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27. Chapter 27

Kyle Aarons%s's Photo   Kyle Aarons, 30 Dec 2011

Duke Mathard stared at the opening beyond Kandric with a stunned expression for a few seconds. When he finally spoke his voice shook slightly, “The lost passage to Under River… No wonder we couldn’t find it!”

Kandric’s facial features scrunched up in total confusion, “I do not understand. All the history books say Under River was locked up, buried, so the Drow royalty could never get out!”

Duke Mathard took a couple of deep breaths before finally tearing his eyes off the dark passage beyond where Kandric was standing. Finally he turned to one of his remaining scouts. “Send word, Premier Kandric has located the lost passage. Once again our Prince has done something all the combined Garm and Alphar houses could not. We need a sizable force down here until we are ready to move in and investigate!”

Kandric once again started to say something, but Mathard held up a hand, “Give me a moment Prince…Premier Kandric.” Mathard went down to one knee and shook his head, took a large drink out of his water skin, and paused to get a couple more deep breaths. At the same time his eyes never left the opening. “Premier Kandric, the whole reason we… both the Alphar and my Garm brothers were able to mobilize as fast as we did, is the fact we already had scouts on you and your siblings.”

Kandric summoned up a ball of light and launched it down the passage. The brightly glowing orb traveled downward, revealing a very deep passage full of debris, but truly immense in size. Before it disappeared from sight, it displayed the remains of massive gothic arches and a pair of badly damaged, yet gigantic statues of stern faced Elves with Drow like features. Each had a kite shield resting on its bottom point at the statue’s feet and a weapon held across its chest. The pommel of one weapon was probably of a sword, but the rest had long ago crumbled away. The second still had the head of a flail, but like the statue directly across from it the rest of the weapon was now part of the rubble littering the floor. Further down were more stone figures, but many had little left to even show what they once were.

Kandric backed off to stand next to Mathard, “At the moment, the passage appears long forgotten, so it looks as if we are safe for now.” He paused as Mathard’s other words suddenly sunk in. “Wait a minute; I do not understand. Why did you have scouts watching us? We are nothing more than swamp trash.”

Mathard’s voice showed a bit of anger as he finally tore his eyes off the passage to look at Kandric. “First off, young Prince, I never want to hear you speak those words again. You are not now, nor have ever been, swamp trash! You are quite simply the most astonishing being I have ever met!”

Kandric took a deep breath, held up his hands and took a step back from Mathard’s outburst. “Alright, I get it, I am of royal blood. However, I still come from one of the poorest places above the Silver Spine Mountains, possibly the whole continent, and like it or not, it is a place I call home!”

“Your home means nothing, Premier Kandric.” One of Mathard’s guards spoke, still eyeing the passage with near terror in his eyes and his weapon tightly held at the ready. “Where you have grown up only makes your achievements all the more incredible. Your mother may have been discarded by your Grandfather, but you have proven to all, his decision was not based in sound thinking. Besides, the moment the other houses found out where you have been living, resources were mobilized to correct the situation. By the time you get home, it will no longer be a slum.”

“Then some good has come out of all of this.” Kandric stated with bit of a satisfied smirk. “I still do not comprehend why either the Garm or the Alphar great houses took interest in my family.”

Mathard shrugged. “I do not know all the details, since my house and the forces I brought with me didn’t have so much a moment to settle in before the scouts assigned to watch you gated in and told everyone in the Alphar Palace of your plight…” He snorted, “at least we thought you were in well over your head when the scout gave us his report…”

“Having no chance to get real information, I speak with a great deal of conjecture. However, it sounded to us like your grandfather occasionally sent out teams to check on his daughter and her children. Because of a need to quickly gate here, I never got a chance to hear what led to the discovery of the link between your family and the last known Drow noble outside of Under River, but one does exist. The information your Grandfather provided was enough to mobilize forces and send scouts out to keep an eye on you all. The moment we heard you had penetrated a stronghold of King Blathamort, I volunteered my contingent to get you out. The rest you know.”

“My Duke?” Lorthorn spoke up, his voice telling everyone of his total confusion.

“Speak young one.” Mathard stated while still keeping a close eye on the passage.

“I am sorry to interrupt, my Lord, but I do not understand why you all look so worried and scared right now. Should we be… um, well, like as afraid as you all seem at the moment?”

Mathard shot a glance back to Kandric’s three young guards, noting all had weapons at the ready and were looking down the passage, but all of them looked a great deal more confused than frightened.

Mathard allowed his axe armed hand to fall to his side, but he still, clearly, had the weapon ready to use. “Kandric, you are a Ruinseeker, do you care to give your guards a quick history lesson?”

“I would, Duke Mathard, but I do not think I have all the details you seem to have. Until this moment I had no idea there was any openings left into Under River, let alone a Drow Noble above ground.”

“Very well. I will let Premier Kandric give a backdrop and I will fill in any spots he cannot, but you all must be ready for anything. This passage must be guarded at all costs by us until my people get more forces down here!”

“Us stand ready, me Duke!” Seldnat stated as he twisted the spear staff to become a spear once again, then gave a horrible bow.

Mathard nodded, this time with a real smile. “Seldnat, even though your speech needs a great deal of work, you have done a remarkable job in grasping the basics of royal protocols. You should be commended. Now, I expect you all to listen while we all keep our guard up.” He pointed to Kandric, “I am interested to see how much you know. As I stated, I will fill in any missing areas with what I know once you are done.”

Kandric once again ran his hands over what was left of the writing around the entrance to the long forgotten passage again as he pulled together what he knew of the Drow. “First off, do you know what Under River is?”

Zeltoss spoke up, “I think it was like the evil city of the Dark Elves. Mom used to tell us the gods would send us there if we were bad kids.”

Mathard couldn’t help but laugh, “It goes to show just how similar parents can think. My father told me very similar stories.”

Kandric grinned, “Me too.” He paused, “The truth, however, is quite a bit different. From what I have read and have been taught, Under River was a major supply base and command center for those fighting the evil Mythlings. At the time of the Mythling Wars things were actually going very bad for those we now call the gods. The cities ruled over by the likes of Syria, Vanuban, Mendaven, Crytrall, and Warvon had all fallen and were in ruins. The city of Forest Wall, ruled over by Vindayin was under siege and was near starvation as were cities controlled by Veldora, Quati, and Zerris. The other gods we know and worship today didn’t yet have cities, but the lands they came from had been decimated by years of near constant warfare.

“Under River, on the other hand, remained untouched. At the time of the Mythling wars, it was home to thousands of what were then called the lower beings, Drow ruled, but lived peacefully with Highmen, Garm, Alphar, Gnome, Humans, Halflings, and some texts say even Orakian, the precursor to the Illorcs and Orcs. The city itself was totally self sufficient, as it grew its own food in outer passages, had running water almost everywhere, fish were plentiful as were an astounding amount of minerals. This made for a perfect and deadly base of operations against the Mythling armies of those we now call the Demon Lords.

“Without Under River, the people in Forest Wall and other besieged cities would have starved, but passages were dug up out of Under River to many of them, providing food, weapons, and other vital supplies. This kept the Mythling armies scattered, preventing them from gathering as one and ultimately allowed for survivors of their horrible death purges to come together. Somehow, those survivors then formed a massed army, heavily supplied with weapons by Under River and broke the sieges around several key cities. As this army grew, it started pushing the Mythlings back.

“But the whole of the land was hungry and could barely feed its people let alone an army. Once again Under River came to the rescue. Without the support of the Drow and their capitol city, the combined forces pushing back the Mythlings would have starved. Instead, with food transported up out of Under River, those armies continued to grow in numbers until at last the capitol city of the Mythlings was besieged and finally fell, although, the words used in the ancient texts make it sound less like the city was defeated, but instead it literally fell, as in dropped or plunged a great distance.”

“Why didn’t the evil Mythlings go in and destroy Under River if it gave them so much problems, Premier Kandric?” Lorthorn asked.

Kandric glanced over to Duke Mathard. “Good question, Lorthorn. Unfortunately, I do not know. My guess is, however, the same thing ended up happening at the end of the Dwarven-Elvin war, when the Drow refused peace and were ultimately pushed back out of the sunlit world by combined Alphar, Garm, Dwarven, and Elvish forces.”

Mathard took a deep breath and finally turned his back to the passage leading down. “Premier Kandric is correct. The very thing the world needed during the Mythling War, was the one obstacle preventing us from wiping out the Drow leadership later. One must first understand, the Mythlings used to gate entire armies from place to place. We now do the same thing, but not nearly as effectively as the Mythlings were able to do. Many cities fell simply because Mythling forces suddenly appeared inside the walls, where they killed or enslaved everyone.

“Cities like Forest Wall, however, had massive magical protections put up to prevent such an attack. However, those protections only blanketed the cities, not the lands around them, so it was not hard for thousands of Mythling supported forces to gate in, take over the land outside the cities, and let those inside starve.

“Under River, on the other hand, is deep underground. The city itself has the same protections, maybe even better ones than Forest Wall, but it is not surrounded by open lands. Instead it has caves and caverns everywhere. Gating a large force into one of those caves is tantamount to sending in lambs to a slaughter. If the force was too large it would end up piling on top of itself. If it was small enough to fit into the cavern, then those defending Under River could simply seal off both ends with walls of troops and fire arrows in until there was no one left.

“The Mythlings even tried to do simultaneous attacks in many different passages, but the people of Under River were ready. They caused cave-ins to bury whole attacking forces, then dug them out, took their weapons and gave them to those fighting the Mythlings. Other times they waited until the Mythling forces got into an area and somehow killed the magical lights in a large area. With the lights out, the horrible beasts deeper in the labyrinths of caves would come in and feed. The lights were then somehow re-enchanted and the Drow forces drove off the light hating creatures and mopped up what was left of those who managed to survive, but with horrible casualties too terrible to fight a rag tag group let alone a well equipped Drow army used to fighting in and around their home.

“At the end of the Elvin-Dwarven War the Drow didn’t want to stop the fight. Thinking the Elves had sold them out by signing a peace treaty, they moved to attack all Elves and Dwarves including the Garm and Alphar. We drove them back, purged the sunlit world of all Drow Nobility, and all but a few pockets of regular Drow, but we knew better than to try the failed tactics of the Mythlings against Under River. Instead we tried to secure several passages down to the city and then attack it. Just like the Mythlings, we ultimately failed to take the city. They knew the city and the surrounding passages too well and had turned the non-Drow citizens against us as well.

“On the other hand, since we controlled many of the entrances, we started sealing them off. At the same time the Garm and Alphar formed joint scouting units looking for other entrances. It took almost a hundred years of hard fighting but eventually we managed to seal them in. One of the things we did as we sealed them in is we actually strengthened the protections preventing gating into and out of the city. Our best surviving spell casters used every trick they knew to improve the protections then extend them outward from Under River to cover hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of caves, caverns, cracks and crevasses. This ultimately prevented anyone who wanted to help them from magically getting in and those within the city from magically gating out.

“The problem was, we were never sure how many passages there were out of Under River. The Elvin-Dwarven War destroyed hundreds of archives on both sides and the Drow used passages to sneak up out of Under River and take whole fortresses from both us and the Elves. This meant the actual war went on for hundreds of years after most of the other races thought it was over. However, after nearly two centuries of fighting in caverns all over our world, we finally managed to defeat a large force of Drow as they tried to force their way back into the sunlit world. With their army crushed, it didn’t take long for us to mop up and cut off all access to the sunlit world.

“Finally, we were fairly certain we had locked up Under River However, we continued to send in scouts to look for more, but we failed to find any other ways in… except once.”

“What happened…” Zeltoss gulped slightly as Lorthorn elbowed him. “Um, I mean, will you tell us what happened Duke Mathard?”

Mathard managed a chuckle. “You don’t need to be quite so formal at the moment boys.”

He then glanced at his remaining guards to prevent any reaction from them, “After all, when we were their age equivalent, we would have done the exact same thing.”


Turning back to Zeltoss, Mathard gave a brief grin. “Just over a thousand years ago a patrol of combined Garm and Alphar stumbled across something and sent back word of a possible forgotten passage into Under River. Their report said they would check it out and send for assistance if it panned out. By this time both the Garm and Alphar courts had grown used to hearing such reports and gave it little thought. A month later, however, the body of one of those in the scout team was found. The Alphar archer had been staked to the ground not far from the Hall of Friendship, the place where Garm and Alphar built to hold meetings in a peaceful environment. Whoever had done the deed had then stacked small rocks on his body until they got too heavy for him to breath.
 

“Purposefully put on top of the final stone was an amulet of a member of the Drow High Council. The same amulet had been heated over a fire and had been used to brand the young archer. Scout teams were sent out in great numbers to blanket the last known area of the doomed patrol, but nothing was found.

“A couple hundred years passed with no sign of the lost passage. Just as we were about to give up, a pair of young Garm men on their walkabout happened to come across a badly beaten and all but starved to death Elvin child. They noted the child had been branded with some sort of Drow mark, so they decided to forgo the rest of their passage into adulthood and brought him to my Grandfather. The minute those in my grandfather’s court saw the brand on the boy’s palms they instantly recognized it as the very same crest left at the site of the Alphar’s execution.

“The boy was nursed back to health and was able to tell us of a large force of Drow, with Orc, Gnoll, and Goblin support, was gathering in the deep swamp not far from here.

“Spies were mobilized and within short order verified there was indeed a new Drow lead army getting ready to attempt to reopen a passage to Under River. The Great Hall of Battle, the war planning hall for all joint Alphar Garm operations, was reopened and just days before the Drow army was ready to launch their attack, we moved. The battle was nothing less than a slaughter. The poorly trained and meagerly equipped Drow army was no match for what we sent in.

“It took only three days for our combined armies to wipe out all resistance. It took only another five to eliminate all those who had been in support of the rag-tag army. We spared no one. The only living things to walk away from the place you now call the Split Rock Knolls were Garm and Alphar.

“Everyone?” Lorthorn squeaked.

“Everyone.” Duke Mathard verified forcefully, “No intelligent being, man, woman, child, beast, slave or orphan was left alive.”

Kandric shivered involuntarily, “No wonder the place gives me the creeps when I go there!”

Seldnat glanced over at Kandric, “Ya be nuts ta go der teach’r!”

Kandric managed a weak grin, “Probably, but just before all this happened I was about to go in there with Vondum to really check it out.”

Duke Mathard let out a hearty laugh, “Not even Garm or Alphar scouts will go there now unless in large numbers, Premier Kandric. It was already a magical focal point, but it is believed we, the Garm and Alphar, made it worse because of how many forces we gated in and how much magic we used during the eight day purge.

