Catheldor Knights: Book 1

Catheldor Knights: Book 1 is a compilation of the first story arc in the ongoing fantasy saga. For ease of reading, pages 1 through 63 are compiled here. Enjoy.

Catheldor Knights – Page 1

A small band of men dove between shadows as they approached Catheldor castle. Music and revelry from the gala ball wafted from the massive stone building. Every human in the kingdom from peasant to royalty had trepidation laced jubilation with the arrival of the elf King Laeron and his entourage. The castle guards did not notice the approaching shadows. Their minds were focused on the elves in the castle.

The Mallvrann forest elves were a secretive collective. Tales of when they ventured from the forest kingdom and ravaged the countryside were well known by even the youngest farm boy. Over 300 years ago several kingdoms banded together and pushed the elves back into the forest. An uneasy peace was maintained while King Mirchir ruled the forest.

Not long after King Mirchir had died the seers came to the new King Laeron with a warning. The mists of future days showed a world in turmoil. The seers viewed a world where power hungry kingdoms full of evil men and monsters far to the east brought war and conquest. Unsuspecting kingdoms were wiped out or enslaved. Even the great Mallvrann forest was turned to ash and the elves were wiped out. King Laeron would not sit idly by and wait for his people to be destroyed. The elves searched for kingdoms willing to ally with them. Most feared it was an elaborate ruse for the elves to ravage the country side once more. Only one kingdom dared to answer his call, that kingdom was Catheldor.

Guards stood at all of the castle entrances. Even though the week had been quieter than a snow covered field they stood ridged and ready for elf treachery. No man had seen an elf in 300 years and lived. At a side entrance two stood watching for uninvited guests. They did not see the dark movement of the shadows in the town surrounding the castle.

A flash of silver streaked across the night air. Blood flowed around the dagger handle which appeared in the guard’s throat. Before the other could raise his halberd two more streaks crossed the darkness. He too fell without a sound.

High above the side castle entrance a young man peered from an open window. Starlight glinted off his purple scales as he peered across the town. Laughs from his friends beckoned him from the window.

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Miirik leaned against the open window. His purple scales had an iridescent glow in the dining hall candlelight. “It’s a beautiful night.”

“We did not sneak away from the ball to watch the stars. Sit your ass down for another hand of Spikes and Pikes.” Gaston dealt cards around the table. A rakish grin crossed his human face.

“Yes brother, come back to the game.” Sera stood behind an empty chair.

Sera’s fair human skin was a stark contrast to her brother’s draconic form. The magic which flowed through Miirik and metamorphosed him before birth was rare but powerful. Some considered it a curse, others a blessing. In Catheldor his birth had ensured the Conner bloodline would forever be advisors to the throne.

“Aye!” The dwarf Thothen pounded his fist on the table. “Your coin can’t be mine for the taking if you don’t play.”

“Our soldiers are watching the night for us.” Prince Arlin Catheldor picked up the cards in front of him. As the fifth son in line for the throne the prince’s absence from the ball would not be noticed.

“It is unexpected to find a dwarf amongst these humans,” the elf Firae tossed a silver coin into the center of the table. “I was told Catheldor was a human kingdom closed to outsiders.”

“We have worked hard to rid the land of my grandfather’s prejudices. Your presence is a sign of our accepting kingdom.” Arlin said.

“Dwarven weapons broaden closed minds.” Thothen’s coins joined the pot.

“Flatten minds.” Firae said.

“From where I hail, we prefer axe over hammer.” Thothen reached for the axe which rested against the wall and raised it above his head. The twin heads were engraved with a picture of a mountain and dwarven runes. “But no, I am not here to wield weapons, I’m here to sell weapons. If anything, this small eared half-breed is the unusual one here. They say any outsider who enters the Mallvrann forest is killed on sight.”

“The size of my ears has no bearing on the skill of my elvin blade.” Jarik splashed coins across the table. “Be warned, any slight against my mother is a slight against me. I’m sure your beard would not enjoy a new breathing hole slit in your throat.”

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Firae patted Jarik’s arm. “Don’t get your bloomers in a bunch. The dwarf was bold enough to state the obvious. Not all who trespass upon our lands are slain. Some are given the opportunity to live amongst us. Jarik’s mother was quite fair, for a human, and chose to live out her days in our forest.”

“Your short pointy ears are cute.” Sera giggled.

“Don’t tease,” Miirik called the current bet.

“I’m not teasing…”

Gaston placed a gold coin on the table. “We going to gossip like my mother’s sewing circle or are we going to gamble?”

“Looks like this game is turning into something,” Arlin pushed five gold coins across the table.

“Easy to say when your hand reaches the Catheldor treasures.” Thothen called the prince’s bet.

“My money is my own.” Arlin leaned back in his chair.

Firae also placed a small stack of gold coins in front of him. “Gold coins, how quaint. Back home we give these baubles to children.”

“I would like to meet those children.” Jarik tossed his cards onto the table.

Miirik too tossed his cards. “Mother didn’t raise me to chase a piked hand.”

“That hand was nearly spikes.” Sera reached for the cards.

“Nearly, but not quite. I don’t need my money to be harvested so readily.”

“Hush your family squabbling. This is a room for gambling.” Gaston placed enough gold coins on the table to call.

“Glad someone can keep semblance of a game going.” Arlin waved his hand over the gold coins in front of him.

“Getting too rich for even you, prince?” Thothen raised an eyebrow.

“Sometimes it is best to let events unfold. Soon enough the truth of who has spikes or pikes will shake out.”

“I would like to see what you have.” The Dwarf matched the current bet, bringing the betting cycle to an end, and flipped his cards face up onto the table.

Gaston threw his cards onto the table. “That’s the third hand in a row. I’m starting to think you are hiding extra cards in that beard.”

“Yes, you are quite a blessed one.” Arlin started shuffling for the next hand.

“A merchant always knows how to make extra coin.” Thothen stacked the coins in front of him.

A scream shattered the night air. The ballroom revelry was sliced by the scream. Playing cards flew from Prince Arlin Catheldor’s hands. Unsettling silence followed the scream through the castle.

Miirik rushed to the window. “I knew this night needed to be watched.”

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Prince Arlin Catheldor jumped to his feet at the head of the table. “What was that scream?”

Silence was the only answer Arlin received. The rest of the young gamblers looked around the table with wagon wheel sized eyes. Even the castle was shocked to silence, the music from the ball no longer danced through the halls.

The door slammed open and a hulking figure filled the entry. His sword flickered in the candle light. The Catheldor crest was emblazoned across his broad armor. “The castle is under siege, my prince. I must take you to safety.”

“Tell me. What has happened in this castle?” Arlin faced the guard but didn’t budge.

“There is no time to debate. Come with me.” The soldier stepped into the room. His hand rested on the sword hilt at his waist.

“I am a prince. This is my castle. Tell me what has happened.”

The soldier sighed. “Guards were found dead with an Ildonia dagger. Assassins are loose in the castle. After the king and elves I fear.”

“Join the assassin hunt. They must not kill again or escape our lands alive. My safety shall remain in Gaston’s hands.”

The soldier’s attention turned to Gaston, Captain of the Guard’s son and Arlin’s personal protector. Gaston stood and dared the soldier to contradict the prince’s command. The soldier gave a short bow and rushed from the hall.

Arlin faced the group. “You have my apologies for not finishing our game. However, we must leave this room.”

Gaston drummed his fist against his chest. “I will lead you to the royal chambers. No assassin will strike you down on my watch.”

“No,” a cunning gleam glittered in Arlin’s eye. “I propose we hunt down these Ildonian bastards. When we bring them down your father will see you are more than just the protector of the King’s fifth son. I’m sure you’ll be released from this dreadfully boring castle guard duty.”

Gaston scratched the bit of stubble upon his chin. “It is a worthy idea. Father would be forced to promote me to lieutenant. Anyone else want to join us in the fight for Catheldor tonight?”

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Thothen drained the last of his beverage and stood. His chair skidded across the room and fell with a bang. “You have my axe. Once you see dwarven steel in action you will want to outfit the entire army with our weapons. Be sure to tell your fathers to ask Trade Master Naki Bravevein for the Kingdom Saver Discount in the morning.”

Firae shook his head. “We must ensure our people’s safety. It would not be prudent to go gallivanting through castle halls on a hunt while our king and countrymen are in danger.”

Jarik drew his rapier in punctuation of Firae’s words. Then a puzzled look washed across his face. “Which way was it to the ballroom? Your human architecture is confusing.”

Returning his attention from the window Miirik spoke. “I will lead you to the ballroom. We will find refuge with the rest of the partygoers behind magical protection there. Sera, come we must be on our way.”

“I’m going on the adventure.” Sera picked up a small knife off of the table and stabbed the air as if she was in a duel. “Dad taught me how to handle a blade last fall. Arlin will be safer with me by his side.”

“That, little sister, is a butter knife.” Miirik grabbed the knife from her hand. “You know how to skin a stag not kill a man. Mother would destroy me if you were hurt.”

“I hate you, lizard breath.” Sera stomped her feet as she joined her brother and the elves. “You never let me have fun. It’s so unfair.”

“Don’t worry Sera,” Jarik winked and whipped his sword through the air in the shape of an S. “You are my queen to protect from danger tonight. If you allow me to protect you I’ll let you handle my sword when we are safe. It’s a real man’s blade which can be thrust deep into flesh.”

Sera giggled, “I would like that very much. Lead me to safety my knight.”

Miirik glared at the half-elf. “Yes, let’s get her to safety. Stay close as there are many twists in this castle. Fiendish villains may be hiding in the dark corners.” The party of four crept away from the dining hall.

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Gaston untied the ceremonial peace knot which held his bastard sword in its scabbard. “Elves are strange folk. What is this cunning plan you already have worked out? Spill it. Where are we going to find the Ildonian assassins and earn our honor?”

Arlin paced the length of the table. “Assassins don’t just leave bodies and daggers behind so they are noticed. They wanted the bodies to be found so that we would worry about assassins attempting to kill royalty. Soldiers would be mustered to protect royalty as well as hunt the attackers. I believe the timing of this attack was not random. They wanted us to have to protect the elves. This is nothing more than a distraction so that they will have no trouble with what they are truly after.”

Thothen hefted his axe to his shoulder. “What secrets does your castle hold? What are they after that can only be procured tonight?”

“Like all castles this one holds several secrets. A band of a few men could penetrate our defenses but unless we have spies in our midst it would take time for infiltrators to find our best protected secrets. They knew what they were after before they stepped onto Catheldor soil. I believe they are after Master Mandel’s tome of war spells.”

Gaston’s jaw dropped. “Mandel would be protecting royalty not protecting his tower. With all of the commotion a team of thieves could swoop in and steal it.”

“Without that tome our army would not stand a chance on the battlefield. I hesitate to think what atrocities the Ildonian army would do with the spells in that book.”

“Why are we still standing around discussing this? Lead the way to the wizard’s tower and I’ll kill those burglars for you.” Thothen marched across the dining hall.

“I like the way the dwarf thinks. Stay behind me Arlin, your safety is my priority.” Gaston led the group from the dining hall.

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Gaston drew his sword and led the trio through the dark Catheldor castle halls. Prince Arlin trailed behind the two warriors. Thothen stuck to the middle with axe at the ready. Shouts echoed through the halls as guards cleared the castle in search of the Ildonians.

They were passed by soldiers rushing through the castle. Some had offered to guide the young men to the safe rooms for protection. Each time Gaston assured that he was under orders to guide them to safety.

As the trio journeyed to the castle east wing the guards reporting shouts grew quieter. The Ildonian search was focused on the west wing ball rooms and royal chambers. There was no activity in this section of the building. Normal inhabitants of this castle area had either made their way to safe areas or barricaded themselves inside rooms.

“Are you sure the Ildonians will be in this direction?” Thothen whispered. “This area is emptier than a keg at Clan Lord Steelvictor’s coronation.”

“I am sure of it,” Arlin whispered back. “The quieter it gets the more positive I am that I am right. Now hush up or else they might hear us.”

Redoubling their efforts to be quiet the three crept through the castle. Each pretended to not be quaking in fear. None had ever truly tested his mettle against another man in a life or death struggle. They were as ready for a fight as the young men could muster.

Deep in the east wing Gaston poked his head around a corner. “Looks like you are right Arlin.”

Laying spread eagle across the hallway was a castle guard’s body. A pool grew around a gash savagely cut in the throat. Red smears were on the walls and floor. It was a vicious and messy kill. The Ildonians were close.

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Gaston held his hand over his mouth. “Alfano was a good man but father always said he was the worst of the lot on patrol. I’d bet he was sent this way to keep from fouling up the search in the west wing.”

Arlin dipped his finger in the pool. “I was right, his blood is still warm which means the Ildonians are close. My powers can do nothing for this man. We should move on before it is too late.”

Thothen picked up the dead man’s sword. “He was vigilant enough to draw his weapon. Too bad all it earned him was a painful death. Dwarven weapons would have killed him quickly. Slicing flesh without much pain.”

“We still doing this on our own or will we summon the guards?” Gaston closed Alfano’s eyes.

“Losing faith in your own abilities, my friend? I’m sure your father would be proud of you protecting the kingdom. There is no time to warn the castle guards and return with reinforcements. The Ildonians would be in the tower already.” Arlin smiled. “This mess can be cleaned up later. Come on, we aren’t far behind now.”

After a few additional twists in the halls the three found themselves at the base of the wizard’s tower. So far there had been no more signs of the Ildonians. This wing of the castle was completely silent. Even the guards searching for assassins in the west wing couldn’t be heard.

The always locked door at the base of the wizard’s tower was ajar. Inside a staircase circled into darkness. Magical torches that lined the stairs, which had been lit every time Arlin entered the tower, were extinguished.

