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CALDORA: Chater 12: The Thief and The Wanderer

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The Thief and The Wanderer

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           Sheigan was a poor, wretched little town, barely clinging onto the fringes of civilization. It was a refuge for vagrants, outcasts, and criminals, receiving all whom the four winds blew its way without question. Adventurers from all across the land found their way here, and there was never a lack of tall tales or the latest news from the world beyond. The village ranked as one of the closest communities to the Enchanted Forest, and therefore could not boast of a stable population aside from the handful of folks who ran the inns and bars. Everybody else was passing through, leaving their garbage behind to rot in the filthy streets.

This was Lowak’s kind of town. He wandered its alleys by day and by night, clad in dark rags from head to toe – the better to hide in the gloom. A splendid (stolen) dagger hung concealed on his belt, but it was more accustomed to cutting purses than throats. His feet fell silently as he slid from shadow to shadow, always unseen, always alert, always with an escape plan; his sharp intellect continuously analyzing every inch of his surroundings.

Lowak’s midnight-black hair fell in stark contrast against his abnormally pale skin (due to lack of sunlight), making it seem even darker. Enough strands of that hair dangled over his big, oval eyes – also black – that it was a wonder he was able to see.  Black hair: a rarity in northern Lossi. In fact, the only humans on Lossi with black hair were the south-dwelling descendants of the fallen Tashari Empire. Having squandered away all their resources and turning their once-verdant lands into a barren desert, they now lived as feral nomads, raiding trader caravans, border towns, and each other. Thus they came to be known as Marauders, and any person suspected of having Maraudean blood was ostracized by light-haired society. Often these outcasts were forced to survive by dubious means. Lowak’s black hair made him all the more recognizable, and all the more feared.

Though Lowak rarely stayed in one place for too long out of pure boredom, he found that Sheigan always had fresh pockets to pick. More importantly, authorities from the central government never dared dirty their feet in Sheigan’s muck. Which was a good thing, because Lowak was the most wanted thief in all of the Forestside Kingdom – and proud of it.

Not that he was in desperate need of hiding places; he could hide just about anywhere. He could be in the same room and nobody would know it; if anybody caught glimpse of him, it was by his will alone. No secret was safe from him; there was no house that he could not break into, no lock that he could not pick, no trap that he could not disarm, no operation that he could not infiltrate, no place that he did not have access to. And all in the Forestside Kingdom had to live with that blatant reality hanging over their heads at all times.

To be sure, many wanted him dead – many powerful thief guilds, many wealthy businessmen, anxious merchants, disgraced soldiers; the list went on. And in truth, many had tried. Even Lowak accepted the fact that if they managed to corner him, he would not be able to defend himself. But frankly, he didn’t care, because he never had to fight – they simply couldn’t find him. The lucky ones just came back empty handed, but those he particularly disliked were subjected to degrading pranks and came back with their reputations ruined.

Lowak, of course, was well aware that he had recently acquired a new and more dangerous nemesis – Kadro the Wanderer, the legendary mercenary/bounty hunter/warrior extraordinaire. The same bounty hunter who had personally tracked down and reunited the scattered members of the Riverside Kingdom’s royal family – a most daunting task indeed.

This challenge promised to be particularly interesting for it pitted the best thief in the land against the best swordsman in the land. Needless to say, Lowak was quite looking forward to showing the pompous oversized tin can exactly who was in control of this relationship. For starters, he followed Kadro around town, taking pleasure in the full knowledge that his target was completely unsuspecting of his presence.

Kadro ambled through the streets of Sheigan with a proud, confident gait. He had short, dirty blond hair, chiseled features, and the scruffy beginnings of a beard and mustache patching his face, making him appear older and dumber than he really was. His sky-blue eyes were hardened by years of disillusionment with humanity. Kadro wore his trademark flashy metal breastplate over the fancy attire of a noble on the go, including a flamboyant cape that wafted dramatically in the wind. But all that cloth masked a further layer of light chain mail padded underneath by yet another layer of cloth; sure it wasn’t very comfortable, but it was protection. And if his reputation wouldn’t be enough to intimidate the gutter trash to stay out of his way, then the sword fastened to his belt would suffice.

Kadro had just arrived in Sheigan from Freon, where the rich leader of an influential thief guild had offered him a handsome reward for Lowak’s retrieval. It was understandable: Lowak had been a part of that guild until him and the leader had experienced some methodical differences, after which the kid was thrown out of the guild to presumably die on the streets. But things did not work out as planned and now a fourteen-year-old boy was undermining the guild’s supremacy.

Kadro had heard the horror stories of those who attempted the task before him. He moved like a phantom, they said, there one moment, gone the next. Blink once and you’ll lose him, they claimed. He patiently listened to their tales, but inside he knew them to be fools. Treating the boy as a ghost rather than a being of flesh and blood, bah! No wonder they failed.

Kadro firmly believed that the key to capturing his intended target was to acknowledge that it was indeed a human being – complete with thoughts, feelings, and weaknesses. A bounty hunter should know his prey better than the prey knows itself. Know everything about its past to better understand how it shaped the present. Above all, it was important to discern its motivation.

