time.”

After a shocked second, both the elf and Lord Aimatsu laughed. They laughed in great booming bursts until both wiped tears off their faces and had to lean on something. Even the scouts chuckled. Gurei didn’t quite realized it, but he had cut the tension between two races and united them in mirth for the first time in eons. “May I send him home?” Asked the elf after the long fit.

“Please, sir,” replied Lord Aimatsu, who had gotten to his feet after being released from the elf’s spell and was helping his scouts up. The elf proceeded to wave his dagger, which turned out to be a small wooden wand. And a light began to shine around Gurei. He instructed the boy to just walk forward. “Thank you!” called the lord after him.

When too much happens at once, one loses the ability to rationally think. It is a little like having a comfortable rug pulled out from under your feet. This was a fortunate thing for Gurei because it meant that he didn’t have the capacity to dwell on things as he walked, elevating his mood to a neutral level. There was simply too much, and he promptly decided that it was too much for a simple farmer boy. His father had been paid and his job was over.

Just as he reached the hill where he lived, the boy was surprised to see none other than Natsumi waiting for him. Beautiful, radiant Natsumi. She asked him how things had gone, and he blankly said they’d gone well. It was perhaps the first sentence he’d ever said to her without tripping over his words, and the surprise was evident on both of their faces.

“Listen,” she said. “I just wanted to let you know that yesterday, I didn’t mean that you gave me the wrong flowers. I was really happy for the tsubaki, but just wanted to make conversation. Now that I think about it, I might make tsubaki my favorite flower.”

“Oh,” he said. “I thought I had ruined things.” It occurred to him that he may have brought himself down by assuming too much.

“Silly,” she exclaimed, “it made my day wonderful.”

“I-I think you saying that just made my day good too.” Saying that was a bold statement for the boy, and it was difficult to hide the furious blush stampeding through his face. Above them, for once, the sun shined.

 

The blacksmith of Coeur:

Year: 7 post Adventus

Every cloud has a silver lining. The troll, in the metaphorical sense, presented an incredibly dark cloud overshadowing the town of Erbhelm, and so needed some exceptional lining to balance things out. That is where the blacksmith of Coeur comes into this tale, and that was because his name was Silver.

Erbhelm had never been a truly quiet town, nor very prosperous. Some stubborn folk had decided generations ago that they wanted to start a community smack down in the middle of a magic forest. “Good people and good food!” their leader had announced, a man who possessed little good sense but was a simple honest man.

“Sweet beer and sweeter grain!” his brother had exclaimed, who had little time for patience yet was wonderful at enjoying himself.

At that, their cousin had sighed. “Kind land and kinder sky,” he murmured. This man was a thinker, and prone to praying when he knew thinking wasn’t going to get anything done.

The three men had gathered their friends and families just before starting their work. With great swooping strikes they axed the trees, with song on their lips they shovelled and grained and changed the land, building a village. They were circled by the magical forest and they could feel the effects: Children laughed brighter and food tasted better. Flowers shone with a light not present anywhere else on the continent of Veld while butterflies covered trees like leaves and left the humans gasping in wonder. “My brothers,” their leader had announced, to many cheers, “We will make this place a home for us all, a place where we can be safe and happy above all else!” Everything had seemed wonderful, especially with how bountiful this soil had seemed. So they called their town Erbhelm, for it was an inheritance to be cherished for generations to come.

Of course, I had mentioned earlier that Erbhelm had never been very prosperous, and now I shall tell you why. Magical forests are always inhabited. Often these inhabitants are friendly, and are willing to share and trade with humans. However, magical creatures hate two things above all else. The first is the smell of melting candle three minutes after sunset, and the second is the dying cry of a fallen tree. Thus the humans of Erbhelm had unwittingly invited mischief upon themselves. That night it started simply, with pixies stealing things out of people’s pantries. It had gone on for a few days and people began to become suspicious after realizing that one could only misplace so much salt. Then things escalated when an old lady, going into her kitchen to fix herself a mug of milk, had been startled by a pixie. She slapped at the poor butterfly like creature, making its magic dust go dim and lightless.

The next day came goblins and dire wolves, imps and salamanders, as well as many other types of creatures, some which the townsfolk had never seen before. There were long armed furry gasbys and the winged clawed tesmies and those large dim gosts with their big yellow eyes. In order to combat the invasion, townsfolk had to split their time in between fighting and working their various jobs. In time they learned of the troll, this forest’s guardian and cause for all their misfortune. The troll was thrice as large as a man, with a circular head and powerful arms and tusks. He also carried around a great tree as his club. The troll only came out rarely but caused great devastation before returning so deep into the forest that he could touch the mountainside. He allowed most of the fighting to be done by his minions. A slow war was waged for many years, with Erbhelm holding its ground but being unable to expand. Things settled down a bit after the log fence was erected, but not enough to give anyone respite.

That was when Silver came. He was a man who strode through Erbshelm’s danger fraught forest trails as casually as if he were a beacon of flame with a sack slung behind one shoulder. There had been determination in his calm, powerful strides and his short ponytail seemed to hop about with each step. He was dressed in light leather armour with linen poking from underneath. His short beard was as neatly trimmed as his gait and as silver as his name. He came from far west, and spoke with a strange accent, as if his original language was extremely soft spoken. “Hello,” he greeted the first person encountered, a surprised guard, “How’s your day been?”

“Uh… Fine, how about yerself?” Hans was bewildered

“It was wonderful, my good man. May I speak to your leader?”

“Sure,” the startled guard answered uncertainly. The road to Erbhelm was dangerous and travellers almost never came, yet he’d never been instructed to keep humans out. Besides, the man had a surprising air of friendliness about him, as if he generally considered people to be well meaning. “You’ll find Lady Aria in the central hall…” with that, Hans went quiet and went to observing this strange man, his left arm firmly grasping his spear.

“I assume I’ll find it, uh, in the centre then?” asked the man, then added “My name is Silver Vermillion, by the way. Sorry for not saying that earlier.” The two shook hands for a second and Hans felt a tingle go through his arm. How strange, he thought to himself. Usually it wasn’t so easy. Remembering his manners, he then introduced himself and the two chatted for a bit about the Erbhelm and how the town was doing at the moment. “Oh, I know about what’s going on here. In fact, I came by to help all the way from beyond Indellekt.” The guard scratched his head under his spiked helmet at that, not knowing how any one man could change things in this town.

Then he noticed the man’s blade, a short sword belted to his left thigh. He hadn’t noticed it as Silver came through the gate but now, it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, curved as if drawn by a pen and glinting in the light. Its metal was woven over itself yet it still held a terrifyingly sharp edge. “You’ll have to leave your blade outside the hall, no weapons allowed. Sorry about that.”

With that, Silver bade his new friend farewell and went further into the town. He greeted people where he went and where chats presented themselves, he chatted. Each time a connection was reached with a person, Silver would reach out a glove and shake a hand, sending that strange surging tingle through his or her body. Each time he did, Silver was surprised at how friendly people were around here. Back in his own hometown in Indellekt people had seemed far more distant to each other.

Finally, Silver reached the central hall. Listening to Hans’ and the other’s advice, he left Surge leaning next to the hall’s door, along with the sack filled with his tools. Both arched door portals were opened wide as a sign of welcome and so the man strode in confidently, taking in the warm scene before him.

The Hall was wide and made entirely out of logs, from floor panels running along its length to tall standing pillars and even the beaming. Two long rectangular hearths sat cosily between dual long heavily laden tables with benches on either side of them, populated by women and men both young and old. Families spoke and chatted, then became slightly quieter as he passed by. Between the hearths was a path running down the hall’s centre, lined with runes, connecting the entrance to where the leader’s table was nestled, proud and strong. Along that table sat both grizzled and younger men and women, obviously wise and tough. Each exuded an air of physical power except for the intellectuals and the mage halfway down the right side. Those were this town’s leaders, and each of them had started at Silver’s entrance. Perhaps they could sense that he was a mage, or a swordsman. Such things created an aura, after all. He stopped three steps shy from this hall’s centre, waiting politely while having a stare off against each and every of them. He went first down the right, then down the left, gaining and giving acceptance as he went. There were men boasting war braids riddled with beads, strategists eyeing him keenly, and of course the mage, eyes almost blazing with lightning and boasting a beard so touched by frost that it almost matched Silver’s natural hair colour. With each sweep, Silver stopped just shy of the table’s centre, saving that figure for last. He could feel a pure and feral sense of space, something that marked the greatest of warriors. Whoever this town’s leader was, Silver could tell it was a warrior whose very physical aura reached out from in grasping tendrils, asserting its strength. Then he looked.

The first surprise was that she looked as old as he, perhaps halfway into her twenties. Her golden strands had many beads in them, marking her off as a slayer of ogres, tree folk, and many other types of monsters. One bead was traditionally added every ten kills, and she had almost a hundred of them, holding two long strands that wrapped from her temples and joined, presumably, at the back like a circlet. She was dressed in a skirt of fur, finished off with grey leather and iron at her waist but left loose at her ankles to allow freedom of movement, as well as a matching vest going up to almost halfway up her neck. Her arms were left bare for no show of strength, Silver understood, for she had little more muscle than would be usual for a woman of her stature. Those arms were unmarked by tattoos, and in fact sported nothing more than twin simple armbands. In fact, the only thing on her which didn’t seem meant to facilitate ease of movement was a buckler attached to her left shoulder. It looked ornate, fixed yet still made to be used, and was etched with crisscrossing wounds. Behind her wooden chair stood a long slender blade, scratched all over yet still in excellent shape. Despite her apparent lack of physical strength and her average height, this lady sat there leaning forward, her face resting on one fist, with the absolute balance of a master. Full cheeks dimpled at him and her almost delicate jaw made way for a wide kind smile that swallowed her heart shaped face. The golden hair tucked gently behind her ears shook. “Welcome, traveller!” she exclaimed, voice carrying like a powerful piece of music.

Before he could even smile in return, something like a lightning bolt jolted Silver suddenly, starting at the top of his skull and travelling all the way down to his riding boots, shaking him and driving the breath away. In an instant it was gone, but Silver understood the significance of what he’d just felt, and was sure the golden haired woman before him- Aria, was it- had experienced the same thing. He could see it in her slightly alarmed eyes, yet knew she’d felt no malice.

The man to her left, who was huge and had a shorn head as well as arms the size of tree trunks, gave her a disapproving look. “You don’t welcome people who don’t say hello back, girl.” The man’s air of strength matched hers.

Lady Aria- who hardly looked like a girl to Silver- shared a laugh with the man. “And how would you know-“

“If he’d say hello back? You wait for him to talk first, bahahah!” Silver got the feeling they took his silence as a sign of intimidation and were trying to make him feel more at home. The large man had an enormous war hammer resting upon his lap and slapped at it in his mirth.

“Oh, uncle,” remarked the woman, her blue eyes already mid roll. Everyone else at their table sat patiently and silently, as if these two were usually best left to their shenanigans. After a few seconds both niece and uncle seemed to settle down.

“I apologize for any rudeness, my dear lady,” started Silver with a simple bow. “My name is Silver Vermillion, and I wish to settle here.” Her eyebrows rose at that, seeming as if she couldn’t quite believe her ears.

“Settle here?” asked an old lady almost on the far right side of the table. She was obviously blind, and had a piece of blue cloth tied around her eyes. This lady was dressed all in purple and her hair spread from her head in thick black ropes despite the obvious wrinkles on her face. “Do you know about what happens here, young wolf cub? Don’t answer that,” She added with a cackle, “I can tell that you do.”

Silver pulled at his leather collar. Spring was still a bit away, but there was already no hint of snow around and this forest had started to heat up a week ago, while he still made his way. “True… Are you a truth reader, ma’am?” At that she laughed again.

“I have a bit of the gift, but hardly need it now. If you came through the forest, you’d sure enough have seen the beasts.” At that, the atmosphere turned a little darker. Children and families at the two tables by the hearths huddled slightly closer, as if to protect each other.

Silver smiled and replied humbly, “Only once or twice. They generally stayed away though.” At that, the entire hall fell silent. Only the crackle of fire in the hearth interrupted the stunned nature of it, and Silver could tell that he had said something wrong. Even the children looked at him with slightly upset expressions. Aria looked angry too, and it made him sad. I need to get used to this bonding business soon, he thought to himself. His master had warned him, back when he was still an apprentice, but Silver had never expected it to hit quite so hard.

