Paths Of The Chosen

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Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Aug 05, 2011 12:15 pm

(Author's Note: The following is the first installment in a long series of posts. If you enjoy it, please PM me, let me know what you think, your opinions about what could be improved, etc. But please, refrain from posting comments on this thread, as it will break up the continuity of the story. Thanks and enjoy! -Gary L. S. West)



Paths of The Chosen
By; Gary L. S. West



Prologue
The Dream



It was the dreams again. Those same terrible dreams that always plagued her, more and more so as of late. It seemed that they were simply waiting there in the back of her mind, waiting for her eyes to close. Waiting for her to sleep. Restful slumber was becoming more rare than gold or fine gems.
This time, she was watching through the eyes of the little girl. The girl that would become her. She wanted so much to soothe the child, to tell her that everything would be alright. But she could not say it in truth. She remembered what was going to happen. She knew the outcome. And none of it ever turned out alright.
Though it was a dream, it all seemed so real to her. The sights, the sounds, even the smells. Fires were running rampant throughout the village, a product of the torches thrown by the raiders. She glanced around and saw many of her childhood friends lying in the dirt, their young spirits extinguished before they ever had a chance at life. She shivered, but it was not cold. Nor did she shake from fear, though she was terribly afraid. What made her tremble was the sudden rage that began to grow within her. She could feel the steel of her grandfather's sword in her hand, the sword she had taken from her parents' bedroom.
The weight was a small comfort, as was the fallen raider near her feet. But her comfort vanished as the cry of a small boy rang out from her home. Her eyes stung from the smoke in the air, but she could still see the small house where she lived. The roof was engulfed in flames.
She forced her eyes closed. She remembered what came next. She knew that, even in the dreams, she could not save him. She had tried many times before. She never succeeded.
The sounds faded away, taking with them the heat of the flames and the smells of the smoke and carnage.
She opened her eyes and found that she was looking out from her own eyes, the eyes of the woman she had become. The hard, cold woman who viewed the world as a terrible game, who viewed her life as a cruel joke played on her by the gods.
She glanced down at herself and found that she was wearing strange armor. The pauldrons were made of leather, embedded with metal studs down the length of them. Instead of a matching cuirass, her torso was covered with a finely-crafted steel breastplate which bore a curious gilding of a dragon intertwined with a black rose. The greaves that she wore were made of smooth steel plates that wrapped half-way 'round her thighs, fiitting closely over her leather breeches and providing a practical compromise between mobility and protection.
The armor was not hers, but it somehow felt . . . right.
She could feel the familiar weight of a sheath across her back and she reached over her shoulder with her right hand. The feel of a leather-bound hilt met her grip and she drew forth the weapon to hold it before her. The longsword felt light in her hand and the craftsmanship of the blade was exquisite, far greater than any she'd ever held before. And she had wielded a great many swords. She flicked the blade this way and that, taking note that it bore the same dragon-and-rose symbol on either side of the crossguard. Then she sent the weapon into several quick strokes, testing the balance. She found the balance to be, in a word, perfect.
A sudden sound behind her made her spin about, the beautiful weapon coming to bear before her. But what she saw was herself. Or, rather, the child that she had been.
But, no. This was not that child. The girl was dressed in the same peasant's clothes she had worn as a child. She had the same jet-black hair and naturally tan skin. But the eyes were not right. In place of the soft blue cheerful eyes she'd had as a child were the cold, harsh sapphires that she now had as a woman. And there was little expression on the girl's face. Gone was all of the fear and anger she'd felt on that terrible day. Now there was only calculated determination.
Then the child parted her lips and spoke with the voice of the woman.
"The time of change is coming. The dream must end."
Then she awoke, struggling to free herself from the bedsheets that threatened to strangle her. Desperately, she rolled from the bed, slamming into the hardwood floor, and scrambled toward the open window of her room. Clutching at the window sill, she dragged herself up to her knees and stayed there, rapidly inhaling the fresh air, air that did not have the close, suffocating feel of the air in the room.
She could not explain it, but this dream seemed to terrify her more than all the others before.
And she was afraid.
Xal Yah alu xuil dos.
(May God go with you)
Revelation 21:4
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

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Tejas
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Chapter One

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Aug 12, 2011 9:26 am

Chapter One
Weeping In The Night



The Knight waved in a friendly manner to the farrier as he entered the gate of the work yard, his horse plodding along behind him. The man noticed the movement out of the corner of his eye and glanced in the direction of the Knight. Sweat glistened on the man's forehead from the work of his day and his salt-and-peppered hair clung to his scalp. Setting down his current work, the farrier scrubbed his hands down his leather apron and bowed at the shoulders.

"Good day, Sir Knight," he addressed his patron with respect.

The Knight nodded to him, a friendly smile showing behind his neatly trimmed moustache and beard. His armor creaked and clattered softly as he drew nearer. "Good day to you as well," the Knight said. His pale blue eyes and short blonde hair gave him a boyish look. He extended a hand to the man.

The farrier hesitantly took hold of the Knight's hand. It was an odd thing, as most noblemen would not touch someone of the lower classes. But this Knight seemed to think nothing of it.

"What can I do for you today," the farrier asked.

Still smiling, the Knight answered, "It seems my mount has thrown a shoe." He let go of the man's hand and turned to his horse. He patted the animal's right front leg and the beast, well-trained, lifted it's hoof for the Knight to take. The Knight gripped the hoof firmly as the farrier came around to look. "You can likely tell better than I, but I believe the nails were poorly made and pulled through the shoe."

The farrier ran his fingers over the hoof in question and quickly nodded. "I'd say you're not far off, sir. See here?" He gestured toward one of the remaining nails. "The head of this one is too soft and small. They should have been used on a much smaller animal, not a warhorse. I can fix it easily enough. I'll have to clip and pull the leftover nails and reshape the hoof a little."

"You'd better go ahead and replace the rest of them as well," the Knight suggested. "I'd rather pay the extra coin now than lose another shoe on the road or in combat."

"Very good, sir," the man nodded, taking hold of the gelding's reins The Knight dropped the hoof and allowed him to lead the animal away. With his armor shifting as he walked, the Knight followed, stopping to lean against a post and watch the man work.

As the farrier set about his task, the Knight conversed idly with him, topics ranging from the weather to the economy and miscellaneous other tidbits of information. The man finished the first hoof quickly and went on to the next, beginning with removing the old shoe. It took him about ten minutes to get the new one shaped, tack it on and trim the hoof, then he let the second hoof down and went to start the third. But just as he was about to lift the hoof, a voice called to him from the gate, demanding his attention.

"Hey, Daelyn! Klugh lost a shoe as I was coming into town. See to fixing it for me."

The voice belonged to a woman, tall and well-built, as though she lived a soldier's life. Her black hair was held back with a leather thong that wrapped around her forehead and was tied at the back. Her cold blue eyes barely acknowledged the presence of the Knight and the tone in which she spoke compelled the farrier to leave the Knight's animal and tend to hers immediately.

"Right away, Miss Sol-Talon." The man seemed to have a fearful respect for the woman. He headed toward her, but the Knight was quick to intercept him, blocking his path.

"You will finish the job you have already undertaken before you begin another," he said to the farrier.

"But-" Daelyn started to argue, only to have the Knight halt him with a gesture.

"Return to your work, sir."

The farrier fidgeted for a moment, leaning to one side to peer past the Knight at the woman. It did not escape the Knight's notice that the farrier waited for a nod from her before returning to his previous work. Satisfied that the man was seeing to his horse, the Knight returned to the post and leaned against it once more, paying little attention to the woman.

The dark-haired warrior led her horse over to the fence and tethered the reins to a rail. She then approached the Knight, sparing a quick glance at the farrier's craftsmanship. Stopping a few feet from the blonde Knight, she took note of his height, roughly three inches taller than herself, she being right at six-feet. For a Godson Knight, he was actually a bit on the short side.

"Hey, handsome," she said teasingly, trying to break into a conversation. He merely looked at her, his expression stoic. So she changed her approach, extending a hand and flashing a smile.

"The name is Tykara. Tykara Sol-Talon."

The Knight responded by standing upright, taking his weight from the post and calmly taking her hand in his, gripping it firmly, but with nothing to prove. "I am Lord Kraey Ethynerysse, son of Richard Ethynerysse, Holder of the Seat of Unity of the City of Inami and Servant of Kami, the Most High God." He said this without boast or brag, simply giving a proper and complete introduction.

The woman chuckled a little at him. "That's an awfully long name you've got there. Hope I don't have to remember it all."

The Knight finally gave her a small smile. "You've no need to worry, madam. I shall not require you to do so. You may call me Kraey."

The woman nodded. "Kraey. Alright, that I can remember. Call me Tykara."

"As you wish."

She noted the way he wore his weapons, a longsword at his belt, a broadsword across his back. His manner was one of extensive familiarity. "You look like you know how to use those blades of yours. I thought lords were all too busy passing laws and raising taxes to really know anything about swords."

He did not take offense, but he did take the time to clarify. "There are only three Lords of Unity among the Godson Knights. And each of them is trained heavily in the use of a variety of weapons. We are expected to lead our people personally in times of conflict. However," he added, "there are some places of the world where the lords are the fat, lazy coin-counters that you described."

"Oh ho!" she laughed. "So he has a sense of humor! Well, that shatters one myth about the Godson Knights."

The Knight's blonde moustache curved as he smiled. "I would imagine that there are a great many myths about my order. However, we bleed the same as anyone else."

The woman seemed amused by his words. "Wouldn't it be wiser to make people believe the opposite? That the Godson Knights are impossible to kill?"

At that, the Knight frowned. "To do so would be dishonest and would go against our faith. The Scripture commands us to be truthful in all our ways."

"Sounds like an awfully dull way of life," she responded.

The Knight shrugged. "I must respectfully disagree, but you are certainly entitled to your own, opinion."

"Fair enough," the woman said. "We'll just agree to disagree." She was about to add something more, but she suddenly gestured toward the farrier. "Looks like Daelyn's finishing up with your horse."

Indeed, the man was rasping down the edges of the last hoof, trimming it to meet the form of the shoe he had already tacked on.

Kraey turned around and watched for a moment as the farrier ran the file over it a couple more times, then set it down. The Knight walked around the horse, checking each hoof with a practiced eye.

"A fine bit of work," he admired. "The finest I've seen in a good long while."

"Thank you, sir," Daelyn said graciously. "I do what I can."

"And what do I owe you?" Kraey queried as he untied his coin purse from his belt.

"Normally, sir, I charge four coppers. But for a Knight -"

Kraey halted him with a gesture. "No favors for my station, friend." He dug into the pouch and withdrew several coins, then held them out for the farrier to take. The man put out his hand and accepted them, then frowned as he counted.

"Sir, you've overpaid by two coppers."

The Knight nodded. "Yes. I believe that exceptional work should be duly rewarded." He took hold of the warhorse' reins with one hand, tucking the coin purse away with the other. "Now, I believe you have another patron awaiting your services?" He motioned toward the woman.

"Aye, sir," Daelyn agreed. "Right away, sir." He then headed for the fence where Tykara's horse was tied.

When Kraey returned his attention to the dark-haired warrior, he saw that she was shaking her head at him. "Something wrong?" he asked.

She gave him a short laugh. "When a man offers to lower his price, you don't pay him more. You try to see just how low he'll go."

Kraey found himself chuckling at her response. "It was a pleasure to meet you, madam, but I need to find an inn for the night., so I must bid you farewell."

"And to you," she offered. "By the by, I wouldn't recommend the Naughty Nymph. As a Knight, I doubt you'd be comfortable with the wenches offering to keep you company for a silver or two." Her grin bespoke her tease.

Kraey gave her a solemn nod accompanied by a frown. "Duly noted," he said as he led his mount toward the gate.





The city of Langoth, while not a grandiose city, was well-enough off to have a fair number of inns, some near each of the three city gates, others near the center of the city. Kraey, after some consideration, felt that it would suit him best to stay in whichever one was closest to a marketplace. He would likely be staying for several days, and he liked to have fresh fruit to eat whenever he could. Despite the fact that Long Calm was half-over, he should still be able to find some vendors with good produce.

So he chose an inn called Walker's Rest. Of course, he had to be certain that it was at least somewhat reputable, so he entered the common room of the establishment to gauge its atmosphere.

The place seemed nice enough as he took a seat at a table near the door. Within a couple of minutes, a young woman in a modest-cut work dress approached him, a serving tray tucked underneath one arm.

"Good day, Sir Knight," the girl addressed him. "Would you like for me to bring you something?"

Kraey smiled at her, his moustache shifting. "Yes, miss. Thank you for asking. I'd like some Langoth tea, if you have any. And a single slice of ham."

Evidently, the girl had encountered Godson Knights before, as she was appreciative of his polite manner, but not at all surprised by it. "Of course, Sir Knight. Langoth tea and some ham. I'll be right back." With a nod and a smile of her own, the serving girl turned and headed for the kitchen, her shoulder-length blonde hair swaying freely as she walked.

Yes. So far, this place seemed that it would do. It was fairly clean, well-cared for, and there did not appear to be any rough characters that might get out of hand.

In just a few short minutes, the serving girl returned, the tray expertly balanced on one upward palm as she swerved this way and that, navigating her way around the other tables. Reaching the Knight's table, she set down a tall mug of steaming tea, then did the same with a wooden plate. The ham on the plate was well over an inch thick, a very large portion in most inns. Kraey already had his coin purse in hand, but he never got the chance to open it before the girl shook her head.

"No, Sir Knight." She gestured toward the counter at the far end of the room and at the balding mountain of a man behind it. "My father says no Godson pays here. We remember the wars. We still owe you."

Kraey furrowed his brow. "You mean the Fell Wind wars?" The girl nodded. "Miss, the last one ended before I was born. You and your father owe me nothing."

"I won't take your coin, Sir Knight." Then she lowered her voice a bit as she leaned in closer. "But there's a Kamiic temple three city blocks north. They can use whatever coin you wish to give."

Kraey smiled. The girl spoke of a temple dedicated to Kami, the One True God, the deity to whom the Godson Knights were sworn. "Most valuable advice, miss. Thank you."

The girl nodded and headed away to tend to the other patrons.

The Knight bowed his head and closed his eyes as he spoke a quiet prayer of thanks over his meal. After he had done this, he drew a knife from a sheath at his belt, as there were no utensils provided with his meal. Despite being born into nobility, Kraey was well-traveled enough to understand that most inns simply could not afford the luxury of forks, spoons and knives for their patrons. So he gave it little thought when he had to sip soup directly from his bowl or use his own knife to eat.

The meat was quite flavorful, cured with smoke from hickory chips. He savored each bite, as he hadn't had a decent piece of meat for some time, having been on the road. Every few bites, he took a sip of the tea, drinking in the aroma as much as the tea itself.

His meal took less than ten minutes, but it washed away much of the weariness of the past few weeks. Emptying his mug, careful not to swallow the tea leaves at the bottom, he rose from the table and walked toward the counter at a normal pace. The serving girl's father looked up in time to see him approaching and gave the Knight a wide grin.

"Did yeh find things teh your liking, sir?" the man queried, his voice hinting at a accent that Kraey couldn't quite place.

"Most certainly, friend, most certainly." The blonde Knight returned the grin. "In fact, I was hoping to stay in your inn for a few days. That is, if you've a room available."

"Of course, sir," the innkeeper nodded. "I've several open. In fact, I've one with an open window facing the street, if yeh want it. It's the first door on the left from the top of the stairs." He gestured in the direction of the staircase with one hand, and Kraey noticed a mark on the man's arm, a stylized pair of L's. And the man's hand was missing the little finger and the ring finger.

"You were with the Langoth Legionnaires?" Kraey inquired.

The man glanced at his mark before nodding. "In my younger days. Knew my way 'round a sword. Helped with a few of the skirmishes after the last Fell Wind, when I was just a young man."

"It seems to have exacted it's price," the Knight said, his eyes going to the man's hand.

"Eh?" The innkeeper followed the Knight's gaze to the missing fingers. "Oh, no. Lost those innkeeping. Dark-haired woman with a longsword and a short temper."

Kraey was impressed. "She must have been quite skilled with a blade, to do such a thing to a Legionnaire."

"I'm no youngster anymore," the man admitted without embarrassment. "Even so, she had more natural talent than most of us recruits. But her style needed a good bit of polish and -" He cut off suddenly, staring past Kraey, toward the door. "Oh, blood!" he swore. "Speak of Lucifer and he'll appear . . ."

Kraey turned to see what had stolen the man's attention and saw the black-haired woman from the farrier's yard standing in the light of the doorway.

The Knight was the first thing that the woman noticed as her gaze swept across the room. She gave a short laugh, starting in the direction of the innkeeper and the Knight.

"Well," she said a bit loudly, "if it isn't my old friend, Sir Kraey! How've you been? Long time, long time!"

The innkeeper glanced at Kraey. "Yeh know this woman?" he asked, somewhat incredulous.

Kraey sighed. "She is merely jesting at my expense. We only met an hour ago or so, while I was having my mount re-shod."

The innkeeper nodded in understanding. "Well, I'm not telling yeh your own business, but I'd suggest yeh keep your distance from the likes of her. She's naught but a daemon in a woman's skin."

Tykara, having heard this, smiled sweetly and addressed Kraey as she stopped next to the counter and leaned against it. "He's right, you know. I crawled up out of the Abyss only a few days ago." Then she slammed a fist against the counter, obviously intending to startle the man behind it, but the ex-Legionnaire was not so easily caught unawares. "Walker! A room with an open window. You know the drill."

The innkeeper smiled with genuine satisfaction. "It pleases meh to tell yeh," he said, "that I don't have one for yeh. All I got left is rooms facing the back alleys."

Tykara's sweet smile turned sour in the blink of an eye. "Walker," she began, lowering her voice as she looked at him. "You might want to consider evicting one of your guests. It would be a shame for you to lose any more fingers."

"It yeh think I'm frightened of yeh," Walker retorted, "yeh can just go and -"

"Wait a moment," the Knight interrupted. "Just why is it so important for you to have an open window, miss?"

She suddenly glared at the blonde man. "You should really mind your own business, Knight."

Kraey heaved a sigh. "Look, you may have the room I was to take. It has an open window."

"Sir," the innkeeper protested, "I won't go letting yeh bow to the likes of -"

"It isn't your decision," Kraey cut him off. "In fact, I refuse to take that room, so she may as well have it. Any of the others will do fine for me."

The woman gave him an appraising look. "Aw, you're just so sweet," she said, her tone blatantly insincere. "Don't do me any favors, pretty boy."

"Consider it a friendly gesture," the Knight suggested.

"I don't need any friends."

"Not to you," he clarified, gesturing toward the innkeeper. "To him." Walker chuckled.

"Watch it, Walker," she snapped. " I might still decide to relieve you of some fingers. Which room is it?"

"First on the left," the innkeeper answered, a hint of a smile on his lips.

"Have Safaya bring some food up. Doesn't matter what. And some ale." With a glare at both of them, she tossed a couple of silver coins on the counter and headed for the stairs.

After she was out of earshot, Kraey asked the innkeeper, "Is it wise to agitate her like that?"

Walker waved away the question. "Bah! She can't do anything to meh that Kami won't let her. And if He lets her kill meh I know where I'm going in the afterlife."

Kraey couldn't help but smile at the man's bold faith. "Well spoke, friend, well spoke. About that room, which one shall I take?"

"The second , third and . . . " he paused to think. "I believe the fifth on the right, they should all be open. Just take your choice. And don't yeh even think of pay," he forestalled the Knight. "I won't be having a Godson paying, not here. If yeh got coin burning a hole in your pocket, there's a temple three -"

"Three blocks north," Kraey spoke ahead of him. "Yes, your daughter said as much. Very well, then. I shall see to it that I venture that way before I leave the city. I'll just take the closest room. The second on the right, yes?"

The innkeeper nodded to the Knight.

"I have a few more things to do before I turn in for the evening," Kraey explained. "I should be back just before dark." With a friendly smile, the Knight turned and walked toward the front door.





Kraey awoke in the early hours of the morning, stirred from his rest by what sounded to him like a cry of fear. It was the third night of his stay in Langoth, in the room at the Walker's Rest. And it was the third night that he had awakened to the frightened call.

He lay there, his head weighing down on the pillow, his eyes watching the ceiling. The room was rather stuffy and he had not bothered with the linens. As it was, he had a light film of sweat on him, and his breeches clung to him a bit. As he had done before, he listened for some clue as to the source of the sound. Minutes passed by, and he heard nothing.

He closed his eyes and turned on his side, trying to regain that pleasant state of unconsciousness.

Then he heard the faint sound of weeping, a muffled noise that drifted through his door.

He was fully awake in an instant, sitting up, rising from the bed and moving toward the door in the meager light afforded to him by the moon shining through his closed window. Pulling open the door of his room, he was greeted by the soft glow of a wall-lamp in the hall. He stood there in the doorway, trying to discern the origin of the disturbance. When he followed his ears, he was surprised that they led him to the room where the dark-haired woman resided.

He lightly rapped his knuckles on the door.

"Miss?" he called softly. "Is everything alright?"

Only a soft sob answered him.

He put a hand on the door and eased it open a couple of feet.

The woman was standing at the window, wrapped only in the sheet from her bed, her hands resting on the window sill.

"Miss?" he reiterated. "Is everything alright?"

She spun about at the sound of his voice, her right hand snatching up the longsword that leaned against the wall. She started toward him, taking no effort to hold on to her sheet.

"How dare you come in here, you son of-"

"Whoa!" Kraey exclaimed, holding up a halting hand as he averted his gaze. "Please, miss. I apologize. I heard you crying, and I came to make certain nothing was amiss." He turned away completely, facing the hall.

He heard the woman moving behind him, re-gathering her sheet, from the sound of it.

"There's nothing wrong," the warrior stated. "And you heard nothing. Get out."

"Alright, miss," Kraey said, still facing away. "But if you wish to talk -"

"Get out!" Tykara all but yelled.

The Knight nodded as he stepped away from her door and proceeded back to his own room. He could hear her door slam shut behind him as he went past the staircase. And as he was closing his own door, he heard hers creak ever-so-slightly. Glancing back, he catch a glimpse of her watching him. With a confused frown he lay back down on his bed, in his stuffy room, there in the Walker's Rest of Langoth.

He watched the ceiling for several minutes, then turned on his side and closed his eyes.

Morning was only a few hours away.

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Tejas
Member for 11 years
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Aug 19, 2011 9:11 am

Chapter Two
". . . Begins With A Single Step"


The only indications to Kraey that daybreak had come were the faint rays of sunlight that filtered in through the alleyway, and the mental hourglass that Kraey had developed in his service as a young Knight. Those two devices worked together well to awaken him shortly past the sixth hour of the morning. There were no birdcalls outside, but he could hear the echoes of a few horses and wagons, likely the beginnings of daily life in the city.

Using the thumb and forefinger of one hand, he rubbed the night's slumber from his eyes, sitting up as he did so. He took a few deep breaths, then took up the prayer scroll that lay on the small table near the bed. He knew the prayers within by heart, so he did not bother to unfurl the parchment as he bowed his head. And closing his eyes, he began his morning devotions.

Nearly half an hour passed before he raised his head, finished. He even gave an extra prayer for the troubled woman across the hall.

Laying the scroll aside, the Knight slipped on his boots, lacing them tightly, then pulled on the thick woolen shirt. True, the shirt would be somewhat warm today, but it was necessary to have it underneath his armor. Only a fool would do without it.

Once he had donned the armor and his swordbelt, Kraey was ready, once again, to greet a new day. He tucked the prayer scroll into his belt and exited the room.

When he had descended the stairs, Kraey caught the attention of the young girl, Safaya. He gave her a smile and a friendly nod and took a seat at the nearest empty table. Safaya disappeared into the kitchen with a tray-full of dishes, only to return shortly with a tall, steaming mug of Langoth tea. It had not taken the girl long to learn his preferred drink.

"Here you are, Sir Ethynerysse," she said, setting the mug on the table. "What would you care for something to eat this morning?"

"Young lady," the Knight reprimanded sofly, "I have told you three times, now. Call me Kraey. It is my given name, after all."

"That wouldn't be proper," she protested. "But I suppose I could meet you halfway. I could call you Sir Kraey. Would that be alright?"

The Knight chuckled. "That would be fine, miss."

"Please, call me Safaya," the girl requested. "Can I get you something?"

"Yes, thank you." He paused for a few seconds, thinking. "A slice of the ham, some bread and a bit of cheese, if you have it."

"Right away, Sir Kraey," she said with a nod, and went off toward the kitchen.

As the Knight sat, waiting patientlly, the dark-haired woman came down the stairs, clad in her armor and carrying a scowl on her otherwise-lovely face. Her attention went directly to Kraey and she strode toward him, her movements almost angry. She stopped at his table and, without even asking, took a seat.

"Please," Kraey said, somewhat curtly, "do be seated. Make yourself comfortable."

She seemed to find no humor in the words. "Shut up and listen," she growled, her voice harsh but quiet. "Whatever you think you saw, whatever you think you heard last night, it didn't happen. It was just your imagination. Forget about it."

Kraey responded with a smooth expression and a coy, "Forget what?"

Tykara still did not smile. "Exactly."

The Knight sighed. "It would seem that it is beyond your abilities to conduct yourself in a sociable manner." He tilted his head slightly to one side as he watched her, trying to gauge her character, to understand her. "One can only wonder what tragic circumstances have brought you to such a place. And I pray that there is still hope for you."

"Well, you can stop praying," she said, almost sounding saddened. Or perhaps it was his imagination. "I was damned a long time ago."

Kraey regarded her with concern, linking his fingers together before him on the table. "I don't believe that," he stated. "You don't have that air about you. Self-condemnation, perhaps. But not damnation."

And like that, her scowl returned. "What would a Godson know about it? You've probably had everything given to you on a silver plate, never wanting for anything. What could you ever know about 'tragic circumstances'?"

It was the Knight's turn at sadness, his pale blue eyes staring straight through her, looking back long ago. "We all have our trials and tribulations," he muttered distractedly. "We all have something prescious that was lost to us, something that we hope to find again, before the end."

In his far-away state, he did not see the woman's face soften a bit at his words. Her gaze went to his hands. She noticed the signet ring of his station, a ring that he spun absently around his finger with his thumb.

Their thoughts were interrputed when Safaya set the Knight's plate on the table.

"Here you go, Sir Kraey," she said. "I didn't think we had any cheese left, but there was some after all." Then the girl noticed the looks on their faces. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interupt you. I'll just be going, then."

"Yes," Tykara growled irritably. "You do that. Go on and play."

Safaya didn't even seem bothered by the woman, merely giving them a nod and a smile as she turned away.

"Wait," Kraey called, halting the girl after only a few steps. She half-turned and looked back. "I apologize for her behavior, Safaya. And I wonder if you could let your father know that I will be leaving later today? I've finished what business I had in the city and I must be moving on."

"Certainly, Sir," she acknowledged. "Oh, and there's no need for an apology. I'm used to her kind." Before Tykara could respond, the girl headed off about her tasks.

"What in the Abyss is that supposed to mean," Tykara muttered to herself, before switching her attention to the Knight once more. "So, Sir Kraey," she started, emphasizing his title. "Already tired of my company? Got some other untamed heathen to preach to?"

Kraey watched her stoicly. "While your crude demeanor and cold disposition are both appalling and unappealing, my departure is not due to you. I simply feel that it is time that I move on."

"Oh? And where will you be 'moving on' to? Any place in particular?"

The Knight sighed. "I don't believe that my personal business pertains to you, madam. But I have nothing to lose by telling you, so I shall. I will be heading south, though I do not yet know where, precisely. I am not entirely familiar with this region."

The woman became a bit more serious, mentally exploring the geography. "Well, the closest city to the south is Karnof. About twelve or thirteen days' ride, nine if you push it. Seven, with a remount." She referred to the practice of bringing along a spare horse to switch to periodically, thus allowing each horse a reprieve from a rider's weight. "Further south is Zantuk, more than a hundred leagues from here, about seventeen or eighteen days. After that, there isn't much in that direction."

Kraey raised an eyebrow. "You seem to know your way around fairly well," he commented. "I've never been this far east, so I have been relying mostly upon the directions of kind locals."

Tykara gave a clipped laugh. "Are you placing me in that category? 'Kind local'? "

"That depends on you," the Knight answered. "Thus far, your record has been somewhat lacking." She shrugged away the comment. "Before I leave the city, I suppose I should visit a mapmaker and purchase a proper map."

"No need," the woman offered. "I've got one up in my room you can have. I don't really need it anyway."

Kraey watched her carefully. "That is . . . quite generous of you. Perhaps you'd allow me to pay you for it?"

She shrugged again. "Nah, don't worry about it. Besides, it'll let you put me a notch closer to one of those 'kind locals' you were telling me about," she teased, grinning and rising from her seat. "See if you can get Safaya to bring something to eat while I go get that map. I'll be right back." Then she was away on her task.

Kraey was indeed able to solicit from Safaya a meal for the sapphaire-eyed warrior. The girl was just returning from the kitchen with a cut of beef and some bread as Tykara was descending the stairs once more. They arrived nearly simultaneously, the older woman quickly taking a seat and tossing a rolled map onto the table.

As Safaya set the plate down, Tykara snatched up the bread and took a quick bite before digging several coppers from her coin purse and dropping them on the table. The girl picked up the coins while Tykara took another bite.

"You should give her your thanks," the Knight addressed the warrior, who gave him a questioning glance as she swallowed.

"Why? She's getting paid."

Kraey sighed heavily, giving the young girl an apologetic smile. Safaya took it in stride, even laughing a little as she answered a call from another table across the room.

"Be right there!" She spared a friendly wave to the Knight and set off, weaving between tables with practiced ease.

Kraey let his gaze fall to the table as he unrolled the cloth on which the map was drawn. "You said that Karnof would be the closest to the south?" His question was rhetorical, which was just as well, since Tykara was watching the other patrons while she ate, too occupied to reply. The Knight located Port City and traced a finger eastward to Langoth. From there, his eyes followed the line that represented the road that served as a trade route between cities. Karnof was easy enough to find. At least, it was on the map. But no trip was ever as easy as just following a map.

"I should probably hire a guide," he contemplated aloud, "if I wish to make it to this . . . Karnof in good time . . ."

"Don't bother," Tykara said. "I've got a friend there that owed me some money anyway. I'll take you." Kraey looked up from the map as she pulled a cloth from her belt and wiped her mouth, the first sign of manners that the Knight had seen from her. "Most people around here have never been more than a day's ride out."

"I seem to recall that a few days ago you said something along the line of not needing any friends."

"Yeah, I said I didn't need any," she smirked, emloying the cloth to clean the knife she'd used to cut her meat. "I didn't say I don't have any."

He nodded. "Fair enough. And what price would you charge to serve as my guide?"

"Four coppers a day," she responded without hesitation.

"I think not," he countered just as quickly. "Two per day should be fair."

She grinned, tucking her knife away. "Oh ho! So you do know how to haggle after all! But I'm no mere guide. You'll have my blade as well as my knowledge. Three per day."

Kraey paused for a few seconds, weighing the offer in his mind. Then, "Two per day, and I pay for both our food and supplies for the trip."

She laughed aloud. "Done!" she agreed, offering a hand for him to grasp. "How soon do we leave?"




After having gone their seperate ways, (she to settle accounts; he to purchase supplies), the Knight and the warrior met near the southern gate shortly before noon. It was a bit late in the day to begin such a journey, but Kraey saw no reason to wait until the morning and Tykara did not care since she was getting paid for the lost time regardless.

Kraey nodded to the guardsmen at the gate as he rode by atop his armored warhorse. They returned the gesture, though they were wary of the woman who road along beside him. Inwardly, Kraey wondered just who was this woman, that so many would regard her with such hesitation, even fear.

It was due to his training that Kraey strove to never underestimmate a potential threat, but he made a mental note to be expressly vigilant concerning this woman.

The steady rythmn of hoofbeats droned on as they two began to put a bit of distance between the city and themselves. Within a scant few minutes, they had passed the treeline. The trees of the wood were not so claustrophobic as they migh have been, but neither were they sparse. This close to the city, there was little place for any would-be bandits to hide. That danger would come when they were deep within the forests to the south, Tykara explained. Kraey understood the possible threat, though, where he came from, banditry was scarce due to the frequent patrols which the Knights kept.

For the next hour, the woman questioned Kraey heavily on what weapons he had trained in, even arguing, somewhat successfully, a few points on maneuvers of the longsword. The Knight explained that the weapons he was most highly familiar with were the longsword and the broadsword, though he had some experience with a myriad of other tools of his trade, including the massive greatsword that was nestled neatly in his saddle scabbard. Tykara, of course, made a glib comparison between him and an armory. He made no effort to contest the point.

The heat of the day was fully upon them as the sun began its slow decsent in the western sky, though neither of them complained about it. To them, it was only another part of the day, a piece of the journey that one must endure. The heat was noticeably affected as well by the increasing density of the wood as they traveled, the canopy of branches and leaves helping to trap a bit of the moisture beneath them. It was only a hint, however, as to what the thick forests to the south would bring.

Nearly three hours out from Langoth, Tykara spotted several men on horseback approaching in the distance. The men were armed, each of them wearing a sword at the belt, and a couple of them bearing steel-tipped spears. In the way of armor, they wore only light leather vestments, minimal protection that would allow them full freedom of movement. The five of them began to slow to a halt.

Kraey did not like the look of it.

"Keep moving until I stop," the woman whispered to him. He glanced over at her. The smile on her lips seemed pleasant and nonchalant, but her eyes gave her away to the Knight. Those cold eyes were hard and calculating, assessing the entire situation and preparing for whatever may come.

The men formed a line, blocking the road ahead.

Tykara continued forward until she and the Knight were a good ten paces from them, the Knight pulling up short beside her as she stopped.

"Nice day for a ride, yes?" she queried, ignoring the lines of sweat that ran down her face. Kraey noted that she had slyly slipped her feet free of her stirrups. He couldn't help but wonder what she might have in mind.

One of the men, obviously an authority figure to the rest, glanced to his left and recieved a nod from another of them.

"She matches the desciption, sir."

The leader looked back to the black-haired woman. "You're the one they call Tykara Sol-Talon, yes?" He phrased it as a question, but it sounded more like a demand. He had a sneer that crinkled the sides of his hawk-billed nose.

Tykara put a hand to her chest and accompanied the gesture with an incredulous gasp of shock. "Me? Be that murderous bandit? Of course not, kind sirs," she lied smoothly.

"Sir," the second of the men spoke, "the way she moves . . . She's no simple traveler. Got to be her."

The leader nodded. "Agreed. We'll take her head and be done with it." Kraey put a hand on his longsword and the leader spared him a look. "Sir Knight, we have no quarrel with you. We only mean to collect the bounty on the killer called Tykara. Please, move aside and let justice be done."

Tykara laughed aloud boldly, drawing everyone's attention to herself. "Kraey, do be a dear and keep this an even fight." The feigned innocence fled from her countenance, leaving in its stead a malevolent grin. "Stay out of it. They're mine."

She heeled her horse hard, causing the beast to practically leap forward. Throwing her own weight back, she rolled backward off the animal, landing in a runner's starting pose. The bounty-seekers scrambled to get out of the horse's way as Tykara launched herself into a sprint. In the middle of her run, she pulled the knife from her belt and flung it with one fluid motion. It struck the leader just below the ribcage and, even through the leather vestment, it sank up to the handle.

He began to slide from his saddle just as his men were recovering, and Kraey held his ground, watching the battle unfold.

One of the spearmen leveled his weapon at her and charged while his allies spread out to surround her. The woman did not halt her run, but dodged aside at the last second, seizing the spear just behind its head and forcing it downward. The tip caught in the dirt and its wielder was torn from his saddle, slamming him into the ground and sending up a cloud of dust.

Wrenching the spear from the stunned man's grasp and crushing his windpipe with her boot, she spun around and heaved it with all of her might. The missile sailed unerringly, nearly hissing as it spilt the air, then drove solidly into the spearman's chest, piercing his lung. He tumbled from his steed unceremoniously.

"Come on," Tykara taunted, gesturing for the last two to draw near as they reined in their beasts, suddenly cautious. "Oh, you're not afraid of a harmless woman, are you? Come and get me!"

The last two dismounted simultaneously, drawing their swords as they touched the ground. With measured steps, they approached, working to carefully flank her.

Tykara turned to face one of them, presenting her back to the other. She raised her right arm up over her shoulder as though she were reaching for her sword. Then she heard the first footfall of a charging attack and darted forward toward the man in front of her. While the one man was making his charging lunge for her back, and the other had brought his blade up high in a chopping motion, she suddenly dove for the ground, She tucked into a roll and bowled the front attacker's legs from under him, forcing him to fall forward directly into his friend's path, and the lunging longsword drove into his throat and lodged in the bones of his neck.

The surviving bounty-seeker released his blade and let his gargling, dying ally fall. He began to pray aloud as he started backing away. Tykara rose to her feet and advanced quickly on the stunned and frightened man, who dropped to his knees in the dirt, still praying. Tykara seized him by the throat, slowly drawing her blade for the first time of the fight.

"Pray all you want," she growled. "Your gods can't save you from me." Then she thrust the blade into the man's heart with such force that the tip stopped just shy of tearing through his back. Releasing his throat, she kicked the man in the chest, driving him backward off her sword to lay bleeding on the road.

Not one to leave a task undone, she began in the direction of the mortally wounded leader.

"Though I find your brutality and cruelty distasteful," Kraey acknowledged, "I must admit that your battle skills are . . . quite good."

Tykara chuckled as she used her boot to roll over the injured bounty hunter. "Yeah, I am good," she boasted. Then she gave the Knight a lewd leer and added, "But when I'm bad, I'm better." Then she winked at him, just before slew the last man.




After having moved the bodies off the road with Kraey's aid, the woman proceeded to remove from them their valuables. The dead wouldn't need any of it, she reasoned with the Knight. While Kraey did not fully approve of her actions, he was forced to agree that their belongings could no longer benefit them. In addition, he had no love for bounty-seekers, viewing them as only marginally better than vultures.

As for the mounts of the dead men, Tykara removed the bribles and saddles, checked the animals for injuries and set all five of them free.

It struck the Knight as interesting that she would have so little regard for sentient life, yet she took the time to see to the care and well-being of mere beasts. Even though her disdain for people distressed him inwardly, the latter part led him to believe that there still might be some shred of hope for her soul. Perhaps she was not as entirely lost as she seemed to believe.

And so, having taken the efforts to dig shallow graves for the fallen assailants, the two of them continued on toward the sout until the last light of the sun faded away.

For the rest of their journey, their ride was, thankfully, uneventful. The only trial with which they were forced to contend was the sweltering heat of Long Calm, and of this they uttered no complaint. There were a few nights when the woman tossed in her sleep, sometimes giving a small cry that was only just loud enough to wake the Knight. But Kraey never spoke to her of the incidents. He did notice, however, that her nightmares did not seem so bad or so frequent as they had been in the city. Perhaps, he reasoned, the quiet of the woods was soothing to whatever daemons plagued her dreams.

But it was clear to him that her troubled were something she had no desire to share. So he resolved to put the matter from his thoughts until such a time as she chose to speak of it.

It was on the twelfth day of their trek that the gates of the city of Karnof loomed large before them, and the rode calmly through to what might have very well been their journey's end. But, as such things tended to be, it was only just the beginning . . .

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Tejas
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Paths Of The Chosen, Chapter 3

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Aug 26, 2011 11:54 am

Chapter Three
"En Passant"


A hunter in the city was not an everyday sight, but neither was it uncommon, so very few paid much attention to the red-haired huntress as she moved along the side of the street. Wagons were moving by at a rapid pace, making it somewhat of a risk to walk in the street proper; still, the odd person or two crossed to one side or the other without too much trouble. The huntress had never felt at home in any city, and this one was certainly no exception. It was smaller than most other cities, but it was still loud. Too loud for her liking.

With the training she'd been given, she was always watching, always alert, and here, with all the hustle and bustle, her senses were bombarded from every which way with far too many things to watch for. Yes, she did indeed hate cities.

But she had business here. So she had to make allowances for a degree of trouble.

She shifted her bow on her shoulder as she waited patiently for a cart to rattle by. As she was preparing to rush across behind it to the other side, she heard several voices calling out in alarm. A short distance away, a man in a worn brown cloak stood in the middle of the street, his cowled head turning this way and that as though he did not know quite where he was. And a large cargo wagon, with a full team of horses pulling, was bearing down on him, the beasts having been startled by some odd thing.

The huntress rushed into action, charging toward the cloaked figure. In the space of a mere three seconds, she had covered the distance between them and dove fore him, colliding into his back and shoving him to the far side of the street just in time.

The man grunted as he hit the ground hard, the woman's weight on top of him. The wagon thundered by behind them.

"Are you alright?" she asked, slowly getting to her feet and readjusting her bow.

"What's the idea?" he demanded. trying to rise from the ground. "What in the Abyss was that for?"

She was immediately irritated by his lack of gratitude. "I was saving your worthless life, old man. You could at least say thank you."

" 'Old'?!" came a harsh query. "Since when is thirty years considered 'old'?!"

She felt her eyes widen at his response, for she was certain she had seen a hint of white hair in the midst of the commotion. "Oh," her simple reply came. "I'm sorry. But you certainly seemed old, bumbling around in a busy street like that. What were you doing, anyway?"

The cowled head turned toward her as the man rose the rest of the way. This time, she clearly saw several strands of white hair under his hood. "I . . . I sometimes lose myself in my thoughts. And that's all you need to know," he finished with a snap in his voice. He turned away and took a step . . .

And cried out in pain, nearly stumbling to his knees.

"What's wrong?" she asked, reaching for his arm.

He jerked away from her touch. "You landed my leg on a rock. I think you broke my shin."

She rolled her eyes and sighed. "Don't be such a child. It's probably just bruised or skinned. Let me have a look," she offered.

"Leave me be!" he hissed through the pain. "You've done enough! I'll make it back to the inn on my own." And he braced himself and took another step. Again, he cried out, this time actually dropping down on one knee.

The huntress chuckled, crossing her arms and waiting. "You were saying?"

The man growled under his breath. "Fine. Help me get back to my room."

"Say 'please'," she prompted, beginning to enjoy herself at his expense. She could hear the man breathe out a curse before muttering a soft, "Please, help me up."

She hooked her arm under his and lifted him to his feet, then draped his arm over her shoulders, noticing for the first time that he wore long sleeves and gloves, despite the heat. She frowned. In the wild, she would have noticed something like that almost immediately.

"The name is Siltas, by the way," she said, making her introduction. "Siltas Lenok."

"Who asked?" he grumbled.

She suppressed the urge to let him fall, instead saying to him, "I'm only trying to be friendly. Is it too much to ask that you do the same?"

She heard a sigh from beneath the hood. "I am called Tabin . . . Onak. Tabin Onak." he said soflty, and she noticed the hesitation with his surname. "I . . . apologize for my demeanor. My journey had been long and trying. Many of the ways and customs of this land are strange to me, and I seem to have let the strain affect my manners."

At last, she thought. A bit of civility from him. "Where are you from?" she queried.

The cowled head shifted toward her slightly, and she noted that he was only a couple of inches taller than herself, perhaps and inch under six feet. She couldn't see any of his features as he answered.
"I came from the Eastlands. A prominent nation called Padan-Aram. But I would prefer that you ask no further concerning my origins, if you don't mind."

She could respect that. Everyone had their secrets. Gods knew she did. "Alright," she allowed. "Fair is fair. Just making conversation. By the way, which inn am I walking you to?"

"The Chessmaster's Table."

She raised an eyebrow at that and let out an appreciative whistle. "Come into some money, have you? The Chessmaster is the nicest inn in all of Karnof. With prices to match. No offense, but the way you're dressed, I'd venture to say you don't have two coppers to rub together."

She thought she heard a soft laugh from him. "Appearances are often decieving, Miss Lenok. Money is never an issue for me. But I have no need to pay for my room there." He grunted sharply from the throb in his shin. Then he continued his explaination. "The proprietor apparently has a long-standing challenge that whoever can best him in a game of chess stays for free." The man chuckled a little, despite his discomfort. "He was quite surprised when I placed him in checkmate."

She was impressed. "You beat old Landon at his own game? I didn't think it could be done! Ha!" she guffawed loudly. "Serves him right, the old codger! Wish I could've seen his face!"

"I take it you don't get along well with the man?"

"With Landon?" She made it sound as though his question was ridiculous. "He's a good man, as far as city-dwellers go. Everyone likes him. I just love to rattle his cage every now and again. Ah, turn left at this corner, we can cut throught the alley and save a little time."

The man nodded, allowing her to lead. "You don't seem the sort to spend much time within the walls of a city. What is it that you do?"

"Well," she answered slowly, careful with her response, "I . . . I mostly hunt, for food and furst. I'm a ranger, a hunter. Other than that, I just wander from place to place, doing whatever I feel like."

The man did not seem convinced. "So, you felt like spending some time inside the confines of a city, where it is quite obvious that you are completely uncomfortable?"

"Hey," she defended herself, "I'm just here to do something for a friend." It was a lie, but she felt she told it well. The man made no effort to contest it. "I have to find some way of bolstering the few coppers I get from the furs. Hold up, wait for the carts to go by." She motioned for the drivers of said carts to hurry past. "So, what is it that you do?" she askedm turnin his question back on him. "Or is that off-limits?"

"Hmm? Oh, I am a practioner of the arts arcane."

"A wizard, huh? No wonder you were able to beat old Landon. I hear you mage-types have to be really smart just to learn the basics."

He nodded in agreement. "Yes, a notable intellect is absolutely requisite for one to succeed." He motioned to a building just a hundred yards ahead. "There it is. Almost there. Would you care to join me for a meal? As a way of saying thank you, of course."

She still had some things to do, and she didn't care to stay in the city longer than she had to, but . . . Her stomach growled at the thought of food. "Well, as long as you show me how you beat old Landon. That'd be a great way to thank me."

The head shifted a little more toward her as the man laughed. "I suppose I could impart that bit of knowledge. A deal, then. A meal and a lesson and my debt is paid."

The huntress' lips fell into an alluring half-grin as they continued on.

By the time they reached the door of the Chessmaster's Table, the man's ankle had ceased throbbing enough that he could walk without aid. As the man straightened his cloak, Siltas glanced at the sign shingle that was hung above the door. It was adorned with an artful painting of a grey-haired man pondering a chesspiece in his hand. She smiled. She did enjoy a good game of chess, but she had never been able to win against Landon.

Her eyes went back to Tabin as he opened the door.

"After you," he said, motioning her on through.

Stepping inside, she was suddenly aware of just how much stress she'd felt out in the street. The establishment had much the same decor and atmosphere of a hunting lodge that one might find along the road. The softened noise of quiet conversations throughout the room somehow set her at ease. Or at least as much at ease as she could be in a city. There were a few tanned hides and animal horns adorning the walls, but not so many as to be morbid or macabre. The tables and chairs were of excellent craftsmanship, sturdy and well-made, and the common room was well-lit and busy, but not too busy. The serving girls bustled about, tending to the many patrons without make too much noise.

A tough-looking young man approached Tabin and herself.

"Excuse me, miss," he addressed her. "Your friend here is already familiar with the rules, but I am required to inform you that you must-"

"Must hand over all weapons," she interrupeted, "or be forced to leave. Yes, I know the drill. You must be a recent hire, boy, 'cause I don't recongnize you." She slipped her bow from her shoulder and passed it to him, following it with her quiver, the twin shortswords on her back, the throwing knives at her belt and the folding miniature crossbow (a neat little gnomish weapon she'd picked up a few years back), which had been neatly nestled in a large pouch at her side. She usually kept the crossbow unfolded and hung from her belt, except when she was in a city. With each additional weapon, the young man's eyes grew wider. When she saw his expression, she couldn't help but mess with him.