“However, before you all go off on some tangent, the story, unfortunately, does not end with the great purge. For, as we swept the fields of death, we came across the body of the Drow Under River Councilman. On his body was a letter meant for his son. In it he identified himself as a Drow High Prince and it included instructions to whomever was taking care of the boy to inform him of the meaning of tattoos the councilman had put on the boy’s chest. They were, according to the letter, a map to the last passage out of Under River.

“The letter was unfinished, but it said the passage was a dangerous one, as horrible beasts and walking dead Mythlings roamed the dark void, but it was not locked, nor was it guarded. Unfortunately, the Drow Prince died before he could write more details, so we were never able to find the lost passage. Since the battle on the knolls, Garm and Alphar worked out an arrangement where twenty patrols are sent out every five years for a ten year search. Until now, no trace of the passage has ever been found.”

Lorthorn chewed on the inside of his lip for a few seconds showing his confusion, “Duke Mathard, if the army was so close to here, why was this place not searched?”

Kandric was quick to answer, “It never occurred to them.”

“Why?” One of Mathard’s scouts asked looking befuddled.

“Because,” Kandric shook his head at the oversight of two great races, “Drow hate iron every bit as much as any other Elf.”

“Da hill be iron!” Seldnat sorted a rather humor filled snicker, “None a ‘em think da tunnel be in no hill a iron!”

“Although I do not know for certain,” Mathard sighed, “I believe our young Halforcish lad is correct.”

Lorthorn shook his head, “Premier Kandric, Duke Mathard… or is it Duke Mathard first?”

“You are his guard, so you should always say his name first.” The leader of Mathard’s scouts quickly responded. “You seem to have another question?”

Lorthorn glance over to the lead scout and nodded his thanks before looking back at the Duke. “More of a concern than a question, actually.”

Duke Mathard quickly rolled his hand, clearly giving Lorthorn the floor, “Then please speak up.”

“Well…” Lorthorn glanced over at the remnants of the iron gates then back at the group, then back to the iron gates as his mind tried to make sense of what he was seeing and hearing. “I guess I must be missing something, because I don’t understand why there are iron gates, along with the massive portcullis. They were obviously protecting the entrance…”

Duke Mathard paused and glanced around. Slowly he turned a bit pale as he turned back to the small group, “Premier Kandric, look around for a moment. Ignore the passage and the ancient Elvish writing. Tell me what you see.”

Kandric frowned but did as instructed. It took a few minutes, but finally his eyes settled on the remnants of the massive, iron gate which had long ago clearly blocked the passage down. He moved up, keeping a few steps back from the rusty iron, but studied it intently. Finally he carefully moved away from the twisted mass of iron and spoke in some degree of awe. “The designs worked into the iron are Dwarven in nature and the stonework around the gate is extremely well done. We are in an ancient Garm fortress!”

“Lord Mathard?” The lead Garm scout asked.

Mathard nodded and gulped slightly, “I think we are in the very place were the Drow War really started.”

Kandric cocked his head to the side in thought and spoke aloud. “The Drow War was underway for quite some time before it became wide spread. A book I read back at Protector’s Keep said the lower races, meaning Halflings, Highmen, Humans, and maybe even Elf and Dwarf, since it was written in Ancient Elvin, joined the fight all at about the same time. It said the Drow attacked and killed everyone in a Garm keep protecting refugees fleeing a massive Orc offensive at the edge of the Silver Spine Mountains… they forced all surviving children to jump from the top of the spires while the adults were tied to posts below and later burned. The text went on to say the rocks ran red with blood…

“By the gods,” Kandric’s eyes went wide, “Bloody Rock did not get its name from the iron in the rocks, it got its name from the blood of the hundreds, if not thousands of children killed by the Drow!”

Kandric gazed down the passage, “Which means this is how they got into the fortress. They must have assaulted the gates meant to keep them out…”

Mathard gave one hard nod in agreement, then added more information, “Before the fortress was assaulted, the tensions between Elves and Dwarves were still very high and some fighting was still taking place. The Alphar, however, kept their word and by treaty started to investigate Garm claims of Drow initiated assaults on Garm lands.  As proof mounted, the Drow got more and more desperate. I do not understand why they staged the assault, let alone killed so many innocent refugees, but it took only a couple of years for word of the massacre to spread.

“All Garm texts say all races united to help the Garm and Alphar. Things then started to spiral out of control. The sunlit world had turned against the Drow with a crazed vengeance surpassing what the Drow had done to those in the Garm fortress. Both the Alphar and the Garm became concerned the hatred and suspicion would soon spill across into other races so we hammered out a full-fledged alliance. Within a couple of decades the lands of the above ground Drow were no more. At the same time the Garm and Alphar backed away from the other races to further ease fears our own deeds against the Drow would cause a backlash against us.

“Finally, the last of our forces claimed a false victory, telling the other races Under River had been locked up forever and we pulled back even further into the deepest of our wild lands to be all but forgotten by what most of our people call the lower races while giving us time to rebuild our once mighty empires which were all but decimated by the Mythling, Dragon, Dwarven-Elvish, and finally the Drow Wars.”

“So your bad deeds could be overshadowed by your final great gift to the other races and you could leave the known world as saviors?” Zeltoss asked.

“So was the plan.” Duke Mathard admitted a bit sheepishly. “Did it work?”

Begrudgingly Zeltoss, Lorthorn, Seldnat, and finally Kandric were forced to nod.

***

Lord Anarton turned to look at all his students. “If any of you have taken a new death gift let go now. If what I am hearing is correct there is a summoned creature from the lower plains somewhere below us and it will want to feed on such energies. Now spread out once more and clear this building. Go in teams of three and if you run across a Dark Mage, kill them. Tyklor, you are with me.”

Tyklor paused to set teams of three, while tasking the last two to watch over and tend to the boy on the couch. He then quickly ran to catch up to Anarton, who was looking over the books in the study. “My Lord, isn’t Rolling Dale where you gated Zaffron to so he could get healed?”

Anarton nodded as he found the first book the branded boy had talked about and pointed it out to Tyklor. “Indeed it is, but I want to verify before I trouble Avcar over this. Besides, the chances of them stumbling across each other are very remote. Rolling Dale is a large city. Besides, young Tyklor, I gated them hours ago. Even if we all gated there right now, we would have to play catch up to get to them. Now, if you do not mind, I could certainly use some help finding the book with the star inside a star symbol. There are a couple thousand books in here.”

Tyklor finally spotted it on the top shelf and pointed it out. “Shouldn’t you use the ring or thing you gave him or something my Lord.”

“Your concern for your comrades is admirable; however, you need to think back to the years of training I have given you. What is rule one of the Wraith?”

“Help is given by all who can assist if help is asked for.”

Anarton nodded, “What is rule seven?”

“Asking for help when it is not needed is worse than asking for help when it is.”

Anarton pulled on the books and watched as a panel between the book cases popped open revealing a lever. He moved over and slipped on his bladed gauntlets showing he was a Dragon Sect warrior. “And finally rule nine.”

“Do not deviate from the mission at hand unless ordered to do so by someone higher up.”

“Once again you are correct. Now if you would kindly move past the memorized lines and put them into context of what we know right now.”

Tyklor frowned as he thought it over. “But if it means finding Gambra…”

“My young student, have you ever wondered why I tend to favor Avcar over you for leadership when the two of you are very close to the same skill abilities and I actually prefer you in bed to Avcar?”

Tyklor let out a sigh and looked down, “More than a few times my Lord.”

“The answer to this is right in front of you Tyklor. You know the rules I set down for all true Wraiths, you can hold your own against any number of beasts and you are highly gifted in the ways of magic. What you don’t seem to want to do is move past the training and mesh it all together. Much like a spider needs anchor points for her web; my rules are the anchor points to staying on the side of light while still being a Wraith Sect Warrior. However, how many flies does the spider get if all it does is make silken fibers connecting the primary points?”

Tyklor’s brow wrinkled in some thought.  “Not many, maybe none. There is no real web.”

“Correct.” Anarton nodded as he motioned for Tyklor to ready himself for combat. “The web must be built from the framework or points of contact. I can only provide the framework, my beloved student. The actual web must be filled in by you and up this point I do not see you making the effort to do so. Think this over carefully, but let us deal with clearing this small fortress first.” He pulled the lever and dropped into a combat stance.

A totally hidden door slid open behind the desk and the guard on the other side, a girl of no more than fourteen, jumped up and grabbed for a spell book.

Tyklor suddenly forgot all about the conversation as he saw the dark red cover of the book, as the blood inside the binding rolled back and forth with the girl’s attempt to ready herself, he hissed, “Dark mage bitch!” He extended his hand and spoke a trio of arcane words. A spear of electrical energy jumped out of his hand a slammed into the girl before she could even prepare for combat.

She fell to the ground twitching, trying desperately to get out a spell of her own.

Anarton moved and looked at the thin book and shook his head, “I am sorry, but I cannot spare the time to save everyone. She must die.” With those words he plunged his bladed gauntlet into the girl’s throat and watched as the book cover shriveled and shook as if in a great deal of pain, then turned to ash leaving a dozen spell pages behind. “Take them, but be careful not to actually touch the ones with blood coated edges.”

“I know my lord.” Tyklor responded as he moved to put on gloves so his skin would not come in contact with the tainted pages. He stuffed all of them into a side pouch and once again moved to catch up to Anarton. Still, his mind tried to grasp what his teacher had been trying to tell him. How was he supposed to build a web out of rules, it just didn’t make much sense.

His combat prowess showed itself a half dozen times as he eliminated guard after guard.  Finally, he turned a corner and spotted another Dark Mage apprentice. The girl was standing over and draining blood from a pregnant woman so she could make a spell tied to both life forces. This totally enraged Tyklor. He pounced on the unsuspecting girl’s back while slamming his fingers into her eyes and ripping out her eyeballs. He then drove her throat onto the edge of the sacrificial table, crushing her wind pipe.

As she fell to the floor gripping her neck in a desperate attempt to get air, the woman on the table looked over at him and Anarton with a pleading look in her eyes, but she was too weak from blood loss to say anything. Tykor ripped a hunk of the fallen dying mage’s dress and pressed it into the deep puncture wound on the woman’s side.

Anarton looked down with sadness, “This is one of those times my beloved student, where mercy is the best solution.”

“But she is heavy with child.”

“Not heavy enough.” Anarton sighed. “If she were, we could remove the child and it would at least live. To do so now would only bring the fledgling life the pain of dying outside where it is comfortable. You need to end this and we will need to burn the blood collected in the bowl under the table. Do it, do it quickly and do it with a prayer to the Ancient Ones. They will take her and her unborn to live with them. At least they will be protected this way.”

Tyklor lowered his head as he moved up and stroked the woman’s hair. “I am sorry we didn’t get here sooner. May the Lords of the Emerald Lands take you and your child.” He then snapped the woman’s neck in one clean, hard twist and yank.
 

He looked up with tears in his eyes, “What of the child?”

“It will die with her, safe in her womb.” Anarton whispered softly while gripping Tyklor’s shoulder. “You get this one’s spell book and I will destroy the blood so this woman can move on without having something befoul her passage.”

Tyklor added the book to the pouch with the other spells. As he did so he felt the cover crumble in his gloved hands. Knowing this meant the Dark Mage had lost her battle to live, he couldn’t help but step over the dead body with a bit of satisfaction. To think anyone would take power at the expense of a pregnant woman was just about as vile of a thing he could think of.

The next two rooms, however, made the young Wraith Sect Warrior wonder if his prior thought had been correct. The chain room, as the branded boy called it, was a true room of horrors. Every implement of pain, suffering and fear was somewhere to be found. Thumb screws, whips, manacles with spikes pointed inward, metal masks, collars with screws to slowly tighten them, branding irons of all shapes and sizes, collars with spikes, metal boots for clamping a foot and heating it over a fire, a face cage with rats, it was all here plus scores of items Tyklor couldn’t identify.

The second room held the fixed items, the rack for stretching a person, an iron maiden, a wheel for slowly breaking the back of a person, a dunking pool, and half a dozen spiked chairs with various lengths of spikes in different locations to inflict pain to certain areas or the entire body.

The three adults and one child in the first room all showed marks of multiple implements and only the younger man was capable of walking once his arms were free from the chains holding his feet off the ground. The young boy was actually in better shape physically, but the days or weeks spent down here had shattered his mind. Drool ran down his face and his eyes looked almost empty as Anarton lowered him to the ground. The last two, both women, were each a step away from death; why they had been kept like this, Anarton was not sure he even wanted to know. Seeing they had been crippled in both hands and feet he said a prayer to the ancient gods and snapped their necks.

Anarton debated on what to do with the young boy, but seeing the look on Tyklor’s face, he finally handed the tyke over to the surviving man. The guy couldn’t talk because his tongue had been removed, but was otherwise in pretty good shape. Anarton gave the man a pouch of silver and gold coins he had taken off of one of the guards and told him to get him and the boy out. Even as the man motioned with his hands he would take care of the boy, Anarton wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to end the boy’s misery.

Anarton allowed Tyklor a few minutes to puke in a corner and get some water before pushing on. Nothing was said to the young man as he took out his frustrations over what he had seen on the next two guards. Both died a bit too slowly for Anarton’s likings, but he gave Tyklor the latitude to vent on the men who had to have known and may have even helped commit the atrocities in the torture rooms. Since both died and didn’t suffer for too long, it almost seemed to be a fitting end to them. Finally, the pair turned a corner and a pair of massive chained, bright orange, wolf like creatures lunged for them. Intense heat the likes of which were normally found only in the heart of a forge rippled off their bodies. Only Anarton’s amazingly quick reflexes saved Tyklor from having his face ripped off. He yanked the boy back around the corner then spun out of their sight just as one of them hacked up a glob of white hot burning stomach juice to spit at him.

Tyklor put his back to the wall around the corner and well out of sight of the beasts as he took a couple of deep breaths. He wiped some fear and heat induced sweat off his brow and let out a huge breath, realizing the beasts had been so hot some of his hair had actually melted. “I didn’t hear them until they leapt! What are those?”

“Those are lava wolves.” Anarton informed his student as he noticed part of his cape was smoking. He smacked at it lightly to extinguish the glowing embers as he went on to explain. “They are not of this world and they are virtually soundless. Gambra must have used a huge amount of magic to capture them, bring them here, and subdue them to where they will not attack her or anyone with her. What we need to locate is surely past those thick stone doors. The problem is they are pretty much immune to magic when they are in our world, and I do not have many cold spells with me and none memorized, which is about the only thing I know will affect them. I am afraid my Arctic chill will only anger them further and my sleet storm will probably do nothing more than melt before the frozen droplets start hitting them.”

“So I guess talking to them is out of the question?”

“From my studies and the single time I have seen one, I do not think they are intelligent, just hungry. When I heard the boy say fire dogs, I was thinking a Flaming Coyote or at worst a Hell Hound. This is about as bad as it gets I’m afraid to say.”