“This forest’s beasts fear nothing,” the leader started in almost a whisper, barely holding in her rage. “Not even death. They rush headlong into it upon our walls every day. Erbhelm’s combined might does not phase their determination, and has not prevailed for many generations.” She went deathly quiet for a moment, obviously aware of her rising voice and wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt. With a start Silver realised that they thought he’d been bragging. “Are you telling me that you’re a greater warrior than all of us combined?”

“Oh no, I terribly apologise. They avoid Surge, not me. I’m sure if your mage will inspect my sword outside he’ll agree that any beast with magical senses would be quite afraid of it indeed.” In a moment the elder man with his star patterned robe and pointy hat was prompted by many bemused stairs and made his way outside, grumbling that he was being made to do this. Silver allowed the man through, sighing politely. The mage turned outside the hall, a bored expression on his face, and immediately gasped with a recoil.

“How… how the hell was this made?!”

At that, Silver smiled, glad that they were finally moving along. It was uncomfortable to just stand there and talk, but it would be rude of him to fidget or go to a bench until given permission. Everyone around seemed taken aback at the mage’s reaction, and Silver reckoned the old man was usually far more collected than that. He could feel his quiet air of competence.

“Ah, straight to the heart of the matter,” he announced, smiling pleasantly. “This leads me to explain my profession. You see, I am a type of mage blacksmith-“

“A mage?” a few of those present murmured, perking up, and Silver let them talk politely. True war mages were rarer than spell weavers, and were therefore well prized in many societies outside of Indellekt. Aria’s eyes were fixed on him. Silver couldn’t decide if he enjoyed her staring at him, for he became too frightened of doing something she doesn’t like. Luckily, he had Coeur with him, and so he let it centre his being. “Let him finish,” she said sternly, and her peers obeyed.

“Thank you my lady. My magic is very specific, called Coeur, which in my language means heart. I am able to understand people’s hearts as well as my own, and this allows me to create better weapons. My weapons fit costumers like their own hand. Added to that, I can directly pour feelings into my creations. Positive ones, mind you, that’s a law of our tradition, and there is only one official blacksmith of Coeur each generation so it becomes vital that we don’t turn bad. Friendship, admiration, care, determination, the more of these are present in me, my costumer, or the bond between us, the greater my weapons become. Arcane forces sit within them like the life in a tree. They turn more lethal, and can hold their edge longer. Now, before you ask,” he added when he saw that the mage, who was now back in his seat, was about to interrupt. The blacksmith walked over to a nearby hearth after asking with an eyebrow and receiving an affirmative nod from Erbhelm’s leader. He warmed up his fingers whilst talking. “Before you ask, Surge is special. He is passed on each generation, and each of us put in our self respect and willpower in him. Everything that has made each of our legion good lives on in him. He shall be only used once before breaking, and only against a powerful foretold enemy.”

At that Aria stood, almost angrily. “I will be the one to slay the troll!” she challenged, pointing one finger behind her, at her slender, almost bow shaped sword. Silver was a master fighter and swordsman, and could tell that her style depended very much on inner flexibility. The sword reflected that perfectly. “What right does an outsider have, to come here and take our fathers’ fight into his hands?”

Silver was taken aback by her proclamation. What had this troll done to anger her so? What am I thinking, it must have hurt this town immensely.

Silver felt angry on her behalf, but the leader misunderstood his intentions.

“I never claimed Surge was for him, my lady,” he reminded Aria, taking her aback. After a moment of challenge, she sat back upon her chair in a huff. “No, Surge’s enemy won’t be met for many generations more. He is simply for safekeeping until then. I simply propose that you allow me to make weapons for the townsfolk while I live here. My weapons will allow these beasts to stay dead much longer before regenerating, giving humans the edge as well as much greater respite between attacks. Furthermore-”

“Done,” Aria exclaimed, her blue eyes eager. Everyone looked at her shock except Silver. He understood her wish to have him nearby, for he felt exactly the same. The electric shock felt earlier had bonded them on an astral level, and he had no control over either of their feelings anymore. It happened only once in every Coeur blacksmith’s life, when he found a perfect match. His master had warned him to not let that love go, because if one of them ruins things or dies, the blacksmith would never be able to be happy again. Without happiness, they cannot practice their craft and would need to retire. His master had told him that in front of a campfire at night, and a younger Silver had shuddered to see eyes colder than that season’s frost. He hoped to avoid such a fate. Luckily his own successor was ready and roaming the lands, gaining real world experience until such time that he was allowed to carry Surge and practice the craft.

The gathering spoke to Silver at great length, learning more about his abilities, personality, and wishes. One by one, all ten of her council agreed to have him stay, until finally her uncle conceded with a great booming laugh, stroking his great mustasche. All the while Silver and Aria looked at each other in a manner that could not be truly understood but happened to be unmistakable.

That very same day beasts attacked in waves, just as the sun’s orange disc sank back towards a green horizon backed by twin mountains. They howled as they came, and Silver sensed deep rejection from them, burning just as hot as the limitless determination emanating from Erbhelm’s townsfolk. The people here were going nowhere, for their will was so strong it soaked into the very wood of the many huts and buildings. Old lady Grathilda, the keenly cynical truth reader in purple, had stood atop the central hall and rang a bell twice as tall as she was, sending an ominous gong across the town. Within ten minutes soldiers lined the town’s wall and a wedge of warriors had been formed before the town’s gate, standing proud and tall.

It seemed that everyone who was of fighting age had joined. Uncle Bast spun about his mighty war hammer near the front, standing almost half again as tall as most others. Hans was also there, and Silver felt bad for not having the time to craft that man an axe. It would fit him better than a spear. All in all, there must have been around twelve hundred warriors present. Lightning lined Mervan the mage’s fingers, and Silver had been told that Mervan’s job was to stay by the gate and make sure no monsters made it inside whilst everyone else met the horde. Silver himself had pulled out a simple dagger he’d made for himself a few months back. It reflected his whimsical disregard for danger, and was meant to be quite versatile. Now he held it in a reversed grip, barely noting the disjointed army of all manner of beasts coming at their ordered wedge in loping strides, screaming all the while. No, Silver’s attention was held completely captive by this goddess of war he saw before him.

She stood at the forefront, rolling her shoulders in extreme confidence, relishing the fight to come as her golden hair scattered the sunset. He went to her and stood by her side. She didn’t complain, and rather smiled at him warmly. “I like to fight,” she said cheerfully, as if it were a secret.

Silver wanted to scratch at her smile’s corner, but of course he didn’t. He wasn’t crass like that. “I can feel something,” he said instead, smiling warmly and trying to tell her that he loved her. His beautiful lady looked almost concerned and tugged at her vest of what seemed like silver wolf fur. Her eyes promised him an ocean’s wealth. “How much can you feel?”

“A little. What is it?”

“Just the emotions, and mostly projected ones. It’s like a higher form of empathy.”

“Oh. In that case we’re going to need a talk later.” At that he nodded, and she looked forward, expression reflecting joy. “Charge!” she exclaimed simply, and sprinted forward. Instantly her warriors complied, and Silver was almost left behind before catching up. Trying his best to not worry about her, he focused his attention to the fight, but the blacksmith still decided not to stray too far from Aria just in case something tried to get her back.

His first opponent was a green giggling imp, with hellish wings and a trident. It flew straight down at Silver and he deflected its stab with the flat of his knife, spinning. As he did, the blacksmith allowed his right leg to sail high above him, and as he brought it down in an axe kick he went on his left toes, allowing his attack to not only send the imp so forcefully into the ground that it bounced back up, but also allowing his right leg to then sail further behind him, pulling him lurching forward and downwards. He used that momentum to stab the thing in the heart, but caught his fall with his left hand. Silver didn’t want to get dust on his clothes, after all. As soon as his knife entered the imp, it screeched horribly and exploded in a shower of magical dust. Everywhere around, Warriors dismantled other beasts in a similar fashion, yet their dust shone with a brighter inner light.

So the battle raged on, Humans slowly pushing the beasts back towards the trees. Silver spun and wove about the whipping branches of a mandrake, one of the treefolk. Halfway up its trunk gaping eyes sat, and a matching maw yelled at him, but Silver tumbled forwards over the last branch and landed in a neat stance, stabbing inwards with his right hand, other arm pointing left to lend force to his blow. The tree went down instantly. Then came a minotaur and then a dire wolf. Where he went, Silver kept dodging blows while remaining close to Aria, who was flanked by her uncle. She seemed to be doing the same thing, and stole glances at him as he did at her.

Both Erbhelm’s leader and her uncle were amazing fighters, but whereas Bastion Stormbreather balanced enormous strength with smaller movements when haste was needed, Aria seemed to be a master of using her body’s flexibility in order to create enough striking power for her slender blade to slice through foes. She seemed to tense and twist before every strike, then unleashing all that power like a catapult, slicing foes in twain with barely a backwards glance. At times she even curled up or crouched just before delivering devastating attacks potent enough to cut a tree person in half. Through it all she looked graceful and balanced at all times, and Silver had a few moments to admire her beauty. Not once did she look crazed or barbaric, rather more like a master of blades, a fighter in her element. Most of all, she kept her comrades safe and checked on them often, more than once pulling someone out from harm’s way. She kept a certain look in her eyes, which Silver understood to be respect for her opponents. Beautiful, thought the blacksmith, not just meaning her form or her face.

Finally, after about two hours of fighting, the remaining beasts retreated back towards the forest and mountains where the troll resided, leaving humans to cheer. The wounded were carried off to be treated, but none had been slain. This was because an old strategist called Flint had created a system where inferior fighters were grouped in fives and were never sent individually against beasts, even if it was a goblin or imp. They were trained in five man battle stratagems, prioritizing survival over destruction.

Aria looked perfect as she thanked everyone for their efforts and assured them an eventual victory. She then introduced Silver to the entire town, allocated him an old empty house with enough space for a smithy to be constructed where he couldn’t keep anyone awake, and told them of his craft. “I saw him fight,” she announced, eyeing him with enough open admiration to make the swordsmage scratch at his beard. “He’s good.”

“Damn good!” yelled uncle Bast from the side, eliciting a few laughs.

“Indeed. He’s also going to make us better weapons , although he didn’t exactly explain the process yet.” With that, Aria stepped to the side and gestured the blacksmith over. He could feel the people’s acceptance of him as he went, and those who knew him or saw him fight cheered. He waved in appreciation.

“As you all know, all these beasts here are under the troll’s curse,” Silver started after introducing himself again, getting nods from everyone. So far so good. “They cannot reproduce, they cannot die, nor can they flee run. Each time they are destroyed, they are reborn of its power. With my weapons, the time taken for regeneration will increase. You can tell the length by the light present in the magic dust left at death.” Mervan nodded knowingly at that, but a few villagers looked puzzled. Silver pulled out two pouches, which he’d filled from the battlefield earlier. He emptied one, which glittered like gold “This is the dust left by usual weapons. From the shine, seems it takes about a day to regenerate into a fully formed beast, which says a lot for the troll’s power. This is another from a monster killed by my knife.” The second bag contained dust little paler than fresh dirt.

“How much slower is it?” this was Flint asking the question, looking extremely curious; calculating even. Silver could feel his devotion for this town, as well as a deep inherent sense of guilt. Perhaps it was why the old grey man refused to wear his last name.

“A couple of months, I’d say.” Everyone gasped at that, and Silver hastily added, “Remember, this was with my knife. I can only promise weapons that are twice as effective at first. My skills are based on positive feelings and bonds. With time, they will grow more powerful. I could make something that keeps them dead for a week if I only pour MY feelings in, but then they’d constantly need to be close to me and I can’t do that for a whole town. The weapons would be bonded to me, not to its user.”

Aria looked at him. “But you’re saying that we can now fight once every two days?” All around the ring of people, hopeful faces looked at him, but Silver only had eyes for her. How could one person be so perfect in caring for others? The blacksmith knew she loved battle, but he could feel how much she wanted respite for her warlike town’s sake. He could feel her will for peace, if only for them to have a chance at a normal life. I love you, he said with his eyes again. She seemed to stir.

“Aye, starting next week I’ll have weapons made, but first I’ll need to befriend all of you.”

It took a while for his word’s significance to reach the crowd, but when it did they went wild with cheers.

