Chapter 10/ Ulam Ar

lake valreen

Chapter Ten  Ulam Ar

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Everyone but Tavia, Salma, and Travis met before dawn in the yard by the dome-shaped tents of the orcs. It was early morning and fall was well set in this high altitude.

Mountains, not all that much higher than this place, had deep white snow that appeared pink in the early morning. Their jagged peaks were blanketed with it, detailing their deep crevices. There was a thrush down by the lake piping out a one-note song to greet the morning. They all gathered there, equipped with new sturdier leather and weapons that the orcs provided. The orcs were silent; they simply nodded to each other and fell into a single-file line. They headed out in the first light.

By that faint, steely gray and pink dawn, they headed westward into the thicker wood. Their trail twisted and wound its way down the slope before it sharply began a great climb upward. The clouds that moved in and out of the peaks, swirling and pouring between them, cut off the morning sun as they climbed higher.

Mist turned to snow as they hiked over a cold pass and down into another valley. The mountains seemed to have grown as they left the cover of the clouds. The peaks were awesome, rising up before them in snow-covered grandeur. In the entire world, only the mountains of Norwood were likely to compare.

Keeping in a fairly close line, they left the heights and re-entered the pine and pinion forest. They hadn’t gone a mile when they found a heap of steaming goblin droppings marking the border. It was so foul smelling that Riven and Theo both covered their noses as they passed. Weapons came out as they stepped carefully among the older heaps of black, smelly dung piles.

They were not much more than a hundred yards past the first markers when an attack came from the trees. A lone goblin leapt out, but was quickly cut down by three orcs, their swords slicing the thing into pieces. Dave stopped to look at it.

The thing was massive, like the gorillas of the Pizen Mountains, but these beasts were meaner looking and stank. It had a dog face and nine-inch claws. The teeth were massive and yellow, like boar tusks inside a muzzle. That thing could not eat anything except chunks of meat. There was no way it could chew; just rip and swallow.

Riven stopped and looked as well. The goblins were covered in sleek black hair and had tiny black eyes. They could all but vanish into the night, he realized.

“They roll in it.” An orc nodded to a pile of dung as he passed. Riven made a face. Dwarves were a clean people; they didn’t like mess or smell and the idea of rolling in one’s own waste was enough to make his skin crawl.

They moved on up a trail that was spotted with goblin leavings and territory marks. Climbing up out of the trees and onto a trail, they moved higher up the slope, across snowfields and through the wind. The sky was low here, but no snow fell, allowing them to see anything that approached. For a moment, they thought they were safe from attack, but they were wrong.

Goblins rushed from the trees at an incredible speed. At once, Riven leapt to join the orcs in attacking the goblins. His Dwarven blood was on fire and a battle cry escaped his lips.

Hesh ren! Rah Hesh!”

Ivan joined the charge with Kelly just a step behind him.

Before the orcs, Riven, or Ivan could reach the goblins, Shannon’s arrows began to strike, one at a time, deep into the eyeballs of the charging goblins. One goblin ran on, unaware of the arrow in his head, his rage and eager lust for battle numbing any pain. The other three dropped, screaming, to pull the arrows out. Two toppled over at that point, but the third got up and ran at them with his eye socket pouring red and green colored slime.

“Oh, that is not good,” Theo said, drawing back an arrow. His arrow flew and struck right into the bleeding hole that was once its eye socket.

He looked around guiltily to see if anyone had seen his shot.

“Nice,” Dave admired, pleasantly surprised. He nodded and charged in as Theo drew back another.

Riven had cleaved his axe into the head of one and struggled to hold on to it as the goblin thrashed around with his axe embedded in its skull. Another came at him from the side. Trading bow for sword, Shannon clove the head of the one that had targeted Riven.

Ivan demonstrated his skills as well, joyfully hacking and slashing his way forward.

Dave stepped up and cast out power, sending a blast at one. It screamed and burst into flames. Others all around it screamed and scrambled back. Then, strangely, they attacked it, beating the fire out and pounding the goblin into the ground until there wasn’t much left of the thing. Dave sent another blast and another goblin exploded with fire. He then watched in amazement and shock as the goblins attacked that one as well. He actually laughed at the stupidity of the things… to beat the afflicted to death was just a little extreme.

Theo ran into the fray and drove his sword into the one that was still trying to kill Riven, even with its skull split and being held out of reach with the shaft of his axe. The goblin spun at Theo as the young man’s sword stabbed into its side. Theo cried out in Old Awens and a blast of power shot down the sword.

The goblin exploded, throwing both Theo and Riven back. Everyone near to them was splattered in a shower of blood and fragments of reeking goblin meat, some still with hair on it, and bits of entrails. Theo wiped his face of the sticky, foul smelling stuff and then grinned, his teeth flashing brightly through the mask of grime.

Shannon offered down a hand, his black leather blood-splattered down one side. Theo grabbed it and got up excitedly, looking around for more. Shannon just shook his head, amused, if anything.

“Hah! Hah!” Riven roared. “To war, little brother!” he cheered to Theo, impressed by the blast and the young man’s Dwarven-like excitement about it. The two charged in shoulder to shoulder. They targeted the nearest goblin and both sank their weapons into its chest. They sliced him in opposite directions then turned, looking for more.

But the goblins were down, as well as one orc who sat holding his bleeding side. The others were kneeling around him, talking quietly. The fight was over.

“What did you think of that?” Theo asked Shannon, his voice cracking with his excitement and the rush of using such power openly.

“Very dramatic,” Shannon said.

“It worked, though,” Theo said happily, puffing up with pride, “it actually worked!”

“Where did that come from?” Riven asked excitedly, as he pulled globs out of his beard. “Theo, this is disgusting, and no one ever told me you were a wizard,” he grinned, “but that was fantastic!”

“I’m not,” Theo said. He smiled, shrugged, and went to go check on Dave.

“He’s not?” Riven asked suspiciously, looking up to Shannon.

“No,” Shannon said, “he’s not.”

“Then what the hell is he?”

“A sorcerer,” Shannon said.

“But…” Riven was shocked and half horrified. He looked after the young man, almost as if he had been betrayed. Sorcery was rare, powerful, and highly forbidden. It was seen as little better than Blood magic and frowned on just as highly by the Church.

“Let it go, Riven. Theo is not a bad person. The Church fears sorcery and so makes it out to be bad. Keep in mind –  it just saved your life. Maybe, before you lose a friend, you should learn why. You might discover that all priesthoods are a form of sorcery. There is no inherent evil. That part is all in the user.”

Riven swallowed hard. “I won’t tell Oirion,” he promised

“Good. I would not be happy if you did. If anyone attacks that man, I will step in,” he said a little threateningly.

Riven nodded and they moved after the orcs who were heading out again. The wounded orc was going to stay. He would only attract more with his blood and slow them down as well.

“He’ll die,” Dave said.

“Yes,” Shannon agreed.

“But…”

“They are all willing to die for this,” Shannon said. “That is the price they will pay for the chance to be reunited with their families and to save those inside.”

They moved on and did so quickly.

The trail they followed twisted through the forest. Snow was deep here and formed swirled drifts around the trees, which were partially under the deep bank of white. The wind gusted in short cold blasts, but was gone just as fast as it came. There was little talk as everyone stayed alert and watched for any sign of tracks. Shannon held up a hand and made the fist of halt. He made a circle with a finger and then held up three fingers. Riven looked up at three on the Time Dial. He wouldn’t have seen it for himself at all, but there were goblins up in the trees. Not on the ground, but up in the trees, watching them. There was an ambush planned.

“Watch for it,” Riven said to Dave as they moved on again, the orcs taking the lead. The trail opened to the north. On an open hillside there was a spire made of a tree that had been skinned of bark and branches.

Impaled on the tree were several orcs. Judging by their clothes and hair, they had not been mere soldiers, but carried some sort of rank. The orcs in front stopped, horrified at the sight.

Then, suddenly, the attack came from the backside, attempting to catch the orcs distracted and off-guard by the sight of the lost and impaled lords. Shannon, Dave, Kelly, and Riven were ready for it and spun in unison to meet them, slicing into the charge. It gave the orcs time to turn from their grief and join the fight with vengeance adding strength.