Arlin held out his arms, stopping the other two in their tracks. “We should tread even more carefully now. They are Mandel’s tower, I can feel it.”

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Gaston poked his head through the door, staring into the dark staircase. “Do you know the word to light these torches?”

Arlin shook his head. “I don’t want to alert them to our presence.”

“Let me go first,” Thothen stepped past Gaston. “Darkness has no effect on my dwarven eyes. I’ll catch anyone up to no good and pounce from the darkness. That’ll disrupt enough for you to follow. When you hear me, just bring the lights up and follow.”

Arlin nodded at the dwarf’s plan. “We’ll be right behind you. It will be slow, but we can feel our way up these stairs in the dark. Just don’t attack Mandel if he is up there unless you want a face full of lightning.”

“I remember what he looks like from the ball.”

Thothen made his way up the stairs. He held his breath as he climbed the curved staircase. With each step he expected to see a vile fiend ready to attack him. The dwarf was relieved when gruff Ildonian voices floated down the staircase.

“Where did that damn wizard hide that damn book?”

“Get off my back,” a second voice retorted. “Tonight has been going to plan. We will find the damn book and get out of here before the soldiers smarten up. So quit your complaining and get back to looking.”

“Think there is a hidden room behind this bookcase?” a third voice asked?

“Only one way to find out.” A violent crash rocked the tower.

At the top of the stairs dim light filtered through a crack in the doorway. Thothen peered through the opening into the wizard’s inner sanctum. A lantern sat upon the only standing table in the middle of the room. Books and magical doodads were scattered across the floor. Four humans dressed in dark clothing were spread out amongst the room tearing it apart. Two stood over a fallen bookcase staring at the stone wall.

Thothen kicked open the door and a loud chant rolled from his lips. Stony protrusions grew around his fist and arm, encasing his limb in rock. Lamp light glinted off the axe in his hands.

The four Ildonians turned to see the lone dwarf blocking their only escape. “Kill him.”

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Miirik lead his sister and the two visitors through the halls of the castle. Firae was a step behind while Sera and Jarik lagged further back. Pounding of their hearts drowned shouts of soldiers sweeping through the castle. Every shadow could hide lurking danger.

“Does this sort of thing happen often?” the elf asked of his guide through the castle. “The Mallvrann forest never has incursions like this. We take care of any infiltrators at the border.”

“I wouldn’t say often,” Miirik cleared his throat, “but Ildonia has been encroaching upon Catheldor lands for a decade. Bristling tensions have put us on the precipice of open war. Everyone, from the nobles down to the common folk, fears what is bound to come.”

Firae thought for a moment. “Is Catheldor so weak you must beg for allies? We are a proud kind that had suffered at the hands of these kingdoms. Our numbers have not yet grown back to where they once were. Why should we leave the Mallvrann forest to die beside humans?”

“Our intentions are pure,” Miirik glanced up and down intersecting passageways before continuing. “We dislike war as much as you do. Aggression against Catheldor should end once we have strong allies. Illdonia would be foolish to wake the giant of our two kingdoms.”

Firae said, “That is, if our two kinds can find common ground. We do not know what floats through the minds of kings.”

This time Miirik contemplated for a moment. “We may not be of royal blood but we are both at this castle for a reason. The magic which flows through my veins has brought my father a voice to the king’s ear, albeit a one. I’m sure you’re free reign to socialize with us is proof enough you are in a similar situation. Our unique places in society have made us privy to royal conversations. Conversations which have cultivated my mind with a sense as to the king’s thoughts. With that being said, I know King Catheldor to be an honorable man who would carrying through on any pledges of allegiance.”

“I’m sure you speak the truth,” Firae said.

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Jarik and the girl lagged behind as the group of four traversed through the castle. “Is your brother always such a pain in the ass?”

“Yeah,” Sera bit her lip to keep from blushing while walking beside him. “He never lets me do anything fun. It’s always, Sera go wash the dishes, Sera stay out of my room, or Sera go do your homework. It’s like I have a third parent nagging me.”

“Being nagged is a sign of love,” Jarik stared off into space.

“Your parents don’t force you to do anything? Must be nice to be an elf.”

“I’m a half-elf and my parents are dead.”


It was not much further before the group reached the ballroom. Not a soul was in sight at the large arched doorway. To Firae’s eyes a dull blue aura encompassed the double doors. Shouted castle guard voices echoed through the hall in pursuit of shadows or guarding the royal safe room. Guards protecting the ballroom would be inside and rely on magical defenses to repel any attackers before swords shed blood.

Miirik pushed on the doors but was not surprised when they didn’t budge. He pounded on the oak doors. “We seek safety from the Ildonians.”

“No.” A muffled voice said through the door.

“No?” Miirik was taken aback.

“No!” the voice repeated. “These doors will not open for anyone but the king. Your tricks won’t leave this room defenseless. A true resident of Catheldor would know this laws.”

“My name is Miirik Conner. I’m with my sister and two members of the Elven delegation. Our lives are in danger. Now open this door and give us refuge before our blood is on your hands.”

“Even if I believed you these doors would stay sealed until after the crisis. Go away before I have to tell you again.”

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While Miirik argued with the ballroom guards Jarik sprinted to the end of the hallway. Sera’s nose wrinkled as she watched the half-elf throw open a window at the end of the hall. She was the only one who watched him craw through the window and into the night.

Outside Jarik stood upon a ledge and fought the urge to look down at the long hard drop. With elvish grace he nearly danced along the ledge across the castle wall. At the massive ballroom windows he peered through the glass. Several elves were dispersed across the room and a handful of human guards stood at the doors.

Jarik tugged on the window, it didn’t open. The half-elf knocked soft, catching the attention of an elf sitting below the window.

“Why are you out there?” the elf raised an eyebrow.

“Let me in, I’m here to protect you.”

“You have a funny way of protecting those who are safe.” The elf pulled on the latch but magic held the metal bar tight. “The human magic is strong, I am unable to open this window.”

“Get someone who can. There isn’t a dance floor out here.”

The elf motioned for another to join at the window. An elf with long white hair came to the window and waved his hand. The latch popped off and the window swung open.

Jarik drew his rapier and approached the Catheldor guards at the door. “Those people outside need access to this room,”

“Who are you to give orders?” A lead guard said while the rest drew their swords and circled Jarik.

“My king would allow human blood to spill. Does your king allow the luxury of spilling elf blood?” A flick of Jarik’s wrist punctuated his words. Blood crept across the lead guard’s cheek where the rapier had traced a line.

The guard’s eyes shifted from the half-elf to the rest of the elves who stood and surround them to his own men. He shook his head and spoke a magical command. The doors opened just wide enough for the three outside to enter. As soon as they entered the guard uttered another command and the doors slammed shut.

The dark of night was shattered when a tower was bathed in light. The ballroom occupants were drawn to the windows like moths to flame. Through the tower windows they saw the shadows of a dwarf fending off several humans.

“Looks like Thothen found some trouble.” Jarik’s fingers clutched his weapon.

Miirik stood beside the half-elf. “That is the wizard’s tower. The Ildonians must have headed there.”

Jarik leapt to the window. “My blade has tasted blood and will not rest until the awoken thirst has been quenched. Which way to the tower?” Miirik barked directions and the half-elf disappeared into the night.

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Thothen snarled and held his ground as an Ildonian lunged for him. The dwarf brought his axe thundering down upon the thief who drew his sword and deflected the staggering blow. Rolling with the attack’s momentum, the Ildonaina’s sword sliced across the dwarf’s arm. Steel couldn’t penetrate the stony flesh.

At the sound of combat in the wizard’s tower a double clap rang from stairway. Torches which lined the stairs and tower chamber sprung to life. All combatants hesitated at the sudden blinding light.

Gaston rushed past the fighting dwarf into the middle of the Wizard’s sanctum. His longsword slashed across a stunned Ildonian’s chest. The man took a half step backwards and fell.

“Keep them off of me,” the Ildonian leader shouted as he continued his search for the wizard’s spell book.

“You will never get Mandel’s tome.” Light erupted from the symbol of Dian Cécht which Arlin held in an outstretched hand. The bolts streaked across the room, slamming into the perpetrators. Stench of singed flesh permeated the room.

“A prince of Catheldor would make a good hostage.” Ildonian leader waved a wand at Arlin and uttered a quick incantation. White sticky webbing launched from the wand and covered much of the room and the rest of the combatants. The spider-like webbing was thick and strong, as if a giant spider demon had been hard at work for three days.

Struggling in the web, the combatants continued the fight. Hampered movements could not deliver killing blows. Swords poked through the sticky mess, blades penetrated the webbing and pricked flesh.

Unable to needle his enemy Thothen slashed at the webs. The axe cut webs and freed the dwarf. His stony fist swung at the trapped Ildonian beside him, tooth and blood flew from the crushed jaw.

The remaining infiltrator not encased in webbing smiled and raised his crossbow. A bolt sprung from the weapon and found its home in Arlin’s leg. The prince screamed and his leg went limp. However he did not fall, the webbing held him upright, trapped in place.

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Ripping books from their shelves, the Ildonian leader continued his search for the wizard’s spell book. None of the tomes had the appearance of a mighty spell book. In disgust he heaved the shelves to the floor after the books. Cabinets and drawers were too ripped open and papers went flying in his hasty search.

Arlin hung in the webbing as bolts filled the air around him. Drawing upon the power of Dian Cécht a blast of light streaked across the room and struck the crossbow wielding Ildonian. The man fell to the stone wizard tower floor and loud snores filled the air.

Feeling the divine powers the castle clerics had taught him wearing thin Arlin brought the magic Wizard Mandel had taught him to the forefront of his mind. A blast of magical force was loosed from his fingers and slammed into the Ildonian leader. The man was sending him flying backwards into the wall. A wall which wasn’t there. The façade of stone and mortar swallowed the Ildonian.

“The spell book will be mine,” the Ildonian leader laughed through the wall.

The crossbow wielding thug woke with a snort at his bosses yelling through the wall. With weapon in hand he scampered to his feet, took a deep breath, and leaped into the wall where the Ildonian leader’s voice rang from.

“We have to stop them,” Arlin reminded his comrads. “I cannot allow them to steal Mandel’s tome.”

“The webs are too thick,” Gaston tried to hack his way through the webbing.

“I’ll get free soon enough.” Thothen cut more of the webs with his axe, slowly making his way across the room. “Only fire could quickly clear a path through these webs.”

A wicked grin flashed across Arlin’s face as a small ball of fire grew in his outstretched hand. Thothen regretted his last statement as the ball erupted into a gout of flame directed into the heart of the webbing. Flames raced along the webbing, singing books and flesh alike. The piles of disheveled books and papers scattered across the floor were burning. The three young men screamed as flames licked their flesh.

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Gaston fell to the floor and rolled in an attempt to put out the flames which burned his tunic. “Your magic is dangerous.”

Arlin and Thothen too patted out the fire which burned their flesh and clothing. With the webbing no longer supporting his weight the prince fell to one knee. He screamed as he pulled the bolt from his leg and tried to coax the last of his magical strength into closing the wound.

Jarik rushed into the burning wizard’s chamber. “Through that wall,” Arlin yelled. Not hesitating, Jarik sprinted through the chaotic room. He did not flinch as he drew his rapier and took a leap of faith into the stone wall.

A silver bolt of magical energy streaked down a stairway when Jarik appeared through the illusionary wall. The magic burst in a glittery explosion against the curved stone wall beside the half-elf’s ear. Hasted footsteps continued up the winding staircase with the half-elf taking stairs two at a time in pursuit.

At the top of the stairs Jarik found himself in the wizard Mandel’s private bedchambers. The last Ildonian invader pushed a window open. The half-elf flicked his wrist and launched his rapier across the room. The blade stuck in the window frame beside the Ildonian’s head.

The Ildonian leader turned to face his attacker. He clutched the large leather bound book tight to his chest and laughed. Jarik drew a dagger into each hand and snarled. The rest of the young Catheldor defenders swarmed into the room and blocked the escape.

“Put that book down and you’ll live.” Arlin rushed beside.

“Not on your life. Your pathetic military will crumble under the might of the Ildonian military. Your lands will be razed to the ground. Your people will suffer for the injustices your king had caused against us.”

“There is no escape. Give up and we’ll show mercy.” Gaston took a step forward and sheathed his sword.

The Ildonian smiled and stepped backwards. “No mere child can stop me. For I am the might of the Ildonian nation.”

Jarik threw his daggers but the Ildonian leaned backwards and fell through the open window. Arlin rushed to the window only to see the infiltrator’s black cape open wide and flap in the breeze as if it were a pair of raven wings. The Ildonian disappeared into the darkness along with Mandel’s spell book.

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King Bertrand Catheldor stood towering over Arlin. His booming voice filled the throne room. “What in the name of Dian Cécht did you think you were doing? Those were Ildonian assassins. If they had realized who you were they would have stopped at nothing to kill you. A fitting punishment for your stupidity but in these trying times I can’t afford to lose any of my sons on castle grounds.”

“But father,” Arlin’s head hung low. He dared not look at the man who showed such disgust with him.

The king paced about the throne room. “You should have alerted the guards to your schemes. Real military men would have taken care of the Ildonians and prevented Mandel’s tome from being stolen. You had no business being anywhere near the fighting.”

“Don’t be too harsh on the boy,” the queen said. “He tried to keep our castle safe. At least he wasn’t hurt.”

“Our castle isn’t safe.” The king stared out a window as early morning golden streams illuminated the courtyard below the throne room. After a few moments he turned to face his queen and son. “With Mandel’s spell tome gone our army is compromised. The Ildonians will attack our kingdom in force any day now. I can only hope our scouts can track down the thieves before they cross back into Ildonian territory. In case they fail we must fortify the castle for a siege. This castle will not fall into the hands of our enemies. My queen, you must take the youngest children to the country villa. There you should be far enough from here to be safe. Arlin, you have done enough damage here and I cannot jeopardize any of my men to protect a prince who cannot fight. You will accompany the queen to the country.”