"Should I go get the rest of them from the wagon?" she asked, straight-faced. When it seemed that the young man's eyes might fall from their sockets, she began to laugh. "Just a joke, kid," she confessed, which calmed the boy a bit. "Where's old Landon?"

Still a little unnerved by her display, the boy answered, "Master Andervol is unavailable. However, Master Tolp is running the desk, if you'd care to sign in."

"Tolp?" she repeated. "Borlin Tolp?" The boy nodded. "When did Landon hire . . ? You know what, nevermind. Doesn't matter. I'm not staying, just joining the wizard here for a bite to eat." She gestured to Tabin with her thumb.

Tabin nodded to the young man, confirming the woman's claim. "Could you point us to a good table?" His gloved hand reached out in what appeared to be an attempt at a handshake. Then Siltas noticed the glint of coin carefullly concealed between his fingers. The young man had apparently seen the mage use the gesture before and eagerly grasped the offered hand, spiriting away the money.

"Of course, sir," the boy said with a smile. "Let me just put these weapons away and I will be right with you."

Tabin nodded again, then looked out across the room.

Siltas watched the boy walk into the back room and she muttered under her breath, " . . . Kid better be careful with those. That crossbow wasn't cheap. Or easy to find." Then the scent of cooking meats wafted out from the kitchen and her stomach growled again. "I hope they have some venison. Or maybe a bit of steak. I haven't eaten at all today. What about you?" She glanced at the wizard, expecting an answer.

Instead, the mage was staring across the room, his expression blank and far away.

"Hey, mage," she addressed him. "Did you hear me?" He did not respond. "Onak? You okay?" She reached out and touched his arm . . .

And he jerked to life, that cowled head spinning to face her. For a split-second, she could see his face. Or what she thought was his face. He skin was almost as white as snow. She gasped.

"I'm sorry," he said, as the hood slid back into place, hiding his countenance once more. "I lost myself again, didn't I?"

"Uh, yeah," she answered, hiding her shock. "You seemed to wake up when I touched you, though."

"You touched me?" His voice lowered a bit, with almost a worried sound to it. She nodded. "Please, if it should happen again, I ask that you not touch me. It . . . it can be dangerous."

She gave him a forced half-grin. "Yeah, sure. I'll, uh, I'll keep that in mind."

Tabin recognized her discomfort and sighed. "You need not dine with me, if you would rather leave."

But Siltas was not one to let herself be disuaded or frightened easily. "I don't think so," she returned. "You still owe me at least that chess lesson. You can't weasel out of your debts by trying to scare me off, wizard." She caught a movement in the corner of her eye and looked back to see the young man returning from the back room. "Hey, kid!" she called to him, "we're not getting any younger out here. Are you gonna show us to a table or not?"

The boy said not a word as he slipped past them, motioning for them to follow. They fell into step behind him, Siltas pointedly walking close beside the mage.

"I gotta say," she lowered her voice, directing her words at Tabin, "you certainly have a few surprises up your sleeve."

The hood angled toward her slightly. "You have no idea," he said, sounding almost apologetic.
She let it go at that, falling a step or two behind him as they followed the boy to a table near the grandiose fireplace in the center of the north wall. The boy waited for them to be seated, then informed them that one of the serving girls should be with them shortly. Tabin thanked the young man, who then returned to his station near the front door.

The wizard untied a modest-sized pouch from his belt and emptied it's contents, a complete set of wooden chesspieces, onto the table. In the center of the table were inlaid small squares of alternating light and dark wood, creating a chessboard. He began to set up the pieces for a game.

"What? Are you going to teach me right now?" Siltas asked.

"No better time than the present, Miss Lenok." He did not look up as he spoke, his gloved hands moving rapidly.

"Alright, then," she shrugged. "By the way, just call me Siltas."

"Very well," he responded. "I shall, provided that you call me Tabin. I find I like it better than being called 'wizard', or 'hey you'."

Siltas watched him work for a minute, then asked," Why do you wear that hood all the time? And the gloves?"

This time, the mage paused for a second, then resumed. When he spoke, his tone was bitter.

"I dress in this manner because the people of my homeland are ignorant, superstitious fools. What they do not understand, they fear. And what they fear, they seek to destroy."

Siltas offered, "Sounds to me like people in general."

He looked up and she could see just the tip of his ivory chin peeking out from the shadows of his cowl. "An unexpectedly enlightened outlook, miss. And a very refreshing one, at that." He placed one last piece. "Your move."

She looked at the table, picked up one of her pawns and shifted it forward. But before she could release the pawn, he gave her a clipped, "No." She glanced up with a confused frown.

"You don't just snatch up a random piece," he reprimanded. "You begin by formulating a stratedy several moves ahead. Then you work it out in reverse, in your thoughts. Then you move your piece as though you were playing a game of dice, using your expressions and mannerisms to confuse your opponent. You make them think you are uncertain of you move. Or confident, or arrogant. You do this with each move you make. Because chess is far more than a simple game." He leaned forward with a purpose. "It is a war. A war of minds."

She placed the pawn back in its starting square and gave it a good bit of thought. After a moment, she reached for a different piece and moved it one space forward, biting her lip as she did so.

"Better," he said. The he made his own move, seemingly grabbing a pawn at random and advancing it two spaces.

"Oh, come on," she complained. "You barely even looked at -" She broke off suddenly as something behind the mage caught her eye. "Gods!" she nearly whispered. "Is that -? No, it can't be!"

The mage didn''t turn. "An improvement on your attempts at deception, but it is a bit overplayed. It is still your turn."

"What?" She caught on to what he meant as she glanced at the table and used her hand to shield her face from view. "I'm serious," she hissed. "Far left corner table, near the stairs. What do you see?"

Tabin realized she was sincere and sneaked a quick peak. He turned back to Siltas. "Just a woman eating. Appears to be a soldier, perhaps a mercenary. Black hair, blues eyes, though I could be mistaken at this distance. Who is she? Someone to whom you owe money?" He jested, but she did not laugh.

"I've never actually met her," she clarified. "But I've seen her a few times. She has a vicious temper and the skill with a blade to match. I once saw her kill three trained soldiers with nothing but a dagger. She used to lead a gang of bandits, all of them murderers." She tapped a finger on one of her pawns, having no intention of moving. "I'm good with my weapons. Very good. But I would have to think long and hard before getting into a fair fight with her."

"Does she have a name?" the wizard asked.

Siltas nodded. "Her name is Tykara Sol-Talon. They call her Tykara Redhands."

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Tejas
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Paths Of The Chosen, Chapter 4

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Sep 02, 2011 9:59 am

Chapter Four
To Bear The Mark


Tykara pulled another strip of meat from the roasted chicken on her plate. It was still quite hot, which forced her to be careful as she took a bite. The bird was well done, but not the least bit dry, and she savored it as she chewed. The price for such a meal was of little concern to her, as the Knight had already paid her for the journey here, and she had collected on the debt owed by her "friend."

It had been well over a year since she had darkened the doorway of the Chessmaster's Table. Since things had begun to fall apart around her. Since . . .

She set the chicken back on the plate, her appetite gone. Her trail of thought seemed to spoil the food on her tongue and she had to force herself to swallow. She swore under her breath. It was a perfectly good meal, but she could no longer bear the smell of it. It reminded her of when she'd last stayed here, sharing a meal, smiling as she looked across the table at . . .

She picked up her cup and drank deep of the mulled wine, trying to will away the thoughts. Draining the cup, she set it down and looked around for a serving girl she could wave down to fill it.

That was when she noticed the red-haired woman near the fireplace, stealing glances at her. Then the redhead moved her hand up to her face, a pathetic attempt to hide her interest.

With the way she was feeling, Tykara was almost looking for a reason to do something violent. And when the other woman glanced her way again, it was just enough reason.

Tykara rose slowly from her seat and tightened her hand into a fist, making the knuckles crack loudly. Taking steady strides, she made her way across the room and stopped a few feet from the redhead.

"You got a problem with something?" she demanded, cracking the knuckles of her left hand in the same manner.

The redhead lowered her hand and looked at Tykara calmly. "I do, actually. My friend here won't let me win." She motioned to the game before her.

The coy way on which she answered was an irritant to Tykara. She leaned forward slightly and threatened, "Girl, I find you annoying." She noticed that the redhead had a small tattoo on the side of her neck. A red diamond; the mark of a slave.

The redhead tried to avert the situation. "Hey, I'm not looking for a fight . . ." she started.
"That's too bad," Tykara stated. "Because I am.[i/]"

"Hold it right there," came a deep, rumbling voice from behind her. The warrior spared a glance back. The voice belonged to a very large, heavily-muscled man. "If you want to fight, you will take it outside, or I will . . . escort you out."

Tykara just shook her head and chuckled. "The bigger they are . . ." she trailed off. And, without warning, she half-turned and lashed out with a sidewards chop, the edge of her hand striking the man in the throat. The man fell back, coughing hard, as the warrior faced him fully, ready to do serious harm to him. She raised her hand to strike again.

"Sol-Talon!" barked the voice of the Knight.





Siltas saw the bandit-woman prepare for another strike and she started to rise, ready to intervene on the man's behalf. Then the voice from the front door forced the black-haired woman to pause and cast her eyes in that direction.

Siltas followed her gaze to see who had spoken.

The man standing near the door was tall, at least as far as the locals were concern. And he was well-built and of a confident manner. The short blonde hair and neatly trimmed beard gave him an authoritative presence, despite the youthful look in his face. The armor he wore named him a Knight of the Godson Nation.

"If you wish to remain in my employ," the Knight addressed Tykara Redhands, "then you will refrain from such social outbursts." He began walking toward her at a steady pace, his strides long. "I hired you to be my guide. Not to attack the hired help of inns. You will therefore conduct yourself in a manner of civility." He stopped a few feet from Tykara, and Siltas watched carefully, taking in every detail of his somehow-familiar face. "Do I make myself clear?" he finished.

Tykara scoffed, but lowered her hands. "And where do you think you'll find another guide if I decide not to play along?"

Before Siltas could think better of it, she said, "I could guide you. I know every shortcut and deer trail from the Sister Cities to the eastern coast." She immediately berated herself silently when the warrior woman turned those cold blue eyes on her.

Then Siltas noticed that the Knight was staring at her.

"Do . . . I know you?" he queried of her.

And Siltas realized where she had seen him before. She willed her body to work against the shock, extending a hand. "Siltas Lenok, hunter and ranger. And you are?" she asked, as though she did not already know.

By her response, the Knight gathered that he did not know her after all, though it was obvious that it still nagged at him. "I am Lord Kraey Ethynerysse," he began his introduction, taking her hand while he ignored the glare that Tykara gave them both. "Son of Richard Ethynerysse, Holder of the Seat of Unity of the City of Inami."

The warrior cleared her throat loudly, making certain that she was not forgotten. "Fine, Kraey. You've made your point. I'll take it easy."

The big Knight turned his attention to her. "And you'll apologize to the fellow you struck." He gestured past her, where the inn guard was rubbing his throat and coughing softly.

The warrior threw another glare at him before turning toward the guard. "You alright?" she asked. The man nodded. "Anything broken?" He answered by shaking his head. "So we're good, right? We're friends now?" Another nod, this one somewhat reticent. She looked back to the Knight. "See? All better now."

It was obvious to all that her action was as much of an apology as she was likely to give. The Knight gave her a slow nod.

"Very well," he accepted. "That will suffice for now. By the way, if you have any business to which you must attend, you have until the day after tomorrow. It will take me that long to secure the supplies I need. Then we head out."

"Where are you going?" Siltas inquired. "If I'm going the same way, I might tag along, no charge." She had no inkling why a man such as a Godson Knight would consort with a bandit and a murderer, but she was loathe to let him venture out alone with the warrior.

Tykara growled, "It's none of your business, little b-"

"Miss Sol-Talon!" Kraey interrupted her. "You would do well to hold your tongue. I will not abide the use of profanity. As for you," he spoke to Siltas, "if you are capable of handling yourself in a fight, and are able to adhere to my rules of conduct, then I welcome you to join us."

The dark-haired woman turned away and started to stalk back to her table, the guard moving aside to give her plenty of room to pass. Siltas spoke to the Knight. "Alright, then. When and where should I meet you?"

"As I said to Tykara," he explained, "you need to be ready on the morning after next. We will be staying here, if you need to speak with me. I am staying in the fifth room from the stairs; she is in the sixth." He started to turn away, but paused. "I intend to have a morning meal before leaving. If you like, you may join us. It is on my coin," he added, meaning that he would pay.

She nodded. "Alright, Sir Knight. See you then." The blonde man then resumed his course, heading toward the bandit woman as Siltas sat back down.

"A most fascinating exchange," Tabin suddenly spoke up, and the huntress jolted in startlement, having forgotten he was even there.

"Gods, wizard!" she exclaimed. "You scared the life out of me! Why didn't you jump in on the 'conversation' instead of just sitting there like a statue?"

"It seemed to me that you had things well in hand." She could hear the jest in his tone. "But seriously, had things become . . . difficult, I would have intervened."

"Nice to know," she said, that half-grin returning to her face. She looked down at the chessboard as Tabin spoke.

"And what of the task that you mentioned before? Are you going to just venture off with this stranger and forget about your own goings-on?"

"It wasn't anything important," she countered. "I'm not on any schedule. Still my move, right?" The mage beneath his hood. Siltas reached for a piece just as one of the serving girls approached.

"What would you like?" the girl asked, her voice soft and sweet.

Siltas actually laughed out loud at the irony as she realized that events had driven away her hunger. "And now you show up, "she said to the girl, "now that my appetite is gone. I appaud your sense of timing, young lady."

And she applauded.






Tykara had a scowl fixed on her face when the Knight sat down across from her. The roast chicken had already cooled significantly and she pushed the plate away.

"Would you care to explain yourself," he inquired.

She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. "Do I [i]look
like I care to explain?"

"Miss Sol-Talon," he began, "I cannot force you to adhere to my standards. But if they grate against you so strongly, you always have the option of leaving. You did not have to offer to extend our deal once we reached Karnof."

"Yes, I did," she muttered.

He frowned. "I beg you pardon?"

She gave him a frustrated sigh as she leaned forward. In a low tone, she repeated, "Yes, I did. I had no choice. I have to know-" She cut herself off and glanced away, slamming a fist against the table in agitation.

His confusion deepened. "Know what? Please, continue . . . "

"Where . . ." She paused, as though uncertain she should ask her question. Her need to know prevailed. "Where did you get your swords?"

"My . . . ? Where, exactly, are you going with these questions?

With an irritated growl, she rocked to her feet and began to walk toward the entrance. "Follow me," she instructed him. Curious, he obeyed, rising and trailing in her wake as she proceeded, stopping at the counter where they had turned over their weapons.

The clerk behind the counter looked at them expectantly. "Yes? What can I do for you?"

"Bring me my sword and bring one of him one of his," she demanded of him. "Doesnt matter which of his. We're in rooms five and six."

"Certainly," the clerk said, almost sickeningly chipper. "Just a moment." And he rushed away to do her bidding.

"Would you, please, tell me what this concerns?" Kraey insisted.

"For a Godson, you aren't showing much in the way of patience."

The Knight fell silent, watching her, trying to deliberate what she meant to accomplish. In a moment, the clerk returned with two weapons in his hands; Tykara's longsword and the Knight's broadsword. These he laid on the counter with care.

"As you requested, miss," the clerk said, smiling all the while. "Anything else I can do for you?"
"Yeah," Tykara snarled at him. "Go away." Then she ignored him until he took his leave. She drew the Knight's broadsword closer. "Explain this, Ehtynerysse," she said, pointing out the markings on the crossguard. Markings that were clearly a black rose intertwined with a gilded dragon. "Where in the Abyss did you get this sword? And the other two?"

He frowned at her. "I don't see why it should matter to . . ." He trailed off as she picked up her own blade and pulled loose the piece of cloth that was wrapped around the crossguard. The cloth quickly fell away, revealing the exact same markings as his own. "Where?" she demanded.

"The dream . . . " he whispered, staring hard at the engravement.

"What . . . ?" She felt her heart nearly stop. She wasn't sure if she was eager to hear the answer . . . or if she feared it. "What did you say?"

His eyes went to her, the expression he bore stunned. "It was . . . " He seemed to have difficulty finding his words at first. He reached out and traced a finger on the etchings of her weapon. "It was when I was . . . I was back home, in Inami. My men and I had just returned from an enervating patrol that day, and I was weary from the trail. My squire helped me out of my armor, and while he saw to cleaning the suit and mending some damaged mail, I took the oppotunity to bathe away a week's worth of dust and sweat. By the time I had finished and made my way to my bed, I was so worn that I was asleep almost before I lay down."

"I don't recall how long I slept. But I recall the dream. I was alone on the beaches east of my home. I sat astride my horse, armed and armored. I was waiting for . . . " His voice grew choked. Tykara noted the sadness in his eyes. "I'm sorry. But much of it is simply too personal to relate."

"However, I remember drawing my sword to do battle, and I found that it was not my own weapon. All three of my blades had been changed, each of them bearing this mark." His finger tapped against the design in question, then he took his hand from the sword. "When I awoke, I found that my swords had all been replaced with those that I now carry, and none of my servants, loyal all, knew anything of how they had come to be there. And the following day, I donned my armor, mounted my warhorse and headed east. I hired a ship to take me across the Darkwater to Port City. From there I found my way to Langoth." He cast a glance at the blade that rested on the counter. "Everything that I have done since I left has been because of that dream."

"And you?" he asked, lending her his attention once more. "Is your story much the same?"

She motioned for the clerk to return the weapons to the back room, placing her longsword on the counter. The clerk rose from a writing desk near the far wall and came to tend to the blades as Tykara answered the Knight.

"Mostly," she said, somber. "I was headed back home, to my village in the north. Though that was where I was supposed to go." She gave him a meaningfull look. "Until I noticed you carried the mark. So I went with you. But now . . . " With a spirit-weary sigh, she turned her back to the counter and leaned against it, running her fingers across her forehead. She found herself to be at a dead end, with no direction.

"I suppose," the Knight reasoned aloud, his shaken composure now restored, "since I have no more knowledge of our . . . situations than you, there really is no reason that you should subject yourself to my employ. Of course, that means I shall have to rely solely on the the huntress to be my guide . . . " Then a thoughstruck him and he placed a strong hand on her shoulder, causing her to give him her attention. "However . . . Well, we could continue traveling together and, perhaps, we might stumble upon an answer to this perplexing riddle. Of course, I do have a task that I currently pursue, but I am of the strong impression that some clues about the dream lay along the same course."

The lost look began to fade from her face and was replaced by the beginnings of a hesitant smile. "That . . . that just might be a decent plan, Ethynerysse. And who knows? I might even try to keep a rein on my language," she teased softly. "And I won't even charge you a fee, this time. But you're still buying the food, right?"

In answer, Kraey only laughed.

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Tejas
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Paths Of The Chosen: Chapter Five

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Oct 21, 2011 9:24 am

Chapter Five
"Dissension In The Ranks"


The morning next found Siltas returning to the ciry of Karnof, despite her discomfort in such places. She had departed the eve before and slept beneath the gentle sway of the forest in the night-time breeze. She could have stayed in an inn, but whenever she did so, she awoke tired and disoriented. Better that she not waste her coin and, instead, enjoy a restful slumber with nature.

As she came through the gates, she gave the guards a friendly wave, and the gesture was quickly returned. Though she preferred the relative quiet of the forest, she had visited the city often enough for them to recognize her.

Once she was past the entry way, she took a right and headed for the market district. Well, perhaps "district" wasn't quite the word for it. It was more akin to a widened street occupied by a myriad of shops and vendors. It only took her a short time to reach the market, largely due to the light traffic of the early hour. Her immediate concern was with a dealer of spices, as it was her intent to purchase a small supply of dried shyesh flower petals. The flower itself was not all that rare, but it grew much farther north and she liked to keep some on hand in case of emergencies. The petals, when used properly, worked well to encourage the healing of wounds and the curing of simple poisons.

As she haggled with the vendor over the price, she felt a tap on her shoulder. A quick glance allowed her to see the semi-familiar cloak of the wizard from the day before. He stood there quietly, holding a staff in his right hand.

"Oh, hey, Tabin," she acknowledged him. "What brings you out so early?"

"I prefer to obtain my spell components before the streets are over-crowded," he responded. "I take it you slept well?"

She nodded. "Yeah. I set up a camp a ways outside of the city."

"Young lady, are you going to buy this or not?" the vendor demanded. "I've got things to do."

Siltas rolled her eyes as she retorted, "That depends; are you going to give me a price that's reasonable? If not, then I can just walk away."

"One silver is as low as I can afford to go," the old woman countered. "You can take it or leave it, I don't care which."

Siltas sighed. "Fine." The vendor grinned, expecting a sale. "Come on, Tabin. There's another spice shop across the way." Before Siltas could take a step, the old woman was waving her hands.

"Wait, wait!" she exclaimed. "Maybe I was a little hasty. I might be able to go down to nine coppers. But that's it!"

Her face solemn, Siltas offered, "Seven coppers."

The woman physically cringed and said, "Eight."

The huntress nodded. "Done." She opened her fist and dropped exactly eight coins on the woman's table, then picked up the small pouch of shyesh petals. The soft clink of the copper was quickly muffled as the woman gathered the money. Siltas smiled and turned toward the wizard. "So, you mind if I follow along while you get your ingredients?"

"Spell components," Tabin corrected. "And I've already been. There is an alchemist near the end of the street. Very well stocked and quite knowledgeable. I was actually on my way back to the inn when I noticed you, and I thought I would greet you."

"Wait," she cut in. "You were headed back? The day has barely started. Surely you don't intend to spend the entire day indoors? There are so many things you could do, plenty of entertainers to watch near the main square."

He began to slowly walk, his staff giving a soft and steady thud against the ground. The ranger fell into step beside him. "I've many studies, Miss Lenok-"

"Siltas," she put in.

He gave a nod of acknowledgement. "Very well, Siltas. I have several new spells that I am attempting to master, and such a task should never be taken lightly."

"But to stay couped up for so long . . ." she protested with a shudder. "I mean, haven't you ever wanted to just get out and do something? Have a little adventure?"

The mage arched a thoughtful brow. "I admit, when I was younger, I read many tales of adventure and I envied the characters greatly."

" 'When I was younger'," she teasingly mocked. "You talk like you're an old man. If you really are only thirty-"

"Thirty-one, actually."

"Okay, thirty-one. This is the age for adventure, wizard! You need to get out and live before you get old for real!" She tapped his arm with the back of her hand. "Tell you what, why don't we see if Kraey - I mean, Sir Ethynerysse, will let you come along? We'll play guide for a while, sleep beneath the stars, travel a bit . . . Before you know it, you'll be back in your cozy inn, curled up with a good spellbook. What do you think?"

"It isn't something I've ever really considered," he answered. "And it doesn't seem like something to which I would be well-suited."

"Don't worrry," she prodded. "If anything comes up, then me, the Knight and Redhands can handle it. You'd be well-protected."

"Protected?" he practically laughed. "You think that my concern if for my safety? I'll have you know, I am quite skilled at my craft. I should think that I would be the one doing the protecting."

"Then you have no excuse," she argued. "We might need your help if trouble crops up."

The mage walked in silence for a moment, considering the idea. Finally, he shrugged. "I suppose it would be an entertaining experience. Perhaps even educational. Very well, then. I shall go and return the tomes I've borrowed from the Hall of Mages, in the event that the Knight allows my presence in the group. And, in the morning, I shall attend your meeting and inquired as to whether or not I may join."

"Good," Siltas stated, satisfied that she had rescued him from his dull life. "By the way, you don't always have to talk that way. You're a wizard, and people already know wizards are smart."

"Duly noted," he said. Then he teasingly added, "I reckon I do talk kinda uppity."

She groaned and added, "Nevermind. Forget I said anything."

Tabin chuckled as he walked on.





Yet another day passed and morning, as it always does, came again, rousing the wizard to awaken early, as was his usual practice. The faintest hint of morning light softly crept into the room and shone on his back as he sat on the edge of his bed, leaning down to lace up his boots. His fingers moved quickly and skillfully, pulling the strings tight and tying them off. Finished with the task, he stood up, took his cloak from the corner of the bed and slipped it on. Gathering his hair together, he pulled the hood up and made certain that no stray strands fell free. Having done this, he then slipped on his gloves and took a deep breath.

Making for the door, the mage paused only long enough to get the staff that leaned against the wall. He then exited the room, his spellbook safely tucked into his belt. His steps were smooth and measured as he reached the stairs and descended to the common room. The noise as he entered was quite low, since most of the patrons were still asleep at that hour. Tabin was of a mind to occupy the same table as before, near the fireplace, but if he were to partake of breakfast with the others, a larger table would be required. And so he took a seat at an adequately-sized dining tabled by the window, (leaning his staff against the back of his left shoulder), and waited patiently for the Knight and his companion to come down from their rooms. However, he sincerely hoped that Siltas would arrive before them, so that she might be present when he posed his question. True, he'd only just met her, but he knew her far better than he knew the other two, and he felt that she might be able to help him "break the ice", so to speak.

Raising a hand, he was able to catch the attention of one of the serving girls, who hurried in his direction. Just as she neared his table, the mage caught sight of the red-haired ranger entering the front door. While she passed her weapons to the desk clerk, Tabin asked the serving girl to bring him a mug of hot water. In his homeland, he would have had tea, but the tea that was grown locally was not the same as that to which he was accustomed. Luckily, he'd had the foresight to procure several pounds of tea leaves prior to his sojourn, thus his request for hot water.

To pass the time while the girl fetched the makings of his drink, he took out his spellbook and began to study a bit. He made it through an entire paragraph before the huntress sat down across from him.

"I didn't think wizards got up this early," she interrupted his study. "Isn't that against some rule of Majik-users?

He smiled as he closed the book and put it away. "We Majik-users have only one rule. Self-discipline." Then he corrected himself. "Well, we wizards and magi follow that rule. Sorcerors, on the other hand have no such rule. Their way of Majik is akin to sewing a fine garment with a hammer and nails. Barbaric and distasteful." Tabin found himself frowning.

"So," Siltas began, trying to strike up a conversation, "you gonna just sit there until Ethynerysse shows up?"

"That is the general concept," he affirmed. "Unless you have a better idea?"

She shrugged. "Nah. It shouldn't be a long wait. Knights are notoriously early risers. As far as the bandit, "she referred to Tykara, " there's no telling when she might decide to wake up and taint another day."

"You seem to have already developed a great dislike for her," he noted, as the serving girl appeared beside him and set down his water. Steam curled upward from the cup. With a grateful nod to the girl, he extracted a small pouch from his belt and dropped a generous pinch of tea leaves into the cup, continuing to speak to Siltas. "Of course, your position as understandable, all things considered."

The huntress rolled her eyes. "What's to like about her? She just a very skillful killer who-" She broke off and wrinkled her nose. "Ugh! What is that gods-awful smell? What did you put in that cup?"

Tabin was a little bit offended, for the aroma was, to him, a soothing thing. "It is Aramic ooltahg tea. Is your land so uncivilized that it does not know proper tea when it is presented?"

Siltas put a hand over her nose and replied, "Oh, we know about tea, but that's just . . . Oh, gods, it smells like rancid horse piss. Are you saying you actually drink that?"

He seemed miffed at her remark. "It is well and good that I did not prepare any for you, then." Under his breath, he added, "And I thought sorcerors were barbarians . . ."

"Oh, come on," Siltas attempted to calm him, her hand still protecting her nose. "I thought you scholarly wizard types were supposed to embrace the differences between cultures. Just 'cause we don't like all the same foods doesn't make either of us barbarians."

Though he was still offended, Tabin considered her words. "I . . . can't deny that I find strange cultures intriguing, even though such things are not the purpose of my sojourn. And, perhaps, you may be able to remedy your error." He slid the cup across the table, allowing the foul-smelling steam to rise to her face. "Take but a single sip, and swallow it. Then I shall consider the offense erased."

She snickered. "You're joking, right?" His solemn and earnest face said otherwise. "Wait, you're serious? You really want me to drink this?" She glanced down at the odorous beverage, then back to him. She sighed, hardly believing what she was about to do. But, for the sake of keeping the peace . . . "Alright, fine. One sip. But if this kills me, I'm coming back to haunt you, I swear it."

She took the cup and lifted it, nearly gagging from the stench. Closing her eyes, began to move the cup toward her lips . . .

She felt the weight of the cup leave her grasp as someone snatched it from her hand. When she opened her eyes, she saw the bandit-woman standing by the table, draining the cup in on draught. Siltas could feel her jaw go a little slack as the warrior set the cup down and uttered a satisfied, "Ahhh!"

"Thought I smelled ooltahg," she addressed the hooded man. "That stuff is rare and expensive, friend. You shouldn't waste it on a ranger." The she directed her attention to Siltas. "Ethynerysse wanted me to tell you he'd be down in a minute. But before he gets here, I want to make something very clear." She leaned closer, and Siltas could smell the ooltahg on her breath. "I don't like you. I don't trust you. And I sure as the Abyss don't want you on this trip. So I'll warn you once. Don't piss me off and stay out of my way."

To her credit, the huntress did not flinch. Instead, she replied in a calm and even tone, "I don't much like you either. So, if I see you stepping out of line, I won't think twice about dropping you like a stag in the forest."

And the bandit actually smiled at her. "Good. Then we understand each other."

"Implicitly," agreed Siltas.

Tabin cleared his throat from beneath his hood. "Now that the two of you have finished posturing and issuing pointless threats," he began, "would you care to take a seat, miss . . . ?" He intentionally left his query open for her to make her introduction.

The bandit eyed him for a second, then pulled a chair away from the table and sat down. "Sol-Talon. Tykara Sol-Talon. And you?"

"You may call me Tabin," he offered. "By your ready knowledge of ooltahg tea, I presume that you are well-traveled, yes?"

"That's my business, not yours," was her response. "And it might be better for you health if your try not asking too many questions."

Tabin sighed, saying to no one in particular, "And so we return to the posturing and threats." Before the warrior-woman could add another threat, he gestured toward the stairs. "The Knight has arrived."

Siltas glanced in the Knight's direction, then half-rose from her seat and called out to him. "Hey, Sir Ethynerysse! Over here!" She beckoned him with a motion, to which his response was a nod. Siltas then sank back down into her seat, ignoring the looks of irritation she recieved from some of the other patrons.

Tabin sighed at her lack of manners and made a point of summoning a serving girl without yelling across the room. And when the girl (the very same one that had brought his water) altered her course to attend the hooded wizard, Siltas rolled her eyes in annoyance.

The girl arrived at the table just ahead of the Knight.

"Is there something you need, sir?" she asked.

Tabin was all proper and polite as he spoke. "Please bring us whatever local meat you have on hand, some cheese and bread, in suitable portions for four. Also, I would like a seperate plate for each of our use. I shall have a list of the drinks ready when you return."

The young lady nodded and set off on her way as Kraey eased into his seat, his armor lightly sounding again the wood.

"Good morning," the Knight bade the three. "Miss Sol-Talon, Miss Lenok. And . . . ?"

The wizard took the cue and supplied his introduction. "Tabin Onak. And, please, no 'Mister Onak'. Just call me Tabin."

"Good luck with that," the bandit put in. "I've been trying for the last two weeks to get him to quit calling me 'Miss Sol-Talon'. He still does it half the time."

Then, as though it were just to irk Tykara, the Knight said, "Very well then, Tabin. I am Lord Kraey Ethynerysse, son of-"

And Tykara showed her ire by interrupting him. "Kraey. His name is Kraey. Or 'Sir Kraey', if you want to be uppity about it."

Though they could not see it, Tabin smiled beneath his cowl. "Well met, Sir Knight." The hood dipped slightly as he bowed. "I understand from the young woman here," he gestured to Siltas, "that you are going on a journey. A prospectively dangerous one. She has recommended that I inquire as to the possibility of my joining you."

Kraey regarded him with a stern look, gauging him. After several seconds, the Knight answered, "I'm inclined to say 'no', sir. And my reasoning is thus; first, by your appearance, I judge you to be a scholar, and any ordeals which we might face would only be made all the more difficult if we must protect such an individual. And secondly, I cannot, in good conscience, take on one who hides his identity behind a hood."

Tabin sighed.

"Sir Knight," he defended his request, "I can assure you that, while I do have a few scholarly studies which I pursue, I am for more than any mere scholar. As to my hood . . . " He hesitated briefly before he continued. "Seeing that you are of a noble line and a man of honor, if you so request, I will unveil myself."

Again, Kraey considered. With a nod, he said, "Very well. Please proceed."

Tabin breathed another sigh. Lifting his gloved hands, he gripped the edge of the hood, pausing for a second before flinging it back. The two women and the Knight all gave a sudden gasp, which drew the attention of many of the other patrons.

The combination of light from the window and the candles of the chandelier produced an almost morbid effect on his features. Both his hair and his skin look as though he were a spirit, completely devoid of color. The chalky white of his face was harshly accented by the piercing gaze of his steel-grey eyes. He had no beard nor moustache, and it did not appear that he had ever had need to shave. All in all, he had a most unearthly appearance.

Apparently, one of the other patrons felt that "unearthly" was an apt description, for one man rose from his chair with a cry of "Vampyre!" and, breaking a leg from said chair, gave charge.

The only movement Tabin made to defend himself was to reach over his left shoulder and grip the staff that rested there. With precise timing, he snapped his hand forward and down, causing the other end to leap upward and catch the would-be assailant underneath the jaw. The man crumpled to the floor as though his bones had desolved.

"Were I truly a vampyre, thou simple fool," Tabin spoke as he slowly rose and turned, "I woould already be in great agony from the morning sun through the window. I am only a mere mortal, the same as the rest of you. However, if any here wish to put that to the test . . . " He gave the staff a sharp twist and, with a sudden hiss of sliding metal, a single wicked blade sprang from either end. "I can tell you that I will not perish easily," he finished, his tone smooth and calm all the while.

Many nervous faces turned abruptly away.

And then the pale man sat back down, twisting the staff to retract the blades before setting it against the edge of the table.

The Knight was impressed. "You certainly speak the truth about being more than a scholar. It is plain that you can handle yourself. And that is a most intriguing weapon you carry, though I would have thought that the clerk would have collected it at the door.

Tabin smiled. "It is an Aramic tahz'lt staff. The clerk presumed that it was an ordinary walking staff and allowed me to keep it." He lifted the weapon and and laid it across the table for the Knight to better see. "It is a tool of my order and they are quite rare. In fact, there are only-"

"Kraey!" Tykara hissed. "The markings! He's had the dream!"

Indeed, the staff did bear the dragon-and-rose etchings, wrapping completely 'round the middle of the staff in a three-inch-wide ring. The ranger peered at the mark, amazed that she had not noticed it the day before. Being in the city was really throwing off her attention to detail.

The Knight reacehd forward and touched the staff, his eyes watching the ivory complexion of the other man. "You have dreamt," he said. "You have seen a vision that has driven you to seek answers. That is why you have come here. That is why you have stayed." He was telling, not asking.

Tabin was intrigued. "Correct. I presume, then, that you have encountered the mark and a person ,or persons, who has experienced the dream." He looked to Tykara. "You, perhaps."

Kraey confirmed, "Yes. She carries the mark. As do I."

"Wait, wait," the ranger interrupted. "You're saying that all three of you have had similar dreams and have weapons that have this same mark?" They all three turned toward her. "This is . . . this is absolutely . . ."

"Kraey," the bandit threatened, "if she calls me crazy, I'm going to bleed her out right here."

Siltas rolled her eyes. "I'm not calling [ui]anyone [/i]crazy. I just . . . I thought that I was going crazy, chasing down some stupid dream. Now, here I am, with three others and . . . Can one of you tell me what in the Abyss is going on here?"

The pale man considered. "And then there were four. Most intriguing."

"Oh, what a load of-" Tykara cut herself short with a glance at the Knight. "She's just trying to get attention."

"No," Kraey refuted, not breaking his gaze from the ranger. "She does not strike me as one so petty. She speaks the truth. It would seem that we four were meant to travel as one." Then he looked to Tabin. "Which forces me to reconsider your request. I cannot very well leave behind one of the keys to our mystery, now can I?" He smiled. "Welcome aboard, sir."

"What?" Tykara was stunned. "You're going to take him on? Just like that? We don't know anything about him, where he comes from, what he does . . . "

"Calm yourself, miss," Tabin tried to sooth. "I can tell you a few things about myself, if it will place you more at ease. I hail from the nation of Padan-Aram, deep within the Eastlands. Though you may have guessed as much, since you were so readily able to identify my tea."

"What crap," the dark-haired woman scoffed. "The locals there are all dark-skinned."

The pale mand nodded with a sigh. "Precisely. So you can understand why I was seen as being cursed for being born like this. My . . . affliction, the color of my skin, is, in no small way, what led to my . . . my sojourn." He drew a bracing breath. "I'm sorry, but I will speak no more of my home. It is a personal matter."

"Yeah, keep your dirty little secrets, you freak."

"Tykara!" Kraey's voice did not change in volume, but the tone pulled the bandit's eyes to him, and Siltas even jumped a little in her seat. "Can you not show some civility and common courtesy? Not everyone is a bounty chaser or assassin looking to take your head. And you are most certainly observant enough to tell who is a danger to you and who is not. Am I right?"

"Just look at it this way," Siltas put in, trying to help, "his skills will come in handy if we get into a tight spot. I mean, you never know when you might need a wizard to-"

"He's a wizard?" Tykara's attentiong snapped to the ranger, then to the mage. "You're a wizard?" There was something odd in the way she asked.

Tabin missed it altogether. "Well, I am really more of a student of the arts. But you'll find that I am quite skilled in-"

The bandit lunged forward, her hands going for Tabin's ghostly-white throat. Kraey amazed even himself with how quickly he reacted, throwing an arm around the woman and wrestling her to the floor. For his efforts, the Knight recieved a knee to the ribs and a strong right cross to the temple, but, in the end, his strength and the weight of his armor won over.

"He bears the mark," Kraey reasoned, still holding her down.

"Get off and let me kill him!"

"He . . . bears . . . the mark," he reiterated. "We four have been brought together for a reason. We must allow him to make this journey with us."

"Get off," she said again, this time with a little less force, though she did shove at him.

"If I let you up, are you going to attack him again?" Instead of replying, she shoved again, harder, but to no avail. "Are you?" Kraey demanded.

She turned her face away and spoke through clenched teeth. "I'll leave him alone."

"Good." Slowly, the Kngith got to his feet, allowing the bandit woman to rise as well. "I'm going to hold you to that."

Siltas leaned close to the mage and whispered so that only he could hear, "Awkward . . . "

Tykara made a show of dusting herself off while the Knight rubbed the side of his head, already sore from the blow. " . . . hate wizards," Tykara muttered. Then, to Kraey, she said, "Fine. You have your breakfast with that gods-cursed spell-slinger. Then you bring him along on our little camping trip." She poked a finger against the Knight's breastplate. "But I'm gonna tell you something, and you listen close. You keep him away from me, you understand? You keep him the Abyss away from me!" Turning away abruptly, she made for the front to retrieve her weapon.

Shaking his head as she went, Kraey about-faced to regard the mage. "Please, sir. Accept my apologies for her behavior."

Tabin waved it all away. "No need, Sir Knight, no need. It is water under the bridge." The wizard even allowed himself a chuckle. "Judging by breakfast, I'd say this will be a most . . . interesting journey, yes?"

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Tejas
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Nov 04, 2011 9:47 am

Chapter Six
"Diplomacy At It's Best"



Despite the amount of conflict from Tykara, the four of them were able to make good time in leaving the city that very day. The Knight, the bandit and the wizard already had, of course, stabled their mount at the inn. The huntress, however, had left hers to wander near the treeline, and she seemed entirely unconcerned that someone might have tried to steal the animal, or that it might wander off. And her lack of doubt was repaid to her, for when they exited the city, she put her hand to her lips and gave a shrill whistle, to which her steed came trotting from the forest.

And so they set out to the southwest, away from Karnof. At one point later in the day, Siltas had the presensce of mind to inquire of the Knight just where they were heading. Since Tykara was his guide, she already knew, but she was not forthcoming with information, especially to Siltas. The Knight, however, had no qualms with her, and so told her. They were destined for the settlement of the Knghts of Exile, a place that was known as the Badlands, named so, not for the terrain (which was rumored to be quite beautiful), but for the Exiles who dwelt there and for their practices in the keeping of slaves. At the news, Siltas visibly cringed, but said nothing.

Tykara's sullen attitude seemed to set the mood for the journey, but they kept moving, making a raven’s flight for Kraey's chosen destination, and many days passed without incident. And those eventless days grew into a week, then a tenday. It was a day short of a fortnight when they had reached and were passing through the valleys just west if the Elven Hills, a misleading name given to the area by a long-dead poet. Thought there was nothing visibly out of place, the huntress reined in her steed, inciting the others to do likewise.

"What's your problem, now?" Tykara demanded, only to have Siltas waved her to silence. She opened her mouth to say more, but the Knight reached over and laid a hand on her arm.

"What is it?" Kraey asked softly of the ranger.

Siltas strained to hear. "Battle," she informed him. "In the distance, around the bend."

Kraey listened hard for it, only barely able to hear through the trees. He admitted to himself that he was impressed with her skills. He would not have known of it until he'd rounded the bend. He quickly decided to investigate the situation, heeling his animal for the woods that seperated them from the fight. Once to the trees, he dismounted to continue on foot, and the three with him followed suit, leaving the horses behind, trained as they were to "ground-tie", to remain where the reins hit the ground.

Cutting through the trees, it was but a moment before he reached the other side, the others right behind him. From their position, the companions could see a pair of merchant wagons surrounded by some twenty men. It was obvious to anyone that bandits were trying to seize the wagons, defended, as they were, by only six merchants. It was easy to tell the merchants from the bandits for their lack of armor and decent weapons. And they wielded their weapons awkwardly, unused to the weight of steel. Even so, they fought valiantly against the overwhelming numbers.

With a battlecry on his lips, Kraey thundered from the trees, followed closely by his companions. The merchants must have thought that the newcomers were more bandits, for they quickly dropped their weapons (such as they were) and scrambled to get under the wagons. But the bandits turned to meet the new threat to their bounty.

Kraey met the first two with his blade singing. The first of them slashed wildly, trying to break the Knight’s rush. It worked to some extent, for the Knight stepped sideways out of the weapon’s path, then spun ‘round and put his weight into his attack. His sword went straight for the man’s exposed ribs, breaking bone as it bit deep. The man only grunted and collapsed. Then the other attacked, making a vertical chop with his sword. Kraey leaned back against his own momentum, trying to get out of range. The tip of the blade raked down clipping the left side of his chest, scraping loudly against the edge of his breastplate and lightly nicking his skin. The Knight reversed his movement, stepped forward and slapped the offending sword further down with his own. Jerking his sword up quickly, he dragged the blade across the bandit’s exposed throat, opening a red gash in the flesh. With a shove, he sent the man to the ground to join his friend, then turned to the rest of the battle.

During Kraey’s brief interlude, Tabin had already found a trio of his own to battle. He met the first of them with a simple parry of his tazh'lt staff, twisting the weapon as he did so, then he drove one end deep into the man’s gut, impaling him. He released the staff without bothering to jerk the blade free, and his hands went into an intricate pattern of motions that lasted only a second before he thrust his hands forward toward the other two bandits, as though throwing something at them. A ball of flame erupted from his ivory hands, striking the one on the left, consuming him instantly and the other was partially engulfed. The unfortunate villain danced and spun about screaming, performing a terrible and gruesome ballet of death.

Tabin turned his head in time to see the black-haired she-warrior, Tykara, bringing her sword down in a two-handed chop. Her target brought up his buckler to deflect the powerful blow, but the effort was useless. One could almost swear that her blade was enchanted as it struck the thick wood solidly and the buckler split down the middle. The blade was not done yet, however, and continued down, through the brigand’s wrist and slamming into his collar-bone, shattering it. The bandit dropped his sword and sank to the dirt, screaming in agony. But Tykara did not allow the screams to continue, as she set her boot against the man’s throat and twisted as she stepped down, breaking his windpipe. Then she turned away as the man struggled for breath with which to scream.

A sudden flurry of movement forced Tabin to look to his other side. A lone bandit was charging in to strike at him, and the mage raised his hands to cast another spell, but he knew that he had not the time. Then he felt the air stir by his cheek and the bandit stumbled to the dirt. The bandit tried to rise again, but it seemed as though all of the man’s strength had left him. It was then that Tabin noticed the tiny crossbow bolt, with its red and green fletchings, jutting from the man’s throat. The wizard turned around and spotted Siltas as she slung her little folding crossbow over her shoulder, letting it hang from its leather thong. "Thank me later, mage!" she shouted, a smirk riding on her lips and a sparkle in her emerald eyes as she drew her twin shortswords and turned away in search of another kill.

After that, Tabin decided to stand back from the battle and aid the others with the use of his spells, rather than fall prey to a stray sword (or bolt).

In a matter of moments, more than half of the robbers were slain, the rest on the run. One of them did not run fast enough for Siltas’ taste and she shot him in the back with her crossbow. The bolt pierced a lung and the bandit stumbled but ran on in fear, not yet knowing the extent of his mortal wound. The companions cleaned their blades on the garments of the fallen foes, after which Siltas went to fetch the horses.

Walking calmly to the wagons, Kraey bent down and looked at the wide-eyed merchants. "The danger had passed," he told them. "You may come out, now."

One by one, they crawled out and dusted themselves off. The first one to extract himself stepped forward and addressed the Knight in a voice that struck Tykara as being strangely familiar, as though she should know to whom it belonged.

"Thank you, great warriors," the merchant praised them, bowing low. "We are forever in your debt. By the gods, never have I seen such a battle, being only a mere merchant." He gazed admiringly over at the sword that Kraey was only then sheating. "Please, if there is any way in which we can repay you, simply ask. After all, without your aid, our lives would surely have been forfeit."

"You owe us nothing," the Knight began, which caused Tykara to frown deeply, giving him a scowl. "Payment is made by knowing that we have done good this day." He glanced around at the small area that had been there battle ground. "I see none of the fallen in uniforms. Have you no escort? These road are apparently quite dangerous."

The merchant shook his head. "The roads are dangerous, but guards cost coin that we do not have. Only once we sell our goods, can we afford them. And then there is nothing for them to guard."

The Knight responded and conversed with the merchant, but Tykara wasn't really hearing any of it. She was only vaguely aware of the wizard moving to reclaim his strange staff, now occupied as she was in studying the merchant leader. He was not at all like the average individual of his occupation, and he stood an inch taller than Tykara, who was, herself, a full six feet in height. The merchant's smooth complexion, pointed ears and almond shaped, dark green eyes labeled him as one of the Moruuvi (Land Elves) from the Elfshire, one of the isles north of the Great Dragon. This in itself was not strange, as a fair number of the Moruuvi had come to the mainland after the War of the Kin. This merchant elf, however, was far more fit than the average merchant, elven or otherwise. Most merchants were beset by an “illness”, which most refer to, (and rightly so), as “gluttony”. As for the merchant in question, beside his well-kempt body, only one thing stood out. Tykara’s eyes caught sight of the strange medallion that hung from his neck. The curious trinket was a simple, round piece of steel about an inch-and-a-half in diameter. In the middle was engraved an image of a raven’s claw.

A sudden dread fear gripped her heart in its icy fingers. She knew that medallion, knew who wore it. True, this elf looked nothing like him. But that fact only told her that the merchant must be wrapped up in an illusion, a disguise contructed of Majik. She felt an urgent need to be away from here, and she was greatly relieved when Siltas returned with the horses.

