Eppon knelt quietly, his eyes shut.
He focused for a moment on the stream
of sweat that slowly ran down his face. There were more important things to
focus on—he grinned a sarcastic smile—much more important things. But he had to
focus and the sweat provided the perfect distraction. The cold night air blew
gently against his skin as he convinced his heart to slow its frantic pace and
steadied his breathing. "Focus," he told himself. "Focus."
heard footsteps so faint he first thought they might be the rustling of the
grass and leaves. He opened his eyes. They'd adjusted to the shadows of
moonlight. His own sword was the first thing he saw. He held the blade at a
slight angle in front of his face. This afforded him the ability to look
forward past the sword and behind himself in the blade’s reflection at the same
ignored the blood that flowed slowly down the blade and watched for movement.
He found it. Distorted in the blade was the image of a would-be assassin,
moving quietly and using the shadows to hide his form.
held the grip of his sword tightly and spun. Holding his sword before him with
his arms fully extended, he moved until his blade connected with the attacker.
To the man’s credit, he fell without making a sound. Their attack had
originated from the cover of the woods. A well-trained soldier would remain
silent no matter what happened to protect the location of his fellow soldiers.
That meant there were still others near. He lowered himself and closed his eyes
attackers. He could hear movement coming from both sides—very close. He thrust
his sword to his left and swept his foot to his right. Two bodies hit the
ground. He grew light headed. It became difficult to focus. He closed his eyes
again and focused on the sweat. One of the attackers wasn't moving, but the
assassin to his right would attack again soon. Without opening his eyes he
swung his sword. He'd miscalculated. The hilt of his sword slammed against the
man’s leg. Eppon pushed with all his might, ignoring the pain from his chest.
He'd managed this long, he had to hold on a little longer. The man fell to the
ground under Eppon’s weight. Eppon grabbed the attacker’s head and twisted. The
assailant’s neck snapped and the struggle was over.
Eppon opened his eyes, unable to get
up. The fighting had stopped and he could hear his father’s guards in the
distance calling out orders. “King Dant is wounded, but alive. Find the
allowed himself to relax and closed his eyes. His wounds were severe and he
wasn’t sure if he would survive. But his father’s guards had managed to keep
their king alive and that was all that mattered. He could hear the guards
approaching him, but he drifted into unconsciousness before they arrived.
Riding the backs of giant owls,
Andilee, the princess of Grunebaume—and Talla, court historian to
Felsen—traveled above the snow-covered countryside.
They made sure the princess’
castle remained in sight at all times to insure the guards who manned the
towers could see them.
The elite guard of
Grunebaume typically used the rare owls to patrol the woods that surrounded the
castle. The princess seldom took advantage of her royalty, but riding the owls
was one exception she could not resist. Andilee would ride the owls every
opportunity she was given. The large birds were the size of ponies. Their
wingspans were massive and their bodies covered in mostly white feathers with
the occasional tan or gray feather adding a soft contrast. Their size and
strength provided a sense of security to their passengers.
As the owls slowly flapped
their wings, the riders were gently raised and lowered. Talla was amazed that
the riding gear made riding the owls almost like riding a horse. Once she had
become accustomed to traveling so far above the ground, she was able to enjoy
the incredible view. The owls’ flight was so stealthy that the two women were
able to speak to each other without having to raise their voices.
“So how’d the negotiations
go that night?” Andilee asked.
Talla had to bring her
thoughts back to the story she had been telling Andilee about the night Felsen
was invaded by troops from Eisenberg. She was so enthralled by the beautiful
winter scenery below her that she had lost track of their conversation. “King
Logan was right. King Eppon was only concerned with the well-being of his
people.” Talla shifted in her seat and continued. “As you know, Eisenberg deals
mostly in mining and crafted goods. They were concerned that they wouldn’t have
enough food to get them through the unexpectedly long winter that year.
“I learned later that a show
of strength is often used by a kingdom to show their resolve in settling a
problem. Even though Eisenberg’s army had invaded our kingdom and there was a
small chance that fighting could’ve happened if negotiations went poorly, the
invasions happen so frequently that it wasn’t really seen as a threat.”
Andilee leaned forward in
her saddle. “And the wizard Drachman?”
Talla smiled. “Turns out
he’d heard there was a trip being planned to Felsen and asked the soldiers if
he could accompany them so he could visit King Logan. Although I’m sure his
presence was eagerly accepted as a strategic move, Drachman had no concerns in
the political goings on of kingdoms.”
“What’s that?” Andilee
noticed movement on the snow below. She shifted her thin body back into her
saddle and leaned forward. With several gentle tugs on the reins, she coaxed
the owl to drift downward. Watching her from above, the princess’ flowing blond
hair and white furs made her look almost like an extension of the bird. Talla
“Andilee, wait!” Talla
called as she gave chase. Looking at the ground below, she saw a small group of
men in leather armor. Next to them were several trees that had been bent over
and tied near the ground. Each tree faced a slightly different angle than the
ones near it. “They’re preparing to attack!”
One of the men cut the rope
to a bent tree. The tree whipped back and forth several times and then stood
straight. Off the end of the tree flew a rope. Each end of the rope had a stone
tied to it—a bola. The projectile spun through the air and connected with
Andilee’s owl. The bola wrapped around the giant bird and the stones slammed
into its body. With one wing tangled, the owl and the princess plummeted toward
Talla leaned forward and
pushed one hand against the back of her owl’s head. Understanding the command,
it tucked its wings and dove. As she approached the falling bird and rider,
Talla tapped several times on the side of the owl’s neck. Again following her
orders, the owl repositioned itself and reached out with its talons. Moments
before they reached the ground the owl grabbed the princess, spread its wings
and swooped toward the forest trees. Andilee’s owl slammed into the snow and
disappeared into a fog of white. The two riders were too much weight for the
one owl. It tried several times to climb but instead continued downward. When
the princess, still held by the owl, began to drag the ground the owl tumbled
and all three plowed into the snow.