Tyklor opened his other pouch and dug though his spell book, “What about water spells. I have a water spear.”

“It would turn to steam as it hit them. They normally live in a volcanic lava flow. It would have to be an ice spear, and even then, such a low echelon spell would not do much to them. Besides, spear spells have to be thrown and Gambra set this passage up well. The chains on the beasts allow them to almost get to this corner without doing so. If you move to throw a spear spell, they will at the very least be able to spit lava back at you.”

“Which means you can’t wall them off since stone wall spells need to be visually built as you cast them.”

“Correct. I would be in the same condition as my cloak well before I put down the first layer. I’d go all out and cast an earth tremor, but I am afraid it would bring down the whole place on us.”

“I saw you cast one of those my Lord. You were not able to stand for two full days and couldn’t cast for over a week. I don’t think any of us want to see you down for so long.”

“Yes, the down side of casting most Legendary Echelon spells is they were not really meant for mortals to cast them.”

Tyklor continued to look through his spell pages. “What do they eat?”

“Flesh of just about anything, but they have to consume it rapidly, before it turns to ash on them.”

“So some cold base spell page shoved in the carcass of one of those we have killed would probably burn up before they ate it?”

Anarton snickered, “While it is an intriguing idea, I am afraid you are correct, the spell page would burn up before it got inside them and did harm.” Anarton rubbed his hand though his hair. “There is another option, but I am not really in favor of it.”

With a tone of impatience, Tyklor glanced over. “What?”

Anarton sighed, as he saw the boy’s mind did not want to find an option, instead the boy wanted someone to give him the answer. He shook his head in some disgust and gave an easy answer to force the youngster next to him to come up with something better. “We could go back up, lock the passage out to the main keep, and use magic to break the chains holding them in place.”

Tyklor stopped and stared at the man, wondering if he had heard him correctly. “Let them loose? How is them being able to chase us going to help?”

“Well,” Anarton sighed, “I can put up a protection from heat around us. It will not be enough to prevent damage if they get real close, but it should buy us enough time to each cast a pass-lock spell on their collars and dart into this room with the stone door behind us while they break the collars loose from around their necks. Once they move on, we take the opening and move in the passage beyond. The real trick will be to open the door into the lower area after we free any captives and slaves and get them to move past the door so we can lock them behind it.”

Not bothering to really think through the situation at hand Tyklor grinned as an easy answer came to him. “You can gate us out.”

Once again Anarton showed a bit of disapproval with his student. “Tyklor, have you bothered to look and feel the flows of magic down here? Can’t you feel the energy of the spells you cast needing a bit of an extra shove?”

Tyklor shrugged, “It is no different than when you take us to a low magic area point.”

Anarton fought the urge to smack his student on the back of his head. “Once again you have seen the anchor point but not the web stretching outward. You need to look at the whole.” Seeing his words were entering the ears but not being heard, just by the look of confusion on the boy’s face, he shook his head in disappointment. “The same reason those animals cannot return to their own plain of existence prevents me from gating into or out of here. Gambra has put up enough protections to prevent it, or she found this place already had such protections and took it. Either way, magically entering or leaving is not possible.”

“Oh…” Tyklor’s shoulders sagged, “Um, what if I led them into the torture room and used the chains on the ceiling to swing over them and lock them in while they feed on the two you mercy killed?”

Anarton thought it over and nodded, “It could work, and even if they tried to get out the thick iron banded door should hold long enough for me to Stone Wall them in. They can jump though, so you will have to stay high.”

Tyklor nodded, then waited until Anarton had cast his protection spell, then they both turned and started casting. Anarton was quicker on the casting, but they both got their spells off and moved back. Anarton slipped into the room he had first pointed out while Tyklor moved down till he was in front of the torture chamber and let out a whistle. A few seconds later both Lava Wolves tore around the corner, one of them wiping out on the stone floor as it tried to take it too sharply. “Come on you mutts!” He shouted as he darted into the room, leapt up, wrapped one of the hanging chains around his hand and pulled himself up higher.
 

Within moments the pair of Lava Wolves raced into the room and leapt at him. Falling short, one of them made a weird hacking sound reminding Tyklor of a cat coughing up a fur ball, and then sent a wad of sparking hot goo at him. His eyes went wide as he swung toward the back of the room to avoid it. “Come on, your meals are right below me you stupid mutts!”

The pair continued to look up for a few moments before one of them noticed the two dead women. It lunged and started eating. The second it did so the other spotted the other body and dove at it. Even as they ripped into the bodies, Tyklor swung from chain to chain until he was at the door then dropped down and rolled out.

Anarton was ready. He slammed the door and immediately started casting. Just as the thick metal banded door started to smoke, the Legendary Echelon Mage finished putting up the first layer of a stone wall literally using his magic to move stone from the floor, transmute it to a soft putty like substance and then reformed it into a granite hardened casing around the door. Not wanting to chance their escape, he continued to put more stone up until half the passage was blocked and the other half was a full meter lower from his magical excavation.

He backed off and shook his head, “I don’t think they are actually hot enough to melt stone, since the stone in the hallway does not appear to have melted, but even if they are, this should hold them for several hours. Let’s go.”

It didn’t take long to push through the lower level, since it had but a single Dark Mage guard who was so wrapped up in his torment of a little girl, he never even heard or saw who killed him. Anarton pulled the man off the little girl and looked at her hand with a missing finger with the shake of his head. He glanced over to Tyklor, continuing his quest to give all his students as much knowledge as possible to combat the Dark Mage scourge. “Gambra would not allow someone to defile one of her living pages so the spell on this one has not been completed yet. If we cauterize the wound there will be no way to complete the link.”

He looked down and shook his head somewhat apologetically. “This is going to hurt.” Before the girl could figure out what he was talking about, he gripped the nub of finger and cast a burning touch spell. The girl screamed as the flames around Anarton’s hand rippled with fiery magic and burned into the wound, sealing it. He lowered the unconscious girl back on the bed. “I would say this is probably the sister of the boy’s friend. Now all we have to do is find the friend.”

Anarton moved on down the passage. Of the six dozen cells, only seven held a live person and nine were empty. The others had lingering souls of those who had not quite died, but they had given so much of their life power there was nothing left but shells. These unfortunate ones, Anarton dispatched while saying a prayer over each. The remaining all had one thing in common; they were missing a small piece of their body. This ‘freely given sacrifice’ was the key to their demise. For by taking the knife to themselves, they had given blood and body for Gambra to complete a spell page directly linked to them. Then, with each casting, their body withered as their life energy was drained from them. All but a small girl and an older teen boy had lost some of their inner spark, but the other five were still healthy enough to be freed.

Anarton looked at the seven as he assembled them, “I cannot cut the link to the spell pages Gambra has created with your blood. However, if you can find the part of yourself you cut off and gave to her, you can break the bond. You have to find it and eat it. As it becomes one with your body again the bond she has created by using it to scribe the last words of the spell in your blood will fade and within a few days be broken.

“In this you must be careful, however, because I have been fighting this woman for a very long time and one of the tricks she likes to use is to poison the parts of bodies she keeps for this purpose, so you must thoroughly wash them, run them under water for a while, and wash them again before trying to eat them. As of yet, I have not come across any spell focused body parts, so I do not know if she even keeps them here.”

The teen, who walked with a limp after cutting off his own toe only a day prior pointed to a spot in the wall. “She took my toe through there, but I don’t know how to open it. There is some kind of red skinned beast in there though. I saw it as the guard was shoving me into the cell after ripping the scab off my toe.”

“Your page has not been completed either.” He handed the boy a torch off the wall. You can cut your link to her before it gets started by closing the wound totally with this. I would do it for you, but I have used a great deal of magic tonight and do not wish to use more. If you wait, you chance her finishing the spell while the wound is still open.”

Twice the teen tried to lower the torch but could not bring himself to do it.

Anarton spoke cautiously, “You are under the vail of the spell, so it is not letting it harm you. This may mean it is too late.”

Once again the teen tried to lower the torch but his hand stopped before the flame got close enough to do harm. Finally, one of the men moved up, grabbed him and pinned him to the floor. “Someone just do it. The pain he will feel from this will be way less than getting a hunk of his life ripped out by a spell. I know I have felt it twice and would rather take my own life than feel it again. Unfortunately, I can’t. I have tried.”

Tyklor pushed the torch against the wall and pushed the glowing embers into the wound. The teen thrashed wildly, but managed to bite back a scream. Anarton moved up and shook his head as he saw his student pull it back. “Again, there can be no opening of the original wound left.”
 

The teen sobbed but still managed to nod his head. A second later he stifled another scream and his back arched as the embers of the torch were shoved into his foot.

Anarton finally nodded as he saw a blackish mist swirl around where the missing toe was then fade away. “We were close on this one. The Dark Magic was starting to set, so she had started the page, but had not finished it. You escaped being linked to her spell book, just.”

The boy rolled over and clutched his foot, but managed to nod to the man who had held him with a bit of thanks. The man patted the teen on the back and stood. “If we cannot find my thumb, I want someone to kill me, since like him, I cannot do it myself.”

Anarton nodded his understanding. “It is a safety built into all life linked spells, to prevent the living extension of the spell from harming himself. Stick with us until we find out how this door is opened and if it isn’t in the room beyond, you need only to lean over a table with your head bent slightly down. I will make it quick and painless. The same offer stands for the rest of you.”

While Tyklor searched for a hidden panel, movable torch sconce, or other hidden feature he glanced in Anarton’s direction. “Won’t Gambra know we have killed so many of the barely living she has tied her spells to?”

“Not until she tries to cast them. The spell page holds the life energy of the last casting and it will go off, but not as well since there is no living link left. It will then totally fall apart on her since we killed the person the spell is linked to before the last casing did. Since there is no undead being to keep the page viable, it will simply crumble.”

“So by doing this we have greatly weakened her?”

“I would have to say yes. If we are lucky she will try to take on a powerful foe, only to find several of her more powerful life-linked spells have been cut off at their source.” Anarton stepped on a stone and felt it give slightly, “I think we have found our key. He used his foot to push down harder and even tried twisting it. Sudden, as he reached down and pulled up on the stone, the wall where the teen had pointed lowered into the floor.

A massive three meter tall, red skinned, bull headed creature roared as it saw Anarton. “YOU! You are the one who stole many of my master’s minions!”

“No, I freed them.” Anarton countered while looking the beast square in the eyes. “Their kin stole them and gave them to your master. I simply gave them a chance to reclaim their right to choose which path they wanted to follow. Those who rebelled and survived now have a much better afterlife.”

The creature shook with rage as it countered Anarton’s words. “You were a Dark Mage! You were one with us, and you betrayed all of us!”

“The only betrayal was by the man who recruited me. He promised me the world, but never mentioned I would have to use the heel of my boot to crush everyone else in this world, nor was there a mention of needing to give my first born to the likes of you for the deal to be sealed. All I did was break the chains you and your kind had put around those who had been sacrificed in the name of power. What they did with their freedom was their choice, just like it was my son’s choice to die rather than let you and your kind take all those children who were imprisoned in my former Teacher’s fortress.”

A deep growl came from within the monstrosity as it glared downward. “More than one of those was promised to me!”

Anarton rolled his eyes. “You had no right to them. Much like the child on the altar, I am sure there was a great deal of coercion involved for them to agree. This child will not be going to you either.”

Anarton didn’t wait for a response. Instead, he pointed over to an altar like table with a boy dressed in ceremonial robes tied spread eagle to it. “Tyklor cut him loose, but do not touch the table: it will suck your force out of you, both magical and life. The boy had to volunteer and the robes are preventing this beast from taking his very essence.”

“He is mine! Do not touch him!” The table flared a brilliant red as the creature pointed to it, knocking Tyklor back half a dozen steps.

“You have taken nothing from him yet, so he is not yours. Now release him or I will fill in the symbols of banishment.”

“You banish me, and the boy and the altar comes with!”

Those watching the exchange noticed Anarton smirk, and it was about as nasty of a look as any of them ever had seen, up to and including the looks Gambra had given each of them as she took the body part form them and locked them into a cell. As the look crossed the man’s face, those in the room knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, there was a side to Anarton as terrifying, if not worse, than the creature he was verbally sparing with. “If you take the sacrificial altar of your master from here with the banishment, you will suffer horribly and we both know it, since it will be locked for a millennium and a year in a place where it will do your master no good. Now, give me the boy before I change my mind and destroy the boy and the alter, just so I can know your next millennium will be worse than anything you have yet to see.”

The look and tone were so strong, so riddled with hatred, it even made the demon take a deep breath and change its tone. “And what do I get out of this?”

The man who had asked to be killed looked up after searching the room and not finding his thumb. “You can take what is left of me under the condition you do not let the woman take any more of my life.”

Anarton turned, “If you do this, you belong to this creature for one hundred and one years and there is no telling what will happen after. Chances are beyond high you will be driven to the point of insanity and actually want to become one of this one’s minions.”

“And if I don’t do this, Gambra will continue to rip my life out of me until I become a walking dead. With this thing there is a chance, if I become a walking dead I have none.”

Anarton gave a brief nod of understanding, “There is your one and only offering. Give me the boy, tell me how Gambra still holds so much sway over her first born, and I will tell this man how to break the binding circle and let you leave with him. I get two things you get two things.”  

“Only if you agree to not harm the altar for a period of one of your years.”

“No deal. If you want the altar left alone for a year, then you tell me why Gambra went to Rolling Dale, her full plans not just a one or two world answer.”

“The bitch has left me locked in this magic circle within sight of my promised gift for far too long, so I would agree to the three part deal on each of our parts.”

Anarton felt his heart pounding in his chest as he realized he was finally going to get the key to Gambra’s power and plans all in one fell swoop. “Then let’s get down to business.”

***

Avcar watched as Aster continued to work on Zaffron. Every once in a while Aster would mutter something about amateur work or childish work as he worked on something the Healthman with Lord Anarton had not done up to Aster’s satisfaction, but the boy never once said the work was not done properly. As the first vestiges of light crept into the gray and overcast sky, Aster spread a paste on Zaffron’s legs and backed away.

Avcar glanced over with a great deal of concern, “Will he live?”

“Yes, and he should even be able to walk slowly and with some pain within the next few days, but it will take some time before he will be able to run and play, let alone fight. His hips and legs were badly damaged and his left ankle was all but crushed. Whoever did the work, wasted a great deal of time and effort on the legs and not so much on the his hip, and probably didn’t even know where to begin with the ankle. At least he braced everything well enough where I didn’t have to start from scratch. It is good you stumbled on us, though, because this type of healing would have cost you thousands of silver. I used a huge amount of some very specialized herbs. I will task some of the servants to feed and clean him since he cannot move at all for at least two days, and I will need to work on him each night if he is to make a full recovery. It will not be comfortable and he will have to allow others to care for his every need including his bodily wastes until I say otherwise.”