“Yes my king,” the queen bowed. Arlin nodded, his eyes still did look to his father.

“Make arrangements to leave at once my queen. Take a small detachment of men and those elves if they are will to have our protection. Any more than a handful would alert our enemies to your presence. I must attend a strategy session in the war room, so this will be farewell. Word will be sent as soon as the castle is safe again.” King Catheldor kissed Queen Heather on the cheek and then stormed from the throne room.

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Queen Heather Catheldor bowed as the king stormed from the throne room. “Farewell my love.”

“Good bye, father.” Arlin did not look up until the door slammed behind the king. Tears streamed down his face. “This is so unfair, mother. How can he punish me for doing what was right. Mandel’s secrets needed to be kept. We had no time to round up guards to investigate my hunch.”

“I know honey. He can be so ruthless at times, but everything will be fine.” The queen embraced her son. “You young men took care of yourselves last night and there was no injury our healers couldn’t handle. You have proven to me how resourceful you are. I will take the youngest with me in the carriage. Why don’t you meet us at the villa? Take your friends and some horses. It’ll be a fun little cross country adventure.”

Arlin looked up with damp eyes. “Thank you mother. That does sound like fun. I think I could use some time away from fathers iron fist for a while. It has been many years since I’ve last been to the villa. Going for a ride through Catheldor lands is just the sort of quest which could raise my spirits.”

“As a sign of good will between our kingdoms I can request those two elves and dwarf accompany you to the villa. They would be safe with us. Would you like me to ask for your new friends to travel with you?” Arlin nodded. “Good. Round everyone up and get going before your father knows you are off on your own.”

“Thank you mother,” Arlin smiled as he rushed out of the room. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” the queen beamed. “Have a safe journey and I will see you in the country. Don’t dawdle to long out there.”

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Prince Arlin whistled a happy tune while he walked through the castle halls. Soon he found himself in front of Gaston’s door. He knocked twice and waited for the door to swing open. Gaston’s grimace turned to a smile when he saw the prince standing there.

“Good morning my friend,” Arlin chirped as he pushed into the room.

“I expected to see you strung up by your thumbs this morning. How did you avoid a fate worse than death?”

“I have my ways. However, this means we must vacate the castle for now and miss the siege.”

Gaston’s face returned to a grimace. “With no time in battle I won’t be able to prove my worth as a defender of the kingdom. If it is the punishment we must take for the failure last night then I’ll serve my time. Where will we be sequestered?”

“One of the country villas. We will meet mother there, along with anyone deserving to be hidden away. All of us from last night are sent there, for our protection.

Gaston whistled, “Even those two elves and the dwarf? Impressive.”

“We will prove Catheldor is a peaceful kingdom who would be a worthy ally.”

“When do we leave?”

“As soon as the horses are saddled and the group is together.”

“Excellent,” Gaston began to load supplies into a pack. “A breath of fresh air away from this castle might wash away our failures. I’ll ready the horses if you wrangle up everyone else.”

“Why don’t you stop ordering a prince around and get the horses ready. Some servants will wrangle up the rest. At least someone around here will do my bidding.”

Within an hour all of the young men were riding through the countryside away from Catheldor castle. Prince Arlin and Gaston blazed the trail. Firae rode aside Miirik and the two discussed politics and differences between their kingdoms. Jarik and Thothen took up the lead embroiled in arguments over who crafted the best weapons.

A flock of robins soared overhead. It would have been a picturesque vision of young adventurers setting out if it wasn’t for the countryside being on the brink of war.

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Jarik fidgeted in his saddle. “How much further is it?”

Arlin spoke from the lead of the group. “We’ll get there some time tomorrow. I thought your kind was supposed to have an even and patient temperament.”

Firae laughed. “That would be his human side showing its true colors. I, on the other hand, am thoroughly enjoying the ride. We don’t see mountain foothills and sweeping fields like those back in Mallvrann. As beautiful as lush forests are, a change of view can be inspiring.

“Rumor has it a dragon resides in this area,” Gaston boasted of local legends. “Farmers often complain of livestock gone missing. Tracks of wolves or other creatures have never found around the found scraps of bone and blood. My father has led many expeditions out here, but every time they have come up empty.”

“Those are tales mothers tell sons to keep them from wandering too far away from home. The queen would have never ordered us to travel across these lands if there were such a beast hidden away in the mountains.” Miirik said.

Jarik’s ears perked up at the mention of dangerous creatures. “Even the tallest of tails has a grain of truth. I would like to see a dragon, slay it, and take a trophy to hang over my mantle after I buy lands with its treasure.”

“Treasure or not, I wouldn’t want to run into a dragon,” Firae said, “at least not until I’ve had time to perfect my magical studies. I’ve heard legends of large old dragons who would roll in armies for fun. Steel weapons were unable to pierce the thick hide.”

“Maybe not human steel or elven mithril, but dwarven steel is sturdy enough to slice into any beast’s hide.” Thothen said between drinks from his flask.

“Speaking of dwarves, how did you end up in Catheldor,” Firae asked.

“There are many reasons as to why I am here. Where shall I begin?” Thothen stroked his beard.

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Thothen held out his axe and let the sun glint off the twin golden hued heads. An engraving of a mountain encircled by dwarven runes shone brilliantly. “Dwarven weapons are the best in the world. Our sturdy adamantine blades will cut through anything. Much better than flimsy elvish mithril. You elves should learn from the humans. They will open their budgets to purchase the finest weapons available.”

“Which makes you a weapons dealer,” Firae said.

Thothen nodded. “Aye, I’m apprenticing under Trade Master Naki Bravevein. The Clan Lord personally sent me to Catheldor to train under the best in the business. Someday I’ll have as much skill at trading as he does.”

“I’m sure sales would be smooth if you were a little less gruff with the clientele. No one likes a grumpy merchant of death.” Jarik studied his dagger’s blade.

Gaston laughed. “You elves sure do live a sheltered existence in that forest. Trust me, he is charismatic. For a dwarf.”

The dwarf snorted. “We may not have the slick smiles and greasy hair of the Halflings, but we do have reasonable and fair prices backed up by a clan honored guarantee.”

Jarik eyed the dwarf. “They say dwarves are tough, but I didn’t think you warriors could cover your bodies with stone. It looked like your fists were made of stone during that fight last night.”

“That is where you are mistaken,” Thothen said, “for I am no warrior.”

Gaston laughed, “Not a warrior? I’ve never seen you without that axe and you wield it quite effectively.”

Thothen stared longingly at his axe. “A dwarf’s passion will always lie in battle with an axe in hand, but that is not where my true skill lies. Mother earth’s energies flow through me, protect me, and allow me to manipulate arcane magical energies.”

“So you are a wizard, like me?” Firae said.

Thothen laughed. “There is no book that could teach me what I know. Magic flows through my veins.”

“Not as much magic as what flows through mine.” Miirik’s scales glowed purple in the midday sun.

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Arlin had a wicked smile across his face. “When we find the dragon Miirik will talk to it while the rest of us sneak in and reclaim the treasure hoard.”

Miirik shook his head. “I’m with Firae. There is no way you can convince me to talk to a dragon, let alone distract it long enough for you guys to do anything. I don’t want to be eaten for dinner.”

Gaston glared at Arlin. “You didn’t feel it was important to tell us we were hunting a dragon?”

Arlin laughed. “Like you said, there is no dragon out here. Just a pack of wolves or maybe a troll.”

“Why don’t I believe you?” Gaston scouted the mountain peaks in search for any sign of movement.

The conversations changed to the things young men commonly discuss when left alone, glory in battle, athletic competitions, and women. They rode on until the sun had fallen low to the mountain peaks. The first twinkling of stars shown on the opposite horizon.

“Looks like it is time to set up camp for the night,” Prince Arlin declared as he brought his horse to a halt. “This is a good a spot as any.”

When Thothen dismounted he scanned the horizon. “Why don’t we camp out in that cave over there?” He pointed towards the foothills.

Putting a hand over his brow to block the setting sun’s rays, Gaston scanned the landscape. “Cave? I don’t see a cave.”

“I don’t see any cave.” Firae squinted and looked to where the dwarf had pointed. “Wait, are you pointing at that pinprick of black behind the second tallest fir tree? You have good eyes for a dwarf.”

“The stone speaks to me,” Thothen said.

The group mounted up again and rode to the well hidden cave. Even up close they needed Thothen’s direction to the hidden cave mouth. Once they arrived Gaston, Jarik, and Thothen disappeared into the cave while the rest unpacked the horses.

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Within a few moments the young men returned from the hidden cave. Jarik beamed. Gaston and Thothen had looks of despair.

“You look troubled,” Miirik said.

“We can take it.” Jarik danced around the young men. His feet shuffled and arm jabbed as if he was in a grand duel.

“I don’t believe we can take it.” Gaston said to Jarik. He then turned to Arlin. “Remember what we were saying about this land’s rumors? Well, it looks like we stumbled upon your dragon’s cave.”

“I thought it would be harder to find the cave questing Caltheldor Knights failed to locate?” Prince Arlin of Catheldor rubbed his hands together. “Is he in there?”

“Your knights weren’t traveling with a dwarf.” A smile cracked Thothen’s worried disposition.

“We would be standing around discussing what to do next if a dragon was in there.” Gaston said.

“You may have slain it.” Arlin smiled. “If I remember my trainings we have until just after sundown before he returns. A dragon would be out hunting during the day and would use the cover of dusk to return home. Which means we have some time before he returns. Show me what you saw so we can make a proper decision.”

“What if he comes back while we are in there?” Miirik asked, his eyes scanned the sky for signs of a flying dragon.

“I’m sure you can convince him to not harm a royal prince.” Arlin’s words covered any rebuttal Miirik attempted. “This beast is smart enough to not be seen when he doesn’t want to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if we never see him.”

“Alright, but let me lead,” Gaston sighed. With torches in hand and weapons at the ready the young men entered the cave.

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Beyond the cave entrance was a passage which snaked through rock which was not quite wide enough for two to walk side by side. The passage opened into a larger cavern. Licked clean bones were piled in one corner and scorch marks were scattered upon the walls. A bed of straw and leaves was in another corner.

“This is what I would picture a dragon’s layer to be,” Firae said as he poked through the bones. “Many different animals have died here, both predator and prey. I don’t see intelligent creature remains.”

Arlin smiled. “It takes a smart dragon like that to exist as but a myth to us.”

Thothen studied the passageway. “No marks of scales upon stone. Our dragon isn’t too old, otherwise he wouldn’t fit in here at all.”

Jarik fished a gold coin from the straw. “He has treasure. The hoard must be in here somewhere.”

“Here’s a passage.” Thothen said as he crawled across scattered boulders. Shadows cast across the rock had hid the side tunnel. All except Thothen had to duck their heads under the passage’s low ceiling.

Gaston whistled when the tunnel ended at an expansive cavern. A pile of gold coins and other shiny expensive treasures was mounded in the middle of the area. The mound’s top was indented, a sure sign this was the dragon’s preferred bed.

Miriik’s eyes darted to the cavern’s entrance. “The dragon will be back soon. We shouldn’t be drooling over his hoard when he returns. Unless, of course, you want to join that pile of bones in the other room.”

“Here’s the plan,” Arlin said as he tabulated the value of the treasure in the room. “We should go back to the ridge where we were going to camp and hide out there. From up there we will watch the dragon come and go. Once he leaves in the morning for his hunt we will return, load up as much treasure as we can, and get out of here. When the dragon returns tomorrow evening we will be safe at the royal villa. If he comes looking for us the guards will help us kill it.”

“I like this plan,” Jarik said as he filled his pockets with coins.

Gaston too became worried. “Is there any way I could talk you out of this? If he picks up our scent tonight I can’t guarantee your safety.”

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Prince Arlin smiled. “Do not fear for our safety. Miirik will sweet talk the dragon into not eating us if we are discovered.” Miirik shook his head at the prince’s words.

When the group made their way from the dragon’s lair Arlin cast a spell to temporary cover their presence. On the return trip to the overlooking ridge Jarik and Gaston followed on foot to cover their tracks. By the time evening had arrived bedding was rolled under tree cover and the horses were hidden under foliage. They had no campfire that night and the six hid under brush.

The moon had just begun to creep above the tree cover when heavy flapping was heard above the young men. The dragon swooped across the night sky, scales glistened as it crossed the silver orb. A stag flapped in its mouth. The young men held their breath.

Thothen and the elves watched the beast skulk into its home. After a few moments the dragon reemerged gnawing on a stag’s leg. Just like a cat, the dragon arched its back and stretched then laid at the cave entrance. It ate meat off of the bone while its head bobbed back and forth, surveying the landscape. Once the bone was licked clean he reentered the cave.

“Do you think he spotted us?” Thothen whispered.

Jarik shook his head. “There is no way he could have seen us. I’m an expert at hiding. In the morning that treasure will be ours.”

“Good,” Firae said as he crossed his legs and leaned against a tree. “Wake me in a few hours when you go to sleep. We need to keep a watch on that cave entrance.”

The moon and stars took their time in crossing sky that night. A few times a distant cry or howl startled those on watch. However the dragon’s lair remained still, there was no noise, movement, or light. Even the local wildlife respected the dragon’s space, none who called out in the night came near the cave.

Gray of dawn had begun to emerge above the treetops when the great beast emerged from its lair. Jarik watched as it sniffed the air and stretched just as it had the previous night. With a mighty snort, a gout of flame erupted from the creature’s nostrils. He flapped his wings with a bounding trot and took to the air. The dragon circled above its lair before flying towards the horizon.

