CHAPTER ONE .
Lightning and Thunder
Theo knew that there was something very wrong before they had even gone out onto the street. It felt like little bugs crawling over his back. He knew that feeling too well. It was the same sort of tracking scan that his mother used before she hit her targets with a nasty spell. He turned in his saddle to grab hold of his staff and pulled it out as he glanced around intently.
He saw Shannon notice his action. Shannon shifted in the saddle and readjusted the way his robe fell over his thigh to allow for a quick motion to weapons he had there. By either skill or luck, Theo saw the shadow before it attacked. It was not a demon, but a small gremlin. It shot out from under the eaves of a building as they rode past. It grabbed his horse by the neck and ripped the throat out, even as Theo went for it.
Theo shouted as his horse went down. His staff flared with a flash of red light, flooding the street with illumination. Trying to not get pinned, he made an effort to escape the falling horse. He jumped free, but hit the pavement hard. Stunned for a moment, he saw that others had attacked. The horses were down. He had just enough time to see that Shannon had a shield up and was holding three of the creatures back. They were climbing on the shield, their claws digging into the power like it was soft wood.
Theo rolled up to a crouching position despite the odd fatigue that was sinking in. He shouted and swung at the creature that was attacking him. The staff hit it as it would a solid creature and sent it flying like it was nothing more than a house cat. He moved and swung at the closest one attacking Shannon, tearing it free and crushing it with the staff end.
Ivan shouted in pain just before darkness hit them. It was so cold Theo felt as if his skin had turned to ice; he couldn’t breathe and was suffocating in it. The staff in his hand flared green and his breath tore through him. He reached and grabbed hold of Shannon, who had two of the gremlins still on him, their claws sinking into his shoulders. The staff flashed in a strange burst, making them scream and fall away. Everything was swirling in chaos, making it hard to find where anything was. Theo tried to see Shannon, but there was only the sound of him yelling something before the world dropped away.
Suffocating cold rushed up, swallowing them for a moment in sheer power. Theo got a grip on Shannon’s arm as they dropped. He felt a little panic; he knew what this was and it was not a good thing. He tried to brace himself for impact, but even so, he nearly collapsed as his knees gave out when they hit solid ground under them. Pain shocked up his feet from the drop and beside him someone collapsed, hitting his leg. His grip on the staff held him up. Shannon almost stayed on his feet, but his knees buckled as well.
The darkness and storm were suddenly gone. They were all on a cold stone floor, trying to move. Ivan picked himself up from where he had landed beside Theo and grabbed Oirion’s arm, pulling him a little closer.
They were in a nearly dark cell that seemed bright compared to the street outside. Wizards in black robes stood in a ring around them. They had triggered a gate that was visible in its power lines on the floor. Theo could still see the lines. They would take a moment to fade fully, but it had revealed power and rank in that brief moment. A man stood directly before Theo. Theo could not name him, but he had met this man before.
For one moment, they stood looking at each other. Theo lifted his staff and brought it down as hard as he could. The claws snapped open and power shot down at the lines on the floor, rebuilding the gate under their feet.
It wasn’t what Theo had expected, but he didn’t let it distract him from what he was doing. Once again, he had no choice but to open up locked and rarely used power.
“Destruction,” he said in Elder Awens. The staff flared white as they were dropped into the darkness again, but not before his own magic blasted outward from him.
The river slowed and widened as the mountains fell behind them. The banks rose up in soft earth that crumbled and broke at any disturbance, making it difficult to find places to pull the boat over and camp. Some nights they drifted on without rest, suffering through the discomfort of the boat and the cold; they dozed off as often as they could. Low clouds raced across the sky in gray, rough-looking tatters. Days went by.
Kelly woke the others from restless sleep just before dawn. The banks had dropped away. They had been pushed out along a current that was a winding line of open water amid an expanse of reeds that rattled and leaned in the gusts of wind. They were no longer on the river.
“I know where we are now,” Kaava said, pushing himself up. “We are out of the elven territory and into the marshes. This will run to the west and then out to the ocean. We are only days from the coast.” He cheered up.
They all cheered up. The weather was warm enough that Riven dove over and went swimming. Such a marsh would have food. He expected to get fish, but returned with several ducks for a meal. They cheered up even more.
They found a place to pull over, welcoming the mud over the boat. As the sun rose over the mountains, its warm golden rays revealed blue sky and sunshine for a change. They spent the day fishing and braiding reeds to make fuel for the fire.
Kelly found some gnarled roots, little dried berries that tasted like rose hips, and a collection of various flat-leafed water plants she was certain were edible. Adding it all together they had a decent meal for the first time in many weeks. Free of the threat of elves, they all felt like they could breathe for a moment and spent the evening sitting together, just resting.
“I wonder if the others are alright,” Dave said softly.
“If it’s for us to know, we will,” Riven said. “Pray for their souls, wherever those souls may be, and leave it at that.”
A bit later Dave got up to walk a little, to watch the sunset. He stood in his ragged, tattered clothes, his beard long outgrown, his hair wild and a little matted. Kelly walked up and joined him. She stood at his elbow, not saying anything, just being tall and solid.
He picked at his hair, watching a flight of ducks move in and glide down, not far from their camp.
“When we lost Cindie, that was bad enough,” he said. “It feels like we can’t go just yet. We have to wait for them to catch up.”
“Shannon will,” she said.
“I hope so. We eat better when he’s around, if nothing else.”
Dave thought about reaching over to her, but he didn’t. If he did, it would be just one more thing that he would have to worry about. But tonight, he decided, if she lay beside him, he would put his arm around her.
“Dave.” She pointed to a dot in the sky as the ducks took off unhappily. “What is that?”
Even as she got the words out, a sudden gust of wind blasted powerfully out from the spot and hit the reeds, laying them over. It knocked Dave and Kelly back so hard they both flew off their feet and landed in the muddy water. Lightning snaked out over them and clouds rolled outward from the point of darkness in the sky. Rain began to slash down, and then, as quickly as it had come, it was past. The rain turned to a fine soft mist as the dark of night settled.
Kaava and Riven ran to them, as startled as they were.
“Well?” Riven asked. He lifted his nose and smelled the air, then grinned and took off. They followed him as Dave cast up a faint light to see by. They made it through the maze of water and land to where Riven slowed.
It was not what Riven had expected. He stood with his ax in hand, not sure if he should kill at once or give them a moment to explain.
Kneeling in the mud, slumped in exhaustion, was an elven prince with his hair falling in his face. His hand gripped a white staff that cast a green shield over and around him and the others with him.
The prince had hold of a man in torn and ragged elven clothes who had collapsed at his feet. The man’s long black hair was undone, spilling down over his shoulders and face in long wet coils of Purtan curls. They could see the man wore gloves and that was what gave it away.
“Shannon?” Riven asked, in disbelief and concern.
They were not alone. Ivan was there, half in the water, with Oirion just out of his reach.
The elf lifted his head slowly. He looked through the hair that had escaped its fine style and the gems that sparkled in the light of his staff magic.
“I found you,” he said in Awens. Then he toppled over and was out, the light of his staff fading into nothing.
Shannon awoke with a jerk. He sat up half way, then rolled over, holding his head in obvious reaction of pain. Riven rose, but didn’t move to the man who so rarely even allowed for contact. They watched in silence as he pushed himself up and held his head a moment, breathing slowly and deeply until he looked up at the dwarf, who stood anxiously waiting to know what was going to happen in the next moment.
He couldn’t deny the relief that he felt when Shannon looked up as just Shannon, no glowing red eyes. It almost made him feel rather guilty.
“We missed you,” he offered to Shannon.
“It is a headache, Riven; I am not going to bite you.”
“Sorry.” Riven sank to sit. “It’s been a long year. You know how nerves get when you’re a cleric.”
“Yes, I do.” Shannon looked over at the elf who was unconscious and looking very pale. His hand was still locked around his white staff and he was barely breathing. Shannon moved closer to him and with an almost tender touch, put a hand on his forehead.
Dave and Riven had carried the unconscious men to the small camp they had made, trying to warm and dry them in the warmth of their fire. It had been hours, but at least Shannon was awake to give them an idea of what was going on.
“You want to tell us what happened?” Dave asked. “Seems we have new friends.”
Shannon smoothed back the hair from the elf’s face. He held the elf’s wrist in his hand, totally focused on him for a moment, and then looked up at his nephew.
“Ask Theo when he wakes. I have to see to my shields.” He shifted into the position he used and immediately dropped into a trance.