And Kadro did his homework! He was quick to deduce that Lowak’s prime incentive was boredom – boredom stemming from pride, for why else would he play mind games with those sent after him except to show off his superiority? And where else would a bored thief go except a place like Sheigan? Kadro smiled smugly to himself; he had it all figured out, he always did. He even worked out a strategy for capturing the arrogant little brat. He would not go looking for him at all. No, he’d let Lowak come to him! And then he’d teach that black-haired desert-spawn a lesson. For he was Kadro! The best swordsman in all of Lossi! The greatest bounty hunter in all of Lossi! The highest-paid mercenary in all of Lossi! The finest–

Kadro’s thoughts were muffled as his cape got pulled over his face and yanked forward. He retained his balance, but felt a light breeze pass by his waist. The mercenary furiously fumbled with the material and managed to throw the fabric back over his head in time to see a dark figure sprinting away. Growling, he drew his sword and charged after, but lost his footing in the sludge and skidded across it hectically until finally splashing into the mud. Rubbing his eyes, Kadro watched dumbfounded as the kid disappeared into a dark alley with a mocking laugh.

He clambered out of the dirt on his hands and knees and dashed into the alleyway, cursing all the while. Not surprisingly, he found no trace of the boy.

“Bloody hell!!” he howled, kicking over a nearby garbage can.

With a mounting sense of dread, Kadro felt about his waist to find no trace of his money pouch. So much for bed and breakfast.

*          *            *

Kranti herded a fraction of the Kayintas army through the damp, torchlit caverns that lead to Aloquin’s chamber. Orcs, goblins, elves, and gnolls crowded into the laboratory, gawking at the crystals, gems, and metals that lined the walls. They barely restrained the urge to touch or grab at them under threat of death, a poignant reminder of which was the hawk-eyed Kentabri standing poised in the middle of the room with his staff drawn.

As came naturally to his chameleon race, the tamunid stood perfectly still, the only movement about him being his eyes darting back and forth to scan the area. When he saw Kranti position himself at the exit and noted that the troops were crammed in as tightly as they could be packed, Kentabri relaxed his stance, took out a crystal shard given to him by Aloquin, and whispered into it.

Without delay, a swirling vortex of energy appeared beside him. He stood attentively before it, watching as the rippling image of Aloquin came into view from within; his hands crossed, with Onedia leaning playfully on his shoulder.

“Ready now?” the wizard asked rhetorically, his voice distant and thin due to interplanar distortion, “Alright, throw a rock in or something.”

Kentabri nodded his assent, extracted a pebble he had gathered earlier, and threw it into the portal.

Aloquin’s hand shot up reflexively to catch it. “Good, good,” the wizard muttered, tossing the pebble in his palm. “Now, throw in a live one,” he added matter-of-factly.

Kentabri stared at the wizard for a moment, then turned and locked eyes with Kranti, in response to which the half-were grinned and promptly grabbed hold of the nearest goblin. The pitiful thing shrieked and clawed at his captor but to no avail. The throng parted to make way for the half-were, looking on curiously as he dragged the creature to the center of the laboratory.

Aloquin and Onedia wisely stepped aside as Kranti hurled the test subject through the dimensional doorway. The goblin’s terrified screams faded as he entered the vortex, reforming only when he came stumbling into the Dark Fortress on the other side. After taking a good look around and making sure his body was still intact, his screams changed to elated laughter.

A wave of awed murmurs swept across the onlookers.

Onedia looked to Aloquin with a smug smile. The wizard had doubted the reliability of trickster mirrors – interdimensional doorways perfected by her clever minions since the dawn of time – believing the scattering and reassembling of reality fatal to mortals. Then again he never took anything at face value, and tested all that he lacked first-hand experience with.

Aloquin returned the smile, quite proud of her handiwork. “Send in the rest!” he shouted into the portal.

*          *            *

Lowak was satisfied with the day’s exploits, but the game had just begun; the next step after personal humiliation was public humiliation. He followed the mercenary around for the rest of the day, as Kadro did his best to scrape the drying mud off his armor and pick it out of his hair. By nightfall they had arrived at the Outlander’s Tavern.

On Lossi there existed a time-honored tradition of storytelling, in which it was customary for listeners to compliment the narrator with hard currency as well as verbal praise. Having many a tale to tell, Kadro didn’t mind taking advantage of an opportunity to make up for lost cash. He sat comfortably reclined in a chair, swigging down jug after jug of beer while recounting his many adventures to the crowd of curious spectators gathered around him.

Lowak was certain they all knew who he was – Kadro always made sure everybody in a twenty-foot radius knew who he was – and what better way to embarrass the warrior than by stealing from right under his nose. Surely if word got out that a tavern in Kadro’s custody got robbed, it would put a damper on his reputation.

Lowak entered the tavern in the midst of a rowdy bunch of drunkards, and sneaked into the shade of the back walls. He did not have to put in much effort, for the bar was dimly lit by flickering candlelight, and the people were all distracted by either Kadro’s story or their own private business. But still, he knew that Kadro was watching for anything out of the ordinary so it was wiser to be cautious. Perfectly blending with the shadows, Lowak crept from one empty table to another, carefully making his way to the counter.

He was nearly upon it when something else caught his eye, something a pickpocket like him could never resist. It was an emerald – bigger than any he had ever seen – peeking out from inside a stuffed bag presumably filled with more of the like. He gazed at it in wonder, hypnotized by the way it glimmered in the soft light; his original intent flew straight out of his head as his focus switched to this new, more important agenda.

Lowak could see that the holder of the bag was a youthful-looking fellow slighter bigger than himself, playfully chatting with the dark-haired woman sitting next to him. He moved away from the wall, edging closer to the man from the side. It seemed like an easy target; the clamor of the bar, the muted illumination, and the female distraction were all in his favor.