The half-elf roused the hungry and cold young men. They broke camp and rode to the dragon’s lair. By the time gray dawn turned to a multi-hued sunrise the young men were at the cave. The huge mound of gold and treasure drove them.

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The group crept down the passageway into the dragon’s lair, retracing their steps from the previous evening. Mirrik had stayed on the exterior of the cave guarding the horses. Each young man carried a burlap sack.

“It is unbelievable how stupid that dragon was,” Jarik’s voice echoed off the cavern walls. “You hear all these legends of how dragons are smart and powerful creatures, but yet when you finally run into one you can just wait it out as it goes about its day. It is just as stupid as a house cat.”

“We still should hurry,” Prince Arlin of Catheldor said. “That beast could be back at any moment and I do not want to be caught with no way to escape.”

The group made their way through the cave. Remains of the stag, which was the dragon’s dinner, were pooled in a bloody mess next to the pile of bones. The pile of skulls watched the group as the entered the rear cavern.

“It makes one feel bad for taking from the creature,” Firae said as he picked up a gold crown. “The dragon possess these things just as you or I possess any of our belongings.”

“Spoken like a true elf,” Thothen grunted. “You forget how the beast had acquired this treasure. He stole and murdered like a common thief.”

“Maybe this dragon has done no such thing,” Firae said. “Maybe his parents were the ones that acquired all of this wealth. Maybe he doesn’t know where it came from or how to return it.”

Gaston laughed. “And maybe you should wait here to ask him.”

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Firae looked towards the exit from the dragon’s lair before responding to Gaston. “No thank you sir. Like we discussed yesterday, I have no intentions of joining the bone pile.”

“You elves have the strangest concepts about possessions.” Arlin placed a golden scepter into his sack.

“Yeah, they sure do,” Jarik scooped coins into his bag. “I have no idea where they get it. I, on the other hand, cherish my expensive belongings. This treasure should let me get on with my life and strike out on my own.”

Arlin eyed the half-elf. “You don’t like living with the elves? You are one of their kind. Tales of the Mallvrann forest always made it to be a wonderful place.”

Jarik shoved more gold objects into his bag. “See, that’s the thing. I’m only half an elf. It’s pure torture to grow up in a society where you’re only halfway one of them. They never let me forget that I am not a full elf. They would call me human every day and the barbs against my mother were the worst. You would never know those particular difficulties, since you are a prince in line for a throne. You would never truly understand the harsh realities that are my life.”

Arlin continued packing his bag in silence.

“I’ve filled my sack,” Gaston said as he hoisted his bag over his shoulder. “You guys just about finished?”

“Aye,” Thothen said as he pulled a solid gold battle-axe from the pile. “I can say this for sure, the dragon sure does have good taste.”

A smile grew upon Jarik’s face. “We are now the ones with the good taste.”

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Gaston looked around the dragon’s lair and attempted to calculate how much treasure they were leaving. “Once we have some time away from the Ildonian threat we should come back and finish the job. This lair has stayed hidden for a long time, I’m sure the dragon will keep it that way for a while longer.”

“Sir, I like the way you think,” Jarik said with a smile. “I know you and I could handle ourselves against the dragon, but these darn spell slingers need time to learn spells that could help in a fight. Steel is the only true way to get to a villain’s heart.”

Firae crossed his arms and glared at Jarik. “Wielding arcane forces against one’s foes is a delicate dance of intuition, skilled learning, and concentration. You should be happy to have spell casters backing you in a fight.”

The young men had taken all the gold and jewels they could carry and made their way from the dragon’s lair. Once again Arlin cast a spell to cover their scent in the caves. They tied their bags to the horses and headed out as fast as they could. The six urged their horses into a gallop as a small silhouette formed on the horizon behind them.

“Looks like he wasn’t so dumb. Stick to the trees, the leaves should cover our escape from his sight.” Firae shouted over the din of hooves upon the ground.

As they rode the silhouette maintained its position in the sky. A few times it ducked under the tree cover but always pop back into view.

“He’s tracking our scent,” Gaston said from the lead.

“His nose must be more powerful than my spells. There is a river ahead. We can lose him there.” Arlin said.

Once the river was in sight they slowed the horses to a trot. The group proceeded to make their way up river, sticking to the tree cover and shallow river bank. Gaston crossed the river and galloped away from the party and then retraced his steps back to the river. The young man had hoped the extra traveling would throw off the dragon’s scent and buy them time to escape.

The dragon’s silhouette grew large. The beast crossed the river and landed. It snorted fire and sniffed the air. “I smell the blood of my next meal. Quit your running so I may eat you in one bite.”

The young men stopped, frozen in fear. Even the horses sensed the danger and did not make a sound. The sound of large leathery wings shook the forest as the dragon took to the air again. Its red scales sparkled in the morning sunlight as the carnivorous beast circled high above them.

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Thumping of large leather wings shook the trees around the young men as their horses stood in the raging river. Leaves were shaken free from trees as the red dragon circled above them. No one dared to breathe, not even the horses. Seconds felt like minutes.

The dragon gave up on circling and continued to follow Gaston’s scent across the river. Once the dragon was out of sight the group made their way up the river. They needed to put distance between them and the flying menace.

By noon Jarik was the first brave enough to speak, “That sucker sure was big up close like that. Good thing he didn’t find us.”

Miirik nodded. “I didn’t think we could have gotten away fast enough.”

Jarik shook his head. “No, I meant it was good for that dragon. He was big enough that it would have been a fair fight. The dragon might have had a chance against my steel.”

“Does he even listen to what he says?” Gaston said.

A look of confusion washed across Jarik’s face. Firae said, “No.”

“How much further is it to this country villa?” Thothen said.

Arlin led his horse to the dryer sections of the river bank. “We detoured quite a distance by coming up the river. I figure we could get there by late afternoon if we start cutting across country now.”

“Have we put enough distance between us and the dragon to risk traveling away from the river?” Miirik followed the prince from the river.

We have to eventually,” Arlin said. “Might as well do it before the river curves further away from the villa. I don’t want to be arriving after night fall. If the dragon does find us we can race it to the villa and seek safety with the soldiers.”

The rest of the party followed the two from the river. Gaston watched the sky. “Yes my lord. We should travel with haste and put as much distance between us and the dragon as we can.”

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The miles ground out under horse hooves as the group rode on in silence. None wanted to dare the gods against their good fortune of escaping from the dragon with bags full of treasure. All feared flippancy would call the dragon’s wrath upon them.

By late afternoon dark smoke filled the sky ahead of them. Gaston’s anger brought words to his lips. “No way. There is no way that dragon knew where we’re headed.”

Jarik cocked an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“That smoke,” Arlin pointed in front of them, “is an ill omen. It’s coming from the villa and surrounding village. The dragon must have flown ahead of us.”

“Is that not the smoke of a bustling economy and forges working in double time?” Thothen said.

Gaston was appalled by the dwarf’s assumptions. “I’m afraid it’s not. Thick black smoke does not pour from a village unless it’s burning to the ground.”

Thothen shrugged. “Dwarven lands are covered by the haze of progress.”

“Does anyone see the dragon on the skyline?” Everyone shook their head no at Arlin’s question. “Then we must hurry and ensure my mother is safe.”

“I’m sure she is,” Gaston said patting his friend on the shoulder. “Your mother is strong and would make it through anything.”

“If any elves that were traveling with Queen Catheldor were our king would not look favorably towards the alliance.” Firae said.

“We should leave the horses and approach on foot. We’ll want to sneak up on the waiting dragon at the villa.” Miirik said.

The six young men dismounted and tied their horses to trees with the most foliage in an attempt to hide the creatures incase the dragon flew overhead. They hiked across the countryside at a quick pace and attempted to remain silent. After a half an hour the young men found themselves huddled behind shrubbery at the outskirts of the village.

“That’s no dragon,” Arlin spat.

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A line of individuals on their knees with their hands behind their heads were in the middle of the burning village. Armed human soldiers wearing the colors of Ildonia stood surrounding their prisoners. Catheldor’s queen as well as the elvin prince and princess held their heads high in defiance of their captors. The same blonde haired man that had escaped from Mandel’s tower paced back and forth along the line of prisoners.

“Those Ildonian bastards,” Gaston said. “They have one smooth military operation. After attacking the castle they must have headed here. Escaping straight towards Ildonia would have been difficult. Snagging the queen and the elves would be an extra bonus. That is, unless they have spies in the Catheldor ranks.”

“What’s the play?” Jarik licked his lips. “Blondie over there needs to pay for putting the princess and prince on their knees.”

Arlin’s voice was harsh. “We need to hit them now and we need to hit them hard. We should be able to catch them off guard. Some of the captives should be able to jump up and give us a hand.”

Miirik shook his head. “That’s a fools plan. They out number us and are trained military men. We six are not warriors.”

Arlin’s voice was full of conviction. “Did we not defeat them in Mandel’s tower, or was I at some other battle? We need to save the queen and elves and all the rest. We need to do it before anyone else gets hurt.”

“Cooler heads will prevail, prince Arlin,” Firae patted the prince’s shoulder. “If we wait until night fall we can take them out one by one without being seen or risking lives.”

“I’m right there with you Arlin,” Jarik drew his rapier. “Let’s take them down fast and hard. We will be heroes before they will know we were upon them.”

“What is the command word to unlock the wizard’s tome?” The Blonde Ildonian leaned in close and yelled at the Catheldor queen. She spat in his face. The back of his hand rocked across her face. Blood dripped from the corner of her mouth.

“Mother!” Arlin stood and screamed.

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The blonde Ildonian turned toward the screaming prince of Catheldor. Queen Heather Catheldor turned toward her screaming son. The elven royalty turned toward the screaming human in the bushes. Every Ildonian and every hostage turned toward the screaming young man. Thothen, Gaston, Miirik, Jarik, and Firae turned toward their screaming companion.

Seizing the opportunity, Jarik launched from behind the shrubbery and lunged at the nearest Ildonian. Sword above his head, Gaston wasn’t far behind. Thothen groaned and uttered the incantation to turn his fists and arms to stone before following. Miirik and Firae sprinkled the Ildonians with divine and arcane energies. Arlin continued to scream.

“That’s a prince of Catheldor,” Blondie yelled. “Bring him to his knees before this wench. That should make her talk.

“Run Arlin!” Blondie grabbed the queen and clamped his hand over her mouth before any more words could be shouted.

The burning village erupted into further chaos. Ildonians scrambled to bring their weapons to bear against the assaulting young men. Once captive Catheldorians and elves stood and struggled against the Ildonians, fighting for their freedom. Weapons clashed. Battle yells rang out.

“Get out of here,” Gaston shouted as his sword slashed across an Ildonian standing before the elves. The Elven prince and princess nodded and weaved through from the chaos. Through the undergrowth Miirik and Firae circled the battlefield towards the elven royalty.

“Must save mother,” Arlin dug through his bag and retrieved a small potion vial. He popped the cork and slammed it down in one gulp. When the liquid was gone his body faded from sight. “I will save you mother,” Arlin’s disembodied voice rang out.

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A long and loud stream of dwarven curses ran from Thothen’s mouth. His short legs carried him into the fight behind his half-elf and human companions. A crossbow bolt ricocheted off of his stony arms as his axe hammered upon an Ildonian archer. Blood splattered from the axe embedded in the human’s chest. Thothen continued his stream of cursing and placed a foot on his fallen enemy to dislodge the weapon.

Ildonians swarmed the half-elf as he fought deeper into the heart of the village. Jarik’s rapier flashed to and fro as he dodged sword blades from the circle of fighters around him. Blood flew as his sword landed time and again. His youthful ambition and elvish speed ground down the Ildonians. Miirik and Firae’s cast spells in support of the half-elf against the soldiers.

Blondie had a knife to the queen’s neck. A thin trickle of blood dripped from the blade. His eyes darted across the battlefield in search of the invisible prince. “Come on out you little bastard or the queen dies.”

“You harm mother and you will wish I would kill you,” Arlin’s voice rang across the battlefield.

“The queen is our priority. Get her out of this battlefield.” Gaston parried blows between words.

Thothen growled at his opponent and swung his axe in a sweeping blow. The heavy blade caught the defender’s leg as his sword struck the dwarf’s side. Before the Ildonian hit the ground the dwarf rushed towards Blondie. Blood drained from his wounded side as he ran. A string of dwarven streamed from his lips. A large stone hand emerged from the earth. It grasped the blonde Ildonian, pulled him off the queen, and pinned him to the ground.

Bewildered, Queen Heather staggered away from the pinned Ildonian. Arlin’s invisible hand grabbed the queen’s. “Come with me mother. We must get you away from here.” The queen nodded and stumbled along behind her invisible son.

“Jarik. Leave. Now.” Gaston stood beside Thothen and provided a defensive line for their retreating companions. The royalty had been freed and had to be extracted from the fighting. Once safe the young men would return and assist the rest of the fighting captives.

Jarik trusted his rapier into one last Ildonian which swarmed him, as quick as the blade landed home the half-elf back flipped away from the fight. He weaved through the fighting combatants towards his companions and escaping elves. No blows landed upon the man as he ran.

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Gaston and Thothen held the defensive line against the Ildonians for as long as they could. Some of the Catheldor captives were able to escape the fighting. Ildonian crossbow archers rained bolts upon the fleeing captives. Some captives fell as they ran.

Two Ildonians rushed to their pinned leader. They hacked at the stone hand with swords, chipping it away with each blow. Blondie struggled free and the hand crumbled to dust when the magic gave way to the strength of steel. Once on his feet Blondie rushed after the fleeing captives. “Stop them you sorry sacks of sausage. Don’t let the queen escape.”

Crossbow bolts fell around the Catheldor queen as she passed Gaston and Thothen. A bolt pierced her leg and she fell. “Mother,” Arlin’s voice rang over the din of battle. Bolts continued to rain upon the queen but disappeared before penetrating her flesh.