Andilee woke and fought to
open her eyes. The last memories she had were of being attacked. When she was
finally able to open her eyes she was relieved to find Talla sitting over her
and no signs of anyone else.
“Welcome back.” Talla said
with a smile. “How do you feel?”
“I think I’m ok.” Andilee
sat up. “The soldiers…?”
“Luckily we traveled a good
distance before we hit the ground.” Talla looked up and scanned the area. “I
believe I was able to hide our trail. The wind’s been picking up, too.” She looked
back at the princess. “I was able to find this outcropping to protect us from
the weather. I saw a few flakes earlier. It may snow. We should be safe until
Talla pointed in the general
direction they had been attacked. “Even though our attackers wore armor, it
appeared tattered and makeshift. I don’t think they were soldiers. Do you have
any idea who our attackers were?”
“They were probably marauders.” Andilee covered her arms with her
fur cloak and pushed her back against the stone of the outcropping. “It’s
common for them to attack merchants traveling through the kingdom. This is the
first time they’ve attacked our owls. They might have marked me as royalty and
hoped to ransom me. A long winter often makes people a little more desperate
and a bit braver.”
Talla was thankful the wind
was picking up. Even though it made a rescue more difficult, it also made it
less likely the marauders would find them. “The wind is strong enough that I
doubt anyone will hear us.” Talla turned to Andilee. “And since we can’t go
anywhere until the weather clears a bit, how about another story?”
Andilee smiled. “I’d like
that.” She settled further into her furs. "I know King Logan regained his
throne, perhaps you could tell me about that."
thought for a moment and then lifted her hands, readying for a good story
telling. “More than two years had passed since Logan acquired the ancient crown
and blood sword.” Talla held up two fingers to emphasize the duration. “The
King and many of his followers who escaped the confines of the kingdom had
established a fortress of small villages surrounded by a tall wooden wall in
the mountains on the other side of the valley. Jeiyed and a large number of his
best solders had joined Logan in the mountains, though many of his men also
remained in Felsen to protect the people and help when the time came to retake
the throne. Sanctuary Point, the oldest and largest of the seven villages
served as the capital of the mountain fortress. There, King Logan and his
advisers worked and planned. When ready, they would take back the
made her face as serious as she could. "Though many felt the King was
still too young to lead his people into combat, Shellina's actions forced them
to move their plans ahead." The historian formed small balls of snow on
the ground and pressed a valley between them to create a map. She used her
first two fingers like legs and marched them from one snowball hill to another.
"The queen had already taken Eisenberg through force and deceit. Enough
time had passed that she was ready to move onto other kingdoms." Talla's
fingers marched toward the Grunebaume snowball hill.
ot waiting to see if her assassins in
Eisenberg were successful, Queen Shellina was already setting into motion her
plans to rid herself of the ever-present danger of her cousin Vance's
offspring. The boy had formed a notable following and she feared he might one
day be capable of reclaiming his father's thrown. It was only a short trip down
Mount Clessa to the ancient ruins.
She approached the ruins slowly. Her
braided and bundled light brown hair seemed to glisten as sunlight struck the
gems and gold woven into the braids. She was careful not to allow her
embroidered red tunic to catch on the roots that seemed to litter the area.
The structure before her had
obviously once been a very beautiful and ornate temple of some sort. Time,
however, hadn't been kind to the architecture, leaving its well-crafted and
carefully placed stones worn and disheveled. Etchings that once covered the
temple now showed only sporadically across its outer walls. Statues that had
decorated the structure stood as disfigured shapes and crumbled stones. A
knotted tree that grew from the building’s stone tangled into the structure in
a way that made it difficult to distinguish where the stone ended and the
tree’s roots began. The ancient tree stood so tall that its roots framed the
building’s doorway. Vines covered the tree and temple.
Shellina stopped a safe distance from
the doorway and studied the vines. They moved slowly as though the wind subtly
moved them back and forth. But a careful observation of the vines revealed that
they moved independently to the direction of the wind. “Captain.” She called to
the group of men who followed nervously behind her. “Send me two men to scout
She already knew which two men would
be sent in. Rumor had marked the men as part of a movement to overthrow the
queen and help Logan reclaim his father's throne. The queen always dealt
quickly and effectively with those who might oppose her. She intended to make
no exception with these soldiers. But she did hate to waste opportunity. If
they were to die, she might as well benefit from their treason.
The two men moved slowly toward the
ruins, their swords and shields drawn. Shellina pretended not to notice the
scowls they traded one another as they walked passed her. “On with it”, she
called to them, “I need to know if what I seek is still there.”
They studied the tall grass that
surrounded the old structure. Littered around its base were piles of bones
ranging in size from small rodents to larger hooved animals. All of the bones
were strewn near the base of the old temple and many were entangled in the roots
of the tree that grew from it. The men slowed their progress but continued
forward, their weapons visibly shaking.
They never made it to the door. The
vines that covered the structure moved quickly from the stone and entangled the
two soldiers before they could repel the plants with their swords. They
screamed as the vines cut into their exposed skin. More vines appeared from the
shadow of the doorway and ripped the armor from them. The vines began to force
their way into the bodies of the men until their screams were silenced. The men
went limp and died.
Shellina watched with fascination.
The vines released the bodies and moved back to the ruins. A deep and broken
voice echoed from the temple. “What business have you here?” Glowing red eyes
slowly appeared from the shadows. The creature that resided within moved toward
the doorway. “Returned to feed the caged animal?”
The queen heard gasps coming from the
captain and his men as the large creature crouched and made his way out from
the root-covered doorway. The creature was completely visible now. He stood
nearly eight feet tall. His coarse, gray skin was stretched tightly over arms
and legs so muscular that his arms looked more like tree limbs and his legs
like the massive roots that covered the ruins. His eyes glowed red even in the
light of day. His hair, streaked in various shades of red and orange, moved in
the wind and gave the illusion of flames streaming from the back of his head.