It was Ivan who woke first. He was shivering, sweating, and twitching long before he finally jarred awake with a shout and thrashing arms. Kelly grabbed him and shook him awake. He grabbed hold of her and just held on, his breath short, choking on tears.
“Ivan,” she said kindly. “It’s alright. You’re with us now. It’s alright.”
Ivan slowly let go of her and turned to look at Riven. He looked at the dwarf for a long time, then over to Dave, then back to Riven, appealing.
“I would ask you bless me, Priest. I feel like I need anything you can offer me.”
Riven went to Ivan and took the big man’s hands. “Ivan, I would bless you if I felt that my heart was solidly dedicated to the church that gave me the robes.”
“I don’t care what God your heart is dedicated to. I know you’re a golden priest and I need your protection and touch on my soul. The God of Purt is not in competition with the God of your forefathers. You can be priest to both, and my Gods never feel anger for the aid and kinship of the other Gods of light. Please, Riven.” he begged, tears spilling down from his blood-shot eyes.
Riven nodded and bowed his head. He took the big hands in his and whispered the prayers of Purt. Then, he switched to Dwarven and finished with the prayers of light, peace, and protection that he had heard his grandfather say so often.
He stayed a long time holding Ivan’s hands as the golden light circled through and healed them both, holding them warm and safe in its embrace. Only when it held still did Riven let go. Ivan had calmed, and he breathed slowly and quietly.
“Better?” Dave asked the big man. Ivan looked at his friend, but none of his usual humor was in his eyes. He sat silent for awhile, then looked up at them.
“We were taken captive. The elves healed Oirion in their desire for slaves. I did what I could to hide who he was, and it seems to have held. If it hadn’t, they wouldn’t have sold him in open market. Instead, there would have been a war between Gerome and the evils in that city. It was bad enough as it was. But you know… Oirion, he’s so damn proud and stubborn; they would come to look at him and he’d injure them, a few he even killed. It got to the point that the market master had to put him in another cell.”
He was silent for a moment. “We were bought and, as we passed through the last edges of the city, shadow creatures attacked us.” He was still a moment, his eyes seeing the past. “There was not warning at all; they just came at us. Then the realm opened and we fell though.
“When we hit the ground, I tried to grab for Oirion, but before I could even get my bearing, we fell again and here we are.” He looked up. “I can’t explain the darkness, or the cold, or the touch of the shadow creatures, but there it is… and worse; I’m sure Gerome felt it. It was great power that was used.” He sank forward and put his head in his hands.
Kelly offered down the helm they had picked up for him. Ivan lifted his head and took it from her with a faint smile.
“Thank you, Kelly,” he said, taking it in his hands.
“Whatever block you put on Oirion, you need to remove,” Shannon said, not moving. “It is impeding his recovery.”
Ivan crawled over to Oirion, who was not looking so well. He laid his hands on the man’s chest and whispered in Ezeeran. A soft mist seemed to swirl up out of Oirion and into Ivan’s hands. Ivan sat back with a heavy sigh.
“I hope that kept him safe.”
“It did,” Shannon said. “You did a wise thing, Ivan, thank you.”
Ivan looked over at the Purtan’s unlikely words of gratitude. He met Shannon’s ice-blue eyes a moment.
He nodded once to Shannon before he wrapped his arms around his knees and sank into silent brooding.
It was just after dawn when the prince stirred. He jerked into consciousness and lay a moment. He sat up and looked at Dave sitting at the fire. The others had gone duck hunting with Riven; Shannon was still in trance.
“Dave,” he said with relief.
Dave lifted an eyebrow at the elf before him. Theo rubbed at his face, feeling the trail of Elliot’s magic. It still held, but wasn’t Elliot’s anymore; it was the staff holding it for him. He shivered and tugged at the string of the magic so it would be begin to unravel. The energy tied into the illusion melted away, and he felt as if he shrank. Everything came at him; the memory of it all poured into his head and heart.
He covered his face in his hands, fighting to not cry. It was a task he failed at.
“Theo?” Dave asked uncertainly and with concern. Theo shook his head and held up a hand. He struggled to get up in his elven robes. Wet, muddy, and twined about him, the once fine silk was now a serious hindrance to his movement.
“Don’t touch me,” he choked out as Dave moved to come closer. The touch of the magics he had used to save the others would still be in him and about him like a bad perfume. He had to get away, to get rid of it all. He could not face his friends right now.
“Let him go,” Shannon said softly, stopping Dave from following him. Theo stumbled away. He couldn’t be around them. He struggled though the marsh and reeds until he fell to his knees. He wanted to die.
He could almost hear his mother laughing at him – at how she had won. He had done exactly what she wanted; he had done it well, and he was now hers. He could feel her hands on his skin, taste her as real as if she had been there, gloating over it as she did every time she seduced him. He revolted himself. His soul was weak and his body was pathetic. He was a coward; only in weakness did he ever use magic.
He felt like he was going insane with all of it. Remorse and grief boiled in his gut, fear at his own weakness; fear that he was no better than that elf who had been the gremlin’s vessel. He gripped fistfuls of hair, rocking in his distress. He couldn’t even consider the look that the others would give him when he returned, stained by such black magics, seduced by such power; Oirion’s look would be devastating. What would they say when they learned that he had lied to them all. They had been good to him…. and he was a liar and as black as any of the enemies they had fought. He stayed out long after the sun had set and the moons had risen, but he was unaware of time or place as his heart and mind wrestled with the demons he had hoped to escape when he had fled his home.
“You going to stay out all night or come back to camp?”
Theo jerked out of his madness, ashamed that he had been found and terrified of being seen for what he was. He couldn’t even try to talk.
“Come.” Kelly took hold of his shoulders to lift him, but he pulled away.
“Don’t touch me,” he half shouted, his voice too rough for a real shout.
“I will simply pick you up and pack you if I have to.”
“Leave me alone.”
She waited for a moment, then sank down beside him in the mud. “Alright then,” she said. “If you want me to leave you alone, tell me why.”
“You have no idea who I am.” He shook his head, too tired to cry.
“So, you did something that you wish you hadn’t, I take it.”
“Oh, that’s a mild way to put it.”
“Why did you do it?”
“I had to,” he lamented. “They would have taken Shannon. He couldn’t fight them alone.”
“Ah, so you opened your soul up to risk in order to save another? Huh. You’re right, self-sacrifice for friends is terrible, Theo. Whatever were you thinking?” she mocked him.
He looked over at her, half-shocked that she had just used such a tone. “You don’t understand, Kelly.”
She sighed, her dark eyes soft and sad. “Oh, but I do,” she smiled faintly. “You think I don’t know a warlock when I see one?” She put a big hand on Theo’s back. “Don’t worry; the others won’t see it. Even if they did, you think you would be anything other than Theo to us now? Even Oirion has formed bonds to Shannon. If that’s not odd…”
“Hmm,” she grunted. “I suspected a bit ago, but didn’t know until now. The magics you used at the battle…” She shrugged. “Impressive, Theo. Only a true warlock master can hide such power. Such things carry in the soul, life to life; it is not born of the flesh. And, my friend… not all warlocks are evil. You prove that. Now come, stop being so selfish and join your friends for a meal.”
“Selfish?” he asked with a shocked look on his face as she got up, pulling him up by the hand.
“Yes.” She smoothed his fine face in her callused paws. “Shannon, Oirion, and Ivan would be blood slaves if not for you; Gerome’s blood slaves,” she pointed out. “Come, my friend and sit with me at the fire. Someday we might talk of the magics and the things we have done, but not today. Today, you are just ‘Theo,’ and I am just ‘Kelly.’ Okay?”
“Ok,” he said weakly. He wished that he could be just ‘Theo’ around Shannon again, but he didn’t think he would ever truly be able to face any of them.
Oirion woke slowly, trying to move only an inch at time, hoping to avoid the pain, but it was just out of the question. He was surprised to see that it was Shannon at his side, kneeling supportively, helping him up and bracing his back.
“What did you do?” Shannon asked him.
“He was a Blood and if I hadn’t punched him, he would’ve known that I’m a priest. I didn’t have a choice.”
“Can you be anywhere and not get beat up? Every time I turn around, you are getting hurt.”
“I don’t do that on purpose,” Oirion grumbled. He considered asking Shannon to take the pain away again, but he knew, after he had last time, he felt a strangeness between them. He did not want to feel that again. “God, I miss Jamie.”
“You know he’s alive, don’t you?”
“No, Oirion, I mean it. If he was Turned like you think, you would feel it in your soul like a cancer that would make you sick; it would tear you up. And if he were dead, you would be in such a state of grief that your Purtan heart would simply stop beating. He’s fine.”