Theo stayed back and used his bow for several shots while the orcs met the goblins. They were in a rage over the deaths of those who were put out for them to see. Several of them were openly crying with the turn of emotion, but making it felt against the goblins.

Theo drew his sword when he ran out of arrows, but distracted, he watched as Shannon fought in the melee. The man was awesome to see. He moved in a constant flow of motion that was as beautiful as it was deadly. Theo noticed, with some surprise, that Dave moved very eerily like Shannon. Dave moved like a Purtan. Not just a Purtan, but in the fighting style of the Imperial Guard, Theo realized.

The fight was over before it reached Theo and he was able to put the sword away unused. After that they were attacked often by small groups, but none large enough to put up a fight. The goblins seemed to think that they were charging down to a battle that they were missing. To their surprise, they ran right into the group who sliced through them and moved ever-higher up into the mountains. The look of shock on their faces was rather amusing to the orcs and to Ivan who was happy to kill the goblins with that look still on their faces.

They left the trees and suddenly emerged out on a great flat shelf high on the mountain just as the sun was starting to set. The view was spectacular. The men stopped to look out, breathless.

There was a lake that swirled with glacier dust far below. Sheer blue mountains so close that you could almost touch them rose up to the sky with their every cut and rise accented by pristine snow. The sky was full of tattered clouds. To the west the setting sun turned them a brilliant show of golds, pinks, and oranges. It was stunning, but it was also evidence that night was fast approaching. Soon, both moons would rise, but the time between when the sun went down and the moons rose was going to be dark and deadly.

The shelf led on to a great level plateau cutting into the side of the mountain. Several hundred feet back there was an exposed cliff rising up to form another mountainous peak. The cliff face was covered in glowing wards that shifted in a multitude of hues and colors of the sunset and sky. In the center, glowing from the depth of the stone from under the wards, was the awesome and great seal of the Church in all its wealth of intricacies and splendor.

Riven slowed to a stop as he gazed at the thing. He couldn’t believe it. There on the wall was the last straw. He was betrayed by the Church.

It was like being punched in the gut. He had been able to deny having seen the pontiff in the baron’s study, but with the very seal of the Church staring him in the face, he had no choice but to reconsider his vows, his roles, and his religion.

“No,” Riven choked. “It can’t be!” He was not allowed time to swallow it in. They were attacked in force.

The orcs quickly moved to form a half-circle around the man in black who was already raising his hands up toward the wards on the walls. Riven turned from the wall and charged at the goblins, fighting alongside the orcs, attacking and hacking with a reckless abandon. He unleashed all the anger and hurt of a man who had just had his foundation jerked out from under him.

Kelly and Ivan had to move hard and fast to get in close enough to Riven to aid him and watch his sides. They were hard-pressed to even hold their own. The sheer number of goblins was stunning; the warriors were forced to use all of their talents. One of the orcs, impressed by Theo’s archery, handed him a quiver with a toothy grin.

Theo whispered before he kissed the tip of an arrow and took aim. The arrow hit its mark right in the chest, sinking into the thick fur and hide. It wasn’t a mortal wound, but it was stuck in the chest flesh. Then, Theo shouted a word and the arrow exploded with a shock wave that rendered the goblin into two short leg-stumps. It knocked others back and even staggered Ivan back a bit.

Theo shouted in shock at how much power had been in that arrow. He had never been able to openly use the spells he knew; they worked far better than he thought they might. He took out another arrow and tried it again.

Dave spun back from the fight to catch his breath. He quickly raised the white fire into his blade. This gave him a pause as the goblins stepped back from him a moment, confused. Dave took advantage of it; he, with an orc on either side, raced back into the fight.

Theo had used his last three arrows too soon for his liking. Desperate for more, he looked around and moved to steal them from the quiver of the closest orc. The orc was one of those who formed the guard around Shannon. The orc willingly helped, handing the arrows to Theo to shoot. They were heavy for the bow he had, but they didn’t have to go far.

Runes and wards were Shannon’s hobby and he had once been, by far, the most powerful Rune-master in the world. He had an entire library of books on wards and runes of his own making, of the elder days and of the Church. The Church used his runes and wards almost exclusively now. He knew them all well enough that he hardly had to think about what he was doing. It was odd to think that Gerome was so short-sighted as to force him anywhere near this area and to have had the cardinals use Shannon’s own wards on the door.

Maybe Gerome thought the orcs would be long dead before Shannon reached the area. Gerome had to know Shannon would help them, but then, the man might be so arrogant by now that he would think that this magic would be beyond Shannon’s ability to work anymore.

More often than not, Shannon chose to slip away and have no part of magic. It wasn’t because he couldn’t do it. It was simply not worth it most of the time. This time, however, it involved an entire race who also happened to be at war with Gerome. Shannon would not have left them, even if he’d been traveling alone.

He lifted his hand to use his rarely revealed power. He knew this was going to hurt. Now committed, his options were left to very few things. Failing was simply not one of them.

Reaching out, he took the first knot of power that locked the wards from attack and snapped it. The ripple of power was carried outward, revealing the ward’s lines passing through its layers and depth.

Wards and rune-lines were like weavings. If you pulled at the right spot, it would unravel. People often forgot that you had to build blocks against unraveling and you had to tie the wards off. The man who had constructed this hadn’t properly tied off his runes.

Not only that, while the man who had built this had powerful wards, to Shannon these were simple and almost elementary. They were just stacked one on the next, creating a false appearance of complexity. Shannon worked as fast as he could without any real difficulty.

Wards were unraveling all over the wall. Their lines burned, smoked, and sparked as they ate themselves up. The sparks began to ignite tiny fires before the gate and put a smell in the air that was unmistakably magic. It created light for the battle behind. Shannon held his ground, trusting the warriors behind him to watch his back. This was the easy part, but it still took focus.

This was not going to go down fast. There were six layers of the wards with several hundred rune-rings each. Each of the rune-rings had to be unraveled on its own. Shannon had to wait for the wards to unravel before he was able to move on to the lower levels. Until the ward over it was gone completely, the one below could not be touched. Every un-weaving took time to un-work itself and had to be watched to make sure it didn’t knot back upon itself. Sometimes the lines would melt together, stopping a full unweaving and that took even longer to undo than a true knot.

As they burned away, he studied the seal under it, wondering how he was going to take that down. He doubted that the thing would recognize him and he doubted that he had the right sort of power to dismantle it. The alternative would be shattering. It would be felt and heard for a very long way, not to mention it might blow the top of the mountain off. He let the problem run through his mind as he pulled and cut at the next level of wards.

As the last ward level was taken in his hands, Shannon could feel and taste the pain and death all around him. The energy was distracting and made his head buzz. It whispered up against his shields and tested his focus. Tension was building and he was already suffering for it. He could draw on the very power that distracted him for strength, but not without Riven feeling that someone was doing so. Shannon would make it his own if he had to. In order to have enough power, he would take whatever he needed, but still, he hoped that he could do it another way. Drawing himself up, he did something that he hadn’t done for centuries and never on purpose. This was the part he knew was going to cost him. Drawing a deep breath, he built up the inner strength to do what he knew was the only way to bring down the seal.

He bowed his head and reached to the ground. He drew power up, through his hands, from the stream of power below. He reached past the surface layer where the wizards played, down to the lower level where the power was so wild that the earth’s core was liquid fire. Tapping into that power, he drew it up.

For one moment he felt the sheer power of it before the pain hit. He felt his body react to it. He cried out at the pain that all the Fire Powers caused him. His inner cores seemed to rip open, fire poured though his veins catching his body on fire. Lambent flames ruptured over him, but held inside his leather. The magic used to protect him from the fiery energy now hid the magic from others for one moment before flames inside swept out over his entire body, swirling about him. Still, he held on. This method would work faster than the other ways. Time was running out. If he remained subject to the battle energies without the right shields, he would go Mad. He could not work the runes with that shield up, so speed became very important. The fire might push him into madness as well, but if he worked fast enough, he had a chance to stay sane and achieve victory.