Avcar let out a long breath and turned to Janden, “When he wakes you must tell him this.”
 

“Me?” The young Pantherling spoke.

“I will be up at the keep with the others from Asters’ group helping to eliminate any resistance from the Dark Mage who sent his undead creatures after us last night. You will remain here with a few guards and the beautiful woman and her pets. Your primary job is to defend Zaffron if the fighting spills down this far.”

Janden nodded his understanding and extended his claws from his hands. “I will keep him safe.”

Aster patted the young Pantherling on the head and got a light purr from the boy. Finding this a bit odd, and more than a bit discomforting, he managed a smile and quickly hopped out of his wagon.

Avcar caught the hint of unease in Aster so he jumped down as well. “He is young and means well. He was not well treated, so any sort of contact done out of kindness makes him really happy and he tries to show this too hard sometimes.”

Aster yanked his armor out of the chest on the side of the wagon and shook his head, not really knowing what to say.

Pocet moved up as Avcar helped Aster into his armor. “You two have been up all night, are you sure you are rested enough for this kind of assault.”

Avcar looked at the man, “I managed to get a few naps in. I’ll be fine. Besides, you will need me and my knowledge of the Dark Arts if you happen to come into direct contact with a Dark Mage of any type.”

Aster gave Pocet the ‘stop tying to protect me look’ while sliding his axe into his belt loop. “I am a full Elf, I can go days with no sleep with very little ill affect. I’ll be fine. I am more worried about Sardan wanting Quavis and Benam to come along. They are barely in the Training Echelon.”

“Sardan is Quavis’ teacher, so we must respect his decision.” Pocet responded with a bit of trepidation in his own voice, while deferring to Sardan’s judgment. “You are the Animal Adept teacher among us, so if you say no to Benam going we will defer to you.”
 

Aster let out a long breath. “If Quavis is going it is only fair to let Benam. I actually think Benam has more training and ability that Quavis, but his skunk isn’t going to do much against undead.”

“Which is something you should be talking to him about, not me.” Pocet reminded the youngster while not looking terribly happy over the prospect of the two younger boys going on the mission at hand.

Aster rolled his eyes, “Yeah, right, I am the teacher. I’ll talk to him. Is everyone else ready?”

“Dabaff is still doing some sort of preparation, saying he needs a bit more time to commune with his god and your Dwarf friend is off in the woods dragging a downed tree… without help, I might add, saying it will warm the blood or something.”

Aster snickered and he adjusted the armor so it better distributed across his shoulders. “OK, I’m good.”

Sardan moved up to the group while Dabaff and the Dwarf emerged from the woods. Moe then a few chuckled escaped the lips of those watching as they saw Dabaff, coated in mud, being carried by the back of his britches by the very muscular Dwarf.

Dabaff looked totally flustered as he was tossed on the ground while the Dwarf mumbled something about pulling the young man out of a mud bog.

Sardan rolled his eyes, deciding it would be best to ignore the whole thing. “Guys, I want you two, Quavis and Benam and Dabaff in the lead. One of two things will happen if you enter the old keep first. The best thing would be if they came after you right away and showed us their hand. If they do, we will move and crush them as a full team.

“The second possibility is they hold back and wait; hoping to get us all in, then spring a trap. If they don’t hit you right away move into the tower Avcar told us about last night. This way, if Sagell is correct about there being some protection magic where you were supposed to gate to, which in turn forced the gate upstairs, your group will be right where the protection spell is and can hold the tower and whatever secrets are below it while we move up, get ambushed and deal with the outer defenses. Either way, until everything up top has been handled, we simply keep everything else bottled up until we can hit the lower levels with all of us. Once we have secured the whole place the Watch is going to gate in a detachment of guards from Protectors Keep to hold it and prevent it from falling back into the Dark Mages hands.”

Aster took the lead as the small group entered old keep through a breach on the wall. As they entered the courtyard, the remnants of the fight from the night before were easy to spot. Piles of bones lay scattered in half a dozen places and other bones were more wildly strewn about.

Walking the grounds were another dozen skeletal forms, most human, but one looked large and reptilian and two others were dog like. While sunlight didn’t harm skeletons, direct sunlight all but blinded them. They all turned as Aster stepped though the hole. But as they faced to the east, they clearly had a hard time tracking those entering the main courtyard, even with the cloud filled sky.

Aster glanced upward, noting the clouds were thick enough to prevent actual sunlight, so the vile things could see well enough to fight, but not as well as they could in darkness. While this advantage was helpful, it wasn’t nearly as nice as it would have been if there were beams of Zerris’ light shining into their muddy, red colored, glowing eyes. He quickly pointed back to Dabaff before ducking under the swing of the nearest armored skeleton. He went low with the back of his axe taking off both legs. Then, as it fell, he brought the back of his axe down reducing the skull to nothing more than fragments.

Dabaff stepped through with a silver tree pendant raised. “I call on the mother of the forest for her aid!”

Moments later a half dozen thick vines exploded out of the ground, quickly wrapped around the six closest skeletons and then withdrew back into the cobblestone courtyard, smashing the skeletons into small pieces.

Avcar was next through, “Wow! Nice!” As he spoke his Jaw was already smashing into the skull of the next nearest skeleton.

Dabaff shook his head to clear it while letting out a bit of a, “Whoa.” The young man staggered a bit. “I didn’t know I could vanquish lower undead yet. I must have been granted access to Secondary Echelon abilities by Vindayin since last night.  But you all are going to have to move past me and give me a minute. I am not used to such a power flowing through me.”

Aster glanced over his shoulder at Benam, “Watch him until he recovers. We should be able to handle the last four…” Aster cringed slightly as he realized he needed to be a teacher, and let the boy assume some risk. This was exactly how the Watch had taught him. They took on the heavy risks while leaving him to deal with the lighter threats. “Actually, no, I’ll watch him you all move in and fight. Dabaff just took care of the worst of them. You all should be able to handle four, and if you get into trouble Shade, Dart and Frost will help.”

Dabaff glanced over as Aster pulled him out of the way so Quavis and Benam could move forward.

Dabaff sent Aster a questioning glance

“Sometimes a teacher has to let his students do the work. Besides, I know Avcar from the orphanage, but only because I help out when I can. I have never fought with him or seen him fight until now.”

The pair watched the slightly younger boy slam the spiked part of his weapon into the eye socket of the reptile looking thing, twist and yank, destroying the other eye socket by pushing the spike out from inside the skull. As it fell, Dabaff found himself more than a bit impressed. “He looks pretty good to me.”

“Not bad, especially for a mage.” Aster agreed but then shouted, “Guys, I didn’t back off for Avcar to do all the work. Move up and deal with this! I expect you get into the fight!”

Quavis moved up tentatively, and paid for it as the dog like skeleton nipped his leg. On the other hand Benam took advantage and brought his light mace down over the undead beast, snapping its back.

At the same time, Avcar smashed the other dog, breaking off one of the back legs then drove his elbow into its side, busting several ribs. Avcar motioned to Quavis to finish off the damaged thing while he moved in from behind and took the weapon arm off the last humanoid. He glanced over to Aster and took a step back as he saw Aster wave him off.

Since the last two were already badly damaged, it didn’t take long for the two boys to finish them off.

As soon as they fell, Aster moved up and looked at Quavis’ leg. “I know you are new to this, but you need to judge your opponent better. The dog only had a mouth to bite you with, so you didn’t really need to defend against anything else other than a possible pounce attack.”

Quavis winced as Aster slapped on some star clover and tied on a bandage. “You could have taken it down with no problem. Why did I have to fight it at all, let alone get hurt?”

Avcar moved over to the boy, used his thumb to wipe the tears of Quavis’ face and stared right into his eyes. “The whole reason he didn’t is to let you learn. My instructor does this to us all the time, and just like Aster did, he lets us get hurt and deal with it. You can’t expect to get better if you don’t fight something on par or slightly better than you. Nor can you really learn how to fight if you let the first damage you get take you out of the fight.”

Benam moved up and put a hand on Quavis’ shoulder. “You didn’t get mad at my dad when he let you fall off the edge of the barge. This is no different.”

Quavis grumbled as he took the offered hand up from his friend and step brother. “This hurt more.”

Benam snickered, “But the swan dive off the edge of the slick barge was way funnier.”

“Don’t remind me.” Quavis let out a deep breath, “I need lots more work on this.” He held up the mace. “I can’t seem to judge how to swing it.”

Dabaff moved up, “Because you are treating it like a bladed weapon. You are trying to slash with it which means you keep hitting midway up on the handle.” He grabbed Quavis’ hand from behind and made a couple of slashing motions. “This is what you are doing.” He then pulled the boy’s arm up and swung it sharply downward and then moved upward in a backhand like motion. “This is how you smash things. It takes a bit of aim though, because you want the head to hit, not the shaft. Think of it as more of a hammer and use it as one until you get more comfortable with it.”

Avcar nodded, “And remember, if we start seeing creatures with flesh, switch over to your blades. Flesh of the undead don’t feel pain and doesn’t bruise, so it needs to be cut, not smashed.”

Dabaff glanced around the courtyard, seeing nothing else moving. He pointed to the tower as a distraction as he realized his sudden discomfort could reveal the secret he had been trying to keep since Aster took him for a guard. The last thing he wanted was to end up picked on again like had happened in the cells below Junsac., and then did his best to adjust himself under the chain armor he was wearing.

Only Avcar seemed to notice. He held back and looked at the slightly older teen with a sly grin. “If I had been pressed up against him, I’d have to get a bit more comfortable too.”

Dabaff turned a bit red and glanced down. “I can’t help it.”

“Hey, I just told you I wouldn’t be able to either. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Yeah, well, in the slave pits of Istoren, showing outward interest in kids my age or younger was a sure fire way to be singled out by the men. The slave cages of the unclaimed in Junsac were no better.”

Avcar’s eyebrow shot up, “You are a slave? You have no marks or…”

“Thanks to Aster, I am an indentured servant to him, but I have a brand of the Warlord Istoren under my left arm, which was enough in the lands of Morden, but not enough for most lands. The ship I was on was taken by the warlords of Morden just over five years ago now. All the children were branded on the deck and everyone else was either kept by the ship’s crew for their entertainment or was thrown overboard. Since I was already in training the Warlord sent me to a mining pit with a Channeler of Vindayin and I was allowed to complete my training. As soon as I was Primary Echelon guilded, I was sold for a large sum to a cutthroat who used me to heal his men after raids and for their fun.

“He never bothered to finalize the brand, but did keep me locked to the wagon in a metal collar most of the time. Since I was wearing a locked slave collar when the Junsac Watch took out the whole band, and there was signed paperwork, including a bill of sale from Istoren, my status was not totally clear. They sent me to the cages of the unclaimed while the Baron made a ruling.

“To make a long story short, Aster came upon me in the cages of the unclaimed in the depths of the central keep in Junsac, before a ruling could be made, but I took his offer before I even knew it was for indentured servitude without an argument, because I figured odds were about even as to the Baron making me a free man or a slave. Having undergone one brand, I really had no desire to risk getting a second and I saw more than a few get a new brand down there.”

Dabaff let out a long sigh, “Besides, the Day Slave Overseer kept on having me and a couple of the other unclaimed taken to day slave cages. We were given to men for their pleasure. I never did figure out why a few of the Day Slaves got such privileges, but those days were brutal, and I know of at least one unclaimed who died because of what the Day Slave Overseer allowed those we were given to...” He shuddered, not bothering to complete his thought. Instead he just added, “I didn’t what to be next.”

Avcar patted Dabaff on the shoulder, “Without Aster I would have never gotten to the orphanage. I was caught stealing bread when I was six, and was on my way to the day slave block, but Aster used his pull with the Watch and paid off my debt and took me to the orphanage after he found out I was a street kid. If he hadn’t been walking down the street as I tried to pull away from the guard who caught me… well, I would have spent a few days on the block then been escorted out of the city and would have either had to sneak back in or tried to find work on one of the farms or something, which means I would have been pressed into forced labor or worse.”

Dabaff managed a bit of a smile. “Sound like we both owe Aster a great deal.”

“Yeah, but it sure doesn’t stop us from being human, and if you are so interested in the fledging Swordsman you might want to see if he will take some extra training from you in exchange for some bed favors. I know Sardan, and as long as he agreed to your price, there would be no issue. You try to force him, though, Sardan will squash you like a bug, have someone heal you, then do it again, just for something fun to do.”

A cautious note of hope entered Dabaff’s voice. “Really?”

“Sure. When this is over, pull Sardan aside and ask him if you don’t believe me. He was with Aster when Aster paid the baker off and took me to the orphanage. The baker was trying to tell the guards to just let him have me for a few days. Sardan told the baker if he wanted me he could pay for my service if he liked me so much. A few weeks later the guy offered and I agreed. Sardan found out and checked to make sure I hadn’t been tricked into it or forced. When he found out I agreed because I wanted some copper and sweets he was totally good with it.”

Aster glanced back from the door to the tower, “Hey, you two coming? Benam and Quavis have already had to take down a skeleton each!”

As both teens started jogging toward the door, Avcar grinned, “Sounds like your instructions have already paid off, so he very well might be willing to get some more one on one training from you.”

It didn’t take long, once Avcar and Dabaff got to the tower, to clean out a half dozen more skeletal undead, all human. Aster then went up to the top and signaled for Sardan and Pocet to move up. The rest of the small group checked the remainder of the towers, carriage house, and what was left of the central structure before setting up a fallback camp in the courtyard.

As the rest of the group moved and made another pass though the buildings, Sardan took a quick look at Quavis’ injury with a bit of a frown. “What happened?”

Avcar spoke up while moving to stand next to Quavis for some support. “He’s a little sloppy with the mace. Dabaff gave him some pointers and he is already doing better.”

Pocet and Sardan exchanged glances. Both surprised by the fact Dabaff had taken it upon himself to help someone, anyone else. Up till now, the young Channeler had done everything to keep isolated. Neither said anything other than to nod in some appreciation.

Sardan patted Quavis on the back, “You are very good with knives but you’ll never be able to test into more than a step two until you bring up your skills with other weapons. Maybe you can work out something with Dabaff to help you when the two of you have some spare time.”

Avcar sent a single wink over at Dabaff as Quavis nodded in quick agreement.

Sardan totally missed the unspoken communication between the two teens as he turned back to Aster. “So what have you found?”

Aster pointed to a single open passage with a stairway leading down into darkness. “The last two skeletons came through there. We checked the rest of the tower and found nothing, but last night a pair came out of the gatehouse as well, but we couldn’t tell from where. What we need is a skilled lockmaster to help us locate other hidden passages.”