While Kraey kept chatting with the elf, Tykara approached her animal and gripped the saddlehorn, swinging herself up into the saddle with practiced ease, despite the panic that was slowly creeping through her thoughts.

"I'll scout ahead," she said to Kraey, her tone deceptively calm. "You catch up when you're ready."
Then she tugged the reins from Siltas' hands and heeled her horse hard, sending the beast lurching into a gallop. She did not see the strange look the Knight gave her, or the irritation of the huntress at the sudden wave of dust she made. She only knew that she had to put some distance between herself and that elf.

Normally, the sound of the hoofbeats would have been a comfort to her. But, at that moment, they gave her the impression that she was being harried, chased by something she dared not face.

She'd only ridden for ten minutes, but she was pushing Klugh hard, and she knew that he would have to rest a little if he was to keep going the rest of the day. With monumental effort, she forced herself to slow down, then to stop. Klugh snorted hard, agitated, as she dismounted, a thick sob trying to force its way from her throat. She shook her head.

"No!" she whispered to herself. "You aren't going to do this. You're a grown woman, a hardened warrior. You're not . . . " The sob inched higher. "You're not going to . . ."
But she did.

Like a breaking storm, the fear broke from her and she knelt in the dust of the road, weeping uncontrollably, remembering.

A scene of her past flashed though her mind. A scene of an elf, tall, ebony-skinned and armored from head to toe. His evil red eyes seemed to penetrate her mind and a strange medallion tapped against his breastplate. A medallion that bore a simple etching of a raven’s claw. She looked past him and saw, once again, the small blazing hut. Again, as so many times before, she heard the screams and the one voice calling her name.

She wept all the harder.

When the other three caught up to her some fifteen minutes later, they found her still crying.



.oO*Oo.




"Sir?" The merchant cautiously stepped up to his master. The elf was still staring off in the direction that their rescuers had gone. "Are - are you sure you should have let her see the medallion?"

The blonde-haired elf turned and stared at him for several moments, a menacing glint creeping into the corner of his eye. “Do you question my wisdom?" the elf challenged, allowing the Majik facade fade to reveal his true nature. His coal-black skin contrasted drastically with his flowing, white hair. This elf was one of the Shur’ken, a dark elf.

"N-no, Sir!" the lesser "merchant" exclaimed, his voice trembling, as were his hands."I would never question Your Excellence. I j-just m-merely thought -"

"I do not pay you to think, underling. I pay you to do or die." The sylvan made a motion with his hand behind his robes. "Unfortunately for you, you have done more than simply do." He lifted his hand from inside the robes and held it up, empty. He made as if to grab something that was invisible, and the other man’s arms were pinned to his sides.

"I - I - Please, Sir, I b-beg you, no!"

The elf tightened his fist and the man lost his breath as it was pressed from his lungs. But the elf did not stop there. He tightened the hand, slowly, so slowly. The human struggled vainly to breathe, to break free, but the hold was too powerful. Then the sounds of bones popping and snapping in a wet manner made the other "merchants" behind the elf cringe in fear. The elf continued until blood oozed from the corner of the man's mouth, from his nose, from his eyes. Then he released the hold and the lifeless shell of the man sagged to the ground like a rag doll. The sylvan looked at the other four "merchants" calmly.

"Are we packed and ready to travel?" They nodded a little too quickly, their nervousness apparent to even the dullest observer. The elf smiled slightly. "Good. Let us be gone."



.oO*Oo.




"I’m going to head for that stream a little ways back and fill the waterskins," Tykara informed the others as she stood up, turning her head to avoid their eyes. She gathered the skins before heading away from the camp in an easterly direction. Siltas waited for several minutes after the warrior's footfalls were no longer audible, then she turned to Kraey, who was polishing the buckles on his boots with a woolen cloth from his pack.

"Hey, Mister Knight-In-Shining-Armor," she said. The blonde man looked up, a bit annoyed at her teasing of his station. "I'm going to follow her. Something is definitely wrong, and I think it's best if someone kept an eye on her."

Kraey shook his head, holding up a hand. "Not a good idea. Not with the way she feels about you." He frowned a little. "But you are right; she does need watching." He set the cloth down on the rock that was his seat and stood. "I'll go. Of all of us, I am the least likelly to produce a violent outburst from her." To which the huntress shrugged.

"Alright, your call."

Kraey began walking to the east at a hurried pace, intent on catching up to the warrior.
After Kraey was gone, Siltas sat watching the young mage seated across from her. He was staring off to the side, but Siltas could tell he wasn’t really looking at anything. It was more like he was staring through time, looking on some long-forgotten event. What that event might be was anyone’s guess. After a minute or so, Siltas realized that he wasn’t breathing. Heeding his warning to her about touching him while he was . . . away, she spoke to him, trying to rouse him

"You owe me," was all she said, her voice a little louder than normal.
He suddenly jerked to life, drawing in a deep breath. He blinked his eyes several times before turning those eerie steel-grey eyes on her, his evident request for her to speak her words again resting in those strange orbs. A shiver ran up her spine, while at the same time, she held back a sigh of relief that he was indeed alive.

"You owe me," she reiterated.

"Whatever do you mean?" he asked, his brow furrowing in puzzlement.

"I saved your life. You owe me."

"You did what?"

"I shot the robber that was about to split you open. I'm sure you remember. Does a bolt sticking out of someone’s throat jog your memory?"

Tabin chuckled softly, his male pride kicking in. "Madam, I assure you that I had things well in hand. That simpleton had very little chance of -"

"Dead men don’t fight very well, wizard. And that’s exactly what you would be right now if I hadn’t shot him. But I suppose that next time I could just not help-" She was cut off abruptly by the sound of a man’s yell. "Did you hear that? That sounded like . . . Gods, that was Kraey! That woman's attacking him!" Without waiting for Tabin, she rose from her log, already at a dead run and rushing in the direction of the cry.


As the warrior knelt by the stream and pulled the plug from one of the waterskins, she mentally swore at herself, angry that she had let the others see her in such a pathetic state. For many years, she had pushed herself to be heartless, fearless and deadly. But with just a single glance at that medallion . . .

She shuddered and closed her eyes. Just the thought of the thing threatened to bring it all back.

Shaking herself, she opened her eyes and resumed her task, only to cease abruptly as a yell reached her ears. Rising in a rush, she spun toward the sound and set off at as quickly as her strong legs would propel her. Dodging this way and that through the brush, she hurried back the way she'd come, until she reached the source of the sound. It was coming from a steep cliff she'd passed earlier. Kneeling down, she could see a terrified Kraey hanging from a branch several feet below the ledge. He stared back at her, eyes wide with fright.

"Hurry! My hand is slipping!"

His voice was fringed with such fear that she knew right away he was more than a little afraid of heights. Tykara glanced down past him and was barely able to distinguish the ground through the light fog, some seventy yards below. Laying down on the ground, she slowly slid closer to the edge, the stone scratching against the steel of her breastplate, until she could reach the collar of his mail shirt with her fingers. With one hand, she gripped the chain mail and dragged at him, adrenaline rushing through her veins. Heaving for all she was worth, she was able to lift him up enough to get her knees under herself, then she put her legs into the effort, dragging him up until he knelt on the edge of the cliff, gulping in air.

And there they were when Siltas arrived, in a perfect pose for her mind to see what she mistook as the dark-haired warrior getting ready to eliminate the Knight. The ranger approached quickly, quietly, and leveled her crossbow at the other woman’s head.

"Let him go, Tykara, or I’ll give you a new hole to breath through."

Tykara turned her head suddenly, her adrenaline-pumped fingers requiring extra effort to loosen from Kraey’s shirt, then she took his arm and pulled him to his feet.

"You seem to have a serious problem with me," Tykara said bluntly. "That suits me just fine, 'cause I've got a problem with you." She slapped a hand against her own breastplate in a taunting gesture. "Bring it on, little girl."

That was all the excuse Siltas needed. She squeezed the trigger and the mechanism flung the bolt away with a click. But Tykara, a seasoned combatant, was already moving. With a simple lean to the side, the bolt sped past and sailed harmlessly through nothing but air. Siltas dropped the crossbow, letting its sling catch it as her hands went to her belt and drew a pair of throwing knives. She flung them simultaneously. Tykara began to dodge again and her movement saved her life, the first knife flying by her neck, even slicing several strands of hair. But the second struck her breastplate and skittered to the ground.

Tykara’s cold sapphire eyes bore into Siltas, unshaken by the closeness of the last attack.

"I don’t have time for your games, girl. If you're going to hurt me, you better do it quick. When it gets to be my turn, you won't get a second chance."

Siltas approached with caution, toying with the idea of drawing her blades, unsure if she could take the deadly bandit. "You're a disease, Redhands. Kill-crazy cutthroats like you should be hunted down. I know who you are, you can’t fool me."

"Kill-crazy?!" Tykara laughed, raising an eyebrow. "Is that what you think? I was out to off him? Listen, you little slave-girl, this Knight should be thanking me for saving his sorry -" Before she could finish, Siltas’ hand lashed out, connecting with a solid right cross, splitting the warrior's bottom lip and forcing her head to the side for a second.

"If you ever," Siltas growled, "call me that again, gods help me, I’ll kill you where you stand."

A malicious grin played across Tykara’s lips. "Awww, what the matter? Did I hit a sore spot . . . slave-girl?"

Siltas put a fist into the taller woman’s stomach, doing little real damage. But Tykara retaliated nonetheless, the adrenaline still riding in her blood. She sent a light chop at Siltas’ neck, then drew it back when Siltas tried to block and used her other hand to drive into Siltas’ gut. The huntress' breath fled from her and she bent double as Tykara carried out her next move, bringing up her knee and striking the other woman in the face. Siltas’ head came up sharply and she stumbled back a few steps, her nose bleeding profusely.

Tykara glanced at Kraey as he got to his feet, and her focus on the ranger faltered for those precious few seconds. But, as the ranger recovered, she took up her crossbow and drew back the string, locking it in position, and set to loading a new bolt. Tykara's attention returned to the fight before Siltas could finish the motion and the dark-haired bandit started forward to finish it. Then Kraey called to her from behind. She glanced at his once more.

"No, Tykara! Let it alone."

And Tabin emerged from the trees just then, his voice ringing out it warning. "Sol-Talon! Move!"

Tykara had no time to think, for time itself seemed to slow almost to a halt. She turned her eyes to Siltas, who had successfully loaded the crossbow and was taking aim at her again. Tykara felt a hand grab her arm and jerk her back as she heard the telltale click. She knew she was about to feel pain. Then a golden-haired mass moved in front of her. She heard a thud and a grunt. She knew she must be hit, but there was strangely no sensation of pain. Then time returned to normal. Kraey sank to his knees with a groan and Siltas collapsed completely, the victim of a sleep spell from the wizard.

Tykara suddenly realized that Kraey had taken the bolt meant for her. Before a full second passed, she was by his side, expecting to see that the bolt had driven through the rings of his chain mail. Much to her surprise, she found she was relieved that projectile had struck him in the upper arm, about a hand-width from the shoulder. Kraey was clutching the wound with his other hand, two fingers on either side of the shaft. Tykara wished then that she'd had time to fill the waterskins, as she needed something with which to clean the wound.

"Can you pull it out," Kraey asked, his teeth clinched against the pain.

"No," she answered. "It might have hit a vein. If I pull it out, you might bleed to death in a matter of minutes." She began to help him to his feet. "We’ll see what can be done when we get back to camp." She looked at the wizard. "Hey, freak. Follow the cliff northward for about minute. You'll find the waterskins near the stream. Fill them and meet us back at camp." She gave the comatose ranger a scornful look. "Leave her. Or better yet, toss her off the cliff."

Tabin merely watched as she and the Knight began to move away.




It took Tykara nearly fifteen minutes to escort Kraey back to the camp, where she intructed the Knight to sit down near the circle of stones that had been prepared for the fire. Once Kraey was seated, she knelt down by the pit and set to starting a fire with a practiced hand.

"Take off your belt," she told him.

He somehow managed a quizzical look through his grimace.

"Take off your belt," she repeated. "Sinch it around your arm, two inches above the shaft. But wait until I say before you sinch it all the way. For now, just slow the bleeding as much as you can."

Kraey nodded and set to work, using only his right hand to unbuckle the belt. It took him some time to loosen it, and by the time he had begun to strap it around his arm, Tykara had already succeeded in getting the fire started. As the flames grew and licked at the tinder, she turned to examine his injury, tearing open the fabric of his sleeve to better see.

After a few seconds, she gave him a reassuring nod. "You're going to be fine. No arteries hit, but I still need to burn the wound after we get the bolt out."

The sound of snapping twigs announced the arrival of the mage, breathing heavily as he entered the camp, the ranger on his shoulders and the waterskins tied to his belt. A sheen of sweat coated his forehead from the unaccustomed weight, but he said not a word as he trudged over to Siltas' blankets. And while he knelt and was easing the sleeping huntress on the blankets, Tykara scowled at him.

"Thought I told you to throw her off the cliff," she growled.

Tabin regarded her calmly and just shrugged.

"Don't give me a reason to take you down, mage."

But his attention was no longer on her, for he felt her threat was empty. He knew she'd seen him act in her defense with his spellcasting. Instead, the wizard looked to Kraey.

"Is it bad?" he asked.

Kraey shook his head. "I'll be alright. What of her?" He gestured toward Siltas with his right hand. "Will your spell harm her?"

"Hopefully," was what Tykara muttered under her breath.

"It was only a mere sleep spell," Tabin assured the Knight. "It seems to be lasting a bit longer than usual, but she should be awake in just a few minutes. There is no cause for alarm."

Almost as if she'd heard him, Siltas stirred a bit.

"Pity," the warrior said, drawing a frown from her patient. "You know, you should have kept your pauldrons on," she idly reprimanded him. She tore the fabric even more, pulling it clear of the bolt. "You ready for this?"

"Better to be done with it," Kraey answered.

She wrapped her fingers around the shaft. "This is going to hurt," she promised without apology. She locked the Knight's eyes with her own. "On three. One."

Then she jerked the bolt from his flesh without counting further.

Kraey grit his teeth so hard, he felt as though his teeth were going to shatter. But he did not cry out.

Tykara tossed the bolt aside and turned to snatch up a burning stick from the fire, only barely noticing that the ranger had sat up, one hand held against her head. With the stick in hand, Tykara turned back and coldly thrust the smoldering ember into the wound. This time, the Knight did not hold his silence.

With a sound like an injured lion, Kraey let out a roar of pain.

Which roused Siltas to a certain degree of awareness. Seeing what appeared to the bandit torturing the Knight, the huntress rose to her feet with a stagger, her head swimming from the wizard's spell. Her hand fumbled over her shoulder for the hilt of one of her shortswords, her intent being to "rescue" the blonde man from his tormentor.

Kraey pushed Tykara aside, pulling the lance from his arm as he did so, and stood.

The wizard, in this time, had raised a hand to cast a spell. But he had quickly come to realize that, between their fight earlier in the day and the single spell he'd already used on Siltas, he simply had expended all of his prepared Majik. He could cast no more without rest and study.

Somehow managing to remain upright despite the spell's aftereffects, Siltas succeeded in taking a faltering step forward. Her sword waved drunkenly before her. "Goin' . . . kill you . . ." she aimed her threat at the bandit woman, though her speech was slurred.

Kraey moved into her path to challenge her. "Not this day, Lenok. Put down your sword." He paid no attention to the lines of drying blood that ran down his arm.

"But . . ." Siltas blinked, trying to clear the blurriness from her vision. "But she tried to kill you . . ." Her speech was already better; the aftereffects were fading rapidly. "She . . . Don't you know who she is? Don't you recongnize her name? Tykara Redhands!" She wavered a little and her sword dipped down for a second. "Her band . . . terrorized most of land to the south. She's just a murderer, don't you see?"

Kraey stepped forward, closing the distance. "Then why didn't she simply push me off? Why did she help me up?"

His questions had weight, but the ranger wasn't quite ready to let it go. "Why are you defending her? You're a Knight, sworn to uphold the law and bring about justice. She's a trained killer, walking around free of punishment. Where is the justice in that?"

Kraey clarified, "I am not just a Knight. I am also a Lord. It is my duty to mete out justice, true. But it is also my duty to show mercy and compassion to those in need." He half-turned and waved his good arm toward Tykara. "This woman declares herself damned. But I have ridden by her side for several weeks, now. Undoubtedly, she has done much evil. But from those that can do so much evil, there can also come even greater good. And I have seen the glimmer of promise in her." His words were directed as much to Tykara's ears as they were to the ranger's. "I believe that Kami has a purpose for each of us. We were given this dream, which has brought us together into an unlikely gathering. And I believe that it will take all of us to unravel the meaning of our dreams and to reach whatever goal lies hidden therein. So I ask you this," he said, looking around at all three of them. "Can we not set aside whatever quarrels we have, for the sake of this one pursuit? Or are we no better than dogs, who squabble over petty differences?"

Siltas sighed heavily and lowered her weapon. "If it'll get you to quit preaching, I'll let her live another day."

Kraey wasn't fully pleased by her statement, but it would serve. He glanced at Tykara. "And you? Will you also refrain from violence against one of our own?"

The dark-haired warrior shrugged. "Whatever. I can always kill her after this is over."

To himself, Tabin had to admit, he was very impressed by the blonde man's ability to disarm the situation. The true mark of a noble man. Satified that there would be no more bloodshed amongst them, the wizard pulled his spellbook out and sat down near the fire to study.

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Tejas
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Paths Of The Chosen; Chapter Seven

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Nov 18, 2011 11:43 am

Chapter Seven
"Regrets And Remorse"*



Morning light broke through the trees and softly urged Tabin to arise. Shielding his eyes, he sat up slowly and stretched in a thorough manner before looking around. The first thing he noticed about the camp was that he and the still-sleeping ranger were the only ones that remained. His strange grey eyes lingered on her for a moment. Inwardly, he had to admit to himself that he considered her to be very attractive. Her smooth, gold-tanned face, shrouded by her auburn, seemed almost serene in slumber, though there was something else there as well. He also noticed, as would any man, that her form was well-toned and attuned to the needs of both combat and stealth. Those particular needs also tended produce a figure that was quite desirable.

He shook his head to clear it of distraction. He had no time to stare at beautiful women. None would have anything to do with him in any case. His otherworldly appearance tended to prejudice people against him. After all, that was the basis for his exile, among other things. He felt guilt and regret for his actions prior to leaving his homeland of Padan-Aram. But he could not go back to repair the damage. And even if he could, it would never change his father’s great dislike of him. He put his hand to his forehead and closed his grey eyes, eyes that had never known how to weep. And still, as he remembered his past, weeping was beyond his ability.

.oO*Oo.


The young lad rested one hand on his knee as the other cradled a page of the beaten and weathered book on the desk, seemingly ready to turn it. His hungry eyes had devoured every word on the yellowed page as though the words were water, and his eyes, pilgrims in a desert. He was always ever-so-careful of the brittle parchment whenever he read, but he was not actually reading just now. Only staring without seeing. He did not, could not, hear the door to his room creak open. His trance formed a barrier that kept all else out, even when the nervous words of a servant tried to pull him back to the present.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, milord," he spoke in a quiet and apprehensive voice. Of course, Tabin did not answer. How could he? He had no inkling that the servant was there at all. "P-prince Tabin? It is I, Yorik." Still nothing from wizard.

Yorik swallowed hard and took a few cautious steps forward. "Uh, m-my prince. Um, your father the King," he said, making a clumsy salute, "gods bless his reign, has requested your presence at the Arenian negotiations. The negotiations are to begin in half an quarter of an hour, my p-prince." The servant clamped his mouth shut to keep his teeth from chattering, but did not leave. He had been told to make certain the prince heard him, but Tabin gave no sign. So Yorik reached out a hand and tapped the prince on the shoulder . . .

And like that, the young mage moved with dangerous speed, shoving the servant back as he turned. Then his hands came up as the words to a spell spilled from his lips. Thrusting one hand outward, a thin blue-white ray leapt forth, seeking the servant, striking him in the shoulder, nearly freezing the flesh altogether. Yorik cried out and Tabin realized what he'd done. He moved to aid the poor man.

"Yorik, I'm so sorr-" But Yorik would have none of it, terrified that he might suffer more. Clutching his injured shoulder, the man sped from the room and disappeared down the hall. Tabin followed as far as the door, watching him go, but he did not follow. There was nothing that Tabin could do to heal or calm the man.

Sighing, he gently closed the door before going to the window to look out over the capitol of the nation he would never rule. A nation he would not care to rule. The people of this land would not suffer him long as a ruler, despite the fact that he would do his best to serve them. No, superstition would never allow it.

Instead, his elder brother Tyron would ascend the throne of Padan-Aram when his father, Lantor, High King of the Middle Nation, passed away from this world into the next.

The people thought that he hated his brother. They were mistaken, of course. He actually cared a great deal for Tyron, as he was the only individual he knew that treated him as a person. But to the people's way of thought, Tabin had every reason to completely despise Tyron. Tyron had always been the favorite of everyone, always the one who paid attention to the scholars when receiving a lesson on the ways of the law. Tabin had never cared for any of it. And the scholars had only paid more attention to the pale prince than he did them in the fact that they stared at him, as though disgusted with his appearance and somewhat outraged that he was allowed to bear the title of prince. In a land where the majority of the population was made up of dark-skinned people, Tabin’s near-ivory flesh and white hair made him the subject of many harsh jokes, and rumors abounded that he was the product of some wicked curse placed on High King Lantor by an evil witch of the Shurian Empire. And the tales were only worsened by the fact that Tabin was rarely seen outside of his room or the Royal Library, much less out in the courtyard. The younger prince would rather stay where he might learn from books. And Majik held a particular interest for him. And though he was never very athletic (unlike his brother), Tabin did learn something the use of the tazh'lt staff.

He closed his eyes and breathed deep to clear his thoughts. The trances were getting more dangerous. Many of the servants flatly refused to tend to him, opting in favor of punishment. And he could not justly blame them. He had not ever slain a servant, but the possibility hung over him like a dark cloud. He stood there at the window, lost in thought, but free of any trance, for the time being.

He had no idea how much time slipped by, when the door to his room burst open, admitting the Captain of the Houseguard, Rolj. A large dark-skinned man, the Captain stood just under six and half feet. His decorated armor contoured tightly to a well-honed body that told of many long hours in the training yards and elsewhere. The permanent scowl on his dark, scarred face seemed to harden even more when his eyes caught sight of Tabin. The giant man cleared his throat gruffly.

"My prince," he very nearly spat, "Your father has requested that I escort you to the negotiations. Now." His tone did not allow room for argument. And Tabin knew that with this man, nothing the High King requested was ever just a request.





Nearly ten minutes passed before Tabin arrived at the meeting hall, with Captain Rolj at his shoulder. As young Prince Tabin came through the doorway, he could hear quiet laughter and the sound of his father’s voice speaking with amusement. Walking slowly, Tabin took in the scene before him. The meeting hall, which he rarely ever had the pleasure of seeing, was built almost entirely out of quartz crystal blocks. The elongated table and its matching chairs were carved from solid obsidian. Very few people alive would not have been awed by the sight of the room, with the light from the polished hematite chandelier that hung from the cathedral ceiling. The design of the room made it possible to whisper at one end of the ten-meter-long table and still be heard quiet clearly at the other end, so astounding were the acoustics.

At the end of the meeting table closest to where Tabin entered, Lantor, Guardian of Padan-Aram, High King of the Middle Nation, sat motioning with his hands, as though describing some grandiose tale. On his father’s right, Tyron held a hand to his mouth attempting unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh. At the far end, the Arenian Shoika (ruler) was laughing as well, her breasts heaving with mirth. She was a dark-skinned woman of stunning beauty, dressed in a long gown with a low neckline and made of fine, blood-red silk. To her left and right, her advisors (both of them women) sat stone-faced, waiting for the negotiations to commence.

Still walking slowly, Tabin went toward the table and the laughter at the far end ceased abruptly. Out of the corner of his eye, the younger prince caught sight of the Shoika’s expression of near fright. Ever-so-slightly, the Shoika’s head turned toward the advisor on her right and they exchanged words in rapid Arenic, none of which Tabin could understand. But he could guess the basic content of the conversation. As for Lantor and Tyron, both understood and could speak the language fluently. Not that they were going to let the Shoika and her aides know.

Clearing her throat, the advisor nodded to the High King Lantor before speaking, her thick Arenian accent making the words difficult to understand. "Yoour Gloory, Heer Ascension, the Shoika, weeshes to knowa whut - who thees, uhn, geentlemuun ees, eef eet ees permeetid to osk." She gave another nod and waited expectantly.

Lantor cleared his own throat. "Ahem. Yes. This is my younger . . . son, Tabin." The Arenian delegation seemed taken aback for a moment. Lantor motioned for Tabin to take the seat to his immediate left. "S -" He paused to clear his throat again, the difficulty of what he meant to say apparent. "Son, this is Her Ascension, the Shoika of Arenia, Lao Tsang Wu." Tabin glanced over at the Shoika and he saw her shudder visibly as his cold grey eyes met hers for an instant. Then he looked down at the table as he sat. Lantor made as if to loosen the collar of his robe a bit, then let his hand fall back to the table "Well, we are all here. If it pleases Your Ascension, we may begin with our trade negotiations." He received a nod from all three women, though Lao Tsang’s was a bit hesitant. Lantor accepted it nonetheless and proceeded. He clapped his hands and a servant entered bearing with him a pair of maps. The servant handed the maps to Lantor with a bow, then turned to leave. "I thought Yorik was on duty today," the High King said. The servant nodded to his liege.

"He was, Your Glory," the servant stated with a glance at Tabin. "But he, er, took sick very suddenly, and the head servant instructed him to see the physician."

The High King frowned. "I'm sorry to hear that. Please instruct the head servant to double Yorik’s wages for the day and pay him for a full day’s work. Also, please pass my sympathies along to Yorik."

The servant nodded again and, as he left, Tabin couldn't help but feel a wave of guilt come over him. True, the injury to Yorik was only a reaction, but the prince still felt at fault.

Lantor spread one map out before him and gave the other to Tyron, who rose and delivered it to the Shoika’s advisor. The Shoika smiled at Lantor, pleased.

"Yoo arre very warm ond geeneroos to yoor servahnts," she said approvingly.

Lantor smiled back to her, then shook his head sadly. "Alas, poor Yorik. I know him, Shoika Wu."

And so, the steady drone of the negotiations began.

Tabin sat quietly, watching, listening, Trying, with great diffictulty to follow along and pay attention. His disdain for law and politics was a troublesome obstacle. He did manage to listen for a while, though the gods alone knew how. Minutes passed, stretching out to an hour, then two. And all at once, Tabin was staring across the table, past Tyron, through the wall, into . . . nothing. His thoughts had again fled from him.

His brother, who was quite involved with the mediations, glanced over and noticed the blank expression of the younger prince. Concern crept onto his face, but he tried not to let the guests see it, keeping a smile on his lips. He spoke Tabin's name in an attempt to rouse him. However, Tabin did not hear.

Then, Lantor said something that must have been humorous, for everyone save for Tabin and Tyron began to laugh. The elder heir spoke again, giving a light tap on the table. The result was the same. Finally, Tyron slid a hand across the table and laid it on his little brother's.

And the result was catastrophic.

Tabin seized the hand and pulled hard, dragging his brother halfway across the table with adrenaline-infused strength, while an incantation escaped from his throat. And as the elder called out in surprise, the wizard-prince raised his other hand high, the already surrounded in crackling energy from the spell. The hand came down with finality.

Just before the hand clasped down on his brother's face, Tabin understood, too late, what was happening. The fingers touch Tyron's flesh and Tabin could not let go, the power of the energy binding his hand to his brother until it was spent.

In horror, Tabin was finally able to jerk his hand free, only to watch the heir to the throne lie there on the table, convulsing with the electricity that surged through his body. He screamed his brother's name.
Then he saw Captain Rolj’s fist coming at his face.

And darkness swallowed him.





The first thing of which Tabin was aware was the cold stone of the cell floor against his cheek. The second thing was the overwhelming stench of sweat and vomit that surrounded him and permeated every thing around him. He slowly opened his eyes, but immediately closed them against the wave of pain that seemed to originate at his left cheekbone . He reached up to his face with a single clammy hand and felt a large, painful welt where he assumed Rolj had struck him. With a groan of pain, he reopened his eyes and sat up. The effort was enough to make him nearly pass out, but he succeeded nevertheless.

Just as the ache in his head began to ease, the shrieking of rusted metal brought him a sudden wave of pain as the door of his cell slowly swung open to admit a visitor. Tabin’s blurry vision seemed to clear and he saw at the door the man he called father.

And High King Lantor spoke, his voice filled with hatred and hurt. "I raised you. I fed you. I clothed you. I called you 'son.' " He was very nearly unable to continue, but he regained what little of his composure he had possessed, then continue he did. "This is how you repay me. You have slain my eldest, the heir to my throne, your own brother. You have ruined all possible ties that this nation might have had with Arenia, to the detriment of our people. And yet, the only question I ask is this; Why? What could have possessed you to do this thing? Are you the spawn of some unseen devil? A Daemon in man’s clothing? Why else would you appear as such a monstrously horrid being?" The High King shook with emotion. "I have never given any thought to the tales of a witch’s curse, but now I must consider the unthinkable. I should have known you were evil at your birth. Only an evil god would cause a stillborn infant of your abhorrent nature to suddenly begin to breathe." He turned away and lifted his hands to his face.

Tabin could hear the sounds of his father weeping, and for the first time he could ever recall, he felt as if this man truly could have been a father to him. And he found the courage to speak it. "I cannot ask you to forgive me. What I have done . . . I deserve the very worst and, what is more, I ask that you give me the worst. Try me as a Shurian warlock, fathe-"

Lantor cut him off abruptly. "No! You will not ever call me father! You are not my son. You are evil, and I would slay you with my own hands if the law would permit it!" Even in his anger, the High King of the Middle Nation was very much a king. He would never go outside the law of the land. "But as the law does not permit the King to sully his hands with blood, I am forced to move to what it will allow." He turned to face Tabin again. "By the lawful decree of my station, I state that you will never again call yourself by the name of our ancestors. Your are no longer Tabin P’Nae. You may choose a surname for yourself, after you have been escorted from the Nation of Padan-Aram. You are henceforth to be exiled from this land, never to return under penalty of death by execution." He turned again and walked out of the cell. The door screamed as it was swung shut, and Lantor peered at Tabin through the cold iron bars.

“Would that I knew what god I have offended to be so cursed.” And the High King turned away and strode out of Tabin’s life forever.

.oO*Oo.


The few terrible moments it took to recall it all passed quickly and he shook himself from the painful memories. Feeling the need to cleanse himself, he rose to his feet and, with a last glance at Siltas’ sleeping form, turned in the direction of the creek where Tykara had, eventually, filled the canteens the night before.

As he walked, he struggled not to remember any more, but it is always difficult to prevent oneself from thinking. In an attempt to help distract himself, he began to count trees as he passed them. By the count of fifty, that still did not seem to help. So he began to run his mind through mathematical equations and arcane lessons. Again, it only helped for a moment.

But, by that time, he had reached the stream. Kneeling beside the flowing water, he untied the drawstrings of his shirt, the pulled the garment off and laid it aside. He nearly gasped in shock as he flung the cool water against his face. Even so, it was very refreshing, considering the heat in which they'd been travelling.

As he washed himself, he couldn't help but think of how he might appear to an ignorant passerby. Probably, he would seem to be a spirit bathing. And he could not decide if the thought made him want to frown or to laugh.

Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by a series of splashes from somewhere upstream. Glancing that way, he took up his shirt and pulled it on, then rose to go investigate.





"Why do you want to know?" Tykara asked, watching the Knight's face, trying to read the thoughts behind his eyes.

Kraey shifted a bit on the fallen log that he and the woman shared, taking the time to skip another stone across the surface of the water. "It's . . . not everyday that I find a battle-tested warrior such as yourself weeping in the dirt after a skirmish." He tried to soften his tone, not wishing to anger her. "Surely you must realize that we have all heard you during the night . . . "

The glare she gave him pressed him to silence. "That's none of your business," she hissed. "It's none of your d-"

"Please!" he entreated. "I'm not trying to upset you. I'm trying . . . I'm trying to understand you, to know how you came to be the . . . the injured falcon before me."

Perhaps the month they had traveled together had worn on her, weakening the barriers she'd built against the world. Or perhaps it was the way that he spoke, showing true concern for someone he barely knew. Whatever it was, Tykara found herself, for the first time in over half her life, wanting to trust someone. And her glare lessened, then vanished altogether.

"If you knew just a fraction of who I am . . . " Now it was her turn to cast a stone across the stream. It struck the water once, twice, thrice, then clicked against the rocks on the other side. She shook her head, a mirthless laugh escaping from her. "There is just too much . . . "

The Knight placed a hand on her arm in the manner of a friend. "We all have our crosses to bear, Tykara. I will not condemn you for the sins of the past." His words drew her gaze, accompanied by a half-hearted smirk.

"You're an alright sort, you know that?" she said. "Not many people like that, these days." For an instant, her eyes flicked toward the trees behind them before going back to the Knight. Then she suddenly leaned toward him and kissed him on the lips.

Kraey was stunned, bewildered by the action. He did not return the kiss, but, to his further surprise, neither did he pull away.

And as suddenly as it began, it was over. Tykara sat there, smiling at him. He blinked.

"Your moustache tickles," she said simply, almost teasingly.

"Wha-?" He blinked again, finding his words. "What was that for?"

Her smile widened. "Oh, don't take it too seriously. The mage was watching, but he's gone now. I wanted to give him something to make him wonder. If he has something planned, he'll think I have you as a solid ally. It'll make him more wary."

Kraey's expression was a mixture of shock and frustation. "You kissed me just to manipulate Tabin? By Kami, woman! Why must you use people is such a callous manner? And what prejudice have you against Tabin? He has done you no wrong, nor has he expressed any hint that he might wish to do so."

A short laugh was her response. "What? You're angry that it wasn't real? Not used to a woman who won't fall at the feet of a great Knight of the Godson? How about I try again?" She seized the front of his tunic and pulled him close.

"Ty-" He only got part of her name out before she pressed her mouth to his again. With a hand against her shoulder, he pushed her back, breaking the kiss. "-Kara!" he finished the name, preparing to launch into a heated lecture.

But hearing only the last part of her name was like a key to a door, letting a flood of memories spill to the fore of her thoughts. She suddenly felt as though she was torn away from the world of mortals. Things began to flash through her mind with dizzying speed. Her old village, childhood friends, family.

"Kara, come play!" the other children called to her.

"Kara! Time for supper!" her mother's voice beckoned.

"Kara, would you hand me that hammer?" her father asked.

She smiled. They were all there, waiting for her. Then she remembered. They weren't waiting.

They were burning.

"Kara!! Help me!" her little brother screamed through the flames. "Kara! Where are you?"

"Tykara Sol-Talon, what's wrong?"

She drew a sharp breath as the sound of her full name abruptly pulled her back to reality. Her vision cleared and her tearful eyes locked on Kraey. Deep concern was etched on his features.

"What's wrong?" he repeated.

She looked around desperately. But the children, her parents, her brother, they were all gone.
"They were . . . They were right there," she whispered, unaware that her body was trembling. "Oh gods, they . . . " Her eyes began to burnwith the tears she needed to shed. "I couldn't . . . I couldn't . . ."

Kraey asked no more questions, merely taking her into his arms, comforting her as any friend should. And Tykara found that she was somehow able to trust him enough to allow it. Pressing her face against his tunic, she wept. And, though the Knight knew not why, he wept with her.





Nearly half an hour later, the warrior and the Knight rejoined the other two, both of them somber. Neither of them spoke concerning what had happened. They only packed up their gear, saddled their horses and steered toward the road.

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Tejas
Member for 11 years
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Dec 02, 2011 10:35 am

Chapter Eight
“A Dish Served Cold”



Yet another daybreak found its way into the companions' camp, finding them already up and preparing to leave. Tykara seemed lost in thought, taking longer than usual to finish up, and Kraey instructed Tabin and Siltas to go on ahead. Their path still lay along the road for the time being, so they had no need for Tykara to guide them just yet. Unbeknownst to Kraey, the ranger actually knew the way quite well.

Once the other two had started on their way, the Knight and the warrior were alone, Kraey taking much more time that was necessary with his gear. The retreating hoof-beats faded in the distance; and all was quiet.

Suddenly, Kraey broke the awkward stillness. “Tykara?” It was barely audible, but, even so, she turned. Worry was evident even before he asked, “Are you alright?”

She looked away, waving a hand at him, trying to dismiss his query. “Kraey . . . don’t . . . I’m fine, okay. ” She went into motion, hurriedly setting her gear behind the saddle. “Just . . . let it go. Please.”

Kraey, having just finished with his own packing and loading, gave her a frustrated sigh. “Fine. If it’ll help you through this, I will. But you should know that I am here, if ever you need someone to listen.” He walked toward her and stopped just behind her. “And you should know that I am your friend, no matter what you may have done in the past.”

Now she did turn to face him, a smile on her lips that just almost reached her eyes. She reached up and patted his shoulder.

“Anyone ever tell you you’re a good man, Kraey?” she asked quietly. The Knight remained silent and Tykara went on. “Look, I know you’ll be there. And you’re the first person in many years that I think I can actually call a friend. But . . .” She shook her head. “There are just . . . some things that I can’t talk about.” She patted his shoulder again. “Not yet, anyway.” She turned toward her horse and swung up into her saddle, the toes of her boots settling comfortably in the stirrups. She looked down at Kraey. “Give me some time, soldier boy. But I give you fair warning; if I ever decide to tell you about myself, you won’t like what you hear.”

He nodded slowly. “Life is not about what we want, Tykara. It is about what must be done.” His words left a thoughtful expression on the woman’s face as he headed for his own mount.





Finally having worked their way around the worst of the river, they made the crossing and were able to change direction, heading toward the northwest and the Badlands. Several days passed as they continued on their way. As they neared their destination, Tykara led them away from the main road. Branching off through the forest, she led them along a lightly worn trail that was somewhat more difficult to navigate. However, the warrior steadfastly claimed that this path was shorter by far. And she proved to be correct in her claim, as it was only a mere three hours after they’d started on the trail that the thick trees gave way to sprawling clear flatlands.

But the sight that awaited them was nothing near to what they had expected. When questioned by Kraey, Tykara had described to them what the Badlands looked like under the rule of the Exiles. “A Celestial City on a mortal realm,” she’d said. That was how she’d portrayed the fields of different grains to which their slaves tended as best they were able. Rough-hewn log houses had littered the central area of their settlement in an orderly fashion, almost like city blocks. And well-kept gardens had existed, surrounding the large stone building that had served as a town hall. The fact was, the Exile’s home would have been a pleasant and beautiful place to live, save for the practice of slavery.

But the place was almost a total reversal of all they’d expected, and what they saw now was little more than a ruin. All of the grain fields were now long desolate stretches of burned crops and scorched earth. The smell of smoke suddenly wafted to them on hot winds, making the summer heat all the worse. And in the distance, what had once been the central community was now made up of houses that had been burned to the ground. The only building that remained standing was the town hall, its stones coated in ash and soot.

Siltas lifted her leg over the saddle and let herself slide to the ground. “So,” she began, untying a canteen from her saddle. “This is, um, different. If you hadn’t been with us all this time, I’d have thought this was your work, Redhands.” Pulling the cork from the waterskin, she put it to her lips and tilted her head back. Her throat undulated as the sweet, cool water trailed down, then she pulled the waterskin from her lips and recapped it. “This is like someone dragged the Abyss to the surface.”

“If you don’t stop calling me ‘Redhands’ ”, Tykara replied with a slight growl, “You may just find out how I got that name. Firsthand.” Her sapphire eyes scanned the terrain. “What in the name of the gods happened?” Her question was definitely rhetorical and the others obviously knew this, as none deigned to answer. Tykara pulled up next to Kraey and retrieved the map from his saddlebag, then studied it without necessity. “We’re in the right place,” she confirmed. Shaking her head, she rolled up the map held it out for the Knight to take. “Let’s go have a look. There may be survivors.”





“Such wanton devastation,” Tabin shook his head, standing in what remained of the doorway to the town hall as he surveyed the destruction. The inside of the building was only better off than the rest of the village in that its walls were still standing. Rubble covered the entirety of the floor. “There can’t possibly be any survivors,” he said, mostly to himself. Kraey and Siltas had already worked their way toward the rooms in near the back. Tykara only partway down the hall, and she must have heard him, for she replied, “There are too many burned bodies. It’s like whoever did this was only out for blood.” An affirmation to his own thoughts.

He slowly began to pick his way across the room to the hall’s fireplace. Pieces of unburned wood crunched loudly beneath his feet as he moved. Pushing aside what remained of a dining table, he suddenly lifted his staff halfway up in defense as a noise came up to meet him. Once he had recognized the sound as a pained groan, he scanned the black rubble, lifting the table from the floor. A slight motion underneath caught his attention and he called out for aid.

“Tykara!” he exclaimed as he knelt beside the pile of debris and began tossing pieces away. The warrior was quick to answer his call, turning around in the hallway.

“What do you want, mage,” she asked. Tabin lifted away more of the charred wood and revealed the face of a man.

“We’ve a live one!” he told her.

Rushing as quickly as she could across the rubble, she made her way to him and helped to un-bury the man., all the while calling to Kraey. In what seemed like seconds, they two had pulled the man from the debris, and she slid her hands under his shoulders gripping him under the armpits. Tabin took hold of the injured man’s legs, which drew a cry from the man, and the two of them hurriedly carried the man out into the daylight. Even as they eased the Exile to the ground, Kraey and Siltas emerged from the building.
“Looks like you’ve had a bit of luck,” the Knight stated as they drew near.

“Not much,” Tykara said, eyeing the Exile’s poor condition. “There’s not much left to him.” And her words were not altogether an exaggeration. The man’s left arm had been severed just below the elbow, his face was burned so badly that there was no hint of what he might have looked like before, and his right leg was bent in places that were simply not meant to bend. It was as though the sick mind that had done this to him had wanted to inflict as much pain as possible, not even having the decency to finish him off.
Through some miracle, the man still had his eyelids, and they fluttered open hesitantly at the bright sunlight. For a moment, he seemed bewildered. Then he was finally able to focus enough to see the dark-haired woman that was kneeling over him. His arms immediately began to tremble in a vain attempt to shield himself, but there was no strength in the man. He started to mutter in a desperate plea.

“P-please, no more! No more!”

Tykara didn’t have any pity to offer the man. “What happened here? Where is everyone?” she demanded of him.

Kraey, on the other hand, was a Knight through and through, offering assurances to even one fallen from the Order of the Godson Knights. “Be easy, man,” he said, going down to one knee by the Exile, opposite Tykara. He placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “None here will harm you, sir.” He gave Tykara a meaningful glance. “Please, if you can, tell us what happened here.”

The Exile closed his eyes and his jaw clenched visibly. “Dead. All dead. They killed everyone. All dead.”

“Who?” Kraey continued with a furrowed brow. “Who killed everyone?”

“It was them,” the man said, his voice sounding on the verge of tears. “It was the Valkyrie devils. Two, three days ago. They killed everyone.” He struggled vainly for a moment, trying to push her away. “Go away. Let me die in peace.”

“Tell us your name,” Siltas said from where she stood. Kraey looked up, watching the ranger’s face, but Siltas’ expression was unreadable. Looking at the man again, Kraey repeated the words, though he made it a question.

The man hummed tunelessly for a moment, as though he was trying to remember something. Then he spoke in a tone that seemed almost confused. “My name is . . . name is . . . Var al-Saff.”

Before the words were completely out of the man’s mouth, Kraey felt a sudden rush of air pass by his ear and was startled as a throwing knife simply appeared in the Exile’s throat. Then his mind caught up and he realized what had happened.

“No!” he cried out, pulling the knife free and checking the man for signs of life, though he knew it was futile. For the first time that the others had seen, the Knight seemed truly distraught. He rose to his feet and took several steps, then turned as if to say something. But instead of uttering even a word, he turned again, taking uncertain steps away from the rest. And stopping yet again, he faced them from a distance. “I . . . I needed to ask him something,” he said. “There was something I needed to know . . .” When he turned away for the third time, the others could hear him muttering to himself. “So close . . . Kami guide me, I was so close . . .”

As though she suddenly felt guilty, Siltas called to the Knight. “I’m sorry, Kraey! Alright? I’m sorry! If you only knew the things that Var al-Saff had done . . !” By her words, it was evident that she’d known the Exile well.

Tykara had little trouble putting it together. “The mark on your neck,” she added it up aloud, “and your familiarity with an Exile.” The warrior nodded, a smirk drawing up one corner of her mouth. “He was your owner. You’ve been waiting a long time for this, haven’t you?” Tykara had done many dark things in her life, and she had traded with the Exiles many times, but she had no love for slavers. This new insight on the huntress forced Tykara to regard her with a bit of respect. “I owe you an apology,” she said, surprising the ranger. “You’ve got a lot of grit, coming back here after escaping. You’re a lot tougher than I gave you credit for.” Tykara then stood and headed off to follow the troubled Knight.





After leaving the ruin of the Exile settlement, the companions turned south. For the most part, the three were simply following the Knight, who did not seem to really know where he was going anymore. But they were able to convince him to stop after a time, though they were distant enough from the settlement that they would not be subject to the smell of the carnage there. And so they made camp for the evening, and built a small fire that crackled as its flames licked skyward, releasing dozens of tiny sparks that quickly rose up and blinked out of existence. Kraey felt the warmth of the flames on his face, the heat soaking through his neatly trimmed beard and moustache. The light reflected from his pale blue eyes and his golden hair. A thoughtful expression creased his tanned brow as stared into the flames, contemplating. He spoke aloud, though not to anyone in particular.

“Where have I heard the word ‘Valkyrie’ before,” he asked rhetorically. “What could that Exile have meant?” His brow furrowed deeper and he scratched his beard absently.

Siltas glanced at him, listening to his ponderings. Neither of the other two had spoken in quite some time. Neither of them knew what to say. The Knight was without direction now, it seemed. And Siltas knew that her killing of Var al-Saff was the cause. Somehow, he’d been the only lead to whatever the Knight sought. She sighed audibly and forced her thoughts to other things.

She knew of the Valkyries. Truth be told, she knew almost everything about them.

“I know,” she mumbled, barely a whisper. But she noticed Kraey staring straight at her, as though expecting her to continue and she realized she’d spoken aloud. She decided she might as well tell them. Raising her voice to a normal volume, she began to speak. “The Valkyries are a large clan to the southwest, in the Plains of Valkyrith. But there are a few scattered villages, some as far east as Zantuk and as far north as Iston. The clan is made up of women who have been rescued. They watch over the forests and the roadways, unseen, protecting passers by from bandits and cutthroats that rove the lands. If they see potential in a woman they’ve rescued, they will extend to her an invitation to join the clan.” She looked downward, eyes riveted on her boots. “They have been at war with the Exiles for as long as the clan has existed, rescuing young women and girls they have enslaved.” She glanced up for a moment, just long enough for her emerald eyes to meet Kraey’s light blue orbs. A startled look of near-recognition crossed his face and she quickly directed her gaze elsewhere. A movement to her right drew her attention.

The wizard prodded the embers of the fire with a stick. “How do you know of them, if I may ask?”