Arlin screamed in agony. Divine and arcane energies erupted from the prince, knocking down Ildonians, as he fazed into vision. Blood poured from crossbow bolts that studded his tunic. Magical webbing sprang from Blondie’s fingers, pinning the Catheldor queen and prince to the ground.

Ildonian warriors swarmed Gaston and Thothen and the rest of the fighters, knocking them to the ground with a wave of bodies. Once again webbing sprang from Blondie’s fingers. White sticky ropes trapped the fleeing elven prince, princess, and Jarik. Miirik and Firae were tackled by rushing Ildonanian soldiers. The resistance which had stood in chaos had been crushed.

Large warriors flanked Blondie on either side as he stood over Queen Heather and Prince Arlin. “Now, will we continue to do this the hard way or will you allow me to go easy on you?”

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Arlin let loose pain filled screams and slumped under the weight of the sticky webs that pinned him to the earth beside his mother. Trapped and on his knees, the prince no longer fought. He could no longer deny the Ildonian victory.

“I’m glad you have come to your senses,” the blonde Ildonian leader said. “As long as you continue to cooperate we won’t hurt you any further. Will you behave?” Arlin did not look up at his capture when he nodded.

A toothy smile grew upon the Ildonian’s face. He snapped his fingers and the webs melted away. Burly soldiers rushed in and tied the pair’s hands behind their backs. Arlin’s shoulders slumped and his head hung low. His listless body let the warriors do what they wanted with him.

The rest of the young men, as well as the Catheldor and elf captives that raised weapons against the Ildonians, were bound in tight ropes. Most struggled and growled a token resistance. The elf prince and princess allowed themselves to be bound and did not struggle. Guards kept their crossbows trained upon the rest of the captives who huddled together. A wagon was brought for the royalty to be carried away.

Grabbing each by their collars, Ildonian soldiers dragged the young men to Blondie. The Ildonian leader paced and eyed each one. All matched his gaze with a steely one of their own, all except for Arlin. After a few moments the blonde warrior spoke. “You failed to stop me in the wizard’s tower. It was foolish to think you’d stand a chance against my men today.”

“I’m not finished with you,” Jarik struggled against the warrior’s meaty fist upon his shoulder.

“Letting a half breed speak first? I shouldn’t have expected much less from Catheldor filth.” All looked to Arlin to speak. The prince stared at his shoes. “What do you have to say for yourself elf?”

Firae puffed his chest. “If you lay a finger on the prince and princess, I swear by the Mallvrann forest I will end you.”

“Predictable. What should I do with all of you?”

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Gaston spoke with the calm demeanor of a man in charge. “You will regret your actions when Catheldor knights get ahold of you. They will see you will be racked with regret for the remainder of your short life.”

“Somehow I think I doubt your knights will risk harm. You six are a valuable commodity which should fetch a large ransom. A prince, a son of the Catheldor captain of the guard, a magic infused son of a prominent Catheldor landowner, a dwarven trading apprentice, and two members of the visiting elvish delegation. It would be fitting to fund a just war with Catheldor’s own coin. The only thing that could be better was if Arlin was the first born, not the fifth.”

Blondie grabbed a crossbow bolt embedded in Prince Arlin’s flesh. The young man screamed as the bolt was twisted and pulled from his body. “My healers will mend your wounds enough so you don’t die. It’s the least I could do for prized trophies.”

Ildonian guards led the six to the awaiting wagon and hoisted them aboard where they joined the queen and elf prince and princess. The elf princess smiled when Jarik was shoved onto the wagon. It was a small gesture that built resolve into the young man. He leaned against the side wall of the wagon and hid the struggling of his bonded hands. The coarse rope dug into his skin.

Blondie and a handful of guards mounted the wagon just before it began to move. Blood flowed from Jarik’s wrists, blood which he used to lubricate and loosen the rope. With a muffled grunt the half-elf tore his hands free.

Ildonian soldiers held onto the wagon as it rolled towards the village. Thothen and Gaston shifted to hide Jarik’s movement from the guards. The half-elf retrieved a hidden dagger from his boot. With a few flicks of the blade, the rogue set about freeing his companions.

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Using his low center of gravity as an advantage, Thothen lunged toward the front of the wagon. Blondie was knocked from the wagon. Before the driver reacted, the dwarf’s fists had turned to stone and slammed across the Ildonian’s jaw. The driver spat out a shattered tooth and also fell from the wagon.

Gaston grabbed a guard’s crossbow and punched him in the gut. The Ildonian stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. Jarik pounced upon the last guard and slid his dagger between the man’s ribs. The guard rolled from the wagon and hit the ground hard, he didn’t move.

Spooked by the fight, the horses raced towards the tree line. The wagon bounced uncontrolled behind them. Thothen scampered onto the driver’s seat and reached for the reins in an attempt to control the careening wagon. The reins dangled below the seat.

Blondie barked orders before he was back to his feet. “Stop them. Shoot the horses. They mustn’t escape.” Crossbow bolts fell around the wagon and embedded into the wood sides.

The royals crouched behind the wagon’s protective sides. Miirik and Firae covered them with their bodies. Jarik steadied himself and worked on cutting free the last of the bonds. Arlin sat in the wagon and watched the sky drift above the sprinting wagon.

Crossbow bolts fell around the dwarf and horses. The horses neighed when bolts sunk into their flesh. Thothen grunted when a bolt found its home in his thigh. “Move it you flea burdened beasts.” The dwarf held onto the driver’s seat and reached for the reins. Pain surged from his wounds with each wagon bounce. A bolt penetrated his shoulder, the reins which were just in his grasp slipped free.

A horse stumbled and fell as bolts perforated its side. The wagon tipped and skidded into the earth. Wood splintered and the riders were thrown from the wagon. Ildonians rushed to the wreck. None of the riders had the strength to put up any further of a resistance.

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Eyes flickered open to the sounds of screams. Muffled screams from the far side of a stone wall. Arlin, Gaston, Miirik, Thothen, and Firae sat upon sacks of grain in a dark store room. A thatched roof hung above them, boxing off the stone walls and floor of the cottage storage rooms. The screamed voice matched the missing group member, Jarik.

All were hunched over and motionless while senses returned. Hands and legs were bound with tight cord which felt like it cut to the bone. Crusted bandages covered wounds. The fire that had once raged in their young eyes was extinguished. Arlin hung his head low, unflinching to the half-elf’s screams

The room bathed in unnatural quiet when the screaming stopped. After a few minutes the door slammed against the wall. A large Ildonian dragged Jarik by his scalp and threw him against a wall. Bruises and gashes were upon every inch of the rogue’s bare flesh and his clothing was damp with blood. Blondie followed into the room and soldiers filled the doorway behind him.

“Next time try asking a question.” Jarik spat blood at the Ildonians.

Blondie nodded and a soldier jammed a soiled handkerchief into the half-elf’s mouth. The cloth was secured in place with a leather strap. “Anyone else want to be a hero?”

Jarik scrambled to his feet and staggered for the Ildonian. The soldier’s fists came down in a hammer punch across the rogue’s back. Jarik hit the floor with a loud thud and didn’t move. The soldier picked him up and with a length of rope hung him from a hook embedded in the wall.

“I’m glad that the rest of you are obedient dogs. It would be such a shame to give you all the same treatment.” Blondie towered over Arlin. All of the young men except for Arlin followed the Ildonian with weary eyes. Arlin never broke his concentration upon the floor. “You know the command to open Mandel’s spell tome, don’t you boy? Of course you do. A good prince trained under the wizard would know many secrets. Tell me, what is the command?”

“He won’t tell you anything,” Gaston said. A soldier punched his face. Blood dripped from Gaston’s split lip. Arlin did not move. His eyes did not blink. He saw only the floor.

“This is no game, boy. Tell me the command or I’ll dish out some more of the same treatment your dog received.”

Arlin didn’t budge. He didn’t speak.

“Looks like your mind’s made up.” Blondie gestured to the soldiers in the doorway. In the next room a woman screamed. It was Queen Heather Catheldor.

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Queen Heather Catheldor screamed to be let go. She screamed for Arlin to not say the command. She screamed for the gods to save her.

“Last chance boy.” Arlin did not answer Blondie. “Have it your way. I will get my information one way or another.” Blondie and his men left the room and closed the door behind them.

Squeaking springs pierced the breaks between the queen’s screams and laughter of the Ildonian men. Tears welled up in the prince of Catheldor’s eyes.

“I don’t know,” Arlin’s meek words stuttered as tears fell from his unblinking eyes. “I don’t know the code. I don’t know how to stop them. I don’t know.”

“We will stop them,” Gaston said. “We will stop these Ildonians and bring an end to their miserable lives. Our vengeance will be harsh. They will pay for what they have done.”

Arlin shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“I pledge to fight by your side,” Thothen said. “As long as mountains reach towards the heavens I will help you bring an end to the Ildonians.”

The prince didn’t look away from the ground. “I don’t know.”

“You can count me by your side,” Miirik said. He flinched at each of the screams that echoed through the room. “We will take care of this, all of us, together. We will make things right.”

Tears streamed down Arlin’s face. “I don’t know.”

“I will do what I can to bring a peace between Catheldor and my people,” Firae said. “Your deeds will be spoken to King Laeron in the great hall. Your sacrifices will not be forgotten. Legendary songs and poems will be written. The elves will do what we can to bring justice and aid Catheldor in its time of need.”

“I don’t know.”

Screams turned to sobs as the squeaks came to an end. Ildonian laughter was silenced by a harsh command. The door burst open and Blondie emerged. Sweat beaded upon his brow and his clothing was disheveled. He towered over the young prince.

“Do I have your answer?”

Arlin looked away. “I don’t know.”

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Queen Heather Catheldor struggled against the Ildonian soldiers who dragged her into the storeroom with the young men. Her once beautiful dress had been ripped to shreds and marred with fresh stains ranging from black to red. Her flesh darkened with purple bruises. Blood dripped from the corner of her mouth. Red eyes were wide with desperation and tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Will anyone here tell me what I want to know?” As Blondie spoke a puff of flame grew in his outstretched hand. Flames encompassed his hand in curled blue-green hues. “This is your last chance boy. Tell me the command word to unlock the spell book?”

Arlin’s eyes met his mother’s. Her head swayed side to side. Arlin turned his head away to study the bare section of floor next to him again. The young prince’s eyes welled up with tears. His voice choked back sobs. “I don’t know.”

The blonde Ildonian sighed and flicked his wrist towards the queen. Flames leapt from his fingers and arched through the air to her feet. Arlin’s eyes met hers one last time. “I love you, Arlin.”

The Ildonian soldiers let go of the queen as flames raced up her body. Flesh sizzled in the intense crackling flames. Screams raked the queen as she fell writhing in pain. Thick black smoke billowed from melted flesh. When the flames and smoke dissipated all that remained was a charred corpse.

The Queen of Catheldor was no more.

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Arlin screamed and crawled to the charred remains of the Catheldor Queen. Bound arms and legs reduced the crawl to a stumbling slither.

“We should give him a moment to think about what he’s going to tell us,” the blonde Ildonian leader said then exited the storeroom. The soldier’s laughs dwindled when the door was slammed behind them. The queen’s corpse smoldered in the middle of the small room.

The young men couldn’t believe the carnage that had erupted in front of them. Arlin’s screams paused for sobbing gasps before continuing. None could find words which could bring some calm to the prince.

Bellowed sobs dragged Jarik back to the land of the conscious. His eyes shot wide at the sight of the immolated queen. The half-elf struggled against his bonds and bit into the handkerchief lodged in his mouth. Fight had not been fully beaten from the rogue.

“I have failed my Queen and kingdom,” Gaston shook his head. “We must free ourselves. We must fight back. We must avenge her death.”

Miirik looked to the ceiling, “The dragon blood which runs through my veins has grown weary from our arduous day. I cannot cast any more spells today.”

“Nor can I,” Firae’s shoulders slumped. “If only I had my spellbook and some time for rest.”

“Then you must fight with steel,” Thothen said. “When we get out of here grab ahold of anything you can use to fight. Crossbow, sword, or rock, it doesn’t matter. We will spill blood for Catheldor’s queen.”

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Prince Arlin of Catheldor continued to fill the air with screams and sobs. Blondie’s voice could be heard above the Prince’s bellows and a rumbling din growing from beyond the building. “Someone shut up that boy. The rest of you prepare for battle. It looks like we have company.”

The door opened and a towering soldier entered with a strap of leather clenched in his fist. Jarik had hung slack against the wall but kicked out when the warrior passed. His leg hooked the big man’s shin and toppled him to the floor. Gaston leapt upon the fallen man and wrapped his bound arms around his head with the rope bindings tight against his throat. Laying on the floor, Thothen, and Miirik kicked the wind out of the fallen warrior while Firae rolled against the door to close it. The enormous man’s legs twitched then ceased to move.

Gaston worked the Ildonian’s sword from its sheath and cut through his bonds. Once free he freed the rest of the young men. Arlin curled into a ball and rocked back and forth beside his mother.

“I can’t wait until I get my hands on Blondie,” Jarik massaged his bruises. “I want to cut on him for a while.”

Gaston opened the door a crack and peeked through. Farming implements were scattered about the barn. No Ildonians remind in the building. Sounds of combat penetrated the stone walls. Through far windows he saw Ildonian warriors fighting Catheldor knights. “Knights have come to save us.”

In a corner were lay weapons the Ildonians had confiscated. The young men retrieved their arms and were ready to join the battle beyond the barn.

Along a far wall lay a barred door. Firae and Jarik dashed to the door and found the elf prince and princess huddled on the stone floor. “Catheldor knights have arrived. Stay safe in here until the battle is through. We will protect you with our lives.”