Avcar shot Aster a smile, “I guess it’s a good thing you saved me then. We should go in here for now. Some of the hidden stuff may be visible from the inside, and the less passages we open the easier it will be to keep things contained. Most undead can’t open doors, so by opening up small sections and clearing them we can eliminate smaller and easier to defeat forces. It was one of the first lessons my master teaches to help fight Dark Mages”

Pocet snickered, “I’ll have Elmar start a search of the gatehouse, but to only mark what he finds, not open anything. Do you all have enough rations and water? Because I have a feeling this is going to be a very long day.”

****

Vondum glanced down at Jamon, noting the boy’s entire chest was still wrapped in thick bandages, even after a Blue Dragonling had done a powerful Shamanistic healing. A Garm Healthman sat next to the bed and shook his head. “Sorry Captain, he is still out…” he stroked the boy’s hair tenderly, “probably will be till sunrise tomorrow. He lost a great deal of blood and two of his ribs were severed. It is amazing he lived.”

“I have seen his inner drive first hand. For a child he has an incredible will.” Vondum managed a slight grin, “In fact, he has more will than most guilded adults.”

“Prince Kandric chose his lead slave well.” The Garm Healthman agreed. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“I was hoping to talk to him about a new pet. I hear his was killed in the attack.”

“Indeed, he was still clutching it when he was found according to the Dragonling who brought him to me. I can put out word and have some suitable possibilities waiting for him to choose from when he wakes so he can select something he desires. Since he was armed, I gather he can have a combat effective animal?”

Vondum nodded as he turned back toward the door, “Whatever Jamon wants, is fine. His loyalty to his owner is total. I would not at all be surprised if the boy was freed once Kandric…” Seeing a deep frown Vondum held up his hands, “My apologies, it will take me awhile to call him Prince without having to concentrate on it, for until a few short days ago he deferred to me as his Wilderness Scout Commander.”

The Garm gave a short bow of understanding. “He still may do so, since I have heard through the rumor chain he had the dragon scale armor we made for him imprinted with the Wilderness Scout insignia. He would not wear it until it was. However, he is an Alphar Prince, so if you wish to call him Scout Kandric, it is your right by your position as his Wilderness Scout Commander to do so, but to simply call Prince Kandric by his given name without title of some sort, will be considered an affront to all Garm and Alphar.

“Since he took down a Green and a Black Great Dragon, the Dragon Races will also find it rather insulting to not quantify who you are talking about without some sort of title…”

Before the Garm could finish talking, a young Alphar bowman came bursting into the room, “Captain Vondum, we have an urgent message from Premier Kandric!”

Vondum spun, “Premier…” He threw up his hands to cut off a response. “Never mind, spit out your message, soldier!”

“Premier Kandric says there is evidence suggesting at least some of the forces within Bloody Rock are using a long forgotten underground passage and could emerge inside the town of Slome! Premier Kandric and Duke Mathard are going to pursue as soon as they are able, but they have to hold where they are at until they are reinforced.”

Vondum’s eyes narrowed. “Get word to the main gate of Slome to prepare lines of defense. I will round up whatever I can find…”

“Captain, we have six hundred Alphar from Premier Kandric’s house moving down to support, but they know nothing of the area. Queen Jostallis is giving command to you to protect and hold Slome for as long as possible until more troops from either the Alphar or Garm Nations are ready to gate in and assist. We are hoping to have some Silver Dragonlings off the front lines and to you by sunset as well.”

Vondum quickly pushed past the young archer and moved into the main area of Kaylaria’s house. Spotting Conth tending to the fire, he yanked the boy up by his britches and spun him around to look right into his eyes. “Boy, I know you can read and write and I am going to need someone with me to do both. This is your last chance to start working your way out of the hole you have dug for yourself. It could mean front line combat so I am giving you a choice. I need a yes or a no now!”

Conth’s eyes got big, but the words of Jamon telling him to stop trying to take the easy way out and deal with whatever Vondum tossed at him played though his mind. “Whatever you need, master.”

“Damn, you do have a backbone!” He grunted in some surprise then literally tossed him to the young archer. “Find him some leather or light chain armor and gear. I need him by my side as my scribe as soon as possible.”

“I will take care of it, Captain.” The archer stated with a formal bow. “We have a Dragon Steed and a scout to lead you to the detachment of House Wellaras’ forces. They are moving on Slome from slightly north of Bloody Rock.”

“They’ll have to break the screen of Hobs…”

“Already broken, Captain,” a heavily armed Alphar scout spoke from the front door. “Pantherling forces pulled off the front by your action to straighten and fortify the front lines spearheaded through the Hobgoblins an hour ago. A full company of Silver Dragonlings is now holding it open so we can move our forces in a straight line down to this town, but we need to move before they start getting pinched.”

The archer spoke next. “The next detachment of Garm should be in position to reinforce them by moon rise, but there may not be much of a gap to ride through there by then.”

Vondum nodded and leapt up onto a Dragonsteed offered by a young Alphar squire, who also offered his back to make mounting the huge beast a great deal easier. Vondum used the boy without much thought. He then pointed to the boy, “Find my second in command, Sy, and tell him the slums are now under his command!”

The youngster gave a perfect bow before handing the reins up, “Captain, we hear you use a crossbow, so your left side saddle bag includes two score of fire bolts and a score of ice bolts. Red fletching is fire, blue is ice. We have a magical bow with a quick cocking lever in the pack. It loads like it has only one tenth the actual draw strength of its one hundred and fifty kilograms. It will easily punch though any but the most magical of armors. It is the best we could do on such short notice.”

“Thank your lord for me, young one.”

The boy bowed and again and grinned, “I am probably a good fifteen to twenty years older than you Captain, but I will pass on your gratitude.”

Vondum decided to keep his mouth shut. First off, since he had been using the potions of youth for quite some time, he was older than the boy, and secondly, such words would not normally be contradicted, but Alphar were a great unknown. He guessed it was possible they didn’t use the age equivalency system generally accepted by normal Elves, and regardless of what the kid thought, he was a youngster, a very cute youngster at that. Still, he was nothing when compared to the stunning beauty of Kandric.

As Vondum rode out behind the Alphar scout, he couldn’t help but wonder what the reaction of the Alphar would be if they knew he had enjoyed Kandric in bed. Part of him found it humorous he had actually taken a real prince to bed, while the other side of him wondered if he shouldn’t be a bit concerned for his health and safety. It was an interesting line of thought to pass the time as they road through the slums and around the edge of the swamps, only to get a much larger escort of an additional twenty Dragon Steed-riding Alphar as they got deeper into the wilderness.

He was still a bit nervous, and it must have shown since the Alphar scout fell back and pointed upward. “We will have plenty of advance warning of trouble Captain.”

Vondum felt his jaw drop slightly as he gazed upwards only to see quintet of the largest Griffins he had ever seen, each with a rider flying in formation above and in front of them with two other sets of five, one to the left and the other to the right.
 

The scout smiled slightly, “Prince Kandric comes from house Wellaras, owners of one of the oldest fortresses in Alphar lands. It is known as the Griffin Spires for a reason. We would have brought you a Griffin, but we were not certain you could ride one.”

Vondum whistled in astonishment, “Yea, good call...”

The Alphar scout snickered and moved forward again to take the lead, leaving Vondum speechless. As they closed on the walls of Slome, a pair of Warrior Dragons, one Silver, one Blue, swooped down to guard the gate while it was opened just long enough to let the ground mounted riders in. The second the gates shut both Dragons took back to the skies and disappeared into the clouds. The Griffin riders, now numbering over a hundred swooped down and landed on dozens of the stronger looking buildings.

Vondum jumped off the Dragon Steed and looked over at the scout. “Can you send some of your riders up to reconnoiter? This way we can have eyes looking down, seeing if they are coming in through the sewers.”

The lead scout pointed to the nearest group of five Griffin riders and made a circling motion with his hand. Instantly, all five launched back into the sky. “Good idea. I will send up new detachments every few minutes until we have a good rotation of airborne scouts while still giving the Griffins some much needed rest. Passage through the gate stone was not at all comfortable.”

“There was nothing remotely comfortable about it!” An Alphar with Elvin Silver Steel plate armor, helm, shield, and a silk cloak advanced. Everything had a massive crest on it and they held gems glowing on their own accord which became clearer as he moved up to Vondum.

Vondum didn’t know Alphar heraldry, but it didn’t take much knowledge or common sense to see the man was some form of upper level royalty. Not knowing a proper Elvin bow, let alone an Alphar one, he took a knee and lowered his head, a universal acknowledgement of respect while basically saying ‘I have no clue what is proper for you’.

Prince Rovanall motioned for Vondum to stand. “My Queen put you in command of my entire force, so there is no reason to subjugate yourself to me, but the respect you show is taken with gratitude. I understand our first priority is to defend this village, but I also understand you know my grandson first hand. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts, Captain Vondum of Black Rapids.”

“There is very little to tell… Um, is it Prince?”

“Yes, Prince Rovanall, of the House Wellaras, Lord of the Griffin Spires, but to make this easier for you and your kind I will accept being called Prince Rovanall. You may find some of my speech leaning toward the archaic side, since I have not spent any time outside of the Alphar lands in over two hundred years.”

Vondum, being Captain of the Guard of a large city was used to having to keep a neutral look to his face and did so with a great degree of professionalism. On the other hand his real thoughts were, ‘Kandric’s not going to like you even a little, you pompous ass.’ With this thought running though his head, he gave a polite smile. “Very well, Prince Rovanall, as I was saying, there’s very little which needs to be said. Wilderness Scout Kandric has proven his value repeatedly to both me and the lands in and round Slome. He earned his position as one of my elite Wilderness Scouts; it was not given. Beyond this, and even though he holds an officer rank, there’s not a single man or woman who has met him who has not learned, and learned quickly, to respect him, rank notwithstanding.”

Prince Rovanall frowned deeply at hearing the title Wilderness Scout Kandric, but decided to let it go. Besides, the man in front of him was the boy’s commander, so in his eyes, Kandric was one of his Wilderness Scouts. What bothered the Prince more than anything was to hear an adult, of such a lofty position of a Captain of the Guard for a large city, talk so highly of a boy who was very rapidly becoming a very large thorn in his side. He needed to find a way to at least partially discredit Kandric if he was to be seen without serious prejudice within the Alphar courts; for to have banished the mother of such a child would not put him in a good light at all.

Of course, he still didn’t believe Kandric had fell a dragon, let alone two. It didn’t matter the level of magical outbursts or the fact every dragon-blooded creature was hell-bent in their demands for everyone accept the title the boy had taken. Premier… the audacity of the boy seizing such a title was a total outrage. This was especially true since such a title in ancient times was due more respect than a house prince. The fact a boy, his grandson, was trying to set himself up to be something more than his own grandfather was outrageous. Making things even worse, the boy was not even a pure blood. He was mixed with the blood of a human, and not even a lofty human, but instead a poor miner from just outside Junsac. It was ludicrous!

However, he had no reason not to take the man at his word. “I see. Well this is very interesting. Hopefully we will have time to continue this conversation once we are certain this village is properly secured.”

Vondum gave a single nod in agreement while seriously wanting to slap the man. This was the second time he had called Slome a village. It was a town, and a large one, especially above the Silver Spine Mountains. It was a major trading city and the last line of defense for hundreds if not thousands of people within several days travel. Fortunately, for all involved, a series of screeches sounded from the west side of town.

The scout moved up, “My Prince our aerial patrols are signaling hostiles are here.”

“Captain, this is your command. My forces are at your total disposal, even myself if you so need. Such was Queen Jostallis’ orders to me.”

By the very tone, Vondum could tell the Prince was pissed to near madness over the orders. As much as he wanted put the man into the fight so he could see what he was really made out of, the guy was still royalty and every bit of Vondum’s upbringing told him he just couldn’t do it. To this end, he ordered the scout to send up more Griffins and try to pin the first wave into a section of the city, while moving in ground units to block access to the rest of the areas. Finally he ordered one of the gate guards to take a detachment of fifteen Dragonsteed riders and five Griffin riders to Kandric’s primary business, since he had overheard more than once the city was really getting the protection it was because Kandric had financial interests within the walls.

With the preparations for the proper defenses set, Vondum turned back to Kandric’s Grandfather. “Prince Rovanall, would you mind setting up a command post here so you can send out reinforcements or deal with other incursions if they happen to have more than one entrance? I would like to move up and help crush this first assault with your fine troops.”

“You once again honor me with a command. I thank you for this and will be more than happy to do so, but to this end I would like to keep my Captain of the Guard here, since he knows the men better than I do and will be better suited to deploying them.”

“Of course.” Vondum stated smoothly. The guy was a total jackass. The only reason he was keeping his Captain of the Guard back was either because he wanted Vondum, who knew nothing about the troops he was just given command of, to fail. Or even worse, the guy was too afraid go without a body guard. He turned back to Prince Rovanall’s Captain of the Guard. “I need a liaison who knows how to use your air mobility to its fullest. I have never had such tactical abilities and I want to utilize them to the utmost.”

The Captain of the guard pointed to the scout who had led Vondum to link up with the rest of the sizable force. “Lead Scout Kyltoss would be a very good choice for you Commander.”

“Thank you Captain.” He turned to the Scout, “May I call you Kyltoss and you call me Vondum or Commander to keep things fast and easy?”

“Of course, Commander.” Kyltoss quickly pointed to a young Alphar squire to give his back so Vondum could quickly and easy remount his Dragonsteed.

Vondum didn’t hesitate, seeing the youngster was not ashamed by this at all. A bit of a smile played across his lips as he suddenly realized he should have a couple of boys around for just such a purpose. Of course there would be extra duties as well, so they would have to be every bit as good looking as the boy he just stepped on.

Kyltoss glanced over as they quickly made their way toward the sounds of heavy combat, partially misreading the grin on Vondum’s face. “You are our Commander, if you wish to take the boy to bed it be your right. As long as we are victorious, or course.”

“Of course.” Vondum responded with a great deal of surprise, “But your Prince will not mind?”

Kyltoss fired an ‘are you kidding’ glance over. Seeing Vondum nod he decided it was safe to speak his mind. “As long as you find a way to keep him out of combat and still look good, he’d give you anyone in his court, Commander. But judging by your orders, you already guessed this.”

Vondum found himself quickly liking Kyltoss and realized the Captain of the guard had recommended him partially because of his frankness. “Indeed I did. I hope you don’t mind me saying, but Wilderness Scout Kandric, is not going to like his grandfather very much.”

“Good.”  

Vondum snickered as he pulled up the crossbow, loaded with one of the flaming bolts and sent it at a Black Dragonling who was brining claws down on a fallen Alphar trooper. The shot was perfect, striking the Dragonling in the thigh. However, the secondary effect of an explosion, which ripped the leg off while sending bits of Dragonling and sparks spraying nearby buildings, was by far more impressive. “By the goddess Leli, I want a couple thousand more of these!”