As the power gathered, flames actually ruptured through his leather as it caught fire. The sheer heat drove back the snow in gusts of steam and little blasts of heat waves. Inside his leather, he could feel his skin boiling, peeling and cracking as it split apart. It was something that he was all too familiar with. The roar of the battle drowned out any cries of pain he might have made, but his focus was on the wall before him, not his body. He could barely manage to hold onto himself though the pain and the strain.

Memory, as well, threatened to drown him in madness. The flames made him sick and the pain was as bad as the flames of hell. Before him, he could see the seal, as if it was drawn on the inside of his eyelids. It gave him the focus point he needed and a target that gave him the emotional drive to destroy.

He thrust his hands at the seal, sending all that power through himself and directly at the Great Holy Ward. It hit the seal with such a force that he was staggered back. The air was knocked out of him and several orcs too near his line of fire had their clothes and hair catch fire. He hadn’t thought that he could still hold that much power. The seal, however, remained in place. Shannon gritted his teeth. He would melt the damn thing off, burn it into oblivion. He hated fire, but for the same reason he hated it, he controlled it with a level of power that no one was ever known to have had before. The worst part, though, was that the use of this power used up soul energy, and he would have to acquire more – a lot of it, and very soon. He just hoped, at this point, that he would have enough to finish the task at hand.

“Shannon!” Riven yelled. Shannon’s attention shifted for a moment, allowing him to feel the goblins that had gotten past the orcs who were understandably distracted by the fire. They were running at him, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. There was no way that he could redirect that much power, that fast. The power had such a grip on him that he wasn’t going to be able to free himself or to move. All he could do was hope that the fire engulfing him was enough to stop them, but he doubted it. He was bracing for an injury and preparing to deal with the aftermath of it. Riven yelled to Ivan and Kelly to protect Shannon, and the two roaring warriors charged in, slamming into the goblins that were reaching for Shannon. He returned his attention to the spell that was beginning to waver under his distraction. If the goblins were getting that close to him, he knew there were a lot of dead orcs. Time was about up.

The goblin force had pushed them all back. The small army of orcs struggled to hold a line. They were pushed back to where the guard around Shannon had positioned themselves. The fighting was at the gate area itself. The goblins were not going to fall back. They had realized what Shannon was doing and were desperate to stop him

The stand Kelly and Ivan made was not going to last long. The orc guard was going down and goblins were gaining courage even in the face of the fire. Riven had to make a choice. The power of the priesthood was not having much effect on the goblins, and the group of defenders was about to be swarmed under. Of all the fighters, Theo had killed more of the goblins than anyone. His arrows were now spent, leaving the slender man with just a sword. It was burning with orange and black flames. He had somehow joined the two big warriors and fought to guard Shannon’s back.

If Theo hadn’t thought to do that, things might have already gone very badly. How the three of them had stayed as close as they did to the inferno was amazing. From where Riven was, he could feel the heat of the fire that Shannon was blasting against the wall. Even with the goblins’ fear of fire, they were not going to fall back. They didn’t want to lose this territory and were chopping down the orcs, using their mass numbers and rage. Riven knew what that flame on Theo’s sword meant. He didn’t want to see it, but he knew it well enough. It was, however, what he needed. As much as he didn’t like it, Riven knew it was what had to be done in order to hold their ground.

Inspired by Theo, he whispered the prayer and lifted his fist to the sky. He breathed in, not so sure he was going to be granted the power he sought. Throwing up his other hand, he offered his life for the power. This battle was that important to him. He knew that there was little reason he would be answered, but there was no other way right now.

He dropped the weapon he was still holding as he brought his uplifted hands together in a clap above his head. He was either going to be cut down, or the power would work. He closed his eyes and hoped he was found worthy, or that at least this fight was worthy enough.

The clap was amplified with enough energy that everyone in the battle heard it. In a Dwarven battle, all the dwarves would know what was about to happen next and brace for it. In this one, no one did… except Theo. He shouted and dropped to a knee, startling the goblins that had been fighting him. Riven was fast enough that they never got to attack Theo. Even as Riven drew a breath and lowered his eyes, he wondered how it was that Theo knew not only of Dwarven magics, but how to react.

Dropping to a knee, Riven punched the ground. With a thunderous boom, the earth rolled, rushing outward from the dwarf in rings, like ripples of water flowing from a dropped stone on the surface of a pond. Each earth-ring was pushed by a ring of blue vapor. The boom was great enough that a few small, local avalanches were triggered.

As the rings hit the enemy, they were burned, as if splashed with dragon venom. It seared through the fur, creating a thick acrid smoke. Then it hit flesh and the screams started. The blue vapor could not be washed off or beaten out. It could only be countered by an entity equally powerful as the Dwarven God of War, Hesh.

The vapor was hot and bleached the allies it touched, but it did not burn them. The only thing that absorbed it was the physical earth or an enemy. Wisps of vapor would continue on until the full ring had hit an enemy in the battle.

The earth, however, rolled out in ripples that followed the first, throwing everyone to the ground, everyone but Theo, who had braced for it, and Shannon, who was locked in the power of fire he was channeling.

As the last ring passed, Theo was up and moving to attack the enemy that was closest. It was screaming as pieces of its flesh were being burned through. Riven grabbed up his weapon and attacked again. The remaining orcs roared and regrouped to charge the goblins on the lower slope, stunned in the aftermath of the blue vapor.

Even so, there were many goblins, but now the orcs had a chance and the remaining goblins knew that this was not an easy fight. They were already faltering and a few were breaking rank.

The seal began to melt; the lines sank and bent into a warped semblance of their original positions. Shannon’s control was slipping. Nightmare memories were flashing wildly through his mind, blurring time and space so much that he was nearly to the point of breaking. The shock of the Dwarven power nearly cost him his stance, but allowed him to regain focus. Somehow, he was still holding on. He was exhausted and in so much pain that he could barely keep his feet. He knew he could not hold the fire much longer. In a moment of fully regained focus, he cut off the flame and reached for another power.

Lifting his arms, he drew ice out from the bitter cold of the empty spaces of the universes. He savored the taste, the feel, and the smell of the ice that revived his burning flesh and eased the pain to his soul caused by fire. He shot it out through his hands, thrusting them at the wall and the melting seal.

It was too much for the red hot seal. There was a brief moment and then it shattered. There was a great cracking sound as the seal of the Church was broken. The power that exploded was fantastic. Shannon grabbed at it, to hold it, to keep it from dropping the mountain down on the army that he could feel waiting on the other side of the gate. He didn’t want it to blow the top off of the mountain, either.

The force reflected off of the cliff face, directly at Shannon. He was hurled back as the mountain jumped and seemed to drop.

The boom was enough to stagger them all, blasting everyone on the ledge away, knocking them to the ground. The goblins fell back with terrified shrieks. Shannon landed on the very edge of the plateau, almost falling over the edge. His palms tingled, his ears rang, and for a moment, he was utterly stunned by the force of the blast. As soon as he could, he rolled backwards to a crouch. He stopped, stunned and breathless with goblins all around him, not yet even able to get a weapon out.

The great explosion echoed through the peaks and a rumbling began. Massive avalanches came pouring down from the mountainsides. The nearest washed over the shelf leading up to the plateau, taking down dozens of goblins in its path and slowing those below.

After several long moments, the avalanches began to subside, but the rumbling continued as armored orcs began to pour out of the shattered gate. They came roaring out of the darkness to meet the goblins and to reclaim their territory. Shannon saw them emerge just before he was swarmed by the black, reeking mob of goblins.

One of the goblins got a good punch in on Shannon before Dave was there with his fiery sword. He sent lightning out of his finger and threw back the goblins that were on Shannon. Dave didn’t stop until Shannon was clear. Dave knelt beside him, the battle forgotten in concern for his uncle.

“You alright?” Dave asked.

“Oh, yeah, I am fine,” Shannon said calmly, as if nothing at all had happened.