“Thank you my brave protectors.” The pair stood tall with the dignity of royalty.

Sword in hand, Gaston threw open the large barn door and rushed through to the chaos outside. Thothen was not far behind with his axe held high in his stone encrusted fist. The two attacked Ildonian archers that stood just outside of the building. Jarik followed but stuck to cover and pounced upon opponents as he crossed the battlefield. Each Ildonian the half-elf downed brought him one step closer to the blonde Ildonian leader. Miirik and Firae used found bows and rained arrows upon Ildonians.

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The setting sun and circling storm clouds cast the battle into elongated shadows and eerie darkness. Magical blasts and clashing steel rocked the battlefield as men screamed in pain or victory. Heavy Catheldor warhorses trampled Ildonians and knight’s swords were dark with blood. Hard fighting Ildonians felled some of the well armored knights with their own might and magic.

Jarik circled the battle. He crept through darkened clumps of leafy bushes. When an unsuspecting victim presented itself, he pounced. A blade in his hand remained only a flash of silver between strikes. Each felled warrior brought him closer to the Blonde Ildonian leader who stood upon a hill and directed his forces and rained magic upon the Catheldor knights.

Gaston cut down the archer before him and joined Thothen in charging the last bowman. With each shooter they brought down the pressure upon the knights was lessened. The horsemen focused upon the soldiers and spell slingers. Fury raged in their eyes and souls.

Knights charged the mound Blondie stood upon. Arcane bolts streaked from his fingers and dropped any warriors who dared threaten him. A solitary knight pushed through the magical assault. His shield glowed with each spell it absorbed. A gout of flame leapt from the Ildonian and engulfed horse and rider. The horse faltered and fell upon the knight, crushing his leg. With his sword as a crutch the knight stood and faced his opponent.

Gaston fought his way thought the battlefield towards the hill. As he neared the knight’s features because clear in the shadows. The knight was no other than Kaarlo, the Captain of the Catheldor Guard. The knight was Gaston’s father.

“The might of Catheldor has defeated you.” Kaarlo’s voice was stressed with pain.

“Your Queen is dead and you are next.” Blondie laughed. Magical energies crackled between his fingertips.

“I will end you.” Kaarlo raised his sword high above his head and charged the Ildonian wizard. Each step upon the broken leg wobbled. A battle cry of pain and rage rang loud and clear from his lips.

Blondie stepped away from the charging knight and let his magical barrier deflect the sword’s blow. Kaarlo faltered upon his shattered leg and fell upon his shield. Energy cackled from the Ildonian’s fingers and a bolt of lightning illuminated the sky. Gaston’s father flew backwards from the force of the blast. Wisps of smoke rose from the fallen knight’s armor as rain began to fall.

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Gaston halted at the base of the hill as his father was knocked from the mortal plane by Blondie’s arcane energies. His sword dangled loose in his fingers. Raindrops splashed upon his face. He didn’t feel the rain or his lips move as he shouted for his father.

Blondie’s lips cracked into a wide smile. “Do not be afraid young one. I’ll send to your father’s side in the depths of Tormier.”

“Oh no you don’t,” Jarik pounced from a grove of trees and underbrush which ran along the rear of the hill. The half-elf knocked Blondie from his feet. Together the pair fell into the soupy mess of earth the torrential downpour had created.

Jarik sat upon Blondie and pinned his arms to the mud with his knees. The Ildonian lay face half submerged in the mire gasping for breath through the slurry. Rain ran along the rapier’s edge to the tip pressed into the man’s cheek. “With each wound you and your goons inflicted upon me I promised myself a cut upon you. Don’t worry, this won’t hurt me one bit.”

For the first time fear raked across the Ildonian’s eyes as he struggled to free himself from under the half-elf. His hands attempted to gesture for magical incantations but to no avail. Mud splashed and covered the man who resisted against flesh and steel in the downpour. His screams pierced the battlefield each time the rogue’s blade sliced into flesh.

Gaston grasped his sword tight as his convictions wracked his conscious. Ildonians had infiltrated Catheldor castle and stole a key to the kingdom’s defenses. In an attempt to unlock the tome the queen was kidnapped, tortured, and killed mercilessly in front of them. Catheldor knights had arrived and had taken heavy losses, including the death of his father the captain of the guard. Blondie deserved what he received for all the death and destruction he had caused.

Blondie’s gasps for air was a thick staccato between screams. Blood seeped from each wound and mixed with mud. He thrashed against the half-elf upon his back and splattered the bloody slop which left a copper taste in Jarik’s mouth.

Gaston ascended the hill in a listless drift. Rain washed away the thirst for vengeance. Each step brought a hunger for justice against the Ildonian. The full weight of Catheldor must be brought upon the wretch.

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Gaston stood over Jarik and the Ildonian. His voice was low and powerful, like that of an enraged dragon. “Step aside half-elf.”

“I’m not done cutting on him.” Jarik looked up towards the human and he twisted the blade in the Ildonian.

“I will not tell you again.” Gaston raised his sword.

“Thank you.” Tears streamed down Blondie’s face when Jarik stood. The Ildonian wizard climbed to his knees and clutched his wounds. “I thought he was going to kill me.”

“I did not say you could rise.” Gaston hefted his sword to his shoulder and looked towards his father’s body. When his gaze returned to the Ildonian his rage simmered and his voice was flat even tones. “My name is Gaston and I am a guardian of the Catheldorian kingdom. You have stolen my lord’s property. You have defiled and murdered my queen. You have killed the captain of the Catheldor guard, who is my father. Do you plead for mercy?”

“Mercy. I am your prisoner. Lock me away in your highest tower. I will fight no longer.”
Blondie looked up at Gaston. Rain washed away crimson mud from his open wounds. “Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.”

“Then mercy you shall have.” Gaston sheathed his sword. “You will return to Catheldor with us and the king shall decide your fate.”

Arlin emerged from the grove on the rear of the hill. He had followed the same path Jarik had followed in his ascent towards Blondie. Cold distant eyes peered out under his cloak’s hood pulled up against the weather. The rest didn’t notice the prince until he stood behind the Ildonian. Blondie coughed blood then fell back to the mud. A dagger emerged from his back, as if it had always been there.

“That was cold.” Jarik wiped his blade dry as best he could before sheathing it.

“That was justice.” Arlin said. The young prince turned and descended the hill.

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Thothen, Miirik, and Firae stood firm with weapons held at the ready. Heavy Calvary thundered towards them. The lead horse splashed to a halt and its rider lifted his visor. The king of Catheldor was before them.

“My lord,” Miirik said as all three young men dropped to one knee.

“Please tell me we have arrived in time.” There was sadness in the king’s eyes. He already sensed that they were too late.

“I’m sorry my lord,” Mirrik rose. “Your queen is inside the barn. She was brave and did not die in vain.”

The king dismounted and rushed past the young men. He stopped at the rear room’s doorway and fell to one knee. A tear rolled from the corner of King Bertrand’s eye.

The elf prince and princess stood at the doorway and watched the human king. Tears too welled in their eyes. Songs of mourning sprang from their lips.

“You can rest easy. The Ildonian threat has been laid to rest.” A knight said when he dismounted.

“How can you be sure? How did you know the danger was out here?” Thothen leaned against his axe.

“An Ildonain spy was found. He had worked his way into the king’s war cabinet. We found him last night when he attempted to send messages back to Ildonia. It didn’t take too long to make him talk. We rode hard all day in hopes of arriving before the queen. But alas, the spy held out long enough to delay our journey. If we only had more time.”

Miirik’s voice was soft. “What of the Ildonian army? Who protects the castle from attack?”

“Wizard Mandel remains at the castle with the bulk of our army. However, the spy had said he reported to a general, not the King and Queen of Ildonian. Our scouts have found no invading army in our lands, so we believe his words. It was assumed the general here would’ve convinced his royalty to strike first while the magic tome was in their hands. We shall see what happens in the future, but for now Catheldor is safe.”

Miirik nodded. “Yes, we shall see.”

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The days and weeks and months after Arlin had returned to the castle were difficult for the young prince. The violent passing of the queen had paid its toll upon him. Horrified, he assisted the priests of Dian Cécht in her resurrection. It was a grisly and expensive process, but one a kingdom willingly took on when a queen was taken before her time.

Tensions with Ildonia lessened, cooled back down to a simmering bloodless grudge. Popular belief was that the aggressions against Catheldor were done by a few who weren’t sanctioned by the Ildonia crown. Some disagreed and said the growing alliance between Catheldor and the Mallvrann elves blunted further aggressions. Powerful elf allies had bolstered the Catheldor army to a strength which could campaign across Ildonia lands if the king so wished.

Arlin had seen how powerful magic could be. Magic was more than flashy explosions, it could be used to control others or to invoke fear. After the resurrection ceremony the young prince cut away from his clerical studies to study the arcane arts under Wizard Mandel. He wanted his arcane studies to at least equal his divine.

One day an older priest of Dian Cécht, who Arlin knew as Brother Egglebert, had brought the young prince to his cloister for a private conversation. Arlin feared the cleric was to reprimand him for not being as studious in his studies as a prince should be. The dim light in the private chambers gave an air of mystery to the meeting.

“You have been through much and I feel it is time for you to see that Tthings are not as they seem,” the old cleric said with a kind voice as smooth as buttered cream. “There is much more to life than it appears.”

“Of course there is,” Arlin crossed his arms in defiance. “One day the kingdom is having a grand party of alliances and the next the queen had been immolated in flames.”

Brother Egglebert chuckled and beckoned the prince to sit beside him. “No, no, no. Several years ago on a calm and star filled night the king laid down with the queen. However, the king was not the king. The king looked like the king. The king sounded like the king. The king smelled like the king. The king felt like the king. The king tasted like the king. But the king was not the king.”

“Who would dare appear to be the king beside the queen if they were not?”

The priest patted the young prince on the arm. “Nine months after the king had lain with the queen a beautiful bouncing boy was born. Do you know who that boy was?”

Arlin wasn’t pleased with the old cleric’s story. “It doesn’t take a wizard to know that if you’re telling me this story then the boy was me. I find it to be a gross accusation for you to say that I am not a son of the king and that I’m not in line to the throne.”

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Brother Egglebert smiled. “Your intellect serves you well, young prince.”

Arlin of Catheldor stood and glared at the old priest. “I don’t believe you. Why do I look like the king and princes of Catheldor if I am not of Catheldor blood?”

The old priest shook his head. “You of all individuals should know that there are ways to make someone look like who they are not. There may not be so many ways for the good gods such as Dian Cécht to grant the ability to look like who you wish. However, those who have been touched by the gods of chaos have convenient ways to misdirect. Just as I’m sure Wizard Mandel has taught you arcane ways to obfuscate and alter facts.” Arlin’s face had no color or emotion or reaction. “Or have you not been taught any of the more useful spells? I’m ashamed and appalled at Mandel, a high wizard indeed. What has he been teaching in your elongated studies?”

Arlin took a step back. “You are saying spells are in effect that change my appearance?”

“Not exactly. There are spells in play that make sure your visage of a beautiful young prince doesn’t change.” Brother Egglebert waved his fingers as he spoke. The young prince could feel magic manipulating his body. Penetrating it. Changing it. He felt all the muscles in his body relax with the tingling magic.

“What are you doing?” Arlin was shaking. His voice wavered.

“Don’t be afraid. I’m just bringing your true potential to light.” The priest had a devilish smile. “Go to the mirror. Tell me, what do you see?”

Arlin did as he was told. The young prince bit his lip to keep from screaming. His hands pawed at his face in hopes to betray any illusion in the mirror, but the person who looked back at him matched his movements.

The mirror’s image did not match the handsome image Arlin’s mirror portrayed earlier that day. The mirror person did not have fine sandy hair or striking blue eyes. Tanned flesh was palled and facial features were dulled to a point where they were practically nonexistent. His nose was sunken and had two thin slits for nostrils. Full ruby lips were thin and almost blue. Hair was coarse dull brown.

“What did you do to me?” Arlin fell to his knees.

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Brother Egglebert threw up his hands and spoke to the ceiling. “Were you not listing? This is who you are. For the first time you are looking upon your own flesh and blood.”

Arlin’s voice simultaneously raged with anger and quivered with fear. “I don’t believe you. What did you do? What did you turn me into?”

The cleric smiled, “I didn’t turn you into anything. All I did was unlock the spell that kept you locked in one form. Now you are free to control your body as you wish.” When a wave of comprehension didn’t wash across Arlin’s face Brother Egglebert sighed. “Were you not paying attention to the story I just told you? The man who impregnated the queen was not just any man with a spell to look like the king. No. He was a rare being who could shift his shape at will.”

“So you are saying,” Arlin stammered.

“His blood runs through your veins. You are a part of him. Try it. Feel your body, your face. Flex those muscles that you always knew were there but were just out of your reach. Picture in your mind’s eye what you want to look like. Turn into anyone you would like.”

Arlin flexed his muscles. Slowly his face changed. A petite nose emerged between ruddy cheeks. Diminutive ears lowered. Eyes turned to deep blue pools with flecks of gold. Hair elongated to curly strands of hay. The perfect replication of Queen Heather of Catheldor.

“Who was he?” Arlin’s strained once more. This time his face returned to his own. “How were you able to work this subterfuge for so long? What was it all for?”

Brother Egglebert’s face changed to match Arlin’s. “It’s good to share your face, my son. Soon we’ll rule this kingdom together. I was there the day you were born. When your mother was in labor, I was the only one who comforted her. I was the only living soul in that room when you were brought into the world. I with the will of the dark gods I was able to lock your visage. It’s amazing what secrets are contained in the old archives.” Egglebert pulled a tome from the desk. He flipped through the pages showing Arlin the dark secrets and spells contained within.

“Why didn’t you take the kings place? Will anyone else join our schemes?” Arlin viewed the tome beside the priest.