A week as well as a few parties later, Silver had managed to make weapons for most of the townsfolk. Of course, each fit his or her owner perfectly, and didn’t need much training at all to become usable. This allowed many fighters to go from mediocre to slightly above average in a short span, which caused them to fight much more effectively as a unit and with fewer injuries during battle. Most warriors were taught by either Bastion Stormbreather or Aria, but the blacksmith started to teach a third martial arts class, for those who were neither compatible with Uncle Bast’s or Aria’s. Some people had neither strength nor flexibility, after all. For those, he taught his own martial art, based on dodging and creating directional force. This meant, basically, pointing your limbs precisely in the direction that you want your strength to flow. Hans seemed particularly adept at this martial art, and so managed to do extremely well in time. As days wore on Silver became very popular in town, for he was not only the cause for its increasing periods of peace (as monsters began to need a week to regenerate), but was also in fact quite a likable and empathetic man. One day, he was surprised to find Aria Stormbreather, in her well-worn black boots and usual attire, shield proud on her shoulder, standing in his workshop.

“Lady Aria!” he exclaimed, heart skipping a beat, “to what do I give the pleasure?”

She took a seat and waited pleasantly while Silver put away the sword he was sharpening, wiped himself off with a towel, and caught the breath that had fled her arrival. “Well, firstly I wanted to say hi,” She said, accepting a glass of the apple juice Mrs Copferstal had brought him earlier that day. Mrs Copferstal was Flint the strategist’s wife, and was far more forgiving of him than the man was of himself. “Secondly, I wanted to ask why you haven’t made me a new sword yet.” Her eyes looked slightly upset, and it confused Silver for a moment. Then he realized that she thought he’d shunned her.

“Lady Aria-“

“Just Aria will do. Look here,” she said, clearly hurt now. “I know you felt what I felt when we met. I want to know that it wasn’t some kind of sorcery… You promised me a talk.” He could see clear determination, and Silver understood her fears. She thought he had seduced her with magic, and after their initial agreement they had avoided the subject.

“Aria… Listen, I’ll tell you everything, but I promise you that it wasn’t a trick. I…” The words stuck in his throat. “Emotions have a way of being instant, but also building through the knowing of others. My magic goes around that. I love you too,” at that she gasped, almost making the blacksmith think he’d misunderstood, despite knowing of the magic and being sure that he loved him too, but then nodded in a show for him to continue. “I can’t control it, but wouldn’t stop it if I could. It’s part of my magic, Coeur. When I meet the one person who fits me perfectly, my magic reaches out and entwines our souls, and if I let them go there’s no chance for happiness left in me. Not through love, and not around it. It is a way of… hastening the inevitable.”

They spoke for hours then, about how they felt and why. “And now?” the beautiful golden haired woman inquired at length, “You say we love each other, and I feel something. I won’t be with a man I don’t know, not because of magic.” Silver thought that Coeur had chosen perfectly, for he thought the exact same way. What small hint of doubt had been harboured in his soul fell away. “I think we should accept our feelings, but not rush into them. Let’s get to know each other, our likes and dislikes. We could start off as friends and see where it goes.” They had by now drained their glasses of apple juice, but the furnace’s warmth and each other’s company gave them a comfortable escape from the cool weather outside. “Deal?” he asked, and she nodded happily. Start slowly and see where it goes. “So where exactly did you meet your…”

They were married within the year. The wedding was a joyous occasion anticipated by everyone. For some reason Uncle Bast insisted on presiding over the affair, and looked slightly out of place in a priest’s robe. He also had not known that he needed to have his words memorised for the whole thing, and had thus caused a month long delay. By that time, attacks only came once every two weeks. New clothes were prepared for everyone, even Old lady Grathilda, and Mervin wept for joy so much that he got his beard covered in magical frost. A guard called Mense, who was special for being the only one holding multiple forged weapons, exhibited his knife juggling skills for everyone. All in all, it was a wonderful day for the entire town, who loved Silver for who he was and what he’d done.

A tragedy struck, however, less than a month after the wedding. In one particularly ill fated battle, Hans slipped and was struck down by a goblin. He fell into his precious Helga’s arms with his last shocked breath and managed to tell her that he loved her for the ninth and last time, but that did little to lessen the hurt on her face. After his burial she had gone into Silver’s smithy and thanked him for the confidence he had given her lover, as well as the longer periods of peace that he allowed their Erbhelm. “You know what else lies in my heart, blacksmith of Coeur. Tell me what it is,” she’d asked stiffly, standing tall and proud. Hans had never been one to be sentimental either, thought the blacksmith.

Silver sat in his chair and sobbed bitterly. “Yes I do, Ma’am,” he’d answered truthfully. He could feel her grief like an open wound. “You wish that I never came, that I’d stayed west. Hans would have remained weak and alive. He would never have told you that he loved you, that day under the oak tree, but he’d have been alive.” She nodded and left silently, leaving Silver crying hot tears in her stead.

If he lived long enough, would the same pain reach his own wife? He didn’t tell Aria of Helga’s visit, although he explained her pain. His lovely had nothing to say, but her mere presence helped. It was all because of that troll, Silver decided. It was all its fault.

It was six months later that it happened. That week Silver spent an unusual amount of time in his smithy, working on what seemed to be one blade, long and straight and strong. It was double edged, its guard was of silver and red, its grip ribbed and its pommel rounded. The blade reflected runes along deadly edges, each in a different language. For seven days and seven nights Silver worked on it, until exhaustion took upon his soul. He poured everything he had into it, and Aria had allowed him space as he did it. She had understood that he did something important, and thus had asked no questions. On the seventh night, however, another villager came.

Grathilda.

She cackled at him in that way of hers and Silver smiled tiredly back at her. “What are you doing, young’un?” she asked.

“Forging a sword,” he said simply, causing her to nod.

“I can see that!” Out of the corner of his eyes, Silver spied her point at her blindfold and a laugh was forced out of him. Then the old lady sat, scratching at her arm. “Got any milk?” She’d demanded, and Silver paused in his work to pour them both some, groaning as he stretched. His sword was almost complete, after all. No need to rush it now. She demanded that they exchange mugs because hers had less in it. Silver chuckled and complied, wanting to appease her.

“Now, child. Mervan sent me here because he felt you pour more strength and care than he’d ever felt into that thing. Well, other than that monster sword you have. He said that in the Astral realm it looked like you were calling a tornado to connect the sky and that blade.”

“Well, with all du-“

“Said that much strength scared him, and he sent me here to see the truth of it.” Despite being blind, Grathilda nonetheless had an uncanny way of looking at people as she talked to them. She was sly too, Silver knew. There was no way around it.

“It’s a sword to kill the troll,” Silver whispered, causing her to gasp. “It was never impossible, just takes a lot of power. This blade, it will kill the troll then break, and then you can live happily here. No troll, forever. Even the magical creatures will be free from its grip.”

The old purple robed lady eyed him carefully whilst licking her lips, probably mulling things over. Silver could sense her distrust. She trusted very little, but she was willing to give him a chance. “And the cost?” she asked finally.

The blacksmith of Coeur almost thought of lying, but could tell she’d find out. “Forbidden technique,” he answered gruffly, hoping to end it there.

“Well? Don’t keep me waiting.”

Damn it. Miserably he said it, cursing both her and old man Mervan. “It’s called the Coeur Tueur, the heart slayer. It needs to be quenched… in the life’s blood of a loved one.”

The truth seer looked stunned for a second, then something shifted and Silver couldn’t tell what she felt. Confusion, perhaps. “Ah, well… best leave you to it,” she remarked finally, getting back to her feet. After draining her mug, Grathilda turned to leave, her black ropy hair swinging around her wrinkly face. “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear anything, thanks for the milk.” Silver thought of finishing the deed then, but unnatural tiredness took him somehow and he fell asleep.

The next day, Silver was arrested. An oblivious Aria had tried to protest, not knowing what the matter was, but uncle Bast almost challenged her to a duel in his rage. It was all the guards could do to stop him from killing Silver then and there. The blacksmith was chained, locked for half a day, then brought to the central hall for trial. He was manacled and chained, although no one had the heart to beat him. The hall seemed a very different place indeed, for it was now filled with grim faces and both hearths were extinguished. The place looked bleak and blue with cold, and even the runes along its floor middle seemed more accusing, somehow. Silver realized that much of the phrasing had been purposely vague. Now he stood once more before Erbhelm’s grim faced council. “Good morning, sweetheart.” He said sheepishly. Aria, apparently, hadn’t yet been told a thing and was completely bewildered in her seat. Bastion Stormbreather stood slowly in his seat, for once leaving his weapon behind. Presumably he didn’t want to touch anything that Silver had made at the moment. Or perhaps he didn’t trust himself with a weapon around the blacksmith. The thought made Silver nervous, especially with how he could feel the warrior’s rage. It burned. Something else niggled at him as he stood surrounded by his peers, however. Silver knew everyone in this town, but he now felt a presence that he’d not felt before, coming from the leader’s table. He could see no one unknown at the council, however. He quickly dismissed the thought, however, for Bastion seemed ready for murder.

“Silver Vermillion,” uncle Bast started in a booming voice. “You are accused of plotting with the intent of murder.” The audience, which was of course the whole town, seemed shocked. Especially Aria. Before she or Silver could say anything the older man bellowed for silence and immediately called for Mervan to come forward and explain Silver’s magic again to everyone. After that, old lady Grathilda stepped in his place and told of Mervan waking her up at night. “Quite rudely,” she added. She then relayed the entire contents of her conversation with the mage and her subsequent visit to Silver’s smithy, finishing off with how he’d confessed to the blade needing to be quenched in a loved one’s blood. When she was done, both uncle Bast and Aria were visibly shaking with anger. “See, brothers and sisters?” said the warrior, “This is what he plotted behind our backs. Kill the troll, but take a loved one to do the deed. And who does he love? Who of you all was going to pay the price?” He looked furious, working himself into a greater rage. Silver could feel the mountain of a man almost slip into bloodlust. “Your leader, my niece! Do you want my niece dead in exchange for the troll? Would it appease our ancestor? Cold blooded sacrifice?”

“Nay!” bellowed the crowd as one in response, and Silver couldn’t help but admire their unity. This is why he had decided to use that technique after all. This town deserved a happy ending. Now they booed him to the rhythm of Bastion Stormbreather hammering his right fist against his table repeatedly. The hall shook with their volume and dust came from the ceiling. Then moustached man brought his arm down and silence reigned. “Now, what say you we do to this-“

“Bastard!” yelled his niece suddenly, cutting him off. She looked almost as angry as the man was, but Silver could feel that she was much more furious. Hurt lay inside her too, for she felt betrayed by her husband and it cut at him like a knife. This was why he’d wanted to finish the night before, while she still believed him a strong good man. He hadn’t wished to see such a beautiful woman look so hurt. “You were going to kill me!” she screamed, and uncle Bast turned as if to comfort her.

“Yes, child, but for now we will take care of-“

“You don’t understand, uncle!” she accused, “It wasn’t my blood he’d wanted to use for the sword.” At that the man looked baffled, and Silver stared at his feet in shame. “Coeur Tueur, uncle… that blade was meant for him!”

Silence reigned for a while, and Silver tried to look no one in the eyes. It wasn’t meant to be like this. He was supposed to be dead and gone by now. They would have cried, then gotten over it, then persevered as only Erbhelm could. “He was going to kill himself so we could live free of the troll!” his wife insisted again.

“Is this true?” asked him Grathilda in the silence, and for a while Silver didn’t answer, then whispered a weak affirmative, hating his tongue. She looked to Bast and repeated the nod.

“Why? Why not me, Silver?”demanded his wife, and Silver looked at her in astonishment.

Then he saw the look in her eyes and said “I love you.” She didn’t respond, and Silver added “I didn’t want to be like Helga, to see you go first. I thought it would be better if I died to make everyone here happy.” He then felt anger and hurt coming from everyone in the crowd. They were all friends. “You would have been crushed at first, but peace would have made you all happy eventually! Don’t you understand?”

“Everybody would have been happy eventually, that’s true. They would have gone back to their loved ones and hugged them and cried… Except for me,” Aria countered, then knocked the buckler at her shoulder. “This shield belonged to my father, Karl Stormbreather. He held the troll down singlehandedly the last time it came down the mountain. He died because he used this shield to save uncle Bast instead of himself, and I never saw a man so broken to be alive.” Her uncle said nothing, but his eyes said everything. “I wear this shield to remind myself that throwing your life away will leave others even more hurt.” He uncle nodded, pride and sadness both apparent in his stance. “If you don’t believe me, love, then see for yourself.” She looked at the people in this hall, people who have suffered against the troll for many years, and who had lost loved ones to its cruelty. “Would you here exchange Silver’s life for the troll’s?”