His nose had been transformed into a short trunk similar to those she'd once
seen on the large creatures ridden in the distant kingdom of Associa. Also like
those creatures, tusks protruded from the sides of his face and his feet were
nearly round with large, oval toenails.
Even though his armor was in poor
repair, an armband he wore and the large axe he carried were obviously magic
and in excellent condition. The etchings on both glowed as the morning sun
illuminated them. Mimic vines covered his entire body and flowed from him like
the arms of some strange sea creature. The vines and he had become one entity.
Shellina smiled. “I need your
services.” She stood still even though the large creature moved closer to her.
Her smile grew when he stopped—pleased that the vines held him captive where
she had estimated they would. “In return for your promise to do what I ask of
you”, her gaze went directly to his “I will release you from your prison.”
He looked at the soldiers standing
several yards behind Shellina. “First”—he straightened his back—“I need to
Vines shot from his body and passed
so quickly and closely to the queen that her hair danced in the breeze they
created. From behind her she could hear the screams of the soldiers—the men
she'd brought along to protect her. The creature’s reach was notably farther
than it had been the first time she'd encountered him. She didn't flinch nor
did her face betray any fears she might've felt as he killed the men. She never
turned to see them torn apart or the aftermath of the creature's feeding, even
when the vines returned to the his side.
She cleared her throat. “If you're
done, we have business to conclude.”
“Very well.” He turned to her. “You
have my attention.”
Talla arched her back and
held her arms in the air to make herself look as large as she could, sitting in
had encountered the incredible behemoth years earlier, not long after it was
first trapped in the ruins. She ran from the danger it presented then, but
later realized it could be used as a powerful weapon when needed."
what manner of creature was it?" Andilee asked. "I have never heard
of such a thing."
nodded. "Wraiths are rare."
Andilee's eyes widened.
Talla confirmed. "And as wraiths go, this was perhaps the most powerful to
ever walk the earth." She sat back as a sincere expression moved across
her face. "But he was not always such a creature. At one time, this
monster was a warrior—a gnome. Many years before Jeiyed took the post, the man,
Liam, was Captain of the Guard."
stood atop the stone tower and watched the soldiers sparring in the courtyard
below as they did every morning.
He focused his attention on the
captain of the guard, Liam, and his most gifted student—his
second-in-command—Jeiyed. The early morning sun was just rising and occasionally
turned their combat into a silhouette. Although Vance always enjoyed watching
the two as they practiced, the difference in their sizes made him
Years of being exposed to magical
weapons and other various magical items had slowly changed Liam. Not only had
his skin taken on a grayish hue and his hair turned shades of orange and red,
but his height and overall mass had also increased so much that his height was
closer to that of an elf and his body’s build more that of a dweller. His large
muscles made his arms and legs look like the limbs of an old tree, but his
speed and agility were those of a thin, young and well-trained man. Vance was
amazed that Jeiyed managed to somehow continue to hold his own against the
captain’s massive form and magical enhancements.
Liam was tiring. They'd been sparring
for well over an hour and Jeiyed was relentless when he fought, even when he
was just training. Tired, Liam could still match almost any of the other
soldiers, save possibly Jeiyed. All of the soldiers were showing signs of
tiring, yet Jeiyed managed to tap some hidden strength that kept him as strong
as when they started. It reminded him of how Liam used to be when Vance was
just a child. Even then Liam was well into his adult years. The king wondered
how old the captain was. The wrinkles on Liam’s face and hands along with his
slightly sunken eyes only slightly betrayed his age. His massive body stretched
his skin tightly enough that it hid any traces there.
King Vance leaned forward as one of
Jeiyed’s attacks sent the captain of the guard to the ground.
In the courtyard, Liam sat on the
ground for a moment and rubbed his sore shoulder. He was becoming accustomed to
his sparring practices with the young soldier, Jeiyed, ending in defeat. Despite
the magical trinkets Liam wore hidden at various places on his body that should
make him impossible to beat, Jeiyed tended to win more than half of their
matches without the aid of anything but his skill and talent. He forced a smile
to his face and moved to stand.
Jeiyed extended his hand to help Liam
up. “Are you alright? That blow hit kind of hard.” His urgency and the tone of
his voice showed his sincere concern for the captain’s well being.
Liam refused Jeiyed’s help and stood
unaided. “I’m fine.” He brushed the grass from his arms and legs and held his
practice sword at the ready. “I must be getting slow in my old age”, he tensed
his arm and prepared to attack. “I saw that swing coming and still missed
it." He swung his sword in vertical circles, first to his left and then to
his right, to work the minor aches out of his arm. "You continue to
announce your attacks with the turn of your left shoulder. Keep it up—" he
swung his sword in front of himself to keep Jeiyed off guard—"and one day
you’ll find yourself at the end of a real sword—" Liam swung his sword
again—"being swung by someone intent on doing more than just honing your
Jeiyed smiled for a moment at Liam’s
comments and then grew serious as the captain attacked. The dull and pitted
edges of their metal swords’ blades rang as they made contact. “You seem
distracted today." He pushed hard, but barely moved his attacker's sword
away. "Per chance smitten with the bar maiden I saw you with last
“More likely the ale I consumed while
with the young maiden”, Liam parried Jeiyed’s swing.
“Still fearful to commit—"
Jeiyed’s blade circled Liam’s parry and the young soldier lunged
forward—"to just one woman, eh?”
Liam turned to his side and stepped
back to avoid the attack. “I refuse to allow myself to become entangled—"
he dropped to his knees and swung his sword to the back of Jeiyed’s
legs—"in the commitments that come with such relationships."
The sword’s blade caught Jeiyed off
guard and its force dropped him to his back.
Liam continued, "The commitments
cling to you like vines, growing and weaving around you over time until you can
no longer escape them.”
Jeiyed, winded, rested on his back
for a moment and then sat up and smiled. “My mother’s garden is full of
beautiful vines, like the wisteria, that when properly trained and maintained
can be a wonderful addition to a home.”