“And you just know all that, do you?”
“For once, don’t question me; just accept that I am not as ignorant as you think. Your longing for Jamie is a result of the Barrier. It is blocking a great deal of your bond. Once we get out of the Barrier, you’ll feel better.”
Oirion knew that he couldn’t sit up without help, but having Shannon be so close and nice was awkward. He really didn’t want to confess that every time he tried to contact Jamie, he found Shannon.
“You know, Ivan thinks you have a crush on me… and if you stay there holding me, I might get a little nervous about it,” Oirion finally said. He would’ve expected any response other than the one that he got. Shannon actually laughed. It was a real laugh, from inside, and was not whispered, but strong and mortal sounding.
“Ivan is not nearly as dumb as he pretends to be, but sometimes he interprets things in such an innocent sort of way – as a child would. Sorry, Oirion, but I am not, in the least, interested in your affections.”
“Wow,” Kelly said from the edge of the camp. “You can laugh. What the hell did you say to him, Oirion?” she asked. “Do it again.”
“Ivan,” Shannon said, as the big man entered the camp with a duck in his hand.
Shannon shook his head. “You are a great and wise man, but sometimes you see things in such a gentle way; it is a prize to have you around.”
Ivan beamed. “Wow, what did I do to deserve that out of the king of formality?”
“Your ‘some Purtan’s are that way’ comment,” Oirion said with a smile, despite himself.
“Oh,” Ivan grinned. “Right, well, say what you want, Shannon; I am a great wise man, and I will see it as I see it.”
“You do that.” Shannon smiled at him. It was a strange change and left them all sort of stunned. With a smile, Shannon looked like an utterly different man, and none of them were sure how to deal with that “other man.”
“Okay, now you can let go of me, Shannon,” Oirion said softly. “I think I can sit up on my own.”
Shannon slowly let go of him so that Oirion could take the weight slowly and test just how bad things were and to find the limits of his pain.
“God, my back hurts,” he said as a half-prayer for mercy.
Oirion used a stick as a sort of cane. He had long lost the staff they had found at the Grim’s and he missed it more now than ever before. The others had left him in camp and he needed to go find a place to relieve his body. He had gone farther than he had meant to and was now fighting his way back to the camp, trudging through the mud; every step hurt.
He stood a moment with his feet sinking into the soft earth. At least it wasn’t sweltering hot as it had been in the bog, he thought. Over all, this place reminded him of the wetlands of Purt and the training he experienced there as a teenager.
What if Shannon was right; what if Jamie was alright and at home wondering what had happened to Oirion? The thought was both comforting and upsetting, but he held it, lingering over it, asking questions of it, and trying to imagine the explanation of all this. Considering what the hell had happened to make Jamie walk off with a vampire – like it was nothing at all – helped keep him distracted.
His mind was full of those thoughts when, all of a sudden, water spun and spouted up into a geyser, forming a pillar before him. The water rose out of the center of the swirl of water and formed into the very man that he was thinking about, as if, somehow, Jamie was trying to contact him. He took a step back, startled, and excited at the idea. Even as he realized that it was out of the question because of the Barrier, he felt himself drop into a spell that felt very much like a vampire Lure. He tried to slip it, but the focus needed to attempt to escape the magic blurred. He was unable to do anything but stand transfixed by the water pillar before him. He noticed, in the center of it, there was a glowing point. His mind tried to understand it but there was nothing that he could seem to get his mind to grab hold of.
He saw the motion from within it, but it did not register in his mind, so there was no reaction for him to make. He just stood there. Somehow, he saw Shannon running from the side as well. Oirion watched as the glowing heart shot out of the chest of the water statue just as Shannon reached it.
Shannon reached out and hit it with his hand, almost catching it. It was so fast in motion Oirion barely saw it, but he knew somewhere in his mind that Shannon was trying to redirect the magic of the water thing. Even in the state he was in, he suspected that Shannon was trying to use the magic in the attack for some other purpose. What that was, only Shannon knew.
In his desperate attempt to save Oirion, Shannon had hit too hard and shattered the water ball into a million fragments of ice. By the time it hit Oirion, it was nothing but a fine, shimmering mist. The power that remained hit Oirion in the chest where the creature would have. It felt as if the water pillar had struck him and passed right through him. He staggered back and nearly fell, but he caught himself. The remaining pillar collapsed in a gush of wet and mud. Oirion stood there, stunned, blinking away spots of light.
When he could, he looked over at Shannon who stood glaring at him.
“What was that?” Shannon demanded, as if Oirion had utterly failed a child’s test.
“I tried to slip it, but it took me by surprise,” he objected. “It looked like Jamie.”
“You are bound and determined to get killed, aren’t you!” Shannon demanded. “Why do I keep saving you?” He threw his hands up and headed back to camp.
“Because you love me,” Oirion retorted back sweetly, as Shannon walked away. Oirion stood a moment, a little light-headed and wavering. He could see spots of light dancing in his eyes. He couldn’t shake the feeling of the fluid moving and flowing through him. It was a very odd feeling, one that he was certain wasn’t right. “Uh… Shannon.” He reached out a hand, feeling just a little unstable. He saw Shannon half turn, shimmering in the oddest way… and then he passed out.
Shannon heard the tone in Oirion’s voice; it was enough to turn him around just in time to see Oirion sink to the ground. He moved at once to get to the man. He had sent the beetle’s power at Oirion in a twist of healing that should have made the injuries of the last few weeks vanish and leave him nearly healed, but something had gone wrong.
Shannon’s magic never failed once he figured out how to do something. To have such a basic power go wrong was abnormal. He ran to where Oirion had toppled.
The man had sunken over into the grass and soft mud, and lay there staring up at the sky. Shannon reached out toward the priest and felt the last thing he had wanted to feel. Oirion’s astral body was rising out of the flesh that lay on the ground. It was not formed or conscious yet, but it was still reaching to Shannon for help. Once it touched Shannon’s fingertips, he would not be able to escape it. If he tried, it could go very badly very quickly and death would be the best salvation for Oirion at that point.
He did not dare to draw away or distract himself with theories about what had gone wrong to cause such an odd reaction. This type of separation of body and soul did not normally happen and, while it was not a great danger for a priest, the magic was something that he expected Oirion was not capable of. Once, such had been a power that was used often and in several ways, but there were a great many things that the Church didn’t teach anymore. Anything that revealed any sort of truth was slowly being removed and forgotten. Despite that, here was Oirion behaving like a cardinal, doing magic only a man of such rank should even be able to begin to do. Oirion surely had no idea that he was endangering himself and Shannon for his lack of education and practice with such high magics.
“Oirion,” he said as gently as he could. He dropped the whisper so that the astral mind could hear his true voice as it would sound in Oirion’s mind if they spoke telepathically. “You need to go back to your body. Let go of me and sink back.”
Oirion didn’t sink back; he remained an invisible density above his body as the power of the spell that Shannon had hit him with moved though the flesh.
Shannon was stuck; Oirion’s life was, literally, in Shannon’s hand. He began to understand that Oirion was simply avoiding the spell magic that he had been hit with, and so not metabolizing any of the demonic energy. Wise, actually; it would keep all demonic trace energies out of his soul, therefore protecting his priesthood.
The cross-over of magics that was going on in Oirion was truly fascinating and if Shannon had had the time he might have studied it, but this was not the place or the time. Shannon would have expected such a reaction from only the highest ranking cardinal, but not from Oirion. He began to relax when he realized that he only had to wait for the magics he had sent to do their work and burn free of Oirion’s body. It would only take a little time and the magic, even as tainted as it was, would leave no mark at all on Oirion’s soul. Once again Oirion surprised Shannon with magics and strength that seemed totally out of place.
He was just settling back on his heels when he heard the attack on the others. There was nothing he could do. He couldn’t risk the effect Oirion’s death would have on him. He was helpless to speed up Oirion’s recovery and helpless to aid the others. Somehow these people had come to mean something to him. They had stirred him out of his carefully constructed world of habit, rules and high demands. If they knew, they might be flattered, but Shannon had to admit it was a bad place he had allowed himself to be put in. He never should have stayed with them. He had broken his own rules and someone was going to pay for it and that made him sick. He had seen himself lose control for such foolish things as the concept of friends. He closed his eyes and focused on the magic before him.
This type of attack was not at all what Riven had expected. He had returned to camp just before Shannon had rushed past him at an all-out run; a rather impressive thing, he thought. Then, immediately after, he saw ducks he had been hoping to catch later tonight take off from the marsh heading north in a panic. There was a silence that fell over the marsh. He felt an odd surge of power from the direction that Shannon had run, but his instincts told him that was not where the danger was coming from.