“Nay!” they bellowed in defiance. The heat of their will and their love almost brought Silver to his knees with its force. Then he thought of the strange presence he’d felt. Aria came down from her place, stepping slowly. Silver could feel her start to forgive him already, and it caused a lump to form in his throat.

“Now what say you,” she announced, “That we do away with these manacles, make my husband break that sword, and keep fighting by our side until we one day rid ourselves of our sworn enemy, united as one?”

“Aye!” cried each and every one. The blacksmith of Coeur felt blessed to have such friends, and knew that he would never allow his sense of self value to suffer again as he heard them cheer. That was the meaning of carrying Surge, after all. The blade would be sent to his successor in time, but not yet. One by one, his friends came and scolded him for his actions before apologising for doubting his intentions. Uncle Bast even bent down to embrace him fiercely.

Still, Silver looked at his feet in shame. “Thank you, wife,” he said, “but even with your forgiveness, how am I ever to forgive myself for this foolishness?” Just then, he felt a coarse hand rest on his left shoulder. It was Flint Copferstal, who of all people understood being ashamed of your actions.

With a wizened grin and a wink, the old man said, “If you can’t forgive yourself for your own sake, then at least do it for them.”

Aria had reached him by then, looking splendid in her fur vest and skirt and shield. She was perfect, in body and mind and soul. “What say you, Silver Vermillion?” Erbhelm’s leader asked, as beautiful as the goddess of the morning, “Will you fight for the two of us?”

“I will do it for the town, but more importantly,” he said slowly, looking at her belly, which still a few weeks shy from starting to swell. Found you, he told the presence that had been nagging at him all morning.

“I will do it for the three of us!”

 

 

 

 

 

Tales Of Grimea glossary:

Although to the citizens of Grimea and its four continents, many of these local terms may be entirely sensible, they are certainly localized. Modes of travel have not advanced in the realm, and magical means are often only available to those of medium means. For those unaware of terms in other lands, as well as hypothetical readers from another realm, Indellekt’s Greenstar library has compiled to following list of terms and their meanings, adding it post scriptum to the tome:

Belg: A trap like insect. It sits still on the ground, opening mouth wide to bite. Its hard brown body protects it from impact.

Baku: The southwestern continent.

Colna: The river’s old man. This mythological being is not exactly worshipped as a diety normally is, but he is still highly revered in Baku.

Dodomeki: A creature native to the wilds of Sehkai. It resembles a globe of eyes sporting four arm like limbs. It is said, strangely, that a Dodomeki’s most dangerous aspect is its breath.

El: A diety worshipped mostly in Lor and Ramlah.

Ghata: A wide, triangular region of wasteland in the continent of Veld. Its harsh climate encompasses Lor and its surrounding area, stopping just shy of the desert proper to the east, Indellekt to the south, and Regalia to the north. Many researchers find the Ghata and the desert’s existence itself to be a marvel in an otherwise lush continent.

Gost: A large but particularly dim creature, native to Veld.

Ghouti: The central and western region of Baku. Tundra and savannahs cover the rich earth.

Gasby: A humanoid beast with long whip like arms.

Indellekt: The Republic of magic situated in Veld’s south east. A relatively new country, its success is marked both by its citizen’s loyalty and their devotion to knowledge. Many consider it at the forefront of progress, and the Greenstar library repeats that message with tempered pride.

Jerr: The Northeastern continent, mountainous and isolated. It is connected to Sehkai by a series of islands, making seafare possible but difficult due to the island’s attitudes to strangers.

 

Kama: a small square hat. Popular in Lor.

Kerdama: A scented seed. Often used as seasoning in Veld.

Keigo: A type of tree in Baku. Its sap is considered useful for adhesive purposes.

Lor: A City in the wastes of Ghata. It lies in between desert. The city thrives due to a unique culture and its central spot between Indellekt and Regalia.

Merla: A diety worshipped in Veld. The white goddess’ religion has fallen out of favor as people shifted towards the Nine.

Muahugh’a: An ancient tree, native to Jerr. The tree’s dropping fruit is deadly, but there are not many of them left in existance.

Minotaur: A larger than life bull with a furious disposition and sharp horns.

Post Adventus: After arrival. The current universal form of time telling. It began with the resurgence of the sentient magical races from their hidden corners after eons of retreating from the primitive humans.

Post Kerallus: Veld’s standard calendar, named after king Kerallus the just.

Ramlah: A desert on the eastern outskirts of Lor. It stretches far but runs straight and thin, and its shifting sands are often considered too dangerous to traverse unless with a local guide.

Regalia: High Kingdom in V’s north. Her history is ancient, and she boasts a booming economy. Her fishing villages are not used as ports, for the seas beyond, like many others, teem with sea monsters and Mist.

Selkworm: a small, white worm with blue eyes and a mild temprament. It grows to be hand sized, with small to moderate magic powers.

Starbeetle: A luminous insect. They live extraordinarily short lives, but also multiply unnaturally by simply dividing.

Scegel: A large, ferocious, flightless bird. They are also called steel kickers, and are native to Ghata. Tamed Scegels are a valuable commodity as a mode of transport.

Surudoi: A small, thorny animal in Sehkai. Its childlike features make it a favorite pet amongst the insensible.

Sehkai: The southeastern continent. It is connected to the southwestern continent of Baku by a long bridge like part of land. Yotaku rules most of the area. There exists no other large country in the region, but it is dotted by numerous smaller tribes and settlements, each furiously protective of what little culture and history it retains.

Seri: A traditional tight fitting tunic in Ghouti, revealing the back for all to see.

The Mist: a shroud covering most of Grimea’s oceans. Sea travel is impossible through it, and as such restricts marine travel to specific routes. In particular, it allows only intercontinental travel between Veld and Baku.

Themra: An oasis in Lor. Its water is said to be naturally sweet and boast healing properties.

The Nine: Nine dieties popular in Veld, but mostly in Regalia. They are Sol (Sky), Hyd (Luck), Serip (Knowledge), Til (Nature), Daken (Death), Fep (Society), Luh (Love), Merat (Magic) and Torin (Might).

Tennyo: These flying creatures have the likeness of a fair maiden. As such, they are harmless to humans, since they consider them kin. Despite this, they are not human and are not sentient. One must only see their vicious feeding habits to confirm this.

Tesmy: A bat like creature wielding mild fire magic.

 

Veld: A continent. Contains the mighty nations of Regalia and Indellekt.

Worg: Cousin of the dire Wolf, It purposely finds venomous prey and delights in coating its claws with their blood. Strange, then, that the large beasts find humans savory.

Yella: A particularly strange scorpion in Ghata. Its stinger contains no venom, but gathers impurities from surrounding filth. The scorpion stings in the filth and then infects victims with a slow fever.

Yal: A particularly unsavory beast of burden. This is due to its stench, although the animal with its golden fur is pleasing to the eye.

Nobusame: A flying rodent like creature. The fur upon its back has the likeness of a face upon it, and the creature often hypnotizes victims before leading them away for murder.

Yotaku: Both an empire in Sehkai and its capital. It is strange to name a city and country with the same name, but the name has historical significance. The empire has ceased efforts to expand and focuses on unifying conquered land.

Thornwash: A herb with a slightly sour taste.

Heldibliss: A herb with a slightly soothing effect.

Yesgor: The bridge of land between Baku and Sehkai. These are the two only connected continents in Grimea. The Yegor is in a near perpetual state of stormy weather, and is buffeted by high waves. Still, with its lining of shops, inns and red lamps as well as exquisite building designs, it is said to be a sight to behold.

 

 

#####

 

Thank you for reading this book. I hope it was an enjoyable experience. On the page after this, there is a sample first two chapters of my ongoing work, the final death. If you would like, please have a look at my Shakespir, amazon, scriggler, or goodreads. I even have twitter.

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The Final Death

Chapter one

“This may be slightly difficult to believe,” the man stated during a lull in the conversation he was having, “But when you died, I was undone as well.”

“Oh, honey,” replied the ghost in pained sympathy. The necromancer longed to tell her that everything was alright, but knew that it wasn’t.

The sunlight on this part of southwestern Shien was the same one over that entire continent, but due to a lack of lush greenery, its glare felt all the more prevalent. A few trees sprouted here and there, but you could smell ocean and there was never a lack of rock within sight, mixed in with the pale yellow dirt. Where the land could accommodate it olives grew, fighting for their spot with figs, a green fruit which Azrael did not recognize, and the occasional vine. More orderly farms stood upon perch-like terraces carved into hills. Time had been kind to this place, for many of the guilds controlling the area were merchant or alchemy guilds, and had allowed Normals to prosper. Watching farmers load entire carts of wine to ship off somewhere on a caravan, Azrael knew that Alfjötr Christon would enjoy it here.

The couple stood across from each other next to a wide flowing river. He looked at it then, knowing what she wanted but internally recoiling from the suffering he was about to witness. Raim’e and Sera had been like sisters. Turning towards his wife, Azrael pleaded not to do it silently, and yet her once green eyes, now a pale luminescent grey like the rest of her, mirrored only the hardened set of her jaw. Despite a gut wrenching feeling, Azrael loved that look on her. She’d always been the very personification of a dream.

Putting a hand into his trademark black cloak, the necromancer pulled out an item recovered from his charge’s travel bags: a red rose enclosed in a jar of glass. The object had baffled Glint Stryger, like many others now stowed safely away in the many pockets he had in his clothes. It was fortunate that he hadn’t taken the youth with him a year ago, when he’d left to start his research. Now he was so oh very close to finished, and was starting to miss the youth. Say what you might about the young warrior’s lack of sophistication, inability to manipulate others, and his horrid taste in pranks, the sandy haired child had been a pleasure to have around.

Azrael took out a knife and cut out a hole into the jar’s base. After that, he put his head into it, looking quite silly indeed. Then, the blonde and green eyed widow, as bidden by his wife, recited the words of a spell.

Raime had never told Azrael the spell while living. It was simply one of those things they’d never shared with one another, although of course she would have had he asked. The incantation was genius, actually, despite the massive amounts of energy evoked by its use. A long time ago, the entirety of her guild had worked on it together. There were dedicated alchemists who put almost all of their strength into crystals powering it every day. What the spell essentially did was take a plant’s natural ability to create breathable air and enhance it using alchemy. A small one way opening in the glass next to Azrael’s right ear expelled the excess and kept his head from exploding in what Raime had assured him would be an impressive display. The jar’s lower cork was in fact made of compressed earth, and by some transformation he didn’t entirely understand, it tightened and sealed around his neck, where the hole had been made. Sure that he was safe from impressive displays of any kind, Azrael tried to tell Raime that he was ready, but she couldn’t hear him. At his expression of surprise, the ghostly apparition laughed with all of her usual mirth, drawing a laugh from him as well.

When both were ready, Azrael turned and leapt feet first into the river. A wave of cold numbed his body almost immediately, and the necromancer helped it along with some death energy. It wasn’t cold enough to actually be dangerous, particularly not to an unchained, but there was little sense in allowing discomfort. He paddled along for a second, then realized that he could see and gasped.

The first thing Azrael noticed was how different everything was from when one’s eyes were open underwater. That was generally how Azrael liked to swim, but from within the Jar he could see with astonishing clarity. Perhaps the river’s clear water helped, but the necromancer was still shocked for a few seconds. Fish of multiple colors swam all around, and there were red ones in a school. Carps? I don’t know at all. Maybe I should learn some more about fish. There were weeds and algea and he could see along the right side he’d just dived into. That was a spectacle in itself, for the rock was gorgeous. He could only see a set distance, however, and the river had been widened long ago in order to make place for the guild.

Entranced by the magic of new discovery, Azrael had forgotten about Raime. Looking around now, he saw her hover slowly behind him in all her ghostly brilliance. The necromancer checked that his brooch was on securely enough, then swam down with his wife along the shockingly deep river. As they went, he made to pull out another object from his cloak, but his wife motioned for him to simply swim. As they neared something luminous in the distance, Azrael allowed her to dissipate back into heaven as a soul with an aching heart. This past month, after he became able to summon her, Raime had given him invaluable information regarding heaven, Odin Allfather, as well as about her own guild. The man wished he could have her with him indefinitely, but it seemed that even the Unchained had limits to what they could do.