Dave took Shannon’s wrist and pulled the man to his feet. Shannon needed a moment to get his balance and then he looked at the wall and the gate. He was covered in the white dust that had been the gate stone; everyone was covered in it. The mountain was whole despite the nearly unfathomable power unleashed by the explosion of the Church Seal. The army that had been inside was now pouring past the stunned warriors to attack the goblins in force. The seal was down. Shannon had shattered it. It was said that no force on earth could do that. Only an angel or an avatar could shatter the seal of a damned priest – a priest who would use such a power against God’s will. No power in heaven or hell could hope to shatter the seal of a truly holy priest. If it ever came up, Shannon would argue that he hadn’t done it at all, that his power simply wasn’t enough… but he knew that he had done it. Later, he would have to think about that.

The orcs carried the battle down the hill and away with the sheer momentum of their outward charge. Shannon looked around at the members of his party. They were all smeared in blood and coated in dust, but they were all alive. That was good.

Riven looked after the fleeing goblins, at Shannon, and then turned, charging after the battle with a flash of white teeth and a Dwarven grin.

Better, Shannon thought. It was for the best that Riven wasn’t here to see or feel the energies of what Shannon was about to do.

Shannon gathered in all the residue of blood and pain, of rage and fear – all the energy that he could use. He drew it right out of the air in a simple move that he hid by swirling his cloak off and then back on, as if to get the dust off. He left nothing to waste.

Replacing his cloak, he drew that power into himself, making himself steady enough to stand on his own. He would need more soon, but it could wait.

“That was amazing!” Theo said, breathless, looking at the wall. He laughed. “Wow! That was… Wow! Shannon, you’re my hero.”

Shannon almost laughed weakly, but didn’t. Weary and in pain from the fire, he could feel his left hand bleeding in his glove. He knew that would happen. Fire always did that. His whole body wasn’t bleeding, as it might have been, but he could feel the blisters and the cracked skin. He needed to sit and to have a cold drink of water; he was going to suffer for this a good long while. And soon the high from the blood he had just drawn in would hit, and then… eventually he would crash. Before that happened, he needed to get more. He had to restore his power levels and shields before he even got close to Oirion.

***********

They at least tried to talk to Oirion. He had to give them that, but they didn’t speak any of the languages that he knew, so Oirion had no idea what they had said. They were in obviously good moods, so he guessed that the quest had been successful. He was carefully moved to a stretcher by two young orcs. They both wore their hair spiked, running down the top of their heads and knotted at the base of their necks.

It was an odd thing for him to be utterly helpless and exposed, laid out on a stretcher and packed along like baggage. He tried not to show his discomfort or his pain as they hiked. He watched the landscape, looking for any signs of battle, but the bumping and jolting almost made him feel sick. He closed his eyes and struggled to drop into a trance.

Shannon had said it was a few hours away, but to Oirion, that felt like a gross understatement. The orcs kept going with no rest. He hoped they had reached their destination as the group stopped marching, but they were met by more orcs. He twisted as best he could to see, but all he could see were mountains and trees. Snow covered slopes spread out to either side, covered with blood stains and battle scars. The orcs who met them were just a scouting party.

The orcs traded off carrying Oirion and moved along swiftly, talking in their rough language. Oirion tried to pray, tried to think how he would write about this in a report, but it all ran into how tangled and messed up all of this was. Like a bad dream, he thought.

The orcs stopped at a level spot before a great steep slope that fell away into fantastically deep gorge. Kneeling, they helped Oirion sit up, taking great care not to hurt him. One spoke to Oirion and pointed out to the west. He had no idea what they were doing, but just then the sun left the bank of clouds. It sent glorious streams of light shooting through a break in a high pass before them. Light hit the mountains, setting the snow to a glow and the air shimming with energy. Oirion was in awe of the beauty of this place. He forgot all his pain for a moment at the sheer magnificence of it.

He tore his eyes off the sunset to look over at the orcs. Their eyes were filled with the same awe, but with pride as well. The orc on his left glanced over at Oirion and gestured him to look more.

Oirion watched as the day sank fantastically into sunset. For one moment, he could see the beauty of the sunset reflected and doubled off the inside of the dome that separated this continent from the rest of the world. The colors were unlike anything he had ever seen.

When the last color faded and the light of the stars began to glow, the orcs picked Oirion up and resumed the march. The moons rose slowly, one after the other. Oirion sank back and closed his eyes, trying to imprint that sunset into his mind forever. He’d never seen another like it.

The clouds moved in and it began to snow. Fine white flakes drifted down in the still air. Their breath froze in the cold, hanging a moment before them. Soon, the wind would pick up and winter would set in. There was little chance that they would be leaving these mountains this year yet, but then maybe that meant the chase was over as well.

Long before they reached the mountain city, Oirion could feel the traces of magic from the battle. They reached the base of the avalanche-ridden pathway and slowly worked their way up the mountain, climbing over the snow and buried goblins. It wasn’t long after Oirion had sensed the battle magics that the snow-covered ledge became a pathway trodden down by the orcs. Off to the side, there was a pile of goblin corpses. It was heaped up a good twenty feet and twice as long. Orcs were bringing more bodies down, adding bits and pieces, some that were recognizable, others that weren’t. Oirion hadn’t realized until now the sheer size of the battle that had been fought.

The path wound up to the top of the final mountain to the great level plateau. Here, lamps had been raised to light the main pathway. Orcs were busy clearing the rubble from what had once been the gate. Oirion wished he could sit up to see it better, but he was left to watch as he could. What had once been the great gate was simply blasted away.

Passing through it, they entered the mountain. He could see where the force of the explosion had cracked out in all directions. Streaks ran out from the opening, across the white polished ceiling, out beyond what he could see and even down through the massive pillars that rose up to support the ceiling high above.

He couldn’t help but have his breath taken away by the sheer height of that ceiling. It rose up beyond any guess he could make. The entire chamber was illuminated with bands of light that seemed carved into the walls, gracefully flowing like lines of water or natural energy flows. It was a magic that Oirion had never even heard of before. It was similar to the Purtan lights of old, but those didn’t flow as these did. He knew that Jamie would have been asking a thousand questions about it all, but Oirion just admired the beauty of it.

Mixed with the soft flowing energy of the lights, there was the shattered energy of the battle fought, already well cleaned up. Any battle with enough power to blast a great hole through any solid wall, let alone a sealed gate, would normally take decades, possibly centuries to clean. The skill of the several orcs who were using crystals to clear the energy marks and remove the chill that hung on the walls had to be awesome to have made such progress.

Crowds of orcs were moving about, talking in the low hum of many voices. They all had long black hair and wore it braided down their backs. White robes seemed to be the fashion; both the males and females wore them with only slight differences in the cut. A few had colored belts, fine beaded detail, or jewelry, but for the most part they wore plain white gowns.

Oirion was carried through the main entrance  and then to a side door and down a hallway. The hallways were rounded, having no corners, neither at the ceiling line, nor where the rooms met. It was completely smooth, as if carved by the flow of water. There seemed to be no way to tell where you were if you simply didn’t know. It would clearly be very easy to get lost in these pristine halls. He could only guess at how long a walk it was before they entered a small room.

Several more orcs entered just behind them. One of them was in a pastel green robe with elegant yellow flowers embroidered on the trim. He smoothly lifted Oirion as if he were a sleeping child and laid him in a large soft bed. The relief of the bed after days in a cot was extreme.

The green-clad orc pulled up a chair and sat beside the bed. He looked Oirion over slowly, with eyes full of thought and compassion. He cleared his throat a little before he spoke.

“Your healing has been well seen to, but the work of the spine in a human is very fragile. They have done all they could for you. The healers you had were field-healers, not Masters. I want you to understand that the racial gap makes it very hard for us to work on you. The fact that you are not even native to the continent makes it even harder. I can get you to walk again, but the invasion of your energies is something you may not want to go through. I leave that up to you. I can give you full use of your upper body at far less a price, but it will be your call.” He spoke with a thick accent, but was understandable. His voice was rich and amazingly deep. It reminded Oirion, oddly, of his grandfather.

Closing his eyes, Oirion thought of life unable to walk, and he thought of the way he felt during and after the previous healing sessions. It was hard to think which was worse.