Liam extended his hand to Jeiyed to
help him up. “It’s been my experience that vines tend to have thorns.” Jeiyed
accepted his hand and the captain helped him to his feet. Liam smiled slightly
and continued, “I’m not so old that I choose to purposely allow myself to be
cut by those thorns—" his smile grew—"at least not yet.” Liam readied
his stance. “Again.”
mirrored Liam’s stance and prepared for his attack.
heard snow crunching under slow moving feet. She sat quietly and
held her hand up to let the princess know they should be silent. The steps were
very soft. Their visitor either had very small feet or was very well trained.
She looked around the
outcropping for a loose branch or stone. They were unarmed and she feared what
might happen if their attackers found them. The snow covering the bushes in
front of them fell to the ground from shaking leaves. Talla held her breath as
a body moved out into the open. She exhaled with a gentle giggle when she
realized the eavesdropper was a tall male deer.
Andilee was angered by the
unnecessary anxiety and formed a snowball in her hands to throw at the beast.
“No.” Talla held her hand
over Andilee’s hands. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to frighten us.” She smiled and
looked at the deer. “Deer and unicorns are drawn to royalty.” The historian
gestured to their surroundings. “They can also sense when someone’s in need of
help. I think he’s here to watch over us.”
The buck was tall and its
thick white and tan coat covered bristling muscles. Its antlers branched like a
small tree resting on its head. Talla had not seen many deer or unicorn, but of
the ones she had seen, this was the most impressive of them all.
It stood for several minutes
and studied the ladies. Then it turned its back to them, watching and listening
to its surroundings.
“You see.” Talla covered her
self again with her fur cloak. “Help has arrived.”
Andilee raised an eyebrow.
“Not exactly what we were hoping for.”
Talla grinned. “I’ll accept
any help I’m offered.”
The princess looked at
Talla. “So how did the Captain become a wraith?”
Talla leaned forward and
moved her hands free of cover again. “As is always true, eventually the
student becomes the master and those we think will be with us forever must
leave us. That day finally came for Jeiyed and Liam.”
eiyed stood in the morning-lit courtyard
and watched his old teacher climb onto the back of his massive black warhorse.
rider's muscular arms and legs rivaled the power of his mount. He turned his
horse and faced Jeiyed. Liam smiled. "You'll make a fine Captain of the
Guard. I know Felsen is safe with you protecting her."
struggled for a response. He had accepted the rank of Captain of the Guard
reluctantly. He knew it meant the retirement of his old mentor. "We still
need you here. You're still the most skilled fighter we have. The absence of
your guidance to our young soldiers will be gravely felt. Please reconsider."
smile held but straightened. "You are Felsen's most skilled fighter."
His horse took several steps to the side and shook its head. It could feel the
tension emanating from its rider. "I've taught you everything that I have
to offer. You have become a greater soldier than I ever was. I leave the
training of future warriors in your very capable hands."
turned his horse toward the castle's open gate and rode away without looking
back. "Farewell Captain."
Liam's first stop was the ancient
ruins that stood just past the Dark Woods, not far from Felsen. Once he
thoroughly searched these ruins he would move onto the lower ruins near the
valley. If he were to thrive on his own he would need as much ancient magic as
he could find, for protection and to sell. These ruins were so filled with
danger that few items were ever removed from them—a dangerous venture but very
much worth the risk.
He followed the cobblestone passage
that ran from the castle's outer walls down the mountain. At the base of the
mountain he left the road and headed toward the ruins. He slowed his horse as
they approached what appeared to be an old temple buried under a mass of vines
and massive tree roots.
horse staggered and fell, trapping the old warrior's leg under its weight.
Vines had entangled its legs and moved quickly around the creature and onto
Liam. With no weapons readied he could only watch as the foliage surrounded him
and dragged his horse and him toward the ruins.
The historian waved her arms and fingers in a
manner that imitated the movements of a plant in the wind. "He was snared
by mimic vines at the first temple he encountered. The vines wove into his body
and attempted to take it over. But the magic items he wore kept him alive.
Though he was able to maintain his mind, his body was infused with the plant.
He took on the plant's desire to feed on life essence as well as its bond to
the temple's magic that had animated the plant. The temple became his
prison." Talla clasped her hands together to represent his cage.
"He was trapped in the
ruins for years until Shellina freed him." She forced the sternest
expression to her face she could create. "Free only if he first did her
eiyed stood quietly, watching young King
Logan kneel and prepare to fire his bow.
The boy had become one of the most
skilled hunters in their mountain fortress. He'd always shown a natural ability
in fighting and hunting, but in the two years since his parents' death he'd
pushed himself to be worthy of his people's loyalty. Jeiyed had known the King since the boy was born.
He'd also known King Logan's father, King Vance, since the King was a young man
and he'd met many nobles in his travels. Of all the royalty he'd met, none
impressed Jeiyed more than Logan. For that matter, few soldiers impressed him
Even at the age of eleven, Logan
looked more like a young soldier than royalty. His long golden brown hair
flowed over developing, yet notable, muscles. He was taller than most gnomes
his age, but Jeiyed attributed that to his elven mother. Adding to his
soldier's air, Logan had picked up some of Jeiyed's bad habits. Like Jeiyed,
the young king was uncomfortable wearing armor. Although armor could save your
life in major combat, it also slows one's reflexes and tires the fighter
quicker. In a world where magic can often flow through armor as though it
weren't there, he, like Jeiyed, felt it was better to not be hit than to don so
much armor you can't swing your weapon effectively.
Typically, with Jeiyed's prompting,
the King wore leather armor. On occasion he was able to convince him to wear
chain mail, but that was rare and usually during foreseeable combat. Today the
boy was wearing light leather armor, and that was only after Jeiyed threatened
to cancel the hunting day.
Logan released the arrow. As it tore
through the trees several leaves danced behind it until it met its final
destination that stood nearly hidden behind the forest's foliage. A large bore
staggered from behind the bushes and fell dead. Jeiyed smiled, "That's
your third one today. Mayhaps we should stop now and leave a few for the other
hunters to find."