“We make them deep within the spires Commander. I will see about getting you a decent supply.”

Vondum pointed to the wall in the distance. “We can’t let them get to the wall; the doors to the towers are inside and not meant to withstand attack. We need to keep them out of the wall towers!”

Vondum continued to ride forward, swinging his sword, opening up a fifteen centime gash across the neck of a Green Dragonling who was getting ready to breathe. “Tell all your archers to concentrate fire on any Dragonling who stops. It is a sure fire sign they are getting ready to breathe!”

Kyltoss quickly relayed the orders while using hand signals to send two dozen Griffin riders to protect the wall and prevent entry. “What about civilians, and structures in this area, Commander?”
 

“Until we have this breach totally contained, they are not a priority. We’ll lose too many valuable combatants if we worry about saving a few unlucky peasants and buildings in this area are mostly homes of workers, they can be rebuilt.

“Understood.” Once again he gave a hand signal.

Suddenly two score of flame arrows descended from above ripping into the center of mass of the enemy forces. Chunks of burning flesh of various types, buildings, weapons, clothing and armor ripped into those close to them, easily taking down fifty or more enemy troopers.

“Well, I just found a whole new meaning to the word firepower.” Vondum gasped out while watching the forces pouring out of the sewers try to dive back in, their morale utterly shattered by the devastating attack.

The only problem was the mass retreat lasted only a couple of minutes. Before the Alphar footman had even established a full perimeter around the open passage into the streets, near-panicked Dragonlings, Morg and Caveling warriors, women and even young started pouring right back out onto the streets.

“What in the name of the gods?” Kyltoss spoke aloud.

“I don’t think the gods have much to do with this.” Vondum snorted as he moved forward, sword in hand. “My guess is it has to have something to do with my Wilderness Scout.”

****

Kandric took a long breath of relief as a massive force of Garm moved into the long forgotten passage leading down to Under River. He looked over to Duke Mathard, “As much as I want to find the Slome students, we need to push down this other passage and see if your scouts can pick up the trail of where those fleeing Bloody Rock went. If I am right and this leads back to Slome, if it does those students may not have a home to go back to if we do not stop them.”

One of the newly arriving Garm gave a deep bow, “Premier Kandric, word was sent and a large force of Alphar was dispatched by Queen Jostallis to help defend Slome from attacks, both inside and out.”

Mathard nodded to the Garm warrior, “Even so, Premier Kandric is correct, we need to pursue. Give me five of your best and fastest.”

The Garm officer frowned, but quickly called out five of his best scouts. “You are going with Premier Kandric and Duke Mathard. They need you to track those who fled down a side passage.”

The first scout moved up to the passage Mathard pointed to. “My Duke, there are at least a hundred beings, probably way more, who went this way.”

“We know.” Kandric stated sharply, “We need to catch up, before they break into the streets of Slome.”

The second scout looked over and cringed while taking a deep breath, “With all due respect, Premier Kandric, with all fourteen of us, we would be outnumbered by well over ten to one.”

Seldnat raised one of his thick half Orcish eyebrows, “Is dat it? Maybe it’d be more fairer if a few a you stays back den.”

Mathard burst out laughing as he saw the detachment of over one hundred heavily armed Garm all stop and turn as one. “Gentlemen, these three boys helped Premier Kandric take out over one hundred guardians of a Great Green female, the Great Green and King Blathamort. Do you really think they should be overly concerned by a couple hundred fleeing creatures, many of whom appear to be young and others who are probably not warriors since they do not appear to be carrying much if anything?”

Seeing several of the Garm shift uneasily, Kandric smiled, “Look, I don’t expect to stop them, but I need to move fast and catch up. If we can hit them from behind as they are moving into Slome from below, we will create confusion. I want them to think this whole Garm force is chasing them; they will push out into the streets wanting to flee instead of fight which will give those in Slome an advantage. Plus, by pushing them, they will be less likely to take side passages and split up, knowing they have the best chance in large numbers. A few will, but groups of one and two are not a danger to Slome. Multiple groups of twenty to fifty are.

“Unfortunately, the more in my group the slower we will have to go, and we cannot afford to go slow. They already have a several hour head start. The only thing we have going for us, is they have young and wounded with them, so we have a chance if we move now and really push.” Kandric then pointed to the scouts, “So let us get a move on!”

Four hours passed as the group worked down a seemingly never ending set of passages. Off shoot after off shoot was passed, most having caved in so long ago, stalactites were forming where water had started dripping downward though cracks in the stone passageway. A couple of times one of the scouts pointed to where one or two creatures had broken off down a side passage, but for the most part the main group stayed together.

A few times they would come across a dead, dying, too young or old creature, stripped of all belongings and left. Those who were alive where mercy killed on Kandric’s orders, while the dead were ignored. There would be time to come back through and collect the dead for burial to prevent hauntings later. Not even the young were spared, since to take them would ensure mission failure and tying them up would leave them to the rats and other vermin in the passageways.

Finally, after pursuing at a near run for over an hour and a half, the passage opened up into a large chamber. Mathard called for a stop and a ten minute break as he noticed a vast amount of rubble, which made perfect places to sit. At the same time, he held up his water skin with his right hand and pointed to a dozen offshoot passages with his left. While the smaller passages were scouted out, he looked over the large area with a great deal of concern. After nearly a minute, he turned to one of his scouts. “Did they stay together and are we catching up?”

“Yes, my Duke. Someone or something was dragged down this smaller side passage by a pair of booted feet and they had heavy gear because the sides are recently scraped with metal.” The scout pointed to some recent scuff marks to show the others what he was referring to. “The others stayed together and moved down the main passage.”

One of Mathard’s other scouts pointed to a spot in a small alcove. “There is urine here where more than one of them relieved themselves. It is less then fifteen minutes old, as it is still a bit warm.”

“There is also some blood and teeth over here,” another scout spoke up. He held up a tooth. “It looks human and first generation, so it was from a young one.”

Kandric stood and moved over to look. He shook his head in anger as he picked up a couple more teeth, “Blood splatter. Someone was punched, and punched hard. Unless it was done from behind, it was by someone who was left handed. This tooth is cracked and the other is chipped, so it must have been done by something wearing a gauntlet.”

Mathard looked over to Kandric, “Premier, you need to take ten. We can’t have you winded when we catch up, and we are catching up, fast.”

Kandric looked down at the tooth in his hand and sat next to the blood splatter. “You know there is a good chance this is one of my student’s right?”

“The thought had occurred to me, yes.” Mathard responded, “But if you are too fatigued to fight then you will not do him or her any good.”

“Duke Mathard?” Lorthorn asked, after taking a long drink from his water skin.

Mathard motioned for the boy to continue while he also took a health swig of water.

“I am confused about something. If Bloody Rock was a fortress, what happened to the stone work?”

Kandric answered, having already thought of this. “Slome happened. With the destruction of the fortress, it is likely the only peoples left, in any number, were Humans. Humans were considered a lower race at the time since they have much less magic gifted by percentage and breed very fast, so they were probably not seen as important enough to murder en masse like many of the other races inside the fortress were. Those who ran would have been the ones the Drow let escape since they were a low race of little importance. It is probably these same Humans who pulled together, realized they needed a stronghold, built Slome, and spread the word of what happened.

“The Highmen were already in decline at the time of the Dwarven-Elvin War and most were wiped out by one side or the other as they took sides, since it was feared by both sides, the human population under the Highmen would join and by sheer numbers of humans entering the war, one side or the other would be overrun. For you have to understand, most Elves and Dwarves cannot breed like humans can. Humans were not considered skilled back then and in all truth they were not. The stone work around the oldest structures of Slome are of an extremely high quality, so my guess is humans gave Bloody Rock its name for the slaughter of untold hundreds and took the stonework well away from the area to build Slome. It is unlikely humans back then had the skills to make such finely carved stone, and in all honesty still do not. All you have to do is take a look at what has been built since the older structures, which is when the stones from Bloody Rock started to run out.”

Zeltoss looked confused and once Mathard motioned to him to voice his thoughts he spoke with halting words. “I don’t get it… why would it matter if… Premier Kandric’s mother had children with someone of non-royalty? Marriage is not really practiced in Elvin custom since we live so long and variety is needed, or at least wanted by most. Since Alphar live longer, don’t they do the same thing?”

Kandric let out a long sigh, “From what I have read, my mother, for an Alphar, would have been considered a breeder since she has had… well if you include Aster, who I didn’t even know was a half brother until recently, six kids at least. Breeders of royal blood would have been highly prized back then.”

“They still are.” Mathard informed the small group. “Both Garm and Alphar women tend to be able to have only one to two kids and half can’t have any. It is very rare to have an Alphar who has had six children, which is one of the reasons your grandfather was so angry with her. She had non-royal children, which for most Alphar would have made her barren. But even worse, from the reports I saw, she had twins, which means you had dual offspring of non-royal blood, both of them princes since she was your Grandfather’s only female child.”

“He wanted a true royal heir, not a half-blood royal, and your mother knew it.”

“Wait a minute…” Kandric felt his heart speed up, “Aster has a twin?”

“Such is the report we received.” Mathard shrugged, “We lost track of him since he was given to the family of Aster’s father after your Grandfather had Aster’s father killed by your Grandfather’s personal guard for sleeping with a member of an Alphar royal line. What has always been unclear is if the Dark Forest Elf knew this. To appease the young Elf’s father, Aster’s younger twin was given to the man to raise as a replacement and a large stipend was paid out. Beyond this, there was no further reports from the Alphar about this event, so the book was closed by the Garm high council, since it seemed like the child was in good hands and we never did get the name of the family.

“Aster, on the other hand, was known to us so we sent out a protector to guide him and give him a chance at a better life. We felt we had little choice since by treaty we are tasked with protection of any Alphar just like they are tasked with the protection of any Garm, and like it or not, more than a few Garm over the centuries have had an Alphar watching over them. For, unfortunately, what your Grandfather did is not a totally isolated incident.

“Your grandfather threw Aster out when he was the human equivalent of eight or nine, thanks to your mother trying to save your father with a spell. He was given a non-fatal blow to the head to cover up a forget spell and left in Junsac. The Garm High Council made sure he was found, cared for and placed in an orphanage. We then made sure he was then given a chance at apprenticeship at a forge when he took an interest. We continued to provide some aid, but other than a few light pushes and pokes, he did the rest on his own.”

Kandric felt his blood starting to boil at hearing Aster was abandoned because his mother had tried to save Kandric’s father, “And Conner?”

“He was not given any real protection since he was made a non-child by your mother, who was already persona non grata by your grandfather’s decree. He did everything on his own, although, I suspect our contact in Junsac probably pulled a few strings for him without council approval. He is high enough in the Garm hierarchy to where he could have made the call on his own and no one would have said anything about it. You would have to ask him.”

Kandric took some deep breaths, “So why does my mother not know of this other child.”

“The same reason Aster does not remember what happened to him before he awoke in a Healthman shop in Junsac. A spell, either a Deep Slumber, so she fell unconscious after Aster was born, or a Forget  Spell to erase the memory of the second child. Once again we really do not know since he was given to the family of Aster’s father to raise as their own. I do not think we even have a name for the child, who, if memory serves me correctly, was a boy, but I cannot even say if he was identical or not. I am sorry.”

Lorthorn whistled, “So Slome exists because of the Dwarven-Elvin War, and the whole of the Silver Spine Plateau is pretty much controlled by humans and monsters now because the Drow killed off a vast number of the other races at Bloody Rock, it makes a whole lot of sense all of the sudden.”
 

Kandric shook his head as he realized getting more information about his other brother was going to have to wait. He glanced over to Lorthorn, finding it a bit humorous he was still stuck on the history of the area when everyone else was focused on something entirely different. “History usually does make sense, at least when it comes to how things came to be; the whys of some things will never make much sense, like why there was a Dwarven-Elvin War to begin with.  Neither side needed, or really even wanted, the other’s territory. It was all about who was the preferred race. The worst part, or at least the most ironic, is they did so much damage to their cultures they couldn’t fully recover; now humans are the predominate race in most areas. It made both sides look a great deal less smart than their cultures show they were.”

Mathard nodded in agreement, “This is where a line in the Garm-Alphar treaty comes in. It simply says, ‘intelligence of both the Garm and the Alphar were a great deal higher than their collective wisdoms’. It is of some note, this line is actually reversed for the contract on display in the Alphar Court and it is the only line in the entire one hundred and eighty-six thousand two-hundred and nine word agreement to be different. Theirs says Alphar and the Garm. Such was the mood of who was more intelligent at the time, they had to reverse the words and both the Alphar Court and the Garm High Council had to sigh both.”

Kandric snickered, “Do you have any idea how unwise it sounds to hear they actually had to fight over the use of wisdom in such a massive document?”

“It has been the topic at my dinner table often. Some time you will have to come up to Winter Creek and share my table with me and my three boys. I think it would do them a great deal of good to hear those words out of an Alphar Prince.”

“I look forward to it.” Kandric stood, “So I think it is time to catch up and find out who owns these teeth and give me a few minutes with whomever or whatever removed them.”

Mathard openly cringed as he heard the tone of Kandric’s voice. “Should we find the perpetrator, I can assure you, I will not stand in your way.”

****

On and under the streets of Slome there was general panic as those trying to flee what was behind them ran smack into those trying to flee what was above. Vondum paused as he saw one Morg gut another who was trying to push him back into the tunnel while dozens of unfortunate Morg and cavemen were trampled under the much larger and heavier Dragonlings.

The nice thing was the Dragonlings were so tightly packed in they really couldn’t fire off breath weapons without risking damage to other Dragonlings or their allies. He moved forward and plunged his sword into the back of a particularly fat Green Dragonling. He tried to push is blade all the way though, but it simply was not long enough. It wobbled, so Vondum twisted a few times to make sure he was doing some damage to something vital before withdrawing it.

The Green Dragonling fell with a large crash, pinning a pair of Morg under it. Vondum stepped on the body and removed the head of a wounded Black Dragonling. As it fell spraying a copious amount of blood, Vondum spotted a trio of chained boys being lead by back down the passage by a particularly large Black Dragonling. He moved to intercept, but was stopped by a pair of Cavelings, one of which managed to slice Vondum’s arm with a dagger, hitting a small vulnerable spot between his gauntlet and his armor. Even as the Dragonling leading the kids disappeared from view, those within earshot of Vondum clearly heard him say, “This bastard is mine! Hands off!”

The Caveling clearly saw the rage flash in the man’s eyes and it pushed its partner in front in an attempt to get away.