But this day, Lowak had chosen the wrong guy to pick on.

He could not have possibly known that he was dealing with a fighter from the North Forest – trained to distinguish the slightest sound and motion, and equipped with acute elven sight that allowed him to see the room clear as day.

His hood being pulled up just enough to cover his ears, Keramis saw Lowak separate from the wall and come towards him out of the corner of his eye. What impressed him most was that this human made no sound as he walked; no small feat when judged by elven ears. Granted the level of lighting when perceived by human vision, he admitted that the advance was flawless. But as much as he admired the human’s skill, Keramis was not about to let him steal his precious gemstones.

The elf’s hand shot out to intercept the thief’s and latched about his wrist. Lowak cried out in pain as his hand was twisted and jerked forwards, forcing him to stumble out of the shadows. For an instant, their eyes met – Lowak’s stupefied stare with Keramis’ complacent grin – and time seemed to slow down. But then the boy’s eyes widened as he heard a racket from the opposite side of the room.

The entire tavern had hushed and was looking at them now; Kadro was stomping over the tables towards them, shoving away any who stood in his path. Lowak frantically struggled to tear away from the elf’s iron grip, but to no avail.

“Oops,” Keramis whispered thoughtfully, pulling Lowak’s hood over his face and drawing him into a headlock. The elf then faced Kadro, who was already marching towards him across the wooden floor.

“Give me the kid,” the mercenary said sternly.

“No,” Keramis replied, feeling Lowak’s trembling fingers about his arm.

“I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced, I am Kadro the Wanderer,” he paused for effect, becoming a bit perturbed when the name drew no reaction, “That kid is a thief, and I can bring him to the proper authorities,” Kadro’s hand went to his sword hilt, “So unless you want to join him, little boy, I suggest you do as I say.”

“Little??” the werewolf hissed, his eyes flashing bright amber, “Boy?!” he scowled, his teeth elongating. If at first glance Keramis did not seem intimidating, one look into his flaming eyes when enraged would abruptly overturn that notion. Kadro’s mouth dropped open slightly and his hand slipped from the handle; for a second he thought he saw fangs, then promptly blamed it on the liquor. “I’ll show you lit–” Keramis snarled, but Lianna cut him off by clasping her palm over his lips. He restrained himself from biting into her hand, glaring at Kadro with utter contempt.

Lianna let out a nervous chuckle.

Raven moved between them. “Please excuse my son’s manners,” he bowed to Kadro, “It is his first time off the farm and he does not know the ways of the city.”

“Give me the kid,” the bounty hunter demanded of him.

Raven looked questioningly to his cousin, then slowly turned back to Kadro, “I’m afraid I can’t do that. My son is intent on keeping him.”

Keramis’ eyes cooled, and Lianna took her palm off his mouth.

“You dare challenge the best swordsman on Lossi?!” the warrior growled, unsheathing his sword, livid that some peasant had the nerve to defy someone of his stature.

“I am not looking to start a fight,” Raven answered evenly.

“Too late for that!” Kadro barked back as he lunged at the half-elf with a downward hack.

Trellion sidestepped the move and drew his own sword. He let his enemy lead, responding only with a series of blocks and parries, trying to get a feel for the fighting style. The adversary was indeed skilled, but he was drunk, and what’s more, he was a Lossian human. This put him at a definite disadvantage versus the Caldorian half-elf. All beings on Caldor were descended from the Earth Dragon itself, inheriting reptilian reflexes superior to those of their warm-blooded neighbors. Caldorian fighters moved like the serpent; each slash the quickness of a snake’s strike – even faster for it was honed beyond inborn talent.

Comfortable with the rhythm of his opponent’s maneuvers, Raven riposted one of Kadro’s attacks, pushing him backwards. The tide turned when Trellion lashed out at the mercenary in a blur of blinding speed. Kadro gasped in awe as he tried desperately to block the swift, fluid motions of the faery metal sword with his relatively clumsy and heavy steel one. He lasted an impressively long time, until he tried to dodge and the half-elf’s blade cut across his arm, grazing against the chain mail underneath the cloth. Raven frowned – armor was considered cowardly in the North Forest – and rebounded with a succession of slashes faster than human vision could discern. Overwhelmed by the rush, the dazed warrior felt his weapon fly out of his hand and himself be knocked to the ground. Kadro’s vision regained focus on the form looming above him, holding him at swordpoint.

A vision of the sword gouging into his victim’s throat flashed before the half-elf’s eyes, and though normally he would act upon that impulse without a second thought, he now found the idea unsettling – not to mention inappropriate in such a setting. “The boy stays with us,” Raven asserted in his usual soft, monotone voice.

Kadro nodded weakly, looking around for his blade.

“You were drunk,” Raven smiled dryly, bordering on apologetic, as he reached out a hand to the human and brought him to his feet. “We will be leaving now,” he bowed to Kadro again and handed him the long sword, then motioned for his friends to follow. Figuring things couldn’t look any more conspicuous than they already did, Keramis gave the bartender a chunk of amethyst to pay for the drinks. The four of them quietly exited the tavern, Keramis dragging Lowak along by the wrist.

Kadro eyed them as they left, flashing Lowak a threatening grin that the boy answered with a cocky smirk. His newfound company had humiliated the mercenary more than he ever could, though he could not deny that the humiliation was mutual. The bar broke out in scandalous murmurs when the door closed.