Logan stood and turned to the
captain. A weak smile almost hid the distant look in his eyes. "Thanks
"What have I done? You're the
one who has managed to provide this evening's dinner for everyone."
Logan's smile strengthened as he put
his hand on Jeiyed's shoulder. "This was a great distraction. It's
obviously no coincidence you chose today, the anniversary of my parents'
deaths, to go hunting."
Jeiyed just nodded his acknowledgement.
"Let's go gather the kills so they can be prepared for tonight."
The two headed toward the dead bore.
Logan stopped and looked at his feet. They'd become entangled in vines. As he
tried to pull free the vines climbed up his legs and tightened.
"Mimic vines!" Logan
yelled as he was lifted into the air.
More vines shot from the woods and
wrapped around Logan's neck and arms. He managed to get his left arm near his
neck before the vines wrapped around him, keeping them from strangling him. He
tried to pull free, but with his sword strapped to his back, he had no way of
cutting the plants.
Jeiyed pulled his sword from the
sheath at his side and swung at the leafy ropes before him, cutting the young
king free. He watched as Logan, unable to roll with all of the vines wrapped
around him, drop to the ground with a thud. Logan pulled free and brought his
sword in front of himself. More mimic vines were coming. Behind the vines—in
the distance—from the shadows of the trees, a large shape moved toward them.
"I came to kill a king and found
an even greater prize." A deep voice echoed from the woods. "Jeiyed,
it's been too long since last we met."
Jeiyed stood silently as the swarm of
vines slowly moved to the side and revealed a large gray monster. He studied
the strange features for recognition. Finally he managed to find a glimmer of
familiarity hidden in his memories. "Liam?"
The creature smiled.
A shiver swept through Jeiyed's body.
Years of training and experience had prepared him for nearly any encounter;
however, his mind struggled with the vision before him.
The creature that stood before Jeiyed
was Liam, so distorted by magic and time that he was barely recognizable.
Jeiyed gathered his strength and wits and moved slowly toward the beast.
"It has been a long time, old man. And time doesn't appear to have been
kind to you."
Liam stopped, his feet firmly in
place, and flexed his arm muscles. The vines that surrounded his body flowed
faster and then several flew toward Jeiyed.
Jeiyed jumped to the side and rolled.
The vines missed him by only a few inches. He continued his roll until he was
standing again and facing Liam. He quickly swung his sword and its blade sliced
through the mimic vines as they made another attempt to entangle him.
“I think you may find it’s been
kinder to me than you realize!” Liam swung his arms in a fashion that made him
appear to be swimming in the vines that surrounded him. They responded to his
actions by parting and moving quickly in two large clumps—one toward Jeiyed and
the other toward Logan.
Logan stood with his sword held
firmly in front of him. The vines closed in but parted as they touched the
Liam staggered back two steps and
grunted in pain. “I felt that!”
With Jeiyed firmly entangled in his
mimic vines, the beast took several slow steps forward and studied the boy.
“That's an interesting sword you carry my young King.” His vines began to
circle around both sides of Logan, but avoided contact.
“It’s the sword of my ancestors.”
Logan answered, as he stood ready for another attack, his attention focused on
the vines that swarmed around him. “Come a bit closer and I’ll gladly introduce
you to its blade.”
“I have heard of the sword.” Liam
moved cautiously toward Logan. “Many have died trying to claim it from the Old
Ruins of the Valley.” He stopped and clinched his fists. The vines closed in on
Logan. “I'm impressed to find that you were able to retrieve it.”
Logan jumped and rolled to avoid the
attacking vines. There were too many. He tried to swing his sword, but his arm
was being pulled away from his body and he had little control of his movements.
He glanced to his side and saw Jeiyed equally immobilized. He studied his
surroundings in hope of some means to escape.
“I’m sure you're a fine King.” The vines
moved Logan slowly toward Liam. “I can certainly tell that Jeiyed has taught
you to fight well.” He held Logan so that the king’s face was only inches from
his. “Had I not promised to dispatch you I might even have let you live.”
The vines moved like a whip and
released Logan. The boy flew through the air and disappeared over the nearby
cliff. With the king falling to his death, Liam turned back to Jeiyed. “But a
promise is a promise.”
Jeiyed struggled to break free from
the vines. “No!” After several attempts he slumped underneath the blanket of
foliage wrapped around him. He knew he could do nothing to help Logan.
Logan watched the grassy ground of the mountain disappear
below him. A thousand foot drop to the giant trees of Froghaven took its place.
He let his sword move free from his hand as he grabbed franticly with both
hands for the limbs of the shrubs he passed by. His shoulder ached as he
stretched it out of its socket, barely catching hold of a thin branch. He
slammed into the side of the cliff and held his breath as he waited to see if
the twig would hold.
It held. He quickly grabbed the
largest plant near him to secure his grip as he started his climb back to the
flat land above him. His heart skipped a beat as he realized some of the leaves
he held on to were mimic vines.
“What do I do with you?” Liam asked as he held Jeiyed before
him. “That’s not to say I don't plan to kill you.” His smile showed broken and
yellowed teeth. “I’m just not sure if I should do it quickly or enjoy your suffering
for a little while.”
Liam turned his gaze quickly away
from his prisoner. “What have we here?” He could feel something tugging on his
vines. He turned to see Logan rising to his feet. “Aren’t you resourceful?” He
looked back at Jeiyed. “Now I know what to do with you.”
He threw the captain at Logan. Jeiyed
was helpless to stop him.
Logan wrapped the fingers of one hand
tightly around a nearby bush, leaned to the side and grabbed Jeiyed as he went
by. The momentum carried the two over the side of the cliff.
The bush pulled tight and Logan felt
his arm pop. Jeiyed and he slammed into the side of the cliff. A wave of nausea
moved through Logan. He tried to concentrate but could feel his mind losing its
Jeiyed heard Logan's arm pop and
could feel his grip slipping. Slamming into the grass and rock, he secured his
hold on the vertical slope and pulled the King close. Logan never lost
consciousness. As Jeiyed studied the ledge for a way back up the cliff, the boy
moved to a nearby bush.