Siltas was silent for a moment. Then she replied, “I was one of the girls they rescued from the Exiles.” She looked at Tabin, her eyes analyzing his pallid face. “They took me in, trained me. The Matron tried to teach me that revenge was sweet to the tongue and bitter to the belly.” She gave a mirthless laugh and added, “I guess I didn’t listen very well to that part. Var is dead by my hand, the same as my other three masters, but I certainly don’t feel better off for it.”

“Vengeance,” Kraey broke in, “belongs only to Kami. To anyone else, it is a double-edged sword, dangerous to both the enemy and to yourself.”

Tabin gave the Knight a curious look as he slid closer Siltas. “Just how far is it to these Valkyrith Plains?” he asked the ranger.

The huntress shrugged. “I don’t know, a couple of ten-days, three weeks at the least. Why?”

“It occurs to me,” the mage explained, “that these Valkyrie friends of yours-”

“Not friends,” Siltas interrupted. “Sisters.”

Tabin accepted the correction in flow. “Sisters, then. Perhaps these sisters of yours can clarify what has occurred here.”

At that thought, the Knight sat up straight, encouraged. “Yes! They would know everything about the attack! Perhaps they may even have some of the answers I seek.”

Tykara finally spoke up, directing a question to Kraey. “Don’t you think it’s time you told us what you’re looking for? I mean, sure, we all want to know what’s going on with the dream. But you’re the one leading this . . . quest. You don’t have any more clues about this than the rest of us. So, what are you really trying to find?”

“A fair inquiry,” Tabin said, which earned him a dark look from the warrior. She still had no love and little trust for him.

The Knight’s eyes glanced around the camp at each of them, weighing whether or not he should speak. In the end, he decided that they deserved to know his purpose. After all, they had followed him this far with no questions asked.

“I . . . I came here to look for my sister,” he confessed hesitantly. “She was taken . . . abducted by the Exiles, many years ago. When I was just a boy of seventeen, they came in the night, raiding the city. They were somehow able to make it past the walls . . . They caught us completely unprepared, we lost so many men . . .” A shadow of anger flicked across his face. “They took so many of the women, most of them barely more than girls.” He shut his eyes tightly, clenching his jaw. “We knew what they would do with them. We tried to follow them, just a handful of Knights who could still fight. We tracked them for days, all the way to the Darkwater. But their vessels were already sailing away when we reached the shores. We had no ships, no provisions, no idea where they would go. But I started out into the water. I would not let them take my sister.”

The Knight drew a ragged breath, opening his eyes once more. “The men were forced to render me unconscious and restrain me for the journey home. When we returned, I learned that my father was grievously wounded in the attack. The healers felt that he would not survive. They said that he had been calling for me for the last few days. So I went to him. I told him that my sister had been taken. He . . .” Kraey had to clear his throat to continue. “He began to weep. It was the first time I’d seen him cry since mother died. I told him that I would not rest until I found her, brought her home. But father laid his hand on mine. ‘The needs of the many, son . . .’ Those were his words. ‘The needs of the many.’ I knew what he meant. My father loved my sister and me more than anything in this world. But he understood that a Lord must make the difficult decisions that might divide him from his family. He was telling me that he was dying. He was telling me that I would inherit his responsibilities.” He looked to his right, meeting Tykara’s eyes. His own were watery, on the brink of shedding a flood of tears.

“I had to let her go. For the sake of my people, I had to allow my sister to be enslaved. And I did. I pushed her aside, and I led my people to rebuild our city, to train and raise new Knights, to repair our walls and improve our defenses. For sixteen years, I was the Lord that they deserved. I was the Lord that they needed. I partook in the training of our men personally, I went out on patrols along with the other Knights. And when I knew that they could handle things in my absence, I planned to place a steward over my estate, to maintain the order of things. And then the dream came to me. So I did as I had planned. And I left.”

“I came across the Darkwater to seek news of the Exiles and my sister. And the rest you know.”

Siltas rose and took several steps away from the fire, looking into the woods. “If it’s been sixteen years,” she asked, her back still to them, “why are you bothering to search? Odds are, she’s probably dead. You saw the settlement.” Her words were cold, but there was something in her voice that didn’t match.

Nevertheless, Tykara glared at the huntress’ back. “You calloused little bi-” She caught herself before the Knight had a chance to reprimand her. Of course, Kraey would not have scolded her in his emotional state. But Tykara found that she had come to respect him, enough so to bite her tongue without his asking. Still, she could understand his loss and his pain, and it angered her that the ranger would say such a thing. “You call me Redhands, but you don’t see me cutting him when he’s down. Show some character, woman.”

“She’s right, Siltas,” the mage put in. “That was truly uncalled-for behavior.”

“When I need your help,” Tykara addressed the wizard, “I’ll beat it out of you.”

“He’s right, though,” Siltas said, still staring off into the forest. “I shouldn’t have said it.” Her head tilted downward as she added, “I’m sorry, Kraey.”

Ever the noble one, Kraey responded, “As much as it pains me to think it, you’re probably right. She is likely beyond my help. But, she is my sister. I have to try. I have to know.”

Siltas nodded, rubbing her eyes with one hand and making a faint sound that could have been a sniffle, though none of the others heard it. “Alright. So, yeah, if there’s anything to find out about this attack, or about any slaves that were freed, then the clan village in the Plains is the best bet.” The former Valkyrie faced them and moved back to her seat. There was a redness in her eyes that could have been caused by the smoke of the fire. “I know the Matron personally. She was like a mother to me. Her name is Lorien Klite. A good woman. A great leader.” She gave them a weak smile. “It’d be nice to see her again.”

The Knight reached for his pack, rummaging inside for a few seconds, then brought out the map. Kneeling on the ground, he spread the parchment out, using small rocks to hold the corners. “I know the Valkyrith Plains are south of my homeland, but I’m not certain where they are exactly.”

Siltas was quick to bend down and put a finger on the map, showing him the precise location of the village. “There. My clan makes their home about a week’s journey east of Forester, near the river called Atton’s Veil. But I warn you, when we approach, you absolutely must follow my lead. It’s their home, and they will protect it to the point of paranoia. Life as a freed slave will do that to a woman.”

Kraey took hold of her wrist. “I will do as you say, Siltas. And thank you for this.”

The huntress did not meet his eyes when she spoke. “Don’t thank me yet. Even if they know anything, the Matron isn’t likely to speak with you. When we join, we are required to leave behind everything of our past. Family, friends . . . even our old names. And we are forbidden to ever speak of our old lives. If your sister joined them, she probably isn’t your sister any more. And even if a sister chooses to leave the clan, none has ever broken the Law of the Reborn. Besides, the first thing we have to do is get into the village. Alive.”

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Tejas
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Paths Of The Chosen: Chapter Nine

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Jan 13, 2012 10:47 am

[Author's Note; Beginning with this chapter, I will be including footnotes at the end of the chapters if clarification is needed on a subject. The presence of a footnote will be indicated by symbol such as (*), (**), (***), etc.]


Chapter Nine
“Better The Devil You Know . . .”


7:56 High Sun, Quies Domini, 20th of Quintilis (*)

Having determined their course, the companions bore toward the southwest and the river Atton's Veil, and while Tykara seemed to have accepted Siltas as their new guide, she missed no opportunity to belittle the wizard. Not a day went by when she did not threaten his well-being in some way. Tabin, for his part, gave no attention to the antagonistic behavior.

For the first few days, the travel was fairly simple and easy, the trees having little underbrush to impeded their progress. But in a week's time, they found themselves pressing hard through a much denser forest. Even without the huntress' warning, it was very evident that few, if any, had ever traversed this path before. Siltas, however, repeatedly assured them that they would reach a small clearing where they could set up camp before nightfall. And between those assurances, the ranger would disappear into the thick foliage to scout ahead.

Tykara's voice floated through the undergrowth, carrying her complaints along for the others to suffer as Kraey marched several feet ahead of her. The Knight's arm worked as he slashed at the hostile foliage, his longsword hacking away. Tabin brought up the rear, leading the horses along the rough-hewn trail. Siltas was far ahead of them, but they could still hear her forcing her own way through the brush.

Tykara’s agitated was easily heard above the rustle of Kraey’s path-making, but her own sword was working as well, cutting the make-shift road wider for Tabin to lead the horses through. Even so, she kept glancing back, keeping a wary eye on the mage. “This isn’t what I came along for.” She ducked as she came a little too close to Kraey’s back swing. “No one told me we were charging into . . .” She stepped back to avoid another strike. “The battle of the briars,” she concluded.

“It could be worse,” Tabin offered from behind them.

“Mage,” Tykara answered back, “Did I give you the impression I wanted your opinion? If not, then shut up.”

“Be at ease, Tykara,” Kraey said between swings. “We’re all on the same side here.”

Before the warrior could reply, Siltas called out to them from a good distance ahead. “Good news! Another hundred feet and we'll be through the thickest part of the brush!”

“Thank the gods,” Tykara mumbled. “It's about time.”

Kraey paused in his work and gave her a disappointed look. “Why do you say that?”

“Say what?” the warrior asked.

“ ‘Thank the gods’,” he said. “Have you never been taught that Kami is the only true God? There are some beings with powers that seem god-like, but all of them must bend knee to Kami. He is the Father of All.”

She gave scoffing sound and shook her head. “Father of All, is he? I used to believe in Him when I was a kid. But He never did anything for me, except let me go through hell all my life. Some father. Tell you what; you can keep your Kami. He never did me any good.”

At this, the Knight seemed saddened. “If only you knew what He has done-”

Just then, the uncut briars parted and Siltas stepped out of them, completely unscathed by the thorns. After seeing their multiple lacerations (and shuddering at the eerie sight of the bright crimson line across Tabin’s pale-as-a-phantom cheek), she said, “Looks like you’ve all had a rough go of it. You’ll be glad to know there’s a small spring near the clearing, so the three of you can wash off all that blood. Those scratches need cleaned.”

Tabin stared at her with his strange, grey eyes. “Blood?” he asked. Siltas traced a finger along her right cheek, indicating the thin, red line on his face. Bewildered, he touched his own right cheek with his left hand, the right hand still holding the horses’ reins. As his fingers made contact, the blood smeared a little, leaving a smudge. Holding the reddened fingers before him, he stared fixedly at his own life source, seemingly fascinated. Siltas called his name three times before he broke his eyes away from his hand and looked at her, his expression stunned.

“What’s the matter, mage?” she chided. “Haven’t you ever seen blood before?”

His eyes went back to his hand as he shook his head slightly, “Many times. But never my own.”




It took the four of them nearly another hour to cut their way through to the clearing, and they were each quite weary and soaked in sweat. The dense undergrowth seemed only to bring more of the day’s harsh heat upon them. By the time they were able to stop, there was only a couple of hours of daylight left, and that light had some difficulty penetrating the forest.

In their spent state, none of the four had the energy for making complaints, instead focusing on the chores of setting up camp and arranging their blankets.

Once the Knight had finished his part, he inquired of the ranger as to which way the spring she spoke of lay. She pointed toward the west and he set off to clean and tend his cuts.

After a moment or two, the huntress completed her own chores and announced that she would see if she could find some fresh meat for their supper. Tykara surprised her by offering to accompany her. Siltas agreed to let her come, provided that the bandit could move quietly through the wild.




A tap on her shoulder nearly caused Siltas to jump.

“What”, she whispered, a little nervous to have Tykara at her back.

“Relax, will you?” Tykara whispered back. She carried a small sack that held the ex-Valkyrie’s kill, a rabbit that she’d shot with her bow. “It’s just another hare. About thirty yards past that fallen tree. Why so skittish?” She’d made sure to keep her voice down as much as she could.

Siltas’ voice was just a low. “I don’t exactly trust you, Redhands. I know who you are, and I know your reputation. And since you did try to kill Kraey . . .”

Tykara spared a glance at Siltas. “Good god, woman, I didn’t try to kill him and you know it. He fell, I pulled him up, end of story. If Kraey trusts me, maybe you should, too.”

Siltas shrugged. “He wouldn’t see it even if you did try to kill him. Haven’t you seen the way he looks at you? He likes you.”

“So?” was the warrior’s counter. “Everyone likes me, once they get to know me.” Her words were rancid with sarcasm.

Siltas corrected her without missing a beat. “No, everyone likes for you to go away. But Kraey . . . He actually likes you, gods alone know why. You better be careful. He just might turn you into the first woman Godson. That’d be a shame, since you’re such a likable person and all.” There was enough intentional irony coating her voice to match the warrior’s words.

Tykara gave the other woman a slight shake of her head. “You must be out of your mind, Siltas. He’s not only a Knight, but he’s a Lord of Unity as well. I’m an outlaw. He should be trying to take me in to face justice, not trying to convert or recruit me.”

“Yet he rides alongside you,” the ranger rebutted. “What does that tell you? Their motto is ‘Give justice where needed, mercy where pleaded, and trust all else to the will of Kami.’”

The warrior paused at that. She considered the implications for only a few seconds before shaking her head again. “Motto or no, you’re delusional, Lenok.” She started to move forward a step, but the huntress caught her by the arm. Tykara looked at her.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” Siltas asked.

Immediately, the bandit’s wall went up, a fortress behind her eyes with only a small door through which a soul could enter. She regarded the ranger in silence for a moment, the only sound to be heard being a distant rustle as the rabbit moved around a bit, searching for something to eat. When she finally answered, there was no discernable emotion in her tone.

“You can ask. But I might not answer.”

Siltas nodded. “Fair enough.” She softly cleared her throat. “I know all the stories that float around about you. You led your band with efficiency and precision. I heard that you were cold and brutal, but cunning. You recruited many skilled ex-soldiers and even a few of the Exiles. I even remember one man, a survivor from one of your attacks, talking about some man that walked with you, clad from head to toe in black, his hands and face hidden. But what I don’t understand is this; in all the stories, I never once heard anything about you being . . . irrational or unstable. And, intending no offense, I don’t see how anyone could miss that about you.”

Behind her wall, Tykara felt the bricks shudder with the impact of the Valkyrie’s words. Still, they held, even if they cracked enough to be reflected in her voice. The warrior narrowed her eyes.

“Do you know what a keystone is?”

Siltas nodded. “Yes.”

“Have you ever felt as though everything around you, the people, the events, even your entire life, was trying its very best to collapse on top of you, to crush you beneath all that rubble? That there was no way for anything to prevent it? That you had no hope? And then, one person came into your life, took all that weight on their own shoulders, and held everything up to let you begin to have some semblance of life once more? A person who became your keystone? That man in the black clothes, who kept his hands and face hidden; he was the one who held me together, kept me sane. When I was with him, the nightmares were little more than a memory. That man, he was my keystone. He was my husband.”

Then Tykara moved her face within inches of Siltas’. “And, when he was taken from me two years ago, it was wizard that ended his life.”

The ranger said nothing; she just watched the other woman, putting the pieces together in her mind.

Tykara closed her eyes and gave a quiet sigh that seemed to put the wall and the words all away. When she opened her eyes again, the fortress was gone, along with whatever pain it had shielded deflected from her. “My turn,” she said to Siltas. “Just before you killed that Exile, what did he whisper to you?”

And the Valkyrie found herself put on the spot. “It . . . It was personal.”

A sardonic grin graced the warrior’s lips. “And what I just told you wasn’t?”

The huntress blinked. “I . . . suppose that’s fair.” She cleared her throat yet again. “He said, ‘Thank you.’”

“Liar,” came the accusation. “There was more to it than that. I saw his lips. There was more than just a couple of words.”

The ranger swore under her breath. “Look, this is something . . . I . . . I’m bound by the Law of the Reborn. If I tell you what he said, you can’t ask me what it means. It would just bring more questions.”

“So I promise to drop it,” Tykara vowed. Then she added a stipulation. “After you tell me what he said.”

“Sure, I’m going to trust your word,” Siltas scoffed.

The dark-haired warrior widened her grin. “Lenok, you don’t stay the leader of a bandit gang as long as I did by lying to your people. They catch on, then you get . . . ‘replaced’.”

The huntress weighed her words carefully, taking a slow steady breath. “Alright. He told me, ‘Thank you, child. Menja yet lives.’”

Tykara raised an eyebrow and opened her mouth to ask a question, then stopped herself with an effort. Obviously, she wanted to know more. But . . . “A promise is a promise,” she said to Siltas. “Now, go get that hare before it wanders to far away.”

“Alright. Wait here. I can move quieter alone. I’ll be right back.” Then Siltas slipped away from her, hardly making a sound as she moved.




What little light that penetrated the green canopy of the trees was beginning to wane before Kraey and the wizard heard the rustling of leaves as the two women carried their kill to the camp. The men had done well in preparing the camp, even setting up a spit over the fire pit. In said pit, a small but nice blaze was crackling as it consumed the wood hungrily. Tabin on a stone several feet from the fire, staring into the flames, his thoughts never quite resting between past, present, and future. The Knight, who had been studying the spell-caster in a nonchalant manner, rose to lend the women a hand. Siltas caught his eye, then nodded her head toward Tabin. Kraey gave her a nod in return and spoke quietly as he approached.

“He’s gone into another of his trances. He’s stopped breathing twice while you two were gone.”

Siltas said nothing as she secured the skinned and cleaned carcasses of the two rabbits on the spit above the fire. It did not take long for the fat to begin to pop as the flames licked at it.

“Alright, time to wake up, mage,” Tykara commanded as she put a rough hand on Tabin’s shoulder to break him from his trance.

“Tykara! No!!” Siltas tried to warn. Not soon enough.

With unbelievable speed, Tabin suddenly rose, grabbed her wrist and twisted it sharply as his other hand came at her face. Even as his second hand moved, the fingers spread apart in a strange pattern, causing his attacking hand to burst into green flame. Tykara could only utter a gasp of shock, fully expecting that hand to sear her from the mortal world.

But the hand stopped abruptly, mere inches in front of her face. Seconds passed. Tykara jerked her hand free and backpedaled several feet, nearly stumbling. Kraey already had his blade from it’s sheath and Siltas had one of hers half-bared. But then they noticed the horror displayed on Tabin’s face. He simply stared at the Majik fire that his own hand bore. His hand dropped to his side, the flames extinguishing without effort, as his eyes glanced at each of them in turn. His mouth worked furiously to produce sound.

“I did not . . . I did not mean . . .” He spoke no farther, but turned and walked away into the trees, trembling.

Tykara was the first of the three to recover, pointing an accusing finger at Kraey.

“I warned you! I told you not to bring a gods-cursed mage with us!”

“Now, just wait-” Siltas tried to say, which drew Tykara’s pointing finger in her direction.

“This is your fault, hunter! You’re the one that put it into the wizard’s head to come along.” The warrior looked back to Kraey. “Look, between the three of us, we can take care of him. We can ambush him when he comes back, kill him before he can get off a spell. No more wizard, no more Majik (**).”

By that time, Kraey had put away his sword and strode near to Tykara. Gripping her by the shoulders, he gave her a gentle shake.

“Listen to me, Tykara. Listen!” he insisted as she opened her mouth to speak further. “Yes, the wizard is dangerous. Yes it is a danger that we have yet to understand. But you saw his face.” He paused long enough to read her reaction. She’d seen the mage’s expression. “Tykara, he was afraid. He was terrified of what he nearly did. And that tells me that it was not something he wanted to do.”

“Kraey’s right,” Siltas put in. “When we first met, Tabin warned me never to touch him when he . . . ‘loses himself’. He said it was risky at best.”

“And you didn’t think to tell us?” Tykara demanded of her.

“Hey, I tried to warn you!” the ranger shot back.

The Knight stopped her with a gesture. “This bickering is pointless. There is no blame to be laid anywhere. We must simply be more cautious when Tabin enters a trance.”

Tykara stared at him, incredulous. “Are you saying we should let him stay? Are you mad?”

Kraey sighed. “Tykara, he bears the mark, as do we all. And I can see it in your eyes, you feel a weight pulling at you, growing stronger whenever you seek to separate one of us from the rest. The more we stand together, the lighter that weight becomes. I know it because I have felt it since before I met even you. With each addition to our group, I felt that anchor lighten, I felt more free. Kami is guiding us, even if you do not see it as such. Kami has brought us together for a purpose, perhaps to solve the dream, perhaps for something more. But tell me truly; do you believe that we will be able to understand the dream without him?”

There was a crack in her resolve, but she disliked losing. “You’re only in this to find your sister. And I have good reason not to trust wizards.” The huntress would have had to agree, but she held her tongue.

“You did not answer my question.”

Tykara glanced at the ranger, who was watching the woods where Tabin had wandered off. Looking back to Kraey, she opened her mouth to swear at him, but she was somehow unable to do it. Finally she doubled her fist and hit him solidly in the shoulder. Kraey winced. The wound from Siltas’ bolt was not yet fully healed.

“Yeah, we need him. But I don’t have to like it.” Tykara shook her head. “You know something, Ethynerysse? Sometimes you’re just too good a person. Someday, it’s gonna get you killed.”




There was an awkwardness hanging in the air the following morning.

Before the sun broke through the trees, Tabin was already up, despite his late return the night before. He sat well apart from the others, quietly studying one of his mathematics books, oblivious to anything else. His strange staff lay next to him. That was how Kraey found him when he awoke.

The Knight sat up slowly and rubbed the sleep from his eyes before rising. In his movement, he nudged his armor, causing it to clatter a bit and roust the ranger from her slumber. She, too, sat up, making a muttered comment that compared Kraey to a bull caught in brambles. The Knight offered an apology, but Siltas shook her head, saying that she needed to get up anyway.

Pushing her hair back from her face, the huntress clambered to her feet and stretched. Then, with a yawn, she informed the Knight that she was going to the spring to bathe.

“I should be back in half an hour, maybe a little longer,” she said.

He gave her a nod and watched her leave toward the west. A moment passed as he allowed himself to fully awaken, then he went over to the sleeping warrior, nudging her enough to get her to open her eyes and look at him.

“I’m going into the woods a short ways to pray,” he explained to her. “Siltas has gone to wash up, so it will be just you and Tabin here. Can I trust you enough not to harass him while I’m gone?”

In response, Tykara just rolled her eyes.

Taking that as a “yes”, Kraey stood back up and walked past her in an easterly direction.

Now awake against her will, Tykara lay there for nearly five minutes before she decided to get up. Setting about the morning cleanup, she noticed that her waterskin was nearly empty. She’d have to fill it before they set out for the day. The sound of a page turning made her glance over at the mage, who sat there reading, unaware of the world around him.

She picked up a small rock and tossed it at him, hitting his booted foot.

The mage looked at the rock, then at Tykara.

“Make yourself useful, wizard,” she growled. “Start getting things ready to go.”

He watched her for a few seconds before nodding and closing his book. Standing up, he moved toward his bedroll, then paused, turning toward her.

“About last evening,” he began. “I am truly sorry. I had no intention of-”

“Yeah, yeah, shut up,” she cut him off. “I don’t care, spell-slinger.” Then a bit of mischief crossed her thoughts. “Do us all a favor. Gather up the skins and go fill them at the spring.” She punctuated the command by tossing her own waterskin at him. He caught it easily.

Another nod. “Very well. But please know that I did not mean to-”

“Just shut up and go,” she ordered, tending to the gathering of her things.

Tabin said nothing else as he retrieved the other waterskins and left for the spring. As he disappeared through the foliage, Tykara grinned, thinking of the outrage on Siltas’ face when the mage happened upon her in the water. Inwardly, she hoped the incursion of privacy would sway the ranger to her side against the wizard. With a practiced hand, she quickly rolled up her blanket, then tied it on the back of her saddle.

She was checking her horse’s shoes when Kraey returned to the camp, carrying a handful of small berries. She did not bother to look up as she said, “Did you and Komo have a good conversation?”

“Kami”, he corrected her patiently. “And, yes, the conversation was pleasant and relaxing.”

She did spare him a glance then, but immediately looked back to her task. “What did you find?”

“Contentment”, he answered.

She rolled her eyes to herself. “I meant in your hand.”

“Ah.” He lifted the hand slightly, as if to show her his prize. “I found some kesh fruit on my way back. I had no idea they grew this far south.”

“They don’t.” She looked again at the fruit. “See the slight discoloration of the stems? Those are schrat-berries. You eat those and, for a week, everything you put in your mouth will taste like horse guts. Great way to lose weight, bad way to enjoy your food. Trust me, I know.”

“Oh.” Kraey tossed the berries scattering them across the ground. He then walked toward Tykara and leaned against a tree, not noticing the tree’s less-than-healthy appearance. As he settled his weight against it, he spoke again. “Well, I wasn’t very hungry any-agh!” With a loud crack, the tree snapped at the trunk, allowing him to sprawl on the ground.

Tykara did not pause as she said, “Kraey, you might not want to lean on that. It’s dead.” There was mirth in her voice as she spoke through lips curved upward in amusement.

“Thank you for speaking up before I fell.” His words dripped with sarcasm. He picked himself up from the ground and rose to his feet. It was then that he noticed wizard’s absence. “Where is Tabin?” he asked.

She finished setting the bindings on her pack before answering. “I sent him to the spring get the waterskins filled.”

“Didn’t I tell you that Siltas was bathing?” he asked. She shrugged. “Why did you not go instead?”

She shrugged, “Just a little harmless fun. Siltas can take care of herself.”

“I’m not worried about Siltas, but you shouldn’t have done that.”

“Why not? It didn’t hurt anyone.”

“It was in poor taste and highly inappropriate. You had no right to violate her right to privacy. Where is your sense of decency and morality?” he scolded.

“Thanks for the sermon,” Tykara said. “Gods, learn to loosen up, Kraey. You never have any fun.” She suddenly looked into the woods. “Here comes the mage now. See? No harm done.”

Barely had she spoken when Tabin appeared, walking into the clearing. He hardly noticed either of them as he set the skins down by the fire pit, then went to his pallet, and proceeded to pack his gear. As he did so, he hummed a complicated tune that was very familiar to Kraey.

“Tabin?”

The mage looked at the Knight, the sound from his throat ceasing. A single eyebrow rose in question, an eerie expression when combined with his pale features.

“Do you know what you’re humming?” he asked. The Majik-user shook his head. “That is part of the Yyshin’s Last March. I was not aware that any outside of the Godson Nations had ever heard it.

Tabin shrugged. “I heard Siltas singing it while she–” He stopped as he blushed, giving color that seemed out of place on his features. Tykara chuckled. Kraey gave her a hard look and she grew somber once more. Tabin tried to cover his slip, but succeeded only in a poor fashion. “I did not fill the water skins. I’ll fill them later.”

“Don’t go off into another trance, wizard.” Tykara pointed west, from where Tabin had come. “Here comes Siltas right now. You can fill them in a minute.” Again, her words preceded the approach by mere seconds. Siltas strolled into the clearing, running her fingers through her damp auburn hair. As she neared Tabin, she lay one hand on the spell-caster’s shoulder. She leaned close, her breath hot against his ear. “Did you enjoy the show, Tabin?” she inquired, lending a sultry quality to her tone.

The color rushed back to Tabin’s cheeks and he picked up the waterskins then, retreated again into the woods.
Siltas watched him go, grinning. “Hmm, would you look at that. I can paint his face red with just a few words.” she mused. Then she looked at the other two. “What are you waiting for? We should be ready to go when he gets back.”


.oO*Oo.



Sixteen years. Such a long time to be gone from home. Such a terrible absence from the lives of loved ones. And Cristyne was so very far away. It seemed to be half a world distant.
Not that she had been absent of her own will. A slave has precious few rights in the eyes of those who practice such things. But Tamara had been fortunate with the one who had purchased her. She had been well-treated, well-fed and well-cared-for. Not at all like the one who had taken her captive. With each day, it never ceased to astound her how one person could be so horribly cruel and another could be so compassionate and merciful.
The compassion of Tamara's mistress was not without limits, however. After all, she had not been sold for some mere pittance. No, Tamara had cost her mistress dearly. Which meant, of course, that Mistress Kalani could not afford to simply set her free.
But Kalani had recognized a spark of potential; most likely the reason for her purchase. Tamara, as it turned out, had that rare gift of true empathy, making her able to ascertain the thoughts and emotions of others, given the right training. Kalani knew this well, for she was one who could give such training, being meteal, a mind-healer. It was, in a small way, akin to Majik, in that the practice took complete dedication and discipline. Any one who knew the right dosage could give a patient medicine to heal the body. But only the meteal knew how to penetrate into one's mind to find the causes of the many forms of insanity and make the needed repairs. Such a practice was so very, very dangerous, both to the meteal and to the patient. Those who could become meteal were more rare than those who could learn Majik, even more rare than those few mages who were self-Awakened.
And Kalani had taught Tamara well. And Tamara had earned Kalani much coin, tending to the relatives of the rich in the madhouses of Keturah. Though it took many years to learn her skill, and many more to finally earn back her freedom, here now was Tamara, riding east away from the Five Sisters and well past the city of Faber. In fact, she was less than a day from Forester.
And, despite the long years that had trickled by, Tamara gave thanks to Kami that she was finally on her way home. She did not know what she would find when she returned to Cristyne. But she hoped that she might find her family, her husband, her daughter, her son. And there was that strange pull at her heart that led her east. She knew that it was Kami. With all that had happened, He was the anchor of her faith, holding her afloat. However mysterious His purpose might seem, she still trusted in Him.
And she knew, one way or another, He would lead her home.

_-^-_




__________________________________________

Footnotes

(*) Calendar = One year consists of ten months, each month being thirty-six days, for a total of 360 days per year, and each day is comprised of twenty-four hours of sixty minutes each. The day is separated into three segments of eight hours, these being the morning, midday and evening segments. These segments are Rising (from midnight to what we call 8:00 AM) High Sun ( 8:01 AM to 4:00 PM) and Ebbinglight (4:01PM to midnight, this is sometimes shortened to “Ebb”). However, these segments are usually only referred to when giving a proper time and date, as in documents or official records; few people use them in day-to-day speech. Seven days is equal to one week, and the days of the week, in order, are; Dominica, Dies Caeli, Diem Natalem, Dies Siderum, Dies Maria, Et Diem Hominis, and Quies Domini. The ten months of the year are, in order, as follows; Primtilis, Secuntilis, Tertilis, Quartilis, Quintilis, Sextilis, Septilis, Octilis, Novemtilis, and Dectilis. The year is also divided into four seasons, these being Tear Fall (spring, from 1st of Pimtilis to 18th of Tertilis ), Long Calm (summer, from 19th of Tertilis to 36th of Quintilis), Sun Fade (autumn, from 1st of Sextilis to 18th of Octilis), and Long Cold (winter, from 19th of Octilis to 36th of Dectilis). Each season has a total of ninety days. As of the beginning of this story, the year is 2134 P.B. (Post Bloodbridge).

(**) Majik (pronounced MAZH-ik) is performed by a unique combination of mathematics and martial arts. Not only does Majik require a notable intellect, but potential mage must also be of fair physical condition. One must be able to mentally work the proper equations under duress while simultaneously carrying out the forms. Failure could result in anything, from a spell that only creates a puff of dust or moves a single pebble, to an inferno that could ravage an entire city or an earthquake that may swallow the city whole. Luckily, the effect of a spell is constrained by its difficulty and by the power of the wizard himself. In effect, incredibly powerful forms can only be performed by the most disciplined of magi. With the rare exception, of course. Only a small percentage of people even bear the ability to learn. And those that do possess the talent must be taught to draw forth the power. This process is more often known as being Awakened. Just one in a hundred thousand has the spark. And of those, less than one in ten thousand can Awaken the power unaided. And, as stated before, discipline is absolutely essential. For a mage to be able to direct a spell at a given object or person, he must be able to gauge the mathematics of said object; i.e., the weight, volume, height, depth, width, etc. Against these, he must measure the power of his movements in whichever maneuvers he may perform in addition to any modifications the calculations may require for the desired effect. With the completion of the form, the spell will manifest whatever effect the spell was designed to create, provided the wizard has succeeded within the minuscule margin for error. Note; Majik does not include such things as miracles, sorcery, or the mind-spell (more on these later).

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Tejas
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Jan 20, 2012 11:01 am

(Author's Note; If you are interested in the lands in which this story takes place, I have uploaded a pic of the map at this address; http://s1078.photobucket.com/albums/w49 ... eiVaek.jpg I ask that you forgive the crudity of the drawing, as I am no artist, and the scanner I used was of poor quality. Below is a list of the cities on the map, and their grid references.)

Cities of Tei’Vaek

Abihu = G-6
Arn = K-6
Bashan = E-3
Baughn = D-15
Berol = J-3
City of Lost Name = I-18
Coram = B-3
Cradle of Shame = H-14
Cristyne = D-17
Faber = J-9
Forester = K-11
Ginia = E-4
Haukire = I-3
Heartscar Fortress = J-14
Iston = = E-15
Ja Reth = I-5
Jetur = C-4
Karnof = H-15
Kedeemah = B-4
Keturah = K-6
Klau = M-4
Klense = J-6
Kohath = C-3
Langoth = F-15
Lanus = E-9
Laughn = K-4
Menor = K-9
Nach Haus = K-19
Plen = I-2
Port City = F-14
Rinega = G-3
Sankard = L-7
Sein = B-6
Shuni = L-3
Tema = H-19
Tenoth = K-7
Worh = J-7
Zantuk = I-15
Zeza = F-3
Zephon = J-5

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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Jan 27, 2012 10:34 am

Chapter Ten
“A Light In The Darkness”



6:43 Ebbinglight, Dominica, 21st of Quintilis, 2134 P.B.

To say that there was an aura of tension surrounding Tykara would have been akin to comparing the light of the sun to that of a candle. She had accepted that she must suffer the presence of the mage, but she continued to make crude comments and threatening implications, both aloud and under her breath. The departure from the clearing and return to the claustrophobic undergrowth only seemed to increase her muttering.

Still, the Knight, the ranger and the wizard all were able to maintain a relatively halcyon temperament. Through slow progress and grumbled swearing (when the bandit woman thought Kraey could not hear her), the four of them spent the next day and a half trudging their way clear of the forest for good.

It was not until they broke free of the trees that they realized that the heat of Long Calm had faded a bit, allowing them some reprieve from the heavy sweat that had thus far plagued their journey. It was not a great fall in temperature, but that small fraction combined with freedom from the humidity of the forest was like a small miracle to them. No doubt there would still be a few more days of extreme heat as the season turned, but they were glad of the respite. Already, they had noticed a slight shortening of the days as they inched closer to the end of Long Calm and toward the beginning of Sun Fade.

At the suggestion of the former Valkyrie, they decided to stop for the day. Kraey was loathe to delay his search for his sister, but he understood the need for rest and did not complain. And so they made camp, tended to the needs of the animals, made minor repairs to saddles, clothing and the like; any small thing that needed doing, really. Then the night came and they were all quick to succumb to slumber.

Save for Tykara.

She lay in her blankets quietly, watching the wizard, certain that he had some nefarious plan. Her paranoia of Majik was deeply ingrained into her and the words of the Knight gave her no comfort concerning the mage. And then there was Tabin’s unexplained and uncontrolled trances. A wizard with that amount of unpredictability . . . In her mind, no good could come of it. Still, regardless of her trepidation, sleep did finally come to her, as well.

And she did not dream at all of the wizard.

Instead, she dreamt of home.

Such a peaceful place, home. She was still a small girl, in her dream, helping her mother with the wash, hanging out the clothes to dry. Across the way, she could see her father, hard at work at the smithy, his powerful arms striking blow after blow, showering sparks from heated metal. Then she was playing with the other children, her little brother tagging along behind her, wooden sword in hand, mimicking her every move.

She was smiling again. She was laughing. She was home.

And it felt . . . wonderful.

A flicker caught her eye. She blinked. The flicker became a single flame. The flame became a fire. And the fire erupted into an inferno that enveloped all she could see. And a face floated before her.

A face with onyx eyes and white teeth bared in a vicious sneer.

She awoke in a cold sweat, screaming as Kraey held her shoulder, kneeling by her side. The ranger stood only a few feet away, her expression surprised and confused. Even Tabin was watching her, sitting up on his bedroll.

Kraey asked if he could do anything for her, but Tykara just waved him away, telling him to go back to sleep. The Knight waited for a few seconds, then rose and returned to his pallet. The warrior rolled over and put her back to the others and, after a moment, she heard them lay back down.

An hour or so passed before she was certain they’d fallen back to sleep.

But Tykara slept no more that night.

She was afraid to try.




.oO*Oo.





The cold stone of the halls echoed softly as the darkman strode along them. Even walking at a normal pace, the Shur’ken’s (*) footsteps made precious little sound, in no small part due to his soft-soled boots. Coming to a nondescript oaken door, he put his hand to the wood and pushed . It groaned loudly as swung wide, allowing him to pass. With only a slight pause in his steps, the ashen-skinned man entered the room, not bothering to close the door behind him.

This room was not one that he entered often, nor lightly. Kardellyus would be furious to know that he was in here. This room housed many things with which he had no training. And the Shur’ken had great training in a great many different weapons. But, by and far, the weapons in this room were beyond his current abilities to use.

The weapons here, the tools, were those that required the use of Majik, a thing of which he had only begun to learn in the past year. This room was filled with shelves of books on the subjects of various forms of mathematics, the martial art forms, and how to create the combinations that would bring forth the spectacular powers known as Majik.

It was in this room where was kept a powerful artifact, a device created for the use of scrying. The device had the appearance of a life-size statue, a grey marble figure of an elf woman (**), a wizardess, peering into a bowl held in her delicate hands. Fortunately for him, this device did not require one to have great knowledge of Majik.

He approached the Visionary and stood before it, peering into the wizardess’ bowl. Clearing his mind, he summoned the bowl’s power with a thought and a gesture as he passed his hand over the clear water. The calm liquid began to ripple abruptly before resettling, and an image began to appear. Commanding the Majik with an effort, the darkman began to search, focusing his every thought on those whom he sought.

He surprised himself with his own success, forcing the waters to reveal the strange band of humans who had “rescued” him from brigands more than a fortnight ago. In truth, there was only one member of the group that he needed. But he was forced to regard the power of the mage.

He’d seen that pale wizard at work. The human’s Majik was far better than his own. And his teacher’s Majik was only marginally more powerful than that of the human, his teacher being more a sorcerer than a wizard. But the darkman was able to see a great potential in the mage. And he did not, could not, fully trust Kardellyus. No, his teacher was certainly not to be trusted.

Perhaps he would be able to indenture this pallid wizard into his service, appoint him his new teacher. If not, he could still hope to get him out of the way for when the time finally came.

Though the mage was not his main target of interest, the darkman decided that he would take him.

He allowed his focus to slip just a bit, and the waters of the Visionary shimmering in new ripples, then calmed to nothing more than liquid in a bowl. He frowned at his lack of discipline, a thing that was the heart of his usual way, the way of the blade. Still, he’d learned more than he’d hoped. He now knew where the companions were located. He lifted a hand to the raven claw medallion that hung from his neck.

Many powers, many enchantments, this medallion held, though he was still learning their uses. But he had finally learned how to use it’s power to transport objects and people. A form of teleportation. He had in his employ wizards who could better manipulate it’s abilities than he. Except, did he dare risk trusting one of them with it?

No. Not just yet.

Instead, he would select the men he would send after the white-haired mage. And he would attempt to open the portal himself.





.oO*Oo.





With dawn hiding just behind the horizon, the warrior moved slower than her usual pace in packing; partially from the lack of sleep, partially from distracting thoughts. In fact, she was little more than half-done when the others were mounting up to move.

Noting her listless behavior, Kraey persuaded Siltas and Tabin to set out ahead, assuring them that he and Tykara would be right behind them. As the two of them trotted out across the relatively open plains and away from the forest from which they’d come, the Knight dismounted and went to assist the former bandit with her chore. In the end, he practically took over, slowing only enough to make slight adjustments where needed and securing the pack to the saddle. Oddly enough, she made no arguments against his interference.

“All right,” he began, “time to climb up and head out.” Then he noted the slight redness in her eyes. “Tykara, didn’t you sleep at all?”

She blinked several times and looked at him. “Hmm? What?” After a few brief seconds, she picked up on his question. “Oh, I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.”

A frown creased his lips. “No, you’re not ‘fine’,” he contended. “Nearly a week, you’ve slept with only a few muttered cries in the dark, then last night, you started screaming loud enough to wake the dead. It’s time you let me know what’s going on. I’ve told the three of you of my own troubles; it is your turn to reciprocate.”

“It’s only a dream,” she insisted. “Just a simple nightmare. Nothing to get worked up about.”

His expression deepened. “You were most certainly worked up about it last night. What did you dream?” He paused for just a second before adding, “Was it concerning the mark?”

As he spoke the query, Tykara was already shaking her head. “No, nothing like that. I just . . .” She blinked again, slowly. “I dreamed of when I was a girl, in my home village. I saw my family, my friends. It’s always the same. Look, it’s nothing special.” She reached for her reins, but he caught her hand, forestalling her.

“And?”

She’d hoped he would let it go at that. She should have known better. “I . . . I keep seeing fire . . . Flames everywhere . . . Sometimes I can hear people calling out . . . And then there’s a face . . . a dark face that I know should be familiar, but . . .” A sudden stab of pain hit her behind the eyes. She swore under her breath. “Sorry, Kraey,” she immediately apologized. “Didn’t get enough sleep. Got a little headache.” She put a her fingers to her temples and massaged them a bit. “I can never see anything more in the dream. I just get to that point and . . . well, I wake up.” The massaging wasn’t helping at all.

“Here,” Kraey offered, placing a palm to her forehead. He closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly, and Tykara could just barely hear him speaking. It sounded like a prayer. After a moment, he ceased and took his hand away, looking at her. “How does it feel now?”

She was a little stunned to realize that the headache was gone as quickly as it had come, though she still felt the lack of sleep.

“How- how did you do that?” she wondered.

He offered her a soft smile. “I didn’t do it. Consider it a gift from Kami.” Despite his smile, there was still a hint of real worry in his eyes. “Now you can no longer say He has done nothing for you.”

Though tired as she was, she found the energy to return his smile, even adding a short chuckle.

“Kraey, pay close attention. The Valkyrie and that wizard are very far away; there’s no way either of them could see us. I’m telling you that so you know this one is for real.”

Then she leaned close and softly kissed him on the cheek.

With an effort, she pulled herself up into her saddle. “You know, Kraey, you should never have learned how to use a sword. A man like you shouldn’t waste his life training to kill.” She flicked the reins and clicked her tongue and her horse began to move forward, but slowly enough that the Knight could catch up.




In the warrior’s tired mind, the day felt as though it dragged on for an eternity. In truth, however, they were making very good time, and the ranger promised them that they would soon meet up with the trade road that skirted near the Valkyrie home. All of the horses were more spirited than they’d been in many days, thanks to the cooler weather and the open air, and this caused Tykara a bit of trouble as she tried to maintain a tight rein with weary hands.

As a trained combatant of more than a decade, Tykara had long ago learned to cope with little to no rest. But the disturbing nightmare of the previous night appeared to have taken a heavy toll on her. For a moment or two during the ride, she found herself drifting off, only to snap back to wakefulness when she felt herself begin to slip in her saddle. She could only hope that she would find rest when they finally made camp.

From time to time, the Knight would slow down and pull up beside her, checking to see if she needed to stop for a breather. She would shake her head and wave him away.

A little past midday, her eyes eased closed once more. She only intended to rest them for minute. The next thing she knew, she had the slight sensation that she was falling and jerked awake just as Kraey caught her arm and pulled her back upright.

“Just checking my stirrup,” she told him, her tired grin letting him know she was joking.

“Talk to me,” he said. “Keep your mind busy. It will help you to stay awake.”

She nodded, knowing he was right, but her thoughts wouldn’t come together enough to think of a subject. “Eh, my mind is a total fog. You think of something. What do you want to talk about?”

Kraey just picked a topic at random. “In Karnof, you said you were heading home before we met. Where is home?”

She reached up and rubbed her eyes before she replied. “Uh, north. A little village a day’s walk from Cristyne. Easy to miss unless you know it’s there.”

“Did you like it there?”

Tykara shrugged. “I guess. It was just home, you know? Just a little farming village. Mostly I just remember spending time with my friends, or trying to learn how to use a sword from an old retired soldier that lived there.”

The Knight tried to prod her along. “What made you leave? Did you just get a taste for adventure?”

“No, I just . . .” She frowned as she trailed off. “Hmm. I can’t remember when I left. Or why.”

“Really?” he pressed. “I would think that leaving home would be something you couldn’t forget. I can still recall every detail from the first day I went out on patrol away from Inami. I was still just a squire then. And, yes,” he added, “in the Godson Nation, every would-be Knight must begin as a squire, even the son of a Lord. That is our law, and it can only be circumvented in the most rare of instances.”

“I wasn’t going to ask,” she said plainly. “For me, that last thing I remember of home is my father leaving the dinner table to go help some of the other men with something. After that, it’s all just too fuzzy. I did go back, years later. But the village was gone. All of it was burned down and overgrown, except a huge crater close to where the chapel used to be. Besides that, it was nothing more than a ruin left to the wild.”

He made a gesture as if to say, “Alright, then, moving on . . .” But what he actually said was, “What is the next thing you can remember clearly, then?”

She had to think about it for a moment, becoming quiet for so long that the Knight wondered if she might be drifting off again. But just before he started to reach over to nudge her, she spoke, her tone seeming confused. “I . . . I remember running away from someplace. I’m not sure where. I remember there was a friend running beside me, a close friend. I was, I don’t know, maybe seventeen or eighteen at the time. I remember we were hungry, but we didn’t have anything, no tools, no weapons. No money. Just the clothes on our backs. We . . . we found our way to a road.” Her brow furrowed deeply as she recalled more. “There was a man on the road. We asked him for something to eat, but he just cursed at us and told us to go beg of someone else.” Now she frowned. “I got angry. I attacked the man, threw a rock at him, knocked him down, started hitting him. I remember my friend trying to pulled me off of the man. Then I took the man’s food and his money.”

When she looked at Kraey, her expression was as close to shame as he’d ever seen her. “I think it was the first time I’d ever robbed anyone.” With a shake of her head, she berated herself. “Gods, why am I even telling you this? Why is it you can ask me something and I just open up like a book?”

“Well, for one thing,” he reasoned, “you’re tired. Perhaps those defenses of yours take more energy than you can spare at the moment.” He unhooked his waterskin from the saddle horn and offered it to her. “Here, splash a little on your face. The shock might help clear your head a bit.” Tykara accepted the skin, pulling the plug loose with her teeth. Pressing her thumb over the opening so as not to waste more than she needed, she looked skyward and up-ended the skin, feeling the cool water sprinkle on her face. Then she plugged the container again and returned it to the Knight.

“Thanks,” she gratified. “I needed that.”

As he hooked the waterskin on his saddle, Kraey made further inquiry. “Can you recall any details about this place from which you and your friend were running? Forgive my persistence, but I finally have you telling me about yourself. I’d like to glean what I may before you shut yourself away again.”

The amusement carried by the haggard smile and short laugh she gave him was marginal at best. “You’re a funny man, in your own way.” She ran her free hand over her dampened face, smoothing back a few stray strands of her black hair.

Kraey felt himself returning the smile. “I’ve been know to make a fair joke on occasion,” he teased. “But you still didn’t answer me. Is there anything you can recollect about the place you were fleeing? Anything at all?”

She sighed and thought back, trying to evoke some memory of it. In the back of her mind, there was something, she wasn’t quite sure what. She dug at it, trying to dislodge the image. An explosion of pain behind her eyes made her gasp aloud and clench them shut as she leaned forward in her saddle.

“Gods da-!” She cut herself off as a second wave of shock ripple through her head. Tears welled up in the corners of her eyes and she put her hand to her temple as though she was trying to keep her skull from splitting apart. She halted her horse by mere reaction as the Knight spoke.

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

Her hand trembled against the skin of her temple. “My . . . my head. Oh, gods . . ! Must . . . must be the fatigue . . .”