“If I can’t walk, I can’t ever go home,” he said. But then, without Jamie to go back to, why would he even bother to go. “Let me think about it.”

The healer nodded, then stood and left, leaving Oirion to think about what he would decide for his fate. The master healer paused at the door and looked back.

“Keep in mind that the longer you wait, the worse it will be. Once your energy sets in the injured pathways, healing will be beyond even me.” He left, closing the round-topped door softly behind him.

***********

The blue lights that glowed off the white walls of the room Shannon was given were soft, defused, and did not burn him as most lights did. Behind him, the silk drapes fell from the ceiling to the floor, hiding the sunken pool that served as a bath.

He sat holding his left hand, cradling the injury and preparing to peel the glove off. He lifted his blood-shot eyes to the massive mirror that hung on the wall above the great bed at the far end of the room. He could see himself – as black as the room was white. His hair, his clothes, and his skin all showed evidence of the battle. The energies he had swept up, he had used to shore up shields and to illusion his face, but under it, he had been burned. His flesh had peeled off, cracked, and reached the point it no longer even seeped. Pain shivered through him even now, but with the energies that he had taken from the battle and cleaned up from the great battlefield, he had put much of himself back together.

Again, he had to ask himself what he was thinking; why was he pushing things this far. With Gerome so close, with his demons all about, with so much to lose and no support here to aid him, this was crazy. He had broken more rules than he had kept and he was suffering for it.

He would suffer for a long time for this, and the idea of Oirion or Riven even getting close to him made him feel sick.

He drew a slow breath, then slowly took the tip of a finger of his glove in his teeth and pulled it. One by one, he forced himself to pull despite the pain and the further damage it was causing to the remains of his flesh. When he had gotten the glove loose enough, he carefully pulled it off. He looked at his hand. It was burned on the palm, even with the repair he had done to his body. The back was peeling in places where blisters had broken and fluid had stuck to the glove.

Whatever magic the orcs used to light the room was soft enough that it didn’t irritate his scorching raw skin. He would have to look closer at the magics here; not even in Norwood were the lights so easy to bear. He slowly pulled the other glove off as well.

Without looking, he reached to undo the row of hooks along his side to take the surrcoat off. The vest below had the same hooks as did the tunic. Every layer was done in rows of small, flat, bone hooks. Metal could not be tolerated in such close proximity to his body; metal hooks on his clothes were out of the question. It was difficult to even carry a sword.

All of his clothes were scorched. Each layer that he peeled off revealed even more heavily burnt clothing underneath. The tattered silk against his skin, he left on. What was left of it was dried in places to the burns that still covered his body. To pull it off would rip open the wounds and make them far worse. He took off his boots carefully and set them aside.

The last piece he took off was always his pants. It was hard for him to undress; his reluctance to see his own body had never gone away. Thousands of years had taught him how to do it, despite the reality of his scars and any pain he might be enduring. He moved to the pool and stepped in carefully, not looking at himself. There was something about the severity of the scars that was tangible proof that he was not a mortal man anymore.

He had turned the hot water off and left only the cold running before he had set to undressing. The water was deep, cool, and offered relief to his body. He found the walls of the pool lined with a seat which allowed him to ease down until the water reached his chin. He closed his eyes and let the water pull heat out of his body. He might have cried if he had the energy or enough fluid in his body to make tears. Having neither, he simply remained still.

After soaking for a while, the scabs softened enough that he could carefully peel off the blouse without causing too much damage. It was not painless by any means, but it allowed him to wash the wounds clean and seal them with what magics he could afford. It would be far better to use energy now to seal his flesh than to allow the energy to seep out through open wounds.

He stood up, letting the water sink back to his chest level. His head was growling at the lack of energy now. He had pushed it a fraction farther than was wise, but he’d had little choice. He breathed slowly and deeply. Nothing but the living would offer him the proper energy to heal with. He had no real healing here tonight, just repair. What he had just used were Binding Spells, to stop the bleeding of energy. After the woman on the altar, the idea of orc energy made him feel a bit queasy and goblins were even worse. Either way, it would have to be dealt with soon.

Slipping out, he took the long white robe that was set on the poolside for him. Taking great care not to further damage his skin, he set the robe on over his shoulders gently. It was soft and light, but too large. Too large was better than too small. Even though the fabric was soft, it still hurt as it drug over his damaged body.

Just as he drew the robe closed, the door to the room opened. He shook the length of the sleeve down to hide his hands and stepped out through the curtains. Energy from the hallways washed in like a gust of hot air.

An orcan woman wearing a light green robe slipped into the room, closing the door carefully. She bowed with obvious nervousness.

“Forgive me for intruding,” she said. “The Council of Wise wishes to see you.”

Shannon was not at all surprised about that. He had expected it sooner, but was thankful for the time to bathe, to wash the stink of blood and burn off of himself. He hated to use magic in front of her, but better her than the council, no doubt. There was no way he was going to put his blood-filled gloves back on, and less of a chance that he would walk among others without them. He had to be covered.

He reached through realms, slipping his energy and his hand through to a vault. A split moment, a direct thought, and he pulled fresh gloves out of the same vault where the bottle of dragons was stored. They were not the black leather that he always wore when out in the world, but rather a pair of softer gloves that he wore at home.

“Of course,” he said, pulling the left one on first, hiding his hands as much as he could. He almost winced at the pain, but pain was no stranger to him and he had learned to master himself through much worse.

She bowed again, then opened the door and held it for him. The shift of the fabric on his skin was painful. He knew the energy of a crowd would reopen his burns if his discipline slipped for even a moment. He caught up his burnt cloak and slipped it on over his shoulders. It would look bad and be considered improper, but he would need the shields that were woven into it.

She led him through the halls of the great city. It was far older than the race that lived within it. Only in the deepest holds of the city of Ulam Bac, in the very depths of the catacombs, were there magics as old as the ones that flowed through the walls here.

Like the ancient halls of the capital of Purt, there were hidden doors that could be opened or were visible only to those with the magic keys. In Purt, those keys were tied to the bloodlines of Armond, but here, that could not be. Shannon had to wonder how these orcs had first opened the doors. He could see the doors, like faint outlines, but doubted that he could get them to open for him in this realm.

His guide, however, opened one of those doors and led him down a long wide staircase. The walls here were inlaid with magics that, while very ancient, were still gathering enough power to fully activate. He wished he had the time to pause and study them for a moment, but he didn’t.

Despite his discomfort, he followed his guide with smooth grace. They reached a great double door at the bottom of the staircase. It was inlaid with even older magic than the others. The magic here was not generated by these orcs, but perhaps they controlled just enough of it to claim the city.

The doors opened to a softly lit chamber beyond. Shannon paused. He could read no energy in the room, could not see what was there and felt very much like he was about to step into a trap. The woman stopped inside the door, bowing nervously.

“Please.” She gestured forward. Shannon drew a slow deep breath. Too many times he’d been entrapped, too many years of capture forbade him the comfort of trust. It would be unpleasant, but possibly necessary to come with back-up.

Before he entered the room, with just a whisper, he woke Shaa. Out of its Sanctuary, the demon stirred and rose up through Shannon’s core like a spine-covered serpent. Painful in its own right, Shannon tried not to even flinch as Shaa placed himself in Shannon’s chest. This was not the first time Shannon had called on the demon. He was not eager to do it at all; the price was always high, but, as before, it was imperative that he not be captured. Their Deal, made several thousand years ago, still held, and the demon knew what he was summoned for without explanation. He settled in, ready to defend Shannon at the slightest command.

The moment that he passed through the door, Shannon sensed that it was a very good idea that he had woken Shaa. Magics clicked and locked. He could see nothing of the chamber except for a glowing Demon Ring on the floor before him. The power within it was very ancient and very powerful. It radiated with a dark, deep, sapphire-blue color. He knew that the moment he moved to the center of it, the color would change. It would, however, lock onto either him or Shaa, not both. The other would be free to use magics in a fight.

“Please, step before us,” an orc’s voice said.