Kadro dusted himself off and slid the sword into its sheath. “Drunk,” he said under his breath, silencing the whispering onlookers with his harsh gaze before marching out the door. He would not be thwarted that easily.

*          *            *

            Raven, Lianna, Keramis, and Lowak met up with Sylvia and Lakai outside. The former explained Lowak’s presence, and the latter were happy to inform the rest that they had found a suitable inn for the night.

            The Shadywood Inn lay hidden away in the calmer part of town. It was by no means extravagant, but it was cozy and blocked out the stench of the street. The quarters were small, consisting of a snug bed and a cupboard beside it for a change of clothes. Keramis bought several rooms for the night for the price of a sapphire. No questions were asked, for the people of Sheigan believed it was jointly beneficial for all to keep to their own affairs.

Tired from the long day’s walk, they each retired to their chambers. Except for Keramis, who personally led Lowak to his room where he finally released the boy’s wrist. Lowak scrambled into a dark corner and sat down on the floor, staring out at his captor with more curiosity than fear. Already plotting his escape, the thief’s eyes subtly darted about every crack and bend, lastly noting a window over the bed.

“I wouldn’t try that if I were you,” Keramis moved in closer to him.

Lowak swallowed and looked away.

“Why is that bounty hunter after you?” the elf asked.

“I stole his pocket change,” Lowak mumbled, restraining a snicker.

“Best swordsman on Lossi,” Keramis reiterated Kadro’s words, “Must have much money, huh?”

“Oh yes,” the boy’s eyes sparked excitedly.

“Good, good,” Keramis’ mouth widened into a pleased smile, “We will need Lossian currency to pay for our lodging, provisions, transport, and anything else we may need. Paying with jewels is a little suspect, don’t you think?”

Lowak started to protest, but only sighed and stared at the ground.

“Nobody steals from me, from any of us, understand?” Keramis said in a more serious tone, raising the thief’s face to meet his own.

“All right,” Lowak returned the intensity of his gaze, “I say sorry and give you the money, then will you let me go?”

“No,” the elf replied, “We are traveling to Iyutel and need you as a guide. You seem like the type who knows your way around.”

“What makes you think I’ll help you?” the boy smirked.

“Because if you don’t,” his captor told him severely, “I will take you to Kadro myself.” He let him go and began to stroll out of the room.

“W-wait,” Lowak called after, unable to hold back the question any longer.

Keramis froze in place.

“How…” Lowak hesitated, “How did you see me? What did I do wrong? I must know!”

The elf shook his head and turned around. He pulled off his hood and tossed back his fiery auburn hair to reveal pointed ears.

Lowak dug his fingers into the floorboards and wedged into the corner as far as he could. He had heard stories of these supernatural beings – the capricious Sidhe of the Haunted Forest who could strike a man dead for the slightest offence. The outskirts of the woods were abandoned for fear of such menacing shadows slinking out of the forest at night to cause mischief in their wake. He wanted to apologize, to plead for his life, but was left speechless with dread.

“You look like you don’t see much open sunlight,” Keramis said, walking towards him, “Neither do I. I come from a very, very dark place where the sky is a carpet of leaves. That is why I can see in the night as well as in the day. Your only error was ignorance of that simple fact.

“A human with such skill,” he took the boy’s hand and examined it with a hint of envy, “I’m impressed. You see, I’m a bit of a thief myself,” he locked eyes with Lowak and smiled, “It takes a thief to catch a thief – something Kadro does not understand.”

The door opened with a creak as Sylvia’s ghostly figure came into the room and staggered over to the bed.

“What is your name, boy?” Keramis asked him.

“Lowak,” he answered truthfully, believing lying was futile.

“Lowak, meet Sylvia,” the elf introduced the girl, “She does not eat, she does not sleep, and she does not blink. She will be watching you for the night.” With those words he strode out the door and left the two of them alone. They sat there in silence, the Trickster Queen’s gaze boring deep into his soul.

“Hello Lowak,” Sylvia spoke up, moving closer to him, “Want to see a magic trick?” She opened her mouth wider than he thought humanely possible and slid her fingers, then the entire arm down her throat and dug around within. Grabbing onto something, she slowly extracted her hand, holding a wriggling trickster in her fist.

Lowak shrank away with a frightened gasp.

“That was not the trick,” Sylvia giggled, unclenching her fist to reveal the bud of a rosy flower. Lowak watched as the petals gradually opened, exposing a lovely faery curled up within. The being got to her feet and fluttered her intricate gossamer wings to shake off the pearly dew. She stretched and yawned, then her delicate form began to flay back and forth in a mesmerizing dance. The faery wore garments of luminous rainbow that trailed her hypnotic movements in swirls of color and light.

His fear replaced with wonder, Lowak stretched out his hand to touch the being, to make sure she was real. She danced onto his finger, light as air, and wrapped her limbs about his hand, climbing it as one does a rope. Though he was too entranced by the vision to know when the transformation took place, Lowak presently found himself staring into the impassive eyes of a snake coiled around his arm; its slit tongue licked at his clothing and its rattle shook forebodingly. He shrieked and jumped up, trying desperately to brush the serpent off. It fell with a disgruntled hiss, changed into a screeching bat in mid air and fluttered out the window.

“Beauty and danger,” Sylvia tilted her head in amusement, “Things are not always what they seem.”

Unlike Keramis, Lianna, and Lakai, Lowak did not sleep that night. The Trickster Queen entertained him with elaborate illusions crafted from the stuff of his wildest dreams. He was scared at first, but as soon as he understood that she did not intend to kill him he even came to enjoy her company.