Kraey said nothing more as he guided his stallion close to the warrior. Pressing a hand to her forehead, he prayed as he had earlier that morning. There was great strength in his words, strength that was honored by Kami, allowing the intense spike of the headache to recede slowly.

Tykara’s relief was accompanied by a stuttered sigh. One deep breath later, she opened her eyes, then drew another, slower, breath. An precarious grin formed as she told the Knight, “You gotta teach me how to do that. Comes in handy.”

“That it does,” he agreed, but there was no grin on his face. “Alright. No more questions until you’ve had a chance to get some decent sleep.”

Though she did not reply, he could see the gratefulness in her wearied expression.

“Come on,” he instructed. “Let’s get moving. The others are still a good deal ahead of us.”



“Shhh!” Kraey hissed at the mage, motioning toward the soundly sleeping Tykara. Tabin gave the Knight an apologetic look as he bent and picked up the book he’d dropped. Dusting off the tome, he strode over close to the Lord and sat down.

“This is the most quiet I’ve seen her sleep,” the wizard remarked in low tones. The Knight just nodded in agreement, still watching the former bandit. Tabin scrutinized his face. “You’re worried,” he stated the obvious.

“Hmm?” Kraey turned his attention to the pallid man next to him. “What?”

“I said, you’re worried,” Tabin repeated. “What is it?”

“Not worried,” the Knight denied. “But I am somewhat concerned. Several times today, she complained about sudden headaches, one of which was quite severe. She claimed it was the fatigue.” He shook his head. “I’m not so sure.”

The mage considered in silence for a moment, absently rubbing a bit of dirt from the corner of his book. Setting the spine on his leg, he slipped a finger between the pages and spread the volume open, tilting it just far enough for the fire-light the reveal the text. “All things being as they are,” he eventually spoke, “I would say that she is resting quite well. She is not tossing about, or mumbling, etcetera, etcetera . . . Perhaps it was a good thing that she could not sleep last night.” His attention went to the print of the book and he became silent once more, save for the turning of a page.

Minutes trickled by, accompanied by the constant chirping of crickets. A gentle late-Long Calm breeze cooled the air for just a few seconds before passing on across the plains.

“Where has Siltas gone?” Kraey queried softly out. “I’ve not seen her for the last hour.”

Tabin placed his palm down on the open page, holding his place. “I’m not certain. But I noticed that she has been a little offish throughout the latter part of the day. I’m no great judge on the matter, but I might venture to say that she is anxious about meeting with her clanswomen. I get the impression that she did not depart under the best of circumstances.”

“You’re not far off,” the ranger’s voice startled them both from behind. “But no woman ever leaves the clan under good terms.”

Kraey squinted to see her in the shadows, having turned abruptly at her presence. “How long have you been standing there?”

Siltas smiled. “Only for the last twenty minutes or so. Well,” she corrected herself, “I was actually just a bit further away, watching. I’m a hunter.” She shrugged without apology. “It’s what I do.”

“An enviable talent,” Tabin commented. “However, I would rather not have you giving me a heart attack like that. You could step on a twig or something to give us warning.”

That alluring half-grin of her’s came readily, though they could not see it very well. “Where would be the fun in that?” she teased, walking closer to the light. “What’re you reading there?”

“Hmm?” The mage raised an eyebrow in question before he recalled the tome on his lap, which he then lifted to display. “Oh, this is An Account of Correlations Regarding Derivative Calculus and the Elemental Majiks, Volume Nine, circa 1932 P.B.”

She visibly winced at the title. “Whoa. A little light reading before bedtime? Sorry I asked,” she joked. “Sounds like the stuff nightmares are made of.”

Tabin’s white lips twitched, but he held back his grin. “Not for myself. I sleep better with a head full of equations. And, could I ask you to kindly refrain from doing that?”

Confusion was evident as she stopped next to the wizard. “From doing what?”

“Ending your sentences with prepositions.”

Siltas’ expression deepened. “What are you talking about?”

“That,” the mage said, his face deadpan.

Kraey snorted hard to keep from laughing aloud and waking Tykara.

“Did . . . I miss something?” the huntress dared to ask, eliciting another choked guffaw from the Knight. She gave him a dirty look, to which he held up one hand in apology, the other being held over his mouth to stifle the noise.

“I’m sorry,” Tabin mollified. “It pertains to proper grammatical education and usage,” he explained. “I was making a poor jest at your expense, and for that I humbly ask for your clemency.”

“I’m . . . sorry as well,” Kraey struggled to speak through his amusement. “I meant no insult to you. I just didn’t realize how much I needed a good laugh.”

Siltas put her hands on her hips and viewed them both with a scolding stare. “So, you’ve had your fun? You get all your laughs? Finished making jokes about the uncultured tree-hugger in your midst?”

Neither of them were laughing now, their faces chagrined. The Knight cleared his throat and the mage looked away.

Her sudden snicker forced them to take a turn at confusion. “You two are so easy. With a little more effort, I bet I could have had you crying and cleaning my boots for me.” She tapped the back of her knuckles against Tabin’s shoulder as she passed him. “Men,” she said, as though the word itself was all the explanation needed. As she sat down next to her bedroll and began unbuckling her weapons, the two males split a look between them.

“I think we’ve been had,” Kraey ventured.

“I’m certain of it,” Tabin stated. He softly shut his book and leaned closer to the blonde man. “Though I have never participated in the practice, I have observed, in my own country, that this sort of behavior is often the beginning of a war of practical jokes. It could be quite amusing to give such an endeavor a go, yes? What say you?”

The Knight had no chance to reply before Siltas’ voice drifted to their ears in a sing-song manner. “I can hear you,” she taunted. Without facing them, she held up a hand a wagged a finger at them.

Kraey chuckled at the levity. “It might not end well. I did participate in that sort of thing when I was younger. And I quickly learned that girls, or women, as the case may be, are irrefutably better at getting the last laugh.” He lowered his voice and spoke only for Tabin’s ears. “And they are quite often more cruel about it.”

“Heard that,” came the huntress’ warning.

The wizard smiled wide as he shook his head. “In light of your sage advice, Sir Kraey, I believe I shall adhere to playing games of chess.” He rose to his feet, his jaw suddenly threatening to dislodge itself with a deep yawn. “It must be getting late. I’m starting to feel length of the day on me.”

“It’s about a quarter ‘til six of Ebb,” the Valkyrie offered. “I may not be able to solve complex math in my head, but I can count off the passing time easily enough.” She set down the last of her weapons and pulled back the covers of her bedroll. “Sleep tight, you two.”

“And you, good hunter,” Tabin returned to sentiment as he strode toward his own blankets. “I shall see you both in the morn-”

The mage froze in his tracks, a sudden apprehension written in his stance and on his face.

Kraey had been looking right at him, so he was the first to notice. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Siltas regarded the mage with a hint of suspicion. “Trying for another prank, Tabin?”

But Tabin shook his head. “No. Can you not feel it? There is great power in the air. A Majik that I have not yet learned, though I can feel some familiar elements.” He frowned. “It’s like . . . like I have held some of the pieces, but I have never seen the puzzle as a whole. It’s quite difficult to describe.” He tried to grasp at the numbers with his mind, but the waves of equations were simply beyond his comprehension as yet.

Kraey didn’t even recall moving his hand to his sword hilt. As for Siltas, she already had a firm grip on both of her shortswords.

“Is it dangerous?” she asked. “What should we -?”

And a shaft of light split the night.
_-^-_




Footnotes;

(*) Shur'ken = In the heart of the Empire of Shur, on the small continent of Koman, lies the massive capitol of Mareh (MAR-ay), the center of civilization and culture for the people known as the Shur’ken. Though despised by virtually everyone, this strange race has prospered within it’s own lands, kept safe from invasion by the power of their sorcery. They are people whose appearance might easily have been mistaken as human, were it not for their ashen grey skin, black irises, and dark red hair. They bear no great resemblance to the other races of the world and often live for several centuries. It has been said that the Shur’ken were once human, but through the millennia have slowly changed because of their practices is the sorcerous arts, forever cursing their bodies and damning their souls. Among the quieter circles, it is rumored that the Shur’ken have strong ties with the vampyres of Arabah, a city sovereign unto itself south of the Empire proper. Often referred to as darkmen, the Shur'ken are the only race that, as a collective whole, openly embrace the worship of Lucifer and his Five, and for this reason, they are vilified (not unjustly) by followers of Kami worldwide.

(**) Arkhani (true elves) = The Arkhani hail from the island of Arkhangel'sk, just north and west of the western mainland. They revere life and are viewed by most as the guardians of the wild. Arkhani are easily identified by their exotic almond-shaped eyes, elegantly pointed ears, and attractively angular nose. It is fairly uncommon to see an Arkhani with hair of any other color than blonde, and most elves, when they are fully mature, stand about six feet in height and are of a very lean frame. It is said that elves are descended from angels, but there has never been any way to prove or disprove this legend. The Arkhani accents can be most accurately defined as what we might call Russian-esque in tone. (Formerly called the Moruuvi; this has been altered from the original story).

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Tejas
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Feb 10, 2012 9:57 am

Chapter Eleven
“Ambushed?”


5:49 Ebbinglight, Dies Caeli, 22nd of Quintilis, 2134 P.B.

“To arms!” the call came, rousting Tykara from the first decent sleep she’d had in more months than she cared to measure. She moved without thought, her body automated by years of practice. Rolling to the side, she took up the hilt of her longsword and came up to her feet, flinging the weapon in an arc to shed it of the sheath. In response to the sudden brightness that assaulted her sight, she turned her head slightly to the side and lifted her free hand to shield her eyes and preserve some measure of her night vision. The air around her crackled with energy. Though there was a sound like howling wind in her ears, she could hear movement around her and was able to see the silhouettes of her allies as they gathered near her, weapons at the ready.

“What is it?” she demanded over the din of the event. “What in the Abyss is going on?”

“Not sure yet,” the mage answered in raised voice from the right, on the other side of Kraey. “But I sense something powerful and dangerous. Be on your guard.”

“Can you counter whatever it is?” came the shouted query of the Valkyrie from Tykara’s left. “Shut it down?”

“I dare not!” Tabin’s snowy locks danced as he shook his head. “I can pick out only small bits of the spell. Without knowing the whole of it, there’s no telling what kind of catastrophe I might cause should I fail. But it’s strange. The calculations are . . . wrong, somehow. And yet the Majik still feels right. All I know for certain is that whatever spell is being cast, it is far beyond my own power as yet.”

“Then what do you suggest as a course of action,” the Knight practically yelled over the noise.

“We could stand and face what may come,” the wizard answered. “But the wiser course would be to flee. I would recommend that we leave what we can and ride as far as we can.”

“You’re a coward, mage!” Tykara yelled out. “Show some mettle and fight!”

“No,” Kraey shook his head, the unnatural wind pushing golden locks before his eyes. “Tabin is right. Get whatever we need and get to your -”

He never got the chance to finish the sentence as a mighty bolt of lightning tore, not from the sky, but from the shaft of light. The bolt stretched up toward the heavens as though it were trying to grasp the stars, then it reversed its path and came crashing down into the ground beneath its source. The concussive force of the impact sent a shock wave that lifted all four of them from their feet and threw them backward like rag-dolls. Only the ranger managed to land upright, one blade digging into the dirt to steady her as she lighted on a foot and a knee.

The horses, which had already been jittery, fled in a sudden panic, their shrieking whinnies sounding above the cacophony of the lightning.

Then the shaft suddenly widened into what looked like a vertical polished disc of steel some fifteen feet in diameter. And on that plate of steel was an exceptionally life-like mural of a dozen or so armed soldiers, all of them with determined expressions.

And the mural moved.

As one, the soldiers of the image charged forward, breaking free of the disc-like device, emerging onto the ground before the companions, weapons at the ready.

By then, Tykara had regained her feet and was lifting her blade to rush in amongst them.

“Wait!” the Knight tried to stop her. “Let’s find out what they -”

And a spear from one of the soldier’s sailed forward at the now-sprinting warrior, scoring a light scratch on the side of her left thigh. Before another could loose a spear, she was among them, that lethal longsword ringing out as it did its wicked work.

Kraey and Siltas moved to her aid while the wizard closed into range for better accuracy with his Majik.

Tykara’s first stroke was blocked, as was the second and third, but her fourth tore out the throat of the nearest soldier. She felt the steel jar in her grip when she was forced to deflect a chop at her side. She was slow. The rest had given her strength, but not the speed she needed to excel. Her blade sang again as she parried another strike, this one dangerously close to her face.

She was as surprised as the soldier she fought when a pair of shortswords stabbed into either side of his neck from behind and stole the fight from him. He fell away and the grim face of the Valkyrie replaced the man, blood spray washing down her right cheek. Siltas only nodded and spun to knock aside a spear that came at her own back.

It was utter chaos.

The Knight batted away three different weapons in rapid succession, then responded with a sharp kick to one soldier’s groin and a hilt to another’s face. The third of his foes was able to strike again before Kraey could deal him a blow. With wrist to opposing wrist, the blonde lord slowed the attack long enough to drive the point of his weapon through the gap between his assailant’s armor buckles, perforating a lung. Pulling the blade free and following up with two powerful strokes, he was able to cleave through the leather helmet of one of his stunned opponents and nearly decapitate the man he’d kicked before a hilt struck the back of his skull, driving him to his knees.

The soldier gripping that hilt raised his sword to finish the Knight.

Tabin pointed two fingers up and thrust his hand skyward, meshing the figures in his head. Simultaneously, a sharp shaft of stone erupted from the soil and impaled Kraey’s would-be killer through the stomach, the rock lifting the man a good two feet clear of the ground. He gave no death cry, only a muffled exhalation as he dangled from the stone spire. To give the lord more time to regain his senses, the wizard implemented a similar form, turning completely about with his hands sweeping low, fingers curved as though he were grasping hold of something. As he came back around to face the fray once more, he threw both hands high.

And two more soldiers found themselves flung into a sudden aerial ascent, an almost instant height of roughly thirty feet. Then Tabin drew his hands sharply down. The two men descended as abruptly as they has risen, striking the ground head-first and shattering every vertebrae in their necks.

While Tykara battled away with a single soldier, Siltas had attracted the unwanted attentions of the other remaining four, two of them with swords, two with spears. Two blades swept low to take her feet from her and she surprised both of the swordsmen by leaping into a backwards somersault that carried her clear of the attacks. At the same time, her maneuver brought her close enough to one of them to strike in mid-air, and her short blade found a home through the unlucky man’s left eye socket as she descended. Hers was an incredibly difficult tactic born of spontaneity and necessity.

Finding herself without the time to extract the weapon, the huntress about-faced and twisted her body desperately to the side to avoid a thrust from a spear. She felt the resistance as the spearhead tore a line in the back of her shirt, leaving a deep laceration across her skin. Rolling forward along the spear’s shaft, she slashed her remaining shortsword at the wielder’s hand and successfully cleaved three of the fingers from his leading hand. Reversing the stroke as she turned her back to the man, she could feel the edge of her blade cutting the spearman now behind her. A warm shower of red against her arm told her she’d opened the vein just under his right ear. But she was no longer paying him any attention. She was focused on the swordsman she now faced.

The man danced for her, feinting this way and that, and the ranger very nearly did not duck in time as the other spearman swung the tip of his weapon at her head. She didn’t anticipate that he’d meant for her to dodge. The spearman kept his swing going until the butt-end of the spear came around just as she was rising up again. With a solid sound, the wooden haft clipped her skull and sent her rolling to the side with stars spinning in her vision.

Tabin sought to save the Valkyrie, but he knew that he needed to keep at least one of them alive to question. So he began to use the same spell he’d used on Siltas that day at the cliff. Bringing both hands together in a tent-shape, he washed them downward. The numbers swam before his eyes and he compensated to correct the equation, but he’d spent too much of his energy with the power of his other spells. His calculations were far too high and instead of putting the huntress’ attackers to sleep, he forced the air from their lungs so rapidly that their ribcages imploded, the sharp, broken ribs stabbing through their insides.

As his two victims collapsed, the wizard sank to his knees, the world whirling about him dizzily. He could barely see the black-haired bandit still fending off the last of the soldiers. From what he could tell, she was doing all she could just to hold him at bay. It was obvious that whatever strength she’d gained from her short rest had already been spent.

“Tykara!” he tried to call. “Take him alive!” He words were like cotton in his mouth.

Whether she heard him or not, he could not tell. But she and her opponent moved to attack simultaneously and the warrior stumbled in her weariness, barely catching hold of the soldier’s sword hand as she fell forward. Colliding into the man, they went down together, the weight of her body somehow driving her sword through his leather armor, the point angling up through the diaphragm and rupturing his heart. As the man died, the strange portal closed back to that singular shaft of light, then that too vanished with not a trace that it had ever been.

Tabin heard the man gasp and guessed that he would not be alive more than a few seconds. Had he the energy, the mage would have cursed loud and long. Instead, he simply knelt there, blinking and trying to control his breath enough to clear his head. The a sudden euphoria washed over him, drawing a lazy smile to his lips. Watching the others slowly recover and rise, he could not have gone to them had he tried. He could only grin in sweet stupor as Siltas shook the stars from her head and went to Tykara’s side.
He felt the Knight’s hand on his shoulder, shaking him. The mages head lolled a bit as he looked at Kraey.

“Are you alright, Tabin?”

Tabin gave him an absurd snicker. “Ooooh, I’m fiiiiiiiiiiiine . . .” he dragged the words out. He had the sound of a man drunk, or perhaps drugged. And for a wizard, he’d tasted a drug that none but a mage could taste. “It’s juuuuuust the spell-raptuuuuure . . .” He chuckled again. He felt so happy and carefree. His mind knew that it wasn’t real, but he couldn’t seem to make himself care.

The Knight called to the others. “I think something is wrong with Tabin! Help me get him to his blankets!” Kraey hooked his hands under the spell-caster’s arms and began to drag him backward. By the time that Siltas got there to help him, he nearly had Tabin on his bedroll.

“What is it?” Siltas asked of the Knight. “What’s happened to him?”

Kraey shook his head. “I don’t know. I thought he was far enough away from the fighting to avoid anything.”

“Maybe we got lucky,” Tykara commented from a dozen feet away. She was using her sword as a cane to help her stumble toward the others. “Maybe the idiot cast a spell on himself. Maybe he’ll die.”

A loud laugh escaped the mage. “Not dying,” he sang. “Not gonna diiiiiiiie . . .” With some limited success, he forced himself to stifle another chortle. “It’s just the spell-rapture . . .” That stupid grin was still there, but he was beginning to regain some of his composure.

“Spell-rapture?” the Valkyrie queried aloud.

Tabin nodded lazily. “Such sweet ecstacy . . .” he sighed. “Remember back in the city?” His poise was returning rapidly. “When I mentioned I was studying a couple of new spells?” Siltas could vaguely recall something of the sort. She nodded. Tabin took a deep breath, trying to shake off the last of the feeling. “Those spells I used to help Kraey . . . That was the first time I’ve implemented them.” He sat up carefully. “When a wizard casts a spell for the first time, there is an after-effect. A backlash of the Majik, if you will. The sudden introduction of new energies into the mage’s mind and body creates a short euphoric state known as the spell-rapture. The more powerful the spell, the longer the feeling lasts.” He took another deep breath. “As far as any of our order knows, there is no lasting ill effect from it. There is, however, a short-term hindrance.” He motioned toward the multitude of dead soldiers. “For instance, that last spell I cast was meant to render those two men unconscious. But the mental drain of using not one, but two, new spells caused me to err with quite disastrous results. For those two men, at least. Siltas was fortunate that I did not inadvertently encompass her within the spell.”

“So, you’re going to be alright?” Kraey asked him.

“Yes, yes,” Tabin assured him. “But I’m afraid I won’t be able to cast again for the next day or two. The spell-rapture makes it too difficult and dangerous for me to cast. At least until I can study my figures without my head feeling like a whirlpool of senseless numerals. The good news is that, the next time I use those spells, they will not take nearly as much out of me. My body will have had time to adapt to the new energies. Until then, I shall have to rely on my tahz’lt, should a conflict arise.” With an effort he tried to rise and Siltas took his hand to help him up. He noticed a red-soaked patch on the left side of her shirt. “You’re bleeding!” he exclaimed. “You’ve been injured!”

The huntress shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve had worse cuts sharpening my knife.” It was a gross exaggeration, but it served to calm the mage somewhat. “I just got nicked by one of those spears. I’ll have Tykara stitch me up in a bit.” Then she grinned mischievously as she added, “Or I could let you tend to it, Tabin. After all, you’ve seen me with my shirt off, right?”

The wizard’s cheeks turned pink with chagrin and he cleared his throat as he released the ranger’s hand and looked away.

“In all seriousness,” Kraey interjected, “you should have Tykara take care of that as soon as possible. The last thing we need is for it to fester.”

“First,” she countered, “we need to see what we can learn of these men. They had to be after one of us.”

“What makes you think that?” Tykara required of her.

Siltas shrugged. “I don’t know. Call it intuition.”

“She has a valid point,” the mage spoke. “None would use such a powerful spell to teleport into the wilderness for naught. They must have sought us out.”

“Could they have been more of the Jin’shi?” the Knight pondered aloud. The ranger and the wizard turned their gaze to him abruptly.

“How in the Abyss do you know that name?” Siltas demanded harshly.
Kraey furrowed his brow in puzzlement and opened his mouth to answer her question with a question, but Tykara spoke up before him.

“That’s my fault,” she admitted. “Just after we met, we ran into a group of them on the road. Five of them, to be exact.”

“Gods, woman!” the Valkyrie reprimanded. “What have you done?! You’ve gotten a Knight, a lord, mixed up with . . . with them? Are you out of your mind?”

“Oh, shut up, will you?” came the rebuttal. “I made sure he didn’t have anything to do with them. I gave him a friendly clout to the head before the fight started, so he was pretty much in a daze the whole time.”

“Fight?” This came from the mage. “You fought the Jin’shi and lived?”

Tykara rolled her eyes at the spell-caster. “No. I was killed.” She snorted is derision. “They were only from the Eleventh Circle, judging by their earrings. They went down easily enough.”

“But still . . .” Siltas fretted. She directed her words to the blonde man. “Listen very carefully, Kraey. You don’t have to lie, I know how you Knights are about that. But for the sake of the Godson Nation, don’t ever let anyone hear you mention . . . them again. Trust me on this. It could destroy the integrity of your government if you ever even hinted that you’d heard the name. Understand?”

He shook his head. “Not at all. What is it about them that makes it so damning to even speak of them?”

“The less you know, the better,” Tabin offered grimly. “Now, enough talk of this. No good can come of it.”

“For once,” Tykara begrudgingly admitted, “I have to agree with you, freak.” The mage ignored the insult, taking it in stride. “These men weren’t . . . them,” she emphasized mockingly, directing her remark to Siltas. “I don’t know where in the Abyss these thugs came from. But, there’s something oddly familiar about their armor. I think I’ve seen it somewhere before. I just can’t seem to place-“ She was trying to search her mind for a clue when an intense splinter of pain spiked into her brain. “Gah!” Her hand went to her head and she fell down on one knee.

Siltas was the one who came to her aid, a hand on the warrior’s shoulder. “What is it?”

While Tykara grit her teeth against the stabbing sensation, Kraey moved closer. “It’s the headaches again, isn’t it?”

The former bandit gave a single nod and spoke in a tight voice. “I just . . . I just need to get some sleep. It’ll stop. Sleep always helps.”

“I’ll help her to her blankets,” the Knight took command. “Tabin, Siltas, see if you can learn anything from the bodies. Lay them neatly, if you can. Enemies or not, we are not barbarians.” He frowned. “If we had the time to bury them, I would have us do so. But it isn’t a delay we can afford. I’ll be there to help you with them in a moment.” He took Tykara by the shoulders and guided her as she stood. “Tonight we sleep in shifts. I’ll take first watch.”

“And I’ll take second,” Siltas offered. “If we wait until a hour past daybreak to get moving, that should give Tykara the extra rest she needs.”

“Agreed,” Kraey acknowledged.




.oO*Oo.





The darkman gasped as the power of the raven claw medallion escaped his focus and he staggered backward until he found himself leaning against the wall of the training room. The gateway of Majik slammed shut as though he had never summoned it. For a long moment, he stayed there, panting with exhaustion, both mental and physical.
Just as his heartbeat was slowing to normal, the rapid thump of hastened feet approached and he glanced up just as a human rushed into the room. The human’s face told him right away that something had gone terribly wrong.
“What is it, Devik?” the Shur’ken asked in a voice hoarse with fatigue. “What’s happened?”
“The gate, sir. It did not open where you’d intended. The men are all dead.”
The darkman’s countenance turned into an image of consternation. “I knew I should have had one of the mages used the medallion! Where did the gate open? To what undeserved, horrible fate did I send them? Beneath the Veil? Under the ground itself? Did I drop them from the sky?” He knew that Devik had seen whatever had transpired beyond the gate. He’d had him and a somewhat-skilled wizard watching through the Visionary’s enchanted Sight.
Devik was already shaking his head. “No, milord. It opened almost in the center of their camp. There was a battle-“
”No!” the ashen-skinned man exclaimed in dismay. “They were not meant to attack! The men were to move in while they slept!” His shoulders sagged along with his disposition, nearly crestfallen. He’d intended to open the portal well and far away from the four travelers. It had all gone wrong, so dreadfully wrong . . . “What . . .What happened in the fighting?” He was almost afraid of the answer.
“The humans seemed to think it was an ambush of some sort. The dark-haired woman attacked and everything went to madness. In the end, your soldiers lay slain and just the four remained. And the mage, sir! The mage!”
With a tired look in his eyes, the darkman regarded Devik. “What of him?”
The human was shaking his head in wonder. “Sir, never have I seen such raw talent with the Majik. Given time to hone his skill, the mage could one day easily challenge the sorcery of Kardellyus .” (*)
The gravity of the statement was not lost on the Shur’ken. His teacher had long been a practitioner of the dark powers, growing ever stronger with the passing of years. Of the Shur’ken race, Kardellyus was considered one of the most gifted daemonologists ever to be born within the Shurian Empire. But if what Devik said was true, then there was little hope that they could have captured the mage for use in the plan.
“That leaves us with only the option to attempt to separate him from the others, then.” he commented. “We cannot overpower him, not without Kardellyus’ aid, and I dare not trust him. So we must devise a way so that his companions would shun his presence and deprive themselves of his protection. I would have liked to have that wizard at my side, but that opportunity has been lost along with the element of surprise.”
“Not so, sir.”
The darkman frowned as he raised a querying brow to his friend. “What do you mean?”
“The spells he cast, sir. I saw what happened to him after the battle. The spells were new to him.”
And like that, the Shur’ken found his hope restored. With the mage bereft of his power . . . “We must gather a new company of men, Devik. I was loathe to trust the medallion to anyone other than myself before, but I see now that I was a fool to lay my faith on my own meager skills. I will send three of our mages with fresh soldiers, the best of which will carry the medallion to open the gate. Even with their meager talents, they are as yet more skilled than I. But we must make certain that they know not to harm any of them unless necessary. Except for the woman. Even at the cost of their lives, they are not to harm her in any way.” A somber thought crossed his mind. “Once this is done, we will take the time to mourn our lost brethren. Until then, we must press on.”
He pushed himself away from the wall and his knees quaked slightly. Devik started toward him, but he stopped the human with a gesture. “I’m alright. Return to your quarters, get yourself some rest. We’ll see to the details in the morning.”





.oO*Oo.





A hand on her shoulder threatened to rouse Tykara from the most sound and peaceful slumber she’d known in almost two years. With a grumble, she tried to shake the hand away, to dig further into that blissful land which was already starting to fade away. Bit by bit, she came to unwanted wakefulness, though she still did not open her eyes, still hopeful that she could return to her heavenly rest. Kraey’s voice took that hope away.

“It’s time to go, Tykara. Your horse is saddled and your gear is stowed, save for you bedroll.”
Her eyes having not yet unlocked themselves from their lids, she muttered back to him in aggravation. “I thought you were going to let me sleep in a while.”

“We did,” he told her. “It’s almost two hours past first light. I’ve let you sleep as long as I can.”
She allowed a groan to escape as she began to accept that the night was gone. “Alright. I’m up.” As a way to prove her words, the warrior sat up and squinted at the light of day. It was then that she realized that she felt entirely refreshed and renewed.

“How's the headache?” Kraey inquired.

She rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “Gone. Like I said, I just needed some real rest.” Glancing around what remained of their camp, she saw the Valkyrie and the wizard already astride their mounts, waiting on her. “Guess I need to get this rolled and tied,” she stated, moving off of the blankets and settling on her knees beside them. “Give me a minute and I’ll be ready to move.” A thought came to her. “What’d you do with the bodies? And what about that cut Siltas took?”

“We did what we could for the fallen,” the Knight answered solemnly. “We cannot take the time to bury them, nor can we burn them. There isn’t enough wood on these plains to do so, and if there was, we cannot risk that a wind might make of the land a wildfire. Whether I like it or not, we must leave them to the beasts. As for Siltas, I took care of it myself. The wound has been cleaned, stitched and bandaged to the best of my abilities. You were in no state to tend to it last night.”

Tykara already had the roll half-done as she listened. She nodded at the validity of his point. She was a warrior, and despite all her faults, it grit against her to leave another warrior like that. But what must be done must be done. “Alright, go ahead and mount up. I’m just about done. Time to get out of here. No sense in getting waylaid twice in the same place.”
_-^-_


Footnotes;

Sorcery is a corrupt power that requires one to channel the spirits of demons and devils. Each time a sorcerer channels a particular spirit, he or she retains a fraction of that demon’s essence within his or her self, eventually allowing the demon to fully possess the sorcerer. In order to avoid this, or at least delay it, a sorcerer must channel a different demon with each spell. This forces the sorcerer to constantly seek out more demons with which to acquaint himself and draw more power. Another, less common, term for sorcery is demonology. If a sorcerer is particularly powerful, or desperate, it may be possible to discover a way to channel the spirits of the Six, a conclave of malevolent demi-gods, the worst of which is Lucifer, the One Who Fell. Lucifer was once an angel and a great general who bent knee to Kami and served Him. When the One Who Fell became covetous of Kami, he rallied many of the lesser angels against Him to overthrow Him and claim His throne. For his crimes, Lucifer was cast out from Caelestis and driven down to the world of mortals. Now Lucifer schemes with his five fallen brethren to corrupt the souls of mortals and break the heart of Kami by rending from His grasp the creations that He holds so dear.
_-^-_

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Tejas
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Feb 24, 2012 10:08 am

Chapter Twelve
“A Bird In Hand . . .”



1:23 High Sun, Diem Natalem, 23rd of Quintilis, 2134 P.B.


As if to contrast the days before, the sky had gone grey and overcast, with dark blotches here and there. There was a distinct dampness in the air, but the absence of the sun’s bright influence kept the day cool rather than sweltering. Fortune was with them for now, as it had not yet begun to rain.

Leading the way alongside Tabin, the huntress kept glancing back. About ten yards behind the wizard and herself, the Knight was riding alone, the ex-bandit lagging even further back than he. Even at such a distance, the ranger was able to discern much of the other woman’s mien, that being greatly improved over what she’d been since they’d first set out.

After giving it some thought, Siltas decided to take advantage of the fact that Tykara was trailing so far behind. Tugging gently on her reins, she slowed just enough that she fell away from Tabin and allowed Kraey to catch up to her. Easing her animal close to his, she spoke to him in a low voice.

“Is it just me,” the huntress asked, “or does she seem almost happy today?” She made no motion to indicate the subject of her query, and Kraey apparently did not have need of such a gesture. He gave her a tight smile.

“Yes,” he agreed, his voice as low as hers. “I have to admit, she does seem to be in a much lighter mood. The rest appears to have been a great boon to her, in more ways than one.”

Siltas did not miss that his smile never met his eyes. “What is it? You’ve got something on your mind.” She didn’t bother telling him not to lie; he wouldn’t have done such a thing anyway.

Kraey shifted in his saddled just a bit. “It’s those headaches she’d had the last few days.”

“Headaches?” Siltas almost chuckled. “What’s the big deal about a few headaches? Happens to everyone, now and again. Besides, you heard her. She just needed some decent sleep.” Her tone said that she hadn’t noticed or cared. But, unlike the Knight, Siltas had no compunction about lying when it suited her.

“I noticed something about her headaches,” Kraey explained. “Every time they came, she was trying to remember something. I get the impression that it was something important, something integral. But, for whatever reason, it is as though she is being punished for trying to recall it.” He shook his head. “I can’t imagine what that would be like, to have part of your memory be a dark blot.”

The way he spoke of the bandit made Siltas uncomfortable, though, inwardly, she did share a bit of concern for Tykara. That was the Valkyrie in her; see something injured, nurse it back to health. But there was nothing that the huntress could do, not that she could see. She had no knowledge of how to heal the heart or the mind. She cleared her throat softly, then changed the subject, tried to lighten the mood.

“You like her,” she teased the Knight. “The big Knight is shining armor likes the crass mercenary she-bandit. Oh, the tragic tales that bards would sing of love doomed before it began.”

Kraey frowned. “Mockery?” he scolded. “I had thought you more than a mere child. Perhaps I was gravely mistaken.”

“Sorry,” the Valkyrie quickly apologized, with sincerity. “Sorry. A poor joke. Yeah, I noticed there was something off about the headaches,” she confessed. “Didn’t know about the memory thing, though.” With a stolen glance back at the dark-haired woman, she told the Knight, “But I do know why she doesn’t like wizards. I was able to get that much out of her.”

“And why is that?”

Siltas opened her mouth to tell him, but stopped, changed her mind. “You know, I think that’s something she should tell on her own when she’s ready. It’s not my place to give out her life story.”

With a shrug, Kraey agreed with her. “True enough. Her tale is hers to tell. I can respect that, so long as it does not put the rest of us at unnecessary risk.”

The huntress chuckled. “I think the only one of us that information might hurt is Tabin. But, give him a day or so and he’ll be about as safe as the two of us.” The Knight gave her that point, nodding, but his expression remained somber. Siltas twisted a bit to look back at Tykara once more. A slight sting in her back forced a grunt from her.

“What?” Kraey asked. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head. “I just moved wrong. That cut is a little touchy. Nothing to worry about.” She passed the reins to one hand and slipped the freed hand around to the wound, gingerly probing. “Feels alright. No bleeding, no fever.” She brought her hand back around. “Those shyesh leaves I had you use are definitely doing their work well.”

“I think you did more to tend that than did I,” Kraey commented.

Instead of making the effort to agree or disagreeing, Siltas simply said, “I think I’m gonna go see what Tabin’s up to.” Without waiting for the Knight to speak, she touched a heel to her steed’s ribs, urging him to hasten forward. If he made a reply, it was lost to the clip-clop of hoof beats as they passed along the dry grass of the plains.

She quickly approached the wizard and came alongside him. The snowy mane turned toward her and the mage’s steely grey eyes met her.

“You’ve returned, I see. Restless, perhaps?” the mage inquired.

She gave him a non-committal shrug. “Maybe a little. Gets kinda boring, being away from the forests. I’ve always liked the woods better than anything else. You?”

A shake of his head was followed by his soft-spoken voice. “Restlessness is not a state in which I often find myself. Whether it be a library, a training yard, the midst of a city, or among the wild, I can ordinarily find something with which ti stimulate my thoughts.” He motioned toward a narrow stream some ways ahead of them. Along the edge of the whispering waters, the grass was much healthier-looking, and several small bushes happily shared their small flowers with a few tiny birds that hovered near them. “Should we follow along to find a good place to cross?”

“No need,” Siltas assured him. “The water should only come to the bottom of our stirrups this time of year.” She felt her lips slant in that alluring half-grin of hers. “Look at the little angels,” she said, pointing. “Aren’t they beautiful?”

Tabin was at a loss, having no idea what she meant. “Angels? Where?”

She looked at his pale and confused face and laughed. “Right there,” she directed his gaze. “Those little birds flitting around the flowers. They’re called angel birds. Though, I think some people call them hummingbirds, because of the sound their wings make. Stupid thing to call them, really.”

The wizard watched the small creatures in wonder. “Most amazing. They seem to . . . levitate in front of the blooms.” He glanced over at her. “I’ve never seen anything thing of the like. Tell me, are they creatures of Majik? Is that how they are able to simply float in the air?”

Amusement played across Siltas’ visage. “What? They don’t have angel birds where you come from?”

He shook his head. “Not to my knowledge. And I am one who reads of almost any subject. In all the book I’ve ever read (and that is a great many), I have never encountered anything like this. Fascinating . . .”

She laughed again, the sound drawing the attention of a pair of the tiny avians. “To answer your question, no, they are not related to Majik in any way that I know. If you watch them closely, provided they’ll let you near them, you can see their wings moving in a fast circles. That’s how they hover.” The two birds she’s alerted had stopped in their flight and were watching them warily as they drew closer. “And don’t worry if they try to dive at you. Since they’re so small, they defend themselves by acting really aggressive, if you get too close. They can’t really hurt you, but they’ll make a good show of trying.”

As if to prove her point, the two little angel birds advanced on the riders, zipping close by their heads. Tabin ducked to get out of their path several times until he noticed that Siltas simply sat in her saddle, shaking with mirth at his efforts, paying no mind to the nearness of the bird that was harassing her. After only a few more passes, Tabin’s minute assailant fluttered away back toward the blooms of the bushes.

The Valkyrie’s mock-attacker did not follow, however. Instead, the tiny bird moved directly in front of her face and hovered there, backing away just enough to keep Siltas from bumping into it as she rode along. Curious, she halted her horse.

The bird followed suit, floating just a few inches from her. Siltas could feel the small bursts of air brushing her skin as the wings worked fast to hold steady. The creature was a pretty little thing, all soft light-blue feathers on its back and tail, its belly as white as the mage’s hair. Common enough for an angel bird. But Siltas noted a unique feature she’d never seen on any of them before. Atop the diminutive avian’s head, there seemed to be a pattern of yellow feathers, a ring of gold.

Siltas smiled, her attention on the bird. She barely registered that Tabin had reined his mount to a stop and was watching her encounter with great interest.

“Hello, there,” she said to the bird in a friendly manner.

The miniature angel responded by touching the tip of its bill to her nose and giving several cheerful-sounding chirps.

It was the wizard’s turn to laugh. “I believe you’ve made a friend. I take it this is not their usual behavior?”

The smile did not leave her face as she spoke to the mage. “Nope. Never had this happen before.” She slowly lifted a hand up, just a single finger extended, and brought it close to the bird, testing whether or not it would let her touch it.

Before she could brush its feathers, it moved slightly and lighted on her finger, it’s tiny toes curling to hold itself upright, its body standing only barely over two inches from the tail to the end of the bill. Looping her reins around her saddle horn, she freed her left hand so that she could gently pet the creature. With the back of her knuckle, the lightly stroked the bird’s chest. It rocked backward just a bit, trying to stay steady while it chittered away at her, its head turning this way and that. She was still petting the avian when Kraey caught them up.

“What have you there?” the Knight wondered.

At the sound of his voice, and before Siltas could tell him, the tiny angel bird took flight and dashed over to the Knight, circling his head several times before hovering just a foot out of his easy reach. It little wings gave a steady thrum as the bird hung there.

“An angel bird?” The Knight felt himself smiling. “There must be some flowers near- Ah! By the water, of course.” He’d noticed the late blossoms of the bushes and the other birds fluttering near them. He regarded the bird that was regarding him in turn. “A bold little thing, this one. Why has it not gone back to it’s flock?”

Siltas shrugged. “Beats me. I’ve never seen one act this way before.” As if summoned by her words, the tiny angel flitted back to her and settled itself on her shoulder. “It likes me, for some reason. But it’ll go back to it’s kin when we start moving further away.” She loosed her reins from the saddle horn and slipped them betwixt her fingers, clicking her tongue as she did so. Her horse’s ears twitched at the sound and the mare started forward obediently. “Time’s wasting,” she advised the other two. With a glance back, she noted that Tykara was closing the distance between them. “The Valkyries won’t be moving the village, but there’s no reason to wait around for gods-know-what to appear our of nowhere. I want to be on the go if another one of those light gate things appears.”

“I concur,” Tabin seconded the notion.




Several hours later, Tykara’s semi-happy demeanor was starting to wear thin, and she was beginning to regret having caught up to the others. She waved at the little bird again for what seemed like the thousandth time, trying to shoo the pest away. But the avian effortlessly evaded her and continued in its persistent harassment of the warrior.

In aggravation, Tykara called out to Siltas.

“Lenok! Your little pet is at it again,” was her complaint.

The Valkyrie kept the smirk from her expression as she gave a pair of short, clipped whistles. As though the noise were its native tongue, the angel bird flitted away from the dark-haired woman and returned to Siltas’ shoulder.

“She’s not my pet,” Siltas corrected. “She just likes me, that’s all. It shows she’s a good judge of character.”

“Then why does the little sh-” Tykara cut herself short with a sideward glance at Kraey. “Why does the little darling keep bugging me?” she rephrased, stressing her sarcasm.

The huntress’ smirk crept out of hiding. “Thought I just answered that.”

“Ha ha,” the warrior laughed without sincerity. Redirecting the conversation, she asked, “How do you even know that thing is female? Did you take a peek under its skirt?”

A shrug was Siltas’ response. “I don’t know. Just seems too sweet to be male.” She gave an apologetic look to both the Knight and the wizard. “No offense intended.”

“None taken,” Kraey assured her.

“And none here,” the pallid mage added. “But I still cannot comprehend why the dear thing stayed along for the ride. Admittedly, I know next to nothing about this species, but no other wild bird I’ve encountered has behaved in such a way.”

“Personally,” the Knight spoke, “I find that I’m enjoying its company. It reminds me of . . .” He trailed off for a moment, a sudden sadness in the corner of his eye.

Siltas waited only a short time before she prompted him. “Reminds you of what?”

He cleared his throat. “Just . . . it reminds me of my little sister. She used to chase them in the gardens outside our manor.”

“Great,” Tykara interjected. “You’ve gotten attached to it and now I’ll never be rid of it.” Her tone made it sound a little harsh, but she’d meant it as a way to lighten the mood. Luckily, that was how Kraey took it.

He presented her with a half-hearted smile. “Perhaps I should go so far as to name it after my sister, then?” he teased.

“Nope!” the huntress impeded his suggestion. “I’ve already given her a name. You’ll have to find your own angel bird. This one is ‘Halo’. Because of the gold ring on her head, see?” She carefully ran a finger against the bird’s minuscule crown. “Hello, little Halo,” she cooed at the tiny avian.

The Knight’s smile grew just a little more full at Siltas’ words. “Are you certain? I think ‘Menja’ would be a wonderful name for it. For her, I mean,” he corrected himself.

“Menja?” Tykara recognized the name quickly. At her querying tone, Kraey turned toward the warrior.

“Yes. She was named after our great-grandam on our mother’s side,” he supplied.

“But isn’t-” She’d been about to pursue her question when she caught a strange mixture of stern forbiddance and earnest pleading from the Valkyrie. Kraey’s attention was toward Tykara, so he was unable to see what had transpired. She remembered what Siltas had said about the Law of Reborn, or whatever it was. And something about the look made the warrior decide to play along. “But isn’t ‘Halo’ just a better name for a bird?” She felt a little stupid as the words left her mouth. “Seriously, you don’t want to waste a relative’s name on something like that. You save those for your children, right?”

Kraey stared at her for several seconds, then he chuckled. “You’re actually getting to like the little thing, aren’t you? Come now, admit it.”

She just rolled her eyes at him, which made him chuckle all the more. He thought he’d figured her out. Behind him, Siltas gave her a look of grim, but relieved, gratitude. Tykara was already wishing she hadn’t given her word about not asking.

“If I may interrupt this entertaining banter,” Tabin’s soft voice drifted to them, “I was wondering just how much farther we must needs travel before we reach this ‘Atton’s Veil’?” The mage had apparently not perceived any of the innuendo between the two women.

“Well,” the huntress offered readily, “if we’re lucky-” She stopped abruptly as ‘Halo’ flitted from her shoulder and flew off ahead of them. “Hmm. She must be going to look for something to eat. Anyway,” she continued, “if we’re lucky we should be able to reach the riverbank just before last light.” She looked over at Kraey. “We’re still gonna keep a watch during the night, right? I mean, I don’t want to get any nasty surprises in the morning. You know, like not ever waking up.”

“Of course,” the Knight was quick to acknowledge. “Until we have some clear answers, it would be best that we not let up in our vigilance.”

Siltas grinned. “So we all agree. Quiet night’s rest; good. Shiny gateways in the dark; baaaaaaaad.” She was greeted by a two chortles and a groan.

“Honestly,” Tykara amended her groan, “I don’t give a da- I mean, I couldn’t care less, as long as I sleep as good as I did last night, even with the fight and all.” She actually smiled when she spoke of that blissful slumber. “I slept like a drunk, without the headache come morning.”

“Ah,” came the ready tease from the Valkyrie, “that’s our dear optimist, always seeing the silver lining.”

And the warrior laughed. “You got that right, kid. That’s me, always looking on the bright-” A single fat point of moisture struck the side of her cheek. “What -?” And several more followed as it began to rain. The overcast sky had held back its burden for as long as it could. “Son of a -! Oh, you've got to be kidding!” Tykara shouted at the heavens.

“So that’s what Halo was up to!” Siltas exclaimed. “She was getting ahead of the rain.” Despite the raindrops that smacked against her auburn hair, the huntress laughed. “The bird was smarter than all of us!”




.oO*Oo.





Within the darkness of night, the sound of rain steadily pattering against the tent was rhythmic, almost soothing. Tamara did not mind it. She’d always loved the rain. To her, it was much like the lullaby she used to sing to her children; a song that told of the tears of the angels and how the sun shone brighter for the storms.
The memory brought a nostalgic smile to her lips.
The specially-made tent vented away the smoke from her fire, but did not allow the rain to enter. It was had already proven itself worth the cost. At her age, she had to be more careful about things like catching colds. True, she was not all that old. There were human’s that had lived three times longer than the years she’d spent in this world. And she was in excellent shape, physically and mentally. But it was still not wise to take chances.
There it was again. That insistent, intangible pull. But it was no longer leading her directly east. Now it was tugging towards the south and east. And it was stronger. Like she was getting closer to . . . to wherever Kami meant for her to go.
She’d thought it was leading her back to Cristyne. Now she was not so certain. Even so, where Kami led, she would follow.
She folded her hands together, closed her eyes and bowed her head. The heat of the fire caressed her skin as she prayed.
“Father Kami, hear Thy servant, Tamara. I know not to what fate Thou dost draw me. I know not what plan Thou hast in store. I only know that an urgency slow arises. I can feel it with every waking thought. I can sense it when I dream. And I will do as Thou ask of me, though my heart longs to seek my home and the fate of my family. All I humbly ask is that Thou would watch over my family, wherever they may be. Protect and guide them. And, if I be not able to meet them again in this life, lead them to Thy holy city, so that, when I walk within the walls of Caelestis, I may greet them with open arms. This I pray of Thee.”
She fell into a silence that lasted for several minutes, the only sounds to be heard, that of the tap of the rain, and of the crackle of the flame. Finally, she touched the first two fingers of her right hand to her forehead, then took her hand away again. Tamara opened her eyes.
It was late. She had no accurate way to tell the passage of time. But, by her reckoning, she guessed it to be getting on towards midnight. She should have gone to sleep hours ago.
With careful work, she banked the fire well and lay down, pulling a blanket over herself. As she closed her eyes to sleep, Tamara’s thoughts went again to those precious days when she sang to her little ones. Softly she hummed, this time allowing the lullaby to lure her own mind into dream. And she dreamt of home.