Shannon knew that there would be no possible escape if they chose to betray him now. There was little difference between being locked in this chamber or locked in the ring itself. He had been fighting, running, and escaping far too long now to not know the rules at this point.

It had happened before that Shaa had deflected the magic Shannon had been attacked with, allowing him to slip a demon ring. This ring was far older and far more powerful than most he had faced, but Shannon suspected it would work the same. He would summon Shaa again after he escaped, if it came to that, and heal him then.

He walked across the outer rings of the circle, his footsteps making the lines of magic ripple outward with black light. Without faltering, he stepped into the center ring. He felt the magic of the ring lock and Shaa shift into readiness, starting to bristle as he gathered in power. Shannon’s knees almost buckled at the pain of Shaa’s action, but he had expected it.

The magic of the ring flashed, changing from blue to an alternating maroon and purple, not the colors Shannon had expected. Either it was not reading Shaa at all, or it was not reading Shannon’s energy right. Or, maybe, it was reading him better than any other magics he had come across. The light should be burning blood-red for a demon.

“You would draw your blood magics into our halls?” an orc demanded in a high tone from somewhere off to his right.

“You sipped the energy of the deaths of our people, denying them their soul energies in the next life,” another exclaimed.

“Do you expect us to believe that you walk innocently with golden priests? You linger at his bedside, absorbing his pain,” another half roared

“You sip his energy!”

Each accusation came from another part of the chamber. Shannon guessed that there were at least twelve, the standard number for white magics, or perhaps twice that many. It might take twenty-four to hold a Ring this large.

“What have you to say for yourself?” one asked from behind him.

“Why should we not seek to banish you now?” another asked in a softer tone from somewhere in front of him.

Shannon flexed his left hand, feeling how weakened he already was. A fight here might reduce him to crawling into a demon’s hole and trading his own blood off for a place to hide. If he hadn’t taken such injury, if he hadn’t had his shields torn apart by the company of the last few months, this would be dealt with very differently. As it was, he did not want a fight. He would avoid it if at all possible.

“You would ask my aid,” Shannon said softly, “and then betray me when I am weakened by the magics I used to free you?”

“You drank the soul-life of our people!” one shouted. Shannon did not bother to try to look toward the voice.

“I set you free,” Shannon said simply.

“You drank the pain of the priest whom you pretend to protect,” another said with bitter accusation. “Demon-spawn.” He snarled the words as if they were made of venom.

This was not going well. Shannon was blind. He could neither see them nor read their energies. He was trapped in a magic far older than they were, and he was already beaten beyond anything he would dare to risk even for his own people. What in the hells was he doing aiding orcs? He knew why. Shaa even whispered it at him and he could only agree. Gerome; they were at war with Gerome.

“Call me what you will. I set you free and took great pain upon myself in doing so. Does that count for nothing? Would you rather I be driven beyond my means and be forced to draw from the living… or worse; to lose control all together? You have seen my power. Would you rather it be wild? I took only what I needed to remain in control. You cannot argue that.”

“You drank of your own priest,” another retorted.

Shannon felt disgusted at his weakness for doing that. Yes, he had. He couldn’t deny it. He didn’t know how they knew, but they did.

“Only to ease his pain and aid him to sleep,” Shannon said softly. He could almost see Oirion’s eyes, swimming in the trauma of his healing sessions.

“You pretend to care,” one scoffed.

Shaa twisted and snarled at the boldness of the accusations against Shannon.  Shaa’s mood did not help Shannon to stay calm. Shannon could feel the energy of the ring under him, around him, slowly building. He had to defuse them. Even if he won this fight, such a battle would alert all the greater demons around, and that was a fight he would not win.

“You have nothing to say then?” a lone orc asked in a great deep voice.

“If you have already made up your minds, if my actions have not eased your fears, then nothing I say will.”

“Do you deny what they claim?” a soft voice asked from higher up.

“Do they deny that it is I who broke the seal…. the seal that had turned your city into a tomb? Do they deny it is I who carried the priest down the river? Do they deny that all of my company will testify that I have guided and protected them for months? Can they deny that my shields, as well built as they were, are now completely shredded? To justify their claims out of context or without understanding is as wrong as a flat-out lie would be.”

“How is it that you broke the seal?” the orc asked.

Standing in a Demon Ring, it would show if he lied, so his answers had to be worded very carefully. He almost laughed. No wonder demons were known for their riddles.

“Very good question,” he said to them all. “Maybe you should have asked that before you thought it was a good idea to insult me, or deny me the passage and healing for my company. Passage and healing were promised for setting your people free; you did not require explanations when it was agreed upon. If I were what you seem to think I am, would I not have made a Deal and shook the hands of your men? I did no such thing.” He chaffed at the reality of how demon-like he was, dealing with all of this. Gerome would be so pleased.

“Red ripples from your very presence,” an orc to his side sneered. “Perhaps we should seek to banish you and then see what happens.”

Shannon looked over, trying to see the orc who spoke so boldly and recklessly to him. It wasn’t so reckless, he reconsidered… today, anyway, not so much. Normally, this would never be happening. Once again, he was put in a bad situation because of the company he was with. There was an odd irony: he was in the company of princes and priests, and it was they who kept putting him into trouble…. not the other way around.

“Perhaps,” the soft-spoken orc said from his position further back and above the others. “Perhaps the question we need ask is not what you are, but who you are. Blindly following the images on the surface has brought down empires on misunderstandings. I cannot help but know they travel as ten.” He paused a moment. “Look at the company: the Golden Child, the Mother, the Warrior King, The High Priestess, the Dwarven Monk, the Son of Purt, the Sorcerer, the Queen of the Woods, the Masked King and we all know who would be left to fill the tenth place. Before any of you speak so quickly, consider a moment if it is he you test, or he who tests us. Has he not fought our enemy? Has he not set us free?” The orc’s voice was slowly moving closer until he was right before Shannon. “There is one last thing I must ask to prove to my people who you are. Should any of your companions wish to, will they be free to stay with us?”

“They may stay if they wish, but Oirion will be healed. He must be.” Shannon wondered why he had said that. He really didn’t care if Oirion was healed or not. It would be entirely better if the man chose to stay put and remain far away from Shannon.

An old orc leaning on a great staff stepped out of the darkness onto the outer rings, breaking the magics and allowing the room to slowly come into view. Around the ring, twenty-four cloaked and hooded orcs stood. Beyond them was a vast hall that seemed to be a tomb of some sort. On the other side, a flight of stairs descended from the far wall, matching those Shannon had come down when he entered the room.

The old orc walked to Shannon, his voice and face more Elven than Orcan. He sank to a knee before Shannon.

“Forgive my children, Mal’kazadon. They have been under great strain and fear. They, perhaps, feared you would not come to our aid in this age.”

Shannon was utterly stunned. He had been called a lot of things, but never that: never the Angel of Death. He didn’t even know how to respond to it. The ring of orcs all sank to a knee about him. Out of habit, he laid his hand on the old orc’s head. If he’d had a blessing, he would have given it.

“Fate and Prophecy are different,” he said softly. “What can be and what will be are not always the same.  Free will, often with ignorance, drives men to do things and make choices which they would not have made otherwise. To the world, just now, I am simply Shannon. I have been known by other names, but that is what I wear now. My company is young still, needing to get back to the world. They are in need of allies, both today and later. They are not kings, but lost and exiled princes, confused children. Do not put titles on them yet. They have much to do to earn such things.” He knew that his response was trickery; to speak the truth and yet not say that he was the Archangel nor admit that he wasn’t. He didn’t like the game, but the last thing he needed was for them to start calling Dave “the Son of Purt.”

“Then we will simply honor your arrangement with the scouts.” The old orc rose to his feet. “The priest will be healed, even against his wishes. That was what we promised you for opening the gate. Rest and recover.” He motioned with a hand, opening the great back door. “The city is yours to move about as you wish.”

Shannon bowed his head, turned and quickly walked out of the ring, knowing that the ring would re-lock if the old orc moved out first. He needed no guide; he could follow his own trail back just fine. It also gave him a chance to clean up any evidence of it as he went.