The golden haired necromancer neared his goal slowly, and his mouth began to open in wonder. The guild was made almost entirely of glass, with metal lattices and beams supporting it. Inside he could see figures moving around by light of devices seeming much like his own firelight orb, and much of the glass was covered by glyphs both designed to power the spell he’d employed and also for the many traps this guild used to protect itself against intruders. The building looked very much like four spheres connected to a cylinder-like shape, and all four structures were attached to one of the river’s two rocky sides. Each of the spheres seemed dedicated to one of the four western elements, for he could see the unfortunate results of a man’s experiment with fire in one. The man’s hair seemed on fire, and he ran around in his white robe, being chased by colleagues who were somehow throwing beams of snow at him. The top right sphere held what seemed like miniature mountains, but sadly boasted a painfully obvious lack of researchers on fire. Naturally each sphere held far more than that, for each was as large as a manor, and not of the puny kind Glint had lived in prior to meeting the necromancer.

When Azrael reached the guild’s entrance, he was surprised to find the metal door already opened for him. The school of fish had fallowed him here, and he shooed them in thought. Swimming slowly forwards to where a second door, this one made of metal as well, stood directly before the first, Azrael was confused. He was in a completely submerged room, due to the portal behind him being left agape. There was a table here, circular and metallic, as well as two chairs. All were bolted to the room’s floor. Both walls to his side were made of glass as well, and he could peer into the almost eerie orange glow against water running almost clear. Only then did it occur to the blonde haired necromancer that the water he just swam in ran too slow to be a proper river. He’d wondered before why Seltah was situated in this particular area, at obvious cost needed to deepen the river.

Just as Azrael began to consider circling around for another entrance, he hear a thunderous whine. Twirling in place, he was met with a roar as the door behind him slammed shut. Another sound came, this one akin to clicks one may make if one were in deep thought and wished to announce it to everyone within a mile’s radius. As the slightly pudgy man thought, hoping against hope that he hadn’t already triggered a trap, he noticed that the water level in his room was decreasing ever so slightly. In less than two minutes, he stood in a still wet but relatively air filled environment. Airtight drainage? I didn’t know you could even do that. Then again, he supposed the principle must be similar to what allowed excess air out of his rose jar but not water in.

Now that he was standing drenched in his room, a knock floated to the man. Suddenly a stretch of door directly in front of him, where the guild should be, turned clear. I can’t believe she never told me about this stuff, thought Azrael in something rather close to annoyance. Not that it was possible for him to be annoyed with Raime, naturally, but she’d always told him the advancements in her guild were rather boring.

The man facing him through that glass looked annoyed. Like Azrael he had a pudgy face, but his hair was more of a greyish red hue, marking him to be just past middle aged. With ability users, of course, that could have been anywhere between eighty and three hundred years, although the necromancer that that upper estimation unlikely, for he’d have heard of an alchemist that powerful in Seltah. The small bit of white Azrael could glimpse just below his face told him that the man was likely dressed in white robes, as was fashionable here. It occurred to the necromancer that it was strange for this particular wall to be of metal when most of the building was lined with glass. It was probably to hide guards and traps, but seemed as clumsy as he was lead to believe. For geniuses, they really don’t know much about battle strategy, thought Azrael with a polite grin. The man scowled, then motioned for him to take off his jar. Azrael motioned back, trying to convey that he had no idea how to take the thing off. The middle aged looking man tried to mouth something at him, possibly the incantation to release him. The necromancer tried his best to replicate it, and after a few tries he felt the slight pressure against his throat cease. In a second or two he was able to take his jar off his head with a gasp. He hadn’t realized how warm it had gotten in there.

“Hello, intruder. Welcome to-“ the man started, before apparently catching himself with a caugh. His voice echoed strangely, and Azrael wondered where exactly the voice was reaching him from. “I mean, uh. Who be you, to enter our guild so easily? Declare yourself.” He was obviously used to repeating a specific greeting.

“Good morning,” said Azrael with his usual ease. People had always come relatively naturally to him, despite the necromancer having a knack for making some of them angry. “I can’t tell you what my name is, but I am a friend of the guild. I assure you, there is no harm to be found in my cloak.” It was a common oath in these parts, but happened to also be true. That small ceremonial dagger didn’t count.

“Ah, man, I haven’t have brunch yet! No need for theatrics… alright, whose friend are you?”

“Sera Bakas, and a woman called Raime, I’m here to convey the second’s last words to the first.” The man was taken aback for a second, then asked for a password, which Azrael provided. He nodded grimly, then opened the portal slowly, grunting all the way. Water dripped from the door as it went upwards slowly. The man didn’t waste time in ushering Azrael towards the earthen part of the guild after locking the door behind him and opening that farther one, flooding the room in between once again. All around Azrael oogled.

“First time actually here, eh?” asked the man, then slowed down in his brisk stroll to shake hands. “Name’s Mattias Finch, by the way. Aetherian?”

“Pleased to meet you,” Azrael answered. “Yes and yes. You have a good ear for accents.”

“Cornhill, myself. A bit further off, but we like the peace and quiet. We commute every day, you know.”

“Really?” asked Azrael, feigning surprise, then felt bad. Mattias was a friendly guy, and deserved a small hint of truth, at least as much as could be given presently. “Oh, I remember. Sera mentioned it once, but doesn’t like to do it herself.” Naturally, it wasn’t Sera who’d told him. A memory surfaced of Raime kissing little Judith before stepping into a circle and disappearing into thin air. Judith. Azrael gulped as his heart lurched, unbidden. He’d thought he had gotten used to loss, but ripples had a way of causing waves. “What’s that?” he asked suddenly, attention drawn by a rock one guild member in spectacles was demonstrating to others. It was set upon a white table, in the middle of many alchemy glyphs.

“Oh, that’s an automatic ore fission circle,” explained Mattias, pulling Azrael closer to see the thing. The rock, circular in shape, suddenly seemed to split into two smaller ones. Whereas the first was a myriad of colors and obviously natural rock, it now had much less red in it. The second rock was smaller and seemed to be comprised purely of the red ore now missing from the first. Then it split again, and again, until there were five different rocks of similar sizes and all seeming mostly comprised of a single ore each. The surrounding spectators clapped enthusiastically and Azrael joined in, eyes wide like a three year old’s.

“That was amazing,” he said when he was dragged away by the arm. “I’ve never heard of ore being split like that. It’s incredibly sophisticated!”

“That it is. How come you forgot the enchantment to get the aerators out? It’s pretty simple.”

“I didn’t forget it,” grinned the necromancer. “I never knew it?”

The man frowned. “Then how come-“

“Always been good at lip reading,” Azrael informed him.

“Wow, that’s pretty handy. Here, we’ve reached advisor Bakas’ office. Come on in.”

“Advisor? I thought she worked in water purification.”

“That was years ago! How long has it been since you two last spoke?” asked Mattias, still leaving no room in his heart for suspicion. Azrael cursed his memory silently.

When the two knocked, they were greeted with a cheerful, “Come on in!” the red haired man chuckled to himself, and Azrael realized that he’d found a kindred soul in the man. They both loved to have their fun. Knowing that there was little reason to keep up his façade. He let the fake accent drop with a sigh, letting his true Aetherian extravagance shine through. “Well then, master Finch. I thank you for the tour, but shall be able to take care of the rest quite well enough on my own!” Leaving the man standing outside, Azrael stepped through the door, shut it behind him, and turned to a now slightly alarmed Sera.

“Who are you?” she demanded with a pointed finger from her seated position. In response, Azrael took off his brooch. She almost jumped right out of her own skin. “Az- Az- Az-“ she spluttered, still pointing a finger.

“Yes, Sera,” exclaimed the now tall thin raven haired necromancer. He had wished for a brooch to actually change his features, but needed to settle for a psion’s artefact designed to affect the sensibilities of those around him. “It’s me. I died that night, like you heard. You can tell what that means, I assume?”

“Ye-Ye-Ye-“ she confirmed, shaking only a little but realizing what she was looking at.

“look, I know that it’s going to be hard to explain, so I’ll summon Raime to help me explain. I can do that now.”

“No,” she said suddenly, sitting back down in her seat. “There’s no way.”

“Yes there is. I just told you, I died. You don’t know what I can do now.”

“No, you can’t do that,” she said, somehow getting his nerves up.

“Sera, now is not the time for that, just-“

“I said no!”

“Ugh, fine, look!” with a gesture, Azrael pulled his power from deep within and shaped it with an age old spell. The spell was the same one employed by necromancers from the Purple Skull guild, but with his vastly superior powers it took on a different nature. A cold whisper could almost be heard in the air and Sera’s breath fogged over. The overhead light, which seemed alchemical and looked like a glowing knot, suddenly sputtered as his death energy flared. His wife appeared, first as a glowing orb, then just like he remembered last seeing her, in a beautiful white dress and little to no make up on her skin. Her eyes had been a brown which he insisted was honey based and she believed to be muddy, but now all of her, even her hair, was that pale grey glow. She was undeniably beautiful, what with a strong jaw and shoulders coupled with creamy skin, but he felt sad seeing her like that.

Raimy said, “Boo,” but Sera had already fainted by then. “Great,” she added with a disappointed sigh, heading over to Miss Bakas and trying to poke her with a finger that went right through her nose. “Now what?”

“Now we wait.” Azrael Windslayer moved over to a red armchair and splaying himself right on it with slight disappointment. His hands rubbed against the velvety red for a few seconds as he glanced about. The office was warmly furnished, mostly in reds, yellows and deep browns. Sera’s desk was especially impressive, and he envied her it a little. You could see ocean through two windows to each side behind the desk, and they offered a breathtaking view of fish and blue. Along the walls, practical shelves were lines with books and essays, many being simple reports written by simple researchers looking for advice. He headed over to one particular shelf. “I’ll need to rethink how I explain things. Do you want to pop into heaven till then?”

“Nah, I’ll help. You’ll need help telling her that you’re practically a god now, and planning on making sure nobody ever dies again –Which I’m still not sure I approve of- but that in order to do so, you need to manifest a portal into the realm death resides in.”

“Well, if you put it that way,” remarked Azrael in a slightly hurt manner. “It does sound bad. But I really need her help with the force conversions. If I do it wrong, I might end up releasing the true spell.” He pulled out an essay on automatic ore fission, took it to his seat, and set into it with the hunger of an avid reader.

“What would that do again, honey?”

He fidgeted. “uh. Well…” Under her stare, the Fourth unchained in known history relented. She knew what it was going to do, he’d told her right after raiding that devil worshipping temple and finding the scroll. “It might unleash demons of death and kill more or less everyone in the world.”

Chapter 2

Glint Stryger ached from toe to toe. He’d enjoyed a rough evening the night before, for Lord Aje had thought instructing multiple higher class first circle guild members to gang up on him. Luckily all were fourth and fifth rankers, and so were no true match for him. Then again, there had been five of them, and so he had to deal with a knee halfway sprained as well as more bruises than you could shake a blade at. He groaned, and the young man’s bracers began to glow softly. Slowly, the pain subsided and the warrior was able to slightly bend his left leg. Moaning still, he swung his legs over his bunk bed, almost smacking Sung as he did. “Oya, Glint,” exclaimed the tall boy in a deep voice. His eastern features contorted in mock anger, then he laughed at the look Glint gave him.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, “You know I’m just playing. Ready for smithing practice today?”

Glint had completely forgotten about the day’s schedule, and his face brightened up as the clangs of metal against metal came from a few floors beneath them. Sung chuckled again, and both raced against one another to get dressed and go downstairs. The slightly slanted eyed boy, who was about to turn seventeen and was hailed as a prodigy, managed to brush his teeth first at the first rank’s shared station, but lost to Glint’s tenacity: At almost twenty years old, the sandy haired warrior had neglected his hair and a change of clothes. With a sigh, he exchanged a burst of power with the slightly ornate bracers at his arms. The metal spread, and in no time at all he was encased in seamless plate armor and a helmet with a Y shaped hole to allow breathing. His armor also boasted no fancy designs, other than the outline of a helmet just like his own, a barbute, where his bracers would have been. With that done, the race was practically over because almost no one in the first circle, even amongst the first rankers, could boost their armor like Glint Stryger could.