.oO*Oo.





Tykara pulled herself from her small tent, cross and disgruntled.

Everything was wet. There had been nothing they could do for it, with the sudden downpour that had caught them. But it still grated against her. Despite the rain, they’d kept going for another couple of hours. Fortunately for them, the rain had moved off toward the north and west after a short while.

She lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the early morning sun as it crept up from the ground toward the eastern sky. The only other person already out and about was the Valkyrie, who was kneeling near the center of the camp, nursing a small fire with tinder and a generous bundle of small twigs. How the redhead had found something dry enough to burn was beyond Tykara.

“Come on, chase that chill from your skin,” Siltas offered. “Sun’ll heat us up once we head out, but this’ll let us be a little more comfortable ‘til then.”

“The other two sleeping in for a change?”

The huntress shook her head. “Nah. I heard Tabin moving around a few minutes ago. He should be out here in a few more. Kraey slept a little longer than usual. And he’ll be mad at me when he realizes I didn’t wake him for the final watch.”

Tykara slowly walked toward the fire. “Thanks for that,” she said, eliciting an inquisitive look from Siltas. She clarified. “He’s been worrying over me the last couple of days. I don’t think he’s been getting all the rest he needs.”

The ranger’s expression intensified just a little. “Concern? From you?” The way she said it made it sound like a jest, but there was some sincerity lingering there as well. “Are you feeling alright?”

“Very funny,” the warrior stated. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I’ve decided to look out for him. After all, he’s the closest thing to a friend that I’ve got.” She gave the other woman a stern look, challenging her to make something of it.

Siltas easily disarmed her verbal trap without treading near the bait. “Well, you could do a lot worse than to have a Godson Knight as a friend. But I’m a little offended,” she added. “I mean, what about me? Don’t I count?”

“Uh,” Tykara articulated. “You? You’d actually want to count me as a friend? Tykara Redhands?”

The Valkyrie shook her head. “Nope. I don’t really care for Tykara Redhands. She’s just a thug and a murderer.” She held up a finger as though to make a point. “Tykara Sol-Talon, on the other hand . . . I find I’m actually getting used to her. Thorns and all.”

The ex-bandit was a little surprised, and it took her several seconds to take that in.

“Well,” she considered, “I suppose I’ve got enough room to add another friend to the roster, if need be.”

“I doubt that I need even ask if I would be included in that limited circle,” came the soft voice from a short ways away. With their conversation, neither of them had noticed the mage beginning to emerge from his own tent. Standing upright, he twisted this way and that, loosening his muscles.

Tykara only slightly turned toward him. “You’re just here because of Kraey and his weird feelings that you belong. If I had my say, I’d have left you behind when we started off.” Lowering her voice to where he could barely catch her words, she amended, “Or better yet, left you dead in your sleep.”

Tabin sighed. “This long, have I taken your remarks, your threats, and your insults. I’d hoped that somewhere along the way, you might come to understand that I am no threat to you. I am now beginning to have doubts as to whether or not that might ever happen. Nevertheless, I will endure as long as I must. And, as for that ‘weird feeling’ that the Knight experiences, I have watched each of you closely. I can see that you, too, have this same feeling. I make no claim to understand it. But neither do I fear it. I have traveled very far to ascertain the meaning, both of the pull and of the dream. You would do well to accept it and seek to learn, rather than seek out conflict with those who would be your allies.” He grew silent and waited for the dark-haired woman to respond. And she did, holding up a single digit in a very rude and vulgar gesture.

Tabin sighed again, disappointed. “Very well, then. Have it your own way. Now, if the two of you will excuse me, I must attend to my morning exercises.” And he turned away, venturing some forty feet from the camp before easily starting into a smooth and almost dance-like routine of maneuvers.

After a minute or so, Siltas spoke.

“You know, you could take it easy on him. Wizards are people just like anyone else.” The embers of the fire shifted, prompting her to add a few more twigs. “Yeah, you’ve had a very bad experience with a wizard, but that was only one. You can’t lump all of them into the same pile. Some people do bad things. That doesn’t mean everyone is bad.”

Tykara resisted the urge to redirect her previous gesture toward the huntress. “Now you’re starting to sound like Kraey. If I needed a sermon, I’d wake him.”

“You wouldn’t have to,” the Valkyrie alerted her. “He’s moving around now. Should be coming out right about-”

As if on cue, the Knight flicked back the flap of his tent and greeted the growing light of morn. The first thing he did was to regard Siltas with a reprimanding stare.

“You were supposed to wake me for last watch,” he said sternly.

“Now you’re in trouble,” Tykara teased the redhead, but there was little humor invested.

Siltas only shrugged without concern. “So? What’s he gonna do? Arrest me? That’d be a fine way to thank me for the extra shut-eye.” She beckoned the Knight over. “Come on, warm up. We need to eat and get going. No time to cook, so it’s jerked meat and dried fruit for everyone. Then it’s about an hour to the river, then another to the Valkyries.” She paused for a second before amending with, “You better remember what I told you. When we get there, you do as I say and follow my lead. Unless you like looking like an archery target.” She was rewarded with a solemn nod from Kraey and an indifferent shrug from Tykara. She took both as agreement, then called out to the wizard.

“Tabin! Let’s eat and get ready to ride!”

The mage ceased his exercise and picked up his shirt, having removed it shortly after he began. It was an odd sight that he presented as he strode back toward the camp, the light sheen of sweat coating his pallid flesh. Though he did not have the heavy muscles of a soldier or warrior, neither was he the weakling image that came to mind when one thought of a scholar. His torso was easily somewhere in the middle of the two, and very well toned.

Upon noticing him, Tykara immediately gave him a disgusted look. “Gods! Put a shirt on before you make us all go blind, freak!”

As usual, the mage ignored the insult. After dabbing a bit of the sweat from his face with the shirttail, he complied with her wish and pulled the shirt on, but left the front untied and open. In the time it took him to get seated, Siltas had begun passing the packet of jerky around. In turn, each of them broke or tore some of the meat loose and partook of the feast, such as it was. Another packet followed the first around the group, adding the dried fruit to the meal.

There was relative quiet as they ate, with a soft breeze nudging the grass of the plains in gentle waves, whispering low as it passed. The zephyr was cool, almost chill, at first, but the rising sun was already batting at the nip of the air, keeping even pace. In short order, it would begin to drive it away altogether.

A quiet hum could barely be heard over the light breeze, and it seemed to grow closer.

Tykara groaned audibly, having spotted something behind the huntress. “Not again,” she muttered. “I thought we got rid of that thing.”

“Wha-?” Siltas started to ask, but stopped as the answer to her query took perch on her shoulder, chirping away in a jolly manner. “Hey, there!” she greeted the little angel bird. “Good morning, Halo. How are you?” More cheerful chirps sang out in reply.

Tykara got to her feet, a piece of jerky held in her teeth, and headed toward her tent. “I’m going to get ready while you’ve got that bird distracted. Gods know it’s going to hound me again. That’s just my luck.”

“Bird or not,” Kraey suggested, “getting packed is something we all should do. We’re wasting daylight.” With the toe of his boot, he started kicking dirt onto the fire, evoking a subtle hiss from the coals as they abruptly perished.

“I’m already way ahead of you,” Siltas bragged light-heartedly. “I’ve had most of my stuff ready to go for more than an hour.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating the neatly packed bedroll and tent that lay in place of where said tent had been previously erected. “Once I get these food packets stowed, I’ll have my gear on the saddle before any of you city-dwellers.”

Tabin smiled at her attitude and gave her a slight bow of deference. “It seems you have the advantage on this fine morn.” A mischievous twinkle was couched in the corner of his steely-grey eye. “Just wait until I have a proper board so that we may finish that game of chess. Then the advantage shall be unto me, dear lady.”

“Oh ho!” the huntress laughed, cinching tight the drawstrings of the foodstuffs. “Now I’m a lady! If only my sisters could hear you say that. I don’t think any Valkyrie’s ever been accused of that before.” She rocked herself to a stand and set off toward her belongings. Certain that she was correct about her statement, Tabin made no efforts to argue the point. He put the last of his dried fruit on his tongue followed the example of the others.




Fording across Atton’s Veil proved a task not too easily undertaken. The waters had risen several inches above the usual level, by Siltas’ estimation. As she was the only one among them that had ever been across it, the other three had no reason to doubt her approximation. Tabin was the only rider who had never before forded a river astride a horse, but he was very calm about the concept, weighing the risks silently.

It took only a short while for the ranger to spot a fair place to cross and, at her insistence, they proceeded one by one. Careful attention was paid by each rider to the feel of their steed’s steps, wary that the river could easily topple them. The better part of an hour was spent when they had all four finally reached the other side, at which time they dismounted and allowed the horses to rest for a moment or two.

Once the companions had remounted, they continued on southward. The huntress had an anxiousness about her, as though she was both eager to return to her sisters and, at the same time, concerned about the fast-approaching reunion. It was not a thing that went unnoticed by the others.

But as the next hour crept by, there was a slow change in her bearing, a sense of worry, even of foreboding. In addition, the little angel bird on her shoulder began to make an almost saddened series of chirps every so often.

Then several dark shapes reached up from behind a small hill in the far distance, like blackened fingers groping at the air. At such a range, it was virtually impossible to determine what they were seeing. But Siltas seemed to understand what it meant.

“No,” the troubled whisper was heard. “It can’t be. Oh, gods, please, no.”

“What is it?” dared the Knight to ask. “What do you see?”

“Heeeyaah!” was the only sound in reply as the Valkyrie heeled her mare hard and clung tightly to the animal’s mane. The beast leapt forward into a sudden dead run, speeding away from the three, the destination those shapes that crested the hill ahead. And tiny Halo struggled to keep pace.
_-^-_

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Tejas
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Mar 09, 2012 10:54 am

Chapter Thirteen
“An Oath Given. An Oath Kept. An Oath Broken.”




1:14 High Sun, Dies Siderum, 24th of Quintilis, 2134 P.B.

Siltas’ heart pounded in rhythm with the beat of her mount’s hooves as she drove the horse hard. The horse was already heaving its breaths. Under any normal circumstances, the Valkyrie would never have forced the animal into such sudden punishing hardship. But this circumstance was not, in any form of the word, normal.

The small hill seemed to rapidly grow larger to the fore whilst, behind her, great divots of grass and dirt were flung away by the horse’s hooves in her desperate ride. And as that hill grew, so did Siltas’ dread. She was almost certain that what she feared to find was an impossibility. Yet she was fearful just the same.

Now a great distance ahead of the others, she stormed up along the apex of the slope, affording herself the full view of the Valkyrie home, the only village of the clan that was not nomadic in practice. So very far away from those that were considered the enemies of the sisters, the Valkyries had always felt assured that they need not be afraid.

They were wrong.

Siltas only barely attained the top of the hill when the sight below threatened to tear the very heart from her chest. She hardly knew what she was doing as she dismounted and began walking down toward the village.

Or at least toward what remained of the village.

Here and there, spires of hewn trees stood upright, bereft of the coverings that had made them into great meeting tents. The trees themselves were blackened and much of the ground around the rubble was charred as well. There remained very little of the smaller tents that had served as housings for the Valkyries of the village. The entirety of it all was in utter desolation, a ruin that spanned some two hundred yards in an oblong circle. But seeing what was left of her once-home was not the thing that drew forth the ache behind her breast.

No, the cause of her abrupt and terrible anguish was the multitude of bare skeletons that lay strewn about all over, most of them once belonging to women of the clan. Many of them had only been young girls in their early teens, barely initiated in their training with their teachers. The bones were clean of any semblance of flesh, some of them marred here and there by the destructive flames that scourged the village. As Siltas moved closer, she was able to see that many of the bones had tooth marks on them, likely from creatures of the wild. She could not fault the animals for their hunger. They couldn’t have know that these were the huntress’ sisters.

She did not hear the sound of her companions reining in their steeds at the top of the hill, descended as she was now, both into the village and into despair. Though she gave no sound, she wept, unashamed and filled with sorrow. Ahead, she found the spires that had once been the tent of the Matron. She made no effort to steel herself for what she might find, but simply strode ahead.

Near where the center of the tent should have been, there lay yet another skeleton. This one had the broken blade of a sword lodged through its ribcage, and a thin bracelet made from carved stone encircled the left wrist. Tiny markings were etched into the bracelet, running completely ‘round the outside of the stone loop.

Siltas’ feet shuffled to a slow stop next to the remains, and only then did she allow the echo of a sob to disturb the solemn quiet of the place. In reverence, she knelt down by the skeleton, tracing her fingers over the bracelet.

Closing her eyes, she did as she’d seen her sisters do over the bodies of their fallen. She spoke softly in prayer, commending the spirits of the village into the hands of the Worldgod. Though she did not herself profess to follow the deity of the Valkyries, she also did not deny the possibility of His existence. It seemed to her that, even if He did exist, the progress and gains that she’d achieved in her life were due to her own strength of spirit and determination. She would speak the last rites as the traditions of her clan dictated, but the Worldgod, and Kami, and any other gods that might exist, were a thing that she would not, could not, embrace.

With the offered prayer completed, though with faltering voice, the huntress tried in vain to swallow her sobs as she gently extracted the broken sword from the skeleton. The steel grated hauntingly against the bone, but slid free easily enough. The lack of flesh and cartilage afforded nothing with which to bind the shattered blade. She lay the weapon on the ground by her knee and turned her attention once more to the stone bracelet.

She remembered that adornment, remembered it well. Though it now was scored by the flames that had destroyed the village, she knew it even through the soot that darkened its surface. She’d been only barely old enough to be called a woman at the time, and still very much filled with hatred and anger. Still very much a slave to vengeance. The memory was so very vivid to her now that it felt as though it were just yesterday.



.oO*Oo.




The young Valkyrie scratched at the stone ring, working hard to place the final markings, though she was still uncertain why the Matron had set her to the task. It was a rare thing for a Matron to interfere with the training of a new sister. And, in this instance, it was even more unusual, for she had not only taken great interest in the youth, she had gone to such lengths that she’d removed Siltas from the tutelage of Eltar Krisch, the greatest and most brutal warrior of the clan. Instead, she’d placed the girl in the care of Vishta en’Wi. Vishta was only a few years older than Siltas, but she’d learned and accomplished much in her time with the sisters.

Siltas had been very much upset by the transition from one teacher to another. She sought to learn the way of the hunter, to seek out prey and quench the spirit. She’d often spoken to Eltar about finding those who’d been her masters and putting them to the sword. Eltar, in turn, had encouraged her desire, nay, her need, for revenge. But word of the conversations had somehow reached the ears of the Matron, leading to her decision concerning who should train the girl.

Young Siltas frowned as she dug at the stone with the chisel. Once she’d finished this . . . trinket and presented it to the Matron, then she would finally be allowed to resume her combat training. To this point, under the command of the Matron, Vishta had taught her only how to track and to identify different plants, fungi, and the like. To her credit, Siltas had paid close attention and learned her lessons well, hoping that she could press on past such things and go back to learning ways to kill.

Specks of dust flicked from the bracelet as the knife dug out the final letter of the last word. Though she was no sculptor and had not the proper tools, the craftsmanship of this piece was far superior to that of the first two she’d made, both of which the Matron had promptly rejected. It was because of those dismissed bracelets that Siltas had taken so many pains to make this one to the best of her abilities. In the many weeks it took her to carve them, she’d come to know the writing on them by heart; the Oath of the Valkyries.

With a sharp exhalation, she blew the dust from the etchings and rubbed her thumb over the words. It was time to present it to the Matron. With a flick of her wrist, she sent the worn and dulled knife to the other side of the tent. Despite the lack of edge, the knife stabbed into the tent pole and stayed there, the tip buried over half an inch deep in the wood.

Leaving the tent, she immediately sought out the Matron’s abode, a much larger tent than any of the others. The trees that had been used in its construction had been cut and dragged for many miles to this place, where they had been lashed together to form the framework. A great many hides had gone into the coverings, and many different kinds of creatures had given their skins for the task, their meat going to feed the sisters and their wards. Even if Siltas had not known her way around the village, it would have been quite difficult to miss such a large structure. With strides that were hastened by her eagerness, it took the girl only a moment or two to reach the tent.

Taking a slow breath to calm the sudden churn in her belly, Siltas entered in, holding the bracelet before her in both hands. In the center of the tent, the Matron sat on the ground, speaking with several of the elder sisters. The simple circlet of thin, twined vines that was the mark her station shifted slightly atop her gracefully greying hair as she nodded to one of the sisters. The Matron was quick to notice the girl’s presence and beckoned her closer with a steady gesture that showed no sign of her age.

In her mind, Siltas talked herself through it, telling herself to take steady, even steps. She was glad that the Matron could not hear her thoughts, jumbled as they’d become. She stopped about eight feet from the Matron and reverently went down on one knee.

“Yes, child?” the Matron asked. “What is it?”

Siltas had intended to speak boldly, but she found that her voice caught in her throat. Thus, she merely lifted her hands and held her arms at length for the Matron to witness that which she bore.

“You have completed the bracelet for me,” the woman stated plainly. Leaning toward one of the sisters, she whispered something that Siltas could not make out. Without a word, the sister rose and motioned for the others to follow as she left the tent. The Matron waited patiently for them all to depart.

Once she was alone with the girl, she stood and approached. Reaching out, she gently removed the bracelet from Siltas’ hands and covered it from sight with both of her own.

“Speak to me the Oath,” the Matron commanded. Her tone, with all the authority it carried, was soft, even soothing. Siltas found herself able to speak and easily quoted the words that she’d sworn when she’d been accepted, the words she’d spent so much time etching into stone for the Matron.

Placing her left arm across her chest, her hand balled into a fist, she put her right hand on the hilt of the small dagger that was sheathed at her hip. Then she spoke with sudden confidence. “Break not a Sister’s spirit, but nurture. Break not a Sister’s body, but heal. Break not a Sister’s trust, but persevere. Break not a Sister’s Oath, but perish with honor.” (*)

The Matron did not smile, nor did she frown. She simply opened her hands and examined the stonework she held. The lettering it bore was small and uniform, done with great care and attention. The circle itself had been just as well crafted and the Matron actually admired the work the girl had done.

She nodded. “You have done very well, child. You have learned to do a task, not only with speed, but with skill. But that is not why I have asked you to do this.” There was a slight shift in the Matron’s eyes, but Siltas could not tell what it meant. “ ‘Break not a Sister’s Oath, but perish with honor’,” she quoted with emphasis. “This means that you will adhere to your word, no matter the trial or temptation. It is because I feel you understand this that I would ask of you one last oath. An oath to me, as a personal request.” Now she did smile, but it was a somewhat saddened smile that pulled at the soft age lines in her face, as though she already knew the answer that must come. “I would ask you to make this oath; ‘I will forgive others of the wrongs they have done me. I will not seek them out, nor will I desire vengeance. Instead, I will rise above, I will go beyond. I will tread the hardest mile. I will forgive’.”

The Matron knelt down before the girl. “Though I cannot force you to do so, I, Lorien Desyro, Matron of the Valkyries, ask that you swear this oath, for myself and for you.” She reached out one hand and touched Siltas’ cheek. “Can you, child, bring yourself to swear this? If only for me?”

The girl looked upon Matron Lorien’s face and wished so badly that she could give such an oath. Oh, how she wished she could. But the need for brutal justice, for violent retribution, was simply too strong within her heart. And so it was with much sorrow that she was forced to answer the woman. She dropped her gaze toward the ground and spoke.

“I . . . cannot, Mother.”

Lorien sighed dolorously. “I understand well your pain, child. And it is something that you must face, if you are ever to overcome it.” She slowly stood, the years on her shoulders showing for the first time that Siltas could recall. “You are eighteen years of age, Siltas. A grown woman by common reckoning. But you are still just a child by the standards of our teaching. And it saddens me to bring such a terrible decision to one so young in our ways. I hope that you will someday be able to forgive me the trial I now bring to you.” The Matron looked past the young Siltas and called out. “Fiwon, bring him in.”

At first, Siltas was not certain she’d heard correctly. Bring him in? What man would the Matron ever allow to roam freely within the boundaries of the village? It was a perplexing puzzle that was answered very abruptly, and to Siltas’ great shock, when she turned to see Fiwon and one other sister dragging in a bound human male. A older man that she knew instantly.

Artollus Gantis. Her first master.

Siltas’ breath came to her with some difficulty as her heart thudded hard against the inside of her chest. She hardly heard the words of the Matron.

“The sisters captured him on his way toward Forester, leading a small caravan of slaves,” Lorien explained. “Eltar was among the sisters that set the slaves free, and she recognized him from your descriptions of your captors. She sought to slay him then, but Vishta stayed her from it. I felt that it would be good for you to speak with him, to have the opportunity to forgive him in person for the evils he has done. If you are able find it within your-”

But Siltas did not allow the Matron to finish. She could no longer hear anything past the roar of blood pounding in her ears, could not see anything but Gantis through the red haze of hatred that tunneled her vision. She only barely heard Lorien call for her to halt, only barely felt the elder woman’s fingernails graze her arm in an effort to stop her, as she lunged toward the man, dagger in hand.

The impact jarred her entire arm when the blade stabbed through Artollus’ flesh, biting so deeply that the crosspiece struck his ribs.

“You monster!” her own voice screamed in her ears. Several more times did the steel penetrate the man’s body as she shrilled at him. “I was just a child! You had no right! You had no right! ” Other than the hatred, the only thoughts that were in her mind were the memories of all the times that Artollus Gantis had struck her, beat her, forced himself on her. “Die, you filthy beast! Die and rot in the Abyss!” And then she felt Fiwon pulling her away, tearing the dagger from her grasp. Inside herself, Siltas was crying, once more that eleven-year-old girl that Gantis had stolen from her home, from her family. She struggled only for a moment before letting Fiwon take charge of her. (**)

The Matron gently took the girl from the sister, embracing her closely, feeling the child tremble in her arms. Whether the paroxysm was from anger or anguish, it no longer mattered. The girl was in great pain, but Lorien could not let this end in such a way. This was not how she’d planned this lesson, not how she’d hoped it would be, but she had to press on with the situation as it was presented. Placing a firm hand on the child’s chin, she forced her to face the dead man.

“Look upon him, Siltas,” the Matron commanded. “See what you have done.”

Siltas’ gaze beheld the bloodied, ruined chest of Gantis, was captured by his vacant staring eyes. She tried to turn away, but Lorien’s grip was solid, unmoving, so she lifted her hands to hide the sight. To her further horror, she saw the bright crimson blood that stained her hands. It was a terrible thing for her to see, this morbid display before her. And she tried to deny it all.

“No,” she argued. “I didn’t do that. I couldn’t! Please, let me go!”

The Matron steeled her voice. “Child, this is what you have wrought through vengeance. It is what you will continue to create if you pursue your course.” Her tone softened just a bit. “And in this, you will become a greater monster than those you seek to destroy.” With a nod, she gave Fiwon and the other sister leave to remove the body from the tent. A dark trail of red was left in the dirt behind them as they dragged the corpse away. Lorien released her hold on the girl’s chin, saying nothing, simply waiting for Siltas’ reaction to it all. It was slow in coming, for the child worked through an onslaught of emotional shock to reach for some form of answer.

When she did speak, her words were quiet, small, difficult to make out.

“I’ll speak the oath,” she said. “Just don’t let me turn into . . . into that.” She swallowed a sob. “I don’t want to be a monster. I want to be like you.”

Lorien ran a gentle hand through the girl’s auburn hair, soothing her to the best of her ability. “Someday, child, when you are ready, I will take your oath. But you must first learn to forgive, and I fear we have much work ahead of us.” She held up the stone bracelet that she still held in her left hand. “As a symbol of the goal we set toward this day, I shall wear this bracelet until breath has left me. For you and I, it will be a mark of forgiveness and hope.” Pulling slightly away from the girl, she slipped the bracelet over her right hand and let it settle against her wrist.

Though she was still afraid of herself, of what she’d done, Siltas gave the Matron a little smile the somehow made it past the tears.



.oO*Oo.




The huntress did not even recall slipping the bracelet from the skeletal wrist. Yet, here it rested in her hands, cold against her skin, smudged with soot. In the brief moment of her reverie, she’d removed it without thought. Saline eyes gave a last look of grief to the remains as the Valkyrie rose to her feet. She felt a flutter of movement, heard the hum of tiny wings, and little Halo lit upon her shoulder, a mournful sound issuing from the small bird.

Absently, she ran a finger down the angel bird’s chest, reassuring it before moving her hand to the hilt of a shortsword. With her left hand, she held the bracelet in a tight fist across her heart.

“Break not a Sister’s spirit, but nurture. Break not a Sister’s body, but heal. Break not a Sister’s trust, but persevere. Break not s Sister’s Oath, but perish with honor.” And as she bowed her head in reverence to the Matron, one last lonely tear fell to feed the earth at her feet. There was more, much more she would have liked to say, to make amends for words spoken in haste when she’d left the clan. But if there truly was life beyond death, then Lorien already knew what she would say. She would understand. And the Oath would simply have to do.

Had she not been trained in the way of the Valkyries, Siltas might not have sensed the others until they were much closer. A shift in the wind, a scent on the breeze, whatever it was, it gave them away while they were only just entering the ruins of the village. A slow breath to steady herself, and then she turned from the place that was the grave of the woman who had been a mother to her for so long. The first step she had to force, and each after that came only a little easier. But this was no longer a place for the living. There was an anger within her now, an anger that yearned to find those who had so viciously murdered those she’d called family. But she would not seek out vengeance. She’d made a vow to her Matron. To her friend. No, vengeance was not a thing that lay in her heart anymore.

Not that it was relevant, at any rate, not anymore. The blade she’d pulled from the bones, she recognized the steel, the craftsmanship. It bore the tell-tale tool marks she’d seen many times in the past.

She caught sight of Kraey just past one of the charred poles and made a motion to get his attention. The warrior woman flanked him on the left, stepping carefully past some debris, and the mage lithely made his way along on the Knight’s right. Once he saw her, the blonde man moved in her direction, as much as the wreckage would allow.

He was still a dozen yards away when she called out to him in apology.

“I’m sorry, Kraey. I can’t get you the answers you came for. Mother Lorien is . . .” She had to take a pause to make herself say it. “The Matron is dead. Along with all the others.”

Though it was obvious that there was sorrow in his expression, it was not all for his own loss. “No, Siltas,” he told her as he came nearer. “You have nothing for which to apologize. You have kept your promise as best as you could. I . . . I grieve for your loss.” The words might have seemed rote when given by some, but Kraey said it in such a away that she knew he spoke the truth.

She nodded in thanks. “The attack came by night,” she told them. “About six to eight weeks ago. Exiles and a great many hired sell-swords.”

“How can you possibly know such things?” Tabin queried, curious.

Siltas patiently explained her reasoning. “Many of the remains are still in or near the sleeping tents. There is just a hint of new grass trying to break through,” she pointed toward a green tuft several feet away. “And I found a broken sword blade with the all the markings of an Exile weapon, but there have never been enough Exiles to so cleanly wipe out an entire Valkyrie village, even with the cover of night. So they had to have hired mercenaries, and a lot of them.”

“But,” the mage pursued further, “the Exiles were all slaughtered. The Cradle of Shame is just as thoroughly decimated as this village-”

“And now we know why,” the huntress interjected. “Mother Lorien would never have issued an order to kill them off. It struck me as strange before. Now that I know her fate, it all begins to make sense. Mother Lorien wouldn’t do something like that. But her Hand would.”

“Her . . . hand?” the Knight questioned. “What do you mean?”

“Sorry,” she clarified. “The Matron’s Hand is the Valkyrie equivalent to what you might call a general. She is the only one beside the Matron who can command all of the villages to combat. Mother Lorien’s Hand was a vicious woman named Eltar Krisch, the most skilled warrior in our entire clan. She definitely would’ve called the nomad sisters to war for what the Exiles did here. Revenge is right along her path.”

“So we came all this way for nothing,” Tykara remarked, drawing a look from the other woman. She quickly amended, “I’m sorry, didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I mean, I’m sure that you’re upset about all this, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“And,” Siltas added for her, “without Matron Lorien, there is no one who will speak to Kraey of his sister. She was the only Valkyrie who could have told him what he wanted to know without breaking the Law of the Reborn. The rest of us must abide by it, even unto our deaths. We can’t speak of our previous lives.”

“What of this Hand?” Kraey asked. “Could she not tell us?”

The huntress shook her head. “Not unless she were raised up as the next Matron. She can’t be named Matron until they know for certain that Mother Lorien’s chosen successor is dead. And it will take them a very long time to learn the truth of that matter.” She hesitated for an instant, then added, “Lorien’s heir . . . left the clan a long time ago.”

“Wouldn’t your Matron simply have chosen someone else?” Tykara wondered. “I mean, that seems like a serious problem, having her heir running off to gods-know-where.”

“Mother Lorien wouldn’t choose another,” Siltas elaborated. “Once she made a decision, she stuck it out to the bitter end. It was one of the few flaws she had.” She frowned. “But it’s not the change in leadership or the loss of information that concerns me. It’s how the Exiles learned where to find this village and how they knew when to attack. The timing would have placed it during the time of First Oaths, when new novices are accepted into the clan. It’s a week-long rite and all sisters of the village are required to attend, so the usual scouts aren’t out on the plains. Someone had to have told the Exiles when and where to strike. Which could only mean one thing.”

Her eyes narrowed. “The Valkyries have been betrayed. By a sister.”
_-^-_





Footnotes;


(*) The Oath of the Valkyries = When giving this oath, a sister must hold her left arm across her chest, hand tightened to a fist, with the right hand on the hilt of their weapon. This is to represent that the sister is ready to draw and defend her fellow Valkyries at any given moment. If, when saying this oath to another sister, the speaker does not grip her hilt, is a considered an insult to the sister receiving the oath, signifying that the speaker would not be willing to protect her.

(**) Correction Note = In an earlier chapter (chapter nine), Siltas stated that she had slain two of her former masters in revenge and one in the heat of battle. This is incorrect. It should have read that
one of her masters was killed in revenge, while the next two were killed in battle. The fourth and last was Var al-Saff.
_-^-_

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Tejas
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Apr 06, 2012 9:59 am

Chapter Fourteen
“ . . . Worse Than A Battle Won . . .”

4:21 High Sun, Dies Siderum, 24th of Quintilis, 2134 P.B.


The grim realization of vile treachery left a heavy air that lingered about the four as they retreated from the ruined village, moving toward the hilltop where Siltas’ steed stood panting and pawing the earth. Though each had known tragedy and loss in their own lives, hers was by far the most fresh of wounds, and the others struggled with uncertainty as to whether they should coddle the ranger or stand firmly ready to lend a sword (or staff, in the case of the mage). But the huntress afforded no room for anything other than pragmatism and practicality. Her stolid demeanor masked whatever emotion she now felt as she treaded up the slope. Once she’d reached her horse, she patted the animal on the neck as way of an apology for the pressing ride of earlier.

“What will you do now?” she finally spoke, addressing the Knight. “Where will you go?”

He scratched his blonde, neatly-trimmed beard as he thought. “I’m a little at loss,” he admitted. “You have all felt the tie that has pulled us together, led us along our way. But, I cannot feel its guiding tug any longer.” He shook his head, trying to figure it all out. “It makes no sense to me. Certainly, Kami cannot have meant for us to come all this way simply to find such calamity and adversity and naught else. Everything within me screams that His plan for us is far from over. But I have no direction that draws me.”

Siltas gave no expression to him. “Well, I don’t care anymore what your Kami has planned. I don’t mean to upset you, but I don’t have any use for Him any more than I do the Valkyries’ Worldgod.” She took a step forward to steady herself as her horse nudged her from the side. “But I do know what my plan is. I’m heading northeast to find the nomad sisters. I have to find out who the traitor is and expose her.”

Kraey was a bit rankled at her casual dismissal of Kami, but he could understand her position when it came to her duty. He had neglected his own duties to pursue that guiding pull that now left him stranded. “Is there no way that this Hand, this Eltar, could be persuaded to-”

But Siltas was already shaking her head. “Even if the Hand was allowed to speak of a sister’s past to an outsider, Eltar still wouldn’t. She barely speaks to the sisters, except for orders. If she knew the information was for a man . . . I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that she might actually have you killed on the spot just for asking. She dislikes outsiders, regardless. But she completely and openly hates men.”

The Knight knew well his own capabilities as a combatant, knew his limitations. And for him to enter into such a situation would have been reckless, to say the least. “It would be very ill-advised for me to suggest I accompany you, if it is this Eltar who now has charge of your people. But I must ask you, if there is any way possible for you to learn the truth of my sister’s fate, could you seek me out and let me know?”

If Siltas’ face had been stolid before, it was as stone now. “You know what you’re asking?” The question wasn’t really a question at all. “If I were to do this, I would be breaking the Law of the Reborn, something that has never been done in the history of the clan, something that is punishable by banishment or execution.”

Kraey felt a little ashamed at what he’d asked of her. It wasn’t fair for him put the slim possibility of his sister’s being alive over the very real truth of this woman’s life. He opened his mouth to take back his request, but he was interrupted before he could make a sound.

“I’ll give it some consideration,” the huntress said plainly.

In the utterance of those words, Tykara’s respect for the redheaded ranger increased tenfold. “Wow,” she marveled aloud. “You’ve got some serious steel in your backbone, Lenok. Thinking about facing your whole clan for some Knight you’ve known for just a month? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you had a thing for him.”

Siltas made no sign that she was making a jest as she told the warrior, “Blondes aren’t my type.” Then, addressing the Knight, she added, “If I don’t contact you within a year, you’ll know your sister is still alive. The closest I’ll come to breaking the oath is posthumously.” She thought to herself that she was playing it very close already, but her impassiveness hid away any expression that hinted she already knew the answer he sought. It was a difficult thing for her, concealing the struggle inside herself. Part of her wanted to tell him. The majority, though, was loyal to her oaths and her laws.

“Thank you,” he gratified. “I am already deeply indebted to you, Siltas Lenok. If there is ever any way that I am, within principle, able to assist you , know that you need only ask.” He paused for a second, considering. “It would likely be best if I returned to my home and resumed my duties. Should the news of my sister be of an ill nature, it is there that you will find me. And my sister’s name is Me-”

“Menja,” the Valkyrie said ahead of him. “The name of Ethynerysse is known among my sisters,” she surprised him. Without waiting for his response, she split a look between Tykara and Tabin. “And where will you two go?” Her question was more out of curiosity than anything else.

The warrior shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe I’ll just tag along with Kraey for a while. If that’s alright with you,” she amended, seemingly seeking the Knight’s approval.

“Well,” Kraey considered, actually going so far as to tease her just a little, “you do present better company than when we first met. I can see no reason why that wouldn’t be acceptable.”

“And you?” Siltas’ words were meant for the pale mage.

Tabin drew a slow, steady breath before he replied. “If you’ve no objections to the idea,” he suggested to her, “I should like to brave this nomad village you seek. What little you’ve said about their customs and traditions has left me with an inquisitive burr beneath my saddle, so to speak.”

The ranger was a little taken aback by his request, if only for an instant. “To be honest,” she admitted, “you’d have a much better chance at staying alive around Eltar than Kraey would.” Which elicited strange expressions from the Knight and the dark-haired woman. “The Valkyries have a very healthy respect for those who practice Majik. Even if they’re male. So you’d probably have about a eighty-twenty chance of Eltar not killing you for being born a man. Drop that to seventy-thirty, since you’re appearance is bound to scare the superstitious sisters.” She waved an indifferent hand at him. “Your call, Tabin. Just so long as you know the danger.”

“Then it is settled,” the wizard replied with finality. He gave a reverent nod to the Knight and a slight bow to Tykara. “Perhaps my path will someday cross yours once more. Until then, I earnestly bid you both pleasant journeys. Oh, one more thing,” he said to Kraey, “I want you to know that you have peeked my curiosity about this Kami of which you often speak. I will endeavor to learn what I am able, concerning the subject.”

“A worthy pursuit, my friend,” the blonde lord assured. “A most worthy pursuit, indeed.”

“So . . .” Siltas said slowly, “I guess this is . . . farewell.” Her trademark half-grin crept onto her lips. “I’m, uh, I’m not so good with goodbyes. I never quite know what to say.”

Tykara apparently had no such troubles. “See you around, Lenok,” she offered the huntress. “So long, freak,” was directed at Tabin.

A clearing of the throat and a hunching of the shoulders, and Siltas allowed those to be their parting words, as she hooked her fingers around her saddle horn and swung herself into the saddle. While she tucked the toes of her boots into the stirrups, the wizard was not far behind her in mounting his own animal. They tugged at their reins, the reins pulled the bits, and the horses turned to the east and north. A light clicking of Siltas’ tongue prompted them to start off, plodding an easy-but-steady pace.

“Kami guide and keep you!” Kraey wished them well before they were out of earshot. He watched them for several minutes, pondering what purpose Kami might have had for this sojourn, until Tykara tapped the back of her hand against his shoulder.

“Well, Kraey,” she asked of him. “What do you say we get moving before we start growing roots? Inami sure isn’t going to come to us and it’s more than a hundred and fifty leagues.”

He had to agree with her. It was time to move on. But still . . . “What do you think of it, Tykara? Why would Kami bring us all the way out here? What have we gained? And what was the purpose for our dreams?”

She set her horse in motion before she responded, and he prodded his own steed to follow. “Kraey,” she started carefully, “when we first set out, I gave you just about every reason to leave me behind. I was brash, abrasive, cold and violent. I’m still all those things,” she didn’t deny. “But, I’ve gotten to where I have a little more control over myself since I’ve been riding with you. I kind of lost my self-discipline for a while, and being around you has restored it a little bit. So I owe you for that, somewhat.” As he caught up beside her, he started to ask how that pertained to his question, but she didn’t allow him to talk.

“Shut up,” she instructed. “Let me finish.” She took a second to pick her words. “I guess what I mean to say is that you’ve earned, in no small way, a kind of respect that I haven’t given anyone since I was just a girl. And I don’t mean to take away from that respect. I don’t deny that I did feel something dragging the four of us into this motley bunch. But I still mean what I said about Kami. I don’t want anything to do with Him. Do I believe in Him? I don’t know. Until I see some evidence that He cares about us mere mortals, I can tell you that I certainly don’t care what He’s got in the works. On that, Lenok and I are in perfect agreement.” Taking a breath, she summarized. “So. What have we gained? I can’t speak for the rest of you, but I gained a couple of friends out of the deal. What was the reason for the dreams? I don’t know, maybe some bad pork before bedtime. Maybe we’ll never know.”

Her words were painful for him to hear, but not for himself, and not for his love of Kami. It was her salvation for which he was concerned. But Kraey knew better than to say it, in light of her short speech. To voice his concerns now would only serve to galvanize her emotional position.

“I appreciate your candor,” was what he chose to say. “And, though you are, as you’ve said, quite brash and abrasive, you should know that you have earned a fair amount of respect from me, as well. So, in deference to you, I will endeavor to limit my references to my beliefs. Until you are ready to hear it,” he added.

She didn’t say it, but she was thankful for his consideration. And a little impressed.





Tabin followed alongside the huntress in silence for several minutes, his mind wandering to this and that. It still took him some effort to focus his thoughts in any single direction, but he felt certain that he would be ready to use his Majik by the morning, if not by the evening. His cognitive functions were rapidly resuming a measure of normalcy and he was already once more capable of basic calculus. He was only mildly surprised that his recovery had taken this long, as the forms he’d used were of an advanced nature. In all honesty, his use of them should have been considered quite foolhardy. He should have performed them in the relative safety of a controlled environment, where his recuperation could have been aided by more favorable conditions.

Well, there was nothing to be done for it now.

In idleness, he attempted to open a dialogue with the Valkyrie. “Approximately how long do you expect finding your sisters will take?” was all that he could think to ask.

The redheaded ranger gave him an odd look when she answered. “I did mention that the other villages are all nomadic, right? There’s no way to tell for sure.” She was lying, but he didn’t need to know the secrets of the Valkyries. Truth be told, she had an estimate, but she couldn’t be certain. First, she had to reach a special grove well to the north, where three pine trees towered. In the high branches, she would find signs; a leaf, a sliver of bark, a tuft of fur, a feather, etc. Each of the places where a nomad village might make a temporary home was given a particular sign. She knew them well. But, since she wouldn’t know where the village took its rest until she read the signs, she was actually just . . . stretching the truth when she said there was no way to tell for certain.

“Wouldn’t there be some way to determine such things?” he pondered. “A sort of concealed message system, perhaps?”

She tried not to smile. He was quick to catch on. She should have expected as much; he was a mage, after all. “If there was,” she told him, “I wouldn’t be able to tell you, now would I? You don’t quite have the right equipment to be one of the sisters.”

He chuckled quietly. “Alright. I’ll give you both points. Valkyrie two, wizard zero.” He changed to a subject to which she should feel no need for secrecy. “Do you think the others will do well?”

Her shoulders raised slightly with a shrug. “I’d guess so, but you never know. There isn’t usually much in the way of banditry in this area. Probably because there isn’t much merchant traffic along the nearest roads. The Godson Nation is mostly self-sufficient and the city of Forester is much closer to the cities further west than those east of here. Doesn’t make much sense to make all that extra effort for just a few gold more. On top of that,” she expounded, “the Knights sometimes send patrols southward. It’s meant to be a training exercise, but wannabe brigands won’t take the chance of running into them. And-”

She stopped when she glanced over and noticed that he was staring off into the distance, his expression blank. She rolled her eyes. Wonderful time for a trance, she thought to herself.

Loosening her right foot from the stirrup, she leaned steeply down the left side of her saddle. Gripping the horn with her right hand, she let her left dangling close to the ground until she caught up a small rock. After she was straight in the saddle once again, she flicked the rock at Tabin, who jerked to attention with a sharp breath as it bounced off his leg.

He blinked at her for a second or two. “I . . . wandered off again, didn’t I?”

Siltas’ nod was accompanied by a concise, “Yep.”

“Did I miss anything?” he asked. “I recall you mentioning something about very little banditry.”

“Then you’re just going to have to figure it out on your own,” she playfully scolded. “If you can’t be bothered to pay attention, then I’m not going to be the who has to repeat myself.”

The mage laughed at her tease. “I shall tell you something, Miss Lenok; I find your sense of humor and wit to be far superior to that of the vaunted intellectuals who often carry the title of mage. You bear none of their pretentious arrogance, and your peculiar style has the air of a free spirit. It’s very refreshing.”
“And I’m much better looking,” she added with a half-grin.

His white lips smiled with amusement. “You are much easier on the eyes than most practitioners of the arcane,” he acceded, “that point I shall never argue. Especially since women are rather uncommon among our discipline.”

Mid-way through another laugh, he went very still and quiet.

Siltas watched him for a few seconds. “Hello?” she ventured, thinking he might have gone off into another trance. His white hand came up, holding a single finger in a quieting gesture. She wanted to know what he sensed, but she held her peace, waiting for his response.

“It’s . . . It’s that portal spell from the other night!” he exclaimed. “But whoever is casting it knows what they’re doing this time!” He turned toward her.

“Ride! Move!”

Before they had gone more than a dozen yards, that bright shaft of light flared into being behind them, followed immediately by the bolt of lightning that stabbed at the clear sky.





“I’m gonna miss the fresh meat at mealtime,” Tykara lamented. “Hunting was never something I was good at, but Lenok has it down to an art.”

“I suppose.” Kraey was listening to her, but only just. He was still mulling things over.

“And rabbits have butterfly wings and lizards’ tails.”

“You may be right,” the Knight answered distractedly.

She steered her horse a little closer and backhanded him across the shoulder none-too-softly, forcing him to return to the here and now.

“Hmm?” He looked at her in startled puzzlement. “What is it?”

“You’re not even hearing a single word I’m saying. You still trying to figure out that whole divine plan?” She snorted derision, though not so much as she might have. “Let it go, Kraey. We’ve got a long ride ahead, so quit worrying.” With the words out and the beginnings of a grin appearing to reassure him, Tykara was not at all ready for what she suddenly felt. It was as though someone had driven a fist into her stomach, breastplate or no.

“Ughn!” It was the only sound she was able to make for the instant that she folded forward in the saddle. Expecting Kraey to respond with concern as he was wont to do, she forced herself up straight and started to wave him off, only to realize he was in much the same condition as herself.

Sucking in a breath, Kraey stared at her with wide eyes. She already knew what he was thinking. She could feel the pull of it as well. “The tether. It’s back!” Urgently twisting around, he caught sight of Siltas and Tabin across the plain far off to the east. A familiar lightning bolt was ripping toward the heavens in bright tendrils.

“Kami save them!” he cried, he prayed. Even as he drove his heels into the warhorse’s flanks, he could already see the bolt reversing its course, descending with frightening speed.





When the crackling bar of energy struck the earth, the shock wave lashed out with a vengeance, throwing Siltas and the mage from their horses, and poor little Halo tumbled through the air. The horses, in turn, were buffeted roughly about, inciting panic and triggering their flight instinct. Riderless they fled, leaving the two to whatever fate now approached them.

As one, they rolled to their feet, Tabin bringing his tahz’lt staff to bear, blades extended, and the Valkyrie lifting her short bow only to find it broken in her hands. She’d fallen atop the weapon with enough force to splinter the wood and render it useless. While she flung the ruined bow aside and reached for her swords, the shaft of light spread wide some forty feet from them, turning into the plate mirror as before. Far more quickly than the first time, the mirror shimmered and spewed forth the denizens of their unseen antagonist.

In his short time with his companions, Tabin had quickly assimilated the tactics they’d used and had already formed possible complimentary tactics of his own, should the need for combat arise. Knowing that Siltas was very agile and precise, he moved off to her side several feet to allow her enough room to work. He gripped the tahz’lt firmly, ready to do his part in fending off their mysterious enemies.

Two, four, six . . . In the end, Tabin counted fifteen foes arriving from out of the portal, fanning out to either side, partially surrounding them in a wide semicircle.

The Valkyrie took account of them in an instant of thought. Ten of them wore light shirts of ring mail, long spears in hand, longswords scabbarded at their sides, and round shields slung across their backs. These men, humans all, began to advance in measured steps. Four of the others were dressed in simple brown breeches and flowing shirts with wide sleeves. The last of them stood directly by the portal, a look of strained focus affixed on his features, and one hand wrapped around a medallion that hung from his collar. By their movements, it seemed to Siltas that these men meant to take them captive.

She’d been helpless when she was a child. She wouldn’t be a prisoner, not ever again.

Seeing that any normal tactic would be outmatched by sheer numbers, the huntress chose to employ a stratagem of shock and awe. Not waiting for them to attack first, she sprinted toward the spearmen, hoping beyond hope that Tabin would understand what she was doing and match her.

The closest spearman extended his weapon, baiting her to shift aside for the man next to him to strike. She would not succumb to it, however, turning her body only enough to let the first spear run beside her, then batting it safely downward with her left blade as she let her right sword bite across his throat. Spinning counter clockwise, the left hand reversed its grip and stroke to stab the man immediately behind her, penetrating that vulnerability at the underarm of the ring mail. While the tip did not dig deep, it opened the artery, ensuring that the man would not live.

She pulled the blade free and shoved hard against her first victim, setting his dying form into the soldier on the other side. And while that soldier fought to remain upright, she took his life with a slash at his neck. Had she but moved with any more speed, her adversaries might have thought her to be a thing of the supernatural.

While the Valkyrie was propelling herself toward another kill, Tabin was only just meeting his first combatant. With a boldness that was not his usual way, the mage made his initial assault, thrusting one bladed end forward at the man’s face. No reward was given him, for the soldier turned aside the assault before sweeping low with the long shaft to take him from his feet. A light leap permitted Tabin to keep his stance, and he pressed a bit harder, moving to a closer range where the spear would have less maneuverability afforded it.