**********

Oirion stared at the ceiling feeling defeated. He could not go through any more. He wanted to walk, but if the orcs would let him stay… They had said he could teach. He would have a life and a place, and wasn’t that enough? Maybe it was God’s will that he be put here, to help them learn of Him or to learn of humans as good people.

He was wishing for and missing Jamie’s counsel. Jamie would have never even hesitated to be here to study this new race, but Oirion wasn’t Jamie and he did not find the same satisfaction in study. He had done only what was required in school while Jamie did extra, just for fun.

The door opened. He lifted his head up as best he could. He had some mobility again, but he couldn’t sit up on his own. The sessions he had gone through to get him this far were simply horrid. He felt ill at the thought of more. Then he saw his guest and his thoughts shifted.

He barely recognized Shannon. The man wore a white robe, similar to that of the local people. He had a long gold embroidered belt. His hair had white streaks that ran from the temple all the way to the ends. Whatever magic had been used had definitely taken its toll on the Purtan.

He wore soft buckskin gloves and a tall collar. It was like the black one, covering his entire neck, but this one matched the blue of his eyes. It rose up out of the robe and added color to his attire; very out of the ordinary for Shannon. The man seemed to almost move differently than he did in the leathers. Somehow Oirion knew that under the robe, Shannon was burned from whatever magic he used to break the gate. Even from where Oirion had been, it was felt and heard. He watched Shannon sweep the robe elegantly with his hand, sitting smoothly as one does when practiced with wearing robes.

“You made it, did you?” Oirion asked, “and the others?”

“Everyone made it,” Shannon said, resting his hands in his lap, one in the other.

“Even Theo?”

“Even Theo.” Shannon looked up from his hands to Oirion. “They tell me you are giving up. I cannot have that. I am sorry, but you will go through with the healing… the entire process.”

“You are not the one who has to endure it,” Oirion objected.

“I have endured that and worse. You will do it. I will not leave them, or you, any other option.”

“You enjoy my pain that much?” Oirion demanded angrily, obviously fearful of the healing.

“No, but I have not put up with you this long just to have you coward out and die. You are more than that and have more to offer to the world. You have a choice; I will sit with you through it or I can leave. Make your choice,” Shannon finished as three green-robed healers came in.

“Shannon. No! I can’t do it!” He tried to push himself back. Shannon spoke to the orcs; they nodded and took their positions around Oirion. “Shannon, you can’t make this sort of decision. It’s my life… and my body!”

Shannon reached over and took Oirion’s hand. A healer took his head and two others each took a foot.

“You said I could make the choice,” he yelled at them, but he didn’t let go of Shannon’s hand.

“They did, and they would let you. I will not,” Shannon said. “I am sorry, Oirion, but this is the way it is.”

Oirion was spun into the power so hard and fast that he couldn’t even fight with another word.

***********

Getting to his feet was proving to be very difficult. Oirion sat on the edge of the bed, getting his balance for the attempt. He had gotten this far and was not going to give up. Beyond that, he wanted to see the others, and lying in bed was making him think of nothing but his grief and the loss of Jamie. He was also very tired of having an orcan woman hold a clay pitcher for him to pee in and having the flat one slid under him for more. It was really the most humiliating thing he had been through since he was a child.

He was used to having Jamie right there, with the healer’s ability at his fingertips. It would’ve been one thing to have Jamie help him; it was another to be at the mercy of a stranger.

He didn’t know how long he had been in the city of the orcs or even if the others were still here. The orcs didn’t speak to him and they didn’t tell him of the battle. All he knew was that Shannon had come and forced him to be healed. It had been the worst healing session he had endured, but it was the last one. He had blacked out at one point and woke to the room empty, all except for Shannon who had sat in place, head bowed. If nothing else, he was sure that Shannon wasn’t going to leave without him. It was a strange comfort.

He drew a breath and pushed himself up. His legs were slow to respond and weak, nearly jelly under him, but somehow he held on long enough that they remembered what to do. Gripping the back of the healer’s chair set at his bedside, he moved toward the small door that led to the next room –  the orc-style privy.

Normal orcs have a chamber used by those within the same social level. They would just heap it on the floor to grow mushrooms and certain beetles that they feed their imps. He wasn’t real sure what to expect. He wasn’t even sure how he knew about it, but he seemed to.

The room was white, as every other room he had seen. The walls were smooth with no seams and an orb was set halfway into the ceiling, glowing softly. In one corner, there was a basin that stuck out of the wall and flowed with moving water. A towel and a ball of what he expected was soap was set on a small stand of polished pine beside the basin. In the back corner (if it could be called a corner) was what looked rather like a birdbath stand, in Oirion’s mind. As he approached it, he could see that it was hollow and had water flowing down the inside from just below the lip.

There was nothing else in the room, so he assumed that was the thing to use and he did. He held the wall, desperately trying not to make a mess or fall over. By time he followed the wall back to the bed, his legs were trembling. He dropped onto the bed, frustrated at his weakness and how little he had done. His back hurt so bad that it was almost enough to bring tears to his eyes. He wanted to roll over, to at least be on his back, but he didn’t have the energy left. He felt older than he ever had in his life.

After several hours of rest, Oirion forced himself back up. It wasn’t easy, but he managed to get the robe on and revisit the privy before the healer returned. He sat on the side of the bed, too tired to do anything else, but too stubborn to lie back down. She didn’t say anything, just went to him and ran her hand down his spine. She pushed him to sit up more and nodded with a grunt.

Offering an arm, she stood, waiting for him to take it. He reached up, took hold of the great solid forearm and pulled himself back to his feet. She guided him from the safety of the bed and walls with slow easy steps. Oirion had to wonder if this was not a test of some sort that God had forced upon him.

The healer took Oirion through the halls in a slow walk. They rested in stages, using benches that were set in the walls. He was ready to lie down, pride or not. Then they came to a room that was bright, large, and had sunshine pouring down through slanted windows in the ceiling. Sitting together, he saw the group of people he had come this far with, and he was glad see them all, even Ivan. They all wore long white robes. Only Shannon was missing.

He walked to where they sat on comfortable chairs around a table with bowls of fruit and flowers on it. In the center of the table there was a tall crystal decanter with glasses of wine around it. After he had taken his seat, the orc woman left him, expressing a simple little smile and nod.

“Oirion,” Theo smiled brightly, “you’re up! We were beginning to forget what you looked like. Wine?” he offered, half rising to get him some.

“No, thank you.” The walk here had made him tired and his back hurt from the length of time on his feet. Nonetheless, he was glad to be there. He worried the wine would make it too hard to get up and get back to his room. Already stumbling, wine would not help his dignity any.

The energy that had been emotionally violating was all but gone now. It began to fade as soon as the healing sessions had stopped. He was still angry at Shannon, but now that it was over, he was begrudgingly grateful it had been done and that he was back on his feet. Seeing his friends cheered him up even more.

As they happily welcomed him back, Oirion realized that he had never seen these people actually cleaned up.

He looked at them all, clean and fresh, and realized that these were all impressive people.

Theo was the most changed, he thought. He looked like a different person with his hair cleaned and tied back from his face. With Cindie no longer hanging on him, he seemed to look a lot bigger and stronger. Maybe the man had even gotten thicker and taller, but it was hard to say. Theo almost looked regal in a delicate sort of way, and oddly familiar, Oirion thought.

“Where’s Shannon?” he asked, as Travis crawled into his lap.

“Who knows?” Ivan said, leaning forward to take a slice of fruit. “We haven’t seen him since we came inside. Not a word about him from the Ulam-Ar, either.”

“The Ulam-Ar?” Oirion asked.

“That’s the name of the city, and calling them orcs is just wrong,” Theo said, filling his own glass again as well as topping off Riven’s.

“How do you feel?” Tavia asked.

“Just a little sore,” he said modestly. Travis snuggled up against his chest and sighed. He went limp in a state of relaxed comfort.

“Someone missed you,” Kelly said softly.

Oirion looked down at the boy in his lap. He had never really been around children that much, but this one seemed to get into his lap a lot. He had found himself getting jealous when the boy found someone else to sit with, a rather unlikely emotion, all things considered. They were all given turns, but usually it was Theo.