Vondum shook his head as the pommel of his sword smashed into the skull of the Caveling pushed in his way. The creature’s skull caved in from the blow as Vondum pumped a great deal of Force into his Strength. He then shoved the still standing but already dead Caveling out of his way, sheathed his sword and grabbed the terrified Caveling. He punched it once… not hard enough to kill or even knock out, but to stun. This had been done on purpose. Vondum then kneed a Morg in the groin to get it out of his way and moved up on the Caveling. He jammed his index finger of his right hand into the creatures left nostril and his left index finger into the right nostril. While the hapless best was still trying to recover, Vondum’s fingers curled to look like hooks and then he pulled in opposite directions as hard as he could. Cartilage and skin stretched, then ripped as Vondum pushed in deep and continued to pull, tearing open a twenty centimeter gash from the nostrils outward under the eye sockets, leaving only the bridge of the nose intact.

Enemy forces around Vondum who heard the scream saw this and quickly threw down weapons in an attempt to surrender.

At the same time Kandric moved up, saw the chained boys, and looked a bit disappointed since they were not from the Slome School, but were, instead form the Governor’s School. Still, he could see one of the three still had blood running down his mouth and the Black Dragonling was wearing gauntlets. He glared and shouted. “I’m making a hole; move up and fill in behind me if you can!” He then fired off a pair of cold snaps, tossing a pair of Green Dragonlings out of the way. “Finish those.” He shouted to no one in particular. He then swung his frozen flame in a wide arc, cutting through the back of one Caveling and gutting a pair of Morg. The viciousness of the deadly attack splattered blood across a score of beings and hit both walls

Kandric’s Sect Warrior skills were next to show themselves as he lashed out with a foot, dislocating the knee of another Morg then his right hand shot out, crushing the throat of a Green Dragonling. Finally, he stepped up to the big Black Dragonling with its dark black banded armor, shoulder boards, and lightly glowing war hammer.

Kandric ducked under the punch of the Dragonling as it dropped the iron chain and tried to swing at him with its gauntlet. Kandric deftly spun out of the way as the hammer in the other hand made a swooshing sound as it narrowly missed his chest. He drew one of his throwing daggers and jammed it into a small raised ridge under the Dragonling’s chin and pulled, cutting a tube, but drawing almost no blood. He didn’t even know how he knew, but he was sure the maneuver had just ended the threat of a breath weapon.  To add credence to this sudden flash of inspiration, acid started running down the Dragonling’s chest.

The Dragonlings hand raced to the injury and clutched it with wide eyes. It opened up to take a bite out of the Kandric.

Seeing the opening he wanted, Kandric cast a Force Punch spell. Only this time, he took away the command to release it and pumped as much force into it as he could. This left it around his hand and arm instead of sending the blue glob of magic outward. He then slammed his glowing fist into the Dragonlings mouth.

As expected it tried to bite down, only to feel teeth break on the very powerful magical encasement. As it opened its mouth to scream in pain Kandric released a cold snap, again putting as much force into it as he could manage. The spell blasted off his finger tips, exploding all the teeth on the left side of the mouth with a super cold wave. Since the spell was so fast he was able to fire off a second one, taking out almost all the teeth on the right side before he withdrew his hand.

Much like what happed to those who saw what Vondum did only forty or so paces up the passage, those around Kandric saw over a hundred shattered teeth fly out, many embedding into the flesh of those close to the trembling Dragonling, and those very close by even noticed the inside of the Dragonling’s mouth was coated in ice. As weapons from both up the passage and down the tunnel started to hit the ground, others pinned between Vondum’s force and Kandric’s quickly followed suit, within moments all combat ceased and the area grew eerily silent.

Weapons dropped around Kandric as those close to him offered surrender. Kandric ignored this as he looked down at the Dragonling. “You, we let live. Since you can no longer spit and have less than a dozen teeth left, you will make someone a good slave.” He yanked the war hammer out of the partially conscious beast’s hands and tossed it over to Mathard’s lead scout. “Here, give it to someone in your camp who needs it and take this one topside.”

Next to Vondum, Kyltoss glanced down at the still living Caveling, writhing in total agony, and then over to the near toothless and quaking Dragonling. “Well, Commander Vondum, I can see why Premier Kandric is one of your officers.”

“Ah, yes.” Vondum grinned with a bit of a sinister glint in his eyes as he turned his attention toward Kandric. . “It is nice to see you again my suddenly very famous Wilderness Scout.”

Kandric grinned with a playful smirk, “It took you long enough to come help.”

“Don’t start; I’m still bigger than you, except in title. I bet I can still take you.”

“Sounds fun, we’ll have to find out, but when you end up in a knot, I don’t want to see any tears.” Kandric teased as he moved up to the trio of chained boys. “You three might want to let your parents know the kid they turned down for a job countless times just helped save all three of your useless butts and if they want to make this right, I expect all three of your shops to have at least two swamp slum kids employed as soon as we break the battle lines and things get back to normal.”

Vondum burst out laughing; ignoring what Kandric was telling the three merchant kids. “Boy if you were not a prince and something called a Premier, I’d smack you.”

Kandric glanced up and saw the crest on Kyltoss’ shield. “I may just let you, but first there is someone I need to smack, probably more than once.”

Kandric then glanced back to Duke Mathard. “Would you mind dealing with this mess and find out what you can from those three.”

“Consider it done.” Duke Mathard answered without any sign of being insulted. “I will also send these scouts back down to check out where we saw tracks of those who left the main group.”

Kandric nodded, “Good idea. Captain Vondum, would you mind tasking a few of these troopers to assist Duke Mathard’s men?”
 

“With pleasure.” Vondum stated as he turned to look at a cluster of Alphar ground troopers. “You detachment is now under his command.” He pointed to Mathard and gave a quick kneel so he didn’t totally insult the guy who really didn’t look like royalty to Vondum, but if Kandric called him a Duke, then respect had to be shown.

Mathard nodded his thanks while motioning the scouts to head back down the passage with the Alphar. “I will follow shortly, once I am sure we have all of this mess dealt with.”

Vondum quickly turned as he saw Kandric pushing his way out of the passage. “Where are you going?”

A truly evil look flashed into Kandric’s eyes as he looked over to Kyltoss.  “Please tell me my Grandfather is here.” His left hand crashed into his right hand. “The two of us need to have chat.”

Kyltoss gave a perfect bow, “It would be an honor to escort you to see my Prince, Premier Kandric.”

All around he saw dozens of shocked looks on the faces of the Alphar warriors, but even more had a bit of a smile on their faces. Kandric grunted as he spoke in a totally un-prince-like fashion. “Wow, my grandfather really must be a total prick.”

****

Aster turned another corner only to step back so Benam and Quavis could move up to dispatch another formerly living person, this time a single zombie. Although the kids were tired, sore and had half a dozen cuts and deep bruises each, the seemingly endless parade of skeletons and zombies was helping to improve their combat abilities with both sword and mace. As soon as it fell, and he made sure neither boy was hurt any worse, he moved to the door and yawned, “Well this is almost getting silly.”

Avcar moved up and pulled Aster’s hand back from the door latch, “Don’t get careless, Aster. Just because every other door has been unlocked, and not trapped, does not mean this one is the same. Let me take a look.”

Aster let out a long sigh and backed off, “You’re right, but this is getting really old. Sardan, Pocet and I haven’t had to jump in and help for hours and we’ve even had to pull you and Dabaff back most of the time just so Quavis and Benam could get some decent practice. Even Shade is getting bored.

As if to give Aster’s words a bit more weight, Shade yawned while making a bit of a whining sound.

Sardan smirked as he reached down to scratch Shade behind his ears. “Well, it could be worse; we could be up to our necks in undead with some degree of intellect left.”

“Agreed,” Avcar stated, “But the weird part is, most of what we’re fighting is very old, very weak undead. We have only found like a dozen somewhat fresh zombies. This means either the Dark Mage who lives here went to an unholy grave yard and emptied it to make guards, or they have been walking these passages for hundreds of years. This means this place has either been a Dark Mage stronghold for centuries or something happened to make this place haunted. I tend to lean toward the second, since there is either really old or somewhat fresh undead, and nothing in between.”

He stood. “The door is not locked or trapped.”

Benam moved forward mace in hand, “Let’s do this.”

Avcar pulled open the door and light spilled out. With it came the stench of death and decay.

Quickly Sardan and Pocet moved forward pushing Benam and Quavis back. Shade snarled, Frost screeched and Blackie hissed.

Avcar pulled a piece of cloth over his nose and mouth as he entered the chamber, magically lit by a trio of glow coins suspended by twine from the ceiling. On the far wall there was a massive workbench with all sorts of glass jars of different sizes and shapes, glass tubing, silver tubes and cups, gold vials, and a thousand things the group could not identify, but judging by the liquids bubbling in and around them, it was clearly a mystic’s lab.

In the center of the room was a table with twenty small round holes and below was a bronze metal grate with twenty massive spikes perfectly set to go through the holes in the table. Above was an ancient chandelier, but it was now beyond disgusting. The lower sections of the formally grandly room centerpiece which had carved and molded golden artwork was covered with the blood splatter of numerous victims. The upper, crystal sections, had been shattered and the glass held bits and chunks of flesh, some rotten, some fresh hanging off. Both the metal grate and the chandelier were linked to a large metal crank with chains running off it. As the main gear was ratcheted downward, the metal grate would raise and the chandelier would lower until the victim on the table was pinned from above and skewered from below. The ratchet design allowed this to be done extremely slowly.

On the table itself was a boy of no more then nine. His feet and arms tied and pulled so tight his arms and hips were close to coming out other their sockets. A metal piece was around the boy’s mouth and clamped behind the boy’s head. Occasionally a drop of blood would fall making a dripping sound as it hit a huge pool of mostly stagnant and putrid blood, showing many, many, victims had endured untold agony on the horrible instrument of suffering.

Benam, quickly followed by Quavis, turned and puked at the combination of the smell and the scene. Aster and Dabaff both turned away and shuddered. Sardan just stood there and shook his head while Pocet moved over to comfort Quavis and Benam. All three animals backed off, clearly not wanting anything to do with the chamber.

Only Avcar managed to push past his own disgust and move up to the table. Seeing the boy’s fingers and toes trembling and the eyes following him with total terror, he ignored everything else and spoke softly. “I am going to cut you lose, but when I do it will hurt. There is nothing I can do to prevent this. Stay as still as you can and I will pull you off the table and take you to a Healthman and a priest.”

As he pulled his dagger to cut the ropes holding the child, he turned back to the door. “Sardan, I need lots of water. We need to pour some onto this table and break up some of this blood. His back is stuck to it and if I cut him loose he will thrash in pain and his skin will rip off his back.”

Pocet glanced back into the room, his voice told of his revulsion. “He’s alive?”

“Yes, and he’s awake. The spikes were put in only a small amount. The only reason we are seeing any blood dripping is the spikes are set to loosen the skin and as the blood dried the skin has become stuck to the table and each time he quakes at all, it reopens the wounds. I think we got here in time to save him, but as my teacher would say, if we are in time, it is just.”

Hearing this, Benam puked again.

Sardan quickly grabbed all the boys’ water skins and started dumping them on the table. At the same time Aster forced himself to move into the chamber and examine the boy, then as the water rolled down and through the spike holes in the table Aster motioned for Avcar to cut the boy’s feet loose.

As the joints moved back after being so horribly stretched the kid tired to scream, but the metal mouth mask cut off everything but a weird high pitched whistling sound.
 

Aster quickly followed up by cutting the arms lose. He then lifted the boy slowly allowing Sardan to pour even more water onto the table until the last of the skin was free of the sticky blood underneath. The pair then all but ran out of the room.

Aster lowered the boy to the floor on his stomach and looked at the wounds. At the same time Avcar and Sardan moved back into the room. Once Sardan verified there was no one else inside, Avcar pulled a flask of oil, tossed it into the room and cast a fire burst before slamming the door. “I hope there is enough air flowing through there to let it all burn!”

Quavis shook like a leaf. “Why? Why would anyone do this?”

Dabaff moved over and put and arm over the boy. “There are some evils no one can explain.”

Avcar slid over to the child and went to work on the small lock holding on the metal mouth piece. He looked over the device noting it was actually several pieces combined into one, with the last one going all the way around covering up parts of what was underneath. The lock in the back held everything tight to the boy’s face. “No, unfortunately, there is a reason for almost all horrible acts and this is just one more example of how far some will go to find ultimate power.”
 

“Power? What power can be found in this?” Pocet asked as he concentrated on comforting Benam.

Avcar continued to work at the small lock while stroking the child’s hair, hoping the kid would find some degree of comfort in this as Aster went to work on the wounds. “There are three ways for a Dark Mage to build power. The first is to link Dark Magic spells to a living being. Each time the spell is cast, part of the being is then used up. This is by far the most common way, because spells with the life-link contain a great deal of extra power and can be utterly devastating. This is also how many undead are made, since their life-link stays even after the last of the life energy is drained, then, as long as the Dark Mage keeps the spell page in his or her book, the undead is totally under their control.

“The second way to gain power is to feed souls to a creature from the lower plains for favors; a Demon, or Devil, the more powerful the being or influential, the greater the favor. The problem with this is, there is actually very little power given unless the person volunteers to be fed to it. To this end, Dark Mages have found some of the nastiest forms of persuasion to make people request this. The trouble for a Dark Mage is, a broken body is not nearly as pleasing to a beast from the lower plain as a basically health body is, so many of the methods, while horrible, do not do much damage to the actual body.

“The last way a Dark Mage gains power is probably the worst of all, and to be honest, it is a bastardized form of a Dark Mage. These are the Dark Mystics and one of the reasons many areas see Mystics as horrible abominations. Dark Mystics are known to take a person and rip their soul from their body, leaving them living and breathing, but basically dead. They can then keep the person around and alive for many years, using their bodies to make potions. It all depended on what you do to them and what you fed them, but not being a Mystic, I have no idea how this works. However, I have read in some of my teacher’s books dealing with Dark Mystics making soulless bodies eat some very foul things then using the blood, eye juice, or other fluid out of the body as key ingredients for their potions. All I do know is children are easy targets for this, since it does not take much to shatter them and they can be kept alive for a very long time.”

Avcar finally managed to get the tiny lock off the back of the mask which allowed the heavy outer piece to fall free. While this helped the child some, it was clear the reaming pieces, which formed a band going under the ears, around the sides of the face and covering the mouth were causing a vast amount of discomfort. While Avcar started examining it, he continued to tell the others what he knew. “The texts I have read say the damage to the body is not of great importance, only what can be extracted from it later.” He leaned over the boy and spoke softly. “I’m going to remove the mask piece. I don’t know if this will hurt or not, but if you want to hold onto me. Dig your finger nails into me, scream, cry, or whatever your need to do, do so. There is no shame and there will be no punishment.”

The boy thrashed wildly as Avcar pulled back the bands on the metal bands. Avcar stopped and looked over to Aster with tears in his eyes. “The inside is covered with tiny metal hooks that have dug in. I don’t know what to do.”