The second thrust of the tahz’lt resulted in a worse outcome. Though he was able to penetrate the mail and deal a mortal wound, Tabin’s inexperience against armored foes frustrated his minor victory, the mail catching the end of the staff and binding it. He tugged hard to free the blade, but to no avail. To make it all the more unpleasant, another soldier struck the mage across the back of his shoulders with the haft of a spear. The sting reverberated throughout his spine and he was force to relinquish his hold on the staff in an effort to preserve his life. As he blocked a similar blow with the back of his arm, the thought flitted in the back of his mind as to the oddity that he’d not been run through. Surely any experienced spearman would know that lethality lay in the spear’s keen head.

He seized at the spear with the intent of tearing it from the soldier’s grasp, thus re-arming himself. And though he was no weakling, the man’s strength was greater than his own. A sharp tug from the foe drew Tabin close, and a reversal of momentum had the pole immediately driven back to hit the mage across the bridge of the nose. White specks entered his vision and before he could blink them away, an arm came around his neck, another locking his right elbow behind him.

In her mad dash from prey to prey, Siltas was only vaguely aware of her companion’s plight. By then, she had felled four of their number and was hampered in her labors to vanquish a fifth by the subsidence of their surprise. No longer did they underestimate her. While three of the soldier’s were apprehending the wizard, a pair of them kept the Valkyrie at bay, working in tandem with a spearman slightly behind and beside another man who utilized a sword and shield to deflect her attacks.

Once Tabin was subdued, his assailants dragged him toward the portal and Siltas became very alert to their intentions. She tried to circle her opponents, to reach her ally, only to have her path blocked. Then the four men unarmored men began gesturing and exhaling great breaths.

A cloud of sand coalesced from the very air, invading her mouth, her nostrils, her eyes. Through blurred vision, she saw the round shield just before it hit her. She backpedaled to absorb the blow, and the battle for her stability was lost to a stone that caught the heel of her boot. Bowling over backward, she rolled to her knees, unable to see more than just shapes through the dusty haze.

Siltas dropped her swords and took up the miniature crossbow that dangled at her side, bringing it to bear just as Tabin was being hauled into the mirrored gate. With no time to take proper aim, she pulled the trigger and hoped she would not hit the pallid wizard.

She didn’t.

Instead, the projectile hissed through the sand cloud and found the man with the medallion. The bolt struck the edge of the man’s eye socket, causing it to shatter and splinter into the brain. And as Tabin disappeared through the portal with the enemy magi following, the light was extinguished and the gate snapped shut. Not a cry was heard from the magi, slain instantly as they were cut in half by the closing of the doorway, the un-transported portions of their bodies sinking to the earth.

With its creators dispatched, the sand cloud ceased to swirl and began to fall to the plains, the grains sounding almost like a light rain as they pelted the ground. The air cleared somewhat and Siltas blinked some of the dust from her eyes. Just a half-dozen feet away, the last two soldiers choked and spat, but remained wary. Certainly, they knew they were stranded here with the skilled ranger, but they now knew her capabilities. A maddened rush would avail her nothing here.

With her swords on the ground and her foes close at hand, it would have been suicidal for her to make a play for her weapons. Her crossbow had spent its ammunition and she’d left her throwing knives in her saddle bag; it would seem that she was at their mercy. But her stance told them that she would not surrender. She’d already lost her ally. She had nothing to lose but her life. And everyone had to die someday.

The man wielding the sword and shield began circling around toward her right. To Siltas, their plan was clear; flank her and strike as one. She made only small steps, giving them the impression that she was trying not to let it happen, yet allowing it nonetheless. She waited until the swordsman was almost opposite his comrade, then she bolted for the spearman, her design being to render him unconscious with an uppercut and seize the longsword at his side.

Twisting her torso left, she mostly evaded the expected thrust of the spear (the tip scoring her across the ribs) and brought her right fist hard upward toward his jaw, never having heard the swordsman charge from behind. The spearman realized her maneuver and tried to bring his head back and away, not quite far enough.

Siltas felt the bone of his nose break loose and travel upward into his skull. But she did not waste the attack, grasping and wrenching his sword from his scabbard. Still twisting about, she came to a defensive stance next to the already-dead man, the sword held before her at the ready.

She need not have bothered.

The swordsman had inadvertently ran himself onto the spear of his friend.

The blade fell from his hand and he grabbed at the spearhead to pull it out. He had not the strength. The soldier looked at her with disbelief while his knees began to buckle beneath him. Siltas dropped her stolen sword and caught the man, easing him to the ground as gently as she could. He was more a boy than a man, by the look of him, barely more than eighteen or nineteen.

“Who sent you?” she asked firmly.

Instead of an answer, the soldier stared in fear. “D-don’t . . . don’t let m-me die!” he mumbled.

If she could have saved him, she would. But the wound was mortal. “I can do nothing for you,” she informed him as gently as she was able. “I can’t fix this. Please, you have to tell me who sent you.”

The boy could only cry inconsolably at her words.

“Listen to me!” she told him. “I need to know. Don’t die for nothing, kid. Help me! Who is your master?”

But his sobs were already slowing and his eyes were beginning to haze over.

“Come on, kid, hold on!”

The soft sound of breath leaving his body was all the reply that she would receive. The boy died in her arms. She eased him to the ground and heaved a frustrated sigh.

With a yell, she swore harshly, loudly, at the absurdity of it all. The echoes of her cursings had only just started to fade when the thunder of horse hooves approached from the west.
_-^-_



(*) Author's Note: While I previously tried to update my tale every other week, I have found that I am simply unable to continue doing so. You see, I write mostly at night, and between my job, my family, and church, I was having to make the difficult choice between working on my story or getting a decent amount of sleep. So, I've decided to change my updating schedule to once every three weeks (when possible). I can't make any promises, though, because as we all know, life sometimes just gets in the way. Anyway, I thank you all for your patience and for taking the time to read my tale. As always, if you have any comments/criticisms/suggestions, please feel free to PM me any time. Good day to you and God bless! - Tejas

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Tejas
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Apr 27, 2012 9:25 am

Chapter Fifteen
“When By Shadows Seized”

5:19 High Sun, Dies Siderum, 24th of Quintilis, 2134 P.B.

Kardellyus Vedalyraen watched carefully the events transpiring down below, in the bowels of Heartscar Fortress. Through the power of the Visionary, he observed the opening of the gate, the issuing forth of soldiers and magi. He witnessed the capture of the white-fleshed human. And though he gave no outward sign of it, his irritation gnawed at him from within.

This scheme that was being perpetrated within the walls of his own haven, his outpost so far from Shur, had become more than the simple nuisance it had been before. The young darkman down below had overstepped his boundaries before, but this . . .! No more could Kardellyus allow it. There was too much at stake. He could not justify the Shur’ken’s transgressions against all for which he’d labored.

With a thought, Kardellyus banished the vision and looked upon the statue of the elven maiden. It took him several slow breaths to fully contain his frustration. He was not, in actuality, angry with the boy. Not yet. In fact, he was almost proud of him in a way. He’d shown much initiative, even if his plot was poorly thought out. However, his initiative had come at a most inopportune time, and at a costly price. He would have to be punished and placed where he could do no more harm.

Great haste led his steps as he turned and retreated from the room, striding into the hall, seeking the stone stairs that would take him to the lower levels.




The Shur’ken watched from a darkened corner of the room as the three soldiers came through the portal, followed closely by the magi he’d sent. He’d been on the verge of permitting himself a relieved smile. Then the portal had closed prematurely, killing the four men, slicing them apart in various ways. He gaped at the sight of the severed remains, paralyzed in shock. The scent of burned flesh was thick and there was little blood, for the gate had cauterized that which it had cut off. One mage, having been sliced through just below the ribcage, made no sound as he tried to drag himself across the floor with one hand. A pitiful expression of disbelief was all the mage was able to give before his spirit left him.

The sound of a scuffle drew the darkman’s attention and glanced toward the soldiers just in time to see one of them strike the ivory-skinned human on the back of the head. The man’s steely grey eyes rolled upward as he lost consciousness, sagging in the grasp of his captors.

“Is . . . is he harmed?” the darkman asked of them.

“No, sir,” was the answer provided him. “A knot on his head, to be sure, but no permanent damage.”

“And what of the others?” He feared he already knew the answer, but he inquired, nonetheless.

The soldier that had spoken before gave him the report. “The red-haired woman carved into us like a devil. We tried to follow the plan; surround them and negotiate, but she attacked before we had a chance to demand the wizard.” He shook his head. “I don’t think it would have made any different, sir. By the way she fought, I think she would not have stood aside and let us have him. She slew five of us before we even took the wizard in hand. And I don’t hold much hope for those that were left behind.”

“Are you telling me,” the Shur’ken asked in wonder, “that one woman killed four armed men and has likely killed two more and a mage?”

The soldier shook his head. “I’m sorry, sir. Had it been the other woman, we might have known what to expect. As it was, we just weren’t prepared for that kind of savagery.”

The darkman could think of no reply to that. It was his own fault. He should have better briefed the men, warned them what they might be facing. But he was no tactician. He was a bladesman, plain and simple. True, he was trying to learn something of Majik, but only that which he needed. He had no great interest in it. And he’d already come to accept that he would never be a master of the art. Oh, he could perform the combat forms for the casting, and he had excellent focus when he fought with his weapons of choice. But he had unending difficulties with the mathematics required for the calculations demanded by Majik. And those times after he’d first used a spell, the debilitating effects of the spell-rapture were a thing that disturbed him profoundly. It gave him, if only briefly, the feeling that he was losing his mind, or at least his faculties.

“Secret him away,” he instructed the men. “Place him in one of the warded cells, but let no one see you. Bind his hands and feet tightly to the wall so he can’t cast any spells. I would have Kardellyus know nothing of this.”

“Oh, but, Savvis,” a stern voice echoed from the doorway, “I already know. Precious little of what you have done has escaped my notice, boy.”

And the darkman visibly cringed at the words of the elder Shur’ken who now blocked the exit.

“Too much,” Kardellyus continued, “have you been a drain upon my resources. I could ignore your insubordination and your attempts at deception only for so long.” Slowly did the sorcerer advance, his very presence seeming to make the chamber a darker place, illusion though it was. A single soldier, a Shur’ken wearing the uniform of a lieutenant, entered behind him. “Now, tell me, boy; where is my medallion? I know that you have taken it, and you will now return it to me.” He extended his hand, palm upward. The shifting light of the wall-mounted torches revealed the slight disfigurations of his ash-grey skin, a result of his prolonged use of sorcery. It almost looked as though his hand was beginning to wither in places.

Savvis was no coward. He had faced many foes who knew the way of the warrior, some of them better than he. And Savvis had won through, be it through skill, focus, or simple luck. But he could not have even begun to fight against an accomplished sorcerer. And Kardellyus was among the most powerful sorcerers ever to have lived, Shur’ken or not. So, it was with great hesitation that he was forced to tell his teacher, his master, of the fate of the medallion.

“It . . . it has been lost, milord.” Which was the truth of the matter, it having been worn by the mage who’d commanded the portal.

He’d expected the elder Shur’ken to fly into a sudden rage. Perhaps he’d even hoped for it. But Kardellyus simply stared at him for a long moment, onyx eyes smoldering in silence.

And when his master did speak, it was in the tongue of Daemon-kind as he channeled through himself the essence of a fell devil. It did not even resemble words, the things he spoke. It was more akin to the hissing of a thousand serpents, preparing to strike at their prey. Savvis did not look away, determined that he would meet his punishment, perhaps even his death, with some modicum of dignity.

A muffled cry of pain pulled his attention to his three surviving soldiers.

No. “Surviving” was no longer the word for it, for their flesh had begun to decay at an incredible rate, losing color, growing tight as with age, then splitting to show the bones beneath. Their eyes sank loosely into their sockets. Now Savvis wished he
could have turned away, but the sight held him prisoner. The stench of rancid meat filled his nostrils, bringing him very close to the point where might vomit, and the hands that were holding the captured mage fell loose from their owners, allowing the pallid man to collapse against the floor.

In a matter of just one minute, the decay was complete, the soldiers that had once been loyal to Savvis now laying desiccated on the stone floor with nothing more than bits of leathered skin clinging to their frames. Even their clothing had aged, the cloth crumbling away to dust, the metal of buckles rusting, pitting, clinking again the floor.

Savvis was visibly trembling when he looked again on his master. Surely he was next.

“You have cost me greatly,” Kardellyus said in a calm tone that was somehow worse than if he would have ranted and raved. “That medallion is unique, boy. Great are its enchantments. It would take me decades to learn and master the Majik to be able to duplicate all the powers it bears.” He stroked the thin auburn beard on his chin with unsettling composure, no sign that he’d just torn the souls from three men. “But you have served me well in the past. So I shall not slay you just yet. Instead, you will join this strange wizard you’ve abducted in the very same cell that you’ve set aside for him. When I’ve the time, I will determine what use he may be to me.” He paused for an instant, allowing a tiny fraction of his irritation to show in his expression.

“Do not think that your ancestry will stay my hand a second time, Savvis,” the sorcerer warned him. “My patience with you is all but gone. I will not let you bar my path to the Keys. I will open the Gates. And our people with know what it means to rise once more.”

And another wave of hisses issued from his lips, Kardellyus sacrificing another minuscule portion of his own soul the convey the power of devils. The sound made the younger darkman’s skin crawl. Though he could not speak or even understand the tongue of daemons, he recognized the patterns of the sounds, and he knew what would come next.

The husks of the three dead soldiers stirred.

The bones that had separated slid together along the floor, connecting themselves back together. The scraps of skin began to pale as though they’d been without the sun for many years. And yet, the flesh was taking on a semblance of life, growing, stretching, covering over the bones, devoid of any of the hair they’d possessed previously. Once the hides had almost completely covered their hosts, the sunken places filled out slightly, the entrails being reconstituted after a manner. The digits that had once been fingers grew hard and blackened into long, terrible claws. Their faces were nothing like they had been before, the skin having the appearance of being stretched tautly around their skulls, and they had no lips, for they had no mouths, nor did they have any ears that could be seen. The eyes were now little more than shining black orbs that stared with hunger.

As one, the three creatures, these Starvelings, arose without sound. One of them made a step toward Savvis, but halted at the order of its creator. (*)

“These are not for feeding,” Kardellyus said. “You will carry these two and cause them no harm. You will follow this man here,” he gestured toward the lieutenant, “and you will do as he instructs. Once you have done your task, you shall have your feast. Not before.”

Then, to the guard, he instructed, “Lead the Starvelings to the warded cells. Bind the wizard as Savvis said. Find me when it is done.”



.oO*Oo.


Kraey did not wait for his warhorse to come to a halt before he dismounted, pedaling his feet to remain upright as he touched the ground. A dozen steps or so was what it took for him to slow and stop, very nearly tripping on the prone body of a slain soldier. His armor squeaked and rattled in protest at the sudden deceleration.

“Are you alright?” was the first query that sprang from his lips. “Are you injured?” Behind him, Tykara mimicked his method of dismount, though she performed it in a much smoother fashion than he, having less weight in the way of armor.

The Valkyrie either did not hear him or she simply chose not to respond. Instead, she continued with what she was doing, going from body to sand-dusted body, checking for signs of life. She knew that it was all quite pointless, but she felt compelled to finish. Even a few choked or mumbled syllabled from one of them could shed great light on the mystery of their assailants.

As Kraey began to reiterate his first question, he noticed that Siltas held a hand against her ribs while she moved. Around the hand, her shirt was torn and stained with blood. Though there was much spray on her arms and face, it was apparent that the blood beneath her hand was not from any of her victims.

“You’re hurt!” he pointed out the obvious.

Now the huntress spared him a glance. “It’s not too bad. I’ll tend to it in a bit. Help me check them for . . . whatever. Written orders, maps, letters to home, anything.” She was in discomfort from her wound, but her posture showed that it was not anything she couldn’t handle.

“Where’s Tabin?”

The realization of his absence struck the Knight only when Tykara voiced her own inquiry. Strange that she’d noticed the wizard was gone before him. Even more, she’d referred to him by name, not the moniker of “freak” which she’d so unkindly bestowed upon him.

Kraey looked around, expecting the see the corpse of the ghostly mage.

“They took him,” Siltas said, catching the lord off his guard. “They went straight for Tabin and did everything they could to keep me from him once they had him.” She used a thumb and a finger to rub sand from the corners of her eyes. “For whatever reason, they got exactly what they came for.” Blinking several times, she was able to clear a little of the grit from her vision before moving on to the next body, that of the mage who’d controlled the gate. She bent down to check for a pulse and to search him.

“But why would anyone on Tei’Vaek want Tabin,” Tykara wondered to no one in particular. “He was from Kadman, assuming he wasn’t lying about that.”

“Best that we not assume anything,” Kraey warned the warrior. He knelt next to a spearman. “We can’t know for certain that whoever took him is even from Tei’Vaek. At this point, all that we can know for certain is that we need to find him. Whatever Kami has in store for us includes him.”

“You mean you can be certain of that,” the warrior reminded him. “But I’m starting to agree, against my better judgement, that we’ll need his help. I don’t like it, but there it is.”

“Knowing whether or not we need him doesn’t do us any good,” Siltas remarked as she pilfered through the dead wizard’s belongings. “We don’t know where they took him. I can track anyone, and I mean anyone, on the ground. Tracking Majik, on the other hand . . ? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but without Tabin, we can’t find Tabin.”

“So, what’s our next move?” Tykara asked of them. “Just hire another wizard to help us find the one we’ve misplaced? I don’t think I need to tell you how I’d feel about that.”

“Kami will not give us a task that is impossible,” Kraey assured the women.

The former bandit couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, He sure likes to see how close He can get to it, doesn’t He?”

Kraey shrugged as he responded, “You can’t purify gold without putting it through the fire.”

Tykara might have retorted, had she not spotted a pair of horses well off into the distance; those of Siltas and Tabin. “Looks like your mounts didn’t run too far. I’ll go round them up,” she informed, already taking steps in the direction of her own animal.

“Be quick about it,” instructed the Knight. “Since we have the time, I’d like to bury these men, and your help would be appreciated.”

“What do we have here?” Siltas inquired rhetorically, interrupting the verbal exchange as she lifted a medallion she’d untied from around the deceased mage’s neck. Holding it aloft by the leather cord, she allowed it to spin in the sunlight. “This might give us something to go on . . .”

Before she had a chance to show her find to Kraey, a growl of frustration from Tykara attracted both of their attention. Half-way to her horse, the warrior was waving a hand in the air, batting at something that kept diving toward her head.

“Halo!” cried the Valkyrie, relieved. “You’re alright!” She glanced at Kraey. “I was worried she’d been hurt when we were thrown from our saddles.” She rose to her feet and issued a short, sharp whistle. In flash, the little angel bird ceased its harassment of the other woman and flitted toward the source of the summons.

“I know that thing is small,” Tykara threatened, “but I cast a vote in favor of angel soup for supper.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Siltas comforted the creature. “She doesn’t mean a word of it.” A series of light chirps greeted her ears while the avian settled on her shoulder.

“Just keep a chain on that overgrown mosquito or I’ll let you go chase your horse for yourself,” came the idle caveat.

As if to make a point to the contrary, the huntress raised a hand to her lips and emitted a shrill whistle that carried out across the plains. The sound was answered both by a sudden burst of chatter from the bird on her shoulder and by a delayed and distant whinny.

Tykara snapped her head around to spy one of the animals rearing up high to paw the air, then coming back down on all four before starting toward the trio of humans. “How the-? Okay, you’ve got to show me how to do that.”

“I can teach you the whistle,” the redhead admitted, “but getting your horse to respond like that is a matter of trust. You gotta do that part on your own. Uh oh,” she alerted the warrior. “You might want to go after Tabin’s horse; it’s straying off to the north.”

“That sounds about right,” she grumbled back. “Here or not, that wizard’s causing me nothing but trouble.” The bandit continued toward her own beast and Siltas made no further remarks.

By the time that she’d mounted up and was riding away, Kraey had already retrieved a sword from one of the dead men and was stabbing into the ground to break lose the sod.

“Hey, you think one of those shields will work for a shovel?”

“Hmm?” The Knight glanced over at the woman. “Yes, I believe so. They’ve just enough curve to suffice. Would you mind seizing a blade and helping me here?”

Rather than answering verbally, she did as he said, grabbing the first fallen longsword along her path. Using it much like a cleaver, the Valkyrie began hacking a line through the topsoil. It took her several minutes to cut a rectangular outline some six feet long by three feet wide, after which she set the weapon aside and hooked her fingers under one end. With sufficient effort, she was able to get the edge to break loose and curl upward.

“Just like I thought,” she said to no one in particular.

“What is it?”

She gave the thick grass carpet a tug and it came up a little more, the dry stems crackling softly. “The ground is still just damp enough from the rain. We can trim the time this’ll take in half. Come over here and cut this away from the dirt while I lift.”

Between the two of them, they were able to get two graves dug out before Tykara returned leading the horse of the missing mage. Upon seeing their method and its effectiveness, she, too, took up the steel of an enemy and set to chopping outlines in the ground. Dampened earth or no, the work was still hot and the lingering humidity was causing each of the them to perspire heavily.

An hour or so into the task, they took to spelling each other, taking turns at rest and labor. And, one by one, the graves grew in number until they had a total of nine such depressions, shallow though they were. With a certain degree of care, the Tykara and Kraey lay each body into its resting place while Siltas went behind them with a round shield, scraping the piled soil over it. She gave every mound a final touch by spreading out the grass rugs atop them. The dismembered remains of the magi left behind by the strange Majik gate were laid together in the final grave.

When finally the dead were beneath the ground, the Kraey dry-washed his hands, brushing as much of the dirt as he was able, then lowered himself on one knee by the makeshift cemetery. As he prayed over their souls, the two women stood silently by the way, waiting for him to finish.

“Do you think that does any good?” Siltas dared to ask after he rose to his feet. “Praying for them after they’re already dead?”

He shrugged his broad shoulders in a solemn manner. “I cannot say whether it makes a difference or not,” he answered. “I myself have never been to the other side. But if my pleading to Kami on their behalf has even a remote chance that they may be spared, that they not pass through the Six Gates, I consider it worthwhile. The daemons that are bound within are, by and far, worse than any daemon that walks this world as do we.” He bowed very slightly. “And for the record, I appreciate your allowing me to conduct my prayer without ridicule. Many who don’t believe in Kami are not so accepting.”

The Valkyrie held up a hand. “Whoa, hold it right there. I never said I don’t believe in Him. I can accept that He exists, just like I accept that the Worldgod is real. I just don’t place my faith in either of them.”

“Same here,” Tykara agreed, “except that I’ve never heard of this ‘Worldgod’ until Siltas started talking about him . . . her . . . it. Whatever.”

“Well,” the huntress added for her sake, “don’t expect me to start preaching about Him to you. And yes, I said ‘Him’. Despite many of the sisters’ hostilities toward men, the Worldgod is still male.”

“Didn’t say I was interested,” the warrior came back. “Was just making a statement.” She slapped her hands together to knock away some of the dirt as she glanced at the position of the sun. “We only have a couple of hours before sunset, and I don’t know about you two, but I don’t really like the idea of setting up camp on top of a graveyard.”

Kraey rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead to wipe away the sweat that threatened to run down in his eyes. What he mostly accomplished was leaving a brown streak of dirt above his eyebrows. “I’m not keen on sleeping in the place of an ambush, myself.”

“The river is only an hour back north,” the ranger advised. “An hour and a half, at the most. That’s plenty of time to get some distance from here, set up for the night, even get washed up in the river. Gods know our waterskins don’t have enough to do the job, not with all the dirt we’re wearing.”

The Knight gave the graves one more lookover. It wasn’t the best of burials, but he’d seen worse. It would have to do. “We might as well. We can decide what to do about finding Tabin in the morning.”



.oO*Oo.




Tamara was getting closer. She could feel it. She was certain that she would reach her destination soon, wherever that might be. The pull was so strong that she almost didn’t stop for the evening, though she was very tired. She’d quickened the pace of her travel, as well as starting out earlier and continuing until later.
It had made a difference, slight though it seemed. From the way that the tug on her soul changed, she couldn’t help but feel that her goal was moving from place to place. So be it, she thought. If it be Kami’s will to lead her through the wild, then she would submit and follow.
Dipping a ladle into the small cooking pot, she filled her bowl and breathed in the scent. With care, Tamara stepped back from the warmth of the fire and managed to tuck her traveling dress out of her way so that she could sit on the grass. Some of the browning stalks crackled as she seated herself.
A sigh escaped her as she lifted a spoonful of the stew, blowing gently to cool the meal.
She’d only taken a few sips when a dread sensation washed over her, forcing her to shudder, nearly sloshing the stew.
True, she was trained as meteal, and that meant that she was sensitive to the potent emotions of others. But there was no one within miles, so far as she knew. And while she was skilled in the mind-healing, she was by no means all that powerful in her craft. She should not have been able to sense anything that was not within sight.
It was that very fact that told her this burden was something more. This was a warning. Kami was trying to prepare her.
She set the bowl aside and began praying, asking of Him the strength to bear whatever was to come.

.oO*Oo.




“The bright side,” Tykara said, only half-joking, “is that Kraey and myself can benefit from your hunting skills for the time being.” A grin punctuated her amendment of, “Well, that and the fact I don’t have to put up with the freak ‘til we find him.”

“Hey, I still plan to return to my clan,” the redhead countered. “I’ll stay until we either find and rescue Tabin, or until it becomes clear that we’ve lost him altogether. After that, you’ll have to live on rations or learn how to hunt your own food.” She nibbled at the dried meat in her hand, wishing very much that she’d had a chance to look for some game. But it was too late in the evening, and the wildlife was too scarce.

“We will find him,” Kraey assured the women. “He is still a part of this.” He tapped his fingers against the tahz’lt staff that lay across his lap, tapped against the dragon/rose engraving. “I don’t think that Kami is done with him just yet.” But he thoughts weren’t entirely focused on the mage. He permitted them to drift, now and again, to the concerns of his sister. Despite the Siltas’ promise, he couldn’t help but wonder if he could learn something on his own.

The coals in the fire shifted, collapsing as they small twigs burned away. The huntress rocked herself to her knees just long enough to feed a couple more sticks to the flame. It was a meager fire, but Siltas had insisted on keeping it small, just in case, and neither of the others saw fit to question her. Letting herself roll back to her seat, she happened to land with a pouch under her right buttock.

A light cry of mild discomfort brought earned her the attention of her companions.

“Sit on your own knife?” Tykara taunted her in good nature.

The Valkyrie shot her a slightly amused smile while she leaned to one side, freeing the pouch enough for her to loose it from her belt.

“Oh, yeah,” she said when she recalled its contents. “This is what I found on that dead wizard.” An underhanded toss sent the item toward Kraey, striking the ground next to his boot. “I don’t know if it means anything, but I thought it might be important.”

“Why so?” the Knight inquired as he picked up the pouch and set to opening the drawstrings.

“Just a hunch.”

He upended the pouch over his palm and felt the light weight as a strangely fashion chunk of metal dropped into his hand. Holding it this way and that in the dim firelight, he realized it was a medallion, made of some odd black metal and engraved with an image of a raven’s claw on one side. He pinched it between his finger and turned it this way and that, examining the trinket.

“I’m not sure what to make of it,” he informed the ranger, “but I get the vague impression that I’ve seen this somewhere before. Tykara,” he turned his focus to the former bandit, “care to give us your thoughts on the matter?” He flicked the piece across to her and she easily caught it by the leather cord.

Tykara lifted the medallion and gave it a scrutinizing glance. The sudden widening of her eyes and sharp intake of breath signaled to the others that she knew just what it was that she held.

She was looking at the amulet, but she was seeing more than the jewelry in her grasp. She was seeing the slightly disfigured ash-grey face of a menacing Shur’ken man. His onyx eyes were boring into hers, trying to force something to the fore of her thoughts; a memory that her mind had buried.

She flung the medallion away just before a wave of agony spiked into her brain, more brutal than any headache she’d ever suffered previously. Behind the wall of pain, she couldn’t hear her own shriek as she clasped her hands against either side of her head.



.oO*Oo.




Tamara nearly cried out at the weight of the ache that threatened to crush her spirit, and she clung tighter to Kami for aid. Something terrible had just begun. She prayed all the more fervently.



.oO*Oo.




Both the Knight and the Valkyrie did their best to wrestle the black-haired bandit down, afraid she would roll herself into the fire in her hysterical writhing.

“Make it stop!” she was screaming again and again. “Gods, make it stop!”

Talons of torment clawed at the inside of her skull, leaving her unable to comprehend anything other than the hell raging in her head. In her frenzied struggle, she kicked Kraey hard just below the ribs, forcing the air from his lungs in a rush.

Fighting to regain his breath, Kraey found himself losing his hold on the warrior. Fortunately, Siltas was quick to adjust her approach. When Tykara rolled away from her, the huntress slipped an arm around her neck and locked it in place with her free hand. She accompanied the action by entangling one leg through the thrashing woman’s, then hooking her own ankles together. She nearly lost her grip when Tykara’s head jerked back and impacted against her mouth, but she somehow able to hold on and apply pressure long enough to render the bandit unconscious.

A few seconds more and Siltas untangled herself, running her tongue along a split lip.

“What . . . happened?” Kraey was only just getting back his breath.

Siltas shook her head. “Not sure.” She touched her lip with a couple of fingers, testing the extent of the injury. “But I think it’s safe to say she doesn’t like that medallion much.”

“Is . . . is she alright?”

The ranger sat up and rolled Tykara onto her back, checking her vitals. “Her heart is beating like a horse at a full gallop, her breathing is fast, heavy.” She elevated the warrior’s head, trying to get into the firelight, and used her thumb to lift an eyelid. “I don’t know, Kraey. I’m not sure what to tell you. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Kraey’s concern grew at her words. “You undoubtedly have a more extensive knowledge about healing than I. What measures should we take?”

The Valkyrie hesitated in her response. “I . . . Look, I know how to tend to physical wounds. Whatever’s wrong with her . . . It’s not something I can do anything about. She’s not hurt in any way I can see. I mean, the light’s not very good, but she’s physically fine as far as I can tell.” Despite what she said, Siltas continued to feel for injuries.

“Regardless,” the Knight pressed, “I would rather trust in your capabilities than my own.”

In the flickering shadows, the redhead pursed her lips, contemplating the precious few options left to her. In truth, there was only one option that was presently obvious.

She shook her head. “All I can think to do is let her sleep and hope she’s fine in the morning.”

Kraey considered the thought for a moment, then frowned. “And if she isn’t alright by then?”

All that his query earned him was a stare that was followed by a solemn shrug. “We’ll think of something. But it’ll mean that Tabin is going to have to fend for himself for the time being.”
_-^-_






Footnotes;

(*)Starvelings = the first known records of these creatures dates back millennia, and they are attributed as being the by-product of sorcerous experiments wherein their souls were violently stripped from them. Yet, there was, somehow, a form of life left behind. Being bereft of that which had bound their spirits to their bodies, they hunger for the thing that made them truly alive. When they awaken in their new and hideous form, their minds can scarcely entertain more thought that the desire to devour the souls of the living. Though a Starveling can prolong its existence through this method, never has any of them actually restored their own soul, assuming that it is even possible. Through further experimentation, sorcerer of immense power later learned not only how to intentionally create more of these abominations, but also how to command them. Only a sorcerer of the greatest skill is capable of enforcing his or her will upon a Starveling.

Correction Note: Early on in this story, I made references to a "dark elf" race known as the Shur'ken. This has been altered to a human-like race (without the tell-tale pointed ears) that has ash-grey skin, dark red hair and eyes that are solid black. If later chapters have left you wondering, well, now you know. Also, any previous references to "Lucifer" should be considered a reference to the daemon Baal (or Lord) Odium. Sorry for any confusion, but this is a work in progress and some details may be subject to change, though I will try to clarify when/if this occurs. Again, if anyone would like to see the full modified version, PM me and let me know.
_-^-_

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Tejas
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri May 18, 2012 9:18 am

Chapter Sixteen
“Prisons”


5:06 Rising, Dies Maria, 25th of Quintilis, 2134 P.B.

Siltas lay wide awake, her arms tucked behind her head, watching the last stars on night fade away, yielding the sky to the dawn crept closer. Already, there was a faint glow on the eastern horizon, though it would be more than another hour before the sun saw fit the lift itself aloft. The dew of early morning already was damp against her skin, but she didn’t mind. It was one of the things she loved about being away from the confines of cities. Out here, as the hints of the world’s first breaths of the morn caressed her, she knew for certain that the world was indeed alive. She couldn’t truly say that it made her at peace, but it was this time of morning that was definitely the closest she ever felt to the elusive state.

The sound of a body shifting several feet away alerted her to the Knight’s movements. He was awake. Again. He hadn’t slept much during the night. To be fair, neither had she, though the sleep she’d gotten would suffice, thanks to her botanical knowledge. The simple truth was that hey were both concerned with their twofold dilemma; how to set about searching for Tabin, and wondering if Tykara would be alright when she awoke.

For several minutes, she heard Kraey twist this way and that, trying to achieve a measure of rest. Evidently, he decided that he would not succeed and sat up.

“You too?” she asked him in a low voice.

She caught him in her peripheral vision when he half-turned toward her.

“If you feel like trying for a bit of sleep, I’ll take the rest of your watch,” he offered.

The huntress shook her head slowly. “No, I’m good. But, judging by how much you tossed around, seems to me like you could have used a bit of uulde root before you went to sleep.”

Uulde ?” the man queried. “And what is that?”

“Helps you get restful sleep,” she educated him. “You just cut a thin slice off the root and lay it under your tongue. Otherwise, you might swallow it while you sleep. Not as effective if you swallow it.”

“Do you happen to have any I could use now?”

She pulled her arms out from under her head and stretched languidly. “It wouldn’t do you any good, now. You have to use it before you go to sleep. If energy is what you need, then you should eat some honey. And no, I don’t have any of that.” She raised her head and gave him a grin. “Termites will work, if you can find any. But you’ll never forget the taste.”

Rather than respond to her teasing, he set to rummaging through his belongings for some dried rations.

Siltas stretched out a bit more, trying to loosen her muscles, tight as they were from the skirmish of the yesterday. And the grave-work afterwards had not aided at all. Not that her body was unaccustomed to such movements, but adrenaline had a habit of increasing the strain it caused. A twist to one side forced her back to pop lightly and she sighed at the release of the pressure.

“We going to head out early?” she broke the silence.

“I think not,” Kraey answered around a bite of jerked meat. “There is no real need to hurry along, just yet. We don’t know where we’re going.”

She couldn’t argue the point. With no useable information, they really didn’t have any way to track their abducted ally. And, whether it had been a sign from the Knight’s deity or something else altogether, the mysterious tie on their spirits seemed to have dissolved.

“Has she slept the entire night?” Kraey’s query was one she’d expected.

“Yeah. I thought I heard her make a few sounds, but she hasn’t woken at all. Kinda makes me jealous. She’s the only one getting a full night’s rest in.”

He tore another piece off the meat in his hand. “You could have woke her for a shift.”

Siltas laughed softly. “You kidding? I’m just glad she did yell in her sleep or wake up screaming in the night. I’ll let her sleep as long as she will.” She paused for an instant, taking on a more serious look. “You know, if you want to wait a couple more hours before we start packing, I can give you a sliver of uulde. It won’t affect anything other than your rest. You could get in a little bit of real sleep.”

Kraey tried not to seem too grateful for the offer as he accepted. “If it isn’t too much trouble . . .”


.oO*Oo.



His head hurt dreadfully as he regained consciousness, most specifically, at the back of his skull. It felt as though he’d been clubbed from behind. He tried to reach back and feel the spot that ached so badly.

A cold iron clasp around his wrist prevented him.

Slowly, so very slowly, the fog in his brain relented enough to realize that both of his wrists were bound. Stretched out to either side, they were chained to an equally cold, as well as slightly damp, stone wall. And when he tried to move his foot, he found that it was tightly shackled to the other, keeping him from being able to do little beside stand against the wall.

“For what it’s worth,” a voice came to him from across the dimly-lit room, “I’m sorry for how this turned out. It’s not at all what I planned.”

He squinted hard to see in the low light, compounded as it was by the traces of dizziness that lingered. All that he could see was the outline of someone in the shadows of the far corner.

“Wha-? What do you mean? Where am I?” he demanded of his unknown companion. “Who are you?”

His question hung in the air for almost a full minute before the silhouette moved, rising from the bench whereon it sat. Several steps brought the figure partially out of the shadows.

“What you’ve suffered in the last day and night has been entirely my fault.” Flickering light from a torch outside the room trickled in through the viewport in the door, revealing the figure’s face. When the wall-shackled man inhaled in shock, the figure nodded expectantly. “Yes, I know. You’re thinking ‘What the devil is a Shur’ken doing on Tei’Vaek?’ You’re also wondering why you’re been caged in here with me.” A soft smile tried vainly to grace the grey-skinned visage. “I’ll answer all your questions as well as I can. All you need do is ask.” The darkman held up a single finger as if signal a condition. “But first, let me tell you who I am.” He gestured to himself, “ I am Savvis, expert bladesman and, when needed, thief. And you are . . ?”

So stunned was the chained man that he answered automatically before he could think to do otherwise.

“Tabin Onak,” he said simply, to which the Shur’ken motioned for him to expound. The pale wizard had to actually think in order to respond. “I . . . I am a practitioner of the arcane.”

Savvis nodded. “And a very talented one, from what I’ve been told. Which is why you’re restrained chained up the way you are. Again, I apologize.” He moved a little closer to the mage. “As for the questions you already asked; I meant that you’re a victim in my own poorly laid plans. You’re in a captive cell beneath the Heartscar Fortress.”

“ ‘Poorly laid plans?’,” Tabin echoed.

The Shur’ken nodded again. “Yes. Sad to say, I’ve never been very good at making long-term strategies. In fact, one might even say that I’m a horrible failure at it. I’ve always had a better head for artistry with a blade.”

“And your easy use of Vaek?”

The darkman paused for only an instant. “Is that what you call your tongue?” He proceeded with his answer. “I can speak several languages. Study was never a problem for me. Only planning. Besides, I’ve been in these lands for over half my life. Hidden, of course.”

Tabin felt his head nod, taking in the information. “Vaek is not my first tongue,” he corrected. “I am not a native of Tei’Vaek.” A thought struck him. “You said that this was an error of your own making. What do you mean by that?”

His cellmate hesitated. “I . . . I’m not sure how to explain that.”

“Try.”

The Shur’ken cleared his throat. “I meant to somehow enlist you as an ally.”

“You have a strange way of going about it, ash-man.” As soon as he said it, the mage felt a twinge of regret. It stung when others used derogatory terms for him, and he knew that racial remarks could hurt just as much. ‘Ash-man’ was a slang term in Padan-Aram and Arenia for anyone one of Shur’ken blood.

The darkman didn’t seemed to mind it, though. Instead, he tried to continue his explanation.
“Look, I thought that I might be able to trick you into helping me, once I had you here. I though I could get you to teach me Majik, to help me figure out a way to stop Kardellyus.”

With his brow furrowed deeply, Tabin asked, “Who is this Kardellyus? And why would I ever teach you Majik, given how I’ve been treated to this point?”

Savvis grinned half-heartedly and shook his head in wonder. “You’ve been attacked, snatched out of nowhere, hit over the head, chained up and left to rot in a cell. And you don’t waste any time fighting against your shackles. Instead, you just start hounding your unexpected fellow prisoner for information. You certainly aren’t one to get easily flustered, are you?”

The wizard took that as a compliment. “Not usually,” he agreed. For some reason, the image of Siltas bathing in the spring leapt into his thoughts. Women were the one thing that could bring a blush to his cheeks and cause him to stammer. He had to accredit that to his quite limited amount of interaction with the fairer sex. His face grew slightly warm at the thought of the Valkyrie, and he was suddenly glad at the lack of light in the cell. “There is precious little that deters my presence of mind for very long,” he said. “Now, I believe I was awaiting an answer?”

The darkman nodded slightly. “Right, right. Uh, Kardellyus. Well, he is the one who put us in here.” He shrugged his shoulders in mild chagrin. “I mean, I was going to put you in here anyway, but it wasn’t going to be for long, I promise. Just until I thought of a way to convince you . . . Nevermind, it’s a moot point now. Suffice to say, Kardellyus won’t be letting you out of here unless he finds a use for you. Trust me, you don’t want that. I’ve been his unwilling peon for long enough to know.”

“And?” Tabin encouraged him to continue.

“And,” Savvis added, “he’s one of the most powerful sorcerers alive, if not the most powerful.”

“That isn’t what I meant,” the mage clarified. “I was referring to my other query. Why would I ever teach you Majik?”

“Oh.” The darkman put his grey-skinned hands together. “Because I can’t stop him on my own. He has too much power, and here on Tei’Vaek, the Shurian Conclave has no power to stop him. He’s acting without their favor and they can’t reach him to intervene. I’m no sorcerer. I refuse to subject my soul to the touch of daemons or the Baalim. The only hope I have is to learn Majik and to gather as many allies as I can.”

For almost an entire minute, Tabin’s iron-grey eyes stared at the Shur’ken, weighing all that he had said. Finally, he spoke. “By your own admission, you don’t know the smallest part about devising a lengthy stratagem, and have disastrously mismanaged your attempt to garner my aid as an ally. Even were I given to joining forces with such an imbecilic, insubordinate fool, what reason would I ever have to trust you? What could this Kardellyus have in mind that even his own people would seek the cessation of his efforts?”

Savvis was wringing his hands and shaking his head. “You don’t understand. You can’t afford not to trust me in this. You can’t afford not to believe me, no one can. If he isn’t stopped, then no one will be free of the Baalim.” He paused for a second. “Kardellyus is gathering the Keys of the Abyss. He’s going to open the Gates.” (*)

Tabin felt his heart stop.


.oO*Oo.



He awoke when he felt a hand shaking him. The light of mid-morning was bathing his face and, though it was bright, it didn’t have that harshness to his eyes as he would normally have felt. He didn’t feel the least bit groggy or sluggish as he might have expected, but rather, it was like he’d already been awake and active for an hour. Consciousness came to him in an instant.

He looked at the redheaded woman whose touch had rousted him.

“That-” He paused long enough to remove the sliver of uulde root from under his tongue. “That is absolutely amazing!” he enthused, holding the sliver up. “I’ve never felt so refreshed from so little sleep.”

Siltas was already nodding, a half-grin affixed to her lips. “Yeah, I know. Just don’t get too used to it. It can be habit forming. I remember one of my sisters getting so she couldn’t sleep at all without it.”

“Indeed?” he asked. “Then I shall endeavor to be careful in it’s application. Even so, it is a good bit of knowledge to possess for certain situations.”

She nodded again. “Yeah. Better get up. It’s been just over two hours. We still need to decide what to do about Tabin.” She wagged the strange raven claw medallion before him.

“Of course,” he agreed, sitting up and stretching a little. He flinched slightly. That kick Tykara had dealt him had bruised. “Has that trinket proven to be of any use?”

A snort of minor amusement greeted him in reply. “Are you kidding? If I hadn’t seen that wizard holding onto it like it was a bag of diamonds, I’d probably tell you that it wasn’t worth the metal it’s made of. My guess? It’s got something to do with Majik.”

Kraey raised an eyebrow as he watched her. “And the reason it sent Tykara into a crazed frenzy?”

Siltas just shrugged before she stood up. “Not my field of expertise. When you start talking arcane, you’re going over my head. Look, I’m gonna get the horses saddled while you get your things ready. Oh, and wake up Tykara when you get a chance. She’ll probably just grumble the whole time, but we should still include her in deciding what to do about Tabin.”

She was right, and the Knight knew it.

He rose to his feet and seized his blanket by the corners, then set to shaking the dirt and grass from it. “Did she stir at all while I was asleep?” he called over his shoulder.

“Just once,” the Valkyrie offered as she tossed the saddle onto her mount’s back. “I think she was having a nightmare. I saw her head move a little and she made a sound kind of like . . . well, I guess a ‘whimper’ would be the closest way to phrase it.”

Kraey shook the blanket a few more times before he was satisfied with its state. He’d folded it in half and was rolling it up tightly when he glanced over toward the slumbering warrior. A faint breeze stirred a few strands of her black hair, making them trail across her face. He set the rolled blanket on the ground and moved in her direction, deciding to go ahead and wake her now.

He knelt down next to her and nudged her shoulder. She didn’t respond.

“Come on, Tykara,” he prompted. “The day is upon us. Time to rise and meet it.” He nudged her again. Still nothing. He patted her gently on the cheek.

“Heavy sleeper?” Siltas joked. “Try pouring water on her face. That ought to do the trick.”

He shook her and called her name again, but received no response. “Something is wrong, Siltas.”

The huntress glanced over and saw the lines of worry on his face. Tugging one last time on the saddle’s cinch, she left her work to examine their companion. She knelt down and felt Tykara’s forehead with the back of her hand. Her skin seemed to be a normal temperature. With an ear over the bandit’s mouth, Siltas could tell that her breathing was smooth and even. Her heart was beating at a normal pace. The ranger used a finger and a thumb to open an eye.

“What in the-?”

“What is it?” The lines in the Knight’s face had creased further.

The look she gave him was total confusion. “She’s . . . she’s not asleep . . . she’s not awake . . . I don’t understand it.”

“What do you mean? How can she not be one or the other?”

“Look at her eyes!” she told him. “It’s like she’s just . . . not here. I mean, she’s alive, she seems fine, physically. For all I know, she’s trapped in her own mind.” She hesitated before adding, “If that’s the case, the only thing I can do for her is to make it quick.”

“Make what qui-” Kraey’s query abruptly changed to a darkened frown and a headshake of negation. “No. That will not be her end.”

Siltas rolled her eyes. “Kraey, I didn’t say I was going to just yet. I don’t even know if that’s what’s happened to her. I’m just saying that, if she’s . . . lost to us, then it would be a great mercy to her to just end it. If I was stuck in an endless void, I’d want someone to . . . help me pass.”

He shook he head even more emphatically. “Regardless of whether that is the case or not, I’ll not allow it. I will kill in battle if I must, but I won’t be party to killing someone who is helpless, especially someone who has so much to make right. And neither will you, not while you travel with me.”

Her face grew drawn and stubborn. “Okay, you clarify two things for me.” She held up a finger. “One; what in the Abyss makes you think she even wants to ‘make right’ the things she’s done? Has she ever said anything at all to give you that idea?” A second finger joined the first. “Two; why are you so doggedly insistent to watch over her, care for her, and to place yourself as her personal guardian? Who asked you to take that post? Seems to me you’re just trying to make her another slave to your Kami.”

The Knight’s back went rigid and he kept his indignation stowed away, if only just. Trying with much effort to be patient with the Valkyrie, he took a slow breath and answered her two-point inquiry.

“When you first confronted her about her past, when you accused her of robbery and murder, I saw in her eyes a deep regret, almost hidden. She was on the verge of apologetic when she admitted to being Tykara ‘Redhands’. Anyone who feels regret for their wrongdoing must, to some degree, have a desire to make amends. If she was a ruthless killer who now regrets, imagine what wonderful things she could accomplish for the better were she given the chance and the guidance to do so. As for my own interest in being her guide, I owe that to the teachings of the Knighthood. We of the order were never meant to be the rulers of the people. We were never meant to tell them how to live. Whatever you may have heard of knights of others places, the Knight and lords of the Godson Nation have always believed that we are the protectors of the people. We are their servants, not they ours. We are a peculiar people to the rest of the world. I do not count myself above anyone. I stand ready to defend them. ‘Give justice where needed, mercy where pleaded, and trust all else to the Will of Kami.’ That is the message left us by Yyshin. It is that by which we live. And those Knights who do not . . . it is they that swelled the ranks of the Exiles.”