The youth was downstairs in no time at all, standing before Lord Oubo with hands at his sides. The room was still empty, fires still left unstoked. Oubo Snakeskin was working armor over a cold anvil with the sheer fire in his body. It was a sight to behold, for he was the only one in Quicksilver who could do it that finely. It crackled, sputtered and thundered as flashes flitted here and there, but staying mostly in a stream between his right hand and the armor’s compressor. The more skilled you were, the closer these tendrils of lightning stayed. When Glint tried it once, he’d almost shot lightning across the room, and so could truly respect the red caped man’s skill. Moreover, Oubo was named for how often his armor was changed, like a snake shedding skin. Many speculated at what the final form would look like and how it could be used. “Good morning,” he said, looking up at the warrior. Glint thought about mentioning to the man that his braided hair, despite being united in a single ponytail at his shoulder, was looming dangerously close to a stray tendril of lightning. Then the man moved one of his shoulders and his hair fell back over his back.

“Good morning, my Lord,” he greeted the man instead.

Oubo frowned, easing the lightning at his fingertips. The compressor, where liquid armor was kept while being worked on, buzzed slightly. The roars turned into lowly sputters. “Child, where are your colors?” asked Lord Oubo. Glint looked down then groaned. By the time he raced out of the room, Sung burst in with a wide smile.

“Hey there, Slowpoke,” he chuckled, before turning serious and giving their instructor a salute. His green tabard flapped almost with a will of its own, Quicksilver’s crest of a ring with a drop beneath it flailing proud. Glint grumbled, almost certain the boy had used some sort of trickery to hide his own, but trudged along wordlessly before being prompted by a second circle high ranker by the name of Maester Vlaire and breaking into a sprint. The old man had been content to stay second circle, and despite being an extremely well respected instructor at Quicksilver, he’d never attempted the switch to third circle. None doubted his bravery, for he’d fought valiantly in multiple guild wars, and so there was much speculation regarding his stagnant ranking.

When Glint came back, a place had been made for him between Sung and another boy who was considered a shining star amongst his peers, but one that Glint preferred to avoid. Ori Kubwa promised to become every inch the ability user that his father was, although his specialty in their art was different. Lord Oubo had somehow neglected to right the twisted thorn that his son seemed to be, however, and so young Ori considered himself superior to others due to his lineage as well as his glistening skill. Of course, he didn’t dare act thus before his sire, but Glint wished he would, just to see him get that disappointed look Lord Oubu gave from time to time. Noticing the youth’s look, Ori pulled himself to that impressive height and gave him a condescending “Stryger,” by way of greeting. His teeth shone like a starry sky. Glint gave him a measured smile in turn, not wanting any trouble.

“Class? Are you all ready?” Lord Oubo’s voice made its way across the brick room like butter. At the same time, he pulled a lever by his side, sending a river of molten metal flowing from a huge vat by his side into twin streams that made their way towards where Glint and the other high rankers stood in the back, allowing the weak precedence for instruction. They answered in unison, Glint’s mind already beginning to wander as he watched the red glow light up the room slowly. Then it reached him and welcome heat took some of Mount Ash’s chill away.

Barely breaking his stride, Lord Oubo began to explain to his class of about fifty young warriors. “Today in our purification class, we shall be speaking of a technique called dueling lightning. As you all know, our qi –as well as our metal- should be purified to the utmost limit.” There were hundreds of instructors like him in the guild, many teaching at the same time. This Glint wasn’t surprised to hear combat from the inner court.

A young boy raised his hand, momentarily catching Glint’s attention. Ori groaned audibly but was shushed by Natalie Hearth, who was two rows ahead. The warrior thought it was ironic, because she was the biggest chatterbox he’d ever had the pleasure of encountering, a specific necromancer notwithstanding. “Sir, when do you-“

“Lord,” Corrected someone and Ori, who was about to say something, went quiet with a smirk.

“Let him finish, Thomas,” chided Lord Oubo softly, his shadow looking a little like a slumbering panther. “You were asking, child?”

“When do you stop purifying your qi?”

“Ah, an excellent question, although the answer is never. Well done, boy. Your name?”

“Markas,” answered the boy, who Glint knew couldn’t have been older than nine. Oubo was known to bring out the best in people, but it was remarkable that the small boy could be so confidant. Then Glint noticed that little Markas was missing an arm, his right tonic sleeve being tied into a knot just above where his elbow would have been, and a shiver went through him.

“Well done, Markas. The best comparison for qi purification is water. Can someone explain-oh, what a surprise. Our number one student, Glint Stryger!” Emboldened by the child, Glint had lifted a shaky hand. His heart pumped hard and an invisible hand clenched it, waiting for him to embarrass himself so it could end his existance. Many students chuckled, for although Glint was indeed the highest ranked first circle member at Quicksilver, it was only in practice. His was not a mind for energetic theory despite his affinity for other forms of knowledge, and the warrior relied almost exclusively on instinct when using his abilities. This, however, he’d been made to learn by heart. To steady himself, he allowed a trickle of lightning to pass between him and his bracers. Physical strength had a way of lending itself to other forms of confidence.

“It’s like a water container with a filter above it, and you improve both,” he said, and Oubo’s eyebrow curled in pleased surprise. “First time you purify, you’re looking for stones, my lord. The second, it’s pebbles, then dirt, and finally the smallest pieces you can’t even see. It looks like the water’s pure, but there’s infinite improvement, and for some reason you actually can get more power out of these tiny improvements than from those rocks at the start.”

“Very good. I hadn’t thought you could put it that well. Do you know what that ‘some reason’ is?” Glint could not, for Azrael had never explained it. All he knew was that it felt like the smaller particles inside of him had more power.

“If we use the analogy young Glint has so graciously provided,” said Lord Oubo as some students began to sweat because of the heat, “then it’s because of surface. A handful of sand has more exposed surface area than a rock of similar size, and so will end up blocking more water. Naturally, Qi is a form of energy and its impurities have no surface area, but the theory stands. We filter metal and lightning qi with intent and the following breath: Long inhale, short exhale, then short inhale followed by a short exhale. This separates the yin and yang, then purifies each, with the proper intent.” At that point, Glint was thinking about lunch. “The metal in our armor has similar impurities, and although the most prominent are filtered out by our natural flow, there is a method to go deeper. With your metal in liquid form, you separate the yin and yang within, then draw in the two together with force….” For a while, the youth looked around to see if anyone was as bored as him, then saw that all were focused on the class. The youth got the idea when he heard the word ‘explosion’, and was pretty sure he could do something like it when Lord Oubo finally got around to the practical part. He sighed as quietly as possible, knowing that he didn’t have it in him to draw away Sung’s attention from the class.

Suddenly, Lord Oubo’s voice trailed off. “Yes, Ori?” he asked, still in his ever patient tone, drawing the warrior’s attention once more. Glint wondered if for once, his neighbor hadn’t understood something.

“I think Stryger already has it all figured out and wants to demonstrate, Sir.”

Oubo looked at Glint, and the youth could tell he was trying to keep himself from rolling his eyes. They both knew he could do it, but Glint announced, “I said nothing, sir. No reason to stop your lesson.”

“No, no,” countered the ebony skinned man, brushing something off the front of his light brown tunic. His armor, held as a green metal belt shaped like snake eating its own tail, glistened in the red light. “Might as well do it and get on with your training.”

Glint looked to his right and Sung gave him an encouraging whoop. Keeping his heart silent, the warrior turned his attention to the compressor directly before him. It was essentially a suspended black iron box. It was well supported by many metal arms, and could be adjusted for height, even so far so as to place it upon the anvil beneath it for strikes at full force. It had a hole on top, and Glint placed his arms there. His bracers melted, bidden by his mind, and the silvery liquid filled the compressor. A knob was turned, sealing the thing, and the youth placed his hand beneath the object, allowing lightning to crackle within the thing. When another lever was pulled and molten fire ran onto his anvil, the youth removed his left hand and lowered his device halfway into the small stream. A small amount of light shone through a hole in the box as Glint took a hammer in his right hand. He could hear Sung cheer and felt Ori’s ire rise as if it were grating on his own skin.

The warrior, as he had been shown, allowed a lightning ball to form within the liquid. So far so good. That was the basic method for purifying metal using a compressor. Now onto the new part. He split the ball of lightning into what he could only perceive as hard and soft lightning, like two small sparks of different natures, struggling to be one. As he swung his hammer, a command went through his mind. Explode!

A crack resounded from the blow and a shudder went through Glint as the two sparks collided into what must have been the tiniest lightning storm. Again and again he struck, each time increasing the number of lightning balls until he had five splitting and combining again like stars in his mind’s eye. Of course, the others could barely see anything, for the scale of what he did was small indeed, but he bet that had it been dark, there would have been the hint of a spark coming from his compressor. As he worked, tiny traces of impurities left his metal, joining the molten metal flowing away towards the other end of class and back towards the large container behind Oubo. Just as imperceptibly, other traces of metals matching his lightning and armor seeped into the liquid from that river, replenishing what he’d lost and making the armor better.

“Well done, Glint!” announced Lord Oubo. “You may keep on purifying while I explain the technique you’ve just preformed to the others. Do you happen to have any questions?”

“No, sir.” Glint didn’t mention that he was curious about what would happen if he flipped the process by placing hard and hard lightning together rather than hard and soft, for he could feel the class’s impatience, and behind him he had a dark skinned young man fumed.

When class was over, Glint and Sung as well as another girl called Éclair went over to where Natalie’s room was. Those in the first rank, like Glint and the younger youth from Shöno’s southeastern reaches, lived in two man rooms outfitted with restrooms and had shared bath facilities with the rest. Natalie, being in the third rank, lived with four others, but luckily she was a well liked individual and had managed to get herself excellent roommates. Thus they found her playing cards with Emilia Klough, a rather big girl who had an abnormal fascination with dresses. It was extreme enough that she added a skirt-like finish to her armour, which Glint had thought did nothing but waste valuable metal until he saw her on action one day.

Quicksilver, under Alfjötr Christon’s rule, had adopted a slightly abnormal approach to teaching. It was a coupling of extreme care with providing the tools for survival, as well as savageness with making sure these tools were employed. When Glint and Emilia were both still fifth rankers, they had been sent alone into one of Mount Ash’s canyons with the goal of hunting greybears. Glint, who had fought mutated wolverines and even one of Sklaver’s Trials once (albeit with aid) had anticipated an easy fight, but that was not the case. Even though greybears were naturally occurring beasts, they were still far larger than normal ones, and lived in a much harsher climate. It had taken the support of his companion, who reached down and grabbed her flowing metal skirt, pulling and transforming as she did until there was a blade whip in her hand. She used the weapon to great effect, distracting and eventually blinding their foe in a display that was more like a twirling dance than anything else. Glint had then darted in and stabbed the beast through the heart with a long sword pulled from his armor’s chest plate. He’d learnt later that many in their guild preferred to specialize in one weapon, and that hers was that whip. When asked about it, the girl had said her frame didn’t really leave much space for dancing around all graceful. She’d also shown Glint that her infamous high heels, which everyone had thought useless in armor but happened to hide projectiles.

Of course, it had turned out later that the two were set up to fail, and that a higher ranked student was waiting to save them. Glint almost smiled at the memory of Maester Seymore Jambe rolling his eyes that day. “Heya, Glint!” said Emilia without looking up from what was probably a winning hand. As much as Natalie loved playing cards, she was horrible at lying and therefore always lost against her best friend.

“Hey, Emilia,” said the boy. He hadn’t seen her for a while, since she’d spent this entire past month at home, and he’d been in Hindshelm the month before. Her ruddy cheeks seemed even more full than when he’d last seen her, and there was certainly more meat to the rest of her than earlier. “How was Ya’ab?” he asked anyways. He’d never been there, and her stories were always a pleasure.

“Same old, buddy,” she replied lazily, putting down a bad hand after Natalie folded. The redhead laughed to herself as Emilia smiled in what Glint thought might be politeness or plotting. He could never tell with that one. “Didja have fun in your house?”

“Yeah, but my old bed is too small. I needed to stay at an inn, what with the baby and all.” In fact, Glint had worried that his family, now newly active parents, would not be used to having a twenty year old Glint making a fuss around the house with his new brother on top of everything else. Of course, he hadn’t mentioned any of that to either of them, for he knew Horst and Marie would have scolded him vehemently.