“Royal blood is needed for the crown. The queen had a worthy enough lineage to birth a half son who could fool the powers that be.”

Egglebert shook his head no. Arlin smiled and picked up a letter opener off the desk. He thrust the blade into the old priest’s chest. Egglebert looked to the prince with questioning eyes before he fell. “A rightful heir of Catheldor will rule alone.”

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Gaston paced back and forth through the chapel’s antechamber. A stream of obscenities rattled from his lips until he settled upon the king’s language. “I hate them. Those damn arcane spell casters do nothing but bring death and destruction. They don’t create, they just destroy. With a bit of glee I might add.”

“One cannot pass such broad judgments,” the young priest of Dian Cécht said. “All creations upon this world are important and unique. Just because one apple in your basket is bad you do not throw away the entire load. Prejudging will make you no better than those that you judge. You will be doomed to fall to the same fate.”

“How much longer do I have to wait? If he’s coming he should have returned by now.” Brilliant shades of blues and reds from the setting sun through stain glass illuminated marble columns and oak pews.

“Like all things mystical, returning one’s soul to their awaiting body is an art,” the priest said. “The wisest of priests tug at the strings of fates. With their advanced study they can guide a soul cut short back to their awaiting body. Lest ye forget the queen had already been returned to us.”

“Fortunate for her soul, but they usually don’t return.”

“You are right, after having a glimpse of the beyond some souls don’t want to return. Even when one does wish for life again, it is still a difficult journey through Tormier. A journey only possible when guided by the clerics.”

“Your priests seem to have worked harder to bring her back,” Gaston turned to look the priest in the eye. “I don’t recall the royal family having to wait around here half as long as I already have been here.”

“They say it drags all priests involved in the ritual to the brink of exhaustion. It is simply a marvel they were willing to guide another soul today after returning the queen yesterday. But a soul only has so much time before the window home slams shut.” The priest sighed. “Just consider yourself lucky that the king’s treasury was generous enough to return your father to this world. Not all kingdoms value their soldiers as much.”

“Captain of the guard,” Gaston corrected the cleric. “My father is the captain of the guard. The king should consider himself lucky to have a man willing to die to save the queen. That he was willing to give it all for his king and country.”

“Are you saying that you would not have given the ultimate sacrifice for the king?”

“Some may not,” Gaston returned to pacing.

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A scream rocked through the Catheldor castle chapel. Gaston ceased his pacing at the shattering scream. A scream he had never heard before but it was a voice he knew well.

“Your father has been returned to us,” the priest smiled.

“Where is he?” Kaarlo’s labored voice rocked the castle. “Where is he?” The chapel doors burst open and the Captain of the guard emerged. His armor caked with dried mud and blood clanked and squeaked with each step. Outstretched arms engulfed his son, who had become a large man in his own right.

“It’s good to see you, father,” Gaston laughed with a tear at his eye.

“I thought you were sentenced to follow me,” the captain laughed, “but I should have known better. Any son of mine is more than a match for any villain that may cross his path. I should have breathed easy when you didn’t appear next to me in Tormier. But I was worried that you had appeared in a different location.”

Gaston said as his father put him down. “They take care of your leg as well?”

“I think they couldn’t bear to hear me scream anymore. Having one’s soul torn from the heavens and crammed back into their body is painful enough as it is. Now consider how it feels when the body was nearly destroyed. That, my boy, is a pain I wouldn’t want to wish upon anyone. My resurrection has left me famished. Let’s head home for dinner.

Father and son said farewell to the priests and exited the chapel for home. The young priest too left the chapel muttering about Brother Egglebert not relieving him from the chapel. It was not long before the pair arrived at their quarters in the castle. The captain poured himself a large mug of ale while Gaston gathered ingredients for their meal.

“Son,” the Captain said, taking a long draught. “Tell me what happened. My arrival in Tormier was too fresh. I didn’t have the eyes to see through the chaos and peer back into our world. Tell me how you brought that bastard down and avenged your old man.”

Gaston lit the cooking fire. “I was not able to do it all by myself. After your death it was all I could do to keep from falling to my knees and screaming to the heavens.”

“My last charge was to buy you time,” the captain put his arm around the boy. “Tell me. What did you do with those precious few seconds I managed to acquire for you? Tell me of your battle.”

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Tears watered the young man’s eyes. “I was frozen. If it wasn’t for Jarik I would have joined you in Tormier. He sprang out of the shadows while I just stood there.”

The captain patted his son’s head. “Man to man, tell me what happened after my death.”

“Jarik pinned the wizard and cutting upon his flesh.”

“What did you do?”

“I did what you taught me. We don’t condoned torture in Catheldor. I was going to bring him back alive to pay for his sins. Prince Arlin saw it differently and cut him down.”

“It pains you doesn’t it?”

“It does, father. The battle was over. He was unarmed and defeated.”

“You did your best, my son. Sometimes the death of the surrendered upon the battlefield is just as good a justice as our jails here. It is done now, no sense lamenting upon it any further. The captain of the guard retrieved a chest from the back of the storage closet. He opened the chest with care. “This is something I have been saving until the time was right. It was mine when I was your age, but I had outgrown it,” he patted his gut then pulled a suit of steel and leather armor from the chest. “This will protect you from the evil you encountered. Enchantments on this armor are hungry to feast upon one thing.”

“Justice?” Gaston interrupted.

“No,” his father winked. “Magic. This armor will afford you some protection from spells. It does not devour every arcane force, but it will reduce the pain spells bring.”

Gaston smiled. “Thank you father. I don’t know what to say.”

Captain Kaarlo patted his son on the shoulder. “There is nothing that needs to be said. Just wear this armor with pride. It will aid you while you are training with the guard.”

“You’re allowing me to join the guard?” Gaston beamed.

“No.” Gaston’s face fell, but Kaarlo continued. “You showed great skill and forethought on the field of battle, which eared you special tutelage. I don’t believe for a moment that Ildonia was not planning an attack against Catheldor and you foiled their schemes. Soon enough they will attack again and we must prepare to fight their powerful mages. I will train a squad of men to fight magic with steel, and I want you among them.”

“Thank you father.”

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Firae stood before elf King Laeron of the elves. “The humans of Catheldor have been through a lot. They are a proud people who need our assistance.”

King Laeron sat back in his throne of oak and leaves deep in the Mallvrann forest. “I have listened to the prince and princess and their tales from Catheldor. I would like for you to tell me what happened in the human kingdom. You spent some time with a prince and I would like to hear your unique view of the events and of the humans.”

“Yes my king,” Firae bowed. “Catheldor was very receptive to our arrival. Humans lined the street and watched us pass. It was a hesitant joyousness, but joyousness none the less. I’m sure tales of the old wars shaded their hearts but they were excited to see creatures of legend amongst them.”

“I’ve been told they gave a grand ball to celebrate. Tell me, how did you come to be with Prince Arlin instead of with the prince and princess in the grand ball?”

Firae tried to hide his frown. He was unsure if the king intended to call his actions improper. “The ball was supposed to be a chance for us to acclimate ourselves amongst the humans. The event was very formal, by human standards. It was quite interesting to see their customs. When Gaston, the son of the captain of the Catheldor guard, approached Jarik and I for a game of chance with a prince of Catheldor we could not refuse. It would have been rude to turn down the offer and I took the opportunity to study the humans as they naturally behave.”

“You gambled with the humans?”

“Yes,” Firae studied the throne’s twisted oak legs. Marveling at how the curved wood reached up and supported the cushion of soft leaves. “I wanted to see them in a relaxed setting away from formalities. That short period of time taught me much about them.”

“What of the attack on the castle. Did they not accuse us of bringing death amongst them? Did they threaten to imprison or execute?”

“At least in my presence the Catheldor guard never thought we brought the attack and the king listed to his advisors. The dagger found had the hallmarks of being forged in Ildonia, the kingdom they feared war with. They may not have the years of knowledge an elf has, but the humans are not the gibbering simpletons our tales portray them as. They seemed ready to accept us and to forge an alliance.”

“There may be some hope for these humans.”

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King Laeron shifted in his throne. His eyes were closed, deep in thought and introspection of what the young Firae had reported. Somewhere beyond the tree top palace a songbird chirped a few bars, a song welcoming the sun. “Prince Arlin trusted you to join him in the hunt to stop the attackers?”

“He did ask us to join but my duty was to the prince and princess.” The young elf coughed. “It was not until the wizard’s tower lit up in combat did Jarik rush to Prince Arlin’s aide. I stayed with the prince and princess to ensure their safety.”

“Tell me,” King Laeron said, “why did the prince and princess travel with the Catheldor queen away from the safety of the castle? Why was the decision made to not return to the safety of the Mallvrann forest?”

Firae shook his head. “I was not privy to the conversations which made that decision, but what I had heard was that the king feared an Ildonian army was approaching and would cut off our route of escape to the forest. Our warriors are brave, but we would have been vastly outnumbered. The king wanted to minimize casualties if the castle was attacked so royalty was sent away to safety.”

“You do not feel you were sent to a trap? A way to have Catheldor enemies cut down elves in some misguided revenge plot?”

“We elves were treated equally with the most important individuals of Catheldor. There was no ploy that I could see,” Firae said. “The Ildonian wizard had led a band of warriors and anticipated the Catheldorian’s move. He had stolen a spell book and needed the command word to break the enchantments and open the book. His goal was to take the Catheldor queen captive and force her to speak. She did not and neither did Prince Arlin.”

“What happened in the cabin? Were the prince and princess harmed?”

“Your children weren’t harmed. The Ildonians seemed to only want information from the Catheldorians. Their interest in us elves was only as ransom. Only Jarik was harmed, a punishment for being more brave than wise. Our captors wanted to keep us in line and not cause any trouble. By the end of the day, we were able to escape and the Catheldor knights had arrived to battle the Ildonians.”

“I find it rather peculiar that the knights were able to tack you down so quickly. Sounds like a bit of treachery on their behalf.”

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Firae raised an eyebrow. “If there was any treachery then the humans are due far more credit than we give them. A spy was found amongst the Catheldor counsel and was made to talk. That is how the king knew to lead the knights and save his queen.”

King Catheldor sounds to be brave and intelligent, traits we don’t often use when discussing humans.” King Laeron scratched his chin. “What insights have you learned about the humans from your time with them?”

Firae looked to the leafy canopy roof for a moment before answering his king. “They are a proud and honorable people, much more than what I had expected. The queen never gave in to her captors, no matter what they did to her. The king served justice as it was required and but did not rampage against his neighbors in an ill-advised war. There was a parley with the Ildonian rulers and it was reported that the wizard that had stolen the spell book had acted upon his own behalf, that the Ildonians had not condoned his actions.”

“What do you believe will happen in the future?” King Laeron asked.

“There is a deep lying hatred between Catheldor and Ildonia. I believe at some point there will be war between the two kingdoms, a war which would spread to other kingdoms across this land. It may not be soon, but I believe it will happen.”

“If you were king, what would you do?”

“I would not want to make assumptions as to our course of action.” Firae shook his head.

“Humor an old man,” King Laeron smiled.

Firae rolled each word over in his mind before speaking. “Catheldor is in need of assistance and we are in a position to give it. They would honor any agreement they sign. I believe it would be in our best interest to ally ourselves with the humans. Together our two kingdoms can grow in strength. If we are to venture from the forest again, Catheldor will be an excellent ally.”

King Laeron nodded. “Thank you for your candid words. For now there is a mission I have in mind for you. We are going to maintain relations with Catheldor, but I need to know more about them before we sign any treaties. You will be sent back to Catheldor. Ally yourself with Prince Arlin, become a member of his inner circle. Earn his trust and report back to me everything that happens. Can you do that for me?”

Firae bowed. “Yes my king. I will do as you wish.”

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Jarik waved a piece of silver for the bartender to see. “Another round.”

“You are Jarik of the Mallvrann elven delegation, are you not?” A human clad in dark colored robes slid into place beside the said to the half-elf. He patted Jarik on the shoulder, as if it was a warm embrace from a long lost friend.

“The one and only.” Jarik then took a long pull from the mug placed before him.

The human smiled. “I have a proposition for a man of your talents. Would you accompany me to the backroom for a more private conversation?”

Jarik eyed the stranger from head to toe. His hand rested on the rapier at his side. After the deeds at the villa, Jarik was high with hubris and didn’t fear the stranger. He nodded and the two made their way through the tavern. It wasn’t until they were hidden away in the storeroom did the stranger turn and speak.

“Rumors have it you fought well against the Ildonians. Knights say you took initiative and fought with a certain sense of elven flair.”

The half-elf beamed from ear to ear. “I was sent to Catheldor to do a job and that job is what I did. But I am confused as to why this conversation must be had in a dark room.”

The cloaked man tapped his gloved fingers together. “Fighting men talk. They said a vicious half-elf was unleashed upon the Ildonians, a man who didn’t fight side by side with the knights or his kinsfolk. That he stuck to the shadows and took vengeance in the most colorful of manners upon his unknowing opponents.”

“The dark is an ally which obscures my blade. What is this proposition you have? This tavern keeps me occupied with beer and barmaids.”

“How does it make you feel when you sink your blade into flesh? To kill a man who didn’t know you existed until he felt your blade in his heart?”

Jarik shook his head. “What is there to feel? My mission was to protect the members of our delegation. If anything, I felt a sense of accomplishment for a job well done. The princess and prince have returned home without harm.”

“Why have you not returned to the Mallvrann forest with them?”

“Who is it that asks such probing questions?”

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The cloaked man chuckled. “You’re right. It’s unfair of me to ask about your home. Maybe this question is more to your liking. Killing, does not bother you? Or does your conscience hide behind the elven crown, justifying death with a sense of duty?”