He dropped the ducks that he was preparing as he heard the voices of the others returning. He could smell the mud that they were disturbing and Kaava’s wet hair, but that wasn’t all. He wasn’t sure if it was an animal that he smelled or something that was in the mud. The true danger was from whatever was far closer to them than Oirion and Shannon. He lifted his nose to catch a better whiff of the smell just as the attack came. Two dozen men charged out of a shiver of power, teleporting in from not far away. It was a skilled and difficult attack for a group of that size.
Riven had seen several warped creatures do the same thing to catch prey, but never a human, and there they were. He shouted and grabbed his ax, pulling it out with a defensive swing. He managed to jump back across the fire and throw up a blast of power that flashed out over their shields.
At least the others were warned that he was under attack, he thought, as he was slammed back with a blast of energy that sent him flying into the reeds. Scans swept out looking for one man. Riven shouted again as he scrambled up out of the mud and threw up a scatter spell that confused scans and brought them up short. They were after Shannon and that made them Gerome’s men; they all had to die.
He roared a battle cry as he brought up his arm to block another incoming blast. His shields shattered this time and he was blown back into the mud again. The wind was knocked out of his lungs and he was stunned by the attack. As he fell, the ghostly stag leapt out of his chest.
It hit the ground solidly. White light flashed out across the water from its feet and made the air about it shimmer. A wave of power rushed outward from the ground-ripping stomp of the stag toward the attackers. The wave struck the dozen or so men, staggering them all and sending several flying back.
At the same time, Ivan and Kelly rushed in from the reeds behind Riven. Leaping into the fight, they gave Riven time to get to his feet. The two great warriors attacked in unison, quickly dispatching those who had fallen and taking out another two who were staggering in the mud. Kaava’s attack came a moment later as he charged in from the side, driving his fist spikes into the back of one the attackers. He swiftly pulled his weapons from his back and continued fighting. Riven got to his feet, barely blocking a blow as the surviving men ran past him, heading in the direction that Shannon had run.
The stag caught one on his antlers and flung him aside before wheeling to leap after the others. Four of them turned to fight the animal of light and power that seemed solid until their blades passed harmlessly through it. Dave appeared out of the reeds and chopped the head off of one of them.
“Shannon, they’re after Shannon.” Riven panted.
Dave ran after the attackers who had escaped the melee to go after Shannon. Riven followed swiftly, racing over the ground; he would have overtaken anyone else. He noticed, once again, that Dave moved like Shannon, an obvious reminder of Dave’s Purtan heritage. As it was, neither one of them made it to Shannon before Theo did.
Theo stood between the attackers and Shannon. Shannon knelt over Oirion, looking back without moving at all. Theo raised his staff and the top flared. A dome of power slammed down around him, encircling Oirion and Shannon in protectiveness. The attackers hit it hard; the dome flushed with light, but held them back. It was the same dome that Theo had held over them before when they had escaped the city. The thin Awens stood unflinching.
Another shiver of power appeared off to the side and more men rushed in. Dave ducked, barely saving his head from being chopped off as a man rushed past; it was so close, his cheek was slashed open.
The fight was on and it was not going to be easy. A dozen or so of the men formed up and began to cast. They hurled a wave of force that slammed into Riven, Dave, and into Theo’s dome with power that was crushing. It drove Dave to his knees, keeping both him and Riven from getting their backs to the dome. They would not be able to get in; Theo would never be able to risk lowering the shield for even a moment. Having it at their back would have helped in the fight, but there seemed to be no hope of that.
Riven’s stag arrived, having the greatest effect. Having killed those who attacked it before, the stag proceeded to rip into those near the dome, tossing them aside with its powerful antlers. It was enough of a distraction that three of the mages who had come with the soldiers turned to fight the stag, causing the balance of power to shift. Riven was able to charge in, chopping a leg off of one of them and finishing him off with a swing into his chest as he fell.
Ivan arrived, finally catching up to the dwarf and the Purtan with an Ezeeren battle roar that for a moment distracted everyone. Kaava and Kelly were only a step behind him, ready to back them up as they prepared to make a move forward. Suddenly, the air shivered again and more men began to arrive. Dave swore loudly, cursing at the seemingly unending flow of soldiers and shifted his attack method. He intentionally tapped into his latent, innate reservoir of power, reaching deep within his soul. He sent all of the energy, all at once, directly into the shivering point. The point exploded with enough force that everyone was staggered. Those nearest to the point of explosion were incinerated; others around the area were blown up into smoldering chunks.
To the north, in the same instant, there was a sudden concussion and a massive explosion of power. The power boomed out with enough force that the ground began to shudder. The water rippled with the effects of the massive energy release. The fight stopped for one moment. A breath was taken by all and just as they prepared to continue the fight, the earthquake hit. It struck with enough momentum and power that the earth actually buckled and dropped.
Mud began to tear apart and dissolve. Many soldiers were driven to their knees; others began sinking and were consumed by the liquefying ground. Dave dropped to his knees. As he did, the marsh around him dropped down, as if hit by a great weight, only to heave back up as power from below vented upward. Jets of hot air and steam began to shoot out of the mud, cooking the skin off of anyone unfortunate enough to be near one.
Riven was the first one to his feet and killed two of the stunned men before they even realized that he was moving.
Once the ground stopped shaking, Dave scrambled up swinging, taking the head off the man who was closest to him. The fight was not over, however, as these men weren’t simple foot soldiers; they were both skilled and fast. Dave felt a little unbalanced and had to fight hard just to stay alive. He was struggling in the mud and falling back. The ground was no longer flat; it had been transformed into a rough, hilly, muddy mess. There were also dry, cracked areas where the steam had vented, creating a very dangerous battlefield. Dave found himself on a hill of mud. Slipping and sliding, fighting was nearly impossible, but worse, he was sinking into the mud as it moved. Water seemed to be rushing in every direction – sideways, up, down, and in whirlpools that were making the situation even more difficult. A new landscape was forming all around them with no concern for them at all.
Dave was all but on his back, desperately trying to get his feet free from the mud, as he defended against another attack. The man attacking him added power to his swing by sending blasts of magic down his blade at Dave. Dave parried the blow, but despite the shield that he wore, his hands began to burn and sting. The pain ran from his hands, down his arms, and into his chest, seeking his heart.
The sword was knocked out of his hand with a jolt that left his whole arm numb. He shouted and, while it seemed futile, he threw his left arm up in an instinctive motion of self-defense. The soldier’s blade should have chopped right through Dave’s arm and into him, but a man appeared out of thin air and attacked in Dave’s defense. The figure hit Gerome’s man so hard that he was burned, stunned, and hurled back.
The man who had appeared was obviously Purtan. Appearing slightly transparent, he stood on the soft mud without leaving a mark or ripple of any sort. His robes were layers of white that trailed with ribbons. They fluttered and shifted like water flowing in slow motion, continuously moving, giving him an eerie, unworldly grace. He had no weapons, but held his hands with a deadly elegance.
Dave’s defender didn’t wait for the men to come at him. He moved so swiftly into the next attack, it was almost a blur. He hit the nearest soldier in the chest, instantly reducing him to a shower of ash that blasted away. The Purtan moved and hit another, shattering the shield in one hit and then reducing him to ash in the next. The stag flung another with its antlers, burning him and sending him flying. This soldier’s gut was ripped apart, with his entrails strung out and entangled by the antlers. The stag then charged toward another who frantically tried to get up a shield to stop the attack. The man had no chance against Riven who approached from the other side. Riven chopped down through the soldier’s skull in one swift, efficient strike, peeling his head open to the shoulders.
The fight ended in a rush as the last few attacks were carried out by the transparent Purtan and the stag. The stag reared over the last dead and crushed him into the ground before vanishing. The Purtan turned to Dave, who was partially stunned and struggling to get out of the mudslide that was creeping down the side of the new hill. The Purtan warrior snapped his fists to his thighs, slapping them before he bowed at the waist. He then turned to where Shannon was just rising from Oirion’s side, touched the center of his forehead with reverence and then vanished.
“Wow! That was exciting.” Ivan said, shaking mud off his hands.
Theo’s dome vanished; he looked over at Dave, a little out of breath.
“That was a little much there, Dave.”
“I didn’t mean to do that. I’m not so sure that I did. All I did was throw a blast at the little portal thing.”
“We need to move,” Shannon said as he pulled Oirion up. “You alright?” he asked.
Oirion nodded, accepting the help with an uncommon silence.