Siltas’ red hair shifted as she gave Kraey a slow nod. “Alright. I . . . I apologize for making a snide remark about your faith. It was uncalled for, and I’m sorry. Just because I don’t serve any gods doesn’t give me the right to slight those that do.” She cleared her throat. “So, I guess we need to figure out what to do about Tykara, then. I mean, if we can’t get her to wake up, then we’ve got to get her some help. The nearest city is Forester and I don’t know if they even have a physician with the skills to-”

“Forester?” Kraey interrupted her. “I know that name. My home city of Inami does some small trade with them, from time to time. How far away is it?”

She stammered for an instant, trying to figure the distance in her head. “It’s, uh . . . I think about a week, maybe eight days. To the east and a bit north.” She shook her head and corrected herself. “No, it’s a longer ride than that, if one of us had to carry her in the saddle. Dragging a litter behind would be better, but there’s no trees out here, no wood to make one.” She paused. “Probably a tenday, best guess. Unless we run into rain. And I don’t like the way those clouds are acting.” She pointed toward the sky several miles away. When the Knight followed her gaze, he didn’t care much for the signs either.

“Keep trying to wake her,” he advised. “I’ll get everything packed and ready as quickly as I am able. We might have to move slowly, but I’d rather see if we can outdistance any foul weather if at all possible.”

“And Tabin?” Siltas’ question made him delay for several heartbeats.

“Unless Kami shows us the way to him, we’ll just have to pray and hope that Tabin can handle whatever situation he finds himself. Right now, Tykara is the only one for whom we can do anything.”

She met his worried eyes and held them for just a second. A nod sent him on his way while she tried every trick she knew to wake the warrior.


.oO*Oo.



She knew she wasn’t dead.

When you’re dead, you’re supposed to feel at peace. There isn’t any pain, or worry. Not even any remembrance of what those words meant. You weren’t supposed to know fear.

Right?

So she knew that death had yet to drag her away. Because she was in pain. She was afraid. And peace? That concept was foreign to her thoughts.

The edges of her vision were traced with darkness and she could faintly see, out of the corners of her eyes, strangely familiar shadows flitting about, trying merely not to be forgotten. But her memory here was a fickle thing. She could only barely remember her own name. How could these shadows hope for her to recall theirs? She couldn’t even see their faces. It was all just a dizzying swirl of mist that she could never quite bring into focus, and she was natant in the waters of her confusion.

At the same time, there were some things that were crisp and clear, bright as day. She could hear the creaking of leather, as though under much weight. She felt the strong presence of an arm around her mid-section, holding her upright. The smell of horse sweat filled her nostrils. Every now and again, the darkness would part just enough to catch a glimpse of a redheaded woman just a few yards away, a pair of reins expertly gripped between her fingers, guiding . . . something. An animal of some sort. A horse?

She tried to raise her head, but the effort was just too much. Her sight faded away again, damning her to the oblivion which was populated with her shadows. It was no use to attempt speech either. Her lips might as well have been sewn together. As nearly as she could tell, she’d been rendered mute.

A lashing sting scored her mind and she heard one of the shadows speak.

“Remember me. Remember me. Remember me.”

It wasn’t so much speaking at it was chanting. Each repetition was like another lash.

In her throat, she conceived a silent whimper to which she could not give birth. Such pain. Such terrible pain. Never in her life had she known anything like this, not in her dreams, not in her nightmares. And she was no stranger to pain, whether dealing it or receiving it. She couldn’t even shed the tears that filled to bursting behind her eyes.

The shadow blinked in her peripheral vision. She thought she saw blue eyes. Like her own, but older. Wiser. Its voice slowly faded and it began to dissolve into smoke.

Another crawled into view from the other side, a wisp of dark hair floating where she could scarcely tell that it was there. And that shadow hissed right in her ear.

“Remember me.”

Her brain felt like it was fragmenting inside her skull. As though it were some sort of cerebral crystal, and someone had struck a bell that hit that perfect note. If this was what it meant to remember, she would rather forget. She’d made it this far, this long, without remembering. She could go longer still.

But there was only one problem.

She couldn’t leave this place. She didn’t even know where this place was. And that, in itself, was nearly as frightening as the shadows, peering at her from the dark.

Another shadow crept closer, not waiting for the previous one to recede.

“Remember me,” it whispered, its voice sounding so very familiar, so welcoming, so loving. So agonizing.

She felt the crystal crack a little more.


.oO*Oo.



Tamara found it difficult to handle her mount. A foreboding sensation permeated her soul and stole away much of her concentration. She natheless journeyed onward, more east now than south. That pull at her heart was definitely leading toward something or someone on the move. Kami was guiding her, of that she was certain.

So rapt in her thoughts was she, that she paid no attention to the light breeze the ruffled the cloth of her cloak and rippled the grass across the plains. While much of the grass was quite brown, still it waved at her as if to greet her while she passed by. But she did not wave back, never having noticed. Neither did she note the grey clouds that hovered far in the distance.

She nearly lost the reins as her beast sharply dipped its head, snagging a mouthful of the dried grass. Fortunately, she’d tied the two ends of the leather reins together, which enabled her to catch hold of them.

A breath and a sigh, and she had herself once more focused on the task at hand.

She could sense the mental anguish of someone nearby. It was obvious to her that Kami meant for her to lend her training as meteal to the cause of aiding whomever stood at her destination. And she would do so. Even though . . .

Even though . . .

There was something so very familiar about the mind she’d touched . . .
_-^-_





Footnotes;


(*) Baalim = The Baalim is the term given to the One Who Fell and his five officers. After being cast out of Caelestis, the Baalim were condemned to an eternity in a layered prison, which is known to mortals as the Abyss. The six layers of the Abyss each contain one of the Baalim. In order from first layer to last, they are Invidius, Avarit, Superbius, Libidis, Dolo, and Odium.
_-^-_

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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Jun 01, 2012 4:57 pm

(Author's Note; I know that I'm updating this a week early, but I won't have the chance to do so next week. So it will be four weeks from this chapter to the next. Happy reading, and remember, feedback makes writers get better, so PM me if you have suggestions. God bless!)



Chapter Seventeen
“To Breathe Once More”


6:42 Rising, Et Diem Hominis, 26th of Quintilis, 2134 P.B.

The chains clinked softly in accompaniment to the grunts as Tabin allowed his full weight to rest on the shackles that bound his wrists. Keeping count in his head, the mage lifted himself from the floor for the thirty-ninth time, curling his legs upward as far as his bonds would permit. Despite his confinement and relatively meager meals, he still felt that his best chances of escape lay in retaining his physical fitness and in his strength of mind.

“Forty,” he exhaled in a breathy whisper, lifting his own weight one last time. Keeping fit should not come at the cost of wasting too much energy. No need to push himself too far.

Next, he began squatting down to the limits of the chains, then rising again to a stand. He couldn’t ignore the muscles of his legs. But he did try to ignore the tendrils of sweat that threatened to work their way into his eyes. The humidity of the prison cell served only to expedite his perspiration, and his forehead already resembled the dank walls.

Luckily, drinking water was not in short supply for his cellmate and himself. He’d carefully instructed Savvis in how to use the sand and dust on the floor to form a make-shift filter with which they could purify (to an extent) the water they’d been given, as well as whatever water from the walls they needed to supplement it.

As for food . . . The unappealing gruel they were served did little to sate their appetites, and they were allotted no more than a single bowl between them. Certainly, their jailors could not be accused of overfeeding their wards.

The chains clinked again and, this time, the Shur’ken finally stirred from the little pallet he’d made in the corner. Between his dark clothes, the dusky hue of his skin, and the shadows of the cell, Tabin was just barely able to see the movement. The wizard let his weight sink again.

“What are you doing?” came a muffled, half-asleep voice.

“Good morning to you,” Tabin wished the darkman, rising to his full height, ticking off another count in his head.

The shaded figure rolled a bit and sat up. “Hmm?” Savvis wiped a hand across his face. Though neither of them could tell, he’d left a streak of dirt down his right cheek. “How do you know it’s morning?”

The mage shrugged, shifted his white hair a bit. “I don’t. Not for certain, at least. I suppose one might simply call it a hunch. By the by,” he queried, “would you happen to have secreted away a small knife? Or anything small and sharp, for that matter?”

The Shur’ken blinked several times, trying to come fully awake. “What? Why? And what are you doing, making all that noise?”

Tabin continued with his exercises while he spoke. “I am performing my morning routines to the best of my current ability. I see no use in permitting my body to become lax simply because I am confined to a cell. And I need a knife because I intended to request that you cut my hair for me.” He gave his head a shake and his matted tangles danced merrily at his shoulders. “With no way for me to wash it properly, I would rather have it considerably shorter.”

Savvis squinted his eyes and gave a confounded expression that Tabin could not see. “You’re the strangest human I’ve ever met.” He paused for an instant, considering the mage’s phantom-like complexion. “Um, you are human, aren’t you?” The mage nodded, as much to shake some of the sweat from his brow as to answer. “Just making sure,” he continued. “It’s just that I’ve never seen anyone so . . . calm, I guess, about being caged like an animal. How do you even do that?”

A slight warmth was beginning to grow in the wizard’s legs as he spoke. “It is of no benefit to you or to myself for me to allow irrationality or panic to enter my way of thinking. In fact, were I to abandon my logic at such a time as this, it would most likely prove to be disastrous for us.” He ceased his routine for just a second. “And you never answered me about that knife.” He returned to the exercises.

“They searched us both before they locked us up,” Savvis informed him. “Just exactly how can things become any worse for either of us? There’s no way for us to get out of here. I have no weapons, you can’t use your Majik. I mean, even if you get out of those chains, these cells are warded.”

“Perhaps,” Tabin said. “Perhaps not. Not all Majik can be warded. Is there anything in here you might be able to sharpen in lieu of a knife?” His question nearly distracted the Shur’ken from the cryptic response.

“Are you saying you can use your Majik?”

“Are you going to look for a make-shift knife?” the mage countered.

Savvis nearly growled in frustration. “If you’ll answer my question, then, yes.”

Tabin smiled softly, his pallid lips parting to reveal a hint of his teeth.

“Soulbreath,” he said.


.oO*Oo.



More and more, Tamara felt something almost . . . almost like home.

It made no sense to her whatsoever. Her little village was still very, very far away, and she did not even know if there was anything left. A day’s journey south of Cristyne, that was the place she’d once called home. Surrounded by family, by friends . . . She didn’t know if even a single person had stayed there after . . .

After that day.

She didn’t know if there had been anyone left who
could stay.

She shook her head. There was no purpose in dredging up those old thoughts. Far better that she pointed her perspective toward more positive things. For instance, the mind that she’d touched.

Truly, someone was in great need. And it was perfectly obvious that she possessed a skill and a talent that was ideally suited to tend to such a need. Make no mistake, it was not a coincidence that she’d begun her homeward journey to be passing by this region at just the right time.

Still, it left her puzzled, this feeling. Why should she have such a sensation of . . . closeness? Who was this person she’d sensed?

Tamara did not mean to question the will of Kami. Oh, far from it.

But if home was still more that three hundred leagues away, why did it seem that part of it was so close?

.oO*Oo.



Savvis scraped the little shard of metal along the wall, slowly sheering away a bit of it. He’d been incredibly lucky to find a piece of the ceiling grate that he was able to break off. There was no truly suitable place for the proper sharpening of the improvised knife, but he knew how to make do when it came to weapons. And, while the knife wasn’t really intended for use as a weapon as yet, the principle remained the same.

“See anything?” he questioned the wizard.

“No, nothing at all,” Tabin informed him, exploiting his limited view through the window of the cell door. The wavering torch lights outside lined the long row of cells, and he just barely able to see the feet of the jailor. The heavy-set man was obviously napping near the entrance to this dismal place, leaning back against the wall, his legs stretched out before him. While Tabin could not actually see the man lazing about, his imagination painted the image well enough for him. “I doubt that you have need to worry about him waking anytime soon. You’re doing that very quietly, all things considered,” he remarked on the hissing echo as the shard was dragged against the wall in a smooth, steady rhythm.

“Alright, then,” Savvis began, “will you explain to me just how you’re able to use Majik is a warded cell?”

“I could,” the mage admitted. “But I doubt that it would do as well as showing you.” He stood up straight, transferring his weight from his arms to his legs. He’d already developed a pattern to reduce the discomfort of his accommodations. “Collect some of the metal dust in your palm and come over here.”

The darkman eyed him for an instant, wondering what the wizard had in mind. Pinch by pinch, he put the minuscule amount of shavings in his hand, Having tucked the would-be knife into his boot. “You’re actually going to perform some Majik right now? What if he wakes up and sees?” he asked, referring to the jailor. “He’ll report straight to Kardellyus, and that will be the end of that.”

Tabin watched the man outside. “I honestly doubt that will be a problem, especially given the form of Majik I intend to employ.”

Try as he might, there was some of the dust that Savvis simply could not pick up. What he’d acquired would simply have to suffice. “I still don’t understand. Wards or not, don’t you still have to be able to execute the maneuvers of a spell? How in the Abyss are you going to be able-”

“Just hold the dust in front of me,” the mage cut him off. “Keep your hand open and watch closely.” The Shur’ken did as he was told, both curious and bemused. True, Savvis was not an accomplished spell-caster, but he understood enough of the techniques to know it was nearly impossible to cast while bound. “One more thing,” Tabin cautioned his cellmate. “If you begin to feel a tingling, itchy sensation in your hand, you are to immediately drop the dust and scrub your palm clean with the water. I’ve not used this method in quite some time.”

Savvis cleared his throat and steadied himself before nodding for Tabin to proceed.

The mage closed his eyes. One by one, he quelled his thoughts. Once his mind was clear, he opened his eyes again and peered at the tiny iron flecks in the palm of Savvis’ hand. With great precision, he mentally estimated the volume and mass of the shavings, calculated the desired effect he wished to achieve. Rows of equations spilled through his head like a torrent, and as quickly as they appeared, he solved them, combining the solutions into new equations that worked toward his final goal. In a matter of just one second, he knew exactly how much of his own energy he would need to expend. He took a long, deep breath, held it for only an instant, then released it in a slow and soft current that flowed over the ash-grey hand holding the dust.

Here and there, a tiny sliver stirred with the air. Then Savvis saw it. A single little flake began to change color, going from the glitter of cut iron to the ugly reddish brown of rust. Another flake followed the pattern, then another and another. Soon, more than half the dust in the darkman’s hand had turned into the useless powder.

“How did you-?” the Shur’ken started to ask, then he abruptly shook the dust from his palm and rushed to the bowl that held their water. He doused his hand with the liquid and used a corner of his shirt to scrub the remaining metal off.

“My apologies,” Tabin offered.

“No, no,” Savvis shook his head. “You gave fair warning. I could’ve just refused to hold it for you. Still, it was a show worth the discomfort.”

The mage nodded in agreement, then quickly ceased the movement. He was a little dizzy from the expenditure and the motion only made it worse.

“How in the Abyss did you do that?” The darkman rubbed a couple more times at his hand and started to dry it off. “I mean, that should have been impossible.”

“That entirely depends on the perspective,” Tabin educated. “You see, mathematics is used to determine the parameters and power of a spell. The maneuvers of martial arts are used to initiate and release the power. And the power itself is tapped by using a small portion of one’s own energy to server as a catalyst, persuading the elements to lend their own power. It is an intricate three-fold system at work. But when a ward is in place, the elements are silenced and cannot heed the call of the caster’s energies; thus they are unable to speak in response.” He held up a single digit of his right hand, an image that might have seemed almost comical, given that his hand was chained to the wall. “However, there is a method taught only to wizards of the royal bloodline in Padan-Aram. It is called the soulbreath technique. Because there is no Majik that can ward the spirit, a mage trained in the soulbreath can use much larger portions of his own energy to affect the world around him. Since the power is unaccompanied by any martial forms or elemental energies, the effect is, of course, much less grand. But, with practice, it is possible to cast spells regardless of wards.”

“You’re very trusting with your knowledge,” Savvis noted. “With just a few inquiries, you’re telling me all sorts of valuable information on the use of Majik. Why is that? What makes you think you can trust me?”

The wizard smiled in response. “If you were being honest about our situation, then my sharing of experience is only beneficial to us both. And if you being fraudulent, then what I have imparted to you would be of no use without my aid. Knowledge of the existence of soulbreath does not impart the teachings and practices of its use. And torture cannot entice me to play the tutor. Had I no strength of will, then I would not be a wizard.”

The Shur’ken pursed his lips, considering. He was impressed at the rapid and thorough reasoning of the human. Though, with him being a mage, Savvis should not have been surprised.

“Alright, then,” he continued, “so how does this soulbreath work in our favor? I mean, making metal dust into rust? Just how useful is that?”

Tabin had to give him that point. “That is precisely why I need to practice as much as possible in the next few days. For any mage, practice is an absolute must. I’ve had no reason to use the soulbreath technique, so I mistakenly allowed myself to fall lax in exercising it. If I can recondition myself appropriately, then I may be able to free myself from these chains. After that, I can use it to open the door, and we can attempt to steal away quietly. Your knowledge of this place should prove invaluable to that end-” The mage stopped and stared out through the cell door.

“What is it?” Savvis asked, his voice suddenly low.

“I thought I saw someone move outside,” Tabin replied.

“The jailor?”

Tabin shook his head, inviting a light wave of dizziness to return. “No,” he said, his own volume just as soft as the darkman’s. “He is still slumbering near the entrance. I can’t tell who it-”

A light tap on the outside of the door, drove him to silence.

“Sir?” A whispered voice drifted in through the little window. “Are you alright?”

Savvis glanced at Tabin, the two of them sharing a surprised look. To the speaker outside, he issued a hushed query. “Devik? Is that you?”

The face of a dark-skinned human appeared in the portal, blocking a fair portion of the torchlight. “Yes, sir. I had to slip the guard a little something in his drink. I would have been to see you sooner, but I wanted to make I gave him enough time to fall asleep. When he wakes up, he’ll have a terrible headache and think he drank too much. Are you injured? Do you need anything?”

“A key would do nicely,” Tabin chimed in lightheartedly.

Devik’s attention snapped to the chained wizard, his eyes widening slightly. “They locked you in with him? Why didn’t they assign you separate cells?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Savvis. “But I think their oversight might work to our advantage.”

“I’ll say,” their visitor agreed. “If nothing else, at least you’re in there with someone they can’t scare.”

Tabin cleared his throat. “On the contrary, friend. I am very much concerned about this situation. Afraid, even. But, as I’ve already explained to Savvis, nothing useful can be accomplished by panic.”

“Wow,” was Devik’s response. “He’s a cold, calculating son of a-”

“Yes, yes,” the Shur’ken interrupted. “Calm, cool and collected, that’s his description. What’s going on up above? What is Kardellyus up to?”

Devik was shaking his head. “I’m not entirely sure. There are tales flying back and forth among the men. But the common rumor is that Kardellyus had located another one of the Keys.”

Savvis swore under his breath. “That’s four. Which two of them is he still missing?”

“The second and the fifth. But we still have time to gather allies,” the darkman’s associate assured them. “Kardellyus won’t open any of the Gates until he has all six. He’d dead set on that.”

“If I may ask,” Tabin inquired, “where, precisely, is the fourth?”

Devik shrugged. “Again, I’ve only got rumors to go by, but they’re saying it’s in Skiva. They’re also saying that Kardellyus plans on making it look like an Irik invasion.”

The mage frowned, no clearer on the subject than before. “I’m afraid I am not familiar with this ‘Skiva’.”

“Skiva and Irika,” the darkman expounded, “are the homelands of the dwarves, the Skivaash and the Iriks. Gods, if Kardellyus pins the blame on the Iriks, it could start a war. Their peace has been touchy at best in the last few decades. Devik, how much time do we have before he leaves?” (*)

The visitor paused for an ominous few seconds. “None,” he said. “And he’s not going by land. He’s taking the drakon. ” (**)

Savvis swore again.


.oO*Oo.



The great, scaled beast flexed its clawed toes, scratching and chipping the stone of the training yard of Heartscar Fortress. Its enormous wings swished up and down easily, creating a wind of fair strength, gusting the cloaks, hoods and hair of the soldiers nearby. There was a measure of anger in the creature’s eyes that was directed at the little beings scurrying around, mere humans and others like them. A few Shur’ken here and there, even couple of Moruuvi. The
drakon was not pleased at its treatment. It was ancient and proud. It should not have to endure them.

From nose to tale, the dragon-like creature was just over sixty feet in length, and from wingtip to wingtip, it was easily fifty feet when fully extended. It’s scales were a dark greenish-black hue, perfectly suited for hiding in marshes, its natural habitat. And it would be there, awaiting prey and dwelling in relative peace, had it not been held against its will.

But, fearsome though the
drakon might appear, it was afraid.

The sorcerer Kardellyus had power that the beast could not best. And it had tried. The day it was captured, it had used the barbs of its tail, the spikes of its wings, the claws of its feet, and the horns of its head. It had even unleashed its dreaded corrosive breath. But even the acid it had spewed had amounted to nothing against the darkman.

In the end, the
drakon was forced to submit or perish. Though it was ancient, it was not yet ready to die.

All around it, the little beings seemed to regard it as just a wild creature that had been broken and tamed. And, to an extent, they were right. What they did not know was that the drakon understood every word they spoke, both in Vaek and in Shur’ken’ti. It even understood the harsh-sounding tongue of the two Moruuvi elves. And it was angered that they all referred to it as “it.”

“It” was a “she”. She was angry. More dangerously, she was afraid.

Everyone knew that Kardellyus had entered the training yard when the drakon’s wings suddenly sagged to the stone floor and she crouched down in timid submission. The sorcerer’s somewhat disfigured flesh was plainly seen by all, the mark of his malevolent power. He wore no hood, no cloak, and the sleeves of his indigo shirt came down his arms just past his elbows. As he approached the
drakon , she tried to make herself as small as possible.

“Hendok,” the Shur’ken master spoke. A human male snapped to attention. He wore the marks of a captain.

“Sir!” Just the one word. Like a good little soldier. Had it been under different circumstances, the
drakon might have found it amusing.

“Prepare Savasht for flight,” Kardellyus commanded. “Quickly. I want to be away in fifteen minutes.”

She cringed. He’d known from the start that she was not just some stupid beast, that no drakon was some stupid beast. They were very intelligent, more so than most humanoids. And it stung her deeply whenever she heard her name on his tongue. Almost as much as when he’d coerced her into telling it to him. She wanted to weep every time he spoke it. But she held it back. It was the one act of defiance that she dared commit. Still, Savasht held out hope that she would one day be free of him.

After all, she knew that not all of the little peoples were like him. One had shown her great kindness. One had spoken to her as an equal. One whose name was Savvis.

“Right away, sir!” Hendok told his master with a salute. “I’ll get a crew right on it and see to it that the saddle is on the beast shortly.” The captain took two steps back and about-faced, marching in the direction of the “stable” that had been constructed specifically for housing the tack for the
drakon.

The sorcerer watched him for only two seconds before slowly turning toward the beast. His black eyes bore into hers. She tried to shrink further away, but the only way for her to do so would have been to sink into the stone beneath her.

“You hate me, don’t you, Savasht?” The words from his lips were not as much of a question as he made them sound. “Had you the strength, you would crush me into dust and cast me to the winds.” Savasht did not answer. She never answered him. At least, not in the tongues of the little peoples. A
drakon simply did not have the capability to duplicate them. No matter. Kardellyus had no need for her to speak. He could sense it, past the scales, the flesh, the bone. Past the fear. “You do not understand what I mean to accomplish, Savasht. Perhaps, if you did, you would not think me an evil man.” He gestured toward her. “You are a captive, and have been so for only a few short years. But I . . ?” He brought his hand back and touched his chest. “I have been a captive for my entire existence, as have all of my people. You wish for freedom, for yourself. I wish for the freedom of my entire race. If only I could make you understand . . .” He looked downward, shook his head. “Even as long as you have been on the world, we have been prisoners all the longer.” Kardellyus met the creature’s gaze once more. “When I have gathered the Keys . . . When I have opened the Gates . . . Then we will be free. Perhaps then you will see that it has been worth all the sacrifices, all the lives.”

Savasht made no sound other than that of her breathing. Each time she exhaled, a puff of dust swirled up from the floor. She blinked, allowing those reptilian eyes to hide behind the scaled lids for just an instant.

The darkman prolonged the silence as he waited for Hendok to return.

_-^-_




Footnotes;


(*) Dwarves = The dwarves of Tei’vaek are divided into two main clans; the Irik of Irika, and the Skivaash (or “Skivs”) of Skiva. Relations between the two clans have long been a heated rivalry, each clan claiming to have greater warriors than the other, though a tenuous peace was struck between them more than a century ago. Since then, there have been minor provocations from both sides, and the neighboring human societies have struggled to keep the two clans from throwing down the gauntlet and renewing the age-old bloodbath.

(**) Drakons = Drakons are the lesser-known relative of the dragons [see below (***) ]. These sentient reptiles differ from their mountain-dwelling cousins in that their scales are a very dark green, sometimes even black, or (as is most common) a camouflaging blend of the two colors. Rather than share the high altitude homes of the dragons, the drakons are more acclimated to the warmer, more humid marshes. This works well with the large number of spikes and horns that protrude from various points of their bodies, as they are able to collect moss and weeds to decorate themselves and better blend in. Though they are not averse to feeding on land-bound creatures, their diet is largely made up of fish, usually adding mammals to their menu when in need of protein. If attacked, the drakon may use its many horns as weapons or, in some cases, it may employ its ability to vomit a mist-like, highly corrosive acid. As far as dimensions, the drakon is quite comparable to the dragon, and it is thought to have roughly the same life span.

(***) Dragons = Most dragons have white or off-white scales that cover their bodies. The most ancient dragons, however, sometimes have the faintest hints of silver or greyish hue. Sightings of dragons are a rare occurrence, though more than half of actual sightings are mistaken for small, distant, fast-moving clouds. This is due to their coloration and their tendency to glide on high altitude wind currents rather than expending the unnecessary energy of flapping their wings in flight. Dragons most often make their homes in the high snow-capped mountain regions. They are incredibly intelligent and highly reclusive. In fact, none have made any effort to contact any of the humanoid races in more than a thousand years, and this has lead many to believe that they are no more than a myth. In the way of defense and attack, dragons have only three methods; their clawed feet, their sharp teeth, and the ability to belch fire. The average adult dragon has a forty- to fifty-foot wingspan and an average overall length forty feet from nose to tail, though there have been some remains found measuring larger. No one is quite certain just how long dragons live, as only dragons themselves (and drakons) live long enough to find out, and they do not concern themselves with such things. However, it has been estimated that they might have a life span of as much as two millennia.
[center[ _-^-_ [/center]

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Tejas
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Re: Paths Of The Chosen

Tips: 0.00 INK Postby Tejas on Fri Jun 29, 2012 9:32 am

Chapter Seventeen
“To Breathe Once More”


6:42 Rising, Et Diem Hominis, 26th of Quintilis, 2134 P.B.

The chains clinked softly in accompaniment to the grunts as Tabin allowed his full weight to rest on the shackles that bound his wrists. Keeping count in his head, the mage lifted himself from the floor for the thirty-ninth time, curling his legs upward as far as his bonds would permit. Despite his confinement and relatively meager meals, he still felt that his best chances of escape lay in retaining his physical fitness and in his strength of mind.

“Forty,” he exhaled in a breathy whisper, lifting his own weight one last time. Keeping fit should not come at the cost of wasting too much energy. No need to push himself too far.

Next, he began squatting down to the limits of the chains, then rising again to a stand. He couldn’t ignore the muscles of his legs. But he did try to ignore the tendrils of sweat that threatened to work their way into his eyes. The humidity of the prison cell served only to expedite his perspiration, and his forehead already resembled the dank walls.

Luckily, drinking water was not in short supply for his cellmate and himself. He’d carefully instructed Savvis in how to use the sand and dust on the floor to form a make-shift filter with which they could purify (to an extent) the water they’d been given, as well as whatever water from the walls they needed to supplement it.

As for food . . . The unappealing gruel they were served did little to sate their appetites, and they were allotted no more than a single bowl between them. Certainly, their jailors could not be accused of overfeeding their wards.

The chains clinked again and, this time, the Shur’ken finally stirred from the little pallet he’d made in the corner. Between his dark clothes, the dusky hue of his skin, and the shadows of the cell, Tabin was just barely able to see the movement. The wizard let his weight sink again.

“What are you doing?” came a muffled, half-asleep voice.

“Good morning to you,” Tabin wished the darkman, rising to his full height, ticking off another count in his head.

The shaded figure rolled a bit and sat up. “Hmm?” Savvis wiped a hand across his face. Though neither of them could tell, he’d left a streak of dirt down his right cheek. “How do you know it’s morning?”

The mage shrugged, shifted his white hair a bit. “I don’t. Not for certain, at least. I suppose one might simply call it a hunch. By the by,” he queried, “would you happen to have secreted away a small knife? Or anything small and sharp, for that matter?”

The Shur’ken blinked several times, trying to come fully awake. “What? Why? And what are you doing, making all that noise?”

Tabin continued with his exercises while he spoke. “I am performing my morning routines to the best of my current ability. I see no use in permitting my body to become lax simply because I am confined to a cell. And I need a knife because I intended to request that you cut my hair for me.” He gave his head a shake and his matted tangles danced merrily at his shoulders. “With no way for me to wash it properly, I would rather have it considerably shorter.”

Savvis squinted his eyes and gave a confounded expression that Tabin could not see. “You’re the strangest human I’ve ever met.” He paused for an instant, considering the mage’s phantom-like complexion. “Um, you are human, aren’t you?” The mage nodded, as much to shake some of the sweat from his brow as to answer. “Just making sure,” he continued. “It’s just that I’ve never seen anyone so . . . calm, I guess, about being caged like an animal. How do you even do that?”

A slight warmth was beginning to grow in the wizard’s legs as he spoke. “It is of no benefit to you or to myself for me to allow irrationality or panic to enter my way of thinking. In fact, were I to abandon my logic at such a time as this, it would most likely prove to be disastrous for us.” He ceased his routine for just a second. “And you never answered me about that knife.” He returned to the exercises.

“They searched us both before they locked us up,” Savvis informed him. “Just exactly how can things become any worse for either of us? There’s no way for us to get out of here. I have no weapons, you can’t use your Majik. I mean, even if you get out of those chains, these cells are warded.”

“Perhaps,” Tabin said. “Perhaps not. Not all Majik can be warded. Is there anything in here you might be able to sharpen in lieu of a knife?” His question nearly distracted the Shur’ken from the cryptic response.

“Are you saying you can use your Majik?”

“Are you going to look for a make-shift knife?” the mage countered.

Savvis nearly growled in frustration. “If you’ll answer my question, then, yes.”

Tabin smiled softly, his pallid lips parting to reveal a hint of his teeth.

“Soulbreath,” he said.

.oO*Oo.


More and more, Tamara felt something almost . . . almost like home.

It made no sense to her whatsoever. Her little village was still very, very far away, and she did not even know if there was anything left. A day’s journey south of Cristyne, that was the place she’d once called home. Surrounded by family, by friends . . . She didn’t know if even a single person had stayed there after . . .

After that day.

She didn’t know if there had been anyone left who
could stay.

She shook her head. There was no purpose in dredging up those old thoughts. Far better that she pointed her perspective toward more positive things. For instance, the mind that she’d touched.

Truly, someone was in great need. And it was perfectly obvious that she possessed a skill and a talent that was ideally suited to tend to such a need. Make no mistake, it was not a coincidence that she’d begun her homeward journey to be passing by this region at just the right time.

Still, it left her puzzled, this feeling. Why should she have such a sensation of . . . closeness? Who was this person she’d sensed?

Tamara did not mean to question the will of Kami. Oh, far from it.

But if home was still more that three hundred leagues away, why did it seem that part of it was so close?

.oO*Oo.


Savvis scraped the little shard of metal along the wall, slowly sheering away a bit of it. He’d been incredibly lucky to find a piece of the ceiling grate that he was able to break off. There was no truly suitable place for the proper sharpening of the improvised knife, but he knew how to make do when it came to weapons. And, while the knife wasn’t really intended for use as a weapon as yet, the principle remained the same.

“See anything?” he questioned the wizard.

“No, nothing at all,” Tabin informed him, exploiting his limited view through the window of the cell door. The wavering torch lights outside lined the long row of cells, and he just barely able to see the feet of the jailor. The heavy-set man was obviously napping near the entrance to this dismal place, leaning back against the wall, his legs stretched out before him. While Tabin could not actually see the man lazing about, his imagination painted the image well enough for him. “I doubt that you have need to worry about him waking anytime soon. You’re doing that very quietly, all things considered,” he remarked on the hissing echo as the shard was dragged against the wall in a smooth, steady rhythm.

“Alright, then,” Savvis began, “will you explain to me just how you’re able to use Majik is a warded cell?”

“I could,” the mage admitted. “But I doubt that it would do as well as showing you.” He stood up straight, transferring his weight from his arms to his legs. He’d already developed a pattern to reduce the discomfort of his accommodations. “Collect some of the metal dust in your palm and come over here.”

The darkman eyed him for an instant, wondering what the wizard had in mind. Pinch by pinch, he put the minuscule amount of shavings in his hand, Having tucked the would-be knife into his boot. “You’re actually going to perform some Majik right now? What if he wakes up and sees?” he asked, referring to the jailor. “He’ll report straight to Kardellyus, and that will be the end of that.”

Tabin watched the man outside. “I honestly doubt that will be a problem, especially given the form of Majik I intend to employ.”

Try as he might, there was some of the dust that Savvis simply could not pick up. What he’d acquired would simply have to suffice. “I still don’t understand. Wards or not, don’t you still have to be able to execute the maneuvers of a spell? How in the Abyss are you going to be able-”

“Just hold the dust in front of me,” the mage cut him off. “Keep your hand open and watch closely.” The Shur’ken did as he was told, both curious and bemused. True, Savvis was not an accomplished spell-caster, but he understood enough of the techniques to know it was nearly impossible to cast while bound. “One more thing,” Tabin cautioned his cellmate. “If you begin to feel a tingling, itchy sensation in your hand, you are to immediately drop the dust and scrub your palm clean with the water. I’ve not used this method in quite some time.”

Savvis cleared his throat and steadied himself before nodding for Tabin to proceed.

The mage closed his eyes. One by one, he quelled his thoughts. Once his mind was clear, he opened his eyes again and peered at the tiny iron flecks in the palm of Savvis’ hand. With great precision, he mentally estimated the volume and mass of the shavings, calculated the desired effect he wished to achieve. Rows of equations spilled through his head like a torrent, and as quickly as they appeared, he solved them, combining the solutions into new equations that worked toward his final goal. In a matter of just one second, he knew exactly how much of his own energy he would need to expend. He took a long, deep breath, held it for only an instant, then released it in a slow and soft current that flowed over the ash-grey hand holding the dust.

Here and there, a tiny sliver stirred with the air. Then Savvis saw it. A single little flake began to change color, going from the glitter of cut iron to the ugly reddish brown of rust. Another flake followed the pattern, then another and another. Soon, more than half the dust in the darkman’s hand had turned into the useless powder.

“How did you-?” the Shur’ken started to ask, then he abruptly shook the dust from his palm and rushed to the bowl that held their water. He doused his hand with the liquid and used a corner of his shirt to scrub the remaining metal off.

“My apologies,” Tabin offered.

“No, no,” Savvis shook his head. “You gave fair warning. I could’ve just refused to hold it for you. Still, it was a show worth the discomfort.”

The mage nodded in agreement, then quickly ceased the movement. He was a little dizzy from the expenditure and the motion only made it worse.

“How in the Abyss did you do that?” The darkman rubbed a couple more times at his hand and started to dry it off. “I mean, that should have been impossible.”

“That entirely depends on the perspective,” Tabin educated. “You see, mathematics is used to determine the parameters and power of a spell. The maneuvers of martial arts are used to initiate and release the power. And the power itself is tapped by using a small portion of one’s own energy to server as a catalyst, persuading the elements to lend their own power. It is an intricate three-fold system at work. But when a ward is in place, the elements are silenced and cannot heed the call of the caster’s energies; thus they are unable to speak in response.” He held up a single digit of his right hand, an image that might have seemed almost comical, given that his hand was chained to the wall. “However, there is a method taught only to wizards of the royal bloodline in Padan-Aram. It is called the soulbreath technique. Because there is no Majik that can ward the spirit, a mage trained in the soulbreath can use much larger portions of his own energy to affect the world around him. Since the power is unaccompanied by any martial forms or elemental energies, the effect is, of course, much less grand. But, with practice, it is possible to cast spells regardless of wards.”

“You’re very trusting with your knowledge,” Savvis noted. “With just a few inquiries, you’re telling me all sorts of valuable information on the use of Majik. Why is that? What makes you think you can trust me?”

The wizard smiled in response. “If you were being honest about our situation, then my sharing of experience is only beneficial to us both. And if you are being fraudulent, then what I have imparted to you would be of no use without my aid. Knowledge of the existence of soulbreath does not impart the teachings and practices of its use. And torture cannot entice me to play the tutor. Had I no strength of will, then I would not be a wizard.”

The Shur’ken pursed his lips, considering. He was impressed at the rapid and thorough reasoning of the human. Though, with him being a mage, Savvis should not have been surprised.

“Alright, then,” he continued, “so how does this soulbreath work in our favor? I mean, making metal dust into rust? Just how useful is that?”

Tabin had to give him that point. “That is precisely why I need to practice as much as possible in the next few days. For any mage, practice is an absolute must. I’ve had no reason to use the soulbreath technique, so I mistakenly allowed myself to fall lax in exercising it. If I can recondition myself appropriately, then I may be able to free myself from these chains. After that, I can use it to open the door, and we can attempt to steal away quietly. Your knowledge of this place should prove invaluable to that end-” The mage stopped and stared out through the cell door.

“What is it?” Savvis asked, his voice suddenly low.

“I thought I saw someone move outside,” Tabin replied.

“The jailor?”

Tabin shook his head, inviting a light wave of dizziness to return. “No,” he said, his own volume just as soft as the darkman’s. “He is still slumbering near the entrance. I can’t tell who it-”

A light tap on the outside of the door, drove him to silence.

“Sir?” A whispered voice drifted in through the little window. “Are you alright?”

Savvis glanced at Tabin, the two of them sharing a surprised look. To the speaker outside, he issued a hushed query. “Devik? Is that you?”

The face of a dark-skinned human appeared in the portal, blocking a fair portion of the torchlight. “Yes, sir. I had to slip the guard a little something in his drink. I would have been to see you sooner, but I wanted to make I gave him enough time to fall asleep. When he wakes up, he’ll have a terrible headache and think he drank too much. Are you injured? Do you need anything?”

“A key would do nicely,” Tabin chimed in lightheartedly.

Devik’s attention snapped to the chained wizard, his eyes widening slightly. “They locked you in with him? Why didn’t they assign you separate cells?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Savvis. “But I think their oversight might work to our advantage.”

“I’ll say,” their visitor agreed. “If nothing else, at least you’re in there with someone they can’t scare.”

Tabin cleared his throat. “On the contrary, friend. I am very much concerned about this situation. Afraid, even. But, as I’ve already explained to Savvis, nothing useful can be accomplished by panic.”

“Wow,” was Devik’s response. “He’s a cold, calculating son of a-”

“Yes, yes,” the Shur’ken interrupted. “Calm, cool and collected, that’s his description. What’s going on up above? What is Kardellyus up to?”

Devik was shaking his head. “I’m not entirely sure. There are tales flying back and forth among the men. But the common rumor is that Kardellyus had located another one of the Keys.”

Savvis swore under his breath. “That’s four. Which two of them is he still missing?”

“The second and the fifth. But we still have time to gather allies,” the darkman’s associate assured them. “Kardellyus won’t open any of the Gates until he has all six. He’d dead set on that.”

“If I may ask,” Tabin inquired, “where, precisely, is the fourth?”

Devik shrugged. “Again, I’ve only got rumors to go by, but they’re saying it’s in Skiva. They’re also saying that Kardellyus plans on making it look like an Irik invasion.”

The mage frowned, no clearer on the subject than before. “I’m afraid I am not familiar with this ‘Skiva’.”

“Skiva and Irika,” the darkman expounded, “are the homelands of the dwarves, the Skivaash and the Iriks. Gods, if Kardellyus pins the blame on the Iriks, it could start a war. Their peace has been touchy at best in the last few decades. Devik, how much time do we have before he leaves?” (*)

The visitor paused for an ominous few seconds. “None,” he said. “And he’s not going by land. He’s taking the drakon .” (**)

Savvis swore again.

.oO*Oo.


The great, scaled beast flexed its clawed toes, scratching and chipping the stone of the training yard of Heartscar Fortress. Its enormous wings swished up and down easily, creating a wind of fair strength, gusting the cloaks, hoods and hair of the soldiers nearby. There was a measure of anger in the creature’s eyes that was directed at the little beings scurrying around, mere humans and others like them. A few Shur’ken here and there, even couple of Moruuvi. The
drakon was not pleased at its treatment. It was ancient and proud. It should not have to endure them.

From nose to tale, the dragon-like creature was just over sixty feet in length, and from wingtip to wingtip, it was easily fifty feet when fully extended. It’s scales were a dark greenish-black hue, perfectly suited for hiding in marshes, its natural habitat. And it would be there, awaiting prey and dwelling in relative peace, had it not been held against its will.

But, fearsome though the
drakon might appear, it was afraid.

The sorcerer Kardellyus had power that the beast could not best. And it had tried. The day it was captured, it had used the barbs of its tail, the spikes of its wings, the claws of its feet, and the horns of its head. It had even unleashed its dreaded corrosive breath. But even the acid it had spewed had amounted to nothing against the darkman.

In the end, the
drakon was forced to submit or perish. Though it was ancient, it was not yet ready to die.

All around it, the little beings seemed to regard it as just a wild creature that had been broken and tamed. And, to an extent, they were right. What they did not know was that the drakon understood every word they spoke, both in Vaek and in Shur’ken’ti. It even understood the harsh-sounding tongue of the two Moruuvi elves. And it was angered that they all referred to it as “it.”

“It” was a “she”. She was angry. More dangerously, she was afraid.

Everyone knew that Kardellyus had entered the training yard when the
drakon’s wings suddenly sagged to the stone floor and she crouched down in timid submission. The sorcerer’s somewhat disfigured flesh was plainly seen by all, the mark of his malevolent power. He wore no hood, no cloak, and the sleeves of his indigo shirt came down his arms just past his elbows. As he approached the drakon, she tried to make herself as small as possible.

“Hendok,” the Shur’ken master spoke. A human male snapped to attention. He wore the marks of a captain.

“Sir!” Just the one word. Like a good little soldier. Had it been under different circumstances, the
drakon might have found it amusing.

“Prepare Savasht for flight,” Kardellyus commanded. “Quickly. I want to be away in fifteen minutes.”

She cringed. He’d known from the start that she was not just some stupid beast, that no drakon was some stupid beast. They were very intelligent, more so than most humanoids. And it stung her deeply whenever she heard her name on his tongue. Almost as much as when he’d coerced her into telling it to him. She wanted to weep every time he spoke it. But she held it back. It was the one act of defiance that she dared commit. Still, Savasht held out hope that she would one day be free of him.

After all, she knew that not all of the little peoples were like him. One had shown her great kindness. One had spoken to her as an equal. One whose name was Savvis.

“Right away, sir!” Hendok told his master with a salute. “I’ll get a crew right on it and see to it that the saddle is on the beast shortly.” The captain took two steps back and about-faced, marching in the direction of the “stable” that had been constructed specifically for housing the tack for the
drakon.

The sorcerer watched him for only two seconds before slowly turning toward the beast. His black eyes bore into hers. She tried to shrink further away, but the only way for her to do so would have been to sink into the stone beneath her.

“You hate me, don’t you, Savasht?” The words from his lips were not as much of a question as he made them sound. “Had you the strength, you would crush me into dust and cast me to the winds.” Savasht did not answer. She never answered him. At least, not in the tongues of the little peoples. A
drakon simply did not have the capability to duplicate them. No matter. Kardellyus had no need for her to speak. He could sense it, past the scales, the flesh, the bone. Past the fear. “You do not understand what I mean to accomplish, Savasht. Perhaps, if you did, you would not think me an evil man.” He gestured toward her. “You are a captive, and have been so for only a few short years. But I . . ?” He brought his hand back and touched his chest. “I have been a captive for my entire existence, as have all of my people. You wish for freedom, for yourself. I wish for the freedom of my entire race. If only I could make you understand . . .” He looked downward, shook his head. “Even as long as you have been on the world, we have been prisoners all the longer.” Kardellyus met the creature’s gaze once more. “When I have gathered the Keys . . . When I have opened the Gates . . . Then we will be free. Perhaps then you will see that it has been worth all the sacrifices, all the lives.”

Savasht made no sound other than that of her breathing. Each time she exhaled, a puff of dust swirled up from the floor. She blinked, allowing those reptilian eyes to hide behind the scaled lids for just an instant.

The darkman prolonged the silence as he waited for Hendok to return.

_-^-_



Footnotes;


(*) Dwarves = The dwarves of Tei’Vaek are divided into two main clans; the Irik of Irika, and the Skivaash (or “Skivs”) of Skiva. Relations between the two clans have long been a heated rivalry, each clan claiming to have greater warriors than the other, though a tenuous peace was struck between them more than a century ago. Since then, there have been minor provocations from both sides, and the neighboring human societies have struggled to keep the two clans from throwing down the gauntlet and renewing the age-old bloodbath.

(**) Drakons = Drakons are the lesser-known relative of the dragons [see below (***) ]. These sentient reptiles differ from their mountain-dwelling cousins in that their scales are a very dark green, sometimes even black, or (as is most common) a camouflaging blend of the two colors. Rather than share the high altitude homes of the dragons, the drakons are more acclimated to the warmer, more humid marshes. This works well with the large number of spikes and horns that protrude from various points of their bodies, as they are able to collect moss and weeds to decorate themselves and better blend in. Though they are not averse to feeding on land-bound creatures, their diet is largely made up of fish, usually adding mammals to their menu when in need of protein. If attacked, the drakon may use its many horns as weapons or, in some cases, it may employ its ability to vomit a mist-like, highly corrosive acid. As far as dimensions, the drakon is quite comparable to the dragon, and it is thought to have roughly the same life span.

(***) Dragons = Most dragons have white or off-white scales that cover their bodies. The most ancient dragons, however, sometimes have the faintest hints of silver or greyish hue. Sightings of dragons are a rare occurrence, though more than half of actual sightings are mistaken for small, distant, fast-moving clouds. This is due to their coloration and their tendency to glide on high altitude wind currents rather than expending the unnecessary energy of flapping their wings in flight. Dragons most often make their homes in the high snow-capped mountain regions. They are incredibly intelligent and highly reclusive. In fact, none have made any effort to contact any of the humanoid races in more than a thousand years, and this has lead many to believe that they are no more than a myth. In the way of defense and attack, dragons have only three methods; their clawed feet, their sharp teeth, and the ability to belch fire. The average adult dragon has a forty- to fifty-foot wingspan and an average overall length forty feet from nose to tail, though there have been some remains found measuring larger. No one is quite certain just how long dragons live, as only dragons themselves (and drakons) live long enough to find out, and they do not concern themselves with such things. However, it has been estimated that they might have a life span of as much as two millennia.

_-^-_

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