"You are a tough one to kill,
aren't you?" Liam stood looking down from the grass and rock above them.
Vines moved across the rocks like a
river of snakes. Jeiyed and Logan braced for the attack. It never arrived.
Instead, arrows began to rain past them. They looked up to see the large
creature sprouting arrows from its back and side.
"Whomever, or whatever you are," a voice called
from behind Liam, "move away from the King!"
Liam turned and studied the large
gathering of soldiers standing on the hill a short distance away. The area was
devoid of magic and mimic vines. He could only call on what he had brought with
him. Liam had been in enough battles to know that twenty soldiers to his one
was a good fight to stay away from. He looked back over the cliff at the giant
trees below and smiled. A plan formed in his mind. They would fight but when
and where he had the advantage.
The large creature turned toward the
trees and ran. Despite his size, Liam moved very quickly. His form disappeared
in a swarm of leaves as he headed into the woods.
THE BLOOD-TIED STONE
alin stood with his back hunched as his
hand tingled from the glowing crystal stone he extended toward his enemy. The
gnome's body trembled as much from fear as from the magical energies that
surged through him. This was the first time he had used his family's power
stone. Under other circumstances he might be elated by the connection he was
feeling with the crystal. But facing an unknown wizard whose mutations clearly
marked him as much more experienced than Falin left the young wizard only
do you want?" Falin struggled to look strong.
that beautiful crystalline jewel you're holding there." The wizard said in
a playful tone.
won't work for you. It—it's blood-tied." He held the rock tighter.
"It'll only work for me."
a problem. I can fix that." The wizard walked slowly toward Falin.
"Bring the item to me."
The young wizard didn't cast a spell, but his desire to keep the other wizard
away activated the stone. His energy focused through it and projected a blast of
wind at the aggressor.
older wizard was thrown several feet across rocks and roots and slammed against
a stone wall of the ancient ruins that surrounded them. He staggered slightly
as he regained his footing. "Impressive." He again moved toward the young
back. Don't come any closer!" Falin reached into the small pouch that hung
to his side. With his hand holding the magic item in front of him, the pouch
was hidden from the other wizard's view. Falin hoped the wizard wouldn't notice
the pinch of powder he removed from the bag.
older wizard approached, raised his right hand, and then dropped it quickly to
his side. Falin noticed the rocks that surrounded him begin to rise. He jumped,
but not before a group of small boulders slammed into him from all sides. He
fell to the ground and the other wizard continued forward until he stood over
young wizard tried to move but stopped when stunned by severe pain—most likely
several broken bones. He thought of his wife and daughter. Falin was no longer
afraid. He knew he was going to die. He only regretted that he would not get to
see his family again. He held the stone up for the older wizard to take.
"Here. It's yours."
fireball is one of the easiest spells to cast. Falin could only guess how
casting one through the magic etched crystal would increase its damage. He knew
it would certainly kill him and hopefully it would kill the other wizard as
well. He rubbed the powder between his thumb and fingers. The powder ignited
and he cast his spell.
smiled—the fireball was everything he had hoped it would be. He barely felt the
searing pain before he passed away.
Talla pulled gently on her horse’s reigns
until he came to a stop.
She allowed herself a moment
to enjoy the warm sun on her face as she scanned the land before her. From
where she sat, she could see across the entire valley—clear to the mountains
that lay beyond. It was a beautiful day for riding and there was no finer
country to ride through. She closed her eyes and breathed in the wonderful
scent of the lavender that lined the edge of the plateau overlooking the dale.
“Are we there yet?” Her
daughter’s voice broke the silence from behind her.
Talla opened her eyes and,
with a slight grin, sighed. The gnome historian guided her horse to turn so she
could face the four gnome children with her. Despite being the youngest of the
group, Dhayli traveled up front. Behind her were King Logan’s two sons—Warren
and Jon—followed by his daughter, Laura. Warren was the oldest of the children—fourteen
years old—and most likely to someday sit on his father’s throne. Jon was eleven
and Laura nine. Dhayli was only five years old, but she already rode nearly as
well as Jon or Laura.
Around them were six of the
King’s best soldiers—insuring the safety of the historian and the children as
“As a matter of fact,” Talla
answered Dhayli, “we are ‘there.’”
brownish-blond hair swaying gently to the wind—leaned forward in his seat and
scanned the horizon. “Where?”
She pointed. “Look over
there—along the edge of the valley. Do you see those shapes in the distance?”
The children all looked and nodded. “Those are the Lower Ruins.” Their horses
began to drift as the offspring strained to see as much of the ruins as
possible. They had been told many tales about the Lower Ruins, but this was the
first time they had ever been allowed to be anywhere near them. “Today’s
history lesson starts right here."
“The story begins many years
ago with a battle between two wizards." Talla let the words hang in the
air a moment while she enjoyed the wide-eyed children—their attention now
directly focused on her. "Though one wizard wielded a powerful magical
stone made of quartz, the other possessed greater skill." She looked to
the ruins as she envisioned the confrontation in her mind. "Skill won over
raw power. The more experienced wizard, though injured and drained, managed to
take the gem from the other mage.
"But it was a hollow
victory. The magic item was blood-tied."
"You mean like my
father's sword?" Warren asked.
nodded her approval. "The stone had been made for the younger wizard's
family. Only those from their bloodline could use it. Any other wizard would
have very little success using the gem and could be injured if they tried to
focus their energies through the crystal."
Warren sat back in his
saddle. "So he couldn't use the stone."