Riven looked from Dave to Shannon and then back to Dave. “That was a Shadow Guard! He saluted you,” he said to Shannon, his confused disbelief making his voice a pitch higher. Turning to Dave, “He saved your life,” his confusion growing as the reality of what he had just seen began to sink into his dwarven mind. Shannon didn’t say anything.
“We need to move,” Theo said. “Gerome will have been directly behind this. He knows where we are. We need to move, and fast.”
“There is only one way out of this marsh and he’ll be waiting,” Kaava said.
“Kaava, I think you should turn back,” Shannon said. “I think your people need to know what has happened thus far.”
Kaava looked at him a long moment before he bowed with Elven grace.
“The children of Ulam Ar will pray for you,” he said, “and we thank you for every breath of defiance and step of self-will.” Kaava bowed to them all. “Heaven’s Grace, my friends,” he said and then turned from them. Jogging away to the north, it didn’t take long for the orc to vanish from their sight.
The marsh had been draining and was still doing so. The old narrow pass had been broken open, and water and mud were pouring out in a massive mudslide. They could not hope to travel down over it. As they got close enough to see that the ancient dam had been broken, sending the marsh spilling into the mountain river way, the ground became increasingly unstable.
No one spoke about the fight or what they had seen; they just moved as fast as they could.
“Gerome is close,” Shannon said softly. He stood looking west through the gap, rubbing his hand.
“South,” Riven said. “I will find us a pass to the south.”
None argued. They turned south and headed toward the wall of mountains that was rising up from beyond the now restlessly and unpredictably shifting marsh. They had to make time and make it fast; the less they spoke the better they would do.
As in times before, they seemed to run on legs that didn’t tire, covering more ground than they should have been able to. They were able to cross the mud hills in a single day.
Riven led them up the mountains as the sun set. The clouds moved in and turned to rain. As they began to climb, the air grew colder and the rain became snow before he chose a small campsite. They had to stop, cook, and rest.
“You look troubled,” Dave said softly to Kelly. She stood outside the firelight, staring off beyond the valley before them at the darker clouds to the north.
“It shouldn’t be snowing this far south,” she said, “and the storms that have gathered as a consequence of the magic are too hot for snow.”
“No?” he asked. “Are you certain?” He wasn’t so certain of it or bothered by it. Snow was just snow and the weather here was not all that cold. In fact, it was rather mild compared to some of the storms they had already been through.
Kelly looked over. “Look at the vegetation, Dave. Look at the energy. This land hasn’t seen snow since before the Barrier was raised, at least. It’s the edge of a storm so massive and dark that I cannot even see into it.” She looked back slowly.
“Is it our doing?”
“I don’t think so, but I think Shannon knows about it and has for awhile. He has pushed us ever on, keeping us just ahead of that darkness. Even now, he wouldn’t have us circle around and take a safer route; he’s led us down a faster, more dangerous path.”
“I can ask him,” Dave said.
“He won’t likely tell you. He’s strained and I can see it now. His energy has begun to leak and his sharpness drops away. Things aren’t good for him here.”
“If it was that bad, he would run on without us.”
“We should move as soon as we can, not just to get away from Gerome.”
Dave stood, looking north at the storm that he could barely sense, even when looking right at it and knowing that it was there. He was back at camp long before Kelly. Theo seemed to have taken over the fire and Tavia’s tasks. As he took the meal that Theo offered him, he spotted Shannon off to the side.
“Thanks, Theo,” Dave smiled.
Theo tried to smile and look at his friend, but did neither. Dave didn’t know what had happened, but all of the strength that Theo seemed to have gained was gone. He was shrinking back into an even weaker being than he had been to begin with.
Dave nodded at Theo and went after his uncle, who was vanishing into the trees. He found Shannon looking off to the north, just as Kelly had done.
“The snow’s a bad sign, isn’t it?” Dave said, joining him as he took a bite of the steaming meat in his hand.
Shannon stood, rubbing his left hand unconsciously. “We will not be too affected by it.”
“But Tavia and Travis are up there. The Captain is there.”
Shannon looked to his hand and dropped it, shaking it a little.
“I’m sorry, you know,” Dave said in Norwen.
Shannon looked over at him. “For?”
“At the battle,” Dave said, gesturing back to the north, “for jumping to conclusions. But, it did look bad… and hitting you was just stupid. I appreciate that you didn’t react as you would’ve normally.”
Shannon looked back to the north.
“I expect such out of Oirion. Not you. Still, I forget how very young you are. Truthfully, I was more upset at myself than you. I forgot that you and Riven had seen his face, and that Riven’s eyes could spot him so well. I am tired, Dave, and I cannot risk confrontation with those I would not hurt.”
Dave nodded. “What is causing the storm, Uncle?”
Shannon looked over at the young man at his side. “You would ask me questions that you already know the answers to, and not of things you do not know? If you think, Dave, you know what that storm is.”
“The powers inside the Barrier building and reflecting back?”
“The Barrier was never meant to last this long, and it was not meant to be unmanaged. It was supposed to have been brought down several thousand years ago, and the Church was preparing to do so when Gerome…” he drew a slow breath and left it at that.
“Can I ask you how you summoned that guard?” Dave asked.
Shannon looked over at him. “I did not.”
“He saluted you.”
“I noticed,” Shannon said with an odd note to his voice.
“He saluted you as a Von,” Dave said with a scowl as he was just realizing it. “You a king, Uncle?”
Shannon seemed not to hear the question. “I do not understand it,” he said finally.
“What?” Dave asked. He didn’t expect an answer, but he got one after a moment.
“Why would he come to your aid and show himself like that when the one time I tried to call on their aid, I received none? Why would I be denied then, and yet acknowledged now?” Shannon shook his head and turned to go back to camp.
Dave stood, thinking about the Purtan he had seen and the fact that the image had given the ultimate show of honor to his uncle as if Shannon was a Von. The idea left him feeling rather terrified for some reason; it made him think oddly of the argument that he had seen Shannon have with Elliot the night Dave’s mother died. Feeling unsettled, he headed back to camp.
After only a few hours rest, Riven suggested they move. No one objected; they got to their feet and made good time. Everyone noticed that Oirion was back on his feet and not suffering from the injuries that had plagued him throughout the trip. He was keeping up without the ever-present effort to hide his pain.
They stopped just before Alphen set. It was going to be dark once the moon was down, so they set up a small camp and ate the last of the cooked duck.
“You’re moving better,” Ivan said to Oirion. “What did you do?”
“Nothing,” Oirion said. He glanced at Shannon, who was holding his left hand as if it hurt a great deal. “You alright?” he asked.
Shannon looked up as if not sure the man had spoken to him. “What?”
“Your hand alright?” Oirion asked.
Shannon held his hand up. A drop of blood formed and fell off the wrist of his glove onto the fabric of his robe He looked at it with a sigh and then lifted his eyes back to Oirion.
“Fantastic,” he said, far too cheerfully. He lowered his hand back to his lap.
“Anything we can do?” Theo asked with a shy hesitation that he hadn’t had in months.
“You could kill Gerome for me; that would be nice.” Shannon lay back on the ground, his knees drawn up. “Put his heart in a gold box. I could put it on my tomb and ask that he feel only the pain that he has inflicted on me. That’s all – just so he can appreciate all his life’s efforts,” he half muttered to himself, his eyes closed.
Theo looked at Dave with obvious concern on his face. Dave met his look with a helpless little shrug. That was so out of place for Shannon, both men were very worried about the state of things.
They all rested and dropped off to sleep. Riven took first watch. Oirion also took a watch for the first time since he had fallen into the river outside Ulam Ar.
When dawn neared, Shannon got up and walked away but was back by the time the others were moving. He had washed his hand in the stream below and was ready to go. They didn’t eat; they just broke camp and took only enough time to hide any trace of it before moving in single file after Riven.
The dwarf led them up over a pass during the day and dropped them back down, returning them to the river by dark. By doing so, they avoided the ambush that waited for them farther uphill. As promised, Riven had successfully led them over yet another mountain range. This one was much smaller than the last; it hardly seemed a true challenge for the dwarf, but they were all glad for his skill. They stood watching the muddy river rage and churn. It dropped at a steep angle here and roared with rapids, marking the river border between human and elven lands.
Picking a trail along the rugged bank, Riven kept them moving. He left the river at times, taking them all day without the sight of the river, then came back to it as if he had known the path his whole life.
The snow fell at times, turning into rain near the river, then back to snow as they ascended. There was no wind and the cold was minor compared to what they endured in the North Orc Mountains. There was little talk; just hard hiking that seemed to have no end.