Trellion laid back restlessly on his bed for a long while; it was times like these that made him miss the company of his raven. But eventually he, too, drifted off to sleep.

*          *            *

The six of them left Shadywood Inn in the morning. After buying several horses, they proceeded out the southern gates of Sheigan. Since no steed would carry Sylvia, they had to walk the horses a ways from town to avoid attracting attention before mounting them and riding off at full gallop along the standard southwestern trade route. Raven, Lianna, and Lakai rode alone, Lowak rode with Keramis, and Sylvia trailed effortlessly behind them on trickster wings.

They were headed for the city of Freon, which Lowak reluctantly admitted to being the next best stop on their way to the capital. A scenic vista of seasoned farmland sprawled out before them, and from time to time they encountered lone farmhouses on either side of the road. Rolling fields of ripening corn stretched from horizon to horizon, bending their heads in the gentle winds that swept across the prairie. A serene silence pervaded the terrain, broken only by the sound of the breeze as it brushed against distant wind chimes. But after traveling through it for the entire day, the landscape was starting to seem a bit bland.

Lowak and Sylvia exchanged playful looks out of pure boredom. Lakai watched the two with apprehension, keeping his distance from the ‘dark ones,’ as he privately labeled them, by riding closer to Lianna. It was no secret that he did not like or trust either of them, disclosing that fact rather often to Raven.

Sylvia, grinning, nodded her head in the faery boy’s direction and Lowak knowingly returned her grin. As if on cue, they both turned to stare back at Lakai. The darkness inherent in their gaze sent waves of coldness through him, forcing him to shudder and look away. “It’s growing dark,” Lakai told the group, “And the horses are getting tired.”

“We should start setting up camp,” Lianna echoed his sentiment, signaling for her mare to stop.

They drove the horses off the road, into a fallow patch of land flanked by cornstalks, and dismounted. Equipment was set in a pile at one end of the clearing and Lakai led the horses to the other end, instructing them to stay by the camp. Keramis and Lianna began building a fire, and unpacked some of the endless supply of food from their backpacks. Sylvia crouched on the ground, keeping an eye on Lowak.

Raven sat on a nearby boulder, meticulously polishing his faery sword. He watched the sun set over the golden cornfields, painting them in the afterglow of dusk. Just before the last glimmer of light disappeared beyond the horizon, he heard the rustling of leaves behind him. Instinctively, Raven twirled around and lunged at the vegetation sword-first. There came a clang of metal as his blade was batted aside and a humanoid form jumped away defensively.

“What are you doing here?” Raven withdrew his sword and took a step back.

“Charge first, ask questions later?” Kadro sheathed his sword and stepped forward through the foliage.

Raven glowered at him from under his hood.

Keramis and Lianna rushed to the commotion.

I could be out here for many reasons. I could be hunting bandits, robbers, and thieves,” Kadro said slyly, “The better question would be what are you doing here?” he eyed Raven closely, “It’s not wise to wander the wilderness at night.”

“We are but a simple peasant family on our way to Freon so that we may reach the capital and start a new life,” Keramis droned in reply.

“It doesn’t take the greatest bounty hunter on Lossi to deduce that you are no ordinary peasants!” Kadro snapped back.

“So it seems,” Keramis smirked, but the warrior ignored his sarcasm.

“You look like a damn Marauder,” Kadro pointed at Raven, “you look like a cheap whore,” he pointed at Lianna, “and there’s no chance in hell that’s your son!” he pointed at Keramis.

“Marauder?” Trellion asked, an obviously puzzled expression on his face though he vaguely recognized that the comment was meant as an insult.

“Yes, Marauder!” Kadro paced over to Raven, mistaking the surprised look for a confirmation, “You think that hood can conceal the blackness of your hair?” Trellion, not used to others approaching him so boldly, was too shocked to react in time as Kadro’s hand thrust forward and pulled off his hood.

The mercenary reeled away, gaping at the pointed ears in astonishment. Raven stared back at him with his typically impassive expression, trained to mask the slightest weakness – his gaze always piercing, icy, and imposing.

“An elf,” Kadro said after a few moments, trying his best to hide his fear. “I should’ve known,” he shifted his eyes to Keramis, who also removed his hood.

There was a long interval of awkward silence and rigid stares.

“Well there’s safety in numbers,” Kadro managed a nonchalant smile, “It so happens that I’m going to Freon, as well. Maybe we can travel together.”

The two elves’ stance relaxed a bit.

Lucky indeed was he that Lianna did not know what a cheap whore was. “Seems like a reasonable offer,” she smiled back, trying to be friendly, though in truth she liked him no more than any other recent addition to their party.

Raven nodded to Lianna and walked off towards the fire.

This did not please Keramis one bit. Nevertheless, Lianna had consented, and he was not one to argue with a female. “Until we get to Freon,” the elf growled and stomped away.

“Come bring your horse here and we can put her with the others,” Lianna suggested, but Kadro ignored her. By all accounts she looked human, and the only Maraudean feature about her was her dark hair. It fell in curls, however, not straight like a Marauder’s. This could only mean that she was the spawn of a forbidden union between a ‘true’ human and a raven-haired raider of the southern deserts.

He noted that she was not the only human here, for there was a blond boy tending to the horses, smiling at him amiably. As he strode further into the camp, he passed a frail dark-haired girl sitting in the grass; she followed him curiously with her big dark eyes. Though he saw Lowak crouching behind her, Kadro restrained himself from showing any interest in the thief, and proceeded in the direction of the campfire. In his mind, he had already decided who the leader of this group was, and would pay heed only to him.