Jarik half drew his rapier. “Duty or not, I should slay a man for asking such absurd questions. After cleaning your blood from my blade I would enjoy a beverage and never waste one thought upon you again.”

The cloaked man tapped his fingers together. “Excellent. You seem to be precisely the person who I need. I have a job for you, if you are willing to earn some coin.”

Jarik sheathed his weapon. “What kind of coin are we talking about?”

“I know you are a smart man and I don’t need to ask that what I say stays between us. I’m sure even in Mallvrann, vultures find dining upon loose lips a meal most divine.” A pouch appeared in the human’s hand. He grabbed Jarik’s hand and poured gold coins into it. The half-elf nodded. “There is a very bad man. They say he beats dogs and tortures wayward fey creatures. Anyway, there is some property he stole from my employer. This is very important property that is worth a lot to my employer.”

Jarik scratched his whiskerless chin. “This sounds like a job for an errand boy. Why don’t you retrieve it yourself? Or have the Catheldor guard return it for you?”

“The Catheldor guard is no help to my employer, I’m afraid. It is a sad state of affairs, but the guard has an issue with my employer. I’ve been told it has something to do with the captain of the guard and my employer chasing the same woman in their youth or some such business. They would not lift a finger to help. I had heard of your exploits against the Ildonians and thought you would be worthy to assist me. When you are finished there will be another bag of coin for you.”

Jarik’s hand grasped the coins tight. It was much more than he would ever expect to be paid by the Mallvrann crown in a year of service. “You make a reasonable request. What is it you’d have me do?”

The cloaked man produced an envelope with a bright red wax seal from a pocket. “I need you to deliver this letter to him personally tonight. He is illusive and has many guards so you may have to sneak into his home. Make sure that he reads the letter. There is a question at the end, get his answer and return here tomorrow to tell me of his response. Do you think you can do that?”

Jarik snatched the letter and simply said, “Tell me where to go.” The half-elf had no need to hear anything about the target or contents of the letter.

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Jarik received directions from the cloaked human and by nightfall he was riding a horse away from Catheldor. The roads were clearly marked and it wasn’t difficult to find the home. The half-elf hid his horse amongst trees a mile away and scouted the wooded terrain around the home.

Three guards patrolled around the dark two story building. They watched the surrounding land as they slowly circled. Jarik hugged shadows and underbrush as he approached. The young half-elf’s blade itched to clear the path and drink, but his mission was to only deliver a message. The guard’s lives would be spared.

Jarik was as swift and silent as a full blooded elf as he slipped past the guards and penetrated the home. He stalked his prey, poking his head into each room as he passed it. A floorboard squeaked above, the man of the house Jarik surmised. He edged through the building and up the stairs, never making a sound louder than a mouse.

“Do not be alarmed,” Jarik said when he opened the bedroom door.

An elderly human sat up in bed and reached for a pair of glasses. “Who are you? What are you doing in my home? Get out before I call my guards.”

“I have a message for you,” Jarik handed over the envelope.

The old man slipped his finger under the envelope’s flap, breaking the wax seal. His face went white as he read then flush red with anger as he put the letter down. “Who do you think you are?”

Jarik bowed with a smile. “I am simply a messenger. Now, can I have your response to the question in the letter?”

“No,” the old man barked. “My answer is no. You can tell them that there is no way I will comply with their demands. They are unreasonable. You can also tell them to never come back to my home again otherwise there will be blood on the streets. I may be a lenient man, but even I have my limitations. I can afford many a thug to make life difficult.”

“As you wish.” Jarik said before disappearing into the night.

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The Conner household was normally an idyllic farm of rolling fields and pastures. On this day the home on the outskirts of town wasn’t as peaceful as a normal day. Sera stomped about the kitchen, each footstep a thundering Clydesdale clomp. “I don’t want to go. Miirik didn’t have to go away to school. Why should I have to?”

A grin of sharp teeth emerged across Miirik’s reptilian face. “You have not been as equally blessed by the gods as I have. Being cursed with the flesh of a lizard is not as wonderful as you might think. I’d give anything to be sent away to the wizard school away in the mountains. But no, the king keeps me tied to Catheldor. I wish I could have learned from masters in a faraway land, but mother and father need me here and I am learning the works of Demeter from the castle priests.”

“Curses upon you and your stinky head,” Sera stuck her tongue out at her older brother. “It is just not fair. I know how to plow the fields and milk the cows. I can help out around the house.”

At time Miirik felt like a clucking mother hen to those around him. When they listened it was easy to hear he actually had words of wisdom to share. “It’s not safe in Catheldor anymore. If it was another time or place you could have been with us at the summer villa. Just count your blessings mother and father needed a day to secure the property before sending you away. You are better off not being a part of what happened at the royal villa.”

Sera stopped stomping about the room. “Tell me brother, what happened out there. Tell me about your adventure, the knights, and the magic. Did you kill any Ildonians?”

“That is something you don’t want to know,” Miirik looked away from his sister. “It was not a glorious adventure. There was nothing to be proud about. Even following the word of Demeter, the goddess of the havest, harvesting one’s soul is not a glory as the legends say. Even in battle, to take a life is a curse I would not wish upon anyone. Doubly so with witnessing the horrors inflicted upon the queen.”

“Tell me brother, what did they do to the queen? The kids at school say that they tortured and murdered her in front of Prince Arlin. Were you there too? Did you see everything that happened?”

Miirik sighed. “They didn’t offer us candy to tell state secrets.”

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Sera crossed her arms and stood her ground in the kitchen. “Why isn’t the king marching into the heart of Ildonia to punish this injustice?”

Miirik took a bite from an apple before responding. “There is more to the relations between Catheldor and Ildonia than the lust for blood and vengeance. Ildonia had no desire to invade Catheldor. It was the work of a man who acted without royal consent. There will be no great war.”

“Poop on their heads. The king should not believe that pack of lies. He should march on their lands and take their castle by storm.”

“All the more reason why you must go away to school.”

“You said it’s not safe in Catheldor anymore, but the king is not taking the troops to war. Why am I being sent away?”

Safety isn’t the only concern, mother thinks you need to be a proper lady. I don’t believe that will ever happen. At least not in my lifetime.” Miirik’s laugh was punctuated with a hearty snort.

“Poop on you too. I can be a proper lady if I wanted to. I just don’t want to. Running in fields and playing knights with boys is more fun than sticking at home and learning needlepoint.”

“Speaking of needlepoint, father said you never finished the birthday present you promised. When are you going to get to that?”

“Maybe if he wasn’t sending me away from all my friends I might actually make some progress on it. Besides, my needlepoint is a greater gift than anything you could ever do.” Sera stuck her tongue at her brother.

Miirik tousled his sister’s hair. “Just keep telling yourself that. My needlepoint is much better than yours.”

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Sera pouted. “Why don’t you go off to school and stay away from the trouble here? I’m sure there is a thing or two they could teach you about cooking and cleaning and nagging. You are such a mother hen.”

“Fine skills for you to learn if you are ever to find a husband,” Miirik elbowed his sister in the ribs. “Not that any man would want you in his life. It’s all I can do to get you out of my hair. Why would some man want a tomboy who can’t keep a good house?”

Sera backed away from her brother. “You don’t have any hair you smelly dragon. Jarik seemed to like me at the ball, maybe I should go find him. I’m sure dad would just love it if I brought an elf home.”

“He is only half an elf and you wouldn’t want anything to do with him. There is something not right with that boy. Go find yourself some nice noble when you get to school. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of lonely boys up there too.”

Sera looked up towards her older brother. “Are you going to miss me? Seriously, what are you going to do without me to kick around?”

Miirik shook his head, “I don’t know little sis. The older boys say my next year of studies will be quite demanding. I’m sure the priests will work me hard and keep me to the faith. Somewhere between the teachings I’ll be working in the fields. You know what dad always says, there is another harvest just around the corner.”

Sera nodded. “I’ll miss this old farmstead. I’ll miss you too, even though you stink so much.”

Miirik smiled. “Thanks sis. I’ll miss you too.”

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Naki Bravevein muttered more to himself than to his young apprentice. “Thothen, Thothen, Thothen. What am I to do with you Thothen Gilrak? Are you trying to make Professor Nusigo Earthedge and Clan Lord Vogeme Steelvictor look like fools for sending such a brash young dwarf to study under my wing? They both personally wrote letters of recommendation as to how young and talented of a mind you are. You have only been training under my wing for a few weeks and you’re already trying to get yourself killed.”

“No trade master. I was only doing what I thought was best for our profit.” Thothen hung his head in shame.

“Then what in the deepest mines of Gullgruve were you doing gallivanting across the country side trying to get yourself killed. You are here to learn the skills needed to be a successful trader. There is much you could have learned by my side in the few hours before the Catheldor king rode out to find his queen. There was much in the name of sales work that was done. Knights that had been hemming and hawing over purchasing dwarven crafted arms and armor who had finally made the plunge. No one wants to wade into combat with inferior equipment.”

“I just thought,” Thothen interrupted his master, “I just thought that Prince Arlin would need me by his side and that my axe would help protect him. If I could prove to the humans that I am loyal to their cause, and could see what our weapons could do, then they would be more likely to purchase weapon from us.”

“You are fortunate things turned out as they did, that the prince did need your assistance,” Naki said. “But your actions prove there is much you must learn about business. One cannot make a profit if one is dead. Furthermore, while proving to be an ally in time of need may lead to increased sales it also leads to increased bickering for a price break and decreased sales from other factions.”

“I had not thought about it that way, Trade Master Bravevein.”

“Of course you haven’t. Which is why you are the student and I am the master.” Bravevein retrieved a mug from a shelf and topped it off with dwarven ale from a cask in the corner of his quarters in castle Catheldor. “Now, tell this old trade master about your battles. My warrior blood burns to have a waraxe in these old hands once again. Maybe some day I will have to dawn my armor once again, but for now I must live through you.”

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Thothen beamed in Trade Master Bravevein’s quarters in castle Catheldor. “It was a glorious day to be in battle. Those Ildonian warriors had not seen the fury of an enraged dwarf before. My mighty axe nearly cut them in twain with every blow. My muscles would not have burned with fatigue if it was not for that dreaded wizard.”

“Aye,” Naki grunted as he drank from his tankard. “Those that cast spells have been the bane of many a warrior. We have not had much time together since the elf delegation arrived, but I understand that Professor Earthedge is an instructor of the arcane arts. Your letter of recommendations stated you trained by his side before joining me here. Are your magical skills not powerful enough to duel a human wizard with spell and axe?”

Thothen pounded his fists together while uttering a short incantation. Stone quickly grew down his arms and covered his fists. “The number of spells that I know is limited, comparatively speaking, but what I do know will help me in combat. With the strength of stone on my side my axe is made even more deadly.”

“Very impressive,” Naki clapped his hands. “It has been many years since I’ve last seen such spells cast by a dwarf. This brings back memories of our warcasters of old. I can certainly see why Steelvictor spoke highly of you. Spells and strength are indeed a rare combination. Tell me, does wearing armor impede your spell casting? Or do you not wear armor at all? Do your arcane skills protect you as well as strengthen you? Show me. I would love to see what abilities are locked away in that mind of yours.”

“I will entertain you with my arcane arts if you are willing to do one thing for me,” Thothen said as he eyed the cask of ale. “My throat is mighty parched from saying these incantations. Surely you have some drink to share.”

“Ah, you are learning. This should suffice for payment.” Steelvictor topped off a second mug with a full head of ale.

Thothen took a drink before uttering another string of incantations. A wave of confusion washed over Steelvictor. “What did you just do? I do not see any sign of a spell being cast. Are you sure you know what you are doing?”

“Do you not trust me master?” Thothen asked with a smile. “In the days of old when you were battling across battle lines did you ever notice how difficult it was to strike down wizards? Even though these spells are invisible to the untrained eye I can guarantee you that I am fully protected by an invisible shield and armor. Try hitting me as hard as you can.”

Catheldor Knights – Page 63

Naki approached Thothen with a clenched fist. His apprentice stood proud with a puffed out chest. “This truly is a day to warm a teacher’s heart.” Naki’s fist flew through the air, stopping nearly a foot from Thothen’s body, as if he had punched steel. The trade master massaged his knuckles. “That is some defense you have there.”

“Aye,” Thothen smiled. “My magical shield may not stop every single blow that comes my way, but it should keep me protected enough in battle. Now I’ll let the shield dissipate and let you have another go.”

Naki grasped one fist in the other and swung with all his might. Thothen doubled over and coughed as the blow hammered square in his gut, knocking the wind from the young dwarf. “Looks like I still have it,” the old trade master massaged his knuckles once again.

“It sure does,” Thothen coughed as he steadied himself in an attempt to regain his breath. “But did you feel the resistance when you hit me. That would have been my magical protection deflecting some of the blow and mother earth absorbing some of the damage.”

“Yes, I could feel it. Thank you for the demonstration. If only more of our fighting men were able to protect themselves as well as you do.” Naki opened a locked chest and retrieved a dwarven crafted double bladed waraxe. The haft glistened and the blades were as black as night. “This weapon was crafted by our finest blacksmiths and enchanted by our finest wizards. It will withstand blows five times as damaging as what it would take to destroy normal weapons. The obsidian blade was made from metals which fell from the skies. Nothing constructed by man would withstand the blade’s sharp edge.”

“That axe is a work of beauty,” Thothen whistled.

Naki Bravevein held the weapon out to the young dwarf. “If you are going to wade into battle you might as well have the best tools available, it is yours. On one condition though, you must follow my instructions and learn what it takes to be a trade master. Do not go running off across the country following Prince Arlin unless you have my expressed say before hand. We have much work to be done ahead of us if this threat of war continues to loom overhead. Business will be good my boy, I can taste it.”

Thothen took the axe from Naki’s hands and felt the weapon’s solid weight. “Yes my master.”