Travis had even found Riven’s lap once. Oirion smoothed the child’s hair and looked over at his mother, who sat watching. She looked radiant in white. He tried not to think about her at all… her, or any other woman.

Shannon’s words had been eating at him since they had been spoken and he hated that. Sure, he knew Saint Tyredelle was married, but he hadn’t really thought about it; he hadn’t looked at it in that way. Why did it have to be Shannon to point it out to him? He hated Shannon right now for being right all the damned time, for having to be the one to force him through things that he feared to do, and for just being so damned perfect.

“Are there any plans as to what to do now?” Oirion asked.

“Not too much,” Riven said. “The choice is to go on, or stay here. We haven’t really talked about it much. What with both you and Shannon not being around, we couldn’t really decide anything.”

“Was he hurt?” Oirion asked, wondering what they knew.

“Not really,” Dave said. “The whole thing just sort of wore him out. There were a lot of wards on that damn wall, plus the seal. He was thrown pretty far, but he looked alright, I guess,” he added.

“The seal?” Oirion asked.

“The Church Seal,” Riven said softly. “The cardinals sealed them in here to die.”

“Surely not,” Oirion said in disbelief.

Riven looked at the other priest, displaying the truth in his eyes. Oirion saw it in the dwarf’s haunted look and was grateful when the man dropped his eyes and said no more about it.

“How did he break it?” Oirion asked. “I thought it was unbreakable.”

“He burned it and then froze it,” Theo said. “It was impressive. You should’ve seen it, Oirion. He just stood there holding an arm up and all the wards started to spark.” Theo excitedly jumped to his feet as he continued. “They kept sparking until they were almost gone and then he went like this…” Theo put his arms down and then thrust them forward, “…and poof! He caught on fire and shot fire out his palm… so strong that it drove the fight back with its heat. Then he reached up and took ice and hit it again. It was so cold, our breath actually froze. It was awesome! The whole thing, wall and all, just– BOOM! It was gone, and we were all thrown back and covered in the stone dust. It was so awesome!” he explained, excited and more animated than they had ever seen him. The others felt the same enthusiasm, even if they didn’t show it. No one mentioned that Theo had thrown around his own power. It wasn’t forgotten, but no one was about to speak of it to Oirion.

“Theo was very impressed,” Kelly said almost fondly. Theo looked over at her, his eyes dancing.

“I was! I am! My God, who has power like that?” Theo said, returning to his seat.

“Shannon,” Salma said indifferently with a shrug. “Speaking of the devil,” she added sweetly as she nodded her chin toward Shannon as he came in through the door. He was wearing the white robe that Oirion had seen earlier, but the high collar that was buttoned up was no longer blue; it was white as well. In the robe and the sunlight, he looked like a different man.

The way his new clothing fit showed that he had a strong chest and that the thickness of his arms wasn’t due to his clothes as they all had previously thought. Also, his hair was undone from the braid. It ran straight down his back, nearly to his knees. His hands were, not surprisingly, in his own gloves.

Oirion heard Tavia breathe in at the sight of him. She was clearly impressed. So was he, but not in the way she was. He had once studied Saint Tyredelle. Shannon in that robe and with his hair in that style looked so like the painting Oirion had in his chambers that it made him feel almost like he was falling and that he had just hit the floor.

It is just the Purtan in Shannon, he reasoned. They are both Purtans in white, that’s all; but it was damned unsettling.

“You look almost saintly in that,” Riven said, trying to shake off the same feeling. Shannon didn’t really smile at that. He sat in the chair that was left and smoothed out the robe’s length.

“It’s very flattering,” Salma said.

Shannon looked up at her. “Just different,” he said.

“Where have you been?” Kelly asked. “We missed you.”

“Resting,” he said. “How do you feel?” he asked Oirion, taking the topic off himself.

“Sore… but better.”

Shannon nodded and then glanced around at the group. That was it from Shannon. There was no mention of anything about Oirion’s healing, no ‘I told you so,’ not even a look to press it. Sometimes Oirion was not at all sure of what to make of Shannon. Any other man would have made some issue over the fact that he was right about forcing Oirion to be healed.

“We have been invited to stay here as long as we want,” Shannon said.

“Do we?” Theo asked. “It’s nice here… and warm.”

“This is where that ‘split-up later’ comes into play,” Dave said, leaning back and putting his left ankle up on his right knee. “What are you doing, Shannon?”

“I am going.”

“Why?” Tavia asked. “We could all spend the winter and move on in the spring.”

“These people are already in a war with the Church. They do not need my presence to make it worse.”

“But you could help them,” Theo objected.

“You apparently have a lot of power; you could set their enemies back more than a step or two,” Tavia said.

“I could,” he agreed.

“So, why don’t you?” Riven asked.

“Because it would turn into the sort of war that created the Bog and warped this land, and continues to do so. I am not so arrogant as to start running into every war I cross. It is better for you and for everything within a thousand miles that I do not stay and help them. It would be best to put the orcs between me and anything that would challenge me. What I am doing is not the question at hand. The question is: who is staying and who is going. It is a personal choice and has to be made on your own. I am going, but what are you doing?”

They all sat there quietly, considering their next move.

“I’m going,” Dave said, “for whatever reasons.”

“Me, too,” Salma said. “There’s no way I’d stay here.”

“I’ll go,” Kelly said, and then looked questioningly at Theo.

Ivan licked his lips and thought about it a moment. “Yah, yah, I guess I’m in, too,” he decided.

“Oirion,” Riven asked, “you going?”

Oirion looked at Shannon, the man who gave him that eerie feeling… the feeling that everything he believed, everything he valued, everything he knew to be true, was a lie; that he was on the verge of a cliff and was about fall off…. if it weren’t for that man’s patience.

“I think we should all stay together,” Tavia said. “We have begun to be able to work together, to rely on each other’s strengths and to compensate for each others’ weaknesses. I’m not an orc and I don’t feel comfortable sitting inside a mountain that was very close to becoming a tomb. I don’t think we can do it alone or in little groups. I think we should just look at each other as family now and do what we must to survive.”

“I agree,” Theo said, nodding.

“Then is it decided?” Riven asked. “We all go. When do we go, Shannon?”

“When the weather breaks.”

“How long do you think that will be?” Theo asked.

“I do not know.”

“What do we do until then?” Ivan asked.

“Make use of the time,” Salma said. “Rest… and maybe someone might teach Travis how to use that dagger. Of course, we could make use of our beds in other ways than just rest.” She shot Shannon a look. “What do you think?”

Shannon just gave her a steady look. Obviously he was not interested.

“He’s a child,” Tavia said, glancing toward Travis.

“I was seven when I killed my first man,” Kelly said. “He’s nearly that age. This isn’t the fields of Purt; it isn’t the ports of Dacan, either, but worse. The boy needs to know how to defend himself. It may save us all grief later. I’d like to teach him myself.”

Travis sat up and smiled. He scrambled up and ran to her. He jumped into her lap, threw his arms around her neck and kissed her nose, then snuggled into her big tattooed arms.

Dave looked with a startled expression at the boy who had seemed to hear. He opened his mouth to say something of it, but caught a look from Shannon. His uncle gave him a small shake of his head to say to let it go and keep it to himself. Dave had to wonder what sort of magic Shannon might have laid down that the others all seemed oblivious to the boy’s change in manner.

“That settles it, I guess,” Dave laughed, changing the topic. “I’ll train with Ivan some more. I should be able to take him out soon – in play, anyway.”

“Ha!” Ivan laughed. “Bring it on, boy.” Dave grinned, looking forward to testing himself against the big gladiator.

“What about you, Theo… you up to play a bit?” Dave asked.

Theo looked at them, a skeptical look on his face.

“No bows,” Ivan said quickly to Theo, who smiled a tiny bit. It was obvious that tension remained between the two, but all things considered, Theo was very tolerant of the man who had slept with his wife… especially now that they knew he need not have been so tolerant.

Now that they all had a chance to get to know each other in relative ease and comfort, they were getting along… even Ivan and Theo.

####

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