"The older wizard knew
of a way to bind the item to his bloodline. However, the younger wizard died
before he could cast the spell." Talla leaned toward the children and
spoke in a slightly quieter voice to add intrigue to the story. "But the
wizard was cunning and quickly formed another plan. It was a plan that would
take years to make happen. Wizards are patient by nature and the prize was worth
he seven-year-old gnome girl stood
with her fists clenched next to the bloodied body of her mother, streams of
tears blurring the girl's vision. She kept her mother between the three elven
men who toyed with her and herself as they slowly circled the body.
little girly, come to your papa." The unkempt man said as he held his hand
out to the girl.
father's dead! And you're not him" She reached to her side and pulled out
a small dagger. "You'll be dead too if you don't leave me alone!" She
swung the blade several times at the men.
man laughed at her actions, but all three men moved a couple steps back to
avoid accidental contact with the dagger. "Come now dearie, put that away
and come to your papa." The three men laughed.
girl moved back—the men didn't follow. Instead they all became quiet with blank
expressions. One-by-one they fell to the ground. The child moved farther away
and looked for what caused them to drop. She saw a cloaked figure move from the
you okay young lady?" The man said. "May I see to your mother?"
just stood still and watched as he approached—not sure what to do.
dropped to one knee and studied the woman. "I'm sorry I can't do anything
to help her." He looked at the girl. "I'm afraid she's gone."
girl just stood and studied the man. Her mind was numb from what had happened
and she struggled to make sense of it all.
took a step back when he removed his hood. Not so much from fear, but more from
the surprise of what she saw. Though she could tell he was an elf, his hair
looked more like fur or a lion's main and his face had many cat-like features.
One side of his face was scarred. She could see fur on his hands and claws
replaced his fingernails. Her father had died when she was only five, but she
had memories of him and those her family traveled with when he was alive. She
was accustomed to seeing people who looked like animals. She continued to study
him and wait to see what he did.
Maison." He smiled a sad smile. "What's your name?"
She dropped her dagger and began to cry.
man moved slowly to her side, kneeled and put his arm around her. "I'm
sorry this has happened to you. I heard you say your father was also gone. Do
you have any family I can bring you to?"
shook her head.
come with me." He stood and held his hand out to her. "I'll take care
of you. I'll train you to make sure no one will hurt you again."
Talla swung her leg over her horse and
slid off her saddle.
The children followed her
lead and moved off their horses. The historian tied her horse's reins to the
limb of a tree and the children again did as she did. The soldiers looked to
their commander—he nodded and they stepped off their horses, too.
"Crissins trained for
three years under Maison." Talla ran her hand along her arms and then
across her face. "As you know, the use of magic changes those who use it.
Their skin, hair, eyes—everything slowly transforms. The more powerful the
magic, the faster and more obvious the changes." She picked up a limb
without branches that was straight enough to look like a staff.
She twirled the makeshift
staff from side-to-side as the captain of the guard, Jeiyed, had trained her.
She wasn't a soldier by any means, but she had gained enough skill to hold back
a common thief.
great mental and physical discipline. If an apprentice is exposed too quickly
to magic the changes can occur in a very short time and be disruptive to their
training." She turned to the children and leaned on the staff like a
walking stick. "So, like many wizard's apprentices, Crissins was taught to
focus her training on a non-magical weapon—the staff—to sharpen her mind
without the dangers of magic." Talla waved her hand back and forth.
"She still learned magic, but only simple spells that would get her
comfortable with controlling the energies in her body and around her. But
training with the staff gave her the control she would need to be a wizard.
"Maison was a powerful
wizard with years of experience. Most of his body had transformed. If it
weren't for the fact that his hands and feet were still those of an elf and he
continued to walk upright, he might have been mistaken to be a lion."
Talla smiled. "And, of course the fact that he wore clothes was a bit of a
clue." She waited a moment for the children's chuckles to subside.
"Because of his
appearance—like many wizards—Maison relied on his apprentice, Crissins, to do
those errands that required being around large groups of people."
"Like shopping in town?"
Dhayli broke in.
"Like shopping in
town." Talla confirmed with a nod. "And it was during one of
Crissins' trips into town when she met the great wizard Drachman.
ore than a dozen children lined the
dirt and stone streets anxiously watching for signs of the wizard. They knew to
stay out of the streets in case a rider on horseback or a cart needed to pass
he is!" Once one of the children spotted him, they no longer worried about
the traffic around them and they filled the area in front of the tall hooded
dares block the path of the great and powerful wizard Drachman!" The
wizard called out to the young crowd.
do!" They all shouted back.
elven wizard removed his hood and laughed so hard he bent forward slightly. The
scene might have been confusing to those who had never met Drachman. Most would
be at least a little nervous at his appearance. His face was slightly elongated
and covered in small scales that disappeared into the white cotton-like hair on
the back of his head and the long flowing beard circling his chin. His pointed
ears were longer than most elves and his eyes were dark with slits like those
of a dragon. Two short horns gently rode backward off the top of his head. The
hands he put forward to hold back the children were covered in scales and ended
in black claws. And yet the children pulled on his cloak and ran around him as
though they didn't notice his unusual form.
see here," Drachman dug through the pouch at his side. "What do we
have today?" He pulled out a handful of beer root he had gathered from the
woods. Its natural flavor when sucked on was pleasant, sweet and much like
candy. The root quickly disappeared from his hand.
now—I have things to do." He smiled and waved his hand. A stream of light
and sparkles followed it. "It's time to vanish." The children all ran
away, laughing and enjoying their treats.
wizards hid under their cloaks and long flowing garments to hide the mutations
that came with years of practicing magic. But Drachman wore colorful clothing
that called attention to him and kept his head exposed more often than he
covered it. Those who had never met the wizard still most likely knew of him.
If he wasn't the most powerful living wizard, he certainly wasn't bested by
stories of his epic battles, though probably exaggerated through story telling
over the years, left no doubt that he was to be respected—even feared. But his
friendly demeanor quickly dismissed those feelings in most people. Only his
enemies needed to fear him.
continued down the street, giving the occasional nod hello to passersby. At his
destination—a small shop that supplied many of the items magic users needed in
their spells—Drachman gently pushed aside the cloth that covered the building's
entrance and stepped in. Before he could cross into the shop he was nudged to
the side by a young gnomish girl—he guessed her to be nine or ten—as she moved
quickly out the door.