Aster looked over and felt his stomach heave. “All the hooks are pointed forward, toward the back, but then they point back, so you are going to have to use your fingers to try to dislodge each hook in an area then pull it back, then move forward and do it again. The whole thing is hinged with these screw things up front, so maybe we should loosen them to give you more finger room. We’ll need a thick piece of leather to push in behind where you are working so you can continued to move forward without the hooks you already removed digging back into the skin. If some of the hooks go the other direction in the same line you will just have to rip the skin. I really don’t know any other way.”

Avcar chewed on his lip for a second and said a silent prayer. He continued to stroke the boy’s hair. “Look, I know you can hear us talking and we can get you out of this, but it could take hours and only you can know what kind of pain this will cause. The other choice would be to let me kill you. I can do it very quick and make it painless.”

“No!” Pocet shouted as he started to stand and move only to be stopped by Sardan. Sardan shook his head and put a talon up to Pocet’s mouth. “The young man is giving the lad a viable option. It has to be his decision, not yours, not mine.”

Aster closed his eyes. “Nod your head if you want us to try to free you. Wave your arms if you want Avcar to end this.”

Tears rolled down the boy’s face for several seconds before he finally nodded.

Avcar moved forward. “So you want me to try get this off, right?”

Again the boy nodded.

Quavis looked over with tears and snot running down his face, “Can’t you knock him out or something?”

Avcar shook his head. “I could put him to sleep with a spell but the first hook to come out would only wake him again.”

Aster glanced over, “I could mix him up something to knock him out, but I can’t get to his mouth and have no idea what is underneath it. He could end up drowning on it instead of it helping him.”

Sardan took a deep breath, “A physical blow might do more damage, so we cannot safely punch him a couple of times like I could an adult. Like it or not this is probably the only way.”

Pocet drew a dagger and started cutting up his water skin, looking more than a little relieved  at the fact they were not going to kill the child. “I’ll make the strips small so you can put them over each row as you free the skin.”

Avcar ignored the conversation as he used his fingers and even his lock picks to methodically remove hook after hook. Finally he managed to free one half and unscrewed it. This made getting the other side a great deal easier, faster and less painful, but it was still excruciating to the boy and all those sitting in the room knew it. As the last hook came out Avcar gently opened the boy’s jaw and pulled out the front part of the mask, revealing a large metal piece which had to have been shoved into the boy’s mouth. The metal piece was hollow and had a little removable piece just inside the lips. Inside was a thin lining of fabric.

Aster shivered, “For holding enough water so he would not die. The material allowed it to seep out slowly.” We should have detached the front first since it was designed to be removed so it could be refilled.”

Free of the horrible thing the boy gasped for air, clutched onto Avcar, and sobbed.

Avcar looked up with rage in his eyes. Still he kept his voice soft as he continued to stroke the boy’s hair giving the kid as much comfort as he could while Aster started cleaning each and every hook mark. “When we find who did this, he is mine.”

The boy took a couple more deep breaths and pushed Aster’s hand away, “The man… The man who took me… He…”

Pocet moved up and knelt. “Shhh. He can’t hurt you anymore. We’ll protect you.”

The boy shook his head, “Not me… the Prince.”

“The Prince?” Aster asked as he felt some alarm bells going off inside his head.

The boy nodded, “The man… the one who took me, plus the one who did this to me… A small woman came in… she took over…” The boy took a couple of deep breaths. “She said they needed to find where Prince Zoldon is.”

“Zoldon?” Aster glanced around. “Zoldon is a slave, not a Prince.”

Sardan cocked his head sharply to the side as he used a talon to scratch at the feathers on his head. “I hate to say this, Aster, but there was a Prince Zoldon. He was the twin of Prince Klandon…”

“Klandon was the other name Zoldon gave us!” Pocet shouted.

Sardan’s blood ran cold as the pieces started to fall into place. “But it cannot be… Prince Zoldon died at birth. His name is carved on the King’s Crypt.”

The boy now all but lying in Avcar’s lap shook his head weakly. “The woman said something about a double-ganger being used to replace a Prince Zoldon.”

“Doppelganger!” Both Sardan and Aster spoke at the same time.

The boy nodded, “Uh huh, that’s what she said…they all talked a bunch while she helped put the mask on… the guy put me on the table again, but the woman said they didn’t have time and they needed him with them to get blood so they could keep it looking like him… There were a bunch of others who came and… they said they had to spread out and find him… She told them to set up at the Blazing Brook…”

Sardan stood, “We need to get back to camp! It doesn’t even matter which Prince we really have, we have one of them!”

The boy reached up and grabbed at Sardan’s leg, “No… the man who took me… he was sure the Prince was in Rolling Dale. He said he saw him fight in the arena yesterday.”

“Then we need to get everyone together and get to Rolling Dale!”

“No…She’ll get you…”

“Who?” Pocet asked.

“It was her… the name whispered on the streets…” the boy trembled, “the demon lady… she is real…they all called her Mistress Gambra.”

The room fell silent as everyone looked at each other. Conner had told them all Gambra was the Queen of the Dark Mages.

Avcar twisted one of the stones on the ring and sent out a thought. ‘Lord Anarton, the bitch is in Rolling Dale and we have good, real good, information she is basing herself out of someplace called the Blazing Brook.’

The response was almost instantaneous. ‘Go back to the old fortress. We will be there as soon as my force replenishes.’

‘I cannot my Lord; I have the metal worker Aster with me from Junsac and some of his Watch members are here as well. The fortress is one of their secret bases; we have done serious damage to it. But we have to move into the city. It sounds like the bitch has her eyes set on finding one of the princes. We have to find him before she does.’

‘Fine, then I will gate to the old fortress and catch up to you as soon as I am able. Stay clear of her until I get there though. You cannot take her on alone.’

‘I understand my Lord.’

Avcar broke contact and looked up. “I have help coming, but we need to find the Prince. The only problem is, I have no idea what he looks like.”

Pocet reached down, picked up the boy off of Avcar and cradled him like a baby. “I think we do.”

Sardan nodded, “Let’s move. We will have to finish cleaning this place out later.”

Avcar held up his hand, “Sardan, I know you are thinking as a Watch member, but to hit them now would be a very bad move. We need to hit them in the middle of the day, when they cannot use their dark magic to reanimate their fallen comrades. A late afternoon or night assault plays right into their hands. We need to find the Prince and protect him tonight, then tomorrow we smash them with everything we can muster.”

 

***

The Thunder Rapids pulled into the dock at Rolling Dale. Most stopped and stared at the odd coloration of the barge and more than a few captains stopped what they were doing and moved to take a closer look.

Pontarious did what he always did, making sure the barge was safely and securely tied to the dock with well tended and strong rope, then made his way to the dock master’s shack to get and pay for authorization to trade. At the same time, he ordered guards doubled so those who were too interested in his ship, would see a reason to stay off.

Finally he got the crew moving trade goods up while he made the rounds to other barge captains first, since there were no tariffs when trading on the docks. He found one who was more than interested in his ship. While never taking credit for it, he demonstrated  one of the potions he cooked up and admitted he didn’t know if it would last forever or not, but so far so good. The man instantly placed an order for enough to coat his ship, to the tune 450,000 silver. Knowing the ingredients would cost only an eight of this vast sun, he spent the rest of his morning scouring every herbalist shop in Rolling Dale for the needed supplies, then went below and started cooking.

Because of the need to spend the next thirty hours brewing potions, he left his first mate in charge of trade goods and placed Conner in command of security.

Conner was rather surprised to be handed such a position, even temporarily, but when he though it over, he was well suited to it. He had the eye of a street kid, the training of a lock master, the skills of a Sect Warrior and the firepower of a Mage. If anyone wanted security, he was a walking example of someone who had all the qualifications.
 

Besides, since he had agreed to join the crew and let Pontarious be a father figure, he needed some kind of permanent position on the barge. He actually smiled a bit as he got with the first mate, got a list of duties and moved up topside to check on everything. He sent a single nod to the guards then walked around the edge of the barge, trying to see how he, if he wanted to sneak on board, would attempt to do so.

He walked back and forth a couple of times before he realized there was a blind spot. It was on the side opposite of the dock and behind the upper structure. The wheel on the back deck blocked it and there were no windows to cover it. Knowing if he were to try to board unnoticed, this would be the spot he would pick, he quickly pulled one of the extra guards off the gang plank and stationed the man up at the wheel so he could look down at the blind spot, could have the advantage of a higher point of view and those on the dock side could still see him.

Satisfied with his decision he started to make his way below, but stopped as something caught his eye. At first he wasn’t even sure what it was, but having lived in an orphanage and sometimes on the streets of a city the size of Junsac, he knew better than to ignore his gut. He crouched down and scanned the dock a second time. This time his eyes fell on a man with graying hair, dark brown eyes, dull leather armor made to look like clothing rather than the armor it really was, a short sword and a satchel.

“Now why do you want to hide the fact you are in armor, and why are you carrying a Mage book pouch disguised as a courier pouch.” He said to himself softly. He hopped down and found one of the men he worked with on the repair crew tending to the poles. “Hey, I need a favor.”

“Sure Conner,” the man eagerly responded as he looked up from the poles. “What can I do for you?”

“I saw something I don’t like and I need a distraction at the front of the ship so I can slip off the back and not be seen by anyone on the docks.”

The man frowned. “Well, I hear you are the ship security officer, so you can do what you want, but don’t you want some help?”

“Helping me is providing a good distraction and letting the first mate know I saw something I am checking out so he may have to double check the next guard shift if I am not back. Also tell him I want someone up on the wheel from now on.”

“Not a problem.” The man stated as he moved over to a fellow crewman and spoke for a few seconds. Suddenly the other man threw a punch and the two men went all out with full force, cussing, screaming and kicking. One thing Conner was certain of, if it was all for show it was a good one, since they didn’t hold back on their punches in the slightest.

It didn’t take long for people all across the docks to turn and move up to watch, many shouting for and cheering at the sudden outbreak of entertainment.

Unnoticed, Conner jumped off the back of the barge, grabbed one of the securing lines and pulled himself under the dock. Using every bit of skill and muscle he had, he put his fingers through one of the boards and worked his way, hand hold by hand hold to the far side, then moved swiftly down the far edge behind the still growing mob. By the time he reappeared at the shore the crowd was already starting to dissipate as a couple of the Thunder Rapids guards pulled the men apart and the first mate came up from below and started screaming at them. Conner cringed and pocketed a pouch of a merchant’s belt, hoping the coins inside would make up for what the two men had put themselves through for him.

Pocketing the pouch into his cloak, Conner moved into the shadows and put some dirt on his face and rolled his cloak into a puddle. He then used the muddy garment to touch up the rest of his clothing to match his rather dingy look. It didn’t take too long for the man to move down the dock and into the city. Conner easily followed the man for several hours, picking out two others who were with the guy as he did so. Just like the first one, the others were in well tailored leathers meant to look like clothing instead of armor.

Another pair of hours passed and Conner was thinking about giving up when the trio approached the Blazing Brook, an inn and a major gambling hall judging on the signs and the sounds coming from within. As the third man entered, a small Halfling came to the door and glanced out looking for anyone who might have taken any kind of unwanted interest in her companions. Her eyes never landed on Conner as they scanned the street looking for trouble. Connor, however, saw her. He almost launched a spell, but knew from what he had just seen there were at least three other mages in the place, and all of them had tried to hide it. “Dark Mage bitch,” Conner hissed, as he stayed totally motionless.

The woman closed the door, but a few seconds later her face reappeared in a window as if she felt she was being watched. She once again scanned the street again before shrugging off the feeling and turning her attention to what was going on inside the establishment. Still, Conner waited to make sure he had not been spotted. He moved randomly though the city, well away from the Blazing Brook and even spent a pair of hours on a roof before heading back to the barge.

As he made his way toward his room, he noticed a light coming from underneath. He sighed, and braced for a serious butt chewing. He pushed open the door and found Pontarious and the first mate waiting for him.

The two looked up but neither spoke, somewhat surprising Conner.  He figured he better say something. “The fight on the deck was my fault.”

“So I was told.” The first mate responded. His voice didn’t sound angry at all, just disappointed.

Pontarious let out a long sigh, “Conner, we just want to understand why you feel the need to go this alone. We are here to help.”

“Captain, this was not something you all could help with. I saw something and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a threat to this ship or the crew.”

“OK, fair enough.” The first mate spoke, as if accepting the answer. “So was it?”

Conner looked down and thought it over for a second. “Probably not, but it is something I have to take care of.”

Once again, the first mate seemed unfazed by the response. “So what do we need to do to help you?”

Conner looked up at the ceiling and clenched his fists. “I don’t want any of you to get killed over this!”

“What about you?” Pontarious asked. “Do you think we want to see you endangering yourself for something when we could be of assistance?”

Conner took a couple of deep breaths and seriously thought about walking out the door and not coming back, but just as he took a step back, Sharris’ voice came from behind. “You go, I am coming with you.”

Conner stopped dead in his tracks and turned, only to find the entire repair crew he had worked with standing with Sharris nodding.

“I can’t protect you…”

“The let us help,” Pontarious stated firmly. “Odds are much better if you have the whole crew behind you, or have you forgotten the battlefield where we first met.”

“No, Captain, I have not. But this is not a fight against a horde of hired cutthroats. This one is going to be way worse.”

“Then you cannot hope to survive alone.” Sharris spoke up, “And we cannot let you die without trying to help you.”

Anger bubbled to the surface as Conner slammed his hand into and through the petrified wood wall. “Some of you will die!”

“Then some of us die.” The second man from the fight stated as he eyed the hole in the wall with very wide eyes. “Hell, I didn’t just take a world class ass kickin’ to help you only to watch you go kill yourself, so you may as well tell us what we are up against and let us know the best way to fight it.”

Conner looked over to Pontarious with a near pleading look in his eyes, “Captain, she’s here and she has help. She alone can take out half this crew and you know I am not joking.”

“Who?” the first mate asked.

Pontarious looked over at Conner, “She, as in Gambra, right?”

“Yes, captain.”

“And if we take her down, we kill the Queen of Dark Mages?”

“There is no guarantee we’ll be able to take her.”

“But she is the Queen of Dark Mages, right?” Pontarious asked again. This time with quite a bit more force.

“Yes.” Conner stated with near resignation in his voice.

“And if she dies, untold hundreds will not have to suffer as her slave toys and her forced spell focuses?”

Conner sighed and looked down, “Yes Captain, but…”

The first mate stood, “No buts, not this time. You know how the Captain feels about slavery. What you may not have figured out is every officer of this ship, including you, are former slaves. We cannot ignore the fact such a powerful Dark Mage is here anymore than you can.”

Conner rubbed his hands though his hair. “OK, fine, but if we are going to do this, we will have to strike hard, fast, and preferably in early or mid day where undead minions will not easily be able to be summoned.”


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