As the mountains dropped in elevation and the river brought then further south, the snow fell in tiny flakes that melted as soon as they hit the ground. The air was still and cold, and the river had slowed as they hiked the bank. The water became flat and smooth, reflecting the mountains and sky in a grand mirror image. This area showed the strain of the recent weather with the vegetation looking stunned and frost burned.
The first breath of salty air reached them early that morning, and they all were thrilled at the idea of seeing this leg of the journey end. When it did, it did spectacularly. As they traveled around the final bend, the river opened up and spread out before them, turning into an enormous gray ocean. The land stretched out like great wings in both directions, only to fade behind the soft curtain of snow in the distance. They were finally free of the rough, ragged banks of the river.
Then, they saw it.
Through the veil of snow, a large ship was set at anchor. It flew the banner of the Church. It was a great warship with the name “Arch Angel”. Its masts rose tall and reflected the glow of a deck stone. A deck stone would allow the ship to move more swiftly than any sails could. The high prow and narrow hull marked it as a thing built for speed. Somehow it had gotten safely through the Barrier Shield, managed to reach this coast before them, and was waiting.
Riven swore as he ducked back behind the trees, pulling Ivan with him.
Shannon took the lead, cutting inland away from the ocean and the ship almost at a full run. The mountain front here was very steep and hard to climb as it dropped off sharply down toward the beaches.
The vegetation was tough, prickly, and tangled from the saltwater winds that struck the wall of mountains here. The twisted pines and massive boulders were all that offered cover. They had crossed the entire continent and were now on the coast with hope of escape almost in reach. It seemed horrifically unfair to have come so far only to get caught now.
They hadn’t made much distance by dark, but opted to stop for the night and wait. A fall in the dark could easily kill a person here. Riven picked a boulder to hide against. They gathered close and huddled together; even Shannon stayed close.
They ate a meal of the gathered dry bits of rations they had, not talking at all. No one even thought of suggesting a fire.
“I’ll take first watch,” Riven offered.
The others didn’t waste time and settled down in the cold to try to get some sleep.
“Where’d Shannon go?” Ivan asked Riven softly, kneeling beside the dwarf to get closer to his level. Riven shook his head.
“I don’t know. He was just here, but I have an idea.” He lifted his nose to the air for a bit and then nodded. “Come on. Let’s go see what we can see.”
Together, the dwarf and the giant dashed back down the mountain. It wasn’t long before even Ivan could smell the smoke from down on the shore. They were careful not to been seen or heard, just in case there was some uncounted presence hidden in the dark. The two crept close to the camp that had obviously been there for awhile.
The tents were long term; they had sand piled up on the edges to hold against the wind. A few walls had been built to protect fires from the same, and a small dock had been built for the smaller boats that were tied to it even now.
Around the largest fire there were several men, all dressed in the uniforms of the Church’s Hunters. Riven felt his Dwarven heart begin to beat faster at the thought of betrayal. He remained still and let his ears adjust to hear what the men were saying. It was to no avail; he didn’t know the language.
“They are talking about going south,” Ivan whispered in his ear. “They are elf hunters. They’ve captured what they need; their orders are full. Now, they’re debating,” he added. Ivan listened for a bit. He was about to speak when a man strode into camp, startling them all. The language switched to an accented version of the human trade language.
“Nice fire,” the newcomer said with obvious contempt. “It’s visible for yards.”
“Your Eminence.” The leader of the group at the fire bowed deeply taking the newcomer’s hand, kissing it meekly and nervously like a beaten dog. “The night is cold.”
“Yes, it is, but we’re also waiting for company.”
“There are patrols and scouts out even now.”
“And a roaring fire and a ship in plain sight!” He gestured at both.
“It’s well shielded; we all are.”
“I see that, and yet I also see your ship.”
“I’ll move it now.”
“Good idea and keep in mind that if they slip past us because you were spotted, His Holiness will be most upset.”
The man darted out into the dark.
The leader stopped and smelled the air, drawing in a slow, deep breath. Riven sank down, wishing that he had a shield like Shannon and Dave’s. Slowly, the man looked around the camp. Ivan pulled at Riven. Riven gave in at once and they both pulled back. Once clear of the camp, Ivan and Riven stepped into a run as hard and silent as they could.
Riven could taste a dark force begin to build.
“Oh God, he’s summoning a demon!” Riven realized, almost stumbling on the mere thought.
The race was on. They tore up the mountain eastward. Riven began to gather power for a fight. He could feel the thing behind them getting closer.
They hadn’t gone all that far when Riven came to a sliding halt. He was moving so fast that he barely slid to a stop in time to avoid falling over the edge of a high cliff. He had made a mistake and that was not normal. He stood for a moment, utterly stunned as Ivan grabbed him and jerked him back the brink. The big man turned and roared a battle cry; there was no mistaking it.
It was a warning; the others were sure to hear it and know it. Riven rolled and came up to his feet with the prayer in hand. He threw its power at the demon that was just bursting through the trees at them. The swirling blackness screamed. Riven was driven to his knees by the scream alone. It seemed to be tearing at his mind and shattering his ears.
Ivan threw his arms wide. A blast of power blew out from Ivan like a golden wind surrounding them and giving them instant relief of the scream. Riven shook the effect of the demonic attack off and attacked again. The demon acted in desperation and lunged at him. Dark bitter chill gripped him. Most men would have been lost. Others would have been consumed by the coldness, but Riven was a cleric and trained for this. This was his life as much as vampires were Oirion’s.
The fight was one of the worst he had suffered, but he overcame. The demon was shattered. Panting, Riven sucked in night air. He had barely begun to think past the Dwarven drive when he heard Ivan shout in pain. He looked up as Ivan went to his knees, a spear in his side. All around them were the hunters from the camp below.
“Go,” Riven said in Dwarven, “the river.” He didn’t know how many words Ivan had picked up, but he hoped that he knew those. Riven looked at the emerging men; they all had arrows drawn and aimed.
As the leader that had discovered them emerged, Riven threw his last power to the north, blasting clear a path for Ivan to escape through. He was done, and this time Shannon wasn’t going to be able to save him. He prayed that Oirion and Shannon had gotten the others out of here.
Ivan bolted as several arrows shot free from the bows toward Riven. Riven roared in anger and pain before he hit the ground.
Oirion rolled up to his feet right out of sleep. He could feel the demon as it burned his shields and set alight the wards that he wore. It wasn’t even a breath before he was on the move, snatching up his pack and waking the others.
“Where’s Riven and Ivan?” Dave asked. From the northeast, a great cry went up, answering that question and assuring them that Oirion wasn’t overreacting.
“Where’s Shannon?” Theo asked, looking around.
“Not our biggest problem,” Oirion said. “Let’s move.”
They headed north as fast as they could in the twilight of the small Omega. Of all the nights to have only one moon, it had to be tonight. The light barely allowed them to move through the trees without walking into them. It wasn’t even enough to keep Theo from tripping and falling. He bit back a cry as he slid down the hill, and then the land dropped out from under him. One short moment of panic and he hit the soft ground again, his breath driven out. Pushing himself up to try to rejoin the others even before he got his breath back, he froze when light flared up before the group.
“Don’t bother to fight,” a man said in common tongue. “You’ll get hurt.”
Theo held his breath and lay on the ground as several trolls wearing chains emerged into the light.
Oirion had no choice. He didn’t have the time for magic and, against that many trolls, they could not hope to win the battle. He surrendered, lifting his arms slowly.
Theo didn’t move; he just watched as the group was bound and led away. It was a long while before he moved at all. Slowly, he got up and headed for the shore, picking his way a few feet at a time. He knew for certain that there were trolls out here looking for him. He was not about to lose his friends again, not after everything he had done to get here…. how far he had come both physically and spiritually. He could save them and he knew it; he just had to force himself to do so.
The beach was sandy for a few yards. It was coarse dark sand – sharp and gritty against his face. Riven looked through his eyelashes as more men entered the beachside camp. He almost growled when he saw that the returning men had his friends. Ivan, Kelly, Dave, and Oirion were presented to the camp leader. The man looked at them a moment and spoke.
“Do you not recognize my rank?” he asked Oirion as he turned his collar to show the golden star of a cardinal. Oirion’s face hardened.
“Your shields are leaking,” Oirion said coldly. “The reek is unmistakable.”
One of the captors struck Oirion in the back. He was struck hard enough that he dropped to the ground.
“Where are your other companions,” the man asked Ivan, unconcerned.
Ivan looked up from Oirion at the man and spat in his face. He was either being very brave or slipping back into stupidity, Riven thought.