Excuse me." She walked quickly away waving a hand to the wizard but not
looking back. She carried a small pouch she had just purchased.
Drachman studied the girl. He turned from the shop and followed her.
was a friend of Drachman's—a wizard. Years earlier Falin and his wife Adryel
had been killed. They had a daughter that had been rumored to also be dead, but
he began to doubt those rumors. The young gnome looked just like Adryel.
was slowly changing Drachman into the form of a dragon. He had a long way to go
before the final change, but he already had some of the advantages of the
beasts. His eyes could see marks in the dirt that matched the curve of her
shoes and he could smell her scent even though she was nowhere to be seen. He
took his time pursuing her.
opened the small pouch and removed six small crystals. "Good. These will
work well. We can begin your lessons on simple illusions."
you finally mastered illusion. Can you cast a fireball, or do I need to teach
her that one?" A cloaked figure stepped from behind a large tree and
removed his hood.
The wizard's face grew pale for a moment and then he forced a nervous smile.
After a moment he regained his composure and motioned the wizard into their
campsite. "Welcome. Please join us." He placed a hand on the young girl's
shoulder and gestured toward the older wizard. "Crissins, this is the
wizard Drachman. Drachman—my apprentice Crissins."
When he heard the name he remembered it from years past. "So this is Falin
and Adryel's daughter."
girl stepped forward with her eyes widening. "You knew my parents?"
I did. And you and I have met once or twice, but I wouldn't expect you to
remember. You were only a baby." He smiled. "I'm pleased to see you
are well. You look just like your mother." He leaned against a nearby
bolder. "Perhaps after your practice I could tell you a story or two about
my adventures with your parents."
She said without thought and then turned to her teacher for approval. "Can
he stay for supper?"
presented a dry smile. "Of course. That would be nice. Please stay and eat
well." Drachman reached into the larger pouch at his side and pulled out a
bundle of parchment. He unfolded it to reveal several fish that had been
prepared for cooking. "I picked these up in town today. Perhaps you will
allow me to add them to our meal."
smile continued. "Of course. That would be nice." He repeated.
watched Crissins' practice while he prepared their meal. She held the small
crystals in her open palm. Her eyes focused on the crystals and she gently bit
at her lower lip as she concentrated. A soft light formed across her palm and
the crystals started to glow.
good." Maison said as he watched over her shoulder. "Now project that
light through the crystals. Form a picture in your mind and project it."
spectrum of colors shimmered in front of the girl. She concentrated harder and
the colors moved around, but never turned into anything recognizable.
enough for today." Maison put his hand on her shoulder. "You did fine
for your first lesson."
say." Drachman, who had remained silent throughout her training finally
cut in. "For one so young your skills are quite impressive."
face blushed and she smiled openly. "Thank you."
let's eat." Drachman readied the smooth planks of wood holding their
first part of their meal held very little conversation. Not only was everyone
hungry, but their servings were well prepared, too. It was common for
wizards—because of their knowledge of plants and herbs—to be good cooks.
Drachman's cooking was better than most. The three ate quietly, enjoying their
you tell me about my parents?" Crissins was the first to break the
smiled and nodded. "I actually knew your grandfather before your father.
He and I were good friends."
head tilted slightly. She suddenly realized the wizard might be considerably
older than he appeared.
me," Drachman continued, "your grandfather came from lands far away
from here. And like most wizards, we were both drawn here because the magic in
these lands is the oldest. The origin of magic comes from the ruins that reside
were times we traveled together." Drachman poured some water into a cup,
took a sip and continued. "But for the most part, our paths went in
different directions." His face, though still showing warmth, grew serious
as he looked at Crissins. "Your grandfather was a great wizard. And though
he died when your father was barely an adult, your father learned quite a bit
apprenticing under him." He looked at Maison for a moment and then back to
the girl. "Had your father lived longer, I know he'd have become a very
my mother?" Crissins asked.
was a beautiful woman." Drachman smiled. "And quite the
warrior." He took his final bite of food and placed the empty wooden plank
on the ground. "She picked up a few simple spells from your father, but
she wasn't a mage. She left the magic to him." His attention moved to
Maison for a moment and then back to Crissins. "Their skills complemented
each other well and together they were impressive in a fight." He thought
for a moment before continuing. "I was told they were apart when they were
killed. I suspect things might have turned out differently if they had been
together." He stood and stretched stiff muscles. "Until today I
thought you were killed with them." He looked at Maison. "I'm quite
pleased to see that you're not only alive, but doing well."
studied Drachman for a moment as their eyes made contact. Then he smiled.
"I'm glad I found her before she was harmed." He stood. "She has
become a respectable apprentice."
nodded. "That she has." He kept his gaze at Maison. "I'm sure
you'll keep her safe until she's ready to be a wizard on her own."
start my quest tomorrow." Crissins said with a smile across her face.
change in conversation surprised Drachman and he was silent for a moment before
answering her. "Your quest?"
Crissins said cheerfully. "Maison says I'm ready." She pulled out a
map. "My family has a blood-tied power stone that was lost when my father
died." She pointed at a spot on the map. "We have new information
where it might be."
turned to Maison. "Really. I'm intrigued."
face was emotionless. He was watching Crissins and then met Drachman's gaze.
"Yes. I had learned of its existence years ago, but I didn't have any
clues where it might be and Crissins was too young to have use of it anyway.
She's still a little young to channel its powers, but she should soon be old
enough to start learning to use it." He looked at the campfire and then
back at Drachman. "There are rumors that a mage found the stone in the
lower ruins, attempted to use the stone and died. As you know it's dangerous to
anyone other than Crissins." He looked to Drachman for confirmation, but
the older wizard just stood silently and listened. "Anyway, I now have
clues where we may find it."
I join you on this quest?" Drachman asked Maison.
stood quietly for a moment, looking at Drachman and then turned to Crissins who
was shaking with excitement. "Of course. That would be nice."