Kadro joined Raven by the bonfire. The half-elf acknowledged the mercenary’s presence with brief eye contact, and then continued feeding the fire dry twigs and strips of corn leaves. He gazed vacantly into the flames, stirring the glowing embers with the tip of his sword.

“You know,” Kadro attempted to make conversation, “It is not every day that a peasant walks into a bar and defeats the greatest swordsman on Lossi – drunk or not.”

Raven looked up at him from the fire.

“That is one reason I knew something was amiss,” he chuckled amiably.

Raven forced a smile.

“You are very skilled, elf,” Kadro elbowed him teasingly, “I’m sorry, what do they call you?”

“Trellion,” Raven winced from the touch, suppressing a reflexive urge to break the man’s arm in half. Flashes of violent imagery still haunted him over the most mundane actions.

“Well met, Trellion,” Kadro grinned, “Got any tips for a fellow warrior?”


“Aye, tips,” the human prodded, “How do you train? Where do you train?”

“I was trained in the North Forest of Caldora,” Raven peeled another leaf off a cornstalk and tossed it into the fire, “There are no gyms, no breaks, and no dummies,” the half-elf cast a severe gaze on Kadro, “Training is all day, all night, on live targets. You live, or you die,” he made a cutthroat gesture.

“What kind of armor do you use? What kind of horses do you ride?”

“Armor is for cowards,” Raven looked over Kadro’s chain mail attire, “It is heavy, stiff, and noisy. A true warrior need not hide from his foes like a turtle. We do not ride horses in the North Forest, they leave you exposed and vulnerable; we rely on stealth.”

“I see,” Kadro said in the politest tone he could muster, “We come from different worlds.” And on that note their conversation reverted to silence.

*          *            *

Night descended upon the land like a dark shroud. Most of the camp was fast asleep, except for Lowak, who found it hard to sleep with Kadro around, Sylvia, who was watching Lowak, and Raven, who was simply not sleepy. The stars twinkled brightly in the cloudless sky, and the waning moon’s light limed the cornfields in silver.

In the distance they heard the sound of screeching akin to a group of bats. Raven and Lowak glanced in the direction of the noise to see a stormcloud coming towards them, so black that the night sky almost looked indigo in comparison. Sylvia only smiled.

“The Wild Hunt,” Lowak’s voice trembled as he spoke.

“The Host,” Sylvia beamed, latching her hand onto Lowak’s wrist as he stumbled backwards in a desperate effort to run away.

“The what?” Keramis looked up groggily.

“The Host, the Host, the Host!” the Trickster Queen jumped giddily up and down, “Everybody gather round me!”

They bustled about, waking up the camp. Keramis grabbed Lakai, who was wide awake and staring at the approaching horde paralyzed with fear. The shrieking was rapidly getting closer, mixed with the erratic beating of bat wings. Raven, Keramis, Lakai, Lowak, Lianna, and Kadro all huddled about Sylvia.

The throng was nearly upon them, near enough to distinguish the nature of the creatures that formed it. The Trickster Queen knew them to be the Dark Sidhe, the nobles of the Unseelie Court: beautiful, ebon-skinned entities with malicious eyes that crackled like electricity and hair like wild streaks of lightning. These demonic riders were mounted on midnight-black stallions with flaming red orbs, whose hoofbeats were like claps of thunder. Nightmarish beings swarmed around them, pelting the camp with the skulls and bones of those ill-fated to encounter the Rade.

While her companions looked away in terror, Sylvia welcomed the Host with open arms. She screamed greetings and praises into the howling squall, laughing in ecstasy as the denizens of the Unseelie Court washed over her. The group was enveloped in sheer darkness, with deafening wails and fierce cackling ringing in their ears. But as suddenly as the Host came, it was gone, harmlessly passing over them and riding off into the night, continuing their hellish procession over the countryside.

The camp fell asleep out of exhaustion, trusting in Sylvia to keep watch.

*          *            *

Ever since the interdimensional gates were opened the Dark Fortress was overrun by the North Forest army. By Aloquin’s orders, segments of the Kayintas forces were to alternate spending time in the astral castle. The dragon embryo was growing by the day and the eve of the final battle was fast approaching. The troops were here to get used to their surroundings so that they may be accustomed to the astral castle when that time comes. They crawled into every nook and cranny, familiarizing themselves with the pervading presence of the tricksters and with what fluid ease these beings could alter the fabric of the palace. They learned to synchronize their own movements with those of the castle for more effective military strategies. With a legion of tricksters at their side, everything seemed so easy, so effortless, that any thought of defeat had completely flown their minds.

Many now crowded the main hall, reveling in their impending triumph and even acting civil towards one another. The room had been transformed into a lavish lounge, complete with illusory armchairs and sofas courtesy of the Mistress of Illusions herself. Unfortunately, the North Foresters had never heard of pillows or cushions, and some were more content ripping the furnishings to shreds or playing pillow fights instead of using them for their intended purposes. Among the gathered were two half-elves from Traiyu’s cave – a cave known for its inhabitants’ bright blond locks, light eyes, and tanned skin darker than their hair.

“Aren’t you glad we joined the Kayintas army?” Ni’Atami asked Kowhani for the umpteenth time, “I never even dreamed that Aloquin had something like this up his sleeve! And yet here we are, partaking in the luxuries of the gods!”