Dave was held back while the bound Ivan received a very serious beating on top of the side wound he already had. Riven worked at the bonds on his wrists; if he could escape, they might all have a chance to get away. Theo, he realized; Theo was gone? Was he dead, or did he escape? Once again, Theo and Shannon were gone.
The man looked to Dave. “Where are the others?”
Dave looked at the calm man as coolly as he could look at Shannon. “They were on watch. Where they are now, I have no idea.”
“The orc is dead, we killed him; the giant you see we captured and the dwarf, he’s right there.” The man pointed at Riven. Dave glanced over, not at all surprised.
“So, why bother to ask?”
“Those are not who I ask of.”
“Whom do you ask for then? The women? They died weeks ago.”
“The man in black.” He grabbed David’s face. Dave didn’t even flinch. “Where is he?”
Dave moved so suddenly and with such little warning, even Riven was impressed. Dave grabbed the man who held his face, the bonds of the rope that held him slivering apart as he moved. They were no restraint at all.
At the same time, Oirion rolled, kicking the legs out from under another. He stole back his sword and came up, slicing another across the chest. Dave and the cardinal were locked in a battle of power that held them bound, eyes frozen on each other. Ivan rolled up and tackled another. Whatever magic Dave had used on his ropes had worked on Ivan’s ropes as well. Riven wished his had been destroyed, but they stayed strong and solid.
Riven struggled harder to get his hands free. Finally, he gave up on the bindings and forced his way to his feet. He ran to the fight, slamming into the legs of a man that was about to attack Ivan from behind. Both went down. Before Riven hit the ground, Oirion was there to grab him up and drive a blade into Ivan’s would-be killer. Oirion sliced the bindings that still held the dwarf’s hands. Grabbing at the ax they had failed to take away, Riven joined in.
The men on the beach were killed with an almost shocking speed. It was Oirion who moved in and sliced the throat of the man who was still locked in a power-struggle with Dave. The blood-wizard with the cardinal’s star fell at Oirion’s feet. Dave gasped and nearly fell, but Ivan was ready and caught him. Aiding each other, they ran up the beach, away from the camp and into the darkness.
They stopped just before dawn to catch their breath. Without warning, from behind the trees, the trolls appeared. They could have paralleled during the night; perhaps some magic was involved. Either way, they emerged out of the trees with low and dangerous growls.
From up the beach, on horses, came more men.
“Damn!” Ivan swore. David’s reaction was just a little more colorful, showing his sailor background in the wide range of languages he used.
They sat and waited. There was nowhere to go and nothing they could do.
Riven took the ring he wore and twisting it, he forced it over a knuckle that had long grown thick with age and use. He held the ring a moment before he dropped it in the sand. He met Oirion’s eyes, but didn’t say anything.
The army arrived from both sides and quickly surrounded the group. They tossed down cuffs of spelled iron, for both wrists and ankles.
“Put them on,” the commander yelled at them, “and drop your weapons!”
“Or what?” David yelled back.
One of the men aimed an arrow.
“Do you value your legs?” the commander asked. “A man can take a lot of arrows before he dies… and that is ‘Or what.’”
“Oh, well, as long as it’s in my better interest.” Dave muttered various curses as they took the iron and locked themselves in the bonds.
“Oh, it might.” Riven had a good idea of where they were headed and who they would meet. The idea was making his stomach knot up, and his instincts tighten.
“Heemen alousen va drobey.” He set a marker spell that would record this spot and allow Shannon to know what had happened, in case he wanted to stay involved in the matter. But then, there was a part of Riven that seriously doubted that he would see that man again. Shannon had already gone far beyond what any other man would do. Hope was only within the group now.
The men moved in and pulled them to their feet, and then they all headed back up the beach. This night was just not going well.
They were all thrown down, somewhere near where Riven had been held the last time. There was a short wait before more churchmen arrived from somewhere inland. The commander and his men seemed very upset, yelling and waving their arms around as they discovered that the priests on the beach camp were all dead.
The commander walked over to them and knelt beside Oirion. He looked at him for a moment.
“Where are the men that did this?” he asked. “You tell us, and your sentence will be lightened.”
“They went up the beach,” Riven said at once, nodding northward.
“How many of them were there, and how well armed were they?”
“Four,” Riven said. “Why don’t you let us up, and we’ll help you look for them; then we can call it even and you can let us go,” he said hopefully.
“Shut up,” Dave told him, trying to sound as if he was not so eager to reveal the other escapees.
“Load those four up and hit the tide,” the commander ordered as he stood. He walked off, leaving them in the sand.
“Well, that was interesting,” Ivan said. “Who does he think we are?”
“I have no idea, and I am not going to tell him that he might be wrong,” Dave said. “We might get out of this yet.”
“Only by the grace of God,” Oirion said.
“Shannon is still out there… and Theo,” Ivan said. “We’re not alone yet.”
“I’m not so sure that Shannon will be around to help us,” Riven said. “He’s been slowed down by us enough, I think.”
“He won’t just abandon us,” Dave said with no doubt in his tone.
“Then, where in the hell is he?” Oirion asked.
Guards grabbed them roughly, pulling them up and forcing the march. They were waded out into the cold water and up into rowboats. All but dumped in, wet and cold, they had an uncomfortable ride away from the shore.
Dave watched the land slip away, farther and farther, until it was swallowed up in the mist of the snow and the faint twilight of dawn. He was wondering just how far out they were going to row when the ship loomed up out of the shroud. Ropes were thrown down and hooked into rings on the row boat. From above, they were hauled up, boat and all.
“Is this normal?” Ivan asked Dave, very uneasy about the whole thing.
Dave shrugged and tried to get a good look at the wench and pulleys used to get the even level lift. There really wasn’t any time before they were drug out and hauled across deck. Dave tried to take in as much of the ship as he could, but they were brought below. The deck was filled with a crowd of both sailors and what seemed to be other captives, slaves perhaps. Dave didn’t care; to him they were all just a wall of bodies blocking his view of the ship’s details.
The bottom of the hull was below the lower deck and had several feet of water in it. It was cold enough to steam breath, but the cells had benches to get out of the water and there was a lamp outside the spelled barred doors. The putrid stench, however, was very unpleasant, almost more so than the cold.
Dave and Ivan’s cells faced each other. They sat on the benches, feet up, looking across at one another while the others tried to get comfortable.
“Is all this water a bad sign?” Ivan asked nervously.
“It’s perfectly normal. Relax,” Dave said, leaning his head back against the wall. He had lost his dagger, the one he had had since he was seven, and he was cold and tired. The rock of the ship was home to him and he just wanted to sleep.
They had tried to take his necklace, but they couldn’t manage to cut the cord and had left it for later. Oirion’s rings wouldn’t come off, either, and they had promised to cut his fingers off if they had to. Oirion was not at all happy about that idea. He sat now, twisting his ring and trying to relax.
“Can you tell what way we are going?” Ivan asked.
“No,” Dave said, getting more annoyed every time the man spoke.
“I miss the women,” Ivan said sadly. “I miss Shannon,” he added after a moment.
Dave wanted to growl at the man. Their friendships were starting to break down. If Ivan would just shut up, it wouldn’t be so bad.
Theo felt like crying. The moons were sinking down and the true dark was about to set on him. There were horror stories about what comes out in the dark of the moonless night. The last of the priests had gotten into boats and the beach was clear. He was almost tempted to run out and call them back; better to be arrested and with the others than be here alone.
“Come on, Theo, you’re bigger than that,” he told himself, trying to remember that he was the same man who had been a respected member of a group and who had fought in the battle of the nomads. He was not the coward that he was feeling like at the moment. He still had that magic.
He sucked it in and stood up. The last of the ships were out of sight. They might have left some food on the beach, he thought. It might be worth it to build up the fire and wait the night out. “…and pray that Riven or Shannon show up,” he muttered.
The sand was deep and rough, not like the sand at home. He sighed, thinking of home and how, as bad as it was, it was better than this. He hoped that his parents didn’t realize that he was missing; that wouldn’t be good. If he did return, there would be all sorts of questions that he couldn’t hope to answer, like “where have you been?”.
The beach was littered with the trash of a camp, but there was no food and nothing to drink. He threw what he could on the fire and sat at it, trying to imagine that the cold was just due to the time of year and nothing more.
Despite his fear and the worry of the dark, he drifted off, head bent forward over his folded legs as he dreamed about the nomad girl. Now that would have been a good life.
Theo woke up in the utter darkness. For a moment, he felt panic, but then he saw the stars out…. more than he had ever seen before. There were billions of them, shimmering out there above him. Most were usually hidden by the glow of one of the moons, but tonight it was amazing. He spun around at a sound.