“Glint Stryger!” Natalie leapt from her spot, her freckled face showing telltale signs. The warrior almost poked her little scrunched up nose before he caught himself. “No more hiding, where’s the portrait? I swear, if I don’t see little Baldur soon I’ll talk to Mister Cole and you’ll be stuck eating leftovers for a week!” Glint remained quiet for a few seconds, unsure of himself. He’d managed to find a man to paint the little boy, but he was so far away that their mother couldn’t come with. Due to that, the youth had been forced to sit there the whole time and hold his seven month old brother. It would still make her happy, but… “Come by later,” he told Natalie, “I’ll give it to you then.”

“Ugh, fine. This one here,” she said to Emilia, “Has be-“

“Avoiding giving you the portrait despite knowing full well how excited you are to see his little brother, which is a bad move on his part because you are literally friends with everyone he relies on to have his days function normally and also because the two of you are barely separable at sword point, let alone because of a forgotten gift which I told you he’s unlikely to forget?”

“Well, yes…” Emilia was the only one who could halt Natalie Hearth’s infamous cascade of words. Sung was busy looking from the window while pretending not to peer at the collection of stuffed animals the blonde haired girl kept on top of her bed.

“You know how he is,” said the nineteen year old, raising an eyebrow. Glint realized that she really liked dark eyeliner, which he’d not noticed before. “Just let him be. You three are literally some of the people I hate least, but calling you all quirky would be an understatement.”

For a few seconds Glint was confused, because he’d thought that Emilia enjoyed being with them quite a lot, but then Natalie flitted over, fast as death, and hugged her friend tight. “Awwww! I’ve always wanted to hear you say that! I love you too, princess!” [_ What? But, that’s literally not what sh- oh, I get it. _]

Emilia, although she didn’t seem enthusiastic about the hug, turned a little to the side to face glint in her seated position on crossed legs. She winked and waved him over. At first he froze, then moved over to join them, heart beating wildly. Sung joined in enthusiastically. The blonde girl laughed, and even Natalie’s other roommates laughed from their beds, where they sat. The four decided instead to take place on the red yellow rimmed rug and play cards for a while, putting some fun into it by allowing cheating if you aren’t caught. Emilia won almost every match nonchalantly, although the tanned Sung managed to use his overwhelming speed and dexterity to peek at her cards while making her laugh a couple of times and sneaked a couple of wins in that manner.

After lunch, which was comprised of multiple types of meats and breads prepared by Mister Cole, Glint and Sung headed over to the Inner Court. They made their way towards it, crossing the front courtyards with its three stairways, passing next to the many suits of armor hung along the walls. Glint tried to read out the names as they went, for many of these had belonged to members of Quicksilver who had distinguished themselves in service or died in service. “Wish we could end up here someday,” murmured Sung as they passed a suit of armor that had belonged to the seventh master of Quicksilver. A portrait hung above it of a rather feminine looking man, with a plaque below which read Lord Reta of Cornhill, dubbed Leadbite. At the armor’s elbows, thighs, forearms and sides there were grooves with what seemed to be mouths sprouting out of them, teeth still looking sharp. The chest plate had a demonic face on it, with another grinning maw where the man’s stomach would have been. Glint shuddered, turning his eyes over to admire Quicksilver’s choices in warm furnishing, full of soft rugs and chandeliers and polished deeply colored wood. “As long as we make the world a better place, I’d be alright with being forgotten.” Still, the thought of fame was nice, and there was no reason to give up one thing for the other just yet. The warrior hadn’t forgotten the mission taken from Azrael Windslayer, after all.

Being second and first rankers, the students were given their own spot to train, although it was nothing as impressive as the one granted to second circle warriors, and they were supervised by one to boot. It was Maester Seymore, who happened to have a headache that day and told the thirty of them to simply split into groups of three and fight two on one, rotating as they did. Sung luckily caught Ori heading their way out of the corner of his eye and grabbed someone to complete their three, who turned out to be Flait Leoreo.

Flait was a quiet sixteen year old with brown messy hair, blue thoughtful eyes and a large frame. His laziness was reflected in his fighting style if not in his ranking, for the youth had been in the guild for as long as he’d lived and was just as good as the rest. His father had died protecting Quicksilver, and Lord Alfjötr hadn’t had the heart to turn him over to family, and so had hid his entire existence from them. Glint groaned, because he hated fighting against spikers, but didn’t know much about the youth himself. “So,” he sighed, “Who should go first?”

“I say old men first,” cheered Sung, clapping Flait on the shoulder. The two were old friends. “What do you say, buddy?”

“…Okay,” answered the giant of a boy. Glint was not short, but marveled at the second ranker’s height. He thought about releasing another sigh, but felt shy of the newcomer.

Then all thoughts of sighing were gone, for Maester Seymore looked around to make sure everyone was ready, put a hand through his greying hair, then exclaimed, “Go!” whilst clapping his hands. His gauntlets bearing the crest of a pitchfork caused a sound like a thunderclap.

By the time Glint readied his stance, Sung was upon him, a flying roundhouse kick almost catching the warrior on the temple. Glint took it on his forearm instead, wind-milling backwards as his friend and roommate landed on the stoned floor multiple times, springing off it each time with another kick. The boy leapt with a lightness that made him seem as if he could float on air, and Glint worked hard to fend off his rapid attacks. One got in and Glint’s vision went white with pain, for the strikes came fans of lightning, an ability Sung was especially good at. His anklets glowed a pure white, and clinked each time he left the ground. After a couple of aerial blows more, the younger fighter, who was slimmer than Glint, began to switch things up with smooth sweeping leg transitions and lower kicks here and there, making him seem like a an ice dancer one instant and a bird the other. His bare feet hissed against the ground as he got faster, almost overpowering the warrior with sheer speed, and his white cotton tunic flapped. Glint’s ribs were hit a few times and he winced as his body began to go numb.

As Glint blocked the kicks, he worked hard to find an opening to turn. If he and his armor were allowed to become one, his opponent would have no chance against him, lightning kicks or not. The energy within him crackled almost audibly, and his bracers sang in his ears. All of his attention was on the younger boy, and suddenly he had a rhythm going. Before Sung could change tactics, the warrior reacted, for he could tell a lower left sweep would be followed by a straight leg aimed right at his midsection. Glint chose to kick upwards, letting momentum carry him upwards into a flip. The younger boy, a competent fighter in his own right, was startled for a second, but that was more than enough for Glint to get out of range, soaring backwards and away for a few feet. In that time, he let his armor engulf him fully, spreading like liquid metal from his forearms to his entire body. As he landed, his barbute formed around his face, leaving eyes, nose and mouth exposed. He breathed relief, for a storm ran through his body and his metal and there was nothing to fear. Then a shadow fell over him and the warrior realized that he’d miscalculated.

With reflexes boosted by his armor, Glint rolled away like a blur just as a thunderous crash echoed where he’d been just an instant earlier. Getting back to his feet, the youth saw Flait get to his feet slowly, the rocky ground sunken and destroyed for feet around where he’d attempted to land on Glint. The warrior was outfitted from head to toe in large amounts of metal almost black, and Glint could tell that the color was due to impurities, unlike others. Such metal was less effective than the warrior’s own purified silver, but Flait simply had absorbed so much that it made the matter moot. Spikes rose from his shoulders, and his gauntlets were especially thick, which explained the destruction at his feet. The helmet was brick like and unadorned, although it reminded Glint of a castle’s keep. The young man wondered at the strength needed to move such a construct. His mind raced and for a moment, he thought it was possible to lose to this combo of dedicated strength and speed. Sung came then, now clad in his thin ribbed ornate armor and boasting a metal staff in hand which he used in accordance with his lightning and feet, but the warrior relaxed after a few exchanged blows. Almost no one in the first circle could boost armor like he could, and so he let the lightning roar. He couldn’t shoot it or employ the energy like Sung could, but the energy crackled deep in his bones and lent Glint strength, speed, and raised his senses to superhuman levels. The warrior could deal with his foe’s strikes much better than earlier, and slapped them away with impunity, still retreating but confidant in his abilities at last. His opponent’s lightning strikes could barely be felt at that point, although his arms still smarted from earlier. When his friend stepped back Glint went on the offensive, conjuring a single bladed curved short sword from his left shoulder. Immediately he went into a dance with it, spinning as he went with most strikes coming from his foe’s left flank. As Sung panicked and the wide spin turned Glint’s blows into a forward moving tempest, his attention to the right waned. Seizing the opportunity, the warrior stopped suddenly and reversed his spin, stepping in with his left leg and rotating his hips. His left fist smashed into Sung’s Armet with enough force to not only knock the boy out cold, but also to send him flying a few feet. Glint didn’t linger to hear the thud, for he was slightly disoriented and Flait was charging him, fists ready to move with precision and overwhelming force.

Luckily there was enough space between the two of them and the nearest wall, and so Glint backed away from the man, pulling out a second blade as he did. He used both to deflect blows, employing the time in between them to whip at the behemoth’s right knee. One particular strike was ill timed, and Glint deflected it wrong. Pain blossomed in his right wrist, and he needed to use some of his lightning for an emergency heal, wincing, but powered on. Before they could reach the wall his opponent’s blows had lost much of their weight and he had staggered to a halt, still throwing punches and doing his best to ignore Glint’s attacks. Still blocking, the warrior focused on the knee with abandon, and eventually it touched the ground. At that point they were the last group still fighting. “I… yield,” gasped Flait with a raised pillar of an arm, and Glint plunged both of his blades back into his chest before helping the man up. Those around applauded, for some groups had finished early. Maester Seymore came over, his hands glowing. He placed an arm on Flait and the man winced, then sighed with comfort before letting his armor retreat back into an ornate blackish shoulder plate with a castle engraved upon it. Glint looked on in wonder, for Seymore Jambe had a wonderful ability which allowed him to save many lives, but he never bothered with removing the pain and discomfort associated with accelerated healing. The grey haired man chuckled as he saw how far away Sung was then said, “That ought to teach him that speed isn’t invincibility. How hard did you hit him?”

“A few teeth, sir, but he was fast enough to jump away. His jaw should be okay.”

The man whistled. “The bastard is too talented for his own good. How about your own scratches?” He’d noticed that Glint’s armor was still in place. The warrior hesitated, for he remembered Sung’s aversion to harming others. However, Maester Seymore’s look brokered no arguments. Many enjoyed annoying the man, but all knew to listen when he was serious and solemn, like now. Glint let his armor melt into his bracers and shook the man’s luminous hand. Tingles flooded him, causing an itch, but within a few seconds the pain subsided. “Tell him when he asks, and thank him for a good fight,” bade the man from Glint, and he nodded in return. Everyone knew how much Jambe cared for Sung.

When he was sure that the two were alright, Maester Seymore went over to get a bucket of water. It was snowing then, and so Sung gasped immediately and began to shiver when the bucket’s contents were promptly dumped onto his face. “Dear merciful Odin!” he shouted, then looked around with his arms around his knees. “Oh, oh Odin, my mouth hurts.” The boy spat, and two objects fell out. Maester Seymore laughed.

“Exactly right,” he called out to Glint, putting his thumb and index finger together. In spite of himself the youth laughed, and even Flait chuckled. Their teacher then healed Sung, although he spent the least amount of time on him due to the boy’s already remarkable healing abilities. Glint didn’t doubt he’d have two new teeth by the time morning came. Reminded of the time, he glanced upwards, craning his neck to see the sky, for Mount Ash encased their guild from three sides, with castle walls shielding the last. It was a natural defense from both enemies and blizzards. The sun was naturally still almost fixed in place, but had moved a little to the east. Around seven thirty, then. Maester Seymore rushed his students to complete their fighting rounds, but Glint’s group didn’t encounter any delays, for neither Sung nor Flait were able to put up a fight in the format Glint had endured and conquered. He played a supporting part in both fights, allowing each to have a leading role. Against Sung Glint delayed the boy enough for Flait to leap in and restrain the Shönian and did something similar with the green eyed man, although Sung was able to surprise the three by demonstrating the drawbacks of Flait’s armor. Sung’s lightning seemed to go right through and the man fell almost immediately with a cry.

With their sparring session over, the students were healed up yet again by their teacher, who proceeded to give a few general pointers about positioning and using your strengths to their fullest. “Being an all-rounder is great,” he said, “But if you see a weapon and it fits your hand, by Sklaver, I say grab the bugger by the throat and don’t let go.” The students laughed, but knew the lesson would prove invaluable one day. With that, the class was dismissed and made their way towards the castle’s front, where many of the dorms and classes were situated. Behind the inner keep, second and third circle warriors slept, ate and worked.