Ni’Atami was half-elf and half goblin, an uncommon cross indeed. But upon closer inspection, one would have to wonder why there were not more like him. His elven mother took great care in designing him. At first glance the half-elf appeared completely elven, if a bit shorter. The only differences were his pointy teeth and sharp, poisonous claws. His larger amber eyes matched his mane of golden hair and his bigger, wider ears were pierced with copper earrings decorated with magical inscriptions. Ni’Atami’s goblin ancestry was much more obvious from his less visible attributes. Greedy and opportunistic by nature, he could jump higher than any elf and possessed superior sight and hearing, able to perceive and mimic high-pitched goblin whistles that eluded his elven cousins.

“Who would’ve thought that we’d see the day? With Aloquin’s victory–”

“Victory comes to those who the Warrior Spirit favors,” Kowhani, the ever-zealous disciple of Yugashii, swiftly corrected him. She was only one-fourth elf, the rest being human. But from that modest reserve of elven blood she had inherited night vision, extraordinary dexterity, and a feral beauty. Her straight, yellow hair fell in bangs over her forehead, curled up at her cheekbones, and cascaded behind her to the waist. Strands of it were pulled back from both sides and tied together in a loose knot, held in place by a handy throwing knife. Blond hair was a rarity on Caldora, so Kowhani took great care of it and flaunted it with pride.

“Well an army of tricksters couldn’t hurt, though, right?” Ni’Atami laughed agreeably.

Kowhani’s lips widened in one of her trademark broad grins, though he could never tell if it was genuine or sarcastic.

“Victory is victory,” the half-goblin continued with conviction, “I don’t really care how we attain it, be it by gods or tricksters or both, I only care that we do attain it,” Ni’Atami reclined back into a heap of soft pillows, “And when we are victorious, things will change around here; we will no longer be no-ranks.” He let out a contented sigh and looked up to the ceiling, “Yes, with victory comes power, and nobody will be able to look down upon us after that.”

All this talk of power made Kowhani’s eyes drift from her partner’s face to his sword hilts – a pair of curved, faery-metal blades given to Ni’Atami by the faeries themselves. Kowhani had always been jealous of that gift, knowing full well that she had no chance of receiving any faery favors due to her warlike nature. It seemed she was doomed to drag around a hefty, iron sword for the rest of her days – which would be few indeed if she had to fight with the thing for much longer. The iron left an odd, metallic taste in her mouth thanks to her elven heritage, and she was uncomfortable with its techniques for she had always envisioned herself excelling at dual-weapon combat.

As a follower of Yugashii, Kowhani knew that true power had nothing to do with what others thought of you, but rather with how proficient you were when put to the test in battle. Few in the North Forest had earned faery metal weapons from the faeries, and if she was to challenge anybody of true skill for some, her awkward swings with the heavy two-hander would surely spell her own defeat.

Ni’Atami’s situation was no different, though he was completely oblivious to the fact. Kowhani never did understand how he always managed to do everything in his power to keep himself from expressing his true potential. He only wound up entangling himself in the motions of the wondrous twin blades he now bore, making him come off clumsier than he actually was. He was really proud of them, though, and saw them as a symbol of his status. This only proved to her that he did not yet realize that power does not reside within a weapon, but in the skill of its wielder. Kowhani had always thought he’d be better off using daggers – like his friend Keramis – or his tainted claws alone.

Ultimately, they were both functioning at far below their respective potentials.

“Hey look, it’s your boyfriend,” Ni’Atami teased, nodding at the form of Yugashii marching deliberately across the crowded room.

Kowhani’s eyes went wide as she snapped out of her reverie and looked around, bewildered.

“Seems like he’s in a hurry, too,” the half-goblin remarked.

She couldn’t repress an excited gasp as she caught glimpse of Yugashii just before he disappeared into an adjoining hallway. Without a second thought, the woman ran after him, leaving Ni’Atami alone to ponder what just happened. He narrowed his eyes and twitched his ears in irritation, issuing forth a low goblinoid growl at what he saw as his competitor for the girl’s attention. But there was nothing to be done about it, nor did he want to leave his bed of pillows.

*          *            *

Yugashii walked in a straight line; the tricksters that permeated the walls parted to make a tunnel before him, knowing that he would cut his own way through them otherwise. Kowhani did her best to keep up with the brooding war god. The Warrior Spirit knew she was behind him, but paid no attention, believing her to be yet another one of the annoying groupies who have been pestering him for gifts and blessings ever since he had revealed his identity to the Kayintas army.

“Please, my Lord,” Kowhani panted, “please wait.”

“Begging will do you no good, fool,” Yugashii spat back, never breaking pace.

“I know,” she conceded, expecting nothing less from her deity, “But I must speak with you.”

“Who are you to be bothering me?” he scoffed, still not looking back.

“I joined Aloquin because of you, I lived my whole life in your name,” the half-elf sprinted ahead of him, blocking his path. “I am Kowhani of Traiyu’s cave!” she answered boldly with a confident smile.

Yugashii came to a halt and looked her up and down. Smiling smugly, he turned and placed his hands on the wall. The stone melted away in a shower of shimmering light. “Come then, Kowhani of Traiyu,” he said as he stepped across the threshold of the doorway that appeared in front of him.