“Easy, Theo,” Kaava said in the dark. “It’s just me.” The orc came up the beach, limping heavily; his side was bloody, but he had bound it in the robes of some unfortunate guard.
“What happened?” Theo asked, trying to sound calm and refraining from hugging the orc with relief.
“You were expected. Demons run faster even than I do.” He smiled a tiny bit and sank to the sand. “You alone?”
“Not anymore. You seen any sign of Shannon or Riven?”
“They have Riven and no, I’ve seen no sign of Shannon. How did you escape?”
“I tripped at the right moment,” he sighed heavily. “I don’t know what to do, Kaava. I’m not even sure if there is anything I can do.”
“We’ll wait a day for Shannon. If he is out there and going to help, he’ll show up by then. If not, you and I go home. The nomads will welcome you. But, we go the long way; not by the river.”
“I thought you already went home.”
“Shannon would have argued with me about it. I traveled a day, then doubled back. I’ve have been tailing you, trying to further hide your passage.”
Theo pulled his knees up and hugged them. Just a bit ago he wished to be back with the nomads, but now that it looked as if that was his only choice, he was suddenly very worried about his family and his people. Not to mention his friends, sailing off to whatever fate.
“You know what?” Kaava said with a chuckle.
“All things considered, it’s a really stunning night tonight.”
“One might say that in our worst, God shines a little light on things… to say that He is still here. Right now, though, I wish Shannon was.”
“Me, too,” Kaava said softly. “He has a much sharper sword.”
Theo looked over and laughed.
Theo was awakened with a hand over his mouth. He froze. For a moment, he was at a loss and disoriented. Then, when he saw the stars, he remembered where he was and recognized the leather glove over his mouth. The hand lifted away.
“Shannon?” he breathed.
“Get up,” Shannon breathed in his ear. “Hold on to me.” He took Theo’s hand and helped him up. Kaava moved in beside them.
“Near,” he whispered. Shannon took the lead and moved them down along the water. The surf would roll up over their feet and wipe away their tracks. Theo could see nothing but the magnificent canopy of stars and had only Shannon’s lead to follow. As they traveled farther, it got even darker. Clouds rolled in and the stars disappeared leaving them in utter darkness.
Kaava kept close, moving like a wisp of fog alongside them. Theo was a little afraid to look back and just focused on keeping up; he had not known Shannon to walk at this fast pace very often. The sun was just about to rise when they veered off onto the beach. Shannon stopped at a point in the middle of the sands. He knelt and picked something up.
“We need to move,” Kaava said, and they did so. They kept to the water’s edge, even though it was so cold that it made the whole body hurt.
Morning came slowly, but when it did, they cut to the trees at a run. Once under the shelter of the flat boughs of the evergreens, Shannon let go of Theo’s hand and sank to the ground. He was tired, and it showed. He knelt and covered his mouth with his hand, eyes closed, rocking a little.
“What happened?” Kaava asked Shannon with concern.
Shannon looked up. The events of the night were still fresh and his whole body hurt for it. He had fought through and endured an attack that cut right to his heart. Gerome had not tried to reach him directly in over a thousand years. This time though, he had help: demon help. It made Shannon almost feel as if the initial attack that happened five thousand years ago had happened only days ago. He knew that if he tried to explain, he would break down in tears; that just wouldn’t do.
“Physical battles weren’t the only ones going on last night,” he said, then left it at that. He knew that he wouldn’t last long in this condition. The shields that he maintained, hiding the three of them against Gerome’s demons, were going to drain him quickly. He had a day. After that, he would begin to break down. He needed to get energy. They were at least three days from the nearest village, and that was too far. He had no doubt, on top of that, that Gerome would have the village watched.
“I’m going to go try to find us a meal,” Kaava said. “I won’t be long.” He left with a strange, concerned look for Theo.
Kaava knew enough about Shannon’s magics to have reason to be worried for Theo, and he was. Shannon knew by the burning in his eyes that they were already blood shot, and that was very bad. He felt sick; he was sweating and his hands trembled under the strain and the withdrawal of the energy that he needed to survive here.
Theo was so close, so warm. He bowed his head and covered his face in his hands. If Kaava could find some little animal and think to return with it still alive, he could use that to sustain until they reached the village. Then he would take the whole village if he had to in order to escape again. God knew he’d done it before.
Theo got up and walked away, a little off to the side. It helped, but he’d have to be a lot farther than that before Shannon would be unaware of the blood in his veins and the energy that flowed through him so amply.
“Shannon,” Theo said in a soft voice, the shielded Whisper used in the Empire. He spoke in Purtan, perfect Purtan.
Shannon looked up at the slender prince who seemed of no concern before this trip, but now was proving to be so much more than anyone had imagined. Theo stood, his arms down, his scared and sheltered stance replaced by one that was honest and open. He had a pained expression, but didn’t flinch away from the pain in Shannon’s eyes.
“Do you not know what my mother does for fun? Do you not realize she keeps Maddened vampires as pets and feeds them those with whom she is annoyed? Before their madness, do you not think she tortured them into answering her questions? I know more about vampires than Riven, obviously, or Oirion, for that matter. Ivan…” Theo shrugged, “…he knows, even if he doesn’t realize that he knows. He’d offer this as well and feel no more moral dilemma over doing it than I do.” He offered his hand
Shannon had not been so torn and so upset since Gunther had pinned him to a wall and forced him to take. Theo was nothing like the great Ezeeren shaman that Gunther was, but he certainly wasn’t the helpless young man that he tried to make the world think. He was proving to be just as much of a power, a source to be reckoned with.
“If Kaava brings…” Shannon started.
“Shannon,” Theo appealed, sinking to a knee right in front of him.
“You don’t know what you are doing!” Shannon almost yelled.
Theo looked away for a moment and then suddenly grabbed Shannon’s face and kissed him. It was not a true kiss, but Theo knew that not even Shannon could not stop him through such a contact. The link a kiss offered was all Theo needed to channel the power of emotion. He was not a wizard, but under the shields he wore, shields he had cut into the palm of his hand, he was something just as powerful. This sort of magic he knew better than any.
Theo knew what he could do; he had done it before to try to save others. He’d been a child then, a mere teenager. Now he was an adult and he was very confident of how to use the power that he was born with. This, he reasoned, may have been the very reason he had it; to save Shannon from Gerome and keep him sane. Maybe all the pain he had endured had prepared him for this alone.
Shannon made a little sound as if he was about to cry. He grabbed Theo by the shoulders in a painful grip to push him away, but Theo had only to bring up the memory that haunted him the most. Forgetting all else, he poured it into Shannon.
Everything he had: nightmares, torture, fears, all the lust and horror his mother had beaten into him roared up. For once, he was free to get it out. It felt as if it was alive and raging out of him. This time, he did not shy away from any of it; he faced it. As terrible as all of it was, he was certain that Shannon had done worse and would not judge him too harshly. If the power of his emotional secrets would save Shannon, then he would give it.
When he was so drained that he had nothing left to give, he half fell back, his cheeks streaked with tears. He felt sick, defiled by his own past. There was so much there. He had endured things that would break most men, things that had been just another part of his childhood. He wanted to never have to feel it again or face such darkness. He did not want to feel the power that was moving through him now. He had not thought that by simply unleashing the emotional memory, the deeper powers within him would be so stirred up. He caught his breath and wiped his cheeks with a sniff.
Shannon looked at him with a pained look, but didn’t say anything. He just closed his eyes and let it sink in. Theo sat heavily and pulled his cloak tightly around himself.
“Tharadon,” Shannon said after a long silence. “Tell me something.”
“How do you know?”
Theo drew his knees up and hugged his cloak tighter as snow started to fall.
“One of the vampires my mother kept caged as a pet taught me a bit. I kept him sane as long as I could. He took just enough, but then summer came and I was sent to the country. When I returned, he was a caged animal.” He was quiet for a moment. “Sort of funny, he was the first person I ever thought of as a friend… and the only teacher I ever respected. It’s a shame to think of all the things that he could’ve taught me, if I had been older and able to learn without getting hurt.”
Shannon watched Theo, looking as calm and in control as ever.
“You are a complicated man,” Shannon said.
Theo laughed a little. “I’ll take that as a ‘thank you,’ I guess.”
He looked up as Kaava returned with a small rabbit that was still alive. Kaava looked at Shannon a moment before the thing squirmed free, jumping away. Kaava let it go.
“Should we be going then?” Kaava asked. He sighed as the rabbit vanished into the undergrowth.