Glint and his two companions were joined by another man, this one older and grizzled. “Boys,” he greeted them in a measured tone, and the company parted to allow him place in their midst. Serk Olafson was a man who excelled in theories, and although he’d shared Quicksilver after his prime, wisdom seemed to be his constant companion and made up for the man’s fifty something years. He touched a finger to his nose, looking at Sung. “Just like I told you, no?” he inquired. The boy gave Glint a nervous grin. “I asked him for a few tips on fighting you. That’s why it went so well in the beginning. But mister Olafson was right: I just can’t’ get around you with speed. I don’t get it. Would you be able to take him?” The question was directed at Serk, who looked at Glint thoughtfully.

“I can’t be rightfully sure,” he answered finally. “Young Glint Stryger is rather talented, and I’m almost certain he’s trained with someone at least on par with higher rankers of the second circle, one on one at that. I’m good with my head, but I don’t know if I’m that good.” At that Glint shuddered, for he hadn’t told anyone very much about Azrael. The only one in Quicksilver who knew that the man hid far more than he let on was Quicksilver’s Lord Alfjötr, and even he didn’t know that Azrael was an unchained. However, it didn’t seem like the thoughtful old man had figured that one out, and so Glint let his ever present curiosity get the better of him. “How would you try it?” he asked, and a smile appeared on the old man’s face. Too late, Glint realized that a bit of aggression had entered his voice and kicked himself mentally.

“Ah, youth,” said Serk, showing Glint his balding head. “What I’d do to start over and come here instead of Wraith’s Face. Wasted years trying to become a psion and they never gave me my money back, you know. I might have been teaching you now if it weren’t for that.” The warrior thought the prospect of Serk teaching them was entirely pleasant, but knew the coal eyed man counted the mental strength he’d gained in his old guild as an integral part of him. He probably hadn’t even asked for his money. The unassuming blue wrapped around his ring finger shone bright. “I can’t say what my method would have been,” the man reasoned, “but I’m sure at some point it will have to be displayed. It’s only luck that’s stood between us two sparring before.”

As they went towards their dorm, Glint thought to himself that the first rankers around him retained much of their fight, although he was lauded as the top of his peers. Despite his shy nature, the youth burned with the desire to fight, and knew he wasn’t going to spend much time with them. Perhaps it was some stroke of luck that had him join Quicksilver a year before the first circle’s ascension exam to the second. Perhaps that luck was by design, orchestrated by a raven haired man.

There was one hallway that lead to the inner court from Quicksilver’s first circle dorms, and one that lead away towards the second building, where most of the actual work happened. Glint thought about these as he put his green tapard on, for members were instructed to keep the expensive fabric out of harm’s way and so removed it when training. “Sung,” Glint said. “Quicksilver is pretty focused on teaching new members, huh?”

The thinner warrior thought about it for a second as they stepped atop expensive carpeting lined with golden colored borders. The ground beneath it, peeking for a few feet off the walls from each side, was of planks polished a deep brown. These particular walls were of wood themselves, a lighter shade of brown, and Glint knew the opposing hall after the inner court would be the same, snaking all the way towards the master’s office. Glint snickered, for he’d remembered Alfjoetr Christon looking comical sitting at a table with a quill barely larger than his thumb the one time Glint had been taken to him shortly after arriving at the guild. Sung gave him a confused look, then said, “Yeah, I suppose it is. What’s got your brain there and not on Felicia Lekk?” Glint, startled, looked on ahead where, sure enough, Felicia was working hard on a strut, keeping a confidant gaze straight ahead whilst swinging her hips back and forth seductively. Glint shuddered, then gave Sung a look that must have said a thousand words, for his friend laughed. “Alright, alright, I just felt sorry for the girl. You know how hard she tries.”

“She thinks her body and face are all she needs in this world. I wouldn’t touch her with a stick.” In fact, He’d told Marie about Felicia’s attention seeking fascination with him on his last visit, and his mother may as well have been a fury, the way the gingery haired woman exploded. For a second he thought she was going to strike him, but he’d assured his Normal mother that he didn’t want anything to do with the lass, but also that he wouldn’t be hurtful.

Thus Glint felt doubly bad when Sung winced, whispering, “Ouch! I mean, I agree with you, but that would hurt to hear. Every life’s a road, and people are shoes, so I’m sure there’s a road she fits on perfectly. Let’s just say we hope she finds someone who appreciates the way she is or a better yet, a change of heart.”

“You’re right,” relented Glint, seeing Felicia walk off with her perfect ponytail, nice clothes, make up on a face that could have been sculpted and a body right out of someone’s fantasy. He hoped she’d give up soon, at least before he ended up having a sparring match against the dark headed girl with armor in her studded earrings. He appreciated Sung’s eccentric accommodation for everybody else, for it was the opposite of Emilia. Who isn’t really my type, but is probably a better person now than Felicia would ever be. She’d probably set her in her place. “Anyways. I was thinking about how they put our building out front. Obviously, it makes sense to put the important things in the back in case someone attacks, but it’s also so that the young ones get to fight next to the older guild members, right? They should get ready at about the same time.”

“Huh, yeah, that’s true,” said Sung, but then looked towards Flait and Serk. The older man said nothing, gesturing towards his companion with the bird’s nest for hair. For a while he said nothing, then ventured with, “Symbol?”

“Rather good. I’m sure the founders wanted to make sure that the forefront of our guild lies in youth,” The man chuckled at that, “But I heard they also wanted to show a symbol of strength. You haven’t seen yet because we’re often training when it happens, but delegates from other guilds, councils and nobles come here often enough. They have to make their way through our hallowed corridors, lined with armors and likenesses of honored members. Then they witness our training in the court as they go through lavish surroundings before heading in and meeting Lords Aje, Luke, or the titan himself. It’s a symbol for us not to forget the young, true, but the founders’ choice serves as intimidation too.”

For a while everyone within earshot admired the walls, floor, trophies and massive chandeliers with new eyes. Then Sung joked, “Like Flait said, symbol.” They all laughed at that. Then suddenly a bell tolled, and everyone froze, tense. The corridor they stood in was filled with guild members, and all of them stood in attention, one and all. Lord Luke, second in command of the guild, stood there as well, although he started to smile. The man had long ears, almost pointy in their nature, as well as blonde hair with fringes that framed delicate features. Far up high the bell tolled, having been fashioned from the armor of Dresula Stormweilder, a founder of the guild who had been called a boulder of a woman. It almost sang, once of warning and another of victory, struck as it was with the hammer of Dresula’s sister, Ursula, whom many said was a beauty to be envied. When the bell was struck thrice, everyone’s breath stopped… then so did the tolling, and all the members moved at once. The students, of course, ran towards the Iron Door. There was a crowd already waiting, for three tolls announced the return of Quicksilver’s master, Alfjoetr Christon. Glint didn’t move towards the front of the crowd.

Alfjoetr was a behemoth of a man. Wearing Greybear fur as a vest, trousers cut at the knee, many would think he were insane when considering the cold of mount Ash. However, the man shrugged it off, and it seemed every step he took shook the ground beneath him. “Is that him?” asked a young boy next to Glint, and the warrior answered, “Yeah, that’s the titan alright,” with a mixture of pride and distate. He didn’t enjoy seeing the giant with the bead sprouting shaggy hair very much, for a drunken Alfjoetr had beaten him quite severely almost three years ago. Even the mark Glint had left when pulling out a handful off the man’s beard was perfectly healed.

Alfjoetr was surrounded by guild members faster than one could sneeze, all asking about his trip and offering to take things for him. “Bahahaha,” came his mountain slide of a laugh, “No gifts this time. Here, boy, carry this bag. And you take this!” despite being able to carry enormous weight, the man had apparently split his pack into many smaller bags, which he began handing to volunteers before cackling with delight and gazing up at the bell. “Greet ye, Dresula!” he shouted, and those around needed to cover his ears. Glint wondered that the man didn’t rip his throat with his own voice. “Now, before I go to rest, let’s get the rituals over with. Who here seeks to clasp arms?”

At once, guild members all about made way, forcing everyone backwards so that a square arena was formed. This was the moment Glint had waited for, and his heart beat fast. Suddenly he breathed, and it settled. This was a time for a fight, and there was no need for shyness. The sky above, cloudy and grim as it was, seemed to approve, for the sun sent a beam towards the warrior as his hand was raised. He’d fought Alfjoetr once before, and wanted to see how he’d improved. Glint’s bracers sent thunder into his heart, and he felt ready. All around, guild members in red and blue and green tapards stood solemn as four hands shot up. He was the only one of the first circle. Besides him, the others were Maester Seymore Jambe, another Maester Glint didn’t recognize, and lord Luke. The titan’s laugh rumbled across the front courtyard again, and he walked, the ring moving, until one wall was just before the steps leading to Quicksilver’s castle door. This was to his left, and Glint was part of the crowd directly before the man. Alfjoetr grinned. “Four! And one brave soul from the first. I applaud ye, child. What be yo- oh,” the man interrupted himself with a snort a boar would have been proud of. “It’s you. Very well, child. Get your armor ready.”

Naturally, those that hadn’t seen Glint raise his arm now gasped. It was borderline blasphemy for one in the first circle to fight their guild master. It simply wasn’t done, and in many other guilds a similar match up would never be allowed. Booes began to resound, and Glint’s determination wavered. This wasn’t what he’d bargained for. However, there was no other chance to fight Alfjoetr again, and there was no better test to see how far he’d come. Glint stayed in place, knowing that he needed to climb ranks as fast as possible for his own goals and those of Azrael, and knowing that he was willing to accept punishment if it came to that. The sound climbed in volume until they were almost chanting at him, and Glint could feel their negativity keenly on his very skin.

“Silence!” The bellow came from Alfjoetr, and almost brought Glint to one knee with an almost physical force. The only time he’d ever heard louder was when a magical tree brought down the crystalline caves almost atop his own head, east in Krava. Then Glint noticed that the dissenters, those who booed him, were all first rankers like him. He understood that they envied him the chance, and cursed their own trembling arms. Those who knew him cheered, but Alfjoetr silenced them in turn with another painful cry. “Let the boy try,” he said in a lower tone. “Get your armor on. We’ll start with the youngest. Does anyone mind?” the two maesters and Lord Luke, who stood behind the man, shook their heads. All around there was a light atmosphere and people joked, as if Alfjoetr was going to play with a puppy. Glint almost shouted at them to go away, but knew what they wanted. He could feel their need for a spectacle.

“I… what about you?” Glint asked, walking forwards and free of the crowd until the man was directly before him, if a bit away. Alfjoetr’s eyebrow shot up as the booing began in earnest. Now even the second rankers were annoyed, and Lord Luke laughed.

“Shut yer trap,” Alfjoetr told him before turning his attention to the warrior. “I thought ye knew, boy. Can’t get the damn thing to work. First guild leader in history who can’t.” Glint was shocked, but remembered their last fight. He hadn’t used his armor then, although his snarling wolf medallion had felt off. Now Glint knew that the man’s necklace would glow when the time came, summoning that monstrous power beneath him. “Nod when yer ready.”

Glint let lightning course through him. All around, people fell silent, shocked at the speed his armor took over. A longsowrd and shield formed on his arms, and Glint took them, ready for anything. Last time he had lasted a couple of minutes at most, but he was a different man now. Strength filled him and the wind howled in the silence of men about to see a spectacle they were unprepared for. If he fought equally here, he’d be made a lord. Alfjoetr stood a distance away, and Glint knew he could reach him in a few seconds. Although the giant looked bored, he stood with few openings and the medallion around his neck emitted a soft light. Glint nodded, ready to pounce.

Then brown fur filled his vision. The last thing he heard that day was a thud.

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Tales Of Grimea

This collection of short stories follows seven different adventures in the realm of Grimea. The tales are set in different times and places. Some are grand in scope, and others would have been forgotten if not for this book. There is love, loss, adventure, joy and hate collected here. The first story is set before time was even recorded, and the last few are close from one another, approaching the present. This work is meant to explore the realm and its magic, in case such a broad overview is ever needed.

  • ISBN: 9781370913053
  • Author: Andrew Mowere
  • Published: 2016-09-25 09:50:12
  • Words: 63919
Tales Of Grimea Tales Of Grimea