“It is such an honor to finally meet you,” she began, but her voice trailed off in awe of the room. She stood on an outcropping of a yawning, circular pit that extended above and below as far as the eye could see, its limits – if it had any – obscured by dark gloom. Discs of rock hovered in midair all around, presumably serving as stepping-stones to the main mass of earth in the middle, upon which was Aurora seated on her simple bed with a large mirror beside her.

Yugashii leaped straight onto the discs and hopped from one to the other with habitual ease, reaching the central island in no time. Once she had composed herself and gathered up her courage, Kowhani scrambled after him and cautiously replicated the Warrior Spirit’s trail across the floating discs.

“So this is where you keep her,” she said, stepping onto the main platform, “Quite an intimidating prison.”

“I designed it myself,” he smiled darkly.

“But can she not just walk away along the stones?” Kowhani smirked.

“Those discs are only stationary when I wish them to be,” Yugashii assured her cryptically, “And even if she does somehow get across, the door can only be opened by Raven and myself.”

“I bet she couldn’t get across if she tried!” the girl added with a mocking laugh in Trellia’s direction, “She who tends to the green things of the woods while the ground runs red with the blood of her children!” Aurora met her gaze with a defiant glare, so Kowhani faced the war god again, “Truly you are the rightful god of this forest; she is nothing.”

“One does not gain my favor by flattery,” Yugashii told her, “Say what you will and be done with it.”

“Anybody who chooses her over you does not deserve you and is a waste of your time,” she replied with brash bluntness, “I don’t think it suits you to chase after weaklings.”

The Warrior Spirit snarled menacingly as his eyes flashed crimson.

“I’m sorry, my Lord,” Kowhani dropped to her knees and bowed lowed at his feet, “I just don’t understand why you want somebody that does not appreciate you,” she paused, raising her head to looked up into his blazing red eyes which shone like hot coals, “When there are so many who would kill for such an honor.”

They locked stares and an interval of awkward silence followed. It did not take long for the war god’s eyes to cool, however.

“You have said what you must, you may leave now,” Yugashii commanded in a not-so-subtle tone. He watched her scurry away, bowing with every step, and rush out the door. Aurora eyed him suspiciously, but he waved her away, pulled up a chair and sat opposite the mirror to contemplate his own reflection.

The truth was that he wanted Raven just because – just because he couldn't stand it when something was forcibly taken away from him, just because he did not get his way, just because he said so. This was an ego thing, really: he didn't like being bested by a mortal – it was embarrassing. These were not very good reasons, and he knew it, but he was very determined once he set his mind on something. Any failure to achieve his goals was a gaping weakness that he could not allow.

The biggest and most pressing reason was obvious from the form he now bore. The Warrior Spirit – an ageless, universal entity without limits or bounds – was trapped in a physical replica of his own avatar. He did not quite know how this happened. Perhaps he got too attached to the material plane, to the physical sensation of his blades slicing into the flesh of another, and now took on the appearance most familiar to him. If this was so, then maybe Raven was key to reclaiming his true power.

All the same, he was beginning to wonder what kind of resolution a reunion with Raven would bring. He could not deny that after Trellion disciplined himself to restrain many of the god’s violent outbursts Yugashii was forced to retreat into his host’s unconscious mind where he lay unthinking and dormant, with less freedom than even now. And how much he had neglected over those years! How many other followers he had abandoned for the sweet taste of blood spilt firsthand!

The magic mirror before him was imbued with the power to let him see any place he wished. At the Warrior Spirit’s command, his reflection within it swirled and disappeared. An overhead view of a bustling desert scene sprawled out in its place. Little human figures were carrying supplies from one colorful tent to another, tending to their horses, and training with various weapons. These were the hardy, savage people of the scorching desert heat who outsiders labeled Marauders. They had originally worshipped Siyanna, the Lossian goddess of the light, pleasure, and warfare, but over time their worship of her was perverted to that of a male deity honored for his warlike aspects alone. In effect, they were worshipping the war god, and were some of his fiercest followers.

There was one problem, however: they had further distorted his own worship to exclude females, debasing them to the status of whores and slaves. This was not the way of Yugashii, his path was open to all brave enough to tread it. As far he was concerned, they were denying him potential followers. Indeed, Nexus came from Maraudean society and had generated a large following of her own for those who had nowhere else to turn. Such strong women would be an invaluable asset to his own repertoire of devotees. If he was not around to point them in the right direction, they would forever be stuck at half their own potential.

It was true: the world needed him, Yugashii decided. But he needed Raven.

*          *            *

The elves stirred as the first rays of dawn warmed their sensitive eyes, and the rest of the camp awoke to prepare breakfast. Lowak groaned and turned away from the sunlight, still making up for two days’ sleep. Lakai fed the horses and made sure they were not too shaken up by last night’s ordeal. Kadro went to look for his own horse, his mood souring considerably when he discovered her partial remains scattered across the field.

He then shifted his attention to the sound of clanging metal and followed it, finding Raven and Keramis sparring playfully amid the cornstalks. Kadro watched them from afar, awed by the speed and grace of their smooth movements that did not seem to adhere to any style he had seen before. They carried on for several minutes, until Raven finally managed to pin Keramis to the ground. The elf laughed and shoved the sword aside, teasing how the tables would turn if they fought in the trees. Trellion smirked, helped him to his feet, and they both headed back to camp.

After everybody had a bite to eat, the group started packing for the second half of their journey to Freon. Kadro agreed to ride with Lakai and they set course southwards again.



Copyright © 2003 by Yumeni www.twilightvisions.com. All rights reserved.
Revised: 27 Jan 2013 22:58:51 -0700 .



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